The Post-it Note I
July 30, 2022 § Leave a comment
A while back I was sitting in meditation, watching my thoughts. Sometimes I’d get caught up in one and not realize that I was following it for several seconds or minutes. Other times I held one before me for investigation. Not to develop a line of thinking around it but simply to see it as it presented itself to me in the moment.
I could see that the thoughts I was investigating were overlaid with another. There was the thought, and overtop that thought was another in the form of a vague image or sense of self. It was apparent that this overlay was the reason why I believed that I was my thoughts.
I humorously concluded that it was as if somewhere there was a Post-it Note pad that had the letter “I” written on each sheet. As a thought arose a note would be taken off the pad and stuck to it. With the note firmly attached the mind could then say, “I am sad.” “I am right.” “I am wrong.” Etc.
I continued to look at this and began to see that what I called my self was just a collection of post-it notes. What, I wondered, would happen if I removed one of the notes? Would the thought be seen as just a thought? And if all post-it notes were removed, would there be a me left?
I tend to think that projecting a sense of self onto thought comes from the need to step back from a thought to see it. Stepping backward implies that there is something or someone who is stepping back. This assumption creates the sense of a self that stands in opposition to the perceived object.
Once a self is assumed the mind seeks to identify it. This results in some thoughts being seen as ‘me’ while others are pushed away. To use my analogy again, those seen as self are ones that have post-it notes attached. What’s not so readily seen is that the sense of self is also a thought. It is also a post-it note, but one that has a big “I” written on it. Around this all other post-it notes are arranged to create an identity of a person who is of a particular race, religion, gender, funny or serious, extrovert or introvert, etc.
The post-it note with the big I is, so to speak, wrapped around that which looks through the eyes and hears through the ears. This is the power of awareness that, properly speaking, is the true Self with a capital S. The aim of spiritual practice is to see through all the post-it notes right down to the Self and recognize it as your true nature. The mind, however, sees this as the death of self and naturally resists with a myriad of defense strategies. It isn’t really a death, though, so much as a return to that which you always know you are deep down inside, i.e., empty awareness. But the mind nevertheless clings to its post-it note identity to stay alive.
Seeing myself as a collection of post-it notes has loosened my attachment to thought and the feeling that I must defend my imaginary self. Just seeing all thought as thought, including the sense of self as a thought, does tend to lead awareness to turn back on itself to discover its true nature. Self that is unbound by thought.
The “I” Thought
May 31, 2022 § Leave a comment
Most of us have no memories of the first two to two and a half years of our lives. Medical doctors would say it is due to our brains not being completely developed. Non-dualists suggest that it is due to consciousness being homogenous and non-localized. Meaning that there is no experience of a separate self or separate objects located in space, so there is nothing to form memories.
Non-dualists go on to say that early in life consciousness contracts, likely in response to its growing identification with the body that naturally contracts in response to sound, hunger, hot and cold or other sensations. In contracting, consciousness pulls away from itself or polarizes. At one end of the pole are objects seen as separate things. At the other end is the subject to all objects that is experienced as separate from objects. This polarization is the birth of Subject/Object Consciousness.
When subject/object consciousness arises, the mind starts to name all it sees, much as Adam did in the Bible when God set all creatures before him. What’s generally not recognized is that the mind also seeks to name the subject to all objects and give it an identity. The subject, however, is nothing like an object. Objects can be seen with the eyes, heard with the ears, and sensed in other ways. The subject, on the other hand, has no objective qualities. To the mind it is a complete mystery, a void. That is a problem for a mind that is made to solve mysteries by naming and identifying things.
To resolve this mystery the mind leaps to the erroneous conclusion that the subject is an object like any other object. It furthers this error by identifying the subject with the body and emotions. Over time this identity becomes quite elaborate as family and cultural beliefs are added. Underlying all of this me and mine stuff, however, is the one original thought: the “I” thought.
The I thought is just that, a thought. Whereas most thoughts point to something, like the word apple points to a specific objective experience, the I thought doesn’t point to anything. You may argue that it points to the opposite of all things but if you take that apart you’ll quickly realize that the opposite of everything is nothing. A nothing that the mind calls I.
Let’s approach that again. Your original face before you were born, as phrased in Zen Buddhism, is non-localized consciousness. When it contracts an altered state of consciousness is created in which objects are seen to arise in opposition to a subject that has no objective qualities and so appears as a void. The mind, being unable to comprehend this void, identifies it as me or I. But a name is nothing more than a thought. In this case, a thought that points to nothing. There is no you. Sit with that. Let it sink in.
A Post On Nothing
April 27, 2022 § Leave a comment
(Your) True nature is emptiness. It is the eye that cannot see itself. The knife that cannot slice itself. It is the subject to all objects that is never itself an object. Being thus, why seek it through knowledge or experience?
When people are first told of their true nature, they seek to know more. In doing so they take the first step on the journey of a thousand miles that leads nowhere. They fill their heads with knowledge through reading and by listening to various teachers. They take up spiritual practice through which they have beautiful experiences; wonderous ones of Unity, Joy, and Love. But that’s all they are, experiences. Your true nature isn’t an experience. It isn’t knowledge.
True nature is indescribable and ineffable. “Looked for, it cannot be found. Listened for, it cannot be heard. Felt for, it cannot be grasped,” said Lao Tzu. Even though he wrote these words centuries ago, those on the spiritual path still look for it. They look for some special experience called Enlightenment, Higher Consciousness, God, or Truth. The names given It are many but, “The name that can be named is not the eternal name.”
There is nothing wrong with seeking except the seeking itself. That is why the practice of Neti Neti (“not this, not that”) meditation is highly recommended, for in it even the search is let go. Or Shikantaza in which one just sits without searching. Not looking for something special. Not seeking some subtle experience. Not fixing yourself. Whatever happens is allowed to arise and fall away by itself, without grasping or pushing away. Any action on your part, even trying to stop action, is just another step on the dead-end journey of a thousand miles. So, just sit.
It is said that anyone may realize their true nature in an instant. Right now. Without doing a thing. Without reading a thousand scriptures. Without practicing for years on end. Without fixing a thing about youself. The reason for this is simple. There is nothing to be found. You, the eye that cannot see itself, are already it! Already here!
True nature is sometimes called awareness or consciousness. But this is just a name. If you look for awareness you will not find it. “Oh!”, but you say, “I am aware.” But if you really look, you’ll discover that what you call awareness are the objects in awareness. The words you’re reading now. The chair you’re sitting on. The birds singing outside. From your experience of them the mind reflects and concludes that you are aware. But it cannot say what that awareness it. Awareness, or consciousness, is always the unseen, unknowable subject to all objects.
Awareness is sometimes referred to as the white paper upon which words are written. In this analogy words symbolize any object of experience, be it gross or subtle. Desires, thoughts, emotions, relationships, your problems, etc. These objects of awareness take attention away from that which is always here and upon which all things depend. It is only when something stops you in the present moment that you may become aware of the paper. Be it a tragedy. A glorious sunset. A pebble hitting a bamboo stick. Or even simply being asked, “Are you aware, right now? Then you become aware of being aware. You see the whiteness of the paper.
To help us stop and see the paper, the sages of old gave us various meditation practices that suit our individual needs. Not to start us on a journey of a thousand miles, but to have us just be in the present moment. The mind, however, being accustomed to doing things, looking for things, learning things and having experiences, wants to turn these practices into a search for something else. And in so doing our attention is taken away from the now. No wonder we don’t see it!
Stop looking. Stop seeking some special knowledge that will act as the key. Even when you have the most profound experience you could not even have imagined, let it go. That’s not it. Any object of experience is not your true nature. Your true nature is nothing at all.
September 30, 2021 § Leave a comment
Previously, I compared the ground of being to the background awareness that exists in everyone. This background awareness is always here, always aware of whatever the senses are taking in, your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.
It is easy to find this awareness. Simply turn your attention to something in your immediate experience other than what you are presently attending to. When you do, you discover that you were already aware of it. That, for instance, when you turn your attention to the breath, you find that there was already an awareness of your breathing in the background of your mind, you just weren’t aware of being aware of it.
A singular trait of the background awareness is that it takes in and accepts whatever is presented. It does not judge things as good or bad. It does not favour one thing over another. It is completely accepting of whatever arises and, as such, it may be described as pure, unconditional love for all things.
In contrast to this unconditional love is the ego-mind that constantly judges things as for or against the self (or indifferent to it). This constant judging is intimately connected to the body’s survival instinct. When there is a physical threat to the body its built-in defence mechanisms kick in. The body tenses and contracts as it prepares for fight or flight. The same reaction occurs when something is judged to be bad or against the ego’s self-image. When beliefs are threatened or the way you see yourself is attacked, contractions are felt in the body. Additionally, all the other ego defence strategies come online. Strategies that are mostly conditioned responses created in childhood and are therefore often inappropriate to the conditions existing in the present moment.
We may imagine the ego as a contraction in a boundless sea of awareness that is the ground of being. In contracting away from the ocean, the ego sees itself as separate from it. The unconditional acceptance or love that is your true nature is no longer felt. Rather, you grasp at things that are seen to enhance your ego, while pushing away that which is a threat. You are no longer one with your true nature or the world.
As the apparent separation from your true nature began with a simple contraction felt in the body, it would seem apparent that returning to your true nature would start by simply learning how to relax. Learning patience, acceptance and tolerance would follow. As grasping is also a form of contracting, learning to let go and be satisfied with things as they are would also contribute to the return to your true nature. Growing out of all this we see the justification for such things as passive resistance, kindness, and compassion. All things recommended by true sages throughout history.
Self-observation is also beneficial in that through watching where you tend to grasp or push things away you will learn where you need to relax, let go and be vulnerable. The ego, you see, has spent a lifetime learning to hide its vulnerabilities both from itself and others. Though it desperately wants to return to that unconditional love, it also feels that it is too vulnerable, too unworthy to receive that love. Having spent an entire lifetime judging, it expects to be judged upon its return to its true nature. Yet, as stated at the start of this post, that background awareness that is your true nature unconditionally accepts everything, even the apparent you that feels itself to be unworthy.
The next time you tune into your background awareness, see how it accepts everything even if your ego wishes to push it away. And then realize that this ground of being must therefore also accept you for its very nature, your very nature, is unconditional love. Then rest there.
July 28, 2021 § Leave a comment
It may not be readily evident in these posts, but in the last while I’ve been trying to simplify things. The last post was an attempt to show that what some call the ground of being is more easily understood as the background awareness that exists in everyone but is seldom noticed. It is found when you turn your attention to a thing and find that you were already aware of it, you just weren’t aware that you were aware of it. That which is aware before you become aware of being aware is the ground of being.
Silence is a variant of the ground of being. It, too, is something that is always here but seldom noticed. When a sound, any sound, arises, it arises against a background of silence. When the sound leaves, the silence is still there. Only in our age there is so much noise that we seldom notice it.
There are times when the silence is heard and heard very loudly. I’m referring to those times when a persistent noise that is perhaps somewhat annoying suddenly stops. The gap or absence of sound that follows is the silence that is always here.
In Pathways Through to Space, Franklin Merrell-Wolff spoke of an instance of silence that is familiar to many. He was describing a trip to a symphony where, when the music ended, there followed what he called the music’s “nirvanic counterpart.” I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences yourself when something quieted your thoughts and left you with a sense of uplifted well-being. That is an experience of silence.
Perhaps you’ve had a guided meditation in which you were asked to follow the sound of a gong or bell until it faded into silence. Admittedly, I didn’t really understand what the guide was trying to get at when I first had that instruction. It took a while for me to realize that I was being directed to the silence that I was then to rest in. The idea being that the more I found this silence, the more I’d be able to rest in it even when surrounded by noise. (Especially the noise of my own thoughts.)
In large part my inability to recognize silence came from a false assumption. That it (like the ground of being) was some grand experience. Even though realized men and women kept saying that what I was searching for is closer than the nose on my face. That it is ever-present or “just this.” I kept looking for something special that wasn’t here, now. Dissolving this false preconception is what motivated me to simplify my understanding about what this search for my true nature is all about.
Silence, like the background awareness, is always here. In fact, you could say that silence is the background awareness listening. Or, more simply, that when you follow the sound of a bell, when it fades off what remains is the listening.
Like the background awareness, when you turn your attention to a sound you find that you were already listening to it. You just weren’t aware that you were listening to it till that moment. And, of particular interest, you are listening in silence. What I mean by this is that when you listen to something you stop. Your thinking stops and you’re resting in silence as you listen. Go ahead. Try it right now. Turn your attention to some sound and notice that when you truly listen, your mind has stopped thinking. And that the moment you start thinking again, the sound falls into the background.
The mind’s constant chatter and looking for something else to do or hear is the main reason we don’t notice that all sound arises out of and dissolves back into silence. Not in a mysterious manner but simply as a function of how sound always exists against a background of silence. That non-mysterious silence is the ground of being. It is the silence of which the mystic Jakob Böhme said, “If you could be silent from all willing and thinking for one hour, you would hear God’s inexpressible words.”
The Ground of Being
July 9, 2021 § Leave a comment
When reading spiritual material, you may have come across a reference to the ground of being or the ground of awareness and wondered what that meant. I tended to associate it with something vast, as the word ‘ground’ implied a foundation that underlies everything. Seeing it that way I searched for something in my experience that was vast but couldn’t find it.
Further analysis revealed that anything that underlies everything must be here and here right now. That I failed to find it, I thought, could be a case of being unable to see the forest for the trees. Or like the time I was trying to point out some quails, but my brother could only see the leaves they were sitting behind. This, in turn, reminded me of what people who’ve had an awakening say. That what was revealed was so obvious that they don’t know how they missed it all their lives.
So. What is here, right now, and but easily overlooked? Let’s first address the latter part of this question and ask under what conditions we may overlook a thing. One answer is that something else has our attention, as with my brother who was so focused on the leaves that he couldn’t see the quails. Sometimes spiritual writers refer to this in the context of words written on a page. The whiteness of the page is clearly there but the reader only sees the words. Should someone come along and point to the paper he may acknowledge it but then quickly go back to what he was reading. It’s the words he values, even though without the paper the words would all fall to the floor in a heap.
This is what the search for the ground of being is like. It’s right before our eyes but we’re too busy looking for something vast, marvelous, or mysterious, and so we miss this one simple thing.
Years ago, I came across the phrase ‘aware of being aware.’ I described it then, as I have often since, in terms of becoming aware that when you turn your attention to something, like the beating of your heart or the birds singing in the distance, that you’ve been aware of it all along. You just weren’t aware that you were aware of it until you turned your attention to it.
This awareness that sits in the background is the ground of being or awareness. It is always here. It is always aware. And it doesn’t disappear if you’re not aware of it or when you’re asleep. We hardly ever notice it, though it may come to the foreground at times when out attention naturally falls upon leaves rustling in the wind or when we suddenly turn and catch sight of an owl silently darting across the twilight sky. At these times the noise of the mind falls away if only slightly and we experience a subtle, momentary sense of quiet or stillness.
This ground of being is what we seek in meditation but due to its simplicity, we often miss it or dismiss it in our search for some grand experience or deep knowledge that will ‘free’ us. But as Stephan Bodian wrote, “When I finally awakened to my essential nature, I looked back and realized that the innocent, open awareness with which I began my practice was in fact identical with the expansive, all-inclusive awareness that had subsequently awakened to itself through me.” (“Wake Up Now,” p83/4)
During an awakening experience the ground of being may seem very alive and intense. Having such an experience (or reading about one) may leave you to spend much time and effort trying to duplicate it. But it never left. It’s just fallen into the background where it continues to know everything that arises whether you are aware of it or not. All you need do is turn your attention to the very fact that you’re aware. All you need do is let awareness turn back upon itself.
So, what does this mean for you and your practice. Simply that as you go through the day take a moment every now and then to turn away from the usual chatter of your mind. Become aware of what you’re aware of in the background. It may be a small detail, something sitting on your desk or a sound in the distance. Or become aware of everything in your field of vision or everything you hear or whatever sensations are running through your body. The awareness of all these is already there. You don’t have to do anything special to recognize it. Just turn your awareness upon that awareness and rest in it. That’s it. That’s what the mystics are pointing at.
A Bumblebee’s Life
June 20, 2021 § Leave a comment
I came down the driveway the other day and stopped in front of the house to look at the foxgloves growing in the garden. As I watched my attention was drawn to a bumblebee who was flitting about the flowers. She entered one, completely disappearing. After a moment she came out and darted about again until she found another foxglove to enter.
As she busied herself in the flower a slight shift in consciousness occurred. Nothing spectacular. Some things, concepts, I guess, fell away and I started seeing the bee’s activity in a new way. It had no individual motive. It didn’t have any personal goals to achieve. It was just following its basic programming instilled in it by evolution over countless generations. And at the end of its life, it would leave no individual mark on the world. It would just cease to exist and be forgotten. In the same way that most of humanity has been forgotten over time. And the same way I’ll be forgotten when my turn comes.
As I watched, a feeling came over me that the universe was nothing more than mechanical action taking place for no reason other than its own sake. It was as if I were seeing the universe as it is when there is no ego.
Latter it came to me that although this bumblebee was completely void of individual attainment that it was still serving a purpose. It was working for the good of its community of fellow bees and in the process fertilizing the plants and flowers that would create the next generation. The bumblebee was, in fact, serving the very Life that it was part of.
This morning I had my second dose of the Moderna vaccination. I got up early and walked to the vaccination site for my scheduled 7:20AM appointment. Arriving I was directed to the back of a long line that grew longer as I waited. We in the line moved in an orderly fashion as each group at the front of the line were admitted into the building. When my turn came, I entered a large gymnasium where I was directed to a seat walled on three sides with plexiglass.
After a time, a woman came and asked me some questions on a list. She then went over another list of what I might take if I got any reaction to the vaccine. She was followed by a man who stuck a needle in my arm and then instructed I wait 15 minutes before leaving. As I sat there, I looked across the gymnasium. Chairs like the one I was sitting in covered the floor. Each occupied seat had a man or a woman in it who were busily going over the same lists that the woman went over with me.
I could see that each person in the room was engrossed in their own thoughts, much as the bumblebee was when it disappeared into the foxglove. Over and above this, however, was something else. Whether they knew it or not each person had come to that gymnasium to serve Life. Not just their individual lives but the lives of every person in their community and, ultimately, the world.
Over countless generations people have lived and died without any of us remembering who they were. Most of us will meet that same fate. But when you put aside your own ego and its desire to stand apart from others, you see that we are all part of a Life that doesn’t care about individual goals and accomplishments. Its only care is Life, Itself. And if you put your ego aside, you’ll see that you are part of that great movement to preserve life for its own sake.
The Spontaneity of the SELF
February 28, 2021 § Leave a comment
The homogenous state of the newborn infant’s brain is one in which there is no preference for one thing over another. Waves of sensation arise via the senses, but these are felt to be equally the same. Distinctions are made when the body experiences hunger or changes in temperature but for the most part these arise and fall away without disturbing the original homogenous state.
After a time, the brain begins to favor certain states that are deemed pleasurable. In itself this isn’t significant but at some point the I-thought, or ego, arises and with it the beginning of grasping after pleasurable states with a similar pushing away of unpleasant states. The effect of this grasping and pushing away is to create a state of tension in the homogenous state which marks the beginning of suffering.
Of interest is that where the ego finds suffering the tendency is to push it away, which only increases the tension and suffering. If the ego would stop resisting and ease into it, the suffering would equally ease. But to the ego letting go and returning to the homogenous state is the equivalent of its own death, so, it ultimately cannot of its own devices totally let go and resolve what the Buddhists call the matter of life and death.
Psychedelic states produced by LSD have on occasion created the phenomenon known as “ego dissolution” or “ego death.” According to researchers, this state is associated with “a state of high global integration.”1 A state that I liken to the homogeneous state of the newborn infant’s brain.
Once this state of global integration is experienced the tendency is to find a way to repeat it. Those who tried found the state could not be sustained by taking more LSD. Some tried meditation. Practically all who then subsequently realized this state ultimately concluded its attainment was not a result of any action taken on their part. They often say it was realized only through an act of grace. Franklin Merrell-Wolff said of it that, “It is as simple as turning from the object of, to the subject to, all relative consciousness, plus the spontaneity of the SELF.” (p. 38 Pathways Through to Space)
It is often said that any effort made by the ego to realize the original homogenous state will fail because effort involves grasping and pushing away. Actions that create a state of tension that necessarily inhibit the state from being recognized. Put another way, any effort made by the ego to realize God fails because God can only be realized when the ego gets out of the way or dies.
With the dissolution of the ego there comes the opportunity for Realization but, paradoxically, this Realization is not made by the ego. At that point the ego doesn’t exist. Rather, the homogeneous state realizes itself. Or, as the mystic says, “Consciousness recognizes Consciousness.”
It should not be concluded from the above that effort is useless. Rather the above points to the need to make the effort to let go of effort. To relax and do as little as possible. Because no effort will lead to Self-realization, we can finally see why shikantaza (zazen)is said to be the highest form of meditation. In shikantaza, you utterly let go of doing anything except just sitting.
But here’s the rub. It may take years of working through your conditioning, old guilts, old traumas, all that stuff you’ve been grasping or pushing away, before you can just sit. And even then, there is no guarantee of the ultimate realization. That comes from Grace or, as Merrell-Wolff said, the spontaneity of the SELF. And that is not something the ego can control.
Ego and Self-Image.
January 29, 2021 § Leave a comment
“Being preoccupied with our self-image is like being deaf and blind. It’s like standing in the middle of a vast field of wildflowers with a black hood over our heads. It’s like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs.” — Pema Chodron
We usually think of the self-image as our public face. As the mask we wear when standing in a crowd of strangers or at work. We like to think we can take it off when at home or with friends. But few of us take that mask off completely even in the company of those we trust. In the above quote Pema Chodron implies that self-image deadens us to the beauty of the world. So, why do keep our self-image? As I see it, it’s a matter of survival. Survival of the ego. Let me explain.
The ego arises out of the original homogeneous state of the infant brain as the thought, “I am I and no other.” Fearing it might dissolve back into that seeming nothingness the ego looks for something to support it. We could compare the ego’s predicament to that of a man struggling to stay afloat in a vast ocean. Through his own efforts he can only stay above water for so long before he goes under. In desperation he grabs anything nearby that might help him stay afloat. In this analogy, what the man grabs and clings to is his self-image.
Self-image is captured by the phrase, “I am this, but not that.” It can rightly be called the ego’s identity, or ego identity, and is created through a process of grasping and pushing away. What the ego grasps becomes part of its conscious identity. In psychology, what it pushes away is called the shadow. In Jungian terms, the shadow lies in the unconscious mind and contains all that a person denies in himself.
Once cast into the unconscious the shadow seeks a return to consciousness. The ego resists this because the shadow is a threat to its carefully built self-image. The ego can only maintain its self-image by denying anything that questions its legitimacy. For example, we’ve all experienced times when our thoughts ran in circles trying to justify some impulsive action that didn’t fit within our usual way of doing things. That’s the ego trying to save face. In the view presented here, face saving arises out of the ego’s need to maintain its self-image, the loss of which means the ego’s dissolution or death.
It’s easier to understand why the ego gets so agitated when its self-image is threatened by using the analogy of the man in the ocean. As stated above, the man will drown if the flotsam that he clings to is lost. In the same way, the ego will dissolve back into the seeming nothingness out of which it arose if it loses its self-image. It’s a matter of life and death to the ego, so each time the self-image is threatened the bodies survival mechanism kicks in with a fight, flight or freeze response. The more this cycle repeats, the more preoccupied we become with our self-image. Or, as Pema Chodron said, the more deaf and blind we become to life.
It’s actually easy to see the ego trying to maintain its identity. Just focus on the “I” thought and hold it lightly in awareness. After a bit, thoughts will arise, some of which cause slight contractions in the body/mind. Those contractions are the ego withdrawing from thoughts and feelings that threaten its self-image. The more threatening, the greater the contraction.
It may be easier to see the ego at work by imagining that you’re in a group of people who suddenly break out in song. Do you notice any immediate tension arising in your body at this image? What if you imagine the group asks you to join in? If you find yourself pulling back even in this imaginary situation then you’re seeing the ego at work maintaining itself as it is. Once you see this reaction in operation, you’ll be able to recognize it in other situations. Your ego, in fact, is constantly at work choosing which thoughts, feelings and actions are ‘yours’ so you won’t act out of character. In a way, it’s a self-made prison.
Once you see what you’re trying to be, feel and act like in all situations you’ve found your self-image. Some people hold that image lightly, allowing for new experiences. Others hold that door firmly shut, fearing what’s on the other side. But even after a new experience those who hold it lightly return to who and what they think they are, thus perpetuating that sense of separation that having an ego provides. Which is why Pema Chodron said that “Being preoccupied with our self-image is like being deaf and blind. It’s like standing in the middle of a vast field of wildflowers with a black hood over our heads. It’s like coming upon a tree of singing birds while wearing earplugs.”
The Importance of Relaxation
December 31, 2020 § Leave a comment
Continuing on the theme of experience and the brain, it occurs to me that the brain of a newborn could be said to exist in a state of homogenous, egoless consciousness. This may be inferred from the fact that the young brain, although receiving input from the senses, is not yet processing that input with concepts so experience is more or less formless. As the ego is a concept, the concept of who you are, it follows that the newborn brain has no ego. It is only after some months of interaction with the world through its parents that the newborn starts to organize itself conceptually and the ego develops.
A neurologist would call this organization establishing neural pathways. I find it more useful to think of it in terms of tension or contraction because the formation of neural pathways is associated with subtle contractions in the body. This is easily demonstrated simply by noticing how your body tenses and contracts while remembering some unpleasant experience.
It is my contention that ego formation is intimately connected to the brain’s survival mechanism that, when activated, causes the body to contract. My reasoning is that as the ego identity forms out of the original homogenous state there arises a sense that it can easily dissolve back into that apparent nothingness. This return is viewed by the ego as death. And it is this fear of annihilation that activates the survival mechanism that manifests as the fight, flight or freeze response.
Each of us tends to favour one survival response over the others. If you don’t know yours, just ask yourself how you usually respond to stress. If it’s with anger, then it’s likely yours is the fight response. As to the others, an example of the flight response was one I found in a woman I knew who readily admitted that when faced with stress her first impulse was to move to another town. I, myself, tend towards the freeze response that manifested generally as a desire to hide in plain sight. So, I did things when younger like not speak up in school or, later, not question my boss on important matters. My motto seemed to be, “Don’t bring attention to yourself.”
Each of us reacts with our dominant survival response when threatened. For the most part it’s an automatic reaction that is supposed to pop up and then drop away. This is what happens with animals, but that is not the case with most humans due to our ability to imagine threats that don’t actually exist in the present moment. As the brain is unable to recognize these threats as imaginary (even though you may be telling yourself it is) the survival mechanism kicks in. Especially when there is unresolved or on-going trauma, this leaves the body in a constant state of contraction. A state that is so disturbing that an individual may turn to alcohol or drugs to relieve the immense strain being put upon the body.
When I first noticed the freeze response operating in me, not knowing its origin, I sought a psychological remedy for it. I read many psychology books and learned dream interpretation to discover my deeper motivations. I also investigated my parent’s upbringing to discover how their experiences influenced them and, in turn, me and my siblings. None of this, however, actually reduced my anxiety as I was still not dealing with the essential issue of life and death that my survival response pointed to. I was still working hand in hand with my ego to avoid self-negation and maintain the ego as it is.
As many others do when faced with life’s perplexing problems, I took up meditation. Unfortunately, I glossed over the part that emphasized relaxation. That was a mistake, as the memories and conditioning associated with fear and stress are stored in the body as muscular contraction. This means that any minor distraction that produced tension in the body could activate a cascade of emotions, thoughts and imagining that totally defeat the aim of meditation to live freely in the present moment. Learning to relax teaches you where your body is contracting so that you may progressively learn to release that tension.
The relaxation method most often describe in the literature isn’t anything like sunning yourself on some beach kind of relaxation. You work your way up from the feet to the head, tensing each muscle and then relaxing them as you go. This teaches you where your body is holding tension and how to let it go. I ignored this instruction because I wanted to jump right into meditating. However, it seems to me now that this isn’t that much different than recognizing any other kind of distraction and returning to the present moment. That is, you see your body contract, then you relax. Each contraction leads to a relaxing into the now. Over and over. Just like when your body tenses as you enter a hot bath, only to relax once you’re in.
It is difficult to focus on the present moment when the body is in a continuous defensive mode. The instruction to meditate with an alert mind is often usurped by the ego to be alert for any threat to its survival instead. When the body is completely relaxed, however, the fight/flight/freeze response does not engage. Then one can relax in the present moment. I would therefore recommend to any who suffer from PTSD, unresolved trauma, fear or anxiety to forget about reaching some higher consciousness to resolve these matters. Learn how to relax the body instead. As mentioned above, learning to relax can be a meditation practice in itself.