Aetheric Mind

Zazen is not a way to escape from life by being mindful of something that is apart from the human world; it is the practice of being present in the real stream of time and looking directly at life itself.
– Dainin Katagiri

To learn to attend is a beginning. To learn to attend more and more deeply is the path itself.
– John Tarrant

Meditation is an activity that helps us clarify our own experience. In the process it helps us inquire into some of our deepest concerns. How does one practice meditation, and what does its experiences have to teach us? Since I am most familiar with Buddhist meditation techniques, I will focus on how its methods attempt to help us understand our existential problems. In a later article I hope to address how different religious traditions absorb and direct meditative practice.

Buddhist meditation encourages us to develop our attentional faculties to their fullest. As this attention becomes even more defined, we turn towards the bustling complexity of our bodily experience. We then temper this attention into a killing edge to slice through preoccupations of the self. Our incredible capacity for wisdom is unlocked through ordinary feeling and action, “carrying water and hauling firewood.” It seems that meditative attention gets us closer to a subtle truth that becomes too distant when wrapped up in human conditioning. When that habituation begins to recede, we may begin to have feelings of a cosmos that remains powerfully susceptible to change. A decaying, frightened shell is replaced with beautiful, emergent matter.

Buddhist meditative practice can be utilized in different ways. An outline that agrees with my perception of it is used by James Austin in his book Meditating Selflessly:

As Buddhist meditation practices slowly evolved from the ancient Yogic traditions, they began to train attention in two mutually reinforcing ways. The resulting generic categories are often described now as concentrative meditation and receptive meditation . . . [In concentrative meditation, we] make a mental note to monitor how consistently we can sustain our span of attention. In psychological terms, these are short-term tasks that exercise our working-memory skills. Concentrative meditation includes these several willful efforts to sharpen our focusing, select its target(s), modulate its intensity, and monitor its progress. Our choices are deliberate. We’ve chosen to concentrate on one small area while excluding all other items . . . In contrast, receptive modes of meditation are more nuanced . . . They are entered into by a more passive, non-doing open approach. [42-43]

Both of these approaches enrich each other. They constitute the same trajectory, pushing us outward. Human awareness cannot readily stay with what is present at first. It is more used to long-winded chains of egocentric and associative thinking. By narrowing our focus on certain parts of experience, such as the breath, we create routes for attention to return. Attention grows stronger the more we repeat this process, and with practice we find ourselves able to maintain that attention in the midst of the hive-mind’s insect chitter. This lets us learn to use our attention in different ways, and begins to bring that attention towards things we usually screen out.

In order to begin experimenting with focused attention, sit in a quiet room in a position that encourages a straight spine. Meditation cushions can be very helpful but are not strictly necessary. Do not exaggeratedly push your chest forward nor allow it to cave in. One can position their legs in a variety of ways. This includes a regular cross legged posture which is the easiest to adopt. Also available are the half and full lotus, where one or both feet are allowed to rest on the opposite thigh. Chairs or other aids are acceptable as long as they help proper positioning. You may have to work up to positions that are initially uncomfortable to you, but trust yourself to know when a posture is damaging you. Make sure that your hips are above the knees.

Begin to relax and choose something to direct your attention toward. The breath is often selected for this purpose and is very useful, but you may select other bodily sensations as well. There seems to be a difference of opinion on closed or open eyes, so find what works best for you. Although fantasies and thoughts arise, don’t follow them. Simply become aware of them and do not explore their possible implications. Go back to the focus when you notice that thought has engulfed your attention.

It will be necessary to do this often. You will quickly notice that your attention wavers frequently. The mind stays with the focus for a short time until a thought presents itself. The mind then quickly changes tracts and moves into abstraction. All meditators have experienced this in their practice. Continue the exercise as much as you can in the span of time you have allotted. Just as a musician must build their abilities through repetition, continually return to your focus. Give yourself license to experiment and enjoy yourself.

The next form of meditation to integrate with your practice is closer to “just sitting” or Zazen. We observe anything that arises as our experience without concentrating on anything in particular. Nothing is turned away. In the book Roaring Silence, a good description of this is: “meditation isn’t; getting used to is.”

This brings us back to the Tibetan adage: Meditation isn’t; getting used to is. When it is said that meditation isn’t, what is signified is that meditation is not a method of doing. It is a method of not doing. One does not involve oneself in doing anything. One does not instigate anything or impose anything. One does not add anything or elaborate anything. One simply remains. One simply maintains presence in motiveless observation. When it is said that getting used to is, what is signified is a practice in which one is simply getting used to being. One acclimatizes oneself to the undefined dimension of existence. We are unused to our own enlightenment, so meditation is a way of “getting used to” it. In terms of deep-rooted attachment to thought, one is getting used to nonreferentiality. One is getting used to being referenceless. (Loc. 938-950)

Sit in a quiet room in a position similar to that described in the attention-based exercise. Notice your own tendency to speculate, fantasize, and abstract from the present. Once this has gone on a short time, pull back on active involvement in your own thought. Observe the closed loop of thought, and start to shift your awareness to different parts of your sensory field. Try to detect everything, whether thought, emotion, or sensation. Learn all that you can about your own body and mind. Continue this way throughout the amount of time you have dedicated to sit.

The importance of this type of awareness cannot be overstated. It can give us an appreciation for how thought is only one element of our experience and need not take priority. The more we engage in meditation, the less important our thoughts ultimately become. Sensations become intensely as they are without any need for further description. Doing both of these forms of meditation over time also helps create a firm attention with which to notice personal sensations and patterns. Through attention you will understand the implications of how you help order your own experience. In doing so, you will begin to unseat such seemingly self-evident concepts as suffering and happiness.

We are encouraged in both of these forms of meditation to observe everything that we experience. One can notice, through disciplined recognition, that each phenomena that presents itself can appear similarly. Some phenomena instantly appear and disappear. Other sensations are similar to a wave pattern, in that the sensation does not stay the same over time while it occupies perception. There are distinct variations in that feeling before it fades. When you realize this, you are primed to recognize what are referred to as the “three marks of existence.” This triad claims that all things are “impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not-self.” This is a very simple formulation that is borne out as we become more aware.

Impermanence is to recognize that no feeling stays in one form forever and continually changes. Since these feelings are impermanent, they are unsatisfactory because they continually move from one state to the other. They cannot create a firm basis for what we take to be lasting pleasure or displeasure. We lay the groundwork for our suffering when we try to make these cascades and thresholds permanent. This is reflected in the concept of no-self, which shows that we cannot be organized into a stable self that is disconnected from this change. This self erodes along with everything else. We no longer need memories, opinions, or sensations to form a self who experiences. Experience then seems to unwind, obeying its own laws of motion.

Meditation can help us be more cognizant of how we reach out to effect the universe. This is a cornerstone for changing one’s attitudes in daily life.  Meditation also shows us our own existence, ultimately reframing our search for truth and meaning. Our task with it is open-ended: to continually be with everything that arises while finding effective ways to act. The simplicity and challenge of this type of practice is contradictory to notions of acquisition and spiritual progression. To borrow a phrase from philosopher Alain Badaou, it is “infinite and rigorous.” This is what has been referred to as the continuous circle of the way, your own life as it is continually expressing itself in the present. There is no closure to it which goes on for us as long as we live. Meditation can help corrode the distinctions we try to draw between it and the rest of life, until the two bleed together into just this. Seeing that reality is to return again and again in a spiral without end.

Shunya

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible.  Had you not seen it all from birth and bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part.  Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

     – Cormac McCarthy

 What is it the lurks beneath the apparent facade of everyday experience?  Are there terrors that dwell in the mountainous regions of dark matter?  Or is there a beneficent, all-loving God who has our best interests close at hand?  Upon looking inward, is there nothing beneath the unfolding of phenomena?  A cavernous void with no fixities?  These questions catalyze our inquiry, prompting our exploration of the world.

Searching for certainty, we may attempt to describe this reality and discover an island in a perpetually roiling sea.  In setting these limits, we also attempt to distill their essence into systems we create.  Thought builds a temple with the graven image of the symbol.

Global religion and philosophy have attempted to smooth the contours of the world, totalizing it and advocating for their own justifications.  Some religious movements and practitioners claim their personal holy book as the sole source of revealed truth.  Initiation into these schools of thought may amount to little more than absorption and regurgitation of doctrine. However, throughout their histories, many of these disciplines have had works that attempt to look seriously into the limitations of their own beliefs.  Some seekers have had experiences that diffuse reality beyond the grasp of human understanding.  Rather than aborting this procedure, and attempting to find an unassailable position for thought,  they follow this radiant outflow to its terminus.  They join with the rippling swells of the cosmos.

In Buddhism, this aconceptual experience of reality is termed shunya, which is translated as emptiness or voidness.  This points us towards an iconoclastic strain of feeling that prompts a complete revolution in our understanding of reality.  Through our questioning, and in the fruition of our meditative practice, we may come to feel this firsthand.  It is described and experienced as the total unfolding of the universe moment by moment, without any form of conceptual or experiential restraint.

This can completely change our philosophizing, denying the all-encompassing reach of human reason.  Reality undulates, unfettered by how the human mind carves up its experience.  It severs the necessity of our concepts and embraces the ambiguous.  Importantly, it also turns our lives, language, and experience inside out.  Our words and actions do not denote a separate abstract self or reality.  They become part of the original creation itself.  In the immeasurable and empty center of zero, existence spills into actuality, united by the circle’s never-ending line.  

In Red Pine’s commentary on the Heart Sutra, he describes the line in which Avalokiteshvara, Boddhisattva of Compassion, perceives the emptiness of all things:

Here, Avalokiteshvara looks at the skandhas and sees that they are empty, or shunya.  The Sanskrit word shunya means ‘hollow,’ ‘void,’ or ‘zero.’  What is hollow, void, or zero is the existence of a self.  But if there is no self-existence, there is is also no non-existence.  According to Mahayana Buddhism, this is the second greatest of all delusions, the belief that nothing exists.  Emptiness does not mean nothingness.  It simply means the absence of the erroneous distinctions that divide one entity from another, one being from another being, one thought from another thought.  Emptiness is not nothing, it’s everything, everything at once.  This is what Avalokiteshvara sees. 

 Emptiness also has parallels across many different religions.  Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, describes human concepts as being unable to measure up to God.  The graces of God become their own kind of language:

I can briefly summarize this copious introduction by saying that God’s speaking to us is nothing else but God’s becoming known to us through his gifts (gifts and inspirations, either of nature or of grace) that raise us up and irradiate our minds by his light.  This is utterance, speech and word in the most proper and pleasing sense; its exterior utterance, speech and word does not measure up to it.  (Classics of Western Spirituality, 115).  

 Rather than a basis in despair, emptiness is the fertile loam in which always begins.  It indicates that which has no name and perpetually overflows all our limitations, leading us towards the limitless.  I will explore this experience from two poles.  The first is how meditation and emptiness alters the human experience and enactment of language.  When language no longer denotes a stable reality, it liberates our actions to be truly situational and all-embracing.  It also releases us from accepting any conclusions to our inevitable and often necessary world-building.  Secondly, I will describe what happens once emptiness breaks down this linguistic experience of the world, which puts us more in touch with flowing truth.  The universe can then be said to not only be empty of any overarching concept or principle, but also empty of any constant form.  As said in the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.


 

One possible way of looking at the human process of conceptualization is that we partly operate on abstraction.  We create increasingly elaborate conceptual frameworks that we use to navigate and survive.  It does not appear that humans could do without these concepts.  They allow us to make useful distinctions between what is safe and dangerous, communicate this to others, and extrapolate from past experience.  Tempering these experiences into memories, we continually update our working models of the world.  These frameworks are what we constantly reference in our day to day life as something unremittingly existent or “real”, overlooking their largely provisional nature.  We can witness ourselves while we meditate as we incessantly label all experience.

We run into problems when we attempt to take these temporary frameworks and turn them into something static.  Some philosophical, scientific, and religious models encourage us to do just this: to passively accept the results of their search for truth as somehow given, omniscient, or permanent.  Concepts, while extremely practical and sometimes effective, seem to operate contingently and without the necessity to make them into eternal law.  Abstractions are a double-edged sword, screening out even as they allow us the ability to think.  The experience of emptiness seems to disclose something beyond thought that is always unfinished and processual.

In understanding the moment to moment arising of experience, we can see how concepts and frameworks remain incomplete.  Thought reflects on our perception of the past, and remains bound to it.  Conceptualization cannot remain in tandem with the speed of present experience.  This is increasingly realized during meditation as we attune ourselves to life’s constant development.  It always remains possible that the present negates all our old maps, and our understanding of things changes completely, making everything unrecognizable.

An excellent example of using language to express its limitations and point beyond itself can be found in Eihei Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra:

Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization.  Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source.  Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to.  Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this.  These are conditioned views.  This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at the corner of the sky.

Robert K.C. Forman, mystic and religious professor, has an extremely interesting account of how this use of language “deconstructs” our habitual modes of conceptualizing:

. . . I have linked up a perceptual object with a phrase or word in an automatic or habitual way.  This process is well documented.  When we encounter the same thing over and over again, we tend to pigeonhole it without looking at it in detail.  These are perceptual ‘automatisms.’  They allow us to save psychic time and energy and ‘see’ only what we generally need to see.  The categories in whose terms we ‘see’ with, our automatizations, are determined by our set, concepts, context, needs, etc.  On the other hand, some language serves to undo such automatized connections between words and perceptions . . . Sundering perceptual automatizations help us deconstruct perceptual experiences . . . Taking such expressions seriously, the key process in mysticism seems not like the horse of language pulling the cart of experience, but rather more like unhitching the experience-cart from the language-horse.  Mystical experiences don’t result from a process of building or constructing mystical experience, we’ve suggested, but rather from an un-constructing of language and belief.  It seems to result from something like a releasing of experience from language.  Some forms of mysticism, in other words, should be seen as decontextualized. (Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness, 98-99).

This realization allows us to reflect on our use of theorizing, in which categories remain subject to change.  Possibly seeing through the screen of words allows us to notice how they contrive human action.  They can prevent us from acknowledging the enormous diversity all around and within us.

Considered as emptiness, language becomes part of the ripening of all reality.  The one who comprehends this can use language in a startling and reflective manner, mutating it into new and diverse species.  It can be then used actively as a form of expedient means.  This is where language is changed into different patterns to fit the audience and can best serve the unique needs of each individual’s awakening.

Once a seeker has begin to experience reality in this way, the change in perception can be cataclysmic.  We see language in a different light and become its adept, deploying its capacities without ascribing privileged status to any single thought.  It is equally important to remember not to “get stuck on emptiness” as a concept.  This would hinder the way that emptiness encourages us to examine and render transparent all of thinking.  Once this happens, we no longer depend on habit and abstract conviction.

This removal of linguistic barriers prompts a changed view of the world.  Without stable abstractions to adhere to, the universe becomes a wild place, irreducible to any entity.  Signifiers such as emptiness, the universe, chaos, and God all seem to reveal this radical openness.  In the Zohar, a work of Jewish mysticism, God emerges from the enigmatic Ein Sof, meaning “there is no end.” Ein Sof is the zero through which reality is birthed, the infinite nowhere which is always becoming apparent.  The Tao as the mysterious source of existence has similar connotations.  A passage from the Tao Te Ching reads:

The valley spirit that doesn’t die
We call the dark womb
The dark womb’s mouth
We call the source of Heaven and Earth
As elusive as gossamer silk
And yet it can’t be exhausted

Many of these mystery traditions reference the “bright darkness” about which nothing can ultimately be said.  One description of this reality comes from philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, and his excellent work After Finitude.  His work details what is described as an “absolute that would not be an absolute entity,” or a reality which undermines any sort of stability.  The absolute is the cosmos in its perpetually shifting nature.  He describes this as “hyper-chaos”:

Our task was to uncover an absolute that would not be an absolute entity . . . The only absolute we have managed to rescue from the confrontation would seem to be the very opposite of what is usually understood by that term, which is supposed to provide a foundation for knowledge.  Our absolute, in effect, is nothing other than an extreme form of chaos, a hyper-chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be, impossible, not even the unthinkable . . . We have succeeded in identifying a primary absolute (Chaos), but contrary to the veracious God, the former would seem to be incapable of guaranteeing the absoluteness of scientific discourse, since, far from guaranteeing order, it guarantees only the possible destruction of every order.

 Hyper-chaos points toward a transmuting, nonlinear cosmos, a chaos not only limited to chaos.    These words that attempt to move beyond themselves draw our attention to a world that is free of these concepts and cannot be fully contained within them.  Certain Zen dialogues seem to reference this, with masters regularly confounding their students’ intellectual expectations.  In the commentary for the following Koan, this is called “intimate talk,” with teachers precisely pointing at the deep, profound, and mysterious reality of which they are a part:

Boshui Benren said to the assembly, ‘Normally we don’t want to confuse descendants by talking about what is before sound and after a phrase.  Why is this so?  Sound is not sound.  Form is not form.’
A monastic said, ‘What is sound that is not sound?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it form?’
The monastic said, ‘What is form that is not form?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it sound?’
The monastic would not say another word.
Boshui said, ‘Let me say that if you understand this, I will approve that you have entered the place.’ 

It takes time to acclimate to this lack of reliance on systems, symbols, and concepts.  Once we fathom this and harmonize it with our practice, it becomes a fount of inspiration.  Changing states of affairs offer countless ways to partake in what is.  It seems that “there is no end” to the novel and unexpected, in which life  can be felt as a perpetual source of realization.  Experience this infinity for yourself, engaging in the sincere expression of your being beyond all words.

A Hammer to Strike the Earth, A Scream to Rend the Sky

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing.   – St. John of the Cross 

A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’

Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky.  It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds.  Most of all, it is simply MuSimple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence.  It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories.  Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.

Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition.  Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold.  Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier.  The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.

The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality.  Mu only flows through our fingers like sand.  We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics.   The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.

In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.

In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible.  It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.  Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion.  – Georges Bataille

The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase.  The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed.  The trail veers off in uncertain directions.  We lift our gaze and look upward.  The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.

The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility.  Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives.  There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness.  Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience.  Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.

Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.

It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages.  Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge.  Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge.  Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.

Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere.  It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life.  The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions.  The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought.  Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :

The nature of all existence is change.  This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown.  This is the heart essence of Mu practice.  This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.

As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is.  It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.

Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.

Intrinsic Freedom

Bart: What is the mind? Is it just a system of impulses or is it something tangible?
Homer: Relax. What is mind? No matter. What is matter? Never mind.

We all have bloody thoughts.
– Deadwood

Sunk in a morass of thought, we carve out channels into which our emotions and actions cannot help but flow. We follow this endless swell out to sea, until we can no longer find the other shore, and at the mercy of mysterious undercurrents. Out of this inner infinity, vast revelations unfold and arise; shadows of thought fall upon our minds. Their tendrils snake into actuality, as we mistake them for something that demands expression.

Our inner lives trouble us to no end. When we finally begin to crack ourselves open, we begin to remember what we have forgotten.  Our anxiety only increases. Something stirs in the bottom of our soul and uncoils into the light. The endless dialogue of the self intensifies, disturbing images and thoughts bubbling up from the subterranean depths. Only when we have examined this vast complex for ourselves and immersed ourselves wholly in the miasma of our own thought can we begin to fully undermine the foundations propping up this self/edifice. We have denied our inherent freedom, lost in our own convolutions.

The first koan in the collection Entangling Vines is the penetrating insight of Bodhidharma and his sword of wisdom, entitled Pacifying the Mind of the Second Patriarch:

Huike, the Second Patriarch, said to Bodhidharma, ‘My mind is not yet at rest. Master, I implore you, set my mind to rest.’
The master replied, ‘Bring your mind here and I’ll set it to rest for you.’
Huike said, “I’ve searched for my mind, but am unable to find it.’
‘There,’ said the master. ‘I’ve set your mind to rest.’

Our minds are chaotic and unpredictable, spinning out ley lines of interpretation and conjecture. When we begin a meditative practice, we might feel that to master meditation, we must always quiet the rippling and cascading from within, until our minds are as quiet and open as a winter field. This tendency is still symptomatic of a much deeper problem of the denial of our fundamental truth. The rejection of that experience can be subsumed into even the most spiritual practice, as we attempt to deny our own lives in the service of perceived “higher-order” concepts.

To me, the crux of this matter is to go into the nature of the discursive mind.  This is the mind that is always ready to frame a situation in a particular way.  This happens so regularly that we have identified wholly with the products of this conceptual mind.  We react to our current situation with loathing, wishing to pull ourselves into another experience. The creativity of this mind is always exploring, pulling the novel out of the depths. This is an expression of our innate intelligence, and the basis for some of our deepest discoveries about ourselves.

We have framed this highly creative mind as a problem, and we are disturbed by what we find there, the realization that we are not who we thought ourselves to be. We implore a Master to still the multitude, to let us know peace from thought. The master allows us to inquire into what it is we have defined as “mind” and how we are actively interpreting this situation as a negative.  Rather than a mere surface reorganization of thinking, the master pushes us to go deeper.  We examine the space from which thought emerges and look without flinching into the abyss. Part of this process is the realization of our own vastness.  New aspects of our subjective experience unfurl until we have encountered our personal spectrum of light and dark.

For our willingness to experience whatever thoughts arise signals a radical overturning.  This is a desire to build our life on the rock of the present moment, whatever that moment may hold in store.

As the World Honored One was walking with the congregation, he pointed to the ground with his finger and said, ‘This spot is good to build a sanctuary.’
Indra, Emperor of the gods, took a blade of grass, stuck it in the ground, and said, ‘The sanctuary is built.’
The World Honored One smiled.

Expanding our awareness out of the endless churn of thought, we begin to see how thought arrives on its own volition.  It constantly frames experience in certain ways. We often reject these thoughts completely, shifting the problem onto others or onto the thoughts themselves. This arising is always free and simply as it is, with our insistence on defining this situation as problematic.  We feel the need to be liberated from this unlimited course, when liberation is always with us.

This can be observed in our meditative practice by allowing our ruminations to exist on their own terms. Even without our input, the mind is often a hub of unceasing activity, as opinions interlock into new forms. When we drop our attitudes of understanding the diverse chatter of our own minds as a problem, a door to the present, “the gateless gate,” begins to open.  Our experience and body are the key and the lock, widening the cracks and letting us breathe into and through our own constructions.

For this aspect of practice is simply to examine and point to our own mind, and the pathway to freedom is firmly grounded and expressed in our own experience.  The desire to quiet the mind and to be liberated from it begin to dissolve the more we shift towards understanding these thoughts on their own terms.  This includes and honors thought, but goes further in ways that thought cannot encapsulate.

Zhaozhou asked Nanquan, ‘What is the Way?’ Nanquan said, ‘Ordinary mind is the Way.’
Zhaozhou said, “Shall I try to direct myself toward it?’
Nanquan said, ‘If you try to direct yourself towards it, you will move away from it.’
Zhaozhou said, ‘If I don’t try, how will I know it’s the Way?’
Nanquan said, ‘The way is not concerned with knowing or not knowing. Knowing is illusion, now knowing is blank consciousness. If you truly arrive at the Great Way of no trying, it will be like great emptiness, vast and clear. How can we speak of it in terms of affirming or negating?’
Zhaozhou immediately realized the profound teaching.

And from Entangling Vines:

Yunmen said, ‘How vast the world is! So why do you put on your vestment at the sound of the bell?’

We have set certain limitations on experience, turning them into absolutes, and obeying our own blind programming. Your mind is originally pacified, and you are intrinsically free in the present. To see this is to see yourself, and your own mind, “set out in array.” This mind is entwined with and is an expression of this basis of all life.

On Suffering

The fluid contingency of the world pulls us in unforseen directions. As much as we try to cleave to sensations and abstractions, the world constantly overspills our self-created boundaries. Throughout our lives, we create a self-image, exiling what we feel to be “other.” Traumas, socially unacceptable thoughts, and unwanted emotions lurk in the interstices and borderlands of our experience. All of this coalesces into the human experience of suffering.

Buddhism has given birth to one of the most lucid examinations of suffering in human history. This deep investigation of suffering shifts the human organism towards awareness of the ever-present nature and acceptance of suffering. In looking into this matter, our awareness and life bloom even in the shadow of sickness, old age, and death.

In examining his own experience, the Buddha laid out several key concepts outlining his process of self-discovery. They state that humans suffer due to clinging to experiences that cannot possibly stay permanent in the face of constant change. When we focus and place a priority on pursuing pleasure and negating pain, we chain ourselves to this endless wheel of becoming. Humans select a certain set of experiences as desirable and reject others. The Four Noble Truths are thus not only a systematic examination of our desires for sensual pleasure, but of our desire to push unwanted experiences to the margins. In recognizing this aspect of human existence, we cease to needlessly add to our sufferings when our experience is inevitably ruptured by physical and emotional pain, as well as the unknown developments of our lives. We more fully join the stream of life and plunge into its torrential waters. The Buddha finishes by outlining his Noble Eightfold Path, tenets for cultivating this kind of awareness and bringing it into one’s life:

The Noble Truth of Suffering (Dukkha), monks, is this: Birth is suffering, ageing is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering, association with the unpleasant is suffering, dissociation from the pleasant is suffering, not to receive what one desires is suffering – in brief the five aggregates subject to grasping are suffering.

The Noble Truth of the Origin (cause) of Suffering is this: It is this craving (thirst) which produces re-becoming (rebirth) accompanied by passionate greed, and finding fresh delight now here, and now there, namely craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence and craving for non-existence (self-annihilation).

The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the complete cessation of that very craving, giving it up, relinquishing it, liberating oneself from it, and detaching oneself from it.

The Noble Truth of the Path Leading to the Cessation of Suffering is this: It is the Noble Eightfold Path, and nothing else, namely: right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

The importance of looking into one’s own suffering cannot be overstated. We can approach this deep question by a sustained and penetrating inquiry into our experience, to see this question laid bare for ourselves. We also go more fully into each experience of suffering, exploring its environs, probing its contours, its tastes and sensations. Here we discover a complex web of attachment and disavowal that makes up what we feel to be the core of our selves. Instead of perpetually running on the wheel of attempting to stabilize pleasure and avoid pain, and suffering when we inevitably fail to realize this, we begin to make a fundamental shift. This shift is increasingly out of the labyrinth of our own self constructions. This is the realization and possibility of freedom in our lives.

Equally important to the physical dimension of suffering is the conceptual apparatus that we impose on these experiences. The more we fully immerse ourselves in our pain, the more we notice how we change the meaning of that experience through interpreting it in certain ways. While continuing with my sitting practice, I began to notice how difficult it was to sit with my own pain. Upon looking at the experience myself, I not only noticed the physical experience of pain along with feelings of aversion, but also thoughts and concepts that flowed out of and reflected that experience. This includes conceptualizing the situation as negative or unwanted, and then feeding into the situation emotionally. This only makes the situation worse, as we cease to relate to the qualities of that experience and relate to and engage our gradually forming opinion of it. This is a spiral potentially without end as we stoke our emotional responses with our conceptualizing, feeding these aspects into each other.

The more we pay attention to this cycle, the more adept we become at subverting it and letting it go. We realize our complicity in our own suffering, and how our responses to it bleed out and affect the suffering of others. Changing the way we relate to our own suffering is one of the key insights gleaned from our meditative practice. When we can change this for ourselves, feeling each moment, we begin to notice how this shifts the patterns of our lives in new directions of acceptance, healing, and happiness. All our attempts to build rigid boundaries between the world and ourselves are doomed from the start.

The Great Way is not difficult
for those not attached to preferences.
When not attached to love or hate,
all is clear and undisguised.
Separate by the smallest amount, however,
and you are as far from it as heaven is from earth.
– Seng-ts’an

The freedom and contingency of the world and suffering are inextricably linked. We cannot pin down our experience into certain desired channels and expect it to conform. This is a living, breathing dynamism of which we are a part. Through the simple act of paying attention, we begin to open ourselves to that bottomless wellspring within our own hearts, and we touch the root and ground of our own existence. Through compassion to the rejected parts of ourselves we go more thoroughly and openly into our own suffering.

This compassion pulls us beyond ourselves and into communion with all humanity. This path of understanding the suffering bound up in our existence is the same path to liberation in this moment that we are all capable of walking.