Isn’t a cigar sometimes just a cigar?
“What you see is not what you see, and what you see is not what it means” (Ai Weiwei). “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” (Edgar Degas). “It’s not what you look at that matters, but what you see” (Henry David Thoreau).
These two art works changed the course of art history as they fundamentally challenged how we look at and interpret reality. Clearly, human beings have to contend with a brain that allows them to construct reality in multilayered, complex ways. What you see is what you have learned to see, and what you have learned to see may be closer to or farther from the truth, whatever the truth might be. How we see what we see defines the meaning of what’s seen. Artists have worked intensely with the way we create our many realities and speak about them, and nowhere is the imperative to examine the complex layers of reality stronger than in our speech. In mindfulness training we learn to listen with our third ear, realizing that discourse tends to affirm the truth by denying the obvious. When you listen carefully to what people say and how they say it, you’ll discover that they are usually unaware how much they crave to tell the truth they cannot possibly reveal, and then resort to elaborate compensatory ways of stating the obvious in the most obscure ways. Such is the human mind’s complexity and language, almost never what it appears to be and always far more multilayered than we expect.
Think about this for a moment: You can know what you know, as well as know what you don’t know. You can also not know what you know, as well as not know what you don’t know. These are complex layers of neuroprocessing giving rise to complex streams of awareness with complex undercurrents of concealed information processing.
In Part 1 of this blog I briefly explored some fundamental ways we ought to learn to modify our energy flow by developing certain preliminary attitudes and mental orientations that allow us deeper access to truth. In Part 2 I now take the example of an email one of my Mindsight Intensive students I will call Barbara sent me. I want to highlight our method of inquiry that is based on close monitoring of energy flow and observation of the language we all use.
Here is her email:
“If my present circumstances/situation suck(s), how long should I stay with uncomfortable feelings? I feel pain and want it to go away but go about it in a way that only makes matters worse.
It’s hard (for me) to rejoice in the status quo (i.e. things as they are). I feel guilty about where I find myself. How do I feel regret without allowing it to pull me back/drag me down?
How do I learn to recognize I’m caught (in my story)? How can I see what I do without feeling hopeless? How can I find some humour/gentleness? What will help me remain present when I’m afraid? How do I make the experience richer/better?”
So let’s unpack it sentence by sentence:
“If my present circumstances/situation suck(s), … “: What does that mean? It is important here to closely examine what this experience of ‘sucking’ entails. This statement can upon hearing it immediately be recognized as fundamentally false. Why? Because it is sweepingly global without differentiation and context. In other words, the statement expresses a strong identification with that thought, caused by accompanying emotions. This is how her thought seems to become a fact, when no thought is ever a fact. She confuses a momentary internal energy and information flow with reality, does not notice that confusion, and then generalizes its message in the form of a sweeping statement about her life. Because the confusion is not noticed, many of her actions and attitudes in life are then constructed on that distorted basis, causing a lot of suffering. Without going into details of her personal circumstance, a closer look at her life shows that notwithstanding certain disappointments and shortcomings she is working on, she is healthy, successful and fortunate in many ways. So its not life that ‘sucks’ (to use her own word), but more precisely her relationship with or attitude towards herself! This is where mindsight comes in. To use some items we reviewed in part 1 of this blog, this statement reveals a lack of YODA and COAL.
“… how long should I stay with uncomfortable feelings?”: My immediate answer would be ‘as long as it takes’. Let me however first take a quick detour into this question’s hermeneutics. You can take the question at face value: ‘How long….’ would then suggest she is quite neutrally asking for a time frame such as say ‘no more than 3 months’; and if these uncomfortable feelings persist beyond that, I might say ‘you then should maybe think of taking medication’. Given the context of her question within the whole sentence that includes the statement about how her life sucks, responding on that level would mean falling into the trap of forgetting that human beings have minds that create meaning. Some professionals who don’t have deeper psychodynamic training and strictly remain on the concrete ‘medical’ level of interaction will fall into that trap. Supportive, reality-based therapies will also respond on that superficial level of meaning. Beyond face value you can in her case clearly pick up a first hidden message layer that sounds like this: ‘I am fed up and tired of these feelings’. A second layer ‘below’ that says: ‘I want to get rid of these feelings and want you you tell me how to do that.’ You can see how close attentive listening reveals a whole symphonic score of parallel, multilayered meanings, which constitute what we call mind; unless we meet the person on all these levels to their fullest depths, a process called mindsight, we will be hopelessly ineffective in our attempts at helping induce deep transformation and healing. In this instance, to use again tools we reviewed in part 1, Barbara forgot about the 1/10/1000/10,000 principle of neuroplasticity, the SNAIL and SLOTH pace of our journey, and last but not least, the crucial importance of COAL.
“I feel pain and want it to go away, but go about it in a way that only makes matters worse.”: As you can see our deeper analysis of her previous question already anticipated this statement and the problem she encounters. It is a natural reflex to want to get away from pain. After all, withdrawing your hand from a burning stove is not a bad idea that ensures survival. However, when it comes to more complex pain states, such as chronic physical pain or psychological pain, this reflex is profoundly counterproductive. Trying to get rid of pain and pushing it away will only make matters worse and is tantamount to disabling your red car light alert without exploring why it came on in the first place. What you resist, persists. This is what happens to Barbara; instead of befriending her pain, she wants it to go away, and going about the business of trying to make the pain go away makes it only worse. Why? Because the pain is like an alarm – it does not want to be made to go away; it wants to be understood, so that new life patterns can be put in place that don’t harm our organism. It is one of the most counter intuitive, unfamiliar and difficult principles we learn through mindsight training, to actually turn towards the pain as our friend, not our enemy. Pain is immensely valuable information we have not yet learned to understand and be inspired by. Once we really understand this principle, our lives profoundly change. We learn and grow from pain, and by turning towards it, our relationship to it changes into one of embracing respect. The end result is then not only to restore function, but the pain will inevitably diminish or even vanish. In addition to COAL and YODA Barbara needs to learn to embody, particularly when she doesn’t like it, this is specifically also a case of having forgotten the MIRROR principle described in part 1.
“It’s hard (for me) to rejoice in the status quo (i.e. things as they are).”: Because Barbara does not see her own mind clearly (she confuses thoughts for facts for example), when she talks about the ‘status quo being things as they are’, she confuses two very different things. Not having clear mindsight means that she does not have access to ‘things as they are’. If she had, she would be much more serene and at peace. She only sees her status quo, which is not ‘things as they are’. In other words, she only sees her state of partial mind muddle, not the way things are with clear view, and that is obviously not fun. Of course its hard for her to rejoice in that status quo, and in fact I told her I hoped she didn’t rejoice in it, because its not a good state to stay stuck in. So when she says its hard for her to rejoice in the status quo, she unwittingly implies that she is trying to rejoice in an unhealthy state. I am glad she doesn’t! How more convoluted and self-sabotaging can one’s mind get? Its almost humorous when you think about it. This is not just a question to Barbara, but you will find your own mind bending itself into the most incredible knots on a daily basis if you look more closely. We are all such masters at creating our own misery through unexamined minds. To come back to her rejoicing statement, the invitation is to embrace the pain of the status quo, invite it for tea and engage in an inquiring dialogue, likely not rejoicing at all in this pain, yet possibly beginning to rejoice in the freedom that comes with the flexibility of being with whatever is without resistance.
“I feel guilty about where I find myself.”: Interesting! PeNoCoCa, beginner’s mind and algorithm (iceberg) (see part 1) are crucial here. There are obviously complex stories to explore in psychotherapy that meditation can only peripherally touch upon. The guilt is an opportunity to mobilize curiosity and find out what its origins and collaterals are.
“How do I feel regret without allowing it to pull me back/drag me down?”: She implies that she can’t “feel regret without allowing it to pull me back down“. Of course she can’t, because it is neither possible nor desirable. Feel whatever regret you feel, notice how it drags you down as it causes negatively painful energy flow, and sit both in and with it in order to acquaint yourself with what’s happening below the surface of appearances. Again, YODA, COAL, MIRROR and patient love within penetrating awareness are essential.
“How do I learn to recognize I’m caught (in my story)?”: Excellent question – in fact the first question that is not based on an unconscious faulty assumption. PeNoCoCa, beginner’s mind and algorithm (iceberg) are all crucial here. You need to know that we all are more or less caught in stories, both personal concoctions and cultural archetypes. We are not trying to master the impossible challenge of being outside our stories, but what’s at stake is the level of coherence of the stories we weave. Are they differentiated, complex, precise, flexible, creative, adaptive and steeped in perspective, or are they impoverished, complicated, vague, rigid, dull, unbending and locked in blinders? On the basis of knowing that the human capacity for self-deception is limitless, you will never take any story as being the last word, firm, settled and absolute, and you will refrain from becoming what in Mexico are apparently called opinionologists. One of Zen’s most central principles is to not hold on to your opinions. Stories are all fluidly changing processes that continuously change the stories just told in a recursive fashion. The mindsight process will help you become transparent to the vast unknown and unknowable of life, allowing it to inspire your daily life, always prepared to question, explore context and surrender to the creative flow of reality. One way you recognize that you are caught in a story is when your story has a strong emotional charge and a defined rigid quality. Then you immediately know you are imprisoned by old conditionings, and you can begin to disentangle the web of automaticity by using all the tools you learn in mindsight training. When you can allow your story to be tentative, to be the best possible story you can tell in this moment, to be reviewed and improved the next, then quite paradoxically you are wiser and more informed than anyone spewing defined statements on how reality is supposed to be.
“How can I see what I do without feeling hopeless?”: Observe your attitude and language. Again, Barbara wants to dismiss and put conditions on the flow of her reality. She wants to see clearly, but not pay the price of difficult emotions when clear view reveals a termite colony in the basement about to destroy her foundation. COAL, Allowing and Letting Be, are radical in their challenge to us to embrace everything, whether we like it or not. Feel hopeless if you must (since we now know not to avoid pain) and examine your hopelessness more closely with all the tools you have learned, including the differentiation of experiences into their base elements.
“How can I find some humor/gentleness?”: While we explored Barbara’s email in class, it was quite obvious how much laughter and delight accompanied the seriousness of the inquiry. With COAL everything gains a spaciousness that removes the hard edges of Being. And besides, isn’t it humorous in itself to find out how endlessly creative our mind is in creating illusions we end up believing and living by? Being in the company of fellow travelers on the path, realizing the human universality of our suffering, and absorbing the benevolent support and insights of everyone around us, makes the journey infinitely more tolerable, humorous and gentle.
“What will help me remain present when I’m afraid?”: Your middle prefrontal cortex (MPC) in resonance with your fellow traveller’s MPCs, and the YODA/COAL that come from it. Lions, terrorists, and dictators may be feared, but fear is not to be feared. What’s important here is the distinction between fear and courage. Our work in mindsight and mindfulness is based in courage, not the absence of fear. Fear requires understanding and insight, but never action or backing off from it. Fear like all other emotions is a guide for skillful action demanding the courage to be independent from circumstance.
“How do I make the experience richer/better?”: Back to part 1: Memorize and practice! You cannot possibly survive in a jungle you are not familiar with, unless you have a backpack full of food and survival tools you know how to use. The mind being the most complex process in the known universe, infinitely creative in its ability to fool you, mastering your tools is essential. Meditation is a matter of great precision and skill, and when you master that, you will do well. With my students I always stress the fact that there is such a thing as a good and a bad meditation, but that it is not what they think. What constitutes good or bad is not how difficult the meditative experience is in any given moment, but how well you master and apply your tools. If you are sloppy, you are wasting your time and might as well have a Tequila instead. If you use your tools competently with precision, your meditation and your life will reveal their inherent richness that was always already there before you numbed yourself to it. So there is no way of making your experience richer and better; when you look closely by using your tools properly, it is already good and rich (including when it is painful at times).
This email reveals how Barbara’s questions arise from a state of mind that is largely unconscious of those principles we discussed in part 1, despite the fact that she heard them discussed many times during the sessions. If they are not unconscious, then they remained segregated in her mind in the form of intellectualized knowledge that does not translate into an embodied ability to apply these principles effectively. Thoughts that can easily arise in such circumstances (and which need to not be confused with facts) are of a self-deprecating nature, such as one might not be smart, able or motivated enough, just too lazy, or it all is just too difficult. Barbara had her share of those. Such thoughts, which are never facts, are usually the furthest from the truth. We have to remember what I said previously, how limitless the human capacity for self-deception is, because the mind’s creative capacity to fool us is also limitless. We so easily believe that what we think is all there is, and that we know all the essentials there are to know. In this case for example, we know the principles, we have discussed, rehearsed and reviewed them a million times, yet when it comes right down to it, we just don’t embody them – out of sight, out of mind. Why? Because the mind has many ways to create illusions we don’t recognize as such, and when we then act on those illusions, we get into trouble. When we are not trained enough to see them, we easily fall prey to our mind traps. So what remains? Practice, practice, practice, question, question, question, succeeding, falling, succeeding, falling, the 1000-year journey. In the end, which means right now, the path is the goal, and all that matters is noticing improvement.
Overall, we can see how most questions revealed a fundamentally dismissive attitude to herself, a subtle aggression in the form of non-acceptance of many parts of her, that cannot possibly be healthy, wholesome and healing. In the end, what it all comes down to is developing a welcoming, embracing attitude to uncompromisingly absolutely everything in us, to each and every experience we have, then hold it all in awareness in its full complexity, and patiently and lovingly allow the heat of awareness transform and integrate the energy flow in its own time. In asking the questions and opening them up for scrutiny, Barbara made it possible to make space for new, creative energy flows from others around her to enter certain rigid parts of her and begin the process of rewiring. This is of course only possible, if those questions are addressed from a perspective of complexity and depth. When that can happen, the answers we come up with are not definitive end points, but the impetus for asking better questions for new beginnings.
All students in the class and I were very grateful to Barbara for having so candidly revealed herself and provided us with such an extraordinary opportunity to learn so much from her! Everyone could see themselves in her questions that reveal so much about what nobody wants to see in their minds. Her strength in being able to be vulnerable was inspiring to all, and she taught everyone the value of courage, which is essential for this journey.
Copyright © 2018 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.