Willing with Discomfort

Some people feel they are completely without discipline and will, mostly thrown about by the waves of life circumstance, craving, accident, emotion, or simply being screwed with by others. By “some people” I mean “most people at least every once in a while.” Will is the capacity to recommit and continue following one’s intention even with these conditions.

I recently committed to studying something new, a martial art, which brings up a lot for me around my body, athleticism, and conflict. As with all new habits, the first few sessions were quite fun and exhilarating. I wanted to go around telling everyone how cool it was and all the cool things I was learning.

Beware the person who has done something new for less than a month but tells you it changed their life. For it is inevitable that after newness wears off, the practice goes through a sour period. It starts to bring up feelings of boredom or frustration as we realize we’re not as far along as we hoped, or the work is not as glamorous as we’d imagined, and we have to keep showing up to gain the benefits.

Image of a person standing on a mountain ridge with a backpack and thick jacket.

An act of will. Photo by Danka & Peter.

Getting out of bed early on a Saturday morning doesn’t seem as rewarding as hitting snooze. Those vicissitudes of life come up again—emotions, discomfort, cravings, unexpected circumstances. Giving up the practice sounds tempting, especially since it didn’t immediately make your life better. You’re still the same person, growing slowly, but perhaps not as slowly as you were when you weren’t doing the practice.

In talking about mindfulness practice, Jon Kabat-Zinn advises beginners to start the practice with a curious skepticism. Believing it’s going to perfect you and go so smoothly is a recipe for overwhelming discouragement when we hit the phase I’m writing about. Believing that it’s a waste of time and will do nothing for you is a guarantee that you will get no benefit.

I think his advice applies to all new habits or practices, including mental health treatment. We ought to commit to them for at least a month, ideally three months, and continue showing up so long as they are not actively causing us harm. But do the practice with curiosity, watching your experience as it happens with interest. Let it be an opportunity to learn about yourself in a new way. Perhaps you notice a tendency to give up at the first sign of frustration, or to fixate on the practice and ignore other matters such as self-care and relationships with other people. After we’ve been doing the new practice for three months, six months, a few years, through times of hardship and times of ease, then we can accurately evaluate the power of the practice and the gains it brings to life.

Underlying all of this is the cultivation of will, which offers so much more. If I am able to bike to work in the winter gloom, simply because I said I would do it, then I am able to start the hard conversation with my loved ones about something I know we need to discuss. If I can rearrange my schedule to go to that workout class then I can flexibly commit to my dreams and my life goals. If I can let myself be thrown to the ground and get back up to face my attacker, then I can call my congressperson about something that matters to me.

Roberto Assagioli, an Italian psychiatrist who founded the theoretical orientation of Psychosynthesis, either drew upon or happened upon a concept contained in Western esoteric traditions: that will is a human faculty that expresses one’s Higher Self. In this respect, will is not the Victorian concept of muscling through all hardship, ignoring pain, controlling vulnerability, or somehow never facing problems and setbacks in life. Will is about experiencing all of that and still moving wisely in the direction of desire.

If that’s too esoteric for you, you might think of will as a psychological “muscle” that becomes stronger with exercise. We exercise it by committing to doing something and then doing it. Simple but not easy. Start with what’s achievable for you, and build from there. With practice, we gradually expand feeling that sense of agency and meaning in life.

Nothing to Fix

In the past few years my thinking has shifted around the idea of “fixing.” I am of the opinion that when it comes to myself, the idea of being “broken” or needing to be “fixed” comes from internalized shame and is not useful for the work of becoming whole and in integrity.

This is a confrontational idea. We are so beset by ideas of who we are “supposed” to be. When we look to the harm we do to ourselves and our loved ones, or the harm done by others, it sounds bizarre to hear someone say there’s nothing to be “fixed.”

I do not suggest there is no harm being done, and there aren’t people who do and espouse evil. I simply do not think shame offers us anything useful for becoming whole and building harmonious communities. Shame as wielded today is a tool of dominance and social control. “You are bad” is all it has to offer. “You are broken.” “Fixing” has denotations of fastening into place as well as repair. “Fixing” is about maintaining things as they are, not transforming the lead of life into gold.

When we believe that judgment is an essential truth, then we have no room to grow or become better. If I’m bad, then everything I do to become better is still based on the premise of my badness. All of my works, my good efforts, my skills have been built over the shoddy foundation of my badness. As soon as I make any kind of mistake or hurt someone, or am myself hurt—an absolutely inevitable risk and reality of living any kind of enjoyable life—it cuts right to that foundation and seems to confirm it as the underlying bedrock truth. “See? You were bad all along. You simply hid it well.”

From a mindfulness-based perspective, this is an exceptionally convincing illusion. When we sit in meditation, we become aware of a deeper level of awareness and a broader experience of Selfhood that is able to experience pain and joy but is neither and both. It is the field on which these experiences play out. When I connect with that sense of spacious Self, I find myself fully capable of expressing the qualities of life I most desire. It is like I discover I already am the person I always wanted to be.

And then I get stuck in one of these smaller parts of me, the ones that carry all my doubts and fears and anger, and I forget that spaciousness and become convinced that this smallness is my truth. So I have to keep practicing.

This is why there is nothing to “fix.” The idea that I have to “fix” comes from this smallness, this idea that I am “bad” but I can make myself “better.” It is not coming from that spacious Self, and its solutions are inevitably limited and stuck in the smaller thinking that only maintain the problem.

A green glass alembic of Iranian origin

An alchemical Alembic of Iranian origin

If I start with the assumption that I am basically good, that everything in me is striving for wholeness and integrity, then I have to take my inner conflicts seriously without taking sides. The parts of me that cause harm, lash out, and interfere with my goals do so with a notion of my best interests. They try, in their painful ways, to bring something important to my attention, and my work is to—as best as I can today—drop out of my attitude of trying to categorize and fix and into a deeper listening, witnessing state. To really understand what these parts want and fear, and why this upsetting pattern persists in spite of all my efforts to “fix.”

At times this means putting limits on the parts of me that are causing harm, which is in practice easier when I am doing so from a place of acceptance and non-shaming. It is not about accepting all behavior and outcomes. It is about accepting the innate dignity of every part of me and a willingness to seek out what needs liberation within the painful and harmful impulses.

This process of listening and understanding allows these conflicts to soften and dissolve into each other. With time, a solution emerges—including facets of all—a way forward that moves out of the stuckness, reduces harm, and increases efficacy.

Thoughts on Resilience

In preparation for a workshop I will be leading at Many Gods West I am contemplating resilience. The American Psychological Association defines resilience as: “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors. It means “bouncing back” from difficult experiences.”

An orientation toward resilience assumes that one will meet adversity, trauma, tragedy, or stress at some point in life. A blade of grass is resilient because you can step on it, and once the pressure’s off it will eventually return itself to its original angle and shape, or one close enough to keep getting sunlight. A pack of wolves is resilient because it can keep itself intact, responsive, and generative even when it loses members. Forests are resilient when a diversity of species contributes to the ecosystem—if one species suffers significant disease or loss, others could pick up the slack.

All of these models of resilience have limits, of course—paving over the grass will likely override its resilience. Even then, over time as the concrete breaks up and tiny cracks form, life will emerge. The concrete itself has a certain amount of resilience, but lacking life and people willing to invest in infrastructure maintenance, it will inevitably break apart and never put itself back together.

From sandy ground, a tiny plant grows, casting a long shadow.

Photo by Evan Kirby.

Life rebounds. Life repairs itself. Life adapts even to the greatest stressors. If we identified with life itself, thinking through the history of the organism on Earth from the first DNA strands weaving together in some ocean to my fingers typing on a keyboard, life is amazingly resilient. Our species is quite resilient, able to adapt to a variety of ecosystems, catastrophes, food sources. Though we can look at history and see some remarkably self-destructive behavior, in sum we are a species geared toward survival—and not just our own personal survival, but the survival of our groups, of things greater than ourselves.

Here I approach spiritual thinking, but spirituality offers much in terms of resilience. Ritual binds people in an experience of shared meaning and connection with something larger than the self—such as community, nature, deity, or a personified ideal. An intention for one’s life, a commitment to a cause, service to a community or deity, close personal relationships, even a beloved pet may be enough to keep us going through the hard times until we recover.

Though excessive pain and trauma is overwhelming and not desirable, being resilient isn’t about a life free of pain and hardship. Avoiding conflict, hardship, discomfort, and painful experience decreases resilience. Our muscles become stronger when they’re torn apart in concentrated exercise, then allowed to rest and rebuild, then torn apart again.

When I was a barista, I became rather inured to scalding hot water. In my early days, if I spilled the water on my skin, it would obviously hurt a ton and I’d stick my hand under the cold faucet water and shout at my coworkers, “We GIVE that to people to PUT IN THEIR BODY!” After three years, I would simply shake the water off and keep going, then remind myself it was still a good idea to apply the cool water. We can become too insensitive to pain and damage which will affect our long-term resilience in other ways.

We need rest and challenge, and sometimes we need one when we most think we need the other. When I get too comfortable and too fearful of leaving my house to do something challenging, that’s usually the time I need to push myself to take a risk. Likewise when I get super rigid in my practices and keep forcing myself to do things even when it’s hurting my body, that’s often a time when I need to relax, rest, or make a change.

One practice that helps is articulating and returning to intention. If my intention is to run a marathon, then my practices around becoming stronger and giving myself rest should serve that intention. If I get injured, I would want to follow my healer’s recommendations but all in service to the goal of running a marathon. Perhaps I reach a point where that intention no longer seems worth the pain and effort, but then that points to whether I have an even larger intention that running a marathon may or may not serve. Do I want a life filled with exciting experiences? Do I want a life where I live long enough to see great-grandchildren?

Perhaps you can’t state an intention today, because you’re not sure what you want. That’s okay. It can take a while to figure it out, and perhaps the intention today is to explore possibilities until you figure it out. One thing that helps me is to ask myself, “What quality do I want to experience (or express) in my life?” Then sit and listen. Maybe all I get today is a bodily sensation that I cannot name, but even that’s information. It might be the quality I center around, what I seek out and nurture in my interactions. The crushed grass perks back up, pointing toward the sun. This quality could be the sun you seek.

Heroes and Villains

People say, “everyone is the hero of their own story.” A hero overcomes opposition and adversity to win the day, often possessing some great moral virtue or charisma that makes us align with the hero and against those opposing the hero.

What troubles us is when we flip the story and see that the villain is also the hero of their story, and from their vantage, everything the “villain” does makes sense. We might begin to empathize with them, align against the former “hero.”

An image of a cat in a green lawn, behind which is a fence. Beside the cat is a yellow flag with an image of a cat in a space suit.

The first, by Sticker Mule

In the past twenty or so years, a theme has become prevalent in hero stories in which we see the hero and the villain creating each other. Batman explores this in its many iterations, through many tellings and retellings. Sometimes it is The Joker who kills young Bruce Wayne’s parents, beginning the quest that leads toward Wayne becoming The Joker’s nemesis. In Allan Moore’s The Killing Joke, Batman creates The Joker during a botched robbery by knocking him into a pit of chemicals that leads to The Joker’s eternally frozen clownish face.

We are mirrors for each other, and sometimes we don’t like what we see in those mirrors. Sometimes we define ourselves by our opposition to something else, in which case our opportunities for evolution narrow and we become somewhat dependent upon that opposing force to maintain identity.

Lately I’ve observed a lot of discussion about bullying and abuse, with both “sides” of an issue accusing the other “side” of engaging in this kind of behavior. These discussions are so tricky and rife with miscommunications and egotism. People who are abusive and disruptive to community are so good at leverage the language of being victimized by abuse and bullying. And, people who are truly abusive and bullying are so good at appearing innocuous and likable that their victims are disbelieved.

Sometimes, people can be in conflict with neither being the victim. This happens more often than we want to admit. We can be locked in patterns of mutually hurtful behavior, both of us having completely legitimate reasons to feel hurt and disliking of the other, both deserving of an apology for some things. We are human, fallible, and in a constant state of growth.

Lately I have reflected on defensiveness and justification. Both seem entirely about maintaining the ego—either maintaining the image of myself that I want to believe in, or maintaining the image of myself I want you to believe. When I apologize with justification, I am taking some responsibility for my harm but still trying to make sure you think what I want you to think of me. When I get defensive about your opinions, more often than not it’s because there’s an image of myself that I treasure that your opinions are threatening to expose as inaccurate to downright false.

The more honestly I know myself and openly I express that knowledge, the more easy life becomes. In the short run, this honesty troubles and uproots relationship, but over time my relationships become more intimate, more open, more resilient. I am better able to express my experience without blaming you for it, and hearing your experience without taking it personally. The ego expands to include an honest self-appraisal rather than gripping, white-knuckled, this precious idea of who I want to be.

We take part in many stories, and we’re the hero in very few of them.

Meditation – The Two Worlds

We live in, at least, two worlds—the inner experience and the outer world. Each of us has our preference, often understood as a personality that is more introverted (inner-focused) or extroverted (outer-focused).

I’ve seen several memes and articles about the care and feeding of the introvert and the extrovert, and we benefit from knowing our tendencies, but I find it unfortunate that we seem to view them as fixed and unchangeable personality types and not preferences we can develop.

The inner and outer worlds are separate yet in relationship with each other. We need not defend against one to protect the other.

This meditation helps you to find your best balanced style of attending to and interacting with your inner and outer worlds. With practice, this may help you feel more at ease with your natural social style, better able to manage stressors in the environment, and strengthen your ability to maintain your self.

This meditation guides you through making contact with your inner experience, being present to the surrounding environment, and then being with the flow of information between the two worlds.

Link to audio file of the Two Worlds meditation.

Cultivating Will

Sometimes I feel like a puppet, dangling from the moon, pulled by erratic moods and the needs and desires of others. Sometimes my intuition is profoundly helpful, and following it makes my life richer and more profound. Other times I wonder if what I am sensing is accurate intuition or something more misleading, my hopes and fears. As someone long drawn to the richness of the unconscious and the spiritual realms, I have learned to appreciate both the limitations and the necessity of reason.

A snowy landscape with a tiny party of human hikers. Photo by Marc Guellerin.

A snowy landscape with a tiny party of human hikers. Photo by Marc Guellerin.

The more we look inward and reflect on habits, compulsions, and automatic thoughts, the more we might begin to fear there is no underlying self. Perhaps we are simply a mess of competing drives and biological imperatives. Yet one wonders how we are capable of even recognizing this without the conscious capacity of self-reflection.

Yet apart from reason and intuition is the faculty of will: that ability to commit to and follow through on a course of action. This faculty is something we can grow through practice, starting with small steps and building upon successes. It is the faculty we draw upon when we have the thought, “I don’t feel like it,” but we go ahead and do “it” anyway.

Will has picked up unfortunate connotations from its widespread Victorian usage, in which it was used without an appreciation for compassion and used to shame people who struggle. We do not have to be wholly in control of our thoughts and feelings to exercise will effectively. Neither do we have to trample  vulnerability and pain and force an outcome. But cultivating will does require a bit of sternness, a certain nonattachment with the self.

Will is the faculty that says, “It is our duty to win,” and makes consistent effort toward winning. Hardship and defeat do not become invalidations of the duty; they become information and fuel to help continue the will’s journey toward victory.

By this time of year, most of us who have set New Year’s resolutions tend to realize that we’ve forgotten about them, or begun letting them slip. It’s easy to go into shame and feelings of failure. Both are awful, but they also let us off the hook. Thinking that I’m worthless means I don’t have to try again.

When I exercise will, reason and intuition are the wings that keep me steadily moving toward my goal. When the weather conditions change, as they do, reason and intuition help me to adapt. Without will, however—without a destination in mind—there is no reason to adapt, no particular place I’m trying to go, no need to coordinate these functions.

If you do not have a grand goal, or know what you desire, you still can begin developing will. Pick a small activity, something silly or unimportant, and commit to doing it regularly according to a schedule. Studies have shown improvement in will when people commit to brushing their teeth with their opposite hand for two weeks. The trick is to do what you say you’re going to do.

Everything Wants to Be Included

Often we want to believe change will be direct and unproblematic—all I need to do is get the will and want aligned and then it’ll just happen. But when we find change harder to sustain than expected, or years later suddenly relapse in old upsetting patterns, we may struggle to know what to do. Shame is almost inevitable. “I thought things were different! I thought we were past this.”

An image of a Labyrinth carved in relief.

An image of a Labyrinth carved in relief.

The image of the Labyrinth is widespread and often employed in reflecting upon the personal and spiritual journey. Though the Labyrinth itself is a direct path—if you keep walking in the same direction, you will eventually reach the center—it is subjectively quite meandering and indirect. We might seem to approach the goal, only to veer suddenly and find ourselves further than ever from it.

Each turn of the Labyrinth offers us the opportunity to see a new facet of the problem or the longing. What seems true is that we cannot escape those things that trouble us. We cannot eradicate what we despise; indeed, despising something only seems to intensify its power over us. Neither can we transcend our problems by minimizing the damage it does to us.

At the center of the Labyrinth might be a hoped-for experience, a sense of self and life that feels so potent and scary that parts of us pull us away as we get close. Often we feel we would rather just get rid of those fearful and hostile parts, yet we seem unable to do so. No amount of will eradicates them or suppresses them for long. No tyranny of mind or society has ever been able to extinguish the soul. Whatever we suppress will erupt, and the more vigorously suppressed it is, the more destructive will be its eruption.

Better to befriend these distractions, these upheavals. Everything seeks to be seen, named, and included. What is this part trying to offer me today? What fear or danger am I not acknowledging? What unmet need still lingers? What weakness in me needs strength training? What does resentment tell me about the burdens I carry that are not mine?

What if my belief about myself and the world is not an accurate map? What do those beliefs exclude? What if those beliefs are obscuring important information that could help me to understand the world better as it is, in a way that would help me be more effective and connected? What if these disruptions, as problematic as they are, arose to help me to see those flaws in my beliefs? What if this was all necessary so that I may truly know the center when I find it?

We turn a corner, individually and collectively, to look at old problems from a different angle. The dangers are real but so too is hope. Refusing the new angle by clinging to old beliefs will not serve.

Calm and Depth

The following meditation arose during a book group I and a colleague led discussing Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection. In her chapter on cultivating calm and stillness, she defined calm as “creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity.” We thought it would be helpful to include an experiential exercise, and so I developed the following meditation.

An image of a hill, reflected very clearly in the water below. At the edge of the water are gathered some vehicles. Photo by Ivars Krutainis

An image of a hill, reflected very clearly in the water below. At the edge of the water are gathered some vehicles. Photo by Ivars Krutainis

As with many things, I think we often misunderstand concepts like calm, peace, stillness, and serenity as the absence of trouble. Instead, I think of all these things as emerging when we cultivate presence amidst our troubles.

Practicing calm and finding spaciousness is empowering and allows us to see possibilities where we might have only seen our worst fears. This practice helps us to be more pragmatic.

Some important caveats:

  • This is harder for some of us than others, and the difficulty is particularly contingent on whether we have any sense of safety or stability in life. Find it, wherever that might be, and build upon it.
  • At no point does this practice require dismissing the importance and reality of your troubles.

Calm is a surprisingly loaded word, as it is one often said to others as an order. “Calm down!” This is rarely helpful, often expressed in a way that’s dismissive. It is exceptionally unhelpful when what one really means is “I feel uncomfortable when you do or say that and I want you to stop.”

When we feel distressed, angry, or panicking, we instinctively want to pull others into our crisis and sometimes react very poorly to people who are able to keep themselves out of it and show calm. Yet we need that so much. It is a model and inspiration that helps us to disconnect from the panic and re-examine the conditions on the ground.

Emotions are contagious, and as a highly anxious person can stimulate anxiety around them, so too can a calm person help bring more calm to a situation, as Brown notes in the same chapter. When you feel a need to tell others to calm down, I invite you to practice calming yourself first.

Link to Calm and Depth for download. Please share with attribution.

On Discernment

At last summer’s Many Gods West conference in Olympia, Washington, I offered a workshop on discernment. In my spiritual communities, discernment is valued highly, yet I found few descriptions of how to engage in a discernment practice. One of the benefits of discernment is its cultivation of inner authority, so it is helpful that there is no “one true way” of discerning. I wanted to offer a practice and context to help people begin or deepen their own discernment.

This blog post is a very concise summation of my talk and includes a link to a recording of a meditation I led. If it is not clear already, I will speak of discernment as a psychospiritual practice. As you will see, I believe it is a useful practice for those who do not have a theistic or spiritual orientation. In this post, however, I will be including the spiritual dimension.

Discernment, according to Etymonline.com, comes from Old French and Latin roots and has connotations of sifting and separation. During my talk, I defined discernment as “judging without being judgmental,” and a participant approached me and pointed out the usefulness of the sifting metaphor to clarify the meaning behind that. When panning for gold, one sifts through the ore to separate out the desired mineral. The discarded ore is not “bad,” it simply does not pertain to the desired goal.

A discernment practice, then, cultivates our inner authority to tease apart the meaning of experience, to separate what is beneficial to our values and desires from what is not.

An image of a series of circles that flow into each other. The "Experience" circle points to "Meaning," which points to "Action or Choice," which points to "Outcome." "Outcome" points back to "Meaning," and is linked to "Experience," as "Outcome" and "Experience" are essentially the same phenomena.

Image Description: A series of circles that flow into each other. The “Experience” circle points to “Meaning,” which points to “Action or Choice,” which points to “Outcome.” “Outcome” points back to “Meaning,” and is linked to “Experience,” as “Outcome” and “Experience” are essentially the same phenomena.

This image offers a conceptual model, drawing upon cognitive-behavioral models of experience and cognition, to help us discuss the practice of discernment. We all have Experiences, which are essentially neutral occurrences that of themselves do not have meaning. For example, an experience might include:

  1. Having a strange twinge in your shoulder
  2. Reading a friend’s Facebook post
  3. Having a dream in which your deity communicates with you.

Meaning is what we understand about our Experience. This includes the pre-existing beliefs we have about ourselves and the world; our mood; the political climate; the weather; our previous interactions with others.

  1. If I’ve had that twinge in my shoulder before, for example, and then threw my back out, that might influence the Meaning I make of the shoulder-twinge. “Uh oh.”
  2. If I had a fight with my friend last night, that might shape the Meaning. “This post is about me!!!!!”
  3. If I ascribe to a religious framework that discourages people from believing that gods can communicate directly, that might form the Meaning. “This is just a strange dream, or a misleading one.”

The Meaning we make of the Experience leads us to make a Choice or take Action.

  1. “I’d better get a massage and see if I can avoid another back issue.” or “Oh, that twinge just lasted for a second and went away, I’m going to ignore it.”
  2. “I’m going to post an angry, passive-aggressive response to this post!” or “It’s unlike my friend to be passive aggressive, I’m going to call and see if we’re cool.”
  3. “I’m going to ignore this dream.” or “Maybe my god is talking to me, I’m going to follow the dream’s suggestions.”

 

An image of a thick mist, through which a town seems to be peeking. Photo by John Chavez.

An image of a thick mist, through which a town seems to be peeking. Photo by John Chavez.

Whatever Action we take (and inaction is an action), what happens next is the Outcome, which either reinforces our Meaning or challenges it.

  1. If I get the massage and still throw my back out, I might question my understanding of the shoulder twinge.
  2. If my friend tells me I’m overreacting, I might question a lot of things about my experience or the friendship.
  3. If I follow the dream guidance and have an amazing experience, I might start to believe (or believe more deeply) that my god can talk to me via dreams.

Meaning moving into Action is where we practice Discernment. Too often we accept our premises of Meaning so rapidly that we take unconsidered or damaging actions. Alternately, we might divest our power of Meaning-making or Meaning-seeking by deferring to an outside authority.

Meaning is a deeply Existential concept, and to break it down in a blog post would be ill-advised. To keep things simple, I look at Meaning as beginning with my personal experience—the thoughts, emotions, and sensations I have, my history and personal associations—and then widening it out to larger circles of Meaning. Wider circles include political meanings, cultural messages, spiritual beliefs, and so forth.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, a Jesuit priest, developed a practice he called “discernment of spirits” after a long convalescence from illness. Essentially forced to spend hours with himself, Ignatius began observing the thoughts he had, and noticing that each thought engendered a feeling in his body. He began to categorize the feelings according to his own theological framework. To be very simple, some thoughts come from God and some from Satan, and he believed one could discern the origin of the thoughts by observing the quality of feeling.

For those of us who do not subscribe to dualistic religion, this framework is not useful. I acknowledge P. Sufenus Virius Lupos of Aedicula Antinoi for noting that this dualism might negatively influence how people in other traditions view discernment. We may need to take some time to name and define the possible influences upon us so that we can practice more effective discernment, engaging in what Anomalous Thracian calls “the three Ds“: distinctions, differentiations, and definitions.

I believe that Igntatius’s approach has merit, and have created a version inspired by his. I have included a fifteen-minute recording of the Discernment meditation. It begins by getting us deeply grounded in our bodies, and then invites us to observe our thoughts and notice the feelings they engender. In part two, I invite you to call to mind a spiritual teacher or other influential person in your life, to call their thoughts and actions to mind and observe the feelings they engender. In part three, I invite you to contact a spiritual ally and invite them to send you a message, so you can sense how that contact feels in your body.

 

 

 

Don’t Try to Be Calm

Relaxation, peace, and calmness are not goals of mindfulness and meditation practices. They are often common and welcome side-effects, but in a sense they cannot be the desired outcome of practice. The wisdom of this is often hard to grasp from a Western perspective, where relief of pain is an ideal goal of medical treatment. More deeply, contemporary Western culture seems to view a crisis as something to be resolved with urgency and without regard to how the solution might perpetuate a later crisis. When one vein of oil dries up, we dig for another. The suggestion that we slow down, sink into the crisis, and let it transform our way of life so that it is not longer a crisis is antithetical to how we do life.

Often, when I lead someone in meditation or mindfulness practice for their first time, they will report a feeling of calm and serenity. This was my early experience as well. I remember that I had meditated daily for about three months when, one morning, I suddenly realized that the muscles in my legs were tense. I realized, furthermore, that they were often tense. I realized, further-furthermore, that I could simply allow them to relax and there was no more tension. I had no idea of any of this because I’d spent very little of my life being present to my body. I spent much more time avoiding my body and all its “undesirable” sensations.

Troubled Water, Denis Helfer

My theory, which is not so much “mine” as it is one I’ve discerned from encountering Buddhist thought, Western Esoteric thought, and a lot of psychology books, is that one underlying source of tension arises from all the ways we humans avoid the experiences we label as bad or undesirable. It is like when one has a broken toe and learns how to limp to reduce the intensity of pain in the toe. With time, that person might begin to notice pain and tension in their upper back, their neck, their other leg. The body has an optimal way to move, and any variations on that movement has a longer-term cost.

So too, I think, with the mind. If I’m trying not to feel sad, not to feel vulnerable, not to feel angry, not to feel hopeful, not to look bad in front of others, not to feel too anxious, not to feel lonely, not to feel hopeless, not to feel ugly, not to feel desired, not to feel criticized, not to stand out too much, not to feel scared… There is a wide array of undesirable experiences and one person’s heaven is another’s hell. But if we are whole people, then there will be moments when we’ll have these feelings and more. And when someone says, “I don’t want to feel this way,” I often hear, “Part of me feels this way and another part of me is trying to push it down.” This inner conflict creates tension and dis-ease.

Meditation is the antidote to this, as it cultivates unconditional acceptance. Often there is an object or focus of meditation, but quickly we learn how much the wind wanders from the object of attention. The practice is to learn to notice when the attention has shifted and gently bring it back to the object of focus. Simple but not easy. When we sit in stillness, often we encounter everything unresolved in our hearts and minds, all of our habits of being, all of our tensions, essentially everything that we want to avoid noticing. The more that we can accept these as simply being there and gently return to the present moment through bringing attention to the object of focus.

Often, after doing this for the first time, many people report feelings of relaxation or tiredness. I think that comes from the ease of being present and not constantly striving to avoid one thing or pull toward another. Discomfort is simply discomfort and not something to rail and struggle against. Hence the benefits of ease. The problem comes when someone go back to meditation hoping to get back to that relaxation. Now they’re stuck avoiding some feelings and trying to grab others. They want a specific outcome and push away all the experiences that aren’t that outcome. Even this is great information, illuminating yet another habit of thought and being that one can approach with acceptance.

That is what is meant when someone refers to happiness as a trap. If all we’re concerned with is preserving things as they are and dismissing anything that doesn’t fit the experience we want to have, we’re stuck. If we only choose to listen to some opinions, look at some information, acknowledge some problems and condemn the rest, we’re stuck. Acknowledging more of the wholeness of experience gives our knowledge, wisdom, and ideas more depth and integrity.