Radiance – An Excerpt From The Zohar

 

Zohar

Instead of an original essay this week, I wanted to highlight an excerpt from my ongoing study of The Zohar. The Zohar is an extensive work in the Kabbalistic tradition. Three volumes in and it continues to amaze me with the beauty of its writing and the depth of its philosophy. On the surface it is a reading of the Pentateuch, with the author(s) extracting a mystical system from its pages. Going deeper, they twist and mutate its language into stunning new vistas. The amplification of Torah is part of the religious function of the Kabbalist: to contribute new blossoms to the Tree of Life. As The Zohar says in Va-Yeshev: So all depends on Torah, and the world is sustained only through Torah – sustaining pillar of worlds above and below (129).

This exemplary passage touches on familiar themes found throughout the book: the creation of the universe and our world, the darkness found within Eden, and its redemption.

Rabbi Hiyya opened, ‘A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless YHVH builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless YHVH watches over the city, the watchman guards in vain (Psalms 127:1). Come and see: When it arose in the will of the blessed Holy One to create the world, He issued from the spark of impenetrable darkness a single vaporous cluster, flashing from the dark, lingering in ascension. The darkness descended, gleaming – flaring in a hundred paths, ways, narrow, broad, constructing the house of the world.
     The house stands in the center of all, countless doors and chambers round and round – supernal sacred sites, where birds of heaven nest, each according to its species. Within emerges an immense, mighty tree, its branches and fruit nourishing all. That tree climbs to the clouds of heaven, is hidden amid three mountains, emerges beneath these mountains, ascending, descending.
     This house is saturated by it; within, it secretes numerous supernal hidden treasures, unknown. Thereby this house is constructed and decorated. That tree is revealed by day, concealed by night; this house rules by night, is concealed by day.
     As soon as darkness enters, enveloping, it rules: all doors close on every side. Then countless spirits soar through the air, desirous to know, to enter. Entering among those birds – who collect testimony – they roam and see what they see, until that enveloping darkness arouses, radiating a flame, pounding all mighty hammers, opening doors, splitting boulders. The flame ascends and descends, striking the world, arousing voices above and below. Then one herald ascends, bound to the air, and proclaims. That air issues from the pillar of cloud of the inner altar, issuing, it spreads in the four directions of the world. A thousand thousands stand on this side, a myriad of myriads on that side – the right – and the herald stands erect, proclaiming potently. How many there are then who intone songs and render worship! Two doors open, one on the south and one on the north.
     The house ascends and is placed between two sides, while hymns are chanted and praises rise. Then the one who enters, enters silently, and the house glows with six lights lustering in every direction. Rivers of spices flow forth, water all beasts of the field, as is said: watering all beasts of the field . . . Above them swell the birds of heaven, singing among the branches (Psalms 104:11-12). They chant till morning rises, when stars and constellations, the heavens and their hosts all sing praises, as is said: When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of Elohim shouted for joy (Job 38:7). (Matt Translation, Volume 3, 40-41)

As part of this discussion, we will look further into the first volume, which contains a reading of the story of Noah. In the next few weeks, I also hope to publish the first in a series of articles that look at useful works in transformational literature. Stay tuned.

Pleasure and Impermanence

Spiritual practices, like many other activities, can be a gateway to blissful sensations. Descriptions of these sensations appear frequently in religious literature, and helped spark my initial interest. An example of this type of experience is found in Aleister Crowley’s Book Four, where he lays out the foundations for his magical system and explains his own progress in meditation.

Finally something happens whose nature may form the subject of a further discussion later on. For the moment let it suffice to say that this consciousness of the Ego and the non-Ego, the seer and the thing seen, the knower and the thing known, is blotted out.
There is usually an intense light, an intense sound, and a feeling of such overwhelming bliss that the resources of language have been exhausted again and again in the attempt to describe it. (13)

It was hard not to be intrigued by these passages. Making my forays into meditation, I had experiences that more closely resembled heightened sensory states. I did not encounter the bliss that Crowley described here. I continued out of the possibility that these states were only the beginning. I could feel the effect of the practice as time passed, and I began to feel less anxious, more peaceful, and better able to cope with the stress of life.

As I discussed in my previous article, the floodgates truly opened for a brief time of around a month, and I had began to have increasingly pleasurable states. In the midst of everything that was happening they were confusing and disruptive. Even after things had subsided and I returned to my normal routines, something has happened with the practice and I’ve become much more aware of my own approaches to pleasure. These are not limited to meditative bliss. Instead, this change has become all-encompassing.

I’ve found that pleasurable sensations exert a kind of gravity and become bound up with our attitudes of them. In time, these attitudes come to reflect and reinforce them, masquerading as our own opinions and impeding us from changing them. We often repeat these behaviors endlessly, simply for the sake of repeating the behavior and without enjoyment.

Part of our culture is based on nurturing these feelings of anticipation and consumption. When we become addicted, an initial high is experienced and pursued, even though these sensations are ultimately unstable. In another post on awareness and developing meditative focus, we discussed the three marks of existence. In Buddhist terminology, these are defined as impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self. In examining pleasure and pain, we find these same qualities at work. A pleasurable sensation, for example, comes on, fluctuates across a certain spectrum, then degrades. All sensations are transient, and none can be a foundation.

I think we all realize how unsatisfactory this feels, attempting to pin our expectations on something so liquid. As focus improves, this makes more intuitive sense, and we notice these fluctuations more. There becomes little point to continuous pleasure or pain when they both change into the other. The more we comprehend that this is going on, the more we occupy a fulcrum between denial and excess. Buddhism often talks of a middle way, and this approach enjoys the pleasures of life while not turning them into something destructive and harmful. We are then entwined with a more judicious sense of pleasure.

The instability of pain and pleasure expands our capacity to enjoy beyond what we thought to be able. Rather than narrowly circling a few types of pleasure, once we see their impermanence, we can take increased delight in the broad palette of life’s experiences. Events unfold in their own way, and even what we consider unimportant has its own poetry in its expression. This includes the many small sensations in every day. All of these sensations contribute to the wonder and richness of this life. This is due to not making our usual hard-lined distinctions, which lies waiting in your own mind, ready to be unlocked by continuous awareness.

The Forge of the Path

Before we begin, I should clear up something that should have been discussed long ago. I am not an ordained teacher in any path. I have not been given permission to teach, nor do I have any experience involving students. My opinions are my own, based on years of meditative practice and research on myself. My writings should not be read as representative of any spiritual or religious tradition. They are given in the hopes that they might help people and give them some context for the spiritual and meditative paths if they are on them, or about to embark.

This context was something that was largely absent from my initial forays into meditation. I had begun to read books on the subject and made some tentative steps towards daily sitting. I did not begin going to my local Zen Center until later on. Due to my stubbornness, I had not studied intensively with a teacher.

Without knowing what I was in for, I persisted with meditation as it slowly began to change everything I thought to be true. I went on a short retreat, and began reading and studying even more. Eventually, I reached a point where something inside had reached critical mass, and I began a shocking and terrifying transition that would last for weeks.

This transition loomed and I entered what could only be described as total psychic meltdown. I seemed to experience a complete range of psychotic symptoms including panic attacks, sleeplessness, inability to eat, and agoraphobia. I also experienced a range of ancillary states, including oceanic feelings, overwhelming energy, and intense bliss. I began having suicidal impulses. I also became aware of what I sensed to be a primordial terror of some of the most recessed parts of myself.

These feelings are difficult to describe due to their intensely personal nature. Imagine someone cut open your heart of hearts so deeply that you could see every part of yourself inside. Every malicious and evil impulse came up for me to understand and process.  My lack of context did not serve me well in making this transition. Since my practice was largely self-referential, and I had not come across these experiences in my readings, I had no way to understand what was going on at that time.

I could no longer work, and lay in bed in fear. Somehow around this time I began to understand what was occurring inside me. I took up journaling, trying to put into words how I felt. It was like being on a bridge, with a drop into night below and darkness reaching up to touch the path on either side.

At this point I also began talking to teachers and psychotherapists, who all had different approaches to what was going on. My family was frightened for me, but was also genuinely caring and supportive. The teacher at the Zen Center referred to what was happening as a Crisis, and its associations of decay, collapse, and transformation stuck with me. He said that sometimes our self image is dropped in the practice, and sometimes it is burned away. This complemented what I was feeling at the time. As I did more research later on, I discovered how incredibly common this was for other practitioners.

Many traditions have described this phase in similar terms, with images of being forged, flayed, and remade. In this respect it becomes more than a mere metaphor, and describes an actual process of phase transition. The Crisis is a true test of our mettle, to allow us to open ourselves to all that is inside us, shattering our confines in the most painful of ways. The Crisis prepares us for an acknowledgement of our own freedom. It is our initial reactions and resistance against that freedom which cause us to enter some of the most protracted elements of the Crisis. The limited self we have built up only breaks down in its encounter with what is felt to be its other, as we digest these experiences.

I consider meditation and its associated trials to be some of the most significant events in my life. They healed me, returned my sense of freedom, prepared me for more fulfilling work in the world, and gave me the courage to try newer, creative endeavors. However, the Crisis is a frightening process, and sometimes people never return from it at all. In the book A Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism Reader, there is a brief discussion of mystical experience that very clearly emphases the dangers of these endeavors:

Our Rabbis taught. Four entered an orchard: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Asher [Elisha Ben Abuyah] and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them: When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say, ‘Water, water!’ For it is said, ‘He who speaks falsehood shall not be established before my eyes.’ (Ps. 101:7)
Ben Azzai gazed and died. Of him Scripture says: ‘Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.’ (Ps. 116:15). Ben Zoma gazed and was stricken. Of him Scripture says: ‘If you find honey, eat only what you need, lest you be overfilled with it and throw it up.’ (Prov. 25:16). Aher cut down the shoots. Rabbi Akiva departed in peace. (B. Hag. 14b) (34)

In his associated commentary, the author Daniel Horowitz elaborates:

Ben Azzai and Ben Zoma are damaged physically and psychologically by their visit to the pardes; and Elisha Ben Abuyah is understood to be spiritually damaged . . . One must be fully respectful of the Owner of the orchard before reaching and appreciating such heights. Because of this, not only is he not granted a full understanding of the pardes [the orchard], but he is led further astray into outright heresy . . . Only Rabbi Akiva was qualified, sufficiently mature, or had properly practiced the various aspects of the journey; only such a person was able to handle the experience and come back . . . Later mystics suggests that one who aspires to this experience must be willing to approach a ‘curtain of fire’ to merit consideration for admission to the inner sanctum. (Ibid., 36-37)

I would be remiss if I did not mention the specific dangers of meditation. A quick search of the internet reveals numerous articles on the subject that are worthy of time and attention. If you decide to meditate, read this literature first. Go and talk to meditation teachers in your area and see if they have had difficulties from their meditation. Even if you can find one to help lead you through the Crisis, it is still dangerous, with a unique path to the self, soul, and God that you must undergo yourself.

Tread carefully.

Heart/Mind Practice

We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.
– Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Your embodied practice is what separates an actual spirituality from intellectual exercise and speculation. It is the willingness to take risks and embark on turbulent seas towards something we’ve always been but haven’t known.

It is part of an ability to question everything and delve into what we have been taught to be true. Meditation aids us in this. It is a way to observe the body in a vivid and experiential way. Meditation brings up the frameworks, assumptions, and secret pains lying in wait within. Looking at the same tired cycles of behavior makes them seem less pressing; and things we took to be important are eventually seen through.

Meditation is a highly physical way of understanding yourself. Reading books on it and speaking with others are no substitute for it, although these are all important when joined to the practice itself. It would be the difference between reading books on a subject such as the Kabbalah, committing its many abstractions to memory, and climbing the tree of life towards union, seeing its concepts for yourself. Consistently returning to the cushion will convert it into lived experience.

We become better equipped to physically express the insight meditation offers the more we come back to it. Although a distinction between “inner” and “outer” is misleading, we can say that this insight has both an interior and exterior expression. The internal aspect is looking with clarity at ourselves. This is how we understand ourselves in a comprehensive and nuanced way. Our subjectivity is changed by our ability to take on the beneficial or harmful patterns we find. The external is the articulation of that interior choice. Although impulse and thought coalesce in many different ways for us, they may not bleed out into expression until we so choose.

In The Zohar, this choice is split in humans between good and evil. We are capable of great purity and defilement, depending on which position we decide. The harmful patterns we are capable of are expounded on as “the evil impulse” which defines every human since birth.

Rabbi Yehudah opened, ‘For He will command (mal’akhav), His angels, to guard you in all your ways’ (Psalms 91:11). This verse has been established: The moment a human being comes into the world, the evil impulse appears along with him, inciting him constantly, as is said: ‘At the opening sin crouches’ (Genesis 4:7) – evil impulse . . . who is called king, ruling over humanity in the world. ‘Old and foolish,’ for he is surely old, as already established, since as soon as a person is born, emerging into the atmosphere, he accompanies that person. So he is ‘an old and foolish king.’
– The Zohar, Pritzker Edition, Volume 3 Pages 1, 85-86

Seeing through the evil impulse, and how much of it we have in common with others, helps us become more adept at choosing for ourselves. We can learn from other people’s mistakes, fully commit to our own, and make more lucid decisions. Wiser decisions and more compassionate living require time and skill. This gets easier with repetition, and adds another dimension to the meaning of practice. Like any craft, we must throw ourselves in.

Meditation is open to anyone with the time to give it. This is truly an intriguing premise that displays spirituality’s egalitarian nature. In his landmark study Mysticism: Experience, Response, Empowerment, Jess Hollenback claims that what unites mystical traditions is a practice called recollection.

Recollection refers to that procedure wherein the mystic learns to focus one-pointedly his or her mind, will, imagination, and emotions on some object or goal. This focused total mobilization of the mystic’s affective and intellectual powers, if successfully carried out, eventually shuts down the incessant mental chattering that is normally present as a kind of background noise behind all our activities in the waking state. Once mystics stop this process of silently talking to themselves, they transform their mode of consciousness and begin to have their first tangible encounters with that spiritual world that otherwise remains imperceptible to the five senses.

The great saints of the past have been dedicated men and women who progressed humanity’s self-knowledge. They did so through a more complete understanding of themselves. They had a baseline of recollection which they used to develop that understanding. Our searching of their religious systems helps our own practice grow. What we find is that their religious and mystical insights can be applied by anyone who marries them to their own spiritual practice. This is what separates any artist: giving their methods time and room to grow.

A change in awareness greets those who can make meditative practice part of their lives. As that awareness changes, it reveals our own ability to change in turn. It also opens new doors back to the profound. Ultimately, our practice will be transmitted through everything we do in our lives. Our bodies will become that practice, and we can better compose each new movement, along with the communal truth which defines us all.

 

Of Itself So

From birth to death, it’s just like this!
-Zen Koan

So much of the spiritual path involves trying to escape, to spend ourselves on the rocks of effort, to transcend time and space. We want to escape to a place without sin and where we can live forever. The answer that eludes us lies encased in a journey to the top of an inner mountaintop, filled with dangerous excursions, roaming beasts, and the real potential of insanity. If only we can master instructions provided to us, the veil will finally lift and allow us into the sanctum. Then we will know the secret, or acquire magical powers, or ascend to whatever place we feel we need to get to.

This often begins the start of the religious journey. The false Teacher or Guru may only be too happy to give us what we think we want. Their eyes shine like a shark’s, full of sleek and ancient hunger. They tell us what they’ve discovered and how they can grant it to the elect. Instead, they’ve only scratched the surface of their own obsidian core. In order to fully realize ourselves, we have to look squarely and intensely at our own desires, including the desire for enlightenment. It is this desire which spurs us on, eventually to be undermined as we look at the assumptions that motivate our seeking.

In philosophy, the word immanence is invoked in contrast to the idea of transcendence. Rather than any external, reality manifests through itself. Immanence is reality as it is here, of itself so.

It is difficult to find the right language to describe the relationship between dao and human beings. The dao is not external, so it is not a matter of getting or reaching it, and it is not an object that could be grasped. Since the self-so spontaneity to which dao refers is always present, what is required is a negative process of removing obstacles. Ziran is what remains if we free ourselves from striving and conventional goals. Thus this same process is described as wuwei 無為, which literally means “lacking action” but refers to giving up striving and effort. The Zhuangzi gives another example, the “fasting of the heart/mind” (xinzhai 心齋) that allows us to rely directly on vital energy (qi) and respond spontaneously to whatever appears before us.
– The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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A religious teacher worthy of our time will help us explore reality for ourselves. Any claims should be greeted with investigation on our part. It is time we acknowledge that religious teachers are not chosen or above us. They have developed their own unique genius and can show us how to do this too. We merely invest ourselves in them, hoping for an answer even though we all remain in the dark.

The idea of a chosen few is an all too convenient narrative that works at cross purposes with the religious experience. It not only brings up the forces and structures that prevent us from accessing our own liberation. It changes us from constantly seeking something which does not include us, or which we lack and must possess, to dwelling in the thatness which is all things. This feeling is of an incredible span of intelligence which is part of all things and occupies the same ground. This incredibly subtle feeling continues as we meditate, until we find ourselves always “in the hand of the absolute.”

This is a problem with religions that claim we have to absorb baffling and complex ideas. Instead, they point our own reality back at us, “through a speculum that shines.” Seeing this completely has little to do with the opinions of others, let alone our own. How could the multiplicity of perspective, feeling, and the beyond be limited to the thoughts of our stinking skin bag?

The realization of the Buddhist patriarchs is perfectly realized real form . . . What has been called ‘forms as they are‘ is not a single form, and form as it is is not a uniform reality as it is: it is countless, boundless, inexhaustible, and unfathomable reality as it is.
– Eihei Dogen, Shoho-Jisso (69)

This is not an answer that can be taken by force, but attuned to closely as it is given freely. It is also not an answer that we can look to as separate from anything we do. We can see everything, let it unfold, and realize that unfolding. The moment is inextricable with all that you are. Look to it, and its profundity, as the ground from which you spring, like a tree erupting forth from space itself. It is just like this, the mysterious Dao, the powers of chopping wood and carrying water that no one understands.

Void Diagrammatics – Nagarjuna

 

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When one link has been stopped, the link that follows does not manifest. And thus the mass of suffering itself is brought completely to an end.
– Mulamadhyamakakarika      

The human mind is capable of amazing feats of organization and complication. The concepts it utilizes permit a wide range of abstract thought. By abstracting, labeling, and categorizing, this mind is capable of making new and ever more refined behaviors. This ability has proven to be incredibly useful for humans in crafting adaptive cultures.

However, we also pay a price for this ability. Firmly situated in our concepts and traditions, we confuse our ideas with the cast of the absolute. Much of our thinking is influenced by an uncertain bedrock of habit and culture. Personal and collective madness ensues when we treat our projections as the sole criterion with which to judge reality. We become enamored by our thought and unable to assume other perspectives.

In the Zen Buddhist tradition, there is a strong emphasis on personal investigation. What happens when every belief, word, and thought goes under the chopping block? Through frequent study and interrogation, the student can discover a lack of any fundamental anchor for existence, referred to in Buddhism as emptiness. Emptiness is elaborated on in the writings of Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna’s philosophy is a sustained and penetrating inquiry into how humans understand reality. His works are a firestorm that raze our cherished gods to the ground.

According to the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism:

Nagarjuna . . . Spoke of a middle way between the extremes of existence and nonexistence, sometimes also referred to as the middle way between the extremes of permanence (Sasvatanta) and annihilation (Ucchedanta). For Nagarjuna, the ignorance (Avidya) that is the source of all suffering is the belief in Svabhava, a term that literally means ‘own being’ and has been variously rendered as ‘intrinsic existence’ and ‘self-nature.’ This belief is the mistaken view that things exist autonomously, independently, and permanently . . . His approach generally is to consider the various ways in which an entity could exist, and then demonstrate that none of these is tenable because of the absurdities that would be entailed thereby . . . The purpose of such an analysis is to destroy misconceptions (Vikalpa) and encourage the abandonment of all views (Drsti). (562)

His analysis is found in one of his classic works, The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika). Nagarjuna is a guide through the strange lands outside opinion, which he shows by way of meticulous critique. He removes the rigid underpinnings of thought, including such dualisms as self/other and observer/observed. Nagarjuna creates a chain reaction, and shows how liberatory consequences follow as we strip the concepts we use to the bone. An excellent example of the type of dialogue Nagarjuna uses is found in a lengthy examination of categories in “An Examination of the Aggregates”:

Separate from the cause of form, no form is found. Separate from the so-called form, the cause of form also does not appear.
If, separate from the cause of form, there were a form, this form would be by consequence without a cause. But something that’s without a cause is nowhere to be found.
If, separate from a form, there were a cause of form, this cause would be a cause without effect. But causes that have no effects do not exist.
If form exists, a cause of form is unacceptable. If form does not exist, the cause of form is likewise unacceptable.
Forms bereft of causes are untenable, indeed they are! And thus concerning forms, conceive no concepts of whatever kind.
To say the fruit is like the cause is unacceptable. To say the fruit’s unlike the cause is also unacceptable.
With feelings and perceptions, conditioning factors, consciousness, with all things, and in all respects, apply the same procedure as with form.
In arguments concerning emptiness, all statements made to counter it are not replies at all, for they exemplify the thesis to be proved.
When emptiness is set forth and explained, all statements made to show its faults, reveal no faults at all. For they exemplify the thesis to be proved. (Root Stanzas of the Middle Way, 15-16, Padmakara Translation Group)

Nagarjuna is providing us with a way of analyzing concepts, and showing how this can be used across all of language. Nagarjuna often begins with a category we typically use, in this case “form.” He shows how attempting to separate the words “form” and “cause” leads to disastrous consequences. There cannot be an independent form separate from the form/effect, which would be an acausal appearance from nothing. There also cannot be a cause that lurks “behind the scenes” without creating effects. Since he has shown that one cannot establish a preexisting cause for form, or an independent form without a cause, he goes on to eliminate other concepts that are linked to form in a similar way. This goes on throughout the Mulamadhyamakakarika, as Nagarjuna shows that even our most carefully constructed foundations are hewn from rotten wood.

It becomes clear from this type of analysis that these categories are socially useful for communication, but do not accurately capture the character of what we experience. Binary relationships allow us to sketch maps of reality, distilled into simplistic chains of concepts that allow the human mind to organize cause and effect. These concepts are easy prey for Nagarjuna’s wide-ranging explorations, as he uses linguistic tools against themselves, logically analyzing these conceptual maps and showing their inadequacy.   In an empty reality, everything mutually links with something else for its own conditions, and no phenomena can live an independent existence. We ascribe far more importance to our beliefs and preferences than they are entitled. We also habitually treat ourselves as if we are independent and try to manipulate reality accordingly.

Defilements, actions, and embodied beings; agents and the fruits of action are like cities of gandharvas. They’re like mirages or dreams. (Ibid., 58)

When we hold our assumptions rigidly, we create suffering. Part of Buddhist insight is to see into our own minds and how we create many of our own problems. It is our inability to notice the conceptual and meaning-making processes of our own minds that contribute to further suffering. Since no life escapes suffering, the way that we relate to it has important consequences. Nagarjuna’s texts are revolutionary in their ability to undermine what we think we know. Once we  have ceased attaching to our beliefs as intrinsic aspects of reality, we no longer have to suffer when things inevitably change. We also connect with the universe in ways that cut much deeper than superficial beliefs.

All human beings without exception are in reality homeless. It’s a mistake to think we have a solid home. – Kodo Sawaki, The Zen Teaching of Homeless Kodo (13) 

Humans have no unyielding position or identity in a changing reality. With practice at pushing our own beliefs and personal limits, we find an existence that does not accept reductive interpretations. Repeated observation and analysis yields a reality that does not conform to any concept we utilize.

The more I meditate, the more I feel that all language dissolves, and any kind of category feels like a mere shadow, a construct of a mind that cannot help but try to divide and conquer. Nagarjuna liberates us from our own minds, and in collapsing its edifice, he helps to reconnect us to everything.

Re/activity

One of the keystones of meditative practice is an awareness of our habitual, encoded behaviors. These habits remain enshrouded in our past until we pay attention to the influence they exert on our lives. Although pervasive, there remain important openings through these kind of influences, including meditation. Once we become increasingly aware of ourselves, our meditative practice can truly take root.

One of the first openings I experienced in meditation was perceiving the continuous loop of thought. Without any intervention on our part, thought continuously propagates itself. The mind frequently calculates, fantasizes, and attempts to gain advantage. Thought has both verbal and physical components for us, which tend to follow and merge into one another. They influence and reinforce each other in countless ways. This means that thoughts arise out of emotion, expressing the content of those feelings, and vice versa. If we leave our thought alone, it tends to engage with itself instead.

Once I understood this more concretely, I noticed thoughts that budded off of other thoughts, establishing a separate internal dialogue. That dialogue was integrated with a desired self-image.  A negative thought was quickly countered with a positive one. This created a strange dissonance, as both thoughts were equally valid but I attempted to identify with one more strongly than the other as “myself.” The less desirable thoughts were encapsulated out. As my body reflected on itself, it attempted to establish a bulwark against any perceived negativity. That negativity was tied to some of my deepest fears and anxieties.

This internal dividing line we create is completely arbitrary. That was surprising, since I viewed my thoughts as produced by a self, and that those thoughts reflected who I really was.  Watching thoughts merely arise, expend themselves, and disappear on their own helped cause a complete restructuring of my understanding.

Both of these experiences began to loosen the hold that these sensations had. We tend to perceive these thoughts and sensations in sequential patterns, and then extrapolate from that perceived regularity. This pattern recognition helps our bodies make sense of how we describe ourselves to others and in our thoughts. We also do this with other people, and part of the social dialogue is an ascribing of attributes to others in the community. We circumscribe people with this image, which tends to narrow our focus and causes us to react accordingly.  Reacting to people as an abstraction is problematic, and we discard people’s (and our own) deep spontaneity.

Instead of merely taking whatever arises and engaging with it unquestioningly, we learn to sit with everything. Although this is a start to a long journey, this basic insight remains a crux of meditative practice. It allows us to see our tendencies and act against our own grain. Since we have learned how to sit with everything that comes up in our meditation sessions, we do not have to establish any kind of internal or external dividing line. We can see through these as needed. On a more integrated level, we are able to focus, pull back, and learn what these feelings reveal.

Knowing how the mind structures itself is part of understanding the human experience. With frequent meditation, we can displace our reactivity out of any given situation. Our reactivity is often simply a part of our own desire to be right and our habitual patterns of thinking. In letting these drop, we can listen with our whole body to what is being expressed. That often reveals a more beneficial path for ourselves and others. And when we see through our reactivity, we come much closer to an authentic compassion. Seeing the ways that we all become lost in our programming fashions us that much closer together.

Noticing this connective tissue with others allows us to see things in a much clearer light. Finding ways out of blind reactivity is something we can offer all beings, and show them different paths to take within themselves.

The Collective, The Expanse, and the Imagination of Earth

Welcome to the churn.
– The Expanse

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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

God In the Limitless

One of the main questions that I had when I became involved in meditative practice was: what is truth? Many of the books I had read involved the author’s questioning of truth, and their eventual discovery of an answer that satisfied them. I had reached a point in my life where old patterns no longer served. They had once promised new perspectives and fresh ideas, but had turned desolate in the process. I could see that there was no longer anything for me down those roads. I took up meditation as a way of striking out along an unfamiliar path, grasping at possible answers to questions I wasn’t even aware that I had. A desire to know seemed to permeate every cell, and the practice seemed to catalyze itself further than I could have imagined.

As the practice evolved, other questions arose that seemed equally important. Since meditation gives us an additional perspective on religious writing and symbolism, books looking at the question of God took on further meaning for me. They began to resonate more, provoking feelings that I feel are very much in tune with religious experiences throughout human history.

For me, the experience of God is very closely tied to our own experience. Since meditation often encourages us to look closer at our own reality, it is connected in a meaningful way with the experience of God. We use words like “everyday” experience as if that experience is somehow ordinary, instead of deeply strange and mysterious. A glance at our own experience yields something impossibly deep.

As a simple example for contemplation, look at the skin of your own hand. See each individual cell forming larger patterns and their uniqueness from each other. Notice the cells and hairs making up your limbs and the veins coursing down them. Keep going, noting the pulsations of breath, the feeling of the diaphragm expanding and contracting, and every detail of your vision now coming into focus. Keep going farther outward, noticing as much as possible. You are one part of the universe but an incredibly complex one, and it is just the beginning.

One can do this on any level: the hidden ecosystems within the ground, the shifting appearance of water on a lake, the waves of light across a field, and the varied expressions on other human faces in conversation. These all merge into each other, generating even more complexity. You can keep doing this until it clarifies the singular nature of this “ordinary” experience we so often take for granted.

What is the basis for this? All explanations in this regard seem to fall short for me. Any explanation, whether scientific, spiritual, and so on, seem to miss the point: the mystery of existence. Why should any explanation exist at all?

Who or what is the eye? The eyes that look out into clear sky and that fathom the depths are an eye emerging out of mysterious reality. The organism that is you grows out of universal processes so complex they have yet to be fully understood. It senses and feels, growing through the layers of reality, taking a breath from outside the womb, somehow conceiving “I am me.”

It seems as if all our actions enter into a contingent, diverse, and dynamic reality. Your own thoughts, fears, neuroses, hatreds, and the richness of your human experience all emerge out of this existence. I think that reality is what words such as God are trying to indicate to us. We cannot get too caught up on establishing an eternal definition of God. When you try to conceptualize God, you try to limit it. Instead, it seems that God pushes and pulls at itself, generating and inhabiting spaces; moving away from arbitrary definitions.

To honor God is to appreciate our place in that vastness. It is to sense the wonder of existence and to make the most of this unique, improbable opportunity. It is to know that our own movements contribute to the shape of “the world that is coming.” And that movement is joined to something much larger than what we feel to be ourselves. Perhaps your life is the life of God and of the universe.

Attention, Suffering, and Refining Our Practice

When we begin a spiritual practice such as meditation, we begin a process of refining our attention. By examining reality over and over again, we strip away the overly simplistic narratives we tell ourselves. We also undermine our uncertain bedrock of habit and convention.  Casting these narratives aside, we enter into the guts of the situation and work fully with complexity.

Without the crutches of ego, we come to realize our own pain. This pain is not necessarily physical. It is more of an existential grief, tied to our own mutability and the problematic nature of human existence. It is also closely related to our own transient nature. We share this pain and finitude with others. This grief is something we may actively try to avoid. Even meditation cannot provide the permanent states we seek. At some point, the multiplicity of suffering becomes apparent.

If we only associate the spiritual with bliss, this may feel like the removal of the divine from our lives. St. John of the Cross refers to this state in his work The Dark Night as “the knowledge of self and of one’s own misery.” (The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 385). He elaborates:

The glad night and purgation causes many benefits even though to the soul it seemingly deprives it of them. So numerous are those benefits that, just as Abraham made a great feast on the day of his son Issac’s weaning [Gn. 21:8], there is rejoicing in heaven that God has now taken from this soul its swaddling clothes; that he has put it down from his arms and is making it walk alone; that he is weaning it from the delicate and sweet food of infants and making it eat bread with crust; and that the soul is beginning to taste the food of the strong (the infused contemplation of which we have spoken), which in these sensory aridities and darkness is given to the spirit that is dry and empty of the satisfactions of sense. (Ibid., 385)

Couched in this experience of pain is a tremendous opportunity. It is an opportunity to truly grow spiritually. Through an understanding of the multiple dimensions of suffering, we no longer cling to distorted views of spiritual practice. True spiritual practice is to acknowledge and engage with whatever is happening in the present. If we seek only pleasurable sensations, we deny the numerous and rich dimensions of life.

The stakes are high for this kind of investigation. Since there is no life that escapes suffering, the way we relate to it has important consequences. To hone our practice in this sense is to move ever closer to our own suffering, see how often we act from it, and actively change our states of affairs. As all other life undergoes suffering, so action becomes our primary focus towards others. In lessening other’s pain and sorrow, we lessen our own in turn.

This is to experience and connect to the limitless god, in which our freedom to feel, experience, and act with intention lead us towards deepening involvement with the divine.