One approach to spiritual practice is to tune into your “high-road” vision—your deepest aspiration for your life. From there, you begin to explore what obstacles are preventing you from living that vision, and removing them one-by-one until your life is your vision.
Say your vision is to live creatively, simply and soulfully. After many years of trial and error, you’ve found your calling through playing the violin with a modern twist. You are good at what you do. However, you still have a lame day job, a few destructive habits, a difficult relationship with anxiety, and some bad relationship patterns you can’t seem to break free from.
There are two basic flavors of life-changing insight.
Firstly, there are the spiritual insights, which always pertain to something about the eternal present. Maybe it’s perceiving the sacredness of all things, awareness splitting off from the ego, or dropping into a boundless love.
Secondly, there’s the human insights, which refer to meaning, purpose and choices. Maybe it’s figuring out your life’s calling, realizing it’s time to leave a job, or understanding the meaning of your friend’s death.
In either flavor, the insights happen totally unpredictably—some call this grace. Maybe it comes through a peak experience in nature. Maybe through a profound absorption in song or dance. Maybe through the deep stillness of sitting meditation. Or, maybe through nothing special, like cleaning the bathroom sink.
Lately, I’ve been playing around with shamanic journeying. Mostly just in my own house, while listening to recordings. In the past, I’ve done them in a group setting while a shaman filled the room with sage and steadily thumped on a drum. A fun experience, for sure. However, more than the fun, I’ve been particularly excited about comparing and contrasting the different methods of mind exploration.
In relation to mindfulness meditation, one big similarity is that they are both founded on a certain degree of mental stability or non-distractedness (aka samadhi). If a person intends to do some mind exploration, but is just lost in a sea of compulsive thinking, they won’t get very far in either. However, if they can take even a baby step beyond that, they’re in for a real treat.
As for the core difference, mindfulness is interested in the nature of experience while shamanic journeying is interested in the content of experience. Let’s unpack both of those interests.
I really like to meditate. It’s the most important thing I do every morning. If I have a few minutes (or an hour) free at some point later in the day, my default is to be still and meditate rather than look at a screen or a book.
Part of my natural enthusiasm for meditation is that I’ve logged well over 10,000 hours, and now I’m actually pretty good at it. However, this hasn’t always been the case. For a long while, I sucked pretty substantially.
My first experience with meditation was a semester-long course in college named, Meditation and Relaxation. Once, the teacher had us take deep, conscious breaths, counting one on the inhale, and two on the exhale. We were supposed to see how high we could count before we “blanked out,” got distracted, lost in thought, or forgot to consciously breath or keep counting. I usually couldn’t make it past five. My record was around ten.
A couple months ago, I read Byron Katie’s excellent book, “Loving What Is.” It’s on a very short list of books I highly recommend to everyone. Among other things, one wisdom bit that’s stuck with me is her discussion of the three types of business:
1) Your business. Your own beliefs, views, ideals, thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, reactions, etc.
2) Other people’s business. Other people’s beliefs, views, ideals, thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, reactions, etc.
After doing so much meditation, I came to a place where I was highly proficient at “witnessing” my inner reality. I could recognize even the subtlest emotions the moment they began—I knew how they felt energetically in the body, their associated thoughts and, often, the underlying reasons they arose.
Seeing all that in real-time was a tremendous way to demystify the ego. I didn’t really get phased by much. Good or bad. I was solidly in the middle. I lived my life in a place of enormous spaciousness.
And yet, something seemed a little off.
I spoke with a teacher who pointed out that while my strong awareness was definitely the right path, she saw in my eyes a hint of weariness, and suggested maybe I wasn’t channeling it the right way. She gazed at me longingly and said there are two basic directions for awareness:
The first, dis-identification, she said is a high spiritual quality full of centeredness and aliveness. A dis-identified person welcomes whatever experiences or emotions come, but also has enough inner strength to not get entangled or carried away. No matter what’s happening, they remain rooted in their deeper identity and their innate human desire to love and serve.
The second, dis-engagement, she said is a form of aversion that, while spacious and grounded, is devoid of life-force. A dis-engaged person doesn’t want to deal with certain things, and their inner strength can be used to avoid, even subconsciously, truly experiencing certain places inside themselves. It leaves a person feeling like something is a little off.
The bridge, she told me, was to palpably feel my feelings.
If you’re like most people, you have a few core aspirations.
Maybe it’s something external, like a job that truly moves your soul. Maybe it’s a deeply loving relationship. Maybe it’s a family and raising your kids to be beautiful human beings. Maybe it’s a large bank account, a life of travel and adventure, or perhaps just a comfortable life.
Maybe it’s more internal, like living each day with love and compassion. Maybe it’s enlightenment or truth. Maybe it’s to live simply and deeply. Maybe it’s to bring mindfulness and presence into your every step.
For a moment, try considering the difference between your life now and the life you aspire to. Continue reading
Part I – The Four Definitions
Nowadays, the word “awareness” is used very loosely, and often I’m not even entirely sure what people mean when they say it. I thought it would be helpful to bring awareness (hah!) to what is actually meant by the word awareness. Here’s four meanings which capture pretty much any possible usage:
1) A more contextual, big picture understanding.
“Ever since his father died, he’s been living with a heightened awareness of what life is really about.”
“After reading this essay, you will have more awareness of the different usages of the word awareness.”
“Are you aware of the implications of touching her thigh?”
2) A present-focused attention that’s stripped of context.
“I’m aware of the bitter and sweet flavors of this chocolate bar on my tongue.”
“Bring your awareness to the sensations of the breathing in your nostrils or abdomen.”
“I’m aware of my current mood of apathy and the accompanying low-energy I feel. Continue reading
A friend and I were in Myanmar, sitting in the bus station lobby, ready for our 12 hour trip to Bagan. After waiting patiently for an hour, the bus finally arrived and began letting passengers on board.
When we handed the driver our tickets—entirely written in Burmese—he looked at them, looked at us, looked at them again, and then said, “I’m sorry, you are on the wrong bus. This bus is going to Bagan. These are tickets for the bus to Mandalay. It’s the complete opposite direction.”
As it turned out, the woman we bought the tickets from gave us the wrong ones; and, as the bus to Bagan was now full, we were stuck in the same town for another day.
Shortly before I went for my 21 month retreat, I told a friend I wasn’t really an anxious person and that I experienced anxiety maybe four or five times a year. Shortly after completing the retreat, I told another friend that I experienced anxiety just as much as everyone else—maybe four or five times an hour.
It’s not that intensive meditation made me more anxious; instead, it showed me what had always been happening in my mind on a much subtler level.
Upon hearing this comment, some people wonder why I would ever want to be aware of something so unpleasant as frequent anxiety. I tell them there’s two basic life positions: “knowledge is power” and “ignorance is bliss.”
Knowledge isn’t always comfortable (have you ever read “A People’s History of the United States”!?); but, with respect to my four-to-five times per hour anxiety, I now have a choice on how to handle it that I once didn’t have. Sometimes I still act reactively, but more and more, I manage to act out of a deeper sincerity.
I’m not sure I could give a greater endorsement for ‘knowledge is power.’