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.

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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.