Awareness in Fuzzy Bodies

Awareness

I was at the creek the other day, a stream whose width and depth varies with the amount of rainfall that works its way down from the hills.  Rain has been scare here for a bit, and except in its deepest hollows and grooves, the creek was nearly dry.  I like it when that happens.  I can walk on the exposed slabs of shale out to center of its bed for a whole different view of the surroundings than I usually have.

Because of the dry weather, leaves have already been tumbling down and they blanketed the shale and floated in the water, their rusts and golds shining like coins.  I had to pick my way carefully to the center, watching where I stepped.  When I reached my destination, I stopped and looked around, enjoying the view and breathing in the fragrance of the autumn air.  Then, when I looked down again to take another step, I laughed in delight to discover a white, fuzzy caterpillar on one of the rocks.  What a long journey he had made to arrive there!

He seemed in no hurry.  He had paused at the rock’s edge and, like me, seemed to be taking in the view.

That’s what we’re here for, I thought.  Just that.  To take in the view.

If you let the events of the world be your focus, the view can look frightening.  We’re dealing with so much chaos on so many fronts right now.   I imagine the sudden heap of autumn leaves can look pretty chaotic to a caterpillar, too.  But here was this little one, peering at it all from his perch on the rock, seeing it from a higher point of view.  And I must say, he seemed quite at peace with it all, even though he was in the middle of a creek bed where water rushed in rivulets between the rocks and fallen leaves three times larger than he was challenged his path.

I think he was a teacher, a wise, enlightened being in caterpillar form.  Fear was alien to him.  From his point of view, everything was simply phenomena.  He didn’t label it good or bad, safe or dangerous, kind or cruel.  He didn’t tell himself stories about it, or try to figure out if he deserved it or not.  He simply took in the view and traveled on.  He was nothing but pure awareness in a fuzzy body, and he knew it.

We’re not our bodies, or our thoughts, or our feelings.  Those are just phenomena, too—things that we perceive.  We’re much larger than that.  We’re more spacious and free.  We’re the awareness itself, in fuzzy bodies, come for the joy of taking in the view, the kaleidoscopic dance of sacred energy.  No matter what the view is.  No matter how chaotic the moment may seem.

That’s what the caterpillar told me.  Take in the view, and travel on.

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The Wisdom of Engaging with the World

Engaging with Life

I’m one of those people who spends a significant number of hours each week surfing the web. Primarily, it’s my curiosity that drives me. I like to explore ideas, spot trends, and just in general see what’ going on out there.

This week my travels brought me face-to-face with more insanity than usual. By week’s end, I concluded that it’s an absolute marvel that the world functions at all.

But it brought insights, too. And it took me back a few decades to the wisdom of zen philosopher Alan Watts. I first encountered his work when I was living in San Francisco during the infamous “Summer of Love,” the cresting of the so-called Hippie era. Contrary to popular conceptions of the time, many of the people who gathered there that summer were young and ardent intellectuals searching for new solutions for society’s ills.

On Sunday nights, the local radio station carried a program called “The Transcendental, Multi-Lingual Two-Ton Mustard Seed,” which featured in-depth conversations with people like poet Alan Ginsberg and philosopher Alan Watts. Watts’ philosophy intrigued me. It seemed a natural extension of the ideas of Emerson and Thoreau that had captured my mind the previous autumn. I bought a few of his books and read them while I sat on a platform of a light house in San Francisco Bay.

Now here I was, encountering him again. Just in time. He rescued me from a slide into despair over the sheer madness I was seeing unfold in the world.

I had a partial grasp on understanding the conflict and the willingness to latch onto any passing idea that promised safety from chaos. Jordan Peterson had explained that people form and use their beliefs as a way of protecting themselves from the unknown, which appears to them as a potential threat. The more frightened they are, the more overwhelming the world seems, the tighter their hold on their beliefs. So we end up in imprisoning beliefs that set us at odds with those whose beliefs differ from our own.

But Watts went deeper. In his book The Wisdom of Insecurity, he says this:

“To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet. We look for this security by fortifying and enclosing ourselves in innumerable ways. . . These defenses lead to divisions between us, and so to more insecurity demanding more defenses.”

The answer is to keep breathing, to recognize that life is an endless, every-changing flow. If you try to put running water in a bucket, he says, you won’t succeed because the bucket traps it and it can no longer run. And you can’t encase life in a belief system either. Because life is an infinite flow. The best you can do is to engage with life fully, to be fully present in this very Now, which is all there really is.

That’s easier said than done, of course. Our minds are chattering monkeys. But you can practice and get better at it and stay present for longer and longer periods of time. And when you do, you get glimpses of how exquisite it all is, and how much you truly are one with it.

I heard a story once where a child asked her grandmother, “Is everyone like this?” The grandmother asked her what she meant. And the child replied, “So much bigger on the inside than on the outside.”

Qigong master Chunyi Lin leads students in a meditation where the key phrase is, “I am in the Universe; the Universe is in me.” Practice being fully present in the Now, and the inside and outside become one, as the two sides of a coin.

You don’t have to believe it. It’s not a matter of belief. Just be the river, and let life flow on.

 

 

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Mindfulness Practice: Your Point of Power

Mindfulness

Given the chaos of our times, all of us suffer, on some level, an anxiety about what might happen next.  Where will the next threat come from?  What’s coming that will impact my family, my livelihood, my security and peace?  So today I wanted to talk with you about some ways you can maintain your sense of balance and equanimity by returning to your personal point of power. The key is to learn to learn the knack of mindfulness, or living in the Now.

Of all the moments you have ever lived or ever will, the present one is the one that holds all the gifts–this very moment, right now.

Now–and only now–holds the miracle of your beating heart, the power to direct your attention, the power to experience the richness your senses provide.  Now is when you feel.  Only now holds the power to notice, to imagine and to choose. Now is the only moment in which you can act.

Because now is the moment where your spirit intersects your body and where consciousness infuses your mind, now is you point of power.

Freedom from Anxiety

When you’re wholly focused on what’s happening in this instant, allowing yourself to accept whatever it offers, you place yourself in a position where you can enjoy its multiple layers of dazzling richness.   Your feelings of worry and anxiety dissolve, because both are based in fears focused on an imagined event in a non-existent future moment, not on what’s happening right here and now.

Even if the present moment holds a crisis, by bringing your attention fully to it you center yourself, allowing you access the full range of your inner resources.

The mind simply can’t ride two trains of thought at the same time.  Bring it back to the present and you will be in the only place where it’s possible to create the decisions and actions to move you toward an outcome you prefer.

In his Introduction to his book The Power of Now, spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle gives this advice:

“Realize that the present moment is all you ever have.  Make the Now the primary focus of your life.  Whereas before you dwelt in time and paid brief visits to the Now, have your dwelling place in the Now and pay brief visits to past and future when required to deal with the practical aspects of your life situation.  Always say ‘yes’ to the present moment. . . Say ‘yes’ to life—and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Because we’re creatures of habit, learning to be mindful of the present–and to return to it when our thoughts and emotions carry us off down their accustomed paths–takes a little practice. Those familiar paths, even when they’re unpleasant, are built right into the neural pathways in our brains.  The more you practice, the more you aid your brain in building new pathways, ones that lead you to the here and now.

The peace and freedom of being in the present can take a little getting used to.  Compared to all the intensity that negative fantasies generate, it’s easy to feel disoriented in the present.  We’re not sure what to do with it, and rather than stay here and explore, we let familiar habits draw us away.  But its openness to the present, a willingness to explore it, that brings us freedom and peace, allowing us to experience the ultimate truth of our own being.

The Now is not some static place where everything stops. It has endless depth and breadth and motion.  Attend to it and you experience its kaleidoscopic, ever-changing nature—and the nature of the Grand Awareness, which, at your core, you are.

Mindfulness Tips

One interesting way to anchor yourself in the present is to tell yourself in words what you are doing:  “This is me, reading about my point of power,” or “This is me, stretching.”  It’s a helpful practice to play with.

Your senses are always bringing you information about the present.  You can practice directing your attention to the sounds you can hear, to what your skin is feeling, to how the light is casting shadows, to what fragrances are in the air.

You can practice paying attention to your breathing, focusing on the movement of your stomach and lungs, or on the changing temperature inside the tip of your nose as air flows in and out.

You can find more detailed information on practices that will bring you into the present in my article “Mindfulness by the Minute.”   Or you may  enjoy practicing with one of the brief, helpful videos provided at Instant Mindfulness. 

If you’ll weave increasing visits to the Now throughout your day, it won’t take you long to appreciate the clarity of mind they bring and the enhanced abilities they provide to focus on whatever task you choose to do and to make more enlightened decisions.

The present truly is your point of power.  Dip into it often.  It will let you make the most of life and bring you gifts of great awareness, peace, freedom and effective action.

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The Practical Wisdom of Prudence

PrudenceSome time back, I decided to give all my inner voices names.  I thought that would make my dialogues with them more intimate.  There’s the brave one, Sally Forth, for instance, who encourages me when my confidence is drooping or I’m feeling shy.  And there’s May Bull with her soft, deep drawl, who coaxes me on when I’m tired or the going gets rough.  “Come on, honey,” she’ll say.  “Just a little more.  You can do it.”

For the most part, they’re a good bunch, valued players on my team.

The only spoilsport in the bunch was Prudence.  She’s the strict one who’s always pulling back the reins on my free spirit.

For a long time, I thought of Prudence as “the nag.”  She watches my spending like some green-shaded accountant.  If I reach for a second piece of chocolate cake, she’ll cluck.  She believes in regular bedtimes and exercise, and being prompt.  And any time I’m facing some moral dilemma or mulling some point of etiquette, she’s right there with her two cents in hand.

It took me a long time to appreciate her worth.  It’s something you have to grow into.  But now that I see the genuine value and practical wisdom of Prudence, I’ve crowned her Chief of Staff.

Let me tell you why – because you have an inner Prudence, too, whether you’ve named her or not.

What Prudence Does

Prudence brings with her quite a heritage.  Her name, according to Wikipedia, “comes from Old French prudence (14th century), from Latin prudentia (foresight, sagacity). “    Prudence is considered one of the four Cardinal Virtues of antiquity.   The other three are Justice,  Temperance (or Self-Control),  and Fortitude (or Courage).   Among them, she is foremost, because her knowledge is necessary to direct the remaining three.

Despite her grand history, her name has gone out of fashion these days.  Mostly we refer to her now as “Practical Wisdom.”   But personally, I don’t think that has the same ring.

If you took the VIA Character Strength Survey,  you would see Prudence defined as “caution, prudence, and discretion,” and if you have this personal strength in good supply, the Survey report would tell you that “You are a careful person, and your choices are consistently prudent ones. You do not say or do things that you might later regret.”

But while that’s a neat little overview, it doesn’t really tell you about Prudence’s worth.  She does so much more for you than that.

Prudence upholds your true values.  She’s your inner moral compass, “that still, small voice” that urges you to seek for and choose the higher path.

Prudence believes in goodness, both as a means and an end.  She asks you to imagine the best possible outcome in every situation and then to move toward it in the most effective way for the benefit of all concerned.

She challenges you to listen both to your heart and to your head.  She asks you to look at both the big picture and at the details involved.

In other words, Prudence requires you to be mindful, to thoughtfully consider both your actions and their potential consequences in terms of what you genuinely value.  Then she expects you to implement them with courage, and strength, and efficiency.  She helps you live from a place of true authenticity.

“Are you doing your best?” she asks.  “Is this who you want to be?”

It takes learning and experience for her voice to mature.  You can cultivate it by paying attention to the wisdom and errors that you see others using in the world around you, and in movies and literature.  She takes on more authority as you go through your own life experiences and learn from your own triumphs and mistakes.

In time, you learn to listen to her counsel a kind of reverence.  Instead of seeing her as a nagging shrew, you learn to turn to her and trust her when you need to be wise.  And in the end you come to appreciate why, since time immemorial, Prudence is considered the mother from which all the other virtues spring.

*            *             *

This article is one in a continuing series on positive psychology’s 24 character strengths.  To find the others, go to our Article Index and scroll down to, “Strengths, Individual.”

If you found this article of value, passing it on would be a prudent thing to do.  Just click a button.

Illustration by Cieleke at stock.xchng
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Rewriting the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Few things have a greater influence over our lives than the stories we tell ourselves. Tell yourself that you’re a victim and you are. Tell yourself that you’re destined for success, and success is likely to become your destiny.

The stories we weave about our lives color the way we perceive everything.  They embody our beliefs.  They create our senses of identity.  They influence the way we interact with the world. They give meaning to our lives.

And yet, despite the incredible power they exert in shaping us, most of us are wholly unaware of what our stories are.  Woven from haphazard events without our conscious intention or control, they operate in the background, framing our view of the world and of ourselves, without our even realizing that they’re there.

But if you grab your story, pulling it into the light of day, you can use its power to transform your life into the life you truly want it to be.

How Our Stories Get Written

Our conscious mind can’t possibly give equal attention to everything that happens to us.  In order to make sense of our lives, we learn to weave a thread of meaning that connects the more significant events and lets the others fade away.

We highlight the experiences that have the greatest emotional impact on us, and we interpret them according to the stories we hear others telling us.  We adopt plot lines from our families and teachers, from our media and from our cultures.  We borrow the beliefs and values that they pass along, matching them to our experiences, adopting the ones that seem to fit.

Our Stories Shape Our Lives

Once we have a general plot line, we selectively notice the life events that support it.  In effect, our story becomes a filter through which we view ourselves and our roles in the world.

In her book, Positive Identities: Narrative Practices and Positive Psychology (The Positive Psychology Workbook Series)
Dr. Margarita Tarragona tells about the work of Jerome Bruner, a psychologist from New York University, who says that we become the stories that we create about our lives.

“He and other scholars,” she writes, “believe that our life narratives not only describe experiences, but actually have an impact on how we live. The stories we tell about our lives are not simply accounts of our experiences, they also generate experiences: how we feel, what we think, what possibilities and obstacles we see for ourselves.”

Think of your story as a bag of groceries, author Barbara Stahura suggests. “A person—or a culture—could mindlessly fill it with junk food that does nothing to nourish and may even do harm. Alternatively, the bag could be packed with nutritious, delicious foods that support health and vitality for many decades,” she writes.

“The stories you believe—about anything—are your emotional food. If you repeatedly berate yourself with negative labels, you live one story. If you instead often remind yourself that you’re smart and worthy, that you’re fine just the way you are, you live another. If you hold a belief that prevents you from attempting a new activity, you live a different story than if you tried and succeeded, or if you tried and failed and tried again. All of these beliefs create various stories that can take your life in many directions.”

Pulled by the Future

The good news is that if you aren’t happy with the direction your life is going, you can begin to change it by changing your story.

One theme that plays out in the story that many of us have been telling ourselves is that we’re at the mercy of damaging unconscious forces set in motion by childhood experiences.   We’re victims, we tell ourselves, because we were neglected or abused along the way.

“My mother always told me that I’d never amount to anything,” Pete told me while explaining why he was so disappointed with his life.  “And she was right.  Everything I try goes wrong.”   Pete had taken a few psychology courses a couple decades ago and came away from them believing that his whole future was doomed by his mother’s predictions.

But, in fact, psychologists know now that very little evidence supports the view that we’re prisoners of events from our past.   People have the ability to make new choices and to carve out new directions for themselves.

“People are not just products of their circumstances or passive receptors of forces.  They also make decisions, act intentionally, and can have an impact on many of the developments in their lives,” Tarragona says.   As Dr. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of positive psychology, puts it, we’re pulled by the future, not pushed by the past.  

So the first step to take when you revise your life story is to let go of the theme that says you must be a loser in some way because you had a less than ideal childhood or experienced trauma along the way. People whose stories have happy endings rise above devastating childhoods  and traumas every day.

Where to Begin

The next step in rewriting your life story is to become aware of the story you’re telling yourself now.

One way to begin to see your story, suggest psychologists Jake and Hannah Eagle is to suppose that someone asked you, “If you have five minutes to tell me about yourself, to tell me what matters most, what would you say?”

Think about how you would respond to that question.  You may even want to write out a reply.

But five minutes isn’t really enough to tell your whole story.  Most of our stories have many chapters.  So try imagining that you’re getting to know a new friend  and you’re sharing all about your life.  What do you tell him or her about your childhood?  About your high school years?  What happened in your young adulthood?  What’s key about you now?  How do you feel about your work, about the important relationships in your life, about how things are going, about your expectations for the future?

Another way  to look at your story, Stahura suggests, is by completing these phrases:

  • One story I believe about myself…
  • One story that holds me back…
  • One story I no longer choose to believe…
  • The stories I tell myself about myself…
  • In order to move out of this stuck place, I will create a new story that tells me…

Happy Endings

Once you’re aware of the story you have been telling up until now, you can begin to rewrite it.  Take a chapter at a time.  Or start with the part of the story that’s holding you back or keeping you stuck, the part that says you can’t or that you’re not smart or good or deserving enough, and rewrite it with a happy ending.   Showcase your strengths, your abilities, your knowledge and skills, the things that make you feel good about yourself.

Write your story about the you that you’re becoming, the one that’s pulling you forward, the one who overcomes all the obstacles and is actively shaping the life of your dreams.

Fill it with different memories and new perspectives, with interpretations based on the values, beliefs and wisdom that you possess now, as a mature and capable adult.

”A story is the relationship that you develop between who you are, or who you potentially are, and the infinite world,” playwrite Shekhar Kapur says in his TED talk.

The world is infinite, and you, potentially, are anything you’re willing to believe you can be.

Write your story large.  Let its pages shine with your strengths and your triumphs.  We become the stories that we tell ourselves.  Write yours with passion and joy, where every adventure builds to a happy ending.

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