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.
Some of us trust our brains far more than we should. We often wonder why others don’t see the glaring solutions to complex social and political problems. Things that are just plain common sense. And we may shake our heads, perplexed that the obvious is such a point of contention and debate.
But consider this. You buy a bat and a ball for $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much is the ball? If you answer, “duh, 10 cents” you won’t be alone. In fact, you’ll be in the majority, it’s just common sense. And it’s just plain wrong. Our brains take short-cuts. Thinking about things quickly and superficially saves energy. And quick decisions may ensure our survival (or end us.) But we have slower, more accurate, circuits to think about things in more depth if we must. This is why, other than fight or flight, for more complex situations we need to reign in this instinct for snap decisions. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman covers this engaging topic in-depth. And, by the way, the ball costs five cents. Think about it 🙂
In the mindfulness haze that has taken pop psychology by storm (yeah, I butcher metaphors —there will be pieces strewn everywhere!)… some of us have a few basic questions about all this “awareness” as the answer-to-everything-doctrine being bandied about. We keep our voices low because these aren’t PC questions to the gurus and zeitgeist of our times. These happiest monks in the world, neuroscientist geeks of enlightenment or non-dualists on YouTube staring at us deadpan, saying nothing, smug in their ineffable states of “being.”
Let’s uncork this. This will be a non-linear ride, so hang on to your llamas. What?! What kind of heathen has no llama!? Come back with a llama!
Regarding this universal-awareness-as-who-we-truly-are, some of Grachalacha’s observations were:
Why would we ever forget such a thing in the first place?
Why would it take conscious attention and volition to bring us back into this desired state?
If this desired state lapses incoherent with our conscious, present mind – then how and why did it ever get separate from us?
Was this desired mindful state ever one with us in our present in an effortless way? If so, when was that? If not, why not?
What is it about where or how we live that possibly disjoints us from our mindfulness? Is this incoherence more due from causes within us or without? What’s the distinction?
Like the Christian fable of the fall, we have a story of separation. A fundamental flaw in our spiritual constitution that needs atonement. While the Christian crowd pins hope on obedience and faith, the awareness crowd plays a different mind game. Like: we’re not really separate, we’re all one, ego is an illusion. So it’s ok, relax, we’re already there. But why then, at the pub, aren’t I relieved when you go take a piss, being as we are all one and everything? Well, the sage answers, it’s because we’re experiencing the world through different eyes because the multi-verse is “playing” hide and seek with itself. Okey… but then what’s next? Someone claiming everything came from a big explosion of nothing? How clueless can we (pretend to) be? Seriously?
What we have here is a problem with ideas and the limits of thought. Particularly with language. Language can fabricate conundrums just because a word seems to make sense. What’s the temperature of this molecule? Sounds reasonable, but it makes no sense. Temperature means how hyper a group of molecules colliding together are, it is meaningless to apply the term to a single molecule. The very structure of language is also based on some ancient, out-dated philosophical assumptions. Some dating back to Aristotle, like the law of identity:
something has to be either a or not a
something can’t be both a and not a
This becomes semantic distortion in daily grammatical constructs like: you are either a success or you are not a success; you can’t be both a success and not a success; so which are you? Huh, punk? Sorry, sometimes my words do my thinking for me, and that essentially is the problem.
So this concept, “awareness”, gets batted around in the ball pen of language as if were some property of a thing. Like red on an apple. But the experience of awareness is something different. And a little taste of meditation, sampled correctly, reveals a distinction that can be game changing: we can be aware of our thoughts without thinking them. Awareness is not just another thought.
What the heck does that even mean? It means (it doesn’t really mean this, these are just a bunch of words that might evoke something that recreates meaning in you)… IT MEANS, that when we (aka this awareness) separate a little from our thoughts, for a short period, could be a few seconds… we sometimes make an earth shattering discovery that we aren’t our thoughts. Although usually we are. And right after we discover we aren’t —we’re mugged, duct taped and thrown in the cargo of another train of thought passing by. Sometimes we free ourselves, minutes or hours later and get back to “meditating.” Some people just give up and become hobos.
But some never had this experience of separating the two. Snarky schools of awareness call these people sleepwalkers. All they will ever know, or be, is their incessant chains of thinking and feeling which is merely a summary of where and when they were born and what they’ve experienced since. They will never observe their thoughts run themselves, without them, one colliding off another like billiard balls. They may even assume they have agency in their lives. And it’s hard to awaken people who are dreaming they’re already awake.
This dream of being awake carries into the realm of ideas and we can talk about being awake, analyze what it means to be awake, all because it is fascinating trivia to the mind. And all while we are deeply asleep.
So what’s the big deal about awareness, anyway? If I’m just aware that my thoughts are thinking themselves, that feelings come and go, that everything is transitory, how am I any better off? Just let me sleep, dammit. Or at least talk about sleeping in a more favorable light.
And the thing is, I don’t know how it works for someone awake all the time. But for someone who wakes up now and then it’s a curious affair.
On the one hand, having extra space in the head, does nothing to change or control the thoughts. And if it does, it’s not awareness, it’s a thought messing with another thought. So there’s nothing that needs to be (or can be) done, ego-wise. Nor is there anything not to do, so the ego keeps on doing its ego thing, but awareness is not enmeshed as it was before, neither is it sitting in some crow’s nest looking down on it all, everything is “flowing” through it, in it… everything is heightened…and while nothing needs to change, everything subtly shifts. It becomes a state that’s lacking something: a certain…craving. A certain dopamine janxed orientation that whispers: this moment is amiss, is not enough, there is more, there must be more! And when that neural earwig stops being our default state, which is wind in our sails when we’re on the thought trains (I warned you about the metaphors), without that dopamine spin, we find our natural state now has something added as well: an exquisite balance in the now, that doesn’t care what the self is doing but which illuminates everything it does in a curious way.
So. many. words. But if you bob to the surface of awareness like this, poking out of the thought-stream, there’s a certain feel. Though feel is the wrong word. And there is no right word.
But why would we ever forget such a thing if it was our natural state?
I believe awareness has the ability to inhabit things. It can inhabit them so completely it forgets it is not the thing. I believe this simply because of how it seems to work in meditation. And in dreams. When we awake from the dream, we realize we were dreaming. Seldom do we realize it when we are in the midst. Sometimes I’m even explaining to others, in my dream, about the nature of dreaming, without it occurring to me, that I’m in the dream. I can almost hear their snickers.
This raw awareness, when not enmeshed in thought, is the same essence we’ve had all of our lives —it hasn’t been affected one whit by any of our experiences. It may be the only thing we take with us after we die. Not our memories, just it. Though I think there will be a shit storm of a show right after death —when we are confronted by jamborees of our unhinged lived experiences. An event the Tibetan and Egyptian Book of the Dead try to walk us through so we don’t freak out and make bad choices and maybe, with guidance across the threshold, can have a final chance to escape the gravity of recurrence. Journeys with hallucinogens may also be valuable preparation in this respect.
The Tibetans have a sleep practice, maintaining awareness 24×7 through even deep stages of thoughtless sleep; and I think as long as I forget myself when I sleep and wake back up in the morning, then the self I’m living is not the Self that will remain long after I die. My self is still largely too invested in story, most of the time.
Which kind of begs the question, what’s this little, temporary self to do? It obviously can’t bootstrap itself into enlightenment through sleepwalking, and while we might drowsily observe what’s happening a few times, why are we trapped like this in the first place? And the intellectual answer may be that “we” aren’t trapped at all, never have been, although most of us probably awake between lives rather than during them because we paid for the luxury tour, the full immersion that promises the real thing. Or we’re in that stage of evolution, like with the bicameral mind, where we hear these voices but don’t yet realize they are our own. (And is asking the “purpose” of evolution like asking the temperature of a molecule?)
There are things our little selves can do. Dangerous things, subversive things, that might just blow up the whole expensive expedition for ourselves (and others.) Or jump us further along the arc of evolution than our society, and perhaps nervous system, is currently setup for. By this I mean magic. Playing with the illusions we are apparently caught in and finding out that they…wiggle. At least this gives our ego something to do besides spinning its wheels. The danger is that it could mistake the wiggling for some awesome super power it’s achieving (and how cool is that!) rather than a dismantling of beliefs in a chimerical reality where it is an impostor. The advantage of the magical approach, the way of the serpent in the traditions, is that it’s incremental. It doesn’t require the huge leap across an abyss that awakening does. More on wiggling in another post.
But a brief aside about this from Michael’s post as well:
“The practice of remembering to be mindfully aware — this itself can lead to an endless progression”
There’s an old adage in computer science that everything can be solved by abstraction except the problem of too many layers of abstraction. Awareness of being aware is the path of self-inquiry, a different branch of meditative technique than focus or mindfulness practices. In theory it could recurse, but in practice being aware of being aware is usually where the buck stops. To be aware of being aware of being aware is usually just an awareness of the thought about being previously aware. But don’t take my word for it, try it and come back with an experience. Merely holding “aware of being aware” will throw you into a very different space in the labyrinth. It seems to setup a standing wave that’s hard to hang onto for more than a few seconds. And things start crumbling.
Speaking of abstraction and levels… Gregory Bateson, a brilliant biologist and profound thinker, had an intriguing theory about levels of learning:
Level 0 – Causality. No learning takes place; a similar stimulus results in a similar response; Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence. Level 1 – Linear learning… Pavlov’s dog…learning through conditioning that x means y; a quantum leap from level 0 Level 2 – Deutro Learning, or learning to learn, applying what we learned in one context to another; another quantum leap, employing the the very idea of learning recursively (reflexive thought, the bicameral mind?) Level 3 – Is never found in dogs and rarely in humans, although dolphins have been known to exhibit it, it’s outboxing the contexts themselves to change the approach
Bateson believed level 3 was rarely found in individuals but rather in larger adaptive systems and, like zen, answered questions that were unsolvable in Level 2 using mechanisms that didn’t exist there.
Level 3 may be where magic and awareness converge. It may be that place that out-boxes thinking and makes thoughts into versatile tools rather than flypaper for awareness.
And, finally, as an ordained minister of the Church of Dude, I’m obligated to bring this all to close, for now, with our traditional blessing…
Today I listened to the rings of Saturn. I heard the plaintive voice of a father searching for his wife and daughter in the ghost realms of operation Wander Soul, played in the jungles of Vietnam by army Psyops. I heard the first human voice ever recorded and the first ever played back. The otherworldly summons of atmospheric trumpets. The crack of an atomic bomb ripping matter over clear skies of Hiroshima (oddly enough, survivors reported hearing nothing at all.) And none of this had anything to do (possibly) with my original intent, which was to find clips on YouTube for an experiment.
William Burroughs, a beat writer of the Kerouac generation, believed authentic meaning was non-linear. One can’t just take the news or media (or even language) as it is, packaged for easy assimilation. To discover real meaning, we have to pull things apart and tinker. And then reassemble allowing a collusion of mysterious linkages poorly represented by words like “synchronicity” and “serendipity.”
To penetrate the trance of daily life, Burroughs and others used sneaky methods that worked under the radar. For example, from a 3 column newspaper, he’d slice and dice sentences, words, phrases from each column to construct a work somewhere between random and sentient that sometimes, like panning for gold, reveals a glimmer or two of truth in the sludge of pedestrian accounting. This technique was called the “cut-up.”
Burroughs also expanded its utility to tape recorders. He’d cart around a recorder in his suit pocket, stealing snippets of conversation, cutting and splicing words and phrases together and playing it back aloud, aggravating those passing by and people he was talking to. But he would use the mingled aural fields of playback and real time to find serendipitous connections which factored into his writing and creativity.
The experiment that follows spins up these methods with a modern tool-set using Audacity on the PC. It starts with a swipe file of 5 recorded segments, encountered pseudo-randomly on YouTube: Trump’s fire and fury speech about North Korea, samples from Tropic Thunder, Bugs Bunny, Terrance McKenna, the Lincolnshire Poacher Number Station. (Number stations?? After researching what the heck a “Number station” was, I was sucked into spy transmissions and a rabbit hole leading to the other auditory marvels chronicled at the start of this post.)
Burroughs was fundamentally a gnostic. His priority was direct experience. So he pursued these openings and cracks in the matrix where through hack, circumstance or incantation he could get up close and personal with the happenings in our mazy world. His methods uncovered sometimes the indecipherable and sometimes slivers of found meaning, of sideways understanding that might shake the mind awake for a moment or two. And leave in its wake tendrils of lingering significance.
For the Gnostic, the one hope is not in a passive salvation or by trusting in received wisdom, but through direct personal experience or knowledge, hence “gnosis.” – The Magical Universe of William S. Burroughs
Reading a history of Burroughs recently inspired me to give auditory cut-up a whirl. A wealth of source material is easily available online (no need to wander about town capturing dialog, although not ruling that out for future projects.)
After reviewing how to cut and paste and slide things around in Audacity, I spliced and mixed columns of each track captured on YouTube, working only with the found content to see what emerged. Here’s the result…
Perhaps the fragmented attention spans we see as the fall of civilization is merely a reshaping of our perceptual apparatus, allowing a more porous access to serendipity and synchronicity. Our air-tight chambers of logic or received belief may be due for an overhaul while we stumble about trying to organize the chaos, babies bombarded by input which they have little experience consolidating. Yet.
Sampling, montage, collage: these methods really do come closer to representing or expressing what the facts of perception are for most of us in this Post-Technological, Post-Modernist, Information Overload.
Sifting the light
Think about mining gems of non-linear ore, finding exotic signals tumbling in the noise of everyday experience which shake up our filters of information. These little phosphorescent sparkles of import, hint at something larger than what our day-to-day minds may have been designed to contain. And perhaps these primitive nets, woven with tools of digital gnosis, are our first bumbling attempts at casting larger spans of perception and reeling in greater depths of understanding than we’ve settled for or parsed to date.
I didn’t invent this technique, but I’m beginning to understand its potential. Deep, profound relaxation is something I’d like to experience more often.
It’s sometimes hard for me to unwind, so I’ve experimented with a variety of methods: biofeedback, progressive relaxation, yoga nidra, binaurals, float tanks. Probably the most extreme relaxation can be experienced through opioids. They are a powerful introduction to what’s possible, like psychedelics to a rigid belief system, but like psychedelics they are not a sustainable path. Besides, the whole point of relaxing oneself is not to depend on external circumstances (like drugs, alcohol, vacations, quiet neighbors, etc.)
I’ve bottomed out with the “be aware of tension and relax it” approach. Whether I tensed and relaxed muscles or breathed into them, or visualized them melting like a snow cone in Phoenix, whatever, there was a limit to how much response I could get. Relaxed, but not profoundly so. Not ecstatically relaxed where sinking into the sensation was pure bliss. I didn’t have the right key to unlock some ancient and baseline residual tensions in the musculature. Until I remembered something I’d heard and filed away. I don’t know, maybe I tried it half-heartedly once and thought it was cool and promptly forgot about it.
During my last float tank visit, after relaxing as much as possible with the conscious mind cajoling and encouraging and focusing on “letting go”, body scans, etc., I remembered this old idea. I scanned the body again, this time not looking for tension but for some place that felt “pretty good”, better than the rest; it might be a big toe, but there is always somewhere in the body that’s a bit more relaxed and at peace than anywhere else. And when I found this spot, I let that energy flood and inform the rest of the body. I repeated this procedure for wave after wave. Not sure quite how to explain the method… kind of like a tuning fork, finding a vibration and using that pitch to entrain everything to the note, or like unfolding/unpacking a sensation to flood/radiate to the rest of the body, particularly up in the face and scalp area. And there will be one part of the body that learns the vibration and new facility exceptionally quickly and well, and that part is promoted to leader of the next wave. This resulted in a profound unbinding. Exactly what I was looking for. So until this one bottoms out (I suspect relaxation has no limits) I’m happily exploring this new level. Give it a spin sometime.
There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophies.