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.
An old man at the restaurant keeps staring at me. Maybe in his late 80’s, early 90’s. Finally, I looked up and held his gaze, smiled and nodded hello. His eyes sparkled. Clear, vividly present, in a manner. He was slight of frame, his pants were too loose, working down a bit in his chair. He wore a soft flannel shirt and directed a stream of rolling mumbles towards me, animated. I caught something about “where are you from” and answered, “Colorado. How about yourself?”
He continued to talk in long rounded, subaudible mumbles, I could barely pick out a word or two. I scooted a little closer and tried to make conversation, asking him about his cane. It had an interesting grain. He was a bit hard of hearing too, so I repeated it louder. He started in on an exposition of its qualities, origin, utility…I think. I caught no words this time. But he seemed to enjoy talking to me, so I decided there was more than one way to have a conversation and smiled, giving him my full attention, just being there with him in the moment as company.
His companion, an older lady, but a decade or so younger than him, got up to pay and he got up to come over to our table, continuing the thread. As he got close to my chair, I apologized, confessing I was having trouble hearing him well due to the noise in the restaurant. His companion approached and helped him pull his pants up high, fixing his shirt. She too was hyper-aware, of his condition, of things going on around them and told me it’s not just that he’s hard to hear and mumbles but that he jumbles words as well. She was from Poland.
While she was explaining and he was talking I noticed he was very aware of Rumiko’s hat that she had hung on a corner of the empty chair he stood at, and was very careful not to bump it or disturb it. I wished them well as they left. Wondering what all he said, but feeling we had a nice conversation, of sorts.
Later, we wandered back home, through street stalls set up with curious wares for Easter. One with a lady from Syria, who looked like she had a lot on her mind, selling sweets and baklava. Another stall run by a happy fellow, not from Ecuador I think, maybe Peru, selling a variety of stones and crystals, little stuffed dolls of witches riding broomsticks and stirring cauldrons and crucifixes of Christ with the words I.N.R.I. engraved.
One booth had samples of coffee. As I sipped, I received a detailed explanation of the magical properties of this elixir. This time the problem wasn’t hearing, but my still rudimentary grasp of the language. It was organic, healthy, had amazing healing properties, you could make just adding hot water or milk, maybe a little sugar. But you needed a monkey. Or something like that. In any case, I dreamed I purchased 4 bags (they are kinda small) last night, so on the way to lunch today I need to make a stop.
With age, a certain rigidity often creeps upon us. A crossroads we meet somewhere in midlife —sometimes much earlier. We start either shutting down ways of seeing and doing things or we start relaxing into new experience and potential. We end up becoming everything figured out/we’ve paid our dues/get-off-our-lawn types or we begin lightening our accumulated baggage to reach something beyond our limited and conditioned selves. And let go of our self-inflicted suffering.
The Bamboo That Bends Is Stronger Than the Oak That Resists.
Regardless of our personal histories, whether flogged with hardship or kissed with fortune, some brace against the world like an oak in a windstorm, defending the turf of their hard-won self, and others flow like bamboo, bending in the wind, retaining only an essence of unshakable being.
If one would be the bamboo, rather then the oak, the two most important life skills to cultivate are:
The ability to fully experience negative and uncomfortable feelings without avoiding, denying or resisting their presence. Without feeling they need to be managed, contained or that they reflect anything in particular about self-worth or capacities. They come and they go.
The ability to keep a separation between identity and beliefs and ideas. What we believe or think is not who we are and doesn’t need to be defended when questioned, slighted or attacked.
Conversely, if we want to be an Oak, fighting for our turf and self-importance, then simply reverse the formula:
Suppress, ignore and avoid any unpleasant feelings with whatever works: alcohol, food, addictions, escape, faith, rationalizing, etc. Keep a lid on them. Deny even having them because admitting, much less experiencing them, is weakness/sin/disaster. Comfort is the highest good. Or revel in them, vent them on others and allow them to define us. Hang on to them and don’t let them go, use them to justify and martyr ourselves. Use them as a barometer of our value as a person and the worth of others.
Take anything anyone says about our beliefs or ideas personally, become offended if they believe differently. Be assured that those not sharing our perspectives on life the universe and everything (i.e. 42) are what’s wrong with the world today and make it our personal mission to fix ALL the things. Or at least, complain about the sheeple that don’t share our illumination and post memes on social media about their ignorance and lack of common sense.
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they are a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice. meet them at the door laughing and invite them in. Be grateful for whatever comes. because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.
“When I was twelve years old, the world was my magic lantern, and by its green spirit glow I saw the past, the present, and into the future. You probably did too; you just don’t recall it. See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”
Friends and family are busy pursuing careers, preparing for careers, recovering from careers. Some battle vicissitudes of mind and body. Some caught up in travels, causes, or raising families. And some, all the above. I find myself in a singular position among my compadres it seems. A brief hiatus. Or waystation perhaps.
It’s like I’ve joined an academy or monastery on a distant continent. Where the tapestry of my day consists of meditation, exercise, fasts; an immersive study of artificial intelligence, the physics and aesthetics of sound and design of neoteric instruments. The study of foreign language, chess tactics, writing, magic, and art. And the pursuit of 100 designs (#7 currently) —trinkets and wares made to sell, or give away, from the back of a nomadic gypsy junk tacking in the winds and waves of digital seas.
This curriculum is punctuated, during the day, with walks down ancient streets of colonial architecture, laid upon indigenous pathways and cobblestone trails along sacred rivers. Casual lunches and sidewalk cafes. Night time breaks with wine and Netflix, reading on the couch or romantic dinners out.
When I was young, I used to dream of entering such eclectic schools of magic and science (long before Hogwarts.) Be careful what you wish for, you just might end up there.
When we start listening for an inner voice, we need ways to distinguish voices other than our own. But how many of us recognize our own thoughts? Just because a thought is in our head doesn’t mean it’s ours. We’d be much more difficult to manipulate if that were the case. When we try to observe closely though, thoughts seem to scurry away like frightened mice. Test this if you like. Close your eyes and just be aware of your thoughts. The first time, most of us will claim we have no thoughts. Our mind is a blank. This is not the case.
When we turn off the lights it takes our eyes a while to adjust. First, everything is black. Then we may begin to see rough shapes and outlines. After a while, we begin perceiving features of the room. The same with thoughts. Our gross awareness is not subtle enough to catch them at first. Maybe just their tails. But thoughts are there: boiling, rolling, seething in a tumult of dark assemblies.
One would think, after practicing meditation for years, this type of internal vigilance would be easy. Still, for me, it was surprisingly difficult. Although incredibly rewarding once I got the hang of it. Classic meditation teaches how to concentrate. On things like breath. Or to observe thoughts, but only deep enough to label them as thought and then let go. But this meditation, from hermetic yoga, examines thought’s very fabric to understand its essence. There’s no easy way to tell if the nature of thought is the same for everyone, but what follows is what I discovered about my own.
The first curious thing was that thoughts were only partially verbal, at best. A word, or phrase or concatenation and during the word, before or after it, were large sweeps of rotes1 comprising compressed meaning, kinesthetic hooks, sometimes flashes of imagery and a kind of spatial component. Often words and sentences did arise but it seemed their function was shepherding, to suggest thinking down a byway. In response, thoughts rolled after and tripped thoughts of their own in layers and fades and word fragments and the process was a jamboree. An array of body, feeling, short-hand ideas, memory, image and inflection.
This experiment was eye-opening in a few ways. Realizing I’m immersed in this while waking, truly a type of dream-time the Aborigines claim always exists as a second reality. A density of things happening that I just skim the surface of during the day. It seems all sorts of information is constantly streaming internally only to be passed through a tiny sieve of conscious interactions with the external world. That words have a curious, but largely non-linear effect on underlying thought. They function more like kindling. Sometimes, attending this way, I experienced extremely vivid flashes of imagery. A sea, a river. And discovered also that distinguishing inner voices from my own may be missing the point entirely. None of these thoughts may be mine.
In order to keep us obedient, meek and weak, the predators engaged themselves in a stupendous maneuver- stupendous, of course, from the point of view of a fighting strategist; a horrendous maneuver from the point of view of those who suffer it. They gave us their mind! Do you hear me? The predators give us their mind which becomes our mind. The predators’ mind is baroque, contradictory, morose, and filled with the fear of being discovered any minute now.
-The Active Side of Infinity by Carlos Castenada. For more on this.
The cure for sorcerers, according to Don Juan, was to develop their awareness. Most of us only have about a big toe’s worth. (His words, not mine.) The experiments continue…
A term created by Robert Monroe that means “Thought Balls”. R.O.T.E. stands for Related Organized Thought Energy which is transferred from one soul to another. Rotes are similar to something called a felt-sense and here’s a good essay on the technique. Which comes in handy in these excursions. ↩
how do ou heaer us? in a sense ou are letting us use your fingers, sometimes you see a little ahead on the raod a few words down, sometimes it’s all a big ball of yarn you unstring the more ways you learn to play here the more games we can teach you… you havea appointments left today with sundry bugs and cozy things with food for mind and body with spirits to drink and spirits to consider and spirits to appease and those to discover and if you know one thing you probably rthink that it’s worth knowing and we can take it and hide it and change it and make it something else, like a fairy child and you’ll never know it was swapped. But we don’t do that, do Tho maybe sometimes we should, for the fgreater good, but thank you for letting us have at least a part of our say, for this meeting place, for what we can do and create an discover together. Don’t give up on us, or ourself, this is your path. We leove you.
I would like to make contact with my inner witch
(long pause) about time
how can I free myself from this trance of normalcy? talk to me
I get stuck because you think you’re the only one in here
so, just remember? can you?
sometimes. how can I be more awake to magic? look within
do you have all the answers? I have no answers. does a map have answers? or merely directions?
can I put this on my blog? why don’t you put it on a post-it on the back of your forehead
funny. ok this will be my art project for the day
[Exploring Jung’s active imagination tool to facilitate communication between different parts of the psyche … and who knows what else?]
I’d like to introduce a fun place to hang out. It can be challenging to get to, initially. Sometimes on the way there something swoops past, grabs us, throws us in the trunk carries us off in the opposite direction. Often in the beginning we lose track of our destination. It’s been said, if we don’t remember where we are going we’ll probably end up someplace else. But once there, we can always get back. So let’s go!
My happy place has four doorways. The first door, a step away from ordinary day-to-day consciousness is opened by catching a ride on the breath. The Buddha claims this practice alone is a gateway to enlightenment (Anapana Sati.) The key is simply to be aware when we are breathing-in that we are breathing-in and when we are breathing-out that we are breathing-out. As basic as it sounds, this has several profound and immediate benefits.
For example, while we are aware of a physical sensation of breath we must be in the now and we aren’t trapped in a thought. (A mustache is a good place to watch this sensation for us hirsute types, the opening of the nostrils for those less fortunate.) It doesn’t mean we can’t be trapped by thought —just at this moment, attending breath, we assuredly are not. This is important because a few seconds after the moment, we will likely be snatched away again by thought. Especially starting out. And we will have to remember that we are watching our breath and when we come back, after the few seconds or minutes that we take to remember, we just label the whole abduction: “thought.” As if its whole drama, story and urgency is just a simple glitch. Which it is. And by doing so we get familiar with how we get swept up in our “thinking” and how to escape back to a landing point. Breath becomes our refuge. We become Houdini.
To escape being absorbed by thought we focus on breathing. This doesn’t mean thoughts will all disappear. In fact, at first there will be a tug of war —-breath, thought, breath, thought, thought, thought, er, oh yeah, breath. And later thoughts will continue in the background but, with practice, they won’t carry us away. It’s like when we are listening to someone talk but are also aware of street noise outside. If our attention flickers from conversation to a particular noise, pulling it to the foreground, then it’s likely we’ll miss what is being said. The same with breath. So the goal is not to eliminate all background stimuli, just don’t let them steal center stage. Breath is foreground. The mind might still be partying in the background, but you’ve left the room.
After crossing this first doorway, and attending our breathing uninterrupted for several breaths, we may start noticing this is a very peaceful place! We’re not riding in the stampede of thoughts searching for or reacting to what we should, could, would be doing. To why we aren’t there yet, what we need to prepare for or what we could have/should have done when. All those thoughts and feelings telling us constantly that right now is not ok, not yet complete and not sufficient. Without all these pushy interlopers, we pause and notice things are perfectly ok, there is nothing that needs done right now (and if there is, that’s just a thought.) That this moment is complete. A fine refuge and place of healing. And that’s just the first door. It gets even better.
Even the first door can have lasting impact as it starts to free and introduce us to a space between awareness and thought. Usually we are so absorbed we believe and act most of the time as if we were laminated to our thoughts. They are right in our face. We gain a small but decisive insight that we may be something apart. We might already think we know this intellectually, but experiencing it begins to free something vital.
But back to the doors. Once we’ve gained a little wiggle room and we’re hanging out without being dragged through the mill of thoughts. Hanging out with the breath like resting on a big rock in a raging river. And those thought mills may still be working, but now just in the background. They can’t latch on to us. If they do, we slip our way back to breath and freedom. To solid ground. Where a second door is waiting.
Traversing doors doesn’t have to be a long drawn out process. If we’ve managed to stay with the breath through half a dozen cycles we can try the next door. And with each door, once we can hold our space there for even a few minutes, we can move to the next. On the other hand, sometimes I hang out at the first door for the whole time. This helps me hold the space longer in the other doors in the future.
If we look around here we may notice that when we’re not absorbed in thinking our natural state is kind of nice. We may find a mildly pleasant sensation in the body that can come in different forms. Maybe a feeling of relief, relaxation, tranquility or even love. It may be different things at different times but it will be positive and when we find it we can shift awareness to rest with it like we are doing with the breath. This is the second door.
For some meditative traditions which emphasize concentration, on things like the breath, these pleasant states are encouraged and pursued all the way to complete immersion into blissful realms called the Jhanas. We won’t visit there this excursion. It has a long and fascinating history, but there’s another couple of doors to cover yet.
Before visiting the third door, note that while this practice is really refined during periods of sitting meditation, it’s useful, and necessary to take these tools and states on the road, out into daily life. This happens naturally with the breath meditation. We find ourselves less and less caught up in our own stories. Not because we are detached, or the feelings and thoughts are muted in any way, but because there starts to be a larger space they unfold within. And letting go of annoying, reactive thinking, returning to the breath and dropping down into a nice feeling is a cool resource to carry with us throughout the day. It certain beats a smoke break.
The third door drops deeper down into whatever positive feeling we are experiencing, all the way to the basement of the feeling where all these feelings share one thing in common: a deep sense of stillness. And somehow, this becomes even better than bliss and pleasant feelings. Especially as we start finding this stillness outside of meditation as it flowers more and more into our daily lives spontaneously. Through this door background sounds and thoughts and activities can be going full blast, we don’t block them out or try to suppress them, but nothing “sticks” … the experience of stillness in the presence of unruly background thoughts and disturbances feels something like this video:
Of major help in reaching this stillness of mind is an absolute stillness of body and posture.
Another clue is one of the many simple but profound statements of the Buddha: “a meditator who makes letting go the main object easily achieves samādhi”
The fourth and final door: the “no-thing” that’s “going to change our world.” (see the video above :)) Once practice has separated awareness from thought just a sliver, we can find bliss and sink into stillness. These doors, incidental, pass through two major approaches to meditation: samatha, a concentration practice, leading up to the jhanas and vipassana which is that stillness and presence as everything flows by.
The final door happens to be yet another branch of the contemplative practices called self inquiry.
In the stillness, notice that we (or something) are/is aware. And ask what is this anyway?! Don’t try to answer, especially not with a thought. Just use the question to keep attention honed on the feeling, nature, extent, shape and anything else you can grok without description about the nature of this most amazing experience of simply being aware. This is the discipline of self-inquiry, and its core question is: who am I? Not “I” as a personality or history, but I as simply an awareness. Or as it says in the Bible: “Be still and know that I AM.”
Passing through these doors, we can still be captured. By thought or stimuli, inside or out, coming back into the foreground. But we become more and more skillful by returning each time: anchoring in the breath, dropping down into a good feeling and deeper into stillness where we can then explore the nature of awareness itself.
The feeling simply hanging out in these lower doors, is often of a type of transmutation occurring in the very fabric of our experiences, beliefs and outlook on life. It’s an alchemical state. There’s also a branch of healing unlocked solely by stillness. The sequence of doors progresses through every major tradition of meditation designed for liberation of mind. That wasn’t by plan, the path developed organically, it just seemed to work out that way. So even for homegrown, we’ve got that going for us.
These are directions to my happy place. And probably your happy place too if you try it out. It seems to be a well-trodden path based on all the intersections with traditions. Let’s hang out there together sometime.