Time, Space, & Knowledge

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Postscript on Consensus Trance

As soon as I wrote that piece about the consensus trance, I thought that I’d follow up with a further note. It’s been a while, so I’ll set some context: It’s usual since Freud for us to seek the cause of our discontent in deficiencies generated in our family of origin. What the consensus trance concept does is broaden this, so that we look at the way that society shapes us, to fit in with its values, and its dominant ideology (which in the West, includes tracing personality difficulties to family of origin). Since Marx, we can see a lot of our suffering also originates on the societal level – particularly with the injustice of unequal distribution of capital and other opportunities. There’s all this, and more – for I haven’t gone into the madness and violence of the inheritors of medieval religious beliefs.

However, the acquired patterns of culture are not all we have to clarify, to see nature, death, and ourselves in perspective. Beneath all this are the ‘innate’ patterns, brought along from our animal past and even from cellular life itself. We weren’t born a blank slate. We were born with our inherited predispositions, which, ironically, can obscure our relationship with nature, if they aren’t made conscious. However, many beliefs about ‘nature’ obscure this territory.

Even if we didn’t acquire dulling predispositions, through our conventional conceptual training in this lifetime, we still would have, in our mental continuum, tendencies which were established by our plant and animal forebears. To live harmoniously with each other and with the biospher, these tendencies, too, we need to uncover and transform into a new level of functioning – even if they are harder to see and change than the patterns of the consensus trance.

I don’t see that the animal level is being named very usefully; partly because it is dominated by a particular myth in science. That is, the dominant ‘trance’ in this area is enhanced, these days, by conventional evolutionist scientists. They provide us with a major thread in the current version of consensus trance. (Current? Consensus trances are not new – ask Socrates. Ask Hypatia or Galileo.)
The views propagated by conventional science, run like this: The universe is some kind of dumb ‘material’ or ‘physical’ stuff – ‘things’ in movement. They move in something which, ever since Newton at the turn of the seventeenth century, is imagined as absolute time and absolute space. (It’s ironic that Newton also believed in an absolute God, who was supposed to be somewhere out there, too.)

Apparently, in this story, time and space are somewhere running the show, and are independent of our conceiving. So, in this kind of time and space, a material universe pops up and evolves randomly, running mechanically, once certain chains of billiard-ball-like activity have been set somehow in motion. It’s a dead universe which gives rise to living organisms; which never are other than versions of material stuff, matter.

In this model, intelligence enters the picture with humans, or at least with primates. We are ‘homo sapiens,’ ‘wise man.’ (Yes – ‘Man.’ A nomenclature which we haven’t yet corrected, but surely it wouldn’t be a difficult move?)

No-one has shown convincingly how it is that a non-living material universe gave rise to sapience, to a creature with intelligence. Neither has this stuff (that is, ‘matter’) ever been discovered. However, this belief is comforting (for scientists) because it apparently makes nature predictable (for scientists); that is, it gives them a deterministic universe – if we can only work out the ‘laws’ of the material stuff.

One harmful consequence of this belief in ultimate ‘matter’ is that natural processes – such as the body – are treated as machine-like. The metaphor of the machine is propagated in conventional science training at all levels. There are scientists now spending millions and millions of dollars on projects aimed at storing the information in human brains (as much of it as they can get), so that machines can have it. Some of them hypothesise that there wouldn’t be any real difference between such a machine (a robot) and a human.

(This is not too different from what I was told by many an adult, when I was in my late questing teens, during the Vietnam War: You can’t stop war, because humans have always been this way, and will be this way forever. Determinism.)

So, this modern ‘materialism’ is all part of the consensus trance, too. My point, though, in this ‘footnote,’ is that all these beliefs are acquired on top of one’s natural state at birth; one’s nature – which is not perfected, or perhaps not even perfectable; but, which, one experientially accessed, can be worked with. However, by and large, these patterns remain unexamined and foundational for one’s sense of presence, because the consensus trance is not dealt with.

And, if we don’t know who we are, as life-process – if we simply go along in the trance – how do we know what death is? When no longer entranced, we might be able to understand what poet W.B. Yeats meant when he wrote: “Man has created death.”

What Time is It


“What time is it?” he asks, forgetting:
shifts his pain in the chair.
I search, again, to answer; but sense
clock time isn’t what he really wants.
“I don’t know,” I murmur.

His bony feet in my hands.
The white ward wall, sun-splashed.

At thirty-three, he’s dying.
My hands are strong.
This morning: I breathed, stretched, enjoyed
the grass beneath my own – in a park.
Firmness of feet; earth supports.

Birdsong, a lyrical breath.

“It’s a very spiritual thing,
massaging someone’s feet,” he rasps.
“Scary, this… not knowing…”
We wonder. I begin to speak, but he’s saying:
“What’s going to happen, I mean…”

A sunlit curtain; a breeze.
And he asks again: “What time is it?”

Christopher Ash.
Copyright, 2018






The point, to me, of the poem in my last post is in those two words toward the end: “We wonder.” We wondered together. The young man was in a hospice. And, he was dying – of that, there was no doubt. Not long to go.

And yet, at any moment, it is still a matter of not knowing exactly when; and there is always the question of what it will be like. He couldn’t sleep at night for fear of it.

I was merely a few years older than he was; but, I knew his questions were mine, too – albeit less cogently. I was healthy, but I had begun to contemplate the inevitability of death. It wasn’t a matter of only one of us having the certainty of death, without knowing when.

What will it be like? Sometimes I’m plain curious, almost excited, like Mary Oliver says in her poem When Death Comes:

“I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”

Now, decades years later, now that I’m old enough to die naturally, and after my cancer last year, I have been thinking more about what will death be like.

The practice of dissolution of the elements is a wonderful one, and I have no doubt at all about its helpfulness – not only because it nurtures a joyous, wakeful life; but because it goes a tiny, tiny bit of the way in meeting the unanswerable.

However, the event of one’s own will is intimate. I sense its breathy inscrutability. “What’s it going to be like?” This question is wake me up. I was healthy back then, but his question prodded at my conceit, called it into question, rousing me from the slumber that is there in the trance of youth, in the trance of health, and in the trance of one’s life appearing not to be threatened.

“There are, practitioners, these three kinds of intoxication. What three? Intoxication with youth, intoxication with health, and intoxication with life.” – The Buddha, quoted in the Anguttara Nikaya.

But, here’s the more impelling point: When I realise that death is not readable, I have no reason to believe it will be more readable when it comes. Why? I feel the presence of Nowness in my life as equally mysterious – equally unsayable. And each haiku-like perception is as immeasurable. No breath can be timed in clock-time. We are unable to measure our lives in ‘coffee spoons.’

The breeze in the curtain, the sun-splashed wall, these are not findable, not objects thrown over there.*

“Now” just as unfindable as death, while it’s intimately, radiantly ineluctable – the real doorway to the infinite. Death is this moment.

Every time he asked me what time it was, a perplexed clock stared at me – non-plussed, Dali-esque.


* My OED tells me that ‘object’ means literally: “thing thrown before or presented to (the mind or thought.”

Just Sitting

13th-century Zen master Dogen said: “A Buddhist should neither argue superiority or inferiority of doctrines, nor settle disputes over depth or shallowness of teachings, but only be mindful of authenticity or inauthenticity of practice.”

Sitting meditation is to place your body in an authentic relation to being. You obviously can’t fake sitting, you are it. To practise unelaborated meditation, we can take to heart this simple instruction by the Buddha, in Sutta Nipata verse 1055, where he says to a spiritual seeker:

‘In every direction there are things you know and recognize, above, below, around and within. Leave them: do not look to them for rest or relief, do not let consciousness dwell on the products of existence, on things that come and go.” (Translator: Hammalawa Saddhatissa)

This is excellent training for death. That’s the heart of it: Do not look to things that come and go for rest or relief. Don’t land on anything. Or, as another master, centuries later, counselled: ‘Don’t perch.’ From the point of view of turning to the deathless, it’s not worth landing on anything.

If we take ritual as placing our body in a gesture that invites Being; that is, as a way of putting our body in the most intimate relationship with Being – while simultaneously being that very gesture of Being – then meditation is a living ritual.

Simply establish and maintain the ritual sitting in one place, and there’s nothing more to do, except relax all experience. Relax ‘body and mind,’ and sit resolutely in favour of simply being here, one hundred percent for whatever condition you are in. We needn’t be disturbed about disturbance (for discomfort is bound to come).

And, a note for any beginner who might find this way of sitting hard: give yourself the gift of five minutes a day, meditating this way, familiarizing yourself slowly.

Whenever our meditation is unelaborated, straight-forward, there we invite death and the deathless; because by simply being, we dissolve identification with whatever occurs. By relaxing our usual here-there orientation, and our self-other images, we get to calmly see into the heart of dying. What a blessing is that!

Combodying Gaia’s Body

The day the doctor told me that I had cancer, it was interesting to experience my reactions. My partner and I were conferring, as she drove into the traffic on the freeway. We were going back home to the mountains, from the doctor’s surgery.

She asked me how I was with the fact that my life was in danger. I felt inwardly, and I found there a feeling of tenderness. When I sat with it, it showed itself as a feeling for the whole world.  I knew (in there) that my world-wide social body was in much more trouble than my physical body was; and that my biospheric body was in a lot more trouble than my one little prostate could be. And, that my energy body was relatively peaceful. I was okay.

To come to terms with death, I live as fully as possible in my bodies – the most accessible of which are the gross body, feeling body, and subtle body.  Isn’t the word ‘death’ mostly associated with the thought of some kind of a body – usually with a gross body (that is, a physical body)? Yet, are we really putting our heart into living as bodies? I realised when I was in my late twenties, that I was living some distance from my body; or, at least, in the very tiny portion of it above my shoulders.

But what is the body which I am? Is it knowable, except as ‘this moment’s experiencing’? Discovering my tendency to ignore my mind, while lost ought night and day, I decided in the mid-nineties to more assiduously follow my breathing. And that’s how it’s been for the last twenty years. That single commitment brought my body more fully into the centre of my practice.

If I am with my breath, then I know I am present, because the body is always present. From there I can learn about all the ways I set up my ego-boundaries, which is where ego-death gets created.

(Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops; and this, too, you can verify while living.)

There are limitations, which I’ll go into later, to knowing the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’ Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind of body – gross, feeling, or subtle-energy body – is a self-organizing process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. The body’s self-organizing is Life’s process, as well. Any body is of that larger life. And, this needn’t just be belief. We can feel directly and without doubt our belonging in the big process.

(Not that tracking my breathing will help completely at the moment of death. There’s more to experience after the breathing stops; and this, too, you can verify while living.)

There are limitations, which I’ll go into later, to knowing the so-called ‘present’ and ‘present experiencing.’ Nevertheless, I have learned from my breath that any kind of body – gross, feeling, or subtle-energy body – is a self-organizing process within a larger mysterious process, which we call life. The body’s self-organizing is Life’s process, as well. Any body is of that larger life. And, this needn’t just be belief. We can feel directly and without doubt our belonging in the big process.

Grounding myself in the flow of ‘body-as-experienced’ –  sensing into its condition in all conditions – helps me realize what the Japanese psychotherapist and Focusing trainer Akira Ikemi means, when he talks about com-bodying, rather than em-bodying. My OED says of ‘com-‘: “The sense is ‘together, together with, in combination or union’, also ‘altogether, completely’, and hence intensive.”Em-bodying‘ means to put something into the body, from outside it.

The way that I think of it is, that any body includes all which is not that body. Consider what the gross body would be, without its participation right now in the Earth’s water cycle, carbon cycle, and nitrogen cycle. Or, what would it be without the oxygen generated by the forests of the Amazon Basin? Breathing is always of the nature of inter-being.

The body is not one thing, and the environment another. They are in each other. Right now, feel into your body, and say gently to it, “I get that you are a part of the water cycle.” See how that shifts your sense of your self; how the feeling body responds. (Later, we’ll address the duality that appears to be inherent in this instruction.)

This, with many more aspects (including the social), is, to me, combodiment. This, if we are to save ourselves and flourish, together with our fellow species on this little blue planet, this we need to explore, to know, to feel intensely – that is, the presence of, this body as together with all that is, is a bodily being-together-with-all.

What makes death such a big deal, then? Is it not our clinging to patterns of experiencing, which are of thought. Yet, these very thoughts are mean to be aiding the body to carry forward in its life; and, they are always of the body. Out of the clinging we create our ‘personality’; centred not in process, but in the body being owned by a strictly-bounded ‘me’ and ‘mine.’ (More on this, later.) The body-mind is then split.

However, as a dynamic presenting of body-mind states, in reality I am never a static or objectifiable ‘thing.’ Whatever the body – gross, emotional, or subtle – they are each patterns of experiencing at differing levels of subtlety; a fact which only mindfulness of body-mind states can reveal.

The way of mindfulness of the ‘body’ reveals the body at ever more subtle levels. Knowing myself in this way, my perspective on death changes. At the gross level, this body deteriorates and stops functioning. From the subtlest perspective, though, all that is going on is that the universe is continuing its creative dance of collecting, extending, dissolving, and creatively varying itself. So, what is death, then, if it changes from level to level?

The Implicit Person

Those who go by names and concepts,
who abide in names and concepts,
by not discerning the naming-process,
they are under the yoke of death.
Having fully understood the naming-process,
one doesn’t conceive of one who names.
For, there is nothing (findable)
whereof one would say that ‘she’ or ‘he’ exists.
Samiddhi Sutta in the Samyutta Nikāya (translated by Christopher J. Ash)

To understand ‘death’ correctly, we need to understand the role of language-use in our ‘mind-ing; that is, in shaping our experience of ‘mind.’ That’s an odd thing to say, I suppose – language and mind are intertwined. Hence, the issue is often not the death of our organism, in itself, which causes pain; but the ideas associated with that fact.
To put it another way, there is the kind of pain that comes with the actuality of death (for example, separation from loved ones), and there is the other kind of pain which is our reactivity. This second type is usually  not distinguished (in the untrained person) from the first; hence, there is much self-created pain about death.
We have two points: the fact of death, and our resistance to the fact of death. And, this resistance is tied up with imagining a particular status to our ‘I.’ That’s why, when writing about the five-year-old who cried “I don’t want to die,” I said: “Conceiving he would die, he conceived the cessation of his ‘I.’” Can you see how conceiving of ourselves, our fear of death, and language-use are intimately related?
So, we need to learn how we refer to ourselves. We have to see how language shapes personal experience. We’ll go into this, in depth, during this project; and, mindfulness of the body will be central to this exploration, because it grounds us in a reality greater than our conceptions (and our conceits).
There is a stream of spiritual practice that dismisses the personal dimension of our experience. My own path has been very much a path of understanding individuality, and including it in my understanding of what is going on here in the bigger life process. In the mid-seventies, due to unsupervised meditation practice, I had a dramatic loss of self – a form of depersonalization – and so over a long period of inquiry, I had to reclaim my ‘sense of self.’ The work of Eugene T. Gendlin – his Focusing method, and his Philosophy of the Implicit – helped in that reclamation.
There is a personal dimension which we needn’t deny in the realization of the ‘spiritual’ realities of life. The core thing was for me to realize that there is a valid dimension to experience which is indicated by the pronoun ‘I.’ And, this ‘I’ can be experienced all the way through to the impersonal dimension (for example, in what Jesus said in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.”)
The issue was well expressed by A.H. Almaas (Hameed), founder of the Diamond Approach, in a conversation with the spiritual teacher named Adyashanti. I’d like, at the beginning of this project, for you to consider what Hameed says, because it addresses an important issue present at the intersection of modern psychology and mindfulness practice. Understanding this is an important corrective to the nihilist (mis-)application of Buddhist philosophy. It is also relevant to the understanding of death presented in this project, as will be clear later.

The facilitator of the conversation,owner and founder of Sounds True Tami Simon said to Hameed:
“… ‘in your own two shoes’  – stand in your own two shoes [you say]. But to begin, Hameed, tell us what you mean by this, this idea of ‘personalness,’ and how it fits into the Diamond Approach. And I know that this is a deep topic, and I’d love it if you would take your time, and really unpack it for us, from your perspective.”
Hameed answered: “I think it is one of those really mysterious things, and which I explored for years… which is, the fact that we are all…   I am… the Infinite, or the true nature, or the totality of Being. To know that, the individual consciousness is necessary. Total Being, Reality, cannot know itself, except through a human being, through a being.
So, for me, at the beginning – before we wake up to the fact that we are more than just an individual consciousness, that we are something very subtle, very profound and fundamental –  the individual consciousness is always present. … In fact there is no experience, no perception, nothing happens without individual consciousness. Individual consciousness is like the organ of experience.
So, at the beginning, basically what we do is that we not only identify with the individual consciousness, but we believe that individual consciousness is a separate entity. And, believing and identifying with the individual as a separate entity becomes what we call the ‘self,’ the ego self, which become quite an impediment and a lot of suffering, because fundamentally that’s not true –  simply, it’s a delusion.
So, as we wake up and realize, ‘No, I am not really a separate entity, and not a separate self; I am something that is nothing… that is everything… that is the nature of everything…’, that experience is still… (even though, in that experience of unity or transcendence, there is no hint of an individual, no hint of individual consciousness; because I’m feeling the happiness of Being itself – formlessness, no shape, no color, nothing) …this realisation is still using the capacities of the individual consciousness to know, to perceive.
So individual conscious… what happens here, it simply becomes implicit, instead of manifesting as an individual. … It disappears, in the sense that it is not in view… (And I’ve had many experiences of the individual consciousness actually dying, ceasing, coming to completely disappearing – nothing – all the way to complete coma. It’s gone. And then, when I come back, as the unity of Being. And that took me a long time, actually (several years!), to finally find that even though I am the unity of Being, I cannot neglect the individual consciousness, because the individual consciousness is the conduit through which all realizations happen.”
In this my present study, what Hameed is calling ‘individual consciousness’ will be equated with ‘body-environment’ interaction (Eugene Gendlin’s ‘body-en’). This approach gives us a way to feel into experience in a very grounded way, so avoiding the possibility of ‘depersonalization.’

Dialoguing with the Textual Tradition – 1

“With death, people lose/ What they conceive as “mine.”/ Knowing this, a sage should not/ Be selfishly devoted to what is “mine.”
Sutta Nipāta, verse 806. Translated by Gil Fronsdal. The Buddha before Buddhism: Wisdom from the Early Teachings (p. 64). Shambhala.

With my publication of the term ‘Nikāya Buddha,’ a reader asked me why I say that and not just ‘Buddha’? I thank that practitioner for being the occasion of this helpful digression. Why don’t I just say, “the Buddha said (or did, or thought)…,” or “the historical Buddha said (did/thought)…,” and so on, like other people? What does this expression “Nikāya” mean?

In what follows, I’ll try not to be too technical, and my account is not meant to be at all representative of scholarly views. It simply gives a rough sketch of what a practitioner is up against, if they begin to think about the way the phrase “Buddha said” works in us.  As experiential inquirers, how we relate to this phrase changes how we experience the texts. So, I’m not just making a mere scholarly point.

‘Nikāyas’ refers to five Buddhist volumes which were written down in the Pāli language. These are an important part of the very earliest texts, because they purport to contain the ‘discourses of the Buddha.’ (And, my Dhammapada translations, which I use frequently throughout this project, I translate from one of these Nikāyas, the Kuddhaka.)

The Nikāyas are claimed to contain the core teachings attributed to an historical person. His name was Siddhartha; and his clan name was Gotama. In the Nikāyas he’s usually referred to by his clan name, Gotama. He is said to have lived (roughly) in the fifth century BCE (before the common era; or, BC in the old terminology).

The period in which he is said to have lived was an oral culture, though; and these Nikāyas were passed on orally for several generations after his death. So, that’s several centuries before they were put into written form, probably at some time in the first century CE (common era; old ‘AD’). They’ve come down to us in an Indian language now called ‘Pāli,’ which is an offshoot from Sanskrit.

Most Western Buddhists are used to reading and hearing ‘The Buddha said…,” as though the writer or speaker is backed by the experiential authority of an historical person; but this can never be the verified. ‘The Buddha said’ can represent all kinds of reference points.

Firstly, although scholars use the phrase ‘historical Buddha,’ no-one can actually know if there was an historical figure corresponding to the man portrayed in the Nikāyas. It’s reasonable to assume this powerful and perceptive teaching arose because there was a particular individual, in a particular historical milieu, but we have only the Nikāyas themselves as evidence for this (and the Chinese Agamas, which are similar); and, furthermore, as I said, they didn’t come into existence (as written texts) until some time in the first century CE.

(By the way, it is thought by some scholars that – contrary to popular expectation – oral traditions do well in preserving these kinds of ‘texts.’)

Anyhow, we have no way of knowing for certain that the early Nikāya texts faithfully represent the teachings of an historical person. Again, it’s very likely that they do, or that they at least get in the ballpark of certain features of the supposed original teachings; particularly, regarding the core matters such as: the ‘three characteristics of phenomena,’ the certainty of liberation (i.e. the deathless or nibbāna), the ennobling realities (though, even this teaching has been challenged by scholarship, in recent times).

Then, secondly, to complicate the matter further, there are modern Buddhist cultures where the monks and nuns have never read the Pali Nikāyas at all, having been trained using texts written hundreds of years later, in Sanskrit . That is, later Indian and Tibetan traditions have their own version of ‘Buddha said,’ while referring to texts written much later than the (assumed) historical Buddha. These speakers seem to genuinely believe that the ‘Buddha’ said their favourite teachings, despite the gap of centuries between the time of ‘Gotama’ and these particular texts. These later texts – later Indian, Tibetan, and Chinese texts – according to the conventions of those cultures, put their teachings into the mouth of ‘Buddha.’

Consequently, the range of “Buddha said” is amplified greatly beyond what would be possible if we restricted ourselves to the era in Indian history when the Buddha (if he existed) was born (as I said, probably fifth century BCE).

So, as far as I see it, then, it’s more  helpful to specify the particular ‘Buddha’ to which I’m referring. For instance: the Nikāya Buddha, speaking from the 5th century BCE; or, the Lankavatara Buddha, speaking from the late 4th century CE. The Diamond Sutra is difficult to place, so let’s say that the Diamond Sutra Buddha is speaking from some time between the the Nikāyas and the Lankavatara Sutra.

And, there are more – the Uttaratantra Buddha, and the (likely Chinese) Surangama Sutra Buddha, for example. These are both obviously much later than the Buddha of the Nikāyas (who is also called the Shakyamuni Buddha, placing him in a particular kingdom of fifth-century India).

So, when I say, “Nikāya Buddha,” its that layer of textual history to which I’m referring, and to the Pāli texts (Suttas) in particular. And, of course, it’s my interpretation (and sometimes, my translation) of the Pāli texts. I only claim to place myself within, to dialogue with, and to invetigate my experience using, a tradition (and this not exclusively), rather than claim to speak for ‘the Buddha.’

The Matrix of Mystery

“(T)he thought of death is… a powerful stimulus that brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for the search for the meaning of life, and it makes me recognize the importance of this very moment, as it highlights the real possibilities that are still before me.” – Herbert Guenther.

I want to share some of the gift that contemplating death brings. Here’s how I experience something that seems to resonate with what Guenther wrote, in this passage.

I can be sitting at a my computer, I can be in a cafe, I can be driving my car, or talking to my partner – and a pristine, all-encompassing space opens. The thought of death can bring this opening. The certainty of my death, or the uncertainty about ‘when, where or how’ I will die – or, likewise, the thought of the certainty of the death of my loved ones – these contemplations can bring such openings. These ideas are one kind of “powerful stimulus.”

With the opening of that ‘space,’ my positioned (and positioning) ‘self’ dies, just like that. Dissolves. If I rest into the ‘gap,’ it is another dimension of being. A knowing is purely present, without any seeking or orienting. Acquisitions have ceased. I’m simply aware of the quality of openness itself, with its measureless ‘ing-ing’ (Gendlin’s expression). And, if I don’t scramble – that is, if I don’t make boundlessness a problem – if I relax and trust it, sigh into this unknowing knowing, then there is a meaningfulness that exceeds any of the phrases about it.

(We’ll look later at the designations in this. The ‘self’ dissolves’; so who is resting into the gap? What do ‘I,’ ‘self,’ ‘person,’ and so on, mean? It’s about the process of designation and it’s relationship to experiencing. Well explore it, later.)

Now, Guenther’s “…brings me back to myself as the unique occasion for…” is sweet, because the boundless, empty, still (paradoxical) presence is full of the magic of living. It’s called ‘ordinary mind.’ And this magic unfolds. Hence: “…the importance of this very moment…”

With this invisible matrix informing them, concepts can return, or function, to be a part of the unfolding, a servant of the bigger life, which is full of meaningfulness. This is a matter of ‘not two.’ It’s not about something on one side called the conceptual present which is different from the still, luminous, non-conceptual openness\on the other side. Not at all. The stillness doesn’t reject concepts, and concepts can serve the still field of possibilities.

This won’t make sense right now, but we’ll explore later: how the unfolding happenings (’time’) are never outside (or, never leave) the implicit, the invisible (timeless) womb of reality. (They never fully form, either, into ‘somethings’. In a sense we are experiencing virtual reality, already.) This will make sense of the Buddhist idea of ‘the Deathless’.

But, I’m getting ahead of our content. Returning to Guenther:

“…the real possibilities that are still before me.” So, this moment, purely present as it is, is full of possibilities, unfolding, “out of” this implicate matrix. It’s a poor metaphor, given what I’ve said about ‘not two,’ but refer back to your present, undivided momentary experience, and you’ll get a ‘feel’ for this. This ‘matrix’ concept is difficult to experience directly at first. Just get a holistic feel of it, be experiential about it, and in time it’ll gel. It will be integral to understanding how the Nikāya Buddha can say, “The attentive do not die.”

This no-inside/outside, always-happening unfolding includes the person who is aware, who is “the unique occasion” for the bigger life’s unfolding possibilities. What magic is that! I’m sometimes drunk on the wonder of it. It makes me laugh, and it calls Rumi to mind: “I didn’t come here of my own accord, and I can’t leave that way. Whoever brought me here, will have to take me home.” (Coleman Barks trans.)

Back Then, Yet to Come, and In-Between

Since ‘once upon a time,’ time has interested me. I had a vision which depressed me as a teenager. I thought: Having been born, there is the time before I was born; and there will be a time after my death. These two times are endless, and they’re also out of reach of present ‘me.’ They are are kind of silence, either side of the noisy present.

My childhood vision saw the ‘past’ and the ‘future’ as not telling me anything about the meaning of the time I am in NOW. Yet, it feels as though the time that I am in now is over-shadowed by those other times; and is meaningless, without their inclusion. As it stands, I am in this no-person’s zone of time between birth and death. Some philosophers think that the idea that time will continue after us, gives us meaning. I have noticed that unconscious narrative, myself; but I think it is a false support.

The way I thought of it, back then, I didn’t exist in the time before, just as I will not exist in the time that follows my death. (Notice the blind belief in ‘existence and non-existence?) In other words, the time before ‘me’ and the time after ‘me’ are both without me. Sound familiar? There’s a nothing before, and a nothing after,from the point of view of my identity. The thinker imagines that there was something there, but ‘I’ wasn’t, and also, ‘I’ wont be.

Later in my life, I knew that time concepts were useful, but, still, when I investigated – as a meditator can – when I investigated what ‘time’ was, I couldn’t find it in this default way that I had imagined it to be.
This experience – my bleak childhood vision of time – is not new, of course. Some people see these dilemmas and decide that time doesn’t exist, except as some kind of social agreement. They say, “Time is just a concept.” Yet others continue to believe that time and space are independent realities, but they don’t explain how that could be – and where exactly time and space could be located. (See that? What space and time would you put space and time in? What would found them?)

Of course, if time and space are the very fabric of being, then you and I are time-space. But, what kind of time is that? As Einstein showed us, it can’t be clock-time. And, anyhow, who lives in line with that? Time’s dynamics are rarely said to be satisfying to people. Time is usually said to be some kind of commodity: in short supply at one time, and too much of it at other times.

And, time is always in danger of running out. See! Mr. Death carries an hour-glass. This is the biggest problem with our intimacy with time – if time is closer to me than my breath, I can’t control it. No unrefined ego-system is happy with this. How will I make peace with the experience of time?

Despite the difficulties this last approach presents, I do look for time in my experiencing, though – and not in the concepts derived from experiencing. So, what aspects of accessible experiencing are we pointing toward, with our ‘time’ phrases?

So, is the answer to the tensions of time a kind of hedonist ‘seize the day’ approach, as some suggest? To these people the time ‘in the middle’ is all that is important. It is all that we can grasp, and grasp it we must, in our own way. Such a vision has the danger of strengthening narcissism, though. The middle time – my life between birth and death – is unconsciously identified as identical to my mentality. The objective vision of ‘time and space’ being ‘somewhere’ out there, slips over into solipsism. And, here, the ego feels also continues to feel alone.

So, this egoic ‘seize the day’ vision – a compensatory and imaginary one, notice – brings conflict. I need the vision of ‘my now,’ and yet it is never at rest with itself. Furthermore, the world as I experience it doesn’t co-operate in affirming the centrality of my ego’s seize-the-now project.

However, no matter how interesting, even engrossing, the three-separate-times version of ‘time’ is to us, explored interminably in our thoughts, it is simply a made-up story with no unmediated, experiential evidence for it. What do we have evidence for? This ‘whole life process’ that is going on without mediation of concepts. Our concepts point back to the holistic flow of all that is, to the holomovement. (Bohm)

I say this, realising that I must speak tentatively and provisionally about ‘life’ and ‘going on,’ and ‘flow.’ If not used in zig-zag with the non-conceptual, these ideas can become the horns of the bull which gores us. But, I can – on the basis of the flowing practice of mindfulness of the body – let these phrases point back to the intimacy of my Suchness. They gesture toward the immeasurable aliveness of being-at-all.

Then, will I find evidence for the usual kind of ‘time,’ anywhere? The time-space duo is an assumption brought in to explain this beginningless, ‘evolving’ life. A useful convention, which we avoid getting snagged by. If we let words mean what they do in us, we can ask, ‘How does the word ‘time’ work, when held up against our immediate ‘alive-ing’ (experiencing). Then, the narratives, the stories, the imaginings, and so on, are themselves all included in the holomovement of this going-on life, aren’t they? And a fresh meaning of the term ‘time’ can come in its use in situations, mysterious and related to the immeasurable life we are.

Why mysterious? Because time’s root is in the ‘Ing-ing’ (Gendlin), which is the movement of a stillness. And you and I, when we live this, are beings who are Such (beyond conception).
Well, I’ll never! And I thought a body was just a bit of skin and meat on bones. But, I thought that back when I lived in the no-person’s now, between ‘birth and death.’

Fresh Language-ing

We live inside the childhood belief that things exist on their side, by themselves, ‘over there.’ And we believe this is so, whether the ‘thing’ is a table, a tree, a person, or a thought. To the observer-self, they are all at the ‘other end’ of a subject-object polarity.

This separation underlies the categories that we have built up, and that we use to know what ‘kind’ of something we are encountering. The ‘subject’ end of the polarity (the observer-self) positions itself in relation to situations this way. As adults, our word-use continues based on these childhood foundations.

We apply pre-given labels to the objects in the world, and so tend to see the old categories in place of each fresh occurring. We usually don’t pause to learn how to language our situations freshly.

Let’s take another angle on the role which the ‘observing self’ plays in this. There’s a special angle on this ‘positioning’ process, which is called, by Tarthang Tulku, the ‘by-stander self.’ It’s an interesting term, because it brings in the fact that this false way of experiencing our sentient processes (false ego) treats itself as though it is outside the stream of experience; falsely timeless or eternal.

(I can’t go into the implications of this right now, but they are profound. For instance, this view helps us understand why people, before they act, can’t feel into the consequences that will flow from their actions; and why they don’t accept responsibility, once those consequences become obvious after they’ve acted.)

The ‘by-standing self’ applies all kinds of categories in its ‘kind-making,’ according to its history and conditioning. We are insulated from self-awareness of this deluding process by a belief about language, which the by-stander self applies; that is, that we use words to communicate between the subject and the object, and about the subject and object.

This communication theory is based on the idea that we are separate, and that words do something about the gap between the subject and the object. But, this supposed function of language is based on the false or dualistic ‘separation’ viewpoint.

There is a defence, which helps to keep the system stable and unexamined, and that is: When we do come to think about subject-object trance (perhaps prompted by teachings), we then blame the trance on language itself – as though the dualism is inherent in speaking and thinking.

Humans have an odd way of blaming the ‘other’ in all kinds of circumstances. In this seemingly innocuous case of blaming the ‘other,’ I hear even dharma teachers say (along with philosophers, linguists and psychologists) that: “Language brings the subject-object division.” Or, “Language gives a sense of ‘thing-ness.” As if language acted on its own. As though this misuse is intrinsic to language. Maybe the servant (language) has taken over the master (the person)?

Maybe that’s why we produce so many zombie movies, and robot movies? Because we’ve given our power over to concepts; and, in particular to the idea that there is a ‘me’ outside the flow of experience, which observes the flow without being in it? And that we are at the mercy of language?

Blaming language is possibly also a smoke screen. Why would we do this? Well, one reason is that the game has gone so far, now, that it is very scary to realise that we may be playing such a game. We’ve become so entranced – in exactly the way Narcissus did – with the dream of ‘observing, self-existing, by-standing, timeless self,’ that it looks like giving that up would be akin to suicide.

I’m going to be charitable, here, and suggest that this is because we lack insight into language use. Whatever the motivation, the real situation is the opposite: our trance has bestowed a false meaning on the word ‘death,’ so while we are in the by-stander trance, we are as if dead.

The real nature of timelessness (what is truly akālika), then, becomes lost to our perception, and a false version of timelessness holds its unconscious sway.

Those who go by names and concepts,
who abide in names and concepts,
by not discerning the naming-process,
they are under the yoke of death.
Having fully understood the naming-process,
one doesn’t conceive of one who names.
For, there is nothing (findable)
whereof one would say that
‘she’ or ‘he’ exists.
– Samiddhi Sutta
in the Samyutta Nikāya

– Translated by Christopher J. Ash.

Do I go by names and concepts? Let me see…. Do I ‘abide, dwell in’ names and concepts?

Imagine that I live inside my naming and conceptualising. What’s that like, to live inside my naming? Hm…

Am I conscious of my naming activities – continuously mindful of how I ‘kind’ situations and events?

What happens if, feeling in the middle of my body, where feelings happen… what happens if I say, ironically: ‘Naming has nothing to do with death, does it?” What happens in my body, in response?

And, am I okay with not depending on the naming for a sense of being here? If I don’t conceive of the subject pole of experiencing, but just leave experiencing freely open in the present moment? What fears come about this way of being?

If I don’t depend on naming for establishing existence, might not I, then, go beyond existence and non-existence, and therefore beyond death?

How else could we use language then?

We could think of language as gesture; as something new we do freshly in each situation, to carry these interactional situations forward. We can use the word ‘gesture’ to mean something very, very broad, here – and very alive, very present. Mindfulness of speaking can bring this about.

For my purposes, right here, as I write, I say that this gesture of speech, which I give you now, is a manner of carrying my life forward, in a holistic way. How else would I want to live, if these were my last months?

Where’s Is Experience?

For Beginners

“Practitioners, a contemplative dwells knowing the dynamics of phenomena in the processes themselves, in terms of the five sentient processes subject to clinging.” – The Nikāya Buddha, The Mindfulness Sutta.

I’d like to share a little about my slow progress in understanding mindfulness; my slow progress in knowing where in my actual experience to cultivate mindful attention. And, make some observations about Western classification of present-moment experience.

In 1975, some six years after adopting what was to become my life-long spiritual practice, I read a very helpful little book (which I think was called) ‘The Four Foundations of Mindfulness.’ The general idea of bringing attention into my body and experiencing what is ‘here, now’ made sense, and the author promised that this was the way to freedom; so I intensified my practice, in a general way. It was probably more than twenty years, however, before I became very precise about placement of my attention.

The fourth ‘foundation’ (or ‘placement’) of mindfulness mentions a specific model of human sentience; namely, that which is commonly called ‘the five aggregates.’ (Pali: khandha; Sanskrit: skandha.)

The name ‘aggregates’ is unhelpful for beginners. I call them ‘the five sentient processes,’ to make the terrotory clearer. In this project I’ve described them as: (bodily) form, feeling-tones, perceptions, fashioning tendencies (intentional factors), and consciousness. So, this set of five is included in the patterns of experience of which we are to be aware, if we are to realise spiritual freedom.

Perhaps we Westerners aren’t familiar with the idea (which is in the Mindfulness Sutta) of knowing our experience directly; that is, with knowing our experience from inside the experience. This is, after all, the objective of mindfulness training: to be thoroughly familiar with the processes of… (and here I have to use a common problematic Western expression…) our own ‘body and mind,’ as it is said.

However, I found  the language in the traditional texts opaque. Without expert tuition early in the piece, the traditional categories of experiencing are difficult to put into practice.

Somewhere in the late seventies, I did get some insight into the dynamic nature of the five ‘aggregates,’ through Trungpa Rinpoche’s excellent introduction to experience Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. That helped, but the definitions of the khandas were still confusing.

After years of meditating, I’ve come to understand which areas of experience are being pointed to by the term (the five aggregates); but it was a long arduous journey, and the categorisation is not intuitive to a Westerner.  I remember distinctly sitting down – twenty years after my first acquaintance with the Mindfulness Sutta! – sitting down with a dozen books and comparing the definitions of the five. I really wanted to understand. But, not even the khandha of ‘body’ (rupa-khandha) was translated or presented consistently between them.

(The students of the early schools, and especially those who have had good training with seasoned meditators, will be surprised to hear about my journey. I need to explain that such training wasn’t to be found in mainstream society in 1969, when I began. What I did, as a result, is learn from books on Zen, how to do ‘shikantaza,’ ‘just sitting.’) Also, it wasn’t in my culture to think that there were ‘experts’ who could teach how to experience ‘experience.’ No doubt, if I had gone off to Burma or Thailand, I would have found the more precise method of acquainting oneself with human processes.)

So, where is all this going? The point is, we do find a way, if we care to, to wake up to what is happening now, which is where our lives are happening. I’ve noticed lately that the West does have, after all, a way of presenting areas of the placement of our attention. The fact that I was able to practice without such precise instruction is due to the fact that we have in the West our own way of categorising, such that attention can be given to experience.

In general, with some vagueness and cross-over among them, it go like this. There are: body and breath (the physical). There are sensations (which has some crossover with the ‘body,’ but which usually means: the raw fact, or the physical fact, of bodily sensing; physical sensitivity, including what are called ‘the five senses’). There are feelings (usually meaning: moods, emotions, attitudes; but, with a little crossover with the senses). And, there is the ‘mental’ domain or thought (including memories, images, dreams, wishes, desires, judgements and preferences. (It seems to me that the popular use of the word ‘thought’ is ambiguous. It either covers all mentality, or only more consciously directed mental events.)

So, for my first twenty years (until enough Buddhist literature had appeared in English), I tried to be as familiar as possible with all those events. I must admit that these days I find the Buddhist ‘five skandhas’ much more useful, as a model of sentience allied with meditation and mindfulness practice.

But, if you’re a beginner and are still having trouble working out what the five ‘aggregates’ are meant to refer to, I suggest that you start with what you do know. You know that what you are experiencing you experience now. It can therefore be known more intimately. Have a look. Most likely you’ll find something like:
1) bodily form (head, torso, and limbs),
2) sensations (however you personally define that,
3) feelings/emotions/moods, and
4) intentions, which organise your direction.
5) The dynamics of these.

If you aren’t familiar with these your processes, and yet you do long to know what true freedom is, begin to search them out. I remember that around 1975 I saw that I didn’t know where I actually felt feelings, for example. I had to spend those years (after a childhood dissociating from Being) just getting acquainted with where in my body I really felt the events which told me I was sad, angry, happy, and so on.

(I had to discover them in my body, before I could confirm, through contemplation, that they are unfindable or empty in an ultimate sense. But that’s a longer tale.)

I’m sharing all this, because if you’re a beginner, I would like to help you get more precise than simply ‘being more focussed in the present moment.’ What is the present moment, after all? Where will you find it? It’s not ‘out there’ to be found. It’s not found as ‘over there.’ It presents as your actual experience.

It is, however, how you are now experiencing life: as an active body,with  bodily posture, breath, physical sensitivity, feelings, moods, emotions, attitudes, thoughts, memories, images, dreams, wishes, desires, judgements and preferences, and so on. That’s the ‘now.’ Whatever is happening in your world, that’s one very important meaning of ‘now.’

And, how are you organising your experience? Are conscious of that, or is it happening according to patterns laid down in childhood, or in the species past? Freedom cannot happen unless, in some way, there is a contemplation of the dynamics of experiencing – and, in Buddhist mindfulness, that means knowing intimately the dynamics of our knowing processes.

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