Frames of Reverence

By Adam J. Pearson

In relativity physics, we talk about “frames of reference.” A frame of reference is basically a point of view from which we are observing something. What if we had a correlative or analogous concept for spirituality?

I would like to coin a new concept, which I call “a frame of reverence.”

A frame of reverence is a view of the world in which something or someone is seen as sacred, awe-inspiring,or worthy of reverence.

Different religions present different frames of reverence. In Wiccca, the frame of reverence centers on a Goddess and God and their activity in nature. In Hinduism, there are many frames of reverence centered on different deities. Atheism tends to focus its frame of reverence solely on the natural world and a deep scientific understanding thereof. Chaos Magick uses a technique called ‘paradigm-shifting’ to adopt and drop belief systems at Will; they essentially adopt and drop different frames of reverence as suits their purpose. Even political perspectives sometimes present frames of reverence; nationalism, for example, reverences the nation as an idealized entity. At many points in American and world history, particular world leaders have become figures of reverence in the frames of reverence of their followers, sometimes explicitly, as in the deification of Augustus in Rome and the Pharaohs in Egypt, and implicity, in the way many American presidents have been seen throughout history. 

The idea of frames of reverence can be an interesting catalyst for self-reflection:
What does your frame of reverence include? What does it exclude? Can you expand it? Can you contract it?

The Power of Cold Showers

By Adam J. Pearson

Want to make a small change to your lifestyle that can, without any exaggeration at all, change your whole life? It won’t even cost you a dime. You won’t have to go somewhere far away. You won’t even have to change your diet.

All you have to do is take cold showers. Seriously. 

This is how James Bond did it in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels and this is how I like to do it as well:

First thing in the morning, I like to start with hot water for cleaning purposes, but then drop the heat and go colder and colder until it’s borderline ice-water. Then stand there under the freezing water. Lean into the cold and really feel it. Be fully present with it. (You can also start straight from cold; that’s a more hardcore practice, but you don’t have to start there).

I mean this in all seriousness. Cold showers are absolutely awesome. They don’t feel that way, especially at first, but the things they can do for your life are nothing short of spectacular.

What are the benefits of doing this crazy, uncomfortable, counter-intuitive thing every morning, you ask? Here are 7:

(1) It jars your whole system awake when you’re drowsy in the morning without requiring the slightest bit of caffeine.

(2) It teaches you how to practice one of the most central principles to psychology and social work, namely: “lean into discomfort.” At first, your body will jerk back from the cold water like a hand from a hot stove. After a few weeks, though, you won’t even wince as the temperature plummets. You’ll breathe in and lean into the cold without flinching.

(3) It toughens you up against cold temperatures. While everyone else around you is complaining about the cold, you’ll be comfortable.

(4) It builds your willpower. It takes guts to do this again and again, day after day. It takes will. And the more you do it, the more you will fortify your will. And if you can will yourself to do this one thing, how much harder can it be to will yourself to do the other things you yearn to do?

(5) It makes you more comfortable with uncomfortable situations in daily life. It sounds like a paradox, but it’s true. You’ll be more able to walk towards an uncomfortable situation without wincing or pulling away. The reaction to the shower trains you for your reaction to the events in your life outside of the shower.

(6) It pumps you up and builds your inner strength and courage. The shock of freezing cold water in the morning makes you feel pumped. After a week, you’ll go into that shower with the attitude “bring it on!” Over time, you’ll start to carry that attitude into your life after the shower. Implicit in that open, ready, mentality is a great deal of strength and a great deal of courage.

(7) It makes you less dependent upon being comfortable, which will actually make you feel more appreciative, more grateful, and a little more joyful. After a few weeks, you will find that you no longer NEED to be physically comfortable at all. That culturally conditioned ‘need’ will drop out of your system.

Let me explain this last point a little. This one little lifestyle change will give you an edge on the vast multitudes of people who need to feel pampered and comfortable and can’t handle the slightest inconvenience without complaining.

You won’t be a complainer. In fact, you may even find less to complain about in daily life. Because after starting your day with this ordeal, the rest of what you will encounter will suddenly seem a little easier to deal with. You will notice that you start to appreciate little things in your life a little more. And that appreciation builds gratitude, which in turn builds joy. Moreover, when you *are* comfortable and cozy throughout your day, you’ll appreciate that even more than you did before too because it will contrast with the discomfort you willingly experience every morning.

So try cold showers, I dare you. Try them for two weeks, or better yet, a month. Take the Cold Shower Challenge. And watch your life evolve.

***

If you want to read more about the powerful benefits of “cold shower therapy,” see this fantastic article. The authors, Brett and Kate McKay describe 7 additional health benefits of cold showers:

Improves circulation. Good blood circulation is vital for overall cardiovascular health. Healthy blood circulation also speeds up recovery time from strenuous exercises and work. Alternating between hot and cold water while you shower is an easy way to improve your circulation. Cold water causes your blood to move to your organs to keep them warm. Warm water reverses the effect by causing the blood to move towards the surface of the skin. Cold shower proponents argue that stimulating the circulatory system in this way keeps them healthier and younger looking than their hot water-loving counterparts.

Relieves depression. Lots of great men from history suffered bouts of depression.  Henry David Thoreau is one such man. But perhaps Thoreau’s baths in chilly Walden Pond helped keep his black dog at bay. Research at the Department of Radiation Oncology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine indicates that short cold showers may stimulate the brain’s “blue spot”- the brain’s primary source of noradrenaline — a chemical that could help mitigate depression. I guess a bout of the blues isn’t so bad after all.

Keeps skin and hair healthy. Hot water dries out skin and hair. If you want to avoid an irritating itch and ashy elbows, turn down the temperature of your showers. Also, cold water can make your manly mane look shinier and your skin look healthier by closing up your cuticles and pores.

Strengthens immunity. According to a study done in 1993 by the Thrombosis Research Institute in England, individuals who took daily cold showers saw an increase in the number of virus fighting white blood cells compared to individuals who took hot showers. Researchers believe that the increased metabolic rate, which results from the body’s attempt to warm itself up, activates the immune system and releases more white blood cells in response.

Increases testosterone. (…) The study by the Thrombosis Research Institute cited above showed that cold water showers actually increase testosterone production in men. Increased testosterone levels not only boost a man’s libido, but also his overall strength and energy level.

Increases fertility. Trying to become a dad? Cold showers are good for your little swimmers. Your testes aren’t meant to get too hot; that’s why they hang outside your body. Sperm counts decrease when the temperature of a man’s testes increases. Experiments done in the 1950s showed that hot baths were an effective contraceptive. Men who took a 30 minute hot bath every other day for 3 weeks were infertile for the next six months. More recently, the University of California at San Francisco did a study with men who were exposed to 30 minutes of “wet heat” (hot baths and such) a week. When the men cut this exposure out, their sperm count went up by 491%, and their sperm’s motility improved as well. While switching from a hot to cold shower may not have as dramatic an effect, if you’re trying to create some progeny, it surely won’t hurt.

Increases energy and well-being. Every time I end a shower with cold water, I leave feeling invigorated and energized. Your heart starts pumping, and the rush of blood through your body helps shake off the lethargy of the previous night’s sleep. For me, the spike in energy lasts several hours. It’s almost like drinking a can of Diet Mountain Dew, minus the aspartame. And while it hasn’t been studied, many people swear that cold showers are a surefire stress reducer. I’m a believer.”

Power Born From Vulnerability: Reflections on Powerful Relationships

By Adam J. Pearson

Relationships take a wide variety of forms. Some relationships seem so fragile that the slightest fight, disagreement, or mistake could crush them into oblivion. Others seem so resilient that they can weather the most ferocious storm and emerge scarred, but empowered. What distinguishes these fragile relationships from the more powerful ones that inspire and nurture us?

Fragile relationships tend to be tentative. We don’t go into them fully. We don’t commit to them. We approach them cautiously, like a hungry squirrel cautiously approaching an offering of food in the outstretched palm of a human. The squirrel doesn’t know if the same hand that now feeds him might also go on to hurt him.  He doesn’t know if he can trust the person before him. So he is tentative, careful, ready to run at any time. We are the same way in fragile relationships. We’re afraid to get hurt, so we don’t fully invest ourselves. We don’t fully trust in order to protect ourselves. We don’t let ourselves care all that much in an attempt to protect ourselves from disappointment. And we often see the relationship in a totally conditional way: if it ceases to satisfy my wants or starts to hit rough terrain, we are ready to leave in a heartbeat. Fragile relationships cannot handle adversity; as soon as it hits, they crumble, like a ship shattering against dark rocks its captain did not spot in time.

In my experience, powerful relationships are completely different from their more delicate counterparts. Powerful relationships–whether romantic, friendship, or family relationships–are resilient. They’re elastic. They don’t crumble under the weight of being rocked, or of people messing up, making mistakes, and getting hurt. They bounce back. That’s why we feel we can be vulnerable in these relationships without letting fear or shame numb us into silence. Because we know that we’re safe. We know that even if feelings get stirred up, the relationship is strong enough to handle them without breaking. This elasticity comes from trust, comfort, caring, respect, and connection. When these things are in place, the elasticity is in place. The resilience is in place. And the relationship handles hurt and bounces back.

This ability to bounce back, to adapt to adversity and accommodate challenge, is the source of the power of powerful relationships. They are richly infused with the trust and security that fragile relationships so desperately lack. And one of the most paradoxical features of powerful relationships is that they are born out of vulnerability. To trust is to be vulnerable. To care is to be vulnerable. To seek comfort in another person is to be vulnerable. To reach out in connection is a vulnerable act. Therefore, in order to create a relationship in which we feel like it is safe to be ourselves, a relationship that can handle the truth of our shame, fear, anxiety, along with all of our joy, strength, and creativity, we have to take a leap of faith into vulnerability. We have to dare to care, dare to trust, dare to connect. And when we do, we find, much to our surprise, that this unsafe act can unlock the keys to our safety. Perhaps ironically, it  is only by taking this vulnerable leap with someone who deserves our trust that we find the strength and the relationship resilience for which we have always yearned.

The Wordless Mystery Without and Within: On the Reach of Stories and the Silent Core of the Self and the World

By Adam J. Pearson

When we pause to think about it, the extent to which we perceive the world through stories is absolutely staggering. Nothing has so great a hold of us and so fundamentally structures our experience like stories do.

Examples of this truth are ubiquitous in daily life. We make snap judgments about each other and weave them into stories. We see the world through fictional characters and worlds we’ve read about or watched on TV. Our media images bombard us with advertisement stories to tell us what to feel and what to buy. We interpret each other’s behaviour as well as our own through stories. Our thought process unfolds as a series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves. Stories tell us what is valuable and what is not, what is right and what is wrong, how we should live, and what we should be. We make meaning out of nature itself via scientific and religious stories. Out of the ineffable oneness and unending vastness of the universe, we create stories with finite beginnings, middles, and ends. The limits of our minds require the limits that stories offer by packaging meaning into neat little units that make sense to us. We draw lines where none exist so that our minds can handle small facets of an inconceivably vast reality. And perhaps most profoundly of all, we create our own imaginary personal identities, our own ‘selves,’ out of a network of stories written by us and by others.

In the constant game of narration called our life, fiction and truth blur together and it’s often hard to tell whether we are creating our own story or acting a part in someone else’s. Sometimes we find ourselves doing both at the same time. And yet, we find ourselves confronted by countless questions. How much do our stories clarify, how much do they obscure? Which truths to they reveal and which do they conceal? How much of the stories we live by lies out there in the physical world, and how much is just here in our heads? What is the deep stillness of outer space like in the absence of all of the stories we tell on Earth? What is the nakedness of existence like if we don’t evoke any concepts or stories to interpret it? For all interpretations are stories, and all stories involve interpretation.

As they are, as they nakedly exist, all things have their being prior to the speaking of a single word about them. Their basic nature is wordless, ineffable, unspeakable, silent. Language reaches out to try to grasp this bare reality desperately, but always fails to do so. Indeed, the wordless silence of all things has deeper roots than we could ever imagine. We reach out through words, language, concepts and stories in a futile attempt to grasp the fundamental nature of this wordless nature. But we are donkeys chasing a carrot at the end of a string; it always seems so close, but is always out of reach. Somehow, we intuit that bare existence lives beyond all words. And do our feelings not themselves get numbed and limited by the names we pin onto them? What is it like to feel outside of any words about what we are feeling? If we could connect our minds directly to the bare nature of the story-less world without evoking the words and concepts to which we cling for safety, could we experience its reality directly? Could we dive into the wordless vastness of being? Could we handle the totally unfamiliar and unrecognizable texture of this silence? Would it transform us, liberate us, or destroy us?

The truth is that we can ask all of these questions, but all of the answers we can come up with are like beautiful, deceiving traps, for questions invite answers and answers are stories. The minute we open our mouths to speak, it is too late. We’ve already made answering the question of what the reality of the world is like beyond all words and concepts impossible.

Only silence can answer silence. And the bare nature of reality will always lie beyond the reach of the language of stories. Only bare awareness can reach out to it and  only in silence. What it finds there in the land beyond words, it cannot say, and whatever it says is not it. This wordless mystery, this truth beyond story is not only out there, but within us too. The core of what we are cannot be spoken; every word betrays it, every story leads us away from it.  Only silence leads us deeper into it, into our core and into a more direct engagement with the reality of the world around us.  Only silence  is at home in mystery and only mystery is our true home. And so even these words must be dropped, cut off, and left behind.

***

Summary:
Stories mediate our daily lives, but the core of our world and of who and what we are lies beyond the reach of words, concepts, and stories. We can only meet it in silence and mystery.

Meeting in the Middle: Expressing Feelings in Words vs. Silence

By Adam J. Pearson

Tonight, I had a total bombardment of mind-blowing epiphanies. I was talking with my girlfriend, Lori, for 2 hours and she said some things that blew my mind. All my life, I have expressed emotions and love through words. Every girl I ever dated was the verbal, expressive type. And so, I came to associate a romantic connection with constant verbal expressing, praising, and adoring. It never occurred to me either that (1) one could be secure in the knowledge that the connection was there without constantly verbalizing it or that (2) other people did not relate to their feelings the same way, through words.

I felt like Lori wasn’t being very romantic with me and that I couldn’t know how she felt because she didn’t tell me. I felt like my need for verbal validation wasn’t being met. What I found out, though, is that unlike me, she was not raised to show love through words. She was raised to show love through actions and humour. I was raised to constantly say how I felt as a way of proving it. She was raised to silently know that the caring was there without having to say it.

Lori was never into love poetry; she saw it as corny and insincere, if not sometimes manipulative. So, when I would express my sincere feelings to her in poetic language, I would feel like I was showing her I cared. She, in total distinction to what I thought, would feel like I was being insincere, just spouting words. She would feel awkward and pressured to say something similar back, a practice which to her, felt totally unnatural. It caused her anxiety. When I would tell send her messages thanking her for a good time I had with her and pointing out things I liked that she did, I would see it as building the relationship and communicating openly. She would see it as me giving her a report card and setting a standard for her to live up to. Basically, she would see it once again, as pressure, when I intended the opposite, not to place burdens on her, but to lift them off. I tried to use words to reassure her; she tried to tell me that she didn’t need words to be reassured.

I have always related to my emotions through verbal interpretation. She has always related to them through a nonverbal mode. It blew my mind to hear how she was receiving my messages in a totally opposite way to what I intended and how we actually related to her feelings through totally different modes of experience and perception. It had never even occurred to me that her way of relating to feelings was even possible. Not express my feelings in words? Just silently feel them? Whaaat?

She asked if I thought this difference in our modes of showing we care would be a problem for us, maybe even mean that we couldn’t be together. I wondered that myself at first, very briefly. Then I realized that it wasn’t a lack we were seeing in each other, but a possibility for growth. She was showing me how to feel more without needing to rely so much on expressing what I’m feeling in words. And I was showing her that she can explore feelings in words in ways that can be profound. So, I have resolved to tell her LESS of what I am feeling for her, basically, to shut up more. And she has resolved to try to be more open about what she feels for me in words. I told her that if I continue to tell her she is beautiful and such, or feel inspired to be poetic with her, she doesn’t have to respond with anything more than than an “aww,” a “thank you,” or just a heart or a smile.

When I was a kid, my parents would always say “I love you” to me and it was so natural. If I wasn’t told, I would feel like they didn’t feel it. I needed verbal validation. Lori’s experience growing up was the total opposite. She narrated a story to me to reinforce the difference in her experience. She said that “when I was maybe 17 I asked my dad “do you love me?” in a non-serious way, and he said “love is a strong word, I tolerate you.” I thought that was the most hilarious thing ever and we just laughed and told my mom and she laughed, and this brought us so close together and it made me feel warm. I guess it’s just so obvious and such a known thing that he does love me, we get along great, an that what he said was a joke and got us to laugh, rather than an awkward “yes, I love you”. Not that saying that is always wrong; obviously genuine moments are needed too… but my family connects through humour and I guess just a sense of knowing…”

This was so revealing to me. It opened up a whole new field of experience to explore, the way of feeling without saying. Lori never practiced Zen formally, but she gets it intuitively. She says she learned this way from all the animals she cared for at the SPCA, where she often volunteered. She likes how animals are silently authentic and feel without words. I feel I have a lot to learn from her and her way of feeling.

After this conversation, we both felt like a burden had been lifted up off of us, like things murky between us had suddenly become transparent. I feel like we can both relax into the relationship a little more and that we have deepened our communication with one another. After this revelation, we went on to discuss other key things. I found out about her jealousy when I’m with her and other girls are around. I tried to reassure her that my heart is set on her, but that if it made her feel better, if she was feeling jealous, she could just grab me and kiss me or hold my hand. She could ‘mark her territory’ in this way. And she said that her natural instinct was the opposite in such moments, not to hold on, but to pull away. And that was a fundamental difference between us. When someone I care about seems to be pulling away from me, I tend to hold on harder. She does the opposite; she pulls away harder. What we realized is that both of these tendencies are unhealthy. They actually make us both feel less safe in the relationship and less secure. She feels less safe because she feels I’m clinging to her. I feel less safe because I’m afraid she’ll run and drop my heart. So, this is something else we both need to work on.

The final thing we realized is that we had opposite conceptions of the meaning of poetry and this difference resulted in us misunderstanding each other. Lori told me that she always suspected poetry to be insincere and inadequate for expressing the depth of human feeling. She distrusted poets, many of whom she thought were just trying to smooth-talk people to manipulate them, or told the same words to many girls rather than have them mean something authentic to one beloved. She said that “I just always considered the poetic Casanova types less down to earth and therefore, less trustworthy, but not in a malicious way, more like in a “they’re up in the clouds more entrenched in their own imagination, and in love more with an idea of love,” rather than just really seeing the person and the moment. Talking to.you I realize that my interpretation was wrong, that some people do genuinely express themselves in that way.”

In my worldview, Lori’s description applies to fake poets and bad poetry. Real poetry for me, is not a description of an experience; it is an experience itself. It is life sprouting into words. In my reality tunnel, good poetry is grounded in real life. It’s in the earth of the forest and the tears of single mothers and the usually silent struggles that everyone faces every day. That’s what gives it power to me, the fact that it is real. And when I write poetic things to Lori, they are concrete expressions of what I’m actually feeling, like tears or laughter. They are just as primal and immediate for me, though they are constructed and distant for her. Lori’s fake poets may try to impress, but real poets try to express. From what I shared, Lori learned about the potential power of poetry. From what Lori shared, I was reminded of poetry’s limitations.

Before tonight, I never realized how in tune with the Zen spirit and inwardly grounded Lori was. I was a natural introvert who forced myself to become an extrovert; she was a natural extrovert who was forced into introversion. Our new goal is to meet is to validate each other’s modes of experience and meet in the middle. I am excited with the path that lies ahead of us, a path of playful experimentation, new experiences, and deepening openness. It is my sense that we can not only grow inwardly, but also towards each other and that sometimes, we can grow in both directions at once.

The Confrontation of Adulthood and the Meaning of Maturity

By Adam J. Pearson

Adulthood (noun): The period during which you come face to face with all of the personality faults, mental hang-ups, bad habits, wrong actions, and psychological problems that have built up in you since you were a child and have to come to terms with them.

As to what happens next, you have two choices. One possibility is that you avoid facing all of these inner shadows and stagnate in an immature state of escapism and inauthenticity until you finally die without ever having reached your potential for inner growth. Another possibility is that you face your inner shadows, own and integrate them, accept and make peace with them, and grow. This is maturity.

Adults talk about growing up as if we’ve all done it. The fact of the matter is that in the sense of true maturation, many people never grow up. They die somewhere along the way between being a lost child and a hopeless adult who has given up on ever knowing or fully being themselves.

The sad truth is that the wholeness that the lost ones always sought was never far away, never out there in a better job, richer possessions, more money, or a different spouse. It was always right here, in the shadows within them. Our shadows hold the keys to our growth. They are not our enemies; they are the innocent relics and remnants of our first stumbles through a confusing world. They are our friends. And if we take responsibility for them, accept and own them, and make peace with them, they can give us the serenity and fulfillment we so badly seek. They can fill the inner hole or void that nothing else can fill.

Only embracing your shadows can take you to into the light.

Update: After reading this article, a friend of mine commented that adulthood in general and the process of facing our shadows in particular can be “uncomfortable, even downright painful, at times.” My own experience echoes hers on this point. On the positive side of things, however, the process of facing and integrating our shadows instead of pushing away, denying, avoiding, or resisting them is absolutely worthwhile,  liberating, and empowering.

You can tell those who are weighed down by and resistant to their shadows from those who have included them into their light. The latter shine brighter. They are radiant. I think there’s a reason we resonate with or respond to these light and darkness metaphors. They speak to us on a deep level; they are archetypes and mythical symbols that have been with human beings since we first noticed the difference between night and day, dark space and bright stars, cold caverns and burning fire.

In my reality tunnel or view of the world, this process of inner growth and maturity isn’t something we do once and for all or even in several few sessions. It’s an ongoing lifetime process and it happens by degrees. I believe that our capacity for inner growth is, in actual fact, infinite. At first, we integrate and bring unit to the very obvious chasms within us, we make peace with the biggest shadows that stand out, loud and clear. Over time, the integrations get subtler and subtler. The deeper you go, the more minute the shadows and inner rifts you find.

As this progress proceeds, the light of consciousness gets deeper into the cracks of your unconscious, the realm of the repressed, the rejected, the terrifying, the painful, and the depressing. It can be painful to explore this vast inner landscape, but exciting and deeply fulfilling too. You meet aspects of yourself you never could have even imagined and bring healing to wounds that have long laid buried within you. And in the end, that’s a tremendously positive and uplifting process, however painful it may sometimes be.

People sometimes talk about self-discovery as if it’s this fluffy and joyful process. In fact, it’s often extremely painful and uncomfortable. It hurts. And that’s what’s so great about it. The more willing we are to feel our way through the pain and face the aspects of ourselves that hurt, the more healing and inner unity we achieve. Facing your inner wounds, shadows, and voids, making the unconscious conscious without resisting it, this process is inherently healing. Anyone who has gone through it can tell you this. When you make the journey for yourself, you can verify it.

Ways out of Drowning: Four Ways to Respond to Troubling Memories, Thoughts, and Feelings

By Adam J. Pearson

Yesterday, I noticed shame, sadness, and embarrassment arising from an old memory coming back to haunt me. It is a memory that I have had to confront many times in the past. And yet, it still holds some power over me. When it comes into the light of consciousness, it tends to detonate troubling feelings that linger. However, this time, when the feelings came up, instead of getting swept up by the memory into the emotional charges that it carries, I met it mindfully and dove deep into the present experience of it. And I found that there are four wise and healthy ways to respond to these thoughts, memories, and feelings that can come to our aid in moments like this, when these powerful disturbing emotions are storming through us.

Way 1: Meeting with Mindfulness
One way of responding to troubling memories, thoughts, and feelings involves just meeting them with mindfulness. The feeling comes up, and it hurts, but instead of pushing it away, you stay with it.  You don’t let it carry you away. Instead, you look at it with detached curiosity. You dive into it and try to see what it feels like from the inside out and how it looks from the outside in.  You observe it and try to understand how it is working within you, what is giving rise to it, how it is making you feel, what it is trying to tell you about “the kind of person you are.” You meet it with totally present, careful attention. And you let it do its thing without trying to change it or manipulate it in any way.

You roll with it and ride it out like a surfer riding waves. You don’t think up a story about it; you just watch whatever thoughts are naturally arising around it. You watch the stories your mind is weaving about it to try to control and deal with it. You just stay present with it and watch it. And what I have found in situations like this is that just mindfully watching the feelings can weaken their power without creating even more problems with developing beliefs about the feelings or identifying with them or holding on to them as if they are “me” in any meaningful sense.

Way 2: Tracing the Feeling Back to the Basic Feeling of Being

This way is a little more abstract, but I have found it helpful as well.  This way involves tracing the feelings back to the core parts of us that give rise to them. For example, I traced the troubling memory back to the core epicenter of the feelings that the memory was igniting within me. It came back to the feeling that “I” was under attack, that “I” was being threatened and jeopardized. And at the core of this feeling was the deeper feeling that “I am” as the  sage Nisargadatta Maharaj called it. What I found was that the powerful emotional charges carried by this memory had become mixed up with the feeling of I-ness, with thoughts that “I am this, I am shameful, I am suffering, etc.” “I” had lost myself  in a storm that “I myself” created. 

The event that happened in the troubling memory was experienced as carrying a threat to my separate sense of self. And this threat manifested as emotions, which in turn manifested as thoughts or beliefs about “me.” The emotion of “shame” manifested as the thought “I am shameful, a disgrace.” The emotion of “sadness” manifested as the thought “I am pathetic.” The emotion of embarrassment manifested as the thought “I am embarrassing.” These thoughts went on to amplify the emotions that engendered them. For example, feeling that “I” was shameful, intrinsically, in the core of my being or my self, led the shame to deepen and intensify.

Let me get a little abstract for a minute. The ironic fact in these moments of emotional storming is that the egoic stronghold, the web of beliefs and feelings that I take to be “me,” is basically attacking itself with its own mechanisms. Just as our sense of separate self reinforces itself by associating with conventionally ‘positive’ traits such as strength, courage, and attractiveness, so does it ironically weaken itself by associating itself with socially devalued traits like weakness and inadequacy. However, the same mechanism of association (“I’m this kind of person…”)  and identification (“I am this….”) is at work in both cases. In one case, the association with traits our society considers to be positive produces feelings of confidence, self-assurance, and potentially even pride and arrogance. In the other case, the association with traits our society considers to be undesirable gives rise to feelings of insecurity, self-loathing, self-hatred, self-doubt, fear, cowardliness, and potentially even thoughts of suicide. Without a doubt, the urge to kill oneself  is the most ironic manifestation of egotism of all; it is born out of a sense of self that has paradoxically created itself in order to destroy itself.

All of these mechanisms that the mind uses to identify with things in order to build up a separate sense of “who I am” can be experienced in the emotional repercussions of a single ‘disturbing’ memory. What I had to see, though, was that this whole play of identification, association, and emotional disturbance was not me. The true core of who we are, our sense of being present, our bare sense of being anything at all, is totally unaffected by all the swingings of the egoic pendulum from self-love to self-hatred, from yearnings for self-aggrandizement to feelings of being extremely small. We are here, we are present before any of these identifications with positive and negative traits ever come up. We are born into this world without any of these, and yet, we still exist, so they cannot be basic or fundamental to who we are. “Our existence precedes our essence” as the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre put it.

What does this mean for our painful emotions? We can practice coming back to this bare and basic feeling of being present. And this is one way of responding to troubling memories, thoughts, and feelings. We can trace the pain back to the feeling that “I am,” back to the bare feeling of simply being, simply existing. And when we just hold our attention on this feeling, I find that it takes us back to this feeling of deep affinity and connectedness with everything because everything shares this basic fact of being present. Even as everything is constantly changing and impermanent, still, this presence is here, taking all these forms, making all these changes. Being is undergoing all these transformations, saying all these words, doing all these things.

And it’s this same sense of being that we find in the core of our experience; just thinking the words “I am”  takes us back to it. Beingness, hereness, presence; these are words that suggest it. But we can’t get lost in the trap of just thinking about what these words may mean. We simply have to experience it. Follow that feeling that ‘I am” straight into the feeling of being anything at all. When our attention rests in that feeling, we feel an expansive peace and connectedness that is indescribable. What we find is beyond ‘a feeling,’ or ‘a sense’ at all. It’s unspeakable and it is amazing. No concept can latch on to it and describe it. It’s beautifully ineffable.

But about that disturbing emotion that I mentioned in the beginning? How do all of these reflections affect that basic everyday experience? The basic fact of the matter is that these powerful feelings of shame, embarrassment, insecurity, etc. are all not fundamentally me. They are just emotional reactions to the mind identifying with traits or activities that society devalues. They are the emotional repercussions of my mind grabbing on to these things and saying “this is me, this is what I am, I’m the pathetic one, the embarrassing one, the inadequate one, etc.” But this is just the play, the activity of the mind. It’s this innocent ego trying to build itself up and sometimes ending up knocking itself down. It’s not me. This feeling that “I am” is more primal than any of these other thoughts or feelings that reinforce a separate “me.” It’s more meaningfully me than this falsely, but innocently, constructed “me.” The thought and feeling that “I am” can take me home to the basic feeling of being present that comes before the word “I” being spoken at all. And in this more basic state, awe, wonder, and peace can emerge and the embarrassment, shame, fear, etc. can drop away. This happens because these feeling depend on a sense of separateness, and when we turn back to this naked sense of being, which all things share, the separateness drops away.

Way 3: Meeting with Metta (Loving-Kindness)

But what if this is all too abstract and the feelings are too overwhelming or too powerful? Then what? If that happens, we can try just meeting it with what Buddhism calls ‘metta’ or a feeling and attitude of ‘loving-kindness.’ The memory comes up along with all of its emotional baggage, and instead of pushing them away, we just meet them with a lovingly kind attitude. We love the heck out of them. We see the innocence that gave rise to the feelings and we meet them like a loving parent meeting a child. This simple approach can work wonders.

Way 4: Meeting with “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you”

What if this fails too? What if the “I’m pathetic, I’m a disgrace, I’m not good enough” thoughts still continue? In this case, we can try using the “I-language” that the go uses to build itself up and knock itself down, but in a more constructive way. I learned this technique from the Hawaiian spiritual tradition of Ho’oponopono.

How does it work? I find myself in the midst of these powerful feelings and identifying with the trauma of this memory. However, instead of jumping into all of the “I am nothing, I am horrible, I am pathetic, I am shameful” thoughts that we would tend to jump into, I do something else. I turn my attention straight on to the “negative” feeling–the shame, the fear, the embarrassment, etc.–and I think “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” I’m sorry that I have given rise to this feeling and that I feel bad about it. Please forgive me for this innocent activity born out of a curious wish to know who and what I am. Thank you for the mindfulness and insight that has led me to realize what’s going on within me. Painful memory, feelings of shame, fear, sadness, I love you. This approach uses the ego’s mechanisms to dissolve the conditioning and emotional charge over time. There were a few times in my life where this simple practice really hit home for me.

Summary of the Four Ways
Really, though, if I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that these disturbing memories, these troubling thoughts, are not really a problem at all. Ultimately, they won’t make much of a difference to this vast universe or to Being in itself. But I have to deal with them anyway because they feel like a problem. So what can I do about them, if I feel like I absolutely must do something? I can:

(1)  Dive into them, be fully aware of them from the inside out and from the outside in, meet them with total mindfulness and peaceful attention.
(2) Trace thoughts like “I am worthless” back to the feeling that “I am” and trace this feeling that “I am” back to beingness. Then rest there.
(3) Meet the memories, thoughts and feelings with metta, with loving-kindness and just love the heck out of them.
(4) Meet the memories, thoughts, and feelings with the four phrases, “I’m sorry, please forgive me, thank you, I love you.” Then observe how their power gradually weakens.

The power and the charge of disturbing memories, thoughts, and feelings will almost never drop away immediately. But these approaches give me healthy ways of meeting them and relating to them when they do arise. These are ways that don’t depend on rationalization or on self-deception. They are grounded in experience and in what works. They can give us a safety rope to hold on to when we feel like we are drowning. And sometimes, that’s all we need.

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