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

Simples

“Simples!” as that price comparison meerkat used to say on the British TV ads. It should be. Meditation is in practice the simplest thing: just sit still. And yet, since even before the beginning of written language, countless thousands of words have been recorded on the subject of meditation, not to mention the philosophical implications of living with a practice at the centre of one’s life.

In our own time, things have only grown more that way. As well as all the books, there are now websites, blogs (like this one!), formal and informal courses, retreats, apps – a whole industrial and scholarly ecosystem built on meditation, and now not only the philosophy of meditation, but the psychology, sociology, neuroscience of meditation – even, if you know where to look, the politics of meditation. Meditation at work, meditation in educational settings, meditation and sex, meditation in prison, in hospital, for forces veterans, mothers, children…

Now all these things are in themselves good things, and have often proven beneficial, even transformative, for those who have become involved. I am myself a good customer of publishers and others. I add my own trickle to the ocean of words. But…

THERE IS ONLY one thing we need to know. It’s utterly simple. Our job, as humans who want to experience life fully, is to pay attention when we experience something…

It’s easy to get caught in the trappings of practice. There are a lot of things about practice that can be very nice, but they’re not crucial. It’s fine to wear robes, but it’s not crucial. It’s fine to chant, but it’s not crucial. It’s nice to have a very simple beautiful space to practice in, but it’s not crucial. We come to a sitting practice not to get answers but to become more aware. Sitting is simply to maintain awareness. It’s not something fancy. To maintain awareness is to be alive as a human being. There isn’t something special called Zen practice. We just try to maintain awareness, as much as we can. By awareness, I mean awareness of our mental activities, awareness of anything in our own body that we can notice, and awareness of the environment in terms of the air temperature, cars, the heat, anything that you can pick up outside yourself. Awareness; awareness; awareness.

Charlotte Joko Beck, Ordinary Wonder: Zen Life and Practice, pp.3,18

“It can’t be that simple!” we think. But it is. It is just that simple. All the trappings, the books, the apps, the philosophy, the religion, even – they lead (or they lead nowhere) to keeping still, and keeping aware. That’s all. Things that lead here are good; things that don’t are a distraction at best. Sit still and listen, that’s all.

These things are not other

Andō writes:

To sit still and silent may relieve you of motion and noise.

But it won’t relieve you of the motion and noise of your mind, if your attention is there.

True stillness can be found in the midst of motion and noise. Because motion and noise arise in stillness.

No need to shut them out. Simply turn your attention to the stillness, from which all phenomena arise, including motion and noise, and you will realise you are already home.

Stillness isn’t missing, you’ve simply been looking away.

So often we look for stillness, as if it were something we could find, something we have lost, or not yet discovered. We have this sense that if only we could find the way, we might achieve enlightenment, or peace, or inner rest. These things are not other. We have not mislaid them. They do not remain to be discovered. They are already here; we are already in this place. We have just been looking at something else all the time.

One Mind

[D]o not let the idea that your body will scatter into the four elements make you feel that everything is pointless. Instead, you should understand the principle that everything continuously scatters and then gathers together again. Practitioners do not see this world as futile, because they realize that the very impermanence of the world enables them to awaken to the truth.

If you think that, in order to know the Buddha-dharma, you have to throw away your body because the flesh is worthless, then this is an extremely misguided thought. If there was no body, what could you see and hear with? How could you encounter the world, how could you think, how could you broaden your wisdom?

Because the son exists, you can know that the father also exists; through the existence of the servant, you can see that the master exists. By understanding visible phenomena, you can come to know the invisible essence, the non-material foundation, that gives rise to and animates all visible phenomena, and which always works together as one with all things. The body is not an eternal entity, but because you have a body, you can know the workings of the foundation, the source of life and all phenomena.

Daehaeng, One Mind: Principles

Open awareness, the still acceptance of our intrinsic nature in silence, quietly reveals that the ground of being, the very foundation of all that is, is not other than itself. We do not somehow land on the ground of being like metaphysical helicopters: we exist, so we are not other than that from which we arise. There is nothing to find, nothing to become. We are already that open, bright and boundless space within which all things become.

No thing

 In Tara Brach’s True Refugeshe writes:

Looking back through history, and across many religious and spiritual traditions, we can recognize three archetypal gateways that appear again and again on the universal path of awakening. For me, the words that best capture the spirit of these gateways are “truth,” “love,” and “awareness.” Truth is the living reality that is revealed in the present moment; love is the felt sense of connectedness or oneness with all life; and awareness is the silent wakefulness behind all experience, the consciousness that is reading these words, listening to sounds, perceiving sensations and feelings. Each of these gateways is a fundamental part of who we are; each is a refuge because it is always here, embedded in our own being.

As she goes on to point out in more detail, Tara Brach has here re-ordered the classical Buddhist Three Refuges (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha) to make more sense of the order in which most meditators encounter them. But awareness is more than meets the eye of anyone casually reading the words above. As Brach herself points out, in Radical Acceptance:

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.

We are in very strange territory here, approaching metaphysical assumptions that may not be easy to justify. But it has seemed to me, as long as I have been intentionally investigating these things, that open awareness is of more than our own personal being. Unconditioned awareness is, axiomatically it seems to me, not restricted to the personal. We come close to the ground of being itself, the luminous presence beneath all existence whatever, and we see it for a moment as it is. Even Sam Harris, who is not known for flights of metaphysical fancy, wrote, in Waking Up:

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.

Brach again:

[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…

The beauty and power of this cannot really be described, not least because words like beauty and power imply some kind of comparison with some thing which might be less beautiful, less powerful, and “no-thingness” is not any kind of thing, but the source of all that is. Lao Tzu was surely thinking of this when he wrote, “The unnamed is the source of everything in heaven & on earth. Not wanting anything to be different, [w]e see the inner essence.”

Unseen water

Gill Pennington, writing in The Friend, quotes John O’Donohue:

The spirit of a time is an incredibly subtle, yet hugely powerful force. And it is comprised of the mentality and spirit of all individuals together. Therefore, the way you look at things is not simply a private matter. Your outlook actually and concretely affects what goes on. When you give in to helplessness, you collude with despair and add to it. When you take back your power and choose to see the possibilities for healing and transformation, your creativity awakens and flows to become an active force of renewal and encouragement in the world. In this way, even in your own hidden life, you can become a powerful agent of transformation in a broken, darkened world.

Absent a theistic metaphysics of prayer, I have often been puzzled how to explain to myself, let alone anyone else, my persistent sense that there really is some point to the contemplative life beyond the sort of solipsistic self-improvement promised by some of the more widely advertised meditation apps. O’Donohue has nailed it, and I am grateful to Gill Pennington for the passage she quoted in her Thought for the Week in The Friend.

Being fully present to all we encounter in this moment as it is, rather than as we might wish, or fear, it to be, we are present as aerials, signs, receiving stations. Even, perhaps especially, in “[our] own hidden life”, we  become a source of healing and peace. Hiddenness itself, the hiddenness of practice, of silence and stillness, comes like unseen water to a dry land.

Where we live

Where we live is now, this moment. There is no getting away from it, by all appearances. Memories are events in present consciousness that represent things we once experienced: they have no more vital connection to time past than an artist’s sketch does to its subject. Similarly plans and worries are merely mental representations of imagined futures: they may affect how we react to events in the future, but we cannot know what those events will be till they happen.

So much of our lives are lived among these dreams, and yet they take place now, not in the remembered past nor in the imagined future. All our practice takes place now, as well, and its purpose is to stay still in now. There are sounds from the street, the gulls overhead, the thoughts that represent things, and the ones that don’t – they come and then pass There is nothing else to do, no other place to go. Just sitting still is all – nothing is outside now.

“If you cannot find the truth right where you are, where else do you expect to find it?” – Eihei Dōgen

Begin again

There are so many things that hover at the edge of our conscious attention day in and day out – whether we are eating, going to sleep, waking from sleep, reading, writing an email – the shadows of war, famine, pestilence, extinction. The horsemen of the apocalypse seem to be our daily companions.

And yet this moment, this place of clear stillness, is what it always was. Hopes and fears, dreams, nightmares and reflections, they all rest in the ground of being that holds our planet, and our sun, and on beyond to before things began. We are not separate, any of us, from being. Even on this earth we are not invaders; we did not arrive from somewhere else. Each of us was born of parents who were born of parents too, and our bodies are formed from the stuff of this world. Our minds too. What we do, great or small, healing or harm, is part of the great pattern of cause and effect that holds our planet in its orbit. We may die – each of us, soon enough; our race too, eventually, however long we manage to hang on. Things do. There is nothing that is not impermanent.

This is not a call to passivity. It is a call, as Paul Kingsnorth pointed out recently in Tricycle, to witness. To sit still in this moment is the only place to begin. We cannot know what our place is in time until we realise that we cannot know. Things weave together, and each of us is woven into what comes to be. It isn’t, really it isn’t, given to us to choose the colour of our thread or its place in the pattern. What we do, though it may cost us all we have and are, is not within our free will, whatever we think that is. Only in the deep stillness of our unknowing shall we know how to act, and in that moment our action will not be a choice, but only where we are. Sit still, and touch the earth.