Social anxiety & tonglen

I have some social anxiety, and I notice it’s stronger now than what’s usual. Maybe because I am more on my own these days (out of practice) and I am in Norway where I grew up. (I am reminded of situations that my system responded to by creating social anxiety in order to protect me.)

I find that doing tonglen – for others and myself – helps me a lot. I do it with specific groups and locations where I experience social anxiety, and then expand it to all of humanity and all beings. (If I visualize a group, I often include myself in the group.)

It’s a new discovery each time, even if I know I have discovered it many times before.

It feels new and it is new since the other times only exist in my mental images, in imagination a thought may call memory.

Awakening dissolves paradoxes

Some seem to take an experience of paradoxes as a sign of awakening.

When I try to remember the initial oneness shift, I can’t find an experience of paradoxes. What I remember was that thoughts couldn’t even touch it. There was no way thoughts could accurately reflect or convey the nature of all.

I also understand how paradoxes may appear. If the oneness we are recognizes itself, and our mental field still operates from duality, it can create the experience of paradoxes. Our mind may not yet viscerally get the nature of thoughts.

Over time, as our mental patterns reorganize within the context of oneness and we get more familiar with the nature of thoughts, I assume the experience of paradoxes tends to fall away.


If we rely on our mental field to give us truths, our world will inevitably appear full of paradoxes. One thing seems true, and also something else, and to the conditioning of our thoughts, they appear contradictory.

Our psyche may deal with this in a couple of different ways.

It may try to resolve this by denying the validity of one set of thoughts and affirming the validity of another set of thoughts. It tries to make paradoxes go away.

Or it may acknowledge the paradoxes, hold the validity in apparently contradictory sets of thoughts, and seek to find a bigger picture that reconciles the two.


When our nature first recognizes itself, our mental patterns may still operate from duality so there may be an experience of paradoxes. This dissolves as thoughts reorganize and operate within our nature recognizing itself.


When our nature recognizes itself, that shifts. Thoughts are recognized as guides and pointers to help us orient and function in the world. They are practical pointers only, and cannot hold any final, full, or absolute truth. Each thought has some kind of validity in it, and it’s up to us to evaluate what kind of validity that is.

There are no paradoxes since thoughts are recognized as not holding any final truth, and there is some validity to all of them. (Even the more outlandish ones can be seen as holding validity, for instance, as a projection.)


We can examine thoughts and recognize their nature independent of awakening, for instance through different forms of inquiry.

This is not quite independent of awakening. If we thoroughly examine thoughts, viscerally get their nature, and examine core self-related thoughts, it tends to lead to our nature recognizing itself.


Paradoxes appear when we look to thoughts to give us truth, and when our mental field operates from a sense of separation. We can deny these paradoxes or seek a bigger picture that resolves them.

At first, when our nature recognizes itself, there may be an experience of paradoxes. That’s because oneness recognizes itself, and our mental field still operates from trying to invest thoughts with truth.

Paradoxes then dissolve as our mental field reorganizes, and operates within the context of our nature recognizing itself, and also recognizing the nature of thoughts.

Note: I wrote this back in March and didn’t publish it. I wanted to write a more simple version. That didn’t seem to happen (I wasn’t drawn to it for whatever reason), so I am publishing this now.

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How we notice change and impermanence: Comparing images

It’s tempting to say that we can notice two types of change and that we notice it in two different ways.


We can notice change and impermanence in immediacy. What’s here now is fresh and different from what just passed.

And we can notice change and impermanence in stories. I have a mental representation of a timeline and how things are different at different points in that timeline.

When I look more closely at what’s happening, I find that those two are not that different. They are essentially the same.


Even when I notice change in immediacy, I do it by comparing images of what’s here and now with what just passed. (The images of “here and now” is also, in reality, about what just passed.)

So how do I notice change and impermanence? My mind creates a timeline and compares two or more points on that timeline, even when one of those points is what thoughts call “here and now”.


Is this useful to notice? I don’t know. But I do find it fascinating to notice as it happens.

It helps me recognize that my mental representations of time, a timeline, points on a timeline, and even the ideas of change, all happen as and within my mental representations. It’s an overlay over the world as the world appears to me.

The image – a polyptychis with different scenes – is created by me and Midjourney.

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A cat looks male and then female: mental field overlays

A neighbor cat has been visiting for the last few weeks, and I assumed he was a male at first. It now looks more likely that she is a female.

I notice very clearly the mental field overlays here. When I thought he was a male, he looked male. My mind created a male overlay on the cat, and that made him look male to me. My mind interpreted his features as male. And now that I think she is a female, she looks female. My mental field overlay makes her look female to me. My mind interprets her features as female.

This is, of course, in addition to all the other mental field overlays my mind creates: Cat, boundary between cat and what’s not-cat, ideas about this particular cat, ideas about me and my relationship with cats, and so on.

Update: I learned that he is actually male and is called, very appropriately, Simba. So now he looks male again, through some of the cultural associations I have with being a male and a male cat.

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Coming to my senses

Why do we say “coming to our senses”?

Likely because there is a sanity we can find by literally coming to our senses, and people throughout time have noticed it and found the expression useful and insightful.


We inflict suffering and discomfort on ourselves by going into fantasies and taking them as true. We imagine a painful past, a scary future, something uncomfortable happening somewhere else. We even put a layer of interpretation on what’s right here.

Right now, I am sitting in a quiet room with sunlight through the window, a candle on the table, and a cup of warm tea. And I can imagine painful past experiences and childhood. I can imagine something terrible happening in the future. I imagine others living a better and more happy and fulfilling life. And I can imagine that all of those imaginations are real and true and define who I am, and I can get lost in all of it.


Instead, I can come to my senses. I can notice the room I am in. The textures, colors, flickering light, smells, the sensation of my legs on the seat and my feet on the floor.

I can notice what’s here in my senses. I can notice what’s here in my imagination. And I can notice the difference between the two. I can notice that what’s here in my mental field is literally imagination. It’s a collection of labels, interpretations, stories, and so on. It’s full of questions about the world. It’s not reality itself. (Although it can become a reality for me if I get lost in it.) None of it is a final, full, or absolute truth. Reality is always different from and more than my imaginations.

That brings a kind of sanity. It helps me ground in what’s here. It helps release charge out of the imaginations.


And it may help to investigate this more thoroughly. I can explore what’s in each of my sense fields and how my mental field creates an overlay of labels, stories, and so on, and how those are all questions about the world to help me orient and navigate. They are not anything more. I can also investigate specific stories more thoroughly and find what’s already more true for me (and more peaceful).


There is something a lot of wisdom in common expressions.

In this case, “coming to our senses” is a direct pointer to how we can ground, find more sanity, and be more kind to ourselves and others.

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Chess and image-creation

Since I am watching the world championships in rapid and blitz chess right now, I am reminded of how chess – and especially the elite chess world – has built up an image for itself.


The elite chess world intentionally built up this image by, for instance, having a dress code, organizing relatively glamorous chess world championships, finding sponsors that make large money prices possible, and so on.

And the chess world and the general culture have presented chess skills as a sign of general intelligence, presenting chess as a mysterious game with an exciting history, and so on.

Some of this image-building has been intentional, and I assume much of it has happened more organically.


There are always two sides to this.

One is the projection object, which in this case is chess. This may be a person, an organization, an activity, a religion, or anything else. It can be something existing in the world or something imaginary. Someone may set out to intentionally build up an image for it or it happens more organically. And we all do it, to some extent, with ourselves. We build up an image about ourselves and for ourselves and others. (AKA persona.)

The other is the projecting mind. We all project. We all put a mental map overlay on the world. That’s how we orient and function in the world. (Mental field overlay.) And we all, sometimes and in some areas of life, see characteristics out there in the world that we are not so aware of in ourselves, or the reverse. (Blind projections.) The first one helps us function, and the second one is an invitation to find in ourselves what we see out there in the world (or see more in the world what we are familiar with in ourselves).


This image-building happens a lot.

We see it in many sports, perhaps especially sports like formula one, football, chess, alpine skiing, and so on. These are sports we tend to see as somewhat glamorous, and that’s no accident. It’s often because someone has built up that particular image of the sport.

We see it in Hollywood. They intentionally build up a certain image around fictional characters, stars, movies, and movie production.

We obviously see it in brands – clothing, watches, alcohol, cars, and so on.

We see it in religions. A big part of religion is image-building. They create an image for themselves to attract and maintain followers. (We can save you. We have the answers. We are your ticket to eternal salvation.)

We see it in spirituality more in general. Certain spiritual traditions have built up an image around enlightenment, awakening, and so on. Often for the same purpose as religions.

And as mentioned above, we all do it. We all build up, maintain, and present certain images of ourselves. We do it for our own sake so we know who we are in the world, and often so we can feel better (or worse) about ourselves. We do it to fit in with our culture and certain subcultures. We do it to get something from others. And mainly, we do it to find a sense of safety. If we know, more or less, who we are and have built up an identity, then we can rely on it even if we don’t always like everything that’s there.

This is relatively well-known in society, at least to some level. For instance, we see it when people talk about branding in a general sense. We all have our own brand. Religions have their brand. And so on.


As usual, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this. Much of it is inevitable, and having our own identity and brand helps us function in the world.

And it’s good to be aware of. It’s good to be aware of how people, organizations, businesses, religions, and so on build up a certain brand, and often do it so they can be good projections objects for you and others. They make a brand that it’s easy for us to project wishes, dreams, and sometimes fears onto.

Why? Because those types of projections act as a kind of glue. They glue our attention to the projection object. We often want to get something out of it.

And what we really want is to get to know those sides of ourselves. We want to become familiar with what we see out there – the characteristics – in ourselves.

It’s also helpful to explore the brand we have built up for ourselves. What identities and stories are there? Are they peaceful? Stressful? What do I find when I explore them in more detail?

And it’s especially helpful to see all of this for what it is. These are images. They are created. Often, people want us to buy into these images so we can project wishes and fears onto them, and so our attention gets glued to them.

And none of these images are really true. At most, they have a limited validity. What they are put on top of is different from and more than these images. Reality is different from and more than these images.

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Spiritual stories vs what’s here in immediacy

Anyone into spirituality has all sorts of spiritual stories floating around in their minds. And most who are not into spirituality have these kinds of stories as well, they may just dismiss them.

For instance, if we are into mysticism or non-duality, we may have stories about the afterlife, karma, what awakening refers to, what awakening would mean for us and our future, the role of masters, the existence of non-physical entities and deities, and so on.

It’s helpful to differentiate mental representations and our immediate noticing.


For me, all of these stories are mental representations. I cannot find them anywhere else.

Someone created those stories, told them to someone else, and then they reached me.

I may have stories about the source and whether it’s reliable or not. There may be research matching the stories to a certain degree. Some of the stories may even match my own experiences.

And yet, to me, they remain mental representations and stories. I cannot find them outside of that. I cannot find it in my immediate noticing.


For all I know, reality may not be anything like what the stories describe.

That’s a sobering realization and an important one.

In life, it helps us stay grounded and it’s a kind of vaccination against going too far into spiritual fantasies.

And more importantly, it’s a part of learning to differentiate mental representations from direct noticing. It’s a part of learning to recognize mental representations for what they are, holding them more lightly, and also differentiate all that from a direct noticing of what’s here – which is our own nature.

The only thing I can notice directly is actually my own nature. Everything else is a noticing plus a story, a mental representation.


Any story about who or what I am is a story. Any story about the content of experience is a story. Any story about reality is a story.

And what I am left with is a direct noticing of my nature and that any and all experience happens within and as what I find myself as.


When I learn to differentiate the two, I also notice more clearly that all I know is my own nature. Any content of experience happens within and as what I am, within and as my nature. Even the nature of mental representations is my nature.

To me, the nature of everything is my nature, whether I notice or not.

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Grounding speculations in what’s here and now

Some stories are clearly speculation. For instance, any kind of cosmology, ideas about an afterlife or spiritual entities, and so on.

And yet, there is a way we can ground it in what’s here and now.

We can use these stories as a mirror. We can find what they point to here and now in ourselves.


How can we find the stories here and now?

The most immediate way is to find them in our mental field.

What are the mental representations I have that make up the story? What are the mental images? The words? How is it to rest in noticing the mental images? How is it to rest in looking at (or hearing) the words?

We can also take this a step further.

What are the physical sensations associated with these images and words? Where do I feel it in my body? How is it to rest in noticing those sensations? How is it to notice them as physical sensations?

What other images and words come up? What are the associations? How is it to rest in noticing these?


This can seem obvious. Of course, any story happens as mental representations and in our mental field. And yet, a part of us don’t always know it. A part of us confuses the mental representations for what they point to. And that’s why it can be very helpful to consciously notice these mental representations, recognize them for what they are, and rest in that noticing so our system can take it in.

Any time a story has a charge for us, it’s because our mind associates sensations with the story. These sensations lend a sense of charge to the story, a sense of solidity and substance. And the stories give these sensations a sense of meaning. When we rest in noticing the mental representations as mental representations, and the sensations as sensations, we see through the illusion. We recognize the stories more easily as stories and the sensations as sensations. And we confuse the stories less with reality.


We can also use the stories as mirrors.

What’s the story? What do I find if I turn it to myself? Can I find specific and genuine examples of how and when it’s true? (The Work of Byron Katie.)

Through this process, we also ground speculations. We find what they point to here and now and in ourselves.


To the extent I see and feel in myself something I see in others and the world, there is less sense of I and Other on this topic. There is more of a sense of being in the same boat. There is more of a sense of our shared humanity.

This also means I am less reactive about it. If I only recognize a characteristic in others and not myself, or the other way around, I tend to be caught up in issues and reactivity around it. And when I recognize it both there and here, I have more space for relating to it more consciously. I am able to act more from clarity and kindness and less from reactivity.


There is another useful step here.

And that is to notice my nature and that these stories and any content of my experience happen within and as my nature.

In a conventional sense, I am a human self in the world. Is this what I most fundamentally am in my own first-person experience? What do I find when I explore my own immediate experience?

I find I am more fundamentally capacity for the world. My nature allows any and all experiences.

I find I am what the world to me happens within and as.

These stories, what I imagine they point to, and what this brings up in me, happen within and as what I am. To me, my nature is their nature.


What’s the effect of recognizing the shared nature of myself and these stories and what they point to and anything that brings up in me?

To the extent I notice and allow this noticing to work on me, there is even less of a sense of I and Other, and it’s easier to recognize my mental representations as mental representations. And this gives even more space for relating to it all more consciously, from less reactivity, and with more clarity and kindness.


Here are some general examples from cosmology and ideas about spiritual entities. (I took parts of this section from a previous article, which was also the seed for this one.)

If I imagine the universe and all of existence as a seamless whole, as one system, can I find that here now? I can find the mental representations of this here and now, in my mental field. I can also find the seamless whole here. As a human self, I am a seamless whole and I keep discovering more about this seamless whole. As what I am, I am also a seamless whole and the world to me happens within and as this seamless whole.

I imagine all of existence as consciousness (AKA Spirit, God, Brahman, Big Mind). I can find that too here. To me, I am fundamentally consciousness. And the world, to me, happens within and as this consciousness. To me, the world is like a dream in that it happens within and as consciousness.

I imagine all of existence as consciousness somehow aware of everything that’s happening. I can find that too. There is a background awareness of anything that happens within and as consciousness. When something happens within the content of my experience, there is a kind of awareness of it before there is a conscious (and perhaps self-conscious) awareness of it.

I imagine spiritual beings with certain qualities and characteristics. I can find these here in myself. It’s not all I am, they may not be what I live from in every moment, but the characteristics are here. For instance, if I imagine certain entities (angels, avatars, etc.), can find what I imagine in them also here – love, wisdom, devotion to the divine, support, and so on. And if I imagine other entities (devil, demons), I can find that too here. I can find it when I react to my own pain in a way that inflicts more pain on myself and others.

I imagine life between lives as disembodied, oneness, and love. When I explore what I am in my own first-person experience, I find I am what the world to me happens within and as. I find I am disembodied (I am not most fundamentally a body), oneness, and when oneness notices itself it’s expressed as love.

I imagine the universe as without any edge or boundary. When I notice what I am, I can also not find an edge or boundary. Any edge or boundary comes from a mental representation, and they happen within and as what I am.

I imagine the universe starting as uniform and then forming itself into atoms, molecules, solar systems, and all we know. When I look for it here, I find that consciousness – the consciousness I am and which is all I know – is uniform, and it forms itself into a wild diversity of content of experience.

These are just a few very general examples. A real exploration would be more thorough, with specific and genuine examples, and with time to take it in and let it work on me.


This, of course, is more universal. It doesn’t just apply to obvious speculations. It applies to any story we have about anyone or anything.

Any story is a question about the word. Any story is a mental representation.

We can find the mental representation here and now, and any physical sensations our mind associates it with. We can use any story as a mirror and find what it points to here and now.

No matter how valid a story is in a conventional sense, or how speculative, we can ground it in this way. We can use it as a pointer for what’s already here.

We can use it as a pointer to learn to recognize mental representations as mental representations. (And not what they supposedly point to.) We can get to know more of the immense richness of who we are. (As who we are, we are as rich as humanity and the world.) We can use it to notice what we are and also recognize that our nature is the same as the nature of our experience, including these mental representations and what they point to and any reactions that come up in us.

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We are fictional characters

In fictional stories, we are aware that these are fictional characters, even if they sometimes feel real and may capture many human dynamics accurately and with insight. 

To us, other people are – in a sense – fictional. We make up stories about them, and we relate to these fictional stories about them. 

And to us, we ourselves are – in a similar sense – fictional. We make up stories about ourselves and relate to these stories about ourselves. We create stories about our past, our possible future, our identities, our likes and dislikes, and so on. 

These stories about ourselves and others are more or less accurate in a conventional sense. And they are ultimately fictional. They are created by our mind. They are mental representations. 

If we don’t notice this, we may perceive and act as if these stories are true, and possibly even the full, final, and absolute truth. And since that’s not accurate, it tends to create struggle and drama. 

And to the degree we notice this fictional aspect of how we see ourselves and others, we can relate to it all more intentionally. We can notice our mental representations. Notice they are just that, with the inherent limitations in these images and words. And know that reality about others and ourselves is different from and more than any of these representations. 

This is something we all, at some level, know. We know we make up these stories. We know they sometimes are not accurate in a conventional sense, even if we may have held them as accurate before we got more information. We know the downfall in holding them as true because we likely have experienced it. 

What we may not know is how to explore this more thoroughly, and that’s where different forms of inquiry come in. 

Note: The title of this article can be misunderstood. I don’t mean that we – and others – don’t exist. I just mean that the images and stories we have about ourselves and others are fictional. They are made up. They are more or less accurate in a conventional sense, different in kind from what they supposedly point to, and ultimately guesses.

Note 2: I saw an article with a similar title to this one, and wrote this based on what came up for me from the title. Because of my brain fog, it’s difficult for me to read these types of articles these days, but I can use titles and short quotes as starting points for my own exploration.

Why is (what we discover through) awakening difficult to put into words?

What we find through awakening – our more fundamental nature – is notoriously difficult to put into words.

It’s not because it’s far removed. (Our nature is what’s most familiar to us and what we already are.) Or that it’s so amazing that words don’t do it justice. (It’s becomes very ordinary as we get more familiar with noticing it and living from it, although it’s also extraordinary.)

It’s because words have another function.


Words are mental representations.

They are questions about the world. They are maps of the world.

They are made up of mental images and sounds. And when we hear or read the words of others, we have our own mental images and words that helps us make sense of them.

Words helps us communicate with ourselves and others. They even allow us to communicate with people we will never meet or people who live long after we are gone.


Our experience is, whether we notice or not, as seamless whole. To us, the world – this human self, others, the wider world – is a seamless whole that happens within our sense fields.

To orient and function as human beings in the world, we need mental representations that splits this whole into parts. We mentally differentiate within this seamless whole in order to make sense of the world.

This helps us orient and function in the world, and also communicate with ourselves and others.

That’s the magic and amazing gift of words and mental representations in general.


At the same time, words and mental representations have their limits.

They cannot hold any final, full or fundamental truth for several reasons.

They are different in kind from what they point to. They are maps, and maps are not the terrain.

They are simplified representations. Reality is always more than and different from our ideas about it. And it’s also simpler.

And they are also guesses about the world. Sometimes educated guesses, and still guesses.

These are some of the limitations inherent in mental representations, including words.

There is another limitation of mental representations that is more to the point here. And that is that they differentiate within oneness. 

To ourselves, we are oneness, whether we notice or not. And the function of words is to split the world, not to represent oneness. 

That means they are not very good at describing what we are. They can point to it. They can orient us to notice it for ourselves. And they cannot describe oneness itself very successfully.


The best way to use words is to recognize their function and limits. 

We can recognize they are questions about the world. They are provisional maps. 

They help us orient and function in the world. 

They cannot capture any final, full, or absolute truth. 

And when it comes to awakening, they can guide us to notice what we are. Either indirectly through various practices, or more directly through different forms of inquiry. 


We can use words to – very inadequately – describe our nature

For instance, here is how I sometimes describe it:

My nature is capacity for the world as it appears to me. And the world as it appears to me – this human self, the wider world, and anything else – happens within and as what I am.

That’s the best I can do. These types of inadequate descriptions can be one of several pointers for others to find it for themselves, although more structured guided inquiry is far more effective and to the point.

There is also a drawback inherent in these types of descriptions. We can understand the words, at a conceptual level, and that’s different from finding it for ourselves.

A conceptual understanding doesn’t, in itself, lead to any transformation. And finding it for ourselves, and keeping noticing and exploring how to live from it, can be profoundly transforming – for our sense of fundamental identity, perception, how we live our life, and our human self and psyche.

At most, these types of descriptions are a good first step. They can wet the appetite for exploring it for ourselves.

And when we notice our nature for ourselves, we see that – or whether – the words fit.

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Do you experience paradoxes?

I have been asked this a few times, including by a spiritual teacher who saw the experience of paradoxes as a sign of awakening.

My answer is, most honestly, no.


Paradoxes happen within stories, and if we look at stories more than direction noticing, or we hold stories as true, then there will be the appearance of paradoxes. If we hold any two stories as true, there will inherently be some kind of paradox.

Of course, we may or may not notice those inherent paradoxes, and we may experience them more as cognitive dissonance than paradoxes.


If we recognize that there is some validity in any story, and that stories cannot reflect any final or absolute truth, there are not really any paradoxes.

Most simply, if we find ourselves as capacity for the world, and what our field of experience happens within and as, there are no real paradoxes. It’s all happening within and as us, and our mental representations are here just to help us navigate and function, they cannot hold any ultimate truth.


What’s some examples of typical possible paradoxes?

The most obvious may be that we are this human self, and also capacity for the world. As what I am, I am capacity for the world and what my field of experience happens within and as, and that includes being capacity for this human self, and this human self – along with everything else here – happening within and as what I am. If we look mostly at thoughts, and we think the two are mutually exclusive, it may seem contradictory or a paradox. And if we look at our first-person experience, it’s just how it is and there is a simplicity to it. The more familiar we are with noticing what we are and living from it, the less likely we are to experience any paradox.

Another possible paradox may be that everything physical is void, insubstantial, and also substantial. I find I am capacity for this keyboard and these hands and fingers, and to me, all of it has the same true nature as my own. It’s all capacity for itself. It’s all void taking these forms. At the same time, it’s all happening within and as what I can call consciousness, so it’s insubstantial. I can explore that by noticing how the keyboard and my hands appear in my sense fields, and how my mind associates sensations with the mental representations of keyboard and hands to lend a sense of solidity and substance to it, and how my mental representations give a sense of meaning to the sensations. And in a conventional sense, both the keyboard and my hands are physical. I can easily damage this keyboard by dropping my laptop or dropping something on it, and if I hit my hands on the table, they’ll hurt. I don’t find any paradox here, and I can also imagine that it can seem like a paradox if we look at this in a conceptual way and imagine that each of these has some kind of exclusive truth to them.


So are paradoxes a sign of awakening, as that spiritual teacher seemed to assume? For me, it seems that we may experience paradoxes if we are partly or mostly operating from separation consciousness and have some glimpses or intuitions about what we are. If we see it more clearly, or if we have a more clear relationship with thoughts, it seems that paradoxes fall away.

I should add that this is just my experience. I haven’t checked with others how it is for them.

Our mental activity is a kind of dream

I mentioned this briefly in a previous article, and thought I would expand on it a bit here.


Many think of dreams and waking life as categorically different.

A dream is a fantasy and product of the mind. It may say something about our internal life, and that’s about it.

Waking life is real, as it appears to us. It has nothing to do with dreams, with the possible exception of daydreams and fantasies.


The reality is quite different.

When we look, we may find that all our mental activity is a kind of dream.

We put mental representations on top of what’s in our sense fields – sights, sounds, sensations, smells, taste – to make sense of them. We label and have stories about what’s here. Similarly, we have mental representations of what isn’t here – the wider world, the past and future, and so on.

In a very real sense, all our mental activity is imagination and a fantasy. It’s a kind of dreaming activity.

It can be very useful in helping us make sense of the world and in helping us orient and navigate in the world. It can be more or less accurate, in a conventional sense. And this dreaming activity doesn’t hold any absolute or final truth.


This general dreaming activity of the mind plays itself out while awake and also in our sleeping dreams.

Both are an expression of the creativity of our mind.

Both create a world for us. Sleeping dreams happen in the absence of sensory inputs. And these waking dreams happen partly as an overlay over sensory inputs (what we see, hear, feel, smell, taste etc.) and partly in the absence of these sensory inputs (imaginations of a wider world, past, future, and so on).

Both can seem real if we take them that way, and we can learn to see through both. We can recognize a sleeping dream as a dream while we dream (lucid dreaming) and we can recognize our waking dreams as they happen (through inquiry). It takes time, but recognizing dreams as they happen can become a new habit.

What we are is capacity for both types of dreams, they both happen within and as what we are. When we notice this, identification with them tends to soften. It’s easier to recognize them as dreams.

Our sleeping dreams are one expression of the general dreaming activity of the mind.


Recognizing this general dreaming activity of the mind can help us take it a little less seriously. It is immensely valuable in helping us navigate the world. And it doesn’t hold any final or absolute truth.

When we notice that all mental activity is a kind of dream, it helps release identification out of this dreaming activity.


If we just read or hear about this, it becomes part of the dream. It may be interesting, but it doesn’t really do anything for us.

So how can we explore this for ourselves?

The simple answer is by noticing the dreaming activity directly. By noticing this dreaming activity as an overlay on the other senses for what’s in our immediate environment. And for anything else – the wider world, past, future, and so on – it functions on its own.

And to do this, structured inquiry can be very helpful. We may not be used to noticing this, and may not even know how to go about it, so a structured inquiry will function as training wheels and helps us explore it more systematically and in depth.

The best approach I have found is the Living Inquiries, which is a modern version of traditional Buddhist Inquiry. Here, we get to explore the different sense fields, and how the mental field combines with other sense fields to create our experience of ourselves and the world.

As we get more familiar with this, we learn to notice and recognize the dreaming activity of the mind – the mental field activity – as it happens. And that makes a big difference. It helps us hold this dreaming activity more lightly, recognize it as a kind of dreaming activity, and not something that holds any final or absolute truth.

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I never remember anything

I never remember anything. I have images and tell myself they are from the past and call them memories.

Memories are created here and now.

When I see this, I hold them lighter and more as questions.

I have images, tell myself they reflect something from the past, and I am aware they are images and different from what actually happened. Someone else may and will have different images about the same situations. I may adjust and change these images if I explore them further, and if I am reminded of something through what others say, photos, written notes, or something else.

If I am not aware of this, I may tell myself that my images about a past situation are the real thing. They accurately reflect what happened. They are like a kind of camera faithfully recording the past situation. (Not that cameras record something accurately in its entirety.) I may get upset by any suggestion that my memories are not accurate.

I imagine the past, as I imagine the future.

When I look, I also find I imagine the present. I imagine a world beyond what’s here in my immediate sense perception, and I also put an overlay of mental images and stories on top of what’s here in my sight, hearing, sensations, smell, taste, and so on.

Projections and the larger context

I have written about this before, starting from my old paper journals in my teens. And, for whatever reason, I am drawn to revisit it.

There are several layers to projections.

The world is my mirror

The world is my mirror. What I see out there is something I know from myself, whether I acknowledge it or not.

Whatever story I have about someone or something, I can turn it around to myself and find concrete examples of how it’s true.

Through working on this, I get to see something in myself wherever I look in the world. The fundamental separation of “you are that and I am not” or “I am this and you are not” goes away.

This reduces the reactivity that comes from the “you are that, I am not” perception, and we are more free to act from whatever clarity and kindness is here.

It helps me discover a far richer sense of myself, less constrained by ideas of what I am not.

It makes it more difficult to dehumanize others, no matter the species.

The world becomes a rich mirror and it’s an endless adventure to explore and actively make use of this mirror.

We can have blind or conscious projections. If they are blind, it means I see something out there and not in myself or the reverse. If it’s conscious, I am still projecting – I am seeing something out there that I know from myself – but I recognize it’s a projection.

That also means that I hold my projections more lightly since I am more aware of it as a projection. I know it’s here, and I know it may or may not be out there as I see it.

Mental field overlay

Another kind of projection is our mental field overlay.

Our mental images and words create an overlay on the other sense fields and make sense of these. They provide labels, interpretations, stories, interpretations, and so, and this helps us function in the world. I see a candle, and instantly have associations to flickering light, winter evenings, past experiences here and other places, the label “candle”, the thought that it will burn out within a few hours, images of more candles in the corner closet, and so on. My senses take in their impressions, and my mental field makes sense of it and helps me orient and navigate.

This mental field maintains our world even in the absence of the other senses. Right now, I can easily imagine the rest of the house I am in, the other people here, the outside, town, country, world, and so on. This is the exact same mental field as the one I described in the previous paragraph, it’s just that now it functions in the absence of other sense impressions. We can notice this mental field activity by closing our eyes and imagine what’s around us, this body, and so on.

Why do I include this in this description of projections?

Because we can say this mental field is an overlay on the world. We project it out onto the world to make sense of the world.

Here too, it can be blind or conscious. We can project out this mental field overlay and take what it tells us as true and how the world “in itself” is. Or we can be conscious of what’s happening as it happens, which allows us to hold what this mental field tells much more lightly.

The first tends to create struggle and discomfort. The second gives us more flexibility and receptivity, and can help us navigate the world with a little more ease.

While the “overlay” description works well and isn’t completely wrong, it may be more accurate to say that this mental field is what creates our world in the sense of anything we imagine and have thoughts and stories about. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to make any sense of the impressions from our senses, and we wouldn’t have any notion of a world beyond what’s here in immediacy.

All happening within and as what I am

These types of projections, and all my other experiences, happen within and as what I am.

I am capacity for my world. I am what my world happens within and as.

And this is the context for both of the previous types of projections.

To the extent I notice what I am, it’s easier to notice the two types of projections and hold it all more lightly.

How can we explore this for ourselves?

This can sound abstract and esoteric until we start exploring it for ourselves, in our immediate experience.

So how can we explore this for ourselves?

For the first type of projections, The Work of Byron Katie is excellent.

For the second type of projections, traditional Buddhist sense-field exploration is helpful, as is the modern version of Living Inquiries.

For discovering what we are, Headless experiments and the Big Mind process often work well.

Why would we explore this?

For me, this is fascinating, it enriches my life immensely, and to the extent I live from it I find it brings a bit of ease into my life.

We can say it’s up to each one of us if we want to explore this, although, in reality, it’s not really up to us. It’s something we are drawn to or not.

And although it can be helpful to share some experiences of what happens when we explore these things, these descriptions can also become a kind of goal and a distraction. It’s more interesting if we discover it for ourselves and allow ourselves to be surprised.

Byron Katie: All your there and then is really here, now

All your there-and-then is really here, now

– Byron Katie

To me, my there-and-then is here and now. It all happens within my own mind.

It all happens from a mental overlay labeling, interpreting, and creating stories, including the story of there and here, and then and now. (That’s not to say here and there, and then and now, doesn’t exist. It’s just that to me, as I perceive it, it happens through this mental filter ordering and making sense of it.)

And all of it – all sensory experiences, all mental images and words, anything anywhere or anytime, all experiences – happen within and as what I am.

The role of intellectual honesty in spirituality

For me, intellectual honesty seems an intrinsic part of spirituality. After all, spirituality is an exploration of reality, and intellectual honesty guides and supports that process.

This is another large topic perhaps better suited for a book, but I’ll say a few words about it.

Intellectual honesty is intellectual honesty no matter what the topic is. In general, there seems to be some universals to it and some universal findings. And there may also be some universal findings when it comes to spirituality.

How does intellectual honesty look for me in general?

I don’t know anything for certain.

Thoughts are questions about reality.

Thoughts help me orient and function in the world. They can be more or less valid in a conventional sense, and it’s not their function to give any final or absolute truth.

Life is ultimately a mystery, including what we think we understand or know something about.

How does intellectual honesty look for me when applied to psychology?

The world is my mirror.

(a) My mental overlay of the world creates all the maps, separation lines, labels, interpretations and so on that I operate from as a human being in the world. Anything I can put into words or images is just that, my own words and images. It’s not inherent in the world.

(b) Also, what I see “out there” reflects dynamics and characteristics in myself. Whatever I can put into words about someone or something else also applies to me. When I look, I can find specific examples of how it applies to me.

I am my own final authority. I cannot give it away, no matter how much I try.

I operate from a wide range of underlying assumptions. It’s good to bring these to awareness, as far as I can, and question them.

How does intellectual honesty look for me when applied to spirituality?

Awakening can be understood in a small and psychological or big and spiritual way. In both cases, it’s about what we are noticing itself and then living this human life in that context. We are capacity for the world as it appears to us. Any content of experience happens within and as what we are.

In the small interpretation, we say that this is MY or perhaps OUR nature. In the big interpretation, we go one step further and say it’s the nature of EVERYTHING.

What we can say for certain is that it seems to be our nature. And although saying it’s the nature of everything is a leap, there are some hints that this may be the case. (I have written more about this in other articles.)

What are the benefits of intellectual honesty?

It helps us stay honest, on track, and grounded. And it helps us avoid detours created by wishful or fearful thinking. (Although these detours become part of our path and have their own function.) It helps us – individually and collectively – to make better decisions.

Why is intellectual honesty important in spirituality?

I have mentioned a few things about this above.

Spirituality is about reality. It’s about noticing what we already are and living from it. It’s about seeing through our assumptions about ourselves and the world. And in that process, intellectual honesty is invaluable and essential. It keeps us on track. It helps us see through what’s not aligned with reality.

Can intellectual honesty be learned or trained?

Yes, absolutely, although it does require readiness and willingness. We can learn about cognitive bias, logical fallacies, and so on, and learn to recognize them in our own thinking. There is always more work to do in these areas for all of us, and especially in recognizing it in ourselves.

Does intellectual honesty preclude trust, devotion, or poetic expression?

Not at all.

I can trust an approach or a guide, at least for a while and to some extent.

I can engage in devotion and devotional practices towards the divine.

I can enjoy poetic expressions and even engage in my own.

Are the examples above all there is to it?

No, these are just some examples that come to mind. There are a lot more out there and variations and clarifications of these. And probably a lot I am not aware of and won’t be aware of in this lifetime.

Are the examples above examples universal?

They do not represent any final or absolute truth, although it seems that many of these are relatively universal. And it’s always possible to go further with each one of these and other insights and pointers.

The examples I gave above apply to the part of the terrain of reality I am exploring. If we explore other parts of the terrain, there will be some other ones that applies specifically to that terrain. For instance, if we see ourselves as a more conventional Christian, we may chose to “believe” something while also admitting we don’t know.

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Alan Watts: Boat and wake

Adyashanti talks about this analogy in Ideal Spiritual Orientation.

Is the present created by the past, or is the past created in the present? Or are both true, each in their own way?

The boat and wake analogy invites us to explore this. A boat creates it’s wake, so is it similarly true that the present creates the past?

If so, in what way is it true? What do I find when I explore this through simple, real and specific examples?

And is it true in just a moderate way, or in a more profound sense?

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When the mouth opens, all are wrong


Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: “The flag is moving.”
The other said: “The wind is moving.”
The sixth patriarch happened to be passing by. He told them: “Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.”
The Gateless Gate #29

The wind and flag are moving in my own world of images. There are perceptions and then an overlay of images telling me it is a flag moving in, or being moved by, the wind. It is all happening within my own world of images. When I recognize that, there is the possibility of not taking my own world of images as substantial and real. It is very helpful to use an imagined overlay, but also good to notice it is all happening within my own world of images.

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Attraction and aversion

There are many ways to explore attraction and aversion, for instance through The Work and projections (including visualizing myself as the other). 

It can also be explored through the sense fields. 

When attraction or aversion comes up, how does it appear in the sense fields? I find sensations and images. 

I can bring attention to the sensations, and notice them as just sensations distinct from the images. Just here, the hook of the aversion or attraction falls away. 

And when I explore the images further, I find a whole world there. I find images of myself (male, certain look,  identities, likes/dislikes), I find images of another (gender, look, identities), I find images of how well the match is and in what direction, from that arises attraction, neutrality or aversion, and from that comes all the familiar physical, emotional and behavioral effects. 

It is all happening within my own world of images. All the drama happens within my own imagination. 

And when this is noticed, it goes >poof<. The mystery goes out of it. I can still play along, or not, but not blindly as before. The hook falls away. 

Of course, that may not happen right away or consistently. For me, I notice that as this is explored over and over, in new and fresh ways and from different angles, there is a new immediacy and clarity in how it is noticed, even as it happens. 

Bringing attention to the sensation component is easier earlier on in the process, and as it happens. And noticing that all drama happens within my own images comes over time, yet allows the hook to fall away more completely. 

Why explore it this way? That is another question and another inquiry. What happens when I am blindly caught up in attraction or aversion? What happens when I bring attention to the sensation component? What happens when I notice how all drama happens within my own world of images? 

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He who made the inside

Do you not realize that he who made the inside is the same one who made the outside?
– Gospel of Thomas, verse 89.

The inside and outside of anything all happens within and as what we are.

Boundaries with insides and outsides are only found as an imagined overlay, and this too happens within and as what we are.

It all has the same creator, which is what we are. No thing appearing as something.

Mental field and communication

In exploring the mental field, I notice a few things related to language and communication…

The mental field mimic each of the other fields. It mimics sight (images), sound, taste, smell, sensation, and even itself. (For instance when there is a memory of a previous thought.)

The mental field labels and interpret what is going on in the other fields. There is a sound, then an image of a bird placed on that sound. (In the area of space where that sound seems to come from.) A smell, and an image of a possible source and further associations.

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Own world of images

The world I see and relate to is my own world of images. It is what happens in the sense fields, with an overlay of images to help this human self orient and function in the world.

This mental field overlay creates a sense of extent (space) and continuity (time) and places whatever happens within that sense of space and time. It creates images of a me as this human self, and images of others and a wider world. And it creates images of a separate I as a doer or observer.

All of this is my own world of images, helping this human self to make sense of and function in the world.

And I can notice it as it happens. I can notice that overlay of time and space. Of a me relating to other people and the wider world in general. Of an I doing as this human self, or observing as awareness itself.

I also notice how all drama happens within this world of images. It comes from images of me/I relating to images of others and the wider world in a certain way. It comes from relationships between images of me and the wider world, when these relationships do not align with images of how it should be.

It is amazing and beautiful.

And I notice how I see myself in three ways here…

I see and relate to my own world of images, whether I recognize them as an imagined overlay or take them as true.

I see qualities and dynamics out there, in the wider world and the past and future, that are also here, in this human self.

And all I see is awakeness itself. What happens in the sense fields and the overlay of images, including the images of me and I, is all the play of awakeness.

There is a great freedom in noticing this, especially as it happens in daily life. I notice that all I relate to is my own world of images. So I can make use of it a practical way. I can use this world of images as a temporary guide for this human self in the world. But I don’t have to take it seriously. I know it is only my own world of images. There is no truth in it.

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No trace

Leave no trace.

It can mean all the usual things. Take care of your relationships. Clean up after yourself. Leave things as you found it or in better condition. Don’t use Earth’s resources beyond your share, and do your bit to help the ecosystems thrive. Leave enough for future generations.

And it is also a pointer to what is already here. What do I find when I explore this in immediate experience? Does anything leave a trace? If so, in what way?

What I find is that nothing ever leaves a trace. What happens in each of the sense fields is always fresh, new, different.

Any “trace” is only in the mental field as a memory, and that activity of the mental field happens here now. That too is new and fresh, even if it looks similar to (the memory) of a previous imagination.

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Some things about stories

Here are a few things about stories, which can be explored through the sense fields…

Any story…

Is a projection of a story and a quality. Imagination is taken as saying something about the world, out there and in the past, present or future. And what that imagination is about is taken as being out there as well. When it is recognized as imagination, it can be a very useful and practical tool for our human self to orient and function in the world. When it is taken as truth, it becomes a blind projection. We are blind for it as an imagination. 

Is imagination, and the world we relate to is quite literally imaginary. It is an overlay of images relating to each other, and those images include images of me. Any drama happens among those images, mostly in the way other images relate to the images of me. 

Is a question, an innocent question about the world. It is sometimes taken as something more, as a statement, fact or truth, which itself is just a story about a story. 

Is a tool. It is a tool for our human self to orient and function in the world. And as any tool, it is sometimes useful and sometimes not. It has only practical value. 

Is no thing appearing as something. Any mental field creation is insubstantial and ephemeral. Like a hologram, it has form but no substance. When it is recognized as a mental field creation, it is noticed as insubstantial and ephemeral. As no-thing appearing as something. When it is taken as true, it appears real, solid and substantial. (Sensations combine with the story to lend it a sense of substantiality, and muscles often tense up to make those sensations stronger.)

Is a mental field overlay. It is a mental field overlay on top of the other sense fields. And separating it out in sense fields (sensation, sight, sound, smell, taste, mental) is itself from a mental field overlay.

For instance, there is a sensation, a story of “pain”, and additional stories of pain as undesireable. All of these create the gestalt of “pain”, and this appears substantial and real when the gestalt is not noticed as a gestalt, and quite differently when it is noticed as a gestalt. 

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A world of images ii

I mentioned exploring the overlay of images on top of immediate perception.

An overlay of images, and thoughts mimicking the other sense fields, on top of perception. Interpreting it. Asking questions about. And essential for our human self to function in the world.

It can be quite interesting – and helpful – to explore this overlay. First, through dedicated sessions. Then, as it happens in daily life.

Some of the things I find so far…

My world is made up of these images. If I recognize them as images, they become a guideline for actions. If I take them as real and substantial, I act as if they are real and substantial. I act as if what they tell me about the world is true. (As if innocent questions are statements, and these statements are true.)

Any drama happens among these images. More specifically, between the images making up a sense of “I” and other images it relates to. And it happens to the extent that these images, and the relationships among them (interpreted and represented by more images), are taken as substantial and real.

Many practices work on healing these images, such as prayer, tong len, the first ngöndro practice (visualizing all beings taking refuge in the Buddha), well wishing, and so on. And as these images heal, my world changes. Or rather, the world and atmosphere this human self functions within changes. (Easily coexisting with the more conventional and consensus reality images, still used as practical guidelines in the world.)

The mental field overlay, and all of the sense fields, are awakeness itself. They are empty. Awake. Form. One appearing in each of those ways, depending on how the mental field filters it.

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Our world is imaginary. Again, it is simple but there is still a lot to explore there.

My world is imaginary. The world I relate to and function within is imaginary. It is my mental field creation.

There are sense impressions – sound, sight, smell, taste, sensation and even thought itself – and then a mental field overlay of images. Interpretations. Questions. Stories.

It is essential for our human self to function in the world. And it is – quite literally – the world my human self functions within.

If these overlays are taken as real and substantial, there is stress and drama. And when they are recognized as overlays, as they happen, they are revealed as simple tools. The drama falls away.

It is simple. And there is also no end to the complexity I find when I explore it in more detail.  

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History is what somebody wants us to think happened

I have enjoyed watching Terry Jones‘ (yes, the Monty Python guy) documentaries about the Crusades, Medieval Lives, and the Barbarians. They are all very well done, and give a different perspective than the traditional historical view, for instance pointing out that the way we see barbarians today is largely Roman propaganda, still effective 1500 years later.

(Watch the Crusades, Medieval Lives and the Barbarians online.)

Another excellent documentary is When the Moors Ruled in Europe, showing how the Renaissance – and what we know as modern European culture – was born out of the Islamic Golden Age. (Watch it here.) Islam and Islamic culture has traditionally been seen as an enemy in Europe, and this is a good antidote to Islamophobia and a way to nuance the picture somewhat.

We all know that history is “often what people want us to think happened” as Terry Jones says. History is constructed by those in power, often to protect their own interest.

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One view of how the mind/brain works imagines something like a little person inside the head looking at screens and pulling levels, as if in a control room or operating a space ship.

It may sound funny, but when I look at it for myself, I see where the idea comes from. It is a mirror of what is going on right here.

There is content of experience, awareness and then someone being aware of content of experience. There is doing, awareness, and a doer. Thinking, awareness, and a thinker. Choosing, awareness, and a chooser.

Something is happening within and as awareness, and then there is a sense of a middle man mediating between the two.

If I explore this from Big Mind, I see that the middle man – obviously – is part of content of awareness. There is no “I” inherent in the middle man, no more than in anything else.

And if I explore it through the sense fields, I get to see the dynamics of it more in detail. I notice how the middle man – the observer, doer, thinker, chooser – is a mental field creation. It comes from a mental field overlay on top of the other sense fields.

There is a thought arising within and as awareness, and then an imagined thinker placed on top of it. An action of this human self in the world – arising within and as awareness – and then a mental field overlay of a doer. (This mental field creation – for me at least – visual. Taking the form of an outline of this human self, center-periphery, and so on.)

So no wonder the control room analogy came up in our minds. It is a direct representation of what is really going on, here now. It reflects direct experience when this experience is filtered through this mental field overlay – and it is not recognized as just a mental field creation.

It is a discredited theory in science. What happens when I explore it for myself, here now? What happens if I take the middle man as real? What happens if I see it as a mental field creation?

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Experience of time

Time is a mental field creation, so no wonder our experience of time changes.

When I look at my own experience of time, I find a few different aspects…

First, a sense of infinite time between now and something that happened in the past. It seems very far away, even if it happened recently in conventional (clock) terms. For instance, between now and when I got up – which is only a couple of hours ago – it feels like a very, almost infinitely, long time. It feels like centuries or millenia may have past, although I of course know that is not the case. Right now, this experience is relatively stably in the middle or foreground in daily life.

Then, a sense of collapsed time. Of the time between now and a particular memory from the past – or scenario about the future – as nonexistent. It feels like no time between now and particulars in the past and future. No time between my birth and now. No time between now and my death. There is a sense of immediacy here. This experience comes into the foreground when I look at it, but it otherwise more in the background.

I can also access conventional clock & calendar time of hours, days, months and so on. I can easily funciton within this framework, although my experience of it is more along the lines of the other ones mentioned here. This one is available as needed.

And finally, a sense of timelessness. Of everything – including my mental field creations of time, memories and scenarios – as happening within and as timelessness, this timeless now. Everything happens within and as timeless awakeness. This is the context of all of the other ones, independent of how they show up. And it is in the background or foreground of experience depending on where attention goes.

Trigger: Sometimes surprising myself in realizing that something that feels like it happened a very long time ago, really happened just a few hours earlier or the day before.

Thoughts as an interface

As with just about everything here, this too is just life 101. But there is still a draw to write it down to clarify it a little for myself, and also so I can move on and don’t feel I have to remember it.

Thoughts function as an interface, and so also in a spiritual or practice context.

They serve as a pointer for attention, such as bringing attention to the breath, the different sense fields, what comes up when I ask a question of myself (The Work), and so on.

They serve as an invitation for a shift, for instance into allowing experience and into one of the voices in the Big Mind process.

And they serve as a guide for exploration, when I explore sense fields, they dynamics around a belief, or what happens when an experience is resisted or allowed.

In these ways, thoughts serve as a pointer beyond themselves. They initiate something that goes far beyond thoughts, the cognitive or any mental field activity.

Thoughts also serve as an interface in the other direction. The mental field filters, interprets and put words (or images) on what happens outside of the mental field.

So while The Work, the Big Mind process or headless experiments from the outside may appear to happen mainly within the mental field, as soon as we actually try either of them, we find that their effects go far beyond the mental field, and also that the mental field reports what occurs far beyond itself.

One obvious example is how The Work sometimes brings energetic shifts, and also an experience of not recognizing oneself afterwards. It is as if the whole human self has shifted and is different, in a very direct and immediate way. Another example is how what we are notices itself in a direct way through shifting into Big Mind and headlessness. And how we can shift into Big Heart, and hold our human self and any other beings within Big Heart, through the Big Mind process and other practices and explorations.

Trigger: A few instances where someone describes The Work as mainly a cognitive process. I tend to be surprised by this since the main shifts in The Work happens outside of the mental field, but I can also understand how it may appear mainly cognitive when seen from from the outside.

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