Recovery from Un-Enlightenment

Recovery from Un-Enlightenment,
by Art Ticknor

                     
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I'd been reading the autobiographical story of Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke and recovery, My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey, and found it rich with material for the person trying to recover not only from a stroke but also from "un-enlightenment" or even depression. Enlightenment is a loaded term pointing to a realization that can only be cartoonishly imagined by the person seeking it. Nirvana is the "blowing out" of the faulty self-belief, or the ego death that brings us back to the recognition of our true, present state of being. The progression from delusion to essence-realization is, in effect, a recovery process.

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fancy R ecovery from un-enlightenment may unfold along a series of steps such as these:
1. Admitting that you don't know what you are
2. Intuiting that knowing what you are (self-recognition) is the most likely cure for your condition
3. Determining to act toward that goal
4. Slowing down
5. Opening up
6. Getting out of your own way
7. Persisting until the goal is reached

It struck me that there's a great deal of extremely practical material in Taylor's book for the seeker to apply. I found that another book I came across, The Secret Power Within: Zen Solutions to Real Problems by martial arts master Chuck Norris, dovetails intriguingly with very practical suggestions for several of the steps. Here are some of the things I noted and possible questions to ask yourself or exercises that you might construct from them.

1. Admitting that you don't know what you are
… And therefore know nothing for sure, not knowing the knower.

The truth of not knowing what you are may not be obvious to you without considerable deliberation. It often takes a head-smacking affliction that shakes up your sense of self, or an extended erosion of the same, and some introspective inquiry.

What do you believe yourself to be? Have you ever tried to define what you are? The mind is structured so that we only know by contrast. There's a chasm between knower and known, for example. Anything that's known is on the side of the chasm opposite the knower.

Taylor saw that there are "enormous gaps between what I know and what I think I know." Doubting what you think you know provides you with an expanded and more objective view.

2. Intuiting that self-recognition is the most likely cure for your condition

Sometimes realizations may come to you in a flash, as if an internal switch were flipped, and other times they seem to creep up behind you and you don't see the dividing line between before and after something became abundantly obvious. You may construct a reasonable explanation, but you may also find that the explanation isn't convincing to someone else.

The way I recognize intuition is that it comes with great conviction. I was devoted to analytical thinking and seeing many sides of any argument or conclusion, so the first time a strong intuition hit my consciousness as an adult, I was amazed to see a conclusion or belief that my mind didn't have any argument with. (I hesitate to admit that I was 33 years old at the time.)

Many feeling-dominant people explain all their actions as based on intuition. And they become confused (like the thinking-dominated people) when conflicting feelings don't give them a clear line of action. If a feeling arrives with great conviction, there won't be an argument in the mind. That has both pros and cons, since our interpretation of intuitive feelings isn't foolproof. The relatively rare (I think) person who's intuitive but can check it with common-sense analysis is very fortunate.

3. Determining to act toward the goal of knowing the self

Here's where some wisdom from Chuck Norris applies. Behind all the martial arts he sees a larger objective, and he intuits that their common goal is like the goal of Zen. "At heart, we all want the same thing," he writes, "whether we call it 'enlightenment,' 'happiness' or 'love.' Too many people spend their lives waiting for that something to arrive – and that's not the Zen way. Zen is always on the side of action…."

Acting on what we intuit isn't always easy. As Richard Rose used to point out, of the hundreds and hundreds of people that Jesus talked to, only 72 of them – his students, or disciples – intuited the importance of what he was saying. And of those, only 12 – the apostles – apparently could act effectively on it.

4. Slowing down

Taylor realized that: "In order to hear the intuitive wisdom of my right mind … I must consciously slow my left mind down so I am not simply carried along on the current of my chatty story-teller," and concluded that: "In order to come back to the present moment we must consciously slow down our minds. To do this, first decide you are not in a hurry. Your left mind may be rushing, thinking, deliberating, and analyzing, but your right mind is very m-e-l-l-o-w…. Become aware of your extraneous thoughts, thank them for their service, and ask them to be silent for a little while. We're not asking them to go away, just to push the pause button for a few minutes."

What would happen if you 1) decided you were not in a hurry, 2) became aware of your extraneous thoughts, 3) thanked them for their service, and 4) asked them to be silent for a little while?

Norris came to a similar realization from his experience when learning karate. "No one, not even a lover, looks at you as intensely and closely as someone who intends to knock you out in the ring." He found that his competitors would spot any gap in his concentration and take immediate advantage of it. How do you prevent it? His first instructor gave him advice that stuck: "What you are doing at the moment must be exactly what you are doing at the moment – and nothing else."

He applied this lesson outside the ring as well. "Living in the present without permitting thoughts of the past or concerns for the future to intrude requires a special kind of concentration and focus. Most of all it means slowing down and opening up."

5. Opening up

What did Norris mean by opening up? On the one hand, "It means being truly open to other people, listening to all of what they are saying instead of trying to reduce their concerns to a problem that can be briskly solved." In another aspect, "It means seeing what is really in front of you without permitting other concerns to block or cloud your vision."

In your meditation or introspection, can you watch mental activity without getting lost in it? Can you notice what is in front of you (in the mind's eye) without it being blocked or clouded by distraction? This is the first gateway to "opening up" the view.

Richard Rose wrote in the section of Psychology of the Observer on bringing the mind under control: "Something happens after this routine is practiced for a length of time. We begin to notice a motion within the head. The physical head does not move, but we become conscious of a mental head that literally turns away from a view. When you are able to turn this internal head, whenever you wish, without any inability to continue thinking, you are half way home."

Once you're able to notice what you're looking at – i.e., to watch mental activity without becoming lost in it – the next step to opening up the view is remembering what you're looking for (your true, present identity) and being able to turn the inner head away from activity that isn't relevant to that quest.

Norris says that while doing other things his "mind will sometimes suddenly tear itself loose to dream, to fancy, to race aimlessly like a hamster in a cage, to hold internal conversations – anything to avoid the reality of the present." What does he do? He remembers his first karate instructor's advice, turning his head away from the distraction, "excluding all other thoughts from my mind."

gazebo in Japanese Garden, Dawes Arboretum
In another section of his book, Norris writes that: "The basic philosophy of any martial art is designed to bring you closer to yourself … to help the student find the way to personal enlightenment." He tells us it requires "more than physical movement; it also demands mental concentration combined with a special openness," and if you're distracted, "You can't hope to find yourself, because your vision is blocked by a thousand seemingly all-important details." Does this sound like what you run into in your meditation practice?

6. Getting out of your own way

"One of the fundamental secrets to my success was that I made the cognitive choice to stay out of my own way during the recovery process." Taylor said she became like a toddler wanting to go out and explore. She made the choice to stay out of her own way emotionally … i.e., being very careful about her self-talk. It started coming back a few weeks after surgery, but her right mind's joy and celebration were so strong they didn't want to be displaced by the feeling that went along with self-depreciation, self-pity or depression. She also noted that: "For a successful recovery, it was important that we focus on my ability, not my disability."

Is your attitude like a toddler's, wanting to go out (or in) and explore? Are you careful about your emotional self-talk – particularly the feeling that goes along with self-pity, self-depreciation or depression?

Richard Rose used to say that our biggest impediment is the belief in our inability to accomplish. Do you see that at work in your case?

Another part of getting out of her own way meant that she needed to welcome support, love and help from others – which she said she welcomed because the ego portion of her language center wasn't functioning.

Do you welcome support, love and help from others – or are you trying to solve your problems by yourself?

7. Persisting until the goal is reached

Taylor said that: "I learned that every effort I put forth was the only effort that was important." Day one … rocking was the only activity that mattered. She wanted to sit up, but knew that focusing on that goal wasn't wise because it was far beyond her ability, and repeated failure, and the attendant disappointment, would likely get her to stop trying.

Compare that with your meditation practice. Do you try to "go for broke" and then become discouraged?

She had observed that: "A lot of stroke survivors complain that they are no longer recovering. I often wonder if the real problem is that no one is paying attention to the little accomplishments that are being made. If the boundary between what you can do and what you cannot do is not clearly defined, then you don't know what to try next. Recovery can be derailed by hopelessness."

Do you use a journal to keep track of self-definition questions and progress?

Taylor's bottom line: "Most important, I had to be willing to try." Jim Atkinson, a 15-year recovering alcoholic, said it took a leap of faith (in something bigger than himself) to keep him from drinking and added: "Ironically, it was the willingness to do anything to sober up … that was the linchpin of my spiritual leap of faith." [1]

What are your resistances to trying? What aren't you willing to try?

"My energy was very limited so we had to pick and choose, very carefully every day, how I would spend my effort. I had to define my priorities for what I wanted to get back the most and not waste energy on other things."

This is a doozy! Are you applying it in your recovery process?

"… I loved the feeling of deep inner peace that flooded the core of my very being."

An exercise to try, sitting in silence by yourself or with a few friends.

After leaving home to seek answers, Gautama worked diligently for years. One day he sat down wearily under a tree with the conviction that he would procrastinate no longer … and arose having become what he was looking for.



[1] http://proof.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/26/act-of-faith/

Jill Bolte Taylor's autobiography My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist's Personal Journey

Chuck Norris's The Secret Power Within: Zen Solutions to Real Problems

Richard Rose's Psychology of the Observer

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