Charisma In Meditation

With the Mindsight Intensive fast approaching, I hope these reflections will facilitate the way students and teachers are going to embark on this most unusual journey. These ideas apply not only to the more advanced students in the Mindsight Intensive, but also to beginners who are enrolled in the MBSR-X or MBSR-CC, or to those taking the Mindful Self-Compassion program. What I write here is personal, an expression of my own intimate meditation experiences that have shaped my own path, and that as best I can, I try to live by.

The Greek word ‘charisma’ means ‘favor’ or ‘gift’, derived from the verb ‘charizesthai’ meaning ‘to favor’, which in turn comes from the noun ‘charis’, meaning ‘grace’. Originally used in English within a Christian context to refer to a divine gift or power, we all know its current use to refer to social, rather than divine grace. ‘Grace’ is the operative notion here, complete with its sense of compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. The power of grace is originally understood to be divinely conferred, which within our context translates into the vast world of energetic processes that drive us and are too subtle to be aware of. Isn’t it surprising to speak of attractiveness and charm in meditation? Think of it this way: Without passion life is like food eaten without taste buds. Passion is thus as crucial to meditation as it is to a life lived with a sense of meaning. The attractiveness and charm of grace come to life when we learn how to wisely and efficiently meet our minds, and mindfulness meditation is all about that. The charisma that flows from it includes the elegant grace with which we meet our inner world with all its limitations and foibles, and through that the compassionate kindness we bring to our relationships with others.

Mindfulness meditation training begins by fostering a trajectory of consistent, intelligent practice that eventually leads to an enormously crucial point we can look forward to – the sudden realization that the process of meditation has become our very own, and not anymore something that we do because of someone else’s encouragement or opinion that we should do it for benefit. This fundamental shift towards owning our own authority over the meditative process is immensely empowering, but also a source of charisma. It creates an internal psychological reorganization with profound effects on our way of showing up in the world, including how we can then later transmit the sense of grace to others. We become self-motivated, or even more deeply, the natural instrument of our own awakening and healing. We embody deep respect for the immeasurable vastness of energetic processes we cannot possibly ever become aware of, and the humility of Being that comes with it. Then, the passion for wisdom takes hold of us and becomes our raison d’être.

On the way, we must first develop a meditation technique strong enough that it becomes invisible during the act of meditation and seamlessly weaves itself into the fabric of mindful Being. We then don’t have to think about it anymore. Our head, heart, and viscera are in unison, able to just creatively explore our mind’s complexities without having to think about meditative techniques or how we do it. Technique becomes instinctive and allows us to be competent and free in our observations of experience and how our organism creates our sense of reality. This is the hard practice journey that requires the guidance of a good teacher, who does not let us get away with nonsense and mistakes. This slow and arduous examination of every minute detail of observation and experience eventually allows meditation to become ‘automatic’ (not in the lack-of-awareness sense) and appear easy. There is such a thing as virtuosity in one’s ability to navigate the unpredictable seas of the everchanging mind. Such virtuosity manifests as charisma.

Then, in the next step, we try to discern and make sense of what is involved in our observed experience, differentiating between fact and fiction, reality and delusion, truth and distortion. We try to listen to what our newly observed reality is trying to say to us and by implication to others, while at the same time modifying the energy flow as needed.

Finally, and the most difficult step of all, is to learn how to be simple. This is possible only when our internalized techniques are strong enough to guide our vision towards embracing complexity, rather than staying stuck in compartmentalized rigidities that give us a simplistic view of reality. Simplicity comes easily to very young children and becomes the obvious path towards ease in very experienced meditators; in between, a long way of apprenticeship is necessary to master it.

My own teachers had the wisdom to know that the quality of a good teacher is to teach the student how to teach him- or herself, and not interfere with what the student naturally gravitates to. We must learn to attune to our inherent deep wisdom that is already active deep in the fibers of our organism, albeit at times quite buried under the rubble of distorting conditionings. Teaching ourselves does not imply a free-for-all of just doing whatever we want. The meditative process confronts us with the boundaries of physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and spirituality that determine how our organism works. These boundaries of reality must be respected, otherwise, our practice becomes troubled. We must learn to master effective techniques that allow us to best meet upcoming challenges and untapped potentials the mind is capable of handling. With my students, you will therefore see me interfere in cases of significant procedural, physical, emotional, or conceptual errors in technique or attitude that are bound to occur during this journey. Ultimately, we want to learn how to be as natural as possible in the practice of meditation.

Whatever we do is an expression of who we are, and who we are results in part from gathering knowledge and experience, and developing presence. The more we can do that, the richer our life and the beneficial effect on others will be. With this all-embracing interest in our nature, accompanied by a constant, insistent curiosity, we have to be unwilling to accept anything as a final fact, knowing that knowledge is always tentative and evolving. Meditation is driven by a powerful human need for freedom to search, look, and try without fear of failure. The skill to give this exploration full rein does not come easily. At all times we must have a fire in our belly. Without this driving desire that no matter what, we must do it, something is missing.

The mind is constantly evolving, and its scope needs to constantly be widened and enlarged. The larger it is, the greater our ability to have both, objectivity about reality and what we are doing, and subjectivity in believing in what we are doing. There is a constant duality and tension between doing and observing, being and learning, being experienced and naive, satisfied and dissatisfied. Living in the midst of that tension is the name of the game, making for interesting human beings in any field. We must relentlessly not be satisfied with anything less than total devotion to truth. The ultimate truth, which we call love, appears at first in the form of a realization that what we can know is forever precious little, and then second with the insight that even that is uncertain. In this humble truth of uncertainty lies hidden the deepest of experiences we can have: The experience of mystery. This mystery cannot be argued, thought about, debated, or rationally understood; it can only show its true and inescapable existence through instinct and intuition, imagination and creativity. It is the source of wonder that fuels our passion for life, and with it the quiet assertion of love as what’s most important in life.

The mind’s patterns are there like the musical score for musicians. It provides a silent scaffolding that requires interpretation to be enjoyed. Even just playing the notes won’t do. What matters is how in the spaces and silences between the notes one moves from one moment to the next. That is where charisma comes in. This is similar to meditation: Although of some importance, the content of experience is not what most concerns us. What we must focus on is how in the stillness, nothingness, or chaos between those patterned contents we move from one moment to the next. In the process, we notice where we have been, we are aware of where we are, and we wonder about what’s coming – all at the same time. That is called being in the moment since the moment is never a dimensionless point in time, but a meaningful space of energy flow encompassing past memories and future anticipations as they emerge in the now of the lived present. At all times, we must know and prepare for difficulties that will arise. We must know how to navigate them, and be aware of the bigger picture and the wider context as we surrender to the steady stream of nonverbal personal involvement. We don’t verbalize the flow, but navigate it, knowing that at any moment our conditioning will interfere with our meditation practice and mindful presence.

To meditate we must love, and we must also love the meditative process of finding out the hard truth of our lives. Meditation is part of the inwardness of being human, like holding our child or embracing our beloved partner. It is the process of deep connection to and resonance with our fellow human beings. It is the quality of touch and feeling, the experience of ecstasy in the sense of standing outside the petty entanglements of conditioning. Because we can never completely stand outside, there is a constant tension between full presence and mindless monkeying. We deal with that very simply by learning to live with it and trying our best to embody decency, knowing that this tension will always be there. That is training in equanimity at its best, resulting in the elegance of simplicity of the awakened mind at peace with ‘chopping wood and carrying water’ (Zen). Acceptance of the inevitability of that tension of imperfection is the ultimate liberation from suffering, soaking our Being in humility as we rejoice in this small act of huge consequence – noticing improvement. Noticing improvement is simultaneously all there is, yet also everything, the energetic motor that fuels our passion for the arduous path of awakening. Without that tension of imperfection, the aliveness of the moment would be lacking, and love would be impossible.

Being nervous and disturbed is an intimate and inevitable part of meditation. This makes it even more imperative to not shy away from propagandizing the value and necessity of meditation to society. We all have strong feelings about certain ideals and standards humans need to follow, certain actions we believe humans must take to stand up for the rights of others in the way we think is most effective. However, we cannot act as a herd ‘en masse’ without dire consequences like the buffalo herd that stampedes off a cliff. History could almost be defined as the tragedy of ‘en masse’ herd behavior – just look around at what senseless mass movements are in vogue today! Instead, we must act as individuals together. Being individuals means at its best to have the capacity for personal integration that ensures resonance with our fellow humans. Meditation well done ensures our individuality. ‘Well done’ means that it must be liberal and democratic to be creative, healing, and effective, and cannot be in the service of a narrow ideal or creed of any kind. We are never as important as nature, the creator of life, but giving that creation a wholesome and healing form that comes to life through wise practice is where we as meditators and concerned humans come in.

When through meditation mindfulness becomes our internalized authority, we must use our ability to transmit our charisma to our listeners, standing there freely, and like the bird singing its song, making it clear that one has something to say. To say “I am here, I am about to express an idea, a thought, and now you are invited to listen”, is an important act of self-confidence in one’s capacity to be the conduit of love and wisdom. This cannot be done proselytizing, evangelizing, intellectually or self-consciously, as it would appear fake. It has to be steeped in the humility of awe of the present moment, instinctive, natural, and unabashedly creative – which we have called charisma.

Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

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Impatience, Time and Nothingness

I am looking to circumambulate two propositions: That impatience stems from a skewed relationship with time, while nothingness and the serious engagement with death are profoundly integrating and healing.

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June 16, 2023

I am looking to circumambulate two propositions: That impatience stems from a skewed relationship with time, while nothingness and the serious engagement with death are profoundly integrating and healing.

“I had the flu and was too sick to practice meditation.” “My father-in-law died, and I had to stop practicing because we were too busy taking care of family stuff.” “After ten minutes of practice, I get impatient, uptight, need to move around, and have to stop my practice.” “I was so distracted that I was not able to practice.” Does this sound familiar?

What if I told you that no conceivable life circumstance can hinder your practice, and unless you don’t want to practice, the inability to practice does in most circumstances not exist? What if the above statements would have to be rewritten as follows? “I had the flu and was so sick and overwhelmed that I did not feel like or know how to use my meditation tools.” “My father-in-law died, and I stopped practicing because the hustle and bustle of the circumstance increased my mind’s forgetting function and thereby strengthened conceptually constructed illusions.” “After ten minutes of practice, I get impatient, uptight, need to move around, and I don’t have the experience to check what skills are missing in my practice.” “I was so distracted that I forgot that the distraction is itself a mental state like any other to be held in awareness and explored.”

Let me be clear: I am not saying that everybody should or can practice mindfulness meditation, or that there are no contraindications to doing so. I am simply addressing the unsuspecting majority of people who have legitimately taken steps to begin mindfulness meditation training and end up happily deceived by rationalizations to give up.

Because humans are fickle and crave instant results, it cannot be emphasized enough that mindfulness meditation is a skill to be learned, honed, and practiced over a long period of time – a thousand years on average. We are not talking about practicing a skill so that eventually we will arrive at the promised land while in the meantime we toil in hell. We are practicing this skill because the very act of doing so is the promised land. Immediately, when seen this way, we realize that the promised land sits on the ruins of etymology – ‘pro-mittere’ in Latin means ‘release/letting go/send forward’ (mission). What’s forward in this notion of ‘promised’ is the vast unknown of creativity, and by releasing into it we submit to the principle of impermanence that always changes everything without ever being static. Done skillfully, this opening to the unknown is called meditation, the gift that keeps on giving in the form of noticing improvement. What a delight to have no other goal than noticing improvement. On this path, unexamined impatience has no place. Mastering the right techniques is essential for success, success meaning a significant decrease, if not even disappearance of suffering when we realize that we are always already there where we are supposed to be.

When we appreciate the mind as the most complex phenomenon in the known universe, which thanks to all its splendor also affords us a limitless capacity for self-deception, we will hardly fall prey to cavalier attitudes believing that in a few weeks of training, we can know how to meditate, and life will all be better. Take just these three statements seriously – that mindfulness meditation is the hardest thing you will ever pursue in your life, that it takes a thousand years of training in learning precise mind tools, and that with the mind you are up against the most complex phenomenon in the known universe – and you will solve almost all challenges presented to you by the mind on this fascinating journey of discovering its nature, the nature of reality and truth, and the many ways we construct reality and let it affect our lives.

Impatience is one of those poorly recognized states of mind that interferes with all manner of growth and healing. Yearning for quick fixes and therapy shopping from one to the next in the hope of finding the imagined final solution to one’s problems is a ubiquitous mind trap one has to guard against. Desperate for water in the middle of the desert, digging one hundred shallow wells will not yield results; you have to dig one deep well, and that takes patience and time. This causes us to come face-to-face with another facet of the reality we usually quite desperately and unconsciously avoid like the plague – nothingness. Patience and impatience, time and nothingness are thus closely related topics central to mindfulness meditation and one’s healing journey in general.

Here is the mystery: You have more than a thousand years ahead of you because the thousand-year journey is timeless with no duration. It is a journey to nowhere one might feel one needs to go, achieving nothing one believes needs to be done, changing nothing one has the urge to escape from, and providing the freedom to be nobody else than who one already is. With no place to get to, it is a curious journey beginning at King’s Cross Station and involving platform 9¾. Everything is already there, including the end of suffering – all you must do is cultivate the mindset that gets you through the concrete pillar. To the untrained mind, the pillar is impenetrable and platform 9¾ non-existent, and finding the end of suffering appears as a daunting, almost insurmountable proposition. To the trained mind it is clear and simple, an orthogonal shift to a multidimensional awareness mode.
‘Orthogonal’ (Greek) means ‘at a right angle’, and I remember encountering this metaphor in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work. So let me briefly yield to his words before continuing (Jon Kabat-Zinn, ‘Coming To Our Senses’, 2005 first edition, extracts from p. 347-351):

“As a rule, we humans have been admirable explorers and inhabitants of conventional reality, the world ‘out there’ defined and modulated by our five classical senses. We have made ourselves at home within that world, and have learned to shape it to our needs and desires over the brief course of human history. We understand cause and effect in the physical world. …
And yet even within science, looking at the edges, it is not so clear that we comprehend underlying reality, which seems disturbingly statistical, unpredictable, and mysterious. …
In the conventional everyday reality of lived experience … we dwell mostly accepting the appearance of things and create quasi-comfortable explanations for ourselves about how things are and why they are that way … really-not-looking-but-pretending-to-yourself-that-you-are.…
All the while, we are immersed in a stream of thoughts whose origins and content are frequently unclear to us and which can be obsessive, repetitive, inaccurate, disturbingly unrelenting and toxic, all of which both colour the present moment and screen it from us. Moreover, we are frequently hijacked by emotions we cannot control and that can cause great harm to ourselves and to others ….
Unpleasant moments are bewildering and disconcerting. So they are apt to be written off as aberrations or impediments to the ever-hoped-for happiness we are seeking and the story we build around it. … Alternatively, we might build an equally tenacious unpleasant story around our failures, our inadequacies, and our misdeeds to explain why we cannot transcend our limitations and our karma, and then, in thinking that it is all true, forget that it is just one more story we are telling ourselves, and cling desperately to it as if our very identity, our very survival, and all hope were unquestionably bound to it. … What we also forget is that the conventional, consensus reality we call the human condition is itself inexorably and strongly conditioned in the Pavlovian sense. … all this conditioning adds up to the appearance of a life, but often one that remains disturbingly superficial and unsatisfying, with a lingering sense that there must be something more, …
Such discomfort … may be all pervasive, a kind of silent background radiation of dissatisfaction in us all that, as a rule, we don’t talk about. Usually it is unilluminating, just oppressive.
But, when we look into what that disaffection, that background unsatisfactoriness actually is, when we are drawn to actually question and look into ‘who is suffering?’ in this moment, we are undertaking an exploration of another dimension of reality altogether – one that offers unrecognized but ever-available freedom from the confining prison of the conventional thought world, …
The process feels like nothing other than an awakening from a consensus trance, a dream world, and thus all of a sudden acquiring multiple degrees of freedom, … It is akin to the transition from a two-dimensional ‘flatland’ into a third spatial dimension, at right angles (orthogonal) to the other two. Everything opens up, although the two old dimensions are the same as they always were, just less confining. …
… we are initiating nothing less than a rotation in consciousness into another ‘dimension’, orthogonal to conventional reality, and thus, able to pertain at the same time as the more conventional one because you have simply ‘added more space’. Nothing needs to change. It’s just that your world immediately becomes a lot bigger, and more real. Everything old looks different because it is now being seen in a new light – an awareness that is no longer confined by the conventional dimensionality and mind set.
… [this is] a glimpse of what Buddhists refer to as absolute or ultimate reality, a dimensionality that is beyond conditioning but that is capable of recognizing conditioning as it arises. It is awareness itself, the knowing capacity of mind itself, beyond a knower and what is known, just knowing.
When we reside in awareness, we are resting in what we might call an orthogonal reality that is more fundamental than conventional reality, and every bit as real.
The conventional reality is not ‘wrong’. It is merely incomplete. And therein lies the source of both our suffering and our liberation from suffering.”

Kabat-Zinn does not directly talk about the three awareness modes I have been exploring in detail with my students in the Mindsight Intensive, the fields of consciousness, nothingness, and emptiness. A deeper exploration of those must be left for elsewhere. We can, however, taste some aspects of this journey towards freedom by recognizing how unique the expectations are with which we must take on meditation.

Meditation offers us a powerful sequence of interrelated processes serving as a royal road to deep peace – impatience resulting from a skewed relationship to time vanishes through the examination of the nature of time to make room for patience necessary to discover the inevitability of coming face-to-face with nothingness and death. Impatience, time, patience, and nothingness/death are basic realities on our path to liberation.

Once you master the basic tools used by the meditation guild and have gained some expertise in navigating the complex neighborhoods of your mind, you then must give the fire of awareness time to transform the mind’s energy flow and the brain’s neurofiring patterns – not unlike having mixed all your ingredients into your soup, and then giving the heat time to cook it. Easier said than done. During that time of ‘hanging in there’ without agenda, stabilizing attention one-pointedly on an object of awareness, and allowing everything else to unfold in the background of peripheral awareness with an open and accepting attitude full of curiosity, you invite and allow everything to be just as it is. Remember that you are not ‘hanging in there’ for a specific gain, but because it is so deeply healing just noticing improvement.

How much time do you need? Ten minutes, half an hour, an hour, a day? On this level of discourse, an hour a day of formal practice for the rest of your seven lifetimes is a good cruising velocity. The soup will cook nicely – you will accept with ever greater ease and elegance the satisfaction of noticing improvement for its own sake. However, most people crumble under the weight of time way before the hour has passed. Quite quickly, conditioned organismic processes make themselves felt in a variety of highly unpleasant experiences that drive us to abandon our cushions. The antidote? Access to timelessness

But how do we find timelessness within our time-bound lives? If you can’t trust your own subjective observation of the mind, you can trust physics to tell you that time is not a fundamental feature of reality. In other words, we must examine how our mind constructs time. It is thus not primarily about keeping track of the number of minutes you practice (although this number does give you a clue about your level of skill), but more about your skill in examining the ways numbers and minutes get constructed in your mind. In a more overarching way, it is about developing a clear sense of the subjective experiences created by the brain’s default mode network (the constructor) as distinguished from a very different set of experiences we call ‘the conduit’.

The default mode network’s constructor is the mind function that uninterruptedly creates stories. It is responsible for the incessant mind chatter filled with content and meaning we are all not only so familiar with but also so profoundly and completely identified with, that we end up confusing its content with reality. The conduit, on the other hand, is the entirety of direct somatic and sensory-motor experiences, which don’t have a content or storyline with meaning we can follow. These are the experiences we have through the external five senses of touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell, and the physical sensations in the body. In short, the real reality that gets directly presented to us through the conduit becomes transformed by the constructor (default mode network) into a virtual re-presented reality. The constructor is like a menu you read or a map you consult – though intellectually useful and interesting, it will never slake your hunger, quench your thirst, or immerse you in the landscape. The conduit is the actual meal you eat or the territory you hike in. We are so not used to realizing how virtual our thoughts, beliefs, and stories are, that we constantly confuse them with reality. This results in disembodied, stressed lives lived ‘in our heads’ in times (past and future) that don’t exist.

The moment your meditation dives into the intricacies of that construction, recognizing it as such and not confusing it with reality anymore, you discover that the foundation upon which you live is the conduit with its timeless moments that flow like a river to nowhere. Indeed, the stories of your construction themselves turn out to be no more than energy flow processes, not finished products experienced as truths for sale to other people. Consequently, even deeply held beliefs and meaning become no more than a fleeting appearance like the clouds in the sky. This applies equally to the construction of time, which can be directly observed, both individually and culturally in cultures without clocks or a sense of time like ours. Upon close examination, both conduit and constructor unveil their fleeting nakedness as they slip through our fingers like water we try to grasp. Your relationship with time changes profoundly.

When steeped in that conduit, the sense of ‘not being able to bear it anymore’ dissipates for several reasons. ‘I am not able to bear it anymore’ is recognized as just a thought, a construction, not real reality. As such it is as fleeting an energy flow as any other. Now grounded in conduit without any of the goals and meanings created by the constructor, you can recognize resistances and defenses that cause the experience to be felt more dramatically than it really is. You can emphasize curiosity, openness, acceptance, and allowing and letting be as a way of breaking past conditionings. Finally, time is revealed to just be a fleeting construction; there is no sense of less or more time that affects your expectations of how the immediate future needs to look. You touch timelessness. In the face of that realization (‘realization’ meaning an embodied awareness of reality), conditioned organismic processes that drive you on autopilot appear in a different light. Instead of being unpleasant experiences or problems, which you feel you need to bear, solve, or escape from by leaving your cushion, they are ‘just’ complex energy flows, each with their own qualities, direction, and destiny. Ten minutes, an hour, neither is either more difficult or less productive. They are just different, and with this ‘just’ the struggle and resistance fall away. Practicing for an hour changes from being an endurance game to becoming an invigorating massage instead.

Patience with nothing is quite a treasure. Remember: Nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to change, nothing to know, nobody to be – nada, zilch, squat, zippo. Timelessly surrendering to the vast emptiness of Being. It is like having assembled all the soup ingredients in a pot and all you now have to do is stir occasionally while letting it simmer on the fire. When everything is said and done – dreams are cleared, emotions regulated, memories integrated, thought rivers understood, and actions wisely measured – when nothing is left to say or do, the second of the three legs of our thousand-year journey begins by confronting nothingness and death in awareness.

Neither nothingness nor death are negative or nihilistic states, nor are they pessimistic outlooks on life. Granted, from the perspective of ordinary waking consciousness we call the field of consciousness, death, and nothingness appear as dark, cold, forsaken, and gloomy realities, which in Western philosophy existentialism has wrestled with. But Western philosophy being a largely intellectual exploration within the context of ordinary everyday consciousness does not manage well to pierce through the existential despair and discover an orthogonal dimension waiting to be realized. It does not use the awareness tools necessary for that. Mindfulness meditation offers that option, and we discover that quite on the contrary, death and nothingness are optimistic, positive, dynamic, and creative. When approached properly, they affirm the value and meaning of life in the face of suffering and death and open up a new horizon of freedom and responsibility for human beings. Prepare to die wisely and you will have a full and meaningful life.

Nothingness is the ground of being, the source of all possibilities, and the ultimate reality that transcends all dualities and categories such as subject and object, self and other, life and death. Nothingness is not something that can be grasped by rational thought or empirical observation, but only by a radical transformation of one’s consciousness and existence. It can provide a way to overcome existential crises and achieve a deeper understanding of oneself and the world. The only way to overcome the nihilism of existentialism is to go through it, to face in full awareness the nothingness that lies at the bottom of human existence, and to realize that it is not a negative void filled with death, but a positive source of creativity and freedom. By awakening to this field of nothingness, one can overcome the alienation and anxiety of existentialism and attain a new mode of being that is authentic, compassionate, and open to the infinite possibilities of existence that provide a deeper sense of meaning and joy. By implication, we need death to really get to know life at its deepest.

That powerfully transformative nothingness is waiting for you in many different cloaks and disguises at every turn: When you are bored, ‘nothing’ seems to happen, it all seems always the same, you can’t stand it anymore, you are lost, you have better things to do, you are assailed by the question ‘and now what?’, you have lost all sense of life’s meaning, or you are frantically searching for an imagined something to improve the life that eternally eludes you, like Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot. Without falling into forgetfulness, you stop waiting, you stop searching for the elusive prize that like the mirage of an oasis forever recedes as you approach. You rest in the awareness of nothing, a rich and creative void of unimaginable spaciousness, power, quality, and luminosity, and instead of waiting, you are present, waiting for nothing as everything is already there, doing nothing as everything of essence is already done. Instead of searching, you just receive; you revel in just being. This has by the way something to do with the capacity to be alone.

One of my students recently put it beautifully in an email as a question:
“Is it possible to reach a stage in your transformative journey of the mind where things stop making any sense, seemingly out of nowhere? It’s like, you’re practicing, formally and informally, working the tools and over time, you become a fairly skilled surfer, riding the waves with a sense of relative ease, stability, and flow.
And then, seemingly out of nowhere, as you seemingly ride the same waves in the same ocean, you can’t seem to stay on the surfboard with any sense of stability anymore. But you haven’t any clue why. You just can’t. Your balance is off. You don’t know anything anymore. Seemingly without any warning, you’re a beginner again.
The only thing I can say about this is that I notice a deeper widening within me, a deeper felt grief and sadness about our world in rapid chaos, and a felt confusion around how to be with the impermanence of civilization with reverence and faith.”

There is no room left for impatience when we examine the construction of concepts and time in meditation. Impatience is the escape from the truth by trying to escape to somewhere else than where we are; it is just resistance to the inevitable truth of ‘just Being’ in our practice of ‘just sitting’ with what ‘just keeps hitting you over the head the more you try to dismiss it’. When we settle in the flow of the foundations of our Being rather than precariously balance on the rooftops of our storied existence, impatience melts away like snow in the sun. The resulting holy water inspires the daily hour we sit on our cushion to become a transformative bath in the timeless vastness of Being – like a nurturing oasis amid the vast desert of existence with its trials and tribulations that toss us to and fro.

One must resist the temptation to make ‘the flow of the foundations of Being’ or ‘the timeless vastness of Being’, or indeed ‘nothingness’ into some ‘thing’ we can eventually find, get to, or achieve. Absolute nothingness is so profound that concepts must be released as what they are – puffs of smoke. If there is any trace of something called ‘nothing’, it must be released. This also applies to death. It is a no-thing and therefore no more than a process of transformation the likes of which we have spent a lifetime absorbed in. This absolute nothingness is ‘no thing’ whatsoever, and since all we can imagine are ‘things’, ‘no thing’ cannot be imagined. Just because it cannot be imagined or thought about does not mean it cannot be lived and known – not known in the sense of intellectual knowledge of something, but in the sense of unknowable knowing even beyond intuition.

The grace of opening those further dimensions of our awareness and orthogonally falling into a larger context with more dimensions than ordinary waking consciousness comes with the realization that we own nothing, we cannot hold on to anything, we are forced to unknow everything to end suffering, we lose everything we believed we had, and we ultimately are ‘no thing’ at all. No-thing is what death reveals when we get close to it. It is also the discovery of an orthogonal dimension we did not see before. In embracing this reality, ‘we die before we die in order not to die when we die’ as Buddhists tend to put it. Dying is radiantly liberating as it dissolves our conditionings to the point of revealing death as a transformation instead of an end, and thereby an inextricable feature of a life well lived.

All of reality is transformation, and there is no more powerful way to challenge old conditionings and make room for new, creative growth than to allow us to be purified by the awareness mode of the field of nothingness.

Copyright © 2023 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

This Is Happiness

When during one of our regular walks she spoke to me about a novel by Niall Williams she had just read, entitled ‘This Is Happiness’, my friend Janet did not know that I had started a blog about enlightenment and liberation. I have not yet read the book myself, but this coincidence seemed synchronistically meaningful to me as I felt a lovely resonance between us. This apparently very well-written novel seems to be about what I am addressing here in non-fiction form.

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December 19, 2022

When during one of our regular walks she spoke to me about a novel by Niall Williams she had just read, entitled ‘This Is Happiness’, my friend Janet did not know that I had started a blog about enlightenment and liberation. I have not yet read the book myself, but this coincidence seemed synchronistically meaningful to me as I felt a lovely resonance between us. This apparently very well-written novel seems to be about what I am addressing here in non-fiction form.

The desire for liberation

The desire to feel better and get to better places in our lives is deep and pervasive, causing strong motivational strivings that take many different forms. Common to all those strivings is the role of our imagination with its idealized visions of possibilities not yet realized. Throughout our lives, we invest enormous energy into turning those strivings into tangible results, and for the most part, these improvement projects give us some satisfaction that sweetens our lives.

However, we all know that these desires and strivings are never quenched and keep us indefinitely wanting more and more. Each time we have met a newly perceived need, the arrived-at-promised land turns quickly into the deficient and disappointing make-due land we need to improve again. And so it goes, cycle after cycle until our death. During this process, idealized images, ideas, and conceptions keep us hopping along like the carrot dangling in front of the donkey. When it comes to finding rest, peace, and equanimity in our lives, these idealizations pull us in the wrong direction following an addictive path towards never-enough land, which makes it impossible to get grounded.

Am I enlightened? A play in three acts.

Act 1: If I say I am, I embarrass myself. If I am not, based on what authority do I write about it?
Act 2: Unless you are evangelically compromised and undiscerning, you will have doubt about anyone’s claim to enlightenment. The problem for you and saving grace for me is that you cannot possibly tell, whether I am enlightened or not, because you will never live in my skin. If I really were, you could never tell anyway, because we would both assume that you are blind and I am clear, and the blind cannot see the truth. Whether I am or am not, how would I really know? To be sure, selling enlightenment is a lucrative business indeed because it takes advantage of people’s insatiable thirst for liberation from suffering, and their propensity to project their own disowned power and authority on an idealized hero of their choice. That’s why gods, tyrants, and saints are so popular!
Act 3: If I claim to be enlightened, or try to teach you how to become enlightened, consider I might do better teaching you how to find a unicorn. Enlightenment is just not what we may ever think it might be. So why not dispense with this notion of enlightenment?

What is (enlightenment) … unendarkenment?

Peruse the page in Wikipedia on enlightenment, and your head will start spinning. There are as many views on enlightenment as the square root of the number of people on this planet multiplied once by itself times two. Does that not tell us something? Notions that are attached to this phenomenon called enlightenment are non-duality, no-self, liberation, non-suffering, awakening, understanding, oneness, absolute, emptiness, Buddhahood, perfection, infinite compassion, wisdom, and skill – just to name a few. The aim of this blog is to cut through this jungle of confusion and make a very simple point: It is all much simpler and less glamorous than we think, indeed so simple as to be too simple to easily grasp! What complicates everything is the way our mind works without us knowing how it works. To get down to real effective business in this matter, we have to unendarken our view of reality.

The world of nouns

The word ‘enlightenment’ is a noun, and its attached cognitive notion refers to a thing or a mental state. Nouns point to objects we can possess, and mental states are psychological places we want to own or reach. By thinking in nouns, we find ourselves in mindscapes that present a static world to us. You either are or are not enlightened (a state you either possess or not). If you are not enlightened, you want to become enlightened (you are here, enlightenment is there, and you want to find a way of getting from here to there). Once you are enlightened (more accurately, you believe you are enlightened), you have the illusion of having arrived, and you possess the holy grail that will allegedly cause you eternal bliss.

Much like buying a new house, isn’t it? The old house is here, the new, better one there, you find ways of getting from here to there, and once you are there, you have happily arrived as the new owner. We call this mind function the problem-solving mind – a very useful mind function, but only then when it does not tyrannize and monopolize our way of meeting reality. The problem is that for most, it does and causes untold suffering.

The web of connotations attached to nouns

The notion of enlightenment conjures up many imaginative forms of permanent bliss and final liberation from pain and suffering. Once we have it, so we think, life is a perpetual breeze and we are finally, constantly happy – finally arrived in the kingdom of heaven. Because no one ever finds themselves in that state, or if they do, it never lasts, yet our mind constructs such a psychological place, our problem-solving mind gets busy. It imagines that place to be somewhere else than where we presently are, it also imagines the place we are now as a hell to escape from, it then compares the place we are now with the imagined heaven we allegedly could be in, and then busily tries to problem solve how to get from here to there. It does that repeatedly, obsessively, and obstinately, even when sooner or later it becomes clear that the imagined heaven is like the mirage of an oasis in the desert – constantly retreating further the closer you think you get to it, leaving you eternally thirsty.

Deconstructing the noun

Reality is just not made of nouns or objects. What we perceive as objects are useful sensory approximations. The ball you kick is usefully seen as an object you can manipulate and kick into the goal. In reality, the ball, like anything else in this universe, is energy flow. Some energy flow is obvious as when we deal with electricity or watch a river flow, some much less so as when we touch a rock. But no matter how we slice it, nothing in this universe is static, permanent, or motionless. Everything is energy flowing, creating flow patterns that arise out of pure potential, taking shape as a dynamic and ever-changing form for a while, before dissolving again into pure potential.

When it comes to our minds and how we view ourselves as organisms, bodies, and humans, the mind’s bias toward constructing a world of objects needs to be recognized. To meaningfully live in this world and survive as an organism, we need to create order in the chaotic, aimless flow of energy at the base of everything. The mind does that by parsing the energy flow into manageable energy chunks that have a reasonably stable life span, such as the perception of a ball for example, and these parsed energy chunks can then be manipulated in more or less predictable ways. We can plan a holiday in the future, knowing with statistical (not absolute) certainty that we have a reasonable chance to get there and enjoy ourselves when the time comes, even though foundationally reality is radically uncertain.

This statistically relative certainty is good enough for daily living and survival, although not necessarily to thrive. We routinely experience unsettling breakthroughs of uncertainty in those black swan events, when three days before the planned holiday someone dies of a heart attack or the plane to the holiday destination crashes. We are then forced to remember that certainty does not exist and that the only game in reality town is uncertainty. Everything, absolutely everything, is impermanent energy flow, coming and going, causing us to fear uncertainty, yet also making growth and transformation possible. In other words, those useful approximations created by the construction of nouns and objects, turn out to be much less useful when it comes to finding happiness, decreasing suffering, and searching for liberation. Understanding the way we construct reality and particularly our view of the human mind, requires the more sophisticated and reality-based notion of flow, process, and verb instead of static, thing, and noun. Not that static, thing, and noun don’t exist as an approximation, but rather that the foundations on which to base our lives cannot be certain, solid, and permanent – it is radically uncertain, flowing, and impermanent.

The implication is that being grounded in flow and process, which means being grounded in reality rather than flights of fantasy, reveals a most puzzling and simultaneously liberating insight – there is no place, state, or destination somewhere else at a future time to ever be found, discovered, or reached. If there was, given that everything is fundamentally impermanent flow, it would be already changed and gone the moment we reach it, and we could never own it, hold it, or dwell in it forever. We can then relinquish our worry about getting enlightened since there is no such state to be permanently had. Instead, there is only the journey without a goal, the journey of noticing improvement described in one of my blogs. Ground yourself in the foundational reality of impermanence, change, and transformation, and you will lose this painful obsession with inadequacy and having to get somewhere you are not. The imaginary place of enlightenment that does not exist gets replaced by the real process of unendarkenment.

Reality and fantasy

There are people who chase enlightenment the way others chase twisters. They are motivated by its promise of liberation from suffering. That promise is linked to fantasies about enlightenment and its absence of suffering, which are devoid of any sense of the reality of non-suffering. Fantasies are ultimately just thoughts connected to emotions they engender, therefore constructions of the mind, and very often disconnected from reality. Unwittingly, we chase Santa Claus believing that fantasy is a reality to be discovered, even though time and again the glass of milk and the plate of cookies remain untouched when no magician gets involved. Barking up the wrong tree, the chase becomes the thrill of a promise that never gets fulfilled. That thrill can sadly sustain the chase for a whole lifetime, leaving us empty-handed and disappointed. Let’s not take that route!

Pain is not suffering

Without understanding the difference between pain and suffering, we can never understand what the promise of mindfulness is all about. Having a body with a sentient nervous system to regulate our energy flow, we are bound to make sense of reality and be guided to survive by having to regulate pleasant and unpleasant experiences. The more extreme unpleasant experiences become, the closer they get to our definition of pain. Pain is unavoidable and an integral part of living.

Needs that are not met create unpleasant states and drive the organism to fulfill them, causing in turn pleasurable satisfaction for a while when they get fulfilled. The more seamlessly embedded in nature an organism is, and the more rudimentary the organism’s capacity for self-reflection is, the simpler the formula for successful survival is: Follow what’s pleasant and avoid what’s unpleasant, and you will be fine.

Ours, however, is an organism capable of self-reflection. We can think about thinking and about our experience of the world, thereby through imagination also creating worlds that do not exist. That capacity is hugely powerful and enabled the development of our human civilization. Through imagination, we evolved from stone age hunter-gatherers into creatures using cell phones to communicate at great distances. Keeping in mind that nothing was brought to us earthlings by extraterrestrial beings from another galaxy, ask yourself where the cell phone was thirty thousand years ago, and it is awe-inspiring to contemplate the fact that the cell phone arose purely through our use of the imagination. In David Bohm’s terms, the cell phone existed then as part of the implicate order of things, and we managed to slowly bring it into the explicate order of reality.

This power of self-reflection has a negative side. Our capacity to imagine what does not exist also applies to narratives about our lives, particularly negative ones. As Mark Twain once said, “the worst things in my life never happened”. We may have an unavoidable pain in our right thigh, and if we just experience that pain and nothing else, it usually remains very manageable and only tolerably interferes with the enjoyment of our lives. However, if the pain causes us to spin doomsday scenarios that it must be cancer and our life is ruined, then the unavoidable pain gets enhanced by a secondary, avoidable, and optional cognitive-emotional elaboration, which not only worsens the unavoidable pain but adds on top of that a whole lot more pain that is largely disconnected from reality. That additional unnecessary pain our self-reflective mind creates is entirely optional and called suffering.

When we talk about liberation, we don’t mean liberation from unavoidable pain, but from avoidable suffering that the mind superimposes on the pain. The cause of suffering lies mostly in our defenses against acceptance of what is, whether we like it or not. Our resistance to what is, and our act of getting into our own way cause the kind of rope burn suffering is all about. The final equation can be put this way: Pain + resistance to pain = suffering. Decrease the resistance to pain, and suffering will decrease. The promise of mindfulness is all about that.

Changing metaphor

Let’s start with an anecdote as we ask ourselves what enlightenment is and why it can be liberating to be interested in it. Here is a Zen master’s definition of enlightenment:

‘Enlightenment is the realization that there is no difference
between enlightenment and non-enlightenment.’

Interesting, isn’t it? The Zen master implies two things: (1) Who cares about enlightenment given that it is an imaginary, non-existent place constructed by the mind? (2) If we drop out of our mind’s constructions, and down into the reality of living, we realize that everything is flow, process, and endless evolution without a goal and that what we are really left with is a constant process of skill improvement as sailors on the ocean of life. We stop chasing an endpoint and instead start cherishing the endless process of inquiry, discovery, and creativity that allows us to notice improvement, a process better referred to as unendarkenment. Whatever our thoughts may be about and re-present like a menu representing the meal or a map the territory, we then remain grounded in how reality presents itself as the meal or the territory we are directly embedded in – the timeless process of energy flow arising and passing.

Awareness and relationship to experience

When you only have a bicycle, you can experience transportation and its world only from the bicycle perspective. You will work very hard at creating as many varied bicycling experiences and adventures as possible, but they will always be bicycle experiences. If you own a bicycle and a car, that increases your experience options, and if you imagine having access to boats, trains, helicopters, airplanes and rockets, you are suddenly able to see the world from many different perspectives. It dawns on you that how you reach your destinations becomes more important than the destinations themselves. We are biased toward the misunderstanding that the promised land resides in a particular set of experiences, and then we chase experiences for liberation. Not so. Experiences, as transient and impermanent as they all are, can never provide liberation from suffering. Chasing after experiences, whatever the means of this chase are, like psychedelics, for example, will never reveal the quiet, stable peace and serenity independent of circumstance we so fervently yearn for. Only through our attitude and relationship to all experience, and realizing what that is, can liberation occur and our suffering quiets down.

What is the nature of this relationship to experience? This is a very complex topic I cannot possibly exhaust in this short blog. We have to explore two avenues – one is the question of who or what is relating to experience, and the other is what this process of relating refers to.

The first question is often taken too simplistically, and one assumes that “of course, it is me who relates to experience”, without giving a second glance at who ‘me’ really is. When we look deeply into that question, ‘deeply’ meaning not only conceptually, but as a whole body-mind experience, it becomes quickly quite clear that all we find are further experiences. In other words, the ‘I’ we are trying to understand immediately dissolves into further experiences that are not ‘me’ the moment we try to examine it. The observer is just nowhere to be found, despite the fact that we have the illusion of being the observer. When this discovery hits us as a realization, what we thought was a relationship between ‘me’ and experience dissolves into a web of interactive energy flows that have no weaver. The unfolding universe we observe and the observing ‘I’ are exactly the same. We are the unfolding universe knowing itself, and the unfolding universe knowing itself is, among many other manifestations, us.

The second question about what process constitutes this perceived relationship arises from resolving the first question. Once we realize that we are the unfolding universe knowing itself, it becomes clear how fundamental awareness is to reality. The unfolding universe knowing itself is just a special case of something even broader touching on timelessness in limitless space – an energy flow with a center everywhere and a circumference nowhere. Our true identity is then revealed as this timeless movement and eternal change from pure and unimaginable potential to identifiable patterned manifestations and back, somehow all steeped in incomprehensible awareness with its powerful force for transformation, healing, and love.

In human beings, the arising of patterned energy flow manifestations simultaneously creates a duality, which arises from focusing non-dual awareness in the form of attention that moves from a subjective center towards a whole range of objectively perceived centers of energy flow. Upon closer examination, the subjective center of energy flow always turns out to be as varied and manifold as the many objects of its awareness, throwing us again right back into the fundamental insight about the non-duality of reality. In this way, awareness and its focused manifestation we call attention, non-duality and duality, pure potential and impermanent manifestations, the universal ‘me’ as the unfolding universe and the individual ‘me’ observing the unfolding universe, all are a mysteriously sacred dance we need to learn to dance in order to decrease our suffering in a fundamentally stable and reliable way. What that does to our conditioned patterns of behavior, both physiologically and psychologically, is a systematic unlearning of rigidly predictable pathways of illusory knowing, often accompanied by full immersion in nothingness, followed by a creative expansion of new pathways of insight that ceaselessly connect with each other in vast new webs of awareness.

Coda on mindfulness meditation

No goal, just a journey, and a thousand-year one at that. Nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to change, nothing to solve, nothing to achieve, and nobody to be. Just noticing improvement.

Zenkei Shibayama (1894-1974), the overseer of the large Rinzai Zen Nanzen-ji branch of temples, once said: “There is a common saying [in Japanese Zen], ‘Miso (bean paste) with the smell of miso is not good miso. Enlightenment with the smell of enlightenment is not the real enlightenment.”

And so, a wise old Zen master, very near death, lay quietly on his mat with his eyes closed, all his disciples gathered around. Kneeling closest to him was his number one disciple, a long-time practitioner who would succeed the old man as head of the monastery. At one point the old master opened his eyes, and lovingly gazed at each and every one of his disciples assembled in the crowded room. Finally, his glance rested on his successor, and he managed to speak his last words to the man: “Ah, my son, you have a very thorough knowledge of the teachings and scriptures, and you have shown great discipline in keeping the precepts. Your behavior has, in fact, been flawless. Yet there is one more thing remaining to be cleared up: you still reek and stink of ‘Zen’!”

Once through much effort you have internalized the scaffolding of proper mindfulness technique to meet the immense complexity of the human mind, you can trust that like the experience of a seasoned sailor on life’s oceans, or an accomplished musician with her instrument, it will effortlessly carry you through the worst storms and weather patterns with the reasonable success of meaningful survival. You can then let go of the preoccupation about whether you are ‘doing this right’, freed to fully give yourself to the most rewarding task there is, the creative exploration of human possibilities for healing and ceaselessly grow towards ever larger spaces of wisdom.

If you believe your teacher is enlightened, wake up and look for the disowned authority you project onto your teacher. If your teacher believes he or she is enlightened, run for the hills. Your belief will preclude the possibility of waking up to realize the deep nature of reality. If instead, your teacher is a log on fire that sets your belly on fire, getting you to sweat in practice and inspire you to be the explorer of your own mind, proceed, as he or she may just be undarkened enough to have relinquished much suffering and have the ability to be of great benefit to you, although you would never know it.

Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

The Vision Of Improvement

Sometimes our meditation practice ‘does not go well’, whatever that may mean in the meditator’s mind, and we get frustrated and end up giving up. The interpretation of it ‘not going well’ is fraught with confusion and misunderstanding about what meditation is. Inexperienced practitioners often say that a practice does not go well when painful experiences arise that are difficult to handle. Such experiences are routinely part of practice, though, since mindfulness meditation opens our awareness to the entirety of possible experiences, good or bad. Whatever experience content thus arises, pleasant or unpleasant, painful or enjoyable, says nothing about how well a meditation practice is going.

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November 8, 2022

Sometimes our meditation practice ‘does not go well’, whatever that may mean in the meditator’s mind, and we get frustrated and end up giving up. The interpretation of it ‘not going well’ is fraught with confusion and misunderstanding about what meditation is. Inexperienced practitioners often say that a practice does not go well when painful experiences arise that are difficult to handle. Such experiences are routinely part of practice, though, since mindfulness meditation opens our awareness to the entirety of possible experiences, good or bad. Whatever experience content thus arises, pleasant or unpleasant, painful or enjoyable, says nothing about how well a meditation practice is going.

That does not mean that a practice cannot be deficient and not go well. It can, when lack of experience leads to deficiencies in meditation technique that can derail the whole process. This is no different than in any other discipline – with a lack of or wrong technique nothing productive can be achieved. For example, if a meditator tries to get rid of a painful experience, mindful self-compassion may be missing from the technique and the meditator will not benefit from the practice. The level of skill the meditator brings to using the necessary tools to meditate is therefore essential for a successful practice. When we are not clear about our technique, the mind cannot be examined. Most patients and students I see struggling to keep up the practice are not afflicted by a lack of will, motivation, or mental ability to practice, but they don’t realize which meditation tools they have forgotten or have not yet learned to use.

Meditation practices that repeatedly derail lead to the practitioner giving up. When we give up, we often end up berating ourselves for our lack of competence, instead of embracing it as an interesting fact about our mind to be explored. One of the most frequent reasons we end up failing in our meditation practice comes from resisting what is without realizing that that is what we are doing. We want bad things to go away, and if we don’t change that impulse, our meditation will certainly fail, and we fall into a sense of futility and resignation.

Resignation

Giving up or resigning means getting overwhelmed by an internal chaos of energy flow, combined with the perception that our meditation practice is no match for one’s mind’s overwhelming power. We then easily fall prey to the usual autopilot mode of everyday living that cannot make sense of what is going on, is powerless to improve life’s experience, and is based on avoidance for survival. Resigning means giving up on our close examination of the mind because we are not able to handle it skillfully, feeling forced to accept that our meditation practice does not work. We are forced back into the autopilot mode of living that propels us through time without a sense of meaning and purpose, stringing us along an unending series of necessities that have to get done. In that mode, what we try, like meditation, in this case, does not seem to work well. We are stuck in an unconscious addiction to ignorance that is sweetened by the allure of the familiar and doctrinal, even though we know very well that those conditioned patterns do not work for us as we only cope for survival without ever tasting the joy of inspiration that creates a thriving life.

We should not assume that mindful living would eliminate any trace of resignation in life. There are moments when our conditioned brain wiring is just too powerful to work with and we will automatically be forced to temporarily give up. However, through mindfulness training, we will eventually be able to prevent having to resign or create a shift during the process of resignation. It is a shift in our relationship to what we experience through an expansion of awareness that allows us to step back a bit, kindly embrace ourselves in our entirety and wholeness without berating ourselves, and bring a curiosity of exploration to the situation. Even if we have already started to berate ourselves for having given up and being ‘bad students and hopeless losers who will never get anywhere in meditation’, even then we can embrace that, too, as part of our wholeness, exploring with curiosity how amazingly complex our mind is in its attempts at making sense of life and ensuring survival.

The moment we are able to take that step of bringing investigative awareness and attention to giving up, and not simply staying mired in that defeatist mental state forever, the mindfulness journey can continue, and giving up is immediately transformed into a tactical retreat, a purposeful surrender. With experience, we can remain aware of an upcoming internal storm that is threatening our ability to stay grounded before it has reached its full destructive force, and take steps to access resources that allow us to navigate the mental storm more skillfully and with more elegance.

When we give up, the central coordinating brain structure responsible for the conscious regulation of the organism’s energy and information flow, the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC), goes offline and we fall into various combinations of uncontrollable fight/flight/freeze-conditioned mental states. The moment we reconnect our MPC after having given up or keep it connected with appropriate mindfulness measures when we anticipate overwhelm and a possible resignation, we engage in a tactical retreat leading to surrender. With surrender as opposed to resignation, we remain fully aware and mindful of what is going on without losing our connection with the MPC. Like climbing a mountain that gets pummeled by a storm, we wisely, not impulsively, decide to temporarily retreat further down in order to regroup, wait until the storm has passed, and then start climbing again when the weather allows. Forced resignation with the hallmark of hopelessness transforms into deliberate and conscious surrender that retains the sense of agency on the path to awakening.

Noticing improvement

Pablo Casals (1876 – 1973) needs no introduction as one of the greatest cellists of all time. One day he received a visit at his home from one of his friends. Pablo was in his nineties practicing his cello when his friend arrived. “Pablo, you are the greatest cellist to ever walk this earth, and you are in your nineties, why are you still practicing?” asked his friend. Pablo answered: “Because I am noticing improvement!” A similar story comes from the piano legend Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989), who was once asked why in his eighties he was still practicing daily. “If I don’t practice for a day”, he said, “I notice it; for 2 days, my wife notices it; for 3 days, everybody notices it!” Both gentlemen were fully accomplished in their field and world-renowned representatives of their art. As Jack Kornfield entitles one of his books, ‘After The Ecstasy, The Laundry’.

The pleasure of noticing improvement without an end or goal in mind is the grail of mindfulness, driven by a vision of life as a journey to nowhere. Meaning and fulfillment do not appear in disembodied fantasies about a past and a future that are always somewhere else than where we are, but from the oh-so elusive bowels of the present moment that is always right here now. The journey to nowhere is then the awakening to the ever-flowing energy of the present moment. The vision of noticing improvement is the act of harnessing the power of the imagination to conceive with unusual discernment and foresight what does not yet exist, without ever feeling the need to glimpse an ever-elusive end or goal. Such is life and love, like play for a child, reality dancing with us for the sake of dancing, creativity for the sake of endless creation with nothing else extraneous. The journey to nowhere is its own purpose and meaning that does not require anything outside itself like a goal. The vision of noticing improvement is the crown jewel of mindfulness meditation that integrates all organismic functions like the body, the emotions, and the intellect. With this vision we remain humble and relaxed, not needing to chase non-existent goals that tend to lure us like mirages into narcissistic gratifications.

Our work consists of awakening awareness from the autopilot monkey mode of living, and it is a major challenge to calm down the striving problem-solving mind, which always creates imagined better results and prizes to be had at the end of the effort. Often, such striving is accompanied by an idealized view of the teacher as having arrived exactly where the student strives to arrive one day. At work is an automatic psychological mechanism, through which students project their own disowned authority onto the teacher, while their conscious self-image gets flooded with perceptions of imperfection. This mechanism manifests when we have not yet integrated disowned or dissociated parts in us. The result is that we don’t feel at peace, we identify our sense of who we are with this state of discomfort, and the problem-solving mind presents to our minds the fantasy of goodness as a solution to be found outside, somewhere else at a future date. Students often don’t notice that the teacher is exactly there where they are, maybe just a bit more so!

The ideal we seek is an imagined state of contentment and relief from whatever pain we suffer from. Freedom never appears to be there where we are but is imagined either somewhere else or at a future time. We want to be happy when we are not, or happier than we are. We are in the grip of a discomfort-driven psychological seizure to get to the place of relief as soon as possible. The problem-solving mind plans for us to get from here to there as quickly as possible, never mind that we don’t have the faintest idea about where ‘here’ is, what ‘there’ looks like, and what role time plays in it all. Both ‘here’ and ‘there’ are misconstrued in black-and-white terms: ‘Here’ is deficient and ‘there’ is fulfillment. In addition, we expect that getting from here to there should not take more than a few weeks.

The psychological mechanism creating these entanglements is compartmentalization and dissociation, both preventing a holistic view of who we are in the present moment. Sun without shadow is not possible, very much like pain here cannot exist without joy here, and joy there cannot exist without pain there. The grass is not greener on the other side of the fence, but where you water it. The promised land we are all so desperately looking for is therefore not at the end of our journey somewhere else at another time – particularly since there is no end to the journey. It is the learned and trained capacity to embrace the full catastrophe of our existence in the present moment with equanimity and elegant flexibility. It is enjoying the peace and contentment of ceaselessly noticing improvement. It requires relinquishing the sanitized doctrines and disembodied ideas of the dissociative mind and reconnecting with our emotions, our body, and the world around us in an act of radical embodiment, so as to turn sterile intellectual ideas of perfection into the complex visions of messy creative potential. That all takes time and patience, a lot of time and patience – the thousand-year journey.

Surrender

At the beginning of the mindful journey, this ideal of where we are supposed to end up is like a mirage. It recedes in proportion to our advances, never to be reached. Eventually, as we get closer and closer to realizing what we are looking for, the mirage disappears completely, only to leave us with the endless trail snaking through eternity around us. For a moment we may be despaired and lost, because the closer we seem to get to the ideal, the farther away we find we are from it because the ideal is just a disembodied idea, a thought, and not liberation itself. The idea of liberation is just a fantasy not to be worried about, except for learning to realize that only complete embodied presence with the fullness of perfectly imperfect reality can afford us the freedom we so desperately yearn for. The full embodiment of a previously disembodied idea turns it into a vision we can manifest moment-by-moment in our daily lives. Then, not only the ideal disappears, but the perceived trail itself dissolves and we discover that the path is not linear at all but meandering sloppily in all directions like the many arms of a river delta. We grow in all directions, and eternity is touching us from all directions until we can finally satisfy ourselves that once and for all, and for all eternity, becoming has no origin, no final goal, and no destination. We never arrive – that is the mystery of timelessness.

The practice of noticing improvement is the simplest and most ordinary of all possible states of being, and therefore so extraordinarily rare and coveted. The subtle internal work we do is intimately connected to others, and we cannot hide our internal world without affecting others. How we regulate our own energy and information flow directly affects others and vice versa. The resonance circuitry of the brain responsible for our dependence on relationships is exquisitely sensitive; there is not much leeway – ‘only 2 days, and then everybody notices’. Our practice needs to occur not only with our fellow humans in mind but in the field of all our relationships. Relationships and their harmony are at the core of spiritual awakening because our brain is a relational organ, wired for relationships. As Buddha already knew, one of the three refuges in our practice we can find safety is the sangha, the community of people on the path to awakening. The journey to a better place is in reality the story of a deeper and more refined settling into the web of relatedness that already exists in the present moment.

Casals’ statement is hauntingly beautiful. Old, at the end of his life, he continues to improve, unknowingly celebrating how neuroplasticity in the brain persists throughout our lifetime and never stops. You are perfect as you are, and there is room for improvement according to Buddhists. Your perfection is the manner of your becoming. Room for improvement is the infinite potential for ever deeper acceptance, clarity, simplicity, and love in every moment of becoming. The goal of this journey of liberation is the becoming, the journey itself. That sounds almost trite, as I am sure you have heard and intellectually absorbed that a million times. What should intrigue us here that makes the difference between intellectual understanding and being-as-lived experience, is how to realize what becoming is all about.

You are already becoming (and disappearing) moment-by-moment. Nature does that for you without your consent. You are form arising with the main trajectory already laid out. You become as a life form, not as a rock; you become a human being, not a lizard; and you become with a temperament and certain proclivities, not as a tabula rasa. You already are a river flowing, coming and going, and you cannot push the river. For better or for worse, as humans, we have the brain and mind capacity to interfere with becoming. You have the capacity over a lifetime to strongly influence the shape, size, and direction of the riverbed by regulating the river’s flow. But you cannot stop it or push it uphill without negative consequences. Because we can regulate the flow, and because we usually use only a small fraction of our brain’s capacity (the problem-solving mind) to regulate, we can regulate really badly, so badly that we end up dysregulating. We can regulate so badly as to push the river and not notice that we are involved in such hopeless nonsense. Then chaos and rigidity arise, and we get sick.

Realizing how the journey is the goal is not as simple as it may sound. That is the reason why the world teems with spiritual teachers who tell you how there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, and how liberation is right here, right now, already there for you to enjoy, yet most just don’t see it; and why the world also teems with students who compartmentalize and own all imperfection while projecting all perfection on the teacher! How simple that sounds – do nothing, let go, and you are already enlightened, already free. It is indeed simple once you get it. But getting to the point of getting it (if there even is such a thing as a journey to a point to be gotten!) is the challenge or the art, requiring intense and long training.

For the most part, we must acknowledge that everything worthwhile, including wisdom, requires hard work and mind training. There is an art, a challenge to this business of freedom from suffering with effortless effort. It is patiently learning the necessary technique of training the mind. We have to become proficient in how we use our mindfulness tools to undo conditioned compartmentalizations, dissociations, and resistances without pushing whole parts of who we are into the darkness of unconsciousness. That makes it possible for the organism to freely access its inherent wisdom and move towards integration, instead of continuing to create more suffering and eventually decompensation, overwhelm, and resignation.

We have to develop the ability to recognize and then connect all parts of what we are as human organisms into a harmoniously functioning whole, connecting the intellect with the heart, the guts, other human beings, and our environment. This does not come easily because, by virtue of our innate negativity bias and the reflex of wanting to get rid of pain, we are biologically wired to condition ourselves with all kinds of bad habits. While running away from an attacking tiger is a good idea, doing the same psychologically with an internally imagined aggressive tiger is a very bad idea. As the river inexorably flows, we naturally tend to diminish our capacity for skillful regulation and create suffering. We spontaneously and unwittingly tend to create chaos and rigidity in our lives. This natural and spontaneous capacity to create suffering can, fortunately, be met with an equally natural, but not usually spontaneously available capacity to decrease and eliminate suffering. To make it spontaneously available requires a certain attentional training of a very particular sort, called mindfulness training.

Here is the good news: The very engagement in that training is the prize! Enlightenment or liberation is the very real and embodied experience of relief that comes when we have decided to actively get involved in the integration of all our parts into a more harmonious whole, with no end in sight. There is no finish line to this endeavor, except maybe to say that we have arrived at the moment the mirage of the perfect place dissolves and we can peacefully settle in life’s imperfections; the moment the necessity to engage on this path has become so clear, so obvious to us that we never question it again and we become eternal students of existence. That is the laundry after ecstasy; enlightenment means to stop worrying about enlightenment as you go about the business of the laundry. Aren’t you enjoying clean clothes after your laundry, knowing that they soon will be dirty again? What more do you want than looking forward to the potential of ongoing laundries?

To be a student in that fashion does not end up in a degree, but on the contrary entails the fascinating journey of unknowing, knowing that there is no end to wisdom; knowing that there is always more after we get anything and that every time we get something, we are challenged to let it go and transform into something new, into what comes next in the flow of the river. What relief to drop into the space of the eternal student who knows there is no end to being a student and no land of Cockaigne to chase after. What a soothing experience it is to know that on this eternal path of study we have a chance, every moment of our lives, to integrate a bit more, to follow the river’s flow with a bit more ease, a bit more clarity, a bit more stability, a bit more depth, and a bit more love – that is mastery, and that is surrender instead of resignation! In every moment of our lives, we have this incredible opportunity to lovingly embrace imperfection and with delight notice improvement. But we have to actively take the opportunity, and it takes attention and effort to do so. Once the opportunity is taken, it takes learning effortlessness to bring the opportunity to flourish.

Copyright © 2022 by Dr. Stéphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

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