Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of September 3, 2012

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Presence is Mindfulness Plus

(Presence in Daily Life: Part 10)

Buddhist meditation theory and practice teach us the methods and the value of mindfulness. The classical definition presents mindfulness as calm, impartial, non-judging, in-the-moment awareness and attentiveness to body, emotions, thoughts, other mental activity, and consciousness itself. Mindfulness allows our life to flow in a wonderful way. And it is obviously a major and important spiritual practice. While mindfulness and presence have much in common, there are significant differences. Foremost among those differences is the question of who is mindful or who is present.

In the Buddhist approach, the answer is no one. A central tenet of Buddhism is that the self is illusory. In mindfulness, there is just mindfulness, just that calm, non-grasping, non-judging awareness, with no one behind it. Just mindful. In practice, this experience is liberating, because we drop all the baggage of our self, all the laboriously constructed and carefully defended edifice of our self, our central illusion. There is just the awareness, just the activity of our life. It flows.

In the path of presence, we accept and value the truth of the Buddhist view of mindfulness and self. And we bring more to it. We look to bridge the divide between the Buddha’s teaching of no-self and the even more ancient biblical teaching of  “I am that I am.” The dissolving of the illusion of the self has layers of subtlety, which for our present purposes we divide into four. They do present a progression of depth, but not necessarily a linear progression. On any given day, we may work at several of these levels, depending on our preparation and insight.

At the first layer, in our ordinary, unexamined life prior to any significant inner work, we believe in our self, but what we believe in is an illusion. This self is our personality, trained and shaped since birth to act and think and feel in certain ways, to hold certain attitudes, to interpret new events and our memories in a particular fashion. This self is just a set of psychological patterns, an insubstantial mirage. Yet the mirage is very convincing. We believe in it unquestioningly. We believe this is who we are: this bag of thoughts, emotions, senses, and body held together by our presumed self. It looks like a person, talks like a person, and acts like a person. It must be me. This presumption is so deeply ingrained in us, that we can hardly imagine that it could be false.

At the second layer, our mindfulness, our inner work of seeing, gradually deconstructs the patterns of that presumed self and reveals our personality to be an empty shell. This is the usual interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching of no-self. Our inner work enables us to see through the illusion. We see that our thoughts and emotions drive themselves, without any “I” in them. We see that what we took to be our self is just a complex of psychological patterns, memories, tendencies and attitudes, with no core, no central actor, no self. This insight relieves us of our lifelong burden of feeding that insatiable emptiness in our center, the burden of maintaining the illusion of self by painting on curtains around an empty space where we assume that “we” are. Here we pull back those curtains and see the truth: there is no wizard, no I behind them.

At the third layer, we find that there is yet more to this story, that we have will, our I, that in order to truly go beyond self, beyond egoism, we need to come into our will, our I, that we need to become our real Self before we can take the next and ultimate step along the path. So at this level, we have the work of presence, of occupying our consciousness, our mindfulness, of simply and directly being the one who sees what we see, hears what we hear, and does what we do. We become ourselves, our true selves. We form our soul. At this point we have something, something to surrender, something that enables us to surrender into the next layer. That something makes us real. It is our real self, our I, our will.

Yet the Buddha did not mislead us. At the fourth layer, the Buddhist teaching of no-self aligns perfectly with the ultimate teachings of other religions, in that the Self surrenders to the Sacred, becomes subsumed in the Divine. This Union takes us beyond both our ordinary assumed self of the first layer and beyond our true self of the third layer. Here we have the work of contemplative prayer and deep meditation, of purification, of surrender and letting go utterly. It takes us beyond the practice of presence. Yet the work of presence proves invaluable in strengthening our will, our I, so that we are there to turn toward and open to the Divine. Experience comes to a single point in our I, but opens up again beyond our I.

For this week, assess where you are along this path of transformation, from mindfulness to presence and beyond. Practice mindfulness and extend it into the practice of presence. Be.


        

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