Everfresh in the Changing

Category: Mind Page 2 of 12

Deep Bows to Gene Gendlin

My dear hero Gene Gendlin has died, naturally at the age of 90. It was several days ago, and I have been unable to write a word during this time. Now I’ve found something to say, and want to share it with you. (Apologies to those of you who may get a double posting.)

A week ago, I heard that he was dying, so I was readied for the final word. But, when that news came, I suddenly felt something I didn’t expect. Of course I cried, and felt the inevitable loss. But I felt something else, and when I checked in, I heard myself say with gentle certainty, “I’m standing on my own two feet, now.” And, I felt them connected to the immeasurable earth. I want to share a little of the background to that moment.
About twenty years ago, I said to a Buddhist friend, “I’m going to explore what the West has to offer.” He said to me, “Do you really think they have anything?” He meant ‘anything worth while.’ Now, these years later, I can say to my friend, “Oh, I’m so happy that, with the help of Eugene Gendlin’s amazing ‘Philosophy of the Implicit,’ I feel I’ve come home to the West, where I began, and where, culturally speaking, I belong.
My philosophical journey began as a seventeen-year-old, where I discovered Socrates and meditation, in the same year. Socrates’ love of wisdom and his bravery blew me away. But then, very soon after, I discovered Buddhism, and so – because they had accessible methods (with mindfulness and meditation), I began a (so far) fifty year excursion into Buddhist practice; and at some stage became a Buddhist teacher. So, it was significant to want to go West. I eventually felt the call of the culture that I had stood in, as a child, unknowingly.
‘Going West,’ for me, initially meant studying psychotherapy, and becoming a psychotherapist. Something practical. But that introduced me to Focusing. And, with the help of Bev Stevenson, Nada Lou, and my trainer Ann Weiser Cornell, I became a Focusing trainer.
Then, about twelve years ago, came one of the first teleconferences I did with Gene. It was organised by my (later) mentor Rob Parker, and its topic (if I remember rightly) was on the primacy of the body. There Gene said something which viscerally turned my reality inside out. I suddenly experientially realised that perception doesn’t give me a basis for ‘being.’
Someone said to me, today, that they hadn’t realised that they had a particular dependency, until the object of that dependency was suddenly not there. And that was what it was like, for me, in respect of perception. Gene said something about perception being derived from a more fundamental interaction-first life-process; and suddenly (in this little pokey office in North Sydney), I literally ‘saw’ without any dependency on perception. I felt released.
To explain a eye-sight seeing which rests on a felt ocean of implicit knowing would take an entire essay, but that’s what it was like. That says it. (That experience helped me understand many of the historical Buddha’s enigmatic comments.) I contacted Mary straight away, and she passed my joy and gratitude on to Gene, and conveyed that he was delighted. That was the beginning of my immersion in A Process Model.
From then on, I realised that I had two spiritual paths; two completely complementary paths. And that has remained so. So, it’s with this gratitude to a spiritual mentor, that I live in the memory of Gene.
Again and again, since then, in the teleconference courses that Ann has run, I have put the ‘alone edge’ of my expanding understanding to Gene, and his ‘Amen’ had me sighing with relief each time. They were like the checking questions the Zen teacher asks:
There’s a deeper presence than perception. “Amen.”
At the limit, stillness and movement are not two. “Amen.”
‘Body-en’ is a way of saying ‘mind.’ “Amen.”
(This last one, only a few months ago, settled a puzzle for me that had been around since I was four years old! It has opened up vistas for me.)
So, I got to depend on those courses. Was it my need for the good male authority, given the appalling violence of my upbringing? Sure. Compared to what my father said about my mind, to hear Gene say with affection how he loved my questions – of course that was healing. And, Gene’s kindness, his humour, his concern for the welfare of humanity – all that, too, I came to depend on it. And, Gene also introduced us in a very practical way (Focusing) to some of finest of the riches which the West has to offer.
He did this by pointing us back to the primacy of body. This is a very healing thing to do. Gene was a supreme healer. He sent us back to our own experience, encouraging us to inquire there, and especially to inquire kindly; to love philosophy, and to find in our own bodies the body that Socrates learned from.
Last week, in the days before he died, I watched (yet again) the TAE video that Nada gave me twenty years ago, where Gene says:
“There is the absolutely best laboratory – as far as we know, at least – in the whole cosmos; which you can have access to; because the absolute best laboratory in the whole cosmos – which has a direct line into… whatever everything is… that’s a human being.”
–    Eugene T. Gendlin, at the opening to Gems from Gene, Tape 5 of Thinking at the Edge (a five tape VHS series)
May the exhausted world find this ever-available refreshment. (I hear him saying, “Amen.”) Thanks, Gene.

Back Then, Yet to Come, and In-Between

Since ‘once upon a time,’ time has interested me. I had a vision which depressed me as a teenager. I thought: Having been born, there is the time before I was born; and there will be a time after my death. These two times are endless, and they’re also out of reach of present ‘me.’ They are are kind of silence, either side of the noisy present.

My childhood vision saw the ‘past’ and the ‘future’ as not telling me anything about the meaning of the time I am in NOW. Yet, it feels as though the time that I am in now is over-shadowed by those other times; and is meaningless, without their inclusion. As it stands, I am in this no-person’s zone of time between birth and death. Some philosophers think that the idea that time will continue after us, gives us meaning. I have noticed that unconscious narrative, myself; but I think it is a false support.

The way I thought of it, back then, I didn’t exist in the time before, just as I will not exist in the time that follows my death. (Notice the blind belief in ‘existence and non-existence?) In other words, the time before ‘me’ and the time after ‘me’ are both without me. Sound familiar? There’s a nothing before, and a nothing after,from the point of view of my identity. The thinker imagines that there was something there, but ‘I’ wasn’t, and also, ‘I’ wont be.

Later in my life, I knew that time concepts were useful, but, still, when I investigated – as a meditator can – when I investigated what ‘time’ was, I couldn’t find it in this default way that I had imagined it to be.
This experience – my bleak childhood vision of time – is not new, of course. Some people see these dilemmas and decide that time doesn’t exist, except as some kind of social agreement. They say, “Time is just a concept.” Yet others continue to believe that time and space are independent realities, but they don’t explain how that could be – and where exactly time and space could be located. (See that? What space and time would you put space and time in? What would found them?)

Of course, if time and space are the very fabric of being, then you and I are time-space. But, what kind of time is that? As Einstein showed us, it can’t be clock-time. And, anyhow, who lives in line with that? Time’s dynamics are rarely said to be satisfying to people. Time is usually said to be some kind of commodity: in short supply at one time, and too much of it at other times.

And, time is always in danger of running out. See! Mr. Death carries an hour-glass. This is the biggest problem with our intimacy with time – if time is closer to me than my breath, I can’t control it. No unrefined ego-system is happy with this. How will I make peace with the experience of time?

Despite the difficulties this last approach presents, I do look for time in my experiencing, though – and not in the concepts derived from experiencing. So, what aspects of accessible experiencing are we pointing toward, with our ‘time’ phrases?

So, is the answer to the tensions of time a kind of hedonist ‘seize the day’ approach, as some suggest? To these people the time ‘in the middle’ is all that is important. It is all that we can grasp, and grasp it we must, in our own way. Such a vision has the danger of strengthening narcissism, though. The middle time – my life between birth and death – is unconsciously identified as identical to my mentality. The objective vision of ‘time and space’ being ‘somewhere’ out there, slips over into solipsism. And, here, the ego feels also continues to feel alone.

So, this egoic ‘seize the day’ vision – a compensatory and imaginary one, notice – brings conflict. I need the vision of ‘my now,’ and yet it is never at rest with itself. Furthermore, the world as I experience it doesn’t co-operate in affirming the centrality of my ego’s seize-the-now project.

However, no matter how interesting, even engrossing, the three-separate-times version of ‘time’ is to us, explored interminably in our thoughts, it is simply a made-up story with no unmediated, experiential evidence for it. What do we have evidence for? This ‘whole life process’ that is going on without mediation of concepts. Our concepts point back to the holistic flow of all that is, to the holomovement. (Bohm)

I say this, realising that I must speak tentatively and provisionally about ‘life’ and ‘going on,’ and ‘flow.’ If not used in zig-zag with the non-conceptual, these ideas can become the horns of the bull which gores us. But, I can – on the basis of the flowing practice of mindfulness of the body – let these phrases point back to the intimacy of my Suchness. They gesture toward the immeasurable aliveness of being-at-all.

Then, will I find evidence for the usual kind of ‘time,’ anywhere? The time-space duo is an assumption brought in to explain this beginningless, ‘evolving’ life. A useful convention, which we avoid getting snagged by. If we let words mean what they do in us, we can ask, ‘How does the word ‘time’ work, when held up against our immediate ‘alive-ing’ (experiencing). Then, the narratives, the stories, the imaginings, and so on, are themselves all included in the holomovement of this going-on life, aren’t they? And a fresh meaning of the term ‘time’ can come in its use in situations, mysterious and related to the immeasurable life we are.

Why mysterious? Because time’s root is in the ‘Ing-ing’ (Gendlin), which is the movement of a stillness. And you and I, when we live this, are beings who are Such (beyond conception).
Well, I’ll never! And I thought a body was just a bit of skin and meat on bones. But, I thought that back when I lived in the no-person’s now, between ‘birth and death.’

Coming Home to Completeness

A Fictional Conversation

“What does that mean, that you’ve ‘done what had to be done’?”

“You sound like you mean, ‘Because, after all, in life there is always more?’ And, of course, I’d agree with that.”

“I was thinking something like that.”

“Yes. I didn’t mean in my personal life. As you say, it’s onward leading. To say what I mean might be difficult, but… nevertheless, I stand by it.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“It’s because I sense it, that I mean it.”

(Laughs). “In your body.”

“So… I know I mean something like this…  It’s important in life, and it makes sense of our being born, that there needs to be a fundamental change in the mind during one’s lifetime – a change at the root.  It’s a change which makes sense of everything.

“When I was a young person, as I became an adult, I couldn’t accept the values of our forebears. I could no longer accept their traditions and explanations. Their beliefs in rituals and gods couldn’t satisfy my inquiring mind. Why is life the way it is, so full of frustration and difficulties? Why were we born into the situation we are in?”

“Like, ‘Why is there birth?’”

“Well, that wasn’t a big deal, for me. Rather, why is one person beautiful and another not. Why are some poor and others not? Or, some are without limbs, while others have their bodies entire. These things even started to bother me when I was just a little child. I couldn’t make sense of it.”

“But, that’s because of karma isn’t it? Do something ugly, you end up ugly.”

“Well, I don’t accept that; and that’s part of what had to be ‘done.’ To see our opinions, ideas, views, and theories and speculations in perspective – to see their limited nature.”

“Ah! So you’re talking about realising the non-conceptual dimension. But, to ‘do what is to be done’ – these two things don’t seem to go together.”

“Say more.”

“To ‘do what has to be done’ implies a law of some sort. And it implies some personal responsibility. All that’s culture. Whereas, what can’t be conceived seems to negate that.”

“When I was in the King’s Court, and long before I left for a life of freedom myself, it seemed that way for me.”

“What changed?”

“Perhaps it was that I had all my needs worldly needs satisfied – that is one thing. But more importantly, with his being a contemplative, my son presented me with an entirely different way to think of my life. And, I saw him living the life that kept him in harmony with what is.

“I saw the change in him, and I listened. I reflected long (mostly silently) upon his words; and that, most of all, because he was speaking from experience, not tradition. I had the privilege of access to someone who had done what had to be done.”

“That is, whenever he came home, you had that access.”

“Which he frequently did. He didn’t forget us. But then when he wasn’t in our country, I had the opportunity to look around me and reflect in myself, for myself – on my own. There is a saying that ‘little trees don’t grow well under big ones.’ It was helpful, to me, that he would wander.

“But to return to your question… And the matter of doing what has to be done. The non-conceptual neither affirms nor negates. It doesn’t stand against the personal. Only concepts can do that.

“But, let me pause… I think this line of thought takes us away from the field of ‘this’; ‘this’ which we have here, which can lead us. So, let us come back to this: the sense of completeness. That’s it. That’s what I mean. The non-conceptual has its own unfolding order; and part of what ‘has to be done’ is that the seeker turns away from self-interest and puts herself under that – that intimate kind of law.”

“Living it in the body.”

“Then, also, another part of ‘done what had to be done’ is to not give up on the tasks that such an enquiry presents you with. Once begun, you’ve got to walk the road all the way, and not give up on what you know inwardly to be the way.”

“Oh. I see what you mean.”

“Maybe you do.”


The Mind of Freedom

You are a lay follower in the time of Buddha, and you’re dying. You have a terrible illness, which has gotten worse in the last day. The splitting head, the gut pains. It’s clear which way it’s going.

During this week, a group of friends regularly gathers at your home. Some weeks ago, your peripatetic teacher, arrived from up north, from Kapilavatthu. He was happy to find your years of practice are serving you well. You talked about how you’re working with the pain of parting; how this deepens your inner work. He stays in your household, frequently joining your friends in their enquiries.

You understand that everything which you call the ‘world’ is of just such a nature that it breaks up – continuously; and, of course, that our bodies are always prone to change. Bodies are nature, and so they are vulnerable. Indeed, just last year, the great ascetic himself died, at age eighty – when his digestive system fell apart. You have no quarrel with nature.

With your friends, you’ve reflected during the week, on the teachings of the flourishing one. Together you recalled the time that he advised the arahant Girimananda. It was thought that Girimananda would die, but he didn’t; though he was perilously ill.

The founding teacher recommended that Girimananda be mindful of ten perceptions, and these included remembering how natural it is to be ill and die, because bodies are by their nature vulnerable.

You have done what you can medically, as your wisdom in the form of love would do. You’ve already made the effort to see that those you are responsible for – family and servants – will be cared for. You’ve reviewed your life, and are satisfied that you’ve completed what needs completing. You’ve ‘atoned.’ (That is, you are ‘at one.’) This way, you don’t wish for some other world, at all; either one to come, or one that could have been.

You company concurs that by remaining with what is actually present, rather than wishing for various kinds of ‘world,’ just in this way the deathless is near. Wishing for a world of any kind resists what is. It warms you to think of your friends’ love of the great way.

In the ten insights which were shared with Girimananda, you note to your friends, there is a lot of emphasis on how things are ever-changing. You look into form, vedanā, perceptions, fashioning tendencies, and consciousness, only to find an insubstantial play of experiences. Just as Anathapindika saw as he lay dying. That meditation – Anathapindika’s meditation, you call it – you feel joy to have such support.

You’re aware of breathing with your whole body, from top to toe, as you engage with them. And sometimes when the pains are intense, you breathe more particularly into the painful places, returning to your ‘whole-body’ breathing, when you can. Daily you and your friends meditate on emptiness, in the way taught by Sariputta to dying Anathapindika.

Each morning, as you meditate with them, you delight in the marvellous freedom of: ‘What is arising, is ceasing.’

Afterwards, someone asks about Girimananda’s perception of the ‘unattractive,’ and you reply, “When I see that all is transient, with no substance or own-nature, then I see that there is nothing of the six senses that can brings completeness. That’s the perception of unattractiveness. But, when that’s seen, neither does the functioning of senses obstruct anything. There is nothing to be added to the ‘now,’ nor could be taken away from ‘now.”

Indeed, what is this ‘now.’ These observations lead to a lively conversation about bhikkhu Arittha’s views on desire. He said that desire is not an obstruction. While normally you’d love to go into this, today you ask that they might finish this one later, at someone else’s home.

You are ill, your pains increasing, and you muster all the energy you can to be consciously present for the reality of your condition. Oh, yes, sometimes, your heart has some longing for abatement. But, still you mean it, when your closest friend, in a quiet moment, the two of you alone, asks, “If you died today, how’s that for you?” “I’m content,” you say. “I’ve done what had to be done.”

Mindfully Luminous and Boundless

“What do we know about the mind itself? Although we say the mind knows, what is mind? Where does mind live? Does it have color and taste? What is its ancestry? Where does it come from and where does it go? “- Tarthang Tulku. Knowledge of Time & Space: An Inquiry into Knowledge, Self & Reality

Now we can go back and look again at one more important kind of experience covered by the term ‘mind.’ What happens if, due to earlier life experiences, that the mind turns up in a way that doesn’t fit our idea of ‘mental’?

You’re somewhere in nature, peacefully relaxing. Nothing to think or do, right now. And, the thoughts, memories, images, dreams, wishes, desires, judgements, and preferences drop away. They are not relevant. Suddenly you are aware of a silent, still, open, boundless mind. What kind of mind is this?

It doesn’t fit in the scheme of conventional Western categories. This both is and is not an ordinary state of mind. When psychologists began to explore this kind of things, a pioneer in this field Charles Tart named them ‘altered states of consciousness’ (ASC). He wrote a book of that name in the sixties.

However, one of the wonderful facts is that this subtle level of mind and other such associated states arise when you are not altering anything, when the default mode of ‘actively directing’ your consciousness is in abeyance.

In the Mindfulness Sutta this possibility is invited by the particular direction to release grasping after narcissistic states: “Practitioners, a contemplative – ardent, mindful, having put away longing and distress regarding the world, in full understanding – dwells contemplating: the body in the body, feeling-tones in the feeling-tones, the psyche’s states in those same states; and, the dynamics of phenomena in the phenomena themselves.” (Translated Christopher. J. Ash)

For the realisation of boundless states of mind to occur, the contemplative person has to be willing to suspend their usual ‘appetitive’ way of being, and instead dwell in non-clinging and non-grasping. This is where the love of truth comes in. This attitude is often called ‘detachment,’ but the English word carries a lot of baggage. For the uninitiated, it’s important to entertain the possibility that such a ‘hands off’ attitude is actually a form of love.

And, there is no seeking after a reward, here. The practitioner becomes acquainted with being alone – not outwardly necessarily, but inwardly. In this way, we intend emptiness (empty of division) alone, and this justifies what the Nikāya Buddha says in the Mindfulness Sutta that when discernment and attentiveness are established, a contemplative is “is one who dwells independent, not clinging to anything in the world.”

So, when we make our list of what mind-states are possibly met in mindfulness, the first-level kinds of states are not enough to account for the territory of experience sometimes called ‘spiritual.’ (I acknowledge that ‘spiritual’ means different things to different people. So, what I want it (provisionally) to mean, here, is a kind of intelligence regarding immateriality.

When the fox in The Little Prince a charming story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry says to the Little Prince: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes,” then that is the territory of Spirit. (As a by-the-way, I observe, too, that ‘spirituality’ can) indicate both a line of development and also a level of development, to use Ken Wilber’s terms.)

When I was a young man, and I asked my friend James what he thought would happen if thinking stopped, he said ‘I’d die.’ But, well-developed meditation experience shows that this isn’t the case. That being so, we might have to widen the definition of the ‘mental’ or ‘mind’ category, to include these subtle and not-so-readily-accessed states.

So, ‘mind itself’ – as distinct from the ‘contents’ (thought, image, memory, etc.) – mind has no colour, form, or location; no limit. Yet, mind can be experienced, and when its ground is reached, it has the nature of meaningfulness. That is the territory of the ‘spiritual’ – in this project, at least – and the Nikaya Buddha includes these kinds of states in the Mindfulness Sutta. The practitioner is to be mindful when a state of the mind is boundless:

“She knows an expanded psyche as an expanded psyche.”
“She knows a psychic state not capable of being surpassed as an unsurpassable state.”
“She knows a centred psyche as a centred psyche.”
“She knows a liberated psyche as a liberated psyche.”

The whole of the early Buddhist traditional approach to meditation (the Nikāya approach) is oriented to helping a contemplative person achieve boundlessness. The most common instances of these boundless states are a) those called The Dwelling Places of Brahma (Brahmavihāra) – that is, unlimited friendliness (or loving-kindness), compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity; and, b) the four, formless, higher states of meditation (arūpajhāna) – that is, boundless space, boundless clarity, boundless no-thingness, and as state of neither perception, nor non-perception.

These are incredibly peaceful, and blissful. They are divine, so to speak, hence they are they are named after Brahma.

Now, the point here is that meditation, if practiced without hankering and aversion, tends toward such spaciousness. The whole path involves an increase in a mind like space. ‘Mind,’ then, is not always mentation (by which I mean the aforementioned operations – thinking, cogitating, imagining, and so on). Yet, mind is always present as a non-ikonic substratum of meaningfulness.

How can this be? The modern (and evolutionarily plausible) answer is that no matter what state of mind is present (or, what states of mind are absent), the body is the on-going process. The traditional answer, on the other hand, comes from the Nikāya Buddha, when he observes that when one’s mind is empty of discriminative thinking, there is nevertheless understanding (which can be turned over in thought afterward), because the experiences leave a ‘non-conceptual impression.’ (adhivacanasamphassa). (See Sue Hamilton-Blyth’s Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder for a discussion on this point.)

Clear as the Sky

“Fully knowing the arising and fading of the five sentient processes,
one finds happiness and joy. For those who are discerning, this is the deathless
– The Dhammapda, verse 374. Translated by Christopher J. Ash

The usual understanding of death and rebirth misses the point, so grossly. Rebirth theory is related to the experience of a constructed ‘self’ (atta) and, hence, to intentions (karma). Both of these are concepts for which we can find experience-near meanings. If we can be mindful and directly experience how karma moves, then we can understand the issues of death and rebirth at a more everyday, realistic level.

I wrote about the ‘pause’ as a part of the mindfulness attitude; the slowing down of experience, so that we can sense more of what is actually going on in and around us.  The more we appreciate the present, then the more it responds by revealing its intricacy.

One afternoon, I was sitting on the veranda of my home, in a reverie of appreciation for the textures of the forest – mostly of the eucalypts and the ti-tree. And, there was a currawong sitting on a branch, close by. I wasn’t exactly watching the bird. I gazed, I suppose; which is a mode of vision that includes much more, by not naming.

This pause in the default human mode of ‘mind’ led to including in my ‘gaze’ (or awareness) my sensations, my thoughts, and the felt presence of my whole situation. Including all of these in what I was aware of, at that moment, without losing my relationship to the currawong, gave rise to holistic sense of space – a kind of space that is throughout the field of experience, not just outside the skin.

It’s a fact that by including the observer in the observing, one loosens the hold and even dissolves the sense of separation to all things.  So, the concepts of ‘self’ and ‘world,’ in that state, were distinctions not needed at that moment. The still, silent quality of knowing didn’t support the kind of space where I would create any ‘thing’ (a ‘me’) to be separate, or to be separate from.

“The mind is always thinking of things in the past and of what it is going to do in the future. It rarely settles in the moment. If it did, it would become quiet. When you settle into the moment, you realize that there is not much happening—a few things here and there. The primary awareness is of the immediacy of the moment. This is because presence—being in the now—is characterized by beingness, simply being here now. In contrast, our familiar self is based on doing, going, making things happen.” The Unfolding Now, p. 160

The bird and I were together in every particle of being. To reflect on language, here: if I was to say ‘currawong,’ in that situation, I would be to point (with this linguistic gesture) to this living, dynamic relationship; a relationship which far exceeds, in its implicit intricacy, what the word ‘currawong’ can say. The public or dictionary meaning of that word is nothing. It’s certainly laughable in that moment to think that ‘currawong’ means a ‘something’ – an isolated, permanent, independent object in space-time. Poetry says it best:

Snow in withered field, nothing to touch.
’s head clear as sky
– From the poem ‘Sparrow in Withered Field.’ In Triumph of the Sparrow: Zen Poems of Shinkichi Takahashi. (Translated by Lucien Stryk).

Granted, this is not a perception readily accessible to some people, because we are mostly unfamiliar with experiential space and the ungraspability of the ground reality. But, familiarity grows with the practice of mindfulness. Then, it is possible to name a ‘groundless ground’; which the Nikāya Buddha indicates by referring to the ‘un-’ nature: unborn, undying, unailing; and ‘unmanifest consciousness,’ for instance. The odd thing is that moments like this occur all day, but we don’t notice them, until mindfulness reveals them. My spiritual grandfather Buddhadasa called them ‘little nirvanas.’

In default, trance mode of consciousness, if we notice such an empty moment – empty of ‘thing’-ing and constructing – we are afraid of its silence, its formlessness, and the unnameable quality of everything. Why do we fear? Primarily because our constructed ‘me’ has dropped away. There’s now no locatable someone behind the eyes doing the knowing. Yet, right there is the end of birth and death; and, ironically, right here is freedom and independence as individuals.

Until we train ourselves to pause, slow down, and stay for such moments of ‘empty contact’ –through the contemplative disciplines – then, we don’t appreciate the luminous wonder of the world and other people. We are in a pure land with radiant beings, and don’t see it.

the night’s downpour;
in this alley,
this half-eaten peach.

– Christopher Ash.


Uprooting the Lingering View

Can we speak and think (that is, can we ‘name’) with a lightness of touch, and yet also love precision? (Later we will explore where the healthy precision comes from.) Can we ‘name’ to nurture healthy lives, and avoid making the fundamental problems of human knowledge worse than they are? Of course we can; but we’ll need to understand the relationship of language to experiencing, first.

“All have gone under the sway/Of this one thing called name.” If we are seduced by our unskilful use of language – and by that I mean, language-use not in accord with the fundamental matrix of experiencing – then, we misuse our gift. Conceiving of things, in the way we do when influenced by craving, conceit and views, changes our way of experiencing the objects of our conceiving. Stated even more radically: However you conceive a thing, by that very thinking it becomes for you otherwise than it is.

The task, then, as the Nikāya Buddha presents it, is to disconnect our naming practices from a belief in the inherent existence of ‘things.’  It is neither the case that ‘things’ have a prior existence, and are there already to be named; nor that the naming creates them.

“Beings are conscious of what can be named,
They are established on the nameable,
By not comprehending the nameable things,
They come under the yoke of death.”
– Translated by Bhikkhu Ñāṇananda, Nibbāna – The Mind Stilled.

Try considering, instead, that our ‘naming’ can be a process way of using language.  Quite radically, I propose (based on my reading of Gendlin) that language is what bodies do. Bodies gesture in this way that is peculiar to humans. Language is a self-reflexive gestural ‘strategy’ to work with experiencing; particularly, to carry our on-going interaction forward in a life-enhancing manner.

I take the view that language-use is a line of development; and an evolutionary gesture that needs its next step. By exploring this in our actual life, we might find that these gestures (our words) increase the power of experience. They change experiencing – one’s own, and that of one’s hearers.

We are well-compensated for the de-emphasising of our belief in ‘things,’ which this view entails. It is bondage to think that language establishes the existence of things – that the job of language is to establish ‘is’ and ‘is not.’ Freed from that yoke we step out, too, from under the yoke of death – for, what dies, if there are no absolute ‘things,’ and if there is only interaction, only process? An immeasurable dimension presents itself in the place of a fragmented world.

In a passage in the Anguttara Nikāya, the Nikāya Buddha says that “an arising is manifest, a passing away is manifest and an otherwise-ness in the persisting is manifest.” (Trans. Ñāṇananda) “Manifest’ I take to mean ‘occur.’

The profound personal realization behind this is that what is arising is ceasing. This ‘occurring’ is never established as anything existing; and, therefore can’t come from anywhere, nor go anywhere. That is, what is occurring has no tangible nature. We can say things arise, and that things cease; and that in the middle nothing becomes established. Are we willing, if we’d like to know what death is, to apply this to our personal existence?

I see a bird. The bird is looking back at me. Now, in the first moment, I don’t have any ‘bird’ concept, or ‘me’ (not ‘back’) – there is just the interaction. There’s no ‘here’ or ‘there,’ as well. If experiential space is named wrongly, then it becomes solidified into ‘mine’ and ‘not-mine’; and, ‘this’ and ‘here’ will be distinguished from the experience of ‘that’ ‘there.’ Anxiety arises.

But in the freshness of the first moment of intimate interaction, when I recognize the non-locality of experience, and I stay present for it, there is freedom to see the bird. The awakened factor if mindfulness is present. My heart is taking the beauty of its form, and its piercing, yellow iris. And, there’s the felt knowing of our intimacy. But, the ‘I’ who knows this has no location, and neither does the bird.

This spaciousness has the possibility of increasing our power of experiencing; but usually, by default, we make a ‘thing’ of space. By mistakenly naming experiences as existing in themselves, one makes ‘here and there’ in what has no ‘here’ or ‘there.’ One makes ‘mind’ into a personal box, with its locality, its limited contact, and its centre. And, the centre, we name as the perceiver; and whatever is outside the limit we name the ‘something contacted.’ For the Nikāya Buddha, there’s no such limit.

Much that I am saying is affirmed by the Nikāya Buddha in many places. For instance, in the Kālakarāma Sutta, a sutta which indicates the inner life of liberation, the Nikāya Buddha says the following (though not exactly in these words. I’m summarizing. You can find my complete translation here):

“I know things, just like anyone knows things, but I don’t cling to what I know. If you cling, you serve what you cling to. I live without conceiving of an independent reality in either the experiencer or the experienced. And, I don’t conceive of a reality elsewhere, an unexperienced something somewhere outside what is.

“Because of this, you can refer to me as one who is ‘such.’ And that is the supreme kind of person.”

It’s a lion’s roar: “A Tathāgata being ‘such’ in regard to all phenomena seen, heard, sensed and cognized, is ‘such.’” This way of being means that the liberated person (a tathāgata) is not limited by, defined by, nor identified by anything conceivable. As he says elsewhere, he is not identifiable by his form, his feeling-tones, his perceptions, his shaping factors or intentional factors, nor his consciousness. Hence, the concept of suchness.

When the Brahmin yogi Mogharāja asked, “By looking upon the world in which manner can one escape the eye of the king of death?”, the Nikāya Buddha answered:

“Look upon the world as void,
Mogharāja, being mindful at all times,
Uprooting the lingering view of self,
Get well beyond the range of death,
Him who thus looks upon the world,
The king of death gets no chance to see.”
Sutta Nipāta, verse 1119. Translated by Ñāṇananda, quoted in Nibbāna: The Mind Stilled.

Single-Minded For Freedom

What is the Nikāya Buddha’s focus, when he speaks of ‘death and dying’?

I think he gives two answers, each according to the maturity of the people to whom he is speaking. If people are ready for it, or asking for it, he goes straight to the core matter of development of the awareness of vast openness. He uses different terms, at different times – such as voidness, suchness, the deathless, the unborn, and nibbāna.

To the Nikāya Buddha, to be mindful is to live free from death. Mindfulness culminates in knowing what he called ‘the deathless element.’

Awareness is the place of the deathless;
Unawareness is the place of death.
The aware do not die;
The unaware are as though dead already.
– Dhammapada, verse 21. Translated by Valerie Roebuck.

If they aren’t ready for the subtle teaching, he advises them to develop in character, because that brings less suffering and an opportune rebirth.

Realisation of the core truth takes a fierce commitment. In the Anguttara Nikāya there are two suttas together, each called the Mindfulness of Death Sutta (Maranassatisutta, 1 and 2), which reflect the intensity of the commitment, and the extent of the bravery needed.

In the first one, the Nikāya Buddha powerfully says:
“(W)hoever develops mindfulness of death, thinking, ‘O, that I might live for the interval that it takes to swallow having chewed up one morsel of food… for the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, that I might attend to the Blessed One’s instructions. I would have accomplished a great deal’ — they are said to dwell heedfully. They develop mindfulness of death acutely for the sake of ending the effluents.” (Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu).

That is, the practice which aims at realisation of the unborn, the un-ailing, the undying, the deathless has the character of a continuous presence.

“For the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in…“

Awareness can be present in the tiniest gap. The gap between the breaths is a powerful, still point – and that tiny fraction of a second, someone can realise the deathless.

If I can develop mindfulness in each breathing instant, I am dwelling in the world with heed for what most deeply matters. When a person fully awakens in the Nikāyas there is usually a line which says, “And she (or he) had done what had to be done.” This accomplishment means a life fulfilled, having come home to the core of one’s being.

In the other Mindfulness of Death Sutta in the Anguttara Nikāya he says, further of this commitment: “Further, there is the case where a monk, as night departs and day returns, reflects: ‘Many are the [possible] causes of my death. A snake might bite me, a scorpion might sting me, a centipede might bite me. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me. Stumbling, I might fall; my food, digested, might trouble me; my bile might be provoked, my phlegm… piercing wind forces [in the body] might be provoked. That would be how my death would come about. That would be an obstruction for me.’” (Thanissaro)

Not, “Oh, crap! I might be bitten, and that would be rotten luck”; but, “I might be bitten, and that would obstruct my realisation of truth.” That’s loving truth!

In this sutta, he also gives a striking image of a practitioner with their heart set on liberation: “Just as when a person whose turban or head was on fire would put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavour, undivided mindfulness, & alertness to put out the fire on his turban or head, in the same way the monk should put forth extra desire, effort, diligence, endeavour, undivided mindfulness, & alertness…”

Mindfulness makes it possible to feel and accept our greatest fear: voidness; that is, when supported by the other six qualities of the awakened mind – joy, grounded inquiry, perseverance, calm, contemplative presence, and equanimity.

If we meet voidness with mindfulness, confidence follows; confidence in groundlessness, because we don’t conceive or interpret voidness as having existence of its own. We don’t project onto it. We know it directly, and when the mist of ignorance dissolves, this very voidness is the source of all true value in life.

The Revolutionary Pause

The title of this piece comes from a talk by Mary Hendricks-Gendlin. I give a link to a transcription of that talk, at the end of this post. You might want, too, to re-read yesterday’s post, about the Mindfulness Attitude, as I have rewritten it.


The mindfulness attitude to life values openness, and the heart of openness is a pause in our habitual patterns. This kind of stopping allows a big mind to show up, which has room for the extraordinarily full present. We have this freedom available.

One of the most vital skills we can develop is the ability to pause the momentum of discursive mind and experience our world—both inner and outer—directly through our senses.

– David Rome, Your Body Knows the Answer: Using Your Felt Sense to Solve Problems, Effect Change, and Liberate Creativity

“It’s okay to pause. I can slow my pace. It’s okay to pause this headlong rush onto the next thing. I can contact my breathing, no matter what the world says. It’s okay not to know what is next.”

It’s okay at any time of the day. When we do pause, new perspectives are possible. This is particularly important in everyday life, because we can become despondent at the state of the world, our nation, our community, our family – and fall into harmful compensatory patterns in reaction. Drinking more, or just ‘zoning out’ in front of screens.

Terrible things are always happening in the world. Some ‘religious’ fanatic kills people in the name of his ‘God.’  Yet another young black teen’s life is taken by a crazed policeman in the U.S. Some insane dictator, protected by a military power, executes one of his generals on a whim. Species extinctions accelerate alarmingly.

We get depressed at what’s going on in the world, feel helpless and powerless. Perhaps, we fear for the children about us – not only for their lives now, but for the fact that they will inherit this violent human society. Stress builds up in us.

And, then, there are our own big questions, the resolution of which would clarify whether our lives have any meaning at all. We turn away, again and again.

However, with ‘the pause,’ we stop turning away. We have an opportunity to say hello to our actual condition – our fear, helplessness and powerless, and begin to transform them.

We are not condemned to feel only debilitation. Positive responses are possible, which can be empowering. We can act to contribute to a better world.

“Self-possession is the heartwood of understanding. When a person is hasty and careless, his discernment and learning don’t flourish.” – The Nikāya Buddha, Kimsila Sutta

For this we need to find space in our minds, space for the much-needed clarity. Even if it’s only space to trust that there will certainly be a next step. With this contactful way to be – being in touch with ourselves – we can know that our actions aren’t just more of the same for the world, no re-actions.

When the traffic is bumper to bumper I vow with all beings
to move when the world starts moving and rest when it pauses again.

– Robert Aitken Roshi. The Dragon Who Never Sleeps: Verses for Zen Buddhist Practice

With the mindfulness attitude (a part of which is remembering our spiritual practice) we turn toward our feelings – even the very difficult ones – with openness, with curiosity, and with compassion. This not only makes us a more helpful human being – able to contribute constructively to the world culture – but puts us in touch with more of who we are.


Focusing as a Force for Peace: the Revolutionary Pause – Mary Hendricks-Gendlin, Ph.D


There is Death-Dukkha

I need to explain how I see the central point about human discord. How do we translate ‘dukkha’? While it is true that ‘dukkha’ has a number of meanings, depending on its context (and that it’s so that the use of the translation ‘suffering’ has a flattening effect on the term), when it comes to thinking about the deepest layers of its meanings, we can find an experience-near meaning, after all; one which helps clarify the personality’s functioning in relation to dying and death.

The interpretation which I prefer is that one based on the etymology found in the Pāli English Dictionary. I like it because it makes the most sense of the family of uses that the word has, across all its contexts.

The PED says that the word is made up of ‘duḥ’ plus ‘kha.’ Those mean: ‘bad’ and ‘space.’ Some think that this refers to the space at the hub of a cart-wheel. Whatever the case, we can take it to mean: a bad space. And, if you like the wheel image, it means a badly functioning centre. It’s a space that doesn’t work well. That’s helpful, I find, for understanding the Nikāya Buddha’s use of ‘dukkha.’ There is death-dukkha because we are operating from the wrong kind of space.

If we aren’t aware of the space from which we know the deathless, then our understanding of the events which we name will be skewed.  Birth, ageing, illness, death, getting what you don’t want, not getting what you do want; separation from what is delightful, and the fluctuations of the five sentient processes (of form, feeling-tones, perceptions, intentionality, and consciousness) – all these can be seen in perspective, when seen from a completely satisfactory space, a non-dukkha space.
With the realisation of the deathless, we see through all these life events as not what we took them to be. So, I take the Pāli ‘maranam dukkham’ to mean: “There is death-dukkha.” Without the vision of the deathless, there can only be a distorted relationship.

There is no suggestion, as far as I know, in the texts, that the Nikāya Buddha was experiencing dukkha when he had bodily pains, or when he was dying. Dukkha is created by our wrong relationship, our reactivity. With our everyday-variety narcissism comes birth-dukkha, illness-dukkha, death-dukkha, association-with-the-unpleasing-dukkha, separation-from-the-pleasing-dukkha, not-getting-what-one-wants-dukkha, and the dukkha of clinging to our five sentient processes.

This clinging, this is worth escaping – by recognising it, entering it with mindfulness and clear comprehension, comprehending its cessation, and establishing ourselves in the way of liberated understanding. The result is more energy for life.

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