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.

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.

Rolling in the Weeds

“In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing.”

– Mother Theresa

One of the greatest confusions you see in people these days is regarding their relationship to words. This modern world of ours is filled with words, symbols, numbers, sentences, data, and so on, all cascading around in a giant flood that snuffs out every moment. Under such an onslaught, it is unsurprising that most people find themselves confused and agitated by words and language, supposedly humanity’s greatest gift.

It is as if they have forgotten what words are.

What is a word, anyway? It’s a vibration, information, meaning – but all of these are just more words. On your screen they’re pixels, on paper they’re ink. Useful tools, if you need them – but do you need them? All the time? For what?

At the ultimate level, a word is merely a reduction, an attempt to capture the uncapturable. As Mother Theresa says, God speaks in silence. The religions of humanity debate over the right word for ultimate truth: God, Allah, Yahweh, Brahma, Shiva, Buddha, nirvana, moksha, and so on – but none of these are accurate, none of them are more than a shadow.

Coming back to the confusion: this flood of words has made us believe that words are the ultimate, can express the ultimate, and that that’s that. This, of course, cannot be the case.

After all, if words are the ultimate, if ‘I think, therefore I am,’ is the highest holy truth, what exists when the mind goes blank?

A Short Technique for Quieting the Mind

1. Pick something about yourself that you dislike, like anger or laziness.
2. Through conceptual reasoning, understand that the object of your displeasure is not permanent and not you. It will pass and cease to be. This is called the wisdom of emptiness.
3. Expand the application of wisdom to realize that anything going through your mind – thoughts, objects, feelings, desires, sensations – are also not permanent and not you.
4. Realize that your awareness of wisdom – all these negating statements you’re thinking – are also not real and not you.
5. …