The Fullness of Emptiness

“Become totally empty.  Quiet the restlessness of the mind.  Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness.” – Lao Tzu

Our typical American life is very full with possessions, work, recreational activities, and very busy minds.  Yet many struggle with a feeling of emptiness.   We acquire more and more things, and we are, to a degree, grateful for what we have, yet the feeling of completeness, of needing nothing more in order to be fulfilled eludes us.  We keep acquiring more and more and striving for more and more, yet the abiding sense of gratitude that makes life truly full and rich beyond circumstances seems out of reach.

Buddhism and Taoism have a great deal to say about this conundrum.  These ancient Eastern philosophies tell us that our problem stems from attaching our value and well-being – importantly, our very identity, in our external circumstances.  We confuse having with being.  We believe that the more we have materially, along with having social status and affiliations, and having positive emotional experiences, the better we are.  We depend on these circumstances being advantageous for our well-being, but there is no lasting certainty to any of this.  So, our well-being swings with the advantage or disadvantage of our circumstances.  Our problem is that in order to be okay we need to feel filled with advantageous circumstance, and this is pretty shaky ground upon which to build a life.

When the great fountainhead of Taoism, Lao Tzu, advised us to become totally empty, he was telling us to go deeper into our foundational self, to empty ourselves of all dependency on possessions, status, and affiliations, all ideas, philosophies, emotional dependencies, and preconceptions, like pouring out the contents of a cup to realize the infinite potential of the cup itself as a vessel for anything, for everything.  A cup of tea is a cup of tea; the cup is full with one thing and has no room for anything else.  When we empty the cup it is a space filled with infinite potential, with the Universe itself, ready to accept whatever is needed in the unique circumstance that is a moment of life.   

Importantly, every moment of our life is like a cup, and only when we enter it empty can we be filled with the moment’s own unique preciousness, but we do not generally enter the moments of our life empty.  We enter the moment carrying a train of previous memory-moments and anticipated future-moments filled with our subjective interpretation of what the value of those moments has been and will be, shaping our sense of the value of our life.  The momentum of this train of impressions and judgments is so great that we fly on through each present-moment as we encounter it, adding an occasional strongly positive or negative moment on as one more box-car on the train of our life speeding on to some future destination where we hope to find fulfillment or, as it is for too many, just a train to ride, going they know not where but fearing it goes to nowhere.

Lao Tzu advises, “Quiet the restlessness of the mind.”  Our restless mind, seeking fulfillment, is what already fills our cup and drives our train.  We enter the moment projecting into it our memories, expectations, desires and fears.  We have no room in our cup to be present in wonder because we are rehashing where we have been while looking further down the track.  We do not know how to empty the cup, to stop the train.  We don’t know that we must quiet the mind that restlessly pushes us forward, to avail ourselves fully to this moment where Life is actually happening.  We don’t know that there are miracles and wonders to be experienced while we are unavailable because we are already filled and racing forward.  The result is that for too many we experience life, instead of being filled with gratitude for these wonders, as filled with grudging acceptance, dissatisfaction and anxiety over the perceived contents of our lives and our minds.  They are filled but still empty, racing into an uncertain future.  The miracles are lost as unnoticed blurs as we speed past.

Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness.”  It is quite remarkable and quite a privilege to be alive at a time when science is discovering the underlying quantum field nature of reality.  Just as the ancients intuited, it seems to be true that every thing arises from no-thing.  The underlying reality of the universe seems to be a field of energy potential containing no gaps or no separations, truly a Uni-verse, a single story/source of Creation.  From this proto-energy field arises spontaneously the building blocks of atoms – electrons, gluons, quarks, Higgs-boson particles that all become the stuff of the world, the stars and the planets, the oceans and the mountains, the trees and the rocks, the rivers and the streams, the vegetation and the animals, and you and me.  All these things arise from what is a no-thing because it has no boundary, and no boundaried things within it.  Everything unfolding from emptiness.

So too, our minds are quite possibly like quantum fields.  In fact, the once very enlightened view that the brain is like a computer that stores bits of information in memory and has a remarkable retrieval mechanism that allows us to creatively mix and match the up to 100 terabytes of information stored in a human brain, is giving way to a view of the brain as a quantum storage, retrieval, and reorganization biological information technology that, like in the world of physics where particles pop into materialization from out of what seems to be a vacuum but is now described as “quantum foam,” so too, quite possibly, does information in the mind.    

From this universal field of potential that precedes and permeates everything, both the physical world and the world of mind materialize, exactly as they need to so as to create a world of perfect balance and harmony with layer upon layer of harmonized strata.  When the balance is upset by too much of anything, the balance is restored naturally, but in the human mind, Nature has created an anomaly, a phenomenon that identifies and quantifies itself as separate from all else, creating imbalance, felt as a kind of anxiety that no other creature experiences.  This sense of separate self, or ego, builds and builds on itself, erroneously hoping to manage the anxiety with more of itself, but this is a tactic that simply does not work.  Just more imbalance is created, in individual humans, human collectives, and in the world inhabited and dominated by humans.

Yet within us is the way back to balance.  The mind must empty itself of established ideas and emotional experience which create this false sense of self.  We must learn to make ourselves available for new insight and perspective while realizing the truth of the ancient teachings that tell us we ARE Nature, already complete, just as is all of Nature.  We must remember the ancient ways of emptying the mind, of entering deeply into fertile silence, remembering that only when the mind is relatively free from running on its default mode of holding onto and seeking itself in things can it realize itself in its original potential.  We must rediscover that only when, even for a moment, the mind is empty of running its story of filling cups and rushing trains through time can it realize its fullness as this and every moment arising in consciousness, the Universe manifesting and realizing itself, a great miracle and wonder happening as a human life.

Then we can begin to reorganize our lives, both individually and collectively, not as cups or trains that we fill, but rather, simply as witness and participant in Creation, where we and every moment materialize from the field of infinite potential that is the Universe, where our cups empty and fill magically with the contents of the moment, with what is needed to experience and build our lives based in the natural harmony of Nature.  I have often thought that this is the real meaning of the Biblical phrases that direct us to live our lives “at play in the fields of the Lord” and to be “like the little children” who show up in the moments of their lives empty of the baggage of a developed ego-self, to experience life “unfolding from emptiness.”  Human civilization will not collapse for letting go of the ego-myth that more is better; it will find its way back to harmony, no longer a train rushing to a burned out bridge somewhere up ahead, but rather a magical caravan that fully experiences, explores, treasures and creates the terrain of Life as it appears, fullness arising from emptiness.  Our cups will become cornucopias that magically empty and refill moment to moment while we are full in the magic of emptiness.  And gratitude for the miracle that is Life can travel with us as our constant companion.        

Back to the Garden

“If we are unable to create a new path by which to discover our true nature, the human race may be condemned to disappear.  Never in history have we had to face such potentially calamitous dangers… The economic, political, and military systems we have established have turned against us and imposed themselves on us, and we have become increasingly ‘dehumanized.’” – Thich Nhat Hanh

Just consider what Thich Nhat Hanh is saying – “If we are unable to create a new path by which to discover our true nature, the human race may be condemned to disappear.”  – Can you sit with that statement for a few moments?

We may wonder whether this man a hysterical prophet-of-doom.  Hey, those have been around forever, and we’re pretty much OK.  Aren’t we?  The sky isn’t falling in.  Or is it?  For those of you who have read Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, you know this person may be as sane as it gets.  This Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Vietnamese Buddhist monk is telling us that our social systems are completely failing us, and the continuation of human civilization with any quality of existence requires our reclaiming the institutions of our society and redirecting them toward the rediscovery of what it truly is to be human.  He is not saying it would be a good thing to have happen.  He is saying it is the necessary thing if humanity is to avoid catastrophe.  And he’s right, and if anyone is insane, it has to be the vast majority of our society that behaves as if Thich Nhat Hanh’s warning is not something to take with urgent seriousness, for by no stretch of the imagination are we OK.  Our scientists have been telling us for years we’re headed for a cliff, for unimaginable social dislocation and environmental destruction.  Does that sound like we’re OK?  It sounds more like the sky IS falling in, which with the increase in floods and cataclysmic hurricanes that are occurring, it does seem so.  Ask the people of the Bahamas.

As I write this, a category 5 hurricane has devastated the Bahamas with significant loss of life and has skirted the coast of the U.S., bringing serious and very costly flooding – this just one of the mounting number of freakishly record-setting violent acts of a rebelling Nature the world is experiencing.  It would seem that humanity is at a dead-end and Thich Nhat Hanh is telling us we have to backtrack, to find a new path that leads us back to what is essential in us.  The artificiality of this culture has taken us as far as it can; it has taken us to where we are in grave danger of being completely lost, of losing what is true and human in us.  He’s telling us we have to get in touch with our humanity, and when he uses the Buddhist term “true nature” what he is of course saying is we have to get in touch with Nature, for we seem to have forgotten the most important insight of all:  we ARE Nature.    

In America’s political world, the 2020 election is also bringing a hurricane of some sort, as a choice between two starkly different visions of America will be made.  Whatever happens, America is at a defining moment.  The America of only a decade ago is gone.  We will either decide to stay on the course that brings category 5 hurricanes and the radical degradation of democracy the current administration has brought or go in a completely new direction with a vision for building a new society that honors all persons and all life, including the environment.  We have to choose dystopia or utopia, muddling along will not do.  One leads to death, the other life.  This is the historic moment we are in.

As evidence of the watershed nature of what is before the American people, the candidates running for the Democratic nomination to the presidency all seem to share the sense of urgency for environmental policies and expansion of economic democracy that only a couple years ago were marginalized as radical.  Various candidates have put forward plans described in heroic language such as an “environmental moon-shot,” “environmental Marshall Plan,” and “Green New Deal.”   Polls show that a majority of Americans believe that global warming is a major threat, the only question is are they ready to actually make the changes that will be required?   For even if they are very good changes, even necessary changes, changes that will improve quality of life for everyone  – people just don’t like changing. 

On the other side, appealing to misguided nostalgia and the tendency to inertia, playing upon fear and mistrust, Donald Trump and the Republicans are busy dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency while greenlighting fracking and oil-drilling, calling the warnings from the science community a hoax, as they simultaneously dismantle our democracy.  They are determined to stay the course of corporate profits from an out-of-control consumer economy and the privilege of the wealthy over human and environmental welfare.  This is the nature of the division in political and social vision that this country is stumbling through while that cliff is getting closer and closer.

As this column began with a quote from one of the great spiritual leaders and consciousness teachers of the modern era, what he is clearly calling for is not just a political movement, but rather a huge leap in collective consciousness for our society.  Thich Nhat Hanh has always been political; he understands that politics is only the means of implementing social vision and ideas, and that this change in collective direction is as great an idea as was the notion of democracy upon which this nation was founded out of the 18th century era of divine-right aristocracy and monarchy.   While the political upheaval and military action that went into implementing that idea was called the American Revolution, it was actually a momentous act of evolution.  It required people thinking in ways they had never thought before, and so too, this call is for another momentous act of evolution, of thinking in ways we have not thought before.  Just as that (r)evolution was born out of what was called The Age of Enlightenment, when reason and humanism were elevated as guides for human political conduct, a New Age of Enlightenment is called for where again, reason and humanism, now fortified with both spiritual and scientific understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, is necessary.

Many are beginning to realize that the notions of democracy and justice born in the American Revolution MUST be extended to all persons and, very importantly, all life, if we are, any of us, to have a measure of security, prosperity, peace and stability going into the long future.   We must begin to truly include within the idea enshrined in our Constitution of “We the people” written at a time when the evolution of society could only include property owning white males in that definition, that all people must be included.  It must, in fact, be expanded to even include the animal world and all of Nature.  And it will take the same kind of courage and vision that created this nation out of a world that had never seen its like before, for the world that is now necessary has also never been seen before.

A very literal “New Age” is needed.  Not the sweet, syrupy idea of peace and love, esoteric religious practices, flowing music, clothing, and perhaps the existence of benevolent alien-beings that has been called “New Age.”  This requires a major evolutionary step forward for humanity actualized in the realization of this Earth being not just a great resource for human consumption, but  The Garden from which all life emerges and depends for sustenance, not only of belly, but of soul, much like our aboriginal ancestors believed and lived.  This is the evolutionary step of harmonizing the ancient notion of our being OF Nature and kin with all Life WITHIN Nature held by the ancients with the most forward looking technology of the most advanced futurists.  And for this evolution to occur, compassion is the essential ingredient for the politics that can get us into the next human era, for a continuation of the politics of greed and self-interest practiced presently will close the door on there being a next era for humanity that has any true quality of life. With wisdom and compassion we can evolve human society; without it, we are certain to devolve into a very dark time.

We MUST find our way back to The Garden, but now a garden that is understood as Nature tended lovingly and reverently through merging human spirituality and technology.  We need not abandon our technologies, but realize all technology that is assaultive of the Natural world is “sinful” – missing the mark of humanity’s purpose in this Universe as witness and co-creator of the magnificent Natural Universe. We must find our way back to the Garden and bring our technology into its celebration and protection, and in doing so, finally begin to realize and celebrate our true human nature, for we are actually, as the bumper sticker declares:  One People, One Planet, One Future.  There is no other sane choice.

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.

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.

Political Dharma

“We need enlightenment, not just individually but collectively, to save the planet. We need to awaken ourselves. We need to practice mindfulness if we want to have a future, if we want to save ourselves and the planet.” –  Thich Nhat Hanh

Dharma is a Sanskrit word; its root word, dham, means “to uphold” or “to support,” and In Buddhism that which is being upheld or supported is the balance and order of nature and the universe.  The word dharma as it applies in Buddhism refers both to this cosmic harmony and to the teachings of Buddhism, the purposes of which are to reveal and uphold that which is the natural order, or “original nature,” sometimes referred to as the “Way.”  These are all phrases one sees frequently in Buddhist teachings and make of Buddhism very much a cosmology, even a quasi-scientific inquiry into existence.  It is also a psychology based in the principle that human emotional suffering is caused by a person being out of harmony with their original nature – to the consequence of living in ignorance (another oft-seen word in the Buddhist canon) of the truth of who they are – and this ignorance leads to suffering.  As it is a psychology, it approaches the problem of human suffering in a very medical fashion – following proper diagnosis there is a treatment plan to restore health.  In this model psychological health means equanimity, harmony, balance, and well-being, as well as expanding capacities for insight.  Meditation, mindfulness and applied compassion for self and others are the medicine.  Health is full human potential realized in enlightenment – not as something gained, but rather, as what is revealed as already within us.

As it is a profoundly insightful psychology, Buddhism can also be seen as a political philosophy – pointing to how collectives of humans cause suffering by lacking in harmony and compassion, functioning in ignorance of the natural balance and conscious interdependence that would be the hallmark of healthy and peaceful communities.  This disharmony arises as groups of individuals identify themselves as more important and correct in their world-view than others who are seen as incorrect, wrong, even dangerous.  Competition is the result, friendly or hostile, dominating much of human interaction at both the individual and collective level.  This then is clearly the realm of politics.  The more different in form, style and beliefs, the more competitive a group is with those of a different identity group, the more likely the politics will be hostile even escalating into violence, sometimes war.

Another problem arises out of seeing the non-human world as separate from and inferior to the human realm, valued only in relationship to its immediate benefit to humans.  The entire non-human world is viewed in categories of usefulness or threat and our attention goes to these two categories while a very big third category, that which is viewed as neither a valuable resource nor dangerous threat, goes mostly ignored.  The whole of the natural world is largely overlooked by the average modern human as just the background to their day-to-day life, once again, with some particular aspect noticed only if it rises to the level of pleasant or unpleasant as determined by a person’s set of conditioned judgments.  Gravely consequential ignorance of the systemic wholeness of nature leads humans to see the natural world as separate objects existing with particular value, challenge or irrelevance.  The result is human activity tearing apart this systemic wholeness, throwing ecosystems out of balance, threatening the ability to thrive of all elements of that system, including, eventually, humanity.

So – in these expanding circles of identification, alienation, or indifference human affairs gets conducted.  Those that are of “my” or “our” circle of identification, we give value.  Those that are perceived as “other” and threatening are treated with hostility; those that are of neither positive nor negative category are used, abused or ignored. This is the state of human conduct and evolution currently.  It is the state of our politics and it is not in harmony with Dharma.

Dharma is the truth of the way things are, and this truth is that all that exists in the universe is in a relationship of interconnectedness and interdependence – nothing arises or exists in isolation from the whole and its constituent systems.  For humans this natural order manifests in expanding circles of identification where the first circle is personal – within ourselves – the tensions and tears between our dominant egoic self and our underlying fundamental natural being. The next circle is interpersonal, and here we fall out of harmony because we mistake as our highest priority the maintenance of the importance of “me.”  Even family members who love each other very much do great harm as they joust with each other for their own perceived importance and “rightness.”  This, of course, requires that we diminish others’ importance and make them wrong.  This same dynamic applies then to groups of individuals identified politically or religiously or ethnically or any number of ways we segregate into shared identity groupings.  So too, it is with nations and regions of humanity.  So too, it is with humanity and the non-human animal world, and with nature as a whole.

We fail to recognize that we are all in this life together and every person, every animal, every ecosystem are all intertwined in destiny.  Ultimately, the dharma teaches us there is one interconnected, interdependent system that is the universe; the one flowing system of energy out of which all creation unfolds.  Dharma teaches us that we are not a person in the universe; rather we are the universe happening as a person, just like the universe happens as a tree or a cow, a river or a planet – all happening within the universe in its unfolding.  No person, cow, tree, river or planet happens in isolation.  Every atom and every form made of atoms is connected in an unfolding of the evolution of the Universe, and each form is in a relationship of connection and interdependence with all forms.  This is the Way.  It is dharma.  The Universe evolves as a perfectly balanced system. This, however, is not how people experience themselves, their identity groups, their nations, or for that matter, trees, squirrels, cows, rivers, or the planet.  The conventional way is to experience all these as separate phenomena that can be picked through and valued or devalued in relationship to their perceived value to me and my relevant collective “us.”  Buddhism teaches this is ignorance and it will lead to suffering.  The history of humanity certainly stands as evidence of this truth.

Bringing this out of the cosmological and back to the political, the dharma teaches us that we must completely respect each circle of identification on this planet if we are to have a peaceful and safe planet or nation or community.  But this is not the way things are.  We individually and collectively are held too tightly by what Buddhism refers to as “egoic delusion,” the delusion of separateness and with it the tendency to value me and mine, while devaluing or even holding in hostility that which is not in my egoic circle.  This is the karma of conflict and suffering.  To alter this karma, we must look to dharma.  We must realize universal respect for the truth of our interconnectedness and interdependence as the only way out of the karmic circle of conflict and suffering.

Thich Nhat Hanh advises us, “If you’re a politician, you might want to learn the Buddhist way of negotiation. Restoring communication and bringing back reconciliation is clear and concrete in Buddhism.” Reconciliation for the harms we have inflicted, past and present, and to bring together in sincere communication those who have been in conflict through ignorance of our common source and destiny, is the only way to move toward a future of peace, harmony and happiness.  As we engage politically with all levels of our interaction, including with the planet that is our shared home with all life, we will do well to remember this dharma.

Thankfully, the evolution of human society has been unconsciously actualizing the need to expand the circle of “us” to include those who had been excluded, and so the ignorant boundaries of slavery, racism, sexism, and even to some extent nationalism have been dissolved or are in the process of dissolution as the human species moves closer to unity and harmony.  Yet, so much more consciousness is needed if we are to fulfill the dharma of a harmonious planet in balance, health and peace.  In the realm of politics, this means we must support and elevate leaders and policy makers who hold as a sacred mission the tearing down of false barriers and hierarchies.  We must support leaders who bring human communities together in wisdom and compassion and who support the necessity of holding to a sacred relationship with nature and all its inhabitants.  We must politically realize the dharma of wholeness, interconnectedness, compassion, respect and harmony as our guide and reject those who wish to perpetuate the destructive karma of separateness, hierarchies, exploitation, conflict and abuse.  We are one people, one planet, with one future.  This is the dharma of politics.  It is the Way – it is the only way.

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.

The Triple Gem

“I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”– The Triple Gem

The Triple Gem is also known as the Triple Refuge and is one of the most important teachings in Buddhism, often taken as a vow by individuals wishing to enter a Buddhist community. The term “gem” is used to emphasize the great value and preciousness of this teaching as it points us to a life that is likewise experienced as precious. In order to understand this teaching, however, we must understand its key words. We must understand what refuge means, and we must understand what Buddha, Dharma, Sangha mean in their deepest context. So too, we must also understand what the pronoun “I” means, for in Zen it is the most profound of koans (a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation). We must understand who this “I” is and what is this “I” that needs refuge, and having found refuge, what is the transformation of our understanding and experience of “I”?

Let us begin with the word, “Refuge.” A dictionary definition tells us that refuge is “shelter or protection from danger or distress.” It is to where we can return for peace and a sense of well-being and psychological safety.  In our discussion, the danger and distress from which we seek refuge is the instability and confusion of our own minds and human society. It is the distress that comes from our frustration with failing to find stable happiness and security in actions and beliefs we are told will lead to happiness and security. The refuge is the peace and well-being available to us when we recognize that what we seek we already possess. We only have to learn to look sufficiently deeply within rather than continuing our habit of looking outside ourselves in our social roles, our possessions and in other people.

So what does it mean to seek refuge in the Buddha? Let us begin by understanding that “Buddha” means “awakened” in the Pali language of ancient India where Buddhism was born. So we are taking refuge in some kind of awakening – and awakening means to move from a state of unconsciousness into consciousness. This is the essential journey and purpose of Buddhist practice. We are to move gradually from what is really a state of semi-consciousness, physically awake but psychologically unconscious to our full potential, into realizing that beyond what we have been conditioned to believe concerning who we are and what the world is about, beliefs filled with insecurities, we are capable of a relationship with life that is vibrant and secure beyond any surface conditions.

2500 years ago in Northern India, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama dedicated his life to understanding the nature of the unnatural emotional suffering that humans experienced in the face of life’s challenges as well as why humans behaved in ways to create unnecessary suffering. In this way, he was truly more a psychologist than a religious figure, and a truly great psychologist he was. Instead of examining others, whom he could only superficially observe, he looked deep within himself, through meditation, so deep that it was no longer Siddhartha looking at Siddhartha, rather, awareness, pure consciousness, was looking at Siddhartha, and not only at Siddhartha, but the entire human dilemma.

He employed the impersonal observational power of awareness to examine the human condition from within, and in this way, he was very scientific. He “awakened” powers of consciousness that are inherent in all humans but lie dormant under layers of identification with the form and idea of who we are. He awakened into being consciousness itself, impersonal and with vast capacities for understanding and insight. This is Buddha. Siddhartha the personality, like all personalities, was filled with insecurities and conflicts, but Siddhartha found refuge in Buddha, awakened consciousness, and so can any human.

Siddhartha made many discoveries, but foremost, he had discovered his true nature as awareness, an unshakable and silent “I” capable of incredible insight and wisdom. He was able to see how this psychological form known as Siddhartha was the product of conditioning, literally the physical, family, cultural and personal conditions that influence a person’s understanding of themselves and the world. He was able to see how it is that humans mistake themselves for this separate physical and psychological form completely overlooking their most fundamental experience, that of consciousness, which has no personalized quality to it. In this sense, the conditioned personality of “I” that is vulnerable to instability in the face of life’s conditions finds refuge in the “I” of awareness, invulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.

He was able to see how we cling to this physical and psychological form for identity and how unreliable and unstable this identity is, resulting in great anxiety and desire for greater reliability and stability that we search for in the external world of forms, chasing after desires, fleeing from fears and shaken by personal doubt. It was like waking up out of a hypnotic dream to see clearly the full potential of who and what we are as human beings, and for this awakening, Siddhartha became known as “Buddha” – the awakened one.

So the refuge that is the Buddha is the realization of the truth of who we are as awareness, capable of seeing how we create our own danger through mistaken attribution of identity to that which is inherently unstable and unreliable, our own psychological conditioning. It is realizing our usual state of consciousness is this projected state of conditioned images, much like an opaque screen covering over the clear light of true consciousness. To be awake is to turn this around and shine the clear light of pure consciousness upon the images projected and see them for what they are and become free of their hold. This was the lesson of the Buddha’s first teaching called the Four Noble Truths.

Dharma is the Sanskrit word (Dhamma in Pali) that means “truth” or the teachings that lead to understanding the truth of the nature of the way life is. We can have faith that the truth that leads to safe refuge from unnecessary suffering in our personal life is attainable because Siddhartha, the Buddha, showed the way and there are countless individuals through the ages that have attained this enlightenment following the path the Buddha demonstrated. These teachings and practices are practical and attainable and there is both a historic and present day community practicing this path. This community is known as the Sangha.   We are not alone.

Dharma is the Universe as it is – vast and mysterious yet comprehensible in the unfathomable intelligence and insight of the silent mind of consciousness, for consciousness, co-manifesting with form, is the Universe. We are apertures of consciousness in form through which the Universe experiences itself, and likewise, form can intuit and begin to comprehend the infinite Universe, as ancient mystics did, as Siddhartha did, as modern quantum-field scientists are beginning to do. We can let go of fear as we understand ever more deeply the Dharma of infinite unity of which we are expressions. Buddhism’s teachings and practices, specifically meditation and mindfulness open this door.

The Sangha is available to us both immediately, in the many teachers, groups and communities that are engaged in meditation, study and application of the principles of awakening, and in the abstract through books, both Buddhist and otherwise, written by people who have seen the nature of suffering rooted in ignorance and point us encouragingly toward our own search for truth. Non-Buddhist examples would be Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, Meister Ekhart, Galileo, Copernicus, Rumi, Voltaire, Kant, Emerson, Thoreau, Krishnamurti, Teilhard de Chardin, Albert Einstein, Abraham Heschel, Ramana Maharshi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Eckhart Tolle. The list can go on and on including any author or personality that has been a source of inspiration leading a person to know they are not alone in their questioning and search for answers into the human condition.

Sangha can be found in Nature-based cultures like Native American or the ancient Druids that lived believing in balance and the wisdom and infinite connectedness of the natural world. It may even be found in writers of fiction or artists and musicians who wrestle with the human condition and from whom inspiration and solace is to be found. The Sangha of awakening is everywhere to be found. It may have been a supportive teacher, a kindly neighbor, a wise friend. The refuge, the safe place for us to return and find encouragement for us to explore the truth of who we are and what it is to be a human being is all around us. Even the birds and squirrels, the trees, the mountains, the waters and clouds can speak to us as family and reveal their secret of unity and peace.

It is true that society, our human interactions, and even our own minds can be places of emotional, even existential danger and distress. Look to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The Awakening, the Way and the Community of humanity and Nature evolving into wisdom, compassion and insight await us as truly effective refuges from ignorance and the ego-based shallowness, indifference, materialism, even cruelty and exploitation of our contemporary world, as well as the confusion of our own minds.

Embrace these gems and discover the “I” that can see and know peace, wisdom and unity. These refuges can sustain and guide us into finding balance for the personal and insecure egoic “I” that struggles with the world through the realization of the ultimate “I,” the spark of consciousness that is our primary experience, that knows there is no separation from the world. This is the “I” that knows we are the world arising in awareness moment to moment and that ultimately there is no struggle, no obstacle, no suffering, just life, and we are that life. Engage life fully, resist nothing emotionally, take nothing personally, deeply appreciate the wonder that is life, while working to bring our personal and communal experience into deeper compassion, effectiveness and wisdom. This is the Buddhist Way. This is the Triple Gem.

The Path of Return

“In each of us, the seed of Buddha, the capacity to wake up and understand, is called Buddha nature. It is the seed of mindfulness, the awareness of what is happening in the present moment… There is no one who does not have the capacity to be a Buddha. But the treasure we are looking for remains hidden to us… Let go of the idea that you don’t have it. It is available within you.”Thich Nhat Hanh

We come to a meditation practice generally with the idea to make our life-experience better in some way. We may want less stress or anxiety in our lives. We may want to have a calmer mind, not so beset by runaway or unwelcome thoughts and emotions. We may want to feel more centered, less scattered. We may want to gain insight and better control of some behavior or behavior pattern that has become problematic. We may feel there is a spiritual dimension to life that has eluded us and we hope meditation will open this dimension for us. In each case, we want something about “me” to be improved. This idea of “me” improving, of being slightly less tense, anxious, distracted, of being more centered and focused, calm and maybe even spiritual is laudable, and meditation can bring these gifts. Paradoxically, however, this idea of “me” gaining positive benefits presents an obstacle to the realization of the expansive freedom that is the true fruit of a dedicated meditation practice guided by a teacher who has made the journey themselves.

Few bring to a meditation practice awareness of how profound and transformative it actually can be, and fewer still realize that all that stands between them and meditation’s full realization is their holding onto the idea of who they think they are and their bringing this self-image to the practice.   Buddhist literature, such as the Thich Nhat Hanh quote above, can be confusing, often using arcane language that the uninitiated have difficulty grasping.   To say “There is no one who does not have the capacity to be a Buddha” does not make any sense from within conventional Western perspectives. It is like saying there is no one who does not have the capacity to be Jesus, and that would be considered blasphemous. So it may be considered inspiring, but not factual.

Yet, I suspect, Jesus would have understood perfectly what Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhism are saying when they tell us to realize we all have the capacity to be a Buddha, for I see Jesus as a great mystic, a Zen Master, and we are being called here to realize within us dimensions that transcend our usual perspective and outlook. Buddhism is a very different manifestation of religion from Christianity precisely because the Christian notions of “Messiah” and “Savior” are concepts that create a separation in the nature of the kind of being that are the worshiper and the worshiped, not identification. It is very important to realize that Buddha wanted no worship of him and I see no evidence that Jesus did either. Buddha wanted identification and I have to believe so did Jesus. The worship of a religious figure as differentiated from finding inspiration and a model for how we can live our own lives lead to very different manifestations of the religious life.

Religions reflect the customs of the culture in which they grow and the Middle-Eastern culture that brought forth Jesus was one of God worship with God in Heaven and the connection to Earth was to be an intermediary, a Messiah and Savior, in Jesus, a “son of God.” The Middle-East, and later Europe where Christianity flourished, were cultures where religion was expressed in duality – humanity is here on Earth, God is in Heaven. In these cultures intermediary figures are necessary, beginning with demi-gods represented by Jesus, and then saints, then a clerical hierarchy. There is a gulf between deity and the common person.   Michelangelo’s painting of The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where Adam reaches for but cannot quite touch God exemplifies this.

Ancient Asia, on the other hand, was a world where the Universal Soul, the Ultimate Source known as Brahman (Westerners’ equivalent of God) was not in Heaven, but rather in Creation, all around in the world, and in us, individually expressed through the word Atman. While Buddhism does not concern itself with mythic theology, it was born in this theological cultural context and, in a sense, this notion of Buddha we are addressing here is equivalent to Atman awakened – and living ordinary life. All the religious figures in the Buddhist world are fully human or mythic amalgams representative of virtuous aspects of human nature, such as compassion, insight and wisdom brought to full fruition. The clergy in this world serve as teachers and role models, not intermediaries with divinity. This is what Buddha claimed for himself and what he invited his followers to discover not by worshiping him, but through identification with him and direct experience of the benefits of his way of living and his insights into the true nature life.

There is a story about how when Buddha began to travel and teach after his enlightenment, people were so awestruck by the depth and peacefulness of his presence they would ask, “Are you a god?” To which Buddha said, “No, I am not a god.” Then they asked him “Are you a reincarnation of a god?” No,” he replied. “Are you a wizard, then?” “No.” Well, are you a guru?” “No.” They then asked, being very perplexed, “So what are you?”  Buddha simply replied: “I am awake.”

Buddha taught that he was an ordinary human who had awakened into the full and original potential of what it is to be a human being, free from being covered over and lost beneath social, cultural and psychological conditioning. He knew he was an expression of the Universe, Atman/Brahman-as-a human-being, if you will, and was prepared to live and interact in the world in this unshakeable knowledge, for his meditation had revealed this truth to him, and the name “Buddha” means “Awakened One.”

Humans become lost by attaching and clinging to their very worldly conditioning for their identity.   In the process of becoming this conditioning, our original wondrous potential of intelligent awareness encountering the world, manifesting fresh each moment, becomes lost. It is as if we become a hypnotically induced idea of a human being. This idea is a delusion of separateness and insufficiency that leads to an experience of life that is always ultimately “unsatisfactory,” which is a very useful translation of the Pali language word, “dukkha,” more often translated as “suffering.”

In Buddhist parlance, “The Path of Return” is the realization that this idea of a person, our particular body, mind and life history are not ultimately who we are, and it is what is pointed to when the Zen teacher asks, “show me your original face.” The teacher is asking us to realize we are primordial Atman manifesting Brahman into the ordinary world. The Path of Return is when we let all idea of our conditioned self fall away and allow the moment experienced in awareness, as awareness, to fill us completely. It is in opening to the unbelievably vast dimensions of understanding and presence that already exist within us. Buddhist meditation is specifically designed to facilitate this possibility of realizing awareness-as-who-we-are optimally.

We come to meditation practice with no idea that there is a pure and vast experience of Beingness available to us. We have no idea that the secret to meditation is to get out of one’s own way, so we bring our body, mind and personal identity and history to our meditation. We listen to the dharma teachings about Buddha being within us, but we do not believe and we do not bring unshakeable resolve to awaken, to return to our own inherent purity. We carry too much of the dichotomic teaching of our religious conditioning. Buddha within is taken as a metaphor like Christ within, when, in truth, neither is metaphoric. Buddha and Christ are within each of us, or there would be no Buddha or Christ at all. Because these states of original purity existed in the humans Siddhartha and Jesus, they exist in all humanity. This potential only needs to be awakened as it was in Buddha and Jesus. This very different notion of religion invites us to realize that what we think of as God manifests through us. It is the Universe as intelligent Source and we, of course, are its manifestation as is all of Nature, and I believe this was the intention of Jesus’s teachings, as it was very specifically Buddha’s intent. This is why Buddhism emphasizes to realize true self in being “nobody.” Only total freedom from holding onto our “somebody” as created by our conditioning can open this door.

If you want to change, if you want to become your idea of better, come to meditation ready to shake free of all ideas you have about yourself. Be prepared to let go of the known. The journey of return is not one on which you bring baggage and it is a journey that takes you nowhere except to where you begin. There is needed only the unshakeable resolve to become who you already are. The journey is inward and then, out into the world, awake and increasingly free from the baggage of social, cultural, psychological conditioning. Meet your true self in the vast stillness of the Universe. This is the Path of Return. The Universe is manifesting through you. “The awareness of what is happening in the present moment” is the you that is a lens of consciousness into the world. Polish the lens in stillness until the vision is brightly clear, until you become nobody, nothing but the lens. Then move in the world, an ordinary person, a Buddha using the conditions of body, mind and cultural understanding, awake, returned to your original face, the idea of making yourself somehow better now realized as a case of mistaken identity. All you sought to find through meditation was in you all along. You have returned.

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

Behead Yourself!

“It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new… there existed only the Now… It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no mere nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything: room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills… I had lost a head and gained a world. Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void… utterly free of ‘me,’ unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence… There arose no questions, no references beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden.”
– from On Having No Head by Douglas Harding

Born in 1909, Douglas Harding was a British philosopher and mystic. He trained and worked as an architect, lived through the WWII years in India, and while there, spent time trekking the Himalayas. His life-long passion was exploring the true nature of the self, searching for an answer to the question, “what am I?” He wrote a number of books, principle among them, The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth (1952) and On Having No Head (1961), and conducted workshops throughout his latter life on his insights concerning non-dual consciousness. Harding credited a breakthrough epiphany to his discovery in 1942 of a most unusual drawing, a “self-portrait” by the Austrian philosopher and physicist, Ernst Mach.

Unlike usual self-portraits that are oriented as if the artist is looking in a mirror, Mach’s self-portrait was looking out from the artist’s left eye. Mach was lying on a lounge, looking out a window at mountainous terrain in the background. There were his Douglas Harding - Behead Yourselflegs and feet, his torso, his left arm and hand, but no head. There was even the contour of the left side of his nose in the right side foreground. Mach seemed to be making the comment that who we are, the “self,” that is the subject of the drawing, is our experience of consciousness in the moment. We are not our face, not our head, as are generally invested with our identity. This insight registered fully with Harding and was followed by a particularly powerful experience of this perspective while he was hiking in the Himalayan foothills. The excerpted quote atop this column is from Harding’s description of the experience.

What, for Harding, was at first an intellectual epiphany grew into the realization of the full implications of this re-locating the sense of self from inside the head looking out, to his experience in consciousness, to that which was the seeing of the constantly changing content of the moment in environment and mind, and that did not itself ever vary or react to this shifting content. He realized that all our emotional identification with what is happening inside our “head” in perception, thought and emotion was a profound error. The world, and we, happen in consciousness – simultaneously, as a single event. That is all. It may be that several major sensory organs and the brain that functions as an information manager are located in the head, but the consciousness that is the true experiencer is un-locatable other than in the experience itself. We seem to be – in essence – a portal of consciousness into the manifested world, and this makes it not really “my” consciousness, for consciousness is an attribute of the universe of sentience. It isn’t personal. Harding realized and experienced that he was simply this portal of body and mind for consciousness. He called it “The best day of my life.”

Consider that you too have had such experiences and they were the best experiences in your life. However, you probably didn’t really notice them, at least not in the way that Harding did. You probably paid no attention that the best experiences in your life were pure and non-dualistic, without any sense of a mediating “self” – they were in a sense, “no-head” moments. There was no sense of “me” evaluating or only partially experiencing while the mind wandered elsewhere. These were moments in which what was “out there” in experience took over completely. Body, mind and environment became connected within the totality of experience. You were not to one side, separate and evaluating, while the experience and environment were over there. “You” were “it.”

Perhaps, like Harding, it was while hiking in the mountains, or perhaps it was while looking at a loved one, or listening to beautiful music. It can happen in ordinary moments in everyday life when a sudden clarity occurs. It might be stimulated by the sight of birds flying, children playing, the sound or feel of wind. You perceptually step out of being separate from what you are experiencing and become the act of seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing. Thought stops. The usual sense of being a separate self, called “me,” evaporates. However, because the sense of “me” evaporates, there is no intellectual “me” to notice, evaluate and integrate the experience. There is only a feeling of complete well-being. Body and mind fall away. Language becomes inadequate. There is just this experience of fullness, completeness that is inexplicable.

Then —- it passes. We come back to body and mind, to “me,” to our “head.” The moment may go completely unnoticed as anything special, for we are programmed by our society not to notice such occurrences or inquire into their meaning and implication. The experience is passed off as a pleasant moment, perhaps even denigrated as our being “lost” in the moment. It does not occur to us, as it did for Harding, that these might be moments in which we “find” ourselves.

Asian spiritual traditions have taken notice of such moments in a way the West does not, and have examined these moments as glimpses into the true nature of what we are. Zen poetry seems odd to us because it isn’t narrative or creatively intellectual, but rather, represents a moment experienced in consciousness. Asian religions hold at their core, beneath any cultural overlay of ritual and myth, the realization of “I Am” – this moment in the Universe. There is no personal God acting like a human. There is the Universe – all One – with perfect harmony and balance, within which, an individual with limited sensory and intellectual capacity emerges as a gateway for the consciousness of the One that manifests as many. Our bodies are individual, our minds are individual; what is it, however, that experiences this body and mind? This is consciousness, and is not consciousness our primary experience, looking out from this body and mind? Is this consciousness not the kernel of self, and yet, can consciousness really be individual? How is my consciousness different from yours? It is more like sunlight that shines on everything without discrimination, the same sunlight everywhere.

My body is unique. My mind is unique. My historical context is unique. My positioning within concentric circles of human social organization is unique. The great mystical question has always been: How is what is experienced as “my” consciousness different from the consciousness of any other person or even any sentient being? The great mystical realization is that this moment in consciousness is “a vast emptiness vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything… utterly free of ‘me,’ unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence.” The contents of consciousness are unique to physiological and psychological differences. What the contents arise within – consciousness – is universal. This is the core of Asian theology, and its implications fully realized are completely liberating.

Along with Harding’s epiphany of headlessness, in his search for the answer to the great question, “What am I?” he had intuited that we exist at many levels of organization. We are not just this person, we are also the atoms, molecules, and cells in chemical and electrical interactions that construct this person known as “me.” We are also our social interactions, and positioning within circles of humanity from family to the totality of the species. We are also the relationship of humanity to all life and physical phenomenon on this planet. We are also within a solar system, a galaxy, a galaxy cluster, the known Universe and unknown Universes – all of which co-arise, we might say, as a single Life-force. Is there a beginning? Is there an end? Certainly not in any conventional human sense of those words.

What are we? Not head, Not mind, Not body. We have to realize, that as Buddhism emphasizes, our essence is empty of self. We are nobody that has a somebody with which to move through and experience the manifested world. This realization is a great relief, like “having dropped an intolerable burden.” Yes, we have personal lives that are to be experienced and managed, with a full range of human emotional and intellectual challenge. And…. It really isn’t personal at all. All the comings and goings, the great parade of phenomena that is the world perceived and mentally processed, is really only superficial and secondary to the purity of our primary experience and source: this moment in awareness – consciousness.

The orientalist Alan Watts summed up this Asian theological/existential insight well: “Who we are is the Universe looking into itself from billions of points of view.” The head and body with its senses and brain is only the portal. This was Harding’s insight as well. Let go of living in your head, just be this experience, now. See! I mean it. Look away from this page. See what you are looking at in this moment – really look and see. This selfless gaze isn’t “daydreaming.” Allow the peace and profundity of it. Recognize in this selfless gaze the source of love, this connectedness that makes Life and your life truly alive. This is your true-self-portrait. You can live there, for now you know it’s you. As the mystic Sufi poet, Rumi, exhorted: “Behead yourself! … Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing!

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.