Beyond the Edge

From time to time we come to a stuck place in our dhamma practice, sometimes for long periods. This happens to everybody because it is a stuck place in our life process, a place of holding on based on false assumptions of how the mind is supported and how it is released. That is, we tend to come from the mode of self-orientation, in which we determine, struggle, learn, adapt and get results. This is natural enough – we want results, right? And to an extent, a necessary extent, this strategy works. Meditation, service, renunciation arouse ardor, faith, commitment, and energy. They establish the context of goodness; and it is that foundation which stays with us beneath the personality level when our efforts break down and we feel we’re not getting anywhere. Because only a certain degree of awakening comes from that personality vehicle.  After a while the doing, fixing mind gets to the end of what it can accomplish; then it becomes the problem rather than the solution.

So we get stuck. Then the sense of stuckness spins out onto blaming our apparent self, our system of practice, or the people we live with.  It triggers a compulsive activity—a sankhara accompanied by ignorance – that diffuses and disperses its distress outwardly onto the manifold rights and wrongs of people and things: from the Buddha (why did he have to make all this so difficult!) on down. Or inwardly: onto assessing our character, our heart, our history, our past, our flaws and virtues. We fidget, get busy and distracted and jump to conclusions that will cement the stuckness into a situation—“I can’t practice here with these people,” or “I must have a lot of bad kamma that’s an insurmountable obstacle,” or some other piece of Buddhist jargon.  This is the time to start waking up, because the very compulsion to judge, compare, ruminate and speculate over oneself and thereby create suffering—and believe this process is true and necessary—shows that something more primary is going on here.  Compulsion is not a process that supports awakening.

However, reviewing the experience just as an experience is conducive. We can note that the stuckness, having eluded our attempts to get rid of it or gloss over it, takes us to an “edge.” We are taken to a place of uncertainty, of not being anything that solid, but still with a hankering to be something. We want to stick to some identity or to a conviction in our practice-tradition, but we can’t quite make it. So instead we stick to uncertainty. This is the edge. It’s not a comfortable place, but it is a piece of the journey. This is supposed to happen; the edge is a place where the self-vehicle gets overhauled. And because of that, the wheels have to come off. There’s a vital opening and fruition that can occur for anyone who gets to their edge and manages to feel their way past it: it’s only there that the holding on to one’s “self” at the level of personality unravels.

Often when we get to that edge of uncertainty, the mind moves away from it so quickly that we either shift into doing something, or otherwise displace the uncomfortable feeling.  The mind starts scurrying around: “Why am I like this? What can I do about this?” Restlessness builds up until we have to do something to make ourselves feel capable again, comfortable again, okay again. All this activity intensifies the real obstacle, which is self-orientation – I do, I can’t do, I am, I’m not, I have, I don’t have. If it’s not handled wisely, the stuckness keeps propelling us into activities that justify it as true and finally “my self.”  So notice that: suddenly all this dhamma-practice is making you more neurotic and self-obsessed than you were before!

Notice what takes you to the edge of feeling you’re on solid ground.  It may be within something as humble as a daily routine. Routine acts of service can be testing grounds—places where we are no longer so spontaneous, or feel on top, or seem to develop much. So surely all this humdrum stuff isn’t going to take me to the bright gates of the Deathless! Then again taking responsibility may take us to an edge of uncertainty about our own worth: “Am I good enough? Do people approve of me?” We get stuck in that self-consciousness, and keep recycling reviews and progress reports in terms of “being”(bhava) – “ I am”, “ I ought to be” “ Oh no, look what I’ve become, and haven’t yet become!” This sense of being something always leans upon an achievement, a future, or other people’s approval. Or it causes us to imagine the worst: “I haven’t become a success, my future has no potential, I’m not getting acclaim, so I must be a failure.” This sense of being is so compulsive that if it can’t lean on a positive sense of self, it adopts a negative one to lean on. So the stuckness is more difficult than any particular flaw, because the doubt that it stimulates corrodes our faith in the path and the practice.

At this place, all the teachings sound like platitudes that we’ve heard a thousand times (and “we still haven’t become enlightened”), and although we should have gotten rid of our defilements by now, we haven’t—and sometimes they even seem more authentic than our virtues. Our unconscious attachment—to the teachings, the highs of meditation, the presence of teachers—presents its down side, and the romance looks like it’s heading for divorce.  Stuck stuff is highly emotive, and emotion creates credibility. Whatever is emotive has a vitality to it, and it captures and convinces by its power and ability to evoke, stimulate, and cause the mind to create. So we might not even go beneath the convictions and stories, to reveal the hard core of self-orientation: self-importance and self-pity: “I’ve tried so hard, and Buddhism has let me down.” We start to believe in our minds and solidify with the pathos of it all. We may become destabilized, irrational, moody.  This sense of loss of conviction in “becoming something” can get really difficult; even dangerous: people crack up.  Hence it’s a crucial edge: we’re asked to find a sense of continuity and coherence that is valid but not based on personality view.

This comes around through two interconnected processes: developing the relational sense, and developing the sense of presence. Whereas the personality-view is structured around what I can do, and what I’m going to do about this situation ( it’s a “head sense”),the relational sense tells me how I am in the presence of something “other.” It’s a “heart sense”. By “presence” I mean the bodily, somatic sense, that tells me where I am. The journey out of the stuck place comes through co-ordinating all of these, but in many cases, it first of all entails cultivating the sense of how I am and where I am, as these often receive less attention than the doing sense.  But when these three come together you have a solid and intelligent vehicle for practice.

As we all know, relationships can challenge who we think we are. So in that aspect of our lives, it’s important to maintain a sense of commitment to others (within, of course, ethical boundaries), or to a place, to a routine, to a practice, even though these are often the targets that the stuck sense is throwing the dirt at.  So how good, enlightened and state of the art do these have to be for you?  Can’t they have some dukkha in them? It’s important to maintain mutual trust and faith, even though it’s rare that we feel completely comfortable with each other. There’s always some awkwardness, anxiety, dissonance, hurt, or something. But the commitment is not about attachment or giving hundred percent approval ratings on the people, the place, or the routine, but about contemplating how things are, and using the commitment to effect a leverage against our need to have things go “my way.”  It takes us to the edge; the place to realize the limitations of conditions internally and externally—and relax out of our selves. And it asks us to find new resources: to grow bigger than our selves, bigger than our comfort, happiness, effectiveness, and intelligence. Part of that growth is going to come through more completed relational sense.

The riddle of the stuck place is that it’s something that we can’t negotiate in our normal mode of operating. If it could be done by a ‘me’ it wouldn’t be that which goes beyond me. What is required is a change in direction and a change in energy. Then there can be an opening into something that is larger, more kindly, more boundless than the self-mechanisms. We get beyond attachment to the ups and downs of our personality, we get beyond attachment to systems and techniques of the dhamma, and we get clear of the doubt that measuring dhamma in these terms will always bring us. As we move past these inevitable attachments, we become spacious and at peace.

So investigate: What is the voice behind the emotional charge of the stuck place? Who is standing on the edge? This can give us a good insight or recognition of what the mind is affected by. That subject, that person, becomes one’s meditation theme. Here the standard meditation for relaxing the energy that engenders “self” is that of empathy, goodwill, and compassion (brahmavihara): holding this self in the sphere of wishing it well, and of recognizing its suffering. There’s a change of intention and energy there.

In this way, we’re changing the way we relate. We are not trying to change our apparent self, or even understand it, but rather to use it purely as a center around which to establish the sphere of loving-kindness and compassion. There is the space to relate to our helplessness or meanness. Because all we want to do is to offer kindness and compassion very purely.  When we can discern the self as a sucession of mind-objects, and not a single true and solid thing, then our center shifts. Moment at a time what is the relationship with that? Can it be empathic, towards an other, even another that you don’t like, but have to live with.  There doesn’t have to be an answer in the old sense of the word; but there can be a resolution. Patience; spaciousness, inquiry as to what brings around the most useful and agreeable states of mind.

Another resource is to hold this stuckness in its bodily sense. With stuckness, we to may feel a tension in the body, disturbances in the body’s energy, or even more of a visceral or somatic disturbance. Learn to sit and scan the body with awareness, and particularly to open, as stuckness has a magnetic and adhesive power. For example, the body may tighten up. Or we may feel pulled up into the head, tense in the belly, or spun out—bits of one’s body disappear out of consciousness and other places get intense. So just try sweeping the body with attention, as if we were making this whole bodily sphere into a good place in which the sticking energy can sit. Rather than trying to get rid of it, find a place to hold that conundrum, make the sensed bodily space big enough.

Sticking and holding on tighten and narrow us. Sensory impact, isolation, and the general afflictive relationship experiences that people have tend to drive them behind the skin wall, so the view arises that we are inside this body. On retreat we may want to go even further inside it—but mindfulness of body is to be practiced “internally and externally.” That is, in terms of how it feels both as a subjective entity and as something that exists sensitive to and dependent on an external context. As a thorough day-to-day practice, the bodily experience to be mindful of is that of embodiment. Our conscious process is embodied, and the body has an intelligence. This embodied intelligence is not within physical form; physical form manifests within it. It has an energy and a sensitivity that moves out around this physical form. And it interrelates with the emotions. The two work together, both the bodily sense and the emotional, emotive sense.  When we enter a room we find a place to sit that “feels comfortable” in an irrational way. We sit at a distance from other people that “feels right.” Furthermore, when we have powerful emotions, we sense their effect in a bodily way—the nerves start firing, the face flushes, the guts tighten or relax. This is somatic intelligence. It means that this physical form can attune to its environment without continually touching things.

However, when we get afflicted and hurt we contract, we withdraw that sensitivity, we switch off our context and go up in our heads. The effect is of a retraction of awareness to a numb, habituated state. Many people live like this most of the time. The body grows numb and clumsy, losing its grace; mental attitudes and emotions seize up. People become rigid, unable to see things without a simple this-or-that mentality; the lateral thinking, the ability to play, to look around, or to be spacious—all the flexibility and agility goes out of awareness. So bringing that full sensitivity back to the body through meditation is very helpful, because the more “mental” aspect of  awareness takes cues from the somatic experience of the body. In general, the instruction is to widen and soften as one experiences the way the body senses its own presence.

This makes it possible to recognize where stress is manifesting physically, and to release it. In mindfulness of body, it’s important to attend to the joints, where there is space that can get lost. The space element in the body is primarily the small spaces in-between joints and tissues. When one gets rigid, the tendency is for all of that to contract. So practice opening the hands, relaxing the arms from the body, opening the shoulders, relaxing the jaw where it will tend to clamp, opening up the place between the skull and the neck, all of which tend to shut down. Deliberately widen and soften the sense of the body (it’s not a matter of physical movement or stretching, but of adjusting the nervous energy). Then energy can move around. Emotional and cognitive states will follow: there can be release or compassion or clarity when we unlock the body. The body serves as the ground for negotiating intense and difficult places because it is conscious and related to the consciousness that manifests mind.

So within the sphere of loving-kindness and compassion, and within the sphere of the open body, things ** my shift, even uncomfortably so, but they free up. Our need to succeed, our attachment to ideals and excellence can’t carry us any further, but the unfolding of self and the shift to an embodied and heartful center can. Our intention has to transform into being more fully and empathically present with the way it is: “the feelings in the feelings, mind in the mind,” as the Buddha expressed it.

Awareness is normally something that is directed by volition or cetana, the conscious or semiconscious will to do, to be, or to have. We don’t necessarily recognize that it has an innate vitality and energy that can be brought to bear with a more empathic kind of intention. To put it perhaps too simply, we don’t always have to do a whole lot—doing is already happening in a subtler way. When we attend to something and listen to it, awareness naturally brings its intention or dominant mood, a pattern-producing energy, or sankhara, onto that object. So in this stuck state, the sankhara that we encourage is one of empathy. Applied persistently and patiently of course; and with spaciousness.  That is we locate the stuck energy in the body and listen in to that while bearing the overall bodily state in mind. This relating the localised stuckness to the wholeness is what generates the healing pattern, rather than the wish to change it or even understand it. So attend (give full attention) to it, feel it out, listen to it, until we have come out of the hostility or hopelessness or the frustration of trying to do something to make it change. At the edge of our ability to make and do, a purer intention—to listen and resonate fully—has to take the lead.

So when we have all three aspects of awareness: its cognitive, decisive ‘head’ sense, its empathic ‘heart’ sense, and its grounded bodily ‘presence’ working together, we might say we have full awareness.

And as we attend, we perhaps see new features in that experience, in that compounded state, and we may also realize how we are holding that state. The state of uncertainty may be held with agitation or fear, or have all kinds of stories associated with it.  So notice the emotional charge –distaste, guilt, rage or grief – or the somatic symptoms – tightening in the face, throat or chest, flurrying in the guts – as well as the thought processes – the rights and wrongs and “should bes”  that occur at the edge. In recognizing them as they are, and keeping the whole picture in mind, these energies don’t stick. The stuck state is just a pattern of sankhara energies that we weren’t fully aware of; and when that fullness of awareness is brought to bear on it, the self is taken out of it and it comes unstuck. This is quite a learning. And it takes us to a purer awareness, a quiet knowing that has no opinion, and doesn’t evoke any activity. It’s dispassionate and spacious. There’s an opening into a place that is more intimate and comfortable than our personalities.

So the very predicament of stuckness is vital in eradicating the conceit “I am” or “You are” or “I’m not” or however self-view forms itself. This self is a compounding of dhammas that arise and subside. Stuckness and grasping can take us beyond this—if we can sense and handle them with mindfulness and full awareness.


Talks, Essays, Reflections