contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: Indian metaphysics

EMPTINESS AND INTERBEING

At this point in my inquiry I want to refine my understanding of ’emptiness’. The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh is a great help here, in his final commentary on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra .

Thich Nhat Hanh discusses Buddha’s teaching that everything is “a manifestation of causes and conditions” and that nothing is permanent or unchanging. This applies to the whole cosmos, and not just to the apparent world. “Whether you call it atman (the soul) or Brahman (ultimate divinity), whether you call it the individual self or the universal self, you cannot find anything there”. Buddha’s teaching was aimed at undermining both of these notions. Nothing has any ‘self-nature’ (we might use the term ‘essence’).

Thich Nhat Hanh pursues this right into the territory of emptiness. “There are still many people who are drawn into thinking that emptiness is the ground of being, the ontological ground of everything. But emptiness, when understood rightly, is the absence of any ontological ground. … We must not be caught by the notion of emptiness as an eternal thing. It cannot be any kind of absolute or ultimate reality. This is why it can be empty. Our notion of emptiness should be removed. It is empty.”

He goes on to say: “the insight of interbeing is that nothing can exist by itself alone, that each thing exists only in relation to everything else … looking from the perspective of space we call emptiness ‘interbeing’; looking from the perspective of time we call it ‘impermanence’ … to be empty is to be alive, to breathe in and breathe out. Emptiness is impermanence; it is change … we should celebrate. … When you have a kernel of corn and entrust it to the soil, you hope it will be a tall corn plant. If there is no impermanence, the kernel of corn will remain a kernel of corn forever and you will never have an ear of corn to eat. Impermanence is crucial to the life of everything”.

This is one side of an age old controversy within spiritualities of Indian origin. In this blog, I have given friendly attention to the other side as well – particularly Direct Path teachers like Rupert Spira and Greg Goode and the Indian influenced Douglas Harding. In the end I don’t make an absolute judgement about it. My Sophian ‘At-Homeness in the flowing moment’ is compatible with both views. But I’m now finding greater energy and aliveness in the framework here presented by Thich Nhat Hanh.

Increasingly, when I do Direct Path exercises I experience a breaking down of assumptions about experience itself, and a tremendous opening out … but no container called ‘Awareness’ to fill a God sized hole. It’s similar for me with the Harding exercises. My experience is broadly the same, but my felt sense has shifted, and my narrative with it. I’m moving away from big picture truth claims about this, because I have become sceptical that exercises like this provide any grounds for them, one way or the other. Rather, I lean in to an evolving personal understanding, always provisional, of my contemplative experiences.

As a shorthand, I can talk about the tension between a ‘Oneness’ framing and an ‘interbeing’ framing of what people call non-duality. The difference can seem subtle – and it may be best to use ambiguous, open-ended words like ‘Tao’ and preserve a sense of mystery. But at this turning of the year, ‘interbeing’ is my preferred term. It fits better with the eco-spirituality which I take from my Druid journey, and affirms the relational basis of my Sophian Way.

(1) Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: a New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2017

See also: https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/10/21/the-uses-of-emptiness/ an earlier post that I’ve been able to draw on here.

NON-DUALITY AND YOGA NIDRA

This post is built around Dr. Richard Miller’s approach to Yoga Nidra (1) and my response to it. The resource I am working with – a book and a CD – was published in 2005. My concern in writing is with how a “meditative practice for deep relaxation and healing” can also be what one reviewer (2) described as the “perfect tool” for the author’s non-dual teachings. For the recommended practices “require only presence, and as such represent both the path and the goal of non-dual practice.”

The word non-dual is a translation of the Sanskrit advaita, literally ‘not two’. I remember a podcast in which Peter Russell (3), a long-term practitioner and writer in this field, cautioned against a tendency to equate ‘not two’ with ‘one’. He then told an ancient Indian story about the making of clay pots. A potter takes a lump of clay and makes two pots. One clay; two pots. In the Indian tradition, this is a ‘consciousness first’ understanding, and modern versions draw on terms like presence, awareness, ground of being, or true nature to point to our ultimate identity as this consciousness. ‘God’ is also used in this way. The understanding is that we are never separate from this identity, though we may feel separate from it, or forget it, or ‘not believe’ in it. After all, most of our attention is on our individual life in the world with all its pulls, stresses and demands.

Early in his book, Richard Miller describes his first experience of Yoga Nidra:

“Our instructor led us through Shavasana, the traditional yogic pose for inducing deep relaxation while lying completely still on the floor. The instructor expertly guided us into being conscious of sensations throughout our body, as well as to opposing experiences, such as warmth-coolness, agitation-calmness, fear-equanimity, sorrow-joy, and separation-oneness. I was invited to rotate may attention through the sensations elicited by pairs of opposites until I was able to embody these opposing experiences with neither attachment or aversion to what I was experiencing.

“I drove home that evening feeling totally relaxed and expansively present. For the first time in years, I felt free of all conflict, radiantly joyful, and attuned wit the entire universe. I experienced life as being perfect just as it was and felt myself to be a spacious nonlocalized presence. Instead of my usual experience of being in the world, I was having a nonmental experience of the world being within me, similar to experiences I had known as a child”.

Miller’s motivation to continue was “a longing in me to consciously awaken into and fully abide as this sense of presence”. As well as becoming a yoga teacher and psychotherapist he has worked with Direct Path teachings as a student of Jean Klein. He describes the very term Yoga Nidra as a paradox, a play on the words ‘sleep’ and ‘awake’ as it means ‘the sleep of the Yogi’. The implication is that the normal person is asleep to their true nature through all states of consciousness – waking, dreaming and deep sleep – while the Yogi is one who is awake and knows his or her true nature across all states, including sleep. The practice therefore involves both deep relaxation and deep inquiry.

A full practice on Miller’s CD begins with two commitments – one to a form of mindfulness at the edge of sleep where, for the reasons pointed to above, it is OK to ‘fall asleep’ since there is a trust that the process will continue to run at other levels. The second is described as a ‘heartfelt prayer’, articulated as though it has already been fulfilled – for in the absolute, there is only now: Miller gives the example ‘my friend is whole, healed and healthy’. Then the meditation moves through seven stages, the first six of which address specific forms of awareness: body and sensation; breath and energy; feelings and emotions; thoughts, beliefs and images; desire, pleasure and joy; and witness/ego-I. The final stage (sahaj) is our natural state, ‘the awareness of changeless Being’. Each stage provides an opportunity to identify conventionally positive and conventionally negative experiences, and to hold both in a wider embrace. The sixth stage inquires into the very nature of the ‘I’ that believes itself to be a separate witness, enabling the simple being of the final stage. The whole practice lasts about 35 minutes.

I’ve been looking for an evening practice to complement my morning one. After only a week, it has the right feel, the right format and the right length for me at this point in my life. Over the last three or four years non-duality has become my common sense. During this period I have worked a good deal with the ‘Seeing’ experiments of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way (4) and also with substantial resources from Direct Path teachers Greg Goode (5) and Rupert Spira (6). A non-dual view, as a working assumption, is now both cognitively and experientially well installed.

I don’t have a deep interest in non-dualist metaphysics for its own sake. I am deeply committed to this world and my human life. What I find is that a non-dual model of reality adds to my experience of human life in the world, and cannot be separated from it. I find myself leaning in to this nourishing and illuminating possibility, and committed to commit to living by it. Roger Miller’s Yoga Nidra has met me where I am. I am very grateful for this gentle, life-affirming, and subtle practice, which helps to maintain me on this path.

(1) Richard Miller Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Holding Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2005

(2) Stephen Cope, author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom Of Yoga

(3) https://www.peterrussell.com/

(4) http://www.headless.org/

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path: A User Guide Non-Duality Press, 2012 (UK edition)

(6) Rupert Spira Transparent Body: Luminous World: the Tantric Yoga of Sensation and Perception Oxford: Sahaja Publications, 2016

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