The Superimposed Self

August 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

This post continues from the last on the idea that the self or ego is a steady state system. Note that a steady state is neither fixed nor locked in place. The self is not always sad or always happy. On the contrary, its thoughts and moods continuously rise and fall. What doesn’t change, what remains steady, is the system’s tendency to return again and again to a specific state of thought and feeling that is identified as the self. For instance, an optimistic person is one who continuously identifies over time with positive and cheerful thoughts.

Ayya Khema, in her book, “Being Nobody, Going Nowhere” wrote, “We’re all being reborn at every moment. Very few people have the mindfulness or the attentiveness to become aware of that. But we can become aware of being reborn…”

Being “reborn at every minute” is another way of saying that the self continually returns to its steady state. This happens in a variety of ways. The optimistic self selectively attends only to positive thoughts while ignoring or denying negative ones. Most of us maintain our steady state by only associating with people who hold similar views to our own. We may exercise or diet to maintain the image that we feel most defines our self and dress in a particular style to suit that self. We will also tend to avoid situations that require we act in ways that run contrary to our self-image.

On a level that few of us are aware of, the self will continuously impress or superimpose upon our true nature, images and feelings that define or limit it. Similarly, the self will superimpose upon the present moment its beliefs about the world. It does this to maintain a sense of continuity because your true nature, like that of the present moment, is constant change. So as each new moment is reborn, the self counters with its own rebirth by saying, “This is what I am and this is the way the world is.”

At its core, this superimposition is a lie that seeks to define your true nature and the present moment as something that remains relatively unchanged. Regarding this, you may have heard that a characteristic of the spiritual seeker is that he or she has a feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with the world. I suspect that this feeling arises from an unconscious recognition of this lie trying to break through to conscious awareness.

The life of the spiritual seeker may be defined as a continuous waking from lies to the truth. Put another way, the spiritual seeker is one who continuously works to unseat the false authority of the ego and what it says about the true nature of the present moment.

The self’s superimpositions can be quite subtle and it’s up to each seeker to realize their own particular hidden assumptions about themselves and the world. One way to do this is to be mindful of what it is you are telling yourself. Are you telling yourself that you’re unworthy? Are you walking about thinking others are out to get you or that the world is dangerous? Whatever you are continuously telling yourself is what you have to wake up from so you can see the world and your true nature as it really is.

One thing that I’d like to mention before closing this post is that it is not necessary to change your steady state self to realize your true nature. It is, of course, natural to want an end to suffering and we all have things that we’d like to change. We can continue to work on ourselves but in mindfulness meditation all you truly need do is realize the difference between your true nature and the present moment, and what is being superimposed upon them. Then continually work on not letting your superimpositions distract you from being who and what you truly are.

Never a dull moment.

May 28, 2017 § Leave a comment

I am intrigued by the following description of Mae Chee Kaew’s inner activity before her enlightenment, found in “Mae CheeKaew. Her Journey to Spiritual Awakening and Enlightenment.” By Bhikkhu Silaratano.

The author writes that Mae Chee Kaew “began to meticulously scrutinize her mind’s extraordinary radiance, looking for any signs of imperfection. The luminous mind appeared unblemished, untroubled and exceedingly pure at first. But when she looked at it more closely she began to notice that an equally refined dullness occasionally emerged to tarnish that radiant, crystal-clear essence of knowing.”

Although it may not be readily apparent, what the author describes is essentially the same meditation practice that you or I undertake each time we sit.

Mae Chee Kaew’s meticulously scrutiny is analogous to the mental alertness that we aspire to in meditation. Her search for imperfection is our endeavor to wake up from distracting thought. And the dullness that tarnished her ‘crystal-clear essence of knowing’ is just a highly refined or subtle thought. Unlike Mae Chee Kaew, our thoughts are less subtle and our own knowing not crystal-clear. Nonetheless, when we sit in meditation we examine the same Buddha mind she did in the same way.

Whether a thought is coarse or refined, it still dulls awareness of the present moment. Whether the mind is clear or murky, it is still Buddha mind. Your mind is the radiant, luminous mind. All you need do to see this is wake from the thoughts that dull your awareness, the crystal-clear essence of knowing.

To quote Mumon from The Gateless Gate, if one sees this clearly “there is no Shakyamuni Buddha before him and no future Buddha after him.” That is to say, all concepts obscure the ever-present Buddha Mind, even the concept of Buddha. So when you sit, drop all expectation of ‘something else’ because the very mind you have right now is Buddha mind.

Dropping all expectation is returning to the present moment. In the present moment there is delusion and realization, practice, life and death, buddhas and living beings. When we sit with simple awareness, flowers die and weeds grow without clinging or aversion. When we stray into thinking, we return once again to the present moment, expecting nothing, seeking nothing.

Realizing that practice is simply stepping back on the path each time you step off, with no expectation of anything happening, may make you feel a bit like King Sisyphus. In Greek myth he was forced, over and over for eternity, to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down upon him. But if we awaken to the fact that this simple returning to the path each time we step off is the actualization of our own Buddha nature, then we are firmly on the path to realizing the luminous Buddha mind.

Upon her enlightenment Mae Chee Kaew’s said,

“Body, mind and essence are all distinct and separate realities. Absolutely everything is known — earth, water, fire and wind; body, feeling, memory, thought and consciousness; sounds, sights, smells, tastes, touches and emotions; anger, greed and delusion — all are known.

“I know them all as they exist — in their own natural states.

“But no matter how much I am exposed to them, I am unable to detect even an instant when they have any power over my heart. They arise, they cease. They are forever changing. But the presence that knows them never changes for an instant. It is forever unborn and undying.”

To quote Mumon, again, “If you understand this intimately, you yourself can enter the great meditation while you are living in the world of delusion.”

An Oak Tree in the Garden

May 6, 2017 § Leave a comment

An oak tree in the garden stands on its own. It doesn’t seek a teacher to tell it where it must go or how to get there. An oak tree in the garden knows there are no enlightened ones and no enlightenment.

An oak tree in the garden doesn’t think this is what it must do or this is what it must achieve. It knows there is nothing to do and nothing to achieve. An oak tree in the garden knows there is no delusion and no realization.

An oak tree in the garden knows the fallen rain rising up through its roots. Yet it does not feel lack or something missing when, reaching its leaves, the rain returns to the sky. Within the oak things arise and fall yet all the while the oak remains unaffected. The oak tree in the garden is forever unborn and undying.

An oak tree in the garden actualizes itself exactly as it is in every moment. In delusion and realization, life and death, buddhas and living beings. It does not need to think about this. It does not need words to describe it. The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words.

Contemplation

March 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

Meditation may be described as ‘awareness waking to the present moment from all distraction,’ those distractions being mostly thought or thinking (includes emotion).

Initial instruction on meditation is to focus on some object, such as the breath, to steady the mind and develop concentration. After a state of relative calmness is attained and the novice no longer falls into fanciful reverie, the stage is set for deeper contemplation and insight.

Contemplation is more often linked with western mysticism but is also found in Buddhism. In its highest sense contemplation is a ‘power of knowing’ that comes from total concentration of one’s entire being on a single object, resulting in a fusion of the subject with the object. Western Contemplation is similar to eastern Samadhi that also results in fusion but just as there are various kinds of Samadhi, so are there different levels of contemplation.

As used here, contemplation is still a power of knowing but lacks the fusion of subject and object. In this type of contemplation thought is held in awareness for examination where, through an act of discrimination, insight into its true nature is revealed.

Examination of this type is not so much an intellectual process as an observational one. Imagine, for instance, watching some people off in the distance. You can see they are doing something but don’t know what. So you watch, hoping it’ll all make sense. Although there may be some silent attempt to put the activity into context, by and large thinking is suspended as you wait for the situation to reveal itself. This inquiring observation without thought or prejudgment is what is meant by examination.

Where discrimination comes in lies in the above mentioned ‘silent’ attempt to put the activity into some context. To put something in context requires it be discriminated from all things that it is not. Discrimination is used in meditation, for example, to see the difference between distracting thought and the present moment. In contemplation, this act of discrimination is taken further to reveal the true nature of thought.

Higher contemplation doesn’t develop until the mind has attained a certain level of calm and is able to hold an object in mind without distraction. But as the word is used here, it is possible to contemplate those complex aggregates of thought that arouse intense emotion. In fact, many times one can do nothing but attend to bothersome thoughts and feelings during meditation.

At times when emotions are intense, walking away is sometimes necessary. But when the mind has developed sufficient strength it becomes possible to hold complex aggregates of thought and feeling up for examination. The aim is not to psychoanalyze but to discriminate them from what is actually going on in the present moment. In so doing thought is eventually seen to be of the same stuff as a dream, a dream from which one may wake.

By fully separating what is going on in the head from the outside world, the difference between the two is seen and a certain degree of freedom attained. Then the full power of contemplation may be turned upon the ego or self. Not to compare it to the outer world but to That which is contemplating this self. This is Contemplation in the higher sense that leads to Self-Transcendence and the eventual realization of no self or Identity with Suchness.

Non-thinking

February 23, 2017 § Leave a comment

evolution-of-thought-non-thinking

When Priest Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked, ”What do you think about, sitting in steadfast composure?”

 

Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.”

 

The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?”

 

Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.”

 

This brief Zen story may seem abstruse but when ‘thinking not thinking’ is interpreted as not following thought, it falls into place with meditation as the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment.

We come to realize the extent of our distraction only after some attempts to practice being in the present moment. We find that our days have been spent watching thought play out on an inner screen. The stories we’ve projected about life, what people say about us, and what we think about ourselves, we’ve taken to be real. And we come to see that we’ve been interacting with these stories more than we have to the actual world.

To stop this we must first create an intention not to follow thought or, as Yaoshan said, ‘think not thinking.’ One way of doing this is described in the yoga aphorisms of Patanjali. He described thoughts as waves that have a certain force that must be countered by opposing waves of thought. Hateful thoughts, for example, are to be countered with thoughts of loving-kindness. By continually creating opposing waves of thought, the mind is eventually stilled.

In other practice thoughts are simply labeled as ‘thinking, thinking, thinking’. Emotions are identified as ‘fear, fear, fear’ or ‘boredom, boredom, boredom’, etc. The same is done with other distractions such as noises or physical discomfort. All distractions are labeled and the attention is returned to the present moment. In this way the mind uses thought to not follow thought.

Labeling thought has its place with simple distractions but there are more complex aggregates of thought and emotion that are not so easily named. These are the thoughts that are identified as self, and they naturally arise with thoughts that stand in opposition to the self. In psychology these opposing forces have many descriptors like the id and superego, the inner child and internalized parent or the underdog and the top dog. However they’re called, the conflict they produce may often make it impossible to simply sit and be in the present moment.

Holding these opposing forces up for thoughtful examination often helps to clarify and resolve conflicts. The aim is not so much psychoanalysis but a genuine attempt to realize these forces as merely thoughts that do not need to be followed or obeyed. When, for example, an inner parent has you feeling like a child again, by continually comparing your inner situation to the outer, i.e., the present moment, you come to realize that the parent exists only in your mind. Seeing this clearly means there is no need to follow the parent’s dictates, if they are not appropriate to the situation. It may have been in part related to these conflicts that Zen Master Dogen said, “Sometimes you study the way by casting off the mind. Sometimes you study the way by taking up the mind. Either way, study the way with thinking, and study the way with non-thinking.”

In the beginning of practice it is necessary to use thought to stop following thought. But when the intention not to think has become so established that it is carried out without thinking, as in a habit, thoughts are dropped automatically. Awareness of the present moment then arises naturally. That moment may still contain thoughts but they remain off to the side, so to speak. This alert awareness is non-thinking.

Non-thinking is not some far off goal. Whenever we are alert and momentarily not following thought; that is non-thinking. Whenever awareness is centered in the present, this is non-thinking. These may not be states that occur often in our practice but they are something we can experience today. And that is our practice, to take our isolated moments of non-thinking and turn them into a continuous string of never ending pearls.

The Ocean of Consciousness

January 21, 2017 § 5 Comments

heron-by-the-sea

Meditation is the continuous waking to the present moment from distracting thoughts. This description implies a need to learn the difference between thinking and non-thinking. In practice this means we must be as the heron that has one eye out for food, while the other looks steadfastly to the sky.

It is a sad fact that the vast majority of humanity is so caught up in distraction that life seems barren without it. There is little of the light of the higher life in these masses who disdain the silence of meditation in a fruitless quest to satisfy their cravings.

Above the majority are those whose circumstance and desire has enabled this light to burn a little brighter. These are the quasi-intellectual, semi-cultured ones who often gravitate towards ideology and dogmatism. In these the conceit of ego often erupts in senseless disputes that may at times lead to political chaos and even war.

There are fewer still above these two lower levels who, though still possessing of ego, have learned to put it aside in favor of humanity. We may say of them that their stream of thought is actively dedicated to helping others.

For the most part, thinking dominates the minds of all who are led by ego and desire. In the actual day-to-day experience it plays out as an on-going dialogue and stream of emotion that is often described as a movie projected onto an inner, mental screen. To the greater mass of humanity this movie is fragmented and chaotic. The quasi-intellectual may have more of a story line but it is the rare few above them whose movies may be of ‘epic’ proportions.

For those who meditate and practice mindfulness it may take a long time before they can just observe their movies without being caught up in them. The individual suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder provides an extreme example of this.

For most of us, even when focused upon a simple task the mind plays a story that we soon find ourselves following. When we become aware of this we can usually drop it and return to the task. For the individual suffering PTSD, however, there is no end to the movie. Worst still, the  movie doesn’t just involve the mind but has the entire body reacting to the horrific images being screened. And at the height of anxiety the movie may even jump off the screen into the outside world, leaving the individual feeling as if he or she were trapped in a theatre with no exit.

Whereas PTSD is produced by trauma, our movie producers are our culture, family, personal talents and other attributes that go into making us who we are. It is because our movies are so intricately involved with our identity that they are difficult to drop. And why when we persist on the path that a point comes when anxiety sets in. This anxiety is a signal that we are loosening the very attachments that make us feel safe and secure. Having pruned the tree of distraction, we begin to realize that we must leave its cool shade if we are to fully enter the light.

This is where many fail to progress to the next level that we may call Cosmic or Transcendent Consciousness. The ego, in sensing a Voice that says “I am I yet also Others,” fears the loss of its personal identity. So it hesitates. But if we continue to set one eye on the sky and the other on what lies below the surface, we will eventually see that we’ve been standing in an Ocean of Consciousness, all along.

Distraction

December 24, 2016 § 1 Comment

christmas-presents

The more we practice, the more difficult it seems to stay in the present moment. Hardly a moment goes by that we are not drawn into some pleasant fantasy or actively engaged in some inner act of denial. When walking, our minds are elsewhere. When listening, we are formulating a response. It seems that all that’s needed for a new distraction to arise is a turn of the head or a blink of the eyes. Yet distracting thoughts have not increased. Practice has simply made us more aware of their presence.

Lest we become discouraged, remember that just before his great enlightenment the Buddha’s mind was filled with images of greatness, riches and beautiful women; followed by frightening images of armies threatening his life. These, we are told, were caused by the demon Mara. But if we strip away the mythology are they not just distractions? The same distractions you and I have everyday? If so, it seems that up to the moment of his enlightenment, the Buddha’s mind was not unlike our own.

The Buddha saw through his distractions. We, on the other hand, have yet to penetrate the fog of distraction that stands between the world and our awareness of it. When we sit in practice, however, this fog begins to reveal itself as our own judgments, fears, hopes and desires. It is these we drift into in our effort to stay in the present moment. It is our deepest fears and greatest longings into which we are pulled. “Desire,” said some adept, “is never-ending. The mind is always thinking.”

Through mindfulness practice we see this fog descending upon our awareness in daily life. Yet it is just because we are more aware of our distractions that we are better equipped to wake from them to the present moment or, that is, our actual surroundings. Admittedly, we are like the dreamer who only dreams he is awake but that, at least, is a start.

If we are diligent in our practice some small hints of what’s to come will appear. These will be brief glimpses of the unreality of thought. It will be easier to resist falling prey to fear and anger. Desire may take a bit longer as we find ourselves praying, as St. Augustine did, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.” Nevertheless, if we have reached the point where we see a difference between the awareness of now and the distracted state, we have created a foundation to deepen our practice. And, we have taken the first step on the long path to Buddhahood.

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