I’ve never been stuck in quick sand, but as a child I watched enough cartoons to know it’s not exactly a pleasant experience. You’re literally stuck.
While you may never be strolling the dessert and fall into a pool of wet sinking sand, you just as much as myself and everyone else will regularly face inner quick sand—places where we get stuck.
Maybe it’s a bout of anxiety or having to do a bunch of things you don’t like. Maybe it’s low motivation or hearing some bad news. So when you’re stuck in your quick sand,
What to do? What to do?
Imagine for a moment we pixelated your self-structure, like an old school television—not just one coherent picture, but 1,000 little colored pixels that make up the screen.
In your self-structure, some pixels are your good qualities, such as kindness or patience. Some pixels are your “difficult” qualities, such as depression or self-judgement.
For a lot of my life, I had trouble falling asleep at night. I would usually lie there for 30 – 60 minutes until my thoughts slowed down enough to allow me some sleep.
It wasn’t just at night. All day long, the thoughts in my head went on and on and on. I had difficulty paying attention to lectures or reading books without lots of mind wandering.
At the same time, I became very skilled at analysis and articulating myself. People always said I was very thoughtful and discerning. This felt good to hear.
In other words, I became very good at thinking, but I paid a price for it—not being very present in other aspects of my life.
I often wondered if there had to be this trade off. Couldn’t I be both good at thinking and present in my life?
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