Friday, May 31, 2013


by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Meditation teaches you the power of your perceptions. You come to see how the labels you apply to things, the images with which you visualize things, have a huge influence over what you see, how they can weigh you down with suffering and stress. As the meditation develops, though, it gives you the tools you need to gain freedom from that influence.

In the beginning, when you first notice the power of perception, you can easily feel overwhelmed by how pervasive it is. Suppose you're focusing on the breath. There comes a point when you begin to wonder whether you're focusing on the breath itself or on your idea of the breath. Once this question arises, the normal reaction is to try to get around the idea to the raw sensation behind it. But if you're really sensitive as you do this, you'll notice that you're simply replacing one caricature of the breath with another, more subtle one. Even the raw sensation of breathing is shaped by how you conceptualize raw sensation. No matter how hard you try to pin down an unfiltered experience of breathing, you still find it shaped by your idea of what breathing actually is. The more you pursue the reality of the breath, the more it recedes like a mirage.

The trick here is to turn this fact to your advantage. After all, you're not meditating to get to the breath. You're meditating to understand the processes leading to suffering so that you can put an end to them. The way you relate to your perceptions is part of these processes, so that's what you want to see. You have to treat your experience of the breath, not as an end in itself, but as a tool for understanding the role of perception in creating suffering and stress.
You do this by de-perception: questioning your assumptions about breathing, deliberately changing those assumptions, and observing what happens as a result. Now, without the proper context, de-perception could easily wander off into random abstractions. So you take the practice of concentration as your context, providing de-perception both with a general direction and with particular tasks that force it to bump up against the operative assumptions that actually shape your experience of the present.

The general direction lies in trying to bring the mind to deeper and more long-lasting levels of stillness so as to eliminate more and more subtle levels of stress. You're not trying to prove which perceptions of the breath depict it most truly, but simply which ones work best in which situations for eliminating stress. The objectivity you're looking for is not the objectivity of the breath, but the objectivity of cause and effect.

The particular tasks that teach you these lessons begin with the task of trying to get the mind to stay comfortably focused for long periods of time on the breath — and right there you run into two operative assumptions: What does it mean to breathe? What does it mean to be focused?

It's common to think of the breath as the air passing in and out through the nose, and this can be a useful perception to start with. Use whatever blatant sensations you associate with that perception as a means of establishing mindfulness, developing alertness, and getting the mind to grow still. But as your attention gets more refined, you may find that level of breath becoming too faint to detect. So try thinking of the breath instead as the energy flow in the body, as a full body process.

Then make that experience as comfortable as possible. If you feel any blockage or obstruction in the breathing, see what you can do to dissolve those feelings. Are you doing anything to create them? If you can catch yourself creating them, then it's easy to let them dissolve. And what would make you create them aside from your preconceived notions of how the mechanics of breathing have to work? So question those notions: Where does the breath come into the body? Does it come in only through the nose and mouth? Does the body have to pull the breath in? If so, which sensations do the pulling? Which sensations get pulled? Where does the pulling begin? And where is the breath pulled from? Which parts have the breath, and which ones don't? When you feel a sensation of blockage, which side of the sensation are you on?

These questions may sound strange, but many times your pre-verbal assumptions about the body are strange as well. Only when you confront them head-on with strange questions can you bring them to light. And only when you see them clearly can you replace them with alternative concepts.
So once you catch yourself breathing uncomfortably in line with a particular assumption, turn it around to see what sensations the new assumption highlights. Try staying with those sensations as long as you can, to test them. If, compared to your earlier sensations associated with the breath, they're easier to stay with, if they provide a more solid and spacious grounding for concentration, the assumption that drew them to your attention is a useful new tool in your meditation. If the new sensations aren't helpful in that way, you can throw the new tool aside.

For example, if you have a sense of being on one side of a blockage, try thinking of being on the other side. Try being on both. Think of the breath as coming into the body, not through the nose or mouth, but through the middle of the chest, the back of the neck, every pore of your skin, any spot that helps reduce the felt need to push and pull.

Or start questioning the need to push and pull at all. Do you feel that your immediate experience of the body is of the solid parts, and that they have to manage the mechanics of breathing, which is secondary? What happens if you conceive your immediate experience of the body in a different way, as a field of primary breath energy, with the solidity simply a label attached to certain aspects of the breath? Whatever you experience as a primary body sensation, think of it as already breath, without your having to do anything more to it. How does that affect the level of stress and strain in the breathing?

And what about the act of staying focused? How do you conceive that? Is it behind the breath? Surrounded by breath? To what extent does your mental picture of focusing help or hinder the ease and solidity of your concentration? For instance, you may find that you think of the mind as being in one part of the body and not in others. What do you do when you focus attention on another part? Does the mind leave its home base — say, in the head — to go there, or does the other part have to be brought into the head? What kind of tension does this create? What happens if you think of awareness already being in that other part? What happens when you turn things around entirely: instead of the mind's being in the body, see what stress is eliminated when you think of the body as surrounded by a pre-existing field of awareness.

When you ask questions like this and gain favorable results, the mind can settle down into deeper and deeper levels of solidity. You eliminate unnecessary tension and stress in your focus, finding ways of feeling more and more at home, at ease, in the experience of the present.

Once the mind is settled down, give it time to stay there. Don't be in too great a hurry to move on. Here the questions are, "Which parts of the process were necessary to focus in? Which can now be let go? Which do you have to hold onto in order to maintain this focus?" Tuning into the right level of awareness is one process; staying there is another. When you learn how to maintain your sense of stillness, try to keep it going in all situations. What do you discover gets in the way? Is it your own resistance to disturbances? Can you make your stillness so porous that disturbances can go through without running into anything, without knocking your center off balance?

As you get more and more absorbed in exploring these issues, concentration becomes less a battle against disturbance and more an opportunity for inner exploration. And without even thinking about them, you're developing the four bases of success: the desire to understand things, the persistence that keeps after your exploration, the close attention you're paying to cause and effect, and the ingenuity you're putting into framing the questions you ask. All these qualities contribute to concentration, help it get settled, get solid, get clear.
At the same time, they foster discernment. The Buddha once said that the test for a person's discernment is how he or she frames a question and tries to answer it. Thus to foster discernment, you can't simply stick to pre-set directions in your meditation. You have to give yourself practice in framing questions and testing the karma of those questions by looking for their results.

Ultimately, when you reach a perception of the breath that allows the sensations of in-and-out breathing to grow still, you can start questioning more subtle perceptions of the body. It's like tuning into a radio station. If your receiver isn't precisely tuned to the frequency of the signal, the static interferes with the subtleties of whatever is being transmitted. But when you're precisely tuned, every nuance comes through. The same with your sensation of the body: when the movements of the breath grow still, the more subtle nuances of how perception interacts with physical sensation come to the fore. The body seems like a mist of atomic sensations, and you can begin to see how your perceptions interact with that mist. To what extent is the shape of the body inherent in the mist? To what extent is it intentional — something added? What happens when you drop the intention to create that shape? Can you focus on the space between the droplets in the mist? What happens then? Can you stay there? What happens when you drop the perception of space and focus on the knowing? Can you stay there? What happens when you drop the oneness of the knowing? Can you stay there? What happens when you try to stop labeling anything at all?

As you settle into these more formless states, it's important that you not lose sight of your purpose in tuning into them. You're here to understand suffering, not to over-interpret what you experience. Say, for instance, that you settle into an enveloping sense of space or consciousness. From there, it's easy to assume that you've reached the primordial awareness, the ground of being, from which all things emerge, to which they all return, and which is essentially untouched by the whole process of emerging and returning. You might take descriptions of the Unconditioned and apply them to what you're experiencing. If you're abiding in a state of neither perception nor non-perception, it's easy to see it as a non-abiding, devoid of distinctions between perceiver and perceived, for mental activity is so attenuated as to be virtually imperceptible. Struck with the apparent effortlessness of the state, you may feel that you've gone beyond passion, aversion, and delusion simply by regarding them as unreal. If you latch onto an assumption like this, you can easily think that you've reached the end of the path before your work is really done.

Your only protection here is to regard these assumptions as forms of perception, and to dismantle them as well. And here is where the four noble truths prove their worth, as tools for dismantling any assumption by detecting the stress that accompanies it. Ask if there's still some subtle stress in the concentration that has become your dwelling place. What goes along with that stress? What vagrant movements in the mind are creating it? What persistent movements in the mind are creating it? You have to watch for both.

In this way you come face to face with the perceptions that keep even the most subtle states of concentration going. And you see that even they are stressful. If you replace them with other perceptions, though, you'll simply exchange one type of stress for another. It's as if your ascending levels of concentration have brought you to the top of a flag pole. You look down and see aging, illness, and death coming up the pole, in pursuit. You've exhausted all the options that perception can offer, so what are you going to do? You can't just stay where you are. Your only option is to release your grip. And if you're letting go fully, you let go of gravity, too.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

poem-a-day #31

gasp.  the man lightning
lady lullaby lady lullaby
lighting man takes
calendar spaces & paints in
awful colors.  awful stands for
what i don't understand
have never seen
cannot try
to say
the page was ripped straight
out of time, the mottled edge
trimmed for a clear
impression.  they opened my
throat, peered in, saw sexy
talk.  wet numb or
unusual in parts we examine
the sturdy plush body,
we try to connect.
it is ugly
or is it


Tuesday, May 28, 2013

poem-a-day #27

the moon blizzarded.
he was too full for the doorway
again & again but his
job involved passage,
his job was to be too tall.


Monday, May 27, 2013

from "sun stone"

by octavio paz

. . .

hours of light even now pecked away by the birds,
omens which even now fly out of my hand,

an actual presence like a burst of singing,
like the song of the wind in a burning building,
a long look holding the whole world suspended,
the world with all its seas and all its mountains,
body of light as it is filtered through agate,
the thighs of light, the belly of light, the bays,
the solar rock and the cloud-coloured body,
colour of day that goes racing and leaping,
the hour glitters and assumes its body,
now the world stands, visible through your body,
and is transparent through your transparency,

i go a journey in galleries of sound

. . .

now i collect my fragments one by one
and go on, bodiless, searching, in the dark,

the limitless corridors of memory
the doors that open on empty living-rooms
where every springtime withers and rots away
the jewels of thirst are burning at the base,
the face obliterated at memory,
the hand which will dissolve if i even touch it,
threads of those spider-webs in chaos over
the smiling of a past that falls away,

i search where i come face to face with daylight,
search without finding, i search for a moment,
for a face of lightning-flash and thunderstorm
running among the enormous trees of night,
face of all rain in a garden of shadows,
insistent water that flows along my side,

i search without finding, and i write alone,
no one is here, and the day ends, the year ends,
i have gone down with the moment, all the way down,
the road is invisible over all these mirrors,
they repeat and reflect for ever my broken image,
i pace the days, the moments pave this roadway,
i step upon the thinking of my shadow,
i pace my shadow in search of my one moment

. . .

now there is nothing in me but one vast wound,
a gap with no possible way of healing,
a now without windows, a turn of intellect
moving on itself, repeating and reflecting,
it loses itself in its own transparency,
self-knowledge that is shot through by the eye
that watches itself watching, drowning itself
in clarity

. . .

the eyes are flames and those who gaze are flaming
the ear is fire and the fiery music,
live coal the lips and the tongue firebrand,
the one who touches and the one who is touching,
thinking and thought, and the thinker is a fire
and all things burn and the universe is flame,
and nothing burns like the rest, nothing which is
nothing except a thought in flames, ultimate smoke

. . .

-- and this our life, when was it truly ours?
and when are we truly whatever we are?
for surely we are not, we never are
anything alone but spinning and emptiness,
crazy faces made in the mirror, horror,
vomit; life is not ours, it is the others',
it is not anybody's, all of us are
life -- the bread of the sun for all the others,
all of those others who are us, we ourselves --
i am the other when i am myself, my acts
are more my own when they are everybody's,
because to be myself i must be other,
go out of myself, seek my self among others,
those others who are not if i do not exist,
others give me the fullness of my existence,
i am not, there is no i, we are for ever,
and life is otherwise, always there, farther,
beyond thee, beyond me, eternal horizon,
life that is dying for us, life that is made for
and invents us, our faces, eats them away,
the thirst for existence, death, bread of us all.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

lately all i want to do is sleep

it's dangerous. 

And the moment will come when composure returns
Put a face on the world, turn your back to the wall
And you walk twenty yards with your head in the air
Down the Liberty Hill, where the fashion brigade
Look with curious eyes on your raggedy way
And for once in your life you've got nothing to say
And could this be the time when somebody will come
To say, "Look at yourself, you're not much use to anyone"

Take a walk in the park, take a valium pill
Read the letter you got from the memory girl
But it takes more than this to make sense of the day
Yeah, it takes more than milk to get rid of the taste
And you trusted to this, and you trusted to that
And when you saw it all come, it was waving the flag
Of the United States of Calamity, hey!
After all that you've done, boy, I know you're going to pay

In the morning you come to the ladies salon
To get all fitted out for The Paperback Throne
But the people are living far away from the place
Where you wanted to help, it's a bit of a waste
And the puzzle will last until somebody will say
"There's a lot to be done while your head is still young"
If you put down your pen, leave your worries behind
Then the moment will come, and the memory will shine

Now the trouble is over, everybody got paid
Everybody is happy, they are glad that they came
Then you go to the place where you've finally found
You can look at yourself, sleep the clock around

Thursday, May 23, 2013

poem-a-day, #28

it bursts through our windows

we are pulsing
suns hand curtains hand
hooves clouds off
with patter or patter the dear dust
glitters, scatters, calls out
"home ooh ooh"
home?  we groan.  we are
having an adventure.  glow
away, we chide.  but there,
the stars snapped open
in our bloodstreams, like she said
they would


Saturday, May 18, 2013

notes on communication

quotes from other people's children by lisa delpit:

"when de-emphasizing power, there is a move toward indirect communication."

"when acknowledging and expressing power, one tends towards explicitness."

"liberals. . . seem to act under the assumption that to make any rules or expectations explicit is to act against liberal principles, to limit the freedom & autonomy of those subjected to the explicitness."

from critical theory & practice: a coursebook edited by keith green & jill lebihan

"granted that it might be difficult for womyn to find a stylistic 'space' that is not occupied by men, what emerges is a kind of definition that is still marked by the presence of men, in that they provide the 'norm' for the resulting anti-norm.  if men's style is 'rational', womyn's must therefore by 'emotional', even 'irrational'; if 'logical' then womyn's must be 'illogical', and so on.  and while it may be praiseworthy to turn negative attributions into positive. . . the resulting discourse can still give the impression of reinforcing all the stereotypical images of womyn's discourse and style..." - katie wales

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

the dead of spring

they said it was on the day of the wind
(on the wind)
a black hole came to earth and left with this
train twisted lllloud spindle
for those who claim to see
heaven is
dug in a ditch
lying low pressure, lightning is taut
as lighting down does
the power lined touching
one eye and passing hard
debris detritus a column of dust
inside a family inverts
shelter me! the acoustics!
calamity ferocity mindful intent
suction whirl rush rotation
downdraft spiral jogging vertical
if i lie flat if i cover my head if i
panic in a field if i move away from the glass
have a flashlight gas station basement or bathtub
dirty scum sky fast flashing green gray jagged
who you who you who you
the air itself is dangerous
yet get a grip, windspeeds
can be categorized
throw a car, heavy
a window, light
uproot a forest, medium
pull up a chair,
settle the town
the moral obligation is to
accept and welcome the guest
temperatures colliding, space slash competition
heat like humans /cold like creatures
the funnel needs a certain dead balance to thrive
riot updrag, a safe physical distance
unlike the dreamstate
unlike wednesday
unlike an isthmus
with chagrin, let it be known water
is no barrier
supercells outflow
stability dissipates
levels die twisting
vortex vortex vortices
(only the wind)
will arrive


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

the roots of buddhist romanticism

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Many Westerners, when new to Buddhism, are struck by the uncanny familiarity of what seem to be its central concepts: interconnectedness, wholeness, ego-transcendence. But what they may not realize is that the concepts sound familiar because they are familiar. To a large extent, they come not from the Buddha's teachings but from the Dharma gate of Western psychology, through which the Buddha's words have been filtered. They draw less from the root sources of the Dharma than from their own hidden roots in Western culture: the thought of the German Romantics.

The German Romantics may be dead and almost forgotten, but their ideas are still very much alive. Their thought has survived because they were the first to tackle the problem of how it feels to grow up in a modern society. Their analysis of the problem, together with their proposed solution, still rings true.

Modern society, they saw, is dehumanizing in that it denies human beings their wholeness. The specialization of labor leads to feelings of fragmentation and isolation; the bureaucratic state, to feelings of regimentation and constriction. The only cure for these feelings, the Romantics proposed, is the creative artistic act. This act integrates the divided self and dissolves its boundaries in an enlarged sense of identity and interconnectedness with other human beings and nature at large. Human beings are most fully human when free to create spontaneously from the heart. The heart's creations are what allow people to connect. Although many Romantics regarded religious institutions and doctrines as dehumanizing, some of them turned to religious experience — a direct feeling of oneness with the whole of nature — as a primary source for re-humanization.

When psychology and psychotherapy developed as disciplines in the West, they absorbed many of the Romantics' ideas and broadcast them into the culture at large. As a result, concepts such as integration of the personality, self-fulfillment, and interconnectedness, together with the healing powers of wholeness, spontaneity, playfulness, and fluidity have long been part of the air we breathe. So has the idea that religion is a primarily a quest for a feeling-experience, and religious doctrines are a creative response to that experience.

In addition to influencing psychology, these conceptions inspired liberal Christianity and reform Judaism, which proposed that traditional doctrines had to be creatively recast to speak to each new generation in order to keep religious experience vital and alive. So it was only natural that when the Dharma came west, people interpreted it in line with these conceptions as well. Asian teachers — many of whom had absorbed Romantic ideas through Westernized education before coming here — found they could connect with Western audiences by stressing themes of spontaneity and fluidity in opposition to the "bureaucracy of the ego." Western students discovered that they could relate to the doctrine of dependent co-arising when it was interpreted as a variation on interconnectedness; and they could embrace the doctrine of not-self as a denial of the separate self in favor of a larger, more encompassing identity with the entire cosmos.

In fact, the Romantic view of religious life has shaped more than just isolated Dharma teachings. It colors the Western view of the purpose of Dharma practice as a whole. Western teachers from all traditions maintain that the aim of Buddhist practice is to gain the creative fluidity that overcomes dualities. As one author has put it, the Buddha taught that "dissolving the barriers that we erect between ourselves and the world is the best use of our human lives... [Egolessness] manifests as inquisitiveness, as adaptability, as humor, as playfulness... our capacity to relax with not knowing." Or as another has said, "When our identity expands to include everything, we find a peace with the dance of the world." Adds a third: "Our job for the rest of our life is to open up into that immensity and to express it."

Just as the Chinese had Taoism as their Dharma gate — the home-grown tradition providing concepts that helped them understand the Dharma — we in the West have Romanticism as ours. The Chinese experience with Dharma gates, though, contains an important lesson that is often overlooked. After three centuries of interest in Buddhist teachings, they began to realize that Buddhism and Taoism were asking different questions. As they rooted out these differences, they started using Buddhist ideas to question their Taoist presuppositions. This was how Buddhism, instead of turning into a drop in the Taoist sea, was able to inject something genuinely new into Chinese culture. The question here in the West is whether we will learn from the Chinese example and start using Buddhist ideas to question our Dharma gate, to see exactly how far the similarities between the gate and the actual Dharma go. If we don't, we run the danger of mistaking the gate for the Dharma itself, and of never going through it to the other side.

Taken broadly, Romanticism and the Dharma view spiritual life in a similar light. Both regard religion as a product of human activity, rather than divine intervention. Both regard the essence of religion as experiential and pragmatic; and its role as therapeutic, aimed at curing the diseases of the human mind. But if you examine the historical roots of both traditions, you find that they disagree sharply not only on the nature of religious experience, but also on the nature of the mental diseases it can treat and on the nature of what it means to be cured.

These differences aren't just historical curiosities. They shape the presuppositions that meditators bring to the practice. Even when fully present, the mind carries along its past presuppositions, using them to judge which experiences — if any — should be valued. This is one of the implications of the Buddhist doctrine on karma. As long as these presuppositions remain unexamined, they hold an unknown power. So to break that power, we need to examine the roots of the Buddhist Romanticism — the Dharma as seen through the Romantic gate. And for the examination to jibe with Buddhist ideas of causality, we have to look for those roots in two directions: into the past for the origin of Romantic ideas, and into the present for the conditions that keep Romantic ideas attractive in the here and now.

The Romantics took their original inspiration from an unexpected source: Kant, the wizened old professor whose daily walks were so punctual that his neighbors could set their clocks by him. In his Critique of Judgment he taught that aesthetic creation and feeling were the highest activities of the human mind, in that they alone could heal the dichotomies of human experience. Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), perhaps the most influential Romantic philosopher, elaborated on this thesis with his notion of the aesthetic "play drive" as the ultimate expression of human freedom, beyond both the compulsions of animal existence and the laws of reason, bringing both into integration. Man, he said, "is fully a human being only when he plays."

In Schiller's eyes, this play drive not only integrated the self, but also helped dissolve one's separation from other human beings and the natural environment as a whole. A person with the internal freedom needed for self-integration would instinctively want others to experience the same freedom as well. This connection explains the Romantic political program of offering help and sympathy for the oppressed of all nations in overthrowing their oppressors. The value of internal unity, in their eyes, was proven by its ability to create bonds of unity in the world of social and political action.

Schiller saw the process of integration as unending: perfect unity could never be achieved. A meaningful life was one continually engaged in the process of integration. The path was the goal.
It was also totally unpatterned and unconstrained. Given the free nature of the play drive, each person's path to integration was individual and unique.

Schiller's colleague, Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), applied these ideas to religion, concluding that it, like any other art form, was a human creation, and that its greatest function lay in healing the splits both within the human personality and in human society at large. He defined the essence of religion as "the sensibility and taste for the infinite," which begins in the receptive mind state where awareness opens to the infinite. This feeling for the infinite is followed by an act of the creative imagination, which articulates that feeling to oneself and others. Because these creative acts — and thus all religious doctrines — are a step removed from the reality of the experience, they are constantly open to improvement and change.

A few quotations from his essays, On Religion, will give a sense of Schleiermacher's thought.

"The individual is not just part of a whole, but an exhibition of it. The mind, like the universe is creative, not just receptive. Whoever has learned to be more than himself knows that he loses little when he loses himself. Rather than align themselves with a belief of personal immortality after death, the truly religious would prefer to strive to annihilate their personality and live in the one and in the all."

Where is religion chiefly to be sought? Where the living contact of a human being with the world fashions itself as feeling. Truly religious people are tolerant of different translations of this feeling, even the hesitation of atheism. Not to have the divine immediately present in one's feelings has always seemed to them more irreligious than such a hesitation. To insist on one particular conception of the divine to be true is far from religion."

Schiller and Schleiermacher both had a strong influence on Ralph Waldo Emerson, which can easily be seen in the latter's writings. We're sometimes told that Emerson was influenced by Eastern religions, but actually his readings in Buddhism and Hinduism simply provided chapter and verse for the lessons he had already learned from the European Romantics.

"Bring the past into the 1000-eyed present and live ever in a new day. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. The essence of genius, of virtue, and of life is what is called Spontaneity or Instinct. Every man knows that to his involuntary perceptions a perfect faith is due."

"The reason why the world lacks unity is because man is disunited with himself... We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meanwhile, within man is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one."

At present, the Romantics and Transcendentalists are rarely read outside of literature or theology classes. Their ideas have lived on in the general culture largely because they were adopted by the discipline of psychology and translated into a vocabulary that was both more scientific and more accessible to the public at large. One of the most crucial translators was William James, who gave the psychological study of religion its modern form a century ago, in 1902, with the publication of The Varieties of Religious Experience. James' broad sympathies extended beyond Western culture to include Buddhism and Hinduism, and beyond the "acceptable" religions of his time to include the Mental Culture movement, the 19th century's version of the New Age. His interest in diversity makes him seem amazingly post-modern.

Still, James was influenced by the intellectual currents alive in his time, which shaped the way he converted his large mass of data into a psychology of religion. Although he spoke as a scientist, the current with the deepest influence on his thought was Romanticism.

He followed the Romantics in saying that the function of religious experience was to heal the sense of "divided self," creating a more integrated self-identity better able to function in society. However, to be scientific, the psychology of religion must not side for or against any truth claims concerning the content of religious experiences. For instance, many religious experiences produce a strong conviction in the oneness of the cosmos as a whole. Although scientific observers should accept the feeling of oneness as a fact, they shouldn't take it as proof that the cosmos is indeed one. Instead, they should judge each experience by its effects on the personality. James was not disturbed by the many mutually contradictory truth-claims that religious experiences have produced over the centuries. In his eyes, different temperaments need different truths as medicine to heal their psychological wounds.

Drawing on Methodism to provide two categories for classifying all religious experiences — conversion and sanctification — James gave a Romantic interpretation to both. For the Methodists, these categories applied specifically to the soul's relationship to God. Conversion was the turning of the soul to God's will; sanctification, the attunement of the soul to God's will in all its actions. To apply these categories to other religions, James removed the references to God, leaving a more Romantic definition: conversion unifies the personality; sanctification represents the on-going integration of that unification into daily life.

Also, James followed the Romantics in judging the effects of both types of experiences in this-worldly terms. Conversion experiences are healthy when they foster healthy sanctification: the ability to maintain one's integrity in the rough and tumble of daily life, acting as a moral and responsible member of human society. In psychological terms, James saw conversion as simply an extreme example of the breakthroughs ordinarily encountered in adolescence. And he agreed with the Romantics that personal integration was a process to be pursued throughout life, rather than a goal to be achieved.

Other writers who took up the psychology of religion after James devised a more scientific vocabulary to analyze their data. Still, they maintained many of the Romantic notions that James had introduced into the field.

For example, in Modern Man in Search of a Soul (1933), Carl Jung agreed that religion's proper role lay in healing of divisions within the personality, although he saw the same basic split in everyone: the narrow, fearful ego vs. the wiser, more spacious unconscious. Thus he regarded religion as a primitive form of psychotherapy. In fact, he actually lay closer than James to the Romantics in his definition of psychic health. Quoting Schiller's assertion that human beings are most human when they are at play, Jung saw the cultivation of spontaneity and fluidity both as a means for integrating the divided personality and as an expression of the healthy personality engaged in the unending process of integration, internal and external, throughout life.

Unlike James, Jung saw the integrated personality as lying above the rigid confines of morality. And, although he didn't use the term, he extolled what Keats called "negative capability": the ability to deal comfortably with uncertainties and mysteries without trying to impose confining certainties on them. Thus Jung recommended borrowing from religions any teachings that assist the process of integration, while rejecting any teachings that would inhibit the spontaneity of the integrated self.

In Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (1970), Abraham Maslow, the American "father of transpersonal psychology," divided religious experiences into the same two categories used by James. But in an attempt to divorce these categories from any particular tradition, he named them after the shape they would assume if graphed over time: peak-experiences and plateau-experiences. These terms have now entered the common vernacular. Peak-experiences are short-lived feelings of oneness and integration that can come, not only in the area of religion, but also in sport, sex, and art. Plateau-experiences exhibit a more stable sense of integration and last much longer.

Maslow had little use for traditional interpretations of peak experiences, regarding them as cultural overlays that obscured the true nature of the experience. Assuming all peak experiences, regardless of cause or context, to be basically the same, he reduced them to their common psychological features, such as feelings of wholeness, dichotomy-transcendence, playfulness, and effortlessness. Thus reduced, he found, they weren't of lasting value unless they could be transformed into plateau experiences. To this end he saw psychotherapy as necessary for their perfection: integrating them into a regime of counseling and education that would actualize the full potential of the human being — intellectual, physical, social, sexual — in a society where all areas of life are sacred, and plateau-experiences commonplace for all.

These three writers on the psychology of religion, despite their differences, kept Romantic ideas about religion alive in the West by giving them the scientific stamp of approval. Through their influence, these ideas have shaped humanistic psychology and — through humanistic psychology — the expectations many Americans bring to the Dharma.

However, when we compare these expectations with the original principles of the Dharma, we find radical differences. The contrast between them is especially strong around the three most central issues of spiritual life: What is the essence of religious experience? What is the basic illness that religious experience can cure? And what does it mean to be cured?

The nature of religious experience. For humanistic psychology, as for the Romantics, religious experience is a direct feeling, rather than the discovery of objective truths. The essential feeling is a oneness overcoming all inner and outer divisions. These experiences come in two sorts: peak experiences, in which the sense of oneness breaks through divisions and dualities; and plateau experiences, where — through training — the sense of oneness creates a healthy sense of self, informing all of one's activities in everyday life.

However, the Dharma as expounded in its earliest records places training in oneness and a healthy sense of self prior to the most dramatic religious experiences. A healthy sense of self is fostered through training in generosity and virtue. A sense of oneness — peak or plateau — is attained in mundane levels of concentration (jhana) that constitute the path, rather than the goal of practice. The ultimate religious experience, Awakening, is something else entirely. It is described, not in terms of feeling, but of knowledge: skillful mastery of the principles of causality underlying actions and their results, followed by direct knowledge of the dimension beyond causality where all suffering stops.

The basic spiritual illness. Romantic/humanistic psychology states that the root of suffering is a sense of divided self, which creates not only inner boundaries — between reason and emotion, body and mind, ego and shadow — but also outer ones, separating us from other people and from nature and the cosmos as a whole. The Dharma, however, teaches that the essence of suffering is clinging, and that the most basic form of clinging is self-identification, regardless of whether one's sense of self is finite or infinite, fluid or static, unitary or not.

The successful spiritual cure. Romantic/humanistic psychology maintains that a total, final cure is unattainable. Instead, the cure is an ongoing process of personal integration. The enlightened person is marked by an enlarged, fluid sense of self, unencumbered by moral rigidity. Guided primarily by what feels right in the context of interconnectedness, one negotiates with ease — like a dancer — the roles and rhythms of life. Having learned the creative answer to the question, "What is my true identity?", one is freed from the need for certainties about any of life's other mysteries.

The Dharma, however, teaches that full Awakening achieves a total cure, opening to the unconditioned beyond time and space, at which point the task is done. The awakened person then follows a path "that can't be traced," but is incapable of transgressing the basic principles of morality. Such a person realizes that the question, "What is my true identity?" was ill-conceived, and knows from direct experience the total release from time and space that will happen at death.
When these two traditions are compared point-by-point, it's obvious that — from the perspective of early Buddhism — Romantic/humanistic psychology gives only a partial and limited view of the potentials of spiritual practice. This means that Buddhist Romanticism, in translating the Dharma into Romantic principles, gives only a partial and limited view of what Buddhism has to offer.

Now, for many people, these limitations don't matter, because they come to Buddhist Romanticism for reasons rooted more in the present than in the past. Modern society is now even more schizoid than anything the Romantics ever knew. It has made us more and more dependent on wider and wider circles of other people, yet keeps most of those dependencies hidden. Our food and clothing come from the store, but how they got there, or who is responsible for ensuring a continual supply, we don't know. When investigative reporters track down the web of connections from field to final product in our hands, the bare facts read like an exposé. Our sweatshirts, for example, come from Uzbekistani cotton woven in Iran, sewn in South Korea, and stored in Kentucky — an unstable web of interdependencies that involve not a little suffering both for the producers and for those pushed out of the production web by cheaper labor.

Whether or not we know these details, we intuitively sense the fragmentation and uncertainty created by the entire system. Thus many of us feel a need for a sense of wholeness. For those who benefit from the hidden dependencies of modern life, a corollary need is a sense of reassurance that interconnectedness is reliable and benign — or, if not yet benign, that feasible reforms can make it that way. They want to hear that they can safely place their trust in the principle of interconnectedness without fear that it will turn on them or let them down. When Buddhist Romanticism speaks to these needs, it opens the gate to areas of Dharma that can help many people find the solace they're looking for. In doing so, it augments the work of psychotherapy, which may explain why so many psychotherapists have embraced Dharma practice for their own needs and for their patients, and why some have become Dharma teachers themselves.

However, Buddhist Romanticism also helps close the gate to areas of the Dharma that would challenge people in their hope for an ultimate happiness based on interconnectedness. Traditional Dharma calls for renunciation and sacrifice, on the grounds that all interconnectedness is essentially unstable, and any happiness based on this instability is an invitation to suffering. True happiness has to go beyond interdependence and interconnectedness to the unconditioned. In response, the Romantic argument brands these teachings as dualistic: either inessential to the religious experience or inadequate expressions of it. Thus, it concludes, they can safely be ignored. In this way, the gate closes off radical areas of the Dharma designed to address levels of suffering remaining even when a sense of wholeness has been mastered.

It also closes off two groups of people who would otherwise benefit greatly from Dharma practice:

  1. Those who see that interconnectedness won't end the problem of suffering and are looking for a more radical cure.
  2. Those from disillusioned and disadvantaged sectors of society, who have less invested in the continuation of modern interconnectedness and have abandoned hope for meaningful reform or happiness within the system.
For both of these groups, the concepts of Buddhist Romanticism seem Pollyannaish; the cure it offers, too facile. As a Dharma gate, it's more like a door shut in their faces.

Like so many other products of modern life, the root sources of Buddhist Romanticism have for too long remained hidden. This is why we haven't recognized it for what it is or realized the price we pay in mistaking the part for the whole. Barring major changes in American society, Buddhist Romanticism is sure to survive. What's needed is for more windows and doors to throw light onto the radical aspects of the Dharma that Buddhist Romanticism has so far left in the dark.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

the path of concentration & mindfulness

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
Many people tell us that the Buddha taught two different types of meditation — mindfulness meditation and concentration meditation. Mindfulness meditation, they say, is the direct path, while concentration practice is the scenic route that you take at your own risk because it's very easy to get caught there and you may never get out. But when you actually look at what the Buddha taught, he never separates these two practices. They are both parts of a single whole. Every time he explains mindfulness and its place in the path, he makes it clear that the purpose of mindfulness practice is to lead the mind into a state of Right Concentration — to get the mind to settle down and to find a place where it can really feel stable, at home, where it can look at things steadily and see them for what they are.
Part of the "two practices" issue centers on how we understand the word jhana, which is a synonym for Right Concentration. Many of us have heard that jhana is a very intense trance-like state that requires intense staring and shutting out the rest of the world. It sounds nothing like mindfulness at all. But if you look in the Canon where the Buddha describes jhana, that's not the kind of state he's talking about. To be in jhana is to be absorbed, very pleasurably, in the sense of the whole body altogether. A very broad sense of awareness fills the entire body. One of the images the Buddha used to describe this state is that of a person kneading water into dough so that the water permeates throughout the flour. Another is a lake in which a cool spring comes welling up and suffuses the entire lake.
Now, when you're with the body as a whole, you're very much in the present moment. You're right there all the time. As the Buddha says, the fourth jhana — in which the body is filled with bright awareness — is the point where mindfulness and equanimity become pure. So there should be no problem in combining mindfulness practice with the whole-body awareness that gets very settled and still. In fact, the Buddha himself combines them in his description of the first four steps of breath meditation: (1) being aware of long breathing, (2) being aware of short breathing, (3) being aware of the whole body as you breathe in and breathe out, and then (4) calming the sensation of the breath within the body. This, as the texts tell us, is basic mindfulness practice. It's also a basic concentration practice. You're getting into the first jhana — Right Concentration — right there, at the same time that you're practicing Right Mindfulness.
To see how Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration help each other in the practice, we can look at the three stages of mindfulness practice given in the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta. Take the body as an example. The first stage is to keep focused on the body in and of itself, putting aside greed and distress with reference to the world. What this means is taking the body as a body without thinking about it in terms of what it means or what it can do in the world. It could be either good or bad looking. It could be strong or weak. It could be agile or clumsy — all the issues we tend to worry about when we think about ourselves. The Buddha says to put those issues aside.
Just be with the body in and of itself, sitting right here. You close your eyes — what do you have? There's the sensation of "bodiness" that you're sitting with. That's your frame of reference. Try to stay with it. Keep bringing the mind back to this sense of the body until it gets the message and begins to settle down. In the beginning of the practice you find the mind going out to grasp this or that, so you note it enough to tell it to let go, return to the body, and hold on there. Then it goes out to grasp something else, so you tell it to let go, come back, and latch onto the body again. Eventually, though, you reach a point where you can actually grasp hold of the breath and you don't let go, okay? You keep holding onto it. From that point on, whatever else that happens to come into your awareness is like something coming up and brushing the back of your hand. You don't have to note it. You stay with the body as your basic frame of reference. Other things come and go, you're aware of them, but you don't drop the breath and go grasping after them. This is when you really have established the body as a solid frame of reference.
As you do this, you develop three qualities of mind. One is mindfulness (sati). The term mindfulness means being able to remember, to keep something in mind. In the case of establishing the body as a frame of reference, it means being able to remember where you're supposed to be — with the body — and you don't let yourself forget. The second quality, alertness (sampajañña), means being aware of what is actually going on in the present. Are you with the body? Are you with the breath? Is the breath comfortable? Simply notice what's actually happening in the present moment. We tend to confuse mindfulness with alertness, but actually they are two separate things: mindfulness means being able to remember where you want to keep your awareness; alertness means being aware of what's actually happening. The third quality, ardency (atappa), means two things. One, if you realize that the mind has wandered off, you bring it right back. Immediately. You don't let it wander around, sniffing the flowers. Two, when the mind is with its proper frame of reference, ardency means trying to be as sensitive as possible to what's going on — not just drifting in the present moment, but really trying to penetrate more and more into the subtle details of what's actually happening with the breath or the mind.
When you have these three qualities focused on the body in and of itself, you can't help but settle down and get really comfortable with the body in the present moment. That's when you're ready for the second stage in the practice, which is described as being aware of the phenomenon of origination and the phenomenon of passing away. This is a stage where you're trying to understand cause and effect as they happen in the present. In terms of concentration practice, once you've got the mind to settle down, you want to understand the interaction of cause and effect in the process of concentration so that you can get it to settle down more solidly for longer periods of time in all sorts of situations, on the cushion and off. To do this, you have to learn about how things arise and pass away in the mind, not by simply watching them, but by actually getting involved in their arising and passing away.
You can see this in the Buddha's instructions for dealing with the hindrances. In the first stage, he says to be aware of the hindrances as they come and go. Some people think that this is an exercise in "choiceless awareness," where you don't try to will the mind in any direction, where you simply sit and watch willy-nilly whatever comes into the mind. In actual practice, though, the mind isn't yet ready for that. What you need at this stage is a fixed point of reference for evaluating the events in the mind, just as when you're trying to gauge the motion of clouds through the sky: You need to choose a fixed point — like a roof gable or a light pole — at which to stare so that you can get a sense of which direction and how fast the clouds are moving. The same with the coming and going of sensual desire, ill will, etc., in the mind: You have to try to maintain a fixed reference point for the mind — like the breath — if you want to be really sensitive to when there are hindrances in the mind — getting in the way of your reference point — and when there are not.
Suppose that anger is interfering with your concentration. Instead of getting involved in the anger, you try simply to be aware of when it's there and when it's not. You look at the anger as an event in and of itself — as it comes, as it goes. But you don't stop there. The next step — as you're still working at focusing on the breath — is recognizing how anger can be made to go away. Sometimes simply watching it is enough to make it go away; sometimes it's not, and you have to deal with it in other ways, such as arguing with the reasoning behind the anger or reminding yourself of the drawbacks of anger. In the course of dealing with it, you have to get your hands dirty. You've got to try and figure out why the anger is coming, why it's going, how you can get it out of there, because you realize that it's an unskillful state. And this requires that you improvise. Experiment. You've got to chase your ego and impatience out of the way so that you can have the space to make mistakes and learn from them, so that you can develop a skill in dealing with the anger. It's not just a question of hating the anger and trying to push it away, or of loving the anger and welcoming it. These approaches may give results in the short run, but in the long run they're not especially skillful. What's called for here is the ability to see what the anger is composed of; how can you take it apart.
One technique I like to use — when anger is present and you're in a situation where you don't immediately have to react to people — is simply to ask yourself in a good-natured way, "Okay, why are you angry?" Listen to what the mind has to say. Then pursue the matter: "But why are you angry at that? " "Of course, I'm angry. After all..." "Well, why are you angry at that?" If you keep this up, the mind will eventually admit to something stupid, like the assumption that people shouldn't be that way — even though they blatantly are that way — or that people should act in line with your standards, or whatever the mind is so embarrassed about that it tries to hide from you. But finally, if you keep probing, it'll fess up. You gain a lot of understanding of the anger that way, and this can really weaken its power over you.
In terms of the positive qualities like mindfulness, serenity, and concentration, it's a similar sort of thing. First, you're aware of when they're there and when they're not, and then you realize that when they're there it's much nicer than when they're not. So you try to figure out how they come, how they go. You do this by consciously trying to maintain that state of mindfulness and concentration. If you're really observant — and this is what it's all about, being observant — you begin to see that there are skillful ways of maintaining the state without getting all tied up in failure or success in doing it, without letting the desire for a settled state of mind actually get in the way of the mind's settling down. You do want to succeed, but you need a balanced attitude toward failure and success so that you can learn from them. Nobody's keeping score or taking grades. You're here to understand for your own sake. So this process of developing your foundation of mindfulness or developing your frame of reference is not "just watching." It's more a participation in the process of arising and passing away — actually playing with the process — so that you can learn from experience how cause and effect work in the mind.
Once, when I was in college, I wrote home complaining about the food, and my mother sent me a Julia Child cookbook. In the book was a section on dealing with eggs in which she said that the sign of a really good cook is knowing eggs. And so I took an egg out. You can watch an egg — you can learn certain things just by watching it, but you don't learn very much. To learn about eggs you have to put them in a pan and try to make something out of them. If you do this long enough you begin to understand that there are variations in eggs, and there are certain ways that they react to heat and ways that they react to oil or butter or whatever. And so by actually working with the egg and trying to make something out of it, you really come to understand eggs. It's similar with clay: you really don't know clay until you become a potter and actually try to make something out of the clay.
And it's the same with the mind: unless you actually try to make something out of the mind, try to get a mental state going and keep it going, you don't really know your own mind. You don't know the processes of cause and effect within the mind. There has to be a factor of actual participation in the process. That way you can understand it. This all comes down to being observant and developing a skill. The essence of developing a skill means two things. One, you're aware of a situation as it is given and, two, you're aware of what you put into it. When the Buddha talks about causation, he says that every situation is shaped from two directions — the causes coming in from the past and the causes you're putting into the present. You need to be sensitive to both. If you aren't sensitive to what you're putting into a situation, you'll never develop any kind of skill. As you're aware of what you're doing, you also look at the results. If something isn't right, you go back and change what you've done — keeping at this until you get the results you want. And in the process, you learn a great deal from the clay, the eggs, or whatever you're trying to deal with skillfully.
The same holds true with the mind. Of course, you could learn something about the mind by trying to get it into any sort of a state, but for the purpose of developing really penetrating insight, a state of stable, balanced, mindful concentration is the best kind of soufflé or pot you want to make with the mind. The factors of pleasure, ease, and sometimes even rapture that arise when the mind really settles down help you stay comfortably in the present moment, with a low center of gravity. Once the mind is firmly settled there, you have something to look at for a long period of time so that you can see what it's made up of. In the typical unbalanced state of the mind, things are appearing and disappearing too fast for you to notice them clearly. But as the Buddha notes, when you get really skilled at jhana, you can step back a bit and really see what you've got. You can see, say, where there's an element of attachment, where there's an element of stress, or even where there's inconstancy within your balanced state. This is where you begin to gain insight, as you see the natural cleavage lines among the different factors of the mind, and in particular, the cleavage line between awareness and the objects of awareness.
Another advantage to this mindful, concentrated state is that as you feel more and more at home in it, you begin to realize that it's possible to have happiness and pleasure in life without depending on things outside of yourself — people, relationships, approval from others, or any of the issues that come from being part of the world. This realization helps pry loose your attachments to things outside. Some people are afraid of getting attached to a state of calm, but actually, it's very important that you get attached here, so that you begin to settle down and begin to undo your other attachments. Only when this attachment to calm is the only one left do you begin work on loosening it up as well.
Still another reason why solid concentration is necessary for insight is that when discernment comes to the mind, the basic lesson it will teach you is that you've been stupid. You've held onto things even though deep down inside you should have known better. Now, try telling that to people when they're hungry and tired. They'll come right back with, "You're stupid, too," and that's the end of the discussion. Nothing gets accomplished. But if you talk to someone who has had a full meal and feels rested, you can broach all kinds of topics without risking a fight. It's the same with the mind. When it has been well fed with the rapture and ease coming from concentration, it's ready to learn. It can accept your criticisms without feeling threatened or abused.
So. This is the role that concentration practice plays in this second stage of mindfulness practice: It gives you something to play with, a skill to develop so you can begin to understand the factors of cause and effect within the mind. You begin to see the mind as just a flux of causes with their effects coming back at you. Your ideas are part of this flux of cause and effect, your emotions, your sense of who you are. This insight begins to loosen your attachments to the whole process.
What finally happens is that the mind reaches a third level of mindfulness practice where the mind comes to a state of perfect equilibrium — where you've developed this state of concentration, this state of equilibrium to the point where you don't have to put anything more into it. In the Foundations of Mindfulness Sutta this is described as simply being aware — if you are using the body as your frame of reference, being aware that "There is a body," just enough for knowledge and mindfulness, without being attached to anything in the world. Other texts call this the state of "non-fashioning." The mind reaches the point where you begin to realize that all causal processes in the mind — including the processes of concentration and insight — are like tar babies. If you like them, you get stuck; if you don't like them, you get stuck. So what are you going to do? You have to get to the point where you're not really contributing anything more to the present moment. You unravel your participation in it. That's when things open up in the mind.
Many people want to jump right in and begin at this level of not adding anything to the present moment, but it doesn't work that way. You can't be sensitive to the subtle things the mind is habitually adding to the present until you've consciously tried to alter what you're adding. As you get more and more skilled, you get more sensitive to the subtle things you didn't realize you were doing. You reach a point of disenchantment, where you realize that the most skillful way of dealing with the present is to strip away all levels of participation that cause even the slightest bit of stress in the mind. You start dismantling the levels of participation that you learned in the second stage of the practice, to the point where things reach equilibrium on their own, where there's letting go and release.
So it's important to realize that there are these three stages to mindfulness practice, and to understand the role that deliberate concentration practice plays in taking you through the first two. Without aiming at Right Concentration, you can't develop the skills needed for understanding the mind — for it's in the process of mastering the skill of mindful concentration that true insight arises. Just as you don't really understand a herd of cattle until you've successfully herded them — learning from all your failures along the way — you can't get a sense of all the cause-and-effect currents running through the mind until you've learned from your failures and successes in getting them to gather in a state of concentrated mindfulness and mindful concentration. And only when you've really understood and mastered these currents — the currents of craving that cause suffering and stress, and the currents of mindfulness and concentration that form the Path — can you let them go and find freedom from them.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


by louise gluck

i see it is with you as with the birches:
i am not to speak to you
in the personal way.  much
has passed between us.  or
was it always only
on the one side?  i am
at fault, at fault, i asked you
to be human - i am no needier
than other people.  but the absence
of all feeling, of the least
concern for me - i might as well go on
addressing the birches,
as in my former life: let them
bury me with the romantics,
their pointed yellow leaves
falling and covering me.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


by louise gluck

no one's despair is like my despair -

you have no place in this garden
thinking such things, producing
the tiresome outward signs; the man
pointedly weeding an entire forest,
the womyn limping, refusing to change clothes
or wash her hair.

do you suppose i care
if you speak to one another?
but i mean you to know
i expected better of two creatures
who were given minds: if not
that you would actually care for each other
at least that you would understand
grief is distributed
between you, among all your kind, for me
to know you, as deep blue
marks the wild scilla, white
the wood violet.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

field flowers

by louise gluck

what are you saying?  that you want
eternal life?  are your thoughts really
as compelling as all that?  certainly
you don't look at us, don't listen to us,
on your skin
stain of sun, dust
of yellow buttercups: i'm talking
to you, you staring through
bars of high grass shaking
your little rattle - o
the soul!  the soul!  is it enough
only to look inward?  contempt
for humanity is one thing, but why
disdain the expansive
field, your gaze rising over the clear heads
of the wild buttercups into what?  your poor
idea of heaven: absence
of change.  better than earth?  how
would you know, who are neither
here nor there, standing in our midst?

Monday, May 6, 2013


from the open: man and animal by giorgio agamben (translated by kevin attell)

"if the caesura between the human and the animal passes first of all within man, then it is the very question of man - and of "humanism" - that must be posed in a new way.  in our culture, man has always been thought of as the articulation and conjunction of a body and a soul, of a living thing and a logos, of a natural (or animal) element and a supernatural or social or divine element.  we must learn instead to think of man as what results from the incongruity of these two elements, and investigate not the metaphysical mystery of conjunction, but rather the practical and political mystery of separation.  what is man, if he is always the place - and, at the same time, the result - of ceaseless divisions and caesurae?"

"too often, [jakob von uexkull] affirms, we imagine that the relations a certain animal subject has to things in its environment take place in the same space and in the same time as those which bind us to the objects in our human world.  this illusion rests on the belief in a single world in which all living beings are situated.  uexxkull shows that such a unitary world does not exist, just as a space and a time that are equal for all living things do not exist.  the fly, the dragonfly, and the bee that we observe flying next to us on a sunny day do not move in the same world as the one in which we observe them, nor do they share with us - or with each other - the same time and the same space."

"there does not exist a forest as an objectively fixed environment: there exists a forest-for-the-park-ranger, a forest-for-the-hunter, a forest-for-the-botanist, a forest-for-the-wayfarer, a forest-for-the-nature-lover, a forest-for-the-carpenter, and finally a fable forest in which little red riding hood loses her way."

"every environment is a closed unity in itself, which results from the selective sampling of a series of elements or 'marks' in the umgebung, which, in turn, is nothing other than man's environment.  these are not, however, objectively and factically isolated, but rather constitute a close functional - or, as uexkull prefers to say, musical - unit with the animal's receptive organs that are assigned to perceive the mark (merkorgan) and to react to it (wirkorgan).  everything happens as if the external carrier of significance and its receiver in the animal's body constituted two elements in a single musical score, almost like two notes of the 'keyboard on which nature performs the supratemporal and extraspatial symphony of signification,' though it is impossible to say how two such heterogenous elements could ever have been so intimately connected."

"the two perceptual worlds of the fly and the spider are absolutely uncommunicating, and yet so perfectly in tune that we might say that the original score of the fly, which we can also call its original image or archetype, acts on that of the spider in such a way that the web the spider weaves can be described as 'fly-like'.  though the spider can in no way see the umwelt of the fly (uexkull affirms - and thus formulates a principle that would have some success - that 'no animal can enter into relation with an object as such,' but only with its own carriers of significance), the web expresses the paradoxical coincidence of this reciprocal blindness."

"uexkull informs us that in the laboratory in rostock, a tick was kept alive for eighteen years without nourishment, that is, in a condition of absolute isolation from its environment.  he gives no explanation of this peculiar fact, and limits himself to supposing that in that 'period of waiting' the tick lies in 'a sleep-like state similar to the one we experience every night.'  he then draws the sole conclusion that 'without a living subject, time cannot exist.'  but what becomes of the tick and its world in this state of suspension that lasts eighteen years?  how is is possible for a living being that consists entirely in its relationship with the environment to survive in absolute deprivation of that environment?  and what sense does it make to speak of 'waiting' without time and without world?"

Sunday, May 5, 2013


by louise gluck

when i woke up i was in a forest.  the dark
seemed natural, the sky through the pine trees
thick with many lights.

i knew nothing; i could do nothing but see.
and as i watched, all the lights of heaven
faded to make a single thing, a fire
burning through the cool firs.
then it wasn't possible any longer
to stare at heaven and not be destroyed.

are there souls that need
death's presence, as i require protection?
i think if i speak long enough
i will answer that question, i will see
whatever they see, a ladder
reaching through the firs, whatever
calls them to exchange their lives-

think what i understand already.
i woke up ignorant in a forest;
only a moment ago, i didn't know my voice
if one were given me
would be so full of grief, my sentences
like cries strung together.
i didn't even know i felt grief
until that word came, until i felt
rain streaming from me.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

not knowing is most intimate

The Great Mirror


Our so-called life, from the Buddhist point of view, is simply experience, and experience is relationship. Put simply, we don’t have independent existence. We cannot exist without depending on others. When I go to the grocery store and buy an apple, I might feel very independent. I walk in, grab an apple, pay with my own money, and go home and eat by myself. But in fact I can only enjoy this apple because it is connected to so many people and conditions: the store owner, the shelf stockers, the truckers, the farmers, all the way back to the seed and the Earth. There's so much connection, all the time.

Of all of the relationships we have in this interdependent experience of ours, the most direct, most emotional, and most apt to bring great joy and suffering is a close, intimate relationship with another human being. We give it great, special prominence in our mind, but it helps to remember that it is the same as the apple. It’s about interconnection, interdependence.

From a Buddhist point of view, relationship is a great mirror. It is the mirror in which we see ourselves, in which we discover ourselves. That mirror can be distorted. I remember the first time I saw myself in a funhouse mirror: “Oh, what happened to me? I’m all stretched out.” [laughter] The mirror can also be very clear. We can see ourselves and what we are up to so directly. That makes relationship a beautiful experience.

When we sit by ourselves, it’s easy to enjoy our mental games, fantasies, ego trips, and so forth. We can go on and on and on without any problem. But try that with your partner! Then here comes the mirror. The mirror will reflect and show you your ugly ego trips. A mirror is very neutral—it just reflects. It doesn't take any sides. It is just a mirror for both of us.

In this mirror, we discover ourselves—our tendencies, our weaknesses, and our strengths. We discover our good qualities as well as our negative qualities. So this mirror becomes a very precious teacher for us, a very precious path. The mirror of relationship becomes a very precious teaching for us to discover who we really are and where we are on the path and in the world altogether.

This is a lot to take in, so our tendency is to see what we want to see in this relationship mirror. The problem with this approach in a close relationship is that two people are seeing two different things. If I want to see something and she wants to see something else, we're both seeing two different things. As a result, we're being thrown off from the balance, the benefit, the preciousness of the relationship, the mirror. We would rather idealize our relationship; we would rather escape. We would rather live in the future than in this very immediate present moment. But if we can practice being in this present moment, relationship can become a path and the mirror can be a great teacher.

In our relationship with another, we often misunderstand how we are connected. We may think we are two made into one, or we may think we are completely independent. My father taught me that a marriage or partnership, an intimate relationship with another human being, is like two rings coming together. You can illustrate it with your fingers. Make a ring with each hand, then join the rings together. There's a common space in the center. There is mutual responsibility, joy, and sharing, yet at the same time, we must understand there are also the two sides. There is not only the middle; individual space is also necessary.

If we try to overlap these two rings totally, we lose balance. There is a common bond, but there are also two individual mind streams. We must respect that and allow the other independence. The common space respects the individual space. We cannot overpower the other or make them just like us. The other not only has needs but also individual, habitual karmic habits that you cannot change. They need to initiate change themselves; you cannot forcibly change them. Buddhism teaches us that you cannot change someone's karma; not even Buddha can do that. He said, “I can only show you the path; to do it is totally up to you.”

That's the basic principle in a relationship—we share. We share our wisdom, our knowledge, we allow ourselves to be a mirror, but it’s up to the individual to make the choice. We must respect that. We must know that the other acts out of habit pattern, just as we do. Just as we cannot be forcibly changed from the outside, so too with them.

Problems begin when we lose the balance that comes from understanding the interplay of connection and separateness. We lose the sense of mindfulness when we lose the basic balance of the selfless, egoless teaching, and become selfish, ego-centered, or even ego-maniacal.

That's where dukkha (suffering) begins and joy ends, where the joy of relationship ends and the dukkha of relationship begins. When a relationship is troubling, that will stimulate our path. We can’t expect it to always be perfect. In the mirror of relationship, we discover all these things. We discover the real nature of relationship and we discover how we go off balance, how we lose the egoless, selfless view, how we lose the sense of love and caring.

Practicing mindfulness and awareness can help us see in the mirror more clearly. Mindfulness can tame the mental wildness that causes us to go so off balance. Mindfulness puts that wild mind in a corral. Once the wild horse of our mind is a little settled, we can train it by tying it to the post of awareness. Then we can train the horse to do all sorts of things, including to exert itself on the path of relationship and take joy and delight in loving.

from We Are All Wayfarers


... The ninth branch of the eightfold path is relationship, and its path is metta, loving-kindness practice. Loving-kindness is really mindfulness, telling the truth about what’s really going on. One way we can practice it is to say on the in-breath, “May I meet this moment fully,” and on the out-breath, “May I meet it as a friend.” Try that, and see how it feels. When we meet the moment fully, in relationship, as a friend, we combine mindfulness and loving-kindness. We stop plotting our fable, our story about who did what to whom.

Buddhism is very optimistic about the human capacity for love, about the potential of what we can do with love. We can develop a love that is steadfast and universal. We develop it not because we force ourselves to love so fully. Rather, we discover that loving unconditionally is the greatest source of joy, and that we are the loser for any hesitation or interruption in that love, such as “I would really love you if you would just do your share of the cooking, if you would just do this, if you would just do that.” Whenever we hesitate like that, we lose.

Buddhism tells us that in spite of all the circumstances we face, we could have a steadfast love for all beings. For most people who come to study dharma, this kind of love begins to feel right to them. It seems right to them when they realize that this world only becomes problematic when we hesitate to love.

There’s a phrase that I’m very fond of that comes from the late Nyanaponika Thera, a wonderful German-born mindfulness teacher who went to Sri Lanka and was ordained as a monk. Thera spoke of a “love that embraces all human beings, knowing well that we are all wayfarers through this round of existence and that we all experience the same laws of suffering.”

This is such a moving phrase, because if I can see that the person who has irritated me has, like me, very simple wants, then I can embrace the moment fully and as a friend. This person irritating me really just wants to get through this life without too much suffering. This person, like all people, suffers in the same ways I do: Things don't happen the way they want. Things that are dear to them don't last. Things keep changing. They are “wayfarers through this round of existence,” and they suffer just like I do.

There's a line from the Buddha that may seem discouraging of relationships. The Buddha says that everything that is dear to us causes pain. I didn't like that when I first read it at the beginning of my practice, but after a while I realized that it’s simply an expression of the truth. It doesn't mean we shouldn’t have relationships. It doesn't mean not to have things dear to you. It just means that in this life of change, we will lose everything that's dear to us, unless that which is dear loses us first. Everything will change. It won't be what it was, or it will no longer be what we wanted, or we’ll stop loving it and then we'll feel bad about it, or we'll love it so very much and something will happen to it, and then it won't be available to us, and on and on and on. This life is full of getting used to losses. The only adequate response is to love fully and realize we have a precious short life.

The teaching that everything dear to us causes pain has helped me to be more clear that I'm eager to use relationship as a practice. It helps me remember not to mortgage away any of my days by having a grudge or a grievance or making myself distant. That would simply cause a rupture in that steadfast, universal love that is so joyful.

Not Knowing Is the Most Intimate


Having a meditation practice is a way of fully entering your life, without reservation. When you meditate, when you sit and notice without assessing how you’re doing, you just show up for your life. In the moment of meditation, nothing is required of you. It’s enough to be here on the planet, to experience a moment of presence, to fully honor the gift of being alive. And it is a gift, one that just comes to you. You don’t have to ask.

If we don't show up for our own life, we tend to ask other people to fill in the bits we won't show up for. That makes it hard on them. So love begins with really showing up. And practice helps. It’s a way of not dodging the difficult, painful bits. It’s also not dodging the beauty and the marvel of life, the wonder and our capacity to connect to others. Love starts there.

But we often make a few really basic errors. We sometimes have the idea that a relationship is like a machine, one we can fix if we put the right oil on it or replace a few sprockets. We also can think that a relationship is a matter of calculating the sums of good and bad, what we’re getting and not getting.

If we start looking at other people as a gift, it helps us out of these traps. I have a teenage daughter and I'm close to her. You notice with a child that you show up without wanting a lot in return. It’s not an exchange: give this, get that. It could be like that in all our relationships, with lovers, teachers, friends, what have you. It’s not a trade. The word bodhichitta conveys wanting to open our own hearts and minds because it’s good for the world, not just for us (but it is good for us, too). Bodhichitta is not esoteric; it’s a fundamental human experience. It’s part of the nature of mind.

Relationship is not an event isolated from our spiritual practice. We're involved in a relationship because we're on our path. We have a practice and somehow our relationship has become part of our practice. It’s not something different from our practice. It’s not this thing over there that makes me happy so I can have a practice over here. It’s not the other thing that pays the rent or gets me laid. It’s part of practice.

There's a long arc to love, just the way there's a long arc to having a spiritual practice. When you’re on that long arc, you don't say, “I tried meditation once, and I didn’t get what I wanted, so it’s not right for me.” If you have a spiritual practice in your life, you're actually showing up for your life. If your mind is restless and uneasy, you're showing up for your mind being restless and uneasy.  If you stop fighting it, stop thinking it should be different, if you allow a little bit of an opening—even just having compassion for your inability to have compassion—the donkey will start to turn toward home.

You don't have to be good at this stuff. You just have to have a little bit of turning toward it and it will start teaching you and giving you gifts. It’s much better to do a spiritual practice really badly than not to do it. In fact, it’s much better to do a spiritual practice really badly than to do it well, because if you're doing it badly you'll probably learn something, so long as you keep doing it.

A while ago my mother was dying. I traveled home, went to the hospital, held her hand, and sat with her. The next morning she was still alive, so I did the same thing. Meanwhile, my sisters were negotiating with the nurses about oxygen levels, my father was trying to encourage mom to stay in this world, to eat for him (“May I tempt you with just a spoonful of this custard, Allison?”), and my mom was holding off my dad with garlic and crosses. But I didn't have anything to do, no special role, and I began to think that was probably good. I noticed that when I wanted anybody in that room to be different, it became rather painful. “Dad, ease up. I mean, she's dying. She doesn't want to eat.” Or, “Mom, he just loves you and he's trying to be helpful and it probably would help if you ate.” Or, “Girls, you could relax; the oxygen is not going to help her now.” I had all those let's-improve-the-world thoughts, but I noticed that when I didn't go with those, everything was completely at peace. People were doing what they were doing because they needed to. Who am I to know what they should be doing? It was beautiful appreciating how much they cared about each other.

The koan for that situation is, “Not knowing is most intimate.” What if someone shouldn’t be improved? Maybe if they gave up smoking, they’d turn out to be a serial killer. How about not wanting to change others? How about not wanting to change yourself?

We spend a lot of time whipping the donkey. If we stopped doing that, we might find we change in unexpected ways, and others do as well. Most projects to change other people or ourselves are really projects about interior decoration for the prison. A spiritual practice is really about jail breaking. When you show up for your life, what kind of ride do you want to take? Do you want to spend your time telling other people they should be different?

Love means bearing people's differences without trying to change them—not just bearing, but valuing and appreciating and loving people's uniqueness. That’s a path all by itself. What if the fact that you're different from me is a gateway rather than an obstacle?