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Before the rain stops we can hear a bird. Even under the heavy snow we see snowdrops and some new growth.  – Shunryu Suzuki

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There & Back Again

When my wife and I were first married, we spent a summer on Madeira Island with her family. They lived three hours from the airport in a small, poor farming village, high up in the mountains. After a hair raising 3 hour taxi ride on winding, narrow mountain roads with drops of 1,000 feet or more, we arrived at the family home. I noticed quickly that there were no phones, no TVs or radios, no refrigeration, and only sporadic electricity. There was one road in and the same road out.

In my time there, I discovered many interesting things about the skills and attitudes of the villagers. One characteristic in particular has stayed with me all these years. The shortcut to the center of town was a narrow, single file path along the side of a ridge with a drop of about twenty feet to the ravine below. In pitch darkness, townspeople could travel barefoot along this path at high speed, with no flashlights and without hesitation. No one, including the older folk, seemed to fall or fear the trek. It was as if they could see in the dark. My attempts to do this myself were met with polite smiles and giggles as I stumbled and demanded a flashlight. They couldn’t quite grasp what my problem was.

Madeira 3Three weeks into our stay, we were visiting relatives higher up the mountain. We stayed longer than anticipated and had to start down the mountain in the pitch dark. There was no road, only a primitive path with crevices, holes and boulders jutting into the path. It was a steep descent. As we started down, I could feel the fear of falling and being injured growing. In spite of that, I was moving faster and faster down the mountain. And then it happened. It was as if one part of my mind turned off and another turned on. I began to run. Incredibly, it all seemed to be in slow motion. I could see every crevice, every stone along the path. I neither tripped nor stumbled during the entire descent. Some part of me knew where to step. I leaped over crevices, dodged boulders and all at top speed. I saw the world in a totally new way; somehow I was aware of everything around me despite the darkness. My mind was clear, focused and in command. But it was not my conscious, everyday mind. There were no words or concepts, only awareness. It was what I have come to call the Instinctual Mind. A mind in which the world appears seamless and our senses fully integrated. But more of that later.  Let me get back to the story.

Upon arriving at the relative’s home, we partook of the obligatory homemade Madeiran wine and crackers while sitting for hours talking about the farm, the children and past experiences. There was little food to share but the Portuguese hospitality was magnificent. My mind was placid and content in the here and now, primed for a new experience.

Years later, after a career at the university and in private psychotherapy practice marked with the stresses of incessant multitasking, sitting for hours at computers, and driving in massive traffic jams, I began to jealously reflect on the extraordinary skill of the Madeirans.  How could we be so different?  Was their ability to use the Instinctual Mind inherently human but lost to us through some social or mental atrophy? Could regaining this ability contribute a clarity and focus to life that seemed long lost in my fast paced, technology dominated world? I couldn’t help but wonder if the ability of the Madeirans to harness the Instinctual Mind could in some way rekindle a sense of place, a deeper awareness of my surroundings, of purpose and a greater sensuality. I began to look into ways, some common, some not so common that could contribute to awakening that other mind that seemed so hidden and elusive.

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Hiking the Mountain

It may be helpful to look at hiking the mountain as a way of awakening the Instinctual Mind. If you have ever gone hiking, you know that it takes some preparation. You need supplies and proper clothing and a sense of direction. For me the preparation for ascending the mountain was three weeks of being free of all technology or knowledge of the world. Only the simple facts of everyday life were real. Once on the path upward, you need water, food and proper shoes so the journey can be completed. For us the hike up was hot and demanding. We had to negotiate the crevices, holes and boulders. All of this to reach our goal.

Many believe once you reach your goal at the summit the journey is over. You see the sky and the vistas. But for me reaching the top was only the prelude to the descent. Sometimes what we think is the goal is only the gateway to something more.  It was the descent that shattered my mind and opened it to a new dimension. Each of us must find the path and journey that suits us. For some it may be the climb up or reaching the peak. For others it will be the journey down. The only way to know is to start preparing and taking the first steps along the way.

Awakening the Instinctual Mind is allowing what is already in you its full expression. You are not adding something new to yourself. This awakening can bring changes in your relationships, worldview and health. Instinctual Mind is a mind of compassion and healing. But those are stories for another day.

Beginning The Climb

Here are a few ways to begin preparing for the climb:

  • Make a decision to free yourself, temporarily, from your cell phone and IPad or all technology for that matter. You might choose one hour a day so you can sit without the devices. Wean yourself from the constant clatter. Start to become accustomed to sitting, speaking to family, friends and colleagues without technical interruptions. You can expand this time as you grow stronger.
  • Limit your time listening to the news. All the calamities of the world will still be there when you get back. Cut the ties to 24 hour cable network news. Re-traumatizing yourself all day long is unhealthy and destroys composure.
  • Learn relaxation techniques to reduce stress. Relaxing is a good preparation to stilling your everyday mind that chatters on and on.
  • Go hiking, take up Tai Chi. These practices allow you to put aside the ordinary mind. Being in nature can be very helpful in the journey.
  • Start a meditation practice. There are many forms of meditation. Choose one that suits your temperament. Sitting is a path to awakening. Meditation is a way of scratching away at all the obstacles to knowing and giving expression to our true mind.
  • Find a teacher, group or someone you trust who can help you along the way.

Tools for the Hike

Ram Das:

Original Mind:

Centering Prayer:

Beginner’s Mind:

Go Wild:

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