What is being known?

The price of choosing an inscrutable name for this blog – This is Being Known – is that I must explain it. I’m going to be sincere in this post to try to do that. There may be more uncomfortable things I could do, but I haven’t felt them yet.

“This is Being Known” summarizes a recent change in my way of looking at the world. I started meditating indifferently several years ago. I can’t say precisely why. I worked at a company adding meditation to its products and it was in the air. I followed along with an app, and that got me settled into a daily 10 minute practice. It helped with not getting too worked up about all the parts of my life I couldn’t control, but it didn’t change my worldview.

This continued for a few years. I wasn’t getting much more out of the app-directed meditation, but I was starting to get sense that there could be more there if I put more into it. Unlike with almost anything else in my life, rather than methodically exploring everything related to the subject, I signed up for a four day meditation retreat. I’d gotten the impression that a retreat was a decent way to deepen your practice and signed up without thinking about it much more than that.

The retreat was in the mountains of western North Carolina at Southern Dharma, a lovely place. The retreat was unlike anything I’d experienced. The longest I’d meditated going into it was around 30 minutes and I’d never meditate more than once a day. We’d sit for an hour or two several times a day. There were 20 other retreatants, and only a few had met before the evening we arrived. I knew no one. We talked to who we happened to be sitting next to at at dinner that evening, and then we didn’t speak to each other for the next few days despite spending the majority of our waking time together.

The subject of the retreat was “Emptiness, Knowing, and the Radiant Mind”. Our instructor would present a text from somewhere in the past 2,500 years, we’d ask a question or two, and then we’d meditate on it for a while. We went over eight short texts this way spread out through three days.

The main thing this did for me was to let me come up with a theory of what Buddhists are attempting. We come into existence as the most complicated set of systems we’ll ever encounter. Each of our sensory inputs and our thinking mind are a nuanced system, and the interactions between them exponentially increase the nuance of interpreting them. We crash into the world, taking in as many inputs as our chubby baby selves can get. Rather than having a manual that explains how each of these systems work and how to operate them, we ingest all experiences as evidence of their operation. On top of that, the culture we belong to begins to shape how we should exist, implicitly and explicitly.

In my understanding, Buddhists say to step away from the vehicle of your consciousness. That the consciousness you’ve come to inhabit is a random pastiche of your experience, evolutionary presets, and cultural constructions. That all suffering, yours and every sentient being’s, comes from attempting to operate a complex consciousness reactively to its inputs. That if you want an instruction manual for inhabiting your consciousness skillfully to reduce your suffering and that of others, you have to write that manual for yourself. That the way to write that manual is to slow down and experience your consciousness undistorted by your previous attempts to understand yourself. Emptiness, Knowing, and the Radiant Mind indeed.

That all of this came from a few short pages of text with an average age of over 1,000 years astounded me. I’d heard bits of Buddhism going in. This changed it from being an esoteric footnote on the invention of mindfulness to being how I might make sense of my existence from here on.

I signed up for a second retreat at Southern Dharma a few months later. This one, Navigating the Whirlpools of This Heart, was led by Mark Nunberg. Mark’s instruction focused more on the moment-to-moment practice of meditation and how to make that practice expand into the moment-to-moment of the rest of your life. Where the study of texts in the first retreat sketched a map of where this might be going, this gave me skills to move on that map.

Mark’s instruction for formal practice was straightforward. He gave four steps:

  1. Invite relaxation
  2. Become aware of the present moment
  3. Chain together moments of awareness
  4. Check in periodically on how that feels

There’s nuance in applying those steps and many variations on them. I haven’t worried about getting more complicated than the four basic steps in the months since the retreat. There’s enough there for me to expand the amount of time I spend in formal practice and to start to be aware in the rest of my life.

Having glimpses of awareness outside formal practice has given me hope of calming my neuroses for the first time. While I’ve never been debilitated by it, I’ve been anxious about most aspects of my life as long as I’ve been aware. As an adult it’s been both worry about the macro of what I’m choosing to do and the micro of how every tiny human interaction went. When I bring awareness to the present moment, I inhabit it without worry. It’s a relief from the years of anxiety and it lets me participate fully in what’s happening.

This brings me to the title of the blog. When talking about being aware of the present moment, Mark would often use the phrase “this is being known” as what your mind says to itself. Whether it’s your breath, pain in your knee, one of the innumerable birds at Southern Dharma singing, or the most painful memory from your past, it’s being known. Since then, I’ve been reminding myself to know this moment and to chain it together. You would think given the benefits that it’d be easy to remain present, but avoiding the deep ruts of a lifetime of neurosis doesn’t happen without a few reminders. The blog’s title is another one.

All you do is relax and notice: this is being known. And this. And this. And this.