After all this talk of staying with the body, trying to do good, and going back to the basics of meditation, you might be forgiven for thinking that contemplative practice is very mechanistic, mundane, and explainable. This is where I unabashedly dump much of that on its head and start talking about the seemingly irrational and inexplicable, but also mysteriously satisfying, side of practice that is my engagement with God.
There’s nothing for it, really. I’m sometimes embarrassed to talk about this side of practice even with the closest of my dharma friends, with which I will discuss the most bizarre of experiences, and talk about awakening as if it is as normal a part of my life as vacuuming the carpet. Perhaps it is with these people that it is most embarrassing, because, really, it is the normalisation and classification of such unusual things as energetic blasts, states of absorption, profound terror or deep calm that pushes one’s sense of practice away from the concept of the religious and into the agnostic- in other words, into the philosophical and scientific. The Pāli Canon does not, for all the trappings that now surround it, seem all that religious to me. Theravada Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Western Magick; these all somehow deal with the inexplicable. The phenomenological epoché is used that says ‘we don’t understand what lies within the black box, but we do know that if you stick x in, you tend to get y out.’
The trouble with this in practice is that it is an expression of the selfing mechanism. This is not evil, per se, and mechanistic practices utilise selfing skillfully to end selfing: the desire to end desire. However, I am really not convinced that you can really hit the deep stuff in practice if you haven’t somehow (and at the right time) given up that righting reflex: doing the right practice, getting the right result, measuring your lack of delusion. Perhaps the deeper levels of more progress-driven practices are subtle enough that this kind of non-effort that is required begins to occur spontaneously. In fact, the more I think about it, I recognise that has happened in my own practice. All the best ‘progress’ has been out of my hands, sudden surrender or inexplicable insight. Control is an illusion, after all. But there is still this sliver of a sense that I had something to do with it. It may sharpen to a point as I relinquish more sense of control, but Xeno’s paradox tells us that point can be sharpened infinitely. At least I laid the groundwork; I at least followed instructions; I at least exercised the free will to practice; I at least wanted to awaken; I at least did something, but I’m not sure what it was, but I acted; I at least watched. Ad infinitum is ad nauseum. How is that going to turn into something unconditional?
There’s nothing to be done about that. Read that sentence again: there’s nothing to be done about that. It’s the most honest expression of the human predicament, what at least one Zen teacher has described as purest practice: beginner’s mind, with no idea how things should be, just groping in the dark, or following a teacher’s instructions basically blindly. I had no bloody idea why watching the breath was going to lead to awakening, but I had a combination of curiosity and blind faith that sent me to a mindfulness of breathing course once it became clear nothing else was going to. All of this doing, paradoxically, is what brings me to insight, but the insight is that it wasn’t my doing. I did nothing that wasn’t spontaneous, automatic, deeply uncontrolled. I have no ability to will myself to enlightenment, though the irony is that the strenuous lengths I have gone to practice at times – noting three times a second for hours and hours, doing dozens of days of intensive retreat, body and mind clenching with that desire to transcend – all betray my secret, delusive idea that I do, wrapped cunningly in the concept of a timeless practice that the self needed to do.
On one level, we’re making pitiful efforts to reach towards God, and in his infinite mercy, he traverses the infinite, impossible distance between relative and absolute and unites us with himself. That’s the concept of a personal, loving, immanent God. That personality is important to my practice because it somehow explains something that the impersonality of the insights of vipassana practice – non-inherency, transience, suffering – do not. The reason why we try to do good in a world that is dependently originated, and so doesn’t some need our fretting to work itself out, is because we are in the mold of God; we possess that spark of divinity, that potential to love so powerfully and altruistically that comes from recognising within the day-to-day that interconnectedness of all things, the Deathless, and radical acceptance. Wordlessly comes the reconciliation of opposites, the resolution of paradox, the understanding of how a world that is by definition doomed by its transience can actually be alright. And by alright, I mean not outright bloody unacceptable. And compared to that, acceptable is quite literally glorious. Noting did not teach me any of this; at least, not through my understanding, which can now understand why watching the breath knocks the habit of craving and aversion out of you.
The greater you realise the illusion of control, the more it becomes obvious that there is a need to go beyond that concept of individual effort to reach enlightenment. What is inferred is that you literally have no control whatsoever. That point is going to keep sharpening, but all signs point to the need to drop that way of practicing, at least in terms of your view. Right View is discussed strenuously in many contemplative traditions and implies some kind of confluence of attitude and growing understanding to keep your practice pointing towards the unconditional and away from it falling back into ego trip territory. Go with your gut, is my practical advice. Go where you know you have to, but don’t want to. That might be to avoid pleasurable practice in order to face the pain for once, or it might in fact be the need to cool off your quest and be human. I mean it when I say you can trust yourself in these things, if you are sufficiently honest. But, of course, honesty isn’t under your control. There is the sense of control, but no real control. As long as it seems to be ours, we must continue to exercise it as well as we know how.
And somehow, the veil parts a little more, and it becomes clear that it was all the hand of God. Grace is literally everything. You are at best an instrument, a channel. You aren’t the tennis racket; you’re the ball. It’s a word that I love – grace – because it sums it all up. Another rather beautiful way of conceiving of practice, bundling up the impersonal and the impersonal, appears. There’s no need for your personal intent, and yet impersonal effort exists to the extent that things are happening in this body and this world. There is a personality to the kindness that pervades the universe, but it lacks a centre. The desperate need to do something, though, remains. And the sharpest end of that point of being involved is a very refined kind of prayer. I was taught to pray for things as a child, but it never seemed to work: it felt like trying to make something out of nothing, a demand. Instead there was this desire just to contact, and I suppose that was my request in prayer: to have what Iain Matthew describes as a true experience of God. The truest experience of God, he explains, is naked faith, since that is the most complete surrender you can make of that sense of control. The least selfing you can fit into the moment. No righting reflex whatsoever; simple trust that everything you are doing right now is part of the plan, that whatever you are experiencing is holy, that nothing special needs to happen. That nothing you can do cannot be the will of God. Maybe that’s mechanistic and knocks out the habit of perceiving things as I and not-I, done by my or not done by me: but if that’s true, it’s still experientially bizarre, and doesn’t dent this irrational-seeming faith that answers are all, somehow, untrue compared to the blessed silence that lies beyond them.
So, to go backwards a little, this is how God came into my life. Grace, again: I didn’t choose, merely admitted. If that implies it has sometimes been hard or even weirdly non-consensual, you’d be right. I still have trouble with the word, as I said. I use the pronoun ‘he’ to talk about the personality that seems to inhabit the paradoxically non-inherent universe. I can sometimes use ‘it’ to describe the sense of an animating force, without any of the patriarchal or dualistic crap that comes with it. Then there is the nonconceptual God that can’t be contained in the word, and only described as a train of nots: not located, not bounded, not existent, and so on. Different contemplative traditions (Christian and Hindu amongst them) utilise these concepts of God to find ways into practice, and it seems completely unsurprising to me now that practitioners often find their curiosity about other traditions merely being the natural result of their own insight. Looking into the impersonal brought me back around to the personal in a long cycle of insight that took years. Theravadins investigate the Mahayana; Christians investigate vipassana; secular meditators find God. It’s common enough and I’d like to reassure you that you aren’t necessarily just regressing. You might have to go over some old territory with new eyes, but that’s fair enough.
- Pray for God to enter your life, if you feel the wish for him to. Reflect on whether you control this.
- Pray for you to know and do God’s will as the only practice you’re allowed for a week.
- If you’re feeling particularly enlightened, give up practice for a week and see if things change anyway.