Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Map 3: a response to a calling

Today I offer a map for something that seems to me to be quite different -- when practice is a calling, or a response to a calling. Maybe you started here and forgotten, or maybe your motivation has evolved out of your efforts in either or both of the other approaches to practice. In responding to a calling, you are not concerned about how practice may benefit you, nor are you concerned about achieving or finding something -- awakening, meaning, etc. It is just something you have to do, something that you are called to do. In this respect, it is analogous to art, and there are many parallels between the path of the artist and the path of the practitioner.

When I look back on my own practice history, I think this is what always motivated me. At the beginning and for a good period of time, I was of course fascinated by the accounts of experiences and awakenings that I came across in my reading. Yet it is hard to say which was the cart and which was the horse, the lure of awakening or the sense of a calling. At this point in my life, it is quite clear -- it is the calling. Awakening, at least as it is presented in the traditional texts, seems to be a well-defined goal. However, it’s a bit like a rainbow -- clear and beautiful to behold, but it mysteriously recedes and fades as you move toward it. A calling, however, is different. It is in you, not out there. You feel it, in your body, in your heart, in the very core of your being. It's always there, to guide you, to push you or to call you back.

Associated with that sense of calling are two powerful emotions, humility and awe, neither of which are particularly easy to write about. 

I’m not going to say much about humility, except to say that it’s essence seems to be in some kind of implicit recognition that this self most of us are so obsessed with is nothing but a story, an idea -- an idea whose maintenance usually disturbs or disrupts the natural flow of life. It is also connected with the recognition that much that comes about in our lives -- good or bad -- does not come about solely through our own agency. 

As for awe, it is difficult for me to imagine a spiritual practice in which awe is not present. By awe, I mean a feeling of being intimately connected with something that is infinitely greater than any sense of who I am. Without the intimacy of connection, there is no participation. One is only an onlooker. (This is one of the reasons that I do not encourage the “detached observer” approach in meditation practice, helpful though it may be to many people.) Without the greatness (and the greatness may come through verticality, breadth, depth, or an aesthetic dimension), one has only that ordinary sense of self, a paltry obsession to put against the grandeur of all that it is possible to experience. 

I encounter awe in various ways. Certain works of art inspire awe - the opening bars of Mozart’s Requiem, the statue of Guan-Yin in the Nelson-Atkin’s Museum, Monet’s paintings in L’Orangerie in Paris, or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Indeed, many temples, including mosques, cathedrals and memorials such as the Lincoln Memorial were designed to elicit awe, but when there is no sense of participation, they become little more than tourist attractions. Similarly, people’s stories can inspire awe, whether the lives of great teachers, the myths that come down to us today, or the wonder and magic that bring out compassion and understanding, courage and love, in the happenings and encounters of daily life. I also encounter awe (and humility) in my meditation practice, the "it's turtles all the way down" quality, for instance, that I talk about in A Trackless Path, or the seemingly fathomless capacity for love, loving kindness and compassion that seems to part of our human heritage.

To respond to a calling, you need to develop the skills and build the capacities that are essential for spiritual practice. To train deeply in an established tradition can be very helpful. You will certainly learn a lot, and the challenges presented by the traditional methods build capacity. In doing so, you necessarily take on the path and methods that the tradition sets out, along with its world view and ways of living your life. And here a lies a danger: those world views and ways of living may result in your losing touch with your calling. Here it is especially important to distinguish between faith and belief

A traditional training will generally deepen your understanding of possibilities and help you develop skills and capacities. But it may or may not fit with your calling and you may find that, at some point, you have to respond to that calling and find your own way. At that point, the importance of the validation of your understanding by the tradition and your teacher begins to ebb. This is a difficult juncture: whether to set out into the unknown or to stay within the traditional framework. There is no way of knowing except to listen as deeply as you can to the stammering voice of your calling that comes from deep inside you.

Many teachers in the past have come to this point and had to find their own way. You will find some accounts of this in Lives of the Lineage Holders. One has to read these accounts carefully because the internal struggles of the teachers are often described in metaphorical language that disguises the challenges they faced. In  the first few verses of The Magic of Faith, for instance, I try to bring out the internal struggles that Khyungpo Naljor faced. 

From then on, you are in the unknown, in the dark. I’m not talking about the dark night of the soul. The dark here is the dark of the unknown that T. S Eliot writes about in Four Quartets:

In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

You draw upon all your training to meet the challenges of the dark, but the direction you take is not necessarily that set out in traditional teachings. Rather, you have an internal compass, and you go where it points, regardless of the consequences in your life. 

Map 2: a deeper relationship with life

Today, I want to sketch out a map for those of you who are looking for a deeper connection with life, or deeper meaning. This is a bit tricky because meaning in life is usually related to a sense of identity and/or a sense of belonging. Traditional Buddhist practice eschews both those aims, at least as they are conventionally defined, as sources of meaning in life. In doing so, it flies in the face of common societal norms. Thus, if you are drawn to Buddhist practice, at the very least consider that the norms of society and the conventional notions of success and failure are not what give your life meaning. Also, keep in mind that, as Idries Shah points out in Knowing How to Know, when we adopt practices and disciplines from another culture, we necessarily take in the thinking behind those practices.

As for a search for truth, Robinson Jeffers, a dour Scot if ever there was one, once wrote:

tormented persons want truth.
Man is like other animals, wants food and success and women,
not truth. Only if the mind
tortured by some interior tension has despaired of happiness:
then it hates
its life cage and seeks further.

Over the centuries, many practitioners have found great meaning through their practice, but then something strange happens. The meaning they have found is often then presented as the meaning that is to be found. Time and again an experience, or a way of experiencing life, solidifies into a concept and a belief. From there, whole schools of thought and practice evolve. Saraha famously summarized this tendency with respect to emptiness. I quote him, with appropriate apologies to the bovine species, whose intelligence, relative to humans, is questioned:

Those who believe in reality are stupid like cows;
Those who believe in emptiness are even stupider.

What has been found and presented as meaningful inevitably takes on an aura of truth, and then Truth with a capital "T", with all the problems that any notion of truth engenders. An elite, i.e., those who know the truth, gives rise to a hierarchy, followed by notions of authority, adherence, conformity, us and them, and eventually coercion, imposition and violence. Thus, seductive as it may, be careful with the notion of truth.

The genius of Buddhist practice is not so much in the promulgation of truth (e.g., the Four Noble Truths, the Truth of the Middle Way or the Two Truths, as if one was not enough), but in the profundity of its methods for dismantling reactive patterns that are based on the three marks of existence: survival, belonging and identity. These reactive patterns lead us into often problematic notions of meaning. Practice can be thought of as a process of dismantling those patterns and learning to see and relate to the world through experience itself, that is, awareness that is not clouded by projections of thought and feeling or distorted by the three marks of existence. One aim in practice is to see through four types of conditioning: sociological, psychological, perceptual, and cultural. 

In brief, to see through sociological conditioning we contemplate death and impermanence. Contemplation of karma (how our actions shape  cuts through psychological conditioning. Breaking through the apparent duality of subject and object cuts through perceptual conditioning. And development of compassion cuts through cultural conditioning. 

There is no one path and all roads do not lead to Rome. In fact, the very notion of a definite path or goal is problematic. As the opening lines of the Tao Te Ching say:

A way which becomes the way is not the way.
A name which become the name is not the name.

That being said, whatever your path, you need these three things: intention, skills and capacities. http://www.unfetteredmind.org/willingness-know-how-capacity/

Intention is what you are looking for. While many traditions of practice are all too happy to tell you what you are looking for, or what you should be looking for, I have found that such methods as The Five Why's brings you viscerally in touch with your intention. This is intention as a felt sense, rather than a conceptual formulation, however well-defined. It is something you taste and feel, not something you merely think. And it is something that you own. It is not given to you.

I have always found it is helpful to return to intention periodically, at least yearly, if not every six months or so. Why? As we practice, changes take place in us, often without our being aware of them. If practice feels stale and lifeless or loses energy, it's often because we have lost touch with our intention and it is time to look again at what our intention is. It may have shifted, and we need to connect with what it has become rather than rely on what it was.

As for skills, stable clear attention is essential. Otherwise you are at the mercy of every thought and feeling that arises. Indeed, when people are exposed to basic mindfulness training, often they will comment, "This is the first time I've learned what to do with all the stuff in my head." The quest for meaning is more demanding than improving our ability to function in life, and you need a correspondingly stronger relationship with attention.

The ability to cut through, the ability to open, the ability to see and the ability to let go are all important. An appreciation of mortality helps you to cut projections about the world. Faith, devotion and love are all about opening to the fullness of your experience. Insight enables you to see into what arises in your experience and to see what it is. And compassion is, as far as I can tell, the only quality that makes it possible to step beyond the conditioning of our own culture and upbringing.

All four of these qualities are necessary. You will probably find that you have a strong affinity for one, possibly two, some ability in one or two others, but little affinity or ability in the fourth. And that fourth will, in all likelihood, be one of the places you get stuck in practice. 

For the first, The Warrior's Solution will probably be helpful. For the second, theprimary practice is the core method, but you may feel more resonance with other methods such as guru practice  or loving kindness. This second quality, opening, is the main practice in most spiritual traditions and there are any number of methods available. The third quality, insight, is best done with actual guidance. Still, An Arrow to the Heart is all about insight practice as is The Ganges Mahamudra. For compassion, I suggest Reflections on Silver River, or Mahayana Mind Training or other practices that put you right in touch with the suffering in the world.

What is the right order? While the Tibetan tradition is based on a sequence laid down by Atisha in the 11th century, my own feeling is that you develop in these areas when it is appropriate. I came late to the ability to cut through, despite much contemplation of death and impermanence, but I had laid a pretty good foundation in insight and compassion. A Zen teacher I know found that there was nothing in his training that prepared him for death, so he came late to that aspect of practice. 

These four qualities interact with each other in complex ways. As you practice, be sensitive to imbalance and then move in the direction of balance. Don't be concerned about being or staying in balance. That rarely happens and, if it does, it is only for relatively short periods. Instead, just keeping moving in the direction of balance, adjusting as needed, and things will usually take care of themselves. 

Attention, intention and balance - three essential tools for your path.

As I said at the beginning, this approach is about dismantling patterns of reactivity. Our experience is filtered through layers of projections and distortions. What seems meaningful to us is shaped as much by those distortions as by what actually arises in our lives. As those projections are taken apart or fall away other possibilities open up. What you find meaningful then is up to you.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Map 1: meditation as a way to function better in life

I suggest you start with Mountain, Sea, and Sky. You could also explore the various talks and articles that deal with cultivating attention (Chapter 3 in Wake Up to Your Life, for instance). The point here is to develop a basic practice and some level of attention. 

With that as a basis, you can start working with Seeing From the Inside, which is a great way to work with all kinds of internal disturbances, particularly those brought up by difficult situations in your life. Also helpful will be Releasing Emotional Reactions. Both of these practices focus on the development of the ability to not be run by reactions, thus opening the possibility of responding appropriately to what is arising in and around you.

From there, you will be in good shape to use the methods described in Relationship and Conflict and the pragmatically oriented Making Things HappenMoney and Value, and Surviving Stressful Times. These four sets of podcasts are about how to apply attention to issues and challenges we all face in our lives. You will find a number of tools and frameworks that will help you to identify what is vitally important in a situation and how to work with that.

Friday, October 30, 2015

It's not about morality

A lot has been written and said about Buddhist ethics, but David Chapman, Charles Goodman and a number of other thoughtful people make a strong case that Buddhist ethics is largely a Western invention. Chapman, in a deliberately provocative series of writings, goes quite a bit further and advances the thesis that Buddhist ethics in the West has now largely become a way to solidify a sense of self and signal that one is a good person.

A differentiation I want to offer is between morality and ethics on the one hand and the behavior one chooses to support practice on the other. 

Morality can be seen as the tacit understandings and behavioral principles that provide cohesion for a group of people, i.e., a society. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk sees morality as part of the immune system of a society, i.e., how a society determines whether you belong or not. Jonathan Haidt points out the intimate relationship between morality and reputation. He also notes that in most cases the stricter the morality of the group, the more cohesive it is and the longer it is likely to maintain its identity and effectiveness as a group.

Many people (myself included) interpreted the disciplines of the monastic code, the bodhisattva vow and vajrayana commitments as moral systems. But they are not moral systems in the Western sense. They are more descriptions of possible behavior than prescriptions, and their primary function is to support the efforts we are making in practice. There is a term that refers to all these disciplines and it is tempting to translate that term as life-style. That seemed to casual, so I eventually opted for chosen behavior.

The point is that we choose to live in ways that support our practice. When we don’t follow those choices, then we are undermining our practice efforts, but we are not acting immorally, with all the weight that that term has in Western culture. These chosen behaviors are not offered as universal prescriptions but as individual efforts. Many Tibetan teachers wrote poems or songs about how they aspired to live and you will find three examples that I’ve translated on Unfettered Mind’s website: Mind Training in Eight Verses, The 37 Practices of a Bodhisattva and 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice. Rather that interpret traditional guidelines for behavior in a way that made them easy to follow, these teachers often pushed the guidelines further so that they bit deeply into the patterns of distraction, conceptualization and self-cherishing. In Mind Training in Eight Verses, Langri Tangpa, for instance, says:

When scorn and insult become my lot,
Expressions of some jealousy,
I alone accept defeat
And award the other victory.

And Longchenpa, in 30 Pieces of Sincere Advice, offers such gems as:

Although you think you’re serving the welfare of beings
By acting as a guarantor, witness or advocate to help settle others’ disputes,
Your own opinions will inevitably assert themselves.
Don’t be concerned – that’s my sincere advice.


Your political power, wealth, connections, good fortune and reputation
May spread all over the world.
When you die, these things will not help you at all.
Work at your practice – that’s my sincere advice.

These are not moral principles — ways to live that bring cohesion and order to society. These are practice efforts — ways to live that bring us right up against the reactive patterns that keep us in confusion. That, in essence, is the differentiation that I want you to consider. In practice, we are less concerned with how we live in society and more concerned with the habits and patterns of reactivity that prevent us from being present in the mystery of life.

These poems were written as forms of self-encouragement, much like Montaigne’s essays or the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. My own teacher wrote similar poems, both for himself when he was young and for others when he was older. Spiritual practice can only be undertaken voluntarily. Similarly, the behavioral guidelines are taken up voluntarily. Just as it is up to each of us to find the path of practice that works for us, so it is up to each of us to find the way of life that supports our practice. The danger here is that our path becomes on of self-indulgence. But that is always a danger. Adherence to a notion of a higher truth and attachment to a pure morality are also forms of self-indulgence. Much can be learned from the examples of the great masters who practiced personal privation privately. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Mind-killing 3: marginalization and framing

Mind-killing refers to a set of techniques by which an entity or a system manipulates people to act in its own interests. It does this by killing their ability to act in their own interests. The entity may be a pattern that operates in you, or it could be a family member or your family system. It could be an institution (educational, medical, professional or religious). It could be a corporation, or the advertisers and marketers and public relations people that serve its interests. Or it could be a politician, a government agency, society or the culture at large. 

In two previous newsletters, I discussed alignment and seduction, both of which subvert your own desires, and polarization and reduction, both of which incite your anger or aversion to serve the system’s interests.

Marginalization and framing are methods that play on the reactive pattern of ignoring.

In framing, topics and issues are presented in such a way that key questions cannot be asked, or cannot even be raised. George Lakoff, in Don’t Think of An Elephant, analyzes the different frames used in the politics of this country. Framing induces ignorance in you, that is, you are led to ignore aspects of the issue that may be vitally important to your own interests but are contrary to the interests of the person or entity that is seeking to make you act in their interests. For instance, as soon as Corbyn was elected to the leadership of the Labour party in England, the Tories released an ad that presented Corbyn as a threat to national security — an attempt to reframe the popular interest in him by converting concern over wages and inequality into fear of being unsafe. On the other hand, financial and economic issues are typically framed as being too difficult or too complex for most people to understand, even though large numbers of sports fans in this country have proven very capable of analyzing and understanding the complexities of whole sports, from play on the field to the intricacies of coaching, managing and the draft process, etc.

Marginalization goes further. In marginalization, you are made to feel that your own interests (or interests that run counter to the interests of the other) are inconsequential, are not worth thinking about, are not worth any consideration. Black Lives Matter is a movement that is attempting to counteract the legacy of the marginalization of the value of black lives in America society. Environmental concerns are consistently marginalized in favor of profit, and this is typically done by arousing fear about losing your job or your livelihood. 

In order to recognize the operation of mind-killing, you have to have to be able to actively question what is being presented to you. From this perspective, the auto-anesthesia induced by almost any media technology (books, newspapers, magazines, television, computers, video-games, etc.) makes us susceptible to manipulation by those who know how to use those media. All these technologies bring extraordinary benefits in terms of access to information and richness of life, but they also make us vulnerable to manipulation and control precisely because they induce a kind of sleep.

It is small wonder that mindfulness has attracted so much attention, but the mindfulness movement itself has been criticized for marginalizing the inequities and cruelties of the modern work environment and framing problems in the workplace as a problem with the individual, not with the system.

Two methods that are often effective countermeasures to marginalization and framing are: 
  • knowing what is vitally important to you and 
  • exploring connections.

When it comes to what is important, many people have already been conditioned to think primarily in terms of their own individual welfare and supposed indicators of well-being that are easily measured, i.e., income. Actual quality of life, particularly the quality of relationships and the time to pursue personal interests outside of work, etc., have been effectively marginalized. Thus, from time to time, ask yourself, what is vitally important to me? When you do, you may notice a tide of uncertainty or fear. That fear, that tide, is the inertia of conditioning that is resident in you. To question what is vitally important in the face of that conditioning is no trivial matter, but, at least in my own experience, it is the only way to step into our own lives.

When you explore connections, you break down the artificial restrictions that marginalization and framing have imposed on your thinking. You see for yourself, for instance, how you contribute to and influence the world in which you live. You step out of the world projected by your reactive emotions, fear, anger, need or instinct, and come to appreciate the complexity of interactions that make up every aspect of our lives. You may find the plethora of interconnections overwhelming at first, and not know where to start. Those feelings are, I think, residues of the conditioning that all of us have been exposed to. If we keep exploring and questioning, however, we find more and more freedom and possibilities, internally and externally.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mind-killing 2: reduction and polarization

In my last post, I discussed two methods, seduction and alignment. In this post, I discuss two more methods of mind-killing, reduction and polarization.

Reduction refers to someone (or a system, including your own reactive patterns) reducing a complex situation to a single emotionally charged issue. The result of reduction is that you are locked into one and only one way of seeing the world. When someone tells you that all the problems in the Middle East are due to ISIS or that money is the only thing that matters, you are being subjected to reduction. Any nuance, any other perspective, is not taken into consideration.

We see this time and again In the political arena in single-issue and identity politics. Climate change, for instance, is regularly reduced to a matter of economics. The reduction has prevented governments at every level, municipal to international, from taking effective action. Reduction is often used to rationalize the inequalities of the status quo. A favorite trope is that people get what they deserve and those who are poor deserve to be poor and those who are wealthy deserve to be wealthy. This reductionist fantasy is used to eliminate public services with the specious argument that they provide help to people who do not deserve help.

Closely associated with reduction is polarization. Polarization eliminates complexity and nuance by presenting issues in black and white terms—this or that, for or against, right or wrong. It is regularly employed by political leaders, for instance, to solidify support and isolate those who disagree with them. “If you are not with us, you are against us.” In polarization, you feel that you being forced to choose sides. You are told that any dialogue between different perspectives is suspect, dangerous or simply not permissible. 

Where seduction and alignment are based in attraction, reduction and polarization are based in aversion. They are instruments of aggression, and they rely on evoking anger and hatred in you. Both polarization and reduction play on pre-established prejudices and fears. Those fears are invoked to get you to act not in your interests, but in the interests of the person or system invoking them. Reduction and polarization often rely on reason and supposedly rational arguments, but, as I have written elsewhere, reason can be a weapon used by those who do not want their anger to be evident or identified. By leading you to feel the “rightness” of what they are saying, they can appear utterly reasonable while they get you to destroy your world and the world of those around you.

If you step back and open to what you are experiencing when faced with either reduction or polarization, you notice that you feel stripped, naked and exposed. You feel stripped because considerations that are important to you or to those you care about have been stripped away. You feel naked because you are not able to rely on your usual frames of reference and the ways you usually relate to others or to the world. And you feel exposed because you do not know how  to maintain your own integrity in the face of the reductionist or polarizing rhetoric.

Direct opposition to reduction and polarization is rarely effective. The person or system has defined the field of engagement and if you engage them directly, you are fighting on their territory and with their weapons. Instead, step right out of the world of anger and hatred that they are projecting and seeking to elicit in you. Compassion is probably the most potent practice, because anger and compassion are mutually incompatible—in the same way that heat and cold are. In the world that anger projects, you seek to avoid your own pain by making someone else experience it. In the world that compassion projects, you know and understand the struggles that every person, including yourself, experience and the pain generated by those struggles. Compassion dissolves the sense of “I” vs “other” because, with compassion, you see the other is a human being just as you are.

As for the polarizing and reducing tendencies in your own reactive patterns, open to the anger and fear that drive their operation. You may try to use insight (what is angry? what is the anger?). Even though this approach is recommended in many texts, I have rarely found it to be effective because it is easy to employ insight without engaging the reactive emotional material in you. Instead, I recommend compassion-based methods, such as taking and sending, that involve engaging the pain and struggles in yourself, and, from there, the pain and struggles in others. When you can stand in your own pain, you are no longer driven by fear. When you know your own struggles, you know the struggles of others.

Mind-killing 1: seduction and alignment

What is mind-killing? It is the use of your own patterns of emotional reaction to lead you to do what another person, a system, or even your own patterns of reaction want you to do. The techniques of mind-killing have been carefully honed in politics, advertising, marketing, public relations and many other areas of modern life. They also operate internally. The genius of mind-killing is that most people do not know they are being manipulated. They feel they are doing what is in their interests and, in effect, destroy themselves.

To be awake and aware requires that you have enough free attention to recognize and counteract mind-killing, whether it comes in the form of personal interactions, of the social conditioning that we are subjected to through the media, or of the voices that your patterns use to preserve and maintain their operation. In the next few newsletters, I am going to discuss six methods of mind-killing. Although he does not use the term mind-killing, Naom Chomsky describes precisely these six methods in the documentaryManufacturing Consent (available on YouTube). 

Today, I look at the first two: seduction and alignment.

Both these methods use attraction, which, along with aversion and indifference comprise the three fundamental emotional reactions known as the three poisons.

In seduction, you are led to feel that the fulfillment of your dreams depends on your doing what the other person (or the system or your own patterns) is encouraging you to do. In mind-killing, there is always an implicit threat, and it is the fear evoked by that threat that is used to coerce or manipulate you. In the case of seduction, the threat is that your dreams will never be realized unless you do what is being asked of you. The threat is rarely made explicit. To do so would make it possible to examine it objectively and it would lose its power. But the threat is there and acts on you through your own fears. In effect, the fulfillment of your dreams acts as a lure and the implicit threat pushes you to take the bait.

In alignment, you are led to feel that your survival, your viability in society and/or your very identity depends on your doing what the other person (or the system or your own patterns) is requiring of you. You are being offered a way of life, a position in the world and/or recognition, and the threat here is barely concealed: if you don't do this, you don't belong in the world.

One method of counteracting mind-killing is to use a set of four questions originally developed by Byron Katie:
  • Is this true?
  • How do I know it is true?
  • How do I feel when I believe this?
  • Who would I be if I let this go?
The key in employing such a method is to be willing to stand in the storm of emotional reactions that these questions elicit. The storm is inevitable because the mind-killing has already provoked emotional reactions, particularly desire, longing and wanting in all their different forms. In effect, you are making your own patterns of attraction and desire the object of your attention. There is little, if any, need to analyze. It is sufficient to stand in the experience of the physical, emotional and cognitive sensations that arise when you ask these questions. When you do so, the energy of the emotional reactions is transformed into attention. You are able to experience attraction as an experience, not a compulsion. You step out of the world of projected desire. The mind-killing loses its power. You wake up from the spell that the seduction has cast on you. You break out of the jail that alignment has confined you to. And you taste the fresh air of freedom.