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.        

Awakening Into Presence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saner Than Normal

Synonyms for the word “normal” are: usual, common, standard and typical.  In medicine, “normal” is the standard of care and it means a person is sufficiently free of pathology and symptoms so as to function within the “normal” range and people do not usually seek care unless they are falling below this standard of “normal.”   I am asking the question: is “normal” good enough?

Why is it that “normal” medical care is focused almost entirely on symptom treatment with little energy put into educating and training people in optimal health, not only for the well-being of individuals, but for the health of our society and for cost management of our delivery of medicine?  Also, why is it that “normal” medical care in this society does not consider it to be a public-safety service, like the police and fire departments, but rather a for-profit business, while in practically every other advanced nation it is “normal” to consider health-care a human-right and public-service.  Why is it “normal” to have a very “penny-wise, pound-foolish” health-care system that withholds medical care by way of cost to many, that skimps on preventive care and early detection and pays exorbitantly for disease cure, care, and management after people become much sicker than they would have with more preventive and early diagnostic care, as well as in preserving low-quality life after people have come to be unalterably terminal?  Our health-care system seems to be sick, but it also seems we cannot address this problem rationally because we can’t break free of our society’s obsession with the for-profit business model and the outsized influence those who profit from this system have on the debate, even when it has proven to be an ineffective and even harmful model.  Can we realize this is, in its own sense, a sickness, a product of what is considered “normal” in our society in the way of attitudes and values that do not serve us?

This brings us to the issue of mental health, where, I argue, the standard of “normal,” is inexcusably inadequate.  Here we find a paucity of availability and affordability of services and a predominant emphasis on symptom management rather than achieving vibrant mental health, where we have not a mental health model but rather, a mental-illness model, for there simply is no model for mental health in Western medicine– only the varieties of mental illness.  The standard, the “normal,” for what constitutes mental health is simply a relative absence of mental illness symptomology, and the levels of neurotic and character disorder symptomology that fall within the range of “normal” are very troubling and collectively may be leading to the collapse of an orderly, coherent society.  The levels of what is acceptable, that is, “normal” narcissism, cynicism and sociopathy are setting a standard that is deeply deleterious to the establishment of a peaceful, just and compassionate society.  Our political and commercial leadership – those who ought to be setting a standard for the society – instead often set a standard of cynical self-interest demonstrating principally talents for self-promotion and the manipulation of others.  Meanwhile, the standard for common people has fallen to the level of reality (?) TV – where selfish, bickering, mean and conniving people with little emotional or impulse control are paraded as role-models.  I suggest the result is levels of troubling character traits and of anger, anxiety, depression, family dysfunction and substance-abuse that are “common,” and “normal” to our society.

What ought our standard of normal be?  Perhaps simple kindness and happy dispositions would be a place to start.  Perhaps we could include generosity and compassion.  Perhaps courage and optimism in the face of difficulty could be included, along with stable and lovingly kind families skillful in passing on stability and loving-kindness to their children.  Perhaps we might include spiritual in the large sense, that is, able to revere and find sacred connection with life, with fellow human beings and the natural world.  We might also include stable self-regard and self-respect that doesn’t need to be manipulative or competitive, along with freedom from addictive behaviors, and from undue anger, anxiety, and depression.  Perhaps we could include freedom from prejudices against those who are not like oneself, and a sense of self-worth and well-being that is not dependent on external circumstances, and that concerns itself more with the worth and well-being of others than with one’s own as the paradoxical path to achieving one’s own humble sense of worth and well-being.

These are qualities of person that, I think, most can agree are desirable, but would not now fall within the range of “normal,” that is, “common,” in our society.  The result is an increasingly unstable society made up of increasingly unstable individuals.  No, normal is not good enough.  It is, in fact, quite inadequate.

I long ago came to consider optimal mental health as inextricably linked to spiritual health, using the term “spiritual” in the broadest sense.  I mean here, the ability to see and act in the world with a sense of the sacredness of all life; of one’s own life, of the lives of others, of the natural world and of the miracle of existence itself.  I see the core religious teachings of many traditions as emphasizing compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, wonder, material simplicity, generosity, connection, respect, and love as actually pointing toward what is necessary for good mental health and happiness.  Yet, while the core teachings have these points of emphasis, it is not “normally” how most religions or their followers have functioned in the world.  I surmise this is because, considered “normal” in the cultures of these religions, are even stronger beliefs in competitiveness, greed, judgment, the threat and otherness of those who are different, and the need to control and dominate.  These are beliefs that lead to anxiety, anger, problems of self-esteem and esteeming others, intolerance and conflict, and the elevation of character traits such as narcissism, materialism, belligerence, dishonesty, lack of empathy, and exploitiveness as “normal,” even admirable.  These beliefs do not lead to mentally healthy individuals nor a mentally healthy society.

I have long admired Buddhism as a religion that seems to do better at walking its talk than the religions of the West, and I speculate that the difference is in its emphasis on the development of personal virtue rather than the imposition of morality as the key to healthy individuals and societies.  This may seem like an issue of semantics, but it is not.  The development of virtue is a personal responsibility and goal, and it requires constant self-examination and deliberate contemplation concerning one’s own motivation and equilibrium in the world.  It works because it is self-reinforcing in that the development of virtue actually does lead to greater happiness and the alleviation of unnecessary suffering.  It requires some degree of meditation, a quieting of the mind and the development of observant self-awareness that reveals how we are caught in psycho-social-culturally conditioned thought and emotion patterns that are unstable and untrue, and exposes how a life-strategy of selfishness and self-centeredness is ineffective in bringing happiness.  Meditation also brings about liberation from these prisons of mental habit as we are able to experience directly the truth that we are inherently peaceful, good and wise, while also susceptible to corruption when we are taught to look outside ourselves to the socially “normal” standard of self-interest-first.

Morality, on the other hand, is a concept of externally imposed rules in a world viewed as one where people are inherently flawed and must be coercively controlled because self-interest-first is considered “normal.”  Virtue holds that people are inherently good while morality holds that people are inherently bad.  The difference is quite significant and is the basis of “faith” in Buddhism. When one’s faith is in one’s own inherent goodness, which can be experienced, rather than an unexperienceable judgmental and moralistic god, goodness as virtue is readily developed.  After several thousand years of morality religion failing to produce with any consistency virtuous individuals or societies, perhaps a reexamination is called for.  It seems to be an observational fact that societies dominated by religions of morality are less than mentally healthy.

A wonderful story concerning the Dalai Lama tells of his attending a psychological conference in his early days in the West where the topic of discussion was the problem of both deflated and inflated self-esteem in American culture.  He was having a great deal of difficulty grasping the discussion and was uncertain if he was having a language translation problem in understanding.  It turns out, that to a certain degree, he was; for the concept of self-esteem is not one that presents as a problem within Tibetan culture.  The idea itself was foreign to him.  When he did grasp what the topic was, he was greatly saddened to learn that in the West, with all its material wealth, there seems to be a spiritual poverty that creates this problem of imbalanced sense of self-in-the world.  He said that Tibetans who were materially very simple never experienced this kind of spiritual/psychological poverty.  For them, this objectification of life and people leading to struggles in self-esteem that is “normal” in America doesn’t exist.

It would seem that “normal” might be a concept that needs re-examination when it results in failure to live healthy, happy, kind, and virtuous lives.  Perhaps we might consider finding ways of living and being, of creating a society, which is a bit saner than what is now “normal.”  We don’t need to become Buddhist to see that perhaps Buddhism has some valuable insight that is wholly in keeping with Christian, Jewish, Islamic or Humanistic teachings and values that might be helpful if incorporated into a new “normal” that is truly healthy and sane.

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.

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

Living in Balance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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