We sometimes call sitting with our unexamined suffering sitting in the ‘dead spot.’ The dead spot is dead because it is the unexamined suffering which arises that we are normally too unconscious to deal with. We simply turn our attention away or try to cover it up somehow, but it is always there under the surface, festering like a psychic infection.
The dead spot does not always feel dead. Often it takes on the disguise of the living, like some old, worn-out anxiety or mental loop that will not stop playing. By sitting with the dead spot we outgrow it and it is only through our illumination of these dead spots within our psyche that we bring these parts back to life. The dead spots are constricted and have lost the flow of awareness in much the same way that a limb might die if it loses blood flow.
Unlike a limb, however, the dead spots in our psyche only become available to us as a spiral journey. That is, they are not solved linearly but rather revisited in deepening cycles during the course of contemplative practice. This is why today’s enlightenment is usually tomorrow’s mistake. It was an enlightenment at one level of spiral. It was not, however, the final answer. As demonstrated by Hakuin’s “Zen sickness” or any other dark night that a mystic undergoes, meditation has made the problem appear and the only cure is more meditation. When going through hell, keep going.
For this reason, one who does not have spiritual faith but merely intellectual affinity may come to the meditative path and, if he practices hard and has the wits to see what is happening, he likely gets spiritual faith or at least a sense of the mystery. Because he sees the great ocean of work to be done he realizes it may be hopeless to think he can complete the path in this life. Yet because he cannot deny the clear progress he has already made, he loses his doubt about the path.
And this is how we may come to understand both free will vs. determinism as well as the nature of spiritual transmission between teacher and student. When the Buddha holds up the flower and Mahakasyapa gets the joke, the joke he gets is not expressible in words but rather is the very suchness of life, of mind. This understanding is at the bottom of the spiral, below the dead spots, where his mind is able to meet the Buddha’s. Spiritual transmission is ultimately the movement of our future understanding into our present and it is only possible on the level of spiral depth that we have attained, the depth of the spiral of consciousness that we are able to occupy by transcending less complete forms of understanding. The same flower is held up for all to see yet each person can only see it on the level of the spiral on which they reside. In this way, there truly is no world.
If we are only able to understand things linearly, we may entertain arguments about free will vs. determinism. But clearly, both are at play and the argument itself is merely an example of a dead spot that has plagued humanity for centuries due to the inability of mere intellect to unravel it. What is determined for us is done so by our perceptual limitations, what level of the spiral of reality we occupy. (The spiral I elude to here has nothing substantially to do with the Spiral Dynamics expounded on by Ken Wilber et al. However, in some final singularity, I suppose, they are one and the same!). Our ‘free will’ is what choice we have within the fishbowl of our options and perception of reality or, in more extraordinary moments, our strong conscious choice to change. In this way, the only true prayer is the deep wish to change. It is the only prayer that can be answered, the only way a new truth can be transmitted.
It is for this reason that a secular approach to the meditative path may not provide enough inspiration to actually carry us to the other shore. Remember that the physical thrust of the Sumo is, at its core, truly a spiritual thing. Religious enthusiasm and deep existential yearning is almost indispensable to truly launch us into the torque band that we need to barrel through a meaningful chunk of spiritual work in this lifetime. If we meditate 1 hour per day, we may expect to have meditated for ten thousand hours in about 27 years. Ten thousand hours has the potential to illuminate a hell of a lot of dead spots. However, when we consult those who have completed this amount of work or more they will most likely admit there is yet more work to be done.
When we sit we should not judge our sit as good or bad because hanging out in the dead spot never feels good. It feels bad by definition. It is this ever deepening access to the dead spots in our psyche that is opened in the third or fourth watch of the night. It is the tranquility and equanimity that we uncover under the dead spots which allows us to swallow the whole universe in a single gulp. It is the first swallow of the universe that allows us to swallow it a second time and it is through the act of swallowing the universe that we are transmitted a taste of thusness, of reality.