Artists of Life

By Mark Matousek, author of Writing to Awaken—available now!

I was leading a writing retreat in Italy recently when one of the students—a professional psychologist, longtime practitioner of Buddhism, and would-be memoirist—posed a question that’s frequently asked: Why is writing a spiritual practice?

She seemed both curious and skeptical. I’d been talking about Writing to Awaken, my teaching method and recent book, and the discovery I made thirty years ago that writing is a spiritual practice as powerful as meditation, yoga, prayer, or any contemplative tradition I had encountered. Transformational writing focuses on telling the truth, probing profound questions about who we are, and discovering the meaning of our lives. Like all forms of spiritual practice, Writing to Awaken requires introspection, quiet, and patience—mindfulness, too—as well as the faith that by looking at oneself in the mirror of the page, one comes to see not only her depths, but also her connection to something larger than herself.

My dubious student seemed unconvinced. “You’re using the term spiritual loosely, I presume.”

I assured her that while she found it ludicrous to put writing and meditation on the same level, it was not exactly a new idea. For millennia, seekers (including writers) have followed the Delphic Oracle’s injunction to “Know thyself.” Some have devoted themselves to prayer. Others have used ritual practices (yoga, sitting, pilgrimage, etc.). Another group of enlightenment-minded seekers has been drawn to the ancient art of self-inquiry in verbal form, on paper, in dialogue, or both.

A century after the birth of Christ, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote in The Meditations, “You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Two centuries later, in Confessions, Saint Augustine lamented, “Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers…and they pass by themselves without wondering.” This long tradition of questioning, and using the page as a stage for self-revelation, for undoing the knots of human existence and reaching beyond them to insight, has continued without pause to the present day.

I related as much to my skeptical student, which seemed to satisfy her for the moment. What I did not add were the healing benefits of writing that mimic spiritual practices, including meditation. In laboratory experiments, expressive writing has been proven to lower stress, strengthen the immune system, increase mindfulness, and enlarge our capacity for empathy and compassion. These are also the qualities an artist brings to her work.

When you tell the truth, your story changes. When your story changes, your life is transformed.

All forms of creative expression are spiritual and healing in nature, in fact. If the purpose of spirituality is liberation, to open and connect us to the greater whole, then any creativity in us is bound to overlap with the spiritual impulse. A writer is a seeker who uses language; a painter is a seeker who uses paint. As long as the creator (lowercase “c”) remembers that it is spirit that’s driving her quest, then her work will reflect that divinity—that spark of freedom and truthfulness. Whether one creates for others or only for oneself, the calls to creativity and spirituality are more or less identical: to expand beyond the little Me in order to know ourselves better; to become vehicles of beauty and love in the world.

Another quality joins creativity and spiritual life: both of them happen in the dark. Each time you sit down to write, or engage in any creative endeavor, you step into the unknown. You place a wary toe into the Void and enter that fruitful darkness (the “cloud of unknowing”). Longtime seekers are well aware that the greatest spiritual growth happens in darkened, difficult times, when it feels like nothing is happening and all you want to do is give up. It is just when “unknowing” hits its darkest point that the light tends to appear on its own, the heart lifts, and the spirit reveals something unexpected. Thomas Merton, the Benedictine monk, wrote, “Prayer and love are learned in the hour when prayer becomes impossible and the heart has turned to stone.”

The same goes for creativity, which only comes from not knowing; the minute a person thinks she’s a master, she ceases to be an artist. The true artist is always beginning, awaiting surprises; she never forgets that the work is practice—nothing less and nothing more—and that creating is its own reward. The seeker recognizes, too, that each step toward wisdom is worth the discomfort, because the path is its own reward, promising to keep one engaged with life, dissatisfied with a surface existence, and aware that spirit is always creative.

That’s how writing saved my life: by giving me entrée to myself, providing a place where I could drop the mask and see myself as I really was. When we learn to tell the truth, whatever the medium, we never see ourselves the same way again. The mirror cracks and the light gets in. That’s why I like to say, as I have in Writing to Awaken, “When you tell the truth, your story changes. When your story changes, your life is transformed.”

On the final day of our retreat, the skeptical student broke down in tears while reading a piece in front of the group, describing her troubled family life. “I’ve never told that story before,” she admitted to her fellow writers, adding that her heart “felt lighter for having put this story down on paper.” Now, she could see her own lies, she said, and maybe even do something about them.

What could be wiser—more awakened—than that?

Mark Matousek is author of two award-winning memoirs, Sex Death Enlightenment and The Boy He Left Behind. He has collaborated with Sogyal Rinpoche, Andrew Harvey, and Ram Dass, and has contributed to numerous anthologies and publications. A popular lecturer and writing teacher, Matousek is on the faculty of the New York Open Center and the Esalen Institute (among others), and has presented twice at the Science and Nonduality (SAND) conference. His workshops, classes, and mentoring have helped thousands of people around the world, focusing on personal awakening and creative excellence through self-inquiry and writing.

From Seeking to Seeing

By Ilona Ciunaite, author of Liberation Unleashed

I was a seeker once. I was looking for something. I did not know what that was, but I had heard stories about enlightenment, awakening, constant bliss—I wanted that. I knew that where I was at the time wasn’t it. I had an urge to find out what the holy grail was that would make my life better in every way.

Somebody once asked me straight, “What are you looking for?” And I replied, “Enlightenment.” Did I find that? No, but I am not looking for it anymore. I stopped chasing ideas and found something else instead: peace. Not in a way that everything is quiet and slow, but in a way that there is no more internal narration about what is “not enough.” Everything is just fine. There is no more judgment of good versus bad, no more fight of good versus evil. There is a silence of mind that is much more delightful than fighting what is.

The seeking pattern has stopped running. The drive that was here before, trying to get/achieve/improve something, is now absent. There is openness instead, a spaciousness that allows all happenings to pass without internal friction. If I get annoyed, which I still do, it lasts only a short time and gets resolved quickly.

Seeking is a form of striving energy that wants to get somewhere. This, here and now, is not what it wants. There is something else to get, so that the tension will cease. But it does not cease; it only takes small breaks. The “happy tomorrow” does not arrive; it feels like you are trapped in an unwanted time and place, a prison that has no doors. The seeking continues. New books, videos, talks, gurus—they all seem to have something desirable, yet not achievable. How to get off of the seeking merry-go-round?

There is a flip from seeking to seeing, and it is not what the mind thinks. It is not about making something external change so that I will feel more comfortable; it’s internal. The energy that feels intense wants to be felt—fully, openly, purely felt. When we look at what seeking itself is, rather than toward the direction of where our attention is going, seeking can be seen as a mechanism, a pattern, a strong energy. Observing it with conscious awareness, recognizing it, and then feeling the sensation melts it like a sun melts a cube of ice.

So, if you are looking for something, stop for a minute and feel the sensation that is driving the search. This sensation is here, and it does not matter so much why it is here, or who put ideas of “not enough” in the mind. What matters is that this sensation is recognized and fully felt. Seeking for flips to looking at. Once the energy is allowed to be fully present and embraced, the mind becomes relaxed, spacious, soft; it no longer feels the tension.

Try this exercise. Feel the sensation of “not enough.” Feel the sensation of lack. This sensation has a location in the body. Observe it. Allow it. Let it be as it is for a minute or two. Don’t think about what should be different or how much you dislike it; just feel it as it is. Be honest with your own feeling. Be curious about the sensation. Let it enfold you fully, even if it is intense. What is behind it?

Doing this a few times a day may feel like practice. But it’s worth it to remember and engage with this, because the more you become honest with the feelings that are arising—the more you look at what is—the less there is striving for something else. It’s a focus shift from seeking to seeing; all it takes is a conscious look at what is actually happening here and now. The mind can find peace, and that’s the end of the seeking pattern. Then a whole new world opens up—the one that was always here, always present, but was ignored or unnoticed, because of that constant nagging feeling of it not being enough. Thoughts stop running wild; there is more spaciousness felt. There is ease and lightness.

Seeking ends, but exploration continues. And exploration is a different kind of energy—it has a sense of wonder, curiosity, playfulness, and childish innocence. There is no more striving to get out of an unwanted situation, but rather resting in the situation that is neither wanted or unwanted, but simply is.

The author of Liberation Unleashed, Lithuanian-born Ilona Ciunaite has a degree in psychology and a mind-set to focus on freedom for herself and others. She’s had conversations with people from all around the globe, and has held meetings and group sessions in the UK, where she lived for twenty years. Ciunaite and her husband ran a custom tattoo studio in West Sussex until the spring of 2017. They’re in Mexico at the moment, starting fresh.

Does the Ego Die?

By Amoda Maa Jeevan, author of Embodied Enlightenment—available now!

In true awakening, there is neither a death nor a transcendence of ego. Instead, the location of self is released from its entanglement with the unconscious ego (in other words, the conglomeration of conditioned mental, emotional, and physical responses). Liberated from the prison of egoic identification, the sense of “I-ness” becomes nonlocalized and unattached. Having recognized awakeness as the inherent nature of all that is (including the self), the self becomes an “awake I,” undefined and unrestrained by relative reality.

Another way of saying this is that the self experiences itself as inseparable from the totality of existence. While certain survival-based impulses continue (protecting the body from danger, the impulse to eat when hungry, drink when thirsty, or rest when tired, and so on), these now happen without interference. They simply happen as life’s natural and intelligent movement toward what needs attention while form is alive. The “awake I” is therefore free to respond intelligently and creatively to the moment, and this gives you access to a power that is at one with life itself.

So what happens to the ego in all this? From one perspective, nothing changes. The ego continues to operate, to keep form alive. From another perspective, everything changes. In the process of liberation, the once unconscious ego transmutes to an evolved or “aware ego” and gives itself in service to the “awake I.” In other words, the ego stops being the master and bows down to awakeness.

So, yes, in awakening there is a death. There is a death of the self-identity that is wrapped around ego. But there is also a birth of a whole, integrated human being that includes both the surface sense of self as a separate entity (the self that is born and then dies) and the deeper layer of undifferentiated beingness (the self that was never born and can never die).

Awakeness embraces the paradox of self and no-self. There is no conflict in this apparent duality. While the mind finds this intolerable, the heart abides in unfathomable acceptance. When the silent mystery of spacious acceptance becomes overridingly preferable to the habitual struggle of making sense of it all, the search for a mythical state of enlightenment comes to an end. However, the ever-unfolding deepening into authentic awakening never stops.

This is an excerpt from Embodied Enlightenment: Living Your Awakening in Every Moment by Amoda Maa Jeevan, published by New Harbinger Publications. Copyright 2017.

Amoda is a contemporary spiritual teacher, author, and speaker who appeared at the Science and Nonduality Conference last October in San Jose, CA (SAND16), and is scheduled to speak at the upcoming SAND17 US: The Emergent UniverseEmbodied Enlightenment is based on both her vision for humanity and the conversations on the cutting edge of spiritual inquiry in her meetings with people from all around the world.