Why do I keep seeing a fight when there isn’t one? Why do I keep getting twisted up worrying about my partner leaving me? Why do I get caught up in so much thinking when I should take action?
Why? Because we have habits of personality that trap our attention and filter our awareness, leaving us with an overly narrow experience of ourselves and the world. This article is about two of my favorite topics – awareness, and the habits of personality called character. So, let’s go!
Let’s start by looking at two traditions that have something to say about awareness (practice). We’ll touch on character a bit later.
Rest as awareness. This is a pointing out instruction in nondual traditions. It is an injunction that sets up conditions where we can be surprised by the vital awareness that already lives through us. In one sense, this is an instruction to rest in our natural state – to rest as the awareness that we fundamentally are. In nondual traditions, we don’t manufacture awareness through practice. Awareness always and already is – and we just lose track of what is.
Be aware, of the present moment, with acceptance. This is something of a standard instruction for practice in mindfulness traditions. An example of this is learning to bring awareness to the contents of your thinking – and accepting without judgment whatever enters your awareness. Mindfulness practice has a long history, including a more recent history of being investigated by science – which has revealed the many psychophysical benefits of mindfulness practice.
In another article, we’ll look at mindfulness and direct approaches in more detail – how they are similar and different. For now, we’re focusing on one of the primary obstacles to awareness, whether it is mindful awareness of what is happening in the present moment, or resting in the fresh and alive awareness that we fundamentally are.
In some psychospiritual traditions, the obstacles to awakening are referred to as “fixations.” These fixations are (apparent) impediments to realizing our true self, the essence of who we are. “Fixations” are also a perfectly good stand-in for what bodymind (and bioenergetic) therapists might refer to as core bodymind stories, or character. Character is a kind of calcification in the way we experience ourselves, the world, and our relationship to the world. Character (fixations) are bodymind habits that manifest in how we think, feel, move, hold ourselves, and relate.
Character/fixations are magnetic attractions for our attention. They limit our awareness, and they limit our experiences. This is way “I keep seeing a fight” when there isn’t always one there. Or worry about partners leaving. And so forth. Insert your favorite concern/story here.
Habits of personality (perception, evaluation, feeling, action) are not inherently the problem. It is our unconscious identification with these characterological habits that is the problem. In the beginning, before we register that we have an “issue,” we take it as self-evident that the world is fighting with us. As we learn more, we realize that, perhaps, there’s something in us that sees a fight, finds a fight, creates a fight, and so on. We’re aware of it, but it still happens. Mindfulness practice can be useful here because it helps us let our thoughts, feelings, and physical reactions be there (with acceptance) – without acting on them right away. But then we lapse out of mindfulness, fall back into the identification, and get in another fight. Personal growth progresses along the trajectory of becoming more aware of our unconscious identifications, finding more freedom from our reactivity, and finding more skillful ways to perceive and act. Mindfulness can be helpful here, as well as maps that describe these kinds of fixations (the enneagram is an example).
In one sense, we are awareness, fundamentally. Always and already. Thus, one way of understanding how personality habits “trap” us is to say that fixations, character, armoring, and tension all are ways we resist the free flow of life, energy, and self. We don’t need to generate vitality; we need to stop limiting our vitality, stop limiting the life that lives through us. We don’t need to construct a better, more skillful personality – we just rest in the vital awareness that we are fundamentally. We experience all arisings of personality (good, bad, indifferent) as habitual movements, but they are not fundamentally who we are.
“What we already are” has two broad meanings depending on where you stand. From the level of relative perception, it refers to the natural forms that our individual expression takes. It is our true, authentic (individual) self. It’s an expression that makes me look and feel different from other people. From the level of the absolute, “what we already are” refers to the nonconceptual always already true nature that is nondual (e.g., neither self nor no self) and is also “not different” from the natural forms our individual expression takes!
When resting in direct awareness, we experience that life lives itself. Energy moves. We needn’t manufacture a “true” self. When working from the perspective of the progressive path, we do, however, register that we have a restrictive self-image and we hold tightly to it. This is identification. Working progressively, we may engage in practices that increase mindfulness, reduce our reactivity, and improve self-regulation.
Mindfulness practices have clear and measurable benefits. Mindfulness can – also – be practiced in a way that reinforces a separate (sometimes detached) sense of self. In this case, even mindfulness practice becomes an obstacle because it interferes with the free flow of life that also necessarily includes connection, feelings, movement, pleasure, and joy! More on this topic in another article.To learn more about awareness practices, nonduality, and how to deal with habits of character that create obstacles to living – contact me about therapy and coaching that integrates psychology and psychospiritual practices.