Can you imagine a day without having to carry the regrets of the past or the worries about the future? No easy task perhaps, considering that most of our 60,000 daily thoughts have to do mostly with the past or the future. Just think for a moment how much of our stock of energy is used up in repetitive sticky thoughts about the past or the uncertainty of the future. What would be like to let go of the heavy baggage that has become a frame of reference for how we think and act everyday? We would certainly be envisioning a new persona and changing track, creating new routes and designing a new future would be a real possibility. All latest research in neuroscience tells us that this is not wishful thinking, that the plasticity of the brain is a fact and that creating new neuronal pathways is a very effective way to deal with mental and emotional habits.
To create this new persona, the different spiritual traditions offer us many paths to choose from according to our inclination and motivation. And the approaches used in all these paths could – perhaps over simplifying – be placed in two groups: the gradual or progressive approaches and the sudden approaches. For example, in the Tang period in China (600-900 A.D.), there were two main schools of Chan or Zen, the Northern School or gradual and the Southern School or sudden founded by Huineng, the 6th Patriarch of Zen. For those interested in the study of these two approaches, this is a perfect example of their different methods. But regardless of the approach, first there is the need to examine our mental and emotional patterns, reflect on our value and belief systems and decide what negative habits we want to eradicate and which qualities we want to create. It’s like taking stock of our situation and deciding what needs to be changed. Then come the corrective measures which in both cases need to be applied with intention and focused awareness. Meditation is the tool that will allow us to quiet the body and withdraw the senses so that we can shift our focus to the movements of the mind. An here is where the two approaches diverge.
In the gradual approach we consciously stir away from the known re-active habits that we want to eradicate and at the same time we cultivate more desirable ones, or create new neuronal pathways in the language of neuroscience. For example, when anger, grief, sadness or whatever emotion comes up we don’t ignore or repress it, instead we acknowledge it and let it go. It’s like saying hello and good-bye to an old acquaintance. Of course this requires mindfulness and the vigilance and persistence of a cat watching intently the mouse’s hole but, eventually, we’ll notice that our emotional episodes will decrease in frequency and intensity. The other part of the equation is the creation of a positive habit to replace the old one. For example, we can cultivate patience or compassion to replace anger. The practice of creative visualization or guided imagery is a potent technique to create new neural pathways. We use the amazing ability of the brain to learn by imagining. By vividly imagining how to react in a specific situation the brain learns that behavior without us going physically through the motions. This possibility of retraining our minds by creating new thought patterns, real or imagined, has long been used by the yogis. The practice of visualizing ourselves as a deity, imbuing the qualities it represents, can transform the image we have of ourselves until the attributes of the deity become our attributes. In this approach we are using the mind and its power of imagination to create a new reality.
In the sudden approach we let go of our imaginings completely, in fact we try to get our analytical mind out of the way by decreasing or silencing its activity. Through intense concentration on our object of meditation (mantra, symbol, breath or simply watching the movements of the mind) we slowly move from the unconscious to the conscious, from the re-active to the aware and awaken. Eventually a state of energetic coherence will come about and we will transcend body, mind and space. The difficulty is our holding on to our sense of self. It’s like hanging over a precipice and not letting go the branch that holds us. It’s scary and even though we might be determined to let go we are very attached to that branch. After all, that is what we know and that emptiness down below looks very threatening. This is the “great death”, not our physical death but the death of the ego. St. John of the Cross called it the black night of the soul when he struggled to surrender to the will of God. Without putting aside our ideas about ourselves and others and without acknowledging and releasing our emotions we cannot make room for new possibilities. We have to become “no-body” “no-where” in order to become fully alert and alive to this moment. In this state there is “no-thing” to grasp or attain and we can finally let go our hold and relax. Here there are no more wants, nothing to cultivate or achieve and we feel whole and complete. This state of clarity and perfection is described by the masters in all traditions. Although the experience of total surrender can happen in a flash (thus the term “sudden”), it is the result of long training in mastering the mind. Just like a flash of lightning it can blast and destroy long-time established mental and emotional patterns and bring forth wisdom and compassion spontaneously. When this happens it is safe to be under the guidance of an expert teacher as the re-entry into our every day reality can be rocky and might need some adjustments. Our ego having been subdued for a long time comes up to the surface again with the strong surge of energy that accompanies surrender and can manifest, for example, as spiritual pride. Of course what this means is that more vigilance is necessary and so it’s back to the drawing board. I just want to mention here that there are many degrees of realization and that full enlightenment is experienced by very few beings. The yogis believe that enlightenment is cumulative from one life to the next so our spiritual work is never lost. For example, in the Tathagata Tales we learn about the different lives of the Buddha, the Awakened One, when he was an elephant, a tigress, a poor man, a king, etc… and developed many qualities like compassion sacrificing his life many times for the sake of other beings.
We all want to have those experiences of clarity and bliss and the sooner and the more “sudden” the better. But until this happens and the tree is ripe to drop the fruit many wise teachers recommend to work at it from both ends: patiently dropping old habits and developing new qualities while at the same time cultivating a trust beyond any doubt that we are “Satchidananda” (existence absolute, wisdom absolute, bliss absolute) waiting to burst forth.