From puritanical austerity to gentle cleansing
I’ve been thinking a lot about purification these last few months.
When I first encountered Buddhist thinking back in the early Noughties, I had a puritanical delight in the austerity of early Buddhist practice.
The Theravada tradition (centred nowadays around Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma) follows the Pali collection of the Buddha’s teachings and has a strong flavour of renunciation. Pouring renunciatory water on the inflammatory fires of desire, anger and clinging can lead to a state of coolness called nibbana: an unshakeable state of pristine awareness.
Naturally, this chasteness of mind came a cropper in the variegated lands of life
My rather ‘roundhead’ sensibilities (I always preferred Cromwell to the King) meant that I embraced this sense of stripping away very readily. I became a fanatic for a sort of moral iconoclasm. Staying with the breath. Not following thoughts. Being very chary of all desires and fantasies.
Naturally, this chasteness of mind came a cropper in the variegated lands of life. It quickly turned into a harsh Buddhist reproduction of the self-judgement that had made me unhappy in the first place.
Tantra works by embracing the human quality of desire
But then, working with Ayahuasca in the Brazilian jungle washed all that away.
I was granted an experience of the universe’s radiant aliveness out there in the rainforest and all at once, the path of renunciation seem deeply misguided. So, over time, I turned instead to the tantric wing of Buddhism. Tantra, unlike its earlier sutra-brethren, sees desire and the natural world of colour, taste, smell, delight as essential paving-stones on the path to liberation.
Tantra works by embracing the human quality of desire. We all desire. It’s part of our human DNA. So we should use that quality to propel us towards enlightenment.
Like all true addicts, we turn over and over to the toxins that keep us miserable
But then the problem becomes what we desire.
Decades (and maybe lifetimes) of miseducation makes us long for the very things that make us unhappy. Like all true addicts, we turn over and over to the toxins that keep us miserable in a crazy belief that this time, they’ll make us well.
That madness of doing the same thing over and over and hoping that something different will happen is the characteristc insanity of the human.
This boyfriend, this brownie. this macchiato, this line of cocaine. This fix will work. But it doesn’t. It never has.
Sheared of the personal agenda, everything becomes sensuous and delightful
Desire for the wrong thing leads to suffering. But that doesn’t mean desiring itself is the problem. Indeed tantra points to the fact that freed from the “personal”, desire becomes the nuclear fuel-rod of practice. We embrace people, things, colours, tastes, country walks, dance parties in a completely open way. Not expecting anything in return. Not clinging, not criticising. Showing up completely without any hope of personal benefit. But lusty for life, nonetheless.
Sheared of the personal agenda, everything becomes sensuous and delightful. Bliss flows into everything and it doesn’t matter when the tea runs out, the music stops or the relationship sours. Because we weren’t ever expecting it to last and we didn’t ever imagine it would only be about us.
Tantric purification is giving up the personal agenda
To cultivate this wide open state of object-less desire is the path of tantra. And in this context purification takes on a very different meaning.
Earlier, in the Noughties, I understood purification as removing all the temptations. It was about giving up the coffee, the cocaine, the dance parties, the sex. But also the poetry, the country walks, the beauty of bird song.
Tantric purification, on the other hand, is giving up the personal agenda in all those activities rather than the activities themselves. Acting is fine – better than fine, enlightening – but only when it is purified of the personal framework.
Free of all stories, all conceptual overlay, all analysis…
Let’s look at an example: there’s me and there’s a tub of chocolate icecream.
In the earlier form of purification, both would be a problem. The ice cream is bad. I am bad for wanting the ice cream. And when I get queasy after necking it in 10 minutes, I enter into a whole story of my greed, my inability to control my urges, my family’s relationship to food. Or – even worse in a way – if I throw the ice cream away in a fit of renunciation, there’s another big story about my virtue, my self-control, my family’s lack of self-control and essential moral feebleness.
In the tantra, there’s me and the ice cream. The eating – fast or slow – and that’s it.
Free of all stories, all conceptual overlay, all analysis, all habitual frameworks or overlays. It’s just ice cream. And it’s delicious or not.
We’re addicted to our stories. Really, really, really, addicted to them
This state of openness is lovely. It’s spacious, aerated and often suffused with a sense of fondness, humour and delight. It’s the enjoyment of an enlightened being. The way the Dalai Lama eats ice cream, I imagine.
But reaching that state of unadorned enjoyment of life is – paradoxically – quite tricky.
We’re addicted to our stories. Really, really, really, addicted to them. They seem so real, so important, so essential. But the magic of emptiness is that it cuts through it all. And suddenly it’s just open space. That’s purification.
(There’s a scene in the last season of Game of Thrones where Arya Stark stabs the King of Whitewalkers with a dragonglass dagger and all at once across the whole landscape all the zombie dead who have been swarming over every thing with unstoppable menace suddenly collapse into a shimmering pile of dust. All at once. Purification through emptiness is like that.)
We do have to make some discerning choices to calm things down enough to practice
But how to experience that?
Well, in some sense that’s is the business of tantra. Renunciation is there too. We do have to make some discerning choices to calm things down enough to practice. And then further along the way there are some special practices that fast-track us to the ‘awakened state’. But in the middle is the whole practice of purification.
It’s hard to do that from within the storyline
In a way, it’s a bit unfashionable. You certainly wouldn’t see it in an 8 week mindfulness course. But it’s undeniably central to classic Tibetan Buddhism.
Recognising that you need outside help. That you need to surrender all your habits of mind, all the tendencies of the human mind to spin stories and make everything into a problem. All that has to be washed away.
And it’s hard to do that from within the storyline, so you need a space outside it. In Tibetan Buddhism it’s the enlightened ones, the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and agents of the ’unseen world’ that step in to do this.
Of course, that’s a step too far for a lot of people. Especially the puritanical post-Dawkins agnostics who want to do everything themselves. (I stand up as having been one of those for a very long time). But luckily, I think there are other ways of undoing the storylines. Ways that don’t require all the Tibetan bells and whistles.
You just have to dissolve the negative belief
As a therapist I am ethically bound not to introduce any of my religious beliefs into the therapy room, but nonetheless the notion of purification seems central to all our work in the field. We are essentially removing any of the self-limiting (and indeed, self-harming) patterns that clients have in their mind and relaxing them into something more flexible and responsive.
The storyline ‘I am a worthless piece of shit and no one will ever, ever love me’ feels like something worth purifying. You don’t have to install any phoney “affirmations” – they end up being more trouble than they’re worth. You just have to dissolve the negative belief and naturally the healthy response comes back on line. It doesn’t have to be fixed any particular way. Indeed the more flexible, open and responsive it is the better.
Purification leaves the space for “I am what I am right now…
Instead of any fixed belief, the purification leaves the space for “I am what I am right now, and the World is what it is right now and out of those two, this feels like a goodish response. (And if it isn’t, then we’ll try something else.)”
What do you do to purify the stories that keep us stuck?
I’m sure the therapists, bodyworkers, teachers or practitioners reading this will have their own version of this cleaning-out, dissolving, washing-away. I’d love to hear from you all.
What do you do to purify the stories that keep us stuck?