Only Don’t Know and Great Doubt

Reasoning comes to an end
a thought breaks in the middle
all day nothing but time
undisturbed all year
on deserted mountains clouds come and go
in the clear sky the moon is a lonesome o
even if yoga or alchemy worked
it wouldn’t match knowing Zen
Stonehouse

It’s difficult to talk about meditation without being misleading.  When someone asks what we learn during meditation, it’s often tempting to tell people what they want to hear.  If we have career ambitions for a spiritual practice, there may be even more pressure to couch this practice in some kind of revelation or personal link to the divine.  That connection to a larger order grants us a tenuous sense of power and may ensure that the group perceives us as giving them what they need.  There is a cost associated with this, and we may come to believe what we know in our heart is a convenient fiction.

Even if we’re not in charge of a group, we may still place our meditation practice in lofty terms or develop speculative ideas from it.  If I’m being honest, I’m guilty of all of these kind of mistakes involving meditative practice and idealism.  It’s frighteningly easy for us to rationalize believing what we want and spiritual inquiry is no different.  The way out of this is to start to observe our tendency towards speculation and stability even when we’re not on solid ground.  With enough observation, that kind of idealism will eventually become less important.

Truly getting this is a long and arduous process.  Zen has taken that process of questioning and perfected it while remaining acutely sensitive to the intellectual dangers of meditative practice.  Zen is brutally honest in its questioning of all concepts.  I can’t think of too many types of religious and philosophical inquiry that deal in the kind of honesty Zen does.  Zen doesn’t mythologize and is acutely aware of our desire to do so.  While so many traditions indulge fantasy, it looks at that desire in stark terms.  Zen asks that we fully account for this tendency to mythologize in order to truly push it to its limits.  Zen Master Seung Sahn famously said that Zen is “only don’t know.”  In one of his responses to letters written to him about Zen practice, he says:

How do you understand your true self? I ask you, What are you? Don’t you know? If you don’t know, only go straight —don’t know. This don’t know mind cuts off all thinking, and your only-me situation, only-me condition opinion disappear. Then your correct situation, correct condition, and correct opinion appear –it’s very simply! An eminent teacher said, ‘You should understand for yourself whether water is hot or cold.’ Understanding your true self is not special.

I don’t think this kind of response is typically what people want to hear.  Rather than take our doubt to the breaking point, we would rather hear how practice can give us certain powers or give us access to supernatural knowledge.  Zen’s way of dealing with this is a brilliant response to all different kinds of spiritual egotism.  It’s sensitivity to those pitfalls comes across viscerally in koan dialogues like the following:

A monk asked Ummon, “What is the Buddha?”
Ummon replied, “It is a shit-wiping stick
.”

Exchanges like are a deeply-real antidote to the reasons many start this practice in the first place.   It’s like being struck, and is intended to be a fully realized and physical response.  We often see this kind of behavior in Zen koans and can gradually recognize the honesty in that kind of response, which may not be what the student had envisioned. Their mind that seeks a container is disappointed, as another story, one they hoped was more real, is questioned and discarded.  Zen teachers are going to use a variety of responses like this to truly bring their students to bear on their questions. 

The Great Doubt is a Zen way of describing not picking up the conceptual pieces from this process.  Once they’ve broken apart we don’t build new worldviews out of them.  Instead, we are living within them but always doubting their essential nature.   Rather than constructing intolerant and bizarre systems with ourselves at the center, the truth is something vast, distributed, and something that can’t possibly be put into words.  Everyone shares that something, as we come to see in ways that can’t be readily conveyed with ideas.

The challenge then becomes never picking up those pieces again.  “Only go straight, only don’t know.”  “On deserted mountains clouds come and go.”  Things move and act in deep appreciation for each other without ever knowing what they are.  The only way to discover this is to look at this yourself, and to keep looking, and keep asking.

“What are you?”

An Exercise in Paying Attention

Always begin with observation.  Attention is foundational and you are able to access it at any time.  Leave your preconceptions behind and begin by noticing your internal situation.

With careful and precise observation, the details of your inner world come alive in vivid clarity.  Everything there is worthy of study and consideration, with wondrous encounters at every turn.  A network of sensations, aloft on the currents of breath, form you at this moment in time.  Billions of years of history and development find their home in you, etched into something vibrant, taking on many elusive guises.

Within this beauty, however, is tension.  We have inherited the drives of the organism and they still live within our muscle and bone.  These tensions form a tight knit aggression that coils in on itself and waits to act.  Through this common drive of life, we find ourselves with a mind that not only desires and seeks power.  In the human case there is a larger quest for identity and differentiation.  Even though this drive has created beautiful works of art, through it humans also partake in the shadow realms of cruelty and violence.

These concerns have created an unstable mind, something which we come to know through careful observation.  These are reinforced by social cues, creating larger emotional structures we all draw from.  As your attention gathers these things into your conscious awareness, don’t lose yourself in them.  Look at these thoughts carefully and try not to create any additional mental noise around them.  Without constant reinforcement, thought shows itself as a transient phenomenon.  And as you continue to pay attention, something else breaks and your sense of a firmly bounded self begins to fade away.  It’s as if you were in a cell, wondering about the nature of life and yourself, when suddenly that very life floods in and carries everything away. 

The questioning of the limits of human conditioning will lead you there, but it is also a place of opportunity.  With this lessening of a sense of yourself, you have changed the way you grow, branch, and communicate.  As observation strengthens it becomes clear how much you share with others, and what they reflect in you as well.  The mutuality and interconnectedness of things stops being an ephemeral concept and becomes a startling physical fact.  This cause and effect reciprocity means our actions toward each other truly matter.  We can stop seeing ourselves in that same closed off cell and pour ourselves into this life without fear. 

It is continually amazing to me that these kinds of insights emerge from such a relatively simple practice.  Simply look and listen.  Notice how your responses, thoughts, and behavior shape the tenor of your situation.  Start changing these habits and observe their results in turn.  You will better understand others, and this reality, because you’ve taken the time to see yourself more clearly.  And by observing those things, you will also come to know the wonders of simply being a human, in this moment in time, in a world of heartbreaking mystery and beauty.  That world is you as well. 

Psychedelic Spirituality

As an extension to some of what I discussed in my previous essay, and in light of some recent developments in popular culture, I’ve been thinking about our culture’s trending use of psychedelic substances.  Part of what prompted this was listening to Michael Pollan’s interview on Fresh Air to commemorate the release of his book A Whole New Mind in paperback. 

After hearing the interview, I’m sure I’ll pick the book up at some point, as Pollan is a rational voice on a topic that is often clouded with distortion and speculation.  I also think that this kind of research does have some important implications for how we understand meditation and the brain, as described in the New York Times review of A Whole New Mind:

Many LSD or psilocybin trips — even good trips — begin with an ordeal that can feel scarily similar to dissolving, or even dying. What appears to be happening, in a neurological sense, is that the part of the brain that governs the ego and most values coherence — the default mode network, it’s called — drops away. An older, more primitive part of the brain emerges, one that’s analogous to a child’s mind, in which feelings of individuality are fuzzier and a capacity for awe and wonder is stronger.

However, I still have misgivings about the possibility of widespread psychedelic use, especially in the context of meditation. I’m fully in support of individual experimentation with these substances as long as the risks are clear and understood by the participants.  However, I feel that psychedelics are all too often beside the point and can divert us down some less useful paths.  I want to elaborate on this in order to clarify it further.

The starting point for many psychedelic users is as an experiment with a kind of spiritual technology.  Some psychedelics, such as psilocybin, offer the chance of a spiritual experience in convenient packaging.   Alan Watts is one of my intellectual heroes and has been a huge influence on both my meditative practice and on my creative life.  He has written a psychedelic exploration in this vein which is incredibly lucid and firmly in keeping with the gregarious spirit of his work.  The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness, is Watts’ personal account of using these substances as a meditative exercise.  Watts is an example of someone who never shied away from philosophizing on intense emotions and perceptions, and these substances were part of a larger and restless enterprise.  He weaves the psychedelic accounts with many of his most important themes and, in the process, wrests something profound from them.

Is it possible, then, that Western science could provide a medicine which would at least give the human organism a start in releasing itself from its chronic self-contradiction?   The medicine might indeed have to be supported by other procedures – psychotherapy, ‘spiritual’ disciplines, and basic changes in one’s pattern of life – but every diseased person seems to need some kind of initial lift to set him on the way to health.  The question is by no means absurd if it is true that what afflicts us is a sickness not just of the mind but of the organism, of the very functioning of the nervous system and the brain.  Is there, in short, a medicine which can give us temporarily the sensation of being integrated, of being fully one ourselves and with nature as the biologist knows us, theoretically, to be?  If so, the experience might offer clues to whatever else must be done to bring about full and continuous integration.  It might be at least the tip of an Ariadne’s thread to lead us out of the maze in which all of us are lost from our infancy. (The Joyous Cosmology, 10-11)

In this kind of approach, psychedelics are used to try to understand reality on a deeper level.  The focus here often seems to be on using psychedelics in controlled bursts, process the implications of the trip as thoroughly as possible, and then using this to catalyze one’s spiritual understanding.  My own experiences with psychedelics were not spiritually motivated and were the antithesis of this approach.  Although some of the experiences I would classify as spiritual, the drugs also ratcheted up the chaos of my perception, and I quickly become lost in webs of bizarre sensation.  I found the experiences confusing – provoking a level of intensity and unpredictability to my thinking and feeling that was difficult to manage. 

Using psychedelics can therefore still be an unpredictable gamble.  Without adequate time to assimilate what they find, some users have experienced precipitous psychotic breaks.  The current scientific enterprise, as described in the Fresh Air interview, has attempted to mitigate this unpredictability by a focus on the classic “set and setting,” where trained professionals dispense these drugs and provide support during trips.  This doesn’t change the fact that psychedelics are organic substances, and we can’t always count on their repeatability.  The issue I find here is of a larger cultural narrative that condones these substances or is unwilling to discuss their potential dangers.  We should question these kinds of narratives and wrestle with that unpredictability ourselves.  Even though psychedelic use may be accepted, this shouldn’t stop us from examining the causes, sensations, and consequences of using consciousness-altering substances.   

Regardless of how psychedelics are framed, we have to decide for ourselves their impact on our personal growth.  A long term, engaged meditative practice helps point to the beauty, profundity, and preciousness of the things we classify as ordinary, including our minds.   Even when we factor in psychedelic use as part of meditative desire to question our own boundaries and institutions, this desire can still be warped into mere pleasure seeking.  In this way, psychedelics can be yet another materialist dead end.  Based on my own experience, it’s all too easy to create another set of rationalizations to ensnare ourselves, even with spiritual ambition.   This is something that consciousness-altering substances don’t always help us see with clarity, and I don’t think long term psychedelic use is conducive to. 

The development of larger cultural acceptance of psychedelics is still unfolding, along with many other types of practices as we engage in our relentless questioning and overturning of the past.  I’m sure that psychedelics will continue to help treat many cases of anxiety, depression, and trauma. I’m grateful for those opportunities existing. I still have – and will likely always have – concerns on both the long-term impact and ultimate utility of psychedelics for meditative practice.

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience and the Meditative Marketplace

By identifying a broader range of experiences associated with meditation, along with the factors that contribute to the presence and management of experiences reported as challenging, difficult, distressing or functionally impairing, this study aims to increase our understanding of the effects of contemplative practices and to provide resources for mediators, clinicians, meditation researchers, and meditation teachers. (1-2)

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience (VCE) is an important and scholarly article that aims to expand public knowledge of Buddhist meditative practice and its range of possible effects.  Willoughby Britton is one of its contributors and has played an active role in the contemplative community.  She will be familiar to those of you who’ve read this article and have heard of Cheetah House, a place where those experiencing the abrasive effects of meditation can rest and recuperate.  VCE is a landmark study and anyone interested in starting meditation, creating a meditation group, or bringing meditation into the workplace should read it.

I have written several times on the broad spectrum of experiences brought on by my own meditative practice.  I have been practicing meditation daily for around nine years, and in that time I’ve experienced things that were life-changing, amazing, and positive.  Other parts of the practice pushed me into an extremely intense and profound dialogue with parts of myself that I had not yet fully processed or integrated.  Pursuing meditation on my own compounded these difficulties, and I lacked both community resources and a context for what I experienced.

That is why studies such as VCE are so necessary right now, especially given the current state of meditation in America and its position as part of a wider consumer culture.  Mindfulness is an example of a meditation practice that has gone mainstream and has been disseminated as a solution to a wide range of problems.  Meditation has therefore settled into an uneasy polarity with the marketplace at large, and is in many respects being bought and sold like any other commodity.  There is unfortunately still a lack of public dialogue and resources around these types of practices.

One of the main arguments of the article is that the “positive” effects of meditation are widely reported and emphasized, while “adverse” effects are little understood or appreciated by the wider public.

While these sources are often assumed to be indicative of ‘the effects of meditation,’ the focus on positive health-related benefits represents only a narrow selection of possible effects that have been acknowledged within Buddhist traditions both past and present. (2)

On the one hand, this is perfectly understandable, since capitalism has brought many esoteric religious teachings into the marketplace at an extremely rapid rate.  There is a public reckoning with these teachings that is similar to what is happening currently with psychedelics.  There is still some debate within various circles as to the merits of these kind of substances, but it seems that there is a general shift of opinion happening in this domain.  However, with psychedelics, the public seems to be much more cognizant of their dangers than practices such as mindfulness.

The situation with mindfulness and meditation is as if psychedelic substances were widely available and popularized without any kind of meaningful guide to the inner territories they explore.  I find it difficult to believe that mindfulness can truly be marketed as a wholly safe practice in light of studies such as the VCE.  The article provides an extremely interesting image in the form of a table of different types of meditation experiences of novice and seasoned meditators.  I have experienced many of these throughout my practice, and information like this table is a good general indicator of what the student can expect as they progress, and will hopefully become more prevalent as the public discourse around mindfulness begins to shift.

journal.pone.0176239.t004

The marketing of meditation and esoteric religious practices to a wider community than they were intended has both profound challenges and opportunities that are still being addressed.  The more I have studied meditation-based texts, the more I have appreciated their power and insight.  I have also come to a subtler understanding of the reservations that many of these texts express with their knowledge coming under wider public scrutiny.  This may be one reason why these kinds of practices were reserved for a select few, in ensuring that the student had the necessary training to use this practice in the most beneficial way possible and navigate the types of difficult terrain the VCE describes.

Maps of this terrain are very useful because they help the student understand these experiences in certain ways, as well as giving the student a basis to weather their many internal storms.  An example of this kind of system is found in the book Steps to the Great Perfection: The Mind-Training Tradition of the Dzogchen Masters A step by step process is laid out, giving the student different nodes to focus on, and giving them different kinds of trainings to engage in throughout.  Examples of some of these practices are impermanence, nonconceptuality, and the Buddha’s virtues (7). The author then proceeds to give different kinds of methods (including some pretty intense visualizations) to more fully understand each of these instructions.

steps

While I don’t think that a system is necessary for every practitioner,  with them the student is less likely to get lost or focus on the things that don’t lead to a more refined practice.  And even with a practice as seemingly simple and straightforward as mindfulness, any sustained amount of time spent observing our own mental processes is bound to bring up plenty of ancient, hard to integrate material.  The more students and teachers become aware of the wide range of experiences that can occur in any kind of meditation, the more robust our public discourse will be at handling these kinds of situations.

The VCE fills this role admirably and widens the lens of the possible effects of contemplative practice.  I hope that more people who are utilizing meditation read VCE and give it the attention it deserves.  And as someone who in many capacities has gone it alone for almost a decade of meditation – please don’t go it alone.  Find people you can dialogue with and a teacher who can help put things into perspective – until you reach a point that you can decide whether that specific perspective is still needed.

Silence – Our Original Face

carthusian-scenes

Due to several recent changes in my life, I’ve been able to spend more time throughout each day in silence.  Although this was unintentional at first, I’ve increasingly experimented with moving deeper into this silence and having more time each day where my attention is not occupied with distractions.  Since distraction is such a persistent feature of modern life, we may not encounter the many challenges that arise in silence but that are essential for our personal growth and self-knowledge.

It may be difficult at first to set aside the time that silence asks for.  The initial forays into the silent wilderness can be extremely painful as we learn ways of dealing with the things we find there.  In order to more fully understand this process, I’d like to examine what happens as we begin to immerse ourselves more fully in silent contemplation and start to be more present within ourselves.

When we first begin to give time each day to being quiet and listening, boredom, anxiety, and panic are very common.  Without a constant stream of noise, the mind may substitute its own fantasies and attempt to create stimulation for itself.  I’ve found this to be very similar to a process of withdrawal from addiction, as our bodies metabolize the silence away from a steady input of distraction and entertainment.  An important caveat here is that this process will unfold completely on its own, and in order for it to come to fruition, we need to give the process our undivided attention.  Without any conscious prompting, the mind begins to naturally quiet and enter more readily into silence.  An enormous breadth and depth of experience begins to emerge that was not apparent before.  That breadth hints at a silence that seems to come out of existence itself.

I noticed throughout this silence that my daily regimens of thinking and behaving were often trying to cover up a reserve of painful feelings.  While some of these only become apparent over time, some I realized had been there persistently and I had created ways of avoiding.  Part of these feelings come out of our past and the regular traumas we all endure.  Others seem to be more existential: a great sadness at our moment to moment disintegration, and a desire to solidify ourselves into something seemingly more real and lasting.

All of those attempts at self-creation are things which are part of that silence which does not convey its essence or what it truly means.   And that silence that we are can often be so frightening we don’t look at it clearly.  At every point we are confronted with this vast unknowable thing we are, as well as the dark and bestial side of human existence.  We need time to come to terms with these facts, and our consciousness begins to change the more we delve into these things, and eventually listen to and accept them.

With time, the process has given me an increased ability to be more fully engaged with my own stream of consciousness.  I have noticed this quality in those who have trained in this kind of contemplative practice, a deep settling that occurs the more time they spend being simply themselves.  Advanced practitioners seem to be able to manifest the teachings of their religions more readily through action and speech.  There does appear to be a direct correlation between the amount of time a practitioner has given over to contemplation and quiet and their ability to do this.  This is why silence is so often emphasized in contemplative traditions.

Into_great_silence_ver2I have begun watching Into Great Silence again (now streaming on Amazon), which is based on the lives of Carthusian monks in the French alps.  The Carthusians are a sect of the Catholic church that practice rigorous methods of austerity and solitude.  According to their website:

The Carthusians consecrate their lives entirely to prayer and seeking God in the secret of their hearts. They intercede for the Church and for the salvation of the whole world. . . Our principal endeavor and goal is to devote ourselves to the silence and solitude of cell. […] There is the faithful soul frequently united with the Word of God; there is the bride made one with her spouse; there is earth joined to heaven, the divine to the human. 

The movie is full of rich imagery that helps convey these dimensions of monastic life.  There is barely any dialogue throughout the film.  It relies on a series of poetic images and the minute observation of monks going about their daily activities.  Every rustle of paper and exhalation reverberates out of existence like the bell calling the monks to prayer.

Without anything to distract them from their task, the monks seem to be inhabiting a world apart from normal human consciousness.  The ascetic life is a logical extension in service to this change in consciousness, in which all distraction and worldly concern are removed so that the monk can focus on becoming one with their religion’s teachings.  And once the monks are more  aware of what is inside themselves, they can be more equipped to handle those things in ways that enhance love, compassion, and generosity.

In that sense, being able to fully occupy our silence is a basic component of sanity and self-knowledge.  Without silence, we can’t ever know who we truly are, the pain from our past that may torment us, and the vicious circularity of our thoughts and behavior that readily come up when we are no longer distracted.  We cannot see ourselves without that kind of silence every day. Otherwise we exist on the edge of madness, in which we are in constant motion and cannot stop lest we have to acknowledge our daily movement into tempering flames.

Zazen

There is a Zen koan which asks us to show our original face before we were born.  Like so many Zen stories and parables, it asks us to go beyond the superficial in our desire to deepen our understanding.  Zen is described as having three pillars, which are great faith, great doubt, and great determination.  Like the image of the Carthusian monk in his cell, the image of a Zen meditation hall comes readily to mind.  Here the practitioner utilizes that incredible silence to in order to what they truly are become known.

And once we have come to understand this fundamental level of silence and can more readily rest there, we can begin to see how that silence and that deeply unknowable something is our original face in a way that we had never realized before.

Other Minds, Other Stars

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I recently finished the book Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith and would highly recommend it.  Through the focal point of the octopus, Other Minds provides an extremely realistic way of understanding animal intelligence and behavior.  It not only looks at what sets the octopi apart from other creatures, but how their unique path on the evolutionary tree helped shape their biology.  Their nomadic lives created an increased intelligence which seems to have close parallels to human evolution.

[Octopi] are smart in the sense of being curious and flexible; they are adventurous, opportunistic . . . Cephalopods, with the partial exception of squid, acquired a non-social form of intelligence.  The octopus, most of all, would follow a path of lone idiosyncratic complexity. [64-65]

One of the things I most enjoyed was how Other Minds approached evolution and analyzing how intelligence is shaped by evolutionary circumstances.  Part of the book examined how complex nervous systems evolved, including our own.  According to Godfrey-Smith, tracing the roots of consciousness lies at the beginning of life on earth, and minds later evolved in relation to other creatures.

Nervous systems evolved before the bilaterian body plan, but this body plan created vast new possibilities for their use.  During the Cambrian the relations between one animal and another became a more important factor in the lives of each . . . This entanglement of one life and another, and its evolutionary consequences, is due to behavior and the mechanisms controlling it.  From this point on, the mind evolved in response to other minds.  [36]

Later on, Godfrey-Smith takes apart several important evolutionary factors comprising human minds.  One of the most important of these is  inner speech, which Godfrey-Smith describes as how your brain creates a loop.

Inner speech can feel a bit like reafference – like the result of an action that affects your senses – but inner speech is confined inside, hence not really heard (at least when things are working as they should).  If inner speech is a kind of broadcasting of information in the brain, it resembles the loop of reafference seen when you talk aloud to yourself or write notes to yourself.  But this time the loop is tighter and more confined, invisible rather than public, a field for free and silent experiment.

When we see the human mind as the locus of countless loops of this kind, it gives us a different perspective on our own lives and those of other animals.  This includes the cephalopods discussed in this book . . . The human case – an extreme case – suggests that the opportunities associated with reafference help to drive the evolution of a more complicated mind.  Cephalopods are on a different road. [156-157]

octopus_PNG16

In coming to terms with our own minds, it is important to realize how those minds absorb, filter, and create their own unique perspectives in light of natural selection.  Thinking in this way, and how experiences of other animals differ based on their evolution, is an important tool for broadening our perceptions.  Godfrey-Smith touches on this in his book, and wonders about the differences and commonalities between octopus experience and our own.  This is important for how we view ourselves, planetary evolution, and the shifts that seem to be happening everywhere.  In order to bring this out a bit more concretely, lets conduct a thought experiment in that vein.

Begin to ponder the similarities and differences in how an octopus perceives relative to human experience.  How an octopus feels each tentacle thinking and moving on their own, idiosyncratic habits of perception, their own private yearnings and daily pains. Wonder if there is communion found in the gnawing hunger that disappears as quickly as it rose.

By extension, then, how does this kind of diverse experience of everything else mesh with our own?  What are the minds of trees, rocks, and soil over the vast, alien scales of geologic time?  These diverse views all hint at an infinite intelligence that rises out, expressing itself depending on different conditions.  These evolutions lead to all kinds of what we consider intelligent and adaptive behavior and have given birth to the various kinds of life we share this reality with.

This opens the door for all kinds of evolutionary paths for other planets to take.  We may not have heard from alien species since our kind of intelligence is not the only kind, and not the only way to measure evolution.  Since we have not yet discovered life on other planets that we perceive as intelligent, it may simply be that other species have developed many different kinds of intelligence, communication, and behavior that reflect their planetary conditions.  We may not have heard from them since they have not yet communicated in a way that humans find meaningful.

As we become more skilled at manipulating our environment for our own purposes, perhaps we are in the throes of leaving this planet for another.  This has led us to a time of intense anxiety, where we increasingly face an incomprehensible future.  The effects and predictions of global warming seems to be upsetting many of our traditional models.

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On this note, I bought the book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World.  The book so far has outlined what author Timothy Morton describes as hyperobjects, which are highly distributed, and cut across numerous particulars.  Hyperobjects dissolve what we tend to think of  conventional objects in terms of locality and boundedness.  Global warming, according to Morton, is a good example of this, and like the iceberg on the cover, indicates something giant beneath a seemingly placid and substantive surface.

In The Ecological Thought I coined the term hyperobjects to refer to things that are massively distributed in in time and space relative to humans . . . Hyperobjects have numerous properties in common.  They are viscous, which means that they ‘stick’ to beings that are involved with them.  They are nonlocal; in other words, any ‘local manifestation’ of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject.  They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to.  In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality; they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity.  Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit these effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects.  The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge: it’s a hyper relative to worms, lemons, and ultraviolet rays, as well as humans. [1-2]

Unlike many philosophers, Morton is an excellent writer.  His writing does a great job of evoking what he is describing.  He freely ranges across topics in a way that anchors his central thesis, tying together many different histories and perspectives like the hyperobjects he describes.

This sense of reality is one in which many of our cherished ways of understanding are collapsing under the weight of global human advancement.  It ties into one of the most important developments happening at the moment – the development of machine intelligence.  Many of us have come to rely on technologies such as smartphones that manage our lives through effective manipulation of our data.  A distinct possibility exists that we will only merge further with our machines, and create something which supersedes us in the process.

I’ve heard this growing machinic presence referred to as a “Cambrian explosion,” and which seems to be currently happening within many different domains of human life.  Perhaps machines are emerging as the dominant form of life and are simply a natural reflection of this diverse universal intelligence – and yet another path to take down the rabbit hole.

Like the octopus, have we opened a door into a rich and unique form of evolution?  Are there evolutionary forces at work now pushing us towards other minds, other worlds, and increasing intelligence?  And is this evolutionary door a crucible for humanity – the challenge that determines whether we can actually control this planet on such a scale that we make a form of life never seen before?

Free Solo and Beginner’s Mind

I recently caught the documentary Free Solo at my local theater. The film follows rock climber Alex Honnold in documenting some of his rock climbing feats, leading up to climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. What makes this feat so impressive is that Alex climbs this 3,000 plus foot wall without any kind of ropes or support. To prepare, he climbed El Capitan numerous times while figuring out his route. Once he had a route established and memorized, he climbed utilizing the moves he had worked out beforehand.

Go and see Free Solo if you’re able to. It asks a lot of interesting questions about what it takes to climb like this, about Alex as a person, and whether his kind of life is reconcilable with the needs of his romantic relationship. The film also lends additional perspective to Alex’s uncanny abilities. Far from being the mediated experience many of us expect in the outdoors, Alex is thousands of feet in the air, with vastness all around him.

As I was watching the movie, I got a sense of the way in which Alex’s creativity on the rock mirrors some of what I’ve learned through meditation. Zen’s free-form approach to inquiry provides space for our own effort and is similar to Alex’s approach.

When we go to a Zen center and begin to learn meditation, there is no fixed idea of what we have to learn there. The teachers there never told me that I had to learn anything from meditation or that I had to accord with any kind of group belief. We do have to internalize specific social rules so that we don’t disturb anyone’s practice (i.e loud breathing, constantly moving on the cushion, etc.). If we are staying as part of a community, we will have to learn certain ways of living in and contributing to it. We also take the rules of sitting posture seriously since these are crucial to this type of practice. Beyond that, we are allowed room to explore.

Similarly, without any kind of climbing dogma, Alex is attuned to the things that interest him. He has developed a custom set of techniques around these interests. These include visualization, keeping detailed records and journals, and athletic conditioning. All of these things are uniquely calibrated to contribute to his goals. Alex uses these as a way to expand himself and his field. He has taken climbing’s history and technology, and completely remapped what is possible within it.

In order to do this, he appears to always keep himself open to what he learns. This is an example of “beginner’s mind,” a phrase used by Shunryu Suzuki and featured in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. This book is a short and wonderful introduction to Zen. Beginner’s mind connotes a mind that is dynamic and responsive at each moment, without fixed ideas. It may take a great deal of practice to see beginner’s mind in ourselves within those fixations.

My experience of beginner’s mind emerged once I started to understand my own insubstantial basis. In meditative practice, we are drawing closer to that mystery which underscores human accomplishments in every field. In St. John of the Cross’ diagram for Ascending Mount Carmel, the phrase “Nothing, nothing, nothing, and on the Mount, nothing” appears centrally and vividly. The more I meditate, the more I have come to feel that I too am this nothing. This realization has prompted some interesting consequences to the way I think, feel, and experience life in general. The discoveries shed light on the precipitous climb that starts on our own self-centeredness and culminates in looking into our source. We are reaching towards something The Zohar calls “end of thought.”

The way this insight changes everything is that realization that we are that something called “end of thought” creates a different sense of life in which there is nothing that can’t be rewritten or relearned. Alan Watts has a wonderful story that demonstrates this about a Zen priest and a geisha, with each demonstrating beginner’s mind.

A Zen buddhist priest was attending a dinner party one evening. The guests were all seated on the floor around a low rectangular table. On the table in front of each guest was a small hibachi grill filled with hot coals. The diners were cooking their own servings of meat and vegetables, which they took from various bowls on the table.

Several geishas were serving the guests. The priest noticed that one of the geishas conducted herself as if she might have had some zen training.

He decided to test her, so he called her over.

The geisha knelt across the table from the priest and bowed. The priest bowed in return, and said: “I would like to give you a gift.” Using his chopsticks, he reached into the hibachi, picked up a hot coal, and offered it to the geisha.

She hesitated for a moment, then finally pulled the sleeves of her kimono down over her hands. She grabbed the coal, ran into the kitchen, and dropped it into a pan of water. Her hands were not hurt, but the beautiful kimono gown was ruined.

The geisha went back to the table and knelt across from the priest. She bowed to the priest. He bowed in return. Then she said: “I would like to give you a gift too.”

“I would be honored,” the priest replied.

She picked up a pair of chopsticks, removed a hot coal from the priest’s grill, and offered it to him. The priest reached into his robe and took out a cigarette.

As he leaned forward to light his smoke he said, “Thank you. That is exactly what I wanted.” (Text courtesy of Reddit)

Alex’s incredible climbing prowess reminds us of the power of each of us to do this on a daily basis. If someone offers a method, it invites reflection. But don’t assume that this method is a substitute for our own efforts. We may find something different when we do the same thing for ourselves. Being alive is responding to ever-changing conditions, and the capability to try the new every day. This ability to respond becomes even more important as we communicate with others and grow into this uncertain future together.

Congratulations to Alex. You can buy his book Alone on the Wall from Norton here. Alex also has a charitable organization called the Honnold Foundation that installs solar energy in needed communities. You can donate to his foundation here.

Spiritual Praxis

I’ve been reflecting on some of the vocabulary I use in these writings and some of the experiences I’ve drawn on in attempting to understand them. I think it’s important that I establish some of the terminology that gets used here, and the larger context in which they are framed.

Many of the writings here have emerged through my own experimentation and have had the feeling of discovery. This feels like different viewings of something comprehensive yet hidden from view. This is part of the genesis for referring to these experiments as occult or esoteric, in that they are typically more hidden from the mind’s rationalizing capabilities. In order to aid me in looking at these experiences closely and accurately, I have embraced a broad platform of human thought and experience.

Following this kind of journey has made it clear to me that liberation and understanding, so crucial for humanity’s efforts in this reality, are global possibilities which everyone contributes to. Although I am not an accredited teacher, and do not have an official teacher within a spiritual tradition, I have learned something valuable from casting my nets wide and listening to as many perspectives as possible. This type of study serves as a check on my many one-sided viewpoints.

This is why my writings have emphasized different understandings of religion and spirituality. I tend to use these concepts frequently on this site, although they elude rigid interpretation. They are used in a looser and more intuitive way. Spirituality, in my view, begins with a human investigation into topics of universal significance. These can include self-identity, love, the problem of evil, and our reason for existing. It embraces a wide range of physical and mental tools, such as reason, intuition, and meditation. It also has an ethical component which seems to be one of the most important characteristics of any kind of spiritual writing – how this type of investigation, in broadening our understanding of life, contributes to more realistic and compassionate behavior.

Religion is an extension of spirituality and shares many commonalities with it. When discussing religion, we are not only looking at spiritual teachings, but the architecture that sustains these teachings. This can include monasteries and nunneries, church gatherings, and meditation groups. It also looks at the larger social consequences of those participating in these practices and how spiritual teachings are spread through cultures. So when we are discussing religion, this is intentionally broad. It looks at human values, practices aimed at understanding the universe, and human social institutions that preserve the teachings of individuals who teach this particular kind of knowledge.

Both of these expressions are tied together in a human impulse, where, through reflection, we wish to understand our place in the world. That impulse manifests as a desire to connect to something larger than ourselves. Both spiritual and religious practices tie this impulse into what is commonly referred to as practice. Simply put, this practice is not only the techniques we use in our spiritual inquiry, but how we express what we have learned there.

The culmination of this kind of spiritual and religious study is an understanding beyond our self-image, and why this understanding is truer and more reflective of reality as a result. Many traditions have emphasized this understanding, such as the Kabbalistic map of God and the complete human; Christian kenosis and rebirth in Christ’s love; or Buddhist emphases on human action. These maps all seem to converge around deeper human awareness, how to access that, and how to ultimately transform human behavior.

This kind of analysis is found in the book Symbols of the Kabbalah by Sanford Drob, also discussed in my previous post. His excellent analysis involves the Sefirot, the Kabbalistic aspects of God’s nature. The process of the Sefirot also describes the individual contribution to something higher than oneself. This interpretation revolves around the last triad on the Sefirot, Netzach or “Endurance,” Hod or “Splendor,” and Yesod, “Foundation.” Since Netzach and Hod are understood as the “legs” on the Sefirot that correspond to the body of God, they correspond to the material expression of divine potential that hold this process aloft.

From a psychological point of view we may regard Endurance, Splendor, and Foundation as the cultural fulfillment of earlier, more individualistic psychological principles. This follows from the very names of these Sefirot; for civilization and culture are the very aspects of the human psyche that are splendorous and enduring, and which serve as a foundation for human communal life. It is not sufficient that we as humans have individual desire, intellect, and emotion; we must also build something of enduring value. Such cultural pursuits – achievements in work, the arts, religion, the family, society, etc. – are the human equivalents to God’s creation of the material world; for through them, as Hegel observed, the human spirit expresses itself and becomes concrete and real. Psychological (and psychotherapeutic) work does not begin and end with the harmonizing of conflict in one’s own inner life; it must extend to the achievement of a wider expression and balance in one’s work in the world, an achievement of something more enduring than the individual self. (225)

This seems to be what follows from the highest reaches of spiritual inquiry – questions of origin and identity, and what we can create with the time that we have. Part of this inquiry is the nebulous concept of meaning. Meaning allows us to ask and follow questions through which we can create our life. We therefore have a great deal of freedom in what we help create.

Making these realities also involves kindness, love, and compassion, which all converge at the nexus of spiritual and religious life. In the process of asking these questions, we become one with that massive outpouring of reality, and realize our connection to it, from which we are never apart.

Practice and Parenting

My wife and I had our daughter a few years ago, provoking a massive change in our lives.    Combined with shifts in my current job and my wife’s illness, I have been gradually assuming more responsibility at home.  I was no longer able to rely on old supports, which gradually kickstarted a process that would put me in limbo for most of the year.  Part of this process involved a painful interlude of inner work.  

This interlude has immeasurably enriched my meditative practice.  Being a parent is in some ways a close parallel for many of the things we can bring about through meditation.  It encourages a greater awareness of our connection to our fellow creatures and the reality in which we live.  It is also an avenue back to a beneficial perspective that many of us have lost.  We can discover this perspective at work joyously within our children.   

When I first began spending long stretches of time working at home and caring for my daughter, I noticed an internal resistance begin to surface.   I had an immediate recognition of some of the things that had come up in meditation, and an awareness that what I was going through was part of my conditioning.  In this conditioning I discovered how many of my personal habits were used to keep personal pain at bay.  Long hours of studying, reading, writing, and playing music were all ways of losing myself and escaping.  As a child, my days were wider and gentler, and my time was not always linked to the endless rituals of adult life.  Being asked to remember this fact and spending hours being present with my own child seemed foreign to me.  I could not endure the kind of time that my child inhabited so easily.  My inner conversations and reactions hardened into interminable days of struggle.   

Given enough time, this inner resistance softened, and parenting became somewhat easier.  As this resistance came down, I noticed some changes within myself that correspond to what I have observed in my own child.

Children seem to have a different order of time.  The day feels different with my child, and she has certainly taught me an extended sense of that time.  Instead of running from project to project, I am learning to slow down and settle into a slower timeframe.  Attached to this sense of time is an incredible sense of play that can transform any activity into a game.  As I play with her, she comes up with rules that we both follow that create the structure of the game.  She instructs me on how this game operates, and if I find myself deviating from the rules, she guides us back.   Part of the fun with these games is finding variations on them.  She responds to them totally in the moment, being both hyper aware and able to absorb and process large amounts of information. 

This sense of time and play don’t seem to be coincidental.  It seems that children have a recognition that many adults lose as we leave our childhood through biological and cultural changes.  Spiritual practice allows us on many levels to discover what we had lost in this transition and a chance to combine adult and childhood perspectives harmoniously. 

Another reference to this kind of experience happens in the writing of philosopher Georges Bataille. 

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Even thinking generously of this philosopher, the best adjective I can come up with is “fringey.”  Bataille thought comprehensively on a number of subjects including taboos, sexuality, metaphysics, and literature.  In his book The Accursed Share, Bataille describes how culture mimics the flow of universal energy, and the various ways that culture replicates the squandering of this universal energy.  Bataille has numerous perspectives across his works worthy of consideration.  In the same book (and in my interpretation, linked to our experience as children) Bataille describes the misguided nature of objects and utility, and how he connects this view with his own theory of energy:

The beings that we are not given once and for all; they appear designed for an increase in their energy resources.  They generally make this increase, beyond mere subsistence, their goal and their reason for being.  But with this subordination to increase, the being in question loses its autonomy; it subordinates itself to what it will be in the future, owing to the increase of its resources.  In reality, the increase should be a situation in which it will resolve into a pure expenditure.  But this is precisely the difficult transition.  In fact, it goes against consciousness in the sense that the latter tries to grasp some object of acquisition, something, not the nothing of pure expenditure.  It is a question of arriving at the moment when consciousness will cease to be a consciousness of something; in other words, of becoming conscious of the decisive meaning of an instant in which increase (the acquisition of something) will resolve into expenditure, and this will be precisely self-consciousness, that is, a consciousness that henceforth has nothing as its object . . .  More open, the mind discerns, instead of an antiquated teleology, the truth that silence alone does not betray.  (190)

Bataille’s shift is placing our focus on the this momentary expenditure of energy, done for its own sake and not restricting it within any future end.  He makes a very profound point here about the typical human way of approaching problems, and the separation that takes place as a result.  This approach consists of using the mind to split experience apart into what we call objects, and then constructing additional approaches or realities using those objects.  With this ability humans engineer their environment in all sorts of concrete and abstract ways.  For instance, the label “house” is a certain configuration of matter.  The fact that we ascribe the mental designation of “house”  to this reality allows us new approaches to the reality of “house” and have a mental file of dealing with these kind of objects, from intended use to social etiquette.  However, we can also break this kind of thinking, and use this “house” beyond its intended use and build something else out of it. 

Seeing things from the level of a child is much different.  Children do not always limit things to their mental rank and file, and come up with amazing and unexpected solutions.  Like the games I mentioned earlier, these changes happen spontaneously.  This is also something that adults appreciate, but we tend to often equate survival with repeatability, and can often stagnate if we simply equate fulfilling our own needs with the purpose of our existence.  I think this is part of the point that Bataille is trying to make when he speaks in his works about intimacy with existence, although the consequences he draws from his views are taken much further.  He is discussing something that many humans no longer pay attention to in their quest to deal with the full realm of their mental objects and survive.

This brings me to my second main point about the spiritual aspects of parenting.   It has seemed to me, as I struggled with meeting my own and my family’s needs, that a larger perspective was in play.  It does seem that my daughter being born was part of this larger perspective, and that she is now involved in part of this bigger process.  In helping her growth and development, I am helping that perspective change into something else. If I pay attention only to what I think are my own needs, I may ultimately inflict some kind of damage on that process.    

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It is significant that the first Sefirah in Kabbalah is designated Keter (Crown) and associated with Will, which is what initially created the universe.  In Sanford Drob’s book Symbols of the Kabbalah, the author discusses a development in Kabbalistic thought called Lurianic Kabbalah.  The creation myth of Lurianic Kabbalah details how that in order to create the universe as we know it, God, after a sufficient “will” to create, had to “withdraw” itself and create a space for the universe to develop within its infinite presence.  This is called Tzimtzum.    In the book, parents also withdraw themselves somewhat from their children, in order to allow their children to become who they are.  

The Hasidic ethic, it would seem, implies an admonition that in relating to others, in particular to our children, we must first emulate the Infinite God and perform an act of Tzimtzum whereby our own thoughts and desires are contracted and concealed so that the other may emerge in his or her own individuality.  (150)

The challenge to this approach is knowing when to set aside some of our selves to allow our children to grow, as well as providing clear and appropriate boundaries.

Like the religious traditions, meditative and parenting parts of life enrich each other  when they are allowed to dialogue freely.   Being a parent has given me an entirely new perspective on my practice.  The love, attention, and presence that we provide for our children can also be given to the entire world, something that the great mystics and religious teachers have tapped into.  This is an avenue for us to enter as well, and an arena in which we can actually become what we have learned.

Zen Koan Discussion: “Linji’s Four Realms”

In the Zen tradition, koans are used as direct expressions of the truth of Zen. Examining the words of masters past allow koans to take on an awesome depth and join us on our inquiry to help guide us. Koans are a challenge to look at their truth for ourselves without turning away from our humanity. We can use them to come to our own understanding of Zen’s “Only Don’t Know,” an unraveling of our most basic assumptions and ways of looking at the world.

Looking at koans, I was initially confused and couldn’t really make sense out of them. A daily sitting practice has gradually shown me that koan answers are so precisely tuned that it’s easy to overlook them. Instead of molding koans to try to fit our expectations of them, we have to look at the koan and try to understand it on its own terms.

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The koan collection Entangling Vines, translated by Thomas Yuho Kirchner, is one the of the most valuable koan references I’ve found. It’s packed with intriguing details that enhance the original text, as well as a fantastic translation. I haven’t finished the whole book yet, but it has steadily become my favorite koan collection. One of the koans featured in Entangling Vines that struck me recently is called “Linji’s Four Realms.” After some biographical details, we’ll take a look at the main text of the koan, and discuss how it locks together to form an organic whole. Linji’s economy with his teaching is astounding, and he covers a lot of ground in a short span of time.

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According to Zen’s Chinese Heritage: The Masters and their Teaching by Andy Ferguson, Linji was the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen.

Linji Yixuan (d. 866) was a disciple of Huangbo Xiyun. Linji is a preeminent figure in the history of Zen. He came from the city of Nashua in ancient Caozhou (now the city of Dongming in Shandong Province). As the founder of the Linji school of Zen (in Japanese, Rinzai), his tradition remains, along with the Caodong school, as one of the two lineages that survive to the present day.
After taking the vows of a monk, Linji studied the sutras, the Vanaya, and the various doctrines that were carried on the currents of Buddhism in his era. Although he practiced under Guishan Lingyou, his enlightenment came about under Huangbo Xiyun, with the teacher Gao’an Dayu a key player in the drama.
 (173)

And according to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (PDB), koans such as these are extremely important to the Rinzai tradition:

[Rinzai was] one of the major Japanese Zen schools established in the early Kamakura period . . . After the decline of the Gowan monasteries, the Otokan lineage came to dominate the Rinzai Zen tradition during the Edo period and was the only Rinzai line to survive to the present. Despite the presence of such influential monks as Takuan Soho and Bankei Yotaku, the Rinzai tradition began to decline by the sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries. The monk credited with revitalizing the Rinzai tradition during the Edo period is the Myoshinji monk Hakuin Ekaku. Hakuin systematized the koan method of meditation, which is the basis of modern Rinzai Zen practice; it is also through Hakuin and his disciples that most Rinzai masters of today trace their lineages. (715)

The information on Linji quoted in the Ferguson volume contains a story about Linji’s interviews with monks Dayu and Huangbo. The first part of the story involves Linji asking for the dharma teaching in various ways. He only gets hit in response. I’ve included some of the text here for reference:

When Linji reached Dayu, Dayu said ‘Where have you come from?’
Linji said, ‘from Huangbo.’
Dayu said, ‘What did Huangbo say?’
Linji said, ‘Three times I asked him about the essential doctrine and three times I got hit.  I don’t know if I made some error or not.’
Dayu said, ‘Huangbo has old grandmotherly affection and endures all this difficulty for your sake-and here you are asking whether you’ve made some error or not.’
Upon hearing these words, Linji was awakened.
(174-175)

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Now let’s see the main text of “Linji’s Four Realms” taken from Entangling Vines:

Someone asked Linji, “What are the four realms of no-form?” The master said, “A thought of doubt in your mind and you’re obstructed by the element of earth; a thought of desire in your mind and you drown in the element water; a thought of anger in your mind and you’re scorched by the element fire; a thought of joy in your mind and you’re blown about by the element wind.”  Understand this, however, and you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go. You can appear in the east and vanish in the west, appear in the south and vanish in the north, appear in the center and vanish at the border, appear at the border and vanish in the center. You can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.  Why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions. (Kindle Version, loc  4848)

Like many koans, “Linji’s Four Realms” is structured in a question and answer format. In the first part of the koan, Linji is asked the question, “what are the four realms of no-form?” The question is used as a springboard to address Zen’s concerns in an honest and direct fashion. The question is usually set up to indicate that the student is looking for some kind of doctrinal answer, or is seeking clarification on some area of Buddhist doctrine. Linji twists this question around and breaks it down. The question also indicates the artistry called for in these responses, as the master uses the question to create something new and interesting, while still broadly reflecting the Zen tradition as a whole.

In the next part of the koan, Linji uses the concept of “four realms of no-form” and creates an outline based on the student’s question that uses doubt, desire, anger, and joy. This outline is used to show the student their own mind, and the consequences of thinking and feeling in certain ways. When we have thoughts of doubt, desire, anger, or joy, those thoughts suffuse our actions and we enact the corresponding state of mind. Since we have examined anger a little bit in a previous article, let’s use desire as an example of what Linji is talking about.

When we look into desire, several components of the experience come immediately to mind. There is an abstract longing for the desired object, in which we fantasize about situations with that object, and how by acquiring it we will make our current experience happier or more meaningful. There is a tendency, at least in my own experience, to abstract out the problems associated with acquiring and keeping the object. Desire perpetuates itself through any objects that exist at hand, and can readily shift between them. There is also a corresponding sensation that is stimulating or enthralling, like a compulsion that moves us closer to the object.

Based on this examination, we can see how when we fully give ourselves over to desire, according to Linji we “drown in the element water.” Once this happens, we no longer see the ephemeral basis of desire and drown in its elemental nature. Linji’s succinct analysis indicates that forms such as desire are unfounded, and in fact are empty as discussed in Buddhist texts such as the Heart Sutra. By showing us that emptiness is in fact the fabric of our own minds, Linji gives us the key to pulling down the entire structure. He ties this point into the last segment of the koan, how insight into this empty nature of thought helps us respond to change.

In the next sentence, Linji says that “you will no longer be tossed about by circumstances; instead you will utilize them wherever you go.” Once we see into the empty nature of mind and constant change, we no longer have to rely on rigidly controlling situations or relying on external situations for happiness. One of the realms of reality that Buddhism describes is the “realm of hungry ghosts,” in addition to “hell denizens, animals, and sometimes demigods or titans” (PDB, 677).  Read metaphorically, we are no longer hungry ghosts that chase after the ephemerality of our own minds. We become much more capable of utilizing the intelligence of situations to help others and ourselves.

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This is why Linji says we can “appear in the east and vanish in the west.” Understanding this passage was informed by my own deepening process of self-observation. Closely noticing my own behavior, I could no longer believe in a necessity to the way I did many things. My approaches were often limited and sometimes arrogant if they did not allow for change. For example, at my job my skill set was a mix of approaches built over time. Some of these I had fine tuned to deal with many of the problems that arise at work and take the form of flexible programs. Many others were subjective, allowed within the wide scope of the job but not correct in any absolute sense. Some of my methods seemed more neurotic, entangled with a variety of personal and idiosyncratic details and repeated only for their own sake.

Over time, I have used these insights to broaden my own situational awareness and change my behavior as needed. Within these situations a tremendous amount of potential exists. Knowing this can result in a much more childlike, playful sense of existence. We can do things that seem unlikely because we are no longer relying on following rigid lines of behavior. We can break out of these boundaries as needed while still understanding the value of rules and obligations to social life. After this, Linji says that “[we] can walk on the water as though it is land and walk on the land as though it is water.” Linji reflects this childlike attitude through playing with the concepts of land and water.

In the last sentence of the koan, Linji says “why can you do these things? Because you realize that the four elements are like dreams, like illusions.” It’s as if we thought that elements such as desire, anger, joy, and sorrow were the proper way to live our lives. We spent our time patterning things after their structure. But what if we want to experience a different dream? Can we see through Dogen’s “colors of the mind” to the thing that interlinks us all? Can we do this, through our own efforts and with the help of Zen students of the past and present?

Let’s pursue this question fully, with the help of koans such as these, to realize our true capabilities and our identity with the boundless universe.