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The Eastern Way in the Western Mind

Bucky Fuller, one of the more innovative and colorful engineers of our 20th Century, saw early boats as the strong shape of a dome upside down.  Typical of his far-reaching sort of thinking, he once speculated that early boats either went with the wind or against it.  In the west, we admire the daring-do of earliest ship captains fighting the wind by using it, angling sail and rudder just so to travel zig-zag out of the Indian Ocean, around Africa, and up to Europe.  This skillful opposing of the forces of nature marks the western mind.  Bucky and I agree in praising and utilizing our thinking to successfully work our way in the world.

Other boats sailed east.  They went with the wind, going the easy way.  As a metaphor, these two ways can describe two ways of using our minds.  One way works them hard and gets things done.  The other lets them float and also gets things done, but differently.  I don’t disparage the western can-do way.  Thinking is what we are born to do.  But always thinking, always going against the wind, wears us and keeps us from a whole other set of abilities and satisfactions.  We also need to go with the flow.

My introduction to eastern thought came in F. S. C. Northrop’s “The Meeting of East and West.”  He looked for a way to sum up the east’s ephemeral religious ways and located them in what he called “the undifferentiated aesthetic continuum.”  Various things or situations exist, but only temporarily.  They are not afforded the zeal of attention in and of themselves so much as the substance of them or background to them.  The particular thing or thought isn’t as important as the context it is in or the way in which we view it.  The Chinese Yin and Yang are the opposites following each other, each containing a bit of the other, but both turn within the undifferentiated circle of the Tao.

Look deeper than the surface, said Lao Tzu in about 600 BC.    Just as the ten thousand things have names which are not the same as the things, naming the Tao is not knowing the Tao.  “Look to the Tao,” he wrote,

and it is not enough to be seen…

There was Something, without form and yet complete.

Silent!  Empty!

Sufficient to itself… never exhausted!

Go to the limit of emptiness;

Hold fast to the stability of stillness.

The Tao flows ever out of this stillness.  This is not a passive stillness.  We can float or flow with it, or ever swim against it.  Only a dead fish always goes with the flow.  Rather, it is learning to rely on the silence as a guide in all partial or temporary situations.  The ten thousand things come and go.  What they mean and how we view them matters in us more than they do.  Hard rules can’t fit all situations.  Martyring or murdering for concrete moral precepts shows a lack of wisdom.  Even the legalistic Confucius knew this, claiming the best rules are no rules at all, with wise people following the invisible order of heaven residing in all nature and events.  The icon is not heaven, but the icon can remind us of the way of heaven around and in us.

Over time Taoism grew weird.  Priests sold magic rituals and potions.  It seems any good religion can be caught by its own habits and hierarchies.  Buddhism itself was a liberal revolutionary reaction to a similarly hardened Hinduism.  Ritual magic, gurus, and caste distinctions were all too limited.  Gautama, the Buddha, saw suffering in the world of changeable things.  He advised not clinging to those things but being detached from them, from desiring them, and from fearing them.  Rather, rest contented in them as they come and go, cleaving to the constancy of change.  All is transitory.

Buddhism also grew into sects and has its rigidities.  Even so, its advice is practical.  Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh explains the Buddhist version of the law as, not something you must obey or be punished in hell, but the ways to live that allow enlightenment or liberation to succeed.  Operating in harmony with the dharma, one just doesn’t lie, steal, or kill.  We don’t need to obey or be punished.  It is simpler in us than that.  One’s nature is too dear and wouldn’t feel right doing such things.

My own friend and guru, Dr. Vasavada, told me that following one’s dharma is discerning one’s inner nature and ideal work.  Go with that, he advised.  It was at Dr. Vasavada’s home that I met an enlightened Danishman, Shunyat.  Shunyat was given his name, meaning emptiness (we called him Mr. Nobody), by Ramana Maharshi, an Indian guru.  Devoid of a permanent identity, Shunyat was like a happy androgynous old man, ready to be new in any moment.  He had an imaginary pet dog named Wuji, a playful reminder of the Taoist Wu Wei, spontaneous effortlessness.  The present moment need not be ruled by the past.  He liked me and saw a bit of a nobody in me too.

It was through Vasavada that I met Swami Sharanand, the Blind Saint of Vrindavan.  Blind since the age of ten, he became enlightened and went about teaching till he died.  He advised we heed our inner knowing, closer to us and prior to our conditioned thinking.  This Viveka shines constantly, showing us that which we get caught up in but is not us.  When we see something that we do or are that isn’t our real self we simply renounce it, letting the real self replace it with something more authentic.  Serving those around us is a good way to overcome aviveka with viveka.

Here are some quotes taken from a translation of Swami’s writings by Vasavada.  You’ll find he isn’t easy, for he advises going with the inner flow even in the midst of storms, living free of fear and desire to discover the calmer and truer sense of Self.  (Please look past the redundancy, sexist pronouns, and stilted writing of this illiterate saint to get his spiritual lesson.)

“One who cannot tolerate dependence, helplessness and boredom easily awakens to the inner need to be free.  There is life beyond pain and pleasure.  All that is required is alertness, watchfulness…

“It is necessary to see that man is more than the turns of events in life.  He [or she] need not sell himself [herself] cheap to circumstances. He [or she] is a value in himself [herself].  Circumstances are merely useful materials.  Until he sees his Self as separate from circumstances, he cannot innerstand who really he is.  Man who realizes his independence from circumstances can be aware of his responsibilities to himself as a human being and to his inner need…

“One can never be free from fear so long as dependence on pleasure persists.  Without realizing the true nature of pain, dependence on pleasure continues.  It is a mistake to suppress any pain which comes about unbidden and naturally.  One can really learn the lesson from pain only when one does not suppress it in order to have future pleasure.  … Man continues to be afraid of pain as long as he gives importance to pleasure.  Pleasure does not come by asking for it; it comes on its own, according to Nature’s benevolent plan.  … Pain and pleasure are alternating phases of life; Life is beyond both….

“Being with pain and learning its lessons destroys lure for pleasure, but not pleasure.… Being desire-free opens the door to Life beyond pleasure and pain…   One has to distinguish between desire and inner need.  Desires get fulfilled sometimes and sometimes not.  Desire is a state of mind.  Inner need is something one cannot live without… Want is not Life.  It is, therefore, essential to turn away from it and be affectionately detached from that which is not life.  Turning away will awaken the real question, “What do I really want?” or “What is the inner need?”  …

“Real non-doing is attained only when one has done all that needs to be done or when he has made full use of what is available to him.  It is also attained by coming to Rest through a desire-free state of mind, which means he is affectionately detached from things and events.”

Swami wants us to be free of the desires and fears we tend to get lost in, and instead dwell in the full emptiness of our real and spontaneous self.  This is a very eastern yogic approach.

Before leaving India I happened upon Shri Rajneesh, also called Osho here in the States.  Rajneesh taught Tantra.  Instead of denying one’s pleasures to get past them, one indulges in them to see how empty they are.  Whether via denial or indulgence, one learns to be unafraid of the pain, unattached to the pleasure, and instead dwells in the fullness of being.

I’ve had the contact with other notorious Indian gurus, such as Muktananda and boy Guru Maharaji.  Maharaji later had a scandal and changed from being a boy god-guru to a plain-spoken lecturer, Prem Rawat.  His updated advice takes his status out of the issue and puts your own peace or lack of it in your concern.  He says, “Empty-handed you came and empty-handed you will go.”  Whether we stand on our own two feet and know the peace of our own being, or not – is his very rational offering.

Life is a gift, but do we open it?  At the end of life, will we die having failed to live?  Would God be glad if you never opened the grand gift?  Only you can un-tie the bow on your gift; it’s a Gordian knot that cannot be opened by force.  Allowing it to be undone, it unravels itself to reveal the treasure inside the gift.

Just so, the way of meditation that we learn from the east is the opposite of thinking.  Again, I think we should think.  “Think and think and think,” said Art Brayfield, president of the APA.  I agree.  But if we cannot not-think, how in control of our mind are we?  We can sail against the wind, but we should also know how to flow with it.  Meditation is the deliberate cultivation of the ability to allow the flow to take you to the realm of being, about as close to heaven on earth as you’ll find.

This whole year I’ve shared with you bits and pieces of brain science.  A healthy body and mind is made of many elements including ample nurture, stimulation, orientation, exercise, sleep, and community.  But whatever we’ve inherited in life, we have to work with what we’ve got, with who we are.  The short of the long of that brain science is our ability to cultivate the meditative mind.  It just helps and there is no downside.

I’d like to make use of this last Sunday of the season with you to share some moments drifting in the ocean of stillness.  I tend to deliver heartfelt but brainy sermons.  Today, let’s shorten the talk and practice the flow.  Knowing what the flow is and how to go with it and tap into it all require familiarity and practice.  The eastern way is as much a natural part of us as the western.

Instead of residing in your thinking, be in your being.  The thoughts will be there, tugging at your attention, wanting to wrestle or amuse you.  Let them be.  Observe without resistance, reaction, or indulgence.  They come and go but aren’t you.  You’re deeper in yourself, prior to and detached from the churning mind.  A sense of relief comes from not-doing.  You allow the mind to be.  It presents thoughts that can dissolve.  In between such thoughts, and actually, during them, there is also the great peace of presence.  That peace, that primal presence, is most precious.  It takes noticing, then deliberately visiting and practicing, then taken into life as usual.

In the Zen world, that “life as usual” is attended to calmly and single-pointedly.  There is still work and doing, but there is ease, centeredness, and wisdom in between our actions and even during them.  We can do, do, do.  And we can be, be, be in the midst of activities and between them.

I view this innate ability as natural but needing practice.  We have built in an ability to reach deeper rest than during our deep sleep at night, but in a mere 20 minutes of meditation.  Our blood pressure drops, our mind is calmer and clearer, our sensitivities are heightened but our reactions to them are soothed.  Though we can load meditation up with meanings and religious images, it can be considered purely physiological.  Just witnessing one’s own breath puts oneself in one’s body and being in the living Now where we glimpse how fully alive and aware we really are.

So sit symmetrical and comfortable, relax your muscles in your face, shoulders, hands, etc., allow your mind to be without interacting with it, and simply relish the relief of giving up having to go against the wind.  The operant word here is “allow.”  The paradox is that we use our will to not doOur control is to release control yet stay aware.  We go with the flow of dissolving into a vast, silent energy.  In that pause that refreshes, take refuge.  Get acquainted with it.  Deepen and lengthen your connection.  Know it well so that you can find it when you need it, and bring it into your life too.  It takes patience and practice.

There is an undifferentiated aesthetic continuum in you and around you that is as beautiful a part of your wholeness as your rationality and emotions.  You are of the west, but you’re not only western.  How round would our globe be without a west or east?  How rounded are you if you are only doubting and never delighting, only driven and never drifting, only doing and never being?  The eastern aspect of our lives and being is as fitting.  We’ve no forbidden aspects of our wholeness, only parts or ways we haven’t discovered and explored.  I gently urge you develop this way of being as part of your human wholeness.

(Practice silent meditation together with minimal reminders on thought, tension, exhaling, and pure allowing.  Leave time for reports and questions.)

Reverend Brad Carrier

For the UU Fellowship of Grants Pass (Oregon)

© May 8, 2011

Byron has been using his writing and public speaking to engage, challenge and inspire audiences for over 40 years. Reverend Carrier's mission is to rescue and revive our earthly Eden, including our human worth and potential. If you enjoy his work, consider supporting him with Patreon.

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