I'm looking for help. I'm quite exhausted. Your articles seem to speak in a level of authenticity and clarity I haven't found elsewhere so I'm approaching you.
I'll try to make this short, but probably won't succeed. I don't know how one is really supposed to formulate this kind of message to a stranger so I'll just write everything I think might be useful for this process. Please ignore everything that isn't.
The facts. I'm a 30-something working mother of a small child. I don't know whether it's relevant to mention this here, but my childhood was partly characterised by violent sexual abuse (I guess it might be relevant since even though I had a long therapy, this still probably affects what assumptions or beliefs I have).
Always been curious about life, read a lot (but not a lot compared to many). A few years ago I had a stroke from which I have according to doctors fully recovered (I don't know what on earth that's supposed to mean, how could I return to something that was before the stroke?). After the stroke I started a search for something, first for less tiredness then for enlightenment, while also trying to learn to be a mother.
During the following couple of years I read a few dozen books, meditated, went to a few retreats, listened to lots of videos and audios from Adyashanti (and many others but he was the most influential for me) on Youtube (while also graduated and started working). And then about a year ago, while driving home from a retreat I had some kind of a shift, my first clear seeing without anything between where I thought there used to be a me and the thing I was looking at.
I was astonished at the simplicity of the insight. A friend introduced me to a popular spirituality web forum, where I had a very clarifying one-on-one regarding what had just happened to me. The mind at least seemed completely silent and remained so for a few months. I was sure this was what I had been looking for. Things seemed to be flowing perfectly on their own, everything felt light and easy. Honeymoon.
I even ended up guiding a few people before I had to admit to myself my own understanding or moment to moment experience wasn't as clear as I thought was needed for guiding. I also wasn't sure what it exactly is that qualifies as "passing the gate" and whether people had achieved that insight or not. So I stopped guiding and started to look for more clarity. I read Jed McKenna's books and was impressed. Since then I've tried to cut all the nonsense.
Now I think it's all been a huge disappointment really and I'm dead fed up with this search that has already lasted many years stops me from enjoying normal everyday things, always pursuing for something else. I want to find a way out. So many times I thought I "found it" only to find a few weeks or months later that I actually have found nothing.
I have strong mood swings from a feeling of clarity and happiness to very dark and depressed tones many times during the same day and that leaves my family confused too. I think I would be classified as depressed or something if I talked to a doctor, but I wouldn't like to just numb it with some antidepressants but instead solve this in a permanent way, be permanently free of suffering. You've said it's possible.
I have to add I'm not suicidal (but actually might be if I didn't have a child), but I feel like I don't have what it takes for one single more round in that spiritual amusement park. But at the same time I don't know how to avoid that round. Lately I've been crying daily (which I'm not saying is a problem but just a fact) and would like to crawl somewhere alone to hide until all of this is somehow solved. Family life feels like an almost unbearable burden, motherhood and responsibility have always been difficult for me (and on some other moment like the best thing there is).
Somewhere along the way all of this got so very serious. I feel like joy has gone from my life (well, I know this is exaggeration and besides I never was exactly a hilarious person), like there always is a melancholic undertone in everything. Somewhere along the way empathy towards others and myself was lost.
I'm not looking for some empathy exercises but instead I trust that real empathy and love towards others is a natural consequence of a deep enough insight of there being no separateness. I keep wondering if it is of any use to try to cultivate love and empathy.
I somehow still believe there is a level of understanding of reality where one won't be colliding with reality all the time. I think the solution must lie in reaching that level of understanding. But how? It's like there's something I don't get here, despite the no-self "thing". To be honest I have no idea what it was I understood in that moment.
Of course when I stop, I remember how there is no self, but surely this thing can't be about remembering. Shouldn't this be so clear with a level of understanding and insight that need not be remembered? I'm done with impermanent quick fixes. I've tried to re-understand this intellectually. I've tried to give myself a break and accept everything. Still, is there a level of understanding or insight that wipes away the need for either of them.
One more point. What I like a lot about your texts is how you have lately tied it to how our assumptions define what we think is possible and dwelling in possibility. At the moment I'm working in a project possibility. At the moment I'm working in a groundbreaking project that could really use as much of my energy and capabilities as possible.
In this work I constantly feel paralysed by my mind though I know nothing should be stopping me or this project from happening. Some unconscious patterns seem to stop me from acting effectively, sometimes almost totally. As if I'm not already asking for much, I'd like to be able to give everything I have to this project or rather have more to give since at the moment all of this that I've written about takes so much of my energy.
I know that no one can walk the road for me, but can you help me with the direction?
Please help me to either find that permanent liberation from suffering or to give up this search and leave all of this behind and dive fully into normal everyday life without thinking about these things all the time.
I'm fucking fed up with this half way up the mountain which I think equals to nothing . Can you help?
First things first – this is a brilliant letter. It is not often that I come across someone who has the kind of honesty in these matters that you clearly have. Your account is down to earth, clear, and more than anything else, human. I say it often but it bears repeating – I'm no wizard. The more detail I get on what people are specifically going through, the more accurate I am able to be, so I was delighted to receive a piece like this, which is almost forensic.
Before we go on, let me just address something that you mention. You say that you have suffered from sexual violence in the past.
Horror is never good, and it doesn't get good in retrospect. Sometimes things happen and there ain't no sugar-coating can be done.
At the same time, I have noticed something of everyone I've ever met who's gone through anything very extreme, and come out the other side. Many people go through their lives like they're playing a game. They never take reality seriously, never learn to fear it, never learn to respect it. Especially now, in the Western world, there's a massive pull in our culture to ignore things we don't like and retreat into little excuses. Reality is always someone else's problem.
Many people live like this, and die like this. Severed from the real, spinning around inside little worlds that get smaller and smaller the older they get.
When you've gone through horror, you are far less likely to do this, and if you do it, far less able to sustain it. This is a massive boon.
It means is that you do not sit easy in a world of fiction, because you know that reality has teeth.
In this, in specifically what you are trying to do, this is a massive, massive benefit. Having no respect, fear, or appreciation of the power and pitfalls of reality is a massive, massive problem for a very large number of people.
When you wonder 'how massive?' - think of this. That there are literally millions of people who feel exactly as you do, but who would never admit it, and thus, never escape it.
This is because what you are going through is incredibly common, and arises directly from a single, simple issue that underlies a vast swathe of Eastern thought regarding the end of suffering.
But the interesting thing is this – the issue isn't a modern problem. It's been with Buddhism for a very long time, and is, I think it's fair to say, the single, central reason why so few people who embark on a path to freedom in that tradition ever actually make it.
It was perfectly formulated by a man called Hui Neng, who was the sixth Patriarch of Buddhism, and the de facto founder of Zen.
Now, before we go on, the 'bodhi tree' referenced in these verses refers to the physical tree under which the Buddha was sitting, meditating, when he broke free of suffering and delusion. Bodhi translates as “awakened.”
Here's the verse.
Our body is the bodhi tree
Our mind a mirror bright.
Carefully we wipe them hour by hour
And let no dust alight.
Now, if you step back from what you're doing, and take a very broad-spectrum look at it, I'll bet you dollars for dimes you're doing this.
You're trying to clear your mind. To clear your head, your self, your life, much like wiping a mirror. If dust gets on the mirror (emotions, anxiety, shame, anger, whatever) you work to clean it off, to get back to that 'pure state' of no self, or no division, or whatever, where you're completely clean of thought, and free to experience the bliss of existence.
You find this process frustrating, because no matter how clear or clean you can make that mirror, the damn thing just keeps getting fouled up with feeling. And so you try harder, you scrub it harder, and that works – for a time. But then the more effort you've put in to making your mind clear, the more hope you invest in the result.
And that result always fails, and so you feel really down on yourself. And that sadness is just one more big chunk of muck all over your mirror, and it reinforces just how important it is to get the thing clean, once and for all.
So you roll up your sleeves, and scrub all the harder. And the worst part is that when you give up on all this and say “no, no more of this, this isn't working” and leave it for a few days, you almost always get this lovely zen feeling that makes you think “AHA! THERE IT IS!”
And then it goes, and you die a little inside, and try to get it back, and you're just... spinning out.
This is what very large numbers of people do with Buddha's teachings. It's also what a lot of people involved in all the many strands of Eastern thought (Hinduism, Taoism, et al) do. And indeed, it seems to me that this is by far the majority approach even in Christian, Jewish or Islamic mysticism.
It's what a lot of people teach. They might (well, there's no 'might' about it actually) dress this process up in fancy clothes, make it sound really pretty and use big words and bright smiles as they do it, but cleaning your mirror – wiping the mind free of thought – this is basically the centre of what most Eastern approaches to the end of suffering are actually teaching, when you really break it down.
Now, there's only one problem with this approach, and it's this.
This will never work, never, never, never.
It doesn't matter how good you feel after a really deep experience of the wonder of existence, or how long you can hold it in a retreat, or how long you can hold it using this (amazing, new!) meditation technique, or how many time you read this (amazing, old!) holy scripture or that, or how Zen you feel, or how real the feeling of peace is.
None of this is of any relevance whatsoever. Literally zero.
None of this will ever last, and if you are working in these terms, the only thing you can look forward to is a chaotic mess.
It is a little bittersweet that the standard Eastern response to the terrible mess this makes is, as serenely as possible, to smile and say “it takes many lifetimes.”
Thing is, you could live to be a million years old a million times over, and you'd still never get anywhere with this approach. It is just fundamentally misconceived at so deep a level that no caveat is going to make a difference.
Why can it never work? Good question – and there's a very simple answer. It's this. That when you take just a little step back from it, and get a good look, it is, and always will be 100% antagonistic.
The idea of silence as the good, noise as the bad, and to overcome noise with a big hit of silence?
It doesn't matter that silence isn't antagonistic. Silence vs Noise is, and that's what you're doing.
Can you see that? This entire approach is a war. You are instigating an internal war, attempting to defeat, annihilate and destroy the noise, with your weapon – stillness.
It's not that the approach you are taking leads to a conflicted result.
The approach that you are taking fundamentally is conflict.
And that's why you, and literally millions of others, are getting stuck.
Take the time to look, take a bit of a step back, try and get a bit of perspective on it. We're not talking deep hidden dynamics, we're talking broad strokes, big picture.
Now, Hui Neng saw this problem very clearly, and he saw it something like 1300 years ago. He was dealing with this then. He called it The Heresy Of Annihilation.
And when he saw that someone had written that verse we just looked at (the one about the mirror) he put the following verse together, as a response.
There is no bodhi tree
Nor stand of a mirror bright.
Since all is void,
Where can the dust alight?
What he's saying is this. The noise, emotion, feeling - how can any of this be a problem in the first place, if there's nowhere for it to stick? If there's no mirror, if there's no you?
If what you are is a fiction, then what are you trying to wipe? What are you trying to clean?
Now the thing is, Buddha recommended long, long meditation. Hui Neng didn't. He saw something else, and this is what made his work (in my opinion) such an incredible advance beyond Buddha.
This isn't to belittle Buddha – it's like comparing Newton and Einstein. Einstein was brilliant, but his brilliance rested on Newton's shoulders. Same thing here.
Hui Neng saw that there is no preparation that is necessary for freeing yourself from suffering. And indeed, long meditation might even be counterproductive, because, well – if all is void, what are you preparing?
Nothing. You're just weaving a fiction of preparation, a fiction of a more peaceful and open you. And the more time and effort you put into it, the more compelling it becomes.
And more tormented too - as failure compounds on failure with no change in result.
What Hui Neng said was very radical for his time, and indeed, was so radical for his time that it's still radical, 1300 years later. This might be a record for 'most radical thing a person has yet said', but I say 'might' so I don't get too much Christian hate mail.
Now, before we go on, you asked two things of me. You asked me to help you get out of the loop you've found yourself stuck in, and then you also asked me how to actually make this stuff work anyway.
The first part – that you feel you're stuck in a loop, and you want to get out? The way to do that is to get a bit of clarity on what you're doing so you can get 'outside' it, so to speak. That's really all you need for that part. Just step back, take a look and you should quite easily be able to get a lot more clarity on this whole process.
Nothing magic, just take a look at what you yourself are actually doing.
The Heresy Of Annihilation – that's what you're stuck in. Don't worry about the big words, or the fancy titles. Just step back and see the broad-strokes pattern that encapsulates your whole approach to this.
Once you get a view of that, you can step back from the whole thing, from the core process that's locking you in the loop.
If you're finding it hard to step back and get that distance, just remember – you don't need much. There are peaks and troughs to everyone's experience. Nobody's stressed all the time, even the most extreme cases have lucid moments, so in a lucid moment, just take a step back and see the shape of what you're doing.
That'll give you the distance on it you need to stop doing it.
Ok, so – on to the second part. How do you get this whole thing to work anyway?
Well, look. You don't need to become an expert on all the ancient wisdom traditions, you don't need to learn all the ins and outs of everything everyone's ever said about this stuff. All you really need is one clear way that actually works.
So before we go on – don't try and make a cocktail of what I'm about to say. It doesn't mix well, and is best drunk straight. If you go “well, this sounds good, but if I add all this other stuff I've heard from this person, and read in this book as well, gosh, it will be super good!” you're setting yourself up for a fall.
You don't really need more depth. Very few people involved in Eastern thought need more depth. It's deep enough. You need more clarity, because that's the one thing Eastern thought doesn't really excel at, so leave everything else behind, and just give this a clean go.
Now, I don't want to go too much into the 'behind the scenes' workings of the brain and the self and everything, because I've done that elsewhere, but just a little bit will help you get this clear.
The projection of the human self is, if I've made my guess, the main purpose of the brain. And just like the brain has two separate sides to it, there are two distinct elements to the illusion of self.
Firstly, there's the structure. Secondly, there's the substance.
Nothing too complex, we're not delving into all the close dynamics. Just broad strokes, this is what is happening. Two main elements - the framework, and the stuff that fills the framework.
Now, here's a simple question. What is the stuff that fills the framework?
Thing is, you've got the concepts and thoughts and structure – but then you also have the emotions that fill it up. And they have a very distinctive quality. Without them, it's all just dead structure, they're what 'breathes life' into the whole thing, if you forgive me for being a bit flighty with my words.
The particular quality of the anger that you feel, the particular quality of the stress, or the anxiety – also the particular quality of the peace and love, the quality of the happiness that you feel when you feel happy.
The quality is quite distinctive, and unique to you. Everyone gets sad, but the flavour of your sadness is something that is as unique as a fingerprint. You can see this in other people too – although everyone has the same emotional equipment, so to speak, the actual quality of any person's emotion, whatever that emotion is, is unique to them.
It's like a flavour. Not something that you can easily describe in words, but that doesn't mean it's vague. A flavour is extremely specific – whatever it is – but very difficult to accurately wrap up in language. If you ever hear professional wine-tasters trying to describe what a particular wine tastes like, you'll see that quite clearly – what they say gets pretty weird, because it's extremely difficult to describe a taste.
Taste is a quality, and this is true of all quality. Quality is very difficult to describe. Colour is a quality – try describing blue.
Blue isn't vague, it's a very specific thing. But because the kind of thing it is can't really be wrapped up in language, talking about it can get pretty strange.
But no matter how strange, or vague, or weird it gets – that's not something that's a problem with blue. It's something that's a problem with language. Blue isn't some weird spiritual vague thing, but hear someone try to describe it, and you might be forgiven for thinking that.
The same thing is true of this quality, this flavour, the flavour of experience. Talking about it can make it sound like it's this weird, vague, spiritual thing, but it's really not. It's very distinctive, just like a taste. The problem of describing it arises because language has real trouble doing that – but not because the flavour itself is a vague or fuzzy thing.
Ok, now this flavour. What is it? Where does it come from?
Well, think of one side of the brain (the left) as mainly concerned with building the structure of identity, the other side of the brain (the right) as mainly concerned with filling it in.
The right side fills things in with flavour and colour, emotional contour. It's the 'quality' engine, if you will. It's what makes thoughts so much more than abstract things – they have feeling and life.
That feeling and life – where is that coming from? Might seem like a bit of strange question, but bear with it.
When we look a bit closer at the brain, we find that the hemisphere that does this (again, the right hemisphere), does the 'filling in' bit, the quality and the contour of things – that hemisphere isn't a fantasist. It doesn't lie.
The other hemisphere does. The hemisphere (the left one) that's doing all the concepts and structure and stuff – that just lies through its grey, gooey teeth.
Which raises a very interesting issue. If the illusion of self is an illusion, we don't really need to ask ourselves searching questions about where the structure comes from. It comes from the left hemisphere, which quite simply just makes it up.
But the right hemisphere, the one filling in all the contour and emotional quality – that doesn't lie. It doesn't invent. In technical terms, it's a high-fidelity piece of recording equipment. It just maps what's there.
The left hemisphere takes that quality, and uses it to fill the structure of self.
Ok – but where is that quality originally coming from?
What is it using that to 'stuff the scarecrow'?
Basically, the right hemisphere is mapping reality. It's mapping reality in terms of quality, the quality of the real.
Now, it might seem like talking about 'reality' is this big scary thing, and it all seems so very distant and abstract, cold and huge. That's because most people think of reality in terms of this massive physical system, like an enormous clockwork machine of incredible complexity.
But then, that idea of a clockwork machine is far more of a human conceit than its materialist credentials would suggest. There's a different perspective to look at reality from which makes it far, far simpler than we assume it to be.
Time is the key. Not time as a linear chain of events, but time as a moment, a rolling moment where possibilities converge into existence. To sum it up as it's been summed up well elsewhere – the now.
Time as a rolling moment, not linear, but centred, if you think about it, is massively closer to how we actually experience time.
The moment of existence – the only time anything that exists does so - is always fresh and new. It is never exhausted, it is never corrupted. In and of itself it is utterly coherent and clean. It has no dividing lines, no conflict within it. The present moment is not at odds with itself. There's no antagonism.
It also has this exuberant quality to it, if I may make so bold. The constant ongoing initiation and birth of reality, from the shadows of the possible into the light of what is. This kind of thing.
If it sounds like I'm getting a little poetic, that's because what I want to do here is get you tuning in to quality over concept. The quality of things, the taste of them, the flavour, the colour. What's the flavour of experience? The flavour of anger? The flavour of sadness? The flavour of frustration, of pain? The flavour of peace? The flavour of joy?
Is this making sense?
Now, here's the thing. The flavour of reality is the flavour of you. It's the flavour of your pain, the flavour of your hope, your sadness, your joy, your peace and your conflict. All of it. It's all woven from the same cloth.
And it's all the same flavour.
This is key. All the same. There is a single flavour that runs through all your anger, fear, anxiety, sadness, hope, love, joy, peace, conflict, calm.
Now, the key to this approach is to taste that flavour. To get a fix on it. It's not a vague thing, it's very distinctive, just like the colour blue, but it can be a little bit of a challenge to really nail it down in words, just like the colour blue.
Still, you don't really need to nail it down in words, because it's quite a strong flavour, and it's the flavour of everything you experience. A good way to get it is to get that sense of the flavour in your quiet moments when everything's peaceful, and then just think back to the last time you were sad, or anxious, or angry, and taste it there.
Then just open up the scope. Is it the same everywhere? Every experience you've ever had?
I call it a flavour because that's probably the closest word I can think of that captures the kind of thing you're looking for. You can think of it in terms of other qualities too – like a musical tone, or a colour. But I think that flavour probably speaks the closest to it, so I'll use that for now. It's not an actual taste you feel in your mouth.
Now, a good thing about this approach is that you're not trying to 'beat' anything. It's not antagonistic, which is important, because that's a road that just never ends. Instead, you're trying to step back, and taste the flavour that runs through all of the mental states, mental noise, and mental peace.
The specific conflict you're going through arises in the first place because you think of sadness as a problem, and peace as a solution. But both sadness and peace are like waves on the surface of the sea – that's just the shape of what it looks like right now. The shape of the waves will change – but the sea will persist.
The shape of your experience will change, but the flavour of the real will persist.
Now, it's not just that this is an interesting philosophical vignette – but then, if you never try it, but just poke the idea at arm's length, yes, that's all it can ever be.
But if you actually do this, you find a whole host of secondary results just sort of happen.
Firstly, because the unity that underlies all mental states is seen, no single mental state can ever again lay exclusive claim to being you.
This is quite a big deal, in terms of the amount of pain you go through. Essentially, you undercut the phenomenon of 'being conflicted'. There's nothing to conflict with anything else, because the continuum that underlies it all is clear.
Even when conflict arises, the flavour of that conflict is the same as the flavour of anything. That's the essence of 'you'. The fiction of 'you' – whatever shape it might take right now, peaceful, worried, angry, lonely, scared, happy – is composed of this flavour.
This might seem a little abstract, but the effect of it is quite profound. If you feel anxious, you no longer have to worry (even more) about 'being an anxious person'. It's just that anxiety is what is happening now. And because you're not feeding it by worrying about it, it subsides pretty fast – much faster than it would otherwise do.
The same is true of depression, despair – a huge part of what sustains that kind of thing is getting down on yourself for being a depressed person. It's not that when you see that flavour that runs through all experience you stop doing this, it's more that this becomes far less relevant. Less jagged. It loses it's teeth, so to speak. And because of that, sadness loses a key part of it's sustaining mechanism.
Another quite striking secondary effect is that you can experience that flavour with ever increasing clarity, no matter what actual experience you're having. No experience can obscure it, because all experience is made of it. And you don't need to believe any of this, or convince yourself of any of this – it's just right there, part of life, immediate and right in front of you.
There are other things too. Things you don't really notice until they're gone, or at least subsiding. Things like the incredible weight of pressure you put upon yourself to be in a certain way. I think you'll be quite surprised how much you were holding yourself in very strict limits and you didn't really notice. It sounds a strange thing to say, and it's one of the things I barely noticed until it started to slip.
There's probably a lot of stuff like that – problems that are so entrenched that you don't even notice them anymore, but you will start to notice when they start to crumble, and it's a very nice thing indeed.
These are all secondary effects. This is important. If you try to do these things directly, you'll probably end up in an even bigger tangle than before. So instead of seeing them as 'things to do', a better way of looking at them is as 'things that just sort of happen' once this unity of flavour has been tasted.
What this means is that you're dead right when you say you don't want 'empathy exercises'. Trust your gut on that. Adding this or that new solution to this symptom or that symptom isn't going to help when the main problem is all the mess anyway. It's just more mess.
But things like empathy and connection – these are things that we are evolved to be able to do very well. There are things we aren't and we have to learn – building skyscrapers and writing poetry, for instance – but there are things we don't. Empathy is one of them.
You haven't lost the faculty of empathy – it's just that the noise and the struggle are sucking up so much of your time and attention there's little room for anything else, including other people. That's why I'd be very surprised if this problem didn't sort itself out once you've made headway on the core, which is what I suggest you do.
So I think that just about covers it. Thank you for the commission, and I hope you are happy with the result – and remember. You are a subscriber now, you have the right to post and get guaranteed responses every month.
If you need help, or you get stuck, or you get confused, just hit the comments. As much detail as possible, please – that's what I need to get a really accurate fix on what's going on.
None of this is magic, and if you get stuck there will be a very specific reason for it. It won't be some terrible personal failure, and you won't have failed me or yourself. It'll be something specific that's really simple when you look at it from the right angle. Everything is.
There you have it. Much love, good luck, and I hope to hear from you soon.