The value of therapy on the journey of awakening

As a psychotherapist as well as a teacher of spiritual awakening, I’m often asked how the two pursuits can be mutually enriching. After all, therapy seems concerned with supporting and improving the ego, whereas awakening is the realization that identification with the separate self is the root cause of suffering. Therapy generally aims to make us more comfortable and well-adjusted, while spiritual awakening cuts through all comforting stories and illusions and reveals the true nature of reality, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Most forms of psychotherapy do appear, at least on the surface, to run counter to the radical approach of Self-realization. At the same time, therapy offers a wealth of techniques that can be used in service not only of awakening but also of the embodiment of this awakening in everyday life. For example, therapy encourages us to welcome our emotions without judgment and to challenge the negative beliefs that make us anxious and depressed. In my experience, the two approaches can work hand in hand to root out the habitual patterns that cause us suffering at every level and reveal the radiant truth that lies beneath, the groundless ground of silence and peace. 

The key lies in the therapist’s understanding. In the hands of someone with deep insight into the nature of reality, whose primary intention is genuine, lasting peace, happiness, and freedom, therapy can play a powerful role in the transformation process. While pointing again and again to the bright sun of our inherently awake true nature, which has the power in itself to gradually burn off the clouds of delusion, the nondual therapist can guide us in actively investigating the clouds—the core stories, the ego structures, the habitual reactive patterns—and releasing their hold over us. 

Freud himself said that the purpose of therapy was to exchange extraordinary suffering for ordinary human suffering and to enable us to love and work. In other words, therapy is designed to help us function as relatively healthy human beings, but it can’t relieve the deeper and subtler suffering of feeling separate from our essential nature. Yet certain therapeutic approaches, by dispelling some of the illusions that obscure our clear seeing, can be skillful allies on the journey of awakening.

Hidden stories that cause suffering

Sometimes the beliefs that cause us suffering are hidden beneath strong and compelling feelings and not readily apparent. Though we may feel like we're being visited by a mood, we're actually in thrall to some very negative and judgmental thoughts that are simmering beneath the surface and generating ongoing shame, grief, fear, or anger. 

In a mentoring session recently, a student reported feeling confused and lost and uncertain about how to proceed in her life. She described it as a dark mood that had descended and that she couldn't see beyond. The feelings themselves seemed to be convincing evidence that something was wrong. Her therapist had encouraged her to feel the feelings but hadn't supported her in questioning them.

When we probed deeper, it became appareant that this student was actually happy and fulfilled in her work and friendships, but somehow believed that her life hadn't turned out as expected, hadn't fit the pictures of where she felt she should be. In other words, the feelings were based on a judgment, a thought, an invidious comparison that masqueraded as truth. Once she saw this, she could begin to reconnect with the inherent perfection and completeness of the way her life actually was.

Another student was constantly angry and frustrated at work because he believed he wasn't being appreciated or treated fairly in his job at a Silicon Valley start-up. But when we looked more deeply, he realized that he had constructed an elaborate interpretation of circumstances based on a childhood story of being mistreated that he was now more than ready to give up. In an instant, he could see that he had been manufacturing his own suffering and dissatisfaction; in fact, he enjoyed and respected his coworkers and couldn't imagine working in a better environment. When he talked with his boss about his concerns without anger or blame, he found that the appreciation was immediately forthcoming.

Most of the time, strong negative feelings and moods are just the tip of an iceberg that extends deep into the subliminal stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how reality should be. These stories make up the separate self construct, the core of the ego that mounts and sustains an ongoing argument with life as it is--an exhausting and ultimately fruitless enterprise. Diving beneath the surface, we can identify these stories, subject them to the unwavering light of awareness, and allow them to dissipate, revealing our natural state of peace and contentment.

Nonduality and the Multiplicity of Ego

"If my devils leave me, I'm afraid my angels will leave me as well."

--Rainer Maria Rilke

In spiritual circles these days there's a tendency to demonize ego, as if it's a malevolent force that looms over our lives and whose sole purpose is to thwart our attempts to wake up. But ego is neither malevolent nor singular; in each of us cohabit multiple egos that vie for attention and satisfaction. If we dismiss the feelings and voices inside us as merely ego, we reject whole parts of ourselves and diminish the fullness of who we are.

The term "ego," which is simply Latin for "I," was used by Freud and his followers to refer to the reality function in the psyche, the force that mediates between the needs and urges of the primitive id and the outside world. Without ego in this sense, we wouldn't be able to function in the world of relationships and work. 

But in the nondual wisdom traditions, ego generally refers to two distinct but related functions: our self-concept, or self-construct, the collection of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, memories, and stories that we take to be me; and the tendency to identify with and attach to this construct. If you ask most people "Who are you?" the answer they give is their self-concept; if you impugn or attack this self-concept, their reaction is self-clinging, the activity of ego. Self-clinging is the glue that holds the self-construct together and keeps it functioning in a conditioned way.

Again, neither aspect of ego is wrong, it's just misguided and obscures the truth of who we really are. When we demonize and dismiss ego, we drive it into the shadows, where it continues to operate subliminally and may take on even more power to control our lives. Our true nature, awakened awareness, has no problem with ego, just as it does not push away or reject any experience that arises. Just let ego--indeed, all things--be as it is, as you rest in your natural state of awakened awareness. In the process, you will become familiar with all the many impulses, thought processes, and stories that constitute what we call ego.

In fact, when you stop pushing away or suppressing ego in an attempt to be more spiritual--and/or out of fear of succumbing to it--you will quickly discover that "ego" is actually not singular at all. On the contrary, multiple egos rattle around inside each of us, expressing themselves in often conflicting and contradictory ways. We acknowledge this multiplicity when we say something like, "A part of me wants to do the right thing, but another part keeps undermining my attempts to stay on path." Or, "I knew she didn't intend to hurt me, but the child inside me felt rejected."

In Western psychology these mini-egos are called sub personalities, ego states, feeling-toned complexes, inner voices, or simply parts. Neo-Freudians say they're formed over time in childhood as we internalize our most important relationships with significant others, known, rather infelicitiously, as object relations. For example, if you were constantly made to feel stupid or ineffectual by one of your parents, you would develop a part that always feels inadequate, no matter how hard you try. Perhaps the best known of these parts, or object relations, is the inner child (or children), which is so often invoked and addressed in individual therapy.

Each of these parts has its own autonomy, its own unique thoughts and feelings based on its own idiosyncratic version of your life story. When we talk about ego, we need to keep this multiplicity in mind. Ego appears in many different forms and guises, with many different stories to tell. Part of us may feel afraid in a given situation, another part angry, and so forth. If we attempt to do battle with every one, we become like Hercules in Greek myth, trying to cut off the Hydra's head only to have two more appear in its place. Instead, we can welcome them as they arise, acknowledge them, perhaps even take a little time to listen to what they have to share, extend love and compassion to them from the truth of our being, and then let them pass through without identifying with them. I'll have more to say about ego(s) in a future blogpost.

Embracing the fullness of life

"Gazing with sheer awareness, into sheer awareness, into sheer awareness, habitual abstract structures melt into the fruitful springtime of enlightenment.

            --Tilopa's Song to Naropa

The ultimate truth is actually quite simple: Consciousness (aka emptiness or Spirit) is the source and essence of what is. Nothing exists outside of consciousness. That which is experiencing and that which is experienced, subject and object, self and other, are nothing but Spirit. As the Upanishads put it, the manifest world is an apparition, consciousness alone is real. Consciousness is the world! Or in the words of the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form. 

Now this may seem like just an abstract conceptual formulation, but genuine spiritual awakening involves the experiential recognition of this fundamental truth. Not only is Spirit radiating forth through and as every being and thing, but who I really am is nothing but the very same spirit or consciousness taking human form. This is the essence of self-realization.

A the same time that we recognize and abide in this inherent oneness and completeness, we mustn't forget that the unity that we are welcomes all multiplicity within its limitless embrace. Spirit doesn't dwell pristine and apart from manifestation, it expresses itself in a myriad of forms, regardless of our preferences. No matter how much we may despise them, the despot and the psychopath are just as much consciousness as the enlightened saint or sage; they're just oblivious to their true nature.

Even more close to home and relevant to our daily lives, the "dark thought, the shame, the malice," in Rumi's words, are just as essentially perfect and sacred as the compassion and the bliss. Our true nature doesn't discriminate or reject, but welcomes them all without judgment or reservation. When we abide in and as awakened awareness, unconditional presence, we give utmost permission for everything to be as it is. In this unconditional embrace, the veil of judgment and resistance that divides us and creates so much internal conflict and suffering falls away, and we see life as consciousness sees itself: inherently perfect and complete. (Of course, this welcoming doesn't prevent us from making changes as we feel moved to do in everyday life.)

This nondual view flies in the face of our analytical, hypercritical culture, which is constantly assessing, rating, and categorizing experience according to some predetermined standard. We're taught that we need to look and act and feel a certain way in order to measure up. Even so-called spiritual approaches may teach that some emotions are better than others and should be cultivated, while others need to be avoided and suppressed. 

This dualistic perspective informs our conditioning and permeates our approach to life at every level, from cradle to grave; we're constantly picking and choosing, grasping and pushing away, and rarely do we stop and open to the way it is right now, just as it is. if we aspire to spiritual awakening, it can be helpful to immerse ourselves in the nondual perspective through teachings, dialogue, meditation, self-inquiry--and, if possible, contact with a teacher. Otherwise, the pull of judgment and separation may be so compelling that we just keep snapping back into old dualistic patterns of thought.

The deeper dimension of the holidays

The sign of the cross has come to represent an entire religious tradition, because it symbolizes the scaffolding on which Jesus was crucified and, according to Christianity, died for our sins. Over the centuries this simple symbol has been elaborated and interpreted in a variety of ways; perhaps the most resonant on a spiritual level is that Jesus was the son of God, the Holy Spirit made flesh, the intersection of the horizontal human dimension and the vertical heavenly realm.

For those of us who don't believe in the unique redemptive power of Jesus, the cross can be understood and directly experienced as a symbol of our own spiritual journey: the vertical line represents spirit or consciousness expressing itself through this human form, and the horizontal represents our unfolding in time and space. Like Jesus, each one of us exists at the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal, the timeless and the movement through time, absolute and relative, universal and individual, divine and human, which join in the Now.

Most of the time, of course, we're caught up in the headlong horizontal current of this earthly human life, which constantly calls on us to react and do, to accomplish and produce, to relate with others, take care of our loved ones and our own needs, and meet our obligations in the material world. In the process, we keep forgetting about the spiritual dimension, the energy and inspiration behind this seemingly solid manifest reality, the impersonal source beneath this apparently personal human life. This dimension is always already available to us if we're willing to stop, rest in silence, and open ourselves to the inspiration, literally, the influx of spirit.

Like Jesus, each one of us is spirit appearing as flesh. Though we've been assigned these human forms and the karmic bundle that accompanies them, we can remember and abide in who we really are, our essence, our source, the timeless, boundless mystery that infuses and animates each moment. This is the deeper meaning and invitation of the holy days that approach us, whether we celebrate them as Hanukkah, Christmas, or Solstice: to remember that the light that informs and illuminates the darkness is not separate from the dark, that this illumination is always available as what we essentially are, and that spirit is endlessly pouring itself into form, not on special days and in special places only, but right here and now.

Returning home again and again

As a spiritual teacher, counselor, and mentor, I have the opportunity to work with people who are committed to waking up to their essential nature and living from this awakened awareness, as much as possible, in everyday life. But no matter how committed they may be, everyone finds themselves getting embroiled in the personal drama from time to time. They key is to notice it, without judgment or self-recrimination, and return home to rest as awakened awareness.

In order to do this, you need to be familiar with your homeground of unconditional presence so you can locate it amidst the turbulent emotions and stories the drama churns up. Imagine being lost in a storm at sea and not being able to find land until you see the bright beam of the lighthouse flashing on shore. If the light is just a weak flicker and the clouds are thick and the water rough, you won't be able to identify it and turn toward home.

The more you rest as unconditional, welcoming presence, not only in meditation but throughout your day, the stronger this presence shines. In fact, it becomes more like a magnet than a light, drawing you inexorably toward it again and again until you no longer wander often or far. The deeper your commitment to living from the truth of who you are, of course, the smaller and smaller the gap, until you become a beacon yourself, shining with the radiance of your natural state of unconditional presence, awakened awareness.

But it's often difficult to realize that you've strayed to begin with; the story can be so compelling, so convincing, so seemingly solid, that you've lost track of home. The first step is to notice when you're caught, contracted, suffering, and to stop and be attentive. Notice the thoughts, the sensations, the emotions, without trying to get rid of anything, which just feeds the pattern. Let everything be the way it is without indulging or struggling. Then step out of the story, as you would out of a crowded, noisy room, and back into the boundariless, unconditional presence of your natural state.

What do we mean by spiritual awakening?

When I teach a class or retreat on spiritual awakening, as I did this past weekend, the first step is generally to clarify what we're talking about. After all, the term awakening can be used in so many different ways. For example, you can have a sexual awakening, or a political awakening, or a rude awakening, or you can use the term "spiritual awakening" to mean a range of experiences. Shamans can awaken to the spirit world, or Christians to the magnitude of God's love.

In the nondual wisdom tradition, which I teach, awakening refers to a radical, fundamental shift in the locus of your identity. After spending a lifetime identifying with a life history, a set of beliefs, a collection of interpersonal roles, a particular body-mind located in time and space, you suddenly realize that who you really is so much vaster and more all-inclusive. Paradoxically, you discover that you are both nothing--not the solid, separate someone you took yourself to be--and everything, that is, inseparable from the ground of being, the essence of what is.

Needless to say, when it is genuinely experienced rather than just conceptualized, this realization can be profoundly disorienting in the sense that it opens you to a completely new orientation and disrupts the ego/mind's presumption of being the center around which the universe revolves. At the same time, you are freed from the constraints that your story has imposed for a lifetime, free to be who you really are: this awake, aware ground of openness without a center n which the one you took yourself to be goes about her day.

None of the words I'm using, of course, really touches on the depths of this realization, which continues to reveal its mysteries as it ripens in your experience. The only way to understand spiritual awakening is to realize it for yourself.

Releasing the spiritual superego

As a psychotherapist as well as a spiritual teacher, I've had the privilege of sharing in the inner lives of hundreds of meditators and seekers--and what I've discovered, not surprisingly, is that we can be incredible hard on ourselves, even in the seemingly beneficent pursuit of spiritual awakening. Most of us grow up with some version of the belief "I'm not good enough" and spend the rest of our lives attempting to prove ourselves worthy, in our work, our families, our relationships, while judging ourselves harshly if we don't live up to some predetermined standard.

When we engage in spiritual study and practice, even if we're counseled to be especially kind to ourselves, we tend to transpose the same perfectionism to our meditation, our contemplation, our self-inquiry. Nothing we do is ever good enough--we exert too much effort, we have too many concepts, our understanding never quite measures up. In fact, spiritual seekers can be even more self-critical than most because we have the most exalted examples to compare ourselves to--the Buddha, Jesus, the great Zen masters, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj. We forget that awakening to our essential nature has nothing to do with perfection and everything to do with embracing life, including ourselves, just as it is. And we make the classic mistake of "comparing our inner to other people's outer"--that is, comparing the public image that others project with the excruciating imperfection we constantly encounter in our own minds and hearts--and finding ourselves deficient. With so many different exemplars out there, we can become endlessly preoccupied with trying to imitate one and then the other, even though they express the truth in disparate ways, and end up losing sight of our own authenticity.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, one of my first teachers, once said, "We're constantly losing our balance against a background of perfect balance." As human beings, we're imperfect creatures who stumble our way through life, doing our best and learning as we go--or not. But our essential nature--consciousness, timeless presence, the eternal ground of being, the One without a second--is inherently perfect, pure, and indestructible. None of our mistakes ever touches who we really are--and realizing this inherent perfection and embracing the nondual paradox that we are both imperfect and perfect--or even more deeply, beyond any such dualities--provides the ultimate resolution to our endless self-criticism. In the words of Ramana, "Just rest as the Self and be as you are."

 

 

Mindfulness is a way of life

Mindfulness is a way of life

Unless you live on a digital desert island, you already know mindfulness meditation is good for you. You’ve read the articles proclaiming its well-researched benefits, from stress-reduction to pain management to relief from depression and enhanced overall well-being. The latest studies even suggest that it’s good for your sex life and boosts your immune system. You can’t open a magazine, read a newspaper, or log on to a social media site these days without hearing about some new study that discovers yet another great reason to pause and practice meditation.