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).

Evolution, Karma, and the Pursuit of Happiness

(Note: This is an attempt to pair the concept of karma with a purely scientific worldview. Many topics here – like the definition of biological essentialism – are difficult to pin down. I have done my best to explore the nuance in these broad ideas, but they are, well, broad.)

In the Western world, few things are as cherished as our animal instincts. Food, shelter, pleasure, sex, kin and procreation; these animal pursuits are often thought of as the goal of our lives, the ultimate objects for which we toil, earn and strive for.

However, such a materialistic outlook often turns out to be profoundly unsatisfying. We run from one instinct, one pleasure, to the next, expecting a transcendental taste of life’s bounty (this is what we mean when we say that a certain dish is ’to die for,’ for example). Invariably, though, we are unable to find lasting, permanent satisfaction in anything, ending up proverbially fat and sunburned.

How can we escape this loop? What can we do differently?

I believe that we can find an excellent answer in that most ancient of concepts, karma. However, in order to bring karma into the 21st century, we need to understand it from a scientific perspective. Before exploring what we can do differently, though, we must understand how we got here.

More than Molecules

Underlying much of modern-day discourse about man’s nature and purpose is an unquestioned biological essentialism, an understanding of the human condition as simply a byproduct of a series of evolutionary mechanisms. This belief system, which emerged the second half of the 20th century and is often associated with Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene, concludes that everything we think, feel, do, and want is simply a product of our genetic, Darwinian journey from amoeba to ape.

Such an approach is intuitive when it comes to behaviors like eating and sex, but biological essentialism views all behaviors as having a purely evolutionary and material cause. Altruism, for example, is conceived of as merely a mechanism for replicating genes that are similar to our own, or an ‘honest signal’ to prospective mates that we have enough resources to provide for any offspring.

It is important to understand that this form of biological/material essentialism is not a hard, scientific fact. It is, like every other interpretation of that most mysterious phenomenon, the human experience, a belief system, replete with unprovable statements like ‘everything that exists is simply a product of the material world.’ While such a statement possesses a certain logic insofar as it grows out of – but is not proved by! – concrete scientific findings, it is not ultimately provable or disprovable via conventional analysis. For example, this view dismisses the possibility that consciousness is a key component of existence as we define it.

In fact, it can be readily argued that biological essentialism, as a belief system, trends towards a fundamentally limited understanding of the human experience. The argument goes something like this: because there’s nothing greater out there than the impulses hardcoded in our DNA, we should just enjoy those impulses as much as we can, and (if we decide to have them) leave something behind for our kids. This school of thought, when followed on a societal level, promotes a lifestyle and practice that encourage the fulfillment of our most stimulating biological desires above other aspects of life.

This worldview, while pleasurable in a material sense, leaves little room for art or wonder, to say nothing of the inner journey that is at the heart of every mystical tradition on the planet. As Donald Symons puts it, “the anthropomorphism of genes…obscures the deepest mystery in the life sciences: the origin and nature of mind.”

On a much more immediate level, though, it’s a boring way to go through life.

How is it boring? Take the example of our sense of sight: our eyes are these amazing organs that are constantly processing an uncountable number of minute sensations in every given moment. When we still our minds and look without focusing or discriminating, we are capable of non-conceptually seeing ten thousand things at once, experiencing a marvelous display of light and movement in every moment we live.

However, chasing after whatever instinctive desire currently possesses our mind, our field of focus narrows, and we only perceive one or two things at once, like the cake we are eating or the painting on the wall. Transcendental wonder – the one thing that truly separates man from other animals – is traded for our next dopamine hit.

Don’t Blame the Genes

Why has modern Western society embraced a worldview, an ideology, that is clearly limiting in terms of an individual’s cognitive and experiential potential? More importantly, how can we understand our biological hardwiring in more liberating terms?

We cannot blame our evolutionary, genetic tendencies for this, per se. Many, many civilizations, both past and present, do not think of man’s animal proclivities in terms of impossible-to-overcome tendencies, or as the highest aim in life. A priest in medieval England, for example, would have considered such tendencies as part of the innate sinfulness of man, and may have dedicated his life to transcending them in the pursuit of God. While such a worldview can seem overly pessimistic in today’s society, it certainly demonstrates that we don’t have to think of our instinctive programming solely through the lens of scientific analysis.

To no small extent, it is actually science’s specific inability to offer an actionable path to cognitive growth and the eradication of our unhappiness that lies at the heart of our obsession with our baser impulses. We have split the atom and glimpsed the edge of the universe, but all the studies and scientists on the planet have yet to deliver a comprehensive account of how to just be happy all the time. In many ways, science has become too widespread and ill-defined to be a truly prescriptive force in our individual lives, leaving the organization of our worldview and wants to the capitalist. This has caused some serious problems, to put it mildly.

Karma for Scientists

Where to turn to, then, if not the scientists or the marketers? How do we come to a more productive understanding of our biological heritage, without rejecting the undeniable scientific findings (like DNA) that have revolutionized every aspect of our understanding?

On the face of it, turning to religious or spiritual sources – like the aforementioned English priest – seems doomed to failure, as science offers a much more verifiable and detailed explanation for our biological heritage than the ancient texts. There can be little doubt that our tendency to reproduce, for example, came from the primordial soup of early Earth, and not from the Garden of Eden.

On top of this, the two belief systems have been at war ever since the first distinction between theology and science was drawn. A careful examination of the conflict between science and religion reveals three primary dynamics:

What is missing here? Science co-opting religion. While there are a few promising examples, this hasn’t happened on a large scale for several reasons, chief among them science’s blanket dismissal of anything not peer reviewed, as well as the tendency of modern-day scientists to view themselves as not responsible for questions of morality. However, a religious understanding of scientific concepts has much to offer humanity; it acknowledges the astounding amount we’ve learned about the universe via the scientific method, while offering a path in life that goes beyond transitory material satisfaction and towards a deeper form of happiness.

It is in this framework that we come to the Vedic concept of karma.

Karma, in popular parlance, is a frequently misunderstood concept. Westerners often think of it as a kind of ‘cosmic justice,’ speaking of ‘good karma,’ and ‘bad karma.’ This is often paired with the concept of reincarnation, with the assumption being that ‘good karma’ will lead to a rebirth as, say, a prince, while people with ‘bad karma’ come back as cockroaches. While this is not technically wrong, it is fundamentally misleading and obscures the beauty of the concept of karma.

So, what is karma? Karma (at least to Hindus and Buddhists) can best be thought of as a version of the law of cause and effect that only applies to conscious actions. These actions are intentional, in that the actor is consciously looking to do something. If we act with a certain intention in mind (to help another person, for example), we create a cause that will eventually, through some mechanism or another, lead to a given effect (in this case, it may be someone helping us). This process has nothing to do with ‘good,’ or ‘bad’ – it is to be considered a natural law like any other.

What does this have to offer science? First, let us dig a little deeper into a few additional dynamics of karma:

  1. Karma is not an external agent; because it requires intentional consciousness, all karmic causes and effect are intrinsic to the conscious being creating the karma. Karma is not done to us; we create and are subject to our own karma. In the words of Jung, ‘when an inner situation is not made conscious, it manifests as fate.’
  2. In Buddhism, karma is caused by the Three Poisons, which are Ignorance, Anger, and Desire. These three dynamics, located at the center of the Wheel of Life, are considered the product of all our karmic tendencies. Ignorance of our true, nondual nature is the first cause, which leads to attraction (Desire) and aversion (Anger) to various phenomena we interact with, as we mistake them for being separate from ourselves.
  3. The ignorance at the heart of karma is not caused by our rebirth and past lives. It’s a far deeper aspect of our being; in the words of the Lanka Sutra, it is ‘the habit-energy of erroneous discrimination and false reasoning that has been going on since beginningless time’.
  4. The path to happiness lies in getting rid of our karma.

How, exactly, can we frame these dynamics in a way that matches the tenants of biological essentialism? Like this:

Karma is any biochemical or psychological tendency that leads us to act as if there is any difference between ourselves and anything else. The highest happiness in life belongs to those who have transcended these tendencies.

None of these dynamics require any belief in the supernatural or reincarnation. Instead, they can be viewed as purely material phenomena occurring within one lifetime, as they are, in many ways, definitional aspects of all living beings. From the emergence of the first organisms all the way to the present day, every creature that has ever existed has sought out certain things and avoided others. These behaviors occur because life, unlike every other other phenomenon in the universe, is something that preserves, further, or reinforces its existence in a given situation.

In a nutshell, every living organism acts like it is separate from its environment, and is attracted and repelled to various things as a result. This can be considered a biological definition of karma. The unique gift that humans possess is the ability to overcome these dynamics.

Transcending the Instincts

Armed with this definition, we are now able to look at our modern, materialistic world afresh, and re-evaluate what, exactly, we should do the next time we find ourselves unsatisfied.

If we do decide we want a more lasting form of satisfaction and meaning in life, the answer is more or less the same as it was 4000 years ago: get rid of your karma. In terms of the above definition, this means that we seek to transcend our biological hardwiring that leads us to chase after cake and avoid brussel sprouts (assuming you like cake and don’t like brussel sprouts).

However, we should not jump to extremes and attempt to immediately jettison all of our instinctual programming. This is not just extremely difficult to do, but actually counterproductive. As Sadhguru puts it, “the desire to not want karma is in itself a big karma.” Westerners live in a world so full of pleasure and stimuli that, were we to leave all our instincts behind right away, we would irrevocably isolate ourselves. On top of that, we will have not learned how to actually overcome these tendencies in a sustainable and enjoyable way.

Instead, if we truly want to move towards a more contented, blissful state of mind – and life – we should simply, progressively learn to watch what our mind does: when our instinctual urges arise, how they cause us to act, and what happens after their completion. We will not be transformed in a day, or a week, but over time, we will come to understand how our biological wiring compels us to act, and how it ultimately leaves us always, always, wanting more.

This is not to say that we must renounce all of our material enjoyments and retreat to a cave in the mountains. Rather, it’s that we should gain a moment-to-moment awareness of our biological programming and understand it for the limited phenomenon it is. We can still eat ice cream (or pursue any other pleasurable activity), but we should be aware that eating ice cream will only bring a temporary reprieve and that chasing that feeling will ultimately be unfulfilling. In the words of the great Tibetan yogi Tilopa, “the problem is not enjoyment. The problem is attachment.”

It is very important to state that there is no one right way to develop this awareness. Humanity, throughout its long history, has come up with thousands of techniques to turn inward, and one of the blessings of the modern age is that we have access to (almost) all of them. In order to cultivate awareness of the mind and transcend our biological karma, we can:

Whatever technique we choose, though, we must keep our goal in mind, which is to ultimately free ourselves from the bondage of our biological hardwiring, which keeps us chasing after temporary pleasures in a never-ending dualistic cycle. Even if the materialists are right and we, as humans, are nothing more than an aggregate of particles, we can still aspire to something higher than our next dopamine hit.

Rules of the Game: Part Two

(You can find Part One here)

The man stops speaking. He looks at the skull crown, which disappears. You sit, trying to process this information, your brain desperately trying to disprove the empty portrait of yourself that has just been painted. You run through possibility after possibility, but only one stands out.

“What about the soul?” you ask.

The man chuckles.

“What about it?” he replies.

“Isn’t it permanent? Isn’t that the part of me that never changes?”

“That,” he says, “is a very complicated question, and not what you need to focus on right now. At the higher levels of the game, you will find the answer to this question. All I can say at the moment is that what you’re referring to as a soul can only be found in the space between your thoughts. Right now, though, you need to focus on defeating Mara.”

Annoyance creeps back into your mind, a feeling of frustration at being told what to do and not getting enough answers. Snappily, you ask “Why should I listen to you? I feel like all this is a dream anyway, and I’ll just wake up and you’ll have never existed.”

The man chuckles again.

“The only difference between a dream and your normal life is that you keep waking up in your normal life.” Again, the power of these words and the profundity of his calmness deflate your own anger. He pauses, then continues.

“I understand that all this seems strange and nonsensical to you right now. But, please, listen to what I’m telling you. If you don’t defeat Mara, you will suffer again and again and again. Even if you make a billion dollars and buy your own island, Mara will find you there. As long as you ignore the rules of his game, you will never know true peace.”

“Okay, okay, okay,” you repeat, processing everything he’s told you, “so life is a never-ending game run by some devil-creature called Mara, the goal is to get out of the game, I don’t really exist, and I’ve been ignorant of these facts. Now what? What do I do? How do I play this game, anyway?”

A deep smile crosses the man’s face, an elated grin that says I thought you’d never ask. In the distance, across the great void, a faint light begins to glimmer.

“At this point, all you have to do,” he replies, “is watch your mind, every moment of every day, and, eventually, make it stop.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“How?”

The man starts to speak more and more rapidly. He remains calm, but there is an increasing urgency in his words.

“It works like this. Every single choice, every conscious action you make, is laying the seeds for your future choices and actions. Nothing you do is by accident, really; when you look deep inside your own mind, you will find the seeds of everything you’ve ever done. For example, when you make an impulsively bad choice on a Friday afternoon, it wasn’t created in that moment, but earlier, when, say, you had a miserable commute to the office. This is why you often feel not in control of yourself, because you’re not fully aware of why you’re doing what you’re doing. This is how Mara operates – he wants you to not go looking into the cause and effect that takes place in your own head.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” you interject. “I have a few questions about this Mara thing. Is he real? You said he’s like the Devil – is there a hell, then? Does he want me to go to hell? How does he operate?”

The light in the distance is getting brighter and brighter.

“I’m sorry,” the man says, speaking with real urgency now. “There isn’t much time left. Mara is your bad thoughts, your ignorance, your greed and hatred; above all, he is your tendency to grasp to yourself, your problems, your sense of being a real, existing being instead of a collection of impermanent phenomenon that come and go. Whether he’s real or not, whether there’s a hell or not – that’s not important right now.”

“What is important is that you understand your own mind, and how it works. You must watch the aggregates I’ve described to you, watch how they interact, and, most importantly, understand what makes you want some things and not want others. This understanding is essential, because until you get to the bottom of your own momentary motivations, you will continue to act mindlessly and not make any progress in the game. I wish I could explain more, but we’re almost out of time. ”

The light is quite bright now. As it intensifies, you can feel this reality becoming less tangible, less clearly defined. One look in the man’s eyes confirms what you’re thinking: This place is about to disappear. You are about to wake up in your normal life. Anything you want to know, ask now.

Three questions come to the forefront of your mind.

“I have three questions.”

“Tell me.”

“How do I watch my mind? What do you mean by making it stop? And who are you?”

The light is very bright, as bright as the sun on a desert horizon. The man becomes vague, indistinct, and his answer sounds distant, like voices drifting over water.

“Start with two things: analyzing the impermanence of your thoughts, and watching your breath. As for your second question, it will feel a little like -”

The light suddenly becomes brighter than an exploding star, engulfing the man, the disc, petals, and the void. His words cut out mid-sentence, merged in a roaring multisensory vibration that envelops your entire body, dissolving it into clear white light. Your brain becomes electricity, a blinding brilliance filling the space where your thoughts normally reside. Everything begins to meld into one frequency, one wavelength, one phenomenal taste.

HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.

You wake up with your head face-down on your desk at work, the keys of your laptop pressing into your forehead. A soft poke in your side is revealed to be the coworker who sits behind you, a look of concern on their face.

“Hey, you alright?” they ask. “You just kinda passed out for a minute there. We were wondering when you were going to wake up.”

You give them a big smile.

“Right now.”

Rules of the Game: Part One

HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.
HUUMMMMMMM.

A vibration not unlike the sound of an engine starting echoes through your mind, waking you from your slumber. Groggily, you open your eyes, yet the advent of vision does little to dispel your confusion. This is not my room, you think. Where am I? 

Looking around, you appear to be in a vast yet vibrant void, seated upon a bright white disc. At the fringes of the disc, brilliantly colored petals hang down into the ether that surrounds you. In front of you is a man, wearing the robe of a monk and seated in the lotus position. His entire being radiates calmness and presence, like a punctuation mark on each moment.

He looks directly into your eyes. “It is time you learned the rules of the game,” he says.

“What game? Who are you? Am I dreaming?” you reply, unsure of pretty much anything at the moment.

“No time for that,” the man answers. “Soon, you will leave here, and there is much to explain before you go. Please, for your sake, pay attention to what I am about to say.”

Typically, such a cryptic and evasive answer would frustrate you, but the combination of the endless void surrounding you and the aura of the man arouse your curiosity. “Alright,” you ask, “what game are you talking about? Is this like a VR thing?”

“The game has many names, and none. It is the ultimate game, the only game that matters, the game of life itself,” the man replies, his tone somehow full of urgency and warmth at the same time. “You have no choice but to play.”

“Okay…” you respond. “Isn’t that just life? What do you mean by a game? How can life be a game?”

“It is a game,” he answers, with finality, “because you can win.”

“Win? How?”

“You get out of the game.”

“Get out of the game? You mean like when you die?”

The man smiles slightly, a hint of something in his eyes. “Not exactly,” he says.

A shape materializes in front of you, a horrifying apparition – a demon. Wreathed in flames and smoke, it has a human shape, with claws, fangs, and three baleful eyes. It wears a crown of five human skulls, and seems to somehow crawl with a malevolence that distorts the space around it.

You jump back, terrified. “What is that?!” you yell, unable to look away from the creature’s eyes. They seem to suck you in, while your worst thoughts begin to whisper from the back of your mind.

From his robe, the man pulls out and rings a brass bell. At the sound of the bell, the creature vanishes, leaving behind a faint odor of ozone.

“That was Mara,” the man says, matter-of-factly. “He goes by many other names, too: Lucifer, Satan, the Devil – too many to count. It is his game you are playing. You win when you conquer him. However, if you cannot do so, you will not escape him even when you die.”

“You’re talking about reincarnation?”

“I’m talking about getting out of the game. What you consider death to be is merely just another part of the game. You’ve had many characters, all of which have died. This body, this you, that won’t come back again, but the thing at the base of it – the player of the game – that’s been here a long time.”

At this point, you’re confused, disoriented, and a little shaken from the appearance of whatever that Mara thing was. Unbidden, annoyance rises within you – annoyance at not knowing where you are, annoyance at the cryptic answers you’ve been getting, annoyance at the perpetual calmness of the man seated across from you.

You get up and begin pacing. The man watches you, the same glint in his eye. You open your mouth, ten thousand agitated questions on your tongue – but he cuts you off.

“Ignorance is the cause,” he says.

You explode at this latest cypher, unable to take it any more. “Ignorance is the cause? Excuse me? Cause of what? What are you talking about? Where the hell am I? Is this a dream? What WAS that thing? How do you conquer him? Why can’t you give me any straight answers? Oh, and who on earth are you?”

During your tirade, the man closes his eyes, as if resting. When you finish, he lets out a deep breath, opens them, and looks directly into your eyes. “Ignorance,” he intones “is the cause of your suffering. Please, sit down.”

You sit down.

“As long as you play this game,” he begins, “you are given a character – what you call your body and mind. In reality, this character is as fluid, transient, and impermanent as anything else in this universe, yet you maintain a firm belief that this is YOU, an unchanging, permanent thing. Instead of examining it critically, you unquestioningly accept it, and run around doing all sorts of things to maintain this fiction. Inevitably, though, the holes in the story you create for yourself shine through, whether it’s when you don’t get what you think you want or when you get what you think you don’t want, and this causes you pain. You are ignorant about the true nature of this game, and your resultant attempts to get certain things and avoid others make you suffer, again and again. Thus, ignorance is the cause of your suffering – like the annoyance you feel right now.”

These words shake you, quelling your anger. There is a ring of truth to this, although a part of you finds it ridiculous. Thoughts race through your mind: How can I not be real? What does this mean about the things I like? Should I not want them? After about ten seconds, you settle on a question.

“If I am ignorant about the true nature of my character in this game, then what is the truth? What am I, if not me?”

The man closes his eyes, nods, and smiles. A crown of five skulls, similar to the one worn by the Mara creature, materialize in front of him.

“Your character is made up of five parts, or aggregates,” the man says, eyes closed. “These parts are your physical form, the sensations you experience, the perceptions and thoughts that define these experiences, the actions and decisions you make, and a confused consciousness that is made up of the other four. There is nothing to you besides these five things, and none of them are you.” His voice is sonorous and solemn, as if there is great weight behind his words.

“None of them are me? What do you mean? How can I not be my body? Or my thoughts?”

The man takes a deep breath, and opens his eyes.

“Each one of the five aggregates is transitory, and ultimately empty of any permanent self. Your body is made of atoms that constantly float in and out. Your sensations and feelings are temporary. Your thoughts, even the most deeply ingrained ones, all eventually cease – are you not you when you’re asleep? Your actions start and stop. Your consciousness, being comprised of the other four, is equally insubstantial. These aggregates are all you are, and there is no you in any of them.”

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.
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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.
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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.
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4. Realize that your awareness of wisdom – all these negating statements you’re thinking – are also not real and not you.
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5. …