Radical Awareness by Kerry Moran
In the winter issue of Alternatives, I began a four-part series of articles on the emerging field of presence-centered psychotherapy, which is based on Buddhist principles of meditative awareness. Radical Awareness (Part III) continues the exploration of mindful awareness as applied to difficult emotions.
The simplest proposition of Tibetan Buddhism’s Dzogchen tradition is also the most radical: that our basic nature is open space, infused with pure awareness. Beyond all our constructs and beneath all our holding, each of us is no more and no less than unbounded awareness—the capacity to know, pure and simple. This “empty essence fused with luminous knowing” is our absolute nature, shared by all sentient beings.
Buddhist psychology is rooted in this fundamental capacity for consciousness, this pure potential inherent in all beings. When we recognize this seed of aware-ness at our core, we realize that there’s no need to embroider upon the funda-mentally pure qualities within us. It’s not a question of self-improvement, of somehow making ourselves into a “good person.” Rather, it’s simply a matter of releasing the temporary obscurations that block us from manifesting our pure nature. Simple but profound, this shift in attitude changes everything. We stop struggling with our own nature, trying to make ourselves into something that we are not. We stop identifying with the steady flow of conceptual thought that normally fills our mind, and start identifying with our essence. Rather than constantly trying to actualize ourselves, we wake up to our own actuality.
For most of us, this is not an overnight event, but the gradual result of study, investigation, and meditation practice, preferably under guidance of an accom-plished spiritual teacher. In the Dzogchen tradition, the nature of mind is directly “pointed out” to qualified students by a master who transmits his or her own realization in that moment. This pointing- out instruction is a crucial aspect of the Dzogchen teachings. Even if we lack the opportunity to immediately receive such teachings, however, simply allowing for the mere possibility of enlightened essence can be psychologically liberating. The need to try hard, to improve the self, to struggle for perfection, is so deeply ingrained in the way we treat ourselves. Natural perfection is a radical doctrine, subversive in its simplicity.
A traditional Buddhist metaphor compares our essential nature to the sky, and the disturbing emotions we experience to clouds. In truth, the sky is always there behind the clouds, whether or not we see it—the sky, in fact, accommodates the clouds, without being the least bit disturbed by them. Our mind is the same, in its capacity to remain fundamentally pure as it accommodates these endlessly arising emotions and thoughts. The Tibetan yogi Milarepa said a thousand years ago:
In the gap between two thoughts Thought-free wakefulness manifests unceasingly.
When this understanding is applied to our own inner being, we begin to relate to our problems from the spacious awareness that is our basic nature. We learn to embrace the ongoing process of life with a degree of calmness and acceptance. Problems become somewhat less tight knots to be struggled with, and somewhat more intriguing phenomena arising within our field of awareness. This is not to say that we pretend to like painful situations, or that we paste a smiley face over our very real pain. Rather, through patient practice, we somehow find we can allow space for our dislike, our suffering, and our confusion—our actual and own experience.
And here is the incredibly hard part—we start to drop our addiction to knowing, to analyzing, to working things out in our heads. Resting in mindfulness shows how all of these strategies are simply masquerades for the fundamental need to be in control. It’s not that conceptual thinking is bad, so much as it is irrelevant. It clutters our innate spaciousness, chopping up our intrinsic awareness into little bits.
All too often, we simply get in our own way. We ornament our innate awareness with concepts, and soon these concepts become a confining prison—a prison we forget that we ourselves created. Thinking is a vital skill, intelligence a saving grace. But used without attention to what the heart or the body or one’s larger awareness says about the truth of a situation, cerebral intelli-gence becomes unskillful means in accomplishing anything.
Letting go of concepts doesn’t mean we drop our ability to discern. Far from it! Freed from the fixation of judgment, we find ourselves keener observers, able to recognize the more nuanced aspects of reality and to respond to circumstances in a more flexible way. Discernment doesn’t require us to solidify our experience by holding onto concepts about something. We can let go of concepts and take in our experience in a direct, fresh way: the blue vase on the windowsill, the squish of rain-soaked leaves underfoot, the cap left off the toothpaste (again—and here a concept interjects itself).
Relinquishing judgment also doesn’t mean we passively accept everything that comes our way. We can still hate the experience of the capless and crusty toothpaste tube created by our thoughtless partner. We can be fully aware of our aversion, and consciously decide how we are going to respond to the situation, rather than automatically reacting to it. Cultivating awareness doesn’t mean we turn into a bowl of mush. It does mean we have more tools at our disposal. We are fine-tuning our perceptions—a sometimes painful process, but one which, over the course of time, results in a more accurate experience of reality.
In the state of choiceless awareness that is mindfulness, we find the ability to just let things be, regardless of our like or dislike of the situation. This discovery can be remarkably liberating. Over time, it opens us up to a larger sense of trust. We are cultivating the ability to see through all the busy clutter of our lives to the core: to the bottom-line truth that our essential nature is awareness, pure and simple, and that this pure and simple awareness has its own healing energy, its own path and power.
Another popular misconception holds that mindfulness practice means detaching from one’s feelings. Again, this is far from the truth. If anything, we find ourselves feeling more intensely, once we’ve scraped away the overlay of neurotic angst that formerly filtered our experiences. Feelings most definitely arise within a state of mindfulness, as strong and clear as ever. And they pass away, just as they always have. The goal here is not detachment, but a full and free experiencing of whatever arises in the moment, unobstructed by conceptual judgment. So often we hold ourselves back from our own experience, subtly freezing it into constructs and thoughts. This pulling back from the flow of life is itself the essence of suffering.
In my own life, it’s an ongoing process—I sometimes want to say “struggle”—to apply this knowledge to my everyday experience. Although I’m privileged to witness the transformative power of awareness first-hand as a psychotherapist, this doesn’t mean I always apply it gracefully to myself. But I do have the conviction, based on personal experience, that the practices of mindfulness and compassion have an enormous power to relieve suffering and generate healing.
Much of this I learned the hard way. My husband and I awoke on a rainy March morning in 1993 to find our 15-month-old son dead in his crib, victim of an illness that should not have been fatal, but was. The shock, the horror, the enormous guilt that I immediately locked away because it was just too much—it was all too much to bear. The event shattered my defenses utterly. That night, I lay down in a haze of grief and exhaustion and sensed a very fine pain at the core of my heart, like a straw had been inserted in a subtle channel deep inside. Heartbreak, it seems, is a literal experience.
I had to get through the days and weeks and months that followed; I had to somehow survive. Killing myself to escape the pain was not an option, though I certainly entertained the notion. But we had a four-year-old daughter to take care of, and I had an intuition that physical death would not resolve the situation; that I would wake up on the other side and find my disembodied grief a hundred times worse. I had to take care of myself in a way that I’d never done before. I had to be present for my own experience and somehow contain it without trying to control it, because my control mechanisms had been blown to bits.
I dragged a cushion into Nick’s room, and sat there every day with my grief, anger, and pain. Whenever I felt the waves coming up inside, I’d sit and be with my feelings with a ferocious intensity. Somehow the awareness took off some of the pressure. It let the waves flow in their own rhythm, batter the shore of my awareness, then recede for a few hours. I learned that if I could just be present for whatever emotions arose, if I could embrace them as fully and completely as possible, the storm would pass more easily.
I began to practice tonglen, the Tibetan meditation on ‘sending and receiving.’ In this prapctice you imagine yourself taking in the suffering of others with every inhalation, and with every exhalation send them all your happiness, all your joy, all your strength. This worked like nothing else did to ease my own suffering. In some mysterious alchemical fashion, the pain in my heart melted when I connected with the pain of others. I didn’t stop to think why this might be so, or how it worked. I simply sat and took in more, grateful for even a few breaths of relief.
Grief took away my life energy in the way that serious illness does. Those first few months, I’d wake in the morning to find my body lying peacefully in bed—then remember what had happened, and feel the physical weight of irreversible loss descend upon me like a ton of bricks. In the middle of the tempest, though, I found a sort of peace. Seated in the eye of the hurricane, emotional currents swirling all around, I experienced a steady sense of grounded presence that alone helped me bear the grief. It became clear that this awareness was not going to run away, though I at times might choose to. It was always present, spacious and accommodating, despite the awful turbulence of my emotions. It was as if uniting with the seed impetus of those emotions allowed them to unfold as they would, unencumbered by the added pain of resistance. It was an awareness that was larger than thought, larger than emotion, an awareness that preceded and contained both of these.
Grief has a way of receding over time, even if you don’t think it possible. Over the course of months, my shattered sense of self slowly reassembled itself. A year later, I gave birth to another child, our second son. Life moved on, and gradually, so did I.
Today when I look back on that terrible time I shudder at the raw pain my family lived through. And I see how this profoundly agonizing and unwanted event was the catalyst for some deep teaching on the nature of mind, on the nature of life and death, of grief and the heart. As Miriam Greenspan, a psychotherapist and meditation practitioner, writes: “The most profound healing often comes with the deepest suffering precisely because a great pain will not let up, forcing us to face into it, and the only alternative to paying attention is cutting ourselves off from life itself.” Her new book, Healing Through the Dark Emotions, addresses the subject of emotional alchemy: how moving towards our pain and experiencing it fully can open the door to a deeper healing. Mindfulness, the open, nonjudgmental awareness of our own experience as it arises in the moment, is a key element of this kind of transformation. Equally important is compassion, an aspect I will address in the final article of this series.
Kerry Moran, M.A., is a depth psychotherapist in private practice in Portland. She is a Buddhist practitioner in the Dzogchen tradition and the author of five books, including Kailas: On Pilgrimage to the Sacred Mountain of Tibet. She can be reached at 503-525-1172 or [email protected]