Seattle Insight Meditation Center | May 2015
This series will work with the continua of practice that form the basic ways we understand our spiritual journey. It would be very helpful if everyone would start by reading Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart (Shambhala 2014).
End of struggle
This new series will work with the continua of practice that form the basic ways we understand our spiritual journey. It would be very helpful if everyone would start by reading Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart (Shambhala 2014). Chapter Six is specific to this first talk. A continuum is a story or narrative about awakening. Myths are spiritual narratives that can usually be condensed into a continuum. There is a beginning and an end with various highs and lows throughout the process. An important point is that though a continuum is depicted as a linear journey, it is not a timeline, though from the perspective of the individual it may seem like it is. Many events take place on the horizontal line, and it can take a considerable amount of time to cross from one side to the other, but there is actually no separation between the two end points of the pathway. The mind fictitiously creates the time needed to cross, but the objective is always at hand. One of the paradoxes of any spiritual journey is that the infinite (the far right side) is always embracing the limited (the far left side), but the limited cannot feel that embrace. The sense-of-self wears the blinders of its own thoughts and that prohibits the wider gaze necessary to see the infinite. The path provides the opportunity to see the infinite by refocusing the individual’s attention away from the all-consuming narrative that defines and limits his life. Let us look briefly at the way I have sectioned the continuum below.
False Nirvana: The movement of the path is straightforward. Following the Buddha’s teaching, the journey is going from struggle (suffering) or self-centeredness to the end of struggle or connection and non-separation. This example of suffering and its end will be explored in more depth later in the series. Many of us enter our path with an objective to relieve part of our suffering, usually the most weighted issue in our lives such as self-dislike or an emotionally noisy mind. A false nirvana is a partial relief from the burden of that central issue that can be mistaken as a complete reprieve from the burden of suffering. What makes it nirvana is that a deeply wounded place within us is temporarily eased, and for once in our life we are no longer under the pain of its oppression.
Counter-Influence: Up until now we have been using time and distance as a valid way to proceed. “I am here and need to be there, and I would like it to happen soon.” At a certain point on the continuum, we understand that thinking in terms of time and distance moves the sense-of-self right along with us on the path. The below continuum suggests that we monitor whatever actions we are taking in body, speech, and mind in relationship to the struggle we bring to those tasks. Struggle or suffering is the surest sign of left-sided dominance and the most obvious way to know when we are under the ego’s influence. I label this on the graph as “counter-influence” which means at this point on our journey we understand that the intrusion of the ego’s will on the direction we are heading is no longer useful – it is “counter-influential”. This is a huge shift since up until now we have been governed by our volitional efforts. Now we realize that any willful force that we think moves us toward the right side, adds to the overall struggle and therefore ultimately moves us to the left.
Paradigm Shift: As we relax deeply and begin to release our struggles, we may suddenly and unexpectedly enter a new paradigm, which abruptly shifts the figure/ground of our life. Up until this moment, we have always been front-and-center with the world funneling through our reasoning, now we see ourselves being birthed moment to moment by the infinite, held by the infinite, and an extension of it. We immediately understand the sense-of-I was always and only an idea believed – an idea arising from the infinite. Once this is seen there is no debate, no argument that counters the realization. We know this is how it has always been, and more to the point of the continuum, in the moment seen, there is no suffering. This cosmic shift can actually occur at any time throughout the continuum completely serendipitously. I believe this realization is much more common than we imagine, but having this recognition is not an end, it is how fully we allow it to transform us that is the key element for reaching the end of suffering.If we look at the diagram above we will see this shift does not end the continuum. At this point though there is nothing more to do, but to complete the continuum, this shift has to be embodied, and the spiritual path changes accordingly.
In the Third Foundation of the Satipatthana Sutta the Buddha asks us not to weigh in and attempt to change or alter the mind no matter what its current disposition. “Notice,” the Buddha says, “When the mind is delusional or not, confused or not, etc.” He does not encourage us to change the mind, just to notice how it is regardless of its configuration. What is the Buddha trying to show us in this instruction? We are examining the divided mind this week, the mind that rejects itself by setting up what it likes against what it does not. Simply put, the “I” we think is outside of the mind looking in as me, is one of the mental process within the mind. When we think two different events are occurring (me and all that is happening to me), division within the mind occurs. The “I” arises within the mind when there is an argument with reality as depicted by the mind. So the Buddha is likely trying to quell this division by suggesting we do not dispute any mental arising.
The continuum of the divided mind to the unified mind is a good touch point for all the other continua. It holds all the others and shows very clearly that the way we work with the mind is central to crossing the divide. In that sense it is both a continuum and a practice. The counter-influence is central to this continuum since the position the sense-of-self takes to whatever arises assures that we are under the sway of a divided mind. Any time “I” act as a separate entity upon the mind, it is divided, and when the sense-of-self is included within the phenomena, it is unified. We have to first learn how to work with states of mind in the least divided way (nonjudgmental acceptance, letting be) and then finally pull the sense-of-self away from the doing altogether.
A homework question for the reader is, when is changing what is occurring within your mind a wise response, and when is leaving the mind alone the wise thing to do?
End of struggle
I hope you are following this series of talks in my book, Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart. If you are, the book and dharma talks in tandem will deepen your understanding more than either one alone. This talk covers Chapter Five.
Some of the continua are a shift in the predominant organ of use (from mind to heart), other continua are the qualities that arise from this shift (from unconscious to conscious), others have to do with the perceptual alteration that occurs (from separation to non-separation), and still others like this week’s topic deal with the internal activities associated with moving to the right side of any continua (from adaptation to surrender). We start our spiritual journey wanting to change our lives in meaningful ways, but there is only one way that we know how to do that. We try to alter our inward life to fit our desired outcome. We nourish a calming and relaxing attitude, we effort a more focused awareness, we begin to struggle less with our annoyances, and simplify our lives so there is less stress and tension. This works well and over time we feel more inward space from these accomplishments. For many, this is as far as they wish to go; for a few others these tasks are the foundation from which they move toward a deeper abiding.
If we desire to move further along the path than these adaptive responses, the path shifts radically. Up until now, we have served ourselves well and established a better life, but we are still front and center within the life we are living. This is the counter-influenced moment on the scale, where we must switch from adaptation to surrender. Adaptation simply means changing our inward monologue to fit the changing circumstances. We might say to ourselves, “I feel hot and tired. Just relax into the heat and soften your resistance. Now, that’s better and I feel more comfortable.” We actively adapt our lives to be more dharmically oriented, releasing here, loosening there, turning away from one thing, and cultivating another, but this has kept us within our own self-control. Adaptation is something initiated by us and under our volition. The next step is out of our control and is far richer but more problematic. We are being directed toward faith, which is the release of our own control. Surrender is releasing our narrative, the very process that connects the sense-of-us to the activities of mind and body. Surrender is what we do when adaptation no longer works. By surrendering our narrative we are releasing our separation and no longer shoring up that distortion through continuous modifications.
Chapter Eleven in Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart is the highlighted chapter for this week. The continuum we will explore is Denial to Openness. There is an acceptable tension we each carry and are reluctant to address spiritually. That tension holds our thoughts, attitudes, self-beliefs, and projections together in a systematic self-serving way. It is the collection of aggregates laced together with our narrative that we will protect at all costs, and it is all tied to our current worldview. The practice begins within this worldview where everything is tightly controlled around a condensed center called me. We keep ourselves in control by refusing to examine and question our way out - this is denial. Denial will not look at facts beyond the opinions it has of those facts. Yet dharma is the undefended fact, and facing facts is fundamental to dharma growth. This, then, is a key continuum to understand.
Slowly as we cross the continuum, we loosen a little, letting new experiences in, perceiving from a quieter vantage point, and slowly opening to what we are seeing. Our hearts warm and we feel more inclusive. However, opinions suddenly form around these new feelings and here we may stumble into the false nirvana of liberalism, where we pride ourselves in our inclusiveness and egalitarianism. One expression of this false nirvana is when we wonder why everyone doesn’t see the truths we see and hold the same view. This is a warning sign of a perception gone astray, and if not corrected, will prevent us from being truly open and moving forward. Openness does not come with or from a view. Openness is wide open like the sky allowing everything to move through it, and is the willingness to be receptive and nonjudgmental regardless of circumstances.
But given the dangers of life, how can we ever expect to be truly open? This is not a calculated opening, but rather an opening without reservations. We have no choice but to open since the dharma is inclusive, the good, the bad, the just, and the unjust; all beings, all things without exception. There is no unity without absolute inclusion. Leave one thing out and we are back where we started. It is only my egoic self that protests, and here we come to the counter influence of the continuum. Either we pull back from further openness and maintain our defensiveness and denial or we surrender to the limitations of the world. We are forced to decide whether to see in unity or forever live within duality. To see life within the unity of existence means we see without contention.
One of the first insights we often have early in our practice is also one of the most difficult to personally accept, which is how self-centered we are. Our thoughts and feelings envelope every sensory contact, we are front and center to every experience, and volitionally behind every action we take, and it is almost always undertaken for self-serving reasons. This I-centered worldview is so automatic, many of us cannot conceive of operating from a different perspective. But that is what a spiritual journey ultimately does. It takes us beyond a self-focused life where “I” predominate, into a life of inclusion where we are not the center of our world. This week we will investigate the continuum from self-centeredness to all beings. The right side of the continuum, “all beings,” represents the total inclusion of the heart, the left side, self-centeredness, is the state of isolation and separation where much of our life is lived.
How could we possibly move beyond our own self-concerns? Moving beyond what is best for “me” seems so implausible as to be impossible, but it only seems that way because we do not know what we are or how we are formed. As the practice progresses, we sense the porousness of self, that it is not as dense and isolated as we once thought. We begin to see the boundaries that separate us are self-induced. Slowly we learn how to release those boundaries, and in so doing join with others. This usually takes time and perseverance because as we release these divisions it upsets our world order. It is relatively easy to intellectually or imaginatively release the boundaries that separate ourselves from others (“may all beings be happy”), but very difficult to actually change perception and engage in the world from this perspective. The spiritual journey is easily stated but difficult to act upon.
When we sense a tenderness in our hearts for someone, let us not pass that by in the course of our day. Stay there for a while and let an appropriate action result from that tenderness. Maybe it will be nothing more than making eye contact, maybe offering spare change, maybe more. Let the heart begin to respond beyond our selfish demands. The Dalai Lama said, “We can let the circumstances of our lives harden us so that we become increasingly resentful and afraid, or we can let them soften us and make us kinder. We always have a choice.” Using life to soften our hearts is a wise orientation to Dharma and eventually brings everyone along within our hearts.
The topic this week is the continuum from the horizontal to the vertical, corresponding to Chapter Two in Stepping Out of Self-Deception. We often miss how close we are to the sacred. We make it into a journey of distance and time when actually it is an excursion into stillness. We look forward to see how far we have to go or backward to see how far we have come. We want some proof that all this work has been worthwhile and that proof is in comparison to what we were and what we are becoming. Though this comparison supports our spiritual egoic image, we will not find the sacred in the past or the future, but only within the living present.
The horizontal and the vertical are perpendicular to one another (think of the x and y lines of a graph) but only intersect at one location, the present. The horizontal world of conditioning is time driven and labor intensive. To the left as far as the mind can see, is time past, and to the right is the infinite expanse of time future. Since future and past have no reality outside of thought, the horizontal is both composed and driven by concepts. The present, from the horizontal perspective, is a moment between time past and time future, a deprived moment on its way to some other time. When we look through the present with abstract thoughts, we do not see the sacred. The sacred is revealed when we arrive in the present fully quiet and still. It is at this intersecting point that all life occurs. The rest of the graph is conceptual. From this diagram we can begin to see how little time we spend in reality, which is the sacred, and how much time we spend immersed in our thinking.
Our spiritual journey is to rest where the X and Y axes meet acknowledging both the conceptual play of the horizontal and the timeless void of the vertical. Many of us like to hover around the X / Y intersection but not arrive fully. We want to know the sacred is at hand without committing our lives to it. The closer we come to the intersection, the lighter and more buoyant we feel and the more we understand what the sacred is. We can then assume a spiritual image where others might even listen to our “teaching” all the while pretending to be further along than we are. The egoic strength that is garnered through approximating the intersection becomes the false nirvana of this continuum.
There are three central reasons we get lost in our spiritual journey despite the rigor with which we practice and the sincerity of our purpose. The first is that we do not know the direction the journey takes and we get lost in the sideshows and entertainment of the process. Asking questions that we may assume to know but have not fully understood can redirect us back to the central intent. Questions like, “What does samadhi have to do with insight?” or “How does following my breath evolve into open awareness, and what does open awareness have to do with the end of suffering?” Anything left unexamined will eventually take away your focus. The second reason many of us go astray is because we attempt to move forward using the unconscious paradigm. For instance any assumptions coming from “I, me, or mine” keep our unstated motivations lurking in the shadows of the unconscious. Unconscious assumptions that drive our motivation end up creating havoc with our intended purpose. And the third reason we easily go astray is because our stated objective and our dharma intention are at cross-purposes. Only our heart knows what we really want and to pretend a different motivation is counter productive. What do you really want from your dharma practice in general and what is your aim for this meditation period specifically?
This week we will scrutinize a particular self-destructive tendency that many of us use to hold external situations and people accountable for our shortcomings. In doing so we say to the world, “you are culpable for everything I lack, and in this way I never have to face or grow into my shortcomings." It is obvious that we can only progress so far, both as human beings or as spiritual aspirants, as long as this tendency persists, but few of us work effectively to end these projections. We continue blaming others because the pain of owning our behavior is too unsettling. When aversion becomes the driver of our actions we can be certain that we are governed by the unconscious mind. The movement from the need to blame toward the willingness to hold ourselves accountable is a continuum that demonstrates our spiritual maturity as clearly as any indicator. In fact the right side of the continuum, taking accountability or living without projection to its finality, is identical to selfless realization.
Accountability confronts two defense mechanisms that limit conscious awareness: denial and self-aversion. Denial is our unwillingness to accept what is true and self-aversion is our tendency to idealize our human condition. Both can be summed up as imaginary distortions of life. Self-idealism is encouraged within this culture and destructively carried within us, and we simply dismiss situations, experiences, or states of mind that do not fit the narrow corridor of our imposed images. Freedom is moving beyond our need for self-protection and eliminating the boundaries that burden our lives. As we release ourselves from this set of conditions the world rejoins itself as a continuous whole, and we rejoin ourselves as part of that totality.
One of the false nirvanas of this continuum comes when we realize the utter joy of moving beyond our set beliefs into a more conscious expression of ourselves. As with any expression of our practice, we can become rather dogmatic and unyielding in our need to pressure others to follow our example, and it is here that we can easily get caught up in the belief that our practice is the “only way.” The counter-influence is the realization that taking any stand upon our practice robs us of further accountability.
This week we look at our tendency to see life as either black or white or from any other polarizing perspective. Remember, on the spiritual journey the more definition we force upon the world, the more defined and clear is our individuation and the more isolated we feel. We gain our selfhood from creating physical and psychological boundaries upon our surround. Our self-definition is created by defining what we are as opposed to what we are not, which includes our physical, mental, emotional, psychological, and spiritual definitions. Freedom is coming out of these shadowy images created by our imposed boundaries and accepting the clear light of our humanity on all fronts.
The path can be summarized as “truth in, truth out,” which means seeing things the way they actually are and responding in alignment with that seeing. The distortions come from the egoic center that we place between the incoming data and the outgoing responses. This center tries to arrange the data to suit “my” preferences and respond according to “my” needs. It does this with words, ideas, and opinions. The spiritual path is the elimination of the distorting element through the realization that it is configured around a hollow center.
The ego attempts to hide or distance itself from difficulties and prolong contact with the pleasurable. It turns away from what it fears and by doing so creates a shadow effect in our consciousness. The shadow becomes that part of ourselves that we deem unacceptable. The shadow remains within our consciousness even as we attempt to expel it. The tension from this conflict is enormous. We project the shadow externally and fear being possessed by the powers of darkness even as this self-created force lies within our consciousness. We set up boundaries of tension, fenced lines of protection, to keep what is unacceptable at bay. We are left with the symptoms of tension, anxiety, and fear, which sets the world up to be as terrorizing as we project it to be.
When we want one thing, we are also defining what we do not want - everything else but that one thing. An important dharma principle is that when we assert our influences in one direction, we become bound in the opposite direction by the very tension we use to define what we want. St Augustine said, “To act is to sin, to create is to destroy” This is true of our opinions, beliefs, ideas, attitudes, self-descriptions, etc. We literally create both forces simultaneously. We try to strengthen one at the expense of the other, which in effect strengthens both equally. In order to ward off the opposite influence we try to proclaim our friendly domain with exaggerated rhetoric. We proselytize, convert, preach, and recruit because if we slow down or stop the tension the antagonizing position gains traction within our minds, which frightens us and sends us back to the pulpit.
The mind separates out and divides. By insisting that everything has a definition, meaning, and purpose we suspend the wonder of the world and place all of its endless possibilities on hold. This dharma continuum seeks to move our spiritual journey to the right side through less definition. By dropping boundaries, opening the spaces, and allowing light to flood into the darkened areas of consciousness, we meet life in wonder. We have to intentionally seek out those areas of tension and welcome them in the light of day (this is insight). The false nirvana of this continuum is the hardened certainty that the shadow offers us in terms of our beliefs and righteous actions. To move forward we have to lose that confidence and sureness and fall backward into uncertainty. The counter-influence is realizing that we are the creators of our own heaven and hell, and to give up hell, we have to release both.
This continuum speaks to the need to belong that is deeply rooted in our social and biological makeup. This need may well be one of the driving forces in our yearning for spiritual completion, but we usually attempt to satisfy it through worldly pursuits such as patriotism, political involvement, religious affiliation, neighborhood organizations, or club memberships. Almost anyone who thinks like us or shares common traits fit within our broader tribe of belonging, but even when we group like minded people around us, most of us are still feel a subtle sense of alienation that cannot be overcome. We seem to be outside observing life rather than embedded within a full membership. That isolation does not seem to be overcome through purchasing material objects. In fact, the more we related solely to the world of form, the less we sense our true belonging. Neither do we find a comfortable home within our ideas and concepts, and in general seem unable to find this root belonging within the world of objects or within ourselves.
The sense of alienation comes from denying our interconnectedness and is the price we pay for deliberately holding ourselves aloof and distant to life. The discovery of mindfulness begins to change this by offering us a definitive place to stand and connection with the rest of the world. We land in the body as the body and in the mind as the mind. Through mindfulness we find our bearings and stop looking for belonging outside of ourselves. We begin to notice that everything belongs exactly where it is, and realize that our historical restlessness was a result of how disagreeable we found our bodies and minds. In this sense belonging has to do more with our self-acceptance than finding a comfortable and compatible surround. Mindfulness holds us to the only place and the only time we can be and refuses to allow a conceptual journey to another location. We either find our sense of belonging here or it is not to be found. Slowly we acquiesce and discover we can be present with ourselves and others without losing this ground. Now our sense of belonging is maintained through most circumstances, and when shameful or doubting thoughts arise, they do not dislocate us or have us shrink from our relationships.
Now mindfulness expands to become a much broader field of inclusion and with it comes a wider stretch of belonging. The focus of this newly discovered awareness is no longer our own personal location but touches all things equally. We literally belong to all things because all things coexist within each and every thing. This more expansive view frees us from any sense of alienation since everything is now available and accessible. This view can create a false nirvana when we lose ourselves in the rich intimacy available within this perception. Everything can seem so close and available that we resist moving through his level of sensitivity toward even greater fulfillment. Why move when our lifetime ambition of truly belonging has finally been met? The counter-influence comes when we realize that the contentment from this view of awareness is partial and incomplete. It can be taken from us when circumstances change. The questions then become, “Is there a belonging that is not circumstantial? Is there a belonging that is intrinsic to our being?”
For most of us the ability to enlarge our knowledge base is essential to our success, and success in our careers, schooling, and home life almost always depends upon knowing more. Sophistication, the skillful use of knowledge in a civilized and cultured manner is valued, but innocence, which can be seen as guileless and inexperienced is not. Much of our self-image is formed by how knowledgeable and sophisticated we are, and we can find ourselves competing with others to prove how much information we have obtained.
When we know something we place a fixed objective view onto life and freeze it within our past associations. The problem is that nothing is fixed, but knowledge does not allow that fact or move with circumstances. To apply a set response (knowledge) to a constantly moving system (the world) misses the mark. Knowing confuses the present with the time in the past when the knowledge was first obtained. We employ a response appropriate to a specific moment in the past to a current situation, but life has move on, and that conditioned response is no longer aligned with the truth of reality. Usually our actions are only partially successful when they are conditioned from previous associations.
The question becomes, is there a way for the current moment to act through us without engaging our backlog of knowledge? If so then we can become fluid within our responses and spontaneous in our actions. Let us explore and see if this is possible. Knowledge can only be communicated by thought. If we can be present to what we are thinking then we can become quiet and let the thoughts go rather than respond from the conditioning of those thoughts. It may seem risky to respond from the innocence of not knowing, but with practice we find something coming from those “new” responses that is truly creative and enjoyable.
The false nirvana comes when we feel the power of knowing with all its accompanying prestige. The knowledge begins to extend into the spiritual realm as we read more sutras and gather the intellectual background that make us sound like we “know” all about the spiritual path. That is a truly “false” nirvana since that very knowledge keeps us from moving forward in our practice. Our minds are so geared to listen for intellectual knowledge we may miss the arrogance of our message. The counter-influence comes when we realize that to move forward we genuinely have to become innocent and quiet to everything we have learned.
The spiritual path seems to offer a true perspective on life by pinpointing our exact location in time and place. It points to the body as a vehicle for discovery, and once the body is explored, we find our true ground of being. We now know where are in time (now) and in place (here) and no longer have to apologize for where we are or what we are doing. The coordinates of our location are determined and we cannot lose our way. This is the spiritual ascent of our journey. Life starts to make sense in ways it has not before, we see more clearly, and our actions conform to this new perspective. We actually begin to like ourselves as if we were coming out of the shadow of our own judgment. It is like journeying up a mountain with each new vista providing insight and perspectives on how far we have journeyed and where we still need to go. Our confidence grows accordingly and we no longer fear our abilities to make this journey.
There is great joy in climbing this mountain, and we feel at the top of our game. Somewhere near the summit, we gain a view of the whole surround, and realize, perhaps for the first time, that one very important task remains. In order to descend the mountain, we have to step out of ourselves. This did not occur to us as we were ascending. We were too engrossed in the perspective the mountain was offering and too enamored in our new-found confidence and the rooted ground under out feet. The ascent gave us meaning and purpose beyond anything we had imagined. We were advancing on the true and natural relationship to life and felt the beginning of that contentment. At the crest of the mountain we suddenly realized that this true relationship was never about my perspective on life as a bystander. This new view is a union without a watcher. Now we feel a hesitation. Is this what I want? It seems as if just when we have found our footing, the mountain is asking us to jump off the cliff.
This is the counter-influence, and the descent seems much harder than the ascent only because we did not expect to have to let go of our gained ground. Why not delay this next move and frolic among the peaks? We peer down the mountain and look over the life we have ascended, but now we know we are being asked to descend back into that same life without acclaim. The exquisite views from the mountain top were a false nirvana, and we are asked to reenter as no one special.
Both the ascent and the descent of the journey are essential and equally important. In the ascent we are shoring ourselves up, building our confidence, and perceiving ourselves with the love we deserve. Then the descent, and the relinquishment of all that has meant so much to us, returning to zero. The journey is a complete circle (ensō in Japanese) returning us to a world that until now, we have never fully understood.
One hundred years ago in 1915 Albert Einstein developed his General Theory of Relativity that showed that space and time were not separate or distinct from one another. Time is not a constant but fluctuates with how close we are to a massive object and is indistinguishably interwoven into the fabric of space, known as space/time. A person who is on the second floor of a building is aging slightly faster than someone on the first floor. That is very strange, but time viewed as an internal experience is even stranger. Most experienced meditators know that time is carried within our thoughts, and does not exist without thought. Thoughts about the past or future give us a sense that we are a product of the past and future, reliving whatever memories are being expressed or expectations occurring. Thoughts carry meaning and meaning is usually bound within the experiences that first gave rise to the meaning. When I see a cat, I remember the cat I once owned and that conditions the experience I am having with the cat I am now seeing. This layering of memory over experience is occurring so quickly in the mind that normally we do not discern the difference between the cat I am seeing and the cat I once owned.
When we apply this fact to emotions, we find that emotions can carry us far away before we realize we are reliving a past association. Most emotions are related to a reoccurring theme over our lifetime. Anger may be associated with my father and the pain of what happened to me when he became angry. Now, years later, whenever anyone gets angry, fear arises from that earlier conditioning. Anger is rarely seen fresh and new, just for what it is. We may be too frightened by its emergence to even want to see it. This is an example of the past living within the present, but few of us realize this emotional conditioning is also being perpetuated by our thoughts.
As mentioned above the timeless is what remains when there is no thinking, and on a more subtle level the timeless is what holds thoughts when they do arise. Everything arises within the timeless and is always being held by the timeless. The timeless holds time. Our spiritual journey begins within the density of time and is driven by a time based perception. We always have more to do, more to accumulate, more to access. We believe strongly in experiences and feel we need certain experiences in order to reach our spiritual goals. Experiences are carried by time, the memories I have of yesterday and my hopes of tomorrow. To believe we need a certain experience is to believe we need a certain future, all driven by thought.
As our spiritual journey unfolds, we realize that neither time nor experience will transform us. We begin to understand that true spiritual transcendence is from time to the timeless. That transformation does not require anything from us but stillness, which is freedom from the _belief_ in thought. Though thoughts occur, they cannot obscure the freedom of the timeless that holds the thoughts as they arise. The counter-influence come when we realize that to shift into the timeless requires releasing thought, which has been our single most accessible and reliable tool. To move from the time that holds all we know, into the timeless that holds all things without knowing, is the journey we undertake.
Many of us find the word, love, unsettling. We may be afraid to be loved or afraid to be loving. Some of us have been tormented and jaded by this word that can have such gut wrenching consequences and overwhelming emotions. Others of us feel the word is overly sentimental, leading to a weak or emotional response. Spiritually it is important to redefine love and free it from our past associations. First, love is not the way two individuals feel about one another, it is the way the universe holds us all. Love is not an individual possession and does not bring two people together; it is an expression of all things being together. Love preexists our efforts and is the disposition of the universe at all times and in all places regardless of our recognition of that fact. There is nothing sentimental about love anymore than being sentimental about the air we breathe.
But it is toward love that all authentic spiritual practices move. A cluttered and confused consciousness obscures this natural existing relationship with all forms. We don’t feel the availability of love because we are more interested in validating our personal emotions. We end up supporting what is fleeting, and bypassing what is timeless. The first movement toward love is the recognition of how contracted and isolated we feel. At this point we don’t know what to do to access love, but the awareness of the problem begins to open us to solutions. Perhaps we get involved in meditation where we find relief in opening a space around our contracted spirit. We slowly learn that every reactive pattern does not represent something fundamentally wrong about us. This unburdening of consciousness is the first emanation of love, and the process deepens as we move across the continuum. As the processes of mind become normalized, we notice more space within ourselves. Opportunities spontaneously arise from this space that were impossible within our contracted state. We begin to feel the joy of love.
We learn how to work with the mind, which frees up more space. We stop scolding ourselves, and arguing with reality, and discover that with less identification with the mind there is more love. But there is one obstacle that still remains intact, and that is the egoic sense of us. With the appearances of the ego all the arrows of our attention point inward to “me,” and with its absence, all the arrows point outward toward others. With the understanding that the presence of the ego there is denial of love, we now move our attention toward the ego. But having practice sufficiently we now understand the nature of mind, and we do not bring contention to the ego, which only fans the flames of its arrogance. We bring love to the ego. Love is the one quality which does not strengthen the ego and is the single attribute that can lead to the ego’s demise. Since love is space and ego is density, it is only in through self-appreciation that we unravel ourselves into love.
In my youth when our family went to church, I was always bored with the minister’s sermon. His words seemed remote and distant from my life and sounded like he was referencing something that was inaccessible and could not be questioned. I felt I was being asked to believe and keep still. Perhaps my reaction to that feeling was the lure the Dharma held for me years later. Here was a teaching that demanded questions, a teaching that could not be based upon what others had said, and a teaching that was directly relevant to my life. Given that the Dharma rests upon our understanding and not the Buddha’s wisdom, a Dharma life is not a passive one. We have to be careful not to always apply previous knowledge to current situations, but rather to let the new reveal itself as the new. A purely intellectual life keeps us shallow in our understanding.
Many of us know how to mentally listen, but not how to integrate that listening into a realized understanding. The continuum this week is from referencing to abiding, and it is that process of integrating the realization of what is seen that is essential to our spiritual growth. Spiritual growth is not a cognitive affair, it is not amassing a thorough intellectual understanding of Buddhism. We may start our Dharma practice with an intellectual overview but will likely tire since thought is not spiritually relevant. The sincere seeker is looking to be totally drawn into the Dharma, so the Dharma penetrates the cells of his/her body. To be thoroughly integrated requires that we put our Dharma understanding into action.
After we have intellectually grasped the Dharma the next phase is to sit sufficiently still so the truth can enter our cells. This process requires bypassing the mind and seeing directly. Insights and wisdom arise from seeing with awareness rather than seeing through memory. Usually insights take time to filter through our system to the appropriated depth necessary for realization. During this filtering down process we usually reference the truth in relationship to situations that unfold. An example might be, “I know things change, maybe I should be less attached to my new car.” During this intermediate stage we need to encourage the insights forward into action even if the actions seem difficult and counter intuitive. For example most of us have some realization that we are more than what we believe about ourselves, but how many of us live that realization? Most of us refuse to extend our boundaries beyond what we have always been. Wise action is putting into motion the truths we have discovered and living that understanding anew.
This is not easy because our emotional resistance to changing from a psychosocial frame of reference into a wisdom frame of reference is considerable. The patterns are deep and well grooved. Frequently we notice we do not emotionally feel like changing our physical direction toward a deeper truth. The reason is our emotions have tremendous power over our actions, and our emotions have not been exposed to the light of awareness and the wisdom it contains. We harbor our emotions as verifying statements of our history (I feel this way because of my father’s abuse) and are reluctant to expose the pain to awareness and reexamine the emotion in light of the present. Why reexamine our reaction when our anger feels justifiable? For instance we may secretly believe we are unworthy and whenever we meet someone of more stature, we shrink. At the same time we may have had a deep realization of the absolute equality of all beings, but when that truth is in confrontation with our emotional history, the history wins out. This is when we are called to wise action. We stay our course, squaring our bodies and looking the person in the eyes because that is the way a person of equality relates, and equality is the truth.
There are many occasions throughout the day when we need to push through our emotional reluctance and square our bodies to the truth. We know for instance when we are not really showing up for someone or present to an activity. Do we act on that knowing or let it slide into the next unconscious moment? This becomes more of a necessity as we begin to realize the truth of our emptiness. Emotional confusion obstructs emptiness and thereby blocks the participating joy and full hearted wonder of being what we are. Herein lies the counter-influence of this continuum. We may choose to stay within the emotional bondage of our past, working endlessly towards its resolution because this is the territory we understand, and it seems more secure than the open wonder of our being. But for those few who move forth with the truth eventually release their emotional ambivalence and learn to abide in amazement. Abiding has no reference outside of the truth and therefore effortlessly lives in accordance with it.
When we begin practicing, mindfulness starts to reveal our blind spots, and we are forced to acknowledge the full range of our behavior. At this point we greatly over-exaggerate our character flaws since they are catching us by surprise. We are no more of a mess than anyone else, but we see ourselves relative to our ideals, and from that perspective we do not fare well. It is like purchasing a house that we visually thought was in good shape, but when we open the door we realize there is a lot of work that needs to be done. We appear to be a fixer-upper, and everywhere we turn we see rusting pipes and exposed wood. It is helpful to know that we did not suddenly become rotten, but have been living so far away from direct self-knowledge that we have glossed over the damaged person we now find ourselves to be. With mindfulness at our back we realize we have work to do, but where to begin? We may be fearful that something even more treacherous lies under the surface of our persona. Perhaps we sense outrage, or unmitigated lust, uncontrollable terror, or latent rage. We may believe the best way to keep these demons at bay is to build layers of offsetting states of mind to smother their fury. Seal it off, so to speak, with kindness, gentleness, or whatever else we think can counter the energy of this old conditioning. But what happens when we apply such effort is that instead of their submergence comes their reemergence, and a deep lesson in dharma integration is learned. We cannot discard our dislikeable selves by resisting or denying their presence. We have to dive into this mess, honor what is there, learn the ways of self-kindness, and salvage what we can.
It takes humility, courage, honesty, and integrity to move forward into the deeper layers of our conditioning. These are qualities of our character that serve us throughout our journey and are the foundation of our development, driving the changes we seek. Character is our template for living, and the more honest we become, the firmer and more resolute our temperament. Humility, courage, and integrity make it possible to face the difficulties and see what is there. With support of these and other qualities of mind we realize that constructing another layer of conditioning on top of what is already here just makes us more resentful of what lies underneath. We are asked to examine what is there without flinching and to see if it is as personal as we believe it to be. We deconstruct ourselves through attention and love. When there are options, we choose heart instead of hardness, compatibility instead of isolation, and connection in place of projection. As we grow more tender and less fearful we learn not to create an ideal self or to weigh our progress toward perfection. Perfect is our present condition as long as we are free of our self-image.
Seeing that we are not what the mind seems to say we are, begins to unravel the confusion of what we are. When something is seen objectively (thought, emotion, physical sensation, or narrative of self) we cannot also be, subjectively, that experience. The repetition of seeing that truth over and over again begins to wear away the beliefs that we are what we think and feel. It is a little like following all the dead-ends of a maze until we blunder upon the exit. Stubbornly we keep going down the blocked pathways hoping for a new way out. The quicker we learn what we are not, the smoother our spiritual lives unfold.
Deconstruction requires the faith of letting go into a deeper abiding. We cannot progress spiritually by constructing new layers of personality, but instead we see what we are not and let it go. We have faith that whatever is left will be much richer and more fulfilling than our current state of struggle.
For most of us, our self-image is our most treasured possession. We carefully cultivate, mold, and protect it so it says just what we want it to say about us. We usually look past our blindspots so our image holds mostly our projected ideals, and we will do whatever it takes to defend it as if this image were our final stand upon sanity. What is interesting about our image is how many people see through it. In fact others usually have a better sense of our personality and temperament than our own assessment. That is why feedback is so difficult. We sense others may be seeing the truth of our personality while we fight to keep it hidden.
When we look a little closer, we will see that our image is maintained through presentation. Some of that display is our actions, but most of it is the noise we make through our self-proclamations. Whether the noise is internally induced through our narrative and storyline or externally created through power, drama, outrage, morality, righteousness, or just simple narcissism, makes little difference. The bottom line is that noise keeps our image alive and energetic and keeps us looking away from the more valid experience of ourselves contained in the quiet. As our spiritual path unfolds, we sense that our carefully cultivated image may be a smokescreen that keeps us from a deeper level of self-understanding. As the quiet of our meditation is nurtured, we fall into periods of stillness and the ease that accompanies it. We begin to suspect that the noise is not the final answer to our self-discovery. A question may arise around what the commotion of our lives is all about and how this endless noise making translates into a life of ease.
When we make noise, we are not listening. Even the noise of our thoughts disrupts the communion of connection, and it is only through listening that our perceptions change and insights occur. A good question to ask ourseleves from time to time is, “Am I listening or waiting to speak?” The ground of our spiritual growth is the quiet in our lives, and we can only see as clearly as we live that quiet. As we quiet, our image becomes less important, slips into the background, and is never really missed. The image becomes more translucent and amorphous, coming and going as our opinions rise and fall. We see it as an appendage left over from evolution, with less and less viability in this era. As silence and listening rise to the surface, we realize that "just being" is the reward. Not being something - just being alive is all we need. Aliveness has been there all along the way, but we were too busy proclaiming how important we are to recognize its worth. Now we begin to rest and be nurtured in the arms of stillness.
For science to be valid, the results must be replicable trial after trial. The techniques we use to accomplish the unvarying outcomes then become the mechanistic way toward similar findings in the future. Dharma practice begins mechanically for most of us. We have heard that if we do such and such, this outcome can be expected. For example, if we follow the breath, over time, we can expect that our ability to focus our attention will improve. And it does. There are entire models of spiritual progress based upon the repetition of results from many students over many years. An example of such a system is the Progression of Insight authored by Mahasi Sayadaw. I personally practiced that system for the first few years, and can verify that the progressive account in the texts is fully experienceable. The problem is that it left a mechanical imprint on my methodology. If I had a problem, instead of exploring and understanding the difficulty I applied an alternative solution, noticing it and moving on. Since anything mechanical requires an operator, I was left in charge of my practice. A number of insights resulted but most were induced by maintaining a high level of focused samadhi. When I was off the cushion, that level of samadhi waned, so I waited until I was back on the cushion to offer my full-hearted intention toward further insights.
It soon dawned on me that the problem was with my methodology and assumptions, and the Dharma was more art than science. There is no one size that fits all in Dharma practice and no model that replicates the softness of heart necessary for spiritual fulfillment. Tenderness and sensitivity are not produced by constant training but are the results of being open and affected by the whole range of experiences over time. Being vulnerable in the face of pain is not a training, but a letting go. We have to pursue the questions that resonate the deepest, the most personal longings, the timing that is ours alone, and the speed and duration that is unforced and unhurried. We cannot quicken our learning or our embrace of life any more than we can hasten love.
The foundation of practice established through the mechanics of science is the beginning of the beginning of the Dharma. It is like buying all the right equipment to hike a trail. The equipment is not the hike. It sets us up for the hike, but the trail has yet to be traversed. The trail of the Dharma is the path of the heart, of vulnerability, learning, receiving, and opening. That is not a training in science but an opening to the art of living in the present where there are no set rules of order, no road map for awakening, and no certainty of progression.
The mechanics make us feel as if we are doing something advantageous, and for a short while they do, but ultimately we must release the science to discover our true path.
The question is not whether we suffer, everyone struggles, but whether we have struggled enough. Like a football player who endures the concussions and bodily pains in order to reap the praise and exhilaration of team sports, we can overstay our struggles for many reasons. Some of us may feel deserving of our pain and reluctant to release its causes and conditions. We might feel a nobility and pride that we have endured whatever life brings our way, or we may believe that we need to suffer almost as a recompense for our years of guilt. There is a dharma maturity necessary to call an end to our suffering and to step out of the closed loop of its perpetuation. The beginning of dharma practice is coming to that conclusion and witnessing how our struggles are an internal response to objective conditions. The external difficulties will come and go with each turn of events but our internal response can always be independent of those conditions. Understanding this is the beginning of the Buddha’s path.
This lesson is often learned gradually. We access this critical point through our internal conversation, our personal narrative. It is here, within our storyline that the machine of self works its continuance. What are we saying, what are we believing, what assumptions are we making, and what are we projecting onto the innocent to avoid our own responsibility? It is all contained within our thinking, and nothing in meditation works in alignment with its intended purpose until we are fully accountable for our thoughts. The twisted logic on which these thoughts are based often reside within our painful memories and stories of our early years of development. As we learn to hold and release daily thoughts, emotions, and memories, we also learn to forgive and let go of our distant past. We slowly become more current and begin to see that it is the present that contains the past. There is no past outside the present, and if we can live emphasizing the present, we can learn to release the past as it is arising.
Now suffering takes on a more nuanced look. As the egoic density lightens, new expressions of contention arise. We begin to sense that we live in a slightly contracted state most of the time. This state serves our need for a personal image and individual authority, but it begins to grate upon our heart, which yearns for wider pastures without boundaries. We become inquisitive about this newly discovered and more subtle expression of struggle and turn our attention toward it. What we witness is that life seems to be outside of us, and we are looking in at it, like we were tourists on a cruise ship through some exotic landscape. We begin to explore the life that seems to be outside and the life that is in here, and a fundamental question arises. “How many lives are there and why are they separated?” This inquiry sends us deeply into the configuration of our perceptions, the you and me, the this and that of our observations.
We walk through this inquiry between the desire to understand and the fear of what we might discover. It is our yearning hearts that keep us steady of gaze and solidly present. All we are ever asked to do is what is natural for us to do. Simply allow the natural questions of the heart to arise in curiosity while keeping our eyes open for the anwers.
In the beginning it seems as if awareness is like a light switch that can be turned on and off. We are aware and then we are not. What is actually happening when the switch seems off, is that awareness is being smothered within our thinking. It is being compressed into and confined by believing the thoughts we are having. It is not dead, the aliveness within awareness has been confined by the images of the thoughts and is contained through the rigidity of our attachment to concepts. Our work is to free that awareness so that it can move without confinement. When awareness is confined, we are unconscious as human beings since we believe only what our thoughts are saying. When awareness is free of confinement, our thoughts are no longer controlling our behavior and we are open to new experiences. Every time we are willing to see anew, to look into areas of denial, to be accountable to our minds, and to go where we have been afraid to venture, we are freeing that trapped awareness. We are no longer held within our previous beliefs and ideas and are no longer held within the known.
Awareness is very willing to exit the prison we impose, but it needs our assistance. First we must feel the limitations of what we are doing by knowing that awareness freed is a vastly different life than awareness confined. We feel an expansive aliveness both bodily and mentally when the genie escapes the bottle. Next we have to reexamine the assumptions that limited awareness in the first place. As we begin to challenge more and more of our opinions we see the irrationality of many of our beliefs and fears. We interpret much of life through the fear of what we are afraid this experience might mean (whatever it might be). All of these knots, desires, and hesitations have nothing to do with awareness but have everything to do with our past. When we view the past with awareness rather than simply believing in the past, it all begins to fall apart and awareness begins to slip the bonds of containment.
To free awareness from being bound by thought, we have to see the limitations that thinking imposes. We have to go inside thought and compare what it says life is to what we see when we are not looking through concepts. Thought follows conditioned pathways, and we think the way we have thought in the past because it is easier to follow our conditioned ways than to see something in a new way. Finally we have to understand that when we think we are stepping back and considering the situation. Although useful at one point, this begins to limit us at another phase on our journey by robbing us of spontaneity and true sense of belonging.
In the end we have to take thought on and spiritually understand the power we give it, look at thought with awareness rather than following the mandates of thought mindlessly. Our yearning to become conscious in the face of ignorance demands that we question thought at every turn. Becoming conscious simply means waking up out of the imagination induced by thought.
Pursuing a goal almost instinctually calls forth an egoic response of tension and personal evaluation. We usually become very critical and self-evaluative when we are challenged by an important task. It can bring up a sense of being either useful or worthless depending upon our backgrounds, but productivity always ties us to a measurable result and anything measurable usually carries a component of judgment. Productivity also engages our storyline and narrative, can activate our emotional traumas, and compounds our thinking. In short, focusing on worldly doing can create its own spiritual undoing.
When spiritual teachers suggest that the path of practice is the path of non-doing, what do they mean? Obviously it does not mean disengaging, becoming a couch potato, or stop working, and it certainly does not mean continuously sitting still and meditating. This may become clearer if we explore doing in relationship to time. Usually when we have something to do, the doing holds our attention and there is a goal we want to accomplish. From a spiritual perspective, looking ahead into the future toward a goal is a loss of connection with this moment. So the first caution is how we hold the doing. Do we lose perspective and disengage from the present moment or can we complete the task as a simple moment to moment connection? Secondly, does the doing force our pain body forward so that we lose ourselves in our psychological judgments? Suddenly we feel pressured and watched when we may be the only person in the room. If pain does arise during work, is the pain forcing an unhealthy relationship to the task at hand? Can we hold our pain body sufficiently so that we are not being governed by our unconscious tendencies?
Next is the issue of quantitative or qualitative doing. If we are just interested in getting through the project and on to the next, not only will our work suffer accordingly, but we will have lost any resemblance of caring and focused attention. Caring is not just for personal relationships, we hold a caring attention within each and every act we perform. When completing the action becomes more important than the attention offered, the end result will have little connection to wakefulness. We may accomplish the task but we will have lost our spiritual orientation in the process. All of us have experienced a piece of art or craft that was carved from wakefulness, and all of us have experience an object created with worldly intentions. We sense and feel the difference in our bodies and bones. So too every act of body, speech, and mind carries the signs and energy of wakefulness or, conversely, the blindness of unconsciousness.
Any physical action can be a product of either doing or non-doing. When we work within an anticipated result our lives will either feel rewarded or discouraged by the final product. Is it possible to work within a creative display, meeting the designated deadline but without our personal worthiness at stake? The quiet of non-doing is movement from awareness, birthed from presence. The body is simply here and can be used in the service of doing or non-doing. Why not allow the body to live without the tension of expectations as it moves throughout the day? Such movement always feels like we are at home in ourselves regardless of our location.