A Guide to Astral Turbulence in 2020

(Author’s Note: I wrote this guide as an attempt to share a framework I use to understand the world around me. It is a predominantly spiritual framework, from a modern Buddhist perspective, though it integrates my understanding of politics and anthropology as well. 

While current political events inspired me to write this guide, I have done so in a manner that tends to avoid reference to any specific real world politics. In particular, I have tried to avoid bringing the 2020 protests into it. I chose to do so for two reasons: I wanted to share a spiritual framework without using very heated examples that may engender bias in the reader, and I wanted to create something that would be helpful in the current political climate without amplifying the way that constant exposure to political flashpoints can leave us drained. I’ve made footnotes to address what, in the absence of explicitly discussing those topics, can feel like blind spots.

I hope you find this guide useful. Feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to discuss something in it. Much love to all, may all beings find happiness!

Vajra, June 2020)


So, the world seems like it’s ending. What to do?

Well, maybe what to do isn’t the right question to start with. Especially given that previously stable norms feel topsy-turvy and super uncertain, charging headlong into action isn’t guaranteed to provide a sense of stability, or even achieve a positive result.

Before What to do, then, let’s look at What is going on?

Wait, that question feels overwhelming too. There’s so many conflicting sources of news, many deliberately spreading disinformation and confusion. How can we discern what is true and false when we can’t even agree on who defines truth, and when every side calls the other a dirty liar?

Hmmm. Maybe, then, before we try to figure out what is happening, we need to figure out how we should look at it in the first place. If we know how to think about this chaos, we can figure out the reality of the situation, and then discern what, in fact, is the right thing to do.

In this vein, I want to share one of my favorite frameworks for understanding world events: as manifestations of humanity’s connection to the astral realm.

Wait, what? Isn’t the astral realm one of those nonsense New-Age terms, like crystals or whatever Gwyneth Paltrow is selling these days?

No, it’s not – and in fact, it’s one of the most useful ways of understanding the world I’ve ever discovered. It’s especially useful now, because the astral plane in 2020 is going fucking haywire.

Let me explain, in ten rules.

    1. The astral realm is a real place: In the modern world, we find ourselves awash in media of all kinds – images, videos, words, music, etc. From a spiritual perspective, all of these entities are creations from/manifestations of the astral realm: the sphere of archetypes, imagination, symbols, ritual, and so on. God does not live here, but the gods do.

      You know when you feel a slang term really hard, like YOLO in 2012? That’s because that term, or entity, had been charged up on the astral plane due to a concentration of human consciousness upon it. The weight of a collective entity in astral terms is almost always directly proportional to how much people are ‘making it real’ by thinking/saying/seeing that thing. That’s also why old slang terms feel dusty and nostalgic to say: you’re literally pulling something out of the astral past, like discovering a ruin in the desert.

      Indeed, the collective imagined reality is its own sphere of reality, no less immediate or experiential than anything physical. In fact, the leading theory of nationalism – arguably the greatest symbolic construct of modern history – was purported in a book called Imagined Communities, and it explicitly enumerates how the essential ingredient for nationalist movements is a shared symbolic, linguistic and mental space between participants of that movement.

      More on this, later on; for now, it’s enough to understand that this realm is its own space, its own aspect of sense reality. In fact, the astral realm is to the thought sense what the field of light is to vision or the ocean of silent space is to sound.
    2. The astral realm is the realm of possibility: Because this is the place where thoughts move through, it’s easy to understand that it’s where our dreams, fantasies, fears, and wishes live as well. The shining vision of a post-racial future you’re fighting for? That exists in the astral realm. The apocalyptic fascist police state you’re terrified of? It lives there too. A corollary of this is that the media/symbols/narratives you consume are directly linked to the possibilities for your life.This corollary is also true on a societal level – a country that doesn’t promote violent images is much less likely to wage war.
    3. In the 21st century, the astral realm has become super congested: What does this mean? It means that we currently swim through a world more saturated with astral constructs (narratives, symbols, videos, etc) than at any time in human history. Social media is really the big culprit, as it’s done two things: allowed for everyone to share their own narrative, and allowed for those narratives to aggregate and evolve with much less correlation to the material conditions than would be possible otherwise.

      In layman’s terms, this means that everyone can find their ‘tribe’ (‘sect’ might be a more appropriate word) and devote themselves to the exclusive construction of their particular narrative, a narrative that is likely more disconnected from their neighbor’s narrative than in a pre-Internet era.Do note that, traditionally, such reinforced narratives were how gods are created (1).This is already a widely understood phenomenon, and is the reason for the hyperpolarized, post-truth media landscape we live in (more on this later). The relevant thing to realize here is that the primary driver of this divided, confusing world is, in fact, the muddled and multitudinous constructs people have in their head (2).
    4. Uncertain times create waves in the astral realm: When the human mind doesn’t know what the future will hold, its natural tendency is to seek out some narrative to grasp on to, to make sense of, and identify with that narrative. Without meditative training, simply remaining in a blank, unknowable present is not how most of us cope with uncertainty.When understood in the context of a society (and, in general, all rules that apply to individuals apply to groups; as above, so below), this means that an uncertain material world (like, say, America in June 2020) creates even more uncertainty in our collective heads, and all members of that society feel a sense of change, and often of unease, like we know something is coming but aren’t sure what.

      This is what is meant by ‘something in the air;’ a collective consciousness comes to reflect this uncertainty, this sense of foreboding. It is like the calm before a storm.

      The important thing about this dynamic is that such environments are the ones that make revolutions possible. They allow people to attempt to create new possible worlds without being blocked by the astral inertia of an established mental sphere. This isn’t always a good thing, though…

    5. These waves can be positive, but trend negative: Humans tend to allow fear and anger to shape the way they respond to uncertainty. The loss of a knowable future feels like a loss of knowable survival, activating very deep parts of our brain that often choose exclusion, violence, and other negative outcomes.This has been an evolutionarily useful adaptation, but is now a hindrance to creating a successfully functioning society. We are creatures of change, these days, and our innate tendency to be afraid of change means we become afraid of parts of ourselves. When this happens, the astral realm becomes flooded with fear, and every symbol that isn’t one we know appears as scarier than it would otherwise.

      It is much more challenging – it is a much higher form of practice, both mentally and organizationally – to imbue uncertainty with hope, with the possibility of a better, more gentle future. While individuals can always remain optimistic and kind, maintaining a sense of optimism and kindness within a revolutionary movement is hard work, and can be destroyed easily if care is not taken. All it takes is one video, because…

    6. Certain images and symbols are much more powerful than others: One thing you may have noticed is that the astral realm is deeply connected to the human subconscious and unconscious. This has a number of very interesting conclusions for the spiritual roles of the sub/unconscious, but the one that matters here is this: symbols that play with the deeper parts of our being are much more powerful than those that don’t.On the negative side of symbols, we react more strongly to images of human corpses than we do to images of buildings burning (3). We react more strongly to violence against women than men, and against children than women. We evaluate things like violence on an instinctive and implicit moral scale, and the more ‘wrong’ it seems, the deeper an impact seeing such a thing will have on the psyche (4).

      There is also a positive corollary to this: certain symbols and archetypes fill us with hope, joy, and connection on a very fundamental level. A child laughing, a puppy jumping in leaves (5), an embrace – these things all create a feeling of goodness, of hopefulness. They make us feel like the world is worth fighting for, that it can be made right.

      This rule is why what we share, to who, and in what context is so important. It’s why Black activists ask that you not share police murder videos online: because the mere presence of such violence in the astral realm is already acutely burdensome, and to be physically exposed to it is exhausting and debilitating. This brings me to the next rule.

    7. Symbols do not belong to anyone: Nothing belongs to you. Not your body, not your thoughts, none of it. It’s all illusion, all Maya. Things appear and go, but they are never you or your own. This is a high truth (6) – it is not up for debate. Thoughts, words, images, ideas; they are empty, they belong to no one.Within the context of the astral plane, this means that any person can take any symbol and interpret it in any way they like, and nothing at all can stop them. Even words do not belong to those who speak them; they are merely vibrations moving through space.

      Stealing a symbol is like stealing a math equation: regardless of what happens between the mathematicians, the equation is still true.

      I find this rule to be incredibly important, because it dissolves the delusion that is any form of essentialism (7) whatsoever. There is no ‘claiming’ a slogan, a word, an image, because there is no claiming anything. Instead of trying to rigidly demarcate astral entities, we should intentionally allow their inner truths to manifest through the unfolding of spontaneous experience (8).

      What does this look like? Well, it’s fluid, but a few things are fundamental to it:

    8. We have to cultivate the right perspective on astral dynamics: So, we know that the symbols and media around us are representations/avatars of an astral realm of possibilities that is both completely impersonal and a collective sphere of existence. Because any attempt to truly claim or define something from this space is ultimately impossible, we should instead focus our efforts around re-imagining how we interact with these entities.We have to reframe questions of agency when symbolic interpretations are determined by societies writ large. We have to understand the importance of context when we know that certain triggers will close people to a world of possibilities just from seeing one video or receiving one comment. We need to understand astral developments within our individual and collective consciousnesses as a grand spiritual journey. We need to be more proud of our collective ability to feel, express, and live as astral beings. We need to recenter ancestor work and where our collective symbolism comes from, and not just on an intellectual or academic level. We need more art.

      More than anything else, though, we need to do one thing.

    9. We have to find common connections, more than ever: Remember in Rule One, when I mentioned nationalism as an astral construct and said I would come back to it? Here’s where that matters.The nation-state (which, if you didn’t know, is the single most successful form of polity in human history) was made possible through the creation of a shared national narrative, constructed primarily through educational systems, linguistic similarity, and a common media ecosystem (9). It has always been the pamphlet, the newspaper, the radio, and the television that have brought people together, that have given humans who know none of the same people and have lived in none of the same places something in common.

      However, the kind of shared astral space that people inhabited was directly linked to the type of media (and its mode of transmission). As long as media was top-down, and required significant resources to disseminate widely (like owning a news channel or printing tons of newspapers), the shared narratives were all within a relatively narrow spectrum, and so strangers within a nation would share the same narratives. When you understand the way that nationalism replaced a series of functions that were previously explicitly religious, this means that we were all worshiping the same (secular) gods.

      However, with the advent of the internet and smartphones, we no longer had to worship the same gods, or even agree on the pantheon. We found the messages that most resonated with our (inevitably damaged) inner self, and didn’t notice as that messaging was turned into a form of Pavlovian conditioning. Over the past 20 years, our society has addicted itself to divisive, scary, relentless media bombardment, the gist of which is that what we believe is good and right and that those who believe otherwise are evil and must be destroyed. This makes sense when you consider how capitalism treats things like slogans and symbols; all marketers already know Rule 6.

      We currently live in a world of completely contradicting narratives – worse, even, because the narratives are explicitly mutually exclusive. If you listen to what any two political sides are saying about their opponent, almost anywhere on the planet, you’ll notice a disturbing dynamic: complete acceptance of one ideology requires actively vilifying the opposing one. This dynamic shuts down dialogue before it can even begin (10).

      In the unprecedented times we live in, we have to stop doing this, immediately, on both personal and societal levels. We have to constantly fight to find our common ground, to understand the other point of view, to create a community of inclusion and safety and celebrate uniqueness within an atmosphere of fear and doubt. We have to trust in each other, in our shared desire for goodness.

      If we cannot practice connection in a given instance, if our trauma causes us to act in divisive and negative ways, that is okay. That is where we are. But we should never come to see our negativity, our violence, as anything but our brokenness playing out. We must understand this of those we call our enemies, as well.

      Without the monolithic astral stability of the 20th-century nation-state, we are invariably creating a new landscape, one that will be more multifaceted and diffuse. However, if we wish to avoid the violent astral space of explicit tribalism, we must learn to accept that others worship different deities, and strive to find the common divine spark between them.

      Sometimes, this is not possible. Sometimes, we must fight and reject. We must condemn and tear down symbols of cruelty, separation, oppression. They are irredeemable. Even when we do, though, we should know that destruction can only ever be part of the answer. Indeed, elevating any symbol or archetype or any other astral entity to the level of God or of apotheosis is always fundamentally flawed, for…

    10. The astral plane is a relative truth: At the end of the day, if you really want to understand who you are and why you’re here, the astral plane – indeed, everything in this material world – is not the place to look.Within Buddhism, we have something called the Two Truths doctrine. The product of thousands of years of philosophical and spiritual debate, it is at its heart a very simple framework. In essence, it says that the world we inhabit – the one where we have names and bodies and nations and all of it – is a provisional reality, and has provisional truths that apply to it.

      Above this, in a realm of timelessness, in a state of non-causality, one can find absolute Truth – your true nature. It is beyond good and bad, beyond birth and death – it is the beauty of space knowing itself, it is the light that lives in your heart. It is beyond words and concepts, and I shall not try to explain it more here. Read Tilopa’s Song of Mahamudra to Naropa if you are interested in a master’s description.

      However, when it comes to genuine liberation, it has to start inside, with the discovery and embodiment of this deeper state of being. Anything else is just more conditioning, more attachment, more loops and nonsense.

Continue reading A Guide to Astral Turbulence in 2020

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.

…..

…..

…..

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.

…..

…..

…..

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.

…..

…..

…..

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.

…..

…..

…..

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.

Swimming in the Heart

Fun fact: this sculpture was originally from a work called “The Gates of Hell.”

For most of my life, if you asked me where I was in the body, I would have pointed to my head. In the West, we’re constantly associating ourselves, who we are, and what defines us as living beings with our head and physical brain. On some level, this makes sense: the head is where our rational mind lives, where we perceive our thoughts as occurring, and where our primary sense organs are located.

However, I have found this to be a rather miserable mechanism for defining myself. Why? On the most fundamental level, and at the risk of sounding cliché, I get stuck in my head.

To elaborate: there appears to be an inherent dualism that comes with identifying ourselves as existing in our physical brains. We come to imagine that we are up here and the rest of the world is out there, and that there is a difference between the two. As a result, we get lost in loop after loop of conceptual cognition, often allowing our default mode network to make us miserable.

This, of course, is nonsense. On a fundamental level, to both the mystic and the scientist, there is no difference between you and anything else.

So, if thinking of ourselves as residing in our brains is an ultimately incorrect (and fairly depressing) framework, what should we center ourselves around instead?

The answer is quite simple: we should center ourselves around our hearts.

The heart-center is found in most of the world’s major religions

While, at first glance, such an idea has all the trappings of New Age woo, focusing our attention on our heart (or heart center, in between the sternum) is an ancient practice found in mystical traditions across the world. Orthodox Christian monks view the heart as the seat of unborn light of God. Tibetan Yogis consider it the home of the subtle clear light mind of enlightenment (interestingly enough, the Pali word ‘citta’ means both mind and heart). Adherents of Sufism claim that dissolving oneself in the heart is the quickest way to know the Beloved. Even the Aztecs viewed it as the seat of the individual and as a drop of the sun’s energy.

For the more scientifically minded among us, it’s worth remembering that the heart is, in many ways, a much more essential organ than the brain. There is a reason why we have the concept of brain-dead, but not heart-dead; the latter is just dead. There is also some interesting science behind the heart-mind connection, but it is a nascent field of study and full of less-than-rigorous concepts, so I won’t be covering it here.

Regardless of how you approach it, though, there is a effortless wisdom to identifying ourselves with our heart. It is the first organ to develop in a human embryo, and it is the one organ that we share with almost all complex living being on the planet, from elephants to earthworms (sorry, sponges!).

In more practical terms, the heart is in the middle of the body, and centering yourself there gives you enough distance from your thoughts to watch them without getting attached. When your thoughts, going on in your brain, are viewed from the perspective of your heart, they cease to be so immediate, and it becomes markedly easier to avoid empowering our emotional reactions and creating self-perpetuating loops.

Instead, by focusing on our heart and perceiving it as an indestructible center, and generating a sense of existential wonder, we are capable of rapidly experiencing a feeling of nondual, ocean-like bliss. Thoughts may come and go in our mind, but they are seen for the transient phenomena they are, and more easily transcended. Using this technique, we are capable of perceiving all things around us – and ourselves – as impermanent, unique to this moment, and blindingly beautiful. A friend of mine described it as ‘swimming,’ and I think that’s an excellent metaphor for it.

Like this, but with your mind and on land

Okay, this sounds pretty cool. How do I do it?

There are a large number of meditative techniques for focusing on the heart, and, if you subscribe a particular religion, you can easily find one that corresponds to your belief system. However, in the interest of saving you the effort of a Google search, I’ve shared the (self-invented) technique I use (and, like the Sufis, I try to do this more or less every moment of the day):

  1. Calm your mind by taking a few deep, diaphragmatic breaths.
  2. Focus your attention on your heart center, which is to the right of your actual heart, right above your solar plexus.
  3. Take a few moments to strengthen this focus.
  4. Imagine that there is an indestructible ball of light in this heart center.
    • If you’re religious, imagine this as the light of God.
    • If you’re more spiritual, this is the light of enlightenment.
    • If you’re more scientific, you can think of this as a ball of quantum chronodynamic binding energy (which, technically, it is).
  5. Notice how, when you focus your mind here, your thoughts seem more distant and removed from your immediate experience. Notice how they come and go within your mind, as if they were wind passing through the trees.
  6. Cultivate a feeling of wonder and amazement at the fact that you exist at all. Given the mind-boggling amount of complexity involved in you existing, this shouldn’t be too hard.
    • It is important that this is more of a feeling than a conceptual understanding, though you can use a thought or three to get this feeling started, like ‘I’m made of fucking stardust and so is everything else’.
  7. Now, expand your awareness outward, to the full extent of your sensory experience. Maintain your sense of wonder as you come to see the totality of your vision, hear the symphony of sound playing in your ear, and feel the multitude of sensations occurring within your own body.
  8. Stay here. Avoid focusing on any one thing. Instead, allow everything, including yourself, to dissolve in the transcendental totality of the moment.
    ……


Superpowers Must Be Earned

Any attempt to reconcile the more advanced and esoteric – some might say supernatural – aspects of the spiritual path with hard scientific data is faced with a conundrum.

On the one hand, what few studies exist of highly advanced practitioners (like Tibetan Yogis) reveal seemingly extraordinary mental and physical abilities. For example, highly realized Vajrayana monks are able to do things like raise their bodily temperatures by 15 degrees Fahrenheit via visualizing a ball of energy in their navel or experience a constant state of mental hyperawareness that is inaccessible to the average person. These talents are just a small subset of mystical powers described in ancient texts.

Given the unprecedented results of these studies, either claiming that you can’t rewire your brain to have what can be credibly called superpowers or categorically ruling out the possibility of further abilities seems foolhardy. This is without examining a literal mountain of anecdotal evidence, which points towards even more magical powers, like clairvoyance, levitation, bilocation, and the ability to take eight hits of acid and have nothing happen.

On the other hand, these studies are far and few between, very difficult to replicate, do not offer any clear causal mechanism for these abilities, and are vastly outnumbered by volumes of literature debunking all sorts of pseudoscientific nonsense. This makes it very difficult to assert that the abilities demonstrated are accessible to the average person.

For example, there is credible evidence (from the study linked above) that senior monks and nuns at Nepalese monasteries can actually work with their ‘energy’ or ‘subtle’ bodies – via a practice called g’tummo – to both produce physical heat and create genuine health benefits:

Traditional illustration of g’tummo – note the short A above the practitioner’s head

However, the results of Studies 1 and 2 also suggest that the neurocognitive component (“internalized attention” on visual images) of the..practice may facilitate elevation in [core body temperature] beyond the range of normal body temperature (into the fever zone), whereas the [core body temperature] increases during [the practice without visualization] were limited, and did not exceed the range of normal body temperature.

This would appear to offer convincing proof that the ‘subtle body’ is real and has tangible health benefits, an idea that would revolutionize much of modern medicine. However, drawing this conclusion is not so easy.

Before we explore why, there are few things to note here:

  • The ‘internalized attention’ described here refers to literally imagining your body as a completely clear deity with various channels, chakras, and seed syllables. This sort of notion is the textbook definition of the subtle body in Tibetan Buddhism (and many other esoteric schools).
  • All monks and nuns being studied had at least 6 years experience with this practice, including a three-year retreat that would likely include ~10,000 hours of practice.
  • The study offers no concrete causal mechanism for why such a visualization would create profound changes in temperature.
  • Voluntarily being able to place the body into a fever state would offer a wide array of health benefits and would serve as effective treatment to a variety of ailments that currently require allopathic medicine.

Given all of this, why is the notion of a subtle body (containing things like chakras) considered fringe or pseudoscience (especially in light of these stark and, arguably, revolutionary findings)? If the nuns tell you they’re concentrating on the short A syllable in their navel chakra and the scientists have nothing better to go on than ‘something something biofeedback brainwaves’, why do we completely disregard the nuns explanation?

This guy isn’t exactly in it for the fame

You can blame the New Age pseudo-gurus for this: the vast majority of people running around making claims about their subtle bodies can demonstrate next to nothing beyond the standard placebo effect (which, as an aside, is actually very powerful). More specifically, it is only in studies of people who have dedicated decades to meditation and practice that we find much evidence of things far beyond ‘the power of wishful thinking.’ These people are very few in number, usually don’t care to be studied, and often actively eschew any kind of publicity (they tend to see it as an obstacle to their practice). Their remarkability makes an intuitive sense; if you think of the brain as a trainable muscle, these folks have spent a long time in the mental gym.

It’s a little like if you were conducting a study about whether a human being is capable of a 55″ vertical (answer: yes), and your entire population sample was made of aging 9-to-5ers who hit the gym once a week. You can perform your study rigorously, repeatedly, and objectively, but unless you go add some NBA players into the mix, you’re always going to get the wrong results.

On a more personal level, throughout my own journey I’ve met a handful of people (Hindu saints, nomadic Qi gong healers, etc) who appear to have abilities that the average person does not. The one thing these people have in common? A profound and life-encompassing dedication to their practice. They devote hours every day to it, and, equally importantly, weave it into every moment of their life. It defines how they get up, how they go to bed, how they eat, how they work, how they date. In many ways, their practice is their entire life.

In short: Gaining superpowers takes a ton of work.

(But that doesn’t mean they’re not real).