Buddhist Geeks recently posted a great interview with Buddhist teacher Reggie Ray. In the interview Reggie describes the two veils that separate us from our awakened nature. The first veil is the veil of emotional defilements (negative emotions like anger, desire, jealousy, etc.). The second veil is characterized by ignorance, that is, not recognizing the true nature of reality. Here’s what Reggie had to say concerning the second veil:

But there’s a much deeper level that is really really critical. And this level is generally not addressed in modern Buddhism. And this deeper level is what’s called, it’s the obscuration to being able to see, if we want to put it this way. And what it is is, it’s these patterns that we acquire probably before we learn to speak as babies. They are emotional predispositions. They are emotional assumptions about what reality is that are entirely unconscious. And you know some of us feel that life is basically just a lot of hard work. Some of us feel incredibly lonely.  Some of us feel fundamentally resentful and angry, but these are all unconscious attitudes. And we actually think that’s the way reality is. And that gets between us and actually what we’re looking for.

Reggie goes beyond any description of ignorance I’ve encountered in my studies of Buddhism. It sounds to me like he’s recognizing the psychological element of spiritual practice and the need to work with psychological blocks on the way to awakening. In Hakomi we call those “emotional assumptions” core beliefs. Core beliefs are the way we make meaning of our experience. They are unconscious beliefs or assumptions about the world and about ourselves. Often core beliefs can be limiting (example: I am not good enough, or the world is not a safe place) and Hakomi aims to make those conscious and to help people find new ways of being in the world, to be free from those limiting beliefs.

Reggie describes how he works with this material as a spiritual teacher:

… this is what we need to work on together. We need to take a look at your life. We need to work together. I need to look at you and see where you get stuck. We need to work on this. Simply handing people practices and giving them [inaudible], it’s just not good enough. It’s not going to do it. Trungpa Rinpoche said, and my experience really bears it out, the relationship between the teacher and student, there’s only one other relationship in life that that’s intimate, and that is the one with a beloved partner if you happen to have that kind of relationship. It’s the only other one that even comes close.

This sounds a lot like the relationship and the work one might do with a therapist: take a look at your life, see where you get stuck, etc. This part of the interview really helped cement my belief that spiritual practice and psychotherapy are not separate but, in fact, are intimately intertwined with each other.

Listen to both parts of the interview on Buddhist Geeks.

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There appears to be a common thread going through all three of the mystical traditions we’ve looked at. This is, which goes through Kabbalah, Chrisitian mysticism and Sufism is love. Each tradition places a slightly different accent on it but all of them include love and the heart as important aspects of the mystic’s life, the mystic’s relationship with the Divine and the mystic’s relationship with humanity.

In Lurianic Kabbalah the Divine’s desire to share was the initial impetus that led to the act of creation. The interplay between the desire to give and the desire to receive is one of the strongest themes in Kabbalah and is the focus of the process of tikkun. We undergo the process of tikkun in order to transform our desire to receive for the sake of the self alone to a desire to receive for the sake of sharing. This is a process of letting go in which the heart learns to relax the self-constriction and open up to receive the divine light.

In Christian Mysticism we see on one side the mystic’s love for the Divine which manifests as an urgency and eagerness to unite with the Divine. This love is expressed by many mystics and sometimes takes on erotic overtones as exemplified in the work of Hadewijch of Antwer. On the other side, the love of the Divine for the soul is described as a powerful force that purges the soul from its imperfections. This entire love affair is probably best described by the mystic works based on the Song of Songs, in itself a mystical text that describes the love between the Divine and the people of Israel.

Finally, for the Sufis love and longing are central to the spiritual path. The creation itself, according to the Sufis, is an act of longing: “I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known” (Hadith Qudsi). The end of the path is the ecstatic union of lover and beloved in the seeker’s heart. This relationship between lover and beloved is also echoed in the relationship between seeker and teacher as we can see in Rumi’s love for his teacher Shams Tabrizi. Since nothing is separate from the Divine, the sufi’s love and devotion to the Divine translate to love and service for all beings. This allows the sufi tradition to be open and inclusive of people of various faiths.

Obviously these different variations of love are each grounded in specific time and culture but what all of them share is the importance of the open heart. From the open heart shine forth love, generosity, kindness, compassion, joy and more but what does a heart need in order to continue being open? I think that the answer offered by the mystics is faith (or trust) in the heart’s capacity to love, to be loved and, eventually, to be love. At the end of the mystical path lies the union between lover and beloved. In this union the seeker discovers that the Divine’s love for the seeker is in fact the seeker’s own love for himself, for the Divine and for all of creation.

Reading Murshid Sam‘s Karuna Yoga Gita I was initially struck by the symmetry between this presentation of the Sufi meditation of the heart and the Sufi creation myth. In the Sufi creation myth, the Oneness projected itself outward, creating manifestation so that it might have something to love. This relationship proceeded through several inversions moving from God is lover and manifestation the beloved to manifestation is the lover and God is the beloved. Throughout it all, though, lover and beloved are, in essence, one.

The Karuna Yoga Gita, which is an instruction manual for Sufi heart meditation goes through several stages. Initially the ego seeks the heart, concentrates on the heart, rests in the heart. This is manifestation seeking God. Next, in the stage of contemplation the seeker is intstructed to identify with the heart and seek the ego; this is the inversion of roles, now God is seeking manifestation. This inversion is the path to not-self which begins with the heart’s selflessness. As the heart expands into love, seeker and sought come closer.

In the stage of union the seeker is instructed to rest in the expansion and contraction of the breath, noticing at the same time the flow from not-self to self and back. This is the rythme of nature – divine flows into manifestation and then back into the divine; neither is more true than the other, neither can be whole without the other just like the in-breath cannot be without an out-breath. In the same way the seeker recognizes that self cannot be without not-self, neither not-self without self. In the realization of this natural process “breath joins man to God,” returning to the original state of Oneness.

My own (limited) experience with this practice has been very interesting. Resting the attention on the heart, I allow the feeling of love to flow. Remaining with the feeling of love, sometimes stoking the fire of love with images of the beloved, the attention slowly becomes absorbed in the heart. I notice how with my “normal” attention there is tension, clinging, trying to acheive something yet when the the attention comes from the heart there is only spaciousness infused with love. Allowing the absorption to solidify and expand farther I turn my attention to the pinpoint of longing at the center of the heart. Resting my attention there lightly and willing/allowing that point to expand until it contains all. In this spacious place, I am being and being is loving. Including the flow of the breath I notice the flow from infinite being who is all to nothing. As the breath grows shorter the all and the nothing become closer as the breath lengthens they part. Two sides of one coin but where is the coin?

At the recent Nondual
Wisdom and Psychology conference
, John
Prendergast
briefly introduced a simple, 3-stage model
for awakening. Here’s my understanding of this model:

  1. Waking up – this includes the spectrum of spiritual
    openings that people describe.
  2. Waking down –
    integrating the waking up experience into life. Bringing it down
    into the body.
  3. Waking out – expressing
    awakeness in the world.

The second step is
an interesting one; it is not all that different from the process
of psychological healing that one may undergo in therapy. This is a
time of transformation, healing and moving towards wholeness.
During this part of the process we face difficult emotions and melt
away entrenched habits as we give up anything that is no longer in
accordance with the true self. Everything I have described so far
can happen in therapy as well, so where’s the difference? The
difference lies in what becomes available during the first step.
The first step wakes up the fire of awareness. My experience of
this fire was of a withering internal gaze; withering because it
would cause internal blocks and momentary delusions to melt away.
This fire of awareness makes the transformation that happens in the
second step faster and easier. I could go as far as to say that it
takes over the process of transformation and all one can do is step
out of the way so as to not slow it down. I think that there is
more to the first step. I think it actually makes a deeper
transformation possible. This deeper transformation takes the
ego-transcendence of spiritual practice and brings it right into
the middle of life. It opens us up to a greater intimacy with
everything and everyone around us. It allows us to be flexible
where before we were rigid. From this place we can radiate out our
particular flavor of awakeness everywhere around us – this is the
third stage, waking out. You may have noticed that I described the
first stage as a spectrum. That’s because awakenings come in
different shapes and sizes and it seems to be pretty rare that
someone goes “all the way” in just one hit. This leads me to the
spiral process of awakening wherein we experience a spiritual
opening and once the dust settles begin the process of integrating
that opening into our lives. This transformation period is fueled
and guided by the opening we just experienced; its depth and impact
are likely also related to that experience. Having gone through
this period of waking down and having emerged on the other side
transformed, we now live from this newfound freedom to the best of
our ability until we hit the next insight and begin the process
again. Bringing this into the world of therapy, I believe that this
model shows how helpful spiritual practice is to finding
psychological well-being. It also shows that spiritual practice and
psychotherapy aren’t easy to separate. And, it tells me that any
amount of spiritual insight can be helpful on the road to
wholeness.

I try to keep a holistic awareness when I look at my practice. This means I include things like nutrition, exercise and academic work in mind in addition to meditation. Lately, the physical element has been receiving more attention because I’ve fallen behind on taking care of my body and I’m feeling some of the consequences of that. Over the last few days, I’ve been looking at a lower carb diet and I’d like to share some of my process around that.

I look at diet and exercise as long terms habits I would like to develop or improve (as opposed to short term interventions). For me, this means finding a way that I can eat healthily and maintain it over time without struggling and without feeling deprived. I’m aware of the difficulties inherent in changing such basic habits and I’m approaching this change slowly.

I’ve already made a large change in my diet several years ago when I started eating (mostly) gluten-free. This change, even though it was pretty large, was much easier than I expected it to be. I think one reason for that is that I allowed myself to cheat sometimes when it was worth it (ref: Larry Niven’s fuzzy pink law). An unexpected consequence of this one change, by the way, was that I started paying attention to what goes into my food and as a result started eating better in general.

The first step I’ve taken in planning this new diet is to start tracking my food. Using a relatively simple app on my phone I can track most everything that I eat. This is helpful in a few ways:
I’m becoming even more aware of what I eat.
I can see how many calories I eat and where they’re coming from (carbs, fats or proteins).
I can see which foods “cost” me the most.

It’s this last point that helps me in designing a diet that I can work with. Since I’m aiming for a lower-carb diet I’d like to see what elements of my current diet contribute the most carbs; this will allow me to decide which of these I’d like to drop (or reduce), which I really want to keep, and which I can save for rare cheats. I think this approach will allow me to come up with a diet that is both healthy and satisfying and therefore sustainable.

Another thing I’m starting to do is changing my environment (m kitchen, in this case) to fit the new diet. This mostly means more veggies, especially ones that I can easily snack on, and less chips. I already include nuts as a sometimes-daily snack that I enjoy but I’ve been neglecting my veggies for a while. Creating an environment that is supportive of a new habit has been helpful for me. It makes it easier to engage the new habit and more difficult to fall back into old patterns.

Next, I plan to keep looking at my diet and figure out additional options for breakfast (especially when I’m in a rush), more options for snacking and more ways to get veggies into my meals. At the same time, I’m also trying to become more physically active. A holistic or integral approach means looking at more than one aspect of life, how they interact and how they can support each other in reaching my goals.

The following two pieces are from a treatise by Catherine of Genoa a Christian mystic from the late 15th century. I added some of my own commentary in between.

“Chapter VIII: Of the Necessity of Purgatory and How terrible it is.

When I look at God, I see no gate to Paradise, and yet because God is all mercy he who wills enters there. God stands before us with open arms to receive us into His glory. But well I see the divine essence to be of such purity, greater far than can be imagined, that the soul in which there is even the least note of imperfection would rather cast itself into a thousand Hells than find itself thus stained in the presence of the Divine Majesty. Therefore the soul, understanding that Purgatory has been ordained to take away those stains, casts itself therein, and seems to itself to have found great mercy in that it can rid itself there of the impediment which is the stain of sin.”

The beginning of this paragraph is absolutely beautiful to me: there is no gate to Paradise; God welcomes all with open arms. Such a succinct image of divine love and acceptance! If only she had stopped there… but then it wouldn’t be much of a treatise on purgatory. The rest of the paragraph I understand as a clear description of human nature: comparing ourselves to an unattainable image of purity, we deem ourselves unworthy and choose to live in a purgatory of our own making so that we may one day be worthy. God is standing there, willing to take us in, just as we are, but we say “No! Not yet!”.

“No tongue can tell nor explain, no mind understand, the grievousness of Purgatory. But I, though I see that there is in Purgatory as much pain as in Hell, yet see the soul which has the least stain of imperfection accepting Purgatory, as I have said, as though it were a mercy, and holding its pains of no account as compared with the least stain which hinders a soul in its love. I seem to see that the pain which souls in Purgatory endure because of whatever in them displeases God, that is what they have willfully done against His so great goodness, is greater than any other pain they feel in Purgatory. And this is because, being in grace, they see the truth and the grievousness of the hindrance which stays them from drawing near to God.”

I think that in the second paragraph it’s possible that the author is projecting her own self-judgement onto God. She already said that God is willing to accept us just as we are, so where is this displeasure coming from if not from our own lack of acceptance? I would like to suggest that the only thing we need to purge ourselves from is this self-condemnation and the one thing we need to learn in this purgatory-on-earth is the ability to show ourselves the same acceptance and love that God is offering us at the gateless gate of heaven.

Reading through the writings of the various Christian mystics I noticed a repeating theme of love or passion for God. This love is often accompanied by urgency and eagerness to experience the fullness of the union with Him. This brings me to wonder about the place of love and passion in my own practice.

There was a time that my practice was characterized by urgency and eagerness. This urgency, however, was focused on the need to attain and the need to become; this was a form of spiritual materialism and very different from the love described by the mystics. I’ve looked at this desire for attainment before and often with a critical eye. However, I think there was an aspect of this urgent desire to wake up that was motivated by an honest passion for truth and freedom. I’ve often ignored this aspect of myself, perhaps because I find it easier to focus on the negative; I think it is time to look at it more deeply.

I’ve always enjoyed it when things came together and made sense. I find an aesthetic pleasure in clear understanding and in elegant solutions. I enjoy seeing the system through learning how the parts fit together. To a large degree my spiritual search is driven by the desire to bring this same kind of understanding to my own self as a thinking, feeling, living being and then to the world at large and my place in it. I can only have myself when I understand myself and I can only be a part of the world when I see how I fit-in with the complex systems around me. What I yearn for is the knowledge that I am OK and the felt sense of belonging

For a while, this was largely a cognitive exercise but it became something much larger as I’ve grown to include other ways of knowing. The recognition of wholeness cannot be reduced to an intellectual understanding; it must permeate through all levels of being including the somatic, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. In fact, these way of knowing have always been a part of me but I’ve always allowed the intellect to claim ownership of their insights. In my spiritual search I’ve had to consciously widen the net to include all of those ways of knowing but I’ve not always found the right balance to strike.

Lacking a cultural framework to contain this search left me at times feeling lost. In fact, the search for such a framework has been part of my quest as well. I’ve found that the different systems I’ve encountered along the way have all been helpful in some way, however, they’ve also been frustrating. I often found myself struggling with some aspect or another of a spiritual system and again disappointed that I could not find the whole answer in Buddhism or Advaita, etc. What I was missing is a clearer understanding of what I’ve described here and permission to truly find my own way.

Often I’ve found that the biggest block for me in accepting a certain religion or practice was the image of God as something separate of myself. Even though many mystics describe what appears to be a non-dual understanding of God, I see wholeness as completely internal. Wholeness is a property of me, it is not a thing that I am, rather whole is the way that I am. Making this change has been difficult, I’m uncertain as I appear to be following an uncharted path that I have not yet explored fully and I have yet to give myself permission to do so.

I admit it. I am biased against the secular mindfulness movement and the more successful it becomes, the louder my bias grows. There’s a personal side to that bias and there’s also a more rational and therefore, I believe, more general side to that bias as well. I’ll start with the personal, somewhat unconscious and shadowy side first.

Having found the dharma and having found a path makes me feel better about myself; it makes me feel special. Being a meditator is a badge that I enjoy wearing because it sets me apart from the “unconscious masses”. The possibility of awakening, of becoming the “enlightened one” carries with it the promise of becoming even more special than that. This need to be special has been a driving force in my life from a very young age so it’s not an unfamiliar force. It is, however, still quite a powerful force, one that I must remain conscious of and work with. And for obvious reasons, this “special” status is threatened by the increasingly popular mindfulness movement.

As mindfulness and meditation become less “special” and more common, being a meditator becomes less distinctive as well and the part of me that relies on being special to feel good reacts against this growing popularity. This is a large part of my bias against the rise of the secular mindfulness movement. The other part worries that in the rush to make the dharma accessible and popular (and therefore simple, easy and unopinionated) we’ll also lose its transformative potential.

So when I see articles about mindfulness making us more productive employees I die a little inside. And when I see conferences bringing together Google and Spirit Rock I can’t help but feel a little dubious of their end result. I try to keep an open mind and remember that different people have different needs but I’m also afraid that wisdom 2.0 will be nothing but a shadow of its original self. For myself, the practice in this is to keep noticing my unconscious biases rising to the surface and at the same time to not ignore wise discernment and to find a way to speak my truth clearly to support and promote what I believe is important.

Reading about some of the myths of Kabbalah I am once again reminded of the power of myth to hold and support us in life and on the spiritual path. I recognize this containment in Rabbi Isaac Luria‘s myth of the broken vessels, in the practice of tikkun ha-nefesh and most especially in the practice of tikkun olam. In many ways, tikkun olam seems to be a jewish version of the Bodhisatva ideal which is often presented as the highest ideal of the spiritual path. And yet, I find myself more easily able to connect to tikkun olam than the ideal of the Bodhisatva.

According to Lurianic myth, during the creation of the world God poured a ray of light into several vessels created to hold this divine light. Some of the vessels, unable to contain the owner of this divine light, shattered and spilled the divine light into the heart of creation. Most of this light returned to the source but some of the sparks were left behind, trapped in this world. By living the holy life, acting righteously and recognizing the divinity that is in everyone and everything we can help elevate those sparks and unite them back with the source; this is the work of tikkun olam.

In tikkun olam we are each asked to take a small part in the big, perhaps infinite, project of collecting the sparks of divine light. I feel invited to participate to the best of my ability in this massive project and to do my part along with everyone else. I see this as an invitation to recognize and to support the light in everyone around me, to bring about healing in small ways as well as large. It appears to be a task that everyone can participate in, and in fact we do even without knowing. This myth has the power to inspire which I can feel to a degree and yet, at the same time I still feel as if there is something missing.

There’s an internal resistance to allowing Luria’s myth in. It is as if there’s an internal conflict between the rational mind and the mythic mind. While the mythic mind enjoys and even craves the kind of support it gets from myth and story, the rational mind resists and is unwilling to let go of its own ways of making sense in the world. Paradoxically, I know that the more I’m able to lean into the myth, the more I’ll be able to let go of the need for rational understanding but this is not enough to resolve the conflict. I can see two ways out: one way is finding or creating a mythology that is acceptable to the rational mind; the other way involves relaxing the rational mind’s need to hold on to old stories and trusting that things will still work out.

This conflict between the rational and the mythical is the same conflict that kabbalists of all ages had to contend with. In their case it was the conflict between established religious organization and the mythical/mystical world that they’ve been exploring. Kabbalah survived partly because it managed to follow the second solution I outlined above; it managed to find a way to combine both worlds, to walk the seemingly narrow path of religious doctrine while at the same time creating a larger context through myth and symbols. In this way, I see the path of Kabbalah as integrating myth and rationality and I wonder once again about my own capacity to integrate those forces in my mind as well.

As I sat down to write about the meaning of non-duality I discovered that there is some underlying resistance that I need to explore first. This resistance showed up initially as frustration and a feeling of inauthenticity. As I began to unpack these feelings, I discovered that there were actually several layers of resistance to explore. Through the exploration of these different layers of resistance I discovered some insights about my relationship to non-duality as it is defined in different places and how it may relate to some current issues on my own psycho-spiritual path.

The first layer of resistance that came up is one that I am familiar with to some degree and is not limited to writing about non-duality but it would still serve to explore it here. This first layer deals with authenticity, in that, I feel inauthentic when I write about lofty spiritual ideals or attainments like non-duality and awakening. A part of me does not believe that I have the authority to write about such topics and yet at the same time, another part wants to claim that authority. I think that this conflict of trying to be true to what I know (little as it may seem) while at the same time wanting, even needing, to claim some form of spiritual authority is at the root of this feeling of inauthenticity. The feeling is only magnified by my association of letting go of desires with spiritual practice. The result of this conflict is that I find it difficult to even describe my experience and my progress, as that too, appears to be laying claim to something that I have no right to claim.

Another layer of resistance appears to be more specific to some non-dual teachings that I’ve absorbed over time. One way that non-duality is presented is “we are all one”. I’ve often chafed at this claim but I’ve not taken the time to explore this particular bit of resistance. I seem to hear in this claim of oneness an almost moral directive that is telling me that there is some way I need to be or something that I need to recognize. Not only do I not see things this way but I also feel that this claim of oneness is denying my own individuality. In my own exploration I’ve found that the Theravadan Buddhist tradition speaks to me largely because it leaves enough room for me to find my own way. Theravada does not deal much with metaphysics and many Western teachers consider metaphysical issues, such as rebirth, to be irrelevant to the practice. This claim, that we are all one, however, appears to leave very little room for me.

I have found that I can relate better to other definitions of non-duality. For example the phrase “not two, not one; both one and two” appears to leave more room for my own personal being. Somewhere in between not two and yet, not one, I can find enough room to be. I find this definition of non-duality to be very similar to Jung’s description of individuation when one discovers that one is a human being among other human beings – moved by the same archetypes – and yet one is a unique expression of human being, never before seen and not to be seen again. Unique, yet similar. Separate, yet intrinsically connected.

The need to find a way to be connected, yet separate has come up in my life and in my practice many times. It has been my experience in the past that in order to feel connected I must give up my separateness. This usually comes at the price of being untrue to a part of myself that cannot be accommodated in a certain relationship or situation. Shutting out a part of myself only works for a while; eventually it leads frustration and anger. When the anger and frustration can no longer be contained, the only option I appear to have left, is to leave. This is a pattern that I recognize from a very young age.

Over the last few years I’ve started to find different ways that I can be in relationship while being authentic to myself. This means that even in situations where my whole self cannot be included, I do that by conscious choice. This requires being willing to touch uncomfortable places in order to figure out what part of me is being left out. It means being willing to communicate my needs, preferences and boundaries so that I can feel comfortable including myself in a situation. This is still a practice and I sometimes find myself frustrated for an unknown reason, just as I did when I first sat down to write this paper, but by stopping and unpacking those feelings I can find new insight. It seems to me, that a deeper understanding of non-duality, as well as related practices, would be helpful in this process of finding a way to be connected, yet separate.