Tag Archives: enlightenment

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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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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Staying in the Game, for Better or for Worse.

The common myths about enlightenment/awaking lead us to believe that it happens all at once, in one grand event. We imagine that one day we’ll be sitting full lotus and enlightenment will come upon us like strike of lightning. We may think that after such an experience we will no longer have any problems in our relationships, that our emotions will be perfectly balanced, that we’ll get a brand new “enlightened personality”, and that our existential angst will be completely lifted.

Unfortunately, if this is what you’re expecting you’ll be sorely disappointed. There are moments of deep insight, profound calm, spacious awareness, and a complete lack of suffering… but only moments. You may be wondering how it is I claim to “know” this. For, I’m not a fully enlightened Buddha. I’ve never been on a meditation retreat, and I’m not an authorized dharma teacher. What I do know, however, is that such a mythological enlightenment doesn’t fit within the fundamental View of Buddhism, which is summed up in The Four Seals of the View:

All compounded things are impermanent.
All phenomena are empty, without inherent existence.
All dualistic experience is intrinsically painful.
Nirvana alone is peace, and is beyond concept.
[1]

The third seal states that all dualistic experience is intrinsically painful, which may also be read as “all dualistic experience is characteristic of suffering.” What, then, constitutes a dualistic experience? The answer: anything that is not a non-dual experience (more on this a bit later). Basically, every experience or state of consciousness is fleeting (see the first seal). Moments of profound insight and clarity may soon be followed by moments of confusion and disease. In fact, they usually are. All compounded things being impermanent, if it is arising (as in, it’s a change from another kind of experience), it will soon pass away. So, while superlative experiences do occur on the spiritual path, they are only small part of it for most of us. For the majority of people, average every day perception will be the norm, and it would be to our benefit to learn how best to work with it.

So what of this “non-dual” experience? Well, on the one hand, the experience of non-duality is tricky to describe. People tend to think it means an experience of unity, as if one were to merge with or become fully identified with an external object like a tree or sculpture. This is off the mark. Rather, there may come the time where one wake up to the inherent empty wakefulness that is timeless, impersonal (empty in essence), cognizant by nature, and all-pervasive in its capacity. This primordial awareness is our deepest and truest nature, and waking up to this brings a profound certainty of our interconnection with all of life and the universe, as well as the momentary alleviation of the suffering conditioned by duality. There is no subject-object split when this is realized, just pure awareness. This is what Dzogchen teachers call rigpa (meaning “awareness”), what Kagyu teachers refer to as Original Mind, and what is referred to as Buddha Mind by many other Buddhist schools/teachers.

One may ask, “then why not simply wake up to primordial, non-dual awareness and just stay there?” That is easier said than done. Even those who do embark on the path of continuous non-dual awareness teach that no one ever finishes the practice [2]. That’s not to say that the practice cannot be mastered, as it has been by some. I admire the diligence of those practitioners who are able to pull off such a feat. In all honesty, I do not believe that many of us are willing to embark on a journey that takes such unwavering commitment. Even more honestly, I’d be willing to bet that not many of us have actually had true non-dual awakenings.

For those who have directly realized their true nature, however fleeting the experience, there’s an important application waiting to be discovered. Whether one is able to remain in continuous non-dual awareness or not, retreating from life has never been the goal. As my friend Hokai Sobol recently posted at the Dharma Overground:

“Awakening to primordial awareness seems like a good starting point, and finding out that this awareness was never about staying out of the game is the realization.” [3]

In other words, regardless of one’s level of insight, Buddhist practice is first and foremost about staying in the game – for better or for worse.

[1] from Fundamental View by Hokai Sobol, at the Dharma Overground

[2] from Quintessential Dzogchen by Urgyen, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Erik Pema Kunsang, Marcia Binder Schmidt. See the chapters titled Dzogchen Key Points by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and Maintenance by Tsoknyi Rinpoche.

[3] from the thread Dances With No-Wolves: Questions & Comments at Dharma Overground.

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Like Learning Any Other Skill

I spent some time reflecting on how my meditation practice is unfolding, and I came to realize something profound that should have been quite obvious to me earlier.

I’m learning to meditate in the same way that I learned to play guitar over many years. I started out by really listening to the sounds and learning the basic language (notes and chords). I then began mimicking the way I saw my teacher’s hands moving, and spent time really learning to use my hands, fingers, and arms in a fluid and relaxed way. After learning to play my favorite songs, and even write a few of my own, I began to learn the theory of how it all works together. From there, I moved on to learning more complicated styles like jazz, and began extending my knowledge to other instruments as well.

My meditation practice is unfolding in a similar way. At first, I spent time listening to dharma talks and guided meditations, and then began to follow along with the instructions. After learning some basic vocabulary and conceptual knowledge, I began to practice for longer and longer periods on my own. As I became more and more mindful with less strenuous effort, I really got in to the groove of the practice. I then began to learn and apply theory to my experiences, and started working with more difficult stages and applying new techniques. I also found it helpful, as with learning to play guitar, to have regular contact with experienced teachers. Not only that, but also the ability to “jam” with others meditators. Having conversations with others about meditation really catalyzes one’s practice.

My point here is that learning meditation and gaining insight in to the nature of reality is like learning and developing any other skill. As one begins the process, their natural learning style will guide the process if they are open to it. This is why it is so important to just start! It doesn’t matter which style of meditation you try as long as you’re willing to try it. You will quickly learn your strengths and weaknesses, and will be able to make adjustments when necessary.

Try to remember that it’s perfectly OK in the beginning to focus on the parts of your practice that are the most fun. Getting good at what you really enjoy doing first will help you to build up the confidence to try other techniques that don’t come as easily. With enough dedicated training, learning to play the guitar is possible… Enlightenment should be no different.

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