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Shift Into Freedom: Lessons From A Master Of Mindfulness

In his new book, Loch Kelly offers surprising wisdom on the awakened life.

Loch Kelly is the author of Shift into Freedom: The Science and Practice of Open-Hearted Awareness and one of the finest teachers of mindfulness practice in this country. As an educator, consultant, and the founder of the Open-Hearted Awareness Institute, he is an emerging voice in modernizing meditation and social engagement, and has collaborated with neuroscientists at Yale, U Penn and NYU to study how awareness training can enhance compassion and well-being. I've known Loch Kelly for many years and can vouch for his authenticity as both a teacher and guy who walks the talk, and speaks from deep experience. I talked to Kelly about how he came to this wisdom and how to live an awakened life in the midst of everyday changes.

MM: I want to start by asking you a question that sounds more simple than it is. How would you define awakening?

LK: I would define awakening as a normal human potential, not something esoteric—a shifting from a way of perceiving and identifying who we are to a less contracted, anxious, depressed, fearful center. Moving from ego identified to an open and connected way of being. I think’s it’s a next natural stage of human development.

MM: And do you see it as an ongoing process? It’s not like is one is awake and then you’re in another realm.

LK: Awakening includes a continual maturing and deepening, almost like layers of “a-ha’s.” You think, Oh wow, I’ve landed, but then another layer of detoxing begins, which can feel like, Uh oh, I’m going backwards. Actually, you’re letting go or unfreezing. Then another bottom drops out, and you feel even more open-hearted. You feel free of a limited sense of self, embodied and able to be sensitive, vulnerable and emotional.

MM: Could you talk about what happened to you?

LK: I had a series of losses in a very short time in my sophomore year at college. First my father went through a year of brain surgery. He had a tumor the size of a lemon in the left lobe. A successful operation took him back to kindergarten level and then he worked back up and was ready to go back to work. Then he had an aneurysm and deteriorated. He died right before my sophomore year.

Then my grandmother who was in her late nineties and who lived with us, passed away six months later. Two months after that, my best friend from the hockey team died in a car accident. I felt completely overwhelmed and tried to talk to people, but very few of my peers had gone through anything like that.

As I left the library one night, one part of myself said to me, “I don’t think you can take this any longer.” My response was, Where is that coming from? Or who is that? What I realized later was that I looked back with my awareness and something opened or dropped, and I felt released from a contracted, heavy, mental and emotional way of being and seeing. I felt open to this beautiful night sky and to a sense of spacious support. It was opening to another dimension of consciousness. I both laughed and cried and felt like who I was in that moment had changed dramatically. I felt like Oh, I can deal with this—I have enough space to feel my feelings. It was an immediate, unintentional shift—a small awakening.

MM: And that awakening stuck?

LK: It stayed for a while, like background music. It was there but I couldn’t intentionally access it. I started to be curious about how or if I could intentionally access that state and that’s when I decided to go to graduate school in both physiology and spirituality. I ended up going on a fellowship to India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, trying to find those great teachers who were reporting that this was our natural state.

MM: In the book you mention that we don’t always know how to recognize awareness. What do you mean by that?

LK: The ground of this spacious, awake, intelligent dimension of consciousness is what I call awake awareness. This awareness is a potential for the foundation of our mind. It’s also a source of our mind before, within and beyond thought. This awareness is the sense of knowing but it can’t be known by effort or through our five senses. Even attention can’t know awareness.

MM: You mentioned five doorways to direct recognition. Can you talk about those?

LK: Using the senses as a stepping off point to awareness is one of them. In Buddhism, thinking is considered the sixth sense. It’s an organizing sense and with the other five, report to awareness. The aim of my book and the practices I write about, is to have awareness, which is identified or enmeshed with thinking, unhook or detach. When this happens it can come to one of the sense doors, like hearing or felt sense in your body or seeing. With awareness the center of intelligence, you step back and allow yourself to feel your jaw directly from within and know your throat from directly within your throat. Then awareness can drop below your neck to know your upper torso. Without looking up to thought or stretching attention down from thought, you feel like you’ve actually come back home to your senses in your body or your heart space.

From there, a door that allows us to go subtler, opens to the space within or outside of our body. We then begin to know spacious awareness as both subject and object. There begins to be a feeling of freedom and a new kind of clarity. Once you realize pure awareness, even for a few seconds, recognize that form is emptiness and emptiness is also form. The basis of awareness is inherent within you but now the primacy of this awareness feels like heart knowing—or heart-mind knowing—rather than a mental orientation of who you are.

MM: Beautiful. How does location or where you’re viewing from relate to awareness?

LK: The feeling many people have is that the location or center of who they are is literally a thought. They have to go there to realize, “Who am I? What am I thinking?”

You could feel like you’re in your whole body but most people feel like they’re in their head; located in a looping pattern of thought in a point of view behind their eyes, between their ears, looking out of their eyes. That location creates contracted perception and identification with that dualistic function of the thinking mind. That creates subject/object separation and a good/bad, right/wrong discriminating view. If we’re identified with that, we start to have this judgmental view toward everyone and everything we meet.

When we step out of that, either by dropping down into our body or opening into space, there’s a sense where we feel less contracted, less worried and less separate. My book gives some of the neuroscience about the parietal lobes of our brain. These actually register a sense of boundless, spacious, interconnected identity when we have that awareness.

MM: And that dissolves the dualistic us/them divide?

LK: That’s right. What I’m saying is that the first move is to actually step into the spacious awareness which is always already free, awake and calm. A lot of contemplative practices apply attitude and effort. Try not to be so selfish, try to be less judgmental, try to be accepting. Accept everything now, and you’re doing it with the part of you that is not accepting. You’re doing it with the part that accepts and then does not accept. You’re doing it from this identity which makes everything “either/or.”

MM: Speaking of effort, could you say something about our misunderstandings about meditation as a great mountain to climb?

LK: There are different aspects of our development of ethics and emotional learning that take effort. Effort in general is not the problem. Meditation starts with its intention to get to effortlessness, so the assumption is that there’s an effortless awareness that once discovered, can allow you to relax on a level of being free of suffering. The assumption is that no other way or effort can help—no psychological or intellectual understanding can reach that non-suffering dimension that is spontaneously, effortlessly free.

Some effort in the way of intention is needed to discover that. But in most Eastern traditions, a lot of time is spent on preliminary practices, which are one-pointed focus and observing of contents of consciousness. This mindfulness I call “deliberate mindfulness” because it’s intentionally trying to stay with that present experience. The other term I use is “effortless mindfulness.” If you shift your awareness into the effortless field of awareness, and then get on board as that awareness, you can effortlessly focus on a task more easily.

It’s like a flow-state where people are able to function at their highest level without effort because they know the basics of what they’re doing. We’ve spent 10,000 hours walking, talking, typing…. If we can let go and discover this effortless awareness, we lose that separate sense of self on the identity level but still feel like a separate person. Emptiness is the foundation, but it’s also compassion, relatedness and creativity showing up as a particular human being.

MM: Emotions are such a paradoxical force in our lives. When you talk about returning emotions to their natural state, Loch, what do you mean?

LK: When a Zen master is asked about emotions, she says, “When I’m happy I laugh, when I’m sad I cry.” Emotions themselves are not a problem. The goal of awakening is to live a fully embodied human life. Emotions and thoughts get tied in knots however, and create secondary suffering. It’s being angry about being angry or fearful about being fearful. Disturbing emotions are mostly based on ignorance and by this small sense of self that feels threatened.

Recent studies by some neuroscientists have shown that when emotion is felt fully without reacting, identifying, fighting or fleeing, it lasts ninety seconds. However, if that fear reminds you of the last time you were afraid or triggers an early childhood memory, then you get engaged and you’re regressed back to that fear rather than what just happened.

MM: And that’s how we get tangled up in stories.

LK: That’s right.

MM: I have one last question, and you’ve touched on some of this already, but what do you mean by the next stage of human evolution?

LK: I use the word “development” because evolution is too big and I’m not qualified to say whether the human race is evolving or not. I’ve studied human development and use the example of how it develops pretty naturally and unfolds in the first five or seven years of life no matter where you go in the world. There’s learning to crawl, walk and other stages until you get to school age. And then if you go to school, you have the opportunity to learn to read and write.

We have the potential to go beyond our small contracted ego identity, just like going to school, but it requires a kind of training so we’re not ego-centered. There’s a whole other operating system that can be developed and that’s been my study. My interest is: “What’s in common throughout different cultures, spiritual traditions and contemplative traditions? What are they all saying is important, and can we do it in the midst of our daily life, rather than having to go to a monastery or cave?”

I believe we can. The principles are fairly simple but they’re not easy, mainly because they’re paradoxical. We’ve learned so much consciously and we’ve developed a good functioning ego but we’ve taken it to be our identity. Now we have to let go of all the progress we seem to have made and unlearn how to hold on and control. We need to let go into this sense of awake awareness, which then allows us to operate from a flow-state without the old sense of being contracted inside our heads looking out of our eyes.

MM: And this is possible for everyone?

LK: Some people, like in school, will be a little quicker, a little better but generally the developmental stage of awakening is about the same for everyone. Some people are more natural, some people—if they’re willing to put in the time—can do better than people who just trust their natural ability and don’t show up for their own growth. So yes, it’s available to everyone.