Past Stray Thoughts

A frequent topic in discussion groups about awakening is whether or not there is a self and if not, what does this mean or how is this known?

Who can deny self awareness?  Even an amoeba seems to know it needs to survive by ingesting algae, bacteria, or other protozoans. It feeds itself at the expense of others. The sense of self seems to be implicit in living systems. In the animal kingdom, life is sustained by differentiating self and other. This seems to be a built in attribute of sentient beings necessary for survival and perpetuation of life.

How does this sense of self arise?  We all have bodies, physically bound in space and time. At the most basic level, we all feel hunger, thirst, the need to sleep, live within a comfortable temperature range, have shelter from the elements.  When we are hungry and out neighbor eats but we don't, we are still hungry though they appear satisfied. At the most fundamental level, we identify with the needs of the body.

Sentient awareness is fundamental. The brain governs bodily functioning as it registers sensations as communication of state. This communication and awareness of changing state is fundamental to living systems. The gestalt of all sensation and perception is conscious mind. Mind makes use of the brain's capability of abstraction, of symbols, language, memory to imagine, to reflect, plan, invent and communicate through thought. 

Bodily needs are translated into feelings of attraction or aversion based on prior experience. The mind gives rise to a sense of self largely due to bodily sensation. We communicate our bodily needs to others and they to us, which reifies the sense that they have separate individual needs that may be in competition to our needs. So, there arises a survival instinct or self-preservation due to identification with bodily needs. Our mind becomes busy with strategizing for survival. We historically bonded together in tribes to collaborate on basic survival. Our sense of self may extend to the tribe, community or nation. 

But, the mind is not always preoccupied with basic survival. It is also capable of creative expression in the form of art, music, literature, design, etc. So, the mind may begin to identify not just with the body, but with itself, it's creative ability, it's intellectual functioning, it's sensitivities and emotions, which are responses events, past memories, what is presently happening or imagined futures. These emotions are due to remembered past responses or empathy, the ability of the mind to imagine what others may feel due to their circumstances. 

The sense of self is further reified by the apparent discreetness of thought. One person doesn't know what another person is thinking. This can be exploited through deceit, tricking others into giving up something valued under false pretenses.

In short, everything we perceive as self is made up of a sense of separateness produced by the localization of bodily sensation and perception. We are apparently discrete, separate entities, physically, mentally and emotionally. We have the sense that we are separate from the rest of the world and feel an obligation to take care of our needs, even at the expense of other living beings.

So, how can anyone propose that this sense of a separate self is an illusion? Yet, when the mind quiets down to the point that individual thoughts can be perceived arising from brain functioning, whether it be through sensory stimulation that triggers memories and associations or through the tendency to worry out of survival motivations, the thoughts are seen for what they are, just thoughts. These thoughts give rise to emotion, craving, aversion, speech, and action. Without seeing this process, consciousness becomes entangled with the mind's thinking process and misses the core, foundational essence, which is awareness itself. 

When the mind is quiet, open, bright, pure, clear awareness becomes predominant. This awareness is not localized or owned by the generated self-sense. It is omnipresent. When pure awareness is predominant, the sense of separation dissolves. There are still bodily needs and intellectual interests but, they no longer overshadow this fundamental awareness which transcends identity. Thoughts come and go but without an owner. They are just natural mental functioning. There is still response to bodily need. If it is cold, we put on more clothes. If there is hunger, food is enjoyed. But, the separation of self and other fades in proportion to the depth of clarity of awareness.

As we move from entanglement with the thought process to being an observer of the thought process, our tendency to think in terms of self vs. other diminishes because from the view of awareness, there is no self or other. There is just awareness and the play of cause and effect.  All things are the natural response to what came before setting the conditions for what we experience in the present. The present is just awareness itself, the natural fruition of all prior events.  When we become aware that awareness is what is perceiving, "we" disappear. There is only awareness being aware.  When this happens we see that it has never been any other way.  The separate sense of self was also completely natural outcome of the entanglement with mental functioning, the identification with body and thought.

This transformation may be sudden or gradual. Generally, it is gradual until it is sudden. Once it is seen, there is no going back. It's like the old analogy of the rope in the dimly lit room appearing as a snake. When the room is lit, the rope is seen. Even if the room dims again, it is known that it is a rope, not a snake.  So, clarity can come and go but on the whole, clarity increases until life is lived from pure awareness disentangled from the illusion of self.

When did you first start searching for answers? When did you first realize that you weren't seeing the whole picture but started having a clue that it was possible to more fully experience truth, perhaps even live truth? Or was it that you lost the truth you once knew?
I still remember when I was a baby in my crib, must have been about a year old. I remember the turned wooden bars, the sunlight coming in through the window filling the room with light. I tucked my legs under me and gently rocked in its warmth. No thoughts. Just awareness of light, rhythm, motion, peace. Such deep contentment. I have to say, for me it began in that crib.
Or was it in daily morning mass in the old Catholic church at St. Joe's in first and second grade, the stereophonic drone of rows of black oscillating fans on either side of the nave, lulling me into a blissful state I also experienced in the crib, the cusp of wakefulness and sleep.
Or feeling my wrist in class in the 4th grade and realizing in a flash that there was a skeleton in me, that everyone in class had skeletons in them, that eventually our fleshy covering would be gone and all there would be are bones, the inevitability of death. Where was I once there was just a heap of dust and bones? For a time, the world seemed surreal and there was a vacuousness, a loss of sense of self, suspended in wonder. What are we all doing here? Why are we here? Left hanging with unanswerable questions until sufficiently distracted to forget such things.
Or was it in the euphoria of cocaine as a high school teen? Could it be found there? Or perhaps the Yaqui Way of Knowledge held a clue. Could I find it in weed, in alcohol, in peyote, in mescaline, psilocybin, LSD, morphine, Demerol, Thorazine, barbiturates. In heroin? In PCP?
Or was it laying on the beach at Cape Hatteras all night after a week on the flight line at Pope AFB, North Carolina, hearing the rhythmic waves under moonlit sky lulling the mind to juncture between alertness and sleep? Rising with the sun feeling strangely awake and alive, connected with sand, water, moon, stars, air, sun. My body, the elements.
Or was it the first time I learned to meditate that summer Saturday in 1976 after bringing a handkerchief, flowers and fruit for a puja to Guru Dev. I sat, my hands felt miles below my head, awareness taking in cars passing on the street, birds, light, mantra? Such peace, the peace that I had longed for since leaving the beaches of North Carolina, that I had longed for since the droning fans, since the rhythmic rocking in the crib. Awareness just expanding out to just be fully present in the environs of the TM Center.
Or was it when I was working on staff at Maharishi International U one summer after learning the Sidhis? Sitting in the expanse of white sheet covered sheets of foam, entering a contentment I never knew possible, an equanimity so profound it seems hard to believe I could have ever emerged from such a fulfilling state.
Or was it in 1985, on my first "Chan Qi", seven day Zen retreat with Master Shengyen in Queens, New York, when he convinced me to put down practicing the Sidhis and just follow my breath? I knew I was in the presence of someone that Knew. He had the answer to the question I had always been seeking. He was the first person that I ever felt could see me for who I really was. There was no hiding from him and no reason to hide. There was just shared silence.
Or was it when I was practicing Direct Contemplation in 2007 and suddenly the entire world pivoted and was as aware of me as I was of it until there was no separation, no inner, no outer, just a holistic continuum of silence, of lively, pure awareness in which all things flutter like leaves in a breeze?
Or was it when the abbot took off his glasses in the dark room, leaned forward and motioned for me to look into his left eye, his black pupil thinly encircled with dark brown iris, and the world went completely black? Complete emptiness. Emerging from that, I saw the universe, galaxies, stars, planets. And then his dilated eye. He reached over, put on his glasses, nodded with palms together. I bowed and left everything behind.
Or was it when, during a Vipassana retreat during walking meditation, focusing on when the impulse to lift the foot led to feet rising and falling without anyone there to control them?
Or was it when the trees at Consumnes River Preserve revealed to me what it was like in their world, how they perceive time and space, how hundreds of seasons came and went in a silence reaching deep into the earth and to the heavens?
 Or perhaps it never began and will never end. There is nothing more than this and it's enough. Yet, we are drawn to look deeper, to be with ever greater clarity, to awaken more from the dream. It can only begin and end now and now is forever.

My son and I spent the day in San Francisco yesterday. Driving back, as we were leaving the Mission District, he saw some homeless people camped out under a raised highway. He suddenly asked, "How is it that we are all experience consciousness but what everyone is experiencing is so different?"

I found myself explaining that there really is only pure, primordial awareness and that he didn't need to believe me, he could find out for himself. When the mind settles sufficiently, it becomes self-evident that this is the awareness that is seeing, hearing, feeling, thinking. It also becomes evident that this awareness is not localized, it is not "my" awareness or "your" awareness, but omnipresent, universal awareness. It seems to become localized when we interact with the world and find others that are operating from the more gross level of thinking that differentiates inner and outer, and with the differentiation of inner and outer, the illusion of separation becomes predominant. We become habituated to see the world as separate from the self-sense that is produced from this division, especially since we are surrounded from our birth with people that are all doing the same thing. But, when our minds are most quiet, the separation falls away. We rest in undifferentiated, non-localized awareness.  We still all have our unique experiences since we are all seeing from our physical location in time and space, but once you clearly see the underlying pure awareness, the separateness recedes and the unifying, common awareness becomes predominant.

He seemed satisfied by that and then asked if I wanted to hear music or just sit in silence. "Whatever you would like."  He gave me my choice of anything available on iTunes and I chose Emerson, Lake and Palmer.  He then fell asleep.

This morning he commented how amazingly fast we got home last night. He said it felt like an instant after we got done talking and we were home.

Sometimes, we forget how receptive, clear and present our minds were when we were young.  I remember days when I was 13 that I seemed to embody the day itself and visa-versa. There was no consideration of the past or concern about the future. Just the unfolding of the present and the surprises and wonders it would bring.  It seems our school systems do much to undo our natural ability to just be, and be quite content just being. As adults, we need to learn to meditate and even go on silent retreats to recover what we naturally had in our youth, our natural wonder and fascination with just what is happening when no artificial structure of constraints is imposed. 

This time of year, walking through fallen leaves triggers memories of such times when perception was naturally clear and there was spontaneous oneness with the surroundings.  Wouldn't it be great if we could retain that clarity, receptivity and wonder into adulthood and not let our attention get consumed by a thousand things that couldn't matter less?  Fortunately, it is possible to regain this to an unprecedented degree through meditation on just letting go.

In 2006, I was asked by the abbot of the retreat center I was attending to host meditation groups in the town I was living at the time. From 2006 to 2009, I hosted meditation groups in Fort Wayne, Indiana and then from 2010 - 2012 in Sacramento.  My ex-wife and I separated and then divorced in 2010.  Between 2006 and 2012, I had attended many silent Chan and Vipassana retreats of ten days or longer, which brought about transformative shifts in perception and became deeply self-content. This was interpreted as a lack of passion or interest in the relationship, and eventually led to our parting ways.

From 2010 to 2012, I was quite content living alone and enjoyed hosting weekly meditation groups. But by 2012, I started missing have a partner for various practical reasons, but also because I was still having a strong sex drive. I found this very distracting and felt I couldn’t lead meditation groups and give Dharma talks while feeling the need to be in a relationship again, so I chose to stop teaching for awhile. But, after dating for a few years and after a few relationships, I found there was no way to be in a relationship with anyone that was not living an awakened life. It simply wasn’t working.  I dated women that claimed to be awakened and some that had been meditators for decades. But, it always came down to there still being a predominant ego very much intact that still felt all the needs for romantic notions of love.

When a person wakes up and that stabilizes, there is no being “in love” with any one person exclusively and there is no center to receive love in an exclusive way. If a partner is attached to the perceived person and especially if they are very possessive or needy about it, and yet there is no sense of identity manifesting in the person they are attached to, it begins to feel like participating in a play. You go through the motions but you know it isn't real, no matter how much the other person thinks it is. It's not that you don't love them, but it's that you don't worship them. A person that is not deeply awakened will always feel your love for them must be unique and exclusive.  It's bound to end in disappointment unless both can realize that love is different after awakening. For the partner that has never experienced awakening and the deep contentment and natural non-attachment that comes with it, there is no way for them to understand how you can love but not be attached at the same time. Love, for many people, implies attachment.  If there isn't a feeling that you cannot live without another, then they feel the love has gone out of the relationship.

To make matters worse for the partner that has not yet awakened, sexual desire falls by the wayside as awakening deepens, which isn’t interpreted well by a partner that doesn’t live from the same level of contentment and moment-to-moment satisfaction. 

I’m pretty convinced it simply doesn’t work for someone that is awakened to pursue a relationship with someone that is not, and to do so only demonstrates a deeper awakening has yet to take place. I’ve resigned myself to that realization and no longer seek relationships. I’m basically a lay monk at this point.

I could see a partnership between two awakened people working especially if their awakenings unfolded after they were already married. But, I don’t see it a likely possibility that two truly and deeply awakened people would feel the need to commit to a relationship if they were single. My experience has been the deeper the awakening, the more universal the love for all beings. To devote to one person in particular, no matter how sweet the smile, or even an awakened one, over all others just doesn’t seem likely. There is a joy that arises when meeting another awakened being, but the main movement of the heart seems to be for those not yet awakened and still suffering. 

Loving kindness and compassion can express sexually, but more often than not, if there is still strong sexual attraction, the awakening is not very deep or has not stabilized. When awareness itself becomes aware of whatever is arising, sexual attraction is just another thought, another feeling, and can be acknowledged and let go like any other. In time, sexual energy dies down and no longer drives behavior. With time, it simply no longer arises. It is only then that all people can truly be appreciated equally without any underlying tendency to plot for a more intimate, exclusive relationship. This in itself is very liberating, to be free of looking at women as objects of desire and to see them just as they are without any color of sexual attraction. Desire for sexual union is coming from a false sense of separation. When pure awareness predominates, there simply is no center and no sense of separateness. One’s heart is already in union with all sentient beings and all creation.

I'm not an advocate for people that are not ready to be celibate to force celibacy on themselves or others. This can lead to all kinds of problems. When awakening is deep enough and stabilized enough, it will happen quite naturally.

Finally, there is never a good reason for a spiritual teacher to seduce a student. Also, students should be mindful to not tempt teachers.  Not every teacher is awakened, or, if awakening has occurred, it may not be sufficiently deep or stabilized. Best for students to not tempt teachers. Steer clear from teachers that claim "crazy wisdom" or the need for Tantric sexual practices to lead to an experience of union or no self!  They are deceiving others as well as themselves.

It has been said that words bind the boundless. One way in which that is true: Many traditions point to the same truth and have practices that lead to the direct experience of it. Words spring from the context of particular orientations and traditions and are flavored by those perspectives. But, strip away the trappings and the horse underneath is the same.
As Buddhism and Hinduism continued to be practiced over hundreds of years, the description of the actual experience of stages of the path and ultimate direct perceptions of truth became almost indistinguishable.
In my limited personal experience, I can relate to the experience of unity over the years. But, when I started having the experience of "no-self", it was quite different from an expanding sense of unity. With unity, everything seemed to still be in terms of the self, "I am all that I see, hear, touch." When I began to experience the absence of self, things were no longer in terms of this "I". Also, this subtle sense of duality that remained linking "I am" with "all that I perceive" dropped off. It shifted from being "I" centered to not having a center, from seeing the world in terms of the self to all things equally participating in ubiquitous awareness, all things acting and reacting in perfect accord with all other things. Life just flows. And when I am not directly currently experiencing this, there is an indelible sense of it that never completely leaves, a fragrance of unity that can never be forgotten.
On the other hand, when someone steps on my toe I still want them to get off. I can still be self-serving at times - sometimes surprisingly so. But, there is no dichotomy or paradox in that. I still have the desire of "self-"preservation, i.e., I prefer to continue living rather than walking in front of a bus. But, if I look for a separate self, none can be found.
Yet, there is a remainder or residue of ignorance. There is always more to unfold. The depth is unfathomable and as such, no end to the limits of experience. We are not omniscient, all knowing, concurrently experiencing all things simultaneously. We are still in these bodies and perceive through these senses, which tend to give a sense of localization and hence a sense of separateness, "I hear the sound coming from over there." Yet, what is more prominent than this sense of localization that separates or differentiates is that there is no "out there." All things appear and disappear in awareness itself. Nothing is outside of awareness. Because of this, there is no sense of separation but also no tangible sense of self. It's not that there is no sense of self what-so-ever as it is that it is no longer prominent and no longer calling the shots. The awareness shifts from what is good for me to what is good for the planet. It shifts from my suffering to the human condition we are all in. It shifts from seeing someone like Trump as inherently greedy and self-serving to seeing the light within him and how it is obstructed by his misperceptions revolving around his strongly solidified sense of self and self-importance, for example.
One problem that can occur if someone begins to think that they are everything, completely unified with God and the universe, is that they can take on an identity of being a savior or avatar, that they are on a mission to save others and are therefore above others. They allow themselves to play that role and welcome or even encourage others to participate, even to the point of guru worship or worship as a divine incarnation. I find this very problematic, both for their own complete liberation and for those that are disciples. There are many examples of charismatic figures that have taken on this identification with an exalted level of personhood that is itself a form of division and separation. Buddha addressed this with the medicine he called "Anatman" or "No Self". To this day, Theravada and Zen Buddhists emphasize that there is no self to be separate as a cure for this delusion. When spiritual awakening is more mature, there is no sense of anything special about oneself. Everything is completely natural. There is no need to set oneself up on a dias to be revered. Awakening is no different from bamboo, ocean waves, a smile, or taking a dump. No need to exalt when everything is exalted by its very nature.