It’s been quite a while since my last “practice notes” post.
Partly this is because I’ve been deeply engaged, within the past couple of months, with a large writing project: the creation of a new book manuscript. So, the flow of my creative energy has been directed almost exclusively in this direction.
And partly because there’s been such an abundance of, shall we say, “grist for the mill” of such practice notes, that the prospect of exploring more deeply has felt a bit overwhelming. The result has been a tug-of-war, of sorts, between my desire to journal and an avoidance of it.
In any case, the very short version is that I’m feeling more grateful than ever for the nondual view—in concert with a variety of practical techniques for maintaining the body-mind’s transparency to this ultimate truth.
Sweet-Dreams & Nightmares
Ultimately, body-mind-world events are no more real than the events in a movie. Like ocean waves rising and receding, they come and go. They’re as everchanging and ephemeral as a dream.
And yet … there are practical differences between sweet-dreams and nightmares; between lighthearted comedies and horror flicks; between gentle ripples and tsunamis.
As of late, certain circumstances have provided a real test. Just when I was beginning to think that no worldly event could genuinely surprise and upset me, the universe (in her great kindness) says: well, try this on for size ….
The Happiness Hypothesis
Within the storm of challenging circumstances, I’ve been very much enjoying—and recently completed—The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt, which puts positive psychology in conversation with perennial philosophy.
Within the pages of this book, some of the “big questions” of philosophy and spirituality are explored in relation to the insights of modern psychology and neuroscience. It’s a lovely read which I would highly recommend.
Riding an Elephant
The central metaphor that Mr. Haidt employs is that of a human riding an elephant—to illustrate the relationship between voluntary and involuntary (or conscious and subconscious) body-mind activities.
While the human rider of an elephant can request the elephant to change direction, the elephant’s radically larger size and strength means that it will always have veto power.
Just so, the subconscious or involuntary aspects of the human body-mind will tend to hold sway, no matter how vigorous a conscious request/command for a specific change might be.
And hence the importance (within relative contexts) of programming the “elephant” of the subconscious mind to perform in ways that accord with our human aspirations. Or: to de-program the “elephant” of its old habitual reactive patterns.
Horse, Rider, Chariot
In spiritual literature of various flavors, one finds similar metaphors. For instance:
In yogic and Buddhist contexts, the horse-and-rider is used as a metaphor describing the relationship between prana (life-force energy) and citta (mind).
In the Katha Upanishad, the human body is likened to a chariot. The horses pulling the chariot are like the senses; the mind is the reins; the chariot driver (charioteer) is the intellect; and the passenger of the chariot is the Self (Atman).
What I appreciate about Mr. Haidt’s rider-elephant metaphor is how it makes clear the massive plodding recalcitrant power of the subconscious aspects of the untrained body-mind. Or—in yogic parlance—a body-mind still under the sway of heavy vasanas: behavioral tendencies or karmic imprints which—in spite of all good intentions—tend to run the show.
Nondual Reality & Vasanas
Does a glimpse of nondual reality automatically dissolve all such vasanas? Maybe in rare cases, but typically not.
Hence the need for what we might call a post-glimpse sadhana, during which the body-mind is gradually aligned with the insight, is rendered more and more transparent to the nondual Truth.
During this time, subconscious reactive patterns (the “elephant” in the room) are gradually dissolved, giving rise to true response-ability: the capacity to respond, in the moment, with effortless integrity, as an unobstructed emanation of Truth.
A Good Test
In recent months, I’ve had several opportunities to witness the emergence of reactive patterns within Elizabeth’s body-mind. And while I wouldn’t call it pleasant, it is a great opportunity to notice …
I notice that I rarely lose the nondual view—and if I (seemingly) do, it’s only a brief forgetting. Even if my mind is churning (demonstrating its infinite creative power, ha-ha) or my sympathetic nervous system is activated—these phenomena simply appear like clouds within the sky of Awareness, with ample space around them.
I notice, also, a confidence in my capacity to relate skillfully to the reactive pattern. I’ve cultivated a practical understanding of how to regain alignment, transparency, equanimity—like maintaining balance on a bicycle, while navigating tight corners or leaning a bit this way or that.
So, for instance, I know that some qigong or yoga asana, or a weight-training session, or a mountain hike or stroll along Boulder Creek—will likely do the trick. Or some quiet time reading Rumi, Longchenpa or the Ashtavakra Gita; or tickling my funny-bone with some Stephen Colbert or Trevor Noah; or having tea with a friend.
These are my go-to practical strategies for allowing reactive patterns to integrate. And once I’ve moved beyond the initial unpleasantness of whatever toxic emotion and/or physical constriction has appeared—I actually find the whole process to be quite fascinating, and inspiring.
And then I can notice what remains:
* The inner current of quiet joy, peace, and contentment (which is always there in the background).
* An understanding and sense of compassion in relation to the situation: knowing clearly that the root-cause of all unskillful actions and the attendant psychological suffering is ignorance: an ignoring or forgetting of our true nature.
* And sometimes, also, what I might call righteous outrage—justified anger in relation to a specific situation; which serves to enhance clarity and empower effortless action.
Outrage & Integrity
So, for instance, right now there’s a feeling of outrage around the revelations of the January 6th hearings. And in relation to the Supreme Court’s recent overturning of Roe v. Wade; loosening of concealed-carry gun restriction laws; weakening of church/state separation via ruling in favor of school prayer; and undercutting of the power of the Environmental Protection Agency.
There’s a feeling of outrage in relation to the outrageous number of mass shootings in the United States; the obviously gendered nature of this situation; and the refusal of our country to take the necessary practical steps to make it more difficult for disgruntled teenage boys to purchase semi-automatic rifles.
There’s a feeling of outrage in relation to Russia’s seemingly unprovoked war on Ukraine—though I’ll admit to knowing very little about the geopolitics of that region.
And such outrage—once cleansed of emotional reactivity—feels like an emanation of Truth: a wholly justified and reasonable response to situations heavily distorted by ignorance and its ally, the “elephant” of subconscious programming. It feels like an aspect of being-human integrity.
Cave or Monastery?
There are moments when my monastic tendencies emerge—or just a deep draw to physical solitude. As in: I wouldn’t be feeling outrage about these events if I didn’t even know they were happening; or if the nondual view were even more stable within/as this bodymind.
In such moments I sometimes recall the story of Anandamayi Ma’s husband asking her: “Don’t you love me just a little more than the others?” And her answer: “No—all beings are equally loved.”
And I wonder: How many of us could respond in this same way? And wonder, also, what exactly the purpose of her (entirely celibate) marriage was, beyond the nod to traditional Indian custom? Mere practicality, of some sort?
But then I recall that the true refuge is not in a cave or a convent—but in the core of our Being.
And that the true guru is not a human body-mind—but rather the Pure Awareness which is our essential nature.
I recall that there’s only one authentic source of absolute trust, confidence, reliability, and security—and it’s not and couldn’t possibly be a worldly phenomenon. Bodies, minds, personalities, worlds are ever-changing and impermanent—and, as such, are inherently unreliable.
This isn’t to say that there aren’t relative levels of confidence, trust, reliability, and security that are well worth cultivating. Because obviously there are. Healthy relationships are built on relative levels of trust. Legal contracts are drawn up to guarantee—with relative levels of confidence—that the two parties engaged will be trustworthy. And it’s practical to do so.
But even things that are relatively reliable, relatively trustworthy—will eventually betray their ever-changing and ephemeral natures. They will inevitably demonstrate that, as phenomena, they are not ultimately trustworthy.
About the only thing we can, with confidence, trust, is that they will change.
Is this nihilism? No—just clear-sighted practicality.
So, here and now, appreciating both blue sky and clouds. Appreciating the nondual view and opportunities to clarify it.