(published in 2017)
Hello fellow cosmospolitans! Welcome to my personal blog.
I consider myself a generalist enamored of a few specific areas, enchanted where I find overlap between them. Currently the list
includes Zen Buddhism…Taoism…American Transcendentalism…Norse Mythology…Phenomenology…Internal Martial Arts…
… and, more broadly, somatics, movement, consciousness, neuroscience, embodiment, embodied cognition, and naturalism/paganism/animism/pantheism.
I am by no means an expert in any of these areas; grossly unqualified, in fact. I’m just a dude with unusual passions, motivated by a vision for a better future, trying to connect the dots along the Way.
I’ve always had a boundless reverence for the Mystery: Nature, the Universe, and Life. Step outside for a moment at night to gaze upon the stars, perhaps also allow for some existential reflection: what is the origin of the Universe? And how did that come into being? I don’t know… I hit a wall where all thinking is cut off, allowing pure experience to take its place.
Don’t know mind overcomes me as much now, stepping outside, as it did as a kid, before I ever heard of Shoshin; when, seated on the playground swings at night, leaning back, hands gripped to the suspended metal chains, legs kicked forward, I would take in the night stars with every back swing, soon to feel the rush of air from the ensuing forward swing.
Zen Buddhism (which is Taoism with a Buddhist face) holds that enlightenment is keeping this don’t know mind – this direct experiencing, devoid of a self-commenting medium – from moment to moment.1
Yet it is likely that, while still under the presence of the night sky, we disconnect from the still waters of our don’t know mind, due to the rippling forces of our thoughts: That work project tomorrow…; I want to eat something…; I should text back…; What should I watch… etc.
But why should the Cosmos connect us to the Mystery – to our don’t know mind – any more than our bodies? Why should the stars be any more enchanting than the trees? The ants? The piss and shit?
Recognizing we are the Mystery, and recognizing that what we are is a body, mind, and breath, I found myself devoting time each day to observe (i.e. in “meditation”) each of the Three Treasures: a minimum of 30 minutes for the body, 30 minutes for the breath, and 30 minutes for the mind – I shoot for twice this, so roughly three hours.
Articulating linguistically, with any refinement, the changes that have occurred as a result of this undertaking remains one of the most difficult challenges, if not an impossible one, as Nietzsche captures when he relates “we misread ourselves in this apparently most intelligible of handwriting on the nature of our self.”2
However, I have come across a number of passages which capture fragments of the essence of these changes, and will share a couple such passages below.
In The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness, neuroscientist Antonio Demasio writes:
Sometimes we use our minds not to discover facts, but to hide them. We use part of the mind as a screen to prevent another part of it from sensing what goes on elsewhere. The screening is not necessarily intentional — we are not deliberate obfuscators all of the time — but deliberate or not, the screen does hide.
One of the things the screen hides most effectively is the body, our own body, by which I mean the ins of it, its interiors. Like a veil thrown over the skin to secure its modesty, the screen partially removes from the mind the inner states of the body, those that constitute the flow of life as it wanders in the journey of each day.
The alleged vagueness, elusiveness, and intangibility of emotions and feelings are probably symptoms of this fact, an indication of how we cover the representation of our bodies, of how much mental imagery based on nonbody objects and events masks the reality of the body. Otherwise we would easily know that emotions and feelings are tangibly about the body. Sometimes we use our minds to hide a part of our beings from another part of our beings.3
The beautiful poet and science historian Diane Ackerman writes in A Natural History of the Senses:
There is no way in which to understand the world without first detecting it through the radar-net of our senses… Our senses define the edge of consciousness, and because we are born explorers and questors after the unknown, we spend a lot of our lives pacing that windswept perimeter: We take drugs; we go to circuses; we tramp through jungles; we listen to loud music; we purchase exotic fragrances; we pay hugely for culinary novelties, and are even willing to risk our lives to sample a new taste.4
. . .
Deep down, we know our devotion to reality is just a marriage of convenience, and we leave it to the seers, the shamans, the ascetics, the religious teachers, the artists among us to reach a higher state of awareness, from which they transcend our rigorous but routinely analyzing senses and become closer to the raw experience of nature that pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.
. . .
Our several senses, which feel so personal and impromptu, and seem at times to divorce us from other people, reach far beyond us. They’re an extension of the genetic chain that connects us to everyone who has ever lived; they bind us to other people and to animals, across time and country and happenstance. They bridge the personal and the impersonal, the one private soul with its many relatives, the individual with the universe, all of life on Earth.5
Again, the result of a Practice is a gestalt, whose unified whole cannot be verbally communicated, and whose parts can be, at best, only insufficiently articulated – some of those parts, I’ve found, are:
Of unmasking “the reality of the body,” to connect with “the flow of life as it wanders in the journey of each day.”
Of not using “our minds to hide a part of our beings from another part of our beings,” but rather using our minds for a transcendent, fiery union of every part of our beings with every other part of our beings.7
Of knowing we need not step an inch to explore that “windswept perimeter [of the unknown],” for the richest quests to the deepest depths lie within us.
Of having our “radar-net of our senses” attuned to that raw stream of nature that “pours into the unconscious, the world of dreams, the source of myth.”
Of reclaiming the far reach of our several senses, which bind us to “the universe [and] all of life on Earth.”
Of removing the screens that block us from becoming as human as possible, and in the process, realizing how sacred it is to be us, the Universe.
One can read all of the above, rationalize, and agree with it intellectually – one can arrive at a superficial understanding of their truth through mental faculties alone. But to know of their truth – to have a felt, embodied understanding – and to perennially fortify this embodied understanding in new ways, time after time, from lived visceral experiences is transformation, the essence of Practice.
So, there you have it, some of the “effects” my Practice has had on me; my Practice consisting mostly of an ancient Taoist tradition8, but also tools from other random somatic explorations (e.g. movement, FRC, Continuum, Stretch Therapy, Rolfing) – all of which can loosely be bucketed under the term “embodiment.”
Embodiment is a tricky word to define. The question “What is your definition of embodiment?” was posed to a community of body therapists and body psychotherapists by Courtenay Young, himself a prominent member thereof, eliciting many dozen responses, each I’ve found resonant in their own unique way. I highly encourage those interested to read the delightful discussion linked above.
I would describe embodiment as, quite literally, the process of going deeper into the body, layer by layer, as if peeling an onion. Although to interpret “going deeper into the body” in only a literal sense, as a synonym for interoception – i.e. consciously feeling (connecting to the sensory neurons of) the soft tissue, ligamentous, osseous, nervous, fluid, organ, and endocrine systems – is to miss out on the metaphor that gives meaning to such an endeavor. Your body is more than its physical structures: it is both your unconscious mind and the present moment.
If you follow that the body processes all of our experience, of which only a small subset we’ve held in our conscious awareness, then you can consider the body to be the unconscious mind, or at least a part of it.
Your mind can retreat to the past or project into the future; “your body and breath,” as Stretch Therapy founder Kit Laughlin eloquently puts it, “like all animals, [exist] only in the present. [Their sensations] are instant-to-instant phenomena, literally the unfolding present. This is why the body and its sensations are the recommended meditation objects.” When occupation with the mind’s thoughts and mental imagery subsides in favor of occupation with the body and all of its subtle, unfolding sensations, one becomes more grounded in the present moment; unattached to name and form, a still mind, like still water, mirrors precisely what is happening at the moment, and is able to perceive more clearly the mystery.
So the unwanting soul
sees what’s hidden,
and the ever-wanting soul
sees only what it wants. Daodejing, First Poem (trans. Ursula K. Le Guin)
To be “in your head” is a common expression meaning to think too much, to be overly ‘self’-conscious (i.e. identified with an illusion), unable to relax into the “wisdom of the unconscious,” and allow it to “take control of the body and conscious self,” to quote the forward of White Moon on the Mountain Peak, a book on the Taoist practice of Nei Dan, an alchemical meditation – and part of my Practice – which seeks to transmute its practitioners into residing in this “flow” state of spontaneous naturalness (i.e. the Tao) permanently.
Our bodies are not merely vessels for transporting our brains; they continually inform our minds of who we are, and vice versa in a feedback loop. Our personality – our habitual demeanor and attitude – is our pattern of responding to the emotional excitations of life. We develop a certain coping style or ego when confronted with uncomfortable feelings and impulses like anxiety, fear, anger, and sexuality, and we repeatedly wear it until it becomes a part of our identity. It is likely that external influences – be it cultural, parental, religious, etc. – taught us we should act in a certain way or view something in a certain light that may run counter to our natural inclinations, and we become conditioned to act from who we think we are as opposed to who we really are. Wilhelm Reich – a brilliant psychoanalyst, the first to include the body in psychoanalysis (and thus father Somatic Psychology), and considered to be Freud’s favorite “son” – termed character armor as the sum total of character traits or mannerisms which serve to resist any unwanted emotions, experiences, or sensations. Stated differently, our egos (and their defense mechanisms) will become as big, neurotic, or delusional as is needed to absorb any repressed energies, such that a psychic equilibrium is maintained (e.g. unwanted feelings are avoided).
Character armor exists in parallel on the physical or somatic plane in the form of habitual, unconscious patterns of tension holding. General posture and body language are gross displays of character armor but even a dancer’s or gymnast’s body can belie an incredible amount of unnecessary tension. Subtler somatic blockages that aren’t quite discernible by third person observation (except, perhaps, auditorily via vocal expression or kinesthetically via palpation) exist in the form of more intrinsic muscular contractions (e.g. breathing pattern) or tensions entirely outside the muscular system such as those in the soft tissue matrix, organs, nervous system, etc.
Tension serves to constrict the flow of energy in the body, resulting in a deadening of sensation, a reduction in the capacity for pleasure, a general decrease in aliveness of being that otherwise would have been experienced had the energy been able to freely circulate in the body. When energy is not filtered through or dammed up by physical or psychological tensions, it is able to “complete” its journey in the body to produce an authentic reaction or spontaneous adaptation to the situation at hand, the full experience of emotion. No resistance to what is.
For example, as a child, going to the dentist may have been an intimidating experience. Sitting on the dentist’s chair getting your teeth cleaned, you may have clenched your fist or curled your toes in response to the perceived threat of the situation. With each subsequent visit, this pattern becomes more and more engrained until it is an automatic reflex. Becoming aware of the protective armoring we hold in our relationships and life circumstances allows us to escape autopilot so we can respond instead of react, as well as free up the energy being used to maintain the unnecessary tension. Simply not clenching your fist the next time you’re at the dentist’s office will create a space for you to decide who you are, and hopefully you choose to enter a more relaxed state of being.
In Taoism, this can be tied to the idea of returning to the natural state of Ziran through cultivating Wu Wei, meaning effortless action or non-doing. Due to the extremely paradoxical nature of Taoism, Taoist concepts prove elusive when trying to understand with the mind, and really only come to life when embodied through experiential practice.
To dissolve the programmed rigidity of character armor is to be a disciple of life, and the more we do it, the more we arrive at our core, who we really are. In this sense, it is through the body that spirituality flourishes; it is through deepening our physicality that our spirit grows! As the legendary yogi B.K.S. Iyengar proclaimed, “It is through your body that you realize you are a spark of divinity.”
One can approach an embodiment practice with the most materialist of intentions, and later find themselves adopting a spiritual framework to make sense of their experiences, or at the very least gaining a newfound respect for them. It is quite trendy these days to draw parallels between spirituality and quantum physics; you can spend an incredible amount of time getting deep into the theory, but I find no need to go deeper than the origin of quantum physics. Max Planck, winner of the 1918 Physics Nobel Prize for founding quantum theory, says in Das Wesen der Materie (The Nature of Matter, 1944), a speech he gave in Italy during the final years of his life:
As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent Mind. This Mind is the matrix of all matter.
My intention of quoting Planck is to draw an analogy, emphasizing how spirituality emerges out of materialism; studying our own matter – our bodies – through practicing (i.e. meditation) leads us to connecting with something for which “spiritual” is the appropriate description: some “Mind”, or Source, Tao, God, the Universe, Original/Cosmic/Universal Consciousness, etc. Though, again, arriving at an intellectual understanding – in Planck’s case, after countless mathematical formulas and science experiments – that such a “Mind” must exist is not enough. We’re not interested in entering the restaurant of Life only to read the descriptions on the menu; we entered to sink our teeth into the courses Life has to offer. We want to taste its existence with the totality of our being, not merely fantasize about it (i.e. conclude via logic that it exists).9
So, this is what I find myself drawn to, what I see as the most important thing in my life. Why transformation? Quite frankly, the answer to this question is long and deserving of its own discourse, which I will address in a future post. But, for now, if you’ll recall at the beginning of this page I said I was motivated by a vision for a better future.
A future without the miseries and afflictions of today; without the human and animal trafficking, cruelty, genocide, extinction, and torture; without the hate crimes, massive wealth inequality10, blatant disregard of the environment, police violence, militarization, racism… relative to history, things are not getting worse, but they are getting uncovered.
How much of a choice do the people behind the hatred, brutality, cruelty, and indifference actually have? How much are they to blame for their actions? If I was given the same biology under the same environment, would I have turned out any differently? Do any of us truly have free will, or are we really at the mercy of a deterministic chain of cause-and-effect events? I don’t know, but either way, I believe a significant amount of ‘bad’ people, as with ‘good’ people, do what they do while being largely in a state of slumber. I’m no exception, but as I cultivate greater levels of awareness from continued, deliberate meditation practice, it becomes apparent this is the most direct way, short of chemical intervention, to reverse one’s conditioning11, such that one increasingly operates from their true self, as opposed to the momentum of their life story. We are going through an undeniable spiritual blackout of grand proportions and the revolution we need is, as with all revolutions that have occurred, a spiritual one —
a deep awareness with profound and pervasive material manifestations, a transformation that changes the way we do everything, think about everything and act in the world. We are not the same people.
The revolution will involve a change in the way we understand what justice is and how truth is measured. We need to see the world through a lens of meaning that immediately shows us the deep interconnections and interdependencies among everything that exists, so that we imagine patterns of interaction that enhance and encourage flourishing at every turn.
The need we have is for a revolution of love. Nothing less will do now.12
What is a global revolution but the collective inner revolutions of its constituents? The hermetic maxim “As above, so below” echoes the belief of esoteric schools, Taoism included, that humans are a microcosm reflecting the macrocosm of the cosmos. To know and transform the world, I must know and transform myself.
To know yourself is to be embodied. By inhabiting more fully that which we have in common with all of life, our breath and fluid body, we see the “deep interconnections and interdependencies” that exist among everything.
To transform yourself is to encourage flourishing “at every turn,” with the natural environment and in interpersonal relationships with neighbors, friends, family, coworkers, and complete strangers. As character armor is dissolved, and consciousness itself is continually transmuted, flourishing increasingly shifts from willed, premeditated exertions to natural, effortless expressions; they increasingly manifest outward from the Virtuous person in ever subtler ways. The soul wards off resistance from the inferior influences of the little me.
The Sage sees the world as an expansion of his own self
So what need has he to accumulate things?
By giving to others he gains more and more
By serving others he receives everythingDaodejing, Poem No. 81 (trans. Jonathan Star)
On this journey I am on, I have rediscovered magic. Children have this sense but lose it as the modern dominant narrative slowly constricts them into believing in the impossibility of things. I am gradually loosening the snake grip society has held on my imagination, overcoming the cultural worldview programmed into me for over twenty years. And what monstrous brainwashing did it take to change my mind? All it took was spending time in stillness with myself. And I am compelled to continue unplugging. To continue re-enchanting. Continue waking up. Continue exploring the potential of our species.
For those intrigued, I’d like to refer to the About page of my auspicious friends Craig Mallett and Dave Wardman; their intention – their why – deeply resonates with mine. Craig, Dave, and a number of others have led me to this path; their work is a never-ending well of inspiration as much as it is a source of hope, a renewal of faith in a possible evolution of the world that contains heaps more compassion than the current one.
At last! I can now shut the fuck up and practice, as the Tao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Tao…
- at least according to the teachings of Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn 🙏 🙌
- see Daybreak, II, 115
- pg. 28-29
- pg. XV
- pg. 308
- to realize the Self. Also see here
- the Ba Men Da Xuan (trans. 8 Gates to the Great Mystery) lineage of Serge Augier
- and I’m not concerned with the ontology of the experience, because the experience itself is real, and life-affirming; it exists for anyone willing to strive for it
- billion dollar single-family skyscrapers with views overlooking slums filled with millions in abject poverty
- i.e. a ‘Control-Alt-Delete’ on one’s programming
- see The Revolution We Need is a Spiritual One