anatta (non-self)

Listening as a meditation practice

Nipper the dog listening to a gramophone player

For Day 45 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge I wanted to post something I wrote in response to one of our participants who found it useful to set a bell to ring every so often while she was meditating.

What I’ve found is that when I’m listening very intently to something, I can’t also do much (if any) thinking. So listening to a gong can be very calming.

When we’re listening we’re also being very receptive and open, and opposed to all the “doing” we normally, well, do. That “doing,” if were not being very mindful, tends to make us close off to our experience, so that we can become very willful. The ideal is combining doing and receptivity, so that the doing takes place within a greater context of not-doing. But periods of pure “not doing” are a good practice.

https://www.wildmind.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/170672__eliasheuninck__singing-bowl-low-and-quiet.mp

Also, a bell naturally fades away into the void. It can get so that you’re not sure whether you’re listening to the last traces of the bell, or whether you’re listening to silence. And listening to silence is a great practice.

And lastly when you listen to a bell, it’s possible to be aware that there’s not just one “thing” you’re listening to. Every moment is different. Every moment is a combination of multitudinous arisings and fallings, beginnings and endings. And so in listening to a bell we can start to have a greater appreciation of impermanence and non-self; the sound of the bell doesn’t have a “self” — it’s not a thing. It’s composed instead of those myriad arisings and passings-away, just as we are.

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Letting meditation happen: Day 22 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 022Have you ever had the experience that you’ve been experiencing distractedness in meditation, and you return from a distraction only to find that — in your absence — a state of joy and calmness has been created for you? That was my experience tonight. A state of joy and calm had been created without my doing anything consciously to bring it about.

At the same time I noticed this I found that, as has been happening a lot lately, an urge appeared to “just rest.” I needed to get out of the way, stop trying to do anything, and allow the meditation to happen.

I see this as a teaching on anatta (not-self). It’s interesting so see “not-me” being so much better at meditation than “I” am. There are parts of my mind that have internalized the skills of meditation, and those parts function better the less they are “owned” by the part of me that thinks it is “Me” (very much with a capital M).

It’s not as mysterious as it sounds. Think about walking. Or don’t. When you’re walking you’re best not to think about exactly how to move all the individual muscles in your legs. If you did, walking would be a lot of effort, and not very effective. The whole thing would be painful and exhausting. But that’s not what you do. Instead you just let “not-you” do the walking (which it does very well, on the whole) while “You” — or the alleged You — get on with something else. It’s exactly the same in meditation, although it seems to be easier to learn to trust “not-you” to walk than it is to trust “not-you” to meditate. I wonder why that is? Is it because we learn to walk so young?

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Let it R.A.I.N.

Rain on a window, with out-of-focus car lights behind.

When you’re young, the territory of the psyche is like a vast estate, with rolling hills, forests and plains, swamps and meadows. So many things can be experienced, expressed, wanted, and loved.

But as life goes along, most people pull back from major parts of their psyche. Perhaps a swamp of sadness was painful, or fumes of toxic wishes were alarming, or jumping exuberantly in a meadow of joy irritated a parent into a scolding. Or maybe you saw someone else get in trouble for feeling, saying, or doing something and you resolved, consciously or unconsciously, to Stay Away From That Place Forever.

In whatever way it happens, most of us end up by mid-adulthood living in the gate house, venturing out a bit, but lacking much sense of the whole estate, the great endowment of the whole psyche. Emotions are shut down, energetic and erotic wellsprings of vitality are capped, deep longings are set aside, sub-personalities are shackled and silenced, old pain and troubles are buried, the roots of reactions – hurt, anger, feelings of inadequacy – are veiled so we can’t get at them, and we live at odds with both Nature and our own nature.

Sure, the processes of the psyche need some regulation. Not all thoughts should be spoken, and not all desires should be acted upon! But if you suppress, disown, push away, recoil from, or deny major parts of yourself, then you feel cut off, alienated from yourself, lacking vital information about what is really going on inside, no longer at home in your own skin or your own mind – which feels bad, lowers effectiveness at home and work, fuels interpersonal issues, and contributes to health problems.

So what can we do? How can we reclaim, use, enjoy, and be at peace with our whole estate – without being overwhelmed by its occasional swamps and fumes?

This is where R.A.I.N. comes in.

How?

R.A.I.N. is an acronym developed by Michelle McDonald, a senior mindfulness teacher, to summarize a powerful way to expand self-awareness. (I’ve adapted it a bit below, and any flaws in the adaptation are my own, not Michelle’s.)

R = Recognize: Notice that you are experiencing something, such as irritation at the tone of voice used by your partner, child, or co-worker. Step back into observation rather than reaction. Without getting into story, simply name what is present, such as “annoyance,” “thoughts of being mistreated,” “body firing up,” “hurt,” “wanting to cry.”

A = Accept (Allow): Acknowledge that your experience is what it is, even if it’s unpleasant. Be with it without attempting to change it. Try to have self-compassion instead of self-criticism. Don’t add to the difficulty by being hard on yourself.

I = Investigate (Inquire): Try to find an attitude of interest, curiosity, and openness. Not detached intellectual analysis but a gently engaged exploration, often with a sense of tenderness or friendliness toward what it finds. Open to other aspects of the experience, such as softer feelings of hurt under the brittle armor of anger. It’s OK for your inquiry to be guided by a bit of insight into your own history and personality, but try to stay close to the raw experience and out of psychoanalyzing yourself.

N = Not-identify (Not-self): Have a feeling/thought/etc., instead of being it. Disentangle yourself from the various parts of the experience, knowing that they are small, fleeting aspects of the totality you are. See the streaming nature of sights, sounds, thoughts, and other contents of mind, arising and passing away due mainly to causes that have nothing to do with you, that are impersonal. Feel the contraction, stress, and pain that comes from claiming any part of this stream as “I,” or “me,” or “mine” – and sense the spaciousness and peace that comes when experiences simply flow.

* * *

R.A.I.N. and related practices of spacious awareness are fundamental to mental health, and always worth doing in their own right. Additionally, sometimes they alone enable painful or challenging contents of mind to dissipate and pass away.

But often it is not enough to simply be with the mind, even in as profound a way as R.A.I.N. Then we need to work with the mind, by reducing what’s negative and increasing what’s positive. (It’s also necessary to work with the mind to build up the inner resources needed to be with it; being with and working with the mind are not at odds with each other as some say, but in fact support each other.)

And whatever ways we work with the garden of the mind – pulling weeds and planting flowers – will be more successful after it R.A.I.N.s.

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The dance of allowing

woman dancing, surrounded by flames

There is no controlling life.
Try corralling a lightning bolt, containing a tornado.
Dam a stream and it will create a new channel.
Resist, and the tide will sweep you off your feet.
Allow, and grace will carry you to higher ground…

I recently discovered this wonderful poem by Danna Faulds (which is an excerpt — the full poem is here.) It has really struck me because the themes of letting go and allowing have been coming up everywhere for me.

My unconventional life, where I’m earning a living as a dharma practitioner and teacher, is full of uncertainty. There are no clear paths for me to follow, and the ups and downs can be pretty wild. Teaching and coaching also demand a constant dropping of my facades of self-protection. That’s because the more open and vulnerable I am, the better I’m able to connect, heart to heart, with another person. And I’ve written in this blog before about my health issues – my chronic fatigue, depression, and injured wrists. They constantly demand that I change plans, do things differently, and shift expectations. These are just a sampling of the ways I feel surrounded by constant demands to let go, let go, let go.

When I mentioned in a recent personal newsletter about my health issues, I received many emails of sympathy and support. And believe me, I really appreciated them! But I also wanted to express that living this way doesn’t mean I’m just stoically enduring my suffering. It’s becoming something different – quite positive really — and I’ve been grasping for words and metaphors to describe it.

When a certain pattern persists, over and over again, it’s clear to me there’s a message behind it. I need to get closer to it to hear what it has to say. I know it’s a sign that I’ve gotten into the mistaken habit of going against the grain of the world, and it’s my resistance that’s causing the friction. I can also tell there’s freedom on the other side. I can smell it.

An image that came to me recently is of dancing. Dancing with an unpredictable partner in a 100% committed, full-bodied embrace. My life, with all its demands to let go, is my dance partner – a very powerful, lifelong partner who is pointing me in the direction of freedom.

His presence feels to me like a stream, a force, a current — something that carries me along. I’m learning to lean into him, so close that our movements and energies are completely merged as one. When I’m that close, I know immediately and intuitively when he’s going to move or turn, so we move together as one. And I can’t predict very far in advance what he’ll do – it’s only a moment-to-moment thing, communicated through the touch of the present. He leads, and I move along with him. When I find my way to flow and add my energies to his, our combined creative power moves in amazing ways.

There are also times when that current takes me to some scary and difficult places. But I know it’s where I need to go, so I try not to resist or hold back. It demands a lot of courage to allow the current to flow just as freely, regardless of how I feel about it.

See also:

And let me be clear that I’ve NOT become a totally passive follower. I still have to take responsibility for myself, do my own part. I have to make sure I stay healthy, rested and alert, so I am able to dance, for example. I also need to keep my conventional life as a member of American society intact – for example, maintain a home and financial means to stay alive and present in this body, functioning in this world. My dance partner won’t just give those to me on a platter. That’s what I mean by doing my part.

And there are times when he gives me the space to dance alone. Sometimes he steps back and waits for me to make my own choice, move in a new direction, take a leap. He doesn’t encourage me in any particular direction, because it’s a true fork in the road. It really is up to me to decide what to do. And then once I make a choice, he comes over and rejoins me wherever I happen to be at the moment I decide. We create a new flow from that point forward.

I also know that he would never, ever harm me. And I know there are no “wrong” turns. No, I don’t mean that I’ll never make mistakes, get hurt or feel pain. They’re too much a part of the fabric of life. I understand that if I try to wall myself off from those unpleasant things, I’m also walling off all the good things. And I can’t learn without making mistakes. I can’t selectively shut out the parts of life I don’t want. It’s a short-sighted strategy that really doesn’t work. No, that’s not what I want.

When I say my partner would never harm me, I mean that he is always pointing me, guiding me, to higher ground. And it’s only by letting go and allowing him to show me that I can find my way there, to real freedom. He is the most challenging, no-nonsense, uncompromising partner I’ve ever had. But without question, he is also the best teacher I’ve ever had.

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When are you?

There’s a profound and miraculous mystery right under our noses: this instant of now has no duration at all, yet somehow it contains all the causes from the past that are creating the future. Everything arising to become this moment vanishes beneath our feet as the next moment wells up. Since it’s always now, now is eternal.

The nature of now is not New Age or esoteric. It is plain to see. It is apparent both in the material universe and in our own experiencing. Simply recognizing the nature of now can fill you with wonder, gratitude, and perhaps a sense of something sacred.

Further, by coming home to now, you immediately stop regretting or resenting the past and worrying about or driving toward the future. In your brain, this rumbling and grumbling – called rumination – is based in networks along the midline of the top of your head; while this helped our ancestors survive, today most of us go way overboard, and rumination is a big risk factor for mental health problems.

Additionally, through an intimacy with the present, moment after moment, you develop a growing sense – viscera, in your belly and bones – of:

  • Impermanence – you see the futility and foolishness of trying to cling to any of the ephemeral contents of this moment as a reliable basis for deep happiness.
  • Interconnectedness – you feel related to a vast network of causes that have shaped this moment, including to other people, life, nature, and the universe altogether.
  • Fullness – recognizing the incredible richness of this moment – its sights, sounds, sensations, tastes, smells, thoughts, memories, emotions, desires, and other contents in the stream of consciousness – you relax craving and drivenness since you already feel so fed.

For most people, the subjective present is an interval one or two seconds long. It contains the last second or so of the immediate past as well as the emerging present often infused with expectations about the immediate future. It’s OK, therefore, if your sense of the present usually has a kind of temporal “thickness” to it. You will probably also have flashes of intuitive recognition of the infinitely thin duration of now that boggle and sometimes stop the mind.

The present moment is continually passing away, so if you try to hold onto it in any way – such as by remembering it or forming ideas about it – you are no longer in the present. Therefore, relax. Open to this moment. Not planning, not worrying, not lost in thought.

Instead of seeing yourself moving through time, explore the sense of being an ongoing presence, an awareness, through which time moves. Let the world come to you. Recognize that sights and sounds and all other mental phenomena appear without effort. You don’t have to do anything to be here now; you’re already here now. Let go some more.

Be aware of a single inhalation. Don’t try to sense or understand it as a whole. Allow yourself to be with this moment of sensation without remembering what was or wondering what will be. The same with a single exhalation, and then with breathing altogether.

Letting go, letting go.

Be particularly aware of endings, of sounds changing and thus disappearing in the instant of hearing, of each moment of consciousness altering and thus ending to be replaced by another one. (If you get frightened or disoriented by a growing sense of the vanishingness of each appearance of reality, focus on something concretely pleasurable and reassuring, like the sensation of flannel against your cheek or the touch of someone who loves you.)

Then be particularly aware of emergings, of the arising of matter and energy in the world and the arising of appearances – perceptions, thoughts, longings, etc. – in the inner one. Let go into feeling buoyed by the uprising swelling of this moment congealing into existence, endlessly renewed by the next emerging. Open to trusting in this process, like a wave continually carrying you even as it continually breaks into foam.

Above all, open to the enjoyments available in this moment, even if it is a hard one. No matter how bad it is, it is nurturingly remarkable that it is at all. I don’t mean this in any kind of sentimental, rose-colored-glasses kind of way. Sometimes what the moment holds is awful. But the nature of the moment – its transience, its interconnectedness with moments before and to come, its simultaneous emptying out and filling up – and the awareness of it and its contents, is never awful itself, and is in fact always unsullied and beautiful.

And much of the time, the moment will be filled with rewards overlooked in preoccupations with past or future, such as a dense incoming stream of sights and sounds, tastes and touches – even a sense of beautiful qualities of heart like warmth, compassion, sweetness, friendliness, and love.

So nourished, so full with the riches of now, who would want to be anywhen else?

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Stepping into timelessness

Sometimes in my meditation practice, time and space have vanished.

There are passages in the early Buddhist tradition that encourage us to let go of past and future, and to remain in the moment. For example, the following verse is found in the Bhaddekaratta Sutta:

You shouldn’t chase after the past
or place expectations on the future.
What is past is left behind.
The future is as yet unreached.
Whatever quality is present
you clearly see [vipassatī] right there, right there.
Not taken in, unshaken,
that’s how you develop the heart.

In another verse, in the Attadanda Sutta in the very ancient Sutta Nipata, not clinging to past, present, or future is linked to letting go of our sense of selfhood.

What went before — let go of that!
All that’s to come — have none of it!
Don’t hold on to what’s in between,
And you’ll wander fully at peace.

For whom there is no “I-making”
All throughout the body and mind,
And who grieves not for what is not,
Is undefeated in the world.

For whom there is no “this is mine”
Nor anything like “that is theirs”
Not even finding “self-ness,” he
Does not grieve at “I have nothing.”

This implies that changing our perception of time (or our attitude to time) can help us to reduce our clinging to self. This makes experiences of timelessness very significant.

These experiences of timelessness in meditation are very hard to describe! It’s not the same as the phenomenon where “time flies when you’re enjoying yourself,” although when that happens in our meditation practice it’s of course a good sign.

In experiences of timelessness the entire concept of time seems to dissolve, and we find ourselves in an eternal present moment. The notion of the past and future is let go of, and we recognize that the present moment is all there is.

I’ve noticed in my own practice that a sense of timelessness is related to a changed perception of space. Here are some findings from science that help to explain the connection:

  • Researcher Andrew Newberg has found that in meditators who achieve a state of timelessness, there are two changes. There is, on the one hand, increased blood flow to the frontal lobes. These are associated with attention, and so this change corresponds to heightened mindfulness and focus. On the other hand, there is decreased blood flow to the left parietal lobe. This part of the brain is involved in visual-spatial orientation, which includes maintaining our orientation in physical space, judging distances, and keeping track of time. The decreased parietal activity suggests that these activities are winding down. This can result in the loss of a sense of distinction between inside and outside, bringing about an experience of non-duality, and also the experience of timelessness.
  • Related to this is a finding from neuroscience that involves the brain’s “default network” and “external network.” The default network is the anatomical system that the brain defaults to when it’s not engaged in external activity. It’s involved in self-monitoring, daydreaming, and reflecting. The external network comprises those parts of the brain that are active when we’re caught up in external activity, such as watching a movie. Normally these two systems are opposed to each other. If you’re thinking, you disengage from paying attention to external activity (e.g. you’re daydreaming in meditation and you don’t even notice where you are), and when you’re caught up in external activity you don’t particularly notice what’s going on internally (e.g. You’re typing on a computer and you don’t notice your neck’s getting stiff). In experienced meditators who do non-dual meditation, however, both networks are active at the same time. Both the inner and outer worlds are being monitored simultaneously.

In my practice, I’ve noticed that sustaining this dual awareness (inner and outer) leads to non-dual perception, and to an experience of timelessness.

Dialing down activity in the parietal lobes seems to come about via a non-discriminating awareness of both “external” and “internal” sensations. (The quotes are because in a sense all sensation is internal, which is why we need the parietal lobes to tell us which are inside and which are outside.) So we’re activating both the default and the external networks of the brain, and it’s this that seems to shut down the parietal lobes and allow a sense of timelessness to come about.

Timeless experiences are connected with what are often called the “formless jhanas,” which are four meditative states that in the Pali scriptures are called the “formless spheres.” (Only in the commentaries are they called jhanas.) These are states of meditation that are entered from a state of equanimity. They can be entered from fourth jhana, but also directly, without going through jhana. They are non-dual states of experience, where our sense of inner and outer, self and other, begin to fall away. And it’s in those states where a sense of timelessness can become particularly prominent.

In my own experience, the step from being in time to experiencing timelessness is connected with a change in my spatial relationship to time — not surprising if the parietal lobes, which are responsible for our sense of space and time, are going off-line.

Change our perception of space, and we change our perception of time. We tend to use spatial metaphors to express our relationship to time. So we have “time lines” on which the future is “forward in time” and the past is “back in time.” This is a metaphor we take very seriously. In fact studies have shown that if you ask someone to think about the future, they physically lean forward, while if you ask them to think about the past, they lean backward! And because we think about the past being like a place we have left and the future as being like a place we are about to visit, we think of the past and future as being like physically existent places. The concept of time travel seems natural to us (if not actually possible, for technical reasons) because we think of the past and future as being places we can actually visit.

I don’t know if the physicists agree with this, but the Buddha reminds us (and I concur), that only the present moment exists. Thus, time isn’t really a “line,” with the past behind us and the future in front. There is only this moment. But this moment is continually changing. In the phrase from the Bhaddekaratta Sutta that’s translated “Whatever quality is present you clearly see right there, right there,” the repetition of “right there” (tattha tattha) suggests to me this recognition that the present moment is here, but changing. It’s as if these words are saying, “look now” and “look now” and “look now” in response to the change. But the change is “right there”. We’re not looking anywhere but the present moment. Nothing in our experience is going anywhere

In my own experiences of timelessness time is no longer experienced linearly, as a journey from past to future. Instead, it’s experienced as an unfolding. The present moment is “right there, right there.” It’s not going anywhere. But it’s changing.

Rather than seeing things (an object, experiences, myself) as moving along a line from past to future, changing as they do so, I’ve seen things as remaining “on the spot” (right there!) with change unfolding from within. If you were to think of this in terms of the experience of, say, a rose blooming, in the linear way of seeing things we’d think of the blooming rose like this:

Rose bud > half-open bud > rose > withering rose > dead rose

Another way to see the rose changing is almost as if you were simply watching the rose from above. The rose isn’t going anywhere. It’s simply unfolding, from within. We simply have:

(((((rose)))))

with the parentheses representing the unfolding-from-within.

Intellectually, this may not sound like much. It may sound just like an idea — perhaps not even a very interesting one. But when applied to our experience, the results can be a profound shift — at least for a while — in how we experience ourselves and our world.

  • We let go of the past.
  • We let go of the future.
  • We simply be in the present moment, fully. It’s kind of like surfing the wave of the present moment…
  • We observe what’s in the present moment as it unfolds, according to its own nature, from within.
  • There is simply this eternally unfolding present moment.
  • There is just a timeless present.
  • There is nothing to grasp.
  • There is nothing to resist.
  • There is a profound sense of perfection, and of peace. The present moment cannot be anything other than it is, and so it’s accepted totally, without reservation or resistance. Everything is experienced as being perfect.

Every aspect of our experience — each sound, sight, smell, physical sensation from the body, feeling, thought, emotion — is seen as unfolding in this eternally unfolding present moment.

When memories arise, they are not seen as a window into the past, but simply phenomena emerging in the present (which is what they really are). And when we imagine things that may happen, this is not seen as a preview of the future, but again simply as thoughts arising right now.

There’s nowhere to be. Nothing to do. No one to be.

And everything is perfect.


Here’s a guided meditation that can help you move in the direction of experiencing timelessness (the quality isn’t great, since it’s from one of my Skype classes and not professionally recorded). Timelessness isn’t an experience that’s going to come about through one meditation. It takes repeated practice, and probably some time on retreat doing more intensive meditation. So try integrating some of the following pointers into your daily practice. In a few months, or years, you may find that you start to experience time in a very different way:

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How “letting go” helps us get things done

Woman in a colorful dress, caught in mid-jump, looking like she's hovering restfully over the ocean

Joe, a student in my online class, was worried that meditation would hurt his career. He works in a very competitive business where everyone is single-mindedly pushing and driving hard all the time. The whole idea of “letting go” seemed absurd in that context. But at the same time his stress and anxiety levels were sky high. He knew this wasn’t a sustainable way to live.

Yes it’s true that in meditation, we’re told to drop everything and let go. But that doesn’t mean becoming passive and ineffectual. There’s more to this instruction than meets the eye.

There’s an image that comes to mind for me to illustrate what letting go is like. Imagine we’re kayaking down a river. One way we could do it is to paddle like hell, trying to force our way around, fighting the currents, insisting that the kayak go exactly where I want it to go. And doing it how I want to do it.

Or, we could survey the terrain and current before jumping in. Then we ride the current and let it take us most of the way to where we want to go. We steer to make sure we don’t get dashed against rocks or end up heading down the wrong side of the river. We could also use a calmer bend in the river to stop and look ahead to plan our next stretch. We can steer our course without using nearly as much effort this way, adjusting our path as we go along.

Life can be the same way. We don’t have make all the effort ourselves to make things happen from beginning to end. If we expand our view beyond our self-absorbed need to reach our goal, there’s a whole universe of structures and currents out there that can help us.

See also:

At work for example, if we find people who have common goals and interests as we do, our combined energies can often accomplish more than the sum of us individually could. Involving our boss in our plans sometimes results in him clearing a path in front of us, getting us resources, additional help, budgets, etc. Tagging onto existing workflows and procedures means we don’t have to create everything ourselves.

Letting go can help us in our inner world, too. Have you noticed how creative ideas often pop up when you’re taking a shower or walking the dog? In other words, when you’re not really trying? Recent neuroscientific research suggests that making less effort is what helps. When we become effortful in problem solving, it generally means we’re pushing our way through our old, familiar ways of doing things. And often, those are exactly the ways that haven’t worked, but we keep pounding at them anyway. When we keep repeating the same thing over and over, we become blind to other possibilities. So to be “not effortful” means to inhibit the thoughts that don’t work in order to leave room for something else to emerge.

Not being effortful also means your mind is quieter and more conducive to new ideas. A creative thought is one that brings up a long-forgotten memory or combines some of them in a new way. Neurologically speaking, they involve connections between far fewer neurons than your front-of-mind thoughts. So the signals they emit are much weaker, and generally get drowned out by your much louder, effortful thoughts. To give those quieter thoughts a fighting chance to be noticed, it helps to have a quiet mind. One that has “let go” of jangly discursive thinking.

So letting go doesn’t mean letting go of everything — just the stuff that gets in our way. In this context, it means letting go of our obsessive focus on results, and our inflexible views of how to get there. It doesn’t mean dropping all thoughts about the future, but finding a more open and flexible relationship with them.

The larger perspective of the teaching on “letting go” is an acknowledgment that I am a part of a highly interconnected world. Every time I get hyper-focused on my own little view of the world, I am being blind to the way things really are. To think that I can do things exclusively my way is to be foolish and ignorant. And it’s bound to get me into trouble, or at least cause me a lot of stress.

But at the same time, I’m not a helpless victim either. I am the agent of my own free will, and can use it to steer my path through life. With mindfulness, we can skillfully navigate our way through all these forces to get to a better outcome. And it’s not just me that benefits — because everything I do ultimately benefits everyone.

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“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

Metaphors can be traps. We can end up taking them too literally. The point of a metaphor is to help us see things more clearly (“time slips through our hands like sand” helps us connect something intangible and abstract, like time, to a physical experience, like sand trickling through our fingers). But sometimes metaphors mislead, and make it harder for us to see things clearly. The image of the spiritual path is one of those metaphors that can potentially trap and mislead us.

The Buddha himself used the image of his teaching being a path. One of his key teachings is the Eightfold Path (aṭṭhaṅgika magga), and in a famous teaching he explained that he was like an explorer who had beaten a path to an ancient city that had been lost in the jungle, and has come back to lead others along the path to see his discovery for themselves. It’s a venerable image. The problem isn’t the image itself, but how we relate to it.

How long is this path?

The thing that strikes me as a problem with the path metaphor could be expressed in a question: how long do we think the path is?

In the Buddha’s day, people would often get enlightened very quickly. In some cases they just had to hear a phrase, and insight would arise. In some cases it would take longer — perhaps some years of practice. But it was doable. Even people living householder lifestyles would get enlightened without too much difficulty. I’m not aware of examples of householders getting enlightened immediately, but there were, according to the scriptures, thousands of lay followers who attained the first level of enlightenment, and many hundreds who were just short of full awakening. The path was short. In the case of those who got enlightened immediately, it wasn’t so such a path as a single step.

The later Mahāyāna teachings tended to elevate enlightenment in order to glorify the Buddha’s attainment and inspire faith. The bigger his attainment, the greater the spiritual hero he was, right? And the greater a spiritual hero he was, the more inspiring he was. The problem was that they started talking in terms of the path to awakening stretching over an uncountable number of lifetimes. Sure, this was meant to inspire us, but if you believe enlightenment is unattainable in this very lifetime, what’s the chance that it’s actually going to happen? If you think it’s going to take thousands of lifetimes to get enlightened, you probably doing think it might happen to you in this life. And certainly not right now, in this very moment.

An alternative to the “path” metaphor

So what’s the alternative to thinking of enlightenment as being at the end of a long, long path? You could think of it as being at the end of a short path: that’s pretty much what the Buddha seemed to have in mind. Or you use a different metaphor, and think of awakening as being right here, right now, but you’re not seeing it because you’re looking at your experience the wrong way. It’s like one of those “Magic Eye” 3D pictures from the 1990s that looks like a mess of squiggles and images fragments, until you let your eyes refocus in just the right way, and suddenly there’s a stereoscopic image right there in front of you. In a way, the image has been there all along, but you weren’t looking in the right way. Maybe at certain points you didn’t believe that you could ever see the image. Maybe you started to doubt there was anything there. But if you persist then — boom! — there it is.

Our spiritual cognitive distortions

There are a couple of Buddhist teachings that I think relate to this metaphor of the image that’s right in front of us, but unseen. One of these is the “Four Vipallāsas.” The word vipallāsa means “inversion, perversion, derangement, corruption, distortion.” It’s similar to what psychologists nowadays call a “cognitive distortion.” These four vipallāsas — or “spiritual cognitive distortions” — are that we see things that are impermanent as being permanent, see things that are sources of pain as being sources of happiness, see things that are lacking in inherent selfhood as having inherent selfhood, and see things that are ugly as being attractive.

Here’s the interesting thing: it’s not as if impermanence, for example, is hidden from us. We just don’t see it. It’s right in front of us, all the time, but our minds don’t seem to be equipped to notice it. In fact, I’ve noticed that Buddhists often like to talk about impermanence more than actually observe it.

So it’s happening right now. Anything you notice is changing. When you notice your body you may think “Oh, there’s my body” but actually all you’re noticing is an ever-changing pattern of sensation. There’s no “body” there that you can perceive. Right now you’re reading these words. What you’re seeing is constantly changing. What’s in your mind is constantly changing. Everything in your mind is constantly changing. Try looking for something in your experience that doesn’t change. Having any luck? You say that the coffee cup in front of you isn’t changing? But you don’t ever experience a “coffee cup.” You have sense impressions of a coffee cup, and those sense impressions are in constant flux. Your eyes are jittering around all the time, because the receptors in your retinas stop responding if they’re exposed to the same stimulus for more than a fraction of a second. If your eye was frozen in place you’d literally be blind. The only reason you can perceive anything is because of change — impermanence.

So change, non-self, etc., are there all the time. We just need to pay attention. Look. Look right now. Everything you’re experiencing is changing. Keep looking. Eventually, as with the Magic Eye pictures, you’ll see what’s been there all along.

Not seeing the wood for the trees

I said there were a couple of teachings relating to not seeing what’s in front of us. The vipallāsas constitute one such teaching. The third fetter of “sīlabbata-parāmāsa,” usually translated as “dependence on rites and rituals,” is another. This is one of the three fetters that we break when we attain stream-entry, the first level of enlightenment.

The first fetter is straightforward — it’s when we no longer believe that we have a permanent, unchanging self. We keep observing that our experience is changing all the time, and eventually it clicks — that’s all there is. There’s just change.

The second fetter is doubt. Until we experience the breaking of the first fetter, there’s always some kind of doubt that it’s even possible. We may doubt that we can do it. (“Sure, other people can see these Magic Eye pictures, but I can’t.”) Or we may doubt that there’s a picture there. (“It’s a trick,” we say, as we stare hopelessly and the jumbled image.) Once we’ve seen that the separate and permanent self we’ve always taken for granted is an illusion, and once we’ve realized that it’s true that everything in our experience — everything! — is a constant flux, we feel a surge of confidence. We’ve stepped out of illusion, we know that the Buddha’s teaching is right, and we have confidence that further progress is possible. Actually, it’s inevitable.

But that third fetter — “dependence on rites and rituals” — what’s that got to do with anything? First it’s not a very good translation. “Sīla” is ethics or behavior, and “vata” (the second part of sīlabbata) is a religious duty, or observance, or spiritual practice. This is referring to the problem of our getting caught up in spiritual practices so that they become a hindrance to enlightenment, rather than a means to realizing enlightenment. For example, if we’re trying to be a “good Buddhist,” saying and doing all the right things, that’s of limited spiritual use. If we’re trying to impress people with our mastery of the teachings, that’s even worse.

Enlightenment is right here, right now

One of the most striking aspects of the experience of stream entry is a feeling of immediacy. When we have that perceptual shift and realize that what we’ve thought of as our “self” (permanent, unchanging, separate) is nothing more than a constellation of constantly changing events, it also strikes us that this is “obvious.” It’s right in front of our nose. It’s been in front of our nose our whole lives. But we just haven’t noticed.

Even the spiritual practices (sīla and vata) that we’ve been engaged with have sometimes prevented us from seeing the truth. We’ve been talking about impermanence, but not looking at it. We’ve been studying the path rather than walking it. Sometimes perhaps we’ve been walking the path, but haven’t wanted to stray too far, because it’s safe staying with the known.

So I suggest that sometimes, at least, we forget about the metaphor of the path, and instead think of enlightenment as being right here, right now. It’s just a question of recognizing what’s really going on — of allowing ourselves to see the impermanence that permeates every one of our experiences. We just need to look, and keep looking, until we see the obvious that’s sitting right in front of our noses.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” is from Orwell’s essay “In Front of Your Nose,” which was first published in the Tribune newspaper, London, March 22, 1946.

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Be the body

As a kid, I was really out of touch with my body. I hardly noticed it most of the time, and when I did, I prodded it like a mule to do a better job of hauling “me” – the head – around.

This approach helped me soldier through some tough times. But there were costs. Many pleasures were numbed, or they flew over – actually, under – my head. I didn’t feel deeply engaged with life, like I was peering at the world through a hole in a fence. I pushed my body hard and didn’t take good care of it. When I spoke, I sounded out of touch to others, emotionally distant, even phony; my words lacked credibility, gravity, traction.

Because of these costs, I’ve worked with this issue and come to appreciate the benefits of being aware of the body, coming down into it, inhabiting it – most fundamentally, being it.

For starters, being the body is simply telling a truth. What we experience being – thoughts and feelings, memories and desires, and consciousness itself – is constrained, conditioned, and constructed by the body via its nervous system. The fabric of your mind is woven by your body.

Further, being aware of your body and its signals gives you useful information about your deeper feelings and needs. Tracking your body’s subtle reactions to others also tells you a lot about them.

Coming home to your body helps you feel grounded, and it gives you reassuring feedback that you’re alive and basically alright. It’s exhilarating to feel the vitality of the body, even sitting quietly, and to experience the pleasures of the senses.

In particular, experiencing your body as a whole – as a single, unified gestalt in awareness, with all its sensations appearing together at once – activates networks on the sides of your brain. These lateral networks pull you out of the planning, worrying, obsessing, fantasizing, and self-referential thinking – “me, myself, and I” – that’s driven by another neural network in the middle of the brain. Consequently, abiding as the whole body draws you into the present moment, reduces stress, increases mindfulness, and lowers the sense of self to help you take life less personally.

How?

First off, a caution: for some people, it’s disturbing to experience being the body. In particular, this is understandable and not uncommon for people who have chronic pain, a disability, or a history of trauma. If this applies to you, try these practices carefully, if at all.

But for most people, it feels good and brings value to be the body. And there are numerous ways to deepen the sense of this:

  • Let your attention wander through your body, like a gentle scout investigating its sensations.
  • See what it’s like to sustain awareness of your body for at least a few minutes in a row – and longer if you want. You could keep paying attention to your breathing, or to the feelings in your hands while doing dishes, or to the sensations in your feet and legs as you walk the dog.
  • While doing everyday activities, routinely bring attention back to your body. What’s it feel like to be a body: answering the phone … watching TV … driving … typing … lifting a child … sitting in a meeting … stocking shelves … loading a truck … crawling into bed … ?
  • As you speak, try to be aware of your chest … stomach … hips … arms and legs … hands and feet. How does this change your communicating, especially about things that matter to you?
  • Experiment with sensing the body as a whole. Try to be aware of all the sensations of breathing in the torso, all of them present in consciousness as a unified whole, moment by moment. Let attention widen and soften to receive the whole torso as a single percept. In the beginning, it’s natural for this sense of the whole to last for only a second or two and then crumble; simply keep trying to regenerate it, and it will become stronger with practice. Next, open to a larger whole: all of the sensations of breathing throughout the body, appearing all together in awareness breath after breath. Then, see if you can go all the way out to include all body sensations, not just those of breathing.
  • For a specified time – even just one minute – find a comfortable seat, let worries and plans fall away, and simply rest. Be aware of breathing and let everything else go. Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be. Just sitting, abiding as a body breathing.

Wherever we go, whatever we’re doing, there’s always a doorway to a deeper sense of presence and peace: being the body.

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Learning to love the flaws

As I wrote in my most recent book, Living as a River:

Relating to someone as a “self”—on the basis of how we see them right now—is like seeing a video reduced to a single frame, or seeing a ball hurtling through the air in a freeze-frame photograph. It’s life-denying. It’s a static way of seeing things. In taking a snapshot of a thing we lose its sense of trajectory, the sense that it’s headed somewhere. We’re disconnected from the reality of change and process. But imagine if we could consistently see a person not as a thing but as a process—if we could, at least in our imagination—see that person evolving towards wisdom and compassion. How might that change both them and us? That’s the challenge for us all.

I’d like to suggest an experiment to you, and I’d be delighted if you’d write a few words below about your experience of trying this. The experiment will only take two or three minutes of your time.

  • I’d like you to call to mind someone you have a conflict with. Perhaps they have an annoying habit, or have done something to hurt you. Imagine that this person is in front of you.
  • Call to mind the thing that bothers you about this person. Feel the annoyance that’s connected with that thing.
  • Now, imagine, to the left of the person you’re thinking of, a much younger version of them. Perhaps at about 10 months old, when they were a baby, able to sit up, perhaps, but not yet able to walk or talk. And realize that these are both the same person.
  • Then, on the right side of the person you’re calling to mind, see a much older version of them — perhaps in their nineties. Really old. And realize that all three forms are the same person.
  • Now, call to mind that same thing that annoyed you about this person.

So, what happened for you?

I’ve recently been asking people to try this, and almost everyone has said that they experience sadness. They move from irritation or resentment, to sadness. Very quickly. Often people mention a sense of love or compassion as well, mingled with the sadness.

I think this is a very positive thing. It’s much healthier and less destructive, on the whole, to experience sadness than it is to experience hatred.

Why might we feel sad?

For me, it’s a number of things. I feel sad that I’ve taken one thing about a person’s life that I don’t like, and related to them on the basis of that, ignoring the rest of their being. I feel sad because life is too short to waste on petty ill will. And perhaps I’m a little sad at reminding myself of the brevity of life, and the inevitability of death.

But there’s a sense of sadness, too, that’s almost esthetic. Seen as just one part of an entire life, this irritating flaw makes the whole more beautiful, like the craquelure on an old painting, the creases on an old, faded photograph, or the peeling paint and sagging timbers of an old New England barn.

The sadness is, for me at least, mingled with love and compassion. It’s freeing myself from the prison of the moment, and seeing the person not as a static thing, but as an ever-changing continuum that allows that to happen. When a person is seen as a fixed point in time and space, there is much to dislike. When a person is seen as an ever-evolving process, there is much to love.

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