Awakening Into Presence

“With wholeheartedness… we can feel peaceful because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.” – Dainin Katagiri

There is a concept in Zen called “The Gateless Gate,” and this paradoxical phrase could be said to be the summation of Zen.  It is the quandary of duality and non-duality, of experiencing self in separateness or in connected oneness.  Zen is among the mystical traditions aiming at “awakening” the experience of non-duality, of oneness, of connection, of seeing into the illusory nature of being a separate self.   As long as we experience and believe there is no other reality than separateness, that “I” am “in here,” and all else is “out there,” we are blocked from the ongoing experience of connectedness that is the source of spiritual peace.  We may have an intellectual understanding of the desirability and even the scientific proof of interconnectedness, but it is as if we are standing outside an impassable gate that blocks the way to actually experiencing this mythic peace and bliss as the living reality of our lives.

In our culture the entire notion of spiritual realization is simply not given any consideration.  We may or may not consider ourselves religious people, but this has very little to do with spiritual realization.  In many ways, this spiritual gate is not a religious issue at all, but rather a cultural one, for it has to do with an absolute belief in the separateness of “things” as the only reality, and in the passage of time as the true story of who we are.  We live in goals that exist in the future and memories of a story of who we are coming out of the past.  Our primary experience, therefore, is of a time/story line of “me, in here” negotiating with other people, the world, and life “out there.”

Western culture (which is now pretty much world culture) believes in the separateness of things as the only reality.  Even Western religion, with the exception of marginalized mystical traditions, is based in the separateness of things and in humanity’s “fall” into separateness from God.  This is not true with nature-based aboriginal cultures, for their spirituality is in an ongoing living experience of connection with all that exists and the underlying unity of all things.  For an aboriginal, the energy of Life or Spirit pervading and giving rise to all things within an interconnected subtle web is a natural experience.  There exists very little in the way of power hierarchy in primitive cultures, neither within their social structure, nor in their relationship to Nature.  All beings, human and animal, even plant and geographical phenomenon like trees, mountains and rivers, have “spirit,” exist in linked kinship, and are worthy of respect and veneration.  Certainly no person, animal or natural life phenomenon is to be objectified, exploited or harmed in the quest for elevation of human power, the abusiveness that marks “civilization,” East and West, but particularly Western.

Traditional Asian culture and religions seem to represent a balance between the aboriginal and Western cultural perspectives, a balance where non-duality and duality co-exist without contradiction.  Eastern culture, having achieved high civilizations, has daily life experienced dualistically in the separateness of things and the hierarchy of power that comes with civilizations, while the religious traditions of the East seem to function as a reminder of the underlying truth of non-duality.  This is very unlike Western religions that have been transformed through historic enmeshment with the political state to reinforce dualistic hierarchy.  Within Eastern cultures there existed two societies; a secular dualistic society and a monastic religious society teaching non-duality as the ultimate insight into Reality and as the antidote to the suffering caused by the cruel dualities of secular life.  While not accessible to most ordinary people, the realm of the religious orders was held in awe and respect, and much of the society was guided and informed by the wisdom that emanated from these traditions.  The gateless gate is symbolic of the duality of secular identity within ultimate non-duality, and is an acknowledgment of the great difficulty of the realization of non-duality from within the dualistic perspective.

In the contemporary world, if we have studied enough mystical spiritual teaching to be asking the questions, “What is the nature of reality?” “What is spirituality and how do I bring it into everyday life?” “Are we one or are we two?” we have become aware of the gate.  If we have taken on a meditation practice, we are, in a sense standing, knocking on the gate, yet, while having glimpses of the “pure land” that Buddhism refers to, we remain mostly frustrated in our attempts to pass through the gate with any consistency.   Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki famously koaned, “If you believe we are two, you are wrong; if you believe we are one, you are equally wrong.  We are two AND one.” So, how do we achieve this realization that while we live in the appearance of two and must function in a world of dualistic civilization, can we  increasingly live in the simultaneous realization that we are one, infinite, and existing in a perfect sacred unfolding of the universe?  How do we release ourselves with any consistency from the samsara of suffering that comes with duality-only consciousness?

Suzuki’s compatriot roshi, Dainin Katagiri, answered with the koanic perspective that everything Buddhism has to teach is achieved in “wholeheartedness of presence.”  As is intended with a koan, hopefully you have been stopped in your tracks and are giving baffled consideration to what is being said here.  Let us examine this statement beginning with the word “presence.”  Since we are at the intersection of duality and non-duality, the word must be examined from both perspectives, and we will start with the perspective we are accustomed to, the dualistic perspective.  Presence is here, that’s simple.  Or is it?  Well, where and what is “here?”  Again, hopefully the koanic befuddlement is arising in you.  You were pretty sure you knew where and what “here” is.  Here is here; it is where we locate this body that is me along with its immediate surroundings.

The Zen Master replies, “How small!”  And then asks, “Where is the boundary to this ‘here?’”  Perhaps our egocentricity begins to be evident to us.  As Katagari instructs, “our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.”  How can it not be so?  Perhaps a sudden sense of vast expansiveness arises within you.  This can be called “wholeheartedness.”  Wholeheartedness is the ability to see the vastness of our true existence.  If our presence and the presence of the universe are the same, where and what is not included in this presence?  Perhaps a great sense of compassionate identification with all of life begins to arise along with a peaceful sadness for all the unnecessary suffering caused by dualistic egocentricity.  Perhaps a wisdom also arises that allows the sadness to be peaceful rather than angry, a wisdom that sees in the vastness of the universe unfolding, everything being as it can be in the unfolding.  This is Karma.  There is work to be done to bring this sadness before the world peacefully, so the world can see the truth of the error of “egoic delusion.”  This is awakening.  The business of the Bodhisattva is awakening the world – their wholehearted presence a beacon of what a human can be.

This is waking up out of our egocentric dream of duality.  This is awakening into true presence.  Our intellect barely grasps this, for the intellect is for creating separate thought-forms to give order to our experience.  Our physical senses cannot grasp it for our senses are designed to perceive separateness and detail of forms.  This realization requires the opening of the sense of intuition, a sense neglected, even scorned in Western culture.  Yet, it is actually the most important of our mental capacities for it is the sense of individualized consciousness, awareness, connecting with the energy of consciousness that permeates the universe and gives rise to the material form of the universe – all connected.

WHAT?!  Yes, our Western mind balks at this, yet….. like a bell ringing in the distance, do you not know this in the deepest recesses of your consciousness, in the primitive being that arose out of Nature and existed in the mystery and unity of Nature that was your Paleolithic ancestor of fifteen thousand years ago?  These nature-humans knew in the very cells of their body and mind that they were Nature and they lived in the web and womb of Spirit, and this cellular memory is alive in us today.  This is wholeheartedness.  This is whole-mindedness, the bringing and integrating of our total mental faculties, including intuition into unlocking the gate.

“Show me your original face!” commands the Zen Master.  Awaken from the sleep of civilization and all the misery and suffering it causes.  Awaken into wholeheartedness of presence where you and the universe are one – all place, all time, all beings.  You are now standing where once there was a gate, but now, all space and time and possibility open up in front of you “because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.”  No longer in the forest, rather in civilization, in the universe, living a civilized life, but not so broken, ready to evolve an entirely new chapter in human civilization where duality and non-duality are equally honored.  Where “we are two AND one.”

The Wondrous Space

“The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”

― Abraham Heschel

Wonder is a very interesting word.  It has two meanings that are nearly, but not quite, opposites.  First, it is a state of questioning – to wonder if… about something.  In this usage, there is a state of not-knowing; it implies a lack of desired information.  Then, in its second usage, the word can be used to represent a kind of knowing – not a knowing as in information, but a knowing as in the positive experience of mystery.  In this usage, it is an intuitive connection with the deepest essence of an experience, without any need to dissect what is being experienced into information.  There is a question implied here, but it is a question not really looking for an answer.  The question is a positive experience of query into the deepest secrets of Life, with the questioner satisfied to live in the question.  This is mystical wonder.

The Jewish mystic theologian Abraham Heschel is calling us to this mystical wonder as the essence of the spiritual experience, and as the source, the beginning place, of true peace, happiness and deep well-being.   He is saying that wonder is essential to a meaningful life, noting mystical wonder as the sweetest of all experiences, and he seems to be saying that without this sweetness, life is merely our routines, and routines, even exciting or stimulating routines, cannot approach the peace, the bliss, the fullness of wonder.  Religions are belief systems, and we can believe many things.  It might be said we can believe anything if it’s sold properly, but wonder is the source of all that is transcendent and cannot be sold or preached, only touched, received, and known, like grace.

What is clear is that to activate this state of mystical wonder so essential to human fulfillment, we need to bring it out of the intellectual and into the dimension of pure and direct experience.  So, it seems it is very important to ask – “What is this wonder and how do we find it?”  Just as the word has two meanings, it could be understood that these meanings represent two very different dimensions of existence and experience.

The more conventional use of the word represents the utilitarian world of duality, of the reasoning mind of ego struggling with understanding and mastery.  It is our everyday world of going about our business, where our understanding reaches its limit and we wonder how to proceed, or when we encounter something new and we wonder what it is and how it works.  We experience wondering as our mind reaches in inquiry about that thing out there that is separate from us.  The duality of the experience is clear.  Yet, even in this dimension of duality, the more we engage this capacity for intellectual wondering, the richer, more complex, deep and fulfilling our life becomes, so this dimension of wondering is not to be dismissed; it is very important to cultivate.   It is what a good education does and what a bad education drills out of us.

But how do we access mystical wonder?  We must begin by understanding that it seems to be an alternative space to the realm of duality and practicality that we usually occupy, and from this space of duality, the world of non-duality seems like an unreachable dream.  This is, of course, not true, for the world of duality exists within the world of non-duality  Our vision is merely too narrowly focused into our experience of separateness, and so this separateness seems to be the only reality.  Perhaps we can find our way if we remember that when we were small children we often visited this wondrous space, a place of magic where all care disappeared and love in its purest form was the air that we breathed, even if it was only for a caterpillar crawling across a leaf.  This is not the wondering of the intellectual mind, it is the experience of having all sense of separateness dissolving into the space of play or exploration or reverie.  This is an activity of the soul where we become this spacious place of wonder and all that appears within it.  It is a tangible experience that we can recall, and it is the sweetest of childhood memories.

And then – the most dispiriting of childhood memories is being pulled out of the wondrous space and back into the business of being socialized, sometimes chastised into being a properly striving, obedient and practical person.  In the language of the Harry Potter stories it was the difference between being in the world of magic and in the world of muggles.  The loss of childlike innocence is in the gradual forgetting of the point of entry into the wondrous space, as we become increasingly lost in the struggle to become somebody.  Paradise is lost.  But is it?

As adults, we sometimes stumble into the paradise of wondrous space in those moments of sublime beauty with Nature, with art, in intimate relationship, anywhere, anytime where the sense of separate self falls away into the unity of the moment held in wonder, sometimes described as rapture.  These are times when if we apply intellectual wondering to the mystical wonder, we might make a great discovery.  If we were to ask ourselves “what is happening here and why?”  we might notice how there is an expansion of the sense of the space of “me” from inside this separate body, and inside this mind striving to be somebody, into the magic of all sense of self dissolving into the space of the moment.  The place of wonder is expansive, as if this little “me” inside this body expands to include the totality of an experience.  Time stops and the moment is all there is.  The senses are wide open, completely receptive and subtle in their perceptions, picking up detail and nuance of the moment; and another sense, one we seldom consider in our culture, the sense of intuition, of a silent knowing of something secret and beautiful hidden in the experience, whispers in its silent language to us.  Ah! We do know our way back to the Garden!

Light and shadow dance with each other as the wind softly plays with the branches on the trees and we are the dance.  The bird in the tree sings and we are the bird singing.  A cloud passes overhead and we are the cloud.  Music sweetly sounds and we are the sweet sound.  The person sharing the moment with us speaks of their deep truth in word and look, and our deep truth is known and speaks and looks, or we play, and we are the playing.  The wind whispers and we are the whisper.  The river flows and we are the river flowing.   The bird, the cloud, the music, the people, the wind, the river, and all that is – is who we are in the wondrous space.  We might as well call it God’s space, for it is the space where All-that-is exists without a here or there, a past or future, only infinitely here and infinitely now.

True mystics live in this wondrous space, for, as Jesus instructed us to “be like the little children,” the spiritual realm is the wondrous space.  It is also the realm of well-being and joy, of play and pure exploration.  It is the space of worship without end, the home of the Sacred.  The best art has this sense of wonder to it – the ineffable question suggested in the poetry, the painting, the dance, the music.  We become lost, and that is the secret.  You must lose yourself to find this place.  Let go of holding onto this desperate self, seeking meaning and significance.  The moment IS the meaning and significance.  Plunge in like a fool.  Let go completely.  Dissolve into that old sweet place of wonder.

Zen is steeped in this world of wonder.  It is what is being pointed toward when Zen speaks of “emptiness” of self, of “original nature,” and classical Zen poetry reflects this emptiness of all guile and sophistication.  In Zen art we are pointed toward uncorrupted moments in life, simple, yet deep and resonant with meaning.

Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

A perfect evening!  – Basho (17th Cent.)

You must, as you did when you were a small child, leave behind the world of self-concern to wander aimlessly into THIS.  The entryway is in the song of a bird, the clouds floating by, the flow of the river, the eyes of a loved one, the fragrant blossoms in the evening as the resonance of bells waft into eternity.  You must be ready to love everyone and everything.  You must be ready to be like a child in the wondrous space, to let go of your tether to practicality and self-absorption and to float away.  You will know when you are there.  The mystics’ skill is in staying in this expansive place, knowing their true self as the totality of the moment in unity – even while continuing with everyday life.  It is found in living in quiet wonder, amazement and ecstasy in the midst of what seems ordinary, even dull, to those not sharing in the wondrous space that they once knew as a child – but have long since forgotten how to enter.

Approaching Truth

“Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.” – Buddha

 “And the truth shall set you free.” – Jesus

The only practice worth doing is the search for truth, and it is always about uncovering the lies of the ego – all ego – mine, yours, the politicians’, the preachers’, the advertisers’, governments’, the president’s, corporations’, religions’, society’s, and culture’s, and doing the heroic work of walking increasingly in the truth. It is not easy, but it is what frees the soul and defeats suffering – and so – eventually makes life easier.  Why?  Because truth is what is natural – all of Nature lives in truth – except humans.

There’s an old bumper sticker that said: “If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” and since outrage is exhausting, it’s pretty easy to come to the point where you just want to stop paying attention to how out of alignment with truth human society is, and that is where most of us end up, vacillating between outrage and turning away our heads in exhaustion.  Yet there are those like Buddha, Jesus, and Socrates and more modern figures like Einstein, Krishnamurti, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and Nelson Mandela who were fearless seekers and spokespersons for the truth, and while they undoubtedly had times of discouragement, they overcame them and returned to seeking and speaking eternal truths in the face of derision and persecution.  How did they do it?

Of course, they answered that question many times, and the answer was always the same: with love, and with faith in the search for truth as the only path to freedom from the violence of ignorance.  They had love of truth and realized that love is the great truth.  Not romantic love, or the love of identification with someone or with something, but the love that holds the Universe together, the infinite energy of connection and interdependence; love of the truth of what is.  The great Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, often uses the term “Interbeing.”  All in the Universe “inter-is” with everything else.  Once again, all of Nature has no difficulty living within this truth – except human beings, and it is this violation of natural law that is the reason there is so much to be outraged about.  The problem seems to arise from this evolutionary development in human beings called ego-identification and its compulsion to create lines of separation that do not actually exist, and it is these lines of artificial separation that are the lies of ego that entrap us.

When the Buddha attained enlightenment he declared: “With the Earth as my witness, all sentient beings have the right to be free of suffering.”  Of course, he was not talking about physical pain or discomfort, or even the emotional suffering that is legitimate grieving at loss of loved ones or over their pain, these are all quite natural states – you can see them in a dog.  This is the pain of connection broken or injured or resonating sympathetically.  He was addressing the unnecessary emotional pain caused by losses to ego-security and status and by amplifying our emotional challenges and traumas by placing them within a self-centered story that we emotionally resist, and it is this resistance that brings about the experience of emotional and spiritual separateness which brings on our suffering.  The Buddha also offered us a path to freedom from this suffering that was not some supernatural ability or a pathological emotional callousness.  He offered to us the natural state of acceptance, of alignment with the what-is in life – that which every creature except humans are able to live within naturally.  This then, constitutes a truth we can depend upon.

Another absolute truth of Nature is that, except for humans, no creature takes more than it needs for its survival, and no creature destroys for any reason other than its natural survival, but humans do it regularly because of egoic insecurity – the desire to make more of “me” – and the easiest way to make more of “me” is to make less of all that I think is “not me.” Yes, there are lines of separation in Nature, of predator and prey, but this all happens within a deeper ecological network of connection that creates perfect balance.  While it can be granted that human survival-needs are more subjective than that of an animal in the woods, somehow it feels like there is something untruthful about the extremely unnatural impulse to acquisition and destruction of the human ego that creates imbalances and breaks ecological connections, yet is often covered over by calling it “human nature.”

Perhaps the truths of ecology could be brought to the human realm through the insight that balance is lost when a person causes others difficulty or loss or takes disproportionately for the purpose of their own ego-gratification, again, because no creature other than humans would do such a thing.  Yet humans crisscross the terrain of Life, carving it up into little kingdoms marked by greed for power, wealth, and dominion, all in violation of Nature where there is just Life in balance.  So here we have a conundrum, a paradox, for it seems to be the nature of humans to carve out paths and to build walls in the pathless and wall-less land of Nature and to require more than just the means for natural survival.  How can we resolve this conundrum?

Twenty-six centuries ago, the Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, shared, “The Way that can be named is not the Way.”  Yet this teaching and the other teachings recorded in the single record of his teachings, The Tao Te Ching, are all aimed at giving a guide to humanity for how to keep their restless path-making as true to the pathless land of Nature as possible.  And herein we find a truth – a relative truth – for as long as we must create paths out of the pathless land of Nature, we must accept our truths as flawed, as merely approximations seeking illusive greater truths.  We must remain humble, finding guidance from Lao Tzu’s 5th Century BC Greek contemporary, Socrates, who stated, “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”

So the truth that sets us free is in knowing that we, by the nature of our restless path and wall-making, are in violation of greater truths and therefore must be profoundly careful, and must, as Lao Tzu advised, keep as close to the truths of Nature as we can.  We love to create lines of separation that are of “me” and “not me,” of “us” and “other,” and we give all these separations many names to give a seeming reality to these artificial creations.  We create an artificial line between humanity and Nature, when, of course, there is no separation, for Nature is all existence, but this is a truth we have difficulty accepting.  Ego does not like it, and it would do us well to learn to be far more humble and mindful regarding this tendency, this compulsion to separate humanity and Nature and its resultant destructiveness.

Another truth is that the problem isn’t in lines per se.  What we forget is that in Nature, lines not only create separation, they also create connection.  The ancient Vedic tradition that gave rise to Hinduism and Buddhism sought to represent the way things are through an image called the “Net of Indra,” which represents existence as an infinite net of connecting threads or lines which, at each point of connection, has a multifaceted jewel, the facets reflecting the whole of the net and all the infinite jewels in the net.  We are many AND we are one.  Buddhism reminds us that forgetting this fundamental ecological truth is the source of much of the unnatural suffering humanity creates.

The great hope and faith that we can hold to, is, as Buddha said, that truth cannot be hidden long, and that this is the arc of human history and evolution.  While we try to hide behind the walls of our artificial lines of separation, the truth of Nature asserts itself irrepressibly and the truth of connectedness tears down the walls.  We have a long way to go to fully embrace and implement the wisdom of Indra’s Net as the path for human society or to proceed with the humility that Lao Tzu and Socrates advised, but our only hope for freedom from the unnecessary suffering caused by our compulsion to create lines of separation while ignoring lines of connection is to return again and again to these wisdom guides.  Our lines of separation must be balanced through consciousness of our lines of connection.

Our growing maturity as individuals, and as societies and as a species has always been marked by awakening to our natural instinct to erase artificial lines of separation and to realize our true lines of connection, to make our “we” ever more inclusive. So, pay increasing attention – and yes, while there is plenty to be outraged about, I suggest that you not get outraged – this only creates more of those separating lines and walls.  Instead, love ferociously and compassionately confronting the untruths of those who would create lines and build walls of separation for egoic satisfaction, wealth and power, while you strive to be ever more courageous at creating and encouraging lines of loving connection wherever possible.

Meditate, Meditate, Meditate

“The purpose of meditation is to make our mind calm and peaceful. If our mind is peaceful, we will be free from worries and mental discomfort, and so we will experience true happiness. But if our mind is not peaceful, we will find it very difficult to be happy, even if we are living in the very best conditions.” Kelsang Gyatso, Tibetan meditation master
I used to be a practicing clinical psychologist.  I became a practitioner of deep meditation twenty-five years ago and a teacher twenty years ago because I became convinced that what I sought in the study of psychology, the realization of true human potential for mental health, is only accessible through meditation and the path of wisdom that naturally flows from meditation taken to deep levels.

As a mental health professional, I found it tragic and telling that Western psychology has no model of mental health.  Rather, it offers a categorization of the varieties of mental illness and some theoretical models as to how to address them, none with any consistent success.  It basically settles for allowing mental health to be defined as a relative absence of debilitating symptoms of mental illness, and to me, this is not good enough.   It always seemed that rather than an approach that sought to minimize and control the symptoms of mental illness, if we had a positive direction in which to move that took us to mental health, the symptoms would naturally fall away, for they are, in actuality, only defenses against the misalignment of our distorted, neurotic perspectives placing us at odds with life-as-it-is.  Much as it is with physical health, where we are much less likely to fall ill if we keep the body well-tuned through exercise and diet, so too it is with the mind.  If we have a methodology for maintaining a state of true mental health, the problems of the mind have nowhere to take root.  I have found meditation to be that methodology proven over thousands of years – yet largely ignored in Western culture and psychology.

Meditation is understood in Buddhist culture to be the practice of training the mind in concentration, peacefulness, insight, wisdom and what is called “vastness,” the realization of our true source and identity arising within the vastness of the Universe, a kind of “cosmic consciousness.”  This happens by awakening the practitioner to the dimension of mind that is awareness, that which observes the activity and content of the mind – the thoughts and emotions – yet is not caught in the turbulence of the thoughts and emotions.  A gradual dawning occurs that this dimension of awareness is the true source of intelligence and insight – capable of seeing how imbalanced and unreliable the transient thoughts and emotions are.  Identity that had been trapped in thoughts and emotions begins to shift into awareness, bringing with it a great liberation from the disturbances of the mind.  We realize we are not the thoughts and emotions, but rather that which is witness to the thoughts and emotions that have their origin in psychological and social conditioning; therefore, there is no need to be defensive or to identify with them.  They will lose the energy of identification and begin to be readily available to modification as our clearer experience of reality-as-it-is strengthens.

Western culture and psychology certainly has no equivalence to this harmonization of the psychological with the philosophical, spiritual and even cosmological in a way that has the potential to generate the deep relaxed presence, insight, balance, and even joy that has to be the hallmark of true mental health and sanity.  Through deep meditation practice there becomes increasingly accessible the ability to maintain our sense of well-being, perspective and calm, even while the events and circumstances around us – and even those events in our own minds, the thoughts and emotions – may be tumultuous and even threatening.

Western psychology has been very good at understanding that non-biological mental illness is the result of a poorly developed ego, the psychological sense of self relating to others and events, and that a poorly developed ego creates grave distortions in a person’s experience that then manifest in excessive anxiety, depression or anger, as well as in confused thinking and unskillful and interpersonally problematic behavior.  This is a very valuable observation, and Western psychology has pretty much placed its eggs in the basket of ego psychology along with symptom-managing medication in working with these distortions.  In this model, the therapist acts as a neutral witness as the client relates their experience, and the therapist helps the client toward insights into ways to not be so carried away by these distortions.  This is good, but quite limited, for it is dependent on the therapist AND on the therapist being a truly wise, authentic and insightful seer and interpreter.

Tellingly, only European culture (and modernized, Europeanized cultures) have a study and practice of psychology.  In traditional and aboriginal cultures, the role that psychology plays in modern societies is filled by spirituality and its practitioners – priests, monks and shamans with accompanying meditative practices.   Now, given this, it might seem that modern cultures would have less of a problem with mental illness, when, in fact, it has a considerably greater problem with it.  A telling anecdote about the Dalai Lama has it that on one of his first visits to America, he was attending a convention of psychologists where the topic was the problem of disturbances of self-esteem – either low self-esteem or its opposite in narcissism.  The Dalai Lama found the topic quite confusing, and after he fully grasped what was being discussed, shared that while the people of Tibet live without all the material and medical benefits of the West, problems of self-esteem are unheard of in this traditional spirituality-based culture.  It is very important for us to ask why this should be.

The problem with modern culture that leads to what amounts to an epidemic of mental illness is the same problem that limits psychology – the placing of the ego in supremacy as a person’s identity.  Modern psychology and culture have a one dimensional model of mind – telling us that ego is who we are, while ignoring the realm of awareness completely.  There is a lack of recognition of awareness as the guiding and mediating dimension of mind – that which we must most fundamentally be – for it is awareness that observes the activity of the mind and all of our experience in the world, and without this perspective, we are left as prisoners of the chaotic realms of thought and emotion.  Psychology seeks to bring the awareness of the therapist to the task of insight, but this is quite insufficient and strangely has never made the connection that effective therapy is based in the clarity of the therapist’s awareness – that it is awareness that is the insightful healing faculty.  What the practice of meditation proves is that if a person can be trained in focusing into clear awareness, they can do for themselves what the best therapist can do, and do it more effectively, because it is their awareness, and it is always there as witness to the machinations of mind.  No appointment needed.

Buddhism understands completely why modern culture and psychology wrestle so with mental illness because Buddhism recognizes human egoic separateness and the compulsion to cling to identity in separateness as the source of human suffering (the Buddhist term that can be viewed as equivalent to mental illness). This identity in separateness, in ego, with all its insecurities and attempts to assuage insecurities brought on by attachment to the material and to individual and collective importance, is the hell, the insanity, humans create for themselves and others.

As a curative, meditation is training in the steady application of awareness in compassionate and insightful observation of the chattering and insecure egoic dimension of mind bringing about an amelioration of these insecurities through ever deepening insights into their origin in psycho-social conditioning and the discovery of an inner silence, peace and balance beneath the noise and activity of the mind. This inner quiet and peace reflects and makes real for us the balance and perfection of our true and deepest nature reflective of the balance and perfection of the natural world.  We experience that as our practice steadies and deepens, we learn to exist increasingly within and as this realm of peaceful and insightful witnessing awareness with the result being a gradual awakening of a profound sense of calm and insightful clarity.  Ego assumes its appropriate role as a faculty for discerning and working with separateness while relinquishing its mistaken assertion as being who we are.  From a psychological standpoint, what is being achieved is real and profound sanity, and if this sanity is what you are looking for, my suggestion is simply this: meditate, meditate, meditate.

Beyond the Poisons of the Mind

“Endless greed is itself a poison, a kind of abnormal state, and the same is also true for anger and ignorance. The antidote is to realize that these poisons are addictive to the mind, and that one should return to the practice method. Do not allow yourself to be deterred or affected by these poisons… When suffering from vexations, first realize that they arise because of our addiction to the poisons of the mind—greed, anger, and ignorance.”       – Master Sheng-Yeng

America has a personality.  A society is, in a sense, like a collective person, a macro-ego.  It has a personality that can be characterized by certain traits.  To be certain, it is made up of endless varieties of personalities manifesting in the individual members of the society, yet it can be said that there are some overarching traits that give some definition to the society.  There is an interactive loop of individuals shaping society and society shaping the individuals.  This overarching personality style of a culture has positive aspects and negative ones just like the personality of an individual.  America always has been known in the world as idealistic, creative, dauntless, generous, and even to a degree, compassionate.  These are positive collective personality traits.  America and Americans also have been thought of as materialistic, entitled, aggressive, insensitive, and dogmatic about the superiority of American institutions and beliefs, capable of great cruelty in the pursuit of American security and interests – not such positive traits.

In a very real way, these negative traits are much like the poisons of greed and ignorance spoken of in Buddhist literature.  We are greedy for status and material wealth, and we are ignorant of the important truth of the interrelation and interconnection of humanity and nature.  Were we to be honest, we would have to acknowledge we conduct a foreign policy that would have us declaring war on any nation that behaved like we do.  We have military forces stationed all around the world pressing up against the borders of nations with whom we are in antagonistic relationship, and in many places our forces are in violent clash with the citizenry of the nations where those forces are stationed.  We say this is necessary for our security, yet it is quite plausible that this aggressive reach of our armed forces is a major factor in creating the enemies we say those forces protect us from.  Honesty would say that economic and political greed are very much behind this international posture, along with admirable intentions for international stability and safety.

Honesty would say that most likely the greatest threat to individual, national and international future security and well-being is a growing climate-change crisis, yet American power interests dither and deny on this issue, perversely clinging to and defending ignorance. They also go so far as to foster politically the undermining of the science institutions that are warning us because of greedy powers-that-be who would lose wealth and power in a realignment of our economy into sustainability.  This is surely poisonous.

Were we to be honest, we would acknowledge that most of our domestic problems arise from greed that keeps us a stratified society of haves and have-nots.  For many of the haves, those who society has materially rewarded with privilege, security and even opulence, there seems to be fear that to expand that circle of security to everyone would be at the cost of their security, and this is surely ignorance.  A secure society for everyone is the result of security distributed as a right to all.  It turns out it is not security that many are after, but privilege and opulence, and these short sighted and selfish people don’t care if their greed is at the expense of security for others.  These attitudes poison the social waters for everyone.

This ignorance and its consequences of poverty, crime, victimization, class and race antagonism and alienation, the exclusion of many from a life of dignity and society’s fruits generates anger; and security for everyone is threatened and the cycles replicate themselves.  Our domestic politics and economics are all conducted in competitive power relationships.  We often do not want to understand, accommodate and support each other.  We want to be in the power position.  Anger generates the energy for this competition and allows the dehumanization which results in our viewing others simply as threats and not as human beings who have the very same needs that we have.  Which brings us back to ignorance and once again the cycles self-replicate.  Some periods of history are marked by these poisons more than others, and it may very well be we are in one of those periods where ignorance seems to be celebrated, angry interactions are becoming the norm, and life for everyone is increasingly insecure.  Buddhism is right to call it poison.

For many, however, the turmoil of international conflict and social unrest are only the stuff of news stories.  Many feel the poisons don’t affect their lives except remotely.  Reconsideration may be appropriate.  Our society and many in it lack an understanding of life that contains any refined subtlety.  When we hear reference to concepts like greed, anger and ignorance we think of them only in their extreme manifestations as represented by the news stories.  Few of us would admit that our own minds are afflicted with greed, anger and ignorance when in truth, it is only a most refined, evolved and conscious person who is not so afflicted.

We deal daily with these poisons.  Just driving our car through city traffic, standing in the check-out line at the store, or interacting with family members can ignite them.  We want what we want.  We get angry if we don’t get it.  We seldom bring wisdom into our interactions, functioning blindly from our conditioned belief and behavior patterns.  We greedily pursue happiness, thinking that getting what we want will bring happiness, but this is ignorance of the truth that thinking primarily of ourselves does not bring happiness.  It is ignorance of the truth that lasting and true happiness that is not dependent on circumstantial gratification arises from altruism, from caring and experiencing connection with others and the world, and from practicing kindness and generosity, from having a sense of self so secure and stable it has no need to place itself in competition with or above others.  This is true for individuals, groups of individuals and whole societies.  Selfishness is ignorance.  Kindness, compassion, and generosity of good will are in truth the practices and attitudes that lead to happiness, security and well-being.  You don’t have to be Buddhist to realize this or to realize the value of building your life around practicing these virtuous behaviors and attitudes in obvious and in subtle ways.

Pay attention to how greed, anger and ignorance, these three poisons, create unhappiness in you and those around you and in our society.  Ignorance is the key poison.  From it the other two arise, but ignorance is subtle – we cannot feel it.  That is why our real opening to liberating ourselves is to pay attention to what we do feel – greed and anger.  These two are palpable – we contract into caricatures of these energies, small, self-centered and unable to identify and feel the humanity of those we are in interaction with.  When these energies are present, we can know that ignorance is at work and if we “return to the practice method,” if we are mindful, if we are present and open-minded, we can activate the virtuous energies of compassion, kindness and generosity, and our energy will open into spacious presence and our tension and narrow focus will relax.  We will feel better, and this is self-reinforcing.  This is wisdom, and it will be the antidote to ignorance.

Not only is this antidote to the mind-poisons very helpful to us individually in our desire to live happier and more peaceful lives, it is essential if we are to be a happier and more peaceful society and planet.  So, in attending to our own peace and well-being, we contribute to the peace and well-being of others by not injecting more poison into our interactions – which will better enable us all to live happy and peaceful lives.  We can then aspire collectively to the practice of developing and accentuating our society’s and humanity’s positive character traits and virtues – a much better cycle than that created by the poisons of greed, anger and ignorance.  Dedicating ourselves to living a cycle of virtuous compassion and generosity both for our own happiness and well-being and for the happiness and well-being of all is surely a dedication to wisdom, peace and true prosperity.

Now

“When your attention moves into the Now, there is an alertness.  It is as if you were waking up from a dream, the dream of thought, the dream of past and future.  Such clarity, such simplicity.  No room for problem-making.  Just this moment as it is…  The moment you enter the Now with your attention, you realize that life is sacred.  There is a sacredness to everything you perceive when you are present.  The more you live in the Now, the more you sense the simple yet profound joy of Being and the sacredness of all life.” – Eckhart Tolle

Most of the time, for most of us, our attention is so divided between what we are doing and what is going on in our heads that life just skims past us.  As a result, our skill level with what we are doing and with interpersonal relationship is quite limited, not to mention the capacity to see and experience the sacredness of life all around us.  We are just present enough to have the minimal required effectiveness to get by; and the notion that any moment, indeed every moment, is pregnant with spiritual potential is simply not recognizable to us.

For most of us, if we have any spiritual practice at all, it is generally engaged in situations with clear time boundaries quite separate from our ongoing everyday lives.  We have rituals and places of worship, whether that is a church or a mountaintop.  We may have a meditation practice, but few experience and engage their meditation like an athlete practices warm-up before engaging in their sport, and one very valuable perspective on meditation is to approach it in this way.  It is warm-up for the game of life, limbering and sharpening the senses and the mind, calling forth clear present-moment awareness to  engage our everyday experiences in a manner that opens us to deep and vital skill and connection with whatever we are doing.  As an athlete prepares himself to enter the flow of their sport, with meditation we can prepare to enter the flow of life – sharp, present, and open for whatever may happen.

But typically, we bring only partial attention to whatever we are engaged with, a significant part of the mind still elsewhere in events past or anticipated. We have forgotten that when we bring our full attention into the present moment, and I mean full attention, time stops.  Of course it does.  Time is past and future, and it could be said that our psychological sense of self depends on time, for our psychological sense of self is a story of personal history and anticipations we tell ourselves repetitively as we go about our lives.  We run the routine of our lives – getting from our past to our future, the present moment being only what happens along the way.  This is a superficial and unsatisfying way to live and certainly not spiritual.

And then – perhaps we are in a magnificent natural setting – a mountaintop, the ocean at sunset, the Grand Canyon, a magnificent waterfall – and time stops and we become completely present.  We may very well come away describing the experience as spiritual, and we tend to give the experience the credit as being spiritual – “Oh, you have to go to this waterfall – It is such a spiritual experience.”  What we fail to realize is that the power of the waterfall is not that it is any more inherently spiritual than any other manifestation of the miracle of life, but that because of its beauty and power it functions as a trigger that brings us fully into the moment with no commentary or story.  We are completely present.

It is the completely present that is the actual opening into the spiritual dimension.  The grandeur of the waterfall then becomes the content of the spiritual experience as the sense of preoccupation with our own story and agenda falls away.  The disappearance of our self-preoccupation is the opening into this moment of unity with the moment, and it is this experience of unity that is spiritual.  The same can be experienced with the song of a bird, a flower, or any aspect of life if we avail ourselves to it completely and look deeply into it as the miracle that it is.  We will become completely present, time will stop, and the spiritual dimension of oneness in the experience will open.

On the other end of the desirability spectrum, we may be in a great natural catastrophe, caught in a war zone, or have just been told by our doctor that we have cancer.  Time stops.  There is only this moment and we are gasping to find how to meet this moment and survive it.   This may not be sublime, but it can be equally spiritual, and may well be life-altering, as the preciousness of life becomes evident as never before.  Once again, we are completely presentNo time or even orientation to keep up our story.  The paradox of these life-threatening experiences is that people have been known to come away noting that they never felt more alive.

I’ve always found it interesting that apocalyptic Christian theology holds that the “Kingdom of Heaven” will be realized in the end of time – and a parade of false prophets throughout history have set dates on the calendar when this ending will occur.  Far more likely, I believe, the teaching is to be taken psychologically – that just as Jesus is to have said, “the Kingdom of Heaven is spread across the land but people do not have the eyes to see it,” the ending of time is in the ending of psychological time, when we come fully into the present moment and our mind releases holding onto past and future – when we are here completely present in the Now.  This is the way to have the eyes to see – not just on the mountaintop, but in our own back yard and with the next person we encounter.

We can bring our attention fully into the Now, into the present, through our senses.  Tune awareness into this moment experienced in vision, in hearing, in feeling – first with obvious sensations, but keep going deeper.  See not only the obvious objects around you, see subtler and smaller detail, and see the space out of which the objects arise.  Hear not only the sounds around you, listen to subtler and subtler sounds until you have the sense of hearing the silence beneath the sounds out of which all sounds arise and then return.  Feel not only the surface sensations of your body, feel the subtlest of sensations – your breathing, and even the inner sensations of life animating your body, and then, even the energy of life all around you that passes through you, what the Chinese call chi.  Feel the energy of the Earth beneath you and the sky above and how energy travels through you linking these two dimensions.  Open your senses, including the sense of intuition that feels the invisible energy of the universe permeating everything.

The mind will stop – and your sense of separate self may or may not completely disappear, but you will find that it coexists with a sense of self that is connected with the experience of the moment and ultimately, the infinite.  The Now will open its secrets and you will know why Eckhart Tolle named his book The Power of Now.

Discerning Awareness

As we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, we must ask, who is it that is aware?
Zen Koan

We have the choice every moment to live experiencing what life is and who we are either from our judgmental, personal, reactive self – the ego – or from our discerning, witnessing, responsive self – essential Beingness – which primarily arises within the clarity of pure awareness of the moment.  To recognize when ego is dominating our experience causing us to be in judgment and reactivity and to know how to choose and shift into the discerning, responsive awareness of Beingness is the core of the journey to awakening.

What I have just written is an intellectual concept.  It may be intriguing.   It may seem nonsensical.  I assure you, it is a use of words whose purpose is to point to a felt-sense reality.  These words are drawn from a particular vocabulary a person needs to understand if the statement is to make sense, but deeper still, until a person experiences what these words point toward at a level beyond the intellectual, they will be unable to fully enter into the journey of personal evolution these words are pointing toward.  These words point us toward the experience that we exist in two dimensions simultaneously as both a personalized, socialized, conditioned ego-self and an ultimate dimension of our true-Self as an individualized aspect of the fabric of the universe unfolding in the eternal present moment.

The ego reacts from its conditioned psycho-social-cultural programming.  The Self-in-Being responds to unfolding events from a deep knowing of its flowing connectedness to everything.  They are the night and day of the awakening that Buddhism and meditation lead us toward.  From within the conditioned mind of ego-identity there is only “me” and everything that is not me.  We are trapped in a prison of “me,” struggling with a world that is outside and separate that we hope to master at some level so that we can succeed in bringing the things we want from this outside world to us and in keeping away what we do not want.  Fundamental to this task is the ability to judge what it is we want and what we do not want.  This “judging” is a projection onto whatever is being perceived and experienced as ideas about who we are and what life is.  This is information programmed into us much as a computer is programmed – and as the old saying about programming goes, “garbage in, garbage out.”

Our primary experience of the world then becomes this incessant and compulsive evaluation of everything in this world outside of us into the good stuff and the bad stuff, differentiating “good” and “bad” by thoughts about good and bad, which are unique to every person because of their particular and unique programming.  Political opinions or religious identification are blatant examples of this.  Most of us hold these beliefs because of the people influencing us through our upbringing and current social context. Give a moment’s consideration to the differences between prevailing political and religious opinion of several centuries ago and today, let alone the variety of such opinions today, and my point is readily grasped.  Our ordinary day-to-day lives, however, are conducted at a much subtler level than politics and religion, and while political and religious opinions may be pretty obvious lines of separation, our day-to-day lives are being determined by an imperceptible (to ourselves) matrix of judgments programmed into us about the “good” and “bad” of ourselves, others and what is going on around us.  With this understanding, it is pretty easy to comprehend why there is so much confusion and disagreement about proper conduct and values in the human realm.

It is of the utmost importance to realize we are talking about the human realm, not nature.  In nature, there is only what is natural.  Ego and conditioning are minimal, though, of course, they exist.  Every organism has a sense of its separate biological self and the need to interact with the world so as to bring to itself what it needs and avoid that which is danger.  This is ego and conditioning at its most basic level.  Humans, however, create an idea of self-in-the world, quite abstract and ruled by conditioning that is then projected out onto the world.  This is ego taken to an unnatural level and this projection of egoic-self onto the world is the essence of judgment.  Only humans live in the world of judgment.  All the rest of nature lives in the straightforward discernment of what naturally supports or threatens its existence.

Does this condemn humans to this virtual-reality that creates artificial and subjective levels of suffering, unable to live gracefully and authentically as a human in the way a deer or a fish live gracefully and authentically as a deer or a fish?  From within the artificial reality called society and culture, without any sense of our underlying nature, sadly the answer is “yes.”  As long as we only believe in the psycho-social-cultural programming and conditioning that creates a very complicated ego-self full of contradictions and conflicts, anxieties and reactivity, we will live, as Buddhism teaches, in dukkha – a word from the ancient Pali language of India – that describes a state of craving, insecurity and sense of dissatisfaction that keeps us reactive, anxious, striving and ultimately unfulfilled, always unsure if we are sufficient.

The same Buddhist teaching that describes dukkha fortunately also prescribes its resolution.  It is to release clinging to this artificial-reality-identity as who we are and to realize all these confusing thoughts and emotions arise within and pass through the dimension of witnessing awareness that is not plagued by instability, reactivity and dissatisfaction.  As we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, we must ask, who is it that is aware?  WE are that awareness.  Awareness is the irreducible, unchanging dimension of every person’s experience.  It is our original nature – awareness experiencing the world before conditioning and judgment.

Is this universal awareness arising from Beingness then blank and without intelligence?  To the contrary.  As our culture will lead us to believe that intelligence is a result of thought, we all know immediately upon consideration, intelligence cannot be the product of thought.  Thought is only a tool to express a concept.  It can be any conceptIf we are unconscious of this process, we will allow conditioning to be the source of the thought/emotive process, and – “garbage in, garbage out.”  This is why the history of humanity is rife with ignorant, dangerous and even disastrous thoughts.

Contrary to how we are culturally conditioned to believe, awareness is not a faculty of this body and mind.  It is far more accurate to say this body and mind are faculties of awareness, tools of the individualized consciousness that is a person.  This individualized consciousness directed is awareness.  This gives rise to the very inscrutable Zen teaching that actually, we are “nobody,” for while we can hang all kinds of identity onto our body, thoughts and emotions, when we examine just who is awareness, and how is the awareness I experience any different from the awareness you experience, there is no one to be found.  There is just awareness.  The vessels are very different; the essence, the Beingness is universal.

Intelligence arises from the silent mind of awareness – the discerning mind of awareness.  Intelligence, the ability to look deeply and understand, arises from the field of consciousness that is the universe individualized as a human-being in awareness.  Thus, our journey into wisdom, into awakening into true discerning intelligence, requires we learn to stop running the program of egoic conditioning, become present in the great what-is that is life.  Look deeply, listen closely, feel with subtlety the truths that are whispered.   Quiet the cacophony of mind-chatter and you will hear.  This moment will tell you what it needs – it is whispering to nobody so that the truth of who you are can hear.  It will help you understand with clarity the what-is of the moment.  Then the tools of body and mind can function with skill and wisdom, and you will know who it is that is aware.  Nobody.  And it is who you are – a psycho-socially-culturally conditioned intelligent being who now can use the conditioning with discernment.

The “Right” Choice

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Yogi Berra (for those who don’t know, not an Indian guru)

 

I’m a movie buff and sometimes there are moments in films that just capture the essence of some major archetypal issue of life, expressing and encapsulating, sometimes wordlessly, the essence of a human conflict, truth or wisdom.  I find such a moment in the opening scene of the film Yojimbo, by master Japanese director Akira KurasawaIn the scene, a 19th century ronin, or masterless samurai, acted by the magnificent Toshiro Mifune, dressed not in classical samurai finery and armor, but dusty and worn simple clothing befitting his now anchorless and impoverished status of unemployment, is walking down a path that forks.  He stops.  He looks at this choice confronting him.  Which path to take?  Then after a pause of consideration he casually picks up a stick and tosses it in the air.  The stick lands pointing towards one of the paths.  He nods his head, then rolls his shoulders, and proceeds decisively down that path.  A choice has been made.

The path leads to a world of trouble (or there would be no movie), but he never, not for a moment, demonstrates any ambivalence about the path he now walks.  Moment to moment, he simply steps into whatever the moment presents and does what is necessary to be in honor and courage with what presents itself.  The beauty of the scene to me is in the willingness to allow that, despite our delusion of personal choice, basically fate (and a samurai would say Karma) is the actual determiner of our path, and then it is our willingness to give that path every ounce of our life energy that gives our life meaning.  To a samurai, this is the code of Bushido, and it seems to me an excellent guide to a life deeply and well-lived; a willingness to say “yes!” to life, not “maybe – only if it seems comfortable and safe.”

I believe Americans suffer from a malady of too many choices, or to be more specific, we suffer from a delusion, for some, an obsession, that there are “right” choices for us to make on this vast buffet of choices that is American life.  Believe me, I know there are better and worse choices for us to make, and that some people repeatedly make just awful choices, but that’s not the point I want to explore.  I want to point out that a very big problem for many is often in the second-guessing and hesitation we bring to the choices we make.  We fail to bring commitment, honor and courage to our choices.  We fail to say “Yes!” to life.  We are plagued by ambivalence and self-indulgence concerning whether a choice brings maximum benefit to us.  Our problem isn’t in making wrong choices; it is in bringing inadequate commitment to the choices we make.

The great Vietnamese Zen Master, Thich Nhat Hanh, is known for the koan, “This moment is a perfect moment, this moment is my refuge.”  He is not placing conditions on the moment.  He is not saying this moment if it is exactly as I wish it to be is my refuge; he is saying THIS MOMENT – exactly as it is.  How can this be?  What if this moment is dealing with a difficult person being unreasonable and ugly?  What if this moment contains conflict and disappointment?  What if it contains physical or emotional pain?  What if this moment upends all the plans I have for my life?  What if this moment is just boring?

We are here entering into the secret of Zen.  We are entering into the secret of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, of Ram Dass’s Be Here Now, of mysticism, of Stoicism, of wisdom traditions of every culture.  12th Century Zen Master, Rinzai famously queried, “This moment, what is lacking?” Again, no qualifications.  Is this some philosophical/spiritual trick?  Well, if “trick” means skill, yes, and it is a skill for which we are all completely and naturally equipped.  It is a trick we have all pulled off successfully many times.

Every time we have struggled with some difficult aspect of life, we continue to struggle and struggle until there comes a realization of the uselessness of this struggle with whatever the “it” is.  There comes a moment where we choose to just get on with life, to do whatever is needed by the circumstance of the moment and incorporate whatever the “it” is into our normal experience.  In that moment we have done the trick.  Our problem is we don’t pay attention to the power of this trick.  Unlike the Zen masters who are paying very close attention to every nuance of life in its unfolding, realizing life IS moments unfolding, we don’t notice this power, that all there is in this life is THIS MOMENT, and the skill, the “trick” of life is to live fully each moment, but we keep forgetting how good this trick is.  We keep slipping back into living in the delusion of a “me-in-time” where we have a story of me, a fairy tale of the way we want life to be where any interruption in this story is reason for great upset, consternation, suffering.

We have all had difficult challenges, setbacks in the “story of me.”  These were times of suffering in our lives, and we have all come to the moment where we let go of the story of our affliction and moved on. In that moment, we pulled off the trick of letting go of our resistance to what is, allowing it to be our “perfect moment, our refuge.”  Zen encourages us to pay attention to these moments and gain skill with this trick so we gradually may go from taking two years to recover from some injury or setback in our story, to two months, to two weeks, to two days, to two hours, to two minutes, to two seconds where we realize, “This moment, what is lacking?”  We discover the power of Now, of Being Here, Now – of taking the fork in the road.  It could be said that developing proficiency at this trick is what “practice” in Buddhism is all about.

Often, in retrospect, we can look at times in our lives that were filled with suffering and see them as times that brought our greatest personal growth, or took us in an unexpected direction that gave new and deeper meaning to our lives.  Many have been baffled by a person who describes some seemingly terrible calamity as a gift in their lives.  We fail to realize that every person has the power to do this trick, and everyone has done this trick. It is the remembering and applying this trick that is the challenge when we are so accustomed to staying stuck in being the victim of adversity.

In fact, a useful way to understand neurosis is to see how people find specialness through attachment to their suffering and just stay stuck at the fork in their road, pacing in circles of anxiety or anger or despondency.  If they would just make the choice to take the fork, any fork that allows them to get on with their life, and give it every ounce of positive intention and gratitude they have, they would be cured of their neurosis.  The false specialness they invested in their neurosis would fall away into the true specialness, the wonder that is life, every moment – as a matter of fact, this moment.

No, there are not right choices for us to agonize over; there is only taking the forks in the road that life puts in front of us and giving our full life energy to whatever is on the road.  Then it will be a right choice.  And remember, there will always be more forks – and we are always free to take them.

Dissociation

“Who we are is awareness. But we block it with our self-centered thinking.” – Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen Master

Take a step back in your mind.  Become aware of being awareness seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking.  Be the awareness.

Do the previous statements seem nonsensical? This is only because our culture is egocentric rather than consciousness centered.  I assure you, you CAN become aware of being awareness seeing what you see, hearing what you hear, feeling what you feel, thinking what you think.  You CAN become aware of awareness, of BEING awareness.  This is of the utmost importance if you wish to evolve into a clearer more centered and peaceful person, if you wish to be centered in consciousness rather than your wild and sometimes crazy mind, in your ego.

Now, importantly – who is there?  Who is this that is seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking?  Who is this awareness?  It is you and not you.  Yes, there is a very definite experience of a “me” – AND – there is no one.  Welcome to paradox.  Westerners don’t take well to paradox, and this is a problem, for paradox is reality.  Existence is everything.  It is not this OR that, it is always and can only be this AND that.  And the this AND that we are exploring here concerns being both a person and that which a person emerges from – like we have bodies that appear and function as separate entities, AND these bodies emerge from a field of energy where there are no boundaries, only varying degrees of density of atomic structures.  We are separate AND we are not.  Welcome to paradox, but the paradox we are exploring here is not concerning physical energy and bodies, but rather consciousness energy and individual minds.

Returning to taking a step back in your mind: if you sincerely explore this, there will be the realization that when in the experience of being awareness, there is no “me” there.  Yes, there is a “me” that experiences DOING the seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking and this “me” is centered in the body and in the experience of mind and it is very personal.  AND there is the “me” WITHIN WHICH the amalgam of seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking OCCUR and it is impersonal, it is just processes of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking.  In this perspective, “You” are the field of experiencing consciousness.  As is said in Zen, there is no one there.  This is where the personal “me” steps back and the direct experience of awareness comes into the foreground.  There certainly is this personal and separate “me;” this sense of self does not disappear, it is not, however, center-stage, so to speak.  This is what Joko Beck means about “self-centered thinking.”  The experience of separate self is no longer at the center of consciousness imagining itself as the source of consciousness.

Continuing this exercise, having taken a step back in your mind, I ask you to next step OUT from your mind INTO what is seen, heard, felt, and even thought as experiences not “in here,” rather as just what is occurring in the field of experiencing consciousness.  I also ask you to take note of the spacious felt-sense of comfort, ease and well-being that occurs with this perspective.

This is not how we typically relate to experience.  We typically relate to experience as if it is happening to someone called “me” inside this body and mind experiencing the world “out there.”  This is the sense of ego-self, all of experience tied together along with a hidden backdrop of unconscious factors psychologically conditioned into us giving us identity and preferences and prejudices and opinions and subtle levels of security or insecurity, confidence or anxiety, optimism or pessimism and a whole host of other factors giving the flavor of the sense of “me.”  But who is this that is the conscious awareness that is the primary experiencer of all that is experienced?  Who is this experience of awareness?

Can you take that step out – to be the pure experience that doesn’t need to hang itself onto an identity?  This may seem like a crazy proposition, and perhaps it does have something to do with what we conventionally describe in this culture as “crazy,” but I assure you it is about being absolutely and completely sane.  Here, I am introducing the phenomenon of “dissociation,” defined in psychiatry as detachment from the personality that sees, hears, feels, thinks, etc. in this matrix of experience we call “me.”

Generally, this dissociation is understood as a psychiatric symptom of some very serious mental disorders, and it is when we remain fixed in identity with the contents of mind, with the ego.  It is a withdrawal of the sense of self from the usual contact with the world that is considered normal.  The term is generally associated with rather severe psychiatric disorders, the most extreme example being catatonia – where there is a total withdrawal of the personality from any contact with the external environment, or Multiple Personality Disorder, where there is the withdrawal of the primary personality into alternative personalities.  Lesser, but still significant examples of pathological dissociation are periods of loss of time, or orientation, what is called “fugue” – and this can be on a spectrum from momentary to extended periods of amnesia.  What marks these states as mental illnesses is that they are steps BACK WITHIN the mind – a withdrawal – from the contact interaction with the me-in-the-world that is the balance between inner and external realities, and these disorders are usually “self” protective psychological defense actions in response to overwhelming trauma of some sort.  They are, again paradoxically, healthy and unhealthy – healthy in that they are protective, and unhealthy in that they become, in a sense, alternative ego-states, places in the mind where we live that are not in any remotely accurate contact with reality

I am suggesting a very different kind of “dissociation” or detachment from the personality as has been conditioned as the sense of “me” that is a very healthy form of dissociation. It is a detachment from identity in the personality in which rather than a withdrawal of consciousness energy into a walled off or even completely alternative “me,” there is very healthy detachment of identity from the contents and activity of the mind as we project the sense of self OUTWARD Into the space of consciousness within which all the activity, the senses and thoughts and emotions arise.  In other columns I have addressed this experience that everyone has and is identified as a “peak” or “zone” or “flow” moment, where the sense of separate self dissolves into the direct experience of seeing, hearing, feeling, acting in the moment, as the moment, and these moments are very satisfying and pleasurable.

“Our suffering is in our resistance to what is.” – Eckhart Tolle

We have all experienced being ensnared in painful “self-centered thinking” when our lives are confronted with some degree of difficulty or trauma, and as long as our sense of “me” is caught in the whirlwind of self-centered thought and emotion that accompany these experiences, we are in distress.  I want to point to how the resolution of our distress always comes when we allow a letting go of holding our identity in the distress, when we step back from the identification, and then step OUT into acceptance, when we become the “what is” without resistance, as Eckhart Tolle would instruct us to do.  There is this moment when we just become the moment as it is – the relationship, health, financial, or professional crisis – and there is no longer a beleaguered “me” there.  We surrender our self-centered thinking into pure awareness of what is.  Only then can we regather our lives and move on in a healthy manner centered in whatever action is necessary to address the “what is.”

The radical practice I am suggesting is to live all our life in this manner – not needing peak or calamitous circumstances to let go, to dissociate, self from the egoic personality.  Learn to use the egoic mind as a tool, just the same as the body is a tool, for engaging and working with the world.  It is not who you are.  You are the awareness that HAS a body and mind.  Learn to not block it with “self-centered thinking.”  A skillful craftsperson takes good care of their tools – so too, it is important that we take good care of the tools of body and mind – just don’t confuse them for who you are – any more than you would confuse yourself for a hammer or a skillet if you function as a carpenter or a cook.  Dissociate self from the tool of mind and you can become a master crafts-person of life – awareness personified.

Consciousness Expansion and Contraction

“The brain speaks through words; the heart in the glance of the eyes; and the soul through a radiance that charges the atmosphere, magnetizing all.” – Hazrat Inayat Khan (founder of The Sufi Order in the West in 1914)

Sometimes, as a way to cut through all intellectualization, I say: “At its most basic, I teach the meditation of expansion and contraction of personal consciousness energy.”  I then go on to point out to those I am addressing that I know that they have experienced what I am speaking about innumerable times in their life, but because our culture doesn’t validate the experience of consciousness as energy, it goes unnoticed.  The greatest unasked questions in Western culture concern consciousness:  What is it, what is its source and what are the implications of its differing states of amplitude, direction and focus?  This oversight has vast implications in our understanding of psychology and spirituality.

We have all had the experience when in an overwhelmingly beautiful natural setting – like a mountain-top, a powerful waterfall or a dramatic ocean sunset – to be so entranced by the grandeur that we forget ourselves completely.  We, in Zen terms, become nobody – that is, we are not experiencing the moment as this separate person looking at something outside ourselves – we become the experience.  We forget about ourselves.  We are the mountain or ocean vista happening in awareness.  The energy of consciousness has ceased to be concentrated around the idea of ourself as a separate person, it expands and is redirected outward into the experience – any sense of self has diminished markedly into being simply the witness.  The result is dramatic in producing a sense of well-being, fullness and completeness.  Only a very neurotic person (a way of describing unceasing self-absorption) would critique the moment or fail to open completely into it.

Anyone who has participated in some athletic activity with any advanced level of skill has had the experience of “being in the zone,” as the experience of perfect concentration and coordination of body and action become one seamless activity. The athlete’s consciousness energy expands to hold self, action and field in a seamless field of awareness in which the patterns of energy of the athlete, the medium of the activity and the other participants in the activity are all connected and happening within a seamless consciousness.  Likewise, when first learning an athletic skill, or on days when the “zone” eludes us, we know how it feels to not be able to put concentration, body coordination and action together.  We are very self-conscious of our efforts and very self-conscious of our frustration at our inability to find that “zone.”  Instead of an expansive experience of perfect integration, the moment becomes contracted into consciousness centered on the frustrated efforts of “me” in fragmented relationship to the activity and the field of activity.

Anyone who has developed any proficiency with an artistic medium like music, painting, sculpting, acting or dancing knows the experience of complete absorption where all self-consciousness dissolves into perfect concentration in the creative process.  We, in a sense, are the art rather than doing the art.  The same is true with utilitarian skills like carpentry, mechanics, sewing or knitting.  A student, entranced with their subject of study likewise knows the experience.  There are moments when time stops and the sense that “I” am doing this activity falls away and there is an expansive experience of just this activity in awareness.  Other times can be marked by this strong sense of “me” doing this thing and not doing it with the desired proficiency or outcome.  We become frustrated, impatient, and unhappy with ourselves and the results of our actions.  The felt-sense is of awkward contractedness.

Most importantly, we have all experienced deeply intimate moments of interaction with another person when the space between ourselves and the person becomes alive with energy and we feel completely connected.   We have hardly any sense of ourself as separate from the person.  The moment is you-and-me, and the energy of consciousness is alive and connecting.  We have also, of course, experienced interactions when there is no identification or intimacy, or the intimacy has been broken because of some insult or injury to our ego, and the space between then serves to separate us. Here is a perfect example of an experience we may have daily yet we pay no attention to what is happening or why.

Finally, there are times when, perhaps in a religious setting or ritual, in prayer or meditation, in nature, or somehow in a quiet moment in our ordinary lives we feel what can only be called a spiritual connection.  The sense of separate self falls away completely into an expansive sense of connection with the infinite.

All of these examples of positive connectedness represent what psychologist Abraham Maslow described as “peak experiences,” moments of happiness, well-being, maximum skillfulness, even transcendence and spirituality.  Such moments happen repeatedly in the life of any person who is not so poisoned by self-absorption that such happiness is completely alien to them.  Yet – we pay no attention to what is happening in the experience of the self-as-consciousness energy field that is associated with this spectrum of subjective experience.

Buddhism makes the very clear point that the difference has to do with self-absorption, with being caught in the delusion of self as a solid and separate entity from all that is not self, with the experience of me-in-here experiencing everything and everyone else in life as out there.  The more a person’s experience orients around this self-in-here the more they experience a deadness, an unsatisfactoriness to life.  There is an extreme contracted felt-sense of the energy of consciousness moving back into the separate body-mind experience.  In the opposite direction, the more a person has no thought of self, but rather is focused into that which is occurring in awareness – the mountain or ocean vista, the tennis game, the knitting, the person with whom they are sharing the moment, the infinite, the simple everyday experiences of life, the more complete, alive, satisfied and even spiritual they feel as the sense of self in the energy of consciousness expands to include all that is being experienced.

This brings me back to my original idea – the meditation of expansion and contraction of personal consciousness energy.  Every day, constantly, there is an ongoing unnoticed fluctuation and alteration in the experience of personal consciousness energy space happening at very subtle levels.  That this declaration may sound like new-age blather to a Western reader is indicative of a cultural blindness.  To a Native American, or to a mystic of any culture, such as Hazrat Inayat Khan, a Muslim Sufi from India, the notion of consciousness energy having many different qualities and dimensions serving to connect us into the world, into the universe, into the infinite some would call God, seems quite obvious.

My purpose is to point to various experiences that we have all known, and to call us to pay attention to that which has never been pointed to before.   We can note that there is, when we are caught in the strong sense of our personal separateness, in self-consciousness, a strong contracted sense of the energy of awareness drawn back into this body and mind we associate with “me,” while when in experiences of great connectedness, in-the-zone, or “flow,” there is little to no self-consciousness and a very spacious and expansive subjective sense of self-in-the-moment – or more accurately, self-as-the-moment.  The sense of self as a field of consciousness energy is either contracted into self-consciousness and awkward separateness or expanded into un-self-consciousness and connectedness with the environment, activity, person, or even the infinite.  We can, as Hazrat Inayat Khan does, identify this with a spiritual energy and our spiritual source or “soul.”  It can also, as in Zen, simply be identified as one’s true self that is awareness in which this body and mind and all we are experiencing co-arise in/as the moment in awareness.

Pay attention to the moment in awareness and where boundaries are created that do not actually exist except in the mind.  Experiment.  Look at a tree, a cloud, a squirrel, your dog or cat, another person and deliberately see separateness.  Feel in the silent mind of intuitive understanding the separateness and notice the felt-sense that accompanies this isolation.  Then, look again, only now deliberately expand the sense of self into the energy of awareness and connect.  Feel how the space between you and the object of your gaze becomes alive where before it felt dead, empty.  See if there is not “a radiance that charges the atmosphere, magnetizing all” when you forget yourself in the realization that you are truly this moment in awareness where all within the field of awareness are connected in the energy of consciousness.  Literally, open yourself as a field of consciousness energy to embrace the world.  This is the heart of all true spiritual practice and the secret to a happy and psychologically stable life.

Begin to pay attention on a moment-to-moment basis as to how various experiences, even thoughts, and certainly emotions, cause us to contract into a small reactive self or expand into a skillful, even loving, wise and kind, expansive self.  We can, through meditation and mindfulness, begin to understand and master this phenomenon of self-as-field-of-consciousness-energy opening and awakening into realms of unimagined well-being. We can also become a finely tuned monitor of the felt-sense of contraction into neurotic conditioned separate-self-consciousness as it occurs and through breath awareness and reaching outward with our senses and consciousness-energy realize ourself as the expansive, clear, calm and magnetic consciousness energy that Zen describes as No-self.

Not Me, Me, Me; Just This, This, This

“The habit of always thinking of ourselves only keeps us unhappy.” – Sakyong Mipham

“If you are very sincere and really give up your small mind, then there is no fear and no emotional problem.  Your mind is always calm, your eyes are always open, and you can hear the birds as they sing.  You can see the flowers as they open.  There is nothing for you to worry about… wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars. – Shunryu Suzuki

Buddhism uses the term “small mind” to describe a mind in which most thoughts are centered on our own desires and anxieties, our likes and dislikes, and it is important to realize even thoughts that are not directly about ourself are generally about our world-view and priorities which are then, in a sense, about ourself.  In contrast, Buddhism uses the term “big-mind” to describe a mind that is centered in the moment-as-it-is, as the moment-in-awareness, thoughts of ourselves appropriately integrated into the totality of the quality and needs of the moment.  A way of saying this is that we are not the center of the moment, rather, the moment is the center of us.

But for most people thoughts about their own subjective experience and themselves are the centerpiece of consciousness, and Buddhism teaches that this makes for a very small and neurotic experience of life.  It’s me, me, me dealing with and interacting with, that, that, that out there, and “that” includes other people and all of life, which are really stories in our minds about what we believe is “out there.”  It even includes the experience of ourselves as some very repetitive and shallow story of “me” as an object of judgment conditioned into us psychologically by our parents, society, culture and historical experiences.  This story/judgment of “me” projects onto the story/judgment of “that” whatever our distorted and neurotic conditioning has caused us to believe about “me” and “that” and from this distorted interaction is generated anxiety, depression, anger and many very untruthful belief systems.

To understand what is being addressed here, we have to understand what this “me” is.  We use this word to refer to who we understand this phenomenon of our personal self to be.  The question is, does this actually represent the truest understanding of this phenomenon we call “me?”  Asked to identify ourselves, we typically give a list of referential locators such as where we were born, our parents, where we live now, our occupation or principle activity in the world, our marital or relationship status, some cultural/ethnic/class information, education, religion, group affiliations, etc.  Very importantly, if asked to go deeper, we would probably start telling the story of our life, the important events, accomplishments and injuries of our life-history. We might even give a thumb-nail psychological diagnosis of our struggles with relationships, anxiety, depression, anger, obsessions and fears.  In a more immediate way, if asked to point to ourself – we would probably point to our body, and might point to our head, identifying with our face and the body part containing the brain that we associate with our mind.  This is all well and good for practical, in-the-world purposes, but none of this information or these locaters actually indicates the deepest and most fundamental self.  These locators all point to conditioned circumstances of our existence.  They do not point to the real “me,” our deepest self, the essence of our being, the realm of “big-mind.”

It may sound like parsing semantics to say there can be all the difference in the world between the concepts “this” and “that,” but it is important that we see a great difference.  The very perspective brought with the word “that” is as if we point to something separate from ourselves saying “that” out there, while, I am suggesting, we can create a perspective of “this” as from within the moment containing whatever we are pointing to and ourselves, the person/mind that is pointing.  It is the difference between duality and non-duality, the world of ego and the realm of being.  When we operate within “this” it is both specific and infinite – it is as if we made a great arcing swoop with our hands acknowledging all the universe including us and the focus of our attention, encompassing the observer and the observed, the local and the infinite.

“This” can also be identified as “here,” but most people have a very small notion of “here” as if it is measured in inches or feet, and to live inside this small personal “here” while pointing to the world and all it contains as “that” – out there – is a lonely and frightening place.  To live inside the big-here of “this” is to be complete and infinite.  The same is true of time.  There is a little-now and a big-now – so the concept “here and now” can be either very confining or it can be very liberating.  When teaching, I am known to ask: “Where is the boundary of here and now?” And, of course, there is none. I love seeing the look on people’s faces when they realize this truth.  This realization can be a major shift in relating to self-in-the world.

To live centered on the small personal self of “my” body, “my” mind, “my” life circumstance is to live in this small world of “thats” and in the small “here-and-now,” all centered on this idea of “me” as an isolated object in a universe of objects, and we are, therefore, as Sakyong Mipham noted, very vulnerable to insecurity, and to be insecure is to be unhappy.  This “self,” this “me” feels itself isolated in the vastness of life and spends its entire life seeking significance, and a life spent in this way generates great anxiety, for the seeking is endless, and all of what is called neurosis is the psychological symptoms and attempts to defend against this anxiety.

Buddhism’s genius solution to this conundrum is to wake us up to the reality of the interconnectedness of all that is – that nothing exists in isolation.  The universe is a singularity comprised of infinite interconnected patterns of energy that is both matter and consciousness.  As the orientalist Alan Watts phrased it, and I have quoted in other columns, “Who we are is the universe looking into itself from billions of points of view.”  In other words, and this is the meaning of the very difficult Buddhist concepts for westerners of “emptiness” and “being nobody,” there is no “me.”  There is only “this,” a localized perspective of the universe appearing in consciousness through the vehicle of a human being’s awareness.  It is as if we are a lens, an aperture through which the universe focuses into an intersection of space and time to experience itself.  We are this limited form – like a pair of glasses – that has a function and a duration of quality service AND we are that which looks, without location other than the universe, without beginning or end.  As the famous Heart Sutra of Buddhism comforts us:  “all phenomena bear the mark of Emptiness; their true nature is the nature of no Birth no Death, no Being no Non-being, no Defilement no Purity, no Increasing no Decreasing. That is why in Emptiness, Body, Feelings, Perceptions, Mental Formations and Consciousness are not separate self entities.”  (Thich Nhat Hanh translation)

This may seem awfully strange, although I would guess there is some very quiet bell ringing a “yes” inside you.  As you look at these words with your eyes and they register with meaning in your mind, it is all happening in consciousness as a connected event with all other sensations and thoughts – so – I ask, are you the body with its sense organs?  Are you the mind that gives the sensory impulses meaning?  Or are you the consciousness, the awareness within which all “this” are arising?  The real purpose of meditation is to quiet the restless, anxious mind so that the bell that rings “yes” can be heard. Stop focusing on this illusion of “me” and open to the moment “this” and you will see what Suzuki is talking about, how “There is nothing for you to worry about… wherever you are, you are one with the clouds and one with the sun and the stars.”  This is what Buddhism calls awakening.

Light Into The World

“The LORD is my light and my salvation.” – Psalms 27:1

“I am come a light into the world.” Jesus – John 12:46

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.” –  Quran 24:35

“Be a light unto yourself.”  – Buddha

A fundamental difference between Buddhism and what are called the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is that while the three Abrahamic religions point to salvation through faith in a deity outside oneself, Buddhism points within our own consciousness for the source of salvation, and faith has to do not with a deity but rather with one’s own capacity to realize this salvation.  All four religions share in common the acknowledgement of ignorance as the source of suffering in the world and have at times symbolized it as darkness while symbolizing salvation as light.  But while Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold ignorance of the salvational power of God to be what will lead us to sin, Buddhism holds that it is ignorance of our own pure and true nature that is the obscurant that needs the light of the dharma (Buddhist teachings) to point us toward the Buddha (awakened Being) that resides within us all.  All these religions use the image of light as that which can cast away the darkness, but as Buddhism teaches that separation is an illusion; there can be no separation of sacred source from everyday people and everyday life.  How could there be?  The light is within you, not in any deity or deity’s representatives outside you.  Buddha’s teachings are to guide you to finding that light which is already within you, to the light that is you.

Although “sin” is not talked about in Buddhism, if it were, it would be used in the original etymological meaning of the word – from the Greek, “to miss the mark.” In other words, to be ignorant of your own pure nature arising within the purity of nature, missing the mark of the unity of all that is.  The grace of no outside deity or prophet is needed, and while Buddhism does not speak of grace, if it did, it would say that grace fills all the world, including every human.  While the Western religions require faith in a God that most cannot experience and obedience to the religion’s teachings, Buddhism simply advises us to look deeply enough within our own consciousness and into the consciousness energy that fills the world to give validation to that which we have already experienced, to that we experience when we are so moved by the beauty of a sunset across the mountains or a deep encounter with another person that we forget ourselves and become the purity of that moment stopped in time.  While Christianity teaches that sufficient faith in God and Jesus will bring “the peace that surpasseth understanding,” Buddhism teaches that such peace has always been accessible to those who are able to penetrate the obscurant of the false self known as ego to realize themselves as consciousness witness to Creation.

Buddhism teaches that Creation, the Universe itself, is the Sacred Source, and grace fills every atom, born in the fire of the stars.  It teaches that when the false ego-self does not hold center stage in consciousness, the world of Creation reveals itself in the light of consciousness and all the world is experienced in the timeless beauty of selfless awareness, the light that dispels the darkness of ignorance separating us from Creation.  This obscuring ignorance is the belief in a self that is separate from Creation; but when awareness (the individual) turns inward, seeing consciousness (universal) recognizing its own source, and then directs awareness into the world, the realization awakens – that inward and outward are only perspectives within the One Reality.

A great Zen koan exhorts, “Not two!” but then goes on to remind us, “Not one.”  We live in a spiritual unity that manifests as a material duality.  This paradox realized shines the light of awareness that can never fail.  Light fills the world for those with the eyes to see.  Look!  This is all that Buddhism taught and all that Jesus brought, and it is a tragedy that what Jesus brought was turned into darkness by those who taught humanity as fallen and separate, for we are all the sons and daughters of Creation.  “In the beginning… the earth was without form and void… And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”

Modern astrophysics tells us that the Big Bang began the Universe with pure photonic energy, the energy of light, and that the Universe, in its evolution cooled and expanded and atomic matter was born as hydrogen, then helium, and so on as matter complexified within the unity of the Universe, and brought forth stars and planets and life from the most simple, single-celled organism to humans with brains that are the most complex organization of matter in the known Universe manifesting the most complex consciousness.  And the consciousness that brought forth the original light resides in every atom of this Universe and in the mysteries of Dark Energy and Dark Matter, and we need not look to mythical deities, for, as Zen teaches us, “Just This.” Nothing more is needed.  The light is everywhere.  You can call it God if you want to, but look no further than the stars in the sky or the miracle of your own opposable-thumbed hand that allows you to grasp the physical world or your own cerebral cortex that allows you read the squiggles on this paper and give them meaning, or the silent intelligence of your intuitive mind that allows you to grasp infinity.  The light of intelligent consciousness fills the Universe, is the Universe, and is you and me.  How could it be otherwise?  In Buddhism, this is the faith that needs no miracles, for it is ignorance not to see miracles everywhere.

What is this?

“What is this?” –  the Sixth Patriarch, Huineng (638–713 C.E.)

The practice is very simple. Whether you are walking, standing, sitting, or lying down, you ask repeatedly, What is this? What is this? You have to be careful not to slip into intellectual inquiry, for you are not looking for an intellectual answer. You are turning the light of inquiry back onto yourself and your whole experience in this moment. You are not asking: What is this thought, sound, sensation, or external object? If you need to put it in a meaningful context, you are asking, What is it that is hearing, feeling, thinking? You are not asking, What is the taste of the tea or the tea itself? You are asking, What is it that tastes the tea? What is it before you even taste the tea?  – Martine Batchelor – formerly a Zen Buddhist nun in Korea, translator of Kusan Sunim’s The Way of Korean Zen 

To live a life of Zen is to ask continually, “What is this?” at a silent level of mind.  We must approach life in a manner akin to the look a dog has on his face when he is trying to figure something out.  It is the same as when the Koan asks, “Show me your original face,” or Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki refers to “beginner’s mind.”  Let go of all preconceptions.  They are created by our psycho-social conditioning and the limitations of our human senses and cognitive abilities.

It is the Universe that is this.  It is, as Tielhard de Chardin, the genius Jesuit Priest Anthropologist described, “The World is not spirit and matter, it is spirit-matter.”  It is the quantum field materialized into a human sipping tea, thinking, “ah, how pleasant” or, “it could use a lump of sugar.”  What is this that is hearing, feeling, thinking while the tea is sipped?  Many a great mystic has concluded it is the Universe, it is God sipping tea, experiencing tea as a human being.

I like to ask the question, “Why is there God? Why is there the concept God?”  We take so many things for granted. It is like the cliché about the child asking, “Why is the sky blue?”  We are taken off guard.  We are so accustomed to running our little cerebral cortex computer program believing that what we believe is reality. No.  It’s only what we believe.  It is only the nature of our senses and human brain and the program and society and culture and mom and dad and your 6th grade teacher and the kid who lived down the block when you were a kid and all the other programmers in your life creating this virtual reality.  What is this behind the hearing, feeling, thinking?  What is it that hears, feels and thinks?  What am I?  What is anyone?

We think of ourselves as this body, this mind, these circumstances that are our lives.  Zen suggests no – we are what has a body, mind and circumstances.  We are the experiencer of body, mind and circumstances.  And what is that?  Where is that?  We say, “it is me.  It is myself.”  And we point at this body.  But Buddhism teaches us that when we look, we cannot actually locate this “self.”  So we are left with only the asking, “What is this?”  What is this life and all that we experience?

I come back to asking the question, why is there God?  How is it that every human culture throughout human history has created some face and name that we in this culture call God?  Of course we could answer, because there is God.  And I am left to ask, what is this that is called God, and where is this God?  And you would be unable to locate this God just as you are unable to locate this self.  Could it be that this self and this God are in the same place?  And could it be that place is unlocatable because it is everywhere and nowhere, for the very idea of somewhere is limited to some place.  And what we are really talking about is the Universe as the intelligent source and result of itself.  And what I-the-experiencer experience in a given moment is just the Universe experiencing itself as a human being experiencing the Universe as a cup of tea.

Because we have physical bodies and we have senses in these physical bodies and brains in these physical bodies that function as supercomputers, it turns out that we believe we are separate and solid and that what we hear and feel and think is real and solid, and it all confuses us terribly and creates great insecurity that causes us to build great civilizations with great faces of God the Creator to give us comfort.  But it does not give us comfort, and Buddhism calls this discomfort dukkha, translated as “suffering” or “unsatisfactoriness.”  What is this?  It is the human condition, the condition of the Universe experiencing itself as a human being.

These bodies and these minds are tricks of perception that cause us to divide the Universe into this thing and that thing and to set this thing off against that thing, and to want some things and to avoid other things when there is only This, and This is, as the Tao Te Ching says, the No-thing that brings forth the myriad things.  And this is why we humans create God – to give form to that which has no form and is all forms and that we feel is real but can only think of as something outside ourself that creates these things of the world including us human beings.

But the Universe is whole and complete in itself and it manifests all things, including the perception of this thing called “me” and this thing called “you.”  And if this is confusing it is because we are looking to our mind which only believes in things and even may believe in God as a thing, that is, an idea of God that has certain human-like qualities, when God is that which is looking and hearing and feeling and thinking and drinking a cup of tea disguised as you and me using this body and these eyes and these ears and these hands and this mind to experience itself.

Zen tells us you must not think about these things or believe these things – you must feel them from a deep and silent place where the Universe looks into itself at an intersection of time and space that is a human life, and in that deep and silent place is not confusion, there is, as the Bible says, “peace that surpasseth understanding.”  And that is what This is.

Zen Poetry

An old silent pond…
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.   –
Basho (17th c.)

Like every artistic device of Zen, poetry is a finger pointing to here-and-now.  It serves to reclaim our wandering minds centered on our egoic importance and challenges, to startle us into the immediacy of life in the present moment.  Likewise, it is meant to awaken our intuitive knowing that here-and-now is not only personal and immediate – the range of our senses – it is also transcendent.  Here-and-now is eternal, pointing us to the reality that boundaries in time and space are fictional creations of the human mind.  We are always both at an intersection of time and space that is the limit of our senses along with the linear computing processor that is the cognitive mind, and we are a center of consciousness in an infinite universe – a circle that has no circumference.

While intuiting infinite time and space is a very advanced meditation, the connectedness of earthly and human experience across time and space only requires a suspension of our immediate ego-centeredness.  When we open awareness – some might call it imagination – to realize experiences in the immediate are also universally human, we transcend ourselves.  This is a most important dimension to visit with some frequency, to open our compassion and to diminish our small egocentric perspective.  It could be said that enlightenment is living in this simultaneity.

In Basho’s poem, written four centuries ago in a land on the other side of the planet, what is not familiar?  What is not available to us in our immediate here and now?  It opens us to a universal human experience and feeling.  It also points us to the larger Universal (cosmological and spiritual) experience, as it resonates for us the eternal silence punctuated by sound returning to silence that is like the bell of the meditation hall.  Sound, like all form, is transitory.  It initiates, has duration, and disappears.  This, in Buddhism is the meaning of emptiness.  All form in all the Universe is empty of permanence.  And so, as the ancient teaching instructs, “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”  Basho’s poem points us to what is – always.  It points us to the eternal and infinite silence that is the Universe of potential beneath all sound.  This simultaneity of form and emptiness is the great awakening that liberates humans from the prison of form-only mentality that is the scaffolding upon which ego-identity is built.  We are, in awakened truth, both form and emptiness, our lives are both limited and infinite.  “Splash!”

While Basho’s poem is completely immediate, a moment experienced by a human attending to a natural occurrence, it also points us to a deeper contextual insight into life.   Likewise, Zen poetry can begin with a deeper abstract lesson and point us to an immediate example that is experience-able through our senses.  “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form.”

Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water.
The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken.
Although its light is wide and great,
The moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide.
The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass.
                                               – Dogen (13th c.)

Eight centuries ago, in that far-off land of Japan, Dogen too captured the Universal in an immediate experience written into poetry.  Once again, he speaks to us from a cultural time so foreign we have little we can superficially find in common, yet, when we bring mindfulness, the moon is the moon, the sky is the sky, the dewdrop on a leaf of grass is the dewdrop on a leaf of grass, everywhere and throughout time.  A human directing awareness into this moment and finding awakened truth knows no time or place.  In a typically Zen fashion, as if answering the esoteric question of a puzzled seeker asking “What is Enlightenment?”, Dogen points to an everyday occurrence that most pay little if any attention to, and if they do it is unlikely that they see the Universe, where micro and macro dimensions reflect each other.  Here again, form and emptiness, form having its particular qualities and duration of existence, yet the essence of all form is found in every instance of form, universally.  Moon and water, sky and dewdrop intersect reflectively, cosmic and earthly dimensions; water in any quantity holds its universally reflective capacity.  The great sea, the lowly puddle, the almost unnoticed dew-drop, all reflect the same vastness.  So too, we intersect, earthly and limited, yet reflecting the cosmos in the mystery that is awareness, whether one dewdrop’s worth of humanity or all of sentient life, it matters not.  There is only one eternity – within which the many pass.  Emptiness is form and form is emptiness.  This is enlightenment in any place and time.

We need not be only passive observers and intellectual tourists into these truths.  If we are, the point of this poetry is missed.  It is meant to awaken us, to resonate like “splash.” The one Universe is you and me every bit as much as Basho and Dogen, as “splash,” as “the moon reflected on the water.”  Zen calls us to participate and notice, to stop time and space as dualistic prisons, and open us to time and space as doorways to infinity.  All mystics from all cultures knew this.  I could just as well have shared poetry from Islam’s Rumi (13th c.)

When the soul lies down in that grass
the world is too full to talk about.

Or Christianity’s Mechtild of Magdeburg (13th c.)
The day of my spiritual awakening
was the day I saw–and knew I saw–
all things in God, and God in all things.

Without pretense, you too can be a Zen poet.  Just take an everyday moment and look deeply into it to see beyond the immediate and what you are accustomed to, beyond and deeper than just you, and time, and place, and people, and nature, just hurrying past, life slipping away.  See into it the eternal, the sacred.  See Form as emptiness and emptiness as form.  You too can be a Zen poet.

Sitting on a bench, shaded by trees.
Air currents circle the world making this breeze.
Sun and blue sky, clouds, grass around.
Beneath my feet
the earth is worn from sitters past.
I breathe Dogen’s breath –
carrying a bird’s song.

The Universe opens; we are not alone and small.  All time, space and sentient life is here-and-now.

Splash!

Zen And The Art Of Life

“The arts of Zen are not intended for utilitarian purposes or for purely aesthetic enjoyment, but are meant to train the mind, indeed, to bring it in contact with ultimate reality.”  – D. T. Suzuki

“Zen and the art of (fill in the blank)” has become a familiar phrase, a way to describe engaging in an art form, sport or activity at the highest level, a level where the person seems less like they are “doing” the activity as “being” the activity.  “Zen and the Art of Archery,” “Zen and the Art of Pottery,” “Zen and the Art of Tennis,” Zen and the Art of Flower Arrangement,” “Zen and the Art of Writing,” “Zen and the Art of Painting,” and the famous “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” are all book titles dealing with complete immersion into the moment where self and activity become one.

Meditation begins with Zen and the art of breathing.  When we see the words “I am breathing,” from our conventional perspective we understand this to mean this person “I” am engaged in the activity of “breathing.”  There are two phenomena: “I” and “breathing.”  One is doing the other.  In Zen the same words, “I am breathing” imply one phenomenon.  It is saying that in this moment the entire experience of “I” is the phenomenon “breathing.”  I am breathing.  In that moment, in answer to the question, “Who am I?”  The answer is “breathing.”

So, for example, Zen and the art of tennis, is “I” as the phenomena of tennis racquet, ball, court, body moving, eyes concentrating and tracking, mind calculating angles, opponent’s movements, etc.  These are not all different and separate phenomena; there is just this one field of integrated and connected experience that is this moment in awareness.  Sometimes this is called “flow.”  In sports it is often called, “in the zone.”  The experience of “I” doing has shifted into “I” being the activity, which amounts to there being no “I” experienced as the doer.  When this occurs, what is being done takes on a beautiful sense of unity as the moment in action and the skill level become “peak” while the experience is both relaxed and exhilarating, transcendent and thrilling.  In fact it would qualify as what psychologist Abraham Maslow would describe as a “peak experience.”  The person so engaged will afterward be astonished at what they have accomplished, unable to explain it.

So, as D.T. Suzuki suggests, “art” in Zen brings us in contact with ultimate reality.  This is why, while painting and calligraphy and music, and those activities usually associated with “art,” can be elevated with the descriptor “Zen,” so too can “chopping wood and carrying water,” as in the famous koanic response to the question, “What is Zen?”  The point of any of these activities is “ultimate reality.” To be flow; in the zone.

What is “ultimate reality?”  The point of Buddhist teaching and of wisdom teachings from all over the world is to point us to ultimate reality.  This could be, and has been, described as “God,” but this is a word carrying too much confusion, disagreement and conflict in its application; and confusion, disagreement and conflict are not Zen.  Reality is Zen, ultimate reality is Zen. There is no confusion, disagreement and conflict in ultimate reality.

Ultimate reality is here-and-now.  And here-and-now is the universe, infinite; how could it be anything else?  One very insightful definition of God was given to us by Carl Jung who said it is “a word meant to express all that is not ego.”  The ego makes here-and-now (infinitely vast and unified) into here and now (two things rather than one integration) small and personal, the space and time around “me.”  Of course, here-and-now is all eternity and infinity; where could its boundary possibly be?  This is Zen.  And within it is the space and activity around “me.”  How could I be excluded except by delusion of my ego.   Ultimate reality is here-and-now.  Where, when and what else could be?  Ultimate reality is the Universe, not as we perceive it with our senses, but as the underlying interdependent fields of energy that our senses are incapable of perceiving except as separate objects, but we are able to intuit as connected.  Where is there a gap?  Where is there a dividing line?  In ultimate reality there is just energy, matter energy and consciousness energy, all interconnected.  There is just this moment arising in matter/consciousness energy, everywhere, infinitely.

Eckhart Tolle once answered the question of who we were as “the moment arising in awareness.”  The moment arising, here-and-now, with this body and mind, these eyes and hands and brain in the service of this physical moment, here-and-now.  Tennis, anyone?  How about chopping some wood?   Carrying water?  This moment, here and now without ego becomes ultimate reality, here-and-now as painting, archery, tennis, chopping wood.

Breathe the art of life.  Pick up a paint brush.  Pick up your guitar or tennis racquet.  Begin to dance.  Write a poem.  Chop some wood, sweep the floor, wash the dishes, walk a trail, as no one – just the action and the medium of the moment.  Suzuki said it is not for utility or aesthetics.  It is for contact with ultimate reality.  What result other than the very best you are capable of can happen when you get self-conscious or distracted or lazy self out of the way.  Ultimate Reality contacted and channeled.  Life realized as art.  Utility and aesthetics realized at its highest level, not aiming for utility or aesthetics.   just God.

Mozart and daVinci would have told you the same thing; their art was in the service of God.  It was God happening through them, they would tell you.  It is prayer and meditation in action.  Only Zen tells us this art is not only for music or painting, aesthetics or entertainment.  It is for Life.  No confusion, disagreement or conflict, just allow, and there is God, ultimate reality, this ordinary day, this ordinary action, perfect, everywhere that is not ego.  Flow.

Absolute Present

“Satori (awakening) is said to take place when consciousness realizes a state of ‘one thought’. ‘One thought’ is the shortest possible unit of time… Thought represents an instant, i.e. time reduced to an absolute point with no durability whatever… when time is reduced to a point with no durability, it is ‘absolute present’ or ‘eternal now’… this ‘absolute present’ is no abstraction, no logical nothingness; it is, on the contrary, alive with creative vitality” – D.T. Suzuki (Living by Zen)

I invite you to sit outside on a pleasant day for thirty minutes doing nothing.  Just sit there.  No book or magazine, no companion for conversation, no i-pod or phone or tablet to browse the internet or text someone.  Just sit.

I further invite you to stay in the moment mentally.  Refrain from mentally wandering into the past, and particularly, refrain from thinking into the future.  Forget that there is a future.  It will help immensely to focus awareness into your senses and particularly your breathing, for your senses exist only in the present moment.  Likewise, refrain from wandering to some place in your mind other than where you are.  You will anyway, and this is OK.  Just notice that you have and with sensory awareness return to the here-and-now.  This is a meditation of sorts but not formal meditation.  Keep your eyes open; don’t do mantra or count breaths.  Sit comfortably but not rigidly, moving to adjust balance and visual perspective.  Just sit there being present and when your mind wanders, bring it back.

I have done this with one of our dogs or cats present and found them most inspirational in their example. Don’t interact too much with the animal; don’t use it as a way to fill the time.  They will have no difficulty sharing these moments with you.  They, unlike you, will have no difficulty being fully present with no need, no urge to do something else (unless something in the environment calls them to do their doggy or kitty thing) and then, of course, what they will be doing is exactly and only what the moment is about.  They will not sit there thinking, “I wish a squirrel would come by; I’m getting bored.”  If the moment becomes a squirrel, they will become the moment with a squirrel in it.  I invite you to do the same thing.  Just be there with what the environment is – noticing, seeing, hearing, feeling, and yes, thinking the moment, only the moment.  If there is a squirrel, be the moment in consciousness containing the antics of a squirrel, or the song of a bird, or a cloud overhead, or the rustling of the leaves by the breeze, or the sweet presence of your pet.

What I am inviting you to be is yourself – your deepest self, the goal of all Buddhist teaching – to awaken into your true, natural, Buddha-self; just sitting there. Eckhart Tolle wrote that who we are is “the moment arising in awareness.”  Of course he was describing the true, natural, Buddha-self, which is what we all are – buried beneath a lifetime of conditioning to be someone else called an ego, a matrix of hypnotic-like suggestions from parents, society, culture, peers, media, etc. to be what they want you to be.  All these are in conflict with each other, and so, of course, you are a neurotic mess, just like everyone else.  This is what we’re here to relieve you of.

Eckhart Tolle once wrote that “enlightenment is in renunciation to get to the next moment.”  I find this to be sheer genius, particularly in the choice of the word “renunciation.”  To renounce is to withdraw giving your identity to something, like “I am an intellectual.”  Finding out this is not as clever a way to live as you had believed, you might in a sense “renounce” declaring your identity as an intellectual.  Here, Tolle is directing us to withdraw finding identity in seeking the next moment.  You probably never thought of yourself in this way, but in truth, just about everyone in our society does.  We are going somewhere with our life, and where we are going is into the future.  Our identity is seeking its fulfillment in the future.  The result is a great restlessness that drives us forward often accompanied by minor or major anxiety about perhaps not arriving at the place we want to be in our life – or even knowing what that is.  We live leaning into the next moment.  For our purposes now, see if you can stop this.  Just sit in the here-and-now.  You’ll find that it is not so easy, for we are restless creatures.

We are restless to do and be something because we have no understanding, no feeling that being is enough.  We have been told since we were small children that we had to accomplish things to prove our worth, and this is nonsense.  We are.  The squirrel is.  Your dog is. The tree and the clouds are.  The planet, the solar system, the galaxies, the universe is. An aspect of enlightenment is knowing this, feeling this.  You are free, in fact encouraged, to do positive things with your life, but the most important aspect of being able to do positive things is to be this one thing – you – most positively.  This means that you know you as complete and whole and positive every moment not needing to do something additional to prove yourself.  This requires you to be completely comfortable in the moment, just as you are, here-and-now.  Renounce needing to get anywhere or be anything other than where and what you already are.  Try mentally saying to yourself: “Here-and-now, I am.”  Wonderful actions will naturally flow from that stability, presence and peacefulness in future moments that you need not worry about.  When you get to those moments you will know what to do if you know how to be here-and-now comfortably in the “absolute present.”

For now, just sit in the vastness of here-and-now somewhere on a pleasant day and train yourself in stability, presence and peacefulness.  No action you could engage in will be more beneficial to your life than this no-action.  Sit, breathe, be.  Be awareness sitting, breathing, being.  Learn why in Zen the phrase “Just this” carries so much meaning.  Infinite insights of “creative vitality” are available in this “absolute present.”

The Silent Mind Awaits

Allow the genuine silence that is ever-present behind the noise of everyday life to increasingly draw you to itself.”   –  Stephen Bodian (Wake Up Now)

When you become responsive to the solicitations of silence, you may be called to explore the invitation.”

Jean Klein

Silence does not sit well with the American character.  If people are gathered together and not otherwise engaged in some activity and nothing is being said, it is sometimes referred to as an “uncomfortable” or “awkward” silence.  In many homes, there will be several TV’s on with no one watching, perhaps some music playing as well.  I know several people who sleep with the TV on, and can’t sleep without it.  The sound “relaxes” them.  In our social encounters, we generally seem much more interested in talking than in listening, and in those encounters, if there are any significant number of people present, there will be a jumble of conversations, each trying to be heard over the others.

Increasingly, people taking walks (even nature walks) will be on their phones or their music players, ear buds in place, quite cut off from the subtle sounds of the world and nature around them.  A busy city street corner is a discordant symphony of sounds; emergency vehicle sirens, autos, buses and trucks, people talking, perhaps construction, the sounds of civilization.   It seems that everywhere, the sounds of modern life drown out nature, and all this sound drowns out our own nature, always there, but forgotten and overlooked in the life of a modern person.  This leads to agitation and agitation leads to anxiety and disquiet, and anxiety and disquiet is one way of looking at what Buddhism means when it speaks of suffering.

In accounts of people from nature-based cultures coming to cities in “civilization” there is a consistent report of being overwhelmed by the noise.  One particular account is of a Native-American in the early 19th century having traveled to Washington D.C. for a treaty negotiation lamenting upon his return to his village that the noise was so terrible that he feared he would never be able to “dream” again.  This, for a traditional Native American of the old ways was a disaster, for “dreaming” was a state of consciousness where the world revealed itself at a deeper level than what is seen, heard and thought at the level of the conventional senses.

“Dreaming” is not the dualistic world where a human is separate from other humans, from animals and the natural world in an organization of linear time, where space is just empty, functioning as an agent of separation; it is the non-dualistic, non-linear realm of energetic consciousness connecting all that is.  In this realm, time and space are non-linear, so prophecy and remote-viewing are possible. Individuality is relative so that a person can be both human and a spirit-animal, see through another’s eyes, and be available to the wisdom of nature, and space is a field of energy connecting objects that have energy patterns and signatures that give them unique properties and powers.

Entering the “dream” realm can occur both while asleep and awake and to lose this capacity was to be banished from the world more real to a traditional Native American, Australian Aborigine, or African Bushman than what we moderns experience as real.  The gate to this realm is the silent mind beneath the cacophony of what we moderns mistake for the limits of mind in its constant noise of sensation, thought and emotion.  It is also the silent realm of nature, the vast background of energetic and vibrant stillness out of which all life activity arises. This silent realm is consciousness which gives rise to all that is.  Individualized it is awareness and it is the field of potential behind and beneath the arising of all sense experience and thought.

When directed to identify mind in our culture, we will identify thought, which is the mind talking to itself.  When we are directed to identify ourselves at our most basic level and experience, we will identify our experience of thought and emotion.  When directed to identify our purpose it will be to leave our mark, in a sense, make some noise so that our presence in this world is noted.  Silence is nothing – it is an absence of anything. In silence, we think we are nobody to the world, so that even when we are externally silent, we are making noise internally, telling ourselves the story of “me.”   But this is only who we think we are.  Wisdom traditions from cultures all around the world and through time tell us that this is a misidentification of catastrophic error.

The greatest Zen koan is the most basic question: “Who are you?” And the Zen tradition tells us that this inquiry must be approached with a silent mind – or at least, for the novice to meditation, the attempt to achieve a silent mind through enforced physical silence and stillness. There you sit, watching the activity of your mind.  How long will it take to realize you are not the activity of the mind, the restless, repetitive jabbering?  Return to the sentence that says “There you sit, watching the activity of your mind.”  Who is this “you?”  Who is watching the activity of the mind?  YOU!  You, the silent awareness that is witness to the restless, repetitive jabbering.  YOU!

All along, through your entire life, the silent mind of awareness is present, its true value and purpose ignored, as overlooked as the air that surrounds you, but which without, you could not exist.  So, too, without awareness you could not exist, for awareness is who you are.  Likewise, without awareness there is no intelligence, for it is not the realm of thought that gives rise to intelligence as is evident by how much of thought is truly useless, often foolish, even harmful.

As aboriginal people and mystics of every culture understood, there is the realm of consciousness that binds and connects the universe, that is the unfathomable intelligence that beats your heart, gives rise to the stars and the atoms, to all that is alive, from the most primitive single cell organism to humanity.  The universe happens as matter and consciousness, the harmony and balance of the forms of matter the result of the infinite and perfect intelligence of the universe.  This perfect intelligence also gives rise to you and me.  We are expressions of the universe just as the stars and planets and birds, trees and oceans.  This is known to us, not as thoughts, but in the silent intuitive intelligence of awareness.

This silent genius is you, beneath the cacophony of chattering mind that thinks you are just Jim or Betty, stumbling to find your place in the world, when your place is right where you are, the universe manifesting as a human being.  You know everything you need to know to brilliantly be a human being the way a tree knows how to be a tree if you will only learn to trust the silent mind that awaits your awakening into the truth of who you are.

Be drawn to this silence, explore its truth and solicitation, and find a peace in your own presence that is simultaneous with all presence.  The universe is happening through you.  Touch the silent mind and you will touch infinity within the finiteness of your life.  Look for the silent mind and it will show itself in the act of looking, for it is the awareness that looks.  Look at the world and live from that which looks adding nothing of what you think – that which thinks is neither you nor the world.  The silent mind is.

Freedom

“The meaning of freedom can never be grasped by the divided mind.  If I feel separate from my experience, and from the world, freedom will seem to be the extent to which I can push the world around, and fate the extent to which the world pushes me around.  But to the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world.  There is just one process acting, and does everything that happens.  It raises my little finger and it creates earthquakes.”

  • Alan Watts

 

Freedom is a much abused and misunderstood concept, and a person’s perspective on it tends to come with considerable bias and baggage, and there are people who talk a lot about freedom who seem to have very little understanding of it.  These are people who usually mean that they seek freedom to do what they want, to “push the world around,” and this is often at the expense of someone else or at the expense of the natural world.  Some people want the freedom to amass as much wealth, and privilege as they can and they seem to not care if this places others in the position of lack and want.  Some people want the freedom to exploit nature’s resources not caring about the damage to the environment, other species and future generations that will be the cost of their indulgence.

Some people want the freedom to say, write, broadcast whatever they want, no matter how incendiary or hurtful to others and the general comity of society.    Some people want the freedom to carry guns, and the freedom to hunt and kill whatever wildlife is legal to kill with those guns, and to even kill other humans in the name of self-defense, or even in defense of freedom as they define it.  This point of view places many guns in the world, instruments whose purpose is death, and it opens the way for these guns to be used for illegal killing, but these people see this as just an unfortunate byproduct of protecting their freedom.

Some people want the freedom to take away the freedoms of others through enforcing bigoted or dogmatic ideas onto others, and these people believe any restriction of this is an infringement of their “freedom.”  Many people have their minds divided into me and mine against what is not me and mine.  They use the word freedom in these ways, but there is no freedom here, only enslavement to closed-mindedness.  Only the mind that is open is free.

This mistaken notion of freedom fosters anger and anxiety; it creates the tension of separateness from others and from life that leaves those pursuing this kind of freedom as chronically unhappy and dissatisfied no matter how much of what they want they manage to acquire.  Happiness is always around the bend of “more.”  It is bound to getting and keeping what is believed as entitled, and there is never enough and the supposed happiness that is the goal of this militant assertion of freedom is as short-lived as the moments of ego-victory that come from their fleeting triumphs, dominance and acquisitions.

Freedom is in fact the path to happiness, but it is not the kind of freedom people usually associate with the word.  We could just as easily reverse the order of words and have a better idea of what real freedom is.  Happiness is, in fact, the path to freedom.  This is happiness that is not fleeting but rather a character virtue and it is not in getting something or avoiding some undesired circumstance.  True happiness is a state of mind free of circumstance for its well-being, and freedom is in being one with what is – “to the whole mind there is no contrast of “I” and the world.”  Following this path to happiness is the path to freedom and this path to freedom is the path to happiness.

Obviously, we are not talking about the giddy kind of happiness or the adrenaline rush of victory or getting what we want.  We are talking about happiness as equanimity, peace, deep well-being.  This, as Watts noted, is the result of an undivided mind, a mind that sees that it is an expression of the universe in its wholeness experienced through the separateness of a human form.  It is not a human being believing it is the source of consciousness separate from all other consciousness; rather, that consciousness is the source of this human being experienced as “me” also giving rise to the human being experienced as “you,” and giving rise to the tree and the squirrel and the earth and the sky and the rivers and the sun and the stars.  All are expressions of the universe – uni-verse – that story that is one thing appearing as many.

All these forms are seemingly separate when experienced from the separateness of “me,” and this separateness is like a prison causing isolation, and with isolation comes anxiety, fear, anger, pride, greed, jealousy, mistrust, the desire to possess, to make more of “me.”  This brings neither happiness nor freedom.  Enduring happiness and freedom as traits of character occur only when all these forms are experienced as united in the field of consciousness, and “me” is recognized as that field of consciousness, and thus the mind is undivided.  “Me” becomes “I” – not separate and insecure, rather, as in “I am,” an expression of the universe, of God, if that is the language that has meaning for you – who identified as “I am that I am” when Moses asked the name of the Infinite.  This “I” has no insecurity for this one knows itself as an expression of The One. “I am” needs nothing more to fulfill or justify itself.  This is freedom.

Happiness and freedom come not from killing a deer with one good shot so that its head can grace your den; it comes from loving the living grace and beauty of the deer and feeling that grace and beauty within ourselves as the sight of the deer fills our consciousness.  It doesn’t come from the political party you identify with winning an election or a revolution so that your ideas about what society ought to be can be imposed, it comes from transcending differences to stand together as a human society where everyone’s perspective is honored and no one is trampled, where peace and security are assured.  It comes not from chain-sawing a tree, but from planting one and watching it grow.  It comes from the inner strength that allows you to face physical illness, even death with equanimity because you feel your existence does not begin with birth or end with death, but rather is, always has been, and always will be the universe expressing itself as an individual, just as the ocean expresses itself through the forms of waves or the sky through the forms of clouds.  The forms come and go but the source is infinite and always, and just like the waves and the clouds, every living form is connected in and an expression of its infinite source.  We are all the one universe expressing itself through many forms, and the many forms expressing the one universe.

To feel at one with life in all its expressions, the balmy breeze and the ferocious hurricane, sunny and rainy days, easy and difficult times; in all expressions of life – in the plants, animals and fellow human beings, the rivers, the woods, the mountains and deserts, the furry kitten and the dangerous spider.  To be OK, to not be in rejection of any aspect of life, is freedom, and this requires a sense of connection with the sacredness of all life.  That’s what sacredness means – connectedness.  Freedom of religion is not in holding to or imposing any dogmatic belief on another.  Freedom of religion is the freedom to worship life, the Creation that is the Creator, the miracle that “raises my little finger and… creates earthquakes,” and this felt sense cannot be taken away by any despot or political tyranny.  “There is no contrast of ‘I’ and the world.  There is just one process acting.” In this is peace, and in this peace is happiness and freedom, not as something given or taken, but as who you are.

A Wave On The Ocean

A wave on the ocean has a beginning and an end, a birth and a death. But the wave is empty. The wave is full of water, but it is empty of a separate self. A wave is a form which has been made possible thanks to the existence of wind and water. If a wave only sees its form, with its beginning and end, it will be afraid of birth and death. But if the wave sees that it is water, identifies itself with water, then it will be emancipated from birth and death. Each wave is born and it is going to die, but the wave is free of birth and death.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

Zen challenges us to empty our experience of separate self to realize our infinite connectedness and fullness. Like the wave, our mortal existence has a beginning, duration, and qualities that are caused by conditions much like how the weather affects the waves, and then ends. Does it, like the wave, however, all lead to new beginning? Can we feel that we are never not an expression of that which is unchanging, much like the waves are never not the water? Can we intuit that for us, as for all life, the eternal constant is the Universe-as-Beingness within which and, as which, we manifest? Can we know that we are the wave and the water, that we are a form made possible by infinite Beingness out of which we arise and to which we return like the wave and the water?

To only see, hear, touch, and think of the world as separate objects is not enough. It haunts us with an unquenchable insecurity. We are compelled to seek more and more significance of some, any sort. It causes us to fear our ending. In the Buddhist context, it is suffering – the inescapable feeling that something is missing causing us to cling and grasp for more. Like the peak and trough of the wave, this insecurity pushes us between frothy action and depressed inaction. We cannot see that our true creativity is, like the oceans, the vast quiet source of life itself. A natural instinct to manifest and create is a wonderful expression of the creative Universe happening through us, but a need to make more of our separate self out of insecurity concerning our essential meaning and worth is tragic. No peace can be found in it.

No wonder we are drawn to sit by the sea. As the waves and surf come and go, the sleeping memory of who we are deeper than what comes and goes sometimes awakens. We are drawn to sit by the vast and deep nature of the sea that never comes and goes, and with it comes some sense of comfort, ease and peace. We can sit for hours watching the rolling waves, sensing that what lies beneath resonates with that which is our deepest core.

Often we go to the sea for what we call a vacation – a get-away from our hurried and stressful lives. Struggling in the choppiness of the waves of contemporary life, going up, going down, going up, going down, we have no sense of that which, even in the midst of the stormiest of times, is deeper, calmer, constant, and peaceful. We have no knowing that as the wave is always the water, we are always the vastness and constancy of awareness, that which is witness to the storm or tranquility on the surface of our lives. We do not know how to take ourselves deeper to where the flowing currents of calm and peace are the natural environment of our essence.

To breathe the moment as it is, to feel, hear, and see the moment, not only in its surface manifestation, but in the underlying currents of consciousness out of which what is felt, heard, seen, and even thought arises – this is awareness. This is the vast sea of our existence without beginning and without end. The awareness that experiences you sitting reading this column is the same awareness that experiences every occurrence of your day. It is the constant presence in your life, just as the sea is the constant presence for every wave upon it. So too, we must ponder, as every moment is a wave on the sea of your life, could it not also be true that the span of your life is but a wave on the sea of eternity?

Not only are the seas of our planet vast and connected, creating one true encircling sea having no beginning or end, the action of evaporation transmutes the water into clouds that then releases as rain that refills the seas creating an endless cycle. And so too, there is deep within us, an intuition of the endless transmutation of form within infinite consciousness that gives rise to the universal intuition of deity and afterlife. We are born with this sense of infinite intelligence and life beyond our individuality. It is archetypal, universal to every culture, but rather than it being the beautiful principle that unifies humanity and its world, human ego creates dogma and religions that separate us and set us against our inner and environmental nature. This is suffering.

We live afraid of life and death. We are afraid our life and death will not be significant. We struggle to give our life and death significance. With this fear, our lives become tossed about by stormy waves, and we long for peaceful waters, when the peace we seek is always present – only deeper than we know how to go. Zen asks us to stop struggling against drowning in the waves and learn to enter the depths where, empty of the insecure separate self, we cannot drown.

Zen asks us to realize our face before we were conceived – a realization not to be believed because it is said by those we consider holy – but because we already know it. It is a knowing realized when we learn to go beneath the choppy waves of our surface existence to explore the clear, peaceful currents of deep consciousness in the most profound of meditations. Here we can find the face eternal, not with nose and mouth, but the smile of galaxies in the dance of the cosmos. This is Buddha’s smile, the smile he promised is within us all. This smile is the morning sunrise, the song of the birds, a baby’s smile, given without discrimination. It heals suffering.

Perhaps the awareness that is the unchanging witness to a person’s life can be said to experience birth and death but is not born and does not die. Rather, it exists as the eternal consciousness that is the primordial essence of awareness. To enter the quiet, deep stillness of the ocean of consciousness, aware of awareness, and sit watching the passing forms in the mind called thoughts, emotions and sensations, no matter how stormy, as they appear and pass like waves, is the genius of meditation. Awareness is felt as our true unchanging and deep compassionate presence and we can intuit that our existence, like the water of the sea and waves and clouds and rain, is endless.

Be not afraid. Breathe and know the breath of life, sink into the quiet currents and know the life that continues beyond the breath in the peaceful stillness of awakened awareness carried along, wave after wave, moment after moment, that is ultimately one moment, called eternity.

“If you are the wave and you become one with the water, looking at the world with the eyes of water, then you are not afraid of going up, going down, going up, going down… I have seen people die very peacefully, with a smile, because they see that birth and death are only waves on the surface of the ocean.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Obstacles

“Obstacles do not block the path, obstacles are the path.” – Zen saying

When the term “obstacles” is used conventionally, we tend to think of problems and circumstances that have interrupted or blocked our progress to the accomplishment of some goal or desire. But to understand the puzzling meaning of this Zen teaching we have to reframe completely our idea of what obstacles and goals are. In Buddhism, there is only one worthy goal, and to quote the Zen Master Yasutani, it is “to meet the True Self,” a term used to describe an insight into the non-dualistic truth of existence and thus, who we really are and what our capacities for clarity and insight truly are.

From a conventional perspective, our goals are viewed as ways of establishing our lives as significant, and their accomplishment is highly desired, and the “obstacles” towards their fulfillment are our frustrations. Zen, in its usual paradoxical manner, instructs us that, in truth, it may well be that our greatest obstacles are our goals and desires themselves, and it may be that what we experience as obstacles to reaching our “goals” are our great opportunities towards the development of the true purpose of our lives – to grow in wisdom, compassion, insight and skill.

So, as we live our ordinary lives, we have an idea of ourselves moving toward goals. As we experience success in meeting these goals, we feel pleased; as we are thwarted and frustrated in meeting these goals, we feel unhappy. Anxiety about the future of our ambitions and despondency and anger at past failure is typical. We experience being not-OK with our lives. Buddhism, as a psychology or philosophy of life, above all, points us toward being OK with life beyond success and failure in our endeavors and experiences.

What we are exploring here is how the traditional idea of goals, such as dedicated focus on what we consider success, can get in the way of our being OK. This is obviously true if our goals are frustrated, but it is also true if they are fulfilled; for we begin to believe with ever greater certainty in these goals as the purpose of life, and, as Buddhism and life teach, everything that comes also goes. Peace and well-being cannot be accomplished through material success. Success only breeds desire for more success. Eventually this strategy will fail, but as long as we believe in it, we are diverted from opening beyond this belief that says happiness comes from success. In this way, success is an obstacle to realizing deeper and truer skills and perspectives. Likewise, frustration, even seeming catastrophe, may open us to look for deeper and broader perspectives, and in hindsight be realized as the source of our most important growth.

Buddhism is a set of precepts and insights into life accompanied by the development of mental skills that have proven effectiveness in leading to increased peace and well-being or OK-ness, independent of success or frustration in conventional terms. The great Vietnamese Zen master, Thich Nhat Hanh helps us better understand the key to Buddhist perspective and practice when he points out that there are two dimensions to our existence – the “historical” and the “ultimate.” The historical dimension is the idea of our life experienced in the timeline of past, present, and future, and the important word here is “idea.” We all live inside an idea of who we are made up of experiences, desires, fears, hopes, and capacities about which we are confident and capacities about which we are insecure. This idea of our self is very unstable, highly personalized and quite insecure. To this historical identity, obstacles are events, circumstances or people who obstruct the fulfillment of the idea of me getting to the goals that I imagine will give me peace, well-being and happiness. We believe that they are the reason we are not-OK.

To explore the meaning of “the ultimate dimension” we have to return to Master Yasutani’s invitation to meet our “true self.” This is no idea of who we are. This is who we are deeper than experiences, thoughts, desires, fears, hopes, and capacities about which we are confident or insecure. To the true self in the ultimate dimension, the “obstacles” encountered in the historical dimension are merely opportunities for practicing transcending the reactivity of the historic-self, understanding that it is our own ideas about events, ourselves, people and our life-circumstance that are the source of our feeling not-OK.

We have all experienced obstacles to the historic-self. We’ve had problems and losses in relationship, occupation, the fulfillment of our desires, perhaps even severe illness or disabling injury. Even driving across town can be a frustrating encounter with the obstacle of traffic, throwing us into varying states of not-OK-ness, for some, even rage. As these events occur in the historical dimension, we are affected quite adversely. We experience very difficult, perhaps overwhelming, negative emotions. We are reactive and judgmental about what is happening. It is this reactivity and judgment that our practice works with through realizing that as we are aware of these states of not-OK-ness, the awareness that witnesses it all is completely OK. We begin to recognize awareness as the pure witnessing consciousness before any thought or emotion colors the experience into good or bad. We are taking the first steps in discovering that awareness is the mind of the ultimate dimension and our true self and that ultimately we are that awareness. We begin to realize that we are awareness that has a body and a mind that engages circumstances in the historical realm, and that while body and mind may be threatened, awareness is not, cannot be, threatened for it exists in the ultimate dimension acting as witness to the historical dimension.

If we are to become conscious in our lives, that is, living from awareness of things as they are in large, even vast perspectives, rather than as we concoct them in our very small idea of our self and the world, we must practice living in awareness, the pure witnessing consciousness of the present moment unfolding. As obstructive events occur, our historical self, the mind of ego, reactivity and judgment, experiences these obstacles as injurious and frustrating. Awareness, the mind of the true self, witnesses and discerns the unfolding of events and is only there to learn and become more skillful. The obstacles as defined by the ego gradually become experienced as the path to personal growth into realization of the true self.

When upsetting events occur in our historical dimension, our personal sense of self experiences being threatened and diminished by the event and we experience debilitating negative emotion as a result. An encouraging truth, however, is that often, with time, the event becomes just another incident in our lives – neutral, or it may even become valued because it brought with it perspective on the relevant circumstance that, with distance, we learn much about ourselves and the circumstances that we were incapable of seeing at the time. Our growth as a wiser, more skillful person gives credit to the then painful experience as now a valued lesson. This is awareness working through the passage of time as the event becomes more distant from our personal experience unfolding. As the event becomes less personally threatening, we are able to see the deeper truths it reveals. We can trust that this process happens for we have experienced it many times and this trust can be a great ally in bringing this lesson into the immediacy of a challenging situation.

Our practice, then, is to bring this capacity for perspective to the events of our lives as they happen. Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki once said, “The essence of Zen is ‘Not always so,’” meaning that events are not always as they seem from the limited perspective of our personal conditioning. As we walk our path in life in the historical dimension our practice is to simultaneously maintain our perspective in the ultimate dimension where we can always be remembering, “Not always so”– always available to allowing that seeming obstacles can be valued elements of our path. Rather than having to go through weeks, months, or years of suffering as the lesson of a particular obstacle is processed, we can grow in the ability to look deeply into what is happening in the now. When we shift into present moment awareness in the midst of difficulties we can see what is happening with greater perspective and use the event as an opportunity for expanded capacities in wisdom, skill, compassion and insight. We can see the obstacle as the path and proceed mindfully towards its awaiting lessons free of resistance.

Needing Nothing

“What, at this moment, is lacking?” – Linji (9th Century – Chinese)

One of our dogs and I had been playing in a grassy field, she chasing and returning a ball until she was worn out with the joy of it, and then she lay down in the grass. I sat down next to her, and together we were just there, and it was perfect. After a little while, I too lay down beside her in the grass, just looking up at clouds passing in the sky, aware of my breathing, my body, the clouds, the blue sky, the breeze, the tree-tops dancing in the periphery of my vision, the fellow Being-in-a-dog beside me. No thought corrupted the perfection of these moments.

After a while, I sat up, continuing with this deep present moment awareness. It reminded me of how it once was – when I was a young boy sitting in a grassy field with my dog. The awareness that was me now and the awareness that was that boy then were exactly the same – no matter how much else about me had changed. Time had stopped. The moment was entirely filled with the space of presence, all its contents, including this body that is thought of as “me” was one seamless experience. This is Zen.

“The practice of Zen is forgetting the self in the act of uniting with something.” – Roshi Koun Yamada (20th Cent.)

When people talk of non-duality, this is it; not me and my dog, rather, me-and-dog-and-grassy-field-and–sky–and-clouds-and-trees, all one in the space of the moment. Importantly, even the literal space, the air about me, was palpable with subtle energy, connecting all the denser energy patterns of me and dog and trees. This was bliss – shimmering on an early summer morning.

The Rinzai school of Zen grew from the teachings of the Chinese Zen master Linji, known as Rinzai in Japanese. It is known as the “Buddha Mind School” and it teaches the realization of a person’s original pure mind before it has been shaped into an egoic identity. This concept is famously called upon in many koanic declarations, such as Huineng’s (7th cent.) “show your original face.” It teaches the purity of a moment and the realization that it is, and we are, of course, complete, perfect, needing nothing.

“Original face” is consciousness before ego-identity and psycho-social programming. It is the awareness that came into this world with our birth, has experienced every conscious moment of our life and will experience our last conscious moment. It is who we are that never changes while we physically and psychologically age and change. Awareness sat in that field with my dog and with my body, once, as a child and now an adult, united with Life – needing nothing. The moment was perfect and complete.

And – of course, I do have needs – just as my dog has needs. But – in a moment, any moment, there is only the moment, and it is complete and needs nothing. Only in time do we have needs. My dog and I need to eat – sometime. We need shelter – sometime. We need many things, me more than she because as a human I have complex social and psychological needs she doesn’t have, but many of my social and psychological needs are not needs at all; they are only the delusion of needs. I would psychologically suffer not having them met, and then I would be fine, as we all adjust to our perceived losses – with time. The secret of Zen is to see through the illusion of time and know it is not needed to become all right. We already and always are all right except for stories in our minds telling us we are not.

We can be OK in time, or right now. The choice is up to us. All that is needed is to drop the story of me and my needs; to be completely present, and then it is true, nothing is needed. The world could be coming to an end, I could be bankrupt or with dire illness – but this moment – only sky and clouds, grass and dog.

Zen teaches us all there really is, are moments. All there really is, is one moment; this moment. This realization is called “refuge,” and we can find refuge from the stress and unsatisfactoriness of our everyday life in buddha-mind, that is, this moment in heightened awareness realizing self in consciousness – not in body, mind, or personal story. Consciousness is this moment in the Universe where self is found in a grassy field with a dog. Nothing more is needed. That other moments – driving a car, working at the office, shopping at the store, lying sick in bed are not also perfect is the delusion of the story of me in time that Zen teaches us to penetrate, expand and experience in the purity of presence. In returning to just this moment in the Universe, needing nothing – even the air around us is rich with the energy of Life and non-duality. Perfect.

Living in Balance

“Your life’s journey has an outer purpose and an inner purpose. The outer purpose is to arrive at your goal or destination, to accomplish what you set out to do, to achieve this or that… the journey’s inner purpose… has nothing to do with where you are going or what you are doing, but everything to do with how. It has nothing to do with future but everything to do with the quality of your consciousness at this moment.” – Eckhart Tolle

Buddhism is sometimes referred to as “The Middle Way.” By legend, the Buddha was born a prince, a person of wealth and privilege. Having experienced that the vast majority of people did not live such sheltered lives and suffered many woes and calamities, he dedicated himself to understanding and overcoming the nature of human misery and chose to live the life of an ascetic, rejecting all of life’s comforts, even necessities, to follow a life of meditation, yoga, self-denial and retreat from the world of humanity. After thoroughly mastering the arts of the ascetic, he realized this path was also false; it would not lead to the answers he sought. He realized there must be a middle way, a balanced way that was neither luxury and wealth as life’s purpose nor the rejection of the material world through extreme spiritual practices.

As we in the West now commonly live lives with levels of material luxury and security approaching the equivalency of a prince of old, and find it lacking in the emotional well-being and security our society promised, the Buddha’s story has great relevance for us. Buddha realized that neither of the paths his life had trod would lead him to the secret of perfect peace; they were both expressions of the self-centeredness he now realized was the source of humanity’s suffering. It didn’t matter if one was a prince in the world or an ascetic in rejection of the world; both were about being something special and apart from the natural everyday life of human beings.

The path he next chose was the simplicity of everyday life, however, lived consciously in the perfect design of life-as-it-naturally-is imbued with sacredness. He realized humanity’s fall was its belief in and clinging to its own separate specialness, and its salvation was in awakening into its true and balanced place within the sacred web of Life. The true spiritual path is nothing special, and truly spiritual persons do not conceive of themselves, or desire for themselves, to be something special. The secret, he found, is in everyday life lived in consciousness and celebration of Life’s miraculous interconnectedness and interdependence. When once asked, “Are you a god, an angel, a saint?” the Buddha answered, “No.” When pressed further to explain his radiant presence, he answered, “I am awake.”

“God is simply a word for the non-ego,” wrote the famous Swiss psychiatrist and fountainhead of archetypal psychology, Carl Jung. This brilliant statement observes exactly as does Buddhism, that only the human mind’s capacity to extract itself (ego) outside of the perfect harmony of the Universe is humanity’s fall from Grace. “God” is a word in a thousand language variations to express the universal archetypal intuitive experience of the perfect harmony of the source of all that is, an intelligence that balances all the Universe.

Human ego creates an artificial universe of human society and the individual’s place within that matrix that places itself outside of Nature. It doesn’t matter if what is being created are shopping malls, temples, arcane spiritual rituals or retreats from the world. If a person or a society is looking to find their own unique specialness in things or the rejection of things, they are missing the mark.

It must be realized that the Universe has generated the human ego, but not as a source of individual and collective specialness and identity, rather, as a means for conscious participation and shaping of the material world. It is a tool, just as our hands with opposable thumbs are special tools generated by the Universe to literally grasp the world while our minds abstractly grasp it. Those abilities to shape the world used for ego enhancement, however, are graceless. As Eckhart Tolle noted, we must connect to our inner purpose as guide for our outer purpose, and our inner purpose is to be an instrument of the intelligent unfolding of the Universe in perfect harmony and balance.

“Realize that there is a vast realm of intelligence beyond thought, that thought is only a tiny aspect of intelligence… All the things that truly matter – beauty, love, creativity, joy, inner peace – arise from beyond the mind.”– Tolle

Zen often talks about how “doing” must be shaped and guided by non-doing. Thought is the doings of the mind, and while a most valuable tool, it is not the source of all that is truly intelligent, insightful, creative and spiritual. These gifts arise from the silent mind, the intuitive mind, the realm of pure undivided consciousness that is the Universe. It is a truth that, as Orientalist philosopher Alan Watts expressed it, “We are the Universe looking into itself from billions of points of view.” We are apertures of consciousness into points in space and time, into the world of form – if you will, of the mind of God. When we mistake that consciousness as our own individual separate self, we are in a self-absorbed conceit that shrinks and limits the Universe down to me and my likes and dislikes.

We live inside our thoughts, and thought can be anything. Great and wonderful thoughts have inspired us, and likewise, human history has shown how insane, unbalanced and destructive human thought can be. Often it seems there is no balance in our lives, for we have cut ourselves off from the perfect harmony and balance of the Universe, of Nature. The consequence, or karma, if you will, is imbalance, confusion and suffering.

This moment – what is it? It is this right in front of us and it is our outer purpose of shaping this world in the manner we will it. It is also the vastness of an intelligent and harmonious Universe generating the human species in its evolution of consciousness manifested. Our great purpose is to realize the vast harmony that is our source and inner purpose, and let it guide our outer purpose so that our individual and collective human lives manifest the same balance and harmony as does all of Nature.

Between, Before, and After

“The moment between before and after is called Truth or Buddha’s world. We don’t know what it is but we are there. Our life is completely embraced by this… It is the original nature of the self.” – Dainin Katagiri

See if you can feel what it means to be in the moment between before and after. Just here. Surrender the compulsive need to get to the next moment or to hold on to the last moment.

See if in your meditation you can realize the felt sense of the space between before and after and see how any thought activity that arises is about either the before or the after of your life, carried by the momentum of what you have been training for all your life – to be this person you know as yourself, this person known as “me,” carrying the issues, beliefs, concerns and behaviors – both positive and problematic – out of the before and into the after – all your desires, anxieties, ambitions. See how this self-absorbed story propels you out of the past and into the future. Yet – in between – in the space between before and after – in the space Katagiri is calling Buddha’s world. There is no story. There is just this moment as it is. This is pure awareness receiving Life, being Life.

This is the observing mind – the curious, compassionate, silent mind that absorbs and witnesses the present moment. Along with the external world of the present moment, the observing mind is also capable of “noticing” our internal world that includes storylines of thought and emotion that make up our egoic mind, both its healthy and neurotic aspects. With the observing mind we can notice when the mind takes off on some tangent about the before or after that is not just here-in-the-moment. We can see a story in our heads of the before and after, and if it takes over the attention of the mind, the moment fades from vivid presence to flattened background. But in the moment between, if we hold onto the awareness that is completely here, we can see the story as the not-real passing through the real. We can also notice how if we don’t stay vividly with the here-and-now, the story pulls us out of the here-and-now. Noticing this, we can hold to the witnessing mind as our central mental experience and the vividness of the present moment is regained, and the story passes on, leaving awareness in presence: “The original nature of the self.

To deepen our connection to the here-and-now, our observing mind must notice when we get off into some track in our mind: “Oh, I’m off into…” some before or after. Or it may be that we’re in the moment, but we’re not happy with the moment: “There’s my complaining mind.” We’re in some negative judgment about the present moment. Some element of what’s going on with the moment is not OK with us – which is, of course, conditioning from the past about things not being OK, intruding into the present. Just notice this. This is not some analysis of what is happening or why it is happening; rather, there’s just the noticing of the diversion into issues of past or future or some reactive judgmental emotional state.

While our very blatant reactive emotional states are quite obvious by their disruptive effect, what can be extremely helpful is to notice how we almost constantly have subtle, on-going stories, on-going little complaints, on-going little anxieties, on-going little irritations and they all carry a low-intensity emotional charge. These subtle stories are our personality and its traits. And when we understand meditation as the process of training the mind (as Tibetans do), we can realize that the mind has been being trained all our life, it’s just that it has been being trained (meditating) in being unstable, in wanting to chase after various emotions and to figure out schemes and ways to make our life be the way we want it to be, and to complain when it isn’t being the way we want it to be. These stories of low-level unhappiness and insecurity color everything we experience and when they are triggered into explosions of troublesome emotion and behavior, we don’t know how it happens.

So we come to the meditation that Buddhism teaches, a kind of meditation that is therapeutic and liberating. It is, as the Dalai Lama calls it, training in “virtuous’ mental traits. This meditation is called “shamatha,” peaceful abiding, and “Vipassana,” wisdom or insight, and ultimately, “samadhi,” which is the dropping away of dualistic experience into a sense of oneness with the moment, with our sense of self not in this body and mind or our story in time, but rather in the moment itself. These are the states of mind we want to be training with our formal meditation.

In this, the non-verbal noticing of mind activity is very helpful in our realizing we are not peacefully abiding. We are not manifesting wisdom or insight; rather, we’re manifesting judgment, or we’re manifesting irritability, or any number of problematic mind-states we’ve been trained deeply into in the “before.” We’re not in the space between before and after. We’re chasing, trying to shape “before,” trying to create a story we can live with out of the before, and shaping what the story in the “after” is going to be. And what is important, what is healing, is to just notice what is going on. Just experience this movement of mind in the stillness of awareness that is always and only present, peaceful and wise.

It can also be very helpful to train ourselves to notice, to observe whether we are tense, both in body and in mind, because tension is a tip-off that we are chasing after something in the mind, some story of “before” or after” or getting from “before” to “after.” So what we have to learn is the very important skill of stopping the momentum of mind traveling in before and after, for as soon as we stop, we are in presence, and we can notice the train of thought/emotion getting from before to after.

A very helpful tactic for facilitating this stopping is through focusing awareness into our breathing and into sensory awareness of our body and environment. In a manner of speaking, stop the train, get off, and look around. This will bring us into presence where we can observe the mind-activity, the story, and the tensions that go with the story, and how they keep pulling us out of presence. We can then settle into the breathing, the senses and the here-and-now, this moment. Eventually we realize that the noticing/observing mind that can see the mind activity and is witness to the senses is also, always, this moment arising in awareness. This opens the dimension of intuition, the knowing of who we are beneath our mental activity and circumstances. This is the silent, peaceful, wise, insightful mind that is who we are – in awareness, no separation from the moment. “It is the original nature of the self.

In feeling the tension, the contraction of mind/body energy that goes with these mind-stories, intuition also helps us to know what is happening. Just observe, for instance, what irritability, impatience, anger feel like. You don’t have to form those words in your mind, rather just have the sense of them. Just observe, and allow a sub-verbal labeling: “Oh yes, that tension, that’s my impatience, that’s my anger.” This can be very enlightening and begin a gradual process of dissolving this reactive conditioning. The same can be true of anxiety, despondency, resentment, jealousy, insecurity, defensiveness or any of the conditioned stories from the “before” of our lives that intrude into our experience of the present moment. With this practice we can learn to trust that this observing mind is a wise, completely present capacity in each of us that only exists in the space between before and after, in this moment, now, and is the very essence of sanity.

With patiently practiced present-moment awareness monitoring our being lost in “before and after” stories or in judgment, we can accomplish a transformation from within, and it is important to know that meditation and mindfulness practice is not about what could be called personal change, but rather personal transformation. Change is an attempt to target, in a judgmental way, some problem in our thinking, emotion or behavior and to control it or substitute a healthier thought, emotion or behavior. It is aimed at some “should” about being a “better person,” perhaps about being less judgmental, which has us being judgmental about being judgmental, and it is readily obvious that won’t work very well. It is like some disapproving finger shaking at us saying, “You should.”

With non-judgmental noticing, “Oh, there is that trait” – rather amazingly, just the process of noticing irritability, impatience, anxiety or depression in non-judgmental awareness causes a gradual dissipation of that old un-virtuous training from within. Just notice it. That’s all. We are training in more availability of the noticing mind, the observing mind with its intuitive intelligence that is always in the present moment. We are training in increased accessibility of the mind that peacefully abides and has the wisdom and compassion to know from within the better person we are, and always have been, when in the present moment in awareness. We are calling forth this better person, rather than trying to change the old person.

We begin to transform, not into some judgment of what it is to be a better person by fighting with ourselves over particular behaviors, but rather by being that better person here and now, becoming more and more familiar with ourselves as that less reactive, less judgmental person, and experiencing the increased peace and well-being, the increased skillfulness of this person that has always been within us. We live less in our stories coming from before about being angry, or a victim, or whatever, projected into the after, barely even noticing the moment that is now, where our life actually happens. With less energy given to old stories of before and after, more energy and life is engaged vitally, skillfully, brilliantly in “the moment between before and after.” And this is what opens the way into “Buddha’s world,” here-and-now.

Just Stand Up in the Universe

“Real knowing comes up when we stand in the appropriate place. But usually we don’t. First we want to understand something according to individual knowledge, prejudice, customs and habits. This means we are standing up in our individual place, not the universal perspective. This egoistic behavior makes it very difficult to see the overall picture. But buddhas and ancestors recommend that we first stand up in the appropriate place. Just stand up, be present in the Universe itself.” – Dainin Katagiri

Zen Master Katagiri (1928-90) was an important figure in bringing Zen to the United States, arriving in Los Angeles from Japan in 1963, then moving on to San Francisco in 1965, assisting Shunryu Suzuki to establish the Zen community there, and then, in 1972 establishing in Minneapolis the Minnesota Zen Center. In reading his books, Returning to Silence, You Have to Say Something, and Each Moment is The Universe, we encounter a deeply mystical presentation of Zen. In these books we experience a simultaneity and paradox of earnestness and humor, of ferocity and gentleness, of logic and intuition that is the mark of Zen, for this simultaneity and paradox is what Life is, and Zen is Life.

To know this is to stand in the Universal perspective, and it will open us into realizing that the mystical is actually and only to be found in the interconnected and interdependent everything of everyday life. This is the true secret to Zen, to enlightenment and to a truly rich life of heart, sane mind, and spirit. This secret reveals itself, however, only when a radical shift in attitude toward our lives and toward Life itself occurs (that is, away from our unquestioned conditioning into mental and behavioral traits such as separateness, anxiousness, indifference, callousness, anger, depression, pride, shame, guilt, selfishness, etc.). It is this shift that Zen meditation and its supportive koanic philosophy open for the dedicated student – and the adjective “dedicated” is very important – for there is little that is more challenging in life than shifting one’s attitude. Attitude is so deeply ingrained and imbedded within a personality that to achieve a radical shift in attitude requires dedication motivated by an understanding of how central to the quality of our life-experience such a shift is.

Buddhism emphasizes that we live in “egoic delusion,” a state in which we fail to experience Life (the vast and perfect balance of the Universe unfolding and evolving) because we are mesmerized by our life – what becomes expressed as our attitude toward Life. Our life is what we are accustomed to; what we experience and express according to our prejudices, customs, habits and beliefs. Our life is, in a sense, a hologram in our minds, a virtual reality, unique to each individual, and from that perspective it is difficult to have a truly wholesome and holistic perspective. How can we know what Life is? “Be present in the Universe itself.” This requires a radical shift in attitude and perspective.

Katagiri speaks to us of “Real knowing” and what he is referring to is the realization that within us, at a level deeper than thought, is a “knowing” of a pure way of living as a human being that transcends our family, religious, cultural, national, ethnic and personal conditioning to be a personality – our “individual place.” Our individual place, “this egoistic behavior,” as Katagiri tells us, makes it “very difficult to see the overall picture,” the non-deluded experience of being “present in the Universe itself,” in all its thick simultaneity and paradox.

In teaching meditation, I often see people approaching meditation from their individual place, and this makes the liberation from egoistic behavior that meditation is intended to realize very difficult. Posture and energy are very important to this process but this is a great challenge for Americans who are taught to value their individuality above all else. Katagiri tells us in Returning to Silence, “Realize the truth that all beings are buddha.” Note that in this quote, “buddha” is not capitalized. If it were, it would refer to the historic Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, and this is not what Katagiri is saying.

We have great difficulty wrapping our minds around the idea of being buddha, the perfect harmony and uncorrupt nature of our deepest Being, a Being that naturally intuits and experiences its non-dualistic oneness with Life. But this too, does not compute. It’s just an esoteric idea, just words that the ego can flatter itself with by believing the words are something special. The real thing is outside the realm of ego, and cannot be known except when ego, and the belief and experience of separate self as our only experience, drop away. So, I see people sitting as themselves, in their individual place – in their attitude. Little (or sometimes rather big) statements about being their individual self is broadcast in their posture, their facial expression, and their energy.

buddhas and ancestors recommend that we first stand up in the appropriate place. Just stand up, be present in the Universe itself.”

Allow me to make a technique suggestion: find a statue or picture of Buddha meditating (such a picture is included in this column). Use this as what is called an external object of meditation. Look at the Buddha-image and concentrate on it to steady the mind. Experience the qualities that are expressed by the posture, the facial expression, the energy. See it as illustrating what it means to just stand up and be present in the Universe – while sitting. Now to the best of your ability, mirror what you see. (You don’t have to sit in lotus position unless you are completely comfortable with it – chair-sitting will do just fine.) What is important is the verticality, the balance, the relaxed alertness, the dignity, serenity and total acceptance of the moment-as-it-is that the image projects. No slumping, no tilting, no wobbling. Release unnecessary tension. Be relaxed while also brightly alert.

Steady your capacity for relaxed concentration while you simultaneously focus awareness on the Buddha-image and the gentle rhythm of your breathing. This should naturally begin to quiet your mind and relax your body. Let any mental activity that arises be noted only for what it is – your egoic mind telling its story. Watch the mind-activity as it arises and passes without being pulled into it. Realize that the mind-activity arises and passes in a quiet, still, unchanging field of mental awareness. That which sees the activity, this quiet, still, unchanging field of mental awareness is buddha-mind, and the intention of meditation is to realize that we are awareness, that which sees, senses and knows the moment. In our culture, if awareness is noted at all it is that we have awareness and not that we are awareness, while in reality, both are true. Again, simultaneity and paradox. Awareness is not egoistic, colored by “individual knowledge, prejudice, customs and habits.” It is clear and universal. To realize that we are awareness is to realize we are that unprejudiced clarity beneath all the prejudiced, reactive and clouded thinking and emotion of mind-activity.

Continue to concentrate on the Buddha-image until it is very clear and steady, and then close your eyes, internalizing the image, holding the image in the mind. When the image is very steady and clear, and your body statement reflects and mirrors the image, create a quantum repositioning of the sense of self from looking at the Buddha to looking out from inside the Buddha. Become Buddha’s vision. You may now experience awareness seeing awareness. This is buddha. There is no object of meditation. You have become meditation. It is not what you are doing. It is what you are – awareness.

In opening your eyes, everything becomes the object of meditation. This is Mindfulness. There is simply awareness realizing the objects in life (including what is experienced as your separate self, and the separate selves of others, and the trees and the birds and the earth and sky, everything) as all connected in the arising field of awareness. There is just the energy of Life appearing as energy-beings that have form and varying degrees of sentience. There is also the sense of intuited connection with that which is beyond the range of physical senses, ultimately, with an intuited sense of the Universe. You are now standing up being present in the Universe. This is realizing buddha.

With this comes a radical shift in attitude, both toward our meditation and toward our experience of Life, shifting from our individual posture, attitudes, beliefs, prejudices and behaviors to an increasingly universal perspective and expression. From here, with dedication, we can carry this way of being – as the individual we are and as the Universe – into everyday life. And then, everything begins to change. Increasingly, everyday life becomes imbued with the mystical, with buddha, and all the balance, reverence, compassion, perspective, equanimity and sanity that this implies right in the middle of our otherwise mundane activity. Increasingly we see how we get pulled into our conditioned attitudes, behaviors and reactions, and in seeing, in becoming that which sees, we can let this conditioning fall away, leaving – buddha.

Just as every flower, leaf, bird and snowflake expresses universal qualities, each, as an expression of Nature and Life simultaneously express their unique individuality with sparkling authenticity and spontaneity. And so can we. Just stand up in the Universe and be the simultaneity and paradox of self and buddha that is our true nature.

Who Is It That Is Aware?

“As you are aware of your thoughts and emotions, you must ask yourself, who is it that is aware?” – Zen koan

Thoughts and emotions arise. The human mind is a thought-producing machine. Emotions happen. The human body is a resonance chamber for the energy of thoughts and emotions. A thought or emotion arises in the dimension of mind, and in the body, a resonant feeling, a quality of energy, is experienced. A happy thought creates a happy feeling – expansive, light, energized. An unhappy thought creates an unhappy feeling – contracted, heavy, energy dissipating.

Try it for yourself. Close your eyes. Think of something or someone that is very challenging, even threatening to you. Hold that thought for about ten seconds. Pay attention to the feeling state that accompanies the holding of the thought.

Now, think of something or someone that is supportive, pleasing to you. Hold that thought for about ten seconds. Pay attention to the feeling state that comes with that thought.

Now, bring all your attention to experiencing the gentle flow of your breathing. Do not accentuate or change the breath. Feel the rise and fall of your chest, the flow of air across your nostrils. Allow the exhalation to be relaxing, a releasing of tensions of body and mind, while with the inhalation, the oxygenation of the body and brain causes a brightening of alertness. Also listen carefully to the sounds of the world around you. (Do this away from loud sounds or TV – very soft music helps this exercise – or best of all, go outside and listen to the birds and the wind in the trees.) Do this for about 30 seconds. Now, open your eyes and feel what you feel.

If you are paying very close attention, you will notice that with the threatening thought there is a contraction of the energy of the body and mind into a state of tension. With the pleasant thought there is an opening of the energy, the body and mind relax. There is a feeling of soft expansive openness. We can feel the effect of thoughts.

Then – with the bringing of your awareness into the experience of your breath and into listening to the subtle soft sounds of the world around you, notice how the feeling state becomes even more expansive, open, relaxed, clear. This is the experience of no-thought, or, at least, quieted thought. Your sense of your separate self at the center of experience is softening, maybe even disappearing. The experience of the moment is the center of consciousness. “Out there” feels like it contains you and there is no or very slight thought of yourself. You are experiencing awareness, the clear, bright light of consciousness that we are usually distracted from noticing by the noise of the mind. You are becoming aware of awareness. Thought, emotion, sensations happen in awareness, and awareness is the clear energy of consciousness that shines on everything without discrimination, just as light is the clear energy of the sun that shines on everything without discrimination. This is the realm of consciousness beyond happy and unhappy. This is what Buddhism calls original mind, buddha-mind, Satori. Thought has ceased to be the centerpiece of consciousness and you are realizing a deeper level of mind. Buddhists also call this “big mind” as differentiated from the thinking dominated “little mind.”

“Who we are is awareness, but we block this with our self-centered thinking.” – Charlotte Joko Beck

Every thought is a contraction of the energy of the mind from its original and clear state of awareness into some limited form. With the creation of thought, we experience the creation of a world of virtual reality, where the thoughts are mistaken for who we are and what the world is about. We experience the dimension of mind that is the ego, the dimension of mind that takes the streaming energy of Life and organizes it into bits of information that we can use to organize our experience. And from the ego comes the idea of our own separateness amidst a world of separate objects. This separateness feels absolute and solid, and with it, a sense of isolation and the problem of finding our own significance in this vast and challenging world that is experienced as “out there.” There is a loss of the experience of oneness with Life that is our natural consciousness.

Although this condition isn’t generally experienced as dramatically and ominously as the description here sounds, at very subtle levels we experience this challenge of sufficiency and it drives our daily lives. It shows up in anger, anxiety, frustration, tension, worry, regret, and a dozen other variations of thought/emotion/body distress. In times of great threat or challenge, this experience of tense uncertainty accompanied by frenetic mental activity is amplified greatly, and although we don’t recognize the dramatic threat to our well-being, as the Buddha deduced, this is the source of all of humanity’s unnecessary suffering.

Thoughts race, attempting to make sense of and assert control of our life, and many of the thoughts are subtly or not-so-subtly fear based, for we are filled with uncertainty that Life will be manageable without great effort of mind and action, and the more fear-based the thought, the more the mind and the resonant body-emotion contracts into its experience of separateness. While many of our thoughts are simply utilitarian, i.e., figuring out situations and problems, this challenge to a secure sense-of-self is so all-consuming that a great many of our thoughts are, in some way, self-centered thoughts, for we are struggling to make sense of and plan for the physical and psychological survival and flourishing of this “me” that is at the center of our thought-matrix world. We lose awareness of awareness. We lose awareness of our original and clear consciousness that is irreducible and is the very stability we chase after as we are tossed about by the ever-changing and unstable mind of thought and emotion.

We are accustomed to experiencing that we are the thoughts and emotions and the behaviors that result from those thoughts and emotions. We say, “I am happy” or “I am sad” or “I am angry” and act out these thought/emotion experiences as if they are our only choice, as if they are who we are. But is this true? Zen teaches us that, no, we are not these thoughts and emotions or consequent behaviors, They are the product of but one dimension of mind, and a problematic one at that, called the ego. We have these thoughts and emotions. They are properties of being human, just as we have hands and we have feet. Who we are, in our essence, is the awareness, the pure field of consciousness that experiences these phenomena of the mind and body and out of which they are generated. Little mind exists within big mind, and it is the big picture that we are missing.

So, we are answering our question: Who is it that is all this cacophony of thought and emotion, and who is it that is the awareness within which all this mental activity occurs? Our culture has kept from us the answer to this very important question and our schools of learning and our psychologies fail even to bring the question up for our examination. Without a clue, we experience the chaotic realm of ego-identity as who we are while we live in awareness as a fish lives in water. We live unaware of awareness, unaware of who we are at our irreducible level, unaware that who we are must be that which is irreducible and unchanging in our experience.

As I instructed you to create a happy thought, then an unhappy thought, we must ask, how could these thoughts and emotions be me if I can voluntarily create them? Who is the “me” that can create them? Must there not be a more fundamental entity that receives these instructions and intuitively knows how to manifest them? So then, as we go about our everyday lives, how can these thoughts and emotions be who we are when they spontaneously arise in response and reaction to our daily events and challenges? Where do they come from? Is there two of “me”? Is there one who reacts with ever-changing thought and emotion to ever-changing circumstances, while there is one behind this activity that is unaffected and unchanged by this activity?

In a narrow sense, the answer is yes. These two are (1.) the ego with its cacophony of thoughts and emotions, and, (2) behind and greater than ego is awareness and its accompanying intelligence we call intuition functioning silently and constantly. To bring this into broader accuracy, however, we must realize, there is only one, awareness, the undifferentiated energy of consciousness out of which arises the differentiated consciousness of ego. Non-duality contains duality as a vivid experience, while what is important to realize is that duality cannot contain non-duality other than as an idea. To live in the duality of egoic mind as our culture conditions us blocks the living experience of the peaceful unity of life-experience we seek.

Do you see the empowerment and liberation in this? This is the true purpose of Zen meditation and teaching, to awaken us to awareness and intuition as the irreducible source and experience of our existence. In meditation, as you quiet the talking and emotionally reactive “little” mind, you begin to open into the field of consciousness that is awareness, the water we fish usually swim in unnoticed. And as you continue to meditate, you begin to be aware of awareness and the dawning realization that you are the “big” mind of awareness. This is the very ground of your Being, your source, who you truly are.

Oh, how everything then begins to change. Thoughts and emotions come and go. We begin to realize that they are conditioned patterns of our cultural, societal, family and personal experience. They are programmed reactions to situations. They are certainly not who we are. We can begin to let them come and go without investing our sense of self in them. Defensiveness, reactivity, the need to identify with them begins to dissolve.

Once we know we don’t have to be controlled by these thoughts and emotions, we can begin to reshape and refine them. We can experience our thoughts as tools, like our hands, which we can train to be increasingly skillful, graceful, compassionate and wise in dealing with the circumstances of life. The egoic mind is really a very remarkable computer that can serve us brilliantly once we stop confusing it for who we are. This is why Buddhism’s teachings and meditation are “liberation” leading to an “awakening” out of living in the little mind of ego into the wisdom and effectiveness of a much bigger, more adaptable and compassionate mind, the mind of awareness itself. The answer to our koan is: YOU are who is aware. It is YOU, the deepest, truest, sanest you.

What’s Ok?

“One way to evaluate our practice is to see whether life is more and more OK with us… More and more we know that whatever happens, however much we hate it, however much we have to struggle with it – in some way, it’s OK… We grow in understanding and appreciation of the perfection of each moment… we grow in being able to say, ‘Yes, it’s OK.”
– Charlotte Joko Beck (from Everyday Zen)

The central purpose of Buddhist teaching and practice is to understand and overcome the causes of human emotional suffering, yet, “suffering” is a rather vague and abstract term. Mostly we associate the word with extreme physical and emotional pain, and while Buddhism’s use of the word certainly contains these extreme and obvious examples, it really is also meant to address mental states of far greater subtlety. We know it must mean being unhappy, even miserable, but it doesn’t give us a good practical handle on understanding where this unhappiness, this misery, is coming from and what we can do. We too easily associate suffering with its infliction by sources and conditions outside ourselves, rather than as a state of mind within us, when in fact, that’s precisely what it is. That’s why I so greatly appreciated Charlotte Joko Beck’s bringing the issue of suffering and enlightenment down to a most practical level. She asks: Are you OK? And tells us, that if there’s something in your life with which you are not OK, that’s the growth edge of your practice. It’s you who is not OK with something, not that the something is not OK in itself. Our suffering, unhappiness, and misery is not out there, it is in here, in our own minds.

This is very similar to Eckhart Tolle addressing the suffering issue by expressing it in terms of being in resistance to what is. Are you in emotional resistance to something? – then, it must be causing you unhappiness and some degree of suffering. Again, very useful, yet, still a bit abstract. Just what does “resistance” mean?

There’s nothing abstract about whether you are OK with something or not. When you are not OK with something, you know it. What Zen is teaching us is that if you can know it, you can work with it, and in working with it, you can transform your attitude toward it. You can grow from a state of not-OK to OK. In other words, you can grow from suffering to not suffering, from resistance to acceptance.

Eckhart Tolle teaches us that “pain is not suffering; pain plus story is suffering.” Do you see? Pay attention to the next time your dog or cat is sick or injured. They don’t suffer. They are just slowed down, incapacitated by the sickness or injury in some way. Remember the last time you were significantly sick or injured. If you are like most of us, you suffered not only with whatever actual incapacitation you experienced, you suffered mentally. You were not OK with being sick or injured. You had a story in your mind about how not OK it was , even scary, to be sick or injured. Your dog or cat is OK with being sick or injured; they have not created a story of affliction by the sickness or injury. We human beings tend to do just that. We tell ourselves a story of how it is not OK to be sick or injured, or financially broke, or in relationship crisis, or to have a difficult boss or co-workers, or that world and national or local politics are not going the way we want, and so we suffer.

Taking this further, Joko Beck asks us, would it be OK with you if you were told you have one more day to live? Or if your arms and legs had to be amputated? Or if you were never again to receive a kind or friendly or encouraging word from anyone? Or if you had to be in pain and bedridden for the rest of your life? And her list goes on through some gruesome, awful scenarios.

She then says, “to answer ‘OK’ is the enlightened state,” while acknowledging that she herself (this acknowledged Zen Master) cannot say OK to these things. She goes on to say: “for something to be OK, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t scream, or cry, or protest, or hate it. Singing and dancing are the voice of the dharma, and screaming and moaning are the voice of the dharma. For these things to be OK for me doesn’t mean that I’m happy about them. If they’re OK, what does that mean? What is the enlightened state? When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be.”

This is what Tolle means by no resistance. It’s not about being passive or numb. It’s about being wise. For the truth is that in all these scenarios, we become OK with these circumstances through the passage of time, as the separation between our self-image and the reality of our situation disappears, as we get use to being an amputee, a political prisoner or a chronic pain patient – or blind, or deaf, or battle with cancer, or adjust to going broke. Being OK means we no longer are victims of our circumstance, we no longer experience being victims. We just live with what we’ve got to live with and don’t fill our minds with stories of how horrible it is.

When we become OK with whatever Life hands us, we become whole again where there had been a hole, a separation between ourselves and our circumstance. This is not new to us. We’ve all done it with various difficulties in our life. We are not OK when the unwanted, even dreaded circumstance becomes a possibility, even more not OK when it becomes a reality and then, with time, we become OK. We’re not victims. It’s just who we are. The wisdom here, the skill here is developing the ability to see when we go into not-OK-ness and realize the outside affliction has now become an affliction of the mind, and rather than being passive and depending on time to restore us to OK, we make the mental adjustment ourselves as we also take what appropriate actions we can to address the circumstance. As the intriguing vernacular of Zen says: “This is this” or, “what-is-just-is.” There is no wisdom in being separated, in resistance, in suffering over what is.

The practice of Zen is in increasing insight and skill at becoming conscious of what causes us suffering and instead of being dragged kicking and screaming to eventually becoming OK, we just make the mental adjustment to our circumstance, let go of our resistance, and become OK with it. We get in front of and initiate, rather than being dragged to, the process of being OK. This also has the effect of increasing our skill in the actions we take about the circumstance, as the action is not now arising out of a desperate mind clouded by fear or anger.

How do we do this? By having a larger frame to view and experience Life than the very small frame of ego that simply wants what it wants, and in effect, throws tantrums when it doesn’t get what it wants. The irony is that all the ego really wants is to be happy, but like a greedy child, it has no idea of how to accomplish happiness. Happiness is the result of a life lived resenting nothing, experiencing great gratitude and conducting oneself in a fundamentally ethical and responsible way so that situations and relationships are not constantly blowing up in our face. Happiness is the result of wisdom, and wisdom is the result of perspective, and perspective is to see Life in as big a frame as we are capable of.

Happiness is in OK-ness. OK with the little things in Life, OK with the big, even catastrophic things in Life, and everything between. Since we have identified ego as the source of our being not OK, the most important lesson of Buddhism is “you are not your ego, “so don’t let it own you. If you want to be happy, you must take ownership of your own OK-ness. You must take ownership and responsibility for your ego. You have an ego for the very important job of managing the stuff of your life as a separate person. When we mistake ego for who we are, we are caught in the grip of its greed and self-centeredness. The roller-coaster of highs and lows, of inevitable suffering, is sure to happen.

Let ego be the workman of the circumstances of your life. With the tools of ego, you do what needs to be done. You can go for whatever you want, while you cultivate wisdom as what guides your life – and helps you embrace what comes. Appreciate how much is good and beautiful in the world and train your awareness to see the subtleties of beauty and goodness – the flowers, the birds, kindnesses, children’s smiles and laughter, your own smiles and laughter, meaningful presence with fellow beings. As for the really bad stuff – the cancers, the divorces, the family tragedies, the job firings, the sicknesses and deaths, the injustice and stupidity and cruelty in the world, it’s OK to scream and cry. Then dry your tears and find the gold in the manure. It’s there. I promise you.

Life is everything. As Joko Beck told us: “Singing and dancing are the voice of the dharma, and screaming and moaning are the voice of the dharma.” – It’s all OK when seen in the big picture. “What is the enlightened state? When there is no longer any separation between myself and the circumstances of my life, whatever they may be.” Open into the fullest perspective possible and let there be no separation, no holes, between you and what is – become whole with what is – let ego and awareness work together to manage what-is to the best of your ability; do what you can and let the rest go. And that’s what it means to be unassailably OK.

Life Open Hand

“Problems cannot be solved with the same consciousness that created the problems.” – Albert Einstein

Zen teaches us to release grasping, to live life with a metaphorical open-hand. Of course it is also speaking of an open-mind, a non-grasping-mind. Unfortunately, the truth is that we live with grasping hands and minds, that is, hands and minds that are always trying to grasp on to and close around what will complete the experience of life for us because our society and our religions have taught us that we are not enough and haven’t the capacity to be enough. Because of this, we are caught, trapped, living in a limited sense of who we are and what is possible. We are always trying to close our hand and our mind around “things,” material and conceptual, and we are always looking for a material and conceptual amount that will be enough, but there never is an amount that satisfies. So we mindlessly grasp for more and more and more. Buddhism identifies this as “egoic delusion” and the cause of human suffering.

We believe that if we can get some hypothetical amount from Life that will be what we need and want, closing our hand and mind around it, we will be enough, we will be OK, but this hypothetical amount is limitless, so we are never OK. We believe in this grasping and acquiring approach to life because our culture teaches us to believe that form – objects and ideas, even very abstract ideas such as religion, politics, economics, nations and class structures – are all that exist. We are unable to understand that a far richer life becomes available when we open our hands and minds to the unlimited possibility of a life of infinite connection, within which occurs the limited forms of our material existence. What we must realize is that we are much more than our bodies, our minds, and our circumstances. We must realize that, likewise, the extensions and expansions of our hands and minds that are our families, associations, societies, institutions and their products will not fulfill us. Even our closest relationships, which while having the potential to bring us closer to fulfillment, still leave us unsatisfied when they are modeled on this culture of expectation, acquisition and possession.

We can only be fulfilled by realizing we are simultaneously this individual human-being with its affiliations, and we are the great organism that is humanity, and the great organism that is this planet, and ultimately, the infinite Universe manifesting into the form of a human-being that has hands, a mind, affiliations and context for the purpose of engaging the finite world existing within the infinite complex oneness of the Universe. This is the non-dualistic consciousness that can bring harmony in our material existence and a vast mental and spiritual peace that realizes the truth of our multidimensional existence. This is the consciousness of quantum unity that Einstein was suggesting as needed to address the problems facing humanity that have been created by a human society constructed on the consciousness of separateness. We must realize that we are this infinite complex oneness manifested finitely. To have a long, quality future, humanity must come to this realization.

Another way of expressing this concept is found in an important article/interview by Naomi Klein in the spring edition of Yes! magazine, entitled Dancing the World into Being. In this piece, she interviews writer, spoken-word-artist, and indigenous activist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who speaks of the colonialist consciousness that has ruled over the Americas and most of the world for the last 400 years she calls “extractivism,” and this consciousness views all that is in and of the world as resources for extraction to make more wealth. “Colonialism and capitalism are based on extracting and assimilating,” says Simpson. Among her points is that everything of the indigenous American world has been and continues to be extracted and assimilated. There is no true valuing or experiencing of the ecology that was the Native American world, rather, only parts of it are extracted as resources and assimilated for whatever value they may have to the dominant culture, and so what true value there is in its wisdom for today’s world cannot be fully appreciated or applied.

She goes on to say “the act of extraction removes all relationships that give whatever is being extracted meaning. Extracting is taking. Actually extracting is stealing – it is taking without consent, without thought, care or even knowledge of the impacts that extraction has on the other living things in that environment.” She makes the point quite clearly of how devastating this mindset has been on indigenous peoples, on the Earth’s plant and animal life and on the land we inhabit, but even more, how devastating this mindset is for all of modern society, bringing us to the brink of collapse, and we are unable to sufficiently escape its grip, to do anything meaningful about this coming apocalypse because our limited consciousness keeps us blind and in denial.

As an alternative, she recommends the consciousness of the native peoples before assimilation. She recommends the consciousness of “the seventh generation,” the long view into the future that holds responsibility for decisions as they will affect seven generations. Short-term exploitative profit can never be an acceptable basis for decision-making from this consciousness. She recommends

“responsibility… Because I think when people extract things, they’re taking and running and they’re using it just for their own good. What’s missing is the responsibility. If you’re not developing relationships (with people, the land, the animal and plant life, the very Earth that sustains you) you’re not giving back… We’re talking about… a resurgence of indigenous political thought… a concept that’s very fundamental to (indigenous) society called mino bimaadiziwin. It often gets translated as ‘the good life,’ but the deeper kind of cultural, conceptual meaning… translated as ‘continuous rebirth’… the purpose of life then is this continuous rebirth, it’s to promote life… how to interact with each other and family, how to interact with your children, how to interact with the land… how those communities and how those nations should also interact… You don’t develop as much as Mother Earth can handle. For us it’s the opposite. You think about how much you can give up to promote more life.”

Leanne Simpson is a voice channeled from a lost past speaking to us in the present about our future, and about the choices we have for the quality of our present and our future. She is talking about a consciousness that sees the truth of human existence on this limited planet we share with all communities and nations, including the communities of plant and animal, even mineral life. It is a consciousness of open-hand, one that emphasizes giving rather than taking as the best value system for humans and their societies. She is absolutely talking about a consciousness that can contribute much to the solving of our problems.

We must realize an openness of mind, hand and heart such as America’s indigenous peoples lived within – and that modern Buddhism speaks for today. We must realize that what we are is infinitely intelligent awareness, the non-form dimension of experience that is not subject to the conditions or conditioning of the consciousness that created our problems. We must realize that we are that which holds the infinite complex oneness in vast openness and allows us to see the world as it actually is, a vast interconnected and interdependent life-form that we are within, and that we are that vast openness. We are awareness that is living with the limited forms of this body, this mind and this world, and they are beautiful when we see the truth of “the good life” as expressed in open minds and hands that believe absolutely in giving so as to promote more life. In this meditation on Life, all questions lead to the next question, and the infinite unfolding of the question becomes the living mystery that is the answer. Here, we are enough, we are complete, we are expressions of The Infinite, and from the perspective of Infinity, all that has to do with the finite becomes very clear.

Indigenous peoples understood this, as they lived a form of continuous meditation in complete harmony with Nature, “dreaming” the finite and the infinite together seamlessly. Life is Life, is who we are, and our purpose is the celebration and sharing of Life, looking to Life to guide us in our lives. We must open our minds and our hands. This is what America’s indigenous people did for tens of centuries, and it is what is needed so that humanity can have a future of tens of centuries as one people on one Earth in a “beautiful life” focused on giving and sharing, “promoting more life” rather than extracting and assimilating ourselves and this planet to death. We do not have to return to the forests or give up the use of technology; we just have to turn our technology towards truly understanding, protecting, honoring and giving back to Nature rather than always extracting from it and assimilating it into a consciousness of exploitation that promises fulfillment but can never deliver, only take.