Category Archives: Relationships

Jhana and the Death of Self-Identity

May as well dive in, go for a swim....

May as well dive in, go for a swim….

Charisms, which are inevitable manifestations of spiritual awakening, are more than just pleasant sensations. We know them as expressions of jhana, samadhi, kundalini, chi, or any number of names pointing to mostly-pleasant “signs of absorption.” While they may arise as euphoric, blissful or overwhelmingly powerful waves of energy, we need to remember that these phenomena are not meant as a reward or prize for having meditated a certain number of hours, for praying fervently enough, or for being lucky.

From the moment these phenomena begin to arise, we are subject to a series of changes that flood into every area of our lives, and these changes continue for the rest of our time on Earth.

When “it” started happening for me – some time in 1994, during a cycle wherein I practised “trance work” (later known to me as “laying-down meditation”) upwards of ten hours a day – my first thought was, “Well, this certainly is interesting – I wonder how long it will last?”

Twenty years later, those initial inklings – a gentle vibration on the forehead between the eyes, a “halo” around my head, persistent vibrational sounds independent of my outer ears – have matured, expanded and integrated into my experience of life. They have become ever-present and stabilized – although there are times when a “spike” will throw everything into chaos and uncertainty, when I’m taken to levels of absorption I’ve never been to before, and I don’t know if I’ll ever come back to “normality” again.

What I did not know back then is that these charisms were not just giving me validation as a dedicated, practicing contemplative.

They were ripping me apart from the inside out.

* * *

There came a time, about eight years after the onset of these “signs of absorption,” when I gleefully committed myself to the life of a contemplative – a meditator, a prayer-warrior, a studier of Scripture. Such liberation! “I am a monk! This is IT! This is ME for the REST OF MY LIFE!” February 1, 2005 is when I made a formal announcement to this effect. A flash of spiritual lightning had hurled down from the heavens, struck me between the eyes, and given me absolute conviction that my “marching papers” had finally been delivered – my life would be one long meditation retreat, and the world would just have to get used to it.

Looking back, I see that this lightning-struck declaration of who I AM was a “gift” from the charisms, and that this gift signified that authentic, undeniable transformation had commenced.

What I did not understand at the time, however, was that this “gift” would not always lead to bliss, joy and ecstasy. Granted, bliss, joy and ecstasy are always present, but they do not define my total state – they only define my presence without reference to the context of my life.

In other words, while these twenty years of daily meditation and living with the charisms have saturated me in bliss, joy and ecstasy, there is still the matter of living life. Living life creates friction, in my experience – friction resulting from the expectations, demands and requirements of a world that does not value its contemplatives, wanting them to “get a job” and spend hours at work, buying things, paying bills and contributing to the economy, rather than sitting silent for hours at a time on a meditation cushion.

This friction has been wearing at my self-identity for two decades.

It has been challenging all the beliefs I’d previously taken for granted – about myself, about the world I inhabit, about the nature of existence itself.

The charisms, once they take hold, gradually whittle away at the contemplative – and, depending on how enlarged the contemplative’s ego was upon onset, and how much the contemplative kicks and screams as the process unfolds, the “fall from grace” can form one long, tortuous, humbling period of relinquishment.

If I could counsel a “newbie” contemplative who is just coming into the charisms, I would say that there is nothing more important than to discard one’s need for self-justification as quickly as possible. If we are habitually defensive when validation and respect are withdrawn from us, we need to go straight into that burning need for validation and we need to let it go, once and for all.

I know, because I have kicked and screamed, I have issued rationalization after rationalization, and I have retained a stance of self-justification out of sheer habit – all while maintaining a vigorous daily meditation practice. The whittling away deepens as time goes on, adding torque and pressure to the imperative to relinquish. Relinquishment WILL HAPPEN, one way or another – some of us take the easy way, some of us bang our heads on every rock in the road.

While it’s true that ALL of life constitutes a challenge to let go of our erroneous beliefs, I can say that the charisms represent a guarantee that we won’t be able to avoid the utter death and destruction of our self-identity. The charisms are here to smash all of that, no matter what it takes to get the job done. Until our habituated sense of self is broken beyond repair, we are just pushing against the tidal wave – and no human is strong enough to hold it back.

Better to dive into the wave and swim wherever it wants to take us.

In His Own Country


A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house. Mark 6:4

My friend and brother, Jeffrey S. Brooks (sometimes known as Jhanananda — that’s him above, doing what he loves most), also happens to be my meditation teacher.

I’ve been learning from him for about eight years now. We’ve done two nine-day retreats together, one in southern California and one in Gold Hill, Colorado. More importantly, he has patiently and attentively answered my questions over the years, drawing on his 40 years of daily practice to meet me wherever I’ve been.

Jeffrey is a controversial and sometimes polarizing figure, having long ago determined not to compromise the verifiable truth in his discoveries. This comes as a threat to some, and a turn-off to others — while a small and particular subset has discovered in Jeffrey someone who can truly be called “the real deal.”

I’ve participated on (and moderated) Jeffrey’s Jhana Support Group discussion board for many years now. He reeled me in from one of the many pseudo-Advaita boards out there, appealing to the fact that I’d been experiencing certain definable ecstatic phenomena over the years, and that none of the spiritual teachers I’d discussed them with would work with me around them. I was always told to put the ecstasies out of my mind, as they are a “distraction” and a “hindrance” to whatever goal they had in mind for me.

Jeffrey, on the other hand, had discovered that no less a personage than Gautama Buddha had actually taught his monks to not only give rise to, but rigorously and skillfully engage the ecstasies — known as “jhana” or “samadhi” in the original tongue. These teachings had only been available in English for a few decades, despite having been preserved in the liturgical language of Pali for about 2,500 years — and it was only during the past ten or fifteen years that the Sutta Pitaka had been packaged and distributed for the masses. Jeffrey had bothered to study these teachings (mostly the first three “baskets” of discourses, covering several thousand pages in English) in great and penetrating detail, such that he’d been able to “unpack” the instructions and apply them to direct experience as a contemplative.

As the Buddha’s actual teachings (contrary to the commentary-based system of practice that had evolved over the years, a non-ecstatic “dry” approach known in the West as “insight meditation” or “vipassana”) began to merge with Jeffrey’s contemplative perspective, he started to assert what he’d learned, discussing it openly in the meditation halls and sangha meetings of Tucson, Arizona. He would quote passages from the Discourses wherein the Buddha encouraged his disciples to work with the bliss, joy and ecstasy that emerged from their practice — despite the fact that most vipassana/insight instructors had been taught to repress, ignore and even demonize jhana/samadhi.

Jeffrey was told (in no uncertain terms and on many occasions) to stop talking about these things, as they were bringing “discord to the Sangha.” No one was able to argue with Jeffrey based on the evidence, which is right there for anyone to read and practice, so they resorted to character assassination and shunning. My friend, brother and teacher was systematically removed from the Arizona Buddhist community leadership positions he’d earned through the years. Eventually, he was forced to strike out on his own, bringing the Buddha’s actual instructions to those who not only hunger to learn, but whose personal contemplative experiences validate these teachings.

* * *

I’m aware that Jeffrey is sometimes regarded as indelicate or even arrogant. I understand that his way of communicating is often designed to provoke. There is something about Jeffrey that, for those who are attached to their own perspective and/or sense of authority, rubs them wrong.

The Jeffrey I know and love, however, is refreshingly self-honest and willing to listen, if only he is shown a modicum of respect for the time, work and attainment he’s accumulated. If he is shown disrespect… let’s just say that things may (or may not, depending on which way the wind blows) get “interesting.” In any case, one stands to gain a lot from associating with this walking encyclopedia of Buddhist knowledge and wisdom, regardless of the lens through which one views him.

The Jeffrey I know would literally do ANYTHING for the few of his students who have adopted a rigorous and skillful ecstatic contemplative practice — and he routinely goes out of his way to help total strangers who show just a little bit of interest in his teaching. Anyone who has read his journal entries over the years — which he posts online for anyone to read — knows what a loving person he is, having chosen to live a humble life on the verge of homelessness (his often-broken van forming the walls and ceiling of his monastery), giving of his time and energy to assist those who are less fortunate than him.

We in the spiritual milieu have a tendency to project a certain set of expectations onto our gurus and teachers. The honest among us will admit that these expectations are often met with grave disappointment, such as we find when this or that teacher is found to have transgressed sexual and/or authority boundaries that have devastated the lives of his or her followers.

Jeffrey made the decision long ago — and I know this from having talked deeply with him over the years — to wear his inner self on his outer sleeve. What you see is what you get with Jeffrey — no apologies, no holding back, no disseminating… but also no denial of his own shadow, which finds expression in his poetry, artwork and refreshingly open communication.

My attitude, having trodden the seeker’s path for 20 years now, is that I can feel deep appreciation over the lack of pretense when it comes to dealing with my meditation teacher. There is no beauty pageant here, no back-stabbing disciples climbing over dead bodies to get next to the Master. There is no intrigue at all, in fact. If you don’t call Jeffrey or write, that’s just fine — months or even years can slide by, and for him it is as though just a few days have passed, no problem either way. If, on the other hand, you find yourself in a particularly treacherous recess of the Dark Night, Jeffrey will spend hours and hours in communication, giving as much or little attentiveness as is needed — or he will set up a retreat with you in the wilderness areas of the American Southwest, availing himself fully to your spiritual unfoldment.

In this Internet Age, some personalities translate from analog to digital with more success than others. Other personalities are best shared in person, over the long haul, wherein the intimacy of teacher and student is allowed to transform concepts into attainments.

Jeffrey, with his YouTube talks and ongoing message board presence, is gradually making inroads into an American contemplative community that is thirsty for effective guidance. That we would all benefit more from spending time in person with this man is evident — although he would tell us that the most important thing is to meditate and study the Suttas, wherever we happen to be. I feel strongly that, in a just and spiritually-mature world, Jeffrey would be abbott of an Ecstatic Buddhism monastery and retreat center, where he and his teachings would be honored for their obvious truth and efficacy.

Unfortunately, we live in an unjust and spiritually-immature world, where teachers like Jeffrey are likely to be found in food lines or sleeping in busted vans.

* * *

Do I agree with every one of his conclusions?

No.

Do I still experience resistance to the sometimes-shocking nature of Jeffrey’s assertions?

Yes.

Do I feel sorry for those who would rather argue with (or otherwise denigrate) Jeffrey, rather than suspend their resistance long enough to fully understand where he’s coming from?

Yes.

I have learned, however, that Jeffrey (and, by extension, anyone who finds a practice home in Ecstatic Buddhism) is not here to win over the masses. He is here for those who “get it,” and who arrive at a moment of absolute commitment to this practice for the rest of their lives.

So far, it’s a short list of contemplatives, and I feel badly that Jeffrey continues to encounter such fierce resistance.

On the other hand… what’s the hurry?

We are, after all, mostly interested in getting back to the cushion.

Everything else flows from that place.

The Narrow Way

Narrow Way

…Strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it…. Strive to enter in at the strait gate: for many, I say unto you, will seek to enter in, and shall not be able.  (Matthew 7:14 and Luke 13:24, KJV)

Not to worry! You have not stumbled into a Sunday morning church service….

I just thought that the above verses offer a good introduction to something that’s been brewing in me for a couple weeks.

It has to do with the choice with which we are eventually confronted along the spiritual path: Do I go that way, toward the world with its demands, responsibilities and challenges?  Or do I go this way, toward the within, with its demands, responsibilities and challenges?

Is my life to be built around my spiritual practice, or is my spiritual practice to be tucked into my “real life” schedule as best I can?

Is my entire existence to be a moment-to-moment commitment to meditation, mindfulness and Dhamma study… or will my so-called “spiritual life” continue as just another social activity while I show up at Sangha (Satsang, Church, Temple, etc.) when time allows, with the occasional 15-minute meditation thrown in when it happens to occur to me?

Will I make it a priority in my life to squeeze through the strait (i.e., small) gate, and then follow the narrow way… or will I join the herd, bending to its externally-imposed expectations, hoping for the best?

* * *

Assuming that this blog has attracted at least a few who have chosen the strait gate and the narrow way (or who are at least standing before the gate, scratching their chins and wondering if this is the long-awaited moment)… now what?

I’ll tell you what:

Isolation.

On the narrow way there are few travelers.

“Wait!” you say. “I’m part of a wonderful sangha, so I’m not alone at all!”

I pat you on a knee and reply, “Even in the midst of the biggest sangha in all the land… you are alone.”

When you choose to get up before sunrise to meditate (even if you have a partner who joins you)… you are alone.

When you beg off from joining your coworkers at lunch so you can grab some lying down meditation in your car… you are alone.

When you leave the party at eight-thirty (just when the “fun” begins) so that you can go home to your before-bed meditation… you are alone.

When you are walking down the street practicing mindfulness of that little yellow flower off to the left… you are alone.

When all the other kids are playing Frisbee in the street and you are settled at a table on the front porch, spiritual books spread everywhere… you are alone.

Somewhere along the way, your family and friends notice that there’s something “off” with you.

Due to the effects of a rigorous and skillful meditation practice (which ideally gives rise to bliss, joy and ecstasy every time you hit the mat), adhered to over months and years (such that you are saturated in meditative absorption 24/7), you have become tranquil and equanimous.

Your family and friends are now convinced that you’ve “lost your ambition,” that you are “contented” (as though that’s a bad thing), that you are no longer a total stress-cadet because the sky is falling and who’s going to take care of you in old age?

They are working overtime to keep their heads above water, and you seem to be wandering around in a bubble of conscious awareness, unconcerned for anything other than the present moment.

Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?…. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. (Matthew 6:31,34, KJV)

* * *

Now, I’m not saying that everyone who chooses the narrow way is doomed to a life of grinding poverty and hopelessness. I’m not saying that the narrow path necessarily leads through physical wasting and depletion.

I’m not even saying that the wide path is any less isolated than the narrow way.

It’s just that those who choose the narrow way are very, very aware of their lone-wolf status.

A life that is built around a rigorous and skillful meditation practice leading to bliss, joy and ecstasy is a life spent in conscious observation, both within and without. It is spent in the constant and persistent realization that “this” cannot be shared with anyone else… other than to help her come into “this” for herself… assuming she is ready to enter through the strait gate in order to follow the narrow way.

The choice to enter through the strait gate is a choice for solitude.

There’s no point in pretending otherwise.

Whether you live in an ashram or in a broken down van on some lonely street at the edge of town, you as a dedicated contemplative are ultimately alone… and you become more and more aware that this is the case.

The good news?

The good news is that, instead of waiting until your dying moment to realize your spiritual aloneness, you get to grapple with it now.

And… you get to further embrace your practice, since your practice is the one thing in this world that alleviates your isolation.

Why?

Because your practice, which leads to saturation and absorption in bliss, joy and ecstasy, is the one thing that authentically (i.e., beyond the shadow of a doubt, beyond some book’s conceptual description, beyond wishful thinking) connects you with That which knows no separation.  Call it Holy Spirit, call it Fanaa, call it Samadhi, call it Jhana, call it Kundalini, call it ECSTASY… call it whatever you want… and then let it consume you, as it will propel you along the narrow way to true Union, rendering your solitude obsolete.

So yes, I am alone in this thing… but I’m not the only one who has walked through the strait gate and is ambling along this narrow way.

It’s good to know we’re all heading to the same destination, and that the way has already been walked by some mighty pioneers who were good enough to leave behind a trail marker or two.

Meditative Absorption and the Value of Relationship

relationship

[This post is directed toward dedicated, rigorous and skillful contemplatives who happen to live in committed relationship, and is not intended to assert that such a life is superior to the single life.  I bow to those of you who are on your own, as this form of life carries with it different sets of advantages and challenges.  No offense is intended to anyone, anywhere!]

Having spent the requisite time meditating in this life (and most likely in previous lives, as well), such that the signs of absorption have arisen and we are now saturated in bliss, joy and ecstasy throughout every day and night….

…What is the best way to live amongst those who are dominated by dukkha?

Hardly a day goes by when I don’t think to myself, “Boy, it would be a lot easier to just live alone in a cave somewhere.”

I just want to be left alone to remain connected with the pleasant sensations, comforting inner sounds and unattached emotions that arise from my practice — is that so much to ask?

No sooner do I entertain these notions, however, than I remember how valuable relationships can be along the Path.

If my practice had already resulted in Nibbana, is it likely that I would continue to experience emotional reactivity when exposed to suffering (or joy, for that matter) in others?

If my practice had already resulted in Nibbana, would my relationships still be mirroring back to me so many unfortunate character flaws? (They are in there, trust me….)

Having arrived at these insights, I realize further that relationship can be a boon to the contemplative, provided that one’s partner is supportive of the fact that meditation, dhamma study and near-constant mindfulness are by far the most valued components of the contemplative’s existence. If we are fortunate enough to have ended up with such a supportive person, even if that person has not committed himself or herself to a Calling such as ours, it is possible to use the pain and suffering inherent in relationship to propel us along the Path.

I see my marriage relationship as a long-term experiment. It goes something like this:

Michael, due to a dedicated, rigorous and skillful meditation practice that has born the fruit of absorption and saturation, experiences peace, bliss, joy and ecstasy that are self-arising, non-dependent on any external stimulus. In relationship, however, he encounters all sorts of pain and suffering — much of it lingering within him, products of kamma from a wild earlier life, a strict religious upbringing and unknown influences from this and other lives — perfectly mirrored in the pain and suffering that his presence triggers in his wife. Can he use this mirroring as an aid to jhana’s natural process of removing blockages to enlightenment?

For me, the lesson of this experiment is that the third leg of my practice — mindfulness — must not be neglected.

The fact is, my job in relationship is to become constantly aware of what is going on inside of me. How am I reacting to this person’s expressions of pain and suffering?  How am I reacting to this person’s expressions of love and affection? How am I reacting to the inevitable projections onto me? Am I taking them personally? Are they pissing me off? If so, am I attached to a role here? Am I identified with what’s going on? Am I clinging to this painful interaction?

I’m not even saying that anger or other emotional reactions are “bad” or negative. I am, however, insisting that the real work in relationship has nothing to do with the other person. It has everything to do with what’s going on inside of me.

Period.

The modern Catholic mystic Anthony de Mello (who lived and taught in India) put it like this (from his book Awareness, page 51):

Anytime you have a negative feeling toward anyone, you’re living in an illusion. There’s something seriously wrong with you. You’re not seeing reality. Something inside of you has to change. But what do we generally do when we have a negative feeling? “He is to blame, she is to blame. She’s got to change.” No! The world’s all right. The one who has to change is you.

Hard words, perhaps, but the sentiment applies to our discussion here.

The challenge is not to avoid relationship (unless it truly prevents the contemplative from a full and fruitful practice, in which case a change must be made), but to use relationship as an opportunity for exposing those aspects of our being that need to shift… so that the beautiful deconditioning wrought by meditative absorption is able to advance in accordance with our heightened awareness.