Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Self That Serves

A whimsical notion came to me while dining with a close friend. We were talking about the nature of suffering (though it was not in the same terms as used in Buddhism). She has a feeling that during suffering there's another non-suffering version of herself somewhere in the background. During times of happiness, her suffering self* is just outside of the picture, but still there and may come back at any time. I am very happy that she is able to step outside of her deep suffering from personal loss and enjoy her moments. Here it does align with the buddhist idea that we can choose whether or not to suffer, that our minds create our reality.

The following line of thinking came to me:
At any time, every being is split into infinite parallel selves, an infinite number experiencing every conceivable flavor of suffering + one experiencing perfect peace and joy (non-suffering). It is possible to manifest any of these selves at any time, and the more conscious you are, the more skilled you are at choosing which self to manifest. Basically, our body is a shell that needs to have a self overlaid on it. Many selves are fighting to get in, sometimes the suffering selves really want to take over. The peaceful self is patient, strong, and self-confident. It waits until it is called upon and things are quiet. When we are able to quiet ourselves enough, calm down the masses of fearful, angry, desirous, suffering selves, and walk past them to choose for the peaceful, joyful self to come it, it does come in. It's hard to realize that the suffering selves do not serve us, they're so desperate to gain control that they trick us into thinking they're useful, such as the self convincing us of the joy of being resented.

It is a metaphor that fits for and serves me. Feel free to use it if it serves you.

*This is pretty reminiscent of the pain-body idea that Tolle writes and talks about, though I believe that there are some differences. Either way, they are both just metaphors. If either works for you, use that one to your best advantage. Here are a few quick distinctions of my metaphor: it does not talk about having a deep-rooted debt of pain. It also does not imply that the debt can be paid off. Nor that one person's pain-body is stronger than another. Also, all pains are not the same pains, they do not aggregate together.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Journey Into Non-consensus Reality: My Reiki I Experience

I took a Reiki I class back in June and had a very perception-shifting experience that has taken me a little bit of time to grasp what it all means. There are a number of experiences that I had outside of consensus reality (the world as it is seen by the crowd), not all of which I take at face value and not all of which I understand. At this point I definitely believe that there is a type of energy (different systems call it qi, chi, prajna, orgone, ...) existing all around us, often called auras when it is concentrated around living beings. Barbara Ann Brennan's Hands of Light catalogs several scientific studies that corroborate these energy fields. Some of the other experiences may be things that my unconscious mind manifests in order to make sense of the information conveyed by this energy. Either way, reiki is a wonderful way to show compassion to others, to feel what is happening inside my own body and psyche, and to relax into my self. There is a lot left for me to explore and understand. I have been putting time and energy into these explorations ever since. This past weekend, I took the class for reiki 2 attunements, so I have some new tools in my belt. Here's where the journey begins. I am glad that I had the foresight to type my day's experiences immediately after the class. Here's what I wrote on that day with only cosmetic editing. My experience at Reiki I training

Today I took Reiki I (one) training with Eileen Dey founder of the Reiki Training Program. I entered with an open mind, but did not have expectations especially high. It’s a day long class designed to teach me about and train me for this first level of reiki practice. I have been studying qi gong and taiji to prepare myself for energy work, after all the ki, qi, and ji are all the same word and come from the same place. Some very unexpected and extraordinary things happened to me today that made me a believer. They’re in fact so inexplicable from my common understanding of how the world works, that I feel the need to get these written down before I forget anything.

I have only had one reiki experience in the past. A friend whom I met in college once gave me a reiki session remotely from Hawaii. I have always thought of her as being amazingly in tune with the spiritual side of things. For the session, we had arranged the time on the phone, and planned for me to lay on my bed, sending my thoughts out of my body toward her. She channeled the reiki energy into me, and it was a warm and opening experience. I remember feeling connected to the world, balanced like when leaving a spa, and being bathed in a color (I think it was a crisp green-apple yellow-green… though maybe she told me this color herself). Now, a few years later, being more in touch with myself and the energy of the universe, I have decided to try it for myself.

Somehow the other students who had signed up for the class today did not make it, and I ended up have a 1-on-1 session with the instructor—which has its pros and cons, certainly. Two pros being that I get more direct attention and that it does not prime me with the words of others. Not knowing anything about the language or the way that others saw this, I was free to associate things for myself. The class started with Eileen asking me what brought me here, what experience have I had with energy work, massage, acupuncture, etc., then she explained her path to this point in reiki to me, and then transitioned into some theory. The first “hands on” work was just noticing energy flow from our hands in a number of light-hearted experiments against my hands, her hands, a plant of hers, and some cut flowers. I believed that I could feel energy flowing, though I was not sure if I was creating this in my own mind.

After some of this, some theory, some history, we proceeded to the first of two Reiki I attunements, which the Reiki Master passes down to her/his students. An attunement is a way of adjusting the spiritual antenna that we all have to better channel the energy (reiki), and it will stay with the receiver for ever. (“So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.” –Caddyshack)

Eileen prepared the room for this, and called me in when I was ready. The lights were lowered, some relaxing music was playing, and there was a chair in the center of the room. No incense was burning or other smells, except maybe for some faint rose water. I sat in the chair, and following Eileen’s calm voice, I gave myself permission to receive the attunement. It started off as guided meditation, and I kept my eye lids partially open as I usually do when I meditate. I soon noticed someone standing to the front-right side of me, but could only see a vague outline. I thought that Eileen really moved quietly, and then I heard her behind me, and realized that it was not her. I slightly opened my eyes to look and no one was there. So I closed my eyes again, and I chalked it up to just something from my unconscious. As Eileen touched the top of my head (known as the 7th chakra), I twitched a touch and smelled sandalwood, then got a clear image of my ex-fiancée in my mind, and with my next breath, I inhaled to fill up the image. As I exhaled the image faded away. The rest of the attunement went by and felt very warm and nurturing, I noticed some sensations here and there, though I did not realize then that the important connection had already happened for me.

After this, it was time to break for lunch, and over lunch I realized what had happened. In that moment of smelling sandalwood I forgave myself for breaking up with my fiancée (and maybe also forgave her, too—though I think that I have done this already). It was immensely gratifying. When I came back from lunch, I told this to Eileen and she got goosebumps. For the first time when I told her something, she really engaged and shared her opinion. She said that she felt "truth" in this, and she did not say this just to validate me. She said that she noticed something like this during the attunement, and that this made complete sense with what she was feeling. It was a powerful moment of realization for me.

Next, Eileen and her boyfriend R (who’s also a reiki practitioner; abbreviating because I never asked his permission), helped demonstrate to me. Eileen showed me how to perform a sitting reiki treatment with R receiving, then we moved on to R lying on a massage table with Eileen passing energy into him through both touching and non-touching. As she worked on R, they invited me to join, which I did tentatively. While doing so, I could feel energy from R and at times felt a lot of heat in my hands. At some times I felt the air around my hands become very dense, other times cold, and warm. During the warm parts, I began to perspire in my upper body. At one point, my hands were drawn to the space over his forearm, and I felt something jar me back a few inches. I continued to focus on it, and wondered why Eileen also did not focus on his other forearm. It felt so strong to me, but not to her. I found out later than he had actually a minor injury in his right elbow, and I must have been feeling that. It really is noticeable.

Next, R and I channeled reiki to Eileen, and R had his own way of going about it, different from Eileen’s. He was very indirect, focusing his two hands on points around the troubled spot and working to have the energy flow between the spots. As we worked I felt a different kind of energy. At one point it felt cold to me, then switched to warm, and when I commented on it, Eileen said that it had just transitioned from warm to cold for her in the place that my hands were over. There were a number of other coincidences like that, and one point where I felt a bunch of stuff knotted up in the air above her lower back (she was face down). The feeling struck me to do something that I had not seen either of them do, I put my hands together in an inverted prayer position and pointed them into that spot on her back, without touching. I drew my hands apart slowly lengthwise along her spine and she murmured hazily: “you’re stretching me like taffy.” R’s eyes opened wide and he looked at me. “Did you hear that? She felt you pull her aura open.” I was not touching her, and it wasn’t a textbook reiki trick, and still she felt exactly what I did.

Then it was my turn, and R left, so Eileen worked on me alone. I felt many sensations during this. She started at my head and worked down my back on the right side, then down to my right leg. While working on my right leg, I felt her place a hand on my right shoulder (thumb, index and middle fingers) pressing fairly firmly, and thought that she was working back up my body, only to feel both of her hands on my feet. I realized then, that it wasn’t her hand at all. At that moment, I remembered the vision from the attunement and told her about the feeling on my shoulder and the shadowy person. This seemed to really strike a chord with her, because she engaged me in conversation about it. We talked some about this, and about the kind of energy that I was feeling. She asked if it felt like a being of light, but to me it didn’t. It was vague and like a silhouette, dark, a Shadow Being. She said that she could sense something in the air as I spoke about the shadow being, that it felt earthy and vaguely masculine (though she wasn’t convinced on this point), and impish—like an earth sprite. To me, there was a wildness to the hair and a mysterious nature. I was unsure of its motives, I couldn’t tell if it meant to have some fun at my expense or it was going to provide some brutal truth. It seemed a bit like a guide, like an Inuit scout maybe feral, maybe an Indian (South Asian) guru. It was very vague. Very powerful, there’s something to learn here. The feeling soon faded.

Following the session there was a small break, then Eileen prepared the room for my second attunement. As I sat in the chair, the shadow being appeared right away. It showed up in front of me and at the right side again. It approached me, I opened my eyes and didn’t see it, but closed them mostly and felt it again. And Eileen was still across the room. I felt it come close and encircle my head with its arms, then place them on my head. I peeked again, still Eileen was across the room. Shortly after, Eileen started by touching my head in the same place. Throughout the whole time, I felt the being weaving in and out, as part of the experience. Sometimes it was away, other times right there.

Afterward, when Eileen asked me to share how it felt, I told her that the shadow was definitely there, no doubt about that. She knew it, too. She said that it was there helping her the whole time, very noticeable. From her experience, beings sometimes show up for people practicing reiki, and she knows about a few. She urges me to make space for it to come back again, which I certainly intend to do. And I’m very interested into digging into some more reiki in order to understand it’s message.

It is clear to me that there’s a message. I felt that the being was a little playful with me: “what has taken you so long? Why have you waited until now to open up to me?” I also feel that it intends to guide me to something, that it has a purpose for me. If I give it space and let it come in, it has a mission for me.

I am amazed by all of this. I certainly do not feel that this was a primed experience in any way. I cannot think of anything that lead me to believe that something like this was possible. And it feels and seems quite tangible and truthful to me. I hope that in the future when I notice it, I notice it for real and that it’s not just my mind making up something to fit these thoughts, since I am now primed.

I cannot know if it’s truly a being of energy, something beyond the world that we know of, or something that my unconscious mind really knows about me and wants to share. Maybe it is just a personification of my unconscious mind or of some pain that I still have. I cannot know what reiki really is or why it is (and I really don’t care… I think that trying to know it may only get in the way of what there is to learn). I’m a little scared of this shadow being, and a bit hesitant to share these thoughts with others. I realize that it must sound a little like new age mumbo jumbo. Though, to me it feels absolutely real. I’m glad that I’ve taken the time to write it all down; since memories of real situations and memories of thoughts look the same in my mind--I sometimes get confused.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Negotiating with the Imp of the Perverse

In my last post Yang Within Yin, Yin Within Yang, I touched upon how elegance and absurdity are two parts to the same whole. Some pyschological literature recommended to me by Gaelen Billingsley really brought this point home to me, especially along the dimension of fears. These books were marriage and sex therapist David Schnarch's A Passionate Marriage, which deals with building a strong romantic relationship through differentiation, and family therapist Donald Williamson's The Intimacy Paradox, which deals differentiation between children and parents to improve your family relationship and develop personal authority. These books define differentiation as the ability to hold onto yourself and your values, while remaining close to your romantic partner or family. It is being who you are to improve yourself so that you can give your best and loving self whole-heartedly to a relationship (this touches very much on the idea that selfishness is a virtue). Your best, calmest self is the greatest gift that you can give to anyone you love. Williamson defines this paradox clearly:
We want to be emotionally free and self-determined, but simultaneously we want to share our ideas and feelings, beliefs and values, hopes and fears, monies and homes, with significant others in intimate relationships.

These books provide structure and techniques for identifying what holds people back from reaching their goals within the construct of these relationships, so that you can break through.

The Enemy: Fear Itself
Fears tend to be the root cause of most relationship problems. And 2 particular fears really stand out in my experience:
1) Fear of your true self not being accepted by your partner
2) Fear of losing yourself by giving too much to a relationship

Think about these, how much do you hold onto your darkest secrets? Or how much do you "give in" to the other person and maybe resent it or just not feel like you're putting yourself first. Do you feel guilty when you put yourself first? Do you sometimes put yourself first as a kind of triumph? Do you feel relieved when you finally open up a juicy, closely guarded secret and it is accepted, though you feared for it all along? These fears have a way of getting you to put yourself into the exact situations that you were fearing.

Edgar Alan Poe's The Imp of the Perverse (love the title) describes a man who had gotten away with the perfect crime, though he kept fearing and fearing that someday he would be caught and found out. He repeatedly told himself not to tell anyone about committing the crime. Over and over he repeated this to himself. In a moment of weakness, his brain forgot the word "not" and he delivered a full confession condemning himself. His worst fear, that of being found out, was the force that ultimately led him to make the mistake that had him found out.

This reminds me of a software bug that I once experienced. There was an XML parser issue that caused formatted text (bold, italicized, underlined), etc. to be pushed way outside of the context it was in. So the more someone tried to emphasize something, the more likely it was to be stripped away. The bug would transform text like: "Do not deploy the solution under conditions X, Y, and Z. ...." into "Do deploy the solutions under conditions X, Y, and X. ....not" Which was essentially creating the opposite message. The brain does the same thing.

Haidt's The Happiness Hypothesis brings up this same idea in a metaphor describing the mind as a rider trying to control an elephant. The rider has a complex objective in mind, but his ordered of not doing something confounds the elephant who keeps hearing the order and just decides to do it. Haidt supports this with the layers of repitilian and mammalian brain eventually overpowering the v1 neocortex (something that I have touched on in previous posts 1 2 3.) Joe Costello calls a very similar concept negative target fixation, which is a real risk for pilots. Having a negative target in mind such as "do not hit the telephone lines" gets the fixation on the telephone lines and leads an inordinate number of pilots to actually hit them.

Essentially, the machinery of fearing things causes people to challenge and fixate on what they most fear, somehow leading these things to come about.

The Remedy?
Instead choose, positive target fixation. Using a mantra such as: "land safely in the lake" is more likely to aid the pilot into steering to safer water landing. The elephant is more likely to get the clear message, and the universe seems to conspire to realize what you are asking of it.

I have kept a mug since childhood bearing my favorite quote by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it.” This quote reminds me to but the thoughts that I want to happen out into the world, just start going toward the positive target. The bold act of doing so will inspire a universal providence to start aligning the stars in favor of this goal.

Keep facing the challenges in the world as opportunities, identify your fears and train yourself to drop these in favor of positively-stated goals, then calmly and confidently act on them.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Yang Within Yin, Yin Within Yang or The Power of Paradox

Niels Bohr said, “How wonderful that we've met with a paradox. Now we have hope of making some progress.” Seeming paradoxes are a presentation of a truth just around the corner, if only you could pivot your point of view in some way. At the place where two beliefs are at odds, there is a seem which can be torn open to view the whole problem inside out, resolving it. Patterns of this occur time and time again. When two conclusions seem at odds within a framework, and both conclusions are convincingly true, there is either a problem with the framework itself or the two conclusions are actually the truth. This calls for a paradigm shift, when the whole framework needs to be altered to support the facts.

It is both absurd and elegant that paradoxes herald truths. This has been borne out in the sciences repeatedly throughout the ages. Though, this is certainly not limited to the sciences. Taken to their greatest extent, elegance and absurdity, seemingly opposites, are the same thing. This seems to obey a non-Euclidian geometry where negative and positive infinity converge.

One example of this lies in the notion that “simple is sophisticated.” It is often the most basic, perfect line or shape that is raised to the penultimate position. In cooking, the chef who can make ingredients shine through in the dish, reigns supreme. Top chefs are adept at allowing flavors to harmonize, rather than be obscured by each other. So much work is put into cooking ingredients so that they taste like separate ingredients, together. High fashion also trends the same way, the designers renowned throughout time make classically elegant pieces with simple cuts, curves, and constructions.

In Japanese, there is a similar concept called wabi-sabi, which claims that perfection is found in imperfection. It is the little mistakes in something that make it perfect. It is the roughly of hand-made paper that makes it special, the subtle unevenness of a hand-sewn line that makes such garments coveted above factory-“perfect” apparel. It is absurd that these things are true; it shows the world's sense of humor--that true wonder is found when space is left for error. All of this holds a simple elegance to be admired.

This taoist principle that seeming opposites such as elegance and absurdity require each other to be whole is exemplified in the taijitu (or yin yang) symbol. This symbol shows a swoosh of black swirling into a swoosh of white, and in the middle of the black is a dab of white and in the middle of the white is a dab of black. This has always held some abstract meaning for me, especially since my childhood days studying the martial art of Tang Soo Do. As I practiced the art, I would stare at and meditate on the South Korean flag hanging in the center of the room. The flag has a modified red and blue yin yang surrounded by symbols for the elements of nature, arranged as opposites across from each other and expressed as 3 bars, some of them divided in the middle, others not divided. And even the pattern of these bars showed a balance. I spent many years sitting in meditation on the floor of the dojos contemplating the symbolism of the South Korean flag.

Recently in my tai chi practice, I had the special fortune of being able to attend a workshop by direct descendent 20th generation Master Chen Bing. Tai chi is in his blood, his lineage. It has permeated him from before his birth and he has remarkable skill. During the workshop, watching him subtley move, I was struck by how clear his intention is in even his move subtle movements. You can witness on his body exactly where his attention is focused and understand the purpose of each movement. Yes, he is an amazing athlete, though tai chi is not particularly a flashy art--though there are some flashy moves. Instead, watching the intention, the balance, the patience, the energy, the flow is truly spectacular. Though English is not his first language, Master Chen is quite adept at imparting profound and sophisticated concepts, aided by his guestures which are embelished by the nuance that he brings to all of his movements. The symbolism of the yin yang, and the meaning of the tao became much more clear to be during his instruction:

"Tai chi is not yang" -- he flexes his body and assumes a fierce look
"Tai chi is not yin" -- his entire body becomes soft and floppy
Then he laughs a little with his body, indicating light-heartedness, and the dojo fills with chuckles and sincere laughter - this man can express humor with any part of his body and his whole body at once. This gets our attention just before he delivers the punchline:
"Tai chi is yang within yin, yin within yang." And what he did here is extraordinary. He moved his entire body with the expressions, assuming a deep and beautiful tai chi posture as he began, he showed tension wrapped in relaxation and he softened as he showed relaxation wrapped in tension, settling into the most expressive posture that I had ever seen. Layers of tension and relaxation wrapped around each other, layer upon layer; it was all visible in his hands, arms shoulders, face, neck, chest, abdomen (dantian), hips, thighs, knees, calves, feet. His whole being taught the lesson, and the entire workshop was moved by the explanation of posture and words.

And we all knew that to this man, tai chi is a metaphor for life. Life is yang within yin, yin within yang. This seeming paradox holds a potent truth.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Mudita vs. Joy of Being Resented?!

A Washington State Lottery billboard near a major Seattle freeway off-ramp urges people to “Experience the Joy of Being Resented.” Is it really so easy to manipulate people's fears and desires? Since the proceeds are really a government revenue, this is essentially a tax--with a slim margin of huge payout--on the greedy and now also on people desiring to make others jealous. What strikes me the most is that eat-your-heart-out sentiment campaign targets the insecurity of others rather than their desire to contribute to a compassionate cause or something appealing to a more humanitarian side of people.

This is similar, though more extreme, than a sales technique mastered by the hare krishnas and peddlers on any Caribbean beach, that manipulates people’s desire to be liked by everyone. The hare krishnas would give a small flower as gift, wide-eyed and kindly, then request a donation when the flower was in the hands of the recipient. Most of the people did not even want the flower, and if you're stay around long enough, you'd see the hare krishnas going to the nearby trash cans to dig out the flowers and recycle them on the next passersby. Even though people did not want the flowers, it still invokes feelings of guilt or reciprocity. The desire to reciprocate is a strong instinct in many, based on the fear of being disliked or the desire to be liked--which are really the same thing. The lottery advertisement is similar, with a 180-degree twist. It exploits the desire to be in a situation so desirable to others that they can afford to be disliked.

This "joy of being resented" reads as a play on some popular concepts about finding a true sense of happiness through the world, in a very zen-like fashion, examples are books entitled "The Joy of Sex" and "The Joy of Cooking" and "The Joy of Gardening." In these, I tend to read joy to mean a state of intense peace or happiness, a positive feeling with no opposite., something that cannot be taken away. This is how I use the word. I think of pleasure more to mean a transient good feeling, something that brings a visceral positive feeling. The Dalai Lama talks about the different types of pleasure, from positive to negative -- there's the satisfaction of a new purpose, the warmth of hearing loving words, to the rush from a cocaine snort, the thrills of sexual excess, or the power kick from clocking someone in the nose. Looking at it this way, it can be seen that pleasures are fleeting, can go away if the purpose no longer holds, if the cocaine wears off, or if the loved words are replaced with scorn. These pleasures are not rooted in a firm and peaceful place, they are a zero sum game that has an opposite. The Art of Happiness spends a lot of time on this subject. And in this book, the Dalai Lama's definition of happiness is similar to my definition of joy. Joy, on the other hand, is the peace from understanding one's place in the universe, the deep-seated inner glow from loving someone without the need to be loved in return, and the stability of knowing who you are. I believe that experiencing this joy through "being resented" is a very difficult if not impossible thing to achieve. It is more likely that it fits the definition of pleasure, which is something that's fleeting and not nearly as satisfying when the resentment wears off, or when one realizes that being resented isn't all that the billboard made it out to be.

An alternative to this "eat your heart out" sentiment is possible. To start with, here's a concept that really had me pondering. A good friend of mine in an open marriage introduced me to a term in the polyamorous community: compersion. It is defined as the opposite of jealousy, the happiness that you feel when you partner finds happiness in another. Maybe compersion is actually the opposite of the eat-your-heart-out sentiment, at least in the terms of having a possessive nature over a "trophy" spouse.

Similar to compersion is the Sanskrit term mudita. Mudita is the empathetic joy experienced by someone else’s joy. Hinduism, Buddhism, and a number of other philosophies consider it one of the most valuable and difficult forms of compassion to cultivate. Keith Ferazzi, author of Never Eat Alone introduced this term to many in one of his terrific Tips of the Week. It seems like an incredible powerful skill to develop, the ability to be in joy (to enjoy) when anyone else is in joy, rather than being jealous of someone else's fortune, or even on the other side, being pleased when someone else is jealous of your fortune, you can experience euphoria just through the joy of someone else. Next time you cry at a wedding, that's mudita in action. If you love that profound bliss, take a snapshot of that feeling within yourself and learn to bring it about. I felt it at my cousin Kimmy's recent wedding to Eric and plan to spend as much time in that state as possible. Wish me luck; I wish you luck. And I wish Kimmy and Eric luck. Good luck!