Non-Duality USA reviews Living as a River

“This book is one of the best explanations of what the separate self is, what it does, and how being free of the static sense of a separate self benefits humanity, leaving us “peaceful yet engaged.” It reminds us of why awakening is not just about personal freedom, but also compassion, ethics, action, and care and concern for all sentient beings. These elements are sometimes missed in our modern attempts to translate Buddhist texts in order to “rush to a personal awakening … This book perfectly illuminates the real purpose of awakening, which is not to just talk about that river or even enter the river, but to realize we are it —fully.”

Read the full review here…

Book introduction

Thanks to some spiffy new technology from Amazon, I can now make the introductory chapter of Living as a River available in Kindle format, right on the blog. (Kindle, in case you don’t know, is Amazon’s amazing electronic reading device).

Below, you’ll see the Kindle on the Web widget. For ease of reading, I’d suggest you switch the reader to full-screen by clicking on the icon at the top that looks a bit like a TV screen, to the left of where it says “Get Kindle Edition.” You can also adjust the font size, and even purchase the Kindle edition of the book.


Interview with New Spirit Journal

Here’s an interview I did a couple of weeks ago, talking with Krysta Gibson of New Spirit Journal, where we discuss Living as a River.

This links directly to the MP3 file, so you can either left-click and listen in your browser, or right click and download to listen in iTunes or whatever media player you use.

It was recorded on an ancient-looking land-line in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the sound on my end is rather muffled. Sometimes it might be inaudible, but maybe that will encourage you to go out and buy my book so that you can work out what the heck I was saying…

What is consciousness?

There’s an interesting post at Big Think about consciousness:

What does it mean to be conscious? It’s a question that philosophers and scientists have puzzled over perhaps since there have been philosophers and scientists.

In his book “Consciousness Explained,” Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett calls human consciousness “just about the last surviving mystery,” explaining that a mystery is something that people don’t yet know how to think about. “We do not yet have all the answers to any of the questions of cosmology and particle physics, molecular genetics and evolutionary theory, but we do know how to think about them,” writes Dennett. “With consciousness, however, we are still in a terrible muddle. Consciousness stands alone today as a topic that often leaves even the most sophisticated thinkers tongue-tied and confused. And, as with all of the earlier mysteries, there are many who insist—and hope—that there will never be a demystification of consciousness.”

On a base level, consciousness is the fact of being awake and processing information. Doctors judge people conscious or not depending on their wakefulness and how they respond to external stimuli. But being conscious is also a neurological phenomenon, and it is part of what allows us to exist and understand ourselves in the world.

Dr. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist from the University of Southern California who has studied the neurological basis of consciousness for years, tells Big Think that being conscious is a “special quality of mind” that permits us to know both that we exist and that the things around us exist. He differentiates this from the way the mind is able to portray reality to itself merely by encoding sensory information. Rather, consciousness implies subjectivity—a sense of having a self that observes one’s own organism as separate from the world around that organism.

“Many species, many creatures on earth that are very likely to have a mind, but are very unlikely to have a consciousness in the sense that you and I have,” says Damasio. “That is a self that is very robust, that has many, many levels of organization, from simple to complex, and that functions as a sort of witness to what is going on in our organisms. That kind of process is very interesting because I believe that it is made out of the same cloth of mind, but it is an add-on, it was something that was specialized to create what we call the self.”

It’s good to point out that consciousness is a mystery, and to emphasize that a mystery is something we don’t even know how to think about. Consciousness may in a way be a second-level or even third-level mystery. After all, no one has yet been able to come up with a watertight definition for life (this is the first-level mystery, and one I explore in the Fire Element chapter of my book). Living things can be conscious, or perhaps, as Alva Noe suggests in You are Not Your Brain, even amoebas have a primitive form of consciousness, in the sense that they interact with their environment, which has a kind of simple “meaning” for them. But what we’re talking about with consciousness here is something beyond merely processing information about the outside world. It’s as if information processing is aware of the process of information processing. Perhaps simple consciousness (responding to the environment) is a second-level mystery, and reflexive consciousness is the third-level mystery. Presumably only a conscious being is able to have a sense of what consciousness is, or to be able to assess whether another being has consciousness.

This sense of a gradation of mysteries, that I mentioned above, has a parallel in the Buddhist teaching of the five niyamas, a late Thervadin teaching of a gradation of levels of conditionality within existence — that is, a series of “laws” governing, or more properly, describing how things operate.

  1. There’s a level (the utu-niyama) of physical laws, which we know as physics and chemistry.
  2. There’s a level (the bija-niyama) of biological laws (such as evolution) which we know as biology.
  3. There’s the citta-niyama, which is the operation of simple consciousness (including much of psychology).
  4. There’s the karma-niyama, which is how self-aware consciousness operates, specifically referring to how the actions self-aware beings choose affect the degree of suffering they experience. This is the level of spiritual practice.
  5. And there’s the dharma-niyama, which is the progressive emergence of a new state of being that arises once the self-aware individual loses his or her sense of having a fixed and separate self. This is the emergence of a non-dual, enlightened consciousness.

From the utu to the citta-niyamas, we see, through evolutionary processes, conscious beings arising. They are driven by suffering, which gives rise to craving and aversion as strategies to deal with that suffering.

In the karma-niyama, we see beings who are aware that craving and aversion cause suffering, and who realize that they have a choice. Self-aware beings are able to examine, reinvent, or rebuild their own consciousness by choosing which mental states they will develop and which they will refrain from reinforcing and allow to wither.

In the dharma-niyama we see a radical move away from the inner and outer actions that cause suffering: radical because we have started to let go of our clinging to the idea that we have a self.

This teaching of the niyamas doesn’t exactly explain any mysteries. And the Buddha wasn’t into doing that. He simply accepted that here we are, thrown into the world with minds predisposed to cause ourselves suffering, and then proceeded to show how we can eradicate that suffering. What consciousness is is still a mystery. Fortunately it’s being a mystery isn’t a hindrance to spiritual progress.

Big sense of relief

Just the other day I was at a social/business gathering of people who are going to be teaching at the University of New Hampshire this summer. I mentioned to one of the other teachers that I have a book coming out in October, and of course she asked what it was about.

Oh, oh! I launched into a several-paragraph long explanation of the book, knowing that once again, I’d failed to put my finger on the pulse of my own book.

I wrote Living as a River because I’m fascinated by the Buddhist Six Element Practice, and I wanted to communicate my explorations. But my book isn’t really about the Six Element Practice, which is really just the framework for the explorations it contains.

The Six Element Practice is a way of exploring the nature of the self, and how we cling onto notions of what we are. It’s a way of letting go of our clinging so that we can, eventually, lose our clinging and find freedom. But that’s not an very adequate description of the book either.

But those are the kind of descriptions I keep giving people. I just couldn’t think of a pithy way of expressing what the book was about that wasn’t too narrow or long-winded. I needed to find a “pitch.”

You know that when an agent is trying to get a Hollywood studio to buy a movie, they have a one-sentence opener to provide a “hook” and to describe the essence of the film. So you’ll get things like “Jaws on Paws” (a real-life example about a rampaging dog), or “You’ve Got Mail meets Blue Velvet” (to give an example I made up).

A couple of days my last flailing attempt to describe my book, it finally came to be how I could describe the book in just two words: “Embracing change.” So that’s what the book’s about. It uses the structure of the Six Element meditation in order to face up to the reality of change, and to help us let go of clinging so that we can embrace impermanence.

It’s strange it’s taken me so long to figure out exactly what my book’s about! You’d kind of expect that I’d know that before I wrote the book. In fact it probably would have been handy to have had “embracing change” in my mind as a theme while I was writing.

On the other hand, I think that idea was in my mind the whole time, even though I never quite articulated it, so it’s not as if I’ve suddenly realized I’ve written the wrong book.

I’m just relieved and glad that when an interviewer asks me what the book’s about, I can now express its essence in just two words:

Embracing Change.

The back cover blurb

Sounds True recently sent me the copy for the back cover of Living as a River:

“At a time when it’s increasingly challenging to find clear and honest direction on the spiritual path, Living as a River offers contemporary insight into an ancient practice and wise counsel we can trust. This book is both beautifully written and useful to all serious seekers.” 
—Mariana Caplan, PhD, author of Eyes Wide Open: Cultivating Discernment on the Spiritual Path and Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment

To face reality is to embrace change; to resist change is to suffer. This is the liberating insight that unfolds with Living as a River. A masterful investigation of the nature of self, this eloquent blend of current science and time-honored spiritual insight is meant to free us from the fear of impermanence in a world defined by change.

The primary vehicle for this journey is Buddhism’s traditional Six Element Practice, a deconstructive process of deep reflection that helps us let go of the belief in a separate, static self—the root of unhappiness. Bodhipaksa takes readers through a systematic yet poetic analysis of the self that supports the realization of:

  • A sense of spaciousness and expansiveness that transcends the limitations of the physical body
  • Profound gratitude, awe, and a feeling of belonging as we witness the extent of our connectedness with the universe
  • Freedom from the psychological burden caused by clinging to a false identity
  • The relaxed experience of “consciousness, pure and bright”

Engrossing and incisive, Living as a River is at once an empowering guide and a meditative practice we can turn to again and again to overcome our fear of change and align joyfully with the natural unfolding of creation.