Writings | Basics
The underlying central aim of all spiritual work is to be present in every moment. This aim may be formulated in different terms in different traditions but it is generally recognized to be both the aim and method of our searching. How do we do this? Well, it’s probably better if we do it intelligently.
In Buddhism, intelligence is defined as the ability to make distinctions. It’s a very simple and quite practical definition. For instance, a carpet merchant, at least a good one, is able to distinguish subtle differences in wool quality, dye and design quality, and other aspects of carpets that the uninformed person might not even think about. So, in the area of carpets, the merchant is very intelligent. Similarly, a psychotherapist may be able to distinguish subtle differences in the emotional states of individuals and thus key responses precisely to what the client is feeling. A financial planner is able to distinguish the advantages and disadvantages of various financial plans, again differences whose existence or importance might not be understood by his or her client.
In these notes, I offer some distinctions that I’ve found help to clarify and focus my own efforts.
The first distinction is between two ways we use the word training. On the one hand we train a dog to fetch a stick. When we throw the stick, the dog automatically runs to fetch it. This is a form of conditioning. Behaviorist theory is full of this kind of training. At a certain level, martial arts training can become automatic. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. In this use of the word training, there is no sense of awareness or response, there is only reaction, trained reaction.
On the other hand we can train ourselves so that we have an ability. In this use of the word, the element of choice is present. We have developed the capacity to act or respond in a precise way to a certain situation but not at the expense of the awareness to know whether that response is appropriate or not. Without this awareness there is no choice, only reaction.
This second sense of the word training will be the one I use here.The second distinction concerns three areas of focus for our training: internal, interaction and natural presence. All three are important, yet many people focus on only one or two.
Area I: Training In Looking Inwards
Internal training is the area of psychological and spiritual work. The focus is on the removal of blocks and the freeing up of natural abilities. In modern popular psychology, the neglected, wounded, or undeveloped inner child is one model used to give a form to blockages within us. Unfortunately, in this model there is often a conflation of two different internal structures: the comfort seeking, immature child that doesn’t want to grow up but wants the world to conform to his or her perceptions and feelings and the creative dynamic inner child who wants, or is at least prepared, to face the full world of experience. In this model, the aim is to let go of identification with the comfort seeking inner child and reclaim one’s connection with all the natural abilities that are our human heritage.
In the spiritual realm, the aim is similar but taken to a deeper level. The blocks aren’t seen as coming solely from conditioning influences from our family and environment but are regarded as unavoidable and deeply habituated patterns of misperception that confuse our understanding of what we experience. The fundamental block, in this model, is the lack of direct knowing of what we are.
(Ask yourself, “What am I?” If you observe closely, you will see that there is first a moment of clarity in in which nothing is seen, then a felt sense that nothing is seen, then a reaction of fear to that emptiness, then a solidification of position and then, usually, a retreat into some intellectual formulation.)
In Buddhist thought, the direct knowing of what we are is our human heritage (buddha nature), and all the various spiritual practices, meditation, contemplation on such themes as impermanence, suffering, non-self, compassion, emptiness, koan practice (in Zen), the four immeasurables, taking and sending, etc., are concerned, at least in part, with removing the blocks that prevent that direct knowing or with cultivating that direct knowing explicitly (as in mahamudra, shiken-taza, dzokchen, etc.)
Area II: Training in Interaction
Interaction training is concerned with how we interact with our experience of the world. There are essentially two sides: making connection and meeting conflict. Making connection is about relationships, connecting with people, places, things, bringing people and efforts together, unifying, facilitating cooperative effort, cultivating leadership qualities, etc. In Buddhist thought, the cultivation of the higher emotions of love, compassion, joy and equanimity are fundamental to this kind of effort. In business circles, the ability to be a team player, to participate in goal-setting, win-win strategies, etc., fall into this area.
The other side of the coin is meeting conflict. Here one needs different abilities: the ability to define and maintain appropriate boundaries, to survive conflict without being harmed, to destroy or let go of what is no longer suitable, to deal effectively with oppositional forces. Again, in Buddhist thought, there are specific teachings on how to meet conflict through the four stages of pacification, enrichment, magnetization, and destruction, the principle of having no territory to defend, etc. In social and judicial arenas, oppositional forces may be dealt with by structures that require individuals or organizations to face clearly and unambiguously the consequences of violating another’s rights, property or person. Oppositional training is most explicit in the military where the intention is to impose one’s will by whatever means are necessary.
Both abilities are essential. Without any training in connection, the abilities in meeting conflict degenerate into meaningless destruction. On the other hand, if a person has no ability in meeting conflict, their efforts in making connection and particularly in leadership will not be fruitful for they will have no effectiveness dealing with the inevitable conflicts that do arise in the course of relationships of any kind.
Area III: Training in Natural Presence
Finally, we come to the training in natural presence. This, in many ways, is the most subtle, the most difficult, and the most demanding area of the three. The work here is to hone our life to being present in each moment. As I said above, this is simultaneously the fruition and the path of our efforts. The internal work, the psychologically and spiritual practices mentioned above, are concerned with opening up this possibility in us. The interaction work, being able to connect and to meet conflict skillfully, is essential if we are to be present in the world of our experience. Now we need to make explicit efforts in our life so that it actually happens.
Many people approach this naively, feeling that a drastic simplification of their life will be sufficient (adoption of a monastic life, living simply in nature, stepping off the fast track, etc.), but we usually bring our baggage with us when we make these moves. The first effort here is to rid ourselves of accumulations from the past. We can let go of our past externally (clearing out closets, divesting ourselves of clothes, etc. from other stages of our life) or internally (letting go of the self images we have accumulated, letting go of our personal history). The essential point is to let go of our attachment to what we’ve been.
The second effort is to let go of the future. We then have access to an increasing range of possible responses to situations. We may need to experiment and act differently intentionally in given situations so that we know experientially that those possibilities are available to us. Internally, we will find the teachings on impermanence and suffering powerful aids to letting go of ideas about how the future should be for us.
Finally, we make efforts, again internally and externally, to be able to meet present circumstances as they are, without the prejudices and reactive tendencies that we have accumulated, or the expectations and desires we want to fulfill. Some of the best descriptions of what it is to live this way are found in Lao Tzu’s The Tao Te Ching
. Remember that he is usually describing the results of these efforts, not the efforts themselves. For the efforts themselves, we need to turn to our practice, our path, and make that our life.