|2 years ago :: Jan 13, 2011 - 7:46PM #1|
The Story of How I Came to Better Understand
Myself and What it Means to be Human
In many ways I think I’m a pretty normal person. I have a wife and two children. I have a house. I make a living at a pretty good blue collar job. And as I imagine many folks do I’ve often wondered about myself and about life.
I could accept that much about life could be explained by understanding the rules that seem to govern the physical world. Even so I just could quite believe that there was all there was to it. One of the most perplexing things to ponder was in fact myself. I couldn’t understand how physical processes should be able to produce well, me, whatever that is. Was I, with my awareness and my apparent ability to make decisions and exert some measure of self control really just a product of the interactions of stuff? At times I tried to believe that this was all there was to it, but something about the idea never felt quite right.
Eventually I came to recognize that there seemed to be more life than physical processes. More specifically, there certainly seemed to be more to me than the interactions in my brain.
To try to explain it simply, there exists the world of stuff. Things interact with other things according to their nature to produce what we experience as reality. In addition to the world of stuff I also now recognize that which experiences stuff (our awareness if you will). That which experiences stuff isn’t produced by the physical interactions that do produce much of what we think of as reality.
In the case of human beings we exist in a mixed way with our awareness being strongly associated with a physical form. More specifically our awareness is attached to the mind that is a result of the processes of the brain. So it’s through the mind that we interpret and typically experience the world. Likewise, it is also on the mind that we exert our influence.
Now I don’t think there is anything wrong with the human condition. In fact as best as I can figure we exist this way because while we might not always like everything about being human overall we desire to experience life from a human perspective. This way we can do the things that human can do, think the ways that humans can think, and feel the ways that humans can feel. It’s our human perspectives that make life as we know it possible and meaningful.
So in a very broad way, that’s how I’ve come to look at myself and life. As far as how I came to see things this way, well that’s the story a plan to tell. While this isn’t a story about religion (which seems far too rigid for me) or about spirituality (which is much too mysterious) a good place to start seems to be by talking about my early exposure to Christianity and my decision to see myself as an atheist.
In the Beginning
As a child I was raised as a Roman Catholic. I was baptized, confirmed and communed. Along with church came Sunday School. Most of my friends and classmates did the same thing and at first I didn’t think too much about these things. It was just what people did on Sundays.
As I got older Sunday School became evening Bible study groups that were typically only frequented by those that were genuinely interested in religion. Most of my friends eventually stopped attending and I personally wasn’t all that interested in religious matters. Even so my parents thought that this type of thing would be good for me. So despite my objections they continued to see that I attend these groups.
Even then I had questions about life and wondered whether religion offered anything of value in this regard. Unfortunately, to be blunt, I felt that what was presented to me was pretty much contrived nonsense that had very little relation to the reality that I experienced every day. In my budding thirst for understanding the implication that I should accept these things on faith and without question was quite offensive to me.
I soon became determined to find a way to end my forced exposure to Catholic doctrine and began to resist my parents effort to make me attend the study groups. The situation escalated to the point that my they would sometimes have to literally drag me to the car and deliver me to the sessions. Normally once there fear of embarrassment would cause me to be quiet, but one day I had finally had enough. In the midst of a study group I stood up and loudly declared all religion to be a bunch of superstitious nonsense. I then proclaimed myself to be an atheist and proceeded to stand facing a corner. After that refused to speak until my parents arrived to take me home.
That was then end of my relationship with religion. For the rest of my teenage years and well into my twenties I was firmly an atheist. I thought none too highly of religion and anyone who saw any value in it. Instead I looked to science for my answers about life. I was certain that any useful explanations would mesh well with my way of seeing things and I refused to consider anything that in any way resembled religion or spirituality.
Looking back I see my decision to become an atheist as the point when I took responsibility for my own understanding of life. I could no longer just accept that things were a certain way. I had to find ways of dealing with life that made sense to me.
On the other hand, my inability to see any value at all in religion said a lot about the way that my mind worked. I was mentally rigid and tended to take things very literally. For example, to me a story about a man, a woman, and an apple was supposedly about actual events. If it didn’t make sense at face value then I was certain it was useless.
Dreams of Things to Come
Throughout the rest of my teenage years and well into my twenties I remained rigidly atheist. Eventually I was forced to soften my stance to one of skeptical agnosticism. In large part this was due to occasional dreams that seemed to contain information about future events.
As an atheist I liked to think that I had things pretty well figured out but these dreams presented me with a problem. While rarely specific enough to act on I just couldn’t find any way to make sense of them (though I certainly tried). Eventually I had to accept that much like the questions I had about myself there were things in life that I could not easily explain.
In my early thirties I started looking into the practices of yoga. One of the reasons I was willing to consider it was because it was claimed that through the practice of its techniques one might further develop these kind of abilities. As far fetched as it sounded I hoped that by finding a way to incorporate these dreams into a cohesive world view I might finally be able to make some sense out of life.
So how does a former atheist and still pretty skeptical agnostic end up becoming interested in yoga? Well it all started after I ended up getting a job about four miles from my home and began to ride a bicycle to work. I liked riding bikes. I got good at it and after a while bought a few more bikes.
After few years riding and with quite a few miles under my belt I began looking for ways to do even more. Full of enthusiasm and with the heart and lungs of a strong cyclist I decided to take up running. Unfortunately my legs were not conditioned to the stresses and I almost immediately started developing problems. Determined to power through my issues I refused to let up. Before long it became apparent that I couldn’t continue. As a last ditch effort to allow me to continue to ride and run I decided to try what I had always assumed to be a ridiculous and feminine stretching exercise.
Alas I found yoga just a little too late to keep moving and was forced to take a break form both riding and running. I had defined myself by my bicycling accomplishments and it was with feelings of great loss that I watched my abilities slip away. I soon began to think about life. To me it seemed that no matter what I managed to achieve, in time it would inevitably be lost. I then realized that everything I recognized in life was ultimately temporary.
What was the point? More than ever I needed to find a way to make some kind of sense of life. It was with this state of mind that I first began to seriously look into the practices of yoga.
I have to admit that I was quite impressed with the physical aspects of the practice. As someone who saw myself as a bit of an athlete I soon found that yoga could be every bit a challenging as I needed it to be. I also understood that it didn’t have to be as intense as I first made it. It seemed that yoga could be whatever someone wanted or needed it to be.
I also couldn’t help but be exposed to some of the other aspects of the practice. In a way some of the things I saw sort of made sense. At least it seemed to make more sense than anything I had ever seen in religion or spirituality. For one thing yoga didn’t seem to be about belief. Instead there were things that could be done that were supposed to produce results in this lifetime. To me yoga seemed to say, “Do these things and you will understand.”
I had always assumed that the practice of mediation was reserved for spiritual wierdos. At first it felt a little wrong and silly. Even so I was intrigued by the practice and decided to try it for a while. I consoled myself by imagining that at least it might help improve my concentration.
As is typically described meditation starts with an attempt to focus on some object, often the sensations of breathing. When one realizes that they have been distracted they simply return their attention to the object of focus. At first I had no idea what I was doing or why this was supposed to be so important. It was really only after lots of things started to make more sense that I began to understand this once strange practice.
To me the key to meditation involves what happens at the moment that I realize I have been distracted by a thought. Prior to this moment I was completely unaware that I was thinking, essentially being swept along by some mental process. After recognizing the distracting thought I am no longer within it. Another way to look at it is to say that I am no longer attached to it or associated with it. Instead I can clearly recognize the thought as a distinct object, obviously separate from my sense of self.
I now understand that in looking at the way in which my sense of self can be associated with my mental processes I am looking at the mechanism by which my awareness is bound to the mind that arises from my physical brain. By separating myself from these processes I’ve gained an understanding of what I really am and what are only things that I can believe myself to be.
By separating myself from some aspect of my mind it also becomes much easier to make adjustments to that particular piece of myself or even undo the mental conditioning entirely. Once recognized, my intention towards some mental structure determines how it is affected. From a less personal perspective maybe it seems pushy, unnecessary, personally limiting, or just plain silly. Recognition with this attitude means it will be reduced. Then again maybe it seems new or interesting in some other way. With this feeling towards it, it will be reinforced.
Much like thoughts, emotions are just mental patterns and seem to be able to be managed in much the same ways. They too can be looked at as distinct things. After recognizing them as something other than myself I can then decide how I feel or what my intention is towards them.
Early on I probably placed a little too much emphasis on attempting to forcibly quiet my mind. The most important part of self awareness definitely seems to be the simple recognition of mental structures. These things exist because they were once important to me. Once recognized as no longer relevant they ultimately cannot continue. In fact many times the best course of action seems to be to do pretty much nothing at all. I might simply say, “Eh,” and go back to doing whatever it was that I was doing. Other times it might make sense to allow a train of thought to work through to some new conclusion or an emotion to dissipate some energy. Then again can also make sense to say, “Enough is enough, were done with this.”
At about the time I was beginning to explore the practices of yoga, I was also increasingly feeling as if there was something very wrong with the way that I experienced life. I desperately longed to wake up to some sort of different way of looking at reality or perhaps to find my way to a state of mind that I felt more at home in. Despite still having a bit of an aversion to the concept of God, with nothing else to do I began to ask for help in finding a way to ease my longing. In doing so I promised to do whatever I would have to do to make that happen.
Much to my surprise it wasn’t all that long before I seemed to receive a response. There I was asking for help one day when I was suddenly aware that God apparently wanted to know just how far I intended to take my desire wake up. Now I didn’t see a vision or hear I voice or anything like that. I simply became aware of an immense presence whose awareness was focused on me and the intention that that presence held.
I was the one who filled in the details by imagining the things I had been told about God. Thoughts of things like heaven and hell, angels and demons, and sins and punishment came to mind. Plus, if God was apparently real then what else didn’t I know about the way things worked? Even with no ill intent, for all I knew with a single misstep I might be crushed by the machinery that drives entire universes. Utterly terrified and with no idea what I was getting myself into I realized that I couldn’t not answer the question. Just like that, whatever it was that had taken an interest in my situation was gone.
At first I was relieved, but as the days passed I began to wonder if I had made a mistake. I was no closer to finding whatever it was that I was after. I also wondered if by dealing with God there was something that I could possibly offer to humanity. Maybe there were things that I could learn that would be relevant to our experience of life.
I decided that I was one single, solitary person. Perhaps I was risking my sanity, my life, or who knows, perhaps even something like a soul by having dealings with a divine being. But if things went badly for me, in the grand scheme of things would life in general really be all that different? On the other hand if there was even the slightest chance that I could learn something of value than the fate of one human being seemed like a small thing to risk for that opportunity.
Anyway, before all that long I was once again asking for an opportunity and offering to do whatever was required on my part. And surprisingly I was soon once again present with a question. “How far do you intend to take this?”
Being no less terrified that before I wondered if perhaps I was losing my mind. What would my friends and family think of me, a former atheist and pretty skeptical agnostic who had suddenly found God? Would be forced to forfeit my relationships, my job, and everything I had in life? Was I destined to end up homeless on a street corner with a sign that read, “The end is near?” Is this how those folks got started or was that what the world made of people that talked to God these days? I had a whole lot of questions and very few answers.
Despite my fears I somehow mustered up the strength to answer the question. Unsure of where exactly all of this was leading I simply decided that my answer was, “As far as I can.” As soon as the question was answered my body was wracked with what I might describe as sensations of energy. For about ten minutes I alternated between trying to be brave and begging for it to stop. Eventually the experience subsided.
Despite trying to go on with my life I couldn’t help but think that I had made some sort of deal with God or that I had some kind of important job to do. I wasn’t in anyway led to believe that this was the case. Based upon my background and given how little I understood about things I pretty much just assumed that was what you did when you talked to God.
Now something that seems to be the case with these kinds of experiences is that they often said so much more about my own state of mind than anything else. In fact it makes perfect sense that with my awareness still squarely focused on the workings of mind the most recognizable components of these types of things arose from the contents of that mind. What I’m getting at is that is that before I really understood the types of things that are a product of the mind these types of experiences had a tendency to reinforce my existing beliefs.
Anyway, I was surprised at how effective simply asking for help can be. I’ve often found that when I’m struggling with something that doesn’t make sense asking for a different perspective can lead to new insights. Rarely are the results as pronounced as in this particular case. Usually what results is simply a different way to look at a situation and usually that is all I really needed. Maybe something is actually responding and maybe it is just a matter of putting myself in the right state of mind to see things differently. Whatever the case, it works for me.
In the months following my possible psychiatric episode I experienced what is best described as a flood of revelations. I had so many new ideas about life, God, reality, myself, and the spiritual and religious documents that I looked to in an effort to makes sense of my situation.
Thinking that I was supposed to be doing something I decided that my mission was to offer my newfound insights to the world. So it happened that I embarked on a mission from God. Unfortunately as I desperately tried to explain what I was realizing to my friends and family members I mostly just convinced them that I was crazy. With so much of my attention focused on my ideas they had taken on a greatly exaggerated significance and I couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t think that these things were as important as I did.
Eventually I made it beyond this sort of thing. One reason why is that I continued to study myself and learn about my mind and the way that it worked. I eventually discovered that the sooner I could normalize an idea the sooner I would be able to learn something new. This helped keep me from becoming too enamored with what were really just products of my mind.
The second reason why I’m no longer on a mission is that no matter how attached I was to an idea I was always willing to be wrong. It can hurt badly to be wrong but again and again I expressed a willingness to go through this in order to see my own limitations and misunderstandings. This more than anything was what made learning possible and got me through this period of my life. In fact the power of this attitude was easily the most important thing I learned as a result of this entire adventure.
Anyway, one of the things that happened during my mission from God was that I became involved in some discussions with one of my supervisors about ways to improve union and management relations. I talked about how important I felt it was to approach every situation with your guard down. Even in situations that were potentially confrontational I had noticed that by intentionally not being ready to defend myself it would often help make things less tense for everyone.
Of course this approach not only seems to help diffuse an us versus them mentality and make life’s situations play out more smoothly. It also serves to highlight a deliberately open and honest attitude that has been an importance balance to my sometimes very direct and no nonsense approach towards dealing with my myself and life.
Back to Basics
Eventually I realized there was nothing that I was required to do. After that it took some time to decide exactly what I wanted to do. Of course I still wanted to continue the search for understanding that I had begun. I doing so I set aside a lot of games that didn’t seem to be getting me anywhere and I got back to the basic techniques that always seemed to work.
Specifically I decided that once and for all I wanted understand who or what I was. So I turned my attention to myself and with renewed determination continued to sort out what was me and what could be seen as distinct. I didn’t take the time to work through all of the things that I discovered. Instead by force of will I merely shoved them aside.
Eventually after weeks of almost continuous effort I reached a point where I found nothing left to set aside. When I looked at myself it seemed that there was little I could say. I existed and I was aware and that was about it. I had the impression that I wasn’t something at all, but the capacity be something or to wear an identity. I most certainly did not seem to be what I had learned to recognize as the products of the interactions of stuff, the mind. Of course I then started analyzing my situation and was promptly back within the orkings of my mind.
I really wanted to once again take this kind of look at myself, but it had taken a tremendous effort to do so. Fortunately I soon realized that I could see myself anytime I cared to look. In fact for as long as I can remember I have been able to look at myself and see that I am aware and that I exist. It just took putting aside everything I thought I was in order for me to believe that what I saw was really me.
As I came to terms with my new understanding of myself I continued to revise my understanding of life. So it happened that I eventually came to see things pretty much the way that I’ve described them here.
I’m sure my perspective isn’t perfect and I’m sure that it will continue to be refined. Even so, for now it works for me. It incorporates the everyday world we see as reality while still allowing for the other things that I have experienced. But perhaps more importantly, by separating my sense of self from the world of stuff it allows me live.
|2 years ago :: Feb 06, 2011 - 2:48AM #2|