100 Days of Lovingkindness

100 days of lovingkindness (and compassion, and joyful appreciation, and loving with insight

100 Days of LovingkindnessToday is Day 100 of Wildmind’s 100 Days of Lovingkindness.

For me it’s been a blast. Somehow I managed to keep to a schedule of having a blog post each day, which means that I’ve written enough material in the last three months to fill a 300 page book. On our first 100 day challenge I managed 35 consecutive daily posts before realizing that I couldn’t sustain the pace and slacked off to writing every five days. Somehow this time the 35 day mark came and went, and then the 50 day mark, then 75 days — and here we are. The time has flown.

I can only imagine that the energy for this writing came from the practice itself. It certainly helped that we were focusing on one set of practices, rather than having just a general theme of meditating for 100 days. When you focus on one narrow topic it forces the mind to dig deeply, and as they say, if you want to dig a well you make one deep hole, not many shallow ones.

My understanding of the practices has moved on immensely. It may be that I’ve got things entirely wrong, but I realized that mudita is not “lovingkindness meets joy” as I had thought it to be, and realized that it was actually “lovingkindness appreciating and encouraging the skillful qualities that bring happiness.” And I came to see upekkha not as equanimity, but as the vipassana equivalent of mudita: “appreciating and encouraging the qualities of insight that bring lasting peace.” It’s always deeply fulfilling to look into familiar practices and to see them in a new light — especially one that brings traditional formulas to life.

My own practice? Well, there have been so many complications and stresses in my life with family and work (I won’t bore you with the details) that my meditation practice, although regular, has not felt particularly deep. But I have noticed a greater ability to be calm in the face of major challenges, and have definitely felt more compassionate and empathetic. I seem to have much more creativity, as witnessed by all this blogging.

Reaching Day 100 seems less like an end and more like the start of something. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore these practices, and to continue my writing (perhaps these blog posts will be an actual 300 page book at some point).

I’m glad to have been practicing with others. I’ve seen much kindness, compassion, and skillful rejoicing over the last 100 days, especially from members of Wildmind’s Google+ Community. And with permission, I’d like to leave you with some of their comments:

  • Adin: These last 100 days of have gifted me with an unshakable daily sitting practice, with a deeper understanding of this fleeting self, with more love for others, and with not just an acceptance of but a soothing, wiser appreciation of impermanence. I bow in deep gratitude.
  • Matthew: I’ve found myself deepening in compassion for both myself and others. I’ve always had major issues with self compassion but lately due to the practice of Brahmaviharas, I’ve noticed myself doing extra things around the house out of compassion for what situations may arise in the future vis-a-vis my health situation.
  • Melody: I’ve gone from ‘studying’ Buddhism out of curiosity to committing to this practice as a way of my life. I am immersed in the study of the words of the Buddha. I learned that I did not know how to love myself fully. I have committed to accept myself as I am here and now with present moment awareness. Applying compassion to myself changed the me I was familiar with, now things are bright and new and changing all the time. I found ill will to be too heavy and painful to carry and dropped it. Finally…I am growing an awareness of all beings and feeling a belonging I have never known.
  • Christine: This 100 days has completely upended my thoughts, feelings, and assumptions about metta practice, and about a lot of other things, too. (In fact, upending my thoughts, feelings and assumptions seems to have become part of my practice.) I used to fight shy of metta practice; now I love it. Curious and beautiful changes are seeping into my practice and my life as a result. All this is surely due to Bodhipaksa’s daily posts, for which I am profoundly grateful.
  • The 100 days project has taken me from an occasional meditator to someone for whom meditation has become a central part of life. I’m more aware of how I interact with others and find myself genuinely desiring good things for other people. Thank you so much, Mr. B, for guiding us through this process. Your words and example have been invaluable.
  • The 100 Days of Lovingkindness introduced me to the brahma-viharas (divine abodes, four immeasurables) expanding what I initially knew of metta, the lovingkindness meditation, exponentially. In learning the other aspects of lovingkindness, I truly see now just how much of a compassionate practice this is! I learned to root for others during their suffering, and during their successes. In honoring both, I also developed a deep desire that they have clarity. In particular, I applied these lessons at the source by learning to relate well to my own suffering. In doing so there was a letting go in which I found freedom. In finding freedom, I now desire it for all others.

PS. You can see all of out 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Knowing the mind of the Buddha

padmasambhavaA little under two years ago I was on a retreat with other members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, which I’ve been a member of since 1993. We were discussing the visualization meditation practices we were each given at the time of our ordination.

At the time of my own ordination, the practice I had requested and was formally given — the visualization of Padmasambhava — was described as being my orientation toward enlightenment. The visualized form of Padmasambhava — a red-robed figure with a trident and skull cup overflowing with the nectar of immortality — embodied my personal connection with awakening.

“Enlightenment” can be a rather abstract concept. How can we aim to attain a state if we have no feel for what it’s like to experience it? Imagine that you wanted to develop the quality of kindness, but had no examples of kind people to inspire you? Developing the quality of kindness wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a lot harder. So it’s helpful to develop a clear and embodied sense of what an awakened being is like, so that we can resonate imaginatively and emotionally with it (which is now no longer an “it,” but a “he” or a “she”).

I started my contribution to the discussion without much enthusiasm, because my practice of the visualization of Padmasambhava had fizzled out a long time ago, and I didn’t feel good about that. When I was ordained there was a lot of stress put on doing the visualization practice regularly, and although I’d started off well, I found visualizing to be very hard. I’m actually a very visual person, but I had some kind of block regarding the practice.

100 Days of LovingkindnessActually, before my ordination, I had a very strong personal connection with Padmasambhava. I had many dreams about him, and sometimes when I looked at pictures of him I’d “hear” him speaking to me — often giving me very useful advice. (No, I’m not crazy; I’m aware this was really me speaking to myself.) I spent months sculpting his trident, which is very elaborate, and then rowed out into the middle of a loch in the Scottish Highlands and offered the trident up to the depths. My connection with Padmasambhava was a big deal for me.

Somehow the meditation practice I was given interfered with all this. Struggling with the visualization made me feel that there was a barrier to communing with Padmasambhava, and gradually that sense of connection faded away, and I stopped doing the meditation practice.

And there was a sense of shame about my lack of fidelity that came up as I talked on the retreat about how I’d ceased doing this visualization practice. But as I continued to talk about how I’d been exploring alternative approaches to awakening that were more rooted in direct experience, I realized that I had never lost my fidelity to an underlying quest, which I expressed that day as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha.

This was the quest I’d been involved in even before I encountered the Buddha. Even in my teens I knew there was an alternative, more real, and more satisfying way to experience the world. There was a different way to see, and a different way to be. And I wanted to know what that was like. I wanted to experience the world that way — whatever “that way” was.

When I encountered the Buddha’s teachings — and even more when I encountered the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom Sutras — I was aware of being in the presence of that different way of seeing. And I wanted to know the mind of the Buddha.

Although I’d stopped visualizing Padmasambhava, knowing the mind of the Buddha was always my goal. And my connection with Padmasambhava was just one particular way to seek that goal.

Now, just as mudita is the joyful appreciation of the skillful in others, where the good in us resonates with the good in others, so I believe that upekkha can involve valuing and appreciating the insight that others have. It’s that within ourselves that seeks insight resonating with the insight in others. Upekkha involves wishing the highest possible good — the benefits of awakening — for others. And so we naturally respond with gratitude, respect, and even devotion, to those who embody awakening. And that in fact is the point of the practice of visualizing enlightened beings.

The Buddha himself (or possibly his early disciples) seems to have encouraged this way of approaching awakening, and there was a practice that they called “Buddhānusati” — reflecting on the Buddha and allowing ourselves to resonate with his qualities.

And I think that Buddhānusati can be an important part of our upekkha practice. I discussed a couple of days ago how we have to be engaged in a quest for awakening ourselves before we can really wish awakening for others. And I think that it’s helpful, if we’re on a quest for awakening, to develop a sense of a personal relationship with enlightenment.

This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a visualization meditation. That didn’t work out well for me, although perhaps I gave up too soon.

  • It could take the form of having pictures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on our walls, or on our phones or computer screensavers.
  • It can take the form of reading the Buddhist scriptures (many are available free online) and allowing ourselves to get to know the Buddha from the records that have been passed down to us. This may not be an easy thing to do, because much of the depth of the Buddha’s personality has been flattened by centuries of oral repetition. But enough of the Buddha still shines through for us to have a sense of his extraordinary personality.
  • It can take the form of having a Buddha statue on the altar we meditate in front of. Don’t have an altar? I’d suggest putting one together. It doesn’t need to be elaborate.
  • It can take the form of bowing to Buddha images. Bowing doesn’t mean subservience. It’s simply a respectful greeting. And so every time I walk into a meditation hall, I bow. This reminds me of my debt of gratitude to the Buddha.
  • It can take the form of chanting verses. This is done in every Buddhist tradition that I know of. In the Triratna Buddhist Community of which I’m a part, we have a number of texts that we commonly chant together. Some can be downloaded here, and there are various recordings here. The earliest forms of Buddhānusati seem to have involved chanting.
  • And lastly, you can do visualization practices. This doesn’t have to the done in a formal way, but can be as simple as imagining that the Buddha is sitting beside you when you’re meditating. I often do this. I don’t even necessarily “see” anything, so visualizing isn’t the right word. But just as you can know someone’s sitting beside you when you have your eyes closed, you can imagine someone sitting beside you while you’re meditating. There’s a feeling of a physical presence. And what I often do is to drop in the words “Feel the love of the Buddha.” So not only am I experiencing the Buddha sitting beside me, I feel him as a loving presence. Often this results in a feeling of warm on the skin of the side of my body that’s nearest to him.

So we seek to know the mind of the Buddha, to get close to him and to develop an appreciation and respect for awakened qualities — qualities which we ourselves are bringing into being. And in the upekkha bhavana practice we can wish that those qualities manifest in others, so that they know the peace and joy of awakening.

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Cultivate only the path to peace

BuddhaThe Buddha was a man on a mission, and very single-minded. He said over and over again that his only interest was in addressing suffering:

Both formerly and now, it is only dukkha that I describe, and the cessation of dukkha.

This word “dukkha” is often rendered as “suffering.” I have no real problem with that translation. It’s accurate. But many people have problems with the word “suffering.” As a friend and I were discussing just the other night, many people don’t recognize the suffering they experience as suffering, and so they don’t think that dukkha applies to them. Often people think of suffering as actual physical pain, or severe deprivation such as starvation, homelessness, or being in a war-zone. All those things are of course dukkha, but so are many others, some of which people might be reluctant to apply the label suffering to.

Often people don’t even see that they’re suffering; they’re blind to their pain. They so take it for granted that life is hard, or think that people and things around them are awkward and frustrating, and they don’t even give the difficulties they face a second thought.

The Buddha commented on this reluctance or blindness to dukkha:

“What others speak of as happiness,
That the noble ones say is suffering.”

We often think we’re OK, but actually we’re living at a sub-optimal level — far below our potential.

100 Days of LovingkindnessFor example, any kind of craving is dukkha, whether or not we want to recognize this. Even “pleasant” cravings like longing for a tasty treat, or longing for a new electronic toy are forms of dukkha. Look underneath the excitement of the wanting, and there’s a void that we’re trying to fill. Beneath the wanting is a want.

Anger is dukkha, even when we enjoy getting angry. Frustration is dukkha. Irritability is dukkha. Resenting someone is dukkha. Worrying what someone thinks about you is dukkha. Hoping that the traffic light will stay on green is suffering. Wishing that the driver in front of you would go a little faster is dukkha.

We actually experience dukkha dozens, perhaps hundreds, of times a day. Dukkha is not an uncommon experience that only visits us on rare occasions. It’s woven throughout our experience and often goes unnoticed or unrecognized.

So some translators render dukkha as “unsatisfactoriness,” some as “stress,” some as “unease,” some as “anguish.” The root of the word is obscure, but it may come from dus-stha “unsteady, disquieted.” There’s no word that’s quite adequate. Personally, I find “suffering” to be fine; I just have a very broad understanding of what suffering is in my life.

So the Buddha taught about suffering. He taught about the ways in which we cause ourselves suffering, and the different ways in which we suffer, often without realizing it. And he taught about the cessation of suffering. He taught how to end suffering by attaining awakening.

But what are we left with when suffering has ceased? What is the opposite of suffering?

I suspect most people would think of “happiness” as the opposite of suffering, but “happiness” isn’t quite right. Happiness is not what Buddhist practice aims at. The goal of Buddhism, which is the spiritual awakening of bodhi, isn’t really happiness. I think of it more as “peace.” Think of the goal as the opposite of “unsteady” or “disquieted” — it’s steady, at peace, settled, quieted, calm, untroubled. Happiness may accompany this peace at some times, and not at others. It’s the peace that’s fundamental.

In the Dhammapada, the Dhamma is is said to be the path to peace:

Cultivate only the path to peace, Nibbana, as made known by the Sugata [Buddha].

And the Buddha is described as being supremely at peace:

Serene and inspiring serene confidence, calming, his senses at peace, his mind at peace, having attained the utmost tranquility and poise.

In our lives we’re often seeking happiness in some way or another. And a common assumption is that happiness comes from having pleasurable experiences. Buddhism points out, though, that there’s so much change and instability in the world and in our own beings that we can never guarantee ourselves a constant stream of pleasurable experiences, and so we can never find true happiness that way.

True happiness — or rather peace — comes not from having pleasant experiences, but from changing our relationship with our experience, whether it’s pleasurable or unpleasurable. It’s when we can completely accept pleasure and pain without responding either with craving or aversion that we find ourselves at peace. So this insight changes everything. Most of our pleasure seeking, most of our pursuit of happiness, is actually causing us more dukkha, because we’re aiming to keep at bay unpleasant experiences and hold onto pleasant ones. And both of these aims are impossible, fruitless, and frustrating — dukkha, in short.

Peace and joy come not from the experiences we have, but from how we relate to those experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (another meaning of dukkha), and we need to stop chasing after them or resisting them.

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It’s only learning to accept impermanence, and developing the ability to bear with our experiences non-reactively, that will bring peace.

So we need to remind ourselves of this all the time, so that we can find peace. And we also need to bear in mind, as we’re interacting people or cultivating metta, karuna, mudita, or upekkha for others that they too are often trapped in cognitive distortions — seeking happiness but not knowing how to create it; trying to avoid suffering and yet creating suffering inadvertently. And in the upekkha bhavana we can look out into the world and be aware of beings striving, blindly, for happiness. And we can wish that beings (ourselves included) develop the clarity and wisdom to be able to create peace — genuine peace — the peace that comes from awakening.

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Going all the way… (Day 97)

Stone steps ascendingI’ve been talking about the “divine abiding” of upekkha as being not equanimity, as it’s usually translated, but something that’s much warmer and more compassionate and supportive.

Equanimity suggests standing back, but the word upekkha means “closely watching.” I see upekkha as an intimate identification with beings’ deepest needs, and our desire that they experience the peace of awakening.

Just as mudita is when we want beings to develop skillful qualities and the peace and joy that comes from those qualities, so upekkha is when we want beings to develop insight, and the peace and joy that comes from that insight.

Upekkha is what the Mahāyāna came to call mahā-karunā — great compassion — in contrast to the brahmavihara of compassion, which is a simpler desire to relieve beings of suffering.

Because upekkha means wishing that beings awaken, you might make an assumption that upekkha is something you can’t really get into until you’ve gained some insight or had some deep experience of deep peace ourselves, but I don’t think that that would be a helpful or correct assumption. We can want the peace and joy of awakening for ourselves and for others without actually having experienced it. In fact it’s inevitable that this is the case. We’re always seeking some peace that is not yet ours. We can’t, by definition, know what awakening is like until we’ve experienced it. We don’t even know what is going to bring insight about.

100 Days of LovingkindnessBut we can have a sense of the direction we want to head in. We can have a sense of what we want to move away from — craving, aversion, and the suffering they bring. We can have an emerging sense of liberation from suffering as we learn to let go, to notice our experience mindfully and non-reactively, and to develop greater compassion. This amounts to a sense of direction, with a destination that’s essentially unknown.

This is one of the odd things about practicing the Dharma; we don’t really know what the goal is. The Buddha certainly didn’t say a lot about what the experience of being awakened was like. He talked about it as being beyond the scope of words to describe, although he did repeatedly describe it as being blissful, joyful, and peaceful. So all we have to go on is hints, and a promise of some experience very different from our own.

Blind faith? Sometimes it might be, but essentially it’s confidence and trust (two words that in some ways translate “shraddha” better than “faith”) based on experience. If you’ve followed the guidance of the Buddha and found that meditating and living ethically have brought more of a sense of meaning, peace, and sometimes joy into your life, then you have some experiential basis for trusting that maybe this guy knew what he was talking about. And if he talked about a goal that’s the ultimate in peace and joy, however obliquely, then there’s some basis for trust — or “faith,” if you like.

And if we want to experience goal for ourselves (so to speak, since it’s not something that can be grasped or possessed), we can compassionately want others to experience that goal.

So we don’t have to have experience of the goal to be in a position to want it for others.

It’s not that we go all evangelistic and start pestering everyone we meet, asking them if they’ve “heard the word of the Buddha” and pressing little tracts into their hands. But we can learn to relate to others on the basis of what they can become, rather than on the basis of whatever constellation of habits and traits they happen to be right now. We can view others lovingly and compassionately, valuing their potential, and being an encouraging presence. This is the “close watching” of upekkha.

We don’t need to have experienced awakening to have upekkha, but one thing we do need is a desire for awakening. You can have lovingkindness for others — wishing for them to be happy — without personally feeling any connection with the goal of awakening, or enlightenment. You can have compassion for others — wishing for them to be free from suffering — without thinking about enlightenment at all. And similarly you can have mudita, and want others to become skillful and experience the peace and joy of a skillful life, without wanting to be enlightened. But I don’t think you can wish awakening for others unless you wish it for yourself.

And this is something that’s often strangely lacking in many Buddhists. Many of the practitioners I’ve met want to be better people. They want to be happier. They want to cause less suffering to others. But their ideals are very much rooted in puñña, or merit — becoming an incrementally better person by developing skillful qualities — rather than in pañña, or wisdom, which is a radical shift in the way we see ourselves. It’s quite common for Buddhists not to think about awakening, not to talk about awakening, and even not to think that awakening is a realistic possibility for them. In fact they might be quite clear that they think they’ll never have an insight experience.

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But awakening is the whole point of Dharma practice. And it can happen to anyone. It can happen anytime. I doubt if there’s a single person in the world who, in the moments before they had an insight experience, was thinking, “OK, I think enlightenment’s about to happen … wait … wait .. right, there it is!” Awakening always comes out of the blue. It’s always a surprise, or even a shock. And we should be open to the possibility of awakening happening to us. Not that we should expect anything to happen, but we should have the general aim of cultivating insight experiences. And we should be doing what it takes to awaken — not just living ethically and cultivating mindfulness and metta, but examining the impermanent, non-self, and unsatisfactory nature of our experience. We should be tilling the soil, planing seeds, and watering those seeds. You can’t make the plants grow through some act of will, but you can aim to grow a garden.

In fact, all this should increasingly become central to our lives. We should see ourselves as Buddhas in training. We should aim to go all the way to awakening. If we don’t have that aim, then how can we have that wish for others, and help them to free themselves from suffering? If we don’t ourselves have the desire to go all the way to awakening, how can we take others with us?

PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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The play of causes and conditions (Day 96)

100 Days of LovingkindnessWe adopted my daughter at four months old, and I found it absolutely fascinating to watch her mind evolve. What I noticed first was that happiness was her default emotion; it was only when hunger or pain arrived that she’d become upset. How many people can you say that for — that happiness is their baseline mental state and that they only deviate from that state temporarily? This reminded me of Buddhist teachings that tell us that happiness is fundamental to the mind, and that troubling mental states are disturbances to that inherent sense of well-being.

I watched my daughter exhibit wonder. She’d just sit there and move her hands and look at them and smile, and you could see that she was alive with curiosity and delight. Just the sight and feeling of her hands moving was wondrous to her.

But then things began to change.

She was happy because she had no craving or grasping. When she was small, you could remove something from her hands that she’d picked up, and she wouldn’t protest. She’d just move onto delighting in the next experience. But then craving and grasping started to arise in her mind, and with it arose her first real experiences of self-generated suffering. Because we’d take something from her that she wanted — something she saw as a fun toy but that we saw as a choking hazard — she’d suffer agonies of despair.

The hot on the heels of craving arose anger: by the time she was two, when she was deprived of something she wanted, she was likely to have a tantrum.

This was a bit of a shock to the system, having my sweet, happy daughter taken away from me and this demonic entity kicking and thrashing and screaming. It was all developmentally appropriate, but challenging!

One of the ways I found myself rising to this challenge was recognizing that what I was seeing was the play of causes and conditions. When she was frustrated and would try to strike me or spit at me, I started seeing her as an eternally-unfolding stream of causes and conditions.

She didn’t know why she was acting this way. She was experiencing new emotions (can you imagine what that’s like?) and having to learn to deal with them. She was struggling to come to terms with moving from complete dependance to relative independence, never knowing where the line was or what her limitations were, going through phases of development as she tried to make sense of the world around her and of herself.

Oddly, I found that I could face her tantrums not just with equanimity, but with love and compassion, when I let go of the assumption that she was a “person” and saw her more as a stream of causes and conditions.

It’s funny, isn’t it? It sounds dehumanizing to regard someone as not being a person. But actually it’s the opposite. When I see her as a “person” I start immediately thinking (even unconsciously, I think) in terms of her having a fixed nature that I have to mold into the shape I want. And that brings about judgments, because molding a living being isn’t easy. There’s “resistance,” and “uncooperativeness” and “bad behavior.” And it’s hard not to be angry when you’re faced with those things (even if they’re just judgments your own mind has imposed on reality).

But when I see my daughter as a stream of causes and conditions, I see her as an evolving being, and instantly I feel compassion for her, because I see her as a struggling and growing being. And my heart opens to her, because deep down we’re all struggling and growing beings. And perhaps somehow my heart knows that the best conditions in which to be a struggling and growing being are love and compassion from other struggling and growing beings.

If you benefit from the work we do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

If you benefit from the work we do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

The great teacher 8th century teacher Shantideva talked about how seeing beings in terms of causes and conditions could help us have more patience with them:

I am not angered at bile and the like even though they cause
great suffering. Why be angry at sentient beings, who are
also provoked to anger by conditions?

Just as sharp pain arises although one does not desire it, so
anger forcibly arises although one does not desire it.

A person does not intentionally become angry, thinking, “I
shall get angry,” nor does anger originate, thinking, “I shall
arise.”

All offenses and vices of various kinds arise
under the influence of conditions, and they
do not arise independently.

An assemblage of conditions does not have
the intention, “I shall produce,” nor does
that which is produced have the intention, “I
shall be produced.”

So this is simply an extension of the principles of anatta (non-self) that I’ve been discussing recently. At my best, I don’t indulge in “conceiving” of my daughter having a self. At my best I realize that her tantrums are not her, not hers, and that they are not her self.

I’m at my best when I relate to others not in terms of what I think they are, but in terms of what they can become. It’s not that I have a fixed sense of what they can be, but that I simply don’t assume that what I see is all that there is. When my daughter’s having a tantrum that’s just one particular manifestation of the causes and conditions that constitute her being at that particular time. Minutes later she may be sweet and loving. And who knows what she will become in the future?

Things go best between us when I accept her as an eternally-evolving and undefinable being, and my task as a parent is to be a compassionate presence that encourages the emergence of what is best in her.

So this again brings us to upekkha. Upekkha is not equanimity, but is the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening. It’s also the activity that helps beings to experience that peace. Recognizing that beings are not fixed, but are vortices of conditions arising and passing away, helps us to experience that peace ourselves, and to help them to move toward that peace themselves.

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This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this (Day 95)

dandelion seedOnce I was walking into town when I was hit by what felt like a crushing tidal wave of embarrassment. I’d just had an interview for a podcast that would be heard by tens of thousands of people. And I’d done the interview after about four hours of sleep, because both my wife and daughter had been ill and very restless all night long. So I’d done a pretty lousy interview. My replies were shallow and rather incoherent at times. And walking down Elm Street later that day, out of nowhere came this tsunami of shame, knowing that my incoherence would be broadcast to thousands.

Then an interesting thing happened. I was in the middle of writing my book on the Buddhist Six Element meditation at the time, and a phrase that’s important in that meditation practice — “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this” — sprung spontaneously into my mind. This shame was not me, not mine. I was not my shame. I was not my performance. A conversation does not define me. I was not my incompetence; my incompetence was just an impermanent phenomenon temporarily manifesting in my being.

And the embarrassment vanished. Instantly. And never came back. Even now, thinking about that incident, I can remember feeling shame but can’t re-experience it.

(Oh, and luckily the interviewer called me back and asked if we could record the conversation again!)

This phrase, “This is not me; this is not mine, I am not this,” is an important tool in learning to recognize the truth of anatta, or not-self.

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe Buddha did not teach, incidentally, that there was no self. The word “anatta,” which is often translated as “no self” is invariably used in the Buddhist scriptures in the context of saying “This is not myself. That is not myself.” It’s never used, as far as I’m aware, to say “there is no self.” And in fact when the Buddha was asked flat out if he taught that there was no self he refused to answer, and he also said that there was no view of self that would not lead to suffering: including the view that there is no self. I do sometimes say there is “no self” but what I mean by that is that there is no self that exists as we think it exists: separate and permanent. That kind of self doesn’t exist.

The Buddha’s teaching of not-self was intended to free us from attachment to the view that there was anything that could be taken as the self, or that could define ourselves. Self-definitions are chains that limit and bind us. So…

Your body is not yourself.

Your emotions are not yourself.

Your thoughts are not yourself.

Your awareness is not yourself.

What’s left? Well, nothing. But that doesn’t mean there’s no self, or that there is something else you should take to be your self. Rather, the Buddha’s approach was for us to cease identifying anything as our selves so that we can simply stop obsessing about the whole issue! We come simply to live without reference to a self. We live spontaneously and effortlessly, just allowing life to happen. (There’s a lot of hard work and discipline needed to get to that point, by the way!)

So this is another way into experiencing the liberation of bodhi — that freedom from the burden of self that I wrote about yesterday. This is another way into experiencing the peace of awakening.

And upekkha — our current theme — is wishing for all beings this freedom and peace that comes from insight. We wish this for ourselves; and more than simply wish for these we actively cultivate insight so that they may manifest in our lives. And we wish them for others; but more than simply wish for them we live our lives in such a way that we help others to realize insight, peace, and freedom.

So this is what we wish in the upekkha bhavana practice:

  • May all beings let go deeply.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

The exact words do not matter; but this is the spirit of upekkha. The upekkhaful mind is the midwife of enlightened qualities. The upekkhaful mind recognizes the innate potential for bodhi in all beings, and helps that potential to come to fruition. The upekkhaful mind compassionately does what it can to help others attain the profound freedom and peace of awakening.

PS You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Where the currents of construing do not flow (Day 94)

‘He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.’ Thus was it said. With reference to what was it said? ‘I am’ is a construing. ‘I am this’ is a construing. ‘I shall be’ is a construing. ‘I shall not be’… ‘I shall be possessed of form’… ‘I shall not be possessed of form’… ‘I shall be percipient’… ‘I shall not be percipient’… ‘I shall be neither percipient nor non-percipient’ is a construing. Construing is a disease, construing is a cancer, construing is an arrow. By going beyond all construing, he is said to be a sage at peace. [Dhatuvibhanga Sutta]

The “construing” that the Buddha talks about here is construing that we have some kind of self, or any kind of construing based on the assumption that we have some kind of self. Construing that “I am” is a source of suffering. Construing that “I am this” or “I am like this” or “this is what I am” is a source of suffering. Construing what we will be like, or not be like, in the future is a source of suffering.

The Buddha lived without a sense of self, and he, out of upekkha — the compassionate and loving desire to lead beings to peace — encouraged us to let go of identifying anything as the self, or living in any kind of self-referential way.

100 Days of LovingkindnessThis might seem quite puzzling, but actually there are many times when our sense of self is wafer thin. When we’re in any state of “flow” or joyful absorption, we largely lose our sense of self. We simply act spontaneously and unselfconsciously. We get to the point where the practices I was pointing to in yesterday’s post are a way of life. When we’re aware of ourself we’re aware that “stuff just happens.” We simply notice experience, thought, feeling, action — noticing itself — springing into being without “us” having to do anything. Life is spontaneous, and free, and effortless.

This doesn’t imply that we should not take responsibility for ourselves. This is one of the greatest apparent paradoxes of the spiritual path! There is no “you” to take responsibility for yourself, and yet taking responsibility just happens. When I assume there’s a “me” that takes responsibility for myself, I’m back to construing a self. I’ve taken one part of myself (words truly can’t express this, so we end up with these ambiguities) to be “the boss,” the “real me.” But the part or parts of me that takes responsibility is no more “really” me than the parts of me that are resistant to taking responsibility.

What ends up happening, in effect, is that a self-organizing process emerges. It’s like an ecosystem; you don’t have this “thing” called an ecosystem that’s saying “OK, this tree has died, now we need to recycle it. Send in the fungi!” There’s no central control that says “The beetles are getting out of hand, let’s breed some more sparrows to eat them and keep the numbers down.” It all just happens. And the collection of experiences and impulses that we call the self acts this way too. As it happens, the “self” in which the perception of a self is most strong is the “self” in which there’s most conflict and turbulence. And the “self” in which the perception of a self is most weak, or even absent, is the “self” in which there is most peace and joy.

This stuff is hard to communicate. Forgive my rambling.

Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long? It was in reference to this that it was said, ‘He has been stilled where the currents of construing do not flow. And when the currents of construing do not flow, he is said to be a sage at peace.’

Not only is the awakened mind not busy making assumptions about itself — “construing” a self — it’s, of course, therefore not busy construing things about this self. So we could read that the “sage at peace,” who has let go of the compulsion to be self-referential, not being born, not aging, not dying is something to do with rebirth in some heavenly realm (or, god forbid “going to Nirvana,” as if Nirvana was a place you could go to). But I think it’s both simpler and more profound than this: The sage at peace doesn’t think of him or herself as being anything, or as having any attributes, so the sage at peace doesn’t think about having a self that can age, or die, or be born.

Think about it. How old do you actually feel? You might have associations that aches in the body equate to “old,” but actually that’s just an assumption. Aches are aches, not age. I don’t feel any age! I don’t think I’ve ever done more than make assumptions that feeling one way is “feeling young” and feeling another way is “feeling old.” In essence, I have no age.

The Buddha points to how our experiences constantly changing, ourself (if we had such a thing) is constantly changing too:

Having sensed a feeling of pain [or pleasure, or neutrality] as ‘my self,’ then with the cessation of one’s very own feeling of pain [or pleasure, or neutrality] , ‘my self’ has perished.

But the sage at peace is not even construing these feelings to be the self. So there isn’t even a self that is being born or dying. Birth and death cannot happen to one who has abandoned the construing of a self.

This, in fact, is why the awakened individual is a “sage at peace.” There’s nothing to have, so nothing to lose.

So one again, the relation of this to upekkha is that upekkha being a wish that beings attain the deep peace of awakening, we’re wishing that they experience this freedom from “construing.” We’re wishing that we, and they, experience a complete freedom from being self-referential, and complete freedom from the suffering self-construing brings. We’re wishing them peace.

May all beings cease construing. May all beings find awakening. May all beings dwell in peace.

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Lay your burden down (Day 93)

mountainsTo recap, upekkha is the desire that beings (ourselves included) know the profound peace of awakening. Since lovingkindness is the desire that beings be happy, upekkha is kind of lovingkindness on steroids; for beings to attain the deepest peace possible, they have to awaken from the delusion of separate and permanent selfhood, which is a key source of our suffering. It’s losing this sense of separateness and permanence that’s, in fact, the key to awakening. So to be “upekkhaful” (and I may be the first person on the planet to have used that term in writing!) is to desire that beings awaken and find peace.

I’ve already talked about one way in which we can “un-self” — by examining the impermanence of everything that we could take to constitute a self. Everything we can become aware of within ourselves — the body, the physical sensations arising from it, our feelings, our thoughts and memories — is changing all the time. So the casual but deep-rooted assumption we have that there is something “essential” that defines us is challenged. And eventually that assumption is dropped. It’s seen to be a myth, and is abandoned, like childhood stories of Easter Bunnies and Santa Claus.

But there are other approaches as well. One of the approaches I’ve stumbled upon which, like many other approaches I’ve stumbled upon, was taught by the Buddha, is to recognize that we don’t own our experiences, or anything else that could be taken to constitute a self.

Here’s the Buddha’s take:

“Bhikkhus, form is not-self. Were form self, then this form would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’ And since form is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of form: ‘Let my form be thus, let my form be not thus.’

“Bhikkhus, feeling is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, perception is not-self…

“Bhikkhus, determinations are not-self…

“Bhikkhus, consciousness is not self. Were consciousness self, then this consciousness would not lead to affliction, and one could have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’ And since consciousness is not-self, so it leads to affliction, and none can have it of consciousness: ‘Let my consciousness be thus, let my consciousness be not thus.’

100 Days of LovingkindnessThe argument here is that if our bodies were really our bodies, then we’d be able to control them completely, for example by commanding them not to age. If our feelings were truly our own we’d be able to change our likes and dislikes at whim. If our perceptions were truly ours we’d be able to look at these words and see them as abstract shapes rather than as words. If our “determinations” were our own then it wouldn’t be hard to change our habits: if you wanted to diet, for example, you’d just diet, without any conflict or slip-ups. If our consciousness was truly our own, we could just decide to be happy, and we’d be happy. We could decide not to think, and we wouldn’t think.

Now most people would likely say in response to this that they can’t control themselves entirely, but they do control themselves to some extent, and so they have a self that in some sense — in some important sense — does in fact own its constituents. Aren’t you able to wish that your open hand clench into a fist and then relax back into an open hand again? I’ll come back to that…

For now, just start to notice, as I often do and as I often encourage students to do, the mystery of where your thoughts and actions come from. One of the most striking things is to notice speech and thought. When you’re next in the flow of a conversation with someone, start to hear your own words as if you were an outside observer, listening to yourself. And then notice that you don’t know what words are going to emerge from your mouth before they emerge. There’s no consciousness of a process by which you assemble the words in advance. They just appear. You don’t know what you’re going to say any sooner than the other person you’re talking to. That’s kind of weird. Where does your speech come from? It just appears to you, fully formed, as if you’ve been handed a script. Who is the script writer?

Sure, there are times that you rehearse what you’re going to say. You’re listening to your friend talk and also formulating a response (which means you’re not really listening to them, but let’s leave that for now). But start to notice that you don’t know what you’re going to think before you think it. Where does your thought come from? Again, it just appears to you, fully formed. Thought is just a special case of speech, where you’re speaking to yourself. “You” (the conscious you) doesn’t have any hand in creating your thoughts. “You” (the conscious you) just notices them as they arise. If “you” (the conscious you) did actually generate thoughts, then you’d be able to control what you thought, and not have this strange situation where you’re trying to pay attention to your breathing but instead are bombarded with a constant stream of inner chatter.

Another striking example of how “you” don’t really have control is noticing the body in action. I encourage students to notice the body doing things on its own. So right now you’re reading. You haven’t really noticed how the eyes are sweeping from side to side, moving down the screen. You certainly weren’t issuing conscious commands to your eyes to do this. In fact your eyes are making tiny jittering movements that are completely outside your control. Who is reading?

Or when you’re walking, catch yourself in the act of moving your legs (you were probably thinking about something and only dimly aware that your legs were moving) and notice how you weren’t giving any conscious instruction to the many muscles in your legs, which were nevertheless doing a great job of getting you from point A to point B. Who is walking?

Or when you’re driving, notice how your hands, arms, legs, and head are all smoothly operating in such a way as to control the vehicle. There may in fact be times when you’re lost in thought and are totally unaware you have been driving. Who is driving?

In a sense, “not-you” is reading, walking, driving (and breathing, blinking, swallowing, and twitching the big toe on your left foot). These are completely outside your consciousness, and so aren’t really part of your (conscious) self. And your conscious self is just (sometimes) noticing the actions of these parts of you and — and this is important — thinking that it runs the show. Most times, as soon as you become aware of your reading, driving, walking, blinking, swallowing, toe-twitching, “you” assume that “you” are doing these things. Of course “you” weren’t even aware of them a moment before.

This sense of ownership is a form of clinging, and clinging is a source of suffering. Feeling that you “have” a self, you have something to defend. Your self is perceived as being in conflict with other selves, so there’s aggression. So it’s this sense of ownership that we need to lose in order to experience a deeper sense of peace.

But, you are still objecting, you can desire to move my arm, and your arm moves — thus! Surely that demonstrates ownership. Well, not really! Where did the thought “I’m going to move my arm” come from? It came from “down there” in the not-self. You didn’t create the thought consciously. It just appeared to you. Its having appeared to you, you claimed ownership of it, but you didn’t in fact create it. Then the thought having appeared, it is heard “down there” in the not-self — those parts of “you” that aren’t really you because you can’t control them or even really know them. And the “not-you” that is “down there” then initiates a series of actions that raise the arm. You certainly don’t say “OK, I’m going to contract the deltoid at such-and-such a rate and applying such-and-such a force at the same time as I relax the pectoralis major, and at the same time I’m going to relax the triceps and contract the biceps…” It all just happens.

And sometimes it doesn’t. If someone say, shows you their pet tarantula and tells you it’s perfectly safe to touch it, you may find that you’re telling your arm to move but “down there” the “not you” decides that it’s very much not, thank you very much, going to comply. Or you can be hypnotized not to be able to move your arm: “down there” has received an instruction from someone else not to move, and it’s not going to listen to “you” (which is to say, other parts of “down there”).

So what we take to be conscious control is simply unconscious control coming from “not you” and passing through a kind of “conscious space” in the mind as it’s relayed back to some other part of “not you.” As the perception of intentions (“I am going to lift my arm”) passes through this conscious space, some part of “not you” says “Hey, I did that” and a sense of ownership emerges.

If you’re just reading this account, it may make no sense. You’re busy answering the question “who walks” with “Me, you dummy.” It’s actually scary to let go of this idea that we own ourselves, just as it’s scary for kids not to believe in Santa Claus even if their parents have told them that Santa Claus is a myth. (I’ve been there.) But if you start to actually observe what I’ve been describing, it all becomes very real. By listening to your words appear, by noticing how thoughts just arise, by catching your body in the act of moving, you can trick yourself into letting go of your automatic habit of claiming ownership of your thoughts, words, and actions. There’s a profound letting go, and you notice that thoughts, words, and actions are simply arising, without ownership. And this is tremendously liberating.

The sense of ownership that we carry around with us requires a tremendous amount of energy. It’s a burden. As the Buddha said,

Taking up the burden in the world is stressful.
Casting off the burden is bliss.
Having cast off the heavy burden
and not taking on another,
pulling up craving, along with its root,
one is free from hunger, totally awakened.

We pull up the “root” of craving, which is this sense of “owning” a self.

So, what’s the relevance of this to upekkha? Upekkha is the desire that beings (ourselves included) experience the supreme peace of awakening. One way to experience awakening for ourselves is to let go of clinging to a sense of “ownership” of our thoughts, words, and actions: “casting off the burden is bliss.” But we also compassionately (or upekkhafully) desire this peace for others. We desire that we and others lay down the burden of self. What I’ve outlined above is a way to un-self — to realize that this burden is an unnecessary one.

May all beings be free. May all beings lay their burdens down. May all beings know peace.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness posts here.

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Looking into the heart’s depths (Day 92)

Homme et MéditationThe four brahmavihāras (divine abidings) are a progressive series of skillful qualities and the meditations in which we cultivate them.

So here’s my “yes, but” guide to how these four brahmavihāras of lovingkindness (mettā), compassion (karunā), joyful appreciation (muditā), and the desire that beings experience the peace of awakening (upekkhā) are related to each other.

Lovingkindness

So we start with the most fundamental brahmavihāra, which is lovingkindness. Lovingkindness grows from an awareness that our deepest desire is to be happy, and a humble recognition that happiness is often quite hard to find. So often we’re excited about something new in our lives — a new car, a new phone, a new relationship — and expect to be happy, and yet find that the course of our lives is bumpy, unpredictable, and often disappointing. Happiness comes, happiness goes, and we often don’t seem to have much control of it.

Reflecting on this sense of inconstancy, fragility, and unpredictability can lead to a sense of feeling vulnerable. And although this feeling is distinctly uncomfortable, it’s very real and very healthy, because it’s recognizing our desire for happiness and the difficulty of attaining happiness that allows us to recognize that others, too, have the same desire and the same difficulty. Desiring happiness and finding happiness to be elusive are fundamental and universal human experiences. Seeing this in others allows us to resonate with them; more and more we naturally want to do nothing to obstruct their happiness, and do what we can to help them be happy.

So basically, in lovingkindness, we wish others well and wish that they be happy.

Compassion

Yes, we wish that beings be happy, but still beings suffer. It’s when lovingkindness and an awareness of others’ suffering come together than compassion arises. That in fact is the very definition of compassion.

So we become aware of others’ suffering, and wish that they be free from that suffering. And as we train in compassion, increasingly we act in ways that help beings to avoid suffering.

We actually need a bit of upekkha — in the sense of closely watching (the root meaning of upekkhā) our feelings in a non-reactive way — as we cultivate both lovingkindness and compassion. We have to be prepared to accept things not being the way we ideally would want them to be, because we’re wanting beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, and yet so often they’re not happy and keep encountering suffering.

Joyful Appreciation

Yes, we wish beings to be happy and to be free from suffering, but they keep doing things that destroy their own happiness and cause them suffering. Well, don’t we all?

So we need to appreciate, rejoice in, and support the things beings do that actually do lead to peace and joy. From a Buddhist point of view, it’s skillful actions, words, and thoughts that lead to true peace and joy. Skillfulness is that which genuinely leads to happiness and freedom from unnecessary suffering.

So we rejoice in and encourage the development of qualities like courage, patience, mindfulness, kindness, compassion, and persistence. And we rejoice in the peace and joy that they bring.

We need even more upekkhā here, so that we don’t blame beings for not “obediently” being skillful! We want them to be happy and not to suffer, and yet they keep doing things that cause themselves and others to suffer. So this has to be handled with patience and forgiveness.

The Desire That Beings Experience the Peace of Awakening

Yes, we rejoice in the skillful, but it’s not possible for beings to become completely free from suffering by acting, thinking, and speaking skillfully. There are deep roots to our unskillful behavior. Unskillfulness is rooted in fundamental views we have about ourselves — false views — about our imagined separateness and permanence. And to uproot our unskillfulness (and the suffering it causes) we have to radically change the way we see ourselves and lose those false views.

In particular we have to cultivate a radical appreciation of impermanence (anicca) , so that we see that there is nothing for our “self” to cling to. In fact we come to see that there is no permanent or separate self to do any clinging in the first place. We can also appreciate that our experiences — even our actions — are not truly ours and are not us (anattā). We can’t hold onto them. We don’t really create them. This is hard to appreciate (your mind is probably rebelling at the concept) but I’ll explain this in a future post. We also develop a radical equanimity, which recognizes that it’s not our experiences that bring us happiness, but the way we relate to our experiences. Our experiences are inherently unsatisfactory (dukkha).

These kinds of reflections lead to a profound shift in our perspectives, which we call “insight.” And it’s this insight that leads to irrevocable peace.

So in upekkhā bhāvana meditation we’re wishing the peace of awakening for ourselves and others. We recognize that if — to go back to mettā and karunā (lovingkindness and compassion) — we wish beings to be happy and free from suffering, then we ultimately need to do what we can to get ourselves and others to the point of spiritual awakening.

Upekkhā is often described as the consummation or pinnacle of the earlier brahmavihāras, and as a loving state it’s in no way cold or detached. When we penetrate deeply into lovingkindness we find a passionate desire to bring beings (ourselves included) to full awakening, or bodhi.

Upekkhā is the fulfillment of the other brahmavihāras. It’s their perfection. It’s the deepest form of love. How much more love could we have for beings than to wish for them to be totally free from the three toxins or greed, hatred, and delusion, and the suffering that they cause.

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“May all beings dwell in peace”: A guided meditation (Day 91)

handThis meditation is a recording of a Hangout I did on Google+ with members of Wildmind’s community. It’s an upekkha bhavana meditation, which is not really the “cultivation of equanimity” at all — or at least so I believe. To me, upekkhā is not equanimity. It doesn’t even mean equanimity in its etymological root, but something more like “closely watching.” Upekkhā is when we wish that beings attain the deep peace of awakening through accepting impermanence, or the arising and passing of things, or that everything changes (the exact words don’t matter much).

We are of course seeking the peace of awakening ourselves, and so at the beginning of this sit I encourage you to notice the constantly changing nature of your experience. We notice and accept that everything is changing, and this can lead to a profound sense of letting go in which we realize that there is nothing to hold on to, and in fact no one to do any holding on.

And this change is experienced in a loving and compassionate way, since this is, after all, an extension of the mettā (lovingkindness) practice.

I suggested then dropping in the following phrases:

  • May I accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May I find awakening.
  • May I dwell in peace.

These phrases are optional, but they can sharpen and clarify our desire for the peace of awakening, or bodhi.

And then we with the peace of awakening for all beings, starting with a neutral person (someone we don’t have a friendship or conflict with), then a friend, and then someone we do have difficulty with. Lastly, we extend our upekkha to all beings:

  • May all beings accept the arising and passing of things.
  • May all beings find awakening.
  • May all beings dwell in peace.

In the discussion at the end of the sit I discuss how upekkhā is not equanimity, but is the desire that all beings be liberated, and is exactly the same as the mahākaruṇā (great compassion) of the Mahāyāna. I suspect that the Mahāyāna may have used the term mahākaruṇā to distinguish this desire that all beings be liberated from karuṇā as a brahmavihāra, which is a simpler desire that all beings be free from suffering.

Enjoy!

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