What am I doing here?

What is this project, sitting in silence for so many minutes every day? Is this a religious practice, or a psychological therapy of some kind? And what’s it for? Where is it supposed to get me, or anyone else who does this kind of thing? What’s the goal?

In Sōtō Zen there is a name for just sitting in silence: shikantaza. Brad Warner describes it like this:

When we do nothing but practice sitting still for a certain amount of time each day, it becomes clear that past and future are an illusion. There is no past. There is no future. There is only this moment. This one tiny moment. That’s all there is.

And in this moment what can you attain? You have what you have right now. Maybe in the future you’ll get something. But that’s not now.

Attainment always happens in the future or in the past. It’s always a matter of comparing the state at one moment to the state at another moment. But it makes no sense to compare one moment to any other moment. Every moment is complete unto itself. It contains what it contains and lacks what it lacks. Or perhaps it lacks nothing because each moment is the entire universe.

Brad Warner, The Other Side of Nothing: The Zen Ethics of Time, Space and Being

This is not a religious attitude, I think. It contains no belief that we are required to subscribe to, no creed or sanctified text, no “social-cultural system of designated behaviours and practices” (Wikipedia). It doesn’t have a goal, either, not even the goal of some kind of mental or spiritual state of peace, or bliss.

What is more, especially practiced that way that I have fallen into over recent years, not being part of a church, or sangha, or Quaker meeting, even, it is quite useless. It is merely sitting still.

Ken McLeod, in an article quoted by Brad Warner on his YouTube channel, (Tricycle magazine, January 2017) writes,

Obviously there are personal choices to be made… But I think it is reckless and presumptuous to tell others how they should live their lives. Chuang Tzu describes a crooked, twisted tree that grows near a road. It is so crooked that no woodworker would ever think of cutting it down. It is just there. It may be that one day, a traveler stops beneath it to find shelter from the rain or shade from the sun. Or maybe it just stands there, because that’s what trees do.

That tree, of course, is rooted quietly in the unnameable no thing, the ground of being and the source of all that is, that’s all. But it isn’t thinking metaphysical thoughts, or instructing anyone about anything. It “just stands there, because that’s what trees do.”

Frames

The spiritual life can be a difficult thing to live with. Once one realises for oneself the emptiness of the “universe of concrete things in eternal categories” (Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian?: A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed and the Disillusioned), of Newtonian mechanics and dualistically interpreted perceptions, the question of how to live arises in ways that are not only personally unsettling but potentially disruptive to the society in which most of us have grown up.

The Abrahamic religions in their popular, one might say political, forms provided a solid dualistic foundation for life and society – “God’s in his heaven–all’s right with the world” as Robert Browning had it – just as classical mechanics formed a solid, readily calculable foundation not only for physics but for all the sciences. As the revolution in mathematical physics initiated by Einstein and others, and the revolution in biology and paleontology initiated by Darwin, shook the scientific community, so the invasion of Eastern thought and practice (and the revival of the non-dualism inherent in the Christian contemplative tradition), together with the developing psychological disciplines, shook many of the foundations of Western self-understanding.

For those of us who grew up in the turmoil of the 60s the problem could easily become acute. Were we to cling to the imagined certainties of the past, or cast ourselves adrift on the foam of the psychedelic ocean? Were we to seek for no less imaginary certainties among the outward forms of Eastern religions, or were we to become Einzelgänger und Einzelgängerin, tracing our own paths on the leaf-litter of philosophy and metaphysics?

It is easy, at times fatally easy, to fall into New Age formlessness on the one hand, or into some kind of fundamentalism on the other. Perhaps some of the cults and cult-like groups that have formed over the years have been failed attempts to blend these two incompatible directions.

I don’t wish to seem to condemn any of my fellow seekers after truth and insight. Once the medieval conception of a state-sponsored compulsory religion – such as still holds sway in some Muslim societies – has fallen away, choice becomes inevitable. (Even atheism and agnosticism are in this sense choices, albeit nominally negative ones.) The spiritual life needs teachers, though, and teachers often imply institutions, if only to validate their teachings. Many teachers of the spiritual life whom I most admire have remained within, or thrown in their lot with, traditional religions, from Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault in the Christian tradition, to Pema Chödrön and Brad Warner in the Buddhist. But there have been others who have not, whether like Jiddu Krishnamurti they rejected an institutional role, or like Sam Harris never adopted one outside of the academic community.

For myself, I feel that while I will always be grateful to the institutional teachers I have encountered over the years – in my case mostly within the Christian contemplative tradition – I have been happiest and most settled in myself outside religious institutions altogether. I wrote recently:

As I have found myself increasingly at variance with institutional religion, Christian, Buddhist or whatever, and increasingly sceptical of its value either in the life of the spirit or in the life of society, so my naturally eremitical inclinations seem to have strengthened – dramatically so since the enforced isolation in which so many of us found ourselves during the earlier months of the recent pandemic. The opportunity for online fellowship and collegiality of one kind or another changes our expectations of community and communication almost daily.

Despite the value of frameworks of doctrine as a protection from delusion and indiscipline, I am profoundly indebted to those who have sought to delineate the spiritual path outside those traditional frameworks, whether like Tara Brach or Stephen Batchelor they still call themselves Buddhists, or whether like Harris today or Alan Watts in the 60s, they reject such definitions. As I grow older, paradoxically perhaps, I feel less dependent on them myself.

Freedom

“The freedom of love is based on the perennial renewal of love itself; it can actually grow. It is this simple: your whole life is a curriculum of love.” Jack Kornfield, No Time Like the Present.

Sitting still, to drop right back from the front of the mind, where your attention is so tightly engaged with reacting to the contents of thought and feeling, is to fall into the vastness of awareness itself. One becomes conscious of indefinable space, of a boundless clarity within which every thing, whether perception or sensation, thought or emotion simply appears, and resolves back into no thing, the ground of being itself, as transparent as the summer sky, and deeper than oceans. Wide awake, it is the source and the completion of all that is, and yet truly it is the clear emptiness long before any thing at all.

Jack Kornfield (ibid.) says that “spaciousness, love and awareness are intertwined.” He goes on, “It’s really simple. Whether it’s physical or emotional pain, anything you give space to can be transformed. Whatever the situation, widen the space; remember vastness; allow ease and perspective. Spaciousness is the doorway to freedom. Your spacious heart is your true home.”

To awaken is to love

To awaken is to love, and in that love the tiresome need to put up and defend our views and opinions dissolves, and right there is an insight into things that nothing else compares with. We have to discover through personal experience how that insight, our faith and our intelligence all interrelate. For me, words and the effort to give expression to the truth continue to be of profound necessity in training. To awaken and not give expression to that awakening would be a contradiction. The struggle to find the words and the struggle to find the form our lives must take are the same struggle. I find it important to recognize that the way we represent training and enlightenment to ourselves and to others is influenced by our own existential needs. Those needs can give rise to many mistakes, yet if we engage them intimately, they impart a resonance of authenticity. How we represent the truth to ourselves and to others needs to be examined with sympathy, care and intellectual rigour. To me, this is part of what it means to cleanse the heart.

Daishin Morgan, Buddha Recognizes Buddha

I have often wondered how my instinct to put things into words might fit with the journey of awakening. I have not often had the opportunity directly to teach what I have found, nor am I a member of any institution within which publishing might be a normal and indispensable part of my life and work. So I have drifted, I suppose, into blogging. Small though my audience might be – oddly enough, it was much larger when I was blogging in a Christian context – at least I am making some effort perhaps “to give expression to the truth”.

As I have found myself increasingly at variance with institutional religion, Christian, Buddhist or whatever, and increasingly sceptical of its value either in the life of the spirit or in the life of society, so my naturally eremitical inclinations seem to have strengthened – dramatically so since the enforced isolation in which so many of us found ourselves during the earlier months of the recent pandemic. The opportunity for online fellowship and collegiality of one kind or another changes our expectations of community and communication almost daily.

Almost as an aside, I have to say how profoundly grateful I have been to Sam Harris’ Waking Up course, both as a tool for learning and exploration, and as a wholly open community of practice. I came to the course through reading Harris’ book Waking Up, having had no idea that such a thing existed, and discovered right from the introductory course that I had discovered exactly the non-religious, intellectually honest and ethically sound path I needed once I had laid down my Christian contemplative practice. Without some such place to hitch the wagon of my nascent practice of open awareness, I might have found it much more difficult to avoid losing the thread altogether, or else attaching myself to a some avowedly religious community merely in order to keep some structure in my spiritual life.

Harris’ approach, which can best be summed up in his own words (quoted here before), was exactly what I needed at that time:

Spirituality begins with a reverence for the ordinary that can lead us to insights and experiences that are anything but ordinary. And the conventional opposition between humility and hubris has no place here. Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

Sam Harris, Waking Up, p.206

The explorations I have chronicled here and in my other blogs will go on, of course – probably as long as I do – but at times it is hard to know quite what to write. Any attempt I make at direct description of spiritual experience is almost bound to descend into hyperbole or bathos, and to try and describe life in the light of awakening would probably end up more like poetry than anything else. Maybe the value of a blog like this then is merely to carry on trying to communicate a few insights from the path of practice itself: glimpses, perhaps, from some imagined railway.

The perfect centre

Each morning invites you to be open and aware, as spacious as the sky that passes through you, recognizing “the precious nature of each day,” in the words of the Dalai Lama. No matter how frenzied you feel, no matter how shoved and strangled by the rush of events, you are standing in a single exquisite moment. No matter where you are, no matter how lost, you are standing at the perfect center of four directions. No matter how off-kilter you feel, you are standing in a place of perfectly balanced forces. Even if you feel abandoned by all that might comfort you, you are held in the embrace of what you cannot see.

Kathleen Dean Moore, Tricycle, July 2022

This is not quietism, not a call to abandon compassion and justice, but a necessary gift of grace, of rest and healing, in these days of fear and loss.

A long time ago now, Bob Dylan wrote, “Everything passes/Everything changes/Just do what you think you should do…” Impermanence is the only constant. No thing exists as itself alone: there is only becoming, and the dance of dependencies, each upon all else.. To rest as the open awareness in which all this arises is peace, and life, and the light that is the very source and ground of what is.

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

TS Eliot, Burnt Norton

Habit forming

The single most important thing I have done in all my years of contemplative practice is to make a habit of it. I am just as bad as anyone else, and much worse than many, at putting things off. If I didn’t have a set time, or at least a set place in the day’s events, to meditate, I wouldn’t. There would always be something else I’d need to just get done first, or a train of thought so involving that I’d just have to look up what else had been written about it before I settled down to sit.

Someone once wrote (I can’t remember who it was now) that the best kind of practice for each of us is the one we actually do. That’s entirely true. However good and effective a practice may be, it won’t be effective for us at all as long as it is left undone.

Reality is only what is. It cannot be what was, or what might be. It is only when we actually sit still that we can see. Everything else is just a picture, a synthesis the mind presents, like one of those painting-by-numbers outlines: something to help us get from here to there, wherever there might be, even when there is the place where we have intended to sit.

[R]eality is like a huge and all-encompassing ocean. There may be different kinds of fish and seaweed and rocks, but they’re all contained inside one ocean. In the same way, there’s just one awareness, with seemingly multiple objects inside of it. If you look closer, you’ll see that there are no independent objects or distinctions––there is nothing but this one awareness. If you push this understanding one step further, you’ll realize that since it is just one awareness, you cannot even it call “one” awareness. When you know that there are two awarenesses, then you can call this “one awareness.” But when there is no “two,” there is no “one” either. It just is.

Haemin Sunim, in Tricycle, January 2020

The ground in which we rest, Meister Eckhart’s Istigkeit, is nothing other than this light of open awareness that we find in stillness. Tara Brach:

[W]hen we look within, there is no entity, no mind-substance, no self, no thing we can identify. There is just awareness—open empty awareness. We can’t locate any center, nor can we find an edge to our experience. Unless we anchor ourselves again in thoughts, or grasp after desired sensations or feelings, we have nowhere to stand, no firm ground. This can be disconcerting, scary, incredibly mysterious. While there may be a profusion of activity—sounds, sensations, images—there is no thing to hold on to, no self behind the curtain managing things. This seeing of no thing is what the Tibetan teachers call “the supreme seeing.”

But this emptiness, this “no-thingness,” is not empty of life. Rather, empty awareness is full with presence, alive with knowing. The very nature of awareness is cognizance, a continuous knowing of the stream of experience. In this moment that you are reading, sounds are heard, vibration is felt, form and color are seen. This knowing happens instantaneously, spontaneously. Like a sunlit sky, awareness is radiant in cognizance and boundless enough to contain all life…

With practice, recognizing our natural awareness takes less and less of an effort or sense of doing. Rather than climbing up a hill to get a view, we are learning the art of relaxing back and wakefully inhabiting the whole vista. We look back into awareness and then simply let go into what is seen. We become more at home in awareness than in any story of a self who is falling short or on our way somewhere else. We are at home because we have seen and experienced firsthand the vast and shining presence that is the very source of our being.

Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance

Sitting, still

Just sitting, we find out everything. Keeping still, watching, you can’t do this practice wrong. There is nothing to achieve, nothing to strain after; nothing needs to be different in any way.

Sitting still, “[a]ll you’re going to do is sit, and experience whatever is going on. This means feeling whatever you feel (emotionally or physically), think whatever you think – and just watch. There will be parts of your experience you want to (and try to) avoid and parts you want to (and try to) cling to. Just watch that too.” (Ordinary Mind Zendo)

To be conscious is all we can do, anyway. Everything that arrives, arrives in awareness. The plain mind is fundamentally bright, a mirror without stain or pattern, not different from the unconditioned light itself. Things pass through. There is no trace. This is the heart’s ease, the gift itself and the spring of compassion. What else could it be?

It is home

A couple of weeks ago I wrote quite a long blog post on the subject of trust. As time goes on I am increasingly sure that what I said there is true:

Trust is fundamental to being human. Perhaps in fact it is fundamental to being alive, in whatever form of being we may find ourselves. It is a value that transcends culture, transcends opinion, transcends our reactions to our circumstances – even ones that strike at our very existential security, and, in their threat to future generations, strike at our evolutionary sense of purpose as inhabitants of Earth.

There is a trust that rests on a far deeper foundation that our frail lives. Each of us will die: that is the one thing of which we may be utterly certain. But our death, like our life, rests in the ground of being from which we cannot fall.

This short guided meditation from Jack Kornfield’s 2008 book The Wise Heart brings us to the heart of what practice is. The road to the encounter with our own true nature is long, and for some of us tortuous, but it is the road home:

Sit comfortably and at ease. Close your eyes. Let your body be at rest and your breathing be natural. Begin to listen to the play of sounds around you. Notice those that are loud or soft, far and near. Notice how sounds arise and vanish on their own, leaving no trace. After you have listened for a few minutes, let yourself sense, feel, or imagine that your mind is not limited to your head. Sense that your mind is expanding to be open like the sky—clear, vast like space. Feel that your mind extends outward beyond the most distant sounds. Imagine there are no boundaries to your mind, no inside or outside. Let the awareness of your mind extend in every direction like the open sky.

Relax in this openness and just listen. Now every sound you hear—people, cars, wind, soft sounds—will arise and pass away like a cloud in the open space of your own mind. Let the sounds come and go, whether loud or soft, far or near, let them be clouds in the vast sky of your own awareness, appearing and disappearing without resistance. As you rest in this open awareness for a time, notice how thoughts and feelings also arise and vanish like sounds in the open space of mind. Let the thoughts and feelings come and go without struggle or resistance. Pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, pictures, words, joys, and sorrows—let them all come and go like clouds in the clear sky of mind.Then, in this spacious awareness also notice how you experience the body. The mind is not in the body. The body sensations float and change in the open sky of mind. The breath breathes itself; it moves like a breeze. If you observe carefully, the body is not solid. It reveals itself as areas of hardness and softness, pressure and tingling, warm and cool sensation, all floating in the space of awareness.

Relax. Rest in this openness. Let sensations float and change. Allow thoughts and images, feelings and sounds to come and go like clouds in the clear, open space of awareness. As you do, pay attention to the consciousness itself. Notice how the open space of awareness is clear, transparent, timeless, and without conflict—allowing for all things but not limited by them. This is your own true nature. Rest in it. Trust it. It is home.

Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart: Buddhist Psychology for the West

Everything changes

Shunryu Suzuki is said to have replied to a student who asked if he could put the Buddha’s teachings in a nutshell with the words, “Everything changes”.

Everything does. The weather, the leaves on the trees, our own bodies. And the things we make change too: human society, relationships, artifacts, language. Change is inescapable; impermanence is the one constant.

Just as we cannot escape change, we cannot escape sadness. Love and change lead inevitably to sadness. The death of a friend, of a beloved pet, the passing of summer into autumn. Rain clouds cover the sun.

It seems to me that we grow up to fear change and impermanence. Children need to know that their parents will always be there; as they acquire things, toys, little collections of found items, favourite clothes, they naturally long for these things not to be lost, not to break or perish. But they do. Toys are lost or damaged, favourite clothes are suddenly too small. Children grow fast, and even with the most reliable of parents, their relationship with them changes. Love is tested by change, always.

It might be natural, then, to grow up not to trust, to fear and expect loss and yes, betrayal. Things, and especially people, change, and if you rely on their remaining static, you will feel that change as betrayal.

If you cling to static forms, whether made things or living, you will lose. If you try to avoid sadness, you will avoid love, too. What can you do, except trust the love that is the essence of sadness, that is the heart of change?

You have no alternative anyway but to trust; when you die, what will you do? What else could you do, except trust in the vast field of light and life into which you will dissolve, into which you will return in peace? Sit still, and the field of awareness will open, the ground in which all things come to be will hold you. The light and the land are one; beyond is no thing, and the life becoming just what is.

Trust

It is becoming a cliché even to say it, but we are living in exceptionally difficult times. We are just emerging, with hesitant and uncertain steps, from a global pandemic that has asked us all to accept, often on unsure pretexts, unprecedented restrictions to civil liberties and public services, to find ourselves on the brink of a world war – some would say already engaged in one – instigated by the lethal idiocy of a country whose leadership has made a career out of disinformation and untruthfulness. The economic ravages of these two circumstances are now beginning to cause real suffering (especially, as always, to the poorest among us) as inflation rises to a level many of us have not seen in our lifetimes. And all this under the umbrella of an increasingly urgent despair concerning the process of anthropogenic climate change and its effects on all life on our planet, human and otherwise. The very tools we might use to help us combat such devastating circumstances, from artificial intelligence to globalisation, are now often perceived as their causes rather than as potential means for their healing.

Distrust has become a civic virtue, it seems. We feel we cannot trust our politicians, nor the politicians of countries we have for long regarded as our allies; we feel we cannot trust the business organisations that can generate the wealth we need to overcome our difficulties; we feel we cannot trust the technological systems that allow us the ease of communication that we so desperately need to help each other think this through; we feel, we deeply feel, that we cannot trust each other. Anyone, friend or mentor, son or mother, might be a traitor in a rebellion whose causes are as muddled and uncertain as the things that caused them, might at any moment step across the shifting line of right and wrong – right and wrong as defined by whom? Certainly by no one we can trust…

Radhule Weininger writes:

Soften your gaze and connect with the world around you. Trust what you feel. Even when our world is being gravely damaged by climate change and war, we can rely on our intention to trust in a wider perspective, as well as on our dedication to open our hearts to all suffering beings. This intention and dedication situate us into our heart space and allows the energy of the heart to radiate outward into our world. Resting in the felt sense of our heart space allows us to feel calm, warm, and connected. Trust reminds us that there is a bigger context in which we are embedded. Trust allows us to relinquish, to surrender, to let go into uncertainty, while holding the faith that doors will eventually open for us. Trust allows us to go beyond our personal sense of being in control, especially in times when control is impossible. Trust allows our little heart to drop into the great heart of the world.

Tricycle magazine (April 19, 2022)

In a world whose values are defined by Twitter and Truth Social, this is culpable madness. But what if there are other values? Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, argues that there are:

[Q]uestions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood: regarding positive and negative social emotions, retributive impulses, the effects of specific laws and social institutions on human relationships, the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, etc. The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture—just as facts about physical and mental health do. Cancer in the highlands of New Guinea is still cancer; cholera is still cholera; schizophrenia is still schizophrenia; and so, too… compassion is still compassion, and well-being is still well-being.

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (introduction)

Trust is fundamental to being human. Perhaps in fact it is fundamental to being alive, in whatever form of being we may find ourselves. It is a value that transcends culture, transcends opinion, transcends our reactions to our circumstances – even ones that strike at our very existential security, and, in their threat to future generations, strike at our evolutionary sense of purpose as inhabitants of Earth.

There is a trust that rests on a far deeper foundation that our frail lives. Each of us will die: that is the one thing of which we may be utterly certain. But our death, like our life, rests in the ground of being from which we cannot fall. Radhule Weininger continues:

Resting in this way situates us in a much wider perspective than in our personal, often fearful, little heart view. The Isha Upanishad of the Indian Vedas tells us, “This is full, that is full, from that fullness comes this fullness, if you take away this fullness from that fullness, only fullness remains.” If we allow our personal hearts to rest in the limitless, boundless, knowing fullness of the universe, then we can anchor ourselves in a reality that is inexhaustible, that does not shut down, burn out, or get overwhelmed. Resting our hearts in this inexhaustible field of awareness provides the security, the psycho-spiritual container, to hold our suffering…

Acceptance of what is allows us to let the reality of the world in, even though it may be harsh. Acceptance, here, does not suggest whitewashing or the condoning of wrongdoing, but, rather, it means seeing clearly. People can experience the feeling of acceptance when a skillful doctor tells them compassionately the truth about a difficult prognosis. The individual then has the chance to spend the rest of their life with what is essential to them. In a similar way we may be able to accept knowledge of a possibly devastating future with openness and a peaceful heart when we are held in compassionate and loving awareness.

Radhule Weininger, ibid.

In our practice we touch the centre of not merely our own lives, but of what it is to be. Awareness, the simple stillness of open awareness, can see that we are not other than that ground itself: tat tvam asi.

Harris again:

Yes, the cosmos is vast and appears indifferent to our mortal schemes, but every present moment of consciousness is profound. In subjective terms, each of us is identical to the very principle that brings value to the universe. Experiencing this directly—not merely thinking about it—is the true beginning of spiritual life.

Sam Harris, Waking Up, p.206