Growing up without clearly defined boundaries that establish and delimit the sense of a personal self can lead to emotional, psychological, and spiritual problems as well as to serious social maladaptations such as acting out, victimhood, magical thinking, codependency and enabling, and in severe cases, narcissism and other personality disorders, to name only some.
Unfortunately, there are a number of wildly popular philosophies that in promoting the idea that the world, including other people, is nothing more than an outpicturing of personal consciousness, obfuscate or deny personal boundaries. These philosophies include the so-called law of attraction, New Thought, the work of Neville Goddard, and the Hawaiian ho’oponopono forgiveness technique presented by Hew Len, all of which propose that the practitioner can alter worldly conditions solely by changing his or her consciousness, where those conditions are said to originate. This idea can be highly misleading precisely because it contains a seed of truth that opportunists can misconstrue to exploit those susceptible to the countless movies, books, lectures, workshops, coaching, and other instructional offerings that claim to hold the key to magical manipulation of the world.
This seed of truth lies in the correspondence between self and world, an idea at least as old as Vedic advaita or “nonduality” and confirmed by quantum physics in the revolutionary discovery that objective reality is “observer-dependent.” Even at the level of everyday experience, this correspondence is easy enough to spot. A man who goes out into the world looking for a fight will not have to wait long to find one, while someone who believes that people are basically good-natured, mean well, and do their best will not be disappointed. Round peg, round hole. Reality may be “out there” in some way that scientists and philosophers have had a hard time explaining, but there is no doubt that we screen in and screen out according to our lights, and that at least to that extent, observation is participation. So does our consciousness inform our experience of the world and others. More mysteriously, this principle of correspondence operates at least sometimes along nonlocal trajectories, showing up as surprising fulfillments, happy coincidences, serendipitous timings, synchronicities, and those seeming interruptions of cause and effect generally regarded as miracles. While such extraordinary events do occur, they appear to do so as though with a will and timing of their own rather than as the effect of willful intentions to cause or “attract” them, which is why they cannot be coerced into a method, and this is where the seed of truth gets buried alive in the soil of untruth, for these popular philosophies all claim to have “the secret” to managing the element of correspondence through techniques that invariably deny the boundaries of personal identity, leading to needless confusion, failure, and disappointment.
New Thought “treatment,” for example, is founded on the assumption that the world, including other people, is an outpicturing of the beliefs of the practitioner. To treat another, therefore, one need only treat oneself, for when one has resolved the “mistaken” belief in his or her own consciousness that presumably is being expressed in the “patient,” the patient’s condition will spontaneously resolve, thus making the “demonstration.” This, at least, is the theory. That said, I’ve spoken to New Thought ministers around the country, all of whom reported that among hundreds of their congregants who practice this sort of treatment regularly, about three percent see results. Three percent. Here is a number so low, it constitutes the exception rather than the rule. Clearly, what is most likely occurring in these exceptional cases is a happy coincidence rather than the demonstration of a so-called law. Imagine if the law of gravity worked only three percent of the time! Of course, when the technique doesn’t work, the practitioner can always rationalize that the required faith was missing, that some further troublemaking belief was operating in the shadows. No amount of evidence that the assumption underlying the technique simply is false is allowed to count against this sort of “faith,” because the justification is always available that the necessary inner condition must have been lacking, a tour de force of circular reasoning. Worse, these approaches often are presented as “scientific,” by which is meant that they are empirically verifiable and repeatable, neither being the case. Karl Popper’s work, which identifies falsifiability as a criterion of legitimately scientific hypotheses, cautions us that any proposition that would not allow itself to be falsified under any possible conditions is not scientific at all but pseudoscientific. The refusal to admit any possible falsification is in fact a hallmark of dogmatic, fundamentalist, and militant thinking of every stripe. Yet many writers and speakers have made a living if not a fortune off the willingness of the credulous to swallow undigested such nonsensical, grandiose, and unfalsifiable claims.
Neville Goddard goes as far as stating that “other people are yourself pushed out,” meaning that others are objective representations of one’s imaginal stagings and self-talk concerning them, and adds flat out that they have no free will to resist any claim projected on them imaginally. Curiously however, he notes that others do have the free will, once having fulfilled these imaginal projections, to immediately reject them, a tour de force of “now you see it, now you don’t” philosophical sleight-of-hand. Even so, the view that the world, including other people, is nothing more than a construct of one’s personal consciousness has a name in philosophy: solipsism. As a philosophical position, solipsism, which alleges that only the self exists, that only oneself is real and that the world is its personal dream, is not only existentially unsettling and morally repugnant but also dangerous, because in undermining the reality of others, it annihilates empathy. It is, in short, the philosophy of the megalomaniac. When we hear a presidential candidate declare, “I alone can fix it,” we are in the company of the solipsist. Ho’oponopono’s contention that the practitioner is “totally responsible” for everything he or she experiences in the world, including how others behave, is another solipsistic assertion.
The underlying unity of consciousness and the world, of observer and observed, operates impersonally, transcending individual will and separate identity. Because it transcends individual will, it cannot be controlled or manipulated willfully. The very attempt backfires. Oneness is all-inclusive. Paradoxically, this means that it includes otherness. There is a profound mystical truth hidden in Goddard’s statement that “other people are yourself pushed out”—indeed, the whole world and the universe beyond exist within the Self, the one Consciousness of which we are part, each and all—but a great misunderstanding of this principle of nonduality comes in when we try to use it strategically to manipulate others, whereupon it becomes solipsistic and false. Attempting to live at the level of the oneness of consciousness when one has not transcended separate identity leads to the violation of personal boundaries. In the transcending of separate identity, personal boundaries are conserved, not ignored or flouted. One can see how readily a seed of truth can be turned into a highly marketable system of lies.
Despite these fatal flaws, there is value to be found in these philosophies, provided one rejects the underlying solipsistic assumption and shuns magical thinking in favor of self-work. Ho’oponopono practice, for example, offers four short, powerful mantric phrases—”I’m sorry,” “please forgive me,” “thank you,” and “I love you”—that may provide deep emotional release and resolution in areas where one feels the need to be forgiven or suffers from a shortage of gratitude. In a similar way, another’s behavior may call us to step up to assert or enforce a needed boundary. In a situation of physical abuse, for example, it is seriously misguided for the victim to believe that something in his or her consciousness is creating the abuser’s violence, but spot on for the victim to take responsibility for “creating” the situation through the willingness to remain in it. Correspondence between inner and outer can be exceedingly subtle and indirect, often operating through complementary roles and stances. New Thought “treatment” without the solipsistic element might move us to examine what we’re bringing to a problematic situation or troubled relationship that could stand improving in ourselves, and we should not be surprised if, stepping up to the needed self-work, we find that the situation or relationship improves accordingly. Even the so-called law of attraction can be useful if one takes it no further than the insightful idea that our consciousness informs our experience through the self-fulfilling and self-proving power of belief, and is careful not to mistake this for the ability to “attract” or create specific conditions at will, an ability we do not possess outside the pretensions of magical thinking.
We owe it to ourselves and each other to be careful what we believe. Despite the undeniability of the subjective amphitheater and various shamanic, yogic, and other ancient practices that employ transpersonal levels of awareness in the realization of nonduality, others exist in their own right, apart from our individual consciousness and certainly from our will, though we have some responsibility for how we experience and engage them. Reality is at once subjective and objective in a way that defies rational mapping. Subjectivizing reality denies otherness, clearing the way for exploitation. Because others are real in their otherness, they remain autonomous and responsible for their choices and actions. We cannot by intending, visualizing, imagining, or otherwise altering our consciousness control them, nor would anyone with a sound sense of self want to do so. We may benefit from soul-searching and self-correction in any situation where we’re playing a part in co-creating a problem, and perhaps find ways to extend a benign influence through altering our consciousness at deep levels, but beyond this, we are wise to steer clear of those selling solipsistic programs, who offer us counterfeit power by encouraging us to view others as nothing more than constructs of our personal consciousness, for in peddling the magical thinking of the child, they dismiss essential boundaries of the self, exaggerate the will, undermine empathy, and while promising the key to heaven on earth, lead us into the malebolges of hell.
18 August, 2020
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 such luminaries 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, Breonna Taylor, 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