Saturday, December 28, 2013

Metaphorical language and spiritual beliefs

Over the holidays I went to a sing-along Messiah.  For those who haven't ever done this, it is a performance of Handel's Messiah, with the audience singing the choruses.  If you love to sing, it's both challenging and a lot of fun. I hadn't done it in years.

This performance was put on at the local Mormon church, and it was my first time there -- maybe the first time in a Mormon church at all.  The solo singers were wonderful, and they enunciated clearly as well, so I had ample opportunity to take in the words.  And I thought, "My, what a weird religion Christianity is! What is all this supposed to mean?  No wonder I never could believe my childhood religion!" 

But I was also moved.  And it is that ability to move that Handel, and the Bible verses he used, were aiming to elicit.  The doctrine itself is meant to be non-rational, because ultimate truth is beyond rationality, beyond the mind.  And the deeper the spirituality, the more that is true. 

I think about the assumptions behind non-dual spirituality, of which there are plenty, and realize that these too, to those who haven't experienced what they point to, don't make sense. Religious ideas arise as a way to describe the ineffable.  They just point to a truth that can't be spoken. 

So, then, are all religions equally true?  I wouldn't go that far.  And I do think different religions stress different aspects of truth.  But it's important to keep in mind that I was called to the path I have been on in this life not because it is in any way "truer" but because the language that is used to describe ultimate truth is language that made intuitive sense to me as well as moved me.  When we are looking for a path, it's important for both of these elements to be there. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Trying gets in the way

After Toni Packer died a few months ago, I checked several of her books out of the library.  I was intending to write something about her legacy but never did (except the brief post on this blog).  Now, I'm just getting around to the books.  It's a re-visit for me because I also read a couple of them before I went to visit the meditation center she founded, Springwater, in 2007.

I like best the book The Light of Discovery (Charles E Tuttle, 1995).  Here is a dialogue between Toni and Joan Tollifson.  Joan was a student of Toni's and is an author and teacher in her own right.

"Joan: Suppose I see the same patterns coming up year after year, habits I feel stuck in. . . . I see it over and over, but it keeps happening, and I can't get out of it.

"Toni:  When you say, 'I see it, but I can't get out of it,' what is the quality of that seeing?  Here is where you really need to look and examine carefully.  Is it thinking about your habit-patterns -- how long they have persisted, how this is never going to end, wanting to know how to fix it?  This is not seeing.  This is thinking.  It's not an on-the-spot discovery of thought arising.  To see the thought of wanting freedom as it arises is different from thinking,, 'I've had this thought pattern all my life, and nothing has happened about it, and what can I do about it?'" (pp. 11-12)

Reading this, I'm reminded of an incident in my own life.  I was in turmoil over a relationship with someone that wasn't happening -- at least not the way I thought it should.  It had been literally years, and one day I was in a particularly bad place, crying on my bed, when one of my teachers returned my call to her.  And I told her what I was going through, adding, "I've tried everything but I can't find a solution!"  She said, "It's not about solving problems."

I don't know how she knew that was exactly what I needed to hear, but something magical happened.  I suppose, looking back on it now, I could say that her words gave me permission to STOP, just stop trying for a moment.  We think we won't find a solution if we don't try, and practical problems are like that, but psychological/spiritual problems are just the opposite:  the trying only gets in the way.  So, then, at that moment when trying ceased, something opened in me, a space to view it all from I suppose, and all of that emotion I'd been trying so hard to get rid of was suddenly just fine!  Not only fine but even blissful.  How could it be that what I'd condemned and tried so hard to rid myself of could turn blissful?  Because the feelings weren't the problem -- it was the identification with them that caused the suffering. The feelings, I'd always assumed, said something about me, about what kind of person I was.  Not so.

And so, reading Toni's words in the above passage, I recognized what she was pointing to.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Awakeness vs Awareness

This blog's name indicates something about what my own path has been.  The sudden awakenings that are part of a number of traditions, such as Rinzai Zen, have been a big part of it.  But there are those who say this whole idea of "awakening" is fraught with illusion because, for one thing, it obscures the fact that consciousness is already awake, and for another, because it implies a goal, or a number of goals -- the time when one will awaken, or awaken more deeply, in the future -- whereas enlightenment is the eternal present.

And yes, both of those criticisms are valid.  And some people, for that reason, are more comfortable starting with the basic truth that there isn't anywhere to get in the first place, that it was all already here.  In Soto Zen (from what I know -- I've never done it) sitting itself is enlightenment.  Of course, it could as easily be said, then, that anything we do is equally enlightenment.

So why not start with the basic truth and skip over the seeking and finding and losing it and finding it again until the truth that it is what we are is finally realized?  I say, if skipping all that works, sure, by all means do it.  And by "if it works" I mean, if it solve the problem of what it is to be human.  If one feels at rest and really doesn't need to seek anymore.

Because it's tricky, isn't it?  "I won't seek because I know that's not where it's at.  I'll just be present all the time," one might say.  Well, good luck.  Just more seeking, right?  Because for most human beings, "being present all the time" isn't something that comes naturally.  Especially since, before awakening, we don't really know what being present truly is.

So, when we're meditating -- and that doesn't just mean formal meditation but any time the mind isn't busy with its stories -- sometimes a space comes between thoughts and we just are awareness.  We just are, just exist -- and there are no boundaries of self at that moment.  But that passes and its significance often goes unrecognized.  Why?  Because what awakening does is more than that.  Awareness is a door, but awakening is seeing that the door we have passed through is the door between illusion and reality.  Now we know, for the first time, that thoughts aren't real.  Before, we thought we knew that; we thought everyone knew that -- but now we really know what that means.  And once we know that, then we understand also that, even when thoughts come back in and busy themselves making stories about our lives, they aren't real stories.

So, truly, I'm thinking this out as I write, but where I've come to is that awareness is that vantage point where we don't filter our experience through thoughts (and "we" and "our" are just grammatical necessities because the reality is that there is no self at that moment).  But if there is not complete awakening, then when thoughts come back in, they are believed again.  Each time we rest in awareness, though, the thoughts may become less solid-seeming, more transparent.  We may become awake even though we have never awakened!