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Crossing the Floods

A way of talking about transcendence, liberation or however you conceive of a spiritual path, is to use the metaphor of ‘crossing the floods.’ Interest in deep change gets triggered by the feeling of being swept along by events; by the sense of being overwhelmed by, and even going under, a tide of worries, duties and pressures.

That’s the ‘floods.’ And crossing them is about coming through all that to find some firm ground. It takes some work, some skill, but we can do it. This book offers some guidelines and themes for practice that can get us fit for the task.

So: floods. Our experience is a meeting and merging of external and internal currents of events. The awareness of something out there triggers a moment of recognition as to what the thing is — a piece of music, an old friend, a familiar flavour — along with degrees of interest, pleasure or alarm that may act as further triggers to action: to draw closer, start talking, or search one’s memory for further information about that thing. This internal experience normally occupies our attention, sometimes to the point of congestion as our minds add a swelling amount of internal activity to an ongoing flow of external data. The mind has creative potential, but that isn’t always a happy experience. At times the internal activity of analysis, speculation, memory, investigation, cross-referencing, decision-making and self-evaluation can amount to a volume of overwhelming proportions. Then the experience of overload develops into one of exhaustion, or of a pressure in our lives that diminishes peace and joy and can incline the mind to either the temporary oblivion offered by drink, drugs and entertainment, or a need for therapy to find some ways to manage the daily round. This is the loss of balance that we can rightly experience as being flooded. It isn’t the world per se, nor is it that we are chronically unbalanced; it’s just that the right relationship hasn’t been struck.

On the other hand, we may have had an experience of aware stillness in which the concerns of the day and all those habitual inner activities stopped or abated. Perhaps it was in the presence of a natural wonder, or maybe it was in a temple, or under a night sky, where we felt for a moment lifted by awe. For a few instants or minutes perhaps our normal sense of who we are, a sense based on the movement and concerns of all that mental activity, dropped away and was replaced by a sense of greater breadth, or depth, or of feeling at one with the universe. In such an experience, the world around us changes to a place of beauty or spiritual presence. Maybe we framed the experience in the language of a particular religion, or interpreted it as a divine revelation. It could have triggered a whole range of such further activities. Or we could have surmised that there are other states of consciousness than the one we’ve called ordinary, and that the normal self that we experience as being in the world is not a fixed or ultimate identity. For a moment, without creating or rejecting anything, we experienced a shift both in terms of our self and the world around us.

Now if we were to find a method of experiencing such shifts and stopping on a regular basis, we could examine that sense of stopping and know that it’s anything but nihilistic — it’s not oblivion, but a vibrant stillness. It’s as if the mind had been crinkled and folded in on itself, and now it has unfolded. An underlying restlessness and tension that we hardly noticed because it was so normal, has ceased — and with it, our normal sense of what we and the world are has changed for the better. This ‘unfolding’ to a wider and deeper sense is what we call ‘transcendence.’ We change, and our apparent world changes. In terms of the previous metaphor, it is an emergence from the floods.

Dhamma: A Way Rather Than a Technique

The methodologies for transcendence are varied: meditation, prayer, devotion, yoga, fasting, even psychotropic drugs. In the long run, the ones that are the most useful will be the ones that can be integrated into daily life with the minimum amount of dependence on external circumstances or internal ideology. Then the method will be applicable to a wide range of people and it will not become the source of more stressful mental activity. Such is the spiritual alignment that the Buddha called ‘Dhamma,’ and which he described as: ‘Directly accessible; not bound up with special events and times; encouraging interest and openmindedness [rather than belief]; furthering and deepening; to be realized directly in one’s experience through wisdom [rather than induced by ‘another’]’. Dhamma supports and is supported by practices such as careful reflective thinking, cultivation of kindness and compassion to oneself and others, calming the mind in meditation and gaining a transcendent understanding of the phenomena that make up and arouse our mental activities. All of these practices are to be undertaken in the light of Dhamma — that is by looking directly at the results and not subscribing to dogmatic views about any of it.

The vision of Dhamma is that if the mind is healed, strengthened and calmed; if we are no longer swept away by our ideas, doubts, plans, regrets, grudges and phobias (to name but a few) — then we can cross the floods and, to use a Buddhist metaphor, be standing on ‘the Other Shore.’ Whatever the analogy, such transcendence means that we’re neither generating stress nor caught in stressful consequences. Accordingly the most usual summary of the Buddha’s Dhamma is that it presents Four Noble Truths concerning suffering and stress — or dukkha (the word has a range of meanings from anguish to unsatisfactoriness). These Truths present this stress and suffering as unavoidably bound up with the human condition, yet as something that has a cause; and that the cause can be eliminated; and finally, that there is a Path of practices that will lead to the elimination of that stress.

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