Friday, February 28, 2020

We're All Doing Our Best, and Yet ...

     We're all just trying to do our best to be happy, no matter how our behaviors may appear to outside observers. In the process, we unintentionally create, or at least maintain, a lot of needless suffering for ourselves & others.
     Meditation, first & foremost, allows us see clearly, with a far deeper intelligence (than the conditioned, fear-based, self-talk-filled, superficial level with which we're usually identified).
     In his fascinating paper, Roger Walsh MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology & religion, describes his remarkable insights & discoveries during meditation, despite his strong initial skepticism & fears
     These same fears keep many away from meditation. And even those of us who choose to meditate, only disengage from our momentum of distracted self-talk ("the story of me") very, very gradually, at our own pace. The shift from noisy psychological defenses to the sublime silence & stillness of our deeper intelligence tends to be slow & delicate.

     “Whereas initially I had believed that the inner world must of necessity harbor unwholesome collections of monsters, which I had avoided confronting all my life, I now came to think of this inner world as a very attractive, pleasant source of positive information.
     I was beginning to agree with the statements such as those of Willis Harman (1962): ‘We are all hypnotized from infancy … We do not perceive ourselves and the world about us as they are but as we have been persuaded to perceive them.’
     … it was becoming clear that from the perspective of this hypnotized, illusory world view, my symptoms and defenses appeared not only logical but optimal. It would have seemed stupid to act in any other way. And here was the key to a new understanding of the nature of defenses and resistance. If from our perceived world view we are already acting optimally, then of course we would resist change of any type and would seek to strengthen our defenses rather than relinquish them. To relinquish them would feel like sacrificing those very strategies which we believe to be essential for our well-being. Now I could begin to make sense out of the old adage that neurotics don’t come into psychotherapy to get better; they come in to learn how to be better neurotics. A corollary of this is that the really important growth choices involve changes in the beliefs, perspectives, and viewpoints from which we are perceiving rather than attempting to change that which we are looking at. That is, the changes are process, second order, contextual, or perspective changes.
     These insights gave me a very new perspective on the nature of personality, neurosis, neurotic symptoms, self-actualization, authenticity, and courage. Now I could look at people and see that each and everyone of them, each and everyone of us, was courageously coping with reality and themselves as he or she believed, and hence perceived, them to be. Furthermore, they acted and perceived with total commitment in ways that seemed to them absolutely necessary and appropriate. Moreover, each person daily created and endured an extraordinary amount of well-intended suffering in a continuous battle which was fought day in and day out with total but almost totally unappreciated commitment and courage. For each of them, for each of us, every response appeared to represent the optimal self-actualizing strategy, and I could now understand the humanistic psychology position as enunciated by Carl Rogers (1959) that the ‘basic actualizing tendency is the only motive which is postulated in this theoretical system.’
     Thus it became apparent that many of the beliefs and fears I encountered were not unique to me but rather were widespread in our culture. This raises the interesting question as to what extent they are transmitted and taught to us as part of the cultural hypnosis mentioned above.” 
       Roger Walsh. “Journey Beyond Belief.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology 24(2); 30-65, 1984.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Maturing Beyond "Ordinary Happiness"

     Many people deeply believe that the universe is unfriendly, and that "ordinary unhappiness" is the most they can hope for. A pervasive subconscious sense of "lack" haunts many of us. 
       David R. Loy. “Lack & Transcendence. The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism.” Wisdom Publications, 2018.
     Sadly, most of us don't actually know what a deep, meaningful life means, looks like, OR that it is available.

     Roger Walsh MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry, philosophy, anthropology & religion at the University of California, states: 
     "... behind conventional religions with their myths, rituals, beliefs and dogmas, are hidden disciplines for practices for training the mind to induce the same states of consciousness that the founders had realized, and thereby opening up similar possibilities for all of us.

     Religions tend to get started when an individual has some sort of breakthrough of some kind. Different founders have different kinds of breakthroughs, but they have spiritual breakthroughs of one kind or another. And the people who are effective in initiating traditions that have lasting power provide several things. First they provide an insight, a vision, a spiritually-informed understanding. Then they’re also able to transmit partly charismatically, partly technically – that is they offer a variety of practices by which other people can have the same realizations for themselves, so that they transmit two things. One is insight, understanding, a vision of the way the world and we look from that awakened place, but secondly, a set of practices which allow others to have the same insight, understanding & state of consciousness and test it out for themselves.
     Now over time, as we all know, there tends to be a process of ‘truth decay’ – over time, the deeper or higher realizations tend to get lost or sidelined somewhat and what remains tends to be the belief system and the rituals around it. And in most religions, the ‘esoteric side’ – the real practices that can actually induce transformative states and psychological-spiritual maturation – tend to have become marginalized to a certain extent, to different degrees in different traditions.

     One of the real tragedies in our culture is that we have no understanding, let alone popular map*, of developmental stages beyond the conventional. So we have no encouragement or call to mature beyond conventional levels, which means that most people stultify at the conventional level, having no understanding that there’s something more
     There is data from multiple fields – developmental studies, psychotherapy, psychedelic work – that the psyche really does have inherent in it, a pull to development. Maslow called it ‘self-actualization,’ other people have called it ‘self-transcendence,’ ‘moksha drive,’ Jung’s ‘individuation,’ etc, etc. And, when that drive is not recognized or fulfilled, it creates a deep profound dissatisfaction
     And the tragedy is, because our culture has no understanding of this call, that malaise is not recognized for what it is. And people look for substitute gratifications of one kind or another. And the trouble is that you can never get enough of what you don’t really want. 
     So there is this inherent growth dynamic in the psyche, this fact isn’t recognized, which leads to enormous suffering in our culture. Maslow called these ‘meta-pathologies’ – pathologies, not of psychosis or neurosis, but existential pathologies that emerge for people. 
     And we have to have a realistic view of what post-conventional development looks like, because it’s not all sweetness and light. Every new stage brings forth new opportunities, new capacities, new understandings, and new problems. There’s a dialectic of development. Every new stage has its new challenges and difficulties. 
     And one of the big problems for us in our culture for anyone who starts to move beyond the conventional is there’s no map to understand the problems that emerge and very little in the way of remedies.”
       Roger Walsh, in an excellent 2hr interview by Rick Archer:

     Four excellent recent books specifically deal, in-depth, with psycho-social-spiritual maturation well beyond the conventional:
     Amoda Maa. “Embodied Enlightenment. Living Your Awakening in Every Moment.” Reveal Press, 2017. 
     Shinzen Young. “The Science of Enlightenment. How Meditation Works.” Sounds True, 2016.
      Dorothy Hunt. “Ending the Search. From Spiritual Ambition to the Heart of Awareness.” Sounds True, 2018.
     Bonnie L. Greenwell. “When Spirit Leaps. Navigating the Process of Spiritual Awakening.” Non-Duality Press, 2018.

     * Those who specialize in this area do have "developmental maps":

Friday, February 21, 2020

Meditations: Structured & Unstructured

     “There are many types of meditation practices in various traditions and also outside of traditions. They generally fall into one of two categories: structured or unstructured time sitting in silence and being still.
     Structured practices include concentration practices, such as counting or focusing on the breath, reciting a mantra, or visualizing the guru, and they are used for gathering the scattered mind and developing the ability to focus the mind in one place. They are useful practices in that they initially show the seeker how very active the mind is. They will frustrate the seeker at first; he will be sure he is not doing the practices correctly because his thinking keeps interrupting his focus on the object of concentration.
     Over time, concentration practices do quiet the mind, and they have been shown to have benefits in reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, and bringing moments of calm into a troubled life or a restless mind. If these are the goals, they are quite useful. If you are a seeker of the Truth that frees one from one’s ‘self,’ however, they may or may not lead to liberation, since the ‘meditator’ may continue to feel separate from the meditation.
     Unstructured meditation is an invitation to simply sit without attempting to control anything that arises. It is an invitation to be – to be the silence, not the one who is trying to be silent; to be the awareness, not the one who is trying to be aware. It is not about controlling experience or maintaining a certain state of consciousness. True meditation reveals what IS before any ‘state’ of consciousness. There can be moments where there is no thought, no ego, and no time. We are conscious, if even for a moment, of being what we ARE.
     This type of meditation occurs when consciousness sinks into the unknown, into the depths of silence, where there is no ‘meditator.’ It is a deep listening to silence. Whether thoughts appear or do not appear is not a concern. We are not efforting to maintain a ‘state,’ but rather coming to rest in our natural state. This form of meditation does not engage the ego, as do so many structured meditation techniques. Of course, in the beginning you will encounter the noise of your ‘narrator,’ but you are not engaged in battle with your thinking. In fact, as consciousness comes to rest in its home ground, we discover that thought cannot interrupt the awake silence we eventually discover is our true nature. It is just another phenomenon that comes and goes in the Heart of Awareness.
     This kind of meditation can render the ego more and more transparent, since we are no longer striving to make something happen. It is a beautiful opportunity to unhook from our digital and virtual worlds, from our goal-oriented minds, and simply rest as what we are. We begin to see that when we are not struggling against our thoughts or feelings, something knows how to realign itself with its true nature. In this type of meditation, we also come to connect with the deep well of silence and wisdom into which we can drop our most important existential questions. Into this depth of knowing, we can inquire: Who or what am I, really?

       Dorothy Hunt. “Ending the Search. From Spiritual Ambition to the Heart of Awareness.” Sounds True, 2018.

Fogo Island, Newfoundland

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Simplifying Life

     Meditation practices "can begin to soften our stance toward our self, toward life in general, and open us to what transcends the habitual. They are invitations to become intimate with the wisdom of silence and stillness.”
     Dorothy Hunt. “Ending the Search. From Spiritual Ambition to the Heart of Awareness.” Sounds True, 2018 

     "… accept simultaneously the world you see and the world that sees you.
     There is you and then there is the world. If there is even a small gap between them, we fill it with thought. As long as we create this gap, we will never understand. But in Truth, there is no gap between you and the world. To become one with your object is true openness of heart. This is why we do zazen." 
       Dainin Katagiri. “You Have to Say Something. Manifesting Zen Insight.” Shambhala, 1998.

It's not that "I" hear the birds, it's just hearing the birds.
Let yourself BE hearing, seeing, thinking.
It is the false "I" that interrupts the wonder
with the constant desire to think about "I."
And all the while THE WONDER is occurring:
the birds sing, the cars go by,
the body sensations continue,
the heart is beating —
life is a second-by-second miracle.
But dreaming our "I" dreams
we miss it.                                 Charlotte Joko Beck

     “The thinking mind is always thinking about things – it’s always one thought from where the action is. It’s far out to realize that when you’re completely identified with your thinking mind, you’re totally isolated from everything else in the universe.”         Ram Das

     “When we truly live each moment, what happens to the burden of life? … If we are totally what we are, in every second, we begin to experience life as joy. Standing between us and a life of joy are our thoughts, our ideas, our expectations, and our hopes and fears.
     It’s our judgment about what we’re doing that is the cause of our unhappiness.
       Charlotte Joko Beck. “Nothing Special: Living Zen.” HarperCollins, 1995.

Hiking Fogo Island, Newfoundland

Friday, February 14, 2020

The Power of Forgiveness

     We've ALL experienced various forms of trauma, and as a result, are ALL contracted to varying degrees. This contracted state distorts & negatively impacts our perception, behavior, & ultimately our capacity for intimacy - diminishing connection with ourselves, others & the world.
     This author writes from deep personal experience, hard-earned wisdom, as well as formal education. It's much easier to remain stuck in the contracted state, than to follow her advice & start healing:

     "The choice to meet suffering consciously, and then to open wider than this suffering, is the act of forgiveness. Very often there’s an idea that forgiveness is something you do, perhaps a kind gesture, the writing of a ‘letter of forgiveness’ to everyone who’s ever hurt you, or a turning of the other cheek. But the action is really an inner one. It’s the choice to open wider than you want to, wider than you can even imagine.

     Sometimes, you can really believe that you’re choosing to meet suffering consciously and yet somehow you’re still a victim of this suffering. For example, when you’re in the grip of a dark emotion and you feel it intensely, you think you’re meeting it completely, yet it doesn’t dissolve. The pain is like a rock; it just stays there. In this case, there’s still a subtle refusal to let go of the victim story. To open wider than the suffering is to be willing for the victim (one's victim identity or story) to die. As much as you say you no longer want to be the victim, the death of this 'victim' is synonymous with the death of 'self,' because victim-identity is a primary part of the ego’s scaffolding. The question to be faced here is this: ‘Who would you be without the victim?’ This isn’t to be replaced with another idea of self, not even a positive self! The question is one that functions to take you deeper into the core of being where there is no self, but only if you are willing for the structures that uphold your sense of self to come tumbling down.
     Of course, when trauma runs deep, if you’ve been physically or emotionally abused by someone in your family, a stranger, or by a collective force (such as Holocaust or political exile), it’s difficult to forgive. After all, the abuse did take place and you were indeed a victim of someone else’s violence, hatred, or insanity. Letting go of the victim story is certainly not about condoning injustice or cruelty; it’s not about making a wrong right. It’s really not about the ‘other,’ but about you. Holding on to ‘it shouldn’t have happened’ perpetuates a grievance. This creates an energetic contraction that freezes your life force, locks it into the past, and prevents full engagement with life now. One of the primary handicaps of trauma is the inability to ‘cope’ with situations that invoke strong emotions. There’s often a withdrawal from the deeper current of life, a closing down of the feeling-nature that shows up as an inability to be intimate (either emotionally or sexually), and a very high sensitivity to the stress of new situations, unexpected events, and loss. But even though this self-protective pattern continues way past the original event, it is possible for the energetic knot of trauma to be released.
     Through having the courage to face what deeply hurts and ‘sitting inside it’ without judgment, there is a dissolution of the grievance. It’s precisely this ‘sitting inside the grievance’ that was not possible when the traumatic event originally happened. The resistance to the horror and pain of the original event created a kind of splitting off of consciousness as a form of protection, and then the overlay of a story that says, ‘This shouldn’t be happening.’
     Forgiveness is, first and foremost, an inner journey. It’s about you. Are you willing to put an end to your inner conflict? Are you willing to meet the violence, hatred, cruelty, injustice, unkindness, greed, and ignorance in you? Are you willing to see that each of us is capable of dark feelings? These feelings may or may not be acted on, but the point is that we are each capable of experiencing these feelings. Forgiveness is the natural outcome of letting go of inner conflict. It begins with taking responsibility for your inner experience rather than continue to avoid the pain by throwing it outward through blame & retaliation.
     The power of forgiveness is poignantly encapsulated in The Railway Man, the autobiographical story of Eric Lomax, a prisoner of war in World War II who suffered brutal torture at the hands of the Japanese. This experience left deeply buried emotional scars in his psyche that created havoc in his personal life. Many years later, after uncovering in himself a desire for revenge, he set out to kill his former tormentor. But in meeting him and pouring out his story of pain and hatred, he saw at the same time the humanity within his tormentor and the inhumanity within himself. As his heart opened, his inner reality was transformed and a tender friendship developed between the two men that lasted until they both passed away in old age.
     At the core of every human being is a desire for love & wholeness: all acts of terror & horror are misguided attempts to find this. When you are the one who has been hurt by these terrorizing & horrifying acts, it may seem like it’s impossible to believe this. Each one of us is called to dig much deeper into our inner knowing, to see that when the desire for love and wholeness moves through a form that has also suffered and been damaged, it comes out in distorted ways. At the root of this distortion is an ignorance of true nature and a consequent acting from a belief of separation. From this belief, all fear, hatred, violence in the name of justice, and other endless harmful acts are inevitable. Seeing that ignorance is the root cause of all suffering opens our hearts. We see but do not judge; we see without a story. This is the essence of compassion, redemption, and resurrection. As Jesus said as he was dying on the cross: ‘Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.’
     An open heart allows the forgiveness of others, the world, life, God, and the self. In choosing to open to the mystery of this moment with all hits horror, you, as a separate self, die in this moment as it is, and what is revealed is the unending glory of an inner power. Forgiveness has the power to heal, for your sake and for the sake of the world. It’s a power that defies all opposition. And it’s more potent than any action.”

       Amoda Maa. “Embodied Enlightenment. Living Your Awakening in Every Moment.” Reveal Press, 2017. I highly recommend this powerful book.

We're all on the same path ...

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Ego after Awakening


     Another tenacious concept that perpetuates the myth of enlightenment and creates much confusion in the spiritual seeker is the belief that the ego dies, and with it all personal history is erased. In this myth, the ‘enlightened one’ supposedly has no sense of self and no story, and therefore he or she is expected to never talk about themselves, to never use the word ‘I’ or ‘me,’ and to never refer to ‘my life.’ The ‘enlightened one’ has supposedly seen that the body and the world are an illusion, and therefore is totally unconcerned with physical well-being or worldly affairs. This image of enlightenment is a fantasy upheld by millennia of religious dogma and patriarchal spiritual traditions. It also taps into our childlike need to enter the kingdom of heaven or nirvana, where bad things never happen and we are rewarded with endless peace.
     The stark reality is that awakening is not a death of the ego. As long as you’re alive as form, the ego cannot die. Ego, as a primary sense of ‘I-ness,’ must exist, otherwise you’d be unable to discern inside from outside. It’s very likely that, without an ego, the voices in your head would be undifferentiated from my voice, from someone else’s voice, or from the voice of God, and you would be in a state of psychosis. You might even be a blubbery mess, unable to function in three-dimensional reality. If you’ve ever taken too many psychedelics, you’ll know how disorienting and even terrifying this can be!
     As long as we operate within relative reality, the relative function of the ego must continue to operate. A sense of self as a separate entity is absolutely necessary for both physical and psychological survival as form. Death of the ego only happens when form dies. Luckily, as long as there is a functioning neurophysiology, there is a sense of self. It is a sense of ‘I’ that increasingly develops as we emerge from the womb and gives us the capacity for self-reflection and self-awareness. It’s actually the seed of awakening, because without it we would not be able to become conscious of consciousness.
     Awakening is also not a transcendence of ego. Transcendence of ego certainly can happen in a variety of circumstances, such as when you experience a mystical state or a state of expanded consciousness such as in deep meditation (samadhi), long-distance running, or giving birth. It also happens if you have an out-of-body experience or near-death experience. The initial experience of awakening can also be an intensely transcendent experience. But if you continue to identify with this transcendent state, you are likely to develop a ‘spiritual ego.’ There is no transformation or evolution of consciousness in the identification with this state, because when the inevitable return of old egoic patterns and personality traits appear there is a tendency to deny that any of this belongs to you.
     In true awakening, there is neither a death nor a transcendence of ego. Instead, the location of self is released from its entanglement with the unconscious ego (in other words, the conglomeration of conditioned mental, emotional, and physical responses.) Liberated from the prison of egoic identification, the ‘I-ness’ becomes nonlocalized & unattached. Having recognized awakeness as the inherent nature of all that is (including the self), the self becomes an ‘awake I,’ undefined and unrestrained by relative reality.
     Another way of saying this is that the self experiences itself as inseparable from the totality of existence. While certain survival-based impulses continue (protecting the body from danger, the impulse to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, or rest when tired, and so on), these now happen without interference. They simply happen as life’s natural and intelligent movement toward what needs attention while form is alive. The ‘awake I’ is therefore free to respond intelligently & creatively to the moment, and this gives you access to a power that is at one with life itself.
     So what happens to the ego in all this? From one perspective, nothing happens. From another perspective, everything changes. In the process of liberation, the once unconscious ego transmutes to an evolved or ‘aware ego’ and gives itself in service to the ‘awake I.’ In other words, the ego stops being the master and bows down to awakeness.
     So, yes, in awakening there is a death. There is a death of the self-identity that is wrapped around the ego. But there is also a birth of a whole, integrated human being that includes both the surface sense of self as a separate entity (the self that is born & then dies) and the deeper layer of undifferentiated beingness (the self that was never born & can never die).
     Awakeness embraces the paradox of self & no-self. There is no conflict in this apparent duality. While the mind finds this intolerable, the heart abides in unfathomable acceptance. When the silent mystery of spacious acceptance becomes overridingly preferable to the habitual struggle of making sense of it all, the search for a mythical state of enlightenment comes to an end. However, the ever-unfolding deepening into authentic awakening never stops.”

       Amoda Maa. “Embodied Enlightenment. Living Your Awakening in Every Moment.” Reveal Press, 2017.

Fogo Island, Newfoundland


     We're conditioned to "see things, not as they are, but as we are" - ie from our personal, conditioned perspective. And to the extent that we're similarly conditioned (traumatized) by life, we share a similar, egocentric, contracted perspective - consensus reality.
     But we can be pleasantly surprised:

      A long time ago, in first year university, after spending a long day studying in the library, I stepped outside into a cold, clear, star-filled night and was instantly awestruck by the crisp, majestic, silent beauty. This was so startlingly wondrous that its vivid memory continues to reverberate over 50 years later. 
     This was not a once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of nature (in suburban Toronto). My mind happened to be too tired to put up the usual filters of conditioning, so I accidentally perceived ordinary reality as it actually is, in its raw splendor. I was able to see 'innocently,' like a child. Maybe this is what Einstein meant by living life "as though everything is a miracle." Indeed, research shows that happiness is determined by our quality of awareness, not of the external environment. Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” Science 2010; 330(6006): 932.

     To avoid sitting in traffic, I arrive very early for morning MBSR sessions, and park near a favorite coffee shop. On leaving the coffee shop the other morning, I passed by my car and noticed that I could now move it forward to free up an additional parking spot. Right after I did this, while walking the usual route to the MBSR session, I became aware that everything suddenly appeared vividly alive, friendly, happy.
     That small act of kindness was enough to shift my perspective & state of being from habitually slightly contracted, to open-hearted spacious awareness - and thus shifting my quality of life from neutral to wonderful. 

     At my first longish (10-day) silent meditation retreat, the intensity of my perfectionistic GI-Joe striving, my physical, mental & emotional tense contraction, and resultant overall suffering - progressively climbed to the absolute peak of tolerability for 9 days. Most of the time I was in a painful muscle spasm, as rigid as if I had been in a full-body cast. Mercifully, by day 10, a deeper wisdom*** took over from my ego, my body completely relaxed, after which I sat in blissful ease, time flying by as if the last day of sitting were a minute long.
     *** “… the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning – the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes – the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior. … the rider and the elephant work together, sometimes poorly, as we stumble through life in search of meaning and connection.” 
       Jonathan Haidt. “The Righteous Mind. Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Vintage Books, 2012.

     “When a living system reaches maximum stress, it can respond in one of two ways: it can either descend into chaos or it can jump into a higher order.
     In biological systems, this is the point at which a species either becomes extinct or re-creates itself as a more complex and intelligent organism.” Amoda Maa

     "The last two decades have seen a growing body of research focused on post-traumatic growth (PTG) in the aftermath of highly stressful life events. Such positive growth may include better appreciation of life, better relationships with others, deeper spirituality, increased personal strength, recognition of new possibilities, and a positive change in health behaviour. Theoretical explanations for these positive changes propose that growth emanates from disruptions in worldviews necessitating a revision of beliefs to reflect a new reality. These disruptions cause distress but also act as a potential catalyst for PTG." 
       AnnMarie Groarke et al. “Post‐traumatic Growth in Breast Cancer: How and When do Distress and Stress Contribute?” Psycho‐Oncology 2017; 26: 967–974.

     “When worldviews change, new possibilities can emerge, even within the same set of circumstances. Worldview transformation … is a fundamental shift in perspective that results in long-lasting changes in people’s sense of self, perception of relationship to the world around them, and way of being.” 
       Schlitz MM, Vieten C, Miller EM. "Worldview transformation and the development of social consciousness." Journal of Consciousness Studies 2010; 17(7-8): 18-36.

      We have the choice to intentionally, methodically, gently, progressively "lean into," carefully investigate ("listen deeply"), and unconditionally embrace & nurture all of life. This is a movement from fearful, egocentric, reactive, rigid contraction towards loving, allocentric / ecocentric, responsive, flexible, openness; from being on autopilot as a fearful child, towards consciously embodying a nurturing wise grandparent.

      “We suffer to the exact degree that we resist having our eyes and hearts opened.” Adyashanti.