Mandala of Being, based on a sketch © Richard Moss
Well, I’ve now finished reading Richard Moss’ The Mandala of Being, the book I was raving about last week. My reading of it was prompted by a recommendation and comment by my friend Paul Heft:
But let’s also wonder why we are constantly anxious; why our minds are so often caught up in past wrongs and future disasters that we are unable to be in and handle the present; why we so often claim ideals yet fail to live in ways that feel right.
As mentioned in my earlier article, the thesis of the book is as follows:
When we are not living in the Now, our minds take us to one of four ‘places’: the past (where we recall stories of what happened, that we may feel guilt, nostalgia or regret about); the future (where we dream of an idyllic future, or worry about a catastrophic one); to judgements about ourselves (who we think we ‘are’ and should be, perhaps grandiosely or depressingly); or to judgements about others and the external environment (who/what we think they ‘are’ or should be, perhaps jealously, angrily or bitterly). When we are in these fictitious ‘places’ we are not ourselves. What we must do is learn to be aware of our lack of presence when we are in these other ‘places’, and how to bring ourselves back to the Now, so that we are continually ‘starting over’, beginning again and afresh, with none of the ‘gunk’ that is not us, being present Here and Now.
The graphic above is my adaptation of the illustration of this mandala.
The good news about the book is that I do like Moss’ model — it’s plausible and thoughtful and useful. I like the fact that this is not about ‘self-improvement’ but rather about self-knowledge. I do “buy” the fact that, thanks to our modern human brains’ compunction for abstraction and story-creation as a means of ‘explaining’ the world, we have lost the capacity (which most creatures on the planet have) to live in Now Time, in the moment. Instead, we live, mostly, in our heads, telling stories that ‘represent’ what we think has happened, is happening, and will happen to us and to the world. And as we come to believe these stories, they evoke, again and again, the emotions shown on the perimeter of the mandala on the chart above. Our thoughts about these stories and the corresponding emotions reinforce each other. Ultimately we spend almost every moment of our lives (except those when we are caught up in the intoxication of love, music, nature, drugs, or other ‘escapes’ from the machine in our heads) reacting to everything by defensively relating it to the corresponding stories, and feeling the corresponding emotions. Ultimately we come to think we, and the reality around us, are these stories and these emotions.
The bad news, for me anyway, is that (1) the exercises that Moss suggests to bring us back to the Now just don’t work for me, and (2) the stories that Moss uses to illustrate how one could transcend these stories and emotions are very simple stories that I simply can’t relate to — they’re just not my stories.
So thanks to Richard Moss for introducing a third useful model to explain who ‘we’ are (I’ll get back to the other two in a moment). I’d recommend the book to anyone interested in such explorations. But now I’m left trying to figure out how to devise alternative exercises and ‘higher-self functioning’ processes to deal with my own stories and emotions. If you’re not interested in any more of Pollard’s navel-gazing, you can stop reading this article now — the rest is mostly all about me (or at least who I frequently think and feel I am).
This second chart shows (in yellow) the four personal stories I came up with as I worked through Moss’ book, and the emotions (purple) these stories engender in me. I think they’re very different from most people’s stories, in part because I have been extremely fortunate in my life so far (so none of the stories that nag my psyche are about the past — I’ve reached closure on the very few that once might have qualified). And also, I’ve been blessed with the capacity and the time for a great deal of self-reflection, so I know myself pretty well (so none of my stories lends itself to the rather simplistic approach that Moss’ examples take).
Here are the four stories that most keep me, these days, from living in the Now:
So there’s my c.2009 version of self-analysis in a nutshell. This is just about all I’m unhappy about these days. Moss’ prescription for not getting trapped by these stories is a combination of trust and unattachment to the future, continued self-inquiry and empathy for others. The objective seems to be to deconstruct and cast doubt on the veracity of these stories. I find this all very new-agey in a Byron Katie kind of way (sorry if you’re a fan of hers). As much as I’m sure Lomborg and the rest of the climate change deniers probably lap up this “are you sure this is a true story — you can never be sure any story is really true” hokum, I just don’t believe that denial is any way out. Sorry, but the four stories above are true stories. There is mountains of evidence to support them. Unattachment, denial, continued self-inquiry and empathy are not going to make them less true.
But there might be some other ways of coping with the veracity of these stories that could allow me (and others who also tell themselves these stories) to get past the emotions and live more fully in Now Time.
My guess, thanks to reading John Gray’s Straw Dogs, is that a more appropriate, honest and graceful means of coming to grips with my first story is acceptance. Moss alludes to the fact that in some cases we need to learn to ‘hold space’ for our stories, to acknowledge them, without letting them devour us. Learning to accept the death of our planet may not be that different from learning to accept the death of any individual creature we love.
My thought is that a more appropriate response to dealing with my second story is pragmatism. I am increasingly viewing idealism as not only my worst enemy but one of the greatest causes of violence and misery on the planet. We can’t control or cure all the tragic unintended consequences of civilization culture, so there is no point in stressing or ranting about it. What we can do, that’s useful, is to help the small circles of people we love, in community, collaboratively, to cope with it, and to share with them the astonishing joy in living that is still possible.
My candidate for a more appropriate response to the third story is appreciation. Through the practice of listening and paying attention and conversation I think it’s possible for me to understand why others expect things of me that I’m unwilling or unable to give, and to help them understand as well. Maybe the resultant improved communication will yield more reasonable expectations, those that can be achieved and exceeded without anxiety.
And for dealing with story four, perhaps I should be less hard on myself and practice patience. I’ve learned to trust my instincts. It’s possible that what I and others see as procrastination or laziness is just giving myself the time to be ready for what I need to do next, fully and effectively.
Moss might argue that acceptance, pragmatism, appreciation, and patience are just additional stories I could learn to tell myself about myself, more fictions that, like all stories, are not-me. I’d like to believe that they could be a useful part or aspect of me, something to work on. I think they’re perhaps a prescription for grace.
Perhaps all that’s required now is a lifetime’s practice. I still need to find a meditation practice that works for me, but I’m sure I’ll find it. The capacity to live most of my life in Now Time instead of Anxious Time is so close I can smell it. Everything tells me that when I achieve that, I will indeed become
just the space through which stuff passes, a part of the unfathomably complex dance of all-life-on-Earth, learning to improvise which of that passing-through stuff to touch, and which to just let go. “Ah, I know how I can make this better, or clearer, or more interesting, or more useful, or more innovative, or more fun — there!” Just being the space, and touching the right stuff in just the right way as it passes through.
So getting back the the three models of who we are, I can see how Moss’ model of us as just “a space of no-thing-ness…a potential for awareness” is not inconsistent with Cohen and Stewart’s model of us as a “complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit”. Both tell us we are not our minds, or our minds’ contents or conjurings.
As for whether “stories are all we are”, Thomas King’s model seems to be the odd one out here. Though when I browsed The Truth About Stories again today it occurred to me that King is warning that most of our stories are lies, which we tell ourselves to be comfortable, and that even the best stories are only guides. Perhaps King’s assertion that “stories are all we are” was meant as a challenge to see whether anyone would reply that we are and must be more than the stories we tell ourselves and others, more even than the stories that are ‘true’.
The above thoughts mostly emerged during a wonderful two-hour walk in the forest yesterday, followed by an evening listening to favourite music by scented candlelight. Time to read David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous again.