Metta inclined towards freedom

The thought occurred to me today that I wish to be awakened, unbound, free. The thought had the form “I want…” and I quickly saw the quality of craving in the thought. Craving freedom is a somewhat paradoxical stance and can only serve as a hinderance. The thought was truly a wish with a wholesome intention, though, and something else occurred to me then: “May I be free”. May I be free is one of the very common Metta phrases… it is formulated to avoid the craving, but expresses the same wholesome intention.

I tried out all of the phrases in my typical metta series — with enlightenment as the overtone for each and came up with an interesting ‘second meaning’ for each of the phrases.

May I be happy [may sukkha arise]
May I be peaceful [may I be full of equanimity]
May I be healthy [may I choose right action and right effort]
May I be free from inner and outer harm [may I cease to create the conditions that cause harm or continue to feed the wheel of samsara and the cycle of dependent co-arising]
May I have ease of being [may I be free of past conditioning & causes of suffering]
May I be free [and know remainderless fading; release]

I did Metta practice on the cushion this morning, allowing these secondary meanings to arise with each phrase. Inviting sukkha, equanimity, right effort, right understanding, compassion and release in this repetitive series was interesting. On my commute, I used the same sequence, but included my fellow commuters, as I often do.

I will have to play with this more. Given some time, space and effort, this practice could really help manifest these wholesome and helpful qualities and do so in a way that doesn’t involve clinging or grasping.

The Buddha knowing the Dharma

My experience around the Waking Up in Every World retreat this past month was unique for me.

I was concerned about attending a 5 day retreat for fear that the first few days would be spent settling down, the last few would be looking forward towards the end and that there would be no “middle” where I could relax into any kind of concentrated state. This didn’t turn out to be the case at all, however.

The tools I’d learned at the concentration retreat came in very handy in the first few days, getting me to settle down quickly: staying primarily with the breath, dropping in suggestions to incline the mind towards peace such as “relax”, “quiet”, “calming mental formations”, and “content”.

Feeling quite settled very quickly and having little expectation for the outcome of the retreat, I was very present and open to the insights and suggestions from the teachers. Two things were said in the first few days that really came to life in my practice. Eugene Cash, while talking in very general terms about how we’d come together and were practicing sitting and walking made an offhand comment that we “weren’t doing anything”. I don’t think this was meant as an instruction, but it really resonated with me. He was talking about awareness more generally and in connection with this idea of “not doing anything”, I felt a deep sense of freedom and ease. Feeling a permission to not do.. I was perfectly free to simply be. And nothing could be simpler. Just be. Which is to say, “just be aware”.

The other teaching that I connected with was from Howie Cohn when he described our natural state of awareness as “The Buddha” and that which arose in awareness as “The Dharma”. This sounds simplistic — and it is. But it’s also deeply profound. It’s easy to see how this dovetails with the “do nothing, just be aware” insight above, but calling awareness ‘Buddha’ and that which is arising ‘Dharma’ immediately suggested the depth and profundity of this way of practicing – or better yet, this simple state of being. Let’s unpack the Buddha and the Dharma as illuminated by this suggestion.

The Buddha as unobstructed and undefiled awareness — pure awareness. This sounds obvious enough, but it’s profound in that it’s so available to us. It’s literally closer than our own thoughts. It just is. Eugene also pointed out in later talks that this awareness has the mark of anatta, or ‘not self’, because it’s not ours. We can’t will it to turn off. We can’t stop it or do anything about it. Awareness itself has no clinging — it doesn’t cling to what arises in awareness. It doesn’t have any aversion either. It is just aware. We, on the other hand, cling and react to this and that – desire and feel aversion almost all the time… but not awareness. Resting in this pure awareness is to simply be with what is arising. Somewhat paradoxically, this pure awareness is said to have it’s own wisdom and intelligence (but this is a topic for another time).

The Dharma — defined in this way as that which is arising in awareness — becomes as simple as awareness itself. Dharma is often thought of as the teaching of the Buddha, but it’s also translated as “the truth”, and even as a way to refer to phenomenal events. Consider for a moment the intersection of “that which is arising in awareness” and “the Truth”. That which is arising in awareness is the truth in that moment. It is the Real. Awareness of that which is arising is being with things as they are. There is a profound clarity in this practice. There is a recognition of the quality of what is happening in the present moment. Howie often says that what is past is gone; what is future hasn’t happened yet; only that which is happening in the present moment is real and it has a very different quality than past or present, which are just thoughts. Practicing as the Buddha knowing the Dharma is to have an ongoing experience of this insight. It’s not hard. It’s simple. SO simple it’s easy to overlook or dismiss, but if you can stay with it, this present moment awareness; perfect and effortless mindfulness… it’s marvelous.

 

Working to better understand Dukkha

Typically, I take the Noble Truth of Dukkha or “There is Suffering” to be a statement of the Problem (with a capital P) and it’s importance in the Buddha’s teaching is simple: this statement of the problem allows the Buddha to then state a cause for the problem, a solution to the problem and a  path to the solution. This problem, cause, cure and prescription is a classic understanding of the Four Noble Truths. This problem, cause, cure and prescription way of seeing the Four Noble Truths is why the Buddha is sometimes called “the great physician”.

Doesn’t this understanding of Dukkha, however, still see Dukkha itself as a problem to be avoided? Isn’t it avoiding pain and seeking pleasure that causes Dukkha in the first place? There is a paradox built in here that needs a little unwrapping. In order to avoid suffering, we have to stop avoiding suffering. That sounds problematic. What’s going on?

A basic insight into Dukkha can help free us from this cycle. A deep insight into Dukkha might just free us from Samsara all together.

Often we experience dukkha and not only recoil from it (in the form of aversion) but unconsciously go seeking an alternate experience. We use our minds to avoid the experience at hand by creating a fantasy version of reality – we wish things were different; we escape into our thoughts. We feel the pain of the present moment and immediately begin blaming something, wishing for the cessation of the pain, fantasizing about something pleasant, distracting ourselves with something totally irrelevant, creating an alternate reality all together — in short, we’ve jumped on the train of thought.. no longer present, no longer being with what is, no longer being with the truth of reality. This pushing and pulling in order to avoid the Dukkha that already is, itself, the cause and condition for the arising of Dukkha in the future.

Aligning ourselves with the truth of Dukkha

Anushka Fernandopulle, at the Spirit Rock retreat this January (Waking Up in Every World) likened the truth of Dukkha to the law of gravity. Gravity is. We discover this as babies. We don’t need to know the scientific ‘why and how’ to know that if I drop something, it will fall. Knowing this basic truth is essential for us to live our lives. Only someone deeply deluded would act in ways that ignore this truth — and they’d pay the price: falling down stairs or jumping off of the roof has consequences. Acting in alignment with this truth of gravity means that we set our glass down gently on the table; we don’t let go of things in mid air, etc. Knowing about gravity allows us to be more aligned with the way things are; to be with things as they are; to be with what IS, to be aligned with the truth. Understanding Dukkha is just like this! Understanding Dukkha is aligning ourselves with the truth of how things are.

Accepting that there will be some pain allows us to experience that pain without thinking something is wrong. Being aligned with the fact that life has it’s rough spots (measured on any scale: years, days, moments, lifetimes) allows us to experience these rough spots AND STAY PRESENT FOR THEM. Knowing that doing our work is going to involve some effort, some level of discomfort, some boredom, or some uncomfortable challenges allows us to do that work without recoiling when these unpleasant feelings arise. We can be less distracted when these feelings arise. We expect them instead of experiencing each feeling as a little push or pull, tossing us constantly this way and that. There is a little bit of FREEDOM from knowing and allowing a measure of dukkha to be present in experience.

Reacting to experience, through aversion and clinging, is to continue spinning the wheel of becoming; to continue on the cycle of birth, death and suffering. Alignment with the truth of Dukkha allows us to stay present. This staying present, with more equanimity is the very definition of mindfulness!  Being with what is, without craving and clinging is to break the cycle of dependent co-arising: the very process by which suffering itself arises. We can be with the difficulties that are already manifest, while simultaneously not creating the causes and conditions for more suffering in the future. In this way, we can slow the wheel. We can eventually step off of the wheel all together.