Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Dharma Talk 010: Two Axes

I conceive of enlightenment as having two primary elements, an axis of mind training, and an axis of non-dual understanding.

Meditation is mind training, and this can cause a certain kind of neurological development.  The mind is trained in various ways to be (for example) present, stable, relaxed, open, non-conceptual.  If one really gets this particular axis going, the mind will go through a surprisingly predictable course of development that is pretty well represented by the Theravada progress of insight, paths, and jhanas.  My bias is to recommend the Mahasi style of noting for this kind of development.

Training the mind this way can be thought of as training the mind back to the original mind, the raw experiential non-conceptual mind.  This is beneficial because it allows the original mind to look out at the world and figure things out, and the original mind is very wise in this way.  It tends to see things as they are and drops many of the unskillful beliefs and assumptions and prejudices that we acquire through life and culture.

So the benefit arises by getting the conceptual mind out of the way, the conceptual mind that most people are continually drawn to and spend a majority of their time embedded in.  Through language, school, and an entire culture built on symbolic communication, we develop a preference for thought.  Very useful, but we overdo it, we co-opt the mind for the exclusive use of thoughts and we end up getting in the way of that brilliant original mind.  We have to get out of our own way by training the mind back to its original default mode.  Then the original mind can drop all our precious little formulas and assumptions and just see things as they are.

We can talk about the path of neurological development as not being exactly the same as enlightenment, but in my opinion it is so highly correlated with the general direction of enlightenment and so useful in that regard that I would consider it a shame for someone to not get that done.

Cessations, at least when first stumbled upon, seem to be cataclysmically important, at least in the overall scheme of things, even if the changes are not immediately obvious.  Later on, the mind seems to get used to them.  But there is something important there that is let go of, perhaps it is that an actual selfing process or two gets dropped, or perhaps it is just the introduction of nothingness into the equation that causes the mind to have to recalculate and rethink its whole conception of what it is and its own relative impermanence.  At any rate, self identity takes a bit of a body blow.

The jhanas are not enlightenment per se, but they can be very useful.  Let's say you can get into the territory of 8th jhana.  That's a very faded out kind of place.  So the self is very faded out (you have let go of the "me-ness" of 6th jhana, for example), thoughts are very faded out, there are mainly just bubbling proto-thoughts, and it's very tranquil.  That may not be enlightenment, but I would say that it's functionally a lot closer to an understanding of non-duality than ordinary clinging, thinking mind.  And spending time in those jhanas seems to imprint those qualities on the mind, and the mind begins to operate more from those qualities of tranquility and contentedness.  Which is pretty worthwhile even if you don't want to consider that enlightenment.

The second axis, that of non-dual understanding, is what we would have to refer to as enlightenment proper, in its narrowest and most precise definition.  People can gain a conceptual understanding of this by reading and listening to non-dual teachers, for example.  The flesh android has arisen as an appearance in the totality, and it's just doing what it's doing.

You could see aspects of it from the standpoint of science.  Evolution teaches us that we are not different from other life, that all life is related, all is one.  Your cells are the cells of your ancestors, all the way back to the origins.  And the origin of life is from the basic elements, the earth, which comes from the stars, which comes from the gas clouds, from the big bang.  All one.  We are that.

But it is one thing to understand it conceptually, and another to grok it, to know it in one's bones, to see it in real time.  We could point to many philosophers that understand it conceptually (say Thomas Metzinger), or maybe some academic Buddhist scholars who don't meditate but know the pali canon forwards and backwards.  But that's not enlightenment.  And in some ways I am creating more concepts here.  The concept of oneness or non-duality.

The real understanding is beyond concepts, it's more of a mystery, a not knowing, everything is just happening in a field of awareness.  And to grok it, you have to be out of the way, and that seems to take a bit of training, although we all have glimpses, maybe a moment of no-thought staring out contentedly at a sunset, or maybe a peak experience on a psychedelic.

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