From Deva Realms to Crusty Cups: the Freedom of “No Fixed Position”

From Deva Realms to Crusty Cups: the Freedom of “No Fixed Position”

Kenneth Folk: I’ve been thinking about picking up on the theme of the rainbow of the mind, which was in one of our recent interviews that went up on Buddhist Geeks. In order for enlightenment to have any meaning, it has to work just as well in hell as it does in heaven. And this is covered in the Buddhist teaching of rebirth. So karma ties in with this, too, because according to this teaching, if you generate enough good karma through your good actions you can be reborn in a more fortunate circumstance, or I should say a more pleasant circumstance, and if you really do a lot of good you can eventually be reborn as a god.

The problem with being a god is that your life ends. So no matter how long or how pleasant your lifetime is, there comes a moment when you realize you are just about to die—supposedly, the way it works with gods is that they don’t get old and sick as we do—they just live for a very long time and have unalloyed pleasure. There are various themes on this, so some of the gods are musicians and dancers and some of them live in realms where they have more passive sensual pleasures all the time, and some of them are so lofty that they are pure states of bliss. Their whole life is just this pure state of bliss; they might even be disembodied.

And when a god gets near the end of its life it knows it is about to die. This realization shows up all of a sudden: “Oh, my time as a god is over.” So in that moment, having spent maybe eons, according to the mythology, as a god in this pleasant situation, you know you are going to die and the first thing that pops into your mind is, “Oh shit!”

Now according to this same teaching, the mind state that you are in at the moment of death conditions your next existence. So this moment of saying to yourself “oh shit!” conditions your next lifetime. So you’re going to be reborn as something other than a god. Maybe you’re going to be reborn in an animal realm or a hell realm. The animal realm is characterized by dullness and reactivity. A hell realm is characterized by an unpleasantness that is just as pure and corresponds on the other end of the spectrum to the pleasantness of being a god.

So imagine, for example, just being angry or in pain—it’s just anger and pain for eons. That might be one type of hell realm. And then there are the hungry ghost realms. Hungry ghosts are these beings that can never be satisfied. So some of the depictions of them, for example, would be somebody with a big potbelly and a little tiny mouth. He is always hungry but he can never get enough to eat.

And then there are the jealous gods. The jealous gods are these very powerful and manipulative beings who are attached to their own power and ability to control their situation. They spend a lot of time bickering and vying for position. When you think about it, all of these situations come up for us all day long. You can think of your day as cycling through these various realms of existence.

So let’s get back to this being that just died from the god realm and is reborn in, let’s say, the other extreme, is now reborn into a hell realm. If that god was embedded [mistaking experience for “self”] in the heavenly realm, he is also going to be embedded in the hell realm. And so even though there is this possibility for having, for dwelling for some period of time in a purely pleasant experience, it always ends. It doesn’t bring any lasting relief.

So if there is freedom, and there is, it means being free from embeddedness as a heavenly being or as a hell being, because that way you can watch the whole passing parade from the point of view of non-attachment.

Joel Groover: And I guess metaphorically if you think about, let’s say there is a pleasant and stable situation in a person’s life and it starts to end. Is it the reactivity that is the result of that embeddedness to the ending or the death of the pleasant situation that causes the hell realm to come into existence?

KF: Exactly.

JG: So I guess by doing what you’re describing [disembedding] the cycling itself might be a little less intense or somehow…

KF: Yes, and now it goes to this idea that is so well expressed in the Zen saying, “no fixed position.” To use another metaphor, imagine… you know how when the sun shines through the window and you can see dust particles floating around in the air. Well, imagine that you think you are one of those dust motes; as long as you are floating around in the air, that’s a pretty good life as far as dust motes go… you are flying around and everything is just nice. But it is also possible that your dust mote will settle to the ground and be trod upon by people walking by, so that is a crummy dust-mote existence. And as long as you’re attached to that one particular dust mote—as long as you think that is “you”—you’re at the mercy of circumstances. But if, on the other hand, you are able to jump around, if you are able to move your perspective around between the dust motes, there would be a certain freedom there. You could choose: “Well, I don’t want to attach to this particular dust mote that happens to be on the ground; maybe I will notice that I can take multiple perspectives.”

That would be a kind of beginning-level disembeddedness. An even better, or I should say ultimately satisfactory, disembeddedness would be to see that you are not any of the dust motes and that these perspectives do change and that all of this is known by awareness—even your ideas about which dust mote you would like to be attached to are also just more dust motes arising.

JG: And I guess is that another way of saying there is a difference between a kind of cerebral disembedding, as powerful as that can be—so in other words just saying, “none of this is going to matter in 10,000 years. So let’s take a different perspective on what is happening to me,” that kind of… just using reason to take a step back from your experience versus just actual realization of reality and seeing things the way they actually are.

KF: Yes. Nice. So on the one hand, using the example you gave, in the first example you are trying to talk yourself out of—you’re trying to give yourself new ideas to replace the old ones.

JG: That example, that is something I’ve actually done. When I was a teenager and I was kind of suffering or depressed, I would think, “Well, what is this going to matter in 10,000 years?” On the one hand, that seems kind of silly. But it seemed to help.

KF: Yes. There is some momentary relief in that. It is another point of view. I like this example. So that’s a shifting of points of view, deliberately deciding, “I’m not going to relate to this one dust mote. I’m going to relate to this other dust mote.” It has value, but as we have seen, there is a deeper way to understand this.

JG: Yes. I would describe it as some kind of temporary help.

KF: Let me give another real-world example. This morning I went upstairs and put the teapot on to heat up water for my coffee. When I was done, my father-in-law was also there and he said, “Are you done with this teapot?” And I said, “Yes.” And so he poured some water into the teapot from a plastic cup. Now this is the plastic cup he uses to drink from, and my father-in-law has a habit of continuing to use these plastic cups until they have food stuck all over them—a crusty aggregate on the rims of these plastic cups. [laughs]

And everybody in the family is very grossed out by this, but my father-in-law seems fine with it. So there are a couple of ways I could deal with this: I could, noticing my revulsion, try to talk myself out of it. I could say, “Well, in a thousand years none of this will matter.” All right, well that is not bad, really. That is better than getting upset about it.

Another way would be to try and adopt another perspective—to try to take a godlike attitude about it, to put myself in some kind of a mind-state where I really don’t even notice, where revulsion does not even arise. This is certainly possible; all of us know of meditative states where revulsion is not part of the package, so this would be akin to putting oneself temporarily into a god realm. The problem, of course, is that even god-like mind-states end and the revulsion is going to come back. The next time it happens I’m going to be revolted again, so trying to rise above it doesn’t seem like a satisfactory solution.

The only satisfactory solution would be to go right down into it, to allow it to be just as it is. “Okay, I’m in hell. I feel revulsion.” Even while I’m talking to my father-in-law about this, not for the first time, explaining as kindly and compassionately and as non-reactively as I can that I find this revolting—if I can do that without being embedded in it… and by the way, that doesn’t mean I don’t feel it. I absolutely feel it.

JG: And this is an important point because you’re not talking about sort of spiriting yourself away from your experience in order to avoid it.

KF: Right. I’m not avoiding it at all. I’m right there. And this is a hellish experience for me. I am one of those people who find crusty food in the teapot to be revolting. So rather than pretend that I’m some other kind of person or that I’m feeling some other kind of experience, I’m going with it. This is how I feel and I can clearly express this to my father-in-law. As I am allowing it to be just as it is, I’m noticing it clearly. I am seeing—I’m doing a technique.

So let me just be very specific. I am doing the technique that I do, which is to say, “See how it stands. See how it feels revulsion. See how it feels amusement. See how it feels annoyance. See how it feels free.” Whatever the feeling is, that is being noted and in that noting is freedom, disembeddedness.

This is where all of the dust motes are allowed to fly around or hit the ground. I’m not attached to any of them, and there is the awareness that is also clearly not me that knows all this.

JG: Right. And now, if you look at some of the teachings on, say, transmuting emotions, I think there is something similar going on. When you note and you label phenomena and you bring in “the mind that knows” in a way that you just described, is that the same as transmuting or is there some distinction that is important to draw? For example, let’s say that there is a situation that is outside of your comfort zone, a conflict with another person, for example. You enter into that situation and you stay very open to all of those energies that are coming up that are associated with stuff that you normally don’t want to face or feel, and instead of being embedded, you could say, you’re sort of with it. I don’t know how much labeling is consciously a part of it. I think the reason I’m asking this question is, I want to find out how much of this is specific to the mind that knows or to the noting or labeling, because I think you can transmute without noting, if that makes any sense.

KF: Well, just going to my own experience, if transmuting means changing, well, things do change, and so whether I consciously transmute or not, if I am paying attention to my mind-states they certainly do change. This is one of the things that become immediately apparent in noting mind-states, the technique that you and I have been working on. If I filter out everything else and just for a moment focus on mind-states, what I find is that they are changing very quickly, every second or two no matter what is going on. So if it is a situation of revulsion about the teapot or if it is a situation having to do with being cut off in traffic…

I think everybody understands how threatening and scary it is when you get cut off in traffic. We often don’t even notice the threat or the fear. What we feel is the anger. That is where our mind goes with it. Fine. There is no problem with that. We feel the anger just as it is, but if we are noting very carefully we will see that it is not just anger. There’s fear. There is surprise. There is annoyance. There is a certain… possibly even… amusement at the situation. If you act out and shout or gesture, there is shame for acting out. There’s aversion to the unpleasant sensations that arise with the fear. There might be compassion. There might, if you are really paying attention, you might even notice there is a little bit of joy. I don’t know why. I can’t say why this happens, but I can say that it does.

Whenever you look closely, mind-states don’t just sit there like a big wet blanket over your life. It is only the failure to pay attention that makes us think that is happening. Life is actually so much more interesting than we think it is because when you see it clearly and at a higher level of resolution, it is constantly changing. The transmutation is automatic. We cannot avoid transmutation if by transmutation you mean change.

JG: What I might do is enter into a conflict with someone, let’s say, and label it initially anger and then kind of mistakenly associate the entire, kaleidoscopic, fast-changing experience of mind states—kind of pin the label of anger on all of that unless I’m paying enough attention to actually note what is happening. But now, that might be hard to do while you’re talking with someone. But I think it is helpful to me. I’m just trying to figure out the distinction between “being with” the sensations or mind states as they arise and actually paying close enough attention to know what they are.

KF: OK, well you just posed a practical and important point: it is not practical to talk to someone and at the same time note mind-states changing every second. But it ispractical to downshift and notice body sensations. You don’t have to note [label] them. So as I’m talking to you right now, if I am gently scanning the body and paying attention to it there are all kinds of interesting things going on. Noticing these things doesn’t prevent me from talking or from listening. I can give you my full attention and still easily include my body in my attention as I’m listening very carefully to you, or even as I’m talking. So this is happening right now.

I’m talking at a reasonably rapid pace, but yet I can feel tension in my neck, lightness in my chest, tightness in my jaw, coolness in my throat. All of this is happening whether I note [label] it or not. It can all be attended to. That prevents me from glomming onto some overarching, wet blanket of dullness that I’m then going to call an emotion.

And I want to tie this in with the rainbow of the mind. We talked about how one metaphor for the mind is to see it spread out as a rainbow, this spectrum of places in the mind, or a spectrum of habitats, each of which has its own characteristics. One of the Insight Knowledges is Knowledge of Fear.

Now, just a little bit of a set-up here. Theravada Buddhism identifies 16 Insight Knowledges, all of which will be known on the way to the First Path of Enlightenment. So a stream enterer [someone who has attained First Path] has to go through all 16 of these Insight Knowledges as part of a developmental process on the way to stream entry. Some of these Insight Knowledges are named after emotions.

For example, there are Insight Knowledges of Fear, Misery and Disgust. There is one called Desire for Deliverance. There is one called Equanimity. My understanding of this from observing my own mind is that the mind really is set up in layers and that there are seats of emotion in the mind.

So let’s look at the mind state of Disgust. When I see the crusty food stuck to the plastic cup and the water being poured into the teapot, including presumably some crusty food and dried saliva, I feel disgust. So what has happened there? In response to the stimulus of seeing this, my mind jumps to a particular place in the mind, the seat of disgust.

If something fearful happens, if somebody cuts me off in traffic, my mind jumps to the place where fear lives in the mind and so forth. So that is one way to stimulate these centers or layers or habitats of the mind. But there is another way to access them, and that is to develop them through meditation practice. For example, you are sitting in meditation each day and you are also doing a noting practice during daily life activities off the cushion and you find that you, every few days or weeks, are getting to a new stratum of mind that has a particular characteristic. So let’s say you’re sitting and after some time you get to the Knowledge of Disgust. You find that for a couple of days you’re walking around and everything is disgusting to you, even things that were not normally disgusting are.

So if you think about strawberry shortcake, you think, “disgusting.” If you think about some food that you would normally like or sex or something that you would normally think is pleasant, that is going to be disgusting to you. You are temporarily fleshing out or developing that particular layer of the mind. So now it is working in reverse. Whereas before your mind would flash to the place of disgust upon seeing something disgusting, now your attention is sitting around in the place of disgust. Everything that washes by is being colored by that lens.

So here again we can see that the ideal situation is to not be attached or embedded in whatever happens. You can develop this stratum of mind where disgust lives without being embedded in it. You don’t have to get away from it anymore. You can visit the place in the mind where disgust lives and be perfectly happy. This is the main point here: you can be in heaven or you can be in hell and be happy either way. If you’re not embedded in the situation, if you are seeing that everything that arises, whether pleasant or unpleasant or neutral, is simply another phenomenon, another event arising and passing away within the field of awareness, and that even your sense of “I”—even the sense that this is happening to “me”—is just another event, another transient event arising and passing away within the field of awareness, you can see in real time what is meant by “no fixed position.”

JG: And I suppose if you do not do that then you have a chance of actually making these realms real. So like with the hell realm, it’s the guy who goes postal. He turns the sensate phenomena into a storyline, gets hooked and then before you know it, everything spirals out of control. He is showing up at work with a gun.

KF: Yes. We are much more likely to act out if we are embedded in the situation. Whether it is the fellow going postal at work or whether it is being disgusted about the teapot and saying something unkind or angry or abusive or inappropriate to one of your loved ones, if you are not embedded there is no need for that. And so it is no surprise that enlightenment is thought to be associated with skillful action. It is much easier to act skillfully when you’re not completely carried away by every emotion that comes down the pike.

JG: And it’s a very important point that yogis, as you said, might be walking around for a few days with everything colored by disgust or misery. They might think that circumstances are solely to blame for how they’re feeling and then act to change their life situation, when doing so would be futile and mistaken.

KF: That’s right. These colored lenses are not you. You don’t have to make them go away and you don’t have to buy into each new perspective as though it were the final word. Every mind-state will eventually change. There is no fixed position. And by carefully and systematically observing your own experience in this moment, you can learn to be free in heaven and free in hell.