by Peter Fenner
Do you oscillate between thinking:
I need help – I don’t need help
This is a real problem – I’m just making this up
I need to try harder – Trying harder just gets in the way
This isn’t it – This is it?
In general terms these pairs of contrary beliefs and attitudes represent two different approaches to spirituality. The approach we are most familiar with declares that something is missing in our lives and offers various methodologies designed to cultivate what is lacking. The systems aligned with this approach offer wisdom, purity, freedom, bliss, etc.-after many lives, within this life, through a single course or even from one meeting with a teacher. Most systems for spiritual and psychological development are of this type. They attract a following through offering “ancient” or “innovative,” “easy” or “demanding,” “gradual” or “rapid” methods for achieving complete fulfillment. While their methods are very different, all these systems are predicated on the need for change. They are variations on the discourse that “This isn’t it,” and that we need to be somewhere, or someone, different if we are to be truly fulfilled and happy.
The spiritual marketplace
Whilst historically Western psychology and spirituality have been defined by the “discourse of change,” this discourse is being recently challenged by an alternative perspective. This perspective, which is new to the West though ancient in the East, suggests that “This is it.” In fact, if we examine the contemporary marketplace, this new perspective is fast gaining ground in the spiritual stakes. According to this perspective, we have already got it-there is nothing more we need to do. The construction and pursuance of spiritual goals are obstacles to realizing that we are already complete and fulfilled. This “discourse of immediacy” invites us to adopt a new language through which to understand spirituality.
Actually there are many, many different stories within the “discourse of immediacy.” Some systems and traditions teach that we are already enlightened. This is our natural condition-our essen- tial nature. The only problem, which isn’t a real problem anyway, is that we haven’t realized our enlightened condition. These traditions teach that our burdensome thoughts and conflicting emotions are the play or manifestation of our wisdom-mind, if only we could see this. Alternative systems say that the search for enlightenment is a distraction because there is no such thing as enlightenment.
The here-and-now is just the here-and-now. It is what we think it is and can’t be any different. This is it, because it can’t be anything else. Other traditions and teachers claim to go beyond the belief that “This is it.” They say that there is no “IT” to get, either in the future or in the here-and-now.
Thinking that “This is it,” only shows that we haven’t really got it.
The general characteristics of these two approaches can be summarized like this.
DISCOURSES OF CHANGE DISCOURSES OF IMMDEDIACY
This isn’t it This is it
Of course, the way we think about our own spirituality is often a complex mixture of these two types of discourse. Upgrading from change to immediacy
The problem with the “discourse of change” is that for as long as we take this discourse seri- ously-live in terms of it-we will experience a lack or incompletion. Our meditation and other spiri- tual practices will be propelled by the belief that THIS isn’t it and that there is something to get. This, of course is what makes the perspective of immediacy look so attractive. If the problem is thinking that “this isn’t it,” then the solution is to get that “this is it.”
Thus, many spiritual seekers who have spent years cultivating beliefs and practices based on the need for change are now switching camps. They are finding themselves attracted to systems like Zen, Taoism and the Tibetan Dzog chen and Mahamudra traditions which contain powerful expres- sions of the “discourse of immediacy.” Having struggled to change, the “discourse of immediacy” comes like a fresh breeze offering a higher and more authentic spiritual perspective than goal- oriented systems of practice. We trade our discourses of change for the “better” perspective of living fully in the present.
In this new discourse we appreciate that “this is it,” because it can’t be anything else. We can’t be thinking another thought when we are thinking the one that we are thinking. While reading this sentence, we can’t be reading another one. In this discourse there is nothing to get, since we have already got what there is for us to get. The idea that one experience can displace another, or the suggestion there is something more to this experience, are simply constructs of the imagination. Similarly, the past and future are present-time constructs. Our memories are the present-time activa- tion of images accompanied by the belief that these images represent real events that can’t be hap- pening now.
Seduced by the here and now
While living in the here and now can seem attractive, if we think this perspective will be a solution to our problems, we should think again.
Firstly, living in the here and now is an illusion made real by the discourse of immediacy. There is no such thing as being totally in the present. If someone is living in the here and now they have no sense of being located in the present rather than the past or future. The quality of their experience is neither displaced nor diluted by thinking about tomorrow’s work or recalling yesterday’s conversa- tion, since there is no qualitative difference between the thought of yesterday, today or tomorrow. If thinking about the past or future was less real than thinking about the present, we wouldn’t take our memories and projections so seriously.
Secondly, in cultivating an experience of immediacy we fail to see how it becomes just another movement within the discourse of change. We misread traditions like Zen and begin to think that this new perspective represents an improvement over our old ways of thinking and practicing. We think we are onto something good. We might believe that this new perspective is less constructed, truer to reality or more liberating. Yet as the Chinese master Foyan said: “The minute you fixate on the recognition that ‘This is ‘it,’’ you are immediately bound hand and foot and cannot move around anymore.” Having escaped the limitation of needing to change we end up right where we began. The progress we seem to have made evaporates as we discover ourselves playing the same game of locating ourselves on a path leading to an ever more satisfying way of being.
Thus, even though the perspective of immediacy isn’t something that can be gained or avoided we continue to read it as an experience worth having. While the experience of immediacy is neither profound nor trivial, we think it is super-profound or ordinary in very a significant and generally inaccessible way. Even if we figure that immediacy is “nothing” we still want to get it. In this way we continue to be trapped in a game of distinguishing our perspective as superior and advanced. This illusion of progress can become compounded as we gain increased fluency in the rhetoric of immediacy. Even though immediacy isn’t a knowledge- or skills-based perspective, we figure that we can learn it through exposure to the right teacher or course. We learn a new “sophisticated” language that allows us to say that there is no difference between having it and not having it, but we still continue to approve and disapprove of different spiritual systems. We learn how to talk the talk but it doesn’t alleviate our basic discomfort and conflict.
Furthermore, the idea of living in the moment is often taken on board only after we have struggled unsuccessfully to free ourselves from conflict and pain. We figure that if hard work hasn’t deliver the goods, then we might as well give in to what is. We justify this shift by saying that suffer- ing is caused by rejecting what we are experiencing. But to the extent that we are forced into “ac- cepting the moment” through having failed to produce the changes we desire, this new perspective is stained by residual feelings of resignation and disappointment. “Living in the moment” can be a nice way of saying that we have run out of steam.
So while we may gain short term relief from our suffering by thinking that we have made progress in entering the experience of immediacy, in time our conflict and dissatisfaction returns as we struggle to cultivate and hang on to a preferred perspective.
Is there a way out?
How can we escape the problem of automatically reconstructing the perspective of immediacy as simply another chapter within the discourse of change? Of course, it’s not as simple as saying that there is no problem, for this immediately locates us within the rhetoric of immediacy-as a discourse that stands in contrast to the need to escape.
One possibility is to transcend the problem by being in a way where we are in neither discourse. We need to get outside this whole thing of being trapped by language. We need to move into a space where we have neither got IT nor lost IT. However, if we think of this as something worth getting, we fall back into the discourse of change. On the other hand, if we figure that this isn’t something we can get, or that is meaningless state, we are trapped by the rhetoric of immediacy.
Another way around this problem is to reject the idea that spirituality can only be approached through two mutually excluding perspectives. Instead we might advocate an integrated approach that harmonizes both perspectives into balanced way of life. However, in rejecting a dualistic approach in favor of an integrated perspective we create a new dualistic structure and re-enter the discourse of change. On the other hand, if we think there is no right or wrong way of understanding the spiritual endeavor we lock into the discourse of immediacy. And, if we think that it is preferable to be non- judgmental we are flung right back into the discourse of judgments and change.
Finally, we might decide that the problem lies in taking the notion of oscillating between alter- native perspectives too seriously. Perhaps we aren’t dealing with two extreme perspectives. We might declare that adopting a particular perspective isn’t “actually adopting a perspective,” it is just thinking that we are doing this. However, this stands in contrast to believing that we really can adopt different perspective, so it seems we do have two radically different approaches. In fact, at this point it seems that all we can ever do is fall to an extreme. If we want to forge ahead, we fall to the ex- treme of needing to change. If we decide we are satisfied where we are, we fall to the extreme of immediacy.
At this point we might be inclined to boldly declare that ultimately “there is nothing to do or not to do,” or that we “neither need to change nor stay the same.” However, if we do this in a mood of insight and understanding we fall to the extreme of over-valuing what we are saying. We believe that we have said something that is significant and meaningful. On the other hand, if we find that we are thrown into silence, or mouth these expressions “knowing” that they really don’t say anything, we are trapped by the language of immediacy.
So where are you now?
Have you succeeded in transcending these two approaches or are you locked into one or other approach?
The fact that you continue to read this article shows that you are probably located within the “discourse of change,” since we don’t end up reading books, journals, newsletters, etc. unless we think there is something in them that might be useful to us. However, putting this newsletter aside doesn’t help either because this action is intended to move us beyond the cycle of flip flopping between change and immediacy. If we say we are reading it, simply because this is what we are doing-there is no other purpose or aim behind it-we are locked into the language of immediacy. In finishing this article we can also note that the question of when, how and what would consti- tute finishing, only arises when we are thinking within the discourse of change-in which there is a beginning, middle and an end. On the other hand, if we feel that we are aligned with the perspective of living in the moment, then the question of “finishing” this article is irrelevant, even nonsensical, since there is nothing that needs to be clarified or resolved. I leave it you to determine where you are located, if indeed you are located at all.