awareness

A trip down memory lane

 

A couple of months ago a new energetic force arrived in my life.

On top of all the different energies surrounding my strange existence, this was something different. Uninvited and unannounced, it came into my life and took me on an extremely difficult and painful journey into the depths of darkness. It is both a sacred journey, and one I wouldn’t wish upon another living being. Ever.

You can call it an “ego trip,” but not in the usual sense. Slowly and methodically, following some invisible plan, this energy of darkness took me on a regressive ride back to childhood. Part healing, part training, it felt like my consciousness was aggressively yanked backwards, against my will, to revisit the entire formation of my ego.

A little bit of background first: There are a lot of misconceptions about what the “ego” is. In spiritual circles, it’s something bad that needs to be avoided, rejected, killed or transcended (depending on which tradition you follow). Lots of people mistakenly conflate the ego, with the entire personality or self, which creates a lot of confusion. And the entheogenic folks use the term “ego death” as a threshold marker for the mystical realms; also somewhat inaccurate. 

In my view, it’s relatively straightforward.

The ego is the false self. It is a solidified network of beliefs in the subconscious mind, which generates thoughts, feelings, reactions, and patterns of behavior into the conscious mind and personality. It’s not bad, per se. But left unattended it leads to a lot of suffering in life. In essence, it is a program (like in a computer) of coping mechanisms that we develop, for living in a world where being yourself is not acceptable. Ego is the mask we learn to wear, because we’re too afraid to be real and vulnerable. Ego is the person you believe you should be (or must be in order to be loved and accepted), rather than the person you actually are.

Ego takes shape in response to experiences during the formative childhood years, and hardens and reinforces itself over time. The more rejection you encounter, the more fear, judgement, criticism, shame, and trauma that is inflicted upon you, the bigger or stronger the ego becomes. Like an armor or a shield, it is meant to protect you against an emotionally dangerous world. It is made up of lots of defense mechanisms.

The real self, the personality you were born with, gets buried deeper and deeper until it’s completely repressed. Without awareness, most people have no inkling of their real self. They identify with the program running in their subconscious mind, believing that that’s just who they are. They wear a kind of false mask to face the world, and live out the dictates of this subconscious program. Most people live without conscious awareness of this program their entire lives.

(There is some philosophical debate about whether there is even a real authentic self at the core or not. The argument is that even the very process of birth effects the personality and conditions it in some way, so there is no absolute personality at all. My view of this is that there is very much a real self (small s); but it’s not consistent or definable. It’s a mutable feeling sense. It’s not something that can be conceptualized or described. It’s something you feel, not exactly something the mind understands. There is an authentic self, but there is no self concept attached to it. You can’t reduce the truth of the authentic self into words, because it’s too fluid in its expression. It doesn’t conform to anything consistent. The fact that it’s amorphous doesn’t make it non-existent, it only makes it indescribable.)

[There is a deeper aspect of ego, a set of drives, that aren’t inherently part of the false self. It has to do with how love is sourced – internally vs externally. That’s the top-level organizing logic of all the various inclinations. But that is a much more complicated area, and one I will write about at some point later because I haven’t thought it through well enough to articulate]. 

Anyway, for most people, all the real spiritual work is an undoing of this false ego self. Not because it’s bad, but because it stands in the way of authentic expression, joy, happiness, and satisfaction in life. Ego causes lots and lots of emotional suffering. With love and awareness (and the proper tools) the initial dismantling of the false self is not that difficult. Different spiritual traditions approach the dismantling differently, but at the core that’s what spirituality is really about – the shedding of the false self, so that the real self can be fully expressed and liberated. The entire methodology of the chakra energy system is built around this goal – getting a person into authentic alignment and expression. When he is in alignment with his real self, all the chakras are in proper balance. (It’s also the central goal of the kundalini process – shedding the false self so the authentic self can emerge and live freely. This is what true liberation is all about).

As I see it, if a person isn’t doing the inner discovery work to shed this false mask (by healing the wounds that created it), if he isn’t striving to live more authentically every day, with more self-love and acceptance, more in alignment with his true nature, then he isn’t spiritual at all. He doesn’t actually understand what spirituality is all about.

Despite what passes for spirituality in the mainstream these days, in my opinion, there are few people who understand this fully. Meditation is not enough. Mindfulness is not enough. Yoga is not enough. Talking about esoteric mysteries, and love and light are not enough. Ayahuasca ceremonies are not enough. And even having a fully active kundalini is not enough. It takes conscious effort and disciplined awareness practice (deep deep self discovery work) to really make a difference with actual results; actual transformations in consciousness that work from the inside out. Everything else, to me, is just pomp and circumstance. Pretty forms without any substance. 

I’ve gone off on a tangent again. Sorry. I’ll save the preaching for another post. Let me get back to my story…

So I’ve been practicing this form of contemplative inquiry for several years, which aims at discovery and shedding the false self, while building courage to express the authentic self properly. I’ve done a lot of discovery work, a lot of childhood stuff, and tons of healing over the last few years. And having reached particular milestones, (ego death, higher self, etc.) I felt confident in my own process, in my own healing work, and in my work with others. 

And then in November, without much warning, amidst a bunch of other strange experiences, this really dark energy took me over. It literally felt like darkness descended upon me. I couldn’t shake it. It was heavy and thick, and debilitating. It plunged me down into a special sort of hell; simultaneously torturous and sacred. I’ve dealt with tremendous pain before, but this… this was totally different.

This energy asked me to apply all of the tools, discipline, and strength I had, until there was nothing left. Day after day, in indescribable psychic pain, I was shown how my ego, my false self, was formed. I got to visit every single one of the places I was hurt, shamed, criticized, rejected, abandoned and unloved. All of the relevant crucial moments where my childhood self internalized the words and actions of others, believing herself to be deeply unacceptable as she was, and forming a more acceptable version of herself (my false self), in order to be loved, accepted, and safe; all of it came alive again before my eyes.

Most people, everyone who has even a modicum of self-awareness, will tell you that their childhood was painful and difficult. Subjectively, mine was as well. It’s a socially conditioned illusion that childhood is some idyllic wonderful carefree time. It’s not; not for anyone, regardless of circumstance. Even the children of the most loving and evolved parents will collect wounding, ego conditioning, and (subjectively) traumatic experiences of rejection. It’s unavoidable. It’s the very purpose of incarnating into human form – to accumulate pain, and then learn from that pain.

And so for the last two months, I have had a front row seat in my own life review. Every day, multiple times a day, I would receive the internal energetic signal that there was work to do. I’d sit down to investigate the arising thoughts and emotions (intense feelings of shame, fear, guilt, anger, despair, anxiety, depression), and each time I’d trace them all the way back to the moment of their creation. I would then fully re-live and emotionally re-feel the ancient experience, in its entirety. It felt as if I was holding my inner child in my arms, as she took me through everything she’d ever felt; every place that she learned she was unacceptable. There are no words to describe the pain of this. There are just no words… 

Sometimes I’d have to revisit the same memories multiple times, each time with a slightly different vantage point and perspective. This is what’s known as the spiral effect in healing. You go over the same thing again and again, each time at a deeper level of awareness and understanding. Kind of like a downward spiral. This was all happening to me; as if according to some divine schedule. It wasn’t something I was orchestrating or directing. Even after all of the magical things I’ve experienced so far, most days I couldn’t believe what was happening to me.

And as I’ve been shown over the last few years, resisting this work and these lessons only causes more pain. If ignored or resisted, Kundalini will ratchet up the pain with all kinds of physical symptoms until one comes into compliance. There is no way out of the pain, but through it. In this arena, the concept free will becomes something of a joke. Seeing all of this, and feeling all of it, you come to understand that you were never in control to begin with… 

During these months, it became physically painful to talk to other people (not that there are many people who could understand and accept what was happening to me). I became energetically sensitive in a devastating new way. I felt completely raw and exposed, like all my insides were now on the outside. I’ve had phases of this experience before, (being turned inside out) but never quite like this. If I wasn’t actively crying, then I was on the brink of tears all the time. In that kind of extreme vulnerability (with all the spiritual components) there is almost no one who has the capacity to offer the right kind of presence, compassion, or support. Other people’s well-meaning attempts to cheer me up, or offer me advice or opinions, felt like nails on a chalkboard; only making me withdraw further inward. And so I spent these months in almost complete isolation and seclusion. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t interact with anyone. I could barely make it off the couch to walk the dog.

Led by nothing but intuitive guidance and synchronistic signs, there were moments when I really didn’t know if I’d make it through this alive. My faith was severely tested. My sanity barely hanging by a thread. The psychological crisis points were so acute that words don’t convey the magnitude of it. It is an other-worldly sort of pain that I can’t explain. The only real solace was an inner knowing that this is okay and necessary. It’s part of the healing process. It was as if living through it, I was also observing it happen. There was an internal separation between the one experiencing this, and another awareness watching and learning.

Through this process I was offered a map of the darkness; like a guidebook (built on the foundation of all the prior spiritual processes I’ve developed). I was shown how absolutely every single thing we think and feel is childhood itself; being reflected for us like a mirror image, for our spiritual growth. It’s so divinely intelligent and intricately beautiful in its design, that it would leave you awed and speechless if you could see it in all its glory (without the pain, of course).

The healing protocol works like this: If you can stay with the emotional reaction long enough, investigate it fully with spiritual awareness, find the roots of what’s being reflected, apply love, compassion, and wisdom to that pain, and allow those old emotions to move through you – the wound heals itself. That’s it. It’s really rather simple. It’s also really really unpleasant. But there is a magical component to the healing that makes it all worth it. (Not that I have much of a say in the matter).

If this is done correctly, when you think back to that memory again there should be no emotional charge. You see the scars, but there is no internal movement in the emotional body. Sure enough, at some later point something in the external reality will come along to retrigger that wound (something that would have sent you into a strong reaction before), and internally nothing happens. That’s how you know the wound is healed.

Over time, with practice, you can heal all of the wounding in this way.

Over the last few days, it appears that my journey of this darkness is finally coming to an end. There have been significant shifts in consciousness that feel “back to normal.” (I use the word “normal” very loosely…). I’m not sure that I’m totally out of the dark just yet, but this phase appears to be coming to an end. The blissful mystical and transcendent experiences have returned. It feels very much like this darkness has been lifting, and I feel more and more stable and grounded again. Yesterday I could envision talking to other humans without a feeling of aversion. A good sign, I dare say.

Despite the pain, there is an incredible sense of reverence and gratitude for the experience. And there is a new really profound level of peace accompanying this re-emergence. The deeply buried fears and anxieties that I carried my entire life are gone. All the future planning, worrying, needing-to-know-and-control-things thoughts are gone. There are virtually no attachments to anything, even less than there were before. There are still some remnants of old stuff arising, but nowhere near the intensity of the last few months.

Mostly there is now a kind of surrendered repose in the present moment, and finally (finally!) a growing sense of excitement about what’s ahead. I am cautiously glad to be coming back to normal.

I wish I had some kind of graceful way to end this post, but I don’t. So be it.

Until next time…

Shamans, healers, and awareness


The primitive magician, the medicine man or shaman is not only a sick man, he is above all, a sick man who has been cured, who has succeeded in curing himself.

Mircea Eliade

 

One of the more advanced teachings on the road to becoming a shamanic healer is that you don’t begin working with people until you’ve attained a specific level of spiritual development or mastery. This is marked by a kind of emotional neutrality – you are emotionally unaffected by whatever situation your client/patient might bring you. This is not a cold callous detachment, but rather an emotional neutrality with total compassion.

This can’t be done by sheer force of will. It takes significant personal inner work and training on the part of the shaman to get to this place. If he gets tripped up and has emotional reactions to his clients’ circumstances, he is to go inward and continue doing your own healing work until that doesn’t happen anymore. The shaman-in-training is required to have healed all of his own wounding, so that he does not project any of his own psychological material onto his client/patient.

The process involves a rooting out of all of his own pain, judgment, shame, wounding, and fear, piece by piece, through lots and lots of awareness work. He takes himself apart, down to his core essential truths, through every avenue of his childhood wounding, into all the conditioning, belief systems, and through all of the subconscious karmic material. He then goes through an ego death and spiritual rebirth into authentic being. Only then is he ready to begin helping others and serving his community.

The emotional neutrality he attains is not uncaring or unfeeling, quite the opposite, it is full of love and compassion. It’s not cold or distant, but rather totally warm and allowing. The healing practitioner is not entangled emotionally with the client, he is not attached in any sense to the client or the outcome of the work, and doesn’t overlay his own story or pain onto the client. He can then offer real presence and space for healing and for Spirit.

Many people confuse emotional neutrality with a denying or repressing of emotions. This is a mistake. It’s not a mental state that pushes anything way or stays distant from it. It is a fully embodied compassionate presence, but there is no emotional reactivity within the healer. He is not crying with his client, he is not distant from the client, and he is not rushing to fix the client either. He is able to offer whatever is needed, in the moment, without being taken over by his own emotional reactions (or unconscious egoic drivers).

He is in tune with what Spirit offers him in the moment (for the client), by being extremely sensitive to his own sensations and feelings. It can be said that the healer moves as an instrument of Spirit, because his own personal will (along with the emotional body) is quiet, peaceful, and surrendered to the divine will.

This is the only way spiritual work can be properly done. If the healer is empathic, and takes on the emotions and negative energies of the client, the healer himself will become quickly depleted and may fall ill. This can be very dangerous, energetically, both to the healer and to the client. That’s why traditionally there is so much training, care, and protections in place. They are meant to keep the healer, and the community at large, spiritually and energetically safe.

And so part of the training for becoming a shamanic healer is the attainment of emotional equanimity or neutrality. Having been with all of his own pain, he knows (from experience not projection) what the client feels, and he is able to honor those feelings in order to help her move through them; all the while not becoming fatigued or depleted. That’s the mark of a true healer. His work energizes him, not the reverse.

It appears that we are now learning these very same lessons the hard way in our corner of the secular modern world. Lots of people, especially in the spiritual communities, rush to become healers, or therapists, or coaches, without having done their own inner work. If you work in the caring, healing, or support areas, (spiritual or secular) this is of paramount importance.

This is a quote from Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project:

Compassion Fatigue symptoms are normal displays of chronic stress resulting from the care giving work we choose to do. Leading traumatologist Eric Gentry suggests that people who are attracted to care giving often enter the field already compassion fatigued. A strong identification with helpless, suffering, or traumatized people or animals is possibly the motive. It is common for such people to hail from a tradition of what Gentry labels: other-directed care giving. Simply put, these are people who were taught at an early age to care for the needs of others before caring for their own needs. Authentic, ongoing self-care practices are absent from their lives.

 

Not surprisingly, the solution for compassion fatigue is awareness and healing for the care-giver.

Your path to wellness begins with one small step: awareness. A heightened awareness can lead to insights regarding past traumas and painful situations that are being relived over and over within the confines of your symptoms and behaviors. With the appropriate information and support, you can embark on a journey of discovery, healing past traumas and pain that currently serve as obstacles to a healthy, happier lifestyle.

 

Even less surprising of course is that indigenous cultures with shamanic healers have know this for centuries. You cannot give that which you don’t have. If you don’t have self-love, self-care, and self-compassion (all of which grows within over time), you don’t have it to give to another. You deplete yourself, and you’re not really offering much good to the people you serve.

I want to make one final note here; this is just a word of caution:

If you are in the market for spiritual healing services, I implore you to be very cautious in selecting your coach/teacher/shaman/reiki-master etc. Ask lots of questions about the healer’s own healing work and training – he should be more than happy to tell you about it. Interview the person before beginning any healing treatments. There aren’t any external regulations in place yet in the spiritual healing industry, so go with your gut feelings. And if something feels off to you, trust that feeling; it’s probably right.

 

 

 

The practice of self-love

How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.

Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

 

Every article, every self help guide, every book on relationships, tells us the same thing – learn to love yourself first! You must love yourself before you can really love anyone else. They’re right, theoretically, but what does that really mean? How do you actually love yourself?

How do you get to that place where you’re not just repeating silly affirmations, and pretending to love yourself, but genuinely feeling feelings of love for you, within your body?

It’s a process… Unsurprisingly, it involves self-discovery, self-awareness, and changing some internal habits.

It’s quite difficult to love yourself, authentically, when all of the dials and levers inside are set to self-hatred, criticism, shame, and unworthiness. So to correct the internal settings, the process begins with learning the internal landscape, finding all the self-hatred, and doing some work to shift into a more loving direction. The more adjustments we make, the more the real feelings of love can flow. 

First, we have to listen. 

There are many different practices that teach this kind of internal listening, but basically it means refocusing the attention to what’s happening inside at any given moment. We must learn how to listen to our thoughts and judgments, paying particular attention to the internal dialogue.

How do you talk to yourself?

Specifically, what do you say to yourself?

Are you mean and harsh with yourself?

Do you berate yourself for mistakes or embarrassing moments?

One example of this is when I started to pay attention to my thoughts, I found out that every time I looked in a mirror, or walked by a reflective surface, I would almost automatically grimace internally. I braced for a negative reflection, and with lightening speed my eyes would immediately be drawn to everything that was wrong with how I looked in that moment. Do you do that to yourself too? Many of us do…

If you do this with your appearance in the mirror, or in whatever other manifestation you do this to yourself, try to make the shift to kindness for yourself instead of shame and criticism. Actively change the internal dialogue to a more loving tone. Look for the good things in the mirror, and accept whatever you think is “wrong” in that moment.

You can take a judgment like “I’m ugly because I’m overweight” (typically perceived as a negative), and find three things that are good, desirable, and authentically beneficial about being overweight. Really. Question and change the perception of being overweight as a negative, and turn it into an asset. Assume pride about being overweight, rather than shame, and investigate the benefits of begin overweight. (I assure you there are plenty!)

Beginning to change the automatic negative beliefs and assumptions about the reality of what we consider our imperfections is extremely important. This can become a rather radical practice, upending a lot of our previous beliefs about ourselves and others. Turning negative judgments about reality into positives, helps us with acceptance and stops the unending cycle of shame. 

We have to learn how to treat ourselves more compassionately. Remember what you were like when you were three or four years old? Find that innocent child still living within you. Treat yourself as if you were that little child; be an unconditionally loving and wise parent for yourself. When you look at yourself, do it with the eyes of love. When you talk to yourself, talk with the voice of love, with encouragement and tenderness.

Just doing this alone will shift so many things for you.

 

Second, study your enemy – the inner critic.

This part goes a little bit deeper, and opens the door into real inquiry and discovery.

In a relatively simple sense, there are two voices inside the mind – there is an inner judge (who dishes out criticism), and an inner victim (who is hearing and receiving the criticism). The inner judge says “you’re so stupid! You should be ashamed of yourself! Everyone is laughing at how stupid you are,” and the inner victim hears and accepts the judgement, believing that it’s true, and sending feelings of shame into the body. 

Most of us aren’t aware of the separation of these two internal perspectives, and we are deeply identified with a singular “me,” inside. As we begin to create the space of awareness and separation, and to see the distinct operations of the judge and the victim, we gain a lot more control about what goes on inside of us and how that makes us feel. In effect, we are working on dis-identification with the judge voice, and solidarity with (and a strengthening of) the victim voice, the authentic true self within.

To begin this practice – as you go through your day, when you notice that you’re feeling bad about yourself, focus on what you’re thinking about yourself in that moment (or the 10 seconds prior to the bad feeling arising). Find the source of the bad feelings, typically it’s a negative opinion that your inner judge has generated. 

The negative opinions of the inner judge are not real, and they aren’t true. The inner judge is trying to criticize and shame us into perfection, so that we will be loved and accepted by others. The inner judge doesn’t understand how to source love from within. He is confused about where love comes from or how to experience it, so he pushes and berates us, thinking that that will turn us into perfect humans, incorrectly believing that that will make us feel love.

This entire mechanism operates on the lie that love can be sourced from outside, and that securing the love and approval of other people is the way to feel love and happiness. This is not true. 

When we begin to see and understand the silliness of what’s happening inside, we can take the judge’s power away, and really begin to pursue self-love.

Most self-help advice stops there – bringing the inner judge (sometimes called the “inner critic”) into awareness, and then trying to dominate or silence him from within. This doesn’t really work. The inner judge is much more powerful than that, and the feelings of shame he produces in the body can’t be merely dismissed with the mind.

The only way to really combat the critic is to understand deeply how it operates, discover the sources of its power, and begin to dismantle it at the source with discovery, awareness, and acceptance. 

Some of the more interesting parts of this work are that the thoughts of the inner judge are not arbitrary nor random! The judgments generated by the inner judge are the results of the standards of perfection we created long ago. It works almost like a perfect computer program inside. This is what’s known as our “programming” or “conditioning.” The standards of perfection, which live deep within, are the codes responsible for creating these critical thoughts.

They sound collectively something like this:

When I am __________ (stronger, faster, richer, in better shape, healthier, more successful, married, etc.), then I will have made it. Then I will deserve my own acceptance, my own love, my own approval. That’s when I’ll finally feel good about myself.

This is how we love and approve of ourselves only conditionally, only on account of having achieved something. There are tons and tons of beliefs and standards like this within, which not only feed the inner judge, but keep us from feeling our own love. 

Our inner judge is always comparing us to some standard of perfection, and letting us know that we’ve failed, and thus making us feel ashamed and unworthy of love.

Here we encounter the second lie in the mechanism – no matter how much we try, how much we achieve, how much effort we exert, somehow according to the inner judge we always seem to fall short. No matter how much we succeed, no matter how “perfect” we become, the goal posts always manage to move farther away.

Just when we think that we’ve finally achieved some standard of perfection, and we will finally feel love and happiness, (earning respect, approval, or admiration from others), the inner judge manages to undo it. We remain in the never-ending hamster-wheel of striving for something we cannot ever achieve. 

This whole psychological mechanism appears almost funny when we really see it. It’s foolishness. 

The thing we are desperately trying to achieve or attain is already here, already freely available within us! It’s been here the whole time. It has nothing to do with our external efforts. It has nothing to do with how we look, or what job we have, what others think of us, or what’s in the bank account. Our own love and acceptance, the thing we most want to feel, is always available unconditionally within. 

By bringing our standards of perfection into awareness, we become able to release them, to release ourselves from the prison of them, and actually feel better now! We can start giving ourselves love now, in the present, not at some future time.

So what are these codes, these standards of perfection? How do we find them? 

They aren’t always self evident. It takes a bit of investigative work within. This is the real purpose of meditation work – to get still enough and quiet enough externally to begin watching and investigating the internal process. I personally am not smart enough to keep all of these things straight in my mind at once, so for me, writing it all down is essential. My meditation work always involves getting still and quiet, and then doing all of my investigative work on paper. 

The practice goes like this: whenever you notice a judgement like “ugh I’m so stupid, why did I just do that thing?

You begin by asking “what or who is it that I should have been in that moment? What/who am I comparing myself to?

The answers you come up with are your standards. Write them down!!
 
 
They sound something like this:
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t make mistakes – mistakes are not allowed.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who never skips a day at the gym – I must be super disciplined.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t spill the coffee – clumsiness isn’t sexy or cool. I must be suave and cool all the time.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who doesn’t trip or fall in public – I have to always appear in control of my body.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has a perfectly clean house at all times.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has perfectly behaved children.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who has a dog that never barks or displays aggression.”
  • “I should be the kind of person who is always stylish and well put together.”

This list can get quite extensive… Seeing it all down in writing, recognizing the internal hostility, recognizing how impossibly contradictory and untenable these standards are, begins a profound dismantling process. Most people are shocked the first time they complete this exercise. They can’t believe how awful and how ridiculous this list can be. 

The more we do this, the more we recognize how silly these standards are (and how unkind, irrational, and untrustworthy that inner judge voice is), the more room we can make within for love. Seeing these standards clearly and honestly, we can begin to let them go, and accept who we actually are – terribly imperfect, flawed, vulnerable (often deeply wounded) humans, who generally have very little control over life’s ups and downs. 

Bringing compassionate acceptance and tenderness to this subconscious process is how we bring light into the darkness.