Tuesday, March 31, 2009

I Love You

As I begin to write this I am in a plane en route to Halifax, a brief stopover on my way to Gampo Abbey, a Buddhist monastery at the far end of Nova Scotia, where I plan to live for a year or more. Following a call from inside me that has made itself heard these past months, I am taking a leap into the unknown, into full-time spiritual practice and discipline, into a new environment and a new way of life. For the moment, for the year, for I don't know how long, I have left behind two decades of history in New York City and said goodbye to job, apartment, friends, and most of my worldly possessions. Quite literally, as the old John Denver song goes: "I'm leaving on a jet plane, don't know when I'll be back again."

Although I cannot know what kinds of teachings lie ahead of me on this leg of the journey, I do know now, beyond a doubt, that the process of getting ready to embark on it has been profound and transformational.

For the past several days, a beautiful old Marvin Gaye song, "God Is Love," has been running the loop inside my head. Those who know me personally may find it hilarious to know that I'm identifying so strongly at this pivotal moment in my life, as I'm entering a Buddhist monastery, with a Christian gospel song, but to me the song's theological perspective is beside the point. The underlying message is universal. In it, Gaye urges the skeptical listener not to disparage his friend God, who "made this world for us to live in, and gave us everything." Then Gaye makes his main point: "All He asks of us [in return] is we give each other love."

Love your mother (she bore you)
Love your father (he works for you)
Love your sister (she's good to you)
Love your brother (your brother!)

I am taking Gaye's advice to heart. In a way, that is the reason I am embarking on this journey inwards and launching myself, physically and otherwise, into the open arms of a new family of full-time spiritual practitioners: to deconstruct some of the walls around my heart and learn, I mean really learn, what it is to love. What other journey is there?

Never in my life have I felt the love and support of my friends and family as strongly as I have felt it this week, as they have said farewell to me and wished me happiness on my path (even from those who do not understand the choice I have made). My eyes have been blasted open to see, with a new clarity, how much our paths are intertwined. I feel a deep respect and affection for every human being who has touched my life, at this transitional moment when, paradoxically, I have left so many of those very people behind me as I travel north to a country I have never seen before.

A close disciple once said to the Buddha, in a reflective moment, that good companions accounted for half of the spiritual path. The Buddha replied: "Do not say it is so. Good companions are the *whole* of the spiritual path."

For the first time, I feel that I can appreciate what the Buddha meant by that.

To every person who has shown me kindness and supported me on my life's path, my gratitude overwhelms me at this moment and I have no words to express it. Tears well up and I'm trying, right now, not to cry into my keyboard for fear of short-circuiting my laptop.

It is in this way that we must train ourselves: by liberation of the self through love. We will develop love, we will practice it, we will make it both a way and a basis, take our stand upon it, store it up, and thoroughly set it going.

- Shakyamuni Buddha

Saturday, March 21, 2009

No Self

In 2007 I was fortunate to attend several days of profound Dharma teachings given in New York by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These thoughts are inspired by those teachings.

Whether we realize it or not, most humans tend to think that collecting wealth, companions and power will make us happy. While these things may provide temporary pleasure and comfort, they are not a genuine path to lasting happiness because no matter how much of them we acquire, our wealth, companions and power are always, themselves, temporary and unreliable, subject to loss and change. Even when we have these things in abundance, we worry about losing them. The fortunes of rich men can vanish overnight, or be stolen by other rich men like Bernie Madoff. Friends can turn into enemies, and lovers into exes. Power can become corrupted or be taken away (as the slogan artist Jenny Holzer slyly puts it, "Abuse of power comes as no surprise"). We create tremendous suffering for ourselves by clinging to these things, based on the mistaken idea that genuine, lasting happiness can be had in them.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, transformation of our emotions is one of the keys to genuine happiness. But our methods for transforming emotions must be realistic, based on an accurate understanding of the way things really are. If our approach to training the mind is based on a distorted understanding of how we exist in the world, then we are out of touch with reality and our efforts to attain happiness will also be unrealistic. If we practice in that way, we're just spinning our wheels. So it is essential to inquire into the true nature of what we call the "self."

Buddha taught that you are your own master, yet he also taught that the thought of "I am" (the sense of self) is like the mind of a demon, the wellspring of suffering upon suffering. On the basis of this thought of "I am," which we take for granted, we give rise to "I have," "I want," "I like," "I dislike," "I hate," and all the other self-centered thoughts that lead us to push away the things we think will make us unhappy and pull at the things we think will make us happy. This basic sense of self is based on the notion of some kind of master agency that sits at the center and controls the entire mind-body experience.

But if this "self" inherently exists in the way we habitually think it does, then it shouldn't be very difficult at all for us to pinpoint exactly what it is and where it exists. We have all sorts of largely unexamined ideas about what the self is and where it can be found, but when we examine these ideas more closely and search for this so-called "self" through analytical meditation, we find it is a very slippery fish that always seems to escape our grasp. In Buddhism this kind of analysis is called meditation on emptiness -- because we seem to find, upon further inspection, that our actual experience is "empty" of the self that we've always assumed was there at the core of it all.

In Buddhism, studying and meditating on emptiness is essential because without an understanding of the "emptiness of self" (or "selflessness"), there is no possiblity of genuine liberation from suffering. Until we penetrate that fundamental misperception of reality, we will always be operating on the basis of a deluded sense of self and clinging to the objects that we think will make the self happy. The purpose of studying emptiness is not to negate the existence of things or to deny the validity of our experience, but to expose and ultimately eradicate the clinging that arises in response to our experience.

As the great Tibetan master Tilopa said to his disciple Naropa, "You are not bound by appearances, you are bound by clinging. Cut through clinging, Naropa." In other words, objects such as wealth and companions and power do not, in and of themselves, bind us and make us suffer -- rather, we gum up the works with our habit of clinging to these things and our efforts to manipulate the world to get more of them. Ultimately, our clinging is rooted in a false idea of self, which is why rooting out this mistaken sense of self through emptiness meditation is necessary to find enlightenment and genuine, lasting happiness.

It is also important to cultivate a calm, stable and peaceful mind, and to generate lovingkindness and compassion for all sentient beings. These, too, are aspects of awakened mind and keys to genuine happiness. But lovingkindness and compassion do not, in themselves, directly oppose and uproot ignorance -- even heightened states of concentration cannot dispel the innate clinging to a mistaken sense of self. For this, only direct inquiry into the self and the realization of emptiness in one's own experience can unlock the door to lasting happiness.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Drive All Blames into One

This slogan, drawn from the Tibetan system of mind-training known as "Lojong," suggests that rather than looking for someone else to blame when things go wrong, it might be simpler and more productive to cut the crap and accept responsibility for it ourselves.

When a situation goes sour in the office or in some social setting, usually we find everyone (including ourselves) sitting around pointing the finger and looking for someone else to blame. Stepping forward and taking responsibility for the screw-up is the last thing on anyone's mind, and when someone does take responsibility it can defuse the tension and change the whole atmosphere. Suddenly everyone can relax again, no longer afraid that the hot potato of blame is going to stop with them. I've experimented with this a few times at the office, and it does have an effect (not least of all, on one's own mindstream). Even if you know in your own mind that the screw-up isn't really your fault, accepting the blame allows the whole group to move on and fix the situation.

Consider this example, from today's New York Times:

"Washington is all in a tizzy over who's at fault. Some say it's the Democrats' fault, [or] the Republicans' fault. Listen, I'll take responsibility, I'm the president."

- President Obama, on the fury over executive bonuses at the American International Group

What an amazing thing to witness in Washington politics. What a grown-up response to a childish situation of name-calling and blame games. What a difference a new President makes.

"Drive all blames into one" also works on an individual level. Anytime we feel strong negative emotions, we instinctively want to blame David who caused us to feel that way and harp on David's behavior as the root of the problem. Instead, we could point the accusing finger inwards, and recognize that although David's behavior may not have been what we wanted from him, the actual reason we're so upset is because of our own ego hangups and our self-centered expectations. "Drive all blames into one" suggests that we look honestly at our own emotional reactivity and take responsibility for that before we start telling David what a jerk he is.

Obviously, if David is beating us up or stealing our money or something, then we're not being asked to blame ourselves for his actions -- if that's the case, then we really do need to get the hell away from David. But more often than not, the Davids of the world simply behave in ways that push our buttons. "Drive all blames into one" means that we recognize our buttons and how they're being pushed rather than automatically baring our claws and lashing out at the hand that's pushing them.

Saturday, March 14, 2009


This poem is from 2006. It originally appeared in Bodhi magazine.

Waiting to cross Ninth Avenue
this morning, in the rain
I saw you there. I saw
the danger and wondered
why you didn’t run away.
With steel-belted radials thundering
past on either side, strangely,
you sat there. Then I saw.
It wasn’t that you didn’t
want to move, it was that
you couldn’t. Another car had
clipped you, your legs were useless.
You raised your head, looked around,
struggled, gave up, waited
for what would come next.
I wanted to jump into the street,
stop the traffic, do something
but what could I do? I watched
in horror, and looked away
each time a car passed, waiting
for the awful sound, the explosion
of fluids and tissues on asphault,
but each time you were still there.
My light turned green then, and I began
to walk. I hesitated with each step,
drawing closer to you and wondering
what could I do? What should I do?
Pick you up and carry you to the sidewalk?
No, I said, people do not do that here. People
in New York City do not pick up rats,
that is not done. And traffic would not stop
for you, no ambulance would come,
no animal hospital would accept you. As I passed
I stopped. You raised your head again,
looked at me, looked right at me.
By nature we are enemies, you and I.
Ever since we figured out it was you
who brought the Black Death into our cities,
we have been sworn to destroy you.
We have industries devoted to your death, people
in white coats plotting your annihilation.
But this morning you were not Rats, and I
was not the Human race. “God loves all creatures,
great and small,” I recalled from Bible School.
You were a small creature, soaking wet, pathetic,
crippled, waiting for an impossible reprieve.
“I do not want to die this way,” you said. “I do not
want to let you die this way,” I replied. But I saw
that you would never walk again, not even
if I broke with the whole Human race
and did the unthinkable, risking worms, lockjaw, rabies.
What I did, in the end, was worse. “I’m sorry,” I said,
and, reluctantly, I kept walking. I did not look back.
I prayed that your ordeal would end quickly,
that the next car would get you. I prayed
that you would find peace on Ninth Avenue.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Addicted to Love: Waking Up through Heartbreak

The Buddhist teachings on how to work skillfully with strong emotions have always made a lot of intellectual sense to me. But about a year and a half ago, someone I had fallen in love with chose to walk away from our relationship, and I was emotionally devastated. The attachment and the sense of abandonment were overwhelming. Every day for two weeks, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. Many of those Buddhist teachings about working with emotions often came to mind during that experience, but when the rubber met the road I found handling my emotions skillfully to be much more daunting in practice than it was in theory.

What surprised me most in this whole experience is how hard it can be to simply let go. I found myself stuck in a pattern of trying to hold on to the past, even after it had already changed into something else — I just kept wishing I could turn the pumpkin back into a carriage. This emotional pattern of clinging persisted long past the point where I knew I should let go and move on — but I simply didn’t know how. I couldn’t stop myself from reflecting on how things could have been…should have been…if only I had…if only he had….

Acharya Judith Simmer-Brown teaches a workshop called “Addicted to Love: Romantic Fantasy, Relationships and Meditation,” in which she focuses on the neurotic aspects of romantic love, the role of romance and intimacy on the spiritual path, and the difference between romantic fantasy and genuine love.

One major difference between the two, says Simmer-Brown, is that romantic love is always characterized by a tragic sense of danger and obstacles that heighten the intensity of imperiled love. On a grand scale, think of Romeo and Juliet — the ├╝ber-love story in our culture, and the template for a thousand other romantic stories — whose tragic romance was only intensified by the opposition of their families and the obstacles it put between them. In romantic love, there is always a feeling of death involved, which only serves to spur the lovers further into their romance. Thus, romantic love is unhappy love. By definition, it cannot be fulfilled. It is a set-up for disappointment.

I recall how it always seemed like my boyfriend had one foot in and one foot out, and how I dug myself in deeper in response to that. He let me know he had been planning to leave New York and move back to the West coast, so the thought that he might one day suddenly pack up and end our relationship was always like a sword dangling over us, warning me of the pain to come if I grew too attached to him. But, taking that obstacle as a classic challenge to the romantic fantasy, it only made me try that much harder to hold on, to persuade myself (and him) that we belonged together more than we belonged apart.

Simmer-Brown characterizes romantic love as a kind of theism: the theistic idea that the other person, the lover, the soul mate, the “right one,” is going to somehow redeem us, make us complete. It’s a kind of mystical longing for the divine, embodied in the form of the lover and the star-crossed connection. This is an idea that permeates our culture and is embedded in most of the stories that we tell ourselves about love. But because this mystical longing for the redemptive power of the divine is misdirected at another human being who is inevitably flawed and impermanent, it involves us in the pursuit of that which inevitably brings disappointment and unhappiness. My boyfriend was always going to leave, and he basically let me know that all along — by definition, I was setting myself up for disappointment and heartbreak by continuing to grow more and more attached to him.

Hidden deeper within the familiar narrative of romantic lovers and soul mates is a very problematic kernel of an idea: that we’re basically incomplete and deficient to begin with, and we need the lover to come along and rescue us from ourselves and our loneliness. In the Shambhala teachings, this idea would be described as the ultimate “setting-sun worldview” — the ultimate way of selling our selves short and failing to recognize and abide in our own basic goodness. "When we experience our lives through this lens of personal insufficiency," says Buddhist teacher Tara Brach in her book Radical Acceptance, "we are imprisoned in what I call the trance of unworthiness. Trapped in this trance, we are unable to perceive the truth of who we really are."

In “The Power of Now,” Eckhart Tolle talks about the addictive search for wholeness through romantic fantasies, which he describes as "an intense and universally sought-after experience":

[When] that special relationship comes along, [it] seems to be the answer to all the ego's problems and to meet all its needs. At least this is how it appears at first. All the other things that you derived your sense of self from before now become relatively insignificant. You now have a single focal point that replaces them all, gives meaning to your life, and through which you define your identity: the person you are "in love" with. You are no longer a disconnected fragment in an uncaring universe, or so it seems. Your world now has a center: the loved one. The fact that the center is outside you and that, therefore, you still have an externally derived sense of self does not seem to matter at first.

Simmer-Brown suggests that this kind of romantic love is not really love of the person, it’s love of love. Instead of seeing the other person accurately, we project onto them and focus only on those parts that confirm our fantasy. When the fantasy is broken and the warts are revealed, romantic love easily flips into aversion and hatred — attachment frustrated turns to aggression. "Just as with every other addiction," says Tolle, "you are on a high when the drug is available, but invariably there comes a time when the drug no longer works for you." This is one reason we so often have difficulty maintaining lovingkindness in our intimate relationships: our hidden agendas and our romantic concepts and ideals about the “perfect” lover keep us from appreciating and relating to the flawed human being who is right in front of us.

As meditation practitioners, we commit ourselves to a basic sense of cutting through “setting-sun” mentality and waking up from our own confusion. In the practice of sitting meditation itself, this involves lifting ourselves up by our bootstraps rather than waiting for someone else to do it for us. If romantic fantasy is unrealistic, then it stands in opposition to meditation, which is fundamentally about cultivating a more open and genuine relationship to reality. As we begin to clearly see the romantic theology that surrounds us and permeates our thinking, we realize how it confirms our habitual “setting-sun worldview” and sets us up for one disappointment after another.

Much of the propulsive force of romantic fantasies springs from our desire to escape our own loneliness. Habitually, when we feel lonely, we reach for something to make it go away, something to give us meaning and a sense of solid ground to counteract the feeling of groundlessness that loneliness entails. Romantic relationships are the universal cure-all, the thing we all tend to reach for in times of loneliness.

“Intimate relationships do not cause pain and unhappiness," says Tolle. "They bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you. Every addiction does that.” In retrospect, I can see that the amount of pain and unhappiness I experienced after the breakup of my relationship with that boyfriend was disproportionate to the level of commitment we shared or the amount of time we'd been together or any other common measure of a relationship's solidity. All that pain couldn't have been solely caused by the relationship or the breakup itself -- it was there in me already, and was triggered and brought out by those experiences.

Simmer-Brown points out that there is a difference between loneliness and aloneness. "Loneliness that gives up its plea, its complaint," she says, "is aloneness — and aloneness is actually the starting point and the basis of the spiritual path." We are always alone, after all, even when we are in love. Relating to our aloneness in a less neurotic way, opening to the experience of aloneness with compassion and lovingkindness for ourselves rather than grasping automatically for something to make it go away, is the fundamental act of making friends with ourselves, a pivotal step in growing up spiritually and emotionally.

Desire drives our lives, and we couldn’t exist without experiencing it. It’s when we blindly try to fulfill desire and get what we want, or try to cling to something we already have, that desire spirals into neurosis and attachment and even full-blown addiction. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche points out that our emotional experiences are supposed to be transient, temporary -- that's their very nature. When we fight against their nature and try to solidify our emotions into something graspable and permanent, we are fighting against reality itself.

Although romantic love might be basically neurotic, at its core there is a flame of lovingkindness and compassion towards the loved one that is fundamental to our being and should be cultivated, because it has tremendous power to benefit the world. So our aim should not be to extinguish desire (which is just as extreme, in the opposite way, as indulging our desires compulsively). Rather, our aim should be to learn to experience and work with desire in a more conscious, skillful and loving way. As Eckhart Tolle warns, whether we actually succeed in learning to do this may determine the survival of more than our intimate relationships:
Humanity is under great pressure to evolve because it is our only chance of survival as a race. This will affect every aspect of your life and close relationships in particular. Never before have relationships been as problematic and conflict-ridden as they are now. As you may have noticed, they are not here to make you happy and fulfilled. If you continue to pursue the goal of salvation through a relationship, you will be disillusioned again and again. But if you accept that the relationship is here to make you conscious instead of happy, then the relationship will offer you salvation, and you will be aligning yourself with the higher consciousness that wants to be born into this world. For those who hold on to the old patterns, there will be increasing pain, violence, confusion, and madness.
I do not pretend to count myself among the relatively small number of people I know who have experienced what Tolle calls "enlightened relationships." My own history of emotional intimacy, including this recent heartbreak, has been relatively unenlightened and brought me a great deal of pain and confusion, even a little madness at times. I do not doubt, either, that I have inflicted pain and confusion on others in the process. But I can still aspire to learn from the experiences I have had, and any future experiences I might have, in order to wake up from my pain and confusion and to help others do the same. And despite the tears I have cried over romantic love and the bitter taste it left in my mouth, I can aspire to continue extending a spirit of lovingkindness and compassion, forgiveness and tolerance, generosity and friendship, towards even those who have hurt my pride and let me down, who didn’t live up to my heart's or my ego’s plans for them.

Besides, what is the alternative? Carrying torches, nursing wounds, holding grudges, wallowing in bitterness or self-pity? Keeping my heart closed because I didn't get what I wanted? That way madness lies.

In the very experience of romantic heartbreak itself, perhaps we can discover what Chogyam Trungpa, in "Shambhala: The Way of the Warrior," called the "genuine heart of sadness" -- that tender, fundamental quality of our being that is awakened to the suffering of others and infused with compassion and wisdom. In the Shambhala teachings, the genuine heart of sadness is not regarded as depressing or a bummed-out state of mind -- rather, it is a quality of authentic presence, beyond our usual ego trips and our habitual ways of shutting down and building a protective fortress around our hearts.

When all is said and done, perhaps it is because my heart has been broken that I am able to open it to others, and even to those who have broken it. As Leonard Cohen reminds us in the song "Anthem":

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in.