contemplativeinquiry

This blog is about contemplative inquiry

Month: September, 2017

A PERSPECTIVE ON ‘SELFLESSNESS’

In his ‘Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion’, Sam Harris talks about the experience of ‘selflessness’ as “right on the surface” of consciousness rather than a ‘deep’ feature of it. Yet “people can meditate for years without recognizing it”. Harris focuses his discussion on the work of Douglas Harding (www.headless.org ), its dismissal by other cognitive scientists, and his own take on what is happening. The piece includes an exercise, so that readers can explore for themselves.

“It is both amusing and instructive to note that [Harding’s] teachings were singled out for derision by the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter (in collaboration with my friend Daniel Dennett), a man of wide learning and great intelligence who, it would appear, did not understand what Harding was talking about. Here is a portion of text that Hofstadter criticized:

What actually happened was something absurdly simple and unspectacular: I stopped thinking. A peculiar quiet, an odd kind of limpness or numbness, came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter died down. For once, words really failed me. I forgot who and what I was, my name, manhood, animal-hood, all that could be called mine. It was as if I had been born that instant, brand new, mindless, innocent of all memories. There existed only the Now, the present moment and what was clearly given in it. To look was enough. And what I found was khaki legs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in an absolutely nothing whatsoever! Certainly not in a head.

“It took me no time at all to notice that this nothing, this hole where a head should have been, was no ordinary vacancy, no more nothing. On the contrary, it was very much occupied. It was a vast emptiness, vastly filled, a nothing that found room for everything: room for grass, trees, shadowy distant hills, and far above them snow-peaks like a row of angular clouds riding the blue sky. I had lost a head and gained a world … Here it was, this superb scene, brightly shining in the clear air, alone and unsupported, mysteriously suspended in the void (and this was the real miracle, the wonder and delight) utterly free of ‘me’, unstained by any observer. Its total presence was my total absence, body and soul. Lighter than air, clearer than glass, altogether released from myself. I was nowhere around … There arose no questions, no reference beyond the experience itself, but only peace and a quiet joy, and the sensation of having dropped an intolerable burden … I had been blind to the one thing that is always present, and without which I am blind indeed to this substitute-for-a-head, this unbounded clarity, this luminous and absolutely pure void, which nevertheless is – rather than contains – all things. For, however carefully I attend, I fail to find here even so much as a blank screen on which these mountains and sun and sky are projected, or a clear mirror in which they are reflected, or a transparent lens or aperture through which they are viewed, still less a soul or mind to which they are presented, or viewer (however shadowy) who is distinguishable from the view. Nothing whatever intervenes, not even that baffling and elusive obstacle called ‘distance’.: the blue sky, the pink-edged whiteness of the snows, the sparkling green of the grass – how can these be remote, when there’s nothing to be remote from? The headless void refuses all definition and location: it is not round or small, or big, or even here as distinct from there.”

“Harding’s assertion that he had no head must be read in the first-person sense; the man was not claiming to have been literally decapitated. From a first-person point of view, his emphasis on headlessness is a stroke of genius that offers and unusually clear description of what it’s like to glimpse the nonduality of consciousness.

“Here a Hofstadter’s ‘reflections’ on Harding’s account: ‘we have here been presented with a charmingly childish and solipsistic view of the human condition. It is something that, at an intellectual level, offends and appalls us: can anyone seriously entertain such notions without embarrassment? Yet to some primitive level in us it speaks clearly. That is the level at which we cannot accept the notion of our own death”. Having expressed his pity for batty old Harding, Hofstadter proceeds to explain away his insights as a solipsistic denial of immortality – a perpetuation of the childish illusion that ‘I am necessary ingredient of the universe’. However, Harding’s point was that ‘I’ is not even an ingredient, necessary or otherwise, of his own mind. What Hofstadter fails to realize is that Harding’s account contains a precise, empirical instruction: Look for whatever it is you are calling ‘I’ without being distracted by even the subtlest undercurrent of thought – and notice what happens when you turn consciousness upon itself.

“This illustrates a very common phenomenon is scientific and secular circles: We have a contemplative like Harding, who, to the eye of anyone familiar with the experience of self-transcendence, has described it in a manner approaching perfect clarity; we also have a scholar like Hofstadter, a celebrated contributor to our modern understanding of the mind, who dismisses him as a child.

“Before rejecting Harding’s account as merely silly, you should investigate this experience for yourself:

“Look for Your Head

“As you gaze at the world around you, take a moment to look for your head.

“This may seem like a bizarre instruction. You might think, ‘Of course, I can’t see my head. What’s so interesting about that?’

“Not so fast. Simply look at the world, or at other people, and attempt to turn your head in the direction you know your head to be. For instance, if you are having a conversation with another person, see if you can let your attention travel in the direction of the other person’s gaze. He is looking at your face – and you cannot see your face. The only face present, from your point of view, belongs to the other person. But looking for yourself in this way can precipitate a sudden change of perspective, of the sort Harding describes.

“Some people find it easier to trigger this shift in a slightly different way: As you are looking out at the world, simply imagine that you have no head.

“Whichever method you choose, don’t struggle with this exercise. It is not a matter of going deep within or producing some extraordinary experience. The view of headlessness is right on the surface of consciousness and can be glimpsed the moment you attempt to turn about. Pay attention to how the world appears in the first instant, not after a protracted effort. Either you will see it immediately or you won’t see it at all. And the resulting glimpse of open awareness will last only a moment or two before thoughts intervene. Simply repeat this glimpse, again and again, in as relaxed a way as possible, as you go about your day.

“Once again, selflessness is not a ‘deep’ feature of consciousness. It is right on the surface. And yet people can meditate for years without recognizing it. After I was introduced to the practice of Dzogchen, I realized that much of my time spent meditating had been a way of actively overlooking the very insight I had been seeking”.

Sam Harris Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion London: Bantam Press, 2014

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A MOMENT TO REFLECT

Maria Ede-Weaving writing about September. As the month draws to an end, I find parallels in my own experience.

A Druid Thurible

September is one of my favourite months. Here in the UK, the frenetic growth of spring and summer has eased and a mellow fullness has taken its place; the sunlight has both a clarity and golden softness to it and never fails to elicit joy and hope. It draws from me a certain type of reflective mood; there is something about September light that taps me into that timeless joy that hums just beneath the surface of everything; we can so often be blind to it, yet it only needs a shift in perspective for us to grasp it. It is deeply nostalgic but in a way that suggests that a happy memory can plug us into that place, but the place itself does not reside in the past, it dwells in an ever-present now.

I have been thinking a good deal about reflection as opposed to reaction, particularly with…

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FORGIVENESS

Wisdom from Peter Russell, consciousness researcher. meditation teacher, and author.

“The conventional understanding of forgiveness is of an absolution or pardon: ‘I know you did wrong, but I’ll overlook it this time’. But the original meaning of forgiveness is very different. The ancient Greek word for forgiveness is aphesis, meaning ‘to let go’. When we forgive others, we let go of the judgements we may have projected on to them. We release them from all our interpretations and evaluations, all our thoughts of right or wrong, friend or foe.

“Instead we see that they are human beings caught up in their own illusions about themselves and the world around them. Like us, they feel the need for security, control, recognition, approval or stimulus. They too probably feel threatened by people and things that prevent them finding fulfillment. And, like us, they sometimes make mistakes. Yet, behind all these errors, there is another conscious being simply looking for peace of mind.

“Even those we regard as evil are seeking the same goal. It is just that for one reason or another – who knows what pain they may have endured in their childhood, or what beliefs they may have adopted – they seek that fulfillment in ways that are uncaring, perhaps even cruel. Deep inside, however, they are all sparks of the divine light struggling to find some salvation in this world.

“Forgiveness is not something we do for the other person so much as something we do for ourselves. When we let go of our judgements of others, we let go of the source of much of our anger and many of our grievances.

“Our bad feelings may feel justified at the time, but they don’t serve us – in fact, they usually cause more damage to ourselves than they do to the other person. The freer we are of our judgements, the more at peace we can be in ourselves.

“This change of perception is the essence of a change in consciousness. When I first heard of higher states of consciousness, I imagined they would bring awareness of subtler dimensions, possibly new energies, or some other aspect of reality that was beyond my everyday perception. Over the years, I have gradually realized that enlightenment is seeing the same world, but in a different light. It is not so much seeing different things so much as seeing things differently”.

Peter Russell From Science to God: A Physicist’s Journey into the Mystery of Consciousness Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002

Peter Russell had an early involvement in Transcendental Meditation (TM). To this day he says that the Beatles’ greatest contribution to culture was in showing the door to TM and other eastern contemplative systems. He took a degree in physics and experimental psychology at Cambridge University followed by a Master’s in Computer Science (and an early interest in graphics). On presenting a doctoral proposal on meditation to the psychology department he was laughed out of Cambridge, this being the 1970s. But soon afterwards he was offered a place, complete with his own ‘stress laboratory’, at Bristol. Before long he was invited by IBM to offer stress reduction programmes based on TM and his findings about what it could do. More corporate work followed. A pioneer in the field subsequently given its Theravadin Buddhist name ‘mindfulness’, Peter Russell is still active, with an involvement in Science and Non-Duality – https://www.scienceandnonduality.com – and his own Spirit of Now website at  – www.peterrussell.com -.

 

ALAN WATTS: WHO KNOWS?

“Every culture is based on assumptions so taken for granted so that they are barely conscious, and it is only when we study different cultures and languages that we become aware of them. Standard average European (SAE) languages, for example, have sentences so structures that the verb (event) must be set in motion by the noun (thing) – thereby posing a metaphysical problem as tricky, and probably as meaningless, as that of the relation of the mind to body. We cannot talk of ‘knowing’ without assuming that there is some ‘who’ or ‘what’ that knows, not realizing that this is nothing more than a grammatical convention.

“The supposition that knowing requires a knower is based on a linguistic and not an existential rule, as becomes obvious when we consider that raining requires no rainer and clouding no clouder. Thus, when a Chinese speaker receives a formal invitation, he may reply simply with the [single character] word ‘know’, indicating awareness of the event, which they may or may not attend”.

 

Alan Watts Tao: the watercourse way Souvenir Press: undated Amazon Kindle edition (with the collaboration of Al Chung-Liang Huang ; additional calligraphy by Lee Chih-chang)

CRAVING THROUGH BUDDHIST EYES

“We are learning to unbind the mind from the grip of craving”, according to the teachers of my course on the Buddhist Four Noble Truths (1). The problem about unbinding the mind, they acknowledge, is that we usually can’t do it as a simple act of will. Going that way, we can end up at war with ourselves.

The purpose of practices like meditation, in this context, is to create a mental landscape that favours awareness and understanding. The craving impulse is likely tied to an underlying discontent – something wrong, or lacking, or missing. Through practice, we learn to create moments of pause in which we’re “sensitized to the impulse” of moving towards or away from bundles of feelings, thoughts, images and desires. As part of this increased awareness, we may learn to tolerate discontent, rather than automatically attempting to solve it. During such discontent, a question in the Zen tradition asks: ‘what in this moment is truly lacking?’. We may find ourselves discovering a sensitivity, kindness or capacity for gladness that begins to address our sense of lack and to calm the craving.

Going a little deeper, we can look at mythologies in our lives that tell us, ‘if only I had X, I would be happy’. This includes material objects and conditions, but also expectations of other people, in which we make them responsible for our happiness. We learn to identify our own habitual patterns built on assumptions of this kind We also learn to hold the tension of unfulfilled craving – whether because we don’t get what we want, or because we do get we want and remain unsatisfied. This in turn allows us better to understand the pay-offs, or lack thereof, of satisfying cravings. A different kind of strategy is to “acknowledge how much good stuff we have experienced and how much pleasure we have experienced”.

I notice that this discussion is highly psychologized and reflects the marriage of modern psychology and modern Buddhism with ‘mindfulness’ as their offspring. In a sense, we are witnessing a new kind of Buddhism. I have now read translations of some early Indian texts. Although the teachers of my Four Noble Truths course are versed in these texts and loyal to them, the cultural feeling tone – to me – seems vastly different. I would read from them that the real cause of suffering is being born at all. This is again different from the marriage of Taoism and Buddhism in China, birthing Chan (and subsequently Zen in Japan). Here the focus is on breaking out of a prison – of conventional language, thinking and identity –  for the encounter with ‘original face’.

So, behind the immediate concern with the Four Noble Truths (or ennobling tasks) there is another inquiry, concerned with what Buddhism (or post Buddhist Dharma) will look like as it becomes indigenized in the West, especially North America as the centre of gravity for these developments. When a new culture adopts an exotic religion, it will inevitably change it. This is happening now in the case of Western Buddhism. The Four Noble Truths course sheds valuable light on the evolution spiritual cultures as well as on how to deal (my own words) with a bitter sweet poignancy at the heart of life.

(1) This course is concerned with Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, re-framed as four ennobling tasks. It is provided by Bodhi College – https://bodhi-college.org/  –  for the Tricycle online teaching programme – https://learn.tricycle.org/ . The teachers are Akincano Weber, Christina Feldman, Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, all very experienced in this field.

 

BEGINNINGS

Julie Bond, a monastic Druid from the Order of the Sacred Nemeton, discusses her daily practice round. A beautiful way to practice contemplative Druidry.

Druid Monastic

Beginnings, beginnings, how to get started?

Although I am now with the Order of the Sacred Nemeton (OSN), a contemplative Druid monastic Order, I had been working on my own, developing a Druid monastic practice, for some years prior to that. I became a novice with the OSN in 2010 and took my full vows in 2012, but I had been studying monastic practice, mostly Christian monastic practice, since the 1990’s.

I looked at various Christian monastic Orders, mainly the Benedictines, Cistercians, and Carthusians, looking at their daily timetables and forms of prayer, as well as other aspects of their lives. I noticed that often their prayer times did seem to be linked to events like Dawn and Dusk, Midday, and Midnight, and I realised that these daily events are also relevant to Druid practice.

The Dawn, Dusk, Midday, and Midnight, structure then became the framework to build on. But…

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POEM: THIS WORLD OF DEW

 

This world of dew

is only the world of dew –

and yet … oh and yet.

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), translated from the Japanese by Robert Hess. From The poetry of impermanence, mindfulness and joy edited by John Brem. (Wisdom, kindle edition, undated.)

 

VIRTUES AND VOWS

Pagan philosopher Brendan Myers describes virtue ethics as the branch of philosophy that investigates character and identity (1). To live a fulfilling and happy life, we need to install ways of understanding and being in the world that support our aim: these are the virtues. Specifically, he talks about the virtues of wonder, such as open-mindedness, curiosity, creativity; the virtues of humanity, such as care, courage, respect and generosity; and the virtues of integrity, like reason, acknowledged vulnerability, forgiveness and the will to let go.

The approach of the Buddhist inspired Center for Mindful Self-Compassion – https://centerformsc.org/ – is remarkably similar. The Center teaches a process for identifying “core values”, where we ask ourselves what values we embody that give our life meaning. Center suggestions resemble those of Brendan Myers, and include compassion, generosity, honesty, courage, family, loyalty, service, curiosity and nature. The designers of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – are on a similar track. Stephen Batchelor says: “Buddha’s vision was centrally ethical. I’m not referring to the moral precepts here”, but rather a way of life in which “you try to become the person you aspire to be and try to create a world that you aspire to live in”. He says more about this in a series of podcasts taken from a seminar sponsored by the Western Chan Fellowship in Bristol, England on 4 March 2017 and available on YouTube.

I’ve been prompted to look again at my MSC course in June/July of this year. I found the work on vows very valuable and wrote about it in a blog post at the time – https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/making-personal-vows/ . I have developed them a little more. I continue to find the process of identifying core values very helpful. But in all cases I went straight to a ‘doing’ statement. I didn’t isolate nouns that nominate virtues. These, even words like love, courage and wisdom, can seem both static and vague. These are the vows:

  • May I honour and enjoy the gift of life – through sensation, feeling, thinking, and intuition
  • May I be loving and compassionate towards myself and others
  • May I experience abundance in simplicity
  • May I work for the welfare of all beings, using the loving forces that work from individual to individual, as well as supporting larger projects

In terms of organized spiritual movements, I find myself in a debatable zone between neo-Paganism and modern Buddhism. It’s just as well that both traditions have open borders, able to accommodate people who are not signed up. The four vows to myself are the product of multiple influences, as well as my inner sense of direction.  The first owes much both to C. G. Jung and to modern Druidry (especially OBOD – www.druidry.org -); the second to the Buddhist tradition; the third and fourth to all the above. In the last vow, I owe the piece about ‘using the loving forces that work from individual to individual’ to the late C19th/early C20th American psychologist William James at a time when he was fed up with public life.

These vows are a work in progress, and will guide me in my inquiry going forward.

(1). Brendan Myers Reclaiming Civilization: a case for optimism for the future of humanity Winchester, UK & Washington, USA: Moon Books, 2017 See also https://contemplativeinquiry.wordpress.com/2017/08/24/book-review-reclaiming-civilization/

 

LIVING WITH EASE

The first unit of my Four Noble Truths course – https://learn.tricycle.org/ – left me with some contemplative exercises. The first one began by asking me to identify the difference between being completely happy and what I experience now. What makes the difference? What stops me from being completely happy – or, to put it another traditional way, ‘living with ease’?

I had to ponder that one, because I’ve reached a generally happy time in my life, though of course there are ups and downs. What was the deepest and most authentic answer to these questions? I find a pervasive background anxiety (my brand of dukkha). At this stage of my life it manifests as a felt sense of vulnerability in the world and of my capacity to navigate it as I age. This is turn is linked to an anticipation of increased personal frailty whilst witnessing a collective mismanagement of our world in the Anthropocene Age.

I believe that this anxiety is natural, largely realistic, and offers valuable information about me and my environment. I would not want to swat it with, say, a simple injunction to live in the present moment. It is true that, subjectively, I live in a flowing present and have never been out of it. Past and future do not exist. But memory and anticipation exist, as human skills, and are part of my flowing present. Anticipation gives me a limited power of foresight and prediction. It enables an awareness of actions and consequences. So, for me, imagining personal frailty and social stress in the future has a value. A measure of energetic arousal, which I might label ‘anxiety,’ is also not in itself a problem: it can be helpfully motivating.

But I do see problems, two of them. The first is identification with the anxiety, so that it becomes ‘me’, rather than the affective aspect of a message, whose cognitive aspect is a scanning for threats with my inherited ability to anticipate them. The second is feeling bad about the anxiety and wanting it to go away. If I am identified with the anxiety as well as feeling bad about it, I can end up feeling bad about myself. At worst, I can fall into a narrative of not coping, when in fact the initial experience may contain seeds of good coping.

My solution to the dukkha dimension here has two aspects. The first is disidentification. I am not my anxiety, which will come and go and change its taste and texture on the way. The second is acceptance. I welcome this anxiety into the field of experience. It has a place at my hearth. I don’t let go of my anxiety so much as my rejection of it – for it comes bearing gifts. This, I think, is what I mean by ‘living with ease’. I have always liked this phrase, because it has a sense of relaxing into enjoyment, an enjoyment which may hold anxiety itself within a larger loving awareness. Ultimately, it’s the larger loving awareness that makes the difference.

WOODEN TIGER, ENNOBLING TASKS

“A ferocious wooden tiger stands before the door you wish to enter, but he harms no-one”. According to the Kuan Yin Oracle (1), now is the time to put things to the proof, submit to the ordeal and separate the wheat from the chaff. It is the time of the seed and the pearl, when I am tasked to find “the hidden treasure behind the play of illusions”. The Oracle also suggests to me that it won’t be too hard to do this, because “basically, you are a realist”.

I started an online course yesterday, concerned with a fresh look at Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, reframed as four ennobling tasks. This course is provided by Bodhi College – https://bodhi-college.org/  –  for the Tricycle online teaching programme – https://learn.tricycle.org/ . The teachers are Akincano Weber, Christina Feldman, Stephen Batchelor and John Peacock, all very experienced in this field.

As part of its mission, “Bodhi College wants to recover core insights of early Buddhist teachings, so as to develop fresh ways of understanding the Dharma today. It seeks to provide a contemplative education that inspires students to realize the values of the Dharma in the context of this secular age and culture”.

Classically, the Four Nobles truths are framed as statements about suffering (dukkha) and what to do about it. Some people don’t like ‘suffering’ as the English translation and prefer to talk about stress, ‘the painful’, that which is hard to bear, unsatisfactoriness. My sense is that dukkha covers the range. One of the course tutors, Christina Feldman, calls it “the arguments we have with all that is unarguable” – things like illness, ageing and death, as the Buddha pointed out right at the beginning.

Taught as a doctrine, the Four Noble Truths assert:

  1. The existence of suffering as an inescapable part of life
  2. The origin of suffering in four forms of attachment: to sensory pleasures; to our opinions and views; to rites and rituals at the expense of genuine spiritual experience; to our belief that we exist as a solid, permanent self
  3. The end of suffering, through taming the forces or greed, hatred and delusion either temporarily or (ideally) permanently
  4. The path to end suffering, this being the eightfold path of right (or skillful) understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration.

The suggested problem with this presentation is that it asks people to take a position on a set of propositions – agree, disagree, partly agree/disagree, don’t know. The invitation of the course is to look at this in another way, which the tutors say may be truer to the earliest Buddhist teaching. The suggestion here is that Buddhism needed such metaphysical formulae to become a respectable Indian religion of the day, whereas the Buddha himself may have been something of a sceptic, immersed in creative conversations with inquirers and avoiding dogma as far as possible. However, the real issue is about what kind of Buddhism people want to develop today.

Here, the proponents of my online course are very clear. The four proposed tasks can be summed up in the slogan: understand, realise, give up, develop. So far, I take this to mean that I ask myself what if anything ‘suffering’ means to me and how I might know that I am experiencing it. How, in my understanding, does it come about? What could I do towards letting go of it and in what ways might this lead to a different kind of life? This exploration is tied to an ethical quest: how do I become the kind of person I aspire to be? How can I help to create the kind of world I want to live in? (Hence the notion of ‘ennobling tasks’). These are open questions, and I work on them in my own life, rather than generating opinions about statements. Relative to many other spiritual traditions, Buddhists tend in this direction anyway. This approach simply takes the spirit of inquiry further and perhaps gives it more freedom.

I’m only at the start of one brief online course (six weeks). I do know, already, that if I’m going to be involved more in the Buddhist world, this is a direction I would want to move in. I’m encouraged.

  • Stephen Karcher The Kuan Yin Oracle: the Voice of the Goddess of Compassion London: Piatkus, 2009