contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Tag: no-self

LIVING WITH EASE

By simply looking out from my bedroom window, I can enjoy the abundance of high summer, as the year moves on from the solstice. The lush foliage speaks of ease and fulfilment. ‘Summertime and the living is easy’, says the old song. In a customised version of the Buddhist lovingkindness meditation, I say: ‘A blessing on my life. May I be free from harm; may I be healthy; may I be happy; may I live with ease’ … gradually extending the circle of care through my loved ones through wider circles of acquaintance, eventually including all beings throughout the cosmos. But what does living with ease add to freedom from harm, or to health and happiness?

In my experience, this comes from my experience of ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. I treat the flowing moment as a quality of experience rather than a unit of time. Otherwise I might be tempted to measure the right length of a moment’ to be ‘present’ or ‘flow’ in. It would have to be brief, but long enough to register experientially. Even so, I would probably find myself lying in wait for such a moment in the hope of catching one before it went. This would not be a skilful means of living with ease.

Instead, I enter the flowing moment, intentionally, by slowing down and taking notice. Eyes open, I take in the world visually, in all its riches, and check out my sensations, feelings, thoughts and any internal imagery that might override the physical view. I am not identified with any of these experiences. They are not me. I am empty and at home in the flow of sensation and perception. In this state, I ideally avoid stories like ‘there are trees on the other side of this window’. If I enter such a story, that is just another passing experience, a bubble in the flowing moment. It is in my empty core that the flowing moment becomes my home. In a sense, it is the emptiness itself that is the home. But it feels most like home when a world of sensation and perception appears to fill the space. Emptiness and form are interdependent. They need each other to flourish.

The flowing moment is not my default setting in daily life. Other states of attention come to the fore. The flowing moment, which I can enter and leave at any time, is available as a home to go to when I want or need it: hence my phrase ‘at-homeness in the flowing moment’. Entering and leaving is a conscious, careful decision, though it does not require retreat conditions or labelling as a formal spiritual practice.

‘At-homeness in the flowing moment’ can work in bad times as well as good. For the emptiness at my core can also be full and loving. It does not judge distressed and negative reactions. It does not try to smooth over feelings of dismay about the wider world. It holds them in peace and lovingkindness. In my morning circle, I ask for peace in the four directions, in the below, the above and throughout the world. But the centre is different. I stand in the peace of the centre, at the heart of living presence. This is the source of my ease, the nurturing emptiness that stands behind my at-homeness in the flowing moment .

THE NOTION OF INTERBEING

“I am made of earth, water, air and fire. The water I drink was once a cloud. The food I eat was once the sunshine, the rain and the earth. I am the cloud, the river and the air at this very moment, so I know that in the past I was also a cloud, a river and the air. I was a rock; I was the minerals in the water. This is not a question of belief in reincarnation; this is the history of life on Earth. We have been gas, sunshine, water, fungi and plants. We were single-celled beings. The Buddha said that in one of his former lives, he was a tree, he was a fish, he was a deer. This is not superstition. Every one of us has been a cloud, a deer, a bird, a fish and we continue to be these things today.

“The notion of interbeing, though it is a notion, helps to lead you to the ultimate truth… Interbeing means you cannot be by yourself alone; you can only inter-be. Interbeing can connect the conventional truth to the ultimate truth, so it can lead you gradually to emptiness…. On this level, there is no beginning and no end, no birth and no death.

“When we speak of the ultimate truth, we use words like ‘emptiness’, and emptiness, when used like this, has no opposite. At first, we think emptiness is the opposite of fullness but, as we saw earlier, emptiness is fullness. You are empty of your separate self, but full of the cosmos.”

Thich Nhat Hanh The Other Shore: A New Translation of the Heart Sutra with Commentaries Berkeley, CA: Palm Leaves Press, 2017

INTENSIVE INQUIRY

Over the past two years, I have worked with three traditions apart from Druidry. These are Sophian Gnosticism, The Headless Way, and the Vietnamese Zen of Thich Nhat Hanh. Diverse as they are, they have all valuably nudged me in my current direction, which is one of intensive inquiry.

Through this inquiry, I am finding that what I call the Direct Path* is uniting the concerns of these three traditions, in a way that resolves the difficulties they raise for me, described below:

WAY OF SOPHIA To the extent that it is connected to a method, the Sophian (or Magdalenian) journey is a Christian Kabbalist one, a Jacob’s ladder from the apparent world to a Void beyond describable divinity and back again to a new experience of the world as kingdom, transfigured by a super-celestial vision. To the extent that I find a problem with this method, it is a tendency for the reality of my true nature to seem remote and hidden, obscured by a too-vivid myth making. The spirit gets drowned in the cocktail. When working with the image of Sophia, I found a more playful and free-spirited energy, not fitting easily in formal Gnostic Christian tradition. So, the system, as a system, doesn’t quite work for me.

HEADLESS WAY Richard Harding’s Headless Way – http://www.headless.org/ – is apparently non-mythic, and a variant, home-grown form of the Direct Path, or at least its first half. It is based on a set of experiments, which kick-start a non-dual recognition from the visual perception/brief shock of ‘not having a head’, and go on to further to develop the implications of this perspectival shift. The exercises worked brilliantly for me when I first did them. I experienced a powerful figure/ground shift, with the cultural common sense of subject-verb-object language very briefly driven out of me as the world sat on my shoulders. This then became narratized as the opening into an I AM, an ultimate identity of ‘clear awake space, and capacity for the world’.

Precisely this narrative brought about my fall. I could feel the counter coup of my demoted ‘third person’ as it happened. The Monkey King learned to become the Monkey Emptiness and take up a geographically familiar position in the vacant space above my neck. I ended with a sense of ‘fool’s gold’, though in retrospect this seems unfair. I had an important shaking up because of not having a head. Returning to the same territory through different means, I now resonate with Rupert Spira’s understanding that Consciousness cannot know itself as an object. I had tried to become, as a sentient being in the apparent world, absolutely the eye of spirit and although I AM the eye of spirit, I could not become it in that way, because becoming it makes it a conceivable object in the finite mind. I can only enact it through what I call the sacrament of the present moment. It is more as if the finite mind – not separate, yet also not identical – offers itself as a vehicle.

MAHAYANA BUDDHISM: After an interval, I turned to Buddhism, in the form of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Community of Interbeing, – https://coiuk.org/ – which renewed an occasional relationship with one or another Buddhist sangha going back for over twenty years. This time round the wheel I made sure that I studied the Emptiness teachings directly and wasn’t satisfied with meditation manuals and the modern version of Buddhist psychology. My study included Thich Nhat Hanh’s 2014 commentary on the Heart Sutra, (1) Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentaries on Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (2) and Vasubandhu’s Thirty Verses on Consciousness Only, (3) a Yogacara practitioner text presented by Ben Connelly with a new translation by Weijen Teng. I didn’t, this time, work with the Zen literatures of China and Japan.

The result of my study was that in meditation I got a much fuller sense of consciousness being the underlying reality, which thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations passed through. This pointed beyond ‘no separate self-nature’ in the sense of Thich Nhat Hanh’s psycho-social-ecological view of ‘Interbeing’, to a fuller sense of Consciousness Only. This experience, a fruit both of study and of practice, helped warm me up to my present encounter with the Direct Path.

I consulted the Science And Non-Duality (SAND) website – https://www.scienceanndnonduality.com/ – since I knew that many Direct Path teachers are linked to that network. First, I took a brief online meditation course with Peter Russell – www.peterrussell.com/ – to find out what basic breath meditation would feel like in an Advaita context rather than a Buddhist one. It felt soft and spacious. But my main concern was with the kinds of inquiry into core identity associated with the Advaita approach, having run into problems with the Headless Way experiments and traditional self-inquiry (‘Who am I?), since I could quickly come up with a rhetorically ‘right answer’ without it meaning very much experientially. I soon came across a new work by Stephan Bodian – https://www.stephanbodian.org/ (4), a former Zen monk, who went on to train in Western psychotherapy and became a student of Direct Path teacher Jean Klein*. He provides a bridge from Zen to the Direct Path and his book is rich in carefully crafted practice suggestions. I also worked with the inquiry suggestions in Greg Goode’s Direct Path (5). Greg Goode – https://greg-goode.com/  is a student of Francis Lucille, himself a student of Jean Klein.

Now I am working with Rupert Spira’s – https://non-duality.rupertspira.com/ Transparent Body, Luminous World (6) contemplations, clear that the Direct Path is the centre of my inquiry. Rupert Spira is another pupil of Francis Lucille, and for me does most to bring out the Tantric as well as Advaita aspects of Klein’s teaching. For him, Direct Path realization is just as much about finding love in sensation and feelings, or beauty in perception, as it is about finding truth in inquiry. All is held in Consciousness. Once we know this, really feeling and tasting the understanding, the question becomes: how do we celebrate and live from this reality? This is the point at which the sense of an embodied spirituality, animist, Earth honouring, with a view of deep ecology, indeed Druidry, come back into their own, held within a Tantric understanding.

I’m moving towards a decision about whether to anchor myself in this world view. Once that decision is made (if it is made), my primary attention will move to the outward arc – here called the Tantric one. This will likely change my practice. The intensive contemplative inquiry will burn itself out, leading to a new spiritual centre of gravity that includes contemplation and inquiry but is no longer defined by them.

*DIRECT PATH: I am specifically referring to the lineage begun by Jean Klein, combining Advaita Vedanta, India’s classical renunciate spirituality, with Kashmir Shaivism, a form of Tantra. The Direct Path is an exploration of objective experience in the light of our enlightened understanding, rather than a turning away from our experience in favour of its background of pure Awareness, as is the case of the Vedantic approach. If the Vedantic path is the path from ‘I am something’ – a body and a mind – to ‘I am nothing’, the Tantric path could be said to be the path from ‘I am nothing’ to ‘I am everything’. If the Vedantic path is one of exclusion and discrimination, the Tantric path is one of inclusion or love. The Direct Path brings them together.

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

(2) Nagarjuna The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995

(3) Ben Connelly Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara: A Practitioner’s Guide Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2016

(4) Stephan Bodian Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness and Love Oakland, CA: Non-Duality Press, 2017

(5) Greg Goode The Direct Path Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2012

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

 

 

BARE BONES

Where I live, November is the month when deciduous trees finally lose their leaves. It hasn’t happened yet, for all the leaves that have already been shed. The winter landscape of stark, skeletal trees against the skyline has still to come. But the process is happening, and I feel in tune with it. My spiritual view and practice are taking on a greater simplicity and economy, a clearer and starker definition.

My true home, or refuge, is presence in the stream of experiencing. This presence is a felt sense and a wordless kind of knowledge. It doesn’t seem like ‘self’ – and certainly not personality. It doesn’t seem like ‘other’ either. There’s no sense either of separation or of immersion. It doesn’t quite fit the Mahayana Buddhist or Advaita Vedanta descriptions of non-duality that I have seen, or the Western Way versions either. But it does point to the sacrament of the present moment.

I say sacrament because, for me at least, the full experience of presence has to be cultivated through attentiveness and a certain reverence. In one sense I am of course always present in the moment and cannot be otherwise. In another sense, I am often distracted from the fullness of this experience through inattention, fascination, distress and compulsive narration. I am not claiming an ontological difference between being awake to the present moment in this sense and being asleep to it. The differences are in core contentment, in seeing others and the world more clearly and compassionately, and the enhanced quality of life that goes with such shifts.

I am a meditator, because I find that meditation helps. But I do not fetishize formal meditation, or think that more necessarily means better. Meditation is a method, not the goal, and there are other routes to being mindful – anything, really, that makes us attentively alive. Some modern teachers of Direct Path Advaita Vedanta take the emphasis away from meditation, because it can encourage a deficit view of practice – that we lack something and need to have it, leading to a kind of inner materialism with ‘enlightenment’ as the desired possession. The work, to the extent there is work, is to recognize what we already are.

These are the bare bones of my spirituality, and it doesn’t require much of a superstructure. I attend a local meditation group. I have a parallel interest in ethics, and in other aspects of philosophy and culture, which in some ways come out of my spiritual stance. But at heart it is very simple.

EMPTINESS AND JOYFUL FREEDOM

This post takes its name from a book (1) about the ‘emptiness’ teachings traditionally associated with Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism. It makes the case that the ‘ease’ they bring can support a culturally ‘Western’ approach to life. The insights can illuminate us regardless of tradition, enabling new departures in the politics and art of living. The book includes meditations and exercises, so that readers can check it out for themselves.

“Through the immersion in these teachings, the rigidity and solidity of seemingly inherently existing phenomena give way to a precious lightness of life in the world. The famous Buddhist writer Shantideva expresses beautifully how our mind comes finally to rest:

“When neither something nor nothing

Remains to be known,

There is no alternative left

But complete non-referential ease.

“I feel that, as a person who had been seeking truth and ultimate reality, I found a satisfying answer in the realization of the emptiness of all phenomena. This realization comes with a greater sense of ease.

“For spiritual practitioners like me, the rigid attitude of knowing what’s right for everyone is an easy temptation. Spiritual teachings tend to have notions of absolutes, which by their very nature seem to trump everything else. None of them can claim to have absolute, transcendent truth on their side, so all of them need to prove themselves on the level of conventional, ordinary reality with practical questions like:

’Who does the view serve and who is being marginalized?’ or

‘Is the view helpful, compassionate or humane?’

“ ….

“It was a wonderfully freeing moment to recognize that there simply is no one way that reality ‘really’ is, and therefore no way to miss out on it. … At that moment, it became completely OK to be my Western self again, rather than trying to emulate what I took to be the Eastern blueprint of an enlightened practitioner’s way of life.

“ …

“By realizing that the inherently existent self does not exist, one is free up to work with the empty self. This is where the West’s abundant sources of creative self-expression can come in handy. You can celebrate and transform the (empty) self, creatively expressing it in ever new ways. The self can even be treated as a work of art. Towards the end of his life Michel Foucault said:

‘What strikes me is the fact that in our society, art has become something which is related only to objects, and not to individuals, or to life.’

“Joyful irony is our Western Way to describe the fruition of the emptiness teachings. You no longer think that your own values and goals are underwritten by the nature of reality. This insight enables a flexible, unattached attitude towards your one views and vocabularies, and fosters respect for the views of others”.

(1) Greg Goode and Tomas Sander Emptiness and Joyful Freedom Salisbury: Non-Duality Press, 2013 (Section written by Tomas Sander)

A PERSPECTIVE ON ‘SELFLESSNESS’

In his ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion’, Sam Harris talks about the experience of ‘selflessness’ as “right on the surface” of consciousness rather than a ‘deep’ feature of it. Yet “people can meditate for years without recognizing it”. Harris focuses his discussion on the work of Douglas Harding (www.headless.org), its dismissal by other cognitive scientists, and his own take on what is happening. The piece includes an exercise, so that readers can explore for themselves.

“It is both amusing and instructive to note that [Harding’s] teachings were singled out for derision by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (in collaboration with my friend Daniel Dennett), a man of wide learning and great intelligence who, it would appear, did not understand what Harding was talking about. Here is a portion of text that Hofstadter criticized:

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, the present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in an absolutely nothing whatsoever! Certainly not in a head.

“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 more 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, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. 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 (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of ‘me’, unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself. I was nowhere around … There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden … I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed to this substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is – rather than contains – all things. For, however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected, or a clear mirror in which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed, still less a soul or mind to which they are presented, or viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view. Nothing whatever intervenes, not even that baffling and elusive obstacle called ‘distance’.: the blue sky, the pink-edged whiteness of the snows, the sparkling green of the grass – how can these be remote, when there’s nothing to be remote from? The headless void refuses all definition and location: it is not round or small, or big, or even here as distinct from there.”

“Harding’s assertion that he had no head must be read in the first-person sense; the man was not claiming to have been literally decapitated. From a first-person point of view, his emphasis on headlessness is a stroke of genius that offers an unusually clear description of what it’s like to glimpse the nonduality of consciousness.

“Here a Hofstadter’s ‘reflections’ on Harding’s account: ‘we have here been presented with a charmingly childish and solipsistic view of the human condition. It is something that, at an intellectual level, offends and appalls us: can anyone seriously entertain such notions without embarrassment? Yet to some primitive level in us it speaks clearly. That is the level at which we cannot accept the notion of our own death”. Having expressed his pity for batty old Harding, Hofstadter proceeds to explain away his insights as a solipsistic denial of immortality – a perpetuation of the childish illusion that ‘I am necessary ingredient of the universe’. However, Harding’s point was that ‘I’ is not even an ingredient, necessary or otherwise, of his own mind. What Hofstadter fails to realize is that Harding’s account contains a precise, empirical instruction: Look for whatever it is you are calling ‘I’ without being distracted by even the subtlest undercurrent of thought – and notice what happens when you turn consciousness upon itself.

“This illustrates a very common phenomenon is scientific and secular circles: We have a contemplative like Harding, who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity; we also have a scholar like Hofstadter, a celebrated contributor to our modern understanding of the mind, who dismisses him as a child.

“Before rejecting Harding’s account as merely silly, you should investigate this experience for yourself:

“Look for Your Head

“As you gaze at the world around you, take a moment to look for your head.

“This may seem like a bizarre instruction. You might think, ‘Of course, I can’t see my head. What’s so interesting about that?’

“Not so fast. Simply look at the world, or at other people, and attempt to turn your head in the direction you know your head to be. For instance, if you are having a conversation with another person, see if you can let your attention travel in the direction of the other person’s gaze. He is looking at your face – and you cannot see your face. The only face present, from your point of view, belongs to the other person. But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change of perspective, of the sort Harding describes.

“Some people find it easier to trigger this shift in a slightly different way: As you are looking out at the world, simply imagine that you have no head.

“Whichever method you choose, don’t struggle with this exercise. It is not a matter of going deep within or producing some extraordinary experience. The view of headlessness is right on the surface of consciousness and can be glimpsed the moment you attempt to turn about. Pay attention to how the world appears in the first instant, not after a protracted effort. Either you will see it immediately or you won’t see it at all. And the resulting glimpse of open awareness will last only a moment or two before thoughts intervene. Simply repeat this glimpse, again and again, in as relaxed a way as possible, as you go about your day.

“Once again, selflessness is not a ‘deep’ feature of consciousness. It is right on the surface. And yet people can meditate for years without recognizing it. After I was introduced to the practice of Dzogchen, I realized that much of my time spent meditating had been a way of actively overlooking the very insight I had been seeking”.

Sam Harris Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion London: Bantam Press, 2014

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: STEPHEN BATCHELOR

Stephen Batchelor offers some thoughts on immediate experience and concepts of mind, soul and reincarnation.

 

“I had noticed that when listening to the song of a bird, it was impossible to differentiate the cooing of the wood pigeon, on the one hand, and the hearing of it, on the other.  Conceptually the two were different, but, in immediate experience, I could not have one without the other, I could not draw a line between them, I could not say where the bird song stopped and my hearing of it began.  There was just a single, primary, undifferentiated me-hearing-the-birdsong.

“Being-in-the-world means that I am inextricably linked into the fabric of this fluid, indivisible, and contingent reality I share with others.  There is no room for a disembodied mind or soul, however subtle, to float free of this condition, to contemplate it from a hypothetical Archimedean point outside.  Without such a mind or soul, it is hard to conceive of anything that will go into another life once this one comes to an end”.

Stephen Batchelor, 2011, Confession of a Buddhist atheist New York: Spiegel & Grau

‘SELVING’

For me, ‘self’ is a vulnerable, unstable, temporary construct – yet one we are still programmed to develop, and as real as anything in the apparent world.  Speaking for ‘myself’ I might put it like this: arising from a chaos of confused and contradictory perceptions, needs and desires; easily stressed and distressed, prone to distorted assessments of the world and my place in it, the process of ‘selving’ is nonetheless a necessary personal and social skill. For better and for worse, it makes me human.

So I’m not a fully paid up subscriber to the view of ‘self’ as simply a misguided idea (though I do go along with ‘no separate self’). But I can value the pure version of the no-self approach as an occasional lens to use. A good look can yield valuable insights.  The radical non-dualist writer J. Jennifer Matthews shows how:

“‘Selving’ is a misunderstanding which causes us to problematize our experience. As soon as we postulate an independent and closed self, we start to bother ourselves.

“Allow me to speak for myself. I have been possessed by a kind of madness. This madness takes shape as a definite tendency to fixate on a person or way of life as my salvation. I abandon the ordinary; the day-to-day. I go for the highest, the most intense experiences, which allow me the most special and rarefied self-images. I reject what is right in front of me, and situate passionate dedication into the receding future.

“Oh alienating desire, that poison of the mind, which makes my friends’ faces foreign; the blue sky dull, food tasteless, and my passions mere shades, however fervently I pursue them! When I am in this particular, er, frame of mind, I keep trying to get to the part of the story where the heartache stops, as Gordon Lightfoot would say. And when I finally manage to stop this, or to use my favourite phrase, when I finally ‘start stopping’ here is the mystery. Right here.

“These crows cawing outside my window, have they always been here? And what about this rain, making soft riplets in the puddles on the walk?”

J. Jennifer Matthews (2010) Radically condensed instructions for being just as you are

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