The River of Life–on Existence and “Separation”

Here’s another set of Morning Pages philosophical thoughts. Enjoy!


Floating through–a bubble on the surface of a river. The fragility of it and the shining beauty–yet not separate from muck and refuse also floating by in the water. Separate? Does such a word make any deep sense? Of course the bubble is distinct from the banks of the river, but where does the bubble end and “the river” begin? Also, could one truly be without the other? You may say that the river could, but it would be a different river, and would either be without the banks? What is separation?

This image is a metaphor for life, and the last point stands to remind us that “my” life as separate, as independent, is equally implausible. The universe would not be the same without me in it, but we usually stop there and make this into some sort of grand creed of the ego–“My existence is of universal importance!!!” Thus do we beat our chests at the confusion and existential anguish of the questions: “Why am I here? What is the point of it all?” Thus do we cover over our fear of death and nonexistence, trying to overlook how that bubble could so easily pop and that we cannot begin to understand or conceive of what it would be like to dissolve from bubble into river–to have the “I” dissolve into whatever it may become when this body pops in its own way.

We must not stop with this roar at the uncertainties of our embodied, impermanent life. The other point was that I am not separate from the universe. The bubble would not be, if not for floating along on the water. Words deceive here. It is not the river, and yet it is the river. It flows differently than the water around it, but it is composed of the same water and shows us merely a different way that all the particulars of the river’s flow can manifest, albeit briefly, as one possible occurrence in the ever-changing flow of flux.

Bubbles floating on a river...

Bubbles floating on a river…

Here is the mystery. Here is Tao, shunyata, Source, or the divine spark. Here is what you should spend your time observing. The universe universes the universe, right here, right now–right everywhere, right always–and “I” am not a separate, “independent” observer. I am that unfolding splendor in one tiny, localized manifestation, clearly not the whole yet not separate from the whole. Such mystery cannot be adequately represented in words, only indicated, only shownLook.

May All be happy.
May All be healthy.
May All be at peace.
May All live with ease.


May this bring you insight and inspire you to look deeply at all you encounter.

Gassho!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal–Entry 12: Heartmind’s Abundance

Being dumped and left behind, completely forgotten by a great Romantic Love, feels much like being forsaken by a deity. On some level, this is precisely true. Love as great object of inspiration has forsaken you, left you alone to find your way in existence without it. Here echoes the existential dilemma of Sartre: alienation. You’re on your own in finding your meaning in life now, and your choices no longer involve the creation of a shared meaning with another person.

This feeling of forgottenness and abandonment has been biting at me for months. Social media hasn’t helped. I’ve seen the contacts I once had slowly forget my existence. Such is to be expected and is not anything wrong on their parts, but it just emphasizes the feeling of alienation even more. The constant reminder of this in the noise of social media babble has, along with a few other motivations, pushed me to close my main social media account for now. In a strange way, it’s been liberating. I feel that I’m taking up the solitary path that is discussed in the Dhammapada; like the well-trained elephant, I’m learning to take on the trek through the jungles by myself, relaxing in the journey yet staying on course.


Recently, I did a particular meditation for the first time in months. In it, you center for a few minutes while holding your hands over your heart with your thumbs and pointer fingers together in the shape of a triangle. After breathing and centering for some time, you ask yourself, or rather, plant the question: “If I planted my heart, what would grow?”  You then sit with whatever answer comes to form in your mind, not forcing, not judging, just observing. The last time I did this, I had some intense yet interesting experiences (you can read about them here). This time’s experience of the meditation was also intense but very different from the last.

My question first met with a blank, and then, a stalk with a pink flower popped out. At first, it was the bleeding heart flower but became a larger, bell-shaped flower.

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From this:

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To something closer to a single one of these:

Then, another and another popped up. Eventually, they started to lean down and crumple. I had a sudden fear that they were withering and dying from some blight, and indeed, they soon disappeared. However, the ground then gave birth to green leaves, like those from orchids, coming out of the ground by the hundreds, spreading out and out and out. I was struck by the abundance of this–an overwhelming sense of compassion and generosity.

I was almost in tears of gratitude as I came out of this meditation. I realized again, that the problem of this kind of pain only bites and tortures when focused on “me“. The question isn’t what I can, should, or will do for myself. That will continue the focus on the pain that is here, never getting beyond it and keeping the story locked in my orbit, reinforcing that story even. Instead, how can I give to all? If my focus becomes about abundance outward, I’ll find lushness throughout existence. Then, it’s not about me. It’s about the universe. It’s about All.

Identification born of ignorance is a source of grief, and its fading a move toward freedom, as I learned in the days following the death of my only daughter, Ona. She had been congested; her doctor failed to notice her swollen ankles and pale complexion. She was a cherubic child, and we, too, were slow to appreciate the extent of her listlessness. A trip to another physician led to a rush to the hospital; Ona died that night. Her heard had a hole in it and could not keep up with the increased burden of pneumonia.

Days and nights followed in a blur of emotion. Relatives wept with us, visitors came and went, sleep was elusive. The pain made a home in my body and lived there. I had never known such grief. Yet, sometimes, I was able to experience this grief in a nonidentified way, noticing feelings rise and fall, as I did in meditation. And I began to detect a pattern. Whenever a telephone call came–yet another person expressing sympathy–my grief erupted anew. Emotion welled up from my belly through my heart, my head flushed with sensation, my eyes filled with tears.

Watching this time and again, I saw how, at the moment of contact with the caller, an image formed in my mind: the father who lost his child. Instead of experiencing the shifting emotions of the moment–now sadness, now disbelief, now compassion for my wife–I inhabited the image of someone overwhelmed with grief. I identified with that fabricated image, stepped into it as if boarding a train, and became overwhelmed. The immediate suffering was compounded, distorted, and amplified. Knowing this was freeing. Once I discovered this pattern, I was able to watch the train come into the station but not board it. I still felt grief: Ona was of my heart; her absence was confusing and painful. But when I stopped stepping into the mental-emotional construction of “the grieving father,” that pain became less sharp and turbulent because it was not proliferated into a “second arrow” of suffering.

Insight Dialogue:The Interpersonal Path to Freedom, Gregory Kramer, pp. 65-66


Later on in the evening, I read the following in Matthieu Richard’s “Happiness” before falling asleep.

As the pain that afflicts us grows stronger, our mental universe contracts. Events and thoughts continually rebound off the walls of our circumscribed inner prison. They speed up and gather force, every ricochet inflicting new wounds. We must therefore broaden our inner horizons to the point where there are no walls for negative emotion to bounce off of. When these walls, built brick by brick by the self, come tumbling down, suffering’s bullets will miss their mark and vanish in the vast openness of inner freedom. We realize that our suffering was forgetfulness of our true nature, which remains unchanged beneath the fog of emotions. It is essential to develop and sustain this broadening of the inner horizons. External events and thoughts will then emerge like stars that reflect off the calm surface of a vast ocean without disturbing it.

One of the best ways to achieve that state is to meditate on feelings that transcend our mental afflictions. If, for instance, we gradually let our mind be invaded by a feeling of love and compassion for all beings, the warmth of such a thought will very likely melt the ice of our frustrations, while its gentleness will cool the fire of our desires. We will have succeeded in raising ourselves above our personal pain to the point where it becomes almost imperceptible.

Exercise: When you feel overwhelmed by emotions
Imagine a stormy sea with breakers as big as houses. Each wave is more monstrous than the last. They are about to engulf your boat, your very life hangs on those few extra yards in the rushing wall of water. Then imagine observing the same scene from a high-flying plane. From that perspective, the waves seem to form a delicate blue-and-white mosaic, barely trembling on the surface of the water. From that height in the silence of space, your eye sees those almost motionless patterns, and your mind immerses itself in clear and luminous sky. The waves of anger or obsession seem real enough, but remind yourself that they are merely fabrications of your mind; that they will rise and also again disappear. Why stay on the boat of mental anxiety? Make your mind as vast as the sky and you will find that the waves of afflictive emotions have lost all the strength you had attributed to them.

After reading this, I lay there in bed and started winding my mind into sleep. As I closed my eyes, I saw the image of a statue of an elephant’s head facing me. It was ancient, long forgotten in some lost glade of the Indian wilds. It was overgrown with grass and hanging vines, although only partially–his regal head was still clearly visible as well as the details of the carving. The foliage hung gently, emphasizing his calm majesty, and the light green was punctuated at the crown of his head and along the edges of the ears with light pink flowers–the same that I had seen in my meditation. His calm warmth inspired me and reminded me that the selfless path to nirvana is described in the Dhammapada as the training of the elephant. This ancient wisdom is still here to calmly inspire and point out the path, overgrown as the symbols may be, even in the darkest times of our lives. That smiling, beautiful tranquility is right here to be seen. I drifted off with this serene joy.

elephant cc

Something like this guy, but just the head from straight on–face to face, and much closer…


At a retreat about 2 years ago, the shaman in charge told all of us that the point of what we were doing was to get beyond the head and into the heart. He was completely correct, but maybe, it was in an even deeper manner than he realized.

Mahayana Buddhism urges practitioners to rouse bodhicittaBodhicitta is translated usually as awakened mind or awakened heart and sometimes as noble mind or noble heart. The point I want to pull out here is that mind and heart are not clearly distinguished as separate in this Sanskrit word. When we Westerners say “mind”, we generally think only of the intellect, but ultimately, mind is all of our experience. All experiences we have in our lives are filtered by our mind. Our emotions, our thoughts, our perceptions, all take place within our receptive engagement with the universe–consciousness: mind. If anything, part of our problem as Westerners is that our usage of these words has tried to split out emotions, “heart”, from what we’ve made into a more idea-laden space of “mind”. However, psychology would show us that even emotions are tempered by our concepts, (hi)stories, and social constructs. Our experience of heart is not separate from our experience of mind. It really is Heartmind (inspired by Sanskrit’s lack of clear distinction between the two).

Opening the heart and traveling into its depths then is both getting beyond the head AND awakening the mind–the heartmind. Really reaching into these depths of mindheart is stepping past all of our identifications and constructs. It’s finding the empty and open potential for all unfolding in this moment–sheer luminosity. We can call it creative force, Source, Tao, or buddha-nature, but opening to this emptiness behind/within All, shunyata, is the great spiritual journey of the warrior who seeks to awaken the heart. Seeing this, even briefly, goes beyond intellectual constructs of self and lights the abundant fire of compassion that is bodhicitta; it makes the awakened heartmind beat with abundance.


Life is a dream,
the years pass by like flowing waters.
Glamour and glory are transient as autumn smoke;
what tragedy–for with the sun set deeply in the west,
still there are those
lost among paths of disillusionment.

Our heart should be clear as ice.
Forget all the worldly nonsense.
Sit calmly, breathe quietly, heart bright and spotless as an empty mirror.
This is the path to the Buddha’s table.

The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao, Loy Ching-Yuen, “On Tao: §3”

May this inspire other warriors to rouse bodhicitta and let their heartminds overflow with abundance. May the training of self, the harnessing of the process of walking the path–the trained elephant–act as a guide and inspiration on the path.

Gassho!

Flashes of insight

After having begun a regular practice of meditation, sometimes I have fleeting moments of insight. They aren’t during meditation rather during the day. Suddenly, briefly, I see and understand reality as it is on an experiential rather than a conceptual level.

For instance, I’ve been reading about dream yoga from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. An important part of the practice is to regularly tell yourself that “All this is just a dream”. This is done for your waking life, not your dreaming one (ultimately, this aims at being able to lucidly recognize dreams as dreams while in them, by cultivating insight during waking life). The point is to recognize the fluctuating impermanence of existence. There is no underlying essence that endures–all changes and is ephemeral, like in a dream. This is easy enough to explain and understand conceptually. It is basically the same as the Buddhist concept of emptiness or shunyata, but this dream yoga manner of touching the concept presents it through a familiar, intimate life experience.

However, this is still conceptual. The practice is meant to be experienced, rather than just thought. Well and good, but it is harder to experience “This is all just a dream” about your waking life than you might think.

Recently, I was struggling with some turbulent emotions. I went to the bathroom mirror, looked myself in the eye and brought a meditative focus to all I was feeling. Then, I said “This is all just a dream”. Instead of understading this, I felt it. All of the roiling emotions appeared as so many dreamlike images with no underlying substance, glowing and dissolving. The sense of realization was charged and powerful: it was felt, not thought. The experience was deeper than I can express in words. Such moments of lived flashes of insight is opened, I believe, from regular meditation, and I encourage all you readers out there to take up meditation for yourselves.

May this inspire you to seek wisdom and insight through meditation.
Gassho


The Waking Dream

We grasp
Unrelenting
This cannot go…”
“Please…”

Yet every moment
Comes & Goes
Seasons change
The world turns
Days are born & die
Everything passes

Like a dream,
The substantiality
–an illusion
With focus
This ephemeral emptiness
Shines

Figments of experience
Life = Dreaming dreaming dreaming
(That is: dream dreaming itself)
Ironically
There is nothing to grasp onto
Not even yourself
What security do you seek?
Certainty in the face of death?

Even those
Embracers of “change”
Declaring its greatness
Its wholesomeness
Move on only
To their next set of certainties
Another structure
To cling onto
A shelter in the storm?
There is no storm.
That fear
–just another part of the dream


One line above reminded me of this song:

pablo