Saturday, November 15, 2008

This Is.....

If my early morning mediation session is especially relaxed, my awareness of mind sometimes takes a shift, so that there is a more leisurely awareness of each phenomenon of mind as it arises. This is in sharp contract to the waterfall cacophany of thoughts and feelings that normally tumble one upon another at breakneck speed in my awareness.

An air vibration behind me enters awareness, and I can physically feel the oscillation of tiny membranes in my head.

This is hearing.

My feeling regarding this sensation is utterly neutral. It is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but it does interest me, and my mind begins to form a rudimentary constellation around the sense object.

This is feeling. This is interest.

Instantly, and inextricably linked to the hearing and feeling, myriad associations move toward the new constellation. Memories join the bare object of hearing, and this leads to the recognition and name of this sound as "plane taking off from airport."

This is perception.

Perception continues, the constellation builds. From the sound I know the direction the plane is heading, and memory of maps tells me the likely destination is Detroit, or New York, or Boston. Mental images of these cities arise, and now there is a new sense object for the mind to constellate around. New feelings: Detroit--unpleasant. Boston--pleasant.

The perception doesn't fade until well after the initial sound object, the noise of the plane, has faded.

A skin sensation arises, along the back side of my body.

This is touching.

This time, an immediate feeling of pleasantness joins the constellation.

This is feeling: pleasant.

Perception arrives in the form of memory and language and naming.

This is perception; this is warmth.

In response to pleasant feeing, an energy of attraction arises. I want more warmth.

This is desire.

A new skin sensation arises, this one along the front of my body. This, too, is touch, but this time the constellation is a little different.

This is feeling. This is unpleasantness.

Perception tells me that this is "cold." An almost magnetic energy of repulsion, aversion now joins in.

This is aversion.

A subtle energetic shift takes place. I am aware of an intention to capture warmth, to escape cold.

This is intention.

Another energy is present, though, one that intends to study rather than react.

This is restraint.

I am now aware of two constellations around touch sensations: one dominated by pleasantness and warmth, the other by cold and aversion. Close examination, though, indicates that they do not occupy the same space; they aren't experienced at the same time, but oscillate back and forth so rapidly that there is the illusion of simutaneousness.

In truth, there is only one "this is" at a time.

The present constellations seem to grow tired of their existence all by themselves, and quietly die and fade away. Others various constellations replace them: Itching. Story-telling. Planning. Muscle aching. A fantasy. Smelling bacon.

None of them need to be avoided; none need to be captured.

Gradually during the course of the meditation, I become absorbed in the sheer knowing, the "this is" of every phenomenon that arises. For this time, anyway, I have no investment in things being different, and am nothing more than a student of what's arising.

This is delight. This is peace.

Occasionally, this fascination with the bare "this is" of experience follows me off the meditation cushion and informs the entire day. This is more common on leisurely weekend days, especially when bad weather enforces an indoor indolence, but even a work day may sometimes be treated with a steady fascination with things just as they are, whatever they are.

More and more these days, the fabric of a spiritual life seems to be just this simple.

"This is."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Few Words Regarding "Suchness"

For the vast majority of practicing Buddhists, the lifestyle is about practice--following common sense living patterns that are intended to remove the elements that hinder our ability to be happy, and to cultivate those that nurture happiness. We try to avoid hurting others, avoid bad habits, in order to be happier, and to help other people be happier.

The idea is that living in such a way will very gradually cause us to evolve out of the habit of suffering. For traditional Buddhists, it's believed that many lifetimes of such gradual evolution will eventually bring us to the brink of full awakening, or enlightenment.

In a relatively small corner of the Buddhist world, a somewhat mystical and esoteric corner, the focus is on View. The belief here is that one can come to enlightenment all at once, in this very lifetime, by opening one's mind suddenly to see the truth of how things are. Some forms of Zen practice fall into this corner, as do the Tantric Tibetan schools, such as Dzogchen. To become awakened here is said to be a matter of achieving permanent non-dual awareness, an awareness in which it is seen finally that observer (witness) and the observed phenomenon are not two, but are the same thing. It's here that you run into strange sayings, such as "Emptiness is Form; Form is Emptiness."

It is in this corner of Buddhism where you run into a term that is sometimes translated as "suchness," or "is-ness," or "thusness." I first ran across the term while reading Ken Wilber nearly 10 years ago now, but I didn't really begin to understand it at all until I began to study the Tibetan teachers from whom Wilber was borrowing his ideas. In particular, I would recommend Chogyam Trungpa, who elucidates these powerful ideas like no one else.

A vastly oversimplified explanation of "suchness" is that it is our state of mind when we flash to a genuine experience of non-dual awareness. At these moments, past and future cease to exist, and we are entirely within the absolute perfection of a moment. All striving is seen as pointless, since each moment is a perfect one. There is no goal to achieve; it was a delusion to have been pursuing a goal at all, since Buddha-nature is already ours. We are said to experience "one taste," in which observer not only merges with the observed, but understands that there was never any separation at all.

Trungpa describes these glimpses as "flashes," and points out that once experienced, the ongoing practice is to cultivate and stablize our ability to dwell within the flash of the awakened mind.

I had studied these ideas and contemplated them for quite a long time before I had the first such small flash of really understanding what these very smart people were talking about.

It occurred during a lecture I was attending at a local meditation center. That night, the teacher was elaborating on the nature of awareness, in particular talking about how to shift one's attention during a meditation sitting from the beginning object (in our case, the breath), gently onto the faculty of awareness. We talked for quite some time about this very important element of meditation practice: resting comfortably in bare awareness.

Then the teacher said "And it will be interesting to note that at no time is it possible to be aware of nothing. To be aware, is always to be aware of some thing, some phenomenon. Phenomenon, experience itself, is always connected to awareness. You cannot have awareness without an object. And vice versa, I suppose."


There was a common sense truth here that I saw, so simple that I was stunned to have missed it for so long. Of course awareness occurs only with an object, and this implied a reflexive truth: that all objects, all phenomenon, include awareness within their fabric. In all things, awareness is included. It is inherent in all phenomenon. It could be no other way. It's only our mistaken view that prevents us from joining into this cosmic awareness. In one writer's words, "you no longer look up and admire the sky. You become the sky."

In the years since, I have had other flashes, and I suppose its fair to say that the experiences both awe me and terrify me a little. Unlike the Dzogchen masters of Tibet, I'll almost certainly fail to fully awaken in this lifetime.

In my own rare and fleeting glimpses of non-dual suchness , my experience is of a complete dissolution of boundaries between self and object. But unlike what occurs in madness, this dissolution carries with it not annhilation of self, as we commonly fear, but a vast and natural expansion of self into a kind of grand awareness that is implicit in all things.

The paradox of progress in this kind of practice is that it's really not about achieving anything at all, but about systematically surrendering all the things that obstruct our genuine awareness. First and foremost among these obstructions is the terrible defense of the small self, sometimes called ego. It is this defense that fills our normal everyday life, which is exactly why we imagine that awakening is a difficult feat rather than wonderfully simple. Pretty much everything we thought we knew turns out to be a delusion.

Even with pitifully small experience, I would warn you that this is very serious practice that requires much discipline and fearlessness. It most definitely should not be viewed as some kind of shortcut for people too impatient to practice moral living. Expert teachers will tell you that you have to pretty much surrender everything you've believed about yourself to practice in this kind of way. After 10 years of rather serious study, I know just enough to be careful.

Monday, November 10, 2008

No Expert, Me.

Sometimes in these pages I am asked to speak as an authority on Buddhism. While I'm flattered at this, I also feel compelled to say quite honestly that I should not be regarded as any kind of expert. I am not a formal teacher of Buddhism, nor am I a veteran of lengthy meditation retreats that have given me the keys to the Absolute.

My practice is that of an amateur in every sense, and while it's true that I've avidly studied these subjects for a long time, it would be a mistake for anyone to see me as anything but a serious beginner.

While there are many various spiritual traditions that interest me, Buddhism has always held a special appeal for me. Partly this is because there is an intellectualism to Buddhist study that appeals to my need for cerebral exercise, and partly it's because Buddhism has a clean coolness and clarity that I find to be an enormous relief and antidote to the fiery emotional winds that once dominated my life.

But if pushed to really define why I see myself as a Buddhist, the reason can be summed up by one single experience.

About 15 years ago, one Saturday morning saw me shopping at a local indoor retail center in Minneapolis, a relatively avant guarde section of town known as Uptown. In one of the upstairs galleries at the shopping center, I came upon a pair of Tibetan Buddhist monks working on an elaborate geometric mural painted with colorful sands, known as a mandala. The exhibit was sponsored by some American-Tibet exchange program, and the room was sparsely decorated with a simple Tibetan alter with some small shrine objects, but it was extremely simple by most standards.

Mandala artwork is a well-known craft in Tibet. These large sand "paintings" are created on the floor, by artisans who sit cross-legged on the floor, applying the dyed sands to outlined patterns with tools that most closely resemble those pastry bags that bakers use to apply fancy frostings to wedding cakes. Sometimes the designs are purely geomentric; sometimes they resemble landscapes or other natural scenes. The artist sits cross legged, hold the nozzle of the bag where he or she wants the sand to fall, then gently taps on the metal tip so a fine layer of sand drifts down and covers the wood base. A variety of nozzles are used, depending on the relative coarseness or fineness of the design.

In can take days, weeks, or even months for a mandala to be completed, depending on its complexity. Ultimately, this is an exercise in understanding the temporary nature of existence, since the artwork is never preserved, but is soon cast to the winds or allowed to wash away in a river.

On this particular morning, the two young monks were nearing completion on the mandala; a small flyer announced that in a week, the mandala would carefully be carried down to the shores of Lake Calhoun and allowed to wash away. A number of observers came and went during the hour or so that I sat and watched the monks. Once, a man paused to ask me a question, a fact that puzzled me until I realized that the khaki trousers and Minnesota maroon sweatshirt I was wearing was very close to the saffron and gold robes the monks were wearing. I had by mistaken for some kind of tour guide or sponsor for the exhibit.

The work was painstaking, with the monks hunched over in a position that would have been agonizing for you or me. They were about three hours into a four-hour work session. Eventually, they'd be relieved by helpers.

Then a young family with two small children came into the gallery to watch, and something in me know that problems were brewing. The mandala could not have been any more delicate, and the boys were about 4 and 6 years of age. No genius was required to see what was coming.

The moment of disaster was both entirely innocent and quite dramatic. One of the young boys, as they sat off to the side to watch the monk, kicked off his boot---which sailed across the floor and smeared colored sands to all four corners of the compass, effectively ruining the portrait. Days worth of work were instantly ruined.

Now, I know that Buddhist monks were supposed to be patient and kind, but nothing prepared me for the response of these two young monks, perhaps 20, 25 years old. I would have supposed that even these fellows would have to wrestle with anguish and possibly impatience at seeing their work ruined. In my mind's eyes, I imagined that they'd struggle with a bit of anger, probably successfully fighting it back, then grinning and bearing it.

That's about the best I'd have hoped for for myself, on my very best day. But even though I was watching with utmost intensity, I saw not the least flicker of dismay in either of these young monks at seeing their hard work demolished in a moment. Instead, one of the monks simply asked for the boy's name, then lettered his name in finely scripted colored sands on the floor of the gallery using his bag of slendidly colored sands. The boy was at first startled at not being scolded in any way, then lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw his name emerge on the floor.

I watched the monks for another hour, long after the family left. When I finally stood up to leave, one of the monks stood, and bowed to me with a smile as I left. I wasn't asked for any contribution, wasn't handed flowers, didn't receive any literature asking me to join the club.

As I looked back through the storefront glass, the monks were already back at work, in intent and joyful concentration on a task they well knew was entirely ephemeral.

That day, I knew that I'd very much like to be like those monks. If not in this lifetime, then perhaps in another.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Concentration, Spiritually Speaking

The subject of "concentration" gets a lot of attention in spiritual circles, particularly among Buddhists. Concentration is courted in a meditation practice is thought to be a trait of substantial benefit to progressing on a spiritual path. However, confusion often arises because the traditional western definition of concentration isn't quite the same thing as the Buddhist meaning of the term.

Modern westerners approach meditation with a gung-ho goal of achieving a fierce, single-pointed that involves a highly focussed, intellectual obsession with some object that has been selected for attention. While this kind of concentration, similar to what we used to cram for an exam in our school days, can be useful for beginning to quiet a mind that wanders wildly, it isn't exactly what genuine concentration is about.

Spiritual concentration is a more refined thing. It's is not about intellectual ferocity, but comes about when a mind exists in unity and connectedness to circumstances as they actually are at the moment. Concentration is absent whenever the mind finds itself alienated from real conditions, obsessed instead with goals and outcome.

Browbeating oneself into banishing all thoughts, sweatily focussing on the breath, or a mantra syllable, or a flame, or an mental image of a lotus flower, isn't the end goal at all. This rudimentary form of intellectual concentration is useful only as a bare starting point for beginning the process of quieting the mind. It should be dropped the moment we begin to glimpse the quiet awareness beneath, which is what we're actually seeking.

What we're seeking to join ourselves to during meditation is not an object at all, but the restful, wide awake quality of bare awareness itself. A concentrated mind isn't one that lacks thoughts, feelings and concepts. It's one that is awake, present to whatever phenomena are occurring.

In practical terms for the meditator, this kind of concentration will have a more subtle feel to it. When I reach it in my own sittings, it's sometimes accompanied by a physical sensation of first becoming microscopically small, then paradoxically large. This kind of concentration feels like a fine jeweler's hammer—much smaller and humbler than a sledge hammer, but capable of far more intricate and powerful work, in the end. It's this tool, after all, that can carve diamond.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

To Meditate

A colleague who learned that I meditate regularly asked me about it the other day. It turns out that some years ago she had struggled mightily to "get" meditation, and was rather wistful about the fact that she hadn't made it work for her. It was, she felt, a rather serious failure in her life. In listening to her words, it was obvious that she had been anticipating dramatic changes, had wanted them badly, and was disappointed with herself at failing with something she wanted so much.

I'm always somewhat matter-of-fact when describing what meditation can and will do for you. In truth, expecting dramatic, mystical results is one of the surest ways to hinder yourself in a mediation practice (or in any spiritual endeavor, for that matter), so I surely don't really play up this aspect of the practice.

One of the best definitions of meditation I ever heard came from a Tibetan Rinpoche, Chogam Trungpa, who said that mediation practice was really nothing more than "making friends with your own mind."

A similarly useful and reassuring definition came from a teacher of basic insight practice, who said that meditation was really nothing more than "experimenting with letting things be exactly as they are, with no pushing or pulling."

(The movement from "concentration" to "insight" meditation comes about naturally. At the point where you are truly letting go and letting things be as they are, insight arises automatically.)

Such definitions might quietly disappoint you, if you're looking for something more earth-shattering. It's not until you're well into practice, perhaps for many years, when you finally realize that these simple definitions have a quiet, earth-shattering quality after all.

When you start a meditation practice, it's essentially not much more than setting aside 30 or 40 minutes a few times a week, or perhaps each day, to just let the mind fall quiet, to see what might happen, to see what it feels like. It's not uncommon at first for this to feel like a slightly guilty pleasure, since the luxury of letting the mind go quiet is so very alien to us.

This is because our normal status for being in the world is one of incessant, never-ending willfulness. Virtually all our energy is spent in pulling or pushing against things as they are, in an effort to transform them into something that suits our liking. So to take a break, even for a few minutes, may seem like an utter waste of time, a luxury that delays our accomplishment of goals. I, for one, fiercely defended my willfulness, seeing it as the engine that allowed me to accomplish things in life.

Very gradually, though, as the mind begins to settle just a little, a quiet insight starts to take shape. There is another way of being in the world, and that is simply to act logically and naturally based on circumstances as they happen to be at any given moment. You begin to see that you can "be" in the world by just responding to things as they are. All the mental pushing and pulling --the desire and aversion–-have absolutely no impact on changing things. The experience of wanting or rejecting, in fact, are entirely unpleasant, when examined directly.

No amount of wanting will cause a dirty sink to miraculously become clean and neat.

Washing the dishes, however, does the trick.

"Hold on a second," you might say. "If you don't hate a dirty sink, or want a clean kitchen, then the place will never get cleaned." The common belief is that desire and aversion are the fuel that makes the engine of accomplishment turn.

But I'd suggest to you that this isn't so. A decision to wash the dishes can well arise simply because the kitchen is chaotic, and the natural thing to do with chaos is to create order. Wanting and hating are symptoms of having failed to act intelligently, not a fuel that causes us to act.

Willfulness-- pushing and pulling, desire and aversion--need not enter into the equation. Without willfulness, the world begins to act through you, and you begin to have a sense of experiencing things as they are, not as an affront to the way you'd like them to be.

In the early days (perhaps the early months, or years) of a meditation practice, the meditation session itself is a novelty, is something far different than the way you lead your life off the mat. Gradually, though, you find that the outlook you have while meditating begins to carry over into the rest of your life. Eventually, you start to live a meditative life, and everything that happens becomes a part of your on-going practice. "Hmm," you think when your tire blows out on the freeway. "How interesting the way my heart pounds during fear," even while you matter-of-factly slow the car with precision and pull safely over to the shoulder, rather than panicking.

So what I told my colleague was this, as she expressed her disappointment in herself over her expectations for meditation. "The feeling of disappointment....Are you experiencing it? Right now?"

She paused for a moment, then nodded.

"That's mediation," I said.