what does consciousness offer?
“Consciousness practices offer richness, juiciness, depth, meaning, purpose, awe, wonder, joy, pain -- all of it.
The whole enchilada.”
Cassandra Vieten, Ph.D. is extraordinary – a licensed clinical psychologist, director of research at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, associate scientist at the Mind Body Medicine Research Group at California Pacific Medical Center Research Institute in San Francisco, CA, co-president of the Institute for Spirituality and Psychology, an author, avid soccer player, and a mom. Say that three times fast.
Cassi’s research on mindfulness-based approaches to dealing with addictions, mood disorders, and for stress reduction during pregnancy and early motherhood have been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the State of California, and several private foundations. We’re talking about the beauty, benefits and the hard problem of consciousness practices she faces every day with her clients.
Meaning, juiciness, awe... you’re describing our full, vivid potential as human beings. Why do so many people tune out instead and turn to external fixes, drugs and alcohol. Is there a catch?
“Everyone is in such a high state of agitation and stress. The way we live, the way we hurdle down the freeways in our little metal boxes, it makes sense that everybody is scaffolding their lives. Consciousness actually doesn’t offer the kind of numbness or contented pleasure that most people are seeking. Alcohol, cigarettes they work, they work really well. They work really fast, and they’re really cheap, really easy. The only reason everybody wouldn’t be using them is because they kill you. They cause a lot of suffering. It’s hard to find something that matches up against how easy it is for someone to feel terrible and then to smoke a cigarette and feel fine in 3 seconds. They feel fine, and that is powerful.
Unless you intentionally unplug and spend time in silence or in nature, there is rarely a moment where you’re not in all that chaos. Without awareness, people have got to build a scaffold -- here’s my caffeine, my TV, here’s all the things I have to do to keep this completely imbalanced, insane way of living -- moving forward.”
Right, and consciousness transformation develops over time. How, then, do you approach mindfulness in your practice?
“I had to get realistic. This isn’t about saying “Hey, I have something that can replace your cigarette. If you learn this mindfulness thing it’s going to kind of make you feel ___” -- it’s bullshit. It’s actually not ever going to make you feel the same way as does the ease and passivity of smoking a cigarette and to instantly, physiologically experience a feeling of all is well. Nothing is going to combat that.
You tell that to people and they are like “Great, I would rather watch TV.” It’s hard to find something that can break the spell.”
“When someone gets to his or her breaking point -- when they feel “this is actually not fun at all, I am not going to see my kids grow up. I’m coughing, I smell terrible, and this pain I feel outweighs the reward. I will do almost anything to find a new way,” they reach out for help.
But even then, I tell them the good news/bad news is we’re never going to be able to give you anything that feels as good as a cigarette after your craving. There is nothing wrong with you. You’re absolutely hardwired for this, that’s why they are so incredibly popular.”
I’ll bet you could hear a pin drop… what’s their reaction?
“What’s so amazing is they are actually relieved! I hear, “Thank you for saying that.” The truth takes away the shame.
And once they do get into new ways of cultivating their consciousness,
they are like “Wow, okay, this is peace, this is joy. This is beauty.”
Do you find it challenging to discuss consciousness and mindful awareness?
“Yeah, it’s really hard to talk to people about opening their consciousness. It’s a tough road just motivating others to sit on a cushion and watch their thoughts. Some have a powerful intention either through intense suffering or through undeniable, blow out glimpses of awareness. And the landmarks vary. If you’re lucky, you get a few, big lightening bulb moments that sustain you through your spiritual journey. Most people don’t even get that. They get some nice moments and it deepens gradually until they experience the “Oh my God, everything I have ever been looking for is right here in my awareness like you said, in this moment,” moment.
But that takes a while. So I wonder just how do we reach somebody who is not at that deep bottom of suffering or who’s had an a-ha moment to accelerate that inquiry process?”
Right, because so many people consider consciousness transformation as woo-woo, out of their reach or in the domain of Buddhists and spiritual seekers . You don’t have to forgo your body for a pillow, and leave your condo and your BMW behind in order to evolve.
“Well, you know what’s really interesting about that work, although we interviewed all these people, I think sex was probably mentioned 3 or 4 times. Now, granted we did not ask the question.
One of the guys we interviewed was hilarious, he said, ”How can you ask these 20 questions and not ask about sex?”
Sex is most people’s portal to the time when they feel the most sacred, the most connected, the most holy. For the everyday individual sexual intimacy is probably the one place where they ever experience dissolution of self or a true kind of spiritual experience that is completely immaterial, unexplainable and distinctly embodied. And yeah, we didn’t even ask.”
What did you discover from not asking about sexuality?
It resonates for them with a sense of Wow. Okay, so there is something there.”
Why do you think sex is overlooked regarding consciousness?
“Sexuality for most of us, even people who are evolving spiritually, is a part that remains really separate; very un-integrated. Aside from Tantric practices, it’s taboo even in the deepest spirituality. How can that be… that one piece of who we’re being is somehow not allowed into the conversation? I actually feel we haven’t even begun to figure out how consciousness evolves in the context of sexuality. There are such exemplary extremes to follow... you either have the celibate master who decides this area is so fraught with danger and adopts a ‘forget the whole entire thing’ approach, or you have the charismatic master who is having sex with all the students.”
And when we dismiss the context of our sexuality, our energy gridlocks. It’s prohibitive to our well being; our ability to communicate effectively and transform.
“Yes, and imagine the training we’re not getting. We are just now starting to think about training kids in emotional intelligence - to actually teach kids how to talk to each other. Communication is challenging, as we all find out when we grow up and work and are married. What do we get in terms of our training around sexuality? We get the one movie or the ridiculous ‘birds and the bees’ talk. The most training we get about sexuality is through the media.”
“Cultivating awareness is a wonderful foundation for great parenting. Mindful awareness is a skill that can be learned, like playing the piano or learning a new language, and as such it takes practice. There are lots of opportunities now to learn mindfulness -- at a local meditation center, through taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction class, and increasingly mindful parenting classes are popping up everywhere.
The focus here is on being aware of your experiences as parents as they arise. Meeting them as they are, learning to center your attention in the present-moment -- on what actually is happening right now, rather than your stories about it, or what it means.
Riding the waves of life…
“Yes, mindfulness is about learning to approach all of your experiences, as much as possible with openness, curiosity, and compassion. It's about learning to ride the waves rather than resisting them and getting battered about in the process.”
She is the author of Mindful Motherhood: Practical Tools for Staying Sane During Pregnancy and Your Child's First Year (New Harbinger Publications/ Noetic Books, 2009). In addition, she is coauthor, along with Marilyn Schlitz and Tina Amorok, of Living Deeply: The Art and Science of Transformation in Everyday Life (New Harbinger Publications/ Noetic Books, 2008).
Her website is http://mindfulmotherhood.org.