Tipping points

While I am not any longer a fan of the often intricate maps of meditation that split contemplative practice into stages – for reasons that I might cover in a different post – I do think that both the Pali Canon and my own experience agree that there are points of no return.

Each tipping point that I have experienced has not been so much an attainment of anything solid, though that may say something about my lack of interest in developing jhana and the like. Instead, they manifest as a retrospectively obvious culmination, a change that has been in the air for months or years, plenty of prior warning given.

They do have their benefits- don’t take what I say the wrong way. They represent changes in perception, largely, that make previous issues ‘not a problem’. This is because they change the relationship of the observer to the phenomena that seem to be separate. Sometimes a particular phenomenon is suddenly, really obviously, not under my control. If it seemed like part of the self even deeply, but underneath that there was a fair amount of doubt, the dissonance of something appearing in the outer world that was previously never even perceived as object is painful. Even as something is birthed, paradoxically it’s a slow death to a chunk of the ego. As the phenomenon breaks away from the self entirely, though, it’s often a relief. There might be compassion for the fate of an object, but its change and even death is clearly not my change and death. If you attach to your clothes as being part of who you are, not so much representing something about who you are but literally being part of who you are, it’s going to be a bugger when that favourite shirt inevitably fades. More deeply, perhaps, seeing intention slide out from under me was damning. All the responsibility remained in the real world for something which, to a large degree, was now beyond me, bound up in habit and conditioning, and suddenly the desire to discipline it was foremost when habit made for endless imperfect acts of unkindness towards others I couldn’t even stop myself from making. Of course, this was a lesson about grace.

Other times, it’s more just the relationship to something already pretty external that I’m trying to bring closer in that changes. I want to influence someone. I can’t change them, so instead I go and talk to someone else about them under the guise of ‘seeking guidance’ or ‘friendly concern’. Substitutes for manipulation that appease the ball of frustration in the gut or solar plexus, that affect the world not at all in any helpful way. The experience that many, many things simply aren’t anything to do with me reduces that afflictive feeling which drives me to action. The frenzied running around to ostensibly help, but really to satisfy an animal need, can be dropped. Further than that, it’s becoming clear that any movement at all, any physiological arousal, is in some subtle way, dukkha. Why would you want to act when you could be still, relaxed? Everything that occurs is like an itch that demands to be scratched- a stimulus that forces an immediate response from the bodymind. Our inherent laziness does have a certain point. It wants to not be subjected to these stimuli which disrupt rest.

The most important tipping point I’ve experienced so far is, I think, mirrored in the way that I talk about all of these other, smaller ones. It was the tipping point from experiencing contemplative practice chiefly as something that I did, to something that is being done to me. Instead of feeling I was the centre point that was building up a reserve of concentration, merit, insight and virtue, I fell down on the side of the epiphenomenon, the construct, the caused. This has not caused the huge change in perception and lessening of suffering that I had hoped previously that it would cause. This is mainly because I had hoped beyond hope that this would mainly add up to an increase in pleasure and a decrease in pain, which if you’ve read anything I’ve written, obviously is not the point. Unconditional happiness is not describable, not something with observable components, not even waves of silken calm that are more subtle than the more vulgar pleasures of the world. It’s just, at the moment, a ‘yes’ to my current ambivalent, paradoxical condition: half way out of the egg, not yet able to quit the old way of doing things but not yet wise enough to see the truth.

To use an analogy for tipping points in the form of a computer game: games often suffer from ‘power creep’. This is the fact that all challenges of the same form end up easy, or boring, as the player becomes accustomed to the form. The only way to create novelty or greater difficulty without changing the form is to push that form to the maximum. Makes me think of Doom II, with its rooms completely rammed with the toughest demon antagonists, with you only carrying a pistol. They lacked the kind of fun and artistic merit of other levels because they were just the original but with the volume pushed up to eleven. Eleven is of course deafening, not listenable, to mix metaphors as usual. Instead, more interesting games keep changing the way you have to play but without completely abandoning the previous context. Your foolproof way of getting through is taken from you. Your previous skills are no longer elite. You need to use different tools, different strategies, work out how to adapt, how to be ever more cunning. So it is with contemplative practice: a tipping point shows you that what you thought you had mastered, was just another delusion. Your perception having changed, you’re now going to have to work out what lesson you are being taught by this different one. And sometimes, they can be really very different without seeing to be. The increasing sense of having to go ‘against the stream’, for example, is my current one. Giving away being the only riches, accepting others being the only way to affect them, offering my worries to God being the only thing that makes them manageable.

It’s all egocentricity, really. The child cannot care that his or her mother is tired; they demand to be played with. They can’t get, at an early age, how someone on the other side of a wall can’t see what they can (and psychology has shown this in some very interesting experiments). The sadness would be to not develop a transpersonal, empathic perspective in adulthood that is more than rational thinking, but an actual appreciation of the arbitrary nature of boundaries that the subject/object distinction creates. To remain trapped in claustrophic confines, driven by habit, always trying to rip off a piece of the Infinite for oneself. Not realising that all our massive yearning for achievement could easily boil down to a need for belonging and love. Not realising that there is no difference in moral value between the person who cures cancer and the person who is always ready with a kind word. Not realising that the world just is, and perspective is just perspective.

In practice, this means that the move was from seeing myself as making a sculpture from whatever ragged items I could find and produce, to seeing myself as the real work in progress, obscured by layers of rock that needed to be chipped away. I never produce anything that the universe hasn’t already given me, utterly root and branch. It isn’t my hand that is determining the end result. I am not creating something that I can look at proudly as my work from an unaltered observation post. The change, basically, was from attainment to surrender. All forms of meditation changed from a very heavy emphasis on trying to extract what I had been told I should want to attain from experiences with force of will, to a more trusting curiosity about the present moment and what interesting, insight-filled sensations it would bring next. Desire to have weird, extreme experiences fuelled by excellent vipassana changed to an engagement with prayer, recognising the need to try and create some kind of more human relationship with a divinity far beyond me.

It has often been frustrating in hindsight, as so much of that chipping away was of my own ego, the strength that kept me punching myself in the face and heroically jumping back up on my feet only to do it some more. But there’s a lot of gratitude for all the progress that has occurred, and I know I can’t have done it any other way. That was what I saw, and so acted on. No one can guess the mind of God and then act on it. If you see a cliff face in front of you, then you don’t try and walk over it. I have only been able to work with the fabric of the delusion that I was having at the time. There’s a certain honouring of the poor confused human trying to do practice.

What benefits has it brought? Self acceptance, calm trust in the face of some pretty nasty situations, an ability to step out of maladaptive coping strategies, an exciting but less wrenching relationship with the Unconditional, a much more mature sense of perspective, a lot more kindness. The recognition that I do not fabricate the substance of effort. The best part of that is what I cannot name and cannot describe, beyond saying it’s the sense of still being on the journey, and it being less and less about it being nice, and more and more about it being right for me.