Saturday, April 24, 2010


There is an old Chinese story about a new farmer. The farmer has just planted his first field of crops, and was very excited. Day after day, he would go out to the field, and see… dirt. Where were the crops? As one day passed into another, he grew more and more impatient. Finally, one day, he came in from the field covered in soil, his fingers muddy, with tiny shoots covering his clothing. When he was asked what had happened, this farmer replied: “My crops were taking too long, so I was helping them grow.”

One important value in spiritual life is patience. For me, it is probably the hardest value to master. In our modern times, it is a cliché that we want everything NOW. We have the greatest power in this day and age than in any time before. From washers and driers, to dishwashers, to cars, to computers, we have the ability to get what we want fairly quickly. It is no surprise that this attitude finds its way into spiritual practice.

The ancient sages have told us that we have been living our lives incorrectly. For many years. Perhaps for many lifetimes. Eons. We have formed habits of thinking and acting that have cut us off from our true natures. What we need to do is to cut through these habits, dissolve these blocks, be free of our past actions. So what we do is plant these seeds in our spiritual practice. But these seeds need time to grow. They need to be tended to. They need to be nurtured and cared for. So we practice. Perhaps we dedicate time to meditate, to practice yoga or chi kung, to be mindfully aware. We read spiritual books, have talks with spiritual friends. Over time, these seeds will develop and sprout of their own accord.
The human body takes time to grow and develop. Kids don’t grow taller faster by hanging weights from their ankles. Flowers need time to blossom. You cannot cook a cake by doubling the heat and cutting the time in half. We need patience.

The Bhagavad Gita says: No effort on this path is ever wasted.

So why is it so hard to be patient?

I remember the first time I met real spiritual teachers. At the time, my body and mind were on fire. I smoked. I drank. I cursed and swore. I was on an emotional cycle of high highs and depressive lows. My body was full of tension and aches. I felt desperate, as desperate as I would have felt had I just spend a week in the desert with nothing to drink. I wanted it all to stop, right NOW.
I was told at the first meeting: You can’t skip steps. This was so disappointing to me. After years of soul searching, I was ready for spiritual practice. I was eager to dedicate the necessary month or two, a year perhaps, to master the teaching!

Of course, it didn’t work like that. Patience is hard because it requires us to face the fact that we are absolutely powerless. At a certain point, there is nothing we can do. The universe operates according to its own laws, not on ours. Things manifest in cosmic time, not according to our personal schedule. The ego with its thoughts about how things should be is frustrated when it meets the way things actually are.

It is said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in something. That requires a lot of dedication, a lot of time, a lot of patience. We tend to understand this in the material world. It takes a long time to become a doctor or lawyer, to grow a business or raise a child. Yet, suddenly, we think the spiritual world should be an exception.

Like the Taoists before us, let’s look to nature to see what happens when things grow too quickly. In the body, this is known as cancer. In the environment, a plant or animal that reproduces too quickly upsets the whole system. Rapid growth is often a mutation, a deviation, an unnatural occurrence. If you come from dark into light too quickly, you can go blind. If you go from the hot to cold too quickly, your heart can literally stop. The same goes for the spiritual world. Most of the spiritual horror stories I have heard almost ALWAYS begins with someone trying to get ahead quickly.

Sudden rapid growth can burn out the system, producing illness, depression, insanity, or other dark things.

One of my initial teachers, sensing my impatience, did give me one thing to accelerate my progress. “If you want to speed up your development, pay more attention more often.”

Beyond this, sometimes we just have to wait for the seeds to sprout on their own.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

No Separation

According to common sense, we and the world are two things. There is us, that is, our bodies, minds, feelings, and sensations, and then there is an external world of hard, solid objects. This is a standard, culturally accepted way of looking at things. In spiritual language, this is the subject-object split, or the gap between ourselves and the universe.

It is also entirely wrong.

Advaita Vedanta is often called “The Direct Path.” I call it the “Direct Experience Path,” since most of its modern techniques rely on how we directly experience the world. The modern sages of Advaita, much like the Zen masters of old, ask “What is this separation?”

Looking in direct experience, we see six basic things: visual colors, sounds, touch sensations, and their internal counterparts, mental images, sounds, and feelings. If you and I are talking, I get a visual of your face and body (along with a blurred image of the room behind you), I get audio of your voice, I may reach out and touch you. If I like you, I will have pleasant inner feelings. If I don’t, I will have unpleasant inner feelings. There may be mental images/sounds that cross my mind when you talk. But this is how I experience you.

What I do not experience, in direct experience, is any separation at all. This is not to say that you and I are identical. In fact, thinking that unity means everything is identical is a mental trap, at least at a certain stage on the path. What I actually experience is a cluster of colors that I say is my body, and a cluster of colors I say is your body.

Take the body. We generally agree that the body is a single unit. This is not to say the hand is equal to the foot, or the arm to the leg. These different parts come together. They are one.

Now let’s examine a few definitions of separation and see if it holds to direct experience:

1. Objects are separated by physical space.

We know this isn’t true due to the body example. The foot and hand and separated by space, but still form a unit in the body.

2. Objects that are out of your attention cannot be a part of you.

The so-called physical world comes and goes. I am in my living room at one point, and in my bedroom at another. Surely, this is due to separation. But let’s examine that. Our thoughts come and go, but we consider them “our” thoughts. My appendix is outside my attention, but is still a part of my body. In fact, different parts of the body come and go into attention: I may forget about my big toe until I stub it, and then there it is in all its painful glory.

3. I cannot control objects, so they must not be a part of me.

This doesn’t work either. Consider your thoughts once again. Anyone who has tried to meditate quickly finds that their thoughts are not under control. If they were, as Francis Lucille points out, then you could fill your mind with happy, pleasant thoughts all the time. Additionally, when I say a word, say “boat”, your mind immediately conjures forth an image. You do not choose the image, you did not make a conscious decision whether it would be a word or a picture. If a word, you do not choose the size, type, or font. If a picture, you don’t draw it from scratch. It pops in, fully formed without any help from you.

Consider parts of your body you don’t control, at least not all the time. Blinking, breathing, the heart, digestion--- all of these proceed without our control as well. Anyone who has tried to learn a new physical skill will also clearly find the limits of their physical control.

4. I can’t feel objects, but I can feel my hand.

You can feel some parts of your body, some of the time. Few people can feel their tailbone without a lot of training. Or your cells. Your hair follicles. Many of our thoughts pass in our minds without arousing a significant feeling tone. On the other hand, if you see a child get injured, you may wince. If you see a dreary house on a rainy day, you may feel a little sad. The external world causes us feelings and sensations all the time.

5. The external world is constantly changing, so it can’t be me. My body changes much slower, and I see it all the time.

This doesn’t hold, either. If you cultivate sufficient attention through the day, you will find that you are always changing. Your mood, thoughts, habits all change. Talk to a spouse, significant other, or person of the opposite sex you are interested in. Now talk to a family member. Talk to a co-worker. You will find that you are much different in these situations.

The body changes, albeit slowly. Anyone who is old enough to read this can think back when their body was smaller. Everything changes. Thoughts change quickly. The body more slowly. The external world may change quickly or slowly. None of this indicates a separation.

6. Unified things share something in common. There is no link between my inner thoughts and a coffee cup.

There is a link. Awareness is the web in which all things exist. The thoughts appear in awareness, as does the coffee cup.

So what, then, is separation? It is an illusion imposed by the mind on your direct experience. In Advaita, they call this a “superimposition.” It is like cartoon cells. On one clear cell, you might draw the background. On a second one that overlays the first, you may draw a fish. The fish is imposed on the background. Likewise, you overlay your direct experience with concepts such as “me” and “you” “body” and “objects” and so forth.

In our lives, we have been told, directly or indirectly, that the world is made up of little independent objects. This is a lie that is placed on our direct experience. In reality, we experience a vast world of color, sounds, feelings and sensations. We just tell ourselves that some of these is an “I” and some of them are a “you.”

Now just realizing this intellectually is not enough. We have to keep seeing it, in direct experience, until the superimposition dissolves. These thought patterns are rooted habits, or sankaras, that can require time to erode.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Fork in the Road

Unlike many Buddhists, I believe that spiritual practice is driven by a higher power. Not like a personal God or anything like that, but a sort of hidden, unknown, mysterious power that I call “Cosmos” but could easily be called “Tao.” I’ve noticed that if I pay close attention, I pick up hidden signals through my daily life pointing me toward a teaching.

As a part of this practice, I like to randomly open spiritual books in bookstores and see what comes up. Most of the time, there is nothing special. The other day, I opened the book “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” and found the following passage:

Q: Can you remove the watcher by force? Wouldn't that be the game of evaluation again?

A: You do not have to regard the watcher as a villain. Once you begin to understand that the purpose of meditation is not to get higher but to be present, here, then the watcher is not efficient enough to perform that function, and it automatically falls away. The basic quality of the watcher is to try to be extremely efficient and active. But total awareness is something you already have, so ambitious or so-called efficient attempts to be aware are self-defeating. As the watcher begins to realize it is irrelevant, it begins to fall away.
What struck me was the phrase "the purpose of meditation is not to get higher but to be present." In fact, it struck me as hard as a punch in the gut, which is literally how it felt. Of course, this is Spirituality 101, we all know that the purpose of spiritual practice is not to get high, it’s to…

Well, what, exactly?

When I first got into practice, my goal was to end suffering. This is because I was deep in the hot pits od suffering every day. Now as you walk down the road of practice, many exciting and boring things may happen. You may experience high states of bliss, a deeply concentrated mind, or even mystical experiences such as feeling one with the universe. As one encounters these, it can be very tempting to chase them. Generally, this tendency takes an “unconscious” form. We’re such conditioned “bliss junkies” that we may not realize just how far this addiction goes. In one sense or another, it colors all our life. We may crave excitement or peace, wedded bliss or the excitement of single life, feeling love with our kids or fearing their loss, but in the end, it seems to amount to the same thing: a craving for a certain state.

The rest of the excerpt suggests that the way forward is not a way of doing, but non-doing. One of the points of the book is that the ego tries to use spiritual practice for the ends of the ego--- becoming a better, happier, whatever type of person.

The way of the Buddha and the Tao, however, cannot be a way of doing, attaining, and achieving. As I quoted before, the TTC says:

Pursue knowledge, daily gain
Pursue Tao, daily loss
Loss and more loss
Until one reaches unattached action
With unattached action, there is nothing one cannot do
Take the world by constantly applying non-interference
The one who interferes is not qualified to take the world
What did the Buddha say? The Third Noble Truth: The end of craving leads to the end of suffering. Buddhism isn’t about gaining something, but losing something--- craving.

In fact, this is also what Trungpa is saying: we already have total awareness. The point isn’t to go out and get it, but to realize we already have it.

If you reach this fork in the spiritual road, you have a choice to make. You need to figure out the aim of your spiritual practice. Is it, as Trungpa says, to be present? Is it to achieve something? What is it?