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 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 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.
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.