Saturday, 28 April 2012

On Looking

It seems to me that there are two kinds of looking. We can look for, and we can look at, into or through.

Looking for something – especially a thing that we perceive to be outside ourselves - can be an exhausting business. Towards the end of 2010, I expressed my deep frustration with the seemingly never-ending search for something better or different, something other than this-here-now:

I want to stop looking!
I want to stop looking!

I want to stop looking for the right remedy or the right supplement.
I want to stop looking for the right doctor or the right therapist.

I want to stop looking for the right medication or the right herb or the right acupuncturist or the right healer.

I want to stop looking for clarity or peace or wellness or good health or enlightenment or awareness or my true nature or my natural state.

I want to stop looking for the right man or the right relationship or the right body weight or the right look or the right job or the right activity or the right achievement.

I want to stop looking for change in my mum or my sisters or my friends or anyone else, even Jack.
I want to stop looking for change in my symptoms or lower blood pressure or more energy or different emotions or no headaches or any other changes in me.

I want to stop looking for being better or being well or being different to how I am now.
I want to stop looking for God or The Underlying Cause To All This or anything else.

I want to stop looking and I want to just be me, Whatever, However, Whenever and Wherever with no apologies or caveats or wishes or hopes or longings or missings, just me, as I am, here and now.


Of course, the idea that anything needs to be changed is just that – an idea. However, when we take our thoughts at face value, they seem to present us with compelling evidence that things do indeed need to change, that we are deficient in some way, that we are incomplete. So off we go, looking for whatever it is that we believe we lack. I need a partner. She should be more helpful. I should lose weight. I’m not awakened and I want to be. I should be a much better version of myself. There are an infinite number of things that we can go looking for; there is no end to the merry-go-round of seeking, unless we look in a different way.

When we begin to inquire into the validity of our beliefs, into the truth – or lack of it – behind our assertions, it is astonishing to realise that what we’ve taken to be factual, objective, hard truth is actually nothing of the sort. Today, I’ve had yet another experience of the freedom that can be found when we put our minds to looking into rather than looking for. Together with four others, I’ve spent the day doing The Work of Byron Katie. One by one, we dismantled our stories. We witnessed each other’s insights and realisations. In examining my story, compassion (as well as laughter) spontaneously arose, and I saw through that particular dream of separation.

The act of inquiring sheds light into previously dark corners, and exposes both the lies that we’ve been believing, and our pay-offs for believing them. If I continue to believe that you’ve caused my pain, I get to keep my identity intact, and I avoid feeling the pain that resides deep within. If I continue to look for what I think I want – as if it were separate from me – I can keep my focus away from the disturbing truth that my story is not true. However terrible our stories seem to be, we also have to admit that they are comforting in their familiarity, and we ferociously defend them when provoked.

As we draw closer to the most painful stories, the ones that form the innermost part of our identities, we frequently experience extreme discomfort, and it is tempting to run. But...there really is nowhere to run to. We may as well stay, and face what Scott Kiloby calls the core wound. For therein lies both our pain and our salvation. When we look deeply, we discover that we are not at all what we’ve taken ourselves to be. We are not deficient in any way. We are not imperfect, and there is nothing that we need to change. Recently, I used Scott’s Unfindable Inquiry to see if I could find the self that wants – the part of me that wants it all to be another way. I discovered that what is most wanted is the end of wanting. And beyond that, I couldn’t find a self that wanted. Peace.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

T. S Eliot

Monday, 9 April 2012

On Resting

One morning in early January 1987, I awoke in pain, and by the next day had undergone emergency surgery for a rare ovarian condition. The day after I was operated on, a large retaining wall behind my house collapsed, damaging the garden (such as it was – little more than a small, concrete back yard) and rendering the central heating system useless. After nearly a week in hospital, I returned home to spend the rest of the month convalescing, surrounded by piles of sleeping bags and a portable gas heater.

At the time, I was a community development worker, based in a particularly deprived area of the city. Young and politically motivated, I believed that we were making a difference, that my presence was, in some minor way, changing the world. I was also conscientious, and it was a challenge to be off work for so long. For a while, I was too ill to be concerned about what was happening in my absence. As the month wore on, I began to wonder, and to fret about all I supposed wasn’t getting done, all those meetings that had been scheduled that I hadn’t been able to attend.

When I eventually got back to work, the shocking truth was that everything had carried on perfectly well without me. My absence really hadn’t made much of a difference. My colleagues said they’d missed me, and there was some work to catch up on, but it became very clear that I was dispensable. I’d subtly believed myself to be indispensable, and then life had shown me that this was far from the case. Nothing had fallen apart in my absence, with the exception of the wall, and I could hardly claim credit for that.

Over the next few months, I slowly got better, and the wall and the heating were eventually repaired. For a while, I remembered the lesson – that it is okay to take time off, that life does not require my continuous activity. Since then, however, I’ve fallen into the same trap several times. I’ve believed myself to be indispensable, and not taken a rest even when I needed one. Inevitably, life has intervened, and the break has come anyway, seemingly not of my own choosing.

Culturally, too, it seems that we’ve become more averse to stopping, to resting. Now that we’re constantly connected, our physical absence makes little difference, and it’s even more tempting to just keep on keeping on, wherever we are. What I do is so important that I can’t really take a break. The credo seems to be, I’m busy, therefore I’m important. Even commerce no longer takes time off; at least the old Sunday trading laws – which ruled that all but the smallest shops had to be shut – reminded us that we were supposed to be having a day of rest.

It seems that our identities are so bound up with what we do that we find it unsettling, if not actually frightening, to really stop and rest. We like to believe that there are things out there that need to be done, and that we shouldn’t really down tools until they are done. We believe that things only get done because we exert our will; that it is our pushing or forcing or activity that makes things happen. We are pleased with ourselves when we feel that we have achieved something, been constructive, ticked tasks off our lists. All this activity also distracts us from our deeper feelings, from the intractable questions that inevitably surface during the quieter times. Do I make any difference? Is there any meaning to life? What happens when we die?

A couple of years ago, I began to experiment with doing nothing, for an hour or so at a time. Not meditating, not doing, no agenda (other than no agenda). Just sitting, or lying, and seeing what happened. Sometimes, I’d cry. Sometimes, I’d lie on the floor with my legs against the wall, or I’d move around like young children do, aimlessly and entirely without purpose. At times, I’d be moved to write, or look at old photos, or read a passage from a particular book. My rigid sense of self loosened a little further each time, and I began to see through my belief that not being engaged in purposeful activity meant that I was lazy, or a little mad, or both. Being a grown up came to seem less onerous, less serious.

In the last few days, I’ve felt the need to stop again, after an exhausting time. It’s been tempting to believe the train of thought that says, There is so much to do! You can’t stop yet. You need to sort out the house, and work out how to earn a steady income. And for a while, I was caught up in those thoughts. But a couple of days ago, I remembered that I can stop, and rest, and everything will be fine. So I’ve resolved to do as little as possible for the next week. As long as I feed the three of us – Jack, the fish and me – all will be well. Three days in, and we’re doing fine.