Here’s an excerpt from a projected longer work on the paradox of being both pure Spirit or Consciousness and, at the same time, an embodied, imperfect human being. I share it here as a preamble to my online retreat of the same name, which begins in May. (For more information, visit the Events page on this website)
Perhaps the greatest paradox of the spiritual life is that we ultimately realize ourselves to be eternal, limitless, and all-pervasive, yet we wake up each morning in a particular body and mind, experiencing life through a particular set of eyes and ears, called upon to relate to particular people and circumstances. Though we know that we’re essentially nothing and everything, we still find ourselves answering to one name and not another, preferring strawberry to chocolate, laughing at some jokes and not others, and having certain feelings and thoughts but not the feelings and thoughts of the person next to us. Our essential nature is unconditional and free, but our bodies and personalities have been deeply conditioned over a lifetime and may react to life in automatic, preconditioned ways that do not accurately reflect the profound understanding we’ve awakened to. Unlike the proverbial hermit on the mountaintop, we’re called to live our inherent perfection through these imperfect human forms, dealing with the “karmic bundle” we’re received from a combination of early experiences and genetic endowment. Welcome to the path of awakened embodiment.
Generally the mind is filled with an uninterrupted flow of thoughts and feelings that can feel overwhelming or oppressive. If you practice mindfulness, you may gradually develop an inner spaciousness that allows you to breathe deeply and negotiate the flow. In the direct approach you may spontaneously discover natural spaces or pauses between the thoughts where an inner silence and stillness reveals itself effortlessly.
Take a few minutes to sit quietly and pay mindful attention to your breathing. Now turn your awareness to the cascade of thoughts and feelings. Even though it may feel incessant, every now and then you’ll notice a tiny gap between the thoughts that’s open, silent, unfurnished. One thought arises and passes away, and before the next thought arises, there’s a gap.
Unless you live on a digital desert island, you already know mindfulness meditation is good for you. You’ve read the articles proclaiming its well-researched benefits, from stress-reduction to pain management to relief from depression and enhanced overall well-being. The latest studies even suggest that it’s good for your sex life and boosts your immune system. You can’t open a magazine, read a newspaper, or log on to a social media site these days without hearing about some new study that discovers yet another great reason to pause and practice meditation.
Most of the research is based on subjects who have meditated daily for eight weeks as part of a mindfulness based stress reduction course. And yes, just eight weeks of regular meditation practice can transform your life. But the key to reaping the ongoing benefits of mindfulness is to make it not just something you do for twenty or thirty minutes a day, but an integral part of your life. After all, paying careful, nonjudgmental attention to your experience from moment to moment, which is essentially what mindfulness is, has its own inherent value, aside from the tangible results it can confer. Bring this quality of mindful presence to your intimate relationships, for example, and you’ll notice how much more you enjoy them—and how much more love and fulfillment they provide. Take mindfulness with you when you walk the dog or go for a run, and you’ll find that perceptions are sharper, colors are more vivid, and the natural world, even just the trees and birds in the city, touches you in new and unanticipated ways.
For some of us, the recent election here in the US was a shock to the values we hold dear. While we cherish and practice love, kindness, and compassion and aspire to live from the realization that we are all essentially inseparable, the country as a whole elected a man who has vilified Muslims, Hispanics, immigrants, Jews, the disabled, and just about every other vulnerable minority and has a history of sexually abusive behavior toward women. How could this possibly have happened? And how can we relate to this turn of events without falling into the trap of becoming judgmental and closed-hearted ourselves?
All our spiritual practice and realization have prepared us for moments like this. First, we can let go of our preconceptions and return to ground zero, silence, beginner’s mind, unconditional presence. As we allow our sense of separation to dissolve and we merge back into our source, how does this drama appear to us now? Without the story the mind keeps telling us about how things should be and how they may turn out, where’s the suffering or struggle? Without a story, in fact, are there any problems in this moment right now?
At the same time, we can face the prospects realistically and make room for the feelings that have inevitably been aroused: the disappointment, the anger, the fear, the grief. Yes, this may set climate change back generations, our brothers and sisters may be harassed and deported, women may lose their right to choose–these are deeply disturbing possibilities, and as circumstances unfold we can act in whatever way we’re moved to do to prevent them. But right now, in this moment, is any of this happening yet? And what purpose do we serve, for ourselves or others, by fueling these painful feelings with doomsday scenarios? Now too, as always, we have the opportunity to meet each moment fresh, without preconceptions or expectations, and remain open and available for what happens next.
Perhaps the most common core belief or story I’ve encountered over the years as a therapist and teacher is some version of “There’s something terribly wrong with me,” “Deep down I’m flawed, bad, evil, incorrigible, or unlovable.” Often this belief is accompanied by an underlying feeling of shame and a fear of being found out, exposed, revealed to be the awful person we believe ourselves to be. Generally this sense of inadequacy is based on being shamed as a child, on being made to feel stupid or bad or unwanted by parents or other caregivers, whether through careless words, neglect or disregard, or physical, sexual, or emotional abuse.
However this shame is instilled, the growing child will often do everything in her power to disprove or counteract the negative self-image by working especially hard to be good, smart, lovable, or successful. In the process, she develops and maintains a very positive self-image to present to the world, a false self, while still believing deep inside that the shameful self-image is the true self that will eventually be found out, much to her horror and humiliation. Eventually this split can become excruciatingly painful and lead to a persistent feeling of being inauthentic, fake, or phony.