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About Process and Content

December 8, 2018



It’s become apparent over these past few days that my last blog has caused a bit of confusion. I’d like to see if I can remedy that here.


The points I attempted to make previously were these:


We humans are good at determining what we want, but are not at all good at understanding what we need. The way to see what we truly need—and often, also, the most skillful thing for us to do—is to look to the moment. The circumstances that lie in front of us invariably contain the challenge or the opportunity we need in order to take the next step forward in our lives. If we can learn to recognize the guidance provided by those circumstances, to set aside whatever preferences we may have, and to say yes, then we will learn what we need to learn, and life will become deep and fulfilling.


Here’s the bit I left out, which has caused the confusion:


The challenge/opportunity that the moment offers lives on the level of process not content. What is important is the how, not the what. What truly matters never has to do, essentially, with the money, the boss, the spouse, the health concern, or any other such content. It has to do, instead, with our relationship with these things.


There is a bit of spiritual chicanery going around these days, sparked (it appears) by an influential book that was published a few years ago, which says that the correct spiritual thing to do is to just say yes to whatever Life puts in front of you, on a content level, no matter what that may be. So if it occurs to you to go left, or if someone else suggests to go left, then go left. If someone says to go right, go right. This obviously can lead to all sorts of absurdities. Say someone suggests that you rob a bank. What are the chances that the correct spiritual thing is to say yes to that?


What’s missing here is discernment. The reason we’re given our capacities to reason, to imagine, to plan, and to question is so that we need not just follow our noses around. As humans we may step back in the way other animals cannot do and see what is best from a larger perspective than what ego wants. Wee can foresee possible outcomes; we can detect patterns; we can let go of our selfish tendencies and choose what will be the best for everyone, not just “me”. If we are not employing these human gifts then we’re bound to be stuck in conditioned mind, with no access to real spiritual possibility.


So if we take the maxim that says, “Look to the moment for guidance” and apply it on a process level, what does that look like? Rather than attending to the stuff, we attend to the processes that work underneath the stuff: to our motivations and our intentions; to our values; to the state of our heart and the role of conditioned mind in our response to whatever the moment throws our way. To use an example, let’s say there’s a person who has a conditioned pattern to choose other people’s needs over her own. Whenever anyone wants something from her she’s say yes, even if she doesn’t want to, even if it doesn’t feel right, and even if she has to sacrifice something she needs in order to do so. Okay, so let’s say this person is getting ready to do something really kind for herself—to go on a nice, mindful walk; to take a hot bath; to have a cup of tea and sit quietly on the porch, or whatever it might be—and then suddenly a relative calls and asks her to come over and help her with something. If our friend is following the maxim on the content level, she will automatically say yes and go help, with the consequence that she is following that old conditioned pattern and thereby reinforcing it. If she is following the maxim on a process level, however, then what will she do? Well, it depends. The choices available on the process level are not pre-determined. She will hopefully attempt to choose consciously what is the best for all, as this is the process it’s best to do at all times and in all circumstances, but that could manifest in all sorts of ways. One powerful choice would be to let go of the old pattern and stay home and take care of herself. In this case, then, saying “yes” to the moment would involve saying “no” to the relative. She might also choose to go and help out because that seems the correct thing to do—but here she would be making a real choice, not just following what her conditioning says to do.


The essential point here is that our eye needs always to be on the prize, and the prize is liberation. It matters not at all what happens in the stuff of our lives; it matters absolutely, on the other hand, how we interact with that stuff. Each moment presents an opportunity to choose the old ways within conditioned mind, or the place of freedom beyond it. That’s what the Guidance really is: in each moment it says, “Choose.”

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