How is it that what you truly want eludes you?

When you try to grab hold of it, it isn’t there. Have you had that experience, really pushing to get hold of what you truly want and it keeps eluding your grasp?

No wonder people get cynical about life. It doesn’t seem to deliver. The more we want, the more we don’t get what we want. What we get instead is wanting.

I was giving a talk last night to a group of interested people about how to connect with inner peace and one questioner expressed the dilemma she experienced of having seemingly spontaneous feelings of contentment and yet when she tried to hold on to them, they vanished.

Even worse, if we try to feel happy, all we get is what we are unhappy about. One is separate from the other.

I explained to the questioner that once we become aware of something like the feeling she described, that whole inner beauty of who we really are, what we yearn for, we disconnect from it. We separate ourselves from the experience. Our rational thinking selves kick in. It becomes subject and object. Here’s us and over there is what we want. Wanting and needing, our ego stuff, gets in the way.

In a nutshell this is a big part of the dilemma of being human. Being in our ego selves, we think of ourselves as finite. After all, the ego is about survival and it fears it won’t survive. So it fights to hang on. Thus we separate ourselves from what we really want, at a soul level.

This is the contracted or limited self, disconnected from the divine in us. The task is to reconnect with the One.

Let go and allow to Be

By being more self-aware, at the fundamental level of awareness of Being, we can learn to let go and allow things and ourselves to Be. This is the creative power of the universe. We’re no longer driven by ego behaviour. Thus many seekers use meditation, to be present and connect and be At One, instead of Alone.

It is often said that our biggest ego barrier is fear. Contemplating the void is scary big time. Yet when we find the courage to let go, embrace the fear, and step into the unknown, we become safe beyond measure. Feeling separate makes us feel afraid. Yet when we embrace fear, it dissolves. After all it is False Evidence Appearing Real, F.E.A.R., an illusion.

So a major self-development challenge in learning to know and be who we really are, is to learn to let go and trust, and through our practices and living a more wholistic life have more of the experience of Being at One.

What you truly want is really love, which is the experience of being at One. All the other things we desire are nothing compared with That.

Where is your sanctuary?

Do you have a place of sanctuary to which you can periodically retreat, get away from the world at large and feel safe and at one? What for you is a place of sanctuary? For some it’s perhaps a religious place and many may think of a church, monastery, or other spiritual place. In the Middle Ages, sanctuary was also where one went for safe keeping against the vengeance of some one, say in a Cathedral or other religious institution. One example in England is Beverley Minster. For others, it might be a special place, such as in your house or garden, or a place you go to to get away from it all, a place you is there for you. For me, it’s a quiet place suitable for peace, reflection and contemplation, for going within, to read, to meditate, to write or to connect with nature.

People often have special places to which they need to go to rest, recover and restore themselves from the stresses of life and living.

Our inner sanctuary

In another sense, the place of sanctuary is also within us. One might find one’s special place is a great place to notice one’s still point within, where one feels at one, peaceful and contented. Feeling joy at experiencing the environment and nature is another gateway to access one’s inner joy. There are many gateways. It might be the delight in a small child’s face, as she totters past you with a beam all over her face. It might be music, it might be poetry, it might be laughter, it might be memory, it might be inspiring words, it might be an intimate moment with a lover, it might be prayer or meditation. There are many moments when we can pause, take time out, breathe deeply and allow ourselves to connect with ourselves, with our inner vibration, with the vibration around us, with our own bliss-full inner essence, with the vibration of others – and remember who we are.

What is so important is to do it, to connect. It can need an effort, and maybe to take ourselves out of our ego state we may feel reluctant to come away from our absorption with the temporal, but by so doing we open ourselves up to be able to harvest the fruits of what is so easy and effortlessly available – another of life’s paradoxes.

The dark night of the soul comes to test us and teach us

Have you had hard times when things have been such that you’ve hit prolonged periods of pain, depression or illness? Have there been really hard times in your life when all has seemed to be going against you? Sometimes we hit really low points when we despair or feel utterly stuck and constrained. This is when life seems to close in on us and it appears that this is all we’ve got. Some people call this sort of time a dark night of the soul.

The phrase “dark night of the soul” derives from the 16th century Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross, who was imprisoned for his beliefs in a cell in which he could not sit or lie down. His experiences and his fortitude amidst the seeming impossible have blessed us all and provide great teaching.

Times when we hit rock bottom

These times when we hit rock bottom are very important. We might imagine them as “bad moments”, to be forgotten as soon as they are over. “Don’t go there,” we think, “it’s a bad place and you might not get out”, which doesn’t help much equip us with skills to help us learn for the future. In fact the more we resist a dark night, the more we get it: “what you resist, you get”, is an old saying. It is far more constructive to open yourself to the experience, to stay with it, enter into what is so very bad, so that you can get to the heart of it and learn whatever it has to teach you.

A dark night of the soul is a spiritual and well as a psychological event. It is when our faith is tested to the utmost. Come out of it we can, and with important learnings about ourselves and life which strengthen us, make us wiser, purge us of ego characteristics that don’t serve us, enable humility in the face of adversity, bring about a greater acceptance of life, ourselves and others. How we come out of it is in itself a teaching, since we can learn skills about how we manage life that we hadn’t fully got before.

The dark night of the soul can teach us how to handle adversity

How we handle adversity is thus a teaching. For example, over the last 3 years I’ve been tested severely around financial issues, such that in the end there was only one way to go and that was to face and feel the survival and faith fears that lay beneath the surface issues. For ages, I used to wake up in the middle of the night terrified. If I indulged the thoughts, away I would go in my mind to Armageddon. What I learned to do was to shift my awareness to the feeling, fully embrace the feeling and let it wash though me and slowly evaporate. In time I learned that fear was not to be feared. Just let it be. It is an illusion.

So too are the thoughts that support it. Just as I learned to release the feeling, I also learned to not be attached to the thoughts. Yes, I knew the theory; now I had to practice it. Noticing that I might be caught up in a vicious circle of negative thinking was crucial. I repeatedly reminded myself to stop the thoughts, to drop them. Slowly the habit would reduce, as a habit it was, and there came a point when I no longer felt the panic as I had done. That doesn’t mean the pattern has gone; it does mean I have a mastery over it, rather than it over me.

So, dark nights of the soul have to be faced and embraced. In a way it’s our shadow side, and we need to learn to integrate it before moving on. We will be much the wiser for it. It’s like we’re being tested, When we come through it, we’ll really know it’s for real, who we really are.

Being unattached to the outcome

Do you find you can’t let go of what you want and keep on at it even when all the signs are that it probably won’t work. This is where one gets “attached” to an outcome. It’s all too familiar and often doesn’t serve us. Instead we can benefit from being unattached instead.

For example, have you ever found you’ve wanted someone else to do something for you and despite your efforts he or she persists in not doing what you ask? You think you’ve made your request pretty plain but what you get back is not what you wanted. Let’s assume the process relies on the other person’s cooperation for things to get done. You push harder and somehow it still doesn’t happen as you want. It seems as though everything, and particularly this person, is conspiring to prevent you getting what you want. Let’s say the day has come to an end and you leave your workplace with the matter incomplete. But in yourself, you are still fuming from what has seemed like your inability to get a result, what we call “being on it”, caught up in a drama. Do you get this in your life?

I have certainly done. In fact it’s got so sophisticated that I can be pretty sure that if I continue pushing, things will continue to jam up and nothing works. It’s like I’m working in an old paradigm that’s past its sell-by date and therefore pointless to continue to try to operate.

One thing that’s powerful of course is to become aware of what is happening, and what I’m doing here, let go and “get off it”, ie. let go of the drama. The beauty of this is that very probably everything then works out.

Being attached

However, there’s another related concept that I also use here, and that is “attachment”. While I am caught up in some drama like the one described above, I am being attached to it. To let go, or even more powerfully, not to get caught up in it in the first place, is to practice being unattached, known as “non-attachment”. Non-attachment is related to the concept of the Witness. While I am in the space of the Witness in relation to happens in my life, I am not emotionally engaged in what happens. I am not wrapped up in my ego and my egoic patterns which I learned eons ago. I am unattached. You can learn this through the practice of mindfulness.

When we are caught up in something, we are acting outside of awareness. It is unconscious, a knee-jerk response. We are wrapped up in it and we won’t see what’s really going on, such as that we are emotionally caught up, maybe feeling angry in this example, won’t take the bigger perspective, won’t see it from another angle, won’t see it from the other person’s point of view, etc. It’s as though, to use an old image, a vinyl record has got stuck in a groove and keeps repeating. We are very probably doing just that, repeating an old-established way of feeling, thinking and acting. This is the ego at work. To enable us to survive, as we saw it, we learned to react in certain ways. This is the ego, ahamkara, and the identification or attachment of one’s ego or limited personality. However, whatever we learned when we were still throwing the toys out of the pram in a tantrum now doesn’t serve us in adulthood, or as we grow psychologically and spiritually. The old creative adjustment that we made back then to the circumstances of life as we perceived them at that point is no longer serving us today. The trouble is, getting it. The seductiveness of the ego is to bring us back into old patterns, to ensure our perceived survival.

In attachment, what is happening is that, almost perversely, we keep on with the pattern. Something happens like my example of someone not doing what you want, and you dig in, get engaged and get “on it”. You are holding on to the pattern, belief, attitude or whatever. You’re attached to it. And, lo and behold, the universe, under the Law of Attraction, gives you more of what you are thinking. So you get more of it.

Being unattached

To practice non-attachment is to be in the Witness, to choose not to engage. You notice what is happening, you may even witness your own response, but you exercise your will, you take responsibility, you choose to not allow your mind to go down its familiar route and you breathe out the emotions that you sense in the background. You keep mental clarity. You hold no expectations about what is to happen. You may intend a certain result. But you are not attached to it. There is freedom here, even for something else to occur, maybe even better that the one you might have got engaged about. You can allow life to flow and to trust that what you really need comes to you.

When we are attached, we are afraid it won’t come to us. In the ego state, we live out of fear, fundamentally that we won’t get what we want, most of all of which is love.

Non-attachment, being unattached to the outcome in particular, is a hard practice to follow in the West, given our environment of desire, expectations, orientation to action and getting the results we think we need and our seemingly heavy involvement with many others thinking the same. But it can be done, even in the thick of things. It only takes awareness and a shift of perspective. That needs to be learned and practiced, developing mental clarity, nothing more.

What you appreciate, appreciates

Recently helping someone to get their life back on track got me thinking about how much is possible when we deliberately focus on what we’ve got that we value, that we appreciate.

So, when you feel like it isn’t happening, that you haven’t got what you want, that things seem not to be turning out as you intended, try this.

Focus your attention on what you do have. Think about all the people in your life that you love, value and respect. Think of the things in your life that you value. Think of your positive attributes, of your skills and capabilities, of what you have accomplished. Think of places you’ve been to, seen on TV, read about, heard about. What’s around you that you value? Just look around at your world. What do you like about it? Then notice how you feel.

If you focus intentionally on what you have in your life that you value, that you appreciate, you create new value. Focusing on these things grows them. It’s a bit like counting your blessings, often said but not often practised.

I’ve seen this many times when working with people whose jobs weren’t going well, had to find another job, were impacted by some organisational transition, had to up-skill or move on, or were not performing well. Their self-esteem had taken a knock and the downward spiral was self-reinforcing. Often this was being accompanied by things going on at home, a divorce, a bereavement, and so on. As a result of the coaching, they would focus on what was positive in their lives, in their skills and accomplishments, discover new possibilities and build a much bigger future for themselves. Their self-esteem would grow and they would discover new confidence and capabilities. The re-focusing of attention is extremely powerful.

And this is the power of the mind: “where the mind goes, the energy flows”. We are extremely creative, much more so than we realise. This positive, appreciative focus is supported by the research of Positive Psychologists like Martin Seligman. It is also to be seen in the work of Appreciative Enquiry in management consulting.

Of course the trick is not to go off into the negative about these things. Left to its own devices, the mind will start to find fault. That’s what the ego likes to get up, because its job has been to look after you, to maintain the limited perspective because it had been proven in earlier life experiences that it’s safe there. Not so. Taking a larger perspective involves challenging the ego. Just notice what’s positive, what you appreciate. Then watch it grow, supported by action on your behalf.

Being right is a value judgement, not an absolute

How often have you had a disagreement with somebody where you have felt sure you were right? Or how often have you been faced with a choice over what to do, and you’ve asked yourself what the right course of action should be? And how often have people told you what the right thing to do is?

This is worth thinking about. After all, humans have a long history of fighting over it. Apparently it was right, according to the British Prime Minister, to invade Iraq in 2003: “I am right”, he said. We are not so sure now.

In the past I used to tell myself, in the heat of a argument, that “I’m right”, and felt the full force of righteous indignation and blame towards another whom I perceived to be wrong. And all the time, it was not worth all the negative energy. It was more powerful, and served me better, to let go of the need to be righteous so as to open up a space where both needs could be met, or a different, healing solution could emerge. “Being right” hid that space from view. The still space between thoughts, where there is no anger, no thought, is the space of true creativity. Meditators know this. That is why they focus on the space between breaths. When we pause and let go, something else can take the place of conflict and “being right”. Mindfulness helps us know this.

Getting it right

In a previous life I worked for a headteacher whose favourite maxim was, “Get it right”. And that might have been said when someone, somewhere had definitely not got it right. When a team of professional people, say, are closely aligned, they probably have a very clear idea of what that might mean. We certainly did in that school. There were the very clearly articulated and agreed principles for action by which we made decisions about the good education of our students. So, in this respect, being right may be about living by an agreed set of ethical principles. It can be useful.

An absolute or an opinion?

But what about when there’s disagreement? Who is right? It may be an issue of fact: “I’m right because the facts say this”. The trouble with facts is that there is no universal agreement even on facts. Scientists tend to prefer the word “probability” to “fact”. We all agree to call something a bus and we all agree that that is what it looks like. But as we learn more about the mind and how it works, the more it appears that what is really happening is that we are actually applying a joint perception that something is as it is. So, in that case who is right?

The trouble is, people treat “being right” as some universal rule, when in fact it is their opinion.

The social consensus

Then there is the whole world of the social consensus. What is deemed “right” is actually the rules of social consensus. We apply rules to our society and judge people’s behaviour accordingly. Yes, we might need it to be like that so that the society can function. Except that, as we evolve to become higher order beings, even those rules become less necessary as we become more autonomous, self-responsible, totally respecting beings no longer needing external rules to guide us. We have our own.

So, when we react to someone who says, “That’s not right”, it is worth appreciating how much we’ve become self-responsible beings who more and more wish to make our own decisions. Because we are more and more connected with one another, what we decide is also totally appropriate for the other as it is for us. Or we can listen to others and discuss it with them, and agree together what is needed. In this emerging paradigm, managers no longer instruct their direct reports. It doesn’t motivate them. Instead they find it works better to agree it with them after seeking their involvement in the decision.

“Being right” smacks of parentalism, someone older, better (who says?), wiser, more knowledgeable. In that paradigm, you are told what you “should” or “should not” do. Right away this slips into a right/wrong polarity of thinking, with judgement and blame not far behind. In the new paradigm, we seek to step above judgement. Here, each makes his or her own choices. As connected beings we are at once totally respecting of our need to make our own choices in life, and to respect the choices of others.

A legacy of a paternalistic age

“Being right” can take us into the thinking of fundamentalism, where one belief system is deemed right and all others relegated to eternal damnation. It is fascinating for me how many of us today are having a problem with this world-view. This is probably one of the most powerful inheritances from our common past, embedded deep in our consciousness from past ages, where religious and social systems enforced principles of behaviour on a God-fearing population. According to Spiral Dynamics, we are evolving fast away from that thinking and are poised to move en-masse to a far more respectful and inclusive, world-centric way of seeing things.

So, it is always worth pausing when you come across the word “right”. It can be useful, as in human rights, but it can also be an inheritance from a paternalistic age which no longer serves us. And you may be outgrowing it yourself. What would be a more growthful way of seeing the situation? Right/wrong thinking may also no longer serve you as an individual. Consider asking yourself instead, “Is this what I am choosing right now?” “Is this what I want right now?” “Will this serve me right now?” “Is this what I am seeking to create right now?” Here you can step into a far more empowering way of perceiving.

And, when you react to a perceived transgression by someone else, you can instead of leaping to judgement become aware of your feelings, take responsibility for them, let them go and see what other more creative possibility may exist.