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Book review

On Having No Head

by Douglas E. Harding

On Having No Head by Douglas E. Harding

This is a true gem of a book – it sparkles in the light and when viewed from some angles it is beautiful indeed, but there are some sharp pointy bits, and it’s quite hard. I first read it more than 30 years ago, borrowing a copy from the local library. It stayed with me ever since, and it’s recent return to fame (being liberally quoted by Sam Harris) has caused me to re-read it.

If it seems like I took the whole “gem” metaphor too literally there, then that’s what this book does, with its own metaphor of we ourselves having no head, using it to drive home some very deep points.

From where we look out to the world, Douglas Harding points out that we quite literally can’t see our own head. There’s this vague pink cloud which on other people seems to form a nose, but from where we look, it’s translucent and appears either on the left or the right, depending on which way we’re looking, so that doesn’t seem to be like other people’s noses. If we see our head in a reflection, we aren’t seeing our head itself, we are seeing a reflection – often distorted, in water, at an angle on glass, in a shiny door knob or the back of our spoon. Which of these is the real shape of our head? We are indeed unreliable witnesses:

If I fail to see what I am (and especially what I am not) it’s because I’m too busily imaginative, too “spiritual”, too adult and knowing, too credulous, to intimidated by society and language, too frightened of the obvious to accept the situation exactly as I find it at this moment.

Which is the start of the deep points that are being made. We seem, if we look from this point of view, to be directly connected to the whole world. The whole world is where we used to imagine our head was, and we are deeply, intimately, as one with that world:

There are no obstructions here, no inside or outside, no room or lack of room, no hiding place or shelter: I can find no home here to live in or to be locked out of, and not an inch of ground to build it on.

Douglas Harding had these revelations on his own, and his pursuit of others who might at least understand what he was talking about led him eventually to Zen Buddhism. This short book, then, is really about the Zen experience from an intensely first-hand point of view. Harding found that the Heart Sutra, daily recited in Zen (and other Buddhist) monasteries, declares that the body is just emptiness: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”, it famously declares. This is the profound experience of Zen. Hardin quotes the 16th-century Zen master Han-shan:

“I took a walk. Suddenly I stood still, filled with the realization that I had no body or mind. All I could see was one great illuminating Whole – omnipresent, perfect, lucid, and serene. It was like an all-embracing mirror from which the mountains and rivers of the earth were projected… I felt clear and transparent”

This is the direct experiencing of non-duality, of Advaita, as the Buddhists call it, the Zen experience of Satori It’s not a Zen or a Buddhist concept alone, either – you see it in Christian mystics, in the writings of Hindu and Muslims as well. Even Shakespeare knew of it, when in Measure for Measure he has Isabella say, in a much-quoted speech:

…man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape

This is indeed a short, but profound, book, directly confronting our inner angry ape. Harding ends with a sketch of a path, of experiences and exercises, that might help us along our way to finding this truth at the heart of reality. He achieved the “direct path” to this insight, and I toil along the lower slope of the mountain daily, with rare glimpses of the glorious peaks when the clouds break. But Werner Erhard, self-help guru and founder of the est movement, at least had it right with this line:

This is it. There are no hidden meanings. All that mystical stuff is just what’s so.

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After the Ecstasy, the Laundry

by Jack Kornfield

After the Ecstasy, the Laundry by Jack Kornfield

This classic book explores the experience of meditation and spirituality through quotes and stories from nearly a hundred very experienced practitioners, ranging from nuns and priests to Zen masters and Tibetan Buddhist lamas. They’re all anonymous, so that they could speak freely, and they talk about the highs and lows of their journey. The title tells the story: we might spend hours, days, or even months at the highest spiritual plane, but in the end we still need to clean our teeth and wash our smalls. Even though this may feel like we’ve fallen, in fact we are just living, right here right now in the moment, and that’s the highest achievement we can hope for.

There are so many beautiful quotes and passages in here. Even though in the end I couldn’t quite give it five stars because sometimes I just plain lost the thread through the chapter, there are some lines that are just heartbreakingly beautiful, and capture the human condition to a tee:

Underneath all the wanting and grasping, underneath the need to understand is what we have called “the body of fear”. At the root of suffering is a small heart, frightened to be here, afraid to trust in the river of change, to let go in this changing world. This small unopened heart grasps and needs and struggles to control what is unpredictable and unpossessable. But we can never know what will happen.

Just so. Four and a half stars, and a massive hug to you all.

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Book review

The Path to Nibbana

How Mindfulness of Loving-Kindness Progresses through the Tranquil Aware Jhanas to Awakening

by David C. Johnson

The Path to Nibbana by David C. Johnson
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The Mind Illuminated

by Culadasa (John Yates

This is an extraordinary book. Really, it’s amazing. I mean, I know I bought it because it had just about the highest rating I’d seen for a meditation book on Goodreads, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but still… it’s superb. So yes, it’s a gold-standard five star book for me too, no question.

What’s so great about it? Basically, The Mind Illuminated (TMI, hereafter) describes in detail a structured, systematic, entirely secular, ten-stage path all the way from your first sit, through to Insights and potential Awakening. Each stage has guidance as to what you should be doing to progress, as well as a description of what you’re likely to be running into trouble with, and how to deal with that. TMI’s path is suitable for the beginning meditator to follow, or for a more experienced meditator to pick up further along.

Now, at this point I should warn the gentle reader: there is a lot of controversy online around John Yates, the person. He has been kicked out of the meditation school he founded, apparently because he spent some of the trust’s funds on women with whom he was having sex. All participants were consenting adults, and not students of the school, but he is married, so to the extent this was harming his wife, behaviour does not align with the way “enlightened” people should act. I’m going to leave all this to one side. My view is that we are all human, all of us have our issues, meditation can make a significant improvement to our lives, and what he does is for him and his wife, who is (at the time of writing) still very much on his side. If it’s anybody’s business, it’s not mine. And none of this speaks to the efficacy of the method he describes, which is 2,500 years old – I didn’t expect it to magically cure all ills, and I don’t put its teachers on pedestals.

Back to the book. The stage descriptions are detailed and specific, with a clear progression and explanations. It uses a small technical vocabulary that is explained up front, and that you’ll easily pick up and be able to understand. The author generally uses English words for this vocabulary, while noting the Pali originals, and uses words that have a specific meaning here – things like Attention, Awareness, Subtle Distractions, and Dullness. This is extremely helpful, I found, and made my own understanding of what was going on much clearer.

The distinction between Attention and Awareness in particular is key, and the explanation here is very clear:

Attention singles out some small part of the context of the field of conscious awareness from the rest in order to analyze and interpret it. On the other hand, peripheral awareness is more holistic, open and inclusive, and provides the overall context for conscious awareness.

This dual aspect of meditation is vital – it’s not all about concentration and attention, it’s also about maintaining awareness of the larger context whilst keeping attention stable on a single object. A difficult balancing act for some of us!

Of course, it would doubtless take most of us a number of years to progress through all ten stages, and indeed many of us (myself included) will probably never make it to the end. This doesn’t matter, though: each step brings additional benefits into your life. You can gain further benefits by undertaking some of the other practices detailed in the appendices – Walking Meditation, Metta or loving-kindness meditation (my favourite!), and Analytical Meditation (for working on specific problems in your work or life).

So that’s it in a nutshell. It’s my new go-to manual, beating out my previous favouriate Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book. Don’t get me wrong, I love MCTB: if you do get half way up the ten-step ladder, it will brilliantly show you what the view from there on to the top looks like. But even the author of MCTB, Daniel Ingram, recommends this very book – he says of it

Essential reading for anyone interested in meditative development from any tradition … this is the most thorough, straightforward, clear and practical guide to training the mind that I have ever found.

TMI is also better for me than other classics like Mindfulness in Eight Weeks: The revolutionary 8 week plan to clear your mind and calm your life and Mindfulness in Plain English. Both of which are great introductions, and Mindfulness in Eight Weeks is very useful if you’re coming to meditation to help with stress and anxiety, as it integrates meditation with Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR), a clinically-validated technique to help with anxiety. TMI beats these for me, however, because of the Why? factor.

What do I mean by the Why? factor? I mean that The Mind Illuminated explains why you are doing the various things at each step. Why am I counting the breaths? To focus attention. Why am I doing a bodyscan in this way? To build peripheral awareness. Why do thoughts keep popping into my head? Because of subminds.

And what’s a submind when it’s at home? That’s the other thing I very much liked about TMI: in a series of interludes between the chapters on the ten stages, the book lays out a theory of how the mind seems to work. It’s somewhat science-based, in that it is in line with some of the most current theories in neuroscience. The model presented is of the mind as a group of many smaller subminds or “agents”, each with a specific purpose, which compete for attention. (If you want more on this, the best popular explanation I know of is Marvin Minsky’s The Society of Mind .)

Finally, if you do get into this book, there is a wealth of other material around TMI out there – of particular note is the subreddit, and various YouTube guided meditations or dharma talks by the author, Culadasa.

And really, yes, it’s a great book.

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Book review

Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate

by Brad Warner

Picked this book up at random in a bookshop, based the cover, the title, and my patented method of opening at a random page about 1/3rd of the way through, reading the page, and seeing if I wanted to continue. I did, and, with some mild caveats, I’d recommend it to you, too.

Brad Warner is a teacher of Zen Buddhism. I practice (and to some small extent, teach) a secular version of Tibetan Buddhism, which is rather frowned upon by some of the Zen Buddhists as being a corruption of the original teachings. But Brad (I’m sure he won’t mind me calling him Brad) ain’t that guy. As well as being a Zen teacher, he is a punk rocker from the 1980s (one of the chapters describes him hanging out backstage at Ozzfest – a giant heavy metal festival), still plays with his band, lived in Japan for 11 years, worked for a movie company, has a bit of a crappy relationship with his wife, and so on. He’s a real person, living his real life, just like the rest of us.

This book is a brave attempt to show a true view of a couple of fairly crappy years in Brad’s particular life, and how he coped with them. The subtitle says it all: “A Trip Through Death, Sex, Divorce, and Spiritual Celebrity”. He does this not by “being all Zen” about it, but by being a real, genuine, fully-engaged, human being.

Ultimately, that’s the message of this book: we’re all genuine, complex, brilliant, screwed-up, happy, sad, flawed, self-contradictory, human beings. He’s no different from the rest of us. He’s just perhaps a little bit more aware of it than some – thanks to his 25 years of practice. In the end, this is what Buddhism tries to show you, I think.

I did enjoy this book, and it’s definitely entertaining enough to be worth your time to read. I was hoping, perhaps, for a little more on the Zen stuff, and a little less of the autobiography, so I’d give it three and a half stars, rounded down to three for lack of core content. Still, I’ll look out for others of his – they sound like a blast!

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Book review

The Power Of Now: A Guide To Spiritual Enlightenment

by Eckhart Tolle

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When I was a child, I always admired tightrope walkers on television and in movies. I used to walk along the kerbstones beside roads, upgrading in due course to branches in trees, to build my skills. I fell off a lot. Had I persevered, I would I’m sure I’d have improved. However, I doubt I would ever have reached the levels necessary to walk a rope between tall buildings, perhaps stopping at a carefully balanced chair to sit down, or juggling fruit as I went.

I feel a bit like this about meditation. I’ve meditated, on and off, for most of my life. But I am still very far from the levels that Eckhart Tolle describes in this marvelous book. I fall off a lot.

His level of equanimity comes, by his account in this book, not from years of meditation, but rather from one extraordinarily challenging experience that happened to him as a young man – a true dark night of the soul – from which he emerged fully formed. Perhaps this is my problem: rather than trying to sidle up to enlightenment, it perhaps needs to come upon one suddenly, with full sturm und drang. Regardless, it’s an extraordinary achievement, and resonates with the accounts that many others have of similar states. His account is lucid, with some metaphorical language that won’t gell with all readers (“higher vibrational energies”, etc), but by and large it is simple, direct, and compelling, and very readable. This is definitely somewhere that many of us would want to get to, and he describes some of the obstacles holding us back, and ways we might get around them, as well as what it’s like when you get there.

I don’t think one can doubt the sincerity of his description of his state, either. He lives simply, by all accounts, and has devoted much of his life to teaching others and sharing with them his approach. Not for him the clutter of fame or endless material possessions. To watch him speak on his many online videos is a joy: he is a smiling Yoda-Buddha figure, full of joy and mischievous fun, replete with wisdom and beautiful long silences. Find some, and watch them, and you will read the book in his accent and pauses, too, which definitely added to my enjoyment.

Again, his approach is that of immediate access to the Now, to enlightenment, to God-hood, to whatever your spirituality calls it. If I were to compare it to a Buddhist meditative approach (the spiritual path with which I’m most familiar), it would be with the Dzogchen approach, where enlightenment can be achieved in a moment – if the mind is ready. His philosophical approach might be loosely described as pan-psychism, wherein everything, every last blade of grass and stone and star, participates in some kind of Consciousness, and that’s what we, too, can find in the Now.

Although I still am mostly falling off, on a good day I can feel at least the edges of the state he’s talking about. This book is an account of that moment, written as a series of questions and answers, with suggestions of how to get closer.

It’s real, I’ve been there, albeit briefly: the Eternal Now, where time is suspended and one’s inner voice is quietened, and one is held like a fly in amber, hyper-aware of everything, senses wide open, in a moment of joy and calm, regardless of the chaos or the pain of surrounding circumstance. I’ve felt it on a busy train, in the quiet of nature, and during chemotherapy. At least until I fall off, 60 seconds later. But I know it’s there, I’ve seen it, and it’s my life’s work to extend those moments, until at last I can walk on the tightrope across the Victoria Falls, stopping now and then to admire the beauty and the thunder and the majesty of the world – and perhaps juggling some fruit. See you there.

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Book review

Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book (Second Edition Revised and Expanded)

by Daniel M. Ingram

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Wow. What to say about this book? Bottom line, is it provides an extraordinarily detailed and thorough account of how the classical teachings of Buddhist meditation can provide the tools necessary to move progress to full enlightenment (plus, it explains what enlightenment actually means). And we’re not talking about having to go and live in a monastery in Tibet for the rest of your life to do it. Daniel Ingram, the author, seems to have done all this while living a full and busy life, including going through and graduating from medical school.

It’s a mind-blowing book, really. On the one hand, it describes a number of very woo-woo and seemingly mystical things – from seeing your visual field tessellated with multicoloured patterns to understanding the enormous, deep, connection between all living beings (and that’s before he mentions “magick” and the effects that the ancients talk about there). He says at one point

For example, you think there are no magickal (sic) effects possible and suddenly you are seeing chakras and seem to know odd things about people that you couldn’t possibly know

On the other hand, it’s about as practical and down to earth as can be, dismissing any notion of handwaving and woo-woo models of meditative practice, with lines like:

I am no fan of most of these models of awakening. In fact, I consider their creation and perpetuation to be basically evil in the good old “you should burn in hell for perpetuating them” kind of way.

and later in the same section:

A far more practical approach is to accept that we are human, try to be decent in a normal, down-to-earth sort of way rather than in a grandiose, self-conscious, spiritual way … allowing us to be the human beings we are with more balance and less reactivity in the face of that humanity.

And for me, it’s this seeming contradiction that is one of the book’s most compelling features. He talks about all this weird stuff, but he does it in such a hands-on and down to earth way, based clearly on thousands of hours of personal experience, that I emerged more or less convinced of the core argument. Which is that these seemingly exotic states are indeed attainable to normal humans -but that you will have to put in the hours.

You do get a brief introduction to the standard practices of concentration (samatha) meditation, with its focus on the breath, on returning to the breath when you notice you’ve been distracted, and on using this to attain high states of concentration. This is at the core of apps you might have used like Headspace and Calm. This practice can bring a great deal of serenity and even bliss to you in short bursts, and Ingram talks you through the various technical levels of this, known to the Buddhists as the jhanas.

He also explains why you really should be doing this practice: because it gives you the concentration necessary to do vipassana, or insight, meditation. Vipassana meditation is where you focus really really hard on ordinary experience – on the tiny fleeting details of ordinary experience, that we never normally notice. Inside these “vibrations” lie the next levels of understanding. This starts with appreciating that your perception of phenomena is different from the actual phenomena. For example, you hear the blare of a car horn, or the tweeting of a bird, and your mind just knows it’s a car horn or a bird. But actually, in order to do this, you have to hear the sound first, before the mental construct of “car” or “bird” comes to mind. With sufficient attention, you can peel these two things apart.

Eventually, you can begin to truly see what Buddhists call the “three characteristics” of everything: that they are impermanent (they come and go), that they are unsatisfactory (ultimately they don’t fulfill you) and that they don’t cohere into a unified self, in the way that most of us think of being a unified self through time.

All this takes time, practice, and is often very hard to describe in words. Ingram focuses a lot on models of how all this comes together, and the stages one would pass through along the path. I’m not nearly a skillful enough meditator to comment from personal experience on the helpfulness or even the truth of this, but Ingram is very convincing, and he emphasises repeatedly that you don’t need to take any of this on trust, you can just try it yourself.

He is also strong on warning you of the possible dangers that may lie ahead: one of the stages he calls “The Dark Night of The Soul”, which he describes spanning stages of “Dissolution, Fear, Misery, Disgust, Desire for Deliverance, and Re-observation”. He continues to give pragmatic and helpful advice even here:

Allow me to give you two hard-won pieces of advice that I have found make all the difference in the face of these stages. First, make the time to do basic insight practices… The second piece of advice is to have a “no-bleedthrough” policy…it might be expressed by two simple mantras, “Do no harm” and “Keep your shit together”. This is obviously great advice for life in general and it applies doubly here.

Beyond this stage, things return to a more even keel, through Equanimity and on ultimately to Fruition, at which point you will attain “stream entry”, which begins your journey again at a higher, if vastly, level.

All of this is explained in detail, not only with practical instructions but also with references to probably 100 other books you might go and read for more detail about any particular section. I found this especially helpful, myself, and a number of these other books will be showing up in my Goodreads feed in due course!

Ultimately there is the question of why anyone would want to go to this much effort (a question my non-meditating wife asks me repeatedly). There is the Everest-style “because it’s there” answer, and then my usual answer of “because it gives you deep insight into the way the world actually is”. Ingram includes a lot of emphasis on the first of the three Buddhist teachings, those on morality, and he brings this into his final insights. This is about how all of our actions are shaped by our thoughts, and thus the world around us is shaped by our thoughts:

all “internal” intentions, thoughts and mental states mattered, were causal, were spell-casting, were powerful, and molded some part of the causal world. Thus, every single moment of “internal” experience must have ethics applied to it, because it matters, as it is an integral part of this whole space of manifestation. This seemingly obvious insight didn’t sink in all at once but took years to develop.

Or, as the opening lines of the most commonly read of all Buddhist texts, the Dhammapada, puts it:

All actions are led by the mind. Mind is their master. Mind is their maker. Act or speak with a defiled state of mind, and suffering will follow.

So that’s why you should meditate, and why you might want to read this book of nearly 600 pages, where I probably took on average an hour to read and digest any ten pages. It all matters, and if we want to live our life pretending it doesn’t, and leaving our thoughts, feelings and general mental state to run all over the place on its own, then we are just hiding from the (profound, obvious, but rarely realised, disturbing) truth.

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Book review

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
Read date: Jan 2019

Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening by Joseph Goldstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the longest-running programmes on radio in the UK is a thing called Desert Island Discs, where the guest picks eight records (remember them?) that would be the eight they’d be happy to be stuck on a desert island with. In addition to the vinyl, you get to pick a book to be your companion on the island with for your years of solitude – The Bible and The Complete Works of Shakespeare are already there, to save you the bother (perhaps left by a previous inhabitant?).

Well, now I know. This is my Desert Island Book. It is an astonishing work, which works through a deceptively simple Buddhist text (the Satipatthana Sutta), using its discourse on the four foundations of mindfulness as a map to many many teachings and approaches to meditation. The depth and wisdom is extraordinary, and although it’s not necessarily going to be easy for a beginner, it has pretty much everything in there.

Think of it as a kit: all the parts are there, all clearly labelled. You just have to do the work of putting them together, finding which bit is going to solve the problem you’re currently facing, and applying it in the right way. There is broad guidance, but basically everyone is going to need to find their own path, because in all honesty we are all going to hit different sets of problems in different orders. But it’s all in there.

Don’t pick this up as your introduction to meditation – but if you want to take your practice further than the app you bought yourself on January 1st last year and stopped using regularly by about March, and if you’re prepared to do the work, then this is a truly profound guide for you. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Roaring Silence: Discovering the Mind of Dzogchen

Read date: Sept 2018

4 stars

This book describes in some detail some of the paths of Dzogchen meditation, one of the traditional variants of Buddhist meditation. I’m an “intermediate” meditator: I’ve been meditating for several years, and have been on one silent retreat, but I’ve definitely still got a long way to go in my practice. In that quest, to improve my practice, I found the book definitely did help. It has a number of practical exercises with a clear progression, and the discussion – in the form of lots of question and answer sessions with the authors.

For me, the path was not complete, though. The initial stages were clear and well guided, but after that the way forward was more or less left as an exercise for the reader. I also found the use of the original Tibetan words for many of the terms to be of mixed value: it was sometimes hard to hold them all in your head, especially as they are used precisely because there are no directly equivalent terms in English, so you are having to hold a whole subtle set of meanings in your head, not just a direct translation.

Ultimately, though, no book about a subject that is so difficult to describe in concrete terms is going to solve your problems for you. It can be a guide book on your journey, and in that regard I found Roaring Silence to be useful, with a lot of the Q&A-style discussion in particular gave you metaphor and allusions which helped in my understanding.

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The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World
Read date: Dec 2017

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a great book – simultaneously a charming, uplifting, and practical book. It is based around the week-long visit of Desmond Tutu to the Dalai Lama on the occasion of the latter’s 80th birthday.

It is charming for the tale of the friendship of these two world leaders (and Nobel Laureates!), with the way they demonstrate the virtues of humility and the lovely teasing manner they have with each other. It’s uplifting for the stories they tell of others who have inspired them – from schoolchildren to prisoners on death row. And it’s ultimately practical, for not only is the story of their week together structured carefully around a path that can potentially bring us each more joy, but there is also a very useful set of guides to meditation/prayer at the end, again built around the essential steps on this same path.

It’s a book I’ll come back to again and again, I think, for the words they speak and the comfort to be found in their profound empathy with the world.

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