Thursday, September 24, 2009

Put Away Childish Things

Lately I've been reflecting on maturity, and what it really means -- and especially what it means on the spiritual path. So much of what we strive to accomplish and to become through spiritual practice is, in essence, about simply and fundamentally and properly growing up, becoming genuinely mature human beings. And, by the same token, so much of what causes us anguish in life, what keeps us trapped in cycles of suffering, is overwhelmingly about childish concerns and about refusing to grow up.

In contemplating this, I was reminded of Zen teacher Norman Fischer's book, "Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up," which I read several years ago. At the time I read it, I don't think I was quite ready to receive its message, and for the most part it went in one eye and out the other. But I went back to look at Fischer's book, and found that it's a rich and meaningful dive into this seldom-explored topic of spiritual maturity. Fischer states the basic problem very concisely:

"[Most] of us are terrified by the idea of growing up -- or would be if we ever considered the idea seriously. Mostly we don't. We usually take maturity for granted, as one of life's givens. You reach a certain age, you get out of school, you get a job, maybe you marry or settle down, maybe not, but time goes by and you're a grown-up. You get a diploma, a credit card, a job, a car, a house or apartment. After you acquire these emblematic prizes, each of which feels like a milestone, you are there. You are an adult. What more is there to it than that? We think growing up, becoming a mature human being, is natural, almost biological, something we all do automatically simply by virtue of the passage of years and the natural course of things. Life happens to us and we go along with it, and there we are, grown up, developed, wise people.

[But] when we...contemplate the question of what it really means to be an adult, fear sets in. We recognize that despite our social position or accomplishments, despite our relationships, our education, and our psychological astuteness, we really don't know what we're doing with our lives. Where is our life going? What is the purpose for which we were born, the fulfillment we deeply seek? We look like grown-ups, we talk like grown-ups, maybe we have grown-up bank accounts and grown-up responsibilities -- but do we really have any idea what we are about?

And if, after much struggle, we think we know the answers to such questions, we are forced to ask another, more agonizing question: Are we living those answers? Or do our lives, in the light of those answers, seem like afterthoughts, like still unformed story lines?"

-- Norman Fischer, "Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up"

"The spiritual path," says Fischer, "leads us to the places we are meant to occupy in this world." And all the practices and forms with which we engage on the path -- meditation and the rest -- are tools that help us develop the maturity to truly become ourselves, to fully inhabit our own lives and to understand what on earth we are here to do.

Most so-called adults, most of the time, live more or less like children, thinking and acting from the perspective of what Buddhists call the ego: the brattish, child-like "me" that thinks primarily about its own happiness, about how it could acquire more of the things it believes will make it happy and how it could further repel or destroy the things it believes will make it unhappy. The childish ego thinks nothing of pushing others out of the way to get what it wants.

By contrast, the great spiritual masters and enlightened beings -- I'm thinking here of the Buddha, Jesus, Mother Teresa, the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa, and others like them -- are perhaps the only human beings on this earth who have consistently and completely lived as genuine adults. Such beings have completely let go of the childish ego's petty concerns, and have understood the world, and their salvific roles in it, in a way that children cannot possibly do; they have become like parents to the whole human race, caring for us when we are -- isn't it obvious? -- incapable of properly caring for ourselves without grown-up assistance. Like loving parents, these great beings care more about the happiness of their children than they do about their own, and in this sense they are like the ultimate adults and we are like the ultimate children. But they are also representatives of what each of us miserable, selfish brats has the potential to become, if we apply ourselves.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

-- First letter of Paul, Chapter 13, verse 11

"I don't want to grow up! I'm a Toys R Us kid!"

-- Popular advertising jingle for Toys R Us brand

Lately it has struck me that our ability to progress along the spiritual path is wholly dependent on our commitment to the basic principles of maturity, to the process of growing up. To the degree that we lack such a commitment, our opportunities for achieving enlightenment -- or even for achieving a greater degree of sanity and well-being in our lives -- are slim.

Obviously, the kind of maturity I'm talking about here is not the kind that comes when we reach a certain age; it's not something that happens when we are old enough to drink booze or to vote or to trade in our toy guns for actual guns and go off to fight real wars instead of imaginary ones. The kind of maturity we need on the spiritual path is something that develops on the inside, and its growth is entirely dependent on our full, willing participation in the process. There are quite a few young people who have this kind of spiritual maturity, and (unfortunately) there are lots and lots of old people who don't.

When we break it down, I think spiritual maturity has several key components:

  • Responsibility: Mature beings have a highly developed moral sense, and they act accordingly. This built-in moral compass comes not from following a book of rules or a code of behavior that some parental figure gave them -- it comes from following the dictates of their conscience, which is rooted in a clear understanding of what kind of action is skillful and what kind is harmful. They see what needs to be done and they do it. And they see what is better left undone and they avoid it.

  • Relaxation: Mature beings have let go of childish, petty resentments and grudges, and they do not indulge in temper tantrums when they don't get things their way. They are open-minded and have no axes to grind and no chips on their shoulders about anything at all.

  • Confidence: Mature beings have worked through their childhood insecurities and emotional hangups, and are at peace with themselves as they are; they are comfortable in their own skin. But they never boast; their confidence is rooted in humility, and has nothing to do with arrogance. They are okay with admitting how little they actually know.

  • Joyfulness: Mature beings are able to bring joy to their lives and the lives of people they meet, even amidst difficult circumstances.

  • Altruism: Mature beings downplay self-centered concerns and place greater emphasis on the welfare of others.

  • Realism: Mature beings have left behind the pretensions and make-believe of childhood, and have shifted their allegiance to holding a realistic, well-informed view of the world and how it actually works. They are committed to cultivating knowledge and deepening wisdom, and to dispelling illusion.

  • Perseverance: Mature beings dedicate themselves fully to the process of growing up and waking up. They know it takes work, and they are determined not to fall back into the selfish habitual patterns of childhood.

We can use these qualities as measuring sticks to see where we've made progress on our spiritual path, and where we've still got some growing up to do. When I think of someone like the Buddha, or Jesus, or the Karmapa, I think of someone who fully embodies all of these essential aspects of spiritual maturity, and has brought each of these qualities to full ripening. Many people are in awe of such spiritually advanced beings because they are said to be able to display miracles, but perhaps the greatest miracle they display is the simple yet shocking fact of their utter maturity, their complete lack of childishness -- which is shocking precisely because it is so uncommon.

(To be continued....)

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Indisputable Truth

Lately I've been chewing on a paradox, wrestling with two seemingly opposing points of view about how one should progress along the spiritual path. On the one hand is the view that through our study and practice we should be developing certainty about the way things really are. Tibetan teachers, especially, emphasize the importance of developing certainty; without certainty, they say, we are bound to continue wandering aimlessly in habitual patterns and confusion. On the other hand is the view, particularly strong in the Zen tradition, that the further we progress along the spiritual path, the more we are obliged to admit to ourselves how little we actually know. "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities," wrote Suzuki Roshi in Zen Mind Beginner's Mind. "In the expert's, there are few." There is even a name for this view, which is held up as an ideal for the spiritual seeker: Don't-Know Mind.

What I am experiencing these days, by way of the particular practices I am doing, is not the growth of certainty, but its opposite -- the dissolution of old certainties that were based on mistaken assumptions, the crumbling of old, familiar ways of looking at mind and experience and life. I'm left not with the newfound certainty of understanding that I would expect to find when the cobwebs of delusion are being swept away, but with a sense of groundlessness that seems to disallow for any certainty at all -- casting a shadow of doubt upon any edifice of conceptual certainty the ego may try to construct around itself. Although my teachers and mentors tell me that what I should be developing is certainty, what I'm actually experiencing at the moment is the growth of Don't-Know Mind.

The possibility has not been lost on me that there is a phase one must pass through, before reality can be seen with genuine certainty, when the old mistaken certainties have been taken away but there is not yet anything to replace them, and that this might be the space into which I am beginning -- tentatively, half-heartedly -- to stick one of my feet. But I'm actually wondering if there is not something suspect, to begin with, about our human quest for certainty and our fixation on finding answers.

But maybe that's too abstract. Here's what I know: There's a mind here (whatever that is, and wherever here is) that is experiencing stuff (whatever that is), and when I look at it closely there doesn't seem to be any visible dividing line (that I can find, anyway, with my admittedly feeble powers of discernment) between the mind and the experiencing and the stuff. Beyond that, there isn't much that I feel I can say, at the moment, that couldn't be easily challenged. (And even that much, which seems to be hardly anything, remains open to some disputation in my own mind. The apparent separateness of experienced stuff from the experiencing mind is a deeply entrenched habit of perspective, like a pair of glasses that perhaps distort one's vision rather than clarifying it, but which it is nevertheless uncomfortable to remove because one has grown very used to them. Although direct investigation suggests that this dualistic perspective may in fact be quite mistaken, it nevertheless reasserts itself very quickly and automatically, producing a sense of mental static that interferes with the clear reception of certainty obtained in meditation.)

What I'm beginning to suspect is that, on the spiritual path as a whole, the questions might be more important than the answers. Maybe awakening comes not through piling up more and more knowledge and certainty about things, but through asking more and more profound and juicy questions -- and, when asking them, being more and more willing to step into the ocean of Don't-Know Mind rather than clutching at answers in an attempt to keep the ground under our feet.

And so, in that spirit, I leave you not with a statement but with a question, which I ask you in all seriousness, and I hope you will answer. (You're invited to post your answer here in the comments section.) I offer several ways of phrasing it, but it's really just one question, and the question is this:

What do you know? What, in your own experience, are you certain of? What, in your view, is the indisputable truth, and why?


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Heart of the Matter

Buddhism, like most forms of spiritual practice, is not rocket science. It doesn't take a genius to grasp its basic truths and to see how they apply to everyday life. But we are liable to miss the point entirely if rocket science is what we're looking for. We might expect spirituality to be sophisticated, because we see ourselves as sophisticated creatures. In our search for sophisticated answers to our sophisticated questions, we overlook the simple truth that's already present. One Tibetan teacher, in speaking of his realization of the true nature of mind, said: "Because it is so close, no one sees it. Because it is so simple, no one trusts it."

The intellect and the logical, reasoning mind is one of our greatest strengths as human beings -- but, paradoxically, it can also be a weakness for us on the spiritual path if we rely upon it too heavily. At its best, an intellectual understanding of the truth shows which direction to go in and helps us see through our delusions -- but, at its worst, it masquerades as authentic experience, which is something it can never really be. If we read about a spiritual truth in a book or have a stimulating conversation about it, it might produce some good ideas and intellectual insights. These ideas and insights are fine as long as we do not mistake them for authentic realization, which can only come from direct experience -- beyond intellect and conceptual mind.

When we study seemingly esoteric topics such as the Buddhist teachings on emptiness and selflessness, we engage the intellect to a very high degree, and this exercise can sometimes be misleading. The point is always to leave intellectual speculation and theories behind and go directly into our own mind and experience, where we can discover the truth for ourselves, in a non-theoretical way.

Beyond intellect and reasoning, there is another important dimension to our human experience, a side that too often lies in the shadows, begging for further investigation and understanding: the emotional mind. Emotions are the mind's raw, energetic expression, and their powerful currents often contort our experience into painful shapes and colors. To the degree that Buddhists are concerned with alleviating and transcending suffering (and from the very first teaching the Buddha ever gave, this has always been the stated intention of the Buddhist spiritual path), we need to direct our attention to where the bulk of our suffering comes from. And if we're honest with ourselves, we'll see that most of it comes from our emotions.

There are painful experiences in life that cannot be avoided: sickness and injury, heartbreak, loss, and, sooner or later, death. Most of our suffering, however, comes not from those mere, choiceless experiences, but from our emotional reactions -- the added layers of pain and suffering we glom onto our experience. It comes from our anger, our impatience and aggression, our greed and attachment and obsession and addiction, our jealousy and envy, our pride and arrogance, our willful blindness and ignorance -- in other words, the bulk of our suffering is what we bring upon ourselves, through all our nefarious and destructive emotions.

When Buddhists speak about a philosophical idea like emptiness, we often speak abstractly, using examples that are emotionally neutral: a table, a chair, a rock. Although the table appears in front of us, we say, it has no inherent existence, no fundamental essence that can be located, and we list all the intellectual reasons why this is so. But tables and chairs and rocks don't generally cause us much suffering in life -- and whether they have any true existence or not doesn't really seem to make a whit of difference to me, when I get right down to it. But to see, in the midst of an emotional upheaval, the emptiness of the emotion that has me in its grip -- now that, it seems to me, is getting to the point, the real heart of the matter.

Seeing the emptiness of emotions means seeing their illusory, dreamlike quality and their transient, fluid nature -- which is the opposite of how we typically experience them. It means seeing that the qualities we project onto the objects of our emotions -- the enchanting desirability of the person for whom we lust, the extremely irritating nature of the person towards whom we feel anger, and so on -- emanate, above all, from our own minds; these qualities do not truly exist "out there" in the objects themselves. And it means seeing that our emotions, beneath all the storylines and projections and distortions we try to attach to them, are nothing other than the vivid and natural expression of mind's basic aliveness. Seeing this, we begin to let go of our clinging towards pleasant feelings and our fear and aversion towards unpleasant feelings, and we develop the equanimity of relating to the full range of our experience with a more open, curious mind. We begin to discover the wisdom and richness that is present right within our most glorious moments and our most wretched ones -- and all the moments in-between.

The jewel, after all, is in the lotus, as a famous Buddhist chant somewhat cryptically says. And the lotus grows -- where else? -- in the mud.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Everything Is Mind

A friend of mine on Facebook said recently, citing the conventional wisdom, that we shouldn't conceptualize our meditation experience. I had to chuckle, because it seems like that's all I do -- especially in these blog posts. Maybe I should refrain from trying to make sense of my experience and teasing out its meaning, but I can't stop myself. I often find that my most meaningful experiences on the spiritual path come about when I ignore conventional wisdom and do what feels authentic to me. This process of writing -- which, by definition, involves conceptualizing my experience -- has lately become integral to the way I practice contemplation. On the selfish side, it helps me flesh out my own understanding in a way that I'm not able to do on the cushion; and on the altruistic side, friends and even total strangers sometimes write to me saying that reading these contemplations benefits them, which motivates me to keep writing.

Nothing that we study or practice on the spiritual path is useful if we can't find ways to make it relevant to our personal experience. Even the most esoteric, mystical teachings are pointing to something that is alive in our own experience and our own mind -- but it's up to each of us to discover that for ourselves. No one else can do it for us. "Buddhas only point the way," it is often said -- but we each have to walk the path ourselves, in our own way, and join the teachings with our own understanding. This is the importance of contemplation, and it's what the Buddha instructed us to do when he talked about testing and chewing on the teachings before accepting them, the way people in those days would chew on a piece of gold to verify its authenticity.

In ancient India there was a school of Buddhist philosophy called Yogachara, which is usually translated as the "Mind Only" school. More literally, "yoga" means "union" or "inseparability" and "chara" means "practice" or "training." The Yogacharins practiced or trained in seeing the union or inseparability of subject and object -- in other words, the absence of apparent duality between perceiver and perceived.

Wait a minute! What the hell does *that* mean? Nary a paragraph ventured, and we've strayed into high-fallutin' theory and abstract philosophy. Let's look at it in terms of ordinary experience.

The perception of duality pervades everything we experience. We look at a rock, and we think "I'm over here" and "that rock is over there." Ordinarily, we think this is a perfectly acceptable and useful way of looking at our reality -- it's just the way it is, and there is no need to investigate further. But holding this assumption tightly, as we do, creates all sorts of misunderstandings and confusion. Because we think there is some kind of substantially, objectively existing rock out there, we assume that everyone else who sees it must be experiencing the same rock. We are flabbergasted when they describe seeing it differently.

The Yogacharins, however, challenged this very fundamental assumption about reality. They said that the apparent separation between perceiving subject and perceived object, and the supposedly solid, objective existence of something "out there" that's separate from the mind "in here," is actually an illusion. Their claim to fame was for holding the radical view that "Everything is mind."

The Yogacharins were able to get away with making this seemingly ludicrous assertion because they pointed out, and not incorrectly, that all we can ever really know about an object is our own experience of it. In cognitive terms (what we know), we can never really cognize the rock itself -- in other words, the rock can't get up and come into our minds, and we can't go down and put our minds inside the rock. What we actually experience, say the Yogacharins, is a perception of the rock that takes place entirely within the mind. We can never truly experience anything that isn't experienced within the mind.

What we experience within the mind is utterly unique to each of us -- even the person sitting next to us does not see the same rock as we do. Moreover, the rock and the consciousness that perceives it may appear to be more or less constant from one moment to the next, but this is also a misperception. The rock -- conventional wisdom be damned -- is never the same from one instant to the next (we know this to be the case even scientifically, on a sub-molecular level) and the same could be said ten times over of the consciousness that perceives it. Our mind is constantly shifting and changing, and when we try to pinpoint it and solidify it into any one shape in order to look at it, we find it always seems to be hiding just behind our awareness -- in the same way that our eyeballs cannot see themselves.

Please don't bother trying to find her.
She's not there.

-- The Zombies

Now, rocks don't seem to mind much if we see them incorrectly and make false assumptions about their nature. But when we bring this same reifying mindset into our human relationships, it creates total chaos. We see Joe Schmidt as a completely separate entity who is trapped in some kind of fixed, solid existence, stuck forever in his basic and irrevocable Joeness -- and, depending on our outlook, we either love him for being Joe, or hate him for being Joe. (As I know too well from my history of intimate relationships, we can also start out with the former and, before long, end up with the latter.) But our perception of Joe takes place entirely within our own minds, and is clouded by the filters of our own emotional reactions and cognitive distortions. Because we don't see this, we believe that what we perceive about Joe is the way Joe really is, and that everyone -- including Joe himself -- must perceive Joe the same way as we do. It's not difficult to imagine how this assumption gets us in trouble.

Our habitual tendency to perceive our experience in dualistic terms extends even to what unfolds "internally," in our mind and body. When a thought or an emotion arises in the mind, we relate to it as if we -- the perceiving consciousness -- are "over here," and the thought or the emotion -- the perceived object -- is "over there" somewhere, a kind of quasi-external phenomenon that is happening to us. Similarly, when a physical sensation -- pain, for example -- arises in the body, we relate to it as if our experiencing mind, which is naturally "over here," is quite distinct and separate from that spot in our lower back, "down there," that is producing pain. Because we see these objects as separate from the mind that perceives them, we grant them a kind of phantom-like power over us. The emotion becomes a boogeyman that keeps coming back to haunt us, and won't leave us alone; the pain in our back while we're practicing meditation becomes excruciating, and we feel we have to do something about it.

But when we look more closely, in meditation, at the nature of these experiences, our assumptions of duality begin to crumble. When we look directly at the experience of pain in our back, for example, and investigate whether this experience is truly separate from the mind that perceives it, something altogether surprising may happen. The experience itself opens up into something much more relaxed, and the conceptual label of "pain" dissolves, leaving only pure sensation. The baggage of our habitual reactions -- "Oh! This feeling is painful! It's terrible! I've got to do something about it!" -- falls away and we are able, at least for a moment, to relate to our basic human experience in a way that is shockingly free of our ordinary bullshit.

When the current of thoughts is self-liberated
And the essence of Dharma is known
Everything is understood
And apparent phenomena
Are all the books one needs.

-- Sadhana of Mahamudra