Focusing

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Deathless Speech

Practitioners, whatever there is in the world… whatsoever is seen, heard, sensed, and cognized, attained, sought after, and ruminated on by the mind: I know all that. I have fully comprehended all that; all that is known to a Tathāgata [one who comes and goes in suchness], but a Tathāgata does not serve that knowledge.” – The Buddha, Kālakarāma Sutta

The method of inquiry in the Buddhadharma is experiential. In an experiential inquiry, concepts serve us; they aren’t given a life of their own. If we give them authority over direct experience, we serve them.

In our project, here, ‘death’ is a dhamma word, which we don’t want to leave as a mere idea, or it will haunt us. It will dominate us, rather than serve us. We can get along – stumble through life – that way, of course – get through a life without giving attention to how it works in us. That doesn’t change the fact that a word’s meaning is in our living bodies. So, to ignore how the word ‘death’ lives in daily experience is actually detrimental to living.

This might be a strange idea: “how a word works in us.” Words work. That’s the point of them. Another way of saying this is that words have energy. And, in particular, they carry the energy of all the ways they have been used, in all the situations in which they have been used, by ourselves and our fellow speakers. (And, all the ways in which our animal forebears communicated – in gestures, for example.)

So intimate is the relation of words to experience, that words can help carry our life forward, affording us greater richness of experience. (It’s common, by the way, for meditators to be disparaging of words or concepts, but even this disparagement depends on concepts. If we haven’t mastered our mind, we tend to feel assailed by the verbal mind. Even this disdain for language, though, is an attempt – albeit unskilful – to carry one’s meditative life forward in a positive direction, isn’t it?)

Following Gendlin’s work on the relation of words to experience, the meaning of any word includes all the situations throughout your life in which you’ve encountered the word — all these experiences. So, your use of the word ‘death’ reflects the richness of your understanding of death in life.

Not experientially absorbing the word’s meaning, robs our humanity of its vitality and of a range of resources that we humans need, desperately. The meaning in the dictionary is not the living meaning. It can be a help in accessing our bodily experience, but it can’t give us the actual lived meaning of the word. (I treasure my dictionary – the Oxford English Dictionary is a major achievement of the English culture – but I’m realistic about its limitations. A dictionary’s power is in our contact with bodily experience – in the users of the language.)

If we settle into an unreflective use of words, we suffer. We all settle into this habit before our twenties, having mastered the necessary habit of inattention by then. “Necessary?”, you ask. To not be attentive to the relation of words to reality appears necessary, doesn’t it, so as to fit in with the consensus social reality? That’s where our ‘centre’ has become established – in social reality. Yet, what the Nikāya Buddha is saying (in our quote above) is that he has become independent of social reality. He got there by connecting with immediate experience, and noticing the role that concepts (name and form) play in shaping experience. I’ll go more deeply into this later, in a way that is grounded in everyday observation. That’s one reason for this inquiry, so that harmony reigns between our speaking and experience.

A practitioner named Vaṅgīsa said the Nikāya Buddha: “Truth, indeed, is deathless speech: this is an ancient principle. The good and the Dhamma, good people say, are established upon truth.”
– The Suttanipata: An Ancient Collection of the Buddha’s Discourses Together with Its Commentaries (p. 229). Translated by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Wisdom Publications.

To resolve our doubts around ‘death,’ and to know the deathless, we – ordinary people, not academics – can’t avoid the relationship of speech to experience.

Patience and Seeing

I intended today to write about regret; but in the early afternoon, I gathered my materials together and I painted. At first the process felt a little mechanical, but very soon I found myself absorbed.

Amongst the interesting things I did was to make up a yucky mix that worked perfectly for the red eucalyptus stems in the painting. How does that happen? It looked awful as I mixed it, but I knew it was right; and it worked well, enlivening the whole canvas. I was now engaged, and seeing colours that were mysterious – like the blues which I invited into the black in the setting.

After I’ve painted, I find I’m sensitive to colours everywhere I go. Suddenly the rock-faces hereabouts turn up colours which I don’t usually see. The forests are showing a myriad of subtle greens, and tender reds in those same greens. The way the sunlight plays on the sandstone cliffs at sunset is fresh to me.

As I walked back to the house, from my studio, awake to the unfathomable being of the world, something rose up in me: a felt sense without words.

Going inside the house, I made a cup of tea, and sat down to invite that sense, to ‘say hello’ to, that ‘sense of something.’ Like all felt meanings, it was murky at first. It’s the kind of thing that, if I didn’t know better, I might say was ‘nothing,’ or at least unpromising. It could easily be dismissed by someone not familiar with what Eugene Gendlin calls ‘a felt sense.’ Or, if such a one could at least respect it, they might be satisfied with calling it ‘mysterious’ or ‘ineffable,’ and enquire no further.

However, sitting alongside it, giving it some space and some kindly attention, in the way that I’ve learnt and practised over several decades, more could come there. Like a shy fawn, it could only peek out at first, but then come into view. The poet Ted Hughes has a piece called The Thought Fox that suggests the cautious, even wary, way a felt meaning emerges.

That’s why Gendlin called his practice Focusing – because when we give it the right kind of attention, this vague ‘something’ in the middle of the body goes from murky to clear (as when in the old SLR cameras the frosty circle of the centre of the lens went from blurry to clear when you got the correct focus.)

So, now, what came clear was an understanding which I haven’t been confident about, hitherto. It was this: what I had just been immersed in for that period, breathing in and out, painting, was an introduction to the radiance of being as it exists in my own body. It was revealed through the art of seeing. And, then I recalled that the artist Brett Whitely had once said that the only reason to paint is to learn to see.

I now had the words for the experience which occurred immediately after the painting session. “Radiance.” As I had come away from the studio, the radiance everywhere was intense. In one sense it dissolved all differences, revealing a deeper unity through the very ordinary miracle of seeing.

On the other hand, the radiance shone – from the inside out – in every leaf, every grass-blade, and even in the buildings about me. The pittosporum as I passed it; the concrete path where I walked; the tangled jasmine in the corner, the rough steps into the house were luminous.

I had intended to write something about ‘regret’: about the harmful things I’ve done, the hurts I’ve caused which I regret the most. Instead, I find myself back at the easel, marvelling at the black with phthalo blue, painted over a green-black underlay — at how the purples peek through, in the afternoon light. And, those tiny, yellow spots in the eucalyptus leaves. The red line around that edge, there.

Seeing is for developing the heart. It would also be strong, my regret, if I arrived at the end of my life without having learnt to sense the wonder of the ordinary. All my learnèd philosophy would have been just empty naming, if I hadn’t embodied it, thus to see the world afresh.

When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!

– Basho, trans. D.T. Suzuki (Japanese ‘nazuna’ could be translated ‘shepherd’s purse.’)

Speaking with the Dead

Today I will visit a ‘place’ established by my sisters to remember our mother. They placed her ashes there. It’s mothers’ day. I’m glad to be going. In fact, it’s the first time I’ve visited this place, or made space for it.

What is a place, I wonder? What’s the relationship of a ‘place’ to the kind of ‘space’ which is our ‘experiential world’? And, how does memory work?

I read this morning about a white settler whose husband died. She sold the farm and moved away (maybe back to England); but not before she relocated her husband’s grave to a tree somewhere off the farm. I thought that was sensible. She made sure it wasn’t on any one individual’s property. She couldn’t control its future, but she gave it the best chance of carrying on.

The tree was a ‘place’ that held memories for her, because long before, when her husband had arrived penniless in the area, unable to afford board anywhere, he had lived in the trunk of that tree for five years. Rabbi Rudy Brash includes the story in his Permanent Addresses, which is a book about people’s graves. The man went on to create a farm, and have a large family.

Why do we have graves? I wonder. How does memory work? Isn’t the body the memory of what’s been? Isn’t it the carrying forward of what has been? Or do we have these places to remind us of other ‘spaces’? Without the acknowledgment of ‘other’s spaces’ ours would be a narcissistic bubble. We create these places to carry forward our spaces into more of life.

Many people use graves to speak to the dead. With such an interaction, do we take a place into our space (our living), absorbing its fresh meanings (fresh because this is ‘now’) into our being? A lot of healing happens this way. I had a dream a couple of years ago, in which two young aboriginal men told the dream-Christopher: “It is an honour to speak with the dead.”

A spontaneous visit with a friend to the local vihara one day, a couple of years ago, led me to reflect on how I’m treating my parents, who have both died. That’s an odd concept to many, no doubt.

“How are you treating your parents?”
“What do you mean? They’re dead?”
“When you say that, what do you want that word ‘dead’ to mean?”

I think I’ve got some learning to do, here. The Sri Lankan family who provided the lunch meal, were commemorating the death of their collective parents – and they do this every year. I imagine one function of the day is to remind themselves that: I am subject to old age. I am not exempt from old age. I am subject to illness. I am not exempt from illness. I am subject to death. I am not exempt from death. There is alteration in, and parting from, everything that is dear and pleasing to me. I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions. They are my matrix, I am related through them, they are my mediator. I become the heir of whatever actions I do, good or bad.

I got to thinking that, while I do often think about my parents’ deaths – each of which had its own story, its own character – on the other hand, I don’t commemorate their death, in the sense of make a special time of remembrance. I think of each of them, from time to time, and I think about the manner of their deaths, and I think about their inner growth up to and into that moment of death; but nothing ritualised.

I resolved after that dream, and after witnessing the Sri Lankans that day, to explore what more there could be in my relationship with the dead. To be at peace when it’s my turn, I might need to speak with them now more intimately than random musings allow. If I only had a year to live, wouldn’t I follow this thread? “Yes.” Then, okay.

So, thanks to the dream and an unexpected invitation to a meal at the local Vihara on day, I started to explore ritually inviting remembrance, a conscious process. I took the first step: I recorded the dates of my parent’s deaths in my diary.

I’ve noticed that others of my family, and some of my acquaintances, they do this: they go to the cemetery, each year, on the anniversary of the deaths of loved ones. It was by my sisters’ suggestion that we are visiting my mother’s place in the cemetery today, and it felt right.

These dates become an opportunity to be in touch with the ‘more’ of life. I’ll check in ‘with the middle of me,’ today, to see what comes there. I imagine it can be, at the very least, a day of gratitude, and an opportunity to be feel the preciousness of a human life – and maybe it’ll be painful, but… that’s welcome, too. It’s included in all this. There’s space for it.

Deep Bows to Gene Gendlin

My dear hero Gene Gendlin has died, naturally at the age of 90. It was several days ago, and I have been unable to write a word during this time. Now I’ve found something to say, and want to share it with you. (Apologies to those of you who may get a double posting.)

A week ago, I heard that he was dying, so I was readied for the final word. But, when that news came, I suddenly felt something I didn’t expect. Of course I cried, and felt the inevitable loss. But I felt something else, and when I checked in, I heard myself say with gentle certainty, “I’m standing on my own two feet, now.” And, I felt them connected to the immeasurable earth. I want to share a little of the background to that moment.
About twenty years ago, I said to a Buddhist friend, “I’m going to explore what the West has to offer.” He said to me, “Do you really think they have anything?” He meant ‘anything worth while.’ Now, these years later, I can say to my friend, “Oh, I’m so happy that, with the help of Eugene Gendlin’s amazing ‘Philosophy of the Implicit,’ I feel I’ve come home to the West, where I began, and where, culturally speaking, I belong.
My philosophical journey began as a seventeen-year-old, where I discovered Socrates and meditation, in the same year. Socrates’ love of wisdom and his bravery blew me away. But then, very soon after, I discovered Buddhism, and so – because they had accessible methods (with mindfulness and meditation), I began a (so far) fifty year excursion into Buddhist practice; and at some stage became a Buddhist teacher. So, it was significant to want to go West. I eventually felt the call of the culture that I had stood in, as a child, unknowingly.
‘Going West,’ for me, initially meant studying psychotherapy, and becoming a psychotherapist. Something practical. But that introduced me to Focusing. And, with the help of Bev Stevenson, Nada Lou, and my trainer Ann Weiser Cornell, I became a Focusing trainer.
Then, about twelve years ago, came one of the first teleconferences I did with Gene. It was organised by my (later) mentor Rob Parker, and its topic (if I remember rightly) was on the primacy of the body. There Gene said something which viscerally turned my reality inside out. I suddenly experientially realised that perception doesn’t give me a basis for ‘being.’
Someone said to me, today, that they hadn’t realised that they had a particular dependency, until the object of that dependency was suddenly not there. And that was what it was like, for me, in respect of perception. Gene said something about perception being derived from a more fundamental interaction-first life-process; and suddenly (in this little pokey office in North Sydney), I literally ‘saw’ without any dependency on perception. I felt released.
To explain a eye-sight seeing which rests on a felt ocean of implicit knowing would take an entire essay, but that’s what it was like. That says it. (That experience helped me understand many of the historical Buddha’s enigmatic comments.) I contacted Mary straight away, and she passed my joy and gratitude on to Gene, and conveyed that he was delighted. That was the beginning of my immersion in A Process Model.
From then on, I realised that I had two spiritual paths; two completely complementary paths. And that has remained so. So, it’s with this gratitude to a spiritual mentor, that I live in the memory of Gene.
Again and again, since then, in the teleconference courses that Ann has run, I have put the ‘alone edge’ of my expanding understanding to Gene, and his ‘Amen’ had me sighing with relief each time. They were like the checking questions the Zen teacher asks:
There’s a deeper presence than perception. “Amen.”
At the limit, stillness and movement are not two. “Amen.”
‘Body-en’ is a way of saying ‘mind.’ “Amen.”
(This last one, only a few months ago, settled a puzzle for me that had been around since I was four years old! It has opened up vistas for me.)
So, I got to depend on those courses. Was it my need for the good male authority, given the appalling violence of my upbringing? Sure. Compared to what my father said about my mind, to hear Gene say with affection how he loved my questions – of course that was healing. And, Gene’s kindness, his humour, his concern for the welfare of humanity – all that, too, I came to depend on it. And, Gene also introduced us in a very practical way (Focusing) to some of finest of the riches which the West has to offer.
He did this by pointing us back to the primacy of body. This is a very healing thing to do. Gene was a supreme healer. He sent us back to our own experience, encouraging us to inquire there, and especially to inquire kindly; to love philosophy, and to find in our own bodies the body that Socrates learned from.
Last week, in the days before he died, I watched (yet again) the TAE video that Nada gave me twenty years ago, where Gene says:
“There is the absolutely best laboratory – as far as we know, at least – in the whole cosmos; which you can have access to; because the absolute best laboratory in the whole cosmos – which has a direct line into… whatever everything is… that’s a human being.”
–    Eugene T. Gendlin, at the opening to Gems from Gene, Tape 5 of Thinking at the Edge (a five tape VHS series)
May the exhausted world find this ever-available refreshment. (I hear him saying, “Amen.”) Thanks, Gene.

Uprooting the Lingering View

Can we speak and think (that is, can we ‘name’) with a lightness of touch, and yet also love precision? (Later we will explore where the healthy precision comes from.) Can we ‘name’ to nurture healthy lives, and avoid making the fundamental problems of human knowledge worse than they are? Of course we can; but we’ll need to understand the relationship of language to experiencing, first.

“All have gone under the sway/Of this one thing called name.” If we are seduced by our unskilful use of language – and by that I mean, language-use not in accord with the fundamental matrix of experiencing – then, we misuse our gift. Conceiving of things, in the way we do when influenced by craving, conceit and views, changes our way of experiencing the objects of our conceiving. Stated even more radically: However you conceive a thing, by that very thinking it becomes for you otherwise than it is.

The task, then, as the Nikāya Buddha presents it, is to disconnect our naming practices from a belief in the inherent existence of ‘things.’  It is neither the case that ‘things’ have a prior existence, and are there already to be named; nor that the naming creates them.

“Beings are conscious of what can be named,
They are established on the nameable,
By not comprehending the nameable things,
They come under the yoke of death.”
– Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled.

Try considering, instead, that our ‘naming’ can be a process way of using language.  Quite radically, I propose (based on my reading of Gendlin) that language is what bodies do. Bodies gesture in this way that is peculiar to humans. Language is a self-reflexive gestural ‘strategy’ to work with experiencing; particularly, to carry our on-going interaction forward in a life-enhancing manner.

I take the view that language-use is a line of development; and an evolutionary gesture that needs its next step. By exploring this in our actual life, we might find that these gestures (our words) increase the power of experience. They change experiencing – one’s own, and that of one’s hearers.

We are well-compensated for the de-emphasising of our belief in ‘things,’ which this view entails. It is bondage to think that language establishes the existence of things – that the job of language is to establish ‘is’ and ‘is not.’ Freed from that yoke we step out, too, from under the yoke of death – for, what dies, if there are no absolute ‘things,’ and if there is only interaction, only process? An immeasurable dimension presents itself in the place of a fragmented world.

In a passage in the Anguttara Nikāya, the Nikāya Buddha says that “an arising is manifest, a passing away is manifest and an otherwise-ness in the persisting is manifest.” (Trans. Ñāṇananda) “Manifest’ I take to mean ‘occur.’

The profound personal realization behind this is that what is arising is ceasing. This ‘occurring’ is never established as anything existing; and, therefore can’t come from anywhere, nor go anywhere. That is, what is occurring has no tangible nature. We can say things arise, and that things cease; and that in the middle nothing becomes established. Are we willing, if we’d like to know what death is, to apply this to our personal existence?

I see a bird. The bird is looking back at me. Now, in the first moment, I don’t have any ‘bird’ concept, or ‘me’ (not ‘back’) – there is just the interaction. There’s no ‘here’ or ‘there,’ as well. If experiential space is named wrongly, then it becomes solidified into ‘mine’ and ‘not-mine’; and, ‘this’ and ‘here’ will be distinguished from the experience of ‘that’ ‘there.’ Anxiety arises.

But in the freshness of the first moment of intimate interaction, when I recognize the non-locality of experience, and I stay present for it, there is freedom to see the bird. The awakened factor if mindfulness is present. My heart is taking the beauty of its form, and its piercing, yellow iris. And, there’s the felt knowing of our intimacy. But, the ‘I’ who knows this has no location, and neither does the bird.

This spaciousness has the possibility of increasing our power of experiencing; but usually, by default, we make a ‘thing’ of space. By mistakenly naming experiences as existing in themselves, one makes ‘here and there’ in what has no ‘here’ or ‘there.’ One makes ‘mind’ into a personal box, with its locality, its limited contact, and its centre. And, the centre, we name as the perceiver; and whatever is outside the limit we name the ‘something contacted.’ For the Nikāya Buddha, there’s no such limit.

Much that I am saying is affirmed by the Nikāya Buddha in many places. For instance, in the Kālakarāma Sutta, a sutta which indicates the inner life of liberation, the Nikāya Buddha says the following (though not exactly in these words. I’m summarizing. You can find my complete translation here):

“I know things, just like anyone knows things, but I don’t cling to what I know. If you cling, you serve what you cling to. I live without conceiving of an independent reality in either the experiencer or the experienced. And, I don’t conceive of a reality elsewhere, an unexperienced something somewhere outside what is.

“Because of this, you can refer to me as one who is ‘such.’ And that is the supreme kind of person.”

It’s a lion’s roar: “A Tathāgata being ‘such’ in regard to all phenomena seen, heard, sensed and cognized, is ‘such.’” This way of being means that the liberated person (a tathāgata) is not limited by, defined by, nor identified by anything conceivable. As he says elsewhere, he is not identifiable by his form, his feeling-tones, his perceptions, his shaping factors or intentional factors, nor his consciousness. Hence, the concept of suchness.

When the Brahmin yogi Mogharāja asked, “By looking upon the world in which manner can one escape the eye of the king of death?”, the Nikāya Buddha answered:

“Look upon the world as void,
Mogharāja, being mindful at all times,
Uprooting the lingering view of self,
Get well beyond the range of death,
Him who thus looks upon the world,
The king of death gets no chance to see.”
Sutta Nipāta, verse 1119. Translated by Ñāṇananda, quoted in Nibbāna: The Mind Stilled.

Healthy Mindfulness Attitudes

“As inquiry brings awareness, observation, and intelligence into play, we can see what attitudes support effective knowing.” – Tarthang Tulku. Knowledge of Time & Space: An Inquiry into Knowledge, Self & Reality
What attitudes support a person who is developing insight? What attitudes empower mindfulness? To sketch a preliminary answer, I’m not going to give an academic summary. That’s not necessary here. Instead, I’m sharing what I have learnt.
The Person
Firstly, the mindfulness practitioner values being a person. It’s important in mindful awareness to acknowledge that there is a particular being present. We must be careful of misapplying the teaching of no ‘self.’ The surest way to get confused around concepts of ‘self’ – I’ve seen some very dissociated Buddhists – is to apply this at the wrong level of experiencing; and so to make it difficult to have grounded contact with the body.
In the mindfulness approach it is better to remember the body. As it says in the Mindfulness Sutta: “There is this body.” Maintain contact with the body (which is the earth element), no matter how subtly you are experiencing ‘matter.’ The presence of a body is integral to appreciating the truth of being the unique person you are.
The Mindfulness Attitude
With this phrase, I am referring to several attitudes (states of mind) crucial to effective mindfulness. I use the phrase in the way that focusers speak of ‘the focusing attitude.’ As focuser and meditation teacher David Rome says:
“The key to success in this practice is something called “the Focusing attitude.” It is a capacity for gentle and brave self-caring, and it can be cultivated. Also known in Focusing circles as “caring-feeling-presence” or “self-empathy,” it is akin to the Buddhist virtue called maitri — loving kindness or friendliness directed toward oneself. It is a potent, poignant and at times quite magical way of making friends with oneself.” – Searching for the Truth that Is Far Below the Search, printed in Shambhala Sun, September 2004.
This warmth is a quality of mindful-awareness. But, here, I’ll comment on why we meditate or are mindful, at all; and, why we focus (or, ‘explicate felt meanings’). I do this to ward off any impression that I am suggesting that our meditation should be a kind of Focusing process.
In meditation, we are interested in knowing/appreciating the luminous and creative nature of the ground of mind. We are loving that luminous nature in itself – the nature of ‘experiential space’ and its ‘source.’
Focusing, though, is on this side of the door to the source. We spend some time being intimate with some kind of experience, ‘sitting next to’ it, sensing the ‘more’ that lies beneath the patterns, and usually naming it with carefully-chosen language – to be clear about what we are experiencing. I’ll say more later, but this is broadly the difference between the two areas of human functioning.
Balancing Peace and Investigation
However, in both cases we need a relaxed, warm attitude toward experiencing; a non-judgemental, accepting attitude. Being at ease with whatever comes brings peaceful stability (samatha) to the mind, which turbo-charges our capacity to looking deep into experiencing (vipassanā). (One without the other is imbalanced.)
We’re developing the attitude of confidence like the Nikāya Buddha on the night of his awakening, when he touches the earth, calling it to witness his right to be here, dwelling in truth.
Harmlessness, Positivity and Non-Judging
“Established in peace, gentleness and presence of mind, they have reached the essence of discernment and learning.” – Nikāya Buddha, in Kimsila Sutta.
Mindfulness is a non-violent, insight-oriented approach to your experiencing. The Nikāya Buddha is very positive, and asks that we be positive toward our inner work. For instance, always establishing joy as a quality of the awakened mind. Or, another instance: in the early stages of Mindfulness of Breathing In and Out Sutta (Ānāpānasati), we invite gladness and joy, before looking more deeply.
He has the attitude of welcoming experience, no matter what it is. He tells his son Rahula to meditate in imitation of earth, water, fire, and space; which all openly accept what comes. We are taking an attitude of non-harm – friendly (Pāli: metta; Sanskrit: maitri) and being non-judgmental toward experiencing.
Make your mindfulness about knowing that you are alive. Being empathic with one’s experience is possible. This means respecting the feelings and points of view of the false-‘I’ system, with its ‘blocking processes’ (traditionally called ‘hindrances.’) Respecting isn’t the same as ‘following,’ of course.
We don’t disconnect from present-moment awareness and from contact with our breathing body. We don’t collapse, in the face of our negativity. We keep our the vigilance (another ‘mindfulness attitude). So, what I mean by ‘non-judgmental’ is that we don’t take sides in the arguments that go on in our thoughts.
Hence, toward everything we maintain our attitudes of kindness, compassion, love of inquiry, and the love of truth – because these protect us from losing perspective on why we are here. “You should remember and explore: the spiritual life…” (Kimsila Sutta)
Intimacy and Feeling as Knowing
I always think, here, of the advice in the Mindfulness Sutta: to know the body, the feeling-tones, the mind-states and so on in the body. I take it to mean from inside the experience, and not at an intellectual distance. In the Mindfulness of Breathing In and Out Sutta (Ānāpānasati), for instance, an important word patisaṃvedī, usually translated as ‘knowing’ or ‘experiencing,’ means primarily, ‘to feel.’ Hence, this means to know something intimately, directly, and as felt in the body. It is to know something from inside it. This, too, is part of the mindfulness attitude.
Loving the Truth
“You need to love the truth. Delighting in truth, devoted to the truth, standing in the truth, with awareness of how to investigate the truth.” – Nikāya Buddha, in Kimsila Sutta
In the spirit of curiosity and inquiry, we put ourselves under truth. It doesn’t work to approach truth with conceit, ambition, or grasping. Mindfulness is a process of awakening appreciative intelligence. So there is an attitude of openness and of learning. Often, in the meditative and contemplative literature, this the where the experience of ‘not knowing’ is praised.
“One should go about free of conceit, self-possessed.” (Kimsila Sutta)
Respecting Concepts
Many meditators make thought into an enemy; but, it’s important to value words in our awakening process. Again, in the Kimsila Sutta we read:
• “Value the opportunity when a dharma-talk is happening, and listen carefully to well-chosen words.”
• “Understanding is the heartwood of apt words. Self-possession is the heartwood of understanding. When a person is hasty and careless, his discernment and learning don’t flourish.”
• “Don’t misuse the truth. Use true, beautiful words to guide yourself.”
• “You should remember and explore: the spiritual life, the teachings and their meaning, and self-discipline.”
My recommendation is that after each thing you say to yourself in meditation and mindfulness practice, refer to the middle of your body. The body knows the difference between words of the ‘false self’ and the words of the person you are sitting in meditation. Investigate this difference.

For the Very Best Outcome

Kimsila Sutta
What Moral Character?
Kimsilasutta, Sn 324-330
Translated from the Pali by Christopher J. Ash, © 2016

“What kind of character, conduct and actions ensure a person will reach the very best outcome (in inner work)?”

“You need to value those who surpass you and not be envious. You must track when you need to see a teacher. Value the opportunity when a dharma-talk is happening, and listen carefully to well-chosen words.

“Go to see your teacher at the right time, humbly, without arrogance. You should remember and explore: the spiritual life, the teachings and their meaning, and self-discipline.

“Delighting in truth, devoted to the truth, standing in the truth, with awareness of how to investigate the truth, don’t misuse the truth. Use true, beautiful words to guide yourself.

“Dispense with longing, lamenting, hurtfulness, trickery, deceit, greed, pride, quarrelling, jesting, sarcasm, dissipation, and mindlessness. One should go about free of conceit, self-possessed.

“Understanding is the heartwood of apt words. Self-possession is the heartwood of understanding. When a person is hasty and careless, his discernment and learning don’t flourish.

“But those who are devoted to the teachings of the noble ones are peerless in action, speech, and mind. Established in peace, gentleness and presence of mind, they have perfected the essence of discernment and learning.”

The Process of Going Deeply into Experience

It certainly makes a lot of sense, that close attention to the dynamics of your immediate, conscious experience, sustained over years, will give significant insight into how you are organised. This insight can go all the way to intimately understanding what it means to be an ‘organism’ at all. The Nikāya Buddha’s interest is in taking mindful awareness as far as a human can go, into what he speaks of as ‘the heartwood.’

In the way I understand the Mindfulness Sutta, mindful experience is bodily-based experience. It includes our sense of bodily form; and, (bear with me while I introduce yet another term) the hedonic values in our bodily sensations and our mind-states. (That is, are they pleasant, unpleasant, or neither?)

And, the third kind of basic content (the data, so to speak) of our dynamic organismic life is: our states of mind – our mood and intentions. There you have the first three areas of mindful attention.

The fourth placement of mindful attention has to do with the patterns or principles of the dynamics of those first three; including how mindful practice can transform these dynamics – a transformation which can be conceptualised as ‘from sentient being to Buddha.’

What’s interesting about reading the Mindfulness Sutta is that it is mostly about naming what you will find when you become attuned to the mind’s functioning, including the patterns of internal interaction which we will discover as we continue our exploration.

The question of the ‘how’ of attention is mostly addressed by the graded process of making acquaintance with your experience. You calm the ‘body’ first, through attention to the form and breath. You generate a motivation to go deep, by contemplating the certainty of death. Along the way you are attuning to the fluxional nature of all experience. With concentrated attention, the body calms  further.

As a result the level of experience which we call ‘mind’ is naturally more stably accessible. Acquaintance with ‘mind states’ brings further calm, dropping us into a subtler level again of mind-experience. That is, you calm the mind, and the subtle interplay of body, hedonic value, and mental-emotional states can come into view. This combined with the awareness of flux (continuous occurring) is very powerful for insight into the deepest reaches of human consciousness.

All of this is a process of refinement of awareness. However, the matter of the precise ‘how’ of knowing, rather than the matter of ‘on what’ attention can alight, this can be empowered, further.

It seems to me that the Mindfulness Sutta mostly brings into view ‘what’ will need your attention in the process of self-realisation. My experience of Buddhist practice is that the fine-grained ‘how’ is a matter of trial and error, because the experiential texture of the actual knowing only comes with repeated present-moment bodily-felt exploration. It takes a long time if you are doing this on your own; and, it’s much easier with a trusted guide, should you find one.

In a sense no-one can teach you the ‘how’ of attention. By its nature, you’re on your own. Nevertheless, it seems to me, that what Gendlin says about Western philosophers can be applied here, in the matter of discovering how to be mindful at the direct experiential level.

I’ll put it as I understand this point. The great philosophers present the profound outcomes of their exploration, but you won’t find in their works a description of the subtle experiential process whereby they came to their philosophical concepts. They can present the logical steps, where logical steps occurred.

However, they haven’t been able to describe the activation of insight itself – that which we call wisdom. How does knowledge happen? This subtle inner process is usually not explicated by them. Gendlin has made this the subject of his book Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning.

The Nikāya Buddha is more helpful than the Western tradition, in the sense that he gives us instructions in meditation and mindfulness, which he says – if applied consistently with goodwill, diligence and sincerity – will verify his insights for the practitioner. This is helpful – to have some method.

Yet, there is one more skill which is helpful; and which I have found emerges in live interviews with teachers on retreat, but which is not conveyed in the texts. On retreat, when two people – teacher and student – inquire together, they unwittingly activate the felt nature of looking into present-moment experiencing. Wisdom is a felt process. Some teachers know this, and direct their students toward the bodily apprehension of truth.

To this end, modern mindfulness-based spiritual practitioners have a powerful concept at their disposal – that of ‘bodily-felt meaning.’ We know there are the bodily-based practices, as articulated by the Nikāya Buddha in many suttas. And, there is also, once the meditation and mindfulness has been activated, the possibility of working more explicitly with ‘felt meaning.’

Note that I’m not saying felt meaning has not been there for either the Western philosophers or the Eastern meditators. Surely it has. And, I repeat that it works in personal interaction between teacher and student. However, we can empower this dimension further by naming it, developing it, inviting it into our explorations, and developing skills in relation to it.

We can borrow straight from Gendlin’s ground-breaking Focusing work, and apply it in our mindfulness practice.

 

 

Getting the Problem Situation in Perspective

For the small child I was, the dukkha was in the lack of understanding, not in the bare fact of the encounter with death. The dukkha is in the fear. From a point of view, the encounter with death is inescapable. But, fear and bewilderment – they’re optional (at least for an adult.)

So, we’re talking about an unhelpful interpretation of dukkha. If we say that the bare fact of biological birth and death, and the illnesses that inevitably accompany human life, that these are dukkha – that is, that they are either representative of a universe out of whack, or are unsatisfactory in some way – then, either way, such a view only means we don’t like the universe as it is.

(And, more subtly, we are affirming death as existing as a ‘something’ and existing on its own side. We’re giving it ‘self-nature’ of a particular kind, and so getting caught in dualistic understanding. But this is a point I’ll take up later.)

Dukkha is not primarily about the way things are; but, it is mostly to do with our narcissistic reaction to ‘things as they are.’ (Ironically, our reactions are dependent on the fact that we have evolved enough to reflect on the way things are.)

Hence, we would mistake the level at which the remedy is to be applied. It needs to be applied at the level of our reaction to death, not on the literal or physical level of impermanence. It is this literalist reading – life stinks, and we need to not be reborn – that has led some in the West to think that the Nikāya Buddhism is life-denying and pessimistic. If we interpret the Nikāya Buddha’s message in this limited way, we trivialize his insistence that there is a way to end our egocentricity.

If the Nikāya texts are any sort of guide, we can see that the historical Buddha had insights at the level of interactional, bodily, experiential space that were exceptionally subtle. They are still powerful, today. The historical person was a human – Siddhartha Gotama – a person of such-and-such a name, and such-and-such a clan. He had ‘experiencing’ – his felt life – just like we do. Surely, it was this experiencing that he was interested in freeing from dukkha, transforming the ‘bad space’ of egocentric reactivity, into the peaceful non-resistance of the awakened heart.

However, Gotama’s interpretations of this experiences were inevitably framed within the concepts available in his time; even when he extended or refreshed that culture (as it appears that he did). Those concepts included the state of scientific knowledge of his time.

We humans have learnt much about our situation in two-and-a-half thousand years, and new perspectives from modern disciplines enrich our understanding. They can enrich the tradition, too. We can’t stop the process, anyway. I once read an ecologist saying that you can’t place an organism in an environment, without the environment getting into the organism.

Understanding the tradition is like that. It penetrates you, and it is itself changed by changing you. It is handed on by becoming the way you are, in body, speech and mind. So, it’s just the way of the universe, that if the Buddhadharma comes West, the West gets into it.

Nevertheless, the process is not arbitrary. If we grant that the Nikāya Buddha might be speaking from his non-conceptual knowledge, using old concepts freshly, and perhaps introducing some entirely new ones – and, that, in the process he is carrying forward the culture of his contemporaries – then we might see that the meaning of these texts needs to come to us in the same way. That is, it needs to be confirmed by our non-conceptual, experiential understanding. It needs to be re-affirmed and renewed in our bodies, and then explicated in idioms with which we can resonate.

Then, through a conversation with the tradition, we can verify individually, and contemplatively, that the Nikāya Buddha is talking about a distorted way of experiencing life, and hence distortions of our encounter with death. It’s this distortion which can cease.

The distortion is the result of unskilful thinking – thinking infected with patterns of error, with those of craving and grasping – which, as a result, give us the particular kind of sickness, old age, and death which is the subject of our fear and distaste. The Nikāya teachings say that the cessation of the delusional way of life is the cessation of that kind of death.

It is the task of this project to explicate how the distortions happen, and how they cease. And, to show how there can be both death and no death – without contradiction. That is, both these can be said without opposing each other. But, this will be a ‘process’ understanding – employing logic, but not founded in logic.

Attentiveness is the place of the deathless;
inattentiveness is the place of death.
The attentive do not die;
the inattentive are as though dead already.

Dhammapada, verse 21. Translated by Christophe J. Ash

 

Experiencing and the Creation of a False Self

Why have I chosen the word ‘experiencing’ as the most fundamental touchstone for my inquiry? Firstly, I have looked for language that is experience-near. I’ve needed this for my own practice. I have needed to be very concrete in understanding my experience; so, I decided in the mid-seventies that if I was going to examine my experience in the light of the Buddhist teachings, I wanted a language that was precise and which resonated with my life. (And, this word has a special role in the work of Eugene T. Gendlin. So, as a ‘focuser’ it suited me, there.)

Then, to communicate with others, I’ve looked for terms which non-philosophers could – with a little effort – use. For us to dialogue about our everyday experiences, non-jargon is preferable, where possible. The word ‘experience’ suits.

Then, I was moved by Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s understanding of the teachings, in her Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder, when she said that the focus of the teachings is on this indisputable feature of human existence: “that we all have our own perception of the world of experience, or, more simply, our own experience.”

That resonated with me. Everyone has experiencing going on, whatever the differences between us. For that reason, the focus of the Buddhist teachings is to understand human experiencing, so that human bondage is dealt with appropriately. We need to understand how we function for freedom to be realized. Inappropriate handling of our experiencing is the root of all the violence we have in the world. This makes understanding experiencing central to human flourishing.

Hamilton-Blyth’s understanding of the Nikāya Buddha’s quest echoed the question which had bothered me since childhood (having grown up in a violent culture), too; which was: “Why (is this violence happening)?” I didn’t have the language, but intuitively I knew there was something wrong with experiencing. The question became particularly cogent during the years of the Vietnam War, when I was in danger of being drafted into killing in a wrongful war. “Why is human experience the way it is, and how can I contribute to the change so obviously needed?”

These were reasons to do with our communal life. However, the thing that I particularly love about the word ‘experience’ – despite, or maybe because of the philosophical problems which it can raise – is that experiencing is so fundamental to us as individuals. A useful thing about the word ‘experience’ is that, in most contexts, ‘experience’ is synonymous with ‘knowing.’

It carries the sense that some basic all-encompassing kind of knowing is present in us, a basic knowing which makes us human; by which I mean, there is knowing present in, and relevant to, every possible situation and every possible aspect of oneself and one’s world (loka). This use of ‘experiencing’ is meant to point to something prior to the subject-object, self-other, and inside-outside distinctions. As such, it is not a ‘thing.’

Some might say that if experiencing is not a thing, then it is ‘process’; and, I’m okay with that provisionally. One good thing about the ‘process’ approach is that we can suggest that process can go either way: awake in process (wisdom), or asleep in process (non-wisdom), as I have suggested. So, why provisionally? Process (like experiencing) can’t be found, except upon reflection. It can never be a direct object. Who would be experiencing ‘process,’ after all?

It is in misunderstanding the ‘knowing’ quality of our experience that the hardened, dualistic divisions which limit us arise. The knowing goes astray with the introduction of a fictional entity, the false, thought-based separate-experiencer.  That’s “the one inside me that’s in charge of the show” (as I heard someone say recently, when explaining what they meant by the word ‘self’). I call this the ‘false self’ – experiencing gone astray.

There are ego-processes of a healthy kind, and there are the ego-processes contaminated by the clinging to a false version of self. This I refer to as ‘everyday narcissism.’ This is important to understand, in terms of what or who dies; and in order to understand our fear of death.

 “In being a process, rather than a static entity, knowledge is always in danger of becoming divided against itself by taking its intentional operations concretely and – even before it glides off into the rigidity of a subject-‘here’ and an object-‘there’ – setting up a counterfeit image of itself which actually is the source of any duality.”

– Tarthang Tulku. Time, Space & Knowledge: A New Vision of Reality

 

 

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