Theory and Practice #1
is the first of four segments drawn from a dialogue recorded in
Berkeley on April 30, 2005. We began with a chat about
meditation, which later switched back to the oft-visited topic of
spirituality”. The first few comments refer to a traditional text which
describes how to “pay for” enlightenment with the coin of ordinary
tendencies—i.e., giving up such tendencies to a more authentic way of
Piet: I have continued to try to chew on this notion of “paying” for realization, how to drop or stop …
Steven: to drop ordinary grasping, yes.
Piet: and I noticed how similar it is to ideas in other parts of my life about making this kind of move... it's strange, it's so easy, you just give up worrying about things, and do what you can, and what you can't do on one day you just keep for later. If you really have that attitude of dropping everything, that would be the most delightful and restful thing you can think of. So the question is, why we don't do it, what I can do to stop not doing it?
Steven: Yes, I think it's good to start here, because there is even a kind of straightforward benefit in doing so. What I mean is that this basic point has been apparent to people for a very long time. In pretty much every culture, there's been a recognition that it would be nice to drop one's worry, grasping, etc., and to just relax. I think what distinguishes those kinds of reflections or ideas... and they could be pretty organized, as in the Stoic philosophical movement, of course, that the Greeks and Romans developed in great detail... what distinguishes those versions of “letting go” from what I'm calling spirituality, or perhaps I should describe them as entry points into a spiritual emphasis, is that even in Greek/Roman Stoicism the picture is still very local or narrow. It’s still centered on a small, disconnected sense of self, and doesn't easily allow in any alternative view. So in that view, you start with the self as grasping, and then you seek a self that isn't grasping. And of course that’s rather limited. The enterprise is easy to understand, though, it isn’t asking for anything very exotic, and one really can succeed along those lines … up to a point. And even that degree of success has a payoff... one does feel better, is less disturbed and battered by life, and so on.
However, I think part of the hallmark of a spiritual understanding … is that one comes to see that the ordinary mind and the self that want things, and which by their very nature are kind of intentionally driven etc., are deeply marked by that trait, and always will be. One sees a kind of definite barrier there to that “relax and let go of what you can’t control” picture ever totally working from within the old view. There's a limit to the degree, within this picture, that one can let go of worry, etc, and also to the degree to which one can be truly satisfied by that approach.
So a deeper insight shows that there is a need to let in more, to trade the old view and self and approach for another dimension that holds this typical picture that we live in. And then by letting in more, an awareness emerges that there's a larger or more fundamental nature that can stop because it is stopped. It can be satisfied because it is satisfied. And it's this “Is” aspect that is so crucial. Becoming stopped, or becoming satisfied—those involve an incorrect view. "Becoming stopped" literally makes no sense. And “becoming satisfied”, if you think about it, is also problematical, because it's based on reaching out of dissatisfaction for what you don't currently have. Even opening up, what I described as “letting in more”, might use this same “becoming” logic and therefore miss the point, so this is a subtle issue.
Piet: yes, but I do think that some individuals within those perhaps more limited approaches you mention did fall into something more meaningful.
Steven: of course. They are great traditions in their own right, and some of the people practicing it probably did see what we’re discussing now.
Piet: Anyway, we are who we are, talking about a deeper view, so for me personally, it's more a question of what we can do than of what other cultures have done. So I'm wondering myself about how far, what it is that seems to prevent me from just saying "oh, OK, that is the way to do it, let's just do it!", and I realize, as I've realized before, that there is a lingering shade
Steven: like a taint or holdover?
Piet: yes, of not really wanting to open up. So it's a combination of not seeing and not wanting to see, and then interpreting that not wanting as if it were a difficult enterprise. That of course is quite a different idea …
Steven: and a wrong idea, yes. I think that's a wonderful point … or actually several related points that you've just made. If we don't notice those things, then I think we're basically stuck. We really have to see our heedlessness and resistance, and where they’re coming from, and reflect on this ... this is related to what we are just talking about, letting a larger picture in. Because otherwise... I mean, part of being in a picture that has or constitutes a limitation, is that one doesn't reflect on the limitation. And one doesn't have a motive to do so either. Those are connected. And if we are trying to get out of a certain limited kind of context, then we are actually so influenced by it that we remain stuck there.
In a sense, the real way out is to be willing to see more of what is to be in it. And it's precisely that willingness that we usually don't have. But we could. We could be more friendly or accepting to it. If we do, then in a sense by definition we are already out because we’ve switched to an accepting stance or way of being. It's a funny kind of thing, that what makes you stuck in something, is either the disinterest in the issue, on the one hand, or a desire to reject or leave. Those are mistakes. Leaving a narrowly defined or delimited context is a project that is part of staying in that context.
The real way to let something larger in, is to be more friendly to the full structure or logic of what is involved in being there. And if one is willing to do that, then one is “out” or “free” without ever having really left. So this liberates the whole picture, it means that everything in the small picture is always already more than just small.
Piet: yes that is interesting. Opposite actions are often very similar, like trying very hard or giving up.
Steven: apparently opposite, yes.
Piet: They both buy into a time-like picture. So they are actually very similar moves, although they are seen as different. So to make this more vivid and recognizable and concrete, I find it very inspiring to look at the examples of saints, or spiritual people in different cultures, who tried to rigorously step out, give up, often at great personal expense of health and wealth etc. And often you hear them describing how at first they tried to reach material or other kinds of levels of independence, or giving up, and then they realized that there something more subtle, which was easier for them to see after they gave up the more superficial things, since otherwise those would be in the way. Again, coming back to the question of the here and now, I have to face this challenge of how to see or do or be this myself.
Steven: We all have that challenge, and we all don't have it. Those two perspectives are precisely the two sides of this coin. If we make a narrowly-defined agenda of trying to see more, for instance, that's just as bad as trying to leave. Relaxing is part of what we need, and the other part is to see, to make -- and I can use the word "effort" here -- we can really make an effort to see more. Initially, it is an effort, to see more of what we are bringing or assuming or buying into. If we find a way of doing this that is somehow wedded with really relaxing about the whole thing, then we have a chance, because the issue here is appreciating more than we usually notice when we are narrowly focused or looking outward. It just makes sense. By relaxing, you settle more into where you really are, and that helps you see more of what is there, which makes it still easier to really relax, etc.
So it's not really a paradox, relaxing without an agenda is part of what makes it possible to see better, including our agendas. If we make an agenda to see our agendas, then we will miss something. That's easy to understand if one considers it a bit.
Relaxing free of agendas can go very very far, perhaps limitlessly far. The stories about people in the past are very inspiring in one way, because they do have much to teach us, and they speak to us directly in a human, heartfelt way that a straight philosophical approach couldn't manage. But they also involve a... perhaps inevitable... danger, because when one reads such stories, one is always looking at these people from the outside, and when we talk about their problem, their frustration, their heroic struggle … we can comprehend that part pretty accurately, we can relate what they were feeling to things we also know well, so there is nothing really lost in translation. But when we come to the end of the story, where they have a resolution and live happily ever after with some kind of realization, there's a big trap there for us.
People generally don't talk about this problem at all, or enough, in my opinion. Because that “happy ending” part of the story is quite misleading, in terms of the disparity between what they actually had or saw, and what we understand from the account. It's that latter part that actually undoes all the good work that was done by the former part of the story. Because it triggers our grasping and greed again.
It's like there's this other person, who had a difficulty, and made efforts, and went through hell and high water, and then won in the end, and so now we want to win in a similar fashion. And that leads us right back to where we started. Stuck. This goes to the heart of how and how not to use all spiritual literature, traditions about great masters from the past, founders of religions, etc. There's something very valuable about attending to the stories, and there's something else that we must absolutely take very lightly, in order to realize what we are talking about here.