06/26/15

Radical Wholeness

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In this culture, we live trapped in the invisible prison of our heads.  Everywhere we look, in the very conventions of our language, we see the elevation of reason and ideas over intuition and direct experience; of the head over the body.  In this agreed-upon “reality,” this way of living, lost in thought, seems normal.  We treat our bodies like pesky animals, or sex-objects, burdens, or work-machines to be refueled.  Our faces are manipulating masks. We ruminate endlessly about problems, real and imagined, and avoid really feeling in the core of our being.  Thoughts, stories, ideas and media substitute for real aliveness.  

This isn’t nature, this is culture, and it is suffering.  We are lost in a world fashioned of our own projections, caught in endless doing, self-exiled from our natural state of effortless being.  This sense of disconnection from our own sacred human bodies, from our own wholeness, is the root of our sense of disconnection from the whole world.  Fractured self, fractured world.

The path back to wholeness begins with this breath, this body, this moment.  In Buddhism, the first foundation of mindfulness is the body.  Simply coming back again and again to the sensations of the body and breath, I am surprised and delighted at the ever-changing symphony of experience that is happening all the time right under my nose, while I am lost in some day-dream or nightmare.  Dedicated practices of mindfulness and meditation help restore us to wholeness, to vibrant connection with all that is. 

But what about when we get up from the cushion and go out into the world?  What happens when we speak and relate?  How can we stay in that state of connectedness, of integration?  I have trouble bridging that mysterious experience of aliveness into social interaction and personal expression.  The habitual patterns of seeking control and approval, of creating a pleasing self, reassert themselves.  I find myself on automatic, acting out the familiar arrogance and anxiety of the separate self.

I read an interview with a teacher, Philip Shepherd, that illuminated this predicament so poignantly for me, that I attended a workshop with him called Radical Wholeness.  Through breath, movement, expression and many ingenious experiential exercises, we learned to inhabit our bodies, our bellies, the very roots of our being.  We remembered our wholeness, feeling the centers of the belly, heart and head connected, harmonious.

I was astonished to discover the profound and powerful intelligence in the belly.  Like the rest of the culture, I defined intelligence as abstract reasoning.  Philip defines it simply as sensitivity.  When I inhabited my belly, when I knew and saw and felt and moved from there, I recognized states of awareness that used to take me at least a week of silent meditation to reach.  The experience in the belly is of already completeness, unity, infinity; and deep, unshakeable peace.  What a relief to come home.

What really blew my mind and integrated the experience was learning to express myself from my wholeness.  Philip was not satisfied with any pleasing surfaces and challenged each of us to let life flow freely through us, without managing the result.  When my voice finally roared and rolled out of me from the very depth of my whole integrated being it was a huge catharsis.  The weight of 30 plus years of self-consciousness and white-knuckling the steering wheel were suddenly totally absent, and the sun-sized fire of aliveness that was underneath was blinding.  Here is where language fails me. When I remember that experience, the discursive mind is struck dumb.

Suffice to say that this taste of authentic, fearless, embodied life-expression is precious to me, and I want more.  I want to learn to live that way- fully present, listening, allowing the waves of life and experience to flow through me without resistance, without clinging, without getting distracted in thought, or making a story about it.  I want to be free.  Free of fear and manipulating, free of self-consciousness and controlling, free of the anxiety and pervading sense of perpetual lack that are part of the belief in the separate self.

Though we may express it in varied terms, it is what we all want, in our heart of hearts.  Sure, the ego would love to have all pleasure and no pain, and have everybody love and approve of it.  But something deeper is steering.  Our souls want to grow, to be free, and to live and love fully.  That is what we will ask ourselves on our deathbed; “Have I given and received love fully? Have I lived authentically?  Have I been truly alive and truly myself?”  I want to have no regrets.

This inimitable teacher, Philip Shepherd, continues to offer Radical Wholeness Workshops in the States and Canada.  And he is giving a teacher training at our house in Santa Barbara starting in late January!!  I cannot recommend it highly enough.  Read the interview, even better, read his masterpiece book, New Self, New World, and come play.

Here’s a little from the source. Shepherd speaks to how we live trapped in our heads, disconnected from our bodies: “Because we falsely believe disconnection to be a desirable state, we spend much of our lives working to achieve it.  We daily disconnect from process in favor of convenience.  We disconnect from the consequences of our actions in favor of personal profit.  We disconnect from our neighbors in favor of privacy, unaware that the word ‘privacy’ is a cousin to ‘privation’.  We disconnect from our bodies in favor of the simplistic preserve of ideas.  We disconnect from our heart’s longing in favor of security and career advancement.  Our lives often feel unsatisfying and confusing, but we hang in there, believing that disconnection equals freedom – while all the world cries out that disconnection is freedom’s opposite.  To disconnect as we do is to invite into our lives the tyrant’s (the head’s) anxieties, the tyrant’s insatiable acquisitiveness, the tyrant’s frightfully confined world.  These traits are all too familiar to us, as is the staleness they instill.

All of our tendencies towards disconnection are merely extensions of our relationship with our bodies.  But there is a deeper reason that our disconnection from the body is so injurious to all: when you disconnect from your body, you are disconnecting from the richest and most tangible reality of your being.  To do that habitually – to cut yourself off from the reality of your being habitually – is to alienate yourself from being.  When you are alienated from being, you can never feel truly secure, because the foundation of true security is a security of being – an experience of your reality in all its fullness.  It’s what you discover when you come home to the body, and feel the self as a whole, and come to rest within it that whole in the timelessness of the present and the world to which it belongs.  There is simply no substitute – not even in all the amassed conquests and acquisitions on which the tyrant fixates.  If you are not grounded in that security of being, an undercurrent of anxiety will run through all that you undertake – gnawing at you even when you just sit still.  That is the condition to which we consign ourselves by living in the head.”

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12/10/13

What do you really want?

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We often end up focusing on and chasing the conditions we think will make us happy instead of zeroing in happiness, or freedom, itself.  What is happiness or love? Where is it?  Is it in some future moment?  In some more glamorous, accomplished, together person?  Is it in a golden past before the fall from Eden, before the break up, the move, the death?  Is it once you get the perfect relationship, job, once you are pregnant, once you get your dream house, have achieved financial security, get healthy and fit?

Our minds are wanting machines.  Don’t expect them to change.  Our brains evolved in the context of scarcity to want more, more, more.

Let’s say, just imagine, that all the ducks that will make you happy, they all lined up.  Your health is fabulous, you feel beautiful and strong, you’re completely in love with the perfect mate who’s totally in love with you, your career or path is blossoming and fulfilling, everyone agrees you are awesome and loves you, you have the car, the house, the wealth, respect.  How would you feel in that moment, admiring your neat little ducks? How long would you be happy for?  Would you really be relaxed or would you be wondering how in the world you are going to keep everything the way it is?  How will you make sure your partner sticks around, no one steals your beautiful belongings, your beauty is preserved forever, you keep pleasing and impressing everyone?  How long would that last before you noticed something wasn’t quite right?  How long before you have a fight about how to load the dishwasher, how long before the dog pukes on your priceless rug?

We are naturally uneasy with a happiness based on conditions because we know, deep down, everything changes.  We are all to familiar with uncertainty and impermanence.  Nevertheless we chase these things as though they will give us permanent security and happiness.

It’s not that you shouldn’t choose pleasant and supportive conditions in your life- choose wisely and be kind to yourself-  but don’t kid yourself that you can somehow avoid the suffering that is part of life.  That you alone will be exempt from sickness, old age, loss, death.  If only you could figure out the right formula- if only you tried hard enough- if only you improved your messed up self.  This is the lie we all tell ourselves: I’ll be happy if only __________.

Though I have achieved the desired conditions before- talked my way out of that speeding ticket, had my crush profess his love, got into the right school, got the best apartment- I have seen the storm of wanting abate, but only for a bit.  Soon it is raining need again.  And though I have seen this cycle and felt the emptiness of the quest, seen the hamster wheel for what it is I still chase.  Again and again I find I have wandered from the path.  I am determined that this or that condition will make me happy instead of wanting happiness itself (instead of being happy in the now!)*

It is not just any kind of happiness I want.  When I sit still and ask, “What do I really want?  What is my deepest intention?” I don’t just want the pleasures of the good life- the home, the delectables, the vacations.  I want to be OK, to be at peace, no matter what.  I want to be open-hearted and full of love in the moment I take my last breath, in the midst of great physical pain or personal loss, or blame or ill-repute.  Just as I want to stay open, vividly present and alive in the midst of great love, staggering beauty, melting chocolate, awkward exits and brushing my teeth.

There is no need to demonize desires, to choose to be hungry and cold and friendless.  Do make decisions that are kind to you and the earth and everyone else.  Loving-Kindness is a cause of true happiness.  Also, notice the cravings, the compulsions and, instead of automatically pursuing, pause and investigate. In The Red Thread of Desire, Adyashanti points out how all our desires are really the desire for freedom.  Why do you need the promotion?  Ultimately it is so you can be relaxed, at peace, open.**  I would say investigate again but it might sound too cerebral- this is a different kind of knowing, before and beyond language- so I’ll say, feel into the root of desire, into its birthplace and find your own deepest longing for truth.

“Longing is the core of mystery. Longing itself brings the cure.” ~ Rumi (trans. Coleman Barks)

United with your true longing you have the momentum to break free of patterns, to let go of the distractions and busyness and victimhood and agenda, and engage passionately with what is.  Not later today or next year, but in the only place you will ever find what you are looking for, in that shimmering, infinite now.

When you get lost, inquire into to your deepest intention, that compass that always points home.  Keep coming back to that question, “What do I really want?” and find what authentically moves in you.  Don’t come from the top down, imposing ideas about what you should want.  Instead, get quiet, ask the question and listen.  If it arises out of that vast silence within, you will trust it more than the wisest advice or teaching.  As Sharon Salzberg says, faith is trusting your own deepest experience

* “Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” – Guillaume Apollinaire
** I’m not saying we all want “enlightenment” because, to me, that word is confusing, laden with baggage and atop a towering and distant peak-  not for mere messy mortals like myself.  I prefer how Michael Singer puts it- we all just want to be OK.  

08/5/13

Beginner’s Mind

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As a child, I was pretty sure adults had it figured out. I was surprised when, in my twenties, the all-knowing confidence I’d projected onto big people continued to elude me. Maybe the spiritual path would provide some answers! As it turns out, the further I go, the less I seem to know. I can’t see the path ahead. All I can ever see is this step- what’s underfoot. The next step, six steps down the line- they are ideas made up in my head. I cannot know them. Five steps ago is just a thought. I can only know the ground most immediately crumbling under my feet. So, to begin, I’ll touch my brow to the hem of the mystery. That relentless unfolding that has surprised me continually, humbled me over and over and over, and hurt me so completely in ways that, in retrospect, are maddeningly merciful.

Adyashanti often refers to the whole shebang- all that is- as the infinite mystery. It’s a good preview, those words, because you get the sense you are dealing with a question so vast, the appropriate response is surrender and wonder. You may give your weary mind a respite. It is not going to tie up the mulitiuniverses in a bow or fit them neatly in a box.

The infinite mystery. I picture myself minuscule in the vacuum of space.  The constellations I perceive, the shapes I interpret as symbols, the stories I tell- connect dots that are not particularly connected. I’m looking at a smattering of unrelated stars hundreds of light years apart moving in different directions. It is only my location, my lens, that happens to see a dragon here, an angel there.  Change the perspective, change the observed pattern.

Our brains are wired to seek patterns, so we can can have a sense of security, of control over ourselves, our lives, the world and let’s admit it, others. All to get pleasure and avoid pain. We are programmed to generalize, to judge, draw conclusions about causality. It works to a point- you learn to check the pockets of your laundry, to water and weed your garden, to tip-toe around the hot trigger of your lover’s wound. But in the end the uncertainty, the change, and unreal nature of the self eat through any stability, and your feet dangle over the abyss.

The abyss isn’t dark as in painful and twisted, it’s dark as in your mind can’t see in. Dualistic thought cannot penetrate it. The truth of who you are, your Buddha Nature, can only be directly experienced. It is beyond and before thought. This is why so many Zen Koans (i.e. the sound of one hand clapping) are designed to reveal the limited nature of the mind- to give it an impossible contemplation with which to wrestle. While it is tussles with itself and begins to unravel, your awareness has a chance to glimpse itself.

“Before notions and creations, you exist,
so there are no words
for That beyond words and language.
Self doesn’t need to understand Itself,
Freedom is before the concept of freedom.
You are what remains
when the concepts of “I,” mind and past disappear.” – Sri H.W.L. Poonja

When you are lost, when your familiar reference points crumble and you don’t know what to believe anymore- in that humility, in that not knowing, in that tenderness- there is tremendous potential to open to things as they really are. Pema Chödrön says, “to be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.”

Looking back, my biggest breakthroughs have been generally preceded by a wearing away of thinking I know what I am doing. Despite the deep realizations I’ve had, the sublime states of peace and love, I find myself back at square one over and over, getting hooked on that same wound, getting lost in projection. A kind of desperation begins to take hold, a disillusionment with the mind and a giving up. I realize again and again, I don’t know and I’m not in charge. I’m not running the world- not with concentration or affirmations or recalling that amazing insight, or really, really wishing, not with the most ingenious planning. I’m not in control, I don’t have the map, the key or even a clue.

Practice becomes like a bow that is almost an involuntary collapse, a throwing my hands up in the air, getting ground down into dirt, dust, space. I picture my head landing at Ananda Mayi Ma’s feet as I bow, and I say, “Oh Mother, I do not know what is best for me.” My view of the world, of myself, reveals itself as tattered, ragged, flimsy. I can see the mind compulsively contracting, creating suffering, creating stories, fantasies, a self. It begins to look more like motion than a real thing, a phenomenon that must be continually created, more flickering than solid.

This disorientation, this disillusionment, is a key part of the path. What is the ultimate reference point by which we orient ourselves but the false sense of a separate self? Waking up from that dream of the small self can be very confusing. Without self-concern as a constant point of reference, by what then do you navigate?*  I like how the teacher Ash Ruiz describes his transition- as a shift from having the self in the foreground and the world in the background, to seeing the everythingness in the foreground and the self in the background. The mind must empty itself of self to see things as they really are.

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few. ”
Shunryu Suzuki

We learn best, we grow, when we have that sense of wonder, innocence and curiosity. Imagine the small self twinkling in and out of existence in the context of star soup- it could be scary, or thrilling. What a delight to feel yourself part of the dance of life, part of something without edges, without separation.

After all, being the center of the universe is not all it’s cracked up to be (take it from an only child). Keeping the planets spinning and in their orbits is a pain in the ass. Knowing what’s best, knowing how things should be, believing in self and other, is a state of war.

The small mind bravely volunteers to solve all of the problems it has created. It makes more complications in the process, much like layering medication on medication, each one addressing the side effects of its predecessors. Michael Singer (must read: The Untethered Soul) has a sweet take on it: we’ve given our minds an impossible task. We’ve asked the poor, limited mind to control the universe, to make things always go our way, to make everyone love and praise us, to create a life of ever-expanding pleasure and zero pain. The mind does it’s very best around the clock to be master of the universe, trying to understand how this all works and divine the formula for happiness. It is, of course, doomed to repeated and complete failure. No wonder it is so stressed out!

Really getting what Thomas Merton said, that “life is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be lived,” lets the slaving mind off the hook. In the absence of the struggle to figure it out, the mind can relax for a moment and take in the miracle of the world, admire the ordinary magic of everyday life. The mystery of oatmeal. A round river stone. The wind, the breath. Everything is just as it is. There is no should be or shouldn’t be. There is no plan, no goal, no other place to be, no arrival, no necessary improvements, no trying.

Nirvana isn’t a heaven where you get all the things you think you want, where there are mangos and rainbows, passionate love and unending spiritual highs. Nirvana is the end of war, of searching, of lies and delusion. It literally means “blown out,” as to a candle flame. That unquenchable thirst that always needs more, needs to correct and fix, ceases to be.**  Cheers with an empty cup!

A Cup of Tea
Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.
Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.
The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”
“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

 

Footnotes

*It’s good to prepare yourself for the discomfort and fear of stepping outside of what you think you know, so you can recognize it as the stage you pass through as you topple from the nest and find your wings.  Adyashanti in particular addresses the challenges of this stage of falling away.

**I like the word “cease” better than “stop” because stopping sounds like an action, a effortful squelching, screeching to a halt. Ceasing sounds like it simply ends, or dies out- a natural unwinding back to nothingness. Krishnamurti said, “it is truth that liberates, not your effort to be free.”

 

© Chloe Conger 2013