Chaos and Void: Gnosis and Scientific Practice

Professor Farnsworth: And, now that I’ve found all the answers, I realize that what I was living for were the questions!
Fry: That stinks, Professor. Too bad the universe made it turn out that way and not some other way. I wonder why it did that.
Stephen Hawking: Probably magnets.


Science is a discipline that involves personal and social inquiry into the nature of reality. While having its intellectual forebears, it truly evolved into its own in the past few centuries leading up to the modern age. Searching for material truth has led humanity to develop sophisticated systems that parse cause and effect towards finer control and repeatability.

Science shares space with other fields of human knowledge that make concepts, attempt to explain natural phenomena, and provide experimental knowledge. These other fields include religion and philosophy. While its claims are often presented with the ring of authority, its provisional character is less apparent. The same factors that influence personal works are at play in science’s quest for accuracy, including accident, intuition, and material design.

One of the most influential philosophers in the way I conceive science has been Paul Feyerabend. In his classic book Against Method, Feyerabend outlined a philosophical attack on “homogenous” reality, and attempted to subvert reductionist approaches to science and life. In the beginning “sketch of the main argument,” he said:

Science is essentially anarchistic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives. This is shown both by an examination of historical episodes and by an abstract analysis of the relation between idea and action. The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes. For example, we may use hypotheses that contradict well-confirmed theories and/or well-established experimental results. We may advance science by proceeding counterinductively . . . Neither science nor rationality are universal measures of excellence. They are particular traditions, unaware of their historical grounding. Yet is is possible to evaluate standards of rationality and to improve them. The principles of improvement are neither above tradition nor beyond change and it is impossible to nail them down.

Feyerabend refers to this methodology as “ad hoc,” and this opportunisitic approach to explaining cause and effect relationships has a lot to offer us. It envisions a kind of science in which all things are open to interpretation, experimentation, and meaning.

The experiment is often the nexus of scientific practice.  There are many factors that can affect how scientific experiments are designed and their results reported. These factors can include the subjects used in the experiments, intended applicability of the results, current limits of technology, use of materials and how they are set up within the system, how those materials interact, and the interpretation and assumptions of the scientists involved.

These assumptions can be particularly important for our investigation of scientific practice. Many times our theories are the best approximations we can make of complex phenomena, and those approximations allow us to make certain predictions and material designs. We also have to consider the use of the data we are working with. This is a strength of the practice as well as a weakness: what our data may lack in completeness allows us to manipulate the experiment more effectively. However, we should not confuse this with any kind of “ultimate” truth. The Wikipedia article for fluid dynamics states:

In addition to the above, fluids are assumed to obey the continuum assumption. Fluids are composed of molecules that collide with one another and solid objects. However, the continuum assumption assumes that fluids are continuous, rather than discrete. Consequently, it is assumed that properties such as density, pressure, temperature, and flow velocity are well-defined at infinitesimally small points in space and vary continuously from one point to another. The fact that the fluid is made up of discrete molecules is ignored.

The trade off to making these assumptions is that scientific theories cannot possibly describe or account for everything. There are therefore multiple ways of doing different “taxonomies” of theory. How one organizes their information can affect the system in exciting ways. This is one of the first lessons I learned from the study of history – how the issues of perspective and assumption effect the kind of history we are writing. There is not necessarily one correct perspective in this regard. Manuel deLanda’s work A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History writes world history from three different viewpoints:  geological, biological, and linguistic.   All three are valid perspectives.

According to Amanda Geftner, a science journalist who wrote the great book Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn, we can’t really determine a “god’s eye view” of the universe in which there is one transcendent perspective for all subjects. She writes:

A participatory universe? Participatory, yes; a universe, no. It was one participatory universe per reference frame, and you can only talk about one at a time. Why the quantum? Because reality is radically observer-dependent. Because observers are creating bits of information out of nothingness. Because there’s no way things “really are,” and you can’t employ descriptions that cross horizons. How come existence? Because existence is what nothing looks like from the inside.

Earth is just one part of an incredibly complex, dynamic system that is continuously effected through interconnected levels. This generates questions that scientists are able to explore further. They are then able to make new creations by setting up interactions in ways that were not possible before. When we set up these interactions within experiments, interesting implications spontaneously emerge. These implications then have important bearings on how we can make and organize decisions.

Just as important for scientific practice are the moral implications of how one builds their world. This is where the importance of ethics come in, and which the spiritual attempts to address: the wider impact of human activity. For example, use of fossil fuel burning is beginning to shift, helping to drive alternatives to sustainable energy sources. While combustible engines are scientifically applicable, they are silent on the degree and morality of their use. This degree of use will also change based on present observations.

Spiritual practices, which aim at a gnosis that can’t be proven with science’s external instrumentation, attempt to put us more in touch with human subjectivity and morality. It is a knowing based on the fact of our own existence – and the profound questions that follow. It is a knowing that isn’t afraid of following those questions into interesting spaces for their own sake.

Speculating on why this might be the case – isn’t a universe in which constant discovery is possible preferable to one in which there are no longer any room for the subjective or idiosyncratic? A lack of transcendent law seems to be a way to make sure that each subject has the ability to contribute in their own way. This way involves participating in an unknown manner.  An episode of Futurama, from which the quote at the beginning of this article was taken, beautifully illustrates the necessity of unanswered and unanswerable questions to science.   Material answers point to the enormous question, also addressed in this episode, of why things are the way they are.

How we create life is a messy, complex, and unpredictable undertaking that cannot be revealed through only material concerns.  Following this undertaking requires luck, knowledge, and skill that develops over time, and in which we may need to dispense with to go forward.  Even a totally accurate theory may be rendered obsolete as the universe continues to develop.

This is because that universe is alive – breathing in, breathing out, and transmuting itself at every opportunity.

Evolution, Compassion, and the Human Mind

Compassion isn’t separate from reality. It doesn’t pretend to transcendence or an arid contemplation. Compassion and benevolence are part of looking at our own behavior and minds in the realities of everyday life. We are better able to change situations from within as we penetrate further into the various layers of human experience. The process is like excavation: further levels of awareness open up the deeper we go and the more we see. We will follow our minds to discover where they lead: down into ourselves, the depth of our predicament, and the depth of our amelioration.

Through my interest in philosophy, I have been exposed to many ways of understanding the world. Reading for this article was shaped by the political climate, including conspiracy theory.  (A good article by The Atlantic on conspiracy culture becoming mainstream can be found here.) Understanding these theories is extremely important, not only due to their reach through mass media, but also the keys to insight that they provide us. I see the limits of my own mind splayed all across these writings, with its false certainty, emotional justifications, and dilated belief systems. It ensures that humans continue to partition others, and then use violence, whether physical or verbal, to enforce these divisions.

‘We were out there and I seen a lot of Communist flags and anti-fascist and we’re going to see more stuff like this,’ [Justin] Moore said. ‘White people are getting fed up with the double standard setup in America today by the controlled press.
We should have been able to go out there and have our protest and it should have been peaceful but it’s the anti-fascist and the communists…continuing to try and stop us,’ he continued. ‘So I think there will be more violence like this in the future to come.’ (The Charlotte Observer, August 15, 2017)

In contemplating these shared boundaries of the mind, coherent explanations began to emerge. I’d like to share them with you as possible explanations for the problems we encounter in statements like those above, their persistent yet illusory nature, and why meditation is such an effective way of seeing past these illusions. Once we see how limiting the mind can be in its reductive and constructive approaches to reality, compassion begins to start naturally manifesting. We see the traps we have fallen prey to, and that humans continue to repeat. The difficult task is doing this in the midst of the human situation, but with persistent effort we can create more effective and compassionate patterns which benefit the whole.


One of the most exciting developments in modern science has been examining human evolutionary history. When considering the idea of how humans initially started in smaller groups, and the realities of this kind of situation, many of the things that I observed in the mind began to make more sense.

Most likely, these small groups would tend towards fear of outsiders. Eliminating these outsiders would often be the safest course to prevent harm to the coherence of the group. The human mind deals with the dangers of this situation by readily stereotyping other groups. It also tends to split people along a nice dichotomy of “us and them.” We still find this attitude today in every form of racism and its justifications. This situation still tends to work its way into belief systems, in which this dichotomy is reinforced, backed up intellectually, and presented as if our racist inclinations are established fact.

Stereotyping others ties into the conceptual elements of group life. Being raised in certain cultures means that we absorb certain ways of understanding the world, which often affect our perception in insidious ways. These concepts are important in reducing the overwhelming detail of our environment to a more manageable “headspace.” We also use this ability in practical ways of identifying animals and other resources that are part of that environment. However, if we discount the individual in favor of these organizing concepts, we miss out on unique persons and situations.

Our emotions can also prevent us from acting cogently and with full awareness of these unique situations. Although emotions have evolved to fix certain kinds of problems, they often do not give us the best course of action. Anger is a good example of this. By observing this emotion in myself, it seems that anger helps to prevent others from dominating us socially, and helps us address inequalities in situations when being forceful is required. Anger can help with these problems, but its negative impacts are observable everywhere. These emotions can make situations far worse, especially since each person may have skewed and intense emotions from their own personal histories.

An interesting way of looking at the emotion of fear is outlined in this Nautilus article:

Those fears that are near-universal are known as ‘prepared fears.’They are not hardwired in the same way as the fears of sudden, loud noises and looming objects are. Nobody learns to flinch at a rapidly oncoming basketball. Prepared fears are innate, though, in the sense that they are genetically transmitted but require environmental input for their activation. The human fear system, in this aspect, is relatively open-ended—that is, it is set up for environmental calibration. The evolutionary logic underlying this design characteristic is as follows: Humans evolved to be adaptable . . . Humans quickly absorb local culture, including norms, language, knowledge about dangers, the sorts of things people in your culture consider edible or not, and so on. Learning, in fact, is an ‘evolutionarily derived adaptation to cope with environmental changes that occur within the life span of individuals and allows individual organisms to tailor their behavior to the specific environmental niche they occupy.’

This seems to be a good way of describing both the general patterns that occupy human organisms and the personal idiosyncrasies that can evolve in unique environments.   These are all characteristics of the mind that can be observed directly. I think that evolutionary theory is so far the best account for these human ways of thinking.  Without observing and recognizing the concrete patterns of human lives, we won’t be able to shed fresh perspectives on our perennial problems. Since these problems often have such intense cultural justification behind them, we have to look at the mind unflinchingly. This is where meditation practice comes in and helps us.

Buddhist meditation attempts to address the questions of how the mind structures our lives and consequently, how it creates a background of dissatisfaction and suffering to experience. When we sit in meditation, in the silence we start to recognize the familiar patterns that the mind falls into. We notice our biases and suggestibility, our opinions of others, and the play of our emotional life. We also might notice how excluding certain outcomes, and limiting diversity to what we have in our heads worsens the problem. It further reduces others, and the world, to the image we have of them. Since the world resists such easy categorization, we are doomed to sketching out the same outcomes and repeating the same limiting behaviors.

These patterns are something we may have always taken for granted: that this is the way the world is, or that they exist inexorably. With more meditation it becomes increasingly obvious that the mind directly constructs some of its own experience. It then gradually becomes easier to let things go or change things with more pragmatic approaches. Our patterns can be changed with the consistent, challenging work we do on ourselves.

Compassion is part of this process because as we notice these characteristics of our own minds, we notice them in others as well. We see how easy it is to be consumed by approaches to reality that make ourselves and others suffer. In effect, this has been with us since we were born, infiltrating us and reducing our ways of responding to this life. Instead of being separate, we all share a commonality that can’t be reduced to simple divisions of class, race, or ideology. Compassion acknowledges this common link and ultimately expresses it, changing the conditions of reality for others to respond to.

Salvation in Flux

And though it is like this, it is only that flowers, while loved, fall; and weeds while hated, flourish.
-Eihei Dogen

I sigh when I see learned men
Wasting their minds all day
Babbling away at a fork in the road
Deceiving whoever they can
Creating more ballast for Hell
Instead of improving their karma
Impermanence suddenly comes
And all their learning is dust
– Pickup

Impermanence means that our perception and experience don’t stay in one place, but always remain in flux. The fluidity of phenomena, self, and agency are painful, so we try to cling to the walls of the dilapidated house we have built for ourselves in our own minds. Failing to see this fact for ourselves, we enter and inhabit elaborate fantasies, looking for salvation in something beyond change. Impermanence guts our opinions and gradually corrodes everything that we believe to be true.

Our minds serve to erect a kind of illusion that does not take the fact of impermanence into account. It frequently tries to uphold a static idea of self. Archaic attitudes we are raised with do little to help this situation. They place us further inside the morass by attempting to give us stable definitions of words like “self” and “other.” Thankfully, meditative practice is an antidote to these limited ways of understanding. The more we sense instability, the more we are able to see on a deeper level than we typically perceive.

Nothing seems to fully inhere on that level of change as concepts, acts, and agents are plucked from the void and thrown into the stream. Seeing into universal change has implications for our freedom. It allows us to go into what we experience with an inquisitive attitude and open eyes. It is beginning to swim from a our own small tributary into something abyssal and endlessly fluctuating.

Flux allows things to bloom, as there is no possibility in a static world. Infinite openings exist within that watery confluence of events, allowing us chances to act, to change ourselves, and to help influence all creation. The more we penetrate through to the core of things, the more we find something surprisingly malleable and contingent.  Contingency and change in the moment allows new choices to be discovered and mined. Aided in our perception of that change, we can respond in ways that free ourselves and benefit other beings.

It is through an understanding of impermanence, and the doors to action that it creates, where we come to the edge of choice. Here is where we discover what it means to be truly moral. That moral choice is something that requires the entire arc of our lives to appreciate and fulfill.

Similar ways of understanding exist in the Kabbalistic masterwork The Zohar. As described in The Zohar, Torah is infinite. The central characters known as the Companions participate in what scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed describes as “the nocturnal delight.” Waking at midnight, this group makes creative interpretations of Torah. The Companions connect passages from Torah amongst themselves in incredible, gravity-defying ways. These connections reveal each verse’s secret meanings. In doing so, the divine is evoked and its joy in the good that the Companions bring flows into the world. Hellner-Eshed’s writes:

The engagement with Torah after midnight and the endeavor to participate, day in and day out, in the nocturnal delight in the Garden of Eden lie at the core of the mystic’s service and worship; and it is this spiritual task that determines his way of life and his soul’s orientation . . .

The following passage, one of the most detailed accounts of the nocturnal delight found in the Zohar, highlights the interconnection between the events transpiring in the upper world and those transpiring below. The souls of human beings, together with their words of Torah-the fruit of their thoughts and emotions-are transformed into a gift bestowed by the Assembly of Israel to the blessed Holy One.They function as an aphrodisiac arousing the union between God and His Shekhinah. The delight is characterized by the arousal of the entire reality of the Lower Garden of Eden-with with light, song, joy, and play preceding the dawn union.

Rabbi Abba said, “Now is certainly the time for the blessed Holy One’s desire; and many times we have been aroused by this, that at midnight the blessed Holy One enters among the righteous in the Garden of Eden and delights in them. Happy is he who engages in Torah at this time!” Rabbi El’azar said,” How does the blessed Holy One delight in the righteous in the Garden of Eden? At midnight the blessed Holy One is aroused with love from the left [side] toward the Assembly of Israel…. and the Assembly of Israel has no gift with which to draw near to the king, nor any important, excellent [offering] like the spirits of the righteous that the blessed Holy One sees crowned with many good deeds and many merits attained that day. And the blessed Holy One is more pleased with them than with all the sweet savor of the sacrifices and offerings. Then a light shines and all the trees of the Garden of Eden utter song and the righteous are crowned there with the delights of the world that is coming. When a person arises at that hour to engage Torah, he partakes with the righteous in the garden.” (Zohar 2:173b)

There is a connection between the “world that is coming,” from the preceding passage, the fluctuating present of the Kabbalists, and the Four Great Vows of the Buddhist tradition. The vows are:

The many beings are numberless, I vow to save them
Greed, hatred and ignorance rise endlessly, I vow to abandon them
Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them
The Buddha way is uncontrived, I vow to embody it fully.

Every night the Kabbalist restores harmony and creates blessings.  The world is always in need of the Companions’ righteousness. Similarly, every moment the Buddhist practitioner discovers truth and corresponding action. This is the opportunity couched within decay that flows into the new. The need to fulfill these vows, and to help heal ourselves and others, is never ending .

Exlibris – Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche


It’s time to take another look at ourselves – to re – enliven our sense of what it is to be human, to breathe new life into ancient intuitions of who we are, and to learn again to celebrate, as we once did, our instinctive affinity with the Earth community in which we’re rooted. We’re called now to rediscover what it means to be human beings in a wildly diverse world of feathered, furred, and scaled fellow creatures; flowers and forests, mountains, rivers, and oceans; wind rain, and snow; Sun and Moon.
– Bill Plotkin

Exlibris is the beginning of a series that highlights literature that aids us in self-inquiry. Many authors from a wide range of disciplines will contribute to our transformative work. I would like to focus on books that aid us in diverse ways, that help shape the ground of experiment, and that bring us into an engaged and newfound dialogue with the ideas these authors present.

Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche, by Bill Plotkin, is a rich psychological work that aims to bring humans back into the fold of a vibrant world. It is essentially a handbook for creating healthy lives and societies. Its harmonious combination of the personal and the universal make it an apt addition to our personal search for truth. Through it, Plotkin catalogues the intelligences that humans possess and describes how we can best utilize them. Using self-study, we become able to integrate these intelligences into a wholistic way of life. His way of describing the human psyche mirrors natural order, and returns our attention to the stunning and beautiful world in which we participate.

Wild Mind’s ambitious work touches each level of what it is to experience the human. It creates a taxonomy that moves between what Plotkin calls the Soul, the Spirit, the Self, and the Ego. He also breaks these down further into the different categories that make a complete human being.

The Soul is what Plotkin calls “a person’s unique purpose or identity . . . Soul is the particular ecological niche, or place, a person was born to occupy but may or may not ever discover or consciously embody” (13). Spirit reveals our oneness with the universe, “the universal consciousness, intelligence, psyche, or vast imagination that animates the cosmos and everything in it – including us – and in which the psyche of each person participates.” (13). The Ego is described as “the locus of, or seat, of conscious self-awareness within the human psyche” (14).

The Self contains different resources that an increasingly conscious person can learn to express in healthier ways. Wild Mind implements these as four directions that directly correspond to various psychosomatic tools. The intelligences or modes of the psyche allow us to look within and traverse their connecting lines. We then use that functioning to actively shape human culture. We will look at these directions individually.

The North represents the human instinct to contribute to the lives of others  and is called the Nurturing Generative Adult. Plotkin describes how this facet is ultimately grounded in love:

Love. All four facets of the self begin with love, are anchored in love. Yet each facet features its own favored form of love. The North facet of the Self is rooted in a nourishing and boldly resourceful love, like Thomas Berry’s for the Earth, a parent for her child, a devoted teacher for his students, or a true friend for another . . . The north, then, is said to be the place of healing, service, caring, and creative thought – in short, nurturance and generativity. (35-44)

The South includes our intuitive connections to nature and the Earth, and is called The Wild Indigenous One. Here the human finds themselves as part of the earth, with each sense contributing to a rich lived experience. The South makes us physically remember that our original face, and ultimate home, lies in this reality, this earth, and this body. As Plotkin says:

The Wild Indigenous One is sensuous and body centered. We are embodied in flesh and are in communion with the world though our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin, as well as through our indigenous heart and wild mind. (57)

The East is the Innocent/Sage, where we express compassion and wisdom. The East is a highly complex and interesting door to qualities that we often find mentioned in religious literature. The natural associations of the East convey a sense of warmth and vitality.

The east, of course, is where the Sun rises, granting us light after the long night. The east, then, is commonly affiliated with beginnings, origins, and birth, and also with illumination and enlightenment, and, as a consequence, with Spirit, too. Beginnings and enlightenment suggest innocence and wisdom.
With the return of the light each morning, we can more readily appreciate the big picture, our world expanding beyond the immediate fears and concerns of our contracted night-selves. The east, then, is also allied with qualities that widen or sharpen our perception or understanding, qualities such as the simplicity of the Innocent, the wisdom of the Sage, the humor (‘lightening up’) and transcendent brilliance of the Fool, and the Trickster’s gift of paradox. (88-89)

The West is the last aspect, and is called the Muse/Beloved. Here is the “fruitful darkness,” where we sense the full capabilities of our imagination.

By imaginatively romancing the world and its endless unique wonders – both human and other – we keep our lives new, forever evolving, and in so doing, we participate in the ongoing evolution of the world itself. But personal evolution – individuation – necessitates a periodic reshaping of our lives that is often deeply challenging. By opening our hearts and imaginations to the daily mysteries, a romance with the world upsets our routines, making us vulnerable to the great changes destined in our Souls and in the Soul of the world, the anima mundi.
The West, then, is not only the place of romance but also the change place, the dimension of our human psyches that seeks and savors ecstatic and troubling transformations. (97-98)

Plotkin follows up this discussion with sections on what he calls the “subpersonalities.” Each direction receives a subpersonality which represents an unhealthy mode of functioning for that particular direction. They exist as that direction’s inverse and when we act from them, they prevent us from functioning in adaptive ways and turn us stagnant and neurotic. These subpersonalities are Loyal Soldiers, Wounded Children, Addicts and Escapists, and the Shadow and Shadow Selves, respectively.

One of the most welcome things that Wild Mind offers is the inclusion of exercises that develop each of these directions, as well as bringing attention to each of the subpersonalities. Integrating these personalities is imperative for achieving a more complete self-understanding.  The directions Plotkin gives are extensive and excellent and make this book even more useful. An example of this type of exercise is mentioned in the chapter on the South side, The Wild Indigenous One:

At any moment of the day, whether you’re at work in the shop or office or garden, at play on the field or court, at home with your family, or en route between one or the other, remind yourself of your wild, sensuous, emotive, and erotic indigenity. As you re-member yourself in this way, what do you notice about the way you physically move through your activities? What shifts do you notice in your relationships? What now feels most alluring or compelling? How’s it feel to be in your body? In your animate surroundings? What emotions are viscerally present? How’s it feel to be immersed in the land? Are you fully at home? How could you be more so? (69)

Framing these points as questions helps contribute to the book’s inclusiveness. Each person is free to use Plotkin’s maps to aid them in their search and discover on their own.

Once a person manages to further integrate themselves, they embody what Plotkin calls the “3-D Ego.” We are able to access the 3-D ego the more we take the time to study its components. A human with access to their inner knowledge comprehends themselves on multiple levels – from the individual to the group, the societal, and the cosmic. Wild Mind makes this understanding into a blueprint that draws from each of its directions and incorporates it into many levels of the Self.

In a time where there is an increased consciousness about humanity’s future, Bill Plotkin’s book is a timely and necessary addition to psychological literature. Since the personal and the universal coincide, any changes we make in understanding ourselves have larger ramifications for our world. A psychology that attends to human needs and helps change our lived perception is a necessary ingredient for changing reality. Wild Mind provides a guide that helps us discover ways to understand ourselves, how we can fit into natural communities, and how best to use our collaborative resources.

You can purchase Wild Mind from the publisher here.

Radiance – An Excerpt From The Zohar



Instead of an original essay this week, I wanted to highlight an excerpt from my ongoing study of The Zohar. The Zohar is an extensive work in the Kabbalistic tradition. Three volumes in and it continues to amaze me with the beauty of its writing and the depth of its philosophy. On the surface it is a reading of the Pentateuch, with the author(s) extracting a mystical system from its pages. Going deeper, they twist and mutate its language into stunning new vistas. The amplification of Torah is part of the religious function of the Kabbalist: to contribute new blossoms to the Tree of Life. As The Zohar says in Va-Yeshev: So all depends on Torah, and the world is sustained only through Torah – sustaining pillar of worlds above and below (129).

This exemplary passage touches on familiar themes found throughout the book: the creation of the universe and our world, the darkness found within Eden, and its redemption.

Rabbi Hiyya opened, ‘A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless YHVH builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless YHVH watches over the city, the watchman guards in vain (Psalms 127:1). Come and see: When it arose in the will of the blessed Holy One to create the world, He issued from the spark of impenetrable darkness a single vaporous cluster, flashing from the dark, lingering in ascension. The darkness descended, gleaming – flaring in a hundred paths, ways, narrow, broad, constructing the house of the world.
     The house stands in the center of all, countless doors and chambers round and round – supernal sacred sites, where birds of heaven nest, each according to its species. Within emerges an immense, mighty tree, its branches and fruit nourishing all. That tree climbs to the clouds of heaven, is hidden amid three mountains, emerges beneath these mountains, ascending, descending.
     This house is saturated by it; within, it secretes numerous supernal hidden treasures, unknown. Thereby this house is constructed and decorated. That tree is revealed by day, concealed by night; this house rules by night, is concealed by day.
     As soon as darkness enters, enveloping, it rules: all doors close on every side. Then countless spirits soar through the air, desirous to know, to enter. Entering among those birds – who collect testimony – they roam and see what they see, until that enveloping darkness arouses, radiating a flame, pounding all mighty hammers, opening doors, splitting boulders. The flame ascends and descends, striking the world, arousing voices above and below. Then one herald ascends, bound to the air, and proclaims. That air issues from the pillar of cloud of the inner altar, issuing, it spreads in the four directions of the world. A thousand thousands stand on this side, a myriad of myriads on that side – the right – and the herald stands erect, proclaiming potently. How many there are then who intone songs and render worship! Two doors open, one on the south and one on the north.
     The house ascends and is placed between two sides, while hymns are chanted and praises rise. Then the one who enters, enters silently, and the house glows with six lights lustering in every direction. Rivers of spices flow forth, water all beasts of the field, as is said: watering all beasts of the field . . . Above them swell the birds of heaven, singing among the branches (Psalms 104:11-12). They chant till morning rises, when stars and constellations, the heavens and their hosts all sing praises, as is said: When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of Elohim shouted for joy (Job 38:7). (Matt Translation, Volume 3, 40-41)

As part of this discussion, we will look further into the first volume, which contains a reading of the story of Noah. In the next few weeks, I also hope to publish the first in a series of articles that look at useful works in transformational literature. Stay tuned.

Pleasure and Impermanence

Spiritual practices, like many other activities, can be a gateway to blissful sensations. Descriptions of these sensations appear frequently in religious literature, and helped spark my initial interest. An example of this type of experience is found in Aleister Crowley’s Book Four, where he lays out the foundations for his magical system and explains his own progress in meditation.

Finally something happens whose nature may form the subject of a further discussion later on. For the moment let it suffice to say that this consciousness of the Ego and the non-Ego, the seer and the thing seen, the knower and the thing known, is blotted out.
There is usually an intense light, an intense sound, and a feeling of such overwhelming bliss that the resources of language have been exhausted again and again in the attempt to describe it. (13)

It was hard not to be intrigued by these passages. Making my forays into meditation, I had experiences that more closely resembled heightened sensory states. I did not encounter the bliss that Crowley described here. I continued out of the possibility that these states were only the beginning. I could feel the effect of the practice as time passed, and I began to feel less anxious, more peaceful, and better able to cope with the stress of life.

As I discussed in my previous article, the floodgates truly opened for a brief time of around a month, and I had began to have increasingly pleasurable states. In the midst of everything that was happening they were confusing and disruptive. Even after things had subsided and I returned to my normal routines, something has happened with the practice and I’ve become much more aware of my own approaches to pleasure. These are not limited to meditative bliss. Instead, this change has become all-encompassing.

I’ve found that pleasurable sensations exert a kind of gravity and become bound up with our attitudes of them. In time, these attitudes come to reflect and reinforce them, masquerading as our own opinions and impeding us from changing them. We often repeat these behaviors endlessly, simply for the sake of repeating the behavior and without enjoyment.

Part of our culture is based on nurturing these feelings of anticipation and consumption. When we become addicted, an initial high is experienced and pursued, even though these sensations are ultimately unstable. In another post on awareness and developing meditative focus, we discussed the three marks of existence. In Buddhist terminology, these are defined as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. In examining pleasure and pain, we find these same qualities at work. A pleasurable sensation, for example, comes on, fluctuates across a certain spectrum, then degrades. All sensations are transient, and none can be a foundation.

I think we all realize how unsatisfactory this feels, attempting to pin our expectations on something so liquid. As focus improves, this makes more intuitive sense, and we notice these fluctuations more. There becomes little point to continuous pleasure or pain when they both change into the other. The more we comprehend that this is going on, the more we occupy a fulcrum between denial and excess. Buddhism often talks of a middle way, and this approach enjoys the pleasures of life while not turning them into something destructive and harmful. We are then entwined with a more judicious sense of pleasure.

The instability of pain and pleasure expands our capacity to enjoy beyond what we thought to be able. Rather than narrowly circling a few types of pleasure, once we see their impermanence, we can take increased delight in the broad palette of life’s experiences. Events unfold in their own way, and even what we consider unimportant has its own poetry in its expression. This includes the many small sensations in every day. All of these sensations contribute to the wonder and richness of this life. This is due to not making our usual hard-lined distinctions, which lies waiting in your own mind, ready to be unlocked by continuous awareness.

The Forge of the Path

Before we begin, I should clear up something that should have been discussed long ago. I am not an ordained teacher in any path. I have not been given permission to teach, nor do I have any experience involving students. My opinions are my own, based on years of meditative practice and research on myself. My writings should not be read as representative of any spiritual or religious tradition. They are given in the hopes that they might help people and give them some context for the spiritual and meditative paths if they are on them, or about to embark.

This context was something that was largely absent from my initial forays into meditation. I had begun to read books on the subject and made some tentative steps towards daily sitting. I did not begin going to my local Zen Center until later on. Due to my stubbornness, I had not studied intensively with a teacher.

Without knowing what I was in for, I persisted with meditation as it slowly began to change everything I thought to be true. I went on a short retreat, and began reading and studying even more. Eventually, I reached a point where something inside had reached critical mass, and I began a shocking and terrifying transition that would last for weeks.

This transition loomed and I entered what could only be described as total psychic meltdown. I seemed to experience a complete range of psychotic symptoms including panic attacks, sleeplessness, inability to eat, and agoraphobia. I also experienced a range of ancillary states, including oceanic feelings, overwhelming energy, and intense bliss. I began having suicidal impulses. I also became aware of what I sensed to be a primordial terror of some of the most recessed parts of myself.

These feelings are difficult to describe due to their intensely personal nature. Imagine someone cut open your heart of hearts so deeply that you could see every part of yourself inside. My lack of context did not serve me well in making this transition. Since my practice was largely self-referential, and I had not come across these experiences in my readings, I had no way to understand what was going on at that time.

I could no longer work, and lay in bed in fear. Somehow around this time I began to understand what was occurring inside me. I took up journaling, trying to put into words how I felt. It was like being on a bridge, with a drop into night below and darkness reaching up to touch the path on either side.

At this point I also began talking to teachers and psychotherapists, who all had different approaches to what was going on. My family was frightened for me, but was also genuinely caring and supportive. The teacher at the Zen Center referred to what was happening as a Crisis, and its associations of decay, collapse, and transformation stuck with me. He said that sometimes our self image is dropped in the practice, and sometimes it is burned away. This complemented what I was feeling at the time. As I did more research later on, I discovered how incredibly common this was for other practitioners.

Many traditions have described this phase in similar terms, with images of being forged, flayed, and remade. In this respect it becomes more than a mere metaphor, and describes an actual process of phase transition. The Crisis is a true test of our mettle, to allow us to open ourselves to all that is inside us, shattering our confines in the most painful of ways. The Crisis prepares us for an acknowledgement of our own freedom. It is our initial reactions and resistance against that freedom which cause us to enter some of the most protracted elements of the Crisis. The limited self we have built up only breaks down in its encounter with what is felt to be its other, as we digest these experiences.

I consider meditation and its associated trials to be some of the most significant events in my life. They healed me, returned my sense of freedom, prepared me for more fulfilling work in the world, and gave me the courage to try newer, creative endeavors. However, the Crisis is a frightening process, and sometimes people never return from it at all. In the book A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader, there is a brief discussion of mystical experience that very clearly emphases the dangers of these endeavors:

Our Rabbis taught. Four entered an orchard: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Asher [Elisha Ben Abuyah] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say, ‘Water, water!’ For it is said, ‘He who speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes.’ (Ps. 101:7)
Ben Azzai gazed and died. Of him Scripture says: ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.’ (Ps. 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken. Of him Scripture says: ‘If you find honey, eat only what you need, lest you be overfilled with it and throw it up.’ (Prov. 25:16). Aher cut down the shoots. Rabbi Akiva departed in peace. (B. Hag. 14b) (34)

In his associated commentary, the author Daniel Horowitz elaborates:

Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma are damaged physically and psychologically by their visit to the pardes; and Elisha Ben Abuyah is understood to be spiritually damaged . . . One must be fully respectful of the Owner of the orchard before reaching and appreciating such heights. Because of this, not only is he not granted a full understanding of the pardes [the orchard], but he is led further astray into outright heresy . . . Only Rabbi Akiva was qualified, sufficiently mature, or had properly practiced the various aspects of the journey; only such a person was able to handle the experience and come back . . . Later mystics suggests that one who aspires to this experience must be willing to approach a ‘curtain of fire’ to merit consideration for admission to the inner sanctum. (Ibid., 36-37)

I would be remiss if I did not mention the specific dangers of meditation. A quick search of the internet reveals numerous articles on the subject that are worthy of time and attention. If you decide to meditate, read this literature first. Go and talk to meditation teachers in your area and see if they have had difficulties from their meditation. Even if you can find one to help lead you through the Crisis, it is still dangerous, with a unique path to the self, soul, and God that you must undergo yourself.

Tread carefully.

Heart/Mind Practice

We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
– Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Your embodied practice is what separates an actual spirituality from intellectual exercise and speculation. It is the willingness to take risks and embark on turbulent seas towards something we’ve always been but haven’t known.

It is part of an ability to question everything and delve into what we have been taught to be true. Meditation aids us in this. It is a way to observe the body in a vivid and experiential way. Meditation brings up the frameworks, assumptions, and secret pains lying in wait within. Looking at the same tired cycles of behavior makes them seem less pressing; and things we took to be important are eventually seen through.

Meditation is a highly physical way of understanding yourself. Reading books on it and speaking with others are no substitute for it, although these are all important when joined to the practice itself. It would be the difference between reading books on a subject such as the Kabbalah, committing its many abstractions to memory, and climbing the tree of life towards union, seeing its concepts for yourself. Consistently returning to the cushion will convert it into lived experience.

We become better equipped to physically express the insight meditation offers the more we come back to it. Although a distinction between “inner” and “outer” is misleading, we can say that this insight has both an interior and exterior expression. The internal aspect is looking with clarity at ourselves. This is how we understand ourselves in a comprehensive and nuanced way. Our subjectivity is changed by our ability to take on the beneficial or harmful patterns we find. The external is the articulation of that interior choice. Although impulse and thought coalesce in many different ways for us, they may not bleed out into expression until we so choose.

In The Zohar, this choice is split in humans between good and evil. We are capable of great purity and defilement, depending on which position we decide. The harmful patterns we are capable of are expounded on as “the evil impulse” which defines every human since birth.

Rabbi Yehudah opened, ‘For He will command (mal’akhav), His angels, to guard you in all your ways’ (Psalms 91:11). This verse has been established: The moment a human being comes into the world, the evil impulse appears along with him, inciting him constantly, as is said: ‘At the opening sin crouches’ (Genesis 4:7) – evil impulse . . . who is called king, ruling over humanity in the world. ‘Old and foolish,’ for he is surely old, as already established, since as soon as a person is born, emerging into the atmosphere, he accompanies that person. So he is ‘an old and foolish king.’
– The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Volume 3 Pages 1, 85-86

Seeing through the evil impulse, and how much of it we have in common with others, helps us become more adept at choosing for ourselves. We can learn from other people’s mistakes, fully commit to our own, and make more lucid decisions. Wiser decisions and more compassionate living require time and skill. This gets easier with repetition, and adds another dimension to the meaning of practice. Like any craft, we must throw ourselves in.

Meditation is open to anyone with the time to give it. This is truly an intriguing premise that displays spirituality’s egalitarian nature. In his landmark study Mysticism: Experience, Response, Empowerment, Jess Hollenback claims that what unites mystical traditions is a practice called recollection.

Recollection refers to that procedure wherein the mystic learns to focus one-pointedly his or her mind, will, imagination, and emotions on some object or goal. This focused total mobilization of the mystic’s affective and intellectual powers, if successfully carried out, eventually shuts down the incessant mental chattering that is normally present as a kind of background noise behind all our activities in the waking state. Once mystics stop this process of silently talking to themselves, they transform their mode of consciousness and begin to have their first tangible encounters with that spiritual world that otherwise remains imperceptible to the five senses.

The great saints of the past have been dedicated men and women who progressed humanity’s self-knowledge. They did so through a more complete understanding of themselves. They had a baseline of recollection which they used to develop that understanding. Our searching of their religious systems helps our own practice grow. What we find is that their religious and mystical insights can be applied by anyone who marries them to their own spiritual practice. This is what separates any artist: giving their methods time and room to grow.

A change in awareness greets those who can make meditative practice part of their lives. As that awareness changes, it reveals our own ability to change in turn. It also opens new doors back to the profound. Ultimately, our practice will be transmitted through everything we do in our lives. Our bodies will become that practice, and we can better compose each new movement, along with the communal truth which defines us all.


Of Itself So

From birth to death, it’s just like this!
-Zen Koan

So much of the spiritual path involves trying to escape, to spend ourselves on the rocks of effort, to transcend time and space. We want to escape to a place without sin and where we can live forever. The answer that eludes us lies encased in a journey to the top of an inner mountaintop, filled with dangerous excursions, roaming beasts, and the real potential of insanity. If only we can master instructions provided to us, the veil will finally lift and allow us into the sanctum. Then we will know the secret, or acquire magical powers, or ascend to whatever place we feel we need to get to.

This often begins the start of the religious journey. The false Teacher or Guru may only be too happy to give us what we think we want. Their eyes shine like a shark’s, full of sleek and ancient hunger. They tell us what they’ve discovered and how they can grant it to the elect. Instead, they’ve only scratched the surface of their own obsidian core. In order to fully realize ourselves, we have to look squarely and intensely at our own desires, including the desire for enlightenment. It is this desire which spurs us on, eventually to be undermined as we look at the assumptions that motivate our seeking.

In philosophy, the word immanence is invoked in contrast to the idea of transcendence. Rather than any external, reality manifests through itself. Immanence is reality as it is here, of itself so.

It is difficult to find the right language to describe the relationship between dao and human beings. The dao is not external, so it is not a matter of getting or reaching it, and it is not an object that could be grasped. Since the self-so spontaneity to which dao refers is always present, what is required is a negative process of removing obstacles. Ziran is what remains if we free ourselves from striving and conventional goals. Thus this same process is described as wuwei 無為, which literally means “lacking action” but refers to giving up striving and effort. The Zhuangzi gives another example, the “fasting of the heart/mind” (xinzhai 心齋) that allows us to rely directly on vital energy (qi) and respond spontaneously to whatever appears before us.
– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


A religious teacher worthy of our time will help us explore reality for ourselves. Any claims should be greeted with investigation on our part. It is time we acknowledge that religious teachers are not chosen or above us. They have developed their own unique genius and can show us how to do this too. We merely invest ourselves in them, hoping for an answer even though we all remain in the dark.

The idea of a chosen few is an all too convenient narrative that works at cross purposes with the religious experience. It not only brings up the forces and structures that prevent us from accessing our own liberation. It changes us from constantly seeking something which does not include us, or which we lack and must possess, to dwelling in the thatness which is all things. This feeling is of an incredible span of intelligence which is part of all things and occupies the same ground. This incredibly subtle feeling continues as we meditate, until we find ourselves always “in the hand of the absolute.”

This is a problem with religions that claim we have to absorb baffling and complex ideas. Instead, they point our own reality back at us, “through a speculum that shines.” Seeing this completely has little to do with the opinions of others, let alone our own. How could the multiplicity of perspective, feeling, and the beyond be limited to the thoughts of our stinking skin bag?

The realization of the Buddhist patriarchs is perfectly realized real form . . . What has been called ‘forms as they are‘ is not a single form, and form as it is is not a uniform reality as it is: it is countless, boundless, inexhaustible, and unfathomable reality as it is.
– Eihei Dogen, Shoho-Jisso (69)

This is not an answer that can be taken by force, but attuned to closely as it is given freely. It is also not an answer that we can look to as separate from anything we do. We can see everything, let it unfold, and realize that unfolding. The moment is inextricable with all that you are. Look to it, and its profundity, as the ground from which you spring, like a tree erupting forth from space itself. It is just like this, the mysterious Dao, the powers of chopping wood and carrying water that no one understands.

Void Diagrammatics – Nagarjuna



When one link has been stopped, the link that follows does not manifest. And thus the mass of suffering itself is brought completely to an end.
– Mulamadhyamakakarika      

The human mind is capable of amazing feats of organization and complication. The concepts it utilizes permit a wide range of abstract thought. By abstracting, labeling, and categorizing, this mind is capable of making new and ever more refined behaviors. This ability has proven to be incredibly useful for humans in crafting adaptive cultures.

However, we also pay a price for this ability. Firmly situated in our concepts and traditions, we confuse our ideas with the cast of the absolute. Much of our thinking is influenced by an uncertain bedrock of habit and culture. Personal and collective madness ensues when we treat our projections as the sole criterion with which to judge reality. We become enamored by our thought and unable to assume other perspectives.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on personal investigation. What happens when every belief, word, and thought goes under the chopping block? Through frequent study and interrogation, the student can discover a lack of any fundamental anchor for existence, referred to in Buddhism as emptiness. Emptiness is elaborated on in the writings of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s philosophy is a sustained and penetrating inquiry into how humans understand reality. His works are a firestorm that raze our cherished gods to the ground.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Nagarjuna . . . Spoke of a middle way between the extremes of existence and nonexistence, sometimes also referred to as the middle way between the extremes of permanence (Sasvatanta) and annihilation (Ucchedanta). For Nagarjuna, the ignorance (Avidya) that is the source of all suffering is the belief in Svabhava, a term that literally means ‘own being’ and has been variously rendered as ‘intrinsic existence’ and ‘self-nature.’ This belief is the mistaken view that things exist autonomously, independently, and permanently . . . His approach generally is to consider the various ways in which an entity could exist, and then demonstrate that none of these is tenable because of the absurdities that would be entailed thereby . . . The purpose of such an analysis is to destroy misconceptions (Vikalpa) and encourage the abandonment of all views (Drsti). (562)

His analysis is found in one of his classic works, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Nagarjuna is a guide through the strange lands outside opinion, which he shows by way of meticulous critique. He removes the rigid underpinnings of thought, including such dualisms as self/other and observer/observed. Nagarjuna creates a chain reaction, and shows how liberatory consequences follow as we strip the concepts we use to the bone. An excellent example of the type of dialogue Nagarjuna uses is found in a lengthy examination of categories in “An Examination of the Aggregates”:

Separate from the cause of form, no form is found. Separate from the so-called form, the cause of form also does not appear.
If, separate from the cause of form, there were a form, this form would be by consequence without a cause. But something that’s without a cause is nowhere to be found.
If, separate from a form, there were a cause of form, this cause would be a cause without effect. But causes that have no effects do not exist.
If form exists, a cause of form is unacceptable. If form does not exist, the cause of form is likewise unacceptable.
Forms bereft of causes are untenable, indeed they are! And thus concerning forms, conceive no concepts of whatever kind.
To say the fruit is like the cause is unacceptable. To say the fruit’s unlike the cause is also unacceptable.
With feelings and perceptions, conditioning factors, consciousness, with all things, and in all respects, apply the same procedure as with form.
In arguments concerning emptiness, all statements made to counter it are not replies at all, for they exemplify the thesis to be proved.
When emptiness is set forth and explained, all statements made to show its faults, reveal no faults at all. For they exemplify the thesis to be proved. (Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, 15-16, Padmakara Translation Group)

Nagarjuna is providing us with a way of analyzing concepts, and showing how this can be used across all of language. Nagarjuna often begins with a category we typically use, in this case “form.” He shows how attempting to separate the words “form” and “cause” leads to disastrous consequences. There cannot be an independent form separate from the form/effect, which would be an acausal appearance from nothing. There also cannot be a cause that lurks “behind the scenes” without creating effects. Since he has shown that one cannot establish a preexisting cause for form, or an independent form without a cause, he goes on to eliminate other concepts that are linked to form in a similar way. This goes on throughout the Mulamadhyamakakarika, as Nagarjuna shows that even our most carefully constructed foundations are hewn from rotten wood.

It becomes clear from this type of analysis that these categories are socially useful for communication, but do not accurately capture the character of what we experience. Binary relationships allow us to sketch maps of reality, distilled into simplistic chains of concepts that allow the human mind to organize cause and effect. These concepts are easy prey for Nagarjuna’s wide-ranging explorations, as he uses linguistic tools against themselves, logically analyzing these conceptual maps and showing their inadequacy.   In an empty reality, everything mutually links with something else for its own conditions, and no phenomena can live an independent existence. We ascribe far more importance to our beliefs and preferences than they are entitled. We also habitually treat ourselves as if we are independent and try to manipulate reality accordingly.

Defilements, actions, and embodied beings; agents and the fruits of action are like cities of gandharvas. They’re like mirages or dreams. (Ibid., 58)

When we hold our assumptions rigidly, we create suffering. Part of Buddhist insight is to see into our own minds and how we create many of our own problems. It is our inability to notice the conceptual and meaning-making processes of our own minds that contribute to further suffering. Since no life escapes suffering, the way that we relate to it has important consequences. Nagarjuna’s texts are revolutionary in their ability to undermine what we think we know. Once we  have ceased attaching to our beliefs as intrinsic aspects of reality, we no longer have to suffer when things inevitably change. We also connect with the universe in ways that cut much deeper than superficial beliefs.

All human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home. – Kodo Sawaki, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (13) 

Humans have no unyielding position or identity in a changing reality. With practice at pushing our own beliefs and personal limits, we find an existence that does not accept reductive interpretations. Repeated observation and analysis yields a reality that does not conform to any concept we utilize.

The more I meditate, the more I feel that all language dissolves, and any kind of category feels like a mere shadow, a construct of a mind that cannot help but try to divide and conquer. Nagarjuna liberates us from our own minds, and in collapsing its edifice, he helps to reconnect us to everything.