As you begin to read this post, let us start with a small exercise.
Bring your attention to the quality of light on the screen, which is generated by an electrical process.
Now, bring your attention to the quality of light in the room you are in. This may also be created by electricity, or it may be light from outdoors. Notice the difference. Is one of them warmer, more still, than the other?
Allow your thoughts to now go to the light outdoors.
If it is daytime, what is your relationship with the sun and its light, with its yellow and orange colours? Do these colours evoke an emotional resonance in you. Perhaps the warmth of this light, its ability to penetrate deeply into the nooks and crevices of matter, illuminating and warming it, resonates with something in you.
If it is night, what is your relationship with the silent darkness of the sky, which extends infinitely outwards, without end. Do you share the calmness, the receptive emptiness of this space, where even the slightest of lights can glow and be seen in their fullness.
From early in our life, we are trained to recognise, categorise, then reject or accept what we experience – that is, to subject our bare perceptions to these cognitive processes that become second nature to us. Is it, in contrast, possible to un-entangle from these processes and bring a bare, simple attention to what physical reality truly is – an attention that is not overpowered by recognising, categorising, judging?
Can you read the words in this post in this way?
Depth psychotherapists consider the self as the factor that determines the meaningfulness of one’s life and the health of one’s emotions.
If my sense of self is narrow and isolated – that is, if it allows only a few experiences in the flow of life to be felt and accepted; and if its general sense of other people is that one needs to be wary of them until proven otherwise – then both my mental health and my sense of meaning would be very limited.
With a sense of self that is broad, receptive of the other, and capable of opening to further vastness, my inner life will be a more healthy and meaningful one.
The process of depth psychotherapy is a journey of the slow expansion of the self, by unfolding its various layers and creating space in it for painful emotional experiences which have been pushed away from consciousness since the time we were small, until now.
While the therapist and the client walk on this journey together, there is another journey that the client is called to walk on by himself. This is the journey of how he spends his time outside therapy.
Do the old defences gather strength, coagulate and bring back the narrow self? Or is there a way to continue to live from an expanded sense of self.
In this post I try to sketch a portrait of what it means to live in harmony with life around us, and how this harmony is both the effect of and further facilitative of the expansion of the self that one experiences in therapy.
In the ordinariness of everyday life, there is a rhythm. It is not a rhythm made by human beings and their minds, but by realities far vaster than us.
Light is the most immediate expression of this rhythm. Every day, at a certain time, the darkness of the night gives way to light, as the sky transitions from being black to dark blue, and gradually light blue, with spaces of white. In the evenings, the light follows the same journey of transition in the other direction.
Light is not simply colour, but also mood.
Every morning, I stand in the balcony of my house and take in the light. It is soft, joyous, full of hope. It illuminates the green of the grass and the trees as if bringing them to life after deep rest. The squirrels have been awake for a little while, and are now moving into action. They scratch their heads and necks with their hindlegs, grooming themselves, and looking around for seeds to eat or new spaces to leap into and chase each other in.
As the day proceeds, the bright yellow of the sun radiates to us. It touches us, inviting us to radiate to the things we touch and the people we meet with our particular talents. For me, this means the work of listening and creating spaces of reflection upon emotions. For others, it may mean writing, teaching, making music, or building a computer programme that will help others.
The cosmos, thus, speaks to us in the language of light. It is for us to respond, or to be exclusively preoccupied with the human-made world – with the things and people in one’s particular corner of the universe.
In the evenings I walk in the forest, slowly absorbing the golden light before sunset, light which is like the gentle embrace of someone who loves you. The light feels like a beautiful blessing for all creatures on earth, blessing us equally and fully, reminding us of our companionship in the journey of life, as children of the same earth. The birds are taking their last flight for the day, and settling into their high branches to rest for the night.
Filmmakers call this time the ‘golden hour’, and some beautiful sequences of love, nature, tenderness in cinema have been shot at this time of the day.
By the time I am home from the walk, it is dark. The silence of the dark night is intensely present, despite the sights and sounds of the city.
As the night deepens, this silence becomes more profoundly vast, as if the quietening down of the human world is inviting the entire cosmos, which is a sea of silences, to come and touch us. This is time to be still, to receive the expanses of the universe rather than to be lost in activity. It is time to receive all that is beautiful, in human beings and in their creations in music, literature, film.
Living like this, we see that time is simply the movement of the cosmos, which is most present to us through the sky above us. And time has moods which we can be in harmony with, or out of harmony with. These moods can be expansive, like the sunlight, or receptive, like the silences of the night, or contemplative of deeper realities, like the light in the evening and at dawn.
The classical music of India is based on transitioning from our narrow, self-occupied selves into a communion with the mood of a particular time. The bhairav is a raga for early morning, and recreates that time of the day, as bihag, the raga for late night does for that time. There are ragas of afternoons, early evenings, and late evenings.
There is a raga for the mood of the time when the rains are about to arrive but haven’t yet, another one for when it rains heavily. There are ragas for spring, for the scorching summer, and for autumn.
Sound, thus, becomes a bridge to the moods of the cosmos, as expressed in time, and the practice of music becomes a practice of letting go of the narrow self, towards a self that resonates with the vastness of the realities being sung of.
The craft of singing, thus, like all authentic crafts, becomes, essentially, an increasingly refined practice of self-surrender – very different from other, more popular forms of music.
When I was a child, as for most of us, the rhythms of life were determined by human-made structures. My parents woke me up early in the morning and hurriedly got me ready to catch the school bus.
One woke up because one had to go to school, and didn’t want to be scolded by parents or teachers. One did not wake up because light was spreading across our part of the earth and we felt called to a similar awakeness and activity on our part.
One learnt to live as an isolated human being, out of touch with the cosmos, someone who controls time for his own security, rather than lives harmoniously with time as the simple movement of nature.
Such a life is a life of anxiety and struggle. It is a relationship with time where one is mastering time, using it as much as possible for one’s benefit, rather than living in harmony with time.
To transition from a life of isolation to a life that is in harmony with the rhythms of the cosmos is an act of listening. Listening, not just with the ears, but with mind, heart, body, to what the sky unfolds this moment.
There aren’t any formulas for how to do this, just as one cannot reduce to a formula love for another human being.
However, when pointed out, one can see a fact that one may not be seeing before. Once seen deeply – that is, without the automatic processes of recognition, categorisation and judging – one can go back to it through remembrance, until it becomes part of one’s nature.
In the beginning of this post, we worked with our attention to attend to the light outside. Let us do that a bit more now.
If it is daytime, take a look through your window. Light always carries a stillness with it, the plants move a little bit more in the breeze, the little squirrels and birds even more.
Human beings are usually the most restless, having created a civilisation where they physically move much faster than what their body is meant for, and at other times, where their minds are scarcely still in the flood of images, messages and tasks in their life. Are you aware of this spectrum of stillness and movement that encompasses the whole of the natural world?
If it is dark, it is time to be quiet. Darkness is not simply an absence of light, but a colour in itself, with its own mood of silence and receptivity. Are you with the silence of the night, or does the mind have a world of its own that does not engage with the universe out there?
To pause, to ask oneself who one is, and where one stands in the vastness of reality, and to answer, not from the intellect but from the heart and the body, is the way of harmony.
To live in harmony, one needs to see the small things of life in the perspective of the larger ones. Our work, our relationships, our banter and play, our stillness find deep roots in our way of life when experienced within the larger sense of the moods of time.
When experienced through an expanded self, emotional and physical pain are meaningful and carry the possibility of personal change.
Emotions of sorrow, anxiety, anger are ripples in the lake that emerge and die, rather than events which shake up the self.
From a narrow self, we rarely allow ourselves to be soaked in the enormity of sorrow. When we live from an expansive self, sorrow can be sat with, felt, and released, through tears and without them, leaving behind a calm appreciation of what is lost, and a flame of desire to guide us forward towards a life of meaning.
Anxiety can be courageously felt in its fullness, and in its fire, allowed to transform the self into a sense of being alive and vast, rather than contracted and small.
Anger can be fully felt, and the energy it blesses us with conserved and harnessed towards meaningful, sustained changes in life, rather than impulsively blowing up in a fight.
The practical implication of such a relationship with nature is an organisation of one’s daily activities.
The brightness of the sun in the day encourages the life of work, commitment to certain goals.
The silences of the night, its infinite darkness, call for a life of rest and leisure.
The two times of intense transition – when night gives way to day and when day gives way to night – are particularly powerful in their moods, and lend themselves to coming home to meaning, introspection, and contemplation. These are times when the transience of material phenomena can be deeply felt.
At the same time, for each of us, there is a different relationship to these colours and moods of nature. It matters less what the precise activities are that we do at certain times of the day, and more that we do them with a sense of communion with nature.
Many of us know of nights when a particular mood, idea, task took over us and made us work passionately for it. Often, the silence of the night is a fertile place for new thoughts to emerge, for the stagnation of the conscious mind to give way to the churning up of the unconscious.
In more practical terms, it may help to make an approximation of how many hours a day one spends on work that expresses one’s commitments, gifts, energies.
And how many hours a day one spends in true leisure, enriching ourselves by deeply receiving another human being, or a work of music, literature, or nature. Too often, we are unable to do justice to our leisure time, whiling it away in superficially moving from one video to another, one forward to the next, one social media post to the one after it. The deep enrichment of leisure gets replaced by the thrills of entertainment.
Is one’s life like a land where the sun shines for 14 or 16 hours a day and it is harshly hot and parched? Or is one’s life like a land where there is little light and activity, but things remain dark and inert for the most part?
The capacity for real, meaningful work and the capacity for leisure are, usually, deeply interconnected. Work where one selflessly offers one’s energies to a craft is possible only for a self that also has the capacity to be still, open, and receptive at other times. A self that is anxious and narrow can easily turn work to unending drudgery, and leisure to a meaningless, inattentive floating from one thing to another.
The harmony of intense, selfless work and receptive, enriching leisure thus descends into boredom in work, waiting for the day to end, and a flippant engagement with things of leisure.
Unlike animals and birds, most of us in the modern work spend the majority of our waking hours on work, professional or domestic, hence tilting this balance in favour of activity rather than leisure and rest. That concomitant to this is a pervasive sense of anxiety, therefore, is understandable.
What are the priorities in your work time? As a therapist, most of my work is about listening to other people, but there are secondary engagements like the discussion of one’s work with colleagues, and sharing, in writing, the nature of one’s work.
A homemaker may spend much of his time in honing the art of cooking, but some time may also be spent on both the aesthetics of the home, and the basic organisation of things.
It may help to note down what one’s work time and leisure are being spent on, and consciously reflect on whether this is the most meaningful way of spending one’s time, or if some things are better let go of, and others included more.
It also helps to learn a practice through which you can consciously cultivate a relationship with your self.
Go for a walk in nature and see if you would like to attend to the light and its moods in the way described here. As you walk, allow your emotions and thoughts to flow through your mind, like scenery on a train journey. Do not walk in order to complete a distance or reach a certain pulse rate, but walk as a spontaneous expression of the body you are blessed with, just as the birds and animals you see on your walk express their bodies – flying, sitting, singing, scampering, playing with each other.
Or learn to sit by yourself and gently observe your breathing, while allowing all thoughts and emotions to be present. This video, a guided meditation on the breath, can be a helpful starting point.
Such a practice gives one a sense of what the self is really like for us. Is it narrow, struggling, alert? Or is it in an absorbing contact with things around it, allow them to come in, be seen, responded to in fullness. The observation itself slowly allows for an expansion of the self.
Such practices are, at times, best done when the light is transitioning, that is, at dawn and dusk, but they may also be done at any other time that one finds suitable.
These practices may also be helpful when one is overwhelmed by emotions, thus creating little ‘holidays’ in the day where one steps back from what one is doing and rests in the self, with all its thoughts and emotions.
In these ways and similar ones, we can bring a seemingly amorphous sense of light and its moods into a very practical presence in our lives, linking it to various hours of the day and the activities we do there, observing any excesses and imbalances that may exist, and consciously choosing what is to be meaningfully included and what is better left out.
Only in this consciousness of one’s relationship with time can a true sense of individuality come alive, because one is no longer floating with the momentum of a wheel set into motion by others, such as the child made to go to school.
In this way, harmony is not an abstract idea or evanescent state of mind but a real, practical, living way of life.
The Taoist way of life is based on a perception of harmony with the cosmos, like all religious traditions that have their roots in a pre-historic, nature-oriented experience. In contrast, the construction of a self that is isolated from the rhythms of life within and outside oneself is the way of disharmony with the Tao, whose only results, the teachings say, will be alienation and suffering.
The Tao holds within it contrasting energies, of rising and falling, of activity and rest, and in the simple yet subtle balance of these, one is not carried away by one set of experiences, but can see them in a larger perspective of reality.
Those who live in the Tao, rather than in one of its limited expressions, live with truth, and are not afraid of death. They are rooted in an inner reality that is connected to life beyond their immediate concerns, which will end when they die.
To our modern, rational, non-intuitive minds, such language is often un-relatable, or idealised into something far from our ordinary lives. When listened to from the simplicity of the heart, however, it speaks of a daily experience, something which is in reach of all of us.