Posts by Ponlop Rinpoche

rebel buddhaDzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, author of Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, explains that our innate drive for freedom can be expressed either destructively or creatively.

Rebel Buddha is an exploration of what it means to be free and how it is that we can become free. Although we may vote for the head of our government, marry for love, and worship the divine or mundane powers of our choice, most of us don’t really feel free in our day-to-day lives. When we talk about freedom, we’re also talking about its opposite — bondage, lack of independence, being subject to the control of something or someone outside ourselves. No one likes it, and when we find ourselves in that situation, we quickly start trying to figure out a way around it. Any restriction on our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” arouses fierce resistance. When our happiness and freedom are at stake, we become capable of transforming ourselves into rebels.

Born to be free

rebel buddhaDzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, author of Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom, explains that our innate drive for freedom can be expressed either destructively or creatively.

Rebel Buddha is an exploration of what it means to be free and how it is that we can become free. Although we may vote for the head of our government, marry for love, and worship the divine or mundane powers of our choice, most of us don’t really feel free in our day-to-day lives. When we talk about freedom, we’re also talking about its opposite — bondage, lack of independence, being subject to the control of something or someone outside ourselves. No one likes it, and when we find ourselves in that situation, we quickly start trying to figure out a way around it. Any restriction on our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” arouses fierce resistance. When our happiness and freedom are at stake, we become capable of transforming ourselves into rebels.

Title: Rebel Buddha
Author: Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-874-5
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

There’s something of a rebellious streak in all of us. Usually it’s dormant, but sometimes it’s provoked into expression. If nurtured and guided with wisdom and compassion, it can be a positive force that frees us from fear and ignorance. If it manifests neurotically, however, full of resentment, anger, and self-interest, then it can turn into a destructive force that harms oneself as much as it does others. When confronted with a threat to our freedom or independence and that rebellious streak surfaces, we can choose how to react and channel that energy. It can become part of a contemplative process that leads to insight. Sometimes that insight comes quickly, but it can also take years.

According to the Buddha, our freedom is never in question. We are born free. The true nature of the mind is enlightened wisdom and compassion. Our minds are always brilliantly awake and aware. Nevertheless, we’re often plagued by painful thoughts and the emotional unrest that goes with them. We live in states of confusion and fear from which we see no escape. Our problem is that we don’t see who we truly are at the deepest level. We don’t recognize the power of our enlightened nature. We trust the reality we see before our eyes and accept its validity until something comes along — an illness, accident, or disappointment — to disillusion us. Then we might be ready to question our beliefs and start searching for a more meaningful and lasting truth. Once we take that step, we’re starting off on the road to freedom.

On this road, what we free ourselves from is illusion, and what frees us from illusion is the discovery of truth. To make that discovery, we need to enlist the powerful intelligence of our own awake mind and turn it toward our goal of exposing, opposing, and overcoming deception. That is the essence and mission of “rebel buddha”: to free us from the illusions we create by ourselves, about ourselves, and those that masquerade as reality in our cultural and religious institutions.

We start by looking at the dramas in our life, not with our ordinary eyes, but with the eyes of dharma. What is drama and what is dharma? I guess you could say drama is illusion that acts like truth, and dharma is truth itself—the way things are, the basic state of reality that does not change from day to day according to fashion or one’s mood or agenda. To change dharma into drama, all you need are the elements of any good play: emotion, conflict, and action—a sense that something urgent and meaningful is happening to the characters involved. Our personal dramas may begin with the ‘facts’ about who we are and what we are doing, but, fueled by our emotions and concepts, they can quickly evolve into pure imagination and become as difficult to decipher as the storylines of our dreams. Then our sense of reality becomes further and further removed from basic reality itself. We lose track of who we really are. We have no means of telling fact from fiction, or developing the self-knowledge or wisdom that can free us from our illusions.

The Rebel Buddha North American Tour, featuring Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and other leading voices in Western Buddhism, kicks off on November 14 in New York, NY at The Cooper Union’s Great Hall. The Tour will continue to Halifax, Toronto, and Boulder, and will conclude in Seattle.

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Relationships: your emotional signature

pen, accompanied by a paperclip bent into the shape of a heart

How do we get unstuck from our emotional patterns so we can respond to our experiences spontaneously? Ponlop Rinpoche explains how awareness and acceptance can help us out of our emotional ruts.

You would certainly recognize your signature on a piece of paper, but do you know your own emotional signature? We all have one. It’s our predictable way of reacting to situations. Your friends probably recognize your emotional signature better than you do. When you get into a fight with your partner, for example, they can predict just how it will go. They know if you’re likely to slam a door, storm out of the house, or call your mother. They know if you’ll be processing the argument for days or immediately shut down and clam up. How do they know so much? They know because they’ve seen it all before. Our behavior may seem spontaneous to us, but to those who know us, we’re not too surprising.

We may not like to admit it, but we’re creatures of habit.

Why don’t we pay more attention to understanding our own patterns? We may have a solid financial plan worked out that will buy us a house, pay for our kids’ college and our retirement, but we don’t give much thought to getting the most benefit out of one of the most precious resources for happiness — our emotions. Often, we just leave it to chance.

We may not like to admit it, but we’re creatures of habit. We have our daily routines all worked out. It’s how we keep our busy lives simple and convenient. We don’t have to decide every day whether we’ll walk to work, take the bus, or drive. We even fall in love and handle our relationships in predictable ways. Just as we have our daily routines, we have habits of thought and feeling that keep our emotional life simple. We don’t have to guess who’s going to pay the bills and who’s going to spend most of the money (although we may talk about it a lot). We have our own special ways of telling our partner, “I’m annoyed with you, don’t talk to me,” or “I’m bored, so I’m not really hearing anything you’re saying.”

In spite of all the challenges they pose, there’s nothing wrong with having emotions.

When we’re hurt, scared, furious, or jealous, we don’t have to figure out how to show it. Our emotional triggers are set; they go off in the same ways again and again, carrying us to the same places every time. If we have a habit of blaming, we accuse. If we have a habit of withdrawing, we disappear. If we have a habit of controlling, we threaten. Everyone else we know may be able to predict how our patterns will play out, but we’re often blind to the process. Even when we can predict how we’ll react, it usually doesn’t change the outcome. There’s a popular saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We resist the idea that this anger or this jealousy isn’t justified. We may not like it, but we don’t see how to avoid pulling the trigger.

In spite of all the challenges they pose, there’s nothing wrong with having emotions. Emotions are a fundamental part of who you are — an expression of your basic intelligence and creative energy. When you can explore and get to know them without reacting immediately to their energy, they can be a source of wisdom and compassion. They can open your mind and your heart. They can lead you beyond your habitual patterns into new emotional territory. They can teach you generosity, patience, and courage. It’s only when you don’t allow yourself to feel your emotions or when you distort their energy that you can get into trouble with them.

If we’re going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state.

When we operate primarily on the basis of our habitual patterns, we run into problems. At the first flash of emotion, we move so quickly into our habitual ways that we completely miss that first moment. It was so authentic — it could have told us so much. But we never even saw it or felt it. We’ve already lost touch with the fresh, creative energy at the core of our being and skipped to our usual way of expressing our anger or jealousy. The regrettable words have been said, the door has been slammed.

We’re also very judgmental of our emotions. If we think they’re too raw, if we think they’re impolite, we try to dress them up with positive thoughts and make them more respectable. When we manipulate our feelings this way, consciously or unconsciously, we’re trying to get them to match up with our familiar emotional signature. But that’s just another way to lose our connection to their vitality and wisdom.

The Message of our Emotions

If our partner hurts our feelings, offends us or shocks us, we can’t even name the intense emotions we feel at first. The feelings haven’t yet formed into anger or any other solid emotion. For a moment, we’re suspended in a space of pure openness, where anything is possible. If we can just stop and remain in that space for a moment — without any answers or judgments — we have a chance to connect with the wakeful qualities of our emotions and hear their message. Especially in crises of the heart, our emotions are the first responders, but if we jump to conclusions too soon, it’s like we’re ignoring their instructions. They’re trying to tell us which pathways are clear, and where the emergency exits are (this way to insight, that way to humor — and if all else fails, leave before you do something you’ll regret). If we don’t pause and listen to our emotions, we might just end up running back and forth inside a burning building.

We don’t have change everything … we can take one small step at a time towards waking up in the present moment.

If we’re going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state. When we’re stuck at the level of our habitual dramas, it’s like going through the day half awake, barely conscious of the world’s brilliance. Some part of us may like this half-asleep state, where nothing is too bright, too energetic, or too unknown. But another part of us can hardly wait to be free, to take a chance, to see what’s on the other side of the mountain.

How do we get unstuck from these patterns so we can respond to our experiences spontaneously?

We don’t have change everything about who we are and what we do. We just have to bring awareness to our thoughts and emotional reactions. We can take one small step at a time towards waking up in the present moment. That’s where we hear a note of music and feel its life force. It’s where we enjoy a laugh, soothe our aches and pains, and feel our heart opening.

Everyone’s emotional signature is different, but we all share the experience of being alive. We all know the joys and sorrows of love and hate, hope and fear, altruism and self-centeredness. And we all instinctively know that life, despite all its challenges, is precious. So, it just makes sense to look into the life we have and find ways to make it as meaningful and happy as possible After all, we don’t throw money away or put artwork in the trash with our junk mail! We take great care of our personal assets, and one of our most valuable and misunderstood resources is our emotions. To become free of the unhappiness they can cause in our relationships, we only have to respect and accept our emotions, moment by moment, and be willing to work with them.

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Meditation: Catch and release

Fish being released into the water

An accidental purchase presented Ponlop Rinpoche with a valuable teaching.

I once bought a shirt at the airport because I had been traveling a long time and was in need of a change. I found one in a nice deep blue color and put it on without looking closely at it. Then, when I was sitting on the airplane, I saw it had a fish on it along with a caption down the sleeve: “Catch and release.” I felt very good about that. It was like a message from the universe — somehow, I was wearing instructions for working with the mind in meditation. That was my teaching for that trip.

You can use that phrase in your practice of meditation, too. Catch your thoughts and release them. You don’t need to bang them on the head and try to kill them before throwing them back. You can just acknowledge each thought and then let it go.

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The practice of meditation is basically a process of getting to know yourself. How do you do it? By becoming familiar with your mind. Normally the mind is a whirlwind of thought, and meditation is a practice that calms this down and helps us develop a peaceful state of mind. Not only is our mind busy thinking, we’re usually thinking about the past or the future. We’re either reliving old dramas or imagining what could happen tomorrow or in ten years and trying to plan for it. We usually aren’t experiencing the present moment at all. We can’t change the past, and the future is always ahead of us — we never reach it, have you ever noticed? So, as long as this process continues, our mind never comes to rest. The mind can never just settle down and feel at ease.

Catch your thoughts and release them … just acknowledge each thought and then let it go.

When we practice sitting meditation over time, we get better at catching our thoughts and releasing them. Gradually the mind begins to settle naturally into a resting state. This is great because it allows us to be fully present in our lives. When we aren’t being pulled into the past or future, we can just be right here, where we actually live. To be in the present moment simply means to be awake and aware of yourself and your surroundings. That’s the beginning of peace and contentment.

Sitting meditation

One of the most effective methods of meditation is the practice of following the breath. To begin, you simply sit in a meditation posture and watch your breath. There’s nothing else to do. Your breathing should be natural and relaxed. There’s no need to change your normal breathing. Start with bringing your attention to your breath, focusing on the inhalation and exhalation at your nose and mouth. There is a sense that you are actually feeling your breath, feeling its movement.

When you do this, you’re not just watching your breath. As you settle into the practice, you actually become the breath. You feel it as you exhale, and you become one with it. Then you feel the breath as you inhale, and you become one with it. You are the breath and the breath is you.

As you begin to relax, you begin to appreciate nowness, the present moment. Breathing happens only in the present. Breathe out. One moment is gone. Breathe in again. Another moment is here. Appreciating nowness also includes appreciating your world, your existence, your whole environment, being content with your existence.

How to begin

To begin a session of sitting meditation, first you need a comfortable seat. You can use any cushion firm enough to support an upright posture. You can also sit in a chair. The main point is to have a relaxed but erect posture so that your spine is straight. If you are sitting on a cushion, cross your legs comfortably, and if you are sitting on a chair, place your feet evenly on the ground. You can rest your hands in your lap or on your thighs. Your eyes can be half-open with your gaze directed slightly downward a short distance in front of you. The most important point is that your posture is both upright and relaxed. Once you’re sitting comfortably, the main thing is to be fully present — to give your practice your full attention.

Catching your thoughts

During meditation the chatterbox of mind will open up, and you’ll have lots of thoughts. Some will seem more important than others and evolve into emotions. Some will be related to physical sensations: the pain in your knee or back or neck. And some will strike you as extremely important — things that can’t wait. You forgot to respond to a critical email, you need to return a call, or you forgot your mother’s birthday. These kinds of thoughts will come, but instead of jumping up from your cushion, all you have to do is recognize them. When a thought tries to distract you, just say, “I’m having a thought about forgetting Mom’s birthday.” You simply catch your thought, acknowledge it, and then let it go. Sitting in meditation we treat all thoughts equally. We don’t give more weight to some thoughts than to others. If we do, we lose our concentration and our mind will start slipping away.

Sitting in meditation we treat all thoughts equally. We don’t give more weight to some thoughts than to others.

You may wonder why I’m talking about thoughts. We’re supposed to be focusing on meditation, right? Thoughts deserve a special mention because we tend to forget that the practice of meditation is the experience of thoughts. We might think our meditation should be completely free of thoughts, with our minds totally at peace, but that’s a misunderstanding. That’s more like the end result of our practice than the process. That is the “practice” part of the practice of meditation — just relating to whatever comes up for us. When a thought appears, we see it, acknowledge its presence, let it go and relax. That’s “catch and release.”

When you meditate, you repeat this catch-and-release process over and over again. One minute, you’re resting your mind on your breath, then a thought comes up and pulls your attention away. You see the thought, let it go, and go back to your breath. Another thought comes up, you see it, let it go, and go back to your breath once again. Mindfulness, catching your thoughts, brings you back to the present and to a sense of attention, or non-distraction. You can strengthen the power of your concentration with repeated practice, just as you strengthen the muscles in your body every time you exercise.

Remember, we’re working with mind here and your mind is connected to many different conditions that impact you in various unpredictable ways. So don’t expect your meditation to always be the same or for your progress to follow a certain timeline. Don’t be discouraged by the ups and downs in your practice. Instead of seeing them as signs that your practice is hopeless, you can see them as reminders for the need to practice and why it is so helpful.

It takes time to develop a strong state of concentration. Eventually, however, you will see that your mind stays where you put it. Meditating and developing strength of mind isn’t just a nice, spiritual activity. It is actually a big help and support to anything you want to learn or accomplish. As your mind becomes calmer, you experience more of what is happening in each moment. You begin to see that your life — your actual life, right now — is far more interesting than all those thoughts you’ve been having about it!

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