Each of us, says Willa Blythe Baker, is stuck in appearances, but pulling away won’t set us free — instead, we need to look closer.
Around the periphery of the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, India, along a path where pilgrims circumambulate, rose-colored walls of solid stone depict scenes from the Buddha’s life, hand carved in lifelike relief.
My favorite of these is the scene depicting the night before the Buddha’s enlightenment, when he was visited by the maras, projections of his own delusion, desire, and aversion. The scene depicts the Buddha seated peacefully, surrounded by sensual maidens, ferocious beasts, and furious demons threatening him with spears and clamoring for his attention.
I’ve always been struck by the juxtaposition of the swirling vigor and emotion of the maras and the insouciance of the Buddha. How is it possible to remain motionless and peaceful, with eyes lowered and a smile on one’s face, while threats swirl so close at hand?
Eventually, the moment arrives when you look down at your cushion and realize this is not where you get away from your inner demons. It is where you face them.
This scene from the Buddha’s life is a visual teaching for those of us who meditate. If you sit still and watch your mind, everything that sleeps in your psyche and your memory will come to visit. To meditate will—sooner or later—require us to encounter and deal with every part of the self, and that might not be what we have in mind when we first stumble into a zendo or take our first mindfulness class. In the early days of practice, we seek meditation as a refuge, an island away from trouble, a place where we can escape our outer distractions and inner afflictions.
For a while, for months or years even, practice might seem to work this way. It might come to represent a world apart from our daily life, a kind of sanctuary. But eventually, the moment arrives when you look down at the island of kapok (our meditation cushion, that is) and realize this is not where you get away from your inner demons. It is where you face them.
If meditation is doing its job, space opens within, and in that space every memory and trauma will revisit us, every fear will surface. Our shadow will come out to play. This is not a sign of backsliding. It is a sign the work is beginning.
In the Tibetan tradition, there is a well-known pith instruction spoken by the Indian master Tilopa to his disciple Naropa. He said,
The mind is not bound by appearances.
The mind is bound by grasping.
O Naropa, cut through grasping.
This word “appearance,” abhasa in Sanskrit, is worth considering for its breadth of meaning. We don’t really have a word in English that does it justice, although “appearance” is probably the closest one-word translation.
Its first meaning is “phenomenality.” Abhasa is everything the subjective self experiences. It includes everything that can be seen by our eyes, heard with the ears, smelled, touched, tasted, felt. In that sense, appearance includes everything “out there”—the conditions of our life.
What arises within the mind and heart is also abhasa. It also includes thoughts, beliefs, memories, intuition, past traumas, habits, and emotions—everything we think of as “in here.”
The conditions of your life? Those are abhasa. That person that irritates you at work? She/he is abhasa. That endless train of thought cascading through your mind when you try to meditate? That is abhasa. Chronic illness? Abhasa. Your fears, joys, hopes, and dreams? Those too are abhasa. Anything that you can have, are, or will experience is abhasa.
One of the gifts of meditation practice is that it provides us with a way to slow down and observe our experience. When we do, so much is revealed. Slowing down provides the leisure to step back from manipulating and fixing. Instead, we can simply watch abhasa, watch what is happening.
When we watch, we gradually begin to notice a profound richness. Many things are happening at once. Sound is happening. The breath is breathing. The light in the room is changing. The heart is beating. Some things seem to be happening outside, and some are happening inside. A symphony of appearance is unfolding.
At first, perhaps all is quiet and all is well. But then eventually there is an itch. Our back aches. The sound of music on the radio is getting in through the window. That music persists. Aversion arises. I could meditate if only the noise would cease.
Now I am sure the noise is why I cannot meditate. It is responsible for my restlessness and irritation. It is at fault.
But is it? Can a sound reach inside a mind and make it suffer?
Reactivity has a way of making us believe the impossible. It seeks to turn attention away from the true cause and externalize the fault. The absurdity of reactivity’s logic reveals itself when we turn this assumption into a question.
Tilopa urged his disciple Naropa to question blaming our internal state on external conditions. For so long, we have believed that external conditions determine our contentment, and we have thereby given up our power.
To say we are fettered is to say we are limited. When Tilopa said, “The mind is not bound by appearances,” he was saying we are not limited by external conditions. They are not holding us down, at least not in the way we believe them to be. This is a radical statement and it goes against what we may have believed our whole life.
Reactivity thrives in the gap between how things are and how we wish they would be. This is one way to understand grasping: it is energy that externalizes and reaches slightly ahead of the present. When we are living that way, the mind stays rigid and expectant. It cannot land on what is.
Noise is important—whether it be the audible kind or the noise of our own thoughts—because how we are with noise and other changing conditions in our practice is how we are with the conditions of our life.
In everyday life, as in meditation, we are completely absorbed by these appearances. We are caught up in what is happening. We are bound. Some appearances are attractive and interesting. Those we pursue. Some are challenging and make us feel uncomfortable. Those we try to avoid. Some appearances don’t seem either threatening or beneficial. Those we leave alone.
In other words, we are not just witnessing appearances like innocent bystanders. We are caught in a push and pull with them. We are locked in struggle. Tilopa called the push and pull “grasping.” We see grasping at its most tangible in the way we manipulate our environment, trying to keep uncomfortable abhasa away and keep attractive appearances close at hand.
Another way to put this is that we are, for want of a better word, entangled. We are not just stuck to appearances, we are enmeshed in them. Entanglement happens before we make a choice. It leads to a habitual tendency to micromanage experience.
Because this entanglement is almost constant, it is not easily noticed. What we notice so much more is the reactivity that bursts through the surface. Without a gap in the cycle, we do not actually know what it means to be free. So it is a little hard to see entanglement at first. But you can feel it. You feel entanglement as a pull into the vortex of your opinions, judgments, and beliefs. You feel it as a veil between this mind and the fresh unfolding of your life. You feel it in the body as an energy of grasping and avoiding. Entanglement is visceral.
In some respects, entanglement is a matter of belief. We don’t just witness appearances. We believe in them. We attribute to them reality and consistency. We also believe in the self that experiences them.
The Buddha called such belief delusion. We have misunderstood reality—the reality that nothing is solid, separate, fixed, or predictable, and that there is no separate self. To see appearances in their true light would be to see them as flow, as ephemeral and unbounded. It requires that we decenter the self.
When Tilopa said, “Your mind is bound by grasping,” he assumed this underlying belief that the self and appearances are separate. This belief of separateness is, in the Tibetan traditions, called primordial ignorance, because it is so deep and so old. We might even say primordial ignorance is the parent of grasping. Only when we objectify can we grasp.
Tilopa lays out the path to awakening in just one line: “O Naropa, cut through grasping.” The metaphor of cutting and severing implies that awakening can be sudden, and that it requires disruption of business as usual. A belief can, theoretically, collapse in a moment.
But sudden disruption is not enough. The vines of grasping have been growing for a long time, at least as long as we have been alive. If you happen to believe in reincarnation, they have been growing since beginningless time, through endless cycles of birth and death. This grasping is an old habit.
Agriculture of the Soul
Behind my house stand three tall maple trees, surrounding a grand old willow. All of the backyard trees are entwined with English Ivy. The ivy climbs up their trunks. It has been growing for decades, and I know that to free these trees will require care and patience.
In the Mula Sutta (Discourse of the Roots, AN 3.69), the Buddha invokes the image of a great, beautiful tree. Growing up and around this grand tree, slowly choking its life, are three vines of attachment, aversion, and ignorance. A gardener, the practitioner, comes along.
To disentangle a great tree from an invasive vine, you must become intimate with both.
The gardener does not just cut. The Buddha describes the process of freeing this tree as careful, protracted, and even loving. I have learned, in my gardening life, that vines are like this. You cannot just uproot your English Ivy. The better strategy is to learn how to work with it over a long period of time.
Trees are appearances and the ivy the grasping. There is a tree of thought, a tree of emotion, and a tree of conditions. Cutting them down is not a solution. Our thoughts, emotions, and conditions of our life are what make us human.
The task of our practice is to mindfully, gradually, and thoroughly disentangle the grasping. To free the tree of appearances is a long and careful process, requiring self-observation, self-awareness, and skill. This is where meditation comes in.
In meditation, we slow down. We watch the trees. We watch the vines. We learn to discern the difference between what is indigenous and what is invasive. We weed, prune, cultivate, and nurture. Meditation is our agriculture of the soul.
To disentangle a great tree from an invasive vine, you must become intimate with both. We meditators often make a grave mistake in this regard. We want to become intimate with our states of ease and leave our states of dis-ease behind. We want to embrace states of concentration and leave agitation behind. We want to cut down our trees.
We can be forgiven for this. The initial trainings in mediation ask us to return our mind again and again to the breath, or some other nonconceptual focus. On a quest to strengthen mindfulness, we label almost everything but attention as “distraction.” This works for a while, but not forever. Eventually the labeling of experience becomes an “othering” that is yet another form of aversion.
Thoughts and feelings are not aberrations of the human condition, they are natural to us. There are the inner abhasa. To befriend them, we need to develop a nonadversarial relationship to appearances. As long as we feel threatened by our thoughts, or seduced by them, we are entangled.
True “cutting” is to become intimate with whatever is arising. This intimacy is affectionate and loving, but it is not indulgent. Can you love your thoughts? Can you love your anger? Can you love your fear? To mature as a practitioner is to embrace such a path of intimacy.
To stop and watch appearances with equanimity and curiosity is a sea change. However, to become a gracious host of whatever arises takes a radical shift in perspective.
The Display of Awareness
There is a second meaning of abhasa: luminosity, or vision. Abhasa are phenomena, but the nature of those phenomena is visionary, luminous, and ephemeral. From a Buddhist phenomenological perspective, these arisings are the play of one’s own consciousness, the light of one’s own awareness.
If you stop for a minute and watch, you can witness this marvelous, spontaneous display that seems to come out of nowhere. The mind is tremendously fertile. It presents a miraculous unfurling of thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Tibetan masters have a name for this: rang tsal, the mind’s natural inherent energy.
In Tibetan meditative traditions, there is a critical relationship between appearances (abhasa) and inherent energy (rang tsal). When we are caught in grasping, it seems as if some of these appearances are coming at us from the outside. Other appearances, the ones that we call thought, feeling, emotion, and perception, seem to be coming at us from within. All of these seem significant for their content. We are distracted by what we see.
But once in a while, we might realize that what we are actually witnessing—when we witness appearances—is the natural energy (rang tsal) of the mind. While the mind’s display changes (our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions change), the bright energy behind the display is an ebbing and flowing that is constant.
Recognizing the splendor of the mind’s energy in this way takes our attention away from the content of appearances. It takes our attention away from the conceptuality (and its subsequent enmeshment). It takes us away from the stories and reduces obsession. This critical turn of attention lifts the veil of delusion.
When we understand these appearances are the light of our own awareness, they are no longer distant. We do not need to crave a self-fulfilling beauty. They are also no longer threatening. These appearances, once the trigger for grasping, transform into our friends. They can even become a cause of freedom and release.
The Here and Now
We might think that the opposite of grasping is detachment, but actually it is intimacy. Intimacy can be approximated with the conceptual mind. We can understand it. We can imagine it. But approximation is not enough. True intimacy, the kind that the Buddha seems to be expressing when he smiles at his demons on the eve of his awakening, is embodied. Embodied intimacy arises from a neurological change in our response to appearances.
Back to the inquiry: how is it possible to remain motionless and peaceful, with eyes lowered and a smile on one’s face, while threats swirl so close at hand? It is possible when one embodies intimacy with abasa.
At the very end of the Mula Sutta, the Buddha could have been describing what happens next:
[The practitioner] dwells in ease right in the here and now—feeling unthreatened, placid, unfeverish—and is unbound right in the here and now.
This connection between the Buddha’s intimacy with the maras and the radical presence of bodhi might hold a simple but profound key for those of us who meditate. It is a breadcrumb on the path of meditation. The most important goals of our practice may not be focus, relaxation, or even tranquility. Intimacy may be the most important goal and outcome of our practice, its most important promise, because the one thing keeping us from radical presence is our struggle with appearances.