Radiant Mind » Articles http://www.radiantmind.net Buddhist psychology and nondual therapy | Peter Fenner Ph.D. | buddhism, nondualism Fri, 13 Nov 2015 01:33:26 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.3.12 Will this practice make me happier? http://www.radiantmind.net/will-this-practice-fix-my-life-and-make-me-happier/ http://www.radiantmind.net/will-this-practice-fix-my-life-and-make-me-happier/#comments Thu, 16 Jan 2014 10:45:17 +0000 http://fenner.tk/radiantmind.net/?p=14328 A question that is very often posed to me is, “How will doing your practice change me?” “Will I be more effective?” “Will I suffer less?” People would love to hear that their lives will be richer, more harmonious, and that they will be better able to deal with challenging situations. It’s tempting for people to project that such changes will happen. People in Radiant Mind and similar programs often offer personal accounts about how they feel more peace and openness through engaging in the nondual perspective. They report how their relationships and communications improve, and their fears and anxiety decrease. This is really beautiful.

However, the truth is that from a nondual perspective, we can’t promise anything. There are two reasons for this. First, the focus of our work is on nondual awareness. If we give attention to what’s happening at the conditioned level—feeling better, etc.—this throws us into time and casualty. And this attention doesn’t create an entry point into nondual awareness. In fact, it distracts us from the unbounded panorama of pure awareness.

Second, we can’t know how the infusion of nondual awareness within a mindstream will influence someone’s evolutionary path. Even here, in saying that nondual awareness influences how we think, feel and perceive, I am telling a story. I am moving away from the language of the unconditioned where there’s nothing to say, nothing to describe, where the nondual can’t influence anything because it isn’t a force or power or energy. It is nothing.

Wonderful things do happen when we engage with the nondual awareness. People experience super-deep, super-smooth and totally effortless sessions of natural meditation. They are able to feel totally complete, even blissful, in the midst of illness, irresolution or environmental threats. My approach is to acknowledge these as wonderful “side effects,” but not dwell on them. They don’t become a focus of the process. In fact, these types of effects arise more consistently and comprehensively when we don’t give them any attention.

People often attribute these changes to what we are doing together. It can be tempting to agree and to interpret positive change to the space we are sharing. I listen to these reports with pure listening. I don’t reject them or accept them. I’ll say that’s great, but I don’t make a link between Radiant Mind and the positive changes that are happening.

It is a trap to attribute such changes to spending more time in nondual awareness. We then begin to assess the effectiveness of abiding in the nondual in terms of changes that are happening at the conditioned level. But the unconditioned isn’t ongoingly revealed and presenced when we are anticipating and tracking changes at the conditioned level. When we anticipate and track changes, we are no longer engaged in resting in unconditioned awareness.

Another reason I don’t make promises that people’s lives will improve is that I don’t know what will happen for someone, tomorrow, next week or next year. While I’m sure that nondual awareness only serves people positively, it’s impossible to know what’s up ahead, in a someone’s life. We can’t know what those challenges will be. Someone’s life may move from being peaceful and easy to becoming demanding and stressful overnight. This happens all the time. Everyday thousands of people are facing the challenges of broken relationships, welcoming a newborn child into their family, and dealing with the news of a terminal illness. The stresses involved in some of these experiences can last for months or years. Engaging in nonduality doesn’t provide insurance against relationship problems, financial loss, illness or death.

All we can confidently say is that the more time we spend in nondual awareness, the better we will be able to handle life’s challenges, no matter what they are. Once we’ve experienced unconditioned awareness, this healing experience percolates through the layers of our conditioning. There is a natural and effortless process, which is different for each complex being, and it happens in its own time. At times, this de-conditioning can happen quickly, and then we might regress and find ourselves confronting something that has been deeply held within our conditioning. At other times, de-conditioning happens slowly and steadily. The entire process may take more than a lifetime. It is unlikely that we will reside permanently in unconditioned awareness in this lifetime. We have no concern for this. We can simply let this wondrous process unfold in the inevitable way that it will.
Peter Fenner, Ph.D.

Peter is a leader in the adaption and transmission of Asian nondual wisdom worldwide. He is a pioneer in the development of nondual therapy and creator of the 9-month Radiant Mind Course® (www.radiantmind.net) and the 10-month Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training (www.nondualtraining.com). He was a celibate monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for 9 years and has a Ph.D. in the philosophical psychology of Mahayana Buddhism. He teaches in North America, Europe, Israel and Australia. His books include Radiant Mind: Awakening Unconditional Awareness (2007); The Edge of Certainty: Dilemmas on the Buddhist Path (2002); and The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy (ed. with John Prendergast and Sheila Krystal, 2003).

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Radical intimacy http://www.radiantmind.net/radical-intimacy/ http://www.radiantmind.net/radical-intimacy/#comments Thu, 16 Jan 2014 10:24:43 +0000 http://fenner.tk/radiantmind.net/?p=14334 In Radiant Mind and other courses I offer I prefer to talk about “intimacy” rather than “love.” This gives us a fresh opportunity to invent what we mean by the word “ love.” Rather than saying a lot about “love” and potentially debase with word, the idea of “intimacy” can be approached more openly. I feel that the word intimacy works better than the word compassion, because compassion is often understood in a dualistic and hierarchal way. We can give something to someone, something that they need. Compassion can be expressed by seeing what another needs and working to fulfill that need. Intimacy isn’t like that. Intimacy gives us the opportunity to totally enter a situation openly in whatever shape it takes. It allows us to be aware and completely engaged with others no matter what is happening.

When we abide in unconditioned awareness we take care of others in the same way we take care of ourselves because there is no difference between ourselves and others. While we don’t feel people’s pain and suffering, or joy and elation in exactly the same way that they do, we deeply participate in their feelings, because we come together in the field of undivided awareness. Other peoples’ thoughts and feelings aren’t arising with the immediacy and with the clarity with which we experience our own thoughts and feelings. It’s more like a shadowing, more opaque, yet whatever is happening for others is effectively part of our own experience. Even though we don’t know what other people are thinking, and while physical pain is very personal, when we rest in nondual awareness, we somehow sense the general structure of people’s throughts—their confusion, worry or clarity. And we relate to their pain as though it was our own.

From within undivided awareness we are just a clearing—a centerless space—through which a universe moves. I am me, not because there is a unique me somewhere in here, but because the space I am reveals a unique and distinctive universe. Even though it seems I’m at the center of this, I’m not in here, and there is no center. This means that everyone who enters into the clearing that I am is as intimately related to me as my thoughts and bodily feelings. There’s no difference.

In the nondual state there is no inside or outside. There is no me in here who exists separate from everything else. It’s impossible to locate where I stop and you begin. There is no point where I stop and you begin. There’s just this, which is everything. This is real intimacy. From within the nondual experience we don’t invite into, or exclude, anything. There’s no one home who is capable of doing this!

Everything is already here. We don’t push anything away, and we don’t hold onto anything. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the structure of our relationships takes the same form with everyone. The people with whom we live, work and practice have a central role in our lives. Nonetheless, there is nothing artificial or contrived about our relationships.

In the nondual realm, intimacy isn’t a particular set of feelings, such as feeling really close or connected to someone, or feeling deeply committed or concerned about someone else’s wellbeing. Nondual intimacy doesn’t carve out a particular relationship with one, or a few other people. Nondual intimacy is all encompassing and all embracing. Nothing is excluded. Everything in our known universe is touched with equal sensitivity and compassion. It’s the experience of total interpenetration of our being to the point where the no one who we are expands to include everything.

I invite you to explore the idea of being a “centerless clearing.” I find that it’s an extremely powerful way of being in the world.


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“If I had the time, I’d be like the Buddha!” http://www.radiantmind.net/if-i-had-the-time-id-be-like-the-buddha-3/ http://www.radiantmind.net/if-i-had-the-time-id-be-like-the-buddha-3/#comments Thu, 16 Jan 2014 08:08:57 +0000 http://www.nondualtraining.com/?p=3285 One of the common things I hear from people when I’m running a workshop is that, “This space is great, but my life is so busy. I just don’t have the time to rest and be present to “what is.” I’ve got the meals to prepare, emails to do, phone calls with family and friends, making a living! All I really want is to spend my life in this space, but I have all these other commitments that I can’t walk away from. What can I do? How can I respond to the demands of life and still cultivate the connection to nondual awareness?”

I respond to this plea in different ways. First, I will point out that the “doing nothing” that’s happening in a workshop or on a teleconference call can’t be compared with inactivity. I may say, “It’s true that in Timeless Wisdom workshops we aren’t playing sport, surfing the internet, engrossed in a movie, negotiating airport security, or visiting our parents, but the “this” we are doing—that’s happening here—is ultimately unrelated to being still, or inaction. At the very least we can see how, right now, it’s possible to abide in awareness—and talk, listen, make notes, stand up, sit down, and move around.

It’s true that, as beginners, it’s easier for us to enter awareness when the environment is simple, stable and undemanding. But, it’s also important not to make a connection and think that “this”—being here—is doing nothing. We aren’t doing nothing in the way we typically use that phrase. We aren’t sitting around aimlessly, watching things go by. We are resting in a pristine state of being: a state where we could rest, fully aware, without a flicker of boredom or distress, for eternity. This is completely different from “hanging around, letting time pass by, doing nothing, until something comes along.”

In fact, I question the belief that we really want to spend more time resting in awareness? I think that, if we really wanted to spend more time “here”, somehow we’d figure out how to do it. The Buddha worked it out—how to be permanently free—as have hundreds of thousands of other sages. What’s clear is that there is a fundamental change in priorities. For the Buddha, the priority wasn’t having a roof over his head, or knowing where his next meal was coming from. Something completely different was going on. So different that he didn’t need a roof over his head, money in his pocket, or fallible human company. It’s easy to say, “Ah, but he could renounce all those things because he was enlightened.” But this is a cop out. For the Buddha, the only thing was abiding in liberating awareness, needing nothing, rejecting nothing, and letting his life unfold with no concern or preoccupation about tomorrow, or the next minute. His power and influence as the founder of a new religion came precisely from his capacity to encounter everything that came his way: scorching heat, drenching rain, an empty stomach, ridicule, unrestrained adoration, assassination attempts, numerous smear campaigns, without any of these producing the slightest mental or emotional disturbance. Such was the power of his unconditioned love and nondual wisdom.

If the same priority was alive in us, we wouldn’t be who we are. It’s very simple; we’d be a completely different person, someone so different from who we are, we couldn’t even recognize ourselves. We would see a clone of our body, but the speech, functioning, gait, comportment, lifestyle, network of friends and colleagues and career (if we could still call it that) would be completely different: like someone from a different planet. For a start, we wouldn’t be saying, “I don’t have enough time to rest in awareness. My life is too busy. I have too many other commitments.”

There is nothing to be gained in thinking, “I don’t have enough time for this work.” We rest in awareness for us long as we can. If we could do more of “this” we would. I have no doubt about this.

I invite you to be honest and realistic about how you are with this. Complaining about our time being limited and committed, and wishing it were otherwise–that there wasn’t so much to do, there weren’t so many responsibilities–merely fosters conflict. No one ever entered (or re-entered) this state by thinking, “I wish I could do more of this.” Unless, of course, in thinking like this we see that there is no “this” to want more of! No one has ever entered buddhamind wishing that their life was different. In this work we embrace what is, aware of our deepest longings and our present choices, acknowledging where we are with love and understanding.

The Bhagavad-Gita speaks about the practice of desireless action (nishkama-karma). When time is available, we sense that there’s nothing we need to do, and so we do exactly that. We find a quiet place and abide in unconditioned awareness. In the rush of getting things done we may forget the possibility of being “here,” but not entirely. Unconditioned awareness is always here, silently in the background, needing and expecting nothing but somehow drawing us into it. Knowing that the ever-present possibility can shine through at any moment, we grow in our capacity to find the time for abiding. We remember how sweet, peaceful, spacious and free this space is, and we receive it as the sourceless gift of the universe. We find a few minutes each day, and each week, to rest in nondual awareness, and we plan ahead for a retreat so we can dwell more deeply and uninterruptedly in timeless presence.

Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2012


Peter Fenner, Ph.D. is a spiritual leader in the adaption and transmission of Asian nondual wisdom. Pioneer in the development of nondual therapy, he created the Radiant Mind Course® and the Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training. Peter runs courses, trainings, retreats and satsang telecalls and offers individual coaching sessions. His students and clients include Buddhist psychotherapists, psychologists, coaches, Zen masters, Sufi masters, Vipassana and Mindfulness teachers, Yoga teachers, psychiatrists, medical doctors, hospice workers, students of Tibetan Buddhism, followers of Advaita, artists and spiritual seekers worldwide.

Peter was a celibate monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for 9 years and has a Ph.D. in the philosophical psychology of Mahayana Buddhism. Over a period of 40 years Peter Fenner has distilled the essence of traditions like Zen, Dzogchen and the Buddhist Middle Way, and adapted them to suit creatively our post-modern culture. He is the Director of Education of Timeless Wisdom.

The Radiant Mind Course (www.radiantmind.net) is taught in North America, Australia, and Europe, as well as the Natural Awakening Training, (www.nondualtraining.com.) Peter also offers retreats on 5 continents.  He has presented his work at leading universities and institutions including Columbia, Stanford, CIIS and Naropa.

Peter Fenner has written extensively on Buddhist nondual traditions. His books and CDs include:

Stay in touch with Peter Fenner


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The ultimate goal of all striving http://www.radiantmind.net/the-ultimate-goal-of-all-striving/ http://www.radiantmind.net/the-ultimate-goal-of-all-striving/#comments Thu, 16 Jan 2014 07:30:26 +0000 http://fenner.tk/radiantmind.net/?p=14336 Buddhism captured my attention over 40 years ago when I was a university student. The idea that our needs and preferences are the source of our suffering made immediate sense at an intellectual level. Having what we don’t want, and not having what we do want, is the recipe for all our pain, upset and dissatisfaction. If we can free ourselves from the ‘need’ for things to be different, or to stay the same, we have discovered a state of unconditional freedom. This is what is meant by the term ‘nirvana.’ It is the state where nothing needs to be different.

We make huge demands on the environment

It seems we are relatively incapable of ‘just being with ourselves,’ simply sitting and being with ‘what is.’ Instead we need to be entertained, amused, distracted or unconscious. The external resources that are required to keep us just marginally content are quite phenomenal. We spend enormous amounts of money on our appearance: wearing the right clothes, trying to look young and attractive. In some weird way we expect to be in optimum health, right up until the moment of our death!

The alternative is to discover how we already have everything that’s needed to be fulfilled in the most comprehensive way possible. There are hundreds of thousands of great spiritual masters throughout the ages that have shown us that this is possible. There are sages who lived in ‘great bliss’ in severe environments without any heating or air-conditioning, without the latest gadgets, and without the security of knowing that quality medical care was close at hand.

The ultimate benchmark that these sages offer us is the possibility of making the journey through aging and dying without losing a connection with the supernal bliss of unconditioned awareness. For these sages, death itself was a non-event. As the 16th Karmapa of Tibet said on his deathbed in 1981, ‘nothing happens.’”

Present moment awareness gives us everything we need

We can make our own experiment right now. Here we are. How do we discover, first-hand, the very same reality that allowed the sages of the past and present to remain unperturbed in the face of the very same experiences that throw us into confusion, obsession, anger or fear? How do we remain unperturbed and tranquil in the face of the inevitable challenges that arise in life: changes in our fortune, our health, the loss of loved ones and ultimately the loss of everything we know at our death?

The remarkable news is that nothing is needed in order to make this discovery. We don’t need ‘more time,’ to be somewhere else, or receive a superior teaching. All that’s required is to see that “in the moment” we have everything that’s needed to be fulfilled. In this moment we don’t need anything more. We don’t need more money, a different body, a different partner—not in this very instant.

This moment gives us everything we need. That’s the magic of the moment. We don’t need to be entertained, right now—enough is happening. We don’t need a flashy car—we’re not in it! In this moment, we don’t need a different standard of living, or a better return on our investments—we are clothed, fed and comfortable. We have everything we need, in order to rest with ‘what is.’

The beauty of this moment is that it’s effortless and uncontrived. The magic of this moment is that it’s ungraspable and ineffable. We can’t hold onto any particular moment. We can’t say what ‘this’ moment is. It leaves without a trace or history. We can’t think about ‘this’ because there is nothing to think about. This is exactly what the sages mean when they say that ‘this’—the ultimate reality—is indescribable.

And now we can also see that if we are ‘here’ at the moment of our death, we have no fear. If we were to remain in this state, our death would be uneventful. The process of dying is nothing more than a continual letting go of everything at the conditioned level: our body, our friends, our possessions, our memories—in fact, the entire known world. At our death we say goodbye forever, to everything that we know and we never return. If we are here—resting in unconditioned awareness—everything can drop away with no grasping or attachment.”

If you look at it, everything we do is ultimately aimed at being here. Even if this recognition only lasts for a few moments, in these moments the work is done. We’re abiding in the ultimate state. We’re resting in the state that’s the ultimate goal of all human endeavours in every field. From conducting wars, to entering into relationship, to trying to make a billion dollars, whatever it is, it is all aimed at being here. And here we are at that point, at least in this moment. There is nowhere further to go. And what’s so incredible is that it’s not even an accomplishment.


Peter Fenner, Ph.D.

Peter is a leader in the adaption and transmission of Asian nondual wisdom worldwide. He is a pioneer in the development of nondual therapy and creator of the 9-month Radiant Mind Course® (www.radiantmind.net) and the 10-month Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training (www.nondualtraining.com). He was a celibate monk in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for 9 years and has a Ph.D. in the philosophical psychology of Mahayana Buddhism. He teaches in North America, Europe, Israel, India, Australia and New Zealand. His books include Radiant Mind: Awakening Unconditional Awareness (2007); The Edge of Certainty: Dilemmas on the Buddhist Path (2002); and The Sacred Mirror: Nondual Wisdom and Psychotherapy (ed. with John Prendergast and Sheila Krystal, 2003).


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Revealing Nondual Awareness http://www.radiantmind.net/revealing-nondual-awareness-peter-fenner/ http://www.radiantmind.net/revealing-nondual-awareness-peter-fenner/#comments Thu, 16 Jan 2014 02:00:59 +0000 http://www.nondualtraining.com/?p=2926 The Progressive Presencing of Co-emergent Wisdom [1]

Peter Fenner, Ph.D.
Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2011


In this article I’d like to layout the way in which I introduce people to nondual awareness, particularly in terms of how I initially differentiate the nondual state from our empirical experience.  There are different ways in which I invite people to “leap into” nondual awareness, as it were.  Having made that leap, I then dissolve the dualistic construction that the nondual can be different from our everyday experience.  If people then reduce the nondual to the flux of their conditioned experience, which often happens, I redistinguish the nondual as a space that is radically different from anything we can possibly “experience.”  I cycle through a process of collapsing the difference, redistinguishing the nondual, dissolving the difference again, until there is a more consistent presencing of the nondual within the context of our embodied, everyday life—our thought-world, feelings, relationships and activities.

I’ve arrived at this process by seeing what seems to work best “on the spot” in terms of introducing people to the basic state of nondual awareness, while being open, receptive and responsive to whatever arises in the inner and outer environments.

I’ll explain what’s behind some of the moves I make as we progress through this article.  I should say at the outset that most of the work I do is with groups from 10 – 100 people.  When I work with a group I work with the material that people bring up individually.  But I do so in a way that’s intended to keep everyone fully engaged. When I’m interacting with someone, I do so in a way that doesn’t place other participants in the role of being mere witnesses or passive observers of a journey that is happening for someone else. I privilege neither the individual nor the group.

I also work one-on-one as a supervisor for coaches, therapists and facilitators who are working with the nondual dimension.  I do this mainly by telephone.  The process I’ll describe in this article also applies to individual work, especially when it’s clearly focused on the recognition of, and familiarization with, nondual awareness. The process I describe shouldn’t be viewed as a roadmap.  While I hope it makes pedagogical sense, it shouldn’t be viewed a series of steps that are systematically followed.  The actual process is organic, free-form and dynamic.

Is the nondual an experience, state or space?

Before beginning I’d like to say just a few words about my use of the term “nondual awareness.”  There is some discussion these days about the best term through which point to the nondual state.  What we are looking for is a term that doesn’t let us create differentiations.  This is why many people object to talking about the nondual experience.  There are many different types of experiences and also in an experience there are objects that are experienced and a seeming experiencer.  So experience isn’t the ideal term.  This leads some people to prefer the phrase “nondual state.”  But this isn’t perfect either because there are different types of states and the nondual state is neither the same as, nor different from other states.

Another possibility is to talk about the “nondual space.”  This has some merit because at one level we can’t differentiate one space from another space.   There is nothing in space itself to let us do this.  Also, there is a connection with the conditioned.  We talk about the workshop space, or the space we are in.   In general, in this article I’ll use the term “nondual awareness” because it is in quite common usage.  I’ll also often use the term “this,” without spelling this out further.[2] When I use the term “nondual awareness” it like a code word for the basic or primordial state, what is also called ka dag or alpha purity (Longchenpa: 1998, 2001a, 2001b, 2006), or just the “A state.” When people are in the know—when they can directly recognize this state—it’s sufficient to use “just this.”   A phrase like “nondual awareness” is no longer necessary.[3]

Distinguishing the nondual: entering a different paradigm

I usually begin by presenting nondual awareness as being completely different from the mind that compares, differentiates and makes contrasts. I say that we will be giving our attention to the nature of awareness itself, in contrast to the “objects of awareness”—thoughts, feelings and sensations.  If we weren’t aware we couldn’t be aware of our thoughts, my words, or this room.  We are exploring “That which is aware, not what we are aware of.”  I point out that if we “knew” what awareness was, it would be an “object of our awareness”, not awareness itself.

I present “abiding as awareness” as something that is radically different from our usual mode of being in which “we are someone who is engaged with the world.”  I point to nondual awareness by saying that, unlike our conditioned experience, it can’t be known, isn’t a thing, etc.   Nondual awareness is indivisible, it is unconstructed, in contrast to conditioned experience which is composed of different elements; the different sense fields, feelings, and thoughts.[4]  This is important because we can return to the idea that “our experiences are constructed”; built out of different elements, when we begin to deconstruct limiting identifications.

When I begin a presentation I often say something like:

This evening we are here to explore contentlessness.  It’s easy to explore content, to get involved in ideas, viewpoints and opinions.  But, my invitation for us this evening is to explore—no, actually to access—a dimension of reality that’s been very well known to sages in the East and West, but which is relatively inaccessible in our modern, busy, highly distracting lives.  What I say “explore” it’s not really an exploration, because there is nothing to discover or reveal!

This dimension of reality has been called, “objectless awareness,” “centerless awareness,” “the mind itself,” buddhamind,” and so on.  This state is acausal—without a cause—or unproduced. We don’t need anything more than what we already have in order to be “here”. There is nothing we need to know or do.  This is effortless.[5] Nothing could be simpler.  Nothing needs to change in order to be here—resting in nondual awareness.

Our conditioned experience unfolds in time—it is always changing. We can touch, feel, sense, and think about it.  Nondual awareness, on the other hand, doesn’t have any of these characteristics.  It’s not a “thing”.  We can’t see it, we can’t even think about it because there is nothing to think about. Nondual awareness is completely unrelated to you and me as different embodied minds.  It’s unrelated to the circumstances of our lives or the condition of our bodies and minds.  We are born and we will die.  We have gender, age, race, etc.  Nondual awareness has none of these.  It is ahistorical, transpersonal and transcultural.

I make this radical departure from our usual way of “being someone in time and space” because (1) people come to me specifically for the nondual, and (2) nondual awareness is far less accessible to most people than our ordinary, everyday world of effort, struggles, thwarted ambitions and periodic accomplishments.  People have no difficulties accessing their conditioned existence.  It confronts us! Also, for people who have little or no idea of what this state is, it can be useful to initially present “this” as something completely different from what we “know.” When people are immersed in their conditioned minds, they need eased, or ejected, out of their identification with the contents of awareness, in order to recognize the nondual.

In the language of Buddhist hermeneutics this presentation of nondual awareness “as different from the contents of awareness” is provisional.[6]  It isn’t the most refined way of languaging the nondual.  When I present it in this way, I’m aware that we are en route to a more refined presencing of the nondual.  This way of distinguishing the nondual is a skillful process (upaya).  It isn’t the “truth.”  I know there is further to go. The language of “not this, not that (neti neti) is a pedagogical device that can be used to reveal a dimension of reality that is inaccessible to most people because it is invisible and nondual, i.e. beyond the categories of being and non-being.

Diagram One shows how I draw a line between awareness and the contents awareness.  It also lists some of the common names used in different traditions to identify the same state that I am calling nondual awareness in this article.

The nondual isn’t a subtle affective experience or meditational state

I also distinguish nondual awareness in a clear and precise way when people confuse this state with different types of subtlety conditioned experiences.  For example, people often think that nondual awareness is a state of bliss, or serenity or love.  These experiences can accompany the presencing of the nondual, but they aren’t nondual awareness itself.  They are conditioned experiences.  This is clear because they come and go in the conventional sense.[7]  They are refined experiences that arise as epiphenomena when people’s reactive responses settle down and the habitual need to understand and interpret slows down.  These experiences can be, in fact often are, confused with the nondual.

H.H. Dudjum Jigdral Yeshe Dorje (1904-1987) of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism is  clear about the potential distraction that such a confusion can cause when he writes:

Now while you are on the path, it will happen that this [rig pa = pure awareness] will become mixed with some form of the three temporary experiences–bliss, clarity, and no thought–so when that does happen rest without a whisker of the hope and fear that believes in and grasps at these as special attainments and just that will cut the possibility of the experience turning into a sidetrack.[8]

A significant focus in group facilitation is to ensure that people receive nondual awareness cleanly and purely.  This need is compounded these days because the terms nonduality and nondual awareness are being used quite loosely.  They are often used to refer to states that still have some content and structure to them.  If there is any association between feeling peaceful, clear or accepting, and nonduality, this isn’t nondual awareness.

There is often a lot of scope to purify an experience so it really becomes nondual, and stays that way.  A lot of the work in nondual transmission is “cleaning work.”   People can enter the nondual, but over time it can become sullied.  People begin to identify with the pleasant feelings, sensations and authenticity that naturally enter the nondual field.  Many people have a strong need to attribute some basic qualities to nondual awareness, for example, that is a state of profound intimacy, unconditional love, sourceless bliss or imperturbable serenity.

To assess the purity of a state of nondual awareness, we look for the existence of structures within the state. The structures I’m referring to are ideas, beliefs, feelings, interpretations, and reference points. An ordinary, conditioned state is densely structured. With increasing familiarity with nondual awareness, we also experience more lightly structured states of awareness. Structures still exist, but there is an overall sense of more immediacy and less interpretation. The structures become more and more transparent.

It’s as if there is a spectrum of states that have a progressively lighter structure along the way to a clean presencing of nondual awareness. The states that we experience can become increasingly pure or structure-free. Ultimately in the state of nondual or centerless awareness there is no structure; so it cannot be described as being positive or negative, ordinary or sublime, useful or useless, as nothing or something.  Unlike conditioned states of mind, nondual awareness cannot be lost or gained, because there is nothing to arise or disappear.

Foundations, bridges and resting places

When people enter a nondual workshop space they quite quickly feel that something different is happening.  As a facilitator I have nothing to communicate from my side.  My job is simply to clear away all the obstructions (viewpoints, ideas, fears, unmet expectations, etc.) as efficiently and effortlessly as possible. There are no themes, topics or any subject matter I wish to share.  This becomes obvious quite quickly.  Sometimes I ease people through the transition that’s happening by saying:

We are entering a different paradigm with this work.  The main way it’s different from our normal paradigm is that there’s nothing to understand and nothing you need to be doing.  I’m not asking anything from you.  There is no pressure here at all.  There is no need for you to be here.  We aren’t going anywhere.  I’m not looking for something to be happening.  “This” isn’t a happening.  A need brought you here.  But now that you’re here you don’t need that need.  In fact, we are exploring what it’s like to not to need anything: to be free of the need to learn, understand, gain resources, and so on.  We’re discovering how to be totally complete with things exactly as they are.

If this is too much I may go back a little bit and simply present our time together as an opportunity to give ourselves a break from trying to change things, fix things up, even if we only do this for a few minutes.  For a few minutes we give ourselves permission to accomplish nothing!  When I make this offer, many people will say, “Wow, what a relief. There’s no pressure.  That feels really great.”  After a few minutes this can even mature into great bliss.

I create a foundation for inquiry by bringing people into the present moment and slowing down their thinking by giving them nothing to think about.  This creates an atmosphere of ease and tranquility.[9]   This is a foundation upon which it’s possible to inquire into the reality of “this” as awareness and not be able to find anything that lies behind the term.  Nondual awareness is revealed through the unfindability form of inquiry that is integral to Advaita (Katz: 2007, Maharshi: 1988, 1989) and Mahayana (Nagarjuna: 2005, Chandrakirti, 2005).

If people still can’t connect with this radical presentation of the nondual we can always go back and talk about it as a state of effortless being, total equanimity, a space that’s free of attachment and aversion, and which connects us with ourselves in a totally natural and uncontrived way.  We can, in fact, use the epiphenomena that arise, such as feelings of deep peace, acceptance, love and connectness as resting places en route to presencing nondual awareness.

Starting at the end: working at the result level

Another way I help people to leap into the unconditioned dimension is by explaining that we will be working at the “result level.”  This means that the result (abiding as awareness) is the path.  In other words, we begin with the baseline position is that nothing is wrong or missing. Everything is complete just as it is. Everyone is complete. There are no problems, nothing to work out, no work to be done.  In the midst of everything that’s happening, “nothing is happening at the same time.”

I am quite up front in presenting this possibility.  Sometimes I’ll start a workshop by saying; “Well, let’s just start at the end. Let’s just skip straight ahead.  Let’s not waste time time.  Our objective in being here is to arrive at the end of the path; to find what we are looking for in terms of discovering deep contentment, beyond which there is nowhere further to go.” I introduce this possibility in a light way.  It’s a suggestion, but I’m absolutely serious about it at the same time.  I don’t want to waste people’s time.  If I’m being asked to think, I’m looking for traction in terms of how to take people beyond the mind.

The suggestion that we can begin a workshop at the place we might hope to be at the end, without needing to do any intermediate work, immediately throws people into inquiry. Some people will protest internally, or out loud, “But I’m here to learn how to get this. There is work to be done. It can’t be that simple!” Others will be enticed by the idea, but genuinely feel incomplete.  People start to play with the idea that “nothing is wrong or missing.”

We can see how this applies right now.  You might be reading this article hoping to gain some insights or additional resources for your work as a coach, therapist or facilitator.  It’s possible for me to be writing this thinking that I have some wisdom that could help you, that I need to explain my process clearly, and so on.  Yet, if we connect with primordial awareness in this moment, that is all that’s needed, now and at any time in the future.  If we are “here” we don’t need anything more, and this is what is communicated to those around us—friends, clients, partners and colleagues.  “This” becomes the fuel, the essence, of your work as a facilitator or therapist.

If you are “here” I don’t need to write anything more.  You have all the resources you could possibily need in terms of sharing nondual awareness with others.  Nondual awareness will come through you naturally and automatically.  You won’t be able to stop it!  You will activate this recognition in others through the way you listen without judgment, through the quality of your silence, through the way you don’t condition the space, through the precision of your questions and love that is shared because you don’t need anything for yourself (Fenner: 2003, 2006, 2007).

By introducing the possibility that we can be “here” in the ultimate way, without needing to do any psychological processing or make any corrections or additions to our intellectual understanding of the path and goal, we set a benchmark, as it were.  The benchmark we establish doesn’t preclude the processing of emotions or deepening our understanding of who we are.  But, it lets us see how easily we fall into the habit of thinking we need to do more work before we can truly rest and abide in our natural state.  With this benchmark in place we can easily see how we habitually create work for ourselves.  When someone says, “Yes, that sounds great, but, first I need to ….” they are (re-)creating a path.  They are effectively saying that something needs to happen before they can be complete.  Once we’ve shown people this pattern, we can continue to point it out, each time it occurs.  This is how we “take the result as the path.”

Undoing the path

Another way I introduce the idea of working at the result level is by pointing out that for as long as we are “on the path” we can’t be at the destination.  So the work we will be doing consists of dissolving the path. In a sense we are always on a path, moving (forwards or backwards), resting for a while, or just waiting for something to happen. When we’re on a path we are sometimes entertained, having fun, feeling a sense of accomplishment because we are making progress. But often we feel there is a gap between where we are and where we’d like to be. In the spiritual arena we are on an explicit path. Often it is well laid out with stages or levels. People enter nondual work because they are on a path.

Working at the result level involves undoing the path. It consists of identifying and taking away the reference points on which a path is constructed in someone’s mind. When there is no path, there is no goal, just pure awareness. Nondual inquiry dismantles the path, and keeps dismantling it whenever it begins to reconstruct through the habit of believing that things could be different from what they are. Sometimes the path begins to be reconstructed through the simple thought, “Now what?” We notice such moves and take them away. “There is no what. There is just this.”

We are talking about “This”!

Often I initiate inquiry through an explore of “this.”  I dispense with terms like “nondual awareness” about which people can have different ideas.  I begin by saying, “What we are sharing together is ‘this’.” This is particularly effective in phone work because there is no shared “this” at the visual level.  If we don’t elaborate on what “this” is, or say, “’This,’ right now, in this second,” the “this” must be something different than our physical environment.  It’s not clear what “this” is referring to, and that is the intention.  We’ve made a break within the stream of conditioned experience and we can use this lack of clarity to distinguish the unconditioned.

The powerful thing about inquiring into “this” is that is gives us a lot of freedom in how we move. We can use the word “this” to point to this as “contentless awareness,” or as the undifferentiable co-arising of contentlessness and everything that is arising in the moment.[10]

For example, in relationship to this moment right now, when I say I am talking about “this,” I’m not talking about what you are reading right now. I am not talking about your awareness of your computer screen, or printed words on a piece of paper in front of you.  When I say I’m talking about “this,” I’m pointing to awareness itself which has no content or location.  We can’t even say “this” is here, because we don’t know what it is that we would be saying is here, or not here.  We can’t say that “this” is or is not, because we don’t know what it is that we would be saying exists or does not exist.

The very fact that we can’t say what it is that we talking about means that we are talking about the nondual.  If we “knew” what we were talking about, it wouldn’t be the nondual.  It would be something we could know or not know.  By the way, the language I am using now is definitive, because there is nothing to misinterpret: there is nothing to get right or wrong.

Paradox and nonduality

You will notice that in order to talk about “this” we have been compelled to move beyond the language of negation and into the structure of paradoxes (Fenner: 2007). The paradox right now is that the words that I am writing and that you are reading are unrelated to nondual awareness.  They are just symbolic images that have a semantic reference appearing on a screen or paper.  Yet, these words allow us to be right here, presencing the nondual as a state that is totally inexpressible because it has no characteristics.  In fact, we can’t even say that “this” has no characteristics because we don’t know what it is that we are characterizing in this way!

At this point unstructured, nondual awareness ceases to be something different from our ordinary, everyday consciousness, because we simply don’t know what “it” is that we are saying is different (or the same for that matter).

The nondual is a totally transcending state, but at the same time it isn’t rarified, disembodied or in anyway disconnected from the rich and complex worlds in which we live. This becomes palpably clear when we are in this state: “it” is neither the same as the dualistic mind, nor in any way different from it.

Collapsing the distinction

To summarize, then, my approach is to distinguish the unconditioned as being radically different and keep doing this until someone says, “But it can’t be different. It’s right here.”  I then bring this realization into the foreground.  It cannot be different from this very moment because the unconditioned is not a thing. It’s inseparable and indistinguishable from the conditioned experience.  In Buddhism this is called co-emergent wisdom (sahaja-jnana).

I then, move between these two, at times differentiating the unconditioned from the conditioned, and at other times collapsing the distinction, explaining that the distinction or identification of the two is only made by the thinking, dualistic mind.  When there is an over-identification with the conditioned—with thoughts and feelings—we re-distinguish the unconditioned. When the unconditioned is reified as something that is intrinsically different from our moment-by-moment embodied experience, I dissolve the possibility that they can be different.[11]  Diagram Two captures the indivisibility and lack of a boundary between the conditioned and unconditioned domains.

The progressive presencing of co-emergent wisdom

Diagram Three shows how the presencing of co-emergent wisdom can occur in time.  The horizontal straight line is a time axis moving from left to right.  It also represents the point where someone is resting in nondual awareness at the same time that we are thinking, perceiving, communicating, etc.  In this respect it is like the previous diagram. The positions and angles of incline and decline of the blue line show how people can move from presencing of the nondual in a way in which they are relatively disengaged with the complexities of life, towards a presencing in which the unconditioned and conditioned experience co-arise.

The notes I will make below are like a time-line summary of the process I have been describing above.

A.    This initial upward incline indicates how we move from a place where we are identified with conditioned experience—our feelings, fears, aspirations, beliefs, perceptions, and preferences—through to a clear recognition of nondual awareness as something that is pristine and unstructured.  In order to produce a clear recognition of that which hasn’t yet been seen, or which has been lost sight of, the nondual is distinguished as being contentless, a non-event, a clearing, without a center or periphery.  It is an absence (med pa).

The rate of the incline is significant here.  It indicates how quickly and definitively we reveal the nondual as a radically different reality.  As a facilitator, if you move too fast you lose people.  They get left behind.  The space and language in particular becomes too weird.  People become confused and disoriented to the point that they’d prefer to be somewhere else.  On the other hand, if you aren’t willing to leave some people behind: if you feel compelled to make sure that everyone makes it to the end of the journey, you might not even bring one person through to a clear recognition of nondual awareness.

B.    Here we rest or abide in nondual awareness for some time appreciating centerless awareness, with little active involvement in what’s happening within and outside of us.  The nondual may be being presenced while in a deeply interiorized state; a natural samadhi with very little happening in thought and feelings.  Whatever is arising liberates by itself (rang grol). Thoughts dissolve at the very instant they begin to form.  Or, the nondual may be being presenced with eyes and other senses fully open, receiving everyone and everything in the environment, but in a state of total equanimity that’s free of preferences and judgments. However, at some point one of three things can happen.

a.    People can begin to add qualities to awareness such as bliss, serenity, intimacy, etc. This is not to say that such feelings aren’t arising.  But people begin to think that awareness is a state of tranquility or interconnectedness.  There is a strong impulse to make the “nothing” into something.  If this happens we point out that these are conditioned experiences and not awareness itself, as a way of inviting people back into the nondual state.

b.    A second possibility is that a thought, memory, feelings, anticipation, etc. arises in awareness and distracts someone from continuing to abide in awareness itself.  In this case we create space around what’s happening.  We may invite the person to let things be as they are, without interference or judgment.  Or we might engage in an inquiry that dissolves the distraction by seeing that it (the distracting event) can’t be found when we look for it using the wisdom mind of nondual inquiry.  Or, we can point out that nothing can get in the way of nondual awareness.  As a “non thing” nothing can obstruct it.

c.    A third possibility is that people can reify nondual awareness as a reality in its own right.  They begin to think that nondual awareness is “nothing,” is “contentless,” is “unrelated to the personal,” etc.  We can sense this by listening to the way that people are listening to themselves when they talk about the nondual.  People acquire the via negativa language of nonduality and begin to listen to their own thinking and words as though they were really saying something when they are talking about the nondual.

C.    If and when the nondual becomes reified I point out that “this” can’t be different from everything that’s arising because the nondual isn’t a “thing” that can be the same or different from anything else.  When we say “this” is different, we don’t know what it is that we are saying is different, so we can’t say that “this” is different from the thoughts, feelings and appearances that are arising moment-by-moment. This is how I collapse the difference.  Usually, the idea that nondual awareness and the dualistic mind are different, collapses in an instant, like a deflating ballon.  For some time, I may let people think that contentless awareness and the objects of awareness are the same, even though they are neither the same nor different.

D.    Here we rest in the co-arising of emptiness and appearances.  If people start to think that there are two things that are actually co-arising we can point out that “this” goes beyond even notions of co-arising or union (lhan cig).  Clearly there aren’t two different things, so it’s impossible to talk about “union” or “inseparability.”

E.    While presencing the nondual in the context of being aware of our body and surroundings, at some point a thought, feeling or sensation arises that pulls us out of nondual awareness into an identification with the conditioned event that arises.  Typically people become involved in their thoughts (carried away by a story), caught by a sensation (a sound, image of a person, etc.), or overtaken by a feeling (a pain, some fear, excitement, and so on).  A conditioned event comes into the foreground, reactions of attraction and aversion come into play, until at some point we recall nondual awareness.  We think, “Ah yes, wow, I just become engrossed in worrying about my future!”

F.    How we move on at this point depends on how deeply we’ve become involved with a conditioned event and our familiarity with the primordial state.  If we’re very familiar with nondual awareness; if we’ve made the journey many times from begin caught up in a fear or worry through to being totally complete without any change in our conditioned circumstances, it might be as simple as thinking, “I’ve lost my connection to the nondual.  But what is it that I’ve lost.  Ah, yes!  I remember. It’s “this,” this thing that I can’t lose or hold onto.  Wow, that is simple.  Here I am back in the place where I can’t say what it is.  How wonderful!”  We retrace a journey we’ve made many times.  In fact, often the journey happens automatically.  It is like being in a dark basement, in the underground carpark, hitting the elevator button, and presto, within a few seconds we are in the lookout tower, enjoying our lives from a totally different perspective.  (This is why the incline back to the nondual is steeper here.)

If our clients or workshop participants are new to nondual work they may need some support in the form of unfindability inquiry that let’s them dismantle the construction that creates a feeling of lack and contraction.  We will help them identify a core construction in their narrative, for example, “I am worried that I won’t be able to retain this experience when I’m at home with my family.” We will inquiry into this construction.  We could look for the “I”, the “worry” or the “experience that will be lost” and not be able to find any of them.  We only need to “see through” one of these concepts for the entire construction to dissolve and allow for a re-presencing of the nondual.

G.    Over time we presence the nondual while retaining a more intimate involvement and connection with ever changing flow of conditioned experience.  Ever-present awareness begins to pervade our spiritual life, our work and relationships. Nevertheless, we are still prone to reify awareness, perhaps by creating some theory about how it relates to emotions, relationships, or psychotherapy, or politics.  Or, we might feel that the nondual is love or bliss, i.e. something that is conditioned and which can arise and dissipate.  So at some point we again see that nondual awareness isn’t a conditioned experience, but nor is it different from the experiences that are delivered to us through our mind and senses.

H.    Even though we may be quite familiar with nondual awareness and able to easily access this space in satsang, on a Dzogchen retreat, or with a nondual therapist, in most people’s lives events arise that effectively block access to our primordial state.  Perhaps our marriage starts to break apart, our children go off the rails, a parent suddenly needs fulltime care, our guru dies, or we become seriously ill.  Even for people who are very familiar with the nondual it’s easy to go on a family vacation for two weeks and the nondual takes leave as well!

I.    In these cases it is easy become engrossed in ourselves for weeks or even months.  We either forget about nondual awareness completely, or “know that it’s there” but are unable to taste the ease and freedom of nondual awareness even for a few seconds.  The journey could be short or long.  Perhaps we are identified with a thought for just a few seconds.  Or the journey might take several weeks.  The challenge in these times is to take the journey we are on.  We might think, “I know there is no one making this journey.  I know (intellectually) that there is no one who suffers.”  But still we ache and suffer.  If the gateways to the nondual all seem closed we take on board the first noble truth of the Buddha.  Yes, we suffer.  If we have needs and preferences then yes, we are bound to suffer.  “Clearly, what’s happening for me now isn’t what I want to be happening.  That’s the problem. That’s why I’m suffering.  And there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it.”  So, we suffer.  We accept the inevitability that we will suffer for as long as we can’t accept things as they are.

But we also know that our suffering is a conditioned experience.  Our preferences aren’t being met at the moment.  But everything changes.  At some point our suffering will dissolve.  We don’t know when.  But, for sure, it will change.  We might suffer more before we suffer less.  But the sun will shine in.  At some point we will feel better.  That is great, but it is also an opportunity to recognize that “feeling better” is still just a conditioned state.  We are still in the cycle of pleasure and pain.

J.    Often, all that’s needed here is a code word like “centerlessness” or “just this” and instantly we are back here, where nothing is missing and it’s impossible for things to be better, because we’re in a domain where ideas of better and worse make no sense at all.  The sheer vertical movement of this line shows how we can move from a point where we are identified with a conditioned aspect of experience back into full recognition of awareness itself, in an instance.  It does occur, in an instant, the moment we recognize that “this” is beyond presence and absence, and hence can never be lost or gained: the moment we see that the gateway to the nondual is always exactly we were are.

K.    Here we are presencing the nondual with an increasing inclusion of conditioned experience.

L.    Here we abide in the nondual, with our senses fully open and actively engaged with the world.  We are a clearing—a centerless space—through which our unique life-world moves.  Whether we are in deep meditative absorption or actively engaged with the world, we receive everything that arises without any glitches—without any movements of attachment or rejection.  All thoughts, feelings, colors and sensations arises as the play of contentless awareness—like paintings in the sky.

Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2011


[1] This paper is a significant expansion of material that was first prepared for the Manual of the 10 month Natural Awakening: Advanced Nondual Training I offer in North America and Europe.  See www.nondualtraining.com.  These notes are primarily for the benefit of therapists and facilitators who are familiar with Buddhist teachings. Back to [1]

[2] In this context the word “this” is the equivalent of “de nyid” in Tibetan: a term that means “just (nyid) this (de)”.  De nyid means thisness, not this as something in particular but “this” as “this” no matter who we are or what, or when “this” is happening. Back to [2]

[3] Some people object to the use of terms like “nondual,” “awareness” and “nondual awareness.” They correctly point out that “this” is not “nondual” in contast to the “dual”.  Also, “awareness” can’t be found or qualified so we can’t see “this” as awareness.  All this is true, and this is the precise meaning of these terms.   These terms have been used for thousands of years to point to the unfindability of the self, mind, awareness, ultimate reality, and so on.  It doesn’t make sense to reject the use of simple code words that have been used effectively for millennia.  This misses the critical recognition that there is nothing to reject!  The idea that a word—any word—could obscure “nothing” is itself misleading. We should heed Vimalakirti’s injunction to rely on the intention of whatever words are use to point to the nondual, and not on the specific words themselves.  See Robert Thurman. The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. University Park: Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976. Back to [3]

[4] This is the exact meaning of the term samskrta in Buddhism.  Thoughts and empirical phenomena are samskrta-dharmas meaning they are composed, compounded, conditioned, or constructed. Back to [4]

[5] You may note that already I am talking about it as something that’s happening, not as a theoretical possibility.  This is where I am, and I am inviting people to join me “here.” Back to [5]

[6] In Buddhist hermeneutics, dharma transmissions are categorized as being either interpretable (neyartha) or definitive (nitartha).  I am using the distinction between definitive and interpretable teaching in my own way here, though it generally fits with the Prasangika Madhyamika understanding.  In fact, there is a great deal of disagreement between the Mahayana schools about “that which is definitive” and “that which is “interpretable.” (See Donald Lopez. Buddhist Hermeneutics. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1993 and S. Thakchoe. The Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2007.)

An interpretable transmission has content and meaning.  It is also contextual meaning that it’s value depends on the state and circumstances of the person who hears it.  It is univocal. A definitive transmission is unequivocal.  It is valid throughout time and space because there is nothing to interpret.  The definitive transmission is the direct realization of nondual awareness.  The distinction between these two types of transmission is extremely useful, especially for anyone who is facilitating nondual work. Back to [6]

[7] In my understanding the neti neti level of discourse is not definitive because it is “saying something”.  The dualistic mind tries to grasp the nondual by thinking, “Ah!  I get it.  It is not a thing.  It is unconditioned, nondual, etc.”  This is still a position.  Something is being said, hence it is open to (mis-)interpretation.

The state of nondual awareness also comes and goes but not in the conventional sense, because there is nothing in it to come or go.  It does not happen in any conventional sense of the word.  It isn’t an event. Back to [7]

[8] Tony Duff. trs. Alchemy of Accomplishment. Kathmandu: Padma Karpo Translation Committee, 2008. Back to [8]

[9] Mahayana hermeneutics recognizes four levels or ranges (chatushkoti) in terms of how we describe reality.  Reality can be describes with positive attributes (is), negative attributes (is not), through contradictions (is and is not) and double negations (neither is nor is not).  I often use first level language when I first introduce the nondual, especially in describing workshops.  I then move into second level expressions when I’m working with people face-to-face or by phone.  At some point we progress into the third and fourth ranges (Fenner: 2010). Back to [9]

[10] The third way we could understand “this” is in terms of the time and conditioned location we are in, but this is already given and not relevant in terms of revealing the nondual. Back to [10]

[11] In terms of Buddhist nondualism the process I use combines aspects of the Dzogchen-Mahamudra approach to realizing nondual awareness (rig pa or sems nyid) and more classical Mahayana methods for realizing emptiness (stong pa nyid) or selflessness (bdag med).  In Dzogchen and Mahamudra the two levels of reality, the ultimate and the relative aren’t highly differentiated at the level of practice (Brown: 2006 and Tashi Namgyal: 2001). The practices of natural mediation and the meditation of non-meditation dissolve a boundary between the unconditioned and conditioned.  Co-emergent wisdom is realized from the outset.

In classical Sutra Mahayana, two levels of reality are distinguished philosophically and at the level of practice.  Within the Madhyamika, for example, practitioners focus on realizing what is called a space-like, or non-residual emptiness. This is an experience of emptiness in which the arising of relativities (thoughts, feelings and sensations) have been highly attenuated.  Yogis engaging in deconstructive inquiry while in a highly concentrated and highly internalized meditative state.  The post-meditative practice consists of infusing the results of their formal contemplations on selflessness into the structure of their daily lives.  For a traditional account of Madhyamika praxis see Jeffrey Hopkins. Meditation on Emptiness. Boston, Wisdom Publications, 1996.

In some respects the way I initially distinguish the nondual by disconnecting our attention from our conditioned experience, corresponds to the Sutra Mahayana approach.  When I collapse the distinction between the awareness and the appearance which arise in awareness, this corresponds more closely to the Dzogchen-Mahamudra approach.

To simplify this further we could say that in Dzogchen-Mahamudra, “this” points to both awareness and appearances.  In Madhyamika, we could say that “this” points to the ultimate, unconditioned dimension when we are systemically engaged in the deconstructive contemplations that define its form of vipashyana meditation.  When we are functioning in the social world “this” point to our empirical experience.  Over time to two blend and in both systems, Dzogchen-Mahamudra and Classical Mahayana, one realizes a co-emergent wisdom. Back to [11]


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  • Thakchoe, S. (2007). The Two Truths Debate: Tsongkhapa and Gorampa on the Middle Way. Boston: Wisdom Publications.
  • Tashi Namgyal, Dakpo. (2001) Clarifying the Natural State: A Principal Practice Guide for Mahamudra. Boudhanath, Nepal: Rangjung Yeshe.
  • Thurman, R. (1976). The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti: A Mahayana Scripture. University Park: Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania State University Press.
  • Thurman, R. (1984). Tsong Khapa’s Speech of Gold in the Essence of True Eloquence: Reason and Enlightenment in the Central Philosophy of Tibet. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Copyright © Peter Fenner, 2011

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Blending Theory and Practice http://www.radiantmind.net/blending-theory-and-practice/ http://www.radiantmind.net/blending-theory-and-practice/#comments Thu, 02 Jan 2014 19:01:38 +0000 http://fenner.tk/radiantmind.net/?p=13786 by Peter Fenner

“The Great Teaching … is easy to enter for those with sharp faculties and quick wits and broad penetration who don’t use their intellectual brilliance to try to comprehend it.” From the Chinese Zen master Yuanwu.

“To reason about uncreated Reality is just to play with words. Yet from this coherent, playful reasoning, lightening bolts flash forth as gnostic intuition-totally insubstantial, not coming into being even for an instant, yet diamond sharp and clear.”

From the Perfect Wisdom Discourses (Prajnaparamita-sutra) of Buddhism.

Various structures have been established over the centuries for transmitting the contentless wisdom of traditions like Taoism, Vedanta, Buddhism, and Zen. At one extreme are large teaching institutes devoted to the study of sacred literatures. At the other extreme are solitary contemplatives who in the course of a lifetime might casually awaken the minds of one or two disciples.

In between these two extremes are numerous spiritual centers that attempt to integrate study and practice by regulating their calendars around a repeating cycle of study, work and contemplation. In these centers, students listen-then talk-then implement-then listen again to their teachers. In this way, the distinct activities of theorizing and practicing become formally enshrined in the structural fabric of most spiritual traditions.

What is common to all these structures is a separation between theory and practice. In the more extreme expressions, either theory or practice is effectively rejected. Pure contemplatives often hold up philosophers and scholars for ridicule and scorn. The Chinese Zen master Yuanwu, accused spiritual intellectuals of “peeing in bed with their eyes open.” Conversely, teaching institutes often only pay lip service to practice.

Theory and practice

In spiritual traditions, theory and practice are often distinguished in the following way.

Theorizing Practicing
knowing experiencing
thinking not thinking
studying contemplating
locating dislocating
describing disclosing
communicating remaining silent

However, segmenting our experience in this way runs contrary to the wisdom contained in traditions like Zen, Taoism and Vedanta, which transcends the spheres of the intellect and meditative experience. As the great Buddhist bodhisattva Subuti says: “Perfect Wisdom does not present any graspable or thinkable doctrine and offers no describable method of contemplation.” In other words, real wisdom isn’t segmented into a theoretical and an applied component. The contentless wisdom that is referred to as prajna, jnana, and vidya, is consistent and continuous with thinking and not thinking, knowing and not knowing, contemplating and not contemplating. By displaying a prefer- ence for either study or practice, we signal that we are still able to fully appreciate the timeless wisdom of the ancient masters.

Whilst we may periodically acknowledge our preference for study or practice, when we are actually listening to a stimulating discourse or enjoying our meditation, we often fail to appreciate how these preferences reflect our personal biases and habits. We just assume that meditation is valuable, or that study is necessary for spiritual development. When a bias in favor of “theorizing” or “practicing” is institutionalized into the fabric of a spiritual system, we can indulge our predisposi- tions without becoming aware of how we reject practice in favor of theorizing, or vice versa.

Trapped in our interpretations

The simplest way to discover our attachment to “theorizing” or “practicing” is to reflect on our experience. If we enjoy spiritual discourses, consume spiritual books, and frequent forums at which “experts” offer their “wisdom”, we are clearly attracted to analysis and interpretation. For us, this is where the action is. If we are obsessed with acquiring information, we may actively avoid experiential workshops, meditation, or other forms of practice, since they do not add to our body of knowledge. If something is missing in our lives we run to find “another” book, or attend “another” seminar, without reflecting on our need to acquire more information, or further validate our beliefs. Also, in reading books and attending presentations we tend to take it for granted that these will help us. Even if we aren’t sure about the value of our specific sources, at least we know that this is where we might discover that we are wrong.

When reading books and listening to presenters we are constantly active-agreeing and disagree- ing with what is being said: “That is important.” “Yes, that sounds right.” “I agree with that.” “That’s wrong.” “They are misrepresenting the tradition.” etc, etc. We “assume” that writers and speakers “know” what they are talking about, even if we “know” better. We get caught up in developing elaborate theories about “reality”, “liberation”, “the path”, “realization”, etc. In no time we think that we are actually talking about “something”, even if we say that this “something” is “nothing”. Rarely do we ask: “What am I thinking about?” in a way that actually questions whether we are thinking or talking about anything at all.

We build fancy and elaborate theories based on flimsy experiential foundations. The little “practice” we might engage in is milked for every concept we can squeeze out of it. We develop complex descriptions about spiritual paths and enlightened goals. As a result of our study and think- ing we become learned and knowledgeable-and often quite opinionated as well.

Trapped in our experience

If we are attached to “practicing”, we will display a bias for meditation, workshops, or other practical activities. In fact, if we actively reject intellectual inquiry we will probably be attracted to the more non-cognitive forms of contemplation such as simply sitting (zazen), remaining serene (shamatha), cultivating bare awareness (vidya), or being mindful (satipatthana).

Perhaps we believe that “realization” can only occur while meditating, or at least that medita- tion manifestly increases the possibility for illumination. I mean, everyone knows that the “actual realization” is more likely to occur while meditating! In fact, most “practices” validate their exist- ence through a discourse that this is where the real work occurs. In thinking this way we easily forget that this is just a “story” about realization acquired through listening to talks and reading books. However, when our practice is disconnected from a descriptive framework we end up drifting in an inchoate haze of thoughts and ill-defined feelings. Left to itself, private reflection quickly loses its edge. We get caught up in the elaborate story-lines of our memories, fears and fantasies. The thread of our thoughts unravels indefinitely because we lack the skills to bring it to a natural closure. Consequently, our meditations often end up in a space where we just witness our stream of consciousness in a totally passive and unstructured way. The only difference between day dreaming and meditation is that in the latter our eyes are generally closed. Meditation signifies nothing more than a preference to be stimulated by the mind rather than the world. Instead of seeing through the fabricated and ephemeral nature of our experience, we just become very familiar with the ebb and flow of our internal landscape.

Attraction and aversion to speech and silence

Most spiritual systems recognize the potential for people to become trapped in intellectual activity and introspective quietude. Many systems attempt to correct a possible imbalance between study and practice by alternating periods of study with periods of practice. Most centers, for ex- ample, institute a daily routine of private meditation, physical work (karma yoga), study, discourses, question and answer sessions, etc. While this structure helps to break down our extreme fixations with either learning or practicing, it doesn’t deal with our need to “know” what we are doing. We learn to segment each day into periods of well-defined activities, and quickly feel comfortable with our predictable and stable “routine”. We hang out for the stillness and quiet of our meditation, or alternatively, look forward to the stimulation of discourses and group discussions, which, of course, is something very different from cultivating impartial wisdom that accommodates to reality, as-it-is. In fact, if a scheduled lecture or practice session is canceled or replaced by something else, people can become quite upset or put out. When our need for information or quite reflection isn’t met we feel cheated and annoyed. In extreme cases people walk out of lectures and practices ses- sions, just as they walked out on the Buddha’s enlightened discourses on Perfect Wisdom. Instead, of seeing the “unexpected” as an opportunity to observe our attraction and aversion to speech and silence, we just want to get back to our “preferred” activity. Spirituality becomes a mechnical and routinized lifestyle, rather than a way of being that transcends all attraction and aversion with “inner and outer”, “waiting and arriving”, “speech and silence”, “movement and stillness”, or “getting it and losing it”. Thus, the disclosure of our preferences for “movement and stillness”, “speech and silence”, “waiting and arriving” and “thinking and not thinking”, requires a more penetrating and refined process than simply throwing together separate periods of study, work, and practice in the one day.


One format that has been used for millennia, and still continues to be favored by many tradi- tions and teachers is “dialoging”. Traditionally this has taken many different forms, such as the encounter between gurus and disciples in Hinduism (upadesha), the intense and dynamic exchanges between master and student in Zen (dokasan), or formal monastic debate which is still very alive in Tibetan Buddhism. Dialoging attempts to take the integration of theory and practice one step further, by stimulating a direct spiritual experience in the midst of dynamic verbal exchanges. The assump- tion here is that analysis and practice need not be two distinct events. But here too, people continue to display a clear preference for the periods of talking and silence that naturally punctuate a dia- logue. At the same time that some students feel compelled to rupture a period of silence with their interpretation of “what is happening”, others will complain that they were really enjoying the space. Similarly, while some people prefer informal and open-ended dialogues, others are more comfortable when dialogues occur to a fixed and predictable schedule. Also, dialogues often revert to sessions in which people share their stories about their experience “on the path”. Or, alternatively, dialogues become a venue for teachers to give advice, or make suggestions, about what their students can do (i.e. practice) at some time in the future.

When our talking or remaining silent aren’t legitimated by a theory, their occurrence or absence can be intense and unsettling. In fact, some teachers off-set this uncertainty by formally punctuating their dialogues with short periods of private reflection. Thus, while dialogues can disclose certain biases towards speech and silence, movement and stillness, structure and a lack of structure, they usually don’t reveal our moment-by-moment preference to continue, or slow down our thinking. They typically don’t reveal how we create experiences of lack and fulfillment, as these are happening.

Transcending theory and practice

One way to break down our reified habit of thinking about practicing and theorizing as distinct, and often mutually excluding activities, is to reflect on what we are doing right now. So what are you doing right now? Are you theorizing or practicing at this very moment? Many readers will probably say that this is a purely theoretical exercise because, at least up to this point, we have been “thinking about and describing” the structures that separate and integrate theory and practice. We haven’t actually “revealed” any biases in the here-and-now. Perhaps this is true. But when we ask the question: “Is this theoretical or practical?” we mean: “Is thinking about whether this is a theoretical or practical exercise, itself theoretical or practical?”

Some possibilities

1.One suggestion about what distinguishes theory and practice is that practice consists of thinking about the “right” things, namely, the things that our theories tell us we should be thinking about. This will usually be things like reality, truth, love, the movements of our breath, or even what constitutes real practice. An assumption here is that some types of thinking are theoretical and others are practical. In this case, spiritual theorizing consists of thinking about what we should be thinking about when we are practicing. Practice occurs when we actually think about what we should be thinking about when we are practicing.

However, if we don’t refer back to what we should be thinking about, we won’t know if we are thinking about what we are meant to be thinking about. So, in the absence of thinking about what we should be thinking about we can never know if we are thinking about what we should be thinking about. Hence, we can never practice unless we are theorizing at the same time. As such, there is no such thing as practicing, as separate from theorizing.

A variation on the above theory is that practice consists of “experiencing” love, wisdom, our breath, etc. while theorizing consists of thinking about these. The implication here is that when we are experiencing love or wisdom, we aren’t actually thinking about these. Perhaps we are thinking about other things, but we aren’t thinking above love or wisdom.

But this isn’t accurate either, since when we are experiencing love, wisdom, our breath, etc. there is no need to practice. “Practicing” must consist of trying to be loving, etc., while “theorizing” consists of trying to work out how to be loving, wise, or attentive to our breath. Also, it is impossible to experience love if we don’t have a concept of it. We may be manifesting behavior that others call “loving” but this would be completely transparent and inconsequential to ourselves. Why else do saints and sages say that we need to transcend the concepts of self and other, love and hate, and suffering and liberation.

2.Given that we can’t determine if we are theorizing or practicing on the basis of how we are thinking, we might say that what we are doing right now is still theoretical, purely in virtue of the fact that we are thinking. We might subscribe to the ultra radical view that “practice” consists of not thinking. This is an experience that Hindu saints call seedless absorption (nirvikalpa-samadhi). But in this state there is no practice for nothing at all is happening. To practice is to enter the domain of thinking, since we “know” what we are doing. From this point of view, if we “know” that we are practicing then we are theorizing. In fact, “practice” is a theoretical activity. So, given that thinking doesn’t allow us to decide if we are practicing or theorizing right now, what are we doing?

3.At this point we might declare that although what we are doing right now is a somewhat unfamiliar way of thinking, it must still be theoretical because the act of “judging or deciding” (if this is theoretical or practical) isn’t a part of real practice. Perhaps we have listened to teachings which say that when we practice we “suspend the judging mind.” But if this is so, then we can never begin, or re-enter, a practice because the “decision” to begin lies outside the domain of practice. Furthermore, we can never decide to continue to practice, because “deciding” can’t be part of that practice. As soon as we think we should continue, we have stopped, in which case we can’t continue. In fact, as soon as we decide that we are practicing, we cease to practice. But, nor can we stop practicing because the “decision” to stop simply cannot occur while we are practicing. But if we can’t stop, and we can’t continue, then what are we doing? Certainly we can never be practicing in contrast to theorizing. So given that “deciding” doesn’t allow us to stop or continue-what are you doing right now?

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Integrating the Personal and the Transpersonal http://www.radiantmind.net/integrating-the-personal-and-the-transpersonal/ http://www.radiantmind.net/integrating-the-personal-and-the-transpersonal/#comments Thu, 02 Jan 2014 18:58:32 +0000 http://fenner.tk/radiantmind.net/?p=13784 Although people desire the non-dualistic and limitless (awareness, they make a) limit out of that which is not limited and thereby constrict the essential mind itself. Even though people desire (the realization of) both (the transcendent and relative) realities they fall into an extreme understanding of these. Although they desire the union of the two realities this is not the way things naturally are. No matter in what way you think about this you are trapped in the cage of (conflicting) desires.


Throughout the ages spiritual masters and sage philosophers have pointed to a limitless, tran- scendent mystical reality by contrasting this with the limited, deceptive, and impermanent reality that we experience through our senses. Amongst other names, this mystical reality has been called the Godhead, Brahman, Tao, Source and Emptiness. However, according to the Dzogchen or Com- plete Fulfillment tradition, these realities are limited to the very same extent that they are distin- guished from that which is limited. In other words, as soon as limitlessness displaces that which is limited it assumes its own limits and restrictions.

In the above lines, the famous fourteenth century Tibetan master, Longchenpa, cautions people against limiting themselves by becoming fixated on the limitlessness of the mind itself. By distin- guishing the nature of the mind itself as being fundamentally different from mental phenomena, such as thoughts and feelings, people can become intellectually and philosophically captivated by the “idea” that the mind is limitless. But in so doing they fall into a fixed and extreme understanding of the Complete Fulfillment perspective. The Chinese Zen master Foyan makes the same point about Zen when he writes that, “You shouldn’t set up limits in boundless openness, but if you set up limitlessness as boundless openness, you’ve trapped yourself.”

This type of fixation is based on making a distinction between appearance and Reality. In orthodox Buddhism and mystical philosophies such as Hindu Advaita Vedanta, this distinction has been formalized in a theory of two levels of reality, the social or relative and the transcendent level. The relative reality corresponds to the world that is known through our body and mind. The tran- scendent reality corresponds to an open, unmarked and insubstantial reality that underlies the exist- ence of everything.

In terms of our spiritual development, knowledge of the relative reality primarily refers to understanding the consequences of being embodied. As a practice this involves understanding the inner dynamics, wherein our physical, verbal and mental behavior conditions what we experience in the future. In Indian spiritual systems this is called “understanding the workings of karma”. Through this practice we can gain skill in modifying our actions so that we consistently create opportunities for on-going spiritual practice. The implementation of these behavioral changes occurs mainly in the interpersonal arena. As such, an appreciation of the relative reality is mainly cultivated outside of formal sitting meditation. In contrast, an understanding of the transcendent reality is gained mainly through formal medi- tation practice during which one generates an unalloyed experience of an insubstantial voidness. While these contemplations begin with an empirical content, as soon as meditators see the inherent voidness of their object of contemplation, they let any imagery recede from their awareness, so that they can focus single-pointedly on the emerging experience of a formless, transcendent reality. In Buddhist traditions this is called generating a “space-like equipoise”. The rationale behind structur- ing their practice in this way is that one can produce deeper and more pure realization of the ultimate reality by focusing on a vacuous experience that is uncontaminated by any thoughts, feelings or sensory images. This type of meditation practice requires tremendous concentration and control in order to break through the seeming solidity and reality of our thoughts, feelings and perceptions. The downside in pursuing the realization of the transcendent and relative realities independently of each other is that they then need to be integrated into a way of being that seemlessly blends the freedom of unconditioned awareness with the complexities of living in a conditioned world. Tradi- tionally this is done in two different ways. Firstly, when meditators arise from their formal sitting practice they cultivate seeing things as though they are an illusion. In this way they attempt to directly suffuse their appreciation of phenomena with the experience of insubstantiality. Then within their space-like meditations on the transcendent level they will begin to allow objects such as thoughts and feelings to remain in their awareness alongside the emerging experience of the tran- scendent realm. In time the experience of the empirical and the transcendent become inseparable-one cannot be had without the other.

A further consequence of this way of practicing is that people can over-emphasize one or other of the two realities, and thus be led into a distorted spiritual path. For example, if someone cultivates an experience of transcendence but fails to appreciate how their thoughts, speech and physical behavior influences what they will experience in the future, they can easily lose touch with empirical world. They might become completely spaced out and lose their ability to operate safely and effec- tively in the physical world. This is called erring to the nihilist extreme and it can have extremely damaging consequences for people’s spiritual development. Philosophically this is falling to the extreme of misinterpreting the ultimate reality to mean non-existence. This error can make people foolhardy, careless, and a danger to themselves and others.

Conversely, if someone cultivates the relative reality while ignoring the transcendent reality they err to the realist extreme. So while they might take meticulous care with their behavior and gain real control over their capacity to filter out negative experiences they fail to gain the unconditional freedom that comes from realizing that nothing is solid and fixed including any connection between our behavior and what we experience. By believing that karmic conditioning is a real and invariant phenomenon they are trapped by the need to constantly monitor and control their behavior. Philo- sophically this is falling to the extreme of believing that reality has a real or intrinsic existence. A consequence of this error is that spiritual practice becomes a terribly serious and unforgiving en- deavor.

Thus, whilst the theory of two distinct levels of reality is designed to assist practitioners’ spiri- tual evolution, from a practical angle it can be misused so that it gives license and support to the innate human impulses to: (1) seek happiness and freedom by manipulating the empirical world, or (2) disconnect from the physical world in an effort to be free of suffering. The brilliance of the Complete Fulfillment tradition, is that it doesn’t split reality into two different types or aspects that then need to be assimilated. Right from the very outset, the notion of two realities is seen as a purely intellectual construction. As the great bodhisattva Subhuti says: “Absolute openness and relative functioning are not divided. They are not two alternative dimen- sions, but utter simplicity.”

The personal and transpersonal dimensions of the spiritual life are integrated right from the very beginning. Consequently, there is no need to subsequently recover an artificial split in our experience that is conditioned by segmenting our practice into separate meditational and post-meditational phases. This integrated approach also removes the possibility of producing extreme and potentially dangerous spiritual experiences, since it automatically corrects any personal bias that might lead someone to disconnect from the physical reality, or believe that they are nothing more than an embodied mind. In other words, it is difficult for someone to skew the Complete Fulfillment per- spective towards either the relative or transcendent extremes, since the perspective to be cultivated is one in which we begin to connect with a disclosive space that allows all things to be just as they are. In our usual way of living we relate to the flux of our experience by rejecting our pain and becoming addicted to pleasure. The alternative is to shift our attention so that we begin to experience the disclosive space within which we and the universe appear as processes that come into existence, endure and decay. This disclosive space isn’t the same as the space that allows physical phenomena to subsist. Rather, it is the space that allows physical space to be where and as it is, and precludes it from being where it is not. It is also the space that allows thoughts and emotions to emerge and subside as they do.

As Longchenpa says:

The state of spaciousness, the true nature of being, is without boundaries and is non-dual. It does not come into being and cannot be destroyed. It neither endures nor decays, and neither comes nor goes. Within this space the entire variety of phenomena appear distinctly yet when they manifest they are natu- rally devoid of complexity.

When we begin to relate to our experience as a disclosive space, we see that it is the very nature of what we are experiencing. That which is disclosed by the forms of our experience is the disclosive space itself. In fact, outside of what is disclosed there is no disclosive space. Similarly, the very structure of our personality reveals the transpersonal nature of being itself. When we begin to experi- ence the world as this disclosive space, the modulations of our thoughts and emotions, and changes in our physical environment become balanced and harmonized. Our experience becomes simple and uncomplicated yet without compromising the full richness of its texture and distinctiveness. The Complete Fulfillment tradition invites us to appreciate that we are a totally unconditioned locus of experience, without making this in any way special. There is absolutely no effort, struggle, or need to escape who we are, since this is our unique expression of transcendence. We open out so that we can experience the subtle and dramatic modulations of our thoughts, moods, feelings and perceptions, all the while realizing that they are just a free play of appearances. Instead of arming ourselves with a battery of techniques for running away from unpleasant experiences and enhancing those that we approve of, we come to see that every aspect and dimension of our experience is an exquisite expression of freedom and transcendence. In this way, the Complete Fulfillment closes the traditional rift between physical embodiment and spiritual transcendence.

Adapted from a commentary Peter is preparing to a text titled The Natural Freedom of Being by the great Dzogchen master, Longchenpa.

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Dismantling fixations http://www.radiantmind.net/dismantling-fixations/ http://www.radiantmind.net/dismantling-fixations/#comments Thu, 02 Jan 2014 18:58:01 +0000 http://fenner.tk/radiantmind.net/?p=13782 by Peter Fenner

People who have participated in the Intrinsic Freedom program enjoy its unique capacity to create an experience that is free from conflict and confusion. They also appreciate that the work is subtle. At times it is so transparent that people believe there is nothing to do. It feels as though it just happens. Afterwards, people are often at a loss to describe how they arrived at a place that tran- scends any consideration of loss or gain. Consequently, people often ask: “What exactly is it we do to create this free and spacious way of being in the world? What accounts for the effectiveness of the program?”

In fact there is a body of theory and practice that informs the creation of the Intrinsic Freedom perspective. I would like to share with you some of the guiding principles and practices that shape this work and contribute to the experience of intrinsic freedom. Besides giving you information about how we create the Intrinsic Freedom space, I hope that this article will give you some practical guidelines for creating and recreating this experience in your own lives.

The question “What is it that we do?” invites us to come up with a name for the discipline we have invented, beyond simply calling it “this work.” For the time being I have chosen the term “deconstructive contemplation.”

Deconstructive contemplation

So what is deconstructive contemplation? It is inspired by the Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita), Middle Path (Madhyamaka), Complete Fulfillment (Dzogchen) and Contemplative (Zen) traditions of Buddhism. Deconstructive contemplation is a practice designed to dismantle the fixations that cause us pain and suffering.

The principal assumption of deconstructive contemplation is that reality is created through our beliefs. This assumption allows us to disclose the constructed nature of our experience. Finally, the assumption that reality is created through our beliefs is, itself, deconstructed-leaving “reality-as-it- is”. So, in the final analysis deconstructive contemplation achieves nothing-it is a non-event. As the Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) tradition of Buddhism says, it is a radical teaching that is openly presented as a non-teaching. However, for as long as we figure that there is something we need to do, deconstructive contemplation fits the bill as a sophisticated tool for recovering “that which we can neither gain nor lose”.

The use of the term “contemplation” points to the fact that this practice occurs most fluidly and naturally within a psychological space that is free from urgent or intense emotional reactions. It is designed for psychologically mature people who aren’t locked into heavy opinions. Contemplation in this context does not refer to a practice, such as formal meditation, which is segmented out from the rest of our activities. Thus, this work cannot be compared with methodologies such as Theravada-based insight meditation (vipasyana), or zazen.


A fixation occurs everytime we take a rigid and inflexible position about any aspect of our experience. When we are fixated, we invest mental, emotional and physical energy in defending or rejecting a particular interpretation of who we are. The fixations disclosed in this work are traced back to a core belief that something is missing in our lives. What is missing can be anything from a nice cup of tea through to enlightenment. We feel that “This isn’t it”-where IT represents our particu- lar version of how things should be. We are sure that something is happening that shouldn’t be happening, or that something that should be happening, isn’t. Either view is a fixation which throws us into emotional confusion as we struggle to gain whatever IT is. We fear not getting it, and having got it, we fear losing it. And by all counts IT will probably be derived from our concept of a state of enlightenment, i.e., a state of limitless possibilities and unending happiness.

The baseline assessment that “something is missing” is cyclically displaced by the feeling that “This is it.” For a time we validate that things are going well. We figure that we are getting it, or have got it-this is how things should be. We might even convince ourselves that we have arrived at the long sought-after goal of our spiritual endeavors. However, the belief that we have got it sets up the possibility of losing it, as we reconstruct that we don’t have enough of it, that we could use more of it. We also question if this really is IT and even if it is, whether we now want it.

The core assessments that “this is it” and “this isn’t it” spawn innumerable secondary fixations. In terms of our personal and spiritual development we spend a huge amount of time and energy constructing the interpretations that we are making progress or standing still. As these constructions shift and change we spend yet more time trying to work out whether we are stuck or mobile. We oscillate between trying harder and giving up. We determine that we do or don’t need help or find ourselves unable to decide whether to seek help, or go it alone. Sometimes we are clear and commit- ted and at other times we are confused and vague, struggling to determine whether our experiences are meaningful or meaningless, real or unreal.


Deconstructive contemplation is a procedure for gently and neatly dissolving our fixations by revealing that our everyday and professionally informed interpretations of reality are self-referencing mechanisms for deceptively validating the core fixations that “This is it” and “This isn’t it.” By disclosing the beliefs that internally validate our fixations, these fixations lose their capacity to control our lives. By revealing their core structure in real time, we discover that our fixations don’t refer to an objective, or even a subjective, reality. Ultimately we discover that our fixations aren’t fixations. We see that a fixation is merely a concept that we have superimposed on the flux of our experience. In this way deconstructive contemplation discloses the open and fluid texture of reality. As a procedure for disclosing fixed belief systems, deconstructive contemplation is loosely based on the Middle Path (Madhyamaka) tradition of Buddhism. In its traditional Indian and Tibetan settings Middle Path deconstruction systematically demolishes fixed beliefs through rigorous logical investigations that are employed in a rather mechanical way during formal sessions of meditation. Our contemporary method differs from traditional Middle Path methods in two important ways. Firstly, it operates in a way that transcends the need for formal periods of meditation. In fact, we systematically deconstruct the activity of meditation, whenever meditative activity becomes a self- justifying method for blindly conditioning beliefs in our personal worth and spiritual progress. In this regard this work is closer to the original Perfect Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) tradition. A second difference is that we focus on dismantling fixations as and when they arise rather than reactivating pre-existing fixations in the context of meditation. These differences make deconstructive contem- plation very organic and fluid.

Guiding observations

A course usually begins by inviting people to observe their fixations. We describe these in a relatively casual and common-sense way, using language that accords with our everyday way of thinking and talking about them. This helps to transform theoretical and attractive-sounding sugges- tions into instruments for the direct disclosure of cognitive biases and emotional fixations.

For example, people will be invited to observe how they:

• draw attention to, or divert attention from, themselves. • try to intensify or dilute their experience. • dramatize or trivialize a breakdown or breakthrough. • validate or invalidate their own and other’s beliefs.

By describing the personalized discourses and feelings that accompany generic fixations we can easily track their manifestation and behavior as they are occurring. The manifestation of these, and other biases is unique to each of us. For example, what constitutes speaking up for one person may represent relative silence for another.

This particular dimension of our work is inspired by the Complete Fulfillment (Dzogchen) tradition of Buddhism in which one cultivates the non-acceptance and non-rejection of all that we can experience.

Awareness and action

We also observe how we can engage in this work half-heartedly or make hard work of the process. We can understand this phase as either the mere observation of biases or their elimination from our experience, depending on how we distinguish actions from awareness. Such biases will reflect a passive and active approach to spiritual work respectively. By observing such tendencies, and acting in terms of these observations, we move into a space where we are neither compensating for a bias, nor resisting the impulse to make a correction. In this way balance is applied to the rela- tionship between observing and correcting these biases. The result is that we neither actively inter- vene to change our thinking and behavior, nor simply remain inert observers of our biases. An awareness of these biases produces a serene and alert atmosphere that is conducive to the more rigorously deconstructive dimensions of this work. In the program, the gentle observation of biases slows down participants’ thinking and introduces a smooth pace into their physical activities. Their personalities become integrated and harmonized and they achieve a sense of emotional balance and physical well-being.

At an interpersonal level an awareness of these biases produces a delightful atmosphere in which there is a harmonious balance between privacy and sharing. People neither intrude into other’s space nor convey the message that they don’t want others to come near. People neither operate in an insensitive manner nor feel the need to tread warily.

Facilitators offer their observations on how these fixations are manifesting in participants.

While facilitators are rigorous in providing feedback to participants they do this in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor intrusive. Facilitators also function as role models as they personally implement these principles.

A feeling state

The program also sensitizes people to the somatic effects of fixations. People learn to use their bodies as instruments for detecting the presence of cognitive, emotional and behavioral biases. We become sensitive to the bodily sensations that signal we are operating from a reactive space. We begin to feel how we are physically drawn into some situations and repelled by others. As this awareness grows, feelings of attraction no longer magnetically grip our body and feelings of aver- sion repel us less and less. An uncalculated correction occurs such that we are no longer compelled to move into attractive situations nor avoid distasteful ones. In this way desire and aversion cancel each other out.

People give relatively less energy to their strategic intellect and begin to operate more from a feeling dimension. We begin to function in a way where we are neither giving in to nor resisting our desires. We move into a highly responsive feeling state which is empty of coarse feelings. Our capacity to experience our own and others’ energy increases as specific feelings dissolve into a heightened state of sensitivity.

Self-referring stories

In general terms, deconstructive contemplation moves gently through two relatively transparent phases.

Deconstruction begins by disclosing the “stories” that internally validate our beliefs at any point in time. The stories within which our beliefs are embedded are uncovered as self-referencing systems of meaning that render our assessments true and factual to us. These stories contain an internal logic and coherence in just the same way that the interpretation we are developing here has its own local- ized rationality. These self-referring stories derive their plausibility from various forms of evidence. Typically they draw on memories, causal explanations and authoritative sources, such as friends, mentors and psycho-spiritual literature. For example, if we are locked inside a belief that we need to engage in a certain spiritual practice (such as meditation), this belief will be linked to judgments that it has helped us in the past, anecdotal support from a network of practitioners and declarative claims in texts that advocate our chosen methodology.

Deconstructive contemplation uncovers these explanations and allows us to see that the validity of our core assessments depends on the interpretation (or story) within which they are embedded. We see that under a different interpretation the core assessment would be false or indeterminate. For example, the belief that we need to engage in a spiritual practice is rendered invalid when held in conjunction with a belief that spiritual activity merely conditions, and perpetuates a sense of incom- pleteness.

The process of disclosing the local or contextual validity of our beliefs doesn’t involve heavy intellectual analysis of how we think and feel. Instead it is a function of creating a clear disclosive space that allows personal and social discourses to be naturally revealed. In the course facilitators work directly with participants to disclose what is already there-through simple exercises, group dialogues and one-on-one conversations. Such proactive disclosure is another feature that distin- guishes this work from traditional Buddhist insight meditation.

In the course we don’t need to unravel these stories in a laborious way. We use participants’ personal beliefs to disclose generic constructs that everyone can relate to. Participants then process their own psychological and spiritual beliefs in between group meetings. This occurs naturally as a result of the intentionality and energy that is created during group meetings.

People begin to recognize that any opinion or viewpoint that they are inclined to defend or reject signifies a fixation. They become sensitive to the shifts in energy that are triggered when their beliefs and interpretations are supported or challenged by their present experience. They become aware of the feelings of comfort and confidence that arise when they judge that they are on-track, and of feelings of frustration, threat and disappointment that occur when they think that something is wrong or “shouldn’t be happening.” People begin to appreciate that these feelings and emotions are indicators of obvious or subtle forms of fixation. This awareness produces a natural adjustment so that people no longer feel compelled to vigorously defend their beliefs. Beliefs are seen as the product of prior experiences or conditions, and people therefore are content to let their beliefs and opinions arise as thought forms that don’t need to be cultivated or suppressed. No special instruction or directive is needed to produce a less defensive or confrontational relationship with our own and others’ beliefs. A more mellow and spacious mood emerges as a natural consequence of seeing the interdependent relationships within our beliefs and between our beliefs and feelings. Throughout this process we focus on disclosing and dismantling fixations as they manifest.

Obvious and transparent beliefs

In the initial stages of this work the extent of deconstruction that occurs matches people’s willingness to share the beliefs they access at an obvious and familiar level. They become aware of beliefs that have been cultivated through their own unique exposure to culture and education. People tune in to their own personal stories about psychological and spiritual development. They speak as though they “know” where they are and where they would like to be. They also tend to have reason- ably firm ideas about how to get there. Within a course structure, people quickly appreciate that their beliefs can have their origins in traditions, teachers, books, etc. They also appreciate that there are alternative and equally authoritative discourses, some of which directly contradict their own. Through sharing in a psychological space that neither supports nor rejects any particular belief system, people begin to see through their beliefs in the sense that they no longer need to defend or reject what they are thinking. People become present to their thoughts in a simple and uncomplicated way.

Behind our acquired belief systems are structures that shape our experience of ourselves and of the world at a more foundational level. These structures shape the very landscape of our experience, yet their closeness and familiarity makes them invisible. Our capacity to observe them is also ob- scured by the density and urgency of our thinking, and the complexity of our interpersonal activities. However, once people can appreciate their acquired beliefs without needing to apologize for them or take them seriously, they automatically begin to observe their more transparent belief structures. The first structures to emerge often reflect people’s need to know what is happening. They begin to see how they construct the experience of progressing towards a goal by creating a begin- ning, middle, and an end. The course becomes a microcosmic expression of people’s need to be able to track their progress towards some privately designed goal. People can experience moods of frustration and expectation that accompany the “path of waiting”. They experience how the “path of waiting” is built on the belief that “IT isn’t happening now” and see how this motivates them to discover what they need to do to make IT happen. (See the dialogue “Should I talk, or stay silent” in this issue for further explanation of the phenomenon of “waiting”.) Participants experience how waiting is displaced by “arriving”, i.e., getting IT, and how arriving is displaced in turn by more waiting as people reconstruct that they have lost IT. They also experience the confusion and frustra- tion of not knowing what it is that would make them content.

People see how they cycle between experiences of success and failure as they judge their progress, or lack of progress, against a quite complex set of beliefs about what they have done, whether their past training is a help or hindrance, what there is to “get”, whether they are getting it, if there is in fact anything to get, who is to judge success and failure-themselves, a facilitator, other participants, etc. The disclosure of these structures is not specifically intellectual. People experience these structures together with the moods and emotions that accompany them. They experience the feelings of frustration and disappointment that are fused with the assessment that they have failed. They get high on the feelings of excitement and elation that accompany a judgment of success. In the program, these experiences occur just as they do in other situations. However, rather than simply enjoying or enduring these feelings, people begin to clearly see how they are conditioned by the stories they weave about what should and shouldn’t be happening to them.

Many other transparent structures are revealed through this work including the construction of authorities, or sources of knowledge, in the form of people and traditions, and the creation of depen- dency relationships with authorities. By revealing the personal and societal discourses that support these structures, people begin to operate outside an identity of needing or giving help. As people disclose and deconstruct these structures they encounter their identity at a more basic or existential level.

The juxtaposition of opposite beliefs

Our usual pattern is to alternate between conflicting fixations. We oscillate between thinking that we need help at one point, and don’t need it at another. We get locked into perservering, striving to determine the “right” perspective, which then gives way to giving up. We oscillate continually between breakdowns and breakthroughs. However, when we see that these are responses to the conflicting constructions that “this isn’t it” and “this is it”, the oscillations flatten out and we move into a space where these constructs lose their capacity to describe an objective or subjective reality. For example, when we see ourselves move through a number of cycles of waiting for some result and then arriving, with no apparent change in terms of real movement towards a solid goal, we see how our concepts and beliefs create the phenomena of progress and lack of progress against a highly fluid and vaporous concept of what it is that we want.

We see how we can interpret our experience differently, even without changing anything about our thinking, or feelings, or within our physical circumstances. For example, people simultaneously experience the possibilities that they are participating and not participating. We see that whether we are participating or not is purely a matter of what we think we are doing at any point in time. The capacity for two opposite interpretations to equally describe where we are, renders such assessments meaningless. In fact, the juxtaposition of these perceptions deconstructs the beliefs that we are either “doing it” or “not doing it”. This same type of insight occurs around “getting it” and “not getting it”, making and not making progress, needing and not needing help, being confused and being clear. Furthermore, to the extent that the course is construed as a vehicle for gaining spiritual insight or liberation, we see that there is no difference between reality and illusion, wisdom and ignorance, bondage and liberation. At this point the need to make such distinctions simply doesn’t compute. As the interdependence and groundlessness of people’s fixed beliefs are revealed, fixations begin to dissolve naturally. This produces moments of clarity and openness. The energy deployed in constructing bondage and liberation is freed into a state that transcends bias and limitation. As this work evolves, the process of releasing fixations becomes more natural and effortless. The heaviness and density of people’s conflicting emotions thin out, producing greater spaciousness and ease. Through this process people can experience a delightful space that is free from reactive emotions and habitual interpretations. They transcend any preoccupation with “getting it” or “losing it”. And in saying this, I acknowledge that you might think that this is an experience worth gaining or avoiding!!

Deconstructing the process

In the program we also deconstruct the program itself. We do this by disclosing the beliefs that validate and invalidate people’s ongoing participation in this work. Finally, we deconstruct the process of deconstructive contemplation because people can latch on to this as a new method for fixing their lives. Through participating in this work people can easily think that they are engaged in a very unique process. They can’t really compare the experience with anything else they have done. In other words, they construct deconstruction as a distinctive event. For example, people may think that they have actually deconstructed various psychological and spiritual fixations. When this occurs we ask participants what this “deconstructive contemplation” is, that they think has been occuring. They might answer that it is a refined process for uncovering transparent beliefs that have structured their lives, and then dismantling these so that they no longer grip them. If this begins to occur we observe how a phenomenon called “deconstruction” can be constructed, just as we have done in this paper. People see how they can make what is otherwise a conversation, into a profound or significant event. Of course, in disclosing this construction, we also correct any tendency for participants to slide into an opposite fixation which has them construct this work as trivial or even non-existent.

This talk has been extracted from Peter’s presentation at the International Association for Spiritual Psychiatry, in Paris, April 1995

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Beyond Practice http://www.radiantmind.net/beyond-practice/ http://www.radiantmind.net/beyond-practice/#comments Thu, 02 Jan 2014 18:57:37 +0000 http://fenner.tk/radiantmind.net/?p=13780 by Peter Fenner

During the Intrinsic Freedom course many people have a clear and thorough experience of presence. Participants enjoy a state of presence that is self-maintaining and which doesn’t need any further cultivation. Presence is experienced as a natural and complete way of being that cannot be enhanced or destroyed. We could say it is an experience in which “nothing is missing” if we under- stand this as shorthand for an experience which goes beyond any thought, concern or consideration for being either complete or incomplete.

However, some time later, after the Course, it is possible for people to feel that they have lost the experience of presence-or at least that the experience has become diluted. This feeling can produce a need or desire to “do something” in order to recover the experience they are losing. The need to do, feel or think something is produced in the hope that the action taken will displace or dissolve the feeling of loss. We interpret this feeling of loss as the recrystallization of the belief “that I should be somewhere different from where I am.” When this belief starts to resolidify we begin to search for a discipline or practice which will assist us in recovering the experience of being fully and simply at home with who we are.

We believe that we shouldn’t be experiencing what we are

The re-emergence of a gap between where we are and where we would like to be is natural and can be anticipated. It stems from a confusion in what we believe. The gap is ultimately insignificant, since the thought that “something is missing” is simply a thought-form that occurs with more or less frequency and intensity, in the same way that clouds in the sky are thick and dense on some days and spare or absent on others. However, we can listen to the thought that something is missing as a description of how things really are. We earnestly believe that we shouldn’t be experiencing our current thoughts, feelings and perceptions.

From our point of view the particular actions we take are not a real source for rediscovering the experience of presence. Consequently, we don’t advocate or recommend any specific behavioral changes. We leave it to you to produce any behavioral or environmental changes that support you. Depending on your past conditioning you will be inclined to give yourself a break, find some time and space outside of work and family commitments, sit quietly appreciating your experience, medi- tating, and so on. From our own side we have created the possibility for graduates of Intrinsic Free- dom to review the course whenever they wish, as an appropriate response to the recrytallization of the belief that “something is missing.” You may also be motivated to use a method you have learnt from the Course to bring coherence to your thoughts or slow them down in order to displace an unpleasant feeling. For example, you might decide to be quiet and simply “be with” the experience that something is wrong.

Running from presence

In attempting to recover an experience of intrinsic freedom we need to be aware that any prac- tice we engage in will consolidate the belief that something is missing for as long as we believe that we need to engage in our chosen practice. The very action of trying to get rid of an impediment or obstruction to being present validates the belief that the impediment exists. The harder we work at removing it, the more solid and real the impediment becomes. This process also conditions and reinforces a belief that presence is an experience that can be lost and found. To this extent then, our practice can condition and further prolong the pain and suffering that it is designed to remove. An effective practice therefore needs to naturally evolve beyond itself, without retarding or disturbing any movement towards an experience of unconditioned presence.

The discipline of neither giving into nor resisting our needs and desires is one such practice. When we sense a need or desire to do or say something, we don’t automatically do whatever it is that we need to do. But in modulating our need we also watch our tendency to resist or hold back from fulfilling our needs. We don’t constrain our behavior, or hem ourselves in, by stoically resisting the energy of our desires. In this way we neither contract in the face of powerful desires nor give them unbridled expression. Through this practice we achieve a natural balance between dependence and independence, speech and silence, action and stillness, giving and receiving.

Another practice which naturally opens out into an experience of uncontrived presence is the discipline of neither hanging onto nor letting go of our experiences.

Our practice is already fulfilled

At a certain point during these practices we can discover that we aren’t in fact doing anything different than what we could otherwise have been doing. Where previously we experienced practice as a discipline-as the performance of an exercise we can do, as opposed to not do-now we experience that there is no practice that is distinct from living. The feeling that practice consists of doing some- thing special, is replaced by the realization that we are only ever doing what we are already doing. By becoming aware of our deeply embedded and transparent beliefs about needing to practice we no longer need to do specific things in order to be present. Instead, we become aware simply by becoming aware. The doing or not doing of some particular activity ceases to influence our ex- panded awareness. We become present in a way that is deep and solid yet very light and spacious at the same time.

Likewise, the practice of neither giving into nor resisting our desires matures into an awareness in which “giving into and resisting desires” are experienced as assessments we make about what we should and shouldn’t be doing. We experience the impossibility of giving into a desire as distinct from being present to the thoughts and feelings that are manifesting at any point in time. Similarly, if we had been engaged in the practice of neither letting go of, nor hanging onto, our experience, we see that we are already unable to let go of our experience or hang onto it. We experi- ence the impossibility of holding onto our pleasures and letting go of our painful experiences. There is nothing else we could be doing. We discover that we are already doing what we are trying to do.

We have accomplished the purpose of our practice without needing to practice.

Totally different from giving up a practice

This experience shouldn’t be confused with giving up a practice. It is totally different from ceasing to practice as a deliberate decision or as a reaction to the challenge of becoming more aware. The point we are describing is a transition that occurs in the midst of practice when we discover that we aren’t doing anything different from what we would otherwise have been doing. In the midst of practice we experience the total impossibility of practicing a discipline in contrast to not practicing a discipline. Stopping becomes indistinguishable from continuing. At this point it is impossible to stop, but equally we aren’t doing anything that would tell us that we are continuing. We could just as validly say that everything is our practice or that there is no such thing. You could say we are prac- ticing no practice.

Within this new disclosive space our experience is complete and fulfilled as it is. This space does not preclude engaging in a discipline except that here our practice a isn’t designed to displace what we are already experiencing. When we begin a practice we are not changing what we are doing with the intention of finding something better or more effective to do. We continue doing what we are doing simply because this IS what we are doing. If this includes wondering whether what we are doing is the right or best thing to be doing we do this-just because this is what we are doing. This represents an important watershed for at this point nothing we think, feel or do can dis- place the experience of presence.

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Caught in the Here and Now! http://www.radiantmind.net/caught-in-the-here-and-now/ http://www.radiantmind.net/caught-in-the-here-and-now/#comments Thu, 02 Jan 2014 18:57:20 +0000 http://fenner.tk/radiantmind.net/?p=13778 by Peter Fenner

Do you oscillate between thinking:

I need help – I don’t need help

This is a real problem – I’m just making this up

I need to try harder – Trying harder just gets in the way

This isn’t it – This is it?

In general terms these pairs of contrary beliefs and attitudes represent two different approaches to spirituality. The approach we are most familiar with declares that something is missing in our lives and offers various methodologies designed to cultivate what is lacking. The systems aligned with this approach offer wisdom, purity, freedom, bliss, etc.-after many lives, within this life, through a single course or even from one meeting with a teacher. Most systems for spiritual and psychological development are of this type. They attract a following through offering “ancient” or “innovative,” “easy” or “demanding,” “gradual” or “rapid” methods for achieving complete fulfillment. While their methods are very different, all these systems are predicated on the need for change. They are variations on the discourse that “This isn’t it,” and that we need to be somewhere, or someone, different if we are to be truly fulfilled and happy.

The spiritual marketplace

Whilst historically Western psychology and spirituality have been defined by the “discourse of change,” this discourse is being recently challenged by an alternative perspective. This perspective, which is new to the West though ancient in the East, suggests that “This is it.” In fact, if we examine the contemporary marketplace, this new perspective is fast gaining ground in the spiritual stakes. According to this perspective, we have already got it-there is nothing more we need to do. The construction and pursuance of spiritual goals are obstacles to realizing that we are already complete and fulfilled. This “discourse of immediacy” invites us to adopt a new language through which to understand spirituality.

Actually there are many, many different stories within the “discourse of immediacy.” Some systems and traditions teach that we are already enlightened. This is our natural condition-our essen- tial nature. The only problem, which isn’t a real problem anyway, is that we haven’t realized our enlightened condition. These traditions teach that our burdensome thoughts and conflicting emotions are the play or manifestation of our wisdom-mind, if only we could see this. Alternative systems say that the search for enlightenment is a distraction because there is no such thing as enlightenment.

The here-and-now is just the here-and-now. It is what we think it is and can’t be any different. This is it, because it can’t be anything else. Other traditions and teachers claim to go beyond the belief that “This is it.” They say that there is no “IT” to get, either in the future or in the here-and-now.

Thinking that “This is it,” only shows that we haven’t really got it.

The general characteristics of these two approaches can be summarized like this.

This isn’t it This is it
Speech Silence
Language Experience
Effort Effortlessness
Choice Choicelessness
Action Non-Action
Of course, the way we think about our own spirituality is often a complex mixture of these two types of discourse. Upgrading from change to immediacy

The problem with the “discourse of change” is that for as long as we take this discourse seri- ously-live in terms of it-we will experience a lack or incompletion. Our meditation and other spiri- tual practices will be propelled by the belief that THIS isn’t it and that there is something to get. This, of course is what makes the perspective of immediacy look so attractive. If the problem is thinking that “this isn’t it,” then the solution is to get that “this is it.”

Thus, many spiritual seekers who have spent years cultivating beliefs and practices based on the need for change are now switching camps. They are finding themselves attracted to systems like Zen, Taoism and the Tibetan Dzog chen and Mahamudra traditions which contain powerful expres- sions of the “discourse of immediacy.” Having struggled to change, the “discourse of immediacy” comes like a fresh breeze offering a higher and more authentic spiritual perspective than goal- oriented systems of practice. We trade our discourses of change for the “better” perspective of living fully in the present.

In this new discourse we appreciate that “this is it,” because it can’t be anything else. We can’t be thinking another thought when we are thinking the one that we are thinking. While reading this sentence, we can’t be reading another one. In this discourse there is nothing to get, since we have already got what there is for us to get. The idea that one experience can displace another, or the suggestion there is something more to this experience, are simply constructs of the imagination. Similarly, the past and future are present-time constructs. Our memories are the present-time activa- tion of images accompanied by the belief that these images represent real events that can’t be hap- pening now.

Seduced by the here and now

While living in the here and now can seem attractive, if we think this perspective will be a solution to our problems, we should think again.

Firstly, living in the here and now is an illusion made real by the discourse of immediacy. There is no such thing as being totally in the present. If someone is living in the here and now they have no sense of being located in the present rather than the past or future. The quality of their experience is neither displaced nor diluted by thinking about tomorrow’s work or recalling yesterday’s conversa- tion, since there is no qualitative difference between the thought of yesterday, today or tomorrow. If thinking about the past or future was less real than thinking about the present, we wouldn’t take our memories and projections so seriously.

Secondly, in cultivating an experience of immediacy we fail to see how it becomes just another movement within the discourse of change. We misread traditions like Zen and begin to think that this new perspective represents an improvement over our old ways of thinking and practicing. We think we are onto something good. We might believe that this new perspective is less constructed, truer to reality or more liberating. Yet as the Chinese master Foyan said: “The minute you fixate on the recognition that ‘This is ‘it,’’ you are immediately bound hand and foot and cannot move around anymore.” Having escaped the limitation of needing to change we end up right where we began. The progress we seem to have made evaporates as we discover ourselves playing the same game of locating ourselves on a path leading to an ever more satisfying way of being.

Thus, even though the perspective of immediacy isn’t something that can be gained or avoided we continue to read it as an experience worth having. While the experience of immediacy is neither profound nor trivial, we think it is super-profound or ordinary in very a significant and generally inaccessible way. Even if we figure that immediacy is “nothing” we still want to get it. In this way we continue to be trapped in a game of distinguishing our perspective as superior and advanced. This illusion of progress can become compounded as we gain increased fluency in the rhetoric of immediacy. Even though immediacy isn’t a knowledge- or skills-based perspective, we figure that we can learn it through exposure to the right teacher or course. We learn a new “sophisticated” language that allows us to say that there is no difference between having it and not having it, but we still continue to approve and disapprove of different spiritual systems. We learn how to talk the talk but it doesn’t alleviate our basic discomfort and conflict.

Furthermore, the idea of living in the moment is often taken on board only after we have struggled unsuccessfully to free ourselves from conflict and pain. We figure that if hard work hasn’t deliver the goods, then we might as well give in to what is. We justify this shift by saying that suffer- ing is caused by rejecting what we are experiencing. But to the extent that we are forced into “ac- cepting the moment” through having failed to produce the changes we desire, this new perspective is stained by residual feelings of resignation and disappointment. “Living in the moment” can be a nice way of saying that we have run out of steam.

So while we may gain short term relief from our suffering by thinking that we have made progress in entering the experience of immediacy, in time our conflict and dissatisfaction returns as we struggle to cultivate and hang on to a preferred perspective.

Is there a way out?

How can we escape the problem of automatically reconstructing the perspective of immediacy as simply another chapter within the discourse of change? Of course, it’s not as simple as saying that there is no problem, for this immediately locates us within the rhetoric of immediacy-as a discourse that stands in contrast to the need to escape.

One possibility is to transcend the problem by being in a way where we are in neither discourse. We need to get outside this whole thing of being trapped by language. We need to move into a space where we have neither got IT nor lost IT. However, if we think of this as something worth getting, we fall back into the discourse of change. On the other hand, if we figure that this isn’t something we can get, or that is meaningless state, we are trapped by the rhetoric of immediacy.

Another way around this problem is to reject the idea that spirituality can only be approached through two mutually excluding perspectives. Instead we might advocate an integrated approach that harmonizes both perspectives into balanced way of life. However, in rejecting a dualistic approach in favor of an integrated perspective we create a new dualistic structure and re-enter the discourse of change. On the other hand, if we think there is no right or wrong way of understanding the spiritual endeavor we lock into the discourse of immediacy. And, if we think that it is preferable to be non- judgmental we are flung right back into the discourse of judgments and change.

Finally, we might decide that the problem lies in taking the notion of oscillating between alter- native perspectives too seriously. Perhaps we aren’t dealing with two extreme perspectives. We might declare that adopting a particular perspective isn’t “actually adopting a perspective,” it is just thinking that we are doing this. However, this stands in contrast to believing that we really can adopt different perspective, so it seems we do have two radically different approaches. In fact, at this point it seems that all we can ever do is fall to an extreme. If we want to forge ahead, we fall to the ex- treme of needing to change. If we decide we are satisfied where we are, we fall to the extreme of immediacy.

At this point we might be inclined to boldly declare that ultimately “there is nothing to do or not to do,” or that we “neither need to change nor stay the same.” However, if we do this in a mood of insight and understanding we fall to the extreme of over-valuing what we are saying. We believe that we have said something that is significant and meaningful. On the other hand, if we find that we are thrown into silence, or mouth these expressions “knowing” that they really don’t say anything, we are trapped by the language of immediacy.

So where are you now?

Have you succeeded in transcending these two approaches or are you locked into one or other approach?

The fact that you continue to read this article shows that you are probably located within the “discourse of change,” since we don’t end up reading books, journals, newsletters, etc. unless we think there is something in them that might be useful to us. However, putting this newsletter aside doesn’t help either because this action is intended to move us beyond the cycle of flip flopping between change and immediacy. If we say we are reading it, simply because this is what we are doing-there is no other purpose or aim behind it-we are locked into the language of immediacy. In finishing this article we can also note that the question of when, how and what would consti- tute finishing, only arises when we are thinking within the discourse of change-in which there is a beginning, middle and an end. On the other hand, if we feel that we are aligned with the perspective of living in the moment, then the question of “finishing” this article is irrelevant, even nonsensical, since there is nothing that needs to be clarified or resolved. I leave it you to determine where you are located, if indeed you are located at all.

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