Saturday, November 19, 2005

Bibliomantic Quote of the Day

Sometimes when I am feeling uninspired, I will open a book I like to some random page and read whatever I find there. I call this process bibliomancy--I'm sure I didn't invent the word or the practice. Today's book is The Simple Feeling of Being by Ken Wilber, a thematic collection of quotes from his published works.

From Collected Works 4: "Stages of Meditation," pages 357-58.

When you practice meditation, one of the first things you realize is that your mind--and your life, for that matter--is dominated by largely subconscious verbal chatter. You are always talking to yourself. And so, as they start to meditate, many people are stunned by how much junk starts running through their awareness. They find that thoughts, images, fantasies, notions, ideas, concepts virtually dominate their awareness. They realize that these notions have had a much more profound influence on their lives that they ever thought.

In any case, initial meditation experiences are like being at the movies. You sit and watch all these fantasies and concepts parade by, in front of your awareness. But the whole point is that you are finally becoming aware of them. You are looking at them impartially and without judgment. You just watch them go by, the same as you watch clouds float by in the sky. They come, they go. No praise, no condemnation, no judgment--just "bare witnessing." If you judge your thoughts, if you get caught up in them, then you can't transcend them. You can't find higher or subtler dimensions of your own being. So you sit in meditation, and you simply "witness" what is going on in your mind. You let the monkey mind do what it wants, and you simply watch.

And what happens is, because you impartially witness these thoughts, fantasies, notions, and images, you start to become free of their unconscious influence. You are looking at them, so you are not using them to look at the world. Therefore you become, to a certain extent, free of them. And you become free of the separate self-sense that depended on them. In other words, you start to become free of the ego.

The quote continues for a couple of more paragraphs, providing a glimpse of the higher-order consciousness--nondual awareness--that will eventually develop. Most of us will not have more than a brief taste of that state in our lifetimes.

My practice has been frustrating lately, so this quote comes as a reminder of why I sit and that sitting is about the process, not the results.

One of the key points from this passage is the idea that we develop, through meditation, the power to witness our thoughts rather than having them dictate our consciousness. Possessing an observer self, that part of consciousness that stands behind our thoughts and witnesses them as they come up and dissipate, is crucial to nearly all higher-level psychological work we will ever do. If we cannot take a step back from ourselves and witness our thoughts, actions, and behaviors, we do not possess the freedom to change them.

I have been working with my inner critic for the past several months. Of all the parts of myself I have tried to work with, the critic is the toughest. As an introject, it wormed its way into my life at a very young age, before I had the rational thought processes to question it.

Sitting has helped me hear the voice of my critic as a distinct voice. That is why I sit--to know myself better, to witness and release whatever comes up. Most importantly, sitting allows me to accept whatever comes up as a part of who I am. Attachment and rejection only feed the energy of the thing, whatever it is, but pure acceptance reduces the charge it might carry.

The more I sit, the quieter my mind becomes.

Stuart Davis on U2

Stuart Davis has a wide knowledge of music, and he thinks U2 is the greatest example of depth and span in a band since the Beatles--"Depth being the degree of their interior spiritual, emotional, cognitive, artistic (etc) development; Span being their outward success in radio, tv, sales, all the objective markers that business enterprises meaasure."

Check out his thoughts here.

After reading Stuart's thoughts on U2, I'd love to hear what anyone else thinks on this subject. Personally, I'm a huge Peter Gabriel and REM fan--these guys (and Live) are the musicians who speak to me in a big way. A close second is David Sylvian.

Please add your picks in the comments section.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Equanimity

The new issue of Tricycle has an article, "A Perfect Balance," by Gil Fronsdal and Sayadaw U Pandita, on cultivating equanimity. As I read the section by U Pandita, I found myself thinking, "Yeah, it's not quite that easy for most of us."

Before launching into my objections to the article, here are a couple of quotes that provide the Buddha's views on equanimity.

As a solid mass of rock
Is not stirred by the wind,
So a sage is not moved
By praise and blame.
As a deep lake
Is clear and undisturbed,
So a sage becomes clear
Upon hearing the Dharma.
Virtuous people always let go.
They don't prattle about pleasures and desires.
Touched by happiness and then by suffering,
The sage shows no sign of being elated or depressed.
---Dhammapada, 81-83

Equanimity is characterized as promoting neutrality toward all beings. Its function is to see equality in beings. It is manifested as the quieting of resentment and approval. Its proximate cause is seeing ownership of deeds (karma) thus: "Beings are owners of their deeds. Whose (if not theirs) is the choice by which they will become happy, or will get free from suffering, or will not fall away from the success they have reached?" It succeeds when it makes resentment and approval subside, and it fails when it produces the equanimity of unknowing.
---Visuddhimagga, 9.96
With this basic understanding of equanimity in hand, U Pandita offers five ways that each of us can cultivate more equanimity in our lives.

1) Balanced emotion toward all living things
2) Balanced emotion toward all inanimate things
3) Avoiding people who go "crazy"
4) Choosing friends who stay cool
5) Inclining the mind toward balance

(These ideas are from In This Very Life by Sayadaw U Pandita, copyright 1991.)

Numbers 3 and 4 seem pretty easy. We can certainly make wise choices about our friends and the people with whom we surround ourselves. However, the other three items fall into the "easier said than done" category.

Here are some of U Pandita's suggestions for generating more equanimity toward all living beings:

To prepare the ground for equanimity to arise, one should try to cultivate an attitude of nonattachment and equanimity toward the people and animals we love.

One reflection that can develop nonattachment is to regard all beings as the heirs of their own karma. People reap the rewards of good karma and suffer the consequences of unwholesome acts.

You can also gain equanimity about beings by reflecting on ultimate reality. Perhaps you can tell yourself that, ultimately speaking, there is only mind and matter. Where is that person you are so madly in love with? There is only nama and rupa, mind and body, arising and passing away from moment to moment.

Most of U Pandita's advice has a similar tone and content. For the most part, I find this of little use and unrealistic for most Buddhist students.

When I am working on developing equanimity in my own life, I find it crucial to look at the source of the attachment in as much detail as possible. Thinking about the nature of ultimate reality does me little good when a coworker is irritating me to the point that I can't get any work done or I feel like breaking something. Simply telling myself not to be attached to the feelings I am experiencing will not solve the problem, either.

What does work, however, is for me to look at what the person (or his/her actions) represent to me, and most importantly, is there something about the person (or his/her actions) that I see in myself that makes me uncomfortable. Most often, this is where the solution is to be found. As an example, a couple of years ago I had a coworker who I felt was self-obsessed, inconsiderate, childish, rude, and generally unpleasant to be around. He made me crazy on a daily basis. When I looked more closely at the situation, I realized that he was exhibiting exaggerated traits that I disliked in myself. When I began to work with those aspects of myself and got to know them better, he no longer set me off so easily. I had to reclaim my projection, as a therapist might say.

Similarly, when I was a very young man in college, I was crazy in love with a young woman. My self-esteem hinged on everything she did--either she was nice to me and I was a good person, or she was indifferent and I was worthless. I was so attached to her loving me and to our relationship that I completely lost myself for the time we were together. When I finally was able to reclaim my projection of self-worth from that relationship, I was suddenly able to see our time together in a whole new way.

When we become attached to people or things, there are usually deep psychological reasons that must be addressed if we want to release those attachments. It is not a simple matter of choosing not to be attached, or reframing the person, thing, or relationship in terms of ultimate reality. We must dig in the dirt of our souls to uproot the attachment from the place where it originally began to grow. Otherwise, it will simply grow again in a slightly different way from its original roots.

The single best practice for developing equanimity is daily mindfulness. If we start with one attachment we want to rid ourselves of and work each day to be aware of it when it surfaces, we will be well on our way to removing its roots. It won't happen in a week, and maybe not even in a year, but it will happen if we are willing to look honestly at ourselves and our motivations. I have found no other way to uproot deeply held attachments.

If you haven't worked on mindfulness before, have a look at some of Pema Chodron's or Lama Surya Das's books. Insight meditation can also be adapted to a daily practice away from the cushion.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Moral Hierarchy and Singularity

Another item from the new issue of What Is Enlightenment?

In an article called "Moral Hierarchy: The Key to Evolving Consciousness," Jason Hill argues in favor a new and improved understanding of moral hierarchy. For him, moral hierarchy seems to be more of a process and relationship than a static object.

He distinguishes between the hierarchee, the one who is seeking a wise teacher to whom one can voluntarily surrender the self for the evacuation of its "twisted inner logics, justifications, rationalizations, and obsessions," and the hierarcher. In this approach, surrender to the guru is not simply "passive submission," but rather becomes "a form of radical intersubjectivity."

The hierarcher is the guru, the wise one, the teacher who possesses, through direct experience of nondual consciousness, an inner moral compass superior to other mortals. "His moral center of gravity is a seat of compassion and humble gratitude for the blessings of being a high-order being." Further, "he is driven by a burning desire to evoke the discovery of the God that exists in the Great Beyond in us."

At this point, a more extensive quote is necessary in order to introduce Hill's variation on the notion of "singularity."

Noble spiritual cartographers that they are, moral hierarchers relieve us of the need to play hide-and-seek with ourselves. At various times in meditative reflection, I find myself asking: "Why are you playing hide-and-seek with yourself?" "Why do those you know intimately play such games?" The answer, I believe, is that we play this game because the hiding grants us solace from the burden of that which we are intermittently driven to seek: our raw, naked singularity. Our singularity terrifies us. It is not the same as individuality, which we often conflate with the type of music we like, the values and principles we self-righteously cling to, or our deepest sense of self-image. Singularity is the embodiment of our entire being--down to the smallest cellular and microscopic aspect of our corporeal bodies--as well as the nonsubstantive immaterial spirit that is both contained in and outside our bodies.

Our singularity terrifies us because we know that there is no other like it. To live a life faithful to its architectural spirit, to live in accordance with the demands of its identity (which is singularly our own but has a share in a greater singularity--The One--from which our indubitable version derives its imprint) is to live a life alone in the midst of others.

The moral hierarcher as spiritual teacher is like the brave bodhisattva reconciling us to this blessed aloneness by pointing a path toward our own singularity.

I like the idea of singularity as Hill presents it here. The only problem for any widespread use and adoption of this term is that the futurist people have already appropriated the term in reference to their notion of a coming time "when societal, scientific and economic change is so fast we cannot even imagine what will happen from our present perspective, and when humanity will become posthumanity." Renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil has just published The Coming Singularity. The AI people think this leap will involve human-machine hybrids.

What fun!?

So, back to Hill's version of singularity. His conception gives us a way to conceptualize Wilber's Atman Project, the evolutionary principal in Spiral Dynamics, and just about any other model that proposes the evolution of human consciousness into the nondual realm.

One last quote:

The moral hierarcher as spiritual teacher, however, is ultimately dealing with the immaterial as he engages us in the path toward evolutionary consciousness. Ultimately, to compromise would be to act as if the God in the Great Beyond in all of us exists as a different God in the corporeal house of each. This is the difference between New Age spirituality and an authentic guide toward evolutionary consciousness. Unassailable dignity is the location of one's singularity. In that inviolate space resides the God in the Great Beyond.

This is the paradox. This is the mystery to be contemplated. And this is the eternal gift of the moral hierarcher as spiritual teacher: The discovery and practice of singularity requires an unbreachable uniformity and implacable non-compromise.

Hill is positing a "one, true God" in this quote, but it is stripped of the religious baggage such claims usually carry. He is speaking of God as nondual consciousness, ungendered, fully manifest in matter as well as ineffable. This is the transcendent divinity--pure Spirit--so many of the world's great mystics have described.

I think this is a useful concept for our discussions. I hope to explore this idea further in future posts. Any thoughts any of you have would be appreciated.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Sunday Poem: Theodore Roethke

In a Dark Time

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood --
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.

What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks -- is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.

A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is --
Death of the self in a long tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.

Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.

Theodore Roethke (1908-1963) taught at the University of Washington, in Seattle, for most of his career. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking: Poems 1933-1953. His early work is marked by plant imagery of growth and decay, which was a result of growing up around his father's greenhouse and its strangely beautiful dance of life and death. He also shows a mystic side of himself that sometimes echoes William Butler Yeats, as is evident in the poem above.

Like many of Roethke's poems, this one moves from despair toward hope. The final two lines are as transcendent as Roethke ever was in any of his verse. That this poem was among his last stands as a testament to the lifelong process of how far Roethke would go to find out who he was.

This is a classic "Dark Night of the Soul" poem, both in its literal context and in its thematic elements. Roethke encounters his shadow, knows "the purity of pure despair," feels himself to be on an edge, and experiences the "death of the self." Yet he climbs out of his fear--having lost the discernment of "which I is I"--and out of this despair emerges an experience of oneness with God.

All of us go through hard times, and if we are on a path of spiritual growth, no matter which faith or approach, we are sure to have one or more Dark Nights of our own. The finite self never wants to give up its hold on us, and in an effort to keep its place at the center of its world, it will drag us into the depths of hell. But it is the descent that makes transcendence possible, just as Roethke found in today's poem.