Living in the flow

I used to do this thing in kung fu, inspired by various writings on Zen, Daoism and Confucianism in the martial arts.

It was a trick, or so I thought…

When sparring with an opponent, let go of any thoughts of winning or losing, any desire to beat them or fear of getting hit.

Be open, unperturbed like still water, and entirely present without motive or agenda.

Take your mind off any particular thing, be aware of your full surroundings, and see your body as just another object in physical space.

Then when your opponent moves you will know in full clarity and detail the angle and trajectory and strength of his attack, and without any reason thought or effort your body will move in perfect time and technique to neutralise the attack.

I worked on this trick for a while and explored its limits and conditions. The trick would fail if I tried too hard or if my mind got caught up in any particular thought.

I also noticed other people could have stronger intentions and expectations that sapped my confidence and made me lose this feeling of fine balance.

It’s not a trick

It’s finally dawned on me in my study and practice of the Abraham-Hicks material that this wasn’t a trick after all. Rather, it’s what they are referring to as alignment, freedom from resistance, and opening up to the broader perspective of my inner being.

I’d thought I was simply honing my reactions but it’s much more than that. Because my being in that state was also influencing the actions of my opponent.

I was, in Abe terms, attracting from them attacks that I could easily counter, attracting from the whole exchange a joyful feeling of being connected and balanced and aligned, best of all a feeling of relying on something within me that was more powerful than my conscious efforts.

The state of consciousness I put myself in is exactly what Abe advocates for everyday life. Learning to rely on the ease and power and leverage of my inner being, not just when I’m sparring with someone but for all kinds of interactions in all aspects of my experience.

There’s no context in which it is preferable to be tense and uptight and doing things the hard way. There’s no situation that benefits from being weighed down by thoughts of profit and loss.

Because in the context of a friendly fight I didn’t have to tell myself not to get hit. My desire to not be punched in the face was already firmly activated within me. Likewise I don’t have to keep telling myself not to cut myself while preparing food and not to burn the food when I cook it.

As Abe says, we’ve already launched enough desires to last us twenty lifetimes. We don’t need to keep reminding ourselves of the outcomes we desire.

Living in the flow

I’m so excited about this because I have such a strong and personal experience of success in finding alignment and trusting my inner being in the context of kung fu and now I’ve connected the dots between this personal touchstone and what Abe have been saying for years.

Everyday life can flow like that. Everyday life can be shaped by that unparalleled feeling of being switched on and allowing responses to come forth from within with precision and timing that just feel like perfection.

All it needs is for me to know that’s what I’m doing, and let go of the thoughts of winning and losing, the clinging to outcomes that throw me out of balance.

Way of the Screaming Baby

I’ve often wondered why our 15 month old daughter screams so much. Her brother never did, but this one screams at the drop of a hat.

I think I finally understand. If I can experience her screaming and not lose my alignment, then I am on the right path.

I’m learning the way from my toddler’s tantrums. Ear-piercing and soul-numbing shrieks are my training ground for Zen-like calm.

Knowing that manifestations are the effect and thoughts are the cause, her cries are a perfect opportunity to wean myself off reactivity and fixating on conditions.

Every scream is a lesson in alignment. God sees only good in it, so should I. Thank you, tiny, beautiful, pooping master.

Killing the Buddha

If you meet the Buddha, kill him. – LinJi

The basic dichotomy of melancholic spirituality is that we are prone to despair and we require faith in providence to see us through.

But lots of spiritual teachers accentuate the suffering and disappointment in life, as if they are keen to get us disillusioned with worldly happiness and craving something more refined.

Buddhism hits the ground running with the first noble truth, frequently rendered in English as “life is suffering”, but with the more nuanced translation of “dissatisfying” also on offer.

In hindsight I don’t think melancholics need to be encouraged to view life as intrinsically dissatisfying. I don’t think it serves us to take such a negative principle on board as the premise of a spiritual path.

Killing the Buddha

The Zen Koan about “killing” the Buddha is a warning against religious idolatry, sanctimony, and the kind of spiritual practice that forgets the real meaning of the Buddha in favour of an image or a vision.

But today for me it means letting go of spiritual principles that don’t serve me – no matter how esteemed their author or noble their pedigree.

Is life suffering? No. Is life dissatisfying? No. It might have felt that way at times, but thinking there was something intrinsically negative about life and existence only made me feel worse about it.

Life is meant to be happy and joyful and satisfying, and if killing the Buddha helps me get there, I’m sure he won’t mind.

Empty your cup

Yesterday I started tidying the kids’ bookshelf. It was a real mess, with new books having been piled horizontally on top of the others making it almost impossible to retrieve one without triggering a book avalanche.

There wasn’t enough room for everything so I moved onto the parents’ bookshelf hoping to make some space.

An intellectual house-cleaning

Wow! There were some really old books in that shelf!

I don’t mean hundred-year-old treasured volumes. I mean books that represent a part of me I no longer want or need to hold onto.

Textbooks on Neuro-philosophy from my Honours year that were horribly bleak when they first came out and are now outdated to boot.

Books on orthodox Catholic philosophy and theology from when I thought that perfect intellectual formation was the key, as if the answers to life’s questions could all be found via sufficient mastery of the Summa Theologicae.

A couple of new-age and qigong books from people I now know are basically charlatans.

Incredibly abstruse texts on philosophy of language and parsing religious relativism from my PhD studies that might as well be treatises on theoretical physics for all the interest they now hold for me.

The tome-like “Zen and the Brain” I ordered from America back in the early 2000s which I hoped would give me some kind of objective guide in my search for spiritual insight.

Books complaining about the decline of Western civilisation, marshalling the proof that the world as we know is falling apart in all new and exciting ways!

Whether these books were on apologetics and philosophy or mysticism and prayer, they each represent part of my search outside myself. A search for identity, a search for wisdom, a search for inner peace and happiness, a search for empowerment through knowledge or spiritual practice.

Getting rid of these books is like allowing a space to open up for new things in life. Not likely new books, but a new approach. Nor new answers but a new receptivity to what life is offering me.

Because the only reason for keeping a big old textbook on Philosophy is to have it there, on the shelf, as if to advertise my intellectual inventory.

Not a single person has ever inquired, and with good reason. I kept those old books on the shelf but they weren’t active in my life. I was presenting them to others, but even I didn’t value them anymore.

Empty your cup

“Empty your cup” is a popular martial arts idiom derived from a Zen proverb.

It means that we can’t learn something new when we are already full of our own opinions and ideas.

It’s become cliché but I think it fits well with another popular saying “when the student is ready the teacher will appear”.

What does this mean in practice?

For me it means that yesterday I got rid of all the “answers” sitting on my shelf, all the tomes of dead wisdom and intellectual esoterica that I’ve been carrying around as part of my identity, like a sticker saying “ask me about my philosophical background!”

And these non-answers, like the proverbial overflowing tea-cup, kept me from receiving actual answers and insights and wonderful coincidences.

So this morning as I walked home after dropping my son at school I bumped into a friend and enjoyed a conversation that was a perfect match for where I am at today.

There was more satisfaction in receiving that answer, like a sign-post along the way, than I could ever have found digging into my old resources searching for wisdom.

Besides, I’ve already become what I was looking for in many of those books. My personal knowledge and experience outstrips what one might gain from rereading them.

So with a great appreciation for irony I’ll end with a quote from the long-dead Zhuang-zi, translated by the also-dead Thomas Merton:

The men of old 
Took all they really knew
With them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
Is only the dirt they left behind them.

Rethinking a spiritual quest

I had a pretty unhappy childhood, but found refuge and escape in fantasy books.

After a while I realised all my friends were growing up, and I was left still wishing I could escape into one of the fantasy worlds from my novels.

I hid my interest in fantasy stories for fear of being ridiculed, and did my best to fit in, all the time wishing there was more to life than the mundane world I saw around me.

Eventually I discovered mysticism, through the writings of a Jesuit named Anthony De Mello. I followed up all the quotations and references in his books, searching for more traces of the “Golden String” described by the Christian monk and interpreter of Hindu and Buddhist teaching, Bede Griffiths.

In the world’s religious and spiritual traditions I found a cast of real characters who most closely resembled the sorcerers, wizards, and adventurers of my fantasy novels. The sages, saints, shamans, and seers had found the pinnacle of meaning in life, many of them even exhibiting mysterious and supernatural powers.

I plunged into every text I could find, interpreting it to the best of my ability.

I was convinced that the suffering in my life, the mundanity I sought to escape, was a manifestation of the universal suffering and dissatisfaction attested by the world’s religions. My problem was a universal problem.

What I got right was that there is a source of divine, transcendent love, goodness, truth, and light within us and accessible to us.

What I got right was that depending on external circumstances for our happiness was like building a house upon the sand.

But what I got wrong was my conclusion that all of life, the whole material world, was therefore a shipwreck or a pit of fire, something wholly negative and insubstantial and best to just escape from.

I depreciated and devalued every scrap of happiness and meaning in life, thinking that if I rejected the world with enough totality I would have only the truth left to support me.

That didn’t work out too well.

The net effect was that I continued to live a relatively “normal” life, but accentuated and concentrated my sense that ordinary life was devoid of meaning and full of unhappiness.

I conflated my personal unhappiness with the spiritual teaching that life is suffering.

Looking back, I would have been better off focusing on whatever made me feel better, softening the self-critical and anxious thoughts that led me to abandon my interests.

Instead I developed the strong belief that I must urgently find “the answer” that would help me transcend the world of suffering and turmoil and find the peace and happiness I was searching for.

Teenagers probably shouldn’t be reading about “dying to self” and “letting go of the ego”. In a formative stage of life it is too easy for spiritual teachings to be conflated with adaptive and maladaptive coping mechanisms, and there’s a danger that legitimately powerful teachings become familiar and lose their impact when we are not ready to receive them.

It reminds me of this Koan from the Gateless Gate:

Gutei raised his finger whenever he was asked a question about Zen. A boy attendant began to imitate him in this way. When anyone asked the boy what his master had preached about, the boy would raise his finger.

Gutei heard about the boy’s mischief. He seized him and cut off his finger. The boy cried and ran away. Gutei called and stopped him. When the boy turned his head to Gutei, Gutei raised up his own finger. In that instant the boy was enlightened.

Or another line that I can’t recall the origin of: If the world sends people to hell, Buddhism can save them. But if Buddhism sends people to hell, what will save them?

But the biggest weakness of my spiritual quest is that it didn’t bring me to happiness. Instead of liberating me from harmful beliefs it reinforced them, and I delved deeper into depression and anxiety, convinced that the solution lay in closer embrace of the problem.

I want to start rethinking aspects of this quest. Appreciating the things I got right in light of the things I got wrong. It’s been long enough that my attempt to find a solution has itself become a part of the problem, an obstacle rather than a source of relief.

For one thing, why assume that the world is intrinsically unsatisfying on the basis of a teenager’s experience and worldview?

Why assume that my negative experiences are the final word on so-called “mundane” life?

I would be happier if life were going better for me; that’s not a weakness or a failing, that’s just normal.

How do I reconcile this normal attitude with the deeper truth that happiness comes from within?

Going with the flow

The lamp of the body is the eye: if thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

Some contemplatives look outward and see the underlying flow, the pattern, the mystery governing all that is.

Some contemplatives look inward and find the divine being-itself within.

Whether inside or outside, they approach a unity of vision. Perhaps it’s just a case of where they first notice it, or where they are most at home returning to it.

Synthesis

I’m different from the contemplatives, mystics, and sages whose words I’ve read, because I’ve read all their words and put them alongside one another in my own mind.

Reading into different traditions from outside those traditions and looking for the underlying commonalities and themes, my perspective remains an individual one, not belonging to any single set of teachings.

I’ve tried to see “the way” described in Daoist and East Asian Buddhist literature, the mysterious unity dynamically at play behind all phenomena.

I’ve also tried to see the divine essence in my innermost being, either there, or near there, a presence of love and light and transcendent joy that is our true identity, whether it is described as a union with God that occurs through grace when we turn toward Him, or as a pre-existing unity with the divine that has been obscured by ignorance and illusion.

Finding God within themselves, they look out and see God in everything, just as the sages who saw everything following “the way” then knew to look within for their own intimate connection with it.

Reconciling the external and the internal

When I looked outward I could see the mysterious patterns of “the way” but it did nothing to change me.

When I looked within I felt the love and joy of the divine in my innermost being, but “the world” remained impassive and impervious.

I had a strong sense of the divide between myself and “the world”.

But through slowly improving my mood, recognising the legitimacy of desire and how my experience reflects my beliefs and expectations, I’ve found that I can bridge that divide.

By both turning toward the divine in my innermost being and then looking for the mysterious pattern in the external world, I’ve found that they are one and the same thing, mutually reinforcing, and unifying my whole experience.

I have to actively do both. Actively turn toward the spark of love and joy that resides deep within us, and, when secure in that, look to the sense of pattern and connection and flow in the outside world.

Go with the flow

The flow is difficult to describe. I get it by paying attention to my field of experience as a whole. For example, when driving we can pay attention to any number of things but we ought to be aware of the other users of the road around us.

If we were sitting by the side of the road at a busy intersection we might be able to look at the many vehicles as taking part in the greater flow of traffic. We could get a feel for the flow that transcends but is present in the multitude of vehicles and drivers and passengers and their individual actions and behaviours.

Can you do that while you yourself are part of the traffic?

The Zen monk Takuan Soho described this aspect of the way like so:

“When facing a single tree, if you look at a single one of its red leaves, you will not see all the others. When the eye is not set on one leaf, and you face the tree with nothing at all in mind, any number of leaves are visible to the eye without limit. But if a single leaf holds the eye, it will be as if the remaining leaves were not there.”

Creation unfolds moment by moment, and there’s a correlation across all things in the one moment, just as much as there is continuity of one thing across many moments.

Attending to this correlation or flow points us intuitively towards the invisible “way” that governs the flow.

This “way” is the proper object of attention externally, just as the divine spark within us is the proper object of attention internally.

In other traditions this flow or way might be described as God’s will, or the sense of God’s presence in all things. Perhaps it takes different forms for different people.

It still takes practice. I find that fears and worries and grasping for certain outcomes obscures my sense of the flow. At the same time, there’s an inner reluctance to turn toward the love and joy within me, which is puzzling but points to the various traditions’ interpretation of torpor or sloth or an unwillingness to embrace the joy that is available to us right now.

Yet there is also immense consolation in the direct experience of union as the sounds of traffic, my baby daughter wriggling in her bouncer, the tweeting of birds, and the pulsing of my own heart-beat converge with the deep and mysterious sense of love and joy within me.

More to life

Melancholics are motivated by a sense that there must be more to life.

More than what is on offer, more than what is accepted within the range of ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ life.  For me this sense translated into a fascination with mysticism, and I spent my late teenage years and my early years at university reading every strange philosophical and esoteric religious text I could get my hands on.  I steadily worked my way through the relevant section of the university library: Zen Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism, Daoism, Vedanta, Sikhism, Sufism, Christian mysticism – Orthodox, Catholic and Heterodox.

I was looking for something particular in each of these books, and found in them the outlines of a methodology or set of guidelines that promised – in varying terminology – a better way of being, a solution to life’s existential conflicts, and freedom from the oppressive weight of everyday reality.

These texts each pointed to an objective albeit transcendent reality;  something beyond mundane human experience, yet immanent everywhere just beneath the surface.

The consistent message of these various mystics is that this transcendent reality is more real, more true, than our daily lives, and that to find true virtue, peace, and happiness we ought to turn our attention to this transcendent reality and diminish our reliance on and preoccupation with mundane reality.

Ethics and morality fits into this schema largely because excessive desires for worldly things are incompatible with an appreciation for the transcendent reality.  At the same time, there is a salutary aspect to this transcendent reality, suggesting a relationship between it and a balanced, virtuous life.

But the problem with this transcendent reality is that it is, from a worldly perspective, utterly useless; more useless than the virtue with which it is associated; more useless than the sages, philosophers and saints who devoted themselves to it.  It is too great to be useful, too rich to meet any particular human need.  In that sense, you can get by without it. It won’t make you money, it won’t help you find food, it won’t convince others to lavish you with praise and adulation.

It is precisely because of its uselessness, its being beyond use, that it is worth attending to.  We cannot employ it for a purpose, in fact it takes away our purpose and makes our worldly aims seem utterly petty and trivial, yet because of this it is worthy to shape and develop us.  In a world that is overwhelmed with utility, purpose, and occupation, this transcendent reality seems as empty and clear as the sky.  That is why it ought to be our foundation and our goal, that is why it alone can be the burden that enlightens rather than weighing down.