Astonishing Eloquence

Mindfulness in Action by Chogyam Trungpa.  Edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian.  Shambhala.  196 pp.  $21.95.

In times of anxiety and difficulty—which this summer has certainly been—I find myself drifting back to the books and teachers that were foundational to me.  I’ve been trying to make my way through Dogen this summer, but that’s like trying to shatter a boulder with a ballpeen hammer (my intellect).  To rest from that hopeless task I turn to the teachers that I began with, Shunryu Suzuki, Kosho Uchiyama, and Chogyam Trungpa.

Trungpa is the outlier among the three.  He was not a Zen teacher—though he was great friends with Suzuki Roshi, and taught Zen disciplines like flower arranging and archery—and led what looks from the outside like a wayward, wild life, though it expressed a certain discipline.  He was by far the most prolific of the three, in the sheer number of talks he left behind.  But amidst his copious work, I find myself returning to a few seminal texts, especially Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.  To that group I would now add a rather recent volume, Mindfulness in Action, which expresses the brilliance not only of Trungpa, but of one of his most devoted students, Carolyn Rose Gimian.

Mindfulness in Action is one of the best books on meditation I’ve ever read.

The book is great because Gimian went back to Trungpa’s earliest teachings, when he had first come to this country and was introducing his teachings to the West.  He found this place fertile ground, not just because people had Beginner’s Mind about Buddhism, but because the need for meditation was so great, and he could reflect that need with a sense of humor.  “The American spiritual neurosis, both individual and group, has become, in some sense, a world monument.  It deserves a gold medal.”  He wasn’t daunted in the least.  He jumped right in.

This time through—which was at least my third; I wrote my first article about the book some months back—I especially noticed three chapters that go together toward the end, entitled “Galaxies of Stars, Grains of Sand,” “The Fringe of Our Emotions,” and “The Heart of Emotion.”

One of the most impressive things about this book is that, though it reads like a seamless whole, it has been cobbled together from various teachings.  “Galaxies of Stars,” for instance, combines sections from three different talks, two from 1974 and one from ’76, and the two talks on emotion come from 1971.  Trungpa’s talks form a single teaching, an Ocean of Dharma, as Gillian calls them; he seemed to sit down and talk about whatever came to mind, like a jazz musician just blowing.  His students assembled his books and gave them shape.

Three chapters of this book, in the space of 23 pages, tell us how we create a self—out of fear that we don’t exist—and how, through the practice of meditation, we can deconstruct it.  He isn’t promising fireworks, or some marvelous enlightenment experience (as many teachers do).  The goal of his teaching is sanity.  We could use a little of that these days.

We originally create “the false self, or the ego” because we feel “confused and lost.  We want to find ourselves.”  Our life is actually just a heap of experiences, a rather large pile, to be sure—especially at my age—but a heap of experiences just the same.  We do the job of putting them together.  We’re trying to find certainty, something to cling to, and we begin with a simple sense of form.  “Something seems to be happening here.  Something is cooking, as they say.”  Ultimately our form is as empty as anything else.  But we cling to it initially because it’s all we’ve got.  We don’t know exactly what it is, but we’re convinced it’s something.

In a way that’s our fatal error.  By identifying with form, we separate ourselves from everything else.  If I am here, you must be there, and I reach out to see what you are, and what you’re like.  In doing that I use the second building block of the self, feeling, which we might identify simply as touch, any kind of sensation.  I reach out.  And my reaction to you—I touch you, and I want to grab and hold on, or push you away, or I don’t care one way or another—is the third building block, impulse.  At this stage it’s very primitive.  I touch the hot stove and pull my hand back.

But out of that experience I create a concept.  Hot stove bad.  Soft skin good.  Some concepts may be universal—few people enjoy that touch of the hot stove—but others are particular.  (I like touching this soft skin; you like touching that soft skin.  Or maybe I used to like touching that, but I got in trouble for it.  So I don’t like it anymore.)  We treat them as if they’re universal.  We believe that they’re true.  And then we put that whole collection of concepts together to form our consciousness.  That’s how we create David Guy.  He’s a huge pile of concepts.

Trungpa’s explanation of the five skandas is the simplest and clearest I’ve ever read.  I realize I’m exceptionally stupid, but that’s the first time I’ve ever understood them.

Thus we create a self.  We create a world.  It isn’t the world.  It’s our world.  We have five senses, but “we are not using them to see the world in a way that is clear, sharp, or unbiased.  We are still playing, blind, deaf, and dumb.  We are essentially asleep. . . . We’re really operating out of a combination of self-indulgence, delusion, and horrific nightmares all put together.”

That self is where we live our life.  “We all find ourselves lost in the piles of stuff that make up our experience of life.  We feel completely lost much of the time, which is a true experience, in some sense.”  The creation of a self didn’t just happen once, at some vague time in the past.  It keeps happening, again and again.  “Every moment has form, feeling, impulse, concept, and consciousness.”  And though the self is fundamentally false, we can’t reject it, or get rid of it.  “The only material we have to work with is our experience of ourselves.”  It is through our experience of the self that we can discover sanity.

We tend to react characteristically to our encounters with the outside world; Buddhism identifies those reactions as greed, hatred, and delusion (for Trungpa, passion, aggression, ignorance).  In some way all of our reactions are delusion; we believe we’re separate when we’re not.  But these emotions are what we use to convince ourselves of our existence, we need to do that constantly because we’re so afraid.  When not much is going on, we create something.   “[E]ven within a relatively calm state, fundamental panic and feelings of irritation and paranoia are generated, which cause us to initiate self-protective mechanisms.”

This sleepwalking, automatic, painful, lost-in-thought way of being—lost in the proliferation of thoughts that make up our consciousness and create our self—is the way most of us pass our lives.  Those are the people you pass out there on the streets, entirely lost in themselves.   It was the way I lived for the 40 plus years before I discovered Buddhism (though there were a few breakthroughs in my long period of therapy), and the way I often live today.  It is natural because that wish to exert our existence and make ourselves into something is natural.  But it is the samsara of everyday life, the hamster wheel we all seem to be stuck on, what a friend of mine used to call the treadmill to oblivion.  It is not a real vital existence, though it has its moments.

The antidote to this dire situation is so simple as to sound stupid.  It sounds as if we need a huge slap in the face, an existential Wake Up call, and occasionally that seems to happen, if people like Eckhart Tolle can be believed (and I believe them, or at least I believe him.  He sounds authentic to me).  But in the absence of that, and we certainly can’t count on it, we have the simple practice of sitting meditation, which sounds absolutely moronic.  As Trungpa teaches it, “We do this by relating simply to posture, breathing, and labeling our thoughts.”  (Other traditions don’t label thoughts, but just notice them.  It comes to the same thing.)  “This approach is outward facing.  It is engaging our actual living situation.”

In a way the process sounds like navel gazing, as if you’re preoccupied with yourself.  But the breathing isn’t really you; it’s the universe coming through you (if you were doing it, you could stop.  Try that sometime).  And your physical sensations aren’t something you’re “doing”; they’re happening to you (in the second skanda that we talked about above, feeling).  Right at that spot is what Larry Rosenberg used to call the weak link in the chain.  If you can feel the sensation but not react to it, just feel it as pure sensation, you’re not connecting the links.  You’re not having preferences.  You’re not creating a self.

It then naturally happens that you move out of yourself.  You hear a bird sing, or a truck grind its gears, and though that sound is in you, it is also out in the world.  (I realize that’s a great philosophical conundrum—where is the sound?  Inside or out?—but we can drop that.  Meditation makes us see there is no inside and outside.)  Your experience becomes larger, on the cushion and elsewhere.  “Applying mindfulness in everyday life makes our experience much more spacious, and it also brings an awareness of our whole environment.”  Trungpa emphasizes those two aspects of our experience, which seem to shuttle back and forth, like that famous picture of the old woman and the young woman.  “Mindfulness is primarily the aspect of the technique that is being right on the spot, and awareness if feeling the environment around that mindfulness.  Awareness is more panoramic.”

It is natural for that larger awareness to become part of your life.  “With awareness, you recognize that you and your activities are all part of the environment. . . . Then there’s no room for ego’s panic.  You are able to cut the chaotic aspect of the thinking process because at that point you are completely joined with the situation, not separate from what is there.”

People complain when they begin to meditate that the thinking process is so insistent, so loud sometimes, so rapid and overwhelming, and they would like to rid themselves of it, but Trungpa discourages that idea.  “This approach is not cutting off the thought process altogether but loosening it up. . . . We learn to relate to our thought process, rather than trying to attain a state without thoughts altogether.”  That fact of relating to thoughts, rather than being caught up in them, is a major difference, and is quite powerful.  “When our thoughts are less connected to maintaining egoistic self-centeredness, we appreciate life much more fully.”

It’s known as taking your head out of your ass.

One trap of meditation and mindfulness practice is that we begin to see it as a state that we need to enter into and maintain.  Trungpa cuts through that idea with the first sentence of “The Heart of Emotion.”  “There is no such thing as an ideal state of meditation.”

We’re not trying to get into some kind of state or mood.  We’re developing a spaciousness that can handle any mood.  “Thoughts should be seen as waves on the ocean.  They are part of our intelligence.  When they aren’t armed or heavy-handed anymore, they have a transparent quality.”  This new way of seeing things becomes a new way of living.  “Life is no longer warfare. . . . The emotions become a decentralized process rather than a central force to maintain confusion.”

Dealing with emotions is difficult to describe, as he admits.  It’s not a matter of indulging the emotion, to the extent of acting it out.  It’s also not a matter of suppressing it, so we don’t feel it.  It’s a matter of “connecting with the experiential quality of the emotions as they are.”  You “relate to the bubble of energy that arises . . . connecting with an almost abstract quality of the emotions.”  He gives an example.  “If you become completely part of the anger, if you get into the is-ness of the anger, then anger’s ability to overpower you disappears.  There’s no one there to overpower.  Then anger becomes just a bundle of energy.”

That has not been, for me, a process that happened immediately, or rapidly.  My difficult emotion was not so much anger but fear, and I was often overwhelmed by it.  I still am.  Trungpa acknowledges that.  “You could still have your emotional upheavals, but you also could have glimpses of openness.  Those glimpses help you to become a more awake, open, and generous person.”  But I have definitely had the experience that Trungpa is talking about, of following an emotion to the point where it is just energy, and once you see that, it lightens up your life considerably. “You begin to enjoy the details of your life as part of your path.”

Trungpa’s lifework is vast, and many of his books are valuable, but I honestly feel that, in these three short chapters of this rather slender book, he has captured the entire process of meditation.  He’s expressed it beautifully, and I feel sure that Carolyn Rose Gimian was a major part of that process, shaping the raw material of his talks.  I deeply appreciate Trungpa, and also appreciate the dedicated students who have brought us his work.  It has been incomparably valuable in my life.