Showing posts with label Meditation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Meditation. Show all posts

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Religion is....

...the vision of something which stands beyond, behind and within the passing flux of immediate things; something which is real, and yet waiting to be realised; something which is a remote possibility and yet the greatest of present facts; something that gives meaning to all that passes and yet eludes apprehension; something whose possession is the final good and yet is beyond all reach; something which is the ultimate ideal, and the hopeless quest.

A N Whitehead, quoted by James le Fanu

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Realization and Experience

I am one of the many people who set out to be what is now often called ‘spiritual but not religious’ (SBNR). We are those who turned away from regular religions - in my case, the Anglicanism of my upbringing, in a generally non-religious family and social milieu.

Like others of my generation, I ‘experimented with hallucinogens’ and had vivid spiritual experiences under their influence. I also had a number of spiritual ‘encounters’ or ‘experiences’ in my early teens. By the time I was 17 I was convinced in the reality of ‘the spiritual path’ and the fact that I was on it; in fact I wrote many songs about it.

As the years past I discovered meditation, first through a secular, New Age-y  ‘awareness-training’ group, and then through Buddhist meditation. Buddhism became a major influence and interest, and in my later years I ‘took refuge’ formally, and undertook meditation retreats. I now sit in meditation every morning.

Which brings me to the point of this post. Part of the SBNR mentality was not to ‘believe’ but to ‘trust experience’. Because there were such things as spiritual experiences - and having had them, I knew this to be true - the idea was, not just to ‘believe’ in religion, but to ‘know the truth which sets you free’. One of my first songs put it this way:

Just look hard for the truth that’s inside you
Let the spirit guide you
You can cut all the ties that bind you
And be free....


Of course, life has its way of imposing lessons on you. Over the many years, ‘being spiritual’ turned out not to be so easy after all. I was never a ‘disciplined yogi’ type of individual.  Furthermore, there turned out to be a real conundrum about this ‘spiritual experience’ idea, which is this: if you practice meditation, never under any circumstances, pursue experiences! And if they happen, you are to disregard them!

Right. So, the idea is, you train yourself to sit in the customary yoga pose. You are mindful of your breath and body, you don’t let your mind wander, and you stay like this, for 45 minutes. Actually, this is a difficult thing to do. Almost anything is better than doing that - particularly sleeping in, but many other things come to mind.

Nevertheless, I persisted. And actually, even though this might sound contrary, it ‘paid off’, right from the outset. What began to happen early in the piece were episodes of bliss, and also feelings of compassion. These things, though subtle and inward, were definitely ‘spiritual experiences’. But at the same time, ‘life goes on’.  There were times my commitment waned, sometimes for a long while.  I discovered that, like many things, progress required commitment - and a particularly selfless type of commitment, too. The whole idea was to ‘practice with no selfish gaining idea’, without trying to ‘get something’. Of course this is completely counter-intuitive, insofar as if you train for something, you usually are going to get something from it. But the whole thing with this training is to relinquish any sense of personal accomplishment or gain.

So, after many years of this, suddenly I realize that just to do this is, in a sense, being religious or at any rate, being devoted.  Because getting up, sitting, chanting, and studying, simply for the very sake of doing it, is the meaning of the word ‘devotion’.  I am still no paragon of virtue. But now, I am beginning to understand the attitudes of my religious forbears - they were all Christian, of course, while I am Buddhist  - but I really understand their kind of religiosity, their devotion, and why they would commit to their faith. It is nothing like what the 'secular critics of religion' imagine it to be; and actually if it were, I would never practice it. But it is also difficult. When one sets out to be 'spiritual but not religious', the rationale is that one is steered by, guided by, experience, as opposed to 'dogmatic beliefs'. But then, in Soto Zen, which is the kind of approach I have, you are advised not to seek experiences, but to simply be aware of whatever arises.   I can't imagine that the Christian way of life would be so very different to this. In practice, it is very similar.  Of course, if I were Christian, I would say it is 'the relationship with Christ'. The Buddhist perspective provides a different framework. Whether it is the same or different, I guess one can never know. But it is real, of that I have no doubt, and I do believe it is all from the same source.

That said, I have never wanted to see myself as a ‘believer’. As far as I am concerned, ‘belief’ is only the willingness to consider that right conduct, meditation, and so on, are beneficial and give rise to positive states of being, and point you towards Nirvana. But in practice, 'a believer' is how ‘non-believers’ would see me, I suppose.  But at this point, I want to more committed to it. Meditation really is ‘giving yourself’ for that whole length of time. If you do that, it re-organizes your personality around a different principle altogether. It is a real and profound thing in your life, if you let it be that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Life eternal - it's nothing personal

I am of the view that 'the eternal life' is a reality, and the central concern of all of the various spiritual faiths and philosophies. It is obviously central to the New Testament, but it is also represented in the Pali Canon, in passages such as these:

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying in Savatthi, at the Eastern Gatehouse. There he addressed Ven. Sariputta: "Sariputta, do you take it on conviction that the faculty of conviction, when developed & pursued, gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its goal & consummation? Do you take it on conviction that the faculty of persistence... mindfulness... concentration... discernment, when developed and pursued, gains a footing in the Deathless, has the Deathless as its goal and consummation?"

But 'the deathless' does not refer to the life of 'the person'. It is not as if the person, or the personality, is preserved for an infinite duration of time. There is a very real sense in which the 'eternal' is outside of time, not 'an interminable period of time'. This is altogether impossible for the mortal mind to envisage or imagine, however this is the realm that the Buddha has entered into.

Nirvana, for which 'The Deathless' is another name, is the extinction of the ego. This doesn't mean simple non-existence, but higher being. This is why the Buddha is called 'Tathagatha', 'gone thus'. That which is eternal is 'the supreme identity', the immortal spirit which is our real being - the buddha-nature, in some Buddhist traditions. Through discernment, as the Buddha says, this being can be realized, and when realized, then there is liberation from death through attaining an identity that is greater than that of the mortal body.

This is also expressed in Christianity, when Jesus said: 'He that looses his life for My sake will be saved' [Matt 16:25].  This was also exemplified in His own self-sacrifice.

You might say 'but this is a type of impersonal monism'. But just as the eternal is revealed in the particular, so the spirit is made real in the form of one who has transcended the ego. This is the universal message of the spiritual philosophies of the world.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Establishing and maintaining a spiritual practice

Sitting Meditation
With regards to sitting meditation, one of the best things I have done is buy an hourglass that runs for almost 50 minutes. I bought it a couple of years back, but it has taken till now to be patient enough to maintain the meditation position for that period of time.

I know that when I sit in meditation, I am learning something great. If you asked what exactly it is, I really could not say. It defies analysis or rationalization. Nothing much happens on the conscious level - no experiences or visions or anything of the kind. Every so often I will notice a real sense of quietude - but that is all. But afterwards, during the day, things happen. Currently, it usually manifests as a sense of joy, which seemingly bubbles up out of nowhere, for no reason. Also many of the things I read and reflect about in the Buddhist teachings become more clear. I understand the meaning of the word 'realization': you begin to understand things about the nature of life that the ordinary thinking mind doesn't see, because it is pre-occupied with its own affairs. This is quite simple but nevertheless very important. Some things are indeed 'hidden in plain sight', as that lovely saying has it.

This is the purpose the study of the philosophy behind meditation. Even though the realization itself concerns something unknown and unknowable, the task of philosophy is to take you to that point - to drop you at the border, as it were. It does this by making you really clear about the nature and the limitations of knowledge. This is especially so with Madhyamika philosophy.

I still have to push myself to get up every morning and sit - self-discipline has never been my strong suit -  but overall, I am feeling a much greater sense of connection to the Buddhist teachings now than ever before, and I know if I stay with the practice this will only continue to grow. So this will form the theme of this blog from now on.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Belief and Believing

I write as someone with a long-standing interest in religious and spiritual philosophies. I generally argue against materialism, which means I am usually understood as being 'religious'.  But I am also not aligned with mainstream religion, as my general philosophy is informed more by comparative religion and meditational practices.

The point of this post is to consider ideas about 'believing'. Nowadays it is just automatically assumed that if you're religious, you're 'a believer'. Religion and belief are practically the same thing in most people's minds. The main belief that religious people are supposed to have is that there is a God - and much else flows from that. This belief, furthermore, is understood to be something that can never be demonstrated to be true. So in the popular mind, religion is almost always assumed to amount to 'belief in something which can never shown to be real'. In fact, many people assume that this is what the word 'religion' means. They will often say, 'I don't have beliefs', meaning 'I am not religious'.

However through Eastern philosophies - manly Yoga-Vedanta, and Buddhism - there are different approaches to the whole question. These approaches are based on experience and insight. This insight comes about spontaneously for some people, but for others requires long periods of meditative discipline, along with reading, discussion, and contemplation. It is religious in a sense, but quite different to the above-mentioned belief-based approach.

In these types of schools, belief is certainly required, in that, you have to be willing to take the time to really go into the questions and do the practices. But what comes out of it is a realization. 'Realization' has two meanings: one is to 'understand something that has previously not been understood' and another is to 'make something real'.  Realization contains both meanings. Through it, we begin to understand something about the way things really are; and our way of living actually begins to reflect this understanding.

Another key difference with this approach is that, where belief is something that can be easily manipulated through organisational power structures, individual realization is quite an autonomous process. In other words, if you can become established in it, you really can become a light unto yourself, rather than someone who is dependent upon a dogmatic belief system to give them a sense of identity and direction. This has a lot of implications for the way 'religion' is conducted in the world. In fact, I think the whole tendency of the 'Eastern' approach is about empowering the individual search for truth, rather than subordinating the individual to the organisational dogma.

The Case of Fr Anthony de Mello is an interesting illustration of this. A Jesuit and psychotherapist, Fr De Mello became an inspirational spiritual teacher and wrote many popular books on the spiritual path. He thought himself part of the Catholic Faith, however his books were subject to caution - short of outright condemnation - by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (what used to be known as 'the Inquisition'.) The caution was based on the fact that Fr De Mello's ecumenical and universalistic approach was incompatible with Catholic dogma. Nevertheless, his books remain popular with progressive Catholics.


There are have been thousands of such cases, and not only in Catholicism.  Most of the antagonism against religion is directed against dogmatic and authoritarian institutions. So it is interesting to reflect that there is a kind of 'natural spirituality' that is not part of any particular religious structure or authority. This also shows up Dzogchen, Zen, and Sufism, among other things. So it is important if you want to understand the wider spectrum of spiritual philosophy, to understand that it is not at all simply a matter of believing what you're told. The Great Way is broad enough to accomodate many different types of seekers.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Nothing that is Everything

I have been a long-time meditation practitioner, for around 30 years. (In itself, that is no big deal, when anyone gets to my age they will have been doing a lot of things for 30 years.) But I have stuck with this practice, and it has changed the way I see the world - for the better. The nature of this change is very simple. But it is a real shift in perspective, which has many interesting consequences for philosophy.

Different Cognitive Modes

Meditation gives rise to a different mode of cognition. What is 'a mode of cognition'? I think the term was actually coined by Edward Debono, with his well-known technique of the Six Thinking Hats

This is a planning tool where you look at a problem from a number of different perspectives:
* Information: (White) - considering purely what information is available, what are the facts?
* Emotions (Red) - instinctive gut reaction or statements of emotional feeling (but not any justification)
* Bad points judgment (Black) - logic applied to identifying flaws or barriers, seeking mismatch (and so on).

Now in many arguments with proponents of scientific philosophy, I notice that they and I are actually talking from different premisses - or wearing different hats.  The meditative attitude actually creates a different way of processing information - literally a different way of thinking. It is not about a set of scientific hypothesis, but about a different way-of-being. So we are not actually arguing or debating at all, but talking from 'different worlds'.

A consequence of meditative awareness is dissolution of the sense of separate self or ego. But this is a subtle thing. It gives rise to a different kind of thinking and being-in-the-world which gives rise to a sense of peace, contentedness and also relatedness.

(There has been a lot of research done on it, and 'effects of meditation' are measurable and specific, in terms of brain-wave patterns, and parts of the brain associated with compassion and holistic ways-of-being. I will provide some links if anyone is interested.)

So - what's the point? The point is this style of thinking gives rise to a very different way of relating to the world. Fundamentally, it is much more oriented around a kind of subtle emotional connection to life, rather than analytical problem-solving skills. This is not to disparage the analytical style of thinking, because it is essential for many tasks. But the analytical mind can't actually operate in this 'cognitive mode'. In fact the analytical mind doesn't even comprehend this other mode; it appears as nothing to it.

As a consequence, in many debates I am trying to get a point across about 'the nature of being'. One of the philosophical consequences of meditation, and the absence of a separate self, is that fact that we are basically all one, in the sense that I am no different and not separate from others. I can 'stand in their shoes' to some extent. This is very much associated with Buddhist meditation, in particular, but it subtly changes your appreciation of the nature of being itself.

This 'mode of being', however, is not anything objective. It can't be located anywhere or found through analytical thinking. Essentially one begins to realize that this being is 'never an object'. But analytical thought can only think in terms of objects. For it, nothing exists but objects, and if it can't be described in objective terms, well, then, it isn't there. Simply doesn't exist - you're talking about nothing.

But actually, once you understand it, it is 'the nothing that is everything' - and it is a marvellous thing.

"It is not existent - even the Victorious Ones do not see it.
It is not nonexistent - it is the basis of all samsara and nirvana.
This is not a contradiction, but the middle path of unity.
May the ultimate nature of phenomena, limitless mind beyond extremes, be realised."

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Necessity of Dharma

One meaning of Dharma is 'duty'. It is what calls upon us, what leads us to do what may not be easiest, most convenient, or most pleasurable, but which is most important.

A life well lived requires sacrifice, something which causes you to overcome your own selfish impulses and serve the greater good. Dharma is that principle. Without such a principle, how can you guide your actions? Dharma is like the thread on which all of the moments of your life are suspended, to create a coherent shape.

People may be cynical about religion, but what principle will they replace it with, if they get rid of it? Certainly one's inherited drives do not often carry you towards the best of all possible outcomes. Why bother doing good, or being good, if there is no good? 

I think this is why the teaching about Dharma always calls for a lot of effort. Left to one's own wishes and devices, one is likely to pursue pleasure and comfort, rather than what is most needed. Simple fact, but important.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Commitment and Regularity

For a long time now I have been telling myself to commit to sitting in meditation twice every day. But I often don't. I guess I could say 'well obviously this path is not for me, I better do something else'. But I feel I have to persist with it.

There is something at work in Buddhist meditation, other than simply one's ability to discipline oneself, or lack thereof. I think it is a mistake to think that the results come from effort. All you're doing, when you sit, is allowing mindfulness to do its work. By sitting, you are basically getting out of the road. You are not doing anything, in fact you are not-doing. That is the whole point. But not-doing is very difficult. Self likes to be busy, always doing its things, whatever they are. They may not be anything unwholesome, but one doesn't want to get taken away from them.

This is why I notice, from time to time, that if I really do make an effort to sit, I discover things, and things happen. It is not like action-and-result. It is like creating a space for these things to happen. And it is really important to maintain the practise, and make yourself observe it, if this is the path you have chosen. You will find a lot of reasons not to do it, but then days, months, years will pass, and at the end, you won't have applied the antidote, and you will still be wandering around in samsara.

Buddhism is a path of effort. The effort is not superhuman, and the result is not caused by your own willpower. There is something else that does the work. But you need to put the effort in to allow the work to be done. Otherwise, it won't be.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Meditation in the Mainstream

Meditation -  and Buddhist meditation in particular - is becoming scientificially respectable and part of the mainstream. Coming out of the work of people like B Allan Wallace, Daniel Goleman, and others, there will be the 'scientific validation' of 'meditative states as ways to focus attention'. This is already happening.  And it sidesteps and bypasses the whole Cultural Wars story, because 'spirituality' in this sense, is neither religious, nor scientific. It will be, and already is, quite 'fashionable' in the elite circles of the humanities, arts and sciences. This will create a big change in cultural outlook. See this current title for an example. (I would buy it, but have yet to finish the big pile of Buddhist books I have recently acquired from Amazon and elsewhere. See also this interview for more about the author of that text.)

Friday, May 1, 2009

Being persistent

I have had a couple of days of severe doubt. Doubt is amazingly convincing - it comes right up to you, and then it is you, it becomes so convincing and real that it just seems like the natural choice.

The doubt says - forget about this practise, this idea of trying to persist in meditation, you are not any good at it, you are very inconsistent and not really committed. Besides, it belongs to another age, another type of person, it won't work for you...

And so on. But then Faith re-asserted itself again ('faith' in the Buddhist sense, which is not faith in miracles or in truths that can't be demonstrated.) And it said: you need to persist, you keep talking yourself out of this before you have really done it. You know that if you do the work, you will see the result. But it is a struggle, has always been a struggle.

Back to restlessness - really what this is, is the non-purity of your own mind. It is the constant, low-level hankering and non-satisfaction, the inability to simply rest easy and be still. Very simple principle but hard to realise. This is the discipline of daily practise - to learn to be still, without expectation, without wanting to get something, without going anywhere. Because then it is just sublimated desire and more illusion.
And another thing - the practise has to be guided by compassion first and foremost. I do notice from a lot of the reading I do, that it is very easy to form romantic or misleading ideas or to become intellectual about it. The whole point is to be open to compassion. There is no other point or purpose.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Neither objective nor subjective

Most empirically-focused individuals will criticize the meditation practitioner for 'subjectivity'. Their concern is, after all, the world of objects and substances and things to be measured, discovered and analysed. So they are inclined to say, anything you can discover through meditation is personal, subjective, it only relates to you.

This would be true if, in fact, meditation were not a way of overcoming subjectivity. In analysing the sensations, perceptions, etc, which give rise to the sense of self, the practitioner is going beyond subjectivity. As one's reflexive selfishness loosens its grip through the awakening of insight, one is obviously less subjective, because one is not as dominated by 'me and mine'. 


But nor is he or she dealing with objective facts, per se. All this shows up is the limitation of the idea of 'objective versus subjective'. At the end of the day, all knowledge and experience is both objective and subjective. The object is what is known, the subject as the knower possesses the cognitive faculties which synthesises all the information and knows about the object. In self-knowledge, the knower and the known are one, but this does not mean that it is subjective.  

Maybe this is what the traditions mean by 'disinterestedness' or 'detachment' - namely, insight into the workings of the self, without self-interest. And here you have something that answers to the term 'wisdom'.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Believer or Non-believer

I was watching a presentation about the Dalai Lama just now, and he said something he often says, which I think is worth reflecting on. He said 'Believer or non-believer, compassion is a most important quality in the human heart. Whether you are a religious believer or not, compassion is very important.' Actually, the Dalai Lama often says this, and I think it is perfectly true. But the question is, without a spiritual path or practise - believer or not - how are you to realise it?