Ups and downs and spiritual experience

So, in my previous post I explored how pride is an attempt to feel in ourselves the greatness that belongs to existence itself. It’s an attempt to usurp our sense of awe at reality, and feel awe about our own selves instead.

Once you realise this, you’ll experience awe. And you’ll understand for a moment that awe just happens, there’s no need to cling to a sense of self as some kind of false centre of the experience.

But that realisation will be short-lived. Almost immediately you’ll start clinging to the experience of awe as if you can store it up inside you and make it your own.

You want your own sense of self to be the object of your awe.

The moment you bring yourself into it, the awe starts to fade. This happens because your sense of self is not a real thing, it’s just an impression. Treating an impression as if it were real is delusional, and delusion is not something that inspires awe.

Bye bye, awe.

So now you’re back, stuck in your sense of self again, and whatever you do at this point is probably going to exacerbate the delusion.

You’ll most likely feel some kind of bad feeling, because you’re coming down off the awe. You might feel hollow or empty or just miserable.

You might leap head-first into some kind of distraction, hoping to escape the unpleasant feelings that come from being deluded about yourself once more.

It might be a bad distraction that offers short-term relief but makes you feel even worse about yourself later. Or it might be a constructive distraction that leads you into a project with some real benefits for yourself or others.

But whether you find a way to feel good about yourself, or end up feeling bad about yourself, either way you are stuck playing the old game of up and down with your own self-centred emotions.

I used to go through this cycle a lot when I was younger. I would read a book, delve into the wisdom of mystics from various traditions, and for a brief time it would all make sense. I would feel as if the barrier between self and reality had fallen away, and all that remained was an experience of awe.

Then the “I” would creep back in. I’d start to wonder how I could capture, define, control this experience. I’d look for a way to remain in that state of mind permanently.

It didn’t work.

I guess you could say there was no stability to the insights I was having. I only achieved them briefly, thanks to great mental effort. It wasn’t sustainable.

I’ve only just understood what was wrong: even though the experience of awe is wonderful, it is still an experience, still a thought, still an impression. So long as we cling to experiences, thoughts, or impressions we are denying the complete truth.

Saint John of the Cross described the dark night of the soul as precisely an antidote to this kind of spiritual greed. God wants us to love him for himself, not for the good feelings that come from loving God. So at some point the saint passes through a purifying process in which there is no support and no comfort from the usual sources.

Likewise, Buddhist and nondualist sources attest that bliss cannot be the final goal, because the experience of bliss still implies a subject-object division. If you cannot pass beyond bliss, then it’s as if you stand forever at the door, refusing to enter.

So the awe I’ve always pursued is, finally, an obstacle and a hindrance to finding the truth. But I had to pursue it, had to recognise it as the summit of experience, before understanding that an experience is still not enough.

What matters is the source of all “experience”.  The thoughts and impressions that make up our entire reality – where do they come from? So long as we are attached to one experience – however elevated and spiritual it might seem – we cannot go beyond experience. That’s why Christ says we must lose our life in order to save it, why the Buddhist teacher Lin Chi said to kill the Buddha if you meet him, and why the Zhuangzi is just so damn elusive:

It’s easy to walk without leaving footprints; it’s hard to walk without touching the ground. Deceit is easy when you work for men, but hard when you work for Heaven. You’ve heard of flying with wings, but you have never heard of flying without wings. You’ve heard of understanding by means of knowledge, but you have never heard of the understanding that comes from not knowing. Look into the closed room, the empty chamber where light is born. Fortune and blessings gather where there is stillness. But if you do not keep still – that is called galloping where you sit.

The meaning of life in fiction

One of the problems with my new fantasy book is that it doesn’t fit all that neatly into the fantasy genre. I’ve tagged it “magical realism” where appropriate because although it follows the standard boy-stumbles-into-hidden-magical-world trope, it does so with what I hope is as much realism as magic.

For me, magical realism is like urban fantasy with an enhanced appreciation for symbolism and hidden meaning. It borders on or blends into a spiritual worldview.

It was gratifying to find that the spiritual ideas most significant to me at the time could work their way directly or indirectly into the story. Tom’s role in the creation of the magical world let me draw on questions of free-will and fate without getting too heavy or confronting. Likewise the question of “what am I supposed to be doing?” could unfold without messing too much with the narrative.

It was probably inevitable that anything I wrote would draw on the themes and ideas that are important to me. And at present, the most significant of these ideas is that the self that feels it’s in control is an illusion.

In the story this theme approaches near the resolution of the conflict. But Tom shies away from it, relying on magic to protect him from his enemy. But as the story itself tells us, that’s Tom doing what he was meant to do.

“I don’t think you quite understand what I’ve been telling you,” Cornelius replied carefully. “There is no ‘supposed to’. There just is. If your reaction to all this is one of confusion and complication, then you just have to accept it. Or not accept it, I suppose. This is how the maker made you, after all.”

“But how does that help me?” Tom demanded. “I feel like we’re going in circles! No matter what you say it just keeps coming back to me being afraid, and there’s no way out of it!”

“Yes, that’s what I’ve been saying,” the gnome replied calmly.

I won’t be trying to force a moral into each story, or put clumsy platitudes in the mouth of every ‘wise’ character. The beauty of magical realism is that everything becomes a kind of sign or message, whether the author realises it or not.

Tom still has a long way to go and a lot to learn. Whether he as a character understands in the end is less important than the story as a whole embodying these truths. That’s what made writing this book most rewarding to me: the chance to see these ideas, principles, and motifs appearing and reappearing everywhere throughout the story. That’s the author’s privilege, I think. We get to discover the meaning hidden in the work in ways that surprise and astonish even its creator.

If you like the idea of gnomes proclaiming free-will paradoxes, or finding the meaning of life in a children’s novel, you’ll find yourself inevitably drawn to my new book To Create a World:

The self that doesn’t exist

Non-dualist sources in both the Buddhist and Hindu traditions point out that although we feel like our self is real, when we examine it closely we do not find any single, enduring thing that merits the label.

We find, on the one hand, that we have a consciousness. But this consciousness alone does not seem to have many properties or characteristics beyond simply being conscious.

On the other hand, we find a multitude of thoughts, ideas, impressions and sensations that constitute the many properties and characteristics we think of as “self”.

But if our “self” is made up of thoughts, ideas, impressions and sensations, so is everything else in our reality. Why do we identify with one set of thoughts as “self” and a different set of thoughts as “other”?

More pointedly, what is it that identifies with these thoughts? Is it just another thought?

This is the upshot of the non-dualist analysis: It feels like I identify with some thoughts and not with others, but as we’ve already noted, there is no “I” other than consciousness and thoughts.

So who is doing the identifying?

The conclusion is that this feeling of identifying with certain thoughts and impressions is itself composed of thoughts and impressions. The “I” that feels like it identifies with various thoughts is itself just a thought.

The self is a complex, reflexive knot of thoughts and impressions that maintains the pretence of a substantive existence.

In Christian terms, it constitutes an attempt to “be like God” in the manner expressed by Aquinas:

“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”

That is why our pride – this peculiar delusion of a self that suffers and strives – is a vain attempt to be like God, to feel like the hero of our journey and bring that journey to a glorious end through our own merits and our own struggle.

Are you perfect?

People think they desire to possess things (objects, status, accomplishments, the affection of others) because of some intrinsic quality of those things.  We think this object is unique or significant, this woman or man is special or wonderful, these accomplishments or status are important.

But mostly it is we who make them desirable. That is, we are already looking for things to which we can pin our special labels, to make them “worthy” objects of desire.

Once we have established these objects of desire, we live and die by them. We order our lives by their attainment. If I can just afford it… If she just smiles at me… If I can just win their vote…

We believe that once we have gained possession of these things, we will at last experience a deep, lasting, and secure happiness. We will transpose to ourselves the glory of the office, the grandeur of the home, or the grace and beauty of the beloved.

And then we will be truly happy.

But even if we obtain these things, the happiness doesn’t last. And if, as usually happens, we fail to obtain them, then we remain mired in our usual unhappy state.

Why do we do this?

Well, if those things were truly desirable then the answer would be obvious: we pursue love, property, and power because they will make our lives wonderful.

But if these things are not truly desirable – if instead we bestow desirability upon those things in the first place, then the answer is more complex, more mysterious than we realise.

I believe the latter is the case, because I have read and confirmed through my own experience that the apparent desirability of these supposedly wonderful things is not real. The possessions we once craved lose their allure. The people we once deeply admired eventually lose their glow. Status and accomplishments are soon forgotten. We move from one “wonder” on to a fresh one.

So why subject ourselves to this strange ritual?

The answer is itself a little strange.

We do it because we cannot justify being content with what we are.

What do dreaming about the perfect home, wishing for the affection of a beautiful woman or man, and imagining oneself in a position of power and respect have in common?

They all consist of mental projections of ourselves in a state that justifies feeling wonderful.

Their content is less significant than the emotional narrative they share: if I have that, I will be happy, overjoyed, resplendent.

And by implication: I can’t be happy, overjoyed, or resplendent because I don’t have that.

Whatever that is, the feelings associated with it are a kind of negative image of how you see yourself.

If that is the affection of a person, then I’m willing to bet that the qualities you think you see in that person are the qualities you most feel you lack in yourself, or the qualities you feel would redeem whatever faults you might think you have.

The same applies a little less directly to homes, possessions, status and accomplishments but in general how you feel about those things mirrors qualities you wish you had right now.

About twenty years ago I read all of this, and I reached the conclusion that if I could short-circuit this delusional dynamic I could enjoy all the wonderful feelings exactly as I am. In other words, the things I sought in external reality were just proxies for self-acceptance.

I had thought that I could only accept myself if I obtained these proxies. But if I could accept myself directly, then I could feel joy and happiness directly too?

The problem is that I took for granted that the joy and happiness were real, that I should be feeling those feelings, and if I didn’t feel those feelings then I clearly hadn’t accepted myself fully.

In other words, I turned “self-acceptance” into another proxie, something I had to obtain in order to feel joy and happiness.

I’ve come to see that as a really bad move, because if you have to chase self-acceptance it isn’t really self-acceptance. But if you call it by the same name you might not recognise the difference.

So forget about finding joy and happiness. Forget about trying to attain a state that is different from the one you currently inhabit. It’s a paradox, but don’t fall for it.

Instead, let’s ask again why we saw it necessary to seek perfection externally in the first place. How did we reach the conclusion that we need to redeem ourselves?

For a long time I didn’t really understand how the Crucifixion and death of Jesus was supposed to have redeemed anyone. People offer various theological explanations, but I’m especially leery of the argument that God required a sacrifice. At least not in a strong sense of ‘required’.

It makes more sense if we didn’t need to be redeemed, but didn’t know that we didn’t need it.

We can argue the theology but that’s the net effect of Christianity: we can’t redeem ourselves, nor ever could, so please stop trying.

If you want to go sacrificial: here’s one eternal sacrifice, the sacrifice to end all sacrifice.

This strange ‘happiness’ dynamic we’re looking at is just another attempt at redeeming ourselves. Maybe not with God, but at least privately. We believe we’re not good enough, not right, not whole, not perfect. We reject our flaws and faults, because at face value they’re unacceptable to us.

But we’re only unacceptable to us. In Matthew’s Gospel, in the “love your enemies” section, Jesus says:

He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

And just a bit later he concludes:

Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.

What kind of perfection is this? It’s a perfection that does not discriminate between the evil and the good, or the righteous and the unrighteous.

If this strikes a chord, you might see how it links in to themes I’ve raised in other posts.

In Taking what is offered I look at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the suggestion that our refusal to accept our reality is what separates us from God, and how the path back to paradise is demonstrated in Christ’s acceptance of God’s will over his own measure of good and evil.

In Pride and the delusion of self I touch on Pride as both the cause of the devil’s fall from Heaven according to tradition, and synonymous with our own delusion of authority and control in our own lives.

Finally, in Better to reign in hell? I examine how we wrongly seek to take responsibility both for our faults and flaws and for our redemption. This sense of responsibility is linked to agency, authority, and control as described in the earlier post on pride.

Bringing this final post to bear on the current theme, it is clear that the faults and flaws for which we seek to take responsibility are the same faults and flaws that motivate the ‘happiness’ dynamic I’ve described here.

It is because we refuse to accept our own faults and flaws, we refuse to let the sun shine on the good and evil in us, or let the rain fall on the righteous and unrighteous parts of ourselves, that we seek redemption and righteousness in external things.

We promise ourselves overwhelming joy and happiness, but only if we can win this battle between good and evil within us. We imagine ourselves in ‘paradise’ if only we can achieve or obtain something to outweigh our flaws.

At whatever point in our lives we first became conscious of having flaws, our reality was ripped in two. Our knowledge of good and evil came into effect, and we were bewildered and ashamed to find that the line between the two ran through our own selves.

We still refuse to accept ourselves fully, accept our reality completely. We hold out, seeking to manage, mitigate, and mend ourselves where we can. How could we ever accept the unacceptable? How could we ever accept the parts of us our own minds condemn as faults?

This is why Christianity is called the Way of the Cross, why Christ urged us to “take up your cross and follow me”, and why, in love with God, so many of the saints endured tremendous hardship and suffering.

The cross is not only the suffering imposed on us by the external world, but the suffering and fear we hold for our own hated faults. God wants us to accept our faults.

This is not a superficial message, but a radical one. It doesn’t mean persisting with bad habits, because ultimately bad habits are attempts to hide from or compensate for our hated faults anyway. This is where the Christian motif of dying and being reborn comes into its own. Christ didn’t say “pretend to die so that you could keep on living in pretty much the same way as before”.

On the level of free will and our sense of self, this means recognising that you are not responsible for your faults anymore than you are responsible for your merits. You did not create yourself, and if you get right down to it, your sense of self is just something your mind produces from various thoughts and impressions. To treat it as a separate thing, like a little god ruling over its dominion, is at the heart of what we call pride.

 

 

Brief thoughts on Lucifer

Dtcwee asked a question about Lucifer in light of the previous post.

Could we then say that Lucifer is imagining his own responsibility for his fall?

I’m hesitant to speculate too much about angels.

In the tradition, Lucifer’s sin is pride. That would imply he went wrong in desiring to be somehow equal to God or independent of God. This pride is believed to have been motivated by Lucifer’s own greatness, since he was the highest of angels.

If I’m right about original sin, then we could argue that human pride is different because it is motivated by suffering and separateness, a condition we inherit from our parents.

This difference in the motive of pride is what makes me hesitate in case I’m missing something important.

That aside, the devil is just another creature, and the conditions of his existence are essentially the same as ours. I very tentatively suggest that his “responsibility” began through contemplating his own greatness in the created order. As I mentioned in a previous post where I quoted John Cassian:

he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity

This is the point where tradition tells us the highest creature in existence succumbed to pride. A self-consciousness of his own greatness was the cause of Lucifer’s false sense of “responsibility”, which initiated his subsequent fall.

Cassian concludes:

On account of which being forsaken by God, whom he fancied he no longer needed, he suddenly became unstable and tottering, and discovered the weakness of his own nature, and lost the blessedness which he had enjoyed by God’s gift.

So the only reason I would demur from accepting dtcwee’s suggestion is that Lucifer exhibited a kind of “positive” responsibility. He was so great, he identified with his greatness and in that moment embraced a false self-sufficiency. Responsibility is the corollary of that.

My only other caveat is that the word “imagined” should be taken as an analogy. The sense of responsibility may be false, but in calling it “imaginary” we shouldn’t underestimate the impact this false idea has had on our existence.

Furthermore, our normal use of “imaginary” implies that we are under a misapprehension. The conclusion I am working toward is that we are a part of that misapprehension as well. Responsibility is not just something you are imagining, it is something that underpins our sense of self.

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.”

Pride and the delusion of self

Seeing parallels between religions as diverse as Christianity and Buddhism depends on a familiarity with the themes expressed in their mystical and esoteric writings.

For example, it is thought by many that Buddhism denies the existence of a soul and that it aims at a nihilistic destruction of the psychological self.

Likewise, many believe that Christianity focuses on heavenly rewards for earthly virtue, through a peculiar filial relationship with a supernatural being, mediated by arcane, seemingly arbitrary laws or commandments.

The reality is that Buddhism and Christianity are neither the same, nor are they entirely different.

But after many years of reading the commonalities have come to the fore, and the differences seem much less significant. I don’t spend time worrying about how reincarnation can be reconciled with the Christian afterlife, because in terms of my own practice these questions are not significant.

What are significant are things like the Christian perspective on pride in relation to the Buddhist perspective on the illusory nature of the self.

Here’s one of my favourite passages on pride, from the 4th Century ascetic monk, John Cassian:

For as he (viz., Lucifer) was endowed with divine splendour, and shone forth among the other higher powers by the bounty of his Maker, he believed that he had acquired the splendour of that wisdom and the beauty of those powers, with which he was graced by the gift of the Creator, by the might of his own nature, and not by the beneficence of His generosity. And on this account he was puffed up as if he stood in no need of divine assistance in order to continue in this state of purity, and esteemed himself to be like God, as if, like God, he had no need of any one, and trusting in the power of his own will, fancied that through it he could richly supply himself with everything which was necessary for the consummation of virtue or for the perpetuation of perfect bliss. This thought alone was the cause of his first fall.

What he’s describing is the fall of Lucifer, who was the greatest of the angels but succumbed to pride and so fell from heaven.

Cassian describes the sin of pride in terms of Lucifer’s false belief that attributed his own greatness to himself rather than to God. Cassian goes on in the context of the subsequent fall of man:

For while he believed that by the freedom of his will and by his own efforts he could obtain the glory of Deity, he actually lost that glory which he already possessed through the free gift of the Creator.

The logic of pride and the fall is the same. It is a mistaken belief in one’s own powers and self-sufficiency. Cassian draws on scripture to demonstrate the contrast between pride and the corresponding remedy of humility:

For the one says, “I will ascend into heaven;” the other, “My soul was brought low even to the ground.” The one says, “And I will be like the most High;” the other, “Though He was in the form of God, yet He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant, and humbled Himself and became obedient unto death.”

Finally, Cassian describes how we can overcome pride:

And so we can escape the snare of this most evil spirit, if in the case of every virtue in which we feel that we make progress, we say these words of the Apostle: “Not I, but the grace of God with me,” and “by the grace of God I am what I am;” and “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

That last line is especially significant, as it undermines the freedom of the will and sense of agency that are themselves the greatest symptom of our pride.

This is where I see a direct parallel with Buddhist teaching on the nature of the self. An important part of this teaching is that our sense of self and our cherished identity are a delusion that we take for real. Enlightenment amounts in part to seeing that these selfish thoughts and impressions are not substantial, that there is no self who sits in control of our will and actions.

This is what “puffed up” means in Cassian’s words. Pride is an inflation of our sense of self, til it obscures the reality of our total dependence on God.

The problem with the Christian teaching on pride is that we often interpret it in very limited, human terms. We think pride is just about arrogance, and selfishness is about being inconsiderate of others.

But taken to their extreme we see both in the nature of the fall and in the remedy that pride is much more profound than this. On a spiritual level, pride is a mistaken belief in the primacy and power of our own will. Or to put it more strongly, it is a sense of ownership and control over our will, when in truth “it is God that worketh in us both to will and to do of His good pleasure.”

Christianity is predominantly a devotional religion, focusing on the individual relationship with God. Yet in the depths of this relationship the mystics report a sense of their own negation in God’s love. That is, they experience a union with God that totally changes their own sense of self and agency.

Buddhism is not typically a devotional religion. Instead it focuses on this experience of the negation of the self, without attempting to express in devotional terms the reality into which the self is subsumed.

But in both cases, the obstacle to this insight is the delusion of control, of will, of self-sufficiency. Buddhists will not talk of it in terms of pride and humility, and Christians will not talk of it in terms of self and no-self. Nonetheless it is my belief that they are speaking of the same thing.

What is understanding?

For many years I’ve taken for granted the power of understanding to change one’s perspective for the better.

But seeking to always understand more, better, or deeper is as much a form of escapism as any addiction or distraction.

The trouble with understanding is that it masquerades as a pure positive. It’s hard to say “I understand well enough” or “I don’t need to understand better” let alone “I’m okay with not understanding”.

Even coming to the realisation that “understanding is escapist” feels like yet more evidence of the value of understanding!

Perhaps it will help to know what “understanding” really means? That might risk us seeking to understand understanding, but let’s give it a try anyway.

Understand literally means “to stand in the midst of”.

In practice, understanding is another word for “knowing”. Yet it implies the kind of intimate knowledge that comes with standing amidst or among the thing known. To me it also implies a kind of immersion in the thing known. That’s why I prefer it to “comprehend” which is literally to seize or take hold of something, with implications of use, mastery, and control.

This linguistic clue is significant.

Some people seek knowledge for the sake of power. Others seek it because “the truth shall set you free”. The difference in intention and locus of control is the difference between thinking you can use this knowledge to attain your desired end, versus thinking that reality itself is already perfect if only we could experience it truthfully.

The latter is theoretically superior from a spiritual perspective. Yet in practice it risks being just another way of escaping from your experience of reality.

This is what fuels the escapist pursuit of understanding: the idea that the more we know about reality and the better we understand our spiritual predicament, the closer we come to a different, more positive experience.

There’s merit to the pursuit of understanding because many of the mistakes we make are due to ignorance. “Understanding” stands for the kind of knowledge that defeats ignorance and saves us from suffering and error.

It is not unusual to have great realisations along the spiritual path, to understand things better, and experience significant changes as a result. The problem arises when we tune in to understanding as the path itself, and seek to replicate these realisations again and again through our own power.

Yet it often feels as though we only had the realisation because we sought to understand in the first place. If we hadn’t tried to work it out, would we ever have found the answer?

Perhaps we should ask instead where this knowledge, realisation, and understanding comes from. Do we really just set out to know, and by applying our minds gain the knowledge we seek? Do we truly control our acquisition of knowledge? Are we really responsible for finding the answers that cause change?

At first it seemed like this was the case. But over time it’s become more and more apparent that we’re not in control of our lives, we are the product of them. We are our lives, our experience of reality.

In that sense it is better to observe that my thoughts – whether ignorant or knowing – arise and fall as if of their own accord.

My sense of control is a delusion, because the ‘me’ and the feeling of control are likewise thoughts and impressions that arise and fall. My mind creates an impression of who I am, and an impression of being in control. It creates an impression of understanding but it also creates the impression of ignorance.

This train of thought is a strange one. It is mysterious and seems paradoxical. It’s as if I’m saying that everything is outside my control, yet that implies a control in the first place.

The truth is that I don’t direct the course of my understanding, because the impression of doing so is just another impression. The struggle to cut through the ignorance is another impression. The sense of “aha!” at finally understanding is likewise another impression.

What is motivating me to write this now, to examine this now, is not “me”. It is all coming from the same source, whether it be the thought of continuing, or the thought of seeking distraction in food or household work.

That’s why one branch of Buddhism says:

As all things are buddha-dharma, there is delusion and realization, practice, and birth and death, and there are buddhas and sentient beings.

As the myriad things are without an abiding self, there is no delusion, no realization, no buddha, no sentient being, no birth and death.

Delusion and realisation belong to a self that is made up of thoughts and impressions but mistaken for the real self. If that mistake is not made, there is no delusion and hence no realisation.

Yet we continually fall back into this non-self that takes up the mantle of a real self and we sustain it continually through thoughts and impressions.

Why do we do that? Well, what if the answer is that we don’t do that. It’s simply done.

It reminds me of something I was trying to write a while ago. We’ve all heard of Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum – I think therefore I am. What it means is that Descartes was looking for something, some piece of knowledge that he couldn’t possibly doubt.

He settled on the idea that he couldn’t doubt that he exists, because in doubting his own existence it proves that someone must exist to do the doubting. Hence, if I’m doubting, I must exist to doubt.

But subsequent philosophers have argued that this is a mistake. Descartes only assumed from experience that doubts must belong to minds that can doubt. But even that can be doubted.

So what can Descartes know for sure?

Just that thinking is happening.

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.