Flip Your What IF

I so often hear about the suffering created and endured when someone continually asks “what if”…as in:

  • What if it all goes wrong?
  • What if I had done it differently?
  • What if I don’t make the right choice?

We all do this, and I know I used to do it a lot, and it can be nothing short of crippling. The reason it’s so detrimental is that the power of imagination can put us in the physical and emotional state that feels like we’re experiencing the outcome when it hasn’t even happened, or it’s done and over with. 

Given that we have such imaginative power, why not use it for good? The simplest example would be to ask instead:

  • What if if all goes well, or good enough?
  • What if it was ok the way it was (it got me here, didn’t it)?
  • What if any choice is fine, and I learn from it, no matter what?

Notice how it feels to ask these alternative questions. There’s a lightness. You’re not forcing yourself to do anything. You’re simply considering possibility. Inquiring in this way seems to open up a space, even without answers or absolutes or assurances. It doesn’t tell you not to worry, or shower you with platitudes, or invalidate your feelings. It’s a simple offering of another version of reality.

I love this technique, because it is so gentle and nonviolent, and yet so powerful. It can be expanded even further to issues of stress, anxiety and depression, and meditation/increasing awareness through self-inquiry:

  • What if I didn’t run away from this moment – what would that be like?
  • What if I’m ok exactly as I am?
  • What if I actually have everything I need in this moment?
  • What if I lived the experience of this moment (vs what mind says about it)?
  • What if I allowed everything to be as it is in this moment?

This idea of asking “what if?” is something I found in Adyashanti’s book True Meditation as a technique for meditation. I love it and I am grateful for the discovery of these magic words that have made such a change in my life and my meditation, and that of others, as well.

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All Techniques Eventually Fail…

I often talk in the meditation classes I teach on Monday evenings about the importance of discovering your true identity. This is a rather abstract subject for a beginner’s class, but I talk about it anyway because eventually, like all techniques, mindfulness fails to bring the kind of relief it did in the beginning, or it just isn’t enough anymore. And thank goodness, because this forces us to become disgusted and keep searching, and possibly discover freedom!

The remedy to failed techniques is to discover yourself as limitless spirit, which makes it possible to touch back to this truth in any moment. In fact, you never really lose touch with the truth of your identity after you discover it. It changes the lens through which you view life. I’m talking about discovering the truth of your identity in that “aha” way, that resonates in the gut, where you know it in a factual, visceral way – not just reading about it and thinking that it makes sense.

When you know your true identity in this way, then some part of you, underneath it all, even in the middle of chaos, knows that this is all part of the dream, part of a play that your spirit came here to dance in, masquerading as a “you” with problems and worries. (No, you don’t then lose all motivation to participate in life…but that’s a topic for another post.)

People discover their true identity in all kinds of ways…through meditation, reading, teachers’ words, and sometimes spontaneously in the midst of great suffering. What’s evident to me now is that it doesn’t have to be an accident. One can actively engage in the kind of inquiry that leads to the personal discovery of true identity.

To know our true identity is actually our heart’s longing. People call the discovery by all kinds of names – knowing God, finding yourself, discovering your “no me-ness”, discovering your nothingness. Really, all the searching we do for the right career, spouse, or organizational system is the seeking energy, desperately trying to know itself, to wake up to itself.

If you feel like you’re always searching for the magic solution, maybe it’s time to consider whether all of the solutions you’ve found so far have ever lasted, or have satisfied that hunger. Maybe it’s time to try a different kind of search. If you want to know how to engage in direct inquiry, contact me. I can facilitate self-inquiry or point you to others who also do such work, which is traditionally done for free.

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What’s the Hurry?

Even when we’ve seen our true identity, it’s still easy to get caught up in old cycles and patterns. Life is exciting, and engaging, and magnetic. It draws us in. And we are creatures of habit, after all – some conditioning dies harder than others.

The thing I notice at lot recently is being in a hurry to get somewhere with _____________. My clients have this issue, and it still happens to me more often than I’d like. I don’t even know where it’s going, but as soon as ego picks up the scent of some possible destination, it’s off and running before I realize it. Doesn’t really matter whether it’s the yard work, or house-work or work-work, or personal to-do list items. Suddenly there’s a feeling of urgency, and I’m rushing around like mad. And then sometimes, there’s irritation or pressure or anxiety, until it is noticed and questioned.

Where is it in a hurry to get to? Who knows? Some magical place called “done” that the old conditioned part thinks will lead to a magic feeling of some kind – relaxation, maybe? But it seems it never comes. There’s always something else to be done that fills the space of what’s finished. Or there’s an unexamined belief, more like a feeling, that it will be disastrous to not act, or not act quickly, or not get it all done. I cringe to think of how many times I have made my imaginary urgent agenda into someone else’s problem, expecting them to feel pressure to participate in my illusion. If we really want to be free, we might ask “who or what is in a hurry to get somewhere?”.

When we recognize that we don’t really (if we’re honest) know where we’re rushing off to that’s so much more important than right now – more important than being present, prioritizing the day, and working at a reasonable pace while we take care of ourselves and others along the way – everything can relax back into place. We can ask “what will the actual consequences be if it isn’t done today?”. We might even love the work we’re doing, and feel really inspired, but if we’re in this hurried state, we’re probably not present anymore. And things tend to go awry fast when we’re not paying attention – you know what I’m talking about.

One place I notice an obvious change for myself from intentional inquiry like this is housework – especially laundry. I used to try to do it all myself and finish every stitch of it before Monday, no matter how miserable or exhausted it made me or anyone else. Somehow, I had it in my head that it would be a disaster if I didn’t start the week with all my clothing choices available, and that I could finally, magically “rest” after it was done. I also had the idea that doing any laundry during the week was somehow impossible and would break me.

After examining those assumptions, none turned out to be true, and now sometimes I don’t get to the washing until someone’s running out of socks or underwear – and it’s ok. It’s just not a “problem” anymore. I am free of the weight of it! Most of it still gets done on the weekend, without any pressure or suffering. Now, I no longer believe I will get to rest after some huge task – it never happened, and never will. Now, it’s simply laundry. Waiting a day to wash anything is not a big deal, and I rarely lose sleep doing laundry, or over not doing it. Now I usually rest all along the way, and try to manage my energy daily so I don’t run a deficit that puts me in crisis. It’s nice to not be so used up all the time.

What if you question the urgency next time you’re in a hurry or feeling like the list MUST get done NOW? What are the actual consequences? Lay them out. If the true consequences are that someone might be unhappy or worry about what someone might think, it’s time to take stock, and return to what really matters. If you put off this questioning, I can almost guarantee it leads to relationship or health problems, or both. I’ve seen it over and over with my clients and in my own life.

Sometimes the illusion has such a hold on us, that we still believe the urgency is true no matter what, and we may need to enlist the help of a trusted friend or advisor. Sometimes we need to address our unresolved stuff (trauma) with professional help, because the hypervigilance (never-ending feeling of urgency) has us convinced that, indeed, having it all done in time has life or death consequences. Living with the tyranny of such urgency is exhausting, but you don’t have to keep suffering! You have the power to make the shift.

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If You Want Simplicity, Give Up All Hope

I’ve noticed that there’s this way in which humans always seem to want to simplify life. This is a fine goal, but when it’s driven by ego or conditioning (read: the part of us that just wants everything to be easy and comfortable), just like any other ego-driven effort, it seems to go awry. It’s natural to want a rule, a guide, an easy algorithm for navigating it all. But it’s an immature wish, and leads people to be rigid and judgmental, and makes them chase gurus and dictators in pursuit of simple answers.

Our insistence that things be easy comes from the feeling that life is hard, which is based on another assumption that we have to keep track of lots of things and direct and control them all, or else life will be a disaster, or something. Most people haven’t even ever questioned what the “or something” is, or who/what needs to control everything in order to prevent it. If we check, the something is probably like “it’s dangerous”, or “I won’t get what I want”, and the person can’t be found who thinks those things, other than the nebulous “me”.

It’s pretty easy to fall into this trap of trying to invent a place to rest, as we’re naturally designed for survival, not happiness.

But happiness is possible. Simplicity is possible. It just doesn’t look the way most people assume it does. In fact, from the outside, it might not even be visible. Ego can’t visualize it because it can’t view life from the perspective I’m talking about. Ego will most likely tell you it’s dangerous to disregard its concerns, that the solution MUST be OUT THERE, instead of within.

True simplicity comes from an inner shift. A shift from pursuing comfort and stability by manipulating the external world, to radical acceptance and unconditional friendliness with self and life. When we can rest in the unfolding, even while watching the egoic mind squirm and doubt it’s indispensable-ness, and know that all we need to do is be present so we can respond with love and awareness to whatever appearance life seems to take in the moment, THAT is true simplicity. Without this shift, efforts to achieve true simplicity are futile.

And even after the shift, it may take time to be able to rest in that knowing with any consistency. But that’s why they call it practice. It’s tricky at first. People get stuck, big time, in all kinds of ways.

  • Sometimes they get stuck in spirituality, and preach or condescend to others who aren’t up in the floaty clouds with them. Or they may thing “this is it”, and they have no more work to do. This is another ego trap, the desire to avoid life’s messiness and stay blissed out all the time.
  • Sometimes they get stuck in fixing, in a hurry to get rid of all the conditioning or physical problems. More ego, always in a hurry to get somewhere. Ego can use anything as a foundation for pursuing its goals.
  • Sometimes they get stuck in depression or meaninglessness, and have no care for others or anything. Sometimes there’s a limbo after awakening to our true identity, and mind automatically assumes “this is it” and it will always be this way.

We don’t have to get stuck, though. If we are honest and present, we can keep moving through any storm. If we have truly seen through ego, we can always question the movements of mind and come back to a place of rest in our knowing (that the humanness wants to find a place to rest), no matter how often or far we fall off track. No system or plan can provide the kind of lasting peace I’m talking about. If we fully acknowledge we are dynamic living beings then we know that no plan can ever be flexible enough to cover all the eventualities forever. Seeing through ego starts with realizing that there is no hope for such endeavors.

Lasting peace becomes possible when we “give up all hope” of alternatives to the present moment.

NOTE: It’s normal for our humanness to seek safety, but excessive seeking of safety can also be a sign of unresolved trauma, as could the feeling that everything is dangerous. Sorting through what is spiritual journey and what is trauma/human stuff can be challenging, and therefore some find it helpful to have a skilled guide who understands both nondual spirituality, and how to work with traumatic stress. Contact me if you’d like more info about spiritual coaching or trauma resolution.

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Want to Feel More Alive? Be Quiet!

I am participating in an online conference for trauma treatment professionals and one of the speakers today (Bessel van der Kolk) referenced research that demonstrates that the part of the brain that allows us to take in experience – to experience … Continue reading

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2013 Meditation Challenge: Year in Review

I wanted to write this review right at the end of the year, but being the introvert that I am, time was necessary for me to look back and summarize the experience. It’s difficult to tease out the source of any change even in the best research, but here’s my go at self observation in relation to my goal to meditate 30 minutes every day for a whole year:

I meditated way more than I would have without the goal. I meditated almost every single weekday, and some weekends, some days more than 30 mins. I wish I had recorded a total. BTW, now there are apps like Insight Timer you can use for that, as well as for journaling about your experience.

I meditate every weekday morning without hesitation. It’s clearly a habit now, and the busier I am, the harder I work to make sure I fit it in. I’m even starting to wake earlier and meditate weekday mornings while the house is still quiet.

I could sit for virtually any period of time now. It’s not work anymore, but rather, supreme relaxation, and an incredible luxurious pleasure. If I have trouble settling in, I ask “what if I allowed everything to be as it is right now?”. (Thank you, Adya!)

I care little for form. I used to sit zazen on a cushion and sometimes still demonstrate for my classes, but in practice I just sit reasonably upright with good back support, with my legs elevated. I don’t want any music or guide, I don’t want anyone’s yacking intruding on my sacred, silent space. Thanks to Adyashanti and his True Meditation for releasing me from all these forms of control!

The ability to remain present has increased my joy and assisted my life in countless ways. I effortlessly remain present with my clients and aware of myself, which makes me more effective at my job. I am more present and effective in my relationships, my tasks, my exercise, my driving, and my own work on myself. I live my real life, instead of an imaginary life in my thoughts.

I have become more fully embodied than ever before. I fully inhabit my own body with an awareness I never had before 2013. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s an amazing experience. It’s like I was living in my body, but I wasn’t plugged in. I admit some of this is due to somatic experiencing work, but that also would not have been possible in such a short time without the learned ability through meditation to remain present to my own internal experience without fear.

I seem to be taking better care of myself in a more consistent way. I attribute this to relating to my humanness in a friendlier, more compassionate way. It feels and appears like an automatic outgrowth of practice, rather than from effort. I sleep, eat, exercise and rest, as well as offer comfort to myself just because the obvious need is there.

Others notice and comment on the calm they experience just by being in my presence. I swear, I am not trying to “do” anything, it’s just happening. Some refer to this a shift in vibrational frequency that occurs with meditation practice, but I don’t know. Whatever it is, people around me are witnessing it and commenting on it, and begging me to record bedtime stories for them (really!).

I am more comfortable being myself than ever before, in every way imaginable…less critical of my body, my physical appearance, my mistakes, and my flaws. It feels more acceptable to just be myself all of the time. Who else would I be? I can’t believe how much time I spent striving to project some desirable image I had of myself.

I am getting to live the lovingkindness meditation: May I be happy. May I be safe. May I be healthy and strong. May I live with ease. Yes, as it turns out, I may!

And this is my loving kindness prayer for you:

May you be happy. May you be safe. May you be healthy and strong. May you live with ease.

Perhaps you’ll make my prayer for you come true, whether it’s through regular daily silence, or some other means!

Namaste

Cynthia

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The Joy of New Beginnings

Celebration of Light

Celebration of Light (Photo credit: kslavin)

This is the time of year when we begin to take stock of our lives and make plans for the time that’s left. We often use the arbitrary tax year start date of January 1 as the beginning, the time we start our new life, execute our new plans for achieving the self we hope to become.

There’s something enticing about embarking on a new adventure. It’s the promise of something better, the gleam of possibility. And yet, for many, no sooner has the quest begun than it is finished. Every year I witness the suddenly new and enthusiastic crowd at the gym in January that gradually tapers off by mid February. Beginning is the easy part, clearly. But we all already know this.

A recent study indicates that one way to improve the chance of success in new endeavors is to not tell anyone about them, or if we do, to talk to others mostly about the hard work it will require. Otherwise, we get our boost from receiving recognition before the task is accomplished, and lose steam for following through with the hard part because we already got the reward. I thought this was enlightening, and also somewhat depressing news. So we are just a bunch of 2 year olds when it comes to motivation?

Another way of approaching this waning of good intentions is to examine more closely the difficulty in the middle part, after the excitement of beginning has faded. What is it that makes it so difficult to keep up the effort, to keep moving toward the goal?  It might be any or all of several things:

Superficial goals: Maybe we want to be thinner, or healthier, or make more money, but we haven’t addressed the underlying issue. If we want these things in order to feel better about ourselves, then the motivation isn’t likely to stick, because unconditional friendliness toward ourselves is a necessary prerequisite to get through the rough times in the change process.

Impatience: We’ve all heard that patience is a virtue, but we live more and more in an instant gratification world. I once read advice for entrepreneurs that said success comes from daily focused effort on the goal before there is any perceptible progress. How many of us can do this? Acting for any length of time requires a longer term focus. It requires a degree of faith and patience that must be fueled from the inside. It can’t be sustained under the strain of self doubt or self flagellation. Again, the unconditional friendliness principle applies.

Attitude: What happens when you give in to a craving for the first time, or you miss a workout, or lose your temper after vowing to you wouldn’t anymore? Do you beat yourself up at little, then start over, and repeat with increasing recrimination until you give up on yourself in exasperation? Giving up is then the sensible thing to do at some point, because no one can take that kind of punishment. But what if your perspective was one in which you believed you could begin again in any moment, no matter what? Can you imagine such a relationship with yourself and with life?

All of the reasons for giving up on our goals have in common the relationship with our humanness. Without unconditional friendliness as a starting point, our self-improvement projects are really just self-violence in disguise. As Pema Chodron says in Start Where You Are:

We already have everything we need. There is no need for self-improvement. All these trips that we lay on ourselves – the heavy-duty feeling that we’re bad and hoping that we’re good, the identities that we so dearly cling to, the rage, the jealousy and the addictions of all kinds – never touch our basic wealth. They are like clouds that temporarily block the sun. But all the time our warmth and brilliance are right here.

Or, as Shunryu Suzuki-roshi once said to a group:

All of you are perfect just as you are… and you could use a little improvement.

All we have to do is be able to hold these two truths at once. It’s about relaxing into the fundamental fact of our humanness. We will mess up. We can never be perfect. Because of this, we get to experience the excitement of vulnerability and the joy of the unknown. We get to be capable of great love, and great pain. We are absolute perfection because our unfolding can never be other than it is in this moment, and at the same time, our flawed human beingness is all hanging out at some points in the unfolding. We get to be on a journey where we have no idea what might happen next – supreme love or embarrassing the hell out of ourselves. Anything else wouldn’t really be living, would it?

It might seem counterintuitive, but when we can rest in knowing that our worth doesn’t come from anything we do, then everything becomes possible. We can always start fresh in any moment, and then motivation comes from a completely different place. We can keep renewing the excitement of possibility. Love compels us to keep trying to do better.

The mind will argue with this, of course, saying it’s not logical. The first step is to agree with the mind, that it does not seem logical. Next, just try it anyway, and find out for yourself. Ask yourself to imagine what it might be like to have permission to start over any time, with no end of chances. Then try approaching your new year’s resolution as if your existence is already justified, your worthiness already a proven fact without any self-improvement, and see what happens…

you might just discover the illogical is possible. You might stick to that resolution this time. And you might just discover causeless joy.

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