“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
This morning I experienced both hell and heaven within the span of about an hour. It was in the quietness of my home, in the comfort of my bed, and it involved my mind only. Traditionally, certain religions have told us that there is a heaven and hell somewhere out there, but it is of my opinion that this religious belief is simply the externalization of our own minds. Our own minds are heaven and hell, and we are the ones who create them.
I woke up this morning with a deep sense of dread which festered into anguish, shame, and self-loathing. There was no external trigger or apparent reason for these feelings, this was simply where my mind was first thing this morning. I find that I get into these negative headspaces first thing in the morning quite often. Perhaps it has to do with some pattern of neural activity and hormone fluctuation in the morning. I am not entirely sure, but today was particularly bad. The feelings were deep and piercing.
Normally, this is when I reach for my phone to find some kind of distraction but I allowed myself to fully and completely feel the emotions. The feelings consumed me. They were griping and biting at every fiber of my being and would not leave me alone. My nerves were on fire, kicking and thrashing about, almost like I was trying to hold onto a bull. It was tortuous and I remember thinking to myself that this was some sort of hell. I felt small, insignificant, weak, and shameful right there in the comfort and serenity of a warm bed. I was in agony and seemingly for no reason.
I reached for my phone and pulled up YouTube in an effort to mitigate these feelings. On the Recommended page, I noticed an Alan Watts speech video and clicked on it. Alan Watts was a British philosopher famous for bringing Eastern philosophies to a Western audience. He discusses complex spiritual concepts, meditation, and Buddhist principles. I’ve always found his speeches inspirational and mind-expanding and his voice is nationally soothing so I began to listen. In the speech he talked about how we get into trouble when we identity ourselves and our worth through the ego. The ego is selfish and illusory. We tend to identity ourselves with thoughts, status, money, how liked we are by others, how attractive we are, our body image, certain character attributes, and behaviors. Basically, things that reinforce the ego.
Alan Watts then goes on to explain that we cling to these identities. The ego becomes who we think we are and ultimately these identities are selfish, superficial, and largely dependent on external conditions. The ego is a fragile image of ourselves that can easily be broken by external forces. The thing is, the ego is not us. The ego is only an illusion, a facsimile. Many of us go our entire lives without realizing this simple fact and it gets us into trouble. In truth, our nature is not bound to our ego. There is a higher self, a self of infinite light, love, and compassion, not unlike our conceptions of God. Some call it a spirit or soul, some call it Atman, some call it the universal energy or Source. This is our true nature. We are beautiful, bright, and eternal. Who we tend to identify with as “me” is only a vessel for a flowing, vibrant energy source that cannot be judged, ridiculed, or destroyed. It is beyond our humanness, beyond life itself, beyond space and time.
Meditation is learning to identity with this higher self, to step back and watch our thoughts and emotions. We would do well to become the impartial witness to our own experience and understand that we are not our thoughts, feelings, or status. We would do well to understand that these are simply happenings, and we can watch them through the lens of our higher self, with infinite love and without judgment nor desire. I thought about this and I thought about how I usually identify myself and how I am attached to certain hollow images that reinforce my sense of worth. Because of this, I become rigid and brittle, my “self” becomes easily altered and hurt by others or events.
After the video, I grabbed my journal I keep by my bedside and flipped to the page where I had previously listed “The things I don’t like about myself”. I had written this list down the prior week in an attempt to understand my self-esteem issues. I went down the list and couldn’t help but start laughing. All of the reasons listed seemed so irrelevant and superficial now. These hang ups I have had to loving myself were based on superficial ideas about who I was. It was based on my ego. It was based on a false image. The things I had written that I didn’t like about myself were surface illusions which had nothing to do with my true nature or intrinsic worth at all.
I then started to meditate and I imaged my true nature. I imagined my higher self as a beautiful, illuminous ball, constantly emitting light and love in endless supply. I then imaged this ball of light expanding and meshing with other balls of light, creating a breath-taking fabric of universal energy, and then I understood. I am worthy of love and respect. I hold intrinsic value that will never ever go away and any self-esteem issues I have had are based on a ghost of myself, an artificial image created by my ego. I felt elated and untouchable in that moment. I felt blissfully detached from my own mind and I could simply bask in a network of flowing light and energy. I had created a heaven in my mind where there had been a hell. An overwhelming sense of peace flushed through my body. I was amazed at how I had been in the comfort of my bed and yet had traversed polar realms of pain and pleasure, heaven and hell, simply with my mind.
I got out of bed with a renewed sense of clarity about myself and my life. There is nothing that anyone can say or do to hurt me. I am untouchable. The only reason I allow people to hurt me with their words or actions is because I have been attached to images that I thought were me and that were serving my ego. I realize that anything anyone says about me is the equivalent of throwing stones at a ghost. Now I have a focus to shift my identity away from my ego and observe myself through the higher self, from an impartial yet loving perch high atop the mountain. In this way I will not be swallowed up by my own stream of consciousness but can simply watch it pass on the hilltop without desire or judgment, knowing that who I really am is beyond the bounds and constraints of this world. And that gives me peace. ❤
**Here is a short starter video of Alan Watts for anyone interested in being exposed to his speeches:
**Another Alan Watts mix with music if you have time to listen. It’s an hour long so maybe it would be good to listen while at the gym or going for a walk. I have certainly found it motivating and transformative: