Tag Archives: awakening

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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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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So Important, So Beneficial.

Life is messy; that’s the honest truth. The specifics of life – the expressions of the ‘multiplex’ – can be seemingly contradictory, at odds with one another. Discord arises just as often as harmony, and vanishes just as quickly, without warning.

What use is it to identify with any single arising? If I identify with one arising, I may find myself in opposition to another. In the end, all arisings fizzle into extinction, and the identification process moves and latches on to the next arising that suits its fancy. If that isn’t a great description of samsara, I don’t know what is. Talk about frustrating.

The specifics of life never get less messy. Awakening does not bring one’s life to some grand harmonious conclusion. The multiplex will continue to express itself as it always has. What changes as one begins to awaken is that instead of identifying with arisings in the multiplex, one recognizes the natural expanse of emptiness – of being – which is vast enough to hold all of the complexities of life and honor the whole catastrophe for what it is; just as it is.

And from here, there’s no reason to think that thoughtful action must cease. Quite the contrary! For, even if one may not feel compelled by craving to act, their remains the capacity to act of one’s own initiative. If we are free to help, why not? The more ‘I’ step out of the way, the more this spontaneous expression responds without being blocked. In truth, deciding not to act based on some philosophical view is just another view. And such a view may rightly be seen as one of the last blockages to be removed. In letting go of views, in freeing ourselves from our limited philosophical outlooks, we are liberated into our unique personal expressions which may attend to the health and well being of others. In so doing, even thoughts and concepts are set free and may be used, without block, in attempt to help and not to harm.

I’m not saying that awakening brings someone to a condition of moral perfection. Nobody’s perfect. Not even the awakened. Rather, it is my opinion that awakening – and thus, committing to the practice of meditation – may result in the development of an optimal platform for being a happy and helpful human being. This is why practicing meditation throughout one’s life is so important, so beneficial.

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Liberation Is Our Nature

I’ve really been enjoying the teachings of Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj lately. So much, in fact, that I’ve been saying (half-jokingly) that I’ve joined “Team Advaita”. The truth is, my meditation practice has brought about what are, for me, some pretty deep and profound insights. Because of this, the more non-dual style traditions have been resonating with me at a very deep level. Along with Ramana and Nisargadatta, I’ve been taking in the works of Zen Master Bankei, Zen Master Dogen, and contemporary Zen/Advaita influenced spiritual teacher Adyashanti.

For those who aren’t familiar with Ramana Maharshi’s teaching style, here’s an excerpt from the book Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi

Q:   Is mukti the same as realization?

A:   Mukti or liberation is our nature. It is another name for us. Our wanting mukti is a very funny thing. It is like a man who is in the shade, voluntarily leaving the shade, going into the sun, feeling the severity of the heat there, making great efforts to get back into the shade and then rejoicing, “How sweet is the shade! I have reached the shade at last!” We are all doing exactly the same. We are not different from the reality. We imagine we are different, that is we create the bheda bhava [the feeling of difference] and then undergo great sadhana [spiritual practices] to get rid of the bheda bhava and realize the oneness. Why imagine or create bheda bhava and then destroy it? (pg. 30)

That’s all for now. Practice well!

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Filed under Advaita Vedanta, Meditation, Religion & Philosophy, Zen / Ch'an

Wisdom of Non-Manipulation

“A quiet mind is all you need. All else will happen rightly, once your mind is quiet. As the sun on rising makes the world active, so does self-awareness affect changes in the mind. In the light of calm and steady self-awareness, inner energies wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part.” ~Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, I Am That.

This quote from Nisargadatta is right in-line with something my friend and teacher, Kenneth Folk, recently posted in a discussion thread at his dharma forum:

“Advanced practice is about learning not to manipulate after spending a lifetime becoming a master manipulator. We all have to unlearn manipulation in order to reach our potential, counter-intuitive as that may seem.”

Spiritual paths run in cycles that are in many ways as natural and predictable as the seasons. There are times for effort, focus, discipline, and some degree of control as we learn to establish new habits of mindfulness in our otherwise chaotic lives. But I think the majority of one’s spiritual path is best traveled by refraining from manipulation. This does not mean that we shouldn’t practice. But it does mean that we can sit and simply pay attention to whatever arises in our experience, trusting that whatever development that occurs is unfolding naturally. The simple practice of attentiveness is our way of participating in the process of awakening. Simply paying attention is what allows these “inner energies” (as Nisargadatta put it) to  “wake up and work miracles without any effort on your part.”

The next time you sit to practice meditation, start out with a simple resolution to not manipulate your experience.  As Adyashanti teaches, simply “allow everything to be as it is.” You may be pleasantly surprised by how deep your practice may go when mindfulness is your only objective.

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Who are you really, wanderer?

When reflecting on my practice (which I’m trying not to do so much these days), there is one recurring theme that arises more than others. Frankly, that there is no self who gets enlightened. There are no awakened egos. Nothing against the ego. It’s not bad or evil or anything. It’s just not who wakes up.

I’ve heard Jack Kornfield say in number of recorded talks that when he first started meditating, he was expecting to acquire a new enlightened personality. But that never happened. Rather, through is practice he has come to know his true nature – who he really is. He’s not the only experienced teacher who says this. I hear it over and over again from the most realized people I know.

We can work on our egos. There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, we probably should for the sake of others. But that is not awakening. That is not truth realization.

“Who are you really, wanderer?”

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The Ego Revisited

The ego receives a bad reputation within many spiritual scenes. The truth is interdependence, they say, and the ego insists on its separateness. Ergo, the ego must die. Kill it! Annihilate every last trace of the ego and realize complete liberation!

Actually, this hardline stance against the ego isn’t as prevalent as it once was – thank goodness. With the help of communities like the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), a healthy personal psychology is encouraged alongside the transpersonal and spiritual lines of development.

That’s not to say that this ego-hating tendency has been extinguished. As recent as a few months ago I had a conversation with a friend who had been teaching mindfulness at a University alongside a Zen teacher in the community. My friend told me that the teacher taught egolessness, in the literal sense, and that he thought it was achievable, and perhaps even healthy. This is, in my opinion, a wrong view.

Look what can happen when communities take this KILL THE EGO thing seriously. I recently read Andre van der Braak’s book Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru, where he recounts his years as a senior student of the megalomaniacal Andrew Cohen (founder of EnlightenNext.org). “Impersonal enlightenment has to transform our lives;” writes van der Braak, recounting the teaching her received under Cohen; “we should banish any trace of a personal life. Our very reason for living should be dedicated to what Andrew calls ‘living for the sake of the whole’.” (van der Braak later concludes that ‘for the sake of the whole’ really meant ‘according to Andrew’s wishes.’)

Is this what the spiritual path is all about? Should we banish any trace of a personal life? Not at all. This teaching comes from a rather immature understanding of the role of ego in human development and the evolutionary process.

Take Ken Wilber, for example. His Integral paradigm involves moving through ever higher stages of development. Though rather than suggest that we are to banish the lower levels upon reaching a higher one, he adamantly affirms the idea that true developmental progress includes the process of transcending and including the lower levels. Otherwise, one’s identity becomes fractured, causing maladaptive beliefs and behaviors to arise. So if we are to move our identity beyond ego in a way conducive to true, healthy development, the ego has to be included.

Regarding the positive role of the ego in spiritual practice, the spiritual teacher and meditation instructor Anadi (formerly Aziz Kristof) has this to say:

“The traditional concept that the ego represents only ignorance and should be eliminated as such, [sic] has truly damaged a number of seekers. This misconception has created a real guild complex in the minds and hearts of all those who, for centuries, tried to eliminate the ego which they were. How can one annihilate who one is? The ego, in truth, represents itself a highly evolved state of consciousness, where the mind is able to create a self-referral. This is essential for further evolution as well as for spiritual awakening. […] It is ego which allows us to evolve and survive in the reality of time.” –The Human Buddha: Enlightenment for the New Millennium

According to Anadi, what truly separates man from other animals is the development of a self-referral (ego). Without the ego the journey toward higher consciousness would be impossible. In light of this, how can anyone think that the ego is like a wart or a boil that needs to be burned off before liberation is realized? In truth, the ego is re-contextualized when one awakens to their true nature – not abandoned. We learn that our identity may reach far beyond the small, constricted self in to a vast, open space of awareness which includes all things – yes, even the ego.

The next time you come across teachings about how evil the ego is, and how it ought to be annihilated, just remember one thing: the ego is just as real as anything else – that is, any-thing else. All things arise based on conditions. In order to awaken, you don’t need to annihilate your ego any more than you need to annihilate your left foot.

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