Part 1: Dreaming
When one begins life, there is a yearning. It doesn’t have a name or an exact voice, but a certain nameless yearning has brought us here. And amidst all the distractions and complications this yearning leads us to, the heart serves as a kind of reflective bedrock. If things get bad enough, we fall back on our hearts. We also fall back on our hearts if things get good enough.
We are very fortunate to have our hearts. We’re also fortunate to have the rest of our organs.
So reality has a structure. But it’s a mysterious structure. We are given places to begin – like our bodies, families, and life – and we are also given places to end. We wake up in the morning and build a to-do list of the whole day. Shower, brush your teeth, get dressed. Maybe not in that particular order. Eat food, then go work. Eat food again. Finally, spend time with your friends and family before you crash-land in your bed.
This structure surrounds life like a warm blanket. It’s a kind of parental figure that never goes away. We are always being parented by life as it draws us into new schisms, portraits, and dreams.
Paradoxically, the only continuity in life is that it changes. Somehow, this is a continuity. If it wasn’t a continuity, there wouldn’t be a sense of anything happening at all. But because it is a continuity, a kind of primordial background arises again and again. We call this primordial background “awareness”.
And as one examines this change more and more and more, they start fall through it in a joyful sense. They start to see that it is not worth identifying with because it is unsatisfying.
There is a word for changing, insubstantial, and otherworldly psychological experiences. Dreams. Normally we experience dreams at night, but no one talks about the dream that occurs during the day. John Lennon actually said it quite succinctly:
“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.”
Reality is like a dream. New situations and moments occur with a harmonic of coherency and consequence – but otherwise, it is simply a dream fabric. It is not a crazy person’s dream-fabric, mind you. An element of craziness does arise as new connections are brought into the daylight – where you begin to realize that one thing is actually another thing. One person is beautiful because they are ugly, and the vice versa. Their ugliness is their beauty in disguise.
I think that you’re beautiful. And I’d like you to realize that this is a dream with me. But the only realization of dream-ness that can occur, is one that substantially eliminates portions of psychological suffering. So join me as this essay becomes a bit stranger and more interesting…
Part 2: Compassion
The simplest doorway into the interconnected dream reality is compassion. By developing love for other beings and wishing them well, you’ll focus on yourself less. Or you’ll still focus on yourself, but with a sense of kindness.
So what is compassion? Compassion can be summarized as a gentle prayer for well-being. You can pray to share whatever makes you happy with all others. So if you experience a sense of satisfaction listening to a certain song, you can radiate that outwards from your heart. By merging it with whatever arises during this process, you’ll feel successful.
For example, if I’m listening to John Lennon (for whatever reason I’m obsessed with him right now) and I feel moved by the lyrics of “Imagine”, I can share the chills I get from that minor chord that drops during the chorus.
But if that kind of compassion is too abstract for you, then you can focus on simply being a decent person. In real life, just be nice to people.
One interesting thing about Peacocks is that their bright colors come from munching on poisonous roots. A truly compassionate person munches on the poison of daily life and transmutes it into love. You start with more general prayers, but ultimately you have to love what you don’t want to love.
Beyond compassion, you have insight meditation practices. These practices help you gain experiential insight into the nature of reality, and I’ll discuss them in the next part down below. They are not separate from compassion practices, so-to-speak. Ideally, you’ll add little harmonics of compassion to your insight practice whenever things become too heavy.
Here’s an example of the interaction between insight and compassion from my own practice, which might last anywhere from 5 minutes to 45 minutes. When I sit down to meditate, I say to myself, “May this practice benefit all beings.” Then I think about my teacher and his or her instructions. I do my practice. And I end my session with “May the merit gained from this practice benefit all beings.”
Often I’ll add special effects to spice up the feelings of warmth and love. Maybe I’ll imagine the feeling of eating warm oatmeal cooked on a stove-top with brown sugar and a brick of perfectly melted butter in the center…and send that vibe along to all beings. Or the taste of fresh-baked cookies from my neighbor that I remember from when I was little. Recently, I played this wonderful video game called “Prey”…sometimes, I pass along the sense of excitement and freshness that that experience provided.
Discussing compassion is important because it protects the practitioner. Learning about the nature of reality is tough stuff, and you need all of the help you can get. Having discussed the merits of being kind, let’s talk a little bit more about this dream-fabric business.
Part 3: Not your Problem
Seated meditation is the process of examining your reality and learning about it intuitively, on the spot. However, this is easier said than done. When an ordinary being tries to do this for the first time, they immediately run into hindrances. All kinds of sights and sounds arise that either baffle, enchant, or disgust the mind.
In order to have a meaningful meditative experience, three factors are necessary: Sila, Samadhi, and Prajna. These are Buddhist words that translate to: morality, concentration, and wisdom.
First, we will examine morality (sila). Morality is important because it leads to stability of mind. That is why it is a concept in the first place. We exalt morality because it simplifies life and lets you focus on what’s in front of you, instead of fixating on the past or the future. That is, at least, why people originally exalted morality.
Buddhist monks undertake the five precepts, and lay practitioners on retreat do as well. The vows are not necessarily life-long. They are as follows:
I vow to refrain from:
The use of intoxicants
…for some time period.
I realize that this portion of spiritual training is a little bit dry and intimidating. However, I promise you that if you use Sila as a guiding star, your whole life will very gradually become happier and more pure. And interestingly, if you embrace the influence of Sila on your life, you’ll begin to understand how it relates to your everyday consciousness. It stops being an outside influence, and it merges with your Prajna (wisdom).
Let me give you an example of this. At some point, I decided that it was important to genuinely try not to lie. Making this choice has really simplified my life. I don’t have to worry about hiding part of myself, or hiding from the world. I don’t have to worry about my true self being ugly.
I think that, depending on one’s mental disposition, lying has various consequences. Mostly, it just complicates things. Since the complication of things is exactly what we Buddhists are trying to undo, it is important not to lie. It reflects a misunderstanding, and it is also the the very source of it.
The same goes for killing anything, or worshipping drugs like they’re the end-all-be-all-life-rejuvenating source you need. These activities complicate things. It’s okay if that’s where you are – but I’m hoping that as a result of reading this, you’ll examine your own morality and begin experimenting in ways that will ultimately lead you to a life with more dimensions of honesty, courage, and simplicity.
Anyways. Let’s move on.
Before we examine Prajna (wisdom), let’s discuss the next factor: Samadhi.
Samadhi is concentration. With concentration, it’s best not to try too hard. Or at the very least, try to learn from trying too hard.
The advice I was given was to meditate for, say, thirty seconds and then take a break for a few minutes. Then meditate for a minute, and take another break. Then meditate for a few minutes. By facilitating this level of gentleness, you’ll make an imprint on your mind that reflects the actual nature of wisdom.
Anyways. Concentration serves a purpose. You need to learn how to cut through discursive thoughts and examine a single thing for longer and longer periods of time. The breathe is my preferred object – feeling the respiration in some area, be it the nostrils, abdomen, or somewhere between. In particular, you need to develop a sense of equanimity.
Equanimity is extremely important because without it, your mind will simply react to what arises instead of choosing to see it. Similar to how, as children, we thought coffee and alcohol tasted hideous. But as adults, we’ve begun to consider the possibility that these things don’t actually taste so bad. Maybe they’re good exactly as they are. So as meditators, we can learn to taste our neurosis with that same kind of open-hearted curiosity.
As you concentrate, you start to realize that being sucked into discursive thoughts is inevitable. Losing track of things is inevitable. Let go. The only way to stay focused and continue to feel OK, is to relax into non-focus. Then maybe return to the object of focus when you feel relaxed and excited. Thusly, a more energy-efficient form of concentration is achieved. All sorts of strange stuff occurs within this compassionate space, and it’s all perfectly okay.
At this point, we’ve covered a lot of ground but something is still missing. No matter how much stability of mind you achieve, there is still some level of dissatisfaction. Thus we come to the third and final factor:
Prajna. Prajna is the crown jewel of meditation. Without prajna, meditation would be a less valuable enterprise. Fortunately, prajna is here to teach us. In short, prajna is a very relatable thing. It is the intuitive wisdom that arises over the course of your meditation. In a sense, it is the first-hand wisdom your primordial mind achieves as it learns how to let go of sensory information.
Prajna is a little jar that slowly fills up with drips of water. As the jar fills up, you get closer and closer to the Buddha, and thus, enlightenment. As your intuitive wisdom rewards you, you begin to trust the Buddha more. Thusly, you seek out his teachings. In enjoying his teachings, you begin to practice them in daily life. As you practice his teachings more and more in daily life, the beings around you begin to feel happier. You all become happier together, in a way.
The elimination of ego occurs when you actually, properly listen to the Buddha’s teachings. It is not hard. It is simply a matter of dropping it.
I’m reminded a bit of my dog, Sprout. When Sprout chews on a stick, he brings it over me to have it thrown. I’m overjoyed that he’s come my way, but I quickly realize that Sprout is attached to this stick and doesn’t want to let go. So I gently ask him to drop it. I might raise the volume of my voice, or play tug-of-war, but it is still a gentle enterprise – working with Sprout until he lets go of the stick. He might drop it, or learn that he actually enjoys holding onto it – either way, I’m interacting with him and stimulating his intuitive wisdom.
So when you visit the Buddha, he will often tell you to “drop it”. Whatever hang-ups you have, they’ll come out and you’ll be forced to learn – first-hand – how to drop or enjoy that particular stick.
Dropping the stick is a basic, simple action. It’s always a matter of patience, awareness, and experimentation. If you’re afraid of dropping it, all the more reason to experiment with that.
As Prajna grows more and more and more – over the course of seconds, minutes, days, weeks, or years – the mind attunes to it. It’s like this quiet crescendo to the possibility of letting go.
The core problem is essentially just an attachment to heaviness. We don’t want to believe that the way out is as easy and simple as the way in. The possibility that none of this is actually your responsibility seems too good to be true.
But that is precisely what you will realize. You will come to see that this changing mess is not your problem. Actually, it is a little bit more nuanced than that. While that is the final realization, as you hone in on the true philosopher’s mind, you will fill up with tons of revelations. You will realize that who you are is totally okay, and also a burden. Equanimity collapses the burden into a beautiful portrait that is passing through you. However you hone into the harmonic of no-self will free you totally.
You can say it a million different ways, and whatever the “you” is that sees through the illusion may very well be the collective heart of all beings.
Here is the slight issue with this realization. There is always the possibility that someone will read the above paragraph, and think, “Great! All these pesky humans – thank goodness I’m not actually one of them. Right on! None of it is my responsibility? That sounds about right. Fuck my dirty dishes and rotting pile of filthy laundry – I’ll just fuck off into the woods and pretend I’m an elf.” Or worse – they’ll mistake freedom for an excuse to dwell in cruelty and meanness. This is the wrong approach. It is true that this place is not your responsibility. But with that realization comes a deeply heightened sensitivity to pain. A dirty room or a sad person, for example, will shock you more deeply than before. They deserve your love.
As they say in Islam:
Trust in God, but tie your camel.
The realization of no-self is part of a three-fold discover, known in Buddhism as the “Three Characteristics”: impermanence, suffering, and no-self. Realizing no-self, impermanence, and/or suffering will free you in limited, experimental ways at first. Then when you finally, “really” see the truth of these things, you will feel a tremendous sense of relief. By realizing it’s not your problem, you’ll be freed. A tremendous knot of tension will leave your body permanently, because it was never your fault to begin with. It was someone else.
Meditating in forests helps on this path – there is often a good vibe out in nature that facilities natural wisdom. The key is natural, light-hearted wisdom.
The first glimpse of liberation (realizing that this place is not you – is not your spiritual burden) un-conditions a core piece of reality, but it’s up to you to un-condition the rest. What’s profound about this process is that it lights up other peoples’ worlds as well. And it’s natural – it’s just a side-effect of practice.
As more and more of reality is un-conditioned, the dream nature is realized. The title of this essay is no joke. The dream fabric of reality is the real-deal.
So join me in this collective dream! I only quote this because I’ve been interested in this artist lately. But, as John Lennon says in “Imagine”:
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.