The Meaning of Mandala

Mexican cuisine mandala; note how the background is part of the foreground subject and how every element contributes to the larger whole.

Article 31 The Meaning of Mandala

“A circular figure representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism.”

I imagine the above definition is pretty much what most people think of when the word ‘mandala’ is used. Allow me to take you behind the curtain to what is a most interesting and useful notion yet rarely explained – let alone understood. The circular mandalas in the definition above are stylized, two-dimensional representations of something which is actually more an experience than a thing, and so the word is closer categorically to things like ‘hunger’ or ‘courage’ than ‘painting’ or ‘food.’

What those mandala paintings usually – though not always – depict is the mandala of a deity used in visualisation practice; there is a central deity with whom the practitioner identifies or emulates and that deity usually has a retinue of subsidiary deities or attendants along with a locale such as a certain type of terrain or situation. All together – deity, retinue and terrain – makes the mandala. The Tibetan Buddhist scholars translated the original Sanskrit mandala into khyil-kor which simply means centre-fringe. As an object, our equivalent word in two dimensions is ‘circle’ and in three dimensions it is ‘sphere.’ (And in the context of our bodies we might also think of it as the combination of inside and outside.)

However, a mandala is not an object per se, albeit the notion of sphere isn’t a bad metaphor. Rather, a mandala is a whole setup that creates a particular something, be it a person, place or situation. Giving examples is easier than getting bogged down in complex definitions, so here are some:

kitchen mandala, body mandala, governmental mandala, garden mandala, bedroom mandala, relationship mandala, family mandala, sacred mandala, profane mandala, confusion mandala, wisdom mandala… and so forth. Perhaps now you have read these examples little more need be said except to point out a few additional aspects.

For example, although the center may be different in certain regards from the fringe – just as the central deity is different from his or her accoutrements, retinue and surroundings – nevertheless they are all part of the same overall situational dynamic which in short hand is called a mandala. So mandala is a collection of qualities, aspects or things which together are part of a larger whole making that whole the overall mandala in which all such elements are found.

For example, though millions of us live in different countries and time zones speaking no end of different languages wearing different clothes we are all part of this Earth’s same planetary mandala; and we are all part of a current Covid Pandemic mandala in that we are sharing various logistics and messages about an invisible enemy surrounding us and because of which our societies are being gradually restructured without the usual political checks and balances – perhaps a new kind of war without conventional armies and weapons; but this new international ‘Covid mandala’ is a dynamic in which we all share participation.

Practically speaking, the word can be helpful in tying together various seemingly disparate elements into one whole, thus providing insight into the nature both of those particular elements and the overall context in which they are playing a part.

More experientially speaking, we can think of it as a way to describe atmospheres, as in the example of kitchen vs bedroom mandala. Both in the same house yet when we walk into each room instantly we experience a different atmosphere: in the kitchen we have so many associations of cooking smells, maybe there is a kitchen table there we have sat around together so many times, all the spices in racks, the pots gleaming, the dish-washing area, the fridge area, the cutting board area, the light coming in from the window just so at different times of day. Each area is unique but also contributes to the overall kitchen mandala atmosphere which accumulates over time even over many generations, everything echoing in the present moment and contributing to the current atmosphere and how everything in this kitchen feels and looks. If there is a lot of mess and the parents always fight, the kitchen mandala will feel different from a household with a loving parental couple who keep a clean, much appreciated kitchen turning out great food which the family enjoys every day. So each kitchen mandala will feel quite different which means the same object will feel different in each different mandala since such atmospheric qualities perfume every mental and physical element therein. As such, there is no objective kitchen mandala per se, it is not a thing but rather something experienced.

And then you walk into the bedroom (or bathroom, or study, or garden, or basement or attic etc.) and in each case an entirely different matrix of objects, memories and atmospheres arises, which together comprise different mandalas. And all such different mandalas are part of the same overall house or family mandala, which are part of the neighbourhood mandala, or the town, country or civilisational mandala. There are mandalas within mandalas within mandalas.

So mandala is a very ordinary thing we experience all the time, but for some reason don’t have a word for in English; hence this Article!

A Glimpse of the Sacred

Woman working to create sacred space in nature

Article 30 A glimpse of the Sacred

Whilst driving through sub-par Mexican country roads on the way to a rather nice local thermal pool in Veracruz, I was asked ‘how do you make a space sacred?’ I was a little taken aback because I regard that as a rather huge topic about which volumes could be composed, but of course if it truly is such a topic, then it should be explainable in simple terms, indeed the simpler the better. After considering for a minute or so, I made the following reply, which I consider ‘not bad’ as a first stab…

First, we need to have some notion of what is meant by the word ‘sacred’ before discussing how to engender it. The perception of sacredness happens when we tune into a seemingly heightened state which at the same time involves appreciating what is primordially present all the time. There is some sense of luminosity in the awareness field along with a sense of timelessness. I think most of us experience this in wedding ceremonies – certainly the Roman Catholic Mass is a ritual designed to invoke this sense. Lovers often experience each other as sacred beings, almost like living gods. The moment of birth is also one where nearly all present feel some combination of heightened perception with a sense of timelessness and deep appreciation of the wonder of life for in the ‘heightened perception’ aspect there is almost always some sense of deep, profound beauty and goodness. Sort of like a perfect home or palace, a perfect garden, a perfect meal, a perfect day, a perfect moment.

Well, that’s not a very precise, let alone complete, definition, but let’s go with it. But first, why not consult the Oxford dictionary?

“Connected with God or a god or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration.”

“Origin: Late Middle English past participle of archaic sacred ‘consecrate’, from Old French sacrer, from Latin sacrare, from sacer, sacr- ‘holy’.”

This is a tad abstract, as if viewing from afar objectively, whereas sacredness is always a subjective experience, which is why my initial description is so different. However, in the Origin section we get the notion of ‘consecrate’ which accords with the third part of the next section of my reply in which are posited three aspects to engendering the experience of sacred perception or making a space feel sacred. These three aspects are:

1 Purification.

2 Care

3 Invocation, seemingly from above.

1. Purification: the first step involves literally cleaning the space physically but of course as one does so one also purifies one’s inner psychological space. Cleaning involves removing surface dirt, or impurities, so that the essential object presents in a pure fashion. Everything is essentially pure just as it is, but sometimes we cover things over with our own confusion, bad habits, speed, ill will and so forth. That needs to be cleaned away. So if preparing a ritual, for example, the first thing is to both clean the space and all implements or furnishings therein, as well as cleaning oneself and wearing one’s best outfit for the occasion, which is not just a specific item – such as a ceremonial scarf or crown – but also clean underwear. Everything must be spotless and pure, both physically and psychologically. This is the Body aspect.

2. Care. This is a sense of reverence, kindness and heart and relates to the feelings of goodness mentioned earlier. Things – or situations and people – have their place and time. When they are cleaned and positioned just so, their presence comes forward. Appreciating things and people for what and who they are heightens our perception of them in that we are paying attention, and paying attention with respect, with kindness, with heart. So first we purify, and then we appreciate, which has some sense of connecting or communicating with the situation. This is the Speech aspect.

3. Invocation: the last step is simply invoking a sense of sacredness, ‘bringing it down’ as it were. In come cultures, rituals have been developed involving using rising smoke to create a link with the gods above such that they come down through the smoke which can then be fanned onto every object and person present who in turn become imbued with sacred presence. This is the Mind aspect.

Of course one doesn’t need the visual and olfactory aid of the smoke, rather just to deepen the sense of sharing space and time, to dive into this feeling and allow time to stop and the sense perceptions to expand, to blossom. Indeed, the original meaning of Buddha in Tibetan is ‘sang-ye’ which means lion in some sense but also blossoming in others. That which is already there flowers, blossoms. Sacred perception is like that: that which is already there is seen to be primordially spotless, primordially good, primordially present. This combination of purity, goodness and living presence is what in shorthand we can call ‘sacred.’

The reason for this article and a few others similar to it is that in order to write other articles of more general, or contemporary, interest, I will need to be able to avail myself of a few terms that are not widely used today – such as sacredness. Another such, for example, is the word ‘mandala,’ which is of great practical use when discussing certain topics but for which there is no English language equivalent. Earlier we had the notion of the various Realms (which will no doubt return in future articles), not to mention their being a type of mandala as well. And another one will be some notion of Middle Path, or Middle Way.

The intention here is not to promulgate or provide some sort of explanation of a spiritual path or Buddhism more particularly, rather to blend some of the perspectives gained from having trained in the latter with everyday issues and experiences. This way the reader can be invited to look at familiar situations with a perhaps slightly different twist. This is not to encourage anyone to change their religion or belief system but sometimes seeing things from a different or hitherto not considered point of view is both helpful and interesting – a form of mental travel perhaps.

Help! My brain is like a TV set!

Flock of birds demonstrating group mind synchronicity

Article 29 Help! My brain is like a TV set!!

If the underlying nature of mind is formless and body is form and speech is some sort of intermediary blending of the two, what is individual mind? We all seem to have one. Even an individual ant, though part of the Insect Kingdom’s Borg-like hive mind, has one, carrying out individual missions and making individual decisions all the time.

Simply put, the brain is like a TV set. On that TV, you can select various channels, each of which presents a different array of items – movies, news, sports and so forth. Does the TV set generate those signals? No. It has mechanisms whereby it selects which signals to interpret, and then displays them for the viewer on its screen but it does not create those signals.

Similarly, the brain selects what signals it will interpret for an individual’s mind and body experience. This includes processing data from the senses as well as cultural, interpersonal, physical, psychological, emotional data – no end of different experiential modalities or ‘channels’. But the brain does not invent the source of all those signals, rather arranges them into a type of display which we can then process or ‘experience.’ In this case, we are not talking about various broadcasts from afar, rather that mind itself is like a bottomless ocean or a vast awareness field far greater than any individual – akin to the hive mind in the Insect Kingdom perhaps; and then individual mind takes certain aspects from the Big Mind and restructures it into particular configurations that accord with the perspective and mission of that individual existence.

So the brain is more like a TV set processing signals from an outside source and displaying them on the viewer’s screen than it is the be all and end all of mind.

But there’s another twist: what if the brain sends as well as receives? What if it helps create the three dimensional reality we all navigate through? Again: on the quantum level we can see that so-called ‘solid’ physical reality isn’t solid at all. Everything is a living soup of streaming particles, rivers within rivers within clouds within clouds, all moving, swirling, folding, streaming, meeting, parting, blending, separating. So maybe the brain is also transmitting signals to all the other brains around, including any plant equivalents, and in this way we all tune into certain frequencies as it were, just like TVs tuning into certain channels, and by tuning into those frequencies we also knit together a shared reality in which we all perceive the outer physical forms in more or less the same way, so that birds, insects and humans see the tree in that particular place with those particular leaves and branches, or the street, the wall, the chair, the table – or me and you for that matter.

So maybe our brains send and receive various frequencies so that we all share the same three-dimensional channel together. Maybe our brains are nodes in a master network which the universe self-creates in order to perceive itself, experience itself, enjoy itself, process itself, invent itself, develop itself?

Hmmm…. more food for thought…

Mind, Space, Body and Ego

Ramana Maharishi, a famous yogi from a century ago, contemplating mind and body in dream and waking life…

Article 28 Mind, Space, Body and Ego

We have the visible world of form and the invisible, formless world, posited earlier as two sides of any given reality, which just so happens to be what’s behind basic yin-yang theory. In more immediate human terms we have body and mind, with speech being a third, intermediate principle.

So body is the aspect that has form, appears solid, dense, ‘real,’ quantifiable, measurable, visible, tangible and forth; and mind is the aspect that is formless, appears shapeless, weightless, measureless, invisible, intangible. So in physical terms we cannot say exactly where and how large mind is, but we do know it is something real. It is just both real and formless.

Being formless, mind lacks specific location. Sure, it seems to us that our minds exist somewhere inside our body. Most of us might point to our head if asked where it is, imagining it to be somewhere in the brain. Some cultures would point to their chest, since for them the mind is located in the heart. In traditional daoist medical theory, there are eighteen mind-chambers in the chest area and every major organ has different minds (or ‘spirits’/ ‘shens’) in them, plus different types of mind attached to various senses. In other words, they don’t really have a one-mind theory positing that there is one core place where the mind dwells, sort of like a Little Me homunculus inside the larger body Me. Of course one can argue about all this forever – as Asian contemplatives have for millennia BTW – but there is no getting away from the simple fact that you can slice and dice the physical body all you like, but you will never find a precise, definable physical location where mind is found, i.e. a place in the body where you can say ‘here it is’ or ‘here it isn’t.’

For example: put your hand out in front of you and point your index finger at something and then curl that finger, then keep pointing and curling the finger. Now consider: is mind in the finger? Or is mind not in the finger? If it is in the finger, is it in all the finger? Or just the part that is pointing and curling? Or is it in the whole body? Or is it just in the brain which is sending signals to the finger and the finger itself has no mind in it at all?

Honestly, we can’t really answer any of those questions in any precise, verifiable way. I think most of us would agree, though, that the mind is expressing itself via the finger and the separation between mind and body – if there is one at all – cannot be pinpointed in terms of location exactly. Mind and finger are one, but mind is the formless aspect of the finger, whereas the physical finger is the form aspect. (And the speech aspect is the qualities of expression involved, the way the finger is moving and pointing, what sort of feeling, intention or whatever it is expressing and communicating.)

So mind is not local per se but it seems like each of us has our own unique, individual mind. Maybe we can just accept this as yet another basic two-sided aspect of reality, a personal example of form and formlessness being simultaneous, symbiotic elements of our existence.

Speaking of mind’s location, I once spent the night with a Tibetan lama who had only recently moved to the United States. We were up in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains just chit-chatting before going to sleep. He was still learning English as he gradually eased his way into working in a translation committee bringing old texts into modern English. I asked him how he liked America and he said he was enjoying being in an entirely different culture. For example, he explained, ‘in order to learn English I started watching movies on television at Robin’s house in Boulder; not only did it help my English but a strange thing happened: after watching it for a few weeks for the first time in my life I experienced thoughts in my head! Amazing! For us Tibetans, we experience thoughts and feelings in our hearts, not our heads, and I never understood why so many Americans point to their heads when they explain what they are thinking, or believe that mind is in the brain; I just couldn’t understand it. But now that I’ve watched some TV, I can think in my head too and understand why you believe your minds are in your brains!”

This story shows that our almost universal assumption in the West that mind is found in the brain might not be as slam dunk a proposition as most of us assume. Indeed, although it seems an established fact, actually it is just something we imagine, not anything we can definitively prove.

That said, we are left with an interesting conundrum: if mind is non-local, formless, shapeless and so forth, how is it we seemingly have MY mind, which is seemingly attached to MY body?

Aye, there’s the rub! This sense of being ‘me’ with ‘my body’ and ‘my mind’ is called ‘ego’ in Buddhist jargon. Ego is not necessarily an enemy to be conquered (though holding onto it obsessively is the root of many evils) but it does need to be examined carefully especially given that, like the mind, we cannot precisely locate or measure it and therefore must acknowledge that it might be something as much imagined or deduced as physically extant.

So mind lacks definable location but it seems like I have my own mind, my ego. This raises some questions, like:

  • So what or where is ego anyway?
  • What is the difference between the yin-yang two-sides nature of reality and the self vs other duality experienced by an individual person’s mind convinced that he/she/it exists within the container known as ‘me?’

Good questions…

Reality is a Fantastical Creation

Fantastical Reality in the Oval Office

Article 27 Reality is a Fantastical Creation

We imagine realms which in turn reflect back as actual places and situations – beautiful and ugly homes or streets, loving or dysfunctional families and so forth. According to some traditions, this sort of thing also determines what sort of situations we are born into including place, status and body qualities (attractive, ill-favoured etc.).

Although we would crack jokes about it from time to time, during all my years as a hard-core Buddhist in a dynamic community of fellow practitioners back in the 70’s and 80’s, I cannot recall any serious presentation or discussion about re-incarnation or rebirth. The main way the latter was discussed, if at all, was in the context of what continues from the previous moment into the future moment – if anything. And even that notion was rarely brought up.

And then for a while I had the job of acting as the Head Tutor of a real, live Tibetan ‘tulku,’ or re-incarnated lama, when he was eight to nine years old. So interacting every day with a living example of that tradition afforded me the opportunity to consider such matters far more than I otherwise would have. Now this article won’t attempt to go into all the ins and outs of reincarnation but I would like to share one notion which occurred to me back then and which still seems helpful. Here goes:

Imagine you have just been elected President of the United States; you have just given your Inaugural Address in front of a crowd larger than any you have seen in your entire life and have now returned back to the White House and, after various quick meetings and introductions to the Staff downstairs, for the very first time you finally sit behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Now let us imagine what happens…

Along with an incoming flood of unfamiliar sense perceptions – the awe-inspiring presence of the Resolute Desk itself, polish and other unidentified smells, the drapery, the furniture, the paintings, your familiar photograph collection on a nearby side table, the faint muffled sounds of a few aides in the office next door, you are overcome with the profundity of the moment. You are now sitting in the same place as a very select lineage of predecessor Presidents, a line of which you are the living embodiment and moreover now the living lineage holder representing all the people who have ever lived, worked, struggled, fought and died in your country going back to the earliest native Indians and settlers.

You feel this national ancestral lineage as some sort of cloud-like presence felt both in what you witness around you in the Oval Office, in the dignity and history of the chair you are sitting in and the desk on whose polished surface you rest your hands, but also in how you feel inside psychologically and spiritually. For the first time it begins to sink in: “I am the President” so much so that when your aide comes in a few minutes later and asks “Do you need anything, Mr. President?” at this point the title reflects who you are. In essence, you are now the latest incarnation of the President of the United States of America.

Now lest you think this is idle or misguided fantasy about a very deep topic, let me just point out that the above description accords with one of many types of ‘reincarnation.’ The most popularly conceived one is actually quite rare, namely that Person A dies in Body A and then is reborn into Body B being able to remember what Person A experienced. Although rare, there are many instances in history of children born with such recall, including today – though they nearly all tend to be born in India or Tibet. Perhaps such recall is some sort of unusual psychic power and they are not incarnations of Person A at all but that is not the concern of this Article.

Apart from this direct type of reincarnation, a more common type relates with its root meaning being ‘in flesh’ or ‘be made flesh.’ In the sacred Christian context it also means ‘embodiment of God in the person of Christ’ which has the notion of a living human as manifestation of the Divine. In some translations from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this is called a ‘blessed tulku.’ Tulku is Tibetan for ‘physical body emanation/incarnation;’ ‘blessed’ means that one receives an influence from something like a ‘Holy Spirit,’ some sort of atmospheric transference such as described in the New President story above.

The point here is not to get lost in the weeds about whether or not reincarnation is a valid concept, rather to reflect on how the realms we live in, including in this example the realm of being President of the United States which is an actual realm hundreds – if not millions – of people are involved in creating and maintaining every hour of every day, are both real and imaginary at the same time.

In other words, dear Reader, so-called ‘objective reality’ is a bit of a myth. Or to put it another way: even if such a thing exists, we cannot experience it as such since all experience we have is a blend of sensation, imagination, habitual patterning, projection, emotion and so forth. There is no getting away from this and moreover no reason why we should want to. Perhaps the only reason is contemporary confusions and superstitions about the nature of reality making many of us feel obliged to discount ‘subjective’ experience when we try to get at ‘the facts.’ Some facts are straightforward: either the apple ripened and fell to the ground or it didn’t; simple. But most cultural-zone facts are not facts at all but rather things we agree to agree on – ‘he won the election’ – or things we cannot find consensus on and rather have to tussle over, like dogs after the same bone.

Even so-called ‘scientific’ facts are not as cut and dried as many in the media like to insist. Put ten experts in a room examining exactly the same factual data and more than likely you will get ten different conclusions from those same ‘facts.’ This is because a fact only has meaning within what is, when all is said and done, a subjective process.

In any case, I like the New President story not only as an interesting twist on explaining how incarnation works – because that makes it a far more down-to-earth process that too often is overlooked in overly arcane descriptions you can find in poorly translated texts from days of yore – but also as an effective way of understanding the power of the imagination, both individual and collective, in how our perceived realities are shaped and experienced. This is actually important to be aware of, because otherwise we fail to appreciate both historical and contemporary cultures as living art forms, as mutual creations informed by what has come before whilst also being re-created and re-invented day by day in the present. Our countries, our societies, our businesses, our towns, our families are all ongoing living art forms, blending imagination into direct experience of external and internal realities moment by moment, day by day.

Of Leaders and Projections

Group united by shared object of attention

Article 26 Of Leaders and Projections

“So what does all this have to do with the key moments of heightened awareness and intensity, be they clutch plays in a championship game, or bardo moments of intense brilliance, let alone leaders and followers or ‘group dynamics in the context of focus?’ Stay tuned….” (from Focus in Space article)

Projections are qualities we perceive in or project onto others. We are walking down a dark alley late at night; the wind is forceful, tugging at our garments and eliciting moans which echo in mournful, discomfiting tones which heighten our sense of impending doom, either from a lurking cut throat or ill-intentioned ghosts haunting this zone of prior crimes including rapes and murders.

Is this entirely imagination? Or are we picking up ‘echoes in eternity’ from prior dark deeds, so-called ‘blood on the walls?’ One never knows; probably some combination of the two.

Similarly, we project all sorts of things onto leaders. Leaving aside that each person has a unique take on any given quality perceived – from plant, animal, person, room or landscape – there is always a blending of that which a leader is projecting out themselves – are they charismatic, retiring, confident, dithering, intelligent, scheming, well-groomed, shabby etc. – and how we in turn perceive them based on our own tendencies, priorities, prejudices (or brainwashing) and preconceptions.

Now our basic makeup is to face forward and focus on something. We don’t have one eye in front and one behind – that sort of 360 degree awareness is reserved for hearing, not seeing. And with sight we don’t just see generally but focus on one thing at a time. And with hearing we tend to focus as well on one particular sound at a time; even when hearing hundreds at once, especially in complex situations like a city street or well-attended cocktail party, we often find ourselves picking out particular highlights within the general hubbub.

When a large group are gathered together they will unite as one when their mind is focused on the same object. Be it a football in a stadium, a tennis ball on a championship court, or a speaker at a political rally or even one giving a live broadcast on television during a time of national crisis.

As mentioned earlier, our minds are local versions of the formless aspects of our two-sided natures, and the formless is not bound by time or space, by beginnings and endings or distances between here and there. So when we all focus on the game together in a stadium, all of our minds melt together becoming part of a greater whole. The same thing happens to nations in times of great stress or shock; the falling of the Twin Towers in Manhattan on 9/11 brought the entire country together. I remember walking in Manhattan a month or so later having flown in from Canada and being surprised at how clean the city felt, how soft and friendly were all the people. There were few tourists, it was nearly all locals who, uncharacteristically, were all warm and cosy, glad to be alive, glad to be together; it was like being part of a close-knit family. Their minds had merged from following the great crisis they had been going through together for weeks on end and so, at least for a while, they were attuned and enjoying some sort of kinship.

Whether it is a sports team, a small business, a crack special forces unit or a nation, enterprises involving two or more people need leadership. Decisions have to be made, plans have to be executed, projects have to be managed to fruition. No matter what the particular dynamic, moments come up regularly demanding reaction, decision, change or in other words, focus, and nearly always the group needs a leader to point out such a moment and provide direction for how to handle it, otherwise the various individuals in the group might each come up with a different approach and the result is a loss of common purpose or action.

This is a very ordinary thing, basically, and we have all experienced it constantly throughout our lives. The point of this Article is to highlight just one particular aspect of the leadership dynamic even though of course there are many, namely the aspect of projection.

Earlier, I mentioned how Tom Brady the NFL quarterback, for example, dwells in the minds of many fellow team mates and fans as a living icon, similar to a king or knight of old. Not only is this a source of inspiration and focus, but by taking on their projections of him as The Great One, so to speak, he can then channel their attention and lead it to where he wants it to go, which in his case – as he has often stated – is into their becoming the best team possible working together towards a common purpose which is to play up to their best potential and thus in the end emerge victorious. So he channels their focus on his leadership qualities into inspiring – and no doubt also cajoling – them to be the best that they can be, 24/7, seven days a week, not just for three hours once a week on the field.

Who knows if Tom really has the qualities his players and fans see in him, or whether they are imagined? Similarly, what does it matter if President Biden is actually the kind and wise uncle figure leading a nation through a time of turmoil caused in part by his predecessor and in part by a world wide flu outbreak? It’s very hard, and probably a waste of time, to try to pick through objective evidence (if there indeed is any such thing in this sort of terrain) to find out who the real Joe Biden is, what the real nature of the national situation was and now is and so forth. That’s all water under the bridge in some sense; what matters is any given ongoing dynamic now.

The function of propaganda is to channel the attention of the population away from Xes and into Y’s. One of the favorite Y’s is – at least in America – the President. We have many minor other leaders that engage us from time to time, principally so-called celebrities which include movie, television and sports stars, but in terms of national moments and national thrusts, the object of attention tends to be the President who embodies the desired messages which have already been delivered piecemeal through many different events, newscasts, text articles and so forth. When the President speaks, he speaks for us all in that moment and unites the country in focusing on that mutually experienced object of attention.

Of course the qualities we end up projecting onto that Leader are all highly subject to manipulation. If we are told and convinced that he or she is wise and noble, we will project wise and noble qualities onto that person when we see or hear them performing; conversely, if we are told and convinced that he or she is a despicable crook, then we will project all sorts of ignoble qualities onto them when we witness their performances.

Now of course in the case of leaders in modern democracies, they are usually there by virtue of elections wherein one political faction has bested another and so any given President is usually passionately supported by about half the population and only marginally supported, or outright detested, by the other half. This split in the projection vector of the population greatly diminishes the leader’s ability to unite the country, but that’s another issue perhaps for another time.

For now, let’s just leave it that leadership, which is a natural and needed function in human groups small and large, involves harnessing the projections of followers into desired group endeavours, be they wise or foolish, noble or wicked, uplifted or degraded, civilization-building or decadent. This only works because of the root projection, as it were, namely that this person IS their leader. Without that projection in place, they would lack any authority to inspire followership, kinship, respect, loyalty.

All leadership depends upon the projection of leadership qualities onto the leader by the followers, be such leaders in small tight-knit family circles or in large national situations.

The Great Switcheroo

From the Switcheroo Photo Project at

Article 25 The Great Switcheroo

What happens to a fish taken out of water? It soon dies and so is soon no longer a fish. Does the fish exist separate from the water it is born, lives and (usually) dies in? Similarly, do any forms exist outside the container of space? No. Now leaving aside any concerns about what exactly is meant by the word ‘space’ for it could be just a fancy label for ‘nothing at all,’ isn’t it interesting that, just like zillions of fish, we all – and by ‘we’ I mean all life forms – share the same ocean of space.

If we all swim in the same ocean, are we really – each and every one of us – truly independent, individual, separate entities?

Before answering that, let us also consider: every single form aspect we witness is unique and particular. You can have two chairs side by side made by the same carpenter but they are in different places; furthermore each spot on each chair is unique, particular, the light shining at a slightly different angle, the wood being ever so slightly different, the threads on the upholstery changing from one nano-location to the next. We don’t even need to get quantum on this. Every single thing in the realm of form is unique. With our own bodies, for example, every single spot on our body is different from every single other one, whether it is the obvious differences like nose versus elbow, or endless differences like one spot on the little finger’s fingertip versus the neighbouring spot. So in the realm of form we encounter literally infinite layers and levels of particularity. Put another way: nowhere in the realm of form is any single thing the same as any single other thing.

And yet in the realm of the formless, there are no particularities, no details, no beginning, no end, no this, no that, no up, no down, no in, no out, no place, no time – no nada nowhere no how!

So what’s the Big Switcheroo? Simply that nearly human beings, aka ‘we,’ operate under some sort of mass illusion or delusion, summed up beautifully by Descartes’s famous ‘I think, therefore I am.’ It makes sense in a simple fashion and probably most of us can go along with it easily. But just because you are thinking, does that really mean that you exist as a unique ‘you’ or ‘I’? Yes, every single aspect of reality in the form realm is unique and particular as stated above, but is the spot on the chair really separate from the rest of the chair? Is the I that is thinking separate from the world it is thinking in? Many of us imagine some sort of ‘Little Me’ somewhere in the middle of our heads, presumably in the brain, some sort of ‘President of the State of Me.’ Come to think of it, that’s how we imagine our Presidents, as a man or woman somewhere controlling everything that goes on everywhere in the entire nation.

This sense of being an independent entity is known in Buddhist jargon as ‘ego’ so that usage is not quite the same as in psychiatric practice perhaps. The idea is about how we believe there is an independent, permanent entity – known as ‘me’ – that exists somewhere even though we know that in fact we are all part of the same all-embracing larger universe contained in the same all-embracing space we all share.

I like to say that fishes are the eyes of the ocean. The ocean, if you like, is a great field of awareness but in order to see itself it grows organisms with eyes. There is an old Buddhist text written many centuries ago, by a yogic philosopher called Longchenpa, translated in one version as “You are the Eyes of the World.” That text features a first-person voice talking to the reader, and this first person voice is ‘pure and total presence’ or ‘I, Creative Intelligence.’ The idea is that we all live in the same ocean which is an all-accommodating space, which also is awake, alive, intelligent. In other words, our own innate intelligence comes from the underlying intelligence field in which all living forms live, just like fish living in the ocean. We think of the phenomenal world around us as being essentially dead matter out of which, through physical chemical reactions, some sort of life emerged, almost miraculously. Some scientists have even managed to recreate this apparently. However from the point of view of this old text, the source of life is the living intelligence field we all live in which exists, like all formlessness, before and after birth, before and after time, before and after form.

So although there are limitless particularities in the realm of experience, nevertheless the notion that we exist as fundamentally solid, permanent, separate entities is an illusion. That is the Great Switcheroo. Or perhaps we could say, more positively, that the Great Switcheroo is when you flash on how your notion of being an independent, solid Ego is empty, illusory.

Let us end this one with a quote from Longchenpa’s text, this one being part of three verses explaining how Body, Speech and Mind – the three spheres of experiential being – reflect and are reflected in this universal continuum. In this case I chose the Speech verse since I had an Article entitled ‘The Realm of Speech’ a couple of posts ago. The language is a little academic, but no matter:


This teacher of teachers, the majestic creative intelligence,

Displays the integrated structure centered around the inner reality of communication.

Everything that exists and is designated

Displays itself as linguistic communication coming from the unborn field

And is gathered into this inexplicable inner reality of communication,

The supreme Ordinary Principle’s symphony.

Hopefully this text makes sense in the light of the last few Articles. Personally, I enjoy contemplating these things. Not in long-drawn out Big Think sessions, but just allowing them to lightly arise, butterfly-like, in various moments in daily life. I hadn’t read this in over thirty years but in the course of offering up this spontaneously arising collection of articles, remembered that I was sort of going where Longchenpa (1308 – 1363) had tread so many centuries ago.

This two-sides aspects – including masculine and feminine in the human realm experience – is especially fun to start picking up on. And indeed this article got caught up in one, namely that our universe comprises both limitless particularities in the form aspect contained within the formless aspect which features none. In a way, reality is the formless growing forms so that it can appreciate highlights of experience by creating a universe of limitless particularities featuring location (space) and movements of varying duration (time). It’s a gi-normous production, a collective dream in which we are all both dreamers and the dreamed.

Masculine and Feminine, Take One

Masculine and Feminine embracing in Formless Void

Article 24 Masculine and Feminine Take One

(edited from initial July 21st version)

As contemplated and systematized extensively in the Chinese yin-yang theory tradition, it seems we live in a world that always has two sides. In Buddhist philosophical jargon these are called ‘form’ and ‘formless.’ There are many other such pairs such as:

masculine and feminine
inner and outer
higher and lower
forward and backward
heaven and earth
visible and invisible
mind and body.
Although there are always two sides, and although each is inseparable from its symbiotic mate, they always remain different, just like electricity’s positive and negative. So they are not two, but neither are they one.

Again, we in the land of the visible and living cannot see what is in the land of the invisible and not living. Now of course there are no end of stories of those who have crossed over or with deep insight have seen through the ‘illusory veil of the material plane’ and so on, but leaving that sort of thing aside, let us agree to keep things simple: for example, in terms of body there is inside and outside. You might then argue: ‘but if we cut open the body we can see inside, so where’s your separation gone to then?’ Well, what you are looking at is no longer inside, you have made it outside. Put another way: can you expose the inner experiences of sight and hearing by digging behind the eyes or ears? No. Either you will extinguish those faculties by damaging the organs or you will find nothing. You can examine brain matter and nerves all you like, but you will not find sight or hearing in any physical matter because such things dwell in the inner, experiential mind realm, not the outer body realm of matter.

In this way our experience is actually part of the invisible, the intangible, just like sight within or beyond the eyeball or mind within or beyond body. Mind, then, is the invisible part of the equation which affords us the ability to experience, and most likely is also that which is a sine qua non of being alive at all. But even though it is an indispensable part of life, that doesn’t make it a thing with particular location, substance or dimension. Whether you look at it from the perspective of how we experience things or in abstract deductive terms, we always have the two that are neither one nor not one.

So leaving aside legalistic quibbles, we can agree that generally speaking there are always two sides at play, such as visible and invisible, inner and outer, form and space. Now these latter seem like somewhat abstract philosophical principles but they are directly experienced in everyday life. With form and space, for example, all around we see forms: plants, animals, ourselves, rocks, buildings and so forth, all of which are in perpetual motion; if they are all in motion, then there must be something – let us call it space – that is accommodating all such phenomena, something they are moving through, as it were, and yet isn’t really there, much like fish moving through ocean except here the space is entirely intangible without properties like boundaries, particular location, distance or time, and never changes from moment to moment. In the philosophical jargon, it is described as ‘unborn and undying, limitless and without characteristics’ all of which are bundled into the shorthand term ‘formless.’

Now comes a third aspect, namely that each couple has unique particularities, energies, vectors, character, atmosphere and so forth which were described as qualities in the Realm of Speech article. Perhaps we can define such qualities as aspects of our inner experience of outer phenomena, our personal invisible realm aspect of the outer visible realm.

So two gives birth to three, the third being the many and varied qualities emanated by the first two. This is like a human couple: you have a man and a woman – the two – and then you have their relationship or manifestation together as a couple, a third element. This, I believe, is why the Chinese invented trigrams very early on because this third aspect is always there and so must be included in any language describing and interpreting reality, our experience albeit starting from a yin-yang binary postulate. Put another way: we have mind and body and the third aspect – which is the combination of the two – is our experience of them. So this third aspect is where the rubber meets the road, the spice in the sauce, the mojo.

And now all that has been laid out, we can later on explore various colourful aspects of experience without needing to reference so much philosophical-sounding verbiage. I especially find the masculine-feminine dynamic of interest because it is very close to human bedrock experience so less abstract and also quite fascinating when you take time to examine it, not necessarily in terms of current political controversies, though they are bound to come up in any discussion of the topic these days, but just as qualitative experiences and perspectives, how they work together, how they differ, blend, attract, repel, dance – or whatever. The photograph at the top naturally demonstrates many of the principles touched on in this article. We can see
• male and female hands – in embrace
• each enfolding and being enfolded by the other
• the male palm facing down from above with the female palm facing up from below yet
• with his thumb on the bottom and hers on the top
• their seamless complementarity
• the black background accommodating all, a formless void container of the form which is
• the two hands in embrace featuring passion, colour, living tissue, connection, warmth, heart, life.

So there’s a lot going on in this simple photograph; just as there is a lot going on with all and everything all the time. This reminds me of two probably related poems, the first from Auguries of Innocence by Blake and the second by Alfred Lord Tennyson::

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Flower in the Crannied Wall
by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies,
I hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower—but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.

(Which link has an interesting critique by a Zen master who makes some excellent points but in so doing misses the sense of wonder and appreciation in Tennyson’s simple, yet pithy, composition.)

The All-Pervasive Realm of Speech

aka: Who’s talking?

Article 23: The Realm of Speech

This writer, like many I suspect, can get a little entangled in his own verbiage. Perhaps this is because I began to see common threads and themes in this series of articles and started to feel obliged to explain thematic linkage even though there is no intention, or need, to knit them together. Some sort of mosaic-like pattern might emerge, but there is no need to decode it. Let them all shimmer on their own, like sparkles dancing on ripples. That said, one idea leads to the next and, given they are all generated by the same individual, obviously there will be some overlap, repetition, what have you. In any case, this little conundrum has brought up the idea of offering up a short piece on the speech principle, so here goes:

From the “Liturgy for Learning from Lyme & Chronic Disease” text:**

Flowers in their flowering communicate the lovely enlightened language of Flowering Being
With manifold qualities of form, texture, colour, temperature, scent, beauty, sensitivity...
...All such forms together weaving karmic spells of interdependent being
Living languages of meaningful qualities - which some call 'gods'
Continuously broadcast and received throughout the dreamlike experiential continuum

The idea being explored today is the notion of ‘living languages… being broadcast and received’ which was introduced with: ‘flowers in their flowering communicate the lovely, enlightened language of Flowering Being with manifold qualities…’ Let us pause to reflect on the word ‘qualities.’

Flowers are rich in qualities

The shape of the petals says something.

The freshness of the colours on both petals and leaves says something.

The way the branches reach and the leaves form around them to catch light says something.

The way they move in the breeze says something.

Their scent says something.

Everything about them is speaking, talking, communicating. And “as with flowers so with all, from microscopic universes to macrocosmic spiralling galaxies.”

In human speech, vowels and consonants create various audible forms which we learn to distinguish and decypher into concepts which we find meaningful both as practical information, narrative structure or emotional transference.

Flowers do not use our language of vowels and consonants either via a voice box or as words on a page, but that does not mean that they are not speaking. They are communicating ‘Flowering Being’ every second of every minute of every hour of every day. All of them, everywhere. As are all living and non-living forms.

Take a rock. Well, for that matter take a mountain! A mountain has a large, looming presence. Sometimes it even seems alive. Always it effects the atmosphere of whatever is nearby. But take a rock, a pebble in the hand. It too has patterns expressing various qualities in the weight, substance, texture, colour; each rock is replete with its own menu of qualities which, together, make each rock unique.

In any case, this realm of qualities is experienced by us via our mind and senses, but our appreciation of the various qualities we are encountering continuously in our experience as living beings constitutes a form of language, some sort of exchange of message between one form and another. The flowers are indeed talking to us in their own Flowering Being language, a language we understand very well in our own way, though no doubt bees experience different messages from the same forms based on their own ways of broadcasting and receiving messages in the form of various qualities.

Wearing clothes at all is a form of speech. Are you wearing a suit and tie – or feminine equivalent – or Tshirt and jeans? Are your jeans ragged and ripped and dirty, or clean with a fresh colour and good cut? Are your shoes polished or scuffed? Is your posture upright and uplifted or stooped and beaten down? All such qualities are continuously broadcasting and receiving no end of information.

Many civilisational cultures engender a heightened sense of atmospheric qualities, indeed such shared culture is elevated to a living art form such as Japanese tea ceremony or sacred religious ritual or pageants or formal theatre or dressing up for a coronation – for a wedding for that matter.

Indeed, this realm of Speech involving all-pervasive sending and recieving of qualitative messenging is one of our greatest treasures as living beings. Indeed, it might be hard to say if that is not the prime reality, so to speak, rather than the physical base. Since all forms communicate qualities, maybe the qualities come first and the forms second?

Food for thought….

** The longer section from which the few lines at the top were extracted:

All beings in this self-dreaming universe present aspects of:

Body – some sort of shape or form

Mind – some sort of consciousness, awareness or intention

Speech – some sort of communicative expression of meaningful information singing a

Living symphony of ever forming and reforming clouds and waves of Primordial Intelligence

A marvellous holographic self-mothering Song making itself up as it goes along

Saturated in interconnected living presence pervading all and everything

Manifesting no end of self-organizing life forms

Living creatures imagined into sentient being

With all their coemergent elemental and inanimate phenomena.

Flowers in their flowering communicate the lovely enlightened language of Flowering Being

With manifold qualities of form, texture, colour, temperature, scent, beauty, sensitivity.

As with flowers so with all, from microscopic universes to macrocosmic spiralling galaxies

Multifarious microbes permeating soil and all life forms, primordially awake plants,

Majestic trees, incredible insects, fabulous fishes, beautiful birds, marvelous animals

Minerals, metals, crystals, silver, gold, jewels, rainbows, sky, stars, ocean, wind, clouds

Rain, sunlight, moonlight, thunder, lightning

Mountains, valleys, jungles, deserts, farms, steppes, rural, urban, stormy, placid

Earth, water, fire, air, red, green, blue, yellow, purple, indigo

Visibles, touchables, smellables, tastables, audibles, edibles

Perfumes, spices, herbs, meats, fats, oils, vegetables, fruits, sweets, sours, fermented

Wools, cottons, furs, silks, costumes, uniforms, males, females, dressed, naked

All such forms together weaving karmic spells of interdependent being

Living languages of meaningful qualities – which some call ‘gods’

Continuously broadcast and received throughout this dreamlike experiential continuum

All basically empty, basically luminous, basically workable, basically good.

Spacious Attention

Article 22 Focus in Space

In the previous set of articles, have been hovering around a cluster of ideas like a butterfly, lightly touching on one before flitting to the next. But they are all very much related being different flowers, if you will, on the same plant.

Some of the elements:

  • heightened moments: how the top tennis players use key moments of challenge to raise their game. Recently I saw an interview with Tom Brady in which he specifically discusses this, explaining how many great games come down to a few key moments and how some players raise their game in such moments and make the plays whereas others falter.
  • Finding wisdom in such heightened, and thus emotional, moments.
  • Intensity: going into the light in any given bardo experience, be it during a shift-phase in daily life, or the Big Kahuna after physical death.
  • Group focus boosts the awareness field.
  • Leaders and followers

So some sort of combination of focus, general awareness and meeting or embracing emotional intensity.

This piece is about group dynamics in the context of focus, but first a little interlude from a part of a nice dream I had last night.

I was sitting on the front porch of a cabin we lived in seemingly in a rural area, a clean but second world village type situation, abundant with trees, flowers, butterflies and birdsong. I was meditating in a seated posture with feet on the ground below the deck. I was very relaxed. A ways away but still in my field of vision a local woman was doing some gardening work; we did not look at each other but each was aware of the other’s presence. As I meditated I realized that my mind should be transparent, it shouldn’t be filled with the project and process of meditating so that if she cared to look up and examine my state, she wouldn’t think: ‘oh, look at him, he’s meditating!’ So I settled in more letting the mind become more and more clear and ordinary. At some point I adjusted my hands to be folded together in my lap in a natural way. At that point I could hear my wife approaching down the gravel path to my left, still out of view and again I reflected that when she came into view and saw me, she too should not be able to tell that I was ‘meditating’ per se, rather that I was just sitting there simply, awake and present.

There are two aspects here of interest, namely the clearing of the mind into a natural, ordinary state, and the wakeful quality similar to having a sense of focus, though focusing on what exactly is always an open question. Some meditation techniques have the practitioner focusing on the breath, others on body sensations, others on a visualization – a deity or abstract visual pattern – and others on a drawing or physical object. The great American philosopher William James recommended that people focus on the tip of a pencil for a minute or so at a time in order to increase their powers of mindfulness, for example. It’s a good technique. I used to like to watch a second hand move through an entire minute without wavering.

But in natural or ordinary style meditation, the object of focus is the mind itself, the mind underneath or before concept, before chatter, before any notion of meditating. In a text I wrote to help get through a period of intense illness, the final meditation part – which is, like in the dream and ordinary meditation without content, known in Buddhist jargon as ‘formless meditation’ – it says:

“The imagined situation dissolves like mist over a lake in the morning sun

Leaving body and surroundings free of any past or future, project or progress

Effort or ease, holding or letting go, sad or happy, sick or well

Not following any internal story lines, clean-hearted, playful, a carefree child of Nature

At one with the birdsong: fresh, simple, relaxed, present, awake, naked.

The shorter text version goes:

“The imagined situation vanishes like mist over a lake in the morning sun,

Leaving body speech and mind at one with the birdsong:

Present, fresh, ordinary, naked, awake. “

We might say that the birdsong is the object. Except it isn’t, rather it is heard clearly without distortion because the meditator is not otherwise preoccupied with discursive internal chatter.

This reminds me of a scene in Lord of the Rings: Gandalf and Frodo have been discussing the history and significance of The Ring when Gandalf notices that the ongoing background sound of sheers clipping this and that has stopped and there is now silence. That silence is like the mind without agenda. (Of course this is because Sam became fascinated with stories of Rings of Power and Elves and Dragons and, in true hobbit fashion, forgot to keep clipping away and so got caught eavesdropping. For that momentary lapse in concentration he ended up being almost burned into a cinder on Mount Doom – but that’s another tale for another time.)

Now here’s a little twist: in a way, we could say that everyone is always ‘meditating’ all the time in the sense that our minds are dwelling on something or other. It might be sex, money, rock and roll, politics, personal status, items in a shop window, juicy gossip shared with a friend or neighbour – whatever. In all cases we have ‘placed our mind on an object.’ So the issue is on what object is the mind placed? If one meditates endlessly on stealing, one will end up a thief. Anything we put our minds on or into in turn shapes who we are, what we do and what happens to us.

Formal Buddhist-style meditation is no different in principle but the object is not sex or money or success or even becoming a good meditator or enlightened; rather the object of meditation is the underlying nature of the experience of living itself, the purpose therefore being to touch into basic ordinary reality. That is what is meant by being present. Being present doesn’t mean that one is screaming to oneself about paying attention, nor is it being glommed onto the pencil tip or the sweeping clock hand second by second. Such things might be good for training purposes, but at some point you have to get real, and getting real means being ordinary, simple, direct, straightforward.

So what does all this have to do with the key moments of heightened awareness and intensity, be they clutch plays in a championship game, or bardo moments of intense brilliance, let alone leaders and followers or ‘group dynamics in the context of focus?’

Stay tuned….