October 24, 2020 § Leave a comment
Wherever you are right now, take a look around. What do you see? Chairs? Computer screen? Trees? Are you aware of the distance between these objects? Of the distance between them and you? Do you feel that you’re acting and moving about in a real world? Would it surprise you to know that according to neurologists, all such experience is taking place entirely inside your brain? That, in effect, your brain has created this three-dimensional world and inhabited it with seemingly solid objects (including yourself).
Mystics say the same thing as neurologists except that the mystic says it is all arising in consciousness. The two parties differ only in that the mystic knows that experience arises in consciousness, while the neurologist assumes consciousness is a by-product of neural activity. One says consciousness is primary. The other says it is secondary.
Let’s look at experience from the point of view of the neurologist. According to him, information reaches the brain via the five physical senses. The brain takes this sensory data and processes it to re-create the world as something called experience. Ordinarily the brain does a very good re-creation but sometimes its basic assumptions about the world causes some anomalies. Like when the moon appears bigger on the horizon than when higher in the sky. Or when you look at a design and it keeps switching between two faces and a goblet.
Most of the time the brain’s basic assumptions produce a seamless experience, but has it ever occurred to you just how much of that experience is made up? Take, for instance, the back of any object facing you. None of the direct light coming from it ever reaches your eyes. So, as far as sensory input is concerned, the backs of all objects are missing. Yet if you look at the things around you, you know they have backs. You know because your brain is telling you they do. But that’s just thought. Imagination.
Mystics often speak of direct experience. To me, direct experience refers to what the neurologist calls sensory input. It is the light reaching the eye in every moment. The sounds reaching the ears and the other sensations that are directly experienced in the present moment through the senses. Contrast this to conceptual experience.
Conceptual experience is what the brain makes up to fill the gaps in your direct experience. One of those gaps is the back of a thing. Your brain has no direct sensory input from there so fills in that missing information with a concept. That concept is called the back. It was created over time from previous direct experience of the world. The brain also created other concepts like those written in Chapter Two of the Tao Te Ching where Lao Tsu writes,
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.
Lao Tsu could have gone on to say that space and time give order to the universe for they, too, are concepts. Although you may think that space and time are real, it is interesting to note that some scientists say that time doesn’t exist. While others say the universe is actually two-dimensional, like a holograph. Rather than just dismissing such remarks out of hand, it may benefit us to consider that they may arise out of an unrecognized notion that time, space and the apparent three-dimensional nature of our experience is something made up by the human brain!
But I digress. Let’s consider the nature of direct experience minus conceptual experience, or what I call the missing back.
Mystics have often remarked on the need to drop concepts and experience things directly as they are. In doing so, they tell us, the world becomes translucent, transparent, thin or flimsy. They also tell us, to quote Zen Master Dogen, that mind and body fall away. Could we not assume that what the mystic reports is just a logical outcome of seeing through the brain’s processing of the world with concepts. Such that even the concept of a separate self dissolves away?
I’m not saying that enlightenment is just a new way of rewiring your neural circuitry. I’m just trying to make what the mystic says more palatable to our 21st Century minds. Which is that the world as we ordinarily experience it isn’t as real and solid as we think. It’s more imagination than reality. True, the neurologist will tell you that your experience is based upon a real world existing outside of the brain. But isn’t that just another concept?
If we look only at our direct experience it is clear that the only constant is consciousness. All else, all that we experience, rises and falls away in that consciousness. Objects that do seem to last have that apparent quality only because we’ve conceived of the notion of persistence and superimposed it on those objects. Just as we superimposed upon our experience the backs of things.
If nothing else, perhaps what is written here will give you a framework (albeit imaginary) to understand some of the experience mystics report. Failing that, perhaps it will help when your child asks the bedroom door stay open. Perhaps in her experience, when the door is closed and the curtains drawn, you and the world outside her room cease to exist.
September 27, 2020 § Leave a comment
In the last post I mused on psychological projection, a process that operates in the human mind, using it to speculate on how Consciousness may create objects of experience. I was careful to state that in this interpretation projection is not seen as pathological. My aim was simply to use the idea of an initial whole negating part of itself to suggest how Consciousness might go about experiencing itself.
Thinking further on this, it occurred to me that creation being an act of negation of an initial Whole means that all objects of experience are essentially empty. An image I used before was that of a stream that in its motion around rocks creates eddies or whirlpools. We ‘see’ these whirlpools as distinct things when, in fact, they are really the absence of a thing, i.e., the absence of the stream’s water.
It then occurred to me that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle can be considered with this view in mind. The Uncertainty Principle is one of the most celebrated results of quantum mechanics and states that you cannot know all things about a particle at the same time. That, for instance, you cannot completely know a particle’s position and its momentum at the same time. Now before today I thought that when physicists designed experiments to locate a particle’s position that they were measuring something substantial. In fact, they are actually negating the original whole in order to measure a part of it, and in so doing are measuring a relative absence of substance.
For me, this makes the Buddhist assertion that form is emptiness and emptiness is form, more approachable. One thing I’ve noticed in my own psychology is that my thinking has been highly conditioned by 20th Century scientific materialism. There is a persistent belief that the objects that I experience in my daily life are real things. Solid things. Yet the simple logic of negation as touched upon here shows that my experience is that of relative absence of substance.
Consider the following. When, lying down in a field of grass, looking up at the clouds, you may see in them faces and animals. Now you know that the forms you see aren’t really in the clouds. But you still believe that the clouds are there existing separately from your awareness. The materialist scientist has made it his mission, in fact, to discover what this ‘separate stuff’ is and through his research we’ve made great strides in improving our daily lives. But let’s look at what this research has actually discovered.
Clouds have always been associated with rain. No doubt when some ancient man, our first experimental scientist, climbed the hills to investigate the clouds that hung around them he discovered that when he touched them, they were wet. He then concluded that clouds were, in fact, water.
Much later other men came to the conclusion that water itself was composed of two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. Not much later these elements were discovered to be composed of neutrons, protons and electrons. Very quickly after that these in turn were found to be made of other particles called quarks. And in the last century with the advent of quantum mechanics the best minds came to the conclusion that all sub-atomic particles were best defined as wave functions. In essence, they concluded that what was hitherto thought of as ‘real’ particles made of some ‘real’ substance only exist when they are measured or observed. And that prior to any observation they existed only as a wave function. In other words, they didn’t exist as anything other than a probability in a mathematical equation.
Lying in a field of green grass, looking up at the clouds, we know the faces and creatures we see aren’t really there. But today’s science now tells us that the very particles that make up the clouds aren’t there, either, unless they are being observed on a moment to moment basis. In the line of thinking presented here, what is being observed is a relative emptiness of consciousness. Which means that whatever is observed is consciousness (because you cannot separate the two).
Consciousness creates all experience, all objects, out of Itself to experience Itself. What my conditioning has told me over the years, that objects exist separately from consciousness, isn’t true. Likewise, I don’t exist outside of, or separately from, Consciousness. Of course, my conditioning still doesn’t allow me to realize this fully, but reasoning tells me that this is so. And where one is committed to discovering the truth, there can be no denying of truth.
August 29, 2020 § Leave a comment
We may ask the question, where does the world come from? By what process have the things that we perceive through the senses come about? Are they reality? Or is it the consciousness that perceives them that is real?
In considering these questions I’ve occasionally come across references in mystical writings that the world as we perceive it is actually a partial negation of Reality, which is defined as consciousness in its universal aspect. Franklin Merrell-Wolff, for instance, wrote that, “The apparently inert and lifeless matter comes to be viewed as merely a partially obscured Consciousness. Thus, if we regard a portion of an originally homogeneous Consciousness as partly blanked-out or neutralized by its own other, the result is some degree of relative unconsciousness. This relative unconsciousness is the objective world…” (Pathways Through to Space, p. 181)
I placed part of the above quote in italics because the idea of a thing being created by the neutralization of its own other always reminds me of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. The uncertainty principle relates to paired opposites, like momentum and position. It says that we cannot measure the position and the momentum of a particle with absolute precision. The more accurately we know one of these values, the less accurately we know the other. Relating this to what Franklin Merrell-Wolff said, we find that a particle’s relative position can only be known when its paired opposite or own other, i.e., momentum, is blanked out or neutralized to some extent. And vice versa.
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle seems to affirm in some degree the notion that physical reality is created through a process of negation. That there is an originally homogeneous something out of which the world as we perceive it comes into being through a partial blanking out of that something. The difference between the physicist and the mystic is that the former would hardly assert, as the mystic does, that this ‘something’ is consciousness.
In my own thinking of late it occurred to me that the psychological process of projection may be adapted as a means to becoming more familiar with how the negation of a part of consciousness can produce an apparently objective experience.
According to Wikipedia, psychological projection is a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. Considering projection without its defence mechanism, what we have is a process in which something is denied or negated, which casts this into the unconscious where it is then projected out onto the physical world. Once projected it is no longer seen as part of the self.
The creation of the universe may be likened to the process of projection found in the human psyche. Of course, I am not suggesting that this is the whole case. I’m simply presenting it as a way of seeing a world that is normally seen as something apart and distinct from consciousness as actually a part of consciousness. With the understanding that our true nature is consciousness.
If we then imagine an originally homogeneous Consciousness as wishing to create a universe, we see that it could do so by negating a part of itself. This relative negation of Consciousness is equal to saying Consciousness makes part of itself unconscious. Then, as in the process of psychological projection, the unconscious part is projected not outward onto the universe but outward as the universe.
We could further imagine that the original Consciousness projects what it has negated onto a ‘screen’ that we call objective consciousness. What is perceived then as the objective world is really a relative negation of Consciousness. It is not separate from consciousness but, rather, is consciousness partly negated. From the standpoint of Pure Consciousness the created world is nothing more than a dream, just as our nightly dreams are a part of our being.
July 25, 2020 § Leave a comment
“If you understand, things are just as they are;
if you do not understand, things are just as they are.”
When first stepping onto the Path the inclination is to treat it like any other course of study. You read books, watch videos, discuss the matter with friends and perhaps find a teacher. These, you believe, will bring about that “Aha!” moment called enlightenment. The above quote, however, points to the fact that studying Buddhism is not the same as practicing Buddhism. And that understanding isn’t a necessary precondition for enlightenment. That doesn’t mean that study doesn’t have a place but as Zen Master Dogen said, “Practice is enlightenment.”
What is practice/enlightenment? First, it’s not a thing you can experience or understand objectively. It’s not an idea. Nor is it a feeling or state. To me, it is synonymous with consciousness. So, when a teacher says, “You’re already enlightened,” she is really saying that I’m already the consciousness that I seek. That I Am Consciousness.
Consciousness, as it is used here, is a symbol. It is a finger that points to the moon. And just as it is pure foolishness to confuse a finger with the moon so is it folly to confuse the word consciousness with that which it points to. For unlike the moon in the sky, you cannot see, hear, think, feel or in any other way experience consciousness as an objective thing. It is the subject to all objects that is never an object, to use the language of Franklin Merrell-Wolff.
The mind, hearing all this, will nevertheless continue to look for this ‘thing’ called consciousness. That’s to be expected for that is what the mind does. No matter how many times a teacher tells you to ‘just sit’ or just be aware of the breath, the mind will continue to look for something to ‘get’ or experience. You can spend your entire life seeking this thing called enlightenment, but you’ll never find it for It isn’t an ‘it’ at all.
When a teacher tells you to give up the search, she doesn’t mean that you should abandon your practice. She means that practice isn’t a searching activity. It’s the practice of waking to distraction and returning to the present moment. Searching takes you out of the present moment and, as such, is just another distraction. Just another thought. When it arises, you acknowledge it as thinking (or searching) and return to the present moment. To things just as they are.
A while ago I was having my evening milk and cookies. I’ve grown quite accustomed to the way my mind always looks forward to this treat but then, when the time comes to enjoy it, curiously wanders off onto other matters. But that evening there was just the sweetness of the coconut cookie. Off to the side there was a vague sense of an I that in the past said it was what enjoyed the coconut but that night this I wasn’t enjoying the sweetness. There was just sweetness.
The mind always wants to superimpose something over direct experience. To call it good or bad. To compare it to the past or to something hoped for in the future. The mind has been doing this for so long that you’ve come to believe that these superimpositions are the reality of your life when they are just thoughts about reality. This false distinction leaves you one step removed from life. And the biggest cause of this sense of separation is the superimposed thought of a self, or ego, that is having this experience. And as long as you believe that you are this self, you’ll never get to experience things directly as they are in the present moment. You’ll never get to just sit in the sweetness of life.
The truth is there is no self-existent I. It is a concept made up of various sensations, thoughts and feelings that has been superimposed over the consciousness that is your true nature. When that concept falls away the sweetness of pure consciousness can be known directly. Sweetness that passeth all understanding. Sweetness that is, whether there is an “I” there to enjoy it or not.
June 30, 2020 § Leave a comment
Realizing the truth of impermanence is an important first step on the path to enlightenment. Impermanence is the Buddhist assertion that everything is constantly changing, that nothing lasts or has self-existence. Therefore, nothing can be grasped or held onto. Often the introduction to impermanence comes through the loss of a loved one or a life-threatening event that deeply affects a person and upends his or her sense of control over life.
Although I’ve experienced many losses in my life there’s always been an underlying sense of permanency that has gone untouched by these losses. You might say that I understood impermanence intellectually but not on a visceral level. Then I remembered something from a psychology class I once took. That the brain takes the stuff of the senses and with it ‘recreates’ the world, as opposed to making an exact reproduction of it. Analyzing this statement, I saw that it meant that there were two ways of experiencing the world.
The first may be called direct experience because it is the direct experience of the actual ‘stuff’ that comes through the eyes, ears, nose, and other senses. You might call this the aliveness of the present moment that is both dynamic and fluid. The second is the way the mind processes this raw sensory data with ideas and beliefs and so is called conceptual experience. As concepts by their very nature tend to turn things into permanent fixtures in life their use results in the world appearing to be fixed and solid.
Others have written of conceptual experience calling it stories. Stories are influenced by a variety of historical, cultural, religious and personal factors. Although they are just stories, like concepts they are often mistaken as real and given priority over direct experience. Here, however, I am not using the word story as I wish to emphasize how concepts organize and arrange direct experience. Specifically, I want you to consider concepts as windows in their frames which you look through to view the world.
When you look through a real window you see a particular part of the world. For example, right now I can see a tree out my window. Years ago, that tree was less than two meters tall. Over the course of time it grew, and its branches extended outward such that they now conceal the mountains that I once looked out at every morning. Today the tree is over 30 meters tall and looks very little like the two-meter tree it once was. But in my mind, it is the same tree. That is because I am also looking at the tree through a conceptual window that says it is the same tree. In effect, I am not seeing the ever-changing reality of the tree. I am seeing a concept.
There is a meditation practice that helps you to discover your conceptual windows by instructing you to experience the world as it is before the mind processes it. If you take up the practice the first thing you notice is how quickly the mind names a thing. If, for instance, you hear a bird singing, in the first second the mind will have identified it as a song, a bird’s song and then, perhaps if you know it, the name of the bird that’s singing. These identifiers are just some of the conceptual frames your mind uses to organize direct experience.
What you do not immediately see are the more subtle windows you’re looking through. Ones that you’ve been looking through all your life that say the song exists ‘outside’ of you and affects you whether it ‘enters’ your consciousness or not. Ones that organize direct experience into something called time and space. Ones that make you believe that direct experience is secondary to conceptual experience. All told, you’re not just looking through a solitary or double paned window. You are looking through numerous panes of glass.
It should be noted that in itself there is nothing particularly wrong with most of your conceptual windows. If they allow you to deal with the world in a fairly productive and functional manner your frame is just as useful as anyone else’s. It’s when you forget that they are just ways of organizing reality, and not reality itself, that problems arise. When that happens, conceptual experience replaces the primary world of direct experience and you end up living in a false secondary universe. It is this false reality that the Buddhist calls Illusion or Maya. And it is this secondary universe that is destroyed when you Awaken.
To be clear, awakening does not mean that the mind no longer sees through any conceptual windows. Were that to happen the Awakened One would no longer be able to live and act in the world. Rather, and more precisely, what disappears are all the windows related to the sense of a separate self or ego. With the ego gone, so also goes the sense of permanency that it gained from being a concept. The glass is removed, and the window opens. And all that remains is the gentle breeze of pure consciousness that ever flows through the windowless frame.
May 24, 2020 § 1 Comment
I live along what is ordinarily a busy street. Prior to the pandemic there’d be pretty much a traffic jam in the afternoon rush hour with cars and trucks backed up by the many traffic lights installed along the road. When that cleared the traffic would be still be continuous, lessening only late at night and during the wee small hours of the morning. Then the pandemic came. People couldn’t go to work. Restaurants, stores and theatres shut down. People had nowhere to go and stayed at home to keep the number of infected people entering hospitals low. As a result, the steady roar of traffic lessened and more or less came to a complete halt by early evening. Only then was there silence.
Having lived on this road for many years I had become habituated to the din of cars going by and hardly took notice of it anymore. When I did, especially while meditating, I started to think of it poetically as ocean waves rolling onto the shore. It occurs to me now that traffic is a good metaphor for thought and how thoughts prevent me from hearing the ground of silence that is always here. If only I would start listening to the spaces between the traffic, I might be able to hear this silence.
On sunny days I like to ride my bicycle to a nearby pond and sit beside its water. There I clear my mind and take in the surroundings. At the trees across the pond. At the occasional fish that jumps out of the water to catch its insect lunch. At the sky for an eagle, osprey or hawk. What I’ve noticed, however, is that anyone walking behind me interrupts this clear state. My attention is then drawn inward to the disruptive thought where it is observed by an attention that is subtly different from my normal attention.
I suffered trauma in my early life that conditioned me to always be on the lookout for danger. Meditation has reduced this conditioning, but there’s still a tendency to vigilance and thoughts of self-protection and safety. Even when I know that what is behind me is simply another person enjoying the sun these thoughts still arise to warn me of impending danger. But like the traffic on the streets during this pandemic, these thoughts have become fewer over the years and the space between them longer.
I’ve written before on how the ego’s main activity is to keep itself going. I phrased it as a directive to maintain itself as it is, through time. It does this mostly by thinking the same thoughts over and over. Loop thoughts is what I called this repetitive kind of thinking. In my view loop thinking is just another part of the Buddhist Wheel of Life that we need to jump off to attain freedom.
Loop thinking for those who experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is layered with anxiety around dangers that have no identifiable source so are projected onto whatever is handy in the environment. Although imaginary these dangers are taken by the ego as a real threat to its integrity and survival. With PTSD, the ego’s drive to maintain itself becomes a drive to protect itself. The result is that thoughts of denial, self-protection and danger continually arise. This is the ‘traffic’ that runs through the traumatized mind. Even when the trauma is resolved, as it has with me, this traffic may still arise from time to time.
Above I identify loop thinking with trauma but the non-traumatized mind (if you can find one during a pandemic) has its own traffic that keep the ego going. This mind is just as habituated to its ego-maintenance as the traumatized person’s, which means they largely go on in an unawake state of consciousness. When they do attract attention, they usually appear reasonable and normal. Attention invariably then goes on to other matters and the unawake state resumes. An aim of meditation is to wake to these habituated thoughts so they may be observed, as when I sat by the pond and observed my own thoughts of impending danger arise.
Meditation acts to slow the traffic of thought, though as you begin to wake from your habituated state it often seems meditation only increases the noise. As you continue to mediate, however, you’ll start to notice some breaks in the traffic. Maybe not many and maybe not frequently but they do appear. As the breaks become more frequent you may find yourself beginning to enjoy the silence they bring and want more. More often, though, the ego resists these periods of silence, saying it’s boring and that it’s more enjoyable to think and fantasize. The urge to think is strong and it may take some time before you realize that silence is, in fact, golden. You’re just so used to looking for something to think about, that you haven’t yet realized that this silent nothingness is what you are.
April 12, 2020 § Leave a comment
If you’ve been practicing mindfulness meditation in the last month or so, you’ve probably noticed a lot of distracting thoughts crossing your mind about the pandemic. Probably fear, too. These are normal, expected reactions. As at any other time, your aim is not to follow these thoughts down the rabbit hole by turning them into an every increasingly involved story about the “I.” Simply acknowledge them as thoughts and return your attention to the present moment.
It is only the present moment, i.e., what you find right here and right now in your actual physical surroundings, that is real. What you believe is happening outside of this immediate environment is what your thoughts are telling you about this moment. They aren’t real. They’re thought.
Take a look around you and see what is actually happening in your immediate environment. Yes. There is a global pandemic but is that part of your immediate reality? Or is it just a thought about something that is happening in the world, but which is not happening to you directly? See the difference between your actual experience and the story your mind is weaving. One is real. The other is manufactured.
Perhaps at this moment your mind is telling you that ignoring the world situation is socially irresponsible. Perhaps it is suggesting that I’m telling you that it is okay to go out and socialize with your friends or visit your grandparents. I am not. These thoughts are tricks that the ego-mind plays to keep you enthralled in its manufactured world. If you look closely, you’ll see that all these thoughts have a common center. They’re all revolve around the story of “I.”
The ego wants you to see everything in terms of self. In doing so it creates an imaginary world where the imperative in a global pandemic is to take care of yourself first by hoarding food and fighting over toilet paper. But when attention is turned to your immediate situation and you see everything about you as it really is, that imperative falls away. You deal with what is actually happening in your life. You deal with what is real.
A couple of years ago I had a dream in which a comical character was yelling, “Rabbits! Why must it always be rabbits. First one. Then five. Then forty!” At the time I didn’t understand the symbolism but now I see that the dream was a play on Alice in Wonderland. She, you’ll recall, chased a giant white rabbit down a rabbit hole into a fantastical world of imagination. Likewise, when we follow thought (which multiplies like rabbits) we, too, end up in a world that exists solely in our heads. The meaning of the dream is therefore clear. The more thoughts are followed into the story of I, the further you move from reality.
Thinking how this pandemic might affect you in the future as if it were happening now, is falling down the rabbit hole. I fell into this hole yesterday after hearing of the ways that the corona virus affects the lungs. As I imagined my lungs being damaged, I could feel the fear rising. Yet because I have been practicing mindfulness meditation, I was able to pull myself out of the hole. Because I have been practising just being in the moment, instead of living in my head, I was able to stop and look at what was actually happening around me. To my surprise the fear fell away, as did the images and thoughts about being ill.
I do not know what tricks my mind might play should I actually get the disease, but that really doesn’t matter. What’s real now is that I’m well. Of course, some who are reading this may be ill. It may be the corona virus; it may be the flu or just a common cold. If you haven’t been tested, you don’t know. Or it may be that one of your family is ill, perhaps desperately so. Practicing mindfulness meditation will not change that. But in directly looking at what’s actually happening right now you will be better able to deal with the realities of the moment. You will be able to stay with your loved ones in the present moment where they need you most to be.
Pain and suffering tend to send us spiralling down the rabbit hole. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t acknowledge that sometimes living with the thought that the future will be brighter isn’t a good option. This is really no different than taking a Tylenol to ease your pain. So have good self-care skills. Be kind to yourself. And while you’re doing that, if you take a moment here and there to see how suffering lessens as you drop the story of I, that’s good self-care, too.
March 22, 2020 § Leave a comment
As you all know, the world is going through a terrible pandemic. It is a time for social isolation and social distancing. It is not the time to be gathering at people’s homes or visiting the elderly. Unless you’re there to help with shopping, delivering a prescription or helping with their meals, you’re putting them and yourself at risk. Stay home. Stay safe.
Having given this caution, you may be wondering what to do with your time. As long as you’ve been forced to retreat from the world, why not try a solitary retreat?
Retreats are opportunities to deepen your spiritual life through intensive pray and meditation. They usually have a definite structure that involves early morning meditation, spiritual readings and short talks on spiritual matters. It may include journal writing, dream work, fasting and a variety of other things dependent upon who is giving the retreat.
If you’re giving yourself a retreat at home, you can arrange it to suit your particular needs. In general, what you want to do is simplify your life to reduce distractions. This may mean telling your family and friends not to call or, if you’re the one keeping tabs on a family member, to schedule a specific time to reach out to them each day.
If you’re thinking of a multiple day retreat you may wish to prepare some meals beforehand to keep in the fridge. Or you can make meal preparation part of your daily mindfulness practice. If you’ve never been on a retreat and just want to try it out for a day, it’s fine to adjust the day’s schedule as you go along.
A good schedule for a solitary retreat is to meditate just after waking. This could include walking meditation along with your sitting practice. Follow this with some physical exercise like yoga or tai chi and then have breakfast. After eating it is good to give yourself a break. I, personally, avoid formal meditation just after eating as it tends to put me to sleep. Just remember to continue being mindful even during your breaks.
If your retreat includes dream work, you’ll want to start the day by writing down your dreams of the previous night. Dreams tend to slip away rather quickly if not attended to. Meditation would immediately follow. You can schedule a time later in the day for dream interpretation.
After the morning break you can schedule another meditation period followed by some spiritual reading and lunch. Just as with your morning meal, follow up lunch with another bit of free time. One of your breaks will include the time to speak to others to make sure they are doing well but these conversations should be kept short. You’re trying to deepen your inner search during this retreat, and speaking to others only takes you outward, away from the Source.
As we’re in the midst of a pandemic your social isolation may give rise to a craving for human contact. Rather than pushing these thoughts away why not just make them part of your retreat? Observe the tendency to seek out others. Watch how your mind prepares things to say to others, like a chef prepares a meal for upcoming guests. Or, conversely, watch how you’re glad you don’t have to deal with some troublesome person at work. As Zen Master Dogen said, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self.” So, study self. See where you’re grasping and pushing away.
Watching your thoughts without following them into any story can be extended to include any fear of death or illness that may arise because of the pandemic. Investigate these feelings with mindfulness to get a glimpse of how your ego is attaching itself to various forms to keep itself going. And if your fears are for others, you may wish to set aside part of the retreat to pray for others or to engage in tonglen. I include here a link to an article by Pema Chödrön for those who are not familiar with the practice. (If you can’ see it clearly, the link is the name followed by the colon.)
Pema Chödrön: Tonglen
I mentioned listening to short talks as part of a retreat. During this pandemic I note that some people are making their spiritual writings and talks available on-line. Eckhart Tolle and Sounds True are doing this and here are the links to these sites.
Eckhart Tolle: Free resources
Sounds True: Free resources
The next two sites have audio recordings that are always available. Ordinarily I’d ask you consider donations to these sites for the use of their free recordings but as many of us are finding it hard to make ends meet during these times, I will ask only that you consider it later, when more money is coming in.
The Franklin Merrell-Wolff Fellowship: Audio Recordings
Center for Sacred Sciences: Audio Recordings
You can include in your daily schedule a time to listen to these talks, one a day should suffice.
After supper and the dishes, schedule another meditation period and some more reading. Then go to sleep. As this is a retreat your main aim is to spend the day in spiritual pursuits. So, don’t feel you have to listen to the latest news. To quote Eckhart Tolle, “Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be.”
I will leave this rough draft of how to organize your own retreat for you to develop. Obviously, this is not meant for parents who have children kept at home due to school closures. For parents I will only suggest that you take a minute here and there during the day to simply stop and tune into the present moment. This is the way householders have practiced for millennia. Just grabbing a moment here and there. And there are many who say that this is the best practice.
Finally, give a moment to send a little prayer for the nurses, doctors, medical technicians, lab assistants and all those working to help others suffering from this pandemic illness. They certainly deserve our prayers and thanks.
February 25, 2020 § 2 Comments
“Just sitting zazen rests on the basis of letting go of thought.” — Kosho Uchiyama Roshi
A simple analogy for the mind is to see it as an ocean whose surface reflects the clouds in the sky. Just as when you look at a cloud in the sky and see in it a face or an animal, so do you see the clouds in the water as something real rather than as the insubstantial reflections they actually are. Seeing them as real you automatically reach out to grasp those that you like and push away those that you don’t like. Whether grasping or pushing away, the result is the same. The water’s calm surface is disturbed.
In just sitting zazen you practice letting go of the clouds of thought that lead to grasping and pushing away. Behaviour established over years of conditioning that are now, for the most part, unconscious activities. By developing undistracted awareness through zazen this conditioning is brought into the light of day so you may inquire into its nature and purpose.
This inquiry is done through awareness more than any intellectual process that seeks past causes, such as might be done in psychoanalysis. It is by becoming aware of your conditioning that it is let go. For in stepping back to observe it, you automatically detach from it. Just being aware also has the benefit of creating no new thought that would lead to your replacing one set of conditioning with another.
Undistracted awareness coupled with leaving things alone is the practice of just sitting zazen. It rests on the basis of letting go of thought. It rests on the basis of neither grasping nor pushing away.
Most thought and action are conditioned responses. By itself this isn’t a bad thing. Conditioning makes it possible to do a thing without having to relearn it every time you need to do it, like walking, talking, driving a car, making dinner, etc. It is not conditioning per se that is the problem. It is conditioning that leads to suffering.
Suffering comes from the delusion (i.e., the believed in thought) that you are a separate self. For this self to remain ‘alive’ it must continuously reaffirm its existence, otherwise it would dissolve away just like any other thought does when it fails to get attention. This affirmation is done in large part through what I call ‘loop thinking.’ By which I mean thoughts (and their subsequent behaviour) that repeat over and over. As you may guess, continuous grasping and pushing away falls within the class of loop thinking.
An example of my own loop thinking comes to mind. I’ve noticed that a certain TV commercial always evokes the same response in me each time I see it. As it starts, I immediately think it’s stupid and then automatically feel a certain level of disdain that the advertiser would believe anyone was gullible enough to believe the ad. What makes this loop thinking is that there is never any variation in these thoughts or the emotional response from one airing of the ad to the next. It is the same reaction that I had when I first saw the ad and it is the same that I have each time I see it again.
The last time I saw the commercial I noticed that there was another element underlying the others that I had missed. This was that there was an “I” that was supposedly having these thoughts and feelings. However, as this “I” arose as part of the overall conditioned response to the TV ad, it was obvious that it was just another loop thought. There was no “me” thinking and feeling these things. It was all just a conditioned response!
Going back to the initial analogy of this post, the “I” that you believe to be your true self is just another reflection on the ocean’s surface. It is a reflection of a cloud in the sky that you imagine is a face that you believe is your face. In reality it is just a thought in your head that’s been reified through years of grasping at what affirms the self and pushing away that which threatens it. But just as clouds are indistinguishable from the droplets of ocean water out of which they sprang, so is your true nature inseparable from the ocean of consciousness found in this very present moment.
When the delusion of a separate self is let go by neither grasping nor pushing away, the cloud of self dissolves. Realization then dawns that it was never real and that all along your true nature has been infinite ocean and endless sky. And that you are That.
January 14, 2020 § 1 Comment
“When one first seeks the Dharma, one strays far from the boundary of the Dharma. When the Dharma is correctly transmitted to the self, one is immediately an original person.” – Zen Master Dogen.
When Zen Master Dogen made the above statement, he was not saying that to stray was to err. He was simply stating fact. That when people hear of the Dharma, they automatically start searching for something other than the Dharma.
Searching is the first step in a process that ultimately ends with the realization that there is no process. Along the way one may gather knowledge and develop a host of skills deemed necessary to navigate what one believes is the path to enlightenment. One may even experience profound states of consciousness and bliss. But they don’t last, and the seeker eventually discovers that for all his effort, he is no closer to enlightenment than when he began his search. If he is then honest, he will conclude that all his searching has been a waste of time and stop searching. Ironically, this is the end goal of the search; to let go. It is what Siddhartha Gautama did, and it is what we must do, as well.
Before he began his search, the Buddha, a.k.a., Siddhartha Gautama, had it pretty good in worldly terms. As the story goes, he was a prince, had three palaces and many worldly pleasures at his disposal. Being shielded from life by his father he did not know about human suffering until, one night, he left his palace and went out into the streets. There, for the first time, he saw sickness, old age and death.
Like Siddhartha, many of us spend early life thinking that the world is our oyster and that nothing can harm us. To varying degree we pursue wealth, fame or pleasure without giving much thought to the meaning of life until something happens that stops us in our tracks. Maybe a friend gets sick. Maybe we watch our parents get old and frail. Or maybe someone close to us dies. However it comes about, the event inspires profound questions about our way of living. If lucky, we are led to a spiritual path, which is represented in Siddhartha’s story as his seeing an ascetic that inspired him.
Determined to follow a spiritual path Siddhartha left his palaces and quickly found two teachers. Today true teachers are hard to find so, for most of us, instruction is found in books written by spiritual masters or from like-minded individuals. Siddhartha’s teachers taught him deep meditative techniques that he quickly mastered but found wanting. He left those teachers and went on to try extreme asceticism. Most of us don’t go to such extreme lengths opting instead to try special diets, fasting, abstinence or some other form of mild asceticism that parallel the Buddha’s search to some degree.
Siddhartha Gautama excelled at asceticism just as he did in reaching deep meditative states, but he eventually concluded that these practices wouldn’t lead him to enlightenment. It is said that when he left his fellow ascetics, they believed he had given up the search. For me, this is an important part of the story and one that is often overlooked. Siddhartha’s fellows were right. He had given up but giving up was his only option.
Giving up did not mean quitting but letting go. Just as he had let go of his worldly life, Siddhartha let go of his spiritual life. Now, with nothing to rely on, no one to turn to and nowhere to go, there was nothing to do but just sit.
It’s very difficult for those of us on the spiritual path to let go of our spiritual self-image and beliefs. Throughout our lives we’ve been taught that the way to success was to correct our flaws, increase our knowledge and develop our abilities. We carried this belief into our spiritual life believing that this tried and true method would lead to eventual enlightenment. Little did we know that all we were doing was touching up the ego.
In the movie “Eat, Pray, Love,” Julia Robert’s character, Liz Gilbert, said that all she could think about while meditating was how to furnish her meditation room when she got home. That, in a nutshell, is what most of our spiritual search has been about. We’ve been trying to make our minds a better and more attractive space to live in. And, no doubt, we have had some small successes, perhaps becoming calmer, more knowledgeable and more insightful. But the ‘room’ we’ve been redecorating is still a cage. We’re still prisoners.
That’s what Siddhartha Gautama realized when he chose to let go of his search and just sit under the Bodhi tree. That is what we must do as well. We must sit without grasping at any thoughts that tempt us to follow them. We must sit without pushing or running away from imaginary threats. We must sit and practice letting go of whatever arises without labeling it good or bad. Attending to our outer life as necessary but always returning to the present moment. Expecting nothing. Taking credit for nothing. Being nothing.
Siddhartha had to sit 49 days before his enlightenment, but that number is only symbolic. It doesn’t matter what it symbolizes. In fact, if you ask what it symbolizes in the hope of discovering some clue, you’re still searching. But don’t despair. As it turns out, no one completely abandons the search. Paradoxically, you must hold onto the search to let it go. And you must hold onto the idea of a searcher who is trying to give up the search. In koan jargon that is described as “drinking a hot iron ball that you can neither swallow nor spit out.”
Just sitting zazen rests on the basis of letting go of thought and returning to the present moment. This is our practice. Over and over we become aware that we’re thinking and let it go. Over and over we return to the present moment. We keep returning to the present moment because it is only in the present moment that Realization dawns as an act of grace, and not as an ego accomplishment. We keep returning to the present moment until there is only the present moment.