Talking Dharma – Talking Openness
The awakening experience could be said to be the complete falling away of our conditioned habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting and all of the beliefs we have accrued during our lifetimes worth of conditioning that has been overseen and stored away by the self-biased mind. This falling away is not as proclaimed often within cultural Buddhism as a one-off final experience, but simply opens up a space for the actualization process to evolve as a different line of deep inquiry. With the suspension or eradication of the self-biased aspect of this thing we call mind, we begin a new journey of discovery that unfolds with each new experience being as it is without the clutter of “us” getting in the way. It is a journey where actuality provides expanded opportunities and new insights that transform and support compassion to be expressed as a natural response to all experience.
Often we hear the term open minded being banded about in conversations. But when you explore those conversations deeper, they seem to be little more than projections of one’s conditioned beliefs. The nature of a belief is that it becomes fixed and then needs to be defended. How is it possible to be open-minded if your mind is full of conditioned beliefs? It doesn’t make sense. This thing that is called the open mind is not open at all. It is closed shut and actuality has no opportunity to break through all the while we cling to our conditioned fixed beliefs. Understanding this is a helpful starting point to begin that de-conditioning integration process that is the Dharma journey.
For example, from early childhood I refused to eat eggs. I simply couldn’t get my head around the thought of eating anything that came out of a chicken’s bum. As I grew older and learned about such thing as hygiene and how eggs met health standards I then had to find another story to justify why I still would not eat an egg. I had new information but that subconscious belief was still there in the background. The next story to appear was that there was a baby chicken inside the egg and that would be me depriving it of life. That was OK for a while but then I learned that the eggs in the shops were not fertilized so in effect it was just a blob of stuff that was healthy to eat. Oh no. Another story needed. So there I was exploring the differences between battery hens, caged birds, free range and all that kind of thing. What was going on here? Where was the open mind? Of course it was open because I was taking in new information all the time but it was also closed to actuality because of my early conditioned beliefs about the chicken and the egg. On the first morning of my honeymoon, my new wife, who was totally unaware of my life-long angst about eggs served up two poached eggs on toast. I can’t even begin to describe the thoughts and emotions that came rushing in at the precise moment that plate was put in front of me. But what happened in that moment was a falling away of the closed mind as I opened myself up to the experience and surrendered fully to it in that moment. Eggs are no longer a problem and are often now a food of choice and all because of openness.
As we all know, with absolute certainty, brussel sprouts are in fact the food of the devil himself. Now, I accept that my mum was not the greatest cook in the world. In fact I didn’t know toast could come in different shades other than pitch black until I was introduced to the concept by my wife. Throughout my childhood toast only came burnt to a cinder and had to be scraped to make it edible and not taste of raw charcoal. But the smell of these insipid little green monsters being boiled to a slushy pulp haunted me for years. On the second leg of our honeymoon we went for a meal at a restaurant and the veg of the day was, you guessed it, brussel sprouts. Now, these little critters seemed to be a bit in disguise as they were dressed up in creamy butter, pine nuts and bits of bacon and they certainly didn’t smell like my dads underpants on wash day like the ones my mum cooked. In that moment the mind opened and so did the mouth. Not bad, not good, fairly neutral but not something I would go out of my way to eat again. Phew, thank you closed mind.
Years later I was on an ordination retreat in Norfolk and was invited to have dinner with the ordination team who in the Buddhist world are about as close to Dharma God as it gets. Bear in mind I had never revealed this aversion to sprout hell to anyone but my wife. What was dished up? Brussel sprout pie. Now come on, who has ever heard of anyone cooking a brussel sprout pie in the entire history of humankind? Just the smell of it invoked all of those childhood memories of being more or less force fed all manner of nasty things that always seemed to come from the inside of one animal or other combined with a variety of vegetables that has no discernible colour or taste to them, apart from the brussels. So there I sat, very hungry after an intensive day studying and meditating, watching everybody else tucking in with delight to this abomination. Was it a test? Was I being dragged into a brussel sprout cult? No matter how important this dinner was that mind was going to remain firmly shut and it was. When they inevitably asked me why I hadn’t eaten the pie, I could easily have ducked the question or told one of those cute little white lies, but I chose to be up front about it and we all had a great laugh. Please note, nobody offered to try and make it better for me by providing me with an alternative. Thankfully the pudding was great so I didn’t go to bed hungry. Fast forward to modernity and now I have opened myself up to the world of brussel sprouts and include them raw in my health conscious smoothies. I’m not quite fully open to the cooked variety yet, but did manage to eat one that was cunningly disguised with breadcrumbs. So, be warned. These little devils are out there to get you one way or another.
What was actually going on in these and other situations was that I was trying to defend my old belief systems about taste and diet. I wasn’t ready to open myself simply to the experience of taste without the stories getting in the way. All of those unhelpful thoughts and emotions kept closing the mind down. In came the rationalizations, the justifications. “Well, they might be nice, but not today thanks.” “Maybe next time.” There was no justification really. It was just me in closed-mind mode. But both of these experiences and others did become learning experiences. They became things that moved me further into exploring openness on an ever developing deeper level. I did hear a rumour that the Buddha never ate brussel sprouts either but I think it was me that started that rumour.
The realization of actuality is very much like this. It is very difficult to be fully open until we have realized some degree of insight into what that experience is. Once we begin to explore those fixed beliefs that close the mind and work to deconstruct them by opening ourselves up to actuality it becomes easier to let go into whatever the experience is with no fear or worry. Even the doubt that we are ready to let go is washed away within the process of allowing the experience to be as it is without the conditioned story.
We cannot escape the fact that we are seriously conditioned beings. Possibly every aspect of our self-identity has arisen by a unique conditioning process that has led us to fix ourselves as this separate ego-identity we call “I.” Not even identical twins have identical conditioning. Currently, there are something like 7.5 billion uniquely conditioned human beings on this planet. Probably most of them believe that they are open minded but in fact the vast majority of people will be operating on the basis of habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting that is in accord with their conditioning factors and rarely, if ever, take the opportunity to challenge those habits by engaging in introspection. As a result we gather around us what is known as our core beliefs. These are the beliefs that we will defend at all costs yet still declare that we are open-minded.
The experience of openness is about meeting all experience as it is without adding in a story from within our historical conditioning. It is a neutrality, or middle way, a choice-less-ness that does not judge the experience as good or bad and does not give rise to a thought that relates to “I like it” or “I don’t like it” or a thought that wants to change the experience into something else. It’s a willing-ness, an acceptance, a surrendering to the experience as a new learning opportunity in developing conscious awareness.
So, can you see why the Buddha from the outset specifically asks that nobody believes anything he says? Why he encourages people to test and challenge everything with the intensity it takes to melt gold and not cling or become attached to beliefs about anything? Because he knows that to believe closes the mind to further discovery. Even after the realization of clarity he continued to experience new insights. That is what the actualization process is and why this thing that is called enlightenment is not a one-off fixed experience to be believed in either. When you hold a fixed belief about anything it becomes a part of the reconditioning process that moulds your personality. As a result, the moment your belief is challenged by someone else it is perceived to be a threat to the pre-conscious, biological, nature drive to survive so you go into defensive mode. And what is the accepted best form of defence other than to attack.
The practical solution to this problem of belief is to adopt what I call the transitory view, or if you like, the current theory of everything. This is the way that science evolves as an on-going learning experience. It arrives at a current conclusion based on all of the accumulated known facts and presents it as a current theory and ten remains open to anyone challenging that view with facts or new information that will refute it and if and when that happens the current theory is replaced with a new current theory without any drama whatsoever. This is the root cause of our worries. In this context it is out attachment to a belief that sets up the conditions for worry, whereas the transitory view allows the mind to be at peace with itself, others and the world around it because it has nothing to defend. It has no argument to win.
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