Mindful Conversations

Where Buddhism Meets Gendlin


Of animality, gentleness keeps the secret. A fundamental and paradoxical wildness, as foreign to any kind of taming as childhood. Not falling only under the human condition, it delineates its limits. So close to animality that it sometimes merges with it, gentleness is experienced to the point of making possible the hypothesis of an instinct that it would call its own. It would be the trait of a primal “gentleness drive” of protection, of compassion — even of goodness itself. An instinct closest to the being that would be devoted not only to self-preservation but also relationships. What the animal disarms in advance, even in its cruelty (outside the range of human barbarity), is our duplicity.”

– Anne Dufourmantelle. Power of Gentleness. Fordham University Press.

I support a model of living which can (in a sense) ‘rewild’ us; not in the sense of returning to the land, the commune, or whatever (I’ll leave that to your preferences); but, I mean this in the sense of demonstrating that we are of the biosphere, already of the wild, and that ‘mind’ is already-always part of that bigger order. We have strayed from our ancestral domain, and find ourselves living very much on the surface of life. Our pervasive individual and collective disharmony is because we are not in alignment with this primordial depth. The wild order has never left us, even though we have packaged it in our conceptual units – and have come to believe that the universe really is comprised of bits. We can reclaim reality.

So, now I’d like to turn my attention toward the core issue of identity. How does a sense of self work, and how does language affect that? And how do we turn toward the ‘primordial ground’ of Being, and reclaim good mental and planetary health? And, then, most crucially, how can we understand ‘mind’ in such a way that we enter into that depth of living which we need? I want next to show the experiential basis of the notions of self and identity; and, to suggest how such notions, when seen without duplicity, don’t contradict the central Buddhist teaching of ‘not-self.’ This will lay a foundation for our further topics, such as selfishness (everyday narcissism), and human destructiveness.

To explore these questions, I am placing ‘experiencing’ at the centre of the way forward – just as Eugene T. Gendlin did, and just as the Buddha did. I lean in this direction as a result of my own changes. When I was in my mid-twenties – lost, and frightened of going mad – one night, a line from Bob Dylan’s Ballad of a Thin Man reached me. Dylan sang: “You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is. Do you, Mr. Jones?” At that moment the realisation dawned, with great relief, that I was experiencing – full stop. And that we are all experiencing, and experiencing just ‘This.’ While it didn’t radically change the fact that I was having trouble accepting the ultimate, what I could recognise was that my experiencing was actual, and that it was intrinsically of something bigger. I had the sense that I belonged to an open nonconceptual dimension which was more real than my concepts about it! There was, I felt, a way forward!

It might seem like a small thing, but it carried me forward because, experiencing being actual, I had an ever-present ground where I could focus my learning of how to live; and beyond that, where I could continue my inquiry into the nature of ‘mind.’ I didn’t understand the whole matter, right there – true – but I knew that it was true that I was happening and I could start to learn from my own living. I didn’t have to find someone who knew more than me. Where I lived and in those times, meditation teachers were as scarce as hen’s teeth. Nevertheless, I had something I could trust – the fact that something is going on, and that my experiencing is of that. I saw that could learn “from, with, in” this very body, because it was itself of nature. I realised that the body was not a pattern, but an openness to more.

It’s worth noting a principle here, which was explicated by a Chinese Chan master of the Tang dynasty, Dongshan Liangjie (hereafter simply referred to as Dongshan). On his waking up from the ego-bubble which entrances us all, he is reported to have said: “Just don’t seek from others, or you’ll be far estranged from self. I now go on alone; everywhere I meet it. It now is me; I now am not it. One must understand in this way to merge with suchness.” – Translated by Cleary, Book of Serenity.

As confused as I was, that night, a first recognition of “It now is me; I now am not it” had occurred. While I’ll continue to reiterate that thinking divides the Undivided, even so, that’s not the whole story. To grasp our situation of animality in a healthy way depends on a just such a recognition as Dongshan’s.


Preparedness for the Transformation at the Root

That day, concentrating to understand what Douglas Harding meant when he said, “I have no head,” my attention ‘looked back’ toward where I expected my seeing to be ‘coming from.’ As a result, my thinking ceased; because no such seer was to be found, and I was left with only the bare activity of seeing a luminous valley before me. Some such discovery – that I am not the kind of being that I imagine myself to be – was inevitable in the situation. What’s deeper than my constructions, that didn’t come into full view, however.

Right there – if I was prepared for such an inversion of the usual way of seeing; if I could see with an unflinching heart – right there was the opportunity to have ‘just the seen.’ With such an unusual, unconstructed perception, a special case of awareness can be discovered – one not established on the subject-object dualism. One can live deeply, seeing deeply, with that ground.

Later, I found the following words which worked well to describe this moment’s opportunity. The Buddha spoke these words to a yogi called Bāhiya: “Let there be, Bāhiya, in the seen, just the seen.” When I took my attention back to find the ‘I’ who was seeing, then for a moment, thought stopped – because there was in fact no locatable ‘me’ behind my eyes looking out. I have discovered from experience, over the years since that day, that in the state which the Buddha described to Bāhiya, this kind of seeing has no ‘from’ (and likewise no a ‘toward’). Space as we normally know it collapses.

If you are ready for the shift, a dissolution of your unexamined sense of ‘I-dentity’ occurs; an ‘I-dentity’ which has hitherto, for as long as you can remember, functioned to concoct your seeing according to personal agendas. The popular way of speaking about this these days is in terms of ‘projections.’ We see ‘over there’ what we are ‘here’ – at our end of the imagined ‘from and to.’ We see what we are conditioned to see. If, after becoming aware of the projections, they don’t happen, then there is ‘in the experienced, just the experienced.’ If you are experiencing ‘seeing’ there is just the seen. If you are experiencing hearing, there is just the heard. And likewise for all that you sense and cognize, whether you call it ‘internal’ or ‘external.’

Now that I look back to that occasion, I can understand that the possibility in the moment when thought stopped was to experience my unity with all of life. When one’s heart is sufficiently open, then naked seeing simple ceases to support the egoic sense of self, which really only sees its own self in the other. You may have had an intimation of this kind of experience if you have ever experienced an eye-to-eye encounter with an infant in its first month of life. Meeting the child’s simple, intimate, undefended gaze can be disconcerting to our habituated sense of self. The directness of the child’s gaze is such that you might feel uncomfortable at your end, unless you are in a special mode of consciousness – for example, if you have a parent’s presence, which is conditioned by millions of years of evolution. (Think ‘oxytocin,’ for instance.)

If, on the other hand, when looking back at the child with naked awareness – that is, if you don’t have some egoic state at your end – you will experience the dissolution of your ordinary sense of self. In his words to Bāhiya, the Buddha described the cessation this way, “When, in the seen, there is just the seen, then you are ‘not by that.’” Your awareness will not be established on the basis of imagining or conceiving the other at all, and at that juncture your egoic sense of self has no basis to stand upon. You might feel naked.

This egoic sense of self is what the Buddha spoke about soon after his awakening (recorded in a text called The Noble Search). There he is portrayed as saying that the truth which he had discovered was too profound for the unprepared to see – “hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning.” He felt that it was too subtle to teach to ‘this generation which delights in the sense of an ego-self. They delight in the sense of an ego-self, rejoice in the sense of an ego-self.

In this text, the Pāli word which I’ve translated here as ‘sense of an ego-self’ is ‘ālaya,’ which points to a ‘substrate.’ So, based on how it manifests at the substrate level, I’m tempted to translate it more evocatively as ‘the ego bubble.’ He’s saying, “People relish their ego-bubble. They love it and rejoice in it. It’s therefore hard for them to see this truth of dependent arising.

This is a helpful pointer to how we can think of our ‘preparedness’ for the revelation of a genuine ‘unestablished awareness,’ and the inversion of our usual world-view. Preparedness comes seamlessly when we compassionately study the ‘ego-bubble’ and become so familiar with it that we intimately know its drawbacks and dangers. We need to know ourselves. We need to comprehend our false sense of self so thoroughly that it loses its power over our experiencing. Then a deeper ground of living emerges.

And this needs to be a ‘combodied’ approach – that is, an approach based in mindfulness in this very body, this lived body which co-arises with all. This is the path I took to heal from the errors of understanding which beset me over the next couple of years.

Let’s notice now, then, that the real issue is not about ‘heads.’ The subject of the statement “I have no head” is ‘I.’ It is identity which is the heart of Douglas’ message. As for heads, I’ll demonstrate that we need not fixate on having or not having ‘a head’; and, I’ll do that without losing his essential point. My demonstration will involve understanding how thinking and saying function in relation to experiencing. This understanding was also an important part of my healing. This will mean a revision of the Harding method of speaking – a revision which we can look forward to. Nevertheless, we will stick to Douglas’ admonition to test all this in experience – to “look for yourself.”

Today I leave you with promise that I will also unpack the Buddha’s enigmatic comment on this very topic, recorded in the text known as the Sutta Nipāta. A man called Bāvari consulted the Buddha about a hostile threat, made by a rogue.  This villainous man declared that Bāvari’s head would be split into many pieces through the power of black magic. The Buddha’s paradoxical response, uttered for Bāvari’s consolation, was that:

The head is ignorance. Understanding splits the head in pieces. It is destroyed by understanding, with its army of powers – that is, with confidence, mindfulness, meditation, determination and energy. These are the powers that split heads.’ (Sn1026)

No Need for Struggle, or War

What is this sickness called ‘war’? Isn’t it centuries of carnage on the basis of fabricated conflicts of interest, which are in turn concocted on the basis of an even deeper fabrication – that of ‘identity.’ The narrow vision of “Us versus them” is, in my understanding, a mental illness.

Decades ago I was conducting workshops, and I offered an experiment in my groups in which the participants would be allocated an identity by me as the facilitator (playing God, if you will).  The premise of the experiment was that we don’t know what our identity is, in ordinary, everyday terms, unless others help us in forming and confirming it. All identity is formed interactively. The purpose of the exercise was to bring various sequences of behaviour forward which would illumine how identity is dependently formed and is dependently maintained.

[It would take up unnecessary space to say, here, how I did this; but, briefly, it involved putting coloured dots on the participants forehead, where they couldn’t see the dot, while others could; and then giving appropriate instructions involving what methods they could and could not use to find out their identity. For example, no words or other obvious symbolic gestures. Originally, I myself participated in this exercise in a workshop with Douglas Edison Harding (1909-2007), in the early ninties. I then adapted it to my own varying purposes.]

Our social identities are formed in interaction with others. The experiment was meant to convey a sense of real-life situations, obviously. For example, a baby is normally born without identifying with its skin group, its language group, or its native culture. Her/his/their enculturation is a fact which the baby can’t think about until much later – well after ‘identity’ has been set in train. Yet, immediately after birth (and even before), everyone around the baby begins ascribing a particular kind of identity on such bases; as I said, long before the baby has any self-consciousness of either of themselves as speakers of language, or of themselves as enculturated – long before we could think of our society’s methods of designating our existence and our inheritance. Waking up is in part waking up to how we’ve been formed by our culture. Beyond that, waking up is activating ways of relating that  connect us to a deeper ground than culture.

Back to the workshops. There, I only offered the participants four different identities – one of four colours which corresponded to the four corners of  whatever room we were in. One unexpected insight we got at the time happened because on one occasion I contrived something that they wouldn’t expect. I arranged it that there were a few people in the workshop who couldn’t be identified by the others in the group. I gave them  a colour which didn’t match those of the corners. Their ‘no-identity’ status meant that they didn’t fit the pre-existing categories, which were symbolised by the coloured dots in the four corners of the room. Everyone else negotiated the experiment ‘successfully.’ Afterward, when everyone reported their experience of the experiment, those few differently-labelled people reported what it was like not to find their place in the available groups.

They reported that it was disconcerting, even frightening, to not find a place for themselves in the whole group. In the course of everybody seeking where they ‘belonged,’ these people went through the attempt to belong in a pre-established group, and they found that they were rejected by each of the four groups. Even in such an artificial circumstance, this felt destabilizing. These non-fitting people found themselves gravitating to the centre of the room, and – here’s the message for the purpose of this essay – there they found each other. They gained solace from belonging to the group of non-acceptables in the centre of the room. The recognition that they had this in common with each other met an implicit need to belong – even in this artificial setup! They could belong there together, identified as those who didn’t belong to the bigger order.

Let’s notice though, it was an identity which was still formed in relation to the whole group. Even the outsider depends on the normal people for their identity as an outsider. Look around us: the politicians of every political colour harp on about the faults of others because they are nobody without those others. I am asking, “How do you think you can you be yourself, by defining yourself in distinction to others?”

In relation to the workshop participants (to whom I bow in recognition of their bravery), what is of special interest to me,  is that their fear arose on the basis of their thinking – not on the deeper basis of existing-as-Such. Is it really a big deal that I don’t fit in with pre-existing categories of thinking? Can I perhaps think freshly from my present situation, without moulding the situation to be a another version of the old order? If I recognise my existing-as-Such, isn’t there a place for me anywhere I am, even in death?

In the workshop, at the end of the exercise, the people who were united in their ‘outsider status’ at the centre of the room, they still thought they absolutely needed a label which could operate in the pre-established order – the order which depends upon others’ mirroring your identity. They were trying to go on in the old way. Hence this specific kind of  ‘need for another’ guided them to feel a unity with the other non-fitting members, and to establish a ‘new’ social position. Identity, under these circumstances, is still not other than fabricated. I pointed out that this is what the disempowered in any of the world’s disadvantaged districts were doing.

(Lest I be misquoted, I am not saying that the difficulties of the oppressed are their own fault. I’m talking only in the context of a much subtler and broader issue in the world, that of identity; but one which has devastating consequences just the same. Indeed, if our everyday, egoic identity didn’t keep society’s structures in place, would there be such a group as ‘the disempowered’? Wouldn’t the care for oneself and others which emerges from disidentifying with the false, wouldn’t that care ensure the ending of structures of oppression? Of course, it does. Care that’s not mired in loss and gain, acts intelligently.)

If one doesn’t privilege this merely socially constructed mode of identity, enjoying others goes with the living fact that I and they exist-as-Such. It was said, “Immature love says: ‘I love you because I need you.’ (Fromm, 1956). IN my view, love-as-such says: ‘I love you because you are.'” It is in the mode of experiencing-as-such that we know we and the other are actual. It is not possible to maintain our fictions in this mode, so love with the actual do you become that harmful behaviour dies out, with our fictions.

What was further interesting, as I conducted this experiment on a number of occasions, was how the non-fitting group could rouse antagonism (albeit mildly aggressive) toward the ‘normal’ people, toward the people who’s place was conventionally acknowledged. ‘Us versus Them’ seemed to arise out of a subtle resentment that ‘I am not  included among the normal.’ Furthermore, it felt empowering to be united as the ‘misfits.’

All of this identification, of course, is a fabrication, whether the identity is ‘normal’ or ‘outsider.’ Its basis is in the mental act of comparing.

Dear Reader, if right now you attune to dwelling in your situation – include above, below, all around, and in the middle, as your ‘situation’ – in its raw, living, unlabelled immediacy, is it comparable to anything, really? Aren’t all comparisons after the recognition, and hasn’t the recognition already changed it, moved it on to something else. When you start  looking for comparisons to that initial immediacy, then it’s changed.

Experiencing as such is Such. By the capitalisation I mean to say it’s incomparable. It’s simply itself – livingly. (If you do get that, it’s good to then check your body for the magical feelings of innate warmth and aliveness, by the way.)

Insecurity has its roots in false identity. Two beliefs or views which feed this insecurity can easily be named. They are at the root of most, if not all, wars. Firstly, to our cost, we identify with what is transient, what is contingently and rapidly changing; that is, we identify with what is insufficient by nature.

So, being a changing being who is dealing with a changing world, I grasp at changing things to alleviate my existential anguish. Is that going to work? What could better define the madness at the root of war? Especially given that, secondly, when I’m identified in that way, I have an unconscious belief that I exist in the way I think my ‘self.’ Believing that this is so, I believe that I can be annihilated. In other words, ultimately we fear our identity will be negated and annihilated by any other who is different.

This concocted mode of living is one which generates beings lost in thought. Such a way of life will never penetrate to the knowing at the heart of experiencing-as-Such. It can never satisfy us.

Even so, it is powerful. It can lead us to destroy ourselves and the other species with whom we share this beautiful planet. Perhaps that is what the insane presidents and generals want, given their manifestly high level of dissociation from reality. These lost creatures. It is undoubtedly a miserably deficient way to live, to struggle so. I’m reminded of ‘I know the truth‘ by Marina Tsvetaeva. She knew another way:

I know the truth — give up all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look — it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

– from Tsvetayeva: Selected Poems, by Marina Tsvetaeva.
English translation by Elaine Feinstein. Original Language Russian.

Harding and Having No Head

Sonorous thro’ the shaded air it sings.” (Pope, Odyss. viii. 214, ref OED)

I thought I would be able to write about human transformation by simply giving a model of the human being that works. But my own deepest personal trauma kept presenting itself as I wrote. I was probably a little slow to realise that I’ve got to include it in the writing; but that’s where I’ve arrived.

This approach immediately presents me with a dilemma. I want this writing to be as relevant as possible to a wide audience, but I am going to start with a highly unusual situation. I’m confident that this particular instance of human healing and awakening will have universal relevance; but, even so, it might initially seem to be far from my readers’ everyday life. I therefore hope dear Reader, that your kindness and patience will allow the unusual in this case – to put aside the thought that such a case is not likely to apply to you.

I hope to demonstrate that such an ordinary behaviour as ‘seeing’ – the ordinary sense of sight, seeing per se, regardless of the nature of the seen – is a doorway to a healthy mind-process. Indeed, that any ordinary sense activity is a doorway into the transformative wonderment toward life which we humans so need.

Close to fifty years ago I saw that I am not locatable anywhere perceptible. I am not found or located in what comes and goes; especially and least of all: behind my eyes. Another way of saying this is that after a very precise date, I could no longer ‘self-locate’ on the basis of the familiar inside/outside division. Wherever I looked, that distinction didn’t work to tell me who I am. However, for me this wasn’t as liberative as Harding must surely have intended it. I entered a profoundly ambiguous state tainted by childhood trauma.

This fifty years of work have not been fruitless, however. I am more at ease with my unfindability than ever; and, indeed, I find it a blessed fact. The changes which I have experienced since then, though these changes may have been gradual, even very slow, can be understood, and that is my goal in this project. More than that, though, I am sure a theory of human change can be derived from this understanding – if only because I am a human like any other (at least in respect of those aspects which I will include in this account).

Mine will be only one theory about human life, and I am not suggesting that it needs to be the only one; but, to be clear, I write it in the confidence that it is about being human, not simply about being an unusual individual who had an unusual experience. The basis of this confidence is that ‘experiencing’ is universal. As author Sue Hamilton-Blyth said (2000),

This is not to suggest that we all have the same experiences, but, rather, that what we have most in common is that we all do have experience – and, most fundamentally, the experience of being a human being on earth. Moreover, we all experience the notion of identity, of being human being A and not human being B.” (Hamilton-Blyth, Sue. Early Buddhism: A New Approach: The I of the Beholder.)

I’m taking this to be a self-evident first principle for all that follows in my own project. While possibly not ultimately provable by logic, it has nevertheless the sonorous ring of sanity. So it is: that I start with a description of the occasion of this particular trauma.

In 1975, I saw that I cannot be located. At first, my way of speaking about it owed its origin to the man Douglas Edison Harding and his little book On Having No Head. However, the matter was far from complete with that days’ events. Unrecognised by myself I was traumatised by the experience. The trauma in the situation was the shock of suddenly losing a fictitious sense of myself. I say ‘fictitious’ despite the fact that this kind of mental fiction was (and, is) shared by the majority of the general population of any country in the world – whether the culture is individualist or collectivist.

As I alluded to above, the egoic fiction says that you can be identified with what comes and goes, what is perceptible. I was not prepared for such a revolutionary turnabout in my consciousness of myself. It was an inversion of the common everyday understanding of ‘self.’ This understanding could be essentialized as: Our self-representations present us with who we are.

This break with convention occurred on a balcony of a home in North Canberra, Australia, on a fine winter morning, late June 1975. At this point in my life, I was not ready to so suddenly disidentify with the accumulation of self-representations I had built up since I was a small child. Hence, I experienced it as the loss of all that told me who I am. This project will be, then, in part, an examination of the meaning (that is, the experience) of the question, “Who am I?” – an inquiry into ‘Identity.’

As a separate project, I am writing an autobiographical fiction to explore the human phenomenon of Identity. So, to give you a feel for the experiential aspect of what I am conceptually describing, I’ll adapt passages from that manuscript.

It begins early to mid-winter in Eastern Australia, in the capital town Canberra, when breath forms clouds in the morning air, and frosty grass crunches and squeaks beneath one’s tread; when growth seems stilled for a time. It was Sunday morning of the last weekend of Australian June, 1975, around ten o’clock.

We begin our tale with a seemingly innocuous invitation from my friend Matthew. I am lodging temporarily in my friend Matt’s rented house, and I have just risen from a sleeping bag.


I had woken up earlier that morning on the floor of the study in Matthew’s share-house in Nardoo Crescent. I entered that day, the second full day in his home, supported by a sense of new a beginning. Dwelling each night in a sleeping bag in the corner of someone’s study, on the floor, might not sound an auspicious beginning to anything; but not waking up in bed with my dissatisfied wife held, for me, the promise of the freedom I was seeking.

In the kitchen, Matt handed me a thin paperback, saying: “This might prove interesting to you, Tige.”

“Yes?” I respond. I took the book. “Thanks, Matt.”

The cover was striking. It was a plain white cover; and in the front was a cut-out in the shape of a human head. I had never seen a book published with a hole in its cover. The first page was presented through the shape, and there revealed was the title of the book: On Having No Head. “Clever,” I thought, as I considered the design. I browsed its pages. The full title was On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious. A book on my favourite topic. I had been immersing myself in D.T. Suzuki’s translation of the Lankavatara Sutra, and absorbing everything written by Suzuki. I was reading almost nothing else but books on Zen in those days, contemplating myself and the world in their light.

It was a mild winter morning, so I made a cup of tea and took the book outside to sit in a plastic chair in the benign sun. Matthew went about his day. There was a balcony at the rear of Matthew’s place, which overlooked the peaceful plain of a suburban valley. The air was crisp. The sky, a luminous pale blue. I placed my tea on the table beside the plastic chair, then paused to look out over the valley spread before me. Here and there over the still valley, the household chimney were threading the air with low, horizontal smoke-streams. The slight haze didn’t obscure the hill on the other side of the valley. Standing for a moment, I took pleasure in the familiar form of Mt. Majura over there. Then I sat down, put my feet up on the balcony railing, and I began to read:

The best day of my life – my rebirthday, so to speak – was when I found I had no head. This is not a literary gambit, a witticism designed to arouse interest at any cost. I mean it in all seriousness: I have no head.

With that, Douglas Harding had had me transfixed. This ‘rebirthday’ idea was as compelling as any of the enigmatic Zen koans and mondos detailed in my three volumes of Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism. I too was looking for a rebirth. Without pause, I entered into Harding’s invitation, asking: “What can he mean?”

Certain phrases in this book were like signposts to that meaning. They appeared to raise themselves above the crowd of Harding’s sentences: “…absorbed in the question ‘What am I?‘” he wrote. And these: “I stopped thinking“; “Past and future dropped away“; “…utterly free of me.”

I looked up and out to the sleepy valley. Those sentences echoed for me. “Only the Now,” the voice of Harding said. I was excited. This was a wholly new kind of book on Zen, with a wholly unexpected line of inquiry.

Right now, under the blue of a southern sky, where I was gathering my energies inwardly on Matthew’s balcony, a flock of a dozen pigeons were circling above me. I noted the birds. And at the same time, I noticed how easy it is to be distracted from making this reading an experiential task. “If this not going to be just an intellectual reading,” I thought, then I really have to concentrate on ‘reality reading.’ Hence, I now more deliberately zig-zagged between reading a little text and then referring to my own immediate experiencing. Only the Now. The meaning wasn’t in the words, but in the experience.

The pigeons were now at about forty-five degrees. My sneakered feet on the railing, the book before me. I began to practice. I read a passage or two, and then took my eyes off the pages to look past my sneakers, out over the peaceful suburban valley, then up at the birds – all the while delving into the meaning of ‘I have no head.’

I noted the morning sun shimmering off their wings as they wheeled about, and a line for a haiku emerged in my thoughts: “Light bright off wheeling wings…” I looked back at the circling flock again, and then I looked inward, directly back to where I sensed I was seeing them from – back to where my head most assuredly must be. At this point, no change in my habitual impression of ‘having a head’ occurred.

I turned back to the little book. There on the page Harding continued his description of his awakening, which occurred when walking among the magnificent Himalayan mountains. He recorded that suddenly his thinking went quiet, and that when he looked, he saw: “…khaki trouserlegs terminating downwards in a pair of brown shoes, khaki sleeves terminating sideways in a pair of pink hands, and a khaki shirtfront terminating upwards in — absolutely nothing whatever! Certainly not in a head.

What could this man mean? I wanted to know.


Attention of and to the Matrix of Life

When I think over the fifty-six years since I left high school, I can say confidently that I can think of no single thing which has contributed to my healthy development (in terms of growing up and waking up) more than wisely-directed attention. Conversely, if I think of the suffering which I have brought upon myself and others at one juncture or another in that time, inevitably the most influential factor in my harmful behaviour was unskilful attention. If you ask what characterizes unskilful attention, I would say that in general I have hurt myself and others when selfishness has guided attention.

This may sound harsh, especially because when I left high school I was young – inexperienced, naive, and (in my case) very lost. That’s so. And yet, looking at the situation with an honest gaze, it was exactly that lack of self-knowledge that played a part in directing my attention unskilfully. I had much to learn, and the learning which has occurred was precisely due to the ‘right’ use of attention.

What characterizes ‘right attention’? Development became possible when attention was directed to knowing myself as a concrete life. The etymology of ‘concrete’ is helpful here. The word descends from a Latin root which means: to grow together. In the present context, what are the processes which are connected, or ‘grow together’?

I find this tricky to talk about, because the two processes I will start with aren’t ‘connected’ in the sense of there being ‘two processes’ at all. We talk that way, and it helps; but it’s not the most accurate way to conceive of our situation. That is, in a very real way the human individual is a growth movement with and of their matrix – which is the natural world. An individual is a separate process in some important respects, but not in all respects. World and organism are one interaction and move forward together. Your lived world and the big world of nature are indissolubly united in growing together. In his A Process Model Gendlin says that while the body and environment are in some respects different, “The body is a nonrepresentational concretion of (with) its environment.” That is, in its fundamental actuality it is one body-environment process.

So, let me suggest that the world of personal experience is both ‘within’ and of the bigger world. This has been recognised for a long time. What the European phenomenologists called ‘the lived world’ the Buddha called ‘a world within a world.’ The important thing to note here is that one’s lived world and the bigger life process have always grown together.

Humans have not only evolved ‘up from Eden,’ as has been said –  but, we have evolved with Eden. And the human process we call attention is still in the process of developing with vast nature as its matrix. When, at last, skilful attention led me to this realisation, and when I could confidently conceive of my body as of the world, then healthy development became organic.

But where do we now find ourselves, at this point within the evolution of the wider world? Poised for extinction, or for a further development? At our present level of development, we can think of our attention as functioning on two different levels. One level is shaped by three major urges such as: the need to possess people and things (a going toward); the desire to be aggressive (a going against); and a limited ability to learn from the matrix of primordial experiencing (a going away).

The other level involves disconnecting from the concrete in an even stronger way than simply a limit on learning. Via our capacity for symbol-making we effect a dissociation from bodily life. This second level creates the kinds of thinking and recreation of the world which are out of kilter with the way things are. This happens when preferences, thoughts, self-representations, and societal conditioning come into play. The matrix itself, of course, doesn’t prohibit this, but it is obvious that this level’s malfunctioning is not in favour of our continued life on planet earth.

The arising of symbolizing in the species was not itself a problem. For a time this level carried human life forward. However, it is how we are using it at this stage in our development which has brought our present dangerous predicament.

We will explore how this has happened, and the way forward. A large part of my project here is directed toward understanding what healthy attention is, and how it can develop from this ‘default mode.’ It might help us survive if we can develop attention in such a way that it can fulfil its true function as the world’s attention. It seems to me that this is an invitation that the bigger world offers.

Inner Guidance

If one lets oneself sense the whole feel of now, a sense of direction emerges, if it is sought…. It is the whole of one’s living which shapes this direction.” (Philosopher Eugene T. Gendlin, Thinking Beyond Patterns: Body, Language and Situations.)

There were so many explicit concepts in the previous post which would reasonably leave you with questions. I feel an internal pressure to return to any number of them. And, of course I will… in due course. However, so as to let felt thinking guide me, I want instead to pick up an issue which lurks between those lines. This is the issue of ‘inner guidance.’

On what authority does one say something is true which is not obvious to the senses or to established thought? On what authority do you decide an external ‘authority’ is trustworthy regarding the tasks of inner transformation? And, if you’ve established to your satisfaction that they are trustworthy, how can you verify what they say for ourselves?

To explore this in what follows, I think it necessary to contrast where we are going with where we are, or where we’ve been. In the ancient Buddhist texts, the Buddha deemed it necessary to contrast the ‘noble trained person’ with the ‘untrained person.’ I’ll generally speak of the ‘mindful person’ in contrast to the ‘unmindful person.’

The unmindful person largely avoids ‘the big questions,’ and so misses opportunities to further their inner development. They don’t become the author of their own path, even when they are accomplished in philosophical talk.

The point here is that one who wishes to have a reliable foundation for inner work must have a mindful relationship to evidence and authority. Being inattentive to our immediate, actual lives doesn’t work for that. Furthermore, even when mindful people engage the inquiry into ‘mind,’ they can bypass their emotional development. As I’ll explore later, the mere fact that a spiritual teacher has ‘woken up’ to the goal (however you name it) doesn’t mean that they’ve ‘grown up.’ That is, realisation of “true nature” doesn’t mean that they’ve dealt with their wounds sufficiently to guide others. A large number of spiritual teachers have harmed themselves and others for lack of understanding of this issue. But, let’s tackle this later.

So, I’m asking: How can we be confident when we think we know something? Some say that we never can, but is this the case?

We can say what doesn’t work to bring true confidence. When I was a young man, I shared with a friend that I was learning to be mindful. She asked me to tell her more; and upon hearing what was involved, she exclaimed “Oh, no! I wouldn’t want to know what I was thinking!” I was stunned. She was affirming a way of living which would ignore her mentality. (Here I want to set your mind at rest. There is a lot more to us than mere thinking. Mindfulness, in fact, reveals the breadth and depth of that ‘more.’ Possibly my friend intuited the vastness of the more, and baulked.)

This ignoring strategy – a very weak happiness strategy – is more common than we think. Philosophy got a very bad name in the 20th century: even a pop song said that it was just ‘talk on the cereal box.’ When you set aside academic pretence, though, philosophy can be an on-going discipline. We can clarify our thinking to enhance how we live on planet Earth. It matters to do this. That’s why the Buddha placed a particular emphasis on getting your view ‘right.’

Wonky thinking brings confusion in its wake. Unexamined thoughts influence action as much as, if not more than, the thoughts that are in your face, so to speak. Yet, in the matter of straightening out your thinking, the question of ‘authority’ becomes problematic. Belief doesn’t cut it. What then can guide our thinking such that our thinking serves us, and doesn’t control us? So that we can not be controlled, too, by others’ thinking. [?]

Throughout the world there is domination and tyranny – the tyranny of governments, the tyranny of churches in the name of God, in the name of love and peace. We have every form of authority thrust upon us, and most of us accept it because it is satisfying.” – Krishnamurti, Talk in Paris, May 20, 1965.

Some people say that, in matters of spirituality, you need to accept some truths (passed on by others) provisionally, until you can verify them experientially. I’m examining this traditional assertion, fleshing it out. It has become merely a cultural dictate for many, a habit passed on over thousands of years. I haven’t got space here to say more, though I will when we look at the inescapable fact of culture in our flesh.

We are better equipped for the task of independent learning than we tend to think. The scientific evidence is in: babies come into the world already gifted learners. They are inquiring minds. A newborn doesn’t suppose or believe anything, to begin the learning which carries their life forward.

What might this mean for us? Even if that capacity has been dimmed by the harm created by our industry-serving education, we still have it. There are ways to uncover that flexibility. Unless we become beginners again, we will remain encrusted by culture – rather than empowered by it.

If we already have an organism which is always in the process of carrying forward its development – an organism which generates itself freshly out of, in, and on from what it has just been – we only need to reignite the flame of attention that we were born with. There is a natural foundation present within us for the ‘getting’ of wisdom.

Letter to Friends: Concern

Dear Kalyanamitta,

I have had two life-long preoccupations. Firstly, ever since I was a child, I wanted to know what people were talking about when they referred to ‘the mind.’ This preoccupation first manifested as a wish to know what was meant by the word ‘I.’ At age four, I asked my father “Who am I?” I didn’t want to know my name and place in the family; but his answer was: “What are you talking about? You’re Christopher. You’re your mother’s son.” Yet, my question was more essential than this.

I wanted to know what the nature of the knower was. I knew that I knew things, but I couldn’t see that knower, the one who was experiencing the ‘seens’ and ‘heards’ of the world. I remember later, at nine years old, staring at some stones and asking, “They’re there (those stones), so where is the one who is seeing them, the one I am in here?” I’d look back, inwardly, to see if I could discern ‘me’; but to no avail. In adult language, I can say that from age four onwards, I was occasionally beset by perceptions about (what a sophisticated person might call) ‘the inside/outside distinction.’

I didn’t get any help in that project from my parents, or from the other the adults in my childhood world. They, as it turned out, were as lost as I was – and it showed. Violence was a constant in my childhood. It was in my home, in the local streets, and even in the classrooms at school. The human world was a very unsafe place. By the time I left high school at seventeen, I entertained the possibility that violence went with being human. The Vietnam War – a war I refused to participate in – was raging at the time. And, as well, by the completion of my university education, I knew well of two other shocking battle-fronts: one maintained by men against women, and the other maintained by men (mostly men) against the natural environs – against the earth, plants, sky, and waters; and against the non-human creatures which inhabit these domains.

I was, of course, like everyone else, divided against myself. Regarding my own divided mind, while I was still at high school I began to take steps to find some peace. I learned a form of Eastern meditation, I encountered the philosophy of Plato and his mentor Socrates, and I also read some texts by the Christian mystic Master Eckhart. Daily meditation opened up a whole new domain of discovery, an ancestral domain. Hence, by the time I left university at twenty-three, I had started on a path of personal transformation which would resolve – for myself, at least – those two issues; that of self-knowledge, and that of the world-wide war on nature. It was clear to me that humans are lost in concepts, leading us to be insensitive to what holds us, the ever-present matrix of dynamic self-generating life.

As I proceeded through my twenties, it became evident that our war on nature – that is, against the Earth, against women, against each other, and, peculiarly, against ourselves – all this, had its roots in our lack of direct acquaintance with (what we call) ‘mind’ and its false separation from ‘body.’ In other words, the root of all conflict lies in our estrangement from our own nature. Back in those days, too, I remember reading Gregory Bateson’s teaching that the ‘mind’ is nature, and that it is a relational process.

As an aside, it struck me in my mid-twenties that I had been in my country’s education system for at least twenty years – from kindergarten, and on through university; and, in that time, not one of my educators had raised the issue of the meaning of the word ‘mind.’ Everyone used it in the most casual of conversations, yet no-one whom I met seriously questioned whether we knew its referent (except my fellow counter-cultural, consciousness trippers). I do know now, of course, that there were philosophers and psychologists who had long asked how we know the world, but I didn’t personally encounter them in all my years in the education system. That, I think, is an indication of the ignorance inherent in a Western education.

Eventually, I was able to have first-hand experience of the presence of mind – firstly through Buddhist meditation practice; and then later with the help of Western phenomenology. These two streams of inquiry enabled me, not only to feel that presence but, to further specify in modern terms what kind of accessible bodily process we refer to, when saying and thinking the word ‘mind.’ The result has been the felt inclusion of the non-conceptual dimension of ‘mind,’ a palpable embrace which helped me begin to transform the causes of conflict in myself. My ‘letters’ will explicate what I mean by ‘non-conceptual.’

The activist Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, said in Being Peace (Parallax Press): “Meditation is to see deeply into things, to see how we can change, how we can transform our situation. To transform our situation is also to transform our minds. To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation. Awakening is important. The nature of the bombs, the nature of injustice, the nature of the weapons, and the nature of our own being are the same. This is the real meaning of engaged Buddhism.

‘Nature’ as the human and the ‘nature’ of everything else – it’s the same nature.

So, I am writing for those interested in contributing to the solution – the ending of conflict in humans. I meet regularly with people who are interested in healing the ‘inner’ roots of human conflict, the divided ‘mind.’ I’m not dismissing the ‘outer’ which you can study in politics, anthropology, sociology, psychology (which is mostly about brains, now), nor any other sciences. Neither am I saying that we can just meditate and all problems will be solved. Action to bring about change is important. However, without getting the ‘inner’ dimension right, we’ll only be angry, hateful forces; merely hoping that our scatter-gun can bring about change. As Dylan said, we’ll become our enemy in the instant that we speak.

sFundamentally, we need new models of the human which can stand alongside the dominant scientific concepts. Western society is still privileging models of human behaviour based on observations of the ‘outer,’ as though what’s going on ‘over there,’ at a distance, can tell us what is most essential about ourselves.

Science hasn’t yet formed a model for human knowing which includes the way we actually experience ourselves. Science has no place for what it’s like to feel like a human. Philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked, ‘What’s it like to be a bat?’ I presume that what he was getting at is the perennial importance of asking: ‘What’s it like to be a human being – a human being?’ “What’s it like to be you – a unique human, being?” Science is delightful and useful, to be sure, but experiencing yourself is a wholly different matter. I don’t experience neuronal networks. I experience body, feelings, perceptions, intentionality, and consciousness. (Here, there are other words and models for how to say what we experience. But this will do for now. The point is, these I can be mindful of.)

I have had various trainings, both Eastern (Buddhism) and Western (psychotherapy and phenomenology). I have learned much about ‘this being human’ from four main sources: from my compassionate teachers; from exploring in mindful psychotherapy sessions with many non-Buddhist clients (as a therapist myself); from experiencing my own being-as-such; and, from teaching Buddhist practice. My ‘letters’ will, no doubt, reflect all that.

I wish to suggest a model of the human being which can help transform of our underlying tendencies to destructiveness. In sum, I could say that I will unpack Nhat Hanh’s statement: “To transform our minds is also to transform our situation, because the situation is mind, and mind is situation.” (My emphasis.)

In this model, where “Awakening is important,” I place ‘experiencing’ to the forefront. The question “What’s it like, really, to be a human?” matters in every situation on our little blue planet – the only world that we people and all the other species inhabit. Let’s talk about the state of Being-here, everywhere we can.

Next: The person who wishes to discover what is true, what is real – and what is truly beautiful – must have a different relationship to authority than the person who ignores his or her relationship to (‘what is’).

Language is Wilderness

Humans seem to miss that language is not created by culture. It’s nature (as us) which has generated language and culture. The following is a more elegant, robust view of the situation:

We can certainly say that the natural world (which includes human languages) is mannerly, shapely, coherent, and patterned according to its own devices. The four thousand or so languages of the world model reality each in their own way (following Whorfian theories of the deep effects of each language on world-view) — with patterns and syntaxes that were not invented or created by anyone — organically evolved wild systems whose complexity eludes the descriptive attempts of the rational mind.” – Gary Snyder, Language Goes Two Ways. Kyoto Journal. November 5, 2011

Open Heart, Open Mind

There’s a story in a Buddhist text (the Honeyball Sutta) that the Buddha was meditating in the forest one-day when an old man from his own home tribe came by and challenged him: “What’s your doctrine, Recluse?

“My doctrine, Friend, is such that I don’t argue with anyone; a doctrine wherein one who is free from attachment is free of the underlying tendencies which beset of person (and which lead to violence).”

What might this look like in practice? There’s a story on the focusing.org site about a man in Afghanistan, who argued with his neighbour over water rights. So angry was he that he went back to his home to get a weapon. – no doubt, in his view, to return and revenge his honour.

However, this man had been taught Focusing, so that while at his home it occurred to him that he may ‘have a guest.’ A guest in the heart is a ‘someone’ (you could say) who is not intrinsic to the human heart. So he sat down, there, and looked inward at his feelings and at the ‘more’ which came there – some of the ‘underlying tendencies,’ the Buddha might say.

And indeed he did discover that it was a ‘guest’ and not his authentic self who wanted to return in violence to his neighbour. So, instead, he returned and told his neighbour that he would take his water rights the next day and his neighbour could have them today. His surprised neighbour asked what had happened, so he told him about Focusing.

In my view, Focusing is a way of contacting the subtle source of meaning-making in the felt body. It’s a way of transforming and not maintaining the tendencies to division in us which give rise to so much human conflict.

The man’s neighbour was impressed, and as a result the village set about expanding the opportunities for Focusing. They set up a house for purpose. (You can read an account of the story here.)

I talk about the necessity for us to learn how – in whatever way we can – how to listen deeply, to ourselves and to others. The violence between us and against nature, this is optional. It may take decades, or centuries, but it is created by thought, not by organic nature. We can engage in a learning which is of the nature of an unlearning.

To do this we have to be willing to meet our habits of ‘mind.’ I know, from practice, that it’s a daunting proposition. You might think, if it means that we have to know our own thoughts for there to be peace between humans… well, that’s a two thousand years project. This may be the case; but what choice do we have? More importantly, though, we can begin to feel some changes and benefits now.

I remember talking with a friend many years ago and telling her how I was learning mindfulness. On hearing that it means being aware of everything about yourself, as it’s happening – your body, feelings, sense perceptions intentions and thoughts – she exclaimed, “Oh, God! I don’t want to know what I’m thinking!”

It is nevertheless possible to survive such intimate self-knowledge, and it really does make a difference to the quality of your relationships. In fact, it changes everything if you follow it through to the root. It does transform the ‘underlying tendencies’ which give rise to discord. We become a ‘guest house’ for whatever negativity or exaggerated passion which may surface; so that, like the Afghani man, we realise we are more than our desires and hungers – more than the stuff of our personalities.

We are forever hankering after and yet resisting the world as it is – the world with all its insecurity, all its loss, all its changes. I think my friend felt there was something she’d lose, to know herself so intimately. Yet, when we give up concocting reality, something priceless remains. And that knowledge provides, as the Buddha would say, “a pleasant abiding here and now”; complete, I need to add, with all the power you need to stand against injustices. The end of being run by the underlying tendencies to division is: peace of heart, a flourishing inner life, and an energetic, engaged life.

Our Afghan friend in the story was inspired by the Rumi poem “The Guest House.” This poem was perhaps inspired by an earlier teaching of the Buddha:

“In a guest house, Practitioners, people from the east may take lodgings, or people from the west, north or south. People from the warrior caste may come and take lodgings there, and also brahmans, middle class people and the underclass.
“Similarly, Practitioners, there arise in this body various kinds of feelings; there arise pleasant feelings, painful feelings and feelings which are neutral; there are gross feelings that are pleasant, painful or neither; and subtle feelings that are pleasant, painful and neutral.”

The Buddha’s way was to be kind, compassionate, and dispassionate toward our ‘guests.’  Rumi said, “Greet them at the door, laughing.” They are transformed by relating with understanding.

Ways of Seeing the Body

What is clear from the experience of mindfulness, from this practice of immediacy, is that the lived body is not the body of science, nor the medical body; that it has gradations from (what might be called) course experience to very subtle. And instead of being a mere ‘housing’ for an owner, it has level upon level of intelligence of its own. Perhaps if humanity listened more attentively to the body’s wisdom, we might find a way forward in a way that respects nature, and doesn’t dominate it. Anyhow, at the very least, you and I can contribute by finding our way into belonging on the earth, by attuning to our bodies.

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