Saturday, July 25, 2009

where the rubber meets the road

Over the last two years, I’ve been meeting three times a year with a group of twelve people, focusing on some of the deeper aspects of practice and teaching. This group, like most of the groups I’ve worked with, has presented me with a consistent challenge: passivity. (For more on passivity, click here.)

Role-playing is a good tool to develop people’s capacity and to put them in touch with their internal material. It’s challenging. It’s revealing. And, yes, it can be frightening, but to be present in fear is a good way to build capacity.

With this group, when I asked for volunteers for a role-play, there was always an awkward silence. Sometimes one or two people would reluctantly step forward, but usually, I ended up picking a couple of people. The air was thick with resistance and discomfort. Once into the exercise, people usually appreciated how helpful it was, but the passivity continued.

At our meeting in June this year, however, something happened that made all the difference.

After lunch one day, when we met for our afternoon session, I again asked for a couple of volunteers. Instead of the awkward silence, every hand shot up! It took me a moment to adjust. This was a completely different situation — or was it?

In one sense, nothing had changed: I still had to pick a couple of people for the exercise. In another sense, everything had changed: I could now focus on picking people who would benefit most from the exercise or who could demonstrate the points I was trying to convey. I no longer had to be concerned about pushing people against their will.

What had happened? Apparently, over lunch, the group had decided that they were fed up with my constant pushing and organized a conspiracy. Everyone had agreed to step forward whenever I asked for volunteers.

The shift in energy was dramatic. The air almost sparkled with the energy of engagement. Most important, we were all able to work at a much deeper level.

The same dynamic applies in other settings. Two or three times a month, I lead Sutra Sessions, at Against the Stream and Insight LA here in Los Angeles. More than the meditation period, the Q&A that follows is where the real learning takes place. The few people who pose questions are not being passive. They are presenting their questions, challenges, or insights, and inviting a response. We go back and forth until they are clear in their experience. The interaction is two-way, not one-way, and this two-way interaction is crucial if one is to deepen practice and make it a way of life.

Most teaching situations are one-way interactions. A person listens to a talk, reads a book, or plays a podcast or other recording. However beneficial a person may feel the talk or the book is, the flow is one-way and it is difficult to say what, if anything, has actually been learnt.

In the two-way interaction, both teacher and student find out very quickly what they know. Does the student stand in his or her own experience and give expression to their understanding? Does the teacher respond to the student without concern for position, identity, status, role or other forms of protection? Is there a meeting of minds? And what happens then?

This two-way interaction is challenging for both parties. Neither one knows where things are going to go. It can be uncomfortable, even frightening, but when minds meet, understanding arises, and with it, a subtle joy. This is where the rubber meets the road — where our practice comes alive and active in our lives.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

rules for the road

I know I can be deceived by patterns. I can feel that what I'm seeing is true and what I'm doing is fair and just, and still be completely wrong. Perception is always limited, by conditioning, by patterns, by circumstances. I cannot know what is beyond and yet, often, I have to act.

Consequently, I've evolved a few principles to help me in such situations. I won't claim that they are exhaustive or comprehensive, but they seem to work pretty well most of the time.

It's never about fairness or justice.
As I said in a previous post, I've consistently found that any clinging to notions of fairness or justice is a way of avoiding some aspect of the situation I don't want to acknowledge. I now take such clinging as an indication that I haven't penetrated my own confusion and projection. Eventually, I come across a pain or a hurt that tells me why a person acted as he or she did, or why a person can't go to a place that I think he or she should.

Equanimity does not mean fairness.
To practice equanimity is to understand that everything everybody ever does — I repeat, everything everybody ever does — is because at that moment, he or she feels that their action will improve their world. In other words he or she is just trying to be happy. The actions may be, and often are, tragically, catastrophically self-defeating, but that is the motivation at the moment of action. Equanimity, then, is a profound acceptance of each person's humanity. Fairness may be the result of equanimity, but it's not the practice of equanimity.

Whatever is there is there, calmly licking its chops.
When I encounter a powerful, overwhelming, painful or massively unpleasant (or pleasant) feeling, it's there and there is nothing I can do about it except experience it. I sit in it using bare attention, do taking and sending with it to form a relation with it, or mix the feeling with awareness — whatever I'm capable of. In all these, the aim is not sitting with the feeling, but sitting in the feeling. There's a difference.

Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
— H. L. Mencken

Go to the body.
When there are feelings of injustice or lack of fairness, stories abound. When there are feelings of being misunderstood or unappreciated, stories abound. The stories are almost always projections, and are, by and large, unreliable. Engagement is fruitless: one inevitably gets lost in them. I go to the body, and sit in whatever physical sensations are there, including the sensation of no sensation.

Not feeling anything is a sensation.
This may seem like a paradox, but not being able to feel your body is a sensation, and often quite a vivid one at that. It usually indicates that one is in some kind of shock. I sit in that experience, too.

Let the sun shine.
A simile I've found helpful is that the feeling at the core of a pattern is like a flower bud and one's attention is like the sun. Let the sun warm the bud, and the flower will open in time. You can't hurry the process. To force the bud to open damages things beyond repair. When an issue is up, I work with it regularly and consistently, but I don't try to work through it in one session or in a limited period of time. In fact, I don't even try to work through it at all. If it's there, that's where I sit. If it's not, then I don't go looking for it.

(If decisions have to be made, I make them, cognizant that they may not be the right ones, and cognizant, too, that I will have to receive the results, whatever they are.)

When you feel resolved, look to the stars.
In astronomy, any observation or theory that places the earth in a privileged position indicates a mistake in the data, the method of observation, or the interpretation of the data. Any resolution of the issue that leaves you in a privileged position (the usual ones are hero or victim) is suspect. These are identities, and are pretty reliable indications that the "resolution" is serving some unacknowledged agenda.

It ain't over 'til the fat lady sings.
The origin of this phrase isn't clear. I remember it from one Salinger's novels, but Wikipedia suggests it came from a sports writer in the '70s. The singer here is an internal admission or allowing of a weakness, a hurt, a prejudice, or an ignoring, that you haven't acknowledged before. It comes with its own set of body sensations, emotions, and stories. In other words, you are back in the mess, or another mess, and all the previous principles apply. How many arias or choruses will she sing? No one knows. That's part of the mystery.