Pathways To The Tao #3: Excursus On Meditation

In the opening to “Pathways to the Tao #3: Excursus on Meditation,” I write:

If one who enjoys a lesser happiness beholds a greater one, let him leave aside the lesser to gain the greater.

Buddha, Dhammapada

We should take the Buddha’s principle here very seriously. Even if we have the smallest glimpse of our true nature, we should “leave aside” pursuits of pleasure, status, more experiences (“peak experiences,” most notably), sexual gratification, and more. None of these can truly satisfy our spirit, and all of them, after at best providing us with some form of temporary relief, end up issuing forth in more suffering.

The heart of meditation is remembrance. Remembering, we slip out of ignorance (avidya) and begin to make our way Home. For most of us, continuing to come Home is a lengthy process. But as I’d found in my own experience, I had nowhere else to go, nowhere else to turn. The path of awakening is the last stop for those who have tried, tried out, and ruled out everything else—all of which the Buddha calls “the ignoble search.” The Buddha’s principle was, for me, easily confirmable, and thus I’ve not looked back since. “Happily, very contentedly,” I should add.

Chan master Sheng Yen calls this pivot from the lesser to the greater happiness renunciation: we renounce our idolization of worldly pursuits (while still performing them as needed) so that we can begin, in earnest, the “Noble Search.”

Let us, without delay, do so.

* * *

You can read the rest of the issue, whose subject is meditation, here.

Love Is Making The Bed

Love is intending to walk to the master bathroom in order to brush your teeth, seeing an unmade bed, and making it right now. Love is not Burning Man.

You see, love is evinced in all the small acts of kindness, gentleness, and care, all of which slowly chip away at selfish desire. For selfish desire is, as the Buddha taught, the great impediment to peace but also, let’s add, to the pedestrian expression of the true love I mean.

After all, love is not the rush of fervor that comes from a weeklong retreat or the woosh of togetherness at the end of a concert. Ecstasy is not love.

In fact, manufactured intimacy is not love either. Feeling “one with me” can be just an easy way for you to forget about me when I have my head in the toilet and my gut is wrenching out my guts.

Because most of life–everyone’s, I mean–is not at all sexy. Not one bit. Nor is it dramatically exciting, titillating, or flow state-y. There ain’t one bit of adventure or mystery involved in washing the dishes, cutting back some aggressive Russian sage, brushing your puppy’s teeth as he squirms about, doing taxes for the sake of the family, or running errands.

For that matter, there’s nothing jazzy about checking up on someone because you remember that there was that ‘minor thing’ she’d mentioned some weeks back. You remember–you hold her in mind–because you care, and that care is as modest, as unassuming, and as selflessly honest as it could possibly be.

Being in love is not falling in love. And while falling in love is as beautiful as it is uplifting, it’s being able to be in love with others–that is, being able to love each as he or she needs–that’s where it’s at.

You know people are lonely today because they’re not in love, in this sense. But love, in this sense, is the very essence of caritas: of charitable, outflowing, selfless love. And it’s charitable love that we hungrily need today.

‘I’m Pretty Much Irrelevant…’

I’m pretty much irrelevant. It’s the honest-to-God truth. The path of awakening reveals to me, at almost every turn provided I observe closely, how I’m not really somebody at all.

Whenever I think I’m important, significant, a stand-out, a VIP, another situation show up to show me that I’m over the hill, washed up, a has-been.

I am obsolete.

While thinking about being on the other side of special stand-out-ishness, I remembered, as a kid, watching the 1984 film The Natural. The plot isn’t important here, only the fact about the main character, a “natural” at baseball, getting a second chance to be a hero later on in life. And not only does he make good on his promise as the best baseball player there ever was; he also achieves redemption.

It’s a touching story, but it’s also a work of fantasy as well as a sleight-of-hand. Redemption never comes through human agency (only through divine grace), and aging very rarely makes us more relevant, especially not in our own youth culture.

No, the spiritual truth is that “everything being our teacher” is conspiring to help us–you, me, everyone with eyes wide open–to accept being totally irrelevant. Invisible. Outta the game for good. Doner than done.

And, hey, if you think you’re an exception, dear reader, think again. In fact, if you think you’re at the very peak of relevance, you’re probably not. And now the plot twist: yet as you start accepting being irrelevant, you come into the beauty of being Nobody at all. As Ram Dass probably said, being Nobody is the same as being at Home.

For Nobody is boundlessly content and is at Home anywhere.

Seeking Out Those Who Push Your Buttons

Even though, to my regret, Ram Dass doesn’t really have a theory of polishing the mirror, he does make some helpful suggestions throughout his book called (well) Polishing the Mirror.

Like this one: “There comes a point where you really want to clean up your act. You start to look for the fire of purification. That’s when it gets very interesting, because suddenly you’re looking for those situations that push your buttons” (p. 95).

That does it for me. I mean: he’s right on the money. For one thing, there does come a time when you start to take the line–“Everyone and everything is my teacher”–very seriously, quite literally. Until that time, it seemed like a nice saying to remember now and again. But oh boy now does it strike you with the slap of truth.

For another thing, you’ve come to see more dirt beneath your fingernails. You didn’t know that said dirt was there because you were either thinking that you were all clean already (yup, been there) or because you were focused on scrubbing off the mud caked all over your face. At this point, you experience the subtlety of dukkha (dis-ease, misery), and in a way it hurts even more. Or affects you even more anyway.

And for a third (and this is the real kicker), you start to relish encounters with people and creatures and situations that really push your buttons. Well, relish may be a bit of an overstatement, but welcome may not be.

And why, pray tell? Because if you were to use your sadhana (or spiritual practice) to see through whatever is pushing your buttons, you’d be that much closer to the Source. Being that much closer, you’d be content. Being more content, you’d be less apt to perpetuate suffering in others. Perpetuating less suffering in others, you’d be doing your part to breaking the karmic spell.

So, yes, by all means when you’re ready (and you’d better be ready!), go on and see who and what is pushing your buttons. It won’t be pleasant or enjoyable, but it’ll sure be a trip!

‘Rich, I Think I’m Going To Die’

This passage is oh so very touching. Listen closely:

My mother was dying in early February, 1966, in a hospital in Boston. I was sitting at her bedside. By then I had been working on understanding my own consciousness for some years. She was sort of resting. I was in a kind of meditative mode, just being spacious and aware and noticing what was happening as the relatives and doctors and nurses came into the hospital room and said, “Gertrude, how are you doing?” I listened to the cheery tone of the nurse. I realized that my mother was surrounded by a conspiracy of denial. I watched people coming into the room, all the relatives and doctors and nurses saying she was looking better, that she was doing well, and then they would go out of the room and say she wouldn’t live out the week. I thought how bizarre it was that a human being going through one of the most profound transitions in her life was completely surrounded by deception. Can you hear the pain of that? One woman came in and said, “The doctor just told me there’s a new medication that we think will help.”

Nobody could be straight with her because everybody was too frightened–all of them, everybody, even the rabbi. Mother and I talked about it. At one point, when nobody else was in the room, she turned to me and said, “Rich?” I’d just been sitting there–no judgment, no nothing, just sitting–and we just met in that space.

She said, “Rich, I think I’m going to die.”

I said, “Yeah, I think so too.” (Ram Dass, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from your Spiritual Heart, p. 86.)

While reading it, I almost cried. I can feel her pain, one that is surrounded by such interpersonal and institutional deception. Our death-phobic American culture insists that one is always doing better, that no one will ever die, and that, if one is quite ill, one must “keep fighting.” And then when that one is gone, he is forgotten as the rest of us keep on.

What’s worse that one’s tragic, ugly death is how it seeds terror in the hearts of those still alive. And what may be worse than that is that one doesn’t know that one needs to talk about that terror because one often doesn’t know that it’s there.

“Here today, gone tomorrow,” it’s said breezily…

It’s in this context, one that I trust you, dear reader, can readily recognize, that Ram Dass’s story summons forth our heart. And much more. Much, much more. It summons forth our need for courage, for resolve, and, above all, for the deepest, most searching curiosity.

“Curiosity above all?” Yes, we should care about discovering or rediscovering a cosmology that will help sentient beings die well, with grace, with lightness, with a peace redolent of saints and sages and saviors. We can’t simply focus on the process of dying; we need to reconsider–today, right now–the cosmology that will make peaceful death possible.

I rest in the nondual teaching, which states that we come from the Source, are temporary manifestations of the Source, and return to the Source. Accordingly, physical death is not outright disappearance but expansion into Boundlessness.