Friday, November 20, 2009

Ultimately It’s All Relative

Sometimes, when I’m dissatisfied, I catch a glimpse of the fact that it’s because I’m struggling with the way things are.

The value of that glimpse is the chance to wake up from the nightmare of being separate from what I experience -- the frustration of trying to control or escape an experience I can’t abide.

It’s easy to idealize the awakening, but I have to admit that ideal doesn’t mean or do much for me when I’m not suffering, or when I’m not willing to be free. It’s the awareness of suffering that makes the possibility of waking up meaningful, and it’s the willingness to be free that makes the possibility come true.

Abiding in experience (shamatha) is a definite first step towards seeing the nature of things (vipashyana). Responding well to what is seen (compassion) is the point.

Every religion seems to have its versions of escaping reality and grasping after an Ultimate. (Mental or typographical capital letters is one sign of trying to grasp The Sacred Ultimate. Freezing and thinking upon encountering discomfort is one sign of trying to escape reality). Buddhists and christians have different notions and languages to explain their versions, but it seems to be the same problem: confused grasping.

Christians might elevate God to a place so far above human experience that they have to rely on priestly intercession and wistful hopes for an eventually Perfect Afterlife. Buddhists might elevate states of clarity and power into fantasies of a Permanent Happy Self. (Rather ironic, that fantasy, since insight is supposed to see that no thing is permanent, ultimately satisfying, or separate).

Religious institutions are built from the elevation of an Ultimate over the relative. Mystics, whether christian or buddhist, are often considered (by institutional defenders) to be heretics for insisting on our inherent ability to bring the ultimate right into the relative world. Free and happy people are not much use to institutions promising eventual access to Paradise (aka Enlightenment) while trying to (or in order to) control the relative world.

For me, the point of spiritual practice is to keep working and playing the relative and ultimate until they are inseparable. Until I really know, and live from the knowing, that it's folly to try to separate myself from my experience so I can grasp a Fantasy.

Well, while I'm here I'll
do the work --
and what's the work?
To ease the pain of living.
Everything else, drunken

~ Allen Ginsberg, Memory Gardens

The paramitas, taking and sending, the compassionate embracing of my own and others’ foibles -- all of these bring me back to the real (the relative) and away from the fantasy of an ultimate experience (usually, depending on the day’s proclivities, some version of calm, clarity, bliss, or power).

Even the practice of insight into emptiness, properly cultivated, doesn’t degenerate into trying to experience Ultimate Emptiness. There is no such Thing as Emptiness (click here for a blog post on that can of worms).

Every thing (experience) is simply empty of being a Permanent Happy Self -- and, at the same time, and just as important -- every thing (experience) is still a thing (experience) to be dealt with. The more I struggle with something, the more in my face it seems to get -- and that gets me embroiled in drama. But if I tell myself something isn’t real, I fall out of touch with what’s happening -- and that can get me killed.

The worldly mistake is naively believing everything I see and feel and think: someone looks or sounds to me like a jerk so I react accordingly. The religious mistake is condemning the relative and elevating some Ultimate: I so love calm, bliss, and clarity that I try to make them permanent states. Both mistakes exacerbate the split that results in suffering.

Whenever I start to idealize (idolize) a particular experience or idea, I’ve fallen into the ultimate trap. Whenever I grasp after or despair of ordinary experience, I’ve fallen into the relative trap. The only ultimate is that everything is relative. A statue is just a chunk of wood, and a person is just an animal, but bowing before them can humble my mind, open my heart, and raise my spirit.

A buddha is someone who’s awake -- awake in experience arising: the gritty, wild sensations, feelings, thoughts, and actions of this world. When I’m awake, knowing what experience is and isn’t, I don’t cling to sad delusions of controlling experience or escaping the world. I don’t want to escape -- this is the pure land. How long does that last? Until I start clinging to something.

Ajahn Chah used to ask meditators if they were suffering. If the answer was “No,” the ajahn would say “Great!” and that was that. If the answer was “Yes,” he’d ask, “What are you clinging to?”

Ultimately, it’s all relative. May all beings be happy, healthy, at ease in their body, at home in the world.

Monday, August 31, 2009

There's No Such Thing as Emptiness

We Buddhists like our emptinesses. But we have a problem with talking about emptiness in English, because "emptiness" is a noun. There is no such a thing as emptiness. It should be an adverb -- a word used to describe a quality.

Things are "empty" of three particular characteristics: things are not permanent; things are not separate from the causes and conditions in which they arise; and things are not ultimately satisfying. These are the three marks of all things.

We have this odd word “emptiness” that refers to very different things and experiences. Feeling empty -- feeling a lack of companionship -- is not the same as "all things are empty.” Though when I hear about how there is no thing that can make me ultimately happy, I feel a little lonely! But I think the loneliness is a different emptiness than the lack of permanence and satisfaction. When I’m lonely, or angry, there's something really vivid there!

Like everything that arises, feelings are empty (of permanence, separateness, and satisfaction), but feelings and things do exist -- they are experienced, they function. Tables are square and hard, eyes do see them, ears do hear birds that do fly in the sky, emotions do arise and feel good or bad.

The Heart Sutra says emptiness and form are not different. Things are not separate from their lack of certain characteristics. And things’ lack of those qualities is not separate from the things. You can't have a thing without its lack, and you can't have the lack without a thing.

Personally I find the language of the Heart Sutra to be a little one-sided. It keeps saying things don’t exist. They don’t exist the way we think they do, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. The English doesn’t really work well here. At least it’s the compassionate one Avalokiteshvara who’s telling me -- I keep trying to hear what he’s saying!

We humans also lack permanence and separate existence. This lack we call "non-self" -- another adverb masquerading as a noun! But the sense of self certainly does exist: the sensations and feelings and behaviors we call our self are experienced, they function, and they can cause all sorts of problems. When we are not grasping at our sense of self, "it" stops arising in ways that make us suffer. We are "selfless" even though we are still there. There is neither a self nor a non-self.

When we see that things are empty of the solidity that we usually try to impose, when we see the futility of trying to grasp and gain satisfaction from things that are impermanent, then we feel compassion. We have experienced the suffering that comes from grasping, and we wish that everyone could see the true nature of things, so that their confusion, grasping, and suffering would end.

This is all rather abstract. Yesterday I was arguing with a friend. Both of us were defending our sense of self, and experiencing hurt and anger. Then for a moment or two, I saw that I was defending an experience that lacked any permanence or any possibility of making me happy. For a moment I felt compassion -- here we were, stuck in our lousy sinking boats. And then my sense of self grabbed at its territory again, and confusion and anger rose right back up.

Experience is heart-breaking, language is tricky.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Suffering, Awareness, Response

Suffering exists. It ranges from losing a job or a loved one, to the inevitable pains of illness, old age and death, from the subtlest personal dissatisfaction and uncertainty, to the deepest hells of collective conflict and greed. To the degree that we are sheltered, through geography, or wealth, or emotional numbness -- to that degree our personal feelings and possessions become paramount, and the sufferings of others fade from view and concern. We can become obsessed with what Dzigar Rinpoche calls "bourgeois suffering" -- locked into a wrestling match with our existential angst and our personal foibles while ignoring the murder, rape and mayhem going on around us.

Whether we are engaged in social and political issues, or coping with personal problems, the buddhadharma -- the path of awareness -- begins with feeling pain and wanting a way out. Recognizing the causes of suffering is necessary before we can respond intelligently. Greed and hatred inevitably arise from the delusion that I am a self separate from experience. Knowing this, I begin to stop sowing those seeds.

But neither my own problems nor the world's suffering is relieved magically because I feel certain things or have certain thoughts. The point of awareness is to be able to respond skillfully. From time immemorial we have been engaged in reacting to pain with a deluded view and confused emotions, believing we can be happy by defending personal territory. The eightfold path invites us to be aware and respond to every aspect of personal and social life.

The interdependent causes and conditions that lead to suffering are complex, subtle, and ongoing. Internal experiences and external situations co-arise in a web of other experiences and situations. Every action becomes the seed of future experiences and situations. There are no exceptions and no exemptions: we will experience the consequences of every action. It is not easy or wise to say what is the "right" response to a particular situation. The martial arts principle of not overextending our momentum, of being able to change direction at any time, is relevant here. We need an exquisite sensitivity to how we feel and to how others are behaving, and we need to respond flexibly to the emerging effects of our own and others’ actions. A moment of daydreaming or sleep and we awaken to the sad consequences of our foolish actions. Trees cannot be put back on the stump, and relationships severed are never the same again. We have all been through this time and again.

The personal, familial, cultural, political, economic, and ecological are intertwined. The person who responds to environmental destruction is a neighbor, a brother or sister, a consumer, an employee or an employer, a member of a spiritual community, and a biological animal. Setting up boundaries between these aspects of oneself, clinging to any identity, is an attempt to simplify the web and justify a partial response. We may convince ourselves for a while, we may sway others temporarily, but the world is still an interdependent web of causes and conditions, and every action will have its consequences.

But act we must. There is no possibility of not being in the situation we are in. We might try to avoid a powerful response because we are afraid, or because we think the world is not our responsibility, or because we think we are exempt from the situation. But passivity, regardless of its origin, also has vast consequences for ourselves and others. Waiting for the right conditions, waiting for perfect knowledge, waiting for bravery or patience or skill to save us from feeling discomfort, life passes us by -- and we suffer the laws of nature anyway.

It is possible to act (or refrain from an act) from clarity and compassion rather than from reactive emotions. It is possible for a response to arise from a place unconcerned with being right, without defining a sense of self, without defending personal territory. It's possible to act with full acceptance of the consequences. And it's possible to care for everyone, regardless of their current role in a situation.

Every one of us has these inherent abilities, and everyone has acted from them at times. Much of the path of awareness and compassion is remembering our abilities to be aware and responsive, and regaining the confidence to rely on them. Much depends on the momentum of our training, and everything also depends on each moment's intention. Grand visions, righteous moral principles, and mere efficiency are not nearly fine enough tools.

The Buddha's student Sariputra said that everything -- life, personhood, pleasure and pain -- everything is bound together in a succession of moments that take place quickly. Events, emotions, and mental states come and go, glimpsed as they’re passing by. “Like lightning flashing in the sky, they arise and pass away.” Our internal experience, our actions, and all the consequences are poised precariously upon the tip of our intention, “like a seed on the tip of a needle.” The compassionate heart knows it will respond to suffering. Awareness trembles with the obligation to relieve and not create more suffering. The power to respond appropriately arises when we feel everything and have the love and courage to respond without grasping.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Why Do We Say "Pay Attention"?

How do we "pay attention"?
With the brain? The eye? The hand? With time? With energy?

What does it cost to pay attention?
Does it pay to pay attention?

"Attend" means to assist, to take care of, to participate.
What are we assisting or participating in when we attend to something?

Old French: atendre
= to expect, wait for, pay attention
Latin: attendere = give heed to, literally "to stretch toward," from ad (to) + tendere (stretch)

Old French: intendre = to direct one's attention
Latin: intendere, in = toward + tendere = to stretch

Old English: hedan = to take care, attend
West Germanic: hodjan
Old Saxon: hodian
Old Frisian: hoda
German: hüten = to guard, watch

"lo and behold"
lo, loke = look and see
load = burden
loaded = rich
behold, behealdan= hold, keep
beholden = indebted

Old French: paiier
Latin: pacare = to please, pacify, satisfy, especially a creditor
Latin: pax (pacis) = peace

Japanese: chuui (atention) o harau (pay) = pay attention
okane (money) o harau (pay) = pay money

Spanish: atención de la paga = put attention
prestar atención = pay attention, watch, listen
poner atención = put attention

French: attention de salaire = pay attention
faire attention = do attention
attirer l'attention = draw attention
prêter attention = lend attention

German: achtgeben = pay attention, take care

Italian: attenzione di paga = pay attention

Dutch: besteed aandacht = pay attention

Friday, July 31, 2009

Is Spiritual Practice Emotional Catharsis?

In my meditation practice I've had some dramatic experiences, and also some not so dramatic, as habituated patterns are revealed. In the end, if freedom is the goal, it doesn't seem to matter how dramatic the meditation experiences are. Neither freedom, not the effort to free oneself, have a particular emotional tone. I'd like to explore this because getting snookered and snared by emotions is a common challenge for many (all?) of us.

The capacity to experience discomfort is essential, but discomfort is not a sign of success in spiritual practice. Emotional catharsis might occur, but not necessarily. Catharsis certainly isn’t the method. Discomfort can just as well be a sign of ineffective effort, of fighting one’s own experience, of perpetuating long-standing habits of struggle and suffering.

The nature of habituated patterns (as “just” patterns of experience and behavior) is sometimes revealed without severe emotional distress. It’s the clear seeing that heals, that returns us to wholeness, by revealing a pattern to be a tiny part of a never-ending stream of experiences and possibilities. As we get used to seeing that, and living from that seeing, it begins not to matter so much whether the pattern is arising. Something is changed, but what that is, and how it unfolds, is hard to predict.

Sometimes my path has been through grueling emotional swamps, alternating between poor me the victim, stupid me why can't I get this right, pride for all my brave persistence and hard work, fantasies of how great life would be when I was enlightened, and confusion about whether it was all worth it. Other times it's been very different. One day in retreat, I stood up and something fell off. I felt it fall and I was 30 pounds lighter. I looked around, and didn't see anything on the floor. I looked and looked into my emotions and memories, and couldn't identify what it was that had fallen away. It was weird, but the only emotions were "wow!" and "great!" Years later I still feel lighter, and I still don't know what I lost. Good riddance.

I don't know how typical my experience has been, and don't see myself as a great model to follow. But I have learned there’s no set sequence of events, and there are no particular emotions that have to arise. Patterns may lose their hold in a flash, with or without great pain or effort. Or patterns may fade gradually, over time, and one day we look around and wonder what happened. Or patterns as internal experiences may continue to arise, within an accommodating awareness that embraces the quirks of humanity. Or patterns may just plague us throughout life, and we learn to live with them, and no longer torture ourselves or others with our expectations about how things ought to be.

Habituated patterns are as much perceptual and behavioral as they are emotional. A focus on the emotional, and the dramatic, may itself be another habit. A heart may not need to be ripped open to heal a wound; healing may begin when we stop ripping. Passivity in regards to patterns takes many forms. Freedom can arise in any number of ways.

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man,
but coaxed down-stairs a step at a time.
-- Pudd’nhead Wilson

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Calm Abiding

Shamatha is often translated as "calm abiding". It's the capacity in attention to abide with, hang out with, be in the experience of, whatever arises. Returning and resting in sensations and feelings again and again as attraction and aversion arises, we learn not to repress or act out. Eventually we see, we really know, that every experience is just an experience and we don't need to react. That seeing/knowing is vipashyana, insight.

Some practices and teachers emphasize the resting in experience; resting is good when you're habitually busy trying to understand or manipulate things.

Other practices or teachers emphasize the looking into specific experiences, for example the ones that cause us particular trouble; looking deeply is good when you're habitually passive.

Whether you emphasize resting in attention (shamatha) or looking deeply (insight), the two come together and happen simultaneously. We can rest, without distraction, in experience, and know its nature.

Everyone's got their own unique cluster of conditioning, but the flavors and particulars of one's emotions and behaviors don't really matter -- the practice is always about returning and resting in experience, so that you don't repress or act out so much, so that one can see/know the nature of experience, so that more choices are possible.

Buddhism is often thought or taught to be a problem-solving practice, but the practice is to rest in the problem, not try to make it go away. Things relax and become clear over time as you stop approaching experience as a problem. That's a paradox, but the profound things in life are. Easy problems are fixed with easy solutions, but Experience-And-How-to-Respond isn't easy. It gets easier as you cultivate a capacity in abiding.

People often give shamatha the once-over and try to jump into insight, but that's a mistake. Trying to analyze and problem-solve without the capacity to rest in experience is useless at best. At worst it's just a new version of the same old futile strategies that create the suffering we're trying to avoid.

You may benefit by devoting every other day's whole session to shamatha, so that insight practice doesn't slip into analysis, and digging into death, or karma, or reactive emotions doesn't stir things up beyond usefulness. As Ken McLeod says, deep capacity to return and rest in whatever's arising is what gives insight practice its power.

Here's one way to do it: on the alternate days, spend 15-20 minutes just returning to and resting in the breathing body.

Then for 5-10 minutes look into one particular emotion or behavior. Hold the question:

What is this? [craving, or aversion, or confusion, whatever you've chosen]

Touch, feel, taste every sensation and feeling that arises. When you get lost in a story, or you come up with "insights" or "answers," just gently return to holding the question What is this? and looking into the experience itself. As you hold the question, feel yourself breathing in and out.

After 2-5 minutes, give up all effort and just rest again in attention in the breathing body for 5-10 minutes. Feel your body sitting there, its weight, its shape, the space around it in the room. Just rest like that for a few minutes.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Four Levels of Awareness, Four Ways to Practice

Every Buddhist tradition has multiple levels of practice. Over time, as one's capacity in attention grows, it's often possible to work at deeper levels. Of course our capacity in any moment is influenced by our circumstances and state of mind, emotion, and energy. Depending on what we're in the midst of, we need to respond with a different kind of practice! Let's look at four levels...

Level One: Rest in direct awareness of everything that is arising in experience

When the level of attention is higher than our reactions, we can rest in the direct experience of whatever arises, experiencing fully all the sensations, feelings, emotions and thoughts, without trying to control, manage, or create anything.

Direct awareness practices include mahamudra and dzogchen in the Tibetan tradition, shikantaza in the Zen tradition, bare attention in the Theravada tradition, and shamatha (calm abiding) without an object.

Level Two: Raise energy to transform experience

Attention is energy -- an intentional, physical, emotional energy. Energy transformation practices include guru yoga and yidam practice, the basis of which is faith and devotion. Taking and sending transforms emotional reactivity into presence. We can also raise energy through yoga, qigong, and other body-based energy practices. A caution with energy-raising and energy-transforming practices: if the energy we raise does not go into attention, it will go into the habit-patterns that create suffering.

Level Three: Counteract or mitigate overwhelming sensations and emotions

You feel anxious, and it develops into intense fear, with tightness in your stomach, trembling, and sweaty palms. You’ve tried just experiencing all the sensations, emotions, and thoughts just as they are, but stories and emotions keep grabbing all your attention. Don’t try to stop the sensations and feelings and thoughts, but using the breath as an anchor, slightly emphasize the exhalation to enhance the relaxing and calming effect of the breath. Feel the weight of your body on the floor, chair, or cushion. These calming and grounding techniques may give you a bit more stability and allow you to experience a bit more of the challenging sensations and feelings in attention.

When certain sensations, feelings, or emotions are too intense, when they consistently distract your attention out of your body and away from the space around you, it can be helpful to open awareness to the entire field of experience. For example, if your back muscles are tense or burning, focusing closely on those sensations can make them even more intense. Instead, try experiencing the sensations within the field of the whole body. Your back and shoulders are burning, but how do your feet, legs, and arms feel?

One way to bring awareness to the whole body is to feel the soles of your feet, the palms of your hands, and the top of your head simultaneously. Whole-body awareness may allow you to experience the pain in your back muscles within a larger sphere of experience.

You can also apply skillful emotions to balance intense reactive emotions. If you are angry, counteract it with equanimity or lovingkindness if you can access those, or reflect on the suffering caused by anger. Don't suppress the anger, but counteract it with positive emotions or use reflection to balance the bodyheartmind.

Level Four: Avoid the trigger by changing your behavior or external circumstances

If someone or something is consistently upsetting your temper, and you are unable to work with your reactions in attention, take a break in the conversation, or avoid the person altogether for a while. If alcohol is an overwhelming trigger of addictive behavior, avoid situations where alcohol is available. If sitting for an hour brings up overwhelming sensations and emotions and derails your ability to experience what’s arising in attention, cut your meditation session back to 45 minutes.

Using what works

In practical terms, the boundaries between these levels of practice are not clear-cut even within a single meditation session. For instance, a session may consist of a period of shamatha to settle surface busyness and reactivity, guru devotion to raise the level of energy and attention, and mahamudra, which is a direct awareness practice.

Habitually avoiding every difficult experience is not helpful, but letting reactive patterns run without attention just reinforces the patterns. Neither suppression, repression, nor trauma are helpful. As Ken McLeod says, the power of meditation comes from resting in stable attention. Regardless of how long you’ve been practicing, if you are working your edge, there will be times when you are not able to maintain stability with simple direct awareness. In the long run you’ll come out ahead by transforming, balancing, or mitigating reactivity -- or temporarily avoiding situations that you cannot at present experience fully.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Cure For What Ails

The buddhadharma is a collection of medicines for various dis-eases -- traditionally, 84,000 teachings for 84,000 kinds of suffering. Let's take a look at a half-dozen.

Recognizing our struggles and suffering leads us to taking refuge in awareness and compassion. Without that, no practice.

Stable attention undermines cognitive distraction and emotional turmoil. Stability can be cultivated in different ways, including concentration on one object (focus), returning again and again to an aspect of experience, such as the sensations of breathing, and resting attention in that experience (resting), and various energy-raising methods (devotion, qigong, yoga, etc). Stable attention can interrupt distraction and turmoil, but these are just symptoms of self-construction, which is really only undermined by insight.

When attention is somewhat stable, one can look deeply to see the true nature of self and experience. Looking is the practice of insight. The sense of self, when believed to be solid and in need of defending, is the seed of emotional turmoil and suffering. In the short run, because the sense of self tries to defend itself, insight practice tends to undermine srable attention; stability is the prerequisite and foundation of insight practice. There are many methods of insight practice: choiceless awareness and embracing of whatever arises; looking into specific aspect of experience, such as a reactive emotion or a belief; holding koans or questions that can't be answered by the conceptual mind; and many others. Each Buddhist tradition has its methods of looking.

Kindness and compassion
undermines apathy and self-centeredness. True compassion requires both stability and insight. Tricky, and essential.

Dedicating the benefit of our practice counteracts grasping after pleasure or status, transforms poverty mentality, and undermines the sense of a separate self. And dedication helps us appreciate the benefits of practice; without fully appreciating the benefits, our practice isn't likely to last long.

All of these are essential aspects of Buddhist practice, but the appropriate emphasis at a particular time depends on the disease that needs easing. Teachers often prescribe practices that seem to exacerbate our patterns of reactivity -- but medicine is sometimes bitter. A hundred days of practice can clarify how a practice works and give a glimpse of its effectiveness.