We are not our thoughts & feelings:

Meditation trains the mind.

We learn to greet our thoughts, feelings and the content of experience with stillness. We let go of the stories we tell ourselves in reaction to them.

As we learn to see beyond our stories, the boundaries of our mental and emotional world begin to dissolve.

And we can feel a powerful sense of liberation and possibility for radical change in our lives.

The simple truth of our life unfolds and reveals itself ever more clearly and brightly.

“At the most fundamental level of our existence” writes Rowan Williams, “we simply see God — because we are the active presence of his truth and wisdom insofar as we live at all. And it is this deep level of natural “beholding” and desiring to be what we are…that we seek to access or activate in prayer.”[1]

William (we’ll call him), is a brilliant teacher. His students and colleagues respect and like him in equal measure. But despite being admired and well-liked, William had long suffered frequent bouts of anxiety and recurrent painful thoughts.

Sometimes the anxiety would appear like a grey presence in the background of the day, noticeable but manageable. At other times (and all too frequently) the anxiety seemed to swell and hold every moment, tightening its grip until William found it a struggle even to be awake.

Even the smallest feeling of anxiety could serve as a trigger for William to begin weaving a fearful story around that feeling.

Most often, the story he told himself would begin with making some sort of small mistake, then steadily grow to the proportions of a small disaster, resulting in his colleagues (and pretty much the whole world) discovering that he was not an excellent teacher after all, but incompetent and a failure.

Sometimes the story would be about how he was fundamentally weak and selfish and that, sooner or later (in suitably dramatic circumstances), people would come to see this and reject him, leaving him to spend his life feeling even more lonely than he often did.

For almost 45 years, William had told himself “I’m just an anxious person,” assuming this was who he was and how his life would always be.

This was where William began his practice of meditation. And it came as quite a shock when it was gently suggested to him that the stories he had been telling himself about himself bore no relation at all to the extraordinary truth of his deepest identity.

Meditating faithfully each morning and evening, William learnt to greet his thoughts and anxious feelings with stillness. to let them simply be there if they happened to be present. He learnt to release any story he might be telling himself by quietly lifting his attention off the story and returning to his practice.

Steadily but surely, like a spring rising up and gently soaking the soil of his life,[2] William began to discover a place of inner peace and stability he had never known before. And as he continued with his practice, his sense of inner peace and stability continued to deepen.

As we learn to observe thoughts and feelings with less comment, the noisy walls we erect between ourselves and our life and those around us are gently dismantled, brick by brick. And as William learnt to greet his life from this quieter foothold, he began to encounter his life and those around him in a completely new light.

He became increasingly aware of the peaceful spaciousness in which all thoughts, feelings and the content of experience, arise and depart.

He realised that if he could see and observe a thought or a feeling, he couldn’t be that thought or feeling — because he was the one seeing, the one observing.

He began to realise that that which sees is free of what it sees.

Initial thoughts and feelings arise as naturally as clouds in the sky, manifesting in different form for each of us (we are all complex amalgams of biology, personal history and experiences).

What we come to see in meditation, is that these initial thoughts and feelings minus the stories we tell ourselves in reaction to them, are just simple thoughts and feelings, like clouds in the open, peaceful sky of awareness.

If we look at the clouds, we see clouds.

If we look away from the clouds, we notice the sky.

Regardless of what we are looking at, the open, peaceful sky of awareness is always present.

We are not our thoughts and feelings and the content of our experience. We are where all of this happens.

We cannot avoid pain. But we can learn to notice and pause the stories we tell ourselves about pain. It is largely the stories we tell ourselves in reaction to pain that we experience as suffering.

One day, when William was sitting quietly, he saw that even as an anxious feeling is present, that anxiety has no place in the depths of his identity, that his deepest “me” was never anxious.

He realised that whatever he might have to face in the future, his deepest “me” could never be harmed, any more that the sky can be harmed by the weather that passes through it, or the sea can be harmed by the waves that move on its surface.

“I saw very clearly” wrote Julian of Norwich, “that where our Lord appears,[3] peace reigns…” [4]

The Lord “appears” in the deepest truth of who we are, as our deepest truth.

What does this truth look like?

Light-filled awareness; a depthless-depth of peace.

[1] Julian of Norwich’s Way, in Holy Living — The Christian Tradition for Today, Rowan Williams (Bloomsbury 2017, Chapter 12, p. 178).

[2] Isaiah 35:7.

[3] John 20: 19, 26.

[4] Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Barry Windeatt (Oxford University Press 2015, Chapter 49, p. 103).

Originally published at https://schoolofcontemplativelife.com on January 15, 2022.

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The School of Contemplative Life

The School of Contemplative Life

Chris Whittington is the Founder of the School of Contemplative Life. Visit our website: www.schoolofcontemplativelife.com