non-duality

Compassion is not superiority (Day 42)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

It’s very easy for us to assume that the one who feels compassion is in some way superior to the one he or she feels compassion for. This is partly rooted, I presume, in the assumption that it’s weak to suffer, but that assumption in turn grows from our biological conditioning. We’re social animals, and one of the things a social animal has as part of its genetic makeup is a propensity to establish where it stands in a social hierarchy.

In Buddhist terms this is “seeking status,” which is one pair of the eight lokadhammas, which could be translated as “ways of the world,” although it’s often poetically rendered as the “eight worldly winds.” The eight ways of the world are pairs of preoccupations corresponding to four ways of seeking security in our insecure world. They are:

  1. Gain and loss (materialism).
  2. High status and low status.
  3. Approval and disapproval.
  4. Pleasure and pain (hedonism).

We tend to chase after one item in each pair, but with status our biological conditioning is usually not to seek the highest status, but to find a comfortable position in the hierarchy and to maintain it. We can be comfortable playing the victim, or feeling superior, depending on our individual inclinations. But we gain comfort from knowing where we are in a pecking order.

Of course we can never find true security within the eight ways of the world, and spiritual maturity means becoming less and less invested in the pursuit of any of these ways of being. As we mature, gain, loss, status, approval, and pleasure-seeking should become less and less meaningful to us. We see that these are all impermanent, and that we can seek status, but never hold onto it. And inherent in trying to hold on to status is a sense of fear that we’ll lose what we think we’ve gained. So what we initially pursue as a source of security turns out, in the end, to be a source of insecurity.

In all spiritual practice there’s something going on that I call “unselfing.” This takes various forms, including less selfishness and grasping, less self-preoccupation and an increased ability to empathize with others, greater kindness and compassion, an ability to mindfully and joyfully lose ourselves (although not our awareness) in the “flow” of our experience, whether that’s in meditation or elsewhere, and a “seeing through” of the concept that we actually have a thing called a self.

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In fact, from a Buddhist point of view “conceit” is regarded as thinking of oneself as higher, lower, or equal to others. So what does that leave? It means basically that we don’t think in terms of status at all. We just be, with no obsession about who we are. We just live in the moment, acting spontaneously with no thought of self or other.

The Buddha said of those who are awakened:

Not as higher, lower, nor equal
do they refer to themselves.

But this should start to happen well before awakening, even though the process isn’t complete until then. Even right now, we can have more of a sense that we’re all in it together — you suffer, I suffer — and a loss of any assumption that “I’m OK, you’re not.”

If you do start feeling that you’re “looking down” on people when you’re cultivating compassion for them, see if you can simply let go of the tightness of self-clinging, and relax into the experience. Go with the flow. Ultimately there is no you, no other. There is simply suffering and a response to suffering.

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“The End of Your World” by Adyashanti

“The End of Your World,” by Adyashanti

Enlightenment used to be something of a dirty word in the west, or at least it used to be considered improper to make any claims to be enlightened. People would say this reticence was an “eastern thing” — a sign of how spiritually mature Asia was, because of course you would “just know” that someone was Enlightened.

This was always nonsense. Looking at the Buddhist scriptures it’s hard to ignore the Buddha’s “Lion’s Roar” where he declares that he is awakened. There are two entire books of the Buddhist scriptures — the Therigatha and Theragatha — which are entirely composed of verses composed by people declaring that they, too, were Enlightened.

Title: The End of Your World: Uncensored Straight Talk on the Nature of Enlightenment
Author: Adyashanti
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-779-1
Available from: Sounds True, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

So there’s nothing in the original Buddhist tradition that says you should be shy and bashful about your spiritual attainments. (Falsely claiming spiritual attainments is, of course, frowned upon, but that’s an entirely different matter.) So how did this myth arise? I suspect that in many cases western teachers were not saying whether they were enlightened or not because they hoped people would think they were. Often teachers are as bashful about saying that they are not awakened as about saying that they are. How delicious to keep people guessing!

But all that is changing. Western teachers — some of them very impressive individuals — are beginning to “come out” and to proclaim their awakening. They’re also explicitly teaching others how to wake up to reality. Adyashanti is one of those. Initially trained in the Zen tradition, Adya (as he is known) is now something of a post-Buddhist freewheeling non-dualist, having shed his Zen persona along with his ego. As best as I can gather, he doesn’t teach meditation, but instead offers “satsangs” (a term he has borrowed from the Hindu non-dualist tradition) where he simply talks.

He says,

“I’m not the kind of spiritual teacher who has a personal relationship with my students. I come, I teach, we interact when I teach, but I don’t have a retreat center; I don’t have an avenue in which we relate in a casual way.”

The End of Your World is an attempt to help others who may be experiencing awakening, or have experienced it, or have experienced something that they think might be awakening. It’s aimed at those who are confused about what the next step might be, or who are baffled by finding that spiritual awakening actually might bring with it a whole set of problems. The book has an authentic ring to it, and I have no doubt that Adya is in fact enlightened.

Adya has a broad definition of awakening. He includes not only permanent insights, but temporary experiences of non-duality. Thus, experiences that that the Buddhist tradition would emphatically deny are states of true awakening (the fourth jhana, and any of the so-called formless jeans) might be regarded by Adya as experiences of enlightenment. He does acknowledge that “some would say that if an awakening is momentary, it is not a real awakening,” but goes on to dismiss this on the grounds that non-abiding awakening (as he calls it) is on a trajectory toward the real deal. I’m not entirely convinced by this. On the one hand I see it as a kind of “spiritual grade inflation” (great for self-esteem!) but on the other hand I do think that experiences of selfless non-duality are important steps toward awakening and shouldn’t be undervalued.

Adya deals with the fact that awakening can be disorienting, and even painful, because in finding the truth we need to look at things more honestly, and this might be difficult. He says in fact that “in order to awaken, we must break out of the paradigm of always seeking to feel better.” He points out that once the enlightened state begins to manifest, there is a conflict with the remaining ego. Sometimes there is a conflict because they ego is dissolving, and the personality is changing. This presents the problem of coping with change. Sometimes the ego tries to co-opt the enlightened experience. The ego, for example, says “How do I stay in the awakened state?” The awakened state has no need of such questions, of course. Better questions for the ego, Adya points out, would be, “How is it that I’m unenlightening myself? How is it specifically that I’m putting myself back in illusion.” Enlightenment is, clearly a process.

One thing that disappointed me, in a small way, about Adya’s presentation of this process was that there’s no reference to the traditional Buddhist conception of the stages of awakening: stream entry, once-returner, non-returner, arahant. There are, naturally, other ways to approach the process of awakening (even within the Buddhist tradition — and the categories I mentioned are not used in the Zen tradition he is steeped in) but I would have liked to see his take on these stages of enlightenment. However, Adya does things his own way, and uses his own language and images, which is actually rather refreshing. His presentation is lively, and original, and it is engaging because of its being utterly unfettered by traditional language.

The author offers up a fair degree of spiritual autobiography, detailing his “first awakening” at the age of 25, and his “final awakening” at the age of 32, along with the ups and downs that came in between. Sometimes he seems a little coy; he repeatedly mentions his “Zen teacher,” under whom he studied for 14 or 15 years, without once mentioning her name. (I know from other sources that her name is Arvis Joen Justi, and that she was a disciple, although not an appointed Dharma Heir, of Maezumi Roshi. She’s now retired, so perhaps Adya didn’t want a bunch of readers seeking her out so that they could replicate his path). Other times he seems very candid, talking for example about a post-awakening “dysfunctional disaster” of a relationship, although he spares us the details.

As a teacher, Adya strikes me as being very nondogmatic. Teachers of nondualism can be very strong on criticizing the active cultivation of awakening through meditation and other practices. You’re supposed to just “wake up” without all of that malarky (although often those same teachers have done a lot of meditation themselves). Adya is careful not to cling to a position on this. “The truth,” he says, “never lies in any polarized statement or dualistic formulation.” Thus he recognizes that there are times we should push forward with effort, and other times we should “let grace do what only grace can do.”

Whether or not you’re awakened, and whether or not you’re on the Buddhist path, I think you’ll enjoy spending time with this very fresh, creative teacher.

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Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in meditation study

Matt Danzico: In a laboratory tucked away off a noisy New York City street, a soft-spoken neuroscientist has been placing Tibetan Buddhist monks into a car-sized brain scanner to better understand the ancient practice of meditation.

But could this unusual research not only unravel the secrets of leading a harmonious life but also shed light on some of the world’s more mysterious diseases?

Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, says he has been peering into the brains of monks while they meditate in an attempt to understand how their brains reorganise themselves during the exercise.

Since 2008, the researcher has been placing the minds and bodies of prominent Buddhist figures into a five-tonne (5,000kg) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

The scanner tracks blood flow within the monks’ heads as they meditate inside its clunky walls, which echoes a musical rhythm when the machine is operating.

Dr Josipovic, who also moonlights as a Buddhist monk, says he is hoping to find how some meditators achieve a state of “nonduality” or “oneness” with the world, a unifying consciousness between a person and their environment.

“One thing that meditation does for those who practise it a lot is that it cultivates attentional skills,” Dr Josipovic says, adding that those harnessed skills can help lead to a more tranquil and happier way of being.

“Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising Read the rest of this article…

because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn’t know previously was possible.”

When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.

And this reorganisation in the brain may lead to what some meditators claim to be a deep harmony between themselves and their surroundings.
Shifting attention

Dr Josipovic’s research is part of a larger effort better to understand what scientists have dubbed the default network in the brain.

He says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.

The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee.

The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions.

But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down.

This neural set-up allows individuals to concentrate more easily on one task at any given time, without being consumed by distractions like daydreaming.

“What we’re trying to do is basically track the changes in the networks in the brain as the person shifts between these modes of attention,” Dr Josipovic says.

Dr Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation – that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously.

And Dr Josipovic believes this ability to churn both the internal and external networks in the brain concurrently may lead the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment.
Self-reflection

Scientists previously believed the self-reflective, default network in the brain was simply one that was active when a person had no task on which to focus their attention.

But researchers have found in the past decade that this section of the brain swells with activity when the subject thinks about the self.

The default network came to light in 2001 when Dr Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in the US state of Missouri, began scanning the brains of individuals who were not given tasks to perform.

The patients quickly became bored, and Dr Raichle noticed a second network, that had previously gone unnoticed, danced with activity. But the researcher was unclear why this activity was occurring.

Other scientists were quick to suggest that Dr Raichle’s subjects could have actually been thinking about themselves.

Soon other neuroscientists, who conducted studies using movies to stimulate the brain, found that when there was a lull of activity in a film, the default network began to flash – signalling that research subjects may have begun to think about themselves out of boredom.

But Dr Raichle says the default network is important for more than just thinking about what one had for dinner last night.

“Researchers have wrestled with this idea of how we know we are who we are. The default mode network says something about how that might have come to be,” he says.

And Dr Raichle adds that those studying the default network may also help in uncovering the secrets surrounding some psychological disorders, like depression, autism and even Alzheimer’s disease.

“If you look at Alzheimer’s Disease, and you look at whether it attacks a particular part of the brain, what’s amazing is that it actually attacks the default mode network,” says Dr Raichle, adding that intrinsic network research, like Dr Josipovic’s, could assist in explaining why that is.

Cindy Lustig, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan, agrees.

“It’s a major and understudied network in the brain that seems to be very involved in a lot of neurological disorders, including autism and Alzheimer’s, and understanding how that network interacts with the task-oriented [extrinsic] network is important,” she says. “It is sort of the other piece of the puzzle that’s been ignored for too long.”

Dr Josipovic has scanned the brains of more than 20 experienced meditators, both monks and nuns who primarily study the Tibetan Buddhist style of meditation, to better understand this mysterious network.

He says his research, which will soon be published, will for the moment continue to concentrate on explaining the neurological implications of oneness and tranquillity – though improving understanding of autism or Alzheimer’s along the way would certainly be quite a bonus.

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Aldous Huxley: “We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge…”

Halfway between “the season of goodwill” and Valentine’s Day, Bodhipaksa looks at Huxley’s understanding of what love really is. Is love a feeling, or is it a way of knowing?

What do we mean when we say the word “love”? What does it really mean to love someone? In what way is love “a mode of knowledge.” When we’re talking about the fact that we love ice cream we obviously mean something very different from the love we talk about having for a person. One’s just a simple desire for sense-fulfillment while the other is much more complex. But even when we talk about loving another person there are many different forms of love. At one extreme there’s a kind of “love” where we don’t really see the other person at all: a love that’s based on projection and on wishful thinking, a love where we idolize the other.

Lovingkindness is not conditional in any way. It’s based on an empathetic resonance with the other person.

In a similar vein, there’s also a form of love that’s highly conditional. We love the other person as long as they’re enjoyable to be with, or as long as their desires are in accord with ours, as long as we get what we want, perhaps as long as the other person doesn’t change. When conditions change — for example when we stop getting what we want, or when the other person ages, our “love” collapses.

The love that Huxley talks about here is something very close to what Buddhism calls metta or lovingkindness. It’s not conditional in any way. It’s based on an empathetic resonance with the other person — or to put it more simply, we are aware of the other person as a feeling being, we are aware that just like us the other person wants to be happy and wants to escape suffering. This is just about the most basic thing that we have in common with others. Although this is a very basic form of knowing, it’s not an easy thing to remember that others have the same basic aspirations as we do. But when we do experience metta we can hold love in our hearts for others whether or not we like them or even know them. It’s a completely unconditional love.

Whenever we want something from another person, there’s a danger that we’ll lose sight of that basic commonality, that sense that we’re all in it together, sharing a mode of being in which suffering and its end are our deepest drives and our deepest connection. We can lose touch with this understanding very easily. Just think about when you’re in a hurry and other people do things that delay you — they stop you to have “a quick word” or they drive in front of you more slowly than you would like. We can very easily see another person as an obstacle rather than as a fully-fledged fellow human being. Whenever we crave something from another person we’ll tend to lose sight of their humanity and see them primarily in terms of what we want from them, even if that’s just to get out of our way.

When we know the longing for happiness that lies in the heart of all beings we can start to really love them.

As Huxley says, we can only love what we know. When we know the longing for happiness that lies in the heart of all beings we can start to really love them. Without that awareness, we can’t love other being in any full sense. So metta (lovingkindness) involves a certain kind of knowing, or insight, into the nature of sentient beings. Lovingkindness requires a degree of insight.

Talking about love in this way though is very general, though. All beings want to be happy. All beings want to be free from suffering. But we don’t just love people en masse. We can love humanity, but we’re not ourselves fully human unless we love particular human beings. This is perhaps why the development of lovingkindness meditation doesn’t just include the last stage, which is where we send thoughts of lovingkindness out towards all beings. There are a number (either four or five, depending on the exact form of the practice) of stages where we cultivate lovingkindness towards people we know personally. In cultivating metta in this way we are developing relationships based on love and appreciation, especially when we’re cultivating metta for someone we already regard as a friend.

Love involves curiosity and appreciation.

A word for this particular form of love is friendship (as opposed to the general “friendliness” of the final stage of the practice), but even that doesn’t do the word justice. The powerful bond that can form between two people, whether or not they’re romantically connected to each other, can’t really be called anything but “love,” no matter how ambiguous and overloaded that term is. Love that seeks to “know completely” is what I think of as real love, with the other meanings of this multivalent word being mere shadows and distortions.

What Huxley’s quote reminds me is that this kind of love involves curiosity and appreciation of another person. We want to know the other person on ever deeper levels. Even clashing with a person we really love leads to us wanting to understand them (and our relationship with them, and hence ourselves) even more. This kind of love involves a deep desire to know and understand another person intimately, because that kind of knowing is the most satisfying thing we can do in life.

Wisdom and compassion are not in fact two different but conjoined qualities. They are one thing.

This I think takes us somewhat beyond simple lovingkindness (although there’s nothing very simple about it) and into the realm of insight. There are many words used to describe insight, but one of the more interesting is “vidyā,” which Sangharakshita parses (PDF) as “aesthetic, appreciative understanding.” One Sanskrit dictionary includes in its definition of vidyā, “knowledge of soul.” Vidyā, as a form of wisdom, is a “mode of knowledge,” and it seems to unite in some way the traditional understanding of wisdom (as a kind of cognitive understanding) and compassion.

Wisdom and compassion together are the two “wings” of enlightenment, and are considered to be inseparable. Vidyā makes it clear that wisdom and compassion are not in fact two different but conjoined qualities. They are one thing, which the unawakened mind persists in seeing in a dualistic way. The term vidyā rather beautifully helps us to overcome that dualistic tendency.

So this I think is what love is in its fullest sense: it’s vidyā, a desire to know ourselves and others completely, an appreciative desire to understand reality to its very depths. Love is a mode of knowledge, or even a mode of exploration. The more we love, the more we want to understand, and the more we understand, the more we love.

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Brain activity altered during religious experience

In America there’s a feeling of Christmas. But that’s not the only winter holiday going on. Jews are lighting Hanukkah candles, Muslims recently feasted on Eid al-Adha, and pagans celebrated the solstice. So it’s a good time for researchers to consider spirituality—from a scientific point of view.

One experience central to major religions around the world is that of transcendence, the idea of almost losing a sense of self to the feeling that there’s something bigger out there. Now scientists at the University of Missouri say they’ve located that experience in our brains. All the people studied, from Buddhist monks in meditation to Francescan nuns in prayer, experience this transcendence. And they all have decreased activity in the right parietal lobe of the brain. That area has to do with senses such as orienting yourself in the space around you. The study was published in Zygon: Journal of Religion & Science.

Interestingly, people with injuries to the right parietal lobe report increased levels of spiritual experiences. The researchers are quick to say that this connection doesn’t minimize the role of religion, and that religious or spiritual experiences might decrease activity in that region and thus increase that special feeling of transcendence. Just in time for the holidays.

From Scientific American.

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Mysticism: where the dharma rubber hits the road

Mount Saint Helens, Washington State, USA

In Sunada’s view, mysticism isn’t about indulging in out-of-body experiences as a way of escaping the world. It’s about meeting the world head-on and learning directly from it. It’s about as practical as it gets.

If you’ve been reading my blog articles for a while, you may have gathered by now that I’m a rather down-to-earth sort of practitioner, with a keen interest in how meditation and Buddhist practice interplays with the practical aspects of our daily lives. So when I heard that this month’s topic was Mysticism, well, my first impulse was to take a pass. How does Mysticism relate to everyday life? Like Bodhipaksa (as he mentions in his related article), my first stop was a dictionary. And I was somewhat surprised by what I found. It gave the following definition:

Mysticism: a doctrine of an immediate spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding.

With this definition in hand, I’ve changed my view of what mysticism is all about. It’s actually a central part of Buddhist practice, and very much a practical matter. It’s our experience of spiritual intuition that moves the teachings from the realm of intellectual thoughts and concepts into one of personally meaningful truths that inform how we live our lives.

One of those experiences happened to me in 1995 during a vacation to the state of Washington, and a visit to Mount St. Helens. St. Helens had erupted catastrophically fifteen years earlier, causing the most destructive volcanic event in all of US history. After several weeks of rumbling earthquakes and steam-venting, it finally in May of 1980 erupted so violently that its entire north face blew off. Hot gases and ash spewed outward for miles in diameter, instantly roasting and flattening everything in their path.

My husband and I hiked to the peak of a nearby ridge where we came upon an unobstructed panoramic view of massive destruction on a scale beyond belief. As far as I could see, everything was dead and ash-covered. From where we stood, what I knew had once been a dense forest of 40-foot pine trees appeared as though someone had thrown down millions of charred toothpicks. Bare blackened sticks were all that remained — all lying on the ground. But strangely, they were all neatly pointing in the same outward direction from the epicenter of the blast. It was a terrible but beautiful and awesome sight.

Mysticism is a central part of Buddhist practice, and very much a practical matter.

I have no idea how long I stood there taking in that vista. In my stunned silence, time had stopped. In one sense, I felt incredibly small and insignificant in the face of such vast power and devastation. But at the same time, I also felt empowered by its greatness. In an odd way that I can’t explain even now, I felt like I was a part of this greatness, that somehow its magnificence was something that was very much alive and part of me. It was my first intuitive inkling of life as something universal. I wasn’t a separate and independent being, but part of something much greater that incorporated the earth and sky as much as my own puny body.

These kinds of encounters can happen at any moment, in the most ordinary of circumstances. It can happen when talking with a close friend, when a shared moment seems to dissolve all boundaries between us. Or when reading a moving novel, or listening to evocative music, or seeing a work of art that touches us – when we get a glimpse into something in a way that we can’t put into words, but it hits home deeply within ourselves. We’re taken out of our small self-centered viewpoint and see something bigger, something beyond, something universal. I’m sure many of us have had experiences of this sort at one time or another. We may not know what to make of the experience as it’s happening. It may take years or decades for it to mature into something we can even begin to talk about. But something inside gets stirred.

I wasn’t a separate and independent being, but part of something much greater.

I know that Buddhism appeals to many people, myself included, because its teachings are rational and for the most part built upon observable phenomena. But to leave it at that would be to categorize Buddhism as a philosophy or an intellectual pursuit – which falls far short of its true significance.

To truly take up the practice of the dharma is to open ourselves up to the invitation of those intuitive experiences. We can’t make them happen, of course. But we can stay open and receptive, keep a stance of curiosity and wonder, and refrain from our habitual ways of sizing up situations and overlaying them with expectations or fears. As we practice this more and more, our skills at observing and perceiving become clearer and more refined. And that in turn allows us to see more deeply for ourselves the truth behind the Buddha’s words. We begin to change as well, as we become wiser in our ways of responding to our experiences, and that inspires us to go further still. And the cycle continues upward. This is true practice of the dharma.

So, mysticism is not about going into weird trances or out-of-body experiences as a way of escaping from our world. Far from it! It’s really a way of delving more and more deeply in the world, meeting it head-on, and learning from the school of hard knocks, as the saying goes. It’s about learning and growing from life itself. I can’t think of anything more practical than that.

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“Gesture of Awareness,” by Charles Genoud

Gesture of Awareness, by Charles GenoudHow useful can books be in stimulating spiritual realization, when such realization must be grounded in experience? Paramananda takes a skeptical — yet appreciative — look at a new book attempting to pointing the way to non-duality.

It seems a little ironic that I find myself in two minds about Genoud’s book — ironic because this slim volume is all about “being” in one mind. It is not that I in any way disagree with what Genoud is trying to point the reader towards, which is the essential non-dual nature of reality. It is more that I am just a little skeptical that such “pointings” are of much use when they appear in a generalized form such as a book.

We all love those Zen stories along the lines of the Master giving the student a sharp whack and the student waking up from his deluded state. What we tend to forget is that the student has in all likelihood been sitting zazen for eight hours a day for the last ten years, with the Master observing him closely, before he administers the “enlightening” blow.

What concerns me then is the effect of such “direct” methods on those that are not ripe for the blow. Here I am of course risking being thought of as some sort of spiritual elitist, which particularly in our modern culture is often viewed with much disdain.

As I have started on this track I might as well nail my colors to the mast: I, for instance, felt the incredible popular “The Power of Now,” by Ekhart Tolle, probably sent people up the garden path. It might be that someone could attain “insight” if hit over the head with the book at just the right time but I do not think that they will do so by reading it. There is not only a paradox at the heart of spiritual “truth,” there is also one at the heart of such books, which is along the lines of: Those who think that they have “got it” have certainly not got “it.” Moreover I fear that what they have got is just a more sophisticated ego.

Genoud does, however, attempt to avoid appealing to its readers’ tendency towards inflation (a tendency we all have) and his approach is both subtle and intriguing. His book is probably as good as a book of this sort can be. In fact it is very good. It is elegantly written with a visual and poetic form. What is most appealing to me about it is that it attempts to help the reader realize the truth of “emptiness” through direct experience of the body. Here Genoud is, I feel, on to something very important.

As I feel that the majority of people in the West who take up spiritual practice are dis-embodied: that is they are not in an intimate feeling relationship to their own bodies. If I am only partially correct any spiritual approach that does not address the body is unlikely to bear fruit.

However there is an aspect of the book that I did find problematic, besides the general point I have made above, and this is to do the relationship between the body and the imagination. Genoud seemed to have no place for the imagination. It seems to me that it is the imagination that links the felt experience of the body to the “thought” experience of the mind. This being the case there is no spiritual life, no compassion, without the imagination, Our ability to feel compassion depends on being able to feel our own suffering and then through an act of imagination, put ourselves in the shoes of others. I am not sure where the imagination is in Genoud’s approach. For a book that displayed such imagination in structure and form I felt that Genoud too readily dismisses, or at least neglects, the imagination.

However the book did make me feel that a retreat with its author would be a challenging and worthwhile experience. The style of the book is such that I feel a little like I was on retreat I do hope that people read it and then go and sit with its writer, who is clearly a teacher worth experiencing further.


Paramananda Paramananda has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1985, and is a widely respected meditation teacher.

He was chairman of the West London Buddhist Centre 1988–1993, and chairman of the San Francisco Centre 1994–2002.

Paramananda’s books include Change Your Mind and A Deeper Beauty.

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