Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Confidence Beyond Words

I've been thinking lately about confidence: what it is, what it isn't, why it matters so much in life and on the spiritual path. Our morning and evening chants here at the Abbey are spiked with references to confidence. We begin and end each day by paying homage to enlightened beings who possess "the confidence beyond words." So I find myself asking what that means, trying to imagine what such profound confidence might look like and where it comes from.

My teacher, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, always emphasizes the importance of thoroughly contemplating the Dharma (through analytical meditation), in order to really let its meaning sink into your mind and become mingled with your own experience. It is on the basis of this personal contemplation that certainty about the teachings will arise in your mindstream, and from this, confidence and devotion and diligence will naturally flow. Without certainty and confidence, our commitment to follow the path of truth and liberation, even our relationship to reality itself, will always be half-assed.

Confidence interests me, in part, because it is something that, for most of my life, I have felt that I lacked. I could list any number of reasons why this has been so: growing up in a household where there was (in addition to a great amount of love) mental illness, alcoholism, divorce and instability; growing up gay in a society and culture where, by and large, I'm despised and ridiculed for simply being who I am, and therefore learning to keep that identity a secret even from myself; falling under the sway of the Southern Baptist church, where I was indoctrinated in guilt and sin and the fear of eternal damnation; and so on. Those kinds of early karmic unfoldings did not establish the foundations of an abundant confidence in myself or the psychological ground under my feet.

Yet, it is also true that when I encountered the Buddhist notion of basic goodness or Buddha-nature -- the idea that I and all other sentient beings are, at our innermost core, fundamentally good and whole and sane and capable of manifesting complete virtue and enlightenment -- it immediately rang true for me. This idea, so much the opposite of the Original Sin doctrine in which we Western people are saturated, resonated with some innate confidence deep inside me, a primordial "confidence beyond words" that had remained unimpeded even by all all of the confidence-eroding instability of my early life. I felt an immediate certainty of the truth of this teaching -- the unfolding of an older, more original karma through which I somehow, despite having impaired vision, saw my own reflection in the mirror of wisdom.

"According to the teachings of buddha nature, each of us possesses, at our very root and core, a profound and irrestible longing. This is nothing other than a longing to become fully and completely who we are, to experience ourselves and our lives, fully and freely, without doubt, reservation, or holding back. This final realization of ourselves is described as all-loving and powerful -- we discover ourselves as everything that we need to be and, because of that, we become completely available to the world and its suffering beings, and discover utter trust and confidence in life."

-- Reginald Ray, from "Touching Enlightenment: Finding Realization in the Body"

"Fearlessness" is another idea we talk about a lot in Buddhism, and in some ways it might be a good synonym for confidence. At the most basic level, what we mean when we talk about fearlessness is not a state of mind in which fear does not exist, but a state of mind that is completely open to working with fear when it does arise. This fearless mind does not shrink from meeting whatever circumstances arise in our lives; it is open and genuine and free from ego's squirrely, habitual patterns of escapism in the face of fear. In two of her talks here at the Abbey recently, Pema Chodron spoke about the feedback loop that develops between confidence and fear. The more confidence you have, the more fear can hit you; and the more you work with fear, the more your confidence grows. Fearlessness arises on the basis of some kind of trust in our basic goodness, the basic nature of mind itself which is fundamentally, primordially pure ("alphapurity," as they say in the Dzogchen tradition). Unfortunately, because we are so profoundly alienated from our true nature, such fearlessness often seems far away and unattainable. We remain caught up in the delusions of ego and in a false sense of self that creates the illusory perception of being separate from the great flow of life; this, in turn, gives rise to the fear of being cut off from life's flow and ceasing to exist.

One particularly puzzling way this self-centered fear can manifest is through arrogance and pride, which may superficially look like confidence but are actually symptoms of delusion or ignorance -- the insecurity of not knowing or trusting in one's own basic nature. As Pema Chodron pointed out, when we listen through the filters of arrogance and pride we can't really hear what someone else is saying to us unless it confirms our self-image and resembles what we already think we know. True confidence has much more to do with humility (or humbleness) than it does with arrogance or pride. And it has more to do with the Zen concept of "not-knowing" than it does with thinking we already know what's happening, or what should be happening, in any given situation. True confidence, the confidence beyond words, is completely open to the infinite possibilities that exist in every moment, while rooted in the knowledge that, whatever happens, it could not possibly alter the actual nature of mind.

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