A few years ago I was in Spain in spring time during the almond blossom period. Being driven through miles of dry interior, clouds of pink frothy beauty were everywhere. I was quietly ecstatic. A thought came ‘this is just pleasant experience’. My heart closed, just a little, but there was a diminishing of the joyful state. At the time I felt slightly regretful that seeing experience clearly made mindfulness feel a bit of a spoilsport.
Sometimes the language of awareness and wisdom, of ‘process’ rather than ‘content’ and particularly of ‘observing’ experience, can be a bit of a turn off. There can be resistance to just ‘knowing’ or ‘seeing’. It can feel overly detached. We want to know ‘where is the juiciness of life?’ An attitude of reverence for life or intimacy with experience is replaced with something cooler and less appealing.
What would you chose? Intimacy with life or Detachment from the objects of experience?
It is at least partly an issue of language. And the language has developed from different strands of Buddhist history. The Buddha’s early teachings are full of negation. Enlightenment is described through what it is not. It’s pared down and scraped back and then you see what’s left. Terms like ‘the void’ or ‘the unborn’ abound. And this makes sense when you’re trying to avoid using concepts that suggest spiritual realisation is a ‘thing’ existing somewhere, something to get hold of. It’s easier and more accurate to say what its not.
Later Buddhist teachings go to the other extreme with huge flowery language, an impossible abundance of mythic and imaginative suggestiveness. Interconnectedness of all things seems to augment rather than strip away. We are left with everything rather than nothing.
Where do these different teachings and approaches from the same spiritual tradition meet?
I hesitate to endorse ‘intimacy with experience’ when I’m wanting to encourage a clear observation of what is happening in mind and body. And yet, I recognise in the experience of that observation, whether of a sight or sound, emotion or thought, it often has the flavour of presence, delicacy, richness and curiosity. In short – intimacy.
My reticence is for a couple of different reasons.
Firstly, I think the language of intimacy can encourage a collapsing into the object of experience, an absorption into it, and this, I’m trying to avoid. Absorption into the experience belongs to a different type of meditation practice with a single focus, for example, the breath.
But even in broad awareness, done as an insight practice there are pitfalls.
Early Buddhism is concerned with seeing experience clearly and with detachment or non-attachment. These are ‘cool’ words that can be a bit off-putting. But it’s not detachment from experience that is meant but detachment from defiled mind states (klesha/kilesa). We’re looking to view our experience without the klesha of attachment influencing the observation. If we have even a little desire to be intimate with experience because it feels good, because it’s pleasurable, that is the klesha of craving in operation.
Pleasure, liking and desire all feel good – at least initially and if we’re not keeping a close eye out.
We need this idea or feeling of intimacy to be examined with the same quality of awareness as we would anything else. It can’t be exempt or we end up with being identified with the pleasant qualities it holds. We need intimacy without identification. Wisdom can’t flower in the mind that is attached and identified.
It’s only recently that I’ve understood my moments with the almond blossom more clearly. What I thought was a ‘seeing through’ was in fact a thought about seeing through. It didn’t have a lot of power when up against strong pleasure hence the desire for the pleasure to continue.
But there have been other experiences over time where seeing pleasure for what it is – a momentary arising in the mind – has been more satisfying than the initial pleasurable thing. In those moments there has been some wisdom in the mind that is able to appreciate reality rather than be disappointed by it!