The Meditator’s Mission Statement

Just believing that the world is a riddle with no answer and then getting on with life does not remove the ache.

My attitude towards meditation is that Awakening (aka “enlightenment”) is possible.

Awakening from what? one might ask. Perhaps, you could say, that I mean to awaken from the apparent paradox of being a tiny self in an infinitely large cosmos. To resolve the contradiction between self and other.

Consider the mystery that crops up when, in an unguarded moment, you make eye contact with yourself in the mirror. Or when you really appreciate the consciousness behind the eyes of another person. For me, there is a slightly dizzying sense, like stepping into a hall of mirrors. Why am I me, and not you? What does that question even mean? These are all aspects of the greatest mystery — what is existence? Why is there something rather than nothing?

Let’s say you get away from the city and all around you is evidence in the form of wildlife, of geography, of sunshine, starlight, and seasons — evidence of a process taking place, a process that is vaster than we normally appreciate, and yet for all that vastness, also fundamentally more intimate and immediate, urgent even, than the mental chatter and entertainments with which we usually occupy our time.

Intuitively we know that we are part of that great mysterious process. Yet we continue to return to a narrative that puts ourselves into a role of protagonist in a story that revolves around us. Despite the advances of science, our experience is still mostly informed by what we desire and what we wish to avoid. This narrative feels crucially important to us, yet a lifetime barely registers on a global scale, and our individual selfhood is vanishingly tiny on a cosmic one. It cannot be denied that every evening we are one day closer to death. Faced with that scale, how can we continue to pursue our own desires and aversions as though they are the most critical thing? How about the desires and aversions of others? Of those who have not yet been born?

Where do we position ourselves in all this cosmos, such that we are both sane about our perspective and yet retain our human essence, that feelingfulness towards our experience and the experience of others, so that life keeps its vibrancy and wonder? How do we appreciate vastness without becoming a cynic about the value of human experience? How do we recognise all existence as a process without becoming indifferent to its twists and turns?

This mystery stems from a kind of existential groundlessness. One might enjoy the prose of a mythology that explains creation of the world in human-centric terms — and yet, when looking into the eyes of another, if we are truly honest with ourselves there is an enforced agnosticism, in the true sense of that word as meaning to to Not Know what reality is. To Not Know what precisely we are experiencing. We are unable to hold and appreciate each moment without missing the next as it slips past.

It is this vertigo of Not Knowing that I believe we can awaken from, although I should probably say “awaken into”, since the real resolution seems to come when we stop resisting our fundamentally agnostic situation. Awakening is not about acquiring some kind of knowledge around facts.

One can be an atheist and still suffer the vertigo of this groundlessness.

Touché, NASA.

Albert Camus, French philosopher of the mid-twentieth century, begins his startling essay The Myth of Sisyphus with the statement “There is but one serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.”

Which is another (admittedly rather intense) way of phrasing things.

I posit that there is no answer to the question Camus poses for us. For suicide implies a narrative — a self, who chooses to either continue struggling with the confusion of existential groundlessness, or cease existing. I perceive that by dropping that very narrative of selfhood, there arises a third alternative. If that great epic drama, which we tell ourselves from sunrise to sunset, is seen as a simplification of reality[TED Talk, opens in new window], instead of a true representation, then selfhood becomes less and less central to the experience of life. Instead we progressively submerse our “self”, through practice in daily life and meditation, in the larger mystery that does us. It is the illusion of being a separate self that we can Awaken from.

However just thinking about experience as a process isn’t enough — amounting merely to dreaming about waking up. Or as Donald Hoffman says in the above video, “you’re still on the desktop”. We must experience the illusory nature of the self; viscerally; we must glimpse it in our desires, our aversions, our body, our emotions, our relationships; our triumphs and defeats … we must repeat this process, over and over, until it echoes through our experience with each upwelling moment of the constant change that is reality.

Then, that existential groundlessness can become, in the words of Pema Chödrön, positive groundlessness (not an affiliate link).

These are the teachings of the Buddha-Dharma, which I follow. I’m pretty sure that others had found ways to unravel the “self delusion” before the Buddha did so. And many others have done so since, both with and without access to his teachings. But the true brilliance of Siddhartha Gautama — the Buddha — was that he discovered a way to teach others to undertake this visceral, experiential training, such that they, too, could Awaken. Apply the instructions, put in the effort, and Awakening follows. It is easier to miss the ground as you take a step, than it is to miss Awakening, provided the instructions are good, you understand them, and you put them into practice.

Today I am much more deluded than that. I can write these things, but if enough shit hits the fan, I will forget and the habits will take over. But I’m the process of waking up, just like (I believe) all else is that exists 🙂

This attitude informs my approach.

Posts about Secular vs. Religious Buddhism

Buddhism for Non-Believers - Flinching away from religious ceremonies may be a good thing for meditators.
Secular Enlightenment Part One: Tools of the Trail - Using intense and deliberate sustained attention to examine our minds debunks many illusions we previously suffered about the world in which we find ourselves.
Secular Enlightenment Part Two: Defining Characteristics - There are as many ways to talk about enlightenment as there are people striving for it. It is doable for most of us with a little forbearance and hard work.

Thoughts on Leonard Cohen’s A Thousand Kisses Deep

My paternal grandparents promised to love and cherish one another until death.

Confined to sex
We pressed against
The limits of the sea
I saw there were
No oceans left
For scavengers like me
I made it to
The forward deck
I blessed the rambling fleet
And then consented
To be wrecked
A thousand kisses deep
from A Thousand Kisses Deep by Leonard Cohen

I hope they took the spirit of the full vow, because after fifty years my grandfather passed away, leaving Grandma alone.

The phrase “until death us do part” is one of the few times in Christian ritual where death is acknowledged without recourse to eternity. There is no talk of being reunited in Heaven. And although there was plenty of that at Granddad’s funeral, I hope that Grandma was beyond wanting a gauzy veil by the time he left. I don’t picture her holding Geoffrey in her mind as as an angel reborn, but as the frail, vulnerable man overtaken by death as we all are due to be.

These days we know the certainty of death, and yet a cultural imperative has arisen to say “forever”. Walt Disney and the pop music industry have a lot to answer for in my book, because we can only ever mean “for now”.

We sail beyond sight of land to the deep, blue water, with only memory as a compass, and we swim together for a while … and then we sink into our own death or we drift apart. Neither outcome need be so shocking, except we were raised with modern images of “happily ever after”.1 It’s self-indulgent and dishonest.

Granddad’s final dissolution, premature as it could only ever be, was in the eyes of pop music a betrayal. His death was, of course, an abandonment. But it was also a tender illustration of the humanity that we all loved about him in life.

Thankfully the 20th Century also gave us Leonard Cohen, poet and mystic.

I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat
You see, I’m just another snowman
Standing in the rain and sleet
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second hand physique
With all he is and all he was
A thousand kisses deep

I hear their voices in the wine
That sometimes did me seek
The band is playing Auld Lang Syne
But the heart will not retreat
There’s no forsaking what you love
No existential leap
As witnessed here in time and blood
A thousand kisses deep

He rethrones contradiction as the very heart of love; he tenderises adoration’s inevitable betrayal. Rejecting smugness, he edifies the paradox of giving ourselves to a person, to love, to duty, and to the world, knowing that one day it must all be lost beyond the horizon. In doing so, he restores love to its true grandeur, beyond the sickly packaging of a Broadway song and expresses the fatal human yearning to both experience all of life and yet to escape its ending.

And now he has led the way in death, as he did in life.

In Memoriam
Leonard Cohen
1934 — 2016
~ you win a while and then it’s done, your little winning streak ~

Note: The poetic content of A Thousand Kisses Deep has changed numerous times. This video differs from the one on the album.


  1. Authentic Russian and European fairy tales end with “happily until their deaths” or “and they lived long and happily”.

Mantra #1

Sing me, pain
your sweet ache
breathes a turning softness
into lossful love

sing me, loss
endless end of all
your edgewise pulse
keen blade of breath

sing me, song
cloth’s connecting thread
your little death
inflicts love and life

“I am” is the mantra of Consciousness.
I sing and I am song, I am Sung.
I love and I am love, I am Loved.
I am and I am that, I am One.

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