Allowing Awareness Even in Challenging Times, an excerpt from Lani's new book Creating YOUR Calling® © 2020Mar 18, 2020
Creating YOUR Calling:
How to Discover Your Authentic Life Mission ©2020
He who knows others is wise.
He who knows himself is enlightened.
In this day and age, it’s difficult to find places of peace. We’re surrounded by constant noise. Have you noticed that, even walking along the sidewalk or in grocery stores, we’re often bombarded by advertising or music, deliberately broadcasting on loudspeakers? Commercials now run in what used to be public space. People shout into their cell phones, and there’s no way to avoid unintentionally overhearing conversations. Our attention is diverted by multiple sensation: Be this, not that! Buy this! Sell that! Modern life is overwhelming; however, it is possible, even in this boisterous chaos, to create moments of awareness and clarity, to create inner peace. In some ways, we are being offered a spiritual reset with this process of social distancing. We are being called to go within in solitude in order to become more aware.
Inner peace begins with allowing awareness.
When we are unconscious of our thoughts, feelings and motivations, we are at the mercy of physical sensations, emotional impulses and unmindful reactivity. Bouncing from one thought, feeling or reaction to another, we cannot be present, much less still. Buddhists call this incessant hyperactivity “Monkey mind.” In this state of suffering, we misperceive ourselves and others, our true selves and our place in the world. Yet, when we allow awareness, becoming the observer of all of our experiences, rather than the fluctuating feelings, thoughts or sensations, we can be free. This discovery process only requires moments of silence to emerge.
Recently, I have noticed that much of my own suffering is caused by my own inappropriate reactions to events, people or things around me. When I become aware of this, I am much more capable of mindful choices, rather than knee-jerk reactions. The ability to discern what is really happening, how people are really behaving or what something actually is allows me an opportunity to choose the right course of action, if any is required. I’ve discovered that simply noticing events, people and objects is enough. Sometimes I can just let things be as they are, instead of taking an inappropriate action.
Discovering meditation in my late twenties was a blessing. However, it was not easy, at first. Even with the support of experienced teachers, meditation brought up painful feelings and thoughts I had repressed for many years. The memories were murky and vague like the recollections of a nightmare when you wake up the next day. It was enough to terrify me, and it led to deeply ingrained feelings of shame in my adolescence and early adulthood. When I started meditating, I needed additional support to handle the painful reality I had buried so long ago. As a child, I was molested and sexually assaulted by acquaintances of my parents. I was fortunate to have friends and counselors who helped me sort through the past, confirm that the present was worth living and that I could create a better future.
If meditation scares you, there may very well be a reason. If you uncover frightened parts of yourself that have been dormant for a long time, I recommend you reach out for support from a trusted friend, family member, spouse, minister or counselor. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can impact people years after a traumatic event has occurred. However, it is also incredibly empowering to uncover your past and own it, all of it, even the painful parts of your life.
In Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being, Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman promotes the groundbreaking idea of what he calls “post-traumatic growth,” writing:
A few years ago, Chris Peterson, Nansook Park, and I added a link to my Authentic Happiness website www.authentichappiness.org. The new questionnaire listed fifteen worst things that can happen in a person’s life: torture, grave illness, death of a child, rape, imprisonment, and so on. In a month, 1,700 people reported at least one of these awful events, and they took our well-being tests as well. To our surprise, individuals who’d experienced one awful event had more intense strengths (and therefore higher well-being) than individuals who had none. Individuals who had been through two awful events were stronger than individuals who had one, and individuals who had three––raped, tortured and held captive for example––were stronger than those who had two.
Our traumas can actually enhance our strengths and lead us forward to better lives. While no one wants to experience hardship or pain, we can harness awareness, ask for help and receive the support needed to make meaning of difficult experiences in our lives. It is important to understand that we did the best we could, considering the situation in the past, and also that we do not have to remain stuck in the past or hurt in the present. It is possible to take everything we encounter, even tragic and traumatic events, and use them to create a brighter and better future.
Vipassana and Metta Meditation
Meditation comes in many forms, including the silent reflection found in the Christian faith. The practice I have personally found to be helpful for allowing awareness is the Buddhist/Hindu practice called vipassana, or mindfulness meditation. In vipassana I notice myself breathing in and out. I notice how the breath feels on my lip or in my nostrils. Sometimes I count, “One. Two. Three. Four…,” noticing the in-breath and out-breath and the pauses that occur before breathing in or breathing out. I can also utilize samavritti pranayama (yogic breathwork) and increase the exhale by one or two counts for added relaxation or increase the inhale by one or two counts for extra energy. Vipassana practice helps me to become aware of my thoughts, physical sensations, feelings and anything else that is happening around me. I notice my reactions to external events, sounds and stimuli. I come back to my breath. I come back to the present moment. I become aware of the observer Self who has awakened. I become awake to the other parts of myself that habitually take control.
Another useful practice I have found is metta (loving-kindness) meditation. There are many variations of metta, but at the heart of all of them is the active practice of wishing the same levels of peace, happiness and freedom from suffering for yourself, those you love, those you like, those you feel neutral towards, those you dislike and those you may think you hate. I expand my capacity for love and equanimity by practicing this meditation. I become aware that we all suffer and that we all want to be free from suffering, especially now, during a pandemic. Vipassana allows for an opening of the consciousness, while metta allows for an opening of the heart. Both allow for awareness, clarity and realization of the Self, the inner, calm observer, or what some of us may call our Soul.
Ironically, when I least have the time or inclination to meditate, that I most need to do it. For example, as I rewrite and edit this book, I have been struggling with my deepest and darkest survival fears, and I am being triggered by some past memories that come up during meditation. I am also upset by my current thoughts and feelings about being triggered, feeling I “should” be beyond this by now, having worked so hard to heal early wounds over the years. But sifting through these recollections and reactions, as they surface, allowing myself to feel and think whatever arises and then to breathe through it, I have found gold among the dirt and stones. I have been able to pick out these nuggets and polish them and share them in this book for what I hope is the benefit of others struggling with similar traumas in their lives.
Allowing awareness, we have choices about whom we are being and what we choose to do in each moment. We can overcome addictions, bad habits and knee-jerk reactions that lead us away from who we want to be. With mindfulness, we have the potential for more inner peace, deeper fulfillment and the discovery and activation of our life missions.
I am grateful to call Master Wasentha Young, who is the owner and director of the Peaceful Dragon School of T’ai Chi Ch’uan and Chi Kung in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a friend. In addition to training in T’ai Chi since 1968, she has a background in Taoist and Buddhist meditation. She has earned certificates in Acupressure and as a Wellness Counselor in Mind-Body Consciousness and holds a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Studies from the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology in California. Wasentha is an African-American woman with a ready smile and a youthful beauty that belies her experience and wisdom. She is forthright in a way that some might find intimidating, but those who truly know her admire her and appreciate her wit. She is fascinated by the interconnections between body, mind and spirit. She is well-versed in the study and practice of awareness.
When I first interviewed her, we sat in my living room on a wintry evening in Ann Arbor, MI each of us with a hot mug of tea clasped in our hands to warm them. I began by asking what first interested her about becoming more aware.
She replied, “Someone once asked me, ‘Can you imagine who we’d be if we used more of our brains?’ It motivated me to open up my conscious awareness and become more present to the influences of the unconscious.”
In essence Wasentha was suggesting that awareness is an ongoing process and not an end result.
She explained, “In being present to the unconscious, I can feel a vibration of something like a distant drum, buzz or light. For me this awareness is being conscious of being unconscious, feeling the connection of everyday reality and the fabric of dream/unconscious consuming my awake state.”
This was a lot of information to take in at first, and I could see she had given the topic of awareness a great deal of thought and consideration over the years. Wasentha was touching upon more than just being aware of thoughts, feelings, sensations and/or events or situations as they were in each moment. She was talking about delving deeper into the subconscious thoughts, unconscious motivations and reflex actions that create “reality,” like the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. She was talking about an awareness of awareness.
Wasentha continued, “There is a tangible relationship you can connect between the conscious and the unconscious through awareness. T’ai Chi and Chi Kung (which translates as ‘energy work’) begin with the physical body informing the mind. At a certain point in study, the mind informs the body, to developing the awareness of the continuous dialogue between mind, body and spirit. At this point, the practice becomes sensual: physical, mental and spiritual.”
I asked, “So the physical practice of T’ai Chi and Chi Kung are actually entryways to mental and spiritual awareness?” I was still trying to expand my consciousness and take in everything she was saying. She nodded, but as she did, I realized it was more than that. She was saying that there was an interrelationship between the physical, mental and spiritual and that each of these seemingly separate categories were interconnected.
“Many people call them physical forms of meditation that can be practiced regularly to achieve awareness. What advice do you have for those wanting to become more aware?” I asked, expecting her to advise practicing T’ai Chi or Chi Kung, but her response surprised me.
“I absolutely advocate nature as a vehicle to help with awareness.”
“Yes, I have an exercise I share with students. I find a path at the edge of a woodsy or natural environment in nature. I bow to the path and say to myself, ‘Nature becomes my consciousness.’ From that point, every step I take is an adventure into myself. What I see, hear, smell and even taste on the path becomes a reflection of my consciousness.”
“The outward reflects the inward?” I asked, rhetorically, in order to help myself understand where she was going with this idea. “And vice versa?”
Wasentha elaborated, “Nature doesn’t have a prescribed pattern. It can be reflective of different aspects of our consciousness. You can explore so many aspects of your states of being in this way. You can access awareness through the body, mind and spirit as parts of the whole.”
Her description of this process made me want to try it at a local park, and I did many times later, hiking at Gallup Park along the Huron River, hiking at Aiea Loop Trail on O‘ahu, in a labyrinth at a friend’s house in Wai‘anae and everywhere I can go in nature. Even after the pandemic and need for quarantine and social distancing, I found myself doing this in my garden, mindfully walking barefoot through the grass, alongside the paved path to the post box.
“I personally prefer embodied styles of meditations, but you can still reach awareness without having a particular physical practice,” she said.
It was liberating to hear that there were many paths to becoming more aware. Different methods work for different people. This was the first time I had heard from anyone that people didn’t need a particular practice in order to become more aware.
She continued, “There are so many styles of meditation. A lot of times, it has to do with perspectives.” Wasentha said, “I tell my students the main components to awareness are: ‘We relax down. We open up. We reflect. We change.’ Awareness is not centered in the mind, body or spirit but rather in open relationships.”
Wasentha concluded, getting up from her chair, “You will feel more vulnerable, as you become more aware.” She paused and smiled slightly. “Know that there is strength in vulnerability, and be aware of your filters. Trust in the intelligence of your awareness.”
This was the first time someone had ever suggested to me that being more vulnerable was a sign of awakening and that vulnerability could be a strength. This was years before Brené Brown proposed that idea at her TED talk and in her book Daring Greatly. I thanked my friend for this insight. She was saying that awareness meant feeling more, being more vulnerable. By feeling more, we become more complete, more fulfilled, more us. It was transcendent conversation that I am grateful to share. Vulnerability is necessary and vital to awareness, if we want to discover our true calling and life’s purpose.
Do you allow yourself moments of silence and space to create awareness? When? How often?
What other ways do you cultivate awareness and clarity in your life? Are there activities or practices, such as martial arts, music, art, sports, writing, prayer, etc… that do this for you?
Describe a moment when you’ve noticed yourself in a habitual reaction to people, events or things? How did you react? Is it okay to be vulnerable, go with the flow and/or pause in awareness before reacting or taking any action(s)?
Who in your life can support you in creating opportunities for more silence, awareness and clarity? Whom do you admire? Which mentors, teachers, family or friends are safe to be around? Which allow you to be the most you?
Is there an uncomfortable thought or memory that comes into your consciousness during meditation? Is there anything in need of healing? If so, do you know what it is? If applicable, what resources, people and practices can you cultivate to experience post-traumatic growth as you heal from PTSD?
Look into a form of meditation that interests you. You can try vipassana, metta or another technique. If you prefer physical movement to stillness, try walking in nature as Master Young suggested, apart from others with social distancing with the intention of being present and aware. You could try yoga or T’ai Chi or another martial art. You may wish to sign up for an online class or buy or rent a CD or DVD for initial guidance in one of these forms. I encourage you to stick with your chosen practice, form or activity for at least a full month. It may be uncomfortable or frustrating at first, but, as you deepen your practice, you will begin to observe increased awareness and find precious insights. Write these down in a journal or record them. Polish these insights, and know that your budding awareness will light the way to your authentic life mission.
Seligman, Dr. Martin E.P. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of
Happiness and Well-Being. New York: Free Press, 2011, 33, 159-160,
Contact Lani at [email protected] for more information.