The spiritual orientation to life is often set in motion by the desire to address painful inner forces like anxiety, frustration, and disappointment. The natural wish is to soothe oneself, to settle the distress. Refuge is sought in some “state,” some inner place at a blessed remove from the turmoil. To that end, practices may be undertaken as a calming way of re-aligning, so that when stress of some kind is noticed to have taken over the body, meditation or deep breathing or wise teachings are turned to.
Earnest spiritual practice is undertaken for a kind of self-correction.
Some have noticed that however long they’ve cultivated these helpful practices, the distressing emotional patterns persist, however much “progress” seems to have occurred. Perhaps they persist because such practices tend (however unwittingly) to reinforce the seeming reality of the self that suffers. The spiritual mind becomes accustomed to “managing” uncomfortable patterns — giving the mind yet another useless way to engage, thereby nurturing the ongoing illusion of its usefulness.
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For many of us there have been various approaches, over the decades of suffering, to seeking relief in troubling times. Taking a drink can be one way. Eating for the sake of eating. Turning on the TV, tuning in to social media. How poignant, then, to discover that an earnestly adopted spiritual approach to momentary pain may not differ all that much from these time-honored modes of escape. While surely less overtly harming, spiritual practice may nevertheless be a habit-forming coping mechanism, keeping a person at an enduring distance from reality — including the inner one, where real feelings dwell, begging to be felt. All the while (most poignantly) holding awakening at bay.
The most illuminating thing a person can do is to be ceaselessly curious about what’s real.
Surely (yes) the gentler orientation to self-soothing does not inflict the obvious damage wreaked by chemical dependency. Yet might there not be a way to engage spirituality that attunes us to reality — one that may lead at last to freedom? Is it inevitable that the pattern will continue until the heart ceases beating? The familiar spiritual approach might ease the discomfort of the moment. But it’s unlikely it will finally dismantle the larger pattern, bringing at last a blessed enduring peace.
Maybe instead of focusing on alleviating discomfort, with always the goal of feeling better, in a given moment of discomfort, a person can simply allow awareness to become its curious, spacious self. To plainly see what is real just now. To acknowledge — and allow — the feeling that is here, that wants so much to be avoided. For its primary feature is its palpable reality, not its undesirability. In addition to enabling surrender, spacious awareness is able to observe how the mind dislikes the discomfort, preferring another feeling. It sees the tyranny of the mind, how very much it controls the whole process.
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The most illuminating thing a person can do is to be ceaselessly curious about what’s real, in this moment’s felt experience. Is the mind-driven self what’s real, the self that seeks calm, to be relieved of inner disturbance?
What is real?
To the extent the familiar impulse to soothe is indulged, you’re reinforcing the crippling impression that this — the self that seems to need fixing — is what you deeply are. Which is why it persists: because it keeps seeming real. It seems (you seem) to be a problem that needs fixing.
What’s the point of allowing yourself to feel, without resistance, the uncomfortable emotions presently overtaking you? Because in this moment’s felt experience, they are real. Allowing them dissolves the inner divisions that drive us into the manipulating and preferring mind, holding wakefulness at a distance. Just now, that sensation in the body — the flushed face, the racing heart and tense muscles, the knot in the stomach — is as real as the tree before you. The fact that it’s all been set in motion by something in your head (however much the cause appears to be something “out there”) does not render unreal the inner response. And so to avoid feeling it all only keeps going the familiar pattern.
Even as the content of the thought is surely at a distance from external reality, the fact that the machinery of thought has been operating is real, palpable. This is an illuminating distinction to make, for it enables attunement to the sensation (felt, hence real) of grinding thought, even as there is the awareness that its content is invented.
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A human being is a feeling creature. Whatever their source, momentary feelings are experienced in the body, and so are to be allowed. Whether driven by unconscious reactivity or in direct response to life itself (sans interpretation), they are part of what it is to be a human being.
When wide-open awareness is the primary mode of existence, whatever comes is allowed. With the mind blessedly quiet, the familiar preference for comfort having unwound, all experience is held with equanimity.
The exploration of what is real is not undertaken via the mind. Of course the spiritual-seeker mind insists it “knows” what’s real. This is entirely useless. The collection of spiritual concepts becomes yet another way to keep the mind active, another nurturer of ongoing illusion.
Awareness simply sees, without preference. It does not experience stress, anxiety, anger, resistance. It perceives phenomena, not “good” or “bad.” Nor does it prefer inner stillness, bliss, the absence of distress. So long as the focus continues to be on alleviating uncomfortable emotions, the familiar patterns will hold. The inner division between the tormented self and the approximately peaceful one will continue feeling substantial.
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When you notice inner distress taking hold, what can be helpfully done, rather than trying to soothe or escape the discomfort? Begin by noticing how you dislike the feeling that’s alive in you just now, that there’s a preference for feeling that other way.
Relaxing the desire to feel better, gently open the space to allow yourself to feel, without resistance, the pain of the momentary constriction. Notice any beliefs or ideas underlying the sensation, perhaps having to do with something “out there.” Surrender to it all, at the deepest level — however uncomfortable, however “unspiritual” the feelings may appear. Grant it all its necessary space, without attempting to mute or alter any of it.
For only in yielding to momentary reality is the spaciousness of well-being discovered. Any inner guardedness that creates division or “compartments” inside you, any fear-based walling-off of unwelcome inner realities, keeps you forever at odds with yourself. This keeps going the perceived need to undertake some method of calming yourself.
As you relax into the uncomfortable sensation that’s taken over your body, if you look, you may be able to see that it is not momentary life itself that’s “causing” it. No, it’s the intervening, interpreting mind that — making something of life — has given rise to the distress. Again ask: What is real here? Is there a difference between this moment of life and what my mind says about it?
Perhaps you’ve told yourself that by soothing the momentary distress, you will then be able to access the “part” of yourself that is not perturbed. This approach — especially when undertaken without questioning whether the discomfort is a response to reality itself — only nurtures the enduring illusion that the “you” at the mercy of circumstance has substance. As if it were in a kind of contest with the spacious awareness gently containing all of it.
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A human being is a feeling creature. This is an ongoing feature of moment-to-moment reality, whether or not a person is awake. What changes at awakening (or even in fleeting moments of wakefulness) is the source of feeling. Before, when a person has been at the mercy of the mind (with its ceaseless preference for lack-of-pain), the generator of most embodied feeling has been mental activity.
By marked contrast, once awakened to the underlying reality of awareness, a person’s oh-so-human inner experience is in direct response not to thought but to life itself. Nothing intervenes to interpret, deny, protect. Sorrow for the death of a loved one is entirely allowed, deeply felt. No protective walls are erected. It’s the same with the surge of delight in the presence of a stunning bird, rolling ocean waves, a passage of music. As with the cherishing of one who is dear. When intervening thought is no longer running the show, the perceived distance between life and “you” is simply gone. Aliveness has taken entirely over. Gone is the apparent separation between you and all-that-is.
Of course you feel! Only now, whether it’s “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” it’s deeply peaceful. Because it is granted all its necessary space. While you are surely a feeling creature, you are also spaciousness itself. This is what it is to be embodied divinity.
We do not decide what feeling comes, however much we might wish or suppose otherwise. We did not “cause” the moment to arrive as it has. The inner experience happens spontaneously, in the same way outer reality arrives on its own. There is nothing to do but be with the now, inside and out, dropping any impression of control.
So much of earnest spiritual work is in the nature of trying to control. As if we were masters of the moment! Reality is here and now. To deny or attempt to manage it is madness. To receive it without struggle is where peace dwells.
Just as with thought. We do not choose to think (at least, not the ego-driven sort of thinking).
The issue is whether or not we become conscious of what the now consists of. Nor are we in control of that, in any given moment. Conscious awareness either blessedly visits us or it does not. But when we do become self-aware, how a door does open! For then there is space and light, enabling us to allow, to acknowledge, what’s happening just now. The sensation in the body, the noticing whether there’s resistance or yielding. The reality in the immediate scene we inhabit.
Wakefulness is about coming at last to rest in what is actually here, inside and out. It’s about being at no distance from reality. When this occurs without resistance, without inner division, there is peace.
Yes, much of this is counter-intuitive. But only if the mind is consulted.