Loch Kelly: The Way of Effortless Mindfulness

Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion, regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.

You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Loch Kelly. Loch Kelly is an author, a meditation teacher, and a psychotherapist, founder of the Open-Hearted Awareness Institute. He’s collaborated with neuroscientists at Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and NYU in the study of how awareness training can enhance compassion and well-being. With Sounds True, Loch Kelly published a previous book called Shift Into Freedom, and a new book called The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: A Revolutionary Guide for Living an Awakened Life.

Get ready for this special Insights at the Edge. Loch Kelly guides us in “unhooking” from our thinking mind and discovering, for ourselves, awake awareness. Come along with me. Here’s my conversation with Loch Kelly about his new book, The Way of Effortless Mindfulness:

Loch, I wanted to start with something that I’ve heard you say a couple of different times, and quite honestly, I don’t hear very many people saying this, and I think it’s such an important idea. And that is—here you go, it’s a quote from your new book, The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: “Awakening, spiritual awakening, is the next natural stage of human development.” I wanted to start our conversation really having you unpack that idea for our listeners, that awakening is the next natural stage of human development.

Loch Kelly: Yes. Beautiful. Thank you so much, Tami. So great to be here with you. This is the feeling that I have and what I’ve spent time looking at in—both a way of practice but also as a good objective, contemporary, scientifically minded person, to see what’s true, and what’s possible, and what’s real. I think having my experience of deliberate mindfulness by going to Sri Lanka and doing meditation retreats of 10 days, and 21 days, and 5-day retreats, and then going up to Nepal and meeting Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and having this premise that the awakeness that we’re seeking is already here within us, and that it’s who we already are.

Then within a few minutes of him giving me this glimpse practice, or pointing, I felt the same way as I did at the end of a long, deliberate mindfulness sitting retreat. And my eyes were opened, and my heart was open, and I realized, “Oh my God. I don’t have to develop this. There’s something already here within me that is naturally compassionate and clear. There’s another kind of awareness that I’ve just shifted into that’s been hidden behind my chattering mind. And I know this from other times in my life. I can now talk from here, and walk from here.”

And eventually it faded, but that gave me my first sense of, “Wow. This is not something for the elite meditators or the Olympic athletes of monasteries.” But I got an immediate feeling that this was a capacity within me, and then I saw not only myself but others who were there, some got this same sense. And then over the years, my whole interest has been to develop ways to point to this within others, and help people realize that losing it is not unusual, and how to return, and then how to integrate it into psychological life, emotional life, physical life, and integrate the two.

TS: Now, there’s a lot in what you’ve just said, Loch, so with this statement, “awakening [is] the next natural stage of human development,” do you have this view that hundreds of years from now, we’re not going to be having these kinds of conversations where, pointing out that awakeness is already here? It’s going to be like, “Duh, we all get this, now that we’ve extended human lifespan by 10 years, 20 years.” Do you think it’s going to be the same thing with recognizing awakeness is already here?

LK: Yes. I absolutely do. That’s well said. I look at how much has been developed in so many fields of human consciousness, human education in the last few hundred years, and we know so much about different dimensions of ourselves and our capacity. This one, I think, has been rarefied and a little bit hidden, and maybe we’ve been external, so we’ve developed ways of creating assembly lines and microchips. I feel like, since this natural capacity is here, once we begin to open the door and learn simpler, more direct, more elegant ways to access and stabilize this awakening potential and capacity, that it will become teachable and learnable in a more simple and normal—be the new normal.

TS: Exciting. OK. Now, for our listener who says, “I want to make sure I’m tracking with you, but I’ve heard so many different people talk about awakening. It’s a little vague. It’s a little mushy. Even with Loch says, ‘Awakeness is already here,’ are we talking about the same thing? The awakeness that I think he’s talking about and what he’s actually talking about?” How do you define awakening?

LK: Yes. And yes, I go into it in different ways from different perspectives, emphasizing, noticing how different cultures and traditions have emphasized different things. But in terms of using consciousness language, it’s simply a shift from our small sense of self to a more open, vast, interconnected, loving sense of true nature; and a shift from a small mind to a sense of the source of mind or nonconceptual knowing that’s both prior to thought and what has been called “wisdom mind.”

So awakening is awakening from a limited, small, contracted feeling of a separate sense of self, which often people could feel right now, almost as if you’re trying to understand what I’m saying, there’s a feeling of a little mini-me behind our eyes, looking out, trying to go from thought to thought, through past reference, to language, to create a thinker that then is identified with our body primarily and projects itself outward, looking for satisfaction. It’s not that there’s not a body and not a human sense of personality, but the waking up is to these other dimensions of consciousness, which become more primary. And there are markers for these, and once people access and taste these, they’re basically a more spacious or open—so open mind, open heart, a more interconnected feeling with everyone and everything, a kind of a unity consciousness on a subtle level, and a sense of dropping from head to heart-mind. It literally feels like your center is not in your head, but it is dropped, and open, and interconnected.

This, interestingly, is similar to what people describe as a flow state, or being in the zone. It’s an optimal functioning. It’s not just a way to sit on a quiet cushion or have to retreat into a monastery, that literally it’s a way of upgrading our consciousness to this way of knowing by heart, or it becomes second nature, that we’re able to feel less caught by our chattering mind and our sense of separation.

And yet we feel more ourselves. We feel like, “Oh, here I am.” A kind of happiness, a slight sense of bliss is a marker. As we could do a couple of little glimpse practices. When I don’t even give the premise or give those markers and do a simple inquiry, people with no background will immediately start to report that this is what’s here—the sense of peace, the sense of well-being, spaciousness, relief, love, joy, that’s underneath or behind the way we habitually construct our sense of self.

TS: Now, you said we could do a small glimpse practice, and I think we should just go for it. This premise, you call it “small glimpses many times,” is a really important premise in the way you teach. Maybe you could explain that, and then give us a glimpse practice that we can do together.

LK: Yes. This sense—once of the differences in what most people know as mindfulness, or what I’m calling “deliberate mindfulness”; and “effortless mindfulness,” is this premise that the sense of well-being, this type of awareness that’s already effortlessly aware without orienting to thought, is already here, and we can simply do a kind of background-foreground shift once we learn how to do it and learn what actually can do it. When we shift our awareness into this subtler dimension of already awake, effortless awareness, then that perception identity and way of knowing shift as well, and we are able to recognize or realize this deeper, more pervasive dimension of our consciousness.

So yes, there’s a number of ways to do it, and in the book The Way of Effortless Mindfulness, I divide up practices for different types of learners, for people who are more kinesthetic, or visual, or auditory, and help people move through these doorways, whichever ones are easier for them.

We could do one now, which is a simple inquiry, where we can start by just understanding that the sense of what keeps us from awakening is a habit pattern of creating a small, separate sense of self that is really the sense of “I think, therefore I am,” and that thinker, or that sense of “me,” is trying to solve the problem of identity by trying to strive to look inside or look outside. “How can I be happy? How can I wake up? How can I be relieved? How can I find love?” That problem solver, that little mini-me, is trying to solve the problem, but actually it is the problem itself.

When that problem solver relaxes, often the background awareness, this effortless mindfulness, will begin to immediately feel and experience what’s here when that small, contracted sense of self is not primary.

Those who are listening can simply ask themselves this simple question, and then look with awareness to feel like awareness can feel down, and back, and see what’s here. The simple inquiry is: what’s here now when there’s no problem to solve? There’s just understanding the question, and letting go of thought, and feeling into that which is aware of everything. What’s here now when there’s no problem to solve?

TS: Such a great, simple glimpse instruction, Loch.

LK: Yes. Thank you. Yes. When I do it in a room of people, you’ll—what I call kind of “popcorn” awakening. I’ll say, “Just say a word or phrase,” and people will just say, what’s here: “Relief. Spaciousness. Connection. Love. Joy. And well-being, safety.” So there’s these qualities, but when you really talk to them, they feel like it moved from a small center to an interconnected feeling of multi-dimensional quality, which includes the local human body and personality as well. It’s not a transcending, and it’s not trying to say there’s no problems in the world. It’s focusing on what’s here. This problem of identity seeking is relaxed and what shows up. Yes.

TS: You mentioned, Loch, this phrase “deliberate mindfulness.” And your new book is called The Way of Effortless Mindfulness, and you draw a distinction between the approach that you’re personally drawn to and are teaching in the way of effortless mindfulness from, I think, what would be considered more conventional, what you’re calling deliberate mindfulness. Help our listeners understand this distinction. What’s deliberate mindfulness as compared to what you’re offering in The Way of Effortless Mindfulness?

LK: Sure. Deliberate mindfulness is pretty much what most people know as mindfulness, and it comes from most of the Theravada, Insight meditation, Vipassana, some of the Zen practices, and the preliminary practices in Tibetan Buddhism and other Mahayana traditions, and also is pretty much what is practiced in psychology and by scientists like Jon Kabat-Zinn, where he says, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” It’s a way of focusing your mind in a way that it calms and becomes more focused.

And effortless mindfulness, my definition is that effortless mindfulness is letting go of thoughts, present moments, and attention, and opening to a naturally compassionate, nonconceptual awake awareness that’s interconnected here and now. It’s literally moving away from deliberately focusing or attending to your breath and having a sense of awareness, unhooking or detaching or disidentifying from the focuser and opening to a bigger, more spacious interconnected dimension of ourselves that is already here and just takes a little time to get to know. The word for meditation in Tibetan is often translated as “familiarize,” so rather than concentrate, we recognize and then familiarize ourself with this nature of mind, this effortless awareness, and focus from there.

This is a description, then there’s having done this with people with ADD and ADHD, opening to this more panoramic awareness and focusing from there, most of them are able to focus for the first time in a way that doesn’t take effort, because it’s not using the moving mind to focus. It’s discovering a more spacious and pervasive dimension of consciousness that in some ways isn’t really in our Western psychological map of attention.

TS: It sounds, when you use words like “unhooking,” “disidentifying,” that there’s a type of letting-go process that’s involved.

LK: Yes. That’s right.

TS: Can you describe that? What is that letting go?

LK: Well, this is the interesting thing. I’ll say that, having taught both deliberate mindfulness and effortless mindfulness, that they’re both extremely valuable. So I want to make sure that’s understood, that I value and appreciate and am not creating a competition of the two. They’re both helpful. Having taught both, you can learn both in about the same amount of time. In deliberate mindfulness, some people have a very hard time with concentration on their breath. They feel like they’re wrestling with their mind, or they’re falling asleep, or their planning mind, or they’re going to daydream, and some people can eventually gain the benefits of that.

In effortless mindfulness, there’s a little bit of this new orientation, which is that there’s already this effortless awareness that’s here, and that the only thing that can know that awareness is awareness itself. Attention can’t know awareness, and even all the skills of developing focusing on your breath, or focusing on the contents of your consciousness, that mindful meditator can’t know the effortless awareness.

It takes this kind of teasing out, or the separating out, or this feeling of this unique feeling of local awareness being attached to thought, and that it can step back, kind of out of the cloud of your mind. Then awareness can actually drop down, or open up, and know your jaw directly from your jaw, and your throat from your throat. So it can drop down and actually know your breath from within your breath, from your belly, from the subtlest dimension of your consciousness.

When that happens, it takes away that small separate sense of self and begins to open this other background dimension of awareness by returning awareness to itself. We could try that now, in a way.

TS: Yes. I’d love to do that, Loch. I have one question. You introduced this idea of local awareness. I think one of the things that can get confusing for people is, “Wait. How many different kinds of awareness? I thought it was just like, awareness. There’s awake awareness. There’s local awareness. I’m getting confused.” So I do want to do this, but help me understand why we start with local awareness.

LK: Yes. It’s interesting. This was the first unique realizations for me. I had both of my early teachers show me this in a unique way. I had a medical doctor who was Chinese who introduced me to The Secret of the Golden Flower when I went to him for some herbs. And he said, “Well, you should read this.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you tell me about it?” And he said, “Well, let me show you.” And he said, “The Secret of the Golden Flower is turning the light of awareness around and having it look back.” So this light of awareness is the awareness, and in Tibetan Buddhism, they say child awareness returns to mother awareness. So what it means is that when you’re in awake awareness or spacious awareness, you can still focus on your knee, and you can focus on your breath, you can focus on a person in front of you, but what you’re focusing from is the field of awareness that is connected to them.

So it’s like an interconnected local flashlight of this big light of awareness that can both be spacious and local. In some ways, when I heard these instructions and then I starting playing with, “OK, I’ve gotten into this awake interconnected feeling of being. Now, let me sit here and watch how I lose it, watch how I get contracted.” And what I felt was, it wasn’t about the amount of thoughts that are going on, or the intensity of emotions that necessarily were the problem, or somebody’s triggering me. Sometimes I could get triggered and still remain and feel this triggering happening. But I noticed all of a sudden, there would be a contraction of the awareness from the vastness. Like it got on the train of thought, and then it contracted into a small part or a separate sense of self.

So what I did is, I just started to reverse that process and say, “OK. So the awareness is everywhere. I know that, because it was here a minute ago. But now it’s identified or contracted into this small mini-me. So let me just see whether I can have that awareness let go, surrender, separate—” all these words that are used in spiritual practice. Surrender, let go, detach, unhook, disidentify. What is it that’s disidentifying, detaching? It’s not me; I can’t [say] “I should be more detached.”

It’s actually the awareness that you can feel that detaches, or separates out, from its identification, and then it’s free to move within your body, and it’s free to, like a bubble of air, return air into air, awareness into awareness, water into water. Then you’re back in the spacious awareness. Then from the spacious awareness, now you’re interconnected with everything. So when you focus in a local way on somebody in front of you, you’re also feeling simultaneously your body from within, and you’re feeling this kind of panoramic awareness, similar to somebody who’s operating in a flow state, where they’re dribbling a basketball down the court. They’re aware of the time. They see their fellow teammates. They’re in optimal functioning, and they feel connected, and then they just look one way and throw the basketball the other way, and it goes right to the perfect path to somebody.

Local awareness is this ability, from spacious awareness, not to have to contract back to a local, small self or open up into a meditative state like a witness consciousness, and feel like you have to be in one or the other. This practice we can do now, this little glimpse, will just begin to get a feeling of what it feels like to move awareness, or have awareness move itself, is actually what’s happening.

TS: All right. Let’s do it.

LK: OK. Yes. This is the unusual premise, is as we began the dialogue, Tami, we talked about how the awakening is the next natural stage. When I’m asking you who are listening now, I’m not talking to you, the small self. I’m actually talking to you who are already awake, to the awakeness that’s in you. And I’m asking that awake awareness to unhook awareness and have it drop down from head to heart. Yes. You won’t know how to do it. So if your doubting mind is now saying, “I don’t know if I can do that. I’m not sure what he’s saying. I don’t think I’ll be able to do it,” you’re actually correct; that “you” can’t do it, will never be able to do it until that’s OK. You can thank that part for trying and trying to help, and just ask it to just hang out, and then somehow just feel as if this awareness that knows how to do it without your help. It will just begin to intelligently move itself.

Begin by feeling that sense of identification, or location, or contraction of you listening to these instructions. Find out where you’re listening from. And then just notice that location, usually behind your eyes, in the middle of your head, or somewhere in that area. Then just simply notice that awareness is within that movement of thought and somehow feel as if awareness can unhook and step back into space. Just let the awareness mingle with space.

Now notice that that in itself is the feeling of unhooking and our relief from orienting to thought. Now feel as if this local awareness, like a bubble, can drop from head to be aware of your jaw, and your smile, directly from within your jaw. Feel the aliveness, face, awareness. Then feel as if the awareness moves by itself, dropping down, knowing your throat from within your throat. Feel this unusual sense that you don’t have to go up to thought to know that you’re knowing your throat from within, and you don’t have to stretch attention down from your head to your throat.

Just feel what it’s like for this bubble of knowing awareness to drop below your neck so that the subject and the object are felt directly from within your upper body, knowing your body from within, as effervescent aliveness, space, and awareness. Then just drop into a kind of heart space below your emotional heart into a safe, open sense of ease, of your feeling that you can know your body and your heart, mind from within, and just see what’s it’s like to feel and know without orienting to thought.

You may notice that you go so subtly within that the awareness begins to open out to have a seamless or edgeless heart that’s both tender heart of your human body but also kind of a open-hearted, more spacious pervasive sense of being aware of the subtle dimension of awareness outside and within and of a boundless heart.

Feeling a little love, or bliss, or joy, or safety, ground, this being. Just notice what this non-thought-based, alert, intelligence is like that’s embodied and connected. Notice how you’re not using your attention from your head, and yet you can focus on something like your breath or, if your eyes are open, some object, and just have this first taste of effortless mindfulness.

TS: Now, Loch. I want to be just forthcoming here and say that I love practicing like this. I just love it.

LK: Yes.

TS: I love it, love it, love it, love it, love it, love it. It’s like a little piggy finding truffles or something like that. But I want to address the listener who says, “Effortless? I think I’m going to go back and start counting my breaths now, because at least when I did that, that deliberate mindfulness, I knew what I was doing. I was doing the practice correctly. When you said ‘unhook from thought and step back into the space,’ I’m not sure I even did that right, let alone the rest of the practice. I could just be kind of lost, lost swirling around.”

LK: Sure. Yes. Some people naturally do it right away, but I find within an hour and a half, if I have an hour-and-a-half evening, that 80 percent of beginners will report that they get the sense of something brand new. So it takes a little time, but not that much time to get the first—it is new, but it’s easier than learning to ride a bicycle, which could be for someone who’s new riding a bicycle, it’s like, “What? Wait a minute.” But then you try it this way, try it that way. “Oh. No, no. Oh. Oh. Whoa. Huh. That’s what that is.” Because you have to feel it, and it’s a brand new ability that is not tough to learn, but it hasn’t been learned, so we didn’t even know that we could do it.

Then the second part is that you can’t go back to your thinking mind to check whether you’re doing it right, because as soon as you go back to say, “Well, am I doing this right? Am I aware from within my body, or am I aware from my head?” Then you’re back in your head. It’s going through this habit of knowing intellectually, knowing conceptually, to not knowing. And then, there’s the not knowing that knows. It’s like a continuous intuition that knows just like, “Am I knowing from within? Yes. “Or just like [makes a questioning and confirming vocalization]. And it doesn’t have to confirm with words. It just knows; the way that if you are riding a bicycle, once you do ride a bicycle, if somebody said, “Are you balancing on the bicycle?” And you could go to your head and say, “Well, am I balancing on a bicycle? I think I am, yes.” But you don’t need to. Right? You’re balancing on the bicycle. Let me just feel whether you’re balancing on the bicycle or not.

So it’s a feeling, direct experiential, new knowing that’s prior to thought, that eventually can use thought, and that’s beyond thought, that’s connected to this continuous intuition, or this non-conceptual flow state that doesn’t need to think about thinking to know and to access information that’s needed but not have to check with all the automatic thoughts that are going by every second.

So you’re shifting out of the screen of your mind where we live and into this peace of mind. It takes a little while to discern that for yourself, but only you can do it for yourself with a little help or check, like a little check-up from a teacher, just a little check-in, tune-up. Then you have to know for yourself, and then you lose it and go back to the other habit, and then you learn to return on your own.

TS: Now, you mentioned, Loch, a little bit about your own travels in India. There is actually a tradition—effortless mindfulness is your language for this traditional way of taking people on a path of awakening. Can you describe a little bit about that, what spiritual tradition this is rooted in?

LK: Yes. As I look at it, because I learned it initially from The Secret of the Golden Flower, which is a Taoist practice, then once I got that experience, I went, “Oh, I experienced this as a child. I experienced it as a child walking in nature. Oh, I experienced it in sports, when I was playing ice hockey goalie and quarterback on the football team, and I would have this feeling of having eyes in the back of my head and open this panoramic awareness, and drop into my body and feel connected, and be in the zone.” And then I went to Sri Lanka and studied the Vipassana tradition, and then went up and studied Mahamudra and Dzogchen style.

Then from there, I have studied most of the wisdom traditions and tried to read these texts—which we’re very fortunate, because literally in the last 10 to 20 years, some of the most esoteric and advanced texts have become available. They’re very esoteric, but fortunately I had spent enough time so I got the gist of it and could weed through them enough to then experientially fill in the gaps and make some connects that were clear or understand, “Oh, this tradition does it that way, and this one says that way, but they’re very similar, and they’re getting here; this one goes this way. That one goes that way.”

There’s a tradition called Sutra Mahamudra, which actually is the link between Sutra tradition of Theravada—it’s actually a Mahayana tradition that was in North India, and it was taken up by Tibetan Buddhism; but originally, it’s a Mahayanan, north Indian tradition that when it was first practiced, the story goes that people in this area who were just living householder lives and being fish sellers and householders, were all awakening when they first practiced this Sutra Mahamudra.

That’s somewhat of the tradition that I’m mostly drawing on, but it’s really the human being lineage, because I feel like it’s in the wisdom traditions. Bringing in a lot of the neuroscience, and psychology, and respecting all the traditions I’ve learned from, trying to keep it rooted, but also not afraid to see what works and check it out with other teachers and colleagues.

TS: All right. Let’s have another glimpse practice, something I can do in the middle of my busy day without getting too much attention from other people, that I’m engaging in some long something or other.

LK: Yes. Yes. So the way we practiced unhooking awareness from thought, one of the important things is that there’s inner types of doorways and outer doorways. Some people have tried to do inner doorways are actually, I’ve found, are actually more easily go out the doorway of going out to more spacious awareness outside and then coming back. Others find it easier to go deep within and then open up. So we dropped from head to heart. This one, we’re just going to move awareness from thought, to seeing, to hearing, to the space in which that all comes and goes, until we’re aware from that space in a way that we feel less bound to this small, separate sense of self.

Again, we’re feeling as if we are contracted or identified with a part of ourselves that’s sitting in the seat of the self in our head or in our emotional body. If you’re not, then you’re way ahead of the rest of us, so just enjoy yourself and listen to this like birds in the background. But if you’re identified with this location, find the location of this feeling of where you’re looking from, where you’re hearing from, where you’re thinking from.

Then from that place, usually within your forehead, we’re just going to have awareness move from thinking, to seeing, to hearing. Notice that awareness is identified with thought and then have awareness step back and drop down to be aware of just seeing. And neither seer nor the seen, just awareness in seeing. Your eyes could be open or closed.

And then just as awareness is unhooked from thinking and moved to seeing, notice what it’s like and how everything changes when awareness unhooks from seeing and comes to hearing at your ears. So neither hearer nor focusing on what you’re hearing, just hearing at the small area at your ears.

Now, just as awareness has moved to hearing in this small area, see what it’s like if that local awareness can move by itself and open to the space in the room in which sound is coming and going. Feel as if awareness becomes big, open, and mingles with space, but first you can notice sound moving through the space and then just become interested in the contentless open space. Feel that mingling as you’re curious, “Am I aware of the spacious awareness, or what’s it like if I’m aware from the spacious awareness that’s already aware by itself, back to thoughts, feelings, and sensations while remaining open?” Feel as if the awareness is dissolved, air into air, awareness into awareness, and then as if you’d discovered this field of awareness that’s already been aware in front of you, to the sides of you, and above you, below you, anything behind you that now you’re aware of, like an ocean of awareness arising as the wave of your body, emotions, and sensations, connected with everything.

TS: Now, Loch, you mentioned that for people who are new to this, one of the temptations, if you will, or patterns is to go back to their mind, their thinking mind to see, “Am I doing this right?” In the appendix of the book, you have this whole interesting section of traps and detours, and you talk about this phenomenon of going back to the mind for a second opinion on how it’s going, or getting scared back to the mind. You also list a third possible detour, getting bored and going back to the mind.

So what do we do when we do that? “Oh, that’s what I’m doing. I’m going to go back to the mind because I’m getting a little bored of this.”

LK: That’s right. The first thing is to realize that all of this is normal, that these are things that happen, similar to things that are named in deliberate mindfulness. When you sit and watch your breath, you’ll be instructed. “Well, the mind may wander. This is normal. When it wanders, simply notice it’s wandered and bring it back.” Similarly, when we’re doing effortless mindfulness, we’ll open to the spacious awareness, and then maybe a part of us will say, “Danger, danger! Rule number 22 says don’t go out of your mind. Don’t become nobody. Stay in control.” And you’ll have a part of you that’s like a car alarm going off that you’ll realize you’re getting pulled back like a magnet. You’ll come back, and then you’ll say,
“Huh. When I felt that before, I was feeling such peace and such safety. Why did this—” what I call “system one,” “—set off these alarms?” And you realize that there’s an old orientation, then there’s kind of a disorientation before you get to reorientation.

There are different parts of ourselves that are part of our ego defenses, that are part of our protectors and managers that have been orienting us in a certain way that need to get on board, and they’ll bore us back, or scare us back. So a lot of the last part of my book is how to work with these parts of ourselves that begin to be the doubting parts or the judging parts. Once we realize that actually in some ways, the only way to heal these parts is to fully wake up in order to grow up, The interesting thing about this effortless mindfulness approach is that it’s not only an advanced version of mindfulness, but what I’ve found, and some of my colleagues have found, is that it’s one of the best ways to work with people who have complex trauma.

In other words, people who can barely sit and meditate for a minute, when they’re introduced to this sense of no-self self, this true nature, this spacious, loving capacity, which they have as well as everyone else, it’s what allows them to heal, and they’ve been traumatized by severe situations in their life. That’s the amazing thing.

TS: People who have had severe trauma don’t have an experience of feeling unsafe in the big space that you’re introducing through effortless mindfulness?

LK: They do, similar to everyone else. But because it’s just as accessible, though it may take it little more time, once they do access it, it opens this capacity that even those who have been in therapy for 20, 30 years and made little bits of progress, shift into this loving, accepting dimension that then unburdens both the wounded parts but also the protective and defending parts which have been holding them so tightly together, trying not to get hurt again. And those parts relax because they feel there’s this tremendous loving awareness available. So it’s a relationship that’s a new healing relationship.

TS: Now, there’s a lot we could talk about, Loch, because in this final section of the book, you describe with so much detail, I think, a lot of the ways that people get stuck and confused and have misunderstandings on the path of awakening.

I’m just going to mention one or two more, and then we’ll bring this to a close. One of those things you point out is that it’s actually a trap to stop at not knowing. I thought this would be a really interesting thing to explain, because I think a lot of our listeners are probably like, “Oh my God. I finally made it to not knowing. I’m there. I’m not going back. I’m not going back to thinking anymore.” But now that in and of itself, is a trap?

LK: Yes. Yes. I would say, having been in many different spiritual communities that the trap with stopping at not knowing, the trap of stopping at a kind of nondual witness, and the trap of going beyond emotions, feeling like you go into a witness that has no emotions, that these are some of the halfway houses of spiritual unfolding, which is one of the names of the sections is Unfolding. The not knowing is the first move of awakening. It’s waking up from conceptual knowing to that feeling people may have had of unhooking or going to space in the room.

So there’s a relief of not knowing, of not being caught in conceptual self. But from there, you can’t relate and create, so you have to go back. So you feel like you’re getting it and losing it, or you’re going into a meditative state or a witness consciousness that’s a little detached, and observing in a kind of nonjudgmental, neutral way; but then in order to embody and relate, you have to find that the awareness is knowing, that it is the nature of your mind, and that there’s a embodied part-mind that is the way that I feel, like is the new operating system, and not knowing is really just a stage along the way.

TS: Now, you mentioned these two other halfway houses. Can you briefly talk about each of them?

LK: Yes. Then the second one is being in a kind of detached witness; so that is like a big-sky mind, or a choiceless awareness, or a feeling that you’re outside looking back—which is, I think, an important transition that I call the You-turn, where you feel like you’re looking out, and then you make this You-turn, Y-O-U, and now it’s almost as if you’re looking back. But if you’re looking back from a witness that’s located somewhere, then you’re not as interconnected, embodied. You don’t have a sense of aliveness.

It’s as if you’re in a meditation state, where things are coming and going. You feel like you’re the sky, and thoughts and feelings are clouds and birds moving through. Whereas when you open to this spacious awareness that then is none other than thought, feeling, and sensation, you feel like that you’re in this interconnected field that moves from kind of a sky, where you’re a witness, to an ocean where you’re interconnected and flowing, and everything that arises is somehow more interconnected with who you are. And that’s the more embodied or inclusive that has a transcendent and an imminent, an infinite and a finite, a detached and a connected, like boundless and having emotional boundaries.

It’s this more unity feeling that’s both empty of separate sense of self and has a relative arising of, “I’m just living this human life from this open-hearted place.”

TS: Then the third halfway house had to do with how we relate to our emotions.

LK: Yes. I talk about these three kind of bypasses that we know about spiritual bypassing, which is a little bit of what this is about, where you feel like you go to this transcendent consciousness that is beyond emotion, that’s impersonal, that’s pure awareness that things are just happening, and there’s a witness for feeling that emotions are just coming and going, they’re not as important. And you can hang out in this feeling—like somebody asks you, “Would you like some tea?” And you say, “All tea is the same.” It’s kind of what I call almost robotism, whereas when you discover this foundation of awareness that’s both ultimate and relative, that’s here, embodied, vast, and has the capacity to feel and heal, there’s more vulnerability, and there’s more courage at the same time.

My experience has been that I was just recently at a funeral and walked up, and people were very serious. I just started crying and then laughing, and then laughing and then crying, and everyone started to kind of go, “Oh, what? Oh.” Then they were laughing and crying. I didn’t think about crying, or laughing, or anything. But I was so touched by the moment, and the people, and the tenderness, and the beauty. Then it was almost like the gratitude for this person’s life. My heart just welled up like, “Oh my God, this is so beautiful. This person was so beautiful. I can feel them now. I can remember them now.” It just is such an amazing life. It’s like the example, if you see the Dalai Lama, the laughing and crying and joking. It’s very alive rather than transcending human emotion.

TS: All right, Loch. I’m just going to ask you one final question here. The path of effortless mindfulness, what kind of commitment does it take? I think sometimes when people hear something like effortless, it’s really based on letting go, unhooking. They move into a kind of couch-potato-type mode. What kind of commitment is required here?

LK: Yes. The “effortless” really means that there’s an effortless awareness that’s already here that we can discover. It takes a little effort [laughs], and it takes a commitment that usually is discovered by either bottoming out, or feeling the fire of despair, or trying to have it work out with a very strong controlling ego and realizing that’s not all there is, and it doesn’t work, and that you feel dry, and you look for something else. Or if you get a taste of awakening, if you get a taste of freedom, a taste of joy and beauty beyond the coming and going happiness and pleasure, something that doesn’t come and go, that’s connected and loving. For me, it was like when I had a taste of that, I thought, “What else was my priority in life? What else am I going to choose to do with my day? Shouldn’t I at least put it on the list of ‘small glimpses, many times?'” In some ways, it takes a sense of wanting to wake up and grow up, a willingness.

And then the practice is “small glimpses many times,” which has immediate benefits, can be practiced in the middle of your day with your eyes open in any situation. I practice it on the subway in New York City, and in busy work situations, and within minutes, it drops me into this interconnected, loving, calm, smart, and funny dimension of myself that is able to handle things that I couldn’t handle when I’m trying hard. It’s kind of an interest, a willingness. I just feel like anybody who’s doing any kind of spiritual practice, there’s a point, are you doing it to just calm, like a sauna? Or is it to access a kind of spiritual dimension, whatever you call that, that is this next capacity?

The thing about effortless mindfulness is it’s less dangerous, because what we’re doing is we’re going immediately from the problem to access the solution. Then you lose it, you come back to the small sense of self, and then you don’t get caught in the gap in between. You go immediately within minutes to access your true nature, and then it may only stay for a few minutes, but then you lose it, and you come back again. When you’re there, you’re not just deconstructing the ego and getting flooded by the unconscious. You’re actually accessing that which has the capacity to be with emotions and grief and trauma.

TS: The Way of Effortless Mindfulness. It’s a new book by Loch Kelly, A Revolutionary Guide for Living an Awakened Life. If you want to learn more, this book is a tremendous study companion. It’s filled with pointers, and it really takes you step by step through something which can appear to be a type of pathless path. But Loch, you really lay out the pathless path really beautifully.

LK: [Laughs] Thank you.

TS: The Way of Effortless Mindfulness. There’s also an audio program of glimpse practices, Effortless Mindfulness Now, and Loch’s the author of a previous book with Sounds True called Shift into Freedom. Loch, thank you for all of your great work and for everything you put into The Way of Effortless Mindfulness, the book. It’s a gorgeous book.

LK: Thank you so much, Tami, and for all your support and Sounds True and bringing this to the world [inaudible].

TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the “Subscribe” button in your podcast app. And also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.

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