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.

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.





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.

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.

Wonder of Being

Whenever I have the opportunity to spend time with my little grandsons, all under the age of three, I am vividly reminded of the wonder and miracle of simply being alive. A muddy twig or stone they find on the ground fascinates them as easily as a shiny new toy. They see with “Beginner’s mind,” with what we ourselves saw before society taught us what was “good,” “beautiful,” or “important,” and what was not. Their approach is strikingly different from the attitude we adults so often voice: “Been there and done that!” In recent years, as the veil of conditioning has grown increasingly transparent and the realization of what is deepens, I have noticed that, like my grandsons, I stay put in the moment more often. And like them, when we play peekaboo, I never cease to be surprised at the wonder of it all.

Figure/ground shifts alter my perspective repeatedly. When I look at my hand, I find life. When I look for life, I find myself sitting with my morning cup of coffee. I study my multiplying wrinkles, and muse on the passing years; then I see myself everywhere – in every face, in every facet of life. I am nothing and everything. My being, our being, stretches from quarks to quasars, nanoseconds to light-years, and embodies both life and death. As I get another cup of coffee, I am filled with profound awe.

Listening to a Bach sonata, I am reminded that all manifestation is like the notes played on the cello, coming out of nothing and just as quickly disappearing. Our being unfolds as the evanescent, timeless, flickering radiance of what is. It is all a play of the mind, appearances in our awareness that are without substance, including the self we think we are! The awareness of our true nature precedes both mind and manifestation, so there is no figuring all this out, and no answers to find. Yet, here I am, and I have a dentist appointment this afternoon!

There is beauty in every direction, and only our attention is required for it to dazzle us with its creative brilliance. Whether it is a song bird in the spring, the simple elegance of a cloud overhead, or the laughter of children, life invites us to lose ourselves in the intimacy and enchantment of its creations. The feelings of profound gratitude, love, reverence and humility that accompany such experiences tell us this is our natural birthright. This is home, and where we belong. We are Life.

I find myself drawn increasingly to simplicity, and the luxury of silence, solitude and stillness. I relish the mystery that is, and sip the subtle joy of unknowing like a fine wine. There is a growing inclusiveness unfolding, expanding like ripples in a pond, a deep love pulling me into union with all that is. Gradually emptying my pockets of the favored opinions, beliefs, and attachments of a lifetime, I find everything that is needed right here and now: just this. While life remains replete with all the characteristic suffering and dilemmas of existence, perfection is found in imperfection, and on occasion, I simply float effortlessly in the currents of what is.

How are we ultimately to express the miracle of it all? The same force that makes the planets spin in their orbits causes our hearts to beat, brings the wave to the shore, and lifts the doe over the fence. We participate in every moment of creation and watch firsthand as wonders unfold in our presence. How can we make sense of a heart overflowing with gratitude amid the suffering and distress of life? Language cannot snare our being in a net of words or plumb the contents of our hearts. The measures of science cannot capture the splendor of the setting sun, nor gauge the reach and power of our love. However we try, there is no way to articulate the imponderable nature of things. We simply yield to life’s unfolding with deep gratitude and joy. Joining our children in the celebration of what is, we can never unravel its mystery, but we can be it.

The original version of this post appeared in James Waite’s wonderful website, Nonduality Living

The movie of life

We have all had the experience of going to the movies. They have a magical power to transport us to very different times or places, and in the good ones we become deeply engrossed in the story. When we walk out, we are often amazed by the abrupt return to our own everyday world. Something quite similar occurs with spiritual realization. Suddenly, we see life in a profoundly different way. We are still right where we were before, still surrounded by the people and circumstances that were there before, but it is all seen with a totally different understanding.

From early childhood, we are taught to see a fragmented reality that we can navigate only by making endless choices and decisions: that and not this, this but not that. By making distinctions and remembering those given social priority, we find our way through our dualistically envisioned world. The dos and don’ts, the “yours” and “mine,” of childhood become the liberal and conservative, believer and infidel, friend and foe of adulthood. Oftentimes, the boundaries we superimpose on life resemble the proverbial lines drawn in the sand by a movie character distinguishing friend from foe. In reality, we forget their arbitrary nature and defend the edges of our perceived separation with deadly seriousness. We live in a maze of opposites within which we have lost our way. The eternal drama of good and evil is but the most pronounced of the numberless pairs of opposites between which we are torn.

Duality is the nature of existence, and its alternating play of forms is eternal. And we see this in every movie we watch. It is rare if there is not some villian who must be brought to justice or some physical calamity that must be heroically overcome. Without such a play of opposites, our interest would wane and ticket sales would plummet. In a far more important theater, that of life itself, duality sets the stage for the universal spiritual drama, and it is the condition in which we discover our nakedness, self-conscious and separate from everything else. Just as we cannot know hot without cold, or up without down, it is only as individuals alone and vulnerable that we intuit the wholeness that is missing—our true nature. From this moment on, whether we realize it or not, our deepest desire is for this wholeness.

While we may dream of the day when the lamb will lie down with the lion and the clashing opposites of life be calmed, we will never find the way to that resolution in external events. The solution lies in our relationship to the events. It is somewhat like the relationship we have as viewers to the movie we are watching. Though we are engrossed in the movie, we know at a deeper level that we are sitting a the theater and the story we are watching is not real. On a spiritual level, there is a parallel. We continue our daily lives, going to work, raising a family, but the way we see it changes. When we ultimately realize that all things are one, and no longer define ourselves within the limits of this and that, we find the peace, love, and compassion that come with the transcendent vision of wholeness even while we are in right in the middle of our busy lives.

Photography as spiritual practice

A fundamental truth shared by the all mystics of the world is the wholeness of life, the unbounded, nondual glory of what is. And as incomprehenisible as it may seem, we are That. It follows that we are beholding the glories of our own Being. Why is it so hard to imagine? Conditioning; the content of our lives, to a large degree, begins and ends with language, even our understanding of self. To exist and be recognized, and to ensure efficiency in a society that worships speed and productivity, things must be labeled, categorized, defined and pigeonholed. We see what we expect to see, what we have been taught to see. A thick screen of concepts and abstractions blinds us to the unique radiance and artistry of every concrete object. As Jung said, no concept is a carrier of life. Conventional wisdom is the “fast food” of the mind, streamlined, efficient and readily understood by all. It is also the enemy of original vision.

The practice of photography can help us learn to open a direct line to reality, unclouded by the dust of the past – to become intimate with life – but it is always a struggle to see with fresh eyes. To be truly sensitive to the unique visual offerings of the moment, we must set aside agendas and preconcieved notions, be free of pretention, and open to the intuitive and spontaneous reactions of our being as it responds to the beauty and wonder of life. We must open the doors of our senses and FEEL more than think. Though prior training in technique is important, the best work has no identified purpose and often has the quality of an accident. In a sense, the picture takes itself. When we step aside, and give Life itself free reign, unhampered by our premeditated ideas of what should happen, the resultant pictures can be quite remarkable. Only after the fact, when assessing the pictures earlier taken should reason and judgment play a significant role.

This kind of photography promotes the rediscovery of the obvious. 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. We reach a point where we forget ourselves, much as artists and musicians do, and become what is happening. Sink into the moment, and just BE. There was a time, when, as children we inhabited a world devoid of boundaries and 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. There is a parallel with photography. We can take photos correctly, and follow all the rules of composition and balance, and still not capture the passion and magic that makes a great picture. To see things in their original beauty, we must crack the shell of preconceptions, and penetrate the habits of the mind. When this happens, you will find a world overflowing with wonder and hopefully capture them in your photos.

I have attached below a few examples of photos taken of commonplace subjects that might kindle your imagination of what is possible: a backyard leaf, highrise reflections, plastic bag, and torn cardboard.