Being big enough

In my ongoing pursuit of understanding the first noble truth, I wanted to link to an article I just read in the very excellent Lion’s Roar web site. The article is entitled “Are We Really Meditating” and includes the following paragraph [emphasis mine]:

The Buddha, in his very first teaching, said, “There is suffering.” Sometimes we mistakenly interpret this to mean that we are doomed to suf­fer. I take the Buddha’s words as an invitation to practice nonviolence toward my inner and outer worlds. In this simple but powerful statement, the Buddha suggests that suffering is not some­thing we can fix, ignore, or get rid of. Rather, he is intimating that practice provides the ability to make ourselves big enough to include both the pain and beauty of the human condition—not only our own but also that of others.
Our ability to bear witness to suffering with­out pushing it away or getting overwhelmed is linked to liberation. What is experience before we shrink from it, try to subdue it, or manipulate it? This is thequestion for practitioners.

Typically, I think of accommodating suffering and experience as having to do with equanimity, but choosing to look at it as making oneself “big enough” is interesting to me. For one thing, it’s very simple. For another, it echoes the contrast between being small, tight, solid and being big, expansive, open and available.

In my worldly circumstances lately, I’ve been trying to better understand how practice can help with the stresses in my life. Something as simple as ‘being big enough to include the pain and beauty’ of life is a great answer to this question. I’ll have to sit with that tonight.

Understanding anxiety in the modern world as Dukkha

I noticed a pattern of thought a few years ago whereby my mind would constantly try to have the big “aha” breakthrough that would then secure my worldly independence. I searched and scrambled to find the one big invention so that I’d be set for life — or come up with a concept so fresh and marvelous that I could share it with others and be ensured a future of well being and abundance. Lottery tickets. Thoughts of becoming this or that; starting a company; changing careers; even winning a settlement or being given a lucky break so that my struggles would be over! I’d literally examine every experience and item that arose in experience looking for some kind of twist – some kind of clever insight – some kind of magic ticket that might somehow land me on easy street. I started to see that this was underlying so many of my thoughts. It was a hidden obsession.

I’m sure lots of us experience this type of mental formation. I’d bet that most aren’t aware of it as a pattern. It took me a long time to see it. The mind trying to get ahead of the struggle – to solve the problem of constantly working to survive, to provide, to make it. Jobs aren’t guaranteed. Relationships aren’t guaranteed. Life itself isn’t guaranteed. Whatever we do.. we’re still at risk. However much we manage to make it seems like we’re just getting by — and never saving enough for our kid’s college, our retirement, our future!! So we continue to struggle. The mind continues to spin out on idea after idea about how we can finally solve this never-ending quest for relief.

Isn’t this all just a perfect definition of Dukkha? Didn’t the Buddha have something to say about Dukkha? What was that all about, anyway? 25 years studying the Dharma and here I am spinning out about life and work and money and having enough and making enough and saving enough and knowing that it’s all based on fear. I’m swimming in Dukkha!

At least I’ve come to see it for what it is. Now what?

The four noble truths start with Dukkha: There is Dukkha. Dukkha should be understood. Dukkha has been understood. Those are the insights of the first noble truth.

A friend at Sangha last night said to me regarding Dukkha: “It’s not a mistake..”. It’s not a mistake that this is the way it is. It’s not a mistake that all conditioned things have this unreliable, dissatisfying quality to them. It shouldn’t “be some other way”. This is life. This is Dukkha.

As much as my finally figuring out that the mental flips and twists I go through trying to “solve” the unreliability of life is itself more Dukkha… at least I feel like I’m making a tiny bit of progress on insight #2: Dukkha should be understood.

The more I learn, the more I see that I have a lot of work to do.

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.

More thoughts on Metta

I’ve been practicing Metta in the mornings on the cushion this week. My decision was based on the increased interest in Metta after reading more about it last week for class.

Specifically, one aspect of the benefits of Metta (of which there are many) really appealed to me. Practitioners of Metta are said to enter easily into states of concentration, ie. the Jhanas.

For this past week, I’ve been doing some Metta for myself, and bringing Lucy to mind to get the metta feeling flowing, then going through friends, neutral people, and difficult people, then spreading out geographically or directionally. This, I’ve come to see, keeps many aspects of the mind quite busy. Consider Shinzen’s breakdown of mental activity into ‘talk’ and ‘image’, then add the aspect of Vedena, or feeling tone, and you have 2 of the four foundations of mindfulness activated with thoughts of loving kindness. Non-harming, goodwill, wishes for well-being and liberation are being mentally spoken (talk), projected in widening circles or specific directions (image) and creating a feeling tone of joy and well being (feeling).

All the while, the mind is getting more concentrated, more collected, and more joyful. Piti (one of the jhana factors usually translated as ‘energy’) also arose for me this morning during Metta practice.

It is quite easy to see that all of the jhanna factors are being developed. What I’m starting to see is that the four foundations of mindfulness are also at play here.. but it’s not mindfulness as we typically think of it — in it’s equanimous receptive mode — but rather these aspects of our being are being generated or filled with skillful qualities — qualities that are in alignment with right intention, right effort, right action, and right concentration.

Metta is serving to prepare the ground for concentration by strengthening all of it’s aspects by providing wholesome content while simultaneously softening the mind’s grasping and aversion. The next step would be to drop the phrases and move into samadhi practice to see if all of this preparation does in fact lead to an easier entry into the jhanas. I think I’ll stick with Metta for a while longer. I do want to keep in mind and remember this two-fold combination, though. After all, it has it’s roots directly in the Metta Sutta.

Metta and liberation

Teaching the Insight Meditation class had some real benefits in terms of study and practice. Brushing up on the fundamental concepts of Buddhism, leading guided meditations for groups, and delivering dharma talks were all very beneficial to me, “as teacher” and “as student”.

This process of researching and reading lead me to some written material on the practice of Metta. The following proved very interesting. Metta: The Philosophy and Practice of Universal Love by Acharya Buddharakkhita.

I know Metta practice can be considered a concentration practice. In fact, the guided Metta meditation during the 2014 concentration retreat proved to be a huge heart-opening experience for me and gave me a glimpse into the power of Metta. This article (book?) expounded upon that theme and gave me more background for and insight into the practice and it’s effects.

Metta practice opens the heart and mind through meditating on Universal Love: an all pervasive wish for well-being and happiness that does not differentiate between any beings whatsoever. The Universality of the practice strengthens our ability to hold different beings in mind without discrimination. The practice of Metta allows the meditator to go beyond the barriers that typically restrain us.. allows us to get a taste of the limitless expansion of mind.. allows us to radiate goodwill outwardly, thus (at least temporarily) obliterating any sense of ill will or aversion. A mind that has been trained in Metta is a mind that settles down easily and is not agitated easily. A heart that practices Metta is easily concentrated and can more easily access the jhanas. Metta becomes a means to purify the mind and the heart. A mind free from hinderances is in a wonderful position to access insights and be fully liberated.

Intentionally creating mental fabrications – radiating goodwill methodically in all directions and to all beings – is a very skillful way of working on the problem of suffering from within. Vipassana is a way of working with phenomena — the sensations of the body, arising thoughts and feelings — slowly allowing us to see all phenomena’s true nature: impermanent, insubstantial, not self. This leaves us with ever increasing degrees of freedom as our clinging falls away, as our self definition loosens and softens, as our reactions weaken. Metta is a whole ‘nother vehicle whereby we expand ourselves as love to the very extremes of being.. and find ourselves equally empty of clinging and bondage, equally free, equally happy. Dipa Ma says the two methods are the same. I think she may be onto something.

Teaching the Dharma

Tonight was my first official Dharma Teacher gig. I enjoyed teaching quite a bit. While I’ve had a lot of planning mind in sittings and daily life, and tension and nervousness about remembering everyone’s names and what I was going to say and whether someone would ask impossible philosophical questions; when it came time to teach, it felt easy and natural. 

The feedback I got from my co-teacher, Mary, was that I was a bit, how did she put it: exuberant. Perhaps I was leaning in a bit much or trying to teach too much — not giving people enough space to ‘figure it out’. She also thought we needed to communicate a little better between us and seek a little more balance or give and take. She did say that I know my shit. I appreciate her feedback. I’ll try to slow down more and let it all unfold more slowly. I was concerned I might get carried away and try to share everything I’ve learned — with too much enthusiasm. I guess I did… But not too badly!

All in all I was very happy — and so happy to be connecting with real people in a fairly formal dharma setting and really sharing the dharma. 

I lead the guided meditation. I was surprised at the softness in my voice. I had no problem leading the sit. If anything I said too much but I felt very good about what I said and how it went and everything came from the heart. I got some good feedback, especially about “feeling the texture of the breath” and “getting closer to the breath”. That helped a few people.

How interesting to receive Dana. I’d surely teach for free, but receiving Dana is special in its own way. 

Next week I give the talk: Four Noble Truths. Hopefully that goes just as well. I have a feeling it will; a pleasant feeling. 

Neurological connections on the Buddha’s path

This is a fascinating demonstration of how neurons make connections within the brain.

I came across this on the web and thought it might be a good thing to post. In the context of Buddhism, it could be helpful to have a basic understanding of how these pathways are built because they would play a part in some other aspects of practice and the path. Imagine how this would play a role in: setting intentions, developing wholesome habits, Metta, non-reactivity and equanimity, etc.

Let’s take, for example, the association between ‘calm’ and ‘pleasant’. If we are able to develop a concentrated mind that is calm and quiet, and bring our attention to the Jhana factor of Sukha, (sweetness or joy), then we’re building a connection between getting calm and experiencing joy. Typically, we seek joy through sense pleasures, new experiences, excitement, stimulation. What if we could re-wire ourselves to experience joy through peace.  Perhaps our brains will relax in their pursuit of constant stimulation and novelty and begin to seek out joy through calm. Sounds like it could provide motivation for practice and get some momentum going, doesn’t it?

And Metta practice could form bonds between ‘other beings’ and compassion, loving kindness and Mudita–joy.  Having positive thoughts arise naturally when we encounter others is very beneficial — opening the heart, encouraging compassionate acts, and reducing suffering.

Enjoy the demo and let me know what connections it triggers for you!

Dependent Co-Arising and the Four Noble Truths

In continuing to read Thanissaro Bikkhu’s “The Shape of Suffering“, I came across a small quote from one of the Buddha’s Suttras that captures the cause of suffering more succinctly than I’ve seen it before:

“Sensing a feeling of pleasure… a feeling of pain… a feeling of neither- pleasure-nor-pain, he senses it as though joined with it. This is called an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person joined with birth, aging, & death; with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, & despairs. He is joined, I tell you, with suffering & stress.” -Saayutta Nik›ya 36:6

The way I read it, the immediacy of any feeling (pleasure, pain, or even neutral feeling), being misunderstood (through ignorance) as part of one’s self (i.e.. as joined with it) causes one to be immediately ‘joined’ with the entire process of dependent co-arising and therefore each of it’s elements. In one fell swoop.. we’re trapped in a cycle that by it’s very nature produces suffering.

The whole point of Thanissaro’s work here is to point out that the factors of dependent co-arising work in two directions. When ignorance is present, the factors lead to suffering. When the 4 noble truths are brought to bear on one’s experience, ignorance is replaced by knowledge — and the skillful use of each of the factors of dependent co-arising lead one to view experience not “as though joined with it” but rather as impersonal phenomena, dependent upon causes and conditions, arising and passing, impermanent, empty of self, and ultimately not a cause for suffering. There is an “unbinding”, which is equated with liberation itself.

From The Shape of Suffering:

Ignorance is the primary cause of suffering; knowledge, the primary factor leading to its cessation. … ignorance here means not seeing events in terms of the four noble truths: stress, its origination, its cessation, and the path of practice leading to its cessation.

So if bringing the Four Noble Truths to bear on our experience is the key to developing this knowledge — how do we do that?  It seems quite unwieldy to have to stop and remember the definition of the four truths prior to each sensation, perception, feeling, etc., which are constantly occurring at a very high rate. This is the edge of my practice at the moment. I’m experimenting with shortcuts. Might it be possible to study the Four Truths and soak in them, but then also to find a shortcut that might be more easily kept in mind? I’ve been working with a few:

Shortcuts to stand in for the Four Noble Truths:

  • “All things are impermanent – they arise and pass away – to be in harmony with this truth brings great happiness.” (great when chanted)
  • “Do not cling to anything as ‘I’, ‘me’ or ‘mine’.”
  • “____ is being known.”
  • “Let go.”

Does anyone else have a single phrase or simple teaching they like to bring to mind that would serve this same purpose of orienting the mind towards liberation and non-clinging so that the process of dependent co-arising might lead towards liberation instead of suffering?