We need love. Our quest for it shapes our lives. Psychotherapy tells us that much of our unexamined behaviour comes from unconscious strategies we formed to secure love as young children. We want to be loved without conditions, for who we are. If we had love, even with little else, we would be happy.
The feeling I enjoy when I receive love from another is a blissful one. It radiates safety, validation and understanding. These components sum to what strikes me as happiness. But the buzz of this received love is erratic, even in a stable, loving relationship. Feelings of pain, misunderstanding, rejection and betrayal interrupt it. I can’t guarantee others will give me the love I need.
The soap operas package this troubling truth and serve it back to us. The search for unconditional love is rich in drama. Sometimes the villain wears the face of another, one who sometimes but not always gives us what we need. How could they be so unreliable? We cast ourselves as the baddie in other scenes, undeserving of the very love we crave.
Might there be another take on this, a way out of this neediness, this dependence?
Consider the moments when you receive the love of another. What if it is not the love of the other that you feel? Could it be that in those moments of being loved, you stop asking reality to be different; you accept what life, in the guise of this loving person before you, sends your way? Perhaps in those magic scenes, bathed in the light of the love you’ve craved, you stop fighting life; you stop withholding your unconditional acceptance. In other words, in those instants, you love.
What if that amazing cocktail of positive feelings that we wrap up and call happiness is what arises when we love, when love flows from us? Consider the possibility that happiness is what loving – giving love – feels like. Well, that puts real power in our hands (or rather, in our hearts)! When we are loved, we give love in return, and this brings happiness. But are we confined to loving only in response to being loved by another? No! We can love when others do not grant us the love we crave. If so, would this act of unilateral love yield happiness too? Seems worth a try.
Taking this further, can we love only other people? Is it only in another person that we can recognise this deep connection, this reflection of something that resonates in us? Can only another person receive the blessing of our attention and the unconditional acceptance of exactly what they are, right now? This recognition of ourselves in the other can happen not only with lovers, family and friends, not only with strangers and even enemies. This love can arise with animals, plants, with any event that life brings. In fact, love doesn't ever arise, because it is always there, even when overlooked - ignored - by us. Love, this resonance, this recognition of oneness, is the human experience of wholeness and unity. It is always there and always available.
So none of us needs the love of another. The love we need is ours to give. We can grant it to all of life, and life includes (in fact life is) ourselves. The love each person needs can only come from one place - within. The same unreserved acceptance and embrace we can bestow on all external experience is available to grant to our own thoughts and feelings. Our love can welcome even the feelings outlawed in those childhood strategies that we adopted to win the love of others from when we first experienced the sense of separateness.
This is the human journey. The Fall is the innocent child’s passage from the undifferentiated immediate experience of being to the sense of separation from life's flow. It is not a sin nor a fuck up. It is humanity. The child's self-division ensues as she looks for the love she needs outside herself and casts into darkness any bits of herself that lead others to deny her. Every human story is unique, but all are at heart the search for love and the re-integration of our disowned selves. The climax is the chance to recognise the truth so close as to be invisible - that the love we seek is within us and is the key to re-integrating what the Fall and our immature response to it severed.
What Vedantins call Ananda, what to Buddhists is Nirvana, what Christians see as Heaven is always within reach. In fact, we needn’t reach it, because we hold it already, although we prioritise security and comfort over it, too often keeping it locked away. We get glimpses of it when we love another, when we bless a moment with unconditional acceptance, when we recognise our essence in another. These moments of happiness are fleeting sights of the peace and ease that rest within us. The more we truly love, the more frequent and lengthy our views of its radiance.
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 energies of the head, heart and gut
When Tami Simon, founder of Sounds True, asked renowned teacher and author Mary O'Malley to define enlightenment, she answered that it happens when the head, heart and gut align. Here's what she might have meant, and what it implies for us.
The entire body - and indeed all of life - is intelligent, but conventional wisdom has tended to focus on the brain as the seat of intelligence. We actually have three discernible neural centres - the long-accepted one in the skull plus partners in the heart and the gut. Think of the head, heart and gut as a leadership team, deploying our resources of wisdom, love and power. Let's look more closely.
The head is the home of our logical reasoning. It is a dividing and naming engine, conceptually recasting an undivided reality as constituent parts with predictable properties and relations. The head’s labelling role includes judging - applying the ultimate labels of good and bad. It answers 'How' questions that arise in life by theoretically isolating aspects of reality and identifying patterns among them, within and across moments. The head can cast its glance to the past and the future, and much of its busyness looks in these directions. A final important role of the head is as the ultimate storyteller. It observes the world and interprets it, based on its carving, naming and patterning prowess. We spend most of our time in our heads, spellbound in its narration, often mistaking this voice for our self. The gift the head can give us is clarity or wisdom.
The gut is the home of our 'animal' drives of fight, flight, food and f*ck. It is the driver of our moods and is central to both our stress response and our intuition. This nerve centre's function relies on bacteria, so the 'other' is instrumental in 'our' self-regulation even at this most basic level. The belly lives in the present moment. The gift the gut can give us is drive or power.
Finally, the heart is the home of our connection to the world - the whole, undivided world. It accepts without exception. In its holistic spaciousness, the heart knows the reality of Life as a single flow and so surrenders to it. It welcomes what the head calls the 'good' and the 'bad' in equal embrace, valuing the truth of What Is above any preferences the head imposes. Like the gut, the heart lives in the present moment as a holographic shard of What Is. The gift the heart can give us is the greatest, love.
Let's turn to the human predicament. The head creates concepts as it divides its representation of the world into pieces. The most powerful concept, the one that organises every story the head tells, is the separate self. This central image casts each experience in a new light, because the separate self claims to be the author of its own causal process, independent of Life's unitary flow.
Now, we've got to give the head credit. It has balls! That's shouldering hefty responsibility, separating the self from Life and setting out its own stall. The head is not evil. It isolates itself because this makes sense from its limited, disaggregating perspective. With that separation, the head moves from being a member of the self's leadership team to claiming dictatorship. Why is this so?
A young child navigates a confusing world populated by larger and more powerful beings. The child depends on them for life and love. In this immature stage of life, the heart's openness seems dangerous, leaving the child too vulnerable. The head, able to discern apparent threats and chart courses of action, becomes a refuge for the child. Judgmental narratives replace the intense experiences Life brings, experiences welcomed by the heart. And so, this child’s conceptual separate self, in distrusting the heart's holistic knowledge and rejecting its gift of love, further separates itself from Life, turning its back to reality's darker, uncomfortable half and substituting head-bound neuroses for what it rejects in the child's direct experience.
The head continues to enlist the gut, and without the accepting influence of the heart, the gut's dance with the head's myriad threats and worries floods the body regularly with chemicals best reserved for rare moments of primal need. The gut isn’t stupid; it knows things the head cannot. But missing the heart's connection to Life's intelligence, the gut must do its best on a diet of the head’s false news. It misspends its power chasing ghosts and responding to non-existent emergencies. The self lurches raggedly when it should glide with Life.
The human awakening that we sometimes call enlightenment is largely about re-enlisting the heart - opening it, embracing it and inviting it to its proper seat in the leadership team. As the heart assumes its rightful place, balanced regulation returns, and the self surrenders to Life. The sense of separateness, the image and story concocted by the head, evaporates. Love bathes every experience that arises, the head clears and the body's power aligns with the reality's unfolding, of which it is a magical sliver.
The trio of the self's energies - Wisdom, Love and Power – now align with one another and with the flow of reality, with Life. This is the realisation of human potential Mary O'Malley and other teachers refer to, whole human being.
And that's okay, because life has your back
Do you remember those amusement park turnpike rides, where you drive a car around a course, often with a small child at the wheel? Alan Watts made an amusing analogy between one of those kiddie cars and our egoic sense of authorship in life. Here's my own version of it.
The mind is a hyperactive driver
The rational mind as a driver is hypersensitive and exacting. It, acting on your behalf, holds the wheel making continuous corrections left and right to keep the car (you) on course. Hardly a moment passes with the mind happy about the current heading. The wheel must always be engaged to correct problematic deviations from the mind's most recent assessment of how things ought to be.
Like a child in the driver’s seat of a fairground ride, the mind has good intentions as it fiddles and fidgets to drive with perfection. It means no harm. But its incessant problem-solving course corrections take their toll on the energy and maintenance fronts.
Life does the steering
The thing is, there's a rail in the middle of the lane all the way around the track, and the car cannot deviate from that path. The child's steering has no real bearing on the car's travels. This steering wheel cannot override the guiding rail.
As at the fairground, so in reality. Life is an intelligent process that guides everything from the movement of celestial bodies to your digestion and the goose pimples on your skin. It is a single flow. You do not author a second, separate process. Life carries you just as the rail steers the child's car. It only seems, from where you sit, like you are driving. If you realised life had the wheel, you'd save a lot of energy, wear and tear.
Life travels the course, regardless of its details
The child at the wheel may wish the car moved more quickly, may think the course should be more hilly, more winding, less bumpy or less polluted. Likewise, the mind is full of ideas and judgments about life. But the course doesn't change in response to the child's wishes, and life is life irrespective of the mind's preferences.
Life travels the track. Life cares not whether the road is rough or smooth, hilly or flat, straight or winding. If anything, it seems to favour variety, with each characteristic and its opposite represented somewhere along the course.
In fact, life lays the rail, one moment at a time, in a process of unbounded creativity.
You are not the car; you are life.
Guess what: you are not the car travelling on the course, guided by the rail. You are the whole shebang - the car, the child, the rail, the course and the unfolding movement that is life.
For most of us, most of the time, the course is such that we feel we are only the car and our mind seems to be the driver. Really, we are the experiencing of the whole scene. The busy mind is part of life. Ups and downs, twists and turns in the course are part of life. The sense that we are driving is part of life. Our judgments about the course are part of life.
And we are life.
Enjoy the ride!
But you can see your desires and aversions in a new, liberating light
If you want an ice cream cone, you can probably get one. The same holds for most material possessions, so long as you can afford them. We score little successes like this most days, feeling a desire and meeting it. Some shortfalls are harder to fill — true love, work with meaning, financial independence. But at least in theory, we can achieve these ends.
You can also escape things you dislike. If a downpour disturbs your afternoon stroll, you can duck into a cafe. We take medicine to alleviate pain, hide behind pillows when the movie gets too scary or diet to lose those few pounds, all with some partial success.
What, then, do I mean when I say that you can’t have what you seek? If we boil these examples down to their essence, we see that they involve getting what we want and avoiding or escaping what we don’t want. And although we can acquire or achieve with impressive frequency, although we can discard or dodge with admirable efficiency, the holes we fill and blights we escape always give way to new ones!
We get the ice cream cone but then want a drink to wash it down with. We find true love but then crave time and space for ourselves. We find work with meaning but then want a bigger salary to support our ice cream and soda spending! Perhaps we get what we seek and then demand assurance that we won’t lose it. At heart, what we think we want is one of two things: for this moment to be different (get something I lack or discard something I dislike) or for this moment to resist change in the next moment (to hold on to what I have).
No, we can’t change the present moment or stop the flow of reality, but we can’t help wanting to. Something in us, the world and life won’t consider the race won. There is no finish line. It’s not just that our seeking may be a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s that we’re on a treadmill, running just to stay in place. Our seeming progress leaves us no closer to breaking the tape and throwing our hands in the air. This isn’t just an anti-materialism declaration. The same applies for experiences, relationships and even spiritual growth.
Although there is no end to satisfying your wants or escaping your dislikes, there is a deeper current to this stream of life. Consider the possibility that success in this race of desire and aversion is not your deepest longing. What if you are not in the event to rack up points but to experience every step of it — unfiltered — with your full self?
Might that be what it’s all about? Then why are we so misguided, thinking we must filter life to collect the good and eliminate the bad? Why do we want less than the whole of life? The thing is, for most of us, life simply has this sense built into it. This unseen assumption colours our experience, which is all part of the race. One view is that our early life suggests that we need to filter reality in this way to stay safe, to survive. Perhaps we must as vulnerable children in awe of life’s chaotic creativity.
One implication is that we needn’t beat ourselves up for labouring on the treadmill. For most of us, it is part of what life — or at least a stage of it — is. But maybe the filtering strategy — the endless drive to pursue one half of reality while fleeing the other — though appropriate for our child selves, is unnecessary and unhelpful once we have developed into adult humans. Maybe we can look another way at the desires and aversions we experience as part of our humanity.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how the race felt if we tested an alternative assumption about our purpose or aim, if we trialled whether splitting reality into seeking and fleeing was necessary or worth doing? What if we are meant to experience the bad just as we are the good? If we realised that, how would life change? If we recognised that there was no finish line, no way of winning the race, how would that alter our participation in it, our experience of it?
I’m not sure, but I’ve had glimpses and hints. Perhaps you have too? Sometimes I experience an itch or drive for something — an acquisition or achievement — but I am not captured by it. I see the desire; I see it as a desire. But I see it in a way that doesn’t include an automatic launch into pursuing it. The same sometimes happens with fear or discontent. I hear the inner voice rejecting the moment or resisting change. I note it, even feel the call, but I am not bound by it. Sometimes, I just take interest in it. I’m curious about it. At times, with desires and aversions, I experience them but remain free of them.
Can we cultivate this capability? Can I, can you, get better at this? Might we access untapped capacity for engaging, face forward, with the full spectrum of life? I feel drawn to try. That desire (!) may just be another in the race, but perhaps I’ll check it out. It’s not a finish line, but it is the next stretch of the course for me, so I’m going to take part fully!
From time to time, I verbally remind myself of some uncomfortable truths:
This brief ceasefire - or at least lessening of hostilities - in my battle against reality, against What Is, allows those truths in. I let their day-to-day, real-life, concrete messengers into my experience, unaccompanied by the tension or flight that so often accompanies them. They bring their discomfort, but I don't amplify it.
Without exception, arm-in-arm with these messengers and trailing in their wake come their friends and family. These are the visitors I spend so much time hoping for and clinging to - friendship, intimacy, validation, contentment, success, pleasure.
And with my door open and my defenses down, these visitors bear even more beautiful smiles than normal. In the company of their darker cousins, free from my anxious filtering attempts, they bring warmth unknown in my moments of vigilant judgment. In other words, I experience life more fully. In yet other words, I am more alive!
Then, yes, some 'thing' or a succession of them happens, and my door begins to close. My defenses re-engage. I lose touch with this period - sometimes moments, sometimes days - of aliveness. Then, if I'm lucky, I remind myself of another inescapable truth: the path of opening to life has no finish line. The 'work' of the path is life itself.
I can access life's fulness more frequently and for longer periods by opening my heart to What Is. I can build my capacity to meet discomfort more immediately and lovingly. It is worth the work. But my failures in openness, in meeting discomfort and in accessing aliveness are ultimately just more of life's messengers. My work when these failures come my way is no different than at any other time - to let them in as harbingers of truth, of What Is. They carry the very aliveness I seek, just not in the packaging I requested.
I got the seed for this post from a post on Facebook by J'aime ona Pangaia titled You, Me and Harry Potter.
As you read the book in your hands, you follow Harry Potter’s journey from indistinct and unloved orphan to powerful wizard. The words take life in your mind, and Harry learns his craft, battling dark forces that killed his parents, forces that now threaten the world. He pursues adventures with friends, suffers setbacks, makes decisions and enjoys or endures consequences. It seems this Harry leads an extraordinary life.
In a moment of pause, still feeling the book in your hands, you might catch your flowing thoughts and ask, ‘What does this Harry Potter experience?’ The book’s weight on your palms might remind you that Harry Potter, the boy wizard, the beloved character of J.K. Rowling’s ultra-successful fantasy series, experiences nothing. This Harry is a fictional character that Ms. Rowling, through the medium of her words, has created. He is, in one sense, nothing more than curved patterns of lines on a page, patterns that conform to an alphabet, language and grammar that have meaning to you. While Harry exists as this beguiling character, he does not exist as that which the story makes him out to be - a real boy wizard in the real world, a boy who experiences what is happening like you do.
In another sense, we might say that Harry is not these words but rather the composite character that the words, together with your imagination and memory, create within you. If any experience is being had here, then you are the one having it. You are experiencing Harry’s adventure and that of the other characters in a way determined by the interplay of Ms. Rowling’s text and your mind. Because you are sitting in a chair and reading rather than rushing about a magical castle-school, that experience differs not only in content from your everyday life but also in colour and texture. Although in many ways it feels ‘real,’ its nature is clearly different from your full-sensory lived experience.
You might rub the pages between your fingers as you consider four components to this reading-Harry-experience of yours: the author, the medium, the story and the experiencer. J.K. Rowling authored the story of Harry’s adventures. Ms. Rowling’s brilliant mind conjured Harry and the entire environment in which his life unfolds. From a verdant well within her, the story blooms. Although she almost certainly draws on personal experience, proclivities and perspectives to create this work of art, although it has come and could have come only from her, she knows that she is not the story. She knows that the story is not her life.
What emerges physically from J.K. Rowling’s hand is words in patterns on paper pages. This is the medium through which she transmits the story to you. Through your eyes, you absorb the patterns, and thereby the story. The nature of the medium influences the story and your eventual experience of it.
The story folded into these words is rich. It includes Harry - descriptions of him and his actions, a privileged view into his thoughts and feelings, perceptions from his point of view. Multiple other characters move through the story, and you may gain access to their perspectives as well as a ‘God’s eye’ view of some action. A whole world of sights, sounds, sensations, emotions, actions, decisions, happenings, things, people and strange creatures is woven into the medium of squiggles on paper.
Harry as a character is part of that weave. It is obvious when you think about it that he cannot move separately from it. If J.K. Rowling writes, ‘Harry ran down the stairs,’ then that is exactly what Harry does. If she had written, ‘Harry decided to leave magic behind and become an accountant,’ then Harry would have decided just that. J.K.’s words on the page dictate the story’s every detail, which is what Harry’s life and the unfolding of everything in his world are. Harry and the other characters are not free; the story binds them.
At the receiving end of this chain of story transmission, you, the reader, sit. Your eyes and mind conjure a final alchemical transformation. What began as thought sprung from a creative well in the author, what made its way to you encoded as ink on paper, transmutes into experience. The words on the page interact with your mind, which is to say with your history, your way of making meaning, your assumptions, your quirks, to create a unique instance of J.K. Rowling’s story, to bring Harry and his world to life. This life is known only by you and only as the private experience in you as you read. Harry, his friends and his enemies experience nothing; only you as the reader experience the story. The story lives in you.
When you read of Harry’s sadness as he thinks of his lost parents, of his pain as the Hogwarts headmistress makes him write with that pen that carves its message into his skin, of his mortal peril as monsters corner him, you feel strong sensations and emotions, both for Harry and on his behalf. Deep down, though, you know that there is no Harry to experience these pains in the way a real human does. Although you can enjoy being swept up by his story, you recognise deep down that you are not Harry, so the nature of your experience is not the same as if the real you were sad, terrified or pained like the character is. You as the experiencer of the story are close enough for it to entertain you but not so close as to make you mistake yourself for Harry or to believe that the story’s ups and downs are your own. The story binds its characters, but you as the reader remain free.
Not all stories arrive by written word. Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire for performance on the stage. A creative wave issuing from him and traveling through time joined more recent ones from a director, costume designer, set designer and others to form a live audio-visual offering to today’s seated public. The playwright's submission does not complete the creative, pre-performance input. An entire team, with the playwright to the fore, replaces J.K. Rowling’s solitary role in generating the content and setting.
And we might include the actors who play each character within the creative team, for create they do. But we might also consider them as part of the medium. It is through their words, facial expressions and actions, in the crafted setting of the stage and theatre, sporting costumes, employing props and furnishings, that the story unfolds. Their performance and the setting in which it takes place are the medium in this artistic form.
When Blanche Dubois utters, ‘Whoever you are… I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,’ the words, born of Tennessee Williams, do not reach you through quotation marks on a page, but in the voice of Vivien Leigh. Vivien has latitude in her tonal and bodily expression when delivering this line, but except in limited cases of artistic licence, Mr. Williams’s script binds her.
Vivien plays Blanche, but she is not Blanche. At the end of the performance, she will step from her role and engage in her offstage life. Even onstage, we might suppose that her thoughts, when she is less actively engaged in the scene’s action, browse any number of topics that have nothing to do with the play. She knows that she is not Blanche, and she maintains a personal distance from the great trauma and turmoil that Blanche suffers in the play. When Blanche is humiliated, raped or led away to an asylum, Vivien does not suffer. She must be able to get very close to Blanche’s feelings, words and movements so as to play her role convincingly, but we would have to pronounce her mad if she took herself to be Blanche, if she fused with the character itself. Vivien’s experience is not Blanche’s but that of playing Blanche.
Let’s turn to the story, and within it, to Blanche herself. Like Harry in your book, the character of Blanche is more inescapably defined than Vivien is as an actress, for Blanche can only be what the summed creative efforts of the playwright, the director and the actor dictate that she is. Blanche is not free. Blanche cannot wonder, ‘Is it Vivien Leigh who is playing me tonight?’ unless Vivien Leigh utters the question for her, and that may be somewhat greater artistic licence than the director would allow in diverging from Tennessee Williams’s creation.
Your experience, sitting in the audience, differs from what it would be if you read A Streetcar Named Desire from the page, differs from how you experienced Harry’s story. Whereas you could access much of Harry’s inner world, you only have access to what Blanche externalises through words or body language. You watch and hear the events taking place on the stage rather than looking at squiggles on a page. Perhaps this gives more vivid visual and auditory experience than your imagination mustered when you read the descriptions of Harry’s surroundings and events. Perhaps it leaves less to your imagination to fill in?
Still, the final step in the chain, the step whereby the entire production becomes your experience of it, happens within you. Your eyes and ears take the story in, and your mind does the rest. Because it is your mind, the creative merging of the ‘raw’ story with it generates a unique experience - not an experience, like one of the actors, of playing one of the characters, but rather an experience of the story as a whole. If the story is a powerful one, if it is one that resonates with you, if your state of mind this evening is one that lends itself to immersion in the story, then it will move you deeply. You will have strong feelings of empathy with some characters, judgment of others. But you’ll not mistake yourself for Blanche or any other character in the story, and you’ll not mistake this story for your own. You experience it in an individual way no one else will, but it does not capture you completely. At evening’s end, you will leave the theater and proceed with your own story. As the audience, the experiencer, you remain free.
Mike26 is your avatar’s name in a near-future version of Call of Duty: Battle Sense, a multi-player online game. In Battle Sense, your avatar fights alongside other avatars and pre-programmed but flexible characters. The enemy unit is populated the same way. Behind each avatar is a human player, who may be sitting anywhere in the world, connected via the internet to the centralised game engine. Stealthy patrols, devastating raids and pitched battles fill your game time, fill Mike26’s life.
Battle Sense is the product of a delicately balanced creative process of agile design and development that tip-toes the line between structure and openness. Hundreds of software engineers and designers contribute to the game world’s birth, to the pre-programmed characters, to the avatars the players adopt and adapt, finally to the dynamic engine that, along with the real-time input of the human players around the world, dictates how the game unfolds second-by-second. The authorship of any period of gameplay is therefore highly distributed, both across the team that created the product and among the players currently sharing it. This story has virtually countless parents.
The medium through which the story evolves is paradoxical. On the one hand, the product that the engineers and designers create is a static collection of binary information: 1s and 0s storable in a small box that you could hold in one palm. On the other, it is a womb of structured potential that can manifest in unpredictable ways depending on players’ actions. It is, in a sense, both static and dynamic. Its resting state encodes movement.
The name Battle Sense comes from its five-sense immersion. Players wear virtual reality headsets, noise-cancelling headphones and haptic bodysuits. They hold small, refillable bluetooth lozenges in their mouths and sit near a refillable vaporiser. All of this means that they experience all five senses from the perspective of their avatar in the game. When Mike26 takes a punch to the mouth, you taste blood. When a grenade explodes twenty-five meters away, you not only hear the deafening blast but feel its shockwave and smell the lingering cordite. You see the whole scene only through his eyes. You hear the avatars’ voices, each with a live human voice behind it. Mixed among them are the shouts and utterances of the game’s pre-programmed characters.
The story here is a series of realistic battle scenes in which your actions and those of your fellow players determine the outcome. You see colleagues die. Your own injuries hamper your movement and sap your strength. You take enemies’ lives. Through occasional accidents as happen in all war, you even extinguish the lives of your own comrades. All around you swirl death and destruction. Sometimes, oblivion taps you on the shoulder: Mike26 perishes, and you wait out the remainder of the scene on the sidelines, reliant on the game for a regeneration. The game world cheats the real world by giving your Mike26 countless lives.
Eventually, in each scene, one side emerges victorious, and the scenario shuffles forward to a logical next stage. Mike26 is not free. You control him. Considered more carefully, your control is only partial, for his life is also constantly influenced by the actions of the other players and by the intricate lines of binary code that determine the unfolding of the game. In truth, what is happening with Mike26 in any moment cannot be disentangled from what is happening in the game as a whole. In any moment, the game state determines Mike26’s state.
Connected, watching, listening, deciding, feeling, tasting, smelling, you sit and experience technology’s best approximation of the fictitious Mike26’s life. The depth to which the game places you ‘within’ Mike 26 is impressive and unprecedented. In so many ways, you are experiencing him and his life. You are ‘wearing’ and ‘driving’ him. His part in the unfolding of the Battle Sense story is, to a large degree, what you experience. And you are the only one who experiences it; of course Mike26, as a computer avatar, experiences nothing.
Still, as you remove your game gear and step out for a bite to eat, you consider how your experience falls short of perfect immersion. Setting aside any sensory imperfections, you focus on the most obvious aspects of experience that always remain yours rather than Mike26’s: your thoughts, your feelings, your memories, emotions and preferences, your hopes and intentions. Because of these and other personal specifics, the experience you have is different from what any other ‘driver’ of Mike26 would have. As a person, your experience derives from the collision of the ‘raw’ input to your senses from the game with your conditioned mind.
The intimacy of your Mike26 experience is certainly greater than your Blanche experience and probably greater than your Harry one. Yet you always retain a degree of distance from identification with Mike26. Your identity doesn’t meld with this character. You know that you are distinct from these experiences. As a person, you have one foot solidly outside the game world and can contrast the game world with your own. You experience Mike26, but you are not him.
You sleep peacefully next to your partner under your favourite duvet, and you dream. In your dream, DreamYou is walking to class. DreamYou meets your friend, and you head to English class together. She mentions in passing that she was up all night completing her term paper. A knot forms in DreamYou’s gut as they step into class. The teacher welcomes everyone and announces that he’ll be collecting all term essays at the end of the period. DreamYou now fully realises that they’ve completely forgotten to start, let alone finish, their ten-thousand word essay, which makes up most of the course grade.
You are the sole creator, the lone author of this story. It arises from the creative spring of your mind. Every detailed aspect of the dream is exactly as it is because your mind calls it into being. And yet, you don’t create it through any conscious effort or decision. You don’t decide that DreamYou will forget the paper; you don’t will the mistake into existence. Although you are the author, your creativity arises spontaneously. The dream issues effortlessly from you.
What is the dream’s medium? Of what is it made? You’ve never really considered it before, but this and all dreams play out in your mind and seem to be made of nothing but your mind. There are no hardcopy materials, no screens or stages, no computers or speakers. The entire story unfolds within you.
That story involves DreamYou, which during the dream seems to be you. But the story also involves your friend and your teacher. And both of these characters, just as surely as DreamYou, exist only in your mind and are made solely of your mind, as is the classroom and hallways you walk with your friend. Isn’t it interesting, though, how, when you tell your partner in bed the next morning and then your work colleagues later in the day about the dream, they all say they’ve had one just like it? So perhaps, though made only of your mind, the dream has also existed with small variations in and been made of countless other minds!
You as the sleeping dreamer are the experiencer of the dream. DreamYou experiences nothing. DreamYou is an aspect of the dream, a sliver of what is experienced, a character in the story. Only you as the dreamer ‘hear’ the dream words, ‘see’ the dream images and ‘feel’ the dream anxiety. What’s more, during the dream, DreamYou is absolutely certain they are you. It doesn’t even arise as a question in the dream. Yet, upon waking, it is just as obvious that DreamYou was not and is not you. You are too old to be in high school English class. You have no paper due today. You are not in trouble. You needn’t worry.
That sinking feeling, that escalating anxiety as DreamYou realised they had forgotten the assignment, was something you experienced, but now you realise that, even then, at the time of the dream itself, there was nothing for the real you to worry about. The unpreparedness in the dream was never a threat to you as the dreamer; it was only a problem for DreamYou. Having woken, you realise things are fine and that things were equally fine even as you slept and experienced an anxious dream, a disturbing story.
You don’t have to scold DreamYou. No need to admonish, ‘How could you have been so silly?!?’ DreamYou couldn’t help it. They were just a character in the dream, in the story that existed within and was composed of your mind. DreamYou could do no differently than they did. DreamYou was not mistaken. As the character, they were bound by your mental creation of them; they were simply being themselves as they were.
DreamYou knows nothing of you the dreamer, because they know nothing at all. They cannot understand you, because they understand nothing outside the context of the understanding you give them within your dream. They are a character whose composition may include ideas about a higher level reality, but those ideas, if they are present in DreamYou’s ‘mind’, are there only because the real you dreams them.
You needn’t be disappointed in yourself either, ‘How could I have mistaken myself for that dream character?’ You didn’t mistake yourself for the dream character at all. You were simply the experiencer of the dream, and the dream was a story in the first person from the perspective of the main character, DreamYou. You experienced the story with perfect clarity and accuracy. It’s just that the story contained the strong sense of subjectivity that the main character was a conscious self with a will, a history, preferences, senses and thoughts. Upon waking, you realise the illusory nature of that sense, but within the dream, there was no perspective from which to see this. The perspective is part of the story. There is no perspective from outside while experiencing the dream, only once it ends.
You were not mistaken. You experienced your dream exactly as it was.
Now, something to consider.
What if the you who dreamed the DreamYou above is really a DreamYou itself? What if that which you’ve always taken yourself to be is not actually a subject at all, is not the experiencer, the knower of your life? What if that personal you is a DreamYou and therefore an object of experience in a greater consciousness?
Would this be scary? Does it mean you don’t really exist? Wouldn’t it instead, since you rather than the person you’ve taken yourself to be? Let’s consider it as we did the previous scenarios: author, medium, story, experiencer (reader, audience, player, dreamer).
In this scenario, the ‘greater consciousness’, which is You (capitalised here onward), is the author of the story. Like in the dream scenario, this author is the creator in the sense that the entire story arises from the well of potential that You are, but You do not choose how the story unfolds, do not sculpt its details through design decisions. You are the author, but not in the sense of a dictating director expressing a will. No, rather as pure creativity, infinite potential. This greater consciousness (which is really the only consciousness) that You are, is not a person drawing on preferences, experiences and imagination to create. You draw from your own essence - unbounded freedom and creativity.
Of what is the story made? On what page is it written? What is its medium? It is made of experience. It is experience. The story is the experience of the story, the experience of itself. And that experience is made of nothing other than the greater consciousness itself. It is nothing other than You. You are both the creator and the medium of the story.
This story is, from the perspective of the person (now recognised as a character) you once took yourself to be, absolutely comprehensive. It is your personal life. It is everything that happens, everything experienced from that personal perspective, across every second of the life that that experience constitutes. The story is a personal life including the person itself, all the other characters and the entire environment in which the life unfolds. From the personal perspective, the story is life, reality, manifestation, the universe, everything.
Yet, the person is part of the story. The person is, like the rest of the story, experienced. It is not the experiencer. It, the person, is not You. You are the experiencer of the story, of life, of reality, of manifestation, the universe, everything. If your personal name is Bob Smith, then consider that Bob Smith experiences nothing. Only You experience Bob Smith, his life, the story of which he is the main character.
You are this greater consciousness that is not any thing, is no thing, is nothing. None of the particulars of the story apply to or limit You. You are no object that has defining properties. All objects and properties arise in You, all are composed of You. You experience all properties but are bound by none.
Yet, because the story is composed of nothing but this consciousness, this experiencing, You are everything. You are nothing in the story, yet You are everything in the story. The story is created by You, composed of You and experienced or known by You. The story is Your experiencing of Yourself. Consider too that, since all that differentiates Bob Smith and his life from any other character from any other life, all that differentiates any story from another, is detail, limiting and defining properties that apply in different measure and in different combinations in one story than in another, You, this experiencing consciousness, are the same You that experiences all main characters, the subject behind all perspectives, the author, medium and experiencier of all stories.
In the previous scenario, the dreamer was a person. That person awoke to a more fundamental level of reality. From that waking level, the person could assess the dream ‘from the outside’. The person could realise from outside that DreamPerson was not the real person. The person could compare the dream to other dreams and to waking life. The person could analyse it, consider alternatives to it, judge it.
In the current scenario, which is to say in reality, a greater intelligence, You, experience all stories, but experience each only from the inside. This is why Bob Smith is unable to know, can only guess at, Sally Brown’s experience. You know every story by experiencing it, but Your only experience, aside from the eventless knowing of Your eternal stillness, is through one or other of the countless stories, from countless different personal perspectives, that spool from Your creative heart. You are none of these people, but each of them exists only in and as You.
These stories. These endlessly varied, uncountable, comprehensive lives and perspectives are each whole and perfect, as is Your knowing of them.
Bob Smith may be accepting or judgmental, but You as the experiencer of his life accept every aspect of the story that arises within and as You, including Bob’s acceptance or judgment. All judgment, like its opposite, sits with Your perfect acceptance. Anything that exists, exists only because You have accepted it.
Bob may understand his current situation, or he may be confused, but You as the knower of his experience see this understanding or confusion with perfect clarity. All confusion, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect clarity.
Bob may seek pleasure and avoid pain, but You know his seeking, his avoidance, his pleasure and his pain without concern or preference. All pain, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect peace. All preferences and aversions sit within Your unjudging awareness.
Bob may struggle or he may rest in the flow of life, but You know his struggle or ease with absolute effortlessness. All struggle and effort, like its opposite, sits within Your perfect ease. All that happens, including the feelings and thoughts of effort and struggle, happens with no effort whatsoever.
Bob’s travels might take him to remote continents. He might even traverse the stars to distant galaxies. All locations and space itself lie within Your dimensionless infinitude. You occupy no space but hold all space enfolded within Your experiential field.
Bob may be virtuous or sinful, good or evil, but You know his good or evil from beyond good and evil. All good and evil, all love and hate, sits within Your unconditional, welcoming love, a love that says Yes to all that arises to, in and as You, a love that blesses all with Your radiant awareness.
Bob makes decisions, exerts influence, exercises his will. But all decision and action sits within the flow of manifestation arising from the creativity of Your unbounded freedom. Bob is free to be exactly as he is. You are freedom itself, the field of limitless potential and all possible manifestation.
Yesterday, Bob may have been ignorant of his own true nature as You. Today, he may have realised that nature and awakened to his true self as You. But Bob always is You, whether he realises it or not. You are untouched by Bob’s or any character’s ignorance or enlightenment. Enlightenment, like happiness, wealth and virtue, are for the persons, the characters; they are not for You but in You.
Bob was born and will die, but You know his and all birth and death, and You see each moment of every life eternally. All birth, death, movement and even time itself exist within Your eternal stillness.
You seem to be a person living out an amazing story. You seem that way because that is what the story is. All that You experience is through story, not from outside it, looking in. The story is You.
You experience Yourself, and thereby the world is born - not once and for all but in every moment of existence. All that can possibly happen awaits manifestation in Your infinite well of potential. Yet no story truly waits, because You bless each eternally with Your creative, radiant awareness. Every moment, from every perspective, spontaneously arises and instantaneously passes, side-by-side, in the timeless blessing of Your presence.
You are. I am.
All that follows is my amateur attempt to synthesise what I've taken from Matt Licata's The Path is Everywhere. I do add a few of my own twists, so don't hold Matt accountable for any silliness you discover here...
As a young child, I was by nature drawn to connection with those around me. In fact, in my early development I was dependent on their acceptance, recognition and affection. I had no fear that these were contingent, no worry that my love would go unanswered.
Then, life happened, and I learned from my experience. Bear in mind that I was raised in a safe, healthy, loving, stable household like many children can only dream of. Still, my experiential learning in those early days included shocking, life-changing lessons.
It taught me that behaving in certain ways, displaying particular emotions, saying the wrong thing meant that one or more of those on whose love I depended rejected me, failed to see me as I was, withheld (even for the briefest moment) their precious affection. Behaving in other ways won these most desired prizes in special measure.
As a vulnerable little thing, I learned that I was not safe but was at risk of chronic misunderstanding, rejection and abandonment. As a charitably minded little thing, I knew that these precious, loving people around me would not do this without good reason. As an adaptive, capable little thing, I learned that while in some ways I was good, there was something fundamentally wrong with me. It became clear that I was unworthy of the very thing for which I most yearned, love.
One term for this package of good things of which I was incapable or undeserving and bad things that I'd identified as the sources of my undeservingness is the shadow. In my simple mind, I think of it as: Me (the big, whole masterpiece that I am) minus this shadow equals me (the limited, 'acceptable' bit of Me that seems to stand a better chance of being loved and a lesser chance of being abandoned).
The whole process of splitting (self-abandonment) that I've awkwardly summarised was the right thing for me to do at the time, given the capabilities I had as a young child. It was not a mistake or a crime.
My best guess is that everything I've said above applies no more to me than it does to everyone else alive, although the specifics of what one shunts away into shadow differs by culture and by individual. Well, I guess everything above except that I was lucky enough to be in a peaceful, stable, loving household. Too many (and one is too many) children did not have that good fortune.
Nor were the activities of the loving circle of people around me, their behaviour that preceded my splitting myself in this way, cosmic fuck ups. Those behaviours were simply adults carrying out the process that I'll now describe for my adult self. They were acting from a standpoint of their 'me' rather than their 'Me'. But as I'll discuss a bit further, the shadow - theirs, mine and yours - is part of the world, part of reality, and it WILL always find its way into the light of day, no matter how much we seek to sequester it in the dungeon.
As an adult, I now possess, although for much of my life I did not recognise it, a richer set of capabilities for relating to the world than my young child self did. Not recognising this, however, I've spent decades relying on the once-appropriate child's toolbox anytime the splinters of me that that child hid away pop up to present themselves. These visits by members of the shadow community can appear as 'internal' experiences or as my filtering and interpretation of 'external experiences', including the words and actions of other people.
My replaying of the child's solution results in my turning / running from these visitors. This doesn't make me a bad person, and there is no reason for me to beat myself up about it.
But one might ask, why are these splinters visiting? Their visit is a necessity. They are part of reality, part of Me. As a child grasping for solutions, I tried to tuck them away as if they didn't exist, but that didn't change reality. Reality and the big Me are too magnificent to be bottled in such a way. These splinters know all too well that they are part of Me. Their recognition of their unity with me, coupled with their inescapable longing to rejoin me to re-organise as Me, is Love.
Yet, the visits are always uncomfortable for me. This discomfort tends to be the trigger that activates my 'autoplay' of the childhood strategy of avoidance. So what am I to do? What is one to do? Well, there are whole books, including Matt's excellent one, written about that.
My short oversimplification is that I can use those very same triggers, my noticing of sensations of discomfort in my own body, as signals to alert me to an alternative response. The good news is that, in one sense, there is nothing I have to do in lieu of my habituated avoidance response. The invitation that these signals issue is to sit with and hold, in a gentle, loving, non-judging way, those visitors, not seeking to do anything with them. I do this by sitting with the physical discomfort that announces and constitutes them - only for as long as I can. It may be just a few seconds at first.
These few seconds of sitting with and holding the discomfort of these visits from the shadow allow me to see that they don't constitute an existential threat to me. I can survive them. Bit by bit, slowly, patiently, gently over weeks, months and years, I can welcome and re-integrate more and more of the historical visitors back into Me. At some point, it becomes apparent that these visitors were never outside of Me; it was only me who thought so. These visitors are part of life, and I love Matt's quote:
Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.
This doesn't culminate in a finish line, beyond which all is rosy and smooth. We don't purchase or earn exemption from the tough side of life. We don't buy certainty. Life remains mystery. Reality includes all opposites. Even once all historical visitors have been welcomed home, reality will send us guests. A life lived with the gentle, loving openness I've described isn't one in which reality filters out the unwanted guests for us. It is one in which we are increasingly able to welcome all guests, even the ones who bear discomfort and seeming threat in their arms.
And perhaps, in time, it becomes clear that this reality that sends the guests and this Me who welcomes them are the same undivided whole. And that recognition of wholeness, too, is Love.
I've been reading Michael A. Singer's The Untethered Soul, in which he expresses the need for openness very well. My paraphrase of what I take as his central message is, "All fortresses are also prisons."
We erect and occupy fortresses - be they physical, emotional, intellectual, psychological or ideological - to protect us from something outside them. And what are we protecting? Ourselves, which is to say our selves, our egos. Our egoic fortresses are the assembled constructs - collections of images, narratives and labels - that give us the impression of solidity, durability and independence from the flux of change that surrounds us. We hide in these redoubts in the hope of defining a realm of control within a vast sea in which we recognise we have none. We cower in them for comfort.
These bunkers of self-definition need constant maintenance to keep them from crumbling. The insistent flow of reality splashes against them and drags at their foundations incessantly. What else do we expect to happen when we try to set fixed positions in a reality that rushes, dancing and laughing, at and past it in perpetual renewal? Our tenets and definitions of self, based on past pain and pleasure, now frozen, cannot help but conflict with ever-evolving reality. Which do you think wins?
But let's come back to the twin-faced nature of these citadels. How are they also prisons? Do we not see that, however effective they are in keeping out the things that might cause us pain or discomfort, they are at least as effective at denying us access to much beyond the walls that would bring us delight. Our fortresses protect our comfort at the cost of our freedom. Avoiding exposure to that which we fear, we equally cut ourselves off from much for which we yearn.
Alas, we cannot have both untroubled comfort and the freedom to recognise our own peace and wholeness.
You can read Singer, who says all of this so much better, for yourself, but I'll let you in on some good news. These fortresses are a simple matter (not the same as an easy task) to bring down. The world itself, the collision of reality against the fortress walls, will bring them down, if only we will stop shoring them back up. A further happy truth: our repair of these walls has been soaking up untold amounts of our life energy, and all of that becomes available to us if we can relax and release from our defense of them.
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.