The Silent Presence
Friday, February 10, 2006
A Most Magical Spiritual Practice:
Acceptance, a universal core of spiritual experience, is perhaps one of the most magical practices available to those of us on a spiritual path. When used wisely, acceptance dissolves our little self into the Big Self, and leaves us in the beauty of the Silent Presence.
Don't confuse the practice of acceptance with passivity and inertness. Real acceptance exists in the state of great clarity and openness. It may lead to powerful action based upon an experience of deep love and connection. It will almost always be healing to the ego-based reactivity of our smaller self and the smaller selves of those around us.
Here is what two master teachers have to say about the practice of real acceptance.
"If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot, you will have a lot of peace. If you let go completely, you will have complete peace. Your struggle in this world will have come to an end."
-Ajahn Chan, in Joseph Goldstein's One Dharma
"Pleasure lies in the relationship between the enjoyer and the enjoyed. And the essence of it is acceptance. Whatever may be the situation, if it is acceptable, it is pleasant. If it is not acceptable, it is painful. What makes it acceptable is not important; the cause may be physical or psychological or untraceable; acceptance is the decisive factor. Obversely, suffering is due to non-acceptance.
"….The personal self by its very nature is constantly pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain. The ending of this pattern is the ending of the self. The ending of the self with its desires and fears enables you to return to your real nature, the source of all happiness and peace.
"….It is an observable fact that one becomes self-conscious only when caught in the conflict between pleasure and pain, which demands choice and decision. It is this clash between desire and fear that causes anger which is the great destroyer of sanity and life. When pain is accepted for what it is, a lesson and a warning, and deeply looked into and heeded, the separation between pain and pleasure breaks down. Both become experience--painful when resisted, joyful when accepted."
-Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj in I Am That
Sunday, February 27, 2005
How to Work with Thoughts & Feelings
Part A: Thoughts, feelings and their essential components
It is almost axiomatic that most of us grapple with distracting thoughts when we first start learning to meditate. Many people feel they are unsuited to meditation just because of the irritating and unsettling nature of their noisy thoughts that seems to jump up just when they were hoping to finally get away from them and into a deeply peaceful meditation.
In this article I'll discuss some of the many factors that cause this mistaken understanding, and how to work with them skillfully. Hopefully after you've read and understood this discussion, you won't find obnoxious thoughts to be a barrier to your meditations any longer. First, let me expose some of the inner nature of these thoughts to you, and then we will get to how to appreciate and deal with them.
Each thought you have is like a complete, gift-wrapped package. Inside this package is a kernel of your alive essential experience, molded by the structure of the gift box, which is nothing but a storyline you have created, and wrapped in a colorful paper made of your feelings. The storyline around each package contains not only a story, but an identity of who "I," the experiencer, am within this story and feelings about my relationship with the objects of the storyline. So if I think about going to summer camp as a kid, I experience a golden, happy feeling, a thought —in this case a memory— about doing fun things with friends out in the woods and an identification of my self as a happy doer relating to it, the summer camp, as a fun place to be. At the core of this whole package is an alive essence of joy.
The difference between this essential joy and the happy feeling that wraps the package is one of reactivity. The happy feeling, experienced by the egoic mind, is a reaction to the storyline while the core of joy, experienced by my essential nature, is a quality of being, or silent presence. This core essential experience is neither reactive to nor dependent upon any storyline or situation, and is not affected by the manipulations of the egoic mind. This experience of essential joy is impersonal in the sense that it precedes the personality and is unaffected by it. Inner practices open us increasingly to the direct experience of these essential qualities that live beyond the egoic mind.
Some people, left brain thinkers, seem to notice the structure of this package more than the wrapping, while others seem to notice more the feelings in which it is wrapped. A few are able to appreciate the structure, the wrapping and the essential core of aliveness and knowingness inside. Usually these folks have had some type of inner meditation practice and, through opening their awareness, have a direct experience of the place where these thought packages are manufactured and shipped out into the daily working consciousness of the egoic mind.
This egoic mind, connected with our egoic or small self, is a compulsively thinking and reactively feeling animal and experiences a continual stream of these thought packages. Usually it is focused on manipulating thinking and reacting with feelings to try to grab more 'good stuff,' such as money, experiences and things, and to avoid more 'bad stuff' such as 'negative' feelings, experiences and outcomes. There are many techniques this egoic mind uses to focus on the past or future and stay out of what is real and present in the here and now. But an extensive discussion of these tricks of the egoic mind is more a subject for the field of psychology and less useful for our goal, which is understanding how to connect with and directly experience our Silent Presence.
It will suffice for now to say this egoic mind is completely object oriented, and it deals daily with the 'things' of the mind such as thought structures, or story lines, and feelings. This egoic mind is seemingly incapable of experiencing pure subjectivity directly, but instead wants to make every experience into a package complete with feelings, storylines and identifications. Letting go of the egoic mind, except when it is a useful tool, is a process of becoming 'thing-less.' Ramana Maharshi talked about how our spiritual progress could be measured simply by the quantity of continuous thinking going on in us. A spiritually realized person has very few thoughts, and then only when they are useful. The remainder of the time they are directly experiencing the Silent Presence, and are for the most part thingless.
When we sit quietly in meditation, we become less enmeshed in the frenzied workings of the egoic mind. When a person on a rafting trip gets all the way through the rapids and starts to float more slowly through a quiet spot in the river, they are able to notice more about the river, the raft and the beautiful world around them. During the rapids they were so busy just trying to steer the right way and react to the sudden changes in the frantic water that none of these more subtle aspects of experience were available to them.
Like that, when we sit quietly to meditate, we are no longer rushing about steering and reacting. We allow ourselves to settle in, notice more and experience more deeply. At first, the rapids of our egoic mind are still rushing along at their usual frantic pace, and yet we now have the time and awareness to actually see them. They can be quite overwhelming. We start to get a real feel for what Eckhart Tolle means when he talks about the insanity of the compulsive egoic mind, and it isn't very pleasant. Yet notice that this same quality is the hallmark of an effective meditation practice. We are sitting quietly and becoming less reactive and more aware of the subtleties of our compulsively thinking and reactively feeling mind. In a way, we are outside of it looking in; or better yet, we are deeply inside looking out at it. As I mentioned in the essay on "Big Screen Thoughts," the very intensity and discomfort we experience when we start to meditate or be really present is a sign that we are doing something right.
So now I hope you have the appreciation that meditation will bring on loud jangling thoughts and uncomfortable feelings, among other things, but only if it is effective! However, still another process happens during a good meditation that causes even more thoughts and feelings to surface. This is the process of purification of consciousness. Much like physical fasting, a good meditation is fasting from feeding the consciousness so much stuff. As the nervous system settles down in this mental kind of fasting, toxins are released, much as they are released in the body on a food fast. But mental toxins come out as our old partners in crime: intense, uncomfortable or sometimes ecstatic thoughts and feelings. Again, these are generally signs that the right kind of thing is happening.
Part B: Working with thoughts and feelings in meditation
Skillfulness in meditation requires us to handle these thoughts and feelings in a certain way. If we get too caught up in these experiences, it is much like jumping back into the raft and going back into the rapids with them. We are right back into the wild ride of the compulsive egoic mind that has been wearing us down all along. If we try to push them away, then they ultimately dam up until they burst through in some way or other, and meanwhile we've worn ourselves out with the resistance. Either of these techniques, whether grabbing onto or pushing away, requires lots of effort and leaves us feeling spent, resentful and lost. Our practice then ceases to be enlivening and healing and starts to be a real burden.
A third and better alternative for handling thoughts and feelings in meditation is simple allowing without minding. When we are in a grocery store other people come into the same aisle we are in, put items in their cart and move on. We don't mind. We allow them to come and go without putting any undue effort or attention on it in any way. Our focus stays with our own process, which may or may not include noticing the other shoppers. But we don't give them any undue effort by mentally pushing them away or trying to grab onto them when they are there. We just notice them and then get back to our meditation process. We don't give them energy and so we aren't affected by them. Then we are continually refreshed and enlivened by the contact with our source, the silent presence instead of being drained by compulsive egoic thinking and reactive feeling.
Strong feelings are a special situation. It is the ones that we aren't clearly conscious of that can really rule our egoic minds. If I re-experience a painful moment I had with a friend or at work, the feelings of anger, or fear, or many others could drive me to unconsciously push away the whole experience. I may even get up and end my meditation.
Conversely, feelings of pleasure could drive me to grab on and try not to let them go. The egoic mind wants more of this! Just becoming fully aware of these positive and negative feelings and then allowing them to be however they are, just like every other thought and feeling, pulls back the curtain of fog surrounding them. I can even name them to my self: "That's pleasure, that's dread, that's irritation, etc." Once they are really seen and named, 'the gig is up.' They loose their power over your egoic mind and fade away.
The same applies to physical sensations that arise during meditation, such as a headache, or thirst or stiff knees. Try to allow physical sensations to be as they are for the duration of your meditation. Sometimes this is incredibly difficult at first, especially with physical pain. But the very act of allowing rather than reacting will help you greatly in the long run. None of this is meant to imply that we shouldn't attend to our body when it gives us physical warning signs that something is wrong. We should. But try, just for the duration of the meditation, to allow them to be as they are without reacting and see what results you have in your practice and in your life.
Lastly, some experiences in meditation are not part of the egoic mind's boxes and wrappings, but instead are truly alive essential experiences. Enjoy them, but without grasping. They will change, and probably end, but more will come as you continue your practice. To allow the egoic mind to grasp on and try to keep them will 'stunt your growth.' If you notice this tendency, just keep noticing, allowing, naming and going back to your practice. These 'transitory essential experiences' are wonderful, and come in many flavors, but the underlying aliveness that is growing in your awareness is better still. You are finally coming to your home.
Part C: Steps to handling noisy thoughts and feelings
The following steps will bring the unruly thinking of your compulsive egoic mind gently under the control of your big self:
1. Take personal responsibility
· No technique or teacher or community, in and of themselves, can get you out of the grips of the compulsive egoic mind. Only you can choose to accomplish this for yourself. Once you start to take personal responsibility for this, many groups, techniques and teachers can be incredibly helpful.
2. Develop a regular practice
· Here is where the fantasy of experiencing the delicious results of meditation gives way to the daily reality of taking personal responsibility to make it happen
3. Gain skillful knowledge
· Without the correct understanding of how to handle thoughts and emotions in meditation, as given in Part B of this article, you'll revert to the current unhealthy or unskillful patterns that got you into this mess in the first place!
· As your meditation/awareness practice grows you'll start to gain knowledge from your own direct experience of your own essence. Greater experience and knowledge leads to greater appreciation of essence, which leads to a better ability to choose to 'essential' experience.
· Oddly enough, this will ultimately lead to a place of 'choiceless awareness.'
4. Choose core values that favor your essence
· Our values change over time as we grow. Which direction are yours growing in? Are they products of your egoic mind or your essential being? Do they lead you toward a deeper, fuller, more serene and compassionate experience of yourself and others, free of egoic tendencies, or toward more compulsivity, greed and fear? You get to choose.
· Perhaps this won't make sense at first, but with continued practice, you'll start to find the egoic mind's compulsive thoughts and reactive feelings to be the tiniest tip of the iceberg of who you really are. More and more you will be able to value and choose alive essential experience over deadened egoic experience. Eventually essential experience will become a full time reality for you.
5. Use effective processes
· This is tough to summarize. Any system, group or teaching which aspires to give you personal growth by catering to your egoic compulsions, desires or fears isn't effective in helping you to release your tight grip on the egoic mind and gain your essence. In a very general way, teachers and practices which are 'additive' can be helpful in the short run, but practices which are 'subtractive' will ultimately lead you to your silent presence, or essence, within.
· Your personal intent is perhaps more important to the process than the actual system you use. For example, you might read an article that tells you to use a meditation of visualizing success in order to grow. Will you use that to visualize 'making a million dollars' and therefore further entrench your already desire soaked egoic mind, or will you use that to visualize doing better service to yourself, the earth and all beings in it, and therefore help develop yourself into a bigger person less run by the egoic mind? Notice that your use of this technique in the first example is 'additive' and engages the egoic mind which hopes to help you acquire more stuff, powers, etc. The second example done skillfully could help you to release egoic attachments, develop a regular meditation or prayer practice, or serve the earth in some useful, non ego-serving way. Yet the basic technique —visualization— remains the same.
· In general, any practice that gently moves your focus of attention out of 'things' and into 'thinglessness' is helpful, and especially so if you start to notice this affecting your daily life in a positive way. Another guideline for effective practice is whether is it facilitating you to focus more on some imagined reward in the future, or on what is present and real now. Favor presence, the real and the now.
6. Develop supportive community
· It is difficult to grow in a healthy way if you are disconnected from a supportive community. Some of the paradigms in Western Culture favor the myth of disconnected development of personal power, such as the 'tall dark stranger' who is a lonely hero of some kind or other. This archetype is found in spiritual as well as mundane circles, for example in the yogi in a cave, the kung fu expert alone against a horde of enemies or the political crusader who fights the armies of ignorance. But most effective spiritual traditions emphasize the value of connection with the tradition and the community, which supports that tradition.
7. Practice useful supplementary techniques to calm your mind and favor your essence. There are too many to list, but here are some examples. Pick one or two to practice regularly and see for yourself if they help you:
* Alternate nostril breathing — and some other types of pranayama — can calm the mind and breath before meditation
* Loving kindness prayer before meditation releases resentment and opens the heart before meditation
* Body based techniques, both yoga postures and other physical practices, can foster clarity of awareness and help stabilize the results of your meditation
* Body oriented attention techniques, such as the body scan, duck egg visualization and kriya practices, also help focus and stabilize meditation
* Light fresh foods, prepared in a wholesome loving way foster meditative clarity
* Moderating food quantity, and meditating with a fairly empty stomach also helps tremendously with clarity
* Psychological clearing practices, such as the four questions of Byron Katie or the four agreements of Don Miguel Ruiz help you move toward a more serene state of mind which then deepens meditation
* Many religions and spiritual traditions prescribe observances that will help you to experience your essence more deeply if done with the correct intent (see 5. above). An example is the observance of yama and niyama in the yogic tradition, or the practice of selfless giving found in most traditions.
Tuesday, January 04, 2005
Objectification. Have you ever been the object of objectification? Did you object?
Much of our sci-tech, production-focused world is built on the foundation of objectification. Many scientists are seduced by the charm of proving that everything in the cosmos can be explained objectively and rationally using the scientific method. Technologies multiply which demonstrate the coolness of creating more and newer objects and systems to arrange those objects so they can develop more newer objects. Global corporations follow through with the delivery of more and more of these things to the absolute delight of the new world consumer who can't wait until he or she can obtain them. It is a cult of massive proportions, and almost nobody is immune.
What would the reverse situation look like? Martin Buber explained to us that the two basic relationships are "I and Thou," and "I and it." Subjectification and Objectification. In a world of overdeveloped subjectification we might have a personal relationship with most everything. Many, if not most, ancient societies worked this way. Living in one of those worldviews, I might have a name for, and even a conversation with, a specific tree, rock or body of water. When I walked the earth, I would have experienced a deep, rich connectedness to every aspect of her. I would likely have lived in the sacred present moment, full of the direct, moment-to-moment opulence of that way of experiencing.
With total objectification, every thing is at the mercy of the perceived logic or need of the moment. People, societies and whole environments are objects to be used, manipulated for the desired effect—humane or otherwise—or tossed on the garbage pile. But those of us who bought it would get lots of 'things' accomplished or made, no matter how isolated and devalued we so unsubjectively feel.
Total subjectification has different problems. There are few things, only relationships. As 'subjectivists' we don't experience a linear time line—a result of not objectifying our experience of time—so we don't do much planning or accomplish the creation of many new structures. Mostly we eat when we are hungry, sleep when we are sleepy, do what we need to do for food, shelter and safety and enjoy our connectedness with all.
Wait a minute, maybe that doesn't sound so bad! Of course, we wouldn't have much of the 'health' or convenience of modern society. We'd be subject to diseases, suffering and disasters, both natural and human derived. Oops, even the technologically advanced society still has all that. Well, we probably wouldn't know as many 'things,' accomplish as much, do as much. We wouldn't be as driven to produce. Or as fearful. Because, ultimately, doesn't fear create objectification? And doesn't objectification create more fear? Because if I'm not in relationship with you, then I'm not sure of who you are and I might have to be afraid of you. Or kill you. Or take your things.
Therapists understand the value of helping us return to our subjectivity. When we are connected with our subjectivity, we are connected with our center and interestingly we are more connected to the world around us. Our choices become healthier, our lives fuller and more positive. True spiritual teachers have always taught de-objectification, and given the experience of the ultimate Subjective. Objective scholars have classified them by their belief systems or methodology, thus finding a way to objectify even this. Fortunately, this hasn't affected the unshakeable subjectivity of the mystic, and all of these great teachers have been mystics.
OK, it is true. Science, technology, corporate structures and thing-oriented productivity all have their value. But the mystic knows the value of direct experience of the ultimate Subjective by whatever name—such as the Silent Presence—you wish to call Her/Him/It.
Perhaps a way to redevelop this subjectification in our culture would be to create a personal pronoun that is non-gendered to use in place of the impersonal 'it.' And more healing from the ravages of rampant objectivity with the spiritual and therapeutic systems we have in place will be of great help. More people could speak out and educate us about the dangers of objectification and the joys of subjectification. But would anyone stop long enough to really listen?
Thursday, December 02, 2004
Thoughts like anvils and big screen thoughts
Two places we meditators get to can cause us much consternation and 'gnashing of teeth.' One is big screen thoughts when thoughts are like the front row at a big screen movie theater: loud, big and overwhelming. The other is when thoughts are like anvils.
The loud, big thoughts place is what we often complain about -and fear- when we are feeling that our meditation isn't working, or that we are just plain spiritually inadequate. But the truth is this really is our mind on an average day; we just aren't usually aware of it. If the same big screen movie were going on outside in daylight during our normal life we'd hardly notice it. It's the fact that we've turned the lights way down, settled in, stopped talking and focused our awareness that makes this movie so overwhelming in meditation.
Notice that the very qualities of effective meditation are what bring us to this place: settling in, calm quiet focus, etc. So, rather than telling us what poor students of meditation we are, this experience -big screen thoughts- is telling us that we are doing something right! The discomfort eases over time as we get used to clearly experiencing our mind in this way.
Anvil thoughts come at a different place in meditation. At these moments we are sitting in a beautiful, settled clarity when something triggers a thought. But the thought seems so un-subtle and harsh, like an anvil dropping in a placid lake. Anvil thoughts are another sign of deepening clarity of awareness. In this meditative space, the consciousness has beautifully settled into a clear Silent Presence -the lake- but isn't easily holding both that space and the different, more active qualities of typical thoughts. It's a wonderful sign of growing ability to experience two opposite qualities of consciousness simultaneously with full clarity. As this ability develops further, we begin to be able to hold the full range of awareness at all times without even trying. It's pretty wonderful stuff!!
Friday, November 26, 2004
Bright Life, Big Life
The realized man or woman lives two lives simultaneously; the common person lives only one.
The common world of incessant thought, reactive emotion, sensory stimulation and compulsive ego oriented activities is the life shared by us all from birth or before.
A 'second' life opens up at some point for the realized; this life is deeply soul satisfying, fully alive and clearly present. This second life could be called the Bright life. After the spiritual person wakes up to this Bright life, they are less involved in their previous small life. But they remain continuously in contact with the bigger Bright life and the Silent Presence. The former small 'incessant thought life' becomes like a shadow, which is sometimes present, and sometimes gone, but contains no further substance or charm for the spiritual person.
How does one wake up to this Bright life? Paths are many, and there is much disagreement between which is most effective. Adding to the confusion is that some seem to wake spontaneously and others must pursue it step by step for years, usually with an expert guide.
Yet, the descriptions of this Brighter, more alive life are surprisingly similar throughout the history of mysticism. A common feature is that waking up to the Bright life is always choiceful; it seems there must always be a clear decision to let go of the small and embrace the Big. Another common feature is the shock value. Though there may have been a gradual awakening over many years, the final step into the Bright life is wonderfully stunning. 'All heaven breaks loose.' This is not meant to imply that the journey to this point is completely flat, because it isn't. But there always seems to be a very distinct qualitative change at this moment of full awakening.
I suspect that for most of us, cravings, compulsions and addictions are based on a deeply buried awareness of this Bright life and an endless quiet cry to return to it. Perhaps through more generally available knowledge of intermysticism we will all more easily experience what we've always secretly had available in the first place: the Bright life.
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
The difference between mystics and metaphysicians?
A friend and I were discussing the difference between a mystic and what is a metaphysician. Her thoughts were that 'all metaphysicians are mystics, but not all mystics are metaphysicians.' I understand her to mean that a metaphysician is someone who honors the direct experience of the Silent Presence, yet uses the power in it to create and change the universe as we know it. Additionally, a praciticing metaphysician uses this to create in a way that results in the highest good of all. Otherwise, there would be a misuse of this power and the metaphysician would be guilty of malpractice.
In my own understanding, a mystic is a person who holds in highest esteem the direct experience of the One, the Silent Presence, above all else. Many mystics would say that their only business is deepening that direct experience. Whatever happens in the manifested universe, including what happens to them personally, is NOT any of their business, but rather is the responsibility of the One which created that universe in the first place. Other mystics might modify this to: 'Direct experience first; after that work within the universe as wished by the Silent Presence.'
So, what ultimately is the difference between a mystic and a metaphysician? I suspect it is a combination of the person's viewpoint (Is there a universe to work in or is it just a hallucination? Who created this universe? Should I be trying to make changes to it?) as well as where that person places the majority of his or her attention. The mystic would have more focus on direct experience while the metaphysician would put more focus on using that connection to change the universe for the better.
Probably we each have a natural proclivity toward one or the other, and perhaps both are needed in the symphony of Being that is our world.
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Surprising by-products of the mystical path
In my understanding, there are surprising differences between spiritual systems that lead to the direct experience of the Silent Presence and those that don't.
Here are some interesting long term physical by-products of practicing a mystical path that leads to the Silent Presence which don't seem to appear in a belief based system:
- Breath rate and volume decreases markedly long term
- Corresponding to the breath, the number of thoughts decrease
- There are many long term changes to brainwave patterns and brain activity, noticeably including much increase in synchronization
- Sleep, and the experience of sleep changes, but this takes a while
Of course there are many other kinds of changes taking place in the more subtle inner realms of feeling and awareness, as well.
So, a good sign that you are making real progress toward deeply experiencing the Silent Presence is to notice some of these physical changes happening to you.