A life spent in denial of Reality embeds us in reactive habits of pain and addiction. For instance, when we do not acknowledge our feelings, we may reactively eat for comfort. Not facing tensions in a relationship can lead to fear of arguments or anger at disagreements. Seeking escape from the discomforts of life may trap us in patterns of drinking, drugs, or compulsive sexual activity.
The deeper, more core sense of self notices our suffering and compulsive behavior. This is not the part of us that judges everything we observe and mentally comments in ways that leave us feeling diminished and anguished. The intimate witness simply notices, moving from each experience to the next without comment, attachment, rejection, or attitude. The intimate witness is present with everything that arises. It brings us into Presence with the reality of our experiences, our actions, our thoughts, and the world.
In everyday life we act as though our reactive, habitual ideas are real. We react to family and friends as if we know who they are and what they are likely to say and do. The sword of our attention as intimate witness cuts through this shroud of assumed reality and helps us look freshly at situations, people, things -- and, of course, ourselves.
The task is not to rid ourselves of those parts that produce painful feelings and undesirable behaviors. It is not to exorcise some demonic element within, but to recognize that all of these feelings are energies of our aliveness seeking expression and wanting to accomplish something on behalf of our being, in the service of our soul.
In other words, we do not renounce our sensory life -- the life of the body, emotions, and mind -- but rather notice how we make ourselves unhappy and get stuck in reactive habits. By examining our experience as it is happening, with the quality of affirmative Presence, we reveal not only the structure and nature of those habits of mind, but also the deeper nature or context within which all these phenomena arise. We also discover how the process of thinking and feeling arises, operates, and dissolves.
As we penetrate the surface reactions, getting to the underlying structure of fears and longings, we expose the entire system of archaic beliefs to authentic Presence. We allow all our reactive fears and angers to emerge in the context of our Presence as well as all the qualities of love, peace, and generosity that make up our fundamental wisdom nature. This wisdom nature resonates as a core truth about what our life really wants to express and manifest. These qualities of aliveness are worth cultivating and are the gifts of Presence we want to bring to the world.
For example, when a friend says to me, "I am disappointed by what you just did," my first reaction may be to become angry and try to explain and justify what I have done. This is my reactive habit body.
If I examine my response more closely, I see that my anger, which seems so real and appropriate, is a defensive reaction based on a chain of fears. These may range from the fear of being judged as stupid, to feeling alone, to feeling that I am not good enough, to feeling that I could die without any support, cut off from everyone who matters. As I look at these fears, I realize that they may not make intellectual sense, but they feel true and thus I attribute "reality" to them as threats.
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In my efforts to explain my actions, I see that I have a longing to be understood. I hope that, if others understand me, I will feel connected. I realize that my longing for connection and belonging seems like the solution to the problem of my fears.
Continuing my inquiry, I see that these fears and longings are projections and assumptions I bring to situations and are not inherently there. I understand that they arise out of reactive impulses rather than true perceptions of reality. From this space of not knowing, I pursue the inquiry to find a ground that would allow me to encounter the world more openly and honestly. This requires that I continue to strip away the layers of conceptual identities, emotions, and reactive ideas that all depend on whether I like or dislike the events of my life.
Finally, I arrive at a state that is open, unconditional, and can host all ideas, feelings, and events but is not caused by them. My attention can rest in that sacred dimension of awareness, which is like a mirror, unaltered by the images reflected in it. In this state, I am resting in my wisdom nature.
From this sense of being grounded in wisdom nature, I can now listen to my friend's statement of disappointment with a sense of connection to her, of caring for her, and a sense that we are having a living encounter. Now there is aliveness, energy, and the possibility of deepening our manifest connection. I can relate to the other person not simply through my reactive emotions but with the sense of being fully present with her. Our relationship becomes free rather than defensive, open rather than needy, and authentic rather than pretentious.
Discovery Through Fear
As reactive habits, emotional reactions, and compulsive thoughts arise in daily life, greet them with YES. Allow your being to say "yes" to each experience, thought, and feeling. Our YES connects us directly with what is actually occurring now. We are intimate with our current situation, experiences, feelings, thoughts, and sensations. This intimate relationship is immediate and direct. We become intimate with Reality.
The point is not to get rid of our fears but to show up with all that we are, including the long-lost parts that seek expression through our fears. Fears are distress flares sent into an overcast sky. Fears wait for a truly attentive mind to penetrate the fog and discover the shipwrecked beings of our soul, whose vibrant presence finally brings clear light to what had been endless haze. Through the inquiry process of discovering our wisdom Presence, we come to know where to find the realm of joy, peace, and freedom.
Energy of Aliveness
The trapped energy -- the charge -- of our reactive emotions is drawn into our sense of Presence when we meet our experiences and the world with YES. We reclaim this energy of aliveness in the very process of making an intimate relationship with Reality.
When we experience anger, for example, our entire body and sense of being becomes alert, focused, and energized. However, the life force of anger is either directed out at others or inward at ourselves. We experience only the anger not our own presence. The energy is wasted.
If we are consciously present and meeting both the world and our intense feelings with a sense of our own presence, we then experience how alive we feel. We can then separate this sense of aliveness from the thoughts that made us angry. The energy of Now enhances our sense of Presence in an open and connected way.
When we are fully present with the suffering of others, their pains, joys, and aliveness touch our hearts and break us open. Including the reality and livingness of others in our hearts expresses our interconnectedness. The boundaries between self and other become permeable, allowing the conditions of others in and our caring energies out.
Rebirth in Aliveness
We die and are reborn in this practice of YES as Presence. We face our deepest fears, our most addictive habits, and our most compulsive wants. These elements of our reactive habit body of denial have kept us from the experience of living life as it is. They shroud us in a kind of death, even as we are haunted by the fear of death. YES takes us into death with the Presence of aliveness. In the process, our reactive habit body dies and we are reborn into our authentic aliveness.
We now inhabit our body more fully, feel our emotions without resistance, see others for who they are, and experience being engaged and connected. It is similar to the catharsis we can feel at the conclusion of an intense bout of the flu. When we recover, we feel fresh and delighted in our own vitality. Our aliveness wants to get out in the world and to dance.
Just Don't Know
Life is filled with complexity, ambiguity, conflicting feelings and desires, and paradox. There is always more going on than we can know and think about. The actions of others and of the larger forces in society are beyond our control and comprehension. The right course of action is often not clear. We have feelings of love, sadness, anger, and fear in relation to the same person. We want to be closer and more independent. We want to make more money, work less, go out with friends, do more spiritual practice, and spend more time with family. We want more than the limitations of the world and life permit.
The path of YES as Presence does not try to understand and resolve all these phenomena, options, and desires. Rather we simply affirm that they are all true. We affirm the unknown and not knowing. We affirm all actions and forces even those we cannot control or under-stand. We affirm our confusion. We affirm that we have many different feelings and that we are not consistent. We affirm all the various desires of what we want as simply what is true about our desires. We meet all these with YES. In that meeting, everything then feeds our sense of Presence and intensifies our aliveness. This affirmation through Presence can mend the tear we feel in our relationship with life, the world, and God.
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About the Author
Martin D. Lowenthal, Ph.D., is the Director of the Dedicated Life Institute and co-author of Opening the Heart of Compassion. In addition to conducting retreats internationally, he serves as a pastoral counselor, meditation teacher, trainer, consultant, and executive coach. He has been on the faculty at Boston College and taught at Harvard University. He has studied with Buddhist and Taoist Masters for more than thirty years. For more info, visit www.dli.org.