In some Buddhist meditation techniques, the practitioner is taught to repeatedly bring attention to the breath in fine, subtle detail. Whenever it is noticed that the mind has wandered far away, the suggestion is to bring the attention back to the breath. The intention is, I think, to refine attention as well as to become aware of the “monkey mind.”
I find it refreshing to pay attention to the breath, but from a slightly different angle. It is fun to see that the breath is simply happening. Similarly, it is fun to notice that the heart is beating, the body is spontaneously moving, thoughts and moods are spontaneously arising without a doer.
Attention to the breath is a powerful gateway into the realisation that “I” am not causing things to happen. Worlds are arising and dissolving without “my” having to do a thing about it.
Point your forefinger back at yourself and look for the “looker,” or the self. We might then notice a peculiar absence, obvious all along but somehow overlooked.
(Douglas Harding has developed many such experiments that directly point to an emptiness of self. You can find these at headless.org)
Put another way, we might register the absence of a boundary between “self” and “world.” As Douglas says, “I was nowhere around.” “I” seems to have dissolved into the world, like a sugar crystal into water.
In essence, headlessness seems to question the powerful assumption that “I-am-the-body.” The pointing experiment shows up this assumption for what it is quite dramatically and in a profoundly non-verbal fashion.
It seems that the Void can become evident in ordinary daily life.
One of my favourite philosophers, John Gray, opens his book Straw Dogs (critiquing liberal humanism) with a quote from the Tao Te Ching:
“Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.”
Nature is not interested in my psychological state, or in my creativity or longevity or philosophical acuity or ambition or “success.” Nature does not care about the human individual at all. It is the survival of the species that matters.
From a non-dual “perspective,” the creative force in the universe is profoundly impersonal. It is not interested in our individual projects. It does not choose between the disease and the victim, between the virtuous and the evil. It is deep impersonal love.
Darwin teaches that species are only assemblies of genes, interacting at random with each other and their shifting environments. Species cannot control their fates. Species do not exist. This applies equally to humans.
John Gray. “Straw Dogs”.
We do not control our fates, either as individuals or as societies or as a species. We are as subject to the laws of nature, and the laws of impersonal love, as the flower, the star, the gorilla, the virus.
Seeing this has the flavour of a unique kind of freedom.
“As a dreamer it seems convincing that you are an individual who can make an effort to get from A to B. In reality there is no you and no A or B. But going even deeper than that, there is no-one that can make an effort and there is no-one that can give up seeming to make an effort. ”
Tony Parsons. “Nothing Being Everything”.
When I first came across the “message” of non-dualism, it was a rude shock. I had spent a “long time,” “many years,” in trying to pay attention to myself and my surroundings, understand myself better, come to a state of peace and calm, improve my psychological state, have more compassion and … the list is already quite long.
When I read statements like the one above by Tony, then I began to “give up effort.” And this led to my second rude shock. I can’t really either acquire or give up anything. The one to whom acquisition and renunciation is happening is a dreamer.
There is only the flow of life and experience. This is essentially undefinable. Thought and the dreamt thinker may try to make sense of the flow, apply labels to the flow. But do labels really capture reality?
Just as much as striving is of no avail, giving up striving is of no avail either. There is only what is.
“We appear to live in a world inhabited by individuals who, to a greater or lesser extent, have free will, choice and the ability to take action which brings about consequences. This reality is almost universally accepted without question.”
Tony Parsons. “Nothing Being Everything”.
Are we individuals? Pause. Do we have free will? Pause. Do we have choices? Pause.
These are amongst the most uncomfortable questions a human being can ask of herself. Everything in society–our laws, our religion, education, work–would answer “yes” to the above.
But these questions do not go away. And they have the power to collapse the whole structure of our worlds, both inner and outer, and to reveal the mystery. Like the burning point of the incense stick, they can reduce ignorance and error to mere ash.
However, there are no guarantees in this realm.