Meditating On The Breath.

November 7, 2018 § 3 Comments

Many meditation instructions focus on the breath, citing it as a convenient meditation object because the breath accompanies us all our lives. The instruction is simple. Sit in a quiet place, keep the back straight and, without trying to control it in any way, focus on the breath and come back to it from each distraction.

Sometimes the instruction includes counting breaths up to ten and then restarting from the number one, especially when the count is lost. Sometimes it tells us to focus on the breath as it enters the nostrils. Most instructions give the initial aim as calming the mind and freeing it of distractions. Notably, none of the instructions include seeking higher states of consciousness or using meditation for self-improvement.

A while ago I had an experience that helped me understand breath meditation, although I did not realize it at the time. I was riding my bicycle in a park frequented by birds and bird watchers. With the sun bright behind me, a shadow suddenly crossed my path. Stopping. I looked up to see an osprey. I watched as the magnificent raptor displayed its aerial talent just meters above the field in front of me. At one point it dove, and I thought, “It’s diving into the ground.” It was only then that I noticed that I hadn’t been thinking. I was just watching, while the thinking part of me hung in the background, waiting to start up again.

As mentioned, it was only later that I realized that my osprey experience was a lesson in meditation. It is possible, I found, to just sit and watch something without thinking about it. This ‘watching’ does not exclude whatever else may be going on in my inner or outer field of attention. Nor does it exclude thought from occasionally popping up. It is only when these other things take me away from the watching that they become distractions. And that’s what meditation on the breath is: watching, returning each time you’re distracted.

Watching may be described in two ways. The first is paying attention.

One of the things you learn through meditation is how seldom you actually pay attention to anything. Instead of remaining focused on the breath, your attention moves and drifts from one thing to another, one thought to another. Very seldom does it stay on the breath for any length of time.

You also discover just how conditioned you are to not look in certain directions. A habit that keeps suffering alive by limiting your ability to see opportunities that may, for example, take you out of an unhealthy relationship or a bad job. Conversely, you also discover your tendency to only look at certain things, such as whether people are approving of you or not. So, though it may seem counterintuitive, learning to pay attention to one thing frees you to look at many things and in new directions.

The second way to describe watching is somewhat subtler. It is the awareness of being aware.

Breathing is an activity that is always in the periphery of your awareness. It is only when you stop and pay attention to it, however, that you become aware that you’ve been aware of it all along. This awareness of being aware is what is cultivated when meditating on the breath.

Awareness of being aware is subtle because we naturally tend to focus on the objects of awareness, rather than the awareness itself. It is like looking in a mirror and seeing the reflections but not the mirror. When we meditate, we are trying to isolate the mirror amid the reflections. We are trying to become aware of being aware and realize that we are that awareness.


A Chickadee At My Window.

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.

Time Loops

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.

Are you whipping the ox or the cart?

June 28, 2018 § Leave a comment

In the koan, “Nanyue Polishes a Tile,” Nanyue asked Mazu why he was sitting zazen. Mazu replied that he sat to become a Buddha. Hearing this Nanyue picked up a tile and started to polish it. When asked what he was doing Nanyue said that he was trying to make a mirror.

“How can you make a mirror by polishing a tile?” asked Mazu.

“How can you become a Buddha by doing zazen?” replied Nanyue.

“What do you mean by that?” said Mazu.

Nanyue said, “Think about driving a cart. When it stops moving, do you whip the cart or the ox?”

Commenting upon this koan Zen Master Dogen said, “Although it is not the custom among worldly people, the Buddha Way has the custom of whipping the cart.”

The worldly people that Master Dogen referred to are those who, as noted in Section 25 of the Diamond Sutra, “…partake in the idea of selfhood, personality entity, and separate individuality.” They are those who are greatly attached to the ego-self. Believing it to be the real self they grasp and hold onto their egos as hard as they can, wholly believing in its reality and what it tells them. In the  koan, the ox is the ego. The cart is the `bodhisattva-vehicle’ upon which a bodhisattva sits with unwavering attention during the practice of perfecting wisdom.

I am defining the ego-self simply as a collection of physical and mental aggregates (e.g., the physical body, thought, emotion) that are mistaken to be one’s true nature. A key thought in this collection is the “I am” thought that, through grasping at things, creates the illusion of an independent, self-existence entity. To ensure its survival this entity (i.e., the ego) must continuously grasp at the things that define it in order to maintain itself ‘as it is.’

In the koan we are presented with a man who believes that he is someone called “Mazu” who is practicing zazen to become a Buddha. No doubt the man had heard that Buddhahood was something that cannot be attained but only realized. Nevertheless he had bought into the ego’s story that enlightenment is attainable only by perfecting “Mazu” and so he sat zazen to become a Buddha.

Believing that enlightenment comes from improving yourself is the main obstacle to Realization. This is the worldly custom of whipping the ox. It is the obstacle Nanyue was pointing to when he pretended to polish the tile to make it a mirror. It shows itself in the belief that enlightenment comes through acquisition, through gaining more knowledge, becoming more spiritual, becoming wiser or in some way ‘better.’

The custom of the Buddha Way has little if anything to do with self-improvement. It is just sitting on the `bodhisattva-vehicle’ with alert watching. Watching without following or acting upon the ego’s prompting, any more than you’d jump out of your seat in a movie theatre to change what is happening on the theatre screen.

As you sit, just watching, your impulse to follow the ego into its world is revealed, as is your strong belief in the reality of that world. You see how the ego grasps at what it desires and how it moves to protect itself from even the smallest of slights. You see how tightly it holds on, trying to maintain things just as they are and itself, just as it is. You see how attention pulls away from what is unpleasant and how it dims through that act of denial. You see all your resistance to knowing yourself, not as the watcher but as watching itself. Pure awareness.

Just watching creates a space in which the deep attachment to the ego begins to unravel. This mostly occurs in the unconscious; so it is important to resist the urge to do something in a vain attempt to polish the ego up a bit. All the time it must be remembered that the custom of the Buddha Way is just sitting, fully aware in the present moment, accepting ‘what is’ without trying to change it, attach to it or identify with it. It is being fully alive in the now of life. That! Is beating the cart.

Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.

May 10, 2018 § 4 Comments

The other night I dreamed of a woman who dissolved into the right side of my body. As she did, she transformed into razor sharp saws and scissors that began to cut away at my stomach from the inside out.

I’ve had similar dreams in the past in which normal people turned into fearful monsters and others in which I had been attacked by vicious animals with razor sharp teeth. It was only with this latest dream that I looked at these nocturnal events in light of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, © 1973. In it I found the following passage concerning Peaceful Deities and Wrathful Deities.

“By fleeing, through fear, terror, and awe, (you) fall over the precipices into the unhappy worlds and suffer. But the least of the least of the devotees of the mystic mantrayana doctrines, as soon as he sees these blood-drinking deities, will recognize them to be his tutelary deities, and the meeting will be like that of human acquaintances. He will trust them; and becoming merged into them (italics mine), in at-one-ment, will obtain Buddhahood.” (p. 132)

There are forty-two mild or Peaceful Deities and fifty-eight angry or Wrathful Deities associated with the intermediate states between life and death known in Tibet as the Bardo. If they have heard of it at all, most people believe the bardo to be the Tibetan version of the after-life. There are, in fact, six intermediate bardo states, only two of which are associated with the after-life. A third refers to the actual state of dying and the other three to, a) existence in the womb, b) a state found in deep meditation and c) the bardo of the dream-state. (Ibid. 102.)

In spite of their fearsome appearance, Wrathful Deities are actually disguised Peaceful Deities who come to you to help. Regardless of which of the six states they are found, they act to awaken you to the fact that all people and objects encountered in the bardo, including the Deities themselves, are nothing but reflections of your own consciousness.

In Western terms Wrathful and Peaceful Deities are what the psychologist Carl Jung called archetypes of the collective unconscious. Archetypes may be thought of as universal ideas that exist in the unconscious as empty concepts until they are fleshed out by personal experience. Within their culture Tibetans have specific images of these deities while Westerners would be more likely to imagine Wrathful Deities as, for example, Satan or the Devil; and Peaceful Deities as, perhaps, angels. In my own bardo dream state, Wrathful Deities take various forms but all seem to be monstrous or have a razor component that identify them as the same wrathful dream character.

Dreams and dream interpretation have been an interest of mine for a long time. Over the years I’ve learned that the dream consciousness isn’t something that disappears when I wake up. Often what I dreamed the night before may still be found in the periphery of my consciousness after I awake. There the dream imagery and dream characters follow me around, so to speak, appearing as vague feelings or subtle mental images that influence my behavior as I go about my day.

Sometimes it is the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities that accompany me through the day. When they do, according to the Tibetans, they come to show me that something I believe to be real is really nothing more than a reflection of my own consciousness. Understanding this may be easier if looked at it through the Buddhist lens.

Buddhism states that everything we experience exists in a state of constant change. There is nothing that exists underneath any experience that is fixed or unchanging (i.e., has self-existent). All is impermanence. In our hearts we know this to be true, which means we also know that this fundamental fact applies to the self, as well. The self that we like to imagine we are, the one that thinks and acts, doesn’t really exist. This makes the core of our being seem to be apparent nothingness. And that scares us.

Believing our true nature to be nothingness, we run from it towards the world of appearance. Even though that world is also empty, we try to make it real by clinging to whatever fills the void and avoiding what might bring us face to face with our apparent emptiness.

Enter the Peaceful Deities come to tell us that if we let go our attachments we will find our true nature, which is not nothingness but Fullness and Light. Yet because we believe our true nature to be nothingness fear kicks in, distorting these peaceful messengers into wrathful demons come to throw us into the proverbial fires of hell.

In my dream the woman was a Peaceful Deity who became Wrathful due to my own clinging and aversion (not shown in the dream but taking place in my waking life). Her turning into razor sharp saws that cut away at me from the inside was an obvious symbol of my own suffering. At the same time it was a symbol of her attempt to sever my attachments. She was not the author of my suffering. It was my own clinging and aversion that wrote that chapter of my life.

As can be seen from my own dream experience, we do not have to wait for death and dying to come to use the teachings of the Bardo. Right now (and more so for practitioners of the Way) we are all in an intermediate state where Peaceful and Wrathful Deities are working just off-stage to help release us from attachment. We may know them as thoughts and images that pop into our minds during the day that cause us to be afraid, angry or sad. When they do, our task is not to turn away from these unpleasant feelings but, in the words of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, meet them like “human acquaintances,” for they are valuable allies in our effort to uproot attachment.

Finally, “becoming merged into them,” as quoted above from The Tibetan the Book of the Dead, has the same meaning as becoming attached to nothing. In the process of dropping our clinging and aversion we merge into that apparent nothingness that we feared lie at the core of our being. Only in this merging we find that it is not nothingness. Existence has not ceased. It continues completely free of all things. That is why the Book say, “becoming merged into them, in at-one-ment, will obtain Buddhahood.”

Keichu’s Wheel

April 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

The other night, just before retiring, I thought I’d take a look out the kitchen window for the moon.

The house lights had just been turned off so my eyes were not yet adjusted to the night. I could see out the window well enough but when I turned back to the kitchen all was dark. Now I knew, or thought I knew, that there was a chair beside me so I reached out to grab it. To my surprise there was nothing there. As my hand waved about in empty space only a thin concept of a chair existed where I expected a real chair. I say ‘thin’ because without a solid chair in my grasp the concept had no depth.

The time that elapsed while my hand waved in empty space was less than a second. It’s likely that if my eyes were adjusted a bit more to the dark I would have noticed the chair was in a different place and missed this experience altogether. Having it though I immediately realized how it paralleled the experience no self.

The experience of no self is one in which you reach out to grab something called “me” only to find it is no longer there and, if fact, was never there in the first place. It was just a concept that arose out of an aggregation of conditioned responses, thoughts and feelings brought together in an ad hoc manner. As such, the self has no depth. Upon seeing this you realize that there never was a “you” that was doing, thinking or feeling. In fact, you were not thinking, at all. Thoughts were thinking you!

A short time after the above experience I happened to reread the eighth koan of “The Gateless Gate” called Keichu’s Wheel. It reads, “Getsuan said to his students: Keichu, the first wheel-maker of China, made two wheels of fifty spokes each. Now, suppose you removed the hub uniting the spokes. What would become of the wheel? And had Keichu done this, could he be called the master wheel-maker?”

I had not understood this koan before because I had seen the hub of a wheel as something useful. An idea perhaps inspired by Chapter Eleven of the “Tao te Ching” that begins, “Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub; It is the center hole that makes it useful.” Getsuan questioning what would become of the wheel if it had no hub only left me with the obvious rational answer, that is, that it would be useless. Rational answers, of course, are of no value in koan study, as koans point to an experience that is beyond reason.

My “no chair” experience shed new light on the koan. It was now obvious that the wheel was a symbol of the self. Or perhaps it would be better to say that the concept of a wheel is like the concept of the self. Both are an aggregation of things. One is an aggregation of a rim, spokes and hub. The other, thought, feeling and various things like life experiences that are held together by grasping and aversion. When clinging and aversion come to an end, the self is realized as emptiness (Lao Tsu’s “center hole”). Certain tendencies might continue, just as the spokes of a wheel continue to dangle from a wheel’s rim when the hub is removed. But they are no longer recognized as an organized self that is real and self-existent. They are ‘just thoughts,’ ‘just feeling.’ Or, as Nagarjuna said, there are only actions, no doer.

Realization of no self is the mystical death wherein the false reality of self dissolves in the underlying Reality of Awareness. To the extent that you cling to the self there may be a fear of non-existence or even a feeling that you are going mad. But if you examine these fears closely you will discover that what you truly are, your true nature, has been here all along. It cannot be destroyed with the death of the self because the self was always an illusion. Something you thought you were, but never were.

Mumon asserts this at the end the koan with the poem,

When the hubless wheel turns,

Master or no master can stop it.

It turns above heaven and below earth,

South, north, east and west.

Awareness is the ‘hubless wheel’ that turns whether there is the illusion of self or not. Nothing can affect It. It turns above heaven and below earth. And It is your true nature.

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