“Populations of marine mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have declined by 49% since 1970, a report says… The document was prepared by the World Wildlife Fund and the Zoological Society of London… The authors analysed more than 1,200 species of marine creatures in the past 45 years.”
BBC News, Marine population halved since 1970
How does knowing this make you feel? How long do you have to contemplate it before you start to feel what it really means at all? Does it just remain titillating or sentimental, or does it open up something deeper?
The most profound of our thoughts are accompanied by strong emotional values. The insight of our wisdom, as well as the adoration of our love, are precious examples of the harmony of thought and feeling our minds are capable of. Yet we are sick with the singular vision Blake warned us about; we have dared to see feeling as the primitive step child of the mind.
This post attempts to reframe what it is to feel the truth of something. It is time to talk a bit more poetically, hoping to calm the beast, sooth the sickness.
Each of us is fully engaged in the struggle of life. Each of us is life fully engaged in the struggle. Though our conscious minds may wander hither and yon, not a moment goes by that we are not 100% involved in this mystery in our totality. Yet, this encounter with the real only ever takes place on the tiniest of slivers of the here and now. Our engagement of say the molecular dances of our structural presence interfacing its energetic exchanges with the molecular structures of its environments – only ever takes place in that fleeting nanosecond of the present moment.
Our minds also are only ever in a single, complex yet fleeting state. The stream of consciousness which is our most intimate experience consists of just this ever changing awareness. Interestingly however, the brain’s image making faculty has been put to use by evolution to break out of the restrictions inherent in an awareness limited to only the here and now. With mind’s awareness the output of the nervous system processing the radically momentary nature of the molecular dances is absorbed in the brain’s neurological plasticity. A part of the organism’s form is shaped by the events it encounters and in its most basic sense a memory is made by the process. Transcending the immediate moment, the memory glues the past to the present, which simultaneously opens up speculations about the future.
We experience the content of this phenomenon, these mental constructs of past and future, as a field of causes and effects. Through feeling we learn to select among them; desiring some effects we practice their causes and seek to avoid their opposites. We experience our experience as real because our encounters with our environments, internal and external, follow lawful developments. We plant an acorn seed and will see an acorn develop, not a cantaloupe. If cantaloupes appear we know we are in a dream, fantasy or otherwise carried away by our imagination. Developing circumstances are rather like evolving state machines exploring what is possible throughout the whole state space earth life has access to. The rules that move these states along, transforming one state into another, are what we perceive as cause and effect. Advanced meditations such as the Vajra Slivers deconstruct even this most fundamental relationship as being in any sense ultimately real. The lack of fearful clinging to fixed features of our philosophical fantasies helps when cognitive models get turned upside down.
The ever-changing flux of the present nano-moment is embodied in the body’s internal and external environment and the brain states apprehending this relationship. Nowhere do we find the slightest unchanging element to hold onto. Nowhere is there a solid foundation on which anything could be built, yet there is in this very fact itself an unchanging feature. Part of how we experience this unchanging feature is what we believe to be causes and conditions, actions and reactions. Memory delivers this sort of consistency. Memories are then made relevant to us by the feeling tone that accompanies them.
Great freedom, even complete liberation is said to dwell somewhere around these points. For my part there seems to be something profound in how our discoveries of random events, that is causeless events, at the sub-atomic level in Quantum Mechanics compliments the Vajra Slivers deconstruction of rational apperception of events as the result of causes and conditions. Here there is an ultimate truth complimenting the relative truth of our experience found in both eastern and western analysis of what ultimate reality might consist of.
This ultimate just outlined is how I consider the emptiness teachings relevant to living well. The emptiness is this lack of fixed, deterministic features built into the universe at the ultimate level. Emptiness in not void, nihilism or chaos. It is the birth place of the nano-moment of reality, the mother of the interdependent configurations of all that exists in all its countless variations. This grants a freedom more profound and pervasive than it is easy for our minds to comprehend. In this moment choices are made.
Much of what keeps us trapped are habitual emotional patterns our brains have laid down over the years. Character is shaped by these processes for better and for worse. When we are stuck in a rut it may seem changing our habitual responses is impossible yet the emptiness teachings assure us it is not. In the next moment a shocking degree of freedom is available. It is easy for us to become comfortable with the habitual ways in which we feel: our pleasures and pains, complaints and praises all feel so familiar, even when they hurt.
This is important when we turn our attention to that powerfully intimate aspect which inevitably accompanies each and every moment of our conscious experience: its emotional flavor. Emptiness, state machines, ultimate and relative truth – these are ways of laying out a view of things in which reality’s own awareness and intelligence is directly perceived through what sentient beings are able to feel about what they are able to think. This felt-thinking is the key into the storehouse of the real, the wedding ring by which we come to know Mr. and Mrs. Non-Duality. Raw awareness is a feeling, a sense. It’s knowing is immediate. At its ultimate it is what we call omniscience.
This isn’t owned by anyone, but consciousness can participate in it: the selflessness of the Buddha. The Buddha is said to be a completely awake human being, awake to the full profundity of being human. This awaken state is said to be one of blissful compassion, Bodhichitta in Sanskrit. The wakeful apperception is not of rational mind alone, which as we have seen is basically a probability calculator, but consists of a type of feeling beyond feeling: bliss. It comes from a type of reason beyond reason: compassion.
This is not at all like Romanticism’s elevation of feeling above thinking with its implication that they shall forever be at war. This is reasoning in its most basic need, which is not coldly calculating but finding meaning. “The heart has reasons the reason knows not of” as Pascal had it. We need a reason to live; our deepest hunger of all is to have lead a meaningful life. This is reason beyond calculating. Quite simply, after all is said and done, after all the heights and depths have been plumbed, what remains is the desire to relieve the suffering of others by sharing this view that is beyond all suffering: bliss and compassion inseparable.
The authenticity of the human experience is something we all have access to. In fact, it is inevitable that each and every one of us will encounter our roots sooner or later, in one form or another. These encounters do not take place in our everyday states of mind; they form the boundaries of awareness itself. While the value of altered states of consciousness and the insights they are able to provide is off the radar of the current Western intelligentsia, their critical role in human affairs remains unaffected. This is obvious in the hospice but no less so in all those places where encounters between people ‘get real’ as we say. We just lack the vocabulary to express the value of these things in our own idioms, hence the borrowings of eastern trappings as an authentic Western Buddhism begins to take root.
As we continue with our explorations of compassion over the next few weeks let there always be in the background this simple, almost childlike joyful gratitude warming our immediate experience, a kind of making of the secular into the sacred, an elevation of reality. We are indeed lucky students:
All sentient beings equally participate in the timelessness of the unchanging ultimate at the heart of the ever-changing relative; the Jewel in the Heart of the Lotus. It is seen in the depth of wondrous mystery reflected in one another’s eyes, in the marine life that remains, the sun and moon, the whole dream tapestry in which our stories weave their own threads…