Exlibris – Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche

IMG_0336

It’s time to take another look at ourselves – to re – enliven our sense of what it is to be human, to breathe new life into ancient intuitions of who we are, and to learn again to celebrate, as we once did, our instinctive affinity with the Earth community in which we’re rooted. We’re called now to rediscover what it means to be human beings in a wildly diverse world of feathered, furred, and scaled fellow creatures; flowers and forests, mountains, rivers, and oceans; wind rain, and snow; Sun and Moon.
– Bill Plotkin

Exlibris is the beginning of a series that highlights literature that aids us in self-inquiry. Many authors from a wide range of disciplines will contribute to our transformative work. I would like to focus on books that aid us in diverse ways, that help shape the ground of experiment, and that bring us into an engaged and newfound dialogue with the ideas these authors present.

Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche, by Bill Plotkin, is a rich psychological work that aims to bring humans back into the fold of a vibrant world. It is essentially a handbook for creating healthy lives and societies. Its harmonious combination of the personal and the universal make it an apt addition to our personal search for truth. Through it, Plotkin catalogues the intelligences that humans possess and describes how we can best utilize them. Using self-study, we become able to integrate these intelligences into a wholistic way of life. His way of describing the human psyche mirrors natural order, and returns our attention to the stunning and beautiful world in which we participate.

Wild Mind’s ambitious work touches each level of what it is to experience the human. It creates a taxonomy that moves between what Plotkin calls the Soul, the Spirit, the Self, and the Ego. He also breaks these down further into the different categories that make a complete human being.

The Soul is what Plotkin calls “a person’s unique purpose or identity . . . Soul is the particular ecological niche, or place, a person was born to occupy but may or may not ever discover or consciously embody” (13). Spirit reveals our oneness with the universe, “the universal consciousness, intelligence, psyche, or vast imagination that animates the cosmos and everything in it – including us – and in which the psyche of each person participates.” (13). The Ego is described as “the locus of, or seat, of conscious self-awareness within the human psyche” (14).

The Self contains different resources that an increasingly conscious person can learn to express in healthier ways. Wild Mind implements these as four directions that directly correspond to various psychosomatic tools. The intelligences or modes of the psyche allow us to look within and traverse their connecting lines. We then use that functioning to actively shape human culture. We will look at these directions individually.

The North represents the human instinct to contribute to the lives of others  and is called the Nurturing Generative Adult. Plotkin describes how this facet is ultimately grounded in love:

Love. All four facets of the self begin with love, are anchored in love. Yet each facet features its own favored form of love. The North facet of the Self is rooted in a nourishing and boldly resourceful love, like Thomas Berry’s for the Earth, a parent for her child, a devoted teacher for his students, or a true friend for another . . . The north, then, is said to be the place of healing, service, caring, and creative thought – in short, nurturance and generativity. (35-44)

The South includes our intuitive connections to nature and the Earth, and is called The Wild Indigenous One. Here the human finds themselves as part of the earth, with each sense contributing to a rich lived experience. The South makes us physically remember that our original face, and ultimate home, lies in this reality, this earth, and this body. As Plotkin says:

The Wild Indigenous One is sensuous and body centered. We are embodied in flesh and are in communion with the world though our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin, as well as through our indigenous heart and wild mind. (57)

The East is the Innocent/Sage, where we express compassion and wisdom. The East is a highly complex and interesting door to qualities that we often find mentioned in religious literature. The natural associations of the East convey a sense of warmth and vitality.

The east, of course, is where the Sun rises, granting us light after the long night. The east, then, is commonly affiliated with beginnings, origins, and birth, and also with illumination and enlightenment, and, as a consequence, with Spirit, too. Beginnings and enlightenment suggest innocence and wisdom.
With the return of the light each morning, we can more readily appreciate the big picture, our world expanding beyond the immediate fears and concerns of our contracted night-selves. The east, then, is also allied with qualities that widen or sharpen our perception or understanding, qualities such as the simplicity of the Innocent, the wisdom of the Sage, the humor (‘lightening up’) and transcendent brilliance of the Fool, and the Trickster’s gift of paradox. (88-89)

The West is the last aspect, and is called the Muse/Beloved. Here is the “fruitful darkness,” where we sense the full capabilities of our imagination.

By imaginatively romancing the world and its endless unique wonders – both human and other – we keep our lives new, forever evolving, and in so doing, we participate in the ongoing evolution of the world itself. But personal evolution – individuation – necessitates a periodic reshaping of our lives that is often deeply challenging. By opening our hearts and imaginations to the daily mysteries, a romance with the world upsets our routines, making us vulnerable to the great changes destined in our Souls and in the Soul of the world, the anima mundi.
The West, then, is not only the place of romance but also the change place, the dimension of our human psyches that seeks and savors ecstatic and troubling transformations. (97-98)

Plotkin follows up this discussion with sections on what he calls the “subpersonalities.” Each direction receives a subpersonality which represents an unhealthy mode of functioning for that particular direction. They exist as that direction’s inverse and when we act from them, they prevent us from functioning in adaptive ways and turn us stagnant and neurotic. These subpersonalities are Loyal Soldiers, Wounded Children, Addicts and Escapists, and the Shadow and Shadow Selves, respectively.

One of the most welcome things that Wild Mind offers is the inclusion of exercises that develop each of these directions, as well as bringing attention to each of the subpersonalities. Integrating these personalities is imperative for achieving a more complete self-understanding.  The directions Plotkin gives are extensive and excellent and make this book even more useful. An example of this type of exercise is mentioned in the chapter on the South side, The Wild Indigenous One:

At any moment of the day, whether you’re at work in the shop or office or garden, at play on the field or court, at home with your family, or en route between one or the other, remind yourself of your wild, sensuous, emotive, and erotic indigenity. As you re-member yourself in this way, what do you notice about the way you physically move through your activities? What shifts do you notice in your relationships? What now feels most alluring or compelling? How’s it feel to be in your body? In your animate surroundings? What emotions are viscerally present? How’s it feel to be immersed in the land? Are you fully at home? How could you be more so? (69)

Framing these points as questions helps contribute to the book’s inclusiveness. Each person is free to use Plotkin’s maps to aid them in their search and discover on their own.

Once a person manages to further integrate themselves, they embody what Plotkin calls the “3-D Ego.” We are able to access the 3-D ego the more we take the time to study its components. A human with access to their inner knowledge comprehends themselves on multiple levels – from the individual to the group, the societal, and the cosmic. Wild Mind makes this understanding into a blueprint that draws from each of its directions and incorporates it into many levels of the Self.

In a time where there is an increased consciousness about humanity’s future, Bill Plotkin’s book is a timely and necessary addition to psychological literature. Since the personal and the universal coincide, any changes we make in understanding ourselves have larger ramifications for our world. A psychology that attends to human needs and helps change our lived perception is a necessary ingredient for changing reality. Wild Mind provides a guide that helps us discover ways to understand ourselves, how we can fit into natural communities, and how best to use our collaborative resources.

You can purchase Wild Mind from the publisher here.

Advertisements

The Collective, The Expanse, and the Imagination of Earth

Welcome to the churn.
– The Expanse

IMG_0331

In the introduction to #Accelerate: The Accelerationist Reader, Robin Mackay and Armen Avanessian state:

Such convenient extremist caricatures, however, obstruct the consideration of a diverse set of ideas united in a claim that a truly progressive political thought – a thought that is not beholden to inherited authority, ideology, or institutions – is possible only by way of a future-oriented and realist philosophy; and that only a politics constructed on this basis can open up new perspectives on the human project, and on social and political adventures yet to come. This assumption that we are at the beginning of a political project, rather than at the bleak terminus of history, seems crucial today in order to avoid endemic social depression and lowering of expectations in the face of global cultural homogenization, climate change and ongoing financial crisis . . . The new possibilities it opens up for the human conceived not as an eternal given, fated to suffer the vicissitudes of nature, but as a historical being whose relation to nature (including its own), increasingly mediated through technical means, is mutable and in motion. [4-11]

In light of the challenges that humanity faces, it is beginning to transition further away from archaic, all-encompassing ideas. Conceiving of new paradigms is a challenge to orthodox ways of imagining the world. Books such as Inventing the Future (linked to #Accelerate) take up this challenge and attempt a reversal. In this book, the authors argue for building a liberal hegemony, instead of the current Left’s retreat into what they describe as “folk politics.” These political methods use local models of self-sufficiency and resilience but fail to account for capitalism’s larger networks. The liberal hegemony this book describes embraces technology as a means to make cultures that are “utopian without apology.”

We have entered a space that resists our more limited descriptions of reality. Part of humanity’s current project is to create new conceptions of self and the world. This project is tied to our inner work. Both need us to be brutally honest with ourselves if we are to create realistic change. Through sitting, we exhume more and more of our experience that is shared with others: aggressive thoughts and impulses, overriding selfishness, and the nadir of human experience which is our birthright. Humanity will need to take stock of it’s own tendencies toward aggression and violence in order to shift its cultures to more beneficial ends. Past lessons on corruption, power, and environmental disintegration will hopefully serve us well as we make these changes.

These lessons are a necessary part of humanity’s journey, both individually and collectively. In St. John of the Cross’ book The Dark Night, he describes the process of mystical purgation and union with God. In order for the aspirant to realize this, they must be tried in the fires of contemplation. He brilliantly describes this process:

Similarly, we should philosophize about this divine, loving fire of contemplation. Before transforming the soul, it purges it of all contrary qualities . . . [it] brings to the fore the soul’s ugliness; thus one seems worse than before and unsightly and abominable. This divine purge stirs up all the the foul and vicious humors of which the soul was never before aware; never did it realize there was so much evil in itself, since these humors were so deeply rooted. And now that they may be expelled and annihilated they are brought to light and seen clearly through the illumination of this dark light of divine contemplation. [417]

Here St. John is describing something that religious teachers and mystics have long been aware of: the transformation inherent in meditation. Contemplation, observation, and meditation are all part of spiritual praxis. By undertaking these practices, you will begin to discover different ways of perceiving. Observing oneself is a gateway, for in knowing ourselves we can act in ways that are less clouded by conditioning. Through these practices, we can better change our understanding as well as the world at large.

This enlarging of understanding ourselves is often reflected in popular culture. After finishing the first season of the TV show The Expanse, I am amazed at how well the show conceives of new offshoots of the human experience. It allows us to rethink how humanity is leaving the confines of adolescence for the open spaces of its adulthood. Through cultural artifacts like The Expanse, we are better understanding the power of human ingenuity and imagination. Currently, I think humanity is edging closer to removing the barriers of its past. As we leave old mythologies behind, we become more capable of engineering the planet, and possibly, any worlds beyond. This dissolution is painful and frightening, like the dark night, as we begin to build an understanding that can better accommodate our freedom.

This kind of understanding starts within us. Instead of existing on a higher plane, it instead sprouts up out of the earth through us. It is saturating our world with increasing awareness. In doing the work to understand ourselves, we can realize and accelerate the Great Work of humanity: knowing and increasing our collective ability to shape the world

Creative Experimentation and the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Thought is a ‘witches’ flight’ in the sense of carrying us to beyond the frontier of what the body and the mind have been presumed able to do.
– Joshua Ramsey

A book I am currently working on is called Hands-On Chaos Magic by Andrieh Vitimus. Throughout the sections I’ve read, the author lists many exercises that develop visualization and concentration skills. The book uses these examples to encourage an open source approach to its exercises, inviting the reader’s participation in making their own magical frameworks. It has us adopt a questioning attitude and develop exercises that are effective and have meaning to us.

This book feels like a natural extension of developing individual, creative approaches. Interestingly, I think this kind of experimentation prevents its practitioners from too narrowly channeling their creativity. Rather than focusing all of our efforts on a particular form of art, any circumstance becomes creative. We become a kind of craftsman, but for all of life, and through a kind of inquisitive play with existence, new solutions emerge. Although there is much that is outside of our control, we can experiment in every moment. By nurturing the details of our lives, we find novel and often beautiful possibilities.

This kind of free play is present in the work of some of the twentieth century’s most important philosophers, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. They carve out the still-beating heart of the Entrenched Position, giving it over to the cascades ever in the process of desiring-production. Deleuze and Guattari provide us with concepts that allow us to think differently, shifting away from a blind insistence on our possession of Truth. Their concepts, collected under terms like schizoanalysis, provide a pivot for creative experimentation and expansion in our own lives.

IMG_0329

I will try to focus on some important concepts from their studies in A Thousand Plateaus. By observing how these concepts relate to each other, we can then grasp what Deleuze and Guattari are offering us when we work to understand it. They give us a truly rare and wonderful thing. Not only is their conceptual system coherent, it also adheres to lived experience. By being highly realistic, and not necessarily idealistic, its range of practical applications is enormous.

Two of Deleuze and Guattari’s most useful concepts are the rhizome and the assemblage. The rhizome offers a model for connections within reality between what are referred to as heterogeneous elements. These can be understood as aspects that occupy a network of connections that constantly fluctuate, connect, and re-connect. In A Thousand Plateaus, it is described as “[passing] between things, between points.” [505]. In its process of connection, the rhizome creates new realities of its own.

The assemblage expands upon this, offering us a way to understand provisional collections of these heterogeneous elements. An assemblage:

[extracts] a territory from the milieus. Every assemblage is basically territorial. The first concrete rules for assemblages is to discover what territoriality they envelop, for there is always one: in their trash can or on their bench, Beckett’s characters stake out a territory. Discover the territorial assemblages of someone, human or animal: ‘home.’ The territory is made out of decoded fragments of all kinds, which are borrowed from the milieus but then assume the value of ‘properties’ . . . [504]

The environment organizes itself in particular ways, pulling itself together into coherent groups that make an assemblage. Depending on how these differences are brought together changes the territory and therefore the assemblage. This process of constitution is elaborated on with Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts of territorialization and deterritorialization.

These territories have certain exit points within them to other states of being and intensity, called lines of flight. Since the territory occupies a certain level of organization, when we change how that matter organizes, we begin moving along these lines towards deterritorialization. These are transitions that embrace the fount of possibility and our ability to move along different paths at any time. Interestingly, Deleuze and Guattari describe two different parts of this process. The first is when we move outside of a territory but “reterritorialize” on a different one. The second is when we reach the “plane of consistency,” an extremely abstract and difficult concept to describe. The plane of consistency underlies all universal order and allows it to exist, but it is more fluid and potential. If we transition from more rigid conceptions of order, we can reach the plane of consistency and find more creative freedom.

I think this understanding helps shed light on human habits. For example, we tend to move in default patterns of thought, behavior, and organization. This can be conceived as a territory. It is a particular state of energy that we occupy at any given time, with tendencies to move in certain directions, whether intellectual, verbal, etc. This can be observed in children, with a more chaotic creativity limiting itself over time to the construction of a personality. However, this cuts both ways, and we can follow our personality back across time, along the paths of its formation, and sense its limitations. This is to realize our freedom. It is helpful, once we recognize that incredible freedom, to understand the balance of crafting and dissolving transitions along the flux of events. Our territories contain “lines of flight” that describe other possible states of becoming and how we may best follow them.

These ideas all tie into the concept of a body without organs. A body without organs is a process of reality in becoming, of how we each give shape to a life’s work. As I understand it, the body without organs is how each of us shape actualities in accordance with our deepest desires in ongoing experiment. It “pulls” potentials into existence. Set in motion, the body without organs constructs itself through the events of our lives. Since reality is processual, it necessarily follows that any moment we express opens onto multiple dimensions, including the full scale of heavenly bliss and hellacious suffering. The body without organs teems with possibility and danger, that we may not survive beyond this moment to carry on this grand experiment.

At any rate you have one (or several). It’s not so much that it preexists or comes ready-made, although in certain respects it is preexistent. At any rate you make one, you can’t desire without making one. And it awaits you; it is an inevitable exercise or experimentation, already accomplished the moment you undertake it, unaccomplished as long as you don’t. This is not reassuring, because you can botch it. Or it can be terrifying, and lead you to your death. It is nondesire as well as desire. It is not at all a notion or a concept but a practice, a set of practices. You never reach the Body without Organs, you can’t reach it, you are forever attaining it, it is a limit. [149-150]

Understanding these concepts clarifies Deleuze and Guattari’s purpose.  These concepts are not held in a death grip.  Instead, they energize and reconnect language from within, allowing us to conceive and feel other dimensions of existence. Their writing mirrors this, teeming with the associations, loops, and spirals of life. We can observe new connections forming and see what can be drawn from them. We then enter and better effectuate processes of change. An application of this philosophy is how best to use this framework to liberate ourselves. Through it, we continuously work to realize a much broader and diverse experience of life, a “nomad science” and philosophy of freedom.

The Unbounded in Creativity, Ethics, and Philosophy

The tree of life is precisely in the middle of the garden, conveying all waters of Creation, branching below, for that flowing, gushing river spreads into the garden, whence waters branch in many directions. Receiving them all is the ocean, from which they emerge in numerous streams below, as is said: watering all beasts of the field (Psalms 104:11). Just as they emerge from that world above, watering those towering mountains of pure balsam, subsequently upon reaching the tree of life, they branch below by paths in every direction.
– The Zohar

Broadly understood, meditation and spirituality ask for exacting individual scrutiny. We uncover the dark soil inside, leaving nothing untouched by contemplation. Here we find something seething, gibbering, and incredibly complex. This complexity, vibrating in time, destroys any chance we may have of a reality that conforms to our expectations, plans, and ideas. However, this is simultaneously a rent that allows us to choose new moments and new questions. This feeling of universal complexity and change has revised my understanding of the human domains of creativity, ethics, and philosophy. I would like to explore how this has occurred and how it helps illuminate our own capabilities. This is found in every moment: participation in raw creation with the entire universe.

Paying attention to our experience can result in the apprehension of universal unfolding. Eihei Dogen referred to that state as “the flowering of the unbounded,” using the metaphor of “flowering” to describe the persistent expression of all phenomena. He describes the flowering of space as part of Buddhist truth in his essay, The Flowering of the Unbounded. Alternately translated as “Flowers in Space,” this essay ranks among other essays in Shobogenzo as some of the most significant contributions ever made to global religious literature. Dogen describes these blossoms as follows:

Seeking the radiance and form of this blossoming is what your investigation through your training should be all about. What Bodhidharma calls ‘the resulting fruit’ is something that one leaves to the fruit: he describes this as ‘what naturally comes about of itself’. ‘What naturally comes about of itself’ is his term for mastering causes and being conscious of effects. There are the causes of the whole universe and there are the effects of the whole universe; there is our mastering the causes and effects of this whole universe and there is our being conscious of the causes and effects of this whole universe. One’s natural self is oneself. This self, to be sure, is ‘you’, that is to say, it is the four elements and the five skandhas of which you are comprised. Because Bodhidharma is allowing for ‘a true person devoid of any rank’, he is not referring to a specific ‘I’ or to some ‘other’. Therefore, that which is indefinable is what he is calling ‘a self ’. This natural state of ‘being as it is’ is what he is acknowledging. The natural state of ‘being as one is’ is the time when the Single Blossom opens and Its fruit results: it is the occasion when the Dharma is Transmitted and one is rescued from one’s delusions.It is within this context that the World-honored One spoke of the flowerings within Unbounded Space . . .

On the other hand, those folks who pay attention to very little and see even less are unaware that petals and blossoms with their varied hues and brilliance are to be found within everything . . . Only the Buddhas and Ancestors have known about the blossoming and falling of the flowers of Unbounded Space as well as that of earthly flowers. Only They have known of such things as the blossoming and falling of the flowers within the human world. Only They have known that such things as the flowers in Unbounded Space, earthly flowers, and the flowers within the human world are all Scriptures; this is the standard by which we investigate what Buddha is. Because what has been taught by the Buddhas and Ancestors is this flowering of Unbounded Space, the realm of Buddha and the Teachings of Buddhas are therefore synonymous with the flowerings of Unbounded Space. (Shasta Abbey Translation, 554-555)

This feeling emerged more strongly the more I practiced and reflected, and concepts cannot do it justice. The blossoming of space mentioned by Dogen is around us, continuing the primordial creation. Light dapples on every surface, constellating itself into beautiful shapes. Each breath effloresces with every mouth speaking in tongues. Experience points back to itself within the foam of becoming.

The moments in that experience frequently shift its potentials. New frontiers branch in innumerable crystalline patterns. Existence pulsates with creative discoveries as we are delivered over to a sweeping movement beyond ourselves. Creativity itself seems to follow this free-form growth. Associations reach out and interpenetrate as unique opportunities present themselves. Returning different each time, creativity sloughs itself and redounds. Creation simultaneously embraces and presses against barriers and divisions of every kind. This is what it means to be a creative agent -choosing, enacting, flowing like a spring. We are an “infinite ocean of effulgence” and these choices matter, given unceasing weight and force.

There are authoritarian strains that slither into our minds, offering us transcendence. They attempt to install their own process as the sole operation, attracting converts and changing them into vectors. The result is their world as the logos, of their opinions becoming the basis of shared reality. What is not discussed is that these beliefs and methods are a haphazard creation like any other. The construction of experiments, interpretation, and chance turns all contribute to the process. Anomalies make every situation unique.

However, what if we wish to return to the process to obtain another result? The author’s continued mining of their own potential creates their style. However, since these can naturally be limiting, the author may need to transform themselves again and again. There is always the chance of removing artistic limits and crashing the gates of what we had only assumed. Rekindling the act of creation is a fire that inheres in every form. The surface moves like a porous net, sliding us through into being, carrying us to the other shore.

Art is the minister of nature, nature is the daughter of time.
– The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz

Authors and musicians are not the only ones who can be considered creatives. We all create, in the sense that our actions take on their own life and effect others. Although meditation helps us dispense with a continuous, transcendent law, it seems that the more we notice the effect of our actions the more important they become. Our actions embrace all existence. Every cruel word or deed fashions itself into a crown of thorns for us to bear, nailing others to a possible cross of suffering.

We must take responsibility for the reality we are helping to make. The importance of ethical behavior in this regard becomes even more clear. Seeing events growing in time like a child, our ethical needs may change in an instant. Ethics emerges spontaneously, with branches into other configurations of experience. It is therefore important to question our own assumptions about the behavior of others, as humans are not carved out of our ideals. We cannot expect a person to act similarly in any given moment. However, if we look in the present to see the individual needs of others, we may have a better idea how to proceed.

In unbounded space, philosophy also takes on a different meaning. Since philosophy reflects on and engages existence, it buds out of dynamism, creating different ways of understanding. Other forms of culture help philosophy reinvent itself at each stage of development. Philosophy embodies the unbounded through a liberation of its own refractory potential. Explanations become multivalent, capable of changing themselves depending on one’s perspective and situation.

Philosophy can order or deform depending on its conceptual applications. The complexity of universal processes have no need for uniformity. Each person may have individual desires that allow for unique solutions. To create a “perennial” philosophy relevant for all times and persons thus seems unnecessary. Other elements of the cosmos may remain, eclipsed in unknowing, or utilized in unpredictable ways. Philosophy “opens the sieve to allow chaos in,” if chaos becomes a placeholder for disintegration and freedom past the bounds of our conception.

Unbounded space is this freedom at its purest. The universe consumes, alters, and expands its own connections simultaneously. These connections create unique spaces for diversity and accession, which we are able to partake in. This is the freedom found in ethics, philosophy, and any creative enterprise we set in motion. To find this freedom to create is part of our potential, as well as that of the unbounded, blossoming forth as time and space.

A Path Unknown To Any Vulture

Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like a massive fire.
– Dongshan

One crack and all knowledge is dissolved.
The struggle is over.
I follow the ancient Way, not lapsing into doubt.
Dignified bearing and conduct
that is beyond sound and form;
no trace remains of my passing.
Those who have mastered the Way
call this unsurpassable activity.
– from “Xiangyan’s Great Enlightenment”

Coming to Zen is to come to a basic unknowing. There are no texts that structure the kind of insight Zen offers. It is a rupture that evades thought, indicating the place at which the practitioner and the rest of existence co-occur. Zen brings the entrails of time and space squirming into the light.

It is interesting and highly symbolic that becoming a monk is known as “home-leaving.” To take up Zen is to leave home in more ways than one. It is not only leaving one’s family and former life. We also leave our projections behind. What is constitutes itself instantly as “a path unknown to any vulture.” There is a depth to that path that cannot be known or understood through theory. Instead, we forsake theorizing to begin our own unique inquiry.

When they seek the source of this practice, the student is often thrown into a more confusing position than before. Confronting the behavior of experienced Zen monks, and the lack of belief system, easy answers do not materialize. No respite is offered. We are told to simply sit in position, breathe, and follow the room exhaling in tandem.

These sitting periods compound our questions. Zen deals with these questions in surprising ways. It does not deny their importance for the spiritual seeker. Rather, it sees them as superficial and incomplete. Zen does not succumb to grand theories. Its questions arc interminably with no explanation of existence as a guarantee. Many metaphysics amount to a story we have provided for ourselves, and little more.

Gazing into our thought for long enough gradually reveals our ignorance. The Koan is one of Zen’s most important tools in helping to show us this. Since the mind hungers for explanation and security, the koan seems confusing on the surface. Continued practice, however, reveals their depth and breadth.

The Koan may display some of Zen’s insights in action, or present us with a situation to which we are asked to respond. They grab us and our base assumptions by the throat. Many Zen koans that I have read place emphasis on one’s present, concrete reality. That moment is a source of freedom, explanation, or experience. These koans are directing our attention to that moment:

Yuezhou Qianfeng was once asked by a monastic, ‘Bhagavans in the ten directions have one path to the gate of nirvana. I wonder, what is the path?’
Yuezhou drew a line with his staff and said, ‘It’s right here.’

Discussions such as these are attempting to approach the student in way that does not appeal to reductionist, idealistic thinking. Masters try to show us this in experiential ways. Rather than getting entrenched in a discussion on gradations or paths, Yuezhou hits the student with a physical, embodied answer. This is displayed in Zen literature frequently. An example of this, from Cultivating the Empty Field, utilizes a gorgeous description of natural detail:

A person of the Way fundamentally does not dwell anywhere. The white clouds are fascinated with the green mountain’s foundation. The bright moon cherishes being carried along with the flowing water. The clouds part and the mountain appears. The moon sets and the water is cool. Each bit of autumn contains vast interpenetration without bounds. (41-42)

The present that Zen teachers want us to appreciate is not capable of being fully understood. Beneath our opinions is something immense, which can be intuited through examination. Unknowing is explicitly demonstrated in Shitou’sAsk the Pillar”:

Shitou was once asked by a monastic, ‘What is the significance of Bodhidharma’s coming from India?’
Shitou said, ‘Ask the pillar.’
The monastic said, ‘I don’t understand it.’
Shitou said, ‘I don’t understand it either.’

Integral to this understanding is what has been referred to as suchness. Suchness does not designate a stable entity that we close ourselves around.  It reflects our intuition into a more consistent effort. Zen teacher Taigen Dan Leighton elaborates on how this word describes an adjustable, engaged practice:

Known in Sanskrit as tathata, this suchness is described in Indian Buddhism as ultimate truth, reality, the source, or the unattainable. Experientially, this suchness might imply the direct apprehension of the immediate present reality, harking back to early Buddhist mindfulness practices of bare attention. So, in varying contexts suchness may refer to our clear perception of reality, or else to the nature of that reality itself. (9)

No codification can hold us at this point. Suchness is to practice at the precipice, existing in transformation. As described in a line of the Four Great Vows: Dharma gates are countless, I vow to wake to them. Dharma gates demonstrate the truth, allowing us to awaken in every lineament of the entire world.

A grove of trees invites us in. They speak in melodies, in the thrum of sun and wind, and the throb of blood in universal channels. This time we brim with compassion for all things. Reality fills itself in a newly imagined flood, each act merely a beginning. Our center dissipates throughout the universe and we come once more to unknowing. For when we really begin to question, all dividing lines begin to crack. Thoughts, opinions, and beliefs become like gossamer strands.

As streams of fluid chaos, we navigate what we are in every sensation. Zen takes hold of this movement, and everything flourishes without our understanding.

The Concealed Of All Concealed – Haqdamat Sefer ha-Zohar

Yet perhaps above all else, it was the worldview of the Zohar – through its establishing a reciprocal relationship between the world of humanity and the world of divinity – that left an indelible impression on the hearts of its readers. In this ever-changing, constantly evolving relationship, the divine flow seeks to be revealed and to saturate the world of humanity; and humanity, for its part, seeks to attain, to take part in, and to cleave to the divine world. Indeed, the Zohar created a view of reality that bestows upon humanity the ability and the responsibility to rectify, constitute, and beautify over and over again the figure of the Godhead-and in so doing, itself and the world. (Loc. 81-87).  

 – Melila Hellner-Eshed

In addition to essays with original content, this site also seeks engagement with a variety of world philosophical theory and practice. In this engagement, theory and practice are as fused and complementary as two sides of the same coin. These concepts ask to be experienced anew and perhaps even be called into being. They are reminders of the delicate, fluid web of cause and effect, and the paramount importance of our beliefs and actions.

I can think of no more fitting place to start this exploration than the Zohar, the 13th century Jewish mystical text. Combining stunning poetry with exacting biblical analysis, the Zohar provides a basis in which to effect the healing of creation. Reconnecting male and female elements of the divine, the Kabbalist helps to make “the world that is to come.” Although God is often shrouded in mystery, the Kabbalist nevertheless tries to understand and participate in His continuing revelations. Humanity’s own efforts when waking to the mystery of God help determine the course of His creation.

In honor of this great work of ages, I would like to do a series on some sections of its writings. Connecting it to diverse scholarship on the Kabbalah, I hope to help shed some light on this challenging text. The Zohar’s view of the religious life is difficult to match in its density of interpretation and depth of feeling, so each section will try to elaborate on some of its diverse themes. How we then attempt to practice these concepts is up to each of us. Reading the Zohar is a charged experience, and we may be drawn into its rapturous heights as we ascend further into its world.

Excerpts are from the first volume of Daniel Matt’s Pritzker Edition, unless otherwise noted.

______

In its first section, the Zohar frequently discusses the mystery of existence and of God. This exploration of mystery generates some of the Zohar’s most amazing passages, describing the summiting of the inner life to probe the beginning of all. Some of these passages also refer to something called Ein Sof. As mentioned and explored in a previous essay, this is the infinite, unnameable source out of which all existence flows. It means “there is no end.” The One God that is wrapped up in all created things emerged from Ein Sof, and is intriguingly labeled “the Concealed of all Concealed.” God can be known in some ways, but there remain forever untapped and unknown dimensions of the absolute. This God gradually began to divulge itself in and through the shaping of the universe:

When Concealed of all Concealed verged on being revealed, it produced at first a single point, which ascended to become thought. Within, it drew all drawings, graved all engravings, carving within the concealed holy lamp a graving of one hidden design, holy of holies, a deep structure emerging from thought, called ‘Who,’ origin of structure. Existent and non-existent, deep and hidden, called by no name but ‘Who.’ . . . Seeking to be revealed, to be named, it garbed itself in a splendid, radiant garment and created ‘these.’ ‘These’ attained the name: these letters joined with those, culminating in the name ‘Elohim.’ Until it created ‘these,’ it did not attain the name ‘Elohim.’ . . . Through this mystery, the universe exists. (8)

Interestingly, God is named “Who,” as much a question as a designation. God emerged out of a dark, primal Unknowable, and will always remain so. In this understanding, God represents the origin of existence, yet His ultimate meaning and full potential remain uncharted. The Zohar truly brings the reader into an encounter with that arcane causa sui of existence. Even though it follows the emergence of everything from the initial point of divine incandescence, it still acknowledges that this beginning is veiled in secrecy. This is expressed in an incredible passage worth quoting in full:

The holy hidden one engraved an engraving in the innards of a recess, punctuated by a thrust point. He engraved that engraving, hiding it away, like one who locks up everything under a single key, which locks everything within a single palace. Although everything is hidden away within that palace, the essence of everything lies in that key, which closes and opens. Within that palace stand gates built cryptically, fifty of them. Carved into four sides, they were forty-nine. One gate has no side. No one knows whether it is above or below; it is shut. In those gates is one lock and one precise place for inserting the key, marked only by the impress of the key, known only to the key. Concerning this mystery it is written: Be-reshit bara Elohim, ‘In the beginning God created.’ Be-reshit is the key enclosing all, closing and opening. Six gates are contained in that key that closes and opens. When it closes those gates, enclosing them within itself, then indeed: Be-reshit – a revealed word combined with a concealed word. Bara, ‘Created,’ is always concealed, closing, not opening.

As long as the world was locked within the word ‘bara,’ it was not, did not exist. Enveloping everything was ‘tohu,’ [Chaos], and as long as tohu reigned, the world was not, did not exist. When did the key open gates? When was it fit to be fruitful, to generate offspring? (17-19)

So beginning is both revealed in the universe we find ourselves in yet is also concealed from human knowledge. The “single key” is the rune of existence, in which all speculation becomes obscure. This is the “closing” of speculation. One finds the last gate shut, unable to be opened to comprehension. Concepts no longer avail the seeker at this place. Here stretches out the gate to all, at the same time nothing, an impenetrable darkness. However, this creation or tree of life also expounds itself in certain ways which constitute our shared existence. This is “the tree bearing fruit with its seed in it.” The “revealing” is the same creation, seemingly endless in its manifestations.

The Zohar understands this revealing of creation as an emanation from that blazing point of divine light. In divulging some of Himself, progressive attributes of God make themselves known. These parameters, known as sefirot, help determine how God comes to be known to His creation. The sefirot are admirably described in the book A River Flows From Eden:

The Zohar assumes that its reader is familiar with descriptions of the structure of the divine world as they had crystallized in the circles of the first kabbalists in Provence and Gerona, beginning at the end of the twelfth century. These teachings assume the existence of an infinite, abstract divinity termed Ein Sof. From it emanate ten sefirot, constituting the world of active divinity. They are able to be comprehended in different ways. The sefirot are qualities or nodes of operation of the divine outside its incomprehensible and indescribable mysteriousness. They are characterized as masculine or feminine, and the relationships between them are dynamic and (hetero)sexual. (Loc. 215-221)

image

The sefirot form a complex understanding of reality. They do not solely chart the known aspects of God. They also form a representation of meditative practice, in which the practitioner climbs the “rungs” of the sefirot to the apex of nothingness. The sefirot also reveal how the world progressed out of Ein Sof, and the hidden dimensions that this reality contains.

The Zohar introduces one of its major themes in its first part – the idea of God separated from itself. Although this work discusses more of its creation story in a later commentary, it touches on this in the first chapter. A passage discussing this theme reads:

As soon as He departed, the flow flowing from above ceased. ‘He,’ as it were, ‘smote’ them, destroying and obliterating them, and the Holy Throne fell, as is written: ‘And I was in the midst of exile’ (Ezekiel 1:1) – that rung, called ‘I’ was ‘in the midst of exile.’ Why? ‘By the River Kevar’ ibid.), River of Already, on account of the river gushing and flowing, whose waters and springs ceased, so that it did not flow as before, as is written: ‘A river dries up and is parched’ (Job 14:11). ‘Dries up’ – in the First Temple; ‘is parched’ – in the second . . . All the lights illumining Israel darkened. (39)

God is disconnected from Himself and the nourishing springs that flow down from the celestial worlds and out of Ein Sof. This metaphor is discussed several times throughout the Zohar’s first section. Mentioned later on is the distinction the Kabbalists draw between the masculine God and the feminine God, with the feminine half referred to as Shekhinah. Shekinah, equated with Earth, is separated from the healing radiance of the divine, ravaged by evil forces and the wages of sin. Her state mirrors that of Israel, God’s chosen people, with its Temple destroyed, and exiled among the demonic tribes of other human nations. It is the Kabbalist’s responsibility, through their actions, to restore this lost bond and unleash the healing potency of divinity. We will return to this description again, and in greater detail, as we look at some of the Zohar’s later sections.

Humanity thus occupies a hugely important role in healing the wounds brought on by existence and separation. These wounds are understand cosmically as part of the divine reality, in which humans are an indelible part. Humans can come to these feelings of esteem and protectiveness by engaging in certain kinds of practice. These include contemplating holy works which expose hints of the universal narrative; participating in creative and edifying interpretations of Torah; and resolving their inner conflicts of good and evil.

One of the most useful perspectives on evil in world literature is found in the Zohar, in both its description and emphasis on human action. It interweaves an incredibly rich mythology that describes how humans ultimately perpetuate evil. Demons continually try to inhere in human expression and occupy “a dual earth, dualized by darkness and light.” (63)

Some of the Zohar’s most inspired lines comes out of these intense experiences of darkness:

In darkness they turn into the image of the two-headed serpent, moving like a serpent, then swooping into the abyss, bathing in the vast ocean. Reaching the chains of Uzza and Azazel [fallen angels] they agitate and arouse them. These then leap into the dark mountains, thinking the blessed Holy One is about to call them to judgement. These two officials swim the vast ocean and fly through the night to Na’amah, mother of demons, after whom the primordial deities strayed. They intend to approach her, but she leaps 60,000 parasangs, transmogrifying herself into countless figures confronting human beings, so that they stray after her. These two officials fly and roam throughout the world, then return to their abode, arousing those descendants of Cain to generate offspring by the spirit of evil impulses. (63-64)

The demonic is sometimes referred to in the Zohar as “the Other Side” and exists as a necessary corollary to the divine. Evil existed as an outgrowth in the beginning of creation and became a shell encasing the divine light. In order to access this light, one must penetrate through the shells around it.  Bringing evil into awareness allows humanity access to its creative role without fatally being drawn into the Other Side. This is to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to an article by Paul Levy:

From the Kabbalistic point of view, evil brings into the world the possibility of choosing between sin and virtue, which is to say that evil is the very origin of the possibility of the highest good. Freedom of choice is a necessary postulate for responsibility, morality, and the creation of values. Evil becomes the condition for free choice, and hence, the condition for the full realization of good. As if the revelation of everything is through its opposite, an idea is only complete when it reveals its opposite to be inextricably linked to its very significance, e.g., darkness is only known through light, just as light is only known through darkness. According to the Kabbalah, the world and the soul of humanity are partly immersed in the “Other Side,” which is to say that the evil impulse can’t be banished, but needs to be harnessed for the good. To quote Jung, ‘You can’t reject evil because evil is the bringer of light.’

Seeing the evil in ourselves is part of our recognition of the unity of God and the necessity of our restorative work.   The Zohar places a great deal of emphasis on righteousness in this regard. It describes its adherents as “sturdy pillars.” It describes “the world that is to come,” the potential experiencing of ourselves and our creative place in reality with new eyes. This is an arduous and lifelong task. It is also a rousing call to action:

O high, hidden, concealed ones, open-eyed, roaming the entire world, gaze and see! O low, sleeping ones, close-eyed, awake! Who among you turns darkness into light, bitter into sweet, before arriving here? Who among you awaits each day the light that shines when the king visits the doe and is glorified – declared King of all kings of the world? Whoever does not await this each day in that world has no portion here. (21-22)

Since this knowledge of our facility for good is found within an interior pilgrimage, the Zohar refers to it is “hidden.” We must remind ourselves of this fact as the world proliferates its own darkest impulses in its confusion. Our imagined separation is part of the separation of God, and access to this knowledge becomes lost as humanity falls prey to the Other Side:

Since [your goodness] is hidden within you, it plays no part in this world that I am about to create, but rather in the world to come. Furthermore, because your goodness is hidden within you, the gates of My Temple will sink, as is written: ‘Her gates, have sunk, into the earth (Lamentations 2:9). (15)

This understanding is finally remembering the overwhelming generosity of the Holy Ancient One.

How great is the precious, supernal goodness the blessed Holy One intends to lavish upon humanity – for the supremely righteous, dreading sin, engaging in Torah – when they enter that world! The verse does not read ‘Your goodness,’ but rather ‘Your immense goodness.’ Who is that? ‘The memory of Your immense goodness they express’ (Psalms 145:7) – joy of life flowing from the world that is coming to Vitality of the Worlds, who is ‘the memory of Your immense goodness’ – ‘immense goodness for the house of Israel . . . ‘ – Isaiah (63:7).

Your goodness’ – the light created on the first day. ‘That you have hidden away for those in awe of You,’ for He concealed it for the righteous in that world. (44-45)

The last theme we will discuss ties into and develops the others to such an extent that it will make a fitting conclusion to our discussion on this first section. In the process of investigating what lies hidden within the Torah’s wings, the Zohar requires its practitioners to expound new and interesting ways of interpreting these canonical texts. Creativity is expressed in the Torah as a communion that all its adherents must enter. This is not numbing repetition for its own sake, but ecstatic discovery. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead described something similar in his opus Process and Reality:

It follows from the first category of explanation that ‘becoming’ is a creative advance into novelty. It is for this reason that the meaning of the phrase ‘the actual world’ is relative to the becoming of a definite actual entity which is both novel and actual, relatively to that meaning, and to no other meaning of that phrase. Thus, conversely, each actual entity corresponds to a meaning of ‘the actual world’ peculiar to itself.

The novelty of each moment is unique to that situation, and cannot necessarily be predetermined arbitrarily. The novel is defined relative to the situation at hand. Becoming is the entire universe changing into the new, perennially changing the meaning of “the world.”  Interpreting the Torah in new ways is to participate with the becoming of divine creation. The broadening of the Torah’s meaning is brought out in the Zohar’s exegesis of “let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures” (Genesis 1:20). This creativity makes new methods of swimming in the waters of the world.

The Torah then comes alive, a matrix of associations branching into unique places. Interpreting the holy text becomes a religious imperative, as the Kabbalist makes new heavens and participates as the world. One’s connection to the Torah is thus extremely important. In creating new interpretations and new “heavens” for humans to dwell in, we add to the aesthetic beauty of the universe. We also devise enduring opportunities for salvation. These new heavens become part of “the supernal crown” and the glory of God. “The waters swarm” with the results of this abundance. Humanity’s religious goals become re-centered in expanding the image of God.

How vital it is for a human being to engage in Torah day and night! For the blessed Holy One listens to the voice of those who occupy themselves with Torah, and every word innovated in Torah by one engaged in Torah fashions one heaven . . . All the words of the Ancient of Days are words of wisdom, conveying supernal, concealed mysteries . . . So each and every word of wisdom is transformed into a heaven, existing enduringly in the presence of the Ancient of Days. He calls them ‘new heavens,’ newly created heavens, hidden mysteries of supernal wisdom. . . (25-26)

The Zohar is a paean to humanity’s deep creativity and the effects of that creative urge on all the worlds. God is permanently linked to humans through the consequences of our combined actions. These actions join us to the divine reality, as we add to creation, finding our own beauty, wonder, and awe.

The sixth commandment: to be fruitful and multiply. For whoever engages in this causes that river to flow constantly, it’s waters never ceasing, and the sea is filled from every direction. New souls are innovated, emerging from that tree, while above, numerous powers increase along with them, as is written: ‘Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living souls [and let birds fly above the earth]’ (Genesis 1:20.) This is the holy sealed covenant, a river streaming forth, its waters swelling, swarming with swarms of souls for that living being. (87-88)

Shunya

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible.  Had you not seen it all from birth and bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part.  Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

     – Cormac McCarthy

 What is it the lurks beneath the apparent facade of everyday experience?  Are there terrors that dwell in the mountainous regions of dark matter?  Or is there a beneficent, all-loving God who has our best interests close at hand?  Upon looking inward, is there nothing beneath the unfolding of phenomena?  A cavernous void with no fixities?  These questions catalyze our inquiry, prompting our exploration of the world.

Searching for certainty, we may attempt to describe this reality and discover an island in a perpetually roiling sea.  In setting these limits, we also attempt to distill their essence into systems we create.  Thought builds a temple with the graven image of the symbol.

Global religion and philosophy have attempted to smooth the contours of the world, totalizing it and advocating for their own justifications.  Some religious movements and practitioners claim their personal holy book as the sole source of revealed truth.  Initiation into these schools of thought may amount to little more than absorption and regurgitation of doctrine. However, throughout their histories, many of these disciplines have had works that attempt to look seriously into the limitations of their own beliefs.  Some seekers have had experiences that diffuse reality beyond the grasp of human understanding.  Rather than aborting this procedure, and attempting to find an unassailable position for thought,  they follow this radiant outflow to its terminus.  They join with the rippling swells of the cosmos.

In Buddhism, this aconceptual experience of reality is termed shunya, which is translated as emptiness or voidness.  This points us towards an iconoclastic strain of feeling that prompts a complete revolution in our understanding of reality.  Through our questioning, and in the fruition of our meditative practice, we may come to feel this firsthand.  It is described and experienced as the total unfolding of the universe moment by moment, without any form of conceptual or experiential restraint.

This can completely change our philosophizing, denying the all-encompassing reach of human reason.  Reality undulates, unfettered by how the human mind carves up its experience.  It severs the necessity of our concepts and embraces the ambiguous.  Importantly, it also turns our lives, language, and experience inside out.  Our words and actions do not denote a separate abstract self or reality.  They become part of the original creation itself.  In the immeasurable and empty center of zero, existence spills into actuality, united by the circle’s never-ending line.  

In Red Pine’s commentary on the Heart Sutra, he describes the line in which Avalokiteshvara, Boddhisattva of Compassion, perceives the emptiness of all things:

Here, Avalokiteshvara looks at the skandhas and sees that they are empty, or shunya.  The Sanskrit word shunya means ‘hollow,’ ‘void,’ or ‘zero.’  What is hollow, void, or zero is the existence of a self.  But if there is no self-existence, there is is also no non-existence.  According to Mahayana Buddhism, this is the second greatest of all delusions, the belief that nothing exists.  Emptiness does not mean nothingness.  It simply means the absence of the erroneous distinctions that divide one entity from another, one being from another being, one thought from another thought.  Emptiness is not nothing, it’s everything, everything at once.  This is what Avalokiteshvara sees. 

 Emptiness also has parallels across many different religions.  Meister Eckhart, a Christian mystic, describes human concepts as being unable to measure up to God.  The graces of God become their own kind of language:

I can briefly summarize this copious introduction by saying that God’s speaking to us is nothing else but God’s becoming known to us through his gifts (gifts and inspirations, either of nature or of grace) that raise us up and irradiate our minds by his light.  This is utterance, speech and word in the most proper and pleasing sense; its exterior utterance, speech and word does not measure up to it.  (Classics of Western Spirituality, 115).  

 Rather than a basis in despair, emptiness is the fertile loam in which always begins.  It indicates that which has no name and perpetually overflows all our limitations, leading us towards the limitless.  I will explore this experience from two poles.  The first is how meditation and emptiness alters the human experience and enactment of language.  When language no longer denotes a stable reality, it liberates our actions to be truly situational and all-embracing.  It also releases us from accepting any conclusions to our inevitable and often necessary world-building.  Secondly, I will describe what happens once emptiness breaks down this linguistic experience of the world, which puts us more in touch with flowing truth.  The universe can then be said to not only be empty of any overarching concept or principle, but also empty of any constant form.  As said in the Heart Sutra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.


 

One possible way of looking at the human process of conceptualization is that we partly operate on abstraction.  We create increasingly elaborate conceptual frameworks that we use to navigate and survive.  It does not appear that humans could do without these concepts.  They allow us to make useful distinctions between what is safe and dangerous, communicate this to others, and extrapolate from past experience.  Tempering these experiences into memories, we continually update our working models of the world.  These frameworks are what we constantly reference in our day to day life as something unremittingly existent or “real”, overlooking their largely provisional nature.  We can witness ourselves while we meditate as we incessantly label all experience.

We run into problems when we attempt to take these temporary frameworks and turn them into something static.  Some philosophical, scientific, and religious models encourage us to do just this: to passively accept the results of their search for truth as somehow given, omniscient, or permanent.  Concepts, while extremely practical and sometimes effective, seem to operate contingently and without the necessity to make them into eternal law.  Abstractions are a double-edged sword, screening out even as they allow us the ability to think.  The experience of emptiness seems to disclose something beyond thought that is always unfinished and processual.

In understanding the moment to moment arising of experience, we can see how concepts and frameworks remain incomplete.  Thought reflects on our perception of the past, and remains bound to it.  Conceptualization cannot remain in tandem with the speed of present experience.  This is increasingly realized during meditation as we attune ourselves to life’s constant development.  It always remains possible that the present negates all our old maps, and our understanding of things changes completely, making everything unrecognizable.

An excellent example of using language to express its limitations and point beyond itself can be found in Eihei Dogen’s Mountains and Waters Sutra:

Even if you have an eye to see mountains as grass, trees, earth, rocks, or walls, do not be confused or swayed by it; this is not complete realization.  Even if there is a moment when you view mountains as the seven treasures’ splendor, this is not returning to the source.  Even if you understand mountains as the realm where all buddhas practice, this understanding is not something to be attached to.  Even if you have the highest understanding of mountains as all buddhas’ wondrous characteristics, the truth is not only this.  These are conditioned views.  This is not the understanding of buddha ancestors, but merely looking through a bamboo pipe at the corner of the sky.

Robert K.C. Forman, mystic and religious professor, has an extremely interesting account of how this use of language “deconstructs” our habitual modes of conceptualizing:

. . . I have linked up a perceptual object with a phrase or word in an automatic or habitual way.  This process is well documented.  When we encounter the same thing over and over again, we tend to pigeonhole it without looking at it in detail.  These are perceptual ‘automatisms.’  They allow us to save psychic time and energy and ‘see’ only what we generally need to see.  The categories in whose terms we ‘see’ with, our automatizations, are determined by our set, concepts, context, needs, etc.  On the other hand, some language serves to undo such automatized connections between words and perceptions . . . Sundering perceptual automatizations help us deconstruct perceptual experiences . . . Taking such expressions seriously, the key process in mysticism seems not like the horse of language pulling the cart of experience, but rather more like unhitching the experience-cart from the language-horse.  Mystical experiences don’t result from a process of building or constructing mystical experience, we’ve suggested, but rather from an un-constructing of language and belief.  It seems to result from something like a releasing of experience from language.  Some forms of mysticism, in other words, should be seen as decontextualized. (Mysticism, Mind, Consciousness, 98-99).

This realization allows us to reflect on our use of theorizing, in which categories remain subject to change.  Possibly seeing through the screen of words allows us to notice how they contrive human action.  They can prevent us from acknowledging the enormous diversity all around and within us.

Considered as emptiness, language becomes part of the ripening of all reality.  The one who comprehends this can use language in a startling and reflective manner, mutating it into new and diverse species.  It can be then used actively as a form of expedient means.  This is where language is changed into different patterns to fit the audience and can best serve the unique needs of each individual’s awakening.

Once a seeker has begin to experience reality in this way, the change in perception can be cataclysmic.  We see language in a different light and become its adept, deploying its capacities without ascribing privileged status to any single thought.  It is equally important to remember not to “get stuck on emptiness” as a concept.  This would hinder the way that emptiness encourages us to examine and render transparent all of thinking.  Once this happens, we no longer depend on habit and abstract conviction.

This removal of linguistic barriers prompts a changed view of the world.  Without stable abstractions to adhere to, the universe becomes a wild place, irreducible to any entity.  Signifiers such as emptiness, the universe, chaos, and God all seem to reveal this radical openness.  In the Zohar, a work of Jewish mysticism, God emerges from the enigmatic Ein Sof, meaning “there is no end.” Ein Sof is the zero through which reality is birthed, the infinite nowhere which is always becoming apparent.  The Tao as the mysterious source of existence has similar connotations.  A passage from the Tao Te Ching reads:

The valley spirit that doesn’t die
We call the dark womb
The dark womb’s mouth
We call the source of Heaven and Earth
As elusive as gossamer silk
And yet it can’t be exhausted

Many of these mystery traditions reference the “bright darkness” about which nothing can ultimately be said.  One description of this reality comes from philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, and his excellent work After Finitude.  His work details what is described as an “absolute that would not be an absolute entity,” or a reality which undermines any sort of stability.  The absolute is the cosmos in its perpetually shifting nature.  He describes this as “hyper-chaos”:

Our task was to uncover an absolute that would not be an absolute entity . . . The only absolute we have managed to rescue from the confrontation would seem to be the very opposite of what is usually understood by that term, which is supposed to provide a foundation for knowledge.  Our absolute, in effect, is nothing other than an extreme form of chaos, a hyper-chaos, for which nothing is or would seem to be, impossible, not even the unthinkable . . . We have succeeded in identifying a primary absolute (Chaos), but contrary to the veracious God, the former would seem to be incapable of guaranteeing the absoluteness of scientific discourse, since, far from guaranteeing order, it guarantees only the possible destruction of every order.

 Hyper-chaos points toward a transmuting, nonlinear cosmos, a chaos not only limited to chaos.    These words that attempt to move beyond themselves draw our attention to a world that is free of these concepts and cannot be fully contained within them.  Certain Zen dialogues seem to reference this, with masters regularly confounding their students’ intellectual expectations.  In the commentary for the following Koan, this is called “intimate talk,” with teachers precisely pointing at the deep, profound, and mysterious reality of which they are a part:

Boshui Benren said to the assembly, ‘Normally we don’t want to confuse descendants by talking about what is before sound and after a phrase.  Why is this so?  Sound is not sound.  Form is not form.’
A monastic said, ‘What is sound that is not sound?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it form?’
The monastic said, ‘What is form that is not form?’
Boshui said, ‘Can you call it sound?’
The monastic would not say another word.
Boshui said, ‘Let me say that if you understand this, I will approve that you have entered the place.’ 

It takes time to acclimate to this lack of reliance on systems, symbols, and concepts.  Once we fathom this and harmonize it with our practice, it becomes a fount of inspiration.  Changing states of affairs offer countless ways to partake in what is.  It seems that “there is no end” to the novel and unexpected, in which life  can be felt as a perpetual source of realization.  Experience this infinity for yourself, engaging in the sincere expression of your being beyond all words.

Personal Constructs

Finally, one opens the circle, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth. One opens the circle not on the side where the old forces of chaos press against it but in another region, one created by the circle itself. As though the circle tended to open onto a future, as a function of the working forces it shelters. This time, it is in order to join with the forces of the future, cosmic forces. One launches forth, hazards an improvisation. But to improvise is to join with the World, or meld with it. One ventures from home on the thread of a tune.
– Deleuze and Guattari

Who am I? Sitting with spine erect, immersed in silence, this question takes on a greater sense of urgency. The constant hum of thoughts, intense arising of emotion, and fluxuating sensation unveil the personality’s immanent machinery. The sense of self becomes more nebulous and transparent.

One of the forms that contemplative practice can take is the intuitive apprehension of the process of our self-construction. The personality, far from being set in stone, continuously oscillates throughout our lifetime. A disruptive result of this practice is that emotions, thoughts, and behaviors are not the province of an experiencing “self,” but forms of social and personal programming. As our grasp of the mutability of this image grows, our entire personal cosmology changes. We begin to notice the ways that our cultural upbringing has imposed its own ideals upon us. Other intellectual systems and dysfunctional family histories swirl to the surface, incorporated into the self’s edifice. Our unquestioning identities begin to dissolve.

The paradoxes of self allow us to see what feelings and memories have been occluded from us.  If we manage to integrate what we had been unable to, the central fiction of a static self crumbles. Recognition of the patterns that the body identifies with are a necessary step in beginning to transition to more conscious and introspective approaches in our actions. We develop a deeper understanding of our diverse ecologies. The ego undergoes a mutation and the entire body shifts in its understanding.

Coming to an understanding of this self-image has a dramatic effect on the way we not only can change our own paradigms, but on how we communicate with others. This creates new forms of culture and unique forms of life in the process. The discernment of personal power and responsibility has pervasive roots in the mystical and religious experiences of human history.

In his outstanding book Mysticism: Experience, Response, and Empowerment, Jess Hollenback discusses how mystics consciously transform methods of enculturation within themselves and others. Mystics reflect on tradition and shift culture in new directions.

When their imaginations are empowered, mystics explicitly and deliberately manipulate, at the level of individual experience, the same processes and mechanisms that religious traditions and cultures tacitly and unconsciously bring into play at the collective level when they create those basic orientations by which their adherents live. To put it another way, mystics and ex-statics display a remarkable degree of “playfulness” with the psychological processes that operate in enculturation . . . they can sometimes consciously manipulate those mechanisms that the enculturation process subliminally imprints upon us.

Sometimes one better understands the ordinary processes of nature when, to quote Francis Bacon, one “twists the lion’s tail” and causes the things of nature to behave in freakish and exaggerated ways so that processes that normally operate subliminally can come to the surface. The extreme phenomena of mystical experience function in a similar way for they, too, bring to the surface some of the processes at work in enculturation that otherwise lie hidden from view. The ordinary nonviolent processes of cultural change and adaptation generally involve an unobtrusive dissolution and creation of symbolic structures and assumptions about the nature of the world that shape human experiences of reality into ordered and meaningful patterns. Mystical experiences often present people with situations that either challenge or else confirm in an unexpected way those tacitly accepted symbolic structures that give order and meaning to human existence.

Here we have a good example of how mediums and mystics creatively “play” with the fundamental assumptions of their respective cultures and religious traditions . . . What do we learn from these observations? We learn that mystics are not a species set above the rest of humanity. They simply appear to exaggerate, temporally compress, and consciously control processes that are always taking place slowly and quietly, in a more attenuated form and more or less unconsciously, whenever human beings are engaged in those activities that create and sustain a cultural or religious tradition. This keenness with which mystics and ex-statics lay bare the effects of culture on human experience constitutes one of the most important aspects of their cultural and religious significance.

Contemplation can reveal that thoughts and sensations that we formerly took for granted as constituting “who we are,” really bring us firmly within the ambit of our own cultures and upbringings. Throughout their lives, humans assimilate patterns of collective programming. Looking deeply into these habits of thought and feeling, we begin to grasp their deeply pervasive effects on our own lives. We see how ingrained these patterns are, and how our unthinking acceptance of them propagates the illusion of a fixed self.

As we become aware of these different patterns, we may notice that our personalities center around certain dominant aspects. In the approach therapist Ron Kurtz calls the Hakomi Method, these attractors are called “central organizers” in that they actively structure and limit how we can respond at any given time:

So what are the central organizers, the important ones at the focal points of all this fervent creativity? What are we trying to get at when we do psychotherapy? We are trying to get at beliefs, images, memories, attitudes, and the important decisions we made about who we are and what type of world we’re part of. We’re trying to locate and look at pieces of the long ago. These events established our patterns and and still control what it is possible for us to experience, feel, think and express, to this day. The central organizers are central because they organize at the deepest and most pervasive levels, affecting nearly all our experience, all the time . . . These core organizers are are definitions and blueprints of the most basic issues about our being in the world. They are our reference points, our measures of the self and others, with which we set our expectations, goals, and limits.

We find ourselves entangled in the cycles of arising and sensation.  Increasing and widening the scope of our perspective can lead us to spontaneously awaken. This is a highly inclusive metaphor that begins a sea change in the actualization of our lives. Rather than being shackled to certain methodologies, we begin to consciously change our behavior. In doing so we reshape the structure of our experience. The constrictive knots of personality that we have tied around ourselves begin to loosen, and we leverage these spaces wider with flowing action.

Knowledge of our own constructed realities begins the process of personal analysis and integration. In order to accomplish this, we begin with our own bodies in the present. Adopting an attitude of total inclusion, aspects of our awareness rise once more into perception. Compassionate intent brings out the various layers and complexities of our personal geographies. This brings a more complete understanding of the full range of our emotional expression. We become able to stay with any feeling as it flowers, no matter how painful or pleasurable. Recognizing and moving into the sensation allows it to open itself to us. We also note all the qualities associated with that feeling. This includes physical effects, internal dialogue, and any other dimensions contained in a particular experience. The way to move into a balanced orbit with these feelings is by processing them once more.

As we enact new methods of rigorous self-observation, we become aware of our inevitable and unpredictable tides of emotion. Although we cannot control the context that these emotions arise in, we can begin to remove ourselves from their unconscious expression. Typically, a feeling arises, and we respond to it in habitual and mechanical ways. Time and attention begin to dissolve the loops that this behavior accretes in. We reflect on the reinforcing and cyclic nature of feeling, thought, and action. This removes us from blindly enacting them. Doing this creates a new mode of experiencing in which we feel to the fullest while still being able to act in different extensions.

Spacious and content, without confusion from inner thoughts of grasping, effectively overcome habitual behavior and realize the self that is not possessed by emotions.
– Hongzhi

Comprehending this leads us towards further knowledge of the identification with our own pain, suffering, and victimhood. Often we do not engage in deep contemplative or therapeutic practice due to not only our systemic dread of feeling our own pain, but also feeling that this pain makes us who we are. Rather than moving into, experiencing, and moving past these personal sicknesses, we become trapped in them. Burrowing further in, we make them the center of our universe, nurturing them until they take on a life of their own. Therefore, we do not have to dwell in any set place; and can always press forward.

It becomes apparent that the more we identify with particular sensations, the more they repeat themselves, attempting to insinuate themselves into the fabric of who we are. Many of our problems are self-created in this regard. We lock ourselves into pain, unable to give it up, and use it to create our identities anew. For even the limits of pain may seem attractive compared to having to give up the whitewashed limits of self, and to take the plunge into our own fear, horror, and madness. But once we remember these aspects of ourselves, our dread of them begins to fall away, replaced with a pure flux, and an accepting attitude of unfamiliar becomings. We realize that we do not have to be constrained by any aspect of our experience, including concepts of who we thought we were. We can embark on a new course.

This reversal can be expressed by what scholar Jeffrey J. Kripal has termed “authorization”:

In the second stage, this insight into the realization that we are being written matures into the even more stunning idea that we can do something about this, that we can write ourselves anew. The final secret of the super-story, then, is that if we are indeed ‘above’ (super-it), then in some way that we do not yet understand, we are authorizing it. We do not need to be puppets at the mercy of some neurological programmer, or for that matter some faithful believer in the dictates of some authoritarian sky-God. We can become our own authors, we can recognize that we are pulling our own strings, that the angels and aliens, gods and demons are us.

The more we feel this, the more a definitive self gives way, turning its dictates to quicksand. We fall beneath the play of thought and arrive at the center of an ever-evolving mystery. Questioning who we are beneath our personal constructs, we find something that is not bound by the previous ways we have used to categorize ourselves. Here is a conceptual no-man’s-land where words fall from us and decay, turning to smoke from our lips.

Who are we, if not these ideas of self? Understanding this is the work of an entire life.

Authority

What is the source of a guru’s authority? He can tell you that he speaks from experience, that he has experienced states of consciousness that have made him profoundly blissful, understanding, compassionate, or whatever. You have his word for it and you may have the word of other people who likewise agree with him. But each one of them, and you in turn, agrees with him from out of your own opinion, and by your own judgment. So it is you who are the source of the teacher’s authority. That is true whether he speaks as an individual or as the representative of a tradition or a church.
– Alan Watts

Wild-eyed prophets, drunk on the Word, and infused with the power of the Book. Channeling the Holy Spirit in solitude, their experiences are displaced with each new revelation. With appeals to intelligences greater than our own, and their own realizations, they come bearing a new Law and standard for all humanity. A group crystallizes around the promise of the divine. The teacher’s mask of sanity begins to slip as the group’s utopian dream begins to devolve into a nightmare. Bearing witness to the leader’s fragmentation, the aspirants begin to question the authority they had invested in their former master.

In seeking the circumference of truth through practices such as meditation, we are thrust back upon ourselves. We may come to discover that we are the very expression of this truth. New coordinates are always being created, shifting in their configurations. Each development is a frontier. Possibilities loom, beckon, and threaten as we run deep into the unknown. Everyone must create their own path, seeking connection to this deeply personal yet universal source within us all. In this process of mutual co-creation we support each other as we explore our own potential.

Through practices such as Zazen or other types of self-inquiry, we may begin to develop a nascent sense of our own authority. This involves exploring questions that have relevance to us, how they resonate, and seeing how these concepts forge diverse connections. Through fear, many of us cling to outmoded worldviews or devalue our own unique contributions in thrall of a teacher or tradition. In this pursuit of our own truths we may not be able to rely on the opinions of others.

As humans, it is natural to look to others during the process of inquiry. It also makes sense to defer to teachers in certain situations and in certain contexts. However, this does not mean giving up on our root moral convictions. The teacher’s own authority is given back by the students, and they could not survive without the students’ continued belief. The body of their tradition is maintained by its constituents continued enacting of their precepts. Unquestioning acceptance of dogma merely perpetuates these flawed systems. This is especially true in spiritual and religious traditions, as the guru needs others to maintain their own internal dynamics of power. In some cases, this becomes parasitic as the teacher begins to feed on the vitality of its members without recourse to their well being.

However, it may begin to dawn on us, the more we reflect, that there is no firm basis on which this authority can rest. It must always be pushed back an extra step, whether in some experience that confers it, a book that delineates it, or a conceptual system that valorizes it, to name a few. We can begin to move beyond and outgrow our beliefs as we realize that the authority that we seek, and the forms of life that we value, rest within ourselves.

The more we test these teachers, examining their own expanses, the more we may get a sense of their unique limits and contradictions. Rather than the shattering loss that we had feared it to be, we are given a chance to discover what we really value. The student begins to move on their own initiative. With time and reflection, we get used to bearing the increasing responsibility for our own growth and development.

Many concepts in Buddhism are experiential and meant to be understood in an engaged, embodied way. We must move past interpretations that are imposed upon us by the external, and check the veracity of Buddhism’s claims against our own experience and in light of our own explorations. We are then capable of moving out of of our safe enclaves of rote habit and thought. In the process, we become authorities unto ourselves, communicating the light of our truth to others.

Anything that is accepted for any reason apart from its being consistent with one’s firsthand experience will eventually become an obstacle.
– Ngakpa Chogyam, Khandro Dechen

We also may discover that the freedom that this entails is inherently painful. It is much easier to accept a pre-packaged or commodified meaning of life than to create one for ourselves, or to admit our fundamental unknowing. It is much simpler to be told what to do, and to pass on this awesome responsibility, than to continually learn, develop, and change. It is all too easy to retreat behind the veil that others throw out to obscure their own deep mysteries. We are riven open by this freedom which asks everything of us.

Intertwined with this pain lies expansion, moving us through our comfort zone. The void of possibility prevents any one perspective or interpretation from becoming absolute, and we no longer fold under the weight of our own intellectualizations. This would confine the potentials of life and its infinite scope. Understanding this intuitively, without recourse to doctrine, is one possible facet of Zen practice. Without an apparent foundation or direction to life, we can grow in new dimensions at any time. This lack of finality applies to the opinions and perspectives of others, and changes how we confer authority on all that we encounter. We reclaim our natural spontaneity, a liquid intelligence that is sensitive and responsive to situations as they develop.

We no longer have to look to others as the ultimate arbiters in our search for truth. The question then becomes: how we can not only delve into and create our own values, but how we can bring them into our own lives? How will we express this? As Eihei Dogen says in the Shobogenzo, “investigate this thoroughly.” We enter into our own participation. A moral sense begins to dawn anew.

Find the seat from which your authority issues forth. This is to drink from the same boundless waters as the matriarchs and patriarchs.

A Hammer to Strike the Earth, A Scream to Rend the Sky

Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, and even on the Mount, nothing.   – St. John of the Cross 

A monk asked Chao-chou, ‘has the dog buddha nature or not?’
Chao-chou said, ‘Mu.’

Mu is a hammer to strike the earth and a scream to rend the sky.  It is an open palm, a thunderclap, and a bank of foaming clouds.  Most of all, it is simply MuSimple, direct, and profound, Mu invites the student to fully experience their own existence.  It is not something that can be expressed through familiar territories.  Instead, it distorts and undermines our own certain foundations.

Although it means “no,” or “negation,” Mu resists all of our attempts at easy definition.  Once taken on by a student, the intellect scrabbles for a foothold.  Generating this tension we arrive at the Great Barrier.  The teacher will not let us pass without a reply, and we throw ourselves headlong into Mu’s great ocean. The teacher, understanding what we are attempting to do, summarily rejects all of our answers.

The monk in the koan is ourselves, always grasping at an authoritative interpretation of reality.  Mu only flows through our fingers like sand.  We strain for an answer, the understanding examining the question from every angle, drawing up vast schematics.   The mind seeks its limits in scripture, philosophy, and previous experience, dredging up former skeletons from their graves.

In our practice, we bring a mountain of speculation, hoping to set our lives upon a new system, and fashion a new set of chains to bind ourselves.

In a sense the unlimited assemblage is the impossible.  It takes courage and stubbornness not to go slack.  Everything invites one to drop the substance for the shadow, to forsake the open and impersonal movement of thought for the isolated opinion.  – Georges Bataille

The more the intellect attempts to ground Mu, the more it finds uncertain purchase.  The student has reached a point where they cannot proceed.  The trail veers off in uncertain directions.  We lift our gaze and look upward.  The answer stares us in the eyes, and reaches out its hand to touch our own.

The Mu koan is an embodiment of Zen practice. It doesn’t dwell in bounded concepts but in its very incomprehensibility.  Rather than giving the student a system to assimilate, it draws the seeker deeper into their own lives.  There is no fixed abode, and like life, Mu admits of unparalleled inventiveness.  Rather than parroting old responses, Mu asks us to display a new understanding, rooted in the newness of each moment of experience.  Free from our concepts, we are pulled into each new moment divested of the past.

Eihei Dogen expressed this understanding in one of his discourses on practice-realization. He indicates this using startlingly direct language.

It is not in the realm of ordinary people or sages.  Thus it can neither be measured by the intellect of those who are wise, nor guessed at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge.  Neither can it be discussed by the intellect of those who are beyond wise, nor can it be arrived at by the wisdom of those who have knowledge beyond knowledge.  Rather it is buddha ancestors’ practice-realization, skin, flesh, bones, marrow, eyeball, fist, top of the head, nostril, staff, whisk, leaping away from making.

Mu explicates itself atop mountains, deep in the earth, and everywhere.  It is bound up in all our responses to the questions of life.  The ideas of past and future cannot encapsulate the moment as it swells outward in all directions.  The complex situations of life cannot be done justice by discursive thought.  Mu gestures us towards what Dae Gak has called “the power of possibility in the unknown” :

The nature of all existence is change.  This does not mean change into the familiar, but in spite of the familiar into the unknown.  This is the heart essence of Mu practice.  This is the bone of these Mu ashes left by JoJu for us to investigate, to manifest again and again, and make vibrant and brand new, alive.

As we throw ourselves headlong into Mu, we notice the question becoming more transparent, until that question arises to embrace everything that is.  It is this ambiguity that we carry with us throughout our lives, always unresolved, incessantly questioning, beating like a heart.

Bring this question forward, until doubt infects your whole being, and Mu runs through the veins and arteries of the world.