For the last few weeks I’ve been practicing learning to be “present” using a combination of methods from Adyashanti, Eckart Tolle, Richard Moss and Gabor Maté (more about him in a later post). I have yet to be “awakened to my true natural state”, but I feel closer to that than I ever have before, and am really enjoying the journey. Here’s a summary of what I’ve been doing.
Rather than just focusing on meditation, Adyashanti combines it with an “inquiry and contemplation” practice. They work together like this (indents are from my study notes, with my paraphrasing, vetted by my friend Paul Heft, who’s also studying his work):
Three Core Practices are used together, to enable “awakening to your true self”:
1. Meditation|Being Still: Dropping resistance to the present moment, and relaxing into the silence of being and awareness; realizing that your mind and its egoic consciousness is only a part of you, reliquishing its control over you, and realizing you are a connected part of everything.
2. Inquiry: Questioning who/what we are (the answer is not a noun/thing and can’t be put into words) and what is real, from that still state, discarding the ego’s intellectual preconceptions and emotions (you are not your thoughts or your feelings or your mind), and going deeper and questioning everything (is it true/real? that is meaningful/important to you).
3. Contemplation: Holding a phrase/idea/question in your awareness openly and non-analytically until meaning emerges, e.g. contemplate why what we do and what we think we want to do are different; this is a “letting come” process less intellectual than inquiry.
Understanding the following 4 Principles of Practice can help you in the above activities:
• Suffering is a function and result of our identifying with our personal and collective egoic consciousness.
• Ego is a fiction created by circular patterns of addictive thinking based on the idea of the separate self.
• Freedom from ego comes from awakening to your true nature as “conscious spirit”, a kind of ineffable (can’t be explained in language) presence; the meditative still state is our natural state of being.
• Conscious spirit (unlike the ego’s values that are based in separation) universally and inherently values truthfulness, unity (which is something more than just ‘connectedness’), freedom, peace, love, gratitude and appreciation.
The following 4 Orienting Ideas can guide you to what you’re looking to achieve in your practice:
1. Awakening to “being”: alive, intuitive, relaxed awareness in unity that can only be understood through experience; just like balancing (on a bicycle etc.) you can’t figure it out in your head or teach it, you can only practice it until you start to be competent, and “get” it, this natural state of being.
2. Giving up the “false self”: letting go of all the things you think and/or feel about yourself, which can then allow us to free ourselves from and realize this self as “not us” when we begin to awaken to being.
3. Recognizing the “dream state” for what it is, which is not reality: ridding ourselves of the personal and collective worldview we create with the false self, the unreality in which most of us normally live.
4. Finding what works for you: This process is largely a matter of overcoming our resistance to (and fear of) just perceiving what is. It’s understandable to fear this because what’s left is like an empty space; surrender is frightening, but the fear and the assumptions of what you’re afraid of are just part of the dream state. You just have to keep trying things, through meditation and inquiry and contemplation, until you find something that works, until you realize that you (we all) have the innate capacity to free ourselves, to awaken to being and give up the false self and its dream state.
There are also 5 Prerequisites of self-knowledge and self-discipline; you should be able to answer these 5 questions knowingly and affirmatively, both before you begin and as you create your practice:
1. What is important to you here and now?: Being aware of your aspirations and values, both in your thoughts and as manifested by your actions.
2. Are you willing to follow through?: Being aware of and willing to do/not do what is necessary to move toward your practice’s aspirations, every moment, not just during your practices.
3. Can you accept responsibility and authority for your own process?: It’s not the teacher’s role to provide the learning and to pursue the practice; it’s yours. Most of the work is solo and self-directed and unique to you.
4. Can you be honest with yourself without judgement?: Can you bring sufficient self-knowledge, self-awareness and self-management to your practice that you are not ‘at war with your mind’ (this is tough)!
5. Will you give each moment of your life authentic attention?: without avoidance, denial, or magical thinking.
And finally there are three Purposes or Attainments for these practices, which practitioners tend to pursue sequentially as their practice ‘deepens’:
1. To reduce personal suffering.
2. To know the truth about yourself and the world: to follow your passion, beyond mere intellectual curiosity and emotional longing, to learn and know what really is.
3. To surrender the self, which occurs in several stages: First, giving up the ‘lower self’, the ego/will, without ceding or surrendering it to another’s (teacher’s) ego/will. Then, achieving a fundamental shift of identity and the realization of the unity of everything (while avoiding the temptation to allow the ego to re-establish itself as a self-aggrandizing ‘enlightened’ or ‘spiritual’ self). And finally, allowing the falling away of the ‘higher self’, including all one’s experiences and spirituality, all aspects of self-referential being.
This is pretty heavy stuff, to be sure, but I find it more pragmatic and empowering, and better articulated than a lot of more rigid, dogmatic and “master/student” approaches. It respects that we all learn and discover differently. I also like that it embraces the idea from Eckart Tolle that much of our lives is spent inside our heads helplessly retreading the ‘stories’ that the egoic mind tells us (of four types, as Richard Moss delineates: stories about the past, about the future, about ourselves, and about others/the ‘outside’ world), and these stories invoke ‘pain-body’ emotions (regret and shame and nostalgia about the past, dread or unreasonable hope for the future, shame and sadness about ourselves, anger and grief about others and the state of the world etc.). The vicious cycle of intellectualized stories and debilitating emotions combine to possess us, so we can no longer see what’s real.
What’s wrong with us, or our minds, that so many of us live in this debilitated, unreal state, not present, alive, now, in the moment? My sense is that our brains have grown too large and complex for our own good.
The mind evolved, according to a theory espoused by Stewart and Cohen, as a ‘feature detection’ system, for the collective benefit of our body’s constituent cells and organs, the ‘creature’ that is us; the ability to recognize and react to different ‘features’ of the ‘real’ world was evolutionarily selected for. But this evolution had an unintended consequence: eventually this feature detection system began to confuse its representation of these ‘features’ (figments of reality) with reality (akin to confusing a map with the territory) and began to confuse its ‘self” (the feature detection system) with the constituent cells and organs (the creature) it evolved to serve, ‘believing’ that this ‘self’ was real. Stewart and Cohen (in Figments of Reality) explain it this way:
Our minds lead a dual existence… It is a duality of interpretations, just as a map can be a sheet of paper but represent a world. Features of the outside world are converted, via our senses, into ‘ﬁgments’ in our brains. On one level (brain) these are ordinary real-world processes involving chemicals, electrons, whatever; but simultaneously on another level (mind) they are mental maps of a very different order of reality, [representations of] tigers and cows and people’s faces. This kind of two-level feedback… provides a key to the curious ‘dual’ nature of brain/mind. For example, why does the real world seem so vivid? Why does red look so utterly different from green – and yet why do we ﬁnd it impossible to imagine a colour that is different from the standard repertoire? Why is touch so sensual, why is pain so immediate, impossible to ignore, and just plain nasty?
On the ‘ﬁgment’ level our brains do not perceive the universe in a passive manner; instead, they project the inner world of ﬁgments back on to (our conception of) the outer world of reality, so that our private inner world appears to us – but not to anybody else – to be ‘out there’. (What others perceive ‘out there’ is their own back-projection of their mental ﬁgments. However, on the whole different observers agree on what is projected, because it all stems from that common external reality, and is produced by similar brains, trained by similar Make-a-Human Kits [cultures].) Our brains, in this sense, create their own realities – and this enables them to attach vivid labels to prosaic reality, labels that are vivid because they are inside our minds where our personal identities also reside; but also labels that have evolved to be vivid because we survive much better if they are… Labels and associations that originally exist in the external world can, over time, be replaced by internal feedback loops in the mind which mimic the external loop sufﬁciently closely to have survival value. So our inner world of vivid ﬁgments must match the external realities well; for if it did not then we might easily imagine a tiger to be a rock, and try to sit on it, an action that would not be conducive to survival. It is evolution that binds the brain/mind strange loop together so that it evolves as a whole, ensuring that what mind chooses to perceive is usefully related to what is really there. And mind ‘decorates’ the important sensory messages with qualia like ‘red’, ‘bang!’ and ‘ouch!’
This leads to a delightful paradox. Perceived reality (as opposed to real reality) seems vivid to our perceptions, not because it is real, but because it is virtual. ‘Red’ is a vivid construct of our minds, which we plaster over our perceptions by projecting them back into the outside world. There is an objective sense in which the outside world is red too – it reﬂects light of an appropriate wavelength. But that is a different kind of ‘redness’ altogether, with none of the vividness that our minds use for ‘red’ decoration of London buses and blood. It’s just light bouncing around. Indeed ‘wavelength red’ does not correlate perfectly with ‘sensual red’: our colour vision is buffered against severe variations in observing conditions, such as changes in light intensity created by shadows or bright sunlight… The bee’s virtual world is different from our virtual world, and while they both are rooted in the same objective reality, they are different interpretations of it…
Smell… and taste… are perhaps more obvious cases where our vivid sensual impression has no direct external match: we smell ‘bacon’ but the real world just produces molecules; the response they excite has much more to do with our sensory apparatus than with any natural feature of the molecules… Most adult humans are ‘smell-blind’ along at least one dimension of smell-space. So our personal experiences of smell, and yours, are very probably different – an interesting case where we can do experiments on ‘what it is like to be’ somebody else. If you really want proof that the world of our senses is a ﬁgment of reality, go to the nearest amusement arcade and put on a Virtual Reality headset. The crude, blocky computer-generated images that these gadgets present to the eye ‘possess’ – that is give our minds a vivid impression of – the same solidity as the more reﬁned images of reality that our eyes present to our brains. Yet here the actual external reality is quite different: a pair of tiny TV screens carrying images that have been tailored speciﬁcally to create the illusion of depth. The three-dimensional world that they appear to depict exists only as a mathematical map in the computer’s memory. Despite this, they have depth, presence … they look real. This is because ‘red’ is the ‘decorated’ picture that the brain cooks up when the eye is stimulated by light of certain wavelengths: our decorated version of reality is virtual.
So really, everything that our mind conceives and perceives is ‘unreal’ — it is a simplified, culturally-influenced model or representation, a ‘story’ about reality, that is not ‘true’ at all. Reality just is; it exists outside of our minds and is something utterly different from the ‘figments of reality’ our minds (for cultural and evolutionary reasons) invent, or are persuaded are ‘real’ by our culture. (I confess that’s a phenomenological argument, and one, I should caution, I’m no longer particularly interested in debating.)
This has led me to believe that most creatures spend most of their lives in the moment, completely present. They are at once relaxed and aware. On rare occasions, a situation arises that causes adrenaline to flow, and provokes a fight/flight response. The response is largely instinctive, but, in many creatures, the experience is processed by the mind to inform future responses. Then these creatures return to their normal ‘now time’ state. I’m not so sure that this is equally true for domesticated creatures that have grown up under the influence of modern human culture; the desperate symptoms of ‘separation anxiety’ and the dreadful symptoms of fear-conditioning in human-abused animals, leads me to believe that you don’t need language or a large brain to develop a pain-body or be ‘taught to believe’ the terrifying stories of a damaged human egoic mind.
Nevertheless, here we are, we humans, possessed of this amazing intellect that can invent a false self and a dream state ‘world’, and persuade ourselves (and/or be persuaded) that these are real, to the point we ‘forget’ our knowledge of what is really real. This is what I mean when I say that because of our brains’ complexity we have become “too smart for our own good”.
I have been quick to blame our culture for doing this to each of us (seven billion to one is pretty unfair odds) but I’m beginning to appreciate that our culture co-evolved with our brains. I’m beginning to believe that long before we realized (all too recently) that the artifacts and processes of our culture are bringing about the end of stable climate, the end of the industrial economy on which we all utterly depend, and the end of cheap energy (and ultimately, the end of civilization and the sixth great extinction of life on Earth), our big, fierce, intelligent brains were already doing a job on us. The history of pre-industrial eras, from the genocide of Neanderthals and the extinction of large mammals by ‘indigenous’ peoples, to the staggering cruelty and suffering and enslavement of the dynasties of China, the Roman Empire, the Crusades and the Dark Ages, is one of a species already disconnected, already massively mentally ill, already the victim of a brain that can imagine and realize fears and atrocities enough to doom it to quick and nasty (and evolutionarily appropriate) extinction.
This is a far more depressing realization than the one that we have inadvertently overtaxed our planet’s resources to the point of collapse. As I put it in a recent note to Paul:
Evolution of wings, originally for body temperature regulation, to eventually enable creatures to fly — brilliant evolutionary success. Evolution of minds, originally as a feature detection system for the protection and mobility of ‘bodies’ of organs, to eventually create dream states so convincing that the creature mistakes them for reality — ghastly evolutionary mistake.
But here we are. Hence my desire to learn ‘presence’ — to realize who I really am, beneath my mind’s false self, and to realize what the world, the ‘unity’ of which I am an apparently indistinguishable part, really is, beyond my limited perceptions deep within this dream state my mind has concocted.
My reason for reproducing the two diagrams above (from previous posts) is that, between earnest attempts at meditation, I have been focusing my complementary “inquiry and contemplation” practices on the following questions:
- What are the fears/anxieties/suffering/triggered emotional reactions I am trying to let go of? What is behind them? Are they ‘real’?
- If I am able to “awaken to my true self” and see the world/myself as it/I really is/am, how will my experience of living, and in particular of anxiety, fear, suffering, grief and anger, change?
The top chart above (with the 7 yellow diamonds) shows what I am (and I think most people to some extent are) afraid of. Fears of the three types on the left, I think, are universal to all creatures, and are instinctive — we’ve evolved to fear them because failure to do so has led the fearless to demise and removal from the gene pool. I’m told that many aboriginal tribes won’t camp overnight under some kinds of large trees because they know that the risk of them falling is relatively high and the consequences of being under them if they do, life-altering. Most wild creatures show far more aversion to risk of entrapment or confinement than to risk of short-term, even acute pain — for good reason.
Fears on the right of this chart are, I think, inculcated by human culture (and afflict our domesticated creatures as well as humans). These are the ones, I think, that we might be free of if we could ‘awaken’ to our true nature. I have a great fear of driving on black ice (I had a one-car accident in 2008, and was part of a 30-car pile-up forty years ago, the only accidents I’ve ever been in, both due to black ice). Part of this is a fear of pain, and of being permanently injured (I’m not really afraid of dying if it’s painless). Part is the fear of being trapped (in an overturned car or away from my ‘safe’ destination). Part is the fear of lack of control, and the fear that my incapacity might cause financial or psychological pain and hardship to others “due to my own stupidity” (fear of embarrassment).
If I were to be able to achieve a persistent state of presence, would these fears change? I’m not sure. As I say, I think the fears on the left side are more “existential”, “real”, and hence I’d guess that being ‘present’ would have less impact on these fears than those on the right (though my ‘presence’ might open me to information that showed fears in both columns to be unwarranted unless I was actually skidding on the ice at that moment). But some would have me believe I would be completely fearless if I were completely present. Maybe so.
I sense that ‘presence’ would have a stronger impact on my (chronic) anxieties than on my (immediate) fears, because they are inherently less existential and more likely to be caused by triggers or ‘feedback loops’ of the types shown in the second chart above (the one with the pink squares). Likewise, while I doubt (despite the reassurance of some yogis and their followers) my experience of (physical) pain would be much affected by learning to reconnect and live in the moment, I’m guessing my experience of (psychological) suffering might be dramatically reduced if not eliminated. And while I expect that some situations of immediate, real threat or directly experienced tragedy might still evoke brief flashes of acute anger and/or sadness, my sense is that it would pass more quickly, and be less likely to be re-triggered by memories or associations of the ‘false self’, if I were successful in my ‘presencing’ practice.
If that were so, the first chart above might lose its entire right half, and the second chart above might start to look like this (this is how I imagine the birds outside my window live):
Of course, if I were in a situation where real threats were constant (e.g. living under relentless harassment) or the pain was constant (e.g. with chronic pain syndrome or in the situation of the woman stuck looking after a highly autistic son in A Long Way Down), I don’t think I’d be able to ‘awaken’ to a state free of anxiety, suffering, or incessant sorrow. Could you?
How do I imagine, in my moments of inquiry and contemplation, my normal state of living if I were able to awaken, connect, and realize who/what I (and the unity of which I am inextricably a part) really am, every moment?
I imagine myself in a state that is at once very relaxed and very aware. A state where my intellect is largely at rest (and damn it needs a rest!) and where my emotions are calm, even, compassionate, and playful — not “under control” but just at peace. A state where my senses and instinct come to the fore, with my senses acute, noticing, connected, taking in, feeling-at-one-with, enjoying, and my instincts are ‘directing’ ‘me’, gently, letting go, letting things come, just being present, being generous, ‘touching’ appropriately when that ‘touch’ would be helpful.
No longer my ‘self’.
myself being just a part, flying, floating. Green and blue and white, flowing and glowing.
Softening. Getting lighter.
Thanks to the many people I’ve been speaking with about this in recent weeks, and especially to Paul Heft for the lengthy back-and-forth discussion that has helped me design my “presence” practice and draft this explanation of how and why I am pursuing it. I’ll let you know how it goes.