We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge, and when the love is sufficiently disinterested and sufficiently intense, the knowledge becomes unitive knowledge and so takes on the quality of infallibility.
-- Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy
The yearlong retreat has sparked in me a hunger for specificity, specificity as in the particular, the precise, the individual, the distinct, the discrete, the detail. This interest in specifics might seem like an ego drift into content as a focus, but perhaps that’s just ego’s opinion! For might not the process of specificity be described as paying attention, becoming minutely aware of every facet, every nuance, every inflection of the Intelligence That Animates? Isn’t this way of attending to the Love that “knows,” the mode of knowledge that brings us into unitive knowledge of the Divine?
According to the Russian novelist Dostoyevsky, “Those who desire to see the living face of the God should not seek it in the empty firmament of the mind.” As practitioners of awareness, we’re well acquainted with the quality of emptiness that is the mind. That mental quality is in direct contrast to the vibrant immediacy of the Emptiness of direct experience. The mind would characterize Emptiness as void, a vast dreariness of nothingness. But when we stop, breathe and get HERE, our experience of the awareness of the moment is anything but empty. In fact, the conditioned impulse, when confronted with the vastness of the everything of the now, is to retreat into the limited perception of small mind, which begs the question: How do we train ourselves to be present to All the Mystery?
We could say that a mental perspective is an abstraction of how things are, for the mind deals in constructs. To be present to a wildflower is a vastly different experience from a mental appreciation of its beauty. If we’re truly present to anything in life, our experience would be that of William Blake, seeing
…a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold(ing) Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
To have a Blakeian experience of your own, try this awareness exercise. Become aware of a patch of green as you take a walk, and then pay really close attention!
My favorite place to do this exercise is in the Monastery archway. I sit down on a rock near the pond, train my gaze to the square of green at my feet, and am instantly transported to a world in miniature. Green becomes a complex web of tiny plants, each characterized by a different shape of leaf. No geometry textbook ever included the infinite variations of squares, triangles and parallelograms that dance at my feet. A lone ant scurries away with a seed. A diminutive pink flower peeps shyly from under a loose pebble. The transparent wings of a baby dragonfly glisten as the wind moves the sunlight across the pond. Miniscule mirrors of mica add sparkle to the mosaic of grey and black grains of sand, while a motionless stick springs to life and moves across my vision on tiny legs. Time stops. Wonder makes me lightheaded. I feel drunk with ecstasy as I get up and make my way across the wooden bridge to my next errand, my heart soaring like the hummingbird darting across the sky.
This type of experience brings to mind a quote from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.” An appreciation for the detail of Life, the specific shape of a moment, allowed me to understand this “wasting of time.” It’s only when we dive in with our attention into the specifics of the Infinity of the Now, that we truly Love. Normally, we gaze at the world, observing it as a mental picture divorced from Reality. Experiencing Life through conditioned mind leaves us feeling dissatisfied. This divine dissatisfaction is the intuitive awareness of the reduction of All to a linear abstraction, robbed of dimension, flavor, texture, and color. It’s only when we drop into the moment that we feel the vitality come pulsing back in the organic joy of the living, breathing aliveness of the Intelligence That Animates.
Specificity isn’t just a tool to contemplate Emptiness, it assists in the very nuts and bolts practice of dismantling suffering. In a book about Teresa of Avila, author Mirabai Starr writes, “Ecstasy is a gift, but so is mindfulness and showing up for the hard work of being human. It is tempting to use our spiritual concepts to check out of reality and avoid suffering.”
We’re familiar with conditioning co-opting practice concepts to explain itself as the source of our misery. We hear phrases such as:
Those voices say…
It’s just a projection…
I saw ego doing this thing again…
I have a karma to…
I got talked into…
Of course, our practice yields insights that assist us to spot the ego in action. But if we lose the lens of the specificity of how we’re caused to suffer, will we really end suffering? This is why the yearlong retreat provides a template to break down the suffering process. We drill with this template month after month, applying it to different content areas. From the specifics of content to the particulars of process, we plumb the depths of the “me” that keeps the All at bay. Far from being a navel-gazing exercise, such attention trains the awareness to be aware of when attention is on suffering and for the awareness to exercise an alternate choice of attention. As we peel back the layers of ego, uncovering a way of seeing, unfettered by the shape of ego, we discover the uniqueness of a human incarnation, an expression of Life unlike any other form in existence. In becoming the wisdom, love, and compassion that assists a human being through shedding her false identification with what she is not, we share in the joy of discovering the shape of “her” Authenticity. Knowing a human being in this particular way, through this kind of loving attention, is another exquisite experience of the joy of Intelligence knowing itself. It’s a process of transformation that Rumi describes thus:
Suppose you know the definitions
of all substances and their products,
what good is this to you?
Know the true definition of yourself.
That is essential.
Then, when you know your own definition, flee from it,
that you may attain to the One that cannot be defined,
O sifter of the dust.