Words Won’t Help Here

Then Mahamati said: Again, Blessed One, are words themselves the highest reality? or is what is expressed in words the highest reality?

The Blessed One replied: Mahamati, words are not the highest reality, nor is what is expressed in words the highest reality. Why? Because the highest reality is an exalted state of bliss, and as it cannot be entered into by mere statements regarding it, words are not the highest reality.

The Lanka Sutra

Here is a fun fact: there is no such thing as a word that wasn’t created by a person’s body.

Everything you’ve ever heard or read (or felt, if you’re blind) is the product of a person moving through reality, not the reality itself.

The letters on this screen? Someone typed those. The lyrics in your headphones? Someone sang those (or, perhaps, used their fingers to program a computer to sing those). Even when you think a word in your head, subtle muscles in your larynx move, reciting that word internally.

What does this fun fact mean?

It means that there is not a word in existence that exists from its own side. Not “nothing,” not “God,” not “science,” not “me,” not “Om,” or any other word, in any language, whatsoever, ever.

It means that if you ever want to find the real answer to any of the following questions:

  • What is the meaning of life?
  • Who am I?
  • What is this?
  • What is my true nature?
  • What is the nature of the universe?

You need to stop looking for the answers in words and concepts, and start exploring nonconceptually, like you look through your pockets when you thought you had your keys and can’t find them.

Chances are, you’ll like what you find.

Which I Can’t Change?

A devil is anything that obstructs the achievement of freedom…Most of all, there is no greater devil than this fixation to a self. So until this ego-fixation is cut off, all the devils wait with open mouths.

Machig Labdron

Let’s start with a few questions, questions about identity.

What does it mean to say we are a certain way? When we claim that we are like this or that, what are we really expressing? Who is making such a statement? Why?

What kind of statements am I talking about? Statements like “that’s who I am,” or “it’s a me thing,” or “you know, I’ve always been like this.”

These sort of expressions are commonplace, part of everyday conversation. They serve a key role in identity formulation, both individually and as a group. What’s the big deal about them?

Well…

Their frequent use is correlated with serious health issues, from depression to heart attacks. On an absolute level, they are pernicious falsehoods, the root of all suffering.

How can this be? How can such a seemingly innocuous phrase lie at the heart of all our pain?

Like all inquiries around our true nature, these are difficult questions, and must be examined carefully. Let’s start with the absolute.

Scientifically speaking, from the smallest unit of existence to the largest, there is no permanence in anything, anywhere, ever. Particles are just vibrations, energy.  The majority of cells in your body are replaced throughout your life, and even those that are with you from birth to death will eventually be ash or wormfood. The universe is gonna die at some point.

The same is true in terms of human identity, both on a societal and individual level. Culture, contrary to what champions of identity politics would have you believe, is not and has never been a fixed thing. No one really owns it, because it is never the same. It is continually reinterpreted and reformulated to provide a sense of continuity and meaning in a world constantly in flux.

The mind is like this as well. What we consider to be a coherent whole is, in fact, a dynamic dance of interconnected neural subsystems that mesh together into a cascade of momentary experiences. Something as simple as happiness or pain is, in fact, a very complex and fluid thing.

This phenomenon extends beyond our emotions, encompassing literally every aspect of our cognitive experience. Indeed, our very self-identity – the thing we refer to when we speak of being ‘like this’ or ‘like that’ – is actually a series of subpersonalities that emerge based on specific, moment-to-moment conditions. For example, in dramatic situations, we can behave as either a victim, a persecutor, or a protector – and change our character at a moment’s notice.

This is not to say that there isn’t a certain continuity to our lived experience. On an experiential level, every moment emerges out of the previous one*, while on a neurological level, our synapses serve as well-trodden paths for our sensory experiences to coarse through (though we can certainly change them dramatically!). Evolutionarily, the ability to pick continuity out of constantly shifting circumstances helped us survive the savannah, which is why it’s such a strongly ingrained tendency.

It is to say, though, that any conceptual notions we hold with regard to ourselves as permanently possessing any subjective characteristic whatsoever are false, and, indeed, delusional.

In fact, it’s fair to say that when a person says “I’m just like that,” it is not a ontologically true statement about one’s deepest identity, but rather a momentary expression of certain characteristics in an attempt to find continuity amidst the chaos.

It is also fair to say that delusions make us unhappy, either by blinding us to reality or hurting us when they are proven illusory.

Okay, so saying we’re permanently a certain way is harmful because it is ontologically false. Who, then, is saying such harmful things?

It is in the context of this question that we come to the great Tibetan yogini, Machig Labdron, and her concept of demons.

Machig Labdron

Machig Labdron was, in many ways, a singular figure in Tibetan Buddhism; she was a visionary practitioner who is widely recognized as the originator of Chöd, a powerful, shamanistic practice and the only Vajrayana technique to come back from Tibet into India.

To Machig, the root of suffering was the notion of the self, and all things that caused the self to strengthen were to be viewed as poison, as demons or devils.

Wait! You might say. You were just talking about neurological circuitry and now you’re discussing devils, make-believe spirits. What gives?

In much of the modern West, the notion of demons and devils is considered preposterous, an outdated narrative designed to scare the masses into submission. However, this understanding of the demonic is simplistic and misguided, as it assumes that the existence such creatures are to be taken literally, and externally.

Machig saw it very differently. To her, demons exist only within the human mind. That which torments us, condemns us, possesses us are to be found within our own mental continuum.

When considered neurologically, this is a scientific fact; for example, when someone who was neglected as a child displays attachment issues and insecurities, the cause is not the external circumstances, but rather a disconnect between their prefrontal cortex and their limbic system. Behind every negative tendency lies a particular configuration of neurological systems.

However, most of us are not neuroscientists, and terms like ‘amygdala activation’ and ‘serotonin depletion’ are not overly useful for understanding our lived experiences. The concept of a devil or demon or negative entity, metaphorically speaking, is.

See, a demon isn’t us. It’s separate, removed from our endless narratives of self-judgement and self-aggrandizement. It’s a negative entity, with one mission only: to feed off our energy and replicate itself. This is done by diverting the attention of the host, causing them to fixate on an external phenomenon instead of on the internal process at work.

Pictured: a demon and/or your brain.

When people say ‘misery loves company,’ it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine a demon named Misery, living inside one person’s brain, trying to summon more Miseries into the world by infecting the brains of others.

Herein we find the answer to our questions: when someone says they are ‘just like that,’ or that they’ve ‘always been this way,’ it’s actually an internal negative entity, trying to prolong its own existence by avoiding being scrutinized.

This may seem extreme, especially if you’re not actively seeking on the spiritual path. However, even if you just want to be happy in your day-to-day life, getting rid of your demons is a pretty good place to start.

So, the next time you hear yourself saying ‘I’m like this,’ or ‘I don’t want to change this,’ or ‘this is who I am,’ ask yourself: who is saying that? What do they – ‘I’ – want here? Is that what I really want?

It’s worth doing this, because if you don’t come to understand your demons, they’ll come to understand you.

 


* This is true on the coarse level of mind. On the more subtle levels of perception, there is no linearity.

Channeling the Source

Here’s a question: where does great art come from?

It’s not the materials and devices used to create a work of art (though that’s part of it). It isn’t the lived experience of the artist, either, though that, too, plays a role.

No, it can’t be either of these things, because if ten people go through the same experience and are asked to make the same type of art about it, the quality will vary dramatically.

Okay, you say, isn’t it how much they’ve practiced?

In part, yes, but practice merely grants technical competence. Practice can create the structure of a masterpiece, but won’t give it a soul.

What, then, is the secret to great art? What makes a masterpiece a masterpiece? What separates Kendrick Lamar from countless cookie-cutter imitators?

Is it inspiration?

What is inspiration?

If you closely examine the language around inspiration, you’ll find some very interesting terms: I had a spark of inspiration, there was a stroke of genius, it hit me in a flash, it came to her all at once.

A spark, a stroke, a flash. All at once.

All at once.

…..

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The Himalayan tradition of Hinduism specializes in Mantra Yoga, where the practitioner receives a mantra, or sacred chant, from their guru. This mantra is repeated hundreds of thousands of times, first as a mechanism to calm the monkey mind, and then as a vehicle to plumb the mind’s deeper levels.

At a certain point, though, the mind becomes completely still. It enters – it becomes – a timeless, depthless, infinite singularity. At this level, the mantra drops off, and the seeker becomes one with what is sought.

Accessing this state of consciousness is likened to entering into a secret cave full of indescribable treasures. It is said that a tremendous amount of information (in the terms of the tradition, a bindu) can be transmitted (in the technological West, downloaded might be a better word) in an instant. This information, which is said to be at the unconscious level of mind, will then percolate up into the subconscious and conscious minds, and is then expressed via speech.

The Tibetan Buddhists tell of a similar dynamic, where senior lamas will doze off during rituals, only to awaken with an entire sutra downloaded in their heads. Indeed, the famous Nagarjuna is said to have studied with the bodhisattva Vajrasattva in an iron tower for 40 years, only to come down and find no time had passed, like he’d learned everything all at once.

All at once.

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I, as some of you may know, love to freestyle. In many ways, it’s my oldest form of practice, and I like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at it. Recently, I’ve developed the ability to spit what’s known as double time flow, where you essentially divide a bar in half and put two bars into it.

In plain English: double time is where you rap really fast.

Now, hearing rappers do this on a prewritten song sounds very impressive, and it is. Doing this on the fly, though, is a different beast entirely. You have to speak incredibly quickly, subtly modulate your breath so you don’t run out of air, keep a beat and cadence, and – and! – say things that both rhyme and make sense.

Double time freestyling is actually a fascinating phenomenon from a linguistic perspective; you’re saying rhythmic, rhyming, logically sound sentences, but your rational brain is unable to think that quickly, and is actually a hindrance. You’re not speaking in the way you speak in a board meeting; you’re actually closer to speaking in tongues. You’re, to use the terminology of rap, spitting fire.

…..

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Where is this fire coming from?

It’s not coming from the conventional you: your historical self structure and your rational mind. This, as already mentioned, is a hindrance; you can’t spit fire and cognitively think about it at the same time. The bandwidth of your attentional system (something I’ve discussed on here before) is simply too low. In fact, when freestyling, you frequently end up surprising yourself with what you say.

No, the fire comes from somewhere else, somewhere divine. In the words of J Ivy:

I’m not just another individual
My spirit is a part of this that’s why I get spiritual
But I get my hymns from Him
So it’s not me, it’s He that’s lyrical
I’m not a miracle, I’m a heaven-sent instrument
My rhythmatic regiment navigates melodic notes
For your soul and your mental
That’s why I’m instrumental, vibrations is what I’m into

These bars express, from a Christian perspective, the transcendental nature of the inspiration that lies at the heart of all artistic genius. To put it bluntly: the ego and self structure are not the locus of origin for a masterpiece.

A masterpiece comes from the Source.

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What is the Source?

There have been many words for it, many names across faiths, cultures, and centuries. God, Allah, Yahweh, Brahma, the Dharmakaya, the Ground; all of these, for all their differences and contradictions, are all pointing to the same thing, the same immanent majestic totality that lies within all of us.

The Source…

The Source is nondual and dual, all at once.

The Source is within time and beyond it, all at once.

The Source is heaven and hell, all at once.

The Source is everything and nothing, all at once.

The Source is the perfect pause at the start of Adele’s Hello, the interweaving brushstrokes that flow through Van Gogh’s Starry Night, the sublime precision of Michelangelo’s David, the timeless power of Rumi’s poetry. It is the root cause of every work of art, the beauty behind everything beautiful.

Even all this, though, isn’t the best part.

The best part about the Source?

It is inside you, always, and the only thing you have to do to find it is to be right here, right now, and see what it means to let everything happen all at once.

This Isn’t About Being Happy

If you think meditation is something you only do on a cushion or a chair, you’ve got it wrong.

If you believe that the purpose of internal practice is to calm your mind and alleviate your stress, you’ve missed a bigger picture.

If you view your relationship with your higher self as something to be turned on and off, you haven’t understood at all. Fall back three thousand miles!

If, however, you understand that every moment of your life is an opportunity to grow, to see clearly, and to discover your true nature, you may be onto something.

….

It is wonderful to see the modern, Western world become interested in meditation, mindfulness, and spiritual practice. In my humble opinion, this interest is essential to the survival of the modern world; the mainstream arrival of the mystical couldn’t have happened a moment sooner.

However, it isn’t enough.

The current craze over mindfulness is much better than, say, mindless late capitalism, and the boom is only beginning. 8% of American adults meditate to some extent! This, undeniably, is a good thing.

Still, it barely scratches the surface of what the Path has to offer.

If you gathered up a group of meditators in America and asked them why they meditate, the majority would give answers about relieving stress, being more productive, or even trying to be happy. All of these are wonderful aims. They are also not the point.

What is the point, then?

To wake up.

What does it mean to wake up?

It means a great many things, which are written about in a great many books. It means becoming enlightened, working for the benefit of all living things, experiencing equanimity in every moment, completely transcending your outdated evolutionary hardwiring, possibly gaining superpowers, on and on and on.

Much more immediately, though, it simply means that you, yourself, are the cause of all your joy and sorrow. You hold samsara and nirvana within yourself, simultaneously. You, in this very moment, are the ground, path, and fruit.

Waking up means realizing that all your answers are right here, right now. It means that life, and you, are already and always perfect, but you forgot.

Waking up…

Waking up means coming home.

Your Ego Doesn’t Get to Meet God

I was recently discussing the journey inward with a Christian friend of mine, and the conversation ended up revolving around the higher states of consciousness that are the fruit of the Buddhist path. He was very open and receptive to what I was saying, but there was one sticking point he kept coming back to.

How, he asked, could people, with all their flaws and imperfections – all their sins, in that religion – ever get in touch with the undifferentiated timeless perfection I was describing? How could we ever reach that level?

The truth is, he’s right. Your conventional self – the series of stories, desires and labels our society considers to make up a person – does not get to go there, at all. Your egotistic personality structure can never become enlightened.

But there is something inside you that can be.

         Pictured: your mind

Scientifically speaking, we know there are different levels of cognition, of awareness, some more subtle and, well, aware, than others. Your conscious mind is just the tip of a very large iceberg that processes an extraordinary amount of information. For example, your retinas transmit 10^6 bits of data to your brain every second, an amount 10,000 times greater than the plodding 100 bits/second your conscious awareness operates at.

    Pictured: Your mind trying to meditate

When you begin to engage with these more subtle levels of cognition, you come to realize that all your conventional self really does is get in the way. During meditation, the attentional mind is forever wandering and looking for the next thing to do, like a fish out of water, flopping around. It worries about the bills, scratches your nose, and daydreams about the cute boy you saw at the grocery store. If you’ve ever tried to meditate, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Needless to say, these gasps and flops are very distracting, and make it hard to tune in to the finer whirring of your brain.

For example, in the Shaivite tradition of Hinduism, the goal of the meditative path is to realize that you, the atman, are identical to Param Siva, a transcendental timeless nondual omniscience that is all things in existence. While, on an absolute level, your daydreams and desires are Param Siva, your cognition is not operating on an absolute level (if it was, you wouldn’t need the path!) and, if you want to realize these higher states of consciousness, you need to put yourself aside completely.

To put it another way, your ego can only go so far on the spiritual journey. After a point, it becomes nothing but dead weight and must be dissolved.

This dynamic is also why the more esoteric/magical practices don’t really work for people who haven’t fully transcended themselves. If you want to, say, read someone’s future, or send healing energy to someone on the other side of the world, you’re going to have to work at an incredibly subtle level of existence, a vibration so fine that it is nigh imperceptible. If you’re trying to do advanced practices because you want to impress others or have ‘magic powers’ or any other number of selfish reasons, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s a little like the mystical equivalent of trying to drive with sand in your gas tank: You probably won’t be able to start the car, and even if you get it going, it’s not gonna end well.

If, however, you approach these practices from a place of humility and selfless service, you just might find something wondrous.

In fact, the entire journey inward is like that. Each of us can become blissfully pure and calm in every moment, untroubled by the trials and tribulations of life. We can meet God inside ourselves – we can even become a god, an enlightened being, here in this very life!

We can’t do any of that, though, if we don’t get rid of our egotistic, grasping, delusional sense of self. As long as that’s there, we can become deeply spiritual, but we’ll just be deeply spiritual narcissists. In this regard, my Christian friend was right: the ego is eternally, irredeemably sinful. If we really want to go all the way, we have to let the person we think we are go.

Besides, that person’s probably a bit of an asshole.

All Your Loops Are Nonsense

“It is not necessary to search far and wide for what stops you from seeing shunyata. Simply realize that the way you perceive the sense world every day of your life is completely wrong, that it is the misconceived projection of your ego.

– Lama Yeshe, Becoming Vajrasattva

One of the most profound, all-encompassing, and difficult-to-practice lessons I’ve learned in my spiritual journey is this: without mindfulness and transcendence of the ego, you have no idea what you’re doing.

You think you’re in control, that you’re making choices and navigating this crazy thing called life, but without constant mental discipline, you’re really just following a series of nonsensical, preprogrammed pathways in your brain that more or less determine what you do.

This lesson, and its importance, recently came home in a major way.

I’d come back to North Carolina for a few months (I need a new visa/passport to continue my journey in India), and, to my dismay, quickly found my days just slipping away from me. I’d want to get up and meditate, or do yoga, or call old friends or camp or cook dinner or any number of things, but I wouldn’t.

Instead, I found myself – almost unconsciously – re-engaging with old habits, like waking up at noon or scrolling for forty five minutes on Facebook or playing Pokemon Black for eight hours in a row. These things weren’t bad, per se, but they weren’t what I wanted to be doing.

I got trapped by these old loops, and two weeks vanished without me even knowing it. As someone who strives to be constantly growing, practicing, and improving, this seemed wrong, to put it mildly.

What on earth was going on? Why was I doing this nonsense?

When I rationally examined my own behavior, I realized that most of the choices I made weren’t made the moment I acted on them, but earlier, when I mindlessly interacted with a certain stimuli and it led me to a certain predisposition. For example, if I woke up late and didn’t complete my morning routine, I’d be more inclined towards ordering pizza and a binge-watching marathon on Netflix that afternoon, instead of going for a run and cooking dinner.

The moment I turned on my TV, I’d think ‘eh, screw it, let’s watch some Stranger Things,’ but that thought wasn’t what caused my decision.

No, I ended up watching this show because, the moment I woke up late, I didn’t come to terms with the frustration, impatience, and self-judgement that went through my brain as a result of missing my routine. Instead of taking the 90 seconds to sift through this negative emotional dynamic, come to terms with the reason for my delay (maybe I stayed out too late the night before), and craft a new, positive plan for my day, I thoughtlessly swept this potentially unpleasant examination under the rug.

I did this – and we all do this – because to rationally examine the reason for our negative behaviors is to directly attack our own egos. Our egos don’t like this, and so they divert this analysis, instead getting us to reflexively engage in some sort of avoidance behavior.

Our ego wants us to think that we’re fine, perfect, bulletproof, that we’ve got it 100% figured out – or it’ll tell us the opposite, that we’re worthless, broken, and never going to be better.

Obviously, neither of these are true. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between. In the words of a Zen MasterYou’re perfect just as you are … and you could use a little improvement.

However, this Middle Way is a paradox, and much harder to relate to – and practice in our daily lives! – than either self-loathing or arrogance. As a result, when we are presented with our own negative actions, our knee-jerk tendency is to either uncritically dismiss it or viciously castigate ourselves for it. Neither reaction leads to much good; in fact, each leads into its own type of loop.

These loops can be short or long, ho-hum or catastrophic. They can be something as mindless as checking Instagram when we’re bored, or something as dramatic as sending ten desperate texts to an ex when we feel poorly about ourselves at the end of a long day.

However, no matter what kind of loop we experience, they all have the same base cause: they occur when we fail to fully examine our current (typically negative) situation, and, instead, distract ourselves with this or that thing. Herein we find their loop-like nature; when the distracting activity is done, we find ourselves right back where we started: bored, sad, angry, and so on.

This is the reason that when people talk about their negative choices and behaviors, they often sound like they’re not in control:

I know I shouldn’t have done this…

I don’t know what happened…

I couldn’t help myself…

From the perspective of being trapped in loops, these statements are pretty much true.

Without consistently and mindfully engaging with and resolving negative stimuli as and when they arise, we chain ourselves to a baseline level of stress and discomfort. This, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to avoid getting sucked into unproductive and self-destructive behaviors. Because we’re not aware of how our mind avoided dealing with our late morning, we can’t actually see the reason why we ended up staying up until 2 am watching Netflix. We literally don’t know what happened, and couldn’t help it.

Of course, none of this really bothers our ego, which simply (and illogically) justifies the behavior and keeps on its merry little way. In order to maintain the illusion that it is you and not a transitory collection of selfess aggregates, the ego is quite happy to play along with this nonsense.

Make no mistake about that: it is nonsense. All your loops are nonsense, founded on ignorance and a lack of examination regarding the fundamental nature of your mind.

Thankfully, there is a way around the nonsense, a way to cut through the loops. All it takes to break out of our self-imposed prisons is this: become constantly mindful. Learn to watch your thoughts every moment of every day.

Sounds impossible? It will seem to be – at first. Cultivating mental awareness and self-control is a lifelong journey, and even highly experienced meditators aren’t always able to control their minds 100% of the time. Starting to watch your mind is a little like starting to tidy a room that hasn’t been cleaned in 30 years – it’s going to seem like an incredible, insurmountable task at first.

Then it gets easier.

And easier.

You clear out a little corner, then a bigger area, and before you know it, half of the junk is gone. Things begin to seem orderly, almost organized, and you can start to really move forward, to really make progress.

This is the whole point; a loop keeps you stuck in the same spot, over and over and over again. It is only when we truly come to respond to outcomes, and not react along the same staid pathways, that we begin to get anywhere.

Everything Points at the Moon

“All words and speech, mountains, riv­ers, and the great earth, each come back to oneself.”

– Pai Chang

Here is a secret: there is a reality beyond words and concepts.

Well, reality is just another word, but there is something completely unthinkable out there.

This is not really debatable. A rock doesn’t exist because you think it is a rock. Similarly, you don’t exist because you think you do. Descartes was wrong, because he only worked within language.

Here is another secret: this reality – suchness might be a better choice of syllables – is all around us, all the time. It is everything: the wind in the trees, the hum of an engine, the laughter of your lover. It is also nothing, because, well, ‘thing’ is just another word, and this is beyond words.

A third hidden truth: this suchness is accessible to everyone, all the time, and wonderful to behold. Chemically speaking, it corresponds to a certain brain state, one of bliss and maximal awareness. It is a state almost everyone has experienced, when the mind goes blank gazing at an awesome vista or staring at a moving work of art.

However, it is obvious that not everyone is there all the time. People are on their phones, at their jobs, in their heads, with no time for suchness. This is a shame, because a state of suchness is a most excellent state to be in.

So, how to get there?

It’s really not too complicated; just view everything you see as helping you reach this suchness.

Suchness is the moon, and everything you see is a finger pointing at it.

It’s a little like there is an extra layer of meaning on top of all phenomena in your life, and all you have to do is become aware of it. It’s as simple as that.

For example, an open door can be more than just a portal to another room. It can be a portal to an open mind. An empty cup is not simply lacking a beverage; it is a vessel ready to be filled with the perfection of the moment.

One key point: you are not looking for an intellectual conclusion. You are looking to obliterate all intellectual conclusions. At first, you may need to conceptual thoughts about this hidden layer of meaning, but eventually you must push beyond them, into the realm of pure sensation and intuition. You will have to merely look, and you will know.

If you find yourself stuck in words and concepts, maybe try just looking around and asking yourself ‘what is this?‘ It is important to understand the answer is beyond words and concepts – this cannot be stated enough.

Do you see, right now, as you read this?

If you understand the meaning of this, you are no different from the Buddhas and the thousand sages. If not, you may keep staring at everything my fingers have typed here – but do not confuse it for the moon.