• July 1, 2020

    It is very difficult to live in this world without an ego that seeks for its own satisfaction. You may have a negative view of ego but its capacity for identification is essential for almost all of our actions and the motives behind them. As the Buddha said, there is almost nothing that we can think or do that does not aim to get what we want or avoid what we do not want. These are the two fundamental gestures of human beings…affirming and denying, or as he said, clinging and averting. This is ego and this is what ego does.

    Do I know what it would be like to have no ego? Would I get up in the morning? Would I have anything to say? To be without ego, even just for a little time, is like being naked before the world. It takes great courage and immense capacity to initiate even the most basic actions.

    As Buddha said, ego is the root cause of unhappiness, the source of our conflicts and disappointments but it also protects us from the terror of meaninglessness. Its contraction around itself shuts out the fearful immensity of space. Ego is the gravity that shapes the world and gives it coherence.

    The ego hides itself in its identities which it justifies and promotes…identities such as father or mother, friend, teacher, worker, employer…any role I assume to give my life structure and purpose. We find meaning in the identities we have accepted, which are nothing more than the conditioning and habits formed around the ego to act as its container and protection. Ego has no independent existence, no substance other than what it borrows from the things it identifies with.

    So, is that all there is? Does ego define and explain everything we can think and do? I suggest there is something else quite mysterious and completely unlike ego which is virtue. Virtue is an action for its own sake, something that arises outside the ego, without identification, which offers satisfaction and contentment without self-seeking. In virtue, we sit in the lap of angels and do the work of another world. Your ego will seize on this as something for it to achieve but virtue does not come from us. It’s a gift, a trickle of grace come down from heaven. This is what distinguishes virtue…it is not ours and it does not depend upon us for its existence. We cannot make it but we can destroy it.

    I experience a spontaneous impulse of compassion or kindness towards another human being or animal. At the very moment of this impulse, it is decided whether it is virtue or not. If I claim it for myself, feel proud or important or virtuous, the impulse is diverted and is no longer virtue. If it is allowed to flower in the moment of its expression without identification, virtue lives as a corridor for the descent of higher qualities.

    Can virtue be facilitated? Perhaps. There is a third gesture between clinging and averting…the gesture of releasing…Buddha’s middle way. When my ego reaches to grab what is good for itself, can I release the gesture of grabbing and allow the good to stand without me? This is the gesture of freedom which allows virtue to exist and flower. Every virtue allowed to unfold without my appropriation blossoms into love.

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  • May 13, 2019

    What happens when work on self makes it possible for me to work in a selfless way? What does this mean?

    It is easier to say what ordinary efforts are like. Ordinarily, I am identified with my work. My efforts are motivated by my wish for attention and praise, a feeling of worth, to belong, to achieve a personal aim, to make money that I ‘need’ for the things I want. This is all perfectly normal and mostly unconscious, but easily observed nonetheless.

    To be identified with one’s work is to harness the enormous power derived from making work an extension of me. In effect, I defend my work with my life. I may feign a cynical attitude or pretend to be detached but without the psychological props provided by my work, I virtually cease to exist. If I can live outside my work it is because I have found an even stronger identification. Ordinary work is animated by self and is an expression of self.

    So, to return to my question, what happens when it becomes possible to work in a selfless way? Could work efforts be much more difficult if they are not powered by ego and the perpetually humming motor of identification? Where will the motive come from? I suspect there would be less resistance if ordinary self is not involved, but the power plug I have depended upon all my life has been pulled.

    And how would I feel about my work? Ordinary work comes pre-defended by my ego. My view of my work is centered in me, I know what it means and what it is worth and I have my reasons to explain why others may not accept it. Without this protection, my work is incredibly fragile. I do not see it centered in my own context but in a much wider sphere where there are many eyes and judgments, all valid in their own way. The certainty with which I make a gesture is immediately prismed when it enters the world, fractioned by the limitations it must inhabit.

    This is my surmise. Selfless work, what I might call real work, is extraordinarily difficult and exhausting, not the effortless unfolding of some spiritual fiction.

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  • December 6, 2018

    I’m intrigued by the idea from the Matrix movies that we live in a simulation but we have the possibility to live in the real world.

    This is a work idea worth exploring. It can be taken on different levels. The first step is to find evidence of living in a simulation.

    In the movie version, the simulation looks exactly like what we think of as the real world but the laws of physics do not actually apply if the characters are able to convince themselves that they are living in a simulation. When the movie characters enter the real world where the laws of physics do apply, they are able to re-enter the simulation and manipulate it provided they do not identify with their simulated self. The star character is the one who is able to remain dis-identified and remember that he is in a simulation.

    Is this an analogy that we can work with?

    Yes and no. Can you find evidence of the simulation you are living in? This is not a theoretical or speculative question. I suggest to you that your simulation is of your own making and it does not closely resemble the real world. The simulation is not a perfect facsimile of the real world, as we see in the movie, but rather an extreme editing of it.

    What is my simulation? It’s my habitual way of seeing and thinking. It’s a framework that selectively leaves out most of what is happening around me. It’s my expectations and fears that unconsciously shape the placement of my attention. Do you see that most of what you worry about does not actually happen?

    As I speak to you, I hear the sound of traffic, the soft murmur of tires on wet pavement, the reflection of street lights off moving cars onto the ceiling of the room where we sit. As I listen to you, and respond to your questions and comments, I continue to hear the sounds, see the patterns of light, which shape my sensing and feeling of being here and alter my disposition towards you in ways that I know as they occur.

    Living in the present is engaging consciously with the world outside my simulation, not with effort but with ease.

    What prevents the integration of my experience? Rejection of my environment is one thing. Obsessive identification with the thinker or the self of my personal narrative is another. A dis-identified state lets more in, edits less. It is very valuable to catch the editor at work, commenting, critiquing and thereby missing what is happening even as it unconsciously shapes my moods and reactions.

    When I play a computer game I identify with my character.

    Yes. This is a possible value of playing these games…to learn not to identify with your character. Of course, once you have learned this, you may have no further interest in the game. And that raises disturbing questions about how you can survive without the momentum you get from your simulation.

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  • September 14, 2018

    Sitting in the black room, I lose my orientation. I don’t know which way I’m facing or even if my eyes are open.

    Yes. What effect does this have on your thinking?

    I expected that I would be left in a state of confusion, where my thoughts would simply run around in my head, but mostly this didn’t happen. I actually felt less dominated by my thoughts, more free to simply be there and be in the present.

    This is a useful observation. But perhaps this is beginner’s luck? You are responding to something new. Our ‘normal’ sense of orientation is very locked in. I automatically step into myself when I sense myself in habitual ways, chief among them being the visual sense of facing in a certain direction, sensing that I am looking outside from inside my head and seeing my hands in front of me. Removing these familiar inputs opens up the possibility of disengaging from the usual.  I may find this energizing.

    What happens over time, after many hours of sitting in black silence? The real test is supplied by boredom. In ordinary life, outside the black room, boredom is disguised by my habitual engagement with people and things to do. I fall into identification with my experience, much of which centers around disagreement and resistance which ensure a steady parade of reactions to keep me occupied.

    In the black room, boredom is less disguised. Do I ‘invent’ illusory content…imagining events, conversations, having discussions with myself to fill the void? If the mind outlives the body, is this my experience after death? Do I then wish to reconstitute my life before death with all the same ‘amusements’, in an attempt to defeat the boredom? And do my suppressed impulses and my guilt manifest karmically as ‘unfriendly’ guides, as they call them in Vajrayana? To what extent is my experience now, in this life, determined by these same…but less visible… mechanical impulses?

    After a few sessions in the black room, I begin to notice that I am sometimes visualizing…it’s a kind of light show, eyes open or closed, displaying indistinct imagery of completely irrelevant and fictitious action…a movie without an apparent script. Is this actually going on all the time, even when I am doing my daily routine? Is this what it means to be living in a dream world even while I’m ‘awake’? Does this imagery unconsciously shape the way I perceive? Can this subconscious visualization be stopped?

    Perhaps I can now begin the serious work of learning to remain present in the present, an aim which requires that I know and resist the process of falling asleep, that is, falling into the automatic dreaming of the mechanical mind. This might be useful after death. It might be even more useful now.

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  • April 26, 2018

    Know Thyself” was written on the wall of the ancient Temple of Apollo at Delphi. It is the basic requirement of our work. Our approach is observation of self.

    Notice that the Delphic advice is not to accumulate self-knowledge or to learn about yourself. To know is an active quality that occurs in the present…not knowledge but knowing. Framing in language what is known, what has been observed, is not the aim. Conclusions are not the aim. As soon as you think you know yourself, you have ceased to know.

    Fortunately, our self is constantly revealing itself…in gestures, postures, facial expressions, tone of voice and so on. We begin there. Perhaps you would like to know about your soul or spirit or you would like to observe thought. These diversions will yield nothing. Begin with objective facts.

    I must learn to know. I have many ways of not knowing such as thinking, analyzing and assuming that I already know.

    Another great obstacle to knowing is partiality. Consider an example. I sense that I am experiencing a state of physical agitation. My breath is quick and shallow. My diaphragm is contracted and my hands are clenched. Mind recognizes this as anger and the word arises. No problem so far. I know this state. Knowing and recognizing are not antagonists as long as I remain attentive to present facts.

    Perhaps I see that the anger is a reaction to words spoken by another. Still no problem. This is knowing. These are facts.

    Do I now justify my anger? Do I criticize myself for being angry? Do I experience guilt and try to hide my anger? As soon as I engage in any of these things, I no longer observe impartially. At this point, I am self-observing. One of my identities, perhaps the one that feels guilty or the one that blames others, has stepped into the role of judge. This is the moment of truth. If I see this occur, this process of identification, perhaps I can observe the judge, the critic, the blamer, the partial self that seeks to take control. Can this identity be the observed, and not become the observer? If so, knowing self continues.

    When I am partial, one part of me observes another part. When I am impartial, all parts of self are observed. This is the difference between self-observation and observation of self.

    Who or what is the ‘I’ that observes impartially? It is attention, and the seat of attention which we call presence.

    Many times a day, impartial observations occur. We have moments of non-identification, moments of being present. We see our self in operation. Then our reactions take us out of these moments.

    Therefore, our reactions are key material to observe. In doing so, can we learn not to identify with them? Knowing precisely the process of falling into identification and remaining outside of it is a great skill that arises from observing self. Can we trust that repeated impartial observation is sufficient to neutralize our reactions? That impartial observing is the genuine path to unlearning them? Or do we let our identities take charge, falsely assuming that they can overturn themselves?

    When reactions lose their power, there is much more to see. Beneath the reactions you will find the being that they have obscured.

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  • April 20, 2018

    We are trapped in mental structures which influence how we think and perceive. Perhaps in meditation, perhaps in prayer, can I catch an insight into another way of perceiving that comes from a less limited frame of mind?

    Let me try to show you what I mean. This is only a thought experiment but perhaps it will help.

    I identify with the solid bits of the universe. I have a material body and I think of myself as living in a material world (thank you Madonna). What are the consequences of this assumption? Space is empty and solids occupy space. Dimension is a clever way of accommodating things so they do not overlap. So, identifying myself as solid, I treat space as just a physical dimension where I am separate and occupy my own space.

    Separation establishes the need for movement and movement creates duration or time. Time is a clever way of making sure that not everything happens at once.

    Within dimension and time, there are events. The only events that I recognize are in dimension and time. Otherwise, they are not real. When events occur within time, one follows another. I try to decide if the event that comes first causes the event that comes after. I also perceive that events begin and end. Can I see the eternal, the unchanging? Can I see possibilities that do not occupy time and space? Probably not. .

    The consequence of identifying with physical reality is that I may lose access to qualities that are formless. My sensory apparatus links to my brain and displays what I see and sense. Who experiences this neurological data? Is it the brain? Scientists search for the correct brain structure, meanwhile confusing perception and content. There is a quality of perceiving that is independent of what is perceived. Have you noticed this? Have you observed that perceiving is not ‘located’? That it seems to exist in space?

    In a similar way, where is attention? Is it in the brain? Attention intimately connects me to what it attends to even over distance. Does it defy the separation of space?

    Where is the presence of my presence in the present? The state when I am present clearly has a spacious, non-physical quality. Can I find in me a place for the experience of love? Yes, love has physical effects but is it contained in my nervous system? Is it only a sensation?

    How does the universe appear from the perspective of space? Can I identify myself as space? Do I contain infinite possibilities which are no less real than the ones that are expressed out of my ‘emptiness’ into the tiny bit of me that has taken ‘form’? Is there distance, or just ‘more’ of myself? Is there time, or just an eternal present where all the events that ever did, are or will happen(ing) are here and now? Perhaps space is where miracles occur but we only know this when we enter the realm of the miraculous.

    From the perspective of space, the universe of a trillion galaxies spanning trillions of light years may be of no definite ‘size’ whatsoever. Without my conceptions of space and time from the physical world, how would I know?

    According to the current findings of physics, every region of space is awash with different kinds of fields composed of waves of varying lengths. Each wave has energy. When physicists calculate the minimum amount of energy a wave can possess, they find that every cubic centimeter of empty space contains more energy than the total energy of all the matter in the known universe.

    Space is not empty. It is full, a plenum not a vacuum, the ground for the existence of every single thing. The physical universe is not separate from this cosmic sea of energy; it is a ripple on its surface, a comparatively small “pattern of excitation” in the midst of an unimaginably vast ocean. “This excitation pattern is relatively autonomous and gives rise to approximately recurrent, stable and separable projections into a three-dimensional explicate order of manifestation,” states Physicist David Bohm.

    In other words, despite its apparent materiality and enormous size, the physical universe does not exist in and of itself, but is the surface of something far more ineffable, a passing shadow over the face of the deep.

    Have you thought about how it is possible for this world to exist? Oh, we are told the story of the big bang and evolution over billions of years. Really? This may explain a process but it tells us nothing of how anything can be, how there can be a big bang to begin with. Can you hold this question and not fill in the blanks or turn away in boredom because the question is unanswerable? If you can do this, you may receive the electric being-shock that confirms: we do not know our origin or purpose and the fact of our existence is an absolute miracle.

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