The Root Cause
I’ve been nestled in the warm and terrifying lap called “reckoning with life’s fragility” this week. A couple of significant losses and a diagnosis have rippled through my immediate circle. I sat bedside with a beautiful being whose body was hollowing itself out after last breaths, and shortly thereafter in a room with an oncologist uttering those frigid phrases to someone I love, “I wish I had better news…”
As a practitioner, I investigate the underside of life’s experience, and there is no place better for this work than on the edge of the bardos, in the liminal spaces of the in-between…
I happened to read a story today about a group of researchers mystified by the strange behavior of an octopus who clung to one rock wall for 4 years. They took many trips before they discovered the root cause of her behavior.
It occurred to me that humans like me, who are really trying to understand themselves and the human journey through the cosmos, are in a similar predicament.
We struggle with such alacrity to understand what’s underneath the surface of our experience. What is the root cause of suffering? What is the root cause that drives behavior? And more importantly, what is the medicine?
One of the most significant critiques of allopathic medicine is that the root cause is not addressed, and treatments focus on either managing or masking symptoms.
In the practice of therapy, at least the way most of us address it, a significant objective is to treat the root cause. The hope is that we will get underneath the symptoms. We yearn to understand and address the root cause of the ways dis-ease manifests in us, whether it’s anxiety, depression, insomnia, addiction, OCD, or any of the myriad other ways our struggles express.
Humans are nested into a culture that is cut off from awareness of interconnectedness. Gabor Mate’s main thesis is a critique of dominance culture as essentially traumatic for everyone in it. Our culture does not nourish the individual because it is constructed to preference the aspect of human nature which thrives in competition.
There’s a core paradox here: to populate the planet, consciousness has created an illusory agent in the center of a simulated reality. This allows the individual to fixate on 2 things: their own “meat suit”, or material costume, and the regulation needs thereof, and the evolutionary imperative to spread seed and raise young. Everything is sacrificed for one goal: to propagate the species.
Regardless of the impacts on the psyche, the well-being, and the connection to reality of inter-being, the imperative of the agent in the midst of the human’s simulated reality is simply to generate more of itself. Paradoxically, in order to propagate the species, the individual must believe it is an individual. And the moment we are in, where it is abundantly clear that we have succeeded in the myopic vision of dominating the planet, and we are turning our sights on the next goal — saving the planet — all the skill-sets hard-wired into human behavior no longer work. Sound anything like the AI concerns we’re currently facing, around the so-called paperclip apocalypse? Why might we be so worried about AI taking over the world as it generates more and more of itself? Perhaps because that is precisely what we have done?
What would it be like if our practices provided access to a relational field that was connected to wisdom energies, nested in a matrix of wholeness? What traumas would be averted? What would it be like if humans were not locked in a struggle for survival? What would it be like for YOU if your life were organized around the ritualization of coming home to true nature, that place of spaciousness inside the wisdom of inter-being?
Most people wait until they are at death’s door to consider these questions, much less to organize life around spiritual practice. Even those deeply nested in spiritual communities end up doing it for the social credit it confers upon them!
Perhaps for most, it is more comfortable to linger in ignorance than to spend time contemplating the unknowable. Instead, we train ourselves to win at this life, which keeps us from ever grokking this moment, or learning to even cherish this moment, this life.
One of the most significant components of a spiritual practice is the ritualizing of remembering refuge. This is an extraordinary simple practice. In the dharma tradition, this practice nests inside the very clear spiritual teachings called The Preliminaries.
In the simplicity of reciting the remembrance of refuge, we train the mind to understand itself beyond the limits of conditioned experience. We train the mind to take refuge in true nature, essential awakeness. We train the mind to take refuge in the fundamental, core clarity and compassion at the heart of being-ness.
It is not easy for humans to disconnect from the swirl of the conditioned experience. The compulsion of the ego to protect itself is ferocious. Just going through the machinations of organizing material life so that this physical body we live in (the meat suit) has the best possible chance of survival is a full time job.
So training the mind to rest in refuge is simple, but not at all trivial. It is perhaps the most important work we do.
One of the other components of sitting in refuge prior to practice (and this is essential if your spiritual practice includes a creative component) is to ritualize the connection into the energetics of the sacred at the level of the subtle body. For many, that is easier to access when we conjure the face of the sacred. Regardless of what that sacred essence is that you lean into — whether it’s Buddha nature, Kali, Orumila, Allah, or JC, to just sit in that radiant light and to simply open up your awareness to imagine how loved you are inside that radiance is a deep balm for the self. It’s the ultimate cosmic love bomb. Because if we forget the love that we are, we veil from ourselves, again and again, the root cause, and we end up in a fight with ourselves around symptoms. If however, we enter into that space, the love field that we are, through meditation, refuge taking, or remembrance, we can grieve properly. We can grief the immensity of the losses we have traversed. We can grieve the losses that come from the self-forgetting! We can open up and be honest about all of the different permutations of the forgetting that we have had to wade through.
For anyone who wants to look at this more deeply - here is the recording of this past weekend’s Sunday session.
We began by looking at some fundamental concepts from the Dharma: Bardo, Darshan, and Spanda.
The Bardo is often simply translated as “the in-between”.
Darshan is seeing and being seen.
Spanda is the pulsation that is the essence of consciousness.
Anyone interested in pouring themselves into writing, or other creative practices – consider how you spend that vibratory pulsation. When we start to create, we get all the risk and all the reward. We open up to a process of evolution of self-concept that is unparalleled. We turn over every unturned stone in our personal histories. We teeter on the in-between that lies between our socially constructed selves and the beyond. We open to the mystic, uncontrollable, transpersonal infinitude of reality laid bare. We prepare ourselves for the luminous bardo of reality that, according to the buddhist tradition, comes between lives.
If we try to do this alone, without refuge, and without the guidance of the teachings, we risk going insane, or wandering into places that are too scary for us to bear. In terror, we grip again to the familiarity of our old, prehistoric habits. We grasp for illusory solid ground.
But something’s different when we start to tell our stories in refuge, feeling into the golden thread of awareness that laces through all the phases of consciousness. When we share ourselves in a place where we are reflected with total compassion, our understanding of self can move through vibratory, alchemical, shamanic transformation. We can come apart, and come together again.
No matter how contracted we have ever been or may still become, we begin to see ourselves inside the cosmic consciousness that is beyond the overwhelm of everything everywhere all at once. The anxieties that come with being identified with the separateness abate. We rest into who we most truly are.
All this focus on the Bardos I’ve been sharing may have brought up some difficult places for you. As I’ve shared, I personally have gone through some significant shifts this week; sitting with a being as they transitioned, and having other major upheavals all at once.
The bardo teaching that's been my greatest helper reminds us that as the web of karmic wind is loosed from the mindstream, we are carried into the luminous void. We get to send our loved ones to the light, and trust that they are free of the confusions of the karmic net. Similarly, inside the bardo of this life, just as in meditation and dream, we get to carry ourselves constantly towards that devoted faith and devoted practice of recalling the preciousness of a life that is linked to wholeness.
Train your mind to open to interconnectedness. You can hold to a mantra or the radiant light, and release fear of dissolution. The natural urge is to reach for something solid. Soften, and allow. There is nothing you can do wrong. Even the most wrathful manifestations of the mind stream are trying to remind you of your truest nature -- the pregnant void of consciousness from which all arises. There is nothing to lose. Everything that gets stripped away gives us back to essence. We are ultimately free.
Art by Eric Jacobsen