Rodney Smith’s Awakening: A Paradigm Shift of the Heart distills a mature teacher’s understanding of how the path of practice unfolds for those who pursue it with energy, over time. The author creates a wealth of new language, offering a thorough set of tools for analysis of one’s own progress toward liberation.
This book will be especially valuable to long-term practitioners who do not have access to a teacher with Smith’s level of experience. He generously shares the full depth of that experience, providing new metaphors for finding sticking points in practice. In the text, Smith’s main tool for analysis is the “continuum,” a map of progress focusing on the most significant waypoints and how to work out where you are. Exercises for self-assessment are included in each chapter, giving questions and practical advice.
The continuum is not a static or overly simplified approach; it allows for the fact that we are pushed forward and back like “a rolling wave in a closed tank” by insights and frustrations, identifications and reifications. Eventually, as we progress, we can learn not to feel defeated “when reactive patterns reemerge, our mind becomes noisy, or our hearts close down in vanity and selfishness.”
Designed to appeal to those on any spiritual path, the book draws on several Buddhist traditions, Vedanta, and Christianity. Those seeking a rigorous intellectual framework may be disappointed. The emphasis is on the skillful means the author relies upon in helping students let go of their sticking points. The term that appears most frequently, “formless awareness,” is something Smith connects to the technical use of the combined concepts of “emptiness” (in Pali, suññatā, and in Sanskrit, śūnyatā) and “the heart” (as in the wisdom and compassion in Mahayana). Ultimately, such a connection of emptiness and heart is fully developed and stabilized in our experience, and these become nibbāna, the end of the path, the permanent paradigm shift that ends suffering. The overarching idea of formless emptiness, in fact, seems to most closely align with the Tibetan Dzogchen teachings, or perhaps the “silent illumination” of Ch’an.
The “paradigm shift” of the book’s subtitle takes on several meanings. Mundanely, it describes the continuum, from the “consensus paradigm” to the “new paradigm” of formless awareness. The consensus paradigm comprises our conditioned ways of experiencing and the radical-but-always-available shift we must make to the formless experience—that is, experiencing without grasping the forms of thoughts, feelings and so on. The shift represents the difference between an intellectual understanding of “formless awareness” and actually experiencing life from within that paradigm.
The tools of the continuum, taken together, help us analyze the thoughts and feelings that arise when we wonder, after practicing for some time, “Where am I?” The answer, of course, often begs another question: “What am I still holding on to?” It becomes clear that experiencing a momentary paradigm shift is not the end of suffering, but an opportunity for it to transform us.
The author adds other markers on the continuum, such as the “false nirvana” (just what it sounds like) and the “counter influence” (an insight into the formless, a perspective on ego and will), to make the continuum a more powerful tool for analyzing one’s practice. He notes the limitations of the linear shape of the continuum model: it encourages thinking in terms of time and distance, each of which is a type of thought. Such thoughts force the mind to create a fixed self that exists at some point on the continuum—precisely what we are trying to escape.
But the continuum is only a tool, since “formless awareness, which encompasses all ending points, is not locatable, it does not exist in time and place. This principle suggests that our pathway is not about the ‘I’ landing somewhere and taking up residence anywhere on the continuum.”
The book asks how we nurture form in our experience: as thought itself, or with the complexity of a set of practices, or with the subtle creation of an “I” located in time. Smith shows how these seemingly innocuous seeds become the roots and branches of dukkha.
Almost anyone who has been doing contemplative practice over a period of time could benefit from the tools in Awakening, to evaluate their assumptions about practice, effort and direction. If you suspect you might be harboring comfortable illusions that are holding you back, and wondering how to let go of them, you can either get to know an experienced teacher (always a good thing!) or read a book like this.
Chris Talbott has been practicing in the classical tradition of the Pāli canon for about twenty years. For the last ten of those, he has lived and worked at Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, wearing many hats, of which his favorite is editor of Insight Journal.
From the Spring 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 30, No. 2)
© 2014 Chris Talbott