When the Tool Becomes the Master

Last night in class my professor brought up some interesting ideas about the way new technology (i.e. new tools) changes our minds – the ways we think and act. Without getting deep into the context of the lecture (which was more of a discussion, really), he said that sometimes what is meant to be a tool for us to master for our own sake often becomes the master itself. The very tools we master can begin mastering us when we would be better off ruling them. He said this is true of both physical tools AND conceptual tools.

And that got me thinking…

I think there are conceptual tools that were designed as an aid to meditation practice. One such tool, which is perhaps one of the most common tools used in Buddhist meditation, is no-self or not-self. When used as one tool among many, it’s a wonderful thing. It helps us to let go limited self-concepts that do not fit our current situation and move on.

But not-self can quickly become the Master. It can be a nagging voice that drops into our practice when we are doing something that would usually be considered harmless, such as reflecting on a time when we felt hurt or scared, or even happy or proud. It can creep in and say, “What’s wrong with you? There’s no self, remember? This is an illusion. You know that already.” And in that sense it can be a tool unconsciously used to shoot down confidence, avoid certain experiences that should probably be attended to, or cause one to feel guilty or shameful around a “self-centered” emotion.

And that’s just one case of the way a concept can quickly go from being a useful tool to a tool-that-uses-you.

I’m not prepared to give some kind of ready-made solution to this conundrum, as though it can be overcome by yet another conceptual tool. But there is tremendous value in simply being aware of the possibility of our tools becoming our masters. Maybe then we won’t blindly accept the spiritual-sounding voice that tends to pull us away from the freshness of experience in any given moment. It may also inspire us to try using tools more consciously, perhaps in response to the more tools that arise and express themselves more automatically, and often inappropriately.

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Doing Spiritual Work Alone-Together

It is a truism that ultimately, spiritual work is the work of one. When it comes down to it, each of us is responsible for putting in the time and effort required to grow, because no one can do the work in our place. No one can meditate for you. No one can serve in your place, or make your choices for you. Your freedom of expression may be restrained by means of aggression, but how you respond to any given set of circumstances always rest squarely on your shoulders (Philosophy of Existence 101).

Though ultimately the work of one, any individual spiritual practice that does not consciously include both the feedback and participation of others is bound to seem incomplete. While no one can do your work for you, the role of others on the spiritual path is integral in the deepest sense of the word. Our spiritual lives are embedded in social contexts that may be repressed or consciously ignored, but never truly escaped.

Including others is messy. Fellow travelers may provide helpful support and guidance when we need it most, which I’m sure we would all agree is beneficial to our respective practices. We also find ourselves having to deal with disagreements, setbacks, and other frustrations that arise in relationship and seem to get in the way of the things we would rather be doing for the sake of our own path. It can be difficult to find the motivation to help our neighbor work through their shit when we have enough of our own shit to work through.

But…

Here’s the funny thing about shit: it’s fertilizer. The very stuff that we don’t care to mix into our lives is the stuff that helps each of us grow and mature spiritually. The moments of our lives which you might regard as a waste (pun intended) of your precious time and energy are some of the most useful for your development. Difficulties can become the sustenance you need to make the journey; the fuel that powers your vessel onward.

In this day and age, when and where intimate involvement with others is nearly unavoidable by most, it makes practical sense to include others in our spiritual work in a conscious and intentional way. The responsibility to engage in your work is still yours and yours alone. Given the circumstances, don’t sell yourself short by going it alone. Instead, I suggest going it alone-together. This doesn’t mean that you simply need to learn to tolerate others enough to get by. It means that there is a potent well-spring of energy waiting for those who learn to consciously and deliberately tap into it. What better way is there to mobilize your efforts in a pragmatic at responsible way? These days, I’d say there isn’t one.

Regardless, of course, the choice is yours.

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Yoga, Stress, and Learning to Drop It.

I’ve been practicing meditation for several years now. But, do to my body’s longstanding inflexibility, I have avoided practicing yoga as a compliment to my meditation and overall spiritual practice. I recently decided to give yoga the old college try.

Rather than flipping through the local Yellow Pages for nearby yoga studios, I did what any other late-twenties, moderately tech-savvy, do-it-yourselfer would do: search for a decent YouTube channel. It didn’t take long to find a few videos that appeared to match my skill-level (aka, complete beginner). So, for the last four weeks or so, I’ve been fumbling my way through 10-20 minute sequences 2-4 times per week. (Hey, I had to start somewhere.)

Each of the videos I’ve learned from end with a relaxation exercise in the savasana (“corpse”) pose. It’s basically a form of progressive muscle relaxation (PMR), which involves tensing the muscles in some area of the body for a few seconds and then relaxing them. It goes something like this:

“Lift up your right leg, contract your leg… drop.”

“Lift up your left leg, contract your leg… drop.”

“Lift up your hips, contract your buttocks… drop.”

“Lift up your arms, make fists… drop.”

“Lift up your chest, contract your upper-back… drop.”

… and so on, and so forth.

I assume that – as is the case with PMR – the purpose of contracting the muscles prior to relaxing them is to become aware of their location in the body, and also how they feel when contracted or relaxed. With awareness comes the potential for greater influence over these muscles, which means that one can learn to contract or relax muscles that they never knew they had. The result of this training in everyday life becomes quite clear when situations arise which we’ve learned to react with muscle tension rather than relaxation. In other words, it teaches us a lot about stress.

For example, during my commute home from work a few days ago, I looked into my rear-view mirror and noticed that the man driving behind me was driving close enough to my car to count the dust particles on my trunk. Being that this is a particularly dangerous situation to encounter, due to the risk of physical injury or property damage, I immediately tensed up. However, as soon as I noticed the tension in my body  – and thus, my mind – I was able to respond with a mental note to simply, “Drop it.” You know what? It worked.

A similar situation arose while I was entering my office building one morning last week. In the reflection of the glass doors ahead of me, I saw a woman walking toward the building fairly close behind me. Reflexively, I stopped as I opened the door in order to hold it for the oncoming pedestrian out of common courtesy. However, the woman slowed her pace as she neared the stairs, coming almost to a dead halt. Feeling kind of silly for stopping, I thought, “Whatever,” and allowed the door to close as I walked into the building. Yet again, along with the thought, “Whatever,” I felt my body tense up at the shoulders and in my gut. To my surprise, without any prior intentional planning for this particular scenario, the thought came – “Drop it.” And so, I dropped it. What a relief!

How often do we carry our stress around unnecessarily?  It reminds me of this story told in the tradition of Zen Buddhism:

“Two zen monks were travelling. They came to a ford of a stream that was running high, and the current was strong and frightening looking. An attractive young lady was standing at the ford, looking nervous. She clearly was afraid to cross, but had an important reason to go. Without a word, the older of the two monks lifted her in his arms and waded across the stream, and placed her safely on the far bank. The younger monk looked shocked at this action, but kept his silence for quite some number of miles as they continued their journey. Finally, he blurted out “You know that it is against the rules of our order to have any contact with women. How could you do that?”.

The older monk replied “I put her down when I reached the other side of the river. You, on the other hand, have been carrying her this whole way.”[1]

Driving home last week, even after the man in the red truck turned down a different street, I could have carried him all the way home, into my living room, or to my dining room table during dinner. Or, this I could have carried the woman at the door into my office building and to my desk, where she would stand motionless in my mind’s eye, making me wonder, “Why didn’t she just keep walking? Didn’t she see me holding the door?” I could be working with this frustrating woman all day! Of course, the man driving the red truck and the woman outside my office building were not the cause of my stress. The stress was a reaction produced by this very body and mind (aka, “Jackson”). From this perspective, guided by the insights arising from a very simple yoga practice, stress is quite simply, and most fundamentally, a bad habit. We carry stress around not because we have to, but because we’ve learned to.

That said, I think it’s true that there are innate human reflex-responses to stimuli perceived as threatening. This is built into the earliest, most basic structures of our brains.  We can’t help but react with fear in certain situations, and this is actually VERY helpful for us as a species. The sympathetic nervous system is a blessing when there is an actual threat.[2] But, how useful is this kind of response to, say, being stuck in traffic on the way to work, or when someone cuts in front of you in the check-out line at the grocery store? Probably not that useful.

When it comes to learning how to release stress and the reactive emotions that come along with it, it pays to pay attention to your body. Pay attention not just when you’re stressed, but also when you’re relaxed. Try alternating between the two within a few minutes, and notice the way the qualities of your mind (thinking, perception) in both states. This simple exercise can bring a rather unfortunate habitual pattern into light. This first step is crucial, for you can’t release something you don’t know is happening. In other words, you must know before you can let go.

[1] “Carrying the Woman” story borrowed from Taoist & Zen stories and Ramblings.

[2] One of my professors describes threats as, “lions, tigers, bears, muggers, buses, etc.” – situations that can actually harm you or someone you care about, but that we don’t run into everyday… save for buses, perhaps.

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Why it’s OK that Mara Returns: Transforming the Functions of Self-referencing-related Stimuli Through Meditation

“Mara returns” is a phrase commonly used in Dharma talks given by instructors belonging to the Insight Meditation tradition (Jack Kornfield in particular). Mara is the name given to the satanic figure of pre-modern Indian mythology, who is depicted as the author of illusion leading to clinging; perpetuating the round of rebirth and suffering for all non-liberated beings. What is this illusion that leads to clinging? In simple terms, it is the illusion of self-identification – that is, the belief that experiential phenomena of any kind (mind or body, private or public, internal or external) can be accurately categorized as inherently-existing in the form of I, me, or mine. At the moment of his full awakening (or total unbinding), the Buddha is said to have successfully conquered the armies of Mara, liberating himself from clinging to anything as I, me, or mine; thus, becoming free from the round of perpetual rebirth and, most importantly, suffering.

However, although the Buddha had successfully conquered Mara, there are a number of stories in the Buddhist scriptures where Mara comes back to visit him. Being that Mara represents the illusion of inherently-existing selfhood, it would seem that the Buddha’s awakening did not entail a complete eradication of the privately experienced phenomena that was previously interpreted as a “self.” And yet, when Mara returns to visit the Buddha, the Buddha’s reaction is quite jovial and friendly. “Ah, my good friend Mara has come back to see me. Let’s have a visit!” So then, if the illusion itself was not permanently eradicated from the Buddha’s experience, what changed? More specifically, what processes are responsible for the reduction in suffering that is reported by so many meditation practitioners, both ancient and modern?

One possible explanation of why suffering can be alleviated through practicing certain types of meditation can be found by applying certain core concepts of Relational Frame Theory (RFT), a purely psychological theory of human language and cognition based on a philosophy of Functional Contextualism. One such core concept of RFT is that the functions of stimulus relations are contextually controlled. To explain what this means, consider the following analogy. Let’s say you go to the zoo and visit the snakes exhibit. You may then peer through a clear glass cage into the eyes of a massive anaconda. This huge snake may even hiss at you, or snap its jaws in your direction (Yikes!). And while this may be startling to experience, consider the context: you’re standing on the other side of cage designed to keep the snake from being able to sink its teeth into your neck, or perhaps swallow you whole. In fact, there’s a good chance you would not have approached the snake at all had you thought you were in any real danger.

Now, let’s change the scenario a bit. Let’s say you come home from work and head straight for the bathroom. You open the door and flip on the lights, and you see that on the floor directly in front of you is the same massive anaconda! How different do you think your emotional reaction would be from when you saw this same snake behind protective glass at the zoo? VERY different, right? In the simplest terms, the change in your emotional response to the snake is not due to the snake, but rather the context in which you encounter and experience the snake. This is an example of how the transformation of stimulus functions is contextually controlled. In other words, your response (i.e. function) to the snake (i.e. stimulus) was transformed when the context was changed (i.e. from the zoo to your bathroom).

How does this relate to meditation and liberating insight? Prior to beginning a meditation practice we grow up perceiving and engaging with the world in a particular way, and relating ourselves to it as if we were inherently-existing entities. There are many benefits to this kind of self-referencing. Without having a clear idea of who we are in relation to others, our ability to survive as an organism in our environment would be seriously impeded. Our physical bodies have specific needs, and we humans behave and speak in ways that aid us in manipulating our environment in order to get those needs met. Identifying as a self is an integral part of this process. Without the ability to develop self-referencing behaviors, I don’t think human beings would have survived – let alone thrived – as we have as a species on this planet. We are social animals, and socializing requires relationships. Relationships between humans require individuals – that is, separate selves.

However, this self-referencing behavior has a dark side; or, we could even say a Mara-side. For, this illusion of self could theoretically generate an infinite number of ways in which we can needlessly suffer. Of course, physical pain is a variety of suffering that is a common experience for all human beings, as it is necessary for survival. As far as I know, meditation cannot permanently alleviate all forms of physical pain. But, a huge amount of psychological suffering is brought into being through verbal and physical behaviors within a self-referential context. This psychological suffering is largely due to one’s attempt to control their unwanted inner experiences (i.e. private events) through grasping at something one thinks is better, resisting what one doesn’t like, and/or ignoring those aspects of experience that one considers neutral (those things that don’t stand out, or that are not seen as being important).

What I think the Buddha discovered, and I believe many people continue to discover today, is that by engaging in the skillful practice of meditation one can effectively make changes to the context of present experiencing in way that reveals features about experiential phenomena (i.e. stimuli) that is not otherwise directly perceived. This direct apprehension of phenomenal experience in a previously unknown way further alters one’s context, which can have the effect of transforming the functions of stimuli related to self-referencing. When self-referencing is perceived clearly just as it is – which is totally arbitrary, transient, inconstant – it becomes much less distressing over time. Some might even say that it is possible to completely alleviate the distressing function of stimuli related to self-referencing, which would be akin to the total unbinding (nibbana) purportedly attained by the historical Buddha. Whether or not this level of attainment is actually possible, there is a growing body of clinical literature that suggests it is possible to significantly reduce this form of distress.

What I want to make clear, though, is that it is not necessary for self-referencing stimuli to eradicated from one’s experience forever. Actually, I think that could be potentially harmful, for reasons already stated. I think this is what some meditation teachers mean when they say “Mara returns.” The illusion remains accessible to one’s experience, but it can be understood as being like a mirage rather than a concrete reality. No one would chase after a mirage if they knew, by direct experience, that it was truly a mirage. It doesn’t matter how many times the mirage returns to one’s experience – it’s still not an oasis that can quench our thirst. Therefore, it isn’t necessary to eradicate self-referential thoughts and perceptions from one’s experience. The activity of trying to eliminate phenomenal appearances is itself an aversive act, and thus a potential cause for further suffering. But, we can use contextual controls to transform the functions of self-referencing-related stimuli. That is, we can get to a place where Mara returns, but no longer bothers us.

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Psychological Mechanisms of Clinging and Release

[This is an adapted version of an email I sent to some of the other members of the Dharma Forum Refugee Camp community prior to its founding.]

Hey guys. I just finished up a sit and thought I’d share some of the things that I reflected upon afterward. It could make for an interesting discussion. If not, that’s OK.

In a message I sent you all not long ago, I wrote:

“This has all been a very long-winded way of saying that… [m]odels suck most of the time. It’s always better to approach this moment with openness and curiosity, and to ask, “Am I suffering? If so, how? What’s causing it?” When you notice the cause, and stick with it, the mind will eventually let it go. I think it’s much the same way as when your brain tells you to move your hand of the hot stove that is burning you. There’s isn’t much you need to actually do other than to let the wisdom of the dharma speak for itself.” (emphasis added)

There seem to be impersonal processes at work that lie beyond the reach of “doing.” “Doing” is what gets us into the mess we’re in (i.e. suffering). And yet, meditation is itself an activity of sorts; a “doing.” But it is a very special variety of activity. The only activity of its kind. It is the activity of engaging with phenomena in a way which reveals a deeper truth. And when that deeper truth is revealed and comprehended (which we can’t do by choice), the impersonal processes – the psychological ‘mechanisms’ of clinging and release – do something. Or rather, they stop doing something. They stop clinging. They release their grip.

This is fascinating to me. It’s such a paradox. There are intentional actions which will lead to a release that is totally beyond intention. Neither you nor I can simply decide to wake up, and then just do it. Nor can we simply decide to stop doing anything. For, it takes some degree of intention to set up the conditions that will eventually result in awakening/release.

In practice, this is exactly how it works. You practice noting, or choiceless awareness, or any other effective meditative technology. You recognize the deep features of present experiencing. You stop doing by allowing the context you’ve intended to create perpetuate itself with no further intention (which culminates in the Equanimity ñana, or “non-fashioning,” etc.). It hums along until awakening – be it cessation or realization of Emptiness – happens of its own accord.

I know this is just one way describe the process of what happens in meditation. But once again, I am struck by the notion that the Middle Path must include both doing and non-doing, effort and non-effort, intention and non-intention. It’s easy to see how classical Buddhist teachings like “non-attachment” can be so misunderstood in the present day, particularly in Western culture. On one level, non-attachment can be practiced on purpose. But at another, deeper level, non-attachment occurs through the result of practice, though of its own accord. To suggest that one should refrain from practice because they are “too attached,” is bad advice most of the time. If one does not utilize their free will as a human being to cultivate the appropriate setting, how and when will awakening occur?

I guess I’m saying that intention plays an important role on the path to awakening. But, awakening itself is not achieved through conscious intention alone. The mechanisms of awakening are impersonal, transcending the reach of human action. And yet, somehow what we choose to do right now can aid in cracking the code; or rather, the code cracking itself. Paradox at its best.

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The Paradoxical Theory of Change

One of my graduate school professors is a long-time Gestalt therapist. In our Group Dynamics class last night, he spent some time demonstrating how he would lead a counseling group on the topic of grief. At one point the classmates acting as clients were sharing their feelings of guilt, one by one, as though to communicate to the others that “I feel that, too.” Afterward, a student that was watching it all unfold said to the professor, “I noticed that at one time many of the clients were expressing their grief,” and then asked, “Now, isn’t that something we don’t want them to feel?” It seemed that he was worried that allowing other group members to validate the feelings of grief would reinforce the grief, making it worse. My professor replied something like, “Well, as a Gestalt therapist, I more or less subscribe to what might be called the Paradoxical Theory of Change, which says that in order for change to occur one must first be allowed to truly be who they are.”

His words really ‘rang a bell’ within me. I know from my meditation practice that progress occurs only when I fully recognize and accept my present moment experience (or, as I prefer to call present experiencing). I can see why the Gestalt community would speak of this process in terms of paradox, in that at first glance it seems contradictory for change to occur when one simply does nothing but allow experience to ‘be’. However, from a Buddhist perspective, we know of a little thing called impermanence. The truth is that experience changes on its own from moment to moment. It doesn’t need “my” help to change. The energy involved in trying to change is usually put to waste, in that it affects the natural flow of change in ways that result in changes unlike those which are most beneficial.

So, in most cases the best kind of action for change is non-action; the best path is a non-path; the best way to change is to stop trying to change. The Daoist teaching of wu-wei comes to mind, as well as Sri Ramana Maharshi’s teaching to be as you are. And it would appear that this is not only the case with meditation practice, but also within various areas of human psychology and even sociology (as there is also a Paradoxical Theory of Social Change).

For more information on the paradoxical theory of change from the Gestalt perspective, you may want to read The Paradoxical Theory of Change by Arnold Beisser, M.D.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

“I will call it the paradoxical theory of change, for reasons that shall become obvious. Briefly stated, it is this: that change occurs when one becomes what he is, not when he tries to become what he is not. Change does not take place through a coercive attempt by the individual or by another person to change him, but it does take place if one takes the time and effort to be what he is — to be fully invested in his current positions. By rejecting the role of change agent, we make meaningful and orderly change possible.”

[…]

“The Gestalt therapist further believes that the natural state of man is as a single, whole being — not fragmented into two or more opposing parts. In the natural state, there is constant change based on the dynamic transaction between the self and the environment”

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Spiritual Bypassing: The Damnedest Thing

For some reason today I thought of the mythical Jed McKenna and his book Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damndest Thing. His article Blues for Buddha came to mind as well.

What I notice in McKenna’s writings is his all out attack on what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche called spiritual materialism – i.e. adopting “spiritual” things and behaviors as a way to make the ego feel better, rather than actually undergoing any meaningful transformation through sincere practice. Ken Wilber calls this “re-arranging the furniture” rather than “moving upstairs”. And I think there’s a lot of weight to what McKenna says about this phenomenon. Eating a vegetarian diet, lighting incense, and adopting a spiritual vocabulary will not likely — by itself — result in spiritual enlightenment.

However, McKenna seems to have fallen into the Absolutist trap without realizing it. He more or less says, “All of that stuff doesn’t matter. Only the Truth matters. If only people could ask the right questions and get enlightened, then they wouldn’t see a problem with anything going on in the world. Nothing would need to change.” McKenna’s ego has taken up residence in the Absolute, in the Ultimate Truth, and now he parades himself as though he were an avataric sage of the No-Self. In this way, he seems to have traded spiritual materialism for a whopping dose of spiritual bypassing – i.e. allowing the ego to freeze around an absolute/universal view, providing a false sense of detached security that is then used as an excuse for not having to deal with personal or social responsibilities. “It’s all the play of Maya,” he says. “It’s all an illusion. What, then, is the problem?”

For many, adopting this position (i.e. falling into this trap) is par for the course on the path of awakening. When the ego-grasping tendencies first give way, reality is seen as it is… albeit temporarily. This first glimpse is usually not enough to completely dismantle the habit patterns that decide which to call “I” and which to call “other”. When these habits resume, they may just decide to freeze around this notion of being nothing and everything, the Big Awakened Mind. Where before one was stuck in their emotional reactions, they now find themselves stuck in their philosophical positions (hence the exaggerated emphasis on inquiry and Truth). To me, this appears to be the “place” McKenna is writing from.

Fortunately, this new ego-identity is just as shaky as any other. The foundation is built on a lie, and we will soon find out that there’s no escaping this human life. The bliss of detachment ceases to bring the satisfaction it once did, because we remain cut off from our experience in a way that denies its significance. In taking up residence in the Absolute, we cover our hearts. We deny our basic vulnerability, which is our gateway to experiencing the world of form. As long as this aspect of our being is ignored or denied we will remain cutoff from experience, divided, and unable to experience the fullness of presence that comes with the complete renunciation of clinging.

Compassion, empathy, equanimity, loving-kindness — these non-reactive emotions flow naturally when we are completely exposed. What McKenna disregards as spiritual materialism is only so when it is performed in a disingenuous or contrived manner. But the “enlightened person” lacking in compassion is not fully exposed, and thus not totally free from ego-grasping. I believe it was the Dalai Lama who said that genuine emptiness is no different from compassion. Until we allow our basic vulnerability and tenderness of heart to be exposed and receptive to our human lives, we will not experience the deeper freedom available to us all; a freedom that goes beyond detachment by clinging to the Absolute view. This is why the teaching that “Form is emptiness,” must be followed with “emptiness is the same as form.” Emptiness is no escape from form, and our selfless nature is not other than our raw and exposed heart. This is where McKenna’s teachings are lacking, and I believe this is why they leave me with the sense of, “Yeah, but…” One day McKenna may realize that spiritual bypassing, rather than spiritual enlightenment, is the damnedest thing.

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