Images of Selflessness

Self is, ultimately, a mask, — no more than the mental concept we have of who and what we believe ourselves to be. Selflessness, in its mystical sense, is the label we give to the experience that arises when we no longer take the concept at face value. Once we recognize that we are not what we think we are—that we do not, in any conventional sense, exist—the world is transformed. The walls of separation come down, and the elaborate stratagems we once needed for self-defense are no longer necessary: there is no longer a self to defend. In the faces of others we see a reflection of our own being, and we begin to recognize a profound oneness with the rest of life. As this truth takes root in our awareness, the fear of death itself begins to fade, and nothing in our world remains the same. We see with new eyes.

Our daily experience as individuals is so concrete and seemingly undeniable in its reality that the idea of selflessness is very difficult to grasp or hold. It can seem unfathomable, even absurd, from the perspective of the everyday. Perhaps the metaphors offered below will reveal new ways to imagine this timeless conundrum.

Ticking Watch Listen to your watch tick for a moment. Now imagine trying to isolate the tick that you hear. If you took the watch apart one piece at a time, you would never find it, because the tick by itself does not exist. It is created by the interaction between the different elements of the watch. When the mechanism is disassembled, the tick disappears. Something similar happens when scientists look for the illusory self in the body or mind. Neuroscientists, biologists, physiologists, and psychologists have systematically examined and dissected the psychophysical organism for over a hundred years and have never been able to locate a self or a quantifiable source of consciousness. There is no scientific evidence to refute the mystical realization that the body and mind operate without any apparent direction. As the tick in the watch disappears when the timepiece is disassembled, the self cannot be found when the non-self parts are scrutinized one by one.

Hurricanes At certain times of the year, the hurricane and typhoon seasons begin in the oceans of the world. Weather forecasters watch for disturbances in water and air; when a storm system gains enough size and strength and definition, the forecasters give it a name, chart its progress, predict its path, and issue warnings. Then, just as quickly, the storm fades from the radar. Like the self, storms are processes devoid of any fixed or inherent entity. When the elements necessary for their arising coalesce, they appear to exist, and as those same causes and conditions drop away, the appearance dissolves.

Wavicle New Physicists coined the term wavicle to convey the fact that subatomic objects exhibit two very different properties, that of a “wave” and that of a “particle.” Since it was impossible to observe both properties at the same time, the off-and-on existence of an object proved to be dependent on the apparatus chosen for the experiment. In other words, it was the way the observer chose to measure it that determined what he or she saw. If the observer used one instrument to determine its location, the object appeared as a particle; if the observer chose a different instrument to calculate its speed, it behaved like a wave. This wave/particle phenomenon offers an interesting analogy for the nature of selflessness: the particle is like the self that exists in duality, while the wave represents nonduality, where no separate entity is “seen.” Just as the apparatus of observation determined whether an observer saw the wave or the particle, it is our apparatus of perception—our use of concepts to package what we experience—that reveals a world filled with “particles,” or separate entities, and most importantly the self. When we use intuition and insight to replace our dependence on thought, we can see the wave: we can awaken to an extraordinarily different reality, a world without boundaries. And in both cases, consciousness is key in determining what we experience. There is no preexisting reality “out there,” independent of the participant observer.

The Validity of Mystical Insight

The understanding we gain by mystical intuition transcends the dualistic mindset and goes straight to the heart of the mystery that characterizes human existence. And those who have true spiritual insights say that they require no proof, no verification. This has been true across millennia: they simply know. For the rest of us, though, there is ample reason to question. If knowledge based on others’ testimony alone cannot be proved or disproved, how can we distinguish it from dogma or the sort of unsubstantiated claims that proliferate in the New Age marketplace?

For those who as yet have no personal experience with the revelations of spiritual insight, perhaps the most convincing confirmation is the extraordinary consistency with which they have appeared in every culture and epoch. As Huston Smith maintains, these spiritual truths “are not the exclusive possession of any school or individual; were it otherwise they would not be truths, for these cannot be invented, but must necessarily be known in every integral traditional civilization.” Joseph Campbell recognizes the same universality, drawing the distinction between the historical nature of culture-specific religious belief and the nonhistorical nature of the mystical experience, which is “to such a degree constant for mankind that we may jump from Hudson Bay to Australia, Tierra del Fuego to Lake Baikal, and find ourselves well at home.” William James is no less convinced. He notes that throughout all mysticism “we find the same recurring note, so that there is about mystical utterances an eternal unanimity which ought to make a critic stop and think, and which brings it about that the mystical classics have, as has been said, neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, their speech antedates languages, and they do not grow old.” These three authorities, arguably among the world’s most renowned in the area of comparative religion and human spirituality, individually reached the identical conclusion: there is a form of knowing that transcends the bounds of time and cultures and the dictates of sectarian dogma.

In a modern world that is mesmerized by the wonders of modern science and so often looks to its proclamations for guidance, the unchallenged longevity of esoteric wisdom stands in stark contrast to the relatively brief shelf life of scientific “truth.” Repeatedly over the last five centuries, the models of reality proffered by science’s leading experts as absolute, and widely accepted by the rest of us as such, have been discarded in favor of new constructs. One needs only a superficial grasp of the revolutions precipitated by Copernicus, Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Freud, and Einstein to realize that in the frame of human history the laws of science have held for no more than a few generations before being turned upside down. All the while, one and only one truth has reigned supreme in the esoteric realm.

The Paradox of Non-doing

Most of us are habitual doers; we want to be in control, get somewhere and have something to show for it. We live in a world where self-improvement is a high priority and our accomplishments are the measure of our worth. When we hear that the very concepts of doer and doing lose their relevance on the mystical path and that practice does not produce transformation, it becomes ever more difficult to comprehend. In the modern world we search unceasingly for answers, experiences, insights, and attainment, so claims that there is nowhere to go and nothing to gain can be baffling. How are we to do anything without doing? Do we make an effort not to make an effort? Can the aims of freedom and an end to suffering be gained without any attempt to gain them?

Mystical practices are designed to shed the light of awareness on the constructs and habitual patterns of thought that imprison us. Paradoxically, though, the techniques are constructs themselves, each including the perception of a doer, prescribed actions for the doer to take, and goals to be achieved with effort and perseverance. By their very existence, these techniques make a distinction between the state from which we begin and the preferred state to which we are directed. In other words, while purporting to open a window to the unconditioned, they are themselves essentially dualistic, the very state we are trying to leave.

The more effort we make, the more we strain to control what happens in our practice, the further away we get from what is. We become so busy doing that we forget being. Always looking ahead, we overlook where we are. We think we can divide and conquer: increasing the good and eliminating the bad, adding this and subtracting that. But every attempt is futile. Such actions are firmly anchored in the world of time—aspiring to be where we are not, looking to the future for spiritual fulfillment. We are like a cat chasing its tail, not realizing that its own movements are keeping the tail out of reach. Effort to change what is, by itself, reinforces the very delusion that we need to unravel: our existence as a separate self.

The principle of non-doing has little currency in Western society, but a sense of it can be found in activities like playing music or sports. We sometimes hear musicians talk about “forgetting themselves” during performances or say that the music “plays itself.” Playing with their eyes closed, and engaged in a long and beautiful piece, they seem lost in the flow of beautiful music. In sports, when players exhibit extraordinary skill and perform above their normal level of play, they are said to be “in a zone.” The key lies in the construct of the doer. When they are no longer self-conscious, no longer looking over their shoulder or second-guessing themselves, life takes over with a naturalness and fluidity that is immediately apparent to all.

Is it by the ocean’s grace that the wave finds the shore or the creek winds its way back to its source? The answer lies in the law of existence, the way things are, what Buddhists call the Dharma. The key to the gateless gate is not turned by our actions or efforts. There is no secret formula, no expedient we need to find, and no “skillful means” that will enable us to cross to the other side of the veil. The entrance is blocked until naked awareness, the beginning and end of the human experience, allows us to see it has never been closed. Nothing needs to be done.

Meaning and Nonduality

In a world that places such emphasis on meaning and purpose, the teachings of non-duality challenge all spiritual seekers who attempt to unravel their paradoxical wisdom. When we hear that our lives have no significance, we can easily start to see life bleakly and nihilistically, as meaningless altogether. When we read in the Tao Te Ching that “the world is sacred. It can’t be improved,” our cherished ideas of progress, improvement, and making a difference immediately come into question. We must understand, however, that our qualms arise because we are looking at all of this from the perspective of the doer in a world of divisions. Without the ego that reigns in this reality, there would be no fear of a meaningless life.

Does a flower have meaning? Standing naked and fragile for the short span of its existence, the flower makes no pretence of playing a role or making a contribution. When we look at its delicate form and catch the light scent it unreservedly shares, we don’t ask what purpose it serves; the question of meaning does not arise. The flower is perfect as it is and need make no apologies. Alan Watts argued that only words and concepts have meaning, because they point to something other than themselves; they are symbols, significant only as a conduit for communication. This is not the case with life. As Watts would say, the flower doesn’t have meaning. It is meaning. Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale would add, however, that the unfolding of a seed to the perfection of a blossom, and its subsequent decay, reveal a deep truth about all life. There is nothing haphazard in the process of nature, and according to Teasdale, the comprehensive purpose reflected in a flower suggests a similar truth embodied in our own spiritual pilgrimage to the source and origin of all that is. As he makes clear, this purpose is not of the parts but of the whole—“the divine drawing all things to itself first by the interconnectedness of everything, then through its cosmic symbolism, and finally through the communion and union of the mystical journey itself.”

People go round and round looking for meaning, never realizing that the seeker is the sought. Meaning is found in being, nowhere else. As long as there is one who is chasing it, the chase will never end. Like the flower, we are meaning. We cannot find it in objects or accumulate it through accomplishments. We can only be it. For this reason, Jesus declared that those things hidden from the wise and learned have been revealed to little children—and watching young children at play shows us just what he meant. They are so fully intent on what they are doing, so caught up in what Zen calls the “isness” of being, that the question of meaning never occurs to them. With the innocence that precedes the appearance of the ego, they are the truth so often repeated: life is in the living. When as adults we can return to this oneness, with the wisdom gained from having thought it lost, we will have closed the circle of life.

Are you living in the fast lane?

Do you feel like you’re living in the fast lane? You’re not alone. Many of us live in an unending rush hour. In a world of smart phones and email, texting and twitter, the very devices that are supposed to save us time can have the opposite effect as we hurry to respond to everyone and everything. This manic pace is causing a host of “hurry sicknesses” too, from insomnia and heart attacks to ulcers and migraines. Most importantly, by being out of sync with the natural rhythms of life, we lose touch with the only thing that is real—the present moment.

One remedy to our hurried lifestyles that has been growing in popularity in the West is the practice of mindfulness. In stark contrast to our frantic daily routines, mindfulness helps us slow down and be with what is. To be mindful is to be in touch with the present rather than constantly worrying about the future, dwelling on the past, or being obsessed with the commentary in our heads. Practicing mindfulness—simply being in the now—can quiet the mental chatter and open the senses to the extraordinary miracle of being alive.

If you watch toddlers at play, you will see the kind of thing I am talking about. I get a healthy reminder of living in the now when I spend time with my 2-year-old grandson, Jack. He is totally immersed in what he is doing. No thoughts of yesterday or what must be done tomorrow—only what he is attending to at that moment. And his days are filled with wonder. America poet Walt Whitman pointed to this liberating way of living when he said, “To me, every moment of the day and night is an unspeakably perfect miracle.”

Tragically, many of us don’t awaken to the wonder of life until we are threatened with its loss. A terminal diagnosis makes us appreciate what we have so long taken for granted—a bird singing, the laughter of children, the curl of steam rising from morning coffee, holding the hand of a loved one, the sun shining through the trees. When time is short, petty disagreements and concerns are forgotten and we devote our attention to what’s most real and precious.

When I find myself moving into the fast lane or getting caught up in obsessive thinking, what helps bring me back to the now (besides playing with Jack) is feeling and listening. I try to feel what is happening in my body or I tune in to the sounds around me. Simply stopping to notice the ambient sounds that you don’t typically hear when you are living in your head can immediately help you shift from thinking to feeling, from identifying with the whirl of your thoughts to what the present has to offer.

The truth is, when our minds are filled with competing thoughts and tensions or we’re frantically multitasking, we are less effective in everything we do. We are distracted drivers, mindless snackers, poor listeners, even poor parents, partners, or managers. We do a lot of thinking but little living. Once you’re in the moment, you can pay full attention to the task at hand, appreciate the people you are with, or tap into the creative solution that was staring you in the face all along. In truth, the only thing any of us really have for sure is this very moment. Why not start living in it now?

The Magic of the Ordinary

Zen in particular, and mysticism in general, promotes the rediscovery of the obvious, which is so often lost in its familiarity and simplicity.  It sees the miraculous in the common and magic in our everyday surroundings.  When we are not rushed, and our minds are unclouded by conceptualizations, a veil will sometimes drop, introducing the viewer to a world unseen since childhood. There was a time, when, as children we inhabited a timeless world unmediated by the canned perceptions with which we were later inculcated.  Picasso once said that it took him four years to paint like Raphael, but it took him a lifetime to paint like a child. To see things in their original beauty, we must crack the shell of preconceptions with which adults are saddled. Zen has little to do with ideas, and its masters consistently point to the concrete.  We are surrounded by magic.  We literally have to go nowhere.

The photos offered below illustrate this idea. A sink full of dirty dishes and soapy water is something we hardly pay attention to, and get cleaned up and put away as fast as possible. But upon closer examination, the kind a child might pursue, there is a beauty and intricacy that is quite stunning in its beauty. Perhaps viewing these will peak your curiostity as to what else in our everyday routines is worth a second look.





Understanding Karma

Recognizing that karma is essentially imponderable, the Buddha refused to discuss its intricacies or the way it unfolded in one’s life. He spoke of the cause-and-effect relationship between actions and consequences and emphasized the value of mindful scrutiny of each thought and behavior in controlling negative karma, but beyond this, he avoided abstract discussions on the issue. Why is karma so inscrutable? The foremost reason has to do with the unity of life and the impossibility of explaining unity from the perspective of separateness. When we are acting from the delusion of self, our motives are not in concert with the rest of creation. Blinded by desire, we in effect act “alone” against the whole, and frustration and suffering inevitably result. The metaphors offered below can be helpful in gaining some understanding of this important but enigmatic subject.

Electricity  If we are working carelessly with wiring and we get shocked, we are unlikely to think that the bolt of electricity was punishment from God for our negligence. Rather, we see right away that we have no one to blame but ourselves. Certain behaviors are paired with certain predictable consequences. If we are not careful in the way we handle live wires, we will learn hard lessons in the process. It is simply the nature of the work. Similarly, esoteric spirituality emphasizes personal responsibility rather than ideas such as sin and divine judgment. Karma is called the great teacher, and while its consequences can be dire, it is through the pain and suffering our mistakes produce that we ultimately become seekers on the path to freedom.

Ceiling Fan  Those of us who live in warm climates often have ceiling fans that quietly, but efficiently, circulate the air and make our homes more comfortable. When the fan is turned off, the motor stops propelling the blades, but they continue in their circular motion for several minutes before they come to a complete stop. It is the same with karma. Even when we are able to refrain from behavior that has produced suffering for us in the past, we may not find ourselves immediately free from that suffering. The momentum of our previous actions must often play out in our lives before the fruits of our new behavior become apparent.

Spiderweb  Spiderwebs have decorated the nooks and crannies of our lives as long as any of us can remember. The delicate interweaving of the silken threads is designed by nature to alert the spider to the slightest disturbance. If the web is touched in any part, the entire structure vibrates. The world we live in is similarly intertwined. Nothing is separate, and a disturbance in one area is felt throughout the whole. The principle of karma is based on this kind of reciprocity and balance. Our individual behavior does not occur in a vacuum, and no matter how insignificant our actions may seem, they produce an effect in the world around us.

Factorial  When we are suffering, we often want to isolate the causes and identify the sequence of actions that led to our current conditions. We continually obsess over particular actions, our own or others’, as the genesis of our personal and societal problems today. But nothing is that simple. Consider factorials—mathematical calculations of the number of ways in which a certain number of things can be sequenced. The factorial for 10 exceeds three and a half million possible sequences! If just ten physical objects can be sequenced in so many different ways, it should be obvious that any attempt to analyze the karmic chain of causation in human behavior is futile. Everything causes everything; even the minor daily events in our personal lives are infinitely complex.

Photography As Spiritual Practice: Two

When we venture forth on the mystical journey, we may imagine our destination as a place far away from where we are, in every sense—someplace profoundly, essentially other. But ultimately, there is no final ascent to a transcendent, otherworldly realm. Rather, the quest leads seekers back to the suchness of the present moment, to “just this.” Setting down the burdens of identification, the attachments of the ego, and the weight of self-consciousness, we find ourselves back where we started—the same place, but appareled in newness and unimagined splendor. Indeed, the fragmented terrain we left, the “lesser world” in which we have spent most of our lives, turns out to be the Promised Land to which all wisdom traditions have pointed. The world has not changed—it is still replete with all the characteristic suffering and dilemmas of existence—but we have changed, and we see it with new eyes: the eyes of life itself. And with this new vision, photography takes on a whole new meaning.

In the wake of illumination, when conditioning no longer obscures our vision, the world is transfigured, and the sages of every lineage sing its joyful praises. In the midst of earthly turmoil and distress, they see overflowing wonders. In every wisdom tradition we find the same theme: those who have come home to their true nature see no reason to go elsewhere. They recognize no boundaries between the sacred and the profane, and they find perfection in imperfection.

When you realize what you are, you see what is. The commentary of the mind no longer obscures the intuitive wisdom of the heart. There is seeing, knowing, and being, but it is not from the finite perspective of your self, your ego. In awakened awareness, life beholds the wonder of its own being—and you are That. Released from the imprisonment of the conditioned mind and the countless boundaries that previously fragmented our vision, we see that the radiant majesty of the world is everywhere. The relative and absolute perspectives are fused, and the sage beholds a world where such constructs have lost their relevance.

The Gates of Eden were never shut for those with eyes to see. Once we no longer peer through the thick lens of conditioning, we find ourselves surrounded by the astounding, improbable wonder of things as they are. Looking at the ordinary trappings of our lives—our daily conversations, our food, our children’s grades, and even our loved ones’ passing—without the distortions of desire or aversion, uncolored by opinions or preferences of the past, we see them for what they are: wondrous creations of life.

A photograph has never been taken of anything but our true nature. Each exposure is, in truth, a self-portrait. There is only Life, only Being, and we are That. I hope you enjoy the photos below, and others that will come in future posts. We have a tendancy to become jaded, and take for granted the miracles that surround us. I like to think that these photos will help to change that.  Life is not something to be survived, mastered or figured out but a dance to be danced with the rest of creation. The camera is a wonderful instrument with which to celebrate it.

Nonduality and the Divine

Seekers who are new to the mystical traditions are often taken aback when they first discover that some of the spiritual paths make no mention of God. But the lack of the familiar concept of a supreme being is not the same as the denial of the Divine found in the theories of some modern thinkers, such as Marx or Nietzsche or Freud. Nondual traditions, lacking any concepts for the holy, nonetheless have no lack of holy awe; they simply explore and interpret the indefinable without attempting to attach labels to it. It reminds one of Victorian author and thinker Samuel Butler’s remark about God, “I cannot tell which is the more childish—to deny him, or to attempt to define him.”

Nonduality is a return to wholeness, going back to the source from which all manifestation evolves. The return entails a perceptual shift from the dualistic reality of our conventional world to the nondual, where boundaries no longer divide what is. In our everyday experience, concepts create in our minds a world of seemingly separate objects and events, which we then organize and make sense of through the framework of space and time and the dynamics of cause and effect. When the dualistic paradigm is applied to the spiritual realm, the deepest feelings and concerns of humanity often find substance in the concept of God. Concepts shape our deepest yearning and intuition into an image of God that is separate from us. The particular image to which we respond depends on our conditioning and capacity, but it is a fundamentally dualistic relationship. There is an unbridgeable ontological divide between the worshipper and the object of worship.

In esoteric traditions, such conceptual schemes are considered a function of conditioning, not an inherent part of what is. Nonduality abides no contrast or comparison, no distinction between this and that, and no sequence of before and after. Beneath the surface play of phenomena, there is a formless, undifferentiated realm invisible to the naked eye; devoid of all parts, there remains only the unceasing flow and energy of life. Any concept of the Divine, therefore, is misleading, as it stands in the way of the deepest insights into the nature of reality. Paul Tillich, one of the most influential Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, expresses it this way: “God is being-itself,” as opposed to a “being.”

Thus, there are no images or descriptions of the Divine in the esoteric literature that play more than a metaphorical role. There is a shared conviction that to name the unnamable is to close ourselves off from truth. Just as assumptions of individual existence dissolve in the ascent to the nondual, the traditional images of God likewise cease to be relevant. When we talk about the source of those aspects of life considered most holy and sacred, those which fill us with profound reverence, joy, wonder and awe, only abstract ideas or terms can convey a sense of their boundlessness. Whether we say the Tao, the Unborn, Being, or any of the numerous other designations, there is no division, either explicit or implied.

Over and over, the mystical teachings tell us that we cannot know the truth intellectually, but we can be it. Experiential as opposed to conceptual, esoteric spirituality has been compared to falling in love—something else that’s impossible to adequately express in words. It is a matter of union with what is—with what we are in the deepest sense. Judgment, good and evil, heaven and hell, and the myriad distinctions that make up our conventional worldview fall away when we realize what is. It comes with the shift from figure to ground. Only when our focus shifts from the external trappings of spirituality can we discern the ground of our being.

Suffering’s Silver Lining

Suffering is endemic to the human condition. Even with the extraordinary advances we in the developed world have made in the quality of daily life, few would deny the suffering that continues to dominate our horizons. In addition to the endless conflict, starvation, and natural disaster we see on the nightly news, most of us need look no further than our own neighborhoods or even our own homes to find human misery in abundance.

As much as we all strive to avoid it, the simple truth is that humanity needs suffering. It is through hardship and reversals of fortune that we are roused from our complacency and the unconscious patterns we are prone to settle into. It is suffering that shakes us up and clears our vision. When everything in our lives is going well, we can become so engrossed in trivial preoccupations that we lose touch with what is important. Success strengthens our identification with the self and keeps us from transcendence. We have no motivation to find something better.

If, however, we are suddenly and unexpectedly confronted with our mortality and the transience of all we cherish, we are forced to recognize life’s preciousness and seek its meaning. As it is said, we are jolted awake by nightmares, not by pleasant dreams. The need to redecorate the house, so pressing yesterday, fades quickly into the background. Friction with friends over petty irritations is forgotten. Bank accounts and promotions at work lose their relevance in contrast to our new life-and-death challenges. The explanations we were given by our parents to make sense out of things, though they satisfied our previously superficial inquiries, often come up short in life’s most difficult times. We seek answers to what seems so wrong about life.

We are the victims of mistaken identity. When we are born, our vision is fresh. The world as we first experience it is undifferentiated and timeless, and we have no real perception of self or other. We can see the magic of life without filters and become totally lost in fascination, one with our surroundings. But then we are educated, and learn to see ourselves as separate from everything and everyone in a sharply defined piecemeal view of reality that makes up our modern culture. Conceptual habits become unconscious assumptions that automatically frame our reality. We live within the confines of a hand-me-down view of the world that everyone around us shares, and we never even suspect the possibility of seeing in another way. To regain the wholeness that is our birthright, we must examine the assumptions that blind us to it, and it is suffering that motivates us to do so.

There is a timeless story about a fish in search of the great ocean of life. Oblivious to the water all around it, the fish swims great distances in its quest, with no results; it cannot find the ocean anywhere it looks. The fish is living in the ocean, but doesn’t realize it. If the fish were rudely yanked out of the water on a fisherman’s hook, however, the elusive goal would suddenly become obvious: water is its very life. Our experience is quite similar. We are immersed in life, in the flesh and blood of our existence, but blindly seek fulfillment elsewhere. We spend most of our lives in mental games and abstractions, puzzling over what life means, while the truth is all around us. We simply need to wake up and smell the proverbial roses. This is it! Just this. Yet we often don’t realize it until, like the hapless fish, we find ourselves out of our element, gasping for air.

When suffering abruptly interrupts the normal flow of things and shakes us out of our routines, it is an opportunity to see life from a deeper, more substantive perspective – but one we often miss. How many of us fail to see the truth of life until we are close to death? Then the simple sound of a bird’s song or the smell of baking bread can bring us to tears. Some fish are thrown back and get a second chance, but it is very risky for us to count on such a reprieve.