Monthly Archives: September 2015
Some of you are aware that close to a year ago Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a stroke, and for a time it was touch and go as to whether he would live. I received a link, today, about his recovery; and for those of us contemplating how to live sanely, I thought this report of his rehabilitation process would give us something – a spirit to take into our last moments, minutes, days, months, years, or our last life. Hence, I thought it should take precedence over my piece for the day.
Yesterday’s poem was my spontaneous response to where I am at this point in my exploration of the presence of death. What has emerged since, in today’s writing, has been the matter of the bright, still pool, to which Narcissus is attracted, the power of which he doesn’t even see. There is the still heart of Being. And, I’m still carrying the understanding that love is not of time. Tomorrow, then, I will venture into the narcissistic relationship with the Still Forest Pool.
Recently, I was sharing with a friend that I feel blessed to have had so much loving support in the second half of my life. In part, that blessing has been appreciated because, after a retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in 1983, I began to see the reality of support from others, and so to allow it into my heart more consciously.
I shared with my friend, that: When I open to memories of true support in my later life (for example, my Zen teacher Subhana’s guidance for my fifteen years of Zen), then it is easier to recognise the support that was there in the earlier periods, such as in my difficult childhood. Even at that time, support was present. The narrative-mind, ‘Teflon for good experiences’ ((Hanson), might easily have missed that fact, without the message from Thich Nhat Hanh to water the seeds of joy.
Thay (Thich Nhat Hanh), even in his present difficulty, is giving us a great lesson in receiving love and support. The report on this link is a touching reminder to appreciate being alive, to enjoy breathing, and to pause and touch the stillness in one’s heart, which reflects the whole miracle of life. It’s then that we can see things in perspective, and can transform Narcissus:
“And now they were preparing the funeral pyre, the brandished tortures and the bier; but his body was nowhere to be found. In place of his body they find a flower, its yellow centre girt with white petals.”
– From Ovid’s Metamorphosis. (Translated Louise Vinge)
One summer long, walking a friend’s three-year-old,
with her stroller and self along the mountainside,
in our hush we discovered it, she and I. Here,
navigating treetops in a dark sea sky: this lucid moon.
It was so ours. Stretching her whole body forward,
her own light flexed upward, she cries, “Moon!
Want it! Want it” Her fingers extend and close,
extend and close. Extend and close. Yet it slips through.
My adult heart poised in one breath, the night was still,
trees sipping silence and moon-sap. And, she, separated
by a barrier of air, becomes quiet. I feel, thirty years long with
wax and wane, across ills we’re heir to, the echoing sea.
– Christopher J. Ash
I am well, yes. Thanks for wondering. In fact, the strong recurrence of CFS which I have suffered of late has receded, as mysteriously as it came. I have a new energy, thankfully. So, why no post yesterday?
I felt that I just couldn’t write so late last night. I’d spend the day pondering the longer version of the Narcissus myth, and I am so impressed with Ovid’s sagacity. It’s a brilliant wisdom document, with riches enough for a book of its own. So, partly I was, to an extent overwhelmed by the wealth of resonant detail, and couldn’t sense where to go next.
I had also spent some time painting, which took up some prime writing time, though, I have no regrets about that; without painting (or growing lettuces, as Thich Nhat Hanh has said) relevant writing would not happen.
I could also think of a host of Buddhist teachings, which could accompany such a rich story – but what to include would depend on where to go next. So, for the first time since early June, I didn’t write my daily post. However, dear Reader, I was immersed in the subject. Today, I’ll set aside some time to get a felt sense of where to go from here.
A deva asks the Nikāya Buddha, “One who loves the good, what should she not give away, not surrender?” The Buddha answered, “A person should not give herself away. She should not relinquish herself.” (From the Devasamyutta section, of the Samyutta Nikāya.)
I’ve travelled a lot today. For a part of my travel, I was alone, and I had some lovely periods of inner quiet; just being in presence. And, it might have been this quite time which incubated tonight’s reflection. In moments of presence it is clear that I am not my content – not my five sentient processes. Then the mind is clear, and still, in presence. Like the pool, in which Narcissus saw only his reflection. Anyhow, whatever brought it, it’s this: I’ve been asking, “What if love is not content, not a constituent of experience?”
Since I shared the story of Narcissus, I have been thinking more of the plight of Echo than I have of Narcissus. Of course, I could easily talk about how Echo was organised in her heart-mind – how her five sentient processes were functioning – such that her infatuation with Narcissus would bring about her fading away into air. But, instead, I find myself thinking of a quote from Hubert Benoit:
“When I observe myself, I see that I incessantly tend to modify my ordinary situation with all that I am. It is perfectly legitimate that I tend to modify my situation; that is the incessant and normal play of all my natural impulses.”
In other words, if Echo is attached to Narcissus, the difficulty is not in the attachment, per se. That, after all, is the natural play of her impulses.
“But what is not normal is the tendency in me, being man and not animal, to modify my temporal situation with all that I am. In effect, I have in me, beside the tendency to be temporally, the tendency just “just be,” without limits, in an absolute way. The first tendency is limited, the second extends the first to infinity.”
In other words, if Echo is attached to Narcissus, the difficulty for her, more than anything, is her lack of attention to the bigger context – to the ‘beingness’ of what is going on here. What she needed was a zig-zag between the beingness and her impulses. She, just like Narcissus, was unable to see that to place all of one’s attention at the disposal of the modifying tendencies (saṅkhāras) is to give oneself away utterly. In that condition, one not only makes oneself a slave to others, but to one’s own impulses. One then only sees the surfaces of things, just as Narcissus only saw the surface of the pool.
Likewise, Narcissus’ lack of attention to being meant that he had a distorted (heartless) relationship to Echo (and to the others who desired him). Being is without limits – it doesn’t have signs, features, anything to grasp – and so is not any kind of ‘content.’ It can’t be conceived of. When I am giving attention to the instant, then I, too, am not content. I become immeasurable. Conversely, if I am not paying attention to the instant, then I am lost in appearances. I have given myself away to appearances. I become lost in the form, the sounds, the smell, the taste, the touch of the other. “A tenth of an inch’s difference, and heaven and earth are set apart,” says Seng-ts’an.
I imagine that people would agree that love is not content, yet… how often do we mistake sensation for love? The sensation of pleasure, coming from the excitement of seeing, hearing, sensing, and thinking of another, may be a kind of love; but it is mixed. Just as gold ore is mixed with impurities.
This makes me appreciate the image of the Narcissus flowers, which flowered out of the heartless hunter’s death, by that still forest pool.
All experiencing is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a debased mind and dukkha follows,
as the wheel of a cart follows the hoof of the ox.
All experiencing is preceded by mind, led by mind, made by mind.
Speak or act with a purified mind, and well-being follows
like a shadow which never departs.
– Dhammapada, verse 1-2. Translated Christopher J. Ash
The point about death and love. So, a child’s attitude to love is naturally narcissistic, and mummy’s or daddy’s death is about themselves, and not about mummy’s or daddy’s – or, the family dog’s – experience. To care about the other’s experience wholly, would require a level of empathy and compassion that has yet emerge. This is all developmentally beautiful, and not a fault in nature. It’s an unfolding.
Our growth, then, if we are to absorb the lessons of death, needs two wings: wisdom and love. In respect of love, we need the development of warmth toward others; particularly, of kindness, empathy, and compassion. Kindness brings appreciation for otherness, empathy brings understanding of the other’s experience, and compassion brings an embrace of their dukkha. (That is, to take the dukkha of another to heart.) Narcissism is the refusal to do this.
Since I mention Narcissus so often, I thought it would be a good idea to visit the myth. During my psychotherapy training, I absorbed the implications of the ancient myth, recorded and expanded by the Roman Ovid, in his Metamorphoses. The myth shed light, for me, on the precarious condition of civilised humanity. The story of Echo and Narcissus is a story that points toward the purification of love.
Narcissus was the son of a river god and a water nymph. When Narcissus was born, Tiresias the blind seer was asked whether the child would live a long life. Tiresias replied: “He will live to old age, if he never knows himself.”
As a youth, Narcissus was very, very beautiful, and his beauty was comparable to the gods, naturally. However, he was conceited. Too proud, too haughty, to return the love of others and callous and indifferent to the suffering of those who fell in love with him, he mocks them. When an Oread (a mountain nymph) named Echo falls in love with him, he rejects her heartlessly. When she prays to the goddess of love, Aphrodite protects echo from the pain, by making her fade away from the woods and mountains. out of grief, leaving only her voice, which is heard by all.
However, another of the mocked and spurned lovers, a youth in this case murdered by Narcissus, prays to Heaven: “May Narcissus himself love, and not gain the thing he loves.” The goddess Nemesis, she whom none can escape, the goddess of divine justice, answers the prayer. She guides him to a pool – a still forest pool, one that had never been disturbed by human or animal – where he meets his fate. As he bends to drink from the pool, he sees his own image there, and, thinking it is some beautiful water-nymph living there in the pool, he longs to possess it, to have its marble-like beauty for himself.
Not being able to attain the thing he loves, he grieves, and he dies there by the pool. When nymphs come to bury his body, they find that a flower – the species we call the Narcissus – has sprouted in the place where he has died.
This week I read yet another story of a five-year-old coming to the unpleasant realisation that there is death, and that she will be separated from those she loves. It sure looks like five years old is the common age for the realisation to hit home; in our culture, at least. By the age of five a child has all the kinds of duality in place which would underpin their anguish over death; particularly, be and not be, and have and not have. The dukkha-version of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ are well and truly in place.
I’m thinking that to a five-year-old death looks the end of love. If I can’t see mummy and daddy, and they can’t see me, how will they find me, how will they love me? It would seem, from some of the reports, that the fear of abandonment is in the mix. (In some cases, once the child gets the idea that if mummy and daddy die, there will be someone there to take care of them, some of the sting is taken out of the thought of death.)
I don’t see that children can escape this, because ego-development is a necessary part of learning to take care of themselves in the world. Hence, it appears at this stage of human evolution, mistaking separation as absolute is inevitable. So, the shock of death is inevitable. The worst part of this is, from my point of view, that they come to an understanding of death, usually, without adult wisdom – they come to their knowledge, either on their own, or with input from confused adults: ”Don’t worry, Darling, you’ll go to Heaven, and grandma will be there.”
The reason for this is that: adults on the whole are not clear about death, either, so they avoid the subject. Adult egos eventually do resign themselves to (as distinct from understand) death. Some egos will romanticise it. Most will absent themselves – dissociate. They’ll abandon their curiosity, so that death can be ‘accepted’ without intimacy with the subject. (Can something that is incompletely understood truly be accepted?) Some will hide behind a rebirth belief, as protection, which brings a comforting dulling of consciousness. (I am not saying that there are no processes in the universe for which ‘rebirth’ might be a useful language. I’m talking about the tragedy of using rebirth and reincarnation theories to avoid feeling, and enquiring into, our fear of death.)
For me, personally, the whole after-death question belongs to the ego-system. It isn’t a practical question. If we can’t find ourselves in the present, what point is there talking about a self after death? To me, the Anurādha Sutta, in the Samyutta Nikāya, says things well. At end of an enquiry, to settle Anurādha’s questions about what might be said about the Buddha after his death, the Buddha says to Anurādha (and this is my loose expression of the conclusion):
“So, if you can’t find the truth of what I am, in all the nameable processes here in this present life, is it fitting, Anurādha, to try and determine the nature of my existence after death?”
“Right. That’s why I only teach dukkha and the ending of dukkha, Anurādha.”
So, to me, it’s more important to apply myself to understanding this mystery of the present life – the mystery of what our Buddhist mob calls ‘emptiness’ – instead of worrying about an after-life. The thought of death sharpens the aspiration to enter into this life with compassion and insight. Here’s Thanissaro Bhikku’s translation.
That child’s grief, however, brings up a different point. The point about death and love. It’s obvious that a child’s feelings about death are mostly mediated by their image system; that is, their attitude is naturally narcissistic, and mummy’s or daddy’s death is about themselves, not about mummy and daddy. Further, for the most part, because we haven’t absorbed the lessons of death, that’s how it is for us adults, too. The Nikāya Buddha has this to say:
From love, sorrow is born. From love, fear is born.
Released from love, there is no sorrow. From whence would fear arise?
– Dhammapada, verse 213. Christopher J. Ash
I’m struck with the necessity to look deeply into the truth (or not) of this. Is it so for mature adults, that from love fear is born? Does the Nikāya Buddha truly mean to suggest that to release from personal love is a state of maturity? What kind of release (in the field of personal relations) could provide a foundation for mature personal love?
“Only by accepting the imprisonment of my temporal part can all of me, my virtual “being,” escape from this prison.” – Hubert Benoit, Acceptance and Attention.
There was a moment today, when I invited myself to accept my life just as it is – to show up for my limitations. I wasn’t exactly in a comfortable situation at that time, lying on a table with acupuncture needles in my body, but the instant was the instant, regardless of preferences; and, it did seem as good a moment as any, for meditation.
I summoned the five remembrances, pausing with each of them, feeling into my bodily responses of acceptance or rejection. It seemed reasonably okay for me to acknowledge that I will die, because I am not exempt from death; that I will grow ill (sometime before the moment of my death), because I am not exempt from illness; and, it was fine to acknowledge that I am growing old, and that I’m not exempt from growing old. By this stage of the contemplation, I was naturally feeling in contact with life in the raw.
Then, just before I invited the next contemplation (“There is alteration in, and parting from, what is dear and pleasing”)… briefly I glimpsed a vaguely familiar mental formation. It had a feeling associated with it, but what was more evident was the mental structure of it. It was very similar to another interior glimpse that I have from time to time.
That other one goes like this: I will see a Rolls Royce, and I want to have it in my life. And, because it is a ridiculously impractical longing – out of the question – it’s easy to see that it’s a longing. However, I have noticed that when I reject the longing with a critic’s voice, a vague pattern happens at that moment, and I’ve wondered: “What’s is that pattern (which comes in response to unkind rejection of the longing)?” It has become evident that it is a subtle thought happening, one that leaves a way to keep the longing. And, it has a special quality. I hadn’t resolved exactly what the content of that thought is, until today. It has become clear, though, that the pattern opposes the inner judge.
So, there I am lying on the acupuncture table, today, and that same pattern flashes by, as I am meditating. I recognise it as a simple resistance, a rejection of my process in that moment. But, what is the structure of that? So, I stay with the feel of that. I let it come, this resistance, and I feel into it. And it’s familiar, even if vaguely so. It has something like… “I’m not accepting being up against the wall.” As I stayed a while longer with it, it was clear that it was about being separated from what is pleasing. And, what is pleasing – entertaining the mind, and feeling ‘good’; rather than being with the five remembrances. This part of me is not about to accept the limitation of my condition, that’s for sure. Limitations like: not having the Rolls Royce, in one case; and, acknowledging that there will be separation from the pleasing, in this case. This particular sub-personality pattern gave me a subtle mental doing, so as not to feel trapped with (what it sees as) an unbearable reality. It felt a pleasant relief to see this pattern. I can’t wait for my next Rolls.
And, as I finish this report, I’m reminded of something someone said to me, long ago, that the point of practices like the Five Remembrances isn’t to indoctrinate yourself, to condition yourself, but to drop them into consciousness like experiments, to see what happens.
“…the thought of death is rather a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life…” – Herbert Guenther
In respect of the opposites, when a subtle person has gone beyond,
Then all restraints dissolve for that realised one.
– Dhammapada, verse 384. Translated Christopher J. Ash
In my own development, and with my interest in human change processes, I’ve found it really helpful to clarify the uses of the word ‘acceptance.’ For a long time it wasn’t clear to me what the relationship was between acceptance and the necessary actions which change our lives. You’ve witnessed in these pages, how careful I am to note that total acceptance of reality, doesn’t mean being inactive in changing your life for the better.
It was particularly necessary for me, as a Westerner, to understand this, because two of my trusted Buddhist traditions – Zen and Dzogchen – recommend non-interference as the highest spiritual practice.
The verses of the Zen text called On Believing in Mind used to frustrate me intensely, when our group recited them, on retreat. It was written by Seng-ts’an, the third patriarch of (Chinese) Ch’an, who died 606 CE. The opening verses will give you a taste of what frustrated me, perhaps. This translation is by D.T. Suzuki, and the full text of this long and profound poem, is here:
The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise;
A tenth of an inch’s difference,
And heaven and earth are set apart;
If you wish to see it before your own eyes,
Have no fixed thoughts either for or against it.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
This is the disease of the mind:
When the deep meaning [of the Way] is not understood
Peace of mind is disturbed to no purpose.
[The Way is] perfect like unto vast space,
With nothing wanting, nothing superfluous:
It is indeed due to making choice
That its suchness is lost sight of.
Pursue not the outer entanglements,
Dwell not in the inner void;
Be serene in the oneness of things,
And [dualism] vanishes by itself.
Of course, we have here the same themes as we find in my many quotes from the Nikāya Buddha. On Believing in Mind, is in the same lineage, despite being written roughly eleven hundred years later in a far away country, and despite its Taoist flavour.
My difficulty, in those days, was the same as any intelligent Westerner’s would be. I thought: “I have to make choices in my life – as a householder, a parent, a teacher, a citizen in a democracy, and so on. And, as a person concerned about the ecologicial viability of human activity, there are things that matter to me, things I feel strongly about. It’s not good enough, to say (as I have heard a Zen Buddhist say) that Deep Ecologists don’t understand emptiness, if they protest the destruction of whales.”
And, I’m certainly not about to say that it’s fine to hand control of the U.S. military juggernaut over to just any fool (to wit, Donald Trump). So, what kind of ‘disease of the mind’ is it, to choose to discern and oppose ratbags? There must be a way to reconcile this, I thought; because, Buddhism, I reasoned, is a tradition that is supposed to help us end such ignorance, and my own aggression toward fools. So, how can a doctrine of radical acceptance help the ordinary person like me?
Eventually, I began to think that the poem was referring to different dimensions of mind. I reasoned that there had to be an understanding that took care of both the ‘outer’ layers of becoming, those layers of awareness involved in choosing; and, which also took care of the inner of the inner – Being itself – where surrender made more sense. It began to feel like heaven and earth could possibly be reconciled, after all. The doubt was resolved for me, when I pondered the second case of the Japanese Zen Mumonkan (which I’ll explain later). However, I also found a concept which helped, in an article by the French psychoanalyst, and interpreter of Zen, Hubert Benoit. And, it’s this I’d like to share with you today. (The article has been published in a few forms, but my copy was published in Parabola, volume XV, No.2 1990, Summer 1990.)
In the article, he speaks of: a temporal tendency, and an atemporal tendency toward being. He writes:
Thus I see that the two tendencies which are in me must have exactly opposite directions: the temporal tendency must naturally go toward constant modifying of my ordinary situation; the tendency toward “being” must go toward the total acceptance of this situation in each instant.
And, he notes that the problem for us is when our one hundred percent of our attention is given to the temporal tendency. The important thing to notice is that attention toward Being is in each instant; not hampered by time.
The tendency to modify my situation and the tendency to accept it would evidently be irreconcilable if they had to act on the same level. But this is not the case. The tendency to modify acts on the automatic level of my impulsive life; this happens first. The tendency to accept [however] acts on the level of conscious reflection, where I see myself, where I am subject for whom the impulses of my life are object. [My parenthesis.]
Different levels. I call them different perspectives on the unnameable, or different dimensions of the immeasurable. However, whatever we call them – this concept is very helpful. The point being that the tendency to being is dependent on releasing some of our attention (frontal cortex energy) for its purpose, for self-reflection on our total situation, our big situatedness. From that perspective, the life of impulse does not take up all of my attention.
So, my frustration was due to erroneous concepts, just as the Nikāya Buddha had taught Sakka. I had thought of acceptance as only opposite rejection; that is, that rejection could not be acceptance. On the surface level of experience, the impulse level, that makes sense. However, on the deep level of instantaneous awareness: Radical Acceptance does not hinder the life of the impulses, and its realm of temporal action. Pure reflection transcends and includes the life of impulse. (‘Transcend and include’ is an Wilberian ‘Integral’ concept.) So, it’s more like this (using a depth orientation):
And, so it is that some people have borne witness to feeling such a deep sense of complete joy while holding a dying loved one in their arms. Of course, on the level of impulse, there is the poignancy of loss, and in the depth of one’s being, found in combodiment, there is the joy of the whole life of Being.
Set free in front, set free behind, and set free in the middle; gone beyond.
Mind freed everywhere, one will not approach birth and old age.
– Dhammapada, verse 348. Translated Christopher J. Ash
With the cessation of divisive perception, erroneous reflection ceases. With the cessation of tainted reflection, wilfulness ceases. With the cessation of wilfulness, unskilful preferences cease. And by the cessation of preferences, aggression and self-bias (selfishness) are overthrown, and all violence ceases. No angry ape – in the car, the office, the kitchen, the bedroom, in dreams, or in parliament.
Anger, rage, ill-will, egoistic displeasure (or, egotistical pleasure) – they all depend on selfishness (that is, on identifications involving ‘me and mine’). They also depend on rejection of reality as it is. The mind-set includes rejecting another point of view but one’s own hungry ape view. This means that being displeased with things-as-they-are is present. I’ve been wanting to write something about acceptance. The idea of not grasping means accepting the totality of one’s life, just as it is. That sounds crazy, to I-systems that have become so used to operating in the basis of deficiency.
So, I want to re-iterate an important qualification. Let’s say I have the unpleasant experience – for instance, a loved one is angry with me. What is the wise relationship to the experience? Firstly, I don’t push it away. I welcome it, thinking (to my immediate feelings): “Hello hurt.” That allows me sufficient pause, or dispassion. Dispassion, here, means unhooking to the habitual reactivity, and that I receive all my experience intimately, unmediated by how I think it should be. Reactivity means that I’m pushing it away. So, I fully experience the unpleasant experience. It is happening, after all. In respect of the other person, I may step away from them, perhaps; but I don’t deny my feel of the experience – which is knowledge.
It’s easy to misunderstand dispassion. It doesn’t mean not feeling. It means not indulging in the feeling, not adding a ‘me-story’ to it. Not adding legs to a snake. The bad experience is already happening. It’s an illusion to think that you may not experience what is already being experienced, what is already happening. ‘Ouch’ is just ‘ouch,’ and I needn’t make it into ‘this ouch is wrong, it shouldn’t be here.’ If I try to put non-pleasing feelings or sensations away, I am reinforcing the underlying division into ‘me’ and ‘my experience.’ I am strengthening the bystander experience of my life. I continue the severance from the greater life-process.
The hurt feeling, for instance, is already here as sensations arising in the middle area of my torso. We may think we are rejecting that person there (on the other side of the table, the end of the phone, in the back seat of the car, on the other end of an email, at the front of the class) when, actually, we are refusing is our present experience. That means a loss of vitality, because, pleasant or unpleasant, any experience has energy which can be transmuted. So, to be a warrior on the great way of self-knowledge, we turn toward intimacy with whatever our inner experience is, at any moment.
When we accept the limitations of our life totally, we find ourselves integrated in the present situation, beyond our ego-affirmation or negation. The limits imposed by our actual life are the real ‘now,’ not the one we think we should have. And, there our constructing activities, our fashioning tendencies, can end. We find ourselves in maximum spiritual freedom, at this limit of our becoming.