Imagine a circle. There are 360 degrees. You are locked inside the circle. The circle is—let’s call it your ego, or identity. The truest “you” is on the outside of the circle. To get out of the circle you must fire your booster rockets and go through an opening that is 3 degrees wide. If you miss, you feel like you have crashed into something . . . another failed relationship . . . another drama . . . feeling trapped . . . hopeless . . . angry . . . or confused. If you make it through the opening, you go beyond your ego/identity and you free yourself to live the life that you are capable of. A life of passion and grace, ease and love—a deeply satisfying life.
How do you find that opening of 3 degrees? That’s crucial. It’s not that hard to navigate if you don’t have a lot of clutter—emotional clutter. But, the more clutter, the more you’ve complicated your life, the stronger the ideas you hold onto—the more difficult it is to navigate your way through the 3 degree opening. And if you’re off by just one degree, you realize what will happen. You’ll bump into the boundaries of your ego/identity and be stuck one more time in your limited sense of who you think you are.
In the last few months, working with my wife Hannah, we’ve built a compass that will allow you to navigate your way out of your circle. Personally, I expect we’ll be remembered for this a hundred years from now. How can I possibly know this? Well, when we escape the gravitational emotional field that is inside our circles, we have greater abilities to see our futures. We see more clearly.
You will die soon—we all will. So, I don’t want to waste any of your time—and I imagine most people reading this article still think in terms of time. I used to, but not so much any more. Once you escape the circle, you won’t either. Time can feel terribly limiting. When I lived inside of what I call the time-orientation, like we all learned to do, I felt a great deal of urgency in my life, because like you, I knew that time was running out. This is why I was anxious, more or less, all the time.
As I was saying, not that you want to hear it again, you will die soon—we all will, so you probably want to know how to find the 3 degrees that will allow you to feel safe, become comfortable with death, and love superbly while you live.
There are three distinctly different degrees of consciousness. I call them safety consciousness, heart consciousness, and spacious consciousness. I had to learn to navigate each consciousness independently of the others, because only by knowing how to access each one of them, and then combining that knowledge, can I easily navigate to the 3-degrees of opening.
What’s wild is that when you go beyond the circle, which we are teaching people how to do in our retreats, you’ll experience how easy it is to do this. Maybe not “easy to do,” but how easy life can be as a result of doing this. It’s a gas. Once you do this you’ll likely walk around with a half smile on your face most of the time. And then a weird thing happens—in airports, gas stations, and grocery store lines—you see that hardly anyone else is smiling. Occasionally you see some “lunatic” who is actually laughing and you think to yourself, “he’s nuts.” Well, maybe, or maybe not. Maybe he’s laughing because he’s outside of the circle. From outside the circle, looking back at the way people live in the circle, it looks pretty funny.
Now, those of you who know me might say, “Hey, you’re a pretty serious guy, you’re not smiling all the time.” Well, two things. 1) Have you seen me lately? Have you seen me since Hannah and I took five weeks off to come to Hawaii and live one of our dreams? Have you seen me since we started talking about semi-retiring, maybe in Hawaii, spending our mornings boogie boarding and afternoons laughing—oh, I meaning “working?” And 2) Even though I no longer feel the anxiety I used to feel when I was in the circle, I do still feel an urgent desire to share what Hannah and I have learned, because we believe this can alleviate much unnecessary suffering in the world.
The suffering is not just the wars raging in the middle east, the convoluted political system in the United States, the lack of care in our western health “care” system, but worst of all—to me—because it’s 100% preventable, is the way people behave and treat one other on a day-to-day basis. I sadden myself every time I see a child treated poorly, or the man at the Farmer’s Market who gets annoyed with his dog and jerks back so hard on the leash that the dog starts choking, or the husband who rolls his eyes when his partner explains she needs him to speak in a less angry voice, or the parent who splits her attention between her cell phone and her son.
There is much work to be done—that’s the only reason I have not yet fully given in to laughing all the time. But, it may happen yet . . .
Once we learn to navigate the 3-degrees of consciousness, life will never feel the same. And, you should know that being in the circle isn’t a bad thing, it’s a necessary part of day-to-day life. The point is not to get stuck there, not to limit ourselves.
Actually, working with the three degrees of consciousness begins inside the circle.
To learn to navigate safety consciousness requires several things, but primarily it boils down to feeling that we are okay within ourselves, not because of the status we have achieved, but because of how we conduct ourselves.
The way we do this is to take 100% responsibility for ourselves, especially our emotional wellbeing. As soon as we do this, we stop feeling needy, pushed around, bullied, disadvantaged or manipulated—by anyone. Instead, we start to feel in control. We start to feel like we are running our own nervous system and then we feel safe. No matter what happens, here I am, in control of my nervous system.
How we take full responsibility for ourselves involves several things, but primarily it comes down to learning a new way to speak to ourselves and other people. This new way of speaking is more than a communication tool, it’s a way for us to realize—continuously—that our stories are made up, and that the meaning we assign to everything that happens is made up.
At first, this awareness can be unnerving, but after a few months, I came to understand that I—the one who makes meaning— am in control of my nervous system. So much of how I feel is the result of how I make meaning. And the meaning I make is hugely influenced by the way I speak to myself and other people.
We are the meaning makers in our lives and when we get that, well, it’s almost like breaking free of the circle. Actually, when I first got this, I thought I had broken free of the circle. But months later, years later, I was still bumping into myself and I couldn’t figure out why. It was only when I came to understand the other two degrees of consciousness that it all came together for me.
Which brings us to heart consciousness. This is essential to our nature, because we are social animals and having meaningful connections with other people is—for most of us—what defines our experience of life. But we can’t work on developing heart consciousness from the level of safety consciousness, because safety consciousness makes us guarded and cautious. In other words, from within safety consciousness, which is where most of us live the majority of our lives, we aren’t really available to connect with other people, because we are worried—unconsciously—about how they will affect our nervous systems, which we haven’t yet learned to control.
The key to developing heart consciousness may surprise you. It’s not about learning how to manage conflict. It’s not about setting appropriate boundaries. It’s not about figuring out what “language of love” you speak and need your partner to speak. Frankly, all that is unhelpful because it reinforces safety consciousness. “I need you to speak to me in a certain way so that I feel seen by you.” You see how that is fear based? I’m afraid you’re going to hurt me or make me feel bad or upset me. As long as I operate on the level of safety consciousness, I will not be able to access and sustain heart consciousness.
We do need to do things like set personal boundaries and learn mature ways to communicate, and manage our differences with other people—especially our partners, but this actually happens at the level of safety consciousness, which is a precursor to heart consciousness.
To access heart consciousness I must become comfortable with my separateness. Maybe you thought I’d be singing the refrain, “We are all one.” No, I actually believe that idea is born out of—take a guess, where do you think that comes from? It comes from safety consciousness. The way we deal with our anxiety of being/feeling separate is by trying to convince ourselves that we are all one.
How do I become comfortable with my separateness? By individuating from all the people to whom I have bound myself. When I realize that my love is not specific to another person, that no one can give it to me or take it from me, that’s when I begin to experience heart consciousness. Love is my birthright. In that sense, and only in that sense, love is unconditional. But many people misunderstand this and think that love between people is unconditional.
No, that’s another myth that comes from—where? Safety consciousness. Yes, the belief that love is unconditional comes from my need to believe you love me even when you treat me like you don’t. And unconditional love is a self-justification people use when they say things like, “If you loved me unconditionally you would accept my . . .”—followed by some inappropriate or immature behavior like—” . . . dishonesty, neglect, temper tantrum, infidelity.”
Love is unconditional when I learn to access love as a state of being— independent of anyone. I can access love when I see the sunrise, feel clean sheets on the bed, hear my favorite song, wake up feeling refreshed, go boogie boarding in the ocean and in many other moments. Love is a chemical cocktail that I can mix and drink anytime I choose to—alone or with other people.
After I learn how to drink in love I am free to open my heart because I no longer fear someone taking it away from me. When Hannah and I were in the early years of our relationship she was nervous that I might not be faithful to her, because I was flirtatious. We talked, and fought about this for too long, but nothing changed. The change came only after I said to her, “If I turn out to be unfaithful then I’m not the man you thought I was. And if that were the case, what would happen?”
In that moment she realized her feeling love was not dependent on me. She knew that with or without me she would still have love in her life. After this realization she stopped holding herself back and that was about twenty years ago. And, I stopped flirting because I wanted to be the man she thought I was. It’s worked out well for both of us.
After we access heart consciousness the world is different. We stop trying to protect ourselves and we are truly free to love. We stop negotiating in petty ways with potential partners, “I’ll love you if you only . . . “ We stop putting energy into trying to be with people who, really, we know are the wrong people for us. Instead, we simply invite people into a space of love and they accept our invitation or they don’t. It’s not complicated. Love can be easy—when accessed from heart consciousness.
The next degree of consciousness we want to access is spacious consciousness. This degree of consciousness is the one that allows us to free ourselves from the constraints of time, and the urgency and angst that is associated with two things. 1) Our overly busy lives. And, even more valuable, 2) Our existential fear of death.
I suspect everyone reading this immediately groks that it would be great to have some means by which we don’t get caught in the busyness of day-to-day life. Spacious consciousness provides that. When we have the ability to access spacious consciousness we step outside of the time-orientation we grew up in. We can still be productive, but we tend to go slower, multi-task less, and do fewer things. Ironically, we may get more done.
But, again, even more valuable than not feeling overwhelmed with the pace of life—and far less talked about—is our need to deal with our deepest existential issues, the biggest of which is our fear of death. Spacious consciousness provides that, too. Our angst about death is because we view life from safety consciousness and death threatens our safety. But when death is viewed from spacious consciousness, it is no longer perceived as something threatening. Instead, death becomes us.
Spacious consciousness—outside the circle—can be accessed without having mastered safety consciousness or heart consciousness, but the results will not be sustainable unless we live alone in a cave, as some great spiritual masters have done. Some of you may have accessed it already, it’s a real high for people, but then followed by a crash when safety consciousness snaps them back to what they think is “reality.” If we want to live in the world, hold a job, be in relationship, deal well with our children, our aging parents, and with our own aging, we must learn to access safety consciousness, heart consciousness and spacious consciousness—all 3-degrees.
By the way, this is why most therapies fail, or fall short of helping us expand beyond the circle of our ego/identity, because they operate within safety consciousness. Mostly what we do in those therapies is go around and around, talking about slightly different versions of the same old story. I don’t deny we may make incremental progress, but I know we can do so much more.
To summarize, mastering the three degrees of consciousness requires that I change the way I speak to myself and other people. Doing so will alter the way my brain functions and result in me being in control of my nervous system. When that happens, I feel safe. Then I need to become comfortable with my separateness as a means to accessing love that is not dependent on any other person. Doing this will alter the ways I relate with people because I will no longer confuse myself—trying to get from someone else what I already have within myself, but haven’t yet learned to access. Finally, by accessing spacious consciousness, through a specific meditation practice, I will move beyond the limitations of time-orientation, which changes my relationship to my daily life—no longer rushing to get things done—but more valuable than that, I will transcend my existential fears, including my fear of death.
In all of our future retreats we will be teaching participants how to access all 3-degrees of consciousness. This summer we’ll be creating a new website offering people a variety of meditations; we call them SpaceMeds. If you want to be notified when the site goes live, and about our upcoming free webinar on this topic, make sure you sign up for our mailing list on this website. An easy way to accomplish this is to fill in the form below. We’ll send you a copy of this article, and your name will be added to our list, if it’s not already there.