Friday, October 26, 2012

Conscious Explosions

     The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. (William Blake, a.k.a. the Devil)

     I remember once trying to tell a Burmese monk, an intelligent, veteran meditator, that I have personal experience with exploding in rage mindfully. He didn't believe me, and was rather amused by the very idea of it. The standard attitude on the subject of mindfulness is that if one is mindful, one is calm. But it doesn't always work that way.
     My first memorable flash of mindfulness during a grand mal conniption occurred many years ago when I was a junior monk living on a flat rock under a tree in Mon State, in southeast Burma. The forest I was inhabiting was in the process of being raped to death by village woodcutters---the big trees were cut for lumber, the smaller trees were cut for firewood, and the underbrush was browsed by cattle or else simply burned to get it out of the way---and I was still unused to Third World Asia's general lack of feeling for nature conservation. (Fortunately the attitude seems to be changing nowadays.) Anyway, one day when I returned to the flat rock after almsround I found a village woodcutter chopping down a tree within plain sight of my resting place. I called out to him not to cut wood there, and he replied, "I'm cutting dry wood!" and continued chopping. It may be that the tree he was engaged in cutting down was dead, but there were already three green sapling trees lying on my path, and I was in no mood to quibble. So I called again, a little louder, "Don't cut wood here!" Again he responded with "I'm cutting dry wood!" and kept chopping. I tried a third time, more angrily, with essentially the same result. So then I exploded. I bellowed at him "Don't cut wood here! Go away!" and while doing this I noticed with some surprise that my left arm automatically flung itself forward and was violently brandishing a pointed finger in his direction. At the same time that I was yelling in anger at this guy I was also intrigued that my arm was gesticulating like it was---there was a feeling of, "Hmmm, this is interesting, I wasn't intending to do that." It's all the more remarkable because I really was enraged; in fact immediately after yelling at him I began heatedly looking around for a rock or a stick to attack him with if he didn't clear out, completely careless of the obvious facts that I was a monk, that it was not my forest, and that he was packing a machete. It's ironic that I remember having shouted in anger at a fellow human being (excepting one case as a college student when I was stinking drunk) only after being ordained as a Buddhist monk and moving to Burma.
     The second memorable time was more profound. This was about twelve years ago, when I was living in a large cave at the edge of a national park in northwest Burma. I had been in the practice of spending my hot seasons there, as it was in the hills and thus a little cooler than the blazing wastelands of Burma's central plain, where I usually lived. I had expressed to my supporters there, simple-hearted hillbilly types, that I was considering spending a rainy season there, and they had been enthusiastic, but had warned me, "There's big rain here during the rainy season." So twelve years ago I spent a rainy season there expecting lots of rain and probably some coolness along with it…and it was a miserable drought. Hardly any rain, and very hot and very humid---in fact it was more uncomfortably hot than the hot season had been. After weeks of dripping with sweat, completely unable to be comfortable, and, worst of all perhaps, seething inwardly over the supposed "big rain" that should be falling but wasn't, I snapped. I was pacing back and forth in the cave one night (a multitude of large wasp nests rendered pacing during the day very dicey), silently raging. I wanted to cry, or howl, or punch a wall, or beat my head against something. I just couldn't stand it any more. Then, suddenly, there was a shift of consciousness. It was as though the intensity of my feelings had become so extreme as to go right off the scale. I found I was experiencing two levels of consciousness simultaneously: the weird, absurd, raging monk was still madly pacing back and forth like a caged leopard, at the verge of tears, while another level simply watched. It was dispassionately watching wild nature taking its course, like looking upon a stormy sea, without any emotional involvement. It calmly, and very wakefully, observed. It was clearly a higher level of consciousness than the raging one; and deep down I knew that this is present always, but that usually we're so preoccupied with thoughts and feelings that we do not notice. We're too much identified with our ordinary perceptual limitations.
     Another memorable time was a few years later, in a different cave in the northwest of Burma. This place was in the lowlands, and the only reason I was able to live in such a furnace of a place was the presence of the cave in which I spent most of the days of the long hot seasons. Again the monsoon was a miserable drought, and again I was at wit's end, unable to stop sweating or experience the relief of some comfort. I was in the cave one blazing sunny day and something (I don't remember what) caused me to explode in a solitary rage, cursing and slamming things. Then, again, this higher level of consciousness became manifest. I continued raging, but it seemed as though I were an actor merely playing the role of someone throwing a conniption. At one level I was still genuinely, sincerely throwing a fit, while at the other it was like I was an actor playing King Lear on a stage: he is really living his part, and feeling the betrayal of his daughters as he wails at the stormy sky and goes mad with grief; yet at the same time he's exulting that he's actually playing Lear on stage(!), and is aware of his orientation to the audience, his center of balance, the amount of slobber in his mouth, and the fact that the fellow playing Albany flubbed his lines a few minutes previously. My rage, although not abating in intensity, was suddenly a kind of superficial appearance. 
     Such events have continued to occur from time to time, although I'm really not a very angry person by nature. There were times when I began to wonder if I were becoming schizophrenic, as I had read that this illness has as a symptom the division of the mind into two parts like this; but as far as I can tell I am relatively sane. Relatively. This "two level" consciousness has arisen not only with rage, but with other feelings too.
     Yet anger is a relatively easy state to be mindful of if we are not habitually angry and usually are relatively lucid. Then arising anger is like police lights suddenly flashing and sirens blaring in the mind. It is very noticeable, and easy to attend to. It may be, for some, easier to note than the breathing process. I'm not recommending tantrums as a spiritual practice, however; but if one does arise one may have a golden opportunity for the arising of insight also. As the Christian saying goes, Man's extremity is God's opportunity. 
     The seeming paradox of a higher level of consciousness arising simultaneously with a fit of anger has helped me to reconsider the common Theravadin belief that enlightenment necessarily springs from a purified mind. I would guess that we don't become enlightened by purifying our mental states so much as by detaching and disidentifying from them. No matter how many times we sweep the floor, there will still be some dust remaining; even so, no matter how much we purify our vision, there may still be some dust remaining in our eyes. As some Western spiritual teachers say nowadays, it may simply be the inevitable nature of the thinking, feeling mind to be messed up.
     I offer an analogy: Let us say that consciousness is like water, and that mental states (like perceptions and feelings) are like waves on the surface of that water. Water represents the essence of the mind, and waves signify the form that the mind assumes. As it turns out, almost everybody is stuck at the level of waves, and thus is oblivious to the formless essence of water. It's this wave versus that wave; I like this wave, but hate that one; this wave is good, but that wave is bad; this wave should be here, but that one shouldn't; and so on. We live in a world of form without essence. So the purpose of so-called tranquility meditation (samatha) in Buddhist practice is to calm the waves enough that we are not distracted by them and can thereby notice the formless essence of water that has been there all the time. It is much easier not to identify with waves if there are no obvious waves to be had. This realization of water, using the terms of the analogy, is called insight (vipassana). Some people may need a virtual flat calm before the spell of the waves is broken, while others may be able to have their insight in rather choppy seas. For these others tranquility meditation is less of a necessity. In this way spiritual practice consists of calming the waves of the mind (through morality, simplicity, meditation, etc.) enough that its true essence may be realized.
     The real trick is to continue seeing the water essentially as water even after the waves return, even if there happens to be a raging stormy sea. This mindfulness of the essential nature of perceptual waves is what the Zen Buddhists call "Zen in the marketplace," and say that it is much more valuable than Zen in the meditation hall. Thus the temple may resound with the shouts of the Zen master and blows from his stick may fall like rain, yet (so they say) the master's mind abides in stillness. 
     And so, if you are angry, be with the anger, and if you are peaceful, be with the peace.

1. The Raging of the Stormy Sea
2. Water
3. The Raging of the Stormy Sea and Water
4. Neither the Raging of the Stormy Sea nor Water
5. ?




  1. Excellent post - many thanks. There is another Blake quote (From the "Auguries of Innocence":

    To be in a passion you good may do,
    But no good if a passion is in you.

    I'm not sure which way he meant it, but it could be read as meaning that carrying the passion inside us in an unwitting fashion is what does the damage.

  2. This is a wonderful post. It seems so important to give a message that feeling/emotions are not "bad" and expressing them when mindful is actually helpful. Suppression is not recommended in spiritual awakening. Thanks!

  3. Om Shanti, my friend,

    A lovely post. Again,it seems you are writing from my experience. I have been mindful of what few anger episodes appear for years. Of course, not having been trained formally (so to speak) in Buddhist teachings, I've always thought that anger=delusion. How can one get angry if one is totally present in the moment? I wonder if the Gautama Buddha continued to have anger outbursts after he enlightened, but I'm coming to accept that it is what I feel in the moment and as such, is okay to feel. After all, when fighting the inevitable (what is happening NOW) I only lose 100% of the time. After losing a million times or more, I'm finally growing a brain. Or maybe I'm just getting too old to keep tilting at windmills.

    In any case, it is heartening to know that someone who has had your experiences in meditating still deals with such emotions. Why is that? I'm too tired to try to figure it out right now. It is what it is, eh? :-)

    1. Well, I am happy to say that I haven't thrown a conniption in at least four years, although anger still arises sometimes. In Burma it arose partly because I was living alone and not receiving feedback. Since coming back from Burma the worst irritation has been BECAUSE of feedback. Go figure.