The Phenomenal World

phenomenal world
A familiar view

So, I have this kinda tense situation on the horizon: in the near future, I will be doing a favor for someone I care deeply for, and it makes me nervous. I want so badly to do well, and to be of use to this person, that I am having performance anxiety. It’s not rational: the task is not a hard one, and there’s really no way to perform badly if I just show up. But there’s still that nervousness that I can’t seem to let go of.

But this is a good opportunity to talk about the difference between phenomenal world, the world As It Is, and the world of perception, the world as we.. well, as we perceive it. I think this applies to all of us, but I’m going to personalize it because this is how I currently experience it. The mind seems to have different filters through which we experience the world. When I am tired or hungry or having an emotionally trying day, the way I see things is altered by that. And I have a bunch of habitual ways of thinking about myself that tend to come into play in various situations – ways of thinking about my abilities. This set of rules makes me feel safe. For instance, if I have a bad experience on the subway at a given time of day (rush hour?) I can say, well, no, I just won’t ride then. This way I can avoid all the “bad” situations that I think are too much for me. But this safety comes with a heavy price: the more I limit myself to “safe” situations, the more likely I am to create perceptual barriers to keep myself within that “safety.” It’s important to remember as well that this perceived safety is not actually safe. Anything can happen, and really, life is short.

The truth is that the world around me is changing all the time, and any given situation can be brilliant or boring or terribly tedious or annoying as hell. But as long as I’m centered in my perceptions, I have no access to true nourishment. I live in a bubble, breathing my own stale air constantly.

But if I can open, then I make available to myself a world in which anything can happen. Also, the world that offers me fresh air and nourishment:

“What we tend to ignore is the world that sees us. This is not the world you think you see or hear. Nevertheless you are supported by this world. It is actually the world as it is before you are conscious of it – before you form some idea about it. If you emphasize yourself, you completely forget this world that sees, holds, and sustains you.” Katagiri Roshi

So, while I am sitting here, nervous about this small errand in my future, what I can remember is that the truth of the situation is that I am actually a lot more capable than I give myself credit for. I have the opportunity, every moment, to open into the situation and experience life As It Is instead of limiting myself to a perceptual comfort zone. And if I do that, I can be there for others, like my friend who needs me.

So, how do I plan to do this? Regular meditation practice and self-care. The first, meditation, is essential because it keeps me grounded in my own physical experience. Without that basic physical tie to what is happening in my body, right this moment, it’s impossible for me to truly be open to what’s happening around me. The second, self-care, is vital for clarifying my perception of the world around me. It may be that I will never truly see clearly, but the more rested I am, and the less affected by changes in body chemistry (blood sugar levels, etcetera) the easier it will be to look out at the world with fresh eyes. It’s also useful for maintaining a good sense of humor.

I think that with these two in place, I can do whatever task I set before myself and trust that whatever happens, it will be workable.

Holding the Kitty

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Old Lady Kitty says, “Get off my lawn!”

Is there something or someone in your life that really annoys you? I have this cat who won’t shut up. I love her, but she’s annoying. She’s getting on in years, and she just won’t shut up. Sometimes there is something she definitely wants, and often I can do something about that: sometimes there seems to be nothing that she wants, or at least nothing I can figure out. I suspect sometimes she just likes to yowl because she wants the attention. My response to this has been to holler at her to shut the hell up. You can probably imagine how useful this has been.

One of my teachers likes to say that our minds are composed of different parts, that there are parts of our personality that formed before we were verbal, perhaps even before we were even human. These primitive parts of our minds don’t have words or even concrete ideas. All they have are feelings: a sense of danger or of wanting. Without a real clue about what these feelings are, and often without even knowing that we are even having these feelings, we automatically come up with reasons for them. That inner cat yowling for whatever it wants demands a response. Rather than actually hear the annoying feline in our souls, we immediately jump to a habitual desire, trying to settle that sense of disquiet that follows us everywhere. These habitual cravings lead us – nowhere. They don’t quiet the cat, and they certainly don’t do anything to help us become better, kinder people.

A daily sitting practice will slow us down enough to sense these inner voices, but I have found that often I still find myself at odds with my own tendencies. Just knowing the cat is there and that it’s loud doesn’t really make it go away or be less annoying. I would like to suggest something else: look around in your life. Look closely at these things that annoy you in your daily life, and ask yourself: is there a parallel between these things and the unsettledness in my own mind? And, is there a way I can approach these situations and my own mind with more gentleness?

I have found that the best way to get the cat to shut up is to stop whatever I’m doing, go find her, pick her up, and pet her. I hold her and talk to her, and pet her. I get the additional benefit of hearing her purr, which has proven health benefits. I wonder if doing this on a regular basis, in addition to my daily practice, will somehow carry over into a kinder attitude towards the primitive wordless yowlings in my own mind.

Perhaps you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to deal with this. I’m too busy to (metaphorically) pick up the cat every time she starts meowing.” What I would like to ask is: how much time are you spending now stewing over whatever is bothering you? How much time do you waste getting distracted by these annoyances? Would you actually be more productive in the time you spend trying to avoid daily annoyances if you were able to just give yourself and the situation a moment of your attention?

I think it’s worth a shot.

Why I Sit

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I figured I would start off by setting myself assignments every day. I can sit down, light incense, and use that as a way to time myself to either a half hour or a full hour of writing. This is the first of those assignments:

Why do I sit? *sigh* Well, why do I do anything these days? I am becoming more and more convinced that this life is all I have and that when it’s over, it will just be over. I have harbored the idea that I can somehow live on if I live a good life, that my mind may live on in the minds of others, just as the mind of Chogyam Trungpa lives on in the world, especially in the Shambhala mandala. But I won’t really know anything about that because I will be dead. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the self that “knows” stuff, that remembers stuff, maybe “I” am not important. I don’t really know. I think that I have to give up knowing. I think that I have to give up success. I think that if I am going to actually see things the way they are, if I am to take what is important for what is important, then I have to give up any preconceptions I have at this point. I have to give up all the expectations I have. I have to give up my plans, my desires, my fears, my hopes. I suspect that the best way to do that is to sit. This time, when I sit, is the time when I stop, when I am learning how to stop, how to remember to stop. 

I think there is a lot of wisdom in the body, and that I have become separated from that body. I think that we live in an interconnected relationship with all beings, and that the body knows this somehow. When I sit, I am best able to come down into the body. When I sit, I train the brain to stop running round in its plans, fears, and hopes and come back to the present and into relationship with the body. And that body is in relationship already with all beings; at least, I think so. I have contemplated interdependence and found it to be intuitively likely.

Every action we take affects all beings in some way, indirectly or directly. We go about our lives eating and buying stuff, walking around, driving our cars. We are constantly making decisions about what to do, where to go, and what to say to one another. Our moods spill out into the world around us as facial expressions, body language and speech. Whenever we interact with another person, even if it’s just to buy a cup of coffee, how we interact has an effect on that person. And that effect pushes them in a certain direction, forcefully or gently.

If I smile at you, and you believe in your heart that I have good will towards you, it makes it easier for you to smile at someone else, right? And you do want to smile at another person, right? I think it’s possible that we all want to smile. But we’re afraid. But if you smile at me, I feel less afraid, and I can open, and then I can smile at someone else, and they can smile at someone else… until the cycle is broken and someone closes up into fear again. This cycle happens all the time, whether we see it or not. Look for it sometime; smile at someone and observe their reaction. Notice how you feel when you have smiled at someone or when they have smiled at you. The problem, I think, is that the cycle breaks down at some point. Somebody doesn’t notice the smile, or something else happens, and the good mood is broken and then we go right back into that state of fear and separation. Separation from others, separation between our brain and body. These two seem to be intertwined. It’s as if my attitude toward myself reflects my attitude towards other beings or vice versa. And that attitude is often one of fear – as well as hope. So, sitting becomes a way to settle into the body and become familiar with it – remember, I am my body. Sitting is a way to become familiar with the integrated state of mind and body.

I have a kind of confusion about what I mean here when I talk about the separation of mind and body. What is mind?  And what is separation? I think I can start by saying that separation is a matter of whether I am aware of how things really are. I don’t actually become separated in some way; this is impossible. What happens, I think, is that I create a perspective that says, “this part of me is this, and that part of me is that.” When I sit, I dissolve that; I try to remember, in a non-conceptual way, that all these distinctions I make about myself: brain, body, mind, heart, etcetera – are all just labels for a process that I also label as “me”. 

But the body is important to this process, possibly because it’s the “part” of ourselves that we ignore. I don’t really understand this for sure, but I feel as if I need to be grounded in the body in order to raise my gaze into the space around me. I could say, that if there is some kind of dichotomy or dyad going on within me, that it would be heaven and earth, or body and mind. The body is tactile, as well as conceptual – it goes places, and it sits on the ground, and it speaks. The mind is open: with the gaze up and awareness of my surroundings expanded, it feels as if there is a kind of emptiness/luminosity to my being. Thoughts happen within this space, but thoughts do not define the space. But in order to have that space, or in order to see it, I have to sit. Sitting settles the body, including the brain, so that space can be perceived.

Anyway, to answer the question of why I sit… I guess I sit because I know that this existence can be beautiful, and that it can also be painful. I sit because I can see my confusion and I want to give up trying to stop being confused. I sit because I want to remember to smile at you when I see you – I want to remember to see you. I want to remember to see me. I want to remember to see. I want to remember.