Archive | March, 2017


The source knows no distraction

Alan Watts said when we try to find the essence of mind, all we find are objects. When we try to find the essence of objects, all we find is mind. Searching for the essence of mind, we can only come up with ideas that we make into objects of mind, but they are not the mind itself. When we try to find the essence of the objects and notions we use to describe our ideas–including our idea of self–we cannot locate the essence of any of them. Any conceptual label we put onto objects cannot capture what is actually manifesting them.

As I gaze out my window at the trees in the forest, there is a sense of beauty and stillness. Does this sense originate and manifest in the trees or within what I label as my awareness, or is awareness itself manifesting both? Our concepts are produced by this mysterious awareness, the presence that we are, here and now. There is no real way to distinguish who or what produces concepts other than this very same awareness.

The same dilemma appears when we attempt to define concentration. Concentration presupposes not only an object of concentration, but an entity concentrating on an object. In contemplative practice when we try to concentrate, we may ask ‘who is concentrating’? What do we concentrate on? In long years of Zen training I was taught only to follow my breathing. Suzuki Roshi would tell us to follow our breathing until the awareness of our breathing disappeared. What he meant is to follow our breath until all self conscious effort disappears. Or to put it another way, while observing the breath, observe the effort that arises. Ask the question, “What is this effort, really?” If we try to find the essence of our effort, we only find concepts or ideas, what we think it is. Is my effort good enough? Should I be concentrating harder? Am I able to sustain an acceptable level of concentration? And further, what is an acceptable level of concentration?

I never lived up to my own expectations of how well I should be able to concentrate during meditation. Whether it was my breath or some other object like a koan or a concept such as the impermanence of all things, sooner or later my thinking mind would always find a way to do its own thing. My teachers were skillful in pointing out that to the degree I set up standards of concentration, I was creating an idea of myself as someone who potentially possesses special powers of concentration. At the same time, I naturally invented the idea of something external to myself that I needed to concentrate on. Buddha warned that if we conceive of the universal mind as an entity outside of ourselves, as some ideal, we should kill that concept.

So I was caught in an idealistic practice. Long hours of sitting on my cushion brought this idealism more and more clearly into focus, so I was able to see it exactly for what it was. Thus, self-consciousness can become an object of observation. In the process, we slowly learn to let it go. That which observes our effort is not bound by ideas of a separate observing self. Often this observing self is called the witness, the one who observes whatever arises in consciousness as it is–the one who observes consciousness changing into other forms. The witness is fully concentrated on witnessing. There is no effort . There is no intention to be concentrated. There is no idea of concentration, yet the concentration is complete and all-pervasive.

In this sense, concentration means allowing our awareness to move freely. Then we are free of the need to manipulate any object of awareness. The witness is benevolent. It does not judge. It allows our wandering mind to do whatever it damn well pleases. Implicit in this process is the invitation to join in the constant peaceful witnessing. Though we do not have to join per se, we are aware that the witness is there. In fact, to be present is to allow ourselves to join in the witnessing.

Yet it is unwise to make ceaseless witnessing into an object. The thought that we are already completely one with it is also just another idea. But when the effort to resist it stops, suddenly our undivided nature becomes obvious. Students sometimes say to me, “I’m trying to be in the here and now, but it’s difficult.” How wonderful that they begin to realize how difficult it is to try to be in the here and now. Trying to be in the here and now is like trying to see what is looking out from our own eyes. We cannot see what is looking out because we are the looking. In this context, when we know what we are, we are what we know. It is impossible not to be here and now. So when we exert ourselves and make an effort to concentrate in meditation, we disguise our resistance to the focus of awareness.

Awareness is the ever-present blue sky. We hide it with clouds, with rain, with our thoughts and ideas and efforts. How does one describe the sky? We can’t describe the pure focus of witnessing. The witness cannot be acquired or possessed. To witness means to accept the invitation to join in the free, wondrous, and spontaneous exercise of awareness.


I -Thou Relationship


You are loved, all beings are loved


Martin Buber mused at length about the I–Thou relationship in his existential writings. His thesis is that we define our existence by the way we engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with God. The I–Thou relationship is an inherent part of any spiritual path—though perhaps not by the same name, as it is an inherent part of being human and living our lives with other beings. In the context of spiritual practice, ‘I’ refers to the idea of a separate self, and ‘Thou’ refers to the infinite mystery of our source. Including both the personal and impersonal, Thou is a personal term.

In the Eastern traditions, the existence of an objectified God or Gods is ever in question, just as is our existence as separate entities. The question is inevitable in Eastern traditions: Is there really any I-Thou relationship between the creator and the created? If we can’t find an actual entity that is either one, if both are merely ideas and neither point to any substantial reality, do they exist?

I was recently reading a New York Times story about the current chaos in the White House. Also on the front page was a story about a Super Nova that astronomers were keeping track of. They estimated that at the peak of this explosion, it was radiating energy 100 million times more powerful than that continuously emitted by our sun. We can’t even begin to fathom the power of our own sun, burning 24/7 for billions of years. We all have some sense of how infinitesimal the transient events of our lives seem compared to the vastness of the cosmos. Our actual being is boundless and includes everything; what are we as separate from our inter being with all beings?

Any of our attempts to answer questions like this about the Mysterium Tremendum with our thinking minds only give rise to more questions. Each of us has the capacity to frame this type of question in a unique way so that we can actually live the spirit of the question in our unique lives. One way I relate to the mystery is to contemplate that the only thing we can know for sure is that we are. We are creatures programmed to make efforts, we make efforts to relate to other people, and are programmed to believe that we do have an I-Thou relationship with them. If we continuously and rigidly try to repress that programming to relate to others, we end up severely depressed. Depression means our energy is ‘pressed down’.

When we contemplate the boundless mystery of a higher power creating and dissolving us and all manifestations in the universe, we can easily realize that we are programmed just as deeply to relate to this power as an I-Thou relationship. If we try to repress this programming in our contemplative practice, trying to bravely face a purely impersonal higher power, we end up unconsciously depressing ourselves. We are then pressing down our energy of wanting to relate to our source with our full being, which includes our very powerful inherent drive to relate to a higher power.

Many people on the contemplative path have told me they feel a strong urge for having a devotional component to their practice, but are held back by the idea of relating to something outside of themselves. When we cling to this idea, we are solidifying and fixating on the idea of an I-Thou relationship; we get stuck in the confines of thinking God, or The Mystery can be located as an object of our thoughts. We repress the urge for devotional I-Thou practice to avoid getting stuck in our ideas about it. This is like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

To make use of devotional contemplative practice with an I-Thou component doesn’t mean to cling to or fixate on the conceptual form of I-Thou. In contemplative practice the I-Thou relationship is the relational aspect of spirit; it is how our actual life force, our energy, relates to our idea of ourselves. This relational aspect includes the energy of thought, like it includes the energy of our heart beat and the energy of our lungs breathing. But in contemplative practice, this relational I-Thou relationship can be an awareness of and witnessing of the energy of thought, without clinging to it, without making any meaning out of it, any more than we do with our breath and heart beat.  If we pray with and offer all of our love as our contemplation, the actual felt energy of the mystery will love us back while dissolving our clinging to anything at all.

After using contemplative prayer over the years, I realized I am not really attached to the form, the I and the Thou are not felt as solid or substantial entities. They are only more ephemeral thoughts arising and passing away. This is a way of using the I-Thou relationship, and allowing it to dissolve our attachment to it.

Key for spiritual aspirants in the West is to use devotional practice in a way that is unconditioned by the more fundamentalist and solidified I-Thou relationships of our upbringing, such as “If you forsake God and worship other gods, God will turn upon you and destroy you.” The true I-Thou relationship in the contemplative traditions is a melting of the solid sense of I into intimacy with an unconditionally loving being who knows our hearts from the inside. More and more, we are able to touch that place inside that is love. Ram Dass says: “It is being in love, really being in it, being bathed by love until it saturates your being.”






The Two Truths Doctrine

Two Truths Doctrine

Our evolution as spiritual beings includes successfully living in both the relative and absolute worlds without losing touch with either

When we address the problem of good and evil in the world and relate it to spirituality, what levels of truth may apply, and to what situations? In Buddhism, we speak of the realm of the absolute or the ultimate, the realm where all phenomenal manifestations are intrinsically one. And we speak of the relative, the world of differentiation. Truth is one in the realm of the absolute; truth is relative in the realm of the relative. In the realm of the absolute, everything is completely one with the truth of awareness. Therefore everything manifests this one truth in all its fullness, utterly complete.

In the realm of the relative, the terms good and evil, truth and untruth, are used to help us decide right from wrong, vis a vis coping with the difficulties of life. If we are stuck in the relative world with no access to the ultimate, we are easily bound and confused by our own ideas about right and wrong. We can suffer at the mercy of the desire and fear of our ego. If the ego is left to choose right or wrong, it will always decide on the basis of desire and fear, acting on what it perceives to enhance its own welfare. Even limited access to the absolute allows us to see others as we see ourselves, to walk in another’s shoes. We can see some common ground, perhaps a glimpse of our oneness, and with any problem we can come up with a solution that works best for both parties.

In the realm of the absolute, attachments of the ego are no more important than rain falling from the sky. Both are expressions of the one absolute truth. If the rain stops falling and the stream dries up, that too is merely another manifestation of absolute truth. The same holds true when our brains stop working, our hearts stop and our bodies die. In the realm where all is one, none of these means any more or less than another. We try in secular society, a relative realm, to work for the good of the many, the common good. Those who are predominantly selfish in their actions and who harm others for their own benefit are considered evil.

To mistake the relative for the absolute may be deceptively simple, but it can have huge repercussions. For example, Charles Manson had a saying, “If everything is one, then nothing is wrong.” A more accurate way to say this would be, “Yes, everything is one–absolute realm–and some things are wrong–relative realm.” Both levels exist simultaneously. They arise together. We can hold both in our awareness, and avoid getting stuck in either. Manson was stuck in his fantasies about the absolute, and apparently unaware of his own pathology. This cut him off from any chance to harmonize with the relative world. Unaware of his own dark shadow, he had a maniacal and savage way of acting out his central delusion, that he had a right to destroy anything he disapproved of. One could say he was profoundly confused rather than blindly evil. In the absolute realm, Manson’s confusion in a way was divine confusion. Still it was confusion.

In the absolute realm there is no evil, and Charley is no exception. But in the relative world, he was the epitome of evil and needed to be in prison. Our evolution as spiritual beings includes learning to live on both of these levels at the same time without losing one or the other. As Ken Wilber says, we transcend the relative and include it, we don’t transcend and exclude it. Meditation practice develops our stability as the ground of being, the realm of the absolute. This grounding helps us act from our own perspective while remaining stable in the unlimited perspective of absolute truth. The rigid distinction between the two realms gradually evaporates, while our ability to distinguish between them increases. Our own perspectives are more and more in harmony with the experience of the oneness of all beings. From this higher ground we can clearly perceive the depth of the agonizing pain caused by the Hitlers and Mansons of our race. Thus we learn to use the loving energy of a higher level of universal compassion. We hold the higher and lower levels together, and in this way we act in harmony with both.