An Exercise in Paying Attention

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Varieties of Contemplative Experience and the Meditative Marketplace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Silence – Our Original Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zazen

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

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

Wild Wild Country

This article contains spoilers for the Netflix documentary series Wild Wild Country.

My wife and I recently finished watching Wild Wild Country, a documentary series on Netflix that examines a controversial commune established by Osho (formerly the Bhagwan) and his acolytes near Antelope, Oregon.  Due to the commune’s recent formation, the producers of the show have a stunning amount of archival footage to work with, and manage to get illuminating interviews with many of those who participated.  The series is well worth a watch.  It is a detailed look at how communities form around religious teachers, and some of the sociological dimensions of these kind of communities.

I was not familiar with Osho’s work before watching the show. I was particularly interested in seeing Osho describe his efforts “trying to help people to be awake.”  His desire to freely explore subjects such as sexuality was important and remains so to this day.  He also had a palpable way of being with people which comes through in the documentary.  Not being there, I can only surmise what it must have been like to meet him in person.  Especially in today’s internet saturated culture, where spiritual writings and videos are instantly accessible, it must have been a unique and special event attending his lectures.  He no doubt introduced many to meditation that may not have practiced it otherwise.  

The converse of this is that Osho’s image and mannerisms appear contrived, and his community’s shrewd manipulation of financial currents demonstrated their ability to capitalize on that image.  Osho got his start in India, but after problems with the government, his community migrated to Antelope, Oregon.  There they began functioning in many ways as a religious state.  Christened Rajneeshpuram, it had its own law codes and police force.  One of the most striking images of the show is the commune’s acquiring and practicing with automatic weapons.  From this image emerges one of the most interesting tensions of the show, with reconciling the humane and compassionate teachings of spiritual insight with the exigencies of group living.  

Working at a corporation for close to a decade has impressed on me the need for a hierarchy in the day to day functions of the job.  Without officers within that organization who are managing the time and work of other people, and given the ability to enforce the organization’s rules, many shared tasks would be difficult to coordinate.  It would seem that in many ways we are highly sensitive to the flow of information within that hierarchy, and seek to leverage these situations in order to receive the benefits of power.  There is often a delicate balance in play between our own needs and the need to contribute to group survival, moderated by those in charge.  Those balances are part of the dynamism of group life.    

The questioning of core concepts involved in spiritual practice can look deeply threatening as it undermines the rationales of the group.  Since both leader and follower are connected and inform the other, hierarchies can be seen through as the practicalities they are. It’s hard to reconcile the desires for position within the group with an understanding of the interconnected and equal nature of all phenomena.  As the poet Ryokan has said:

In the landscape of spring there is neither high nor low.
Flowering branches grow naturally, some short, some long.

This is a challenging paradox, and one that is not easily resolved.  I noticed this frequently in the archival footage, as Osho’s group grew too large for the experimental ideas that it was founded on.  Osho seems to have given management of day to day activities to his lieutenant Sheela, and Sheela responded with maximum aggression. She intrusively monitored the commune’s activities, and even conspired to murder Osho’s doctor Deva Raj.  Watching Rajneesh member Mel Shanti B calmly discuss this attempted murder is one of the most chilling moments in the series.  Elaborate plans are implemented that involve giving food poisoning to the residents of Wasco County to influence an upcoming election, and bringing in people off the streets to grow their commune’s numbers to increase their political sway.   Osho was forced to leave the United States in 1985 under pressure from the government.

 

These tensions within the community are one of the most interesting parts of the show. There is a lot of footage of Osho demonstrating his status symbols, from an expensive diamond watch to numerous Rolls Royces. It appears that Osho is a typical human deeply enmeshed in the undercurrents of power that affect all human communities.  Osho seems to be caught in the middle and trying to have it both ways – being able to retreat into silence regarding the workings of his own community, while enjoying its support and benefits.   It’s difficult to see this in a non-abusive light, as the leader enjoys gifts, status, and food through active manipulation of social relationships. Osho did not emerge from silence until after Sheela leaves the community, but by then it was too late to salvage the situation.  In one of the most ironic moments on the show, Osho ordered the tenants of Rajneeshism burned.  This merely fulfilled the promise that helped begin the community in the first place. 

Watching the community grow and hearing its members individual backstories was another show highlight. I’m sure that there are diverse reasons for people wanting to join religious communities.  However, I’m also struck by the sheer amount of people who seem to be hurting, with lives full of suffering and loss, looking for a group and a practice they can call their own.  One of the most moving testimonies comes from Swami Prem Niren, a lawyer who joined Osho’s group.  In one of the show’s later episodes, he says that it was a place where he found “an experience of being loved and accepted totally for the first time in [his] life.”  One of the most interesting things that emerges from meditation practice is the ability to explore and integrate the traumas that afflict all of us.  These deep sufferings are part of all life. The ability to listen, both to ourselves and others who come seeking similar things, is paramount.  Since so many of us have experienced trauma, it can be incredibly meaningful when someone listens to us, responds with compassion, and helps us get to work on the things that need the most attention in our lives.  

Let’s learn from the example of so many religious teachers and not abuse that.

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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.

 

Re/activity

One of the keystones of meditative practice is an awareness of our habitual, encoded behaviors. These habits remain enshrouded in our past until we pay attention to the influence they exert on our lives. Although pervasive, there remain important openings through these kind of influences, including meditation. Once we become increasingly aware of ourselves, our meditative practice can truly take root.

One of the first openings I experienced in meditation was perceiving the continuous loop of thought. Without any intervention on our part, thought continuously propagates itself. The mind frequently calculates, fantasizes, and attempts to gain advantage. Thought has both verbal and physical components for us, which tend to follow and merge into one another. They influence and reinforce each other in countless ways. This means that thoughts arise out of emotion, expressing the content of those feelings, and vice versa. If we leave our thought alone, it tends to engage with itself instead.

Once I understood this more concretely, I noticed thoughts that budded off of other thoughts, establishing a separate internal dialogue. That dialogue was integrated with a desired self-image.  A negative thought was quickly countered with a positive one. This created a strange dissonance, as both thoughts were equally valid but I attempted to identify with one more strongly than the other as “myself.” The less desirable thoughts were encapsulated out. As my body reflected on itself, it attempted to establish a bulwark against any perceived negativity. That negativity was tied to some of my deepest fears and anxieties.

This internal dividing line we create is completely arbitrary. That was surprising, since I viewed my thoughts as produced by a self, and that those thoughts reflected who I really was.  Watching thoughts merely arise, expend themselves, and disappear on their own helped cause a complete restructuring of my understanding.

Both of these experiences began to loosen the hold that these sensations had. We tend to perceive these thoughts and sensations in sequential patterns, and then extrapolate from that perceived regularity. This pattern recognition helps our bodies make sense of how we describe ourselves to others and in our thoughts. We also do this with other people, and part of the social dialogue is an ascribing of attributes to others in the community. We circumscribe people with this image, which tends to narrow our focus and causes us to react accordingly.  Reacting to people as an abstraction is problematic, and we discard people’s (and our own) deep spontaneity.

Instead of merely taking whatever arises and engaging with it unquestioningly, we learn to sit with everything. Although this is a start to a long journey, this basic insight remains a crux of meditative practice. It allows us to see our tendencies and act against our own grain. Since we have learned how to sit with everything that comes up in our meditation sessions, we do not have to establish any kind of internal or external dividing line. We can see through these as needed. On a more integrated level, we are able to focus, pull back, and learn what these feelings reveal.

Knowing how the mind structures itself is part of understanding the human experience. With frequent meditation, we can displace our reactivity out of any given situation. Our reactivity is often simply a part of our own desire to be right and our habitual patterns of thinking. In letting these drop, we can listen with our whole body to what is being expressed. That often reveals a more beneficial path for ourselves and others. And when we see through our reactivity, we come much closer to an authentic compassion. Seeing the ways that we all become lost in our programming fashions us that much closer together.

Noticing this connective tissue with others allows us to see things in a much clearer light. Finding ways out of blind reactivity is something we can offer all beings, and show them different paths to take within themselves.