"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

Saturday, April 8, 2023

Know What?

“Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all.”  
― Pema Chödrön
"I vow to live a life of Not-knowing, 
giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe."
-- The First Tenet of the Zen Peacemakers
Over the years, the assumption that I absolutely understand what is going on, and know exactly what to do about it, has tripped me up -- a lot.  The presumption that I know all the salient variables and know exactly what someone else should to do about it, has wrecked havoc.
In this vast interconnected web of energy floating through an infinite sea of space and possibility, the thought that I really know what is going on is just a presumption.  Grasped tightly and clung to, it can be patently presumptuous

The Summer of '62
My first boss, Charlie Winchester, foreman of the maintenance department at a small factory in a small town north of Chicago, had a decidedly less delicate way of making the point.  The memory brings a smile and warm glow to my heart.

In those days, I was able to get a relatively good paying union job for the summer at the factory where my dad worked.  It was time.  I had to start saving money for the college education that would, perhaps, propel me up a notch in social status, if not in income.  I wanted to be a public school teacher.

Charlie was a kind and able mentor.  His spirit pervaded the maintenance crew.  During the seven summers I worked there, I was well supported by a small team of guys willing to show "the kid" the ropes.  I learned a lot about how things work -- on many levels.

One particular lesson emerged when Charlie came around the corner to find me standing in front of a piece of production machinery.  I'd been trusted to replace the belt that connected it's electric motor to the drill assembly.  It should have been a simple repair. 
It wasn't.

Belching smoke, the entire machine was lurching erratically and making threatening noises.  As soon as I saw him, I began to explain what I had done and why.  Interrupting me mid-sentence, he immediately shut the machine down. (Duh!) 
Then, with the ever-present cigar stub clenched in his smile,  Charlie took a pencil and a small spiral bound notepad from the plastic pencil holder that always rode in his front shirt pocket.  He opened the pad to a blank page, and in large, capital letters, he wrote the word "ASSUME."

"You know what happens when you assume?" he asked.
I don't need to go into the details of his lecture here (he was actually quite gentle with me considering the circumstances), but to illustrate the points he was making Charlie grinned and added two strategic slashes, leaving me staring at the piece of paper.  It read: 

Although Charlie's delivery may seem a bit rough around the edges for some of my spiritually minded friends, his was a profound Teaching.  Its depth continues to amaze me.  
The Spring of '23
And here I sit at the computer, 61 years down the road.  I just came through a brief, but challenging encounter with a loved one.  It's clear that subterranean assumptions and preconceptions can still prevent me from seeing what is right in front of my nose.  Thankfully, I usually don't get too far afield before I remember -- or am reminded -- to take a few conscious breaths, relax -- and get real.
Yet, the on-going challenge is clear.  At the deepest levels, certain assumptions become embedded in the clusters of thoughts and emotions that form the individuated point of view that is commonly known as the ego.  Part of this subconscious process is the formation of a perceptual screen which filters our experience.  Without Practice, most of us don't see reality as it is much of the time. We see it as we believe it to be. 
Then, as if that wasn't enough, the way that ego operates, the perceptual screen filters out data that doesn't confirm what we already"believe" to be true.  If someone or something appears to directly challenge these belief systems, fear and anger often emerge as the ego's defensive reaction.  

This, of course, has enormous -- and quite destructive -- consequences.  We find ourselves in unnecessary arguments about things that aren't directly related to the underlying emotional patterns.   On a collective level this leads to the wars. 

The Mind of Not-Knowing

The first of the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers, an organization of socially engaged Buddhists founded by Roshi Bernie Glassman and others is:
"I vow to live a life of Not-knowing, 
giving up fixed ideas about myself and the universe."

To many folks who are swirled up in the mainstream of contemporary society, an intention to not know may seem quite strange.  After all, we've been raised in a system that rewards status, power and influence to "experts"who claim to know.  No matter where we end up in that pecking order, we still are likely to have a great deal of ego invested in 'knowing" what is going on.  It operates as a subconscious security blanket. 

With our head underneath those blankets, we seek the comfort of  fixed ideas about who we are, who "they" are, and how things are.  In a culture steeped in "scientific materialism", we have been conditioned to think and feel that we are seeing and responding to an objective reality "out there" that exits and operates independently from us.  Deeply conditioned by the shared assumptions of a modern capitalist society, we come to believe that our task is to simply decide what we want to acquire to make us happy and go for it.  We are taught to believe that if we are successful enough in doing this we will no longer suffer. 

Guess again.

Through the ages, the avatars, seers, sages and saints of all traditions have made a point to look at the world created by a prevailing system of belief and proclaim "it ain't necessarily so!"  

Whether it is conceptualized as the Kingdom of Heaven, or Nirvana, or Sat Chit Ananda, or the Tao, or the Goddess, or Being, or Presence, they pointed to a dimension of  experience that transcended the "conventional" reality of their societies.  Oftentimes, they had to confront the religious authorities of their day -- and suffered for it.

I consider myself lucky to have come of age in the late 60's, a time when a lot of us caught the tidal wave of a worldwide Spiritual Awakening. In the collective consciousness that emerged, many of us surfed our way into personal and collective mystical experiences -- with or without drugs.  The bottom line?  There is a spiritual plane of existence.  The source and destination of our existence was One Love.  It exists as the ground of our being in each and every moment.  There, the Teachings of Jesus and Buddha make perfect sense.

And yet -- here's where Practice comes in -- I came to realize that "knowing" that we are All One and that Love IS the Answer, doesn't quite cut it.  As a young, working class, white male who grew up in the midst of highly dysfunctional family, foster homes, and chaos, I wasn't able to consistently be the kind and considerate human being that I aspired to be. In fact, clinging to the subterranean belief structures that preceded, and resulted from, that peak experience led to all sorts of side-effects: arrogance, self-righteousness, and closed mindedness perhaps being three of the most obnoxious.  (I've managed to manifest each and everyone of them during the course of the past 24 hours, at least momentarily. )
As time moved on it became more and more obvious, to actually move into an awareness of each moment with some semblance of care and compassion was going to take a serious commitment of time and effort -- and lots of patience. 
It would take Practice.    

Although I hadn't completely realized it at the time, the Practice that emerged over decades wasn't about taking a magic carpet ride to ecstatic states.   It would involve diving into the nether realms of my own subconscious.  Over time, it entailed exploring and re-configuring the framework of conditioned belief structures, thought, and patterns of feeling that had always operated beneath the level of conscious awareness.  Ego's conditioned point of view would continue to freeze the world I lived in, separating me from aspects of myself, from others, and from the One Love that exists at the Heart of Being.
Just Sitting Still Helps

The development and maintenance of a regular meditation practice continues to be helpful in deepening and sustaining an awareness of the essentially spacious quality of consciousness that exists within and beyond the constraints of our conditioned patterns.  It can also provide the opportunity to gaze at the essentially fluid nature of all experience.  This may be a bit unsettling at first because the thrust of our ego conditioning is to "nail down" a fixed reality. 

Believe it or not, the direct perception of impermanence, one of the "signs of reality" in traditional Buddhism, may be the easy part.

Another, perhaps more daunting, aspect of the Practice is the process of taking a deep look at the darker, "unacceptable" aspects of ourselves.  These deeply conditioned patterns have most often been reflexively denied or repressed.  Layers of fear often shield them from view.

Both on the meditation cushion and elsewhere, it takes a commitment to look at ourselves in the mirror of mindfulness and open awareness, to face ourselves honestly.  It also takes the cultivation of deep compassion for ourselves to acknowledge -- and embrace -- the "ghosties and ghoulies" of our subconscious mind, the gnarlier aspects of our own conditioned personalities.  It's tempting to just go for the gold, and relax into the more miraculous aspects of who we are.  Yet, even the "realm of the gods" is impermanent.  
The Heart of Practice

The Heart of Practice emerges as we open to the entire gamut of the human condition as it appears in our own moment to moment experience.  When we are truely Present, we are able to more clearly discern the difference between knowing and thinking that we know.  This calls for expanding the gaze of our awareness, a skill we have cultivated through mindfulness and meditation.  With Practice,  we are able to come more fully to our senses, to open our hearts and minds to feel the energies of a situation.  When we remember to really pay attention, our gut feelings, our intuitions, and other realms of guidance become more readily available.
In time, we develop the ability to catch ourselves reacting reflexively more often.  It becomes easier to take a breath or two  -- and to hit the reset button.  With Practice, more and more, we are able to just drop it -- and open to what Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn called "Don't Know Mind." 

Life gets a lot easier when that happens.

And if that isn't enough, I've found that, not knowing opens me to a realm of mystery and unimaginable wonder -- right in the midst of the ordinary activities of the day.  Life itself becomes Iridescent.

Moment-to-moment, letting go of thinking that we know what is going on, we are able to be Present with an open heart and a clear mind.  At that point, we can see what, if anything, needs to be done.

It just takes Practice.

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