Theory and Practice #2
Piet: Returning to the practical question I started with, I'm thinking again of the question of what holds me back. And I can see at least two different aspects to that, if I try to analyze it. One aspect is inertia, and another is dishonesty. The inertia case is very simple, it's like you're reading the newspaper, when in fact you know you have to do some chore, but even though reading the newspaper is not that interesting, somehow it feels better than you think the chore would … you think it does.
Inertia is a funny thing. Somehow you keep reading the newspaper, even though it might actually be more fun to do the chore. So for some strange reason, while you're reading the newspaper, and you're sitting in a comfortable chair, it's sort of difficult to switch to the next thing. And I don't think I have that so much compared to most people.
Steven: no, I would say you’re remarkably resistant to this trap …
Piet: But I can resonate with it, and sometimes I feel it myself to some extent. And the other, which may be more the more serious, it's hard to know which is more serious … certainly looking back in the past, and sometimes even getting a glimpse in the present, I can see that when I think about giving up things, or dropping things, I quickly make a list but still think that there are some things that are further down on the list and not to be dropped yet. They come later on, they are too much fun to drop at this point. These are the points that are most obvious to me when I try to analyze it. I think it's good to consider this, because as you say, if there is nothing really stopping us from stopping, then what seems to stop us must involve a mistake of some sort. If we look closely at that and see what the mistake is, we should have a good chance to deal with it.
Steven: if we are going to relax, or do what we were discussing earlier, then if what we try to cultivate is an attitude—one of not worrying, not having any preferences, etc.—that's just an attitude. And one of the problems with this is that we know, at some level, that although it might be healthy for us to relax in some ordinary way, we also know that this is not entirely realistic to just give up all our preferences, because it's not in conformity to reality. There are things about our reality, our situation, that do require improvement or modification. And since we know that, we're naturally not going to be totally satisfied with not worrying about anything or giving up everything that we wanted, because there are things that we really should want in some sense … things do need to be improved. But that very reasonable and influential consideration, which is always at the back of one’s mind and sometimes haunts us, should not be the main point here. This is the most crucial and difficult point to see.
All human beings ... even some supposed great heroic or saint-like figures from the past... have the same condition, because we all have a mind and a sense of self that work that way. And so we have to be very clear about what we're saying here. If you think, “what's holding you back” is some issue and you look into that issue, and you decide that there is some resistance or inertia, that could be an interesting observation, and very important to follow up on. But the deepest thing that's holding us back is the notion that we’re being held back. That understanding usually escapes us.
Now if we just say “well, I shouldn't relax too much, because I know that life is not perfect and actually I've got a lot of problems”, then in that kind of simpler case that I was just talking about a moment ago, we are right. But in this case, with respect to the more fundamental values of existence and spiritual significance, it would be wrong. And we have to see where we are getting this incorrect idea—that we are losing out or that things are fundamentally flawed or need improvement, or that we have been held back, etc. So the step here is exactly the same as the one we were talking about a minute ago. We actually have to see what alleged “self” it is that thinks it’s held back, and what mind is being used to check that or to come to that conclusion.
That self and that mind perform a certain characteristic maneuver, one that usually goes unseen. And that maneuver is to use memory to access an alleged history of that self, as the supposed real you in the complete sense, and that maneuver then comes back with the conclusion. “Yes, I have this history of incomplete success and therefore I can judge that I've been held back, and now I need to improve on my track record”. That's the logic of this type of mind. And that whole mental operation constellated around that sense of self, is the real thing holding you back. The notion that we have been held back is what is holding us back, because it sets up the notion of a self that is being held back and then it gives evidence of “our” woeful history.
That is what needs to be seen more clearly and directly, and if it is seen, then we realize that none of it is as definitive as we thought. But if we believe it, and we really are stuck. Because then the only thing that we can do is to try to improve on our past, analyze what we could do to have a better result, etc., and we can never relax that way. The only thing we should do, is to see that the evidence we are getting for a need to improve is itself faulty.
This is very difficult, at least initially. Because, the ordinary sense of self and the ordinary mind that thinks in terms of a kind of time that can be accessed by memory, is so deeply a part of the smaller version of ourselves that it's almost impossible to notice. It's almost impossible to take exception to it. But we must do so. And if we do, even a little bit, then we find that who we really are, rather than who we keep pinning ourselves down as being through using certain kinds of identifying maneuvers, is in a space of freedom and satisfaction, directly. And we can relax, because we should be relaxed because things are okay, because things have in some sense “always” been okay. It's a totally different assessment and follow-through, etc. But if we are tricked into believing otherwise at the first invisible step, then we will stay tricked, and frustrated all the way along, indefinitely … even though fundamentally, there is an “okay-ness” present.
Piet: That's very nice, and again, that gives a liberating touch to this type of struggle, and I have to smile because it is really like a spiral, like I struggle with this and then either you or something I read or something which drops into my mind from who knows where, reminds me that it is simpler, and I smile and relax, and then later I find myself struggling again. Well, I also thought it was interesting that the two stumbling blocks I brought up, and a third stumbling block you mentioned, could be seen in Hindu schema of tamas, raja and sattva. Tamas is the inertia, raja is not quite ready to throw everything out, because you still have things to do, and sattva being ready to throw out everything except that one thing, which is to throw out everything. Which is as equilibrated as you can be while being in the world, but still being in the world.
The other thing I thought about this, your notion of how to approach this, reminds me of some traditional notions of playing or mimicking Being. Even though you don't quite know, or think you don't know, how it is to reach above everything, or reach to the ultimate level, the Being level, you can already start playing as though you are in full touch with that, you are that, and identify with it. That is an approach that has always appealed to me, from the very first time I read such an idea. But there has always been a gap between finding something appealing and intuitively being drawn to it, as opposed to actually to take that stance.
That's extremely puzzling. Why should there be that gap? I mean, once you see the point, and think you can do it ... well, this goes back to all the things we've talked about already, you think you want to take a stand, but then who is taking it and in which space are you doing it, etc.? Even so, taking some mimic-like stance of Being, even while you have a more limited identification, probably is not a bad thing to do.
Steven: Yes, I think we could just follow this thread, and end up sort of reinventing or rediscovering every aspect of these teachings people have developed over centuries to address this fundamental issue. Because everything comes into play here. I mentioned a couple of assumptions, what I like to call embodied presuppositions, that cause us a lot of trouble, and there are also others. In some of our discussions, I've talked about this notion of a kind of “event realm”—a term I got from one of my colleagues years ago. The way I apply it, the point is that spirituality, if you push it far enough, is really not trying to grasp at other, better conditions, or bring about some kind of new result ... in general, it's not properly tied to the event realm logic or orientation at all.
This is perhaps a vague idea at this stage of our discussions, and it would need to be defined more clearly. But here the only way you could define it would be through the way it acquired a meaning in the first place, in these traditional spiritual explorations. It doesn't have the meaning it might have in physics, but some other kind of meaning, following the traditional path of coming back to ourselves, seeing what we are up to, and seeing that there is some point in describing a certain way that we behave—actually, a way that we are, usually on an on-going basis. It's a way of being to which we are wedded, and that’s preoccupied with events and conditions.
This is a meaningful notion. It can be defined just as rigorously and concretely as one would define things in science. And if you do that, then you can pinpoint this constant assumption that we have to play out our lives as events (in the way that I admit has to be defined) and should be attached to particular conditions or phenomena. But what we call the self, what we think is our real self, is also a phenomenon of this same sort. This insight goes against our usual grain, it's hard for us to imagine such a perspective ... because we live this way and actually exist this way (it's more than just something we do as an ordinary action), it's a deep-level enactment of identity that remains unchallenged.
And because we have this way of being, we'll keep going past any authentic alternative. Because, returning to what you were saying, if I'm going to address some higher part of spiritual teachings or discovery, what I readily notice is that it's elusive, I don't understand it, I don't seem to be there yet. Maybe I could fix that a bit by relatively relaxed playing at it, etc. But in all of these cases, what is getting in our way is the assumption that that dimension or level of the teachings are still concerned with events and phenomena and conditions and actions that trade in terms of changes of state, etc. It's literally hard for us to imagine that there could be anything else.
In the version of the world in which we keep embedding ourselves, there just isn't anything else. So it's a self-limiting way of being. The point of maturation, along the lines of spiritual study or exploration, is to let go of this preoccupation with this clumsy event realm framework, to open up to the fact—not the possibility, but the fact—of something else that is present in a more direct way, outside of the picture that a condition currently obtains (or doesn’t). And it is us, we are already that “something else” or larger context. But because we have narrowed down so much, what we often (mis-)understand from reading the traditional stories of saints or contemplatives etc that you mentioned, seems to concern another event-type “result” or condition that is currently unrealized by us … at best, it seems it might lie at the end of a heroic saga with us as the main characters. That's a very limiting view.
Piet: I know from various discussions we’re had that we both think this has applications beyond just contemplative practice, or better ways of living as a human being. It could relate to science too …
Steven: yes, that might be the big question. If the kind of far-future recasting of science you posit were possible at all, I think it would involve—among other things—science coming to terms with this shift beyond “event time”.