Friday, 20 August 2010


Reach into the rolling surge of a frozen river.

Pull out a gray stone - a smooth, banded oval about the size of your fist.

Put it in the oven for an hour.

Sit very, very still while it warms up.

Swallow it.

Push the stone down into your gut.

Feel it radiate hot weight and hushed light for a day and a night.

Do whatever you do, but now do it with heat and weight and light.

Don't forget to sit again tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Cranking the Flywheel

What about the stories - personal, political, religious - that we tell ourselves? What happens to our stories as we start to wake up?

For my part, I don't think that waking up is principally concerned with changing the content of our beliefs or stories. (Let them arise, let them dance, let them go.) But I do think that, in important ways, waking up depends on our progressive attunement to the role these beliefs play in our "psychic economies."

The essential question is not: what do you believe? The essential question is: what do your beliefs do? What roles do they play in shaping, animating, or excusing your clinging and craving? No belief or story - no matter how accurate or insightful - is so pure that it cannot be repurposed by craving as fuel for fantasy and self-justification.

Most of our beliefs - accurate or inaccurate, verifiable or mythological - about ourselves and the world are put to work as props for our fantasies. In particular, our beliefs work to prop up the one fundamental fantasy most all of us share: our fantasy that the world is capable of supporting permanent, satisfied, and substantial selves.

These fantasies - these delusions, these ignorances - are the source of much of our misery.

But extra care must be taken with certain kinds of belief. Supernatural beliefs in particular (whether warranted or not) are dangerous because, lacking push-back, they are especially prone to being co-opted as "havens" for our harmful fantasies. Supernatural beliefs are those places where our fantasies of power, control, and satisfaction are most likely to come home to roost.

In one sense, the key to waking up is learning how to live without beliefs and narratives. In this light, we might describe meditation as the practical business of working loose, layer by layer, of all of the beliefs and stories in which our destructive fantasies hide.

Life and spirit flare up when, beliefs and stories aside, we make contact with our own bare-boned, mineral-thin film of root receptivity.

But what would it mean to live without beliefs and stories?

I want to be quite precise on this point: I do not think it means that beliefs no longer arise and that stories are no longer spun. Were this to happen, one would be something other than human. Rather, I think it means that we no longer believe in our beliefs and stories.

What would it mean to no longer believe in our stories?

It would mean that we no longer use our beliefs and stories to supplement the perceived paucity of the world.

It means that, though we still have beliefs and narratives, we no longer use them to prop up the world, to make things look more permanent, satisfying, and substantial than they actually are.

No longer believing in our stories is like no longer believing in cookies. There are still cookies and we may even still eat cookies (and like them!), but we no longer believe that a cookie is capable of giving us something that it cannot: the satisfaction of desire.

We might generalize this point and say: waking up means no longer believing that any "X" can satisfy desire. Waking up is about sitting with the worm of desire, with the striving of life itself, not about about being "done" with it.

But this belief in the possibility of satisfaction is, I think, the "secret" belief that attaches itself to and intertwines itself with practically all of our other beliefs: we believe in our beliefs about the power of stuff to satisfy us.

When we wake up, the wheels of our beliefs continue to spin, but now they've come loose of the main axle such that they no longer crank the flywheel of our fantasies.

In this sense, I don't think that the Buddha has any objection to a belief in God or the supernatural - so long as we don't believe that our beliefs can ever save us from the friction and mundanity that are the substance of life itself.