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Posts Tagged ‘awareness’

pardiseThe gurus tell us the purpose of life is to awaken. We become aware of our unconsciousness, and the general unconsciousness of others, and in the process come to see the turmoil of human existence from a different perspective. What appeared incomprehensible to us before then makes sense, but not in a way that would make sense to anyone else not similarly awake, even if we tried explaining it to them. Or so the theory goes. Most of us are asleep, all the time, I get that. We’re ruled by primitive instincts and faulty thinking, and we identify too much with forms, be they thoughts or things. And it’s these same things, on the grand, collective scale, that drive the perpetual turmoil of the world.

We can all experience the occasional moment of awakening, but then the Sandman comes along, perhaps nowadays in the form of our mobile phone, and we’re back flicking through the dross of our chosen news bias, and the beguiling freak-shows of the various online media. It seems that even when we wake up, it’s all too easy for us to fall asleep again, that unless we are permanently on our guard, like monks sequestered in caves, we are always at the mercy of our inferior natures. And who wants to live in a cave?

It’s not a promising scenario then, because until the majority of beings awaken, things will never change and it seems unlikely it will happen now, locked as we are in this massively dumb and ever burgeoning iron brain of ours. Yet I have always imagined a greater awakening must be our eventual path, because just a handful of enlightened non-egoic beings can make no difference to anything but themselves. They have to be like a virus, a contagion that infects the earth and brings about a sweeping change, otherwise they suffer the same fate as the rest of us when we drown in our own poison and the lights go out, and the earth turns itself against us in a death of heat. I suppose then their only advantage is they’ll be less cut up about it.

Still, against all reason, I trust in the contagion hypothesis if only because you feel better, personally, if you stay on the bright side of things. It may take another hundred years, but the way I see it, we are part of a process in which the universe is becoming aware of itself, through us, and if it cannot complete that process here, it will go on elsewhere. Then all life on earth, the whole staggering sweep of human history will be as if it had never been, and the universe will awaken to itself instead on one of those intriguing exo-planets our telescopes are revealing left, right and centre these days, where the dominant species might be slime-dripping Octopods with swivel-eyes on stalks, and never a dark thought, but only love for their fellow beings.

The notion of any meaningful awakening flies in the face of the unconscious forces that dominate life on earth, the zeitgeist suggesting we are falling ever deeper into sleep, unconsciousness being worn instead as a badge of honour, and the most repulsive, and unhinged of characters raised up as our champions. Still, the gurus tell us this will not always be so, that they detect a wave of awakening, though from my own perspective, in the post industrial wasteland that is the north of England, it’s hard to keep faith with the idea. But stranger things have happened recently – just in entirely the opposite direction.

The first stage of waking up is the sense there’s something wrong in the world – and I think we all get that – but what we miss is the fact there’s also something mistaken in the way we see ourselves. We have an idea of our selves as a being existing in time, that we’re made up of memories, aspirations, fears, wants, loathings, desires, which are all essentially thought processes that trigger either positive or negative emotions.

In order to be happy we assume we must think of ways to minimise the negatives and maximise the positives. But this is to live locked in an unconscious life. True happiness, say the gurus, is achieved only through the cessation of thinking and in the silence that ensures, recognising the primary awareness underpinning our being. So by its very definition, continually thinking of ways to be happy is self defeating. And that’s the trap we’re in.

Familiarity with pure awareness is rare because we are not taught to recognise it, or value it, or even to know it is there. Instead we busy ourselves with the mess of the world, upset ourselves with it, try to think our way out of it, when all we have to do is pause for a moment, look inwards to the silence and recognise in that silence the ever-present companionship within us.

We find it in meditation, also in moments of devastating loss when the Ego is temporarily crushed, and we find it in moments of connection in the natural world. Indeed, the natural world is a special case. It stirs us, fills us with an inarticulate longing, because what we’re seeing, what we’re feeling is that hidden part of ourselves reflected back. And the more we seek it out, this awareness, the happier and the more fulfilled we are.

Of course, the story of our lives may not change. If we are born poor we might still always be poor. If we are born into violent circumstances, to despotism, to oppression, we may still be at the mercy of those things. But we will at least have reconnected with the truth of our own being, and it’s from there we change the world, and the universe awakens to itself, one mind at a time.

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avia-peseus

An old cairn marks the end of a moorland spur. Away from the main routes, it’s little visited. We could sit here all day and not see another soul. It’s around noon, warm in the sun. We are lost in thought, ruminating, casting our minds back, running over the details of a tough couple of weeks.

We have a problem. Our magnanimity is crumbling. We feel unappreciated, feel as if we’re at everyone’s beck and call, forever feeding the insatiable demands of the world we inhabit. It’s been going on for years, our whole lives probably, and we are at times resentful we spend most of that time feeding others our energy. It’s like everyone we know is standing there with their mouths wide open and we are shovelling stuff in faster and faster. We are forgetting things now. People are asking us where we’re up to with things we cannot even remember being tasked with. Is this age creeping up, or is our mind so full now we cannot possibly process things any longer? And we are left wondering, who feeds us?

The weeks, indeed the years ahead look similarly frantic and with nothing in the calendar we can point to that we have underlined exclusively for nurturing our own sense of being. We might have had this moment, alone, on the moors, except by now we’ve carried the whole mess up with us, and we are lost in it, thinking about it. We’re exhausted, sleeping poorly, drinking too much,…

It’s a beautiful spot, views out across the plain, as far as the sea. Sunsets from here are magical. But we do not feel the way we once did about any of this. We are no longer present in it, our mind instead locked in the prison of incessant thinking, and much of it negative.

Then we hear a skylark, an exuberant twittering rush of song, hard to ignore as it soars above us. We remember the words of Matsuo Basho:

Above the moor, not attached to anything, a skylark singing,…

It’s the first thing in months to break through and draw us back into self awareness, and for a moment, though we do not realise it yet, we are no longer thinking. Slowly our awareness of the world expands. We notice too there are grasshoppers chirruping, and a gentle breeze like heaven, cool upon our skin. There’s the scent of the moor, the sedge and the reeds and the sphagnum and eons of peat layered beneath us. These sense-impressions are there all the time of course, just mostly shut out by the infernal noise of thinking.

There is no need to concentrate. The world and all the life around us is simply there, and for a time we become effortlessly aware of it. We try a breath or two, deep, slow, and we become aware of the body again, the feel of it heightened in waves by the motion of the breath. It’s like another body, but inside of us and made of a purer, incorruptible energy, an energy whose presence is calmness itself and which provides an anchor against the capricious tug of our thoughts.

Yes, the thoughts come washing back, leaking in, speculative at first, testing the water. There is pain, anxiety, indignation at the rudeness of others, indignation that all the traffic is decidedly one way. Worse, there’s a buzzing from our chest – our damned ‘phone, message received, some jerk has sent a picture of themselves, a goofy grin as they raise a pint of beer. We don’t even know them, yet here they are intruding, someone else demanding our attention. Look at me! Like me! Bolster my self worth! We switch the ‘phone off, set it aside, try to recover our awareness, focus back on the lark’s song,… and the inner body.

Eventually, we notice there are gaps in our thoughts, like the blue sky between clouds. And more, when we expand our awareness we open up a space, a gap between us and whatever we imagine assails us. And what assails us is like a like a yard full of dogs, all yapping to be fed, but now there’s a fence between us and we longer fear their bite if we fail to feed them quickly enough. In another sense the dogs and the anxiety they arouse can be seen as indicative our failure to accept the moment as it, that we desire things to be other than they are. Thus we render ourselves at the mercy of the world and its noisy demands, at the mercy of things over which we have no control, then the world dictates the terms of our unhappiness, and we become exhausted.

But this spaciousness is like an opening now, a conduit to a source of energy both infinite and generous. This is what feed us, and it’s all we need. And as we gaze down upon the land we realise the effortlessness of our awareness, and in the midst of it glimpse the greatest secret of them all, that we are not our thoughts, that we can be free, for a time at least. They are just a story we tell ourselves, a story of the person we believe ourselves to be. But who we really are, who we have always and will for ever be, is the awareness that we are aware. We are the watcher of our thoughts.

The afternoon deepens. We feel rested, magnanimity returns. We become aware of ourselves in the world once more, yet buffered from its excesses. We make our way down from the hill, but slowly, not wanting to break this expansive feeling, nor lose the sound of the lark. We realise half way down our damned phone is still where we left it in the grass, by the cairn. Rain is forecast. Do we go back and get it?

Why should we? It’s old and cheap, and contains only a Pandora’s box of the absurd.

How about a bit of a bit of Vaughn Williams instead?

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bearded man 2Men are not alone in suffering from mental illness, but the fact they do suffer is effectively suppressed by everyone in society, including the men who suffer. There is a stigma about it, the result being men deny the facts and are afraid to seek help. There are of course many forms and degree of mental illness, not all of which end in tragedy. But all mental illness, especially if borne in silence, will not only thwart the life chances others take for granted, but it will deny us even the basics of a happy life, one lived without the daily fear of some imagined calamity.

When we suffer from mental illness we become emotionally useless to those around us, also angry with ourselves for being “weak”. There is also a mysterious energy about it, and if we don’t take steps towards healing, it will form itself into a powerful vortex, sucking us down into an ever decreasing spiral, diminishing our chances of ever getting on with a normal life. We may begin to self medicate with alcohol or other drugs, self harm, manifest irrational, compulsive behaviours, and in the worst of cases begin to think suicidal thoughts.

It’s a remarkable fact that throughout all of this we will appear to be functioning well, turning up for work, doing a decent job, smiling, being nice, and bringing home the bacon. But it’s a mask. We are skilful at evasive tactics that get us through the day, avoiding the trigger situations we associate with our anxieties. All of this comes before we seek help, if we ever do – and 80% of us don’t. When we eventually stop functioning, we do so suddenly, catastrophically, and no one, including us, sees it coming. The really sobering fact here is that mental illness is not rare. It’s very common. One in five of us is suffering, right now. It’s just that nobody ever talks about it. How crazy is that?

So what do we do? Well, like all illnesses, much falls upon the sufferer to acknowledge the problem. Everyone experiences lows in life, but they pass. Mental illness is different. It settles in. If you’ve been feeling inconsolably down or on edge for months, let alone years it’s probably a good idea to talk to your doctor. That’s the litigiously-aware, super-sensible advice – go speak to your doctor, because what the hell do I know? But the reality of state primary healthcare services is that the time, sympathy and understanding one needs to sort things out properly will most likely be lacking. If you’re lucky you’ll get a hastily scrawled prescription for anti-depressants, and a referral to psychological counselling. The waiting time to your first session will be in inverse proportion to how much you managed to frighten the crap out of your doctor with what you told him, so don’t hold back because you need that referral, and you need it fast!

But sadly, again, the cash strapped reality of public mental healthcare is that it can backfire when you feel you’re not being given the necessary face-time with a competent or at least half way human counsellor, that you’re not being listened to, that indeed you never see the same counsellor twice in a row, that you feel you’re being fobbed off with drugs that aren’t right for you, that your regular sessions are broken up by spurious cancellations on their part, when, if you miss a session yourself, no matter what your excuse, you’ll be kicked into the long grass and left there to rot.

Then, those anti-depressants become your only hope, and are not to be sniffed at as they enable one to keep going without taking time off work, and more importantly having to explain why. Me? No, I’m fine! Just a touch of flu. But they don’t work in all cases, didn’t work for me, turned me into a zombie and robbed me of sleep for weeks on end. It also gave me pause how relaxed my GP was about putting me on them for life, careless of the risk of serious side effects and little or no supervision. But if you’re in a situation where you’re thinking of taking your life, they might just save your life and you’d be unwise to reject this option. It’s just that when we’re suffering from mental illness, we don’t always act wisely. We react instead to fear and to the isolation imposed on us by that illness.

Because of my  negative experience with mental health services, I’ve always been leery of the long term medication route, also guilty of labelling mental health care professionals (unfairly) as lacking empathy and being ruled by the same tick box culture as everyone else these days, merely there to fudge you off their books as a successful intervention with the minimum of time and effort, because time and effort costs money – and there isn’t any. Instead I became a lone survivalist, hunkered down in my flimsy home-made refuge with a handful of improvised weapons to keep the demons at bay. But they they bought me time, and time and effort is what it takes. There’s a lot we can do to help ourselves, and a lot of free information online these days to demystify those demons.

So ask yourself this: do I want to get better? The answer might seem obvious, but some of us are so benighted and so closely identified with our illness, we lack the mental focus to even understand the question. Once we accept the need for healing though, then proper healing can take place, but it won’t come solely through the intervention of a healthcare professional, or from out of a blister-pack. These are merely some of the tools at our disposal, to be used wisely and mindfully – mindful of the fact that even a doctorate in psychology does not give the other person a clear window into your head.

Mental illness is different to other illnesses; it does not attack the body directly, it attacks the soul and its methods are as unique as we are. Indeed it uses us to attack ourselves. It confuses us into thinking we are nothing more than the pain we feel. Unfortunately the defences we can deploy will seem as bizarre as the illness, indeed they will require the adoption of a frame of mind as irrational as the malaise under which we labour. Therefore, again, we encounter an internal resistance, because the possession of even the knowledge of such techniques is a tacit admission of the need to deploy them in the first place.

Such is the bind we find ourselves in! But anyway,…

As a first step we must dis-identify with our illness. The pain, the fear, the debilitating isolation, the strange compulsions, the damaging thoughts. These things are not who we are, they are just thoughts. Even if they threaten to kill us, they are still merely the things we suffer from. If we can find the space within ourselves to step back and say: no, I am not that, then we’re already moving in the right direction.

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