Friday, June 17, 2011

In Post-meditation, be a Child of Illusion

For quite a while now, certainly in the 40 years or so I've been reading about such things,  conventional descriptions of mind/brain biology and evolution have suggested that the human mind/brain is really a multi-leveled organ. The organ in our skulls is actually a multi-part brain,  with primitive, instinctual elements overlaid with functions that are increasingly evolved and refined.

At the base level of the brain stem is what is sometimes called the "reptilian" brain, a non-thinking brain that responds on a wholly instinctive, preverbal level to basic urges of pain avoidance, pleasure seeking, self-preservation. This faculty is so primitive, we're told, that it doesn't yet even really process sight and sound, but offers nothing but base instinct and emotion. It's the organ that is the source of murderous rage, animal lust, insatiable hunger, terror and fear, blissful pleasure.

Evolved from this is said to be a large, multi-leveled cortex devoted to trafficking sensory input, organizing it, and making rational sense out of all of it. This is what we normally think of as the human brain, and is the source of all thinking and most everything we normally call "mind." The thing we call "thinking" is, by some descriptions, nothing more than a highly complicated system of organizing sensory data.

While we think of this big-lobed, cauliflower-like mass of soft tissue as a lordly object worthy of reverence, many neuroscientists will point out that the thinking brain really does no more than articulate and manage the same base impulses that drive the reptilian brain. Most thinking, most cultural advances, most  lofty scientific exploration and thought, after all, is really still about seeking peace and pleasure, avoiding pain and discomfort. This rational brain is, in the final measure, only very slightly more evolved and refined than the reptilian brain that makes us jumps when a loud noise startles us, or recoil in disgust when we see decay.

Much more mysterious, and only now starting to draw some notice, is a mind-brain function that serves a more transcendental role. It is a mind capacity that has been known by mystics over the centuries, but one that has recently been observed and commented on by science, as well. It is a faculty of pure awareness itself, which exists on a level entirely divorced from the push/pull faculty by which we avoid pain, seek pleasure, and scheme to survive as an individual organism. People sometimes imagine that this state is a kind of "observing self", an inner reporter or journalist. But that's not it, either, because with genuine awareness there is no sense of self vs other, no distinction between an observer and objects being observed. There is only utter, non-judgmental immersion in the experience of phenomena. It's as though phenomena is experiencing itself.

I think that even moderately serious meditators have had small tastes of this level of mind. It's a place of serene acceptance of all things as they are, free of all wanting or rejecting. It is entirely devoid of all the fear that fuels virtually all activity attributed to the mind. Time falls away utterly during these revelations, as do all dual concerns of all kinds. Good and evil, life and death, merge into a single taste. There is no longer any need to want or avoid anything at all; you take comfortable refuge is whatever is.  Of course,  this lovely sensation vanishes almost instantly, in the time it takes us to recognize that it's something unusual. It disappears just as soon as we remember to pick up the familiar blanket of unhappiness, as soon as we remember to separate ourselves from our experience.

Our glimpses of this unique state are maddeningly rare, terribly brief. So fleeting, so unusual, that we convince ourselves that this transcendence, this liberation, is something we must desperately court, something to be achieved through great effort. It is, we believe, a pinnacle to be climbed.

Only gradually do we come to the suspicion that this condition we rarely glimpse is actually the natural, true state of things. It's a treasure lying at our feet, not found at the top of a forbidding pinnacle.  We may soon recognize that realizing this transcendence does not require us to do much of anything, only that we give up all the self-induced effort that has prevented us from seeing things as they are.

Like a man who hoards pennies, unaware that he owns a gold mine, we suddenly see that the "mind" we've defined for ourselves is actually the hindrance that has prevented us from seeing the genuine nature of mind all this time. The pain and suffering that dominate human life and govern nearly all of our actions turns out to be the result of delusion; and escaping the cycle of suffering requires nothing more than the courage and despair to see plainly.

Even the first glimpse of this reality changes things for all time. Pain and suffering will return, but now and forever more when they visit,  you'll have the quiet, secret understanding that they are clouds formed from illusion and will vanish like smoke when the winds freshen. One must only be patient.

Monday, December 27, 2010



For the last two weeks, I've been in the grips of a mild obsession brought about by a random event that seems anything but random. First, a little background.

Thirty years ago or so, partly because of a scholarly interest related to my graduate school studies and partly because of simple personal interest, I became deeply interested in the symbols of mythology, both as they related to the history of religion and as they applied to human psychology. For several years as a young man, I read everything I could get my hands on from Jung, Joseph Campbell, Eric Neuman, Sir George Fazier,  and other such people.

One thing led to another, and I started a family, began a career, and my interests moved onto to other things: gardening, politics, science, publishing. My collected works of Jung not only weren't on the shelves anymore, but I couldn't even tell you for sure what boxes they might be found in.

Then, two weeks ago, though, while riding the bus to work, I glanced up at two illuminated billboards on adjoining faces of an office building near the downtown basketball arena, Target Center. One electronic sign was advertising the University of Phoenix, the other was a commercial advertisement for Bacardi rum. Nothing particularly unusual about that, but what leaped out to my view was that the symbol for the University of Phoenix was, predictably, the mythological bird the Phoenix, renowned for rebirth from ashes. The symbol for Bacardi, on the other hand, is the somewhat sinister bird of the night, the bat. The juxtaposition was striking, to say the least, and it seemed impossible that it was mere coincidence these symbols of light and dark, rebirth and death, should appear adjacently and simultaneously.

Jogged from sleep,  I began to see symbols everywhere in the days after that; in the partial sunrises engraved on building entries, in the intertwined snakes on the office stationary of my medical clinic, in the peacock that still stands for NBC broadcasting, in the arch and ornament of a road bridge spanning the Mississippi.

From boxes in the basement, I've now retrieved dozens of yellowing books on the subject matter, and on my busride today was thoroughly engrossed in Joseph Campbell's "Masks of God: Primitive Mythology."  Also out of the boxes are Jung's titles on alchemy and collective unconsciousness, waiting for me at home.

The time must be right, because what I now lack in sheer scholarly stamina I now seem to make up for with perspective.  Now in the last trimester of life, I read things much differently, and with greater understanding, than I was an impatient though energetic young man of 20.

I feel like I'm rediscovering a favorite hobby, and can't wait for the long bus rides to and from work.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

For each of us, a religion or any other form of spiritual practice really serves as an allegory, an approximation of our deepest spiritual truth, offering ideas and practices that aid us in our pursuit of happiness. I know of virtually no one, though, who can say that their religion perfectly represents what they believe. I've known devout Christians who quietly but vehemently sense that reincarnation is a fact of existence. I've known Hindus for whom Catholic rituals resonate profoundly. In fact, if you find anybody who subscribes heart and soul to every aspect of their chosen religion, it's likely you've found somebody with a rather serious mental defect. (No Sarah Palin jokes, please.)

While most of us have practices that lean toward one of the major faith systems, it seems to me that in the final measure, each of us has an entirely individual structure of beliefs that can resemble, but never be identical to, another person's.

I'm now 54, and for fully 30 years now, my spiritual practice has been most closely represented by Buddhism. I respond most positively to Buddhist philosophy because of its intellectual precision, its cool detachment, and its belief in following the evidence of logic and experience. In its better moments, Buddhism can be one of the most tolerant of belief systems, though it, too, can have its parochial moments, especially when it comes to individual schools within the Buddhist world passing judgement on one another.

Yet for all of that, when asked to name my religious membership, I take pause and have to acknowledge that I can't really say that I'm a Buddhist. I miss membership in the club because of a single belief that most definitely violates the rules for authentication as a Buddhist.

Strictly speaking, Buddhists simply do not believe in a deity called God, thinking that such beliefs are largely irrelevant to the the pursuit of enlightenment. That is, in fact, one of the central appeals of Buddhism, that it is free of the heavy-handedness found in most deity-based religions. The inherent atheism of Buddhism is the Achilles heel for me, the final membership requirement that just eludes me. 

Because in my heart of hearts, an intuition tells me that underlying our experience is some kind of central Truth that universally present for all of us. This energy feels to me quite concrete,with an inherent intelligence and humor about it. It's not that I adhere to any kid of cult of personality when it comes to deity——I certainly don't think of God as some kind of uber-personality that dwells in someplace called heaven. But for all of that, the supernormal energy I sense is something that communicates with me when I choose to ask and listen, and it's distinct enough for me to feel a kind of "I-thou" relationship to it.

Uneasy about this lingering belief, I sometimes pretend that it's "buddha-nature" I'm sensing here. To no avail; something that feels a lot like God continues to lurk around the corner, like a drug dealer trying to tempt school children. At the end of the day,  it appears I'm a Missouri-Synod Buddhist.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Citizens of 4F, Oct. 20, 2010

Grey-haired Martha sits at nearly the same latitude each morning on the 4F bus into downtown Minneapolis. Sometimes it's the left, and sometimes the right, but always she is very nearly one-third of the distance back from the front of the bus.

Each morning she reads the same magazine: TV Digest. Until I noticed this, I wasn't even aware that the magazine was still published anymore. Now it's an oversized publication, like People or Newsweek, not the small Readers-Digest size that I remember from years ago. I'm kind of amazed that it's still in print anymore, though if any magazine has a chance to survive in our culture, it would be one devoted to television, I suppose.

I'm also impressed that Martha finds enough new to read there each morning. Other than the schedule logs themselves, the editorial content of TV Digest looks to be pretty sparse. Is Martha just boning up on the evening TV schedules each and every day? Or does the magazine now have enough editorial content to offer 4 hours or so of reading each week?

Martha begins each morning sitting adjacent to the window, but as the bus begins to fill up, by about Franklin Avenue, she moves to an aisle seat. This has the impact of making it hard for anyone to sit next to her, and so it seems like a slightly mean-spirited thing to do, like those people who place their briefcases or backpacks on the seat next to themselves, effectively denying the seat to folks who might wind up standing. I don't like thinking that this is the kind of person she is.

So I settle on a more charitable explanation. She moves to the aisle seat so that, if another person comes and takes the window seat, she won't have to disturb them when her bus stop comes on the south edge of downtown and she arises to exit.

I'm not entirely convinced, though. It's the TV Digest that spoils it for me.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Autumn in More Ways than One

Here in Minnesota, by the time the calendar announces the start of autumn, we're already in full sway. A few of the maples begin turning their colors in early September, and my staghorn sumac was hinting yellow by mid month. Winter, too, will impatiently come well before the Dec. 22 calendar date, often settling in here shortly after Halloween.

Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. There's a poignancy about it, as we're always well aware that the first killing frost is just around the corner, even while the gardens and landscapes are at their most colorful. Minnesota is mid summer is a lush place dominated by greens, but as autumn begins, the greens are beginning to turn to yellows and browns, and the garden plants still flowering take on an almost neon intensity: brown-eyed susans, asters, mums.

For some people, autumn is a somewhat sad time, but I've never felt that way about it. There is just a hint of melancholy about it, but it's that kind of nice melancholy, like you get before going to bed after a full day of boisterous, fun activity. Winter for me is a time of peace and contentment, as so it doesn't particularly bother me that summer is over. Summer 2010 was a little stressful for me this year, with a difficult economy making for a challenging work situation, and a bum knee giving me a fair amount of physical pain to accommodate. So I find myself ready for a more restful autumn and winter.

The last couple of years have found me feeling even more nostalgic in autumn, and I wonder if this is perhaps because I'm now in the early autumn phase of life myself. I'll be turning 55 later this year, eligible for senior citizen discounts at Perkins restaurants, and with a family legacy that has most everyone moving onward in their 60s or 70s, I'd be fooling myself to imagine that I'm still a young man. You might think that this would be sobering or depressing, but strangely it's not.

I suppose I take comfort from the fact that I've never seen a winter that wasn't followed by spring. It's just that one day in the future, spring will look quite a bit different than ever before.