On September 4, 2010, I attended the wedding of my friends Pat Rockman and Bryan Moran. On the way back I caught a ride with Michael Stone who answered some Buddhist psychology questions with his usual charm.
Michael: Awareness is separate from the kind of knowing through which most of us live, most of the time. Consciousness is part of the process of dependent origination. In order to have consciousness a sense organ and a sense object depend on each other. Consciousness is always dependent on something. That means you can only be conscious of something. One of the things that happens in meditation, over time, and this happens even if you don’t have good technique, the small mind, or consciousness, becomes less and less interested in sense objects. And as the nervous system quiets down, because this is a physical process as much as it’s psychological, the waves of consciousness also start to settle and a way of knowing shows up as if it was “behind the scenes” where the awareness of what’s happening occurs without such a magnetic pull towards a particular object.
It’s very easy from that experience to create a kind of split where you see that what’s changing doesn’t seem like awareness. Awareness seems like it doesn’t change, it’s not a thing, yet somehow it’s always there, one might even want to say that it’s permanent. I used to use that language. That’s the mirror. Awareness is like a mirror, where the mirror doesn’t take the shape of what’s reflected.
In a certain stage in my practice that’s how I would talk about meditation. I would say this is actually the goal of meditation, to see how awareness stands apart from what is seen, heard or thought or felt. But that’s a linguistic description of the experience, it’s not what it feels like. When there is that kind of stillness you feel energy, vidya, and you also feel connected with what’s going on, but not really moved by it. What’s important about experience is that it changes, and then you go back into your everyday negotiation with the world and you see how everything that you encounter including the you that’s encountering what is encountered, is conditioned, is changing, it’s impermanent, it’s contingent and isn’t really substantial. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist in the way you think it does. It exists only as a collection of experiences that are coming and going.
Self-form. Is it a sense of self, or an awareness of that self? The term is svarupe, sva is self and rupe is form. The self-form is empty of substantiality, so when we say that the self-form is empty, it’s not just that the self that we think of as “me” is empty, everything that has a self form is empty. It has no inherent thing-ness. Another way of say it is that everything is so interdependent that nothing has its own self that’s independent of anything else. So it’s helpful to talk about everything as having self-form, you can’t deny that it has a unique, intrinsic form, but at the same time all that it is, is a form, and that form is dependent on so many other things for its existence.
What I like to emphasize is that we can come down on either side. We can down on the side of pure awareness, which is the non-dual side. Or you can come down on the other side, which is: what’s enlightenment? Cleaning your bowls, eating your rice, going to the toilet. Whenever you look for two you find one, whenever you look for one, you find two. It seems to be the way our minds are constructed. What I like to emphasize when talking about svarupe, is that although it’s empty and fluid, there still is this self-form, there’s a mike and a Michael and we are not the same. While I feel it’s important to stay connected to our commonality, it’s also important to cultivate intimacy in the differences between us too. We can only do that by appreciating each other’s self form.
One of the things I like to point out about Patanjali’s teaching, is that what’s left, after the citta vrittis (fluctuations of consciousness) are suspended, is both awareness and self-form. Neither side wins, we’re always shifting back and forth between them. Maybe you could categorize all the world’s spirituality as falling on one side or the other. Some like to emphasize the non-dual, and some like to emphasize the dual, and I like doing both. Sometimes we need to go more into the non-dual, in order to see the dual again in a way that there’s less clinging, so I love this term self-form, because it’s saying that even though you don’t exist in the way you think you exist, you still exist, and let’s value that, let’s value your skin, and your particular configuration, your eyes, your genetics and your thoughts.
You don’t think the way I think and that’s why I enjoy your company because I can see the world in a different way through the way you articulate it, and that draws us into friendship. Friendship means surrounding ourselves with people who don’t see the world exactly the way we see the world, and there’s something seductive about that, that allows us to really get to know other people. Maybe we never get to know other people, only their version of the world. And that’s all form. And it’s really important. The same is true of practice. We need a lot of form in our practice but at the same time part of the great paradox is that when you’re deep into this practice you see that it’s just form and you can’t get too tight about it. But then you also know that sometimes you should be really strict about it because it helps you see through the thing itself.
I sometimes feel in relationships that I’ve been in, there are times when I thought that if I shared certain feelings I had, or certain parts of myself, it would threaten the relationship because I would allow a certain part of myself that I couldn’t see fitting into the relationship, to come alive. So I would keep it outside of my own heart and the heart of the relationship. Over the years I’ve also come to see that other people pick up on this, and then they aren’t fully given permission to share their whole self, because they don’t see your shadows creeping in. I notice that if I start to give permission as a vow internally to myself, to allow in parts that I think don’t fit into the relationship, as scary as that can feel sometimes, it then allows the other person to respond, and maybe over time share parts of themselves. Your sharing gives them faith that they can share. And that’s how a relationship can flourish, because we’re valuing that self form equals idiosyncracy. Relationships can only flourish in diversity, which means including that idiosyncracy, otherwise they start to get stale because you know everything, it’s such a small way of being in the world. I think self-form is a term that can be translated into this practical thing that we all do with each other where we really value this mess of who we are, and express it and communicate it even when it’s so scary and I think this ties in to the yamas.
For the past year I’ve been thinking about non-violence as a practice of hanging out in violence, going to the place where you’re on the verge of doing something that’s harmful and then being really honest about who you are on that verge, and sharing it. and letting the other person see where you’re at your limit, or unskillful, or where you’re being motivated by young drives. Then it allows something into the relationship where more love can happen because we’re really sharing who we are, and I just don’t want to. Laughs.
Another aspect of self-form is also beauty. The way that one person likes a cuff on a pair of pants to fall a certain way on a shoe, and that opens up a whole world of deep connection that happens only through form. On the other hand you can say it’s only form and it’s meaningless, but you can’t fall too far on that side, a person who fetishizes a cuff in a particular way also has to let go of that at some point too. Because even their own imagination gets stale and that one scene won’t work anymore.
Meditation as political act
I think sometimes you do need to use sitting practice to get away from it all. Sometimes the all is so overwhelming because you don’t necessarily have the skill to meet what’s going on in your life with equanimity and kindness and compassion. Or even with basic human empathy, sometimes the basic resonance with people is shut down because we’re so caught up in our own reactivity by being overwhelmed, stressed out and busy and just trying to take care of ourselves so we have time to eat three meals a day. I think it’s ok once in a while for meditation to be a place where we can get away from it all, if “all” refers to that kind of stress.
But then over time we also come to see that meditation is not a retreat from our life. As we come to sit on our cushion we’re actually participating in a more sensitive way in our lives. We’re opening to the reality of our body, what’s going on in our emotional body, in our community, in our heart and mind. I think of that as a political act because it’s contributing something to our culture and our potential to act out what’s unconscious in our culture, in our family, in our communities. On the cushion we really learn to take care of our potential for greed, violence, ill will and confusion, and that’s why I really like to quiz people about what’s going on in their meditation practice to see if it’s just a shell, they’re trying to hide away, to shut off, or if they’re really using their practice to open up. And through opening up to become more and more engaged with what’s really going on. That’s why I don’t like to use the term “letting go,” I like to use the term “engaged,” to be fully engaged with what’s going on.
When the Buddha suggested that the core of the self is interdependent, is dependently originating, is the natural world, is the political, social world, what he was pointing to was a fully engaged practice, a practice, a way of life that is totally engaged in our society, our economy, our political life. If the self is socially constructed, then the self is by definition political. And there’s nothing you can do to escape that interdependence, it’s all you are. Practice is always political. What could be more political than sitting down and being quiet in a culture obsessed by distraction and entertainment and stress? Wendell Barry says the most radical thing a person can do is to stay at home.
I don’t want to be idealistic and say that simply sitting on a cushion will benefit others. I think you take what you embody in your sitting practice—an increased ability to be patient, equanimity, less reactivity—and then over time I hope people in their sitting practice also have breakthroughs where they see that they’re not what they think they are. Not a lot of people have those kind of breakthroughs, they have mystical experiences where they feel a connection with everything. But to break through even that and to see the inner working of things, to receive what we call insight or wisdom.
It’s not just to see that something is changing, but to see the whole phenomena of the dharma of change. The Buddha called this the dharma. There are basic laws that are verifiable, the first one is dukkha. We construct suffering over and over for ourselves, it’s a characteristic in life. The second is impermanence, that everything is changing, and the third is that nothing belongs to me and mine. I think that when people can really break through and see that what obstructs them in their life is themselves, and that the whole natural world is this body and this mind, something unshakeable happens that really changes us.
You can be realized and have delusion. I don’t think what I’m calling a breakthrough gets rid of your delusions, no way, but it certainly goes deep into the kind of prehistorical geology of who we are. It goes down to the tectonic plates that make up our character and tells us something.
Mike: Could you use the term “self-form” instead of “character?”
Michael: Yes. This is what the dharma has to offer the progressive left. There are so many movements that have replaced one bunch of thugs with another bunch of thugs. We see this all over the world, we see social movements where there’s been revolution but the revoluition has not taken place at an inner level of the people who led the revolution. This is one of the things that Buddhism can offer the progressive left. And the left can offer Buddhism an engaged political practice and a platform on which they can take their insights and put them to work. Those have to work together because Asian Buddhism does not have a good track record of being socially engaged. And western society has an incredible track record of bringing about social justice change, making change happen. But a poor track record of replacing old regimes with new ones that are creative, imaginative and based on kindness and nonviolence. They both have to work together.
In the Buddha’s time there was a given social fabric that was so thick that the Buddha spoke about the individual in a kind of heroic way. That an individual has to practice to move beyond the confines of his or her history and society. But perhaps now we need exactly the opposite. David Loy talks about this in creative ways. Now the social fabric has fallen apart and there’s so much focus on the individual, maybe we need to read Buddhism backwards and emphasize the socially interdependent and engaged piece. When the Buddha said that the self is empty and interdependent he was also planting the seed for the most profound form of socially engaged religious practice that I’ve ever come across, where your inner transformation is not separate from a social transformation. They can’t happen separately, or it’s a fragmented path. That’s the political piece.
My editor wrote me a letter: “when you say that the breath deposits a feeling tone on the pelvic floor, I have no idea of what you’re talking about.” I wrote back and said try it! I’m not a musician but I think if we could use a vocabulary of listening and feeling that an improvising musician uses, I think we’d have a much richer way of describing the texture of the breath. It’s not just feeling the breath, but the quality or tone of the breath. Perhaps you could say the timbre of the breath. The breath has a lot of layers to it. When I say the breath I don’t mean only the inhale and the exhale but what that feels like. The arc of an inhale from the beginning, middle and end has many different phases, just like a good novel, even if it’s plotless, within that there are layers where you can start tuning in to the emotions, and the nervous system. You can even tune into what’s happening with your immune system, and every single organ, to the vibration of every single human through very close attention to the quality of the tone of the breath. I’m sure we could come up with a better term.
Freud had this idea that dreams were the doorway to the unconscious, “the royal road” he named it. But really? The breath draws me into what’s outside of my habitual awareness much more than dreams do. I think dreams give access to an image-based unconscious but the breath gives access to an image-based unconscious, as well as a physical and emotional unconscious.
We have to stop thinking of the unconscious as a trap door in the base of the skull and see how unconsciousness is a state of mind that happens from moment to moment. If there is no substratum of memory that exists in some particular location in the head, then we start to see that memory doesn’t actually exist in one place, memory is also dependent on conditions, and that way the unconscious, if we call it part of memory, also exists in sense objects.
For example when we see something a memory shows up and maybe it’s wrong to say that this memory exists in me. I walk into a room and see a red couch, and I have memories of seeing other red couches. Perhaps only in the sense organ of the eyes there is memory. But maybe the couch also has some kind of memory, an unconscious, that I can’t quite explain, that also gives rise to this old image, or a smell. And that way the unconscious, rather than being this thing called “the unconscious,” there is an interaction, a process that arises through images and all the sense organs.
I find it interesting going into the body and seeing how the breath makes contact with all kinds of old feelings in the sense organs, and I don’t mean only the eyes and nose but also the liver and kidneys, in the marrow, which I know technically is not a sense organ. The breath moves through every layer of who and what we are. It nourishes us, but it is also a royal road. There’s a saying that citta goes where prana flows. That wherever prana flows you can take your attention there. And because we know that the prana flows everywhere, we can take our attention anywhere. Though most of the time we don’t take our attention into all the different areas of our psycho-physical existence.
There’s a way in which dreams function to restage the ego. It’s hard to lay claim to the breath, to say it’s mine, to turn it into real estate. It’s a force flowing through everyone.
Mike: You could say the same thing about dreams, it’s some layer of mind that flows through us. But the dreams I encounter are wrapped tightly around some version of myself. I don’t dream about much that isn’t self centered. I’ve never found my hands in my dreams, and so am unable to do lucid dreaming, knowing that I’m in a dream. Perhaps it’s because this feels like one more way of extending the work day. Why not work all night, while dreaming? One day there will be a computer app for this too, and overtime cards to punch while we’re at it. But in the meantime my dreams return while I’m awake, and gather round my ego identity, this thing I call me. It reinforces the small mind, even if the dream insistently attaches itself to some larger field, some mythology that I unquote couldn’t know anything about.
Michael: I feel for dreams the way I feel for animals at an abbatoir. We don’t treat them very well. There’s a kind of violence in the way we interpret dreams in such reductive ways. I want to yell at everyone in the room and say, “Just leave them alone.” If a dream is important, you’ll know. And it will teach you, and show you what’s important the way it takes years and years to get to know a horse. A horse will show you how to get to know a horse. Just like a lover will show you over years how to touch his or her heart. It’s the same with a dream. If a dream is prophetic or important it will show you over time.
You need to open. You can’t open to a dream where you right away start interpreting it. Oh, it was in a basement, that means the underground, that equals the unconscious. We all know what the textbooks say. Yes, Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung are right, the stuff of dreams is mythic, they’re cultural symbols, they’re shared in some collective unconscicousness that is irrational and image based, I don’t think we can disagree with that. Jacques Lacan founded his whole notion of the unconscious on this exactly, that the unconscious is not just imag- based but linguistic and dreams show us that too. But to meet dreams only with that kind of mind is doing a disservice to dreams, because I think that the natural world dreams through us, and we don’t recognize it, just like horses communicate through us, and we don’t recognize it. Maybe we can look at the natural world, look at the grass on the side of the road here. We can say that this grass is a nuisance, we need to get rid of it so that we can plant more fields. But there’s another way of looking at it, that grass wants to take over the whole world, and grass has figured out a way to get us to mow it so that it can replant itself in stronger versions of itself. We think we like mowing grass because we like the aesthetic of a lawn, but the grass is actually running our lives because it wants to take over the world. And it is. Grass is taking over the world. Who are we to look at a dream and say that we know what it is? That is so arrogant.
There’s a wonderful book about this called Dream Time. For the Greeks dreams were going into Hades, going down into what’s unknown. It’s Saturn and that’s to be respected. It’s the place of the dead, ancestors, and warriors, to let them speak. You can’t let them speak if you’ve already verified what they’re trying to communicate. So getting back to the breath, it’s exactly the same thing with our bodies. We go into our bodies looking to interpret whether it’s through a medical lens or a psychoanalytic lens. When I am depressed the first thing I do is try to figure out what’s wrong in my life, in my relationships, in how I’m thinking. But in many Indigenous cultures if someone is depressed they wonder if maybe they planted seeds at the wrong time, or switched the direction of the dyke in the wrong way and that’s caused a new mood. My culture tells me to think that’s naive, of course the real problem is my mother. James Hillman calls this the myth of the family, that right now psychoanalysts—who are all of us, we have inherited a psychoanalytic way of looking at ourselves—we’re caught in a myth we don’t see, which is the myth of the family.
We think that most of our moods are caused by our early childhood, and neural scientists completely disagree with this. We see now working with brain injury, that you are not determined in the first five years, that when we can quiet the mind we can change neurological patterns in profound ways. That disrupts the myth of the family, and I hope that meditation practice can disrupt the myth of the family. I think a lot of times when we follow the breath and go into the body, into old wounds, the first way we meet them is through a psychoanalytic interpretation of them. Oh, that’s the sadness I felt when I first reached for my mother and she wasn’t there. We don’t see that’s a cultural lens that is only a partial truth and what’s interesting about meditation and breath work is that it undercuts language, it’s a level of awareness that’s not interpreting, and there’s tremendous healing that comes as a result. If you have faith in the practice. If you trust that stillness can work at this deep level and shelve the interpretation for a moment… that’s where some letting go needs to happen for all of us. When you work with kids that’s what you say about the breath; it’s a loyal friend, it’s never going to leave you. But what about when I’m so anxious I can’t breathe? Your friend the breath is not going away. Imagine working with kids in Palestine who are so anxious, and telling them that their breath is their friend, it’s so loyal. When you’re scared, when you hear airplanes, just find that friend. I wish I could do that myself.
Igeki Kumagi is a friend Corina and I both know, he’s a chiropractor, osteopath and a scientist. He says that he can work on somebody at the deepest level, and with his fingers he can feel at the end of a session—as someone gets up off the table and starts thinking—all the work he did for an hour start to undo itself. He can feel it in his fingers while he’s touching them. That’s amazing. That’s why when you ask this question: how does sitting meditation relate to the political sphere? I get so excited because it allows us not to forget that the political sphere is not separate from the physical sphere which is not separate from the psychological sphere, which is not separate from the water supply or our patterns of consumerism. Or the dye we use to turn this plastic grey or the chemicals in our food which we’re feeding young people who are growing breasts at the age of four. The way you start relating to one particular part of the food chain is connected with the sensitivity we’re cultivating through meditation practice.
I think sometimes we want to change everything about us so that our suffering diminishes eventually to the point of zero. I think this is a fantasy of purity and even an egoic motivation. I like to remind people that there’s so much physically and psychologically that we can change, and a lot that we can’t. Some of the deepest physical and psychological grooves that we’ve inherited or reinforced we need to embrace, and acknowledge that we have limits. When I don’t sleep for a number of days I start getting into a mental state where I start worrying a lot and I become a little bit paranoid and I make really bad decisions. If I don’t sleep for three or four days, I start getting into moods that are really not good for me, that I remember as a child, and that seems a little bit dangerous actually. I get very overwhelmed, and it’s taken me a decade to realize that if I don’t sleep for four nights in a row, I have to stop everything I’m doing and just work on sleeping, even if that means canceling lectures or whatever. That’s such a small example but I think that for all of us there are habits and grooves in us that we can’t completely explain, but we need to take care of them. We can’t try to make them go away, instead we need to accept them and commit to taking care of them, like we take care of an old wound that just doesn’t want to heal.
Everybody has different habits or addictions and some we completely overcome in a lifetime and it’s very powerful, and some of them we don’t. One of the hardest things is to see in other people karmic patterns that are not going to burn out in their lifetime and to realize we can’t help them. All we can do is be a really good friend and see that they might not be able to work through this particular pattern. Maybe the culture they’re in really supports it; we can have compassion and not give up. The same is true inside of us, there are old wounds that we don’t want to have around anymore, and sometimes we don’t see them for six or seven years and then in the right configuration they show up again, and it’s really painful and we ask: isn’t our meditation practice doing anything? What the hell have I been doing all these years?
We all have old wounds to heal. There are some really deep moments of healing that can occur in silence and stillness, and there are also wounds that are not healed through silence and stillness, they are healed through communication and listening and expressing oneself. Both of these are really important, not just one. I like to do hard core practice to get into that stillness place, to really see some of those wounds, and to watch how some of them heal themselves when you give them a lot of space, just like a good gardiner can help a plant by looking after it just enough and not too much. And at the same time there are wounds that we need to heal through communication and expression that take just as much courage as facing oneself on the cushion in stillness and silence. We need both.
On the one hand we need the awareness practice, the non-dual samadhi practice of stillness, and on the other hand we need the samadhi practice of relationship. When I have trouble in relationships I like to go to the cushion and sit still, and it doesn’t help! Sometimes we work so hard on our relationships thinking we can process it entirely through language, and we need to stop and go sit on the cushion. There are some people who do so much work communicating that are a little bit defended through their communication skills, they think that everything needs to be worked through with another person, and actually have a fear about sitting still alone and opening up to all the mess of characters inside of them, and all those voices that can’t be neatly tied up through good conversation with a friend, they just sit there as a constant reminder that no matter how much we want to improve ourselves or find balance we’re always going to have to wrestle with these competing desires and characters and mythic monsters.
The world that we’re trying to understand is the inner world of the body and our emotional life. It’s a world we access through feeling, images and language. I think this is one of the great discoveries of Freud, what he named the talking cure was so radical. He said that yes there are physical symptoms that occur in the body, but when people drop into those symptoms through an altered state of consciousness they can use language to move those symptoms. The altered state that Freud tried to create was one where the patient would lie on the couch and close their eyes and begin to speak. Freud was a doctor, a physician, he wasn’t a psychiatrist, what he was working with were physical symptoms that other doctors didn’t know what to do with. He found that there is a space where the physical symptom and language met, it’s a space of images, dreams and metaphors.
Freud’s younger disciple Jung felt the space of the unconscious was mythic. He borrowed a yoga term “the subtle body,” to indicate a place that’s not just physical or exclusively mental. You can’t just say it’s all in your body, and you can’t say the pain is only in your mind. It’s both, it’s always both, and you can’t separate them.
I studied yoga with some really good teachers including Richard Freeman. When Richard spoke about yoga postures he didn’t talk about the body the way an Iyengaar teacher would, he used metaphor. He always said, “When you’re teaching, teach ecstatic feeling rather than technique. Always try to describe what something feels like.” Just like an editor might urge a writer to show, don’t tell. In yoga we don’t want to show because we want someone to feel it in their body. The best way is to talk about the kidneys is having wings so you can feel just how puffed out you can make them. And of course you can’t take your breath into your kidneys and puff them out, and they’re not really six feet wide, and they don’t really end in your fingertips, but using language in this way seems to take our attention and spread it through the body.
Imagination is something you can use to direct your attention. Imagination doesn’t need to be seen as another distraction that needs to be gotten rid of, you can use it to enter more deeply into the body. So when someone comes and says, “I’m anxious, I’m depressed” I would always respond by saying, “I don’t understand what you mean by that. What does anxiousness feel like? What does depression feel like? What’s the anatomy, what does the structure look like? What does it smell like?” This allows us to engage all our senses and our imagination together so that we can explore this place between feeling, sensation and language where we’re allowing the images to speak to us. Rather than the ego telling the images what they are, and the feelings what they are, we’re letting the feelings come to us. If we could make a rule, let’s let the feelings speak first. Let the images speak first. Just like we talked about with dreams. Give some respect to the imagination.
Gaston Bachelard in his writings on poetics talks about the value of the imaginal. The imaginal realm is the subtle body, it’s this place that’s not quite bone and tissue and not quite words and sentences, but both at the same time. We all know what it’s like to hold something in the body that doesn’t get expressed and for it to do all kinds of damage over the years. We also know how one hour of expressing something that’s been going on at that deep levels through words can move physical symptoms in really profound ways and that’s the subtle body.
Now in yoga the subtle body is fairly mapped out, it’s not just some place where language is flowing with tissue. It’s mapped out, there are these channels in us, and our holding patterns are in these channels called nadis. Both the breath, the prana, and consciousness/imagination, citta, moves through these channels. When we move through these channels in consistent ways then we can undo some of the blocks and habits that keep us spinning in repetition and meaninglessness and addiction. That’s how I think of the subtle body.
In the yoga tradition there are different chakras which are like diaphragms in the central axis of the body, starting with muladhara chakra which is the root chakra. Mula is the root, dhara is a place, chakra is a wheel. Each one of those chakras, when you look at them depicted in Indian art, they have a sound associated with them. They have petals around a circle and each petal has a sound. You chant each sound and when you put the sounds together you get another sound and when you chant those sounds it vibrates that area in the body. Each petal on those circles represent how many nadis flow out of that particular area. This is all mapped out. It might sound very esoteric but they were thought of as quite practical maps. You go in and travel the inner landscape of the subtle body that you can’t quite find through an x-ray, you can’t find with words, but you can find through visualization and feeling put together. You start to notice that there are these platforms where you can stop and really work with emotions inside the body. The one we focus so much on is the muladhara chakra, the root chakra, which is grounding, settling.
Sometimes there is something in us so intolerable that we split it off and put it in the dark, so to speak. Over time we forget we’ve done that and because we can’t see it, we get triggered when those same qualities appear outside us. Especially when they show up in other people. Often we project what we split off in other people. One of the reasons we follow our projections onto other people is to get them back, to retrieve them. We’re looking for a way back to a lost fragment of ourselves.
It’s not enough to say that a nurturing element associated with the divine/perfect mother has been split off, and now I’m looking for a woman who has those qualities. That gives no sense of purpose to our desire. Perhaps there’s a deeper desire that really wants to find those qualities inside us, but we’re stuck on trying to find it in someone else. That’s why the break up with that person is so important. In mourning the loss of that relationship, we understand we can’t rely on them to give that to us anymore, we have to find those qualities in ourselves. Isn’t that the most devastating part of a break up? The thing you had been projecting onto the other person, that you wanted them to give to your life, you then have to give it to your own life. Sounds so simple it’s almost embarrassing. Does it just come down to that? No, it doesn’t just come down to that.
When we are in relationship with other people we can’t help but relate them to images we have of how things should be. We want them to meet those unconscious images we have, of what a relationship looks like, what kind of lover we want to be seen with, and so on. Nobody can ever fit that image, it’s impossible. So over time as another person shows up and starts to break through that image, as they move towards us, we have to enlarge our view of the other, and that’s when relationship begins to happen. But what tends to happen is we can get stuck, we tighten up around our image of them, and they’re doing this with us too of course, they’re working with their image of us, so there’s these two image makers creating images of each other, and trying to do whatever they can to hold onto them. And in so doing there’s a codependence that happens, we depend on each other’s image making. We like the image that they offer of ourselves, and they like the image we offer. And we’re not fully ourselves. So you get this kind of merger that takes place, and maybe this is one of the reasons why some couples hide from the social world, maybe at some level they’ve created such definite images of each other, of themselves as a couple, that too much relating in the social sphere can actually fragment that image they have and it scares them.
The way I like to think of samadhi or the oneness of yoga, is not through sameness which I translate as co-dependence, but actually difference. To really be able to appreciate the differences between ourselves and others so that we can rely on a plurality of stories and images to exist simultaneously and allow our definition of ourselves within a couple to be fluid and flexible and responsive and creative. So that it’s possible to be two together and not to be one. What we call one is really the difference between two, not the summation of two.
Miles Davis and Chet Baker both play trumpet and there’s nothing interesting about that fact. What’s interesting is that Miles Davis and Chet Baker play so differently within the same genre, with the same instrument, in the same cities and halls and theatres, with the same audiences sometimes, but one is Miles Davis and one is Chet Baker, and why can’t we do our relationships like this? Where we really celebrate each other’s differences in a way that’s not just a political attempt or a good new age feeling but a kind of commitment so that my freedom comes by guaranteeing your freedom. I start to feel free when I work to guarantee a space where you can be free.
When people express their eccentric selves and can’t operate within an idiom we create for them, they don’t fit. Their not-fitting is samadhi, there’s oneness because it doesn’t fit. The not-fitting creates the possibility of intimacy. The opposite is where we’re just relating only inside the small world of us. That’s merger and co-dependence. It’s safe and ultimately very dangerous because it shrinks our world, our hearts and our bodies.
A good way to see if a sangha is thriving is to see if people are really different from each other, and allowed to become more and more who they are, in ways that surprise them. I don’t mean sangha like it has to be diverse and there have to be three Asian people and two queer people and one person who is a doctor and another who is unemployed. Whoever shows up is going to show up. But within that are people practicing in a way where they’re realizing who they are? Hopefully when that’s done in relationship it creates a kind of oneness. It doesn’t mean that it feels good, samadhi doesn’t feel good, it’s not a bliss out. When appreciating difference becomes more valuable than feeling good, then we’re practicing, right? Then we’re really practicing.
Freud thought that the drive that motivated us alternated between sex and death. Adler who split from Freud and Jung felt that the drive that really motivated us was power. Power to control a situation. Jung disagreed with both of them. He said what we really want, our deepest desire, is to connect with something bigger than ourselves. I think the dharmic interpretation of that is to connect with something in a way that brackets the storytelling, and exposes us to something much greater than the stories that we tell about how things are.
There’s a beautiful passage by Dogen in the Shōbōgenzō where he says, “I came to realize that what I thought was mine is nothing other than the mountains and the rivers and the stars.” That’s what I would say is the whole self. The whole self is to see that what we thought of as lack is experienced only as a vacuum when we’re trying to fill it. When we stop trying to fill it, it becomes a fountain.
When we say that the self is dukkha or suffering, we’re saying that the self is based on a fundamental sense of lack, of something missing. When we experience something in its absence, we experience a vacuum, and so we try to fill that experience of emptiness, of lack, and the stress that comes with it. We try to eat it away, fuck it away, shop it away, we do everything we can to fill up that vacuum. We think that filling it up is going to ground us, and that filling process is the self in many ways, right? Then over time, through stillness, we start to see that there is no object that you can feed to craving that can satisfy it, it just goes on and on, insatiably, like a hungry ghost, as the Tibetans would say.
But there’s a positive piece too, which is that when you see that the self is dukkha, you understand the self as lack, as craving, then you can stop and just open to it. When we realize we don’t need to feed it, that nothing we feed it truly grounds the self, we recognize that not feeding the craving is not at all a vacuum, it’s actually the whole world. It’s just that we couldn’t stand feeling ourselves be the whole world because it’s too much. It’s too big and too intimate. We’d rather stay small, and this is the crazy thing about lack, we keep thinking vacuum vacuum vacuum, fill fill fill, hungry hungry hungry, but when we stop we realize the vacuum is the whole world, and you can’t every fill it, because what you are is what you’re filling it with. Fabulous.
What an insight the Buddha had to see that the self is not only ungroundable, but it’s ungroundable because it’s made up of this whole world. Dogen says that the mind is nothing other than the mountains, the rivers and the stars. Some part of us that we call the storyteller, the ahankara, gets so upset by that. What? I can’t just be this Milky Way. I have to be small and organized and controlled and suffering and then what we do is continually nourish our suffering. We feed our suffering. The gift of the dharma is for us to really see that, and the ways we do that. There’s lots of teaching and techniques that can help us see that, but I don’t know if there’s so many that are comprehensive enough to also show us what to do about it. In a practical sense. It’s like the poem about the torso of Apollo, how does it go. Is it Rilke?
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.