Saturday, March 26, 2016

Zomg, luminosity

Pick a sensation somewhere in your body that you can clearly feel, such as the pressure of your feet on the ground. Now close your eyes, and see if you can get a sense of what I mean when I say that this sensation is "luminous" -- as though it were glowing out of a dark background. Take thirty seconds and really get a sense of that. That luminosity is the topic of this post.

Notice that luminosity is the property by which you experience the sensation at all. If it were not luminous, you wouldn't be experiencing it. To be more precise, luminosity isn't just one among many properties of the sensation; the sensation is itself nothing more than luminosity in a particular configuration.

How is this luminosity experienced? Our usual mental framework is dualistic: luminosity is "over there" and I am "over here" and I experience it. Now let me suggest an alternate framework that may be hard to get your head around at first.

Luminosity does not need anything else to experience it. By its mere existence, its very luminosity, it is being experienced. Any need for a separate experiencer is extraneous. In a sense it is both the subject and the object of experience -- as though it is experiencing itself. But our mind is unable to make sense of such a statement, so it infers a subject sitting inside the head doing the experiencing.

It may sound like I'm trying to convince you of something true about the world. But actually I'm just trying to point out something interesting about your experience of the world that's easy to overlook.

Now notice how this luminosity doesn't apply only to the sense of touch, but to all five physical senses, as well as to mental content. Listen to something, and notice how sound is just another manifestation of this nondual luminosity. So are thoughts and emotions.

That nondual luminosity is the sole ingredient of all experience, and from it, we infer all sorts of other things. For example, we never actually experience time passing. It's always now, and from memory and anticipation we infer the existence of time. The existence of space and of a self experiencing it all are also inferences.

I'm not saying "time isn't actually real." I'm saying that we infer its reality and then think that we are directly experiencing it. Isn't it true that if I were to say "you've never actually experienced time," your first reaction would be puzzlement or dismissal? You think you experience time, and only close inspection reveals that it's false.

Now for a bold claim: if you could differentiate between what you actually experience and what you think you experience, your certainty in an external, objective reality would start to disintegrate.

That probably sounds crazy. Obviously there really is an objective reality, and if some practice were to break down your certainty of this fact, then that practice is dangerous and foolish.

But there's also an upside. You simultaneously begin to notice that the luminosity is magical, marvelous, mysterious, miraculous beyond belief. There is real magic in the world, and you have an ever-present front row seat to it! It is the gift to end all gifts, and you cannot help but be utterly humbled and awed by the spectacle.

It puts all other miracles into perspective.

"I'm alive!" is just another way of saying: holy shit, luminosity!!
"A universe exists!" That's you marveling at all the luminosity.
"I'm conscious!"... yet again, a yelp of surprise that there is luminosity.

In brief, it's the one and only thing you have always been looking for -- as well as, paradoxically, the one and only thing you've ever encountered. Maybe at some point it would be worthwhile to stop overlooking it and give it the attention both you and it long for.


Some words about meditation. Often, meditation goes like this: I notice how my mental state is now, and I subtly try to maneuver it toward some more optimal state. Perhaps if I'm really ambitious, toward the optimal state called "enlightenment." But in doing this, I'm missing out on noticing that the whole framework of "I" and "time" and everything else is just a manifestation of the very luminosity I seek. I run away from what I'm trying to find. All effort has this effect. And so it is said: nothing to do, nowhere to go.

If this is too radical, you can try something simpler. You could bask in the glory of the luminosity, without a care in the world about the particular forms it happens to be taking. Of course, even the ideas of "basking" and "luminosity" are extraneous in that place, but it seems an apt enough description. It may still not be easy, but sometimes having a conceptual framework to scaffold trust is worthwhile.

So, when meditating, don't worry about the expression (details) of the luminosity, and instead notice its essence. With respect to the conceptual domain, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche says:
The essence itself is totally free of conceptual thinking. Yet, at the same time, its expression is conceptual thinking. Do not focus your attention on the expression. Rather, recognize the essence: then the expression has no power to remain anywhere. At this point, the expression simply collapses or folds back into the essence. As we become more stable in recognizing the essence free from conceptual thinking, its expression as conceptual thinking becomes increasingly baseless or unfounded. As conceptual thinking diminishes and finally vanishes, what is left to cause us to wander in samsara? The very basis for samsaric existence is none other than conceptual thinking. 
And from Keith Dowman:
Reality—the “reality” that is evoked on every page of Longchenpa’s text—is the light of the mind that shines equally and inescapably in every moment of existence. Much of the difficulty of Dzogchen translation into English arises from the multiplicity of expression, the fine nuance of terminology, employed to evoke this fundamental luminosity. It is the single most important, unique assumption of Dzogchen that this light is self-existent and self-aware and in fact the sole ingredient of all our experience. This light is the great mystery of nondual mysticism. When we comprehend that Dzogchen is based upon the assumption that all and everything, consciousness and every form of experience, is naturally composed of this light, then we are able to read without let or hindrance the technical exposition of its revelation that allows the light to shine out in all its brilliance. The innate awareness of this pristine nondual brilliance is called rigpa.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


You find yourself in a strange situation called "life." You think you've been here for decades, but it's impossible to know for sure. Maybe you were dropped here five seconds ago, and everything before that is a fake memory. Hell, maybe not even five seconds ago -- maybe only now.

So here you are, in a completely fresh -- not to mention outrageously surprising and wondrous -- situation called "life."

And it just keeps fucking happening. What's going on here? Isn't that the most pressing question of all? By far?

Okay, so you learned a bunch of stuff in school. The official story explains everything: quarks and photons and neurotransmitters, oh my! But you're not satisfied. You want to dig deeper, somehow. Where to dig?

Maybe you start by noticing that you've never actually experienced time.

Wait, what?

Well, from your perspective, it's always now. "The past" is an inference you make from a present experience called "memory." "The future" is just another label for "anticipation." You don't need to worry about whether these things "really exist" -- you just notice that the only versions of them you'll ever know about are mere inferences, and nothing more. No matter how good those inferences are, they're still just inferences. You feel compelled to dig deeper. Deeper!

Okay, what can we be totally damn sure about? That we don't have to infer?

Let's start simple: something is happening.

Whoa, hold on cowboy. You're moving too fast. Let's start simpler: something seems to be happening.

Close your eyes. Feel the feeling of your feet on the ground. You don't know whether there are really feet or really a ground, but there's for sure a seemingness you call feeling.

Open your eyes. From the void springs forth... colors! Holy shit. More seemingness, this time with a different name: vision.

Your whole world seems to be constructed of seemingness. You can't really get simpler than this seemingness, and everything else seems to reduce to it!

"I'm alive!" is nothing more than some fancy words meaning... "wow, seemingness!"

"Wow, a universe exists!" Just another cry expressing the sheer, surprising recognition: "seemingness!"

"I'm conscious!" Yet again: seemingness!

Life, the universe, existence, consciousness! All these mysteries, just different expressions of the one. Without seemingness, would you think (or even be able to think) "life?" With seemingness, don't you necessarily come to the conclusion "life?"

At last, the necessary and sufficient condition.

But is this the big prize we've been waiting for? It seems awfully trivial. I mean, what can you do with it? Philosophize about it? Gawk at it? In what way can this information possibly help you?

Well, if it's left as information, it can't. Instead, you might try to soak in it.

Of course, it being all there really "is" anyway, aren't you already doing that? Yes -- but are you doing it knowingly? Moreover, are you doing it without layering lots of philosophizing on top?

Maybe you don't think of yourself as a philosopher, but actually all of your moments are (typically) loaded with metaphysical assumptions. For example, you probably feel dead certain that time exists. What else?

When seemingness appears in the form of vision -- for example, as a red circle -- you infer the existence of an object causing the vision as well as a subject (you) viewing it. But if you could actually drop the inference for a second you might describe it as the circle being self-luminous: it's not that there's a you aware of it; but by its mere existence, it is "aware of itself." (You might be able to get a glimpse of it with a simple practice: close your eyes and feel the sensation of your feet on the floor. Can you see what might be being pointed at to call this sensation a self-aware or self-luminous blob?)

This structuring of seemingness into subject and object is so transparent to you that you may not even understand what I'm pointing at. Like with time, the inference is so deeply ingrained that you can't imagine what life might be like without it. Perhaps you can't even detect it.

But this post isn't meant to take you all the way to undermining your metaphysical assumptions. Nor can I claim that I've gotten underneath all of mine.

It's just to suggest: maybe, at last, we've found a good place to dig into The Question.

If you're into meditation, occasionally check if your meditation is "above" or "below" the layer of your metaphysical assumptions. Does it feel like there's a "you" doing a thing called "meditating" through time? If so, maybe discover techniques that allow you to cut through those layers, if only for a second here and there.
When you start to dream, the dream begins as a thought, like one you would have in the daytime. But you’re asleep, so the thought intensifies and becomes something like talk or gossip, and then the gossip intensifies or solidifies into images, and then you really think that you’re seeing people, seeing places, going places, and so on. And that is how it works with conventional appearances [i.e., seemingly physical reality] as well.
-- Thrangu Rinpoche
If this is true, and we're weaving a seeming physical reality, where would you find a thread to pull on and unravel it all?

Sunday, March 6, 2016


What do you feel when you visit (or even imagine) a place like this?

I feel something unspeakably profound in my heart. A connection to something impossibly beautiful. Why? What is that?

Something interesting happens when I try to explain it.

The modern story explains it in terms of photons, neurotransmitters, and evolution. And you might wonder: what's wrong with that? Well, nothing's wrong with it. But let me try to communicate what gets lost in the process.

To do that, I'll first have to remind you of a seemingly trivial point: you cannot be certain about the nature of reality. Solipsism might be true, or we might be in something like the Matrix but stranger (where the "outside world" does not have constructs like matter, energy, and time). No amount of empirical evidence can completely rule out such exotic possibilities.

The key word is "completely." Because you can invoke Occam's Razor and say "well, we can be 99.999% certain that reductive materialism is true," and I'd agree with you. So am I quibbling over an extremely small and strange possibility?

No. What I'm suggesting is more subtle. I'm saying that instead of merely taking our preferred philosophy as reasonable or practical, we go the extra mile and embed its certainty deep, deep within our minds, below our conscious threshold.

So what's the problem?

Well, we end up "clipping" or truncating reality.

We no longer have access to a profound beauty we once knew. Everything becomes "just" this and "only" that. Just photons. Only neurotransmitters.

Even as you read that paragraph, you're probably thinking "yeah, so what?" or maybe "well, those things are incredibly profound themselves." And I'm not denying that they are. Instead, I'm suggesting that we are turning this:

Into this:

This second image is incredibly profound, and yet it pales in comparison to the first. Something is definitely lost. And if you could measure it accurately enough, you'd discover that the amount lost is actually infinite.

Okay, so now you're probably wondering: am I so arrogant to think that I have a better view than yours?

No. I'm suggesting that it's incredibly worthwhile to learn to dig underneath one's philosophy of the world, and ultimately, to reside there. What awaits is a treasure so profound as to be unspeakable.

I invite you to venture there yourself and compare the view, and then decide for yourself how you'd rather live. And I'd like to give you some confidence that you won't lose your rational mind in the process, even if you'll have to transcend it on your way down.

The more time you spend there, the more you'll wonder why you ever settled for "justs" and "onlys."

What does nature have to do with any of this? I'm not sure. I just know that it seems to be particularly good at puncturing the story, if I allow it to.

It's like something is whispering: wake up, come home....

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Choose your own adventure

Read the story from my last post. Let's play a "Choose your own adventure" with it. Imagine you're the protestor who's just been slammed into the ground. Here are some things you could choose to do:

1. Shout "f--- you po-lice!"

2. Decide that you'll elicit more outrage and sympathy by pretending to be forgiving, making the officer look all the worse.

3. Be as genuinely loving as Pancho actually was.

I'll bet that the officer went home and reflected on his life choices after what Pancho did. I'd guess the officer would have dug his heels in even further after options 1 and (particularly) 2.

Now imagine how you would feel about the officer after outcomes 2 and 3. After two, you'd feel entirely justified, and more emboldened, in your certainty that the officer is a jerk. After three, you'd feel vindicated (though possibly not surprised) that he's fundamentally good.

And I bet the total amount of love and good will in the world goes up in world three, and down in world two (especially given that many people would have seen or heard of the event).

From one perspective, you could say that your decision in such a moment actually creates a world in which there is more or less love. Some say the effect is there even when it's not so public.

You can't fool reality

Pancho Ramos Stierle runs a peace house on the border between two gang territories in what is considered one of the worst neighborhoods in Oakland, California. People tell me that more than once, local individuals have entered the house with the intention to rob or kill, only to be converted into peace workers instead.  
Years ago, Pancho was involved in a protest at UC Berkeley, where he was a PhD student in astrophysics. He was one of a group of students publicly fasting to protest the university’s involvement with nuclear weapons development. After nine days, the university got tired of it and had the police come and make an example of the group of hunger strikers. Police officers broke the human chain the protesters had made by interlocking their arms, and one officer lifted the slight Pancho into the air, slammed him onto the concrete, and brutally handcuffed him. 
At this point, most of us would probably fall into the story and the habits of separation. We might respond with hatred, sarcasm, judgment. Lacking the physical force to overcome the police, we might try to publicly humiliate them instead. If it were me, I imagine, my lifelong indignation at the injustices of this world would be projected onto the person of this police officer. Finally, someone to blame and to hate. The worse his persecution of me, the more gratified I would feel, the more a martyr, innocent, blameless. It feels kind of good, doesn’t it, to have someone inhuman to hate without qualification. One feels absolved. And, by personifying evil, the problems of the world appear much simpler— just get rid of those awful people. 
Pancho responded differently. 1 He looked the officer in the eye and said, with love and with no attempt to make him feel guilty, “Brother, I forgive you. I am not doing this for me, I am not doing this for you. I am doing it for your children and the children of your children.” The officer was momentarily befuddled. Then Pancho asked his first name and said, “Brother, let me guess, you must like Mexican food.” [Awkward pause.] “Yes.” “Well, I know this place in San Francisco that has the best carnitas and fajitas and quesadillas, and I tell you what, when I get done with this and you get done with this, I’d like to break my fast with you. What do you say?” 
Amazingly, the officer accepted the invitation. 2 How could he not? He loosened Pancho’s handcuffs and those of the other protesters. The power of Pancho’s action came because he was standing in a different story, and standing there so firmly that he held the space of that story for other people such as the policeman to step into as well. 
The Tao Te Ching says: “There is no greater misfortune than underestimating your enemy. Underestimating your enemy means thinking that he is evil. Thus you destroy your three treasures and become an enemy yourself” (verse 69, Mitchell translation). The stories of Pancho and my son illustrate this. I shudder to think of the misfortune that could have resulted from “underestimating” the enemy. 3 Even if the policeman had been humiliated or punished, even if the thief had been crushed, the real “enemy” would have flourished. The level of hate would not have diminished in this world.  
I want to be absolutely clear that for words like Pancho’s to work, they must be absolutely authentic. If you say them and don’t mean them, if you are actually saying them with the goal of showing your persecutor up as all the more villainous for having spurned your nonviolent loving-kindness, then he will probably oblige by enacting that villainy. People, especially police officers, know when they are being manipulated, and they don’t like it. The purpose of responding nonviolently isn’t to show what a good person you are. It isn’t even to be a good person. It comes, rather, from a simple understanding of the truth. Pancho meant what he said. He knew that the police officer didn’t really want to do this. He looked at him with the unshakable knowledge, “This isn’t who you really are. Your soul is too beautiful to be doing this.”

What's the mechanism by which this works? What is the mechanism by which the officer could detect his sincerity or lack thereof? The obvious answer is that all relevant information had to be communicated via light and sound waves, themselves generated by facial and vocal muscles.

In that case, there's presumably a way to have impure intention and still fool another person. Maybe you can really get away with this.

But what if you can't?

At least, not forever. What if, one way or another, intention "leaks" into the physical world?

And more: what if you can't fool yourself either? What if I'm constantly creating cover stories: maybe I can not give up my seat, and still have plausible deniability, both to the world and to myself, that I'm still a good person. Maybe we all do this, until bit by bit, we discover that it doesn't work. Somehow, it cannot work. And all the troubles of the world will continue until we confront this within ourselves. All the rest is just cover stories.

Of course, there's no way to convince anyone (including myself) of this possibility. It's just too strange.

Then again, why try to convince anyone? What if I simply opened up to the possibility that something deeply "in here" has im-mediate (i.e., unmediated; direct) action "out there?" What am I afraid of losing?

On the other hand, what if there is real magic to be found in the world -- and all it takes is the simple willingness to discover it?

Maybe that invitation has been standing for quite some time.

Maybe all I have to do is look.