The creative act of cultivating 'states of being' is arguably one of the most powerful skills to learn. States of peace, strength, relaxation, intention, trust, connection.
I keep coming back to a basic principle: that life is experience, and all experience happens in the present moment, and within that moment, experience can be shifted, through types of attention, movement and sensory conditioning. In this way can these states of being be accessed and reliable.
How then to align the 'human self', the social self, the cultural self, and this 'magical self', an enchanted experiencer, tuned by practice.
Direct experience, and the attendance to it, repeatedly shows itself to be effective in this...
But humans, marvelous as we are, need a good story. We need a good reason to turn and face the heavy and un-loved parts of ourselves. It is hard to admit discomfort, and anxiety, shame and grief. Our cultural context is very quick with its story about these things. The are the markings of failure, if you believe that spiel.
In fact, its a widely spread story that our direct experience isn't valuable at all, but rather we should be putting our attention elsewhere: on acquisition, materialism, accounting, justice, being smart and attractive, being 'in the know'. Feeling and sense are suspect and so sincerity is desperately rare.
As lots of people do, I'll continue offering a different story: that by and large, our sensory information is and should be our first point of call for practice and living: an embodied life.
That through feeling the small and hidden sense of things, the softest breath, and rustle of leaves, we can connect more deeply to life. That by moving slowly, we make more time, and that by relaxing we are better able to work. We can see miracles in each color and enjoy the marvel of water. We can dance with gravity and sense into the depth and richness of each movement.
It is not easy though, sometimes it can be like looking for a needle in a hay-stack. The mind says many things in these moments. "Yeah yeah I know that and these other things", or maybe "Oh shit, I can't sit still, that is actually terrifying". "That guy does it better", "She is more in tune with the cosmic goddess than me". Indeed: "How does this pay the bills".
And so on and on does the mind tell us what it thinks it knows about what we experience. Reflex story, I think, is the great obstacle to deepening embodiment.
What does the story show, and what does it hide? This can be a good question, the tough question, when we can all get very attached to our stories. We can forget that we are not only the story, that we are a great many things, adaptable, resilient, ancient.
The solution is patience, compassion and the ability to not take our thoughts so seriously. To be able to calmly say: "noted" to the screaming thoughts, but keep the feet planted and the attention focused on the direct experience, the direct perception.
To trust our experience, to risk finding something we didn't know was there, to risk being moved.
Perhaps this is the most difficult and rewarding thing.
A Vocabulary of Perception
Focusing on experience (sensory awareness), before trying to or claiming to understand. Not acting on a false understanding.
This goes for everything, every practice, every idea, every person, culture or sentiment.
Every news report, advertisement or textbook, everything anyone has ever said, all words and beliefs.
Thoughts are cursory ideas of things that helps hold the mind together so the identity can operate, direct perception is not taking this so seriously.
Direct perception is not an intellectual understanding.
Something else can take its place in the attention:
Gravity, Spatial Phenomena, and Breathing, a good place to start.
This is the ultimate in contemplative science.
Metaphors: "To avoid losing touch, always aim for first hand experience"
In my work as an artist (particularly in sculpture and performance), in the martial arts, meditation and in nature connection, I noticed that one main parameter of experience is spatial awareness. This awareness is variously subtle or gross, focused or expanded.
One other main context of this work is the realms of mental health and altered states: How can we develop an articulate our experiences, no matter how “out of the ordinary”.
So this is a “ Practical Phenomenological Epistemology” – for practitioners and contemplatives, or anyone interested in neutral language for discussion around altered, dampened or heightened states of consciousness related to mental health, hallucination, “psychosis”, spiritual or transpersonal experiences, undefined perceptual events and non-conceptual/non-verbal reality.
This is what I mean by the unification of all tradition: traditions are actions take as individuals or as a collective that attune the neural maps to certain patterns. The point of this vocabulary is to offer a language of consciousness that can be applied to any tradition or practice.
This is a list of actions enacted by the attention, that is to say: a way of shifting perception through the application of the will. The fact that we are working with a set of embodied senses in the material world (gross, subtle or otherwise) provides a grounded context to engage with this art.
“Space Bending”: practicing and mastering the ability to alter our experience of elements we can perceive with any of our senses in the present moment. There are other embodiment techniques that support this practice: notably breathing (for relaxation and subtlety), movement or exercise for altering state of consciousness. Also very important is noting the evolutionary basis of the senses and awareness in the natural context: the raw human-animal sensory abilities related to surviving and living in connection with the land.
The following list came about because of a desire to have on hand a decent vocabulary for this practice and of direct experience in general.
There is a particular focus on the spatial field as the main external parameter of awareness: Spatial Awareness:
N.B: We are doing many of these actions all the time: practice helps us to improve skill and consciousness of processes and gives us access to further subtlety and focus. Each action is an amplification of the information.
The base senses: (Not all actions apply to every sense).
Seeing – Sight.
Feeling – Felt Sense, felt spatial, temperature/moisture and kinetic information.
Hearing – Sound or Silence.
Smelling – Odor in the space or emanating from objects.
Tasting – The taste of the phenomena/object/material.
The attention actions: practice and repetition improves effectiveness and reliability of skill.
'Object' is any phenomena, 'physical thing', or 'space'.
Sweeping – When we first enter an experience, the phenomena/objects that we are first aware of (this could be external or internal).
Sensing- This is the first time we notice a specific object or phenomena.
Focusing – This is really focusing our attention, giving it enough time to take effect.
Attuning – Imprinting the phenomena, or object in the neural map (memory).
Remembering – Recalling the phenomena/object and making it present.
Spacing – Focusing specifically on the space between objects and others in proximity, the negative spaces.
Sizing – Noticing how big or small a thing is compared to it's neighbors (or oneself or anything else)
Volumeizing – The space the object takes up.
Scaling – This is the first drastic alteration of perception: Shifting the scale of the object/space, experiencing it as an enormous landscape,
or very tiny.
Timing – Related to scaling, we can alter the time of the object by noting that human time is purely conceptual: the object exists in eternity.
Detailing – Focusing on particular details.
Tracing – Following lines and edges.
Coloring – Noticing particular colors or contrasts in a field.
Lighting – Noticing the way light reflects.
Shading – Noticing the absence of light and shadows cast.
Sequencing – Shifting attention and awareness through a series of characteristics.
Relating – Comparing and relating one or more objects or phenomena.
Weighting – Noticing/feeling the weight of object/materiality.
Materiality – Noticing what the material is made of.
Physical Imagination - Placing oneself in, on, near or holding the object/phenomena.
Histrionic Kinesis – Feeling the kinetic sense of the actions required to arrange/build/manipulate the objects and materials.
Object Manipulation – Manipulation of the object using the body. Sensing weight/size/temperature/texture.
The Psychic functions:
Enchantment – Engaging with sense of intrigue and mystery.
Significance – The object or phenomena has specific meaning or associated narrative to the context.
Personalizing – The element is associated with a person, entity or character, or has its own autonomous personality.
Emotionalizing – Association, catalyzing with a felt emotion.
Autonomizing – The object/pheonomena is making itself known to the senses of its own accord: an omen or a messenger.
Blessing – Full acceptance and cherishing of the phenomena/space or object.
Deifying – Treating as Sacred or Divine with the awareness.
Attachment – Admitting or assigning importance to the phenomena/object, to an identity.
Identification – Identifying with the object/phenomena: identity in some way defined by the existence or condition or character of the object.
Naming – Classifying, labeling. Also the reverse is practicable (removing labels).
Unification – The object(s)/phenomena are one and the same with the psyche/identity, to a greater or lesser degree.
Disassociation – The object/phenomena means nothing and the psyche is not resonant.
Waking up the innate powers of connection to experience, and integration through practice.
For this written piece I want to assume something, offer something that is true and accessible in its first form, and highlight the principles that are demonstrated as a result.
My assumption is that yours and my senses work in much the same way, only differing in the degree of subtlety and particular detail. I also assume that we share the ability to connect to something, to a phenomena with our attention. By focusing with our attention we entrain ourselves to the object (or subject) of our focus. The connection deepens with repeated practice.
Another very important thing we share is the ability or the potential to be curious. Curiosity is a certain attitude of awareness to the unknown. Without curiosity, we can learn “by rote” and repeat certain patterns, but there is not the spark behind the action to also ignite joy and invigoration: the action is imitation only. Curiosity is fueled by something, propelling us forward effortlessly. We can be curious within repetition and discipline, but we must start with curiosity. It is like planting an orange tree before building a house, we work to construct the scaffold and the structure and so on, whilst knowing that the oranges are on their way. We can know that the house we build will be richer for its shared beginnings with the orange tree. Later in the life practice, the orange tree continues to give, and the life of the home is both structurally sound, and nourishing. In this way curiosity must be part of the foundation of any expedition of transformation practice.
There must be a certain level of innocence within this work: not naivety, but rather a lack of constrictive agenda. Our maps of meaning and value, and the story we tell about our experiences can either amplify or eliminate. An approach to practice that is open enough to allow the unexpected, to allow us to be surprised, is really essential to the process of making meaningful connections and learning through synthesis.
What I'm pointing to here is a certain power or character trait. It may seem an obvious statement, but consider the following: a thread has one loose end, as we follow the thread, we enter the weave, and as we pull and manipulate the thread, we change the weave. Curiosity then, is a way or method of pulling a thread, or following a trail. Using a curiosity with our senses in direct perception practice will have a certain affect on the weave. What we perceive will respond to that particular tone or attitude. It is not the only way to manipulate the weave, but having left gaps for the unexpected to flow through, we end up with a richer pattern, and a subtler experience.
So if the attitude of curiosity is at least somewhat established (or rediscovered), we can become aware of the way or feeling our attention works from that basis. Once the sentiment and practical focus are symbiotic, real change starts to occur.
But what is the weave? What realm do we want to focus our beings on? Assuming we can at least categorize the difference between thinking and feeling, ideas and sensation (or the combinations thereof), we can choose where to focus: thinking or feeling, imagination or sensation. I don't want to make value judgments on the personal practice of individuals, but rather offer a perspective on integration: Self-localization is the ongoing process of connecting to the resources of the present moment. I'm specifically referring to the sensory information presenting to the awareness, that precedes the layering of meaning that comes after. The assumption is that the attitude of curiosity is an open enough map to allow this direct experience to pass the filter.
So if we are practicing to localize the self, and approach deeper and deeper levels of embodied connection through direct perception, curiosity is a great attitude. By extension, trust is the glue of integrity. As the sensory experience within the present moment unfolds, as the weave shifts and shimmers, we slowly establish a deeper connection that is orientated around permission and non-violence; deeper subtlety, more reliable feedback; ongoing trust in the act of practice.
Another way to say this is that the mundane can be nourishing, if we approach our sensory experience with the right attitude, this curious focus. The point is not that we will have some kind of revelation (we likely will have many), but rather that we can begin to redefine success, redefine the feedback relationship with reality to allow the best conditions for simple satisfaction. Integration is moving towards the safety of being interconnected through voluntary practice, accessing resources made available according our own curiosity; personal allegiance with ever-present forces. The orientation around simplicity, localization and the present moment reduces the dynamic tension of transformation to a gentler level; I.e sustainable practice.
There is another assumption within this whole model: that practice can be in any moment, any space. That the living experience itself is one continuous thread within the weave of life. The way we wash the dishes, the way we sit and write, the way we sit and talk with friends, work and play, love and grieve, rest and travel. The way we move with each step, breathe each breath, all of this is the weave, and our particular point of awareness is a thread within the larger pattern.
Improvisation is a process of responding to the moment, making decisions within a state of flow that holds our attention and our sense of purpose. Improvisation allows focus through uncertainty, continuation through variation, and authentic connection to experience. Sensory improvisation then, is directing focus effortlessly in connection to sensory phenomena, relaxing into choice and curiosity in such a way that we nourished by our own awareness.
The way we follow the thread; pulling the string, affects the weave at large. We experience more of what we do; we are the weave, speaking back to ourselves through sensory phenomena.
One main implication of spirituality being that Spirit pervades all, encompasses all, permeates all. So you can be a punk rocker who spits on a tomb-stone, says yoga is a pile of rubbish and reckons spirituality is only for hippies, and even then is still a manifestation of Spirit, because Spirit precedes all ego-rational definition and differentiation... thus: One Zen Master to Another: "Oh... the Horror... the Horror..."... perhaps because the true compassion of Spirit, the true tolerance of Spirit does not even bother to claim it is closer to the truth than the punk...identification itself (with labels or experiences) becomes paler, loses its appeal, and possibly falls to the wayside.
We don't lose our ability to judge however, because our judgments similarly arise from an experience validated by our self-inclusive compassion.... We retain our ability to choose and prefer, but we are not slaves to our expectations or disappointments.
If all emanates from spirit, as the sages tell us, then right now, we have the possibility of experiencing liberation, we just need to recognize that the Self that is already liberated. There is no spiritual advancement, you either recognize your true nature or you don't.
The preoccupation and identification with spirituality can give us a kind of tunnel vision, only seeking and accepting certain flavors that validate our "spiritual selves", but the Self or the Witness is omnipresent, and importantly, infinite. This means there is nowhere it is not, there is no-one who is better or worse at spirituality, nobody who has more permission or legitimacy. Every being and experience benefits from the compassion of Spirit, and is held. All joy and hope, grief, pleasure, pain, fear and anger, happiness and disappointment, desire and disgust, peace and satisfaction, passion and depression, all is included. Even our existing identities, those polished and fussed over idols of ourselves, those too are included.
And it is not so simple to say that spirituality means "about meaning and purpose", because a focus on meaning and purpose implies a possible lack of meaning, and a lack of purpose..which in the true experience of Spirit, is a mute point, because assuming Spirit is the origin of all things, and permeates all things and all time, then there would be no meaning beyond existence itself, and no purpose because there is nowhere to go:
There is neither creation nor destruction.
There is neither destiny nor free will;
Neither path nor achievement;
This is the final truth.
Sri Ramana Maharashi
Every sentiment or desire for advancement is part of the weave that exists within the already omnipresent spirit.
However, Practices DO help us to better body/sense function, to explore pleasure, difference and activity... To better function in the human context, to have a greater capacity for compassion. Yoga and related embodiment practices help us to translate experience from suffering into equanimity, but all such experience, the former and latter exist within the envelope of spirit, and as such is secondary to the Real, the Unchanging.
So we can better align our attention-sense-attitude (through practice) with the surrender of identification with the temporal phenomena...but it is not the Spirit that advances, and it is not us that advances, it is only that we recognize the truth already inherent... that spiritual practices can lead us to a Transformation that raises our awareness above but including the differentiated realm, resting the true Self as unchanging.
When I say "all practices train the attention" I say that because that is what we have to work with...we cannot "increase spirit", or advance spiritually, because we already are that. The only improvement is the attention-sense-attitude at exploring and changing state, but all such change exists within the awareness of Spirit.
We practice with our attention, or to put more directly, attention itself practices experiencing/exploring... it is the naked awareness that perceives all phenomena. The source of attention IS the unchanging Self.
So training the attention is discernment, but identification with discerned elements is still limiting the true capacity of the attention; to recognize its own divine nature, permeating all manifest phenomena.
So we must practice but not identify. Explore and strengthen the embodied experience, but recognize the transcendent Self, the Spirit that is the source and seat of All.
Experience = Awareness. Awareness is not a thing, it is not differentiated, who is aware?
Advaita: Not Two.
Michael Maso Ellis
Self-Inquiry: Attending to Oneself.
But where do we start? Perhaps the reality is that we can only achieve what the context allows us to. In this way are futures are pinned to the context we operate from. Does it not make sense then to really understand the context we are in first, and then decide on a course of action?
What if we think about the self as a context? Transforming the self transforms the context...
Where are you at?
Just stop what you're doing. Just stop and sit and watch what happens. Where does your attention go immediately? What is 10 meters from you to your right? And your left? What can you hear? What are you doing, what mission are you on?
Focus your attention on your breath. What did you notice? How do you feel? How do you feel about how you feel? Does your experience feel like your own? Is it valuable to you?
By giving attention to these things we show ourselves that it is important to us. Indeed, we are attending to ourselves on a very basic level.
Self-Inquiry is the practice of using the personal experience as a lens to contemplate reality. The very idea of this brings up some pretty big questions about what the point of life is at all. Many people will say that self inquiry is a selfish waste of time and achieves nothing. But that is their opinion, and we have the right to our own. Informed opinions are more effective than the opposite, so perhaps we should give it a try and then make up our own minds...
Ongoing practices of self inquiry have many significant effects, a few key ones include: an improved
sense of self worth, and a deepened sense of the relationship between our internal forces and their effects on our life. We learn about these correspondences through direct experience. By extension, our experience changes with this awareness. With effective practice, this effect will be positive and empowering, giving access to deeper personal resources.
There are several major dimensions of the experience of the self, including: thoughts, emotions, sensations and our experience of space and time. All of these are available for contemplation and transformation. Such practice deepens and refines our experience of these dimensions, enriching and transforming us over time. The direction our practice takes us, and the shape we become is determined by what and how we practice.
The basic tool for inquiry is our attention. Training the attention then, is the first point of call in self-inquiry. Inherent in this is the experience of the present moment, because focusing is by its very nature an act of being present. Just like any tool, we get better at using it over time. Another way to say this is that it gets sharper.
As we sharpen our attention, using our selves as the material of practice, we increase and consolidate our consciousness into an ever more present experience of ourselves. We grow in our ability to affect ourselves, inoculating against unwanted outside pressure, and improving our ability to discern the nature of influences on us. In this way we become liberated from the confusion of the many complicated and competing forces of the modern world.
As this process deepens, we will encounter dormant and powerful forces within. We must find a way to transmute these forces through expression and awareness, into the lessons of life that connect us to the sense of meaning that carries us through our challenges. If we have the time to accept these experiences of ourselves, we will have expanded and grown closer to our true nature. As we reach out and share our story, we contribute our thread to the wider weave of the human experience, all the more authentically because of our practice.
By this process of compassion for the full range of our experiences, we develop the ability to appreciate and have empathy for the experiences of others. We learn about the human experience through our own humanity.
Michael Maso Ellis