Mindfulness is about how we live, not a theory to be indulged. Having the opportunity to witness fellow travelers and students expressing with succinct beauty and force how the directly experienced journey really looks like from within, always touches me. It is a particular treat to be directly engaged in exchanges of such nurturing and healing richness. What follows is a recent example in the form of an email exchange (for reasons of confidentiality I will call the person I had this exchange with Suzanne)
Hi Dr. T.,
Something is coming up in my practice that I thought I would write to you about. I may not even do a good job of describing this to you right now, because it feels like I am very spooked by it.
Recently, in my practice, choiceless awareness seems to be the practice I naturally initiate. I am finding a good connection with my awareness, just seeing where it is and what that feels like, instead of getting caught up in the what’s and the why’s. I think this is where my freak out started.
In my psychological work, I have been noticing recently how narrow my definition of my self is and how greatly that limits me from having the kind of relationships and the kind of fulfilling and happy experiences I want to have. I am noticing how confining it is to limit my definition of self by past experiences and gyp myself of all that I could potentially be (or not). It feels a bit like I am trying to let go of my narrow self-identification in my practice as well and that is massively terrifying me.
I think about what about this could be so terrifying, and really it’s just a fear of the unknown. Some part of me recognizes from your teachings and what I know of this practice that what I want is likely on the other side of all of this – a sense of freedom, moving from one thing to another, without identifying with it or getting caught up with it, a sense of ease and some sort of liberation that I fantasize about.
I am trying to put all this together (the psychological and the spiritual (?)) and figure out how to move forward, but, to be honest, am a bit paralyzed by my fear. So I thought I would reach out to you. What do you think?
Yours seems like quite a classic stage in one’s growth towards wisdom. Assuming a definition of the spiritual as dealing with our relationship to the ineffable emptiness of Being, notice how the psychological can quickly and imperceptibly become spiritual and vice versa. From the conduit of direct sensory experience we move into the constructor of psychological insight, only to then have to transcend both into the vast emptiness of nameless Being. (When the spiritual is defined within the context of a personal relationship with God, things can become more complicated and confining, given that only the self or remnants of it can maintain such a relationship, and all identifications with a self are by definition limiting and confining, including how they limit the notion of God).
Coming back to the other definition of spirituality I much prefer, as you rightly point out, when you let go of conditioned identifications with old patterns of being and gain greater flexibility and freedom of Being, you encounter the ‘unbearable lightness of Being’, accompanied by the insight of the self’s illusory nature. The more you investigate the self, the more it dissolves into a puff of fleeting energy flow, leaving you with nothing of what you were used to have, and everything you never dreamed of being. In fact, from this perspective, psychology with all its formulations of a senses of self, quite generally seems to me like a verbal clothing worn over the indecent and therefore often unacceptable nakedness of its core called the emptiness of Being, so as to allow it to appear in public. Our work in mindfulness consists of trying to stalk this retreating nude – not an easy task, because it demands this constant shift between the tangible verbal world of energy manifested as form and the intangible world of the formless nameless.
As you know, freedom comes with responsibility, and responsibility is what prisons relieve us from. Freedom from prior prisons can routinely be first met with anxiety, until we get used to the larger landscape. Although ultimately liberating, new senses of self that are not as limited as the old ones can be very disconcerting at first.
I am sure there will be much more to explore, but I hope these thoughts may help clarify a few things a bit.
With kind regards,
Hi Dr. T,
Thank you for your response.
It’s interesting, it’s been a few days since I sent this email and because I didn’t get a response “in time”, things became slightly more psychologically challenging. Or another way to say that is that a lot has come up that I am seeing and learning so much about myself from! It’s kinda cool, even though massively emotionally challenging to keep perspective at times. This being said, the spiritual and what I had said in my email seems to have retreated to the background a bit. To the extent that I even had to reread my own email to remind myself what I had said/felt. The connection with it isn’t much there now.
It’s amazing how much a narrow identification and the conditionings can take over and make an experience, which was so convincing and tangible a few days ago, seem just like theory now.
I’m glad at the very least I still have my awareness to watch this go back and forth, and though it gets emotionally challenging sometimes, I try to keep investigating the difference and the shift (as you said) just to learn and explore. It’s cool.
The only problem with this approach and also with what I had said before is “what do I identify with if I don’t identify with the emotional or the stories?”. I think back when I had written that email to you, at least I had a very small connection to my awareness and that calmed this down a bit. Now that’s gone and the psychological is a bit more anxious, so avoidance seems tempting.
The interplay between psychological and spiritual (definitely the way you describe spiritual, not the religious constructs of “god”) is very interesting and something I’ve been noticing for a while now! And how we need a stable healthy construct of “self” first as a tool to explore what’s beyond. Trying to build this and I see how the psychological can still cause fear causing me to retreat to what’s not the unknown, even if deep down there is always the knowing that it is a construct and the convinced “nagging” that it doesn’t stop there and there is more.
There you go, Suzanne, the retreating nude! And by the way, you write eloquently with depth of insight .
The barrel of a gun (and the heat of emotions) always seem to bring the tangible of form and manifestation to temporary victory, and the shy nakedness of awareness itself is always ready to temporarily cede the limelight. Conditionings and attachments to form are powerful and superficially reassuring, and the stories we weave ensnare us like spiders catch their prey in their web. Ironically, there is indeed a lot to learn from these webs of meaning, and as you rightly say, a strong sense of self, however illusory it is from a spiritual perspective, is the prerequisite for the ability to withstand the pounding waves of existential insights that gradually dissolve our whole constructed world into its empty essence. Follow the shifts from substantiality to ephemerality without resistance, and flexibly surrender to the back and forth from the open plane of possibilities to the peaks of activation. Your sentiment that this journey to nowhere is cool, is a cool and useful bonus that motivates to press on through pain and resistance!
Your connection to awareness beyond identification with your stories does not mean identification with awareness. That’s the beauty of realizing the impermanent nature of everything: Identification is not necessary anymore, even if it arises and passes like everything else, and this movement from form to formlessness and back is the revelation of life’s mysterious ways. Fear disappears the moment the illusory is not taken for reality anymore. Then, we discover that who we really are is what cannot be known or named and grasped, not what we can define and put into a neat little cage.
With kind regards,
Hi Dr. T.,
Your second paragraph brought me to tears, because running in the hamster cage is getting utterly exhausting, and being afraid of something that (somehow) seems peaceful isn’t making sense.
I appreciate your encouragement when needed. It is definitely interesting to watch it go back and forth. “Oops look at this, I’m wound up”, “ah, what’s this feeling of flexibility and okayness. Wow”.
I’ll keep looking and see what happens. It can get a little exhausting to yo-yo. I have some more giving in to do.
Thank you for your email,
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