Nov 19, 2020

Both And

A Direct Route to Feeling and Experience
By Josh Liveright /
Both And

The Chinese word “tao” is an attempt to define the nameless, often unconscious, energy source, both physical and non-physical, that exists within us, between us and essentially fuels everything, both known and unknown. In this definition, the tao exists with or without our experiential perception of it, our affirmation or negation of it, and despite any conceptual vocabulary describing it. In other words, the tao can only be experienced sensorially because as soon as we attempt to name it, we become separated from it as result of using our time traveling, meaning making, habit forming human brains. In our direct experience of it, the need to name it fades away and, with awareness, we are then at one with it. This is the essence of non-duality. Duality, or separation from the tao, occurs as our comparative, interpretive, analytical, judging minds prevent us from an experiential deeper understanding of existence, both known and unknown. It actually doesn’t matter what we do or don’t do because the tao exists no matter what our myopic, rigid, resistant brains perceive or ignore.

I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while and it doesn’t come easy because words are one hundred percent constructed and conceptual. Our dualistic programmed minds enter stage right as soon as words form. Entering into communication about our direct relationship to life is indeed a slippery slope and tends to get us into a lot of trouble. One aspect of our programmed minds is the tendency to look at things with a singular defining gaze through tiny slits for eyes. For instance, when we’re born into culture, we’re offered a fixed menu and most of us don’t realize there’s anything else to eat. In not wavering from the menu, or rather a system of programmed values, morals and ethics taking the form of what we perceive to be our own thoughts and ideas, we tend to view the world through these eyes only. We operate from these prescriptive thoughts and consider them the “right” way to live, or perhaps the only way. Sometimes I like to joke with my teenage kids and their friends, “don’t believe everything you think”, yet somehow that phrase takes us one step toward mental sovereignty.

The thoughts we attribute to our right way of thinking tend to feel repetitious when we begin to realize how we are actually treading water, experiencing the same responses over and over. The tendency then becomes to define ourselves with a singular gaze sometimes as “I’m depressed” or “I’m an anxious person” or “I’m an angry person”. We then, in turn, define others the same way which locks us more deeply into the limited menu options. One of my favorite go to dishes is, “we live in a white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal society” so I can conveniently proclaim every Trump supporter is racist, every man is predatory and every person participating in the system is a capitalist. It’s easy and gives me permission to feel “right” yet I am certainly looking only at the menu options provided to me. I too find myself stuck in a repetitive loop.

Projection is something that keeps the ink on the menu dry. Its main ingredient, dogma, is usually an attempt to project our rightness onto others. The duality of good and evil does an excellent job absolving us of any personal responsibility and keeps us stuck in one of the major repetitive patterns of thought, namely, I’m right and the other guy is wrong. It gives us permission to project onto others any time we want and it works out beautifully especially if the goal is feeling superior. However, we tend to crash and burn if we have any clue about how projection (and culture) actually works. If that’s the case, then we could potentially feel guilty about laying our trip on the other person which in turn fires up some anger both toward ourselves and all the innocent souls foolish enough to hang around us. Then again, they’re likely wrapped up in the same confusion and doing a great deal of projecting themselves. So, what does this have to do with this idea of “both and”? Plenty. Because how we’re mostly moving through life is looking only at the menu and defining reality in purely singular terms. We haven’t even begun to consider the full spectrum of experience and we spend our time circling around reality with our eyes wide shut.

That may sound harsh yet perhaps it’s okay since I’m attempting to get a point across. Also, I admit my head is often stuck up my own ass due to the same set of circumstances that has befallen all of us in the story of separation, or the human experiment, which includes domination culture and duality. In short, my meaning making brain is just as programmed as yours. The only difference may be that I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to tear up the menu and you may spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to read it. Essentially, we can all easily get stuck in a fixed gaze, eliminating the possibility of making the invisible visible and the sacred known. The direct route approach to experience and feeling often flies out the window rendering our relationship to the tao impossible. Our repetitive ideological thoughts and case making build road blocks and speed bumps, check points with authoritarian guards that define us as only able to do blank, incapable of blank, or I firmly believe blank.

There’s this “spiritual” notion of “the more aware I am, the less I know”. Knowing and not knowing is actually an element of “both and”.  If you’re curious and aware, there’s plenty you’ve learned, including how to open your eyes wider and look at a much larger field of possibility which in turn reaps a wealth of knowledge. It’s also possible to become overwhelmed by everything brand new and unfamiliar, the experience of transformation or change. Fear may arise and we may be sold on the idea that this is our only possible reaction or experience to what’s happening. In the “both and” realm of full spectrum direct route taoist living, or the story of interbeing and connection, the fear may still exist but could also be accompanied by excitement, what might feel like shock and awe all at once.

When fear comes, our tendency is to freeze, to resist the unknown. Yet, there’s a threshold we can cross, with intention, which opens us up to new fields of awareness. The same is true for just about any feeling, including pain. Pain can be a threshold to awareness especially if we listen to the messengers giving us direction. Leaning into the sensations, somatically, we can then perceive these feelings and sensations as guides who are directing us toward deeper understanding. So often we stop short and medicate, or go back to sleep, referring back to the menu items we know. “Both and” gives us a pathway toward taking in vital information through sensation and experience in any given moment, opening up our field of awareness to where we can then see multi-dimensionally rather than only what’s before our very eyes.

If we can learn to drop into a flow state, meaning softening the programmed rigid filters between thinking, feeling and accessing our mostly unconscious energy source, we can then begin to look at virtually everything with a broader range or spectrum. To soften the filters, imagine yourself in an elevator with three floors, three big buttons that light up. On the third floor, our logical, rational, meaning making, time traveling, case making brain resides, doing its thing; attempting to “make sense”. We love to hang out on this floor much of the time because the menu tells us it’s the most important aspect of being human. That problematic tiny blob of tissue called the pre-frontal lobe tends to be the driving force in most of our transactions. I think therefore I am, I am therefore I think is the motto of floor three. We are a little less familiar with the residents of the second floor, emotions and feelings. Taking the elevator down from the head to the heart, we poke around at our wounds and pleasures, our experiences of joy, sadness, anger, rage, ecstasy, bliss, fear and suffering. Generally, we access the sensations associated with these emotions in various parts of our bodies. They too are messengers and we can inquire further if we so choose. By simply placing our hands on the spot where we feel the sensations in our body, we can more easily find ourselves at the threshold of awareness. If it’s sadness we’re feeling, we can discover the root of the sadness and moreover, a more acute sense of what the sadness is telling us. So, sadness becomes a resource, not something to push away or resist. We also discover that sadness is only a word describing so many more aspects of our experience of that particular feeling and sensation. In fact, our vocabulary around feeling is incredibly limited because few people want to hang out on the second floor. Yet, it’s possible that we can begin to realize how the second and third floors integrate; where thoughts, feelings and sensations actually work together as resources. We notice they are all messengers and guides providing data to look deeper as we discover a broader field of awareness.

But what’s on the first floor? This is where things begin to get interesting as both our thoughts and feelings become alive with curiosity at this point. We press the button and head down into the energy source, what the Chinese call qi (chi). Qi is our lifeforce, our furnace, keeping our cells spinning and vibrating. We are largely unaware of it yet it’s always happening with or without our awareness of it, like the tao. As we become aware of this energy field, the walls, floor and ceiling of the elevator disappear. The filters separating the three floors soften, or even fade away completely, presenting us with an infinite landscape of possibility. All the while we realize how thoughts, feelings and energy integrate with presence and awareness, through our breath. We may begin to realize this is happening underneath all the layers of dogma, ideology, ego identification and programmed thinking designed to protect and keep us from a relationship with potential. We begin to see the root cause of why we suffer. We become Buddha mind, Christ mind, Gaia mind which is in fact, no mind. It is here we enter a flow state of generative being where our very essence feels lighter and more connected.

Then we open our eyes and here we are again, menu in hand, and we say, “fuck”. Yet that’s okay because here’s the point, joy and sadness release the same natural drugs in our system. When you see someone laughing or crying, at first glance they often look pretty much the same. Both and. Stevie Wonder hints at this beautifully in his song, “Joy Inside My Tears” from his masterpiece, Songs in the Key of Life. In a recent social media post the poet Aja Monet expressed it this way:

“I choose the difficult and deliberate journey of joy. It doesn’t make me any less sad about the world we live in. Most days I sit in awareness of how complicated the pursuit of depth can be. How deeply I’ve been hurt and how intense the pain goes has informed so much of what I find beautiful as well as the radical visions I hold.”

We are all capable of mining our shit and turning it into gold. Does trauma create weakness or strength? Do we crumble and die or are we also capable of realizing our power through challenging experiences? The word trauma has become stigmatized in recent times, taking on a negative charge. We forget there is a full spectrum of how we experience trauma ranging from victimization to resiliency. In the same way that something may be scary to you but exciting to me, we all have created stories around our so-called trauma. I’ve done a bit of sailing in the past and once upon a time, when my dad and I were bringing his boat north from southern Florida, we encountered a freak storm. We were cruising along in the Bermuda Triangle, about thirty miles off the coast of Jacksonville, naked, dozing, enjoying the hot sun and the calm wind on our faces. Suddenly, we saw a line of white coming fast directly behind us, a line squall. We didn’t have enough time to get the sails down and the storm overtook us, knocking us over. The force of the wind held the mainsail down on the water rendering our previous horizontal perspective vertical. We had to think fast or the boat would sink. Still naked, I grabbed a knife and crawled out into the turbulent sea along the mast, now buried in the water, and cut the sail off as quickly as I could. The boat righted itself and for the rest of the brief but powerful storm, my dad steered so we could surf the waves. As we were zooming along, golfball sized hail began pelting us as we rode out the squall. Then, in virtually no time at all, the sun was back, the wind died down and we were out of harm’s way. We replaced the shredded mainsail with a much smaller trysail which is used for heavy storms and plotted a course for the closest harbor. Our hearts were pumping and we were both revved up with adrenalin. We survived an ordeal! True, we didn’t really have time to get scared when it was all happening but in retrospect, even though we negotiated through a potentially dire set of circumstances, we found ourselves excited and giddy. Later, when we made landfall, I called my girlfriend, now spouse, and told her how I escaped death earlier. Mostly because her English wasn’t great back then, she replied, “that’s nice”. I still get a good laugh about that because actually, it was nice. Not only is it a pretty good story, it’s also an example of how it’s possible to embrace life’s challenges. Others may have been shaken to the core by that experience. For example, I have a friend who’s terrified of earthquakes even though she lives in Los Angeles. Every time a quake hits, it’s takes a long time for her to recover from what she describes as trauma. I also know people who like to go skydiving. I have never chosen to skydive probably because of my fear of heights. The point is, we all have a different relationship to fear. When we find our threshold, we hold the potential to shift that relationship with intention, awareness and breath. 

In Rev. angel Kyodo williams’ book, Radical Dharma, I was struck by her observation that “intersectionality incites us to reject internal cultural and identity hegemony” and then, “the greatest potential outcome of embodied intersectionality meets individual entitlement is transcendent movements.” In the last passage aptly titled, “EMBRACING WHAT IS, THROWING NOTHING AND NO ONE AWAY”, Rev. angel goes on to describe the essence of “both and” with profound clarity:

“These converging paradoxes are allowing for possibilities for human evolution that were not previously possible. We may initially experience this paradox as something to be resisted because we are deeply invested in right and wrong. We want to cut things off, throw something away. But in a world of multiplicity, the path toward liberatory mastery – personal and social – can no longer remain rooted in a singular ideology, discipline or viewpoint; it itself is becoming intersectional and interdependent. Through practice, we can create the invitation to be in relationship with the reality of what is. Even when we disagree with it, if for no other reason than that our disagreement doesn’t negate the reality.”

Kyodo williams sums it up in the final paragraph of the book, “The ability to disrupt our programming and form new cognitive connections based on direct experience that then becomes embodied through repetition – practice – is one of human beings’ greatest attributes. It is profound, and it is possible, and we can see it.”

In the classic film, Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn plays the larger than life character Zorba who accompanies an uptight British writer named Basil, played by Alan Bates, to the island of Crete. On the boat ride Basil asks Zorba if he’s married and he replies, “Am I not a man? And is not a man stupid? I’m a man so I’m married. Wife, children, house, everything. The full catastrophe.” Jon Kabat Zinn, the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness, coined the phrase “full catastrophe living”, also the title of his first book. In an interview he describes mindfulness:

“This [mindfulness] has to do with a kind of feeling sense, a way of feeling ourselves into our experience from moment to moment to moment. Good, bad or ugly I might say; what Zorba the Greek called the full catastrophe. Full catastrophe is the nature of the human condition, to actually, at times, encounter uncertainty, stress, pain, loss, grief, sadness and also tremendous potential for joy, connection, love. All of that is the full catastrophe, not just the bad stuff, it’s everything. The question is, can we live it? Can we live inside of it in ways that can enliven us, in ways that can allow us to be fully human? If you think about it, the present moment is all we have. It’s always now. Every time you check your watch, you say, my goodness, it’s now again.”

Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulness (more like his mantra) is “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally”, what I often refer to as the direct route to feeling and experience, or the full catastrophe. At one point in the film, Basil watches a drunk Zorba dance and becomes mesmerized. His repression keeps him from joining in with his companion but we realize there’s more for him to learn about exaltation and ecstasy. For so many of us, it’s deeply uncomfortable to let our guard down and experience uninhibited joy. It’s simply not on the menu. By the end of the film, Zorba has orchestrated the construction of an elaborate contraption to get timber down from a nearby mountaintop so the collapsed mines can be rebuilt and revitalize the economy of the village. From the beach way below, Zorba fires a rifle, his signal to start sending down the logs. As the first log zooms down, the contraption starts shaking uncontrollably and by the third log the whole system falls completely apart. All the villagers flee, leaving Zorba and Basil alone on the beach. It’s here that Basil absorbs the lesson of the full catastrophe. After a moment, noticing how Zorba is unphased by the total collapse of weeks of planning and work, he remains quiet, thinking. Zorba asks, “Are you angry with me?” Basil, finally understanding the “madness” that Zorba has repeatedly told him is missing from his life, responds by making an unexpected request, “Teach me to dance, will you?” Zorba jumps up excitedly and teaches Basil to dance the sirtaki. As the two men dance, Basil laughs out loud for the first time in their journey together. This is how the film ends. With the ecstasy of love and friendship between two men who couldn’t be more different from each other. Both and. Full catastrophe living.

Audre Lorde, the writer, feminist and activist once said, “There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise.” Power is a funny word and I’ve written about it in a previous article, “The Power of Disposable Time”. It’s derived from the French word povoir meaning “to be able”, evolving into “the ability to act or do”, and then into our current menu version; strength, vigor, might, mastery, lordship and dominion (over). You can see how it’s changed over time into something other than its original definition. The concept of power in its current form is more or less aligned with capitalism, a system of production that’s also been redefined and corrupted. We’re living in a time of great transformation and hardship (both and) where many of us are struggling with injustice, inequity, seemingly endless wars, extreme poverty and on and on. Every growing movement is toward expanding awareness. A large part of the challenge is we are working with only the menu items (systems) currently in place but at the same time gazing at all the tasty new dishes now within our reach; feeling more, seeing more, hearing more, tasting more, smelling more and beginning to experience realms of sensation and awareness outside the five senses. Our relationship to power and energy is shifting fast and it’s uncomfortable as fuck! Covid 19, Black Lives Matter, as well as a myriad other movements and explorations including a growing fascination with portals like entheogens and various healing modalities, have shined a light on the menu, exposing its limitations and rigidity. We’re literally growing wings, flying high above our flat-earth perspective and embracing mental sovereignty at a rapid pace, realizing our true power. Just as the caterpillar turns to goo in the cocoon, its body literally disintegrating and dissolving, and then magically reassembling into a fully winged magnificent creature, we too have the capacity for transformation of this magnitude. Yet perhaps it’s not as complicated as our evolving brains make it.

One of the targets in my hypnotherapy sessions is for the person I’m working with to reclaim their relationship to feeling through direct experience. I often ask them to pick up a nearby object and describe it to me in feeling terms. Usually it’s a cell phone or a coffee cup. What I’m looking for is how they may describe the object through the brain’s default mode of case making, which includes comparison, interpretation, analysis and judgement. After we get past that explanation, what begins to happen is, by using their senses, they become more attuned to a direct relationship with the object they’re describing. By the end of the exercise, they become aware, much like in mindfulness training, of how case making actually distracts our senses from the direct experience of the object. In the case of a cup they’re holding, they use simple terms such as hard, smooth, warm and heavy. They’ve resisted the urge to use value at this point so I’ll then suggest to them that a tree is a tree, not an ugly or beautiful, good or bad tree. Then I’ll say, what if I asked you to meet me in the park at the ugliest tree, do you think we’ll find each other? They generally laugh and say, no. But if I get specific and describe the tree physically, pointing out identifiable landmarks, etc., we’ll have a much better chance of connecting. Their idea of ugly or beautiful is unlikely even remotely close to mine. This is where the game of duality, of one-upmanship, gets tricky; where we can easily enter into a relationship of projection and othering. Also, since we have such a limited vocabulary for feeling words, it’s no wonder we default to case making most of the time.

Using the feeling word anger as an example for a moment, let’s look at how limiting and singular it is to describe yourself or someone else as an “angry person”. For one thing, angry is a word with infinite shades and colors from mild annoyance to rage and everything in between. People get angry, true, but can they be angry? I would say this is not an accurate way to describe feeling and therefore applies to any feeling word. If we agree that feelings are like weather patterns, constantly shifting, then how could we possibly find ourselves permanently stuck in the storm of anger? It’s ridiculous to think we are only one thing all the time. I can feel a hundred things in ten minutes, easily. What does that say about me? Maybe simply that it’s impossible to define me other than someone who feels things a lot! Is it even useful to define me in the first place? Why do we pigeonhole each other? Mostly because its easy, even lazy. We’re not looking deeply. We’re not accessing our full range of being. Our senses are dulled. I get angry and likely you do too. Is that a problem? Sure, it could be in any given moment. If we’re driving from point A to point B and someone cuts us off, we’ll likely fly into some kind of brief rage, maybe even calling the other driver a “fucking asshole”, or something worse. What if the other driver is Mother Theresa? Is she a fucking asshole? Maybe in that moment she made a poor decision but generally speaking I don’t think it would be accurate to define her that way. Yet perhaps you know her personally and would disagree.

Humans love to define and diagnose. Why is depression and anxiety running rampant today? Well because the DSM-V says so! Depression and anxiety are generally symptoms of trauma, not the root cause, but psychiatrists love to treat the symptoms with a limited variety of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications and mood stabilizers. These drugs do not treat the root of the trauma. They are currently on the menu in big bold letters so we can keep ordering the same old things over and over again thus keeping the whole repetitive system chugging along. I have never seen anyone healed from these drugs. In fact, I’ve mostly seen how the side effects have created more problems. I’ve also noticed that it’s harder to offer any alternatives to the menu because these particular drugs create a thick fog in terms of our perception and awareness. Why? Because they are addictive so folks will assume there’s no other option. Drug companies most certainly know this and use this knowledge as a way to capitalize on us poor saps, but we don’t need to get into that right now. Depression and anxiety are blanket generic terms probably created by the pharmaceutical drug lords that actually keep people stuck. Like capitalism, like racism, like patriarchy. I don’t use the terms depression and anxiety with the people I work with because of how limiting and defining they are. And sure, I’ve felt depression, but what is depression really? In my ongoing healing process, I’ve found feelings around depression to be a series of messages telling me to slow down, to rest, to restore my body and mind; an invitation for deep rest. Anxiety, in my opinion, is really a non-descript word. Like anger, there are infinite shades and colors of anxiety. Considering we all experience fear differently, anxiety works the same way and is directly related to how our individual nervous systems react to threat in unique ways based on each of our own set of circumstances and experiences. Taking Klonopin may provide temporary relief but at that point we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of why we are feeling the threat in the first place. In order to truly discover what’s going on, we need to investigate further, go deeper into direct experience, the realm of what’s actually happening. Just like holding the coffee cup and describing it.

I'd like to end with a quote from Kate Roff, a woman I’ve worked with in the past, who's encouraged me to write about the concept of "both and". She's expressed how it's been a useful tool for navigating through an especially challenging transformational period of her life:

“When I feel really sad or scared, I automatically look for the other feelings like grateful and content or excited because now I know there is rarely a moment when you are just one feeling. You have access to ‘both and’, or even many different feelings, and you can choose to grow or feed the ones that support growth and transformation. It helped me realize I don't need to get rid of the feelings that are difficult or uncomfortable, I can acknowledge them and then focus on the ones that feel good and align with my higher purpose. Seeing that ‘conflicting’ emotions can be present at the same time just expands your awareness beyond what one of the many situations you are involved in is presenting, even understanding all the ‘roles’ we play such as mother, sister, daughter, etc. These are running concurrently with being an individual and how you can be both part of and separate and flow your energy both outward and inward.”

The journey through life can be an ongoing series of openings and awakenings if we so choose. “Both and” embodies the richness, nuance and complexities of all our experiences. It’s another tool, a way of integrating all our experiences as resources; a step toward mental sovereignty, transformation and freedom.

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