Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of February 13, 2012

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(Sacred Impulses: Facet 8 of 8)

We well know what it means to participate. But here we will use the word participation in a very particular sense, related to presence and spiritual practice. The key to such participation lies in our own presence, whether we ourselves are engaged in the action, whether I am doing what Im doing.

Certainly, we do things all the time. But more often than we might know, we are not doing those things; they are just happening through us according to some automatic, ingrained pattern of ours, some pre-programmed set of responses, a recipe for living that does not require our active, cognitive engagement. We just go through the motions. Our body eats without us tasting the food. Our mind spews out thoughts on its own, without us really thinking them. Our body walks and talks on autopilot. Our emotions emote without any intention or direction from us. This is how we live, or rather how we abdicate living. Our parts live us, through a conditioned process of programmed, associative activation of our mind, heart, body, and impulses. For the most part, we are just carried along, as life happens to us.

Yet our life need not be that way. A major thrust of inner work consists of being present to our senses, to our self, engaged in what we do, participating as the one who is living our life. To be engaged in what we do is a choice. Rather than live half-heartedly, we affirm ourselves to be here in the moment, fully here, doing what we are doing.

The first level of participation is simply to be aware of ourselves, our thoughts, emotions, and body, as well as our surroundings, other people, and so on. This is the level of contact, of being in touch. We pay attention to what we are doing. We get feedback from it and we are aware of that feedback. This mode of living certainly improves on the mode of just going through the motions. We have a life.

The second level of participation is when we feel ourselves to be present in what we are doing, when we can feel I am doing this. Not that we need to say or think those words; its the immediate experience of engagement, the involvement that counts. We bring the whole of ourselves to this moment, whatever it happens to be. Certain Zen sayings capture this well. From Wu Li: Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. And this classic from Ummon: If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit; but whatever you do, don't wobble.

Participation is not just a matter of being present while you do something, nor just a matter of paying attention to what you are doing. It is both of those and more. It means engaging all of yourself, body, heart, mind, inner body, and spirit, as one whole unit. Further, it means being the one who is doing what you are doing, inwardly showing up. Inwardly agreeing to do it, choosing to do it, choosing that again and again as you do what you are doing.

So for example, when we read, we are not just eyes and brain reading. We are also our body, our heart, our sensation and our attention, wholly engaged in reading. The same holds for eating, for conversation, for anything we do: we are all in. This is living a full life, moment-to-moment.

What we do matters. But so does how we do it. And participation is the key to fullness. Without it, whatever we do cannot produce our best, cannot really satisfy us. Without it, time and life pass us by. With it, we show up and live our life.

And yet, there is even more. There is a higher level of participation, known as effortless effort, or in Lao Tzus phrase: doing non-doing. This is flow. We no longer have the feeling that I am doing this. Nevertheless, it is very different from the automatic, autopilot mode of living where we also lack that feeling. Here we have full awareness and freedom. We are not constrained by our programming. Rather our training and skills serve the action. We ride these moments of perfection; it all just flows. Any effort made is only what is necessary.

This is the music playing the musician, the dancer becoming the dance, the actor becoming the role, the parent playing with the child, the sweeper becoming the sweeping. This is the walker walking, in full awareness, unburdened and free. This is the creative force acting through the artist. It is the athlete in the zone, which is sometimes called being unconscious. But that athlete certainly is conscious, more conscious than usual. In that context, unconscious means the lack of consciousness of a controlling self, while being fully conscious.

We transcend our self in becoming the action, and it can happen even in simple things where our life just flows. Excellence in action becomes its own end, without regard to the ultimate result. Here is Chuang Tzu: The mind of a perfect man is like a mirror. It grasps nothing. It expects nothing. It reflects but does not hold. Therefore, the perfect man can act without effort. We can enter that perfection temporarily, just as we are.

Knowing about participation and its levels is not enough, although seeing our degree or lack of participation motivates us to engage in its practice. So how do we practice raising our level of participation? To be in the first or contact level, we practice paying attention to what we do, bringing more attention to the action. To move from that toward the second or whole level, we practice presence by being in our body, mind, and heart. We leave distractions aside. Sensing our body, our inner body, is fundamental. Intention matters also. Intending to be here, to do what we are doing with the whole of ourselves and renewing that intention continuously, enlivens our attention and we enter the fullness of engagement. We bring ourselves, our I, to what we are doing.

To move into the third level, flowing participation, we start with the wholeness of the second level and allow ease to enter. We let ourselves and the action flow, without compromising the quality of what we do or diminishing our awareness. We let the action take over. Controlling and adjusting come naturally in dynamic self-response to the changing situation. These are very special moments to be treasured, yet they can come in very ordinary circumstances.

For this week, please practice raising the level of your participation in your life.

See Also: Participation: Being Attention


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