Thursday, June 24, 2010

Idiot Devotion

Devotion is one of those mysterious things Buddhists are always talking about; but when pressed to explain what it is, nobody really seems to know. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the experience and practice of devotion towards the guru or teacher is regarded as one of the main qualities that brings the student to awakening. As one famous chant in the Kagyu lineage puts it, "devotion is the head of meditation" -- the guiding and driving force behind the student's movement towards awakening. The expression of devotion opens the door for the teacher to transmit the full blessings and instructions of a lineage of enlightened beings that reaches all the way back to the Buddha himself.

Devotion is essentially a quality of longing or desire; and like all forms of desire, it has the potential to be either wise or neurotic. In its wisdom form, this longing or desire is for enlightenment itself -- our own and that of others -- which we see reflected in the teacher and the lineage of awakening he or she holds. In its neurotic form, devotion might manifest as a baser emotional longing and desire for the person, or for some kind of validating intimacy and relationship with the teacher. With time and the proper conditions, the student's devotion may grow from its early, clinging, neurotic and instable form into a more refined, unconditional and open type of trust and commitment.

The expression of devotion takes as many forms as there are students who feel it; it is an intensely personal and individual path. It is expressed in our commitment to meditation practice and following the instructions of our teachers. It is expressed in the diligent study and contemplation of teachings and texts that describe awakened mind and the path to its realization. And it is expressed in doing various kinds of work that support the teacher and his or her mandala of activity.

In an ideal world, these three "wheels" -- the wheels of study, practice, and activity -- are kept in harmonious balance in each devoted student's life and path. Through study one gains knowledge and understanding, which deepens one's experience of practice, which in turn supports one's activity and efforts on behalf of others.

In the imperfection of real life, on the other hand, the three wheels often get out of balance. We might fall into a pattern of wanting only to study the Dharma, underemphasizing the importance of practice and activity, which leads to a dry and academic understanding of the teachings with little experiential realization. Or we might become practice addicts, avoiding study and activity like the plague, just wanting to sit quietly with our minds all the time. Or we might become activity junkies, keeping ourselves so constantly preoccupied with Dharma-related projects and work that we rarely have time for formal practice and study.

A Cultural Frame of Mind

This latter type of dysfunctional devotion -- the neurosis of activity junkies -- is common among Western students of Buddhism. Maybe it's because we tend to have very busy minds to begin with, and we naturally bring that same mindset onto the spiritual path. Our predominant tendency is to always be doing, planning, scheming, dreaming, acting -- and quiescence does not come easily to us. It's much more familiar, and perhaps more comfortable, to get caught up in a lot of activity that seems to be for a good cause and keeps us busy all the time.

Our Judaeo-Christian cultural heritage has instilled us with a strong work ethic, which can play into our tendency to overemphasize the wheel of activity. "The devil," we've been told, "will find work for idle hands to do" -- and so we dare not let our hands (or our minds) be still for long. We also measure ourselves against the higher standards set by others, and sometimes we even guilt-trip ourselves when we come up short in comparison. Look at So-and-So, we might think. He's more devoted than I am, that's why he's able to do so much more than I am and to have his finger in so many different pies. How does he do it? In our efforts to be more like So-and-So, we might fail to notice that So-and-So is so chronically overextended and stressed out with all his activity that he is suffering migraines and catching a cold nine times a year.

We might even feel a compulsion to say yes to everything we are asked to do on behalf of others -- because we feel that's what devotion to our guru means, or what being a bodhisattva means. "I say yes whenever I can," says Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche. But if we're listening with our habitual mindset we might conveniently fail to hear those last three words: "whenever I can." Automatically saying "yes" to every invitation and request that comes our way is what might be called "idiot devotion." Sometimes the more skillful and compassionate thing to do is to say "no" to involvement in one project in order to be able to properly focus our energy and attention on another -- or to simply have enough space to deal with our other obligations in life. But if we have that Judaeo-Christian guilt trip going on, saying "no" to involvement in any project that has a beneficial, spiritual aim can feel scary and even humiliating. And pity the Dharma student who has underlying control issues and wants to do everything, or be involved in managing everything, herself. There are myriad factors like these that can subtly color our expression of devotion in a neurotic tone.

An Organizational Neurosis

Dharma organizations, like all nonprofits, are in perpetual need of skilled and enthusiastic volunteers. Once word of our talents and energies spreads within the organization, we begin to find ourselves pulled this way and that way. Drip by drip, we become involved in one project on top of another, one committee after another, until we may find ourselves having fallen completely overboard with activity -- struggling to keep our heads above the water and meet all our obligations to family, career, and life while juggling the many balls of our Dharma projects. We might be working a full-time job (with overtime), rushing from work to the Dharma center for local sangha leadership meetings and classes in the evenings, spending the better part of the weekend on conference calls and planning sessions for national committees -- and wondering how to find time to do our laundry and cook meals and visit with friends. Having failed to make discerning choices and set appropriate priorities and boundaries around our involvement in the wheel of activity, we slide gradually but inexorably towards total burnout. Inevitably, we arrive at a moment of panic and have no choice but to withdraw from some of our activities -- or continue pressing forward and making ourselves mentally and physically ill.

Perhaps I should be speaking in the first-person voice rather than "we," because this crash-and-burn, boom-and-bust cycle of involvement in the wheel of activity is something I've personally experienced several times -- and maybe, at bottom, it is just my own neurotic pattern. But I've observed the same patterns enough in other people to suspect that I'm far from alone in having suffered from it. I've even known people who withdrew altogether from their involvement in particular Dharma organizations because of this type of burnout on the wheel of activity. It is, of course, up to each of us as individuals to manage our own time and commitments; in most cases, there is no one else who is watching out for us and will tell us when we're about to go overboard. But from an organizational management perspective, overtapping people and burning them out and driving them away altogether is not, to say the least, a skillful or compassionate use of human resources -- and in order to mature as Dharma organizations, we need to confront that. Learning to hold the three wheels of practice, study and activity in proper balance is a challenge we must face both as individual Dharma students and as communities.

Learning from Our Mistakes

"It is really important to have love for yourself," said Mitra Tyler Dewar at a recent retreat I attended at Nalanda West in Seattle. "It will bite you in the ass if you try to have devotion to a teacher without love for yourself." Similarly, the historical Buddha Shakyamuni said in one of the sutras that you could search the entire universe and you wouldn't find anyone more worthy of your love and compassion than you yourself.

One of the ways we need to show this love and compassion for ourselves is through understanding and respecting our own limits. When we bite off more than we can chew, we burn ourselves out on the spinning wheel of activity. For each of us, finding the balance and walking that line is a personal journey; what is skillful and balanced for you might be crazy-making for me, and vice-versa. To make matters slightly more complicated, that line, for each of us, is not a straight and narrow one; it is always shifting and changing course as our life circumstances evolve and as we progress along the path as students. We always have to intelligently consider all the variables and determine what we are able to do skillfully now, which may be more or may be less than what we were able to do last year or last week.

As Mitra Lee Worley said at the same retreat in Seattle, compassion and devotion seem to share a common root. We feel devotion towards those who are enlightened, and compassion towards those who are suffering -- but at bottom, it is the same energy of mind expressed in different directions. Wise compassion and wise devotion (unlike idiot compassion and idiot devotion) should not be a drain on our energy. When we nurture and work with these noble qualities of mind skillfully, they are the very sparks of energy and inspiration that will carry us to enlightenment.

Our devotion, the wellspring of our enthusiasm and commitment to everything we do on the path, is a beautiful and sacred quality of awakened heart and mind. But like compassion, generosity, and other noble qualities, we must learn to apply our devotion with discriminating wisdom. The blind, forward rush of idiot compassion, idiot generosity, and idiot devotion all create stumbling blocks to our progress on the path. Then again, it's also true that we sometimes learn the most from our mistakes -- as long as we don't keep repeating them.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Audio: The Unconscious in Buddhism and Jung

Two days ago I posted a PDF file of a presentation I gave last week in Shedra class, comparing the theories of the Buddhist alaya-vijnana and the Jungian unconscious.

I'm now sharing the audio file of an abridged (15 mins) and streamlined version of this talk that I gave today to a larger audience at the Abbey.

To listen in streaming audio, use the embedded player applet below. To download the talk as an MP3 file, click on the DivShare logo.


Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Unconscious in Buddhism and Jung

For the past four weeks, I've been immersed in a Shedra course at the Abbey on Yogacara ("Mind-Only") philosophy. In the 5th Century CE, Yogacara Buddhist philosophers asserted the existence of an unconscious dimension of mind called the "alaya-vij├▒āna," or the "storehouse" consciousness. This famous "eighth consciousness" has many features in common with the modern, Western psychological view of the unconscious as first developed by Sigmund Freud and clarified by Carl Jung.

My final presentation for the class looks at the similarities and differences between these two systems (ancient and modern) and their respective views of the unconscious mind -- particularly where Jung's psychology overlaps with the 1,500-year-old schematics of the Yogacara philosophers. For source material and analysis, I'm deeply indebted to William Waldron's scholarly paper on this topic.

Those Buddhist geeks who are interested in viewing a PDF of the presentation can download it here. Enjoy!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Crazy Like Me

I'll admit it. I don't like meditating.

But I do it for much the same reasons as I brush my teeth, and exercise, and go to work: if I didn't do those things, I would be weak and unhealthy, living on the street, with my teeth falling out.

I meditate because if I didn't I would be crazy. I would be, in the eloquent words of Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, "a shrieking, gibbering madhouse on wheels, barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless."

I don't think it's just me, actually. It is a fairly common experience to discover through meditation just how crazy you really are. This shock comes in several phases. In phase one, you simply realize that you're a monkey. Try as you might, you cannot keep your mind settled on any one thing for more than a few breaths; peeling away the controlled, civilized mask you try to present to yourself and others, you discover a "shrieking, gibbering" primate who resists any attempts at being trained or coerced. That shock, alone, is enough to make the faint-of-heart give up -- and give up they do. I can't count the number of people I've seen flee in terror from the meditation cushion after one or two trial sessions, simply because they couldn't sit down and immediately be totally thought-free and at peace. Tenzin Palmo compares this to someone who takes their first piano lesson and gives up in frustration because they can't immediately play a Beethoven concerto.

But if you are one of the few, one of the brave, who has the temerity to stick with it and not turn away from the monkey, then you can enter phase two, which -- I'm sorry to tell you, sweetheart -- holds an even greater shock. Peeling away the first layer of the monkey, you begin to uncover the bloody pulp that the monkey is made of -- and, so far, I've never heard of anyone discovering that the monkey is made of sugar and spice and everything nice. The monkey, invariably, is made of slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails and other horrors. What happens, very simply, is that you start to see, with newfound clarity, the patterns of bullshit in your own mind.

You might discover, to your deep chagrin, that although you thought you were self-confident and well-adjusted in your relationships to others you're actually seething with insecurity and vanity and constantly seeking validation. Or you might discover that although you thought you were a "nice" person, you're actually pissed off most of the time -- as full of concealed malice and resentment and aggression as a writhing ball of snakes. Or you might discover that although you thought you were tolerant and open-minded, every other thought you have is judgmental and prejudiced and critical. Or you might begin to lean over the well of your mind and peer into a bottomless abyss of loneliness and sadness that you didn't know was there. Or you might, to your everlasting horror, discover each of these things, one by one.

To put this in terms of Jungian psychology, through meditation you begin to see your own Shadow: that secret closet in your mind where you have stuffed all the skeletons that seemed unflattering and incompatible with your consciously contrived personality. And seeing your Shadow is, universally, an embarrassing and uncomfortable experience. The skeletons that come floating out of that closet are unacceptable, and they reek like corpses: that is why you locked them away in the first place.

But for the brave of heart, there is something strangely satisfying in this. It is satisfying because you know that, finally, you are getting down to something true. "The truth?" screamed Jack Nicholson's character in A Few Good Men. "You can't handle the truth!" And yet, you begin to realize, you can handle it. It may not be flattering, it may be uncomfortable and embarrassing to admit to yourself what you find (forget about admitting it to someone else) -- but it is okay, because it is true. This stuff in you has been there all along, and now you finally have a chance to come to terms with it. Like the young man in the old fable who runs in fear from the sight of his own shadow and the sound of his own footsteps, you eventually realize that all you need to do is stop running and the sound of footsteps chasing you will disappear; sit down in the shade of a tree and your menacing shadow will vanish.

"The truth? You can't handle the truth!"
-- Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men

Here's the dangling carrot: as you let these aspects of the Shadow come up into the light of consciousness, holding them in awareness with simple curiosity and openness, the Shadow begins to loosen its grip on you. The Shadow is the Shadow, ultimately, only because you've been hiding it from yourself. Perhaps meditation gives you, for the first time in your life, the courage to begin to look nakedly at what has been inside you all along. And by looking, and knowing, you begin to grow in wisdom.

And yet, to your disappointment, it doesn't all dissolve into bliss when you shine your little flashlight on it. It's a big Shadow -- really big, stretching back into the recesses of your mind further than you can fathom -- and your little flashlight only illuminates the few feet of ground right in front of you. One nasty spider might emerge into the beam of your flashlight and dissolve in awareness, but you can rest assured there are other spiders and creepy-crawlies there in the darkness, all around you.

The spiritual path, said Chogyam Trungpa, is just "one insult after another." No wonder I don't like meditating. And yet, I keep going -- not because I'm a masochist, but because I have seen enough to know that I must keep going. I must keep peeling away the layers of the monkey -- until I get to the bone, and then I must peel away the bone and get to the marrow, and then I must peel away the marrow and get to -- what? I don't know. But each time I peel away a new layer, I'm confronted with a fresh insult, a fresh whiff of whatever reeking corpse I've been hiding from myself. And that's how I know I'm headed in the right direction.

The further you go into meditation, the more you descend into the charnel ground that is your own mind. But that's the path, sweetheart. If you seek to re-discover what Trungpa called "the sanity you were born with," you must first recognize how insane you have been ever since birth. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. And, sweetie, you've got a big problem. You're crazy, just like me.