Sacred geometry

The Wonder of Emptiness - Seeing That Frees (Part One)

Date7th September 2013
Retreat/SeriesCambridge Day Retreats 2013


One way the Buddha explained this, what we're talking about, was saying, basically, the human condition, what we humans have is what he called -- avijjā is the Pali word -- 'fundamental delusion.' It's like, there's just a kind of delusion that we have, and that delusion fabricates. It fabricates. It constructs. Its tendency is to construct, to solidify everything, basically. And that's also, when there is a sense of self, that's what it does. It tends to fabricate, construct, concoct, build up things, and in that, give things a sense of reality, and so [we] suffer. And that's the most basic way he put all this. That's just a thing that we have, that we have to then learn to see through, to undermine, to dissolve, to overcome.

So there is this tendency we have of doing that. What that translates as is that we have tendencies to look at things, meaning to conceive of things, to think about things sometimes, but to relate to things -- the very way we look at things, not just with the eyes but the whole sense of things, the orientation towards things, it tends to fabricate. It tends to construct, solidify, separate out self from the world, etc. Our usual ways of looking are not that helpful in terms of this level of suffering, of what the Buddha calls dukkha. You know this word, dukkha. Unfortunately, we have tendencies of ways of looking that actually create problems. Or when there is a problem, we tend to relate to it, or look at it, or conceive of it in ways that either lock that problem into place or make it worse. So when there is this papañca, for instance, what we were talking about earlier, and the self is very separate, very solid, very built up, very negative, maybe, and this issue or that person or this thing is also very built up -- in that moment, we have, we tend to have, a very way of looking at the whole thing that just locks the whole thing into place or exacerbates it, makes it worse. So the tendency of the way of looking is to build up the self and build up problem, dis-ease, dukkha, etc. in the process, and also the thing, the issue, the object, or whatever that I'm relating to. That's the tendency.

[2:32] Let's translate this -- very, very simple, very, very specific. One glaringly obvious place where this occurs, or easy place to see it, is with blame. When we get into a whole construct of blame. And either we're blaming ourselves or we're blaming some other self, someone else, for something. That whole construction of blame, we could say, is an extreme example of the self's tendency, and of ignorance's, of delusion's tendency to self-reference. Have you noticed that the self almost always wants to cast itself as being of central importance in whatever is going on? It always tends to want to take the lead role in the little drama that's unfolding. And it also, this blame, tends to build up the self (this self or the self of another). So it self-references and constructs.

So it may be, we have acted in a certain way. Some situation happened. We acted in a certain way, or we failed to act. And that wasn't that great. It was a mistake. Or we spoke. Something came out of the mouth: whoops, wrong thing. Or we didn't speak, should have said something or other, neglected to say, to share, to communicate, to express love, whatever it was. Or just a thought comes into the mind; there's a thought there, and we regard it badly. Or a certain mind state that we think, "Yikes, this doesn't reflect very well." And we blame either ourselves or another, depending on what's going on. There is, we could say, a rigidification. A view of the self or the other has become rigid, and that's part of what blame is. Based on action, speech, thought, mind state, whatever it is, a view, a rigid self-view centred on the self or another has come in and is kind of locked there. And that self-view can very easily become, then, basis for a more pervasive negative self-view. I blame myself for this, and now I feel more generally bad in a kind of ongoing way. There's a self-view. It begins to kind of crystallize and grow, this negativity of self-view. And then, out of that negative self-view probably will come tendencies of ways of looking which are not that helpful. Out of this negative self-view, I tend to see in an unhelpful way. So the whole thing kind of starts either locking into place or a vicious cycle.

What's going on there? And what could we do to loosen that, to pry it open? Partly what's happening is we're not seeing the wider conditions that came together in the first instant to give rise to this action or this failure to act, to give rise to this speech or this non-speaking. We're tending to say, "It's this self's fault or that self's fault," and we forget to see, "Hey, there were all these other factors that came together. Out of that melting pot came this mind state, thought, action, speech, whatever it was."

So, example: you are out for an evening with a close friend. And you're pretty close. You haven't maybe seen her for a couple of weeks. And she is going through something pretty difficult. She's having a hard time with something, and you're out somewhere or other, or at her house, or whatever it is. And she's telling you about this difficult situation, a painful situation. And it is painful. And it's difficult.

But as she's talking, you're noticing, "I'm not really feeling much empathy here. I'm just not really feeling very connected to what she's saying. I think I should, but I'm not feeling it." And one can tend to blame oneself, in that moment and afterwards, and make conclusions about myself: "How lacking in compassion I am! Spiritual practice has been a waste of time, because I'm still closed-hearted and selfish and self-centred and all that stuff." But maybe in that interaction, in that talking with a friend, there are other -- there is a bunch of conditions that come together, that actually prevented the empathy from arising. It's not 'your' fault, maybe. For instance, something so simple as, you could just be really tired, and not kind of acknowledging that as a factor that influences. And in the tiredness, there isn't the same presence. There isn't the same openness of heart. Very simple. Or it could be, once that starts going, that you feel a lack of empathy. Then the judgment starts coming in, and you start pressuring yourself. In the moment, as she's speaking, "I should be feeling more. I should be feeling. Why aren't I? Where is it?" And that very pressure -- we tend to miss the little beginnings of empathy, and we tend to strangle what comes. And there's too much pressure on the mind and the heart in that moment.

[7:53] It could be that the last time you saw her, maybe two weeks ago, you went out, and something happened -- a very little something. I don't know what. Something was said or something, and you didn't pick it up in the time. You didn't talk about it in the two weeks. But something between you is unresolved. There's a little bit of hurt in the field, as they say. Something unresolved. It hasn't been spoken about, and it's blocking something now. It's in there, and it's having its effect, and the effect is it's inhibiting the empathy, the resonance. It might be that she's got, for different reasons, a relationship with this where she's kind of expressing it in a way that's actually disconnected in herself. She's not connecting to it. And so she's kind of blasé in the way that she's saying it. It's quite dramatic or difficult, but she's just, "Mehhh," or whatever. Or maybe she's inflating it in the way that she's saying. She's kind of having it up. Or maybe she's saying it in a way that's somehow aggressive towards you, for some reason or other. All this is going to have an effect. There's no way it's not going to have an effect. But very easily, we sort of look at the whole situation with blinkers on, and don't see all those conditions.

This happens all the time, that we narrow down the focus, and we neglect to see the wider confluence of conditions that come in. Years ago, twenty, more, twenty-five -- I don't know how many; twenty-five years ago at least, I was working with a therapist when I lived in the States. This was late eighties, early nineties. And she was very, very confrontative. So one of these -- I don't know what you'd call it -- it's like, not letting me get away with anything. Really, anything -- going to call you on this, and very, very kind of aggressive, really. So I learnt a lot in that as a young man in my early twenties. I learnt a lot from it, but it also engendered -- the way that she was brought up a lot of fear. One was actually afraid to go to the session. She was so critical, etc.

And sometimes what would happen was, I would go to a session, and I would sort of get stuck or feel stuck. And then very quickly, she would say, actually, "Ah, you're stuck. You see, you're stuck, and you're stuck in your life. This is a microcosm that's being expressed. This is your problem. You're stuck." And one then tends to believe it. It's an authority figure telling you something like that. And one tends to internalize it, believe it, and it becomes very stuck. But what's not seen in the process? What's not seen is that the whole style of communication was so confrontative and authoritarian and aggressive, that there was so much fear going in that actually it constellated a stuckness. It's not to do with the life. It's to do with what's happening in that moment. So, very difficult for me to go through, but at some point, I actually began to see what was going on.

[11:08] So what can we do with this? When there is blame, it's an invitation, if you like, to re-view, to look again, re-view, practise what I call a 'way of looking,' practise a way of looking that sees the conditions, that looks for conditions, looks for all the things in the situation that come together to give rise to whatever happened. So that's what we could call a way of looking not in terms of self. As we said before, typical way of looking is in terms of self. We always think, look, conceive, relate in terms of self: my self or your self or both. What if we practised a way of looking not in terms of self? Re-viewing and looking instead in terms of the conditions -- not so narrow. The self is narrow. It's constricted. Opening out the view. So what was operating there? And actually pondering it and looking again at it.

Sometimes, because that's not the normal way the mind works, sometimes we can kind of help it move into the areas where it doesn't tend to go, and actually be a little bit systematic, almost, at first. So you could think, for example, of: in the present moment, in that moment when it happened, what were the inner conditions around? So for example, in that example with the friend, the tiredness would be an inner, present condition. And you could say, "Well, what were the outer, present conditions?" And maybe her speaking it in this way that she's a bit disconnected or pumping it up in some way -- that would be an outer, present condition. Perhaps that thing that happened two weeks ago that left something between me and my friend that was unresolved -- maybe that would be a past, inner condition. And then there are past, outer conditions. Do you see what I mean? So you're looking kind of in every corner for the different conditions that can come together, that would have influenced this moment.

So this is not exact. They're going to overlap. The point is not to kind of categorize everything exactly. The point is really to gently push the mind, basically, into the corners where it tends not to go, because it tends to stay right there, contracted around this self or that self. And you're kind of saying, "Hey, go look over there. Go look over in that corner, and that corner. Make sure you look in that corner," because then it opens up the view.

[13:53] So it might be contrived at first to do this, especially if you think, "Inner, present; outer, present; inner, past; outer, past," like that. It's kind of contrived, but it can become very fluid, and it can become more the habitual way of looking, because usually, the habitual thing is to blame self and blame other. And eventually, with practice, it can be more habitual not to do that. The mind just doesn't tend to go there. It tends to open out and see the confluence of conditions. So it's the opposite of the kind of entrenched, habitual view that we have, which tends to focus on self and build self and consolidate and solidify that self.

Or you know, some people, especially when we talk a lot about mindfulness and being aware and being present, people very easily judge themselves when they notice they're not present and mindful. It's actually, "Oh, I'm no good at this. I, I, I ..." Again, it's self. Self is taking the blame. Self is being blamed. But actually, a moment of mindfulness, or even a moment of intending to be mindful, again, arises from many conditions coming together. So when you are mindful, it's more likely that the next moment will be mindful. When you're in a day like this, and someone's saying, "Where's your mind now?", and "Pay attention," and "How does that feel?", then again, all that outer, present reminder will likely generate the next moment of mindfulness. There's more probability. Or if you've done this a lot, and a lot of you have many hours and hours of practice being mindful, that stream that that creates in the consciousness, we call that karma. Karma: it's like you're planting seeds in the garden of the mind, and those seeds, they start to sprout later. That's karma. Just by virtue of trying, trying, trying over a long time, the inner, past conditions tend to give rise to that, etc. We can go through that.

But I cannot blame myself or praise myself for the non-arising or the arising of mindfulness. It comes from conditions. I cannot even blame myself or praise myself for the intention for the arising of mindfulness. It comes from conditions: inner and outer, past and present.

Now, having said that, it's not to say that we never are going to take responsibility in life: "Oh, it's okay. Everything's from conditions. Therefore it doesn't matter what I do." Or that we don't appreciate ourselves, or take in when someone appreciates us, or voice appreciation to another. There's something really, really -- if nothing else you remember from today, there's one thing that I'd like you to remember. It's about flexibility of ways of looking. That's the most important thing: flexibility of ways of looking. If there's nothing else you remember, that's what's to remember from today. What that means is we can look in terms of self: someone says, "I so appreciate all the work you did, da-da-da-da," and maybe it's important to feel, it may be sometimes important to feel the self, or to voice that to another. Or it's important to take responsibility. Yes, here's a moral dilemma, and I need to take responsibility about what my choice is. So seeing in terms of self.

And at other times, we diffuse, we unknot all this self business. We deconstruct it. Both are valid -- opposite, but both valid. And we have this flexibility of ways of looking. Really, really a key principle: flexibility of ways of looking. That, to me, is probably the most important thing in the Dharma, the most important thing in the teachings, that we have this flexibility. There isn't a right or even a true way of seeing things; what there is is a flexibility of ways of looking. Why? Because things are empty. That leaves us with this flexibility.

What determines how I look, one way or another? Well, basically, which way relieves suffering? Which way brings freedom? That's what determines. Which way do I want to look right now? If I'm stuck in guilt and I can't get out of guilt, that's a very contracted self-view. Self is being pumped up, solidified, etc. Probably best to deconstruct, to do that. Other times I need to take responsibility. It has to do with, which brings the freedom? Which would lead to suffering? And going with that. So we can look in terms of self, and we can look not in terms of self.

[18:39] It gets a little more interesting, because the conditions that we talked about actually interact, don't they? Let's think back to that situation: you're out with your friend one evening. Well, she's saying this, and you're not feeling much empathy. Guess what happens? Maybe she's aware of it, maybe she's not, but she starts to pick up on the lack of resonance. Maybe she's not even realizing what she's picking up on. What happens then? Have you noticed that when you're communicating, and when it feels deep and intimate, what you're trying to communicate, that you can almost feel how you're being listened to, and that affects how you speak and what comes out? Have you noticed this? So what happens? The conditions involved, all these conditions we talked about, start interacting and start feeding each other. It becomes very complex and rich very quickly. She might become inhibited in what she's saying, and actually disconnected, because she's feeling something she can't quite put her finger on. The whole thing is kind of building and spinning.

Or a situation like this -- I don't know how many of you have done public speaking or performing. Before I was a Dharma teacher, I was a musician. So I'm palpably aware that right now, in this moment, that -- look, I have ... I don't even know how many words on a piece of paper. So basically, the theme is there, and a few points I want to make. But how it's being said, what is being said, how much hand-waving there is, how much oomph in the voice, how much tenderness, how much this or that -- it's all dependent on this ... you're doing it as much as I am. It's a completely interactive process, even though I'm doing most of the talking. So, you know, if there's a lot of sluggishness in the room, of course it impacts. If there's a lot of brightness, if there's a lot of discomfort with what's being said -- all this impacts hugely what comes out, and then it resonates back and forth.

But also, you could say, the kind of self that arises -- so the kind of Rob that arises right now, or that is arising right now, is also dependent on that. I don't know, is it the passionate revolutionary? Is it the tender, compassionate ...? Is it the really precise ...? There are all these possible selves, we might say, that arise. Where do they arise from? They arise from all this. They arise from you as much as from here, from the togetherness, from how well I slept and you slept last night, and how much you had for breakfast, and all kinds of stuff. So your breakfast is making my self. [laughter] It's making the personality that appears right now. And we tend to think, "Well, that doesn't sound right," because we tend to think, "No, there's an authentic self that needs to show up. Otherwise it's inauthentic. It's a lie." But what arises arises from this. And that's authentic. It's together: oof, life is expressing itself. It's not independent. The self, the expression of the self, the personality, is not independent. So then there's freedom, there's big width in that for all kinds of things to manifest. And it's all authentic. It's all real.

[22:20] This business about what I was calling 're-viewing,' or looking again in a different way -- this is practice, practice, practice, practice. Because some of you might have heard an idea like that before, and it's quite easy to understand intellectually. It's not that difficult. And you think, intellectually, "Yeah, okay, that makes sense," or whatever. "Yeah, I know that." But it's practice, practice that starts making the difference, and making it, as I said, more the habitual way of seeing things, of seeing events that are unfolding. Because the habitual way -- what the Buddha calls 'fundamental delusion' -- is to see in terms of self, to see in terms that solidify self, solidify other, solidify a situation or a perspective, and build dukkha, dis-ease, or consolidate it in the process. And I need to practise unbuilding, deconstructing, opening out, loosening, melting, over and over and over. Practice, practice, practice -- that's what brings the freedom and brings the actual change in the heart.

And sometimes we can't do that on our own. Sometimes there's some situation in the past that we just feel guilty about, and we can't get out of this little tight box of self-obsession, basically, which is what guilt is, in a funny way. And solidifying the whole thing over and over, and we try and see the conditions, but we can't, because the viewing, the way of looking, has got so limited, so blinkered, that we need someone else -- a friend or someone we trust, someone whose wisdom we appreciate and whose compassion we can feel -- to actually help us: "Hey, what am I not seeing?" Actually ask another person, "There's this thing. What am I not seeing? Tell me where, show me where I'm blinkered," because they can see a bit easier, because they're on the outside. So you can almost do this practice together with another person. Very skilful.

Sacred geometry
Sacred geometry