Healing the Cracks

Wholeness –  and Differentiation

Peace. Restfulness. Wholeness. Aren’t these the kind of experiences that we seek? A sense of not having to rush to the future or get anxious about it; to not be pushed by time? And wouldn’t it be a relief to not have to handle and juggle all kinds of stuff, or pack things away into boxes, or tidy things up and sort things out? How satisfying it would feel if all that stress could fade out!

One skill in meditation is that of releasing the mind from its contents. Is that possible? Mental content gets so intense that we even think the comings and goings, the pulling and pushing that infect our world arethe mind. But this is mental content: you can step back and be aware of it, and be aware of the mind creating it in a world of time and space – with the notion that I am a something that moves through that time and space.Endlessly, until I die. That creation, that view, is samsara, the endless rolling on, and it is suffering.  So to release the contents is to release the world of time and space.

What is this world that I’m referring to? This world is an experience of differentiations that trigger mental activities, such as eagerness and anxiety, love and fear. The release of the world is through handling these mental activities with clarity and compassion as they arise in awareness. In terms of awareness, the differentiations begin with the sense of ‘myself’ and ‘the world’ – here I am and then there’s everything else. It becomes sharpened into there’s me and there’s you, and there’s me and this you, and that one, and him and her. There’s a host of differentiations – race, gender, size, wealth, popularity, friend, foe, right and wrong. Even when we close our eyes, differentiations occur such as between what I am and what I should be, what I remember, what I should do and how I’m doing, how I could be doing if only … All these agitate the mind and become the basis for conflict. No peace, no rest, no wholeness.

The differentiation between right and wrong is an especially meaningful one for us. With that comes success, failure, praise, blame, reward or punishment: there’s a big charge around getting it right or getting it wrong.  Meanwhile direct experience – thoughts, sensations, emotions – is just what happens. It’s not based on right or wrong. Its sole fundamental quality is that it just happens.

Our consciousness, however, has the potential to differentiate that experience, in order to know it and determine a response. The process begins with ‘Here I am and there’s that over there.’ Consciousness, or ‘viññāna’, is based on various forms of sense contact, such as seeing, hearing and touching, and it differentiates ‘This is happening to me. There’s a thing out there that’s doing this to me.’ The thing in question derives from sensory input, but the ‘me’ sense derives from the mind: when the eyes are closed there’s justme, and with the eyes open there’s a me and a that.  So there’s a synthesis between the mental consciousness and the external senses, through which the first differentiation occurs and the matrix of consciousness and ‘name and form’ is set up as the model of experience.  In this, ‘name’ is the how ‘I’ attend or apprehend or am affected. In the language of the scriptures that name, or naming is nāma. And what it names is ‘form’, rūpa, the sensed object. So ‘dependent on name-and-form is consciousness and consciousness is dependent on name-and-form.’ Without being conscious there isn’t an awareness of form, and consciousness itself depends on there being something to see, hear, think , etc.

Based on this primary differentiation, other qualities arise – perceptions and feelings such as ‘man’, ‘friend’, ‘hostile’, ‘loveable’, ‘uncertain’ – all the ways in which we place adjectives on experience. Adjectives arise. From those adjectives arise verbs – that is inclining and focusing – and then these verbs produce nouns. The sense of ‘disagreeable’ becomes something I disagree with and that generates a disagreeable object that carries the quality of being offensive. For instance, I may find something you say offends my attitudes, I experience an inclination to reject that, and you become someone I dislike.  Your other qualities, say your chronic ulcer, your humor, your love for your children etc., do not register in the way I create you. There are a lot of problems that occur because of this object-creating – or papañca, to use the Buddhist terminology.


Loss of space: papañca

In terms of our own ‘inner’ domain, this creative process generates a multiplicity of moods and thoughts. If you follow it from the beginning it starts with just a movement of, ‘Oh, something’s happening,’ – contact, phassa– and then a resonance of it being agreeable or disagreeable occurs, and then one feels disagreeable or uncertain, and what happens then?  We sense, ‘I should do something about that. I should hold onto that, or I should make sure that doesn’t happen.’ The experience of agreeable or disagreeable feeling is acted upon to generate an agreeable or disagreeable object ‘out there’. The synthesis between visual and mental consciousness occurs in the ‘space’ of awareness, so our emotional response follows suit by holding awareness as ‘myspace’ and trying to throw disagreeable objects ‘out of my space’. But you can’t throw unpleasant ideas, fears and regret into a space outside your awareness, because there isn’t one: your awareness is the space that content occurs within. The sense of or lack of space is just the degree of freedom or pressure in your awareness.

But you can be aware ‘I feel that I have no space.’ And try to witness how that pressure depends on a boundary that’s constructed between me and the world/the other/the future/the desired/the unloved etc. You can be aware of that resistance or favoring. You can feel a jump in the nervous system – a favoring or opposing or uncertainty. From that jump, that reaction, distinct objects arise that carry a particular quality, and ‘I am in a difficult relationship to them’ or ‘I am overwhelmed by them’. Can you feel any of that, without reacting to it? Can you hold the awareness of that? Then the space will become more apparent and you can let the content ease up.

Differentiation and object-creation come from something that is quite dynamic and fluid. So it can relax; the jump can arise and die down.  But if it takes hold, this differentiation process escalates with papañca, objectification. Papañcameans literally something like ‘thorough five’. You could say the papañcaprocess is making a ‘thorough fiveness’ of experience. There’s the resonance of mind being affected and through papañcathat becomes an experiencein my space, something that’s observed by the five external senses. That resonance of uncertainty becomes ‘he who is this to me’, ‘he looks like this’, and ‘I remember how he used to be’, and ‘he may become like that unless I …’ and so on. All that comes up. And then there’s a hardening into a world of me and objects out there that I have to deal with and worry about. Out of the subjective quality of consciousness, papañcacreates objects that confound or entice me.

This process is occurring because the resonance, the ‘sign’, sañña, or perception of experience, is based on mental consciousness. The eyes don’t do it. The eyes certainly differentiate between light and dark, but the mind generates a seer and a thing seen: the predominant creator of the world is mental. By ‘mind’ I don’t mean the intellect; I mean mental consciousness, and that carries a perceptual quality – the ability to name something as ‘one of those’ – an emotional, that is an agreeable/disagreeable quality, as well as an intellectual and conceiving quality – that which brings up ideas and notions. It’s not that I deliberately create any of this, viññāna-nama-rupacarries it – but I can add desire and aversion and so on to that, I can react and linger in those proliferating differentiations … or I can pause, be aware of them, and let them fade in my awareness, or citta.


Fundamental Structures: Time and Self

The mental consciousness creates fundamental structures that support further differentiation. These structures are so well established, or conjured up so immediately, that they become realities. The basic structures are time and space, self and other. They arise so immediately that we do not believe that they are created. I don’t seem to create the future. The future is ‘out there’. ‘There is such a thing as a tomorrow. There is an April 29th. There is a 2020. There is my grandfather’s birthday. There is, “I’ve got to pay the rent by …’ Time is a structure that receives strong social support because it organizes us – for good or for bad. The future has the power to push, overwhelm, and flood the mind with its potencies of interest, hope, aspiration, expectation, worry, panic, and despair. It floods the mind with feeling.

But where is all that occurring? And how can something that isn’t even here, like 2020, get me rattled? The mental consciousness generates the reactions and emotions that accompany the feeling and perception of the future or the past, self or other. And they fill the space of awareness. All this is nāma, proliferating in relation to what it has created. And somewhere in that papañca process, it’s as if the mind becomes divorced from the very object that is created. We get to feel powerless: we can’t guarantee our future, we can’t know it; yet the power, the potency of ‘time’ asks us, ‘Please try to make my past or my future settled and certain and comfortable, so I can relax.’ And then, of course, my strategies come up to try to make that happen. And that is stressful, isn’t it? The amount of energy one has to put in to handling ‘the future’ or ‘the past’ can be overwhelming.  But can you ignore the future? No. But can it possibly not overwhelm you? Yes: out of compassion, it’s recommended that we bear in mind that we might die tomorrow. There might not be a 2020 as far as you’re concerned. Where is the future then, and the plans? They’re just projections. Time only has a relative existence, it’s generated by the mind; and we can unhook its panic trigger.  Once you see it as a creation, then you know that the future unfolds from your current mind-state. So you realize that what you can orient around is integrity and awareness. Live those and let the future unfold.

‘Other people’ is another area that is conjured up from experience. It could be a single person, like your friend, partner, son, or mother – and there could be a big charge around that. You might feel responsible or question: ‘How are they with me?’ ‘Do they like me?’ ‘Am I comfortable with them?’ ‘How can I help them?’ ‘What is my duty towards them?’ ‘What are my irritations and disappointments about them?’ But right now, who are these ‘me’ and ‘the other’ that come into your mind? Are you aware of the other’s earrings or their intestines? No. You’re probably aware of a particular piece of experience in relation to them that rings true for you; that represents yourlove, or worry, or frustration; it’s not a matter of a fixed me or you, it’s dynamic. Dynamic because that experience is charged and subject to change. Of course we live in a world of ‘other people’; ‘other people’ is a very meaningful signifier for us, and yet, what it signifies comes from our own hearts. Truly, the qualities of other people are dependently based on the qualities in my awareness. Just like time, ‘other people’ is an empty but potent signifier. It’s like an empty space that invites us to put feelings, ideas and reactions into it. And what gets put into it changes in the relationship of otherness. Can that relationship be held with respect and goodwill?

Along with the signifier of ‘others’ comes the notion ‘myself’. Perhaps this is the biggest one of all. See if you can run that concept through your mind a few times without a ripple. Myself.It’s a very potent signifier, isn’t it? Along with it comes, ‘How am I?’ ‘How am I doing?’ ’ ‘I’m getting overweight.’ ‘What can I be?’ ‘What will I be?’ ‘Am I doing enough now to make sure that in the future I will be okay?’ ‘Am I doing the right kind of things that make sure she is okay with me?’ ‘Do I?… Oh, dear, I probably don’t  (meditate enough, exercise enough…)’ The fact that the descriptions and the scenarios around mechange indicate that ‘me’ is inherently empty.  But it doesn’t stay empty for long, does it?  Something, called bhavaor becoming, wants to fill that space. And along with it comes the inner critic, the finger-wagging inner tyrant that repeatedly reminds us what we didn’t do and should have been.

Notice how these signifiers quickly flood the mind, and what they flood with is not supportive. Even if there are supportive strands in ‘my space’, it takes energy and action to keep filling that space with something happy and good and just right. So this too is stressful.  Can you instead relax the content of that signifier and just be the awareness of whatever content arises?


Meditation based on Relationship

To do this takes skill, the skill we call ‘meditation’. But there are proliferations that can occur around this signifier: ‘Do I meditate longenough?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do I meditate wellenough?’ ‘No.’ ‘Is my meditation going in the rightdirection?’ ‘Don’t know.’ ‘Is it going to get you where I need to be?’ ‘Maybe, it depends …’ ‘Maybe I should try another system, somethingquicker.’  But what does it take to let the ideas about meditation and the notions of getting places fade out?

Sometimes the meditator differentiates things arising in the mind as, ‘That’s mundane stuff, that’s not spiritual, I want to meditate, go away!’ ‘I don’t want those things bothering me right now. I want to go into that nice, deep, oceanic place where I feel comfortable.’ And you’re there for five minutes before the mundane stuff starts coming up again. And then, ‘Stop that!’

So there are these movements that generate yourself (the ‘me’ sense), other people, the future and the past, moving through my space. And even spiritual signifiers can get filled with resonances that are steeped in anxiety, apprehension, demand, obligation, expectation, and sometimes ‘disappointment with myself’. This papañcagets overwhelming.

But, rather than feeling you’re dropping the meditation and getting distracted, can those movements be held in awareness? Can the meditation be just the maintaining of awareness as seamless? If you leave the good, safe refuge situation or mind-state and go into the mundane, silly and neurotic stuff, can there be a quality that doesn’t separate, doesn’t differentiate, doesn’t blame you for having a world? Could the differentiation process of sense-consciousness be handled with some care, as part of what we have to live with? Could we not get overwhelmed, and integrate rather than disintegrate? What could do that?  In a word, relationship is the key.

With awareness, we can integrate differentiated experience. We can relate to it with grounded empathy: to feel and not be shaken. In this process, meditation exercises can bring certain strengths to the fore.  The first of these is groundedness. Groundedness means being ‘here’ in the present as experience rolls on. You may be sitting quite steady and suddenly things seem to speed up with a feeling of being rushed up and thrown out. That’s losing ground. Groundedness is supported through mindfulness of body: not just witnessing the body, but of entering the feeling, the perception, the nāmathat indicates I have, or am in, a body. It’s probably best to track the sensations in your lower body as it rests on the ground, until the perception, the felt meaning of ‘grounded’ can arise. This awakens the body not as an object of attention, but as a feeling subject; it’s the sense of bodily presence as it arises in awareness beforewe start calling it arms and legs, etc. In that there is a sense of an undifferentiated ground, a sense of ‘here’.

Having established this sense, rest in it while consciously introducing a signifier that creates your world. It can be a simple topic like tomorrow, or my father. Feel the jump that occurs when that signifier is introduced and then rest again in the groundedness of the body. Do this a few times until the quality of the ground begins to include, to wrap around the signifier. So we feel steady, secure and unhurried in the presence of what is moving and stirring. Then there is a little more space and ability to relate to the signifier rather than react to it or dissociate from it. Practising like this, you can approach the experience of differentiation in a more steady and even a loving way.


Primal Sympathy

Of course, ‘love’ is another big signifier. It’s a simple word that everybody sort of gets, yet probably all of us have a slightly different take on what it means. The quality that is the strength in meditation is empathy, primal sympathy;anukampain Buddhist terms. This word literally means ‘to tremble with’; but it’s a resonance that doesn’t throw awareness off its ground. It relaxes the boundaries of ‘me’ and ‘the other.’ It shares ‘my space’ with whatever arises; the space of my awareness doesn’t reject any of what it contains. So the mind doesn’t create a separate object. Instead awareness may feel the mood, such as irritation or warmth, but it doesn’t fixate on them; they can arise and pass. But it takes practice: we have to hold our ground yet feel the feeling, otherwise we just shut down the grief or the sense of outrage or follow the passion. In which case all that starts proliferating into repressed or expressed emotional outflows.

The quality of empathy has to arise from groundedness, otherwise you get blown away or react to what happens.  If we are grounded our attention can rest on the ‘you-me’ signifier, that sense of boundary. The heart may wobble and agitate a little; feeling happens; the sense of being impressed upon happens – but the groundedness can hold it so the heart receives that impression without jumping. There is an opening, a shift. I call this quality ‘primal sympathy’, one is aware, touched but non-reactive.

Whenever primal sympathy is lost, trouble begins. The resonance is cut off, dismissed or suppressed, and we make other people really other, objects in my mind. Then the papañcaprocess can run on with blind opinions and chain reactions, the mind goes into overwhelm – and we become possessed by the emotion and the views that have arisen.

In this possessed state, there is nothing we will not do to ‘the other’.  That ‘other person’ signifier can support brutality and discrimination. We assume other people are our mind’s signifier filled with contempt or fear. Take racial discrimination: ‘These people are not the same as me, ’ Well, maybe the skin is a different shade, but that doesn’t have to signify ‘dangerous, lesser, weird, doesn’t like me, better than me’. Discrimination can occur over gender, religious belief or sexual diversity; people become objects in which lust or hatred or craving can magnify – without even being recognized!  The differentiation ‘not the same as me’ gets triggered and the passion or fear gets dumped into ‘the other’. This is particularly played out by demagogues to an extent that is so unbalanced one wonders how anyone manages to believe it. And yet we do, because the unresolved fear, anxiety, aversion and craving in mental consciousness floods into the signifier. Then there is a dissociation from empathy and from full awareness.



With dissociation, animals become objects of our wishes and projections, signifiers that we don’t see as subjects, as beings with a need for security or comfort or a wish to survive, or with fear of pain or death. They can be seen as living meat; burgers on legs for a while until they become burgers. We might feel that dissociating from animals is more excusable than from human beings. Maybe so, maybe we have to eat something, but I suggest that if we were fully aware of some of the farming processes going on today and were really open to how cruelly animals were being treated, we would be quite shocked. Maybe there are other things to eat!

Or maybe we shrug, and sense that we have no alternative. That’s also part of the process of dissociation: we close down on empathy. And the more we close down the heart’s capacity for empathy, the more we become locked into numb signifiers: ‘duty’, ‘normal’, ‘the world’. And we lose empathy with ourselves. We turn into a series of ‘should be’s’, a series of beliefs opinions, and strategies; we lose empathy with ourselves – with this body, with this mind, with their needs and pangs, sorrows and wild energies. Instead we demand that we be what ‘we should be’, we become an object to ourselves that’s marked by performance issues, physical appearance, success rates, past and future. We try to make ourselves into a good object – but there isn’t ‘a good object’ because all objects are marked by anxiety, judgement, need to hold on; they’re marked by suffering. Object-making seems so natural and necessary – so the mind tries to make you into something you can feel pleased by or think others like. But how many of those movements of uncertainty, of trying and being disappointed and anxious become nouns, objects. If it becomes an object doesn’t it haunt you?

If I try to create an impression of myself, particular images rise up, particular gestures of how I am to myself. I could think ‘I’m a Buddhist monk, I’m so many years old, I’m British, I’m white, I’m male’. Then: ‘I could be a great monk, but I’m not perfect, I need to do more’, ‘Britain stole masses of and and resources from other people’, ‘white people are privileged and supremacist’, ‘men are domineering’– guilt, inadequacy all kinds of things can happen with that signifier.

But we’re not objects, we’re subjects. And the good news is that our awareness is a domain of subjectivity that can includeothers.


Subjectivity includes ‘self and other’

An unnoticed feature of personal experience is that every merequires a you. Even an inferred ‘you’ that I compare myself with – other people, people of color, women – or feel I am ‘one of those Anglo-Saxon, arrogant, domineering men.’ Yech!  How to deal with all that? This is where ‘you’ come in – and primal sympathy.  So: every human being is made human by other humans. We are physically born out of our mothers’ bodies. We are weaned and raised by other people. We are seen, held, appreciated, tempered and challenged by other people. We are constantly modeled and modeling other people. We are inspired, disappointed and frightened by other people. Most of our nerve endings are tuned to the experience of being with other people and being affected by them. Now if this signifier ‘me’becomes predominant, all those energies that would normally be empathizing, sensing and negotiating with other people, that are alert and attuned to the otherness which is an inherent part of our consciousness, start to atrophy. Those energies turn inward and we can become narcissistic, we can become the insensitive and domineering one who isn’t happy – because as we shut down empathy, we also shut down the heart . The mysterious, open ‘otherness’ becomes ‘the other’ and we’re left in a world of projections that haunt us, but are as insubstantial as ghosts.

 This object-making process is a very powerful tendency, but it’s not a fundamental truth. Because it’s not a fundamental truth we don’t have to follow it. This means we have to return to the subjectivity, the awareness, the ‘I’ sense before the ‘I am.’ This is one of the biggest lessons of our lives, or maybe thebiggest: to enter subjectivity. With subjectivity instead of a person’s anger freezing into ‘She is an angry person,’ the experience is, ‘This feels wild and turbulent, stay grounded.’ Then we can reason: ‘Like me, she experiences anger.’ ‘Like me, he experiences fear.’ ‘Like me, he wants comfort.’ ‘Like me, she needs security.’ The subjectivity becomes mutual, ‘intersubjectivity.’ So we open to feeling in a way that’s safe and free from freezing. And we are rewarded –because this heart becomes enriched, and it acts more skillfully in the shared domain of sentient life. Every otheris really as ‘other’ as myself is. They’re both signifiers to be sensed with awareness, and emptied of fear, lust and aversion. We don’t have to know who we are, or who someone else is. To end suffering, we need to relate to what arises empathically. Such empathy is a gift to our hearts, all living beings and ourselves; and we can cultivate this.


The human invitation

One year, I was invited to Tibet in order to circumambulate Mount Kailas. There were many amazing experiences; but the most amazing were the ordinary human ones.  At one point we were driving in the rain, and when it stopped raining, the driver pulled the Land Cruiser over to the side of the road where we could sit and eat our daily meal. With oxygen deprivation, we didn’t feel like eating very much. We just had some sandwiches. While we were sitting there some local people started coming toward us from a distance. They were Tibetan villagers – people living very close to the earth. They wore rags, and their skin was gray from grime. Looking us straight in the eyes, they came forward one at a time, bent their heads down towards me and gestured that they would like me to touch their heads. Gradually the whole village straggled down. You could barely tell the difference between the women and men because they just looked like bundles of rags. I was this clean, white-skinned privileged person and these people’s hands were hard and grimy. One would indicate to touch the shoulder, and as I touched the shoulder a small puff of dust would come off the rags. Then the person would look up with joy-filled eyes and move away. Some brought their babies down to be touched. As I touched the baby I was looking at pure joy. And as I sat there, this heart kept opening … opening … opening. One person I was with started weeping. Another couldn’t handle it, he had to go away and do something – it was just too much, it was too powerful to touch with that direct eye-to-eye openness.

Even as an alms mendicant, I’m sure that more requisites flow through these hands in one week than those people get in a year. I’ve got food. I can travel to Tibet. I can get a passport, I can get medical care, and yet, when those villagers looked me in the eyes as a fellow human being all those differentiations just dissolved. Something in me suddenly became very big and warm and tender and honored by that touch. Sometimes when I close my eyes, I still see those eyes looking at me with openness and I ask, ‘What’s it like in there?’ They didn’t seem to have much fear. They didn’t seem embarrassed. They didn’t seem nervous. The weirdest thing was that I felt like in one way, they were doing better than me because they hadn’t created a world that has no sympathy.

The loss of care in this world is evident in issues such as inequality of resources, and the destruction of the biosphere; issues that seem overwhelming in their magnitude. But we have to look into our hearts because this is where it all begins. In here is the process that makes it happen; and also the way that brings it to an end.  As a beginning, on a retreat, we can work with getting grounded enough to establish a skillful relationship with what arises in awareness. We can awaken that empathy and the clarity that empties the signifier ‘I am this’ ‘She is that.’

In that emptiness there’s the beauty of true empathy, of true openness in which everything becomes possible. We can enter into this world of differentiation with confidence compassion, and mindfulness. Here’s the invitation, here’s the ground, the safety, there’s no pressure, no obligation, no payment, no result, no next moment, no progress. As we put these projections aside, the natural movement of empathy can arise. It’s an invitation: now is the opportunity to re-set our actions in accord with clear heart.



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