Q&A with Aaron–under the Catalpa Tree
June 25, 2008 (afternoon)
Emrich Retreat

Keywords: citta/consciousness, pure awareness, dzogchen, reincarnation, karma, guidance from spirit, (highest intention, aggregates)

Aaron: How can I be of service to you?

Q: M’s question yesterday about, there are some who say that because of no self, there is no control or choice.

Aaron: The question left from yesterday is such a profound one that I would prefer to treat it in its entirety in the dharma talk tonight. That is going to be the focus of my dharma talk. The whole question of karma and self; if there’s no self, whose karma is it? How this works, and also the whole question of free will. If there’s no self what has free will. So I will talk about that in depth tonight, if you will accept my apology for bringing you here and not answering it here.

Q: I think I have a previous engagement. I might not be here.

Aaron: Why would you not be here tonight?

Q: Teasing.

Aaron: So, beyond that issue, what questions have you?

Q: I just have the one from yesterday about a description of nada and luminosity.

Signer?: Nada and ground luminosity…

Q: Ground luminosity? or grand luminosity?

Signer?: Yes, it is ground luminosity but it is not just on the ground?

Aaron: It is not ground luminosity, it is the luminosity radiated from the Ground of Being.

Q: These are new words for me. But also, will you talk about whether there is a lokuttara citta for the mind?

Aaron: Let me unravel this question so it will be clear to us. First, citta is consciousness. The 5 sense consciousness and mind consciousness are the mundane consciousnesses or mundane citta. Each one has an equivalent supramundane consciousness. The eye as sight organ, the mundane eye, touches an object; with contact, seeing consciousness arises. But on the supramundane level, the inner eye touches luminosity as the object and an inner seeing, seeing of luminosity arises. Consciousness arises whenever a sense touches an object. When it’s a mundane sense, mundane consciousness arises. If it’s a supramundane sense, supramundane consciousness arises.

Awareness of nada is supramundane consciousness. Awareness of luminosity is supramundane consciousness. They equate to the eye and the ear. The physical ear cannot hear nada; the inner ear hears nada. The physical eye cannot see luminosity; the inner eye sees luminosity. There is a scent, flowers over there, a scent much like that of the catalpa blossom but much sweeter. It permeates the air. You’re in an enclosed room, no possibility of flowers anywhere, no windows, and suddenly this heavenly scent is in the air. I can’t say what smells it or doesn’t smell it, but there’s awareness of that heavenly scent. The mouth becomes filled with a taste–very, very sweet, far sweeter than honey, and not cloying like honey can become. This is the taste of the Unconditioned. You’re catching fragrance of the Unconditioned and the taste and the light of it.

It’s as if, I use this example again–did I use it with this group yesterday? No, I used it in the small group. As if there was a large maze through which one might work its way, and in the center there is this heavenly lotus blossom giving off scent and music, taste and sound. And you are out at the edges of the maze, you catch whiffs–it’s this way, this way. You wander a bit and are lost in the maze–ah, it’s this way, it’s this way. So it keeps drawing you back towards itself, as long as you know that’s what you are seeking. It invites you.

Each of the 5 physical senses has a supramundane expression. For touch, it’s energy, chi. It’s not quite chi, chi is more of a mundane energy. But it’s, I can only explain this really to those of you who are familiar with body energy, but when you work with somebody’s body energy, you feel the chi energy and you feel beyond the chi energy something deeper. It’s a… the energy is not just within that person but outside and everywhere, but you feel the chi expressing in that person. But this further energy simply is life force, radiance. Since every consciousness takes an object, each supramundane consciousness takes an object that is a direct expression of the Unconditioned. That is the lotus blossom sending off its sound, smell, taste and energy.

The mind equivalent is pure awareness, resting in pure awareness. So this is the distinction, the conscious everyday mind, the small mind, has mundane thought as object. This big mind that rests in awareness takes the supramundane itself as object. It's expression here is awareness, so we have awareness turned in on itself, aware of itself.

Pure awareness is a bit more challenging to understand because it’s not quite radiating out of the lotus blossom; it’s the place we connect with the lotus blossom. Just as seeing luminosity comes from the opening of the inner eye, experiencing awareness comes from the opening of the inner heart. Releasing the small self, or the identification with the small self, awareness opens. Does that sufficiently answer your question?

Q: Does nada sound like… <inaudible>?

Aaron: What does nada sound like? Many people say it sounds like cicadas.

Q: Constant?

Aaron: Yes. Constant. It does not go away, you can go from it. So you may not experience it as constant because you close yourself from it and then open to it again. But it’s always there. And luminosity is always there. Barbara does not walk around constantly experiencing that luminosity, but when she’s not experiencing it, I ask her, “Where did it go?” She stops, recognizes that she’s closed herself into another place, breathes, invites the shift back into pure awareness.

At many retreats that have gone to Saturday instead of Friday, retreats in which the weekenders went home on Sunday, so we had 5 days to work, we’ve taught dzogchen during this hour. With only three days, we decided that was not time to do it justice and that it was more valuable to spend this time simply talking with you. So we’ll find another time to do this. Perhaps Barbara and I will lead a weekend workshop of some sort on Pure Awareness practice

We’ve also shifted from teaching it as a separate practice, because we’re teaching it more now as part of the vipassana practice. Being aware of the space between objects; being aware of the quiet mind that’s always there; beginning to rest more fully in that spacious mind–you’re coming to the same experience. The Tibetan word is rigpa. The Tibetans distinguish between sem, everyday mind, and rigpa, pure awareness mind. And the teaching is simply a meditation practice, a direct practice, that teaches you how to open that to pure awareness mind and become stable, resting in it. It’s a valuable practice but one, as I said, we could not do justice to in 3 days. In 3 one-hour periods of days.

So don’t worry about it. But non-dual awareness is there. You’re beginning to recognize it, each of you, in your vipassana practice. You know when you’re contracted into the small self and when you’re more back and open and there’s not a lot of thought about objects. There’s no planning mind, or if it comes up, it comes up like a butterfly flitting through and it goes. There are no stories, there’s just spaciousness, spacious awareness. This spacious awareness IS the awakened state. People ask me, “Once I get stable in that, okay Aaron, what next?” Why should there be anything next? That’s it. Just rest in awareness; rest in the pure mind.

But you do have to learn how to stabilize it so that when you’re resting in awareness and the fly comes up and bites you, ouch! You don’t swat it or curse at it, it’s just a fly and it’s practicing its fly-ness and biting. You don’t move back into the small mind, or if you do it’s only momentary. The practice is not just learning to rest in pure awareness, but learning to be stable in pure awareness. You can learn this from your vipassana practice.

Several years ago we did a semester class on consciousness and its objects. One of the predominant focuses of the class was the distinction between access concentration and pure awareness. Again, this is not something we can touch on in some one-hour periods. I think this fall we’ll get into that in a class that Barbara and I will do.

Q: We were talking yesterday about guides and teachers. I was wondering, does everyone have a guide, somebody dedicated to you?

Aaron: Yes. At least one. You all have guides. You can learn to hear them. There is no wall from our sides, the wall is from your side. We can hear you, we talk and we talk and you can’t hear us.

Part of the issue is simply that you don’t want to hear us because if you hear us you’re going to have to make some changes in your life, just letting go of some of the old fears and ways of being in the world. So you do want to hear us and you don’t want to hear us. There’s some ambivalence, some fear.

In your vipassana practice you learn how to work with that feeling of threat and resistance and slowly you begin to open to the guides. I think one of the most important aspects of this opening is waking up every morning with remembrance of your highest intention in the world. If the highest intention is, “Today I’m going to do everything I can to keep me safe,” that’s okay but be aware it will bear results. It will direct the way you live your life. You have to be honest with yourself and if that’s where you are, that’s where you are. If the highest intention is, “Today to live my life to the highest service and for the good of all beings, and with love,” that will bring different results. If you state as your intention, “My highest intention is to protect myself at all costs but I realize that that brings suffering, so my highest intention is really to move beyond that fear that holds me caught up in the self,” then slowly that will yield results and you’ll be able to finally make the other statement.

You all have guides and we are eager to support you in every way.

Q: Can we go back to pure awareness for a moment? I realize that pure awareness is an end in itself but my experience has been that it’s from pure awareness that insights arise.

Aaron: Insight into the nature of the Unconditioned and the results of seeing deeply into the Unconditioned, the repercussions.

Q: It’s quite remarkable. I just thought I’d let you all know!

Aaron: Yes, it is, I agree. You’re like blind people walking around, groping at the unseen world and one day something happens–you’ve never really been blind, you’ve just been born having never remembered to open your eyes. Please close your eyes now.

Something draws you out and you open your eyes. You may close them right away again but you say, “What was that?!” Yes, I’m whopping you, right and left! (Aaron is throwing Catalpa blossoms at the people with closed eyes) Trying to help you to remember to open your eyes! Open them now.

You open them just a glimpse and when you close them again, you cannot forget that glimpse you had, and it leads you to the willingness to open them again and get a deeper look. What you see is overwhelming so you close them again, but each time you open them a bit further and it leads you into the experience of a different reality. Once you’re in that different reality. In this mundane reality you can pretend that nothing else but this mundane realm reality exists. But as soon as the eyes are open, you can no longer pretend that what you experience is non-existent.

Once you recognize your deepest interconnection with everything and once you are deeply grounded in the strong intention to live the precepts, you begin to cherish everything as self. And then you move on to understanding there never was a separate self or other. It just keeps deepening.

People talk about a profound enlightenment experience, and certainly this may happen on occasion. But more often there’s a series of smaller experiences; each one is one more step, opening you up to the Unconditioned.

Many years ago, Barbara, was visiting her parents. While the father and mother were resting, she was in the spare bedroom, meditating. Within that meditation, she began to feel herself, as she was sitting there in a lotus position, as a rock; just a big triangular rock. Suddenly she had the experience of that rock being in the midst of a river, and water coming toward it. Not huge water, like a tidal wave; just water, washing over the rock. She could feel bits of encrustment falling off. At first there was fear; parts of herself were dropping off and falling away. But as she sat for perhaps an hour, experiencing this deep washing, everything washed away until there remained only something like a small, radiant pearl. Everything else had washed away. During that hour she did have to be very present with fear. At times the water felt like it was tearing–like how it feels to tear a scab off–tearing away things that were deeply crusted onto her.

She had some insights into what was being washed away because the visit for several days had been difficult. Her father was sicker than he had been. Preparation was under way to move him to a nursing home. She was finding it difficult to experience this with her father, to tend to him in his illness. There was sadness, anger, and fear.

After the meditation her mother came to the room and said, “Barbara, I need your help. Dad needs to be moved and I can’t move him. I need your help to lift him and dress him.” And it was no longer difficult. There was nobody lifting anybody, there was just love lifting love, a great deal of tenderness and connection.

One has these experiences and then one has to live the repercussions of these experiences. When she first walked into the room, it was with the old fear, “Am I going to be able to do this?” But as soon as she saw her father lying there, looking sad and frightened–he had lost his physical capacity but none of his mental capacity, his mind was all there–she saw his dilemma. He had already voiced his concern about his daughter caring for him in personal ways. It was a week when the aide was away on vacation and Barbara had to come down there to help. There was just a profound shift. One looks at the experience and one realizes, “I have a choice. I can live the truth of this experience or I can revert to where I was. What do I choose to do?” Mostly one chooses to live the experience. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But one chooses to live the truth of the experience, and when one does, the heart opens in live. The self, the ego, falls away.

Q: That’s the part, I think, that really is different within the practice than it is in everyday life without the practice like this. The attitude and the acceptance <inaudible>.

Aaron: This is why I do value formal dzogchen practice because it comes in 3 parts. “Seeing the view” is opening to the experience of rigpa or awareness. Then the “Meditation” phase in which we keep inviting that view until it becomes deep so that no matter what comes–the jet roaring overhead–I’m smiling here. At Emerald Isle we had some jets roaring, huge noise, with a military base nearby. We'd be sitting on the beach in this beautiful and serene setting, and a moment later–not constant, just a few times during the day but a moment later–a whole squadron of low-flying military jets flew past. We were sitting eyes-open, looking at the sea. Breathing in spaciousness and seeing the impermanence of the waves, the sand, everything open, light radiating off the sand and the water, ahhh–ROAR!

When one is pulled back into the small self, one can remember “It’s just an object.” We ask the question, “Anything here that’s not an expression of the Unconditioned?” Literally there’s nothing. We keep coming back to it. So this is the meditation phase of the practice and it can be done for many years. Then we move into the “Action” phase of the practice where we bring it out into the world a little at a time.

Your vipassana practice is not dissimilar. We don’t talk about it in those same words, but first you establish the feeling of resting in awareness. It becomes more stable. Access concentration develops, but access concentration and pure awareness are not the same thing. But as access concentration deepens there’s also often a shift, opening into awareness, stable. And then the person next to you starts snoring. What was that? The bee starts circling your head in the meditation hall. What was that?

So gradually we practice bringing it out into the world. It’s harder. If you keep working with the practice, you’ll find it’s doable. I very much like the question, when something arises and pulls you out of that spaciousness, asking after whatever it is, “Is there anything here other than the Unconditioned or one of its expressions? Anything here that’s not God?” Just ask that question.

You keep asking. First it’s the mental aspect asking, coming from the small self. “Anything that’s not God?” There’s reasoning there. But as you start to see that everything is simply an expression of the Unconditioned, everything is an expression of God, you stop swatting at things. Jets, bumblebees and whatever. You just bow to each one and let it pass. If there’s no strong sense of self, there can’t be a strong sense of, “Why is that coming here to bother me?” It is me.

I recognize your dilemma, M. Your depth of insight at this point has surpassed your ability to fully live that insight and it brings frustration. Each time you feel that frustration, know that frustration, also, is just an expression of the Unconditioned. Nothing there but frustration, an expression of emotion and contraction. Bow to it. It’s all practice.

This is such a precious thing, to sit here on the grass this way under a tree that’s dropping blossoms on us with these lovely little creatures who have also come to hear the dharma! This ant, perhaps as a result of crawling on this cloth, in its next lifetime it’s going to be able to take a higher form of life, a higher birth, who knows.

Q: The 5 skandhas, are they interrelated? Such as if you work on the body does it also align the other 4?

Aaron: The aggregates…

Signer?: …Are you talking about… the mind in the mind and the body in the body?

Q: Yes.

Signer: If one is working with the body, does that work also help to align the mind, the feelings, the other aggregates?

Aaron: Yes. Being fully with the body, let me try to explain it in this way. Mind, body, feelings, impulse, consciousness, there’s an ever-perfect template to each, and the template opens out into the physical outer expression. The more you come back to rest in the template of one, the more you are aligned in the templates of the others. That doesn’t mean you don’t have to work with each, but I think of a tightrope walker who (sound effects), barely gets himself stable and puts the next foot down. Takes another step (sound effects), the arms are off, the head is off, everything is off. Each time he comes back to center, the whole body is aligned again.

So the practice with one helps to align everything. But at the core, everything is already aligned. You’re not trying to align anything, you are simply bringing the human experience into harmony with the deepest truth of your being. Do you understand that? (Q: Yes.)

It’s so important that you recognize, all of you, that despite all the work you are doing on the relative plane, you are not doing anything! You are only bringing yourself to rest where you already are. When you teach somebody to float in the water who has fear of the water, first you support their back. You ask them to lie back, and you hold them. And usually as soon as the head hits the water, the whole body tenses up. If you weren’t holding them, they’d sink. For many people–not for all people but for many people, the body floats naturally. If they’ll just relax, the body will float. If you will just relax, you’ll come to know this already-enlightened self. It’s the fear “I’ll sink” that keeps you sinking.

Further questions?

Q: I have a question that I’m not sure how to ask.

Aaron: Just try and I’ll do my best to understand the deeper nature of it.

Q: From a psychological perspective, does resting in pure awareness have anything to do with…trying to be more in one’s right brain than one’s left brain?

Aaron: No. Pure awareness is not right or left brain. It’s balanced. So perhaps we could say that resting in pure awareness, one’s not trying to be more right or left brained but one simply is in a place of balance.

Q: There is a woman who just wrote a book. It’s called My Stroke of Insight. She had a stroke where the bleed was in the left side of the brain and she watched her body lose all its function and she had only the right side of the brain working. And she experienced the Unconditioned. And it has profoundly changed her life and she <lost to wind>. She is a brain scientist.

Aaron: I’ve heard of her book. Barbara has not read it. Each side of the brain affects certain aspects of cognition, but resting in pure awareness goes beyond brain cognition. I would have to read the book and reflect on it to better understand her experience, so I’d rather not try to speak on something that I have not read.

Q: <I> will lend the book to Barbara.

Aaron: Thank you. Barbara will read it. But pure awareness is not dependent on either hemisphere of the brain.

Q: I am an identical twin. I was wondering, when a person decides to reincarnate, with twins is it just happenstance who you’re born with?

Aaron: Never coincidence. Not coincidence what family you’re born into, not coincidence what siblings or parents you have, and certainly with an identical twin there is some strong reason for the choice.

Karma draws you to a body. There is also free will. You have looked with your guides at what is the most beneficial next lifetime–the country of birth, the parentage, rich or poor, race, culture–what would be most beneficial to the work you plan to do in this lifetime. Even at the last moment one can back out. You’re going to have to take incarnation, but if suddenly it feels, “This is not right, I’m not ready!” free will is there. So you’re never forced. The more conscious you are–that is, the higher the vibration of consciousness, the clearer the consciousness, the less reactivity there is in the previous life and at this stage of your development–the more likely you are not to be simply sucked in. But being sucked in is also an expression of free will. You may have had the opportunity to learn things that you did not choose to learn, and then are sucked into a difficult birth because you don't have the skills to draw back. It is like an alcoholic who does his work and does not enter the bar; but another alcoholic may not have done his work; when he passes the bar, the lure is too strong and he is sucked in.

Somebody, for example, who is highly drawn to violence, who in their past lifetime both enacted violence strongly on others and had it enacted on them and got a big rise out of violence, a lot of excitement about it, perhaps even saw violence or some forms of violence in their sexuality, might, from the astral plane, observe a man and woman engaged in a violent kind of sexual encounter and be drawn into that womb, almost helpless to resist.

But as you become more conscious, and this is part of your meditation practice, you’re not so reactive. You see impulses arise. You observe the impulse, you observe the mind saying, “Ooo, let’s have that!”–strawberries, chocolate, whatever–you’re not so pulled in. “No, right now this is not what I need.”

Nothing is ever lost. Just because you have the transition of death, you do not lose what you’ve learned. That more highly conscious person makes a much more conscious choice. Then there’s a decision to move into a specific birth, a specific womb, specific parentage, specific twin, for some conscious reason, either something karmic to be resolved or out of old ties of love or whatever it may be.

So at this phase of your development, people who are likely to be at meditation retreat are not people who are likely to have simply stumbled into a birth completely unconsciously.

Q: Does the forgetting happen at conception?

Aaron: No, after birth.

Q: After the actual birth?

Aaron: Yes.

Q: So all through the development of the fetus there is remembering.

Aaron: Yes. And the spirit does not necessarily enter into the fetus before birth, it can enter at any time between conception and birth. It must be there at birth but it does not necessarily enter at conception.

Sometimes the spirit will enter a body knowing that that body is not going to come to term, that there are fatal flaws with the body. And it simply needs to experience the love of the parents, the connection. It comes into the fetus knowing the body is not going to survive. But other times when there is, for example when the parents are deciding whether they will abort the fetus or not, often the potential being that will move into that body holds back waiting for the decision to be made because it has no need to experience simply being a fetus and being aborted. So it waits. There are so many variables.

Let’s take one more question.

(a minute goes by in silence)

(Meditation with pauses, not noted)

Let’s just sit then. I ask you to lean back in a comfortable way and simply look up into the trees and the sky, eyes open, gaze soft and unfocused. Try to see leaves, limbs, flowers, sky. Just movement and space. Let go of the objects.

Eyes soft and unfocused. If you’re wearing glasses, take them off. Let the breath come out in a great ahhhhh…As you breathe out, let your entire being go out into the sky, the tree, the flowers, ahhh…And as you breathe in, breathe everything back into yourself…

Ahh…Releasing everything of the self, letting it go out. Nothing remains. There is no self. Breathing in, there is no other. Everything merged together…

Keep the gaze soft. No effort, just relaxing. Relaxed into spaciousness. Ahhh…

If a thought comes, simply note “thinking,” let it go…

The breath has no end, it doesn’t just go to the tree or the nearest cloud, it goes out and out and out. The breath you draw in has touched everything and everyone. Ahh…

Let yourself sit here and imagine hundreds and thousands of soap bubbles, popping and opening, everything dissolving. Right up there, rising up and popping into the branches…

Everything dissolving…Fully awake and present in this moment. Feel the joy of that presence. Feel the energy of it. No tree, no leaves, no sky, no self and yet everything radiantly IS. Open and spacious.

Longer pause

And then gradually bring the awareness back into this moment, this body…and so relax at ease in this vast moment, this presence.

There’s a lovely poem from Alan Ginsberg:

Follow your breath right out of your nose.
Follow it out as far as it goes.
You can’t think straight
And you don’t know who to call.
It’s never too late to do nothing at all.

More meditation

Thank you.

(recording ends)

Copyright © 2008 by Barbara Brodsky