Inquiring Deeply Newsletter, January 2019

CONTEMPLATING THE NEW YEAR

“I call the moment when you fully know that a change is achievable realizing the imaginative possible.  When you are able to envision that an alternative is real, you experience a sudden energetic surge toward actualizing it, which becomes self-reinforcing.”

……Phillip Moffitt  (2012)  Emotional Chaos To Clarity

The New Year holiday is a natural time to reflect on the cycles in our lives – the beginnings and endings, the losses and renewals, the ongoing narrative themes that weave in, out, and through our life story.    In the ritual of new year’s resolutions,  we also have an auspicious opportunity to contemplate our aspirations and intention as we go forward into the unfolding future.  

For more than I decade, I have had a personal new year’s practice of reflecting on and then writing about my goals and intentions for the new year.   I distinguish between goals and intentions.  Goals express our preferences for future;  what we want to accomplish;  what we want to bring into being.  They provide inspiration and direction as well as determine how we allocate our time and resources.  Intentions, on the other hand, are statements about how we would like to actually think, act, and speak in any given moment as we move forward towards our goals.   Together, goals and intentions describe our purpose—  the forward thrust of our energy going forward.  They can function as a blueprint for the “imaginative possible” (to use Moffitt’s phrase from the opening quote).

Because intentions are what ‘incline the mind’ in one direction or another, it behooves us to be conscious of what our intentions are. Having clear intentions is a soft form of “thinking from the end”: the fundamental idea that consciousness has a shaping impact on awareness going forward.  In new age psychology, this idea is captured in the phrase “energy follows thought”.   If we think of the past as a push and visualization as a pull, push and pull come together in the present moment by influencing how we interpret and respond to events in an ongoing fashion. In the act of bringing new awareness to the present moment, the next moment is already changed because of the alteration in view.

Without resorting to metaphysics, the concept of intention in Buddhist psychology elegantly illuminates the complexity of this process. Everything that happens, the Buddha taught, begins with our thoughts; for good or ill, our thoughts are the foundation of what arises. Intentions are an important dimension of thought because what we intend directs our energy and attention. The back and forth movement of attention lights up the process of ‘minding’ that is the unseen background of experience as it arises. Intentions frame our interpretations and determine how we hold things in mind.

When we form a conscious intention, this then becomes an integral part of what unfolds next. Attention and intention light up experience and support living from the inside out.

When our purpose is clear and coherent, we are on course towards a particular outcome. Moreover, intentions keep us centered in the moment by keeping our attention focused on what is important, and that helps us stay optimally responsive to what is unfolding.

Clear seeing and clear intention segue into strategies for action. Once we are clear about what the goal is, we are poised to take whatever action is appropriate and indicated. (And conversely, our failure to see or understand important aspects of the current situation keeps us blind to important possibilities). Intention leads to constructive action in the spontaneous unfolding of the journey forward. It remains only to commit to what we most deeply value and stay on the path defined by putting one foot in front of the other.

Wishing us all a safe, healthy, and vital new year.

Choiceless Awareness — A True Story

One focus of attention in mindfulness meditation has no specific focus at all.   Termed “open attention” or “choiceless awareness”,   the instruction for this kind of practice is simply to open the field of awareness to include mindful noticing of whatever arises.  

Following a session of sitting practice we had shared, I good-naturedly teased a friend about his mismatched socks.   “What’s up with that?”, I asked.    Without missing a beat he answered:  “Oh, that’s just choiceless awareness from the bottom up”.

Dickens’ Spiritual Allegory

In Charles Dickens’ story The Christmas Carol,  the old miser Ebenezer Scrooge experiences visitations from the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmas PastPresent and Yet to Come.    As a consequence of these visions,  Scrooge is transformed into a kinder, gentler man.  

We can think of The Christmas Carol as a parable about the experience of “waking up” in life and its importance in the transformation of human suffering.   The Christmas Carol is a kind of spiritual fairy tale.   As we engage the story, we are carried along into a deep imagining of how spiritual awakening might feel.   In Buddhist terms, we see an example of how greed, hatred and delusion can be transformed through the powers of insight and compassion.  The timeless appeal of the story is that Scrooge is able to achieve what we all deeply long for: to transcend the structures of personality that keep us trapped in our own misery. Scrooge discovered the transformative joy of giving.

Emotional Equanimity

Emotional equanimity is much more than the ability to feel serene in the here and now. It is about the ability to open to and accept our emotional experience; the  commitment to meet painful emotions with awareness. 

Emotional equanimity benefits from a clear understanding of how emotional life is organized in the mind.  It is based on emotional intelligence: the ability to recognize, understand, and manage feelings. Maintaining emotional equilibrium is not a simple technique but rather a multifaceted psychological function which lives in multiple layers of both body and mind, including innate temperament, biochemistry, and early trauma history. Except perhaps for the lucky few people who were effectively parented in early life, emotional equanimity requires a lot of inner work.  

The basic way we understand emotional experience is by consciously feeling our way into it. This may be likened to the process of locating a splinter: first we have to probe the inflammation to find out what is sharp and psychologically painful. What is often insufficiently recognized is that many emotions are inherently inchoate; early nonverbal experience tends to be unformed and it cannot be expressed in words.  To get the messages conveyed by our emotions, we need to be sensitive to their idiom of expression, and to develop an understanding of how they function within us. Deeper knowledge surfaces when we open to what is expressed in body sensation and images, metaphors and narratives.

  Example: Trying to discern why she was feeling depressed, a woman found herself with an unexpected image of Londoners in World War II sending their children off to relatives in the countryside. As she reflected on what this image was telling her, she realized that her depression was providing a zone of emotional safety, a respite from the bruising forces in her daily life. [Ex adapted from Karla McLaren, The Language of Emotion]   

 Unresolved emotions lie at the heart of every psychological problem. Cultivating emotional equanimity is not only about training the mind to attain states of calm; it is about learning to use our emotional challenges as opportunities for growth. Bottom line, our feelings reveal what we are unwisely holding onto and where we need to grow. Finding the wisdom in these experiences is beautifully expressed in the metaphor of a lotus in a pond, its roots in the mud below, its flower orienting towards the light above.    

No mud, no lotus.