silent retreat

Last week, I drove from Baltimore to Montreal for the sole purpose of retreating into silence with a group of six strangers. This was the third time in my life I have attended a silent retreat. The first time was for three days, the second was for ten, and this latest was for four. There is fairly wide agreement among those I meet that this is a strange and undesirable way to spend time, but I do not agree. Yes, it might be strange, but in fact, I can think of nowhere I would rather be. Having tasted the vastness of awareness that opens so easily in communal silence, I have found myself craving it, especially following busy times in my life. After my longest retreat at Santa Sabina, hosted by Richard Miller in the spring of 2007, I swore that I would never again miss that yearly opportunity to move into silence with a group of like-minded folks and gifted teachers. As 2008 arrived, I was given a work-study scholarship to the May Santa Sabina retreat, but I was unable to accept it due to a schedule overlap with final exams for my first semester as an adult student. I have since left the mainstream academic world of final exams, embarking on a self-directed study of contemplative practices at Goddard College. While studying contemplative practices it seemed to make sense to incorporate some personal contemplation and so I included this retreat, held in the mountains an hour east of Montreal. The retreat was lead by Joan Ruvinksy who I met, in silence, at Santa Sabina in 2007. Joan was one of many participants, in addition to Richard, who led practices during the ten days in Santa Sabina. What follows is an essay on this latest period of silence including a description of my understanding of the nondual teachings/philosophy as I’ve absorbed them from Richard and Joan, an overview of the practices used, and first-person observations of my experiences of contemplative communal silence.

THE “TEACHINGS”
As Joan puts it, on retreat “we meet in the paradox of apparent teachings,” apparent being the operative word. I come away from encounters with Joan and Richard with the sense that there is nothing to be sought. “Practice or don’t practice,” still there’s just this. Richard and Joan were both students of Jean Klein, a French doctor and chamber musician who, as they put it, “never took himself to be a teacher of anything.” What was offered by Jean Klein, and in turn by Joan and Richard, is a freedom from the need to be a student. There are no methods to learn, no practices to engage in with discipline or otherwise. There is nothing to believe or adopt. Nothing offered in their apparent teachings need be taken as truth, but instead, can be explored using a radical empiricism of first person experience. In my time with them, these apparent teachers have offered useful guideposts with great patience, described here as I currently understand them:

Doing happens, there is no doer.

Perceptions, thoughts, and actions arise, all within unbounded awareness. It is only after the fact that the story of self as controller is instantaneously and convincingly crafted to own the sensation, thought, or action. The moment of ownership presents an opportunity to return to presence. There is a palpable contrast in the global feeling tone when one takes ownership of an event arising in conscious experience. The first is a closing around the event and the second creates space around it. For example, when the event is the sensation of physical or emotional pain, the automatic framing is that I am in pain. In contrast, the framing of this sensory event as pain is arising feels different in the body. There is a space created when perceptions are free to arise within an expanded attentional field of awareness.

This too.
There are many ways in which meditation teachers encourage opening to the good and the bad in our lives, to all that is. The following Rumi poem is frequently evoked in yoga circles.

Guest House
This being human is a guest house
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

When we close the door to shame or malice, we are in effect saying no to the present moment. Byron Katie calls our closing to the chunks of life we don’t accept as arguing with reality. The practice Joan offers during these arguments with reality is the useful expression “this too”. I have found it most useful when I become aware of a ‘no’ and, in fact, have begun to cultivate the practicing of listening for no. Attending to these moments when we wish things were other than they are illuminates their pervasiveness. It’s easiest for me to catch the arrival of no when I’m in physical or emotional pain. The identification with pain and the subsequent no happen quickly in the wilds of life, but relaxing into this too opens the experience up and the pain appears as but one of a myriad of perceptions arising in the present moment. While on silent retreat, I have had experiences where it feels as if I’m practically swimming in no, but gradually, there appear cracks between the no’s and I am able to open to this too.

There is no separate self, no separate other.
The first time I heard Richard present this idea, he described meditating on a rose long enough to realize that you are the rose. “There is no separation,” he said. This was many years ago and at the time, my mind balked at the apparent illogic of it interpreting it as some sort of semantic gamesmanship in which separation of my self from the rest of the world was merely a matter of perception. I have since heard this premise of nondualism framed in many ways, some of which have appealed more to my thinking mind than others. More importantly, I have had first person experiences of this nonduality which can best be described as an opening into pure consciousness in which my own previously identified self, as well as the perceived other, were both arising. Put another way, moment to moment, my own embodied being provides me with the capability to perceive the portion of the world with which I am currently in contact, both inner and outer. All of these percepts, whether originating from inside or outside this body/mind are arising within pure consciousness, hence no separation. The trap often comes by assuming that we are the self we have become so firmly identified with.

Until I arrive at a better understanding and ability to articulate these non-teachings, I will simply note that I have found the combination of doing happens and this too provide an applied philosophy that translates well into engaged living outside of the protective cocoon of silent retreat.

THE “PRACTICES”
During retreats with my nondual guides, there are many practices offered, though each is presented as completely optional. This is not a nondual school of the zen variety. Discipline is neither demanded nor encouraged. The teaching lineage was never embraced by Jean Klein, and so lost, but it is known that these are tantric teachings rooted in Kashmir Shaivism. Though there are ancient texts available for study and modern Indian teachers who continue to teach this brand of nondualism, Joan warns of closing around cosmologies, practices, and doctrines. The following is a brief description of the practices employed during these silent retreats. The descriptions are not here to provide instruction of how one might perform them, but instead to provide context for the experiences presented later.

Kapalabhati
The morning practice on retreat begins with kapalabhati, sanskrit for skull shining breath. This is a breathing technique which incorporates a gentle but active drawing in of the abdominal muscles during exhalation and a passive relaxation of those same muscles on the inhale. Each breath cycle happens fairly quickly and is relatively shallow. Kapalabhati is considered a kriya, or purifying practice, done before other breathing techniques of pranayama (energy/breath work).

Alternate nostril breathing
Several forms of alternate nostril breathing practices are employed including nadi shodhana, viloma, anuloma, and pratiloma pranayama. These practices include various combinations/alternations of inhales and exhales through one or both nostrils. For instance, during anuloma pranayama (anuloma means “with the grain”) one inhales through both nostrils, exhales through the left while closing the right nostril with the thumb, inhales through both nostrils, and exhales through the right nostril while closing off the left with the ring finger.

Mudras
The word mudra in sanskrit means seal. Though many mudras are gestures that involve the whole body, the term is often equated with those gestures conducted using only the hands. A simple mudra most people are familiar with from images of meditating yogis is the cin, or consciousness, mudra in which the tips of the thumb and forefinger touch to form a ring and the remaining three fingers remain open. There are many mudras presented during the morning practices of these retreats. They can be done alone or in conjunction with the kapalabhati. Richard even teaches a sequence of mudras, one for each of the 29 syllables of the morning chanting of the Gayatri Mantra.

Yoga nidra
Yoga nidra is a form of meditation in which attention is directed to sensation, breath, feeling, thought, mental imagery, identity, and pure presence. One could contrast it with other types of still silent meditation that engage either open attention or sustained focused attention on a single object. In yoga nidra, attention is cycled through the body. In classical yoga nidra, this rotation of consciousness maps closely to that of the sensory cortex. Additional attentional exercises incorporate combinations of a large number of passive techniques, sequentially addressing each of the aforementioned realms of experience (breath, feelings, and emotions, thoughts, etc…)

Body sensing
The practice of body sensing appears to be unique to the students of Jean Klein. Body sensing could be thought of as yoga nidra in motion, bringing in the motor element missing in a still, supine yoga nidra practice. Body sensing is a moment to moment inquiry into unmediated sensation during movements that arise spontaneously. The language of the guide encourages the student to move effortlessly (or to notice the arising of a doer) with exquisite attention to sensation. Movement is invited to arise without will so that motion and sensation may be observed arising within an expanded field of attentional awareness. It is a practice that does not make much sense to the thinking mind but one in which the senses themselves come alive. The practice is heavenly for some and excruciating for others.

Partner gazing
This is a simple practice of using the eyes of another as the object in awareness. While it is quite simple, it can be a bit tricky. Many retreatants have described it as a difficult and uncomfortable practice during which self-consciousness, projections, judgement of self, and judgements of their partner arise. When one can relax into an open attention in which the perceptions of self and other arise within pure conscious awareness it can be a powerfully illuminating tool for dismantling limited concepts of separation. I have found this and other open-eyed meditation practices to be very effective techniques for guiding me fully into the present moment in which what arises is simply observed, not identified with nor projected onto the other. In contrast to the open-eyed sitting meditation technique of zen’s zazen, having an “other” with which to work illuminates moments in which the experience of self and other arise.

THE PROGRAM
Though I wanted to remain open to whatever the experience of four days of silence offered, the 650 mile drive through blazing fall color in the Catskills and Adirondacks gave me ample time to build up expectations. I was a bit concerned that four days was not enough time to settle into the silence but the first morning of awakening to the pre-dawn intoning of the tiny Tibetan cymbals called tingshas brought me right back to the slow oscillating, dynamic equilibrium of luxurious silence. Each day began with one hour of optional practice. This time is for one’s personal practice. The nondual tradition taught by the teachers with whom I’ve attended silent retreats is one that offers techniques as tools, not as disciplines. This non-dogmatic outlook attracts people from many different backgrounds and so all manor of personal practices might be in evidence during the first hour of the morning. Though I had planned to do my own, often lazy, hatha yoga practice, the stunning beauty of the mountain sunrise transfixed me and I spent every morning in the warm quiet kitchen, looking out the east-facing windows with a cup of black tea, milk, and sugar (ed. note On reading this essay, Joan pointed out that mountain-gazing is a yoga practice described in the ancient text, Vijnana Bhairava. Maybe I’m not as lazy as I think I am.)

At 7:30 a.m., the tingshas called the group together for morning practice. We began by chanting three rounds of the Gayatri mantra ( known as the celestial song of light), practiced kapalabhati with accompanying mudras, and pranayama followed by silent sitting meditation. Not that long ago, I would have read the preceding sentence and promptly labeled this whole business as suitable only for new agers. I consider myself lucky that my first yoga teacher was a former sales rep firmly rooted in western normalcy and that only later was I introduced to these practices in bits and pieces, never receiving a chunk large enough to be considered a threat to my supremely rational self. Even after several years of yoga classes, I was alarmed to learn that my yoga teacher training would include the presentation of something called “alternate nostril breathing.” Despite my trepidation, the practice, known as nadi shodhana, has become one of my go-to tools for dealing with stress, but I digress.

When the morning practice hour ended, we moved into our silent breakfast, free to do as we pleased until late morning when the group reconvened for body sensing and yoga nidra. In the past, body sensing has been the practice I most enjoyed while on retreat, but the first two days in Montreal it was especially difficult to do the practice. I simply wanted to be still. And who was stopping me? This is the kind of question that arises in experience hundreds of times a day during silent retreats, and once it surfaced in this context, I did, in fact, lay flat on my back during body sensing, with movements so small they could probably not be seen by an outside observer. As has been my experience in previous retreats, these micro-movements amplified the sensory volume to levels I have never before experienced, and allowed short durations of pure sensation, beyond thought, image, body awareness, or proprioception. It is the experience of unmediated sensation, and one that proves surprisingly elusive. It is difficult to illustrate to one who is currently engaged in reading but I’ll try, nonetheless. Once you read my suggestion, maybe you will take a moment to take a break from reading this essay to give it a try.

Close your eyes and bring your attention to the sensations arising in the inside of your mouth. As you shift awareness from left to right sides, top and bottom surfaces of mouth and tongue, upper and lower teeth, notice if you find yourself thinking about or visualizing these parts of your mouth. Continuing to explore sensations while softening the eyes away from mental images, softening away from thought and continue to experience the entire inside of your mouth as a mass of pure sensation arising in open awareness.

This is the kind of guidance offered during both body sensing and yoga nidra, which was our last practice each morning. From 10 to 11:30 we moved like glaciers through a long body sensing practice, took a 15 minute break, and returned for 45 minutes of yoga nidra. Since yoga nidra is most often practiced lying down and the long drive had taken its toll, I struggled to stay awake during the first two day’s yoga nidra practices and fell fast asleep almost the instant I got supine. Lunch following yoga nidra was a riot of sensation, further amplified by the freedom from the distraction of the social demands of speech. Our time was unstructured until the late afternoon where the group came together for 20 minutes of silent meditation followed by a check-in to share whatever was arising. This introduction of dialog was a bit hard to transition into and out of and I wished the plan had been to remained in silence for several days before engaging one another. The act of speaking was so heavily laden with the emergence of my own sense of “I”-ness that I was not able to fully welcome it at the time. In retrospect, the contrast it provided was illuminating and reminiscent of coming out of silence after my last, much longer, silent retreat at which time I was painfully aware of the reemergence of my own personality. The third day of the retreat, our afternoon dialog was replaced with partner gazing. Though I was disappointed in having only one day of partner gazing practice, we were able to sit with three different partners in succession, each providing new insights. Silence returned as we moved into the dinner break and the evenings were spent chanting and reading poetry.

Each night I went to bed the moment the evening gathering ended at 9 p.m., falling quickly to sleep.

THE INSIGHTS
I’m afraid my insights will read like the nonsense William James found upon emerging from a seemingly insightful nitrous oxide episode. Everything he wrote down to capture the “fire of infinite rationality” turned out to be “meaningless drivel.” So it goes. What follows are random observations of what arose during the retreat, in no particular order.

Being elsewhere. For the first few days I found that each time I began to settle in and enjoy the silence I was pulled elsewhere. It was as if an epiphany or simply a good feeling was being co-opted by my personality, projecting it into the future and attempting to figure out how I could possess this good feeling and trot it out whenever I desired. My insights during these first few days just as often projected me back in time, eliciting judgements of how my ignorance preceding this wonderful new knowing were evidence of my lack of fitness as a meditation and yoga teacher. The tyranny of my identity became grossly apparent.


Dynamic equilibrium.
I awoke during the middle of my first night to the sense that I was experiencing, in real-time, the firing of synapses, a sparkling network of transmission and feedback echoing like sound waves in a cave. It felt as if I could sense the interference patterns evolve into a steady state of softly oscillating patterns. The theme of oscillation continued throughout the retreat, fed by readings in the ancient text The Spanda-Karikas (The Divine Creative Pulsation). Pulsation, or as I was experiencing it, a dynamic equilibrium of gentle oscillation, was evident as subject and object repeatedly emerged and merged. This happened in partner gazing, during body sensing, and while just sitting focused on nothing, as my rods and cones tired and colors and shapes became only dimly present amid spreading ripples of dim and light not unlike those one often sees with tightly closed eyes. Once I began to settle into this experiential playground of openness in which all perceptions were heightened, though not necessarily distinct, it became harshly apparent when the tyrants of I, me, and mine arose to ruin the fun. This too.

The gap. As we sat with closed eyes during the morning meditation, there was an abrupt and fairly loud sound. During that afternoon’s dialog, Joan described how in the stillness of the morning’s meditation, a gap opened up between the sensation of sound and the formation of its resulting perception/realization that a bird that had just flown into the large window of our meeting place. I too have noticed the formation of these gaps between sensation and perception, but during this retreat, I was aware more often of the simultaneity of the two occurrences. Perhaps with a few more days of silence I would have once again witnessed the slowing of time and the opening of such a gap, but my predominant experience on this retreat was one of perception as a reminder to revisit the echo of sensation, attempting retroactively to experience it in a form unmediated by thought.

The power of an ‘other’. In keeping with my earlier experiences on retreat, partner gazing turned out to be a powerfully illuminating practice. My first two out of three experiences were full of the oscillations between self emerging and merging. The sense of “I” emerging was accompanied by inner dialog. In fact, inner dialog is often a reminder for me to sense back to the ground in which the dialog is arising. My sit with a third partner was similar to an experience I had at Santa Sabina. While this experience was not accompanied by the slowing of respiration that occurred in 2007, it did have a similar immediacy of presence. These moments are difficult to describe. It felt like sense domains softened and blended together and the air itself becomes more substantial as if thick and palpable, having texture and sound. In my earlier experience at Santa Sabina, this perceived thickness pervaded even cognition, as the thought process slowed enough so that the formation of thoughts themselves could be witnessed in realtime. An interesting paradox considering the simultaneous sensation of real-time immediacy, as if there was no lag between stimuli and perception.

Hypnogogic <-> Hypnopompic. When setting up for yoga nidra practice on the third day I chose to sit up. I wanted to stay awake during the practice but within minutes I found myself zooming down through the hypnogogic state at the edge of sleep. Since I was sitting up, the swaying of my head brought me back up through hypnopompic state that usually accompanies the transition from synchronized sleep to wakefulness. Following the practice I was puzzled and a bit frustrated that I had not heard a word that Joan said. Only much later, once I had returned from Montreal, did I realize what an interesting experience it had been since we normally have only one opportunity each day to experience each state and when going to sleep at night we are rarely aware enough to observe the transition. During that forty minute practice, I’d passed through both the hypnogogic and hypnopompic states, however briefly, about 20 times. In fact, it felt as if I was oscillating steadily between the two states. The phenomena present at the moment of ascension when full awareness returns is very much like that described in the previous description of immediacy of presence. As if reality is simple more real and completely unadulterated by thinking.

In the days since my return to interactive life it’s been difficult to sustain even glimpses of this unadulterated realness. The first few days I awoke early and continued the hour of morning practices but the perception of a self that needs to do things has whittled away more and more of the time allotted to just sitting. There are books to read, papers to write, classes to teach and the ownership of doing is returning so much more quickly than I’d hoped. While on retreat, the morning’s progression from darkness to sunrise was my most consciously open time of day. It was the time of day during which my oscillations between separation and union were at their slowest. It is also the time when, now home, I am most able to sustain the quickly fading insights of silent retreat. The sense of self as doer is back and any thoughts on when/if I will ever come to reside in just this is yet another attempt to hang on to the wondrous experience of being at play in each moment. This too.

the search for a contemplative studies graduate program

It looks as if I have finally found an academic home, at least for the next two years. If all goes well, I’ll be starting a Master’s Program at Goddard College in August ’08. My search for a graduate program began in December 2006, almost 4 years into a hiatus that began when I heeded a persistent call to leave my job as a research programmer in the field of bioinformatics. Without having a clear idea of why my work in software was no longer fulfilling me, I began what might be described as a gestational period during which I became an avid armchair student of Buddhism, yogic philosophy, psychology, and neuroscience. Since then, I have taken two extended solo photo-expeditions to Asia, visiting Nepal, Thailand, India, Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, continued to deepen my study of yoga and meditation, and began formal academic coursework at the University of Maryland. During this period, the idea of pursuing graduate studies further germinated, giving me a deeper and increasingly coherent understanding of what ignites my passion to learn.

At the core of my calling is a commitment to gain a comprehensive view of how we as individuals learn about ourselves and our gifts, and thus become increasingly able to place these gifts into service. To understand the formation of individual identity and its subsequent transcendence, one must grasp a wide spectrum of physiological, psychological, and spiritual processes.

In pursuit of this end, I began augmenting my formal education in January 2008 through undergraduate courses in psychology, organic chemistry, and writing while researching graduate programs in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and religious studies. While these areas of interest initially appeared to me to be unrelated, they are each pivotal to the focused field of inquiry I envision centered on contemplative practices, specifically how they can be used as tools for intellectual, psychological and spiritual growth, development, and fulfillment. In designing a proposed program of study, I have incorporated elements of the undergraduate Contemplative Studies curriculum created by the faculty of Brown University. That program clearly articulates the ways in which the study of contemplative practices lies in the area of overlap of these seemingly disparate fields. A more detailed description of my interests in contemplative studies is as follows:

  • Attention: the neurophysiology of states of attention and the ways in which contemplative practices direct and, in some cases, manipulate attentional focus. I am interested models of attention including wide-angle vs. narrow focus and narrative experience vs. global focus.
  • Embodied Cognition: the means by which the experience of sensation shapes our understanding of self and our environment and our continued revision of these views. I am interested in traditions that explicitly employ sensation in mediative practice such as the tantric branches of yoga and Buddhism.
  • Emotion and Cognition: the relationship between somatic experience of emotional states and language. I am interested in meditation techniques that address the implicit learning and explicit revision of emotional patterning in addition to the underlying mechanisms by which these patterns are established and revised.
  • Milestones of Meditative Experience: the common experiences encountered after continued meditative practice as described in the teaching texts of Eastern philosophical traditions such yoga, Kasmir Saiivism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism. Specifically, I am interested in studying the neural mechanisms underlying the perceived dilation of time and its possible relationship to increased sensory sampling as the result of directed attention.
  • Scientific Study Design: the special challenges faced when designing scientific studies examining the mechanisms and/or effects of contemplative practices. I am interested in techniques such as electroencephalography, functional magnetic resonance imaging, and diffusion tensor imaging, as well as in understanding the challenges of studying subjective experience using such techniques as compared to self-report methods.

In an effort to address the physiological mechanisms underlying several of my areas of interest, I’m working to build a foundation in psychophysics, biochemistry, and functional neuroanatomy and I continue to broaden my exposure to contemplative practices of all kinds.

While my graduate program reading list is sure to evolve, here is my preliminary best guess at the texts I’ll be working with as part of my self-designed Goddard Program:

  • Mind in Society: Development of Higher Psychological Processes. L. S. Vygotsky , Michael Cole , Vera John-Steiner , Sylvia Scribner , Ellen Souberman. Harvard University Press, 1978
  • Experience And Education. John Dewey. Free Press, 1997
  • The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. Kieran Egan. University Of Chicago Press, 1998
  • The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Antonio Damasio. Harvest Books, 2000
  • Memory, Brain, and Belief (Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative). Daniel L. Schacter , Elaine Scarry. Harvard University Press, 2002
  • The Mind’s Past. Michael S. Gazzaniga. University of California Press, 1998
  • The Relaxation Response. M.D. Herbert Benson , Miriam Z. Klipper, HarperTorch, 1976
  • Neuroanatomy Through Clinical Cases. Hal Blumenfeld. Sinauer Associates, 2002
  • The Meditative Mind. Daniel Goleman. Tarcher, 1996
  • Attending to the present: mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference. Farb et al. Social Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience. Volume 2, Number 4, Pp. 313-322
  • Parietal cortex and representation of the mental Self. Hans C. Lou et al. PNAS April 27, 2004 vol. 101 no. 17 6827-6832
  • Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain. Mark F. Bear, Barry W. Connors, Michael A. Paradiso. Lippincott Williams & Wilkin, 2001
  • Neuroanatomy: An Atlas of Structures, Sections, and Systems Duane E Haines. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2008
  • Cognitive Models and Spiritual Maps : Interdisciplinary Explorations of Religious Experience (Journal of Consciousness Studies). Jensine Andresen , Robert K C Forman. Imprint Academic, 2000
  • Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul. Francis Crick. Scribner, 1995
  • The Quest for Consciousness: A Neurobiological Approach. Christof Koch. Roberts & Company Publishers, 2004
  • The Boundaries of Consciousness: Neurobiology and Neuropathology (Progress in Brain Research). Steven Laureys. Elsevier Science, 2006
  • Emotion and Consciousness. Lisa Feldman Barrett, Paula M. Niedenthal, Piotr Winkielman. The Guilford Press, 2007
  • A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness: From Impostor Poodles to Purple Numbers. V. S. Ramachandran. Pi Press, 2004
  • The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.
  • The View from Within: First-person approaches to the study of consciousness. Francisco Varela and Jonathan Shear. T Imprint, 1999.
  • Hemispheric Asymmetry: What’s Right and What’s Left (Perspectives in Cognitive Neuroscience). Joseph B. Hellige. Harvard University Press, 2001
  • Medicine, Mind, and the Double Brain. Anne Harrington. Princeton University Press, 1989
  • Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Harper Perennial, 1991
  • The Varieties of Religious Experience. William James. Barns & Noble Books, 2004
  • Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development. James W. Fowler. HarperOne, 1995
  • Buddhism and neuroscience. Studying the well-trained mind. Barinaga, M.(2003). Science 302, 44–46.
  • Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge (Columbia Series in Science and Religion). B. Alan Wallace. Columbia University Press , 2006
  • Buddhism and Science. B. Allan Wallace. Columbia, 2003.
  • The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness. B. Allan Wallace. Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • The Attention Revolution: Unlocking the Power of the Focused Mind. B. Alan Wallace. Wisdom Publications, 2006
  • Zen and the Brain: Toward an Understanding of Meditation and Consciousness. James H. Austin. The MIT Press , 1999
  • Pathways to Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation. Joseph Campbell. New World Library, 2004
  • Sadhana The Realization of Life. Rabindranath Tagore. Filiquarian Publishing, LLC, 2006
  • Why Lazarus Laughed: The Essential Doctrine, Zen–Advaita–Tantra. Wei Wu Wei. Sentient Publications, 2004
  • Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying. The Dalai Lama. Wisdom Publications, 1997

the owner’s manual

A musician recently shared an expression with me, “God gave her a beautiful voice. Too bad he forgot the owner’s manual”. The idea that there could exist an owner’s manual for our gifts has captured my imagination in the days since that conversation. In keeping with my insatiable curiosity about the nature of human existence I am mining the potential of this human manual analogy.

How does the analogy of a personal owner’s manual play out? Is it written for us at birth or do WE write it. Is it a composition or a transcription? – our life’s work or a coded message for us to decipher? In my imagination, it is all of these things: a fantastical tome of byzantine complexity filled with sounds, images, dead leaves, buttons, scraps of childhood blankets, and of course, words: all personal clues to navigate everything from laundry to lovers’ spats. There are certainly things that are engraved in it’s pages such as propensities toward solitude or jealousy or earthiness… the ineffable qualities that make up our unique flavors. If we are students of our selves then there are, most certainly, things we wish to record as well but the recording of our own hard lessons learned seems to be permitted only in disappearing ink, by design. It’s a good design, I think, since we are not static beings. The book itself has about as much value as any work that has been edited every single day, presumably for decades, i.e. it’s a bit of a mess. No, it’s value does not lie in it’s completed artistic merit but in it’s aliveness – it’s organic, ever-changing nature.

We must study it’s newness daily, even if only with fingers on it’s covers or by leafing through it with closed eyes to smell this moment’s meaning. The choice to study and co-create this manual represents a choice to know our most intimate selves and, by doing so, understand our gifts. The embracing of our unique mixed-bag of strengths and weaknesses gives us the confidence to step up to the plate, to hear and then heed the call of our own potential, an admittedly frightening task.

The choice to study and co-create this manual also represents a path of service but don’t assume that I’m proposing we blindly follow a path of selfless service. I have a much harder path of service in mind for us to navigate, one of selfish service. Our language is lacking the perfect word since selfish has a negative connotation once its definition of seeking or concentrating on one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being is completed by the addition of with disregard for others. The brand of selfishness I’m advocating is one in which our personal resonance and dedication to our own fulfillment trumps all commitments, social conventions, and rules. I realize this has an Ayn-Randian ring to it but there are many ways to spin this guiding tenant of selfishness that lead to a personal joy and benefit to all that seem to be missing in Ms. Rand’s books. I suppose I’m advocating a more tantric spin on selfishness in which decisions are based on sensation, the feeling of what’s right in the moment. In tantra, movement, sensation, feeling, & emotion are some of our most powerful tools for transcendence. In this scenario, an action or inaction that is experienced as sensation (my heart just started pounding out of my chest), as opposed to story (that person should not have cut me off!), which in turn act as a guidance system of sorts. This first-person sensory approach to being human is not the exclusive domain of the tantrics. It is the investigation of subjective experience we find at the core of William James’ radical empiricism of Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology.

We can sign on as a contributing editor to our own manual through the conscious choice of one of these first-person investigative practices: meditation, musical improvisation, psychoanalysis, hell, it can even be fly fishing. It all comes down to intention. Even the attention to which you devote to doing the dishes can bring you into the presence required to study your self through the senses. The reason we must practice during these uneventful and mundane moments of our lives is so that we are able to stay with the sensations of the tough stuff when it arises instead of being swept away in a storm of emotional patterning. As they say in the military, at times of crises one falls to the level of one’s training.

But what of it? Why should we learn to love the book of our selves, especially since it sounds like work? Good question since, in all likelihood, the work of editing the owner’s manual might give us insights into how we operate in the world and maybe even how we can better use our gifts, but it will say absolutely nothing about why we are here in the first place. The only reason I can come up with is to be happy or, if you wish to aim lower, at least to suffer less. By engaging each moment, whether it be through the breath, senses, or prayer we gain direct experience of the certainty that our human growth, through the fostering our gifts, is of the utmost importance, not just to our selves but to everyone we come in contact with. Over time, a practice of checking in with the senses leaks out of the contemplative space in which it began (a meditation cushion, a yoga mat, a climbing wall, a kirtan) and infuses each moment with ever-expanding awareness of the implications of one’s words & actions. The growing richness of your manual’s pages is simply what makes life so very enjoyable.

When we arrive at sufficient understanding and acceptance of both our neuroses and talents, there is an inevitable softening of the boundaries of self-hood and we become free to engage life with less fear of feeling foolish or different. Maybe we can even throw out the manual and trust that we already know what to do in this moment: that the answer to what? is listen, the answer to how? is yes, and the answer to why? is because it feels right.

why contemplate?

During my own struggles developing a personal meditation practice I have often grappled with the question, “What’s the point of sitting still?”. I’m guessing I’m not unique in that I was raised in a family that put a high premium on productivity of the material kind. My grandparents on both my mother and father’s sides appeared tireless to me, personifying what I later identified as a protestant work ethic. Both my paternal grandparents were artists in the most un-bohemian way imaginable. Though they lived on a lovely wooded lake, my grandfather gave me sketching and drawing assignments in the height of the summer beauty (which was all too brief in Wisconsin) that I dutifully undertook in his studio while ski boats buzzed the lake below. My father affectionately nick-named them Rommel and Göring.

Entrained by these deeply rooted early life-lessons, my successes in embracing practices of doing nothing have been hard won but, I’m happy to say, the tangible (material?) benefits of these practices are becoming apparent to me. More interesting to me than why one should meditate is the question of what happens to our “selves” over time when we consciously choose a contemplative practice. But first, what does it mean to contemplate? Are there differences between analyzing, ruminating, and contemplating?

Analysis, while it is taken up in pursuit of understanding the true nature of things, uses the brain to do so, and while rumination comes close to the mark, neither word has made the leap into the non-mental realms of creative, sensory, & movement practices. Contemplate comes from com– intensive prefix + templum space marked out for observation of auguries (temple) and is defined as to view or consider with continued attention . You could think of it as a practice of cultivating inner quiet. My own experiences with attention have validated science’s assertion that our brains are limited in attending to more than one thing at a time (though we have become expert at the rapid context switching dubbed multi-tasking). Deep attention requires us to release thinking and attend with our whole being which is exactly what a contemplative practice is, whether it be mindfulness meditation, qigong, yoga, or art, among others. It’s a listening for that which is beyond thought.

The instant you realize you and your mother are separate beings you being to develop your concept of self. In the western world the ego is king and often it is only after we are frustrated with our own patterns of relating to the world (both people and circumstances) that we challenge our ways of being. In our culture, listening and watching might begin with the self-reflection and introspection of analysis. The process requires us to attempt to view our selves and our actions objectively as if we were an outside observer.

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In attempt to make our inner observer as objective possible I suggest that the observing self has no personal agenda so It’s often described as a witness . I envision the relationship between self and observer is one being inside the other. While it might seem to make more sense conceptually (at least from a world-view centered around ego development) to place the observer inside the self, I have found it extremely helpful in my own practice to reverse this relationship: instead of the witness residing in you the relation becomes you exist in the witness.
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There are countless spiritual traditions that describe the self/ego as something to be destroyed or deconstructed but one of my teachers, Richard Miller, suggests that we are, instead, to become students of our own personalities . After all, the unique gifts of an individual shape what one is able to give, and those gifts are developed in the process of ego building. I often think of the building of skills and self as adding to a large pot of soup from which we are then able to serve ourselves and others. If we arrive at a point of realization that the self we’ve been building has a greater purpose then the choices we make concerning what to place in the pot are filtered through a lens of service. Challenging our own actions and decisions in this light is a never ending process but it is supported by contemplative practices which, effectively, make our egos more permeable or transparent.
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Softening the boundaries of our egos allows us to experience more overlap between our own will and the will of god. I realize I’m treading on delicate ground by introducing god into the conversation (even a lower-case god) but you are free to substitute the term of your choice (God, consciousness, the one, source, the universe, muse, void). If you are, like me, still shedding the language of a Christian upbringing, you might prefer to think of this as the dance of your self and your dharma. Through your own evolution as a human being you may find you have consciously chosen to be in this dance. The continued practice then becomes to determine who is leading as you wait for the next movement to reveal itself.

an overview

At the roots of all contemplative practices transcending religions, philosophies, and even some recreational activities (fly fishing?) are the common intentions of cultivating awareness and developing a stronger connection to source. The words chosen to describe that with which one strives to connect are tricky since they are unavoidably colored by our own experiences. Most of us carry complex and often mixed-up definitions of god (with big or little g), the divine, our higher selves, spirit, inner wisdom, source energy, a higher power. Notice that some of these appellations point us to something separate from our individual selves (dualistic) and some to something inside ourselves (non-dual). In both cases there seems to be agreement that the connection we are cultivating during contemplative practices is one of inner experience. The word that best resonates with you personally will most likely inform the traditions and practices to which you gravitate.

The Center For Contemplative Mind has come up with a very nice tree of contemplative practices shown here. There are, no doubt, many more than are included here but it gives a sense of the richness and breadth of man’s pursuit of connection. In keeping with our tantric roots we’ve decided to take a slightly different approach to categorizing the practices: one that groups practices according to the ways in which we gather information: the senses (sight, sound, taste), our bodies (movement, breath, and emotions), our minds, and the practice we here at contemplate this… appreciate greatly for it’s unique ability to transcend many of these categories, yoga nidra. We invite you explore a few of the practices we at ct… have in our toy box using the links to sight, sound, taste, body and mind.
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