Most of my energies of late have been channeled into preparing myself to really see, at an experiential level, that my self, my mind, my sense of being all-of-a-piece, my sense of separateness, my sense of self-control and my sense of time are all illusions, conceptions, ideas that are extremely useful in surviving day to day, but ultimately false.
As I wrote last month, my reason for this search, and this strange journey, is to learn to cope better with stress, instead of trying to avoid it and hide from it.
With some effort, I have been able to appreciate intellectually that these six ideas are illusory; the arguments for their ‘real’ existence are flimsy, circuitous and defensive. And I have started along the harder path of learning to let my feelings (emotions) just be felt (without denying or suppressing them in case they hurt too much), and to let my sensations just be sensed (without labeling or attaching meaning to what I see, hear etc.) so that I will be able to cope with the feelings that ‘liberation’ from these illusions might engender. I appreciate why my mind always wants to intervene (with the best of intentions), and I also appreciate the ancient fight-flight-freeze purpose behind our acute feelings of fear, anger and grief (ill-adapted as they are to the modern world of constant stress).
I’ve found the book The Feeling Path by Joe Shirley (who I met during a recent trip to Seattle) helpful in learning to let my feelings ‘just be felt’. Joe’s book teaches you how to ‘map’ each of your “distressing, reactive states” to an at-peace “ideal state” it pulls you away from, and to appreciate that their purpose is “to help you identify the source of an imbalance and correct it”. He writes:
The ideal state you revealed through the Feeling Path Mapping process is not some kind of optimal state for continued existence. It is an ideal. It establishes the origin point for this particular feeling path, the ideal end of the full continuum of feeling states possible on this path. This feeling path has a job to do. Its job is to provide you with accurate, highly responsive feedback about your state of balance in the world. It needs to be fluid, ever changing according to what is real inside and around you. To live with the full capacity to feel, right here, right now…
Allow yourself to feel the reactive state, knowing you no longer have to fear that state. Let yourself notice the positive intention it always had for you. What was it trying to do for you, back then when it first took this form? Now reverse and shift the feeling state back into the ideal. Recognize that the ideal is just that: a beacon, a direction, an invitation to shape your life in ways that create harmony. It is not an arrival place…
The pain you [will continue to] feel will be real, responsive to in-the-moment losses or threats or violations. You will feel it and you will respond to it, and the pain will have done its job and will subside. The pain you feel will do its job quickly, and you will no longer get stuck in suffering, disconnected from reality and perpetuating a reaction from the past. You will be grateful for your pain, your sadness, your fear, because you will recognize it for what it is: aliveness and truth, and the authentic engagement with the awesome mystery of being.
As I continue on this journey, I also appreciate the anxiety of those who worry about what might happen to me (and them) if I am able to really see what I now ‘know’ to be true (there is something unsettling about intellectually appreciating that the very basis of much of what I have intellectually appreciated and valued all my life is illusory and unhealthy). They see a fine line between un-attachment (equanimity) and detachment (emotional insensitivity, inattention, disengagement and withdrawal). They worry that letting go of the illusion of self-control will mean letting go of responsibility and “good” judgement. I harbour some remaining concerns about these things myself, but not enough to turn back.
This journey is particularly hard for me because I realize that, for most of my life, I have been driven by fear and aversion, and have become afraid to feel (in case it makes me melt down or do something harmful) and afraid to pay attention (in case I notice something too hard to bear). As I’ve said, I’m the opposite of resilient, in an age when resilience is becoming essential to survival and usefulness in facing the challenges ahead. While I’ve written that I’m no use to the world broken, I now realize I’m also not much use to the world fearful.
So I’m persevering, identifying and moving aside the inner obstacles to really looking and really seeing what really is, and what is just illusion. Those who have been guiding me in this multi-modal journey are understandably impatient (“just fucking look!“) but I am patient, going at a pace that is right for me, and not (for once) over-analyzing or over-thinking it.
And while the journey is unfinished (and if I complete it, I am sure it will be just the start of a longer if less tedious journey), I am already curious about what the ‘I’ that recognizes there is no ‘I’ will do with this realization, what it will mean to see the world through such utterly different eyes.
Here, to motivate me, is what I imagine it could (ultimately) mean:
- Taking just about everything less seriously. That doesn’t mean being dismissive or ridiculing, but rather being more at peace with what is and less driven to change things, to strive, to achieve. Less angry and less blaming (can’t blame your ‘self’ if you don’t have one), and more accepting. There is a Buddhist text and song about what is left after ‘enlightenment’ (loving kindness, compassion, selfless joy and equanimity). I doubt one can reach a state that free from ‘negative’ feelings, but I sense that these four ‘positive’ feelings will be more prevalent in my life. They are already.
- More attentive and less distracted. Better able to see what really is and less distracted by attaching meaning, purpose, consequence or intent to it. And hence better able to see what is really needed and how to be of use, with the right, gentle touch.
- Dealing, with a mixture of frustration and delight, with how this new understanding of the world affects the language that I use (that infuriating tool that we writers wrestle with so passionately and endlessly). How will I seriously be able to use pronouns if there is no ‘self’? How can I coherently write about anything without using them?
- Better able to really feel, to really sense, to really tap into intuition, and to “make sense” of things in an appreciative, open, pattern-noticing way instead of an analytical, reductionist way.
What’s most interesting to me about this journey is that I think it might be fruitless. There is a part of ‘me’ (which I wrote about in my story The Opposite of Presence) that thinks the only journey that I am truly capable of is one of self-acceptance, of embracing my ‘self’ warts and all instead of denying its existence.
If that’s Plan B, it’s a pretty good one, I think. No matter where the journey takes me, ‘I’ will be in a better place than I am now.
I’ll keep you posted. And I promise not to wax rhapsodic at whatever I find, and not to tell you, dear friends and readers, that you ‘should’ (or shouldn’t) make the same journey.
Now I’m going to wander out onto the deck with my mug of tea and stare out into the darkness, at the forest, at the Salish Sea, and the mountains beyond. I’m going to try, once more, to stand still and look until I really see.