Awakening and what’s left

Chogyam Trungpa and many other spiritual teachers have shocked, puzzled, and baffled their followers with their apparently unenlightened behavior. It may be drinking, drug use, frequent affairs, bullying behavior, abuse of their followers, and more.

In our culture, we tend to have an image of awakened people as perfect. And yet, they so often are not. Why is that?

To me, it doesn’t seem so puzzling. In a way, it’s to be expected.

There can be a relatively clear awakening, and yet a lot left to heal at the human level.

If the person is receptive and open about it, then it can become a very helpful part of their teaching. It also helps their students know what they are getting into, and it helps the teacher to work on it if they are ready to do so.

And sometimes, there can be some degree of defensiveness around it, both on the part of the teacher and his or her followers.

The teacher may try to live up to an image or expectations from others. Admitting ordinary human flaws and hangups may not fit this image.

They may feel they are above criticism. (And perhaps lash out if they perceive criticism.)

They may justify their behavior, for instance as crazy wisdom or that they are above conventional expectations.

And really, they are just scared to admit it and look at it, as we all sometimes are. And they use all sorts of tactics to avoid facing it for themselves.

This is pretty universal. We all avoid facing certain things in ourselves because it seems too scary, and we use different tactics to avoid it. And this continues to some extent whether there is an awakening or not, and whether we happen to be in a teacher position or not.

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Drama as bypassing

Bypassing means avoiding uncomfortable sensations and thoughts.

The sensations seem uncomfortable because of the imaginations associated with them. Thoughts give meaning to sensations.

And the imaginations, the mental pictures and words, seem real and solid because of the sensations associated with them. Sensations give a sense of solidity and charge to thoughts.

When we bypass, we do so because the sensations seem scary and the thoughts connected to them seem scary. We would rather not be reminded of them.

There is almost an infinite number of ways we can bypass. Although we typically do it with the help of stories and distractions, whether these distractions are external or internal or both.

We can distract ourselves with compulsive….

Entertainment, work, exercise, socializing.

Food, sex, alcohol, drugs.

Rationalizing, analyzing, understanding.

Going into future thinking, whether it’s scary or hopeful. Going into past thinking, whether it’s enjoyable or painful.

Getting caught in the drama of our own stories. It may seem that getting caught in the drama is feeling the sensations and looking at the mental images and words, but it’s actually a distraction from resting with them in presence.

Going into comforting stories about life and ourselves. These may also be “spiritual” stories saying there is nobody here to suffer, everything is perfect as it is, all is Spirit, we’ll arrive at a peaceful place in the future. They may also be inflated stories about ourselves, to compensate for painful deficiency stories.

Seeking healing or resolution. When this becomes compulsive, and the main aim is to avoid discomfort, this too is a form of bypassing.

Some of these are very healthy if they are not compulsive. When they become compulsive, they can still be relatively healthy, and it’s also a sign that we are trying to avoid something.

Avoiding certain charged stories and sensations is something we all do. It’s completely natural, understandable, and innocent. It’s a safety valve built into our system.

Sometimes, it can be quite healthy to avoid certain things in us. To not bypass may be beyond what we are capable of in the moment or situation. And if we are forced to not bypass, and have to do it in a way that’s less than safe and skilled, it tends to lead to retraumatizing.

I should also mention that I don’t really like the term bypassing. It’s often used with a hint of judgment. And although I have used the word in this post, since it’s something many are familiar with, I rarely use it otherwise.

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Finding safety in understanding

There are many flavor to how our minds turns away from feeling what’s here.

One is to try to find refuge and safety in understanding.

If I think about my understanding, I don’t have to feel this.

I can explore this in several ways:

What would I have to feel now if I didn’t think about my understanding? Feel that.

What am I afraid would happen if I didn’t go into understanding? Look for the threat.

Can I find X? Understanding? Insight?

Can I find X? Someone who understands? Someone who gets it?

Can I find the command to understand? To get it?

Here are some of the ways I use understanding – thinking about understanding something – as a way to avoid feeling what’s here:

I get caught in figuring something out. Or rehearsing an understanding, or elaborating on it, or fine-tuning it. I distract myself from feeling.

I use it to avoid shifting from thinking to noticing thoughts, since this often will lead to noticing and feeling what’s here.

I use it to avoid doing what the understanding is about. I think about my understanding of something instead of actually doing it, including dealing with things in my life, natural rest and inquiry. This helps me avoid feeling what I would have to feel if I actually did it.

There is of course absolutely nothing wrong about understanding and insight. It’s essential and beautiful. It’s what allows us to function in the world. And it’s what allows us to evolve as a species and civilization. It’s one of the ways life explores and experiences itself through us.

Even compulsively going to understanding to escape feelings is OK. It’s innocent. It comes from deep caring. It’s what the mind does when it scares itself with its own stories. And it’s not satisfying in the long run, or even in the moment.

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Ways to avoid feeling what I don’t want to feel

There is really just one way to avoid feeling what’s here.

And that’s to bring attention out of feeling sensations and into thoughts.

The only reason I would do that is because I believe thoughts saying that feeling the sensations, and perhaps being exposed to the associated images and words, is uncomfortable, dangerous, a threat, bad, or undesirable.

This avoidance can take a large number of forms, probably many more than I am going to list here.

And the remedy is simple. Feel the sensations. Ask myself what would I have to feel if I didn’t [the avoiding behavior], and then feel that. Take time feeling the sensations. Perhaps look at associated images and words, and ask simple questions about them to see more clearly what’s there.

So here is a very incomplete list of behaviors most or all (?) of us sometimes engage in to avoid feeling what’s here.

Going into thought, independent of the content of these thoughts. Go into thinking instead of feeling and noticing.

Blame someone else, life, the world, God, for what seems wrong. And, really, blaming something “out there” for the uncomfortable feeling. (Although that’s usually not part of the blaming story.)

Going into (otherwise) constructive activities, such as writing (as I do here), working, being with family and friends, playing with kids or pets, going for a walk, read something interesting, listen to a podcast. (This one is very familiar to me.) These are all fine activities, and when I do them to avoid feeling something, there is a sense of compulsion there.

Analyze or comment on what’s going on. Trying to understand it. Make up stories about it. (Not that this is always inappropriate, but it can be habitual or a bit compulsive.)

Distractions of any type, including any form of thoughts or any activity.

Doing something enjoyable. Eat, sleep, go for a walk, cuddle, have sex, watch a movie, be in nature, do art, photography, make music. All of these can be done to avoid feeling what’s here, and when that happens, these activities can feel slightly compulsive. They become something I am compelled to do so I can avoid feeling what’s here.

Going into drama, getting caught in the drama. It may seem we are feeling here, since it can seem quite intense, but we are actually avoiding really feeling and resting with the sensations.

Putting it off into the future. Telling myself I can do it tomorrow, perhaps when I am in the right mood, or have more time, or am in a better state of mind.

Going into “awareness” or the “witness”. Which is really going into an idea of awareness somehow different from and split off from feeling the sensations that’s here.

Spacing out. Going into daydreams.

Numbing out. And not feeling this as sensations.

Getting sleepy, drowsy. Getting bogged down by sleepiness. This can often seem like sleepiness from lack of sleep or hard work, and a thought will often tell us it is. It usually comes up at just before or at the beginning of feeling something apparently uncomfortable, and it can disappear quite quickly if rested with and inquired into. (Sometimes, it is actually physical tiredness, of course, but perhaps not as often as you would think.)

Telling myself that I don’t need to feel it, or don’t have to, and having an apparently good reason for it.

Going into an ideology saying I don’t need to or have to, or that it’s bad, or “low frequency”, or that I should seek only “good” states and feelings and avoid the “bad” or “low” ones. (This rests on a lot of unquestioned assumptions.)

Going into spiritual ideologies, for instance saying it’s all a dream, or nothing really exists, or that all is perfect as is. Which I then take as meaning that I don’t need to feel what’s here. (I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these, but they can be made into an ideology and used to avoid feeling what’s here.)

There are many other ways to use spiritual ideologies to avoid feeling what’s here. I can get fascinated by it. Get into wishful or magical thinking. Assume I will be magically “saved” in the future, so I don’t need to do much now. Imagining light and bliss and feeling that instead of the discomfort that’s here.

While feeling sensations, immediately going to images or words instead of feeling and resting with the sensations for a while. (During inquiry.)

Some of these are subsets or variations of other ones on the list. I thought I would just put them all up here.

When these come up, I can use them as a reminder to ask myself what would I have to feel if I didn’t [….], and then feel and rest with that.

I can also explore the dynamic of the avoidance. Slow it down. Feel and rest with the sensations of the avoidance. Look at the associated images and words, one at a time. Ask simple question about these, to see more clearly what’s really here.

There is nothing inherently wrong with avoiding feeling what’s here. It’s very human. We all (?) do it now and then. And we can’t all go around and intentionally feel sensations all the time. We wouldn’t get much else done.

At the same time, it’s uncomfortable to avoid, and be trapped in the mindset of avoiding feeling what’s here. It can also lead to (compulsive) life decisions we wouldn’t have made if we were more clear and allowing of the sensations.

It’s good to notice when I avoid feeling what’s here, perhaps notice how I do it, and sometimes intentionally rest with the sensations and feel them, and inquire into what makes it look scary to do so. It can become more and more of a habit, and it can seem less and less threatening to do so. It can even become enjoyable. An expression of kindness.

Seeking as a way to avoid pain

One reason for seeking – whether it’s seeking enlightenment, money, love, insights, the perfect partner, sex – is to avoid pain.

Or rather, to avoid the experience of pain. We are, at least in our culture, trained to avoid the experience of pain. We are in the habit of avoiding pain, and teach that to our children through our example. We teach that that’s how we live here.

And one of the ways we avoid pain is to medicate it with….. any number of things, including seeking insights, clarity, and enlightenment. It’s all innocent. It’s worried love.

There are a few ways of exploring this. Here are some I find helpful:

Meeting the pain, and the part of me wanting to escape it, with love. Ho’oponopono can be helpful here. I can also hold satsang with it. (You are welcome here. Thank you for protecting me. Thank you for your love for me. I love you. What would satisfy you forever? What are you really?)

Looking for the pain. The seeking. What I am seeking. The one in pain. The seeker. Can I find it, outside of images, words and sensations? How is it to look at each image and word that comes up around this, and feel the sensations?

When we examine this, meet what’s here with love, and feel what’s here, something shifts. We see it’s possible to experience what’s here without escaping it. And it’s actually more satisfying. Far more satisfying. And if we can do this individually, it’s at least conceivable that we can create a culture where this is the norm, and this is what we teach – through the way we live our life – our children.

Spiritualizing pathology

In the anthology Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, Stanislav Grof writes about pathologizing spirit and spiritualizing pathology.

I don’t like the terminology so much…. it seems a bit harsh and polarized. But it’s still an important topic.

Pathologizing symptoms of awakening. Symptoms of a spiritual awakening – and perhaps especially when it takes the form of a spiritual emergency – can be taken as symptoms of a physical or mental illness, and this often happens when health professionals in the west (doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists) are involved and uneducated on the topic. This is unfortunate since a real understanding of what’s happening, and a supportive environment, is the best way of supporting someone going through this. This is a pathologizing of a quite normal – although sometimes dramatic – process of awakening. (At the same time, this experience will then be part of the awakening process, and material for inquiry and something to be loved and seen through. It may be unfortunate in a conventional sense, and yet valuable – since it has happened – in the bigger picture.)

Spiritualizing pathology. The reverse can also happen. We may not address what’s surfacing to be healed and loved.  In an awakening process, wounds, trauma, hangups and discomfort – anything in us we have made into an “enemy” – will surface to be loved and seen through. And we may use “spiritual” ideas to tell ourselves we don’t need to face it.

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Spiritual bypassing etc.

We will be looking at ‘spiritual bypassing,’ the detour we take into the transcendent to escape from the old personal heavy stuff.  It happens so fast, but is it inescapable?  Liberation is so tempting and compelling — it’s the biggest and highest promise of perfection we can strive for.

What happens when we have a kensho, or opening experience?  Does the ego freeze and stay stuck at the stage of development in which the realization happened?  Does the ego still exist, and if so how does it manifest?  What does it mean to be awakened?

This is from an invitation to an upcoming event with Genpo Roshi and Ken Wilber. It’s interesting for me to notice that I am not drawn so much to these questions anymore. I also see an irony here. During my time at Genpo Roshi’s Zen center, I was an avid reader and student of Ken Wilber, as the only person (as far as I know) there. I was even discouraged to read him by some of the senior students. At the time, this would have been my ideal type of event. Now, I would probably have attended if it was very convenient, but not otherwise. As they say, we get what we ask for, and not always in the way or in the timing we expected.

I imagine some thoughts behind this text. None of these seem so true for me anymore, and I would also like to find more clarity on them:

Liberation is better. I need to find liberation.

Perfection is somewhere else. It’s better to find perfection. It’s possible to find perfection. I know what perfection is. This – what’s here – is not perfect.

Bypassing is wrong. It’s better to not bypass.

What’s here is not OK.

Also, I see they seem to use the word “ego” in two different ways, without differentiating. The “ego” that can mature and develop is the psychological ego, the operating system for this human self, and that stays as long as the human self is around, independent on whether there is confusion or clarity on what we are. The other “ego” is the one referred to in a spiritual context, and is what happens when a thought is taken as true. I assume they’ll talk about both.

I am also reminded that any tool for exploration can be used to explore both who and what we are, or one or the other. It’s all about intention.

For instance, basic meditation – just sitting, shikantaza – can be used with the intention of identifying with/as awareness, and release identification out of the human (transcendence). It can equally well be used to fully embrace all of it, to honestly see what’s here, to notice it’s all already allowed, it’s all already Spirit, notice it’s all included – including conventional views. It can be used to allow stuffed emotions their life, to notice and inquire into beliefs, and so on.

What I find most helpful here – not surprisingly – is The Work. I notice discomfort, tension or unease, identify the fear or belief behind this discomfort, and inquire into it. This helps me find more clarity on my life in the world, on my aims for any form of exploration (including what’s reflected in this blog), and how I use different tools for exploration.

For instance, if I think liberation is better, or I need to find liberation, it’s inevitably stressful and it makes my approach to life and Spirituality a bit strained. As I find more clarity on these thoughts, I’ll probably still be drawn to meditation, prayer, inquiry etc., and it will happen in a more relaxed and even focused way. I am less distracted by my initial beliefs and the discomfort I created for myself through them.

It’s interesting how reading each belief in the list above feels instantly painful to me. I remember how it is to believe those thoughts, and they can still be investigated further.

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John Welwood: Human Nature, Buddha Nature

Modern culture and child raising leave most people suffering from symptoms of insecure attachment: self-hatred, disembodiment, lack of grounding, ongoing insecurity and anxiety, overactive minds, inability to deeply trust, and a deep sense of inner deficiency. So most of us suffer from an extreme degree of alienation and disconnection that was unknown in earlier times—from society, community, family, older generations, nature, religion, tradition, our body, our feelings, and our humanity itself. [….]

Yet to grow into a healthy human being, we need a base of secure attachment in the positive, psychological sense, meaning: close emotional ties to other people that promote connectedness, grounded embodiment, and well-being. As John Muir the naturalist wrote: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe.” Similarly, the hand cannot function unless it is attached to the arm—that’s attachment in the positive sense.  We’re interconnected, interwoven, and interdependent with everything in the universe. On the human level we can’t help feeling somewhat attached to people we are close to. [….]

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