I haven’t written on xyz for ages, so here’s an experiment. I learned this from an old miner named Noom.
It begins so. Most of our negative states (worry, anxiety, depression) stem from hanging out unconsciously in the water element. Water is a narrow, internal focus. A thought, a feeling. Something we turn over and over inside our heads. (Usually about something not right with our world. ) We get stuck in this cramped space. From here let’s try a path, a trail of sorts out to a different place. We’re not going to try to replace what’s here with happier feelings or thoughts, or even resolve anything at this level, we’ll leave everything just as it is, instead we’re going to go on a walkabout with our attention.
Focus now on something external. The breath maybe, its feeling on our nostrils, or a specific point of focus in the external world: that coffee cup on your desk, or a single sound. This is fire. Narrow, external focus. We’ve shifted our attention from an internal thing to an external thing. It’s still a narrow focus but we’ve shifted it to something more material than a thought or emotion. And in doing so we’ve shifted attention from water to fire. Keep attention on an object in this external focus for a few minutes.
Next, become aware of the entire field of vision but not any one thing in particular; or of all the sounds without distinguishing individual sounds. This is earth. Broad, external focus. It probably brings naturally in its wake a wave of subtle relaxation. This comes sometimes from unfolding awareness into a larger space than the “point” consciousness of water and fire, a space where we can catch our breath. This broader field state of awareness has been called Hakalua by the shamans of Hawaii. It’s a nice state to be in while walking in a crowd of people, there is a whole flow thing happening. You’ll find you can glide through the crowded subways of Tokyo like a fish through dancing seaweed. Stay in this expanded, external awareness for a few minutes.
The final maneuver to this yoga of attention brings us to where a subtle bliss hangs out, and is antidote to all moods and fugue states which spawn from absorption in water. Become aware of the feeling inside the body, not any particular place, but like the expanded sight and sounds of earth, try to take in the sensations of the entire body at once. This vast and shimmering unified field of sensations that make up the totality of presence in the body. This is air. It is a broad internal focus.
Most people aren’t aware that attention has structure. A particular orientation, either external or internal and a particular scope: narrow or broad. And shifting through these modalities with the senses, in a certain sequence, unlocks specific effects. In this case, freeing our awareness from submergence in unpleasant thoughts or feelings. The sequence is important (but experiment with yourself if you’d like to see if that is so.)
Play with being aware of what structure of attention you habitually reside in. And the effects of opening your field of awareness with earth and air on the quality of your day. For most of us, it’s like shifting to an entirely different mode of being. And with it, comes new channels of information about our reality.
The element Air may first seem strange to assign the body. But when we explore the field of sensation it’s surprising that most of our internal body sensation is actually space rather than a density we might have assumed before investigating first hand.
And we cannot be aware of this field of our body without also being present in the now. In fact, there are entire Buddhist, Yogic and Somatic practices based totally on hanging out here in the body with the air element. With attention spread from head to toe. Students of Gurdjieff are told to keep at least 80 percent of their awareness constantly in the body to become more alive, present and less of an automaton in daily life.
So if you ever need a little taste of lightness of being, especially when swallowed in some fugue or mood or the world closing in around you. Give this little mental asana a whirl and discover how specifically directing attention, in a prescribed sequence, can fundamentally shift the quality of experience. It’s like an escape hatch. And with just this superficial, level one spell of the elements, one might become curious about what else is possible working with elements.
Mastery of our moods and capabilities begins with mastery of attention
So the next post will probably be about a cool trick with the water element that leverages its unique properties in ways even more magical.
You a writer? Or pretend to be? Isn’t that what writers do? Pretend?
Well, yeah, but they have to write also.
Because it’s part of the pretending, it kind of makes it more real and has its own shape of things.
Are you talking about poetry?
Yeah, but any writing too. Opening a channel between thoughts and physical expression. Sometimes thoughts stay in line, other times…
They start imaginary dialogs?
For one, yeah. But seriously, how else can you use thought to explore something? Because it’s hard to hold big ideas or sprawling ruminations in the head. And then things like “ruminate” pop out and need investigating, street omens, one of those stutters in the stitch of time… I discover “rumination” listed in the pathology section of psychology on wikipedia…
Extensive research on the effects of rumination, or the tendency to self-reflect, shows that the negative form of rumination (associated with dysphoria) interferes with people’s ability to focus on problem-solving and results in dwelling on negative thoughts about past failures. Evidence from studies suggests that the negative implications of rumination are due to cognitive biases, such as memory and attentional biases, which predispose ruminators to selectively devote attention to negative stimuli.
This. This use of “self-reflection” in psychology is fascinating because it is mindless. Or rather, not the mindful definition of self reflection as a pure awareness without judgment as in meditation —but rather as a faceted awareness, an awareness of one self distinct from another self; both within us. In fact, a common hypothesis in psychology is we each have many selves. Some at odds with one another. Taking turns being in charge.
So rumination, as pathology, is one of our selves screwing with another of our selves with trash talk and scary stories. And the gnarly parts thrive and grow through being observed and, more importantly, reacted to. If there were no shocked, angry or anguished “reflector”, it would lose psychic energy, to be replaced with another grab for attention by other complexes. But if the observer were simply awareness itself, with no position or preference in negative or positive, it would take a lot of fun out of the torture. By accepting it completely.
The Perfect Man uses his mind like a mirror – going after nothing, welcoming nothing, responding but not storing.
― Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu
This also reflects a curious property of attention. Attention paid to specific thoughts amplify them. Attention withdrawn, distracted or distributed, weakens them. Balanced attention leads to and restores equilibrium. Balanced attention neither focuses upon nor withdraws from any thought or feeling. It merely stays present and to see what happens. It may even be eating popcorn. It’s like an ET landed in our brain, or a Stranger in a Strange Land.
In tales of lore, Odin sends out two ravens every day: hugin and munin, usually translated as “thought” and “memory.”
Hugin and Munin fly each day
over the spacious earth.
I fear for Hugin, that he come not back,
yet more anxious am I for Munin.
– Odin as Grimnir in Poetic Edda
I suspect hugin and munin are not thought and memory, as commonly translated, but attention and awareness. Awareness as self-remembering. And Odin uses these two magical abilities, the only true abilities we possess and share:
To direct attention, which he worries over the control of, but most importantly…
Remembering ourselves and being present to what’s happening right now. Which is the only way we notice when we’re asleep and how our attention is being directed “for” us.
Awareness and attention. Expand attention to bliss out in open awareness and flow or vegetate. Or contract it to a point and hold it to train putting energy into containments of thought. Focusing on breath, mantra or kasina are punching bags for manifesting and steering mood and energy states. Work on steering first. It’s fun. Plus we finally get to drive!
Let’s talk magic. Magic comes in flavors as varied as fad diets, and like diets, much of magic is hype and misinformation. Many may have heard the call of magic since childhood, only to become disillusioned in later life, after years of make-believe with what proved little more than personality flairs and broken promises.
For magic to be magic, in my book, it has to achieve three things:
It must demonstrate that reality is an illusion by allowing a more expansive range of reproducible possibilities than consensual hallucination or present conditioning permits.
It must not lock me deeper into automatic machinations of my ego that meditation practices have already revealed as ultimately pointless and unfulfilling.
It must not be dull.
My preferred system starts with #2 above using devices called soul mirrors. Even if you’re not interested in magic, these devices can rock your world. And if you are into magic, they become training ground for criteria #1 where we can practice some cool whiz-bang stuff (#3.) Their first proof of effectiveness is in removing the biggest obstacles to what we want in life. Almost like, uhm, magic? And after we get our own illusions tamed a bit, we can wade deeper into pools of the consensual dream.
To construct soul mirrors we first ask this: what do we want in this life? It may be a challenging question. Hey, no one said magic was easy. Well, those diet books did, but they lie. It’s a difficult question because here’s the thing: it’s not about what others want for us. Not what we think we’re supposed to want to fulfill whatever social contract makes us a “good” person, not what some system of belief mandates for our eternal salvation or enlightenment, but simply: what do WE want. Really. The good news is we don’t need a complete answer.
A glimmer of an answer is ok, it doesn’t have to (although it can) be a full blown blueprint. Without at least a spark of our soul, a whisper from our heart, we won’t have enough mojo to pursue magic effectively, much less vibrantly. And magic should be vibrant and engaged in life, in my opinion. Otherwise, why bother?
With a spark to work from and hint of direction, which just needs to be like headlights in our car on a dark road, showing us a little ahead, maybe it’s not a detailed route yet, or ever, but it is a direction. And with this direction in hand we can ask ourselves: what are my character “flaws”, my negative traits, beliefs and habits, my internal adversaries that are major obstacles to following this path that calls me? This becomes our black soul mirror. It requires a compassionate but objective accounting. It’s not an exercise in wallowing in shortcomings, guilt or blame; it’s a first step in developing a clarity about what is preventing us from becoming what our spark partially illuminates.
The next mirror is built in a similar fashion by asking what traits, behaviors and habits we possess which are working for our benefit in this world, that have helped with our pursuits and have at least kept that spark alive. Our internal allies. Again, this is not to pat ourselves on the back, boost our ego or self-esteem, it’s just taking inventory. Because there’s something big brewing, yet to come, with how these ingredients can launch a magical life. (The general advice is to aim for 100 entries in each list 🙂
Through the white and black soul mirrors, we’ve assessed our strengths and what resources we bring to the table, and our enemy: which behaviors, traits, patterns work to sabotage our efforts. And we’re rekindling our flame and focus.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” -Sun Tzu
The next step with the soul mirrors is to identify the one negative in the black mirror that is currently the greatest obstacle in achieving what we most want in life and then tackle it with both intent, and at least 5 other more magical tools we’ll discuss in the next post, in order to:
Take on our biggest obstacle in ways that it doesn’t know what hit it.
Get our first experience using tools that once fully developed will warp our illusionary worlds.
Learn about the make-up of our strengths and flaws at an elemental level so we can keep balanced and free of ego puffery when we start channeling more energy to do wilder stuff.
“We take our minds, our inner worlds, for granted, and do practically nothing to develop their real potential. That this potential exists, and that it is, if not limitless, at least far greater than any of us ever suspect…” -from the introduction to The Mind Parasites, by Colin Wilson.
For those curious about the system above, these authors will help in part to bring it to life. The other part is up to us.
During my avid martial arts phase I was blessed to train with some true masters. And often on the razor’s edge where something may be working —yet for minutely wrong reasons— they would straighten me out. A technique I thought I understood would reveal hidden facets or covert flaws that, once corrected, took it to another level. Without such a guidance the technique would not have developed to its full potential. Or at least its potential attainable with my limited skills.
When I left Japan, my teacher told me the path was mine; I’d learned all I needed to continue, the rest would be revealed in practice. Budo. The way.
Last night my dream reminded me of something discovered only through practice. It was a small detail of great importance.
I have been exercising more daily mindfulness. For a few reasons, but one of them was in the hope it would carry over into my dreams. That I would become mindfully aware while dreaming. And last night it worked. I was watching a comedy act in a club. The comedian wasn’t funny, but hey, I wasn’t there to be entertained, I was practicing my “mindfulness.” Mindfully listening to the comedian, mindful that I wasn’t enjoying it very much, and aware of thoughts and dialog happening in my head without getting caught up. Yet the critical missing piece: I wasn’t mindful of the dreaming.
A minute but crucial detail. And a subtle flaw in implementation I often gloss over in daily practice. A flaw of omission which became readily apparent when put to the test in the dream world.
Mindfulness has become the darling of pop psychology. But a teacher in the older traditions once said something, almost as an aside, that is not usually reflected in the contemporary self-improvement approaches. He said it’s not enough to sit and be aware of our thoughts and feelings, we must also be aware that we are doing this. That we are in this place, aware of this awareness of things. When we do this, awareness becomes less of an “I” or a who and more of a “what.” As in, “what the heck is this no-thing that is aware?” Because it seems very strange to call it “me” which is just a collection of things that this no-thing is aware of and untouched by.
Words are poor containers for this point, but the point was this: simply noticing thoughts and feelings can be a type of introspection rather than a type of awareness. And introspection is just another flavor of sleep so one cannot expect lucidity from its practice. Introspection could just be an identification with the idea of detachment. With an idealized “objectivity.” In contrast, there is an alchemy that comes with awareness of being aware. “Self-remembrance” as fourth way1 practitioners call it. The mindful dream that was not lucid seemed to be speaking directly to this flaw in my practice.
I’m sitting in stillness. Incense curls in the periphery, music, noises from the street. A mug of potent green tea. My tarot cards, bare on the table in their opaque stack. What kind of magic am I looking for? Say I cut the deck, like so, and turn over the top card: The Seven of Cups. Exactly what I was thinking. Because, what of it? What if I could slip from this dimension into another, if I could step into dream time, if I could construct immersive worlds and be anywhere and everywhere else than here? Would having this ability merely put me deeper to sleep? All the fanfare of the sensory realms, following every pleasure, transforming every pain, confronting fears, discourse with entities or godforms whose very cliches blow my mind with sparkling fresh clarities.
And what of the spiritual bypassing this card may represent? Beyond all this mere gratification of the senses, accomplishments of ego, that I am merely identifying with the thought of transcendence to avoid the disappointment of my impotence in achieving material pleasures. Is that the middle cup, shrouded and spiritual and glowy? Or the shadow appraising them all.
Is magic this ability to experience something special or is it a work of alchemy, knowing how to transmute whatever is at hand into something amazing until the point that whatever is at hand is amazing by itself. If so, and I think it may be, then I have work to do. With this transmutation stuff…
“Maybe all of these different possibilities exist at the same time, like each moment we live has a thousand other moments layered underneath it that look different.”
― Lauren Oliver, Before I Fall