(From the volume Radical Spirit, edited by Stephen Dinan)
Yet, alas, most of my life has been spent asleep to this realm of clarity and effervescent aliveness. The window of my being seems too often smudged and smeared with this and that; sometimes the shades seem tightly drawn; at times I feel boarded shut. From this place of cold, dark ignorance I yearn for that which is most deceptively simple: to know who I really am and to be my most real self. What I yearn for is authenticity.
Of course, in one sense, such a project seems absurd: how can anyone be other than who they are? Even when we’re clueless, somnambulistic, zombified shmucks, we’re still being ourselves — who else could we be? Yet with authenticity, there’s a sense of direction and developmental potential — I can imagine being even more authentic than I am now — and there’s also the implication of an enlightened pinnacle, a truly radical authenticity. The more radical the authenticity, the wider the embrace of my consciousness, the deeper the sense of “me.” Nevertheless, the question that dogs me is: How to get there?
For several years now I’ve been searching for the key to my truest nature, a key that seems well within reach when life becomes extraordinary. During such experiences there begins to grow in me a stark certainty that everything makes perfect sense, that beneath the warped and ragged veneer of ordinary life lies the thundering heart of God in fullest glory. The secrets of the universe begin to reveal themselves in bold block letters, paradoxes dissolve like so much Nestle’s Quick in an ocean of milk. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the key to living fully is all about just one thing, this one thing, so simple, so obvious, so...easy to forget.
Back in life-as-usual there are still the smoldering embers of intuition, a vague sense that the seemingly fragmented dimensions of my life are of a wholeness, connected by a subtle thread of luminosity that forms the warp and woof of my being. Whether I'm talking with a friend, playing guitar, shooting hoops, sitting in meditation, or writing an essay, there are moments when this radiance begins to shine forth, when my experience transforms or shifts toward deeper levels of authenticity, aliveness, and clarity. No matter the context or content of experience, there's a reminiscent quality to the transformative process that whispers softly: "this is it, the one thing that matters.” And so, pushed by the fear that I might deny myself the full promise of existence and pulled along by the hope of inspired moments, I grope about in the dark feeling for that luminous thread, hoping to catch the faint thump of a divine heartbeat.
I’m grasping for principles, rooted in the essence of my most awakened moments, that might show how to consciously cultivate a radical authenticity. I’m just dying to figure it all out, to feel that "one thing" flailing helplessly on the end of my line, hooked like a fat bass waiting to be reeled in, skinned and gobbled up. In spite of my best efforts, however, the most profound insights and moments of inspiration usually take me by surprise, right where I stand.
I’m reminded of a hike the other day during which I suddenly, wonderfully, literally, noticed the path beneath my feet. It was as if the roots and stones and sticks were giving the bottoms of my feet a massage, nudging them, waking them up, thawing them out to my awareness. There’s something about the wild earth that speaks to the feet in bright, lively melodies, unlike the paved walkways or wall-to-wall carpets I’ve grown accustomed to. Hallways and sidewalks are not designed to be attention grabbers; their stability and predictability lull our feet to sleep so that we can focus on other matters. Forget your feet on the hiking trail, though, and you just might fall on your ass.
Most notably, as I became increasingly sensitized to the bare edge of my immediate experiencing, starting with the flow of feeling in my feet, I began to feel more present and clear overall. Perceptions became fresher and full of crisp, clear sensations. Thoughts eventually arose, but instead of the usual muddle of re-runs and worries whirling through my mind, my thinking seemed connected or engaged to a world beyond itself. These thoughts did not intrude but instead contributed to a deepening sense of clarity and conviviality with the world. In this place of clarity, thoughts made more sense, feelings took on more meaning.
Something happened on that hike that happens over and over again in my life. I wake up to a “more real” world, realize that I was previously asleep, then eventually fall back to sleep again. A profound remembering takes place from a state of utter forgetfulness, and then I forget again. I begin to open up and then, before too long, I contract again, back to the land of Snoozing, Forgetfulness, and Self-contraction, where all is status quo, a world built on habit and routine.
Shifts in the direction of wakefulness often begin the moment I start paying attention to the ongoing flow of feeling, emotion and tension arising in my body, and then choose to express myself from that awakened depth of sensitivity. That this process of sustained, sensitive expression never fails to bring with it a heightened aura of authenticity tells me something important is going on. Interactions can go from dull and pointless to intense and spirited. In a typical interaction, I invest just enough attention to register routine cues, and then I either consciously or unconsciously restrict my range of responsiveness to some pattern of propriety, an anemic repertoire of routines. I’ve held myself back so many times and in so many situations that I usually don’t even realize I’m doing it; I become forgetful, a sleepy-head, and the result is a sickening sense of inauthenticity.
Not that small talk and social graces don’t have their place. If I felt compelled to bare my soul to the mailman each morning, I’d never get anywhere and no one would get their mail on time. It’s the capacity to be authentic that’s so precious, and like any other capacity, it appears to be a “use it or lose it” affair. Our bones become soft when not regularly used to bear weight; muscles become weak and less responsive in the face of prolonged inactivity; brain cells not regularly involved in voluntary activities deteriorate. And if personal growth can be defined as an expanding or deepening of one’s conscious awareness, coupled with an expanding or deepening of one’s responsibility (that is, one’s range of response), then surely we’ll suffer the woes of developmental arrest if we habitually ignore and hold back.
The hiking experience reminds me that there’s no better place to dig for that luminous thread of authenticity than in the dirt beneath my toes. That dirt is chock full of creepy crawlies like the writing of this essay, my romantic relationship, career concerns, family, friends — the more I dig, the more heads poke through the soil.
My partner and I, for instance, have become so familiar with each other’s patterns of communication that the freshness and intensity of interaction that was nearly always present while we were getting to know each other sometimes gets lost in insidious routines of relating. Whenever she and I go through a prolonged period of this predictable, habituated mode of being together, our relationship becomes increasingly devoid of feeling. The electricity gets snuffed out. We feel far apart even in each other’s arms. We may say the words “I love you,” but the felt sense of a powerful loving connection is just not there.
Our plunges back into the ocean of loving connection have happened when one or both of us simply begins to communicate more fully from the immediacy of our feelings. Usually it begins with the admission of feeling distant and cut off. I then might decide to really go into things, taking the time to sense how this aloofness is actually manifesting presently, checking in with the overall flavor of feeling, tension, and emotion arising in my body. From a sense of tightness in my chest and throat might come the realization that “I’ve been feeling frustrated that we don’t seem to really talk lately. I’m not sure why, but I feel like I want to bite your head off. I get the sense that it has something to do with your trip to New Jersey...”
To ground self-expression in the raw, here and now experience of a situation requires vulnerability, a willingness to put one’s ass on the line. The depth of authenticity that my partner and I share is possible because of the love and trust that we have built over the years. But that foundation of love and trust exists in the first place as the direct result of our willingness, from the very beginning, to be vulnerable with each other and take chances. To put our ass on the line. At the heart of this process of openness and vulnerable communication lies the mystery of love, the luster of which, to my eye, reflects most purely that luminous thread of radical authenticity.
Self-expression which springs from a sustained sensitivity to a given situation has been the recipe — par excellence — of authenticity in my life, as well as the single biggest threat to the status quo. But, at least for me, nothing is more difficult and utterly terrifying than to buck the status quo. There’s simply no way, at least that I know of, that we can be authentic, wakeful, and openhearted without becoming deeply sensitive to the ways we maintain and perpetuate our inauthenticity, our forgetfulness, and our contractedness — and this process just plain hurts. Who would numb themselves to begin with except in response to scary, painful shit? So, to really be aware involves uncorking that foul stench. But that’s only part one of the story. Not only does the path of sensitive, authentic expression rustle up my unfinished business, but it often flies directly in the face of all that I cling to as a card carrying member of society. And the fear of being ostracized, especially by those I love, is usually enough for me to reach for that giant snooze button and reconsider the benefits of forgetfulness.
As children, we’re often encouraged — if not aggressively trained — to ignore or disregard our direct, authentic experience. The other day this painful truth was literally “driven home” before me. I was at the park reading a book in the back seat of my van, side door open wide. Distracted by a mother calling out to her son, I set the book on my lap and rested my eyes. She was getting into the car parked next to mine and attempting to coax her young boy from his reverie by the creek. Exasperated, she commenced the dreaded angry-mother-count-down, shouting out “one...two...three...” and making pretty darn clear that if the little guy was not in the car by “five” she would leave without him. Clearly overmatched, the boy made a bee-line for the car, but not before paying me a brief visit. As his mother rolled her eyes, the boy, about three years old, pleaded, “I have to give something to the man first.” He leaned his chubby-cheeks into my van and held out a closed hand to me and said, “this is for you.” He then proceeded to empty into my cupped hands his wonderful gift — a pile of cigarette butts!
Bewildered at first, I quickly realized by the look in the child’s eyes that his gift was most sincere, so I smiled warmly and thanked him for his kindness. I looked up at his mother to find she was mortified. As I proudly displayed my prize on the edge of the seat, the boy bounced away from the van and into the smoke of his mother’s smoldering reproof: “Don’t you ever pick up those things off the ground again! They’re filthy!” “But I found them Mom, a whole bunch of them, and I want to give them to people,” he pleaded. Mom’s words were too powerful, however: “Nobody wants them!”
Part of me wanted to cry out to the boy, to let him know that I wanted them, that I appreciated his selfless gift of love. Of course, I suppose his mother had every right to discourage his butt collecting — it’s a less than sanitary hobby, to be sure. But to the child, those butts were magical trinkets that he was blessed to discover. So many of these gems were revealed to him on his treasure-hunt that he was moved to share his good fortune with the whole world. Now his spirit of wonder and sharing was snuffed out like a Marlboro under a cowboy boot. After the car doors were slammed, mother and child pulled away, leaving my view of the park less obscured but my heart aching.
Part and parcel of growing up, for me at least, was the following message: express yourself only in ways sanctioned by the Handbook of How to Be, no matter what your own instincts and intuitions, or else risk punishment from authority and ridicule from peers. And it’s the same old story now that I’m a big boy. Go to college, get a respectable job, get married, and I’ll see you in the Promised Land — [namely some retirement community in Florida]. Don’t worry about those pangs of doubt, that hunger for something more. Those are mere feelings, and Science tells us that such subjective leanings are unreliable. God tells us that the feeling body is the abode of sin and will lead us astray. Your eyes are getting heavy my dear, very heavy...
I used to feel sadness to the brink of tears, but I held them back so many times in the name of strength and toughness that these days I can rarely muster up more than a sulk or a pout. I used to be more silly and spontaneous, more playful in general, capable of such joy that I’d laugh like a hyena. I used to climb trees and skip down the street. But then it came time to act my age, a performance held together by the rigid posture of the status quo. Upholding the status quo means to maintain the stance one took previously, and thus we embody the status quo by standing still. And as any spry ninety year old will insist, if you keep still for too long, you’ll no longer be able to move — which is a lot like being dead.
I’m always curious how other people’s understanding of awakened experience fits with my own. On a recent promenade with a friend of mine, a gifted writer, I asked her to tell me flat out, in simple language, her secret to inspired expression. To my amazement, she not only took the question seriously, but spent the next two hours explaining what she believed to be the heart of the creative process and mystical experience in general. As we marched up and down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, she encouraged me to touch trees and sign posts; to notice the juxtaposition of traffic lights and church steeples; to feel the pull of gravity in my feet; to think about time, space, the xylem and phloem of plant life, the plight of hungry squirrels. Above all she spoke of the need to let things in, to notice the play of detail and nuance in the world and to let that play fuel the creative process. Over some french fries and ice-cream I could only nod in assent with a half-cracked smile on my face — I understood completely. And as I tried some fries dipped in ice-cream for the first time, I knew we were in the presence of that “one thing.” We were positively swimming in it. I floated home that night, pondering the fathomless depths of sensitivity and awareness.
This basic principle of sensitive expression informs most of the specific practices and strategies I employ to consciously cultivate authenticity. In the practice of Authentic Movement (based on the work of Mary Whitehouse), I begin by noticing my conditioned patterns of movement as I dance or walk about the room. As the flow of feelings and sensations becomes more refined in my awareness, some feature will usually stand out in the form of a contractedness or a particular way of holding myself that inhibits free and spontaneous movement. The more I’m able to sustain my awareness of the contractedness or held-backness, the more and more conscious I become of that contraction as an active gesture that I’m perpetuating at that moment. As I allow movement to spontaneously emerge from this refined sensitivity, I feel increasingly free, present, and wide awake to whatever I’m doing. This practice has made me increasingly sensitive and aware of how I move and hold myself in a wide range of situations, and I’m learning how to apply this essential practice to other forms of expression, such as singing, guitar playing, and writing.
For instance, often when I start singing, I’ll find that my vocal range and quality are limited by involuntary constrictions in my throat and other areas of my body. I start off sounding like shit. Squawking and squeaking my way through a Pearl Jam song, I can appreciate how artistic excellence, in any form, springs from openness and refined awareness. As I focus attention on my constrictedness during a series of long, held-out notes, my singing becomes increasingly powerful such that the notes sound clearer and fuller, less and less choked off. Before too long, I can tear into the song with unrestrained passion (“Ohh I, I’m still alive, yeah yeah yeah yeah!!!”). It’s as if my sensitivity deepens to the point where the involuntary, unconscious, habitual posture of constriction begins to be experienced as a voluntary, conscious thing that I am right now doing. With that shift in consciousness comes a spontaneous realization of freedom — if I am aware that I am the constrictor, then I can stop constricting.
Similarly, when I sit in meditation, I focus my attention on the bare immediacy of whatever comes to my awareness, and layer upon layer of ever more subtle contractions and levels of ignorance are revealed. But again, with each layer embraced by consciousness comes a deeper release of freedom. As a relative fledgling meditator, I can only trust that as my capacity for sustained awareness deepens through practice, I might eventually learn to relax the most subtle of all contractions, the entire sense of being a separate self. Perhaps with that giant step toward authenticity, I’ll be flung willy-nilly into the release of a radical freedom. We shall see.
In general, to the extent that I’m unaware of holding myself back, I am prisoner of myself, locked into a particular pattern or way of being. But to think that I have found the key to freedom with this notion of sensitive expression makes me laugh at myself, the kind of demented laugh one might hear from the foreman of a wrecking crew after he realizes he just blew up the wrong building. Opening to a bit more playfulness feels closer to that luminous “one thing” than clinging to any special key. A more playful attitude relieves me of the burden of making this or that my God. It’s hard to create when the weight of the Kosmos rides on the creative process. It’s hard to open to feelings when failure to do so is thought of as the ultimate failure. Letting it all go with a more playful attitude, I can take my eyes off the prize and let my gaze fall on what’s before me. This also opens up possibilities to learn from others who may or may not be cultivating self-awareness per se. Too often I’ve gotten on my spiritual high-horse, putting people in boxes like “aware” and “unaware” and ignoring or dismissing those that fall into the latter box. From a more open stance, I recognize that each person can move me on some level of my being, if only I let them in and meet them in that place. My younger brother Jimmy has taught me this lesson well.
Jimmy, whose brain was made toast by an allergic reaction to the pertussis vaccine in early childhood, has always been my litmus test for grandiose visions of reality. My father affectionately refers to this youngest of his sons as “the anchor.” A fully grown, perpetual infant, Jimmy has saddled my parents in their golden years with a ton of worries, responsibilities, and dirty diapers. But, at least for me, my brother is also an anchor in a different way, keeping me spiritually grounded. For any real “one thing,” if it truly be that thing that cradles all my experiences in its luminous embrace, must account for Jimmy. How can I apply my lofty spiritual principles in the face of such heartbreak and tragedy?
I’ve held this koan close to my heart for the past nineteen years, and just so I wouldn’t forget upon leaving the homestead, I’ve spent the past seven working with people diagnosed with various mental and physical disabilities. There was Max, fresh out of college, as was I, who suffered severe brain damage in a bike accident. He spoke of how his friends didn’t come around any more, how he could no longer control his movements and impulses, how he wished I would roll his wheel chair in front of a fast moving bus. And Sarah, a tattooed, pierced-tongued teenager who spent most of her time on the streets, trying to cope with the voices in her head, scarred by sexual abuse, and desperately seeking friends who could tolerate her mood swings. “I just want someone to fucking love me!” she said to me with tears streaming down her face. These tortured souls and so many more, imploring me to assuage their suffering — what can I possibly do for them?
In the end, I know that all I can do is be there with them. Not just be present in the flesh, or even be available and responsible in a professional sense. To be there in spirit — eyes, ears, arms and heart wide open — is all I can aspire to. Sometimes I succeed. There have been many touching moments, many mutually enriching experiences. Because of these people, especially my little buddha-bear of a brother, I won’t stop searching, won’t stop grasping for that one precious thing until we all can bathe in its radiant splendor.
As I type these final words, I'm reminded of just how difficult it can be to walk this talk of authentic expression, to dwell in the current of a life arising until I find the courage to let go and be swept away. My heart flutters open and closed as I search for a bright red ribbon to tie around this story, a way to capture the essence of what I've been struggling to convey. Perhaps the best I can do is to close with the words which came forth most unbidden from this sense of struggle. So much to say. Nothing to say. A poet with no voice, no hands to write with — they're full of throat. Like a junky who can't find a vein, I'm searching desperately between my toes. There, swimming in the depths of my heart, I feel — nothing. There, hiding in the black behind the stars, I see —nothing. Emptiness, openness, sweet surrender. Could it be this and nothing more?
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Bob Dearborn works with people who have been diagnosed as mentally ill and has a master’s degree in East-West Psychology. He makes his home in Carrboro, North Carolina.
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