It’s All Spiritual Experience

“As soon as the notion of good and bad develops, we are caught in spiritual materialism.” -Chogyam Trungpa

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

In a recent discussion, someone questioned Trungpa’s choice of the word, “develops,” wondering if it was just an awkwardness with the language.

I think his choice of words is deliberate. I think “as soon as they develop” refers to the skandhas. In his first discourse, The Buddha explained these five elements that make up our samsaric self: form, feeling, perception, formation, and consciousness. They are not really static elements, but more like a process.

The 5 Skandhas

There is form, and when it makes contact through the sense perceptions there is feeling. Then we have a basic perception that it is hard, soft, hot, cold, etc. Formation means the mental formations that “develop” due to our confusion (2nd and 3rd Noble Truths) and the causes and conditions of karma. In a split second, we identify the form as pleasant, unpleasant, or irrelevant, and react accordingly. But in essence it’s all consciousness and our experience is like a dream. We solidify it by plastering it with opinions. We solidify ourselves in return, a la, “This is me. I like this. I don’t like that…” In the case of morality, we can really get stuck if we fall into beliefs about being good or bad. In meditation practice, we can cut through the ego process and enjoy direct experience, free of neuroses.

Spiritual Materialism

Manjushri cuts through delusion with the sword of wisdom

Manjushri cuts through delusion with the sword of wisdom

“Spiritual Materialism” often refers to the tendency to assign tangible qualities to our spiritual experience, about which we often become egotistical, which is counterproductive. But here it seems he is bringing it down to a very basic level. It is all spiritual experience; not just what occurs in what we think of as our spiritual practice.

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Shared Emotional Tension

twolaughingbuddhasIn this section of the bog, I share tidbits of meaningful, intimate conversations between students, spiritual friends, and myself, reminiscent of Zen dialogues; little teaching conversations. They are not in any particular order.



Saturday, 8/13/16

Whitney T.: Do you think “unlived experience/s” might actually emit a small force field that extend into others nearby? I do.
A little “experience zapper”

Me: Yes. All our tension distorts our energy field and relational connections. You can feel it when someone is responding to a little clog of unlived experience, and even when we are, even though we may not be aware we have it, there are little sticking points in the flow of thought or expression, or gaps. Socially, people are so accustomed to recovering the flow of interaction that we don’t acknowledge those opportunities. Though in our interactions, I have found that normal mode is not our mode much of the time. I appreciate that.
That’s what mindfulness and insight are all about; freeing up those samskaras, zones of karmic seeds that are there because of our neuroses.
It’s also passed on through DNA, as we’ve been learning about traumatized parents or even more distant ancestors passing on symptoms of PTSD to their children.
Did I answer your question or was it more about an empathetic sort of thing?

Have a question?

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What is The Meaning of Life?

“I don’t think people are really seeking the meaning of life.I think we’re seeking the experience of being alive… We want to feel the rapture of being alive.” -Joseph Campbell

Do you really mean to ask, “What is the meaning of life?”

The word, “meaning” has several implications, of which “implication” is one.

“Meaning” has several uses, of which “use” is one.

Other meanings of “meaning” are: purpose, intent, reason, translation, and a result of an action, as in, “if you do this, that means you have to do that.”

“Meaning” shares the same Indo-European root as “mind.” Meaning is in the mind. Mind and meaning are correlated. Without mind, there is no meaning.

Asking the question, “What is the meaning of life?” begs another question. It implies that there is a meaning of life; a single, all-encompassing meaning, which has never been established conclusively. And if it were, then what?

If you find yourself wondering what the meaning of life is, it is a sign that you have slipped out of the flow of life. You find yourself standing apart, lacking direction, lost. It’s a trick question that points not to life itself but to the stance of the asker.

The more we establish the nature of ourselves or anything else as being permanent, separate, singular, and solid, the less meaning we find. It becomes a rut of fabricating an infinite series of finite equations, all of which will fall short, dying before they are solved, supplanted by more questions.

With our limited scope, we attempt to make meaning with equations, even though there are no equations. Nothing really equals anything else from one moment to the next, does it? When we try to apprehend meaning in this way, presuming there are any stable phenomena that we can figure out if we persist, we diminish life and any meaning therein. This way of seeking understanding is counterproductive, for if, in attempting to understand something, we are actually trying to dominate it, then our methodology fundamentally precludes understanding.

“Understanding” is standing under. if you examine the word, it obviously denotes a humbler stance, a willingness to be guided. Since nothing is solid, separate, singular, or permanent, nothing possesses meaning in and of itself. Therefore, meaning, like everything else, is fluid and interdependent. It is ever-changing.

The more we shift from the dominating stance to one of naked presence and pliability amidst an ever-changing reality, the more life there is. When we stay on the path of true understanding, the way grows ever wider. Meaning grows ever deeper. We stretch and stretch until there is no more “I” needing to know anything about anything.

Another popular trick question is, “What is my purpose?” Now this question implies that there is a “you” there to have a purpose. Again, the question points to a separation from life. When we are in the flow of life, we receive direction in the form of signs, synchronicity, and insights that can only come from the catalyst of relationship. It can be a relationship with another being, or with an abstration, but neither purpose nor meaning, even if there were a god to bestow them, could stand inert. Any meaning in life is generated by its living.

I have experienced a handful of peak moments in which I had participated in events that may or may not have, but certainly felt as if they had an ultimate and resounding positive effect on the world. In the ecstatic throes of total fulfillment, I declared to myself that even if I did nothing else for the rest of my life, that would be enough. I felt as though my purpose had been accomplished and the question of meaning was just gone. Every time, though, the moment passed, and the fulfillment gradually waned. The one who was fulfilled was only that one in that moment. The part of me that longs for not longing anymore compels me to seek those peak experiences, but I have learned that, like any other chase, it’s disappointing.

Every moment needs tending. We offer ourselves to it and it to us.

The real question is “What do you mean?” What do you mean for this moment? What are you to it and what is it to you?

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Our Past is Our Future: That’s How Karma Works

Tibetan Monk Creating a Kalachakra Sand Mandala

Tibetan Monk Creating a Kalachakra Sand Mandala

…which is not as fatalistic as it may look.

Firstly, there is the issue of the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing:* The concept of linear time collapses under examination. It is not linear, but we imagine it to be. It is an effective navigation tool. Our past and future both continuously spin out of the present moment in a very wibbly-wobbly way. This is especially true for the enormous backlog of undigested material we carry with us. One of my teachers, Reginald A. Ray, PhD,  has called this our “unlived life.”

Redemption of the past is redemption of the future: Say you have a lot of unopened mail. There are bills to pay, letters to answer, and various publications to read, and its effect on you is to make you feel afraid and overwhelmed. How does it affect the past, in terms of your whole self-story?  You think, “I am a procrastinator. I’m irresponsible. I have always been this way. I shouldn’t tell anyone about this or ask for help because it’s so bad that I am overwhelmed to do something so easy. I probably have Avoidant Personality Disorder!” All such evaluations grounded in such a narrative have an implicit history of the same as well as an inevitable doomy future.

Your past, from this place, looks pretty sad, and it appears to set you up for an even more difficult future. With that vision, why even open the mail? You’ll just see a bill that is much bigger than you expected. That will freak you out and you’ll have to do something to forget about it because you’ve already established that you can’t handle it. I mean, just kook at your history! You put the bill back on the pile and go get high or watch TV, or cook a complicated new recipe, or get dressed up and go find someone to admire you because that will at least affirm your value in some way.

For a moment the narrative appears to change, but when you see the bill again, you realize it hasn’t changed. You are no more able to pay it than you were before you became a celebrity chef. This is how karma works. There is certainly a wibbly-wobbly element, but there is also a very concrete imprint that doesn’t change until it is handled; until it is lived and digested. In the case of a bill, the only way to get rid of it is to pay it (or deal with it by negotiating a payment plan with that entity; it’s still manageable).

Back to the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing. You unfold the bill and sit down with a nice cup of coffee. You write the check and mail it, or call the company to work something out. The movie of your life suddenly looks different. Somehow, the part about having Avoidant Personality Disorder and being a worthless human has been erased! Something about the topography evens out. You’re less exhausted. And there really isn’t any trip going on about yourself at all. This is really how karma works.

The nitty-gritty of the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing: Karma comes from the Sanskrit root, kṙ, which indicates action. In its pure expression, Karma is described as “all-accomplishing action.” Karma is nothing but action, free of subject and object; free of personal narrative. Karma has nothing to do with your story in that it is not involved with past and future. It has no stakes in those concepts. It is a momentum, yes, but more of a dance than a march.

In its neurotic form, Karma is felt as paranoia, which is palpable in the procrastination example. The remnants of the unlived life are charged with that feeling of paranoia, because we feel them as a kind of pressure that holds us back and makes us feel impotent. This paranoia colors everything else in the picture. The unlived life we carry is like a dirty lens. That lens is cleansed a bit more every time we deal with the undigested material, which is called saṃskāra in Sanskrit, and describes a kind of seed that rides along in our lives, causing things to unfold in a certain way. The way situations unfold is differentiated as karmic fruition, while our actions and intentions are called karmic cause.

Therefore, every pure, appropriate response creates a new, freer blueprint for the future. Our basic meditation practice is the source of the necessary clarity to imagine truly appropriate responses. Only when we can escape the claustrophobia of the ego process can we see clearly, act with integrity and skill, and thus lighten the burden of suffering for all.

* “wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey thing” nomenclature a la Dr. Who
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Petomato: Hydroponic Growing Made Funky

Now that summer is coming to an end and we’re enjoying the only edible tomatoes of the year, those grown naturally and picked when ripe, you may want to turn your mind toward hydroponic gardening. Here is a great new product that converts plastic bottles (I know you avoid them, but sometimes we get stuck with one or two) into windowsill gardens. 

You can grow tomatoes, basil, chili peppers, and more with the Petomato. I’m not sure if they mean “pet tomato” or “PET tomato,” but I’m going with the former because it’s more amusing. 

To get your pet tomato plant going, visit the website and get your special cap for $14.99. They even have a page dedicated to helping us keep our plants happy and healthy. Then watch this ultra funky video to see how it’s done. It looks very easy. I’m clicking over to get mine now.


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Sitting, Walking, and Lying Down

Sitting, Walking, and Lying Down. If we boil life’s activities down to their essence, that’s pretty much what we do. In meditation and other contemplative pursuits we practice doing these deceptively simple activities with mindfulness and awareness, which we can then carry into the rest of our lives. This is the stuff your Dr. keeps telling you to do to prevent and even relieve illness. The ego tells us it is “nothing” and why would we want to spend time doing “nothing?” So we procrastinate, thinking it will always be there and we’ll do it in due time. As Ponlop Rinpoche says, we gain nothing from planning to meditate. The only way we can have the peace of mind and wisdom we crave is to practice it. We have to suit up and show up, and enjoy the exponential grace of meditating in a group with a teacher.

PI will reopen on Thursday, June 5th, with Meditation Class at 7PM. Please join us! Email info@theprovidenceinstitute for info or directions. 

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In Buddha’s Shadow: Depression, Realities, and Meditation

IMG_1578There are many people who experience spiritual awakening and do not experience depression or lingering effects of trauma. This article is addressed mostly to those of us who do continue to experience phases of darkness, but it may be helpful to anyone who is drawn toward better understanding of this phenomenon, of the benefits of meditation in general, and the nature of reality.

Coming out of another bout with darkness and hopelessness, once again with the help of meditation and the brave friends that remind me of it when I forget, I have some thoughts to share.

I’ve known for some time that there are actually multiple, actually infinite realities. We tend to refer to one reality as “Reality” and the others as moods or states of mind. This linguistic oversight should not be minimized.

It’s funny how real each reality seems and how powerful it is when one reality overtakes another. When our current reality jives with another, we feel right. The more people we find to bolster our sense of solidity within our current reality, the more real it seems. This starts in childhood and worsens with analysis.

When we start to have some sort of spiritual awakening, we experience ecstatic states of perfection and limitlessness as part of an infinite Whole. And then when some story we have been accustomed to believing about being incomplete, inadequate, too much exposed to darkness to stay in the light gets triggered, we become more discouraged than ever. How could that beauty we experienced be true if this pain is also true. We remind ourselves of all the aphorisms people use and it all sounds like bullshit. I mean when your friends blithely label your experience as just another lesson in the school of life, or a test, or the worst, that we need to experience the darkness to appreciate the light and that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all… I have never exited a relationship feeling that way. It’s too complicated for that neat packaging. To think of life as a school is fine as a metaphor, but beyond that it is bad theism. Here is the reason.

My most powerful, consuming experiences have told me that we are ultimately infinite Love and Spaciousness, and that we are here together in this shared reality because of a transcendent wisdom and compassion that makes it impossible not to be here.

But it’s very easy to get lost; Very Easy to get lost and to think that everything can be interpreted with our mental faculties. Intelligence is useful to a point, but it can be a bitch sometimes because we really think everything bears some meaning that is linked causally to something else, and we think that because we can, not because it’s true.

It’s next to impossible to get off that ride when it spins out of control, especially with more thinking, which is why I have such faith in meditation, specifically shamatha-vipashyana practice: calmly abiding with the breath and letting thoughts come and go in the space of open awareness. In that space, the troubled and distorted thoughts become less entangled and lose their power. Their cohesiveness is less convincing and the expansive peace, the field of awareness that extends beyond a limited experience of ourselves can absorb the vicissitudes of emotion and thought. The phantasms of the mind are witnessed compassionately in meditation practice rather than obliterated by baseless or aggressive reasoning. Our reality shifts and we have perspective.

With practice, calm abiding during shifting realities becomes more of our experience. There is a feeling of maturity and equanimity that comes with this- more faith and less getting lost.

If you’ve ever had an experience of spiritual awakening, becoming lost in realities of trauma or depression is devastating, disappointing. We think it’s all been a waste and it always will be because it will always come back to this. Our habitual reactions are that powerful, at least mine are. These realities may remain part of our lives for a long time. Many spiritual leaders go through periods when they are inconsolable with depression, addiction, or hopelessness until someday they don’t. So do we. We are not different, fundamentally, from them.

The only way I’ve found any real sanity or spacious perspective about reality, or rather, realities, is in the practice of meditation. Ecstatic experiences are wonderful, but integration, that is really to say integrity, comes from contemplative practice: meditation. The discipline is the tricky part. When we are stuck in a reality of no faith and no perspective, it’s really hard to believe that just sitting and breathing gently as an offering of friendship to ourselves can really shift our reality. Think of sleep. There is nothing easier than sleep. All you have to do is let go. You don’t have to try to sleep. It’s just a natural state of rest. And yet, how many of us have trouble sleeping? It is the same with meditation. It works. We need it like we need sleep, and all we have to do is let go. Sleep means letting go for a long time, but you only have to meditate for a minimum of ten minutes before real change starts to happen. (See 10 Minute Club) It’s a smaller letting go. We can really do it and once you experience it, the seed of a new reality is planted. We need to nurture that seed with regular practice.

Additionally, instead of trying to fix our friends when they’re suffering with blind aphorisms or by telling them their reality isn’t real, we should ask them to meditate, offer to sit with them or take them to a meditation class; tell them our own experience honestly, with humility. We should offer ourselves and our experience to others so they can be empowered to heal with their own abilities, just as the Buddha did, so that practice of calm abiding can become part of their own experience. When someone is depressed, they will not believe your aphorisms, and they will feel you are discounting their reality and trying to change them.

Do you know this? Do you know this already? Do you do it? Do I?

Yes, eventually, and it’s the only thing that really heals me.

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