After the first Introduction to Mindfulness class a few weeks ago, a participant came up to me and asked: “If it’s true I’m not my thoughts, or the person my thoughts suggest me to be, then who am I?” There was a kind of poignancy in someone asking such a timeless and existential question so innocently. At the second class, she said she’d consulted Google during the week, but still wasn’t any the wiser. The group laughed. She did too.
I thought her question was a great lead-in to a reflection about the difference between spiritual practice and mindfulness practice.
In mindfulness practise, as you know, we intentionally focus attention on the present moment, often using one of the sense perceptions (feelings in the body, sounds, the sensation of the breath…) Sometimes we go a bit deeper and witness thoughts and feelings as they arise, as these too are happening in the now. You could say we are exploring the surface of now from the point of view of the individual. When we do this, there are various benefits to the mind, body and nervous system. This is mindfulness practice, a tool for wellbeing, something sensible to do like eating good food and exercising. And, even at this level, we begin to intuit that the one observing can’t possibly be the thoughts or the feelings, because these objects of awareness are always changing, and “I” am aware of them.
At some point, a deeper layer may draw you, the witness, to become aware of Yourself, not as the separate one observing, but rather as the perceiving consciousness itself, the space in which the perception happens. Awareness itself. Here the personal “I” is dissolved into the unchanging “I” and a deeper dimension arises, which is the spiritual dimension. A human being in this state has surrendered, to one degree or another, the illusory separate self. Authentic spiritual practice is the practice of awakening to, remembering and cultivating the relationship with the timeless Self (or Spirit, or Life Force, or God, or, as Ekhart Tolle calls it, Presence). There is the realisation that “I”, in Truth, am unchanging awareness. This is my True Self.
Everything in my culture and upbringing, of course, encourages me to believe that I am the limited small self “I”, not the awareness in which that one resides, and to base my feelings and reactions on the experiences of that “I.” Here’s an example to illustrate what I mean. I've been to the lovely Te Moata Retreat Centre in the Coromandel many times over the last 18 years, in varying roles.The first time I went as a retreat participant. Often after that I attended as the meditation teacher's partner. At a later stage I started offering retreats there myself, and went to the centre in the capacity of “mindfulness teacher.” Then, at another point, I went along to be part of the service team for a retreat, at a time of intense mental and emotional stress.
The separate “I” felt vastly different according to the story of why I was there. Teacher – great; I’m given a lovely hut in the bush to stay and I’m treated as fairly special. Teacher’s partner – also positive and affirming; there’s a certain status here, which feels good. Retreat participant – fine, kind of neutral; up and down depending on my mood and how the meditations go; seeking a peaceful state. On the service team, stressed – could barely function, felt shamed and a mess, and at odds with who I like to think I am. In terms of a spiritual understanding, “I”, the real Self, awareness itself, remained unchanged in all these differing situations. That Self witnesses the so-called “good” and “bad” with equanimity, knowing it to be a changing and temporary play, with the small “I” being the player engaging in it.
The separate self, the one who is convinced it is apart, resides in fear. It has to protect and construct itself, using roles, manipulating conditions and espousing strong and righteous “me” points of view to keep it in place. This is the ego mind, the seeking mind, the restless one convinced that “things will be better when……” It is full of wants, including so-called “spiritual” wants (I want freedom, I want enlightenment, I want to be more generous, I want to live like she does because she’s so inspiring ….”) The ego-mind is convinced that transformation can happen through behaviour and that happiness is to be found outside myself
Mindfulness practice grew out of traditions in which meditation was used to develop the concentration of the mind so that practitioners could sustain the discipline needed to contemplate spiritual truths. These days, people aim use its benefits in a purely “secular” way. There are a few implications of that. Here’s one example.
On April 7th, in the Wellington Dom Post there was an article called "NZ Soldiers enter into a mind-field." The article was about the way the NZ Defence Force is using mindfulness in military training. Here's part of it:
It is but one tool of many taught to improve how soldiers, sailors and airmen cope with the challenges and stresses of military life and operations …. This secular application of mindfulness in a conflict zone, to keep military personnel focused, seems at odds with its pacifist Buddhist roots.
A monk at the Bodhinyanarama Monastery, … said some people might have concerns about this use of mindfulness, but he did not.
“One of the aspects of the mindfulness movement is that the military uses it: how to more mindfully kill your enemy, without suffering guilt and recriminations.
"Surely it's going to be a better thing to have happier, healthier soldiers. That they can be more focused and concentrated when they pull the trigger,’ he said.
I'm still puzzling as to whether the monk quoted was taking the piss or not!
I’d like to finish with some words from my teacher, Sri Yanchiji:
“To meditate Awareness is not an option of the mind; it is only an option of the Heart. The mind sprinkles doubt on awakening, and this overwhelms the Heart, the genius intuition, the genius of the art of living – recognising that there is common Source, Awareness Itself.
Spiritual self-enquiry, or to seek what lies beneath the surface of your character, your person, does not require you to destroy the unique human being you exist as. Just as to look beyond the veneer of our cultural or conceptual identity does not require the obliteration of any culture whatsoever.
The new can be created without smashing the old. The one human spirit can be resurrected, can be revived, without the destruction of our individual uniqueness.
Take your time. Move slowly. Let the Love that IS Life become infused in your flesh and in your Being, just as your culturally indoctrinated identity permeated and saturated your Being.”
This article is about working with the fearful mind, especially when it reacts to severe endings, the kind that don't appear to contain the seeds of any new beginning. The dark night endings. The times when emotional pain or distress is visceral, and it's impossible to imagine things will ever feel better.
Events that trigger times like this are varied. The huge events, like the loss of someone you love, the end of a relationship and all it promised, perceived betrayal, the loss of health or physical capacity, the loss of a role and the sense of purpose or status it gave us, solitary confinement or imprisonment … And for some, apparently small things trigger a similar kind of fear, anxiety or depression. We can become anxious about isolation, anxious about feeling anxious. We can fall in on ourselves; thinking we are separate, and that we only have ourselves to fall back on. Then it seems that the human mind can go completely nutty, and states of intense fear and neurosis arise.
Usual individual consciousness is not just prone to fear – it is fear! That fear is usually covered over because props are in place, like a relationship, a role, income, material comforts, entertainment etc. The fear is underground when things are going well, but it’s there, just the same. It’s there in the niggling we feel because we have things, but hell, we might lose them, and every now and then when there are reminders that this physical realm is an uncertain and potentially terrifying ride. Terrifying, because we’re born into a human body and we feel separate (me, separate from you), and we’re messing up our planet, and we’re going to die. Separate consciousness, the separation from a realised relationship with the Spirit of Life, is the basis of fear, and any attempts to change things or employ techniques to feel better from within the paradigm of separation from Life, are coming from the same paradigm that led to the suffering in the first place.
I have found it a sobering thing to realise that the mind which operates when I feel happy conditionally (e.g. times when conditions are going well, I feel loved, that I’m successful, popular, belong, contribute etc) is that very same mind, only this time it’s spinning me light, not shadow thoughts! Reminders of how things are going well, possibilities, stories of hopefulness. Occasionally small thoughts like: I hope I can stay in this frame of mind; I hope these conditions stay in place, I hope he keeps loving me, might surface. The positive mind and the tortured mind are coming from the same “type” of consciousness. And so to approach pain with positive affirmations and other techniques, while of course being really useful to help someone become more functional, is nothing to do with a change of consciousness. A change of consciousnes, from fear-based to Love-based, is the work of spiritual practice, and a whole other affair, a whole other study.
Mindfulness and other techniques of attention constitute a wonderful preparation for spiritual practice, which is the gradual turning of awareness from the separate self, to Love, or God, or the force of Life - or whatever anyone wants to call it. Some mastery of the mind is a prerequisite for spiritual practice, which requires a lot of attention.
I have found that times of suffering are the times I’m most propelled into practising a conscious discipline of attention of the mind. A sort of rebellion can arise in me - I simply can’t afford to cave in and give up on my Life! In times like this I see the total neurosis of the human ‘ego’ mind. I see its insanity, its repetitious hell-bent insistence on working things out, coming to some solution, repeating old stories, and fuelling stress by what it chooses to head towards. I see how the body is much wiser than the mind, which frankly, can be a complete idiot. And yet, the body, being so sweetly faithful to the mind it is married to, will suffer accordingly.
Being in the sort of pain I’ve described highlights all of my habitual strategies of avoiding the present moment. The paradox is that being in the present moment is the only thing that will begin to master the mind’s habitual patterns (as opposed to the mind being one’s master). Attending to each breath, not indulging the agonizing over why or dreading a future in which the ‘problem’ has not resolved, but instead, reminding myself to simply soften, to simply be with this fearful aspect of myself that is freaking out.
During times when I have felt extreme fear, one of the only techniques I could stay with, without sliding away into avoidance, was the Buddhist practice of Tonglen. One breathes the distress - the difficult sensations, the fear, the panic - right into the heart, and then breathes out the quality of peace, calm or loving – with the intention of blessing and benefiting others.
I sometimes noticed, though not always, that the fight with the distressing feelings eased a bit. Some softening of the panic about ruining one’s health by being so stressed and fearful. Less trying so hard to create something positive to replace the fear and anguish. Simply staying present to what was, inviting it in to one’s heart, not with a view to it staying, but with the intention of witnessing it as a kind and steady host.
Breathing out love. Over and over again, though each breath may be a sort of work, the mind constantly flicking to a means of escape, the wanting of things to be different, the desire to feel calm and well. Breathing in the stress, breathing out love. Breathing in the fear, breathing out calm. Breathing in the avoidance, breathing out peace to all who are suffering. Sometimes I notice the practice simply becomes breathing in and receiving the great gift of Life, in whatever state I’m in, and breathing out, surrendering myself, however I am, back into Life.
I have noticed, when I have practised this, that I become aware of the hundreds, thousands, millions of others who may also be suffering … so the practice becomes a gift with the intention of love for others. A self-gift too, because when a person stops fighting fear and making it wrong, and allows and opens instead to the sensations it brings, fear also softens its grip.
The very things we try to get rid of soften in the face of kindness, soften in the face of love.
I read recently that when the Dalai Lama first heard about the concept of self-hatred, he was incredulous - it was apparently not a phenomenon he was familiar with amongst people from his culture. On reflecting for a period of time, he said that the only conclusion he could come to was that a human being’s dislike of her or himself could only be an expression of exaggerated self-importance.
Now whether or not he simply didn’t understand the translation of the term self-hatred, and whether or not it is true that Tibetans don’t suffer from self-aggression to the extent we do in the West, his response prompted some reflection in me. I understand that self-dislike can only arise from the failure to aspire to some ideal that I think I want or deserve, or which someone I’m comparing myself to seems to be fulfilling. But I hadn’t considered that to even think I should live up to such an ideal is inflating the importance of myself as an individual somehow separated out from the network of life. In doing so, I’m refusing to surrender to the existence of ‘non-ideal’ aspects of myself, and refusing to intuit what life wants of me, submitting instead to the ideals demanded by society or upbringing, even though they can feel as if they are mine.
Culture, media, religion and parental conditioning are some of the factors that conspire to set the bar very high in the way of externalised ideals. As you know, many people in our culture lack true, unconditional self-worth, and true, unconditional self-confidence. This isn’t surprising. We’ve been taught to secure our worth in conditions - money, youth, beauty, successful relationships. to name a few. We’ve eclipsed a basic and sane sense of worth in simply being, in simply having shown up for a while as a unique human expression of the force of Life. We have not been brought up in a wisdom culture with wise elders who model a state of being fuelled by original and innate joy, prior to physical achievements, attributes or success.
Amidst this situation, enter mindfulness. The discipline of attention. A strengthening of the muscle of present-moment awareness. The practice of bringing kindly attention to the unfolding of life, here in this body, now in this moment, regardless of what the conditions are like. An awareness of the arising of thoughts that hijack a simple and awake dwelling in the present moment, and an intentional willingness to not engage with them. The practice, when our mind wanders, of escorting our attention back to here and now. A friendliness towards the emotions and sensations that arise within us, and a willingness to investigate the palpable nature of those in our body.
It is true that one of the fruits of an ongoing practice in mindfulness is an ease and growing groundedness in the face of upheaval. It is true that mindfulness practice, over time, leads to a reduction in stress and anxiety. But herein lies a trap. Mindfulness can easily become a quest for an outcome, the goal being the behaviours that are a natural outcome of a process of letting go and non-wanting. Then, the ‘achievement’ of peace and equanimity, even in the face of stress, becomes yet another ideal to live up to, And what’s more, when this doesn’t happen, or if our mindfulness practice time is chaotic and not peaceful, it’s very easy to feel like a failure.
You could say that in mindfulness practice, we are dropping any sense of good and bad, right and wrong, and beginning from a place of OK-ness with what is. There are no thoughts that are wrong – they have arisen, so no-one can say they shouldn’t have! There is of course always the choice whether to ride on these thoughts, to rark them up, and to believe them - and that will cause suffering, though it isn’t ‘wrong.’ There isn’t a ‘good’ mindfulness practice session or a bad one, even though most people are convinced that if their minds are all over the place, it’s a bad session, and if they feel peaceful and centred, it’s a very good one. In truth, there are just calm sessions and busy-mind sessions, just as there is calm weather and stormy weather.
I’ve recently spent three days with 18 women, teaching a retreat on the theme of self-compassion. Almost without exception people expressed how much they expect of themselves, how much effort they put into being everything for others, and how challenging it is to just stop, let go, drop ideals and ambition, and do less. Some, who had practiced mindfulness before, said that they were beginning to notice that they have been approaching mindfulness, a practice which essentially is one of compassionate present-moment awareness of whatever is arising in the body / mind, as another thing to be good at and get right.
After the retreat, someone told me for instance how disappointed she was to react with agitation and stress to a difficult phone call with her ex-partner. ‘It made me realise how far I have to go’, she said.
Mindfulness is not a self-improvement tool, nor is it, in and of itself, spiritual practice. However, in the practice of dwelling right here, right now, I might begin to feel the degree to which I’ve forgotten my original joyfulness, my contentment with the simplicity of just being, just sitting, just being breathed. I might uncover the drivers in my unconscious mind that begin to come into awareness. Please others. Be perfect. Try harder. Mindfulness therefore can open a window on our habits, motivations and the ideals we set ourselves. It can uncover beliefs and directives in our internal landscape that hold us prisoner to ideals that were never really our own. Mindfulness may well show up a basic lack of self-esteem covered up through busy-ness, over-eating, sex, status, money and fixed ideas, all things that hold a firm (though unreliable) identity of ‘me’ in place.
No wonder a woman recently posted on my Facebook page, in response to an advertisement for an upcoming silent retreat with me: ‘I can’t be left alone with my mind for three days – it’s dangerous!’
The heart of mindfulness is not to give yourself yet another thing to be good at, another ideal to live up to, or something else to fit in. It is the growing practice of giving your attention, moment by moment, to the experience of being here, right now with whatever is happening.
I’d like to conclude with words from my teacher, Sri Yanchiji:
“I so wish for every individual to be kind and gentle with his or her self. Humans expect ridiculous and impossible things from themselves…. when the individual him or herself really does not have a deep acceptance and appreciation and gratitude and wonder and love for their own unique existence. It is such a pity. Our human existence passes so very quickly. We are here only by each heartbeat, each breath, and as gentle and fragile and exquisite as an unexpected soft kiss on our living dying subtle bodies”
When I was younger, I thought compassion was synonymous with sympathy, the kind of quality in which a person got alongside another, agreed things were awful or unfair, and offered consolation. My first teacher did not sympathise with the predicament i was in (I had sought his help because i was ill) I clearly remember judging him as uncompassionate.
Over the recent long weekend, fourteen people joined me at the Aio Wira retreat centre near Auckland for a mindfulness and qi gong retreat on the theme of self-compassion. And this question arose: What is self-compassion in the context of mindfulness?
When I’ve experienced times of darkness or despair, apparently triggered by difficult conditions, I’ve noticed that some people I thought I was close to tended to avoid me, some spoke consolingly, and some spoke immediately about their own similar stories, even those a long time prior. A few have sat with me, but made no move to fix anything, or even necessarily offer advice. This has felt like deep compassion: the ability to feel with another, to show, with words and touch, that there is nothing to make right, nothing to console, that this time is arising and will change again, and for a while is to be endured. I’m pointing to a quality here; of course there are times advice and help with a plan of action is needed! I also understand that when I offered what I used to call compassion to others, it was invariably so I would feel better, and because I couldn’t bear to see their distress.
During these same challenging times, I have sometimes fallen into the role of victim, This isn’t fair! Why me? I have told the story of my distress so often that it has become part of my identity, and become a strategy to invite sympathy. Wise teachers, truly compassionate ones, have challenged me about these tendencies. They have reminded me of laws in consciousness, and of self-responsibility. If I have driven myself and ignored indications from the body that I needed to stop, it is lawful that I am exhausted or ill. If I have been through periods of intense stress, it is lawful I have low energy or need time to recover. If I meditate (think) frequently on unhappiness, it is lawful that I will attract situations that mirror unhappiness. If I hold a belief that I am not worthy of love, it is lawful that I will attract people who later appear to reject me. Like attracts like. I duplicate whatever I give my attention to.
This degree of compassion, the ruthless encouragement of self-responsibility, this degree of truth telling, is not popular. Give me a little consolation! A little respite to be a victim! Let me leave a little neurosis up my sleeve!
And then, when I’ve given myself a hard time about not meeting some sort of ideal I hold dear - and spiritual ideals are the worst, - a compassionate teacher will remind me again to be kind to myself, to be gentle, that deep patterns of mind don’t change in a week, or a year. That most humans have been deeply conditioned in the ways of fear and self-judgement and this is not anyone’s “fault.”
Self-compassion, then, as one sits in mindfulness practice. The gesture of acceptance. A place of beginning from inherent OK-ness, from an OK-ness derived simply from being, even if the conditions suggest otherwise. Sitting with myself, for that set period of time, without seeking to fix, console, or avoid myself. (And, yes, of course, taking action later…)
But self-compassion is also being willing to see the truth. The understanding that if I take a long ride on particular thought trains and stories, and believe them, there will be implications of this which affect myself and others. And because, with mindfulness practice, I’ll start to feel more strongly the physical effects of dwelling on past pain, future fears, blame, self-judgment, righteousness etc., I may develop quite an intolerance of the ways I have allowed myself to be hijacked so often by these kind of thoughts.
But it’s a hell of a job to convince anyone that mindfulness is not a technique to fix anything, to strive for peace, or relaxation, or an empty mind. That rather it is the witnessing of whatever arises, with kindness and humour, knowing there is nothing to improve, knowing that, as a human, everything arises, and falls away again, knowing that I am not my thoughts, nor my feelings, but that they are all OK. And to keep returning to where it's always now and to where my body is - here, whatever is going on.
At the retreat, there were a few who felt frustrated about the apparent paradoxes inherent in the things I said. You may be feeling the same way here. Kindness and ruthlessness? Acceptance and intolerance? Meditation, but not trying for no thoughts?
I notice, as I surrender more to the Life that lives me, I can't come to black and white conclusions about anything, despite having a mind so insistently wanting to have things under control. More and more I don’t know. I am no longer able to rely on others, or external morals, to give prescriptions about what to do, or what not to do, or how to go about anything at all. But I am starting to feel a growing awareness of what each changing moment asks, even if that contravenes others’ expectations or morals, and does not win approval. Mindfulness, over time and combined with a love of the Life that is living this whole play of events, leads to a movement into one's own authority and a trust in the goodness of one’s own heart.
(radical |ˈradɪk(ə)l| - forming an inherent or fundamental part of the nature of something; the root)
In the practice of mindfulness, a person starts to develop the witness stance, noticing the patterns of thinking that habitually pull attention away from the experience of simply being present. The practitioner observes the 'what' of thinking before compassionately escorting their attention back to the now or the object of mindfulness.
In this article, I’d like to consider something deeper than the 'what' of thinking - and that is the 'how' of thinking.
When a man or woman holds a strong belief of any kind, for instance a religious belief, there are many thoughts that will grow from and be supported by it. For example, if I believe the astonishing notion that I was born a sinner, a raft of thoughts will result – that I need someone or something to redeem me, perhaps that a Jesus died for my sins, that I need to be ‘good’ to deserve love, and so on. Stop believing the root notion and, like a stack of dominoes, all the ensuing thoughts will topple because they have no ground on which to stand.
The 'what' of thinking is nourished and held firm in the soil of how I think. And how I think is laid down in the ground of consciousness itself – it is the fabric of me, to a large degree sub-conscious, and established by genetics, the collective unconscious beliefs of the culture and time in which I live, plus my own particular conditioning and familial influences. I do not have free will in this regard.
In mindfulness practice I might notice that many thoughts arising are those of a 'should' nature. My children should be doing better at school. My partner should be more understanding, or expressive. I should be living a more balanced life. I should be more compassionate. Fitter. Thinner. More easy-going. And so on.
Underneath these thoughts I might then understand and feel that there is a firmly held notion, or 'how' of thinking in place, that in order to be OK/happy/acceptable, I need externals to be constellated a certain way. I seek approval outside myself. I depend on conditions to fulfill me and bring me joy; I do not have the first idea of the art of filling my own 'well of joy' through the tacit understanding that the privilege of simply being is the source of my joy and confidence. Instead I look to others or conditions to do that for me. I search for love, fulfilment and self-worth outside of myself. And this isn’t a sign of stupidity – it is just what has impressed itself, or branded itself, into me. And then I will defend these tendencies as being 'natural.'
When I begin to feel the way my mind creates the root bondage by the 'how' of my thinking, I understand that I might very well take thoughts one at a time to loosen and shake them up and question them, but unless I really feel into the root of what holds them in place, and stop believing them at a cellular level, I will have to keep doing the techniques over and over again with each individual thought. And while things might change relative to behaviour, nothing in consciousness will be transformed.
Nature is surely wanting to make something of me; everyone has gifts of some sort, even if they are not recognised as useful by the culture, but they are often unrealised and un-enjoyed. What Nature truly wants of me can only be intuited from the place prior to thought. It is only in the spaces between thoughts that I feel the unproblematic sweetness of being. Thoughts can’t enhance or diminish that sweetness, in the same way that a mirror is neither enhanced nor diminished by the image of a face reflected in it.
But the culture is trying to make something of me too and this imperative has impressed itself deeply though parental, educational, cultural expectations etc. What culture wants of me is most definitely held in place by thoughts. And most of us are servants of work, others’ expectations and the drive to feel acceptable and worthy of love.
It is impossible to serve two masters.
The notion of an individual 'self' arises from thoughts; I tend to become thoughts if I ride them for long enough. 'I' am held in place by thoughts. Consciousness before thought is not me-based; it is impersonal. And true spiritual practice is to expose the illusion that there is an “I”. Death will show me that illusion, but there are rare human beings whose work it is to expose the illusion before a human dies. These are spiritual masters. Someone mastered by Life can transmit to another that it's possible to truly enjoy the privilege of simple being, to experience this brief play, feeling both the mud and gold of being fully human, living in the world of conditions but relating more to the feeling recognition of who one really is: unsullied Consciousness, the force of Life prior to thought.
The 'how' of thinking then becomes something more like this: I am unconditionally confident and joyful simply through Being; I depend on Nature; Life brought me here for a while and will take me out when it’s good and ready; I am not in charge of this brief affair. There’s a humour in a human being living this way that’s palpable - an ease, a freedom, a generosity, a deep capacity to feel, a dignity, a kindness, an unpredictability and a relentless drive to serve others in Love. I see these qualities in the spiritual master I am blessed enough to sit with, and they are more attractive to me than anything.
And then, I don’t think it matters in the slightest what one thinks.
There’s a story I once laughed at, about a man whose oil light was flashing red as he was driving through the city. He got out of the car, but instead of adding oil, proceeded to rip out the connection to the low-oil warning light, then got in the car and happily drove off.
Now you and I know there won’t be much of a lag-time before the lack of oil makes itself known in a more dramatic and palpable way. But when we extend the metaphor to the earth’s warning signals, it seems to me that the sheer vastness of the earth and its ability to imperceptibly adapt to misuse is preventing us from realising how unintelligently we, as a species, are responding to the root causes of imbalance. In other words, the apparent forgivingness of the planet is blinding us to the fact that we are not the slightest bit different from the man I laugh at.
There is a natural law that will become evident in time – there is always a tipping point, at which time stress is no longer tolerated, in much the same way that a human organism will, without mindfulness, tolerate overwork and stress, adapt, tolerate ... adapt, tolerate … until it is impossible to sustain the strain and the person will manifest symptoms of overuse, burnout, or illness.
I recently listened to an interview concerning the development, by AgResearch scientists, of compounds which , when fed to cattle, can reduce methane production by up to 90%, thus providing “a technology that could significantly reduce New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions.” I felt heavy-hearted because at no point was either person asking deeper questions, ones that would confront the paradigm this kind of intervention is arising from.
I'm sure you’ve heard the Albert Einstein quote:"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." We, as a human species, have created problems from a paradigm of fear-based consciousness, individual consciousness, one that prioritises economic and personal gain, one that controls conditions for personal gain and sees oneself as separate from other individuals and other species. We farm and modify the natural life of animals for economic gain as if it is our undeniable right, with no gratitude, no wisdom, no honoring of the lives we take to survive. We pollute the waterways, we upset the atmosphere, we give no attention to keeping the subtle harmony of life in balance. We act as if we don’t depend on the same Life that gives life to all species. The arrogance of this is breathtaking.
If I believe I am separate, and my worth is predicated on externals, it is inevitable I will very seriously dedicate my energy into controlling conditions - and other people - so that I am fulfilled. This is not wrong, it’s simply an error based on forgetting what it is I really depend on. My unconscious questions centre around how I can get happy through conditions being arranged to suit me best, or how I can be successful, look good, be admired, and so on. At an organisational level, these questions become based around how “we” can win economically. When I am driven unconsciously by these questions, it is an impossible task to leap out of that paradigm - it would be akin to lifting the entire weight of my body by my own shoe laces – in order to ask more intelligent questions.
I depend on the sun, as you do, on the ocean, the tides, and the earth. I depend on the same air you depend on to breathe. I don’t keep myself alive, and nor do you. I am not in charge of this delicately-tuned web of Life, and nor are you. You and I have an intimate inter-relatedness with all things, with all Life.
Now, when I begin to feel this in my guts, my questions become more like these:
“Am I living in harmony with the laws of Nature?”
“Am I mindful enough to discern whether this action or decision robs me, or others, of the natural joy of Living”
“How will this action affect the whole?”
Isaac Newton watched an apple fall and asked intelligent questions: Why did it fall downwards? Why not sideways? Of course he was thought to be eccentric because he questioned a basic paradigm that everyone accepted unconsciously (Well of course, you fool, everything falls downwards).
I cannot transcend or let go of the need to control until I have found a different and internally-generated source of power within myself: the force of Life itself, unadulterated by any attempts to get satisfied externally. I need to be already feeling the joy of simply Being and be genuinely therefore without the motivation for personal gain. And this can only happen as I wake up to what is real.
The notion that I am a separate individual and that I need to look out for myself at the expense of others is the unreal paradigm. Any action within this paradigm will create more problems of the sort the actions are trying to solve. There is another paradigm. It is Love of the impersonal sort, in which I will put down my own agenda for the sake of the benefit of the whole.
Then, perhaps, a group of wise elders might gather before any decision is made about anything affecting the earth that is in their stewardship. Perhaps they might honour and remember the great force of Life that is holding this whole show in place. Perhaps they might, with ease and humour, consider that it may be time to take the god of economic gain from its pedestal in order for the earth to re-balance, even if that means some severe inconvenience to themselves for quite some time.
Genuine reverence for Life, honouring of the fine-tuned balance of land and marine ecosystems, will only arise from a different paradigm of consciousness and therefore of thinking. There is only one solution, one question, one premise. There is only one event going on here.
It is Love.
I was recently among a roomful of people who were invited to express what they appreciated about themselves. Many didn’t find this easy, and we laughed as it became more and more apparent that almost everyone in the room was reticent about, or found ways to sidestep the enquiry!
I see, over and over again, that even though we live in a culture of relative abundance - and therefore often indulgence - we are remarkably hard on ourselves. I hear from many students that their mindfulness practice uncovers patterns of thinking that are riddled with shoulds ought tos, musts, comparisons with others and a general sense of not measuring up.
True self-compassion, like any other qualities of the spirit, cannot be forced or strategised. Someone might decide they want to be more compassionate, and go about it through behavioural means. They may fool a few people, but I tell you truly, the real heart of it will be missing. You will have heard pieces of music played by rote by someone with none of the feeling or spirit – I would call this love - that brings the music alive. Self-compassion is like this. I can’t wake up one morning and start, by my own decision, to be deeply kind to myself. All the underpinning conditioning, the thoughts, the self-doubt – yes, all the things we start being more aware of in mindfulness practice - will still be in place, undermining personal efforts to change. Changing behaviour pastes something else on top of that programming, but when any test arises and there isn’t time to get strategic about behaviour, I will see what responses are really impressed into me.
In mindfulness practice, we begin to notice what’s here right now. We notice patterns of thinking and we don’t try to fix or change them, or to empty our heads of thought (an impossible task!) Rather we witness the play of conditions, and keep bringing our mind back to the present moment. We begin to get a little more familiar with what we’re up to most of the time – you know, avoiding, judging, comparing, strategizing, fantasizing, regretting, anticipating, planning, re-living…. and infinitely on. We begin to see that we are not our thoughts, or our feelings, that they aries, and go away again, some quicker than others... We notice the persistent patterns, and perhaps develop some humour around this. Ah, jealousy, there you are again – what a surprise!
And we keep bringing our mind back to the present, to the breath, to our bodies, or whatever the object of our practice is. That’s the work: observing what we’re doing, where we’ve gone, how we avoid the present – and we come back. That’s the muscle we work – the one that brings us home to the OK-ness of each unproblematic moment.
People often tell me that after time practising mindfulness, they notice the arising of more compassion towards themselves, almost as a fruit of something else. This happens slowly, and not as a result of trying. One thing that contributes to this is that often a person starts to really feel the true cost of lack of compassion.
And it’s often suffering, isn’t it, that triggers any deep change. When you start to feel in your body the hardness of self-judgment, the ways that you rob yourself of the natural joy of being, by believing the lies and stories your mind can be obsessed with, then there’s a point at which you might feel in the subconscious mind: enough!
This is a sort of waking up, the opening of our eyes to the suffering of being so hard on ourselves, the suffering of feeling that somehow, we’re fundamentally just wrong. You begin to wake up to the cost of what unloving does to the force and the spontaneous expression of your inherent life.
Mindfulness starts as a behavioural discipline, for sure, when we decide to make time to sit for a certain period each day. But over time, through a sort of indirect grace, it clears the way for various qualities of the spirit to be expressed in the rest of our lives.
a missing chip and a t stick plan
I bought a T-stick with a giggle of data,
spun wheels on You-tube, ran clean out of time;
went back to the shop, to top it up.
OK ma’am what’s your T-stick number? …
Well, it’s the 40-digit number on the side of the box …
Ahh, you threw away the box?
What’s your mobile number, ma’am? User name?
Password? Mother’s maiden name?
Date of birth? … No ma’am, yours.
You have a choice of six plans ma’am:
light surfer plus casual day rate …
The simplest? Well it all depends on usage.
You get three gigs for $40 but if you exceed that within a month
you pay a dollar a day and you’ll need to join
our friendly-user programme… and, by the way, conditions always apply.
And you need to monitor when you’re about to run out.
I’ve run out already
and i don’t mean of gigs.
How? Well it’s, like, real easy:
you log in to our website,
enter your T-stick number…
that’s the number
on the box you bought it in…
oh, yeah, you binned it…
You take the SIM card out of your T-stick, put it in your phone;
get a text from gigafone with an 18-digit code, type that
on the web-page, put the SIM card back in your stick, complete all the fields...
Can I do it while you’re here? Err, no ma’am, our website’s down …
I don’t know, we’re not sure what the problem is …
Yep, unbelievable headaches, believe me …
I believe him. Shouting is not a valid entry
and I can’t hang him up
so I press my temples for further options.
And I start wondering if smart teats
will take the place of nipples and about my friend’s
kid’s potty with the built-in I-pad stand.
Give me the sky’s open page and a pen to write love poems;
give me your warm body the earth trees and good water.
Let's sit together, without a T-stick, lap top,
mobile, I-pad, I-pod in sight;
let’s sit in the emptying night
with nothing but our feeling bodies
to see what plan unfolds.
When there is devotion to Life, in a feeling way, as my priority, I choose to do things or not do them based on the health of that feeling devotion. Whatever my level of devotion is, it will inform the way I eat, the way I meditate, the way I breathe, the way I relate to people and the way I think.
It’s possible, and I’ve done this a lot, to approach things the other way round, for instance using mindfulness meditation or pranayama (breath yoga) to get into a state of ‘devotion’, or calm. Or to set up a strategy to relate to people in a more compassionate way, or to think more positively. I start from the place of ‘not-right’ or stress and seek to remedy it by altering the symptoms, which are simply a faithful mirror of my existing state. In other words, my ego is busily trying to solve the problem of itself. But the lack of ease in my body, my shallow or held breath, my emotional reactivity to challenges, my patterns of thinking, any or all of these things will betray me.
It’s impossible to fake devotion.
It is only prior devotion, the feeling of love for Life itself, the feeling of the sweetness that underpins all conditions, that slowly, over time, will transform these barometers of consciousness. It is devotion that will change ingrained patterns of thinking.
Existing patterns of thinking in me have been programmed in. I have been the unknowing recipient of propaganda. And that’s not surprising, or wrong, it’s just that thought patterns hinder the free flow of Life that wants to express itself through me. Thought patterns are a symptom of my lack of devotion, which is the way I don’t fully feel the privilege of simply being alive in a human body, and let that hold seniority, day-to-day.
Let’s take the example, because it’s a charged one, of my lover rejecting me for another he apparently prefers. If a wise being suggests that my huge emotional upset exposes a childish reliance on this form of closeness to feel self-worth and happiness, and suggests that if I really loved I would, alongside the natural feelings of grief, be able to stay open and be happy for the other, I will denounce this as ridiculous, and decide she or he simply doesn’t ‘get it’. I will defend the point of view - that it is natural to feel angry and rejected - as being reasonable and human, and friends/society will back me up on this.
Inside the mind, thoughts will duly pile up on themselves, reinforcing my undermined point of view like a back-up committee. At times like this I seem to have inadvertently hired an inbuilt defense lawyer who passionately supports my position with persuasive language. Have you noticed the ways you sometimes rehearse conversations, decide what you would like to have said, will say, should have said… thus building a righteous view of yourself and reinforcing the judgment of the other as a complete arsehole…
To show up the force of what it takes to change a strongly held point of view, consider Ignaz Semmelweis, who discovered that the huge mortality rate in obstetric clinics could be drastically cut by the use of hand disinfection. Semmelweis proposed the practice of hand-washing in the mid 19th century. However his observations conflicted with the established scientific and medical opinions of the time. His ideas were rejected by the medical community, who were offended at the suggestion that they should wash their hands, given Semmelweis could offer no acceptable scientific explanation for his findings. Hand washing before surgery only became a standard practice after this death when the germ theory was confirmed by Louis Pasteur.
From the point of view of a contemporary culture with a basic belief in science, this is tragic and ridiculous. However, changing the consciousness with which I’ve been branded is no different. It is supported by patterns of thinking that I’ve never really examined. When they are challenged, I will defend my point of view and existing societal views will support me in this..
If I am a student of consciousness, and I understand that this means being willing to have my points of view shaken up so I can surrender them, it still gets me in the guts when a dearly-held belief is challenged. I feel terrible, my breathing is held, and my emotions become volatile. But it’s my thinking patterns that hold these symptoms in place, and they can sustain themselves for a very long time. Consider thinking patterns like:
- S/he shouldn’t have done/said/reacted like that
- I should have been acknowledged/included/respected
- I’m wrong/I’m not good enough/my living conditions aren’t right
- I’m alone/separate/unloved
- I shouldn’t be reacting like this
Some of these patterns are very concretised by the time I’m in my thirties, forties, fifties… And there is one basic building-block supporting all of them! Self-referencing, or self-consciousness, the deeply-held pre-supposition that I am the centre of the whole affair of life.
In this human brain I’ve thought thoughts so many times that I can almost feel the wideness of the corresponding neuronal pathways that have been set up. They’re tarmacked, easy, and familiar, and it doesn’t take much to decide that’s the way to go, even though the journey causes suffering. It's very easy to ignore this and decide instead the suffering is caused from the outside trigger, rather than by my own reaction to it.
In a phase like this, my operating system is completely taken over by the virus of self-consciousness. I can submit it to the experience itself (the usual thing ordinary people do), or, at this stage, I can submit it to a spiritual understanding - that by dint of Being, everything is fundamentally OK, even when conditions are not feeling OK at all. At times like this I can’t believe my thoughts or feelings and then it’s really rocky ground because any attempts to fix things or feel better are coming from the paradigm of self consciousness. My ego again, investigating ways to solve the problem of itself…
As I wake up, I feel more and more the cost of staying a disciple of fear. That cost is becoming intolerable. The uncomfortable-ness and mess that happens when a free point of view collides with my own is the grist for this transformation, and that I can’t avoid. If I desire a life of consolation, and simply seek to arrange conditions in the best possible way for me – and actually, that has been the main motivation all my life - I won’t ever really be examining deeply what it is that causes suffering and prevents the free flow of Love.
If I get the things I crave for - you know, privilege, recognition, acknowledgment, inclusion etc., while I still don’t know my OK-ness, my deep worth, my greatness, whatever happens, then those things will mask my underlying dependence on them. If I get the natural things my body wants, like sex or money or companionship, but am still relying on those things for my alright-ness, I will be asleep, and delaying the inevitable confrontation that everything conditional will fall away. Everything.