If consciousness is an ocean, thoughts are waves that can be churned into vast storms.
Have you ever woken in the wee small hours, adrift on your tiny raft of awareness, to find yourself confronted by a thought storm of this kind?
Perhaps an icy wind is whipping up the memory of something you read and slapping you in the face:
‘So now I have to tell the daughter that both her parents are dead in a matter of three days. Her dad’s not even buried yet.’
You blink up at the ceiling, take a deep breath, before being struck by another blast:
‘The army, during certain visits, found some older people completely abandoned, sometimes even dead in their beds.’
In the distance, you can’t quite make out how far, the big black wave of your own personal death looms. In front, around and behind it, other great waves – the loss of family, loved ones, friends – rise and fall as they approach, like steel-grey pistons driving some inexorable Engine of Death. Is it any wonder you’re trembling inside?
Beyond even these, like a range of mountains on the horizon, the mile-high tsunami of climate collapse glints faintly in the light of your night-time awareness. You can see from the sheer bloody size of it that it’s threatening the annihilation of all humans and most complex life on earth. And here, truly, there be sea serpents: fully one-fifth of Australian forests – one fifth! – wiped out in a single period of fire. What will happen to the other four-fifths in the future with temperatures and carbon emissions rising all the time, with next to nothing being done?
You turn in your bed, hoping to find sanctuary on the other side, only to be faced by the recollection that fully 80 per cent of insects, without which we simply cannot survive, have disappeared in two decades, with farmers spraying fields 17 times a year with 17 different pesticides, with rising temperatures also stressing, killing and depleting insect populations. You turn again: Arctic sea ice will disappear within ten years or so, advancing the climate change clock by 25 years (at current rates of emissions) almost at a stroke.
What will that do to the wild fires, to the remaining insects, to the Amazon teetering on the brink? What will happen to the Australian flying foxes already falling dead out of trees in their thousands from heat stroke; their young, still alive, clinging to their chests? What will happen to the koalas, kangaroos and everything else already being burned alive in vast numbers? Your mind generates images of a lovely, slow-moving koala trying to escape from the flames, being caught, consumed…
You turn again: what about all the other precious beings inhabiting this earth? You remember the trees in Australia waving madly, helplessly, as fire approaches, before being transformed into flaming sheets of energy.
From your raft of awareness you gaze up at this advancing tidal wave of death in awe and wonder – tiny you, with bright, moist eyes, fragile body, fragile hopes held in shaking hands and heart – it’s too terrible, it can’t happen, somebody will find an answer. And so it won’t happen. Amazingly, you find that thinking such nonsense helps a bit – cheap but priceless denial. Perhaps it would be enough to let you sleep, except…
Except that, closer to hand, treacherous whirlpools swirl with personal memories: ‘I’ll always be your friend, but I’ll never love you.’ And: ‘If you don’t even know that, you shouldn’t be sitting there!’ Thoughts and emotional wounds, ancient and modern – whirlpools that spin round and round, sucking you in. You understand now why, in mythological tales, the mind was represented as an iron cap strapped to the head, with a drill grinding down into the skull.
You try to think-swim away from these treacherous vortices, to keep your head above the waves of anxiety, grief, guilt and regret… But the thoughts don’t work, they just make it worse – thinking is precisely the problem! It’s so exhausting, so useless as a response to the overwhelming force of the emotions. But what, then?
You’re doing all this at four o’clock in the morning, alone in the dark. A million miles away, your partner – that passing ship in the night – is snoring gently (I’m being polite) beside you. It’s hard. You seem to have no option but to fight thought with thought, to wash blood with blood, to soothe the tortured mind with the tortured mind. Talk about the blind leading the blind!
‘I Can’t Live With Myself Any More’
Traditionally, people have had to be beaten, battered, half-drowned by these internal storms of the mind before they finally turn to meditation. The classic modern example is supplied by Eckhart Tolle in his book, ‘The Power of Now’, on page 1:
‘I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train – everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing for the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence.’ (Tolle, ‘The Power of Now’, Hodder & Stoughton, 2005, p.1)
The understandable conclusion: ‘I can’t live with myself any more.’
But Tolle immediately noticed a strange contradiction – who exactly was this ‘I’ who couldn’t live with ‘myself’ any more? Was he in fact two people, then? He realised that he was sick of the exhausting, obsessive, thought-churning mind. In other words, sheer suffering caused him to realise that he wasn’t, after all, ‘the little voice in the head’; rather, he was an inner witness, an awareness, that perceives those thoughts. After all, computers also have all kinds of information and messages rattling around their mechanical brains but, unlike us, they have no awareness, no witnessing presence that perceives those messages.
Our identification with ‘the little voice in the head’ – our feeling that this mental noise is ‘me’ – is so deep-rooted that it takes deep suffering of the kind Tolle endured to break free from it. And this is the whole purpose of meditation, which is all about taking a break from the thinking mind.
There are two main ways to dive beneath the oceanic tumult of thought and they both involve feeling.
First, we can direct our attention to physical sensations in the body. For example, if you are suffering on your raft of awareness at night – if you’ve at last had enough of anguished thinking – turn on your back and put your attention in your hands. Feel any tension, any tingling, warmth or aching in your hands. You’ll find that just placing your attention there will cause a change – any aches will appear to intensify and then soften, heat will increase; there will be a feeling that the hands are like thirsty plants being watered with attention. What you will also notice is that focusing on sensations in the hands causes the previously irresistible, unstoppable Thought Torture Machine to dramatically slow down or even stop. Of course, noticing this can cause the machine to start up again: ‘Wow, I’m no longer compulsively thinking! I seem to have been distracted from worrying about Coronavirus… which is threatening my parents, me, everyone I know, thanks to the complete failure of political…’ And off we go again.
The remedy is simple: we direct attention to our hands again, feel the tingling, the aches, the heat. Meanwhile, our feet are getting itchy – why are they not getting any attention? We can focus on those thought-frozen blocks of ice dangling on the ends of our legs. They will also soften, warm up and relax, and again provide a kind of portal through which we can escape from the hell of compulsive thinking into feeling.
Guided meditations are an easy way to experiment with this kind of practice. Quite good apps include Calm and Headspace. For example, this 10-minute Calm meditation includes a body scan, which is an extension of feeling your hands and feet. Or try this from Headspace. These apps are aimed at young people, who seem to think that meditation teachers should sound like computers on starships, but they give you an idea. An excellent book on the same theme is Anna Black’s ‘Living In The Moment.’
Sometimes, the emotional waves and whirlpools are so intense that it’s difficult to do any kind of body scan meditation. In this case, rather than diving below the surface of the thinking turmoil into physical feelings, we can dive into our emotional feelings. The mystic Osho discussed the art of diving into whirlpools:
‘In my childhood I used to love swimming, and my village river becomes very dangerous in rainy season, it becomes flooded. It is a hilly river; so much water comes to it, it becomes almost oceanic. And it has a few dangerous spots where many people have died. Those few dangerous spots are whirlpools, and if you are caught in a whirlpool it sucks you. It goes on sucking you deeper and deeper. And, of course, you try to get out of it, and the whirlpool is powerful. You fight, but your energy is not enough. And by fighting you become very much exhausted, and the whirlpool kills you.
‘I found a small strategy, and that strategy was that – everybody was surprised – that I will jump in the whirlpool and come out of it without any trouble. The strategy was not to fight with the whirlpool, go with it. In fact, go faster than it sucks you so you are not tired, you are simply diving in it. And you are going so fast that there is no struggle between you and the whirlpool.
‘And the whirlpool is bigger on the surface, then it becomes smaller and smaller and smaller. It is difficult to get unless it is very small. At the very end, rock bottom, it is so small you are simply out of it. You need not try to get out of it, you are simply out of it. I learned my art of let-go through those whirlpools. I am indebted to my river.’ (Osho, ‘The Wild Geese and the Water,’ p.178, 1985, free PDF)
What has any of this got to do with the waves and whirlpools of the night?
‘And then I tried that let-go in every situation of my life. If there was sadness I simply dived in it, and I was surprised to know that it works. If you dive deep into it, soon you are out of it and refreshed, not tired, because you were not fighting with it, because you were not pretending, so there was no question of fighting. You accepted it totally, full-heartedly. And when you totally accept something, in that very acceptance you have transformed its character.’
In the same vein, Lao Tzu said:
‘Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.’
When we try to oppose and resist whirlpools of thought-fuelled sadness, to swim away from them through thought, we become exhausted from the effort, while our misery only increases. But when we dive into the whirlpools astonishing things happen.
When we stop resisting sadness – trying to sweeten it with phone calls, distractions, pleasures – and just let ourselves feel it in all its heaviness, darkness and pain, it disappears by itself, and even transforms into delight.
Likewise, trying to escape fear through distraction, alcohol and avoidance can have short-term benefits, but fear is dogged and, like a dog, loves to chase someone running away. If, instead, we place attention on the feelings of anxiety, on the burning fear, the racing heart, the deep-breathing lungs, the anxiety will ‘disappear by itself’.
And this is true of all painful emotions and behaviours – we just have to pay close, meticulous attention for a long time. As long as it takes.
In an age of cataclysms that we may be unable to avert or avoid, we can still alchemise even the worst fear and sadness into peace and bliss. Appropriately enough for our age of lockdowns, the mystic Kabir said:
‘Don’t go outside your house to see flowers, my friend, don’t bother with that excursion. Inside your body there are flowers. One flower has a thousand petals.’
This flower is the ‘kingdom of heaven’ that ‘lies within’. We don’t need to leave the house to find it. We need only turn within for an hour a day, and feel whatever we find in our heart area, chest and stomach. This is no idle promise – everyone who has seriously looked, without exception, has found it.
David Edwards is co-editor of www.medialens.org