As you no doubt know, a prologue is what comes before what is the main body of, what will follow, in this case, the June Field Note. I woke up this morning and had the thought that the core of what the Field Note is about, the unexpected, the unwanted, and the horrible, and on further reflection I new that it is about anything unexpected, even those happenings that I might prefer and like. The essence of this is the experience of not knowing, which I have thought and talked about at great length over many years. I realized that this was so second nature to me that I failed to see that it was a core piece of the Note about being prepared for that which cannot be prepared for. So, what is coming before occurred to me after!
The title of this month’s Field Note refers to what I believe is an underlying theme and a a theme often not recognized in all our lives, namely, the ‘great state of not knowing.’ This refers to the ongoing reality of our inability to know what will happen in any given, or ‘next,’ moment. Our lives are filled with uncertainty even while you and I crave for certainty and predictability. A great many, even most of us, blithely assume that things are a certain way and that they will continue to be so ever thus, and if they are not, we are convinced that things are not as they should be, or as Shakespear had Hamlet say in his famous work, “time is out of joint—O cursèd spite.” When this happens, we believe what should be happening is not happening, happening in the way we think it should, and not on the time-table we would like. As Hamlet eloquently tells us, ‘something else is happening!’
In the way that Buddhism and Daoism tend to understand reality, the only thing that we know for sure, is what is happening in the moment, right now! Perhaps some Buddhists and Daoists may go even further and think that we can even be sure of knowing what is happening at the moment. In contrast we have been brought up to think that whatever occurs that is out of line with what we believe should occur, or wish for, is just simply wrong, unfair, or some perverse twist of fate. We are brought up to crave predictability, and for sure we need this in order to live. The underlying truth seems to be that such predictability, particularly at the earliest stages of our lives, is important to developing inner security. The brokenness of so many is evidence of some level of failure of this predictability. Perhaps, the only predictability we can count on is indeed developing our ability to respond in the moment, each and every moment, to the actuality of life as it unfolds.
I will just note here the old saying, “there are only two things certain in life; death and taxes. And for sure the most certain is the former, apparently. Of course, any of us reading this, or in my case writing this, do not know even this as a certainty, since we have not experienced it. We are alive and breathing. This latter we know and have memory of, and as is the case for all things, have no guarantee of this being ongoing. As it turns out I am still here, and most likely, so are you!
The particular focus of the June Field Note is becoming the you that is increasingly prepared for this ‘not knowing,’ and that for which you cannot prepare and that will surely throw you into a profound experience of not knowing and not being prepared. How we respond in the moment to this ‘not knowing’ is a microcosm of how we respond to all of life. The Note uses the notion of any particular event that is impossible, or near impossible, to ignore; those moments when the world and its unfoldings are clearly “out of joint.” I suggest to you that our lives are an ongoing experience of not knowing; being prepared means fine-tuning ourselves to be present for life as it is, not how we wish it was. I suggest further to you that this self that is prepared for that for which you cannot prepare, that mysterious, curiosity filled self, that breathes each breath anew is within you, always has been, and is waiting to have the way cleared for full emergence, rather than the programming that has been formed to be frozen in these profound moments that are pregnant with Not Knowing…
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash.Become like water my friend.
– Bruce Lee
Hello everyone and welcome to my Field Note for June 1, 2023. This note is done in a different way than previous Notes. Recently, I had an opportunity to participate in an interview with colleagues that was turned into an academic journal article. I enjoyed the process so much so that I decided to ask the same interviewer (the same Heesoon, my life partner) to pose interview questions to me on a topic that I have had in mind for some time now, We would then turn it into the Field Note for June, which is this current one, titled, “Preparing for That for Which You Cannot Prepare.” In short, preparing for the completely unexpected. So, here we go!
To start off let me share with you a quote from Bruce Lee:
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.
– Bruce Lee
Heesoon: “Preparing for that for which you cannot prepare!” This title sounds so incredible; like some ultimate quest! But the starting point of wrapping my head around this seemingly impossible quest is to see what resources we have already with which we can prepare ourselves. What comes to my mind right away is anxiety. My understanding is that anxiety prepares us to meet what is unknown, therefore, what we haven’t prepared ourselves for.
And yet, interestingly enough, almost everyone wants to get rid of anxiety. They don’t want to experience anxiety. And I also observe, that anxiety as a diagnosis is on the rise. What I am interested in is your view, based on your 50 plus years of professional practice as a counsellor and psychotherapist, on how you understand what anxiety is about and what people can to not to see it as an enemy to get rid of but perhaps see it clearly within the context within which it arises?
Avraham: Knowing me, you already know my answer to one part of the question: the ‘get rid of it altogether’ part. As you know, I don’t advise anyone to get rid of anything that’s part of their psyche, their psycho-social-visceral-spiritual l landscape. I should add that in a particular situation where there is imminent danger and threat to life and limb, I think it is crucial to use this anxiety that is signalled by a very large dose of cortisol within your system and that you act to achieve safety. Other than in these circumstances outlined in the previous sentence be aware that once you get rid of these inner experiences, you can’t work with them to facilitate their transformation; potentially a great. loss! And the truth is, you cannot really get rid of these experiential frameworks; you can only submerge them out of awareness, at least sometimes you can do this, and to your long-term detriment, in my experience. So, let’s keep the anxiety. Having said that, I can hear some of you saying, “Easy for you to propose that we keep the anxiety, but anxiety is so uncomfortable and debilitating! We want to get rid of anxiety.”
In fact, very many people have many ways of getting rid of it. Alcohol and drugs are frequent choices, and no doubt you are all aware of the downside of these ways. Prescription medications are also a way to dampen or shut down anxiety. And I would say that if the anxiety is too excruciating, then maybe there is a case to be made for some medication or herbal material as a temporary ‘calming’ measure. The key point is that there is really no way to get rid of this anxiety experience. I see this as akin to throwing garbage into the sea. You can no longer see it or smell it, but the fact is that it is now beneath the surface doing its damage more insidiously.
Heesoon: Okay, yes, if the anxiety is too severe to allow for conscious exploration, then intervention might be the way to go, at least temporarily. But it seems to me that a moderate amount of anxiety is very useful since anxiety, like all emotions, serves us in some particular ways that work towards human survival, individually and collectively.
Avraham: That’s right! As you know, it was Freud who coined the term ‘signal anxiety,’ meaning that our experience of anxiety is a signal that we need to be alert to our inner, outer, and relational environments for any signs of danger or something unusual. In other words, anxiety prepares us for meeting the unknown: the topic of this Field Note! Anxiety is vitally important for our survival, evolutionarily speaking.
Yet, in a culture that considers anxiety as something not desirable, and even considers it as a medical condition, it is difficult to tolerate anxiety. Our culture values and valorizes comfort and pleasure and villainizes discomfort and pain. Modern medicine supports us to be pain-free, even if temporarily, and many kind-hearted counsellors help us feel comfortable and assist us in getting rid of our anxiety. Indeed, the DSM has identified certain forms and levels of anxiety as a disorder.
Given that the original contribution of anxiety is to promote alertness and paying close attention to what is happening in the environment and in our inner world, much of our effort to relieve us from anxiety would dull our alertness and make us less than attentive to what is happening in all the relevant contexts. This can be highly problematic. When I witness some people reading text messages on their cell phone, while crossing the street, I can’t help thinking that they are lacking requisite survival anxiety! I suppose that I have upped my anxiety in order to be extra careful and not run them over!
Your anxiety is associated with release of cortisol (known as the stress hormone) levels that provide you with a needed energy boost to increase your ability in case you must run and escape from danger. If you ascertain that there is no imminent danger, you can give a big exhale to support a return to a more relaxed state, and your cortisol level diminishes.
The problem we face is two-fold. On the one hand, our contemporary environment is so complex and uncertain, and you might add to this, ‘volatile’ and ‘ambiguous,’ that we are responding with constant anxiety. Our cortisol levels remain elevated for extended periods of time. On the other hand, our culture also has set up an expectation that we shouldn’t experience discomfort and pain. We are all too keen and swift to reduce and remove discomfort. These two factors make up a highly problematic combination. And this combination prevails in mainstream culture. It is surely our intention and wish to step outside this aspect of the mainstream culture.
Heesoon: Yikes! What do we do about that? What suggestions do you have?
Avraham: If mainstream culture locks us into an impossible situation with a ‘deadly’ combination of inner, outer, and relational circumstances, then our best option is to get out of the mainstream. I think it is better to be considered weird by the mainstream and seen as ‘counter-culture’ than to remain in the main culture and get sick and suffer. And, not surprisingly, many of us are caught in an ongoing ambivalence about this dilemma.
Concretely, I propose that, instead of rushing away from the discomfort of anxiety, or for that matter, of any emotion, let us talk about how to be with emotion and physical sensation in the service of discovering more of ourselves and becoming increasingly prepared for that for which we cannot prepare.
Heesoon: How radical! So, instead of trying to get rid of uncomfortable feelings and sensations (the “felt sense”), you are suggesting that we feel them. Easy to say but hard to do, isn’t it?
Avraham: Yes, for sure, hard to do. Many of us, or I should say, most of us, did not grow up in environments that talked about actual body sensations as rich textured experiences that existed within us and had a location in the body. Most language about body states is in terms of what hurts, symptoms of illness, or good feelings, which are rarely examined, only wished for when they are absent. So, yes, the idea is viewed as strange, and I would say that there is a large language deficit concerning naming and describing these felt senses.
Heesoon: What you are saying reminds me of something I have heard, namely that there is something like 100 words to name and describe ‘love’ in some language (was it Sanskrit?), which, if true, would be in great contrast to English! Don’t quote me about the exact number or which language! To be verified, but I just wanted to corroborate your observation and insight.
Avraham: Most intriguing! I have seen people having an immense difficulty with knowing what an emotion is. Most of us have not learned how to actually feel our feelings, as opposed to trying to get rid of them, which is very frequently seen as feeling expression, which it is not. A great example is that destructive acts or words are seen as expressions of anger. This is just not the case. What is called anger or joy, or love, is an action that is aimed at getting rid of a sensation or using the associated act to affect another person in ways that will satisfy us. I will just suggest here briefly as another example, that the distinction between love and lust is certainly an experience for consideration.
For an experiment, the next time you feel annoyed, turn your attention inward, find its location in your body, and study it. The essence of this act is to feel your emotion and the associated body experience, and to learn how to have your feelings rather than be had by them. The old programming is deeply ingrained and learning to study our old, really unconscious patterns in depth and breadth, their history, and how they are part of an egoic identity structure has huge potential for personal liberation and knowing.
Heesoon: What you are saying is indeed intriguing. At this point, I wish to go back to the topic of this dialogue: preparing for that for which you cannot prepare. It seems to me that, of all the emotions, anxiety comes closest to the peculiar (and some would say, ironic) human situation in which we find ourselves, namely preparing for that which cannot be prepared for, as its arrival is not announced other than by its arrival. Yet, as we have been exploring, in our culture, in this civilization, anxiety has become a disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and, as such, it doesn’t prepare us in any good way to prepare for the unpredictable and the unexpected, etc. What can we do to reclaim anxiety as an emotional experience that can come closest to preparing us for what cannot be prepared for, at least in a specific and focused way?
Avraham: You are right! In the way most people experience anxiety, it prepares them, at best, for reaction, which is not what we are after. Reaction is a habituated and habitual pattern of thoughts, feelings, body sensation, and including a repression/suppression of the inner flow of life energy, our inner fire. In anxiety as reaction, the inner fire is suppressed. What we are aiming for is how to become responsive in such situations.
Heesoon: Again, another very intriguing notion: this inner fire and how you see that anxiety (as reaction) is associated with suppressed inner fire. I relate to the notion of inner fire from my understanding of Taoist philosophy in which inner fire is a person’s life energy or vital energy, known as chi. But how do you explain inner fire? And please do explain how it is that suppression of the inner fire creates or develops into anxiety as reaction.
Avraham: Inner fire for me means energy that is primal and basic to human existence. It is the animating force. For some this will be considered as a spiritual energy. Perhaps explanation of anxiety as suppression of the inner fire would be most easily done if I illustrated for you how I have been working, throughout my life, with my anxiety as reaction. Anxiety arises out of the internal conflict between our inner fire and our egoic structure, one of our inner selves that is working to suppress the in-the-moment thoughts, feelings, and sensation. There is an inner collision. This we come to know as anxiety. I will also remind you that such ‘inner suppresors/oppressors’ almost invariably suffer from arrested development and so do have a good intention and also have poor skills.
My approach to anxiety as reaction is to use my awareness to notice what is happening in each dimension, namely, thinking, emotion, body sensation, and life force energy (the inner fire) and how they are connected and inter-connected. In brief these dimensions will form into an egoic structure that is rigid and programmed to activate when the ‘right’ conditions show up in the environment.
Heesoon: Could you please give us some examples that can illustrate what you are saying?
Avraham: Sure, here is an example from my own experience. In general, anything less than an optimal configuration has a compromising effect on inner fire. For me, I have become quite strong in body awareness. I have always had and continue to have a sharp and quick mind. I think my recessive area is in my emotional zone. My family did not use emotional language, and as a child I took this as a realm within which I was not to go, and about which I only really had the dimmest of awareness. The lacuna, that absence, was in itself the message, and as a growing child I did not have, nor did it occur to me, the capacity to notice and question this empty space.
I became, like many people, someone who experienced discomfort with emotions and consequently became very hair trigger at doing things to shut my emotions down sufficiently that I would not be too frightened. As well, I did not have the knowledge that would have suggested strongly to me that certain body symptoms I was having were the outcome of this suppression/repression of emotion. This had the additional effect of putting me in a state of imbalance that also compromised and oppressed my inner fire, although fortunately, not completely.
Heesoon: Phew, that’s most fortunate! So, how did you work with your supressed inner fire?
Avraham: I have usually had the ability to know what my feelings are, but the most severe area of diminishment was with authentic and congruent expression of these feelings. The felt sense of accompanying vulnerability was too much for me to accept. Here, I will share the distinction I make between expression of feelings and off-loading or dumping of feelings. The former is authentic, and the latter is a ‘getting rid of ’uncomfortable’ feelings and/or emotions. I suggest to you that most of what we call strong feelings is a programmed and unconscious reaction that is in the service of not actually feeling emotions, or body sensations. Perhaps you can see the advantage and opportunity that is offered by paying attention to our reactivity and working to uncover the history of our way; as well as the importance of containing reactivity and learning to feel the actual feelings we have.
Heesoon: I do get a clearer sense! Thanks! Now, could you please “instruct” us on how to work with anxiety as reaction? I suppose it’s not just anxiety. Any emotions can be in reaction. How do we work with our emotions, including anxiety as reaction?
Avraham: Your initial ‘task’ is to notice as much as possible and to study what you are noticing; essentially work with your awareness and, also, use this as an opportunity grow your awareness practice. Eventually, we are wanting to be responsive in the moment and in an instant, and in a way that fits the totality of the situation. In fact, you can substitute any feeling that you have that is dictating a programmatic response and that is not attuned to the circumstances that have appeared without any obvious warning.
While I am responding to your question about “instruction” with “what to do,” in reality, this matter is not so much of instruction as of learning to practice, and through such practice, you can proceed to learn to allow the most natural possible changes to your interiority, your inner landscape, or whatever terminology you wish to use, from the language of neurobiology to that of spirituality. What is important is that through every day and every moment and practice over your lifetime, you can increasingly become prepared to respond, in the moment, without anxiety attacks and paroxysm of fear, to what comes unbidden, unknown, and even unknowable.
Heesoon: Yes, you are right. It’s not a matter of instruction. We are not machines or robots: not even AI programs. We can’t just follow instructions on how to be. We are creatures of consciousness, self-awareness, and self-identity. Any changes we seek must be dealt with from within, through the self-change process. Speaking for myself, I know just how difficult it is to try to make changes when they butt against my sense of self-identity: who I am convinced that I am. Any illuminating and helpful thoughts on that?
Avraham: I would say, anytime you are engaged with your inner work in the service of your own growth and development, be aware of an emerging sense of imbalance in you and the experience of dis/integration, all in the service of a re/organization process. For example, when you feel that you are “out of sorts,” “don’t feel quite myself,” “hyper or hypo,” “not clear in my mind,” I suggest that you take these experiences as internal signals that say, “Hey, you need to pause, slow down, give yourself a reflective and contemplative break.” I am aware that this suggestion is often incredibly difficult to take and may better be taken as a goal to work towards. When you get this signal, pay attention to the change process that is trying to happen and that is running into the self-identity structure that is geared to resisting change. This is an inevitable part of your inner work and is often accompanied by fear and anxiety and may temporarily manifest as suppression of your life energy and at times you may literally feel like your inner fire is being squeezed into a very tight and small ball while simultaneously attempting to scorch its way out of the egoic incarceration that has grabbed it increasingly tightly. Fortitude, persistence, patience, gentleness, and kindness are great meta-dimensions for this process and also often hard to come by.
Heesoon: Wow, that makes sense to me. In listening to you, I am reminded of the Buddha’s instruction on lovingkindness meditation. In this, he asks us to recall what it must be like to be a mother who holds her precious child and wishes that her child is safe, well, happy, filled with lovingkindness, and so on. This reminder is very helpful to me.
Avraham: Great! At times I have seen people become very hard on themselves when they run into these inner collisions. When this happens do your best to stay with the process, and remember the old saying, “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, and again. And do recall that the inner ‘punisher’ is trying to support you, is not skilful, and needs to grow, up!
The true secret to this whole process is development, over time, of all the inner dimensions of yourself and development of their increasing integration and your increasingly adept use of your own consciousness. As you can surmise, such a way of being brings forth your ability to respond in the ways that fit with whatever life brings your way.
To all my readers: Tell me what thoughts do you have about this preparation process, and possibility?
Heesoon: Thank you, Avraham! This concludes our interview.
Many thanks to Heesoon for being my ‘interviewer’ and helping me to consolidate and express my thoughts and suggestions about preparing for the unpreparable.
My next Field Note will appear in the fall, October 1, 2023.