Nihilism And Eternalism on The Shamanic Path

chodThis is a conversation that took place in a shamanic teachers’ group online. It started as a dialogue about the possibility of blending shamanism with other spiritual practices. It could have gone in a hundred different directions, but this is where it went:

Tracey: What I am wondering … how have people felt about their shamanic path? I am very called to this particular path – especially the newest avenue as it melds beautifully and supports a life path – but shamanism isn’t my foundational spiritual path. I am slightly conflicted about the purity of this path … do I have to keep it to itself or can I blend my other spiritual paths with it? Given the core fundamentals of shamanism, I feel that shamanism is specific. What do you think happens if we start to incorporate other paths with something as specific as this?

Me: The shamanic traditions of Latin America (Heart and Feather Serpent Islands) have been blended for millennia. When Catholicism was imposed on the people, they incorporated it into their shamanic practices, to save their lives, and out of that grew a genuine sort of folk Catholicism. Many still invoke Jesus and saints as part of their practice and many go to church. I sing in a Congregational church choir and feel connected to Yeshua (Jesus) very intimately and directly, though I would not pass as a mainline Christian. I am Buddhist, more than Christian, and my shamanic lineages are mostly in Peru and Mexico. I didn’t cherry-pick from Buddhism or Shamanism. I immersed myself wholeheartedly and apprenticed with genuine masters. As I grew in my own path, a special lineage emerged through me that is fed by all that I have studied. However, when I teach shamanism, I stay close to the lineage teachings; same with Tibetan Buddhism. I have found, personally, that they are very complementary; that they provide antidotes to extremes that can be found in each tradition. Buddhist teachings on selflessness temper the eternalism that one can find in shamanism. The animistic view of the world in shamanism tempers the disconnect from Earth sometimes found in Tibetan Buddhism, etc. It’s good to be inquisitive. Doubt is good; so is devotion. Paradoxes are the closest to Truth. Walking the middle road is good.

Tasara: What do you mean by eternalism?

Me: The two extremes regarding phenomena are eternalism and nihilism. We say there is no permanent self to anything, so one could think, “well, that’s nihilism.” Yet a self appears. When we mistake it for having a separate, solid, permanent, singular existence apart from interdependence; apart from infinite causes and conditions, that’s eternalism.

In shamanism, we can learn to transmute energies and experience that lack of eternalism directly, but often, I think people can fall into a mindset of being a soul that really has permanent attributes, or of thinking that we have to get rid of certain things and attract other things instead of working with them as fluid.

David: Extraction and soul retrieval is so often the experience in shamanic healing. This can contribute to the rigidity of thinking you’re mentioning perhaps. I came across a book titled ‘Feeding Your Demons’, an ancient Tibetan healing technique, a shamanic technique. Very different approach. Working with trauma as fluid rather than something we need to extract and expel, befriending and transforming the energy from something destructive to something nurturing and affirming. Helped me to broaden my thinking.

Me: Yes! Chöd practice. It’s very powerful.

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Magical Ceremonies

60-waning-gibbous-huachuma-fireWe had another fire and Huachuma medicine ceremony last night. It was raining a bit. We could hear it. We could see it dripping from the roof onto the trash bins, but it wasn’t falling on us at all. I had bags of herbs for the fire spread out on the tables. They, just the bags, hopefully, got soaking wet, so they’re spread out to dry in the guest room. It was the only place in the house with enough space. It was magical, how the rain seemed to be everywhere but over the fire.

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11/9: Why Trump Doesn’t Trump Reality

VajradharaThis is incomplete and rough. I want to write a more coherent post for the institute, and a friend’s genuineness in asking for some hope had given me the inspiration I needed to start. It may not get any more polished than this. I don’t think any of us are feeling too polished today.

So here’s what I’ve got:

As in any personal tragedy, our focus will shift from the macro to the micro, and the little things we do today will finally seem as important as they are. My Buddhist teachers have explained that hopelessness is actually our best friend. Hopelessness is the only thing that finally gets us to give up our habitual ways of managing reality. When we are hopeless, there is space for what is ultimately nourishing and healing to come through. We stop grasping at what we think we know, because it doesn’t work anymore, and we finally have a chance to experience genuine spontaneity as part of the web of life from the rawness of our vulnerability. We will identify our true needs and our personal paths will become clearer. Once we put this sliver of reality behind us; once we unfreeze this moment, we will, by necessity, turn to what makes our lives more fulfilling. We will seek rejuvenation in the natural world, and we will experience gratitude. Out of gratitude, we will turn our energy toward the things we can do to help contribute to the health of the web of life. We will turn, more than ever, to our good friends and seek to increase our circles of friends, putting more energy into meaningful connections. We will become more fulfilled than before. The aspects of reality that we can affect will improve greatly and our little lives will be the positive force the world needs; not because we are angry or afraid, but because we are inspired and in love. Reality is so much bigger than this tragedy we are experiencing now.

This is what is helping me. In the slow-motion, vivid quality life has taken on today I felt how important it was just to feed my dog and chickens in a loving, attentive way. I feel how important it is to speak with thoughtfulness and love. I feel how important it is to appreciate this opportunity.

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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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