Science has been a tremendous success. It has produced the knowledge and understandings that have allowed us to control our environment, prevent and cure diseases, communicate with anyone, anywhere, at any time, feed billions of people, and understand our universe. The accelerating rate of development can be directly traced to the practice of science. How did science achieve so much? What allowed us to unravel the mysteries of our universe and existence? What is the essence of such a successful practice? In a word, it’s simplify! Science simplified phenomena in order to break through to understanding.
Science studies phenomena by simplifying them. In a good scientific experiment only one thing is studied at a time and everything else is either removed or held constant. To study gravity it must be done in a vacuum, removing the resistance to movement provided by air molecules. Other objects have to be removed so that only two objects are interacting, and all other forces have to be removed or controlled. Once, this is accomplished gravity can be studied in as pure a form as possible. This simplification is the essence of the scientific method. It successfully investigates phenomena by isolating them from the surrounding complexities.
Similarly, the essence of contemplative practices is to simplify. This allows us to investigate what resides at the core of our being by removing complexities or holding them as constant as possible. To achieve spiritual breakthroughs, contemplative practices, like science does to produce breakthroughs in the physical realm, removes as many distractions as possible to allow for the study of our essence in its purest form possible.
This is particularly clear with meditation practices. The beginner is taught to remove themselves to a quiet environment, to sit as comfortably as possible while still maintaining alertness, to quiet the mental chatter, and to concentrate on a single simple thing such as the breath or a mantra. In a body scan meditation, the concentration is on the feelings emanating solely from particular areas of the body. It is difficult to do hold the concentration required, especially for a beginner. It is the challenge of meditation. But, once achieved, even for brief periods of time, the practitioner becomes in essence a scientist of awareness. S/he becomes an explorer of the essential nature of their being. If the meditation is contemplative prayer, then the individual becomes an explorer of the nature of the Deity.
Similarly, mindful movement practices such as qigong or tai chi simplify by concentrating the mind on specific movements and the energetics (chi) revealed in their execution. The practitioner becomes an explorer of chi, the energy of existence. Yoga practice combines a number of these components with meditation at its core, but using body postures, asanas, as sometimes the point of concentration, sometimes the breathing, and sometimes just pure meditation. But, in essence, yoga simplifies the mind so that the core of being becomes exposed.
If we are successful in the practice and have simplified our mental landscape what is revealed? Once we pare away the distractions from the environment, from the thoughts, plans, and memories, from the internal speech, and from the body, what is left? First we realize that try as we may we can never really quiet our minds. The internal chatter continues. We can quiet it for brief periods, but, not for long. This is uncomfortable for the beginning meditator who sees it as a failure. But, reflection can result in the first breakthrough; the understanding that we do not and cannot control our minds. If we can’t control it, then what is it? Is it the mind that defines us or is it simply something no different than the wind blowing, something outside of our essence that is simply there? It’s just another stimulus, just a thought arising and falling away, that only has power if we believe it comes from our essence. Only by simplifying are we able to have this breakthrough.
By simplifying in mindfulness practice we are able to see things as they really are, not as we think they should be, or as ideas of labels, but simply as ever changing experiences. One of the next breakthroughs is the realization of impermanence. Once simplified it is easy to see that everything is changing, increasing or decreasing, arising, or falling away, sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly, but never constant or stationary. Our minds and our sensory systems are programmed to produce constancy and only when we can eliminate these processes can we clearly see the impermanence of all things. These include our sensations, feelings, our physical body, and even thoughts. This reveals the fleeting nature of our experiences and even our lives and brings us to the realization that reality exists only in the present moment, that the past is simply a faulty memory and the future is a fanciful speculation. Only by simplifying are we able to have this breakthrough.
Once we have these breakthroughs and we have simplified our view of experience we are open to the next breakthrough, the realization that the only thing that is not changing, that is constant is our awareness. What is aware of impermanent reality is always aware and has always been aware, never changing, always present. Once we see that this is the only constant we can begin to understand that this is our essence, that awareness is what we are. We are not fleeting experience or a constructed sense of self, but rather that which is viewing these things, awareness. Only by simplifying are we able to have this breakthrough.
There are other breakthroughs that await when the process of simplification is complete. These we call awakening or enlightenment or as a teacher of mine likes to say, a moment of clarity. These like the other breakthroughs depend upon our simplifying everything so that the truth of existence can shine through.
So, simplify to break through!
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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