"When I look inside and see that I am nothing, that is wisdom. When I look outside and see that I am everything, that is love. And between these two, my life turns."
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
As I type these words, I am in my office in downtown Redding on a sunny Sunday in April. It is seventy degrees. I have my IPod on shuffle and at the moment Bare Naked Ladies are singing about Angry People, how we drag others down “until they’re just like us.”
I should be happy but I’m not.
Just outside my ground floor office is a sidewalk, separated by a floor to ceiling, wall to wall window. Approximately fifteen feet to my left, comes the relentless grinding and rolling sound of skateboard wheels on concrete as four young men engage in an activity I never understood.
Back and forth they go, their wheels click-clacking over the sidewalk cracks, punctuated with occasional, rude, crashing noises as they leap and magically flip their boards in the air and somehow land back on the board and sidewalk and keep on rolling. Over and over until it sounds like some weird demolition project is underway, as if muscled men with sleeveless t-shirts are beating the hell out of the sidewalk with menacing, metal sledgehammers.
And after an hour of this, and quite suddenly, they pick up their boards and fold into an unremarkable, white sedan and vanish, leaving the particular, sweet silence that attends to moments like this. I feel like the dentist just stopped drilling and smiled and said “I’m all done!” Immense relief floods into me and I feel tranquility return.
Anger and resentment. We all have it to one degree or another. For some it seems to spring out of nowhere while for others we carefully nurse and nurture it into full bloom with our thoughts. I didn’t “want” the unwelcome noise and distraction of skaters outside my window but if my decades as a psychotherapist have taught me anything, it is how useless it is to not want something that I can’t get rid of. Accept it or change it. Those are my only options. It is especially foolish to refuse to accept what I’m unwilling or unable to change. That will never work and it ends up increasing my suffering.
Back in August of 2008, I was nearly killed while waiting for the light to change. I was zoning out as I sat on my 50cc Yamaha Vino Scooter, staring at the Dodge ram horn emblem on the back of a pickup truck when suddenly, behind me, from where I could not see, I heard the unwelcome sound of screeching, braking tires. My next memory was the sound of screaming before someone came to my aid and my screaming stopped.
A Chevy Avalanche, traveling about 40 miles per hour, scored a direct hit on that ram horn emblem, with me as the meat in that metal sandwich. As I lay crumpled on my twisted little scooter seconds later, I felt strangely peaceful and wondered why my arms were scrunched up above me; my shattered wrists hanging limp and useless while a man I couldn’t see prayed words I can’t recall. As he stumbled away to throw up, another man came forward to inform me that my left femur was protruding from my thigh while my blood was generously flowing over my scooter and Oasis Road. “Don’t look,” he said, “Just don’t look.” I didn’t know it then but numerous transverse processes in my lower back were broken along with a couple ribs on my right side while I comforted myself with hopeful thoughts like “I’m alive” and “It all gets better from here.”
Weeks later I was able to “walk” with the aid of an upright, wheeled walker and had rolled out back of my house to visit with one of my friends who was kindly unloading and stacking firewood. At one point he turned from the woodpile and made a comment I never forgot. Looking at my broken body, he shook his head and said, “Wouldn’t you love to get a few friends together and beat the hell out of the guy that did that to you?”
At first I did not know how to respond. I paused for a few seconds, my mind searching its files for an appropriate response. I finally just said, “No, I don’t think I’d enjoy that.” The truth is I had not thought a lot about him, the unlicensed, homeless, 20-year-old man behind the wheel of an unregistered truck he had borrowed. My main focus was on getting well, overcoming my relentless, physical pain and refusing to let this incident define me. Truthfully, I was scared I might not mentally recover. Just how fragile was my mind? That was my deepest fear. The terror of that possibility did not allow me to waste energy on hating someone I did not know for doing something I did not understand.
It is hard to be a human I’ve noticed. It’s like we all got stranded here and can’t remember why. Why was I born? Why were you? How did you get here? Who sent you? What is your purpose? How come we didn’t get manuals? Why does it all have to be so mysterious? Why is life stressful? Why do we have problems? Why do we fight with one another? Why do we have trouble seeing eye to eye?
I just purchased a book from Amazon. It’s my addiction. Purchasing books. I don’t read them all but I have to keep buying them. This one I’ll read. I got it today and I’ve already started. It is Shift into Freedom, The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness by Loch Kelly.
Kelly starts off by explaining that our minds are like primitive operating systems that worked well when we lived in caves thousands of generations ago. But in the modern era, this caveman mind is one of our greatest threats. He writes, “If we are going to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century, we must consciously participate in evolving and upgrading our own operating system. Effective tools of awareness are very much needed now if we are to preserve our planet and create a sustainable quality of life for all people.”
If we look around us, perhaps in our own personal experience, but certainly in the larger world of politics, media and commerce, we notice the rage. People are angry. Why is that? Why are people so angry with other people? Why do we hate so much? If you ask anyone why they’re angry, they’ll likely blame someone else. It’s their fault. Is that true? If I’m angry, is someone else to blame?
Kelly tells us the solution is to not blame others for our discontent but to look within. He states it does not work to blame or seek to change others and it does not help to simply soothe the angry mind. This will not bring us peace. Not for long. Wellbeing, he claims, “is not found by calming the mind, changing our thoughts, or adjusting our attitudes, but by actually shifting into a level of mind that is already calm and alert.”
In other words, we need to wake up to who we really are and why we’re here. Like sleepers waking from a dream, our first task is to “wake up from our mistaken identity.” From there, we “wake-in” to our body and emotions and “wake-out” to relationships with others and see “that we are part of a greater whole.” This process of open-hearted awareness is “the next stage of human development.”
In my practice, when it feels appropriate, I seek to assist my clients to understand who they are. We are not our bodies, personalities, thoughts or feelings. We are not our brains. We are not our minds. We have all these things. We possess them. We make use of them but that’s not who we are. Who are we? We are awareness. That is who we are. You, me and everyone we know. Each of us is a point of awareness that is temporarily clothed within the human form.
Our problem is that we are not aware of our awareness. We do not see that which sees. We do not notice that which notices. When we wake up to self as awareness, we are no longer who we thought we were. Kelly writes, “When our basic awareness is revealed to be the foundation of both how we know and who we are, we can call it ‘awake awareness.’”
And when we operate from this “new” place, everything changes. There is a clear difference between operating out of our thinking mind and stepping out of thought and into awareness. “We can learn,” Kelly tells us, “how to shift out of our thought-based mind and into an awareness-based way of knowing.
“Then, from awareness-based knowing, we can embody, connect, and welcome all experience. The feeling of embodied, awareness-based knowing is similar to being in a flow state, being in the zone, being in love, doing selfless service, or laughing with close friends. It is being so fully alive in the now that you ‘forget yourself.’”
Most of us struggle with problems most of the time. Some of our problems are simple. We are hungry so we eat or we are tired and we sleep. But many of us worry about bigger issues like money, relationships or politics that are not easily solved. All of this occupies our minds and triggers us emotionally. Where is “awake awareness” while this process unfolds? When we identify with our ego, we seldom feel content for long. Kelly suggests that many of us struggle with “a sense of underlying dissatisfaction that leads to craving and aversion.” We seek to change what we cannot accept. We become a “problem-solver.” And as we continually identify ourselves as a person with problems, we are never at peace.
How to escape? Kelly suggests we seek to shift out of our “mistaken problem-solver identity” for a moment by asking a simple question. Ask the question and then pay attention. Here is the question: “What is here now if there is no problem to solve?”
While you sit with the question, “Rest and remain alert to who or what is experiencing.”
And then ask, “Who is here? What is aware? What is here when there is nowhere to go and nothing to do? Nothing to know or create or become? What is here, just now, when you are not the problem solver?”
Who or what are you when you are not thinking about who or what you are? What is that deep peace that supports and holds you? How limitless is it? Sink into it now and see. We can spend our whole life unaware of awareness as we lose ourselves in the thicket of our restless, thinking minds. Or we can wake up. If we want. It’s our choice.