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How to deal with the past?

Life is becoming. We all enter this game as it is already rolling—and hopefully it will still be rolling when we exit. Nobody actually started the game. We all have to figure out how to play in it while we are thrown on stage. As Nietzsche already observed, dealing with one’s past is perhaps the most daunting (but also potentially deep) task we all have to face. The past does not only concern one’s own personal past events, circumstances, traumas, and habitual patterns. The past extends to the transindividual level, to our culture, our languages, our biological and environmental roots. The past also includes those contemplative traditions that are accessible to us and that, in a way or another, shaped (or still can shape) how we understand and interpret our experience.


What Nietzsche found problematic about this predicament is that it seems to undermine the creative drive of life itself. Life tends to change, evolve, unfold, hence always introducing some variation, if not novelty, hardly blatantly repeating the same scheme for long. And yet, if everything that happens now is somehow conditioned by the circumstances in which we happen to exist and operate (if everything is shaped by our past), how can there be any genuine creation? How can life really fulfil its potential for bringing forth and giving birth to new forms and shapes?


Facing this conundrum, two extreme options are immediately apparent—and both are also clearly problematic. The first option is iconoclast: we get rid of the past, smash away our memories, pretend to start everything anew, from a tabula rasa, as innocent and memoryless as little children. But aside from being hardly possible (how can you remove the ground from beneath your feet while you’re standing on it?), this iconoclast move is hardly smart. It eventually leads to the cumbersome task of reinventing the wheel again and again. As if, in order to be free, we must go back to time immemorial (in fact, there is no beginning of what is ‘past’ so deciding how fare we should be going back, is another unsolvable problem) and restart from there, again and again. Ultimately, this leads to delegitimizing life itself, assuming that everything that happened must have been somehow wrong. Such a pity, because we too happened, and hence, we too must be wrong!


The second option is conservative: we fixate upon one particular form of our past, one particular tradition, one particular screenshot of our ancestral memory, and we pretend to stick there. We assume that this is where things were at their peak, at their best, and we want to remain at that level forever. We stick our heals in the ground, brake the run of time, and just pretend (what else could we do, if not just pretending?) that we’ll remain happily there. Again, this is hardly feasible, no matter how much we try to recreate a more or less isolated time bubble in which we act and play as if time did not pass. All bubbles eventually have to break apart. But more importantly, this attitude again betrays a misunderstanding of our past. If something really good happened, if some really transformative and sensational tradition took root at some point, that must have entirely changed the milieu in which it appeared, and in doing so, it must have consumed itself in the process. By trying to holding on to a fixed form, we actually deny the transformative potential of the tradition that we want to embody, hence also hollowing it from within, depriving it from the freedom of doing its work and being consumed in it, without residue.


More often than not, both iconoclastic and conservative approaches are supported by political and economic agendas. They are part of larger schemes in which games of power, recognition, and authority dictate where and how to look. That’s understandable, but it does not really provide a sound solution to the basic question: how to deal with the past?


Honoring our roots


For his part, Nietzsche came up with the intuition that the only way of really dealing with the past is by somehow embracing it fully, as something that is neither completely gone, nor completely present. We have to will the past again, and again, until we realize that we are and remain our past, even in a new and transfigured form. What does this mean in practice?


Narrowing down the issue to just that of dealing with contemplative traditions, we can recognize that each tradition is structured around a certain fundamental intuition, a leading intention, a directionality. All the other practices, techniques, rituals, forms, expressions that the tradition produces, can be more or less directly understood from the point of view of this foundation. This core intuition is not itself necessarily expressed in any particular formula, mantra, proposition (although it might, depending on the level of self-awareness of the tradition itself), and yet it can be extracted by looking at the formal structure within which the tradition articulates itself and all its expressions. This core intuition is the driving force of the tradition, that for the sake of which practitioners in that tradition will make a difference in their life, progressing in a certain direction rather than another.


If the tradition works, it will articulate its core intuition in such a way to be intelligible and effective in the actual historical milieu in which the tradition operates, rooting itself in the linguistic, symbolic, cultural, philosophical horizon of the audience that the tradition addresses. Hence, all the actual expression of that tradition will be inevitably culturally and historically inflected—and inevitably so, since this is the only way for the tradition to become alive. This distinction (between a core and its expression) is analogous to that we can find in many languages between the root of a verb and its actual declension. In spoken language, we never encounter roots, but only verbs in specific forms or constructions. We cannot speak by using roots in their purity. And yet, we can unravel verbal roots as those hidden grounds that allow a basic meaning to be expressed in innumerable (and possibly effective) forms.


In dealing with the past, we need to examine the articulated forms of a certain tradition, in order to uncover its root, undeclined intention. This requires ‘getting one’s hands dirty’ with the tradition itself, engaging with it more deeply than what one would do with a distant object of a purely theoretical interest. It also demands some actual study of the historical circumstances, potential reasons, and actual effects that the tradition might have engendered. And even if our reconstruction of the ‘root’ remains partially hypothetical and partially incomplete (as it is likely to be the case), as soon as we start envisaging what that root might look like, we can reflect on how is that root still within us.


As the past is our background, the womb from which we all came, each root intuition that shaped the evolution of understanding (in a transindividual and transhistorical sense) is still operative within us. Root intuitions are like intellectual genes that become part of our shared heritage and somehow still contribute to shaping our way of gazing and listening to experience. From this perspective, the past is not entirely gone, is still within us, in its root form, in its fundamental intention. What we need is to find a way of honoring that intention given the new transformed circumstances that are present now (which are different from the past also due to the effect of that root intuition effectuating the changes that it wanted to achieve). The past is not entirely gone, but it is also not entirely present either, in the sense that we do not try to replicate how that root intuition might have been implemented and articulated in its first iteration, but how it might take new life in different and new circumstances and conditions. In this way, we do not need to go iconoclast and pretend to start everything anew, but we also do not need to become conservative and desperately try to stick to an imagined past golden age. We simply discover to be alive, which mean being already part of an unfolding process that already started, upon which we’re asked to surf, with lightness and groundedness at the same time. We cannot grasp and remain attached to any wave, and yet we cannot lose entirely the contact with any of them. We need to balance in the middle, we need surfing.


Examples


At the moment, this seems to me the most feasible way to reconcile the different strands and practice lineages I have been attracted to, without falling pray of having to pick one and ‘become’ a sectarian defender of it, and without having to withdraw from all of them into some newly concocted view.


In early Buddhism, the root intuition is to work on our ordinary tendency to push away unpleasantness, by abandoning aversion and replacing it with an attitude of friendliness. This can be developed to quite some extent, and it entails a very deep transformation of the whole fabric of experience—so deeply indeed is aversion ordinarily rooted in it. As this process unfolds, one learns how to recognize the constructed nature of any experience, and the impossibility of appropriating it as ‘personal’. This does not mean to reject experience, and yet it does entail a new beautiful lightness in one’s relation to one’s experience. As if one could finally play a game while being fully engaged with it, and yet never forgetting that it is just a game.


In contemporary postural yoga, the root intuition is to cultivate a profound sense of embodiment, by bringing all mental processes to coalesce around the sheer fact of having a living, moving, sentient body. This is important because much of the unnecessary seriousness with which we take our life and experience is rooted in our mental representation of it, and in layers and layers of meanings we attach to what we do. To some extent this seriousness shows up in the body as a certain stiffness, and to some extent the body is by nature more resilient and freer from being subject to this seriousness. Hence, one might work on the body as a counterbalancing domain to progressively withdrawing from one’s ordinary seriousness, appreciating to take things with agility, flexibility, and lightness again.


This goes to some extent back to the medieval and modern Hata tradition, in which the root intuition was to exploit the natural continuity between somatic and mental processes in order to pacify and balancing the latter through the former (quietening the mind by quietening the body). While at the mental level opposite attitudes tend to conflict with one another and momentarily take hold of the whole space, in the bodily structure opposite and conflicting forces are also at play, but usually they retain distinct structures and recognizable forms, which remain in place all the time. This makes it more apparent how to operate on these contrary and opposing somatic structures in order to counterbalance them, eventually inducing a greater integration also in their mental expressions.


Classical yoga is somehow different, although not unrelated. After some study of the Yoga Sutra, one might uncover two complementary root intuitions. One of them, shared also with the early Buddhist tradition, is that we need to learn how to step back and drop from the ordinary level of engagement with objects, to reach a space of pure consciousness, free from all mental representations. Since all representations are constructed, they can be deconstructed. Ordinarily we tend to live in a constructed world, and we get so used to it, that eventually we start to believe that what is constructed is actually not so, it is natural, obvious, given. By practicing how to deconstruct experience and drop back, step by step, into a state of mental suspension (nirodha), we remind ourselves that what we ordinarily see is a construction (sometimes helpful, sometimes unhelpful), and hence we are no longer bound to it.


The second root intuition, which is more distinctive of classical yoga, is to take the phenomenal world seriously, as something genuinely real. This root intuition comes from a dialectical need of compensating precisely for the consequences of the experience of suspension. By dropping into nirodha we can recognize the dream-like nature of most of our mental constructions (including that very dear and deep mental construction that is ‘myself’). This might lead to see every phenomenon as nothing but a sheer illusion, a flickering image, with no meaning, a distraction, ultimately unreal. Going in this direction is very tempting, especially because the experience of nirodha is in its own way exquisitely blissful (it is in fact, blissfulness itself). So, we might become unbalanced, trying to simply stick to nirodha and thinking that that’s the ultimate place where we should be. This is partially true, in the sense that nirodha does reveal the fundamental ground of experience, but it is also partially false, because that fundamental ground does not deny the multifarious world of phenomena, since it is precisely the ground of the world, or that which gives rise and take delight in loosing itself amidst its own manifestations. In the Yoga sutra, there is a very subtle experiential analysis of how meditative stage of samādhi can in fact be used to see how even when mental constructions are dropped to an extent, yet what appears does not become less real or more illusionary. Being constructed and being real can go together, and the constructed world of experience is not something to shun, but something to fully understand.


My last discovery has been the nondual Shaiva tantric tradition flourished in Kashmir in the medieval period (which I reached partially via one of its late epigones, Sri Aurobindo). Both in fundamental scriptures of this tradition (like the Vijñāṇa Bhairava Tantra) and in the rich philosophical articulation flourished around them (like in the works of Uptaladeva, Abhinava Gupta and Kṣemaraja), the root intuition is clear: identity and difference co-belong to each other, and this constitutes the overall context and structure of all experience. Everything is just one consciousness, and yet this consciousness infinitely articulates itself in the whole infinite manifoldness of all possible experiences, while still keeping an infinite potential yet to be expressed. Diversity and multiplicity are as real as consciousness, and yet they do not exist beyond it. What needs to be understood is not how to stick to one or the other pole, but rather, how to see them together, simultaneously. This is the final act of ‘grace’ or ‘revelation’ that frees all contracted forms of experience from their self-limitation, revealing how that same self-limitation was part of the infinite play of consciousness itself.


One of the last ‘contemplations’ suggested in the Vijñāṇa Bhairava Tantra is this:


na me bandho na mokṣo me bhītasyaitā vibhīṣikāḥ |

pratibimbam idaṃ buddher jaleṣv iva vavasvataḥ || 135 ||


There is no bondage or liberation for me.

These are scarecrows for fearful people.

All that is just a reflection in the Intellect,

like the sun reflected in water.


There is a phase of practice in which the ideal of awakening or liberation is powerful and even necessary. It is enticing, and it helps fighting against the opposing tendency to torpor, laziness, and complacency, a bit like when one needs to get up from bed and needs to overcome the dullness of sleepiness. But at a second glance, one can also appreciate how even the most unfree and doomed from of experience is necessarily still experience—hence still consciousness manifesting in that way. The only difference, even if important, is that in that unfree experience one is completely forgetful precisely about this basic fact—that experience is always consciousness manifesting. There is nothing to fear in any experience whatsoever, and there is no particular experience whatsoever that is essentially different from any other experience. These differences are like the reflected image of the sun on the waves of the see, which make it seem different, while in fact it remains the same.

The concluding practice of the work is thus this:


jñānaprakāśakaṃ sarvaṃ sarveṇātmā prakāśakaḥ |

ekam ekasvabhāvatvāt jñānaṃ jñeyaṃ vibhāvyate || 137 ||


Everything is manifested by consciousness,

and the self is manifested by everything.

Because consciousness and (its) contents have one and the same nature,

they are realized to be one.


This applies to every present experience—but it also provides a blueprint for dealing with the past.




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