Clare Walters January 2019. Inspired by Richard Rohr.
A milking stool has 3 legs, it is a useful image to illustrate different and equally important facets to personal development. These can be termed waking up, growing up and shaping up. If we plant each of these legs firmly in the ground of presence we have a stable base and are dependably supported to offer a safe, loving and open space for others.
Waking up happens in an instant. It is that epiphany when we see things from a clear perspective beyond the personal and in the context of the infinite whole. It is a gaze from which we gain insight into ourselves and our own predicament and see the world objectively rather than through the lens of our own fears, prejudices and needs.
It can be achieved by deliberately moving our focus from the inner chatter of the thinking mind to that which this chatter is happening within.
Our moments of being awake tend to be rare and elusive, our focus quickly returns to the narrower perspective of our thoughts or we switch off altogether and mindlessly react to our impulses and feelings. For most of us it requires a dedicated meditation practice to build from isolated instances of awakening to a state where it is the norm. There are other exercises that will be of benefit and it is very helpful to have a teacher alongside to guide, support and challenge us.
When we are awake we are observant of ourselves and can make conscious and deliberate choices about how we act. However, much of the time we live our lives on automatic, driven by our basic human desires, fears and needs and react unconsciously to stimuli.
Our reactions are like computer programmes that have been installed in our unconscious ‘fast brain’. Most have been inherited or acquired as a result of experiences in early life and, unexamined, they continue to influence our thoughts and behaviours throughout our lives.
For instance: we may have learned that dogs can jump out and bite us, so we developed an instinctive reaction of recoiling in fear when we see one; we may have learned to placate people who made us feel disempowered and helpless when we were small and now, as adults, this habit remains hard to break or we may have learned to hold back from intimacy because once when we were open and vulnerable with someone and we got hurt.
These reactions are ultimately driven by fear: we are not safe to be our free, spontaneous, trusting, loving selves so we pull back and protect ourselves. They are instant and unconscious, driven by our primitive, fast or lower brain, sending us into a shocked state characterised by freezing, flopping, fighting or fleeing. While in shock our awareness is temporarily numbed and we are not in conscious control of ourselves. In order to fully recover we must first integrate the experience, this brings us back to a calm state where we can once again ‘feel ourselves’. After mild or familiar stimuli this may happen automatically in seconds. After a larger shock we must first repeatedly talk about, replay, dream about and contemplate on the memory and we will eventually find peace. Some experiences are so overwhelming that we are unable to integrate them and we either shut down the memory entirely, burying in deep in our unconscious, or we continue to brood on it endlessly, repeatedly evoking the negative, fearful emotions. We reach a chronic state of dis-ease.
Whatever the speed of recovery from a reaction we are unlikely to have addressed its root cause: the programmes in our unconscious hard drive, so we remain prone to repeating the fear response should we encounter a similar stimulus in the future. There are times when these reactions are appropriate and potentially life-saving, but most of them do not serve us but hinder our efforts to be present, considered and proportionate in our responses.
Growing up involves drawing these unconscious programmes and the experiences that gave rise to them into the conscious so they can be explored, understood and put into context. We can then take time to contemplate on early, painful or fearful memories from a safer, more loving and free perspective and this begins to resolve and disarm them. The practice of Focussed Mindfulness gives us the tools to do this.
We can learn to recognise when an unconscious programme is running because it evokes an uncomfortable emotional response we can locate and feel in our bodies. By sitting and holding our awareness on this feeling the memory at its root will often come to our conscious mind and we can use one of several exercises to begin a healing process. As we become increasingly free from our unconscious triggers we find it easier to abide within our bodies and be our conscious selves.
If we have had a strongly traumatic experience in the past the emotions and reactions associated are potentially overpowering and could continually re-traumatise us. The unconscious puts protective strategies in place to prevent this from happening so we can continue to function in life. One strategy is to deeply bury the memory so it is not easily accessed, another is to overlie it with other programmes that prevent it from being triggered. These may drive us to: keep busy; be angry or dramatic; focus on intellectual activities or numb ourselves out with food, inertia, physical activity, alcohol, drugs or sex. They can become life-long, habitual strategies of avoidance.
Focussed Mindfulness makes us more aware of these avoidance strategies and over time we can work to uncover and reconcile the trauma beneath. This is a process that the unconscious usually controls and will only allow when it feels safe enough. It is important to respect this process and meet it with kindness and humility, allowing ourselves and others to work at their own pace.
As we become increasing aware of our feelings and reactions and confident that we have the tools to support us we can deliberately choose not to act on an impulse to adopt an avoidance strategy. This may allow us to access the protected emotions and associated memories and begin the work of reconciliation and healing.
The third leg of the stool is a healthy body that supports our emotional and spiritual development. We can achieve this through a healthy diet, strengthening and suppling exercise, increasing our level of fitness, massage and physical therapies that release tension held in the body, a good balance of rest and activity and, perhaps most important, a mindful awareness of our potentially sabotaging behaviours.
Balancing the three legs of the stool
We are on a path where the general direction of travel is towards deeper awareness of ourselves in the context of the infinite whole, greater physical ease and abiding compassion for ourselves and others: we are becoming more present in our lives. We will adopt different practices, health regimes and models of understanding as we go along, we will be inspired by books, talks and teachers and fellow travellers along the way. There will be times when we focus singularly on one leg of the stool at time and we may put our practice down for a while and simply live the change and there will be times when life throws up challenges and the path will feel far from direct. Once we have a taste for the rewards of living a conscious life there is no going back. Over time we will build the strength of each leg of the stool and find ourselves more and more planted in loving presence. This is the prayer I have for us all.
©Absolute Specialists 2019. Please attribute this work to me when you quote it or share it. Thank you.