January 1, 2019 § 1 Comment
In the 1973 film, “The Paper Chase,” Professor Kingsfield begins the first day of class with these words to his students, “You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.” Other than the fact that I’m not going to be a lawyer, that was me when I started meditating. My skull was definitely full of mush.
The “mush” was mostly fear. My skull was full of it. I had spent many years trying to figure it out through psychology and dream interpretation but to no avail. It was only when life presented me with the opportunity to devote myself to a course of daily meditation and Buddhist study that things started to turn around. Even then it took quite a while before I started to believe that all those things my skull was telling me was real, wasn’t real, at all.
I also had a lot of mush about enlightenment. Still do, I suppose. Looking back, I don’t really know what I thought it was. I know I conceived it as some higher state of consciousness that I suppose, because of my fear, I saw as a place of refuge. The joke, as I later discovered, was that the door to enlightenment was exactly where my fear was most intense! It wasn’t a place of refuge from the world. It was, is, being fully alert, while facing the world.
But I’m not there yet. I’m still dealing with my mush. Sitting, watching, trying to discern the difference between the thinking state and the present moment. It’s becoming clearer but only in my seeing just how much more mush there is to clear away.
By ‘clear away’ I don’t mean fix. That’s what I was trying to do through psychology. Trying to fix myself. Turns out that’s an endless road to nowhere. The only solution I know of now is to see the difference between the thinking state and the present moment, and then choose to be in the present moment. Sounds simple but there’s nothing harder.
Like everyone else there are years, if not lifetimes, of conditioned thinking to see through. Conditioning that has left me identifying with an aggregate of thoughts and things that go into the making of my fear filled self. Conditioning that has me shy away from my mind’s most sensitive and vulnerable areas, while simultaneously trying to protect them. I am buoyed, though, by the growing certainty that success will come. Maybe not in this life. Maybe not in the next or even in ten lives after that, but at least I know nothing can stop it, now.
In the past I thought meditation would lead to some alternate state of consciousness that was somehow “elsewhere” from the one I was in. It never occurred to me that the alternate state I sought was the one I was in, just minus all the mush. And that just by watching and being friendly to all that is going on right now, without looking to the past or to the future and without trying to “fix” anything in myself, that I may realize this present moment consciousness, right now. And that it has been here all along. Life unfolding in the seemingly mundane activity of daily existence. My life. Your life, that is all Life.
December 25, 2018 § 2 Comments
After Siddhartha Gautama, who was to become the Buddha, became an ascetic, he went to Alara Kalama. Kalama taught a particular style of meditation called the “sphere of nothingness” that emphasized deep inner penetration. Gautama became so adept at this practice that Kalama asked him to take his place, but Gautama refused. For Gautama it wasn’t enough that he realized his true nature in a profound state of deep contemplation. He knew that true enlightenment had to extend to every aspect of life. So, he left Kalama and continued his search.
Today you will find many classic references to meditation as a state of “one-pointed concentration” that sounds eerily suggestive of what Gautama rejected. These instructions, it should be noted, were often written for students living in monasteries undergoing intensive training. Once they realized their true nature, the students would continue their training to actualize this realization. Fortunately, there are instructions that provide alternatives to one-pointed concentration that are more suitable to today’s lifestyle. One is described by Pema Chodron in her book, “When Things Fall Apart: heart advice for difficult times.”
In her book Pema Chodron describes Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach to meditation as one that instructs students to give 25% of their attention to the breath, “so that one was still aware of one’s surroundings and didn’t consider them an intrusion or an obstacle to meditation.” Later he asked his students to label any thoughts that arise as “thinking” but not with the aim of extinguishing thought. The attitude to cultivate, writes Pema Chodron, is “one of unconditional friendliness toward whatever arises in your mind.”
Being friendly to whatever arises in the mind is not new. It is what the Buddhist means when she asks that you give up labelling things “good or bad.” When she asks that you let thoughts arise and fall of their own accord. Or in the simple request that you first be compassionate to yourself. These are all directives to be open and inclusive to whatever is met in your mind and in your life. As so viewed, meditation becomes the practice of watching the breath amid the physical environment and the sea of thought that surrounds it.
Thought is still not followed with more thought while meditating but it is not suppressed either. And here we come across an aspect of meditation that is not often covered in meditation instructions. I’m referring to a sub-category of thought following that may be called keeping up appearances.
Each and every one of us has an ego that sees itself in a certain way and likes to be seen in a certain way, too. This is your self-image and to maintain it the ego must continually deflect awareness away from some things and towards others. In essence, the ego is saying, “I am I, and no other.” When this “I” is threatened, it will put up a fierce resistance. You may find this resistance the greatest obstacle you face to finding your true self. Yet, when it comes down to it, keeping up appearances is just another way of following thought.
The key to overcoming ego resistance is to reverse the process and turn your awareness towards whatever it is the ego doesn’t want you to look at, think or feel. That is, to become unconditionally friendly towards whatever arises in your mind.
When, for example, you feel uncomfortable, take that feeling into your meditation and look towards, not away, from whatever is making you anxious. Don’t think about it. Just turn toward it, staying with the discomfort as best as you can. Over time this simple discipline will decondition your impulse to retreat into your head and think even more convoluted thoughts to avoid the stress.
Turning toward suffering, rather than seeking relief through distraction, places you in the present moment. There you may find that you suffer less because you are no longer resisting what is by trying to replace it with what isn’t or what might have been. When you practice this way on smaller woes, you’ll be better able to face life’s bigger challenges, such as the death of a loved one or a serious illness. But don’t think that this is a way of avoiding intense emotion. Rather it is the path to an open and unresisting heart that can bear anything it meets in life.
A final note. One-pointed concentration of mind may sound sexy, but it can easily be appropriated by the ego to keep the awareness only on what it finds acceptable. Rather than dropping self, you end up keeping up appearances, instead.
November 30, 2018 § 2 Comments
It common while meditating to find yourself thinking rather than attentively watching the breath. When you do, the instruction is to take note of the distraction by labeling it as ‘thinking’ and then return to watching the breath. Although this simple act may seem inconsequential it is the foundation of awakening.
Meditation is the practice of continuous waking from distraction to the present moment. This statement should be understood as descriptive, meaning that it describes what goes on during meditation more than it tells you what to do. Anyone who’s taken up the practice knows it to be true. During meditation you rarely sit with unwavering attention on the present moment. The mind wanders. You stray from the breath. ‘Waken’ to the fact that you’re thinking and return to the breath where, after a time, you again become distracted.
In simple terms, waking is a recognition that you’ve strayed from watching the breath. What takes your attention away is called a distraction, which includes environmental or physical conditions of the body, such as excessive noise or pain in the legs. Usually when Buddhists speak of distraction though they mean thinking (which includes concepts, imagery and the emotions). It is important to note that waking to thinking does not mean stopping thinking. It means not being carried away by it.
In his book, “Opening the Hand of Thought,” Kosho Uchiyama spoke of three kinds of distraction. The first he called chasing thoughts, by which he meant ‘to follow some initial thought with more thought.’ The second is drowsiness or nodding off. The third is when you forget where you are and what you’re doing. Of this latter type he wrote, “Without being aware of it, we may start associating with or carrying on a dialogue with some vivid figure… that has been totally fabricated within our own act of chasing after thoughts.”
To Kosho Uchiyama’s list I’d like to add a fourth type of distraction. This is the “I” thought. The “I” thought exists both as a singular thought and as a thought that is attached to, and identified with, other thoughts and things. As a singular thought it is your sense of self or sense that you are, however vague that feeling might be. When the “I” thought attaches to other things it produces thoughts that identify it as ill or healthy, worthy or unworthy, smart or stupid, and a whole host of other concepts that combine into an individual idea that defines who and what you are.
In the sense that a thought is about a thing and never that thing itself, the “I” thought, whether it stands alone or as attached, is not the ‘real’ you. It is a fabrication, just like the characters you have dialogues with in Uchiyama’s third type of distraction are fabrications. It differs from these other fabrications only in its tendency to persevere throughout your life. (Reminiscent of Einstein’s, “…reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent illusion.”) As fabrications go it is very useful in navigating your way through life. But when it comes to meditation it is a distraction that you need to wake up from if you want to discover your true nature.
When you sit with awareness on the breath the “I” thought sits with you, as a subtle sense of a self that stands in opposition to the breath. It is this thought that creates the sense of separation you have with life. When you wake to the “I” thought the instruction is the same as waking to any other thought. You label it as ‘thinking’ and then return to your breathing. However, as the “I” thought is very persistent, no effort need be undertaken to stop it. As with any other distraction the aim is to continuously return to your breathing as best you can.
Perhaps you heard or read of someone who said she suddenly became one with everything. That, for example, there was no longer a bird singing; there was just singing. Consider this in terms of what is written above. Does it not seem the experience of oneness would be the natural result of the “I” thought dropping away, taking with it that sense of separation from the world as it goes? And does it not seem equally likely that as you practice waking from your own sense of self that you, too, will have this experience? Assuming, of course, you don’t let that thought distract you.
September 10, 2018 § Leave a comment
The other day I turned my attention to a question about the nature of the physical reality that first came to my attention while reading Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s book, “Pathways Through To Space.” “Habitually,” he wrote, “we regard the material filling of sensation as being substantial.” In other words, we believe that the world is made up of solid things that exist whether we’re here to see them or not. But is that so?
Quantum theory tells us that it is not so. More than that, experiments done on the subatomic level demonstrate that observation is a key component in giving form to the world. These tests are repeatable, and they show that matter isn’t there before it is observed. Although the majority of physicists ignore the deeper implications of this fact, in my mind this stands out: Consciousness precedes matter, and not the other way around, as I was taught in school.
Merrell-Wolff went on to say that just before his enlightenment he realized that the world isn’t substantial but composed of relative vacuums or emptiness. The vacuums, he said, are created by a negation of Substance that is none other than Consciousness. (Note that he was not saying Substance is conscious but that it is Consciousness.)
To bring some personal clarity to this topic I had, in the past, compared physical objects to eddies swirling in a stream. Eddies seem to be real but in actuality they are a relative absence or vacuum of the surrounding water in which they appear. As an analogy, this seemed to express Merrell-Wolff’s thought quite well, and it gave more meaning to the Buddhist statement that ‘form is emptiness.’
The other side of the Buddhist phrase is that ‘emptiness is form.’ That seemed a bit harder to grasp because in spite of my analogy, I still saw water as form. But that day I recalled a photo of a boat appearing to float in mid-air, due to the water in which it sat being absolutely still and clear. That image took the idea out of my head that water is always a visible thing.
I imagined how it would be if a whirlpool suddenly appeared in crystal clear water. Wouldn’t it seem that it was a real thing spinning in empty space when, in fact, what appeared as emptiness was actually the real substance?
Thinking of this it occurred to me that perhaps ‘emptiness’ in the phrase, “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” had two different meanings. In the former part of the phrase emptiness referred to the relative vacuums that appear in Consciousness (the whirlpool in clear water). In the second, it referred to the real Substance that only appears as emptiness because of its absolute clarity. As form arose in this emptiness, emptiness is form.
My analogy made what quantum theory said about the physical world more sensible. Prior to any observation there is only clear, formless substance. Things form when observations negate part of that substance, but prior to those observations they don’t exist. If I try to argue that they do exist but as formless things then I’m speaking gibberish because, by definition, a thing must have form.
My analogy also made it clear why I couldn’t experience my own true nature. Experience is awareness of form and form comes about by partially negating Consciousness, (i.e., my true nature). This means that while it is possible to experience modifications of Consciousness, it is not possible to experience unmodified, Clear Consciousness.
Even as I saw this I was acutely aware of just how actively my mind was looking and probing for a higher consciousness experience. I put forward a heavy effort to drop this search by constantly reminding myself that my true nature couldn’t be found in my experience. The result was a baffled awareness of emptiness that I, as the ego, knew I could never comprehend.
Much later, in Franklin Merrell-Wolff’s book, “Transformations in Consciousness,” I found this quote: “If I habitually center myself in the body, then I am there in an exceedingly narrow kind of bondage… However, I break this bondage every time I think myself away from body, as to some other base of reference.”
This quote seemed particularly apt for that night, after my day’s effort, I woke from a dream in which a chickadee came to rest part way through my bedroom window. Then, the next morning as I sat in my chair, I felt a momentary withdrawal into what I can only say was the clear, formless ‘water’ of my analogy.
Regarding this I found this from Franklin Merrell-Wolff, “…the consciousness related to the I is not a consciousness of the I. It is immediate ’knowledge through acquaintance” in the most rigorous sense. One might even speak of it as a sinking into the I (italics mine).”
It now seems that though my analogy does not contain the whole truth of the matter, it does serve a useful purpose when used to ‘think myself away from’ my habitual identifications. This is not mere wishful thinking or some fanciful imagining, but a sincere effort to change the base of reference away from the mass of swirling eddies in consciousness, to Consciousness, Itself. It is through such acquaintance that I come to know Myself.
August 16, 2018 § 6 Comments
Time loops are a popular plot device used in works of fiction. In a time loop story, a brief period of time continually loops back on itself, leaving the characters caught in the loop to re-experience the same minutes, hours or days, until someone finally breaks the cycle freeing all concerned.
Time loops don’t actually exist but they are an apt analogy for the ego-bound mind. As mentioned in previous posts, the ego is a steady state system. It acts to maintain it self as it is, which means it must continually reassert itself over time. However, unlike the works of fiction where the goal is to return to the normal flow of time, ego time loops end with the conscious re-entry into the present moment, or now.
Even novice meditators quickly see that most thinking is just a rehash of what was thought before. What they may not realize is that this “loop thinking,” as I have previously called it, is the means by which the ego keeps itself going. By continuously re-thinking the same thoughts, the ego cuts off awareness of the present moment and perpetuates the illusion that it is the only true and permanent reality.
A comparable situation is the texter who keeps his nose buried in his phone all day. He might say that he’s awake and aware of his surroundings but even as he’s saying it he’s probably thinking about his next text! As we grow in practice meditation it becomes clear that we, too, spend most of our time caught up thought. Even when we do focus on our surrounding we look at it as if through a veil of thought. Is it any wonder that mystics say that humanity is living in a state of relative unconsciousness? Or why they describe meditation as a continuous ‘waking’ to the present moment?
Initially, I considered loops only in relation to thought but I’ve since noticed that thought has an emotional component that also repeats. Emotions take many forms but essentially they are all energy that seeks expression. In the normal course of time that expression is usually found and life goes on. Emotion caught in a loop, however, has no place to go so its energy builds until it starts to radiate outward. Bursts of anger or generalized anxiety are examples of this radiation.
The pairing of loop thought and emotion is an ideal situation for the ego to maintain itself. As emotional energy radiates outward, it stimulates thought that in turn gives more energy to the emotions. The ego inserts itself into this feedback loop, altering the thoughts and feelings so that they are all about it. For example, a critical remark sparks an emotional response that starts ‘me’ thinking that ‘I’ should be treated better or, conversely, that ‘I’ am not worthy. As these thoughts and emotions keep looping they feed the ego, giving it a strength and sense of reality that it doesn’t really have.
It is when we attach emotions to events, thoughts and the ego that they appear more real than they are. Clearly, strong emotions generate strong beliefs. And the stronger a belief in a thing, the more real it appears. That is why an event that seems trivial to one person may be quite important to another. The latter is caught up in a loop of strong emotion that makes the event feel real.
Whenever you find yourself in a loop, take a moment to look at it. Chances are it’s accompanied by a strong sense of something real that justifies your feeling the way you do. Unless there is some such actual thing in your immediate environment, that thing is not real. It is part of the loop.
The loop may be compared to a movie playing endlessly on a screen. Each time the movie comes around you feel the same emotions and have the same thoughts. That’s the world you’ve been living in. Only suddenly you realize that your responses are all based upon something imagined, a work of fiction! Which means that your responses are also a work of fiction. You need only see this once to undercut the very foundation of the thoughts and emotions looping around inside your head. And without the loop, where will the ego get its energy to dominate your life?
You may see from the above why I compare the ego-bound mind to being caught in a time loop. The analogy re-enforces the idea that trying to fix the loop or make it better still leaves you trapped inside. The solution is to wake up by turning the attention to the present moment. Mindfulness is one way of doing this but often the strong call of the ego pulls us away from the present moment. But if we see this pull as nothing more than an invitation to enter an endless loop unconnected to reality, we may find it easier to choose reality.
July 31, 2018 § Leave a comment
Zen Master Dogen said, “There are those who continue realizing beyond realization and those who are deluded within delusion.” We may wonder if these categories do not overlap.
The other day I noticed that my awareness had a particular feeling tone to it that had escaped my previous attention. Upon becoming aware of it I realized that it had been there for some time, which meant that I had already been aware of it before I became aware of it. As Franklin Merrell-Wolff might have said, we can be aware and we can be aware of being aware.
So this particular feeling toned state was already occupying my state of awareness before I became fully aware of it. What made this realization different from other times this had happened was that with this realization came another. That I had chosen to identify with the particular feeling and, in so doing, was perpetuating it!
I had previously read about the question of choice in relation to enlightenment without really knowing what it meant. In her book, “When Fear Falls Away,” Jan Frazier referred to the fact that she always had a choice in what to feel but didn’t realize it until after her enlightenment. Eckhart Tolle wrote in, “A New Earth,” that if you could realize that you are creating your own suffering then an infinite number of possibilities, more intelligent possibilities, would open up.
Both authors were talking about choice and how we limit our choices but I didn’t understand how this happened. It was only after my small above stated experience that I realized for the first time how I was limiting my choice. It was through false identification, which may be loosely defined as confusing the observer with that being observed.
In identifying with a particular state I am unknowingly giving my mind a directive to maintain that state for as long as possible, thus limiting my choice. If, for example, I define myself using a time when I felt awkward, then I may feel awkward in all future social situations. My mind will work to make that identity ‘real’ to me by pointing out how people are reacting to my awkwardness. Whether they are or not is not the question. The mind will maintain my chosen identity and its consequences even if it has to distort reality in the process.
Having an ego identity that can be maintained over time does give one a sense of security (albeit a false sense of security) but it is also limits choice. Instead of allowing yourself to feel all the things you can feel in life, you are left to feeling just a few, or the one. Instead of being open to life we spend our time trying to maintain our picture of the world and our own values. We become, as Dogen said, “deluded within delusion.”
When we see, actually see, that we are choosing who we want to be in each and every moment then we open ourselves up to all the things we might be in any given moment. Again in Zen Master Dogen’s words, we become one of “those who continue realizing beyond realization.” That is why it is important to awaken to the reality of the present moment, rather than fabricate one within our own minds.