Last month's article on inner work, the effort to overcome the things that get in the way of one's own happiness, pointed to the need to manage discomfort by avoiding the "second arrow" - the tendency to tighten up around and resist discomfort. To step back, to be aware, focused on observing, enables this avoiding of the second arrow.
Overcoming Habitual Tendencies
Overcoming the habitual tendency to turn away from pain and discomfort is easier said than done. For me, a breakthrough learning around this came when an old friend saw me scrunching up my shoulders, hunched over and tightening up to resist the cold on a damp and freezing day. "Relax your shoulders, straighten up and let your chest open." he said. "Let the cold in. Breathe naturally and let your body warm itself."
I tried it and after only a few minutes of serious discomfort I felt comfortable and was able to walk through the cold with greater ease. It was as if the energy I was using to fight the cold by resisting it was converted to inner warmth and that the release of the tensed muscles in my upper body let the heat from an internal furnace somewhere deep in my lower abdomen rise and fill the rest of the body.
This is an example of how to use a simple daily life experience as a part of the inner work.
Levels of Inner Work
There are multiple levels of inner work. The first level was to trust in my friend's method long enough to try it and then to experience the effectiveness of letting discomfort be rather than trying to drive it away. I had given up the immediate relief (which was no relief at all) from the cold to try something new.
Later, I became aware of deeper levels of inner work - the ability to no longer identify with the discomfort and to move from that experience to an experience of acceptance.
At that first level, there is still me being cold and finding a better way to get warm. Relaxing was an avoidance technique. At the second level there is me observing the sensation of cold, detaching from it so that it was no longer resisted. I was not cold, there was the sensation of cold and of the aversion to it, experienced without reacting to the sensations and thoughts it triggered. This stepping back from the sensations and thoughts to observe them is the beginning of freedom from reactivity to habitual tendencies.
Then, at the third level there is observing the observing of the sensation and of the satisfying feeling of being freed to respond rather than react. This level is an extension of the second level. Here, there is the realization that there are multiple layers of observing mind. From this realization, one can continue to step back to observe observing and reflecting on what is observed.
It is like looking into a mirror with another mirror behind you, parallel to the mirror in front of you. There are an infinite number of images reflected. How far can you step back to observe observing? As long as you can observe yourself observing your observing and then reacting to what you have observed there is room to step back to see who is observing and reacting.
The inner-most level of inner work is realized when observing occurs without an observer. The commenting stops. The observer disappears and there is only awareness. The mirror images fade away.
This level is one that many people experience when immersed in activity that is so engaging that the sense of self is lost and only the awareness of the experience remains. This is not some mystical experience reserved for cave dwelling yogis or monks. Anyone can experience "Flow" or being in the "Zone"
Flow - Being in the Zone
This "Flow" experience is described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as having characteristics which emerge as one is intensely focused and concentrated on the present moment. The primary characteristic of flow is a merging of action and awareness. In other words, there is simultaneous awareness and action as opposed to being aware of the action. Reflective self-conscious (that quality of looking at what you are doing and commenting on it) stops. Yet, there is a sense of being in control. The activity is experienced as being rewarding in and of itself.
Committed to inner work, one seeks to make every experience a Flow experience by cultivating the mindful awareness that is focused on the present moment, without clinging to it, letting the movement of internal events - physical sensations, feelings and thoughts - and external events, including one's own actions - unfold freely. Attachment to a desired outcome and the anxiety that comes with such attachment falls away. There is an experience of intrinsic happiness that is called presence; just being there.
How does one cultivate the ability to be present in awareness? Simple (though not necessarily easy). Commit to a meditation practice that combines focused concentration and open-minded mindfulness. Commit to cutting through the habitual tendencies - fears, anger, attachments, biases - that keep you from being present moment to moment, in Flow. Then, as your practice matures, experience effortless awareness aware of itself.
Relax your shoulders and let your chest open; stand up straight, breathe naturally and let things be as they are.
© 2018 George Pitagorsky