No place to stand

So I’ve posted about paradox, uncertainty, and the reconciliation of them through intuition and faith before, but what I would like to write today is my current experience of them, which seems to be pushing towards something a lot more radical: that any answer I can come up with that is in any way consolatory is hollow, a grasping at control that only indirectly points at something far more mysterious.

Lest I start to sound utterly off my rocker, dear reader, let me pick this apart a little bit. My current experience is of a frustration with any kind of answer I can come up with to the age-old question of life: what should I do? It doesn’t matter whether the question is aimed at moral behaviour, trying to get into Heaven, trying to avoid suffering or finding something that will give peace. The answer is the same, and as has been pointed out by greater contemplatives than I, is in the Three Characteristics of Existence as discussed by the Buddhists: nothing fixed, nothing solid, nothing satisfactory, in this world of appearances.

It’s been catching me every way I’ve been ducking and weaving, as if to exhaust all of the routes of evasion that I’ve developed over the years (or to put it a more positive way, all the interesting roads towards awakening that I’ve explored with more or less success). If I rely on my gut feelings, I’m aware they can be literally wrong- based on nothing but conditioning, and certainly not infallible. If I rely on my rationality, a hundred reasons spring up, and what do I have to decide on which is ‘perfectly correct’? If I rely on my idealism, I’m immediately aware it isn’t possible to fulfil it in this pragmatic world. If I go towards suffering, if doesn’t make me a saint. If I run from it, there’s still kindness. It is this texture of dukkha that is being pointed out to me in a particularly stinging way this week; old lessons, but somehow more agitating than they have been for some time. The mind and the body both cringe and one affects the other, exacerbating the frustration, pushing me to find a way out.

This means, in shorthand, that all the things that I state here as being guidance for practice are in a very real way, wrong. I say cultivate calm, but who says that being calm is what is meant for me? I say accept paradox, but what if acceptance is to miss some greater exploration? If this all seems very head-centered, then all my attempts to ‘breathe through the pain’, or apply mindfulness, or the desire to focus on the positive sensations of the world, have felt similarly wrong. This is the dukkha ñana of ‘reobservation’ as I discussed in my last post. Every facet of dukkha is thrust at you: endings, threat, powerlessness, despair, intolerance. (I may write a post explicating these a bit more, if only to make it more obvious to the reader when they’re experiencing these, and not experiencing mental illness or a reaction to poor circumstances, though it as always is never quite that simple in the latter case). In fact, it is a testimony to the power of this part of the cycle of insight that it can be completely unobvious to the practitioner that this is occurring, which is where a teacher can come in handy.

In one of Jack Kornfield’s books, he relates a story in which a Zen practitioner screams at his teacher on retreat, ‘I have no place to stand!’ The calm (probably infuriating answer) is to ‘stand where there is no place to stand’. This is the invitation to reach towards the Unconditional, to surrender to the growing awareness that there is no good without God, to accept all circumstances with Buddha’s equanimity- however you want to put it. Every time there is a tipping point, as I have discussed in a previous post, there is a dissolution of the ego, but then it reassembles. Perhaps there is a bit more spaciousness there, but it reassembles, in my experience, finding a way to contain the new wisdom within the gilded cage of existence, the Devil limiting the damage that has been done as it were. There is sudden pride in just how humble I am; fear of losing what ‘I have gained’ perverting the knowledge that I have just jettisoned some delusion, not won an accolade; contempt towards others who ‘aren’t as awakened’. This is another aspect of mindfulness: to remain mindful of the need to remain kind, peaceful and honest regardless of the sense that, well, that’s sorted out, I can relax until the next wave of nasty feelings. Where I am only waiting for negative emotions to get me practicing, I am being reactive, not responsive. Not very awakened, is it?

Of course, this is all another lesson I can be thankful for. There’s no place to stand for the separate self. As my teacher says, you’re like a stalk of corn, being pulled first one way by the wind, and then suddenly completely the other way. It’s a matter of perspective as to whether that in fact matters or not when the actual roots are underground. The other metaphor is of God hammering you out on the anvil, making you pliable, flexible. If you want to be more resilient, responsive, and the like – as clinical mindfulness suggests you can be through meditation – you in fact are going to have to give up a lot of what you don’t want to. I am only dauntless in complete proportion to how much of my own will I am capable of giving up in the moment, to whatever guidance I am willing to receive, as where there’s no loss, there’s no fear. In no other field of life do we expect to receive an amazing benefit for no sacrifice.

The practices for the experience of the Dark Night come down to this:

  1. Keep going. Whatever you are practicing, continue, unless you think you are doing yourself real damage or your teacher suggests otherwise. Stepping away from practice usually means you will have to face the same pain again later. Have some courage.
  2. Be humble. You are likely to be reactive, negative, impulsive, if you are anything like me. The trick is not to win, as I’ve said before, but to recognise there is no game- or, if not, lose gracefully. Use this golden opportunity to recognise that what dents the ego actually improves your practice.
  3. Be trusting. Consult more experienced practitioners and accept help from your spiritual community. Do prescribed practices that your teacher suggests. Trust that there is a reason behind the suffering you’re experiencing.
  4. Be kind. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t blame others. Recognise it’s a process. Adjust your life reasonably to give yourself space for practice.
  5. Have common sense. Don’t let all of the nasty thoughts and feelings come up and out at people who have no idea about contemplative practice. Find appropriate people to confide in.

Above all, find whatever ‘highest light’ you have and live up to that. It may not of course be that the advice I give is perfectly right for you – after all, how could it be – and I’ve sometimes pushed through such phases, or had to bounce off such areas of practice before I could come back to them later. The warrior approach has its uses, after all, but if you’re anything like me you need work on the kind and humble aspects of your personality more than the fighter- especially if you lack kindness towards yourself and the warrior posture is one that mainly attacks your own, completely understandable, inability to ‘fix’ the contemplative experiences you are having.