Learning to feel better

It’s been a while since I last posted. We’ve been a bit preoccupied with our new baby, and some days my ability to put words together seems to have deserted me entirely.

In the meantime I’ve been working more on positive thinking, and experimenting with how changing my thoughts can change my feelings and my whole experience of life.

Thoughts that feel good

Being interested in mysticism and spiritual traditions gives me a different perspective on this stuff.

But in a way, thinking about God, ultimate reality, metaphysics and so on becomes just another interesting topic that I can feel good about.

It’s very easy to feel good when thinking about the divine being that underlies all reality, and ultimately the metaphysical implications of (good) positive thinking material seems easily reconcilable with my own understanding derived from comparative mysticism.

So at the moment I seem to be relying on two processes or ways of improving my thoughts.

The first is to take that transcendent, divine perspective and see that “Everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The point of this is that if you appreciate everything as perfect, you get better at doing that, whereas we usually focus on the problems and irritations in life, which means we’re highly practiced at finding faults.

The positive thinking stuff points out that if we practice finding faults then we’ll continue to find more faults, create more faulty situations, and fail to see how situations are actually perfect for us.

But if we start looking for things to appreciate, we become more skilled at finding things to appreciate, creating appreciable situations, and increasingly fail to see faults and obstacles in our lives.

Typically we avoid doing this, because we assume that reality is a fixed, objective thing “out there”, and our experience is more or less an accurate reflection of that reality.

I used to think this as well….or at least, I acted as though it were true despite my broader theoretical understanding.

But in the past few months I’ve proven to my own satisfaction that it isn’t true at all.

I’ve found that if I change my thoughts – my actual thoughts – on a given topic, I feel differently about it, and mysteriously my experience of that topic changes in ways that I would have thought defied reality.

In brief, things have gone better, because I changed my thoughts in ways that made me feel better.

Obviously I don’t mean that I simply told myself falsely optimistic things and tried to believe them. That doesn’t work.

Thoughts that feel better

What I’ve been doing instead is identifying the thoughts that I genuinely think about a particular topic, and stating them as clearly and as negatively as I fear them to be.

When I do this, part of my automatically comes to my defense, as if bringing those negative thoughts into the light of day shows how incomplete and unwarranted they are.

Sometimes the negative thoughts have turned out to be excessive… For example, thinking “I can’t work out the answer to this problem!” makes me feel bad, but if I think “I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” then I feel just a tiny bit better about it.

This “tiny bit better” isn’t enough on its own, but at the same time I can choose to take it as evidence that the process works.

It provides evidence that I am able to improve my mood by focusing on more positive thoughts.

That thought in itself is more positive too, and gives me a feeling of hope.

And since I now feel a bit better, I have access to other thoughts that feel better still.

“I haven’t been able to find the answer so far…” “but I’m working on it now with a new approach and a better understanding”, for example.

Again, it’s not a case of just saying stuff that sounds better, if it doesn’t actually feel better then it’s not going to do anything for you.

The whole point is to feel better, after all.

A practiced skill

So I’ve been using these two basic methods: finding thoughts that feel better than my current thoughts, and focusing on a transcendent sense of appreciation, that “everything is perfect exactly as it is”.

The latter works because I believe it on a theoretical level, so it too is an example of focusing on better-feeling thoughts. The reason why this alone is not sufficient is simply that I don’t spend every waking moment on the subject of metaphysics and divine reality.

As my skills increase with practice, I find I’m gradually closing the gap between this transcendent view that everything is perfect exactly as it is, and my views on a range of other subjects.

I’m now much more aware of when I, or other people, focus on things that make us feel bad.

Now that I have the choice to feel better, it’s so much more obvious when I instead focus on the negative.

I’ve also found that I have more of a tendency to look at things according to how I feel about them, rather than the “reality” that is supposedly informing those situations.

For example, if I’m worried about how a brewing process is going, whether I made the right choice with my recipe, I once would have sought reassurance by going over the procedure and revisiting my decision-making process.

Now I’m more likely to notice that this worry doesn’t feel good, and become conscious of where I’m putting my focus. Am I focusing on not screwing up the brewing process and the many ways it could go wrong? Well no wonder it feels bad. Why not focus instead on the final product and wonder how good it is going to taste?

Again, this is not a case of wishful thinking, it’s a deliberate choice to change my focus, emboldened by the knowledge that the resultant experience is far far more malleable than we imagine.

Telling yourself “it doesn’t matter, how you think won’t change the outcome” is simply not true.

Be good to yourself

Underlying all of this is an intention or decision to feel better, and to put feeling better at the forefront of your concerns.

That’s one of the things that struck me when I examined some of my negative thoughts….before I even thought to rebut it or provide counter-arguments, I was struck simply by how cruel and unwarranted the negative thought was.

If someone said your most negative thoughts to you, you’d be taken aback by the hostility and apparent malice or lack of empathy within them. But we tell ourselves these things all the time.

That’s why the choice to feel better and make that the measure of your thoughts and focus is such an important first step.

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What is reality, really?

The basic premise of “positive thinking” is that “your thoughts create your reality”.

One of the obstacles I’ve encountered is a narrow or limited interpretation of “reality”.

In the beginning I think I intentionally partitioned “the reality shaped by my thoughts” off from “actual reality”, because…well let’s face it: positive thinking material sounds like cringe-worthy new-age rubbish.

But at the same time I knew from philosophy of mind and psychology that our beliefs do shape our mood and our experience, and that our perceptions are highly malleable.

I also knew from personal experience that a change in belief or perception can have results that seem nigh-miraculous.

And because of my broader spiritual and metaphysical beliefs, I don’t have any trouble with the idea of actual miracles either.

But still, I maintained a kind of distinction between the “reality” I was seeking to change, and actual reality; and this distinction is problematic.

It’s problematic because if I can conceive of a reality apart from my all-encompassing experience of reality, then I can have thoughts and beliefs about that “real reality” that contradict or undermine what I’m trying to achieve in changing my thoughts.

So long as I hold on to a distinction between subjective and objective reality, there’s going to be some wriggle room or ambiguity in my work.

It’s the same as my recovery from my auto-immune disease. For a long time I investigated the psychogenic aspect of it, while still refusing to commit to a psychogenic cause. Once I finally accepted that the cause was psychological, only then did I make progress in overcoming the pain.

I only improved once I chose to believe that my physical symptoms were an expression of psychological stress.

So what is reality?

It’s a tautology, but I can’t experience anything beyond my own subjective experience.

Etymologically, “reality” comes from “res” which means “thing”.

Reality is just “all the things”.

We can’t disprove the subjectivist position that things only exist in our own experience of them, nor the skeptical position that we cannot know anything about reality beyond our experience of it, nor even the solipsist position that all reality might well exist only within my own mind.

Philosophers can argue about it, but we aren’t really looking for a philosophical position here.

What we’re looking for is the relationship between our thoughts, our feelings, and “all the things” of our experience.

What we want is to feel better, with the understanding that we have the power to change our feelings by changing our thoughts, and that this in turn will change our experience.

There’s only one “thing”

The testimony of mystics is that “all the things” are really just one thing — the expression and manifestation of a single divine being.

Our suffering and misery as humans comes from the identifying or “reification” of the one into many, and the attribution of independent existence and power to those many things – ourselves included.

Independence and separation give rise to thoughts of abandonment, of harm, of things going wrong. The moment we start thinking that we exist in a world of isolated things, we lose the freedom and grace of the divine spirit within us.

The metaphysical significance or “divine plan” behind delusion, sin, and evil varies between religions, but the important point is that it isn’t real, it doesn’t have independent existence; the divine alone exists.

When we think of reality as something “out there” with independent existence, and maybe (as my previous post explored) malicious or callous or corrosive to our well-being, we suffer.

We suffer just from thinking of it that way, let alone shifting our perception to seek out evidence that it is that way.

If I view “all the things” as existing out there, with their own independent existence and power, and I myself striving and struggling against them, then of course I feel bad.

What are “all the things” really? They are aspects of my experience, objects of my consciousness, forms and ingredients of this mysterious stream of awareness.

Do they really have their own existence, their own power?

Two realities become one

All my negative experiences have in common a kind of deference to external reality and power, a falling-back into the thought of things “out there” that aren’t the way I want them to be.

I view things as having their own existence and power, and therefore I imagine potential negative consequences if I don’t respond to them in the correct way.

Providence, grace, insight, wisdom, there are various names for it in different traditions, but altogether there’s a common understanding that the power of the divine, the one thing that actually exists, transcends and entirely overcomes the flawed sense that I’m an isolated human being struggling in a multifarious universe.

That’s why detachment, recollection, withdrawal from “worldly” concerns is a prominent theme in mysticism. But not for its own sake, only to allow us to come into alignment with the one.

In terms of “positive thinking” that means changing our thoughts to allow for providence or divine help to come to the fore in our experience, filling in all the gaps and drawing us into the flow that has always awaited us.

Is it okay to be happy?

In a couple of decades living with anxiety and depression I frequently wondered about the correlation between my mood and my view of the world.

I’ve always valued the search for truth, and part of that search was to understand anxiety and depression themselves. But what if this “search” is itself a symptom of anxiety and depression?

What if looking for answers is just putting a positive spin on endless rumination?

Depressive realism

Sometimes it seems like happy people live in a bubble, unwilling or unable to grapple with the grand humane and existential challenges of life.

The popular notion of “depressive realism” offers a kind of perverse satisfaction in being miserable: the idea that depressed people see the world more clearly, or that happy people are buffered from harsh realities by self-serving delusions of competence and optimism.

If you find it difficult to be happy, you can console yourself with the idea that happiness is just for dumb, superficial, or morally unserious people.

But is this kind of depressive realism any better than a sour grapes attitude toward happiness?

Ironically, this consolation is itself the fostering of a self-serving delusion aimed at making us feel better, as we pride ourselves on being both willing and able to face the harsh realities of life.

When life hands you lemons, sure, you could make lemonade…but a real man will just eat that lemon and grit his teeth against the sourness, because lemons are supposed to be sour!

Intentional optimism

In the past few months I’ve made a conscious effort to change the way I think about life, in order to improve my mood.

In the process it’s become clear to me that despite all the suffering implicit in decades of anxiety and depression, despite being desperately unhappy, I couldn’t honestly say that I wanted things to be different.

We all want to be happy, but our desire for happiness is typically framed and delineated by very strict conditions.

We want to be happy in certain ways, under specific criteria; we want happiness on our own terms, even if those terms are largely unconscious in daily life.

When I first considered changing my thoughts in order to improve my mood, I immediately worried about becoming “delusional”, like one of those dumb, superficial, happy people who lives in blissful ignorance of life’s deeper meaning and struggles

It was very important to me that I maintain a sense of my own realism, honesty, and clarity about the nature of life; so important that I was more comfortable being deeply unhappy than risking a change to my self-image.

I put limitations on my pursuit of happiness, limitations that turned out to be based on little more than crude stereotypes.

Crude stereotypes of happiness

If I was truly honest with myself, wouldn’t I have to acknowledge that those supposed “dumb, superficial, blissfully ignorant people” were just a fantasy?

In all those years of looking for answers, I hadn’t once gone out of my way to examine people who were actually happy, preferring to think that I understood what superficial, derogatory happiness looked like.

In fact, my own experience belies the notion that happy people are ignorant or deluded. I don’t know anyone who matches the caricature that exists in my own mind.

People who are genuinely happier than me tend not to go around thinking and talking about their depressing problems, but to cast that as a moral failing is misguided.

I’ve met others similar to me: deeply depressed, yet repulsed by the thought of having to “delude” themselves in order to feel better.

Such people would never have the audacity to claim that they are free from “delusion”. They might say that they try not to delude themselves, but it’s more a statement of values and ideals than an objective assessment of their overall knowledge and beliefs.

It’s as if we’ve tried and failed at just “getting along” in life, and instead of admitting the failure, tried to redefine the parameters of life itself until those who get along well are the ones who’ve failed the test of moral seriousness.

Temperament defines happiness

The problem is that we aren’t all the same in what excites us and makes us happy, and therefore we can’t and shouldn’t try to “get along” in the same ways.

Those of us who struggle most with anxiety and depression seem to have an (un)healthy dose of what ancient proto-psychologists called melancholic temperament.

Melancholics are excited by meaning and ideals, and not much else. Yet we inhabit a society full of people who find happiness and fulfilment more easily accessible – in the pursuit of power and prestige, the enjoyment of sensual pleasures, or in simply being left alone to do their own thing.

Meaning and ideals are hard to reconcile with a world ordered to more tangible and readily accessible pursuits. That alone is enough to explain a depressed and anxious outlook.

But if we can at least recognise that meaning and ideals are what motivate and fulfil us, and that we are not all motivated by the same things, then we can dispense with attempts to universalise happiness and justify our own preoccupations.

In other words, it is not superficiality that makes others happy; they are happier (in general) because they have greater ease in identifying and accomplishing the things that make them happy.

Likewise, we are not less happy because of our bold embrace of harsh truths and discomforting realities; we are less happy (in general) because we have not succeeded in identifying and accomplishing the things that make us happy, and have in fact gone to the other extreme of denying our need for meaning and ideals.

Putting meaning and ideals first

I think the most important thing is to recognise what it is that makes us happy as individuals – whether that be meaning and ideals or something else – and seek to enlarge that aspect of our life.

For melancholics the initial challenge is working out that it is meaning and ideals that excites us, and the subsequent challenge is learning how to approach meaningful things for the sake of the meaning they provide.

I used to study philosophy, but I couldn’t really articulate that it was the search for meaning that drove me to it. So I tended to go along with other people’s perspectives of what philosophy is and why it is meaningful or important.

There came a time when I ceased to find philosophy meaningful. And it turned out that I didn’t really care all that much about the other aspects of philosophy that people find valuable. I didn’t really care very much about critical thinking or rationality or asking big questions or seeking answers generally.

Ironically this makes a melancholic surprisingly pragmatic in a way that can even resemble a choleric. A melancholic is like a choleric whose ambition is finding meaning, and everything else is subordinate to that goal.

I think that’s what drives my interest in mysticism, philosophy, and religious practice and thought. I’m looking for a pure meaning that can encompass and imbue all of life.

Abiding insecurity

I need continual reminders that maintaining a positive focus requires partial detachment from the reality around me.

Remembering that our focus is reflected in our thoughts, feelings, actions, and reality, it follows that true change begins with a change in our focus.

But too often we try to change our focus, using reality as a gauge. This is a bit like trying to lose weight and staring at your reflection for immediate signs that it is “working”, and getting discouraged when there’s no immediate change.

The relationship here is even more significant: if you begin to focus on your present reality, your thoughts, feelings, and your subsequent reality will follow suit.

The positive-thinking material therefore suggests a degree of detachment from the reality around you. Not only that, it suggests coming to view the change in focus itself as the desired outcome, with the understanding (but not the grasping or clinging) that reality will eventually change.

Otherwise you may experience a repeated feeling of discord or insecurity as your attention drifts back to the reality around you which neither fully reflects your prior positive focus, nor can ever be the true fulfillment of your desire.

Detachment plays a similar role in mysticism. Seek first the Kingdom of God and his Righteousness means that we cannot be truly satisfied by anything less than God himself. Only the divine can bring fulfillment, and like the positive-thinking material, it is understood that we will never reach the limits of satisfaction in this lifetime.

In other words, we will always be pursuing a deeper and more satisfying focus on the divine.

The second half of the saying is that all these things shall be added unto you.

“All these things” refers to our earthly needs…the aspects of reality that worry us. So we are told not to worry about them, that our Father knows all our needs, that everything will be taken care of.

The aim of both mysticism and the positive-thinking material is to learn to recognise positive focus, or focus on God, as the desired end. A mystic might say it is God we are searching for in our many and varied worldly pursuits.

As God said to Jeremiah:

You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart. ‘I will be found by you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will restore your fortunes and will gather you from all the nations and from all the places where I have driven you,’ declares the LORD, ‘and I will bring you back to the place from where I sent you into exile.

The exile is a spiritual one, because we attend to the passing world, conforming ourselves to its patterns as though it were the ultimate reality.

To live for sons and wealth,
For belongings and health,
O Kabir, is to be like the bird
Which during one night’s stay
Starts loving the tree.

So detachment is necessary. Not to separate us from an “evil” world, but to keep us fixed and focused on the right path. Our world will reflect this focus, our thoughts, our feelings, our actions and our reality will all change to accommodate the new mind or new spirit in us. It will be like a “new creation”.

And in that detachment you draw deeper and more fully on the divine. You’re forced to accept that real fulfillment lies in that focus, that spiritual disposition, that “positive energy”. Drawing on it more purely, where else could you go or stand or want to be?

In recognising that your thoughts, feelings, actions, and reality all flow from your point of focus, you recapitulate creation itself, where all things flow from the divine. You put what is “least” right to the fore, the mysterious thing that seems smallest, weakest, empty, yet from which all existence flows.

Your world is a reflection

I came across a Goethe quotation:

All that happens is symbol, and as it represents itself perfectly, it points to the rest.

Which, if I’m right, is close to my own observation that all the elements of my experience reflect meaningfully my own inner life.

Chasing it down, I came across this book which seems to affirm my interpretation of the quotation, adding another from Coleridge:

For all that meets the bodily sense I deem

Symbolical, one mighty alphabet.

I’ve witnessed on numerous occasions that my experience mirrors, reflects, or symbolises my “inner world” for want of a better term. Accordingly, attempts to change the outer world without changing the inner world tend to fail.

We can end one relationship and end up in another just like it. We can sell a house with too many limitations and find that our new house has its own limitations that elicit the same unhappy feelings in us.

Except they don’t elicit those feelings, they mirror them.

I’ve been reading a bit of “positive thinking” and “law of attraction” material, looking for further insights into this pattern I’ve discovered for myself.

Much of it concurs in practice with aspects of contemporary psychology and philosophy of mind. There are also overlaps with religious philosophy and theology, which is not so surprising considering that these “New Thought” movements grew from Christian roots.

What I’d like to do with this post is clarify my own perspective, combining things I have read and things I have observed, for the sake of improving my own experience.

What’s going on?

As stated above, my experience or “outer world” tends to mirror and reflect my “inner world”.

This reflective quality lies in the emotional salience of experiences conforming to the emotional register of my inner world.

For example, I’ve struggled for years in learning a martial art. The outward struggle to learn the art corresponded to negative emotions in my inner world.

The conventional view is that I felt bad because I couldn’t practice the way I wanted to practice or achieve my personal goals.

But the truth is that both the outer experience and the inner emotion were a reflection of my own thoughts about training, martial arts, my self, and my personal goals.

Thoughts and emotions

Your emotions are a natural response to your thoughts or beliefs.

We feel fear when we think something bad is happening or about to happen.

We feel sorrow or sadness when we think something is wrong and we can’t fix it.

We feel anger when we think something has been unjustly perpetrated against us.

We feel love when we think something is good, in proportion to its goodness.

We feel joy when we think those good things are present.

Conventional psychological therapies like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy attempt to teach people to challenge and correct their thoughts and beliefs and thereby reduce anxious and depressed emotional responses.

But conventional methods tend to focus on the truth-value of thoughts. The idea is that external reality is prior; our beliefs should accord with external reality. People suffer anxiety and depression because they have developed unhelpfully negative thoughts that do not match external reality.

This approach has a lot of merit. But in a modern psychological context mental health and mental illness are largely determined by one’s capacity to function in everyday life. Many people fall through the cracks because they are able to function, even if they are not happy.

For a melancholic especially, this idea of making one’s thoughts more realistic is liable to increase rather than decrease depressed and anxious emotions. A melancholic can’t “realistically” live without idealism and meaning, yet that idealism and meaning is implicitly rendered subjective and arbitrary by a “realist” approach to cognition.

People are afraid of being “unrealistically” happy. But that fear is itself a response to thoughts about reality coming back to bite you in the arse because you were feeling undeservedly happy.

Getting past the emotion-thinking circularity

The better “law of attraction” material, such as Abraham/Esther Hicks, focuses not so much on “how to get your stuff”, but on how to change your thoughts consciously in order to enjoy a better emotional state, with the subsequent promise that external circumstances will shift accordingly.

Hicks refers to emotions as a “guidance system” that helps you determine whether or not a particular thought is in alignment with your “inner being” or “Source energy” or God, and hence also in accord with your genuine desires.

Hicks emphasises that the point is to feel good or feel better, not to be realistic or true. If given the choice between a “true” thought and a thought that feels good, we should choose the latter over the former.

There’s merit to this advice, because our capacity to determine the truth-value of our thoughts is tenuous in the first instance, and even more so when we are experiencing negative emotions.

So focus on thoughts that “feel good” or “feel better” at least, and as a result you will begin to feel better and eventually feel good. As you begin to feel better, the thoughts accessible to you will also change for the better, creating a virtuous circle of better feeling thoughts.

But for people who are accustomed to suppressing emotions, there’s a heightened risk of simply overlaying negative emotions with positive ones, or further suppressing negative emotions.

That’s why Hicks advises not to attempt to change one’s emotional state too rapidly. You can’t go from depressed to joyful in an instant.

Care is warranted, and for me it helps to get away from the circularity of assessing thoughts by how they feel, in order to accomplish a change in feeling.

One way to diminish this circularity is to recognise that we can’t control our feelings. Our feelings or emotions change automatically. For me, this mirrors my realisation with weight loss: body weight is an indirect outcome of food intake and exertion. Being overweight should not be viewed as a problem, because it is (in most cases) a natural and healthy response to unnatural and unhealthy behaviour.

By analogy, we should not view our negative emotions as bad or problematic. Our negative emotions are good and natural and healthy, assuming they are in response to negative thoughts and beliefs.

What this means is that we can let go of the fixation on how we feel, trusting that our emotions will take care of themselves provided we take care of the thoughts we are thinking.

How do we assess thoughts?

If that is the case, the question then arises: how do we assess our thoughts if not on the basis of how they feel, or their purported truth-value?

In mysticism we see an especially melancholic impulse to take the highest and most profound spiritual state, and from that stand-point resist any lesser thoughts.

This is presented in some sects as taking up the deeper states of meditation and carrying them into everyday life. In Christian mysticism it is the spirit or Christ in us that purifies and transforms the “outer man” and the external world.

In the Hicks material, better-feeling thoughts are implicitly closer to the perspective of our “inner being” or “Source” or God. In light of this, we can suggest two approaches to assessing and changing one’s thoughts: by ascending step by step according to which thoughts feel better, or by finding an approach to a transcendent, numinous spiritual state, and letting that state transform or repel incommensurate thoughts.

In fact Hicks does suggest both approaches, ranging from working to improve one’s thoughts on specific subjects, to focusing on subjects that are already informed by positive thoughts, to finally meditating without thought in order to have no resistance.

It’s plausible that different personality types or temperaments may find different approaches more conducive. Regardless, I have to admit that my all-or-nothing tendencies and my past interest in mysticism incline me to some form of the latter option.

“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you”

The practice of love

Devotional mysticism is very appealing because it teaches that we can go through life immersed in a genuine and profound sense of love for God, for others, for ourselves and the whole of life.

This divine love is presented as the source of meaning, a deeper reality, a holy presence in which we live – even if we are not aware of it most of the time.

The poet Kabir likened us to a fish in water who complains of nothing to drink.

As he writes in another poem:

O seeker,

Where are you vainly looking for me,

For I am neither in your pilgrimage nor in your idols,

Not in your temples, not in your mosques,

Not on the holy river banks at Kasi,

Nor in silent lonely spots in the Himalayas,

Not in penances nor the routine of prayers,

I am not in fasts, nor in rituals,

Nor in renunciation even can I be found.

Do you not see my friend,

Who seeks me so earnestly, far and wide,

That I am here, beside you,

Where are you vainly looking for me

Who am here, close at hand,

Right within you,

To be found in no more than a moment,

If you ever care to believe,

Ever care to look. 

I read so many mystics when I was younger, it all blurred together, and I took from it what I wanted to see – which was an all-or-nothing effort of will to transcend the “ordinary” world.

I thought the practice of devotion was supposed to supplant all desires with a single one, and make us immune to the daily struggles of existence.

But that’s not really how it works.

I mean, it kinda is. Like a lot of mysterious things it makes sense in hindsight, but the descriptions don’t especially help you get there.

That might be because everyone is resisting it in their own ways. So even if someone tells you straight out “this is what you need to do…” you likely won’t listen.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”, but more likely the teachers were all around you all the time waving their hands in front of your face but you were too stubborn and too stupid to open your eyes.

Or maybe that’s just what it took to get you there.

Regardless, divine love is supposed to be transcendent, unconditional, and pure. What that means in practice is that there’s no obstacle to love, if you choose to practice it. There are no necessary preconditions, no requirements, no milestones, no knots to untie…unless you make there be.

If you sit at a piano playing low notes, there’s nothing to stop you playing high ones instead. You just have to do it. You don’t even have to understand how it works and why, though some of you will probably want to.

You just need to choose, for the sake of feeling better, to practice feeling love rather than the other feelings you’re more used to.

The whole idea that we’ll feel better once we do this or finish that, or achieve our goals…No, unconditional love means you can practice it with no preconditions; and if you don’t practice it you’ll never get there.

True self vs Ego

Mysticism from different traditions tends to hold some concept of a dichotomy within us, a division between the ego and the true self.

I’ve mentioned previously the Upanishadic model of “the two birds in a tree” where one bird – the individual self – eats and enjoys the fruit, while the other bird – the supreme self – simply watches.

An analogous idea appears in St Paul: “Therefore we do not lose heart; but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day.” And: “I delight in the law of God according to the inner man.”

Various Christian mystics wrote about Christ being born within us, or finding the part of the soul where God dwells in us.

The point is that our existence is dichotomous, and that we err in identifying with the external, individual, active self rather than the spiritual, internal self that is united with or conformed to the divine.

Likewise familiar analogies that deal with individuality versus unity: We think we are individual, separate, alone, yet this is like looking at the waves of the ocean as though they had independent existence rather than being extensions, creations, or manifestations of the one underlying water.

Perhaps that aligns also with the parable of the man who sold all his possessions to buy a field where he had found a hidden treasure; or the merchant who bought the pearl of great price.

What the mystics point to is an underlying experience of unity that somehow exists in opposition or counterpoint to external multiplicity. The problem of “worldliness” is that the part of our mind adept to dealing with multiplicity comes to dominate. We live as though the self we construct in relation to others is our true self.

In Buddhist terms, we mistake it for an enduring self, when in fact it exists as the illusory product of multiple interactions. And in seeking to maintain the illusion of continuity, we suffer.

When I was younger I managed to find this deeper sense of unity, but it was always interrupted by the ego – the externally-oriented mind. I couldn’t work out how to bring the peace and contentment of the true self into everyday life.

I also had the mistaken idea that the only way to be free was to annihilate, overcome, or somehow destroy that ego. It didn’t help that the patterns I had established were quite negative.

I conflated many different issues, thinking that the solution to all suffering was to let go of that worldly mind and find the “hidden gem” that lay beneath or behind ordinary reality.

Now, as I’m learning to become more positive and optimistic, it doesn’t seem like an all-or-nothing proposition anymore.

Traditions that emphasise suffering and misery left an enduring impression that the ego must be intrinsically evil, that we will never be complete unless we completely eradicate it.

But with a less desperate or afflicted ego, I’m beginning to feel like it doesn’t have to be destroyed (nor could it ever really be). The ego is just the part of the mind that interacts with the multiplicity of life. Without it we couldn’t function at all. It is made of responsiveness to external circumstances.

If the true self is always content, it doesn’t follow that the ego must be always suffering and struggling.

What I’ve observed recently is that we can begin to reconcile the two. We can teach ourselves (the ego) that the true self is always there, that we can always retreat to it, take refuge in it, find contentment at any time.

We can teach ourselves that the ego doesn’t need to be destroyed, that it is just a way of being which should be balanced and supported by the deeper, more enriching way of being that we call the true self, or prayer, or communion with God.

And this true self can lift up the ego, draw it higher, help it become more positive. It can tread more lightly, being assured of the constant presence behind it.

This might all sound confusing, speaking of ourselves as if we exist in two distinct modes, or with two separate entities.

In the past I found it very confusing, and thought I needed to understand it in order to “do” it properly.

But now all I’m trying to do is to feel better, to find satisfaction and contentment and peace and happiness in the present moment. And in that context the dynamic becomes clear.

I can close my eyes and feel better immediately. Open them, and the world intrudes with all kinds of pressing demands and worries.

But those demands and worries only press on me because I have mistaken beliefs about myself and the world.

The truth is that I’m better off taking refuge in that deeper part of me than in trying to manage and control my external reality. My external reality changes according to the filter of my thoughts and feelings, including my beliefs about the nature of the ego, and my true self.

Towards a spiritual psychology

I’m very slowly working towards a kind of spiritual psychology or anthropology, based on my reading and experiments over the years.

I hope it will take into account all the variables in my past experience: dealing with things like depression and anxiety, mysticism, cognitive and emotional states, and temperament.

It will be at heart a pragmatic approach, aimed at overcoming the suffering in my own life, and exploring the promises made by various religious teachings about the availability of love, joy, peace, and even bliss in this lifetime.

For me ‘pragmatic’ means I have a goal in mind. I didn’t go looking for answers out of simple curiosity, but because I sensed there was something wrong but had no idea what, how, or why.

So my approach will probably not appeal to many people, just as I’ve failed to find answers in the many popular approaches, theories, and methods available at present. The reason I haven’t become an exponent of any particular system or teaching is that no system or teaching has proven sufficient for me.

A quick sketch

Consciousness is something special.

In some religious systems, consciousness itself is considered divine – part of, or even all of God, right at the heart of your existence.

In others, consciousness is “close to” the divine, and is considered the “true self” or soul, in contrast to the false self, the ego, the accumulated thoughts and impressions that we usually treat as our self.

We could spend a lifetime trying to resolve and explore these theoretical differences, but remember this is a pragmatic effort. Regardless of the exact descriptions or definitions, consciousness is “special” in a good way.

The significance of consciousness is much more obvious in an Eastern context than in a Christian one, but we must bear in mind that the word “consciousness” has only recently been taken to mean what it means in this context. As “a state of being aware” it dates back only so far as the 18th Century.

Years ago I went looking for Aquinas’ perspective on consciousness, but couldn’t find it for the simple reason that Aquinas lived in the 13th Century, and for him conscientia would point to conscience, not consciousness.

In fact conscious is just a derivative of conscience. Both come from con meaning ‘with’ and science meaning “knowledge”. We could just as well say conscient instead of conscious, as in “are you conscient right now?”

The light in the darkness

In the context of mysticism, the specialness and significance of consciousness has been captured in the term “light”, as in “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it”, which is not only a powerful spiritual statement, but also a pretty neat summary of contemporary philosophy of mind and the “hard” problem of consciousness.

Likewise: “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.”

We tend to think of evil deeds in concrete ways, as specific actions that contravene divine law.

But in the broader spiritual context it is clear that everything we do is corrupt and insufficient. It is ‘evil’ in a broad sense, and pragmatically this means our efforts are incapable of overcoming suffering or bringing us the happiness we seek.

We needn’t feel condemned for our actions, it’s enough that our actions cannot redeem us. Futility is an evil, just as much as malice.

The evil of human actions encompasses everything from the murderer and rapist all the way up to the proud and spiritually-barren Pharisees. That’s why Christianity presented such an apparent inversion of the moral order – because it doesn’t matter how well-behaved you are if you still have no love in you.

Some people think that light and darkness are metaphors for good and evil. I think it’s the other way around, in the sense that good and evil are ultimately grounded in light and darkness.

Light, love, and maladaptive defense-mechanisms

The ever-present light in us is also love, in that ‘light’ and love are attributes of God. Again, speaking pragmatically rather than seeking theological precision, this mysterious light by which we know the world and our own selves is also the source of divine love.

Yet instead of remaining in that love, we pay greater heed to the world, giving in to doubts and fears.

You can see this very clearly in children.

Young children are (all things being equal) loving towards their parents or caregivers. They give and receive love naturally.

Unfortunately, their parents and caregivers are not consistently loving in return. Our faults and foibles prevent us from responding to the love of our children perfectly.

Children experience this deprivation of love as a threat to their very survival. This makes sense on a biological level – since the child is entirely dependent on its caregivers for food, shelter, and security. But it also makes sense on a spiritual level, since we are told that love, light, and life all come from God.

In the face of this deprivation of love, the child invariably succumbs to doubt and fear, and immediately strives to regain the love it has lost.

This is the root of the problem: succumbing to doubt and fear, and thereby shutting down the immediacy of love in themselves, while then concluding that external conditions (the world) need to be controlled and rearranged before love can return.

In practical terms, this amounts to a child who stops experiencing love because of their parents’ implied or explicit rejection, and then seeks to find a way to regain that parental love and protect themselves from further harm.

The many layers of the psyche

Over many years of making psychological moves to avoid hurt and regain love, the child-teenaged-adult psyche ends up with many complex layers of beliefs, emotions, and choices that all originate in the choice of fear and doubt over love.

What this means is that in theory any of us can at any time feel divine love in our hearts. So long as the light (consciousness) is there, love is there as well. And the light is always with us.

But in practice our receptivity to this love is on a hair-trigger. We are ready to shut off the flow of love at the slightest hint of anything in the world of our experience that resembles the hurts, fears, doubts, and defense mechanisms that have shaped us over the years.

For example, many people develop perfectionist tendencies when young. Let’s say your parents were often depressed or angry, leaving them emotionally unavailable to you.

But then one day you get a good result at school or do well at sport, and suddenly your parents seem interested and engaged and proud of you. From your point of view, it’s as if they’ve said “Yes! This is the kind of behaviour and accomplishment we find worthy of love!”

Many children (depending on temperament and other circumstances) will form an intention to become as accomplished and successful as possible, because this is obviously what it takes to earn their parents’ love again. 

Conflating accomplishment and success with the supply of love is one cause of perfectionism.

Perfectionism can also originate in the inverse circumstance – where a child is told that they will suffer further rejection if they do not succeed in life.

Metastasizing fear

Becoming a perfectionist is one instance of a maladaptive response to fear and doubt. It’s mal-adaptive because it doesn’t really achieve the desired result (securing a supply of love) and it actually creates further conflict and harm.

Because after a while the child will begin to reflect on their perfectionist efforts. They will have further psychological responses to their perfectionism, such as: fear that they will not be able to achieve their goals, resentment that they must be ‘perfect’ in order to be accepted or loved, a sense of emptiness after finding that their accomplishments do not bring lasting rewards, and so on.

Again it depends on the child, but rest assured that they will make some kind of “move” to try to avoid further hurt and attain more love.

If, for example, the child feels insufficiently loved for their accomplishments, they will begin to feel angry and resentful at this injustice. Somewhere in the child’s mind they made an implicit bargain with their parents that they would be loved if they accomplished enough, or did as they were told, or didn’t rock the boat, or whatever particular issue first ruptured their sense of being loved.

But how will the child respond to these feelings of anger and resentment? Whatever they decide, it will be a choice that seeks implicitly to limit their hurt and attain more love, or as much love as they can hope to achieve in their circumstances.

These psychological developments go on and on. Some people have a few, others have many.

The more you have, the more likely you will develop outright internal conflicts between different “moves” or layers. Some people end up depressed or suicidal for no apparent external cause, because the layers of their own psyche create a kind of inner tension or turmoil that they don’t know how to resolve.

Finding the answer

That’s why the spiritual path is both simple and complex, easy and difficult.

The simple spiritual answers like “God is love” can be a source of great comfort, but not necessarily a lived experience. Can you just choose to be full of love, and then do it? Maybe you can, but many of us cannot.

So on the one hand we’re told that all we have to do is believe and we will be saved.

But on the other hand:

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.”

Why this dichotomy? Because the simple truth is obscured by the many layers of our psychological defenses and accretions.

Defenses like turning to alcohol, sex, or drugs to try to relieve the inner tension, boredom, or suppressed pain which is in turn the outcome of other, more subtle defenses.

Defenses like intellectualising everything, shutting down emotionally, using dissociation or hypervigiliance to gain a sense of control over your own experience and environment.

Defenses like seeking out conflict and emotional turmoil, harming oneself or hurting others.

Nonetheless the answers are there.

The underlying, inescapable reality is light, not darkness, and it expresses itself in love, not fear.

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.

The antidote to Pride

Some people think the antidote to pride is humility. Others claim that the antidote to pride is actually love.

I’m going to go with humility, but it depends on your interpretation.

I suspect what’s going on here is that there are two components to the spiritual path: love and truth. Some people are more drawn to truth than love, some more drawn to love than truth.

God is both, which means that love and truth are – in their essence – inseparable. But human beings approach God from different directions, which is why some are more moved by truth, and others are more moved by love.

Regardless of the path, the obstacle is the same: pride. Pride is the desire for control, the desire to be the author of our own existence, our own success, our own conclusion.

That’s why both love and humility can overcome pride. Love overcomes pride because the devotee loses himself in love of God and others. Love, by its very nature, softens the artificial barriers our pride has constructed.

Humility, in its more profound form, is truth. It comes from the Latin for “ground” and implies lowliness but also an understanding of our relationship to God as creatures. That is, we were formed out of clay.

Humility overcomes pride because the truth is that all pride is delusional. We cannot exercise self-control because we are entirely at the disposal of our creator. We can’t be the author of our own existence, because that role is already filled.

True humility sees through the facade of pride. Love overwhelms it.

I’m told that you can’t pursue truth without love developing, and you can’t develop love without learning the truth at some point. The two are inseparable, it’s really more a matter of emphasis.