Basic Goodness

In different cultures basic aliveness is described as unconditional openness, spirit, basic goodness, harmony, Buddha nature, divine spark, true self, brilliant sanity. It has three main qualities: 1. Openness- to the endless possibilities of the present moment; 2. Clear Seeing- awake to what is without  bias or pre-conceptions; 3. Responsiveness- attunement, empathy, compassion, understanding, and sensitivity.

In my own search for an answer to the question of “what is basic aliveness” I began by considering animate objects and whether my aliveness resonated with their aliveness. Slowly I began to realize that basic aliveness can exist within me and resonate with other objects depending on the quality of the presence and intention that I bring to my experience with them, rather than something inherent to them. It seems to me that basic aliveness is how my energy reaches out to the world and interacts with objects in the present moment. I feel basic aliveness most when I’m not thinking about the past or future, when I am just curious and present with what is. As Hayward & Hayward (1998) point out, “We sometimes catch a glimpse of ordinary sacredness when we come across our familiar world freshly, as if for the first time” (p. 1).

Basic aliveness is a sense of wholesomeness that exists beneath all of the ups and downs of life. It does not imply happiness but rather that being alive has an energetic quality that infuses all of our experiences when we pay attention. Basic aliveness lets the world in and is the source of our vulnerability, tenderness, and sensitivity. Felt sense (subtle body sensations that contain feelings), feelings (these can remain in the background of awareness), and emotions (these cannot be ignored) arise in response to our aliveness interacting with the world around us.

Spectrum of felt energy:

In contrast, the cocoon is an unconscious boundary that we create within ourselves in order to protect ourselves from experiencing pain. This contracted cocoon state is a way of protecting ourselves from our vulnerabilities in the world by taking us out of the present moment. The cocoon is also an indication of basic health; since it is an important response to danger. This boundary becomes the way that our basic aliveness interacts with the world; the boundary allows presence in “safe” situations and pulls back from being present in “unsafe” situations.

However, the protective cocoon requires a tremendous amount of energy to maintain, as we are constantly aware of and reacting to potential threats and telling ourselves stories about who we are in order to keep the protective boundary in place.  Trungpa (1994) describes how “We shut out any vastness or possibilities of deeper perception out of our hearts by fixating on our own interpretation of phenomena… We always have a choice: we can limit our perception so that we close off vastness or we can allow vastness to touch us” (p. 102-103).

Psychological cocoons are composed of three elements, “the basic pain of feelings that seem threatening and overwhelming; the contracting of awareness to avoid the pain; and the stress of continually having to prop up and defend an identity based on this avoidance and denial” (Welwood, 1992, p. 161). I am struck by awkwardness and stupidity as sites of basic aliveness, I suppose that is why they are so uncomfortable; they brings us face to face with our own imperfections and give us the opportunity to accept ourselves as we are or to continue judging and rejecting our own experiences. We can use these uncomfortable moments to knock us into the present, as “times when we might find that we are suddenly free of our habitual ways of perceiving ourselves, other and the environment. They are times when we might tap into out inherent goodness” (Wegela, 1999, p. 77).

The tactic of the cocoon can eventually cause us distress when we realize that parts of ourselves and our world are cut off from us. As we become aware of this, we can choose to continue strengthening the cocoon or instead try out new ways of acting in the world. This slow process requires awareness, patience, and gentleness, as  “to be truly human in ordinary life requires a sense of bravery, daring to live genuinely, even in the face of obstacles like fear, doubt, depression or external aggression” (Hayward & Hayward, 1998, p.12).

There are three approaches to unraveling cocoons and helping emotions not get frozen and block our experience of basic aliveness: 1. Therapeutic- let feelings speak, personify them so they can express themselves freely without censorship; 2. Meditative- gently notice emotion and return to the breath without looking for meaning, this allows us to contain the energy of emotion and use it for self-illumination; 3. Taming- befriend emotions and let them be without judgment, feel deeply into the emotions under the associated thoughts and storylines.

Try this practice of taming emotions: begin by breathing and softly naming each experience as it comes into your awareness; body sensations and energy (tingling, itching, heat), feelings (fear, delight, anger), sights and sounds (ringing, cars, wind), thoughts (planning, remembering). Focusing on one thing at a time, name and fully feel in the body each experience that arises until it passes away, then return to the breath until something else arises. Simply acknowledge and feel into what is present in each moment without judgment, grasping or aversion.


Hayward, J. & Hayward, K. (1998). Sacred World: The shambala way to gentleness, bravery, and power. Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.

Trugpa, C. (1984). Shambala: The sacred path of the warrior. Boulder, CO: Shambala Publications.

Wegela, K.K. (1999, May) The scene of the accident. Shambala Sun. p. 77-78.

Welwood, J. (1992) The healing power of unconditional presence. In Welwood, J. (Ed.). Ordinary magic (p. 159-170). Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.

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