I wanted to talk about awakening. This gets understood and applied in lots of different ways but a common way of understanding it is that we have a moment where we fully detach from the perception that we have a separate, permanent self. The outcome of this is that it gives us a much stronger capacity to move out of the reactive cycle of behaviour that plagues humans and causes a lot of individual suffering.
I have a unique, scientific theory on how this happens. The states of no-self and impermanence can only be understood by the heart, not the mind. Struggle with life, or suffering, comes from having a closed heart – it causes separation between us and life, which is painful, so we resist accepting life as it is.
In order to achieve awakening, we develop our meditative concentration and focus on observing impermanence, no-self or suffering. By doing this we are naturally dropping further into our hearts and taking our awareness out of our minds. At some point, if we can put enough of our awareness onto these things it requires us to be entirely in our heart-space, our minds blink out for a short period in a cessation and it’s like a brain reset.
Our hearts have reclaimed a bit of territory from our minds and provided we don’t go back into an unsafe environment, where we will relearn to go back into our minds and our sympathetic nervous systems, then we will use our hearts and our parasympathetic nervous systems to engage with receiving this type of information from now on.
At some point we develop the capacity to keep our heart open to all these things while we are in a meditative state – no-self, impermanence and struggle – and it gives us the moment where we detach from our sense of having a permanent, separate self.
I have observed that the physiological outcome of this in me is that I am much less likely to kick into my sympathetic nervous system, which is what makes us feel like we are in opposition to life. Buddhist philosophy is about ending the reactive cycle and being in our sympathetic nervous system is what causes us to be reactive.
These days, most people think of meditation as something we do with our minds rather than our hearts, but as someone who achieved this type of awakening within a few months of starting meditating, you can decide whether you want to trust me when I tell you that it comes from cultivating an open heart.
Our hearts have five different inherent states, with which we use to interact with the different parts of our experience and this adds up to how we respond to our environment as a whole. These parts of our experience are:
When we perceive that we are unsafe in the world, our sympathetic nervous system kicks in and we react automatically, like taking our hand away from the flame. We do this all the time without realising it, whenever we are angry or irritated by someone, we are going into fight or flight in some small way.
When we are reactive these are some of the different responses that we have:
- Environment – contraction
- Body – neediness, pushiness (commonly referred to as sensual desire and restlessness in Buddhism)
- Heart – doubt, ignorance
- Mind – anger, irritation, disgust
- Soul – venting, conceit, ill will, jealousy
When we have access to our heart states, we are in a non-reactive state. Rather than perceiving information and immediately reacting to keep ourselves safe, we are open to receiving life.
Buddhism describes four inherent heart states, which allow us access to different ways of perceiving life. I have included the ways in which I feel these are commonly understood in our modern culture. These are:
- Body – Compassion – we can be understanding about everything
- Heart – Equanimity – we can be chill about everything
- Mind – Loving kindness – we can be nice to people, even when they are angry with us
- Soul – Sympathetic joy – we can be happy about anything
Seeing That Freeze
When we are at risk, we subconsciously assess the situation and within a few milliseconds decide whether to go into fight, flight or freeze.
If the menacing force is something you potentially have the power to defeat, you go into fight mode. If you view it as too powerful to overcome, your impulse is to outrun it. Once the risk has passed your body lets go of the adrenaline and you can go back to your parasympathetic, or more relaxed, nervous system.
However, if you see that you can do neither of these things, you freeze.
Freeze is a trauma response where time slows down and there is much less fear and pain in our experience. It is common in children, who receive abuse from adults, and women who are sexually or physically abused by men.
But like fight or flight, it also happens to all of us in small ways all the time. Whenever we are in opposition with someone and perceive that we can’t get away or defeat them, our bodies do a small freeze response.
When we freeze, we stop our capacity to process the situation. We check out of our experience. This response stays in our bodies, and in order to keep ourselves safe we turn the script of the abuser in on ourselves. For example, if a scary school teacher was always telling us that we are terrible at writing, we will start telling ourselves this. We can’t get away from the threat or defeat them, so the best thing to do is to absorb the threat into our beings and belief system. We start telling ourselves that we are terrible at writing. We take it on, so that we are no longer in opposition with the world – we are at one with it.
When the abuse is physical, we just stop visiting that part of our body.
This has developed because rejection from the tribe used to be the most dangerous thing, so we have learned to avoid this at all costs. It is better to hate ourselves, allow abuse and be included than to stand up for ourselves and be rejected by people.
When we have been in a freeze response either physically or mentally, even after the event has passed, it will stay inside of us until we are able to revisit and reprocess the experience. Anxiety, OCD, panic and fear are all symptoms of freeze responses that never had the chance to ‘thaw out’, once the original experience or experiences was over. PTSD directly relates to this kind of unrectified trauma.
This trauma is the biggest thing that stops us from being in our hearts. If there is enough of it in our experience, our minds go into a constant state of fear and control, where we resist our own experience of the world. Our minds tell us that we are wrong in order to keep us safe.
Hierarchy and Systemic Oppression
When we are in our hearts we have the capacity to meet life and each other, to understand everyone’s emotional and physical needs and come to shared understandings of a situation. There is no hierarchy, we are all in it together.
When we are not in our hearts, there are winners and losers. The strongest or most powerful person gets the most say of how things run and the people lower down the hierarchy have to suck it up. People are biting their tongues and holding back their natural responses, which is causing them to go into small freeze states all the time.
If meditation is about something we do with our minds and awakening is about how we perceive things, then it is inherently enforcing this systemic oppression. Those who have power over others get to decide what reality is and dictate it onto those with less power.
One of the things that is worth mentioning here is that if you are a white man you may not realise that women and minority ethnic groups spend a huge amount of their energy on appeasing the system and fitting in with it. Their reality is being denied and oppressed by the system because the dominant culture gets to decide what is true.
As animals, in any conflict situation we are always subconsciously aware of who would be able to win in a fight. Even in a small disagreement at work, women will be aware that they can’t afford to escalate a situation as men usually hold far more power than them. It is much safer for women to bite their tongue, hold back and freeze their reaction, than to speak up and be honest if they are in disagreement to a man.
These dynamics, of the dominant culture enforcing the truth and those with more power using it to take up more space is reflected in every religion and spiritual tradition throughout history, as well as every culture around the world.
How Does This Interact with Awakening?
These freeze states stop us from being able to relax into experience.
A lot of awakening and meditation talks about seeing things as they are accepting reality as it really is. Or about being able to perceive some ultimate truth, which can allow us to be non-reactive to our environment and live happy or peaceful lives where we aren’t adding to the human suffering in the world.
Quite frankly, this wasn’t enough for me. If you see things clearly, then the world fucking sucks at the moment and if we want it to not suck, we need to show up and actively help each other heal from our individual and collective trauma.
We live in a patriarchy and this manifests even down to the depths of how we experience our day to day lives. We believe that the things we achieve or how we behave in the external world is more important than how we feel in life. How a situation is perceived is more valid than our emotional responses.
We have sacrificed our emotional and physical wellbeing in the name of hard work. Some amazing things have emerged from this: great scientific discoveries, technological leaps forward and industrial inventions, which all save us huge amounts of time and energy and can keep us physically safe against the harshness of nature.
The trouble is, neglecting our emotional wellbeing has traumatised us as a collective, as individuals and as a planet. We have fucked ourselves over in order to increase our productivity.
This has gone too far. We don’t need any more productivity, we have plenty of resources, while our children are too anxious to leave the house, adults are suffering from chronic stress and depression and our planet is fucked.
In order to heal from trauma, we need to connect with our inner worlds.
A lot of modern meditation practice is the spiritual equivalent of the patriarchal mindset. The idea that if we can see things on the outside ‘as they really are’ then we can detach from our inner worlds and emotional responses and the ways in which we struggle against the world.
Cultivating mindfulness and connecting with the heart states of kindness, equanimity, sympathetic joy and compassion is all about how we perceive the world, not about how we feel on the inside.
I didn’t want to surrender to a world in which things like systemic oppression and climate disaster exist. I don’t believe in the idea that checking out and allowing things to take their course through karma is a particularly helpful response to life any more.
We don’t necessarily have to see life as a threat, but in my world-view we do have to give a shit. There had been too many examples in life where me showing up had changed the course of history and made a positive impact. I believed in my capacity to make change and be aligned with my environment.
This belief had first arisen when I experienced the deeply transformative experience of journeying in and offering love and compassion to the parts of myself that I deemed least acceptable. Through this process, it transformed those parts of me from something that I resisted, into something that could serve my heart’s intentions. I was no longer afraid to cry, thinking that it was somehow ‘bad’ and resisting it any way that I could, even if that meant being angry at myself or others. It was a beautiful expression of valid emotions that I was feeling in a moment.
This made me think, what if we could do this to every part of ourselves. Offer every single bad or painful or rejected part of ourselves love so that we could bring our entire being into the light and trust completely in our inherent goodness.
It was no doubt going to be really difficult. If you’ve never done it before, opening up to a part of yourself that is completely in shadow is one of the most terrifying and painful experiences in life, but the sense of release and lightness you get afterwards is lovely. This sounded like the kind of enlightenment I could get on board with, so that became my mission.
I did a lot of shadow work therapy, which focused on releasing physical trauma, and got interested in Jung. He was the first psychologist to suggest that even extreme mental health issues, like psychosis were an expression of a valid understanding of the world. It’s just that the person suffering from it was opening to collective information that we normally shut out or they had trauma that had caused them to shut down so thoroughly that their experiences had reached a boiling point and were being expressed and understood in usual ways. As part of his research, he himself had a seven year period of psychosis where he was opening to the collective consciousness and journeying down into the underworld of the archetypal and intuitive ways in which we understand the world.
By the time I came to meditation, I had become a pro at holding space for myself, offering love to the different parts of my experience and bringing them up to the light. This included mental, physical and archetypal or collective trauma. Every time I did this I took a part of myself that I was rejecting as bad, and reclaimed it by touching it with my heart. I was then able to use it as part of a pure and wholesome expression of my being without any resistance.
Let’s just say that getting to the bottom of all human suffering and touching every part of shadow within myself with compassionate love was a lot harder than I expected.
By the time my awakening had got into full swing I was smashed with an insane amount of collective and shared trauma that we all hold. Things like the belief that we expect women to be perfectly caring because our lives as babies relied on our mother’s (and all the mother’s through our evolutionary history) capacities to do that. Things like the fact that we disassociate with our bodies when we are washing because it was unpleasant as a baby to be washed by someone else. Things like our entire bone structure holds deep trauma from having to change so quickly as we evolved to our environments.
I had reached a state of awakening where my heart was fully open. I had detached from a normal timeline of experience where we have a fixed self and was present in only this moment. It was a completely different state of consciousness and way of being in and experiencing the world.
Hearts are natural healers – when we allow our heart to touch things, it transforms and heals them and I was just a big open heart with no filter on it, so my entire body became a trauma processing machine. Churning through all the layers of physical, mental and archetypal internal struggle in the collective conscious.
There was no way to stop it. I have written lots about this, so let’s just say that eventually I got to the bottom.
Having now come out of the other side, it is quite a magical experience to be having. I almost never see myself as in opposition to the world and am fully in touch with my deepest emotions, intuitions and desires. I have cleared myself so thoroughly of trauma that I feel absolute confidence in my expressions of being. I know that they are inherently good.
I have also waded through every bit of shit that stops us being in this state, so I am able to fully love other people as well.
I trust in the inherent goodness of the collective and feel that I am able to meet people where they are and take time to help them untangle the things that stop them from feeling safe enough to express their true heart’s intentions. Sometimes this means having healthy boundaries with people or being very direct and honest. Deep down in our hearts, we don’t want to be placated or lied to, we appreciate honest and heart-felt expressions of truth.
This brings me to how my perception of the heart states differs to the Buddhist perception. It is not my belief that we need to learn to accept our environments so that we can become perfectly non-reactive. It is my belief that we need to develop a balanced acceptance of our world and our selves, one in which we feel free to express our inner most desires in a way that is healthy and helpful.
The heart states that I embody are similar to the Buddhist ones, but there is more of an active element to them. We are taking what is inside of ourselves and expressing it out in the world, as much as we are accepting the world around us.
We are finding a way in each moment to bring both what we desire most and what we experience together in a beautiful expressionate dance.
These are the heart states that include our inner world as something that is inherently being expressed and wants to be brought to life through the Universe:
- Environment – Gratitude – Feeling safe and like we can take a moment to appreciate things
- Body – Compassion – Giving a shit about ourselves and the people around us
- Heart – Joy – Connecting with our experience in an open, heartful way
- Mind – Friendliness – Taking an active interest in the situation
- Soul – Inclusion – Finding ways to include that which is oppressed or not included
By taking the suffering all the way to the bottom, I have created a space in the world in which the inherent goodness of a human heart is undeniable. All our hopes and desires and fears and lust and passion and stress and heart-ache and rage undisputably come from a sincere wish for ourselves and others to be happy and well. It’s just that life is hard, and brains are dumb, so we get tangled up and act in stupid ways that are not always productive and are sometimes harmful to others.
With this understanding of the world, it no longer becomes necessary for anyone to attain any kind of enlightenment. I’m not sure I even know what enlightenment is any more. I see it as a process I went through rather than a state I’ve achieved.
The belief in our inherent goodness gives me the freedom to see the world and people, including myself, for what we all are – whole beings that don’t need to be perfect.
We don’t need to learn how to hold ourselves back and become able to sit on cushions for hours on end not reacting to the world around us. Why do that when we could learn how to become amazing beings that have whole lives of rich shared experience, where we are loved and are working on things that we are passionate about and helping people – this is what all our hearts want.
Awakening can become about how we can open our hearts to both the truth of our inner experience and the world around us. We can trust that our emotions and feelings are valid. Even if they have been traumatised and pushed down to the shadows so are expressing in ways that don’t feel good. By offering them love we can bring them up in to the light, learn to accept these parts of ourselves and use them in ways that are beautiful and helpful.
Being reactive and choosing non-reaction is also an important part of this world view. Reactivity is important if our safety is at risk. If it’s not at risk, then making space to listen to the underlying emotions, without reacting is a really important and worthwhile thing to do.
If we can find ways that help us and others to connect with the world from our hearts in each moment, then we are doing the world a great service. This is how we will be able to heal from our collective trauma, enjoy the process of being alive a lot more, naturally take better care of each other and have the freedom to express ourselves.