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.

Wu wei and mental actions

Actions speak louder than words, but what about the actions we perform inside our own heads?

Imagining, thinking, focusing, feeling, these mental functions can be defined as actions just as much as speech and movement can.

Why does this matter? Because when we act we are creating. Our actions add to the sum of our reality, and the quality of our actions is reflected in the fruit they bear.

Wu wei or “without action” signifies a state where our intrinsic nature responds spontaneously to the world around us in accordance with the way or Dao. It suggests a quality of action that is pure and perfectly inspired.

But wu wei doesn’t come from simply sitting still and refusing to move. It comes from wu xin, which means “without heart/mind”. Wu wei comes from having no contrived thoughts or intentions in our heart or mind because when we think or hold an intention we block the inspiration that comes from the Dao.

You can’t really listen to someone if you are lost in your own thoughts. You can’t improvise with someone if you are following your own preconceived melody. You can’t dance with someone if you are trying to force a direction. You can’t spar with someone if you are afraid of getting hit.

In the present moment your reality is your dance partner, your sparring partner, your conversation partner, your musical partner. If we want to flow and be inspired and feel the joy of the perfect response in each moment then we need to be, without anything in our hearts or minds that comes between us and the raw experience of this expansive, deep, and mysterious partner.

Ultimatum

What if…
Everything is unfolding perfectly,
Everything I want is on its way,
All the awesome things I love are drawn to me.

And the bad feelings and conflicts and negative beliefs within me are a completely separate thing.

I exist in an unfolding perfect miniature universe. All the bad feelings and conflicted thoughts are just turbulence, friction, noise.

And the ultimatum is to be still and silent enough to enjoy the show.

ultimatum (n.)

“final demand,” 1731, from Modern Latin, from Medieval Latin ultimatum “a final statement,” noun use of Latin adjective ultimatum “last possible, final,”

Law of Attraction: how reality should be

The core components of LoA teachings are beliefs, desires, thoughts, and feelings, with reality/manifestations the outcome or byproduct of these.

To simplify it further: our beliefs describe how we think reality IS. Our desires describe how we think reality SHOULD BE.

“Should” is ambiguous, but in the case of desire it refers to our own pleasure or happiness.

In essence, part of our human nature is always tirelessly working out what would bring us more pleasure or happiness in life. The sum of all these preferences is a model of our ideal reality.

So within us we have a model of how reality is and a model of how reality should be for our greatest happiness and pleasure. Our current happiness is determined by how much our belief model contradicts or accords with our desire model.

The purpose of LoA material is to help us soothe and soften our model of how reality is, so that it becomes more amenable to our model of how reality should be.

We feel better when we believe our desires are possible or likely to occur; at the same time, when we are focused on how reality should be and what would bring us the most happiness and pleasure, we are immediately more inclined to experience these desires in our reality.

I don’t find the term “law of attraction” compelling, I would rather say that my reality reflects what I am focused on. But either way, believing reality is fluid and responsive to what we think, desire, and believe, is the first step in opening up to our model of how reality should be.

A Complex-PTSD proposal

This is my tentative theory of how CPTSD works and why it is so complex.

The boundary between emotions and physiological processes is gradual. We can describe emotions and mental states in terms of neurology, and we can describe physical phenomena like muscle tension, blood pressure and gastrointestinal complaints in emotional terms like having butterflies in your stomach, feeling faint, gritting your teeth and so on.

What happens in cases of CPTSD is that repeated and prolonged exposure to traumatic events causes strong emotional and physical reactions that then become the focus of further traumatising events.

For example, if an adult screams at a child the child will have strong emotional and physical responses of fear. What happens if, instead of being soothed or allowed to recover, the child is then subjected to additional abuse, ie. The adult then forcefully demands that the child “snap out” of their emotional and physical fear response and “act normal” to comply with the adult’s instructions?

In such cases the child is still in a state of fight-or-flight, but is being placed under a new set of threats and demands that specifically require the suppression of the fight-or-flight response. Yet these new threats and demands are likewise causing strong emotional and physical responses themselves!

This is how CPTSD becomes “complex”. It is complex because the child is learning and growing and developing within layers of traumatic experience that are themselves impinging on the natural emotional and physical responses to trauma.

Unpacking and untangling these interwoven layers of trauma is not easy. Along the way it may prove transformative to recognise that what you are experiencing as “anxiety” or other persistent trauma-related symptom is not actually emotion, but the physical aspect of the fight-or-flight response to trauma.

It is possible to have butterflies in your stomach, a lump in your throat, a tightness in your chest, and yet otherwise feel fine on an emotional level. If these sensations can be viewed as the physical components of old trauma responses, rather than real-time emotional responses to the present moment, their power is immediately diminished.

If you’ve ever had something in your eye you’ll know that even when the object is gone your eye can still feel scratchy and sore, and you will make it worse by continuing to rub it.

In the picture of CPTSD I have described above, the child’s initial trauma of being yelled at by the adult triggers an emotional and physical response that is then further targeted by the adult as a pretext for abuse. For that child, the mere fact of having a fight-or-flight response puts them in danger and therefore becomes the trigger for an additional or exacerbated fight-or-flight response.

The child with CPTSD not only lives in fearful anticipation and expectation of future trauma, but additionally lives in fear and vigilance against their own natural reaction to that trauma, because those reactions were the apparent cause of further punishment and abuse.

This is by no means the sum total of what is going on psychologically or neurologically in cases of CPTSD but it is, I believe, a key component of the messy feedback loop that makes this condition so complex.

Because no matter how many first-order traumas and responses you might process and clear, this preoccupation with controlling the fight-or-flight response can persist, hiding away on a meta level and overarching the other more concrete episodes of trauma such a child might have experienced.

My hypothesis is that we can unpack this meta-trauma by first identifying it, and second by making peace with the physiological expressions of the fight-or-flight response. The trauma is kept alive by the belief that fight-or-flight symptoms are dangerous, unacceptable, and need to be controlled or suppressed. But this is not true. A fight-or-flight response is a normal, healthy, and highly evolved response to dangerous situations. For people with CPTSD the condition is not an indictment of them but of the traumatic circumstances, environments and people that once surrounded them.

Finally, by learning to recognise and discern the faint but responsive flow of actual emotions in real time, distinct from the old pattern of fight-or-flight symptoms, we are reassured that our genuine emotional responsiveness is still active, still on track, and very very different from the physiological residue of old trauma.