Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of October 11, 2010

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(Stages of Freedom: Part 4 of 9)

We depend on the world outside us in a multitude of ways. Most obviously, we depend on nature and on other people for our material well-being. Our vast and complex world ecosystem and world economy fulfill our material needs and many of our material desires. This necessary dependence comes with having a body. We cannot get around it.

But we also suffer another and unnecessary type of dependence. Our inner experience is almost completely subject to outer situations and events. We live in an inner world of emotional reactions, physical attractions and repulsions, likes and dislikes, physical habits, and all kinds of grasping and clinging. So our spiritual work at this stage consists in becoming able to be inwardly free in front of our automatic reactions, habits, likes and dislikes. Notice that to be free in front of is fundamentally different than being free of. The latter would mean not having reactions, habits, likes or dislikes a dull existence indeed. To be free in front of means being able to choose whether to act on, whether to indulge whatever emotional reaction, habit, like, or dislike happens to arise in us.

One approach entails resisting, going against our likes and dislikes. Such efforts generate an energy useful for our inner work, while showing us the truth of our conditioning, our slavery to our likes and dislikes. As long as these set patterns control what we do and how we feel, we remain dependent, not free at this level.

Perhaps you hate tomatoes. So you set yourself to eat tomatoes. Perhaps you dislike a particular person. So you set yourself to spend a little time with that person, honestly and openheartedly. Perhaps you like chocolate. So you set yourself not to eat chocolate for a time. Perhaps you have a habit of chewing gum. So you stop for a while. Each of us has our own set of habits, likes and dislikes. So we experiment with this practice, with how and when to apply it in our own particular case.

The point isnt to learn to like what we dislike. Its perfectly fine to hate tomatoes. Nor is the point to learn to dislike what we like. We are not after a Spartan lifestyle of always denying ourselves pleasures. The point is freedom, to be able to eat tomatoes or not chew gum, to be able to choose what we do despite our ingrained habits, or our likes and dislikes.

Going against our reactions, likes and dislikes is easy in theory, but difficult in practice, especially with powerful reactions and strongly ingrained likes and dislikes. The first requirement consists of having a clear intention to choose a certain course whenever a particular reaction, like or dislike arises. But that intention may not be enough. It needs an ally, a supporting technique.

Whenever we attempt to stop or change one of our patterns, that pattern resists the change. The resulting tension builds up an energy in us. Usually that energy will overwhelm our intention to change the pattern, even temporarily. And if we are able change the pattern in that instance, the repressed energy will typically come out in some other undesirable way. For example, we may successfully resist eating a piece of cake today, only to succumb to eating two pieces tomorrow. Or we may resist yelling at someone this morning only to honk our way through traffic in the afternoon. This work of freedom requires vigilance, intelligence, and persistence.

To supplement our intention to change a particular behavior, we add a method of dealing with the energy released in the process. Whenever we experience the impulse to do the action we have chosen to stop, or the impulse not to do the action we have chosen to do, we put the resulting energy to positive use: we send it into sensing our body. We can sense an arm or a leg, or our whole body. We use the impulse of the reaction, like, or dislike, as a reminder to sense our body.

Say you have a habit of eating cake and you set yourself not to eat cake for the next month. Of course, the urge to eat cake will come to you repeatedly. When it does, rather than mentally arguing with that urge, you begin sensing your body. With some practice, this will take the energy from the urge and channel it into sensing, into more presence, into a benefit for your soul. It also moves your focus, your attention away from the urge and into something productive. And this method does all this without repressing the urge. You feel and experience the urge to eat cake. But you do not act on it, nor do you give it more energy by engaging in an internal debate on whether to act on it. You just see the urge and let it go by sensing your body instead. Each such effort earns you another drop of freedom, makes you a little less dependent, and puts you more in contact with your body and thereby with presence.

Throughout, we need to remember that our practice is not about permanently changing our personality. It is about raising our level of being, about becoming inwardly free. Going against our habits is only one of the methods in our repertoire of spiritual practice. Forgetting this, we can easily lapse into a rigid, inflexible approach to life. Our personality may change as a byproduct of our inner work, but we do not want to be sidetracked into making personality change our goal. That is a never-ending process that tends to strengthen our ego, the one who wants to improve our personality. And as our inner work deepens, instead of resisting, we will open to the whole roiling catastrophe of our inner life and bring to it the healing embrace of our love and acceptance, a process that restores us to unity.

Nevertheless, there are some destructive habits or addictions that block our progress on the path. Some are physical like smoking, excessive drinking, drug abuse, and the like. We are also prone to destructive emotional addictions, like the extremes of chronic anger, jealousy, greed, and self-importance. Such destructive habits do need to be changed. Engaging professional help or groups like Alcoholics Anonymous can expedite that change. We will not find true peace and freedom while damaging our body and subverting our mind with destructive habits.

For this week, please take a step toward non-dependence and freedom by resisting a habit, like or dislike. When the targeted impulse arises, let its energy and the energy released in resisting it go into sensing your body. Carefully choose which habit, like, or dislike to resist, selecting one that will not exceed your strength but still present a challenge, even if a mild one.


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