Zen Koan Discussion: “Linji’s Four Realms”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Foundation of the World – The Zohar, Parashat Noah

Due to the Zohar’s explicit usage of sexual symbolism in this chapter, this article may not be appropriate for work.  All quotations are taken from Zohar: Pritzker Edition Volume One, translated by Daniel Matt, unless otherwise noted.  

The Zohar continues to draw up secret meanings of Torah with it’s third chapter and analysis of the story of Noah.  Titled Parashat Noah, the beginning of the chapter focuses on a discussion of Noah, his sexual purity (he was born circumcised!), and how this allowed him to enter the ark.   In the symbolic system of the Zohar, the themes of righteousness and sexual purity gravitate around the area of the phallus on the sephirot, which is also described as the body of God. 

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In the Zohar, our level of reality is called Malkhut and is symbolically associated with the female.   Since Malkhut “receives” its energy from within God and its higher divine realms, it is characterized as female.  That flow of energy is given to the female, characterizing its expression as male. The give and take between these two realms is described in terms of a charged, erotic relationship.  Where does the Kabbalist fit into this schema?

Taking a cue from the passage “righteousness and justice are the foundations of Your throne” (Psalms 89:15), the mystic becomes an integral part of the libidinal system.  Since our reality has been divorced from blessing through human action, the mystic is needed to correct this imbalance.   Through righteous action and creating interpretations of Torah, the Kabbalist unites the discord between the masculine and feminine God, reestablishing an optimal flow of energy and harmony.  They are the phallic link between the upper and lower, and allow this relationship to reach its fruition.  

Noah is associated with this level, and Parashat Noah elaborates on how this phallic symbolism relates to its discussion of the Ark.  A feature of the Zohar is its reading of Torah on multiple levels that create wonderful connections among all its verses.  The Ark is also read in this case as Malkhut (or Shekinah, the “divine presence”) and once Noah “entered” her, he enabled a new generation to flower after the Flood. Noah, like the Zoharic mystic, is considered a “husband” of Malkhut, wrapped around her in a loving embrace, forever joined to her.  

Noah entered the ark, bringing with him every species of the creatures of the world.  Truly Noah was a tree bearing fruit (Genesis 1:11), and all species of the world sprang from the ark, corresponding to the manner above.  

Come and see when this tree bearing fruit joins the fruit tree: all those supernal species!  Living great and small; countless species, each one unique, as is said: Living beings small and great (Psalms 104:25).  Similarly, Noah in the ark, all of them issuing from the ark, and the world was established, corresponding above.  So he is called Noah, husband of earth (Genesis 9:20), Noah, righteous man (ibid. 6:9) as they have already established.  (Zohar 1:62b, p. 362-363).  

Drawing the reader further into its dialogue on evil and moral responsibility, human sin was what brought on the waters of the Flood.  Another idea that is expressed numerous times in the Zohar is that through human action, God’s expression is biased towards Greatness (Compassion) or Judgment.  God gave humanity time to redeem itself after Adam’s initial sin, but this grace period eventually ran out and God’s judgment devastated the world.  In Parashat Noah, the Zohar elucidates these themes through its telling of the story of the Companions, the mystical brotherhood at the heart of the Zohar’s exegesis. As two of the Companions Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose wander through mountains, they discuss the history of the Flood and its divine implications. In this dialogue, it becomes clear that the mountains are a grim monument to human sin:

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose were walking on the way.  They encountered the mountains of Kurdistan, where they saw traces of crevices in the earth dating from the time of the Flood.  

Rabbi Hiyya said to Rabbi Yose, ‘These crevices are vestiges of the Flood, preserved by the blessed Holy One ever since, throughout the generations, that the sins of the wicked not be obliterated from His sight.  For such is the way of the blessed Holy One: He wants the virtuous who do His will to be remembered above and below, their blessed memory unforgotten generation to generation.  Similarly He wants to the sins of the wicked, who fail to do His will, not to be forgotten, their punishment and evil memory remembered generation to generation, as is written: ‘Stained is in your iniquity before Me’ (Jeremiah 2:22).  

In the story of the Flood, God turned over judgment to “the Destroyer,” whose judgment was so immense that it cleansed the Earth.  The Destroyer is associated with the demonic, and when humans rely upon that evil taproot, it eventually corrupts and eliminates them. Evil in this sense is also linked to judgment, as its practitioners bring the judgments of hell upon themselves.  This interpretation allows for humans to take a place in the cosmos, choosing the blessings of righteousness or the punishments of sin for themselves.  

In one of its group dialogues on this subject, some of the Companions go into this further, describing how humanity’s sin ultimately caused the judgment of the Flood to manifest.

And I, I am about to bring the Flood, as we have established: to unleash the Destroyer upon them, since through him, they had defiled themselves.  

Rabbi Yose said, ‘Woe to the wicked who, having sinned, refuse to return to the blessed Holy One while still in the world!  For when a person returns, regretting his sins, the blessed holy One forgives him, but all those who cling to their sins, refusing to return to the blessed holy One, will eventually fall into Hell, never to be raised.  

Come and see: Since the entire generation of Noah hardened their hearts, desiring to flaunt their sins, the blessed Holy One executed judgment upon them in a similar manner . . . These wicked ones were obliterated from earth.  Obliterated?  How?  Waters gushed boiling from the abyss, rising and peeling off their skin, then their flesh, leaving nothing but bones, fulfilling the verse: They were obliterated from the earth (Genesis 7:23).  All those bones disjointed from one another, no longer together, so they were totally eradicated from the world.  (387-388)

A focal element of the Zohar, and part of what makes it such an engaging read, is its use of a central story to combine its themes and bring the reader through its rich interpretive processes.  The story element is particularly playful in the Noah chapter, with several characters coming and going.  The characters play with a variety of themes that include righteousness, judgment, and redemption that are hallmarks of the Kabbalistic story. They return to these motifs throughout Parashat Noah, building on them with increasing subtlety and grace. 

The Zohar also uses linguistic analysis to examine Torah on deeper levels.  This technique looks at the structure of letters and words in the Torah, and treats them as significant to understanding the divine story.  Since this approach describes a Torah that is infinitely rich in meaning, its analysis adds another level in which they can discover divine will and its secrets.

This element is frequently couched in the story element and is used to great effect.  While traveling in the mountains, Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yose meet a Jewish traveler.  The traveler proceeds through an exploration of the theme of judgment found in Noah.  Furthering on the Companions inquiry into the Flood, he provides a linguistic analysis of the use of the word “Elohim” in a certain passage:

When they reached the site of a certain field they sat down.  That man asked, ‘Why is it written: And YHVH rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24), whereas in the Flood it is everywhere written: Elohim, Elohim?  Because we have learned: ‘Everywhere it is written: And YHVH – this means ‘He and His Court.’ Elohim, unspecified, means Judgment alone.’  Now, at Sodom judgment was executed, yet not destroying the world, so He intermingled with Judgment, but in the Flood It destroyed the whole world and all those present in the world.  

Now you might say, ‘But look, Noah and his companions were saved!’  Come and see: Noah was hidden from sight, invisible! So everything present in the world It destroyed.  

Therefore: And YHVH – in the open, not destroying all.  Elohim – one needs concealment and must seek protection, for It destroys all.  So Elohim was alone.  (376)

Another significant dialogue is found with a child (interestingly named Abba, or Father), who proceeds to elaborate on further mysteries of Torah.  He uses a passage from Genesis that focuses on Noah after the Flood, and uses it to explore new meanings of the text. Emerging from the Ark after the Flood, Noah builds an altar and makes an offering to God.  To discover the verse’s secret meaning, Abba does a mystical reading of the verse, discussing how an offering done in this fashion quelled the divine wrath and allowed peace to return once more to Earth.  

Noah built an altar to YHVH, and took of every pure animal and of every pure bird, and offered ascent-offerings on the altar Genesis 8:20 . . . 

Of this is written:  They shall place incense in Your nostril (Deuteronomy 33:10), for fire returns to its site, and through that aroma the nose contracts inward, inward – till all is embraced, returning to its site, all drawn in toward thought, becoming a single desire.  Then (Reiah nihoah) a pleasing aroma, for wrath (nah), subsides, yielding (neyaha), tranquility – for smoke is absorbed, condensed in fire, grasping smoke, both entering within, within, until wrath subsides.  When all intermingles and wrath subsides, then tranquility, a single nexus named ‘tranquility’ – tranquility of spirit, joy of all as one, radiance of sparkling lamps, radiance of faces.  So it is written: YHVH smelled [the pleasing aroma], like one inhaling, drawing everything in to its site.  (412)

Unfortunately, the Flood was not enough to totally redeem those who came after.  The story of Noah effects another fall, this time from “the sacred to the secular.”  As we discussed earlier, this ensured that reality became more closely tied to the demonic serpent, and sin obscured the divine light.  And since Israel was not able to grant its blessings to the world and fulfill its cosmic vocation, Earth remained in its fallen state.  Furthering this turning away from God, the Companions discuss how Nimrod, “garbed in the garments of Adam,” used the power of the garments to draw worship away from God and towards other idols.  

Not even Noah could effect a redemption, as he was not prepared for what he was to find when he looked within the divine mystery.  Rabbi Shim’on, in typical head-exploding fashion, interprets Noah becoming drunk as becoming corrupted by the divine wisdom.  Since Noah was “saturated with the other wine” (or evil), his sons furthered this corruption and humanity’s fall.  Noah could not handle the divine energies he had unleashed.  The Zohar does justice to the possible corruption of spiritual practice, for when humans look within and are unprepared for the scope of their own freedom.  Moses was unique among the Patriarchs for his ability to explore the divine wisdom without becoming corrupt.  

Rabbi Shim’on said, ‘There is a mystery here in this verse.  When he sought to probe the sin probed by Adam – not to cling but to know, to mend the world – he was incapable.  He squeezed grapes to probe that vineyard, but as soon as he arrived, ‘he became drunk and exposed himself (ibid., 21), and was powerless to rise.  So, exposed himself, exposing the breach of the world that had been closed [by Adam].  Inside (oholoh), his tent (ibid.), spelled with a ‘he’: inside oholah, ‘her tent,’ the tent of that vineyard . . . Because the blessed Holy One brought secrets of wisdom down to the world, humanity was corrupted by it and sought to attack Him.  He gave supernal wisdom to Adam, and through that revealed wisdom he discovered rungs and clung to the evil impulse until the springs of wisdom vanished.  Afterward he returned to the presence of his Lord, and some was revealed, though not as before.  Later through that book of his, he discovered wisdoms, but then people appeared and provoked Him.  

He gave wisdom to Noah, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward what is written?  He drank of the wine and became drunk, and exposed himself (Genesis 9:21), as has been explained. 

He gave wisdom to Abraham, who thereby served the blessed Holy One.  Afterward Ishmael issued from him, who provoked the blessed Holy One.  Similarly Isaac, from whom issued Esau.  Jacob married two sisters.  

He gave wisdom to Moses.  What is written of him?  Throughout My house he is faithful (Numbers 12:7).  There was none as faithful as Moses: he performed on all those rungs, yet his heart did not stray into desiring any of them; rather, he stood firm in supernal faith fittingly . . . 

Come and see: With fragments of wisdom discovered by these people from wisdom of the ancients, they antagonized the blessed Holy One, built a tower, and perpetrated all they did – until they were scattered over the face of the earth, lacking the wisdom to accomplish anything.  But in the time to come the blessed Holy One will arouse wisdom in the world, with which He will be served, as is written: ‘I will put My spirit within you and cause you’ – not like the ancients who ruined the world with it, but rather: ‘cause you to follow My Laws and carefully observe My rules.     433-447

The chapter concludes with the building of Babel, when God realized that if humanity united with a common language and singular will, they could no longer be judged.  Therefore God broke up humanity.  This furthered the corruption of the fall, and humanity would not receive the revelations of Torah, and the Ten Commandments until Israel’s exile from Egypt and their experience at Mount Sinai.  

I’m five volumes in and the Zohar has slowly come into its own, somehow masterfully combining insightful analyses, poetic language, the erotic, the mystical, an interesting story, and a relentless creativity into a book like nothing I’ve ever read.  The Zohar is a peerless work of spiritual literature, and I’m looking forward to doing further essays, as close re-readings bring out the true wonder that this text provides at every step.  

Next up is Parashat Lekh Lekha, “Go You Forth,” the Companions adventures starting with Genesis 12:1-17:27.  

You can purchase the Pritzker Edition Zohar from Stanford University Press here. You can also purchase it from Amazon here.

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.

_____

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.

Radiance – An Excerpt From The Zohar

 

Zohar

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

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

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

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

Pleasure and Impermanence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Forge of the Path

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In his associated commentary, the author Daniel Horowitz elaborates:

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

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

Tread carefully.

Heart/Mind Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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