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Peak Experiences - What are they, and are they important?

 
NL.
 
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16 April 2018 21:35
 
brazen4 - 16 April 2018 01:22 PM

one pt: I don’t think that a goal of Buddhism is to change the universe we live in from predatory to something kinder. It is more like an alternative, optional way to deal with it as a human in a less emotionally painful way. Also to reduce your own, personal contribution to the suffering of other life forms, especially humans. The only control any of us has over the big picture (and how big a picture do you want to envision?) Is control over our own behavior, and I mean control in its strictest definition, and lets face it, that’s a full time job. Any behavior/efforts you chose to engage in, personally, that benefits others as well as your self are, well, greatly appreciated, you know, stay your course. No one is keeping score but it rarely goes unnoticed.


I honestly don’t know what the ‘endpoint’ (although that’s probably not the best word for a philosophy like Buddhism,) of such a path is. I think part of the logical answer there depends on whether you accept metaphysical propositions in Buddhism (such as reincarnation, deva / hell realms, nirvana and so on) as relatively more literal, or see them more as metaphors. Part of it presumably depends on the ‘peak experiences’ that tend to elude me, where people generally say there is a resolution to various paradoxes that is beyond words. And part of it is probably just the way a person wants to verbally frame it. I think, for example, that anyone who has had the experience of being human would acknowledge that there are different ‘realms’ of mental states in at least some sense of the word - everyone knows what it’s like to be in a good vs. a bad mood. Some people would take it further and say that when you put those mental realms under a microscope, they are far more consequential and intricate than they appear through the haze of busy, inattentive day-to-day life. Nothing ‘woo’, really, just that viewing those states superficially vs. under a microscope is like the difference between viewing your skin with the human eye vs. under a microscope - the world at the cellular level will appear to be a ‘different world’, even though it is obviously just more zoomed-in world. Some people will say that there are literally different metaphysical realms that one travels between, and so on. Again, using the example of what things look like at a quantum vs. a cellular vs. a day-to-day level, you could make a case that none of those framings is technically right or wrong, just a different way of stating the same thing.


I am, however, optimistic that while Buddhism doesn’t propose that we change the world to something kinder, it does, like most spiritual paths, imply that proper understanding of the world leads to knowing it is already perfect, no change is ultimately needed because all is as it should be, and so on. Again, I can’t claim at all to reconcile that with what looks to my human eye like the most gut wrenching kinds of horrors in the actual world, but it’s still not an idea I’ve given up on. Christians would refer to it as understanding how suffering is a part of God’s perfect plan, in Buddhism I think the concept is closer to “samsara and nirvana are one”.

 
 
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17 April 2018 06:00
 

I do understand your conflict re “accepting” that at this moment everything is just as it is “supposed to be” and the obviously “unacceptable”  horrors in the world “at this moment”. I share that same conflict. I’m not a Buddhist scholar at all and don’t know the Buddhist answer. I see the difference between a human killing a young child, and a male lion killing all the cubs in his newly acquired pride of females solely in order to insure his own genetics get passed on. The cynical side of me says, OK, “life’s rough, wear a helmet” but that answer is obviously unsatisfactory. It’s OK for the lion, not the human. The best I’ve been able to come up with for myself is along the lines of keeping my own back yard as free of clutter or harmfulness as I can get it together to do. I like your semi-insistence on maintaining positive attitudes.

 
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17 April 2018 07:50
 
brazen4 - 17 April 2018 06:00 AM

I do understand your conflict re “accepting” that at this moment everything is just as it is “supposed to be” and the obviously “unacceptable”  horrors in the world “at this moment”. I share that same conflict. I’m not a Buddhist scholar at all and don’t know the Buddhist answer. I see the difference between a human killing a young child, and a male lion killing all the cubs in his newly acquired pride of females solely in order to insure his own genetics get passed on. The cynical side of me says, OK, “life’s rough, wear a helmet” but that answer is obviously unsatisfactory. It’s OK for the lion, not the human. The best I’ve been able to come up with for myself is along the lines of keeping my own back yard as free of clutter or harmfulness as I can get it together to do. I like your semi-insistence on maintaining positive attitudes.


I agree. I think the Buddhist idea is (and I could be totally misrepresenting this,) that once the sense of a reified “I” falls away, it’s kind of like “there is no separate lion, there is no separate cub, the appearance of this is largely illusory so the idea that the lion is killing the cub is largely illusory too.” Generally followed by statements that this state of affairs is self-evidently the ‘real’ one as it seems ‘realer than real’, more vivid, more intense, more real than reality as we know it. Again, however, this falls into that peak experience realm that I don’t necessarily understand (the one exception would be via metta mediation, I think, I do feel I have felt overwhelming love for sentient beings - but still in more of a ‘subject-object’ framework).


An aside on the idea of the lion’s genetic line - this is actually a thought experiment that I reflect on sometimes for metta mediation. I was talking with someone not long ago who said that she can’t understand how women can be egg donors, as you are putting ‘your’ child into the hands of often multiple strangers, with no say in their upbringing or idea of what has happened to them. It made me realize how spurious that line of ‘your child’ is, even though it’s incredibly important to most people psychologically. I share the intuition that a donated egg constitutes ‘your child’ - but then, if one goes by shared DNA alone, does that mean that a stranger who shares more of your DNA than average, by random chance, is more your family than another person? I think we would find that idea silly - that is random luck of the draw, and the person is still a stranger. But where is the ethereal difference there between ‘our’ genes in the possessive sense of the word? Not to get into silly kumbaya territory, but it makes me see the world in terms of everyone being family in some true sense of the word. If a donated embryo is ‘your’ child, and the rest of humanity shares 99.9% of that DNA, then they are all kind of yours as well.

 
 
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17 April 2018 16:34
 


I agree. I think the Buddhist idea is (and I could be totally misrepresenting this,) that once the sense of a reified “I” falls away, it’s kind of like “there is no separate lion, there is no separate cub, the appearance of this is largely illusory so the idea that the lion is killing the cub is largely illusory too.” Generally followed by statements that this state of affairs is self-evidently the ‘real’ one as it seems ‘realer than real’, more vivid, more intense, more real than reality as we know it. Again, however, this falls into that peak experience realm that I don’t necessarily understand (the one exception would be via metta mediation, I think, I do feel I have felt overwhelming love for sentient beings - but still in more of a ‘subject-object’ framework).

I have not had any experience that allows me to see anything but a dead cub in the lion example. If there is such a state of mind/existence it isn’t something I can relate to personally. I don’t know if I could withstand the (loneliness?) that I assume has to accompany that place. I’ve heard it said that the deeper one goes into the whatever, realms of awareness?, available to us the clearer it gets that we are indeed profoundly alone. Even in a group, each individual is completely and utterly alone, and we find ourselves in a place that is beyond mysterious. If these claims are true I don’t know that I have the fortitude to explore there. If they are made up stories, well, that’s some pretty good storytelling and I applaud the storytellers. They entertain the hell out of me.

 
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17 April 2018 18:55
 
brazen4 - 17 April 2018 04:34 PM

I have not had any experience that allows me to see anything but a dead cub in the lion example. If there is such a state of mind/existence it isn’t something I can relate to personally. I don’t know if I could withstand the (loneliness?) that I assume has to accompany that place. I’ve heard it said that the deeper one goes into the whatever, realms of awareness?, available to us the clearer it gets that we are indeed profoundly alone. Even in a group, each individual is completely and utterly alone, and we find ourselves in a place that is beyond mysterious. If these claims are true I don’t know that I have the fortitude to explore there. If they are made up stories, well, that’s some pretty good storytelling and I applaud the storytellers. They entertain the hell out of me.


I think this is where things inevitably get into Zen-speak - if there is no reified ‘self’, then who is there to be lonely?


I think I have read about something like what you are describing though - I believe in Rational Mysticism by John Horgan, although I could be completely misremembering that. At any rate, I recall one writer talking about how there seems to be a flipside of ‘voidness’ in various spiritual experiences that is the opposite of the generally preferable ‘oneness’ that people report. Again, I take it as a given that this is only a particular stopping point on a longer ‘path’ and that Buddhism in its total fruition resolves this somehow (or, in Buddhist-speak, helps one to see that it was resolved all along, except there is no ‘one’ there to see this anyways, except…)

 
 
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17 April 2018 21:13
 

The part of me that still retains some “child-like curiosity” wants to believe that the dreaded loneliness turns out to be a kind of bogey man and that whatever “letting go” means,  turns out to be the path to existential freedom in pretty much all situations. I think you are referring to something like that. Another thought that occurred to me is that being alone, no matter how profoundly, doesn’t have to infer “loneliness”, it may but not necessarily.

 
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17 April 2018 21:52
 
brazen4 - 17 April 2018 09:13 PM

The part of me that still retains some “child-like curiosity” wants to believe that the dreaded loneliness turns out to be a kind of bogey man and that whatever “letting go” means,  turns out to be the path to existential freedom in pretty much all situations. I think you are referring to something like that. Another thought that occurred to me is that being alone, no matter how profoundly, doesn’t have to infer “loneliness”, it may but not necessarily.


I’m not entirely clear on how you’re linking loneliness to the concept of selflessness, but I do certainly agree that being alone doesn’t have to equate to loneliness. I think that both loneliness and the desire to be alone get back to the Buddhist concept of “attraction / aversion” - what we want and what we want to avoid. I think that’s why Buddhism tends to involve a lot of work on equanimity and maintaining a calm, grounded mind throughout all sorts of ‘worldly winds’. Much much easier said than done though!

 
 
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18 April 2018 09:09
 

For clarity, btw - I think what I was describing may have sounded like solipsism (in fact I wonder if this solipsistic view is what corresponds to the negative experience of ‘voidness’ that people report - if one is still kind of caught up in a subject-object viewpoint, it seems to me that one extreme would be solipsism [all subject with no object] whereas the other might be oneness [all object with no subject]).


Buddhist thought, from what I understand, gets into a very ethereal middle path on this topic. So the illusory nature of reality wouldn’t lead to loneliness because the idea of a ‘self’ viewing said reality is also illusory - so there is no one in particular to be lonely. This is a description that I like from Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche:

So when Buddhists talk about emptiness, we don’t mean nothingness, but rather an unlimited potential for anything to appear, change, or disappear.


Perhaps we can use an analogy here to what contemporary physicists have learned about the strange and wonderful phenomena they see when they examine the inner workings of an atom. According to the physicists with whom I’ve spoken, the basis from which all subatomic phenomena arise is often referred to as the vacuum state, the state of lowest energy in the subatomic universe. In the vacuum state, particles continually appear and disappear. So, although seemingly empty, this state is actually very active, full of the potential to produce anything whatsoever. In this sense, the vacuum shares certain qualities with the “empty quality of the mind.” Just as the vacuum is considered “empty,” yet is the source from which all manner of particles appear, the mind is essentially “empty” in that it defies absolute description. Yet out of this indefinable and incompletely knowable basis, all thoughts, emotions, and sensations perpetually arise.


Because the nature of your mind is emptiness, you possess the capacity to experience a potentially unlimited variety of thoughts, emotions, and sensations. Even misunderstandings of emptiness are simply phenomena arising out of emptiness!


A simple example may help you gain some understanding of emptiness on an experiential level. A few years ago, a student came to me asking for a teaching on emptiness. I gave him the basic explanation and he appeared to be quite happy—thrilled, in fact.


“That’s so cool!” he replied at the end of our conversation.


My own experience had taught me that emptiness isn’t so easy to understand after one lesson, so I instructed him to spend the next several days meditating meditating on what he’d learned.


A few days later the student suddenly arrived outside my room with an expression of terror on his face. Pale, hunched, and shaking, he stepped carefully across the room, like someone testing the ground in front of him for quicksand.


When he finally stopped in front of where I was sitting, he said, “Rinpoche, you told me to meditate on emptiness. But last night, it occurred to me that if everything is emptiness, then this whole building is emptiness, the floors are emptiness, and the ground underneath is emptiness. If that’s the case, why shouldn’t we all fall through the floor and down through the ground?”


I waited until he finished speaking. Then I asked, “Who would fall?”


He thought about the question for a moment, and then his expression changed completely. “Oh,” he exclaimed, “I get it! If the building is emptiness and people are emptiness, there’s no one to fall and nothing to fall through.”


He gave a long sigh, his body relaxed, and the color returned to his face. So I asked him again to meditate on emptiness with this new understanding.


Two or three days later he again arrived at my room unexpectedly. Pale and shaking again, he entered the room, and it seemed quite clear he was trying as best he could to hold his breath, terrified of exhaling.


Sitting down in front of me, he said, “Rinpoche, I meditated on emptiness as you instructed, and I understood that just like this building and the ground below are emptiness, I’m also emptiness. But as I kept pursuing this meditation, I kept going deeper and deeper, until I stopped being able to see or feel anything. I’m so afraid that if I’m nothing more than emptiness, I’m just going to die. That’s why I ran to see you this morning. If I’m just emptiness, then I’m basically nothing, and there’s nothing to keep me from just dissolving away into nothingness.”


When I was sure he was finished, I asked, “Who is it that would dissolve?”


I waited a few moments for him to absorb this question, then pressed on. “You’ve mistaken emptiness for nothingness. Almost everybody makes the same mistake in the beginning, trying to understand emptiness as an idea or a concept. I made the same mistake myself. But there’s really no way to understand emptiness conceptually. You can only really recognize it through direct experience. I’m not asking you to believe me. All I’m saying is that the next few times you sit down to meditate, ask yourself, ‘If the nature of everything is emptiness, who or what can dissolve? Who or what is born and who or what can die?’ Try that, and the answer you get may surprise you.”


After a sigh, he agreed to try again.


Several days later he returned to my room, smiling peacefully as he announced, “I think I’m starting to I understand emptiness.”


I asked him to explain.


“I followed your instructions, and after meditating on the subject for a long time, I realized that emptiness isn’t nothingness, because there must be something before there can be nothing. Emptiness is everything—all possibilities of existence and nonexistence imaginable, occurring simultaneously. So if our true nature is emptiness, then nobody can be said to truly die and no one can be said to be truly born, because the possibility of being in a certain way and not being in a certain way is present within us at every moment.”


“Very good,” I told him. “Now forget everything you just said, because if you try to remember it exactly, you’ll turn everything you learned into a concept, and we’ll have to start all over again.”

 
 
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