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Gary Schouborg, PhD
Realization.org (online magazine), May 2
What We Learn in the Dark
All of us have experienced our mind involuntarily racing along
a track that we are powerless to get o
We'll see shortly how we can turn such conflict into an opportunity to reset our priorities and reduce the chances of future conflict. We'll identify three steps for immediate relief and explain how they also carry over into other areas of our life and into the future.
One of the most dramatic instances of such conflict occurs when we awaken in the middle of the night. Perhaps we are anxious about personal concerns: a presentation we must give in the morning, our inability to be as close to loved ones as we'd like, questioning what our life really comes to. Typically, such anxiety is exaggerated because of our being fatigued and in the dark. In the morning, refreshed and in the light of day we may find that our concerns have disappeared or that we can face them optimistically.
On the other hand, we may awaken at night excitedly anticipating a particularly eventful tomorrow. Still, even though our thoughts are positive we don't enjoy them, because the energy they consume conflicts with our body's fatigue and need for sleep.
The problem is that our body is trying to sleep, but our thoughts, whether positive or negative, are not cooperating. We are not integrated, whole. Our mind is not going with the flow, which is tending toward sleep.
Three Steps to Resolving Conflict
This very split between mind and body during sleeplessness——our mind racing while our body aches for sleep——contains the seeds of its own cure.
The first seed is that the conflict is obvious to us as we lie awake in the dark. It is possible that we experience many similar conflicts during the day, but are unaware of them while focusing on pressing practical concerns. Our nighttime vigil awakens us to their presence.
The second seed of a cure is that our drowsiness enables us to disengage relatively easily from our thoughts——to slip the clutch and allow them to come and go as they may, without taking them seriously. They are "just thoughts" swimming before our mind. We do not try to suppress them, but gently focus instead on our breathing, the feeling of our body against the mattress, the pressure of the blanket on our body, or the coziness of lying warm in bed. This shift of attention allows us not to take our thoughts seriously, knowing from past experience that we'll probably feel differently about things in the morning——or that if we don't, we'll at least have waking energy to cope better than we can in the drowsy middle of the night. By not taking our thoughts seriously, by disengaging from them, we refuse to feed them. Deprived of the nourishment of our serious attention, they tend to wither away, resolving our conflict between mind and body. Quieting our racing mind thus has the immediate benefit of making it easier to get back to sleep.
We can usefully encapsulate this path of disengagement (sometimes called mindfulness) into three steps.
Step One: We tell ourselves that we shouldn't take our thoughts seriously, that we'll deal with them in the morning. We recall the times when, waking refreshed in the morning, we find ourselves confidently facing the new day, our anxieties gone.
Step Two: We disengage. We simply allow our thoughts to come and go without taking them seriously. Initially, these thoughts may be compelling and vivid, but we simply note that and allow them to come and go. Over time, since we do not feed them by engaging them, they lose sustenance and wither away.
Step Three: The thoughts have now largely withered away. We feel the satisfying sense of wholeness that is the fruit of disengagement. No longer fighting our fatigue, we are ready to yield to it in sleep.
Of course, these simple steps may be easier read than done. If they do not give immediate results, read the following three sections: a practical example, directions on how to persist on the path of disengagement, and things to do besides disengage. Otherwise, you may wish to skip to the section, Disengaged Involvement, which explains how these steps are applied to daily life.
Suppose we are deeply upset because our boss has slighted us by giving credit to someone else for something we accomplished. We push our feelings aside and continue our work. In the evening, we complain to our family about what happened, giving ourselves some temporary relief but leaving our feelings unresolved. Fortunately, we gain enough relief that when we go to bed tired, we have forgotten the matter and are able to fall asleep. However, in the middle of the night, we awaken possessed with resentment and thoughts of how we should have responded.
• Our attempts to tell ourselves we shouldn't be so upset seem to take more effort than they're worth. We lapse into a drowsy passivity, possessed by our resentment, anger, and anxiety over how the slight will affect our career. To make matters worse, we worry about losing sleep that we need for tomorrow. We resume reciting to ourselves that we are over-reacting, that we shouldn't be so upset. Not at all sure it will do any good, we find it better than simply giving into our thoughts.
• Telling ourselves not to take our boss' slight seriously gives us some sense of control. By trying to gain some perspective, we are at least taking some initiative.
• In counseling ourselves not to take our boss' action seriously, we are shifting our focus from our boss to ourselves. We are beginning to pay attention to our own reaction and what we can do about it. Finally, we focus enough on ourselves and our own processes that we are able to disengage from our focus on our boss.
• In disengaging from our focus on our boss, we thereby disengage from the related emotions of resentment, anger, and anxiety. They are still there——vividly——but we are now able to perceive them as thoughts and emotions swimming in our mind. Having thereby distanced ourselves from the swirling storm, we feel a measure of relief.
• As we are increasingly disengaged, we gain perspective. We become increasingly clear about what thoughts and activities arise organically from our body (self) and what are alien. Some of our beliefs about our situation feel rooted in reality; others do not, feeling speculative. We realize that some of them are simply foolish and abandon them on the spot——e.g., we realize on reflection that no slight was intended. We may be unsure of the truth of others but, disengaged from them, can allow ourselves to put off trying to settle the matter until tomorrow——e.g., we may be uncertain of our boss' intention, but are now able to postpone finding out until tomorrow. We may be certain of the truth of others, and find them deeply upsetting, but we are able to decide that now is not the time to try to deal with them——e.g., we may be sure that our boss intended the slight, and we are righteously angry, but we can let go of our feelings for now, postponing until the morning the decision of what to do about it.
• In disengaging from our unwanted thoughts, we gain an increasing sense of our body, which tells us that right now it needs to sleep rather than decide how to deal effectively with our boss' slight.
• In feeling this immediate connection with our body, we recognize its similarity to prior feelings of wholeness. We realize that even the greatest pleasures that we have experienced possessed a certain emptiness when they did not derive organically from our body, when they were not integrated with the rest of us.
• In going forward, we now have a reference point to sense when our thoughts and actions are alien and unfulfilling even if pleasurable or exciting, and when they are integrated and fully satisfying. This reference point grows as we have similar experiences. The more solid this reference point, the more confident we are that we will do our best in responding to our boss' slight. With this confidence, we do not feel compelled to decide what to do right now; we can go back to sleep, confident that we will do the right thing in the morning.
• Only prior to such integration——only when thoughts and actions were alien, taking on an anxious life of their own——were we forced to choose between paying attention to our body or to our racing thoughts and frenetic actions. When integrated, we are aware of the latter as emerging from our body like a flower from its stem. We are increasingly able to dismiss alienated thinking and action as unimportant. We do so, not because we have a theory that says they are, but because from the perspective of our body we feel their unimportance.
Of course, this example is idealized. The more complex our conflict, the more skilled in disengagement we must be to resolve it so quickly. It is therefore crucial to make progress by achieving whatever satisfaction we can from disengaging right now while hoping that our skills will increase in the future. Unless we derive some satisfaction from disengagement, we will reasonably abandon it as not the right tool for us. With sufficient satisfaction, however, we can practice these skills and build on past successes, increasing our hope that we will do increasingly well in the future. Our developmental spiral builds; our learning curve grows increasingly steep.
Persisting on the Path
The biggest problem with applying any new tool is giving up in the face of initial failure. The key to persistence in applying our new tool of disengagement is finding some satisfaction in the very process of disengaging. Otherwise, if we don't achieve immediate results, we'll have no reason to continue. Here are possible ways in which we may derive satisfaction, in order of increasing intensity.
• We can simply notice the quality of our unwanted thoughts: their furious racing, the grip they have on our mind, the tension they cause in our stomach. We do not try to rid ourselves of these things, just notice them. In doing so, we become increasingly aware of how unwanted the thoughts are, how much in conflict they are with our body. We come to realize that persisting in them feels even worse than the effort we expend in disengaging.
• Telling ourselves not to take our unwanted thoughts seriously gives us some measure of control; after all, at this stage we have no control over our unwanted thoughts, but we can at least decide to recite to ourselves our counter-thought not to take them seriously.
• In paying attention to ourselves, we eventually become aware of a deep yearning for attention that we, in our busy daily life, have ignored; we will find that satisfying that yearning is uniquely gratifying. We are performing an act of self-respect (from the Latin: to look back on one's self), of non-judgmental, compassionate self-regard.
• In being able to disengage, we feel a measure of relief from our unwanted thoughts, relief from the tension they create dragging us around by our nose.
• As we are increasingly able to disengage, we become increasingly clear about what thoughts and activities arise organically from our body (self) and what are alien; our attention to ourselves will become deeper, clearer, more habitual, and less subject to being over-ridden by pressing practical concerns.
• When our unwanted thoughts wither away, we are left only with thoughts and actions that arise organically from our body (self); we are whole; our attention to ourselves is undistracted.
• In retrospect, we realize that even the greatest pleasures that we have achieved possessed a certain emptiness when they did not derive organically from our body, when they were not integrated with the rest of us, when they were the result of what was really a racing mind out of touch with its bodily roots.
• In going forward, we now have a reference point to sense when our thoughts and actions are alien and unfulfilling even if pleasurable or exciting, and when they are integrated and fully satisfying. This reference point grows as we have similar experiences.
• Only prior to such integration——only when thoughts and actions are alien, taking on an anxious life of their own——are we forced to choose between paying attention to our body or to our racing thoughts and frenetic actions. When integrated, we are aware of our thoughts and actions as emerging peacefully from our body like a flower from its stem.
Disengagement requires no particular talent, only the motivation to practice it over time. Eventually, it results in our ability to discern when our thoughts and actions take on an alienating, anxious life of their own and when they are propelled by the deepest energies of our body. We can most easily discern the difference when we awaken at night to a tired body and a racing mind. Eventually, however, we can tell the difference even during the daytime while engaged in practical activity.
Disengagement is not burying our head in the sand. It is not suppressing thoughts that cause us stress. To be practical, we must ascertain the facts related to our conflict. Disengaging allows us to accept that the middle of the night is not the time to do this, postponing our inquiry until appropriate. We certainly don't want to ignore our boss' slight, whether it is undeserved or not, since in either case it may be telling us something important about our future.
By determining the facts, we can often quickly and easily eliminate conflict. We may learn that we misinterpreted our boss' actions, or that we will soon get a new boss who thinks highly of us. Our worries disappear. On the other hand, if the slight is real and our boss controls our destiny for the foreseeable future, then we can admit to ourselves anything we have done to deserve the slight. We might resist this, because it puts us in the wrong and therefore puts us at a disadvantage. In fact, however, it puts us in control. For if we know what we have done to deserve the slight, then where possible we can correct it and reverse our boss' perception. Furthermore, by being honest with ourselves about what we deserve, we can be clearer about what we don't deserve and thereby avoid the unnecessary pain of internalizing our boss' mistaken opinion of us.
Besides knowing the facts, we can see how we are evaluating or emotionally responding to them. Unfortunately, we may not yet be ready to review the facts calmly and objectively, and therefore cannot act on them realistically and effectively. We may over-generalize, feeling that not only this boss, but no one else, will ever take us seriously. We may over-personalize, feeling that the slight is due not only to inadequate job performance, but to personal characteristics that make us feel worthless. When we find ourselves unable to dispel such thoughts by a calm and objective review of the facts, disengaging will enable us to get some perspective and to become clearer about which of our thoughts are firmly grounded in reality and which are speculative, perhaps even foolish. Even when the facts remain unchanged we may discover that we have blown things out of proportion and that we alone are the authors of our conflict.
Besides helping to restore sleep, disengagement provides an even greater opportunity, because it is precisely the mechanism of liberation about which exceptionally integrated individuals speak. Even at their best our thoughts never completely grasp reality, so we can never take them completely seriously. This is a hard lesson to learn while awake and under the influence of our chronic tendency to identify our thinking with reality, a tendency fed by the practical necessity to act now. Disengagement is easier in the middle of the night, when we are too tired to engage our thoughts fully like we do when we are about to act upon them. I strongly suspect this is the origin of the ancient monastic practice of rising in the middle of the night to pray, since it is then relatively easy to commune with "God" (non-ego), our bodily energy beyond our executive powers (ego). For the split between the two is then relatively obvious and disengaging from ego relatively easy.
Therefore, keeping as our reference point how disengagement works to reduce sleeplessness, let's turn to its even greater benefits when applied during the day.
Our unwanted thoughts, night or day, are compelling because of the importance we give them. However, as we become increasingly aware of how unwanted they are, we begin to bestow less importance on them. Inversely, our attention to ourselves grows. We become aware of how starved we have been for the attention we give ourselves in disengaging from our thoughts, and we become increasingly drawn to give ourselves more. At a certain point, the contrast between our need for this compassionate self-regard and the unwanted nature of our thoughts may even reach a point where we can choose not to think them.
The elimination of unwanted thoughts is temporary or permanent, depending on the importance we give them. During the night, we may decide to postpone taking our boss' slight seriously for now. But we fully intend to think seriously about it in the morning. In this case, our disengagement is temporary. On the other hand, while disengaged we may achieve enough objectivity that we are able to see that some of our thoughts are untrue, harmful, or useless. Consequently, those thoughts, like vampires exposed to daylight, wither away. They are gone permanently, because we realize that their supposed importance is illusory, not just momentarily inconvenient. Over time our priorities shift.
Therefore, the permanent fruit of disengagement is disengaged involvement, the ability to engage the world from an inner calm of minimized unnecessary conflict. Though engaged in the world, we are not caught up in it: it no longer leads us around by our nose of clinging to untrue, harmful, or useless thoughts.
Disengaged involvement is not just the result of piercing through past illusions, but is even more fundamentally a dynamic state that protects us from future ones. For in experiencing the difference between focusing on our body and being lost in thought, we may come to the momentous insight that our true happiness is found in our innermost awareness of our body, whereas the satisfaction we derive from our thoughts is secondary, since their only function is to extend the primary satisfaction that emerges from our being present to our body.
Our body is therefore our touchstone to our values, our ultimate priority. We discover that we are lost when we become so absorbed in our thoughts that we become unaware of our body. The satisfaction we achieve when lost in our thoughts, however considerable it may be, leaves us empty, wondering, Is that all there is?
By the same token, our body is our touchstone to reality. Being aware of our body reveals to us when we are clinging to thoughts rather than objectively assessing their truth or usefulness. Although it is our intellect's task to determine truth or usefulness, it is our body that knows whether we are allowing our intellect to proceed freely according to its own requirements, or we are clinging to unsupported beliefs for our own defensive reasons. To return to our example, disengaged involvement does not tell us what the facts are about our boss' slight, whether or not we deserved it, or what we should do about it. But it does enable us to know if we are addressing these issues honestly.
(By the same token, "spiritual leaders", those who seem to have exceptional inner peace or engaged relaxation, have nothing special to tell us about how to deal with the complex issues of environmental and social policy. That is, they have nothing to tell us in virtue of their inner peace alone. Disengaged involvement is no substitute for the hard intellectual work of understanding the environment and society using the best intellectual tools available. It supports that work, however, by making us aware of when our inquiry is honest and when we are distorting it by clinging to unsupported beliefs. Most fundamentally, it also supports such inquiry by awakening us to what is really important to us.)
In short, disengaged involvement does not pick and choose among the contents of our experience, but discerns our relationship to them. It is that relationship that gives us our sense of wholeness, the feeling of inner health that makes everything we do worthwhile. That is what we learn in the dark.
Gary Schouborg is a partner of GaryNini.com, which provides life coaching and editing services. He received his PhD in Philosophical Psychology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1978 and is currently constructing a naturalistic, developmental theory of enlightenment.