self-inquiry

Is meditation the new black?

I came across this article, by John Horgan, questioning the benefits of the new meditation craze. I thought he made some interesting observations, and on some level I agree with him. 

I think that one of the problems with mainstream meditation hype is that the benefits are touted in order to sell the idea of it (usually for commercial gain), while the nuanced proper spiritual instructions are not included. It retains its form, but loses its substance, and so it doesn’t really yield what it promises.  

Sitting still and trying to “not think” is not what it’s about.

Carving out a tiny bit of time, in an otherwise hectic day, to sit still and calm the mind is not a bad idea, but that’s not what meditation is for. (Guided meditations can be like a quick vacation for a stressed out mind, but on their own they don’t do much.). Treating meditation as a discipline, trying to somehow master “not thinking,” or sitting still for long periods of time, has no real benefits. It is a forceful attempt at mind and body control, dominating the mental landscape by force of willpower. (That approach is fundamentally philosophically antithetical to authentic transformational spiritual and mystical practice. I’ll explain why in a minute).

Horgan is correct that meditation, as it is widely taught, does very little.

Just having a meditation practice doesn’t make you happier, or more peaceful, or nicer. Some people push themselves really hard to meditate, and then take great pride in their meditation practice, even turning it into some kind of competitive endeavor, which then only feeds the ego and moves them in the wrong direction.

It is what one does during meditation that leads to awakening and all of its benefits (or it doesn’t, as the case may be for most people). What’s missing in most mainstream meditation instruction is the substantive practice of self-inquiry, which what you’re actually supposed to “do” during meditation.

The basic idea is that as you sit and try not to think, thoughts begin arising on their own. It’s one silly thing after another. The more you try to focus on not thinking, the more distracting thoughts come up to grab your attention. Laundry, dinner, errands, to-do list items you forgot, etc. You’re suppose let them pass, as clouds, without hooking into any particular thought stream. This has the effect of training the attention, which is like a muscle. The more you train it to stay put and not follow the thoughts, the better you become at focusing and wielding attention. The attention can then be directed (ie. follow this thought stream, but not that one), which is a useful internal tool. 

What you’re supposed to get (which lots of people don’t) is the realization that you are not your thoughts. Thoughts come and go without you creating them. You don’t make them happen. As this realization slowly permeates your understanding, you begin to dis-identify as the thinker of the thoughts. You start to see the separation between you (the watcher), and the thoughts arising from somewhere else. And because you are not the one doing them, you begin to remove them from your sense of identity. You’re not really responsible for them in the way you used to be. You can watch them with a sense of neutrality, without judging them or being ashamed of having them. This creates a ton of internal space between the watcher and the thinker. 

This leads to the realization that you don’t have to believe your thoughts, which is the ground floor of self-awareness, and the threshold into the inquiry practice (the real heart of spirituality). It’s also the beginning of a lot of other discovery work about who the “watcher” within you actually is…  

The next crucial part is noticing that thoughts produce emotions. You start to understand that if you focus and hook your attention onto a scary thought stream, you actually begin to “feel” scared. And so by training the attention muscle (above), you can unhook yourself from a scary thought stream, and redirect your mind to something that isn’t producing feelings of fear in the body. This is huge!! Where you place your attention determines the emotional state you experience. This is a profound discovery for most people. Learning how to do this is the key to managing all kinds of anxiety and panic issues.

You can see how with proper instruction, at least up to now, meditation practice can lead to greater self-awareness, self-regulation, and emotional intelligence.

Then begins a deepening level of awareness and practice.

Having explored and familiarized yourself with the mental landscape a bit, dis-identified with the thinker, and trained the muscle of attention, now you can being exploring the source of the thoughts. Where are they coming from? Who is the thinker within? You begin to find that all the thoughts you have are perfect emanations of a vast network of subconscious beliefs you hold, about yourself and about other people. Now we are getting into a process called contemplative inquiry.

What you find out here is that if you bring those subconscious beliefs into conscious awareness, one at a time, you can begin changing them, and thus change the thoughts that automatically arise in the mind! As you change your core beliefs, the thoughts that are produced also change. That means you can change your internal landscape, and the emotional states you experience on the whole! You can reprogram the thinker, as it were, to change the kinds of thoughts he sends into your mind. 

So as it stands now, when fear thoughts arise, your mind automatically hooks into that thought stream, and creates those emotions in your body and you feel fear. In order to calm down, you have to use the muscle of attention to stop, and redirect your mind by force, to something not scary, in order to stop the fear reaction in the body.

That takes effort, and usually by the time you notice that you’re scared, you are already pretty far down the rabbit hole, and are already hooked into that fear thought stream.

But if you begin systematically working with and changing the beliefs that are creating the fear thoughts in the first place… well, then you are experiencing a lot more internal peace and calm. The fear thoughts aren’t even arising, and your system isn’t feeling fear as often. You’re not wasting time or energy putting out internal fires trying to calm down, you are just generally more calm, because the fires aren’t erupting as often. 

Further, when you start to see the internal mechanisms, and take account of the countless thoughts and beliefs that are just under the surface, you start to see that you are actually full of fears, and insecurities, and a deep sense of unworthiness (this is true for most of us). You begin to see that most of your words, actions, and behaviors are nothing more than protective strategies to mask those perceived vulnerabilities.

That’s when your own self-love and compassion begin to emerge. Then you start to notice that other people are also just terrified little children, walking around defending themselves in a big scary world. That’s when compassion for others arises, and you become nice and kind to the people around you. You see their fears, and their out of control thought streams, and the underpinnings of all their bad behaviors.

The better you understand the workings of your own mind, the more compassionate understanding you have for others. 

So by now, you have become more self-aware, more emotionally educated and intelligent, more able to self-regulate, you are experiencing less out of control anxious thought streams, and you are starting to feel self-love and compassion for others… All of this naturally makes you much happier.

It’s a process and a practice that starts with meditation – you have to sit still and begin noticing your thoughts to get all of this going. But without this deep nuanced understanding of what to do within, meditation on its own is pretty pointless.

 

 

When you look within…

This is a beautiful excerpt from The Art of Sexual Magic, by Margo Anand.

When I put aside my prejudices and looked at my deepest motivations and fears, I was surprised to be confronted by a rather sorry-looking individual, covered with bandages, limping along on a crutch, incapable of hurting anyone.

I immediately recognized him. It was me. It was my wounded self, a symbolic representation of all those doubts and fears about myself that I had so carefully hidden from public view for so many years. And when I looked a little closer at this injured being, my heart was deeply touched. I wanted to reach out and help him to heal, because I could see, beneath the bandages, that he was only a small boy, a helpless, wounded child.

There’s no one out there, just a bunch of mirrors

Throughout the last few months of my work with my teacher, Gaya, we’ve been talking a lot about the people in my life, and how I’m relating to them. Gaya keeps repeating to me that there’s no one “out there;” everyone is really just a mirror reflecting back at me.

At first this was difficult to grasp. Surely, the people in my life are real humans – I can touch them, see them, hear them (even smell them, sometimes). I accepted that what she was telling me might be right, but I didn’t understand what to do with it.

What she was really getting at has a great depth of meaning. Despite it’s seeming simplicity, it is a very profound teaching, and it can be implemented in ever-deepening ways. I began to explore and think about how to understand and apply what she was saying to me.

The most superficial understanding is that the sentient beings we see around us, who they are to us, how we see them, how they make us feel, is nothing more than a reflection of our own unconscious beliefs. Conceptually, what our mind automatically sees in others, the way we see them, and the judgments we make about them, are nothing more than judgments we hold within ourselves, and how we think we ought to be or not be. In psychological terms, this is a form of projection. In other spiritual traditions, this is called shadow work.

The way this plays out is very interesting. I’ll give you an example.

There is a person in my life who is very dear to me, let’s call her Q. I care about her very much. And yet, when we are together, I often feel a distance between us; it’s full of agitation, and anger, and resentment. It’s as though something always seems to stand in the way of actually feeling that love, and acting in a loving way towards her. On the face of it, I recognize that it’s my own judgments and emotional baggage, but I couldn’t really untangle it further on my own. So Gaya and I got into the weeds…

The best and most expedient way into the structure of beliefs that govern my relationship with Q was to list all of the judgments I have about her – all of the things that seem to bother me about her, without holding back, without censoring how I really feel. I sat down with a piece of paper and really let Q have it. I wrote a long list of horrible things. 

When I reviewed the list, a big glaring theme in all of my judgments about Q is that she is weak, needy, indecisive, irresponsible and helplessly dependent. When Gaya asked me if I’m any of those things, I vehemently shook my head, NO. I pride myself on being strong, independent, decisive, and in control. If I can do something myself, I will. And if I can’t, I’ll go to impossible lengths to figure out how to do it myself. The idea of needing someone, depending on someone, or being helpless in some way, actually makes me cringe. 

I relayed all of this to Gaya, and then she said something that nearly knocked me off my chair.

She said “Think of all the things you do in your life to avoid being weak, needy, and dependent. Look at how hard you work, how you punish yourself, how you deny yourself compassion and tenderness, how you push yourself way past your limits, how you never slow down, how you never let yourself rest, how you won’t ask for or accept help that is offered to you – all in an effort to never allow yourself to be those things.

%#$@&#^!

It’s true. I’ve spent my entire life striving to never be those things. And I created all of these habits and patterns, all in order to compensate for not being allowed to be that way. The belief I have is that those things (which are just synonyms of vulnerability) are bad bad bad, and to be avoided at all costs.

I went all the way back as far as I could into childhood looking for how these beliefs and patterns were created. Obviously, as with all unbalanced traits, they were formed out of traumatic conditioning experiences. So I spent some time bringing those things into awareness and processing through some of the pain that created them. After I did that, my visceral feelings about vulnerability started to change. 

Wisdom teaches us that vulnerability, weakness, neediness, and dependency are not bad things. They are human things. Sometimes they can become extreme and polarized, which is not balanced or healthy, but in moderation they are part of every human experience. Of course, it’s ok to be vulnerable. In fact, it’s a really good thing to have the courage to honestly express our fears and our needs, and it takes quite a bit of courage to allow others to meet them. Learning how to lean on others at times, and to trust them, and to be dependent when necessary is also very important.  

Back to Q – it is precisely because I held these false beliefs about vulnerability, that I judged Q so harshly, and got angry at her when she displayed these qualities. (There is also an element of care-taking here; but that’s a separate boundary issue that isn’t really relevant at the moment. I just mention it because it’s a complex set of issues, not just one thing.)

So, if instead of sitting in self-righteous judgment about Q’s “undesirable” qualities, I can question my judgments and beliefs, and I can do my own work to resolve my negative feelings and mis-alignments, then I can stop being angry at Q when she displays those qualities. And more importantly, I can stop punishing myself, and ease up on all the ways I’ve been pushing myself in order to avoid being those things. I can even give myself a break. I can allow myself to be weak, needy, and vulnerable at times, and the more I do, the less emotionally agitated I become about Q.

Over time, as I work on myself, this brings me closer to Q. It extinguishes my critical sense of arrogant superiority, and it allows me to feel love more often and accept her as she is. Moreover, to the extent that her previously undesirable qualities lead me deeper into myself, triggering me and forcing me to find and repair what is unbalanced within me, I am grateful to her for being as she is. (And, if I had tried to make efforts to change her, back when I found her qualities maddening, I would have missed this golden opportunity to grow and learn). 

A strange and unusual thing that happens during this kind of work is that as soon as I make peace with these things I see and dislike in Q, suddenly, somehow, she changes! Like she actually changes, and she stops being those things. It’s really quite miraculous.

And so, in this view, Q isn’t necessarily statically any of the things I see in her. What I see in her (what bothers me about her) is my own projection. My mind generates the image I have of her, which is my own reflection of what is out of proper alignment within me. The qualities I think I see are just what stands out to me in high contrast. Meanwhile, without awareness, my mind fools me into thinking and believing those projections are true, that that’s how she really is, and then I feel justified in hating and blaming her for being that way.

Spiritually, it’s as though those qualities are being magnified for me to see, and my emotions are responding powerfully to my views of her, all so that I can see my own imbalances and correct them. As I do my own inner work and make authentic changes in my consciousness, my reflection in others changes as well.

It turns out that human personalities aren’t any one consistent thing; they are ambiguous and rather fluid, with infinite universal potential.

And so, Gaya’s words about them all being mirrors is a handy way to understand and think about it. 

 

Wanting to be wanted

 

As we courageously explore the rich depths of our consciousness, we sometimes come upon some strange and unexpected things. Sometimes fascinating, other times deeply confounding, these patterns are often well-hidden in the unconscious, and when brought up out into the light of awareness, they seem to defy rationality and contradict truth, wisdom, and expectations.

Wanting to be wanted is one of those patterns.

It is both very subtle, and very pervasive. Wanting to be wanted is a kind of egoic perversion of personal desire; it keeps us trapped in being the object of someone else’s desire, instead of the subject of our own.

Meaning, instead of recognizing, identifying, and asking for what we really want and need (often because we don’t know and our feelings are terribly jumbled about this), we focus entirely on being desirable, pleasing, accepted and wanted by someone else.

This is not confined to the sphere of romance or sexuality, but exists across the spectrum of identity. This particular pattern causes a great deal of emotional pain and psychological suffering. It turns out to be one of the central pillars of the ego’s operation.

When we find these feelings and motivations inside, when we explore them and admit them to ourselves, they seem wrong or deeply confusing. They fly directly in the face of sourcing love and approval from within ourselves; which is precisely the point! This is another lie in the mechanism of the ego. It seeks love and happiness externally by trying to please someone else, and earn their love and approval. The feelings and desire of wanting to be wanted prevent us, somatically, from living in our own integrity. I’ve spent a great deal of time exploring and digesting through the wounding that creates this particular set of feelings. It can be both very deeply and very broadly enmeshed in who we are and how we function. 

For those unfamiliar with this internal experience, I highly recommend the book below. 

Women and Desire, Beyond Wanting to be Wanted, by Polly Young-Eisendrath

Polly is a prominent and powerful voice among many wonderful feminist leaders and thinkers. Her book does an amazing job of articulating how it all works, and distilling a lot of ancient wisdom into a practical modern approach to life (primarily for women, but also often applicable to men).

Polly encourages her audience to get really honest and really clear about their desires, bringing their truths into the light, because it is only when we are aware of what we really feel and what we really want, that we have true freedom to choose how we live in the world.

Here are a few short blurbs from the book:
 
  • “Wanting to be wanted is about finding our power in an image rather than in our own actions. We try to appear attractive, nice, good, valid, legitimate, or worthy to someone else, instead of discovering what we actually feel and want for ourselves. In this kind of conscious or unconscious arrangement, other people are expected to provide our own feelings of power, worth, or vitality, at the expense of our authentic development. We then feel resentful, frustrated, and out of control because we have sacrificed our real needs and desires to the arrangements we have made with others. We find ourselves always wanting to be seen in a positive light: the perfect mother, the ideal friend, the seductive lover, the slender or athletic body, the kind neighbor, the competent boss. In place of knowing the truth of who we are and what we want from our lives, we become trapped in images.”

 

  • “Nor is wanting to be wanted the expression of a desire for intimacy or closeness. Rather, wanting to be wanted makes us feel as though we have no clear desires of our own. We focus on how to bring things under control by appearing in a certain way, speaking in a certain manner, implying our needs. Yet we never say directly what we want, and we may never actually know. We have been culturally programmed so thoroughly to tune in to the subtleties of whether or not we are having the “desired effect” that we fail to tune in to what we really want or to see how strongly we are motivated by wanting to be wanted.”

 

  • “[People cannot read your mind or guess what it is you want. C]lear and direct communication avoids the indirect message that other must intuit our desires. Attempting to evoke response from others without claiming one’s needs not only is confusing but carries the hidden meaning of danger… It is only when we speak directly, with a secure self-confidence, that we step outside this negative meaning of female desire.

 

  • “The Renaissance metaphysician Paracelsus said that we cannot love something without knowing it, or know something without loving it. When we feel deeply loved, we also know that we have been encountered authentically, that we have been true to ourselves in the presence of the other and found that truth fully embraced and accepted. When we tell the truth to a partner or a friend, we are indeed vulnerable to being judged, blamed, or rejected. If we hide the truth in favor of protecting ourselves and appearing in a certain way, however, we may retain an illusion of control but we lose the possibility of being known for who we really are, and hence of being loved.”

All of that from just the first chapter!!