Everyone has insight into the human condition. No matter where you come from, what you’ve done, who you are — you occupy a unique position in the cosmos. As such, you are capable of saying something that is not only valuable in a semantic sense, but something that points to a deep truth of our felt experence. The key is that it only points to that experience. Like a good poem — it either strikes you or it doesn’t.
Here is a poem that struck me deeply.
“Quiet mountain hut
by a rice patch…till a deer’s cry
just outside startles me
and I move…so starling him:
we astonish one another.” Saigyo
The power of quotes has long been a fascination of mine. I see them as signposts that map our inner landscape of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. And if you can string them together just right — you can gather some insight about our inner terrain.
Below are four newsletters from my bi-weekly publication called APSIS.
The style is as such: starting with a central quote, I expand on the initial theme found within it, and link it with other quotes from seemingly unrelated authors. From Dogen, Nagarjuna, and Rumi, to David Lynch, Henry Miller, and Henry Matisse. Born in different times and bound to different professions — yet all seeming to strike the same fundamental point. Enjoy the selection of newsletters below — I hope you find at least one quote that strikes you.
“You shall be free indeed when your days are not without a care nor your nights without a want and a grief, But rather when these things girdle your life and yet you rise above them naked and unbound. And how shall you rise beyond your days and nights unless you break the chains which you at the dawn of your understanding have fastened around your noon hour?” -Khalil Gibran
Freedom is not perfect control.
Imagine your perfect day. How would you wake up? What would you eat? Who would you see? What would you do? Imagine that everyday was like this — and you were but a leaf on the wind, able to pursue whatever arises with elegance and joy. Is this freedom? No. This is fantasy. The external world cannot be shaped to your liking. Moreover, the desire to shape indicates a lack of contentment with the way things are. But what if things are miserable? Should you not seek to ameliorate your conditions? Of course — but don’t make your freedom depend on it. Make your freedom unconditioned — and rise above your circumstances.
But to rise above, we need to fly — and sometimes we feel too heavy to fly. So what are the chains that Khalil says weigh us down? What beliefs have we burdened ourselves with in our youth that no longer serve us?
“The idea is, you know, you live from moment to moment…this moment decides the next step. You shouldn’t be five steps ahead, only the very next one. And if you can keep to that, you’re always alright.” -Henry Miller
The idea of being five steps ahead. The idea that life needs to be figured out before you can be content. This is a chain that will weigh you down until the grave. Figuring things out is a wonderful pursuit, but don’t attach your fundamental contentment to it. If you take it too seriously, then you forget how quickly it’s all rushing away.
“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens a certain number of times, and a very small number, really.” Paul Bowles
You only feel things so many times. That route to work you’ve all but memorised, one day you’ll never step foot there again. One day your headspace will have no resemblance to what it is now. You’ll think about totally different things in totally different ways. And that’s a relief! So indeed it’s all changing — but if you can’t find freedom here and now, in thisheadspace — who says the next one will be any better?
“The goal is not to stay out in LaLa Land, but to get established in other planes of consciousness, and then connect fully back into life. So that you are, as Christ said, ‘In the world, but not of the world,’” Ram Dass
It’s about always starting where you are now. And finding freedom in the immediate and actual. It’s not about feeling the most blissed out and calling that freedom — but of finding a freedom that is independent of how you feel. To do this, you must start by being in the world, by learning to integrate yourself. But recently, we struggle more than ever to be in the world — to even situate ourselves within actuality. Perhaps it’s because we have not glimpsed our original faces in quite some time. And this is understandable — for the modern world hides it from us. But originally, under the layers of social and emotional conditioning — what is basic humanity? After completing a multi-day hike — I felt as if I had caught a glimpse of my original self. Here are some attributes of that self:
Dirty. Smelly. Tired. Sweaty. Too hot. Too cold. Uncomfortable. Sore. Thirsty. Hungry. And happy to be alive.
You see, all of these feelings so often avoided in daily life are made super salient to you in the wild. In nature, discomfort and all of its companions assert themselves so forcefully that you have no choice but to bear them. You have no choice but to return to your original resilience — one that is deeply embedded in your DNA.
“You know, your ancestors — how many times there were opportunities for, you know, the saber-toothed tiger to strike back, or the hunt to fail, or the fever to sweep through, or the breast to go dry? How many times were there opportunities that somebody had their eye on the ball, somebody paid attention? You are the inheritor of that process.” -Terrence McKenna
You can’t live five steps ahead or even two steps ahead. You have to live each and every step. No matter how long the uphill section of the trail, as long as you take it one step at a time, it’s alright. And this is freedom. It is conditioned by nothing, in that it has neither a cause for arising, nor a cause for cessation. It is simply the basic condition of being human — to be a container for experience. And the experiences that are built into your bones are the ones you find out in nature. The ones that are found when you hold counsel with the sky, the trees, and the moon — and approach them with reverential sweat, discomfort, and thirst.
“If you are going to have an ordinary life limitation will be part of it. If you have a job and you have to be at your job on time, the watch that you live by and the diary that you live by are not the enemy. The watch is not an attack on freedom. It is just something arising.” -James Low
Your awareness has room for anything and everything to happen. Don’t let transitory things bind you.
It is as it is.
“As Zen master Pao-ch’e of Mount Ma-ku was fanning himself, a monk came and said, “The nature of wind is permanently abiding and there is no place it does not reach. Why, master, do you still use a fan?” The master said, “You only know that the nature of wind is permanently abiding, but you do not yet know the true meaning of ‘there is no place it does not reach.’” The monk said, “What is the true meaning of ‘there is no place it does not reach’?” The master just fanned himself. The monk bowed deeply.” -Dogen
If the wind is everywhere at all times, why do you bother fanning yourself? If love is everywhere at all times, why do we bother loving each other? The master tells the monk that just because there is potential, doesn’t mean there is actual. It is only and precisely because the wind reaches everywhere that it can be made manifest. By fanning, by making the effort, you are made cool.
“Don’t try to be original. Be simple. Be good technically, and if there is something in you, it will come out” — Henri Matisse
By being good technically, you have made it possible for creativity to flow through you. We’re all creative — but those who can express it are the ones we revere. Perhaps another way to understand Dogen, is with love. Love is everywhere and all around us, but we still have to act lovingly to others. It is not enough to say that your love is implicit, that your love is unconditional — you have to actively bring it about. For some, it is precisely because their love is unconditional that it must be expressed through the conditioned. A love so grande that it must be made into something tangible — it must be contained in words, symbols or objects.
Now, how do we apply this to thinking to our being? How do we now make sense of the mystics and seers telling us that we are already free and liberated. That our nature is Space itself and nothing can ever perturb us.
Well, just like with the wind, we must fan ourselves. We must practice. We must make a habit of actualizing this truth.
“Do not believe your thoughts, neither when they tell you that you are terrible, nor when they tell you that you are a saint” Elder Paisios of Mount Athos
Or as Shakespeare writes:
“For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”
This divestment from the mind is an essential prerequisite to the path. To remember what you already are — it must be clear what you are not. One of the first stages of purification on the path of Vipassana is being able to clearly discern mental from material.
“But when he is actually sitting, does he realize that the sitting position is matter, and can he clearly separate the matter from the mental states involved?” Achaan Naeb
Can you sit simply and be present without engaging in thought forms? Or rather, if you do, are you clearly aware of the difference between thinking and just sitting?
This is the type of discernment that allows you to live fully. Just know the difference between what is happening physically and what is happening mentally. After this stage, we can fully address Joseph Campbells problem.
“I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” -Joseph Campbell
And how do we live in this harmony? How do we find resonance with our deeper selves? Through discernment and refinement. We must touch the stillness within — and refine ourselves until the stillness can manifest through action.
“It can change the ordinary mortal
into a sage instantly
to discern the real and the false
to complete the work,
see to refinement at all times
Refine yourself. Bring out that which is already glorious within you. And live in harmony.
It is as it is.
“At a hospital, he was told that both his legs should be amputated at the knee. When he had the operation, he only said to his army surgeon, “Please cut both legs evenly.” — The pivotal point for him was that he chose to think: “Today, at this moment, I am born.” One could think, “I was born with both legs, then I was drafted and forced to go to war. Because we lost the war, I was sent to Siberia as a prisoner. On the way, my legs got frostbitten and I had to have both of them amputated.” If we think of this sequence of events, it’s too painful even to cry.” -Kosho Uchiyama on Reverend Ozawa
You can’t integrate this. There is no place for this tale of sorrow in the narrative of your life. Such an event is far too real to be abstracted into a story. As such, you have to live it. Every day you endure it. Every day you cultivate patience.
“It is no patience
Which you can bear patiently;
Patience is to bear
What is unbearable” -Sengai
At some point along the way, our minds decided that the best way of understanding this world of constant change was to construct a singular, immutable, monolithic sense of Self. This Self is embedded in an equally constructed life story. As such, all events that happen, happen “to” this Self. All decisions and choices are made “by” this Self. And this is alright — until you go looking. When you take this idea of an individual agent enacting their will upon the world as substantive, then you run into trouble. The world of abstraction that your “I” inhabits is a castle in the sky — a whisp of cloud. It is a game your brain plays to make sense of the world — but it’s only a play. When you go looking for the actors no one is found. Comedian Demetri Martin unintentionally describes the situation of searching for the Self aptly:
“I feel like my washing machine is sneaky because I put clothes in there and detergent and start it up. I hear all this noise as it’s turning around, then I open the lid to see what was going on and it’s like…”
Just like the washing machine, it feels like our Self is really there — and not only that but it’s extremely active. But when you open the lid to see what’s going on — nothing! The washing machine stops running! The moment you start to looking for it you realize it can’t be found. It is like when Saint Augustine is asked to define time.
“I know what it is, but when you ask me I don’t.”
Yet for many, we abide solely in this world of construction. It is only when an event so catastrophic, so destabilizing occurs, that we are woken up from this solidification of reality into a singular point. When the world is too much for a ‘Self’ to bear — we have a chance to awaken. And to awaken does not mean to stop the narrative. It just means to see it as it is — an appearance.
“When I heard the temple bell ring, suddenly there was no bell and no I, just sound” — Yasutani Hakuun
For some it takes a temple bell. But this is a habit that is hard to break — that of thinking of ourselves as a character in a story. Famed psychologist Carl Rogers has a list of nineteen propositions that detail the construction of this self. Point eight is as follows:
“A portion of the total perceptual field gradually becomes differentiated as the self”
Some of the sensory experiences that arrive to our awareness we call ‘I’ — the weight of our foot, the thoughts in our head. Others, such as the smell of grass, or the sight of a bird are markedly not the Self. But can we remember the experience of life that is not mediated by this narrative? Is there an experience of life prior to conceptualization?
“Just be aware of the sense of being, it is not personal” Mooji
If we extricate our awareness from the story of our lives — we can return to immediacy. A non-personal mode of experiencing the world.
“The world is, sort of, as it is. The way you go through it changes” — David Lynch
But you are the world are you not? Your narrative may change, your Self story may adapt — but you are never truly apart. The Self structure will construct itself whether or not you pay it any mind. Give it some oversight, be curious about the story — but to become too fascinated is to fall into its game.
“We are like children who shrink from pain but love its causes” — Shantideva
In meditation the experience is all too salient. We sit down to focus on the breath, and an interesting thought arises. I often think — okay, let me just follow this train of thought and then I’ll return to the breath. But like a child I am utterly swept away into a world of imagination. I need patience to endure the pecking thoughts of my mind without compulsively indulging. And there is nothing wrong with thinking — thoughts are beauty! But often, it can become a compulsive activity as opposed to a conscious one.
“Patience is not sitting and waiting, it is foreseeing” Shams of Tabriz
Patience is not a passive resignation — patience is an exertion and a commitment to remain with felt experience. Dogen describes it as strenuous.
“If I exert myself totally, I am in some sense sustaining, enduring or perduring something going on in me that I did not and could not produce myself. My part in it is precisely to stand it, stick out, which is not active, not passive, but strenuous”
When you sit with experience in a non-symbolic way, you are somewhere in the middle. You aren’t doing anything active since you didn’t create your circumstance. But you are neither being passive, as there is certainly something going on. Dogen calls is strenuous.
Others call it Reality. But a label is just a label, simply:
It is as it is.
“Make no mistake. Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth.’-Adyashanti
So often, we think of the spiritual path ending in an attainment. And this makes sense, for the path itself takes great effort to walk. And when in our lives is a great effort not commensurate with a great reward? But this path is different — this is a path of undoing.
I often think about what it takes. Maybe one night, you decide to sit cross legged and not move until dawn. Maybe one night, you decide to chant and prostrate until sunrise. Ram Dass, jokingly, suggests a more nuanced formula.
“If you took this and followed it with this and you did it under these conditions with this person reading this book after fasting for so many days and standing on your left foot — it would work”
Clearly, before looking at methods — one ought to clarify to goal. What is the destination that seers and sages have sought for millennia? Fundamental Contentment.
A replacement of the undercurrent of anxiety and discomfort with a deeper sense that everything is okay. Importantly, this is not the disappearance of discomfort or stress — but an understanding of its nature. The message of these mystical traditions is radical — for they say no matter what happens, everything is always perfect. Even more radical — they say that things are already perfect, but we are just confused and cannot see it.
Krishna explains to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita that the true Self, what you really are, is like space. In the same way that space pervades the cosmos yet is unstained by anything — the Self remains untouched by the play of appearances. Krishna is urging Arjuna to identify with his deeper Self, not merely the ever-changing play of appearances. As such, he explains that:
“Actions do not cling to me because I am not attached to their results” -Krishna
Is space attached to the objects within it? Does space care whether I put a coffee cup, pencil case, or vase in a location? No — it remains as it always was — Unstained and Open.
But our tension towards existence, our lack of openness is not entirely unfounded. We live in highly sensitive bodies, with minds ever liable to trauma. So naturally we seek to ossify and solidify this flow of uncertainty we call life in order to protect ourselves. But we mustn’t lose sight of the underlying truth — we must become comfortable with bare uncertainty. At the time of the Buddha, the monk Anuruddha once said:
“Don’t you know, you fool,
That maxim of the awakened ones?
Impermanent are all formations;
Their nature is to arise and vanish”
That was their maxim. The most important thing to remember is that the world is rushing away from us — that this play of existence consists only in appearances arising and vanishing from our awareness. The entire path is thus an unlearning of our habitual avoidance with the present moment — our habitual avoidance of this bare fact.
So to recognize the Self, given that it is already here, one need only become aware of all that veils it. In the same way that if you want to relax, you just need to get rid of tension — then relaxation follows naturally.
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it” Rumi
And for this task — you need a Yoga. A method of re-union. T.K.V Desikachar writes that:
Yoga is 90% waste removal
Removal of what? Of unnecessary clinging to experience. Of holding onto results instead of focusing on efforts. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes that:
“There is nothing to understand but ignorance for the enlightened person”
And his forefather Dogen writes:
“Those who have great realization of delusion are Buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings”
It appears that this is the secret. That to realize what you already are — you need simply to start acting like it. You need to practice not being attached to the fruits of your actions. Even if you do everything right, the world is so complex that the ultimate results are still out of your control. So why be concerned? All you can do is give maximum effort — the rest is up to nature.
Let us wake up from the slumber of ignorance. Wake up from our willful blindness to the fact that:
“I exist as I am, that is enough” -Walk Whitman
Make no mistake — the world of confusion and discomfort continues to occur even if you are aware of your enoughness. As the philosopher Nagarjuna writes:
“Water in the summer is described as warm, While in the winter it is said to be cold. Entangled in the net of emotions, we are called sentient beings. One who is free from those emotions is said to be a Buddha”
We are just water — and it’s natural to get caught in rivers, streams and ponds. But make no mistake — you are the expansive ocean.
It is as it is.
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