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To See In A Special Way (an expanded and “renewed” post-practice post) June 28, 2022

Posted by ajoyfulpractice in "Impossible" People, Books, Buddhism, Changing Perspectives, Healing Stories, Helen Keller, Life, Meditation, One Hoop, Philosophy, Suffering, Swami Vivekananda, Vipassana, Wisdom, Writing, Yoga.
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This post-practice post for Monday, June 27th. You can request an audio recording of Monday’s practice via a comment below or (for a slightly faster reply) you can email me at myra (at) ajoyfulpractice.com.

In the spirit of generosity (“dana”), the Zoom classes, recordings, and blog posts are freely given and freely received. If you are able to support these teachings, please do so as your heart moves you. (NOTE: You can donate even if you are “attending” a practice that is not designated as a “Common Ground Meditation Center” practice, or you can purchase class(es). Donations are tax deductible; class purchases are not necessarily deductible.)

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“A healing story is my term for the stories we have come to believe that shape how we think about the world, ourselves, and our place in it. They can be as simple as ‘Everything happens for a reason’ or as sharp as ‘How come nothing ever works out for me?’ Healing stories guide us through good times and bad times; they can be constructive and destructive, and are often in need of change. They come together to create our own personal mythology, the system of beliefs that guide how we interpret our experience. Quite often, they bridge the silence that we carry within us and are essential to how we live.”

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– quoted from “Introduction: The Mind-Body Relationship in Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford

What Matthew Sanford wrote about his personal story is true of all our stories: They are full of healing stories. These stories are intertwined with the stories of others and we often find ourselves in the intersection between the mythology and the reality, fantasy and fiction, the constructive and the destructive. This could be the “silence” of which Sanford also speaks – or it could be the shadow of the myth. Either way, we grow up in this in-between space and, at some point, we may realize that we can step out of the shadow. At some point, we may realize that we must step out of the shadow of the myth in order to move forward. Stepping out of the shadows of our personal mythology, however, often requires us to recognize that very little is as black and white as we thought it was and the only reason things seemed simpler “back in the day” was that we lacked awareness.

Of course, awareness can be painful, because it can lead to uncomfortable and inconvenient truths, as well as uncertainty. Awareness comes with the knowledge that no one is as perfect as they are portrayed in the story. The hero (or heroine) sometimes use their greatness to do and say really horrible and detrimental things. The anti-hero or the one that was demonized may actually save the day. Awareness can allow us to see cause-and-effect, in the past and (on a certain level) in the future. However, both hindsight and foresight require us to “see” clearly and to understand what we are seeing, which can sometimes be problematic. True hindsight and foresight require us to look at the facts (and the fiction) as if we are simultaneously viewing two sides of the same coin – something we can only do under special conditions and using a special tool.

Studying history can be the special conditions, but not everyone loves diving into a biography or a chronology. Even when we do appreciate history, we may only view it from one side – which means we still lack knowledge. Furthermore, our vision may still be impaired by our perception, which itself may be impaired. This is where the mind and mindful awareness come in, because paying attention to how we think (and why we think the things we think) creates the special tool we need to distinguish the difference between the mythology and the reality, fantasy and fiction, the constructive and the destructive.

“‘Every act of perception,’ Edelman writes, ‘is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.’”

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– Dr. Oliver Sacks, quoting Dr. Gerald Edelman (co-winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine)

Yoga Sūtra 2.20: draşțā dŗśimātrah śuddho’pi pratyayānupaśyah

– “The Seer is the pure power of seeing, yet its understanding is through the mind/intellect.” [Translation by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (for comparative analysis), “The sheer power of seeing is the seer. It is pure, and yet it sees only what the mind shows it.”]

On a certain level, perception is one area where philosophies like Yoga and Buddhism dovetail with the physical sciences. All agree, in theory, that most of what we perceive is based on what’s happening in the mind and what’s happening in the mind is mostly based on past experiences. What we see/comprehend is based on what we have previously seen/comprehended. When there are gaps in our knowledge (i.e., where there is ignorance), the mind-intellect fills in the gap. What fills in the gap may not make sense to anyone or anything other than our mind-intellect. It may not even make sense to us, on a conscious intellectual level. However, we (often) accept what comes from our mind even when there is some part of us that says, ‘That doesn’t actually make sense, when you really think about it.’

The point is we don’t necessarily think about it. Or, we think about it in a way that makes it make sense – which is how confirmation bias works: we look for a reason to believe. We can say we all believe in the truth, but the truth is that we are all looking for something in which to believe – which is why philosophies like Yoga and Buddhism (and even some religions) have practices that revolve around being, rather than thinking.

Being and breathing, with awareness.

Vipassanā is a Theravada Buddhist meditation technique that has also become a tradition (meaning there are people who practice vipassanā, but no other aspects of Buddhism). It literally means “to see in a special way” and can also be translated as “special, super seeing,” “inward vision,” “intuition,” or introspection.” In English, however, it is usually translated as “insight.” This insight is achieved by sitting, breathing, and watching the mind-body without judging the mind-body. Part of the practice is even to recognize when you are judging and, therefore, recognizing when you are getting in your own way. It is a practice of observation – which is also part of our yoga practice. It is a way to parse out fact and fiction, myth and reality, and that place where they overlap like a wacky Venn Diagram.

I have heard that in Theravada Buddhism there are eighteen (18) stages or types of “insight,” which bring awareness to eighteen (18) pairs of opposites and create the opportunity to eliminate attachment to those dysfunctional/afflicted thought patterns which lead to suffering. In some texts, this is how “opposites” are engaged, which is also a practice recommended in Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras. A connected technique in the Yoga Philosophy is svādhyāya (“self-study”), which includes the practice of bringing awareness to how one feels within a certain context. For instance, we can pay attention to how we feel – physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually/energetically – when we learn different elements of someone’s story, as well as when we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes: be it the hero(ine) of the story or someone inspired by them.

The following is a revised version of a 2020 post.

“We must not allow other people’s limited perceptions to define us.”

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– quoted from The New Peoplemaking by Virginia Satir

If you want to talk about people who did not let other people’s limited perceptions define them, let’s talk about Helen Keller and the people that surrounded her. Born June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Keller lost both her ability to see and her ability to hear when she was 19 months old. She fell ill with what might have been scarlet fever or meningitis and while she lost two of her senses, Keller was far from dumb. She figured out a way to use signs to communicate with Martha Washington (the Black six-year old daughter of her family’s cook, not to be confused with the 1st lady) and by the age of seven she had developed more than 60 signs – which her family also understood. Furthermore, she could identify people walking near her based on the vibrations and patterns of their steps – she could even identify people by sex and age.

Keller’s mother, Kate Adams Keller, learned about Laura Bridgman (who was a deaf and blind adult) from Charles Dickens’ travelogue American Notes for General Circulation. The Kellers were eventually referred to Alexander Graham Bell who, in turn, introduced them to Anne Sullivan (who was also visually impaired, due to a bacterial infection). Keller and Sullivan would form a 49-year relationship that evolved over time. Even when Sullivan got married, Keller (possibly) got engaged, and illness required additional assistance from Polly Thomson, the women worked and lived together. Keller would go on to learn to speak and became a lecturer, as well as an author and activist. Sullivan would be remembered as an extraordinary educator whose devotion and ability to adjust to her student’s needs is memorialized in school names and movies like The Miracle Worker and Monday After the Miracle. Keller (d. 06/01/1968), Sullivan (d. 10/20/1936), and Thomson (d. 03/20/1960) are interred together at the Washington National Cathedral.

All of this is part of the mythology of Helen Keller and also of Anne Sullivan. All of this is part of the “healing story” that have inspired so many people, some of whom are considered “able bodied” and some of whom are considered “disabled.” And while these are the most well-known facts, they are only a handful of facts. They represent an oversimplified version of a complicated story about complex people, their convoluted relationships, and their controversial legacies.*

“At that time the compliments he paid me were so generous that I blush to remember them. But now that I have come out for socialism he reminds me and the public that I am blind and deaf and especially liable to error. I must have shrunk in intelligence during the years since I met him.”

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– quoted from “How I Became a Socialist” by Helen Keller (published in The New York Call 11/03/1912) [referencing St. Clair McKelway, editor of the Brooklyn Eagle]

Helen Keller is notable for many reasons, but she was (and still can be) considered controversial when you think about her family history and some of her views. Her father, and at least one of her grandfathers, served in the Confederate Army and she was a related to Robert E. Lee. She was a suffragist, a pacifist, a radical socialist, an advocate for people with disabilities, and a supporter of birth control – but/and she also believed in eugenics. Yes, a woman who was blind and deaf publicly wrote and spoke in favor of the idea that humans could genetically pre-select character traits in order to create a better society. Eugenics has been scientifically debunked and is rife with basic humanitarian issues. At its core, it also exhibits a lack of faith in humanity and human potential. Still, history continues to show us some pretty messed up examples of people believing in eugenics. But/and, one of those mind-boggling examples is Helen Keller: someone who used their very public platform to support a theory that, in practice, would not have supported their own existence.

Again, that’s just one side of the coin. Just as no group of people is a monolith, no individual is one-dimensional. Hellen Keller herself pointed this out when she referenced the coincidence that she was related to the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich. She wrote in her autobiography, “… it is true that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.” There is clarity in knowing, deep inside, that each of us is connected to both sides of the coin. That clarity comes from going deep inside ourselves. If we pay attention to what’s going on inside of our own hearts we have a compass that steers us in a functional/skillful direction – at least, that is the message of contemplatives.

That’s the lesson of “insight.”

“After long searches here and there, in temples and in churches, in earths and in heavens, at last you come back, completing the circle from where you started, to your own soul and find that He for whom you have been seeking all over the world, for whom you have been weeping and praying in churches and temples, on whom you were looking as the mystery of all mysteries shrouded in the clouds, is nearest of the near, is your own Self, the reality of your life, body, and soul. That is your own nature. Assert it, manifest it.”

– from “ The Real Nature of Man” speech, delivered in London and published in The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Volume 2, Jnana-Yoga) by Swami Vivekananda

Yoga Sutra 2.26: vivekakhyātiraviplavā hānopāyah

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– “The clear, unshakeable awareness of discerning knowledge (insight) is the means to nullifying sorrow (created by ignorance).”

There is no playlist for the Common Ground practice.

The 2020 playlist playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify. [Look for “06032020 How Can We See, Dr. Wiesel”]

*NOTE: Radiolab recently aired a podcast episode entitled “The Helen Keller Exorcism” (dated Mar 11, 2022). While I wrote the aforementioned details about Helen Keller a couple of years ago, with minimal context, this podcast featured the perspective of fantasy writer Elsa Sjunneson, who is persistently resisting people’s limited perceptions of her and the myth of Helen Keller. (It also provides some of the backstory about Helen Keller’s most controversial views.)

“When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us… Happiness is a state of mind, and depends very little on outward circumstances.”

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– quoted from To Love This Life: Quotations by Helen Keller by Helen Keller (with Forward by Jimmy Carter)

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### OBSERVE YOUR OWN SELF – BODY AND MIND ###