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TRANSCENDING UNCONSCIOUS STORIES

FEBRUARY 8, 2018

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It was one of these weeks where things were quickly going downhill. Or so it seemed. My partner was away for work. My dog got diarrhea. My daughter got the flu. My network of support was on vacation… and so on. I could see that I was looking outside myself, trying to identify the perpetrator of such a lousy plan. Looking in all directions but me.

Looking at the projector

When I decided to look at the projector—me—I realized that if there was a perpetrator in the story I was telling myself, then I was the victim. Pulling this slippery thread, I got deeper into the story. It went something like, “hard work is kind of unfair, and at some point this has to end, as I deserve something better.” The more I got in touch with this narrative, the question I then asked myself was, “where the hell did I get this…crap?!” I started looking in the usual places: culture, society, family… I immediately could spot similar patterns in my family of origin, not to mention mainstream culture. Indeed, it was Cinderella’s tale—so not surprising that it was so familiar! I have consciously been inspired by the idea of dying having fully contributed to my community. But unconscious stories can have a stronger effect than our best intentions … until they become conscious.

Integrating and transcending our stories

And yet, having discovered my story did not allow me to get rid of it completely. I’m still working on it. Stories, as forms of mental patterns or personal complexes, are attached to our bodies, bones and skins: sticky coats with a particular shape. Gaining awareness of our stories can change how we relate to them, allowing us to disidentify from them. But how can we integrate and transcend them?

There are two ways we use in Integral Coaching to achieve this. The first one by inviting a new narrative. In my case, the Cinderella story was replaced by the story of a Dakini, an empowering Buddhist feminine archetype.

The second way to transcend and integrate our stories is by bringing awareness to our bodies. Our bodies become the repositories of our unconscious, and by finding and letting go of tensions that hold these patterns, we loosen the power of them and create space for something new. For this, Hatha yoga has been the path that has opened me the most, as well as embodied meditation from the Shambhala tradition.

Self-reflection

To end, I would like to invite you to take up this self-reflection daily for one week. At the end of your day, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What narrative have I lived by today? How could I tell? How did it feel?
  • What did this narrative create?
  • What different different story could I live by? What could this make possible?

Magda is an Integral Coach based in Spain. You can read more on her blog.  

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WONDER AS A PRACTICE

NOVEMBER 29, 2017

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Looking for answers

The world, and our experiences in it, are mysteries. There is so much about ourselves, others, and life that we don’t know. Our ego-driven minds don’t like this. We want clear answers!

When we don’t understand, we do what we were conditioned to do: we become good students searching for the right answer. Why am I sad? The solution must be in a self-help book or article. Why is my partner so hard to read? If I can just get him to talk, I’d be able to figure him out. Where is my place in this world? If I could just get a new job, I’d feel at peace. But the truth is that most of the big questions that nag us don’t have a flotation device that we can hold on to.

When we feel like we’re without a good enough answer, we feel unsteady and our response is to try to control. We try to control our own experiences by avoiding anything that makes us feel uncomfortable. We try to control other people with subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of manipulation. And we try to control our world and our experiences in it by complaining or blaming.

This sort of problem solving might give us some short-term gratification, but it never gets at the root of our problems. That’s because the root of of our biggest worries lies buried in the great mystery of the universe. Who am I? Where do I belong? What am I supposed to do? And where am I going? These are the same questions that our ancestors have been pondering since consciousness evolved to the point of asking. We’re plop in the middle of a bunch of questions with no answers. So what’s the point? I think we’re meant to learn how to wonder.

The inner wonderer

Over the years, wonder has become a good friend of mine. I even have a wondering voice that I like to use. I visualize my inner wonderer as a version of myself at about 90 years old. She’s equally bemused and interested in my current life.

I find that the voice and attitude of wonder is especially helpful on the meditation mat. Some days, in the middle of my meditation, I’ll feel a tremendous urge to jump up from my seat and do absolutely anything but sit there for another second. As a beginning meditator, I would usually cut my meditation short or berate myself for my impatience and my inability to do it right. 

As I became a more skilled practitioner, I realized that neither of these tactics allowed me to explore my present experience (which is what meditation is all about). Now when I feel the same sensation come on I turn on my wonder voice: “Whoa, there’s a little (or a lot of) impatience. I wonder where that came from? Why am I in such a hurry to go?”

Instead of being frustrated by my impatience, I’ll become curious about it. I’ll track it in my body and in my brain. I’ll explore the quality and feeling of it. I’ll gently ask if this energy simply wants to release or if it has something it wants to teach me. Often times, I’ll find that my uncomfortableness fades away after being given some space.

Wonder has a beautiful, fluid quality to it. Unlike judgement, indignation or resignation, wonder allows us to perceive life with openness. Wonder is a balance of curiosity and trust. It’s the humility to say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” while trusting that clarity will arise when it’s meant to.

Wonder in daily practice

Off the meditation cushion, wonder is equally helpful and reassuring. How often do we wrongly assume that someone’s distraction or bad mood is because of us? Instead of immediately trying to reassure ourselves (e.g. what’s wrong?), I’ve found that becoming curious about the experience is helpful. With a loving curiosity I try to pinpoint the moment I started to feel insecure or uncomfortable with that person. By addressing my own sensations and emotions first, I’m better able to distinguish what is mine and what is theirs. Once I’m in touch with myself, I’m better able to be lovingly interested in (instead of triggered by) the person or people I’m with.

Of course there are many moments where I forget to practice wonder. I find myself sad, angry or bored, and instead of becoming curious I’ll seek validation, react emotionally, or reach for something to eat. But the beautiful thing about life is that as long as we’re breathing there are endless opportunities for practicing wonder.

Belonging fully

As John O'Donohue puts it, “It takes a lifetime’s work to fully belong to your life.” Wonder helps us to belong by keeping us open to whatever emerges. When we’re able to remain open, we’re “home” wherever we are. I’ve taken on the practice of wonder as part of my spirituality and I’m never at a loss for things to wonder about. It may be something as simple as watching a spider make a perfect web and wondering how. Or it may be wondering from where a thought emerged, or why I felt great in the morning and drained in the afternoon.

The point is that wonder is a way of showing reverence for the mystery of the world. It’s the humble glistening in the eyes of great men and women who are inspired by, rather than afraid of, the great unknown.

Jessie Curtner is an Integral Coach in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing on her blog, The In Between Space.

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DEATH AND SPIRITUALITY

MARCH 13, 2017

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Death is not something we like to think about, talk about or face up to. And yet the truth of our mortal condition is always lurking just outside of our thoughts, conversations and awareness.

As human beings, we know that we will die and that we have no control over when or how. When I was younger, contemplating death caused me intense physical and emotional anxiety. I didn’t know how to address this anxiety so I did my best to distract myself and to push it out of my mind. It wasn’t until I travelled in developing countries that I began to face my fear of demise.

Real human suffering, on a large scale, forced me to face the reality of my own condition and that of everyone I’ve ever known: we will all get sick, we will all suffer and we will all die.

When trying to accept death and suffering as an individual, it’s overwhelming. Chaos seems the only answer for why good people suffer and die. However, it was amongst the chaos of Africa and Asia that I found a release for my existential anxiety: spirituality.

I was discussing my spiritual beliefs today with my boyfriend. We were sitting on Bernal Hill overlooking the beautiful city of San Francisco. Kyle wanted to know how I can be so sure that this world isn’t just random chaos.

My answer was, of course, that I don’t know. In my opinion it is arrogant for a person of belief or non-belief to claim to know the answers to the biggest questions of the universe. My answer was only that I know that I do not control much in this lifetime. I can’t stop bad things from happening to me, any more than I can stop famines in Africa.

What I can do is, with humility, give my worries to something greater than myself. In this way I say, “I can’t hold all the unknowns of my world by myself. I give them over to The Great Mystery with faith that I am an integral part of a divine plan.” I let go of a control that I never had.

In my view, this is the essence of all religion: a recognition that our tiny life really has no power over the destiny of ourselves, our loved ones or our world. What we do have is a bond to every human being that has ever walked the planet and asked “what does it all mean?” It is this question that connects us to the essence of ourselves and also to the essence of every person living and passed.

It’s easy in our ego-driven world to lose site of this connection. But today as I sat with my boyfriend above the city, I began to cry. I told him I have faith because this world that I love will all be taken away from me too soon. I don’t know if I will die today or 50 years from now, but I do know that in my last moments I’ll be thinking about how much I’ll miss this crazy and beautiful life that I was so generously gifted.

Now when I contemplate my death my heart fills with gratitude and I feel an aching to become more present to my passing days. In the light of death, I experience how much I really love my life. That’s enough for me to hold onto. I hold my life as sacred and believe deeply that I’m a part of something divine. I have control over that much: my choice to believe. Everything else I release to the mystery of the universe.

Jessie Curtner is an Integral Coach based in San Francisco. More about her at jessiecurtner.com.

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ALLOWING THE MYSTERY BACK IN

MARCH 8, 2012

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I recently spent a week meditating with 90 other people without talking. We ate, slept, walked and sat next to each other, the whole time in silence and avoiding eye contact, like peaceful zombies. I had no information about my fellow zombies. But by the week’s end, they each had a persona in my head, including:

  • “Interesting-purple-clothes lady.” What will she wear next?!
  • “Mr. Cough drops.” You know how unwrapping candy in crinkly plastic is incredibly loud in a quiet space, like at the theater, or, say, a meditation hall…?
  • “The Really Good Meditator.” She seemed so peaceful, the whole time.

This experience showed me how naturally the human brain engages in labeling, even without our intending it. The brain takes a teeny amount of information — purple clothes, cough drops — and creates labels and stories. The event of labeling needs neither real data, nor our conscious direction. Labels are as automatic as breathing.

Given this tendency, labels are endemic to human interaction. But, unfortunately, labels may also slow or stop our learning, encourage error, and keep us from seeing something really beautiful: A Mysterious Human Being.

As an example of the drawbacks of labels, I will never forget the simple moment of relief that came after I heatedly described an office conflict to a friend once. “How could he act this way? I mean, I just don’t get it,” I said in frustration.

“Arden, because he’s a control freak,” the friend replied.

Oh – that’s it?! That’s the answer? I felt relief wash over me. Suddenly, I didn’t have to worry about how I had contributed to the situation, nor did I have to seek to understand the other person’s point of view. I didn’t have to take responsibility for my feelings of anger, fear, whatever — they were his fault for being so controlling. He was a “control freak,” and that explained everything.

But, of course, it didn’t. In the longer run, viewing him as a control freak only made our interactions more strained, and the label also made me suspicious of his motives. I started seeing his actions as moves to gain control, rather than seeking to understand how he was contributing to our division’s bottom line.

Ultimately, I caught onto the fact that the label wasn’t helping me. But while I was using it as a crutch, it prevented me from asking questions and learning about myself, the other person, and the situation.

The alternative to applying labels is to let people be the mysterious, dynamic beings that they are. In her book The Wisdom of Conscious Embodiment, Aikido master Wendy Palmer describes this act:

 What a wonderful gift we could give our loved ones, friends, students, clients and teachers, if we could look at them with interest and a genuine curiosity. Instead, our perception of them is usually obscured by a huge bundle of knowledge and information we think we have about them. By expecting people to behave in a certain way, we tend to hold them to that way of being. For the most part we expect no surprises and we get none. … If we view the elements, situations, and people in our lives as unknown and mysterious, anything is possible.

So how do we let in the mystery?  Here’s an idea:

Practice: The Mysterious Human Being

Pick someone you find frustrating, and with whom you have to interact on a regular basis. Take on the practice of asking yourself these questions, once a day:

What is [this person] teaching me?

What is more mysterious to me about this person today?

OR

Pick a loved one you know very, very well. Ask the same questions.

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