If we really want to address the whole issue of suffering, as well as our desire and yearning for freedom, love, and connection, then we need to learn how to look clearly at our own minds…
…The difficulty of this and the problem with it is that the images we have of ourselves are often in conflict—because the perceptions and thoughts that others have about us don’t always “agree” with one another. At one moment, we have an image of ourself as being a worthy, loving, and happy person—but within minutes or an hour, our image of ourself can change quite drastically. All of a sudden, we may decide that were a terrible person because someone was critical of us, said something unkind about us, or told us that they really didn’t like us anymore. The idea we have of ourselves is something that makes us feel very insecure, because it can change so quickly, and often at the hands of another. And so we suffer, because someone’s opinion of us can so easily trigger anger, sadness, even depression. Our sense of self is very ephemeral; it’s not as solid as we imagine it to be, and the confusion around it is one of the greatest causes of human suffering that there is. To address the dilemma of human suffering, we need to look even more closely at the way our minds create this shifting sense of who we are.
The very idea that we may not be who we think we are, for many people, is something quite revolutionary. This discovery naturally gives rise to the larger question: Is our mind who we are? Are we actually able to be identified by, described by, and defined by the thoughts in our mind? When we begin to look at our experience clearly, we’ll see that there are at least two phenomena going on: one is the movement of mind, including all of the descriptions, self-images, ideas, beliefs, and opinions that arise moment to moment. The other phenomenon is the awareness of mind. Very rarely do we take into account the awareness of mind, the space in which mind arises and subsides.
Mind has a very powerful ability to put awareness into a trance. Very quickly, we find ourselves lost in that trance. This trance is precisely what we’ve been calling “egoic consciousness”—the creation of our belief in who we are, which forms the very structure of ego. Ego is nothing more than the beliefs, ideas, and images we have about ourselves—and so it is actually something completely imaginary.
Note what happens to your sense of self when you go to sleep and your mind isn’t thinking about who you are. What happens to your beliefs, your ideas and opinions, and the world as you think it is, when you’re in bed and asleep? While your mind is resting, none of the projections that your mind imagines exist. All of the imagination of your mind ceases when you go to sleep, at least until you start dreaming. In this state of deep sleep, what you experience is great peace. We call it “sleep,” we call it “rest,” and it’s absolutely vital to our survival. If we don’t get enough sleep, we’ll eventually go somewhat crazy. We can even die if we don’t get enough sleep, if we never allow the mind to come into a deep state of peace and rest, where it isn’t thinking anymore.
This is ironic, because we think that if we control our minds in a certain way, then peace, rest, and freedom will be ours. We think that it is simply a matter of coming up with the right thoughts, the right ideas, the right beliefs, then we’ll find the key to peace, and from there we will all begin to get along with each other. But our history shows us—hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years of history—that our ideas haven’t saved us. Our ideas haven’t saved us from our own anger, bitterness, and violence. They haven’t saved us from wars and famine and destruction. If our history has shown us anything—the history of thought, the history of ideas—it’s that thought can’t save humanity, that thought can’t save the world, that it’s going to take something other than even the greatest ideas that we can imagine. Instead, we must start with our own minds. Because if we don’t start with ourselves, then our mind is just going to keep projecting itself into the way we view life, and we’ll be lost within another dream, another trance.
THE TRANCE OF EGO
As soon as we’re caught in a trance state, we’re imprisoned in a mechanical, conditioned movement of mind. Everyone knows what it’s like to be caught in this egoic trance state: We experience great frustration and dissatisfaction. Part of our frustration arises because the ego can’t really do anything about this underlying discontent, because the ego itself is simply a mechanical movement of thought. It can’t express any true creativity. Our egos are basically the past expressing itself in the present. By that, I mean the ego is simply our conditioning unfolding and displaying itself here and now—in the way we think, act, and react. In the egoic state of consciousness, we really don’t have the amount of choice or volition that we imagine we have.
On a deep, intuitive level, we all know this, because if we had the choice that we think we possess, we would simply choose happiness and peace; nobody who’s not insane would choose otherwise. And yet, even though we believe that we have this power of choice, life keeps showing us that we can’t even manipulate where our minds go, that we can’t even insist on the way we feel day to day, much less control every one of our behaviors or the behaviors of those around us. How many times have we made New Year’s resolutions about how we were going to change, and how many times did that change actually occur? More often than not, even the things we say we want to do, we don’t end up doing. The reason isn’t because we have a lack of willpower. The reason isn’t because we haven’t figured out how to do them. The reason is because, from the egoic level of consciousness, we don’t really have the power of choice that we imagine we have, and that’s one of the most frustrating things within the trance state of egoic consciousness.
This trance state of egoic consciousness is where 99 percent of humanity lives and breathes, yet it’s the very thing from which we yearn to escape. Even though we don’t know it’s what we long to be free of, we all have this desire to not be confined or limited imprinted within us. We all have this innate desire to be free, creative, loving, open, and compassionate—and yet when we’re trapped within the egoic state of consciousness, in this trance of ego, our options are very limited.
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To quote from myself, because, well, because I can, in my history of Zen Buddhism come west, “Zen Master Who?” I describe the first of the several times I met Alan Watts. It was sometime, I believe, in 1969.
“I was on the guest staff of the Zen monastery in Oakland led by Roshi Jiyu Kennett. I was enormously excited to actually meet this famous man, the great interpreter of the Zen way. Wearing my very best robes, I waited for him to show up; and waited and waited. Nearly an hour later, Watts arrived dressed in a kimono, accompanied by a fawning young woman and an equally fawning young man. It was hard not to notice his interest in the young woman who, as a monk, I was embarrassed to observe seemed not to be wearing any underwear. I was also awkwardly aware that Watts seemed intoxicated.”
Alan Watts was in fact the first person to write popular books about Zen in the West, beginning in 1937 with the “Spirit of Zen,” and more importantly in 1957 with his best selling “Way of Zen.” He drew mainly on the scholarly volumes just being written by D. T. Suzuki, the first person to write authentically about Zen in European languages, through Watts engaging style made enormously readable and genuinely compelling. As I summarized in my history, “An erstwhile Episcopal priest, engaging raconteur, and scandalous libertine, Alan Watts was also a prolific author whose books created an inviting sense of Zen-as-pure-experience and a do-what-you-want spirituality. These qualities both profoundly misrepresented Zen and led many people to it.”
On that last note, some years later I attended a talk by an American Zen priest. At the end, during the question and answer period, someone asked about Watts. The priest sighed, and then said, “I know there’s a lot of controversy about Alan Watts and what he really understood about Zen.” He paused. And then, added, “But, you know, without Alan Watts, I wouldn’t be standing here on this platform.” I have to say, in large part, that’s true for me as well. In the 1960s and 70s, Alan Watts opened some important doors for many of us looking for a new way.
Over these passing years I’ve come to feel the title of his biography “In My Own Way” and the title of the English edition of Monica Furlong’s biography of him, “Genuine Fake,” taken together points to the complexities of this intriguing Anglo-American Zen trickster/ancestor of our contemporary spiritual scene.
In a relentless critique of Alan Watts, Lou Nordstrom and Richard Pilgrim point out how an authentic spirituality must encompass “practice, discipline, and effort,” features completely lacking in Alan Watts’ “Zen.” In large part I agree, but not completely. There is absolutely a place of falling away of practice, discipline, and effort. As we open our hearts we find the way is in fact broad and forgiving. And it seems he tasted that freedom and joy. I really believe he did. But, the authentic spiritual is also in that delightful conundrum of a real life, totally bound up with practice, discipline, and effort. The way is also, without a doubt, harsh and demands everything. And here Watts seems completely clueless.
Now, in my opinion, Alan Watts was at his very best during a brief period when he tried at practice, discipline, and effort. Or, at least stood in their general neighborhood. Raised in England, his natal tradition was Anglicanism, although he formally abandoned it by sixteen for the eclectic Buddhism of the London Buddhist Society. In his late twenties, having come to America and desperate for an occupation that paid something, he decided to become an Episcopal priest. He had not attended college, but by providing a very long list of the books he had read and then showing a suspicious faculty he had not only read them, but profoundly absorbed them, he was admitted into the divinity program at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.
Watts graduated with a masters degree in divinity and was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1945. He was immediately engaged as the Episcopal chaplain at Northwestern University. He was thirty years old. It appears to have been an amazing moment. He was wildly popular on campus, and his books were received in progressive religious circles as challenging and compelling. And then within five years Watts was out of the ministry, for many reasons not least of which was when his wife sued for an annulment on grounds of adultery. This part would become something of a pattern for his life.
For our time here I want to remain focused within that Christian moment. His divinity degree thesis was reworked and published as the book “Behold the Spirit: A Study in the Necessity of Mystical Religion,” first released in 1947. I can’t tell if it has ever been out of print. What I do know is you can buy a new copy today, there’s even a Kindle version.
It’s really interesting, an attempt at synthesizing eastern and western spirituality grounded in a broad and sympathetic expression of Anglicanism. I’ve seen the term “monistic” or “non-dual Christianity” being used here and there lately. Monistic or nondual as in the reconciliation of the myriad things of the world within an interdependence so complete one can speak of it all taken together as one. Of course, variations on monism are at the heart of much of Eastern religions, certainly of Hinduism and Buddhism and Taoism.
While one can argue there have been non-dual currents in Christianity, particularly among some although not most early gnostic schools, this perspective has definitely not been a part of normative Christianity. In mainstream Christianity the world and God are seen as relentlessly separate, creator and created. A world of problems have followed this setting up of a hierarchy with the spirit above and good and the world below and condemned.
If the proposition that the world is completely separate from the divine were true, well, we would just have to live with it. But, and let me make a categorical statement rather than my general hedging: That’s not true. Rather, as I open my heart to the world, the world, the great mess that is you and me and all things, I find each thing is created by and creating the host of other things at the same time, in a dance or web of intimacy, where each of us is a moment in a shimmering play of reality. And, that play of reality is exactly where I find the divine, the holy, the sacred. Here. I don’t need to go to some other place to find it.
Me, I see no need of some extra bit. Perhaps why I am not a mainstream Christian, or anywhere near by. That said there are today a host of emergent Christians who don’t see the separation, either. Richard Rohr and Cynthia Bougeault are two contemporary and apparently popular writers that fit the bill. I would add in Bruno Barnhart, Bougeault’s mentor, as well as a variety of Hindu influenced Christians like the nun Sara Grant, the anonymous Cistercian monk who writes under the name “a Monk of the West,” as well as, well the list is increasingly long, but such folk as the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart and the moderns Thomas Keating, Bede Griffiths, and Martha Reeves, who write as “Maggie Ross” are a pretty good start for those who wish to pursue this further.
And, Alan Watts’ book kind of spells it all out in a way perhaps even best done by someone not actually immersed, as he was, standing more in the neighborhood of that “practice, discipline, and effort” than within it. Of course that distance also means he misses some things. Additionally I find Watts a tad too comfortable with his own insight, unchecked by others who’ve walked the way before, a danger for the spiritually unaffiliated. All this acknowledged there remains something quite wonderful…
Behold the Spirit was a revelation when published nearly seventy years ago. It was, I gather, and perhaps obviously, criticized for its “creeping pantheism.” The book was in fact a through going panenthiest screed, probably the most compatible Christian variation on pantheism, the other word for non-dual or monistic spirituality, where in panentheism the world is seen is divine, but that the divine, God, cannot be limited to the universe. Even with that accepting at some point an other of some sort, this panentheism is still a major step from the normative vision of the Christian church.
And with all this taken together a question bubbles up, and which, in a meditation he wrote a quarter of a century later, Watts’ asks on behalf of all those who would challenge his thesis. “Can Christianity abandon the monarchical image of God (a God separate from all that is in a great split between creator and created) and still be Christianity?” To which he responds with another question, a rather burning one, as I feel it in my heart, “(W)hich is more important – to be Christian or to be at one with God?” Or, for me: to follow some orthodoxy of separation, and cut myself off from what is calling to every molecule of my being, or commit whole-heartedly to the great play of the many as one found as I open myself to the world as it presents?
A worthy challenge, I believe, perhaps the great challenge. And, I think Watts in fact spells out a fair amount of what an affirmation of a non-dual Christianity can look like in his thesis and book. The sad thing, as I see it, was that he couldn’t follow through for himself. His personality, what he liked to characterize as his “bohemian personality” just didn’t have a fit in the organized church. I’d have to add his lack of personal boundaries would have meant he would never had made it as a Unitarian Universalist minister, either. He was born to be an outsider. And after that five years stirring up the Anglican church he made sure he would forever be an outsider.
But he also pointed a way.
First he spells out a reality that I find resonates with my experience. The metaphors are straight out of the traditional church, which I think can be helpful for Westerners hoping to find the real. More complicated for me is a relentless masculine by preference language. But, if we allow ourselves to listen, we find the underlying understanding he presents shakes the very foundations of the moral universe the conventional church preaches. He declares:
“God is the most obvious thing in the world. He is absolutely self-evident – the simplest, clearest and closest reality of life and consciousness. We are only unaware of him because we are too complicated, for our vision is darkened by the complexity of pride.
“We seek him beyond the horizon with our noses lifted high in the air, and fail to see that he lies at our vary feet. We flatter ourselves in premeditating the long, long journey we are going to take in order to find him, the giddy heights of spiritual progress we are going to scale, and all the time are unaware of the truth that ‘God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves.’ We are like birds flying in quest of the air, or men with lighted candles searching through the darkness for fire.”
Then he lays out the traditions of the Christian church as a manifestation of this truth of our radical interdependence, of our bottomless unity. The man who can only stand in the neighborhood of practice, discipline, and effort, shows where it can be found. I think in part because he really did taste the deeper truths, really did to some degree, and none of us are judge of how deep any other, or for that matter, even we ourselves have traveled, really did touch the great insight.
So, as the Episcopal priest, Martin Smith noted, Even “as a mirror reflects all colors and shapes without interference,” Alan Watts could call us to stand in the place of the wise heart. “(I)n the same way the mystical awareness of God does not contest place with other experiences and state(s) of mind. Mental states such as joy, sorrow, exaltation, dejection, pleasure, and pain are as a rule mutually exclusive. But the mystical stage is inclusive, just as God and His love include the whole universe. There is no conflict between experiencing the Now and things which happen in the Now.”
Smith touches the heart of wisdom as Alan Watts presented it. This is an extremely good pointing that even those of us with no affinity for the traditional language of the Christian church, can, nonetheless, recognize as an expression of what we all find as we open our hearts as wide as the human heart can be opened.
The field is found. And the dance of things within it is revealed.
In his little book and during those five years, Alan Watts showed those who love the Christian tradition how they can turn toward the real without abandoning their tradition.
Genuine fake. A teacher for those willing to follow the way he pointed, but could not himself go.
A wonder. And a joy.
A hint of possibilities for us all.
What Watts has done and continues to do for me is keep the light burning on the most intimate questions/challenges I struggle with in regards to orthodox Christian doctrine: the belief in the inerrancy of scripture; the exclusivity of Jesus as “THE” son of God verses “A” son of God [or as Watts describes him — the “bosses son]; the “pedestalizing of Jesus” at the expense of our connection with him; a system of monarchical rule by a Zeus-like/Jehovah overseer; guilt laden believers separated by an ever widening chasm between themselves and a perfect Jesus (even considering the Pauline “doctrine of grace” enabled).
In regards to Watt’s shortcomings consider Numbers 22:28. As a gun for hire, Balaam fell far from being an honest chap. and God’s anger against him is shown in God causing Balaam’s donkey to actually speak and rebuke him. “And the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?”
Watts was and continues to be a powerful voice (even if some view him as irrelevant, immoral, and surely heretical). It seems reasonable to assume that God, who could surely create the ultimate human drama, might purposely cast someone many would argue unfit for centerstage.
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Painting - “Tattooed With Emotions” by Melinda Konya
NATIONAL AND RACIAL PAIN-BODIES
Certain countries in which many acts of collective violence were suffered or perpetrated have a heavier collective pain-body than others. This is why older nations tend to have stronger pain-bodies. It is also why younger countries, such as Canada or Australia, and those that have remained more sheltered from the surrounding madness, such as Switzerland, tend to have lighter collective pain-bodies. Of course, in those countries, people still have their personal pain-body to deal with. If you are sensitive enough, you can feel a heaviness in the energy field of certain countries as soon as you step off the plane. In other countries, one can sense an energy field of latent violence just underneath the surface of everyday life. In some nations, for example, in the Middle East, the collective pain-body is so acute that a significant part of the population finds itself forced to act it out in an endless and insane cycle of perpetration and retribution through which the pain-body renews itself continuously.
In countries where the pain-body is heavy but no longer acute, there has been a tendency for people to try and desensitize themselves to the collective emotional pain: in Germany and Japan through work, in some other countries through widespread indulgence in alcohol (which, however, can also have the opposite effect of stimulating the pain-body, particularly if consumed in excess). China's heavy pain-body is to some extent mitigated by the widespread practice of t'ai chi, which amazingly was not declared illegal by the Communist government that otherwise feels threatened by anything it cannot control. Every day in the streets and city parks, millions practice this movement meditation that stills the mind. This makes a considerable difference to the collective energy field and goes some way toward diminishing the pain-body by reducing thinking and generating Presence.
Spiritual practices that involve the physical body, such as t'ai chi, qigong, and yoga, are also increasingly being embraced in the "western world. These practices do not create a separation between body and spirit and are helpful in weakening the pain-body. They will play an important role in the global awakening.
The collective racial pain-body is pronounced in Jewish people, who have suffered persecution over many centuries. Not surprisingly, it is strong as well in Native Americans, whose numbers were decimated and whose culture all but destroyed by the European settlers. In Black Americans too the collective pain-body is pronounced. Their ancestors were violently uprooted, beaten into submission, and sold into slavery. The foundation of American economic prosperity rested on the labor of four to five million black slaves. In fact, the suffering inflicted on Native and Black Americans has not remained confined to those two races, but has become part of the collective American pain-body. It is always the case that both victim and perpetrator suffer the consequences of any acts of violence, oppression, or brutality. For what you do to others, you do to yourself.
It doesn't really matter what proportion of your pain-body belongs to your nation or race and what proportion is personal. In either case, you can only go beyond it by taking responsibility for your inner state now. Even if blame seems more than justified, as long as you blame others, you keep feeding the pain-body with your thoughts and remain trapped in your ego. There is only one perpetrator of evil on the planet: human unconsciousness. That realization is I true forgiveness. With forgiveness, your victim identity dis-1 solves, and your true power emerges—the power of Presence. Instead of blaming the darkness, you bring in the light.
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Painting: "Not to be Reproduced" by Rene Magritte (1937)
Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned I know it sounds absurd but please tell me who I am.
Let’s start again. Who are you? Every time you fill out a job application, work up your resumé, fill in your information on an online dating service (one of the many new forms of hell created by the web), or meet someone socially, that ‘simple’ question has to be answered.
In the world of social conventions, the answer is a story. Lots of things may go into this story: interests, history, quirks, talents, achievements, background, likes, dislikes, successes and failures. And the story we tell changes according to the circumstances.
We don’t stop there. We reflect, refine, and even create such stories, not only to navigate in the world, but also to understand why we do certain things or to prepare for a new stage in life. The stories are always evolving. They are not fixed. They take on new dimensions, reveal connections we hadn’t seen before, or seem to explain things about our lives in a different, perhaps even useful, way.
But none of the stories, not one of them, not even all of them, answers the question “Who am I”.
I’m a million different peoplefrom one day to the next…
— The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony
Perhaps we can answer this question by looking at how we behave. Many things affect our behavior, but here, we’ll consider just two, feelings and roles.When angry, we see the world in terms of opposition. Anyone, even our partner or our child, appears, at least for a moment or two, as an enemy, and we treat them as such, though we may well regret doing so afterwards. When needy, we see the world as not providing what we need, and we grasp and hold onto things, sometimes quite unnecessarily. The same holds for pride, or jealousy, or love, compassion, or devotion.
How we behave also depends on our role in any given situation. We tend to behave one way when we are giving orders, another way when we are receiving them, and yet another when we are mediating between those who give orders and those who receive them. We have one personality when we are accepted members of a group and another personality when we are outside or new to a group. We behave one way with our parents, and another way with our children and still another with our siblings. Who we are, even in the context of family, seems to change according to our role.
All we can conclude from this is that we are a million different people, every day.
The more we look into this question, the more mysterious it becomes. And that, right there, opens another possibility. Who am I? Could I be a mystery?
In spiritual work, a mystery is something that cannot be put into words, but can be known in experience. Can we know, experientially, who we are?
“What is the highest truth?” the emperor asked Bodhidharma. “I have no idea.” “Then who is standing before me?” “I don’t know.”
Instead of trying to describe who we are, let’s look right at our experience and keep in mind something John Audubon once said, “When the book and the bird disagree, always believe the bird.”
Look at “I”. What do you see? All sorts of thoughts and ideas may come rushing in, but don’t be distracted. Keep looking. At some point, we see that when we look at “I”, we don’t see any thing. Actually, it’s more accurate to say we see no thing. Initially, we don’t trust this “not seeing”. Something must be wrong, we feel, and we quickly shift back to thinking about who we are or trying to figure out what we are doing wrong. In effect, we don’t believe the bird and are consulting the book.
If we keep coming back to the looking, if we trust this “not seeing”, we gradually develop the capacity to rest in seeing no thing, and we come to know that we are not a thing: there is just awareness aware of awareness.
That may be all very well, but how does this help us negotiate life?
Nasrudin was visiting a friend one afternoon. They became so engrossed in their conversation that they didn’t notice the passage of time. Night fell, and the friend said, “Nasrudin, it’s dark. Why don’t you light a candle? You’ll find a candle and matches in the drawer to your right.” “What!” shouted Nasrudin, “How do you expect me to know my right from my left in the dark?”
First, let go of all absolutes. Since everything is a story, regard everything as a story. Stories change, and our relationships with people and things changes, too. Some people have such elaborate stories about things — flowers or stamps, or computers or cars — that they interact with them as if they were people. Conversely, most of us have experienced at least one relationship, be it in our personal or work life (tech support, perhaps?), in which we were treated as a thing. Peopleness or thingness aren’t absolutes: they are qualities defined by how we interact with our experience.
In other words, pay attention to relationships. The Buddhist word for this is interdependence: everything exists and is defined only in relation to other things.
Second, let go of fixed positions, inside or out. When we take a fixed position, saying, “This is how it has to be,” we create conflict — this against that, right against wrong, black against white. We see only two mutually exclusive possibilities and we are in a zero-sum game. In any conflict, the two poles are expressions of a deeper principle, expressions of a world that our fixed position prevents us from seeing. Black and white, for instance, are both expressions of the world of color. How many possibilities are there in a world of color compared to a world of black and white? When we see the underlying principle, we have a whole spectrum with which to work. In Buddhism, this approach is known as the middle way, not falling into an extreme position, but always including both poles in awareness.
Third, touch the awareness that is always present, even in the worst of times. As noted above, we carry stories about who we are and stories about who others are and, in the moment of interaction, we regard the stories as facts, as how things are. They aren’t facts. They are only ideas and projections arising in the moment. They distract us from what we are actually experiencing. To stop the projections, we drop the stories about who we are, who they are, how we are meant to be, or how they are meant to be. We drop everything and open to what we actually experience, the play of physical and sensory sensations, emotions and feelings, and thoughts and ideas. We open to the whole ball of wax, the whole mess, until we can rest in the clear empty awareness in which the whole mess arises. It’s there. It’s always there, just as silence is present in sound, and space is present in form. When we touch it, we know what to do and how to do it.
You live in confusion and the illusion of things. There is a reality. You are that reality. When you know that, you know that you are nothing, and in being nothing, are everything. That is all.
— Kalu Rinpoche (1904-1989)
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