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Opening to the Light

When we contemplate the energy of our thoughts streaming by, we can sense it expressing our awareness of being alive. Thought is always expressing our aliveness regardless of what content it contains, regardless of what we’re thinking about. I’ve found an important question for me in my spiritual inquiry is wondering if the energy of thought is separate from the energy of hearing, feeling, or seeing? The energy of our life force does express itself in these four different ways. But our life force, the energy of our awareness of being here and now, doesn’t separate itself into different parts. It only appears to when we cling to the idea of separation. Free of the idea of separation, separation simply can’t be found.

We can also use the analogy of the ocean and its waves to describe the interpenetration of our sensory experience. Thinking, seeing, hearing, and feeling are different waves on the sea of our awareness. But they are all equally wet. They are all expressions of the same spirit, and free gifts from spirit to our human lives. They can be used to discover the boundless silent power of freedom and love in the depths of our being. Usually our human life is full of restless wanderings wanting to secure self centered pleasures and avoid suffering by being a big important wave. We jump from wave to wave hoping to find lasting happiness and meaning in our lives. But the biggest tidal wave is no more wet than the smallest ripple on the ocean.

We will finally tire of the ceaseless crashes on the shore, and the endless search for the salvation of our personal identity, we will eventually lose interest in wave hopping. We’ll be ready to ask who or what is it that actually fuels our constant yearning? We begin to seriously lose interest in our imaginary story of how life should or shouldn’t be for us to be happy.

Contemplative practice is essential for almost everyone in helping us to realize we can’t find meaning in our life through the thinking mind alone. Contemplative witnessing reveals the open nature of our consciousness that expresses the life of spirit through all of our experience. We can begin to intuitively sense the interpenetration of our sensory experience, like feeling the sound of a nearby train flowing by , or feeling a blissful sensation vibrating inside us with the serene call of a bird. Normally we need a forceful intensification of sound before we notice this. For example when your teenager plays their music so loud that it actually hurts your ears! And if we’re open to looking deeply, even people whose primary way of processing information isn’t visualization, will see visual traces of sounds and feelings, as well as thoughts.

When we’re witnessing our experience of being a separate self, that sense of separateness becomes our object of observation. Allowing thought energy to merge and mingle with our energy of hearing, seeing, and feeling, develops our intuition of sensing our true source. This is letting go of what we think we are. This is allowing our conceptual identity to dissolve into the light that actually animates our life, and is always shining through our experience. We realize this more and more as our personal identity surrenders its demands on the ongoing stream of our experience.

If we earnestly and continually witness of our efforts at control, our separate identity begins to be felt and seen as transparent to the invisible light that makes all of our experience possible. That spark that drives us to question, to deeply inquire about the actual nature of our human aliveness is all we need to realize what we truly are. The spark of truth can’t be grasped, it looks bright and feels warm, sometimes very hot. It is the light of divine presence warmly welcoming us. The spark is guiding us, and at some point we’re finally ready to allow ourselves to be guided from within.

It can be compared to a burning stick of incense. The fire is our spirit of inquiry. The stick is our attachments to our personal mind and body, that are being burned away by the fire of truth. The smoke is like the mind trying to make sense of what’s happening. There is simply no way to conceptually understand how and why we are being guided. Our intuitive sense of the divine presence develops as we allow it to reveal itself animating us right here and now. Realizing our true nature, realizing the way things actually are, we simply are what we realize.

Ask for the light to reveal itself, and allow spirit to choose how to manifest to you. Infinite love can choose what’s best for you much better than you can. We all need to be become aware of how we are still resisting divine presence.  Allowing our resistance into our full awareness, we can then offer it to the light, where it is always being absorbed and transformed. Liberation is realizing our wetness, our timeless and spaceless drenching with the undefinable substance of spirit, the life force of all existence.

We can describe this as a shift of awareness, but on a deeper level it’s also a shift of identity. We’re shifting from identifying with the confines of an imagined separate being, to the infinitely vast awareness that is our true body, our true identity. The invitation is always here to allow the shift, we’re always loved and welcomed. Realizing we’re always unconditionally loved and welcomed, we can actually learn to love and welcome life unconditionally.

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Freedom of Thought

Thich Nhat Hanh’s 3rd mindfulness training is Freedom of Thought. To realize the inherent freedom of thought itself, we first need to cultivate mindful awareness of our thinking. We learn to welcome the experience of thinking with an attitude of acceptance. This frees us to witness thought as it actually is.
Then our inquiry naturally leads us to question, what is thought? We know our conscious experience is a continual stream of thoughts, our mind is always producing thoughts, just as our heart is always beating, and our body is always breathing. Thoughts think themselves, they don’t belong to an imagined entity we call ‘me’. I like to describe thought as a particular stream of energy flowing within our stream of experience that constitutes our aliveness. Our flow of experience is an intermingling of fleeting sights, sounds, sensations, traces and fragments of words, and ideas. They are all arising and constantly dissolving back to the source that is our awareness of being present.

One way to define thought energy is to say it’s the movement of our experience trying to label things. This enables us to talk about things as if they have a separate existence, an own-being with some essence or substance separate from other things. This is a very necessary aspect of our communication, and of our harmonizing with each other. However if we look deeply into the actual experience of thinking, we begin to realize thought energy doesn’t really establish any own being of anything we think about, or separate anything from the awareness we are. Thought is only an idea, only a movement of our aliveness. When we try to use thought to try and pin down what this movement of energy actually is, what thinking actually is, there is really only this movement of energy, this movement of the presence we are. Eckhart Tolle called it, “Seeing everything, seeing all thought as ripples on the surface of being.”

There is no real meaning in thoughts other than the continual flow of the ripples. There is no meaning in our attaching to the imagined conceptual content of the ripples. When this realization becomes deeply embedded in the muscle memory of our emotional life, thinking will no longer be any problem. And while our emotions may still be quite painful sometimes, free of the confines of thinking, they will also no longer be a problem.

We don’t really know what thought is, it’s a vast deep mystery. Being a deep mystery itself, how can thought define anything we see, hear, or feel so that they are less of a mystery? Everything in this universe is manifested by this infinite mysterious life force which is free of all labels. Things aren’t what we think they are. Not only are they not what we think they are, they are free of what we think they are. The absence of what we think about things, is the way they actually are. The absence of what we think we are, is the way we actually are.

Teachers sometimes say, ‘pay attention to the gap between your thoughts, how can this gap, this suspension of thought, not be your actual being?’ I try to label this gap by saying it is simply the awareness of being present, without the confines of any labels. It is what is always here and always now in every moment of our little lives, and it never changes. If we look a little closer, if we watch the stream of thoughts flowing by, where is the gap? The stream of thought energy is just an expression of the awareness that doesn’t change, and awareness isn’t affected in any way by the appearance and disappearance of thoughts; thoughts have never created any gap whatsoever. The absence of what we think about the awareness we are, is the way awareness actually is. There is no enlightenment other than this. A Zen master bangs his stick on the floor, shouting It’s just this!

When we are willing to deeply contemplate our actual existence in this way, our awareness is beginning to realize freedom of thought. It is not the cessation of the thought stream, but freedom from the confines of thought streaming by. We just let the thought stream flow as it wants to flow; that is all it is ever doing anyway. We are learning to be to free to use our thinking in service of our Self that we share with all beings. And we’re learning to be free from the compulsion to use our thinking to struggle with our desires and fears.

When we persevere in our practice of witnessing all of our experience, we will naturally begin to taste the freedom of thought itself, and the freedom of our real being, which is pure being. Suzuki Roshi said, ‘Purity is things as they actually are.’ Thinking as it actually is, is always arising and dissolving into and as the flow of our awareness. If we’re willing to continually observe this, to go with the flow, our awareness becomes informed by the whole of awareness, informed by the ground of all of our experience. We move right through the thought stream, into the vast quiet stillness and freedom of our true nature.

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Wanting Enlightenment

When we embark on a contemplative path committed to cultivating the Witness, committed to just witnessing our experience without consciously adding a conceptual over lay to it, we are following the path of least resistance. Many times I’ve encountered one obstacle after the next, and become aware that my resolutions have reached the point where I’m powerless to stop the impulse to struggle, to stop the resistance. During such times I’ve invariably received the counsel that if I would just surrender to the difficult times and allow the teacher within to lead, my problems would resolve themselves. The caveat is often added; such advice is meaningless however, since you continue to refuse to be led.

I still resist this teaching when I’m dealing with seemingly external obstacles. What has changed over time is there is now much more awareness of the futility of resisting the resistance. When we resist resistance, we now have another resistance, and more energy is put into the two resisting each other. There is merely an increase in the overall energy of resistance. Upon hearing this teaching, there used to be a voice inside me retorting, “I’m refusing to be led? Ok, now I firmly resolve to be willing to be led.” This reminds me of an old Zen friend relating the story of riding in a car with Suzuki Roshi in the late 60’s. He enthusiastically proclaimed to roshi, “I’m going to rededicate myself to your profound teachings roshi. No more indulgence in fantasies, no more indulgence in meaningless distractions, etc. He rambled on for some time, and when he pridefully glanced over to see roshi’s reaction, roshi was leaning against the car door, fast asleep, and beginning to snore.

So in contemplative practice, a recurring obstacle we will continually face is the deeply conditioned movement of the mind that wants to cultivate and preserve the separate self sense that now manifests as the endless search for the enlightened ‘me’. So much has been written about the use of drugs to induce mystical experiences, and how this aspect of our spirit of inquiry is conditioned by wanting to glorify the enlightened ‘me’ experience. This conditioned belief system we desperately cling to, the deep rooted belief in our separate bodies and minds being our actual substance and identity, isn’t this a kind of invisible drug in itself? With very few exceptions, aren’t we all egoholics stumbling around largely unaware of our addiction to personal gratification and suffering?

We’re often told that full enlightenment can’t be realized until we want nothing else; until there is a fully established centered quality to our prayer and/or contemplation that is no longer interrupted by any distractions. I watched the very first part of an Adyashanti video not too long ago, he was on stage being questioned by Tami Simon of Sounds True.  Adya had recently said, “I have very rarely met anyone on the spiritual path who reached the stage of no longer wanting anything else other than authentic spiritual awakening.” Tami inquired as to why this is so rare, the tone of her questioning and the feeling in the very large audience was one of how can we become one who no longer wants anything other than authentic spiritual awakening? I’ve been dealing off and on with this same dilemma for a very long time, and my questioning came to the point of asking myself, “How much can you actually want authentic spiritual awakening?”

When we relax and just become aware of our breathing, we can feel our breath breathing into and through our body by itself without any effort on our part. This power of our breath is a free gift from our life force, from spirit itself, asking nothing in return. Though it appears to want nothing, the power of spirit’s potential wanting is inconceivable. We ignore this when even in the most powerful revelations, there is still almost always the tendency to fixate on ‘I am this, this is what I really want.’ Only when that thought becomes, ‘been there, done that too many times already’ does the mind finally let go. I’m not saying this as someone who has let go completely. But it has become more and more obvious that my wanting to want nothing other than complete awakening, is wanting something else. This is still wanting some object of our mind, still wanting some idea of what complete awakening is that we fixate on. How much more liberating could the love and joy pouring through our being be, if the thought stream that is the little ‘me’ didn’t try to interfere?

Enlightenment experiences are powerful aids and milestones on our journey. However though they are partly experiential objects, they still are objects of our minds, and are meant only for the moments they are experienced. I still remind myself to let them pass by. This opens the way for us to more fully receive the free gift of spirit’s energy. And this opens the way for our spirit of inquiry to more fully flourish. Could it be that higher forces than we can conceive of are gently pushing us through the birth canal to finally be reborn as the truth of our being?

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Witnessing the Self Contraction

When we rest as the witness, rest in our awareness of being present, we simply notice the self contraction. The self contraction is our conditioned tendency to make demands on the moment, to want to control how the next moment of our life unfolds. So rest as the witness, and feel the self contraction. When we feel the self contraction, we are already free of it, we are already looking at it, instead of identifying with it. We are looking at it from the position of the Witness, which is already free of all objects. We can feel the self contraction, just as we can feel the chair under us, and feel the earth, and feel the clouds floating by in the sky. Thoughts float by in the mind, sensations float by in the body, the self-contraction hovers in awareness. And we effortlessly and spontaneously witness them all, equally and impartially.

In this effortless state, while we are not trying to manipulate any object of consciousness, but simply allowing the flow of our experience to pass by, self realization may more easily flash forth. There is nothing we can do to bring it about. The most we can do, by way of temporal effort, is to avoid the two major mistakes of making the witness into an object to manipulate, and to try and get rid of the ego, or self-contraction. If this is practiced diligently, and with earnestness, it will bring us to the edge, to the very precipice, of self realization. Our usual tendency is try and adopt this saying as a belief to hold onto, to cling to, trying to control our wandering minds. Just be aware of, and welcome this tendency also. In a way everything is contained in the teaching of the masters. But they are nothing if we’re not open to receiving and giving the fullness of spirit that the teachings are exhorting us to embody.

It’s like traveling on a train. On the journey we pass through large stations, many towns and villages. Everyone of these has been indicated in the guidebook. But what is seen between the different stations, can it all be described in full detail? The trees and plants, the animals and birds, the tiny little ants that are met with on the way, could all these be delineated?

Infinite is the diversity of creation, infinite are its modes of being, its changing movements and static states, revealed at every single instant. The true joy and freedom of liberation is found in witnessing and learning to fully absorb and enjoy the small details of life, as well as the seemingly more important events and teachings. This is the process of allowing identity to transform from the confines of personality to identity as the witness and simultaneous source of our experience. 

This is how we feel the loving support of the mother of all creation. There is a painful beauty to it all, allow the ideas of pain and beauty to dissolve in the flow. The pain is our embodied self contraction, wanting to separate from the flow. When we witness it, we can actually feel the embodiment. And we can actually feel the oneness of the embodiment of the self contraction, and the embodiment of our desire and fear. Offering it all to our mother, how can our tears of suffering not be transformed into the loving bliss of the flow of our experience?

Free of our ideas, we’re free to embody the realization that the flow is all that is ever happening. No longer confined by our self contraction, it’s so much more alive than any desires or fears. The acceptance and love is all we’ve ever wanted, it’s all anyone has ever really wanted.

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Witnessing Experience

The vast openness of reality can’t be known through the filter of thought. Reality knows itself by being here and now, being the present moment. Being reality, it is what is actually here and now. Being reality, it is our awareness of being present here and now. What is the ultimate meaning of our life as a human being? Being here and now is it. The analogy of a cinema screen if often used in pointing to the relationship between reality, or awareness itself, and its expressions. In the movie theater, we observe, we witness the many flickering images on the screen. We enjoy the movie to the extent that we are able to identify with, and get involved with the story on the screen. The pictures on the screen aren’t real to the extent that they are only light reflected on the screen. The screen itself is the actual substance and source of the pictures reflected on it. No matter how emotionally caught up we get in the movie, we know there is nothing real happening on the screen. The screen of reality, our awareness of being present, is the background and actual substance of our experience. Our seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking are reflections of the presence looking out from our eyes. Of course the cinema screen isn’t a perfect analogy. We can form a concept of the cinema screen. Reality itself can’t be caught by any of our attempts to define or perceive it. It is what makes defining and perceiving possible, but it’s free of all definition and perception.

If we learn to just witness our sensory experience, we can begin to develop an intuitive awareness of this spaceless and timeless presence giving rise to all our experience. Thoughts come and go, sights, sounds, and feelings come and go.  They arise as a reflection on the screen of our awareness, but pass away in the continual flow of our experience. That which witnesses our experience is there before, during, and after any particular experience passes away. The awareness we are doesn’t come and go with our experience, it is the vast timeless expanse out of which all experience arises. Just as the cinema screen effortlessly welcomes and is unmoved by the many pictures flashing on it, the screen of our awareness effortlessly welcomes and reflects all of our experience as it flows by.

In meditation practice we learn to identify with our awareness of just being present. Meditation can be described as the refusal to attach to thoughts. All of our sensory experience is colored by our thoughts. As we learn to become witnessing observers of our experience by not making efforts to control it, we can begin to sense the presence of that which is unchanging amidst our ever changing experience. The simple awareness of being present is what doesn’t change amidst our experience. We can’t try to be this awareness of being present, because we always already are this presence before we try to be it. In fact the effort to be it, blocks our ability to realize we are it. The first mistake most of us make in practicing meditation is to make witnessing awareness into an object to be grasped, whereas it is simply the Seer of all objects that arise, and it is ‘felt’ only as a great background sense of Freedom and Release from all objects. Awareness itself is free of all the concepts we attempt to label it with. So the felt sense of our aware presence, the feeling of our aliveness, is not the feeling of a separate self, it is the feeling, it is the aliveness of spirit itself. In meditation, and in living our daily lives, we are receiving, finding, and learning to live as the aliveness of spirit in the form of a human being.

Resting in that Freedom and Emptiness, and impartially witnessing all that arises, we will notice that the separate self, or ego, simply arises in consciousness like everything else. We can actually feel the self contraction, just like we can feel our bodies, a chair, or any other object. The self-contraction is a feeling of interior tension, often localized behind the eyes, and anchored in a slight muscle tension throughout the bodymind. It is an effort and sensation of contracting in the face of the world. It is a subtle whole-body tension. Once people become comfortable resting as the empty witness, and once they notice the tension that is the self-contraction, they imagine that enlightenment won’t happen unless they get rid of the self-contraction. Just that is the second mistake, because it actually locks the self-contraction firmly into place. It is the ego that is trying to get rid of the ego. Ego is not a thing but a subtle effort, and we can’t use effort to get rid of effort, we end up with two efforts instead of one.

We assume the self contraction hides or obstructs spirit, whereas in fact it is simply a radiant manifestation of spirit itself, like every other form in the universe. All forms are not other than expressions of the alive support and love of spirit. Spirit is our awareness of being present that we share with all beings.

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Right View

Right View

The first tenet of Buddha’s eightfold path leading to the end of suffering is Right View. Thich Nhat Hanh’s first mindfulness training is titled Openness. Both of these great teachers begin their map of how human beings can be liberated from suffering, and the illusion of being a separate self, with pointers to the fundamental nature of reality. Right view isn’t something for us to study exclusively with the mind. Buddha is referring to the actual embodied experience of life when we are open to seeing things as they actually are. The fundamental nature of things as they are is open. Have you ever considered the wondrous nature of infinite space? How can it be that no matter how many trillions and trillions of miles we could travel, we would still be surrounded by the same infinite, boundless, open space? And how could this not be the way things actually are? Whatever limitations we try to impose on space with our thoughts, at some point we can’t help but recognize their utter futility. There could always be something behind the thoughts. For infinite space, infinite consciousness, is what actually gives rise to our thoughts. The same incomprehensible reality is also true for time. No matter how many aeons we could travel into the past or future, there would still be the same infinitely expanding possibility of a limitless past and future.

This incomprehensible reality is always here. Being reality, how could it not be here? Being reality, how could it not be what has always been here, unchangeable in essence, in every single moment of our lives? What is it that has always been exactly the same at every moment? No labels capture it. The closest I seem to come is to say that it’s simply the awareness of being present. Have we ever actually been anything other than the awareness of being present? When we say I am present, what is the I other than an idea floating by as an expression of the awareness of being present? Right view is realizing that we are always the awareness of being present. When we realize this as our true identity, we also realize it is the true identity of all beings. So Right View is the view of our inter being with all beings.

We can have many intellectual insights about how we aren’t separate beings. But when the chips are down, and our deep rooted sene of separateness is threatened, we discover that on those levels of our being, we DO still believe we’re separate. This is the attachment to our personal views. The personal views aren’t the problem, but our attachment to them bind us. And they blind us, preventing us from seeing everything, including our ideas of our self, as they really are.

So when we are confronted with seemingly insurmountable obstructions, we need to first reflect back on the fundamental condition of reality itself. With the awareness of openness, we can begin to become aware of the confining nature of our attachment to our personal views. We can sit down in front of the obstructions, welcome their presence and begin to realize that they aren’t what we think they are. We can allow them to change as all things always do. We become more willing to view them from the perspective of openness, as not bound by our ideas about them. They are, like we are, expressions of the vast openness of reality. Snares and traps spring open when we’re willing to not offer them anything to resist.

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Removing Obstructions

I recently traveled to Boulder to visit my sister, and to attend a seminar there with my first Zen teacher from the San Francisco Zen Center, Richard Baker Roshi. He is the dharma heir of Suzuki Roshi, the most famous Japanese Zen master to live and teach in America, and the author of Zen Mind Beginners Mind. I hadn’t seen him since 1981, and I was really looking forward to seeing how we had both changed in relation to each other over the years. The first thing he mentioned was that he struggles with making the teaching relevant to his audience. He said after 50 years of being a teacher, for him the nature of the process changed over time, but doesn’t go away. I was immediately aware of a tendency in myself to hope that when I’ve been teaching for 25 years, that struggle will be over. I had to laugh at myself, after all that is kind of like hoping that with the all the struggles of parenting my boys up to now, the struggles will be over by the time they actually are full fledged adolescents!

The first Zen teacher I read about many years ago, Huang Po, said the ultimate reality is that which is always right before you, in all its fulness, utterly complete. In other words, we always are the full complete expression of the ultimate reality, but we are unaware of this. The unique nature of Japanese Zen teaching is that first timers are directly presented with this teaching the first time they walk through the door. Baker Roshi talked about how during the first 20 years of his teaching he didn’t really explain anything. In essence his teaching was presenting different versions of Huang Po’s statement about the nature of the absolute, and students were left to face that block to recognizing its truth. He mentioned that students were often left feeling like that block was a huge cliff, always rising right before them, that they felt powerless to climb. I realized this was very true in my case when I was young. The cliff has changed over time. In some ways it’s no longer my cliff, but the block to pure awareness that is shared by us all. After 50 years of teaching, Baker Roshi is now facing the same cliff in a different light.

In the Japanese Zen tradition, the title Roshi means old man, or a very seasoned teacher. Baker Roshi received the title at age 35. Not only was he much too young, but the collective evolution of the consciousness of teachers and students back then was quite different than now. Fascinated by the lure of transcendental bliss and wisdom, those on the spiritual path were looking within. However both students and teachers were largely unaware of the many obstacles lurking in the depths of our being. Baker Roshi, and other teachers from other disciplines, were presenting the teaching as if the teachers had already climbed the cliff, and were at least close to being fully enlightened beings. This created a huge gulf between the teachers and their students, and both students and teachers were largely unaware of this. Both were vulnerable to unconscious wounds manifesting in destructive patterns that threatened to, and did in fact ruin many spiritual communities. This is the primary reason that the realm of psychotherapy is now such a powerful adjunct for teachers as well as students.

Now it is more in the muscle memory of everyone to realize that it is natural to recognize the unchanging nature of the block. We’re learning to respect its power in guiding us to learn to more fully occupy our lives. We can now more easily learn how to gradually allow a deeper absorption into the actual nature of our emotional wounds. We can learn to let our blocks dissolve together as the spirit of our inter being in action. This is the real fuel of our inquiry, this is the real support of the fellowship of sangha.

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What Am I?

Ramana Maharshi said, “Give up all questions except one: Who Am I? After all, the only fact you are sure of is that you are. The ‘I Am’ is certain. The ‘I am this’ is not. Be willing to struggle to find out what you are in reality.” I like ‘What am I?’ better than ‘Who am I?’, because there is no implied assumption of there being any ‘who’ or in other words, there is less of an implied existence of a separate person. We all assume that we are a person, but what exactly is a person apart from the idea that we are a person? All of our human experience is deeply conditioned by this idea that we are a person. I know I’m a person when I’m happy or sad, or afraid. What I’m aware of more and more, is that right in the midst of experiencing my emotions, is a flash of excitement asking ‘What is this really?’ The actual thought is almost totally irrelevant, but the feeling of the emotion and the seeing of the object of that emotion blend together. They blend together in the excitement of discovering, ‘Wow that is a separate thing existing out there!”

Asking ‘What is this really?’ comes before the enthrallment of recognizing the sense of separation. Then the conditioning of thinking we’re a person leads to the excitement of thinking separation is actually there. The actual practice of contemplative meditation is necessary for almost eyery one, in order to more fully illuminate this process.  This is because the mind first needs slow down enough to reveal the embodied experience of ‘What is This?’ coming first, before the attachment to being ‘you’ shows up. Without the idea of ‘me’ the idea of separation can’t arise. So of course deeper than our assumption of the reality of separation, is the assumption of the reality of the separate self. Life is a lot more fun when the attachment to being ‘you’ is seen as irrelevant to our natural joy in just being alive. We begin to embody freedom when there is an allowing of our self conscious attempts to control our aliveness to simply pass by without indulging them.

Mine and others’ experience I’ve talked to about this, is that meditation is essential in helping us to feel in our bodies that there is less attachment to ‘me’ in asking ‘What is this really?’, than in exclaiming ‘there is separation happening here.’ Both the asking what is this, and the discovery of separation are saturated with a sense of wonder. This is the blending of the two experiences. The asking of what is this, isn’t preferable to the discovery of separation. They are both equally essential aspects of our ability to live a fully human life. The wonder of asking what is this, is a primal expression of our inner being, of our spirit of inquiry. It drives us deeper into the actuality of here and now, and blends with the discovery of separation by asking ‘what is this discovery of separation? What is this assumption that the objects of our experience are separate from what we imagine ourselves to be?

We need to be aware of the assumption of separation before we can actually question it. Most of us go through life with this unconscious of assumption of separation because our conditioning to believe separation is real goes deeper than our awareness of its depths. The aliveness of our wonder of ‘What is This?’ is what drives our inquiry to more deeply question all of our assumptions. The meaning of ‘What is this?’ is ‘WHAT IS THIS?’ When the aliveness of our inquiry is struggling with our demands on the moment of here and now, we are ignoring our attachment to our assumption of separation, and ignoring our attaching to the assumption of a separate self that gives rise to it. Ignorance is our ignoring of the way things actually are. In this context it is our ignoring the universal heart of inquiry wanting to express the freedom of our deep joy of being alive. The universal heart is always expressing itself free of all of suffering born of the ignorance of our imagined separate nature.

We can’t taste the sweetness of sugar by reading or hearing about it without actually tasting it. And we can’t fully taste the actual aliveness of spiritual inquiry without realizing it is what we all really want to taste more than anything else. Just honestly ask yourself: Could this aliveness of wanting to know my true self be the most important thing for me? It’s not that hard to realize that we are not our thoughts, or anything else we think we are. The presence witnessing our thoughts right now is much more than our thoughts, including the thoughts we try to define our self with. What is more difficult for almost all of us, is to learn to welcome the fear of this aliveness of wanting to know our real depth, the real truth of our being.

This fear is scary because we are deeply conditioned to want liberation from fear to be liberation of the person we think we are. If we’re persistent in our inquiry, we gradually realize that liberation is the actual dissolving of the person we think are. Liberation isn’t liberation of the person. Liberation doesn’t exclude the experience of the person, but it is liberation from the confines of the concept of the personal. The person we think we are is just a concept, our attachment to the concept is resistant to the very end. As our sense of identity shifts from the confines of the person to the vast openness of our actual being, we experience the fear dissolving along with our ideas of who we think we are. We need the support of the sangha to help us persevere and actually feel the loving support of spirit itself as we deepen this identity shift together. What is our role in contributing to the sangha as individuals? Just to be willing to express our longing, including the fear. We all have a very important unique contribution to make in expressing the longing of our collective sangha body. Our willingness to deeply enter the big questions together is our own unique expression, and is a complete full expression of the universal heart of spiritual inquiry.

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The Power of Sangha

Sangha is a word Buddhists use to refer to the greater community of practicing members. Thay talks about the power of the sangha to absorb all of our suffering, if we are willing to deeply offer it to our partners in the spirit of our inter being. Of course this also refers to the offering of our joy, for our joy and suffering are truly different sides of the same coin. A couple of months ago, I spent a day in Asheville with several good friends whom I feel a deep sense of connection with in our collective spirit of inquiry. As I went to sleep that night, I felt a strong sense of our oneness. It is wonderful that we have this opportunity to practice together, and support each other in following Thay’s practice. I felt a deep appreciation for life always showing us what we need to take the next step on our path to awakening.

That night I had a dream that I was in a very large meeting hall with many women. It was quite dark and I didn’t clearly see their faces, I wasn’t aware of any real communication going on in the room. In Jungian terms, this appeared like a pretty standard dream for a male like myself; a former serious athlete who still has a lot of work to do on more fully integrating his feminine side. Applied to the spiritual path, the conditioning of the spiritual athlete drives me to try and soar to the ultimate realms of love and bliss, and to push through any barriers encountered on the way up. A subtle trick I still try to play on myself at times, is to imagine that after 40 some years of practice, I’m now free from being driven by that motivation.

My attention in the dream was drawn to a stage in the hall where a woman resembling Anandamayi Ma, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, was standing. She made a gentle sweeping motion with her arm, as if she was tossing a frisbee towards us. A visible wave of energy flew out from her hand that felt like an incredibly powerful force totally obliterating the whole scene. There was a tiny sliver of ego remaining in the darkness. At first I was completely shocked and terrified, trying to brace against the overwhelming intensity of what seemed like the wind of a powerful tornado just blowing everything away. I then bowed in surrender realizing the comical futility of trying to do anything. There was simply no other choice than to stop making an effort to resist a more powerful force than any ego could possibly comprehend, must less affect or in any way control. The spiritual athlete in me realized total defeat, and I was grateful for a powerful reminder that there are no enlightened egos.

Every single one of us is on equal footing in relation to the divine power that is our actual substance. Our sense of being separate from our true nature is the gift of our uniqueness, that uniqueness however is not an entity. It is spirit living through us as our gift to the world in the form of a human being. We’re here to express and reveal the spirit of our inter being, and to aid others in realizing the group project of self realization. By ourselves we are nothing, or as we say in Zen, no-thing. The Vedanta sage Nisargadatta said, “When I look within, I see that I’m nothing, and that’s wisdom. When I look outward, I realize I’m everything, and that’s love. My life turns between the two.”

Our intellectual understanding of this is always partial and paradoxical. One way I attempt to put it into words is to say that this turning is our life. Our life is always an invitation to use this turning to allow the imagined barriers between our fellow sangha members to dissolve, so the currents of the our inner being, our inter being, can more freely flow together and support each other.

Sometimes we need a powerful reminder that to deeply open to our wisdom of nothingness, is not an experience of nothing, but a deep feeling of being SO no-thing. Then when we turn to the love of being everything, we are SO everything. Being no-thing is not a lack of, or exclusion of what we describe as experience, it’s not the lack or exclusion of feeling, thinking, hearing, or seeing. It is simply freedom from the confines of the labels we attempt to define our experience with. It’s freedom from the concept of separation. And it is the freedom of the current of our life force to flow unimpeded saturating us as well as the world. As such it is also the freedom to fully embody and share our human experience in its fullness. We realize this is a free gift, when we’re willing to receive the grace of feeling and seeing the falsity of our attachments to our imagined bodily existence.

In Zen we say form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Empty in this context is not like an empty glass, but the fullness of all life, empty of, and free of conceptual thought. Form is full of emptiness, and emptiness is full of form. Form, energy, i.e. our life force, is free of the thinking mind, and all its attempts to label pure awareness. Free of the confines of our thinking, our life is full of the depth of human experience that we learn to share and support each other with as one sangha body.

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The Most Important Thing

The great Zen master Suzuki once said: “The most important thing is to find out the most important thing. We all have a unique of what that is, and will express it in our own unique way. There is an old saying that helps me express what is most important to me: ‘If we want to realize the true source of our life, don’t dig one hundred one foot holes, but dig one hole, one hundred feet deep.’ Teachers usually refer to this saying to caution students against impulsively jumping from one path and/or teaching to another as a way of avoiding penetrating the spirit of any one particular teaching. This happens when our desires and fears seem too threatening for us to become fully aware of and work through. When they arise, we try to avoid them by withdrawing from the spiritual environment in which they arose. We fool ourselves into thinking that another path or teaching will enable us to advance farther, and we will thereby be able to avoid the pain and effort involved in working through our desires and fears.

So when difficulties arise on the path, we are encouraged to stay present to what is happening, and welcome and embrace it all, whether positive or negative. We are taught not to cling to the ever changing flow of our experience, and allow it all to pass away. When we stray, and become excessively attached to our experience, this can be described as our attention wandering from the one deep hole of our presence here and now, and attempting to dig somewhere else. As we pass through life on the way to our true source, what’s important is not what we experience, but how we identify with or cling to our experience. In our contemplative practice, we may experience an expansion of our consciousness, a blissful feeling in the heart rising up with some subtle pressure to the top of our head. We may feel this is a very positive step, that we are reaching a very advanced stage in our practice. A Vipassana, or insight meditation teacher would probably say this is merely blocked energy and not of use to us. We may be instructed to breath with it, and allow it to dissolve back into the ground. In a shakti, or energy oriented system, we would focus on it, allow it to push higher, and work with the energy.

Neither of these methods is right or wrong, and it certainly can be productive to embrace both methods at various points in our individual path of practice. It is important to remember that all mystical experiences are meant just for the moment they arise, and then they dissolve, as all experience does. Highly evolved masters tell us self realization itself isn’t an experience, but is realization of the timeless source that makes all experience possible. We may hear that enlightenment is not an experience a countless number of times, but all the mind can do with that is imagine some experience that doesn’t come and go. Both Vipassana and Shakti systems aim at us meditating thoroughly on the absence of what we think is happening, and teach us to not to cling to whatever experience arises. This is digging one deep hole, and merging with the present moment. Whatever system and practices we use in our contemplation, we are always here and now. What is most important is our earnestness, our longing for the truth, the depth of our spiritual inquiry. We need no other guide, but we all need to realize that for ourselves; we won’t believe it just because some famous teacher tells us it’s true. So we dig one deep hole in the present moment, which is one timeless moment. If our spirit of inquiry attempts to take us out of the present, the inquiry is no longer really authentic. We are then stuck in ideas about the past or future. Discovering which practices, or combination of practices work best will naturally evolve the more we allow ourselves to surrender to the here and now.

Crucial to this development of what practices we employ, is the continual questioning of who is really digging? Who is really practicing? Suzuki Roshi said that though there is nothing to attain, beginning students need to try very hard to attain something. They need to stretch their arms out very wide and reach for enlightenment. This is also true for more experienced students. We learn the futility of attaching to our self conscious efforts at meditation by trial and error at every stage of our practice. So if we’re struggling with the question of when and how to dig, we can simply ask ourselves, who is really digging? On deeper and deeper levels, we begin to realize that the spirit of inter being does all the digging. We gradually learn to surrender, go along for the ride, and learn to trust that when effort is necessary, it will be there. When effortlessness is truly needed, it will arise.


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