Looking for something sacred

I used to search for the sacred in life to escape from a miserable existence. These days I’m learning the sacred is not an escape, but an assist.

The Old English word for sacred is godcund meaning “god-like”, and for many people their idea of sacred therefore depends upon what their god is.

But the essence of humanity is divine, and therefore god-like, therefore sacred. These days we call this essence “consciousness”, which means the part of us that knows, the part without which all would be in darkness and unknowing.

The conflicts and differences between and among religions are trivial when the best (and strangest) of believers of all faiths have affirmed that at the heart of it all, the greatest and most sacred and holy and revered of beings is the same as your own core being.

We live our lives inside-out, except when we make time and space for the sacred to come to the fore. By whatever practice or ritual gets the job done, we let the inner knowing of our own consciousness take its rightful place for a while, and enjoy the relief and celebration as the rest of our physical and mental apparatus gets to lay down the burden of pretending to be in charge.

Why feel your feelings?

If you aren’t feeling your feelings, what are you doing?

Imagine you’re walking and suddenly feel a sharp stabbing pain in the sole of your right foot. What do you do? You stop, take the weight off your foot, and check to see what is going on.

Implicit in your investigation is paying attention to the specific location and sensation of pain. The pain helps you work out what is going on.

And while it makes sense that this pain mechanism helps you attend to injury and avoid further harm, on a more basic level it is simply what the human organism naturally does. It’s okay to justify it on evolutionary grounds, but our actual experiential response to the pain is part of our nature, and we will naturally respond this way unless prevented or trained not to.

I make this point because the evolutionary/survival analogy is not as helpful when we move from physical pain and injury to emotional pain and feelings. Nonetheless the analogy is solid: when something hurts us on a feeling level, our natural response is to stop, feel the feeling, take the “weight” off it, and work out what is going on.

I don’t want to offer a consequentialist argument for feeling our feelings, because the real reason we should feel them is that our whole being “wants” to feel them, and would feel them if we weren’t interrupted, conditioned, and coerced into ignoring them instead.

Our bodies and minds continue to try to feel them, continue to bring them to our attention, even when they are no longer relevant to our circumstances and surroundings. It may not be of survival value right now to feel the feelings from a trauma many years ago, but it is something we “want” to do anyway, to complete and put to rest those crises and painful experiences from the past.

And it seems that if we can feel these feelings and let them be resolved, our whole being will feel the relief and gratitude and lightness of letting them go.

Light in the dark: pure awareness and feeling your feelings

If you’ve had a lot of trauma in your life, sweeping unpleasant feelings aside is probably second-nature. Yet experts and common sense insist that lasting happiness can’t be practiced while also pushing against negative emotions.

If we aren’t fully feeling it, we are to some extent pushing against it, and vice-versa.

But how does feeling our feelings relate to the practice of pure awareness? At face value it seems contradictory: pure awareness is like standing under a beautiful sun and feeling the light shine on your face. By contrast feeling your feelings can be like crawling into a dark and narrow cavern deep underground.

Yet the two are not only reconcilable, progress depends on working the two together.

In Daoism they talk about cultivating both life 命 ming and nature 性 xing. My understanding is that life or ming refers to our biological, biographical life. The details, dynamics, and peculiarities of our bodies and minds and experiences. Xing or nature is the eternal, essential part of us, the pure awareness we have been playing with.

Uniting our nature with life means bringing pure awareness to whatever is going on in our bodies and minds, without reservation. It means feeling our feelings in the light of pure awareness.

Pure awareness brings clarity and elevation to our experience of life. And at the same time life brings depth and resonance and individuality to pure awareness.

The Dao De Jing tells us that thirty spokes make a wheel, but it is the hole in the centre that makes the wheel useful. If pure awareness is the hole, then life is the thirty spokes and the rest. Without a hole the wheel is not useful, but the hole alone doesn’t make it a wheel.

When the burden of trauma and feelings is too great, pure awareness can be a temporary escape from life. But beyond being an escape, pure awareness and life belong together.

As we become strong enough to handle the residue of past trauma, we can turn our pure awareness towards those feelings, take the light down with us into the caverns underground where parts of us have remained stuck and lost in the dark.

Uniting pure awareness with life brings the clarity and security and wisdom of pure awareness into all the twists and turns and trauma that form the layers of our life experience.

In practice it means invoking pure awareness and then feeling our feelings. For me it means the mini-practice I’ve developed, and then allowing any and all feelings and thoughts and physical or mental artefacts to arise and simply be in the space and light of pure awareness.

Pure awareness is for happiness

Pure awareness is separate from body and mind, but the three are still connected.

We know that our minds and bodies are connected and when one feels good or bad it influences the other.

Pure awareness doesn’t get sick or become troubled like our body and mind do; but what can happen is that we forget who we really are and forget the centrality and freedom of pure awareness.

When we remember who we really are and we remember what pure awareness is like, that is akin to our minds feeling free and our bodies feeling vibrant and healthy. The three go together.

Putting pure awareness where it belongs, acknowledging it as the core of who we are, who we really are, releases mental and physical tension and disorder that have arisen from trying to manage our lives as just minds and bodies.

But at the same time, our minds and bodies and the lives we lead count. They have merit. Pure awareness is not disinterested in the wishes, preferences and goals we aspire to. It is not impartial to the health and flourishing of our minds and bodies.

The trouble is that our minds aren’t accustomed to the ways and means of pure awareness. We pay more attention to the cumulative stories told by other minds, other people.

We hear stories like: if you pray hard enough, your prayers will be answered; if you believe in yourself you can do anything; if you really want it, it will happen.

But what these stories do not tell is that the work is not done by the mind. They might point at the answer, or hint at what happened in some other person’s experience, but it is not replicable by a mind.

Because these stories tend to omit the inspiration, the moments of clarity, the stillness and silent moments where pure awareness came to the fore for those people, bringing what they wanted.

Some teachings will tell you that pure awareness is the same as the being that creates all of reality. Your true identity is neither the body nor the mind, but an eternal and all-powerful essence. This essence hears and knows and witnesses everything we have lived. It knows what we want. It knows how to bring about the flourishing and joy of our whole selves.

What we can take from this is that the happiness, love, and joy we recognise with our mind and body resonates also with the pure awareness that is our core and our true identity. The happiness we feel, our genuine desires and joys can’t go astray and won’t be forgotten. They are completely known and shared and created by pure awareness, but without story and without struggle and without the kind of effort our minds expect to hear.

A perfect circle of inspiration and trust

Inspiration turns up as ideas and impulses that feel good and are not pressured or contrived. Learning to trust inspiration and act on it has brought a sense of adventure, confidence, and peace of mind to me this past month.

First, I learned to trust that these ideas and impulses are inspiration. I can tell almost immediately when they are not inspiration, because not-inspiration comes with secondary outcomes in mind, ulterior motives or plans attached. If it has these, it is not inspiration. Trusting means knowing that inspiration exists and what it looks like, and that it is something worth listening to. Inspiration is a source of adventure.

Second, I learned to trust that inspiration is enough. This means not trying to add to or make up for the inspiration. All inspired action is coming from a deeper place within you and is connected as part of a greater order in life and reality. If you’re inspired tp go to the shops, you don’t need to add other plans to make the inspired trip “worthwhile”. If you’re inspired to message someone, you don’t have to “take the opportunity” to organise a catch-up. If you’re inspired to research a product online you don’t have to add the uninspired action of looking for the best deal or doing a cost-benefit analysis of all the specs. These additional actions might show up as inspired at the time, and that’s fine. But if I am inspired to write this article as-is, trust it enough to leave it as-is.

Third, I learned to trust that inspiration is all that is required. It’s not just a fun and adventurous add-on to our regular plans, though it might start out that way. But over time I am recognising that inspiration is the optimum path to achieving my goals. Inspiration has grown quickly from a tiny and unexpected addition to my normal life, into something that supplants and outshines all my other methods and efforts and practices. Everything I care about and enjoy can be better approached through inspiration and no uninspired action can ever outperform it. Bit by bit, inspiration has woven itself into my daily life and eventually nothing I do will be uninspired.

Trusting inspiration until everything I do is inspired, and my whole life is full of trust. Trusting the inspiration that comes, trusting that it is enough, and trusting that this inspiration is all I ever need; a perfect circle of inspiration and trust.

Truly authentic action

How do you write when practicing pure awareness?

Pure awareness creates a “zone of silence”, wu xin, which allows our actions and insights to come from our own nature, rather than from our internal narratives or habits.

Truly authentic action is inspired by reality acting on our inmost nature, as opposed to contrived action which comes from the pressure to conform to the stories we tell about ourselves and the world.

I could sit and write a blog post, motivated by internal expectations and a sense of momentum carrying over from my recent posts, and that would be an unsatisfying effort.

Instead I can go into my own zone of inward silence and let go of all expectations and narratives and simply let inspiration arise if it arises.

There is no prejudice, no preoccupation, no pressure. And therefore whatever comes out of me comes out authentic and pristine and refreshing.

Writing is an exercise in authentic self-expression with no point beyond allowing and enjoying this natural movement. It is inspired, but modestly; we could call it spontaneous but it isn’t random nor disconnected from deeper meaning and order.

It is my uninhibited nature or xing 性 being moved by the Dao that creates and guides all things and nourishes them with de 德.

This de is the power that makes us what we are. What we feel as authentic action is de nourishing us. This is why it feels good to let go of our stories and let ourselves reconnect with the Dao that is always present and always guiding.

We don’t have to wait for moments of crisis or great decision to feel the relief of being true to ourselves, authentic, or inspired. In every moment we can let go of contrived motives and narratives and let ourselves be guided by the Dao from that place of inward silence, guided by the way, and nourished by its power.

Preoccupied by trauma

I was going to title this “addicted to trauma” but preoccupation is more accurate and less dramatic – which is the point of this whole post.

Some days meditation is challenging. It’s as if part of my mind doesn’t want the experience of clarity, peace, and pure awareness. Not because there is something better on offer, but because there is something more compelling.

The compelling thing is our past experiences of, and adaptation to, trauma. The experience of trauma, conflict, violence and suffering becomes ingrained as the most compelling phenomenon in our inner landscape.

Not that we enjoy going there and dealing with that disaster area, but part of us wants to keep returning, because the promised reward of resolving the trauma seems to overshadow the rewards of living a peaceful, normal life.

If I sit and meditate I will feel better, but that better feeling is not as salient as fighting an internal battle.

So what to do about it? If we remain mentally pre-occupied by trauma it will inhibit our enjoyment of life and desire for constructive goals. Tuning in to the urgency of potential conflict and struggle and the adrenaline of putting out fires (real or imagined) stops us from tuning in to more rewarding and uplifting sources of inspiration.

But that implies the solution is simply to notice when we are tuning in to trauma, and choose to tune into something else instead. Recognise the feel and flavour of the fire-fighting urgency, and observe what it does to you on a physiological, mental, and emotional level: elevated heart-rate, racing thoughts, headache, flattened affect, feeling on edge. These don’t feel good, even if they do feel compelling.

Do the same for some better-feeling states of being: how does meditation feel? How does stretching or yoga feel? How does reading a good book feel? How does sitting in the garden feel? Look at the physiological, mental, and emotional effects of these states as well, until they are familiar enough to present credible alternatives you can turn to and tune to when old habits come into play.

All it takes to create a new habit is to start changing an old one. With practice we can diminish our preoccupation with old trauma and be occupied with much happier things.

And who knows what the flow-on effects of these new habits will be? When we are preoccupied with conflict and struggle we tend to elevate and magnify these themes in our lives. We ask our brain to find evidence of whatever we are focused on. Imagine how nice it will be to cut loose sources of conflict and tension, and be open to sources of love, joy, and happiness instead.

Pure awareness vs being eaten by a tiger

If pure awareness transcends body and mind and personal narrative, wtf comes next?

The clue is that this state of identifying with pure awareness feels good to the body and mind. It’s not dissociation. It’s not a trance. It feels good which means it has value in relation to the body and mind…and at the same time affirms the value of the body and mind.

Some spiritual systems demonise the body and/or the mind. But if pure awareness brings physical and mental relief, then there is an underlying coherence between all three. This coherence is “wtf comes next”.

The solution is to take all the coherent pieces of our narrative and weave a new story where the self who lives in this body and mind is having a good experience, which connects easily with the experience of pure awareness.

Often we are told that it is not “spiritual” to want things. We are taught that spiritual people are immune to temptation and desire, and have no regard for profit and loss.

But this is a misinterpretation. In the state of pure awareness we don’t feel compelled or coerced. We are temporarily able to see through craving or yearning or temptation or fear. We can see the difference, for example, between wanting to eat out of genuine hunger versus wanting to eat out of boredom or craving or unhappiness or habit.

However, pure awareness also dampens our desire and appreciation for genuinely good things. If you were extremely hungry, pure awareness would dampen your hunger and make it feel less pressing.

Why? Because pure awareness takes us out of the body and mind that are the subjects of hunger and other desires. At the same time the purity of pure awareness gives it higher value than anything else in our physical or mental experience.

In other words, if we are in a state of pure awareness we are not going to be strongly moved by anything except immediate and emergency threats to our safety, and even these might not move experienced meditators.

This is why some spiritual teachings end with complete renunciation of life in favour of pure awareness. They will literally starve to death while meditating in pure awareness. And this has given rise to real questions about the purpose of spiritual practice and the meaning of life if the height of spiritual attainment seems to deny the value of the human experience.

On the other hand there are plenty of spiritual teachings that veer away from this extreme, especially when it comes to the lives of everyday people with work and family and other responsibilities.

Zhuangzi shares the anecdote of a “spiritual” man who lived in the mountains, subsisted only on water, and at seventy years old still had the complexion of a child. But one day he crossed paths with a tiger and the tiger ate him. This is shared as an example of someone who nourishes the “inner man” but neglects the outer. He contrasts this spiritualised extreme with that of a worldly and influential official who despite his ambition, wealth and power became ill and died at the age of forty.

From the Daoist perspective both of these outcomes demonstrate something awry. To me it says that the “spiritual” man living in the mountains was neglecting the reality of his human experience. The text explains that he “would not share with the people in their toils and the benefits springing from them”.

The value of pure awareness might transcend everyday experience, but that doesn’t negate or eliminate everyday experience. We are here for a reason and our everyday life remains even when we take the time to be more fully aware of it.

We can use pure awareness to help us change our stories and our habits, creating a life that brings us happiness and enjoyment at all levels of our being.

A radish-inspired mini-practice

Yesterday’s practice opens our minds to let reality act on us directly without too many thoughts and feelings and habits getting in the way. Trees and outdoor scenes are good for that because of their inherent richness and movement.

But the practice also brings awareness of the body and mind as just another part of the scene, and in that awareness there is relief.

Once you have a taste for it, this awareness can be rekindled throughout the day, in a kind of mini-practice. All it takes is to reach out with your attention onto something in your field of vision, and then be aware of your own body and mind as the observer of this thing.

To me it feels as if my awareness is going out away from my body towards the object. It feels like my awareness is now somewhere in between the object and my body/mind, and I am equally aware of both.

This awareness of the body and mind as being like external objects brings immediate relief. Why? Because the mind is now empty of contrived thoughts and intentions, worries and cares. The novelty of being aware of oneself from almost a third-person perspective immediately suspends first-person-based habits of thought and action. Like trying to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand, it all feels new.

At the same time it demonstrates that you are more than your body and mind. Pure awareness comes to the fore and reveals itself. Pure awareness puts the body and the mind in their place.

And as the Daoist Zhuangzi repeatedly wrote: contrived thoughts and exertions tax our bodies and minds. Being in the thrall of our complicated first-person narratives is wearying. The simplicity of pure awareness sets things right again.

A radish-inspired spiritual practice

The inventor of the Takuan pickled daikon radish was the 16th Century Zen monk Takuan Soho, famous also for his letters to the renowned samurai Yagyu Munenori, on the application of Zen discipline to combat (and vice-versa).

I love pickled daikon, and Takuan’s letters have long inspired me. What better source for a bespoke spiritual practice!

Quick caveat: this is based on my own experience and what feels good to me. I can’t say what effect it might have on others, so look after yourself.

Step one: find a place to sit with a tree or other plants in clear view, preferably outdoors.

Step two: look at the tree and try to see all of the leaves in motion.

Step three: without shifting your gaze, try to become aware of all movement within your field of vision. Small bugs and butterflies, cars driving by, birds flitting in and out of view, plants in the foreground, trees in the background. Become aware of all the movement as it occurs.

Step four: as your awareness stabilises and becomes consistent, become aware also of your own body on the other side of this field of vision that fills your awareness. While you can’t “see” yourself, you can be aware of yourself sitting there viewing the scene before you.

Step five: become aware of the movements of your muscles, the sensations in your body, and the thoughts and ideas in your mind, all without losing awareness of your field of vision. Being aware of your own body has a sense of “completing the circle”.

Step six: as you feel the complete circle, notice that the awareness of your field of vision and the awareness of your body and mind are one and the same thing. Enjoy the lightness and sense of space.

Step seven: notice that the thoughts and impulses and ideas and feelings running through your body and mind are different in this practice of awareness. The contents of your mind feel less pressing. And the new thoughts that come seem to take a cue from this lightness and space. Notice also that some thoughts and impulses that arise would totally interrupt and put an end to this practice of awareness, but you have the choice of whether to go along with these impulses or not. Notice that the stories you have been telling and the way you usually carry yourself are not relevant to this state of awareness.