September 29, 2018 § 12 Comments
“A force hums in the heart of wood…the tree is saying things, in words before words.”
“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth.”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
Recent studies confirm what poets & dreamers have always known in their hearts: the trees are talking to each other.
A revolution has been taking place in the scientific understanding of our arboreal friends. Biologists, ecologists & foresters are observing that trees have a quantifiable communication system and intelligence. We are learning that the forest is a community that cares for its own. Trees are social beings who work together for the survival of the whole.
There is a growing body of evidence, pioneered by forest ecology professor Suzanne Simard, which shows that trees communicate through interconnected root systems, in collaboration with fungal networks. This symbiosis forms what is known as “the wood wide web.”
This unifying network is composed of mycorrhizal fungi, of which there are many different species. The fungi send out gossamer-fine threads through the soil and weave into the tips of plant roots, bonding at a cellular level and creating a super-organism.
This collaboration of roots creates an information superhighway, functioning like an underground organic internet. The wood wide web connects whole forests, enabling trees, not only to communicate with one another, but also to share resources.
For example, a tree which receives an excess of sunlight will transmit the resulting nutrients via the wood wide web to a tree that receives only shade. Healthy trees have been known to nurse felled friends, keeping stumps alive for as long as centuries. Parent trees nourish their saplings via the wood wide web, and will even reduce their own root growth to make room for their offspring.
Forest dwelling networks of trees warn one another of danger–-drought, predators, or disease, for instance. They do this by sending electrical signals through their root systems, simultaneously releasing molecules into the air; chemicals which act as messengers. Information can be transmitted in as little as seconds, or take as long as days.
Responding trees then alter their behavior, releasing chemical defenses to ward off predators or conserving water in the case of a drought warning. Trees will even alter their chemical composition in response to warning signals sent by friends under attack, making their leaves taste more bitter to an influx of a certain predator. In short, they work together to survive and thrive.
How might our own communities improve if we took our inspiration from the forest? What does this new understanding of trees have to teach us? Nature is wise. She knows that in giving, one receives, and that the benefit of one improves the whole.
“A tree can be only as strong as the forest that surrounds it,” notes
As Biology professor, George David Haskell notes: “Dogmas of separation fragment the community of life; they wall humans in a lonely room. We must ask the question: ‘can we find an ethic of full earthly belonging?’” (“The Songs of Trees.”)
Theoretical physicist David Bohm notes that the process of dividing the world into parts is a convenient way of thinking when applied to practical matters. But then we become fooled by our own fragmented perception.
“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.” (“Wholeness & Implicit Order.)
What better way to reconnect with our environment than a walk in the woods?
The Japanese have a word, shinrin-yoku, which translates to “forest bathing,” and means “taking in the forest atmosphere.”
Developed in Japan during the 1980s, shinrin-yoku has become a cornerstone of preventative healthcare & healing in Japanese medicine.
Scientific experiments conducted in Japan reveal a host of health improvements that result from a simple 40 minute stroll in the woods:
- Boosted immune system functioning, with an increase in the count of the body’s Natural Killer (NK) cells.
- Reduced blood pressure
- Reduced stress
- Improved mood
- Increased ability to focus, even in children with ADHD
- Accelerated recovery from surgery or illness
- Increased energy level
- Improved sleep
Studies show that people who just looked at a forest view for 20 minutes had a 13% lower concentration of the stress hormone cortisol. (“The Healing Power of Trees.”)
Many trees give off organic compounds that support our “NK” (natural killer) cells, which are part of our immune system’s way of fighting cancer. (“The Science of Forest Therapy.”)
Trees have occupied a sacred place in human mythology for all of time. The Tree of Life appears in all of the world’s major religions, while The World Tree appears in a host of Indo-European & Native American cultures.
With its roots in the underworld, it’s trunk in our dimension, and its branches reaching up into the heavens, the World Tree is seen as being the axis that holds the cosmos together.
And trees indeed make our world possible.
I’ll leave you with a bit of tree wisdom from zen master Thich Nhat Hahh:
“I asked the leaf whether it was scared because it was autumn and the other leaves were falling. The leaf told me, ‘No. During the whole spring and summer I was very alive. I worked hard and helped nourish the tree, and much of me is in the tree.
“Please do not say that I am just this form, because the form of leaf is only a tiny part of me. I am the whole tree. I know that I am already inside the tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. That’s why I do not worry. As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, ‘I will see you again very soon.’”
August 6, 2017 § 4 Comments
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique.
Several years ago, I attended an art opening. During the event, I noticed a woman in the crowd start to move in a way that caused her to stand out. Dressed in flowy black clothing, she slowly, with great poise, began to extend her arms, moving her fingers as though sculpting the air. Eyes slightly downcast, unfocused and internal.
People stopped looking at the art and began looking at the woman. What was happening? Was she drunk? Having a slow-motion meltdown? The air in the room became tense and thick.
Like underwater kelp, she allowed her body to gently sway back and forth, stepping forward to move ever-so-slowly across the room, all the while tenderly crafting the space around her with fluid fingertips. Her pace and reverence were reminiscent of Tai Chi, but more evocative. Each movement was graceful, flowing into the next.
And then . . . we understood.
She was a dancer, and part of her performance was to take us by surprise. One moment she was one of us, standing around, looking at the paintings on the walls—conforming to the confines of accepted physicality (sitting, standing, walking). The next, she was breaking the movement taboo. Neither sitting, standing, nor walking, but expressing, emoting through her body.
The movements themselves were simple enough, but they were affecting. They came from a deep, committed place within the dancer.
I was struck, not only by the performance itself, but also by that string of moments when people were taken aback by the simple act of a woman moving authentically. You could see in their faces that until they could categorize what was happening, they mistrusted it. Until she was officially “a dancer” in their minds, she was potentially a loose cannon for daring to step outside the confines of acceptable movement.
As we watched her perform, I noticed how sharply her physical fluidity and emotiveness contrasted our own uniform rigidity. It was then that I realized there exists an invisible tyranny over movement. An unspoken, shame-based restriction so pervasive, we don’t often think to question or challenge it.
Dance has been an important part of human ritual, healing and celebration since before the birth of the earliest civilizations. Archeologists have discovered paintings in Indian and Egyptian tombs depicting dancing figures from as far back as 3300 B.C.
While in tribal scenarios we once danced together—and still do in some parts of the world and small pockets of society—as culture has evolved, a distinct division has occurred between professional dancers, who are in effect “socially sanctioned” to move expressively, and regular folk who make jokes about having “two left feet.”
Break dancing is one notable exception, in that self-taught dancers are celebrated. But even in this scenario, it’s the most exceptional, skilled and practiced performers that are given audience. There are still parameters. Technique is required. One couldn’t simply improvise and make up for a lack of skill with feeling.
Beyond perhaps shaking their hips at a dim, crowded club here and there, most people without a background in dance feel intimidated by the idea of engaging their body in expressive movement.
Most of us who are not professional dancers have at one time been shamed—or watched others be shamed—by peers when we step outside the box of acceptable movement. The shadow of social stigmatization looms large. We fear being a joke, Elaine, in the TV series Seinfeld, who famously loved to dance but moved with embarrassing seizure-like jerks, thumbs and knees akimbo, all the while thinking she was the life of the party.
This unspoken shame and fear surrounding expressive movement prevents most people from ever experiencing the immense therapeutic benefits of dance.
Swedish researchers have shown dance to improve mood and increase mental health. It builds cardiovascular, bone and muscle strength. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, dancing can decrease the onset of dementia, boosting immunity, memory and cognition. A Standford Study has found that movement to music creates new neural pathways by integrating several brain functions at once: kinesthetic, rational, musical and emotional.
The depth of skill required to perform any kind of classical or structured dance is undeniably impressive. But many people don’t realize there exists a genre of dance which specifically celebrates the authentic movement that springs from the untrained body.
Postmodern dance emerged in the late ’60s as a reaction against the compositional constraints of modern dance. In the same way, modern dance itself once rebelled against the rigid formalism of classical ballet. The Judson Dance Theater, a collection of Greenwich Village artists, dancers and composers, rejected formalism in favor of fostering the purity of ordinary movement.
They saw beauty and value in the freshness of instinctive human self-expression, often using untrained dancers in their performances. Postmodern dance is typified by natural movement—versus learned form.
Around the turn of the last century, people like Isadora Duncan had developed a style they called “free dance”—a rejection of classical formality, which paved the way for a deepened expression of natural movement. Drawing on inspiration from classical Greek arts, folk dances, nature and natural forms, Duncan “followed [her] fantasy and improvised, teaching any pretty thing that came into [her] head.” (Barefoot Dancer: The Story of Isadora Duncan.)
Several years after my experience at the art opening, I found myself stretching on a studio floor with a dancer-friend of mine. A modern dance teacher, she had been kind enough to give me a crash course in movement. As we warmed our bodies up and felt into the space around us, she told me all about postmodern dance and the virtues of authentic movement. Hearing from a trained, professional performer that my natural, untrained physical impulses had value was nothing short of mind blowing to me.
As she stretched her hamstrings, my friend explained that, just like any art, the main purpose of contemporary dance was to develop one’s “authentic voice.” As a writer, I recognized this phrase and understood it. Authentic voice highlights the value of personality and uniqueness in making effective art. It denotes the pleasure provided by idiosyncrasy, honesty and sincerity.
To cultivate authentic voice takes experimentation, risk and practice—it’s a meditation on the power of vulnerability. Applying this idea to dance was a game-changer for me. Ultimately, developing one’s true voice in dance is not about technique, it’s about having the confidence to go deep, and to be vulnerable, allowing authenticity to shine through.
[Photo by Javier Vallhonrat]
I started in my living room. I began to play with what my body wanted to do. My dancer-friend had mentioned Bartenieff Fundamentals, a method she had studied which begins with a focus on breath, and evolves into one of the body’s extremities taking the lead in expressing itself.
It could start with a hand, a shoulder, a toe, the spine…I learned that if I waited and listened, with music playing, some part of my body always volunteered for the job. And after that, another part inevitably followed.
The goal, my friend said, was simply to become comfortable with my own patterns of authentic movement. And then to eventually build and expand upon those patterns. Modern dance pioneer Martha Graham’s concept of Contraction & Release (a contracting movement with each in-breath, an expansive one with each outbreath) was also a helpful touchstone to begin.
In flamenco, there is a word called, duende, the spirit of the dance. Flamenco dancers wait to start moving until they feel the duende move them. They will wait, poised while the music plays, for as long as it takes.
My first time experiencing being moved by the duende of dance was life-changing. I felt a natural rhythm take hold of me, propelling me. I wasn’t thinking at all, which felt delicious. As a writer who spends most of my creative time in my head, it felt amazing to move my focus to the body, to learn this new visceral language and communicate beyond words. My body rejoiced in its newfound freedom, and it had a lot to say. Stored emotions surfaced, flowing through me, released. It felt good to move expressively. In fact, it felt essential. I wondered how I had ever lived without it.
I started my dance practice while snowed in during the month of January, while fighting an immense depression. Without exaggeration, dance lifted me out of an epic funk and into a new exciting space of possibility. I had broken through the movement taboo and it was deeply liberating. I dare anyone to throw themselves into dancing to the full length of a song they enjoy and not feel a marked sense of uplift by the end. It’s an endorphin rush, athleticism meets creative catharsis.
Dance is a vital resource of physical health and emotional wellbeing. You don’t need to take a class to do it. Dance is for everyone. With the exception of the completely paralyzed, someone in a wheelchair can move their upper body expressively to music—there are whole dance companies created by the differently abled.
Deep, expressive movement works as emotional therapy, a physical boost and a cardiovascular workout that you won’t even know you’re doing—until the song ends and you feel how fast your heart is pounding in your chest. Even a slow song, if you work on consistent pacing and fluidity, is a major core workout.
This is an invitation to shed the shame, break the taboo, and reclaim your body’s natural joy in movement. All it takes is 5 minutes, some space, some music, and your willingness to open up to what your body wants to say.
*For some inspiration, follow my journey as an untrained dancer exploring free/postmodern dance & movement on Instagram, @taiwoodville. Special thanks to Alissa Hattman for her notes on this piece, and for Michele Ainza (my dancer-friend) for freely sharing her wisdom, knowledge and inspiration.
May 7, 2017 § 8 Comments
”When you listen to a thought, you are aware not only of the thought but also of yourself as the witness of the thought. A new dimension of consciousness has come in.”
Neuroscientists at the University of Sussex have identified what they regard as evidence of higher consciousness.
“Consciousness is measured on a sliding scale by the diversity of the brain signals given out and ranges from wakefulness to a deep coma, normally. However, researchers have now found that when under the influence of certain drugs, that diversity range is well overstepped.” (Scientists Uncover A Higher State of Consciousness.)
By measuring magnetic fields in the brain, researchers observed a higher diversity of brain signals when on psychedelic drugs. Users of psychedelics would not be surprised at all.
Obvious though it may seem, the importance of this discovery can not be underestimated. This shows us that the spectrum of consciousness has a larger radius of possibility then previously measured.
The typical report of someone on psychedelics mirrors language of the saints & the mystics—a state in which the sacredness of life becomes self-evident. (See Parallax post: “Beyond Division: Studies in Bliss.) This bodes well for the future of humanity, since developing higher states of consciousness has pulled significant & mounting public interest. How else can we save our species from self-destruction but to awaken its higher centers, starting with our own.
Meditation is the most consistent way to access higher consciousness through creating inner space. When we step back from the constant babbling stream of our thoughts, we feel our distinct being-ness outside of the mind’s relentless parade of emotions. According to sacred texts from Vedanta to the Tao, this inner witness is our essential nature, a source of power & peace.
There’s a section of our brains that’s sometimes called the Me Center (it’s technically the medial prefrontal cortex). This is the part that processes information relating to ourselves and our experiences. Normally the neural pathways from the bodily sensation and fear centers of the brain to the Me Center are really strong. When you experience a scary or upsetting sensation, it triggers a strong reaction in your Me Center, making you feel scared and under attack.
When we meditate, we weaken this neural connection. This means that we don’t react as strongly to sensations that might have once lit up our Me Centers. As we weaken this connection, we simultaneously strengthen the connection between what’s known as our Assessment Center (the part of our brains known for reasoning) and our bodily sensation and fear centers. So when we experience scary or upsetting sensations, we can more easily look at them rationally.
I’ve been listening to the Headspace App this month to get me back into a regular meditation routine. It’s first ten sessions are free & I invite you to just try one, because it’s meditation made easy and the benefits for me were immediate. Much easier than trying to dive right in on your own, a helpful guide.
And as Eckhart Tolle reminds us, every action can be a meditation on mindfulness:
“You can practice [witness consciousness] by taking any routine activity that normally is only a means to an end and giving it your fullest attention, so that it becomes an end in itself.”
What are your favorite meditation practices?
March 10, 2017 § 3 Comments
“Magic is the technology/psychology of immanence, of understanding that everything is connected.”
~ Starhawk, “Dreaming 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 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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August 5, 2016 § 8 Comments
“Plato said God geometrizes continually.” ~ Plutarch
Sacred geometry patterns have been associated with mystical schools of thought for time immemorial, from the medicine wheels of North American tribal cultures to the sand mandalas of Tibetan Buddhism. But why?
At the forefront of this question is the idea that, because we see mathematical formulas & recurring geometric patterns in nature, math must be the highest form of expression—as mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss said, echoing Plutarch & Plato before him: “God arithmetizes.”
But many of today’s meditation practitioners & psychonauts are discovering a far more intimate connection to these patterns: through developing third eye perception, or spiritual/energetic sight, we are, many of us, beginning to visually perceive these sacred geometry patterns emerging from reality itself. (See the comments section of Parallax’s “The Art of Seeing: Third Eye Perception & The Mystical Gaze,” for a plethora of reported anecdotal experiences.)
Psychedelics, such as ayahuasca, magic mushrooms & LSD, are also popular portals into viewing these sacred designs—though they are only brief glimpses into states which meditation can achieve in a more sustainable manner.
The implications of so many people perceiving these patterns—not just reading about them, but experiencing them directly—are profound. In a recent visionary journey with a friend we both came to the conclusion that existence is a constantly recycling infinity, much like the shape known as a torus.
This insight was accompanied by a tremendous sense of safety and security, because there was no falling through the cracks in this model of reality: everything remained part of the moving whole, and energy was never destroyed—the endless cycle spoken about in ancient texts, particularly of Eastern origin.
Viewed from above, a torus becomes a mandala, which is particularly interesting when we contemplate how long mandalas have been around, and how the modeling of the three dimensional torus is a relatively new construct.
To those of us seeing through the spiritual eye, it appears not only that we each have a personal vortex of this nature within our own skulls—the third eye—but also that the greater fabric of reality is composed of these patterns. The more we cultivate our third eye perception, the more we will see these patterns emerging. Staring at the sky on a clear night or during a day with no clouds can be a great place to begin seeing these patterns emerge.
Our culture doesn’t encourage skywatching, because it has forgotten the importance of cultivating Being—conspiracy theorists might say this is no coincidence. But that is where we seekers must pave our own paths and rekindle the ancient truth that stillness & contemplation are essential for understanding, and hence progress.
Meditation, of course, is a major gateway into starting to perceive this phenomena—particularly third eye based meditations. (Although not specifically third eye based, Headspace offers a fantastic free guided meditation app that will get you comfortable with the basics.)
So how does it all come together? What does it mean? For one, it means we are living in an energetic matrix, that we ourselves are composed of these fine patterns, which suggests a larger coherence & beauty underpinning existence than might meet the physical eye.
It would appear that the sacred mandalas repeated throughout history are intended as portals to initiate awakening to this awareness.
As the veil begins to lift, we see that we are more beautiful than we had imagined, that life is more full of the potential for joy than we may have conceived. And that this beauty and joy is already ours in its potential. It is not something that we can buy. It is something that we are. All that we need to do is access this untapped state within.
As we become more aligned with these patterns of existence, we begin to receive more personal revelations and connect more dots—find more pieces to the puzzle. Our instinct becomes sharper…and our anxiety begins to recede. Because the more we understand about the nature of existence, the more we see that, from an ontological standpoint, there is nothing to fear.
We see that, while there are many atrocities perpetuated by man, the universe itself is always waiting, within stillness, to lead us home back to ourselves, to a place of peace and eternal unfolding.
When I experienced this state of satori recently on my vision quest, I was particularly aware of one thread running throughout all of my visions: a sense of deep sacredness & reverence for life, which permeated all of existence. A feeling of sublime love was central to the feeling, and I understood why so many great spiritual thinkers return to the idea that Love is at the center of everything.
The more aware we become of our own being, the more tenderness & compassion we develop towards ourselves. The more tenderness & compassion we develop for ourselves, the more kindness we are able cultivate towards others—the more rippling outward effects we create, which is ultimately the road to world peace.
At the conclusion of our vision quest, my friend voiced that she would never feel purposeless again, because she had tasted this state of intoxicating unity & bliss within her own Being. “It’s simple,” she said. “The purpose is to attain this frequency as much as possible, and to cultivate it wherever & however possible.”
This was music to my ears, because I have come to exactly the same conclusion, and it has served me well.
This is the higher consciousness we have been striving to bring forth.
“There is nothing to seek and find, for there is nothing lost. Relax and watch the ‘I am’. Reality is just behind it. Keep quiet, keep silent; it will emerge, or, rather, it will take you in.”
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.