Art, like meditation, illuminates the ineffable. Painting, literature, poetry, music, dance, theatre, film…these have incredible capacity to comfort, heal, inspire, incite, ignite. Bring us face to face with our own humanity and all of its terrible beauty. We’re going to make art of this next month at CEC. We’ll extol our community’s artists and teachers to introduce practices that breed creativity, feed artistic souls, and illustrate how art can enrich and inspire the contemplative path.
Inquiry is to knowledge as a vast river is to a cup of water. Knowledge is a contained end product, useful for some purposes, but ultimately limited. Inquiry is a process of asking questions and contemplating possible answers. This month at CEC, we explore the theme of inquiry as practice. Each week we will meditate on a different fundamental question.
Evidence suggests our minds wander from the scene in front of us, into waking dreams about half the time. Paying attention requires not just a decision, but a particular effort. In this March month, we are going to explore the intention, the effort, and the questions that follow, like what does it feel like? Where is it pointing? What riches does it bear?
The idea to let go of controlling your experience, no agenda, no need to change anything. The permission to just exist for a while. Phew. Really? I can just sit here, just be? After so long spent trying so hard, it’s such a relief. A deep peace emerges from that allowing, when I can let go of wrangling my experience and evaluating my performance. Feels like freedom.
In 2017, the Consciousness Explorers Club is rolling out a new programming paradigm. Starting in January, each month will be dedicated to a particular path of practice: mindfulness, surrender, concentration, intellectual inquiry, art, emotional health, the body, nature, story, action, devotion, and finally – in December – Rock n Roll, our path of celebratory freedom and jackassery, where we explode the whole year, and start over again with some new configuration.
This month is dedicated to practices that work actively with the mind-body connection. I still remember the first time I experienced this connection in an unmistakable way. One day after my meditation sit, I felt a bit stiff and I did a downward dog yoga stretch. I felt the familiar painful stretching in my hamstrings, then, without really meaning to, I focused my attention there. My body swung down several inches deeper into the pose and there was no longer any pain in my legs.
This zooming out might be particularly useful right now, on the cusp of this anxiety-inducing US election. People – myself included – are freaked out about the deep divisions in the US. The theory about meditation is it can help us get space around such tough emotions and, in turn, make better – saner – responses.
Twice-born temperaments, on the other hand, are a little more complicated. They can’t wave away the world’s manifestly unfair distribution of hardship, and they’re generally unable to accept so-called “unseen realities” on faith alone. Their journey into spiritual feeling is more hard-won, the result of a lot of agonized fumbling and confusion. Eventually they are born – reborn – into an inheritance they were unable to see the first time around.
As our appreciation for what is distinct grows, does the size of what is shared diminish? I think so. One relatively optimistic view of “progress” is the seeing through and dismantling of old generalizations and categories, from science to social policy. And yet … and here’s the cosmic oneness part, the aging mystic making his plea … there is always something shared. Everyone has a need for meaning and truth and honest self-expression, for love, for intimacy with our fellow explorers. That’s there in every living being, although it will always be experienced and expressed in its own individual way.
The world we’ve built for ourselves is nearly as fast as our mind. If we’re not careful, between the two, it can seem that so much is happening in each, we’ll never catch our breath. We become overwhelmed, frenetic, hurried along. The space between stimulus and response disappears, and with it, room for us to choose the life we want. We can claim it. That’s what this month is about. Slowing down, making ritual from habit. We’ll do it sitting and surrendering. We’ll do it by noticing the subtle tug of a stimulus, the twitch of our response, the almost infinitesimal space between the two. Perhaps, we’ll even watch that space grow….
In our society, we are acutely aware of the terrible ways that passion can possess us, can cause us to act without regard for others. This is where meditation comes in. Like others before me, I’ve found that when I infuse my desire with meditative stillness and awareness, an amazing transmutation can occur. Desires that seemed pointless, frustrating, or harmful can spontaneously re-organize along new channels more conducive to joy and creative expression.
This month we get unschooled. Play hooky from our desire to control every aspect of our experience. Press pause on the stories we constantly tell ourselves. Be ok with not knowing. See where the day takes us.
“Out for summer, out ’til fall. We might not come back at all!”
One reason why intellectuals are often so suspicious of spirituality: it does seem as though something is lost when we commit to a single stance or perspective. That as our own truth grows, all other truths – perhaps inevitably – become less real. I see this in even the most well-meaning and ecumenical teachers and advanced practitioners. However much lip service they may pay to “different paths up the mountain,” in practice they are ever more likely to reflexively filter everything through the lens of their experience. It becomes all about mindfulness, or noself, or “don’t know mind,” or surrender, or love – or even Reason, for of course, if this dynamic is true, then it is a human issue, and thus includes our so-called secular beliefs as well.
The beginning. Finally, it’s here. I was getting tired of waiting. Wait, no … the beginning is —> here. no. It’s actually HERE. Shoot – this won’t work. It just keeps … going. Never still, folding restlessly into endings, the two so tightly stitched you can’t tell them apart. That we live on the sharp point between the two is easy to understand with the intellect, but impossible to hold with it. As soon as my mind thinks it has a grip it slips sideways into regret about the past or anxiety about the future. This month at the CEC, we’re going back to first principles and exploring beginner mind.
Over the next two months at the CEC, we’ll explore the notion that there may be a common set of principles or dynamics at work with meditation in particular, and psychotherapeutic and psycho-spiritual healing practices in general. We’ll look at the pitfalls of peak experiences – easy to induce, and easy to mistake as “progress” – and then explore three candidates that really do seem to contribute to healthy change and growth over time: the weakening of harmful patterns, behaviours and views, the strengthening of favourable patterns, behaviours and views, and the gradual orientation to what is below (or, if you prefer, intrinsic to) all patterns, behaviours and views.
The trouble with an approach to meditation that is all about letting go, embracing impermanence, and cultivating equanimity is that it is one-sided. It is all being and no doing, all passive surrender and no heroic will to power, all Emily Dickinson and not enough Serena Williams. To embrace both directions, we need to explore and practice the ways in which we build-up a stable and positive sense of self who lives and acts in a meaningful world of events and agents.
Acceptance gets a bad rap. The worry that accepting something as true will make it stick around. It’s seen as a passive act, one of complacency. It’s not. It’s radical. “No way out but through” said Robert Frost. This month we practice saying yes. To our limitations and our capacity, our inheritance and our birthright. To being who we are, where we are. Yes.
Think about a time when you were most in the zone, most in flow – not only with some central object of concentration, but with the whole wide world around you. Calibrated, open, present. And this person said this, and a tree over there shimmered in just this way, and you opened your mouth and the right words came out, and it was like you were born for exactly this moment. And the mystery of ordinary human reality was suddenly vivid in you, vivid but also … too plain to say. Too natural to remark upon, for life, after all, is just – well, just what it is.
This month, our theme is … all that. What it means to live and act from the still point.
“When you sing, musical vibrations move through you, altering your physical and emotional landscape. Group singing … is the most exhilarating and transformative of all” – Stacy Horn. “Singing Changes Your Brain,” Time Magazine
This November, we explore a series of natural trances, from group singing to music, technology to concentration to human power and charisma.
Our theme for this month: the poignancy and absurdity and hilarity of our stories about reality, and the utter uselessness and idiocy of mental certainty. For, dear reader, the world is filled with fools, as I am a fool, and really shouldn’t we all just be getting on with the baffle-wonderment of living?
Sometimes I’m an idiot of a very particular type. When I see a person in any kind of hurt, I experience a seizure of compulsive helpfulness. I say the words, perform the gestures, provide the resources, and sometimes make the commitments I later realize are beyond my power to make and may not actually be that helpful in the first place…
For this newsletter I thought I’d give you some homework, or home-UN-work, a deceptively simple practice that is so simple most folks write it off without giving it a sincere shot. Like meditation, it can take a while to get the hang of, but it’s definitely worth it once you do; in fact its many proponents argue no other practice can change your relationship to hardship and suffering more radically in so short a time. That’s because it begins with where many meditation practices are trying to get to: the inherent freedom and openness underlying all experience.
No guide or tradition can tell you much about how your particular path will unfold – its details and rhythm and form, its breakthroughs and breakdowns and breakevens. In this sense, every path is a path of unknowns. And yet – unexpectedly, even shockingly – many practitioners learn they can develop a kind of certainty about their direction: life moves to more openness. It comes apart. Depending on where you put your attention, this can be experienced as terrifying, as liberating, and sometimes as both.
You, like me, like every single person you pass on the street tomorrow, we’re all looking for a place where questions about how to live fall away. Looking for love. And finding it. And losing it. Picking up its trail again, only to have it go cold. But we keep trying, because we’re part of something bigger that draws us to it, and when we connect with it – in meditation, or the embrace of someone dear to us, or on a sweaty dance floor, or standing in field of wild grass our face to the sun – then the questions fall away. We are, at least for now, where we need to be.
Meditation can be approached as a life skill or as a transformative path. These are very different beasts. It’s important to be clear which approach you are pursuing. The first can improve your life in small but significant ways. The second can rewire your consciousness and change your relationship to reality – arguably for the better – although these changes may also come at a cost.
It’s amazing how the Meditate – Celebrate – Activate pieces all reinforce each other. First you go in, maybe just to explore, but the exploration changes you – it builds capacity, capacity for openness, for friendliness, for clarity and understanding. It clears a space for other people, for the activation of your gifts and your sobriety, the forward-motion of your softly more wakeful sensibility.
This March at CEC, we Activate. We round the secret contemplative circuit, the one there in every tradition that doesn’t suck. First you go up the Mountain – you meditate and practice, you connect to your ground (which also happens to be everyone’s ground), you work on all those neurotic limiting patterns that make you clutch and grasp and seize and wheeze – and as you progress you start to experience this sweet little paradox. If at the start it’s our own stress and unhappiness we work to address, at some point – if we’re genuinely opening – the direction of concern reverses. Energy formerly bound up in self-interest starts to get re-directed towards others. We start to come down The Mountain …
Sometimes I wonder if our civilization is about to enter a New Age of Exploration. Except this time, since all the physical real estate has been chewed up, the terrain is internal. Not just our individual minds, which orthodox psychology is doing its best to plumb, but the larger mind of nature – the mother-sea mind, the great oceanic source of awareness that virtually every contemplative tradition in every culture speaks to, although in very different ways.
Effort – Breakthrough – Challenge – Integration. In this way we rise and we fall through life; we Evel Knievel into the bright blue sky and then, with our screaming skull heads, we crash into the side of a canyon and go fight some demons in the underworld. Eventually, we get better at Euchre, and even more eventually, we get better at Eucher while shooting up an exponential curve. Just in the nick of time to enjoy our grandkids. I don’t know about you geezers, but DEAL ME IN.
Things are different now. I drink the nasty brew, and when I feel her in the room I say I say “come on down!” I visualize a shag rug-lined corkscrew and she comes pouring through it like a cat, rubbing and purring, and a chorus line of sexy feline dancers come kicking their legs in five dimensions, and I laugh and build a jungle gym for them to play on, and she swats it down and pours a jaguar into my heart. And my whiskers twitch every time someone in the room breathes, because they’re in me too… some thoughts on the relationship between the meditative and the shamanic paths.
Devotion is the ultimate in relational ambition. Yes, we have relationships with neighbours and pets and all those people canvassing for city counsellor in Ward 19, but why not go LARGE? Why not build a relationship with reality itself? – i.e., the Container.
This month we’re gonna combine the best of the contemplative with the best from the psychotherapeutic . For the sits, we’ll let our meditative clarity and concentration and equanimity trickle down into the bodymind and works its non-specific magic – softening, metabolizing. And then, for some of the group practices, we’ll actively explore our triggers, and see if we can bring a little more self-awareness and clarity to our reactive pinball-machine lives.
Three Fundamental States of Experience: Solid, Liquid and Gas. it turns out that just as the material world can go through fundamental state changes – can have its particles rearranged to move from, say, ice to water to vapor (and back) – so can you. Or at least, so can the sensory experience of you. Concentration, clarity and equanimity are like catalysts – when you introduce them into the human sensorium, our experience of body, mind and world gets looser … this month we learn to go with the FLOW.
Practice can orient us to a deep and enduring freedom … but there’s a trick. An old trick – maybe the oldest. To leverage this freedom you need an Archimedean point outside of yourself, outside of the world and the self’s changing circumstances. You need to build a relationship with the only thing that doesn’t change – the raw fact of Being itself.
Meditation pushes at the edge of sensory reality, of what a human mind can know under its own steam, with its own inner rocket fuel. We’ve forgotten this in our culture. So focused are we on externals. We’ve forgotten there is another kind of knowledge that frames all the others, a Space Age vista that permeates even our most claustrophobic life circumstances.
Sometimes I live in The Arrow. Driven, caffeinated, projecting from place to place and thought to thought, never arriving, never arrived. I wake up in in The Arrow – a sense of needing to move immediately, must get my day on, must start checking things off my list…
One of the things I’ve been obsessed with lately is the idea that there may be a lowest common denominator of spiritual and meditation practice. Some simple technique, some small adjustment in consciousness, that over time will maximize fulfillment and minimize suffering and free you up to be less of a grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner …
Gazing into my crystal ball, I see a set of crystal bowls, and people laying splayed on their backs with goofy transcended looks on their faces. This could be the scene of next Monday night’s CEC Exploration, or it could be a cannibus-infused reverie from my balmy beachside pied-a-terre here in wherever-the-fuck-I-am, Central America…
“We are put here on earth to help others. I’m not sure what the others were put here for.” – W. H. Auden. I’m not really sure either, but we may as well have a good time trying to figure it out.