Monday, August 31, 2009

Boredom is Unacceptable

I wouldn't say that I'm immune to boredom, but it's not something that I experience much -- and when a feeling of boredom does crop up in my mind, I try to send it packing pretty quickly. For many years -- since long before I started practicing meditation -- I've held a low opinion of boredom and of those people who talk a lot about being bored. Boredom, it has always seemed to me, is a state of almost criminal ignorance, a willful turning of a blind eye to the fundamental truth that what is happening in the present moment is never uninteresting.

I tend to get a lot of suspicious glares and skepticism from fellow Buddhists when I talk about this. Buddhists, apparently, hold the concept of boredom in some kind of high regard. Chogyam Trungpa, the great Tibetan meditation master, spoke about boredom as being a core part of the spiritual path, and described two types of boredom: "hot" boredom, the type that is so strong and uncomfortable that you almost can't sit still, and "cool" boredom, a more realistic mindset that you settle into when you begin to transform and overcome your "hot" boredom through consistent meditation practice.

When I tell other Buddhists that I don't really experience boredom, they look at me as if I were mad, or merely deluding myself. Perhaps, they think, I just haven't really gotten down to the real stuff yet, the nitty-gritty. They look at me with pity and assure me that I'll get there sooner or later. Perhaps they are right. But it has always seemed to me that boredom springs from a state of mind that completely misses the point.

This is not to say that I don't experience what other people might call boredom. I am restless and easily distracted, and the resistance my ego puts up towards practice is sometimes so fierce that even staying on my cushion for an entire session is a battle between two opposing wills within myself. (This is the blessing of group practice: my choices are reduced, and I'm compelled to sit there because I don't want to disturb other people.) I suspect those experiences are what Chogyam Trungpa meant by "hot" boredom. But if I am reluctant to call a duck a duck, it is because I don't see even my most extreme moments of restlessness and resistance as moments of boredom. If I really look at them, even those moments are, in all their hotness and discomfort, fundamentally interesting and mysterious -- even fascinating. How could the question of boredom enter the picture?

Boredom is the little temper tantrum the ego throws when the present moment doesn't satisfy its demands and doesn't provide sufficient entertainment value. It is an inherently childish, petulant emotional state that can operate only when we choose to depreciate and devalue -- which is to say, to ignore -- the moment that is right in front of us. Boredom arises because we think "nothing is happening," but this is a deeply unrealistic and jaundiced view of our actual experience. Each moment of consciousness, whether it meets the demands of the ego or not, has arisen from a complex web of interrelated causes and conditions stretching across the entire universe. It appears before us for this single instant only, and disappears again as quickly as it arose. And it will never be repeated. Never. Boredom can arise only when we are deluded enough to believe that the same moment, the same experience, is repeating itself.

"I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it," Alice Walker wrote in "The Color Purple." But isn't this just what we do when we are bored? We fail to notice the beauty and the details of ordinary experience because we distort them with broad, dumb labels and concepts: "Field." "Flowers." When we slow down enough to actually *see* purple flowers in a field, to actually see and take an interest in the details of our experience beyond concept, we find that everything, at all times, is vivid and shocking in being just what it is.

So I'll plant my flag in the ground and state my case clearly; Buddhists can give me all the flack they want, but I'll stick to my guns on this (at least for now). Boredom is a totally unacceptable and frivolous way of relating to our human experience. It's morally repugnant, and it's for dummies. It's time we all grew up and put boredom away, along with our imaginary friends, our belief in Santa Claus, and other childhood coping mechanisms.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Hungry Ghosts

The Buddhist depiction of the Six Realms of existence is, on the one hand, a traditional way of categorizing the various types of beings that are said to exist: from the lowest, most miserable hell-beings up to the most blissed-out, prideful gods -- and everything (including human beings) in-between.

But more to the point, the Six Realms are a way of looking at how we tend to solidify ourselves into certain states of mind that color our experience of the world based on the mental habits we cultivate. A person who repeatedly indulges in anger becomes more and more easily angered, until at last he finds himself locked in a hell-realm state of mind where everything constantly pisses him off and he's always at war with his own life and everyone he meets. A person who repeatedly indulges in self-pity and despair becomes more and more easily trapped in those feelings, until at last she finds herself mired in the quicksand of an ongoing depression that seems, to her, inescapable.

No one likes being pop-psychoanalyzed by another person who doesn't fully understand them, or who tries to reduce the complexity of their experience using an overly simplistic formula. Using the Six Realms to explain another person's depression, rage, addiction or other negative states of mind runs the risk of being mis-applied as this kind of Buddhist pop-psychology, a reductionist approach to a complex phenomenon that is made up of many factors. Telling someone who's locked in a struggle to the death with their own emotions that it's all in their mind is obviously too glib, and of course it's easy to say this when you're sitting comfortably outside of the war zone of that person's life. Still, the Six Realms do provide a helpful way of understanding the full spectrum of human psychology, as well as its elasticity: they show how thoughts and emotions can, over time, snowball into full-blown, seemingly intractable neuroses. (Emphasis here is on the adverb, seemingly. From the Buddhist point of view, nothing in our mind or experience is really as solid as it appears.)

Imagine there's no Heaven -- it's easy if you try.
No Hell below us -- above us, only sky.

-- John Lennon, "Imagine"

In the schema of the Six Realms, the second-lowest realm -- just above the Hell Realm -- is called the Hungry Ghost realm. Here, it is said, beings go through extreme anguish because they are hungry and thirsty, but their mouths are so small and their throats so thin that they cannot swallow much of anything. For a Hungry Ghost, there is never enough -- no satisfaction, and no rest. This image is a good metaphor for what happens to us when we get trapped in poverty mentality and depression. Tara Brach calls it the "trance of unworthiness": the all-pervasive feeling that there's something wrong with me, that I'm not sufficient to face the circumstances of my life. Like a Hungry Ghost, when we get trapped in poverty mentality, we cannot allow in positive thoughts or emotions because we are so focused on what is wrong with us, or what is wrong with life. If you have ever held a conversation with someone who was in the throes of a severe depression, or with an addict who was locked in the throes of addiction, then you actually know very well what a Hungry Ghost looks like. (If you've ever been one of those people yourself, then you also know what being a Hungry Ghost feels like.)

Western psychology now takes a largely materialist approach to explaining our negative states of mind, relating them primarily to the body and to chemical imbalances that can be corrected with pharmaceutical intervention. From the Western point of view, there is little or no difference between the mind and the brain. Buddhist psychology, on the other hand, holds that mind and body are involved in a mutually dependent relationship, but mind and matter are not the same thing. There is a feedback loop between mind and body in the sense that one's mental habits and the phenomena arising in one's material body reinforce each other. This feedback loop can be a virtuous circle or a vicious one, depending on the kinds of habits we cultivate.

Through years (or lifetimes) of habituation, of training ourselves in certain patterns of thought and emotion, each of us develops a "set-point": a more or less hardened, habitual way of relating to our experience. Our set-point can seem like a very solid thing -- and we're good at justifying it, explaining why we cannot deviate very much from it. I feel this way because of X, Y and Z. "I lost my job, I had a bad childhood, society did me wrong, I've experienced trauma, I've been diagnosed with such-and-such, I have a chemical imbalance that causes me to feel this way." We build our identity around these wounds; they become the core around which we weave the cocoon of our own suffering. Eckhart Tolle, in "The Power of Now," calls this the "pain-body," an invisible but pervasive cloud of mental anguish and sorrow that we carry around and project onto the situations and people we encounter -- like Pig-Pen in the Peanuts cartoons, who goes everywhere surrounded by a cloud of his own dirt and stink.

Our "set-point" defines the psychological realm we live in. Operating from that habitual starting place, we tend to use everything that happens to us as bricks in the walls we are constantly building around ourselves. The thicker and higher we build the walls, the harder it becomes to see beyond them -- in fact, we forget we are even building them. We become totally convinced that this is who we actually are -- a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. But our conviction, our belief in the solidity of the walls of our realm, is the only thing that really keeps us trapped there. In other words, when we become enclosed in one of the Six Realms, we become our own jailers. From the inside, the walls that enclose us appear to be "out there," and so we search "out there" for freedom. But we are the only ones who could possibly hold the key to such a self-made prison.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lust in the Dust

In Buddhism's extensive teachings on how to work with the kleshas, or afflictive emotions, anger usually receives the lion's share of attention. This is not without good reason: in a moment of unmanaged anger, we can commit negative actions whose consequences will stay with us for the rest of our lives (and for future lives, too, say Buddhists). A single flash of strong anger, unrecognized and acted upon, can be like a small match that burns down the entire house of our best intentions. Anger and its kissing cousin, hatred, are the root of violence and suffering at every level of society, from personal relationships to wars between nations.

Our emphasis on working with anger means that the other kleshas -- desire and jealousy and willful ignorance and pride and so forth -- sometimes get the short end of the stick. Yet these mind-states can be just as problematic and painful as anger; we can just as easily lock ourselves into a realm of suffering when we get caught up in these emotions and act out on them. And people have different propensities based on their own karmic disposition: some naturally get angry at the drop of a hat, but others more easily get lost in pride or jealousy or some other klesha.

Desire is especially problematic for many people, myself included. In fact, I sometimes think that anger -- destructive as it is -- is relatively easy for us to catch before it can do any harm, but desire can be much more tricky and difficult to see in action. As with anger, unmanaged feelings of desire -- especially if blindly acted upon -- can cause tremendous suffering. Feelings of desire arise in response to an object -- a thing or a person or an experience -- that is perceived as desirable, and the emotion then takes on the particular coloring of lust, greed, clinging, obsession, and so on. When desire spins out of control and becomes our dominant mind-state, we slip into addictions of all kinds and get lost in compulsive poverty-mentality. We feel that we are incomplete unless we have the desired object.

Lust, in particular, is something we work with a lot these days. Surely people have always been afflicted and driven by feelings of lust -- same as it ever was -- but there is also something to be observed about our present-day society's conflicted obsession with sex. We are hypnotized by youth and beauty and virility, and we are manipulated with sexual images to buy cars and shaving cream. We go to the gym to reshape our bodies to make them more desirable to others; we twist and augment our faces through surgery to create the illusion of youth and attractiveness; we take medications to remain sexually active right up to the door of the nursing home, and perhaps beyond. According to the Playboy philosophy of life that is celebrated in our culture, the very point of living is to experience lust and to satisfy our lusts, and the man who dies surrounded by the most hot, surgically augmented babes in bikinis -- human toys -- is the winner.

From the perspective of the Buddhist teachings, lust is like any other emotional state. It is a powerful, vivid arising of raw energy within the mind, and -- depending on what we do with that energy -- it has the potential to give rise to extreme neurosis or extreme wisdom. Lust can be powerful fuel for waking up and recognizing the nature of mind if we relate to its energy directly and fully; but because we don't know how to relate to it properly, it becomes fuel for the fires of delusion and suffering into which we habitually put ourselves. Through analytical meditation and practices like Mahamudra, we can begin to disassemble the experience of lust -- like any other thought or emotion -- and see through its inner workings. This process of insight doesn't necessarily rid us of lust (as if that would even be desirable), but it gives us new perspective and space around the experience so that we can relate more skillfully to lust when it does arise.

When we see an object (or person) that arouses our desire, we form an image of that object in our minds; this image continues to haunt us even when the object itself is no longer in front of us. We perceive this image through a dualistic lens, as if we are over here and the image of the desired object is over there. Because it is perceived as something real and separate, it gains a certain power over us; it has the capacity to torment us because we then feel that we must bring it into ourselves, we must possess it.

What we fail to see, most of the time, is that this image of the desired object is a projection of our own minds. Like any thought, it is a ripple of mind itself -- not something apart from mind -- and it has no substantiality, nothing in it that can be grasped or dispelled. We also overlook the key fact that the desirability we attribute to the perceived object is, yet again, a figment of our own minds. What we perceive as desirable is a projection based on our own habitual patterns (a.k.a. "karma"), but it has no more substantial or objective basis in reality than the image in our imaginations.

Think about it: the image in your mind that evokes such a strong and solid reaction of lust in you might very well evoke a reaction of total disgust and revulsion from the person sitting next to you, if that very same image were to pop into his or her mind. Rationally, we know that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," as the old adage goes; but our emotional experience and the behavior that springs from it usually do not mirror what we know rationally to be the case. At an emotional level, we think that the object itself possesses the characteristics of desirability.

His Holiness the 17th Karmapa touched on this point when he taught in New York City in 2008. The problem, he said, is not that we feel attraction or revulsion towards something — it’s that we go too far, and one-sidedly adopt or reject an entire thing on the basis of one (or a few) attributes — we confuse the attributes with the thing that appears to possess them.

Lust, like any emotion, is a chain reaction. Once we have seen the object and fixed our minds upon it as a desirable thing, then a powerful swell of energy arises in response. This energy is so strong that it causes immediate physical changes in our bodies: we grow flushed and hot, our heart beats faster and our throat tightens, our whole gut seems to clench with the feeling of longing and desire -- and, of course, other body parts also respond as nature intended for them to do. (I read about a scientific study of sexual arousal in male subjects that used sensitive instruments to record changes in blood flow to the reproductive organ in response to various types of arousing images. The study demonstrated that our bodies are much more accurate gauges of lust than our minds. Sometimes our bodies even respond with arousal to things that our conscious minds don't recognize as attractive.) Along with this physical response comes a state of mind that fixates one-pointedly on the perceived object and says, "I must have this, and I cannot rest or be happy until I do."

This raw, vivid energy of lust arising in the mind and body can be extremely uncomfortable, almost unbearable, and our standard reaction is to look for some way to suppress it (stuff it down and pretend it doesn't exist) or to release it (act out on it, merge with the lust-object). But when we take either of these habitual exits away from the uncomfortable feeling of lust, we miss the opportunity to look directly at this powerful manifestation of mind's energy and to glimpse its true nature. By attempting to escape from the rawness of lust through suppressing it or acting out on it, we reinforce our mistaken belief in the solid reality of our thoughts and perceptions; we compound the illusion that the thoughts and feelings experienced in lust are separate from the mind that experiences them. And we strengthen the mental template that programs us to react with lust, in the future, whenever a similar kind of image arises in our minds or appears to us in the external world.

When kleshas get me going
And their heat has got me burning
I try no antidote to set them right.
Like an alchemistic potion turning metal into gold,
What lies in kleshas' power to bestow
Is bliss without contagion, completely undefiled.
Kleshas coming up -- sheer delight!

-- Gyalwa Gotsangpa (1189-1258)

The Vajrayana Buddhist teachings on emotions tell us that the raw, naked energy of a strong emotion such as lust is nothing other than the wisdom of awakened mind itself -- like a powerful wave arising in the ocean of mind. Just as a wave takes its particular shape and form due to conditions such as wind and current, our lusts and desires arise and take their particular shape and form due to conditions within us -- conditions that we ourselves have created, but which we cannot always see. When we fixate on the wave, on our lust and its illusory object, and think that it's solid and real and something has to be done about it, we lose sight of the ocean that is our true being. We actually forget who we are.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Are Your Thoughts Killing You?

That was the question posed, in large block lettering, on a flyer I used to see taped to streetlamp poles and phonebooths all around New York City, advertising some type of mind-control therapy. As a meditator I've frequently wrestled with an overactive mind -- sometimes to the point of exhaustion -- and whenever I saw that flyer I wanted to respond, emphatically: "YES!"

When we begin to practice meditation, most of us are in for a rude awakening. We sit down on our cushion with the hope and intention of experiencing clarity and peace -- and maybe we do find moments of that -- but more often than not, we are confronted with a mind that seems to have a mind of its own, one that has no respect for our hopes or our intentions of being good meditators. If we aren't sliding into dullness and sleepiness, we are wild and agitated, jumping from thought to thought and unable to stay with the object of meditation.

This first, naked experience of mind's habitual wildness can be shocking and disheartening, and many beginning meditators give up at this point. Tenzin Palmo compares this to someone who sits down at the piano for the first time to learn to play and, within minutes, gives up in frustration because they cannot immediately play a Beethoven concerto. Who in their right mind would approach learning to play the piano that way? And yet, so many people do precisely this with meditation.

In his book "Mindfulness in Plain English," Bhante Henepola Gunaratana beautifully captures the feeling of this experience:

Somewhere in this process, you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels, barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way and you never noticed.

Much of the language we use to talk about meditation can give us the mistaken, even dangerous idea that we are supposed to be aiming for a state of meditation that is thought-free. Thoughts are seen as distractions and detours away from the object of meditation, something to be avoided -- in fact, for many of us, much of the time, thoughts are regarded as the enemy, a nemesis that constantly lurks and springs out of the bushes at every turn to startle us and spoil our feeble attempts to abide peacefully. If we believe we are "supposed" to be meditating without thoughts, but find that the mind is continually thinking in spite of our best intentions, then it becomes easy for us to fall into the trap of adopting an adversarial relationship to our thoughts. But that way madness lies.

We cannot control our mind's tendency to think any more than we can control the sun's tendency to shine. Milarepa, in his song of realization, "The Six Questions," said: "Mind's impulse to sudden thought cannot be stopped by hundreds with spears." Imagine that all the warriors from the movie "300" gathered in a circle around you and threatened to impale you with their spears and swords if you had a single thought -- even then, under penalty of a gruesome and violent death, you still could not suppress your mind's impulse towards thought. In fact, it seems like the more we desire to be thought-free, the more wild and numerous our thoughts become. Our minds, like wild animals, don't like being backed into a corner. If you try to meditate by suppressing your thoughts, it becomes like one of those Whack-a-Mole games at a carnival -- each time one critter pops up and you smash it over the head with the mallet, another one pops up somewhere else.

In a Dharma talk I was listening to recently, Tara Brach pointed out that our mind's strong habitual tendency towards conceptual thought is actually part and parcel of our genetic heritage as human beings. Our vision and our hearing and our sense of smell are pretty pathetic in the animal kingdom, but our ability to think and strategize has enabled our species to dominate life on earth (and, unfortunately, to destroy much of it). From an evolutionary point of view, it's no wonder that our biggest advantage as a species has such a powerful sway on our minds. So why, then, do we torture ourselves, yearning to achieve the impossible, to avoid the unavoidable? Why do we try to meditate without thoughts?

The problem can become even worse if we do experience periods of non-thought in meditation. Such experiences do arise, if only briefly, and they can be blissful and thrilling because they match our idealized concept of what meditation is "supposed" to feel like. But if we latch onto these experiences and try to perpetuate them, or try to resuscitate them after they've passed -- which they invariably do -- then we fall back in the same old trap of not relating naturally to what's happening right now. If thoughts are what is arising in the present moment, then we need to find a way to relate naturally to our thoughts.

In the radical Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions of meditation, thoughts and emotions are viewed as the spontaneous display and movement of wisdom itself. Not only are thoughts or emotions *not* regarded as a problem in meditation -- from a yogi's point of view, they are extremely good news. The more thoughts the merrier. Thoughts and emotions are not separate from mind's innate clarity and luminosity; they are, in fact, its very display and brilliance, and therefore they make mind's luminosity and clarity easier to see.

The problem is not that thoughts arise -- it's how we react to them when they do arise. Normally, we react to our thoughts somewhat hysterically, labeling them as good or bad thoughts and trying to string out and sustain the good ones and suppress or push away the bad ones. But thoughts actually have no substance; they arise spontaneously from the empty nature of mind, and they naturally dissolve back into that same emptiness -- as long as we don't interfere with them. The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says that we are always bothering our thoughts, trying to change them into something they are not, trying to make them permanent and solid through our attachment and aversion. Imagine, he says, how you would feel if there were someone who tried to grab you every time you passed by and wanted to change you and manipulate you and give you a new haircut and a new outfit, and simply wouldn't leave you alone. This is how we relate to our thoughts most of the time.

Thoughts, say the Mahamudra and Dzogchen masters, dissolve naturally in the very same instant they arise -- like drawing on the surface of water -- unless we get involved in trying to adopt or reject them. "Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky," wrote Trungpa Rinpoche in the Sadhana of Mahamudra.

In his commentaries on Dzogchen, the great Dza Patrul Rinpoche said that if you lack this realization of thoughts as being self-arisen and self-liberated, then your meditation practice -- no matter how sincere and diligent -- will be merely the path of delusion. You might have some good experiences and think that your practice is bearing fruit because your mental afflictions are temporarily suppressed, but when you encounter adverse circumstances, "the rotten corpse of your thoughts will rise again."

"A single instant of self-liberated awareness," he writes, "is superior to a thousand experiences of a still mind."

If we really want to get on with this business of liberation and awakening, we need to stop kidding ourselves about our thoughts and emotions. As long as we continue to regard the thoughts that arise in our minds as friends or enemies, as good or bad, and continue trying to adopt the good ones and reject the bad ones -- as if any of them had any real substance to begin with -- then we will keep binding ourselves in the cycle of suffering, like a snake that someone has tied in a knot. Just as the snake naturally and easily frees itself from the knot when left to its own devices, our thoughts and emotions are self-liberated in the very instant they arise -- with just one catch. We have to stop bothering them, and let them be as they are.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Let Go and Relax

Buddhist meditation instructions are littered with references to relaxation and reminders to relax. In the Mahamudra tradition of Tibet, it is said that those with the greatest degree of relaxation achieve the most profound meditation, those with middling relaxation achieve middling meditation, and those with lesser relaxation -- well, "forget about it," as Ponlop Rinpoche once joked.

Earlier this week, I quoted Milarepa's classic Mahamudra meditation instruction:

Throughout the day and night, look at your mind.
When you look at your mind, you don't see anything.
When you don't see anything, let go and relax.

At a retreat I once attended, we were compelled to sing those three lines from Milarepa's song over and over and over, countless times, with an irritating nursery-rhyme melody that often drove me crazy. But it did have the intended effect of lodging this instruction permanently in a part of our brains where it is unlikely to be erased even by senile dementia.

Indeed, this instruction to "let go and relax" seems to be one of the most recurrent themes of the teachings I've received from Ponlop Rinpoche and other Tibetan teachers. This line is so often repeated among Ponlop Rinpoche's students, and has become such a hallmark of his teachings (both in groups, and on a more personal, individual level), that I've come to think of it as one of his main instructions to his students in the West. As such, in spite of its apparent simplicity, I think it merits a profound degree of contemplation.

In certain Zen traditions, students receive a koan -- a sort of confusing, quite possibly unanswerable question -- that they will chew on for months or even years before coming to some experience and realization of its meaning. "Let go and relax" has this koan-like quality.

But how exactly does one put this instruction into practice? Is it as easy to do as it sounds? If so, why don't we actually do it all the time? Why should we need to be reminded so often about something so simple? Why are these teachers always trying to drill into our minds the notion of letting go and relaxing?

I'll go out on a limb here and say it's because they see how not-relaxed we actually are most of the time, how much we hold on to things with our minds and simply don't let go. We all have, in varying degrees, an enormous amount of training and habituation in being not-relaxed, in being tense and worried and fearful and bothered and lustful and jealous and ambitious and angry and numbed-out and closed down. We are exceedingly well-trained and talented at being busy and always *doing* something -- strategizing, planning, striving, contriving, and conniving. With such a perpetual flurry of activity and tension as our habitual state of mind, it's no wonder that the instruction to "let go and relax" seems shocking and revolutionary to us. It's also no wonder we find it so difficult to put into practice.

But...once do you actually *do* it? In his book "Wake Up to Your Life," Ken McLeod writes about the confusion that arises for meditation students when they mix up a practice's method with its effects -- they end up thinking they're supposed to be practicing the effects. McLeod observes that books on meditation often include vague, fruitional instructions like "Open your mind," "Be centered," "Let your mind be empty," or "Be one with your body." Frustrated students often "can't figure out what to do," McLeod says, "because these 'instructions' are effects of practice, not methods."

"Tell a tense person to relax, and he will usually become tenser in the effort," says McLeod. "He is tense because he doesn't know how to relax. Tell him to take a deep breath, let it out slowly, then take another breath, and let it out slowly. Then he will relax. The method is breathing slowly and deeply. The result is relaxation."

In addition to deep breathing, tuning into our sensory experience is one way to bring ourselves out of the trance of thinking and into the present moment, so that relaxation even becomes possible. As long as our mind is spinning and we've lost direct contact with our embodied experience in the present, there is little space for relaxation to arise. But the body is incapable of deceit; unlike the mind, the body cannot drift into the past or the future, and it cannot pretend to be anywhere other than where it is right now. By becoming aware of what is happening, right now, in our body and in our senses, we can tune the radio dial of our minds into that present-moment station where it's always "easy listening" -- that is, if we allow it to be, if we refrain from trying to change the dial the instant we hear something that makes us bored or uncomfortable.

One thing is for sure: we're not going to succeed in thinking our way into a state of relaxation. For Zen students, the breakthrough in koan practice seems to come when they reach a point where the whole strenuous, intellectual effort to *think* about the koan's meaning falls apart, and in the wake of that collapse a non-conceptual realization is able to dawn.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Look at Your Mind

There are almost as many different kinds of Buddhist meditation practice as there are practicing Buddhists. But roughly speaking, they can all be grouped into two types, called (in the Tibetan tradition) shamatha and vipashyana.

The first, shamatha (usually translated as "calm abiding" or "peaceful abiding"), is concerned with cultivating the mind's natural stability and calmness, its ability to stay present and to remain aware of what is happening here and now. When we practice shamatha, we come face-to-face with our own mind's strong habitual tendencies towards distraction and discursiveness, towards every type of mental chatter and commentary, and towards disturbing emotional states. To our dismay, we come to see how much time we typically spend lost in trains of thought that are largely concerned with reviewing the past or speculating about the future or commenting discursively upon the present, which are all ways of distancing ourselves from our actual experience here and now. Slowly, and sometimes painfully, we practice at recognizing whenever these tendencies have pulled us away from the object of our meditation, and simply coming back, again and again and again, to natural presence. Our minds are like willful and unruly dogs, and in shamatha we simply train the dogs to stay...stay...stay.

Uncovering our mind's natural ability to stay present and calm and relaxed is a huge step forward on the spiritual path; it can bring a sense of joy and contentment and purpose to our lives. But we can also grow overly attached to the tranquility we discover in shamatha meditation, forgetting that it's a necessary step along the path but not the whole path. To gain true liberation from suffering, we need to do more than steady and calm our minds -- we need to apply the calm, steady mind to see through our own delusions and develop a clear and genuine understanding of reality. That's where vipashyana (usually translated as "clear seeing" or "higher seeing" or "insight meditation") comes in.

Without getting caught in attachment to shamatha's pool
May vipashyana's flowers burst into open bloom

-- Milarepa

Tenzin Palmo is a Buddhist nun from England who spent twelve years meditating in strict solitary retreat in an isolated cave high up in the Himalayas. She describes this process of moving from shamatha to vipashyana with the metaphor of a film projector. We normally experience the world -- and even practice shamatha meditation -- as if we were sitting in a movie theater, looking outward and focusing on whatever images are projected on the screen of the phenomenal world in front of us. In vipashyana practice, however, we turn our attention around, no longer hypnotized by the images in front of us, and we look at the actual projector of the mind and at the clear light that is streaming through it. We turn our mind inward, as it were, and look directly at the looker.

This business of looking directly at the mind is extremely tricky. It is a bit like the eyeballs trying to see themselves -- which is obviously impossible. The "looking," in this case, is not a visual sort of looking, but an open inquiry into the nature of our own experience. We simply try to observe the observer, to experience that which is experiencing. But we very quickly discover that mind is a slippery fish, and as soon as we think we've caught it by the tail, we are probably mistaken. What we see when we look directly at the mind is that mind itself is a baffling paradox, a "mystery wrapped in an enigma" as the cliche goes.

Where is the mind? Is it inside or outside the body? What is mind's relationship to the body? What is mind made of? How do we experience it? Does it have color or shape or form, or any kind of substantial characteristics at all? Does it have a location? Does it start or end somewhere that we can pinpoint?

As we investigate the mind through exploring such questions in meditation, all our previously held viewpoints about the mind and the "self" begin to tremble and fall apart under the pressure of analysis. Finally, we see that they were only a pitiful facade of baseless assumptions and inferences to begin with, and we are left with a naked experience of mind that defies conventional logic and rationality. When we look at the mind in this way, not only do we *not* see what we probably expected to see -- we don't actually see anything at all (at least nothing we can put our finger on). Milarepa, the legendary Tibetan master of Mahamudra meditation from the eleventh century CE, said that when we see this -- or, rather, when we don't see it -- all that remains to do is to simply let go and relax into that very mystery of being, the enigma of awareness itself.

Throughout the day and night, look at your mind.
When you look at your mind, you don't see anything.
When you don't see anything, let go and relax.

-- Milarepa

Great masters of meditation such as Milarepa or His Holiness the Karmapa are able, it is said, to remain in this state of relaxed awareness 24 hours a day, even while they sleep. Discursive thoughts and emotions are no longer capable of throwing these masters off the horse of mind; horse and rider have become one. For the rest of us, squeezing meditation in-between our day jobs and our hectic lives, perhaps an occasional glimpse of mind's natural state arises, and then disappears. But even a single glimpse can transform and motivate us, leaving an enduring taste in our mouths for enlightenment.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Do the Right Thing

In Buddhism there are various ways of talking about ethics and ethical behavior: the Eightfold Noble Path, the Ten Virtuous and the Ten Non-Virtuous Actions, the Six Paramitas, the Five Lay Precepts, and so on. While each of these schema come at the subject from different angles, they are all concerned with three key points:

  • Refraining from causing harm (to oneself or others)
  • Practicing virtue (or doing good, creating benefit)
  • Taming and training the mind completely

It is said that these three points encapsulate all the teachings of the Buddha. Practicing these three points is the essence of following the Buddhist path.

In Buddhism there is no external Creator who lays down the law and tells us what is right and what is wrong. There is no Moses coming down the mountain with tablets of Commandments inscribed by God speaking from the burning bush. Rather, there are basic, common-sense principles for conduct, based on the natural laws of cause and effect. We can test these principles in our own experience and see for ourselves how it works: committing so-called "negative" actions leads to unhappy results, while committing so-called "positive" actions leads to happy results. But this does not result in a black and white moral code, a list of "Thou Shalt Nots." The positive or negative charge of any action is always shaped by our intentions, and under certain circumstances, with certain intentions, an action that appears outwardly negative may actually be quite positive, and vice versa.

The Five Precepts are one way of understanding the notion of ethical conduct. In different Buddhist traditions, there are various ways of phrasing and interpreting the Five Precepts (ranging from conservative to liberal), but basically they are:

1: Refraining from killing. Recognizing that all sentient beings value their own life just as we do, we undertake to do our best to refrain from taking the life of any sentient being. One of the things we discover as we practice this precept is how deeply we are embedded in the web of life and death, and how much death actually occurs all the time in order to keep us alive (if we contemplate the food chain, for example, we see how many beings died in order to bring us our food -- even if we are vegetarians). But by making the effort to refrain from killing as much as possible, we discover in ourselves a deeper respect (and even affection) for the lives of all creatures -- a sacred outlook that includes all living beings, even spiders and creepy-crawlies.

2: Refraining from stealing. Recognizing that all beings value their own property and possessions, we undertake to do our best to refrain from taking anything that isn't freely offered. This could include not only material possessions, but things like time and attention and energy -- how often do we steal those things from another person?

3: Refraining from sexual misconduct. Recognizing the potential mayhem that can be caused when we misuse our sexuality, we undertake to do our best to refrain from sexual misconduct. It is said that the Buddha recognized the tremendous power of his own sexual energy, and said that if he had been subject to another instinctual drive as strong as sex, he probably would not have been able to attain enlightenment. In Buddhism, sexual misconduct is not defined mechanically as this or that bodily activity, but rather as any sexual behavior that might cause harm to oneself or others; thus, there are certain basic things to avoid, such as adultery (someone always gets hurt), or promiscuously spreading sexually transmitted diseases. Ultimately, our sexual relationships should be wise and mature, based on mutual respect and affection, not just a matter of selfishly using other people to gratify our physical urges.

4: Refraining from wrong speech. Recognizing that our speech has a powerful effect on our own mind and on the minds of others, we undertake to do our best to refrain from speaking in unskillful ways. This precept is sometimes translated as refraining from lying (speaking with intent to deceive others), but unskillful speech includes more than just lying. We also cause harm when we speak harshly with intent to hurt someone's feelings or to malign another person, to cause divisions between other people, or even when we simply indulge in pointless, idle chatter to fill up the empty space, robbing ourselves and others of mindfulness.

5: Refraining from abuse of intoxicants. Recognizing that all Buddhist practice is about gaining greater clarity and presence of mind, we undertake to do our best to refrain from damaging that clarity and clouding our presence of mind through abuse of alcohol and other intoxicating substances.

Observing the Five Precepts can help us accomplish the three key points of the Buddhist path: refraining from causing harm, practicing virtue, and taming the mind completely. The first two points relate to each of the precepts very directly, but the third -- taming the mind -- is less obvious. But consider what happens in our mindstream if we steal something, for example -- think of how much energy and time we then devote to feeling guilty and worrying about getting caught. If we speak falsely to deceive others, think of how clouded and jumbled our mind becomes with our own lies and alibis and the fear of being exposed as a liar, until we get so mixed up that we can't even remember what story we told to whom. If we get drunk or high on drugs, it is difficult to think clearly, let alone to meditate effectively the next day; even putting aside the question of what we do when we're intoxicated, the recovery time alone is a huge drain on our physical energy and clarity of mind.

Thus, building a good foundation of ethical behavior removes obstacles -- from our own mindstreams and from our relationships with others -- that would otherwise prevent us from progressing along the spiritual path. It creates peace of mind and clears the way for awakening to unfold naturally -- that is, as long as we don't get hung up on our concepts of morality, or attached to our self-image of being a "good" person or a "good" Buddhist. If we turn the Five Precepts, for example, into a rigid moral code, then it's like putting on a wonderful pair of shoes and tying our shoelaces together -- we won't get far that way.