Simple Truths vs. Esoteric Ones
I've enjoyed being a contributor to Reality Sandwich, and meeting many in the RS and Evolver communities. But, as my readers have noticed, my posts often look like the Sesame Street game of "Which One Doesn't Belong." The reason is that, despite my own not-inconsiderable experience with esotericism, Kabbalah, and shamanic medicines, I tend to think that the simple stuff is more important both for personal transformation and for global evolution than the fancy stuff is.
In fifteen years of practice, all of my most powerful insights have been banal. Despite having spent two decades studying the baroque mysteries of the Kabbalah, the intricacies of postmodern philosophy, and the endless inversions of gender and queer theory, and despite four (count 'em) graduate degrees, I find that the insights which affect me the most, and last the longest, are maxims you might find on any hybrid-SUV's bumper stickers. Love and Let Go. You are Okay. Trust the Part that Loves. It's embarrassing, really; having written over two hundred essays and articles on the spiritual path, I'm at a loss to say anything original about what really matters to me. It all comes out sounding trite. Pale.
This is especially true of the latest stage in my spiritual journey, which has involved long silent retreats (two months, three months) in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. I have, on these retreats, had wonderful profound/mystical/life-altering experiences, and sublime mystical states I've written about elsewhere. But these were not really the point, since these pass, and I've had plenty of them already. Nor was the point to get some new, secret information. Rather, what's stuck are the fundamentals.
Here's how I've put it to friends. For five billion years, life on Earth has evolved ever more complicated means of ensuring survival. Two of these fundamental methods are the basic idea of the self, and the basic drive to satisfy the self's desires. If we didn't have a sense of the ego, of Me, we'd surely have been eaten by predators aeons ago. Who knows, some of our ancestors may well have been -- and their genetic material has long since been lost to history. And if we didn't have this basic drive to satisfy our hungers and our desires, we wouldn't eat, wouldn't reproduce, wouldn't do much of anything, really. The mental constructions of ego and desire have long been essential, then, to our very existence.
And yet, as the Buddha realized 2,500 years ago (and many other people have realized since), these basic constructions cause a lot of pain. The ego feels alone. Desires are never satisfied -- we just want more. And life just doesn't cooperate; it's just not possible to always keep the pleasant and always avoid the unpleasant. Really, all of us want just a few basic things: success, love, power, meaning, purpose, pleasure. And, of course, we all don't want sickness, death, loss, pain, loneliness, and grief. This handful of basic desires is universal, natural -- and the cause of suffering.
See the conundrum? The needs most fundamental to our biological makeup are also the ones which tend to cause the most suffering. Is there another way?
The Buddha and I happen to agree that there is -- but we also agree that more esotericism, Kabbalistic coincidences, Atlanteans, Lumerians, crop circles, entheogenic visions, theorizing, cognizing, faiths, anti-faiths, whatnots, and whoozits aren't really it. They may or may not be true, and many of them certainly are interesting. But in my view, interesting is not going to change the world. Transformation of the ego, on the fundamental level I've been describing, will. And that doesn't depend on any gematria, Bible Code, Mayan calendar, or energy vortex.
The fundamental axis of the teaching is very, very simple: to understand, intuitively and deeply, that what Buddhists call "conditioned formations" -- i.e., stuff, ideas, people, emotions, and everything else -- are incapable of providing lasting, deep happiness. Formations change all the time. The joys they bring -- though often wonderful, profound, and amazing -- are short-lived. Even when we get exactly what we want, it gets old after a while, and we want something else. And, most subtly but also most importantly, formations just happen. They don't happen to you or to me. There's no one really minding your mental store -- it's running on auto-pilot. Stimulus, response; cause, effect. We say "I am angry" but really all that's happening is "anger has arisen." Sit quietly for a while and look for this self who's having all these experiences. If you find her/him, please shoot me an email.
So what's the alternative? Well, it, too, is easy to describe and hard to experience: just letting go. Now, at the further stages of the spiritual path, the letting go becomes quite profound indeed, as it comes to include letting go of everything, even thought and consciousness and self. But for most of us, it's just plain, ordinary letting go. Those things that have to get done -- don't really have to get done. The dream that you have, that if you don't achieve it, your life will be meaningless -- let it go too.
This is really not very profound. It does not involve angels, demons, neo-Platonic spheres, noetic experiences of the union of all life -- nothing. But it is "profound" in a different sense of the word, as in "profoundly difficult" or "profound change." It is a fundamental reordering of our most basic sense of the world. And so it does take a long time to really sink in.
Can I really be equanimous as between pain and pleasure, love and its lack? Can I really let go enough so that I can remember, over and over again, that, contrary to all indications, fulfilling my desires will not be as satisfying as lessening them? As one spiritual teacher has said, the path is "simple... but not easy."
One of the advantages of a long retreat is that, over time, the mind really does learn to let go, and real faith -- not blind faith in some idea, but confidence in one's own experience -- begins to develop. I didn't just read about the four noble truths in a book; I've seen them for myself. Without this kind of experience, it's just another idea. But with the actual, repeated-over-and-over-again experience, the mind really gets it. This is a very different kind of learning from the kind I did in graduate school(s), and also a very different kind of dharma that is the majority view here in this community which I value. But in my limited experience, it is the kind which transforms.
Image by mckaysavage, courtesy of Creative Commons license.