Wednesday, July 29, 2009

All Things Are Connected

On Sunday I went camping at Pollets Cove with a friend from the Abbey. We built a campfire as evening was setting in, fueled with driftwood and logs from fallen trees. At one point I added a large log to the fire and watched as the flames from the logs below crept up the sides of the new log and it began to burn. After a few minutes, a long-legged spider emerged from somewhere inside the log, panick-stricken, running this way and that, looking for a way to escape from the searing heat of the flames now consuming its home.

My heart swelled with compassion for the spider's dire situation, tinged with a keen sense of responsibility for having put this little creature in its deadly predicament. If the spider died, it would be because of me. Without pausing to think, my body sprang into action. I stood up, reached into the fire, took hold of one of the spider's long legs, and moved it to the grass, where it promptly disappeared. I did not linger over my basic fear and mistrust of spiders, or the fear of getting burned. Seeing what had to be done to preserve the spider's life, and how quickly it had to be done, the action flowed spontaneously. Thought was not involved.

There are, undoubtedly, many people who would find it a little odd to care so very much about a spider, or to look for the spiritual lesson in meeting one under any circumstance, but the opinions of those people are not my concern. More and more, I am simply trying to live my life in a way that aligns with what I understand as very fundamental ethical principles. Foremost among these is to respect the life of all living creatures and to refrain from taking life deliberately, which is the first of the five basic precepts in Buddhism.

One of the results of making a conscious effort to follow any of the Buddhist ethical precepts is that you see, much more clearly, the many small and large ways in which you *don't* follow them, the little ways you break them inadvertently. Trying to follow the precept to refrain from taking life, for example, makes you vividly aware of how connected you are to the lives -- and deaths -- of innumerable sentient beings. A walk in the forest means stepping on countless bugs, most of them never even seen. A drive on the highway brings about the sudden death of a squirrel who runs under your tire (this actually happened while I was driving a few weeks ago). If you eat meat, you become much more aware that it came from a living creature with consciousness and feelings, not altogether different from yourself. (By contrast, if you're a vegetarian, you can't honestly look down on carnivores and pretend that you're blameless -- millions of insects died in agricultural operations to bring you your vegetables.)

The web of life sprawls infinitely in all directions, and at every moment we are profoundly connected to the lives and deaths of countless beings. Through lack of awareness, we never even see most of these connections, but occasionally one of them jumps out at us and we are presented with a choice. I believe that in such moments, how we act has repercussions that stretch further into that vast web than we can possibly fathom.

What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of the spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected....

The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is but a strand within it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.

-- from a speech attributed to Chief Seattle, 1854

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Always Meditate on Whatever Provokes Resentment

Many years ago, in my aimless twenties, I spontaneously arrived at the conviction that any strong resentment or dislike we humans might feel towards another person is usually rooted in a projection of something we don't like about ourselves. I could occasionally see this type of unconscious projection taking place in myself and my own resentment-riddled relationships, but more often it was easier to observe it, impartially, in the behavior of other people. (Isn't that always the case?)

Later, when I began to study Buddhism and encountered the Tibetan Lojong (mind-training) teachings, I realized that this principle is encapsulated in the Lojong slogan, "Always meditate on whatever provokes resentment."

By meditating on whatever (or whoever) provokes feelings of resentment or irritation in us, we can not only begin to release our negative emotions and open our hearts to the other person, but we can develop profound insight into ourselves and our own "shadow" material. As Pema Chodron puts it, "Instead of the resentment being an obstacle, it's a reminder. Feeling irritated, restless, afraid, and hopeless is a reminder to listen more carefully. It's a reminder to stop talking; watch and listen." By doing so, we become more able to stay present and experience the raw, uncomfortable energy of what Chodron calls shenpa, that gut feeling of being hooked into our emotional reactions towards others, beyond all our storylines.

In Jungian psychology, that hidden or repressed part of ourselves that we project onto other people -- which underlies so much of our shenpa -- is called the "shadow." From Wikipedia:

The shadow or "shadow aspect" is a part of the unconscious mind consisting of repressed weaknesses, shortcomings, and instincts.... "Everyone carries a shadow," Jung wrote, "and the less it is embodied in the individual's conscious life, the blacker and denser it is...."

According to Jung, the shadow, in being instinctive and irrational, is prone to project: turning a personal inferiority into a perceived moral deficiency in someone else. Jung writes that if these projections are unrecognized, "The projection-making factor (the Shadow archetype) then has a free hand...." These projections insulate and cripple individuals by forming an ever thicker fog of illusion between the ego and the real world.

Jung also believed that "in spite of its function as a reservoir for human darkness -- or perhaps because of this -- the shadow is the seat of creativity."

B. Alan Wallace writes that the Tibetan text of this particular slogan, like many of the other Lojong slogans, is intentionally vague and could be interpreted in several different ways. He translates it as "Always meditate on those who make you boil." Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche translates it as "Always meditate on whatever is unavoidable," and suggests that we meditate particularly on those people who give us problems or compete with us, those whom we simply don't like, and so on.

I once encountered a fellow Buddhist practitioner at a retreat who was so innately talented at provoking my shenpa, that by simply walking into the room he could stir up a whole conniption fit of moral judgment and disdain in my mind. His entire manner of presenting himself as a practitioner struck me as phony, pretentious, holier-than-thou, a case-study of spiritual materialism in action. Everything about his self-presentation irritated me: his very spiritual-sounding name (which, damningly, I knew wasn't his real name), the excessively mindful way he walked, the meticulous, softspoken way he talked, the way he bowed, even the very religious way he said his prayers over his food -- there was no room in my mind for this poor guy to do anything right. But because of the close nature of the retreat we were in, I could not avoid him, and my intense closed-mindedness and judgment towards him were constantly being put in front of my face. He not only provoked an inexplicable resentment in me, he made me boil without even trying, and he was unavoidable -- however you translate this slogan, he fit the bill.

One day, I had reached such a crescendo of aversion towards him in my own mind that I simply couldn't stand it anymore -- I decided to devote the morning meditation session to reflecting on my resentment towards him and seeing if I could transform it. In my reflection, I tried to experience the raw, naked energy of judgment and dislike, and to analyze what it was about and where it sprang from; I tried to see what kind of storyline was attached to it and what the underlying forces might be in me that could arouse such a solid storyline and such a strong, negative reaction to this person.

In meditation, I realized that my whole way of reacting to him sprang from my own fear, insecurity, and jealousy. On seeing his particular way of practicing the spiritual path, so different from my own, I felt insecure and uncertain that I was going about things in the right way; I feared it meant that I was less spiritual than he was. I was jealous of his seeming comfort and ease within his spiritual practice, when I so often felt awkward about my own, and I felt competitive. All of these feelings hearkened back to my earliest childhood experiences of religion, in the Southern Baptist Church, when I had tried so hard to be a good Christian but felt absolutely no sincere connection to Jesus Christ as my personal savior, and consequently felt hopelessly lost and in danger of eternal damnation. These were all things that I was unable and unwilling to see clearly in myself, in the moment, and so they became shadow material that was promptly transmuted into a thick, impenetrable wall of irritation, judgment and resentment towards this poor, sincere practitioner who was just trying to follow the spiritual path in the best way he knew how.

Once I saw these things about myself, through peering in meditation into the historical and psychological roots of my resentment, the fog of irritation and closed-mindedness began immediately to dissolve. The deep-seated habitual tendency towards judgment did not entirely disappear -- I could still feel it well up when he took too long to bow at the door of the shrine room, or spent longer than I thought any person should spend saying prayers before eating his food -- but now I was able to see through the emotionality of my reaction, to observe my own egomaniacal judgments with a sense of humor and spaciousness. I even began to enjoy this man's company and to look forward to conversations with him. With my own shadow material exposed to the light of awareness, my judgments about his way of practicing no longer served as fuel for irritation and resentment. I became grateful for the presence of this person who previously had driven me to distraction, and I even began to think of him with affection and kindness.

All genuine spiritual paths emphasize the importance of transforming our resentments in this way: the Christian path emphasizes forgiveness and tolerance; the 12-Step path emphasizes moral inventory and making amends; the Buddhist path emphasizes meditation and clear seeing into the nature of our own mind, and moving beyond our habitual patterns. Whatever path we are on, if we hope to continue growing in wisdom, if we hope to be more free from suffering, we must face our demons directly; we cannot afford to continue wallowing for another day in the pig-sty of our own resentments. By meditating on our resentments and transforming them in awareness, they can become, as Jung suggested, the very source of our creativity and wisdom.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Sit Slowly

Alexandra David-Neel was a shockingly independent and defiant explorer who traveled to the most rural and forbidding areas of Tibet in the early part of the twentieth century, when the entire country was closed to foreigners. She wrote several accounts of her travels there, one of which -- "My Journey to Lhasa" -- I'm reading now.

In a throwaway passage of the book, she relates a chance encounter with an unfortunate pilgrim who was near death in the wilderness, far from civilization, and the words that were exchanged as she and her traveling companion left the man there to his fate, after doing their best to make him comfortable.

"Kale pheb," the man said to them -- a polite Tibetan farewell to those who go away, which translates as "Go (or proceed) slowly."

"Kale ju," the departing ones replied -- a polite farewell to those who remain behind, which translates as "Sit (or stay) slowly."

The bizarre advice to "sit slowly" -- while perhaps not intended as such (or perhaps it was; you never know with these Tibetans) -- struck me as a beautifully simple and profound meditation instruction.

On its surface, to "sit slowly" seems absurd. After all, sitting meditation is essentially doing nothing. How can you do nothing slowly -- or quickly, for that matter?

Alas, sitting quickly is so often precisely what we try to do. Our minds are so caught up in the habit of speed and busyness: we are always doing, doing, doing, always leaning forward into the next thing on our To Do list. Even in meditation, we lean towards the next moment, the next thought, the next breath. "Okay, I was daydreaming that time, but this next breath I'll really be present." When we are sitting in the shrine room, we can't wait for the umdze to ring the gong so we can get up and do walking meditation, and then when we are walking we can't wait for them to clack their wooden sticks so we can sit back down again. This mind of speed and busyness is such an intrinsic part of the way we experience the world, it is difficult for us to drop it when we arrive at our meditation cushion.

To sit slowly is precisely that: to sit without rushing ourselves, without trying to amp up our meditation into something it's not, without expectation or hope for a better kind of meditation experience to arise in the next moment. There is no next moment. To sit slowly is to take the time to fully experience each breath, each perception, each thought, each moment of experience, as it is happening. To truly step into and inhabit the present moment, we must shake ourselves out of the trance of speed and busyness.

"Sit slowly." I think I need to make this my personal meditation mantra for a while. I invite you to make it yours.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Enlightenment Is Inevitable

I've been further contemplating the notion of inevitability, which I wrote about here recently. This week in Ani Lodro's class on analytical meditation and the "Uttaratantra" (Maitreya's seminal text on Buddha Nature), we contemplated the assertion that "enlightenment is inevitable." (This view, which didn't sit well with a few students in the class, has been asserted both by Pema Chodron and by my own teacher, Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.)

The view that "enlightenment is inevitable" dovetails nicely with the contemplation I picked up last week from Tara Brach, who defined enlightenment succinctly as "total cooperation with the inevitable."

The notion that enlightenment is inevitable arises naturally from our recognition of the inherent and unshakable Buddha Nature of ourselves and all sentient beings. The question is how long it will take to uncover and fully manifest our true nature. If enlightenment itself is total cooperation with the inevitable, then it is also a total embrace of what already is, because what already is is the ultimate inevitability. Any time we resist and struggle against what is, or get lost in hope and fear about what it might become or regret and nostalgia for what it once was, we are resisting the inevitable. This resistance is a good definition of suffering and indeed of insanity.

One of my favorite Dharma teachers, Ken McLeod, says that the end of suffering is not a state, but a process. We can perpetuate or we can end suffering in each moment, depending on how we act and how we respond to what arises in our experience. In meditation practice, we train ourselves in being open and aware of what arises and in letting go of our habitual patterns of control and resistance. We train in becoming like the sea, which refuses no river.

Ani Lodro reminded me that a famous Korean Zen teacher once said that "wanting enlightenment is a big mistake." The mistake, in this case, is wanting and hoping for enlightenment in some future moment, which is equivalent to denying that the essence of enlightenment -- our own Buddha Nature -- is already here, right now, in this very moment of mind. Always hoping to attain enlightenment in some future moment, we blind ourselves to its existence in the present.

The problem is that we do not *really* believe in Buddha Nature; we don't *really* believe that there is an indestructible, radiant jewel hidden within the slime and muck of our present mind. Looking at the clouds of our obscurations, we don't *really* believe that there is a vast, open, blue sky beyond them. But how could there be clouds at all, without the blue sky to hold them?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Buddha Nature: Jewel in the Mud

Within the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism, it is said that the Buddha "turned the wheel of Dharma" three times -- i.e., that he unveiled his teachings in three major stages over the course of the four decades that he taught, progressively revealing with each turning an ever more refined and profound vision of reality. In the First Turning, he taught the basic, relative truths of suffering and the path to liberation from suffering. In the Second Turning, he taught the profound view of emptiness which is an antidote to our tendency to cling to any notion of the inherent reality of anything. In the Third Turning, he went even one step further than that, teaching on the awakened qualities of mind itself -- the inherent Buddha Nature of all sentient beings.

The essence of the teaching on Buddha Nature is that all beings possess the same potential for full awakening -- that the very nature of all beings is, in fact, enlightened mind itself, and that this enlightened mind which is common to all beings has simply been covered over and buried beneath lifetimes of bad habits, neuroses, and mental obscurations. Though hidden from view, our Buddha Nature is always there because it is what we most fundamentally are; no matter how thick or ugly the obscurations may be that cover it, like a radiant jewel caked in the blackest mud, Buddha Nature itself cannot be destroyed or changed by our obscurations.

We typically think of the spiritual path as being a process of acquiring and developing positive spiritual qualities that we don't yet possess -- yet, viewed from the perspective of the teachings on Buddha Nature, it is actually nothing more than the process of clearing away obscurations (the causes of our suffering) and revealing the radiant, awakened mind, full of positive qualities, that is already our essence. As Karl Brunnholzl puts it, "As long as there is suffering, that's called a sentient being. When there is no suffering, that's called a Buddha."

Just as ice does not function like water, Brunnholzl points out, but at the same time is not made of something different from water, in the same way sentient beings (which is to say, deluded beings) do not function like Buddhas but are not made of something different from Buddha nature.

One of the core obstacles to realizing and uncovering our Buddha Nature is that we believe so strongly in the solid reality of our obscurations. From our perspective on the ground looking up at a cloudy sky, the clouds obscure our view of the blue, open sky, and they seem so solid and real. Yet the blue, open sky itself is not affected in the slightest by the presence of those clouds, and the clouds themselves have no solid core. In the same way, the neuroses and obscurations of sentient beings are temporary and removable, while their Buddha Nature is beyond change.

Brunnholzl gives a very practical analogy for this. When we wash our clothes, we are not really purifying the clothes, we are purifying the dirt, which is adventitious. The natural state of the clothes is already pure.

In the Uttaratantra, Maitreya's seminal text on Buddha Nature, it is said that the Buddha gave the teachings on Buddha Nature to counteract five key obstacles that prevent us from recognizing our true nature: faintheartedness, arrogance, exaggeration, denial, and self-cherishing. (Ani Lodro, one of the nuns here at the Abbey, is currently teaching a class on the Uttaratantra. I'm grateful to her for clearly explaining these five obstacles and their antidotes.)

  • Faintheartedness is our habitual poverty mentality, our self-doubt, our depression, our laziness, our sense of lack, our conviction that we don't have what it takes to wake up. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that we have Buddha Nature already. This opens the door to a sense of joy and contentment.
  • Arrogance is our habitual contempt for what we perceive as inferior beings -- our tendency to look at others' faults and judge them, forgetting about their positive qualities and potential. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that *all* beings have Buddha Nature. This opens the door to developing Sacred Outlook, seeing one's entire world as sacred and regarding all beings as Buddhas, as teachers.
  • Exaggeration is putting too much emphasis on the relative, believing too much in the reality of our obscurations and neurosis and obstacles. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that our obscurations are like clouds, temporary and without any solid existence. This opens the door to relating to ourselves and our world with greater discernment and intelligence.
  • Denial is forgetting that our true nature is already here and now, and getting caught up in the search for fulfillment in dreams of the future or in external things -- the thought that maybe we'll be able to connect with Buddha Nature once we get such-and-such. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that there is nothing that could possibly be added to Buddha Nature to improve it, and nothing that needs to be done with it. This opens the door to develop strong motivation and enthusiastic effort.
  • Self-cherishing is clinging to personal comfort and sense pleasures as a substitute for relating to our true nature -- it's a basic sense of being stuck in materialism, and is rooted in a feeling of lack or need. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that we do not need anything. This opens the door to experiencing and radiating our inherent benevolence, generosity and warmth.

In our culture, which so heavily emphasizes the doctrine of Original Sin and the inherent neurosis and meaninglessness of human life (unless we believe we will be saved from damnation by an external being, a Creator God), the teachings on Buddha Nature are shocking in their positive vision of the potential of all sentient beings for awakening and enlightenment and sanity. The danger in hearing these teachings is that we might misinterpret them as an excuse for doing nothing -- after all, if our fundamental nature is already perfect, why bother meditating or exerting ourselves on the spiritual path?

Suzuki Roshi once looked out at a large audience of students and said: "You are all completely perfect...and you could use a little work."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Resistance Is Futile

I was listening recently to a teaching by Tara Brach. She quoted a Christian teacher, Anthony de Mello, who defined enlightenment, very beautifully I think, in the following simple terms: absolute cooperation with the inevitable.

If enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable, then, by contrast and by definition, ego is a bundle of strategies for putting up organized resistance -- the opposite of cooperation. Ego is perpetually locked in battle against the inevitable.

Think, for example, of the way in which we resist the truth of change. Change is completely inevitable, on every level, at all times, no matter what the situation or thing or person with which we are dealing. Our bodies are aging and decaying, inching moment by moment ever closer to death, the Big Kahuna of changes. Our creations crumble and fade, our wealth and possessions wax and wane. Our relationships are like rollercoasters, never providing us with the stability and security we seek from them; friends can turn to enemies, and even the most beloved and intimate partner can become a source of relentless torment, someone from whom we cannot wait to escape. None of the things at which we continually grasp can actually provide us with any solidity or permanence, because they are all constantly changing, never the same even from one moment to the next.

Intellectually, conceptually, we know all this. And yet, emotionally, our egos resist and struggle against this very obvious truth, and our emotional struggle against reality causes us a great deal of unnecessary anguish. Ego is forever waging war against the truth, hoping against all common sense that one of its strategies of resistance will finally result in a permanent, positive outcome that will make us happy and not be subject to change.

Operating from ego's perspective, we constantly shoot ourselves in the foot by placing our faith and our hope for permanence and security in things that are forever changing into something else. We work tirelessly at collecting all the best stuff around us, and when that stuff breaks down or gets stolen by someone else, we scramble to fix it or collect more stuff to replace it. We strive to establish relationships with the right people, and when those people begin to change into someone who no longer fulfills our wishes in the same way, we poison our relationships by struggling to prevent the other person from changing, as if we could turn them back to the way they were when they made us so happy.

Above all, there is one inevitable change, the Big Kahuna, which is so fundamentally threatening to ego that we dare not even think about it most of the time. It is not uncommon for human beings to go their entire lives without giving any serious thought to their own inevitable death, until one day it takes them by surprise. If that is our approach, then it is difficult to imagine meeting death in a state of total cooperation.

On the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation, there was a sinister, emotionless species called The Borg, a single-minded cyborg entity that was gradually expanding its dominance over the galaxy by transforming each new species it encountered into versions of itself. The Borg would always greet any non-Borg species with the blunt and unwelcome news: "You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile."

The Borg's generous advice -- don't struggle or you'll just make this worse -- contains great wisdom, although it's terrible news from ego's perspective. The simple fact is that we *will* be assimilated, despite all our struggles to the contrary, into the great Borg that is reality -- and reality is rarely to ego's liking. In fact, to be truly kind to ourselves, we could let ourselves in on a cosmic secret, which is that we already *are* assimilated -- we only *think* we are separate from the great, unceasing flow of change and interdependence that is Life. The more we can let go of our futile resistance and enter into a state of total cooperation with the inevitable, the less we will suffer.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On Spiritual Materialism

Recently I have been reading "Halfway Up the Mountain: The Error of Premature Claims to Enlightenment" by Mariana Caplan. I had this book on my bedside table last week, and a friend who was visiting my room saw the cover and scoffed. "They wrote an entire book about that?" he asked incredulously.

His question was reasonable if one thinks of it in terms of people claiming to have achieved ultimate and permanent enlightenment -- after all, there aren't that many people out there making such grandiose claims (though there are some, and one ought to regard their claims with a healthy dose of skepticism). The thought of making such claims may seem totally absurd, the furthest thing from our minds.

But even if we don't consciously pretend to lay claim to enlightenment, we are always doing so unconsciously, in small and subtle (or sometimes big and obvious) ways. This is because as long as we are on the path, we are never completely free of ego, and ego always tries to solidify and take ownership of its experiences -- even spiritual experiences.

"Spiritual materialism: using spirituality for the gratification of ego."

-- Reggie Ray

On the spiritual path, we may have genuine insights and experience profound states of mind -- perhaps even mystical or transcendental experiences. There is nothing wrong with these insights and experiences in themselves. The problem is that our ego wants to concretize them and hold on to them; it uses them to reinforce itself. The ego clutches to an experience or insight and says: "Look what *I* have realized."

When we attach to our spiritual experiences and try to use them to solidify our identity, we are indulging in what Chogyam Trungpa called "spiritual materialism." Instead of being attached to houses and cars and careers and lovers, we are attached to the spiritual path itself, and we build ourselves up based on the credentials and experiences we may acquire along the way. Traditionally, it is said that this is like binding ourselves in golden chains: they may look pretty and we might think that they are superior to ordinary metal chains, but they are still just chains. In fact, they're even more insidious because of our attachment to them, the fact that we think they are special. Caplan defines this type of self-aggrandizing imitation of spirituality as "using spirituality to avoid spirituality."

"Our vast collections of knowledge and experience are just a part of ego's display, part of the grandiose quality of ego," says Trungpa. "We display them to the world and, in so doing, reassure ourselves that we exist, safe and secure, as "spiritual" people."

Caplan expands on this: "Ordinary egos do the things that ordinary egos do: they think too much or too little of themselves; manipulate others and continuously try to gain the upper hand; act selfishly; lie, cheat, and steal a little. But spiritualized egos have their own game: they talk in a soft and spiritual tone; they create a certain facial glow or aura that they learn to emanate; they have 'intense' experiences regularly; they know the dharmically-correct answer to every situation. Anyone with minimal intelligence can take the dharma spiritual teaching and manipulate it from an egoic perspective."

Caplan continues: "Individuals who have spiritualized their egos are in a very precarious and unenviable situation, though they may fancy themselves the belles of the spiritual ball. They have essentially used spirituality as a defense mechanism to protect themselves from exposing themselves as they actually are, which is what real spirituality is about. Their know-it-all egos have become so well-versed in spirituality and created such a solid shell around them that there is almost no way for them to see that they have manipulated their knowledge to their own disservice. Since they know *everything* -- every dharmic explanation, every meditative state -- there is no genuine openness for them to see that their 'knowing everything' is precisely what stands in the way of their spiritual life."

Reading such a description, we may immediately think of several other people we know, or have met, who seem to fit the bill (I'm certainly thinking of one, as I write this). What we are less apt to see is how our own state of mind is often mired in such attitudes, in greater or lesser ways. When we compare ourselves to other practitioners and look down on them for *their* spiritual materialism, we have finally gotten our knickers in such a twist that we can't even see that we are guilty of the very thing for which we judge and condemn them.

We constantly project our shadow material, the things we sense about ourselves that we don't like, onto other people. And there always seem to be one or two people in our lives who are especially good targets for our shadow projections. As Pema Chodron points out, when you come to live in a small monastery with 30 or 40 other people, those individuals tend to show up as your roommate or someone from whom you really can't escape. The element of choicelessness that's built into the situation forces you to interact constantly with the people who irritate you and push your buttons.

If we are open to seeing our own crap and cutting through it, such close encounters of the irritating kind can be a rich opportunity for spiritual growth and insight. But if we continue with the habit of using bothersome people and situations to reinforce our judgmentalism and our image of ourselves as being more psychologically or spiritually evolved than So-and-So (poor, misguided practitioner that they are), then we are simply binding ourselves in the golden chains of ego.