Sunday, April 18, 2010

Enlightenment in the Present Moment

All of Mahayana Buddhism is built upon the idea of bodhicitta. ‘Bodhi’ means ‘awake’ or ‘awakening’ and ‘citta’ can mean either heart or mind. So bodhicitta literally means ‘awakened heart’ or ‘the mind of awakening.’ But this is a case where knowing the word’s literal meaning and translation doesn’t really tell you very much.

The classic definition of bodhicitta is: the wish to attain complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. It’s an altruistic vision that asks us to put the welfare of others ahead of our own individual concerns. In a recent blog post, I described this Mahayana motivation of bodhicitta as The Megabus to Enlightenment:

The spirit of Mahayana is that we travel the path of awakening not just for ourselves and our own liberation, but for the sake of all beings. It’s a view that places compassion front and center, and emphasizes our interconnectedness — that fact that we need each other to do this work of waking up. When you embrace the Mahayana path, helping others becomes your primary goal, an end in itself — and attaining your own enlightenment is seen as merely a means to that end. When you, yourself, wake up, then you will know best how to help others wake up. Developing the strong intention to become enlightened for the benefit of all sentient beings, and then putting that intention into practice, is the way of Mahayana.

The trouble is that this idealistic vision of enlightenment is off in the distant future, and enlightenment in the future is an abstract concept that is not very practical or applicable in the present moment. Someday, we think, when we attain the fundamental enlightenment – perhaps three or four incalculable aeons from now – then we’ll be able to benefit beings. Holding that kind of vision of enlightenment, and that kind of aspiration of bodhicitta, is pretty useless.

A few days ago, Pema Chodron gave a teaching at the Abbey in which she defined the aspiration of bodhicitta in much more practical, immediate terms: it is the wish to keep your heart open in all situations, not to close down and harden against other beings even when they challenge or upset you. Bodhicitta is a fundamental openness and warmth of the heart, our connectedness to other beings, which can manifest as loving-kindness or as compassion.

This is, as Ani Pema would say, news you can use. When we practice keeping our hearts open to other beings – even the ones who really piss us off or scare us – then we are practicing bodhicitta-in-action. When we close our hearts to others and harden against them in anger or judgment, then we are taking a step away from bodhicitta. We can sit there and flap our gums about attaining enlightenment to benefit all sentient beings until we’re blue in the face, but if our hearts are actually closed towards another being in the present moment, then we’re not really practicing bodhicitta -- and we're not moving towards enlightenment.

The future doesn’t exist, and it never will. When the future arrives, it will be the present moment. The present moment is all we ever have, and it is in each fleeting, present moment that we must practice enlightenment. We will never find it anywhere else.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Dreams, Part Four: Working with Dreams

This is Part Four of a four-part series on dreams. Part One looks at the meaning of dreams, and dream interpretation. Part Two explores how Buddhism uses dreaming as a metaphor for life itself. Part Three describes several types of spiritually significant dreams. Part Four offers practical methods for working with dreams and the sleeping state.

Here are a few practical ways to work with your dreams, and with the sleeping state:

Keep a dream journal.
Many people have difficulty remembering their dreams. Although it might sound paradoxical, keeping a dream journal is one way to overcome this. It is also an essential step in unlocking the richness of your dream life and beginning to interpret your dreams.

Julia Cameron's "morning pages" practice (from her book The Artist's Way), although she doesn't teach it specifically as a method for working with dreams, is useful here; it offers a way of opening the door to pay more attention and remember more of your dreams. The practice is simple: every morning when you wake up, before you do anything else, sit down (or sit up) and write three pages of whatever comes into your head. Don't get up and brush your teeth or make the coffee, just write first and do those things afterwards. It doesn't matter what it's about or how dumb it sounds, just fill up three pages.

When I did the morning pages practice for several months, I found that what most often came to mind and emerged onto my three pages were the dreams from which I had just awakened. As I wrote about my dreams in those pages, I was constantly amazed to discover how much detail and depth I could recall through the act of writing. While writing, I would often remember significant aspects, and even entire dreams, that had been forgotten the instant I woke up -- and would be forgotten permanently if I did not evoke them through writing and put them on paper.

Often the only thing that would be left of a dream in my memory, by the time I sat up and grabbed my pen and notebook and started writing, would be an isolated fragment, or even a single image. But sometimes, as I held that fragment in my mind and wrote it down in my notebook, it would trigger other associated memories and more of the dream would reveal itself spontaneously.

A dream journal does not have to be a permanent undertaking. Try it for a few months, and see what happens. If your dreams continue to evade your recollection, be patient and write about whatever comes into your head -- that's the point of the "morning pages" exercise anyway. Eventually, your daily practice of paying attention to -- and writing down -- what is in your mind in those first few minutes after waking up should begin to unlock the door of memory, and you will develop a richer relationship to your dream life.

Set your intentions.
Regard your dreams as a potential vehicle for significant communication and a potential tool for spiritual awakening. Before you fall asleep at night, set your intentions. Make the aspiration that your dreams will communicate your own deepest wisdom, and that when you awaken you will remember your dreams and understand them. Invite your dreams to teach you; let your subconscious mind know that you are paying attention. It might be helpful to create a little ritual for this. You can be personal and creative about it; the point is to make it meaningful to you. It might be some particular words that you say each night, which help you articulate your intention; or it might be some action you perform to symbolize your intention, such as offering a stick of incense, or asking for guidance in your dreams from a higher power (inner or outer).

Nightmares can occur for different reasons, but in my experience they most often indicate a troubled conscience. When you have a nightmare, use it as an opportunity to contemplate what you are doing in your life that might not be sitting well with your own conscience. If you have frequent nightmares, it might be your subconscious mind's way of asking you to perform a complete ethics review of your life. What practical changes could you make in the way you conduct your waking life in order to put your conscience at ease, which would allow you to sleep more peacefully at night? When your conscience is at ease in waking life, then you are able to dwell at peace, and the monsters that appear in your dreams -- if they appear at all -- will not be nearly as frightening.

Lucid dreams.
Lucid dreaming can occur spontaneously, but it also can be developed and practiced intentionally. If this practice interests you, there are many books and teachings that provide specific methods for cultivating and working with lucid dreams, including a few books that teach techniques from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Most of these methods work, as described above, with some way of setting your intentions before falling asleep. They require consistent practice, and it may take some time before the practice bears fruit. So be patient, and keep at it. Your habits of being "asleep" in your dreams are ancient, and not easily undone -- unless you're like my friend Susan and you've been having lucid dreams all your life.

For pure inspiration I recommend Richard Linklater's entertaining and thought-provoking film, Waking Life (2001) which is entirely about lucid dreams.

Pay attention to the liminal moments.
We focus most of our attention on the waking state, and on what we can remember of our dreams. But we can also learn about our minds from paying attention to the liminal moments, the in-between states. In Tibetan Buddhism the moment of transitioning from being awake to being asleep is said to be a "bardo," a liminal moment of high potential for glimpsing and recognizing the true nature of mind. See if you can maintain awareness as you approach and cross over that line (if you can find it).

Liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning "a threshold" ) 1. Pertaining to a threshold or entrance; relating to a beginning or first stage of a process; inceptive; inchoative; marginal; insignificant. 2. A state characterized by ambiguity, openness, and indeterminacy. One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation. 3. liminal space - A blurry boundary zone between two established and clear spatial areas. 4. The condition of being on a threshold or in a 'betwixt and between space'.

Similarly, the moment of transitioning from being asleep to being awake -- if we can be aware of it -- is highly charged with potential for recognizing mind's luminous nature. Daytime naps can be particularly good for working with this, because in naps we do not descend very deeply into the REM state; there is, so to speak, less distance to cover between being asleep and being awake. If we can be aware during that brief moment of transition, we can catch the waking state red-handed; we can observe it in the very act of returning to its full luminosity. It is as if a dimmer switch that had been turned down to a dim setting were suddenly turned back up to a bright setting: we can observe, in real-time, the different shades of luminosity mind goes through as it returns to waking consciousness.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Dreams, Part Three: Significant Dreams

This is Part Three of a four-part series on dreams. Part One looks at the meaning of dreams, and dream interpretation. Part Two explores how Buddhism uses dreaming as a metaphor for life itself. Part Three describes several types of spiritually significant dreams. Part Four offers practical methods for working with dreams and the sleeping state.

For the most part, Buddhism doesn't dwell much on the content of dreams, and it doesn't pursue a methodology for interpreting them. The focus in Buddhism is more on the act of dreaming itself, and on recognizing the nature of dreams as a vehicle for realizing the nature of mind. Dream content is regarded as being somewhat like the thoughts we experience in meditation: it's neither good nor bad, but the bulk of it is imaginary, and in most cases no particular importance is to be attached to it. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and several types of dreams are considered to be potentially significant.

"Lucid Dream E," Parke Harrison

Precognitive Dreams

In Tibetan Buddhism -- the most mystical of the Buddhist traditions -- some dreams are considered to be prophetic or revelatory. This is particularly common among highly realized meditation practitioners. The Dalai Lama, for example, has spoken about having dreams that helped him locate or confirm the identity of reincarnate lamas. But even at a more mundane level, ordinary people sometimes experience dreams that seem to have a precognitive aspect.

I once dreamed of an old friend I hadn't seen in years, someone I had lost touch with and rarely even thought about. The very next morning after I had that dream, I had an appointment with a doctor, and was waiting in a subway station on the Upper East Side, a part of New York City where I did not usually go. The subway car doors opened, and it so happened that the old friend I had dreamed about the night before was standing right there in front of me. In a city that holds 12 million people on a typical day, he just happened to be riding the same subway, at the same time, in the same car, at the same door, and I happened to be waiting to step through that door, and I happened to have dreamed about him the previous night after not having thought of him in a very long time.

A nihilist would scoff at the suggestion that there was any connection between the previous night's dream and that chance encounter in the subway; he would argue that it was mere coincidence. A New Ager might make too much of the whole thing, and perhaps suggest that we were meant to be soul mates, or that we have unfinished karmic business whose nature can be revealed in the Akashic records or the Enochian scrolls for a low fee of just $100. A Freudian would probably brush off the coincidence and focus on the friend's appearance, with the goal of suggesting that I subconsciously equate this friend with my mother or father. A Jungian, at least, would allow space to contemplate the mystery -- the astronomically unlikely synchronicity -- of the convergence between that dream and the following morning's chance encounter in an out-of-the-way part of town.

Lucid Dreams

Among the most advanced meditation techniques taught in the Tantric Buddhism practiced in Tibet is dream yoga, or lucid dreaming. In the Kagyu lineage, dream yoga is usually introduced as part of the Six Yogas of Naropa, a set of esoteric teachings that are practiced extensively during the traditional three-year retreat. Dream yoga, therefore, is regarded as a practice for a few highly trained individuals. Through lucid dreaming, the meditation practitioner is able to train in recognizing and resting in the nature of mind right within their dreams. It is said that very advanced practitioners of dream yoga are able to maintain the same unbroken level of awareness and lucidity 24 hours a day, through all stages of waking and sleeping.

But again, on a more mundane level, many ordinary people also experience lucid dreaming -- either occasionally, or cultivated through regular practice. My friend Susan has been a frequent lucid dreamer since childhood, and says that her dreams are more often lucid than not. When she was a child, her grandmother, also a frequent lucid dreamer, used to teach her methods for working with her dreams; after her grandmother died when Susan was 15, Susan continued for years to meet up with her in lucid dreams, in the old Penn Station, whenever she needed guidance.

Sometimes lucid dreams, even if they don't occur frequently, can happen spontaneously. I recall once having a nightmare, and becoming aware -- within the dream itself -- that it was a dream. With that awareness, I made a conscious decision to wake myself up in order to put an end to the nightmare. And it worked -- I woke up.

Teaching Dreams

Another kind of dream that many Buddhists regard as potentially significant is when one dreams of being visited by, or receiving a message from, teachers or gurus or other enlightened spiritual beings. These kinds of dreams usually take place at the end of the sleep cycle, shortly before the dreamer wakes up. Tibetan Buddhism is full of legends about advanced meditation practitioners being visited in their dreams by great masters, and receiving significant teachings or guidance. The nagging (and probably unanswerable) scientific question of whether these dream experiences originate from beyond the dreamer's individual consciousness is somewhat beside the point; in either case, such dreams can be surprising, provoking, and enlightening. Jungian analysts would say such dreams reflect an encounter with the esoteric archetype of the Magus, the guru or wisdom principle that is embedded within the collective and individual unconscious.

Again, even ordinary people sometimes experience this phenomenon. Long before she became a Buddhist, my friend Susan says she repeatedly encountered in her lucid dreams -- often accompanying her grandmother -- a mysterious, large, shirtless Asian man with a kind face, wearing the dark red skirt that forms the lower half of a Tibetan monk's robes. She says it was only years later when she saw a photograph of the Tibetan master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche that she recognized him as the man in her dreams. Dilgo Khyentse often appeared in public -- in real life, not only in Susan's dreams -- shirtless. Susan says she found his recurrent presence in her dreams annoying, for he was one of the few dream figures that she was unable to manipulate -- and whenever he was around, her grandmother seemed too busy with him to pay any attention to her.

The first time I ever gave meditation instruction was at a weekend spiritual retreat in the Catskill mountains. I had been invited to lead a meditation workshop -- or I had volunteered to do so -- because it was a much-needed part of the retreat, and I seemed to be the person in that particular group who knew the most about meditation. Still, I had never actually given meditation instruction before, and had no formal training in how to do so. Suddenly I was about to lead not one but two full-blown meditation workshops -- of one hour and fifteen minutes each -- for a group of about 75 people.

We arrived at the retreat center on Friday afternoon and settled in. I was to lead the first workshop the next morning. As I went to bed that night, I was petrified -- not only with the usual fear of public speaking, but with disbelief at my own audacity. Who did I think I was, leading these workshops with no formal training or experience? I feared the weekend would be a disaster. I slept restlessly that night. But right before I woke up, I had a dream that radically transformed the entire situation.

In the dream (as in waking life) I was at a retreat center with a group of people. But this was a retreat being led by Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan teacher and meditation master who died in 1987, and who founded the Shambhala Center where I had been studying meditation at that time. Chogyam Trungpa sent us all off to bed, and he stayed up late into the night preparing a huge, elaborate Mexican feast. When the feast was ready and he had laid it out on picnic tables on the front lawn, he began to beat a drum to wake us up and call us outside, in the middle of the night, to enjoy the feast.

I emerged -- easily and pleasantly -- directly from that dream into the waking state, seemingly with no interval of unconsciousness in-between. As I lay there in bed with the dream still washing over me, I realized I had a huge smile on my face. And I realized, too, that something in me had fundamentally changed: with that dream, my massive anxiety over the workshops had mysteriously vanished, blown away like dust, and in its place was a quiet but very tangible feeling of complete confidence and joy. I felt empowered, and totally -- unbelievably -- relaxed. I went into the workshops with that relaxed, confident and joyful mind, and I never questioned it. And those workshops turned out to be quite beneficial. A few people made their first genuine connection to meditation that Saturday morning, and continued to practice what they learned there in the years that followed.

It would be grandiose to say, and impossible to defend in a rational debate, that I was actually visited in my dream by Chogyam Trungpa, or affected in some way by some energy outside myself. And yet I cannot deny that my unusual dream that night took me utterly by surprise and caused a dramatic shift of energy inside me. Where did that inexplicable charge of confidence and relaxation come from, when I had gone to bed the previous night almost trembling with anxiety and neurotic worry? Call it Chogyam Trungpa, or call it my own deepest self, or call it Jung's Magus archetype -- it makes no difference in the end. It was, for me, a significant teaching dream, one that directly and profoundly altered my experience and indirectly touched the lives of 75 other people who were there that morning.

That is the power of our dreams, or at least some of them. Through dreams, we can -- if the conditions are right, and if we are open -- receive guidance and inspiration; we can connect with a part of ourselves that is deeper and wiser than our rational, neurotic little conscious minds. But dreams, like intuition, creativity and everything else that springs from the unconscious, speak obliquely, and mysteriously, in ways that defy logic. To comprehend their communications, we must look and listen with an open mind, and learn to sense when something significant is being communicated. Not every dream is worth dwelling upon, but every now and then a dream can change our lives.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Dreams, Part Two: Life Is But a Dream

This is Part Two of a four-part series on dreams. Part One looks at the meaning of dreams, and dream interpretation. Part Two explores how Buddhism uses dreaming as a metaphor for life itself. Part Three describes several types of spiritually significant dreams. Part Four offers practical methods for working with dreams and the sleeping state.

"Life Is But a Dream," John Scanlan

Dream as Metaphor

In Buddhism, dreams are a commonly used metaphor for the nature of life itself. "Like a dewdrop, a water bubble, an illusion, a dream, lightning, a cloud: regard conditioned dharmas like that," said the Buddha in one of the Prajnaparamita Sutras. In other words, anything and everything that we can point to in this life, including our own bodies and those aspects of the mind and consciousness that we usually think of as the "self," is a conditioned dharma: a temporary, illusory phenomenon that appears when the right causes and conditions come together but has no abiding essence of its own. Where is the essence of a cloud? How solid and permanent is a dewdrop or a water bubble? What reliable truth can be found in an illusion? How real is a dream, once you've awakened from it?

In Tibetan Buddhism, the metaphor of dreams is frequently applied as an actual meditation instruction -- a method of contemplating how our minds interact with, and co-create, the world we experience.

Say, for example, we dream of a bear that is chasing us, and we fear being caught and devoured by the bear. Within the dream, it feels very much like we are over here, and the bear is over there; we perceive a subject-object relationship between us and the bear. From the point of view of our waking lives, we know there is no bear, and no real duality between subject and object: the bear, and our own dream body, and the entire dream world in which it appears, is all a great fiction, a cinematic projection of our minds. But because, in the dream, we believe in our own movie and take the bear on the screen to be real, we experience fear, and our hearts beat wildly as we try to escape the bear's teeth and claws. However, if we were to be aware and lucid within the dream and recognize that the bear is really a projection of our own minds, then the bear might still appear -- because anything can appear in a dream -- but it would cease to provoke the same fear because we know it isn't really out there.

In the same way, much of what we experience in so-called waking life, which we take to be substantially existing out there, is really a projection of our own minds. Say we are in a crowded subway car, and at the far end of the car we see someone who catches our eye and looks very attractive. We begin to fix our gaze on this person, and in our minds we start building up our case, commenting on how attractive he or she is. The attractiveness appears to us to be an objectively existing quality out there in the person, at whom we are now openly staring like a deer caught in the headlights. But then the person turns and reveals a different angle, one that isn't as flattering, and suddenly our attraction goes up in a puff of smoke. What happened?

What happened is that, as if in a dream, we projected the quality of attractiveness onto this hapless person who stumbled into our field of vision, and we believed in the solid reality of our projection -- just like in a dream. The attractiveness we experience as being out there in the other person is really an illusion, a trick produced in the mind by our own habitual patterns of dualistic perception and labeling.

Whether we perceive that person as being attractive or not depends on a whole range of variable factors: our cultural conditioning and previous experiences (do they remind us of someone else we were once attracted to?), our mood (if we were fuming about something our boss said to us at work, would we even notice the person?), what the person is wearing (would we feel as attracted if he or she were dressed as a clown?), the lighting and environment and other circumstances, and so on.

If the attractiveness we perceive were really out there in the person, then it wouldn't disappear when a different angle was revealed to us; we would always find that person attractive, no matter what. Moreover, if the attractiveness were really out there in the person as an objectively existing quality, then everyone else would find that person attractive too; but in reality, we might be the only one in this whole subway car who even noticed the person. Many of the other people around us might even find our attractive person repulsive if they paid any attention. Beauty is indeed, in so many ways, in the eye of the beholder.

The same goes for our negative perceptions, and our neutral ones too: the people who irritate or repel us, and the ones about whom we feel indifferent. It's not that all these people out there don't appear in front of us, but every emotional trip we lay onto them is just like a dream. What we perceive in our world has the power to attract or repel us because we believe in its reality -- we think it's really out there -- in the same way we believe in the reality of the dream bear. In both waking life and in dreams we suffer, we experience fear and loathing, because we constantly believe that the projections of our own minds are real.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Dreams, Part One: The Dreaming

This is Part One of a four-part series on dreams. Part One looks at the meaning of dreams, and dream interpretation. Part Two explores how Buddhism uses dreaming as a metaphor for life itself. Part Three describes several types of spiritually significant dreams. Part Four offers practical methods for working with dreams and the sleeping state.

The Dreaming

Have you ever watched a cat or a dog sleeping, and seen its little face twitching as it dreams of whatever cats and dogs dream of? Clearly, dreaming is not an experience limited to human beings. It is perhaps something that occurs among all the higher orders of sentient beings. But I wonder how far down the ladder it goes. Do fishes and ants and spiders dream when they sleep? As Philip K. Dick asked, in the title of the novel that became the film Bladerunner, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"

In any case, the difference between humans and other dreaming creatures is that people have been trying, in various systematic ways, for thousands of years, to understand their dreams. Why do we have these crazy dreams when we sleep? What do they mean? Are they just nonsense, or full of significance? Are they messages from the gods? Why do we dream about certain things and not others? Why do we sometimes have pleasant dreams and other times have nightmares?

This ongoing human project of trying to interpret our dreams has produced all kinds of absurd ideas, such as the notion -- common in New Age circles -- that every dream is a significant communication from the divine source, and that there is a universal language of dreams shared by all human beings that can be encoded in a dictionary of dream symbols. The naive and simplistic approach taken by these dream dictionaries is that a horse, for instance, has a specific and fixed symbolic meaning that is somehow embedded in the human unconscious, regardless of culture or context, and that a dream horse therefore essentially symbolizes the same thing to every dreamer. Once you have learned the God-given symbolic meaning of all the possible things that could appear in a dream, then you possess the magic key to interpreting every dream. In Buddhist terminology, believers in this approach would be called "eternalists," because they reify and ascribe a too-solid reality to dreams and to their own fixed ideas about how to interpret them.

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made (Fitzgerald, circa 1858)

The obvious problem is that these dream dictionaries -- and there are many -- each ascribe a different meaning to that poor horse. Which one are you supposed to believe? But the underlying, and more troubling, problem of this approach is that it pays no heed to cultural differences, individual psychology, the context of the dream, or the shifting, amorphous nature of dreams themselves. A thinking, rational person cannot put much stock in the idea that a horse will always symbolize the same thing for two people from wildly different backgrounds, with different experiences of horses and different ideas about them -- or even for the same person dreaming about horses in very different contexts, for different reasons, at different times in his or her life.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some naysayers respond to this inherent difficulty of interpretation by taking their cue from the apparently random, nonsensical nature of many of our dreams. These people are the dismissers, who jump to the conclusion that all dreams are nonsense and they can have nothing important to communicate to us -- a conclusion that is as absurd, in its own way, as believing that all dreams are significant communications from the divine source spoken in a fixed language. In Buddhist terminology, the dismissers would be called "nihilists," because they deny that there can be any meaning or spiritual importance at all in our dreams.

Somewhere in-between these two extremes are many people who apply various templates to interpret dreams from the point of view of specific psychological theories. Freudians see dreams as theatrical enactments of primitive impulses and unresolved trauma stemming from early childhood and parental relations; they pruriently search dreams for indications of such things as Oedipal conflicts and Electra complexes and penis envy. Jungians see dreams as expressions of the individual's potential for a deeper, more multidimensional kind of maturation, and they search dreams for indications of the dreamer's relationship to certain thematic archetypes which are, they believe (and perhaps they are right) embedded in the collective unconscious. While such templates of dream interpretation, and others like them, can be useful and revealing, they are also limiting in their scope. They look at dreams through one particular filter of preconceptions, and by definition they exclude ideas and possibilities that are not part of that set of considerations.

To their credit, all of these theories are on to something. The dismissers have seen, and rightly so, that very often what transpires in our dreams is nonsensical and not worth dwelling upon; not every dream is worth the bother of interpretation. The New Agers have seen, on the other hand, that dreams do sometimes communicate significant and even spiritually charged messages from a deeper part of ourselves, the vast part that lies beneath the surface of our conscious minds -- and these messages sometimes express a kind of magic that defies rational explanation. And psychologists have seen that dreams do sometimes reveal aspects of our personal and collective psychology that can be studied scientifically in order to understand ourselves both as individuals and as a species. The puzzling and amazing thing about dreams is that they can be viewed and interpreted from any of these angles; yet no one angle is sufficient to understand or address the content of dreams in their entirety -- much less to explain the dreaming itself.

And that is how our waking minds are, too -- why should our dreams be different? Sometimes in waking life our minds are full of nonsense and psychobabble: tangled trains of thought that are not worth the trouble of unraveling, that are better let go and forgotten. And at other times our minds are, shockingly, full of timeless wisdom and profound insight. Sometimes we experience within our waking minds aspects of our own personal, psychological growth and our relationship to the collective experience of humanity. And every now and then, we grasp intuitively that we -- and our dreams -- are part of something that reaches unimaginably far beyond this little blip on the screen called humanity: we are part of that infinite Being of which the dreaming dogs and cats and bugs, and the dreaming aliens in far-away galaxies -- and perhaps the dreaming ghosts in hidden dimensions we cannot fathom -- are also part. Maybe what we call waking life is merely the dream of that Being, and what we call dreaming is really a dream within a dream.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

-- Shakespeare, Hamlet

It would be so much simpler if we could look at our dreams, or our waking lives, from only this or that angle -- if we could reduce all our experience and explain it with a single theory or a neat package of theories. But life is complex and multidimensional; it defies simplistic explanations. The truly baffling thing is that we alternate, in waking life and in dreams, between confusion and wisdom, nonsense and meaning, being awake and being asleep. As the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Sogyal Rinpoche has said, if we could just be confused all the time, that would at least make for some sort of clarity; the trouble is that sometimes we are wise, and other times we are like idiots. And often, it's hard to know the difference.

Like the thoughts we have in waking life, dreams can -- if we understand their nature and investigate them in the right way -- help us recognize and understand our own minds and make sense of our lives. But they can also be meaningless distractions, and lead us in circles. The trick is in learning to distinguish between the waking thoughts and sleeping dreams that lead us in circles and the ones that lead us in the direction of knowledge and insight. In working with dreams, intuition plays a large role -- because dreams emanate from the same shadow dimension as our intuition does. Both dreams and intuition speak in the expressive but mysterious language of the unconscious mind.

And though the unconscious mind may indeed be the source of Freud's penis envy and Jung's array of colorful archetypes, and though it may indeed harbor a lot of psychobabble that washes up on the shores of our conscious minds like so much hapless driftwood that isn't worth collecting, the unconscious is also the hidden source of all that is fertile, all that is surprising, all that is magic in our lives. In its fathomless depths are buried records of everything we have ever said, done and thought, and everything we have experienced, and everything we have imagined. It is the source of everything we ever could imagine. And "it" is communicating with us, at all times and in all situations, in our waking lives and in our sleep.

Are you listening?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Notes from a Solitary Retreat: Part Two

In my first week-long solitary meditation retreat, in an isolated cabin overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I came face to face with my own mind — and several hundred other wild things. What follows are some reflections on getting to know the creatures I found inhabiting my retreat cabin — and my mind — and what I learned from them. This is Part Two of a two-part series. Click here to read Part One.

Day 5

The weather has turned wild and wrathful. The wind is now blowing down from the highlands so hard that it’s pushing the waves out to sea, and not letting them break on the shore. Typical Cape Breton springtime weather.

I have a “retreat protector” — a friend who is supporting me in my retreat by bringing me food each day. This is a great blessing, since I get much better food than what I would cook for myself, and I don’t have to spend as much time preparing it — which leaves more time to focus on the retreat itself. Today at lunch I received a special surprise: cake and ice cream, from the farewell party for one of the temporary monks who is leaving now that his one-year commitment is up. While I was devouring the ice cream, my eyes were once again drawn to the floor by one of the ants. This one appeared to be sick or injured, and it was dragging itself around on its side, with great struggle and effort — going in circles, and trying to stand up straight, and collapsing onto its side again. My ice cream and cake didn’t taste quite as good when I was watching a sentient being — however small it might be — struggling in the throes of death right in front of me.

Still, when I dig deep inside myself, I cannot say that I feel the same degree of empathy for these ants that I would feel for another, larger creature in the same circumstances. If it was a dog or a cat convulsing in its final moments in front of me, I could not sit here eating my ice cream at all — I would be in tears, trying to do something to comfort the creature and ease its suffering. But the ant's agony does not even rise to the occasion of halting my ice cream consumption. And there is nothing I can do to comfort an ant — I cannot pet it or soothe its fears or make it more comfortable. I can only watch, and offer as much empathy and good wishes as a human being can possibly extend to an ant.

And what about this macabre charnel ground business of theirs? If there were a bunch of wild dogs passing back and forth through this cabin while I was meditating, dragging behind them canine corpses and carrying in their mouths the severed, bloody heads and legs and abdomens of other dogs, I would be upset, to say the least. But that is precisely what is happening with these ants, day and night, on a miniature scale — and it only arouses my curiosity and attention, and a glimmer of compassion that is, by comparison, shallow and superficial. I wonder why. Is it because they are so tiny? Because there are trillions of them? Because their form, and their way of life, is so alien and bizarre to us that we cannot imagine they suffer as we do? Do we suppose they have no feelings, no consciousness, no will to continue living?

That is, I guess, the view held by many people, who would have no qualms about stepping on any ant that got in their way or had the audacity to make an appearance in their kitchen. We now have industrial factories that produce nothing but toxins to kill ants, and people whose sole profession is to exterminate them. The popular consensus seems to be that their very existence is an affront to the human race, and they must be annihilated to make us more comfortable.

Day 6

The wild and wrathful wind has been blowing for two days, and has grown even stronger. I am uneasy about the many swaying trees around the cabin. They are brittle spruce trees with shallow roots, and many are already dead from a raging Asian spruce beetle infestation that’s wiping out whole sections of the forests on Cape Breton, and throughout Canada. They snap like matchsticks in these winds, and the woods are littered with fallen trees — as this cabin is littered with fallen ants.

My meditation practice started out in a thick fog this morning, with a wild wind of discursiveness blowing in my mind. But by the end of the day, the fog and clouds in my mind have cleared, and the discursive wind has stopped blowing; I feel remarkably peaceful. Curiously, the same thing has happened with the weather outside. In my last meditation session of the day, I feel inspired to do an extra rosary of my practice, and while I am at it the sky outside clears and the wind stops blowing. The sea becomes still and the air itself is now gentle and warm and soft like a baby’s blanket — a perfect springtime evening. The sun sets on the calm ocean with ridiculous splendor and majesty. It is as if a dreary black-and-white film noir has suddenly turned into a lush Bollywood musical in vivid technicolor. The winter here — which lasts, I have realized, about six months — has been so relentlessly gray and cloudy that I have almost forgotten how breathtakingly beautiful and saturated with color this place can be in spring and summer. Tonight it looks and feels like a picture postcard that I want to send to all my friends, with the inscription: “Wish you were here.”

It is April Fool’s Day, and I came to the Abbey one year ago today.

Day 7

The gray fog and mist are back, and the sea and sky have merged into one again. But there is no wind, and the water a hundred feet below — what I can see of it, anyway — is eerily calm.

Last night as I was going to bed I witnessed a murder — or at least, I think that’s what it was. One of the little worker ants had one of the big winged ants and was dragging it off by its antennae. But this one was no corpse; it was very much alive, and was trying to resist being dragged away to wherever the smaller ant was taking it. But, drunk or stoned on whatever it is that makes these winged ants so slow and dull and ineffectual, it was powerless against the smaller ant despite its much larger size. Perhaps the winged ants have no pincers to defend themselves; if they did, this one could have snapped the worker ant in two pieces quite easily. His six legs struggled against the pull of the smaller ant, but his strength was no match for it and he was being dragged away kicking and screaming — or he would have been, if ants could scream. I found the whole scene quite disturbing; but I decided I did not want to know how it would end, and I turned off the light and went to bed. This sinister turn of events has severely rattled my theory that these various kinds of ants are all getting along together peacefully. Apparently, it is not only the dead ones who can get dragged away and “disappear.” I had better watch my back in this place.

Over breakfast this morning I recalled an old scary movie called “Them,” in which America is invaded by giant, man-eating ants. (It reminds me of what’s happening these days, with America being invaded by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.) I remember being disappointed to learn that the terrible monsters — so fearsome and indescribable that they could only be known as “Them” — were nothing more than oversized ants. I was expecting, I don’t know, nameless and shapeless creatures from outer space, or something like that. Giant, man-eating ants just seemed so…plebeian.

And that I am getting up-close and personal with these ants, I am thinking how scary it would actually be if the size differential between us were reduced — or even, unthinkably, reversed. Imagine looking up at those black, unemotional eyes staring back at you, having those sharp and unrelenting pincers closing around your neck, and being dragged away to their lair and chopped up to become food for the ant kingdom.

“The ant kingdom.” It’s a dumb phrase. Ants don’t have kings, they only have queens. But “the ant queendom” doesn’t sound quite right. Anyway, it’s strange, too, to call their central figure a queen. She is the only one in the colony who can lay eggs, and that is the only thing she does. She does not resolve disputes or issue royal decrees, and she probably has little idea of what's going on in the world outside her colony. Trapped in her chamber, which she can never leave, bloated fat with eggs, all day long she does nothing but pump out egg after egg after egg. Other ants — nurses and midwives — are waiting nearby, and quickly move in to lick each egg case clean and coat it with saliva that contains mold-inhibiting chemicals. If the eggs begin to grow mold, as everything rapidly does underground, they will never hatch. The queen’s innermost, regal chamber is a nursery, and Her Majesty is really an egg-laying machine, a slave to her own reproductive role.

A friend who lives nearby has another small cabin attached to her property, and recently had an invasion of carpenter ants. They had to be dealt with decisively to protect the cabin from being eaten as the ants’ dinner. This was greatly distressing to my friend who is a very ethical Buddhist and wouldn’t dream of intentionally harming even the smallest creature. But “carpenter ants” is another misnomer. Carpenters build things — but carpenter ants only destroy them. I suppose they’re called that because they’re skilled at working with wood. And they leave scrap wood and piles of sawdust everywhere, which is the other thing carpenters are known for.

Day 8

Last night I had insomnia. I unplugged the nightlight and opened all the blinds next to my bed and watched the stars. I’m from New York City, where maybe on the best night of the year you can see five stars, and even those are probably planets or satellites. Here you can’t fathom the number of stars in the sky, the number of other solar systems and worlds that exist out there. The Big Dipper was hanging right above my bed, pouring down on my head whatever it has been dipping and pouring all these billions of years. Through the walls and the floor of the cabin, if I listened closely, I could hear a strange, rhythmic sawing noise, a vibration that sounded curiously like muffled voices coming from someone’s television in the next apartment. I am convinced it was the sound of that fat weasel beneath the cabin, snoring.

Eight days a week. Today is pack-up-and-move-out day. It’s time for me to go back and rejoin the community at the Abbey. My first solitary retreat is over. But to be truthful, it was never really very solitary. There were no other people here, but I was certainly never alone. Living for a week among these ants and flies and squirrels and weasels, I was simply part of a different community in Cliffhanger cabin, a community that will continue here after I am gone. These creatures welcomed me in their own way, and seemed to have no problem with my presence. With all these ants crawling everywhere, including up my pants, not one of them ever bit me in these seven days. So I have felt at home in this community of solitude, and I hope I have not been an obnoxious guest. Perhaps I will see some of these same faces again on my next retreat.

But some of them I would prefer not to see again. Like the spider crawling next to my breakfast table this morning. Most of the spiders around here are harmless wood spiders, but this one was something else altogether. Its body was fat and bulbous and dark, with a sinister purple tinge. People around here often say to me that there are no poisonous spiders native to Cape Breton. I say those people are full of hogwash. I have seen brown widows here, which are the little-known cousins of black widows; they are not quite as poisonous but they're no kittens, either. Maybe poisonous spiders are not native to these parts, but then neither is anyone else living at the Abbey. We’re all recent immigrants here.

No normal person can look at a spider like the one at my breakfast table this morning without getting the heebie-jeebies. Maybe it isn’t going to kill you, but it’s going to leave a permanent mark. I’m glad I didn’t see him until the morning of my departure; I would have been thinking about him the whole week, looking around anxiously during my meditation sessions, imagining him crawling onto my cushion or into my bed. But I suppose every community has its members who push your buttons, whose presence you find difficult to tolerate, the ones whose faces you’d prefer never to see again. That’s life in a community. You either suffer from it, or you learn to be more tolerant and to let go of personal preferences.

This morning as I was coming back into the cabin after carrying some of my things over to the Abbey, I was greeted at the door by one of those dim-witted winged ants, which crawled towards me slowly in its clumsy way, like an eager puppy. I felt a strange surge of tenderness for it, and even affection. I was happy to see it. But is that really possible? Can a human being think of an ant fondly, like a cherished pet? Maybe I could pack up some of these ants and take them back to the Abbey with me, and keep them in an ant farm. We’re not allowed to keep cats or dogs at the Abbey, and I really do miss having pets to care for.

On second thought, no. I think the test of whether or not a creature would make a good pet is if I would want it sleeping in the same bed with me. I’m sorry to say that these ants — and spiders, and flies, and squirrels, and weasels — definitely don’t pass that test. Wild things, I think I love you — but do me a favor, and stay out of my bed. I don’t love you like that.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Notes from a Solitary Retreat: Part One

In my first week-long solitary meditation retreat, in an isolated cabin overlooking the Gulf of St. Lawrence, I came face to face with my own mind — and several hundred other wild things. What follows are some reflections on getting to know the creatures I found inhabiting my retreat cabin — and my mind — and what I learned from them. This is Part One of a two-part series. Read Part Two.

Day 1

It’s the first day of my retreat — only a half-day, really, since I have the cabin starting at mid-afternoon. Today is about settling in, unpacking the things I’ve brought over to the cabin, preparing for a full schedule of meditation practice on the following six days, relaxing in the space and appreciating the view. Now my work is done, and I am sitting at the table, staring out the window at the vast ocean, enjoying a nice cup of peppermint tea. Feeling inspired, I am moved to sing a song about meditation written by Milarepa, the legendary Tibetan yogi from the 11th century. As I finish singing, I take a drink of my tea and get a chunk of tea leaves in my mouth. I’m surprised by this, and I swish them around and feel them with my tongue against my upper palate, considering whether to swallow them or spit them out. Then it dawns on me: there are no leaves in my tea, because I used a closed teabag. There is only one possibility: what is in my mouth at this very moment is the housefly that had been buzzing around a few minutes earlier. In a fit of disgust, I spit the mouthful of tea back into the cup, and look inside. There he is, drowned and floating at the top.

After recovering from my initial wave of revulsion (which involved a lot of spitting and rinsing my mouth at the sink) I reflect that this is not a very auspicious way to begin a Buddhist meditation retreat: killing a sentient being in my tea, or perhaps in my mouth. I pour out the contents of the teacup, and look at the fly lying in the sink. I am astounded to see that his legs are moving. After drowning in a teacup and being swished around in my mouth and pressed against my palate with my tongue, he is still hanging on to life. But I really don’t think he’s going to make it; he must be on his way out. Still, I want to give him the best chance I can; I feel I owe him that much, after almost eating him. I lay the fly out on a napkin to soak up the tea and saliva covering his body, and to my amazement, within a half hour he has fully recovered and crawled — or flown — off the napkin and disappeared.

The view from Cliffhanger on Day 1 of my retreat.

I am not alone in this solitary retreat cabin. In addition to the flies, there are the ants. Black ants, large ones and small ones, that march back and forth from one end of the cabin to the other, on some kind of mission the logic of which I cannot imagine. I wonder how many hundreds, possibly thousands, of critters are sharing this one-room structure with me. In a way, it’s really their space — they live here all the time. I’m just a guest for a week.

And at night, the cabin is full of strange knocking and scratching noises. I sleep fitfully, glancing at the windows from time to time to see what kind of beasts might be lurking outside, looking in. A bear, perhaps, or a pack of wolves, or an angry moose. I expect to see glowing red eyes, watching me hungrily.

Day 2

This cabin is called Cliffhanger. For about 20 years, it literally perched at the edge of this cliff above the Gulf of St. Lawrence, with the windows looking almost straight down at the waves breaking on the rocks 100 feet below. But about a year ago there were several rockslides in which nearby sections of the cliff fell away. One of the monks who was doing a retreat in the cabin at that time came running into the Abbey in the middle of the night, totally freaked out after hearing rocks falling close to the cabin. Cliffhanger was deemed unsafe, and was off-limits for several months after that. Eventually they brought in heavy equipment and picked up the whole cabin, like a doll house, and moved it back about thirty feet from the cliff’s edge. And now Cliffhanger is back in business.

Cliffhanger Cabin during my retreat. Photo by Miao Lin.

This afternoon I saw what I believe to be one of the two or three other mammals sharing the cabin with me. It is a large brown weasel, fat and as big as a cat, that most likely lives beneath the cabin. I saw it out the picture window, and did a double-take. It has the solid brown coat of an otter or a beaver, which is what I at first thought it was — not at all like the little white weasel I once chased through the Abbey, which may in fact have been a wild ferret. But the way it slinked forward like a weasel, rather than walking like any normal four-legged creature, gave it away. I dashed for my camera to take a picture of it, but it disappeared into the bushes before I could get a shot.

I wonder: does this weasel live alone here? Is he perhaps a bachelor? I like to imagine he is. And what does a bachelor weasel do, living beneath a solitary retreat cabin perched in the woods on a cliff a hundred feet above the ocean? Does he have a network of weasel friends, and weasel enemies? How does he find a mate in all this vast wildness? There are no weasel singles bars that I’m aware of in these parts. (Come to think of it, in my experience all singles bars are full of weasels.)

There is also at least one squirrel living in the upper parts of the cabin. I adore squirrels. I wrote a term paper about them in college, in a class on urban ecology. But the squirrels around here are territorial and aggressive, like Chihuahuas; they are not accustomed to human beings, and they make an awful fuss when you cross their turf. They puff up their tails and beat them against the tree branches, and shout absurd little high-pitched curses and threats that sound like a dog’s squeaky toy being squeezed repeatedly. They apparently have no idea, as Chihuahuas also seem to have no idea, how ridiculous they look and sound. Today while circling the cabin outside, I spotted a hole under the eave, along the wall next to my bed, where one of them seems to go in and out. I hear its rustling noises in the wall and ceiling above me when I’m falling asleep, along with an occasional noisy outburst of activity caused by I don’t know what: whatever it is that upsets squirrels and causes them to screech and dash about madly — which actually, now that I think about it, seems to be just about everything. Life as a squirrel can’t be easy: being so high-strung and edgy and paranoid all the time. It’s like being a New Yorker. It must be exhausting.

Day 3

I am becoming very familiar with the ants in this cabin. Too familiar. All morning, all afternoon, all night they are my constant companions. As I sit in meditation for three long sessions each day, I see them marching back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Often I see them literally going in circles, sniffing out with their probing antennae whatever it is that ants sniff for all day and all night — which is, I gather, whatever they can score. Sometimes they march right up and climb me like a mountain while I am sitting there. I often shake them off my shirt or my shoes or my hands. I have literally had ants in my pants. A few times, I have maimed or killed them accidentally, because I didn’t know they were there, and I am roughly 20,000 times their size. I conscientiously watch the floors when I walk around the cabin, to avoid stepping on them — but it’s impossible to avoid it completely, because they are everywhere, and they are always on the move. Sharing the cabin’s tiny kitchenette with them is like performing in Riverdance.

There are two or three different types of ants here. At first I thought they were different species, though I have since realized that they are the same species, and even from the same colony, but they have different body types and different roles. Some of them are little worker ants, while others — two or three times their size — are fearsome warrior ants, with much larger pincers. You don’t want to mess with those guys. There are also a few large, winged ants that seem to do nothing but stumble around, slowly and aimlessly and ineffectively, looking rather depressed, like sad drunks or junkies. Perhaps that is what they are. They even have the junky’s narcolepsy: every now and then they’ll just come to a stop in the middle of the room and lie there without moving for several hours, until you’re convinced they’re dead and you’re ready to sweep them away with the broom, and then they’ll suddenly come back to life. They rarely attempt to use their wings, and when they do, they buzz around blindly a few inches off the floor, banging drunkenly into walls and furniture.

The fierce warrior ants, if you blow at them, will rear up and show you their pincers in a threatening gesture, the way a lobster does with its claw: they are preparing to strike if they continue to be hassled. And if you stomp your foot on the floor to shoo them away, they do not run away from it — they run, without exception, directly at it. I suppose that is what they are programmed, as warriors, to do — they are the kamikaze pilots of the ant world, the team’s offensive players. I only realized the little workers and the big warriors were the same species after seeing them meet each other several times and lock together in a sort of friendly embrace, exchanging chemical information face to face, almost like French-kissing. And then they separate and go on their way.

Their antennae, with which these ants feel their way through the world, are another amazing bit of technology. Although they grow out of their heads, their antennae also function as arms, and there is an elbow joint built right into each one. When they find something to eat, they use their antennae rather daintily to scoop it towards their mouth, as if they were holding a fork and a knife. I’ve also seen them use their antennae to clean their faces, and to scratch themselves when they itch.

Today one of the ants caught my eye while I was meditating. At that moment, I happened to be reciting a section of my liturgy that deals with the topic of death (a frequent object of contemplation in Buddhism). I noticed this ant had a very odd shape, and was limping right towards me. I looked more closely. Speaking of death, this was a worker ant, carrying half of the chopped-up corpse of a fly. I saw the other half of the fly lying on the floor nearby. (It didn’t stay there for long, as that ant or another one soon came back to retrieve it.) I can't help wondering if it was the fly that was in my mouth a couple of days ago.

If I died here, if I choked on a piece of broccoli and keeled over, how long would it take these ants to start chopping me up and carting me away? Would there be anything left of my remains by the time the folks at the Abbey came looking for me? Probably just some bones and teeth and hair, arranged in a heap on my meditation cushion. Even now, my only defense against these creatures, the only thing that keeps them in check, is that I’m inconveniently 20,000 times their size. But I suspect they’re looking at me, licking their little ant chops, and wishing, hoping for a miracle.

Day 4

Thick clouds and mist everywhere today: the sea and sky have merged into one, with no visual line separating them at the horizon. The famous Cape Breton wind is also picking up now.

I have been studying these ants, and I have realized what line of business they are in: they are all undertakers. All day long, I see them hauling around the corpses of their fallen comrades — sometimes not even whole corpses, just gruesome severed heads or other body parts. There is no shortage of ants here, and no shortage of dead ants, either. This room in which I am meditating is a charnel ground in miniature scale. Fresh ant corpses — felled by what causes I do not know — just keep appearing here and there throughout the cabin, and this work of undertaking is never finished for those who are still living. I see them at it constantly. They heave the corpses up with their jaws like Olympic weight-lifters and carry the bodies out in front of them, or they walk at a funny angle and push the bodies from the side, or they walk backwards in front of the corpses and drag them the way a dog pulls at a bone. I have even seen one of them rather sportingly dragging around a huge dustbunny, in which were tangled the severed body parts of another dessicated ant. (Don't believe me? I got the whole thing on video...)

I have now observed so much of this behavior from these ants that I am fully convinced that they spend more time searching for and transporting other ant corpses than they do looking for food, or eating it -- unless the corpses of the dead ants are their food. But I don’t think so. I read somewhere that ants build a special chamber in their colonies where they bring — as if respectfully, to their proper resting place — the bodies of their fellow ants who have passed on: an ant burial chamber. That is an altogether more civilized explanation for this behavior I am witnessing, and a more pleasing one for the human mind to contemplate. These small, black, six-legged creatures I am sharing a room with this week are either all remorseless cannibals, or a race of ethical beings whose main business — aside from survival — is scampering around looking for the remains of their relatives, and seeing that those remains are properly cared for when they find them.

Read Part Two

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Not Afraid to Fall Apart

Chogyam Trungpa once said that all our neurosis comes from wanting to move away from discomfort. We are experts at moving away, escaping, covering up. Our basic impulse to shrink or recoil from what makes us uncomfortable is the root of addictions of all kinds, and it is also the root of every form of hatred and prejudice.

Unless we're in denial, most of us experience a basic and ongoing sense of discomfort in our lives that is present even when when things are going well. Even when we get what we want, when we acquire the things that supposedly will make us happy, still in the back of our minds there is always that nagging feeling of shakiness and uncertainty. We don't have it all together, and yet we feel that we are supposed to. There are two common neurotic styles of reacting to this shakiness and uncertainty.

One neurotic style is self-denigration. We amplify the underlying feeling of uncertainty and discomfort by feeding it into a story-line about how messed up we are. No wonder I don't have it all together, we think. Other people have it all together, but I'm stuck here feeling shaky and uncertain because (as the story-line goes) there's something basically wrong with me. I'm falling apart, and it's my own fault, because I'm (fill in the blanks). If I could only get (fill in the blanks) or become (fill in the blanks) then maybe I could get it together. This is Tara Brach's "trance of unworthiness," the eternal fountain of low self-esteem and depression. This self-denigrating attitude produces habits of negative thinking and neurotic behaviors that stifle our spiritual growth and keep us imprisoned in discontentment and despair. People who are stuck in self-denigration always seem to be at war with themselves. When taken to its logical extreme, it leads to suicide.

The other neurotic style is arrogance. We react to the underlying feeling of uncertainty and discomfort with an attitude of denial; we cover it up and attempt to hide it by puffing ourselves up with vanity and pride. We pretend that we do, in fact, have it all together -- or that, if we don't, it's only because someone else is holding us back. The by-product of arrogance is the story-line that goes, Nothing is wrong with me; something is wrong with you! Or: If I'm falling apart, it's your fault. On the small scale, the personal level, this attitude of arrogance and blame produces people who are rude and aggressive and self-centered and abusive. On the larger scale, the social level, it produces hatred and conflict between political parties, between ethnic and religious groups, and between nations. It produces Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, and history has shown that it produces monsters even more gruesome than those. People who are stuck in arrogance always seem to be at war with someone else.

Arrogance and self-denigration might appear to be energetic opposites, but they're actually flip sides of the same coin. Their similarities are greater than their differences. They're both ways of moving away from that underlying discomfort, and both of them generate neurosis. They both involve fixation, hardening into a pattern. And neither of these neurotic coping strategies does anything to make the underlying feeling of discomfort go away. We still feel shaky and uncertain, and we never quite manage to get it all together for more than a few minutes at a time. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we're always falling apart inside -- even if, in the case of arrogance, we might be in denial about it. Look at Tilda Swinton's magnificently crafted character in the film Michael Clayton. In public she projects herself as a vicious lawyer who is cold and hard and in control -- the epitome of arrogance. But in private, she is always falling apart, doubting herself, trying desperately to hold it together, sweating and puking with anxiety and fear.

Self-denigration sometimes masquerades as humility, but true humility isn't despairing, neurotic and negative. True humility is a state of being open and receptive -- not assuming that you know the answers, and not holding on to fixed opinions. By the same token, arrogance sometimes masquerades as confidence, but true confidence isn't puffed up, conceited and bloated with its own prejudice. True confidence, in fact, looks very much like true humility: it's a state of unbiased openness and receptivity, a state of being okay with not knowing all the answers, okay with the shakiness and the uncertainty.

Humility means knowing that we don't have it all together, and that even when we do get it together, we can't keep it that way: we're perpetually getting it together and watching it fall apart again. Confidence means knowing that's the way it is, and we're still basically okay. We can let ourselves fall apart, and come back together, and fall apart again. We can meet the messiness and the shakiness and the uncertainty of life with some sense of equanimity -- not indifference, but equanimity, which is a mind that holds humility and confidence in equal balance.

In the end, we are all going to fall apart completely. When that happens, all the king's horses and all the king's men won't be able to put us back together again. When we face that fact and really take it in, then we can get on with the business of living in a less neurotic way. We can stop worrying about how to get it together and keep it together permanently, because we know what an impossible fairy tale that is.