There is a crack in everything

Years ago a friend gave me a ‘page-a-day’ calendar of quotations and sayings that were meant to evoke a kind of Zen-like wisdom.

At first I loved it. I trawled through and accumulated a set of my favourites.

Years later I hated it. I wondered who had picked the quotations, and what mercantile interest had crafted this bizarre interplay of culture and commercialism.

But the inspiration was genuine, and the care of my friend was sincere. So over time I’ve come back to appreciating the meaning behind it.

One of the quotations I remembered well was a verse from a song by Leonard Cohen.

I subsequently came to admire Cohen, and have been listening to his music in the wake of his death this year.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

That crack in everything – the gaps we feel in our own existence – our instinct is to fill the gap, to seek immersion in pleasure, power, or profit. We want to distract ourselves from the emptiness at the edges of our existence.

The heart of all vices, compulsions, and evil lies in our impulse – part fear and part desire – to consolidate our grip on life. We fear our limits, we fear the holes life punches through our veil of self-control.

If we could only become something better, achieve something more, cover over the gaps, then life would feel complete.

But completion lies in the opposite direction.

It’s not the holes that are the problem, it’s the rest of the veil. It’s the thin layer of pride that we try to stretch across the whole of our existence.

We fear losing control, but the control itself was always an illusion. Even our fear is an illusion within an illusion, because we can’t control that either.

So when the holes are getting bigger, as the veil begins to thin, our fear might even increase.

‘Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom.’

People interpret this to mean that we should fear God, as if that’s a smart choice. But wisdom in Christianity is not just a state of having knowledge, it is an aspect of God. Wisdom is divine. We could just as well say that fear accompanies God’s presence, because our pride cannot abide Him.

The holes in our pride, the gaps and limits of our self-control are reality shining through a delusion we keep alive only through our own mistaken efforts.

The delusion, the mistaken efforts, we don’t really know where they began or what drives them. It isn’t our self-control, since that does not exist.

It’s a terrifying thought, when all that is left is our desire to hang on to control against what looks like darkness, emptiness and death.

But at some point that veil will be torn in two, and we will realise that what seemed like darkness was a light too bright for us to see.

When you grapple with a problem

In the previous post on sickness and pride I suggested that we should view our frustration with the common cold as pointing to the deeper problem of our pride, or the illusion of a self that is in control.

This false sense of control and the often accompanying sense of frustration is everywhere in life. But it is usually at its worst when we face obstacles and challenges, when we are struggling and feel like life is not unfolding as we’d like it to.

That’s why suffering has special value in religious traditions – when things are going well for us our pride and illusion of self are unassailable. It takes inevitable suffering and disappointment to reveal the sharp edges of these faults.

So we can treat all problems as we may treat the cold: recognise the struggle, the sense of control, and the frustration as illusory. The impression of a self at the center of these feelings is just an impression, not an actual self, so our suffering and struggle can become perfect reminders that we are in the grip of delusion and pride.

A moment of change occurs, in which we see through the illusion, if only briefly.

With this change comes the recognition that it was not brought about through “my” efforts, because the me who feels responsible for those efforts has temporarily vanished.

When it vanishes, so do the problems and the struggles that hitherto seemed so distressing.

I think this is the secret to the Daoist concept of wu wei – acting without acting:

The way never acts, yet nothing is left undone.
Should lords and princes be able to hold fast to it,
The myriad creatures will be transformed of their own accord.
After they are transformed, should desire raise its head,
I shall press it down with the weight of the nameless uncarved block.
The nameless uncarved block
Is but freedom from desire,
And if I cease to desire and remain still,
The empire will be at peace of its own accord.

Acting without acting is another way of saying that the illusion of a self who is in control becomes transparent.

The illusion of a self who is in control is like thinking that you can manipulate the weather with your thoughts. If you really believed that, your life would be full of pointless struggle and frustration, illusory successes and inevitable failures.

But then there’s the paradox once more: that whether you believe it or not is also something not under the control of an illusory self.

Nonetheless, this insight can unfold throughout your life. Maybe it happens suddenly for some. For me it is unfolding slowly, one area of life at a time as I seem to remember or realise that it is applicable in this aspect of life or in that struggle also.

What can you learn from the common cold?

I’ve been sick this past week.

Sickness is always challenging, spiritually as well as physically, because the central theme of our pride and sense of self is to seek pleasure and happiness while avoiding suffering and pain.

Sickness is synonymous with suffering, but it is also a direct challenge to our sense of self-control. Painful or unpleasant symptoms highlight the limits of our control at the most intimate border of body and mind. Our fragile sense of self arcs up in response to these threatening sensations and loss of control.

So my recent bout of a bad cold was frustrating. I felt like I couldn’t accept the symptoms, and I kept trying to find ways to avoid them, deny them, or reject them. It was quite pitiful.

At the same time, it was hard to find the mental space and clarity I needed. It was hard to even recall what I believed about my mind and my self. Eventually I gave up looking for meaning and dosed myself with pseudo-ephedrine tablets.

But now that the symptoms are disappearing and I’m returning to normal, I’m retracing my feverish steps and looking for meaning in the sore throat and blocked sinuses once more.

Do you control your body?

One thing that became clear during the sickness was my deeply ingrained sense of control over my body.

I’ve written extensively about the illusion of control, the illusion of “self”, but have been thinking of it broadly in terms of choices and actions. Sickness reveals how much deeper this sense of control goes, because at the meeting of body and mind our emotions and other somatic sensations respond automatically to our mental states without being ‘willed’ or chosen.

This is significant, because although our sense of control is an illusion, it is a convincing one, and our emotions or passions respond as if it is real.

If our mind persists with the illusion of a “self” then our body responds accordingly, eliciting the somatic states we know as desire, anger, sorrow, joy, and so on.

But when we are sick, our body no longer responds as usual. We no longer receive the biofeedback of consistent emotions, and so our sense of control is challenged, as is the consistency of our internal narrative.

Self-inflicted suffering

Ironically, the symptoms of the common cold are all produced by our own immune system, and there is good evidence that stress increases the severity of those symptoms. It’s not the virus that causes your nose to run, your throat to ache and your temperature to rise; these are defense mechanisms against the perceived threat of the virus.

Stress increases the severity of symptoms because the emotional threat of stress triggers inflammatory defences. It’s the old problem of your body failing to distinguish between physical threats and emotional ones.

It’s possible that being stressed primes your immune system to respond more aggressively than it needs to. Thus a stressful period in life seems to coincide with illness. In my own experience, the symptoms of my autoimmune condition have always corresponded to some kind of stressful stimulus.

The role of stress and inflammation in a variety of illnesses is a growing area of research with a great deal of promise, and of particular interest to people suffering autoimmune conditions.

Pride is the root of all sin

In Christian terms, the illusion of self is interpreted as pride. Not pride in the sense of feeling good about accomplishments or good qualities, but pride in the sense of wishing to be the author and agent of our own greatness. As Aquinas wrote in reference to the fall of Lucifer:

 he desired resemblance with God in this respect–by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature

This desire – this pride – gives rise to all other forms of wrongful desire in the same way that persevering with the illusion of self embroils our minds and bodies in a mess of compensatory and destructive responses.

The emotional link

Our minds keep filling our internal narrative with the recurring theme in which we save the day, save ourselves, redeem ourselves in some form. What this meditation on sickness has shown is that our emotional state responds to this internal narrative, this pride, this illusion of self as if it is true – rejoicing in our triumphs and lamenting our failures, or more often endlessly hoping and dreading about future outcomes.

That’s why pride is often said to make us “puffed up” or inflated. Pride is not merely a false belief, it is also a physiological state.

That’s also why emotional responses like anger, fear, envy, craving and sorrow are often indicators of underlying pride and a self-centered mind. We might pretend to be selfless and humble, because in our pride we wish to be seen as virtuous. But when other people’s successes fill us with envy, or we sit paralysed with fear at where life may be headed, or we crave distraction and escape from our feelings of incompleteness, at those moments our pride and delusion of self are revealed.

This emotional aspect of our illusion of self is significant. It’s like the soundtrack to a movie – you may not always be conscious of it, but the video will seem thin and distant without it. Emotional responses help keep us immersed in our internal narrative, longing for fulfillment while ever vigilant for threats.

The answer, yet again, is to recognise that I do not have control, because my sense of self is an illusion. It is a “puffed up” thought of my own importance, a desire to be like God.

And the paradox, yet again, is that I cannot recognise anything, for that exact same reason.

 

Untying knots

I thought it was Hui Neng, but apparently Lin Chi wrote:

I have no teaching to give to people; all I do is untie knots.

I’ve recently finished the fourth draft of a novel I’m working on, and waiting for feedback from a reviewer. The drafting process has dragged on, giving way to the daily demands of raising a child. But the need to work on it, to get something done, was a fixture in the back of my mind all this time.

Now that I have nothing substantial to work on for a while, the need to get something done has lumbered into the foreground and is stomping around, nervously seeking fresh prey.

I didn’t realise how strong it was, but I guess committing to writing a book presumes some degree of long-term motivation.

So now I’m sitting here, quietly possessed by the spirit of accomplishment with no satisfying avenues of expression at hand.

It’s a rare moment of deeper self-awareness.

And in the context of recent thoughts about free will, the illusion of self, and acceptance of reality, I feel that this need to accomplish something is another knot to untie.

Because – believe it or not – I have actually accomplished things before in my life, and it doesn’t feel like this, this slightly desperate need to find a worthwhile goal to immerse myself in.

This feels quite a lot more like the boredom and frustration that often plunges us into mechanisms of distraction and escape: food, tv, games, etc.

I’ve tried to explain in earlier posts that the thoughts and impressions that feel like “me” are just thoughts and impressions. If you observe closely, “me” is always changing, and you can even ask the perennial non-dualist question: if this is “me” then who or what is it that is observing “me”?

This strong desire to accomplish something is one of those impressions that constitutes “me”. It just happens to be a very forceful and deeply held impression, one that is capable of stimulating and initiating other, associated thoughts of “me”.

In other words, this is a big knot and it is tightly bound.

So how do you untie a knot?

It’s a bit tricky, because if “you” doesn’t really exist in terms of agency and control, then the knot is being untied in spite of, not because of, the illusion of control.

This is why the untying of knots is attributed to grace – an external, divine influence – or to the equally divine wisdom or insight that cuts through the illusion at the heart of this “knot”.

Because in reality the knot itself is just a thought or impression. It is not in control, it does not have real power. It is more like a symbol of how your mind is functioning. It is like a label that tells you what is going on inside your mind.

So here’s the thing: the kind of wisdom or grace that cuts through the illusion and unties the knot is the same wisdom or grace that dispels the illusion of “me”.

And as such, this wisdom or grace does not come about because of anything “you” or “me” can do. Rather, it comes about despite the illusion of “me” and “you”.

It comes about, because it comes about. It simply comes about, and the mind ceases to create the impression that this “knot” has power, or that this knot is “you”.

Better to reign in hell?

There’s a famous line in Milton’s Paradise Lost where Lucifer says:

Here we may reign secure, and in my choice
to reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.

Taken literally it illustrates the devil’s pride and bitterness at having been cast down from Heaven. He would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven.

We’re not so different. Even when it makes us miserable we prefer to be in control, to feel responsible for our own suffering.

At some point in our early lives we encounter circumstances of life that conflict with our desires. For some people it comes in the context of terrible abuse or trauma, while for others it comes in “normal” aspects of life like having to move away from friends and relatives, or everyday battles of will with parents and authority figures.

The key point is that we find ourselves conscious of having desires – a will – that conflicts with external reality.

Our desires and the external world are both equally real. But for some reason at the point of conflict between the two, our perspective changes and we begin to feel responsible for one aspect of reality – our desires or will – and not for the reality of the external world.

On one level it seems obvious that in a conflict between our internal desires and the external world we should be responsible for the part that exists inside our own head.

But we don’t create our desires, nor do we choose them. We are not responsible for them in the sense of being their author. So why do we feel responsible? We may feel we are in control of our own will, but this just begs the question.

Our sense of responsibility flows into other psychological states. We find ourselves trying to reject unsavory aspects of external reality. We seek to compensate for our unfulfilled desires. We sulk. We get angry at the world for failing us, and at ourselves for failing to get on in the world.

Above all, we feel that the conflict is ultimately our fault. Not that we necessarily caused the conditions of the world that so disappoint us, but that it seems we ought to have within ourselves the power to overcome or resolve this conflict.

Again, Milton has Lucifer say:

The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.

So we feel, and so we are often told by others, especially by parents and authority figures who would simply (and understandably) prefer that we not protest or complain.

We believe it is our fault, our failing, to have desired something we cannot control. We believe that our desires are, or should be, within our control. Alternatively, we believe it is our own fault that our desires lack efficacy in the external world.

This belief in our own failing burdens us with a sense of responsibility, faulty responsibility for our own unhappiness and dissatisfaction in life.

Thus we reign in hell.

The paradox is that the worst of the suffering comes from thinking that we are responsible, that it is somehow up to us to correct our faults, to achieve righteousness, to make ourselves right again through our own efforts.

That’s what reigning in hell means, I think. In the moment of conflict between our desires and the external world, we take command, responsibility, and therefore blame for the whole conflict.

At the same time we fear to surrender this responsibility and illusion of control because it keeps alive in us the hope of repairing the situation. We own our fault, in the hope that we may repair it.

That’s why, like Milton’s devil, we prefer to reign in hell. Our reign is hell, you might say, because it is a delusion, it doesn’t exist, we are not in control and we are not responsible. But admitting we are not in control is too frightening. It would feel like dying, the death of the illusory self who rules over our faulty existence.

It would mean accepting our reality totally, both the external world and the desires and will that conflicted with it in the first place.

It sounds a bit like “Whosoever shall seek to save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose it, shall preserve it.”

The great denial

My house is very messy.

I freely admit it, but even so I forget how it might be discomforting to someone who prefers a tidier home.

It’s amazing how your mind can become so accustomed to a pile of magazines, a cluster of toys, or even a row of empty wine bottles (I’m going to reuse them, I swear!) that they barely register in your consciousness.

Yet as dtcwee points out in a comment to the previous article, this is an instance of denial.

Acceptance in this instance would mean accepting both that the house is actually very messy, and that on some level I don’t like it being this messy.

By contrast, denial seems to intervene by saying “I’ll tidy it later” (not unless I really have to), or “I have more important things to do” (watching tv is more important I guess). The purpose of denial is to stop me feeling bad about the mess. It’s an alternative to accepting the bad feelings that exist in me because I don’t like the house being this untidy.

Denial injects unreal thoughts into my experience, shielding me from the full force of reality. It takes me into a false world, a virtual reality made up of thoughts, excuses, rationalisations, and imaginary futures.

Don’t feel bad about the untidy house, imagine that you will clean it tomorrow when you have more energy. There now, doesn’t that feel better?

Unfortunately, this respite from bad feelings is based on a delusion. It is a refusal to accept the reality of the present and the reality of unpleasant feelings.

What if I accepted it all instead?

I would accept that the house is messy, and accept that I don’t like it being messy. Next I would accept that I feel bad when I tidy the house, and that’s why I continually put it off as much as possible.

Now if I proceed with tidying despite my bad feelings, I’m going to discover a whole lot of internal clutter that corresponds with the external. Having to deal with piles of stuff will inevitably bring up a range of worries and insecurities: guilt over things I was meant to read or fix or work on but never did. Indecision over how to dispose of items without feeling irresponsible. Insecurity at throwing away things I feel I might need at a later date. Compounded lethargy in the face of tedious tasks I might have put off for years. Shame at not being more organised, more efficient, or more hard-working.

The clutter might as well be symbolic, but that’s often the case with parts of reality we deny.

 

Form and Formlessness

I bought a book about comparative mysticism recently.

Most of it is familiar territory. I’ve read a lot on comparative mysticism, and I’ve made my own comparisons of various mystics. But what attracted me to this book was the author’s analysis of thought and sensation in the context of “form and formlessness”. You can read about it here, but it is lengthy and intense: http://www.centerforsacredsciences.org/index.php/Articles/from-form-to-formlessness.html

What’s so special about this analysis?

Well, mysticism is a fairly esoteric field, and while there are plenty of people espousing various theories and interpretations, it is extremely rare to find a genuine entryway into these esoteric concepts. Many mystics have offered descriptions and idiosyncratic instructions based on their own experiences, but often their language is metaphorical or dependent on their own temperament or religious context.

Form 

The essence of the article is that our experience of an object consists of various sensory impressions of that object plus a thought about the object’s existence.

The author uses a gong as his example: you can see it, hear it, touch it, taste it, and smell it. But each of these impressions is transient, and furthermore they are all quite distinct from one another.

If you close your eyes and refrain from other interaction with the gong, how do you know it is there?

You don’t. Nonetheless, we all tend to hold an impression or thought or idea of the gong in our mind like a place-holder for the ‘real’ object. We think “there’s a gong there”, even though we no longer have any experience of the gong.

In fact, this idea of the gong also informs our experience of it: the distinct sensory impressions are all bundled together with this “gong” idea.

Yet the gong idea and all the sensory impressions are ultimately just thoughts – just mental impressions, and we know nothing about the reality beyond them.

All thoughts and sensory impressions are transient, impermanent forms that arise and fall within the mind.

Not that we really know what “mind” is either, that’s just another thought form, a pragmatic distinction between different aspects of my experience.

Formlessness

These forms arise out of something that has no form, and when they disappear only formlessness remains.

I must have read about “the space between thoughts” dozens of times, but I never understood its true significance. For one thing, it’s tempting to conceive of this “space” as something special, something that will of itself reveal all the answers we are seeking. But it doesn’t seem to work like that.

The article does a great job of clarifying that this formlessness is indeed entirely without form – we cannot grasp it, cannot conceive of it. It is darkness to the intellect.

It will not appear as something special, but when we understand how special it is, and that it is everywhere – in all the gaps, in all the spaces, within form and without form – then we can start to lay down the delusions, cravings, and selfishness that blight our daily experience.

No-Self

After all, what is true of the gong is equally true of you. You have your thoughts, your sensory impressions, and you try your utmost day-in day-out to fit them to a more abstract idea of “I exist”.

Descartes famously reasoned that he could not doubt his own existence because the very act of doubting proved he must exist. But more contemporary philosophers have since argued that this is not the case. Instead of “I think therefore I am”, all Descartes can really say is “thinking is happening”.

Like the idea of the gong, we carry around an idea of ourselves that is nothing more than a thought – albeit a very rich, complex, and convoluted one. That is not to say we don’t exist – just that this thought of oneself is not actually a self anymore than the thought of the gong is actually a gong.