Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Surfing Emptiness - The Psychological Part

Emptiness is about space - basic creation and phenomenal space. Emptiness is about the realisation of this space. Realisation arises through insight, awareness and experience of this as fundamental reality. That is basically what the whole process is, when described from the larger viewpoint.

Getting there is another matter.

The initial process is about loosening the bonds of egoic identity, the inadvertent jail of conscious awareness. This has to do with generating acceptance, with developing an understanding for the reality of the world, and with developing a love affair with it. There is a sense of hopelessness, of connecting with the fact that we really cannot do that much about the world - it will go on its own merry way. The best laid plans of mice and men and all that. This is not to deny the validity of action, but to create the detachment from the result, so that the gesture of action is empty of any force rooted in egoic resistance.

This hopelessness is very freeing - it frees us from worry. It says,"Do what must be done, but don't get upset if things don't go your way." It also allows us to react smoothly to whatever arises. There is a hopelessness, but without bleakness or bitterness. It is a very subtle difference. If we are bleak or bitter, then we are not really hopeless. We have not really accepted the hopelessness of the whole situation. There is a sense of internal resistance. So what we are really going for is fully accepted hopelessness. Then it is painless. It becomes a statement of reality.

The statement is this:

"Don't go about expecting the world to always go your way - it probably won't."

Where does that leave us? It leaves us free to explore, to tinker with the world. It opens a whole new plethora of behaviours we would not otherwise be able to engage in, in our fear and worry. So, it is actually a very freeing conception. We do our best and move on. That is the heart of the basic message. We take joy in what comes our way, and lovingly accept the stuff that doesn't as par for the course. We may even find a way to fall in love with that. It is a falling in love with reality. This is the heart of the Hinayana path. There is nothing particularly magical about it, in the sense of something out of the ordinary occurring. The practice is largely about examining the stuff arising in conscious awareness and freeing the resistance where it becomes apparent.

As we become more free, we can afford to be more generous and compassionate. We recognise our own hang-ups and transcend them, and then we have all this attention freed up, which in turn expands our awareness. And we become aware of the suffering of others, of their hang ups and how they mess up their lives. And then we can afford to be affectionate, because we have no particular agenda. We take refuge in the hopelessness, or more accurately, the reality of what is. We become very realistic, rooted in the moment. There is no worry about the future, because we know that the hopelessness will enable us to deal with anything that comes. We also become much less inclined to control, since we are able to face whatever situation may arise anyway.

It's all very boring, really, this hopelessness. Because there is nothing to do. There is nothing to face, no fear, no worry. Then you have nothing to discover. So we become cosmic meddlers. We observe others' hang ups and see if they wouldn't like a little help with that too. Not that we care at a personal level whether they overcome them or not - it's all hopeless anyway. But it becomes interesting to prod them on their journey. We feel their pain, and because we are rooted in reality, we know the pointlessness of pain, but they have chosen it. So we are there, saying,"Can I help you?" And when they are ready, they take that help. That is the the great compassion path - the Mahayana path. It is not just about developing compassion because we "should" somehow. It is just a naturally arising phenomenon from the Hinayana.

Compassion has a sneaky quality - it takes our attention away from our own hang-ups. It can be considered another way of relating to reality. When we discover how small our problems are compared to those of others, we almost shame ourselves into letting go of dwelling on them. When we consider issues of world hunger, for example, we suddenly become grateful for what we have. Thus, compassion is a double-edged sword. It cuts away hang-ups for others, but it also cuts away our own hang-ups. It also begins to take the focus away from self. Whereas Hinayana kills the ego and then leaves us hanging in undefined direction, Mahayana is very efficient. It takes a different route, and then cuts up the need for body and mind to be used for self-serving gains. It makes us look at the world with a magnifying glass, giving us a perspective of how small we are. That perspective helps us to get over ourselves.

It also develops gratitude. This develops a sense of appreciation for our situation, that may or may not have been present with Hinayana. With Hinayana, as we develop fully accepted hopelessness, we may fall in love with reality, and begin to just enjoy the ride. With Mahayana, as we develop compassion, the compassion perspective encourages gratitude, and humility. Both Mahayana and Hinayana encourage humility, in fact, by putting things in a perspective of us being infinitely small in relation to everything else. It is this perspective upon which everything else is built, in particular the realisation of emptiness.

The Hinayana version of emptiness is basically that phenomena comes and goes - the wheel turns and turns, and if you don't like it, it will go away - eventually. That is the shunyata principle. Reality is empty in that sense. The Mahayana perspective says it is all empty, and you get this realisation by meditating deeper on the illusion of suffering, on how we create pain unnecessarily in our lives. The sense of giving is very key to both paths. In Hinayana, it is giving up the struggle by considering cyclicity. In Mahayana, it is in giving to others, by focussing on others' hang-ups. In both situations, we are giving to something that is bigger than our perceived self, and in doing that eventually coming to realise self's inherent empty nature.

Both Mahayana and Hinayana have the sense of reduction, or seeing things in a certain setting that leads to the breaking down of ego. It is very structured, very guided. Hinayana takes it lessons from the pain of personal reality. The cure is acceptance/hopelessness. Mahayana roots its learning in the larger picture. The cure is compassion/service. Tantra, or Vajrayana, is another path to Rome. Tantra does not use a different perspective, such as pain or large-scale suffering, to take someone out of delusion. Instead, it uses the delusion itself, dives right to its core and neutralises it there.

So tantra is very tricky, very subtle. It is also the most dangerous because it chooses to play ego's game, and win. You either come out enlightened, or demonised. In fact, I would go so far as to say without some basic Hinayana experience at least, the chances of things going very wrong are pretty high. Unlike the other paths, tantra uses what it has. So, if you have a fascination for a certain energy, a certain persona, tantra uses that attraction as a meditation point. If you have a desire or lust, tantra uses that. If you are prone to anger, tantra uses that. So, tantra takes the resonating point with your egoic identity and then gets you to meditate on it.

Where does that all lead?

Without divulging secret practises, tantra largely has to do with identification with an yidam deity, a personal deity one feels a connection with. (Gross simplification) It is a game of pretend. Pretend you are this deity. The danger is apparent - if the ego is not reined in, you literally behave like a spoilt child in God's shoes. However, if it is, then you realise that you are not really playing pretend at all, but actually discovering your true form. Even the deity is a projection within emptiness. So where does this lead? It leads to the enjoyment body. Every deity will have certain benificient qualities. So, it uses the meditation on the attractive quality to each person to lure him into meditating on the beneficial use of this quality.

It is the ultimate teaching ploy. This is like getting a child to watch Barney the purple dinosaur, and then getting Barney sneaking in the educational parts. Here, it is worse - you pretend you are Barney, so you have to actually do the education!

The pretend is also the means by which personal inhibitions are temporarily bypassed. Say someone wants long life. They meditate on White Tara, one of the long life goddesses. In imagining themselves to be one with the goddess, they also create a mental and emotional space to experience the quality of long life. In normal waking awareness, they do not allow themselves the benefit of this enjoyment, and so do not allow themselves to attract or engage with this energy form. The pretend helps them visualise this.

It is like telling someone - imagine you're overwhelmingly rich. You can say, "Well, that's easy for you, you're Bill Gates!" The response of tantra is, "Okay, then imagine you are me!"

By the very act of imagination, the hang-ups are circumvented. As the identification become stronger and stronger, the new personality literally is used to push out the old one. That is, of course, dependent on the ability of the meditator to surrender the old viewpoint. Drawing from the training of Hinayana and Mahayana would undoubtedly help, as a fallback, because there is more structure, more fixed perspective. If one practised tantra alone, it is easy to get lost in the colourful nature of the method.

The ultimate realisation of all three paths is emptiness. If one practised just shamatha/shinay (calm abiding) and vipassana (insight) meditation, one would eventually realise the emptiness of reality. (Hinayana) If one practised giving and compassion, in giving until there was no more self to give, one would also spontaneously realise emptiness. (Mahayana) If one meditated on the identification of the deity, one is both the giver and receiver, and subject and object become one. Suddenly it becomes a cosmic joke, because you realise neither really exists, in the bigger picture. (Tantrayana/Vajrayana)

Nothing impossibly difficult, really, from an intellectual perspective. At least in the psychological sense. Real life practice is a completely different matter. And the energy aspects of these three paths are completely different. Another story for another time.

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