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My experience so far

I found John Sherman basically at the beginning of this year. It seems such a long time ago, I'm surprised by that statement. Like many people I was instantly taken with his approach, his words, this very simple idea and, quite honestly, the promise of dropping my fear of life. Fear has been a huge thing for me and as I've grown older it's gone from being an occasional feeling to being something that seems to inhabit all of my life.

I found the idea of just looking at myself to resonate on a number of different levels. Of course it made sense considering all the different descriptions I'd read to do with spiritual seeking and the message that many people try to deliver to us. It seemed a perfect summary of what it was all about. Just see who you are, truly see it, and everything else would follow. Straight away I took this to heart and simply tried it. I've tried it quite a bit since then and to date I have no observable or reportable experience. There has been no moment or clarity or "aha", no point at which I can say that I suddenly recognise myself. I didn't really expect it, although I guess I did hope for it. A magical experience that would take away all my worry and answer all my questions - there is no doubt that this is partly what motivated me.

However despite having no experience to report, I can certainly say that things have changed in me. Has it been to do with the looking or not? I can't really say, I have no reason to think so but also no reason to think not. All I can really say is that I've come to the conclusion that I've been avoiding things. I've been avoiding life itself. It seems terribly obvious now, the way I've lived all these years. I've been terrified of life itself, of what is out there. I've existed in a sense of perpetual hope, perpetual need to have things fixed or solved. I've been waiting, hoping, wanting, wishing ... but in the past couple of weeks I've finally realised that all of that is just entirely the wrong way to go about things.

How can we possibly wish for life to be different? It seems the craziest thing in the world to do. Life can only be what it is. We want it to change, perhaps. We can develop a real resistance to it, deny it, blame it, demand that it fit out ideals, but not one bit of that is sensible or helpful. Not in the long term. Life simply is the way it is. We can control it in a relative sense, have our own influence, but even that is so very limited ... have I just been fooling myself otherwise? Have I held some belief in my core that life can be manipulated and bent to me very will at any moment? This is not deny the control we can ultimately have, even if only in a relative sense, but it's to deny the very premise that life can be totally overhauled and made to be fundamentally different from what it is. It just can't be. We can't control other people, make them the way we want. We can barely control ourselves, our own thoughts and emotions. We don't control the weather, natural disasters, the economic state of our nations, the illnesses that come on us. I guess I've just kind of woken up and slapped myself around a little bit and decided to face up to actual reality. Not my made-up reality, but real reality, the way things really are.

It does seem insane, this way that I lived my life. I've been scared of everything, tried to get away from it, as if there is something better. In doing so all I've done is deny myself the opportunity to live my life the best way possible. In trying to run away I've lost countless opportunities to experience what is already there, just as it is. I've been convinced that there must be something better, that this isn't good enough, isn't special enough, isn't the real life that I've been promised. In doing so I think I've dreadfully de-valued it, put it aside as not worth while, and in the process basically ruined it for myself. This life is all I've had and it's all I'm ever going to get. What ever is here, now, in front of me, just staring me in the face. This is it. This is life. There is nothing more or less than this. I can decide to hate it and resist it and want something else but what does that achieve? Nothing, at least not in the short term and certainly not in the way I hope it would.

All of this isn't to say that I've changed all that much. I still drift out of life, still resist it, still fear it, still want something more. All those patterns are still there and I'm not terribly sure how they will change, but I have quite a bit of confidence that they will certainly do so. All I've really gotten is a glimpse. I have recognised the core of my own responsibility and, as terrifying as it is, I have faced up to it and allowed it to become real in my mind. I'm the only one who can change my relationship with life, certainly no one else can do it. I guess I do still hope that in looking I will eventually come to a conscious realisation, a better understanding, but I also know partly in my mind that this isn't a useful thing to expect. It occurs to me to look, and maybe looking has changed me for the better, so I'll keep at it as it occurs to me. But in the meantime I'm going to take my life in a different way, face it directly, and start to work out how it can be truly lived.

This is a beautiful report of the actual way in which the effects of the looking unfold, perhaps wrongly understood as a report of failure. I read this in today's Open House (April 3rd, 2013).

Thanks for the response John. I listened to the podcast and perhaps my understanding is a little more refined now, not that it matters all that much. I can see that I'm very much going through a similar experience to many others and I look forward to things improving over time. Right now I don't think I can say life is much better, but maybe it's a little clearer. I've brought plenty of issues and previous problems into focus and everything is a bit sharper. I'm less resistant to the things that used to scare me out of my mind and more willing to engage in being open to experience. That's something that I had already been developing before I discovered your web site but I wonder if the looking has just brought it to a more concise point. To say that any of it is easy or pleasant would be a complete lie. There is some vague comfort from time to time as I see that what used to totally overwhelm me can now just kind of be there, that's about all for now. I don't underestimate how important that is, but there is no way I would say I feel happier or more content. I'm as anxious as ever, still prone to over-thinking and plenty of previously enjoyable activities and aspects of life are not what they used to.

What still gets me most of all is my internal battle with ideas of "no-self". This was something I picked up a long time ago during what I'd call my first spiritual crisis. A while after my father died and I broke off a long term relationship I got it into my head that I wanted to confront my fear of death. I succeeded only in freaking myself out and having a bit of a break down. It drove me to a seeking of knowledge and answers and the internet was all too happy to oblige. The most outstanding information I found in the first couple of weeks was a story of a man who underwent an experience of complete ego-death, where he realised that the "me" he thought was real was just an imagination. That led me to other teachings and experiences, something which has continued to this day. Not-self seems a core teaching in much buddhist literature and in many instances that overflows into simply no-self. There is no "me". It's just a thought, a creation, an illusion.

For someone very uninitiated in spiritual ideas it was a terrifying concept to encounter. It really resonated with me, like an idea I didn't like at all but just could not put away. It's played on my mind ever since, I simply can't let go of it. It scares me but I'm drawn to it. I know in a way I'm still trying to "solve" it, like it's a problem or a puzzle. That won't work, not ever, but still I seek and strive to know more and get other perspectives, looking for some kind of answer that makes sense or that eases my discomfort. Recently I've stopped trying to fight the idea so much and just thought more along the lines of "well, if that's the way it is then that's the way it is". I've looked more towards acceptance, not this constant struggle to prove that it's wrong.

Tied up in this is my apparent lack of control over my own thinking and my own experience. John recognises that much of life is quite "mechanical" and it's an idea that again both terrifies me and seems to draw me in at the same time. I often see now that my thoughts simply arise, they are just there. I don't wish them into being, I don't really control them much at all. This is a rude awakening for me, perhaps it's contrary to some idea I had built of how life was, who I was and what being human really was all about. I hadn't thought about such an idea for most of my life but now it's just completely obvious and impossible to put away. I don't know what I thought previously but it seems now as if reality is contrary to what I want. I don't like seeing these truths, this mechanical nature. It's frightening and further reinforces the idea that there is no "me" in all of this.

I'm still drawn to solve all of these kinds of questions. I'm still a seeker, and maybe that will pass in time. Maybe I'll just see how unimportant any of it is. I think I have a hint lately of something that says "seriously, why am I wasting my life stuck in these philosophical arguments? Just live life and get on with it, none of this is actually important". But on the other hand it does seem important, terribly important. Some spiritual teachers will ever say directly that it's important. That getting over your false sense of self, your ego, is a vital part of spiritual awakening. So I feel compelled, like I have to fix this, I have to get through it and do something, come to some kind of conclusion. If the "ego" is some terrible thing that causes all our suffering and needs to be dealt with then I have no option but to deal with it. Of course John will say otherwise, that our suffering is simply out of that fundamental fear of life and all the issues and insanity that sprouts from that single cause. So it's a dilemma for me. I don't really know where I'm going or what I'm doing and I'm still quite scared of it all.

Does anyone have any thoughts on this stuff? I'm really struggling with it at the moment, trying to work through quite a bit of fear. I'm going through an oddly similar experience to what happened to me in 2000 - I've just about ended a long term relationship and suddenly intense feelings of existential angst come up. The whole "who am I?" question just terrifies me ... I suppose I could consider it as something not worth giving my attention to but it feels so damn important. Have other people been through something like this?

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Does anyone have any thoughts on this stuff? I'm really struggling with it at the moment, trying to work through quite a bit of fear. I'm going through an oddly similar experience to what happened to me in 2000 - I've just about ended a long term relationship and suddenly intense feelings of existential angst come up. The whole "who am I?" question just terrifies me ... I suppose I could consider it as something not worth giving my attention to but it feels so damn important. Have other people been through something like this?

Hi. I'm new to this forum. In fact, this is my first post. I was planning on making an introductory thread but wanted to address your post first.

I read your story and it could have been written by me. smily My thought is that you are already doing what you need to be doing. Just looking, regardless of what arises, even thoughts that "it's not working" or whatever, even the deepest existential angst or identity crisis-like experiences.

I don't know if this will be useful to you, but here is my perspective on this. I think of the feeling of me as a kind of nebula of all that I experience and perceive. The content of this nebula is constantly moving and changing, but is a complete whole unto itself. Thoughts, feelings, identity, memories, sensations, beliefs - all that you experience - can be thought of as objects within the wholeness of that nebula of life happening that is your presence.

This nebula has no shape or size, no center, and no perceivable boundaries. In and of itself, it is empty, silent, and still. Sometimes I use the example of a container holding all that you experience, although it is not actually a thing, of course. The "container" is really just the capacity for perception and experience. The idea is similar to how we refer to the universe as if it were a thing with all other things "in" it, when "universe" really only means "everything that exists" without reference, center, or perceivable boundaries, i.e., it just means the sum total of all that is. Everything within can only be referenced in terms of other objects within as there is no "thing" to be referenced as the universe itself except as the sum total of all things.

Your thoughts about the process working or not working can be thought of as objects within the space of this nebula of your presence. Physical sensations as well as emotional states can be thought of as objects arising within this space, too. Same with your beliefs, identity, personal life story, hopes for the future, and even judgments about the process, yourself, or the world - all beautiful objects arising and falling and swirling in a dance with each other all the time. At any given time, one or some of these objects will be calling loudly for your attention whether it be physical tension or pain, an anguished thought, a memory entangled with fear, it could be anything.

I have some suggestions for exploring this if you are inclined. This may or may not be useful to you. It's a meditation I devised a couple of years ago for my own use, but I've found that others find it quite nice when I describe it to them or guide them through it. Likely you have done similar meditations at some point.

When looking,

- Focus your attention on your whole physical body of sensations from head to toe, the "nebula" that is your alive presence.

- Notice that when you put your attention on your body, your brain automatically presents a visual record of what you already know your body looks like.

- To "turn off" the visual record, focus your visual attention to the darkness of the inside of your eyelids and return your whole attention to the physical sensations of your body. (This may take a few tries, but it's fairly easy to master quickly.)

- Notice that without the visual record, what your brain perceives as, for example, "hands" is not really hand-shaped at all, but a sort of mini nebula of sensations without specific shape or form.

- Notice that throughout this exercise, thoughts will arise and fall, analyses of the exercise, commentary about what you're experiencing, and probably some thoughts about extraneous things as well. ("Did I turn off the stove?")

- Take a deep, slow, comfortable breath and exhale slowly. Notice how the breath reverberates throughout the nebula of presence and is not confined only to sensations of chest area or sound of the breathing.

- Notice that this, your whole presence, is like an empty space with infinite, ever changing combinations of sensations and objects arising within it.

- Notice that this presence is always available, always there, regardless of what your attention may be on or what you're feeling emotionally or physically.

- Notice the peaceful nature of this presence, regardless of what your attention may be on or what you're feeling emotionally or physically.

Remember to keep your beam of attention on the wholeness of your presence throughout while noticing these things.

Think of some things of your own to notice while looking. By the way, there is nothing wrong with the fact that our brains are so good at producing visual records of things we are not actually perceiving at a given time, such as our bodies when we're not looking in a mirror. But visual perception is so dominant in our cognitive framework and our brains so good at producing mental visuals vibrantly and instantly, that this practice of turning it off simply allows a bit more attention to go to more subtle features of our perceptive reality.

Take all this as you will. There is no ideology here, only suggestions and enquiry. I hope this might be of some help to you. smily Also I would welcome your thoughts if you are inclined.

Just wanted to add that I think the Just One Look method is more than sufficient and needs no further "instruction." In fact, it is this simplicity that I find both refreshing and effective. I have been Looking in this fashion for a couple of years, but John's take on this practice served to strip my own practice of looking to the bare essentials. Even those methods and philosophies I had previously thought to be the most direct and free of extraneous ideas proved to carry a few nonessential attachments in my mind.

The meditative experiment I described earlier is, to use John's language, just part of the ongoing conversation. It's also just fun. smily

Thanks for that. Perhaps not entirely by accident, your response took just long enough from my original question for me to be in a place where it can be understood a little bit differently from where I was when I asked it. My head is swimming in all kind of strange thoughts and experiences right now, but I'm a little bit calmer. I have in fact discovered my own meditation practice that seems to help a little bit. If it turns out to be something that stays with me I'll share it with others here, but for now I'm thinking I'll hold back on giving any advice.

But yes, thank you, just the kind of response I might have needed. This stuff is challenging and my established way of thinking doesn't like it much. I'm coming around, bit by bit.

I can write some more ...

My questions of self seem to be a big part of my thinking right now. It's been this way for probably a bit longer than a year now. To describe what happens - a thought will arise that I am not in control of my own thinking. It becomes very apparent to me that thoughts just arise. I don't wish them into being and I can't really control them. Depending on what else is going on this idea can have a more or less profound effect on me. Usually if it comes to me first thing in the morning as I'm still half asleep it is much more powerful, it really sinks in. I mean ... wow, seriously, I'm discovering for the first time and really understanding for myself that thoughts are not under our control. To me that IS profound, and it's also frightening. That I'm scared is about my need for control, I know that, so it's not a surprise.

What's different between this now and how it may have been in the past is perhaps how willing or able I am to process it. However I've developed as a human being, my ideas about life I think have always assumed some kind of control. It's like when you say that you are "thinking about something". It implies control, intent and some kind of agency over that thinking. When I see that now it seems kind of obvious enough that the agency is not there. But I think my way of thinking has assumed that agency. I've always assumed that at the heart of it all is "me" and I'm the one doing things, intentionally and with purpose. I guess it very much was just an assumption based on the way we as human beings have come to talk about ourselves. I guess it's what many people call ego. And yet I'm not sure that there is an actual alternative. It's all a kind of intriguing puzzle. There is some degree of relative control we have in our lives, but in absolute terms there is none. The absolute answer sticks with me, that's the answer that gets me deep down, but there is also some practical, relative element to all of this where it seems that just letting the mind keep this apparent sense of control is all we can do. OK, so I didn't intend or will this thought into being, but it's here now, it's been "thought". Is it really useful to spend time reflecting on how that thought is not mine? Or is it just sensible enough to go along with the way our minds have come to terms with reality, playing the game because that's just how the system works?

This is where I'm at right now and it's an odd place. Some of this stuff scares and confuses me but it's not clear that it's not something to pay attention to. It seems like I'm developing an understanding so to take my attention away from it, to just focus on the breath, doesn't seem entirely like the right thing to do. I don't quite know what to do. Then again, am I really "doing" anything or is this all just happening? Is my sense of control an illusion or do I, by allowing those thoughts that I am in some degree of control, in turn allow that process to be affected and thus gain that relative control? It truly is a strange and intriguing place to be. I don't know where I'm going but I do hope that it gets better.

And I've not been looking at myself that much. I kind of don't want to, which is also interesting, but at times I'll have the urge and I kind of do it. There is some context wrapped up in that too, a sense of expectation or hope or fear, that I'm not 100% clear on.

Does this all sound familiar to others? Does this kind of stuff eventually resolve itself?

 

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