I’ve talked a lot about the Unconditional, and about how ‘true spirituality’ is directed at this- even though there is nothing to point at, nothing to sniff out, nothing to achieve, in the end. But this has proven throughout much of my practice to be a real hindrance, because if I’ve got no direction, what on earth am I doing?
The reason for this is that, at my stage of practice, I need something to work with. Someone once said that their final practice instruction from a famous meditation teacher on retreat was to ‘attend to that which is not Emptiness’. I am hazarding an educated guess (I make no apologies for the reaching!) that this points to the increasing sense of things being non-inherent, but also the increasing sense – after a certain amount of troublesome integration – that this is fine.
The sense of what this Emptiness is becomes more rarefied. I’m on the pretty crude end, still. I keep finding more subtle senses of freedom, joy, ease, and fluidity in experience, but they turn out to again be vaguely irritating, in that energetic way, or simply not as perfect as I thought they were. I keep thinking, ‘this is how I’d like to feel forever, how I’d like to act at all times, how I’d like to see things forever’, and they get whirled away to be replaced with another standpoint. It’s only when those standpoints get dissolved that I realise it was all another game.
I’ve found this, due to my own quirks, frustrating and evidence of my own failure in practice much of the time, asking: Why am I still aiming? Why am I still striving? Why am I still clinging? The self-compassionate answer is, in fact: this is where I am at, and where I am at, is not bloody well enlightened yet. I now see why the Buddha implied that he was no longer human, in a very weird and seemingly metaphysical turn of events for the ol’ Tathagata to get involved in; it is because these conditioned movements of mind are utterly human. And I would be missing the whole point of contemplative practice if I was increasingly of the opinion that being human was wrong.
Instead, the whole situation can be reframed in the same compassionate way, and in fact the way the Buddha taught. My intuition tells me to point at whatever is most peaceful, kind and honest, and to perhaps put the attempts to trick my way to the Unconditioned aside for a moment.
The Buddha’s punchy little one liner has been used again and again, and I’m really appreciating it tonight. Gotama says: As the ocean has only one taste, the taste of salt, so the teaching has only one taste, the taste of freedom. Whatever makes one more truly free, that’s the good stuff. Whatever gets one stuck in the thicket of views is not the teaching (which is to say, the teaching mishandled by the deluded practitioner, since the truth screams out of every moment of existence). Another quote from Shunryu Suzuki, talking about how ‘practice becomes impure’ as time goes on, is relatable. When I first began practicing, this sense of impending freedom was exciting and palpable. I knew there was something to this Enlightenment lark and I knew I had chanced on something that could get me a little bit closer to it. My first practices led to much greater freedom, the beginner’s luck scenario being in fact beginner’s mind. The first few layers of greed, hatred and delusion parted temporarily in concentrated meditation and formlessness presented itself. But then my practice became less pure as I tried to ‘get back’ to those fuzzy experiences.
The difference here is that I am not, at this point, saying the fuzzy experiences are bad. I’ve turned not wanting to get fixed on any experiences at all in meditation (one way of dealing with the clinging to result that only adds another layer of bother to practice) into a masochistic pushing away of the nice experiences and a movement towards the unpleasant ones as being ‘more useful in practice’. It is true that avoiding the rough stuff won’t get you anywhere, but there are many of us who really beat the shit out of ourselves, and our baseline experience is not actually very pleasant at all. This is where the practice of aiming towards what freedom we currently experience and know is possible becomes a Godsend (joke intended). It’s not about trying to only experience the pleasant. It’s about the happiness beyond conditions that we can currently manage. And, in my case, it’s about accepting the pleasant that does in fact come from the happiness beyond conditions, as an important part of basic sanity.
I don’t mean constantly attempting to practice jhana, suddenly taking a turn into the occult arts in order to get power, or becoming a Shaman to have otherworldly experiences. These things draw other people massively and I’m not poo-pooing them; one thing I don’t want this blog to be is basically a long reiteration of ‘do things my way!’ What I am saying is that I am aware that these would be detours into simple pleasure for pleasure’s sake for me, not following the one taste of freedom, here and now, with kindness and self respect, which I so obviously need to at this moment in time. On the other hand, detours into self-mortification, gruelling retreats, and endless vipassana would be the other extreme, and so again not the right thing for me. How do I know that? Intuition partly, the sense of guidance indeed, but also simply having done things the wrong bloody way enough recently that my thick skull has been got through. (Positive framing: I’ve received sufficient grace recently to see through another layer of delusion.)
So what does this practice involve? It’s quite hard for beginners, so I wouldn’t recommend it. But for Intermediate Ian (or Isabelle if you wish, women of the Internet), it’s a good trick. Simply wait for a moment and sense the sense of freedom. It could be deconstructed in a vipassana way as pleasant vibrations, inspired thoughts, calm behaviour or whatever, but for now, let it be unspoken and simply reach out to it. Notice your intentions. Do your intentions, your impulses, feel like they will free you or merely repeat a cycle of habitual greed, hatred and delusion? I’m not talking about what would be most pleasant; I’m talking about what will free you from cycles of the unpleasant. This is not an analytical thing, not a mindfulness based therapy- there is no need to create sufficient space to consider cognitively what would be the best thing to do, in terms of gain or loss. It’s about giving a tiniest crack of space for the intuition, guidance, unconditional trust to shine through and tell you what possibly inexplicable, painful, or ambitious thing you should do. It requires a certain amount of faith, and ergo is not a beginner’s practice, unless you are one devout chappie, in which case, go for it and I love that you are. The sense of rightness will outweigh any fear of loss or hope for gain.
However, it is also based on this growing experience of what brings freedom and what brings ensnarement. This is where Bhante Bodhidhamma’s practice of noting intentions is amazing. If you get into this habit, you’ll notice where you’re about to do something that gives you this tiny alarm bell, something that says: ‘we’ve been here before, and it didn’t really help. It was comfortingly familiar but it didn’t break us out’. The deliberate practice of setting intentions is therefore related and useful, and it seeps into the subconscious powerfully at times to get us always moving towards freedom and away from entrapment. I am now strongly of the belief that a single free action outweighs a large amount of habit. This habit is to not be free. People who read my blog a lot will know this freedom delves deeper than I know cognitively; it is always there and it is unstained and unstainable, as Kenneth Folk said.
I am saying this because I have been endlessly frustrated and jealous of practitioners who seem to live charmed lives, practicing gently in the ways they wished to rather than pounding the ground at retreats like I did, and making far more obvious progress. I thought this was simple grace, but I’m starting to think they simply follow the path of freedom more while I was trying to gain karma points. They set up the conditions in their lives for more freedom by making free decisions. (I’ve quit my job for a freer one, living in a freer place, and freely speaking in my interview meant I got the job). If you seem to be grinding yourself into the dirt with, to take my example, service work, simply ask: is this the right service work for me? and then attend to what direction the freedom seems to be.
There is no happiness without freedom, I am now certain of that. This is not the freedom to make loads of money, the freedom not to have to care, not the freedom to act unilaterally; it is simply the unconditional freedom from all ties that I am still plodding towards.