How much of your life has happened without your conscious awareness? Sure, there’s the approximately 8 hours a day of sleep, which, doing the math, is 2920 hours, translated to 121 days or 4 months. Yup, 4 months out of the year is spent sleeping. Now let’s expand on that and consider the number of times you’ve ‘snapped to attention’ and realized you’d been daydreaming and, amusingly, can’t remember what was so much more important. This can be embarrassing when in a conversation with someone else and potentially quite dangerous when driving, with a full third of accidents occurring within one mile of home and often by running into parked cars.
Stepping away from the dangerous and into the mundane, have you ever considered yourself to be on ‘autopilot’? For that matter, think back over the last week, how much can you fully remember and how much is hazy recall? Understand that this is completely normal. If we were to attempt actively paying attention to every single bit of data, internal and external, we’d be overrun and go through a system crash. It’d be like watching Netflix and having a crystal clear image, only to have your internet provider throttle your speed and everything goes grainy or stops altogether.
While we certainly don’t want to get ourselves into a shutdown experience, even the minutest increase in awareness can help us live healthier mental lives. In fact, doing so doesn’t even have to be all the time, it can simply be focused around relationships, work, physical health and so on. What area of your life would you like to understand better? Doing so requires a greater awareness.
We like to be right and that leads us to double-down on our stories of ‘what is.’ To challenge them requires two things: 1) increased awareness and 2) actively doing so from a space of positive exploration. Now, I don’t mean ‘positive’ in the sense of happy, joyful and smiling. ‘Positive’ here means active engagement or deliberate movement, or in other words, adding to what you’re doing, rather than subtracting or avoiding. Sometimes doing so is not at all joyful and may even initially result in feelings of hurt or discontent. Thankfully, increasing awareness does not require any particular feeling attached to it.
Feet on the Ground
So where to start? Regardless of what area in your life you’d like more awareness about, starting anywhere will have spillover. With that in mind: how are your feet? Seriously, how are they? What are they doing right now? How do they feel? Do you really only notice them when they are in pain?
Our feet carry us everywhere, but while in use, we rarely pay them much attention. In fact, while walking, to pay special attention to your feet will result in slowing down. That this results in not getting to a destination as quickly is likely why we’re good with ignoring them so long as they’re functioning. So it is with a great many parts of our lives.
Unless there’s some kind of difficulty, we go about our lives without much awareness. Unfortunately there are little things that can creep up on us and do us and our relationships harm if we’re not paying attention. Further, the world in and around us doesn’t stop influencing our decisions and ideas of who we are simply because we don’t actively notice parts of it. Taking even a small step, like deliberately noticing how you are stepping/moving, to expand awareness to a part of your life you aren’t generally aware of can lay the ground for new decisions and behaviors.
The more you see, the more there is to work with. The more you see, the greater potential there is to step away from the habits keeping you from moving forward.
Searching for inner peace leads us down many paths. From the shelves of books in the self-help section to gurus, coaches and spiritual leaders, we’re often looking for a direct line from uncertainty to calm. This isn’t about a quick-fix. Far too many are mocked for supposedly wanting that. I think the vast majority are quite willing to put in the time and effort. Unfortunately explanation and instruction often replace clarity with obfuscation, as if a struggle of understanding is required for wisdom. Mindfulness doesn’t have to be shrouded in mystery.
What is being mindful?
Mindfulness is an active mental state of reflective awareness about the present.
– While mindfulness is often looked at as meditation, too often meditation ends up being a passive behavior. To be active is to be intentional and focused. This isn’t about relaxation, though that can happen, but deliberate engagement with mental life.
– Don’t let the “mental” make you ignore the physical. Our minds are embodied. Mindfulness acknowledges our physical reality and how our bodies are the means through which we put thought into action.
– Being aware is one of those behaviors we often think we’re doing, but is not as broad as we think. To be mindfully aware is to actively seek out and allow more of your experience to be seen and known. This means having no single thing take over your mindsight to the exclusion of everything else.
– Time is, within the human experience, at least as much about our perception as it is a thing we live within. To be present is to recognize the transitory nature of our experience. Every present moment is immediately followed and replaced by the next present moment.
As Daniel Siegel, in his book “Mindsight,” puts it:
“Openness implies that we are receptive to whatever comes to our awareness and don’t cling to preconceived ideas about how things “should” be. We let go of expectations and receive things as they are, rather than trying to make them how we want them to be.” (Mindsight)
Not Getting Lost In Your Own Thoughts
There are many ways to talk about mindfulness and even more declarations of what its practice can bring into your life. The focus here is on broadening the contemplation of our lives to make room for new behavior. For that, we turn to how Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) utilizes mindfulness.
ACT breaks mindfulness skills down into 3 categories:
Defusion: distancing from, and letting go of, unhelpful thoughts, beliefs and memories
Mindfulness allows us to see the transitory nature of our thoughts. Mental states do not last for long at all. We only think they do because of how they loop on themselves through attention and focus. The feeling of being stuck is due to being caught in one of those loops, where all potential action becomes fused to a narrow singular thought or story. Defusion is the process of breaking free of that narrow vision.
Acceptance: making room for painful feelings, urges and sensations, and allowing them to come and go without a struggle
Our mental states change with the speed of thought. We trick ourselves into thinking they last longer through our attention and obsessive focus. This is how pain leads to suffering. Our focus is often on ‘moving past’ or avoiding the pain, but the irony is what we avoid is what ends up running our lives. Acceptance isn’t about being a doormat to be stepped on. It’s an acknowledgment that pain is an inevitable and natural part of living, an indication of change.
Contact with the present moment: engaging fully with your here-and-now experience, with an attitude of openness and curiosity
Personal stories or narratives are how we split reality into what we call experiences. No single story can hold the entirety of reality and so there are always more to our lives to be explored. The present moment fades into the next present moment seamlessly and inevitably, a fertile ground for curiosity to find new growth.
Mindfulness: The Present is Calling
We are more than any single thought, emotion or story. No single action can or should define the whole of who we are. Our Values manifest in constantly evolving behavior. Shame ties us to a past that has already gone by, holding us to a falsely narrow vision of who we are capable of being. Mindfulness skills help us explore the present to find the inner peace of healthy questioning, the calm of accepting uncertainty and the personal growth of letting go of our thoughts.
Website: About ACT
Popular sayings and cliches abound. Songs are written as odes to and diatribes against. Lives are made and destroyed in its embrace. The forms it takes are at the center of social debate and religious theological musings. The nature of love guides, shapes, cajoles and inspires a host of behavior. Yet rarely does any of it bring us closer to an understanding of just what it is. Like referring to sleep as that thing we do when we’re not awake, noting the behavior inspired by love gives us much to discuss, but seeing any commonality is a bit more difficult.
What makes the situation even more compellingly frustrating is there exists no commonly understood definition of emotion either. With this in mind we can turn to a discussion of emotion by Daniel Siegel as it relates to attachment in his book The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. For Siegel, emotion serves the purpose of linking differentiated, or separated, parts. As in psychology with the linking of child to caregiver, or the sociological linking of individual to group, emotion is the process of binding these disparate and differentiated parts into a coherent whole. How this is applied to love as a particular manifestation of emotional energy is where we turn to next.
Love Binds What Is Thought Separate
When we love we are not simply noting the casting outward of a feeling but acknowledging a recognition of union amongst differentiation. What love is, is a counter to disillusionment, the opposite of dissociation, the cure to ennui and it knows only expansion. When we see union as the fundamental ground of our being-ness, love provides a space for certain behavior to emerge from it. Life-giving and respectful, cherishing that which helps life expand and progress. Differences become variations of unity rather than held up to show separation. When loving another it is within this unity, a conscious recognition of an interconnected existence. We celebrate in all their nuances the person in front of us just as we celebrate those around us and she or he who stares back in a mirror.
I have loved many people, just as I am quite certain those reading this have loved many as well. I love my family, I love my friends and lover, those who are no longer in my life and those who are merely tangentially connected to it. I love the song I Won’t Give Up by Jason Mraz and how when the subject of the song is shifted from a singular person in front of you to humanity as a whole there is only an expansion of meaning rather than confusion, a quickening desire to not give up even as the skies get rough, to make a difference and not to break or burn, learning to bend and acknowledge who each of us is and what each of us isn’t and who I am even in the midst of it all.
All of this, all of these manifestations of love are encapsulated within a singular term and yet at no time is there a flatland of feeling, a singularity to how such a feeling of love is to be felt. There is instead an allowance for gradations, for nuance and depth. Love is joyful exuberance within the process of this celebration, bound with the threads of our relational reality. We hold that space and by doing so find that love brings peace, a commitment to growing understanding and an expansion of life’s expression.
Further explore this topic through the podcast episode “What’s Love Got To Do With It“
Richard Feynman is reported to have stated: “Science is a lot like sex. Sometimes something useful comes of it, but that’s not the reason we’re doing it.” If we reverse the relationship a bit and see sex as rather like science, then sex becomes this powerful force behind much of humanity’s progress, a process full of testing, exploration and anxious inquiry, with a great many people passionately attempting to define just what is and is not appropriate within its boundaries.
The difficulty with determining the boundaries of human sexuality is, like many questions of deep social impact, an issue concerned with where one begins to ask. Is there an open curiosity, based on the humility of uncertain knowledge and the acknowledgement that our species and the societies it has created are a constantly evolving organism? Or is there a demand for rigidity, of appealing to a set standard assumed from the start so that even the questions about sexuality become constrained?
Respect My Authority
The demand for rigidity is an attempt at avoiding chaos. Certainly, what constitutes chaos is a personal and/or group determination, but the desire to have answers, to have a direction for one’s behavior, is a deep need nobody is ever fully removed from. Only the degree of that need changes. In every decision made there is an empowering sense of having done the right thing, our minds providing a sense of personal authority to avoid the sometimes debilitating practice of skepticism and doubt. That process is the same for authoritarianism, just writ large into the foundation of a worldview.
To explore further, we can look at the definition provided by Peterson and Zurbriggen (2010):
“Those scoring high on authoritarianism (1) adhere strongly to conventional moral values, (2) are submissive to established authorities, and (3) are willing to aggress against others if they are perceived as unconventional or threatening.”
When people talk of tribalism, it is authoritarianism that is often what is in mind. Differences are substantially focused upon because only in determining difference can the boundaries of what is right and wrong be kept rigid so that authority can direct its wrath against the unfaithful. While what makes a difference worth focusing on is in the eye of the beholder, some are easier to locate than others, particularly when they seem to intuitively possess inherent lines of separation. Like biology.
“Biological sex is a commonly used way to categorize people into two primary groups: women and men, or girls and boys (Hare-Mustin& Marecek, 1988). Deﬁnitions of female and male are often organized around gender-speciﬁc mutually exclusive characteristics for women (e.g., submissive, emotional, and dependent) and men (e.g., dominant, stoic, and independent). This kind of rigidity in categorization and the creation of distinctions are characteristic of authoritarian thinking.” (Peterson & Zurbriggen, 2010)
This tendency to use biology to ascribe immutable social characteristics does not belong to only one ideology. Every time we hear “boys will be boys” or “that’s not lady-like,” the basis is an authoritarian view based on biology. However, also we hear it when the phrase is “he/she had no choice in which gender they’re attracted to” and/or “you can’t judge them for their behavior, they don’t share our education or values.” The basis for both is an authoritarian declaration based on the supposed inevitable and simplistic causal relationship between biology and action. Once rigidity occurs in thought, it’s food for authority to latch on and create boundaries, with those who belong on one side and those who don’t on the other. Unfortunately, with the human tendency to combine every belief with a feeling of rightness, one side will only use examples from the other to condemn and dismiss, instead of exploring the universal problem that both are perpetuating.
Blaming Religion Is Unhelpful and Too Simple
Religion is an easy scapegoat for any particular or global problem because of its ubiquity. Everywhere one looks there’s some behavior, in word and/or deed, being connected to religious ideology of some kind. For those looking for a simple relationship, there’s no need to go further, and therefore no need to question why everyone who declares themselves an adherent of a particular religion doesn’t act in exactly the same way. Thankfully some researchers have recognized the limitation of using ‘religion’ as a catch-all term and have begun parsing out the variations in affiliation to find the nuances of connecting belief and behavioral tendencies.
“Differences in intercourse behavior were largely found between nonreligious women compared to women from moderate to conservative affiliations (e.g., Jewish, Monotheist Christian, and Fundamentalist participants). These findings suggest that a lack of religious belief may dispose women to engage in more unrestricted premarital intercourse behavior because they are less likely to model their sexual activity after dictates of religious doctrine. In contrast, no significant affiliation differences in any sexual behaviors were found in men.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)
Two things here. One, sexual activity is referred to as a modeling activity, a recognition that what is considered sexual is not simply a matter of biology but what has been determined by the group one belongs to. Two, while the differences existed with women, they disappeared with men, meaning regardless of the authority structures, men’s behavior was less tied to them, perhaps because they’re the ones setting up such standards.
“In women, fundamentalism and spirituality were consistently negatively correlated with multiple forms of sexual behavior, and paranormal religiosity showed a small but consistent positive correlation with female sexual behavior.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)
Again, two things. One, fundamentalism, which has a greater degree of authoritarian-like thinking, results in a reduction in the forms of sexual behavior exhibited by women. Two, for those women interested in the merely paranormal, the opposite occurred. Considering that the paranormal encompass a wide array of beliefs, it is little surprise that an authoritarian structure is reduced, leading to a more open appreciation of sexuality.
The entire study is well worth more fully exploring, but fundamentally it should be recognized that:
“One of the clearest conclusions that can be formulated from the current study is that the way in which religiosity is defined will determine how the relation between religion and sexual behavior is characterized.” (Farmer, Trapnell, & Meston, 2008)
Sexuality is More than Behavior
The relationship between authority and sexuality is not, as some would like to paint, a simple matter of societal control. Societal structures and organizations are made up of individuals. As such, the authority and sexuality is often a matter of organizing the behavioral parameters between individual sexual relationships.
“Women and men higher in authoritarianism also reported beliefs consistent with an adversarial model of sexual interactions. In romantic or sexual situations, the ‘opposite sex’ is considered almost as an enemy, one with his or her own strategies, goals, and tactics, one who should not be trusted. This is consistent with authoritarian intolerance of ambiguity.” (Peterson & Zurbriggen, 2010)
Notice that this isn’t merely a male point of view, but a particular frame for adjusting one’s behavior and guiding perception of another’s actions. The ‘war of the sexes’ that continues to be the focus of too much media programming is a direct social result. While it’s debatable whether there’s anything inherently wrong with such thinking, there are consequences which bear being aware of.
An open, skeptical, uncertain frame based on a recognition of the evolution of self-concepts and social mores, will bring consequences of uncertainty and lack of clear boundaries when it is applied. A grounded, structured, and clearly marked authoritarian frame brings easy hierarchy to relationships and obvious (to those who adhere to this) boundaries for what behavior is acceptable. As in the starting ground for discussing sexuality, the beginning frame sets the tone of the inquiry and the parameters of the questions to be asked. However, there need not be a singular frame of reference, certainly not one that ignores social context.
Where the authoritarian frame goes awry is in ignoring the inevitable changes that occur in concepts of sexuality, a biological force that is intimately tied to the ebb and flow of shifting social practices. Where the more libertarian frame goes awry is in the attempt of ignoring the evolutionary history of a biological system millions of years in the making, years that make the thousands of human civilization a mere blip on the time scale.
We can and should explore the vast potential of human sexuality. As in any biological force, like curiosity and imagination, artificial and arbitrary boundaries serve us no good, cutting us off from potential responses to suffering and difficulties that could open up new frontiers of discovery and creation. With any push into uncertainty, however, we should never forget the pull of wanting the security of authoritarian structure. It is not a pull only some have and others have left behind. In every journey of discovery there are moments of wanting to sit and reflect without the chaos of movement. These moments should be respected, for they are just as human as the frenzy of exploration.
Farmer, M. A., Trapnell, P. D., & Meston, C. M. (2008). The relation between sexual behavior and religiosity subtypes: A test of the Secularization hypothesis. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 38(5), 852–865. doi:10.1007/s10508-008-9407-0
Peterson, B. E., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2010). Gender, sexuality, and the authoritarian personality. Journal of Personality, 78(6), 1801–1826. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00670.x
Nagoshi, J. L., Adams, K. A., Terrell, H. K., Hill, E. D., Brzuzy, S., & Nagoshi, C. T. (2008). Gender differences in Correlates of homophobia and Transphobia. Sex Roles, 59(7-8), 521–531. doi:10.1007/s11199-008-9458-7
Samuels, A. (2005, Jul). Fundamentalism-its appeal to “them” and its fascination for “us”. Tikkun, 20, 52-55. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/212296439?accountid=134574
Divine love seems inexplicably tied to divine judgment at times. With even a cursory search online the subsequent finding of so many articles and images depicting people of otherwise benign feelings supporting hatred and irrational judgment, the only seeming constant in a species devoted to exhibiting the divine in their lives is divisiveness and cruelty. There is assuredly much to be questioned in how this happens. As a former adherent to a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity, I can with rueful head-shaking recall many a moment of self-righteous judgment and resultant hurt feelings, even among those I would have called my spiritual brothers and sisters. As I began to fervently question the ideological grounds for my thinking I rarely had to pause for long to be reminded why the search for another answer needed to continue.
The divine or, if the desire is to be more personal, a god, seems most often to possess a sense of transcendence, a broad interconnection between various other characteristics. There is always both a connection to one or more human qualities and then the concept of god is placed in a space above or beyond these connections. At once it is immediate and far away. Much the same occurs when we consider concepts like “patriotism” and “joy,” where there are certainly behaviors associated, they never quite encompass the whole of the feeling.
The ability to collect disparate data and then feel a sense of the transcendent linking them altogether is likely just how our brains organize experience. Putting together the vast amount of information provided by experience, the brain creates a seamless reality often even if it needs to make things up. Our sight, for instance, is not nearly as comprehensive as we like to think, focused primarily on identifying movement (likely from our evolutionary predator-prey history) and funneled through only a small section of the overall eye. The image that we “see” is largely a creation of the brain, built from the constant movements of the eye taking in data, with focus on any changes that are noticed. Anyone who has been startled by finally seeing someone who’s been standing right beside them for a length of time is well aware that sight is not all-encompassing.
Our brains create images that are broader than the data we are taking in, weaving together threads into a whole. That this whole means we miss some things that are there and add other things that aren’t is the stuff of memory research, where people have been known to utterly ignore a person in a monkey-suit or add false details to someone observed during a heavily charged emotional experience. A personal narrative, possessing the quality of transcendence, seems foundational to human experience.
Everything from skyscrapers to iPads, social organizations and the places we call home, is a creation out of transcendent intent, a form cobbled together out of pieces of information, often only initially considered in the imagination. I am reminded of people who lament how cell-phones have created distance within families, but during natural catastrophes the Red Cross raises millions from small donations through texts. We growl at the person talking loudly on their phone in a restaurant and yet rush to it when wanting to make sure a loved one is safe. Every form, while still retaining the potential of its original intent, possesses a space for the filling in of anyone’s desire, however different it may have been from the original.
Concerning the divine, while particular manifestations of a god idea can be used to justify any manner of behaviors, this stems from a quality of humanity, determining personal purpose through identification with a transcendent concept. People will defend their country, not even recognizing that the concept of “country” is a largely arbitrary term tied to imaginary lines on a human-made map. We’ll lament and/or wax eloquently about “family,” but rarely stop to consider that the concept means many things to many people precisely because it is bound only to data selected by each person and therefore each of us does not need to be bound to any singular form of it.
Transcendent concepts require information and experience to exist, but they do not require any particular set of information. “Family” can mean blood-relations or those you are close to, and “god” can be filled by any number of notions concerning behavior, ethics and aspirations. By reminding ourselves of how our big ideas can hold whatever we want to put in them, we can move beyond discussion of a god and focus on what people are filling it with. We can use it to separate one from another, to condemn and mock, to find shame in our very natures, or we can fill it in with what is humanizing and uplifting, a call to exhibit the best of our nature, to work towards the building of community, a committed union.
What form meaning takes is open for debate; that we will build meaning out of the parts of our lives is inevitable. If we begin in separation that is all we will find. Beginning from a place of human connection, separation and shame will have no place.
© David Teachout