The Spiritual Aspect
What is spirit? Unseen force? Impulse, desire? Expansive passion? Moving beyond the limits of what is known we may discover a personal dimension of its expression present in a desire to know, and an ability to be deeply human and of service. To dissolve the boundaries that separate us from all that surrounds us in ever widening, expanding circles. Spirit is vision, illuminations through opening and questioning, perhaps found most often though by simply embracing each moment fully.
I have tried to avoid mention of spirituality in this series of blog posts. In the East this becomes impossible as it is the actual direction of spirit and our spiritual aspect. This step of the ‘Buddhism Meet Shamanism’ series will be in part an invitation for those who are sceptical with regards to any mention of spirituality to explore the theme of non-religious spirituality. It might be an opportunity to expand the idea of what being spiritual means to those who are not sceptical. This direction requires a degree of imagination and creativity because spirit, as defined below, is very much about meeting the edge of our knowledge and experience, going beyond, and expanding our field of self-interest.
Why avoid the term spirituality? Part of the reason is because of the tendency for spirituality to be lumped together with religion and the new age, along with practices such as tarot cards and astrology. It’s not that these topics are not related to spirituality; rather they don’t need to be perceived as inseparable from one another and spirituality doesn't have to be a single all encompassing category to be avoided at all costs by the sceptic.
On this wheel the spiritual aspect exists not as a personal choice but as a fundamental aspect of every human being. Spirit is part of who we are and spirituality is a fundamental expression of our humanity. For spiritual types this is usually extremely obvious and naturally so, but what are the characteristics of this fundamental human aspect outside of any explicit religious connotations? Many prefer to be labelled as non-spiritual and if you are an atheist, what form does this spirit aspect take in your world?
According to the shamanic outlook, our spirit is an integral part of our totality. Expansion sits in the east and perhaps spirituality is simply the combination of two forces; the impulse to grow and expand, to become more than what we currently are, and the desire to know and experience what is not known. These forces are inherent in everyone and not partial to religious folk, philosophical pursuits of self-knowledge, or psychological self-enquiry. At times we subvert or deny these drives, yet perhaps any feeling of impulsive desire to do, whether it’s pursuing a career, a large family, or excellence in a hobby or sport, has within a trace of this desire. At times it gets projected onto others; we live vicariously through their attainments, whether it’s a footballer or celebrity. This happens in the world of Buddhism too when disciples bathe in the attainments of their teachers or lineage holders and never quite make the effort to achieve the same magnificent results themselves.
The enemy of the east and the desire to expand is repression. Expansion, growth and personal knowledge are traded in for security, comfort and predictability. The beliefs we establish and inherit in the north of the wheel are carried round to the east where they become the justification for stifling our imagination, creativity and ability to vision ourselves as greater than the mould our parents, society, class, etc, have granted us.
Fire is the east element. It illuminates the darkness of the unknown. Our fire, our spirit, leads us to expand and move into unknown territories not just of knowledge, but feeling and experience. It is the innate urge to discover and meet our world in all its complex majesty. To self-actualize, is to expand beyond what is currently known, and illuminate the darkness of our own ignorance and sense of disconnection and incompleteness. This necessitates the meeting of our edges, which are often designated by those fears, the need for security and reliability, and that desire for comfort.
Our need for comfort and how it’s expressed illustrates the way we personally tend to soften the edges of experience and make them less raw by coating them in projected feelings (more on this in the south and west posts) or interpreting them as having a preordained meaning that goes beyond the simplicity of immediacy. By prioritising comfort and the familiar, we reduce risk and invest in predictability that is ultimately dissatisfying. Our fears are an illustration of the areas in life in which we refuse to partake.
The east element, within humans, is very much about passion, which is human fire. Passion means desire and implies a fundamental urge that is part of our rich humanity and that can be harnessed as an intensely, creative force. The key is to enter passion with emotional balance, physical presence and stability, intelligence, a clear intent and receptivity, i.e. the balanced expressions of the previous directions on this wheel.
Creating room to move
If repression is closing down our creative instincts and our ability to imagine ourselves as more than we appear to be, then the first step in the east is creating space to allow our curiosity to emerge and our ability to, in shamanic parlance, dream of ourselves outside of the boundaries we currently live within. This can begin with setting your intent to make room in your life to explore and experiment with alternative ways of being. Through breathing space in-between the confines of the structures of your day-to-day world you begin to find an antidote to the suffocating habits that limit your potential. Letting go of gripping onto a fixed sense of your identity is central. This involves in part expanding your personal sense of space. How big can you allow yourself to be? This first step is daring to vision yourself alternatively. You’re actively giving rise to a creative sense of yourself in your world rather than holding onto a fixed self-image. For many this is the spark that re-establishes a relationship with the expansive impulse that is spirit.
The greats in life are those that harnessed this creative impulse, who dared to dream. They are greats though because they put it into a manifested form. The working direction for the east is the west, so we must never forget that what counts is action. The dream must produce results, or change. You don’t want to remain in fantasy. Imagination in a healthy form leads to expansiveness, opening to new possibilities, the ability to connect and make something happen.
The new age movement often leaves people in fantasy, floating around in dreams and imagined self-realisation. Many of the new age books available doggedly claim that a single thought will manifest your greatest desire if only you’ll believe it possible. Sounds like poppycock, is poppycock. It’s a self-absorbed escapist fantasy at best.
Daring to dream must be followed by daring to do. This relates pragmatically as much to experimenting with alternative beliefs and habits, as it does to attempting to fulfil our childhood dream of being an actor, doctor, or whatever. The world turns out to be limited after all in spite of new age idealism and fantasy. Just remember how you do what you do is as important as what you do and an ongoing challenge in life is to find the right balance between the two.
As an aside, spaciousness, or space, is also an alternative translation of the Buddhist term emptiness. The ultimate nature of reality is most often described in Buddhism as such. The problem is that this term fails to capture the experiential dimension of working with this aspect of reality and it tends to confuse people into thinking that ultimate reality ends up being all about nothingness, which is the nihilistic fallacy. In pragmatic terms space implies establishing a habit of openness, of opening to experience as it is, being limitlessness in curiosity, expanding beyond what is known, in order to perceive and experience life as it is outside of our ignorance. Spaciousness also means creating distance between our incessant internal thoughts processes (see last post).
Compassion involves expanding beyond the boundaries of our self-interest and our tendency towards self-absorption and the prioritising of our needs and wants over others. Compassion means being and feeling with another and the ability to place as much importance on another as we do on ourselves. It is an antidote to self-importance and the survival instinct.
Compassion = being with passion. Expansion means going beyond selfishness in its widest sense to encompassing the wider world in our own self-interest. A shamanic world-view almost always sees the world as an integrated, inter-dependent whole in which we must honour our part. The view of animals, trees and plants as our brothers is not just romanticism, it’s an appreciation of how the forms of nature are intimately linked with our being alive. It is within our self-interest to care for the world around us.
For compassion to be of use it must be human, and not overtly abstract, and it must, at some point, take us out of self-absorption and navel gazing to embracing being of service in a consistent natural manner in order to harness our creative self-actualization as a force for the greater good. This usually starts with our immediate environment; our family, parents, friends and neighbours, then moving to the man in the street, both near and far. We are steadily increasing our capacity to include humanity in our field of self-interest. By considering others and the impact our actions have on the world around us we begin to weaken our attachment to our self-identification. Life becomes less about ‘me’ and more about ‘us’. Compassion is also very much enthusiasm for the world we live in and our participation in it. Rather than hang out in fantasies of how the world should/could/must be we start to let the world be as it is and relate to it more honestly seeking opportunities to end suffering where possible. Compassion is caring enough about this wonderfully complex world to participate fully in it. How does it play out on a human, day-to-day level? That’s up to you to find out.
Opening the heart to universal suffering, freedom
Compassion leads nicely to a central theme in Mahayana Buddhism, and notable among many shamanic cultures, and in particular amongst the plains Indians in North America, where it is called the great give-away. This theme is generosity.
Generosity means recognising that nobility is found in embracing our place in a greater family of man and sharing of ourselves fully with that family. There is a shared intent hidden, infused in all our desire to grow and evolve that is the antithesis of selfishness and narcissism. To align with that intent is to develop a generosity that is open to life, as it is, and to ourselves, as we are, as an ongoing process which we are striving to open and remain open to.
The give-away was literal in the plains Indians culture. Your greatness as an individual and member of the tribe was measured in how you gave-away the fruits of your accomplishments to others at the end of the year. Your personal wealth was not measured by the possessions and riches you kept, but in how you gave them freely for the benefit of other and the tribe. How starkly this contrasts with the materialism of the last century.
Tonglen is a central practice in Mahayana Buddhism that dissolves those boundaries between the individual and the collective too, opening us at a deep level to the suffering in the world. Although practiced at a visual level and in a meditation context, it leads to a similar breaking down of the boundaries between us and them as we take on the imagined suffering of others and give back healing, equanimity and happiness. Pema Chodron is a modern advocate of this practice if you want to know more.
To touch the impersonal, rich interconnection found through allowing ourselves to open our feeling centre to universal suffering dissolves self-obsession, as genuine giving without expectations or need of return does too.
Strangely enough to embrace others more fully is to gain a form of freedom that’s really from self-obsession. Firstly, because giving generously means loosening up and letting go of holding onto possessions and ideas, which is painful. Secondly, because in order to grasp the enormity of the collective human condition in a way that does not generate overwhelming emotional suffering (or result in us ending up in poverty), we have to let go, in a profound way, of our attachments to wanting outcomes to be a certain way, and this is highly liberating, as well as challenging.
If the basic premise of Buddhism is to end suffering then the initial opening to the suffering of others and its uncomfortable and challenging nature, must be moved through and beyond in order to open, feel and not get stuck in the pain of it all. Inexperienced practitioners can fall into this trap, or end up elevating themselves above the human condition, in order to detach from the great swath of pain and injustice with lofty ideals and abstraction. This is to miss the point however. We are an essential element of the suffering within each and every individual; they are part of us on a certain level. To feel is to meet and we must be at the level of what is rather than an idealized world that simply doesn’t exist.
Touching life deeply & being touched deeply by life
Working with compassion and opening involves embracing our humanity much more deeply. Instead of being some form of super-holy force that has us rise above it all, we descend into the deepest layers of the heart where the richness of feeling allows us to connect beyond our usual boundaries and limited imagination. It requires us to have enough presence, self-acceptance and confidence to carry this out as a naturally emerging mode of being. Chogyam Trungpa called this embracing our basic goodness. In establishing these qualities we become more able to face depth more willingly and open to whatever arises whilst meeting the experience fully and willingly, even when uncomfortable. At the same time you present the fullness of yourself to that same moment, so that you become an integral part of the unfolding and we begin to perceive that life is workable.
In a sense, as you wake up and open to experience more fully, as you have the courage to meet experience without striving to control or manipulate it, as you stand naked in experiencing the fullness of your own unique and collective experience, you find yourself more integrally being part of the awakened presence in more frequent moments of your life. This is part of what means being of service.
A simple and essential key here, as the Dalai Lama often says, is ‘Do no harm’. This means avoiding certain behaviours such as violence, lying, theft and so forth. There are plenty of good books available on the noble eight-fold path, which cover this topic in great detail, although Ken McLeod has something very important to say on this topic below which is often missed in the transmission of ethically based practices.
Actively doing no harm includes being dedicated to bringing awareness and generosity to those areas where unintentionally harm is caused. This means ceasing to be clumsy with the unrefined edges of our character and habits. It means being present, aware and conscious.
Ken McLeod points out how much Buddhist teachings are often descriptive rather than prescriptive, how the noble eightfold path describes the results of practice as opposed to some mould that we are supposed to squeeze ourselves into. Therefore right speech does not mean avoiding gossip, lying, hurtful speech and so forth based on rigid criteria. They act as guidelines and a description of what will likely emerge with time.
Language as we know is highly symbolic. Context is important to understanding the symbolic value of what is transmitted through speech. Different contexts have different rules about what is appropriate, or offensive, or right. If we inhabit a very restricted environment in which the rules of right speech are explicit, then managing right speech based on those rules becomes a prescriptive act which is more likely to work. For the rest of us though, living in a multi-faceted world, speech becomes a field of play that must be navigated consciously and with awareness in order for our speech to become less harmful as a natural expression of our progress in practice.
Ken points out that it’s probably more useful to think of right speech as being something that is conscious and backed up by a clear and honest intent to do no harm. By taking care with our speech as opposed to fitting it into a narrow band of right and wrong, we naturally use speech that begins to develop along the lines of what is laid out in classic Buddhist teaching. As always it is a developmental process that emerges through our practice as a facet of our own naturalness rather than a forced religious dynamic of rules and laws.
In my experience this points to yet another myth held by many followers of Buddhism, in particular Tibetan Buddhism. Practitioners often fall into the trap of trying to maintain an idealised behaviour based on core Buddhist teachings; it’s a sort of acting. Followers of traditional Buddhism may be surprised by this, but awakening is not an act of conformity and must be personally realised.
Once again we see that we must begin with where we are, and not some idealised image of practice. To be of service means to work with the circumstances in which we find ourselves in our day-today lives. To be of service is a process rather than maintaining a fixed identity. In part it’s about being responsive to our situation and getting our hands dirty. Part of this is using body, speech and mind in a way that does not intentionally harm others. This does not mean we will never cause harm though. In fact our lives by their nature harm others, whether it’s exploitation of Chinese workers putting together I Pods, or our discounted jeans, or the death of millions of insects in the production of crops. This is a huge topic that I will avoid continuing here, but it’s worth investigating further.
As a teacher of mine once said, the best approach to long-term service is to choose one of the four worlds to dedicate our particular skills and talents to, whether it is the animal, plant, human or mineral world. This can help us to be more concrete about how we go about giving back to the world.
What makes being of service problematic, especially when prescriptive, is that it often ends up being as much about ourselves as it is about the other. It can be about our need to be important, needed, wanted, or to have a role that affirms our identity as someone good. Without a self-referenced dynamic, service as a spontaneous facet of being, becomes a natural part of how we are in the world and the results can be very surprising.
Awakening over enlightenment
To awake is a more tangible, accessible term, concept and experience than enlightenment. Enlightenment is big, abstract and near impossible to define outside of a particular tradition or school of thought, and if you go for one of the many concepts or beliefs of what enlightenment is, you will quickly find yourself having arguments with others about who has the best definition!
To awake implies moving from sleep, or ignorance, to an awakened state. To awaken then can be measured to some degree and understood and related to contexts, that is to say, it is workable. This is really important if we are to make progress in meditation practice. The same is true for the term freedom. Absolute freedom is meaningless as a concept. Freedom from something, is another kettle of fish entirely.
Awakening is both temporary and permanent. Without a context in which to place it, it can be confusing and lead to mistaken view. Many claim enlightenment, to be awakened, when it is probable that they have simply gone through a process of awakening and gained a certain degree of freedom from something. It can also mean they have accessed an ability to maintain certain advanced levels of Jhana, or concentration/absorption states.
The east of the wheel reminds us that if awakening is not deeply human, it is not whole and may lead to harm. Read any story of supposedly enlightened Gurus on the web for past and current examples which feature abuse, manipulation and the seduction of power. If you are not rich in your basic humanity, your awakening is poor and it will tend to separate you from the world and from others. It has many masks and is not to be trusted.
The central theme and starting point in Buddhism is suffering (dissatisfaction/incompleteness) and this is always to be kept in mind when approaching the topic of awakening. It is sobering and brings humility to remember that suffering is a central theme of life and doesn’t go away for the vast majority of humans, and animals that die day in, day out. It is an antidote to feeding the increased energy that emerges through consistent practice into our need to be important and to elevate ourselves in some way. To awaken is not to gain super-powers, to become a god, a super happy dude, and so on. To awaken is to break the patterns of habit that generate suffering: Plain and simple. Awakening means breaking up, for good, mind fetters that sustain suffering (dissatisfaction/incompleteness) and the ignorance of constructs that keep us in pattern.
I personally find the Buddhist Four Path model of awakening very useful. With its starting point of Stream Entry, it is a model that gives us a context in which to place profound experiences of awakening. Some of the language used to expand on the essential themes is archaic, but the description, in my experience, of the fetters is accurate.
Finally, awakening is something that emerges through practice. It cannot be forced in most contexts. It is in great part a ripening in our dedication to practicing diligently and sincerely over time.
Morality and ethics
A word of warning? Passion is powerful and when expressed in a selfish way leads to all manner of destructive behaviour. Passion for religion when unbalanced leads to dogma, religious intolerance of other faiths, views and beliefs. Passion for work can lead to workaholics’ prioritising their work over other responsibilities and investing all of their life energies in mundane pursuits that are ultimately dissatisfying. Passion for beliefs can mean sustaining all manner of action because our beliefs tell us we are right and we are forced to defend them as they are the core of who we believe ourselves to be. This is the pollution of the north seeping into the east, rather than the fluid inter-relationship between the two. Passion can mean addiction, a lack of self-control, and being burnt out.
I will repeat again that passion harnessed from a place of balance is an essential part of our being, and our practice. By seeking balance in our emotions, body, mind and bringing that to how we express our desire to grow and to know, we are protected from the excesses of the creative, expansive urge. Each of the four cardinal directions is a sphere of development to which we must apply conscious, presence and a dedication to balanced expression.
Finally, ethics and morality must mean including others in our sense of what is important and relating our developmental and spiritual growth to the context in which we live. It means embracing our humanity and having humility.