I started reading books about mysticism and religion when I was a teenager. They appealed to me because they seemed to offer the ultimate self-control, insight into the true nature of reality, and freedom from suffering and pain.
It wasn’t until very recently that I found a book on mysticism which explained the path in sufficient depth and detail to make a difference. But at the same time, those intervening years were full of the kinds of life-events that made me ready to hear the same teachings with greater clarity.
I had finally realised that what I viewed as self-control was actually an undesirable state of inner tension, that wanting to be free from suffering was driving me to reject reality, and that seeking to understand everything was just a subtle way of seeking control.
So I found these deeper teachings and practiced them. The core of it was a practice of recognising all one’s reality – both internal and external – as consisting to the best of our knowledge in the form of mental impressions.
Taking a Cartesian angle: is there anything that is not – to the best of our knowledge – a mental impression?
This doesn’t mean that there is no external reality, or that things are only mental impressions. The point of the exercise is simply to recognise that mental impressions are the total of our experience.
This teaching runs very deep. Subject-object dualism, cause and effect, imagination and sensation, the persistence and identity of objects over time, all of these are experienced as mental impressions.
The only thing that is not experienced as a mental impression is our consciousness of mental impressions. Consciousness is like the eye that can see everything but itself. Yet we know it exists because we see by it.
This radical teaching and mode of practice reduces our experience to the simple dichotomy of forms and consciousness – where consciousness is experienced as empty of forms.
But since the forms themselves lack substance and permanence, this distinction is ultimately insubstantial. Hence the Heart Sutra:
O Sariputra, Form does not differ from Emptiness
And Emptiness does not differ from Form.
Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form.
The same is true for Feelings,
Perceptions, Volitions and Consciousness.
Now take a moment to consider the nature of these teachings. They arose from the experience of some individuals, were written down, transmitted, and communicated broadly.
People hear the teaching, but it only takes root in them if they are ready for it. In those who aren’t ready, it is misinterpreted, dismissed, forgotten, or ignored. In other words, it is like the parable of the sower who sows the seed that lands on different kinds of soil and is eaten by birds, strangled by weeds, or on good soil grows up strong.
Some of us wish we are ready when we really aren’t. The difference between wanting to be ready and actually being ready is like night and day, especially when the teachings themselves pertain to the illusion of a self who is in control – a self who may even be full of the desire to be ready.
If we put aside the illusion of self-control we can see that reality is shaped by profoundly complex causes and effects. From this point of view, being unready is simply the outcome of various causes; readiness too is just the further development of additional causes.
You can’t make fruit ripen faster on the tree, it’s ready when it’s ready.
At some point we can therefore ask ourselves “who practices?” or “who is practising this teaching?” The answer that comes to us is as if the teaching is practising itself.
These moments of clarity do not last for me. I’m told they one day become permanent, but only when we are ready. Only when there is no more sense that clarity might vanish and be lost.
I need more practice.