Tag Archives: Tara Brach

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.

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

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.”

Lost in hope

Hope, in the conventional sense, is, as we have seen in the last couple of posts here, generally tied to a sense of outcome. We hope something will turn out all right; we hope something else will not happen. Cynthia Bourgeault points out that what she terms mystical hope is not tied in this way. It has a life of its own, “without reference to external circumstances and conditions.”

I have noticed myself that, at least after some years of steady contemplative practice, the experience of what we think of as “loss” – serious accident, illness, bereavement, loss of livelihood, money, or status, for instance – is not accompanied by a loss of hope at the deepest level. Of course, hope in a good outcome is lost – the worst has happened, something is irretrievably broken – but underneath it all there is what feels for all the world like some kind of certainty. Beneath the quicksand is a solid ground, the bedrock of what is. As the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk saw (Habakkuk 3.17-19) though all else fails, at the end there is something more like presence than anything else.

In a long article in Tricycle Magazine, Kurt Spellmeyer reminds us that the Buddha’s illumination came only after the most profound experience of helplessness, when he was so starved and dehydrated that had a passing village girl not brought him rice and milk, he might very well not have lived the night. This, like Habakkuk’s prophecy, may or may not be historical, but it contains as profound a truth: only at the very end of conventional hope, even in our own survival, can we find that which is beyond any result or outcome, beyond any thing whatever.

This brings us, of course, to the thought of our own death. Here is the ultimate helplessness: at the end we shall be bereft of everything, even of the ability to draw the next breath. There will be no more chances, nothing to decide. Richmond Lewis, in a coma from which he was not expected to recover, had a vision of his own death very similar to experiences I have had of being close to physical death, which he memorably described as “dissolv[ing] into light”.

What could this mean? Is it a comforting(?) illusion? An artifact of failing neural circuitry? It isn’t possible, of course, to answer such a question in a way that would satisfy a scientific researcher. We are describing an experience, a “something that it is like to be”, in Thomas Nagel’s words. It does not admit of experimental verification, or if it did, the experimental subject would be in no position to report on the outcome of the experiment! But as an experience, it is as definite and actual as any: far more so than almost any other. But an experience of what?

The nearest expression of it that I can find is that it is an experience of absolute unknowing, of pure isness.

Tara Brach writes, of “the open, wakeful emptiness of awareness”:

[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, Ebury Digital 2012 (pp. 315, 317)

It seems to me that that “vast and shining presence” is not only the light into which we dissolve, but the ground of our being itself – and our death merely the letting go into what is seen. I hope so.

Istigkeit

I have written elsewhere here (Opening the ground) of the beginnings of my awareness of what really is, lying under the old apple trees in the orchard of my childhood home, as an unassailable refuge, a still place beyond thought or striving, there always.

Tara Brach writes,

[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, Ebury Digital 2012 (pp. 315, 317)

When I was in my early 20s, in company with a very close and trusted friend, I undertook a short series of trips over a couple of weeks, using 250mg doses of synthetic mescaline. These were powerful, even profound experiences, entirely sober and devoid of what would popularly be thought of as “psychedelic” effects. We covered pages and pages of lined foolscap notepaper with closely written notes and curious geometric diagrams recording our experiences. I mention these just here because the one phrase that kept recurring, wherever we travelled, was “no thing”. Whatever avenue we explored, whatever sunken lane of the mind we entered, led to “no thing”. We wrote it, over and over again, in our notes, labelled the centres of our many diagrams with carefully drawn arrows, “no thing”. We were at a loss to explain the utter, luminous profundity of this expression either to ourselves or to each other. But it was the source and ending of all that is, and of mind itself, that much was plain.

Of course outside of a conceptual framework beyond the ability of either of us to construct back then – we could not square what we had experienced with any religious or philosophical system then familiar to us – we could take this no further, and it slipped away, displaced by plans and desires, and the imperatives of everyday life.

I recall this psychochemical experiment now because the remembered experience forms, for me, a kind of bridge between my childhood experience slowly recovering from meningitis in that sunlit Sussex orchard, and the kind of meditative recognition Tara Brach describes in the passages quoted here, from the final chapter of Radical Acceptance. The (often unremembered, consciously) energy of these and similar experiences, both within and without any formal contemplative framework, are what I have lived for, really, all these years. Most certainly, they are home, beyond any thing.

One of the points I keep coming back to, and which attracts me so strongly to secular Buddhism, above other paths, is the way that these central events have always seemed to strike me outside of formal religious or intellectual disciplines, however deeply rooted in practice they now are. Emilia Fogelklou (she writes of herself in the third person):

But then one bright spring day – it was the 29th of May 1902 – while she sat preparing for her class under the trees in the backyard of Föreningsgatan 6, quietly, invisibly, there occurred the central event of her whole life. Without visions or the sound of speech or human mediation, in exceptionally wide-awake consciousness, she experienced the great releasing inward wonder. It was as if the ‘empty shell’ burst. All the weight and agony, all the feeling of unreality dropped away. She perceived living goodness, joy, light like a clear, irradiating, uplifting, enfolding, unequivocal reality from deep inside.

The first words which came to her – although they took a long time to come – were, ‘This is the great Mercifulness. This is God. Nothing else is so real as this.’ The child who had cried out in anguish and been silenced had now come inside the gates of Light. She had been delivered by a love that is greater than any human love. Struck dumb, amazed, she went quietly to her class, wondering that no one noticed that something had happened to her.

Qfp 26.05Quaker faith & practice (5th edition) online, Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain

Sangha and solitude

In classical Buddhism the Three Refuges are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The third of these is a Sanskrit word used in many Indian languages, including Pali (saṅgha) meaning “association”, “assembly”, “company” or “community”. In Buddhism the term is used more or less narrowly to imply the monastic community, or sometimes more widely to include all people who practice Buddhism correctly, whether lay or clerical. (Wikipedia)

Interestingly, Tara Brach chooses to redefine the three refuges as awareness, truth, and love: “The three facets of true refuge – awareness, truth, and love – come alive as we dedicate our presence to them. As we open to these three gateways, they reveal the one taste of freedom inherent to all paths of awakening.” She goes on to suggest that this implies “a yearning for more belonging” that we can “fully inhabit [as a] refuge of love”. (Reflection: The Three Refuges)

Winton Higgins has some harsh, even sarky, words for those who may decide that the concept of the sangha can be bypassed in our modern world:

After all, they may think, I have access to a plethora of how-to-meditate books and podcasts, and I can even download a meditation app. I can meditate by myself in my own bedroom, where I can also jump online and read or listen to any number of dharma talks. I can listen to dharma podcasts anywhere and any time, even while driving to work. If I want to talk to others about it, I can join an online chat room.

Okay, I understand that in other times and places people needed their sanghas because they had nowhere else to sit in peace and had no other access to the dharma. But it’s not like that any more. Besides, I’m a busy person and can’t afford to be tied down to a fixed weekly commitment (unless it’s for something really important like football training). And finally, frankly, I’m simply not a joiner. Sorry. Two refuges are enough for me.

Winton Higgins, Revamp, Tuwhiri 2021 (p.152)

He goes on to explain that in his view we are dependent beings who discover ourselves in community, in relationship, and that the sangha is best understood as “unmediated face-to-face communication with others who are actually present.” (p.153) Undoubtedly this is correct within Higgins’ own terms, but – leaving aside for a moment the effects of the present global pandemic on our face-to-face possibilities – solitude is an equally vital component of the contemplative life. The Buddha himself, after all, came to awakening in solitude. Stephen Batchelor:

There is more to solitude than just being alone. True solitude is a way of being that needs to be cultivated. You cannot switch it on or off at will. Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it. When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.

For those who have rejected religion in favor of secular humanism, the notion of solitude may imply self-indulgence, navel-gazing, or solipsism. Inevitably, some may be drawn to solitude as a way of escaping responsibility and avoiding relationships. But for many it provides the time and space to develop the inner calm and autonomy needed to engage effectively and creatively with the world. Moments of quiet contemplation, whether before a work of art or while observing your breath, allow you to rethink what your life is about and reflect on what matters most for you. Solitude is not a luxury for the leisured few. It is an inescapable dimension of being human. Whether we are devout believers or devout atheists, in solitude we confront and explore the same existential questions.

Stephen Batchelor, The Art of Solitude, Yale U.P. 2020, loc. 76

Higgins does, I am sure, understand this, for he writes, in his section on “Intensity as a modern virtue” (p.110 ff):

One of the thinkers that Peter Watson gathers into his fold is precisely Martin Heidegger, whom we met in chapter 4. He also identified care (Sorge) as the mainspring of an authentic human life, one intensely lived. Like the Buddha, Heidegger also introduced the tempering value of letting-go (Gelassenheit).

To live intensely must never translate into wilfulness – into our turning into meddling control freaks as we cultivate receptivity. Were we to fall into that trap, we’d be blocking the sensitive exploration of our experience. Thus Heidegger extols calm, composure, detachment, release – letting things be. This principle comes close to the Buddha’s upekkha (equanimity), one of the four vital ‘immeasurable’ emotional tones of the awakening mind.

(op. cit. (p. 112)

Solitude and Gelassenheit (a wonderful word that Heidegger presumably sourced from the 14th century contemplative Meister Eckhart) are to me indivisible. But what strikes me in this passage is the way Higgins connects this with Sorge (care, concern, even worry, for others) with the process of letting things be. There are echoes here of Tara Brach’s “awareness, truth and love”!

I have long felt that there is an immense freedom in solitude. The heart expands, somehow, in this unaccustomed space, and deliberate thought becomes more free and spacious too. Somehow I find myself able to think recklessly about, feel compassion for, even love, people against the mere thought of whom I’d have felt I had to defend myself had I not had this freedom.

Henri Nouwen wrote,

Solitude greeting solitude, that’s what community is all about. Community is not the place where we are no longer alone but the place where we respect, protect, and reverently greet one another’s aloneness. When we allow our aloneness to lead us into solitude, our solitude will enable us to rejoice in the solitude of others. Our solitude roots us in our own hearts. Instead of making us yearn for company that will offer us immediate satisfaction, solitude makes us claim our centre and empowers us to call others to claim theirs. Our various solitudes are like strong, straight pillars that hold up the roof of our communal house. Thus, solitude always strengthens community.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, HarperOne, 2009 (loc. 930)

My own love of solitude was well established long before our lives were redefined by the pandemic neologism “lockdown” – from childhood it has been both a refuge and a source of life to me. Earlier this year I wrote here,

Churches and religious groups seem mostly to be operating on the assumption that once the pandemic is under control, and something approaching normal life is restored, their worshippers will flood back, Catholics to Mass, Quakers to their meetings, everyone to their accustomed place. It may not happen, at least not in the way, or to the extent, that most people appear to expect. The sea change of the pandemic, and the enforced crash course in information and communications technology it has brought, have accelerated a process of secularisation that has been gathering momentum for a long time…

There is no obvious name for what is happening. It seems not to be “secular” in the way religious people might fear, but it isn’t “religious” either, in the way that secularists might assume. It is not eremitical exactly, certainly not in the traditional sense of hermits as ones living in geographical isolation.

Perhaps it is time that silence and practice are allowed to stand untitled: the ground still, and open.

There is much more to explore here, and generous-hearted guides like Winton Higgins and Stephen Batchelor will no doubt have more to teach us as we all come closer to understanding what life will be like on the other side of this present crisis, and we come to face more closely the other crises, social, political and environmental (Higgins is especially good, and deeply hopeful, on this in the final section of Revamp) that are no doubt coming down the pike. Meanwhile, our own practice is our North star. In sitting we can find all we need.