There’s a swimming hole up the Matilija river in the mountains above Ojai. The last time I went in was January, 2008, and the cold was a vibrating silver shockwave; on a 95 degree day it was not so enlivening but at least but at least I could stay in long enough to notice something other than my own nervous system freaking out. What I noticed was the light from the water rippling through the trees.
In that context, light waves that move exactly like water across tree leaves is sense pleasure. Undulation, beautiful shapes, colors. The senses mix with emotions and thoughts: delight in body and company, plus a knowledge that all this is special in time and place: the experience is historically unique, so I mark it as precious. An aesthetically perfect moment, a collector’s item.
A week earlier, there were light waves in oak tree leaves, reflected off a pond in the mountains north of LA. Equally if not more beautiful, but the consciousness of that moment was nothing like my Matilija reverie. I was at the end of silent retreat, with a slowed-down mind and abundant strength and clarity for working in the different spaces of consciousness.
Doing “spacious awareness,” then, was letting the observer step out. Or rather, acknowledging that the observer wasn’t located in my body per se, and certainly was outside of time and space. It was an observing without categories—difficult but not impossible to outline in words. Light was a wave, the branches and leaves were a wave, and so were my seeing eyes for that matter.
Nondual awareness—what’s called mahamudra, dzochen, anti-meditation, oneness consciousness, “calling off the search,” spacious awareness, nondual mind, whatever—is a primordial soup. Undifferentiated peace. It’s not a high “knowing” consciousness: when I’m in mahamudra, my brain stem is turned all the way on. I’m in the awareness of a lizard recently crawled up out of the sea, of an infant recently forced in to the world. David Malouf wrote of a feral child who would say in a thunderstorm not it is raining, but I am raining. Mahamudra is that: consciousness observing itself.
I must say it is utter bliss. My first experience of it years ago changed my understanding of what was possible with human consciousness, what depths of joy we could reach as humans, what the world is and what I am. And up until last week, I thought I had to do three or four days of retreat to go that deep. I now realize that after so much damn yoga and some sheltered mahamudra practice in the past, my mind is strong enough to go in to nondual consciousness somewhat easily. I am guessing that some focused instruction and heartfelt practice is all it would take for any ashtangi to touch in to this practice.
More interesting is what I learned last week on the way down to anti-meditation. In past retreats, I’ve used those days to just watch the thoughts as they slow down and gain some “insights” on their content, though admittedly my main reason for going on retreat wasn’t self-analysis but just the delight of mahamudra. My insights were on a level of: Oh, I have these specific emotions, they circulate in these patterns. My planning mind works like this. Blah, blah, blah.
What I have not understood before is that there’s the possibility of watching thoughts like a physicist, not like a psychoanalyst. Who cares about the content of thought? If I want to psychoanalyze myself, probably the least effective way to do it is when I’m all slowed down in a quasi bliss state. Last week, I finally learned that there is the option of looking at thoughts as things and breaking them in to component parts. (For example, on Shinzen’s model, subjectivity comprises thoughts that are visual, emotional and verbal. But there are a lot of physical models.)
This week, this understanding has impacted my practice strongly. We have so many options for how to relate to discursive thoughts as they come up in practice. Some people bash them down sort of violently; others ignore them or let them fade to the background; still others surrender to them and go for a ride. Here’s Daniel Ingram’s Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book:
If people start with “just open to it” and yet don't develop strong mindfulness… then their practice may be less like meditation and a lot more like psychotherapy, day dreaming, or even self-absorbed, spiritually-rationalized, neurotic indulgence in mind noise. It was noticing the high prevalence of this activity and the pervasive and absurd notion that there was no point in trying to get enlightened that largely demolished my vision of being a happy meditation teacher in some mainstream meditation center somewhere.
Psychotherapy, on the other hand, can be a fine undertaking, but it is a completely different endeavor from meditation…. When purposefully training in concentration, we decide to be mindful of a limited and specific concentration object, such as the breath or even a rarified state of consciousness. We do not, however, investigate the individual sensations that make up that state, as it would break apart under that investigation and produce insights. If we are not looking for ultimate insights at that point in time, then we should avoid investigating that state. However, we do apply energy to stabilize our concentration, and this produces rapture, a characteristic of the early concentration states.
As I’ve said, I follow the breath. There is some bandha in there—especially kechari mudra—and some simply resting in the energy of the room when I’m with a group, but what I try to do is just breathe. In the past, when thoughts could not be pushed to the background and demanded some attention amid my simpleminded, workaday concentration practice, I would look at them directly and see what they told me about myself. Usually this was, “Wow, I still feel really threatened when Betty stares at me… isn’t it interesting how I want to scream at her right now?” or “I’m pretty unnerved by how hard this guy is pushing next to me… why can’t I just allow that he’s going to have to do it this way for a while until the receiving/inhaling half of practice kicks in?” Blah, blah, blah.
This week, I took less of an interest in my little psyche. Thoughts of this nature came up, and instead of taking them as an opportunity to analyze myself, I broke them into pieces and scattered them to the air. Is this an image, an emotion or a verbal thought? Where did it start… in judging, in visualizing, in some part of my body? When I recognize it as a thought, then what form did it take? Poof. Inhaaaleee, exhaaale, etc.
The first obvious effect is that practice becomes less about me and “the way I am.” It gives far, far less fuel for the story of myself that I’m constantly telling and takes some air out of the idea that practice is a personal project. For a while, there has been a sense of momentum, a sense that I’m being carried along by a routine that is taken for granted and not really subject to my own doubts or negotiations. But smuggling psychoanalysis in to practice at the interstices has always been sort of fun, a way of enabling practice to still be all about my unique personality. The mat was just a bit of a sofa, and every sofa’s a stage.
And to the degree that mat became sofa, the momentum was interrupted. Moving back to discursive mind always re-introduces for me the problem of effort. The problem of the doer and the difficulty of the thing to be done. When discursive mind is not active, I experience practice as pretty fluid, sort of hooking in to some high-tech massage machine.
I’m not sure how well the physicist’s method of relating to thought will work as it becomes more subtle—I probably won’t know for months. But I have a sense that it’ll actually increase my joy on the mat. Physics is simply less interesting to me than psychotherapy, so if thoughts pulverize more quickly, it may just be that much easier to stay quiet.