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Common Ground

I suppose that a lot of people just don’t find that gun violence is that much of a problem, and I’m not sure they are even interested in talking about this or listening to anyone else talk about it. But I have a lot of friends who are responsible gun owners who would like to see less people die by firearms. There are also a lot of us who don’t own guns and also don’t want to limit the freedom of responsible gun owners, but do want to see us take some kind of collective action. To that end, it might be helpful to think about the problem in a different way—just to see if there is any common ground that might lead to the goal of fewer gun deaths.

It seems to me that there are many reasons that one might have for wanting to own or possess a gun. Some of those reasons are perfectly, well, reasonable. Others are rather less reasonable if we still hold to the notion of the common good. That’s where the problem in the discussion over gun violence and gun control gets hung up—when challenging any reason for owning a gun is equated with challenging all reasons for owning a gun, or, when one professed reason for wanting a gun hides a much less reasonable and acceptable purpose. It’s also true that each reason for wanting a gun brings with it certain qualifications in terms of what kinds of guns and ammunition to which that person wants unlimited access.

Let’s imagine the reasons that someone might have for wanting/needing to own one or more firearms.

First of all, let’s agree that reasons 1 through 5 are completely valid reasons for having a gun and that we do not want to interfere with the freedom of those individuals to do so. That’s a huge start and probably accounts for the vast number of responsible gun owners in this country. Though we might also note that those with reasons 1 through 5 would be the least challenged by things like a reasonable background check and a permitting and registration process. Hunters usually are not trying to buy a rifle at the last minute in time to kill a deer. Legitimate hunters don’t need assault rifles and high capacity clips and armor piercing ammunition for firefights with woodland creatures. Since I’m easily willing to concede that there is such a thing as a responsible gun owner and to agree that I have no interest in taking his or her gun away, it does not seem so onerous to require gun owners to take some kind of reasonable safety training.

We can also all probably agree that reasons 8 through 10 are not socially acceptable reasons for wanting/needing to own a gun and if we could find some combination of ways to reduce the number of people with those reasons from getting guns, that would probably be a good thing. The answer here might be better mental health screening or closing loopholes in how guns can be transferred between individuals or better background checks or better enforcement of existing laws or some other new answer, but whatever the answer is can we agree that the answer should not unduly punish or restrict those with reasons 1 through 5?

That’s already a lot to agree on, but where it gets tricky is that you might have more than one reason checked or you might have one of the 1 through 5 reasons checked and then wake up one day with reason 8 or 9 swirling around in your head. Mental health professionals tell us after the fact that many of our mass shooters exhibited signs of mental illness long before they acquired their guns and committed their crimes, but it’s also possible that you might be a responsible hunter or gun owner who just loses it in an emotional moment and commits murder. Honestly, there is probably no way to prevent this kind of crime short of measures that are too limiting to the vast majority of responsible gun owners not about to commit murder.

Where this also gets tricky and where the argument seems to get most heated is around the middle reasons 6 and 7. It’s tricky because those that have this reason for needing assault rifles and high capacity ammunition clips are unlikely to see their rationale as paranoid or problematic. It is also tricky because some people with reasons 1 through 5 might also share a little bit of the ideological stance of the conspiracy theorists and vigilante groups or they might be generally suspicious of government. It is really only those whose primary motivation is reasons number 6 and 7 that “must” be opposed to all forms of permitting and registration and background checks because, from their perspective and despite all evidence to the contrary, that always leads to government confiscation of all guns from everyone (in fairness, those with reason 10 also aren’t too keen on registration, but for a different reason—not wanting their guns to be traceable to some crime).

Those whose primary or even secondary reason for wanting a gun is number 6 or 7 see anything that simply slows down the process of purchasing a firearm with being the same thing as confiscating all firearms. They have, unfortunately been able to infect a fair number of responsible gun owners with that fear. Their paranoid worldview does not allow for middle ground or compromise and they do a good job of playing on the fear of responsible gun owners. Gun advocates whose primary motivation is either reason 6 or 7 are also the only ones really advocating for weapons purely designed for killing other humans and increased firepower. There is a certain fantasy mentality operating in the belief that if the government decided to bring it’s firepower to bear on a particularly violent or dangerous group that any amount of handguns or semi-automatic assault weapons would be much more than a nuisance, but it is a persistent mythology for this group. And if the fear of an oppressive government is legitimate why limit “the right to bear arms” in any way? Why not let civilians purchase fully automatic weapons, tanks, mortars, and anti-aircraft weapons?

Of course we haven’t yet mentioned the other player in this discussion—a gun industry that doesn’t care what your reason for wanting to own a gun is. Selling anyone and everyone as many guns as possible is just good business. Big industry lobby groups like the NRA, have no moral agenda. Their primary motivation is ensuring that nothing interferes with gun sales and gun profits.

Gun advocates often say that the answer isn’t gun regulation but some kind of social change. If they are not careful, however, they may find that the social change that happens is not one they expected. If a voting population finally gets awakened rather than anesthetized by the regular occurrence of mass shootings, we might find that we are enacting legislation that does restrict the freedom of responsible gun owners. If the composition of the Supreme Court shifts only slightly, they could return to the interpretation of the 2nd amendment of the Constitution that did not guarantee an individual’s right to own a gun. This interpretation only became the law of the land in the 2008 Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller. It could easily be reversed with a less conservative court.

I’m willing to concede and even embrace that social change is important, maybe even the most important thing. It seems, however that both social change and regulation may be necessary when you look at the problem this way. The root problem with drunk drivers is the drinking, but while we are figuring out how to solve the drinking problem, let’s take the car keys away.

As a people, I don’t think we can get any more outraged and intolerant of mass shootings AND I don’t want to limit the freedoms of responsible gun owners. This is where compromise comes in. We’ve always made compromises between freedom and public safety or welfare. That is what has made America a great county. One social change might be for those responsible gun owners with reasons 1 through 5 to publically distance themselves from the ideology of reasons 6 and 7, at least enough that they are willing to tolerate and even advocate for a reasonable permitting and regulation and background check process (which might help reduce—not end—the gun violence caused by those with reasons 8 through 10). Yes, criminals will find ways to get guns and the mentally unstable, the paranoid, and the fanatic ideologues will as well. But, as a society, it seems like it’s time to grow up a little and at least make it more difficult.

Awakening and the Constructed Self

What does awakening mean? Well, if you read very much about it, it apparently means very many different things to people. For some, it is the beginning of the journey to embody a recognition of the truth that allows suffering to subside and dissolve. For others, it is the end of that journey. This is probably the case because an experience of awakening often feels so profound and life-altering that it simply “must” be the end of the journey which confers upon the awakened one a kind of Ph.D. in enlightenment studies.

I prefer a more simple definition. Quite simply, it means realizing the truth about yourself—the truth about everything. There is no guarantee that that realization will stick with you or that you will be able to live that realization, only that you will have that moment of awakening in which you recognize the illusory nature of “you.” And, by illusory, I don’t mean fake or false, but, rather that you are not the solid and permanent identity that it often feels like you are. That identity is just a kind of mask and armor that you’ve learned to habitually throw up between you and the world, because it seems to keep you safe. What it really does is keep you from feeling. I recognize, for instance that there are certain conventions appropriate for certain situations. At a business meeting, for instance, when asked who I am, I don’t drone on about how there is no real me here, only the temporary screen upon which we all get to project an idea of “Tom,” even though that is certainly true. Instead, I am more likely to just provide the kind of information that convention suggests they are looking for. The practice of embodying an awakening for me is provide that answer without taking it too seriously. To hold “Tom-ness” very lightly.

The “you” that you “think” you are—that mask and armor—is an identity (an artifice) constructed of thoughts. To puncture that balloon of constructed identity it is helpful to identify three aspects of that constructed self. There is the recollected self, the anticipated self, and the evaluative self.

The recollected self is the part of you that is attached to the past. If I ask you a question about yourself, you are most likely answering from the recollected self. You might tell me your name or your job, or a few choice historical anecdotes. But your name is not who you are. It is what you remember that someone once called you. All the details of your life are simply the thoughts you are having in this moment about a past with which you somehow identify. Neuroscience now suggests that when we think we are remembering an event, we are actually just remembering the last time we remembered it. This is why memories are so fickle and plastic. This is why three people present at the same event can remember it so differently and be so certain they are recalling correctly. Everything you think you know about yourself is constructed from the thoughts of the recollected self. The practice for me is to hold those memories, which I formerly considered so solid and permanent rather more lightly. Where I used to defend my memories steadfastly, I’m now more likely to question them.

The anticipated self is the part of you that is attached to a contemplated future. The anticipated self is always either afraid of or anxious about what will or will not happen in an imagined future. Will I get what I want? When will this end? How will this work out? Will I get hurt? Will it last? Even though the future never arrives, because any future we could possibly experience is only ever experience-able in the present, we sacrifice a lot of energy over it.

The evaluative self is even more tricky because it is that part of you that seems to be in the present. The evaluative self isn’t satisfied with simply being with what arises in the present moment but is constantly absorbed in judging experience. The evaluative self is consumed with evaluating experience as it arises based on preferences that reinforce a separate identity. When a spiritual teacher advises you to be in the present moment or fall in love with what is arising or at least stop arguing with what is, it is the evaluative self that jumps in and says, “I’ve got this—I know how to be in the present moment.” The evaluative self says “yes, I’m liking this bit of what’s arising,” or “no, I don’t much care for that bit.” Meditation is a great practice for becoming more aware of the evaluative self. Most people find that it is actually not the thoughts we have that carry us away, out of the present moment, but the thoughts we have about the thoughts.

We come to think of our thoughts as being who we are, but this is not true. This psycho-trinity of recollected, anticipatory and evaluative selves constructs an identity and we come to believe that identity is who we really are. Inquiry can take us deeply into the truth of who we are. We can so fall in love with this moment—the shape and form and substance of what is arising that the constructed self is undermined and loses meaning, but, while this is simple to do, it is not necessarily easy. The constructed self can feel very solid and intractable. We believe we are bound by time, stuck in a “now” hell that can never live up to a future or past golden age. But time is just an appearance, a convention that supports an identity that is seldom actually present in the moment. Between our recollections and our anticipations and our judgment of what we find arising, we live in an illusion.

Awakening is what happens when there is a rend in the fabric of that illusion—when the constructed self dissolves, leaving only the timeless sense of awareness and presence. What you do with that awakening experience is up to you.

The Problem With Healing

There is not much that is more fun than riffing off of Jeff Foster’s brilliant observations. so let me start with a quote from a recent video of Jeff answering a woman lamenting the fact that after all the work she has done, she still doesn’t feel healed, she still feels profound sadness. Jeff said a lot of wise things in the video (which I posted below), but let’s stick with this, “Sadness doesn’t want to be healed. It wants to be held.”

In the dictionary, the word “heal” means to become sound or healthy again, to alleviate a person’s distress or anguish, or to correct or put right a situation. Right away, we can see a problem with using any word to describe something that needs to happen at some imagined future point in our lives. It suggests that we are incomplete and not whole in this moment and that whatever we are feeling in this moment must change or be different if we are to be healed. In fact, using the metaphor of healing reduces the very natural ebb and flow of life energy—pleasure and pain, sadness and happiness, love and fear—to a pathological state.

We forget that in nature healing is not something we do, it is something we allow to happen. Healing is the natural outcome that tends to be more “disturbed” by doing than “helped” by doing. Imagine a physical wound—a break in the skin. There is nothing we can do to heal that wound. Nature does the healing. We can bandage a wound or sew up a wound, but it is still our bodies that do the healing despite us. When healing does not occur, it is usually because of something we have done. Our doing interferes with the natural healing process in three ways:

First, when we refuse to acknowledge that we have been wounded, even a simple wound may become life threatening. When Jeff says that sadness wants to be held, he is saying that when the pain of life shows up at our door, we must invite it in and welcome it, comfort it, sit with it. Acknowledging that there is a wound might sound like something that needs to be “done,” but the acknowledgement and the feeling of pain is what is natural. When we are “doing,” we are more often engaged in judging and rejecting that pain and it is the judging and rejecting that interfere with the natural process of healing—the natural ebb and flow of energy.

Second, when a physical wound won’t heal, it is usually because we’ve added things to it (like bacteria that cause infection). The bacteria we infect our spiritual wounds with are narratives about our pain complete with causes and people to blame. The narrative infection reinforces the painful sensations—often hurting worse than the original wound.

The third reason a wound won’t heal is if we are constantly picking at it. While it is true that our pain and our sadness need to be held and acknowledged, it is also true that with that acknowledgement pain and sadness tend to travel on and not linger. The only danger inherent in holding and acknowledging is when that becomes obsessing over, and picking at, and focusing exclusively on our wounds or our woundedness. This is not the holding that Jeff speaks of.

It is not uncommon to hear a statement like “I want my pain and sadness to go away so I can be whole again.” Well, if you could ever get pain and sadness to go away permanently, you might be many things, but “whole” would not be one of them. A whole you is an open-hearted you, with the capacity to feel everything that arises and make space for it in this now, this moment. A whole you would have a place set by the fire for those cold nights when pain and sadness show up—your front door open and your back door unlocked—so that they can be held and get warm by the fire and then move on.

The #1 reason why an identity is still useful, at least today.

Because it helps your friends find you on Facebook and wish you Happy Birthday.

One of the tenets of nonduality, is the idea that there is no “me.” Some schools of thought equate awakening with the dissolution of identity (though, in fairness, that can also be a definition of madness). Sometimes a radical awakening calls all identity into question. Usually, the better this feels to one, the less likely it is to be genuine. It is the ego’s job to defend you (itself) from change, and if it’s gone down without much of a fight, chances are that it has just coopted your spiritual awakening and is evolving another more spiritual identity for you to slip into.

Newly minted nondualists tend to go through a protracted period of personality nihilism characterized by answering every question or comment with “and who is it that is asking?” or “my ego has completely dissolved and there is no me here to respond anymore.” This is kind of like the “gee whiz” adolescent phase of nondual awareness. It is the time of clinging to cliches and regurgitating predigested wisdom pellets, like some homeopathic theory of awareness in which the wisdom of a lifetime is supposed to get passed on or communicated by a pithy quote. It’s a time in which the rest of us just have to be patient. It’s a phase.

Here’s what we can agree on, the ego or identity can trip us up. It trips us up when we mistake it for something more than it is. When we think we are that identity rather than the space within which that identity arises, we cling to it and that causes us to suffer. We suffer because we need the world to reflect back to us the identity we are projecting. We need to be recognized and acknowledged and validated. We need to control things we ultimately have no control over.

The ego is just a word that Freud’s English language translators used for his less-than-translatable German term of “I-ness” or the sense of self that had no easy English antecedent. So it’s just a convenient word for that sense we have of a self, separate from other selves. This sense of separateness can cause us to suffer when it leaves us feeling isolated and alone, but it can also be useful. It’s useful because our identities are how we connect with other identities. Sure they are both illusory, but they make life interesting. Have you heard the one about the two egoless, nondual guys who walk into a bar? Probably not. Because it would be really boring. This sense of a separate self can even be useful when dealing with the material world. When buying clothes, for instance, as much as I might want to deny that there is any separate me, I know that just any random size will not necessarily fit me. My size is not who I am, but it makes it easier to select clothing.

No, just having an identity is not a problem in itself. It is, after all, simply a construct. It is actually fairly easy to deconstruct this construct. When you really go looking for a self, you start peeling back layers of constructed identity. Initially you may start this deconstructing process through inquiry—who am I? You may begin it with the notion that enough “who am I’s” will get you to the real “I,” but you’d be mistaken. Every layer of the onion you peel back just reveals another construct.

Granted, some of those constructs can be very revealing and some might even be “more authentic” in some way. It might even be healing to work your way down through these layers. But, ultimately, awakening is not about healing, it’s about what is true, and any answer you find to the question who am I, will be another constructed layer, another transient “I” that you’re hoping to be a permanent and unchanging self. You’ll never find that self. You may, if you’re lucky find that original space or ground from which all sense of self arises, but the moment you “identify” with even that space, you will have turned it into something it isn’t

Realizing this layered nature of identity, it is tempting to want to kick identity altogether, like quitting smoking or giving up heroin. But there is no way to actually do this, short of retiring to a mountain cave of absolute solitude. I can claim to be egoless, but in the claiming I’ve just constructed a new identity: Tom, the ego free, nondual guy. There are plenty of self-acknowledged and self-recognized nondual enthusiasts that claim just that—that they have slipped the bonds of the lower realms of ego and ego constriction and now live in the rarified heights of egolessness. While it is particularly easy to point out how the ego that they want to claim is not there keeps showing up, don’t do it. You’ll end up getting sucked into a quagmire of semantics in which the self-proclaimed ego-free redefine perfectly good words to mean only what they want them to mean and the nondual wannabes will pile on with their nondual fortune cookie wisdom. Just be patient. It’s a phase they will probably grow out of.

The problem isn’t that there is an identity. The problem is that we believe that identity is actually who we are. When you recognize that an identity is a mask, a costume, or an illusion, you can pick it up or put it on when it suits you. It has social value and usefulness, but it must be held lightly and tentatively. You must take it off as easily as you put it on.

When I visit my mother, regardless of the issues I might have with her, I recognize that there is love between us. I recognize that she gave me life and took care of me when I could not take care of myself. I recognize at a deep level that she and I are one being arising as two transient forms to do some dance together that I will never fully understand. Why is it necessary that she affirm some realization I have had about the transience and impermanence and illusory nature of my identity? The answer is that there is no reason, unless I’ve just replaced an old ego identity with a shiny new spiritual one that must be validated. I think I can let that go. I think I can just be with her. I think I can even be who she needs me to be from moment to moment. Not because I believe it about myself but because she does and I can play that game for her.

An identity, lightly and playfully held, or an identity skillfully used doesn’t cause us to suffer because we recognize that it is not who we really are. Real freedom is when I don’t need you to recognize or acknowledge my transient identity or to validate my freedom from all egoic constraints. Real freedom is when I don’t take the identity you are presenting at any moment too seriously. Real freedom feels like love. Real love feels like freedom. We may all be one, but for some reason, a bunch of “me’s” from all over the world woke up this morning and decided to wish themselves a Happy Birthday. Go figure.

And Namaste.

Why Awakening is a Peak Experience and Enlightenment Isn’t

As human beings we have an incredible capacity for peak experiences that alter our state of consciousness, our perspective, and our way of seeing the world. We can have peak experiences that last for seconds or that last for days, but the defining quality of a peak experience is its “peakness.” It is the peak of the wave that is our daily experience, not the ocean itself. It is a peak in terms of intensity, clarity, fullness, emptiness, richness, or the dissolution of boundaries and certainty. It is also a peak in the sense that it allows us to see over or see beyond what has been limiting us. But, just like bouncing on a trampoline might provide glimpses of the territory beyond a high wall, seeing over that wall is not the same thing as being on the other side of that wall. Seeing over is awakening. Being over is enlightenment.

We can have peak experiences or alter our consciousness in a great variety of ways. We can shift our consciousness by ingesting substances that alter the chemistry of the brain. We can place ourselves in dramatically different environments like enforced silence, darkness, heat, cold, or isolation. We can engage in behaviors that run counter to our desire for safety and security. We can chant, pray, meditate, dance ecstatically, make love, make art, listen to repetitive rhythms, drone sounds, or alternating wave frequencies that entrain the brain to specific states. Sometime the energy of a group, like the quality of a tidal wave, is strong enough to carry us into a peak experience. We often find peak experiences in the presence of energetically charismatic teachers or leaders who hurl Shaktipat or argue and browbeat us into some new awareness or get us to break old habitual patterns or entrain us with their loving presence in ways that lead to altered states of consciousness.

But the bottom line is that these peak experiences always fade. In the Zen aphorism “First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.” The “then there is no mountain” moment is the peak experience. It is the awakening moment and it can feel incredibly profound, but the mountain will come back, and that’s where actual enlightenment begins. Enlightenment may or may not follow an awakening based on what you do or do not do with whatever realization persists beyond the peak experience and the awakening moment. Enlightenment is not the “aha” moment, but, rather it is the integration of an “aha” moment that allows one to live a truth that has been glimpsed or revealed.

The problem with not recognizing the difference between the peak experience that is awakening and actual enlightenment is most evident in the argument between different schools or traditions or teachers offering a path to awakening or enlightenment. There is the “light switch” school that views enlightenment as an on/off switch that is instant, permanent and irrevocable and a “rheostat” school that views enlightenment as a gradual process that unfolds over time. Both have aspects of correctness about them. While changes in our state of consciousness are often instantaneous and seldom predictably arrived at, they are not permanent and irrevocable no matter how much we may want to cling to them. They’re states, by definition they are things that are meant to change. The gradual school of awakening is correct in that the embodiment of an awareness that allows suffering to subside does take time, though sometimes it feels instantaneous because we can spend a long time trying to embody the truth of an awakening and one day wake up to the fact that we have.

If you come from the “light switch” school the focus will be on having that peak experience of awakening and once you’ve had it, the expectation will be that you are “done,” “fully awakened,” and “enlightened.” This has happened countless times to individuals who all too often then hang up their “enlightened” shingle and start proselytizing online, teaching in person, or forming cults of enlightened personality. Of course, to do this they have to deny and suppress the fact that the peak experience has subsided and that challenges with ego and identity and old habitual patterns of clench and closure still remain. To maintain students and credibility (not to mention an income), they often cover this fact up by re-languaging their old habitual behaviors as new enlightened behaviors. They redefine common words to mean what they want them to mean. I’ve heard “enlightened” teachers explaining that whatever a student is expressing is just a thought, while whatever the teacher is expressing is an “unthought,” whatever that might be. The point being that if the teacher claims that enlightenment is the end of thoughts, then they have to redefine their own thoughts to align with their teaching. This just leads to real confusion for students and actually makes real enlightenment less likely for everyone.

For people who have that peak experience and hold it closer (not instantly wanting to become teachers and gurus), the confusion can be in the dearth of information coming out of the “light switch” school about how to embody and integrate the profound truth of the peak experiences or awakening and live in a world where the mountain has come back. They’ve been told that they are done—they are enlightened. But what happens when suffering still persists? They either have to push it away from themselves as shadow, denying that they are suffering or repress it in some way. When we push suffering away like that, we begin to see others as the cause of our suffering. We break with friends and loved ones because they don’t get that we are enlightened and they bring us down and cause us to suffer.

In addition, we can tend to chase altered states of consciousness (because we believe that the altered state is what enlightenment should be like all of the time). We pursue more peak experiences through meditation or inquiry or sanghas and actually get distracted from the real process of enlightenment, which is cultivating the ability to allow life to arise in all it’s chaos and order, beauty and ugliness, fear and love, sadness and happiness without clinging to any of it—without suffering.

So when you have your moment of awakening, no matter how it comes, treat it as the precious thing that it is. Allow it to penetrate the cracks of your habitual closure and egoic clinging as a realization. But also welcome the return of the mountain, the crucible that living a life actually is, for it is in living that life that you may actually find a way beyond suffering.

The Secret behind “The Secret.”

Most of us are very familiar with some form of either the media phenomenon “The Secret” or the so-called Law of Attraction. It is almost an unchallengeable belief in new age spiritual communities that if you visualize what you want strong enough and you follow various strategies for refining that strong visualization, you will get everything you desire. If you aren’t getting everything you desire right now, it is because you are a weak visualizer or because you have missed some small detail in the process of visualization (you didn’t use the present tense, or you didn’t feel it with enough of your senses, or you sabotaged your efforts by thinking negative thoughts).

No one ever questions how essentially narcissistic it is to believe that the universe or God is just here to serve our particular material desires. No one questions how infantile it is to believe that “we” control the external world with our “wants.” No one ever asks whether our own constricted little egos are the best writer/directors for the incarnate drama we call our lives. Instead we construct philosophical models that support our urgent need to fulfill our egoic desires. We dress them up as spiritual truths and immutable cosmic laws and back them up with pseudo science (being the religious authority of the day) so that we won’t have to question our own motives and so that we can maintain the comfortable illusion of duality.

There is a good reason for this and it is largely an economic reason. The reason the secret behind “The Secret” is a secret is because no one gets rich telling people that the stuff they want won’t actually make them happy. We sometimes seek out spiritual teachers because we say we want the truth, but what we really want is a truth that we like. It’s like people who watch a particularly biased “news” channel because they say they want to get the truth about what is going on, but what they really want is to have some authority confirm their world view.

Just to be clear, I do believe in a universe that is alive and conscious and dynamic and interconnected and responsive in myriad mysterious ways. I fully believe that we are all made of the same interpenetrating field of consciousness and that we are connected in ways we do not fully comprehend. I also believe that our energy fields affect each other. When we open as love, people can feel that. When we constrict in fear or anger people can feel that. Since we are all made of the same stuff, when one of us wakes up or becomes fully conscious and compassionate, if even for a moment, it impacts us all. What I don’t believe is that this realization or this understanding equates to “If I pray hard enough for a new Mercedes or get very clear about all the characteristics I want in my dream gal, God is required by cosmic law to give it (or her) to me.”

The real secret of “the Secret” is that it isn’t really about getting the things you think you want. I know it isn’t sold that way and that most people understand it in very literal terms—if I do this, I will get that—like it was a simple cause and effect relationship, but it isn’t. It’s about being happy, content, passionate, living your life fully minute-by-minute right here, right now.

The Biophysics of Suffering: Part 5

In part 4 we talked about approaches that dealt with suffering at the mental and emotional level, though, in honesty, the mental body is the only place that experiences suffering. The physical body only really experiences physical sensations like pain and pleasure. Sometimes this is exacerbated or complicated or drawn out over time by suffering, but the body doesn’t really suffer. The emotional body, is simply aware of sensation arising. It doesn’t label or cling to those sensations. The energetic body just experiences constriction or expansion. There are no sensations associated with this. It is simply the case that more or less love or consciousness is flowing through that energy body at any given moment.

It is the mental body where stories coalesce around sensations that we’ve labeled and judged and claimed as part of us. It is the mental body that editorializes those sensations and makes them fair or unfair, threatening or ego-sustaining. It is possible to come fully awake and recognize that we are not what we thought we were. We are not individual and separate identities, but rather a part of a continuous and all encompassing whole. In these moments we remember that we are the ocean, not the temporary wave form with a name and a unique history and a position to defend. It is also possible that after years of allowing that experience of awareness to fully settle in, we may find that while life is still going on and we are still experiencing the constrictions and expansions of energy that show up as felt bodily sensations, we are not experiencing suffering arising, nor are we converting that suffering into tension and stress and a physical clench to be felt in the physical body.

But even for such “enlightened” individuals, energy work might still be highly useful and feel very rewarding, meditation might still bring mindfulness to the felt bodily sensations that continue to arise, and physical work, like cardiovascular and weight bearing exercise, and yoga, tai-chi, or chi-gong along with breath work and eating mindfully to balance the body would all offer better support to the manifest form of our physical bodies.

The Biophysics of Suffering: Part 4

So energetic approaches to healing, while undeniably beneficial, often bring only temporary relief and usually don’t move far enough down the chain of physicality to affect the body in a lasting way. Western approaches are great for trauma and the alleviation of certain painful conditions and Eastern approaches are more holistic and satisfying for creating a more balanced system that can sometimes impact up the chain of more subtle bodies.

For my money, if it’s physical pain that is life-threatening, give me Western medicine. If it’s physical pain that is chronic and life-style based, give me Eastern medicine. But if it’s mental or emotional suffering that is masquerading as pain or causing physical constriction that is causing pain, this needs to be addressed at the mental and emotional levels. While physical therapies and energetic therapies may have some impact on the mental and emotional bodies, the ego’s ability to cling to and rationalize and justify suffering is just too powerful to not address it head on.

At the mental and emotional level we also have two choices. Western medicine pioneered various forms of talk therapy that are actually good at moving someone from dysfunctionality to functionality. Unfortunately they accomplish this without ever really challenging the ego. In fact the goal is often to have a stronger, healthier ego. This is especially useful when the goal is really less about happiness and more about socialization and fitting in. So after years of talk therapy we may be more functional in our lives and suffer a little less, but we are still dissatisfied and often far from at peace. More recently Western medicine has promoted chemical solutions to mental challenges. While genuinely helpful to many people, I wonder if the chemical path to functionality is also more at the service of socialization and fitting in as well. I think that Eastern approaches to mind-body health are more successful in the long run, but they do take time and a commitment to change that is sometimes more than some people can handle. I think some people who look for spiritual answers to mental and emotional challenges might actually benefit from Western talk therapy and even pharmaceutical interventions, especially if it brings them enough stability to engage in a mind-body practice.

When it comes to suffering, the best way to take on the ego itself is through some combination of meditation or mindfulness practice and the process popularized by Eastern Advaita known as inquiry. Inquiry is a relentless and persistent look inward at who we actually are and what is causing us to suffer. Where Western talk therapy is focused on improving functionality, inquiry is based on undermining the sense of self that is at the root of the problem. It is actually transfunctional. Inquiry can work well with anyone, though it seems to work best with people who have been tempered by some years of meditation experience (enabling them to step back and recognize that they are not their thoughts) or people who are in the midst of the kind of crisis that leads to breakthrough rather than breakdown.

Traditional forms of inquiry can be found in things like Zen Koans—puzzles designed to confound the ego—and Eastern teachers of Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism. Modern forms of inquiry-based approaches have been popularized by Dennis Genpo Merzel’s “Big Mind/Big Heart Process,” Byron Katie’s “The Work” and books and presentations by Eckhart Tolle, Gangaji, and Adyashanti. In these contemporary versions, and a good example is the work of Jeff Foster, there is little reliance on spiritual dogma, religious tradition, lineage teachings, and time-worn spiritual cliches. Some teachers, like Scott Kiloby have applied the discipline of inquiry to the challenge of addiction with wonderful results.

Inquiry can work through questioning that can at once feel gentle and confrontational as it addresses ego at the mental body level. It can also be more gentle in simply asking individuals to return attention to those primal emotions—the felt sensations experienced in and around the body prior to naming, labeling, judging, and claiming. The important thing though is that this kind of work is the only work that seems to really address suffering head on in a clean and lasting way.

Continued in The Biophysics of Suffering: Part 5

The Biophysics of Suffering: Part 3

In part 2 we looked at energetic strategies. Now I’d like to jump to physical strategies. Honestly, most people seek out physical strategies for what they perceive as pain anyway.

Both Western and Eastern approaches to physical medicine can be profoundly restorative. Western medicine has brought a laser-like focus to the conditions of disease. It takes an aggressive, almost military approach to healing. We engage in wars on conditions and eradicate them with chemical warfare (how we treat cancer), biological warfare (how we fight diseases), and conventional or surgical warfare (we cut things out). Western medicine is also very good at medical engineering. We invasively repair and replace. But to be so good at these things, Western medicine has had to discount or ignore the relationship between the more subtle bodies (mental, emotional, energetic). This means that things like diet, breathing, physical vitality, emotional resilience, and energetic balance are not part of the therapeutic picture. That means that it is not so good at dealing with pain and conditions caused by stress. Most people assume that pain causes suffering. I would argue that more often it is chronic suffering that is causing the pain and Western medicine does not have a great track record for the diseases that result from the lifestyle of suffering.

Eastern medicine tends to be more holistic and places more emphasis on rebalancing the system and is, therefore, more impactful when dealing with the pain caused by suffering. For many physical conditions, eastern approaches may be superior. Yogic exercise, mediation, breath work, and attention to diet is a far better approach to dealing with heart disease, but it isn’t the go to strategy when you’re having severe chest pains. It takes time and practice. Things to which we in the West are often reluctant to commit. Just give me a pill and don’t ask me to change. This is the voice of the ego whose job it is to resist change at all costs. Where Eastern medicine has the potential to be more impactful is in the tradition of mindfulness that is deeply embedded in many of its therapies. Meditation itself is obvious, but the mindfulness embedded in yoga, tai-chi, or qi-gong exercises or in breath work or even careful attention to diet mean that these long, slow therapies are much more likely to have an impact on the mental body, which is where suffering lives.

In practice, however, these Eastern approaches have sometimes been less than effective for those of us in the West. I think this is the fault of our culture rather than any inherent weakness in the systems themselves. We sometimes embrace these practices faddishly, practicing one for 6 months or a year and then dropping it for something “new.” We expect instant results (and are often disappointed) from something that is designed to make long, slow, lasting change. We embrace them superficially in the hopes they will make us skinnier, cooler, more attractive, more spiritual, or more interesting but reject any deep change in how we relate to the world (like the irony of getting a speeding ticket on my way to a yoga retreat center). Finally, and most specifically, the ego self, whose kingdom is the mental body, is a master at coopting anything that is truly threatening to its status quo. Unfortunately, despite the great press these approaches often get, I know too many people who have meditated or practiced yoga or done breath work or chanting for years without it impacting their tendency to suffer needlessly. What the Buddha discovered is that it is possible to meditate and practice ascetic disciplines for years and still suffer. You just get really good at meditating and ascetic practices. Something else is necessary for suffering to end.

Continued in the Biophysics of Suffering: Part 4—Mental and Emotional Strategies for Healing

The Biophysics of Suffering: Part 2

Most of us, quite naturally seek relief from the physical sensation of pain. That’s what we’re supposed to do. Physical pain is a warning signal that something is wrong with our bodies that might have serious consequences. We will never eliminate pain in general, but we can and should seek to alleviate physical pain. The problem comes when what we are really seeking relief from is suffering, not pain. The pain has long since come and gone, but the suffering we are doing is causing us to cling to it and make it feel real and happening in the moment. Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a good example of suffering. The traumatic event has long since come and gone, but it feels like it is happening now.

So if there is a biophysics of suffering, it would suggest that one could address constriction at any level (energetic, emotional, mental, physical). If you believe that constriction (and I’m focusing on constriction rather than expansion because we more often associate constriction with suffering) originates in the energy body, then it would make sense to seek out an energetic form of therapy. An energetic therapist ostensibly uses his or her energy body or ability to channel energy in order to balance and restore order to the energy body of another. This kind of energetic entrainment and alignment is a fact, that has been demonstrated again and again in the laboratory. What is less a fact is what the long term impact on the physical body is from these energetic treatments. Some people have claimed miraculous healings and you would be hard pressed to find anyone who was open to the possibility at all who did not “feel” better after spending time with a gifted energetic healer. There is just not a lot of consistent scientific evidence of physiological impact (and I’m not saying it can’t happen or doesn’t happen or that it isn’t useful even if physiological change doesn’t occur).

I studied Reiki and energetic healing and practiced for several years. I had really good results at alleviating pain for clients, and they felt the experience profoundly peaceful and relaxing. But, what I noticed was that the duration was not that long. I began to feel like I was administering energetic aspirin. It was helpful, it was a good thing, but it also made people dependent on me in a way that felt uncomfortable. Something I was doing was rippling through their bodies and temporarily alleviating their pain but something else was going on that I was not impacting. I now believe that this was the suffering that was intermingled with the pain. While I was able to relax the energetic constriction temporarily, the suffering they were clinging to was simply reasserting itself and it would feel like the pain was coming back.

I’ve spoken to other energetic healers over the years and find that my experience is not unique. Again, I don’t want to suggest that energetic healing is not worthwhile. I believe that energetic hygiene and energetic treatments can be very valuable, but need to be accompanied or complimented by work at the other “body levels.”

Continued in the Biophysics of Suffering: Part 3—Physical Strategies for Healing

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