If consciousness is an ocean, thoughts are waves that can be churned into vast storms.
Have you ever awakened in the wee small hours, adrift on your tiny raft of awareness, to find yourself confronted by such a storm?
Perhaps an icy wind is whipping up the memory of something you read about COVID and slapping you in the face with it:
So now I have to tell the daughter that both her parents are dead in a matter of three days. Her dad’s not even buried yet.
You blink up at the ceiling and take a deep breath, before being struck by another blast:
“It is very concerning, extremely worrisome,” Peter Tans, senior climate scientist at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Financial Times. “This last decade, the rate of increase [of carbon emissions] has never been higher, and we are still on the same path. We’re going in the wrong direction at maximum speed.”
In the distance, you can’t quite make out how far, the big black wave of your own personal death looms. In front, around, and behind it, other great waves—the loss of family, loved ones, friends—rise and fall as they approach, like steel-grey pistons driving some inexorable engine of death. Is it any wonder you’re trembling?
Beyond even these, like a range of mountains on the horizon, the mile-high tsunami of climate collapse glints faintly in the light of your night-time awareness. You can see from the sheer size of it that it’s threatening the annihilation of all humans and most complex life on earth. And here, truly, there be sea serpents: fully one-fifth of Australian forests—one-fifth!—were wiped out in a single period of fire. What will happen to the other four-fifths in the future with temperatures and carbon emissions rising all the time, with next to nothing being done?
From your raft of awareness, you gaze up at this advancing tidal wave of death in awe and fear. It’s too terrible, you think. It can’t happen, somebody will find an answer. Amazingly, you find that thinking such nonsense helps somewhat—cheap but priceless denial. Perhaps denial would be enough to let you sleep, except…
Except that, closer to hand, treacherous whirlpools swirl with personal memories: “I’ll always be your friend, but I’ll never love you.” Or: “If you can’t even perform this simple task, you shouldn’t be sitting there!” Thoughts and emotional wounds, ancient and modern, spin round and round, sucking you in.
You try to think-swim away from these treacherous vortices, to keep your head above the waves of anxiety, grief, guilt, and regret, but thinking just makes it worse—thinking is precisely the problem! This mental chatter is so exhausting, so useless as a response to the overwhelming forces of the world. But what, then?
Traditionally, people have had to be beaten, battered, and half-drowned by these internal storms of mind before they finally turn to meditation. The classic modern example is supplied by Eckhart Tolle in his book, The Power of Now:
I woke up in the early hours with a feeling of absolute dread. I had woken up with such a feeling many times before, but this time it was more intense than it had ever been. The silence of the night, the vague outlines of the furniture in the dark room, the distant noise of a passing train—everything felt so alien, so hostile, and so utterly meaningless that it created in me a deep loathing for the world. The most loathsome thing of all, however, was my own existence.
The understandable conclusion: “I can’t live with myself anymore.”
But Tolle noticed a strange contradiction—who exactly was this “I” who couldn’t live with “myself” anymore? Was he, in fact, two people, then? He realized that he was sick of the exhausting, obsessive, thought-churning mind. In other words, sheer suffering caused him to realize that he wasn’t, after all, “the little voice in the head”. Rather, he was an inner witness, an awareness, that perceives those thoughts. After all, computers also have all kinds of information and messages rattling around their mechanical skulls but, unlike us, they have no awareness, no witnessing presence that sees those messages.
Our identification with “the little voice in the head”—our feeling that this mental noise is “me”—is so deep-rooted that it can take deep suffering of the kind Tolle endured to break free from it.
Two Feeling Practices
There are two main ways to dive beneath the oceanic tumult of thought, and they both involve feeling.
First, we can direct our attention to physical sensations in the body. For example, if you are suffering on your raft of awareness at night—if you’ve at last had enough of anguished thinking—turn on your back and focus your attention on your hands. Feel any tension in your fingers. Feel any tingling, warmth, or aching in your palms. You’ll find that simply redirecting your attention in this way makes a difference—any aches in your hands will intensify and then soften and heat will increase. There will be a feeling that the hands are like thirsty plants being watered with attention. What you will also notice is that focusing on the hands causes the previously unstoppable thought torture machine to dramatically slow down and lose intensity. Of course, noticing this can cause the machine to start up again: “Great, I’m no longer compulsively worrying about climate change… which is threatening my parents, me, everyone I know, thanks to the complete failure of political…” And off we go again.
The remedy is simple: we direct attention to our hands again, feel the tingling, the aches, the heat. Guided meditations are an easy way to experiment with this kind of body scan practice, and apps like Calm and Headspace offer a variety of practices to choose from. For example, this ten-minute Calm meditation includes a body scan, which is an extension of feeling your hands and feet. Or try this somatic mindfulness practice from Willa Blythe Baker on coming down from the thinking mind into the feeling body.
Sometimes, the emotional waves and whirlpools are so intense that it’s difficult to do any kind of body scan meditation. In this case, rather than diving below the surface of the thinking turmoil into physical feelings, we can dive into our emotional feelings. The mystic Osho discussed the art of diving into whirlpools in The Wild Geese and the Water:
In my childhood I used to love swimming, and my village river becomes very dangerous in rainy season, it becomes flooded. It is a hilly river; so much water comes to it, it becomes almost oceanic. And it has a few dangerous spots where many people have died. Those few dangerous spots are whirlpools, and if you are caught in a whirlpool it sucks you. It goes on sucking you deeper and deeper. And, of course, you try to get out of it, and the whirlpool is powerful. You fight, but your energy is not enough. And by fighting you become very much exhausted, and the whirlpool kills you.
I found a small strategy, and that strategy was that—everybody was surprised—that I will jump in the whirlpool and come out of it without any trouble. The strategy was not to fight with the whirlpool, go with it. In fact, go faster than it sucks you so you are not tired, you are simply diving in it. And you are going so fast that there is no struggle between you and the whirlpool. … I learned my art of let-go through those whirlpools. I am indebted to my river.
What has any of this got to do with the waves and whirlpools of the night?
And then I tried that let-go in every situation of my life. If there was sadness I simply dived in it, and I was surprised to know that it works. If you dive deep into it, soon you are out of it and refreshed, not tired, because you were not fighting with it, because you were not pretending, so there was no question of fighting. You accepted it totally, full-heartedly. And when you totally accept something, in that very acceptance you have transformed its character.
In the same vein, Lao Tzu said:
Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.
When we try to oppose and resist whirlpools of thought-fueled sadness, to swim away from them through thought, we become exhausted from the effort, while our misery only increases. But when we dive into the whirlpools, astonishing things happen.
When we stop resisting sadness—trying to sweeten it with phone calls, distractions, or pleasures—and just let ourselves feel it in all its heaviness, darkness, and pain, it disappears by itself, and even transforms into delight.
Likewise, trying to escape fear through distraction, alcohol, and avoidance can have short-term benefits, but fear is dogged, and, like a dog, loves to chase someone running away. If instead we place attention on the feelings of anxiety, on the burning fear, the racing heart, and the deep-breathing lungs, the fear will “disappear by itself.”
And this is true of all painful emotions and behaviors—we just have to pay close, meticulous attention for a long time. As long as it takes.
In an age of cataclysms that we may be unable to avert or avoid, we can still alchemize fear and sadness into peace and bliss. The mystic Kabir said:
Don’t go outside your house to see flowers, my friend, don’t bother with that excursion. Inside your body there are flowers. One flower has a thousand petals.
This flower is the “kingdom of heaven” that “lies within.” We don’t need to leave the house to find it. We need only turn within and feel whatever we find in our heart area, chest, and stomach. This is no idle promise—everyone who has seriously looked, without exception, has found it.
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