Allowing is an all but lost art. Sometimes termed “nonresistance,” it makes an appearance in spiritual traditions that include Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity; informs some of the martial arts, most notably tai chi; and serves as the cornerstone of the political philosophies of luminaries such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. It is fair and accurate to think of allowing as an art because, as with any art, it requires a fine sensibility of discernment and expression that few cultivate; a receptivity to beautiful, noble, and uplifting principles; and a dedicated connection to intuitive awareness.
Allowing allows us to move with life, with changing conditions and circumstances, with adversity and disappointment, with how others act or fail to act, and in all of this, to remain self-possessed, grounded, present, and poised, free of both resistance and reaction. The wisdom of living this way is rooted in a life principle that most have us have observed many times—that engaging the world, including other people, through the force of our will invariably leads to unforeseen and unwanted outcomes, reverse effects, and failure. It is a lesson we may suffer again and again with little learning. The resistance that relentlessly buys us this sort of trouble is essentially mental rather than physical—an inner judgment that seeks to control and manipulate and manage externals, to impose its agenda and schedule, to demand compliance. Even when there is also an element of physical resistance, the problem is fundamentally the inner state. If you stub your toe on a chair, for example, and meet this with resistance, then in a flash you will find yourself consumed by a state of constriction. You might blame yourself for being so clumsy, blame uncaring fortune, even blame the chair. If the resistance is sufficient, you might kick the chair (again!) or strike it with your fist, adding injury to injury. And as improbable as it may sound to someone immersed in such reactions, someone sound asleep to the art of allowing, the extent of the pain and damage is more a consequence of the inner resistance than the strictly physical impact. To be clear: if you can remain conscious and unresisting in that flashpoint when you see stars for a moment, if you move with rather than against the experience inwardly, releasing all resistance to the moment, just breathing through it, refusing the inner prompting to take up combat, then you simultaneously release yourself to a better outcome. There will be no second insult, and the severity of the first, brought under the jurisdiction of allowing, will be far lessened.
Allowing is an art that the ego-driven identity is loathe to consider let alone practice. Yet as with all arts, its power to uplift, to express the good and beautiful and true, and to materialize graceful outcomes is limitless. There is no situation that allowing will not improve. Hearing this, the willful self recoils, for it hears this as invitation to weakness, to capitulation, to tolerating the intolerable, to descending into chaos. But allowing is none of these things. It is, rather, the one thing that the personal self cannot imagine, and so finds mortally threatening—that is, a call to embody the impersonal Self, referred to by some as Infinite Intelligence, Great Spirit, Father/Mother, the Tao, God, Life, the Universe, and so on. Nameless, Its names are many. It is the living, Self-Aware Presence, the oceanic Consciousness in which each of us participates, and which the willful, separate self misappropriates as personal. This higher Self creates and sustains all that is, each moment, through the stunning power, agency, and efficiency of allowing.
Because the willful identity thrives on resistance, on “winning,” on usurping, it tries to grab the world by the throat, and the world, of course, runs away. The more we try to impose our will, the more we are subjected to adverse results. In the end, we cannot make anything happen, and even in those cases where it appears we have done so, an honest assessment of the situation quickly reveals that an indeterminate number of factors that were not subject to our will fell nicely into place to produce the desired outcome. Anyone who takes credit for a victory, however small, has failed to recognize the contributions of fate, and as the ancient Greeks warn, the gods make it a point to humble those guilty of hubris.
Allowing does not mean that we tolerate or resign ourselves to the thing before us, since both of these involve resistance. Rather, in the moment of allowing, we release our will and meet whatever is happening in a spirit of willingness. Where the ego-self constricts when its presumed interests are thwarted, allowing expands, creating a spaciousness in which things have room to move and shift and resolve. This simple inner adjustment allows us to stand in the fire of experience without being burned. It is the first step into a friendlier universe than many ever even suspect is here, available to us, alongside the unfriendly one we have unwittingly created for ourselves. Heaven and hell, side by side—the difference being not the place itself, but how we carry ourselves through it.
Allowing allows, Period. Where allowing sees others not allowing, resisting, persecuting—allowing allows them. In the practice of this art, no one is left behind. It does not hate the haters, but in the face of their hatred, cultivates itself. Because allowing is not blinded by its own reactions and the wounds of the past, it lives in the present. Because it lives in the present, it sees things as they are. All art discerns and expresses truth. To see others through the eyes of allowing, even those drowning in a sea of resistance and hubris, is to see them as they are—wounded, lost, deformed by pain, blindly bent on destroying themselves and others.
Allowing opens up unseen channels that lead us straightaway to our good and protect us from the painful effects of willfulness. It is, in this way, a philosopher’s stone and golden key to living well. In time, we come to realize that anything we gain from the world through resistance exacted too high a price, and that we’re well rid of anything that may fall from our hands in the practice of allowing. In allowing, there is no chasing, no waiting for this or that, no disappointment, no resentment, no enemy, no suffering. Taking refuge in the great Impersonal, we find even personal concerns perfected. As we stand on the high ground of allowing, we see that there is nothing the world has to offer us that we don’t already possess in artful self-possession, and nothing the world can take from us that we cannot gladly relinquish.
31 July, 2020
Many of us who remember the civil unrest in the streets of the U.S. over racial injustice in the 60s are watching with heavy hearts at how much ground we’ve lost since. The Black Lives Matter movement, not long ago considered fringe, has become an irresistible force sweeping across the country like a tidal wave, a juggernaut that we can hardly imagine will fail, this time, to compel real and lasting change and finally put a leash on the feral dog of so-called white supremacy and racial bullying that has inflicted untold anguish on the innocent.
The problem with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” of course, is that it shouldn’t need to be said. It is perfectly obvious to anyone whose psyche has not been contorted by hatred, but there are those who have refused to use the phrase, insisting instead that “All Lives Matter,” not out of any sense of universal equality and intrinsic human worth, but rather for political ends, to avoid conspicuously aligning themselves with the legitimate and longstanding grievances of black communities. The shameful history in the U.S. of racial prejudice, oppression, and human rights violations perpetrated against blacks has made it necessary to declare the obvious because to this day, every essential social agency—economics, education, justice, law enforcement, politics, health care, and others—systematically excludes or marginalizes blacks as though their lives do not matter. Leaders who promote or endorse this systemic violence, overtly or through opportunistic silence, are complicit in its crimes and should be held accountable. The tragic and needless deaths of George Floyd, Tamir Rice, and others is nothing new to black Americans but a recurring nightmare that has left them, their families, and their children terrified in a way that “white lives” may find hard to grasp. “Black Lives Matter” is not singling out black lives as though they matter more than other lives or matter uniquely. It is the inevitable reaction to a truth denied—the truth proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence in the acknowledgment that “all men are created equal.” And while the language used by the founding fathers was necessarily limited by their awareness, we recognize today that “men” includes all people without exemption based on race, gender, age, sexual or gender orientation, ethnic background, religious or political convictions, or any other of the diverse variations on the human theme.
In the Black Lives Matter movement, we are witnessing a dialectical event that, not by accident, has coincided with the pandemic and with unprecedented spasms of global weather, as though Life as something beyond our will is trying to get our attention, to wake us up and steer us away from self-destruction. The common lesson among these three is that we’re all in this together, and even more profoundly, that there is one Life, one Logos in which we, each and all, participate. What affects my Chinese counterpart in Wuhan affects me. An assault on our black neighbors in Minneapolis is an assault on all of us. Ravaging the planetary ecosystem through reckless overproduction, rampant consumerism, and the delusional pursuit of unchecked economic growth is suicidal. Those leaders who have turned a blind eye to the existential crises we are now facing, who stoke the flames of hatred and divisiveness, are as anachronistic as the Confederate flag. Because there is only one Life, one precious Life that we did not create, all lives matter, and because we have enabled and tolerated racism, yes, to be sure, black lives matter. Our black brothers and sisters, along with others who have taken a stand with them in their good and heroic cause, are offering us yet another wake-up call, alongside super hurricanes, firestorms, floods, the dying off of entire species, and the coronavirus. If we are to have a future, then by all the signs, we had better wake up soon.
28 June, 2020
Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.
| Neils Bohr
Many years ago, I drove out west to see the Grand Canyon. I remember standing in front of a trail sign atop a wooden post with a diagram of the immediate view across the gorge and some text noting that the rocky prominence on the other side, despite appearances and the sort of spatial assumptions one would make based on more familiar distances, is three miles away. As the sun arcs across the sky, striations of purple, orange, and red fade into shadows that seem to elongate and vanish into the rock face like ghosts. At its deepest point, the floor of the canyon is a mile straight down. Here, the earth seems extraterrestrial.
Venturing within twenty meters of the abyss, I began to feel the gravitational pull. More than cautionary, it felt primal. There are places where stocky guard rails stand between visitors snapping vacation pictures and the craggy nothingness beyond, but the thing is so massive, most of it is open and accessible to the few intrepid souls who are determined to get a closer look. Despite the almost neurological aversion I was feeling, I walked well back from the rim until I found a rock jutting out over the chasm and made up my mind that I would venture out and sit there while my daughter captured the moment with her camera. Through sheer force of will, I inched my way onto the rock holding my breath and sat, cross-legged. My daughter took the shot, and when we came upon it later, we saw that I was leaning backward some thirty degrees. It left me wondering how astronauts feel on a spacewalk in that moment when they look up and behold the cosmic expanse hanging before them, and if they have the sense that they might fall into it at any moment. Gazing at that photo of myself, sitting on that rock with every survival nerve in me firing to resist the vertiginous pull of nothingness, I thought of the Mohawk high-steel workers who had constructed the World Trade Center, and I wondered what they had coursing through their veins that allowed them to move about blithely on open girders hundreds of feet in the air with infinity under their feet as though they were taking a stroll down Fifth Avenue.
It’s not just at the dizzying edge of the Grand Canyon or on the high-wire skeletons of skyscrapers that the reliable foothold of terra firma suddenly falls away. There are other kinds of abysses, and philosophy is no stranger to them. Ontology, for example, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature not of particular beings but of being itself, begins with the strange question, “Why are there things rather than nothing?” It is an oceanic question of incalculable depth, one that pulls us toward nothingness as the primordial void out of which the whole universe arises into existence each moment. The new physics has come to the same conclusion, viz., that the so-called objective world around us, at the most intimate levels of matter, disperses into a gossamer realm of phantom entities flashing in and out of existence, neither wave nor particle, and more like a dream than a machine. Beyond that realm is a vast, perhaps infinite field of energy best described as “zero.”
Zero. Infinity. Nothingness. The same delimiting value shows up in epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with theories of knowledge—with how we know things, what it means to know, verifiability and falsifiability, and so on. Here, too, we see that all of our knowing is nothing more than an approximation, a collection of assumptions and suppositions laid out along a tenuous rope bridge suspended over a chasm of mystery that may be unraveled at any moment by the next discovery. Perhaps this is why when Chaerephon approached the Delphic Oracle and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, the Pythia replied, “No one is wiser,” yet Socrates’s wisdom lay in his knowing he had none. Today, one can hardly find this depth of humility. Experts abound in every field, promoting their educated guesswork as absolute truth, and in this posturing, we have lost far more than we have gained. As William James writes in The Will to Believe:
We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another.
Socratic humility—which means never forgetting that our knowledge is subject to error and thus revision—is essential to philosophical self-work, the liberating of belief from constricted states of false opinion and contradiction, and the expansion of awareness that allows it to embrace greater, ever more encompassing truths. There is little that hinders the process more than the hubristic assumption that our conclusions are infallible, which places us in danger of losing our balance and falling from a great height.
I was not afraid of the cavernous power I felt standing beside the Grand Canyon. I respected it. The hands that had fashioned it, that had brought forth our prolific living planet from nothingness amid a clockwork of other planets in a sea of space too vast to comprehend, also had fashioned me. The yawning drop from the rim to the bottom filled me with awe and a new awareness of the immense drawing power of infinity that lies under our feet all the time, even when we’re busy taking the world for granted and thinking that anything at all is ordinary or holding our conclusions with counterfeit certainty. Because our being and our knowledge, along with everything else, are rooted in mystery, dialectical transcendence and change for the better are possible at any moment. With a little humility, the possible becomes probable, and with a bit more, inevitable. The willful ego may cling fiercely to its false opinions, but it is in bowing before the depths of the mystery that we can be made whole, and standing before the sheer heights of existence, discover that we have wings.
25 May, 2020
The body never lies.
| Martha Graham
Philosophical counseling examines the client’s belief system, an investigation made more challenging by the fact that beliefs often are not consciously held. Indeed, beliefs that are fully vested show up for us not as mental constructs but as features of reality, and it is for this reason more than any other that they often go unexamined and so, unquestioned. Where these unwitting beliefs are set against us or against certain life principles that operate independently of belief—that is, when they are based either in contradiction or on what Socrates called “false opinion” or “false knowledge,” they produce suffering. Failing to recognize that the cause of that suffering lies within ourselves, we are likely to project it onto others or external conditions, and thus become the victims of our own unawareness.
While the mind is adept at half-truth, rationalization, denial, projection, and other gyrations designed to keep a daunting or painful truth at a safe distance, the body does not lie or equivocate. Its language is the language of sensation, through which it communicates the state of the soul. This is why in philosophical counseling sessions we attend not only to what the client says but also to how he or she says it. Did the narrative pace suddenly pick up or fall away? Was something important shared as an aside? Was there a suggestive moment of hesitation, a passing chuckle, a sigh, an answer offered with a rising inflection? Each of these things is like a message in a bottle that the body tosses onto the roiling sea of the mind’s usually well rehearsed commentary. Often, it contains the key that unlocks the session, and the skillful counselor will be mindful not to let this information slip by unnoticed.
In the Hawaiian kahuna tradition, the body is considered a self in its own right—the “lower” self that among other things, stores all memories and regulates the body’s complex autonomic functioning. While it is in this respect powerful, it also is like a child, unencumbered by logic or reason, impulsive, a repository of often simplistic conclusions that may be sullied by fear, magical thinking, generationally and ancestrally inherited imperatives and prohibitions, stowed emotions, often harsh self-judgment, and many more things that, denied expression, may surface in repetitive patterns of suffering. Using the language of sensation, the body cries out for attention and empathy, but the mind—the “middle self”—is not listening, and is in fact more likely to resist and try to silence the body’s pleas for help than to pause long enough to hear to what the body is saying and offer it the loving attention, understanding, validation, clarification, and reassurance it needs to release its energetic and emotional holdings and return to its natural state of ease.
Sometimes the body’s complaints are literal—embodying the “pain in the neck” co-worker, the need for “breathing room” felt as constriction in the lungs and chest, the chronic fatigue that often follows from giving away our power. Carrying responsibilities that are not rightly ours may manifest as tension in the shoulders and back, and so on. Yet these inner messages also can be exceedingly subtle, indirect, personal, even idiosyncratic such that discerning their meaning requires focused attention and patience. Most importantly, we don’t come to understand the body’s language by interpreting or reading into our physical states and sensations. It is entirely a matter of listening the way one would listen to a distressed child, with interest, kindness, and curiosity. Having heard what the body is telling us, it is then up to us to offer the body what it needs, which invariably comes down to some expression of love, the great healer. And if we have made a practice of not listening to our body, of not hearing what it needs us to hear, of not offering love to the self, then we can only wonder what it is we are offering each other that goes by the name of love.
We can put this to the test easily enough. The next time we feel distress anywhere in the body, instead of taking a pill, we can take a moment to be still along with a few slow, deep breaths, and be present with what we”re feeling. It can help to place a hand gently on the part of the body where the distress is being felt, which serves to bring awareness there and also lets the body know we’re paying attention. Then we simply invite the body to tell us what it’s feeling in its own “words” and see how the body responds. This dialogue doesn’t go through the mind, but is wholly intuitive. There is no “figuring out,” only being-with. Sometimes the response is a shift in the sensation. It may be an insight, an unexpected emotional release, or the awareness of energy moving through the body in a new way as though a blockage has been cleared. This freeing up usually introduces a new sense of well-being, like the calm that settles in the wake of a passing storm.
The great lesson in learning the language of the body isn’t limited to the body. It is the lesson that awareness makes whole. We can, for example, apply this to the larger body of our experience in the world. If we practice being-with events rather than reacting to them, judging them, now chasing them, now pushing them away, and simply bring awareness, we open up a place where they can tell us their story. Problems may seem to dog us—financial setbacks, failed relationships, health issues—only because we have not learned the lesson they are trying desperately to teach us. Because we do not listen, they begin shouting, and the lessons get harder. Simply through the willingness to be-with, to open our awareness and listen, we become students of our life, inwardly and outwardly. In the East, there is a saying, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” To this we add, “When the student gets the lesson, the teacher disappears.”
30 April, 2020
The cure for pain is in the pain.
The Stoics knew that we are susceptible to forces of fate over which we have no control, forces that can change direction like the wind, a case that hardly needs to be made these days. Practically overnight, the pandemic upended the world order, driving us indoors and cutting us off from the life we knew and perhaps took for granted. For now, isolation is the new norm, and while we’re fortunate to have technology that allows us to keep in touch by phone, video chat, and texting, there’s no doubt that many of us are being forced to come to terms with inner demons simply because we now have far fewer distractions, and because the outer situation has stirred up whatever sediment of unexamined belief and pending emotion we may have been carrying.
The other day, my brother shared a meme he’d found online suggesting that the pandemic was the Earth’s way of sending us to our rooms to think things over. So it seems—though thinking is the least of it. Beyond the physical repercussions, the virus has unleashed storms of fear, anxiety, doom thinking, and even loss and grief that at times may seem overwhelming.
In all this, it would be easy to overlook an ancient and profound truth that there is a refuge from the storm—in a sense, above the storm—in the practice of awareness or mindfulness. In this practice, we step back in consciousness and simply observe, noticing what comes up without resistance or judgment. Everything occurs within the medium of our consciousness, but we rarely notice the medium, so mesmerized are we by its contents. It’s a lot like watching beautiful fish swimming in an aquarium but never seeing the water. Through the subtlest shift in attention, we can wake up, as it were, and become aware of awareness itself. This gets us out of the way, allowing us to settle into stillness, and be with, just that.
In the stillness of this being-with, there is a spaciousness within which thoughts, feelings, and sensations naturally arise, almost as though the stillness is a kind of permission. Often these feelings have been pushed down, perhaps for years, even decades, patiently biding their time while we ran about the outer world, busy and distracted, hardly aware that there was so much in us that had gone ignored. Now, having been “sent to our rooms,” we may find these disenfranchised emotions intruding, demanding their moment. The feelings may have little or nothing to do with the current crisis, which somehow has served to bring them to the surface: losses we never grieved, fears we never acknowledged, the countless times we were unwilling to feel sad or lonely or lost.
To turn within and begin paying attention to all this emotional debt—both the principal of the original injury and the accrued interest—brings about a renaissance of self, an energetic freeing up that can wash us clean of the past and return us to the living present relieved of long carried burdens. This is why Rumi says that the cure for the pain is in the pain. One excellent model for doing this inner work is based on the acronym R.A.I.N. First, recognize what the body is saying by paying attention to persistent sensations rather than dismissing them. This amounts to a kind of somatic listening in which we acknowledge that the body actually is speaking in the language of sensation—pain, tenderness, areas of constriction, and so on. Then, allow the experience to be what it is, without judgment, reaction, or resistance. Next, investigate what’s behind the feeling to discern the truth of the trauma that got locked there, along with what the body needs now to release it—often empathy or reassurance. Finally, nurture the body-self by giving it what it needs.
The Stoics also understood that in times of adversity, we have the opportunity to rise to the occasion, transcend old limits, and reinvent ourselves. This is done not through an act of will but rather through the willingness to enter the stillness that allows a truth denied to show itself and tell us its story. If we do this, then when the current crisis has passed, we will find ourselves in a world renewed by our inner work, a world in which we don’t need a pandemic to remind us that we’re all connected, and that each moment, each resource, each person, is precious. As always, transformation, like the proverbial journey of a thousand miles, begins under one’s feet.
30 March, 2020
Less is more.
| Robert Browning
Teens today may chuckle at boomers wistfully recalling better days when we were not all walking around staring into screens, reduced to thumbs and eyeballs, so immersed in texting or streaming or gaming that we are isolated from each other even on a busy street. Those were simpler times when one could watch television without being watched, when privacy had not yet been stolen and trafficked in exchange for petty conveniences, when we were not inundated by thousands of programming choices courtesy of Amazon and Netflix and the rest in a digital whirlwind of distraction designed to induce a feeling of being in control of a life angling out of control. Things more human and less digital had value. The truth was not just something to tie in knots to manipulate public opinion, the word “friend” meant more than a “thumbs up” icon on Facebook, and sharing feelings with loved ones called for more care, time, and attention than it takes to send a smiley face.
What made the “better days” better is that there was so much less of everything we have since allowed to define and overwhelm us: less media, less intrusion of corporate interests into private life, less of the mood of urgency inflicted by the sheer pace of digital technology and the mounting evidence of damage to the planetary ecosystem that has left us at least subliminally aware that we are on a collision course with fate and running out of time. Faster and faster we go, wantonly depleting resources we have made no provision to replace, producing more and more goods while advertising sells consumers on the need for them, learning and practicing impatience and intolerance daily. Viewed in the larger context, the cost of free two-day delivery, it turns out, has been far greater than the price of shipping.
Many of the same young people who would laugh at the nostalgia of their grandparents suffer from unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, sleep deprivation, pessimism, even cynicism—and not without reason. They can feel that something fundamental has gone missing whether or not they can name it—something that was asphalted over in the reckless acceleration of life and the proliferation of increasingly immersive and therefore increasingly distracting technologies. What is missing is stillness. In stillness, we turn from the man-made world and come home to ourselves and our source. The practice of stillness, whether in formal meditation or a walk in the woods, confers many benefits essential to our well-being: breathing room, the time and focus needed for philosophical self-examination and the cultivation of a balanced and sanguine character, intuitive guidance, ample opportunities to recognize the need for and make course corrections, humility before life as something greater than our will, empathy and fairness in dealing with others, and much more.
There is a wisdom in stillness that transcends human understanding. One discovers it through making stillness a regular and frequent practice, giving it the attention it deserves, being with and exploring it. In stillness, we’re simply aware—breathing, noticing thoughts and feelings and physical impressions but doing nothing about them. After a while, stillness releases us from incessant identification with the world of perception and thought, revealing the expansive identity of awareness itself, the wellspring of all intelligence, creativity, and agency. Hanging out in stillness frees us from being reactive. The spaciousness of awareness spontaneously extends itself to others, and they feel it, and are disarmed and enlivened by it. Stillness returns us to our natural pace, restores and rejuvenates us, clears our vision, and inspires a sense of belonging, direction, and purpose.
For these reasons, I encourage my clients to begin making the practice of stillness part of their daily routine, and watch how life improves. This doesn’t require sitting with eyes closed. In fact, as stillness deepens within the horizon of our experience, it becomes central to who we are—the “I AM” or Oversoul referenced in the world’s ancient spiritual texts that goes with us wherever we go. We may be driving, checking out at the market, talking to a friend, or taking part in a meeting—yet we remain mindful of the medium of still awareness within which the entire universe emerges into actuality and falls away again, like the momentary shapes in the cascading water of a fountain. I have not seen any situation that is not made better simply by remembering to be still. Its agency is unfailing and “past finding out.” By contrast, all human effort and ingenuity are workarounds.
The proposition that stillness can heal and resolve effortlessly what all effort only seems to make worse may strike us as counterintuitive, but perhaps we can agree that, all things considered, it is worth making the experiment. Human will has led us to the brink of catastrophic conditions—monstrous hurricanes, runaway wildfires and floods, the extinction of whole species, the unleashing of deadly microorganisms, the development of apocalyptic weapons of mass destruction, politically imposed famine, and that is the short list—yet we persist in placing our faith in a way of being that has no future. As we’re still here, we may presume that, at least for now, life has not given up on us. Let us make the most of the opportunity and put down our smartphones long enough to reclaim the only thing that can sustain and guide us—the mysterious stillness that abides within us and all things, that brought us forth out of itself and is ever with us, watching and waiting for us to shake off our sleepwalk and come home to our true nature.
29 February, 2020