Timothy Conway will be a retreat leader at the Awakening Together Retreats held in Santa Barbara, California this September. In preparation for the retreats, this is the second in a series of questions answered by Timothy.
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Q: Why are we here in the first place?
This, along with many other similar “why” questions, can, of course, be “answered”—e.g., “to love and serve and to enjoy the adventure of being the Formless playing the dance of Form.” Yet “why” is more usefully re-directed to How is it that there is an arising sense of self and world at all?
A related “why”-question is “Why did the Divine Self dream up this painful illusory world and self-sense?” This, too, can be therapeutically shifted to “Precisely how is it that I identify with and problematize any painful situations and self-sense?”
Q: “So, ‘how’ come there is suffering?”
One can always point the questioner back to classic Advaitin or Buddhist self-enquiry, “Who or What is aware of ‘suffering’?” The knowing Awareness, after all, must be quite different in kind from its object. This Changeless Principle Right Here recognizes various changing emotional, mental, psychic and physical states like suffering, ennui, loss, desire. The Changeless Awareness is not part of or tied to those changeful aspects of experience. If the person further responds, “well it feels like my suffering is changelessly part of my life,” one can reply, “where is it, then, in deep, dreamless sleep?” as evidence that suffering comes and goes and is not always, changelessly part of one-self.
But it is also therapeutically useful to sometimes speak on a more conventional, psychological level by distinguishing between intensity, pain, and suffering. Basically, any form of physical or emotional pain is a form of intense energy that one does not know how to process psycho-physiologically. There is an ancient, evolutionary programming within different species to perceive and judge certain intense stimuli: “Owww! Painful!” Without this discrimination, most animal species never would have survived, lacking incentive to run away from predators chomping on one’s limbs. So pain is a useful alarm signal. Suffering comes in with neurotically self-obsessing thoughts like “Why is God always doing this to me?” or “I must have lots of really bad karma to have this happen to me.”
One can drop the “suffering” of certain painful situations by letting go inner judgments, resentments, regrets, expectations and the sense of being the hapless target-entity afflicted by cruel outside forces, and instead simply notice pain, along with intelligently making any changes needed (e.g., pulling the hand away from the fire or moving beyond a chronically abusive relationship). This shift from conflicted suffering to fully experiencing pain is well-known to many professionals working in pain-management clinics, where the emergent wisdom has been to teach clients how to meditatively be-the-pain. Studies indicate that many people’s felt-sense of even physical pain actually diminishes considerably, by up to 80%, by focusing upon pain’s raw sensations and not getting entangled in self-obsessing thoughts about the pain and its relation to “me.”
Marathon runners, swimmers, cyclers, weight-lifters et al. routinely take on extremely painful situations while training. Their muscles and entire physiology painfully “scream” as these athletes repeatedly go beyond their normal felt-sense of physical and mental limits, stretching into greater excellence. Most persons suddenly placed into this stressful situation of athletic training would complain of being put into hell. But athletes seek out this situation—they know they can “become the pain” and realize it as passionately-intense energy. It’s not just that the body-mind starts releasing endorphins and other natural pain-managing chemistry. No, these aware athletes often feel that they’ve been released into nondual aliveness, pure intensity—no more subject of experience, object of experience or dualistic process of experiencing. Just pure experiencing.
This is, notably, one of the very definitions of Brahman in [the classic nondually-oriented Hindu medieval text] Yoga Vâsishtha.
Likewise, we “become one with” any painful physical or emotional situation upon losing the dualistic sense of subject and object and realizing we are really this Formless Awareness nondually being various forms of intensity. This is Shiva experiencing ItSelf as Shakti, Awareness experiencing ItSelf as the sacred world of intense energy.