“Only Love is real; everything else is illusion” Carole King
“All of our difficulties result from mistaken perception.” His Holiness the Dalai Lama
“Whether you study physical or mental phenomena, the mind or mental factors, it is only when you make liberation from suffering your ultimate goal, rather than anything else, that you will be practicing in the correct way.” Ajahn Chah
It was an ordinary day on an ordinary street corner in Louisville. Nothing special. Thomas Merton hurried along on his errands, moving through the crowds of ordinary people walking their ordinary dogs and juggling their ordinary packages as they carried on the ordinary business of daily life. For a moment, as the noon shadows danced on the sidewalk and he waited for the street light to change, the veils of his perception lifted and he saw through all of those ordinary forms. He writes of this moment:
“I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are…I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time…But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
This is the fundamental insight of all of the great spiritual traditions: that the ordinary way that we perceive things – the ordinary ways that we take ourselves and others to be real – is useful and functional, but it is not the end of the story. Deeper levels of awareness are available to us. They are not somewhere else; they are not in some other “better” world or “better” person. There is just this moment; full and loving presence – here, now – is the path. Any sense of suffering, of constriction or turning away, offers the gift of a signal: “Here. Look here. There is liberation available here. Where are you trying to stop or control the river of impermanence and of infinite causes and conditions? Where are you identifying with phenomena and holding on to some fixed notion of self or other? Look more deeply. There is a gift here.” All of our spiritual practice is an invitation to explore and discover how wise and kind attention allows these deeper levels of awareness unfold.
There are many descriptions of the various lines and levels of the progressive unfolding of this deeper awareness. Some descriptions focus primarily on psychological development and others are limited to levels of spiritual unfolding. One of my teachers, John Welwood, lays out what for me is a useful framework for contemplating and working across both domains.
John notes that most humans operate most of the time at a level of “Pre-reflective identification.” At this level we are completely identified with the constructed self, the constructed world, and “have become prisoners of our own mind and the ways it has learned to select, organize and interpret experience as ‘true.’” Our sense of ourselves at this level, shaped by the views and assessments of important others, is limited by our memories and past perceptions and the meanings we have given these. All of this then serves as an ongoing filter through which we asses and come to understand all new sensory data. At this level, work with difficult emotions primarily involves trying to manage the challenging energies by trying to change or fix what is happening in what is perceived to be “out there.” Nevertheless, there is important developmental work that takes place at this level as we develop, from newborns to adults, a coherent, integrated and behavioral sense of a personal self.
At a second level, we begin “Conceptual reflection.” We see that the self has choices. We are able and willing to step back from our experience in order to examine it. We can investigate the consequences of our thoughts, words and actions, discerning whether or not they lead to happiness for self and other. At this level we have more of a mental map. Nevertheless, there remains a strong divide between self and other and inquiry remains primarily a conceptual function of the brain’s frontal lobes, focused on the contents of the mind. We are able to think about experience and relate to ideas about it, but have difficulty directly experiencing, in more full and embodied presence, the unfolding of our human lives.
At a third level, we move more toward “Phenomenological reflection:” the ability to soften or even release concepts in favor a more direct and immediate reflection on experience. We begin to be able to feel into it in the elemental way the Buddha described. At this level, we become embodied and are able to inquire more into blockages that cause distance between the observer and the observed – and thus suffering. We become more able to allow – and be surprised by – the guidance of direct personal experience. At this level there continues to be a fairly strong mind tendency to try to “fix” our experience.
At the next level, which John calls “Reflective witnessing,” we continue to inquire in more and more subtle ways into the ongoing stream of experience. This is where we deepen a practice of bare attention that can direct our inquiry. Here we cultivate skill in observing the endless flow of mind and body, intrapersonal and interpersonal experience, with less and less attention to trying to “fix” the flow. Here we become less identified with our experience and become more able to simply rest in awareness, observing and trusting its unfolding.
John calls his final level “Pure Presence: Awakening within experience.” Here we are able to simply rest in the spacious open sky: the luminosity in which all mind states are known as simply the movement of energies. We are able to release conceptual mind and allow the flow, releasing any fixed sense or attachment to separation or any sense of “mine” and “yours” or “me” and “you.” Here we release judgment or any stand for or against, becoming one with experience. Since we are one with experience and with all that is, it no longer is even possible, from a psychological sense, to resist or harm another, as we relate to all of human experience with profound love and compassion. At this level, when we open unconditionally to all that is, the human personality is still available for a variety of executive functions, but any sense of identification ends as we rest in and operate from an open, creative, flexible, profound freedom and ease with all that arises and passes. This is the state that Thomas Merton experienced and wrote about; he reminds us of an awareness that is available to us all.
It is important to note that this discussion of “levels” is not meant to idealize our path or to imply that there is some simple linear progression toward ever greater clarity and calm. It is not to suggest that one completes a certain level, never to return. All of these levels are important in their own way, not “inferior.” It is necessary to have basic integration and coherence at each of these levels to even be able to proceed further. If we have not achieved a basic wholesomeness at each level, spiritual and even psychological guidance can sometimes seem as though we are supposed to just follow the rules or patiently tolerate injustice or suppress our natural human instincts or become pious hypocrites in denial of our own energies. If we try to proceed with our spiritual practice without addressing unfinished developmental issues at each of these levels, our spiritual practice will become rigid and/or stalled and/or disconnected from real life. Further, we don’t exactly neatly “finish” these levels. “Levels” in every tradition have been described as more like a messy spiral than a ladder, with inquiries moving idiosyncratically back and forth and up and down in (ultimately) ever deeper and more expansive ways.
So we explore and use any of the “84,000” skillful means available to help us to navigate our daily journeys. Our spiritual teachers and our western scientists and therapists – among the many guides at each level – will hopefully have a sense of the whole territory as we together identify which level at any given moment we might investigate most productively.
Suffering is suffering. To be addressed with kindness, wisdom and skillful means, wherever and however it arises.