Beyond the Poisons of the Mind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories

“I’m runnin’ down a dream.”  –  Tom Petty

“You got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it.” – Bono of U-2

In a way, to be human is to have stories. No other creature has this capacity. Stories are complex, rich organizations of experience, real or fantasized that give meaning and texture to life. Individuals have them, families have them, and cultures have them. Stories are the way we organize, store, remember and project who we are coming out of the past and into the future. Spiritual and cultural traditions are passed on through them and wisdom is communicated through them. Stories are information embossed with emotion to communicate that which is essential to the human experience and they contain the heart, the soul and the lessons of our lives. Stories can be the way we aim and direct our life energy towards our dreams, our ideals, and our goals, and art in all its various forms is based around stories, and so, to the degree that stories illuminate, elevate and inspire the human condition, the ability to create stories is a treasure to humanity.  It is also a curse.

Stories can be frivolous and empty of any deeper meaning. They can be pure entertainment, and while entertainment is fine, to live life caught up in such stories is to trivialize life.  This applies not only to literal entertainment stories such as on TV or in movies and books, but all the gossipy and vain stories people constantly fill their heads with concerning themselves and others.  To a great extent, it could be observed that much of the modern American story is one of trivialities taken much too seriously, with many people living their lives lost in stories of media fantasy, consumerism, workplace and family drama, and gossip.  As many have noted, even our politics has been brought to the level of “reality TV” and arguments over what is “fake news.”  Frustratingly, real and serious issues of the quality of life for this and future generations go ignored or foolishly denied by those who push stories of drama and intrigue so as to manipulate the public to these story-tellers’ advantage, making serious what is trivial and making trivial what is serious.

Even more sadly, stories can also be of anger, fear and hopelessness.  They can be debasing and degrading, appealing to the saddest, most tragic, lowest, darkest, even the dangerous within us, and we can get lost in these abysses of darkness.  People manipulate each other with such stories, and here too, the manipulators of politics and commerce use stories of fear and insecurity to solidify their power and wealth.  On an individual level, many people have been conditioned to be carrying stories of their own lack, vulnerability and insufficiency, or conversely of their inflated sense of importance and entitlement.  As stories are powerful elicitors of emotion, the emotions accompanying these stories of personal inadequacy can be fear, anxiety, depression, and anger, or for the narcissist, gloating, and attitudes of condescension and contempt.

When asked who they are, people will tell their stories – sometimes stories passed down for generations as well as stories accumulated in a lifetime of struggle or triumph.  People live inside these stories, and this is unfortunate for stories are only shallow representations and sometimes distortions of life-as-it-is, and stories can obscure the magnificent richness of life-as-it-is.  Stories can be like virtual realities we get stuck in, living out these stories rather than living life-as-it-is.

To be able to create story, it seems is a considerably mixed blessing of the human condition.  At the subtlest of levels, even stories of inspiration are somewhat problematic, for stories separate us from the simple natural “isness” of life. An example might be the story of patriotism, a story that can be heroic filled with dedication to freedom and human rights or it can be a story of belligerent nationalism narrowly defined, creating victims and enemies in its wake.  Likewise, “love” can be a story that inspires, motivates and thrills us while it misses the reality of deeper love that is connection without conditions.  Such “romantic” love-stories will come and go, while true and real love is a touchstone in our life and it is not a story.  Spirituality and religion are also great purveyors of stories that can either lead to the most sublime and transcendent connection or the cruelest hells of separation and fear that humans can concoct.

Another way of understanding the “awakening” of The Buddha is that he awakened out of experiencing “self” through story into the clarity of the world as phenomena and events just as they are.  This is a way of understanding the confusing Buddhist teaching of “emptiness” – for the awakened person knows their true-self is empty of stories and is rather in deep, rich connection with life-as-it-is, where no stories exist, realizing self in this moment in awareness, always fluid and changing, for you see, stories are created in time, past and future.

The Buddha understood that emotional suffering results from a person attaching their identity to their stories and when their story is one of loss, they experience diminishment and disturbance in their well-being.  This is why he warned against attaching to even stories of happiness and personal victory, for his awakening included the seeing that all things are impermanent – that what comes – also goes.  Happiness comes.  Happiness goes.  To attach our well-being and identity in that which is fortuitous is to set ourselves up for despair when the story turns, as all stories do.  Like The Buddha, the modern spiritual teacher, Eckhart Tolle, understood, the real power of life exists separate from time, in the “Power of Now,” where no story exists.

Does this mean it is better not to have stories?  No, of course not.  It means to see the stories for what they are – ways of giving context, texture, richness to our lives and the human condition.  They are the way we share our experiences of life with our fellow human beings and make sense of them to ourselves.  The Buddha’s warning was to not attach identity and well-being to stories, but rather, to find identity and well-being in life just-as-it-is, with its full thickness, its highs and lows, its coming and goings, in the pureness of existence, transcendent of time and stories that come from cultural, social and psychological conditioning.

Most importantly, we ought never confuse stories for who we are or with Life itself. The only truth there is, is this moment, just as it is.  Looking deeply into the moment, deeper than any story, wisdom and compassion can always be found.  When Buddhism speaks of “right view” it paradoxically describes right view as “no-view,” and no-view is to know a view as a view, a story as a story.  Right-view is this view, never to be experienced again, exactly as it is NOW.

Yet, Buddhism is full of stories, and stories are a principle teaching vehicle in Buddhism  Usually the stories have as their purpose to awaken people out of being stuck in some limited story of themselves or the nature of existence.  Characteristically, however, Buddhism even warns about getting stuck in the Buddhist stories and about not making them into dogma, and yet this is what people do – because – it is what people do – the ego’s pull to make more of itself through stories of specialness, cleverness and rightness is so strong.

So be alert – stories as fabrications in our lives can be quite obvious or quite subtle, so woven into our sense of reality that we cannot see them for what they are.  Stories can be wonderful, frivolous or horrible.  Most importantly, know that stories are only stories, and be awake in the Buddhist sense, knowing stories for what they are and avoid be stuck in them.  Stories at their best are vehicles for our sojourning in the lands of existence searching for wisdom and truth – the stories as maps, so to speak.  And at their worst, stories can have us going in circles of our own private hells of triumph or defeat, for even a story of triumph has to be a hell, for it separates us from the heaven, the nirvana, of awakened truth.  Truth is not a story, nor is life, and Zen uses odd constructs of syntax to express this, such as “as-it-isness” or just “isness.”

As the great Zen teacher Dogen queried, “If you can’t find truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?”  Right where you are is no story.  It is just as-it-isness and you always have the capacity to understand it and know its purpose if you let go of your stories and allow that what you really are is this moment in awareness, and awareness always knows what is needed.  It needs no story.

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.

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 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.

Concentration and Mindfulness

Concentration is often called one-pointedness of mind… It can be developed by force, by sheer unremitting willpower… Mindfulness, on the other hand, is a delicate function leading to refined sensibilities. These two are partners in the job of meditation. Mindfulness is the sensitive one… Concentration provides the power… Mindfulness… notices when the attention has gone astray. Concentration does the actual work of holding the attention steady… If either of these partners is weak, your meditation goes astray.
– Bhante Henepola Gunaratana

When learning Buddhist meditation we must begin with concentration. Buddhist meditation is the training of the mind into subtler, deeper, more stable and insightful states of consciousness, and this training can be viewed as therapeutic or rehabilitative, for our culture does a very poor job of training young people to have calm and focused minds. We overload them with stimulation and anxieties about their status in the world, causing minds that are easily distracted, that tend toward compulsive self-absorption and are too easily indoctrinated into acceptance of attitudes and ways of seeing the world that are conventional and far short of their true potential.

As with issues of personality neuroses and disorders, our culture has a very low bar for what is considered “normal” when it comes to mental focus and discernment. Attention-deficit disorder is epidemic and what constitutes a diagnosable level is just the tip of the iceberg. We simply do not know how to concentrate our consciousness in ways that can lead to the world revealing itself in its full subtlety, variety, interconnectedness and wonder, and it is the purpose of Buddhist meditation training to realize these capacities.

In our training, we must begin with concentration. All more refined levels of meditation are dependent on cultivation of the ability to hold consciousness steady, to not flit from one thought, emotion, and sensation to the next. And to develop our capacity for concentration, we must have what is called an “object of meditation,” something to concentrate on. In the Zen, Vipassana and Shamatha styles of Buddhist meditation, the principle object of meditation for the training of concentration is one’s own breathing.

As Gunaratana pointed out, this level of meditation training is work – it requires effort. We begin by taking a posture that supports alert relaxation and good dynamics of breathing. We then place our attention on the sensations of breathing, the gentle rise and fall of the chest and diaphragm, the sensation of the breeze of air across our nostrils. We attempt to hold our concentration on these sensations, and when concentration wanders, we notice that it has wandered and replace attention back on the sensations of breathing. It may sound easy, but to sustain it successfully is very challenging. It requires the willpower to which Gunaratana refers.

Encouragingly, however, there is almost immediate benefit for most people. Using the breath as the object of meditation is really quite ingenious because conscious breathing readily brings with it calming of the mind and body along with enhancement of sensory experience. Usually, a sense of balanced presence and clarity also will occur as the rhythm of the breathing and the access to the parasympathetic nervous system that comes with conscious breathing creates these results naturally. The experience can be a reminder of what real sanity feels like.

With a little practice, most people can fairly readily learn to hold awareness on the breathing for a noticeable, if brief, period. The mind’s long established habit of wandering off into thought or sensory distraction, thereby disrupting concentration on breathing, will occur readily and frequently, and this can be a discouragement for people who are not being instructed that the noticing of this phenomenon is a very important development in their training. It is opening the door to mindfulness, to the noticing mind of wisdom and discernment.

It is very important to realize that this distractibility had been happening regularly before we began our meditation training, but had never really been noticed, and that the noticing is important progress. The very noticing of this distractibility is a new insight, and so too, our now flowering capacity to hold attention on and notice our quiet mind while also holding attention on the breathing is a new insight. We are learning to expand concentrated awareness in a stable field that can hold seemingly separate phenomena in perceived unity.

We are developing what is called shamatha, a mind that can “peacefully abide” in the present moment with increasingly less distractibility. We are also at the doorstep of Vipassana: insight, wisdom and increasing clarity. As the power of our concentration stabilizes, we begin to notice that the field of our present-moment awareness can expand to the field of the sensations of our entire body and its perception of the environment without losing any focus on the central object of the breathing. We begin to notice that the field of our present-moment awareness can expand to include activity of the mind without being distracted from the sensations of breathing and body/environment. We begin to notice that we are noticing, to have awareness of awareness.

Perhaps the insight even arises that most fundamentally we are awareness that notices we have a body and we have a mind that function in particular ways in a society and among people that function in particular ways. This awareness of awareness and how our body, mind and the environment occur in and are all connected within awareness is mindfulness, and its application and benefit are virtually boundless, for we begin to realize the quiet mind of awareness is the actual source of intelligence, wisdom and discernment.

Again, it must be emphasized, developing our capacity for concentration is essential to this opening of the door of mindfulness, of opening the door to noticing with increasingly sensitive, subtle and discerning skill the marvel and beauty and mystery of Life. We then, as Gunaratana noted, must continue our practice in balancing these two mental capacities of concentration and mindfulness hand-in-hand. The benefits of this work grow and grow as our sense of mental balance and even the spiritual realization of our connection to our fellow beings in this unbroken field of awareness grows and grows.

Now, with practice, we can sit, walk, work, play, and relate in ways that will ultimately reveal the great realization of Buddhist meditation: that there really is no separate “me” that suffers from the insecurities of our cultural training in materialism and competition. We begin to accomplish glimpses of Samadhi – the sense of oneness, the consciousness of non-duality – in expanding circles, first with individual people, animals, and plant life, perhaps with whole scenes and vistas. Eventually, we can experience this oneness with Life itself, realizing the ultimate in “refined sensibilities.” Do the work of developing concentration power – then balance it with awareness – mindfulness – and the world gently opens.

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!

Between, Before, and After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just Stand Up in the Universe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who Is It That Is Aware?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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