Archive for the ‘Meditation’ Category
And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.—(The Book of Privy Counseling, Chapter 23)
About thirty years ago, in 1986 or so, I attended a day-long workshop on Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices. During the day various Buddhists led meditations based on vipassanā exercises, Theravādin mettābhāvanā and Tibetan gtong-len practices, and an Anglican contemplative nun led a meditation based on the fourteenth-century guide to contemplative prayer called The Cloud of Unknowing. The author of The Cloud is unknown, but it is commonly believed that the same anonymous author wrote The Book of Privy Counseling that is quoted above. The session based on The Cloud of Unknowing turned out to have a profound and lasting influence on my own approach to meditation. In the present writing my aim is to reflect on one particular Cloud theme and how I have found it useful as a Buddhist practitioner.
First, for those who may not be familiar with The Cloud of Unknowing, the principal notion is that all the knowledge we have acquired in various ways eventually presents an obstacle to the only reliable way of truly knowing God, which is not through the intellect but through the experience of love. That experience of love takes place in what the author calls The Cloud of Unknowing. Access to that “cloud” is gained by first passing through what the author calls The Cloud of Forgetting. In practice, passing through this first cloud consists in making a deliberate effort to set aside all the beliefs and convictions one has acquired through indoctrination, teaching, catechism and personal study. All such intellectual knowing is to be put out of one’s mind so that the meditator can sit with a completely open heart to whatever may arise in the cloud of unknowing. The cloud of unknowing itself is simply (but not necessarily easily) sitting in complete silence with a mind free of thoughts, expectations, anticipation or personal concerns but with a loving readiness to receive whatever experiences may arise as if they were gifts lovingly bestowed. A Christian doing this practice will naturally speak of it in terms of loving and being loved by God, while a Buddhist may be more inclined to speak of it in terms of experiencing Suchness (tathatā) or the love of Amitābha Buddha, but of course to speak in such terms is possible only outside the clouds of forgetting and unknowing.
Since setting aside all dogmas and indoctrination permanently could prove to become socially awkward, or even dangerous to one’s health, within the context of a religious community that expects adherence to those dogmas, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing recommends again picking up the intellectual knowledge that one set had aside in the cloud of forgetting. After being in the cloud of unknowing, however, one is likely to hold all those views more lightly and perhaps even somewhat ironically. The contemplative who regularly practices this form of contemplative prayer may, for example, continue to say what he or she knows a Christian or Buddhist is supposed to say but is likely to have a profound sense of acceptance of the fact that others were given other lines to recite and are saying what they are expected to say. Believing in the sense of assenting to propositions, however, yields to wordless loving, and as practice deepens, loving becomes increasingly unconditional.
It has been my experience over the decades that there are more and more doctrines that I am prepared to leave at the threshold of the cloud of forgetting and to be disinclined to pick up again at the exit. Except in the most abstract and general way, I now find myself disinclined to recite the lines that as a Buddhist I was taught to say. Yes, I am still willing to say that attachment is a condition for eventual disappointment, and that is indeed a Buddhist teaching, but it is also a commonplace observation on which no tradition owns the copyright. Beyond voicing such commonly articulated observations as that, however, I am no longer led to speak as a Buddhist (or anything else that attempts to organize experiences into doctrinal structures).
Beyond a general disinclination to recite Buddhist dogmas, I feel a particularly strong resistance to repeat a few specific doctrines associated with Buddhism. There is one in particular that I have questioned so often that I have come to feel it is almost entirely useless,—at times even counterproductive—in contemporary society, namely, the doctrine of non-self (anātmavāda).
It is clear from looking at the canonical and scholastic literature of Buddhism in India that the original doctrine was a critique of one specific doctrine held by rival schools, namely, the doctrine that the self (ātman) is a simple, unchanging substance that has no cause, has no agency, is unaffected by anything else and produces no effects. A fairly typical Buddhist critique of that notion of self is that if there is such an entity, we cannot know about it, since it has no effects, including the effect of making an impression on our faculties of sensing and understanding. Moreover, even if such an entity exists, it cannot play any role at all in the task of primary interest to a Buddhist, which is the task of changing one’s mentality from one that sets up the conditions for frustration and disappointment to one that painlessly deals with whatever experiences may present themselves. It takes only a moment’s reflection to see that the Buddhist doctrine of non-self is a critique of a view that hardly anyone in modern times holds. It is a razor in search of a beard. In the context of current beliefs about how the human mentality is constituted, arguing that there is not a simple, permanent, unchanging, uncaused, actionless and inconsequential self is approximately like arguing that there is no such thing as the fire-element phlogiston. Anyone standing on a soapbox and making such a proclamation is unlikely to meet any opposition. Such a safe proclamation is unnecessary and ultimately useless.
In the absence of an actually held negandum for the doctrine of non-self, modern Buddhists have tended either to absolutize the doctrine to mean that there is no self of any kind anywhere or to interpret it to be a warning against a particular notion of self called Ego.
The former of those options, saying that there is no self at all of any kind, is too obviously false to be worth more than a moment’s consideration. There clearly is a complex physical and psychological self that every healthy person experiences nearly every waking moment of every day, a self that is inaccessible to other selves and to which other selves are largely unknowable. The self of daily experience is so multifaceted that it does not admit of easy definition, but being difficult to define does not disqualify it from being something that most people devote most of their energy to making more or less successful attempts at protecting, nurturing, ameliorating and controlling. It is important to realize that being a self is not in any way contrary to the letter or to the spirt of Buddhist teachings. As one of the most treasured of all Buddhist texts, Dhammapada, says:
157. If one holds oneself dear, one should diligently watch oneself. Let the wise man keep vigil during any of the three watches of the night.
159. One should do what one teaches others to do; if one would train others, one should be well controlled oneself. Difficult, indeed, is self-control.
160. One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.
163. Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial.
165. By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another.
166. Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.
The second of the options, saying that denying self is really about denying Ego, is potentially more confusing that it would be to say nothing at all. That is because both in modern psychology and in ordinary language, the term ego has numerous meanings, so one must specify exactly which sense of the term one is taking pains to deny. In some discussions of abnormal psychology, for example, having a weak ego is said to be a characteristic of some types of serious mental illness. Given the polysemy of the term ego in modern usage, it is probably better not to present Buddhism as a set of antidotes against ego itself.
Buddhism may be presented as an antidote to egocentrism, that is, the inability to distinguish between self and other that manifests as an inability to grasp or appreciate any perspective or belief other than one’s own. Such an antidote, however, can be presented in a more straightforward way than by expounding the somewhat arcane Buddhist doctrine of anātmavāda. Rather than denying self (whatever that might mean) or problematizing the distinction between self and other in the mysterious language of non-dualism, it is probably more helpful simply to teach positive contemplative exercises such as the cultivation of friendship (mettā-bhāvanā), which begins with the recognition that one naturally strives for well-being for oneself, progresses to the realization that all conscious beings seek well-being for themselves and that there is no compelling reason why one should favor one’s own self over anyone else’s self, and finally extends the care that one has for oneself to an increasingly wide circle of other selves. While the cultivation of unconditional love for all beings is easier to say than to achieve, it is a task that is not in any way made easier by introducing the classical Buddhist doctrine of non-self.
Religious and philosophical teachings are better seen as invitations to discovery than as accurate descriptions of what one will discover. Teachings that prove useful to some people at some times may not be at all useful to other people, or to the same person at different times of life. In the culture of ancient India, there was a doctrine that all the changes of life are not to be taken too seriously, because they are not really the self, the true self being outside the realm of everyday experience. While some people no doubt found that way of thinking a useful way not to be overwhelmed by the world of change, others found it difficult to make sense of such a doctrine. It is said that the Buddha was among those who did not find the doctrine of a static true self (ātman) useful and sought to provide an alternative strategy, the dogma of non-self or even no self (anātman), to avoid being overwhelmed by the experience of constant change. That alternative is historically interesting, but that there is no simple, unchanging substance to be called the self now goes without saying. That which goes without saying is probably better left unsaid. Or, in the language of The Cloud of Unknowing, it is better left inside the cloud of forgetting.
Where there are machines, there are bound to be machine worries; where there are machine worries, there are bound to be machine hearts. Within a machine heart in your breast, you’ve spoiled what was pure and simple; and without the pure and simple, the life of the spirit knows no rest. (from Zhuangzi, chapter 12, translated by Burton Watson)
In Zhuangzi’s story, these words are spoken by an old farmer who is seen carrying water in a gourd and watering his garden with it, making trip after trip. A passing city clicker sees the old man laboring to carry small amounts of water and tells him he could irrigate the entire field using a mechanical pump.
As I was sitting in silence in the Quaker meeting for worship yesterday, this story and those farmer’s word words came to mind. As I thought of putting them aside, a mental image arose of the words appearing on a computer screen in the context of a word-processing program. In my imagination, I closed the file and stored it in a folder. What came to mind when I thought of clearing my mind was the image of shutting down a computer. As I tried to turn my thoughts to other things, all I could visualize was a computer monitor on which I was clicking on concrete thoughts with a mouse, dragging files into folders, deleting unwanted files by dragging their icons to the icon of the trash basket. Even when I tried to put machines out of my mind and to visualize a beautiful meadow in the mountains, it was as though I was looking at the scene through the lens of a digital camera, or seeing it on a television. I could visualize nothing directly. Everything was mediated by machines. A mild panic began to arise in my breast. For a good half hour, I found myself almost completely incapable of having thoughts of anything that were not somehow connected to a computer, or an iPod, or a mobile telephone. When I tried to listen, the only ambient sounds I could hear were the sounds of passing traffic, air conditioners, electrical fans, machines that neighbors were using to do yard work. No sounds of birds, no sounds of insects, no sounds of thunder or rain. For the remainder of the meeting, I felt completely hemmed in by machines, and machine worries. I was imprisoned by conTRAPtions. And indeed, while that lasted, my spirit knew no rest.
There has been a growing literature on the subject of how computers and other electronic devices affect our brains. One recent contribution to that literature is an article called Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price. Science programs on NPR and CBC radio have chronicled studies showing that multi-tasking actually takes more time than doing a series of tasks in tandem. (Contrary to what may people in our post-literary society seem to believe, “in tandem” means lined up one after another rather than linked together side by side.) Not only does it take more time to try to do several things at once, but the risk of error increases. Trying to do several things at once not only wastes time, but it makes people more careless. And the more habituated one becomes to trying to work that way, the more one deteriorates into conditions very much like attention deficiency disorder (which most people lack the patience to say in full, preferring to call it by the abbreviation ADD).
As inefficient and careless as multitasking makes those who try to do it, most of us are in one way or another seduced into doing what computers and other electronic devices make it possible to do. Many people admit to interrupting their writing of an article by checking their e-mail quickly, clicking on a link to check out a website, downloading a song they have just heard on Pandora.com while doing all the above, and quickly doing a chat with a cousin while checking to see whether their are any voice messages on their mobile telephone, which reminds them that it is time to call their mother-in-law on Skype. And if any of these tasks takes a microsecond or two longer than usual, impatience boils over into keyboard rage. I don’t have to report that people I know have learned to work that way. I myself have begun to work that way, with bad, if not disastrous, consequences.
It has been shown that when one multi-tasks on computers, dopamine levels rise for a moment, followed by a crash into mini-depression as one has to face a few moments in a normal mental state rather than in a dopamine-adrenalin high. From the point of view of brain chemistry, the effect is close to the mental state of a person with mental illness.
Machines are not only giving most of us restless spirits through an abundance of mechanical worries, they are also numbing our awareness of the fact that the manufacturing, transporting, fueling and using of machines is making human beings act collectively in ways that are destroying the planet on which we live. As I write this, oil is gushing into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico as a result of one company’s bid to maximize profits by cutting corners in the enterprise of producing petroleum to be captured and transformed at enormously high cost to fuel and lubricate machines, or to make plastic products that are to be used for a short time and then thrown away to produce garbage that will pollute the land and the waterways for centuries. There is deep and serious madness in this way of living. We have arrived at the state where the majority of the more than six billion inhabitants of the earth should be in mental hospitals. But when the majority of the population has gone insane through their restless spirits and machine-worried minds, those few whose spirits are still intact are the ones who seem mad. Something seems uncanny about sane people. They disturb the rest of us.
Zhuangzi finishes his dialogue in these words:
Where the life of the spirit knows no rest, the Way will cease to buoy you up. It’s not that I do not know about your machineI would be ashamed to use it.
I am ashamed to have written this on a computer, and to be publishing it on the Internet. If you have had the patience to read it all the way to the end, rejoice that you have not succumbed to machine-induced ADD. And then feel ashamed for have read it on the Internet. May your shame lead you into the garden to listen to the bees buzzing among the petals,
A while back I was inteviewed (in English) on a Dutch Buddhist radio station. The interviewer, Fred Gales, had done his homework well and was interested in asking questions about my dual religious membership in a Quaker meeting and in a Buddhist organization. His questions provoked me into thinking more carefully about just how I manage to balance and reconcile these two approaches to religious practice, and about why I don’t experience any conflicts on account of pursuing two paths at the same time. Thinking about all these things has made me review pretty much my entire life (yet again) in a search for clues that might help solve this mystery.
Sometime in the 1980s, during my Zen years, there was an open house event at the temple I belonged to. An outsider observed that our Zen group seemed to be a very happy bunch of people who were very quick to smile and laugh. The Zen master, Samu Sunim, replied by saying “We don’t have much fun around here. And because we don’t, we make the most of the small opportunies to do so.” That statement, I have realized many times, could be used as a fairly accurate description of my whole orientation to life. Growing up in a post-Protestant family with no religious affiliations exposed me to a culture of general skepticism about all religious claims but with a cluster of attitudes that bore all the marks of Protestant influence. Doing things just for fun was not encouraged, but at the same time I was led to believe that if one enjoys one’s work, then one does not really need to play very much. Work itself is recreation enough. I have no idea whether that is what my parents intended for me to get out of my childhood, but that is what I did in fact get out of it.
The emphasis on work and on constant self-criticism (which Socrates called the examined life, and which Buddhists call being mindful) led me naturally into an abiding love of Stoicism; my first philosophical love was an anthology of writings by the Stoics. If there had been a guild of Stoics in my neigbhorhood, I surely would have joined it. A time went by, the closest I could find was a community of Quakers, and, a few years later, a community of Buddhists. Both communities reinforced childhood patterns of preferring plain utility to ornamentation and frills, tools to toys, of gravitating to simplicity in clothing, fewness of possessions (except books, and those always educational in nature) and a ferocious selectivity in friends and companions. Neither community demanded adherence to creeds or dogmas or doctrines. Both placed an emphasis on thinking carefully before speaking and acting, on living a life of service, on self-reliance and on open-mindedness, pluralism and relativism. One of my Buddhist mentors, Sangharakshita, once said words to the effect that a dedicated Buddhist never takes a holidayf; a Buddhist’s prinicpal work is being a Buddhist, and from that work one can never take a day off. Very much the same can be said of a Quaker (and, I believe, any spiritual tradition. If one is not leading the examined life every hour of every day of one’s life, then one is not leading the examined life. This does not mean that one never stumbles or fails; it means that one is rarely unaware of one’s shortcomings and never complacent. In all these practical ways, being a convinced Quaker is indistinguishable from being a practicing Buddhist.
Despite an overall similarity in attitudes and spiritual practice, there are differences between Buddhists and Quakers in community structure. And on this score I have to say I am much more attutned to the the community of Quakers than to any Buddhist community I have known. Among Quakers all people, in principle, are clergy; there is no laity. There is no concentration of authority or of power. Everyone is a teacher, and everyone is a disciple. No one is considered more authoritative than another simply because of gender, age, ethnicity, education, economic status, or familial presitige. There are no masters, gurus, lamas, swamis, cardianls, bishops, or priests to be reckoned with in a Quaker community, no one to prostrate before or bow to. (In early days, many a Quaker spent time in prison for refusing to remove his hat or to scrape and bow before a man considered to be of higher station.) Because everyone is to be honored and revered, so one is to be treated with special veneration. That attitude is so deeply ingrained in me that I have never felt perfectly at home in Buddhist communities that have people (nearly always males) who hold exalted offices and whose words are held to be especially sacred. In community structure (or lack therefore) the Quakers speak to my condition, and the Buddhists are always slightly offputting.
In the language in which they express their teachings, on the other hand, I feel perfectly at home with Buddhists. I can speak Quakerese, but I am aware that I speak that language with a detectable accent. I can use all the usual Quaker words and expressions, but in my heart I know I mean something else when I use them than most Quakers mean when they use them. I translate every Quakerism into Buddhist idiom, whereas I rarely need to translate Buddhism into any other idiom (except when the topic of conversation comes to rebirth, in which case I find myself translating that into the unrepetant materialism of my scientific upbringing).
Somehow, despite the potential confusions of being both a Quaker and a Buddhist, I ne ver find myself wondering which I am, or whether I am more one than the other. When I do feel confusion (and I do feel it plenty), it is when I ask myself whether I should be anything at all other than a human being who was given a name by his parents. Why wear any other label at all? Why have a name brand? Why belong to a Quaker meeting? Why be a member of a Buddhist sangha? Asking myself these questions makes me aware of a decided lack of authenticity, a recognition that I am not yet following the advice that Polonius gave to Laertes in words my mother encouraged me to memorize, and which she spoke to me on many occasions during my adolescence and my adulthood:
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
In this both the inner Buddhist and the inner Quaker knows I have fallen short. But why?
For those of us who grew up in nominally Christian countries, the Christmas season is an annual time that evokes memories of every previous year of our lives. Christmas is like a string on which the beads of all our years are strung together into a more or less coherent whole. Having lived through the better part of sixty-five years and gone through just about enough transitions, I find my thoughts and emotions around Christmas are pretty complex. Let me try to tease some of them apart.
- Silent night, secular night. I grew up in a pretty secular family. We celebrated Christmas by putting up decorations, sending out cards, exchanging gifts and drinking eggnog and eating turkey. As a child I was always moved by the story of Joseph and Mary trying to find a place to spend the night, and I loved the idea of a baby being born in a pile of straw in a barn, surrounded by gently lowing cows and bleating sheep. It seemed a perfect start to life. And of course I also knew how the story ended with the tragic execution by Romans of the man who had once been an innocent babe in the manger. The story moves me no less now than it did when I was a child. In fact, it probably moves me much more now, because I ams much more aware than I was then of the kinds of suffering people can go trhough between the time of their birth and the time of their death. The birth of Jesus symbolizes for me the birth of every innocent chlld who will someday face challenges ad trials that shatter innocence and leave wounds that never quite heal. So Christmas has been, and continues to be, a time of joy mingled with profound sadness. It is a time to reflect on what it means to be human.
- All is calm, all is light. As a young man living and worshiping with Quakers, I develped a deeper appreciation of Jesus the rebel who listened to his own inner voice and followed his own light. The Quaker conviction that we are all in possession of the same inward light of the holy spirit that inspired Jesus made me look to Jesus as a model of uncompromising and fearless integrity, a man who did what was to be done and was never intimidated by the reactions of those in positions of power and authority. As a young man who saw the fullest realization of the teachings and actions of Jesus in the writings of Karl Marx, and especially in the advocacy for the poor, the weak, the oppressed and the downtrodden, I saw Jesus as an angry and persistent champion of those who were being held down by social, political and economic forces, and Christmas was a time for reflecting on all that. Reflecting on all that had the effect of turning me more and more against the commercialism and consumerism of modern Christmas. Nothing was a better symbol of the enemy of all the Marxist-Quaker Jesus had stood for than the modern image of Santa Claus, which had been fashioned by the advertizing companies that promoted Coca-Cola, a company at the vanguard of the shameless commercialization of the Christmas spirit.
- Christ the bodhisatva is born. My discovery of Buddhism, which in an odd way was a by-product of my explorations of Quakerism and Marxism, was a discovery of the teachings and practices that became the beacon of my adult life and led me to see the limitations of angry rebellion against the powerful classes. Buddhism gradually turned my peson picture of Jesus into a bodhisattva who selflessly healed the sick and injured, who rescued women from angry mobs bent of stoning them to death for adultery, who enabled the blind to see (which I always took as a figurative expression for enabling the foolish to become wise). For others Christ might be a saviour, but for the Quakerly Buddhist that I had become, Christ was still the model of a life well lived, the Socratic examined life, the Buddhist life of wisdom and compassion.
Everything I have ever been, I still am. although in transformed ways. At Christmas time all those images of Jesus from Christmases past come fully to life. I walk around with tears in my eyes. Tears of joy, tears of rage, tears of hope, tears of despair. Secular, humanist, Marxist, Quaker, Buddhist tears. Human tears. Complicated tears. Wonderful tears.
Huge cathedrals and basilicas always plunge me into a complex web of conflicting feelings. On the one hand, I almost always find myself feeling peaceful and serene in the vast spaces under the vaulted ceilings, and I usually feel appropriately inspired by the iconography. If a cathedral is very old, I invariably feel a connection with the dozens or scores of generations of worshipers who have been there before me. All those feelings are just what magnificent cathedrals are meant to evoke.
On the other hand, there is a part of me that rebels against the possibility of being dependent on externals for any kind of religious feeling. After all, I come from a long line of Protestants who were so wary of external symbols that they sometimes physically destroyed them. The actions of those iconoclasts, of course, betrayed a deep attachment to abstract ideals that was every bit as pernicious as the dependence on concrete externals they so feared. I am fully aware of that, and that awareness blunts the the edge of the sword of my instinctive rebellion against institutional structures.
Less easy to moderate is the sense of uneasiness I always feel around anything grand. Huge buildings, highly ornamented vestments, well-crafted religious artifacts, magnificent thrones, bejeweled scepters and crowns and rings are invariably costly and therefore sponsored by the exceptionally wealthy and powerful. It is impossible for me to see such things without being reminded of all the poor who have borne the heavy burden of providing goods and services for the powerful. Even when the wealthy are generous, the very possibility of their being generous is almost always bought at the expense of those who come to be in need of generous aid. I have a difficult time escaping the conviction that there is something indecent about some people amassing as much wealth as several thousand ordinary people could amass by putting all their fortunes together. Using that wealth to sponsor the building of magnificent cathedrals and temples and splendid vestments for priests and the monarchs they bless does not offset the indecency of acquiring such an imbalance of wealth in the first place.
A few days ago I sat in Notre Dame de Paris cathedral. Despite trying my best to get in touch with the inward light that my Quaker practice is based upon, I simply could not get past the distraction of the flashes of the cameras of thousands of tourists who ignored the many signs requesting them not to use a flash if they took photographs. There was hardly any sense of the sacred remaining in the cathedral. But perhaps one cannot expect much of the sacred to dwell in a cathedral in which kings and emperors were once crowned; the secular has always been a persistently invasive presence in that particular cathedral.
My own inability to get beyond external distractions to make contact with my internal guide distressed me and made me feel shallow and somehow inadequate. I found myself longing for the quiet and simple Quaker meetinghouse where my wife and I normally worship when we are in our home town. The Zen Buddhist side of my mentality brought forth images of masters tearing up sutras and burning wooden Buddha statues, not out of contempt but to show that in the end we have only our own inner resources to draw upon and cannot rely on anything else. My Zen background also delivered a sense of being ashamed for being so dualistic in seeing the sacred and the secular as antogonistic opposites.
Outside the cathedral, after my unsuccessful essay at meditating, I blended into the crowds of curiosity-seeking tourists from all over the world and the local pickpockets honoring a long tradition of striving to make a dishonest living. For a moment I felt like a character in a Victor Hugo novel. A brief fantasy of swinging from the belfry like Quasimodo passed through my consciousness. My wife became in my eyes the lovely Esmeralda with whom the unfortunate hunchback of Notre-Dame was enamored.
We went across the street together, Esmeralda and I, and there we ate baguettes with cheese.
There is nothing more terrifying than one’s own mind.
There is no greater source of comfort than God.
What is God but one’s own mind?
The first of the above claims is a paraphrase of a Buddhist dictum. The second is a fair representation of a belief found in numerous theistic religions. The third is not a claim but a question. Perhaps it is a rhetorical question, in which case it could be worded as the claim "God is nothing but one’s own mind." This third claim could be made not as a metaphysical statement but more as an epistemological observation: "The only thing one can know of God is that part of God that can squeeze into the confines of one’s own mind. All the rest is perforce beyond one’s ken." Treat the question in whatever way suits your temperament.
The point of quoting the two claims and the question is to state what is increasingly obvious to me: one’s own mind is both the source of one’s greatest fear and one’s greatest comfort. The mind is both that to which one can go for refuge and that from which one feels a need to be a refugee. My own mind conjures up everything that terrifies me, and then it releases me from that terror by conjuring up something to protect me from the terrifying images it has created. The cycle continues unpredictably, sometimes amusingly and sometimes annoyingly. (Amusement and irritation, of course, are also created by the very mind taht creates the things that are found amusing and irritating.)
Folly takes many forms. One form it takes is the belief that the mind is somehow under one’s control—that one can volunteer oneself out of fear by thinking more clearly, or by meditating or by praying. As one who does a fair amount of thinking (clearly, I hope, at least on good days) and meditating and even a little bit of praying, I have observed that nothing is predictable. Sometimes meditation "works" and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes prayer provides relief, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes thinking is lucid, and often it is not. No practice can be known in advance to be effective. When things go well (that is, when terror goes dormant for a while, or when peace and tranquility arise or when love floods the heart), then one believes that whatever one was doing before things went well must be the cause of things going well. Or, if one honors the common religious taboo against taking credit for things going well, one may regard going well as an instance of divine grace—a gift, a charism. If one is otherwise conditioned or indoctrinated, one calls it all a matter of blind luck.
Whatever one calls it, all but the most foolish agree that there is not much of a correlation between what one sets out to achieve and what actually comes one’s way.
At the moment, I am very much at peace with the fact (if it really is a fact) that I have very little control over how I perceive things at any given moment. Peace of mind is a creation of the mind no less than terror, envy, hope and solace are creations of the mind. They come. They go. I just watch.
The Chinese philosopher Zhu Xi (11301200) recommended in an essay on reading that a young person should read widely to gain a broad education, but an older person should select a few works to read again and again. He recommended reading slowly and carefully, word by word, reflecting on each phrase. This practice of slow and careful reading is akin to what medieval Christians called lectio divina.
The Christian contemplative classic called The Cloud of Unknowing recommends inspirational reading. Anyone seeking an intimate familiarity with higher things (by whatever name one wishes to call them) does well to recall that few of us have within ourselves all the resources necessary to succeed fully in our pursuits. We benefit by being exposed to the wisdom of others. But blindly following others as authorities is no less a folly than ignoring the good that others have to offer. To make the wisdom of others fully our own, we must ingest it very slowly. Having taken a small helping, it is best to digest it well before taking more.
The kind of reading one does as part of one’s prayer and meditation practice is almost exactly the opposite of how one reads as a student. Students are usually assigned absurdly large numbers of pages to read. They are forced to skim rapidly, with the result that not much sinks in. Modern education breeds superficiality. It takes most students the better part of a lifetime to break all the poor reading habits they are forced to acquire on their way to getting a degree. It takes some effort to become properly uneducated so that, after getting a diploma, one can finally become properly educated.
The works I find myself reading again and again in my older years are The Cloud of Unknowing itself, the inner chapters of Zhuangzi, the essays of Xunzi and Mengzi, the Suttanipāta, the Bodhicaryāvatāra and a selection of essays by William James, especially “The will to believe.” Recently I have come across some early Quaker writings that, if breath keeps pouring into my lungs, I am inclined to read over many times in the future.
The particular list of what is read is of interest mostly to myself. How it is read should be of much wider interest. Read slowly. Read with an open heart. Let the words work their way into the core of your being, and let them do there whatever they will do. The results are bound to be as surprising as they are wholesome.