Category Archives: practice

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”