Precision and exploration

Close-up of a beautiful machine
Image © Ken Cole

Many people visiting the Evolving Ground community for the first time want to know whether we think precise description of techniques is important. We do think so; also we emphasize learning to feel ok with nebulosity and lack of definition. Interest in precision about technique often assumes that techniqes are generally replicable—that they work the same way for everyone. We find this isn’t exactly so.

Our foundational meditation, Opening Awareness, familiarizes spacious, non-conceptual experience. This gives rise to confidence in uncertainty. Uncertainty doesn’t mean that precision and accuracy of language are unimportant. On the contrary, one of the reasons we attract people with STEM experience1 is our enthusiasm for clarifying and refining definitions. It means that we cannot fix language once and for all, to create certain outcomes.

In that case, how do you know when to pay attention to precision and when to rest easy with a lack of clear definition?

The nature of the path predicts the function of precision

Generalized, staged systems such as The Mind Illuminated excel at precision. Descriptions of techniques and expected results are clear and accurate: you know what you’re supposed to do and what to expect. This is good! Clear, unambiguous language is helpful and reassuring.

In scaled, universal systems language is prescriptive. Precise language dictates goal-oriented experience at each stage of the path. Following this sort of path, precision helps keep you on track. Everybody is taking the same, sequential route towards the same goal and a shared vocabulary accurately describing what to expect at each step helps place individual experience in relation to the stages of that path.

But the lack of ambiguity also makes the system brittle: individual deviation from the path is unexpected and unaccounted for. Personality, differences in experience and background, are all irrelevant to the overall progression through a general, staged system—in fact the language of the system plays an important role in ironing out differences. This is particularly fitting for paths deriving from Buddhist Sutra which lead to experiential understanding of emptiness. Emptiness as a goal is characterized by sameness, by lack of definition.

For the most part Tibetan lineages present Vajrayana as a staged, progressive path2 even though the goal in this case is not emptiness but recognition of the inseparability of emptiness and form in its infinite variety.

Vajrayana grew out of Mahayana as a distinct path in 7th century India then developed independently during the following few centuries in Tibet. It was only later incorporated into the Tibetan monastic system and assimilated into a standard, linearly progressive path. The common system deriving from this later synthesis presents Vajrayana as an advanced progression from Mahayana with a set of sequential preparatory practices.

Other than supporting a foundational practice in opening awareness meditation, individual paths are unprescribed in Evolving Ground. We encourage open exploration with regard to method and for that reason the language used to access methods also is not universally fixed, though there are some common terms. Although opening awareness meditation involves a general principle, remaining uninvolved, the application of that principle is varied and depends on individual personality and prior experience.3 The results are usually experienced as found or discovered rather than cultivated or prescribed.

This could be confusing or frustrating for someone expecting a clearly defined sequence of steps in their initial encounter with Evolving Ground. In contrast to staged paths, we expect individual experience to differ and that different experience will give rise to non-uniform solutions. Our roles, structures, and group models are designed to support such differences, not suppress or ignore them.

Our emphasis on individually bespoke paths affects our attitude towards language. Precision and accuracy are important for description more than for general prescription. In our pupil practice labs and small apprentice peer groups we facilitate personal reflection to help participants refine the language they use to describe their experience. That process incorporates multiple, varied descriptions—word clusters and clouds rather than ultimately definitive phrases.4

Refining language to describe personal meditation experience accurately is difficult but it’s worth devoting some time to. Reflecting on experience helps to clarify questions and uncertainties. It can shift meditation in an another direction or lead to unexpected insight. Individual attention to detail also contributes to our building a shared language for inter-personal communication. In future we’ll have a publicly available glossary of common terms (view, method, principle, function, path, etc) informed by these small group discussions.

We spent our first year in Evolving Ground laying the foundations of opening awareness, practicing spaciousness with regard to emotional turbulence and building community support for personal practice. We will continue to do that. Now we’re transitioning to a phase in which many more methods are becoming available. There will be no commonly prescribed, sequential path for our community members. Instead, we’ll have clearly marked ways to navigate our practices and resources. I hope we can replace the desire for certainty and singular direction with richness and variety of method. Precision and accuracy are important, but they are context-dependent and subject to change, not eternally fixed, and not globally prescriptive.

  1. 1.We attract a high ratio of STEM people, artists, and musicians. I suspect this is due to our joint emphasis on meta-systematicity, creativity, and spaciousness.
  2. 2.There are some noteable exceptions, particularly in the Nyingma yogic tradition, such as Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche’s Dzogchen Community and the Aro gTér lineage.
  3. 3.“Remaining uninvolved” looks and feels quite different to someone transitioning from a concentrative practice, for example, than it does to a first time meditator.
  4. 4.Incidentally, this mirrors how Tibetan language works. Each syllable has many possible meanings that are context dependent, not single abstract, fixed representations.