Friday, September 11, 2009

Everything Is Mind

A friend of mine on Facebook said recently, citing the conventional wisdom, that we shouldn't conceptualize our meditation experience. I had to chuckle, because it seems like that's all I do -- especially in these blog posts. Maybe I should refrain from trying to make sense of my experience and teasing out its meaning, but I can't stop myself. I often find that my most meaningful experiences on the spiritual path come about when I ignore conventional wisdom and do what feels authentic to me. This process of writing -- which, by definition, involves conceptualizing my experience -- has lately become integral to the way I practice contemplation. On the selfish side, it helps me flesh out my own understanding in a way that I'm not able to do on the cushion; and on the altruistic side, friends and even total strangers sometimes write to me saying that reading these contemplations benefits them, which motivates me to keep writing.

Nothing that we study or practice on the spiritual path is useful if we can't find ways to make it relevant to our personal experience. Even the most esoteric, mystical teachings are pointing to something that is alive in our own experience and our own mind -- but it's up to each of us to discover that for ourselves. No one else can do it for us. "Buddhas only point the way," it is often said -- but we each have to walk the path ourselves, in our own way, and join the teachings with our own understanding. This is the importance of contemplation, and it's what the Buddha instructed us to do when he talked about testing and chewing on the teachings before accepting them, the way people in those days would chew on a piece of gold to verify its authenticity.

In ancient India there was a school of Buddhist philosophy called Yogachara, which is usually translated as the "Mind Only" school. More literally, "yoga" means "union" or "inseparability" and "chara" means "practice" or "training." The Yogacharins practiced or trained in seeing the union or inseparability of subject and object -- in other words, the absence of apparent duality between perceiver and perceived.

Wait a minute! What the hell does *that* mean? Nary a paragraph ventured, and we've strayed into high-fallutin' theory and abstract philosophy. Let's look at it in terms of ordinary experience.

The perception of duality pervades everything we experience. We look at a rock, and we think "I'm over here" and "that rock is over there." Ordinarily, we think this is a perfectly acceptable and useful way of looking at our reality -- it's just the way it is, and there is no need to investigate further. But holding this assumption tightly, as we do, creates all sorts of misunderstandings and confusion. Because we think there is some kind of substantially, objectively existing rock out there, we assume that everyone else who sees it must be experiencing the same rock. We are flabbergasted when they describe seeing it differently.

The Yogacharins, however, challenged this very fundamental assumption about reality. They said that the apparent separation between perceiving subject and perceived object, and the supposedly solid, objective existence of something "out there" that's separate from the mind "in here," is actually an illusion. Their claim to fame was for holding the radical view that "Everything is mind."

The Yogacharins were able to get away with making this seemingly ludicrous assertion because they pointed out, and not incorrectly, that all we can ever really know about an object is our own experience of it. In cognitive terms (what we know), we can never really cognize the rock itself -- in other words, the rock can't get up and come into our minds, and we can't go down and put our minds inside the rock. What we actually experience, say the Yogacharins, is a perception of the rock that takes place entirely within the mind. We can never truly experience anything that isn't experienced within the mind.

What we experience within the mind is utterly unique to each of us -- even the person sitting next to us does not see the same rock as we do. Moreover, the rock and the consciousness that perceives it may appear to be more or less constant from one moment to the next, but this is also a misperception. The rock -- conventional wisdom be damned -- is never the same from one instant to the next (we know this to be the case even scientifically, on a sub-molecular level) and the same could be said ten times over of the consciousness that perceives it. Our mind is constantly shifting and changing, and when we try to pinpoint it and solidify it into any one shape in order to look at it, we find it always seems to be hiding just behind our awareness -- in the same way that our eyeballs cannot see themselves.

Please don't bother trying to find her.
She's not there.

-- The Zombies

Now, rocks don't seem to mind much if we see them incorrectly and make false assumptions about their nature. But when we bring this same reifying mindset into our human relationships, it creates total chaos. We see Joe Schmidt as a completely separate entity who is trapped in some kind of fixed, solid existence, stuck forever in his basic and irrevocable Joeness -- and, depending on our outlook, we either love him for being Joe, or hate him for being Joe. (As I know too well from my history of intimate relationships, we can also start out with the former and, before long, end up with the latter.) But our perception of Joe takes place entirely within our own minds, and is clouded by the filters of our own emotional reactions and cognitive distortions. Because we don't see this, we believe that what we perceive about Joe is the way Joe really is, and that everyone -- including Joe himself -- must perceive Joe the same way as we do. It's not difficult to imagine how this assumption gets us in trouble.

Our habitual tendency to perceive our experience in dualistic terms extends even to what unfolds "internally," in our mind and body. When a thought or an emotion arises in the mind, we relate to it as if we -- the perceiving consciousness -- are "over here," and the thought or the emotion -- the perceived object -- is "over there" somewhere, a kind of quasi-external phenomenon that is happening to us. Similarly, when a physical sensation -- pain, for example -- arises in the body, we relate to it as if our experiencing mind, which is naturally "over here," is quite distinct and separate from that spot in our lower back, "down there," that is producing pain. Because we see these objects as separate from the mind that perceives them, we grant them a kind of phantom-like power over us. The emotion becomes a boogeyman that keeps coming back to haunt us, and won't leave us alone; the pain in our back while we're practicing meditation becomes excruciating, and we feel we have to do something about it.

But when we look more closely, in meditation, at the nature of these experiences, our assumptions of duality begin to crumble. When we look directly at the experience of pain in our back, for example, and investigate whether this experience is truly separate from the mind that perceives it, something altogether surprising may happen. The experience itself opens up into something much more relaxed, and the conceptual label of "pain" dissolves, leaving only pure sensation. The baggage of our habitual reactions -- "Oh! This feeling is painful! It's terrible! I've got to do something about it!" -- falls away and we are able, at least for a moment, to relate to our basic human experience in a way that is shockingly free of our ordinary bullshit.

When the current of thoughts is self-liberated
And the essence of Dharma is known
Everything is understood
And apparent phenomena
Are all the books one needs.

-- Sadhana of Mahamudra

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