Your phone rings. You answer and hear your friend's voice. Without evening seeing the contact info, you know who it is. The sound of her words is instantly and unquestionably recognisable. Your partner asks from the kitchen who it is, and you reply. You know your partner's voice as well as your own, you tell yourself.
Let's pause right there. 'You tell yourself.' How do you tell yourself? Oh, yes. It's the voice in your head saying, 'I am as familiar with my partner's voice as well as I am with my own.' Just as you know your partner's voice, you recognise this internal one to be your own. In fact, if you are like most of us, you take this voice to be you.
Without stopping to consider it, we accept the inner voice as ourselves. Maybe we should stop and consider this. This is the voice that so often says things much less helpful than the example above:
If you had an actual person following you around all day pouring that negative stream into your ears, you would tell them to get lost! And if they didn't leave, you'd ignore them. But because we take the inner voice to be ourselves, we put up with it. We literally identify with it.
If you observe this voice carefully for any length of time, you'll realise that you have no more control over its utterances than you do over your friend's, your partner's or your mother's! These statements in your mind simply arise. You don't ask for them. Okay, you can sometimes wrestle them to your will for short periods, but before long, the voice takes off on its own again.
This voice is no more you than are the perceptions reaching you from the outside world. The inner voice is a stream of thoughts arising just as the sounds of others' voices, the smell of coffee or the sight of a traffic light turning red arises to your senses.
None of this is suggests that the thoughts are not real. You experience them. But they are not what you normally take them to be. You don't have to chase them away or keep them from arising in the first place. But you might want to treat them like you would a persistent, annoying person spouting often contradictory opinions.
Don't assume what this inner voice says is true. Don't believe the thoughts have any reliable tracking with the rest of the world or that they in any way compel or bind you.
You can't stop the inner voice from chattering, but you can recognise your freedom from it.
The heart can show us the way from the intellectual enlightenment trap
I have spent most of my life in my head – thinking and thinking. This is not a boast. Much of my mental busy-ness serves no purpose; it is reactive and habitual.
That said, I tend to be handy with juggling concepts, with figuring things out. When I tired of solving (or attempting to solve) problems associated with earning lots of money, gaining power and the normal achievement agenda, I found a whole new realm to explore and... think upon: spirituality. In my case, this was the path through advaita vedanta, a philosophy of yoga, into the various schools of non-dualism.
I ponder and discuss Buddhism, Taoism, Tantra, Dzogchen and myriad western adaptations of these wisdom traditions from the east. Concepts in this realm trip off my tongue as easily as discussing good business communication or personal effectiveness. I even handle the concept of Truth as essentially non-conceptual!
There’s no need to repeat a synthesis of my intellectual understanding of reality and myself here. The point of this post is that I find this clarity, as proud and thankful as I am to see it, a bit of a false summit. Climbing from concept to concept, I often sense the spiritual mountaintop within reach, just one final 'aha' away. And perhaps it is.
But increasingly I've found myself circling the full awakening I know I mustn't strive for but still do. My steps only take me around the mountain, a short distance from the peak. I suspect the clarity of intellectual understanding can be a refuge for personalities like mine, a final bunker in which the sense of separateness shelters from what it most fears - melting into the flow and direct experience of life.
If you'll allow me to switch metaphors, please picture me, a representative intellectually awakened dude, as a moth circling a flame. But this moth circles the flickering light in a steady orbit, not in the decaying spiral normal moths tend to follow until they perish in a dusty flash. This moth observes, appreciates, describes and understands the concept of the flame, but it does so from a stable distance. It reaches its safe limit and can go no nearer. Might something in it not want to move closer?
Among the things Jesus showed us was that the person in Him had to die before he could re-join his Father (the Father and the Son, two aspects of the same whole). Likewise, the separate person in us, the sense of being independent of and partially isolated from the flow of Life, needs to dissolve for full awakening to occur. But would any self-respecting sense of separateness want that? Of course not! So this strange moth orbits beyond reach of the flame of freedom, knowing that surrender is necessary but unable to offer itself.
Poor me! Help! My clever mind has me in an appreciative but remote orbit around an unfiltered, direct experience of Life. What can be done? What can Life do to shake me loose, pull me to its centre?
Life can invite me to open my heart to its wholeness. It can ask me to unhook from my mental narrative, to attend to the sensations populating my body. Here is the home of the powerful feelings that accompany and often trump thought. Life can teach me to welcome and stay with even the most uncomfortable feelings I (my sense of separateness) have sought to distance myself from. These sensations, along with the pleasurable ones I've come to believe I do not deserve, are my unlived life, the components of Life that act as the background against which my sense of isolation is cast. Life can allow me to love them, and in doing so, I shake myself from the unwanted, stable orbit.
No matter how nimble we are in our dance with mental images of spirituality, until we deal with our shit, we cannot move past concepts to the reality itself. This is because ‘our shit’ is the pool of accumulated moments in which we rejected reality. We must atone for (be at-one with) these unwanted aspects of Life. And our body is the sacred vessel in which this gradual baptism takes place, one sensation at a time. As Life recalls a neglected fragment, we welcome it and love it, despite its discomfort.
In fact, I've found that sitting with, bearing the discomfort, is far more effective if I go even further, silently saying, 'I love you,' to it. As odd as I found it when I came across Matt Kahn’s suggestion, this sub-vocalising step of proclaiming my unjudging, unconditional acceptance of unease, confusion, anger, depression, anxiety and fear, has proven life-changing.
So, notice a disturbing sensation; slow your breath; stay with the sensation; and say, 'I love you,' with each breath for a minute or until the feeling abates. It is not your goal to make it go away. You simply love it until it does. And you repeat this each time discomfort arises, for the rest of your life.
The heart's reintroduction to its unlived feelings happens hand-in-hand with the mind's intellectual understanding of our true nature, with spiritual clarity. The heart and head now reinforce one another's rewriting of our model of reality. Together, and in concert with Life's undivided flow, they erode the conceptual prisons we've built for ourselves. Remember, though – erosion is often a gradual, almost imperceptible process. This is how Life reassembles us. As it does so, our self realises it is Self, Life dressed up as a separate person.
With this realisation, the spiral of our moth into the flame is complete. The sense of separateness ignites in a puff, leaving Life to dress and play as this person. And in this person, Life recognises itself in every other person, in each being, in everything, even as its daily flow presents itself in countless varied costumes.
The act of forgiving is a gift, not to the forgiven but to the one who forgives.
That’s right. Forgiving presents a precious gift of freedom to yourself. Imagine the power in your hands, the self-care at your disposal! Whenever you choose to, you can treat yourself by forgiving someone a past wrong. The ‘someone’ could even be yourself.
Your partner was tired. He had promised to take you out for a candlelit dinner to celebrate your promotion. You worked hard for the new title, and you'd put in long, stressful hours all week. Your anticipation of that evening's date had helped keep you going. It had meant so much to you. But then, exhausted by his own crisis at work, he cancelled. How could he? So selfish! So uncaring!
That was three weeks ago. Since then, things haven't been the same, at home or the office. You are more distant with your partner, less warm. Wakeful spells disrupt your nights, as your mind replays the episode. At work, you are grumpy and slow. The wound from the aborted celebration has become infected.
Resentment and judgement are reactions to injury or injustice. We've felt them aimed at us and learned to aim them at others we hold responsible for pain or unfair treatment. In our busy minds, the original events acquire layers of narrative and commentary, prolonging and often exacerbating our suffering. We await an adequate apology or restitution payment. Once the accused earns our forgiveness, we tell ourselves, we will give it. Until then, they don't deserve it.
I’m not saying they deserve forgiveness or that they've atoned for their sins. My point has nothing to do with anyone but ourselves. Resentment and judgement are dense loads to carry. We shoulder them because we think they even the score with someone who has done us wrong. But the only scales they register on are the ones measuring the physical, psychic and emotional burden we bear through our days and restless nights. And the energy spent on them is lost to us, unavailable to meet the opportunities and challenges of our one shot at life.
There, wasn't that easy?
What? It’s anything but easy? You try to forgive the one who injured you, but it doesn't work? Doesn't stick? When you recall the episode, even as you tell yourself that you forgive them, you still feel resentment rise? Maybe giving yourself this gift of forgiveness is harder than I first suggested.
Right. It turns out those injuries and the infections to them aren't at the direct call of our will and intellect. We might think of them less as recent injuries and more like someone poking old, infected ones we don’t remember. At heart, this painful reaction you can't shake is not about the person who did the poking but is tied to the old injury itself.
But this could be psycho-babble, couldn't it? So let's get concrete. Let's work right here, right now. All you need is at your disposal. You needn’t take anyone's word. Try this for yourself, and see if it works.
Think back on the episode of your recent injury, the one you want to forgive. As you revisit it, be alert to the onset of any strong tension or physical discomfort, perhaps a knot in your gut or a tightness in your chest. Once you notice that, concentrate; zero in on it.
We don't want you to pay attention to the replay of the event and its narrative any more, because it might take you too deep. So focus on two things only: 1) The physical sensation you’ve just noticed arising as you recalled the injury and 2) keeping still, with your eyes fixed on a single point somewhere two to six feet from you. (The second may sound weird, but this intentional stillness serves to crowd out the narrative layered on the injury.)
Stay with this physical sensation. Examine it. Bring your curiosity to it. Give it your attention. What are its characteristics? How long does it linger? Stay with it while it remains. Notice that you are doing fine. You are under no mortal threat. Nothing terrible is happening to you. You are just being still and attending to this sensation that arose alongside your revisiting the memory of the injurious event.
Your mind and body associate the recent event with this physical sensation. The thing is, they also associate the physical sensation with the original injury. When you incurred the initial wound, you lacked your current size, strength and emotional and psychological capacities. Back then, the injury seemed life-threatening, and this gave the physical sensation its immense power. Now, although there is no existential threat, the pokes at the infected site of the original injury trigger the same sensation with its life-threatening feeling.
The above exercise uses your body is an empirical lab in which you verify and then patiently teach your mind and body that the physical sensation does not relate to any current existential threat. You could sit with it forever, and it would do you no harm. But you needn’t stay with that sensation very long, only until it dissolves of its own accord.
You should repeat this exercise as many times as you need to, triggering the sensation by recalling the recent event and sitting with it until it subsides. When revisiting the memory of the recent injury no longer brings on the strong physical sensation, you have forgiven.
Having forgiven, you shrug off a weight, unshoulder a burden. You are lighter, free of a load that has sapped your energy, stolen from your life. By teaching your mind and body that the strong sensation within your resentment is no threat, you give yourself a most beautiful gift.
When you let resentment get the better of you, disappointment arises as a new layer. While you get the hang of this technique, you might lose patience with yourself because you are not forgiving as quickly as you'd like. You may go so far as to harbour resentment against yourself.
Aha! You've gone and poked an old injury yourself! No worry. Now just apply the same forgiveness to yourself as you've learned to do with others. Stick with it, when you forgive yourself, you give and receive the greatest gift of all.
I'm curious. I like looking beneath and behind the obvious, also looking for what is between me and the obvious, obscuring or distorting my view.