Monthly Archives: January 2016
“I am a citizen of the planet.
My president is Kwan Yin.”
– Alanis Morrisette
(Kwan Yin is a goddess of compassion.)
Some of the things that I’ve learned from this project are about the art of writing. One of those discoveries is about trusting that, even when I don’t know what to write about today – what my theme is – even so, there will be a way. I’ve learned to sit down and just start. I recall who I’m writing for, and I just say something from my bodily presence, and – guided by that initial felt sense – I see where the exploring and communicating goes. It might take a few paragraphs before the theme begins to peek out.
Sometimes you have to go back at the end and rewrite the first paragraphs, because what ‘comes’ may not turn up until after a few paragraphs, or even half a page. Yesterday’s post is such. When I looked at it this morning, the first two paragraphs didn’t make sense even to me, so I’m giving them a rethink, now. I trust them, though. Yesterday, they carried me forward into something deeper. Today’s worked this way, too.
Yesterday I wrote: “So, what have I learned, from this exploration? I wanted to approach the concept of death in a way that transcended ‘now’ and ‘later.’ We say, “Now I’m alive.” We say, “Later, I’ll be dead.”
I meant that we usually think about death with the unconscious support of a ‘three times’ model of life process. That is: in time past, I was born; in time present, I am alive; and, in time future, I will die. We begin to adopt this thinking in childhood, and I am learning to think without this model of time. Is there another way to investigate experience? That was my first fresh feeling, as I began writing, yesterday – that I might not have to ‘think death’ under the constraints of that model.
(Even to say, ‘think death’ is to step out of the usual space-time way of thinking, do you see? Try it out, in your own body. Is there a difference in bodily feel, between “I am thinking death,” and “I am thinking about death”? Sure is in my experience.)
Honouring ordinary time for a moment, I next wrote: “I wanted to experience as much about death and deathlessness as one can, while optimally strong and clear, before the dissolution of the body.”
This signals that death is going to be in the present-as-experienced (Existenz), and not in terms of the model of the three times (existence). Now, what came to mind, as I was writing, was a conversation I had with my father, twenty-six years ago. He was contemptuous of my suggestion that one can meet death while living. So, yesterday I wrote: Some say, ‘How can you experience death, while you’re living? That’s ridiculous.”
As a student of life, I have been committed to keeping spiritual enquiry fresh. It was something I learned from Krishnamurti – to stay open to knowledge as lived, not the dead knowledge of mere belief. So, in stating my father’s view, I was thinking how an open mind encounters “is” and “is not”, in the world around it. To depict this, I presented the opposite of my father’s view, such as we find in the Nikāyas: “Some say, ‘Go into it deeply, now, while you have the capacity. Realise the deathless.'”
So, this is a choice that all lovers of truth encounter – the call of the heart, or the call of the conventional world. When the love of truth comes, we have to ask the hard questions. Some say live this way, some say live that. How do you decide? There is, of course, the bodily feel of the situation. When I was young, unfortunately, I didn’t have so much of that wisdom. So, I said, instead:
“I notice that the people who take the ‘realise the deathless’ approach are (generally speaking) more positive, more vibrant, and less selfish, than those who say there is no deathless.”
Mind you, that doesn’t prove the truth of what the wise say. The fact that research shows that Christians heal quicker and have less post-operative problems than non-believers doesn’t prove the power of God. It might well prove the power of belief, or of subtle energy. However, seeing that non-violence really did exist among the ‘wise’ gave me some encouragement, when I began this journey, as a young man.
Next, yesterday, about the wise, I wrote: “They are not flag-wearers; they’re more likely to be ‘citizens of the planet.'” Here, the time of year was entering my writing. It was Australia Day this week – that time when ordinary people are encouraged by commercial interests and governments, and their own conceit, to indulge in nationalism. It horrifies me, and always has; because I see this ‘I love my country’ mentality as an important factor in sending our young to be killed in international wars.
It is, to me, an inhuman thing to be in love with an idea. And that is what ‘Australia’ is – it’s just an idea; a conceit. It has no abiding value. Consider this: this particular idea was born in the late eighteenth century, and from 1901 it has served a ‘granfalloon.’ A’ granfalloon,’ some of you will know, is defined as is a group of people who affect a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless. (Thank you, Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle.)
That includes the British, the French, the misnamed ‘Americans’ – and, of course, the Australians. That is, while they believe that ‘Australia’ has some real existence, they are a granfalloon. If they were to associate on a different basis – such as together acknowledging that ‘Australia’ is a mere concept used for convenience of human association – then they would no longer be a granfalloon. ‘Australia Day,’ the numerous ‘Independence Days,’ ‘Bastille Day, they are all – as they are presently used, at least – concepts for granfalloons.
It’s clear to me that those who practice the way of the deathless don’t encourage this kind of mentality. They cultivate world-centric consciousness. (I’m generalising, of course). When I was a young man and the Vietnam War was raging, when I was looking around for a way to live a sane life in an insane world, the way I reasoned was: So, the way the wise live – watering the seeds of compassion, peace, and all positive qualities – shows that they must have something on their side, even if they are the minority in the world. So, maybe this ‘deathless’ is worth enquiring into. (Of course, something deeper – to know myself – was calling me, as well):
Consider just a few of the wars we humans have created with our self-lies since World War I: World War II, the Korean War (which hasn’t ended, yet), the Vietnam War, the Falklands War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And now, Syria. And, World War I was the ‘war to end wars.’
Ah, young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Did those who lie here know why they did die?
And, did they believe when they answered the call,
Did they really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it’s all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
– Eric Bogle, from No Man’s Land (1963)
And, each time, the armies fly their flags, and the wives and children go down to the docks and their wave flags, while their men leave again, having been told that they have ‘god on their side.’ So, I’m saying, if you love truth, you put enquiry before love of country, and even before your family. As did Socrates, Siddhartha Gotama, and Jesus. What did Jesus say, in Luke? “I have come not to unite, but to separate – father from son, mother from daughter.”
Now, you get a little bit, then, of my process when I began yesterday’s post. That’s two paragraphs. And, there you go… today’s theme is anti-war – or, more precisely, anti-nationalism – and I didn’t know, that it was coming so explicitly. I think the disgusting attacks on Matt Chun, of Bermagui, brought it into existence. “For,” as poet William Stafford said, “it is important that awake people to be awake.”
So, what have I learned, from this exploration? I wanted to approach the concept of death in a way that transcended ‘now’ and ‘later.’ We say, “Now I’m alive.” We say, “Later, I’ll be dead.” I wanted to experience as much about death and deathlessness as one can, while optimally strong and clear, before the dissolution of the body.
Some say, ‘How can you experience death, while you’re living? That’s ridiculous.” Some say, “Go into it deeply, now, while you have the capacity. Realise the deathless.” I notice that the people who have this second approach are (generally speaking) more positive, more vibrant, and less selfish, than the first group. They are not flag-wearers; they’re more likely to be ‘citizens of the planet.’ The way they live shows that they must have something on their side, even if they are the minority.
There is a strain of this group, admittedly, who have a life-denying flavour; but, generally speaking, you find less cynicism in this group, this group which tradition calls the ‘wise.’ Even if I can’t know, for sure, at the beginning of my enquiry, that the ‘wise’ know what they are talking about, they nevertheless have more peace, and more radiance, and more genuine independence from the opinions of others. Why’s that? What does it say about their inner experience behind or under the concepts of ‘death’ and ‘dying’?
If I examine my own use of the words ‘death’ and ‘dying,’ I notice that I can imagine ‘the later event,’ and I seem to believe it has some reality, in some way. How can this be? What can I believe about something which I haven’t experienced? You can’t say that seeing others die tells me anything important about death, except that I will come to that event, at some time. One decade, one year, one month, one minute, one second – it’s certain, but it’s all later. So, seeing others die tells me very little to make me intimate with death, really.
In other words, I use the words ‘death,’ and ‘dying’ and apart from seeing the bodies of others – that is, seeing the so-called ‘dying,’ and ‘death,’ of others – I still don’t have the faintest idea of what that is like from the inside. If I don’t know what death feels like, if I don’t know what it’s like from the inside, then what meaning has the word in relation to myself? Very little, really. To knowledge, it remains an enigma.
Seeing the death of others, mostly only means that ‘later’ thing: I’ll stop breathing, my blood will stop flowing, my body will go cold, my senses will cease functioning – things like that. I’ve seen that happen to others. This I can have no doubt about. But, what’s that like as an experience? I could see that the dying person was having an ‘inside’ angle on the event – ‘an experience of dying.’ Can I know that, now? Is there death at all, from the ‘inside’? Is there any way, then, that, while living in all kinds of conditions (sick or ill, happy or sad, and so on; and while not missing out on a fully-lived, vibrant, real life), that I can know something about the dissolving of life?
What do the earliest teachings, the Nikāyas – which are the classical pattern of the Buddhist teachings, the teachings closest to the historical Buddha – what do they say about this real-life challenge? This is not reality TV – a pathetic spectacle that depends on being displayed to the world, on others seeing it. One is, in an important sense, alone in this.
It turns out that these early teaching have a lot to say about the challenge, and that they offer a pristine ‘present-moment awareness’ approach to death and dying. Their approach is very simple, and very applicable to life now – not just about the ‘later’ event, which I will certainly encounter. Among the things that the Nikāya Buddha recommends, is that I should examine how I am treating others. Then, being assured that I’m purifying my actions, I should approach ‘time’ itself differently. He also suggests I should approach ‘space’ differently. He suggests we should approach knowledge very differently. I’ll expand these categories of his approach more clearly, if I’m alive tomorrow; because, as a result of re-aligning my perceptions, he says, I see the deathless – the unborn.
“If we somehow lived in that microscopic world, experiencing through its focal setting rather than our normal one, all that we accept as true would be completely transformed.” – Tarthang Tulku. Dynamics of Time and Space: Transcending Limits on Knowledge
The parts of us that fear – that fear death, illness, or suffering – these ‘parts’ or ‘processes,’ if we become intimate with their functioning in us, we find that they are shaped by limited perspectives. There is one particular perspective which limits them – or shapes their limiting power – most of all: that is, that multiple contradictory perspectives can’t co-exist. Academic philosophy has even enshrined this as a rule of logic: the law of the excluded middle. This is a serious limitation on thought, that doesn’t fit with deep contemplative experience. It means, either a statement is true, or its negation is true.
Having been bought up in a culture that believed that kind of concept, when in 1971 I encountered D.T. Suzuki’s statement that in Zen, A isn’t always A, I was gob-smacked:
We generally think that “A is A” is absolute, and that the proposition “A is not-A” or “A is B” is unthinkable. We have never been able to break through these conditions of the understanding; they have been too imposing. But now Zen declares that words are words and no more. When words cease to correspond with facts it is time for us to part with words and return to facts. As long as logic has its practical value it is to be made use of; but when it fails to work, or when it tries to go beyond its proper limits, we must cry, “Halt!” Ever since the awakening of consciousness we have endeavoured to solve the mysteries of being and to quench our thirst for logic through the dualism of “A” and “not-A”; that is, by calling a bridge a bridge, by making the water ﬂow, and dust arise from the earth; but to our great disappointment we have never been able to obtain peace of mind, perfect happiness, and a thorough understanding of life and the world.”
– D.T. Suzuki, Introduction to Zen Buddhism.
(Suzuki’s “Words are words, and no more” needs some Gendlin-like qualification, but it substantially stands, for our purposes, here.) So, our belief is that reality is as our present perspective discloses it, confined to an identity given by our senses. Hence, an openness to multidimensionality, or to the possibility that many perspectives are operating in our experience – this threatens our sense of identity, built upon bi-polar beliefs.
So, in relation to death – existence and non-existence seem mutually irreconcilable. Yet, we always have the capacity to open our knowing up. If you have done Les Fehmi’s Open Focus Training meditations, you would know that he uses the knowledge which physics has developed – about matter, about atoms, and about space in the atom – to expand the ‘focal settings’ that we normally place on our experience; for example, to free experience from the setting called ‘the senses,’ and open to experiential space without the ‘inside/outside’ setting. (See Les Fehmi, The Open-Focus Brain: Harnessing the Power of Attention to Heal Mind and Body).
Buddhist meditation does this without modern science, by putting us in touch with the concrete processes of our body-mind interactions. Mindfulness of the body is the basis of this enquiry. My point is that the very first thing we can do to activate a ‘deeper knowing’ (or higher, or greater – depending on your values) is to turn toward the processes which are limiting us. “Hello,” we can say, activating the host position immediately.
“Within the ordinary, the extraordinary is active. The moment we look ‘behind’ the established point, appearance and its derivation become questionable in fruitful ways.”
– Tarthang Tulku, Dynamics of Space and Time: Transcending Limits on Knowledge
I’ve found it helpful to say, ‘Every process has every other process in it.’ And, thereafter, to turn my attention to being curious: ‘What kind of other processes can I find in this one process.’ For instance, what kind of processes of feeling and belief ‘make up’ the part of me that doesn’t want me to directly know the deficient emptiness which I feel somewhere in me.
I might say to this part of me, “Oh, really? Don’t go there? Tell me more – why shouldn’t I go there? What the worst of my going there? Oh, really? You’re afraid I’ll cease to exist? Oh, so you’re guided by the ‘existence/non-existence’ opposites? Okay. I hear that. What else? How long have you been protecting me from that ’empty’ place, this black hole, inside me somewhere? Oh, for as long as you remember, back to my childhood. Wow! That’s a lot of protecting you’ve been doing!”
And, so on. Keeping in touch with bodily felt meanings as we go, while curious and kind, we are looking right into the patterns, expanding our host-like awareness, and investigating the accumulation of focal settings that make up such patterns. As a result, spaciousness increases, and more perspectives become available to open the space more, and to derive new, fresh creative perspectives. If we keep open to primordial experience at every step:
“Open at this level, enjoying a new knowledgeability, we discover appearance as mystery: a boundary-less play in which we are free to participate.
– Tarthang Tulku. Dynamics of Time and Space: Transcending Limits on Knowledge
It’s you who must make the effort. Tathāgatas merely tell us the way.
Meditators going along the way will be released from Mara’s ties.
– Dhammapada, verse 276. Translated by Christopher J. Ash
Engaging the Feeling Situation
I quote here a small something about ‘the genuine heart of sadness,’ from Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. The occasion is that my beloved is going through the shock, the grief, the acceptance, and all the feelings that come with a cancer diagnosis; and the feelings that naturally accompany the period gearing up for an operation. And, sometimes, when I experience her in all that, my life’s wisdom can only be expressed by having a good cry with her.
“The genuine heart of sadness comes from feeling that your non-existent heart is full. You would like to spill your heart’s blood, give your heart to others. For the warrior, this experience of sad and tender heart is what gives birth to fearlessness. Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”
This is what I meant yesterday. Spirit Shining’s action – throwing herself down where her dad has fallen – was for us all. Trungpa connects the capacity to hold the sorrows of the world with the existence of ‘basic goodness.’ It’s a healthy approach.
“Earth is always earth. The earth will let anyone sit on it, and earth never gives way. It never lets you go–you don’t drop off this earth and go flying through outer space. Likewise, sky is always sky; heaven is always heaven above you. Whether it is snowing or raining or the sun is shining, whether it is daytime or night-time, the sky is always there. In that sense, we know that heaven and earth are trustworthy.
“The logic of basic goodness is very similar. When we speak of basic goodness, we are not talking about having allegiance to good and rejecting bad. Basic goodness is good because it is unconditional or fundamental. It is there already, in the same way that heaven and earth are there already. We don’t reject our atmosphere. We don’t reject the sun and the moon, the clouds and the sky. We accept them.”
– Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
This is the only attitude possible toward the body’s innate vulnerability. To reject the body because it is nature, is non-wisdom. Trungpa – whatever his grievous errors of judgement were, and whatever his unresolved shadow; both of which we should not ignore or whitewash – was so basically right in this teaching.
It’s a Human Situation
I’ve spent much of my life putting into effect the understanding that we simply have a human situation here. It’s not hopeless. That’s basic goodness. Whatever the situation is, it’s a human situation. And, I’m human, too – so I am capable of being in it, wakefully. I can experience it fully. I’ve found that approach swiftly dissolves the beat-up, the drama of the maladapted ‘me.’ I renounce my habitual smallness.
‘Yes, this is here. We don’t know. I might die from it. Yes, that’s true; but it’s here, and I am what I am in my response to it’s being here. I’ll be in it.’ As my friend Susan says, “Say yes to all offers.”
Trungpa: “We should feel that it is wonderful to be in this world. How wonderful it is to see red and yellow, blue and green, purple and black! All of these colors are provided for us. We feel hot and cold; we taste sweet and sour. We have these sensations, and we deserve them. They are good.
“So the first step in realizing basic goodness is to appreciate what we have. But then we should look further and more precisely at what we are, where we are, who we are, when we are, and how we are as human beings, so that we can take possession of our basic goodness. It is not really a possession, but nonetheless, we deserve it.”
Confidence in the Unborn
The Dalai Lama also says this, often: that we should have confidence. One way to deal with the drama is to look directly at the thoughts. “I can’t do this.” Look at it, directly – see its transience. “I don’t have the strength.” Look at it, directly – see it is just an adornment of space. Looking right into the face of the thoughts that create dukkha, this looking activates, and brings, unshakable confidence. The Kargyu master Milarepa said:
“Although this conceptual chatter of the mind does arise,
it is unborn, without foundation, and groundless.
Confidence undistracted by thought is necessary.”
– quoted by the Dalai Lama, in his Meditation on the Nature of Mind (p. 78).
“True renunciation is grounded in a deep understanding of the nature of suffering and cyclic existence. In fact, the mantra of Buddha Shakyamuni, Om muni muni mahamuniye soha, invokes “the Able One, the Great Able One.” An enlightened being has great ability and a high degree of confidence in being able to accomplish a goal. This is not a naïve confidence or a naïve faith but one grounded in understanding and knowledge.”
– Dalai Lama. The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason (p. 127).
So, this is our mind’s capacity. Recognise it, or not; we can’t lose it. The opportunities for renunciation are many, and can be as straight-forward as: just the next appointment, or the next task, or the next moment of ‘don’t know what is happening.’ As simple as being here for the reality of our experience of the immeasurable interaction we call ‘cancer.’ The ‘goal’ is the renunciation, right there in the next action.
The human situation may require no more than to make dinner, feed the pets, clean up the lounge-room. Or, it could be “Now, I am on a gurney going to the operating theatre. I breath, and relax.” If I need, I say “Om muni maha muni ye soha,” to quieten my inner clutter. Maybe, from my hospital bed, I send loving-kindness out to the sick and wounded everywhere. I say thanks regularly to the hospital staff.
Whatever, we can renounce the drama which obscures the fundamental luminous space of mind. The ‘effort’ which embodies the way of a tathāgata may simply be the raw feeling of being in your human situation.
We could all take a lesson from Spirit Shining (Ling-zhao), an awakened, eighth-century, Chinese lay-woman. The Pang family is out and about, at their work selling bamboo baskets. It’s a beautiful day. Father Pang gets ahead of his wife and his daughter Spirit Shining, as the family crosses a bridge. When her father trips and falls on the road, Spirit Shining doesn’t miss a beat. She runs straight up, and throws herself down on the ground next to him!
“What are you doing?” he says.
“I’m helping,” she replies.
“Just as well no-one was looking,” he approves.
If a ‘second’ is watching in us, we hesitate. Spirit Shining doesn’t wonder about the scruples of her rule-bound, Confucian super-ego. (“Nice girls don’t throw themselves on the ground.”) Her freedom doesn’t take a fall with her Dad. Acting from her core, she joins him in his feeling situation. I imagine her mother feels a glow of joy in her daughter’s response – if she’s not in fits of laughter, dropping baskets in the process.
Despite their wonderful subtlety regarding states of mind, the Pāli Nikāyas really aren’t healthy guides in respect of relationship. Even when the Nikāya Buddha encounters the pain of a mother who has lost her child (a frequent occurrence), mostly his compassion is presented in the form of wisdom, with no expression of a personal ache, if he has any, in response to the situation. As men of such a patriarchal, non-democratic warrior world, how could they value the intimate personal? It’s irrational to expect that.
It’s interesting to note that a comparison has been done of the verses of the senior nuns (Therigatha) with the verses of the senior monks (Theragatha). And, the women show much more feeling in their verses, and many more references to actual life situations. The men are more interested in the mind principles. (See Women in the Footsteps of the Buddha: Struggle for Liberation in the Therigatha, by Kathryn R. Blackstone.)
The situation hasn’t changed much for the modern monk. Mostly, these are people who have avoided personal feelings, by becoming monks; so, of course personal relationship is their neglected line of development.
A clear example is Ajahn Sumedho (Robert Jackman, born in Seattle), whose profoundly ignorant actions missed an historic opportunity to acknowledge nuns in his Amaravati circle of monasteries as full human beings equal to men. (For the background, see here.) He lacked the courage, and instead affirmed openly that they have to submit to patriarchy. He fixed it in writing that they are to be led by the men, and that the most senior of the nuns is below the most junior monk.
Let me say that again, lest your good heart lead you to believe that I might have meant something other than what I said: The most senior of the women in the broad Amaravati community is less than the most junior man in that community.
Why was he such a dismal failure as a leader? Because, despite years as a meditator, he is still governed by his inner judge (a ‘second’). That’s clear from his violent behaviour. The only possible explanation for this is that he has used his Buddhist practice to by-pass this aspect of his feeling life, not to resolve it. That’s not unusual amongst Buddhists in general. In his case, identification with mere robes and tradition hindered the expression of his shining freedom. He could take a lesson from Spirit Shining.
When Nikāya Buddha encounters death in the lives of others, he rarely shows any obvious personal feeling about it. At least it isn’t commented upon, in the texts. I think if the accounts did ever contain any signs of his own personal sadness at the losses of others the tradition probably would have edited them out anyway.
There is a memorable story in the Nikāyas, of a felt, personal response. Sariputta and Moggalāna, life-long friends, both die within a fortnight of each other, and then the Nikāya Buddha does look upon his assembled disciples, and say, “There is a hole in this assembly.” I like to think he’s being depicted, here, as feeling the loss of his beloved students at that moment.
The bhikkhu tradition is confused about personal feeling; and by not acknowledging this side of themselves, they don’t transform the shadow side of their male power. Another modern monk, when disrobing after decades as a widely-respected bhikkhu, commented, “There’s no joy in that lot.” I imagine Layman Pang – himself an awakened one – laughing, delighting in his precious child’s very real presence.
I don’t seem to be able to form my words, today. Anyhow, I thought I’d share this poem from Portia Nelson, apropos yesterday’s post which mentioned being angry at one’s process. And because I mentioned ‘climbing out of holes’; and, because I could just have easily mentioned ‘holes’ the other day when I suggested that we disconnect from Being. When we disconnect from Being, that leaves ‘holes’ in consciousness. The good news is that we can enter the holes and reclaim our relationship with Being.
Anyhow, you’ll find her poem over here. I hope you enjoy it; or, if you’re feeling a bit down, that this might encourage you.
The deepest issue around, for me, of course, is still the acceptance of life as it is. I’m staring in the face of human helplessness, in respect of sickness, old age, and death. The point here is not to be seduced by either despondency or romanticism. To stay for the actuality, and know with an open heart that it is nature.
I’ve been experiencing, then, the perception of vulnerability, as a liberating perception:
“[A practitioner] reflects on the vulnerability of the body, in this way: ‘Many kinds of illnesses arise for this body. [He gives a long list…] Thus [the practitioner] dwells contemplating the vulnerability of this body.”
– Instructions to Girimananda, Translated by Christopher J. Ash
Our greatest gift is our power of acceptance of this vulnerability. Though, one of the things that has saddened me over the years is that people often mix up levels of discourse. If I say, ‘acceptance of life as it is,’ they worry that I’m saying something passive; like, ‘stay in bad situations, don’t do anything.’
It’s worth going over the point that I made some time last year. Hubert Benoit said he thinks in terms of two tendencies in the human: a time-oriented tendency, and a non-time-oriented tendency. We could think of the first as being a tendency toward becoming, while the second is a tendency toward being. It’s interesting that the timeless dimension (fearless and non-vulnerable) co-exists with the time dimension (attentive and vulnerable). Benoit wrote:
“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.”
‘Becoming’ is never understood correctly, if we haven’t mastered the ‘Being’ aspect of our life. All this contemplative talk – about meditation, mindfulness, emptiness, and non-self – all this is about touching the extraordinary riches of Being, which in no way negates becoming. This whole life makes sense when we know in our bones the inconceivable, unborn Being. Even death makes sense, respected in its limited domain. Yet, there is no Being aspect without the dynamic aspect.
It’s the tendency toward Being in each instant which I am referring to, when I say ‘acceptance of life as it is.’ So much wisdom is available if we develop this tendency. You can then act – get a second opinion, for instance, on that medical diagnosis. Or, think about other treatments.
To have only one perspective – the time-space perspective, or the timeless, empty perspective – would be myopic. We see one; we never cease to have the other – it’s implicit.
“If, Ānanda, consciousness were not to find a footing, or get established in, name-and-form, would there be an arising or origin of birth, decay, death and suffering in the future?”
“No indeed, Lord”, says Venerable Ānanda.
– Mahānidāna Sutta in the Digha Nikāya. Translated by Nanananda, quoted in Nibbana – The Mind Stilled
One should give up anger, abandon conceit,
leave behind every attachment.
One who is not clinging to name and form,
who is not something, this one is not followed by dukkha.
– Dhammapada, verse 221. Translated by Christopher J. Ash.
Ultimately we have to take over the role of being our own teacher and or therapist. It happens from time to time that I am talking to someone and I realise that they are stuck in a hole, which they could patiently make their way out of, if only they were interested in the truth of the hole. It’s painful, because often we are not interested in the truth of the hole. We may not have an interest in what is true, but only in what might make our life feel a little better at that moment.
This is particularly true when the hole is one that has been dug with a faith in one’s feelings of ill-will – anger, hatred, animosity, or aversion. These all give us false support. Why false? Because they feel supportive – either grossly or subtly. With anger can come a feeling of strength. With hatred can come a feeling of power.
With all of them one can feel various aspects of being ‘positioned’ – superiority, confidence, and solidity. But it’s a part of the falsely-bounded ‘me’ – the self-as-conceived. By ‘self-as-conceived’ I mean that one’s body feeling-tones, and perceptions are shaped by self-representations which are believed to be ‘true’ about oneself. This is ‘conceit’ in the Buddhist sense, and it works mostly out of sight. Mindfulness and clear understanding unravels the roots of conceit.
One should give up anger, abandon conceit,
leave behind every attachment. (Dhp.221)
If overcoming this were easy, we’d have a different world. Perhaps, the roots of this began about 10,000 years ago, in human evolution. So we’re not looking at an easy undoing of the knots. Some people suggest, and they might be right, for all we know, that what is maladaptive today – conceit, for instance – was adaptive once.
However the history of it might be, in practice, when you study your own consciousness, the way forward in undoing what are now troublesome bonds is clear enough. It just takes self-study, and – ironically – to study the self we need a willingness to abandon the idea of being someone. We need to be with the miracle of the display of reality, here, now.
Let me give a personal example. A few nights ago I was in a lot of pain in the night. People who know me, know that I suffer from fibromyalgia. Anyhow, it occurred to me, given that I wasn’t getting any sleep, that I may as well study the ‘mind of pain.’ Or, as some disciplines say it: the ‘pain body, speech and mind.’ (‘Speech’ by the way, here, is a particular kind of energy.)
This ‘pain body’ isn’t the same as the fibromyalgia – it’s a false dynamic of being averse to the fibromyalgia. I must say, by the way, fibromyalgia can be intense form of pain. I feel quite understanding of the part of me that doesn’t want to be there for it. However, for me the person, following that part doesn’t (in general) do very much good for my love of truth, or for the ending of dukkha. I basically have to disassociate, to indulge it; which (in case you haven’t noticed) is death to wakefulness. So, sensing that, in my half-conscious state at 2:00 AM, there was a bit of irritation around, I turned toward the whole thing.
Now, here’s the point: One thing that happened, as I entered the painful states without preferences, was that the sense of being a ‘sufferer’ disappeared. That makes some sense if you see it this way: the word ‘suffer’ means to undergo or endure. So, being the host for my pains (of body, speech and mind), I ‘disappeared’ as one enduring, or even, for that matter, undergoing the pain. There was pain, but there was no separate sense of a sufferer of the pains. I couldn’t do the two at the same time – be mindfully there, and be a ‘suffering being.’
Again, this makes sense, because to be truly intimate with the processes involved, pure and unlimited consciousness emerged. Sounds really grand, and somewhat impossible, doesn’t it? Of course, it’s true that I began this approach in the late seventies. So, long practice supports me, I agree.
However, if you’re new to this: remember, if you want walnuts ten years’ from now, plant a tree today. The other thing is that every step on the road to freedom is freedom. And, you can verify that now, if you appreciate small steps.
The third thing is: I’m a slow learner. I had some heavy karma to work through. There’s no saying that you won’t get the hang of this intimacy with dukkha a lot sooner than I did. (Very, very likely, given the culture we’re in, now.)
Anyhow, I’m grateful for the peace that the practice brought me in that situation. I went to sleep. It wouldn’t have been possible if I had followed the part of me that says, angrily, “This is not fair. This is not the situation I want! I want to sleep!” How sad would that be: kept awake by the anger at being awake. One arrow is the fibromyalgia, but the second arrow would be my own anger.
The whole range of dukkha – being someone born and dying – befalls one clinging to the ‘pain body, speech and mind.’ Don’t indulge your anger with your situation; instead, meditate on your existence.
Once long back, I was really mad with someone. I was hopping mad. And, it suddenly occurred to me that I am believing the scripts that parts of me are proffering – all these fictions turning up and stoking the flames. I’d been there so many times, and it always had an ignoble feel to it. It didn’t bring happiness. I decided to sit down and meditate, asking: ‘Where is the self who is angry?”
I couldn’t find it, in any of my five sentient processes! I remember going through in neat methodical order – along the lines of the meditation that Sariputta guides Anathapindika through, as Anathapindika is dying; in the Anāthapindikovāda Sutta – and at the end of it, the rage had gone. Evaporated. What bliss. It ended the resentment with the other person. From then on, I could see their life in a broader perspective.
One who is not clinging to name and form,
who is not something, this one is not followed by dukkha.
Two thirds my age, I’d say. She was coming out of the inner offices, to the public desk, after receiving the diagnosis. She has cancer and they’d be taking out (that was inaudible, to me), and some lymph nodes. She was distraught. She was shaking, and in tears. Her daughter was in shock. I held her, a stranger, in my heart.
Sitting there seeing all these people in the hospital – I found myself calling up a mantra, to keep me present for their pain. I wasn’t doing tonglen. There was metta, naturally. But most of all I just wanted, in the midst of the bustle, the cyclone of coming and going, in the presence of their pain and sorrow, and fear, I just wanted to really be there.
I found myself saying “Tayatha om muni muni maha muniye soha.” And, a great space just opened up. And the woman and her daughter came out of an office, nearby. Oh, my – she was so shaken.
In the Anguttara Nikāya, when Girimānanda is stricken, and might well die, the Nikāya Buddha reminds him of nine perceptions worth cultivating. One is (what I translate, in modern terms, as): the vulnerability of the body. A common translation of “ādīnava” is ‘danger.” ‘This body is a source of pain and danger.’ Well, that’s true, I suppose. But, it sounds a bit as though we could be body-hating, there. So, instead I translate it as: ‘This body is vulnerable.’
We have a much longer list of names, I’m sure, these days, than the Nikāya Buddha has for the ways the body can meet misfortune, yet the causes are fundamentally the same: our bodies fall ill from infections and disease, they’re wounded in conflict, damaged by accident or negligence, or stray from the norm in development. Nobody has any control over this vulnerability. If we could, wouldn’t we ask our bodies to co-operate with our desire to live a long, healthy life? We’d command: “This body will be without cancer, without wounds, without accidental damage, or mishap.”
This vulnerability makes sense of the place in the Attalakkhana Sutta, where the Nikāya Buddha says, “”Practitioners, form is non-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead into suffering, and one could control form: ‘Let my form be such and such a way; let my form not be such and such a way.’ And since form is non-self, so it leads into suffering, and no-one can control form: ‘Let my form be such and such a way, let my form not be such and such a way.'” Of course, she’s distraught!
It’s a great irony of this big life that bodies are sites for the creative life of cells, and that this unpleasant side we call ‘vulnerability’ is inevitable. One could wonder what the advantage of such a contemplation is, when one is in the throes of a life-threatening illness, as it seems Girimānanda is.
I can say that such a thought helped me when I got my cancer diagnosis. Because of this understanding of natural vulnerability, I didn’t have the particular kind of resistance, from which I would surely suffer, if I said: ‘This shouldn’t be happening to me.’ Truth is, it was happening. Where else was I going to be, but there for it?
And, sometimes it definitely shouldn’t be happening; for example, such as when we can link Monsanto’s ‘Roundup’ with cancer; or James Hardies’ practices to asbestos-related diseases in Australia (which we can in both cases).
However, whatever the fault of others in the situation, by perceiving the body’s vulnerability the sufferer has a chance to come home to the life process. This body is a local representative of the great life, in any and every condition; this body is in everything and everything in this body. It’s an odd comparison, but ‘for better or worse, in sickness and in heath’ this body is wedded to all the universe, here and elsewhere. So, right in the midst of peril, we can find the unimperilled (nirādīnava).
There are more fortunate ways to learn this, than to suffer a disease, for sure; but, because it’s true, it’s worth learning at any time, whatever the circumstance. Why? Because it brings a particular kind of peace, deeply – the peace of intimacy with the big what is.
No-one controls the natural process we call ‘body’ – no self, no mum, no dad, no government or religion, no gods or God in the sky. We don’t know when it will be, or what the cause will be, but we will die.
On the way up into this building, today, in the lift, an old man – much older than me – was going in, alone. He told us he was there for a hernia operation. An hour later, as we were leaving, I saw him sitting alone, and I went over and wished him well. He told me his operation was at 1:00. I hope he is alive and well, now. This body’s vulnerability is. It is happening, the big and intimate life.
Someone this week, with deep feeling, asked me, “How could I have disconnected from Being?” I’d like to use some Western terms, for now. This is one way to think of this territory. I learned these things basically from the work of A.H. Almaas, and have found them to be concepts which are experientially reliable and verifiable.
However, I need to say that I communicate them through my own filters, and would not want to pretend to represent that school. I couldn’t do that accurately. The best book on this – for the specialist and for the brave explorer – is his The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization.
When we are born, we are born with the presence of Being as our support. We are, though, only able to know it intuitively – it’s a felt presence – and we don’t, of course, have language to make that fully conscious. Furthermore, we are not brought up in an environment which is attuned to Being, and it is therefore not attuned to Being in us. That is, our carers very rarely appreciate our radiance as Being manifest.
As we grow, we become entangled in our self-images; the result of a natural development. We express the natural potentials of our species for a conceptually-mediated life. In the process, we more or less fall in love with our self-representations, thinking that’s who we are. (Remember Narcissus?) This infatuation entails one kind – a central kind – of disconnection from Being. Being doesn’t leave us, of course, but identified with our structures, we are no longer able to intuit the presence of Being.
Furthermore, these structures are also energetically charged with the reactivity around our emotional wounds from our treatment in childhood. This is a complex interweaving of nature and nurture, the result of which is that we end up locking ourselves out of our own heart.
So, instead of our connection to Being, we feel that there is a deficiency, an absence, or even a place where we have died, in our centre. The dynamic of the disconnect, and the defences against feeling the deficiency, contribute to our personality. Identified with what is false and defensive – the structures – and disconnected from our aliveness, we can come to feel that life is purposeless, meaningless and pointless. This will mean additional strategies are put in place to deal with this – for example, the pursuit of pleasure, or of illusory kinds of freedom, and so on – but the central deficiency sticks like tar-paper, making itself felt from time to time in our life, just the same. And, ultimately nothing satisfies for long.
In a sense this is a precise pointlessness, because, being locked out of our own heart, by our misconceptions of presence, we are also locked out of knowing of a precise experience – the point-like presence, the point where our existence is experienced as the outward radiance of Being itself. That is, presence, when reclaimed is felt most essentially as a point in the heart. The core problems experienced in the heart chakra arise from disconnection from Being.
We heal, and move into our next stage of development (as individuals and as a species), by: a) developing positive spiritual capacities (for example, altruism, physical care, mindfulness and meditation); and, b) with the support of such capacities, bringing into the light of compassionate, uncontrived awareness the structures which we have come to depend on, those which are obscuring the presence of Being.
‘Reclaiming’ our connection to Being is possible. Though, in a sense, it’s not a reclaiming, because we can’t go back to our pre-reflective state. Ken Wilber talks of ‘pre-reflective,’ ‘reflective,’ and ‘post-reflective.’ Reclaiming our connection to Being happens, then, in the context of a) healing our reflective capacity, and going beyond it into ‘post-reflective’ presence of Being.
In Memory of Stephen Levine
Stephen Levine, teacher, visionary and healer, has died, with family around him, in his home in New Mexico, U.S.A, on 17th January.
My first audio dharma teaching was on a set of duplicated cassette tapes, forty years ago. No digital, then. It was Stephen, his voice on those tapes – supporting people who had lost loved ones; people who were living with a terminal diagnoses; people who were participating in those workshops to support others who had such a diagnosis; and many others whose hearts were breaking – which penetrated my armour. He brought me to tears; brought me to my heart. There was no doubt in my mind about his compassion and his courage. His tender voice is still in my memory.
In those workshops he supported them all to stay for their pain – physical, mental, emotional – and, most of all, to stay for what is. He encouraged us to have faith in the more that we are, to have faith in what holds us, as we hold others in the human pains of sickness, mental affliction, old age and death. I was one of those desperately in need of healing, then, and Stephen’s voice on those tapes encouraged me, too. Even the silent presence of his wife Ondrea in those workshops was a great support.
Of course, over the years I used his meditations, published in several books, for myself, and to guide others. I credit the wisdom which I manage to bring to my marriage to the fact that I read his Embracing the Beloved. I believe it contributed to finally being able to stay and learn the lessons which marriage can teach; particularly to embrace the dissolution of my narcissism. That’s been working for twenty years in my present, vibrant relationship.
Then, of course, back in 1999, I did my first ‘Year to Live.’ I ‘died’ as 2000 rang in. Oh, wow! That has been a life-changer! Allowing for a ”year off’ (as if one could have a year off from death!), I’ve practiced it for at least ten of the last sixteen years.
Decades later I still regularly. “soften the belly.” There’s hardly a month go by, without I encourage another with Stephen’s phrase, “a soft belly.” I still touch “a heart big enough to hold it all,” in the ways I learned from Stephen. Deep bows to someone whom I never met personally, but I must count as important among my teachers. Deep bows, too, to his beloved partner in all his work Ondrea, who is still with us.
Thank you Stephen. May all the Stephen elements in the universe, those elements in all of us, flourish in wisdom and love.