October 30, 2012 § 17 Comments
By Tai Carmen“The night sea journey takes you back to your primordial self, not the heroic self that burns out and falls to judgment, but to your original self, yourself as a sea of possibility, your greater and deeper being.” ~ Thomas Moor
“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” ~ Carl Jung
“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth” ~ Pema Chödrön
So named after St. John of the Cross’ classic religious poem of the same title, the dark night of the soul is described by seekers of all mystical traditions as an important stage of the quest for deeper knowledge — as unavoidable as confronting the dragon who guards the treasure in every mythic hero’s story.
“The mythological goal of the dragon fight is almost always the virgin, the captive, or more generally, the ‘treasure hard to attain.’ This image of the vulnerable, beautiful, and enchanting woman, guarded by and captive of a menacing monster gives us a picture of the inner core of the personality and its surrounding defenses,” relates Donald Kalsched in Myth & Psyche.
The maiden or treasure on the other side of the dragon symbolize our own inner wealth or spirit, awaiting reunion with the conscious mind, guarded by the ego and shadow-side aspects of the personality.
“Only one who has risked the fight with the dragon,” notes the great Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, “and is not overcome by it wins the hoard, the ‘treasure hard to attain’. . . . he has faced the dark ground of his self and thereby gained himself.”
In myth and life alike, when the seeker first sets out upon the path, it is often not by choice but by necessity. To live in denial of the call simply becomes unbearable. Many times transformation is triggered by a crisis of meaning, forcing a reassessment of values and priorities.
Increased awareness shines a light on dark corners of the personality and/or the world at large. So the dark night period is really a sign that transformation is occurring — the labor pains of personal rebirth.
If processed, all who have undergone the dark night of the soul agree that it is ultimately a doorway to deeper awareness and understanding. On the other side awaits a more authentic self and a broader concept of the world. But in the meantime the false constructs and denied aspects of self become increasingly uncomfortable, even painful, giving the impression that something awful is happening, when, in fact, this period can be seen as nature’s way of encouraging regeneration — as a snake’s partly shed skin irks and itches him until he rubs the husk off entirely.
Because of his powerful ability to shed old layers of himslef, mystical traditions the world over associate the snake with transformation and regeneration.
Jesus had his forty days in the desert, Jonah his time in the belly of the whale. In Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker asks Yoda what he will encounter in his first test, the mini master replies: “Only what you take with you.”
“Everyone carries a shadow,” Jung wrote, “and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” In other words, the more we deny it, the more power the shadow self has over us.
“The Shadow is an archetype—a universal motif or image built in to all human beings. You can no more get rid of this inner Shadow than you can avoid casting an outer shadow when you’re in sunlight. For most of us, that creates a problem, because the Shadow appears as the sum total of the weakest, most flawed, inferior or even disgusting parts of yourself. It’s everything you don’t wish to be, but fear that you are.” (“The Tools” by Phil Stutz.)
When one is experiencing a dark night of the soul, one inevitably comes face to face with one’s shadow side.
“Most of us do not take these situations as teachings,” says Zen monk and author Pema Chödrön. “We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”
Continues Chödrön,”It’s a transformative experience to simply pause instead of immediately trying to fill up the space. By waiting, we begin to connect with fundamental restlessness as well as fundamental spaciousness.” By spaciousness, Chödron means the vast calm available to us in the “inner space” of turning inward in meditation and conscious presence. (For more on third eye meditations and inner space travel see “The Art of Seeing: Third Eye Perception and the Mystical Gaze”).
“It takes a long time to learn to listen to the still, small voice within,” notes Psychology Today writer Wendy Lustbader. “We tend to seek direction outside ourselves, while our soul’s language is drowned out by the commotion of day-to-day doings, all the external strivings that distract us.
“It is possible to lose awareness of this inner voice for years and to be carried along by the force of society’s dictates and other people’s conceptions of a worthy life. At any point in the lifespan, suffering makes our need to hear what is within acute.”
“We see our Shadow as a source of humiliation that we try to hide—usually through some kind of perfectionism,” explains Phil Stutz. “The counter-intuitive truth is that when we reveal the Shadow… its nature changes. It becomes a source of creativity and confidence.”
This is because it has been noted by students of the psyche, and Jung in particular, that, as psychologist Ken Page puts it: “Our deepest wounds surround our greatest gifts.” Continues Page, “Cervantes said that reading a translation is like viewing a tapestry from the back. That’s what it’s like when we try to understand our deepest struggles without honoring the gifts that fuel them.”
“Core gifts are not the same as talents or skills,” continues Page. “In fact, until we understand them, they often feel like shameful weaknesses, or as parts of ourselves too vulnerable to expose.” He gives examples of a client who feels she is “too much,” whose core gift is passion. Another who feels he is “not enough,” whose core gift is humility.
“Yet [these vulnerable parts of ourselves] are where our soul lives…” Page observes. “But gifts aren’t hall-passes to happiness. They get us into trouble again and again. We become most defensive-or most naïve-around them. They challenge us and the people we care about. They ask more of us than we want to give. And we can be devastated when we feel them betrayed or rejected…”
“Since the heat of our core is so hard to handle,” details Page, “we protect ourselves by moving further out from the center. Each ring outward represents a more airbrushed version of ourselves. Each makes us feel safer, puts us at less risk of embarrassment, failure, and rejection. Yet, each ring outward also moves us one step further from our soul, our authenticity, and our sense of meaning…
“So, most of us set up shop at a point where we are close enough to be warmed by our gifts, but far enough away that we do not get burned by their fire. We create safer versions of ourselves to enable us to get through our lives without having to face the existential risk of our core.” (“How Our Insecurities Can Reveal Our Deepest Gifts”).
Considering these angles, it becomes easier to see how the symbolic dragon of the shadow side protects our greatest riches, and how shining a light on our darkness is one time-tested way to liberate the luminous gold of our authentic self.
The only way out is through. Once we begin to see the value in our shadow aspects and dark night periods — whether it’s a dark night day, month or year — we can learn to stop resisting the discomfort and surrender to the process, to view it as an initiation, a transition. If we view every aspect of the journey as sacred, we are better able to glean its gifts, for behind the dark night awaits a silver dawn.
March 10, 2017 § 2 Comments
“Magic is the technology/psychology of immanence, of understanding that everything is connected.”
~ Starhawk, “Dreaming in the Dark: Magic, Sex & Politics.”
Before advertising stole our souls and scientific materialism denied its existence, dogmatic religious institutions held our souls hostage. The result has been a continually morphing and adapting form of systematic soul erasure in the Western world.
Author & activist Starhawk calls this “removing content.” She notes that it allows for power relationships in which human beings are exploited, and for a worldview that results in the exploitation of nature, because the inherent value of being has been denied.
“I call this consciousness estrangement,” Starhawk details, “because its essence is that we do not see ourselves as part of the world. We are strangers to nature, to other human beings, to parts of ourselves. We see the world as made up of separate isolated nonliving parts that have no inherent value. Among things inherently separate and lifeless, the only power relationship possible is manipulation and domination.
“As we become separate, and are manipulated as objects, we lose our own sense of self worth, our belief in our own content, and acquiesce in our own exploitation.”(“Dreaming in the Dark.”)
In this worldview emptied of spirit, a tree becomes merely timber to be measured in feet, given value only by its profitability; not its being, its beauty, or its part in the larger ecosystem.
Considering that Western society sees virtually nothing as sacred, it’s easy to see why we are poised on the brink of collective self-destruction.
And so an effectively soulless society is created, inhabited by shells who struggle to see their own value beyond doing & having. A sense of nonreality permeates our lives. As my dear poetry mentor, Barry Spacks, once phrased it: “Waiting to arrive, we’ve been here all along.”
“We live our lives feeling powerless & inauthentic—feeling that the real people are somewhere else, that the characters on the daytime soap operas or the conversations on late-night talk shows are more real than the people and conversations in our lives; believing that the movie stars, the celebrities, the rock stars, the People Magazine-people live out the real truth and drama of our times, while we exist as shadows, and our unique lives, our losses, our passions, which cannot be counted out or measured, which were not approved, or graded, or sold to us at a discount, are not the true value of this world.”
Starhawk notes that estrangement permeates our society so strongly that to us it seems to be consciousness itself. Even the language for other possibilities has disappeared or been deliberately twisted.
“Yet another form of consciousness is possible. Indeed, it has existed from earliest times, underlies other cultures, and has survived even in the West in hidden streams,” Starhawk notes.
“This is the consciousness I call immanence—the awareness of the world and everything in it as alive, dynamic, interdependent, interacting and infused with moving energies: a living being, a weaving dance.”
“Magic is a word that makes people uncomfortable,” notes Starhawk, “so I use it deliberately, because the words we are comfortable with, the words that sound acceptable, rational, scientific, and intellectually sound, are comfortable precisely because they are the language of estrangement.”
She details that magic can be very prosaic—a leaflet, a lawsuit. Anything that changes consciousness at will. It can also be esoteric—inner work, interacting with the cosmos at large. At its heart, magic is moving energies.
“Ironically, as estranged science and technology advance, they have begun to bring us back to a consciousness of immanence. Modern physics no longer speaks of separate, discrete atoms of dead matter, but of waves of energy, probabilities, patterns that change as they are observed; it recognizes what shamans & witches have always known: that matter & energy are not separate forces, but different forms of the same thing.”
Starhawk defines: “To say something is sacred is to say that we respect, cherish and value it for its own being.”
In a world stripped of sacredness, it is a revolutionary act to see the innate beauty and value in being—one’s own and others’—to cherish & respect, to view life with reverence. When we remove the veil of Western materialism, the world comes alive again; and anything is possible.
This paradigm shift—from viewing reality as composed of separate, isolated, nonliving parts; from seeking power-over-–must be replaced by a worldview that acknowledges the living ecosystem of our dynamic inter-connectivity, to seeking power from within.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the survival of our species depends on it. And change starts within. Like seeds, we dream in the dark earth, but inside us we hold a blueprint for blooming.
So let us feel into our own aliveness today, let us expand our attention to include our own being; let’s look for it in others, in animals and plants. The world is shot through with immanence… for those who care to see.
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April 12, 2016 § 11 Comments
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
“The sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.”
I have noticed the same thing about the highs and lows of my emotional life: my unhappy states all seem to have a wide array of causes, while my happy, high, in-the-flow states all seem to sing the same tune, as it were. The same insights flash back at me like familiar road signs. An invisible river of energy seems to flow through me, carrying treasures on its back in the form of ideas, inspirations and connections.
Apparently I’m not alone. Author, speaker, researcher & founder of the “new existentialism” movement, Colin Wilson shares related thoughts in a fascinating recorded talk at San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore:
“I began by writing this book, The Outsider, which came out in 1956. My basic interest then was the problem of certain romantics of the 19th century who had experienced tremendous feelings of ecstasy & insight, and then wondered the next morning if the whole thing had been a total illusion, so that we got this tremendously high suicide rate among the romantics.”
“I became preoccupied with this because I had had the same kind of feelings ever since I was a small boy. It wasn’t until I read Wordsworth—who talks about this time in childhood when everything seems wonderful and then how, as you get older, the shades of the prison house begin to close—that I began to see this is a problem that all human beings experience.
“What I wanted to know was: is there some fundamental gap between these moods of ecstasy and the ordinary reality of the physical world in which we live? Is it totally impossible to reconcile the two of them? In a sense, you see, I couldn’t really believe that it was so. Because whenever I experienced moods of intensity or of total relaxation I always had the same insight, as if I had gone to a kind of hilltop and seen precisely the same vision, exactly the same landscape below, which made me feel that it was, in a sense, objective. It must be solid or else it would be different every time.”
“On the other hand, in what you might call ‘the worm’s eye view’ moods, things are bad in a different way every time. And you suddenly feel that it’s only the bird’s eye views that are true. It’s the big that’s true, not the small. Close-up-ness deprives us of meaning. I’ve always felt this is the basic truth of life. Somehow you’ve got to get that trick of pulling back & seeing things through a kind of wide angle lens. As soon as you do this, you go into this state of intense optimism.”
In Zen Buddhism, the high feeling-state of satori, which literally means “to understand,” is the goal of meditation practice. A brief but clear glimpse into the awakened state of satori is known as kenshō, which translates as “seeing into one’s true nature or essence.”
This is always how it feels to me when I am in the flow & feeling good: things feel like they are back on track, as they should be, aligned, harmonious. Like Wilson, I have often wondered which state is the more accurate reflection of the nature of things; both seem to negate the validity of the other.
And I’ve come to the same conclusion as Wilson, that the low mood generally lies while the high mood informs. Although a low mood tries to paint our previous high states of awareness as the purely illusory fantasies of a fool—while portraying its own staunch negativism as the only reasonable, realistic assessment—there is another clear giveaway that hints at which of these two opposing states is more to be trusted:
a low mood feels very uncomfortable, while a high mood feels very right. In fact, it is characterized by a feeling of rightness. When we tell a lie, we feel our body contract. A sense of wrongness permeates our being to various degrees. When we say something that is keenly true, we feel that too. It’s a feeling of empowerment, harmoniousness, rightness.
In my study of this phenomenon, I have concluded that while the low mood may have something to tell me about myself or my life—revealing an uncomfortable truth that I must face in order to become who I truly want to be, (see“Navigating The Dark Night Of The Soul,”)-–there is no benefit to remaining in this place, because it becomes an energy-sapping, self-feeding loop of defeatist thinking.
Unfortunately, once we are out of step with the sensation of rightness, that high state can feel a world away. It’s helpful to remember that it is, actually, only a few flow-inducing thoughts away.
Personally, I think these two states are better described as “connected” vs. “disconnected.” Connected to what? To yourself. But how can I be disconnected from something I am? The answer can be summed up in a verse from the East Indian sacred texts, the Upanishads:
“There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same tree. One eats the fruits of the tree, and the other looks on in silence.”
The bird who eats the fruit represents our worldly nature, our everyday “smaller” self. And the witnessing bird is our larger aspect (called the Atman in Vedanta, meaning soul self) which remains connected to Brahman (ultimate reality), even when the small self has lost sight of the bigger picture.
According to the Vedanta (the East Indian philosophy based on the Upanishad writings), Atman is the true self, beyond identification with phenomena, the essence of an individual. In order to attain liberation, a human being must acquire self-knowledge, which is to realize that one’s true self (Atman) is identical with the transcendent self (Brahman). (Traditionally achieved through meditation, wherein the distinction between these two selves becomes increasingly evident.)
I’m not one to care about religious dogma or what some ancient text says—unless it puts a language to experiences I have had myself already, for which we have poor working vocabulary in English language & culture.
I do think the Vedanta framework establishes a helpful concept of what is going on when we feel low, which, by my way of thinking, is essentially a state of disconnection, when we are overly identified with the “small self.”
When we are connected to our essence or greater self (which is connected to the broader sweep of larger reality), it seems we receive intuition freely, we are in sync with the rhythm of life and other people. We receive inspiration more easily, which in turn lights us up and “turns us on,” fueling our sense of optimism, curiosity & movement.
Our world seems to expand. We notice subtle “shimmers”—little beautiful moments that add to the textured richness of being alive. When we are open to these nuances, we become more easily inspired and interested. Which creates a sense of possibility & engagement.
When we are disconnected, our world seems to shrink. It is like we have run out of gas. We feel sluggish and everything takes a lot of effort to do. This induces a feeling of depression and futility, which feeds upon itself until we can feel quite locked away from that “Atman” self.
In this emotional state we seem to forget all of the insights which once gave us a sense of hope and possibility. We are entirely identified with the “bird who eats the fruits” of the world, and completely dissociated from the “sweet friend” who looks on, waiting patiently to be remembered & reclaimed.
Colin Wilson dubbed this “small self” aspect of human personality “the robot.” He elaborates in the following interview:
“We have inside us what I call The Robot, a sort of mechanical valet or servant who does things for you. So, you learn something like talking French, or driving a car, or skiing—painfully & consciously, step by step. Then the Robot takes over and does it far more efficiently than you could do it consciously.
“The Robot does all these valuable things—like talking French & so on for us. The trouble is, he also does the things we do not want him to do. We listen to a piece of music, it moves us deeply the first time. We read a poem, we go for a country walk, and it moves us. But the second or third time you do it, the Robot is listening to the piece of music, or going for the country walk for you. I’ve even caught him making love to my wife! This is a real problem, that the Robot keeps taking us over and doing the things that we would rather do.”
“The secret is to keep your energy so high that [you avoid being taken over by] the robot, who’s a bit like the thermostat on the wall, which turns on quite automatically when your energies drop below a certain point, and then suddenly without even noticing it, you’re living mechanically, robotically, instead of as the real you. And the interesting thing is that it’s only a matter of one degree. Therefore if it’s just one degree to turn onto the Robot, it’s only one degree of effort to turn the Robot off.”
I have found that simply being aware of this dynamic initiates a ripple effect of more expansive feelings. Think of it as a thought experiment. I’m not advocating the removal of cynicism or discernment, only for the suspension of its mechanisms for long enough to collect the necessary data to really decide what’s what. If we decide something sounds too good to be true before launching a thorough investigation, we aren’t really giving ourselves all of the information necessary to make an assessment.
Just imagine, what if it were true that our sense of an isolated small self is not the whole picture, and, when we feel into a larger, more expansive & connected being-hood we are actually more fully embodying who we are? What if that self did have wisdom beyond our acquired knowledge & access to universal perception?
And what if there was a force of energetic support available to us, waiting for us to tune into a more expanded sense of self? What if the darkness & pain of the world is simply the result of a widespread belief in the smaller, isolated self—a collective disconnection from the expanded essence?
The only way to know for sure…is to explore it.
Unless we investigate the possibilities within ourselves & our relationship to reality with an open mind, we may never experience ourselves as we might become.
May 10, 2014 § 15 Comments
“Whenever there is a strong lock used there is something extremely precious hidden. The thicker the Veil, the more valuable the jewel. A hoard of treasure is guarded by a large snake; do not dwell on the hideousness of the snake, contemplate the dazzling and the priceless things you’ll discover in the treasure.” ~ Rumi
“Men may rise on stepping-stones of their dead selves to higher things.” ~Alfred Lord Tennyson
“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” ~ Romans 12:2
Just like a snake, we must periodically shed our outgrown psychic skins.
During a time when this need is pressing, the snake becomes uncomfortable. From the outside he may appear sick—his skin dull & ragged. He feels— he knows!—something is wrong & has to change. Something must be done! Intuitively, he begins the shedding process by rubbing his deadened dermis against rough surfaces. It is painful, but he feels compelled. When he is finally free of the outdated layer, he is more luminous & vital than ever!
This natural process reflects our own need to periodically embark upon an inner journey of self-renewal.
When it’s time for a sloughing off of psychic weight—outmoded belief systems, behaviors, situations—we are alerted by a sense of palpable emotional discomfort.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture of distraction, where the numbing of emotional pain is par for the course.
Television, comfort food & alcohol are some popular forms of socially acceptable self-numbing. However, those modalities are at least straightforward, in that they are acknowledged as being distractions.
More insidious, because it is rewarded & ennobled, is the “busyness” phenomenon. Because productivity has tangible positive results in one’s life, it’s also an extremely good cover story for not doing much needed inner work.
If we feel emotionally uncomfortable within ourselves & dive headlong into (outer) work, we may feel temporarily better because we are not engaging with the difficult emotions pressing at our awareness. When we come home, we’ve worked hard & are, understandably, tired. The last thing we want to do is engage with challenging questions & uncomfortable emotions. So the “I-worked-hard-I-deserve-it” syndrome sets in—we flip on the TV or the computer, grab a beer—& maintain a vicious cycle of almost unrecognizable escapism that can go on for years.
“For many years,” relates blogger Gabby, in her post “Escapism As A Lifestyle.” “I worked two and three jobs at a time to make ends meet. A few weeks ago, I quit my regular weekend job. It was such a relief to know I wouldn’t be working weekends anymore. I did not expect the panic that would invite itself to my table and have coffee with me in the morning. For me [it had been] a means of escaping. Being so busy I didn’t have the time to look at myself and think about what I really want out of this ‘one wild precious life’.
“I panicked and started filling up my life with other things, just to keep me busy. It took only about two weekends of this before I realized what I was doing. Which is good, because not all that long ago, it may have taken me years to figure out what I was doing.”
Unshed psychic skins begin to take their toll. We feel a vague sense of discomfort that may be hard to name. Perhaps we feel anxious or disconnected from a certain aliveness we recall having once felt, but we’re not sure how to get it back.
“Numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating,” notes Brene Brown, “because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity and empathy. We can’t selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.” (“Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Live.”)
Everything living requires renewal. Our cells shed automatically, but our emotional life requires more intentionality. If we don’t consciously process our feelings & old wounds, address our pain & pressing questions, we begin to suffocate under the weigh of old, dead layers.
Unfortunately, the signs of needing self-renewal mimic the symptoms of depression & anxiety—human experiences which modern psychiatry is all too eager to label a condition, prescribe pills & call it a day.
The blogger of “Spiritual Emergency” writes about her experience of what a traditional western worldview would categorize as schizophrenia, which she processed through a mystical-transformative-shamanic lens. Noting that this approach empowered her to find her true self & center, she observes:
“Mainstream reductionist psychiatrists […] by and large presume that if an experience (such as chronic depression) is unpleasant, it must be stopped or band-aided, but because an experience is painful or difficult, it doesn’t necessarily follow that’s it’s not valuable, or therapeutically worthwhile as a ‘wound which heals’.”
There are many times in my own journey when, if I had regarded my feelings of emotional discomfort—or “anxiety & depression” as we commonly define them—as simply a chemical imbalance & not the voice of a buried aspect of myself trying to come through & tell me what was untended in my life, I would never have found that next “trapdoor” into a deepened, expanded level of being.
In our lives, we periodically come across what appear to be ceilings in our personal-growth & sense of wellbeing. They always, however, contain trapdoors. You just have to keep feeling around for where the door to the next level is hidden…
Releasing old pain is an essential aspect of the art of self-renewal.
For me, finding that trap door has involved radically honest self-reflection & the willingness to face & experience my unresolved emotional pain head-on. We have to keep in mind that having emotional pain does not make us defective, it makes us human (at least, humans of this current un-enlightened age of Earth).
“Grieving is an intrinsic part of the healing process,” notes psychotherapist Daniel Mackler in “Grieving The Ultimate Loss: Your Imperfect Parents.” “Everybody suffers loss, right from the beginning. The primary loss is the fact that no parent, at least no parent who is not fully enlightened, is perfect. Grieving is long, painful, and confusing, but richly rewarding. Life is not complete unless all traumas are unearthed, grieved, and thus resolved. Those who fail to complete this process live forever in a limbo of partial misery, stuck unconsciously in the past and unable to escape […]
“Most believe that a healthy life feels no pain. This is why the majority are insane. Avoiding all pain is not healthy. Grieving is horribly painful, and totally necessary. Grieving is beautiful.”
A heart-healing excercise I’ve found helpful is to, in a manner of speaking, go to my heart & “knock there” to see what needs processing. This involves first finding/creating a peaceful, meditative & relaxed state, then putting one’s attention on the area of the heart.
How does it feel? Often, our first response is that we feel nothing. Don’t let this deter you. We live mostly with protectively blocked heart chakras, because our world is harsh & our culture does not encourage inner excavation as the essential part of life’s journey that it is. Keep inquiring. Meditate on the heart & eventually you will begin to receive impressions. What psychic swords are still stuck there?
Using symbolic imagery like this is useful. Just as our subconscious communicates with our conscious mind in symbols, so, too, the heart speaks.
Try mentally pulling a psychic sword out of your energetic heart. Who, or what experience, put it there? Asking yourself these kinds of questions can be very useful in identifying the areas of one’s emotional life which need attention. By attention, I mean simply confrontation (identifying & feeling the emotion). This alone will start the process of release & consequently, healing.
The idea of the heart as the locus of man’s emotional life is not accidental. Mystical traditions of both East & West have long embraced the idea of a heart chakra. In today’s climate of materialist cynicism, it’s all too easy to see the heart as simply an organ whose function is to pump blood to the rest of the body.
As with everything, there is an exoteric function to the heart & an esoteric one. The invisible life of the heart is a very real thing. It is truly the compass for our life’s direction. And too often unhealed emotional pain—like a snake’s unshed skin—blocks our connection to our greatest resource.
Clearing the emotional cobwebs, which block connection with our internal compass, is a key step in self-renewal.
I am also a strong advocate of art therapy & the cathartic value of creativity. It’s a myth that some people are creative, while others are not. Creativity is inherent in human nature. Some people may have nurtured specific modalities & refined their skills for particular crafts, but everyone can self-express if they simply allow themselves the space to play.
Creating a painting, song, collage, poem, short personal essay, etc. expressing the feelings you’ve unearthed in your heart work is richly rewarding. It’s as though one has coughed up one’s pain & caught it in the butterfly net of art, wherein it is transmuted into something positive. Transmutation is a powerful act.
It can be particularly rewarding if you continue to craft a piece from a rough, private catharsis to a polished, artistic offering. My book of poems, “Pollen,” is largely a result of processing my father’s untimely death & the consequent existential crisis that ensued. When readers write to tell me that the work has moved them & helped them with their own process it is doubly rewarding. Like oysters, we can transform our painful sand grains into luminous pearls. Thus is the redemption of art.
Once the initial malaise has begun to clear through processing, intentional visioning—identifying meaningful goals—is a helpful step to continue momentum.
Vision boards are popular these days for a reason…They’re fun! Compiling representative images of your goals in an inspirational collage is a greatly constructive form of play. More tangible & exciting than a list.
Another method is to work “backwards” by writing down the ways you wish to feel, and then making note of what actions & activities promote this feeling.
So if you’re feeling stuck, don’t worry! It’s simply time for an internal house cleaning. And Spring is a natural season for it.
If you’re feeling lost, do not lose heart. While it’s true life does not, as is commonly bemoaned, come with instructions, you come with a compass—your own inner guidance system, the heart. The connection has just likely been muted & clogged with unprocessed emotion. A little catharsis & honest self-reflection, followed by constructive action, will do wonders.
If you’re feeling depressed, don’t buy the hype; our society is so afraid of unpleasant feelings, it has instilled in us an unhealthy fear of challenging emotions. Depression, like physical pain, is just our system alerting us that something requires attention. Modern culture is pathologically fixated on happiness, with an equally pathological rejection of unhappy feelings. This is a recipe for disaster! Ironically, the only way to reach true inner peace & wellbeing is to traverse the psychological labyrinth surrounding the proverbial treasure.
These are all simply symptoms of the need for self-renewal, rejoice! And enjoy the journey.
August 13, 2014 § 14 Comments
“I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sight and sound around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once, like an atmosphere, sustaining me […] Every little pine-needle expanded and swelled with sympathy and befriended me. I was so distinctly made aware of the presence of something kindred to me, that I thought no place could ever be strange to me again.’
As Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell returned from the moon, he beheld Earth from the spacecraft window. In that moment he had a life-changing experience for which his scientific background had not prepared him.
“I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It wasn’t just intellectual knowledge—it was a subjective visceral experience accompanied by ecstasy—a transformational experience.”
The experience was so powerful that when he got back to Earth, Mitchell started digging into various literatures to try to understand his experience.
“I found nothing in science literature but eventually discovered it in the Sanskrit of ancient India. The descriptions of samadhi, Savikalpa samadhi, were exactly what I felt: it is described as seeing things in their separateness, but experiencing them viscerally as a unity, as oneness, accompanied by ecstasy.” (“Samadhi In Space.”)
Mitchell went on to found “The Institute for Noetic Sciences” to study consciousness-related experiences, such as his, through a scientific lens.
While terms like “bliss” & “ecstasy” sound vague & faraway to most of us, these states are actually quite natural, glimpses of which need not follow years of dedicated medication.
In a study, 3000 people who claimed to have had spontaneous mystical experiences were asked what had triggered them. The four major triggers were:
1. Depression/despair 2. Prayer/meditation, 3. Natural beauty 4. Participation in religious worship. (I would imagine psychedelics are also high on the list! Though perhaps not in the demographic sampled.)
During a sleepless night of “almost unbearable” depression, a thought came to Tolle: “I can not live with myself.” The answering thought became like a kōan: “Who is the “I” who can not live with the “self?”
In Zen, the koan—a seemingly answerless riddle with profound implications, designed to break down ordinary ways of thinking & stun the analytic mind into awakening—is a traditional technique to induce satori.
Savikalpa samadhi is a Hindu term for the temporary, exalted state of consciousness wherein the subject retains his or her sense of self, but at the same time, awareness expands into an experience of divine cosmic consciousness, or universal oneness. The Hindu tradition calls this Brahman: “the ineffable unchanging reality amidst & beyond the world,” translating directly as “being-consciousness-bliss.”
East Indian poet & mystic Sri Chinmoy observes: “Nature’s dance stops. There is no movement. Everything is tranquil. The Knower and the Known have become totally One. The lover and the Beloved have become One. The Yogi enjoys a supremely divine, all-pervading, self-amorous ecstasy.”
In Zen Buddhism, this euphoric state of peace is known as satori, which literally means “to understand.” It is the goal of meditation practice. A brief but clear glimpse into the awakened state of satori is known as kenshō, which translates as “seeing into one’s true nature or essence.”
“At Nanzenji there is a small hill. I used to walk near there, look at it, and often smile at the high school students who walked by there as well. One day as I walked by, I looked at the hill and it was truly amazing. I was totally lost as if there was no ‘me’. I stood gazing at the hill. Some students walked by and one of them said something like ‘look at that crazy monk’. Finally I came out of it. Life was never the same for me. I was free.”
British novelist Forrest Reid describes a beautiful experience of classic Kensho:
“It was as if I had never realized before how lovely the world was. I lay down on my back in the warm, dry moss and listened to the skylark singing as it mounted up from the fields near the sea into the dark clear sky. No other music ever gave me the same pleasure as that passionately joyous singing. It was a kind of leaping, exultant ecstasy, a bright, flame-like sound, rejoicing in itself. And then a curious experience befell me.
“It was as if everything that had seemed to be external and around me were suddenly within me. The whole world seemed to be within me. It was within me that the trees waved their green branches, it was within me that the skylark was singing, it was within me that the hot sun shone, and that the shade was cool.
“A cloud rose in the sky, and passed in a light shower that pattered on the leaves, and I felt its freshness dropping into my soul, and I felt in all my being the delicious fragrance of the earth and the grass and the plants and the rich brown soil. I could have sobbed with joy.”
In the West, a typical kensho experience is more likely to be called a “mystical experience.” Pioneering American psychologist William James identified four key characteristics common to the mystical experience:
1) Ineffability (elusive to capture in language; hard or impossible to describe the subtle nuances to another in all their import & grandeur.)
2) Noetic quality (a sense of timelessness & unity with all things, illumination or knowing beyond the grasp of intellect.)
3) Transiency (It is rare to sustain a transcendent mystical experience for more than half an hour; though time appears to stand still, in linear time the mystical experience usually lasts for only a few minutes…a few hours at best. Though longer periods have been reported.)
4) Passivity (the individual feels swept up & buoyed by a force greater than themselves.)
I came across the word “kensho” in my internet search to find a term that described my own experiences of euphoric, peaceful interconnectivity. Mine came about as a result of intentional vision questing, with the help of some earthly substances. Psychedelic mushrooms are probably the fastest rout to experiencing kensho…and once you’ve experienced it, it becomes easier to access during regular meditative moments. These experiences are deeply meaningful touchstones of my path. I will do my best to share what it felt like to inhabit this beautiful state:
For one, there was a sense of timelessness. And completion. Nothing needed doing. There was nothing I wanted, nowhere to go, nothing more to be or say…I was just perfectly content & blissfully peaceful. Yet the experience was not static or dull; it was intensely alive.
I was in nature, as one always should be for these things….
The moment was all; my awareness expanded outward to include every tree branch, bird & hill. Everything felt deliciously divine & I wondered how it was that I did not always feel this way. A sense of tremendous kinship towards everything surged through me & in return the environment itself replied in silent, sentient, visceral, ecstatic kinship.
The very air around me felt loving, a supportive, nourishing substance. Reality itself felt feathery, forgiving. All of nature felt conspiring, intimate, friendly. I recall looking at some lovely pine trees, their tops dancing in a light breeze, and feeling that their branches were as intimate-feeling to me as a strand of my own hair.
What folly to think ourselves so separate & divided from our environment! We were of course like living threads in a living tapestry, which made up a whole picture, each crossing over the other, each contributing to a whole picture of the world; absolutely intertwined.
I describe my experiences now from memory, because I remember the metaphors that came to mind at the time, yet during these kensho moments, my intrinsic connectivity with all living things & my surrounding environment was entirely visceral, entirely known beyond intellectual questioning.
I felt entirely safe; buoyed by a tangible presence within myself & everything; it flowed within me & those dancing pine tree tops, as well as between us, connecting us; it was in the wind & the grass & my own hands, breath, hair….
A blissful sense of remembrance & reunion flooded through me…I had forgotten this state, the true state—the way we are naturally, minus mental over-activity, compartmentalization & contractive doubt. The feeling was hyper-real; a revelation of truth. As if illusion had fallen away to reveal our natural state; one that some part of me remembered. My whole being rejoiced.
One of my most profound experiences of kensho was with three other women, good friends of mine. First, I saw their beauty, radiant, as if before I had seen them only through a fog—so distracted by my own thoughts. I perceived them unmediated by the analytic mind, beautifully pure, and for the first time I understood why the new agey phrase “goddess” has come into circulation as a superlative. It was simply accurate: they were divine beings & it was as clear as the sky is blue.
From this perception, I moved on to a deep & beautiful sense of empathy. I could feel my own spirit, somehow, my own awareness, within them. It wasn’t that I was not me & they were not them—but I viscerally knew that the same spirit lived in them that lived in me. As if a telepathic link had been activated, which allowed me to be sensitive to their spirit, presence & feelings, in a way to which I was usually closed off, drowned in the workings of my own mind.
It was as if we had been fingers on the same hand all along, thinking ourselves isolated digits floating through space…we were still our own unique fingers (one a thumb, another a pinky) but there was a broader connection at the root level that made us at once unique, yet unified.
As the classic Beatles line goes: “I am she and she is me as you are me & we are all together.”
“Of all the boundaries we construct,” notes American philosopher & author Ken Wilber, “the one between self and not-self is the most fundamental. It is the boundary we are most reluctant to surrender. It was after all the first boundary we ever drew. It is our most cherished boundary.
“In unity consciousness, in no-boundary consciousness, the sense of self expands to totally include everything once thought to be not-self…And obviously this cannot occur as long as the primary boundary, which seperates the self from the universe, is mistaken as real. But once the primary boundary is understood to be illusory, one’s sense of self envelops the All.” (“No Boundary.”)
I am so grateful I had the kensho experience I did with my three friends, because otherwise this talk of non-boundary consciousness would seem dangerous to me, as I’m sure it does to many; and perhaps, misunderstood, it is.
After all, boundaries in the traditional sense of the word, are important. The question naturally arises: couldn’t someone use this philosophy as an excuse for self-indulgent force, projecting one’s own desires onto another? In it’s most extreme form, one could imagine a rapist excusing his crime to himself with the rationale: “Well, there is no difference between us, so what does it matter?”
This could not be further from the meaning of unity consciousness. For one, unity does not mean we don’t possess individual consciousness; it simply means we are connected at a deep level, the way mushrooms are individual yet share the same root system.
Also, once you have experienced the kind of non-divisive awareness Wilber is describing, which I experienced, the concept of harming another, whether physically or emotionally, becomes inconceivable. Because what ever you did to another, however you made them feel, you would instantly feel yourself.
For this reason, it is no stretch to say that world peace & the hope of humanity lies in the ability for more people to tap into the “being-consciousness-bliss” of Kensho.
We are already connected in this way, we simply need to unwind the intense mental constructs of division in which we have, as a society, become ensnared. You can start simply enough, by just connecting with nature & the energies around you…extending your awareness to include the surrounding life forms & environment. We are born with this inherent sense of connectivity, conditioned into a divisive worldview that inflicts separateness & isolation onto what in fact is a continuum.
After all, as the great British Zen writer & philosopher Alan Watts beautifully said: “We do not ‘come into’ this world; we come out of it, as leaves from a tree. As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples.'”
“Sunshine On My Mind by Amamak Photography“
“The process of division is a way of thinking about things that is convenient and useful mainly in the domain of practical, technical and functional activities (e.g., to divide up an area of land into different fields where various crops are to be grown). However, when this mode of thought is applied more broadly to man’s notion of himself and the whole world in which he lives (i.e. to his self-world view), then man ceases to regard the resulting divisions as merely useful or convenient and begins to see and experience himself and his world as actually constituted of separately existent fragments.
“Being guided by a fragmentary self-world view, man then acts in such a way as to try to break himself and the world up, so that all seems to correspond to his way of thinking. Man thus obtains an apparent proof of the correctness of his fragmentary self-world view, though, of course, he overlooks the fact that it is he himself, acting according to his mode of thought, who has brought about the fragmentation that now seems to have an autonomous existence, independent of his will and of his desire.”
I would love to hear about your mystical/kensho/samadhi experiences in the comments section (located above, under the post title). Though of course, any and all feedback & sharing is welcome & encouraged. Please join the conversation….!
*Edgar Mitchell’s exploration of his samadhi experience in space lead to the development of a new theory called “The Over-View Effect;” many astronauts had experienced similar reactions upon beholding the Earth. The subject was made into a fantastic short film of the same name, which you can view by clicking here.
April 2, 2013 § 37 Comments
“No one man can, for any considerable time, wear one face to himself, and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which is the true one.” ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne
“To be nobody but myself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make me somebody else—means to fight the hardest battle any human can fight, and never stop fighting. ~ e.e. cummings
“The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” – C.G. Jung
In 1944 Helen Deutsch—notably, the first psychoanalyst to specialize in women’s psychology—coined the term the “as if” self.
This concept was expanded upon and called the “false self” by D. W. Wincott in 1960. “Other people’s expectations can become of overriding importance,” Wincott noted, “overlaying or contradicting the original sense of self, the one connected to the very roots of one’s being.” (“Our Need for Others.”)
The idea of a false personality construct being distinct from one’s essential, authentic nature dates back over 3000 years: in the Bahgavad Gita, Ego (or Ahamkara) is described as the body-identified sense of self which is disconnected from the true soul.
“According to the Gita,” notes Ramnath Subramanian “there is a fundamental difference between ‘real’ ego and what it defines as the ‘false’ ego. Real ego is our very essence, the consciousness that makes us aware and awake to reality. The false ego is a false identity crafted to preserve the sense of being the most significant and the most important all the time. In short, it is a narcissistic search for being loved, validated and appreciated.(“The Bhagavad Gita and the Problem of the Ego,” Huffington Post.)”
“We all need an ability to mask or control our baser emotions so that we don’t blurt them out inappropriately where they can get us into trouble,” explains Dr. Tain Dayton in “Creating a False Self: Learning to Live a Lie.” “The real danger lies not in creating a mask or false self, we all do that somewhat. The danger lies in mistaking the false or idealized self for the true self.
“A false self because it is an unconscious defense, can stifle the growth of a conscious, authentic self. It’s the false self that strategizes and develops strength, confidence and acceptance. And the true, conscious self gets suffocated and sent into hiding.”
One surefire way to distinguish one’s core center from the egoic personality structure or false self is meditation, in which we cultivate what has been called “the witnessing self.” Meditation asks the practitioner to become conscious of when one is thinking, which really just means becoming aware of when one is talking to oneself internally.
In our everyday Western life, a constant inner monologue for us has become like breathing. We identify with our thoughts to the point where the statement “I am not my thoughts,” however factually correct, feels somewhat radical when taken to heart.
Yet the meditation practitioner soon finds moments, however fleeting, when the inner dialogue is stilled and mental silence is achieved. Anyone who has ever experienced this will tell you that this moment feels very much like making contact with one’s true being—which, according to mystical traditions the world over, it is.
“Based on the philosophy of [the ancient Hindu texts] the Upanishads,” details Neera Kashyap in “Personal Growth & The Witnessing Mind,” [we are taught] that if we could witness our thoughts and emotions, we would discover that what is witnessed is not our essential nature, but an ever-changing flux of our mind’s desires and tendencies.
“By practicing witness consciousness, we can distance ourselves from our chameleon-like mental tendencies. [This way] we observe our world, but simultaneously also absorb the detachment, power and impartiality of our anchor, the witnessing mind.
“Anchored, we observe,” continues Neera. “Anchored, we inquire into the origins of our thoughts and emotions, and the problems that arise from them. Anchored, we see them rise, take form, and ultimately merge into the witness. The thoughts, emotions, and problems are transformed, by their mergence in the silence and peace of the witness.”
“There are two birds, two sweet friends, who dwell on the self-same tree. One eats the fruits of the tree, and the other looks on in silence.”
“This verse from the Upanishad,” notes Neera Kashyap, “sums up the secret of abiding happiness, in our lives. We enjoy the fullness of life, yet simultaneously witness this participation silently. This seems essential, when we consider the next verse of this Upanishad, in which the imagery is further developed.
“The active bird is overcome by sadness at her unceasing and unwise partaking of life. However, when she beholds on the same tree the eternal power and glory of the other bird, the witnessing spirit, she is freed from sorrow. For she sees that between herself and the other bird, there is a fundamental identity.”
Wincott prescribed what he called “play”—anything that brings out spontaneous aliveness, from art to sports to meaningful conversation—as a way to revive contact with the authentic self.
“When we’re self-accepting,” elaborates Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. in “Evolution of the Self, “we’re able to embrace all facets of ourselves—not just the positive, more ‘esteem-able’ parts. As such, self-acceptance is unconditional, free of any qualification.
“We can recognize our weaknesses, limitations, and foibles, but this awareness in no way interferes with our ability to fully accept ourselves…Perhaps more than anything else, cultivating self-acceptance requires that we develop more self-compassion.”
It can be hard in a world that values success, perfection and positivity to accept our failures, flaws and darkness, but ultimately, in order to touch the authenticity within ourselves we seek—ironically!—-accepting the aspects of ourselves which we like least is the first step to unleashing that part we like best.
What are your thoughts on authenticity, identity and the false self?