Tom Eckert, MS, LPC
Tom Eckert is a Licensed Professional Counselor and a seasoned practitioner of over 15 years.
~ My Orientation to Inner Work ~
By Tom Eckert
Our ability to turn inward, to take stock of ourselves, is quintessentially human. Each of us, it seems to me, is born with a capacity for self-awareness. We can observe, study, and develop ourselves quite consciously, should we make efforts to do so. With self-awareness, we can change our minds, and our lives, for the better.
The mirror of self-awareness inspires, making it possible to change and to grow. But it frustrates as well, exposing a distance between who we are and who we want or ought to be. We seek our best, but the mirror is unforgiving. So we struggle with ourselves, another human trait. We question ourselves, sensing our imperfection. We are uniquely incomplete, and we know it.
I suppose we all want to see something “whole” in that mirror. Though the journey — and the struggle — looks different for each of us, it seems that we all, in our better moments, strive for something deeper, truer, more “connected.”
In the mirror’s reflection, we’re all works in progress. Like you, I’m a work in progress, learning to live more harmoniously than I have before. And like many of you, I’ve sought guidance in an ancient conversation, a hallowed exchange of ideas on self-work and self-mastery. Great minds and spirits have engaged the topic since the dawn of reflective thought. Knowledge transmits through the ages, filling our bookshelves with philosophy, spirituality, psychology, and whatever else might facilitate the inner journey. Wisdom is abundant; each volume is an exploration unto itself.
I’ve tried to choose my readings wisely, needing time in between to consider the impact on my journey. My goal as a reader is clarity and synthesis, nothing more. I’m not looking for innovation, per se. It seems the ancient dialogue has long covered it all, with eloquence and in a multitude of ways. But it’s up to us to make sense of it, and to make it our own.
Can I share with you some of my influences? To start, my parents taught me to think freely and critically, for which I am grateful. They provided me with educational opportunities as well. They saw me off to the University of Michigan, where my mind and spirit opened up in a number of ways. I remember, for example, picking up an elective course, taught by an eccentric philosopher named Bergmann. His language was so rich and incisive that I could hardly adjust. The topic was Existentialism and it became a focus for me.
Soon I was off to grad school, where I studied clinical psychology. It was there, with scant support from faculty, that Existentialism became my “orientation” to clinical work. It also became a starting point for my nascent inner work. Having wrestled with the likes of Keirkegaard and Nietzche, I turned to the more accessible existentialists of psychology. I studied models and commentaries from Viktor Frankl, Rollo May, R. D. Laing, Paul Tillich, Ernest Becker, and Irvin Yalom. For me, these authors cut to the core of the human dilemma, which was MY dilemma. It felt personal.
The voices of existential psychology, echoing through decades, led me to confront basic truths. They made me face the inevitability of my own death. They helped me accept my aloneness. They confirmed for me an inner freedom and a profound responsibility. They reached for meaning through shadows of meaninglessness. Their steeled approach taught me to embrace anxiety as a teacher. Existentialism instilled a certain courage – a courage to live life head-on and to confront the truth. As a result, I began to feel more human and more alive.
And yet there was something more. Further down the bookshelf was a school of philosophy called “Phenomenology,” a close cousin of Existentialism. Phenomenology, in short, is the study of how reality appears to us in our conscious minds, from a subjective or first person point of view. By inquiring deeply into the nature of experience itself, the phenomenologists sought to better understand the relationship between consciousness and physical reality. So finely did they register this relationship that, for me, the line began to blur. I started to question the assumed division between “in here” and “out there” – the subject / object split.
Phenomenology seemed to suggest that our minds dance with an essence of things, as if drawing “reality” from nature’s invisible inner order. Somewhere in this copious logic was a hint of magic. The writings implied a kind of instantaneous interconnectivity, based on a radically holistic view of reality. I was intrigued, but unsure that these pages really meant what they seemed to say. My mind went somewhere mystical. Was there really a deeper unity between consciousness and reality? Steeped as I was in a more conventional worldview, the whole question seemed pretty out there. I wanted to understand, but I was afraid of drawing very wrong conclusions. It just didn’t feel “real.”
So I decided to consult the most “real” of the sciences – physics. I kind of expected these stodgy fellows to set me straight. But it wasn’t to be. To my surprise, the physicists too had reason to think twice about the relationship between consciousness and reality. The “quantum paradigm” had emerged — suddenly popularized a century after the first discoveries — and I was hooked. I found myself camped in bookstores and libraries, grappling with the impossible, reading old volumes from David Bohm, Werner Heisenberg, and Wolfgang Pauli.
Quantum physics, of course, is the study of the infinitesimal – the atoms and subatomic particles which make up our material world. Here, at reality’s roots, we find a netherworld seemingly suspended between possibility and reality, or, as Heisenberg once put it, “between the idea of the thing and the real thing.” It’s a most unusual space to ponder, as you may know. Things down here don’t behave as expected. Particles, for example, are quantum leaping. They’re jumping from position to position, energy state to energy state, without traveling between. From one viewpoint, a particle displays a definite position and discrete characteristics. From another, it unfurls to a wave-like “superposition” of possible realities, something called a “quantum wave.”
Weirder still, the ghostly quantum wave “collapses” back to a single particle under one condition: when it’s observed! Ingenious “double slit” experiments show that a sentient observer “collapses the wave function” and, voila, a particle appears. We’re left to ponder an eerie interaction between a measurer of events (an observer) and the events themselves (the observed). Theories compete to explain it, but the essential findings are robust and replicable. The way we observe something intrinsically affects what we observe.
The quantum findings left me transfixed and transformed, struck by a newly holistic view of reality, a blend of psyche and cosmos. I actually felt different — less alienated, more connected, more at home within myself and within the universe. The quantum medicine, with an occasional infusion of psychedelics, penetrated deeply, cutting through my cultural conditioning, reaching a core connection with nature. Consciousness, I realized, is elemental. We are not aberrations, but articulations of the universe itself, never severed from the stars.
The combined existential and quantum perspectives proved especially potent. Quantum reality, with its inherent openness and interconnectivity, put the closed-up world of Existentialism into stark relief. Taken together, a picture emerges. It is “I,” the human being, the foreground figure, opening to the cosmos yet shrinking under its endless sky. I am finite, approaching nothing at all, and born to die. Yet my mind opens to the heavens, my spirit to the eternal. I am human, of body and mind, of particle and possibility. I am being and I am becoming, real and dreamt, living and dying… converging, as it were, to a liminal space of potential, a consciousness pure and free.
The more I contemplated my consciousness, the more I sensed its core conflict. There was a chasm between my typical state of being and my essential spirit. I felt reduced by my own processes, my conditioning, my scripts and habits. Like other students of consciousness, I wanted to wake up. I wanted to let something else through. But the task of changing my disposition, of clearing the vessel, was, and remains, a big one.
As I made efforts to be more self-aware, I discovered just how clogged up I really was. I was weakened by patterns of negativity, self-pity, pettiness… caught up in slights, keeping score, things of that nature. I’d feel deserving, justified, habitually disappointed. With an eye turned inward, I now saw the weeds which had built up in the field of my consciousness. These “weeds” were clearly affecting my experiences and the course of my life.
The inner work, though challenging, was coming clearer. I set out to pull the weeds so that I might open up to the stars. It became my priority, more than any outward achievement, to tend the field of my consciousness.
Having followed this path, I’ve developed confidence in a few things. I will say this: a seed, given its right environment, will grow quite naturally. With water, sunlight, and fertile soil, an acorn becomes a mighty Oak. The human spirit, I think, is similar. Like the acorn, we all possess an essential earthly potential, and it’s only natural that we spiral upward to catch the sun’s rays.
Our ascension, however, is not secured. Our inner environment – the space of our consciousness – requires care. We are self-aware beings, conscious stewards of our own nature, and captains of our own development. We’re here, I believe, to purify ourselves. Nothing will grow if the inner space is polluted and overrun. It is our responsibility — to ourselves and to each other — to uproot the varieties of self-centeredness, small-mindedness, and falsity which, like weeds, strangle the life force and keep us small.
Despite my bookish beginnings, my inner work these days feels more intimate than academic. Inner work requires inner sincerity; it’s about looking inside and getting honest about how we “take in” the rather miraculous world around us. Such a practice entails self-awareness, which is no small matter. With a practice of self-awareness, I believe we can begin to purify ourselves, receive others, and better share our unique gifts with the world.
And so we are challenged to observe ourselves objectively. If you are an introspective person, then you probably realize how hard it is to be objective with yourself. It’s hard to see ourselves with any clarity or consistency. We lose ourselves easily. We get caught up in wasteful thoughts, negative emotions, habitual behaviors. We slip from our center, dropping our sense of possibility and choice.
Self-awareness is elusive, and if you realize this, then you already know something about inner work. Conversely, if you’re quite convinced that you’re self-aware, then you’re probably not well-prepared for this kind of project. Why would you make efforts to attain something that you think you already possess?
If we understand that self-awareness is fleeting, then I think there is hope. With a certain kind of effort, we can, by degree, become more self-aware, more conscious, more awake. Even a small change in this regard can have a big effect on those close to us.
Self-awareness arises when we sit “behind” our own processes. As we pull the seat of awareness inward, the inner space comes into view. The further in we sit, the more we see of ourselves. Our mental processes pop up in front of us, and suddenly we can see what we are doing. This is the meaning of self-awareness.
Conversely, when we sit too far forward, with our noses pressed up against the window, we cannot see what we are doing at all. There, at the window, we only see what there is to see, which is the outside world. We have no sense of the inner space. Our processing channels – cognitive and emotional — are positioned behind us, hidden from view. We’ve lost touch, perspective, and control. A whole studio is behind us, powered up and running, yet unsupervised. The controls, left unattended, are surrendered to regressed and anxious impulses, firing into a cacophony of inner activity. The only way to sort this out is to sit more deeply within, behind the console, so that we might go about making real music.
Our project, then, is to push the seat of awareness inward, so that we can achieve a more consistent self-awareness. To do this, we must in some sense divide ourselves into two parts – an observer part and an observed part. Self-awareness requires inner division, or, as Gurdjieff said, a becoming “two” instead of “one.” After all, “one” cannot observe oneself. How can “you” observe “you” if there is only one you? This whole endeavor, you see, hinges on achieving a kind of inner division, on creating an observer part which brings to light an observable inner space, such that we can see what we are doing internally. When we attach ourselves to everything that pops up in our heads, remaining “one” instead of “two,” we end up losing self-awareness and self-control.
Self-awareness and self-control can’t be achieved if we stay glued to our thoughts, feelings, and impulses. We must at times separate, otherwise we’ll never see what we’re up to… until perhaps later, with a dose of regret. If I were to say, for example, “I am angry,” and then proceed to hurl a bunch of insults your way, you probably wouldn’t consider me very self-aware. Yes, I’ve identified how I feel, but I haven’t separated from it. I’ve actually verbalized oneness with the feeling, oneness with the anger — “I am it.” Not until I achieve inner separation might I come to recognize that “I” am not “angry” – anger and I are not one, not the same, even for a moment. Anger is only passing through, which I recognize as soon as I separate the “center” or “source” of my awareness from the “contents” of my awareness.
Through the practice of inner separation, I come to see “anger” passing through, in front of me, as it were. I will experience it – anger rumbles through my emotional channel — but I am not affixed in the same way as before. Sitting behind it, it seems rather obvious that my emotional energies will soon settle. By holding “I” separate from “anger,” things fall into proper perspective.
When we practice inner separation, we position ourselves to do inner work. Inner separation creates self-awareness, which is necessary for self-correction and growth. Without it, we are inefficient, if not reckless. Again, when we identify with everything that passes through our processing channels, we end up attached to all kinds of wayward thoughts, emotions, and impulses which then take us for a ride.
Strapped in, we find ourselves at the mercy of a whole cast of scripted characters within us. These “personas,” as I think of them, pop up all too often, yet manage to evade our awareness. Can you name your various personas? They’re well known to others, but usually invisible to ourselves… until after they’ve stirred up some trouble. We hear of their exploits, but miss them in action. This is because we are barely conscious when they arise. We are, in such moments, so wrapped up in our processes, so identified with the commanding persona, that we have no space to observe.
With right efforts and methods, however, we can get behind these personas. We can observe, with some degree of clarity and objectivity, the nature of our machinations. Self-control begins with dividing ourselves internally, separating a center of awareness from the more scripted voices, emotions, impulses, and tensions that take hold of our functional channels.
Awareness, you see, is like light. When the center of awareness is positioned inwardly, light emanates through the inner space. It’s like striking a match in a dark room. In an instant we see our surroundings. We see our contents and processes. We see our personas. We see our machinery at work. And we see the control console as well – a bit dusty, but ready for use.
Now, the source of awareness, the flickering flame that lights the room, is a bit of a mystery. Try to grasp it, try to apprehend its nature, and you’ll soon realize that your ideas about it have already slipped over to the “content” side. Awareness only reveals, holding nothing within itself. You can’t really conceptualize the source of your awareness, because all concepts are content, while the source only observes. And so the source of your awareness, your natural center, is not what you imagine yourself to be. Our imaginings of “self” are but contents of consciousness, while the source remains enfolded within. The source of awareness, the central “I” within us all, is not a supposed identity, self-concept, ego, personality, or anything like that. It precedes all of these constructs. Your awareness already is, as you already are, irreducibly. Awareness is, as you are, a gift of nature.
Here we are saying something important. We are saying that all of these things that we take as ourselves, these beliefs and roles and identities that we wear around like clothes, are not exactly who or what we are. Have you pondered this? Do you distinguish between the source of your awareness and the various “selves” that come in and out of your mind? If your current outfits fell away, what would be left? The answer, it seems, is “you” – your center, your essence, your source of light. The light of awareness remains, revealing the changing contents of life and mind.
Think about your experiences. You’ve let go of many things to which you were once attached. Perhaps at one point you felt like you lost something of yourself, something “true,” something you were really “all about.” You hurt, suffering a kind of identity loss, a mini death of sorts. But eventually you healed, because you realized that “you” are not what you thought you were. You were never “one” with the identity or context or relationship or dream or whatever it was that you lost. You held it dear, but its disappearance was ultimately absorbed by your conscious essence. And so you’ve learned, and relearned, that your truest “I” is not found in the contents of your consciousness, but in the source of your awareness. Contents change, but the light of awareness remains. Life changes itself around, as does your understanding, while you remain sitting in the central light of awareness.
~ to be continued ~