Building tree houses in our minds

Just been listening to a podcast* with Dan Harris and Jeff Warren in conversation about their new book, Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics: A 10% Happier How-To Book and they started to talk about how we build tree houses in our minds, climb up and stay there – all we can see is the forest. Apparently it was an image from Saul Bellow. Anyway, the imagery got me thinking …

About how we can become so fixated on our stuff and begin to live in a tree house. As Jeff Warren says in the podcast, we start paving the tree house with mirrors and reflect back on ourselves our own thoughts, ideas and obsessions about whatever. This tree house becomes our world.

The way to get down out of the tree house is to meditate, the book argues. Then you can see the ‘figure inside the ground’ – the tree house against the backdrop of a mountain or other parts of our landscape. Ah, perspective which is liberating and helps us to get unstuck from our trance, our tree house of the mind.

Meditation helps us notice how we are feeling right now and we can pop out of the trance as Jeff Warren says.

I find this imagery very helpful and a great steer about how to get an altogether different angle on the figure inside the ground.

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You can find Jeff Warren at The Consciousness Explorers Club http://cecmeditate.com

and at  http://jeffwarren.org

* https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/10-happier-with-dan-harris/id1087147821

 

 

 

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The Unexpected

I wrote this at a time that I was dealing with stuff and how we can have break-throughs. Dealing with pain can be startling and then something changes …

Bone-dry, sand-blasted soul-sahara. There is no escape to green springs, no oasis in the stinging dust-storm of things unexpected.

And then the rains came: the footprint of the memory of pain was washed away until the next dry season. Now a time of colours flowered and the bone-dryness drip-dried into the forgotten.

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Mini full of bigots

I wrote this some time ago when I had a flashback to an experience of racism. It took place in Salisbury (now Harare in Zimbabwe).

 

Hitching a ride into Salisbury
(if ever there was a vain attempt to transplant little England, this was)
a red mini with three blokes
pulled up and offered me a lift.

As we headed east along Jameson Avenue
(named after an imperialist)
– next to the open ground opposite the Polytechnic –
the driver saw a cyclist
and simply slipped off the road in hot pursuit
(off-road racing for racists)
This was not what I had expected when I had been ‘helloed my China’.*

Fortunately, the bicycle was more suited to the terrain and the cyclist was off pretty quickly as was I, scrambling out of that mini-filled bigotry and sheer plain ignorance as fast as I possibly could.

Hitching in Southern Africa, 1975

China – slang for mate

A note to the reader – Jameson Avenue was named after the British colonial who carried out the infamous Jameson Raid against the Transvaal Republic in the run up to the Boer war of 1899. The Avenue is now named Samora Michel Avenue, after the first president of the newly independent Mozambique (June 1975)

The alchemy of anger

In Healing through the Dark Emotions, Miriam Greenspan writes about turning grief into gratitude, despair into faith and fear into joy.

I am looking at ways to turn anger into something that does not harm and debilitate. What I am writing is provisional. I am not quite yet there with my thinking.

It is true to say that grief not dealt with, despair that has no where to go and a fear that sits with us by brooding and corroding us – all three can end up as anger.

What happens to anger that has no place to go? It turns on itself, leading to depression. In the wrong hands it can become uncivil, possibly violent and massively painful.

Anger and fear are on the same side of the coin. Maybe they are on the opposite sides but they are part of the flight or flight.

Too much fear can shrivel us, make us lose our sense of self. Equally, not feeling any fear is problematic. Without fear we become manic, self-destructive or even hubristic. The key is being self-aware of the feeling of fear or the lack of it. The same thing with anger.

Anger that has no self-awareness becomes self-righteous or self-loathing. Anger that is not looked after and not dealt with can become depression. It can go underground and can seep in the places where it becomes toxic and kills the goodness of the person.

Pema Chodron and others argue that we are responsible for creating all of our emotion. Pema refers to the work done by Jill Bolte Taylor:

“An emotion like anger that is an automatic response lasts just ninety seconds from the moment it is triggered until it runs its course … When it lasts any longer, which it usually does, it is because we have chosen to rekindle it.”

Alex Miles, writing in Elephant Journal picks up the same theme and says, quite clearly, that we are responsible for making our own emotions: “Although we may not want to admit it we are responsible for creating all of our own emotions. Every thought that we think causes a chemical reaction and that reaction causes a physical response.” Alex Myles, Elephant Journal (It’s about the Mindful Life)

Is it true to say that no one makes you angry? That you make yourself angry? Anyway it is something to reflect on and become aware of next time you have that sensation. I think that someone or something makes us angry. It does have a context.

Here’s the thing – the radical thing to think about – the emotion of anger last only ninety seconds and then we make up the story around that emotion and it can remain with us for decades.

At that moment of anger, be aware of what has made us angry. Give the feeling, the moment, oxygen and space to open us up. Stop there. Don’t act out. Don’t repress. Don’t blame it on anyone else. Don’t blame it on ourselves. Make it open-ended. It will pass in ninety seconds. Listen to yourself. Listen to your own suffering.

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Open up to the feeling

Being self-aware of our suffering gives us the gift of the chance to be kind to ourselves

This next line has shattered my view. I always thought with anger – get it out.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When you express your anger you think you are getting anger out of your system, but that’s not true.” When you fan your anger and don’t stop to work out why you are angry then that’s a difficult place to be.

Attend to anger. Be aware of it. Have self-awareness. Befriend it. Sit with it. Don’t try to suppress it. Surrender to it. This is the renunciation. It is not allowing anger to control. Know that it exists.Can I let the anger open me and not try to shoo it away?

Pema suggests that we practise how to deal with such emotions in Living Beautifully. 

Acknowledge the feeling, she says. Give it your full and compassionate and welcoming attention and drop the story line about the feeling. This allows you to have direct experience of it, free of interpretation. Don’t be judgemental of it. Just be present with the moment. She also urges us to think about where it is located in our body and asks the questions, ‘Does it remain the same for every long? Does it shift and change?’

If we let the story line go around the sensation, we will be freed of it and remember nothing last for ever. Becoming self-aware when it comes to the emotion of anger can lead to a great sense of well-being.

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Even with the clouds that float above us, we can be open and present to the beauty that surrounds us.

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References – both enormously helpful in dealing with this stuff – 

Pema Chodron, Living Beautifully

Miriam Greenspan, Healing through the Dark Emotions

Elephant Journal

Fathoming the ‘Not Self’

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I have begun to explore the idea of the ‘not self’ and, as I have discovered, and as has been reported by those who know better than me, it is a difficult concept to understand all at once. I strongly suspect any depth of knowing what it means will happen incrementally for me.

I may well forget everything that I have learned about the concept in the next week or so!

I have to declare at once that the way into an understanding of the ‘not self’ is through meditation and getting up close to stuff we do not like and feel uncomfortable with:

It’s that space where we allow our minds to observe the scary feelings we are experiencing such as anxiety, anger, sadness and grief – things that we want to run away from in an instant. Working on the ‘not self’ through meditation, I believe, ironically enables us to feel a detachment from it. (So I have been told.)

But we have to practice often.

There is immense practical value in not taking our thoughts, feelings and emotions personally.

The debate about whether the self exists is too complex at this moment for me to even begin to fathom. It is sufficient, at this stage, to get the idea of not identifying with the feelings around self and to gain a bit of clarity around the fact that the various parts of yourself that you are feeling are not part of you actually. Just writing this paragraph was difficult enough. 

Robert Wright, author of Why Buddhism is True? in a podcast with Dan Harris (10% Happier) says that we should start with problematic things about ourself.

Mediate on them so you don’t have to identify with them. Ultimately, you do not have to accept the discomfort that they have been causing you.

So if you sit with the feeling of being a ‘failure’ because you were told you were one by your father or mother or brother or whoever, you will find if you get close up to the feeling and scrutinise it you may well discover that this is not you, but someone else’s voice that you have come to believe is ‘you’.

Unpack it as you sit quietly and meditate upon it and, over the course of several sessions of working with this, you may well find that the feeling dissolves. At any rate it will lessen as you no longer identify with it.

Remember – you do not have to accept the discomfort that the feeling causes you.

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I am obsessive and, as anyone with this condition knows, it is freighted with awful feelings.

Being obsessive can be positive however. It can mean that if I latch onto an idea such as the attempt to explain the ‘not self’, then it’s a good thing in many ways. I won’t rest until I get it as far as my intellect enables me to.

But, of course, being obsessive has its massive downsides. (Hello, understatement.) It is not fun really as you begin to believe the voice telling you to check things to see whether or not they are true. And you do this over and over … Well, they are only feelings that give rise to thoughts that are not to be believed. To buy into them causes untold suffering as I well know.

This work through reading and meditation (in a chair at the moment and not yet on a cushion) has been enormously helpful to me and has started to give me greater clarity. As Wright suggests – the lack of clarity about our thoughts, feelings and emotions can often cause deep suffering. Ah, yes, it is the lack of clarity. Metation clears the mind.

In the same podcast in which Harris and Wright are conversing, Harris says that there is immense practical value in not taking our thoughts, feelings and emotions personally. He argues that if you follow this guidance, “Then they will not yank you around as much.”

Being obsessed is being yanked around by illusions and delusions. Feeling a failure does the same thing and so is the idea of not being good enough and feelings of anxiety. Yank, yank, yank.

Of course, some feelings are correct but, often as not, they lead you up the garden path.

Meditation allows you to accept their guidance or let go of them, says Robert Wright.

And, slowly, we gain clarity about ourselves and our ‘not selves’ and begin to reduce our suffering.

 

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Our minds

Heard this on a podcast with Sam Harris. It’s called Waking Up. Then I read it in his book of the same name.  This landed on me perfectly …

Our minds are all we have. They are all we have ever had. And they are all we can offer others. This might not be obvious, especially when there are aspects of your life that seem in need of improvement—when your goals are unrealized, or you are struggling to find a career, or you have relationships that need repairing. But it’s the truth. Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life—you won’t enjoy any of it. Sam Harris, Wakimg Up.

Just brilliant and so clear.

After the swamp

I kind of encountered a traffic jam in my mind and got stuck with my writing. Crafting a response after the big swamp experience has been impossible. Loads of ideas float in on the wind, but they are scattered and need to be gathered up before they are out of reach again. Ah, that’s the plan.