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Michael McCaffrey -  ‘The Trap Of The Absolute’

An Interview By Iain McNay

Iain: Hello and welcome again to Conscious TV. I’m Iain McNay and my guest today is Michael McCaffrey. Hi Michael

Michael: Hello Iain

Iain: Michael hasn’t written a book yet; he doesn’t have a DVD, so I’ve got nothing to show but we’ve got Michael which is the really important thing. So, Michael in some notes you gave me beforehand you talked about when you were young you had this nagging doubt about life. Talk more about that.

Michael: It’s hard to describe now but it was very prominent at the time. Growing up I was looking around and couldn’t quite make sense of the world, yet all the adults around me seemed to be making sense of the world, seemed to have a grasp on things with which I was struggling. The world seemed overwhelming and mysterious. I had a lot of strange experiences as a kid that would lend itself towards that mystery yet nobody around me in my immediate environment, family, friends seemed to be tuned into that in any way. So, there was a bit of a dissonance in so far as I would question whether or not somehow, I was a little bit insane perhaps. Was I missing something? I always felt slightly detached from my experience. There was this sense that they had it and I didn’t. They didn’t what it was they had and what it was I didn’t. That stayed with me all through my childhood but later into my teens I managed to remedy that somehow by making more of an effort to fit in and play the role that I was supposed I was expected to play. By that point I had come to the conclusion that I had to tailor some of those thoughts and ideas and feelings about the world in order to get by otherwise I would struggle. I remember being approached by a teacher at primary school. I was sitting in the corner of the playground by myself gazing  off into the distance. The teacher asked me what was wrong. I tried to communicate to her as best as I could that I was contemplating infinity. So, I always had this sense of something grand, something bigger than this, something more than this but I found I didn’t feel safe communicating that with people around me because they didn’t seem to share that view.

Iain: So, when you say you had strange experiences as a kid  what kind of experiences were, they?

Michael: For a period of a few years I would have recurring night terrors. They were the same dream effectively. It would always be travelling through a tunnel of light that was getting progressively smaller. I was moving to a singular point of very bright blinding light. The point I would always wake up in this commotion if you like was the point which I hit this bright white light. I had that dream over and over again. Since then I’ve spoken to people who have suggested I may have a memory of my birth, I don’t know if that was the case or not, but it very much felt like that. The sense of the tunnel I  was travelling through was like I was moving from somewhere that felt very familiar to somewhere that felt very scary and unfamiliar, that was the overriding feeling. That happened over the course of two or three years almost nightly. Aside from that another thing I often did with a kid that I didn’t share with people, if I had time to myself I would shut my bedroom door I would lie on the floor and cross my arms over my chest and effectively try and imagine what it would be like to die, what would that feel like and what would that look like. So, I was fascinated by this, something the adults didn’t really talk about. At that point I hadn’t experience a death in the family or anything like that, so it was something I was quite fascinated by as a small child. As I grew older, I learned that these things were not necessarily the most popular topics  of conversation and that I should hold them down somewhat. I did that which probably in the long term caused more problems I think because a I supressed them, this situation I had this curiosity. That didn’t bode to well as I got older.

Iain: Where you scared of death when you were a child?

Michael: No, I was just fascinated, curious as to what it meant. I was curious as to what it might be like. I always had the sense that being dead would be much like before I was alive so this sense of neither good nor bad, it just was.   

Iain: Interesting isn’t it that kids often don’t have a sense of death it’s only when their parents put that fear into them that they take it on board.

Michael: Yes, and that’s certainly something I was very curious about growing up

Iain: As you got older you were trying to fit in, trying to be like everybody else and this questioning, this challenging of the status quo you internalised that more and more

Michael: I felt the need to push it to the back of my experience because I didn’t feel like I had anyone I could talk to about it. It didn’t feel like anyone else was having the same conversations certainly not of my age, fifteen , sixteen years old. There are far more important things at hand than the  nature of the universe.  So, I just tried to put it away figured that it would be something I’d grow out of. It always lingered and created almost this dissonance in the background that I was always aware of and made me feel quite uncomfortable and uneasy in my own skin much of the time. So, I was trying to balance being normal whatever that means with what my actual experience was. I struggled with that a great deal

Iain: You told me earlier also that you started to get into drugs, first in a fairly minor way

Michael: One of the things that actually helped me as a teenager to put these things to one side was I started smoking weed recreationally but I quickly discovered I certainly had an addictive tendency so that became less of a recreational thing and more a day and night thing for pretty much ten years , into my early twenties, mid-twenties at least. I suppose it wore off like anything. If you do something enough it becomes second nature, it doesn’t have the same effect it did previously. In my late twenties which is quite strange; many of my friends who dabbled in harder recreational drugs in their early twenties and by their thirties had pretty much grown out of it whereas my interest peaked at about age twenty-nine.  I suddenly found the world of recreational drugs and found that they gave me some respite as well, managed to push things down for me.  But much like anything else I had to take more of them to have the same effect and stronger drugs to have any effect at all. Within about eighteen months of going through recreational party drugs use to pretty much addiction in that I was using every single day. I moved through the standard party drugs and eventually found myself with a very serious crack habit which was something I’d never foreseen.

Iain: Wow, so you really got serious then

Michael: I’ve always had a tendency to do things totally, I don’t hold back. It seems I can apply that to anything and did that with my drug use as much as anything else

Iain: So where did that come from that tendency to be total because I know just jumping ahead a bit that’s what saved you in a way that totality. Was that something inherent that you got from your parents ?

Michael: I don’t know quite best how to describe it but I’m very much an all or nothing kind of person. I always have been, just fully commit myself to what I’m doing and if I don’t fully commit myself to it, I end up not doing it all. I don’t know where that’s necessarily come from. I don’t know whether that’s partly my personality, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly where that came from. But certainly, if I point my attention in a direction of something and there’s that passion to do it , there’s a drive… in my case there was a drive to mitigate the pain I was feeling. That pain was so strong I was willing to do pretty much whatever it took to reduce that pain, therefore if that meant taking an inhuman amount of drugs, so be it. 

Iain: How could you afford these drugs?

Michael: You find a way. It’s not the most glamorous of lifestyles. You’ll have friends, two or three groups that you’ll move within  to source your habit. It becomes a matter… you have to make it happen, there’ no two ways about it You end up becoming quite resourceful let’s say in order to maintain these habits.

Iain: You were working at the time

Michael: I was working, you could say I was functional to some degree

Iain: You must have been if you were able to hold a job

Michael: As far as I’m aware, in retrospect it’s always interesting to look back and sees how much other people knew. I wasn’t fired from my job, so they obviously didn’t suss that I wasn’t in a great state. I managed to hold done a job which was helpful also I suppose if you want to look at it in those terms.

Iain: Were you consciously aware of what you were doing at the time of pushing something down or was it just something you were doing automatically in a way?

Michael: Both. I was aware that I was in a great deal of pain. I’d suffered a difficult childhood growing up obviously with what I’ve explained to you. But beyond that my parents were divorced when I was eight years old and it was quite a difficult divorce. I had a brother who was six who I sort of took responsibility for to try and shield him from much of the difficulty in the household, what was going on in the family. It was very messy and actually in the early eighties divorce wasn’t quite as common as it is nowadays. I was one of the few people in my year at school whose parents were divorced at that age, so it was a lot to contend with. Difficulty fitting in as teenager, always feeling like an outsider, that carried on into my twenties. There was this sense of sadness of grief, this sense of not quite feeling… I always described it as constantly feeling I was on the outside of an inside joke and everybody else was in this joke and I didn’t quite get it. It really kind of gnawed at me up until my early thirties effectively. I found that at least when I took drugs, I could forget that pain for the duration but of course you have to come down. At the end of it you still have to come back to the life you have, you have to come back to all this stuff you’re trying to avoid which then creates this need to stay high as long as you can, which then creates something of a problem. It’s no longer an antidote to the problem, it becomes a problem in and of itself. I would say, it not necessarily a poplar view drugs were very much an answer to my problems at that time. Unfortunately, they became a problem of themselves and never really addressed the fundamental issue at the core of what I was trying to run away from, trying to escape from if you like.

Iain: So, there were two significant things that happened, do you want to talk about those  

Michael: I suppose the first of which was between a year and eighteen months of using crack every single day and pretty much from morning to night bar my time at work. I woke up one morning and I just had this really strong sense, voice, I don’t know what exactly, really like a stark insight. I had never foreseen my life going that way, who does? Nobody aims at being a crackhead by thirty and yet there I was. There was a sort of understanding that I was at a crossroads, if I continued with that commitment and enthusiasm of using, I would end up dead probably within a year. I didn’t want that to happen, really deep down I didn’t want that to happen. As much pain as I was in, I wanted to find a way through it. I suppose I realised in that moment it didn’t work, fundamentally it wasn’t working. The pain was still there so I needed another avenue. My next thought quite literally was maybe you should learn how to meditate. This was in 2010 when meditation was not quite as big as it is now in terms of mainstream. It was still relatively… people looked at me if I was crazy when I told them I did meditate. So, I literally got online that afternoon and started to google local places where I could learn. There was one just up the road from me in London. I went to an introductory talk about it later that week and I basically made the decision there and then. I say I made the decision, the decision happened. I just suddenly thought I’m not going to do it again, and I didn’t.  I haven’t touched crack since. It’s easy to say retrospectively I made a choice, but I don’t really honestly feel like I did. For want of a better word, it was grace, a moment of clarity, I realised it didn’t work. It was futile doing it and so this all or nothing attitude suddenly fell out and I just walked away from it. I didn’t feel I needed to do it ever again.

Iain: It’s interesting, while you’re talking, I’m thinking about an interview I did a few years ago with Benjamin Zephaniah who is quite a well-known poet he told a similar story insofar he was living in Birmingham and dealing in drugs. He was getting more and more involved. He had a gun; he would sleep with a gun under his pillow at night. The same thing happened to him. He woke up one morning and just remembered what one of his teachers had said, “ Benjamin if you’re not careful you’re going to end up either in jail or dead”. He had already been in jail and next thing was dead. He did the same as you. That morning he left everything, drove to London and started a completely new life. It always fascinates me people who do that. As you mentioned earlier, a totality, whatever they do, they do it totally, seemingly good or bad. I’m just thinking again, we have a doctor friend and she has always said, “the people who are the biggest pain in the arse, the ones that do the most research, they’ve got the best chance of recovery because they are the most focused, the most determined”. It’s the determination that is so important

Michael: Yeah, that’s really interesting because I transferred that determination if you like from that, into practice, into meditation. Ultimately, I became somewhat obsessed with the idea of enlightenment off the back of that, very quickly.

Iain: Another obsession

Michael: Of course. Actually, down the line I realised I dropped the addiction as such, but I just shifted the focus, and I had a new object of addiction which is arguably less damaging but that’s debateable. Being infatuated and obsessed by an idea of something can be equally as detrimental , in very different ways. I came to discover that myself in my own journey. I picked up meditation, I was practising every single day, twice a day. I never missed a day, I was very determined so much so that after about eighteen months of practice, I started looking into the idea of a retreat…

Iain: So, it was TM that you were doing to start with, you’d do the mantra twice a day.

Michael: I learnt TM. I couldn’t find any retreats associated to TM. Actually, that’s not true, teachers ran them, but they were quite expensive and I didn’t have a lot of money at that time. I actually googled and found a zen retreat…

Iain: Hang on, you’d been taking drugs for all these years, we know that crack is quite addictive … you’ve haven’t said what else you’ve taken and you don’t have to, but surely your body is going through a withdrawal chemically.

Michael: As far as my experience there was no physical withdrawal from crack. There is from opioids and things like that but from crack I did not have any withdrawal symptoms at all. It took a bit of time to heal because it damages your body physically, blisters on your hands , around your mouth various things. This took a little time to heal but there was no physical craving for it at all  which I was very lucky not to experience. The transition felt very clean cut for me in many respects. I managed to step away from it without having to go through any physical difficulty beyond that and actually watch the slow healing process beginning to happen in my body. My colour came back, I began to put on more weight. I looked a bit more like the person I recognised in the mirror rather than this gaunt skinny grey looking individual I had become after using for so long.

Iain: Did your childhood questions come back again, challenge to the status quo?

Michael: Actually no, not immediately, they came about. The zen retreat I subsequently signed up for was focused on a koan, which was who am I? As soon as I read that in the description I was hooked, that took me back. Effectively I realised that was the question I had always been asking myself since I was a kid, that I’d never been able to verbalise, the sense of who am I really? As soon as I saw that I signed up immediately. It was six days in North Yorkshire with a Western Chan fellowship, so Chinese zen is there.  Its very much the way they work has been developed  to work with the western mind which I really much appreciated. There were certain degrees of tradition that I wasn’t familiar with, chanting , prayers and stuff like this that I was very happy to thrust myself into. I trusted the process would be of benefit. When we arrived I was given the question. You work in a very specific way with communication, dialogue, intermittent silence, long periods of silence and work throughout the day. I really went deep into the question of who am I? I lived with the question every moment of every day. Funnily enough the moment something dawned on me, the penny dropped if you like, the first major experience I had was around a practice that I deeply didn’t want to do. I was quite ok with the reverent sitting. I was one of those guys that would deliberately sit through the breaks in between because I figured if I sat longer, I would get it. I really regretted it at the end of every night. My knees would hurt, and I would beat myself up about why are you doing this, what are you doing? But there was this drive to keep going. Anyway, it came to the penultimate evening. The teachers and assistants came and they shut all the doors which I thought was rather ominous. We were locked in and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. There was a speaker and it turned out we were going to a dynamic Osho meditation, a dancing meditation which was like my idea of hell. I immediately like “oh God , I don’t want to do this”. I did it, I thrust myself into it. I had no escape so, I figured just do it, and I did it. It works in four stages so, you shake for fifteen minutes, you dance for fifteen minutes, you sit for fifteen then you lay down for fifteen minutes. There’s music accompanying the whole movement and you can express yourself as fully as you want to throughout the dancing period. When it came to the sitting, I remember very vividly sitting down and this music kicking in. I observed this deep sadness arise but there was a lack of identification with the sadness, I didn’t know what I was being sad about. This really profound sadness that arose that I watched arise then dissipate and I just watched the whole movement of it. I just cried my eyes out throughout and somehow in that moment something clicked for me. That was the first major cog that fell into place if you like, as I observed this emotion without any narrative, no story of why, certainly no poor me, feeling sad at my life. This was the sort of thing I’d carried with me a great deal of my life. Suddenly I just watched this deep sadness come and go. I remember going in to try and explain this to my teacher at the time who was running the retreat, who was actually wonderful at the time because I was profoundly blissed out. I’d sort of transcended everything at this moment, tears streaming down my face. I remember trying to explain that I’m consciousness, awareness, all these grandiose words. He sat and gave me the space to share it and said, “ok that sounds good, now what”? Somehow that “now what” was more profound than the experience itself because it grounded me again. It brought me back down to “ ah, I’ve still got to keep going, it’s not like I’ve arrived if you like, there’s more”. It reminds me of that Suzuki Roshi quote “ we are perfect as we are, yet we could do with some improvement”. There was this sudden realisation that life goes on. How do I integrate this as I can’t stay on cloud nine? I couldn’t function in that space, I had to come back down to earth. That was just a beautiful moment of just grounding me and the skill of the teacher to know to do that in that moment because I would have just floated off otherwise

Iain: It's interesting that there was you and the sadness and afterwards there was almost this euphoria. Of course, whereas the euphoria because it’s not you, it’s in line with the sadness more. That’s a big clue to get to be able to watch and know you are not the emotion, you are not the feeling, not the thought.

Michael: Yes. That for me was a turning point certainly. At the end of that week I weirdly decided to as this is not something that I’d ever entertained, that I would go to India to see if I could crystalise this experience, effectively transcend and live in this state of euphoria. I figured India would be the place to do it because of course, that’s what I’d read, India would be the place to go. So, I got home that week, I booked my ticket for six months- time and worked in order to pay off the ticket. I went with no real plan other than I would spend a week in Nepal, then I’d go to India and do all the retreats, ashrams and all the things you’re meant to do. That was all planned, but Nepal was kind of, I’ll just pop by because it’s nearby. I didn’t think anything of it and actually I ended up staying for three months in Nepal. My plans were unimportant, there was clearly something else guiding this whole process that I was not in charge of. I figured I would stay with it.

Iain: You were in a monastery in Nepal

Michael: That’s right. I spent a bit of time travelling then found myself going to Kopan Monastery, which is just north of Kathmandu, on the outskirts. It’s a beautiful monastery  nestled in the mountain

Iain: How does it work when you haven’t booked anything. You walk to the monastery, you knock at the door, you say, “hello I’m Michael, can I check it all out. How does it all work”?   

Michael: They invite westerners and people to come and stay, its run very affordably. Nepal in itself is very affordable, staying in the monastery even more so. You get your two meals a day so, you usually have breakfast and lunch, nothing in the evening. There is a room in which you can practice, you can explore the grounds. I basically went in and did that. They announced they were going to be running a two -week course as well into Tibetan Buddhism. This was another aspect of Buddhism I had no understanding of, no real familiarity with so, I figured I do it. I did that. I met a lot of cool people there who were staying a bit longer. One week led into another and another before I knew it, I’d been there just shy of three months. What was really interesting in that experience was I rediscovered that part of myself as a teenager that was quite rebellious and quite anti- authority and really pushed back against rules and regulations. So, towards the end of that period I was bunking out of the gate , walking down to the town, sitting and drinking tea or chai with the locals rather than being up meditating. There was a degree of which I shunned that. After three months it kind of brought back that. I really noticed that teenage side of myself arise , that really rebellious and anti -authority part of myself. I then decided maybe now’s the time to go to India, I thought now the work begins. I flew into Delhi and did the whole journey to Pahar Ganj which is the backpacker area. I arrived in that area and it was crazy. Obviously, I had just spent three months in a monastery and to go into the chaos of Delhi was so overwhelming. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I immediately was accosted by somebody who led me down a dark alley and pulled a knife on me.

Iain: Wow

Michael: Insisted I gave him all my money , I had none because I hadn’t yet been to a cash point. It all became very convoluted. I was trying to persuade this guy I didn’t have any money, what could I do, and prayed he wasn’t going to kill me there and then and leave me in the street. Eventually he got distracted by someone he knew. I shifted into the crowd again and basically ran as quick as I could to the nearest hotel, booked myself in. At best it was a two- star hotel, it wasn’t particularly luxurious or comfortable. I recall the en-suite bathroom just being a hole in the corner of the room. At this point I was exhausted and through my bags down, sat on the edge of the bed. Quite literally as I landed on the bed suddenly my whole world view just flipped, like my psyche was reset. I realised my whole journey to transcend , to escape, to get away from, to find something had been in vain, and the thing I was seeking, was this. Not in the form of Delhi specifically but wherever I was, it was being present and aware in that moment. The idea of enlightenment crumbled; the idea of getting anywhere crumbled; the idea of not being the person I thought I ought to be; actually not being the person I thought I was as well, that all just fell apart and I was just left with a very matter of fact “oh”. I giggled to myself because of the absurdity. I realised I had travelled and gone all that way, all that effort to go all the way to Delhi to discover I didn’t really need to go there at all. Yet…

Iain: If you hadn’t have gone there, you wouldn’t have known

Michael: Of course , that’s the wonderful irony, the sort of paradox of it. I didn’t need to go because it was always where I was, but I obviously needed to go in order to realise that.

Iain: So, talk more about how that state felt, how that experience was for you

Michael: I’d say for the first time in my life my mind fell quiet and I just experienced things as they were, that’s how it felt to me. It was just… sort of as I sighed, I’d just landed I was so exhausted everything just ground to a halt and I was suddenly present. I realised there was nothing outside of this moment I could possibly be seeking. What would that even look like? Where would it be ? Every future there I ever arrived at suddenly became another here so, in that moment of just stopping everything fell into place. I realised the map that I’d been working off was certainly outdated if not completely wrong and that I didn’t need to be searching for anything at all because it was right here. It was so close and so available we overlook it, complicate it presume it to be something… my issue was I was looking for an idea in reality, my idea of what enlightenment was which was effectively a transcendence of my humanity. To not feel pain; to not feel grief; to not feel sadness , all these things I felt as a human being. I thought if I became enlightened, I would never have to feel them again, it would be a relief. But in that moment, I realised that’s it as well, that’s part of your experience too. I often use the analogy that I never felt at home because I always assumed that home wouldn’t have rising damp or a creaking door but actually it did. I just had to realise that was the case rather than insist and seek this thing. It was just a fantasy really which didn’t exist in reality anywhere, outside of my own head. In that moment my head became quiet , reality flooded in if you like and it was just this simple very matter of fact , a sigh of relief almost. Also realised that I don’t really need to go to the ashrams now. There was this I’m here now what am I going to do with myself?  Everything just collapsed in on itself and there was just this sense of lightness, and yet very quickly I would say within a day or two there was a sneaking suspicion. Will this last? What’s going to happen? How long will this last for? Where will it go? Will I go back to how I was? Can I ever go back to how I was now I’m here? There were a few questions that I ended up sitting on and time answered them for me. Rather than me worrying too much about what it might look like, I just figured enjoy it whilst its here don’t be too concerned. You don’t want to ruin it by worrying it won’t be here then all of a sudden , it won’t be.

Iain: There are a lot of people that this happens to and it goes after a time. They have a period of weeks, months or even a couple of years and then it goes, and then there back in their personality with all the doubts and fears and everything else. But for you, it stayed.

Michael: Yes. I would say as an overriding sense. The analogy I use which I find useful now to explain it was like I’d spent so much time sitting observing the surface of a pond, the ripples, the light , the reflections, the ducks perhaps. Or a leaf floating and then in a moment I’ suddenly saw that there were fish floating underneath the surface and there were things growing underneath. There was a depth that I’d never noticed. I feel like when you’ve seen the depth you can’t unsee it. You may become focused on the surface again, but you’ll always know the depth is there. It’s just a case of practice and I suppose doing some kind of reminding that its there because it’s very easy to fall back into the habits of life. I came back to London. I spent about a month in India instead of three months I’d intended to stay and I didn’t speak to anyone about it for about nine months, which is a wonderfully ironic amount of time, sort of a typical gestation period. I didn’t say a word to anybody, but people were noticing, especially my close friends noticed there was something very different about me. I wasn’t carrying myself with the same heaviness. I wasn’t weighed down by the weight of all these questions I had and this internal conflict that was going on. There was this sense of ease and peace about me that they’d never seen and that I never really experienced. By that point I was just go with it and after about nine months I figured now its maybe safe to say something. So I spoke to a friend who I know had had a similar type of experience years earlier and she helped me to understand it and put it into some context, just reassured me about some of the things I wasn’t quite sure about. She helped me out in that sense. From then on what I would say is and I think this is one of the things people potentially get confused about, it doesn’t feel like as those moment of awakening if you like is a final moment. There’s nothing final about it as life goes on, now what. For me it’s become a journey to bridge the gap between the personality, the ego self if you like and this transcendent stuff towards this being a whole human again which I don’t know if I could ever have done before. I don’t know if I could have done that work from that space of being solely identified with all my pain, trauma and all my difficulties. Somehow having a little bit of space, a little bit of distance allowed me to re- tread those steps and go into this shadow work of bringing everything together. The parts of myself that I’d split from, denied, how can I bring that in to be more me rather than this fractured person I was before?

Iain: To keep the story in sequence briefly, you went back to London and started to go to non- duality events, but you didn’t feel that connected there, did you?

Michael: That’s right. I reached out to a couple of people that were in that scene. I can’t remember what I googled to find someone who may be able to talk to me  about this. I stumbled across a chap called Mike Jenkins and another guy called Mick Higham who ran a non-duality podcast. He was very good friends with Jeff Foster. I spoke to them and they reassured me I hadn’t gone crazy, that there were other people who had had similar experiences. That felt reassuring so I started to go to these meetings and see some of these people talk but I often felt I found them quite jarring, in that to me they seemed to miss something. They seemed to highlight that jump from the ego self, the me myself and I , the world revolves around me, to this transcendent , I am the universe. That felt like a really big leap for me with no grounding.

Iain: But it’s still there, the identification isn’t there. The identification with the little me, and then your identified with the absolute. I know you want to talk about this as well . It’s an important thing you’ve evolved into this understanding.

Michael: It’s the same idea for me as the addiction thing. You can shift that addiction, or identification in this case from one to the other and so the universal consciousness, the oneness of being can just become another identification if you like. It doesn’t necessarily translate into living life as a human being which is what we here to do really

Iain: I think it’s a very interesting area because a lot of people have genuine experiences and more and more people are becoming aware that they have had a genuine experience but somehow they jump to that new experience so all the unclarity in their character, their personality is used to hang onto that new experience. I am the absolute, I am God I am everything, it’s true but of course it comes from this place that is not clear. This is what I liked so much about the notes you sent me. After this you went on to really do the personal work. Usually when people do personal work, they have incredible unclarity, they build up ( holding hands low) and get a bit clearer, and then they’re hanging around waiting for something to happen up here (holding hands high). For you something happened up here, you didn’t hang around and stay just there, you were looking down here to clear the pathways. It seems to me to be a very intelligent approach.

Michael: Yeah, I feel quite fortunate that that was my inclination. I can understand the allure of having that big jump and then identifying with everything and the sense that would give you. Why would you want to re-tread the steps into that murky waters you have escaped? But that felt for me like a really important part to give me the grounding . Certainly, with the experience that I had with zen that I found to be a really grounding practice, its teachings to be very ordinary. Somehow, I felt the need to go back, ok there’s still stuff that needs to be worked out. There’s still stuff I’m holding onto psychologically, physically as well that needed to be processed and dealt with, otherwise if my eye is off the ball if you like and I’m identified as the absolute, how are those things going to manifest outside of my vision? They will. I think we see that a great deal. I think it’s understandably easy to say this is it, I’ve arrived, therefore there’s nothing to be done. That’s the standard trope. On one level  yes, but on another level , no. It’s this paradox of holding things as being both and, yes you are the absolute and you’re also the relative human being that’s got to operate in the world, engage, and try not to cause to much damage in doing so. It’s a minefield just living life

Iain: It’s this unconscious thing, isn’t it? I’ve seen that a lot over the years, people genuinely have a clarity, they have an experience but because all this subconscious stuff is bubbling away, they don’t necessarily conduct themselves in a clear way

Michael: Absolutely. In some ways for me the benefit of the experience that was the turning point being relatively ordinary was really good for me because if it had been really big,  grand and expansive , I could see that my tendency would be to be drawn to that and make it grand. I think that is one of the things that people who are seeking this, often miss because they are looking for a bells and whistles event that can really mark there place in the sand as I’ve arrived, they miss the moments that are constantly available to them. I would say everyone is having awakenings throughout there day but because they are so ordinary, we’re not attuned to notice them so, we overlook them . We’re looking for something spectacular whereas it’s here, it’s now. It’s so ordinary that your mind is not interested by it, your attention is not drawn to it. Unfortunately, one of the features of our culture nowadays it seems is that we have lost our ability to tune into subtlety, so things that are subtle are often go missed. For me this realisation, this awakening was incredibly subtle which is what made it so poignant for me is that I had an insight into something that was so abundantly obvious that of course I just made an assumption and then, ok what am I looking for? I’m going out into the world to look for this thing, whereas it’s just that subtlety of feeling your feet on the ground of having a conscious breath, or the smell of the food as you walk into the kitchen. It’s the small moments that we are just not attuned to but if we were, we’d realise that there’s no need for these big grand experiences. It’s something of a hindrance. It may happen for some people but if you’re waiting for it and you’re not one of those people who is predisposed to have that particular experience, you’re going to be waiting a long time. So, for me the subtlety of it meant that I wasn’t too hooked on the experience and I was able to have a sense of  ok what else is there to do here. Now what was the thought that ran through my mind rather than, I’m done.

Iain: What did you do practically to work on your shadow?

Michael: I carried on my practice, maintained my practice. One of the things I didn’t find really resonated with me in a lot of non-duality talks was a sort of suggestion that a mediational practice was  unnecessary, or that you didn’t need to do it. The irony was often the people at the front, on the stage saying this had a history of meditation that led to them being on the stage telling everybody that they didn’t need to meditate. I get it but I don’t know it’s helpful so, I continued my practice. I also became fascinated by this concept of shadow, shadow work being the parts of ourselves that we disown or split from. It’s often the things we see in other people reflecting back to us that we can’t bare to see in other people. The things that aggravate us or make us angry are all those things in ourselves that we haven’t quite owned. That for me became a fascinating journey almost piecing myself together bringing in all these parts that in the past I felt were unacceptable. These are parts of ourselves that as children we’re taught. For example, one that always rang true was crying as a child. A parent would often say understandably don’t cry because the parent does not want to see the child in distress. The child doesn’t understand that nuance so, the child internalises that as don’t cry and interprets that as an instruction. So, emotions certainly get repressed and certain ways of being get repressed. Things that are fundamentally part of who we are because we are all of this stuff and that transcendent absolute. We are not just the absolute and the relative is something to be dismissed. It’s like to be whole includes everything so somehow that gathering in of all these different parts of myself that I had strayed or been pushed to one side became a really fascinating adventure for me. I got really interested in psychology, psychotherapeutic practices, breath work as well from a physical perspective is a great way to really process emotional energy in the body. I managed to experience that deep rage I carried from childhood, the injustice of my family falling apart. There’s something freeing in being able to relive that experience and then let it go and to move through life with that sense of not carrying that with you any longer.

Iain: I find the whole thing that you’ve just touched on people talking about the wholeness and that they are everything…. the thought just came into my head the whole thing of social media, I’m on Facebook although I don’t do too much on there, myself. Every morning for a few minutes I check the feed and see what people are saying. I’ve got a lot of people who are my Facebook friends, some I know, some I don’t know. A lot of them are spiritual teachers or certainly interested in that world. I see these things, and at the moment it’s mainly Trump bashing and it’s just horrendous things they are saying about Trump and it may or may not be true. It may be true to a certain extent, but I think if they really believe we are all one then Trump is part of them. It’s not to say that it’s necessarily right what he’s doing or saying somewhere if we are all connected, we’re all connected. You can’t suddenly say, the extremities are not part of us. I guess you’ve looked at that , have you?

Michael: Yes, that’s a big part of shadow work to see that usually more often than not the point that triggers you about someone else is not them, it’s you. I feel as though for all his faults and he has many I’m sure , he’s human, but Trump is a wonderful mirror for a lot of people. It’s unfortunate we are not able to see quite what it is he’s mirroring back to us but there’s a degree to which that shadow work implores you to look at these hard truths about ourselves. Things we conveniently forget in order to judge another for example. Whereas we’ve all made mistakes, we’ve all done things we are ashamed of, things we are not proud of but in order to judge another we need to out that to one side and forget that we’ve done that rather than accept our own humanity. One of the experiences that I might have alluded to in the notes but which I didn’t touch upon that came back to me through my shadow work, a very dear relative of mine committed suicide in my twenties just before I started using drugs. This was one of the catalysts for me using, my inability  to process my grief. Growing up he was a wonderful mentor to me, and he committed suicide. I remember there was something that kind of arose out of that. This man who was so kind and gentle. I remember him with this beaming smile he had this radiance about him, could commit suicide. That gave me an insight into there’s things that go on inside of us all that we don’t display to the world that we sometimes don’t even know they’re going on because we have so detached from them. That gave me a sense of these things go on in the shadows. My own curiosity about what lurks in the shadows. I’m still doing that work. I’m still discovering. My partner is wonderful in terms of reflecting back to me the things about me that I found hardest to accept about myself. That’s what relationship is that’s why we exist in relationship. I often feel that to go and sit in a cave and become enlightened is one thing but to be in a relationship with someone you love is an entirely different practice and arguably far more profound a practice because it is much more challenging. She is one of my greatest teachers right now. I learn so much form my reactions to the little things she does. I’m curious about learning, sort of ironing those things out. I’m under no illusions either that as a human being we never become perfect in that sense. Part of what makes us so unique are our imperfections. I’ve no intentions of getting rid of those. The more damaging ones hopefully I can iron out but for the most part I think we are wonderfully flawed and that’s what makes us so incredible.

Iain: Yes, we’re all flawed that absolutely right. Another thing you talked about in the notes you sent me I liked was waking up and growing up. In a way they are separate things because you can wake up to reality of who you are but there’s a growing up which is your humanness being unravelled and revealed and the maturity in that.

Michael: Yes. The few genuinely wise people I have had the pleasure of being in the company of have both those traits. They were awake and completely grown up, they were adults. They took responsibility, they were fully human, and I loved that about them. When the drive is effectively to transcend our humanity because it involves all the pain, the growing up part gets put to one side but part of our growing up is to feel all that pain, to learn to grieve; to learn to be sad and joy because it’s all part of the human experience  and I think you can’t numb one area without numbing it all. So, if you lose contact with your innate sadness, you’ll  also inevitably lose contact with your innate joy. They come as a package unfortunately, that’s part of it. You’ve got to learn to navigate that. For me part of the growing up process is that navigation. I find it fascinating and I don’t see it as a journey that ever really ends

Iain: Do you feel free in yourself?

Michael: Yes

Iain: And of course, the freedom includes the little bits where you’re not completely free. If you include those, you can be free

Michael: I think Alan Watts summarised it perfectly, “ the moment you feel free to be stuck, you’re unstuck”. I love that, it’s getting that paradox. It’s accepting, there is always going to be these patterns I have and these little things, that’s kind of part of what makes me , me.

Iain: Yes

Michael: As long as they’re not causing me to suffer unnecessarily, I can deal with that ok

Iain: We’ve got a few minutes left Michael, so why don’t you talk about the work you’re doing these days

Iain: Sure. So, I do a lot of this breath work with people. Breath is an incredible avenue to healing. One of the benefits to it…I’m still an advocate for meditation, I teach meditation, I guide meditations, but I understand that meditation for the most part requires a degree of investment of time and effort on the practitioner. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a time in which most people are willing to invest that no matter how bad their situation might be. Often people are in a bad way, I’ll recommend meditative practice, but they’d rather try every thing else, that’s a last resort at best. Breath work is a very quick and immediate experience into this release that can happen. One of the experiences of physical cathartic release, emotional release, but also people often report at the end of a 45-minute, hour long breath work session is this deep calm connection with oneself. So, they get that sense of stillness within themselves, that as a culture of doers, they can do themselves into that state by breathing. So, you can do yourself into a state very quickly. I find that really effective. I’ve worked with people who have come in in a bundle of tension, holding onto all this stuff and by the end of 6, 10 sessions working with them. I include some talking, a sort of therapeutic angle and explore what’s going on for them. But the breathing in and of itself is so powerful, I’ve seen so much transformation people, so I work with a lot of people one to one in that capacity. I do also work with mindfulness, meditation. I offer meditation, mindfulness in workspaces, through sports teams. I’m trying to get it into the mainstream so, hopefully this drip drip effect and get its way out there. I feel as though the more of us that can have access to this stuff , the better certainly. Whether it’s a short cut to waking up, growing up, either way we can all do with a bit of that. That’s my goal to offer as much as I can, the practices I’ve found useful and profound in my own experience in life.

Iain: I think the most important thing is you’re happy and you enjoy your life

Michael: Yes, I’m so grateful to be able to say that after everything I’ve been through.

Iain: You’ve had a real journey, haven’t you? I still think it’s this thing of totality. You read these stories of people who are hugely successful in the world and they’ve got to this stage that they’re very wealthy and have everything they want and their totality has taken them there because they are intelligent they are looking at it form a much more spiritual approach, and that’s happening more and more I think. Somehow you have to get to then end of one road before you realise that not only does another road exist ,but that road isn’t going to take you any further

Michael: There’s something about the journey I’ve been through, I wouldn’t change a single thing. It was all integral, it still is. Every choice , every decision, every turn I take , plays a part in some destiny I don’t know, I won’t know till I get there.

Iain: Wonderful. Ok Michael thanks for coming along to chat with us here. Thank you everyone for watching Conscious TV. I hope we see you again soon. Goodbye                                                                                        


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