Writing your life: handling contrast

I’m learning to handle contrast (unwanted experience) better, and it reminds me of my writing experiences.

In the past I didn’t handle contrast very well. I was like a writer who recoils at his own clumsy self-expression and gives up on it immediately.

I’m becoming more like an experienced writer who knows that not every idea will work, and who doesn’t expect a first draft to be perfect. A writer who doesn’t give up just because the words don’t yet flow effortlessly into their final form.

But where I’m heading is the kind of mature writer who knows that it is never going to be “complete”, because the very act of writing expands my skill, heightens my expectations and refines my judgement.

Isn’t that why early drafts look bad? By the time we’ve finished the draft we are a better writer than before, and we see more room for improvement. Our ideas are more developed and nuanced, so we find better ways to phrase it. And sometimes we’re just done with a story or idea and we want something fresh and new.

Why is there contrast?

This applies to contrast in our lives too. Contrast will always be part of life because we will never stop expanding and growing.

But it’s up to us whether we think of contrast as a catastrophe, a reflection of our failings and a reason to give up like the writer who excoriates himself for a dissatisfying first attempt.

Or if we instead start to view contrast as part of the process, and even a sign of growth, expansion and development.

Contrast is inevitable because we are always moving forward, always deepening our expectations and refining our preferences.

Must contrast be painful?

It’s our thoughts about contrast that make contrast painful. If you think unwanted feelings and experiences mean you’ve failed, you’ve f***ed up, you took a wrong turn, you don’t deserve better, you’re a bad person, then of course you will feel terrible when contrast comes.

If you are afraid of contrast, afraid of the unwanted in life, then your experience is going to be uncomfortable, like a would-be writer who doesn’t ever want to reread or edit his own work.

This all-or-nothing attitude makes contrast painful. It is itself a form of contrast, reflected in the rigidity and fear and anxiety that governs your world.

And yet it is liberating to know that contrast is not even bad. Unwanted experiences are not truly unwanted, they are part of the dynamic, how the whole of reality works.

Because you could not form new preferences without releasing old ones. You could not refine your desires without your unrefined desire being discarded. You could not expand without your prior existence seeming too small.

But that doesn’t mean you have to hate and bemoan where you are/were. Instead appreciate how it has fed and informed your expansion. And see if you can at least not freak out when contrast happens again!

Is happiness challenging?

Today is day 12 of my Happiness Challenge and I’m pleased to say that happiness is not feeling like a challenge anymore.

I’ve been training myself to feel better regardless of the circumstances, and I’m really glad to report that my focused effort is paying off.

I’m pleased to give credit to Esther Hicks and the Abraham teachings. I found them at the right time, letting go of my resistance and accepting that feeling good really is my goal in life.

Other teachings inspired me and gave me hope, but none of them were exactly right.

Of course it wasn’t about the teachings per se, but my own reluctance to accept the simple answer of feeling good.

In hindsight I was seeking Truth and insight and understanding because I thought these would help me feel good.

But I was so caught up in my intellectual seriousness and wanting to justify and explain myself that I couldn’t just feel good directly.

Now I look at all those teachings as…surplus. I don’t need them in order to feel good.

Maybe other people do need them, and I don’t mean that in a disparaging way but in the sense that we all have different questions and hence desire different answers.

People could just as easily look at me and wonder why I’m making such a big deal about relaxing and feeling better.

Ultimately we can only live our own lives and no one else’s. I take pleasure in letting go of my efforts to explain myself and make my thoughts comprehensible to others.

I take pleasure in allowing my authentic feelings to develop and change without looking for consistency with others’ words and actions.

In the end other people can’t validate my own thoughts, feelings and desires, because they are mine. Validity was never truly the question.

That’s why my interests and passions have so frequently turned out to be marginal and obscure by others’ estimation.

I studied philosophy but I’m not really a philosopher. I learn a martial art but it’s rare and unusual. I love coffee but roast and brew my own.

Everything I do, I tend to take in a direction of my own utmost individual experience.

Because in the end it’s all about individual experience. That’s the vantage point life affords us.

We haven’t come into being only to quickly die and be reabsorbed back into some cosmic whole. God didn’t create us as individual points of consciousness only to have us immediately blend into one.

The point is simply to feel good, and enjoy the unfolding of this experience; and if you’re not enjoying it, the tools are available to help you remember how.

God, happiness, participation and transcendence

Transcendence and participation.

Those are two modes by which the divine is described relative to the world, everyday life, our ordinary reality.

Transcendence means that the divine is totally distinct, separate, and apart from reality.

For me this corresponds to the sense that there is nothing in life that approaches the meaning and significance of the divine. Not even close.

Participation means that although God transcends the world, the things of this world still participate in his being and his perfection to varying degrees.

There are different ways of defining participation, but for me this corresponds to the sense that emotions like love and joy are closer to God than emotions like fear and anger.

God may be transcendent, but things are still either closer to, or further away from him.

This is significant because people who grow up with a strong sense of the divine may, like melancholic idealists, end up disparaging the world as falling short of the divine in every possible way.

The world doesn’t have enough meaning, joy, purpose or love in it.

And our sense of divine transcendence keeps us locked in this perspective, because the gap between it and our everyday reality seems just too great.

Can we close the gap?

I believe we can. This is implied in the statement “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you”.

It doesn’t negate or diminish the things of this world, but puts them in their rightful place.

My recent discoveries of the relationship between thoughts and emotions and my experience of reality show that the melancholic despair of finding meaning in this world is particular and individual.

The divine is not alienated from everyday life, nor is it withheld in isolation from our daily experiences, our emotions and our thoughts.

We participate in the divine not only in prayer or meditation but also in our thoughts throughout the day, the thoughts that shape how we feel, how we perceive, and what we experience.

The strictly transcendent view of the divine is very much “hiding a lamp under a bushel”, or putting new wine into an old wine skin.

But sorrow and misery – or rather the thoughts that create those feelings – are unlikely to dissipate just because we spend time thinking about a transcendent God.

Those thoughts need to extend to the aspects of life where we suffer or mourn or are frustrated, bored, angry, weary and need rest.

Nondualism and working on yourself

The aim of contemporary nondualist teaching is to change the way we interpret our experience of reality.

I remember as a young child returning to school at the start of a new term. The teacher asked us to share with the class what we had done for the holidays.

I still recall the sudden and startling realisation that these children had all gone on with their lives while I was going on with mine. They had continued to exist even when they weren’t part of my experience. While I had been visiting relatives interstate, they each had their own experiences and adventures unfold at the same time.

This realisation represents what Joel Morwood from the Center for Sacred Sciences calls ‘reification’: turning a thought, an impression, or a form into a thing.

In that childhood moment, my friends and classmates went from being aspects of my experience, to becoming nascent things – people in their own right with their own equally subjective inner worlds.

I began to think about how I appeared in their experience, akin no doubt to how they appeared in mine.

This is the path we all take as we develop and grow in life. We form deeper conceptual representations of a reality extrapolated from the rules and regularities of our own experience. I’ve never seen inside another person’s head, but at some point, by induction, it made sense to believe that there is such a thing as the inside of other people’s heads.

This isn’t a bad or false conclusion to reach by any means. The aim of nondualism is not solipsistic, that “I alone exist”.

The problem is that our world-building, our reification of our own experiences and extrapolation into an external reality begins to overshadow the immediacy and character of our actual experience.

We start to imagine ourselves as isolated individuals operating in an objective reality of which we partake imperfectly through our senses and our consciousness.

We develop fears, cravings, anxieties, and doubts as well as hopes and dreams that all depend on what feels like our understanding of objective reality, but is functionally indistinguishable from imagination.

Our experience is dominated by rules, expectations, and doubts that are disconnected from experience itself. Like a child whose personality is shaped by early trauma, we take aspects of early experience and keep them alive as thoughts, beliefs, imagination, until they constrict and distort our present and future experience also.

What nondualism wants us to do is to step back from the reification of elements of our experience, and begin to recognise our conscious experience itself as primary.

It wants us to recognise that most of what we call ‘reality’ exists only as beliefs or imagination derived – often haphazardly – from past experience. We put too much stock in these often emotionally-loaded beliefs and imaginings, when the truth of our experience is far richer and more fulfilling.

The details get a little esoteric, but what motivates nondualism is the realisation that the true character of our experience is one of love and bliss. The relationship between our own consciousness, the forms we experience, and the creative power or God behind it all is described by the various mystics as non-dual. Yet there exists the illusion of duality, and in that illusion suffering and fear and misery all arise.

In my own life I’ve found time and time again that reifying my experience exacerbates all my problems and my struggles. It leaves me thinking and feeling that the causes of my problems are “out there” in the world, rather than in my own heart and mind.

Because on closer examination, it is always in my own heart and mind that resistance, error, fear and mistrust reside. I might see hurt and rejection coming to me from other people, but on reflection I find that any external manifestation of these painful events is preceded by my own internal embrace of hurt and rejection.

It’s as though I approach life expecting to suffer and be disappointed, and in subtle ways this expectation leads me to want things I know I can’t have, or approach people and events with unconscious resistance and defensiveness.

Viewing life first and foremost as my experience, to the extent of my field of consciousness, forces me to take responsibility for the underlying causes and influences within me.

Why do I want hurt and rejection, or disappointment and struggle to be part of my experience? In what way have I internalised and kept these elements of past experience alive into the present? What would I prefer my experience to reflect? Do I truly want love and joy as the foundation of my experience, or am I subtly resisting and rejecting them?

How would I really feel if there was no more hurt and struggle in my life? Would I be content? No, not yet. So why is that?

This is the great work of “untying knots” in our minds and hearts until the true nature of our experience can shine forth uninhibited. If you want to know why there is too much struggle and not enough love in your life, ask yourself. Don’t let rules and principles you’ve extrapolated and imagined keep you from finding the love and joy intrinsic to this experience.

What is your experience?

I’ve been thinking about acceptance lately and trying to write about the what it means to accept or reject our experience.

But I got stuck, and, as often happens when I’m stuck, I checked the meaning and etymology of the key term: experience.

I was using ‘experience’ to mean the sum total of one’s impressions. But the origin of the word makes it closer to ‘experiment’, with the implication of knowledge gained from a test or trial.

One of my untested theories is that the etymology of words can have unconscious implications. We don’t need to know what ‘experience’ really means to be influenced by its etymology. And even though the use of words changes over time, the real meaning is never truly erased.

Maybe it’s just me, but the moment I thought about it I realised that the ‘ex’ prefix meant ‘experience’ was coming out of somewhere. Intuitively it doesn’t have the ring of an all-encompassing state of affairs, does it?

So what do we call the sum total of our impressions, if not ‘experience’?

We could call it ‘reality’ but that somewhat begs the question. Reality means the quality of being real, from res meaning matter or thing.

But we don’t really know if these things are real, or if our impressions are things, do we?

Even if we call them impressions, we’re still assuming there’s something external making an imprint on our minds.

Other words like thought, think, ken, know, cognise, consciousness, and so on are all quite basic. They point to the everyday experience of people having mental states that represent to themselves the world around them.

The language is not really built for skeptical introspection. So we have to talk around it, pointing out that we do not know on the basis of thoughts and impressions what the true nature of reality is – the external world that presumably leaves these imprints on our minds (assuming that we have minds).

That’s why nondualists end up simply positing “consciousness” undergoing endless forms.

One source I’ve been reading lately asserts that there are three things: formless consciousness, the discriminating power, and the distinguishing forms that arise through this discriminating power.

At the same time, these three things are not separate. They may be different functions of the same thing, or in Buddhist terms: form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

Why this power would bother to create forms that resemble the author sitting at his desk mired in the illusion of a biographical existence while pondering his own unreality is a bit of a mystery.

Regardless, that’s the nondualist answer. You are not really you, just a collection of passing forms. Consciousness alone is unchanging and real, and capable of knowing itself.