"Mindfulness and Meditation allow us to open our hearts, relax our bodies, and clear our minds enough to experience the vast, mysterious, sacred reality of life directly. With Practice we come to know for ourselves that eternity is available in each moment.

Your MMM Courtesy Wake Up Call:
Musings on Life and Practice
by a Longtime Student of Meditation

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Empty Handed

 "Emptiness wrongly grasped is like picking up a poisonous snake by the wrong end." 
― Nagarjuna

 “To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man's-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh. To live is to be willing to die over and over again. ”
 ― Pema Chödrön

Mahakala: Wrathful Protector of Tibetan Buddhism
Years ago, when I was in residence at Insight Meditation Society, my Dharmabum Buddhy Jimmy grabbed me by the shoulders, and with eyes as big as saucers,  asked me "have you had a direct experience of the VOID?!"

"Damn!". I thought.  The stark horror in his voice didn't incline me to want to do any such thing.

Unlike Jimmy, at that point I had not spend much time with the Teachers and Teachings of the Tibetan tradition where the term the Void (or Great Void) seemed to be more commonly bandied about.  Although I'd read a couple of translations of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, my wanderings through the Yankee Dharma world of the 70's and 80's had primarily been focused on Zen -- and the Hippie Zen of Stephen Gaskin.

Like Jimmy, though, I had then been drawn to practice with the folks at IMS, who drew their inspiration and practice from teachers in the Theravadan tradition where Nirvana was, perhaps, seemingly a more palatable ultimate destination for practitioners.

Little did I know.

As I've come to see, there really is no destination!

Empty Promises

The term shunyata, most commonly translated as "emptiness" or "voidness" seems to freak a lot of folks out.  At age 69, having continued to peer into this particular diamond from every direction imaginable, it's become quite clear to me that the teachings regarding shunyata, expressed through the teachings of Pema Chodron and others -- and another 25 years of taking time to sit still doing nothing on the zafu most every day -- have been gently and inexorably transforming my heart's desire to truly serve from aspiration to moments of realization, from theory into an ongoing Practice.

In a recent on-line course, Pema Chodron used the term "positive groundlessness" to try to capture in words what the actual heart of shunyata may be.  At the time she said she wasn't convinced she'd continue to use that term, she was just "trying it out."  (That, in itself, is a great teaching.)  The term actually works for me just fine these days.  I often find a sense of wonder and great joy as I relax, more and more, into the exquistite free fall of Life as it is.

Life as it is?
Life As It Is...

I've found that when you can actually stop for a moment and let go of any expectation of getting something -- or even an idea of what that something might be -- and actually feel what is coursing through every cell of your being in each moment, what IS becomes self-evident.  You can't be holding onto anything at that point.  You have to resign yourself to remaining empty handed.  It's the Strait Gate that Jesus alluded to toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount after he pointed out the various ego trips that we all are prone to manifesting ad infinitum. As Chogyam Trungpa once said, "Enlightenment is the ego's ultimate disappointment. 

Of course experiencing that is easier said than done.  Most of us are conditioned quite strongly to be self-absorbed in doing most anything except stopping to truly let go of everything (especially the thoughts going through our head), and feeling what is actually there.  Although we may actually see what the Real Deal with the very next breath, oftentimes it takes a commitment and some effort extended over a period of time to finally discover that you don't have to die to go to heaven.  This is IT.  You see for yourself that all the stuff that Buddha and Jesus and Lao-tse and a host of others have been talking about, even willing to die for, is True.  We are constantly in the embrace of the One Love -- whether we realize it or not.

How the Mahayana Buddhist Teachings on shunyata, emptiness, fits into all of this,  is that we find out along the way that in order to actually open to the experience of Absolute Being, we have to open to Absolute Non-Being as well -- and not get too attached to any ideas about either of these because neither of these concepts can grasp the ineffable mystery of the what is really going on here.  In actuality, the Truth of the Matter, what Buddha called the Middle Way, seems to split the difference and mend it at the same time. 

Although its always difficult to express something about a reality that flows through infinite dimensions in simple two dimensional terms, here's a try: What Is and What Is Not are the warp and weft of the Sacred Tapestry that we are collectively weaving in every moment.  You can't have One without the Other. The more we melt away the hard-headed clinging to strong opinions about what we think is true at any one moment -- and melt away the hardness of heart that we've developed in a misguided attempt to protect ourselves from working with Life as it is (which includes all those pesky and sometimes troubling Others) -- the easier it gets to access the inherent joy and wonder that rings silently in the midst of each moment. 

Of course, it is true that the thought of non-being itself can be scary as hell. And the thought of our inevitable demise, Death, is only one aspect of this seemingly frightful proposition.  In our usually bipolar quest to be both free and secure, that idea that there is really nothing lasting and permanent to hold on, doesn't sit easily -- unless we take time to Sit with It.

Our whole ego dance is based on the impossible task of trying to shore ourselves up against the ongoing uncertainty that Life presents as part of the fabric of each moment.  In a fitful (and primarily subconscious) attempt to prove ourselves to be real, an essentially independent entity of some sort, we have amassed a whole litany of thoughts, feelings and behaviors that, ultimately, will never provide either the freedom or the security we are grasping for.

This operates on every level imaginable.  We grasp at material objects, sensual comfort and pleasure, approval and appreciation, status, reputation, being right, wielding power, and as Pema Chodron's teacher Chogyam Trungpa repeatedly pointed out, we even grasp onto Spiritual Practice as a means to secure a foothold in the endlessly shifting sands of time and space.

Even at the level of raw sensory experience we have mostly been conditioned to believe and experience the world as a solid objective reality, "out there" essentially separate from who we are.  

Yet, even the world of modern physics doesn't support that proposition.  Even disregarding "spooky action at a distance" and the other experimental findings of Quantum Physics, our technologically and mathematically enhanced "eyeballs" have determined that there is actually a lot more space within the atoms and the molecules of the stuff we see, hear, taste, smell, touch and think about than anything solid.  The rock that we can pick up to throw (not to mention the rocks in our heads),  are no more than swirls of energy that we perceive in a certain way.  Yet, we pretty much believe that "seeing is believing" when, in actuality, it is clear that the opposite is just as true.  Even at the level of our conditioned perceptions, we are constantly creating and grasping the "image" of solidity to hold onto where it doesn't fundamentally exist.

All this grasping and clinging is totally understandable, of course.  It's all part of the human condition.  And growing up as we have in a patently materialistic society where we have had few role models for Practice, we are quite fortunate to come across these Teachings at all.  To actually come to embrace the ideas and adopt the practices that help cultivate the ability to navigate what Pema Chodron calls the "fundamental ambiguity of being a human being" --and even dig it -- is a rare and precious gift.  I am so grateful to the Teachers and Teachings that led me to actually Sit still long enough over a period of time to get a sense of what Alan Watts called the Wisdom of Insecurity.  (I've always been sort of an insecure wise guy anyhow -- and now it's a lot more fun, sometimes even helpful.)

It just takes Practice.

In fact, I know that it will take what the Zennies call Ceaseless Practice, because I am mostly conditioned to be a real bozo -- and I often am.  But, after all these years I really do know that my heart is in the right place, and trust that the One Love will continue to have my back as I dance and stumble ahead toward my final curtain call in this heartfelt effort to help out.  (It would be nice to go out on a bow, no?)

The Last Laugh?

I don't know where my old Dharmabum Buddhy Jimmy is these days, and of course, my memory of that interaction may include a lot of projection about the "horror" he had experienced in encountering what he thought was the Great Void.  (I'm thinking he may have had Mahakala whispering in his ear).  Yet, if I meet my old friend again in some dimension of time and space  to somehow recreate that scene, my imagined response would be to grin and proclaim.

"No sweat man.  The Void is Full of It!" 

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