Mapping the Inner Landscape

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.

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.

Freedom and Resilience.

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 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.

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?

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:

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 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.

Your awareness has room for anything and everything to happen. Don’t let transitory things bind you.

It is as it is.

Refinement at all times.

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.

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.

Or as Shakespeare writes:

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.

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.

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.

Refine yourself. Bring out that which is already glorious within you. And live in harmony.

It is as it is.

Patience is commitment.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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:

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?

If we extricate our awareness from the story of our lives — we can return to immediacy. A non-personal mode of experiencing the world.

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.

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 a passive resignation — patience is an exertion and a commitment to remain with felt experience. Dogen describes it as 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.

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.

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:

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:

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.

And for this task — you need a Yoga. A method of re-union. T.K.V Desikachar writes that:

Removal of what? Of unnecessary clinging to experience. Of holding onto results instead of focusing on efforts. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes that:

And his forefather Dogen writes:

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:

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:

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.

If you enjoyed these newsletters — find more here

Insatiably curious student of life | Writing about Physics, Philosophy, & Dharma | Newsletter @ apsis.substack.com | Personal Site @ sashamanu.com

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