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Posts Tagged ‘way of the soul’

keys

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

Presence is inner space. It is stillness. It is making room inside ourselves for the primary essence to return to conscious awareness. Without presence, our lives are dominated by our thoughts and our memories, and we mistake them entirely for who we think we are. Only when we still the mind, when we rise above the flow of thought and memory, do we invite presence and reconnect with the authentic self.

So, try this for a moment:

Sit down. Take a deep breath. Focus. Don’t reminisce, don’t anticipate the future. Narrow your sights to the present moment, and above all STOP THINKING! Do it now.

Did it work?

No.

It’s impossible to stop thinking. And anyway, we have to live, to work, to take care of our families, get through college, pass exams, fix the car. Try doing any of that without thinking! It seems “presence” is not only a difficult thing to attain, it’s also impractical and unhelpful in our everyday lives. So, do we live as we should, or do we retreat to a cave and nurture presence instead?

Actually, presence is helpful and practical; it’s just a question of how we get there. If we can somehow create that space within ourselves, we can move beyond our thoughts, rest in spaciousness, and from there recognise our thoughts for what they are: mostly imposters and prophets of false doom. We think when we need to, but we no longer confuse “thought” with “identity”.

The deliberate cessation of thinking is impossible. Even to attempt it is only going to make matters worse, risking thoughts of self loathing when we inevitably fail. We should think more of “presence” as a state where our thoughts proceed at a more measured pace, and where we no longer find ourselves caught up with their contrived chains of endless urgencies:

We must do this, we must do that, or this won’t happen, and then we won’t get that, so we won’t be able to go there, and so and so won’t like us any more, and then we will be unhappy,…

If we can distance ourselves from the chain of thought, it’s a start. And indeed, if we sit quietly we find it is possible to observe the run of thoughts from a place within ourselves, without actually engaging them. We merely watch their coming and going, without judgement. If we feel our emotions getting hung up on particular thoughts, we press them gently aside. This is a powerful practise, and we find, in time, moments of deeper presence creeping into our lives of their own accord.

“Master, when will you teach me?”
“Have you eaten?”
“Yes.”
“Then go wash your bowl.”

There are many ways to nurture presence and they aren’t that difficult. They require a little imagination, and the cooperation of the ego. But that they require Ego’s indulgence is the reason so few of us make way in this search for presence – egos, being entities comprised entirely of thought, are not naturally inclined towards the cessation of thinking.

Try this instead:

Look at your hands. Now (in a moment) close your eyes. How do you know your hands are still there? Because you can feel them. But what are you feeling? You are feeling the energy of the body. It’s particularly noticeable in the hands. Now breathe in, and very gently out, and breathing out, focus more on the feeling in the hands. The feeling grows stronger. Breath, it seems, can help focus stillness and amplify one’s sense perceptions.

Remember this.

Using the imagination as the vehicle, and the outward breath as the energy to drive it, it’s possible to explore more of the body this way. Thus, we discover similar feelings in our arms and our chest. The region around the heart and the lower abdomen also respond strongly to the caress of breath-assisted imagination. The more we practice, the stronger and more readily these feelings come to us. And at some point, while we’re doing all of this we realise we’ve not been thinking about anything for a while. We have become still, we have become more “present” in the body, and we feel calmer. This is a very effective practice on the road to presence.

But there’s more.

When we become familiar with this feeling of centred calm, secure within the body, we begin to see and feel the outer world differently too. I’m looking at my keys – familiar things – but I realise I hardly ever truly see them, because the mind is not interested in them as they actually are. It labels them “keys” and moves on because it has so many other things to think about.

But, observed in stillness, a deeper dimension is revealed to my keys – the shape, the colours, the myriad indentations, the fall of light upon them, the reflections, the highlights. Be warned though: the mind may have trouble here as thinking tries to reassert itself. We might try to think about the keys: What doors do they open? This one is looking worn out and maybe I should replace it; I wonder if the battery is okay in my little torch thingy. Should I test it?

We cannot observe in stillness while we are engaged in thought. Thoughts are like stones tossed into the lake, breaking up its morning stillness. In stillness we accept only sense perceptions as they come to us – here primarily our vision, but we can also bring the ears, the nose and the sense of touch into play. But however we observe the outer world, we simply let it be, without analysis or judgement. We sense the world without thinking about it and if we’re doing it right, the feeling that arises is one of calm alertness.

Experienced on a larger scale, say in the outdoors, in the natural world, observing without judgement the tremble of every leaf and every blade of grass, this feeling of presence can be very powerful indeed, but as the lesson of the keys reveals, it can also be experienced in the minutiae we oftentimes simply overlook. And the observations need not be of static things. We can observe movement just as dispassionately and discover the stillness in it (stillness in movement) It can be experienced even in those things that we might consider a chore – ironing clothes, clearing out the garage, mowing the grass,… or washing the pots.

Master, when will you teach me?
Have you eaten?
Yes.
Then go wash your bowl.

Perhaps we should be more willing to embrace those mindless tasks for what they have to teach us.

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The_ScreamThe question the soul asks is this: why do some aspects of my life make me happy, while others make me suffer? Then we add the corollaries: number one: why is happiness so elusive, yet the potential for suffering so abundant? Second: how do I nurture more happiness and keep the suffering to a minimum?

The first corollary is concerned with philosophy and metaphysics: what is suffering? The second is more concerned with the practicalities of every day living: How do I make the suffering stop? How do I feel good about myself, about others and my place in the world?

The nature of suffering is a complicated thing; a good deal of Buddhism is devoted to its study, so I’m never going to boil it down to a thousand words. It can however, be usefully personified as an entity, one we imagine living inside of us. The spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle calls it the pain body. This is just a way of thinking, you understand. The pain body is not an evil spirit, nor an autonomous being – though it can behave like one; it’s just a very primitive part of who we are, and it loves to suffer. And where there is no suffering, the pain body is adept at creating it for us.

It’s hard to believe anyone would choose suffering as a way of life, but many of us do – not consciously of course, but more by misunderstanding the dominance of the pain body in our lives. Unchecked, the pain body grows and dictates our responses to more and more of life’s situations. But all is not lost; to shine a light on the pain body is also to shrink it. And a world observed without the presence of the pain body, is a very different world indeed.

One of the most powerful tools in this respect is nurturing “presence” in our lives. This is a very simple concept, but since the way of the soul is also one of infinite paradox, it can at the same time be rather a difficult concept to grasp, instinctively. As a first step we try to attain an awareness of our essential “self”. If we can do this, then all other things follow more easily. The “essential self” is not a vague new agey term. It means what it sounds like: it is the being we are, unhampered by all the thoughts and emotions. It is what lies underneath the storm tossed psyche. It is the very essence of who we are.

When we sit quietly, our mind fills with thoughts, some good, some bad. We might remember with fondness the good things, or we might feel something akin to physical pain at the memory of the bad. We might be fearful of upcoming events, things that worry us, or we might be looking forward to things we hope will make us happy.

If we try, we can sometimes rise above this stream of thought. The thoughts are still there, but we can now observe their coming and going without engaging with them, emotionally. We simply let them be. But if we think about it: in order for us to be aware of our thoughts, there must be an awareness beyond our thoughts, just as there can be no ripples on the surface of the lake without the water to carry them. So, are we the ripples or the water? What is this awareness that is aware of our thoughts?

Since we are most of us entirely identified with our thoughts and our memories, it can be difficult to imagine there is anything else beyond them. If we try to imagine it, we imagine it might be another way of thinking, but it isn’t. Primary awareness, the awareness of our essential self, is a place of deep stillness from where we can observe our lives without judgement, or thinking. We take the input from our senses, and make no comment. We let whatever is, simply be. It’s from this place, we get to observe the pain body at work, both in ourselves and others.

Do you know someone who never has a positive thing to say? Do you never feel positive yourself about anything? Are you a glass half empty person, or a glass half full? You might think it’s not your fault, that it is because of the insensitivity, the stupidity, or the downright cruelty of others that you suffer, or that you are somehow so “unlucky” circumstances seem always fated to thwart your happiness. But two people can be presented with the same life-situation, and see it entirely differently – one negative, one positive – and the difference is entirely a state of mind. It is the lack or presence of an active pain body.

Attaining presence we create a space in which we can observe, consciously, both ourselves and others, and it is from this enhanced perspective we can tell when pain bodies are active. The curious thing is, when we identify our own pain body, it shrinks back into the shadows. When we are aware of pain bodies awakening in others the important thing is to avoid them activating our own pain body, for pain bodies each know their kind and are most at home in one another’s company where they can feed upon the mutual suffering they whip up between them.

The pain body is responsible for much personal suffering and, through our relations with others, it is also responsible for much of the damage we do to them and them to us. Happiness is therefore a life lived without the pain body, but it requires us first to raise our self awareness beyond the level of the ego, or we might not even know of the the pain body’s existence. We mistake its painful emotional reactions as our own , and nurturing presence in our selves is the key to realising they are not.

But that’s my thousand words.

I’ll explore more on the subject of nurturing presence some other time.

Here’s more on the pain body.

And here’s Eckhart Tolle with the last word:

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mandelbrotThe way of the soul is not without its pitfalls. It renders us vulnerable, not only to misguided avenues of thought, down which we might easily lose ourselves for years, but also to the pathological assumption that it is more likely someone else who can spoon-feed us the answers we are seeking. Indeed it seems preposterous to us that we might ourselves possess the ability to turn up that which we most need, at the time we need it, yet more often than not, I find, we do. As for time spent in misguided avenues of thought, it is never really wasted,  since all experience is potentially instructive.

Books are the main source of recorded thought on all things. From the mysterious Yi Jing of China’s Mythic Prehistory, to the work of latter day Transcendentalists and Romantics, there is a wealth of ideas now recorded for our perusal. The world of books becomes like an ocean for us to sail upon, to feel the tug of its tides and venture wherever we will. Of course books do not have all the answers, indeed I suspect the way of the soul is leading eventually to a wordless revelation of nature, but for our time “in being” books remain one of the pleasures of the solitary path of the soul. If we encounter one we do not engage with, we can always put it down. It may be that the book contains words that are not right for us, or that we are simply not ready to engage with them yet. We set it aside, we move on.

The other source of wisdom, more dangerous and less easy to disengage from, is the charismatic human being. With human beings things are not so simple, for when we gather into groups an uncertainty arises in our interrelationships, due to the fact we do not know what  others are thinking. Mind games commence, the complexity of which multiplies in proportion to the square of the number of beings involved. And amid all this complexity the simple fact remains, it is always the one to whom we surrender authority who will control the game, so we had better be sure in our choices. I was never any good at mind games, nor have I ever been comfortable trusting in the bona fides of others. It’s a misanthropic weakness perhaps but one to which many introverts are prone, and is the reason I walk a solitary path. It’s much easier for me, since the square of one is still one.

I have been following the trade winds of Tai Chi and Qigong for many years now, found myself a small, informal group with whom to practice, under the tutelage of a man who didn’t take himself at all seriously. He was not a guru, nor even a “sifu”, though he was more knowledgeable than many who style themselves as such. We laughed our way through the Chen Laoja, through the Yi Jin Jing, and the Shi Ba Shi – laughed for years. It was not what I had expected of such a group, thinking to find instead something more serene and straight faced, and a teacher more outwardly profound in his demeanour, a teacher I could indeed make into my guru. But it was not to be. Then the Goddess Shiva intervened, bringer of transformation through destruction, and we lost our training venue. The group is now scattered far and wide. I’ve been cast adrift too, searching for a new group to join, because I feel insufficiently self-motivated (translate as bone-idle) to maintain the practice  on my own.

My searches led me to a very beautiful old house on the edge of wild countryside, and to a group of photogenic beings with serene expressions and improbably white teeth, who I thought would suit me very well. It’s a kind of new age spiritual centre where they teach all manner of things, from meditation to organic gardening, and a kind of practical philosophy based upon Platonic discourse – indeed it strikes one as being every bit the contemporary mystery school. It was for a moment as if I had entered a dream and needed to pinch myself, that all was real. This place would suit me very well, I thought – very well indeed!

But before signing up, my intuition insisted I did a bit of background checking, and I began turning up the word “cult”. It seems that far from being a small, self-contained centre of peace and harmony, this little group is part of a much bigger, worldwide group who have been the subject of much controversy and bad press. There are accusations of brainwashing and abuse. This could all be the sour grapes of disgruntled former students of course,  but it makes one pause just long enough to reset one’s bearings. Any group so big it can court any amount of publicity in the national press sounds too big for my own liking. I feel chastened by the experience, that I could have been so entranced by the beguiling beauty of their online literature, while losing sight of my own intent, and purpose.

Without seeming immodest, I probably already know more about Tai Chi and Qigong than this group could ever teach me, yet I assume my knowledge is as nothing compared to what this oasis of the tinkling windchimes might possess. The path then becomes a kind of spiritual materialism, in which nothing satisfies us for very long. We are always looking for the next thing – the next book, the next method, the next guru.

But I am reminded that to seek knowledge of a spiritual nature, we are best guided by the one who knows us most intimately. We all know the voice of “the one”. It comes to us when we establish a uniquely personal relationship with that innate sense of the divine, with the Universe, with whatever name we want to give it. If we need knowledge, then it is right to seek it, either by reading up about a thing, or engaging the services of a teacher. But on the path of the soul we should remain mindful that it is always our own inner voice that guides us to our proper end, and that in the completeness of our being, we are each of us our own most perfect guru.

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