“Will, what Was?”
“Was wove what Is.”
“Where’s Was now?”
“But That is Nothing.”
“Is, It’s’ indexical.”
“Will, what Was?”
“Was wove what Is.”
“Where’s Was now?”
“But That is Nothing.”
“Is, It’s’ indexical.”
It oscillates: identity, elasticized, not bound as me,
Extends as bodily intimacy.
Audition issues selfsame cognition,
In colour, contour, body, position.
Flowing and fading: each time-touch temptation,
This world’s a smear of spatial sensation.
Mirrors as strange as strangers to meet,
Familiar and foreign, felt and complete.
Patterns spread, subside, and vanish:
The All appears and fades to gone,
Unbound, no longer needs to long.
Caveat lector: Contains discussion of self-harm and post-industrial-grade pessimism. Also, this is coming on the heels of an ecstatic episode. I apologize for the forlorn grandiosity.
This recounting and reflection will seem a performative contradiction. I defer to Whitman on that point.
During the delving days of my depression I would repeatedly traumatize myself with horrific violent video/audio/imagery. This reliably resulted in dissociation, frequently followed by cathartic hysteria. I would laugh and weep and seize and spasm in agony. Whenever I would ineptly prepare to hang myself, or idly envision stepping into traffic, bodily relaxation and mental quietude would overtake otherwise omnipresent restless discontent.
There’s a Pali compound for this one: vibhava-tanha: craving for non-existence. Craving something’s annihilation only causes it to become more prominent in experience, and if one believes in rebirth and its end as the goal of spiritual life, I can understand how craving an end to one’s own existence would be soteriologically problematic.
Nonetheless, I see impolitic similarities between what was occasionally and painfully achieved through those means and what I now easefully enjoy through meditation. Self-destruction and meditation are alike in that they, if pursued to their ends, amount to existential surrender. That said, as a stratagem for coping with suicidality, anhedonia, and alienation, I would heartily recommend the latter over the former. Better for all involved. These deleterious behaviors continued until I consented to expensive and thorough rehabilitation.
I returned from said rehabilitation with tremendous appreciation for the importance of environment to my wellbeing. Pratityasamutpada in practice. The lesson seems not to have stuck, but we’ll get to that. Removed from opportunities to perpetuate self-destructive habits and in community with others, I recovered very well from depression, if not pessimism. I transitioned to living, much as I do now, in nominal cohabitation and actual isolation while I finished high school. During those months, despite being active enough to progress towards the goals I had set myself, I was increasingly disconsolate and familiarly alienated.
Prior to writing this, I happened upon something I had written during that time, and it expresses very well the thoughts which emerge from a spectrum of expansive, sublime, unitive experiences with which I am now far better acquainted. The one of which I wrote occurred after reading War and Peace, and was likely induced by Tolstoy’s ruminations on ‘will’, the feeling of agency, and determinism.
…everything is nothing and everything at once and all this is I and you and me and too much, much too much.
I had entirely forgotten it. Funny how that happens. Retrospecting, it is impossible to know how much of my present phenomenology is misleadingly embedded in the arising of its memory.
In the spring and summer following my graduation, cognizant that I had been happiest in community, I explored a variety of alternative modes of life. As it turned out, I craved purpose and salvific activity absent in secularly styled communes, in the best of which I read Nagarjuna, which caused another all-too temporary state-shift out to spacious freedom. I figured the Buddhists were onto something. I attended a retreat in a monastery. In one of several sage-on-stage style presentations a monk commented offhand on the certainty of death, I believe to arouse urgency in the present, and I recall thinking, not at all morbidly, ‘I will die!’, as though for the first time, with genuine surprise and relief, and what a blessed thing it was. Light streamed from clear sky into the hall.
Meditation, what of it I did at the loosely structured retreat, didn’t make a marvelous impression on me. Frankly, I don’t remember anything about it from those weeks, except that it seemed a good thing to do. The habit died after departing the monastery. It wasn’t until I, again unhappily alienated in the first semester of university several months later, ingested 150 micrograms of LSD under the influence of Buddhist philosophy that enduring conviction in the possibility, and profound desirability, of phenomenological de/re-construction arose. Following fascinated hours of observing/being the flux of shape, colour, sound, identity, space, and time, which by then were all quite evidently the same process, I was assailed by an intolerable corporeal ecstasy. Involuntarily crumpling to the carpeted floor and, finally, resting my eyes, all exploded out into abstract dimensionality and was gone.
Awareness returned to space without form or thought. Senses emerged from silence. Thought and speech failed to arise beyond brief impulses. Others’ words were understood. I recall exclaiming, ‘Words are back.’, just as soon as they were. I was asked, ‘Wystan, are you okay?’, and something replied, as if it were utterly inconsequential, ‘Oh, Wystan? He died a while ago.’ That unpremeditated sentence, springing forth without anyone’s assent, jolted something or other. What was shockingly grokked, and thereafter astounded, was that while the lights were on, no one was home, nor had anyone ever been, nor could any of all of anything ever have been other than as It is/was/will be: here rests the clear peace of perfection.
What a trip, eh? Hard to integrate an experience like that. I regained the use of personal pronouns sometime later, and, despite having some difficulty remembering how pants are put on the following morning, it was an unmitigated success. Unfortunately, insight (or madness, depending on your perspective or lack thereof) so accessed fades without fail save some practice to sustain and nurture its development. Several months later, gripped in unanswerable anxiety, I fled university and lived in a succession of Buddhist monasteries. I learned to meditate, to consistently tune into the instability of experience and soak, surrender therein. Through waves and cycles, dissolution and reconstitution, layer after layer, love comes, or its like, and I am moved to act. In the course of such an afternoon, the phenomenal field alert and alive, tenderly attentive, I saw my monastic ambition rooted in aversion to a world whose pain, in that state, I ached to embrace. I departed the next week.
In truth, I don’t believe I could have remained a monk in any tradition long, had I ordained. Throughout my time in the monasteries, there persisted feelings of guilt, as though from infidelity. I don’t subscribe to the metaphysics, cosmology, and thus soteriology of any of the many Buddhisms, and I would never feel justified representing a tradition whose tenets I do not hold. Without that path laid out, I found myself suddenly adrift. Okay, then, not monasticism. What, then? Well, you’d like to continue awakening. Not an issue, the tools are ever at your disposal. Okay, well, I’d like to help people. Many ways to do that.
Of course, once more outside the idyllic grounds of monasteries and the warm communalism therein, I find that, despite deepening, expanding transcendence (or rather, the sense of transcendence within immanence), the immanent sphere of my own and others’ lives in unsustainably consumeristic Canada hasn’t changed a whit. My isolating and avoidant behaviours remain, or have returned, and I wonder whether I wish to train to care for the casualties of an inhumane society which I can’t dare hope will change before we all shall have problems worse than insufficient care for addicts and neuro-atypical unfortunates. Our species is sleepwalking towards its degradation and diminution. We are not at risk of extinction, but that which is worse: the immiseration of an ever greater share of our population. Thomas Metzinger writes:
I predict that during the next decades, we will increasingly experience ourselves as failing beings… It will be an image of a class of naturally evolved cognitive systems that, because of their own cognitive structure, are unable to react adequately to certain challenges—even when they are able to intellectually grasp the expected consequences, and even when, in addition, they consciously experience this very fact about themselves clearly and distinctly.
Climatic changes brought about by the logics of profitable extraction, exploitation, and immoderate consumer habits are forecasted to further blight the oceans, flood the rivers, sink our cities, and desertify the green spaces. Agricultural industry, most of which is in the service of our addiction to animal flesh, has so degraded the soils that much of the earth will not be fecund for the support of my generation’s grandchildren. Many millions will migrate, and nativists will militate. I’ll leave you to imagine the consequences. Perhaps another Haber-Bosch miracle will manifest. Maybe Malthus catches us, after all. If not him, then entropy, eventually. Some place faith and hope in nature, and perhaps a return to it, whatever it is. They must labour under a delusion. There is nothing more natural than what is occurring here, now. Earth is not kind to its denizens, nor they to each other. Predation and population collapse are as natural as symbiosis within stable ecologies. Ajahn Chah was quite right:
Our birth and death are just one thing. You can’t have one without the other. It’s a little funny to see how at a death people are so tearful and sad, and at a birth how happy and delighted. It’s delusion. I think that if you really want to cry, then it would be better to do so when someone’s born. Cry at the root, for if there were no birth, there would be no death. Can you understand this?
What to do? Many states evince clarity, some compassion, and a few convince of timeless freedom from birth and death. However, it is poor epistemology to infer from aberrant, if unsurpassed, phenomenologies that they reveal the ultimate truth of things. Not that we have any other means to capture that old canard; foundationalism forever flounders. What a weight, is hope. I can’t believe in salvation any longer. No one can be redeemed. After all, we were never really here.
Indic cosmogony is characterized by cyclic creation and destruction. A fair reflection of earth, as it might be of heaven. Modern cosmologists conjecture that by infinity’s span space shall diffuse to eternal equilibrium, and to dust we shall return. Nothing lasts forever. Still, I hope they are right.
Until then, I’ll take my cues from the Titanic’s band.
A dream I had the other night,
seemed another glimpse of light.
Barely had this waking went,
and anew again, percepts rent,
Out of void a world distinct,
only to dissolve: extinct.
Of what still I can recall,
before the tug into the fall,
I sat and saw myself in glass.
My image morphed and was not mine,
and then all flickered, fluxed, and twined:
both sides were held within one mind.
Perspective pulled into the mirror,
beyond to that which has no seer.
Woke to darkness, form abed,
though perhaps again within my head.
As these words emerge to tell,
of what was seen and gone so well,
The dream begins to fade anew,
And all seems empty, through and through.
My relationship to meditation has changed markedly in the past months. The techniques which had heretofore brought most joy and progression are irritating, or rather, a mode of engaging with those techniques has become obviously unsatisfactory. Most meditation consists in repeated intentions to attend to some phenomenon with ex/implicit expectations and assumptions as to what the phenomenon both is and what ought to happen to it and the meditator. This is a fine way of working. I recommend it. There are laudable aims to achieve and myriad means available for their achievement, e.g. attentional stability/acuity and the altered states accessible thereby. Get high and shred the phenomenal world with your suped-up perceptual sampling-speed. See the gaps, the stutters, the flickers unto fading of self and world. However, this process of focused attention and investigation undermines itself eventually. It is like a demolition crew finding their tools indistinguishable from the building they were contracted to gut, and they sometimes feel like they are the tools, and realize bashing down walls with what sometimes seems to be yourself hurts, and if they just, like, relax, man, the walls fade away contentedly without your futzing. I’m saying I’m a tool.
Intentions and attention have been added to the inventory of things which have become consistently, if not constantly, spatialized/objectified in my body schema, i.e. they are integrating impersonally into my proprioception in the same way that emotions have. So, when a series of intentional sensations flexes in a nauseating kinetic attempt at corralling the rest of the unruly phenomenal flux into a more desirable arrangement I am more and more inclined to allow, and engender perceptions of, sensations arising and passing without interference. Attentional/intentional interference isn’t a problem, of course. That too can be released, disidentified from, integrated into the space of impersonal and thereby equanimous awareness. What happens then is interesting. Perception can be unbound from the stricture of an illusorily owned and operated perspectival center. Awareness of sound does not occur in the ear, nor sights in the eye. There is sometimes a twinge of recognition and a subsequent cascade of intentional/attentional activity behind the eyes, but this is not where phenomena are known. This inconstant, unsatisfactory aggregation of interoceptive sensation inside your head is not your mind, it is not you, it is not in control, nor was it ever. Phenomena arise, are aware, and unbind right where they are.
To carry yourself forward and experience myriad things is delusion.
That myriad things come forth and experience themselves is awakening.
To study the buddha way is to study the self.
To study the self is to forget the self.
To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things.
When actualized by myriad things,
your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away.
No trace of realization remains,
and this no-trace continues endlessly.
Garfield, Jay L. Engaging Buddhism: Why It Matters to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2015.
When percepts unbind, so too does perception. The theater’s projector on the fritz. The frames slow and skip, the image distorts, flickers, fades, goes, going, going, and… gone. The theater’s blackout curtain comes down. Like fire for lack of fuel: awareness extinguished. Nirvana. The house lights turn on. Selves who before were shouting admonition and advice at the screen and brawling in the aisles grumble, and, leaving their trash strewn about, all file out. No refunds. Within the empty theater, as the janitor makes their rounds, silent space abides.
Such conclusion, alas, is as yet unfound, but peace, I know, is this mind unbound.
I have wondered quietly for a long time whether there are meaningful phenomenological differences between depersonalization/derealization disorder and certain recognizable stages in Buddhist, or similar contemplative paths’, practice. What seems to be the issue is the persistence of identification with an awareness seemingly apart from the dissociated mind/body/world and belief that one ought not be dissociated from those things, and that reality is as it previously appeared, and they are afflicted by a perceptual disorder. Am I and so many others deliberately inducing states and traits abhorred by many who are debilitated by their functional analogues or relatives? Quite possibly. Also, check out this for a third-person take on attentional models. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00500/full
Try this trick and spin it, yeah.
Your head will collapse,
But there’s nothing in it,
And you’ll ask yourself:
Where is my mind?
For a minute there,
I lost myself, I lost myself.
Phew, for a minute there,
I lost myself, I lost myself.
We all, we all, we all, we all know this is nothing.
This is nowhere.
We all, we all, we all, we all know this is nowhere,
And there is no one
Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.
I listened to a podcast in which Daniel Ingram mentioned ‘framing sensations’, and I take him to be referring to those which arise most often as and within the ‘head’ and ‘body’ and rapidly, repeatedly, establish the relations constitutive of spatial/temporal/intentional/attentional/agential perspective. My understanding is that by a kind of phenomenal privileging these sensations are illusorily given (in Sellars’ sense) in contradistinction to what is perspectivally ‘exterior’. Unitive, non-dual, what-have-you states put paid to the necessity of that scission. If not all reports are to be discounted, features of these and other states can be made more accessible (to that I can attest) unto their becoming enduring traits (to this I cannot).
What makes the difference, according to Buddhist tradition, is the accessibility of and repeated movement towards/attainment of nirvana/nibbana. The best definition, and by that I mean that which agrees with most testimony I’ve encountered while remaining specific, is the cessation of the fabrication of perception. No time, no space, no self, no world, no thing, not one, and certainly not with everything, though perceptions and beliefs of that sort are apparently an after-effect and pre-show.
A short digression. There is heated disagreement over whether nirvana, the attainment of emptiness, is contentless. The difficulty is that those who report merely a profound, ineffable void, a gap not so different from an abrupt dreamless sleep, can always accuse those who report content, such as a pure reflexive consciousness absent any object, with having mistaken elements of the return, the reboot of phenomenal self, time, space, and world, with the genuine article. It’s a mess. Unless you’re attached to a metaphysics in which awakened ones exist/don’t exist in/with relation to nirvana it’s not much of an issue. I can’t help but join in suspecting that much of the interest in and speculation on the part of those who haven’t had either experience (non-experience, whatever) is motivated by curiosity about/desire for (im)personal survival of death, or if you’re into Buddhist cosmology, the end of rebirth.
Such experience, or precisely the lack thereof and vivid, non-dual luster thereafter, is enough to disabuse most people of the notion, and eventually the phenomenology that sustains it, that either they or the world they inhabit exist as they appear to, e.g. independently and substantially. Jay Garfield translates Nagarjuna:
Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist.
This all may not sound so attractive; I know how appalling it sometimes seems. Shinzen Young offers the frightened interpretation, “I mean, Buddhism is like the biggest downer of all! Guess what? You are a soulless robot, designed to suffer and too stupid to know that fact. The Four Noble Truths are incredibly powerful and liberating, but there is a sort of downer take on it…”. See also here. Who wants awakening? Good meditative inquiry, that.
Up shit creek we seem to be, so here’s Rob Burbea for a paddle and Ken Mcleod’s translation of Jigme Lingpa’s view from the other shore:
Wonder of wonders!
My nature is great completion.
Complete – in all experience, patterned or free, there is nothing to give up or attain.
Complete – all key instructions end up in utterly natural release.
Complete – all key outlooks end up in no conceptual position.
Complete – all paths of practice end up in making no effort.
Complete – all teachings on behavior end up in no do’s or don’t’s.
Complete – the essence of result is to be free of hope.
And this term “complete” is just a concept, too.
To know that from the beginning there is no awakening
Is to be where wanting has never been.
With this special teaching that rots the roots of samsara,
Wake up from the realm of misery.
When you open and relax,
There is an emptiness that goes beyond true or false.
Here, if you know arising release, natural release and direct release,
You are no different from all the awakened ones.
You are awake and no different from me.
So, that’s the partial synthesis of philosophy, scripture, opinion, and experience I was motivated to write in order to explain that of which I find the select lyrics above so expressive. Until I’m free of it, I do hope all’s well or going to be, especially because it’s not.
Sundry salvific praxes affect ontic effect;
what good they do.
Flexible phenomenology’s a bitter desert
for our orb’s past perambulations,
manifold generations’ competitive copulation,
and eons of ferrous, frothy churn.
Inadequate recompense, you ask me.