Saturday, November 3, 2007

Pilot light

Some of you may have a hot water heater, stove, or similar equipment which runs on natural gas and which has a pilot light. I think some of them are more sophisticated now and use an electronic switch for ignition, but I recall growing up that when it went out we would have to take a lit match and stick it up under the panel at the bottom of the heater to relight the pilot if it went out. Even if you weren't using the device, you needed to keep the pilot light lit so that you could use equipment when you needed it. This is the analogy I am using today for my own experience.

I cannot speak in any meaningful way about the practice of others. I don't know their hearts and minds with omniscient clarity so it is best to let them work diligently on their own awakening, whether their path is Buddhist, humanist, Christian, etc. That doesn't mean we can't encourage people or give them candid appraisals if they request it, but just speculating about the work others are doing or doling out unrequested, nonconstructive criticism is not just pointless, it is harmful. So my words here aren't meant to be used for a direct comparison to anything anyone else is going through in terms of suggesting my own experiences are in anyway superior or more beneficial or correct. (And always remember that though I may lapse into "you" and "we" the target of criticism is generally "me".)

Having said that, I have wondered at times about seeming to lack something. Or perhaps to lack awareness of it. While I am not an emotional Vulcan, I have had trouble figuring out what deeper or more subtle levels of heart or mind (we can even use the popular "heart-mind" mind) meant. I had the gist that we could discuss at least two distinct levels or facets, basic consciousness (which is not meant to belie its complexity) and awareness. That is, what most of us recognize in the psychology of others would be consciousness, and this is different than the quality of awareness in that consciousness can be viewed as a specific manifestation or configuration of awareness that is shaped and permitted by the physical nature of the being possessing it, including the history of their experiences. In a way, this can be seen as analogous to sight and light.

Still, while metaphysical speculation can be intriguing, it cannot of itself successfully address the problem of suffering. So I am hearing folks talk about Buddha-nature and all of these other qualities as something that all sentient beings have the capacity to express, and there are many excellent metaphors for this. Don't look outside of yourself, you read. Don't rely on views, or circumstances, or other conditioned phenomena. These were just words. In some sense they still are. If we cannot connect symbols to experiences, then they mean nothing. All the symbolic imagery in the world, and all the amazing speeches, etc, will just be more pretty garbage passing by like the unread and unsold copies of glamour and fad magazines being hauled to a landfill.

Is this when I tell you about my moment on the road to Damascus? My moment under the Bodhi tree (or apple tree for you physicists out there)? No. Sorry. I can't offer you that.

Nonetheless, I am sitting in a public place reading and a simple configuration of a thought occurs to me. It isn't original, and it isn't profound. I have had similar thoughts before. But as close as I can express it, here it is: You are (already, always, etc) entitled to fundamental tranquility and joy. Even if you have reason to believe otherwise. Even if you see yourself or others see you as stupid, lazy, selfish, or mean. You don't need to "earn" it. The kind of peace and happiness you can earn will be exhausted once the causes and conditions supporting them expire. That isn't to say we can't or shouldn't enjoy such things. But if the "indestructible happiness" that we may read about is part and parcel of our Buddha-nature that is hidden beneath our deluded state, then it isn't something we need to "deserve".

This isn't the same thing as self-satisfaction, at least not in terms of gloating, or pride, or even overflowing with self-esteem. Or at least that's not what I am intending to convey (and again, I am not really an expert, so don't just take my word for anything on this blog). It means what people have said about it - a kind of calm abiding or ease that does not necessarily diminish or vanish because of our problems. And yes, if we want to fully access and benefit from this serene patience and reflection, the eightfold path does lay out a framework for us to practice, so I am not suggesting one can stay in delusion and without effort fully realize their Buddha-nature. I am just rephrasing what has been said millions of times over thousands of years by those more eloquent and qualified than myself, that such realization isn't a reward at the "end" of the "path".

But it's one thing to go from taking the tiniest inkling of awareness, which may not even be fully consciously realized, of the potential for our own awakening into realization ("enlightenment") and being totally blind and clueless and just going through the motions. This is finally where the pilot light analogy comes in. My practice, in formal form and the application to everyday life, is still being reorganized, so I cannot claim to have benefited from my recent efforts. Nor have I displayed any spontaneous aptitude for spiritual awareness (I know that's a loaded term for those who may think it means some kind of supernatural insight and I apologize if it confuses). Still, around the same time that I had that thought about not needing to wait for, earn, or deserve the kind of sublime joy being discussed, it was like a pilot light went on.

Red flag. I am super suspicious and skeptical of such anecdotes. After all, whatever the person experienced could be physio-psychological only. We know people can have all manner of artificially induced states regarding feeling, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness. Moreover, it sounds like I am saying that there is a correlation between reflecting on a Buddhist teaching and an experience, which could imply a causal relationship. Relax. That's not the point. You can believe that if you want to. Ironically, you could use such a causal correlation to come to opposite conclusions. That is, you could say it shows that Buddhist practice, including contemplation, is effective because it produced a result. Or could you say that because someone was thinking about something that the mind produced what they wanted, and that this shows that such practice is just wishful thinking and self-delusion - the mind produces experiences that support what we already wanted to believe in the first place.

I do not place any particular significance on this correlation other than the possibility that, like all language and other forms of symbolic communication, the verbal thought I had (reflecting my mind's attempt to summarize and reflect the various things I was reading) may have pointed to a possibility I had not previously considered. In that regard it is no more amazing than reading about a new theory or discovery in science or going to a poetry reading that helps you experience some part of your world in a new way. So let's pick up that red flag and move on to another set of cautions before examining the pilot light itself.

The next caution, related to the last, is how to attribute significance to an experience, such as smelling a flower or feeling sad when we hear a particular piece of music. In this case, I would suggest that for Buddhists such as myself there are a couple of main concerns. One is not to mistake a reflection for that which is being reflected, and the second is not to ignore a reflection because it isn't what is being reflected. The first concern is simple. An experience may point to something else, but we latch on to that particular experience and its form - how it looked, felt, sounded, etc. We then try to replicate that experience rather than perceiving that it is a particular manifestation of something else more substantial and worthwhile. This type of thinking isn't limited to Buddhism, but it is a particular peril for some of us who practice it. The other potential error is saying that since an experience is only a reflection or ephemeral manifestation of something greater it has little or no value and is only a distraction. It can be, as noted with the first concern, but when understood correctly the experience can be inspirational and instructive. (Which is why qualified teachers can be really helpful, but that is another issue).

So, with those cautions properly (?) and duly give, what the heck am I talking about, anyway? Well, it is hard to describe. Here's one attempt: Imagine you are carrying an unbearable amount of weight. But you have become accustomed to it and don't really recognize it anymore - it's just how things are. You carry it around all the time, along with all of the discomfort. Some days you feel good, some days you feel bad. Then one day for one instant, you somehow lay down part of the load. All that weight, akin to a massive boulder (think Homer Simpson in the episode where his is carrying the rock of shame; sorry Sisyphus, but not enough people would get you as a valid cultural reference), and somehow you manage against all odds to let go of a single grain of sand. And somehow, some way, somewhere, it registers. You are now aware, however dimly and vaguely, of another aspect of your existence.

Now that is horrible analogy, it isn't really accurate at all, but maybe it can be useful as preparation for a slightly less useless analogy. Imagine you used to feel a certain way as a child, but you have long since forgotten what it was like to feel that way, or even that you ever did feel that way. Then a particular sight or smell or sound associated with those old memories triggers a faint sense of nostalgia and you have the slightest recollection of some aspect of how you used to be back then. It's very weak, and it isn't very specific, but it is there.

I could go on with other inaccurate comparisons, but I don't believe it would really help. Nor can I really convey in any meaningful way just what the spark I am referring to is. Which is why I came up with one final analogy. Beyond simple selfish thoughts and jealousy emotions, which some of us may confuse for qualities such as love and affection, imagine a greater potential for our hearts. Some of us may not even realize our hearts have dimmed, as we feel emotions toward others and may think "I would give anything to protect or care for this person." The idea that such thoughts could be based on selfishness is not something that occurs to many of us, and even if it did, we would find it insulting and distasteful. At least I do. So imagine my surprise when somewhere in some aspect of my awareness/consciousness a pilot light was relit.

And just so that we are clear...

I cannot say where, I cannot say what, how, why, etc. I don't know. Ask me about various ideas from Buddhist psychology and cosmology (for example, the different levels of consciousness, etc) and how this relates to it. I don't know. What does it mean? I don't know. What can I do with it? I haven't figured that out yet. Could it "go out" again? I don't know. Does it really matter at the end of the day or is it just a fluke or some aberration of the nervous or limbic system? I don't know. Is it related at all to my Buddhist practice (or to spiritual practice in general)? I don't know. Should anyone else care about it? I wouldn't think so if I were you, but then again, I am not you. Do I think it is any kind of realization or insight or attainment? Absolutely not. Does it make me feel special? No. In fact, I suspect (but obviously don't know!) it may be more akin to a blind person who encounters some remote sense of light (even if it's the subtlest kind of formless shading); that is, I get the impression it be like getting an inkling of what other people (regular folks) already experience but that I have forgotten or severely neglected.

Obviously, then, it is not something to brag about, and that is not my motivation here. But previously there was a missing aspect or connection somewhere when I attempted to focus on things like loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equinamity, and while I find those to be generally lacking in my daily consciousness, there is now something - some nebulous quality, some dimension of recognition or aspect of generation or something - again, not sure what to say - that wasn't there before. As I said, trying to make too much out of it is certainly a mistake, but dismissing it out of hand can be just as much of a mistake. I can say that it feels - is that even the right word, "feels" - more potent(?) or familiar(???) when I am also in a state of focus, generosity, and humility and suggests a source of refuge (yeah, I know, I know, that word) and contentment. Not to say that I am in any kind of pure state of focus, generosity, etc. HA! Hardly. I just mean that if instead of being 99.99999999999% selfish I am for a moment I am only 99.99999999998% selfish, there is an appreciable... something. I don't know.

And if it turns out that this "pilot light" was just a fluke, or if it is extinguished again, well, so be it. I never have such experiences, they've never been a factor in my life or in relationship with the Buddha-Dharma. But for now, I'll just let it be and see what happens.


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