Training in the View

Now with a model of reasoning under our belts we can turn our attention to using it.

The program for using it is going to be multifaceted, a collection of intellectual chores taken up not for gaining academic tenure or impressing our friends but because we really want to know, to the best that we can, just what it is to be alive in this universe that appears to us. We have a certain faith that asking the right questions can itself teach us something about paying attention, being awake to the wonder of everything, and even how we might live the good life as philosophers have long recommended. The teaching is that we suffer because we are confused; we do not see reality as it is. So we train in seeing the universe as the saints see it, we train in what is called the view.

The crux of sharpening the experience of contemplation is a knack you can learn. It is an ability to entertain some way-out thoughts. Following a set of premises to their conclusions can uncover a universe not at all like the one that presents itself to us day after day. If we trust our reason (and what other choice do we have?) it penetrates another layer of understanding. All this is well known. Biologists teach us all plants and animals are constructed from cells which are intricate almost beyond belief, biochemically vast and complex. Yet only the eye of reason is able to picture the living world this way. It is very interesting, is it not, that in a sense it can be said that this cellular vision is more “real” then the picture we receive as our cognitive default, namely that all living things are wholly separate individuals?

This is why it takes effort to train the mind in what is called the view. It takes some mental exercise to overcome the cognitive default that believes the root of a tree, the brain of a worm and the life of a man have almost nothing in common.

Where the university student will memorize facts and pass tests about cells and a documentary film maker might find the cell a perfect subject for their film, the contemplative takes the same material and works on it in their own way. The contemplative goal is not to pass a test nor create a work of art, though what they are after is a bit of both. The contemplative is training in opening the eye of wisdom. In this example the inner apprehension of what it really means that all living things share the same fundamental biological building block, the same fundamental chemical and structural similarities. Then perhaps training in what it really means that the body, that feels so intimately one’s own, consists of trillions and trillions of these miniature galaxies of intelligence, these vibrating drops of awareness. The contemplative turns an artistic eye on scientific content and heals the split between reality and imagination in an alchemical marriage.

I think this is a valid first way to try and explain the way of meditation for we moderns.

I hope to illustrate how the application of reasoning to ultimate questions leads to radical conclusions. These conclusions or insights are difficult to fully experience in all their ramifications, so meditation is used as a tool by which we are able to become familiar with them. We train in seeing the truths of the world as we understand it really is.

It is easy to see how this might work by considering quantum mechanics. Our most advanced theory in physics assures us the world is “really” made up of molecules. The universe presents countless collections and aggregates but all its myriad forms are molecules none-the-less. It has also found that these molecules are constructed out of approximately 100 types of atoms. In all the universe stuff only comes in approximately 100 flavors.

Now here is the interesting thing. We can study all this and using our imaginations can form pictures of it but that’s as far as it goes in most western forms of study. To contemplate is to go a step further. If you were not studying quantum mechanics due to a mild curiosity attracted to the strange but were studying it desperate to discover what reality really is, with all the weight of life and death breathing down your neck… well then you would have gone a step further. With the silent stillness of calm-abiding meditation to ground our investigations the process is less like fireworks then the impression I may have left with that description but the key to turning up the juice is recognizing the existential nature of what is being considered.

Most schools of meditation have a traditional series of subjects for contemplation that progressively lead towards the wisdom and compassion that is the ultimate goal. This makes it sound as simple as passing through grades in school but we’re talking about training the mind where nothing is ever quite as simple, or complex, as it seems. In the Tibetan Buddhism I studied there are progressions of whole schools of philosophical thought. Progressing from one view to the next is also what is meant by training in the view. In the Ignatius spiritual disciplines I studied there is a progression through a whole set of prayers, images and meditations. Here too there is what I mean by training in the view. The human mind is not just going to turn a simple switch and achieve its end, the work is ongoing and the path defined by that act of going.

The next cycle of posts will be about sharing the foundational view which should be quite congenial for most of my readers. It is thoroughly dualistic and materialistic just like the prevailing consensus in the modern world about what is really real. It is considered foundational because before we can appreciate some of the advanced views, say those aligned with quantum mechanics and emptiness, there first needs to be a clear and distinct picture of what is being negated.

Before we begin proper, however, as is typical if one is trying to stay true to the systematic nature of things, we must set the stage, provide the context, sketch out the boundaries of our inquires. First, there seems to me is the rule above all others; we are seeking the really real, the truly true, whatever existentially are the “facts” and should be willing to cast aside whatever doesn’t jive with them. Second, that said we recognize the fundamentally probabilistic nature of reasoning and accept that we will need to update our understanding of just what “facts” might be as we learn. Third, there are limits to what language can accomplish directly as a medium for communicating meaning so look for the moon and don’t get hung up on the finger pointing to it. This is important as these ideas, ultimately, stretch language and with it conceptual thought, to its breaking point.

Another vital element of the context of the upcoming discussion is the intention. Times are tough. Not just the daily grind but the knowing that grinds at your heart, threatening joyfulness; the more you learn about ecological reality the more dismal it gets. I sincerely believe that for many people adopting a contemplative practice offers a lifeline as the cold wind blows. We are learning to be of benefit to others, training in a strength of mind that can meet these tough times head-on.

To prepare, if you want to play along, I’ll leave you with the assignment to ask in your quiet contemplative time just what is happening exactly right here and right now. Feel your way into just where does the moment of now arise and just where your experience is actually happening. Try to tease out the difference between thinking about experiences and being with experience directly.

The Christmas Tree

I have a tree all lit up in my living room. When my wife and I brought it inside we invited all the great outdoors indoors. I do not see a contradiction between my contemplative practice and my culture in having a tree in my house around the winter solstice. I see an opportunity to build a ritual connection with this great, rich tapestry of my ancestor’s stories. Living the symbolism of ritual is another avenue of contemplative practice. It might even provide a bridge between East and West.

Living the symbolism through ritual, what does that mean? How can we participate in such things and not have them become a one way ticket to the funny farm? I’ve raised three children and now the decorations on my family tree are shining with memories, heart-meanings are being reflected. There is no way to know just what a tree decorated this way can mean without doing it; putting up the tree year after year and trying to make magic in the lives of your children for a special morning. Naturally some things hang around, others disappear over the years until a distillation of the love and concern of your family with all its quarks and quirks comes forth.

Trees play important roles in just about every mythic narrative we know about. In Christianity there’s the crucifixion on a tree. In Norse mythology Yggdrasil is the world tree. The Buddha gained enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree. The Druid traditions have whole languages of trees. Judaism includes the story of Eden’s trees and their mystics study the Kabbalistic tree of life. There is also the Maypole, lodge pole, yule log and all the other variations on trees that populate our customs and stories.

There is a widespread symbolic illiteracy among modern peoples. Unless your studies have included mythology, depth psychology or a mystical tradition chances are you have not been exposed to reading symbolism. As this is the holiday season perhaps it is worthwhile to take a moment to examine the workings of the Judeo-Christian myths that formed the foundation of the culture that became the industrialized modern world. It does us good to honor the stories and recognize they provided our grandmothers and grandfathers lives with meaning, guided their hard work of trying to live good lives and accompanied their sufferings as a comfort and source of solace.

The basic tree narrative in the Bible is rarely spelled out but remains workable. The Eden state is characterized by having the tree of life at its center ever overflowing with the fruit of eternal life. This is a mandala image that for Christians shows up again in the new Jerusalem found in the book of Revelations. The Jewish mystic’s esoteric studies of the Kabbala with its classification of symbols through its paths and spheres is said to be explorations of this same tree of life. The other tree of the Bible story has arguably played a much more central role in the formation of values and tales in the western world; the tree of good and evil or as it is sometimes called the tree of knowledge. The story is that all mankind fell into sin by eating the fruit of this tree. In the early dawn of prehistory the creature was tempted to consider themselves the creator. With knowledge came sin and with sin death entered the world. Creatures are not immortal after all; the life of the ego,life as we know it, will come to an end. This is the inevitable end of all individuals. It took another tree to redeem the fallen state, where the fear of death and its shadow suffering made slaves of us all. That other tree was the tree of torture where evil was freely allowed to do its worse and and in the process openly exposed.

It is not hard to read these symbols as dealing with the deepest limitations of the conceptual mind and human heart, specifically our moral conscience built as it is on the knowledge of good and evil in the context of our mortality. With this self awareness we are cast out of Eden, unable to partake of the fruit of the tree of life any longer. Our destiny is to be alienated from creation because we know we will die one day and this makes life a burden of toil and tears. Only granting eternal life, timelessness, can solve the flaw. This is a way of asserting that only removing suffering, not pretending to transcend or escape it, can ultimately address the fundamental unease we experience. Here and now this concerns the difference between pain within a meaningful universe and suffering withing a meaningless one.

How exactly a Christmas tree, a tradition born for the cultures with these Bible stories, relates to all this is hard to fathom for most people, even those who participate in the Christian holiday rituals year after year. The esoteric tale is simple though. The torture was not the final word after all, it was a kind of delusion born of confusing that which is created and that which creates. As Christ rose from the dead it is said by the Christian mystics the tree of the cross became the tree of life, even the bridal chamber. The Christmas tree all lit up and adorned with good foods and shiny things represents the tree of death, the tree of knowledge, transformed through the tree of torture into the tree of life. Get the message and Eden is as close as your living room. Get the message and you begin to glimpse how your body is a temple.

I am grateful for an opportunity to share the tradition of a tree brought inside and decorated with rainbow lights. For me other clusters of symbols and other stories also gather around it that resonate with my understanding of my human experience and my best comprehension of what it is to live the good life in the Socratic sense.

I think everyone should take advantage of this once a year chance to celebrate ritually, our poor culture is so ritually malnourished. Exchange gifts with strangers, friends and loved ones and with every exchange aspire for a world not dominated by graft and greed, where the marketplace is just one part of living and not the dominate slavery it has become. When you decorate a tree do so with whatever artifacts resonate with you and yours. Culminate the decorating with a tree top, what will it be for you? If you are a Christian an angel seems perfect, if Jewish perhaps a star, if a Buddhist perhaps a mandala, if Muslim maybe a model of a minaret? The point is, this is a way of participating in a cultural psychic waveform, shall we say, to honor our roots in the collective psyche. All traditions have a tree symbol or story; I suggest not allowing fear or pride to keep anyone from participating.

I have an ulterior motive as well. I cannot help but think that if more people brought a living tree into their houses, their own sensitivity to ecology might be heightened. I believe being near a living tree is a balm to many of the stresses and strains we suffer from living in our overly man-made environments with all those sharp corners and straight lines. Finally, I think that with just a dollop of awareness it is very possible to have a quite moment of reverence some evening before the soft glow of a lit tree in a quite house. It is just possible that for a flash you will see through the mind-word label ‘tree’ and see the actual, wholly unique individual tree sharing with you a temporary moment of existing. Perhaps you will be invited to rest with one pointed mind. In the final analysis all the symbolisms and rituals are just props to aid us in gaining a pure perception of the reality of this tree; a participant in flows of sunlight and rain, nourishing soil and creating the very air we breathe. It is the reality that is most magical but, sadly we do not see it, it is as if we are under a spell that casts a shroud over our eyes.

Decades ago I was taught what remains for me one of the most powerful symbolic reading of mythological or scriptural trees. There is a symbolic analogy between the tree and the human nervous system with its spinal trunk and dendrite branches. Along this tree there are chakras, wheels where a nexus of energy and material flows unfold over time. These chakras are rainbow colored providing a harmony with the tree in my living room all aglow with lights. Through skillful means a relationship with this tree brings forth one of the fruits of contemplative practice, often called nirvana in the East and the Unitive grace in the West.

My favorite set of symbols around this cluster around the rainbow. Multiple double blind experiments have demonstrated that there are deep psychological reactions to the colors we experience. The rainbow captures the largest mysteries of physics I have learned from my cultural inheritance; light as both the speed limit of the universe and the particle and wave duality at the core of quantum experiments. It also captures the most mysterious aspects of our psychologies; the breakdown of clear light into rainbow as if it was hiding there all the time just needing a different way of looking at it and how exactly the mind – all that wet-ware of synapses and neurotransmitters – sees light in dreams and inner visualizations. Where is this light exactly in the darkness inside our skulls? Spend time with this question and one might come to hear the music of the spheres.

An interesting feature of the chakra and Kabalistic symbol systems is that there is room for more than one level of “truth.” Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs these maps of potential conscious experience recognize higher states build on lower ones. They try to capture the funny way events seen one way can mean something totally different when seen another way. In Buddhism there are said to be two truths, not one; the relative truth and the absolute truth. The relative truth is all that we experience of reality in what we might call the scientific world view. The absolute truth is all that we experience beyond the duality of conceptual mind, though careful reasoning can lead us to its threshold. Both are true, the relative and the absolute, simultaneously. The tree symbol teaches us this as it maintains its roots in the good earth even as its branches reach the spaciousness of the sky.

Nirvana is a state of consciousness that is experienced as beyond time or as one with all time. The contemplative dares to recognize this state of consciousness as valid, a potential available to everyone given the body-mind of human beings. Though it does not seem like it to our daily, get up and get your coffee consciousness, things like the symbolism of the tree are of more primary importance to the experience of being human than we typically can recognize. In the moments of orgasm, death, slipping into the sacred world, and the Dark Night of the soul a profound transformation of values occurs as the contents of conscious experience shift to another, altogether more profound plane or newer configuration. Because this is inherent in consciousness itself every sentient being is destined to share these experiences to one degree or another. Every man, woman and child will, but also every whale, stink bug and brown bear will also pass through these inner worlds of experience each in their own way. At least it is no less rational to assert this is the case than the position that consciousness is nothing more than an accidental spandrel. How and why this works out future posts will explore but first our understanding of what reasoning itself is will need to be sharpened.

The contemplative dares to recognize these states of consciousness as valid, hence the need for all those metaphoric ideas so easily misunderstood when stated as dogmas. Ideas like reincarnation reflect the aspect of timelessness that is part of this awareness. Ideas like complete and total Sabbath Rest from the desires of the body and mind reflect the aspect of total satisfaction of the heart’s deepest longings that is part of the experience. Ideas like non-duality in the union of lover and Beloved reflect the aspect of deepest homecoming that is part of this awareness.

Denying this aspect of the human experience, we discard a large proportion of what provides mankind with its most profound dignity; the dignity that arises from the core of self awareness, from consciousness itself. Part of the middle way is a balance between the inner world and the outer world we encounter in our daily experiences. Evolution primes us for paying attention to the outer world, our curiosity primes us to ask about our inner one. The practice of a contemplative is nothing more or less than the commitment to try and live in such a way that neither the one nor the other are allowed to dominate. Ritual offers a means of using externally perceived objects like a glowing tree as statements of internally perceived objects like the light of the mind.

On this holiday I would like to thank my readers from all over the world. These posts require a degree of commitment to share with me week after week. These words are my gift to you, your time and attention your gift to me. Thank you.

Happy Holiday friends.