Embodied awakening is a deeply incarnated and humanizing process that simultaneously anchors our identity in our unbounded nature. As unconscious material arises for integration and healing our awakening deepens, and we begin to realize the paradox of being both a unique body-mind and the Totality Itself. While this paradox calls us into a more intimate relationship with others, what lies in our unconscious is not only personal but cultural shadow. Integrating unconscious elements of our culture can be a doorway to the social dimensions of awakening, and I believe it is essential for realizing our true human adulthood.
Instead of distancing ourselves from the grittiness of material life in order to transcend it, embodied awakening is a path of inclusion. Trillium teachers and practitioners have found that as we relax our resistance to life and open to our direct experience, the energy and attention that was bound in defensive strategies is liberated to recognize our unbounded nature. Our patient awareness welcomes home the unconscious aspects of ourselves we have held in exile, and we begin to know our profound Totality.
Through this inclusive process of realizing our Totality, we awaken from the illusion of separateness into the truth of fundamental inter-beingness. Like an inflated balloon that somehow dissolves, the boundary of the separate self-identity gradually, or sometimes suddenly, dissipates. The thin, invisible film that kept the world “out there” is gone, and we find ourselves inextricably embedded within the entire Web of Life. In fact, we realize ourselves to be the entire Web Itself. Yet we paradoxically retain a distinct, unique body and ego that allow us to navigate material life in space and time.
This realization of fundamental inter-beingness can invite a new level of awareness, responsibility, and ethics. When we come to know that it is all and only One Thing, and I am That, we have the opportunity to admit it’s corollary: whatever we do to another we do to ourselves; your suffering is my suffering. This humbling truth can help us avoid the compelling grandiosity of “It’s all Me” when we choose to become increasingly aware of, and accountable for, how we impact other beings, whether intentionally or not.
In the Trillium path, mutuality to refers to the practice of relating to the other-as-self, and starts by making room for our own true and total nature, while also making room for the other person’s true and total nature. We see their true, divine, infinite nature, while including their flaws and humanity in their totality. We also deeply respect the logic of their being – the way in which their actions and worldview make sense for them – and allow their experiences to be very different from our own.
Mutuality isn’t about being nice and living happily every after – it includes too much reality for that! However, significant transformation can happen organically when we allow the other person’s suffering to penetrate us, especially when our actions play a part in their pain. This alchemy of mutual vulnerability supports our awakening as our relationships inevitably evoke unconscious material to the surface for integration.
We may want to initially practice this vulnerable exchange with people whom we trust and feel safe with. Over time, our capacity for mutuality may expand into broader social contexts. However, it is essential to acknowledge that our spiritual awakening happens within a social matrix and won’t automatically liberate us from this matrix. Although life may demand some of us to question the cultural waters in which we are immersed, in my experience most people don’t outgrow or challenge their social matrix without a crisis or at least some conscious effort, even after awakening.
We can turn to the movie The Matrix as a metaphor for awakening to our cultural shadow. The protagonist, Neo, senses something isn’t quite right about the world. Trailing a mysterious “white rabbit” he lands face to face with gatekeeper Morpheus, who asks Neo to choose between the red pill of truth and the blue pill of delusion. Swallowing the red pill, Neo falls down the rabbit hole to realize the dystopian horror underpinning his everyday, virtual world. His eyes burn because he’s never used them before, he vomits because it’s so hard to swallow what’s really going on, and his life is forever changed.
As we swallow the red pill of truth by softening our resistance to life and embracing our direct experience, we may, like Neo, be deeply challenged by what we encounter in the shadows. In addition to deep personal conditioning, our unconscious holds exiled cultural truths. It takes courage and maturity to become aware of, and awaken from, unacknowledged cultural dynamics. We may feel sickened by what we see.
In the United States we have the opportunity – and many would argue responsibility – to awaken from the complex, unconscious, and pervasive patterns of assigning unearned privilege and unearned disadvantage to people with certain characteristics. According to psychologist Pamela Hays, PhD, the US culture employs at least nine channels of systemic, preferential treatment based on the following characteristics: Age, Disability, Religion, Ethnicity, Sexual orientation, Socioeconomic status, Indigenous Heritage, National Origin, and Gender (called the ADRESSING Model). [citation]
As we begin to awaken to the painful realities of how we treat one another in our communities and country, we can ask ourselves the following questions: What kinds of suffering do these systemic cultural dynamics cause? How do we unconsciously and unintentionally participate in these dynamics?
In her excellent book Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment, Dr. Leticia Nieto articulates the most humane, comprehensive, and effective, social analysis and pathway to mutual liberation that I’ve encountered. She presents us with two very distinct processes of social awakening – one for channels in which we are culturally assigned unearned privilege/benefit, and another for channels in which we are culturally assigned disadvantage. Most of us are some mixture of both.
As we take the red pill and begin awakening in the channels where we are assigned unearned privilege/benefit, it can be helpful to open our hearts and minds by acknowledging the deeper truth of “what I do to you, I do to myself.” In the context of mutuality, our primary work in these channels is to listen wholeheartedly and allow ourselves to be deeply affected by the disadvantaged other’s suffering. By doing so, we can become increasingly aware of our unearned privilege, and the ways in which we’ve been dehumanized by it. For example, as a member of the owning class, I can become aware of how I enjoy (or even insist upon) access to inexpensive clothing, food, and material goods produced by people who don’t have healthcare, safe working conditions, decent wages, housing, etc. I can let myself feel how my distance from and desensitization to their suffering erodes my integrity and humanity.
Awakening to our privilege/benefit inevitably evokes the discomfort of “red pill” experiences, and we may sink into feelings of guilt and shame. Instead of looking to the disadvantaged others to forgive us and validate our goodness, it’s important to get support from people who share your privilege/benefit who are also awakening. I can’t tell you how invaluable it’s been for me to have a group of white, owning class colleagues to socially awaken with. Together we are gradually growing our capacity to gently support people outside our group to awaken in these channels of privilege, and to take part in cultural and systemic transformation.
In the channels where we are culturally assigned disadvantage, we can start acknowledging the real suffering we, and people like us, are experiencing (and have historically experienced). Our red pill experiences can include noticing how we’ve been dehumanized, or made to feel less-than, by having this particular characteristic, and the very real ways our culture and institutions have limited our options and opportunities. Perhaps even more painful is recognizing the ways in which we may have internalized oppressive messages.
For example, when I was an engineer for the Washington State Dept. of Ecology, I was shocked to discover the significant salary discrepancy between male and female engineers who were doing commensurate work. Although Ecology’s culture was more progressive than most other state agencies, males were clearly more valued and better compensated than females. I always felt I had to prove myself, and in some situations, no matter how excellent I was I would never be taken as seriously as a man. There is very real cost to me and other non-cis-gendered males – to our self-esteem, to our safety, and to our checking accounts – in the Gender channel of US culture.
As we awaken in our channels of culturally assigned disadvantage, meeting with colleagues who are also awakening in these channels can help us reclaim our dignity, find our truth, and provide support that allows the suffering and outrage to be felt, integrated, and have meaning. Over time, we can then offer our support to others who are just starting to awaken in this social dimension, as well as strategically participate in systemic transformation.
Ultimately, embodied awakening into essential non-separateness is a path of liberation. Not liberation from, but liberation into the gritty realities of our social matrix. As we courageously encounter these realities, we bring exiled aspects of our personal and collective shadow back home for integration and are called forward to act with increasing compassion and integrity towards one another. Paradoxically, deep, gritty social mutuality can offer us liberation from the oppression that our awakened humanity longs for.
This quote by Aboriginal activist, artist, and academic Lilla Watson says it beautifully:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Possible Next Steps:
– get support for taking the ‘red pill’
– Read Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment, by Dr. Leticia Nieto
– start a study group with this text and explore the exercises in the book
– look at the details of the ADRESSING Model in Leticia’s book, and identify the channels where you are assigned privilege and assigned disadvantage.
– learn about each of the channels, and start noticing how they operate in your daily life – pick one at a time and watch for it in the news, institutions you interact with, public places you frequent, media, workplace, leisure activities
– experiment: spend an entire day, or entire week, imagining yourself as a person with one of the disadvantaged channels that you enjoy privilege in