anatta (non-self)

Practicing compassion

Most of us probably think of the practice of compassion as synonymous with altruism. Giving. Helping. Being of service. Sunada flips that idea on its head — that it may be just as important to be vulnerable as it is to be strong, and to receive as it is to give.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.” It leaves a huge opening for our ego to step in. I don’t know about yours, but my ego is a sneaky little beast! It’s so easy to get duped by that guy.

We can get ourselves into a bit of trouble when we think of compassion only in terms of “giving.”

One way he tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind. It’s such an easy trap — to fall into acting from that mask rather than a fuller experience of my being. To put it in the worst terms, I suppose it’s like the compassion gets a bit institutionalized. I act by rote because I know that’s what’s I’m supposed to do. An example is giving spare change to a homeless person because I had decided that I’m going to be kind to a homeless person today. If I just drop some coins in her cup without making an effort to at least smile and make a connection with her, then I’m probably acting from my role of “be kind to a homeless person today.”

One way [my ego] tricks me is by turning my actions into a role or mask to hide behind.

I’m not saying that’s bad, but it’s not true compassion. It’s more a contrived act than something springing from a fresh, alive connection to my feelings in that moment about the person and the situation. I’ve been taught that this called a Near Enemy of compassion. A Far Enemy is something that’s an obvious opposite, like cruelty. A Near Enemy is something that sort of looks like the real thing, but isn’t on closer examination. It’s that tricky ego sneaking in.

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world.

Even worse, the mask can become a shield for hiding away the parts of myself that I don’t want to show the world. It makes my ego feel good to think I’m strong and capable, someone who can step in and be of help. And yes, of course, there are times when I AM being of help. After all, that homeless woman probably really needed the money. But the Buddha always taught that it’s not the action that counts, but the true motivation behind it. Am I using my kind acts as a way to make myself feel better and compensate for all the icky stuff inside that I don’t want to deal with? If so, that’s not true compassion. That’s self-deception.

So then what does real compassion look like? It’s a lot more than just reaching out to help. I also need to open myself up to let others touch me. It’s just as much about being vulnerable as it is strong. And receiving as it is about giving. In other words, it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place. And that’s a MUCH bigger challenge than simple helping or giving! And boy, it takes some real courage to do.

it’s only when we can bring the whole of ourselves forward to meet someone that a real connection takes place.

A few years ago, I was on a retreat that focused on becoming more ourselves and living up to our potential. We spent a lot of time on what was holding us back. What was our biggest fear about boldly stepping forward into what we wished we could do. One “secret” I shared with the group was how I wanted to be a singer, and to have the courage to perform publicly. Well of course, it’s impossible to say that to a group like this without getting prodded into singing before the weekend was through.

So I did it. I screwed up my courage and sang a solo unaccompanied song in front of everyone. I was nervous as hell and my throat felt all dry and tight. My voice cracked, and the notes at the higher end of the piece squawked. Yuck. It didn’t feel good at all. It probably didn’t sound all that good either. But of course, everyone gave me a big round of applause and kudos, because this was SUCH a supportive group.

But you know what? There was one person who was silently sitting there, watching me in tears. She hadn’t said much the whole weekend, and I knew that she too was struggling with her demons about taking a stand and openly being herself in front of others. Her response, more than all the others combined, is what has stayed with me. We didn’t talk about it, so I’ll never really know what was going through her mind. But it was obviously genuine, and obviously profound. For that one moment, I felt a strong connection with her because something real in me touched something real in her.

Experiences like this are what keep reminding me to get off my ego’s high horse. As much as it wants to see itself as the proverbial cavalry riding in to save the day, it’s not the most helpful way to see things. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just be a human being, here to share the fullness of who I am. It’s when I stop trying so hard to be something I’m not that something genuine pops up out of nowhere. It’s really very simple, though it’s sure not easy.

My teacher, Sangharakshita, wrote a poem about this. In closing, I’ll leave you with that poem, called “The Unseen Flower.”

Compassion is far more than emotion.
It is something which springs
Up in the emptiness which is when
you yourself are not there
So that you do not know anything about it.
Nobody, in fact, knows anything about it.
(If they knew it, it would not be compassion);
But they can only smell
The scent of the unseen flower
That blooms in the heart of the Void.

I first came across it over ten years ago, but it’s only now that it’s starting to sink in what he meant.

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P.G. Wodehouse: “If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is!”

P.G. Wodehouse

We spend much of our time and energy trying to pretend impermanence isn’t real, but the strange thing is that when we embrace impermanence we become happier.

Here’s a very “queer thing” about life: sometimes the things that we think will make us miserable actually make us happier. When Professor Eric D. Miller of Kent State University’s Department of Psychology asked people to imagine the death of their partner they reported that they felt more positive about their relationships and less troubled by their significant others’ annoying quirks.

I spent the afternoon musing on Life. If you come to think of it, what a queer thing Life is! So unlike anything else, don’t you know, if you see what I mean.
—P.G. Wodehouse

We live in a world marked by constant change and impermanence. The things we love decay and perish. The people we love will pass away, or we ourselves will pass away, leaving them behind. Wary that thinking about impermanence will be too much of a “downer” we try not to think about these things too much. And yet, ironically, when we do happen to experience the fragility of existence we often find our appreciation of life is enhanced.

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Often the things we think will make us happier—like impressing the boss or getting that raise—ultimately deprive us of happiness. As a well-known saying goes, “Few people on their deathbed think, ‘I wish I’d spent more time in the office.’” And yet that’s so often how we live our lives. Life has the potential to be glorious. There’s the joy of witnessing birth and growth. The joy of loving. The joy of learning. The joy of deepening relationships. Sometimes there’s just the sheer joy of being alive. But those moments can be rare and, again rather ironically, we’re often too focused on things that don’t give us lasting pleasure to pay attention to those that do.

Our existential situation is such that it’s hard to have anything but a sporadic experience of security and wellbeing. After all, the world is inherently insecure. There’s nothing in the world that we can absolutely rely upon. True, it’s pretty certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but then again there’s no guarantee we’ll be around to enjoy it. Sometimes we forget this, and it’s been argued that in fact we try very hard to forget it.

The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate?

An entire movement in psychology is predicated on the hypothesis that we have strategies for dealing with the painful reality of uncertainty and loss. In studies it has been found that we frequently try to find something unchanging and reliable with which to identify, something that acts like a secure island in the midst of a river of change. Often what we cling to is an ideology, or a religious identity, or a sense of belonging to a group or nation. This response is one of fear and clinging. We see change around us and we’re afraid. And so we try to find something to cling to—something more permanent and stable than ourselves.

Another common strategy is that we imagine that we ourselves are small islands of stability in the river of life. We cling to the idea that we have this “thing” called a self. And we imagine this self to be separate and permanent. We become the thing that we cling to. But as Sylvia Plath once wrote, although with a rather different intent, “I am myself. That is not enough.” Our selves are not enough. We find ourselves incomplete, lacking happiness and—despite all our clinging—security. And so we engage in grasping for those things we think will bring us happiness and security, while trying to keep at bay those things we think threaten our happiness and security.

We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us.

Fundamentally, we all just want to be happy, secure, and at peace. The problem is that as strategies for finding happiness, clinging and aversion just don’t work very well. They don’t deliver the goods. It turns out that thoughts of impermanence often enrich our lives and make us happier. We cling to status, material possessions, approval, and pleasure, and yet the pursuit of these things often turns out to have been a misuse of our time. We think that focusing on our own needs will maximize our happiness and wellbeing, but it often turns out that this merely impoverishes us, and that including others in our sphere of concern brings us greater satisfaction.

We can swap our ineffective strategies for others that work better, but this requires that we change the way we see ourselves. The self that we imagine to be separate and unchanging is not that way at all. The self is like an eddy in a stream. It has the appearance of being a separate thing, and of having permanence, but in what sense can an eddy be separate? There’s no borderline that we can say for sure marks where the eddy stops and the river starts. The eddy cannot exist without the stream, and the stream itself is nothing more than a mass of eddies and other currents. I suggest that the self is like that too. We are not separate from the world around us; we instead exist as the sum total of our relationships with a vast web of interconnected processes. We are not physically separate, and we are not mentally separate, and realizing these facts is infinitely enriching.

The Buddha pointed to an alternative way of living, which is that we radically embrace impermanence. In his path of training, we systematically notice all acts of holding on, all acts of trying to resist impermanence, and learn to let go. In doing so repeatedly, we start to see the disadvantages of clinging, and the advantages of non-clinging. Training the mind in this way, we cling less, we experience more freedom and expansiveness, and we find we can face impermanence with less fear.

This post is an edited extract from Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book, “Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change,” to be published by Sounds True in October, 2010.

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Damaged brains escape the material world

Increased feelings of transcendence can follow brain damage, a study of people with brain cancer suggests.

As feelings of transcending the physical world can be part of some religious experiences and other forms of spirituality, the finding may help explain why some people seem more prone to such experiences than others.

The brain region in question, the posterior parietal cortex, is involved in maintaining a sense of self, for example by helping you keep track of your body parts. It has also been linked to prayer and meditation

To further probe its role, Cosimo Urgesi, a neuroscientist at the University of Udine in Italy, turned to 88 people who were being treated for brain cancer.

Brain surgery

These volunteers suffered from two kinds of cancer: gliomas, which affect the brain cells that surround neurons, and meningiomas, which affect the membrane that wraps the brain itself.

Doctors removed neurons from the 48 glioma patients to stem the spread of their tumours, whereas the people with meningiomas had tumour cells removed, but no neurons.

Both before and not long after the patients received this surgery Urgesi’s team gave them a battery of personality tests. In particular, the researchers were interested…

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in a personality trait known as self-transcendence.

People score highly for this trait if they answer “yes” to questions such as: “I often feel so connected to the people around me that I feel like there is no separation”; “I feel so connected to nature that everything feels like one single organism”; and “I got lost in the moment and detached from time”. The same people also tend to believe in miracles, extrasensory perception and other non-material phenomena.

Personality change

Urgesi’s team found that the 24 people with gliomas in the posterior parietal cortex tended to score higher on the self-transcendence test after surgery than they had before. By contrast, the scores of people with gliomas in the anterior region of the cortex, and of people with meningiomas, did not change after their surgery.

This suggests that it is the removal of neurons from the posterior parietal cortex which is responsible for the personality change, and not simply experiencing a serious illness or undergoing brain surgery, Urgesi says. He suggests that the removal reduces activity in this brain region and that this may increase feelings of transcendence.

Moreover, Urgesi noticed differences in the way the patients dealt with their illnesses. Those who had lost posterior parietal tissue tended to be less troubled by their cancers and their own mortality. Meanwhile those who had had their anterior portion removed tended to react more bitterly, Urgesi says. “They could not accept it.”

Urgesi speculates that naturally low activity in parietal regions in people without either brain damage or cancer could predispose them to self-transcendent feelings, and perhaps even to religions that emphasise such experiences such as Buddhism.

Out of body

“The idea of spirituality equalling the self-transcendence scale is perhaps a bit controversial,” says Uffe Schjødt, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Aarhus University, Denmark.

But he adds that the study “does fit with previous work in the neuroscience of religion”. For example, studies in Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns and people experienced in meditation have shown that the posterior parietal cortex plays a role in prayer and meditation.

Urgesi also notes that electrically stimulating the temporoparietal junction – an area near the posterior parietal cortex – is known to induce out-of-body experiences , which also involve a breakdown in someone’s representation of their physical self and their environment.

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“29 Gifts” by Cami Walker

"29 Gifts" by Cami Walker

Diagnosed with MS at age 32, Cami Walker thought her life was over. But when she took up a challenge to give 29 gifts in 29 days, her life started taking off in amazing directions. Sunada reviews 29 Gifts, the remarkable true story of how one woman rose above her debilitating illness — and started a worldwide movement that has inspired thousands to work toward reviving the spirit of giving in the world.

Cami Walker seemed to have everything going for her when a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis put a screeching stop to all her plans. Her condition had degenerated rapidly in just two years — she lost vision in one eye, and found it increasingly difficult to walk. Unable to work, deep in debt, and with her brand new marriage under strain, she fell into a suicidal depression.

The gifts didn’t need to be big. Anything would do, as long as it was given authentically and mindfully.

It was her friend and spiritual teacher, Mbali Creazzo, that gave her a seemingly ridiculous prescription: give 29 gifts in 29 days. Mbali told Cami she was focusing too much attention on the disease, and hence was feeding it. So instead, try turning that momentum around by giving to others. The gifts didn’t need to be big. Anything would do, as long as it was given authentically and mindfully.

Many of the things Cami gave were indeed very simple — a tissue for a tearful friend, spare change for a homeless person, a homemade meal for her husband. The book chronicles the amazing shifts that began to take place for her over the month that followed. It’s a true-to-life testament to how the quality of our thoughts has a direct effect on the quality of our lives.

It’s a true-to-life testament to how the quality of our thoughts has a direct effect on the quality of our lives.

Some of the gifts weren’t even “things,” and brought along surprising lessons to the author. For example, on Day 2, Cami realized she could stop apologizing every time her acupuncturist friend came to pick her up to take her to the clinic for appointments. Letting go to her newly emerging sense of gratitude, she thought, “Just as I am trying to give consciously now, I will try to receive consciously, too.”

On day 6, a particularly rejuvenating yoga class inspired her to chant spontaneously, “May all beings everywhere, including me, be joyous and free.” Later when she began to doubt whether this gift was good enough to count, she realized how her own perfectionist nature had been getting in her way her whole life. And so by allowing that simple mantra to count as her gift for the day, she found yet another way to let go and open herself up to life.

by stepping outside of our small, self-contained worlds, we become part of something greater than anything that any of us can be or do by ourselves.

Cami understood from the very start what the true spirit behind this exercise was. It’s not about literally giving 29 gifts. It’s about living every day with a generous frame of mind — kind, gracious, and willing to open up to whatever life brings our way. Gradually, she began to see larger lessons as well – that by stepping outside of our small, self-contained worlds, we become part of something greater than anything that any of us can be or do by ourselves.

A year later, Cami’s life looks very different from where she began. She still lives with MS, but her symptoms are much improved. Her vision is back, and she walks on her own most days. Recent diagnostic tests have been clear, showing that her disease has stopped progressing. Her relationships with her husband, family, and friends are more intimate and fulfilling. She’s still in debt, but is paying off the loans regularly. She no longer worries about money, and sees it as “an endless resource that exists in the world and I trust that God will provide us with the funds to meet our needs.”

Her story has also shown me that one person can make a difference, and that wholeheartedly giving of myself – and just as importantly, believing that I am worthy of doing so — is really all that’s needed.

I have to be candid here for a moment. I typically don’t go for books of this genre. Autobiographies about life-changing spiritual awakenings are generally not my cup of tea. But what really impressed me about 29 Gifts is how far the author has gone to walk the talk. It turns out 29 Gifts is far more than just a book telling Cami Walker’s personal story.

It was somewhere around Day 5 that Cami started thinking big. What if thousands … or even millions of people committed to give 29 gifts in 29 days? What effects might that have on the world? And so she started with a simple idea to launch a website, www.29gifts.org, to encourage others to take up the challenge and share their stories. Three years later, this little idea has blossomed into a thriving global community with several thousand members from 38 countries. Its mission is to create a grassroots revival of the spirit of giving in the world. The last section of the book contains nine selected stories from members of the 29 Gifts community, and the website has thousands more.

29gifts.org has also spawned humanitarian projects all around the world that have done some powerful work. There’s Operation Teddy Bear (www.teddybearcare.org), which provides teddy bears, food and other personal gifts for children living in poverty in South Africa. And there’s Seattle Youth Garden Works, which trains homeless and underserved youth in basic job skills by helping them grow organic fruits and vegetables and sell them to area farmers markets. You can see a long list of wonderfully inspiring projects at the 29gift.org website.

In an interview on National Public Radio, Cami beautifully summarized what she learned as follows:

I didn’t know that when Mbala gave me this suggestion, what she was really trying to help me to do was to open up. I don’t know who said this …but a closed hand cannot receive. And that was me. I was just this tightfisted, resentful, angry, frustrated young woman at the time that she gave me this suggestion. Over the course of those first 29 days I really did feel myself open up and begin connect on a higher level with people and have more meaningful interaction with others…

I was not someone who was good at accepting support or assistance from others before doing this, and certainly before my diagnosis. I was very independent, and the loss of certain abilities — my physical abilities, and even some cognitive abilities to some extent — was a huge blow. The giving is what has helped me stay centered and balanced. It’s something that’s made me feel like I’m a part of the world at large. I hope that’s what it does for others too — to help them see they’re not alone in this world.

So what started as an exercise to get herself feeling better grew into an inspiration to be a force for good in the world. Her story has also shown me that one person can make a difference, and that wholeheartedly giving of myself – and just as importantly, believing that I am worthy of doing so — is really all that’s needed.

So … it’s gotten me thinking. How can I start giving of myself more, starting today? And perhaps you’d you like to join me?

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Barbara Sher: “We are like violins. We can be used for doorstops, or we can make music.”

Guitar lying on grass. A posy of small blue flowers has been stuck into the sound hole.

We all want to be happy, but often we’re not. Bodhipaksa argues that this is because of the way we treat ourselves as a thing that lacks happiness, and happiness as a thing to be grasped.

In a parable in the Buddhist teachings, a king hears the sound of a lute for the first time and asks to see what produced such sweet music. A lute is produced, but the king is not satisfied. He wants to know where the music is. His ministers say,

“This lute, sire, is made of numerous components, a great many components. It’s through the activity of numerous components that it sounds: that is, in dependence on the body, the skin, the neck, the frame, the strings, the bridge, and the appropriate human effort. Thus it is that this lute — made of numerous components, a great many components — sounds through the activity of numerous components.”

Similarly, the Buddha points out, an accomplished practitioner investigates the body and mind and finds that “thoughts of ‘me’ or ‘mine’ or ‘I am’ do not occur.” There’s no suggestion in the Buddha’s metaphor that there is no self to be found. Instead, we simply let go of any identification with the body or mind as being the self. We stop clinging to any sense of the self being static, separate, or definable in any way. We cease thinking about “me” or “mine” or “I am,” and this thinking has ceased because we have ceased emotionally clinging to any idea of ourselves.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb.

In this analogy, the “self” is the functioning of the body and mind, and is therefore not a “thing.” The self is a process arising out of the functioning of both body and mind. Of course we can’t locate the self in any component of the body. Nor is the self identified with the mind or any component of the mind. The self cannot be reduced to any component or collection of components, any more than the sound of the lute can be found in any one component of the lute or in the entire, assembled lute.

The self is an activity. It’s a process. It’s a verb. As such, it’s not a noun or a “thing.” A process by definition cannot be a thing that we can grasp onto. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that can be static and unchanging. A self that is a process is not the kind of self that exists separately. Be definition, this kind of self arises from a myriad of things that are not the self.

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Also, one of the components that makes the sound of the lute possible is “appropriate human effort.” The lute in itself is not an instrument unless it’s in human hands. Without interaction with a human being it simply is a collection of glue, catgut, and various pieces of wood. Without interaction the lute is close to being an assemblage of nouns. The lute has to be in relation to something else before the sound can happen. Thus the idea of a separate self is challenged.

If the self, in the analogy, is the sound of the lute, then the self can only exist in relation to something else. In this case the self only exists in interaction with the world and with other selves. There is no such thing as a self in isolation. The self is therefore something inherently dynamic, interactive, and relational.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

What does this mean for us in our daily lives? A lot of the time we’re caught up in thoughts about ourselves. We think constantly about whether people like us, whether we’re happy, what we can do to get more recognition. This constant self-reference is meant to ease our suffering, but actually it’s the cause of our suffering. When we let go of this kind of self-referential thinking we discover that it was the act of craving happiness that was making us suffer.

There’s nothing wrong of course with wanting to be happy. The whole Buddhist path, after all, is an attempt to get away from suffering and to reach a state of peace. It’s the way that we relate to happiness that’s the problem. We treat ourselves as a object. We see ourselves, moreover, as an object lacking happiness, as defective. We see happiness as something external that we have to “get,” and so happiness is treated as an object too. Happiness is seen as being like a “component” that we can add to our defective selves. But happiness isn’t something to be grasped. It’s not in fact a thing at all.

In the parable the king thinks of the sound of the lute as being a thing, and he expects to be able to find it by dissecting the instrument. He wants to grasp the music. He’s in a state of craving. What he doesn’t appreciate is that the music arises from the quality of the relationships between the various parts of the lute, the musician, and the listener.

Happiness arises from the quality of our relationships. Happiness isn’t a “thing” to be grasped, but the quality of experience that arises when we cease grasping. As selves that exist only in relationship, it’s the quality of our relationships — the way we relate — that determines the quality of our being, and thus our happiness. The more we grasp (even after happiness) the less happy we’ll be. The more attention to the present moment, ease, acceptance, and love that we bring into our experience, the happier we’ll be.

The secret of happiness is to think less in terms of getting and having, and more in terms of noticing and appreciating.

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Act Normal: The origin of suffering

Robert T. Edison was born and raised in Nottingham, England. When he was fourteen years old he began to practice Buddhism. At eighteen he became a monk and went to Thailand where, for a decade, he spent his time in monasteries.

He became the first Buddhist monk in Iceland when he moved there in 1994 and founded a Buddhist sect.

In this clip, from the documentary, Act Normal, directed by Olaf de Fleur, Edison, at that time a monk in Thailand, contrasts the Buddhist explanation of the cause of suffering with the explanations from theistic religion.

Act Normal can be purchased from Poppoli Pictures.

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“Living as a river” – an interview with Bodhipaksa

Recently Wildmind’s founder, Bodhipaksa, was interviewed by Tami Simon, the owner of the renowned publisher of spirituality audiobooks.

The interview (transcript below) is part of a series called “Insights at the Edge,” which also includes conversations with Buddhist teachers Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jack Kornfield. The interview includes a discussion of science and spirituality together can help us appreciate the interconnected nature of reality, and of Bodhipaksa’s forthcoming book on the Six Elements.

Here’s how Sounds True describes the podcast:

Bodhipaksa: Living as a River

Tami Simon speaks with Bodhipaksa, a Buddhist teacher, author, and member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1993. He currently teaches Buddhism and meditation to prisoners and is the author of several books, including Wildmind: A Step-by-step Guide to Meditation, as well as the Sounds True audio learning programs Still the Mind and The Wisdom of the Breath. In this interview, Bodhipaksa discusses the fluid nature of identity: what he calls “living as a river.” (56 minutes)

Tami Simon: So Bodhipaksa you submitted a very interesting book to Sounds True, which we’ve decided to publish and you called it in your submission, The Six Rivers of Becoming: What Science and Spirituality Teach Us about Who We Really Are and, of course, who knows, by the time Sounds True publishes it we might call it something like How to Be Happy Through the Six Rivers of Becoming. I’m curious first of all what brought you to writing this book and if you can tell us a little bit about what it’s about.

Bodhipaksa: Okay, the book comes out of a practice that I do. It’s an Insight Meditation practice called the Six Element Practice, and it’s a reflective meditation where you are working on becoming aware of what it is that you identify with of being yourself You’re realizing that what you identify with being yourself is in fact not something static and not something separate from the outside world. So you’ve got these six elements, which are earth, what is whatever’s solid with in the body; water whatever is liquid in the body; the fire element, just all the physical energy in the body. There’s the air element, whatever is gaseous within the body. There’s the space element, which is not one of the classical elements. The way I understand that in my practice is it’s the sum total of space that all of that matter and energy take up. So it’s your form, your physical appearance, which we identify with being ourselves.

And there’s the consciousness, which resides within all of our functions. With each of these elements, what you can do is reflect on the ways in which there’s not a thing there, but a process. And what you might identify with, for example as the earth element or the solid matter within your body right now has come from outside of you. A little while ago the calcium that’s in your bones was actually in bread or milk. The protein that’s making up your muscles was in a burger or slab of tofu. And what you’re doing it you’re becoming aware that what you commonly identify with is just borrowed from the outside world. It’s not something that you can hold onto because it’s continually passing back to the outside world. What you identified with a few moments ago as being you is already beginning to depart. So skin cells are flaking off. Hairs are falling out. Your combusting carbohydrates in your body and you’re exhaling them as carbon dioxide and that carbon dioxide is becoming trees. You go to the bathroom, you take a dump, that gets flushed away somewhere and gets broken down by bacteria and protozoa and gets built into plants, etc., etc. So when you start looking at yourself in this way you start to get a sense of yourself not as a thing, but as a process. And you start to realize that everything that you identify with as yourself is not yourself. It’s all borrowed. It’s all coming from the outside and it’s all returning to the outside.

Tami Simon: So Bodhipaksa I think most people even before deconstructing their body into these six different elements just think, well, of course who I am has a lot to do with my body because I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have a body, so my identity has a lot to do with my body. Correct? I might not be just my body, but I am kind of my body in a certain way, aren’t I?

Bodhipaksa: Well in a certain way, we are, yeah, What are we if we take away our bodies and our minds? It’s more a question of how we actually relate to our bodies. For example you look in the mirror and see yourself and notice that you’ve been changing. What does that feel like? You notice there’s a few more gray hairs there or some wrinkles that weren’t there before, You’re belly’s sagging a little bit more. Well, we suffer because we identify our bodies as being ourselves and our bodies are continually changing and so our basis for feeling secure about ourselves is continually changing because of identifying with something that’s insecure. So if you want to be happy what you have to do it embrace change and stop clinging to something that is continually changing because by clinging to something in an effort to find some kind of security, when that something is continually changing you’re going to end up suffering.

Tami Simon: Well, I think a lot of people have a great deal of panic, let’s say, if there’s a diagnosis of terminal illness kind of thing, of course. So without my body, I might not be here, so of course I feel identified with my body.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, right, and it’s quite natural. It’s and evolutionary thing, really. We have to take care of our bodies, and this practice wouldn’t suggest that we start neglecting our bodies. It just suggests that we stop seeing so much importance and significance in them and start accepting the fact that they do change.

Tami Simon: So part of the idea behind this deconstruction into the six elements is recognizing the amount of change that’s always going on and that’s just the fact of what’s happening?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, and those effects from that. This practice is traditionally regarded as an antidote to conceit. It can mean an inflated sense of self-importance. When we start being so proud of our bodies because they’re firm and good looking and people like them and that kind of stuff, that is setting up the conditions for future suffering because at some point people are going to be looking at our bodies and thinking, well, ten years ago she was pretty good looking. Ten years ago he had a body on him, but look at him now. So, this element of conceit gets let go that way. But there are other interpretations of the word conceit in this practice, which is that it’s conceiving ding. There’s a conceding of yourself as being either separate and of being either better than, equal to or worse than other beings. And all of those things are sources of suffering. We set ourselves up as being separate from the world or from other people and as soon as you start doing that, you set yourself up in competition with other people or separate and therefore we’re all competing for the same scare resources such as love, etc., and again we end up suffering because of that. We’re working on letting go of multiple levels of identification so we can be happier.

Tami Simon: This question that it seems like this six-element practice is exploring, what is the self, what is identity. It seems that is a core question in spirituality. Wouldn’t you agree?

Bodhipaksa: I think it’s the core question, who we are, what we are. I think at the time at the Buddha people were asking this question a lot: what is the true self? And most answers came down to some kind of true self or soul that was within us that we couldn’t necessarily have direct experience of or some aspect of ourselves would be taken to be an unchanging and separate entity. The Buddha’s response to that seemed to be quite radical, that you should let go of any identification whatsoever. It’s quite a hard position for us. Even with someone who’s been practicing two or three decades, it’s not an easy position to grasp. I have some sense of what the Buddha meant by that. But I can’t I’ve in any way plumbed the depths of what he was pointing at.

Tami Simon: This idea of dropping any kind of identification. So when you do the six-element practice how does that take you through that process of disidentifying?

Bodhipaksa: it’s quite a subtle thing, really. You’re doing this with the physical elements, so you’re becoming aware that everything that constitutes your body, whether it’s solid, liquid, gaseous or energy—all of that really isn’t you, and it’s not something that you can really hole onto. It can do many things to you, and one of them is that it causes this sense of lightness. It’s like having had a fist and then it begins to kind of open again. And it’s hard trying to communicate that to someone because you’re been going around your entire life with your hands in fists, and someone says, yeah, you don’t really need to have your hands that way, you can relax them a little bit, you can let go of them a little bit. It’s kind of hard to see how you can do that and hard to imagine what that would actually feel like until you’ve done it. But there is that sense of lightness. There can be a sense of humility, as well. Because we go around thinking that we’re the center of the world and actually we’re just a little vortex or matter and energy and consciousness in an absolutely huge world. A huge and very, very complex world, which is full of billions of other vortices of energy and consciousness ang matter. And it can bring about a sense of humility.

It can bring about a sense of appreciation as well because you start realizing how much you’re dependent upon others and other processes in the world round about you. And I think all of these things are ultimately kind of liberating. They’re liberating ourselves from a sense of, hey, I’m so cool, I’m the center of the world, you know, I’m the center of the universe. Everything revolves around about me. Get out of my way, here I come. We start to be more appreciative.

Tami Simon: Now probably the main way that people identify is with their thoughts about themselves. Wouldn’t you say? I think I’m this, I think I’m that. You were talking about the physical aspects of the body in terms of the elements, but how do we work on this disidentifying from what we think about who we are?

Bodhipaksa: Well, I think the longer you practice the more you start realizing that things can change. When I started practicing I was a really, really bad tempered person. I was so moody and bad tempered. I didn’t realize I was moody and bad tempered. I just thought the world was just full of idiots [laughs]. It’s kind of funny thinking about it?

Tami Simon: How old were you Bodhipaksa?

Bodhipaksa: This was early twenties and I guess I was quite arrogant and also quite insecure, as well. So over the years I’ve gone from being full of ill will and contempt for other people to being much friendlier, much more approachable, much more compassionate person. And so I’ve experience myself this big change in my personality. I think a lot of people who haven’t experienced that–that kind of change–still have the sense, well; you’re stuck with what you’re got. So if I’m a bad-tempered person that’s just how I am or if I’m full of craving and can’t stop eating or pursuing sensuous delights, and that’s just the kind of person I am. This is the way I was made. So people identify with the way that they are at a particular time and don’t realize—perhaps can’t realize—until they begin a process of changing. Actually, these things are quite malleable. There’s a lot of change that can go on.

Tami Simon: I guess still what I’m asking about is I have these ideas about who I am. I have these thought structures. I’m a person who is whatever. So what you’re saying is to take that lightly. That that could change?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, it might be true in a sense, right now, but a lot of things can change very, very quickly. Think of someone for example like Eckhardt Tolle who told us about his experience of having this radical shift in consciousness, where literally one minute he’s depressed and contemplating suicide and the next minute he’s completely at peace. When you’re experiencing depression you think that’s how it’s going to be. This is how I am. This is how it’s going to be. I’m stuck. But sometimes the underlying support for a mental state, an attitude like that and all the views that go with it about the kind of person you are and the kind of world that you live in, and how that world that you live in relates to you. The whole substructure for that can just completely collapse at a moment’s notice. Radical change can happen quickly. Sometimes it takes a long, long time not to be a bad-tempered person, but sometimes things can just change quite instantaneously.

Tami Simon: How do you think the practice of meditation affected this bad-tempered person in their early twenties? Or do you think there were other factors that created this gradual change in you? How did you become less bad tempered?

Bodhipaksa: Well I did a lot of metta badna [?] loving kindness practice and . . .

Tami Simon: Can you tell us specifically what you did? What were you focusing on?

Bodhipaksa: Right, well, metta badna[?] or development of loving kindness is a practice for developing a more appreciative, friendly, loving, compassionate towards ourselves and toward others. I did that practice a lot where we start with ourselves, wishing ourselves well, more onto a good friend, and then a person we don’t have much emotional connection with, someone we have difficulties with, and then expanding that feeling of loving kindness to the world. I used to have a lot of enemies. I used to have a lot of people I didn’t like and so I would wish those people well. Sometimes things would change quite rapidly. I think I discovered within my first few weeks of meditation that my mood could suddenly shift.

I remember once I was a student at the time and I was sitting in the car with a bunch of other students I shared an apartment with and they were having this conversation and it was so trivial and I was just way above all this of course. They were talking about their fathers’ ties or something like this and to me this was so trivial and I was condescending and got myself into a real bad temper about it, and I remembered like just the week before I learned this loving kindness practice, so I just sat there saying may I be well, may I be happy, may I be free from suffering and after about four or five minutes I realized, Hey, I’m not in a bad mood anymore. I actually felt human and open and responsive to the people round about me, rather than judgmental of them.

So practice just does change you. I sometimes have to adapt the practice because there were parts of myself I just didn’t like. I became aware of how judgmental I was and I didn’t like that, so that became a problem in itself. I became judgmental of my judgmental attitude. So what I did was I created a version of the practice for myself, where in each stage of the practice it was just me. So I started off with wishing myself well, and in the friend state I would wish well the parts of myself that I liked and appreciated. In the neutral-person stage I’d take parts of myself I’d never really paid much attention to, and I would wish them well. And then in the enemy or the difficult-person stage I would take parts of myself I didn’t like and I’d wish them well. And that was very transforming as well, because it was because it was a practice of complete, unconditional loving kindness towards parts of myself that were not just difficult, but actually in pain.

I started to realize that underneath my prickliness and bad-temperedness was actually a lot of pain that I never really acknowledged. I guess I’d been brought up in a rather stiff-upper-lip culture where people are very reserved and you just dealt with it. If something happened round about you and it was difficult or painful it was kind of unmanly to show the world or even to admit to yourself that you found it painful. So I went through a long process of just allowing myself to feel pain and realizing that that was okay and welcoming the pain, and treating myself almost as a good friend who turned up on my doorstep. If you had a good friend who turned up on your doorstep and they were really unhappy about something, you’d probably want to just welcome them in and, “Sit down, dude, what’s going on? Tell me about it. I want to know.” And you’d kind of embrace their pain in an offshoot of kindly inquiry, and that’s what I started doing with my own pain as well, realizing that I could just welcome that in and [ask] what’s going on here? And that in itself was enough to take away the bad-temperedness, because the bad-temperedness was just an outward symptom of an inward problem of not accepting my own pain and my own vulnerability.

Tami Simon: And how did your view toward other people change–all those people you thought were idiots in your early twenties? [laughs]

Bodhipaksa: I still occasionally find people who I think are complete idiots [laughs], especially on the Internet and especially in political discussions. However, people that I actually knew I tend to be much more forgiving towards them. I’ve come to realize more and more that everything that everybody does comes ultimately from a good motive, which is that they want to be happy. It doesn’t matter how outrageous the behavior of that person or how unethical it may seem to be. They have a belief that in doing the things that they’re doing, it’s going to make them happy, and that in itself is actually a good motivation. It’s a good thing to want to be happy. It’s the strategy that is wrong or in error. When people are going things that generally pisses us off, sometimes it’s just us, the way we respond, but when someone’s genuinely doing something that’s unskillful or unethical it’s a strategy for becoming happy, but it’s a strategy that’s just not going to work, and that’s the problem with it.

There was a Buddhist text I translated once when I was studying Pali at university and it was quite staggering really. It was almost the antithesis of Buddhism–letting go of greed, letting go of hatred, letting go of delusion. And there was a passage where the Buddha said if greed, hate, and delusion make you happy I wouldn’t tell you to let go of them, I’d tell you to embrace them because the whole worth of the Buddhist path, the Buddha said is about one thing, which is suffering and how to get rid of suffering which in more positive terms is about happiness and fulfillment and how to find them. So the about greed, hatred, and delusion is not that they are somehow wrong, it’s that they don’t work. They’re strategies for finding happiness and they don’t actually create happiness, they create unhappiness.

So when you start having that perspective in mind—obviously, I can’t always keep it in mind—but when I can have that perspective in mind it’s much easier to be forgiving of people because you realize that at heart, right down in the core, there’s something very positive there, it’s just that there’s layer of delusion there, which is leading to strategies that aren’t going to work. And that in itself—that recognition—is a way to be more compassionate toward people, realizing that they’re doing something that they think is going to make them happy and it’s not. It’s going to make them unhappy.

Tami Simon: Now I was joking earlier with you Bodhipaksa that by the time your manuscript goes through the publishing process it’s going to be called something like How to Be Happy, but it does seem that there’s a connection between the six-element practice and that work of deconstructing ourselves that relates to happiness and I’m wondering if you can make that more explicit?

Bodhipaksa: Right, well, it is ultimately what the practice is about and it’s ultimately what all Buddhist practice is about. I suppose the way it works is that we seek happiness in trying to find some sense of security and how do we find security? Well we cling to something. We identify with it. We try to hold onto it. So with the impermanent world that we’re living in and we try to cling to our sense of ourselves as being separate and special, for example. Those strategies just don’t work. We’re not separate and in a way we’re really not that special—in some ways kind of miraculous, but in other ways we’re surrounded by miraculous things, so we’re just one miracle amongst many and if you’re just one miracle amongst many you’re not really that special.

So in letting go of the unhelpful strategy I’ve tried to hold onto, what you can do is embrace change and find security in not finding security, which is rather paradoxical, I realize, but we find happiness in a sense of well-being in a sense of security by realizing that we can’t hold onto anything.

Tami Simon: So Where’s the security in that?

Bodhipaksa: Well, that’s kind of interesting. I’m not sure I can actually put that into words right now. What comes to mind, I suppose, is that a lot of time in our lives we’re at odds with the world. We’re trying to hold back change. We don’t like getting old, for example. We don’t like the thought that we’re not really that special and we’re in denial about the actually reality of things, so that’s kind of inherently insecure. And I think just realizing the reality of things is the only way that we can actually feel secure. Actually, I think I can probably give a better answer.

The practice ultimately leads much through the body but also through the mind and paying attention to our experience and noticing that that experience, too, is just flowing through us. We have feeling, thought, emotions, etc., that are just passing through, and what we’re doing in the practice is developing a sense of equanimity towards all of our experience, which means we’re just allowing it to be, we’re just allowing it to flow through us. And it’s that sense of equanimity that I think is real security. These things are real hard to articulate. I think even for the Buddha these things were hard to articulate.

But, equanimity is an extremely nonreactive, nongrasping state of mind, which just allows things to be. And I think it’s ultimately that state of equanimity which is real security.

Tami Simon: Now the metaphor you use throughout the manuscript is this idea of living as a river. Can you talk a little bit about this idea of the river.

Bodhipaksa: Well, in the practice you’re observing the flow of each of these elements. And there’s a number of images that come to my mind when I’m doing the practice. I’ll have conjured up this image of each element coming from the outside world, it’s passing through this six-feet length of body and passing back into the outside world again. And I’ll have the sense of observing something like a river. And sometimes I just imagine that I’m sitting by a riverbank, a six-foot length of riverbank that I’m seeing, and that’s me. But every time I say that’s me, the water there has already moved as soon as I’ve articulated that though—that’s me—the water’s already passed through. It’s already gone. You’re left with a sense of trying to grasp the ungraspable. We have the sense that our self is a thing, the body is a thing, but actually it’s a process and you can’t hold onto a process. A process by its very nature is something that’s continually changing.

Trying to grasp into the river and hold back this six-foot length and it’s just flowing through your fingers. That’s one way that the river image comes to me—probably the main way I start thinking about myself as being not a thing, but a process.

Tami Simon: So part of the idea of doing the six-element practice is that we become accustomed in some way and accepting of our “riverness.”

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, our riverness. I like that word. Yes, It’s embracing our riverness, truly accepting our riverness, I suppose, rather than embracing even. Embracing has a sense of grasping or trying to cling to.

Tami Simon: And then, I know you have this interest in science, and even though this six-element practice is an ancient practice that there are now discoveries in contemporary science that are confirming or at least shedding light in some way for you on the value of the practice and how it works and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about this.

Bodhipaksa: Sure, I think the six-element practice was in a way a kind of a scientific practice. That’s the best understanding the Buddha and people of that time had of the world was that it was made of solid, liquid, gas, and energy, all existing within space and somewhere in there, there was consciousness residing. So it was in a way a kind of scientific practice. And when you read things like the description of what the fire element say—the fire element internally, that is within the body—and it describes it as that which digests and causes the heart to beat, etc., so it’s all the physical processes within the body. So I think he was trying to be scientific in the way that the practice is structured. Our understanding of how change happens in the body has changed a lot. The ways that we have of understanding how the body is not ultimately ours, have also changed a lot.

So for example, you start thinking about your DNA and for a lot of us, that’s the essence of who we are. There’s more viral DNA in your genome than there is human DNA. You’re mostly virus, a viral hybrid, which is kind of an odd thought. So you start realizing that a lot of stuff that’s at your core isn’t even human. You start looking at the body, and science can give us a much better idea of how solid matter flows through the body.

There were some interesting experiments done about how long various tissues lasted. And it was based on the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s there were a lot of above-ground nuclear tests, and the plus of radiation that came out from the nuclear tests caused the formation of carbon 14, which is a mildly radioactive, heavier isotope of carbon. Now that quickly got absorbed into living beings, producing a kind of time stamp. And it became possible to look at the turnover of carbon 14 in the human body and get a sense of how long different tissues lasted, so you find, for example that the tissues on your skin only last a few days, and the gut lining similarly. Your bones last for several years. Even your bones, which you think of as being solid and permanent, are in continuous process of change. There are cells in your bones and their only function is to break down your bones. Your bones are continually dissolving from within. Fortunately there are also some cells in your bones and their function is to build up your bone tissue again. So your bones are continually in this process of dissolving away and being rebuilt. So what you think of as being something solid is actually a process that’s continually changing all the time.

So sometimes science can illuminate processes that the Buddha was already probably familiar with in some way. Sometimes it’s a bit of things you never could have imagined, for example, that our cells in our body aren’t actually ours in a number of different senses. If you do a count of all the cells in your body 90 percent of them are bacterial. So 90 percent nonhuman, which is kind of strange to think about; 90 percent of the cells are protozoa. But they’re really very important. They’re living in our skin. They produce the oils that cover our skin. We’ve never really evolved to do that because we’ve never needed to because we’ve got these bacteria. We give them a home and they’re useful for us.

When we eat food the digestion is carried out by bacteria. There are compounds that we can’t actually digest ourselves, so the bacteria dissolve them for us. There are various chemicals the body needs that are produced by bacteria. So we’re not even biochemically complete as human beings. We can’t exist in biochemical isolation from things that are not human.

Tami Simon: Now the 10 percent of me that is human, what is that made of?

Bodhipaksa: That in itself is made of nonhuman stuff, ultimately The 10 percent is your body, your cell count that is human is all your brain cells and gut cells and your skin cells, etc., but ultimately none of that from the perspective of the six-element practice is human because where did your skin come from? Well, it was that sandwich you ate a few weeks ago and the curry you had a few weeks before that. All those meals you’ve been eating is where your skin comes from and that was not you, it was stuff that came from the outside world.

So ultimately none of you is human. But it’s very interesting to see things that are so obviously not human within you and not just within you, but a functioning part of you. Some people have suggested that all the bacteria within us should be regarded as an organ in its own right because it performs complex functions that are intimately tied in with the function of the body. I talked about digestion for example, but our immune responses are conditioned and partly controlled by these bacteria. Things like fat metabolism and sugar metabolism are also moderated by these bacteria. Bacteria-producing chemicals that are affecting the whole biochemistry of the body. Again becoming aware of things shifts us away from that sense that we have of being separate and in some way special.

Tami Simon: You talked about there being six elements and I can understand this process of investigation following along the lines you’ve been sharing with us related to fire, water, air, and space, but when you get to consciousness it seems like the approach might be a little different. What do you mean by consciousness being an element?

Bodhipaksa: Well, that’s kind of interesting, isn’t it? What is consciousness? Nobody actually really knows what consciousness is. There’s no really adequate definition. In fact I don’t think you can really define what consciousness is because it’s its own thing. When scientists try to define consciousness they’re looking at activity within the brain. But activity within the brain is not the same as an experience. The experience of tasting an orange is the taste, color and smell of an orange and those are things that exist within consciousness, but you can’t see those things in the brain. You can see activities in the brain, which correlate to the experience, tasting and smelling and seeing and holding an orange. But there’s a world of different between the bioelectrical activity in the brain and that actual experience. So we can’t really define what consciousness is.

But the way that the practice is described, the consciousness element is a little bit different. What we’re doing is we’re realizing that again there’s a flow, but it’s a flow of perceptions, feelings, emotions, and thoughts and we’re observing that flow of these components of consciousness. And we’re observing them flowing, coming from nowhere. Appearing briefly and passing away again. So we’re observing the transience, the flowing riverlike nature of those aspects of consciousness.

The practice traditionally doesn’t include the same contemplation of inner and outer.
With each of the other elements what you’re doing you’re becoming aware of the element outside yourself of water. You’re becoming aware of the water element within you and how the water element within you is derived from the water element outside and how it’s passing back into the water outside. So you’re becoming aware of this entire process of flow. And there isn’t that outside-inside perspective as it’s described in the practice classically, but I found it’s actually a useful perspective to bring into the practice. To become aware, for example, of all the different aspects of ourselves that are conditioned by other people and our relationships with other people.

So very basic things like language, so if your weren’t exposed to language as a young child you’d never actually get to the stage of communicating linguistically. You’d never be able to learn any language whatsoever. There’s a narrow window or period around a year or fifteen months. If you don’t hear language in that period the language centers in your brain just don’t develop at all. So our ability to be able to think linguistically and communicate verbally that’s all depends upon other people.

All the ideas, culture, the music, thoughts, insights, traditions, religious practices some from outside ourselves. All the things we regard as being part of us and important parts of our identity mostly come from outside. That’s another way of thinking about the flow of the consciousness element and realizing, again, we can’t exist as separate entities and we’re not separate.

Tami Simon: So you’re saying that traditionally the practice of the six elements did not consider this outside-inside?

Bodhipaksa: No, traditionally it didn’t consider the outside-inside thing. That’s something I brought into my own practice and I’m writing about at the moment in the book. I have to say I depart from tradition when I think it’s useful. I tend to be quite pragmatic in my approach to meditation.

Tami Simon: Sounds good to me. That’s very interesting about the consciousness component, as you’re saying, considering it from the outside and the inside. This identification with our consciousness, even though we don’t know what it is, we still think we’re something like that.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, we do. There’s some level on which we tend to assume there’s something fixed and static and separate about us and it’s a natural thought and attitude to have, but it’s very, very limiting. It ends up causing us suffering and it ends up preventing us from experiencing a great degree of happiness than we have at the moment.

Tami Simon: Well, I love this idea of living as a river and I’m wondering how that type of awareness and recognition comes into your daily challenges. I know you have a young child—two young children, right?

Bodhipaksa: Yes, we adopted two young children from Ethiopia.

Tami Simon: Does this river concept help at all in the parenting world?

Bodhipaksa: It does actually help me. My daughter who’s almost three is out of the stage of the terrible twos and she’s not as bad as a lot of children. She has a complete meltdown from time to time, lying on the floor, drumming her hands and feet against the floorboards and screaming at the top of her lungs when you want her to do something that she doesn’t want to do. I find it really interesting to realize that this is just a flow, again, of events that are happening. It’s very easy to think of it as she’s being bad. There’s a she there and she’s doing this thing and she is bad and she’s doing it to me, and I take it personally and I get annoyed by it because I want her to do it and she’s not doing it. And it all gets horribly messy. I find it much easier to have a looser sense of her as an evolving being, almost like a river, but of these current of her being coming into consciousness—sometimes for the first time.

It’s very, very interesting watching a child growing up because you start off very, very simple. Basically pretty damned happy, almost like you’d think of as an enlightened person. Certainly of just being aware of the world in a raw, nonconceptual way and being pretty happy unless they’re hungry or their in pain. And then the craving starts coming in. the clinging starts coming in after about a year. Up to a year my children didn’t complain If you took anything away from them it was okay, the toy was there, the toy was not there, and they just babble away. And once craving starts kicking in so does ill will and anger and all that kind of stuff. I’m happy to say neither of my children has exhibited any kind of hatred yet. That’s still to come.

So these emotions are kind of coming into being, and what is that like for the first time to start experiencing frustration, for example. You’ve got to learn to handle that. And looking at my daughter more and more as being this evolving being who’s dealing with the upwelling of stuff that has never been there before, and it’s not personal even for her. She doesn’t understand what’s going on, and it’s not something that she is doing. It’s almost happening to her. It’s not something that she’s doing to me. It’s not really about her, it’s the evolution of her consciousness. I’m finding that it’s easier and easier these days just to take her temper tantrums and surround them by a field of compassion, because I realize the magnitude of what she’s going through at the moment. And rather than setting myself in opposition to her just kind of embracing her and comforting her as she’s going through this transitional process.

The other day she had one of these meltdowns. She hadn’t napped all day. It was time to take her to bed. She was hyper, didn’t want to go to bed and I very gently kept saying, “Maya, Maya, you’ve got to go to bed. And I had to pick her up. I don’t like forcing her physically to do something unless it’s absolutely necessary. But I had to pick her up to take her up to bed, and she was kicking me and pinching, etc., and it was like none of this is personal, and it was easy to have that perspective. Being pinched by a three-year-old, it hurts. It’s not pleasant, but you don’t have to take it personally.

Tami Simon: So you’re not taking it personally, meaning it’s not about you, but you’re thinking that she’s meaning it in terms of her own personhood?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. It’s not personal about her. It’s not personal about me, either.

Tami Simon: You know it’s interesting. I wonder if it’s ever worth taking any thing personally.

Bodhipaksa: I don’t think it is. I don’t think anything is personal. I think that’s a slogan for life, is that nothing’s personal. And it comes back to what I was talking about earlier, where people all have the basic desire to be happy, but they have strategies that will often make them unhappy and in the process of making them unhappy they’ll also make other people unhappy as well. So it’s the strategy that’s at fault. It’s not the underlying deeper concern that that person has. So in a way, nothing’s personal.

Tami Simon: Well, let’s take an everyday example. Somebody says something critical about you online, or worse there’s some kind of embarrassment that just seems terrible.

Bodhipaksa: Okay, well I can give you an example. Not too long ago this woman was writing about some of the work I do in prisons, and it so happened that according to what she wrote, the person who murdered her eighty-three-year-old grandfather was in the prison that I teach meditation and Buddhism in. She made this enormous attack on me, criticizing everything about me. I wasn’t really a Buddhist and if I was really compassionate I’d be working with the victims, not the people who perpetrated them. The people who were in prison weren’t really human and that whole kind of thing.

when you see where that comes from, if she lost her grandfather, it would be painful thinking dealing with the re sources that she has available, which might not be particularly well-developed resources. So her best resource that she can find is anger, hatred and resentment, and it’s a strategy for trying to deal with the pain that she’s got. So when I responded to her. I responded with that perspective in mind—that she was a suffering being expressing her suffering in a way that wasn’t really going to help her or help others. I was trying not to hammer that too much, but just to point out some of the realities of what I’m doing, for example, people who are in prison are going to get out. If they get out do you want them to become more aware and more compassionate or do you want them to come out more embittered and more hostile? Because those are choices we make in our punitive system.

Tami Simon: So do you think it’s a reasonable recommendation that if someone finds themselves taking something personally that that’s a good moment to pause and inquire?

Bodhipaksa: I think when you find that you’re taking something personally, the first thing that I do is become aware of the pain that I’m experiencing or become aware of the underlying need that’s not being met. So for example I’m driving along, somebody cuts me off. They drive way too close to me. There’s a surge of anger that comes up. Then I’ll think, what’s the root of anger? Well, okay, fear. That person passed way to close to me and I had a fence that’s not a safe distance and that invisible boundary becomes transgressed. I experience fear and suffering. My sense of security has been lost. And if I acknowledge that sense of fear, pain, insecurity, the anger vanishes. So to not take something personally start looking a little bit deeper at what’s going on with yourself and empathize as well as notice what’s going on with the pain and suffering, but you have to become aware of it empathetically. Then everything changes.

Tami Simon: You know, finally, Bodhipaksa, our program is called “Insights at the Edge,” and I’m wondering—this has been a deep inquiry for you, the whole writing of the book on the Six Elements Practice—what is your own edge in all of this, in writing this book and the work that you’re doing now?

Bodhipaksa: Well, the book is my edge, really. It’s the inquiry into the nature of the self. Are you asking what effects this has had on me? It has had quite a strong effect on me. A few weeks ago I lost my sense of having a self, which was a most interesting development, quite unexpected.

I was putting my daughter to bed and I think that’s significant because I’ve been having this perspective for some time now of not regarding her actions as being something personal to her or that I should take personally. And as I was watching her beginning to drift off to sleep, suddenly I realized I didn’t have a self. My sense of my self was just a continuous process of change, becoming aware of my mind and body, I was just aware of continuously evolving process of changing causes and conditions, different thoughts, feelings, sensations coming into being and passing away. I didn’t have any sense of there being anything permanent there or any kind of substrata. And that was awareness has been with me ever since to varying degrees and sometimes it’s like—imagine if you won the lottery, you’d be bouncing up and down every fifteen minutes saying, “Wow I’ve won the lottery!” and then after a while it becomes part of your experience. Day fifteen it’s like, “Yeah, I won the lottery didn’t I?” and then you don’t think about it for a while. So it’s been a bit like that. It was something that I was just watching with amazement for the first week or so, and then after that it’s faded into a kind of background awareness, and whenever I bring my attention to my experience I realize that it’s continually changing; that there’s nothing permanent there. It’s almost like I have a new self every couple of seconds. It’s like watching a kaleidoscope turning. There’s always a picture there, but it’s only there momentarily. It’s instantly replaced by a new picture and that at the moment is my experience of myself of it being a kaleidoscope.

Tami Simon: So, previously, something in you was more solid and firm and now it’s more changing and fluid?

Bodhipaksa: I think it’s not so much that what’s there has changed. It’s my perception of what’s there has changed. I think I’ve always been a kaleidoscope of changing sense impressions and thoughts and feelings, etc., but there’s been an assumption of permanent and there’s something there that’s unchanging. So I think what’s happened is not that what’s there has changed, but my assumptions about it have changes. The way I look at it has changed.

Tami Simon: Wonderful. Thank you, Bodhipaksa. Living as a river, I like it.

Bodhipaksa: You’re very welcome. I enjoyed the chat. Well, maybe that’s a title for the book.

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The wisdom of surrender

Woman in front of a sunset lake, in a gesture of awe

Recently I was asked to answer some questions for a book on the topic of surrender. Here are the questions, and the first draft of my responses:

1. How would you define surrender? Who or what is one surrendering to, in your opinion? God, Universe, Self, Soul, What Is, present moment…?

Surrender is an important part of all spiritual practice. Ultimately it’s what we’re aiming to accomplish in practice.

What we’re surrendering to is the reality of impermanence and non-separateness. In reality, everything changes and nothing (including ourselves) is separate or self-contained. But we have deep-rooted assumptions that we exist separately from the rest of the world, that there is something in us (and others) that is permanent and static, and that happiness can be found outside of ourselves. We believe that happiness is to be found in external conditions, rather than in changing our relation to the external conditions in which we live — which is why two people can be in the same situation, with one of them happy and the other miserable. So our view of ourselves and of where happiness comes from is at odds with how things really are.

We’re left with the task of realigning our views with reality, and to do that we have to surrender those views, surrender the desires that those views give rise to, and surrender the actions to which those desires give birth. And we need to accept the reality of change, non-separateness, and that things “out there” can’t bring us lasting happiness.

2. Is there a practice/methodology to surrender that one can follow that does not cause suffering? Is there a joyful methodology?

Paradoxically, we have to put in a lot of effort in order to be able to surrender! The Buddha’s dying words were, “Strive diligently!”

To be able to let go we first need a mind that has enough focus, calm, and concentration to be able to notice the ways in which we presently don’t accept reality — the ways that we currently hold on.

A lot of the time we’re simply caught up in distracted thinking and feeling and not really paying attention to how we’re thinking and feeling. And a lot of the time we are caught up in the delusion that our unhappiness and happiness depend on things out there in the world. So we need to learn to slow down and pay attention. So, for example, when someone says something that pushes your buttons and an angry response arises, we need to become aware that it’s we who are becoming angry, and that the other person is not “making us” be angry. We need to “own” our anger and stop blaming the other person. We need to learn to notice the arising of an angry response at a very early stage — this comes with repeated practice — so that we can find a more creative way to respond to the words we’ve just heard. In this kind of way we can come to realize that there is no “self” to defend, and that defense is an unnecessary and counter-productive strategy for happiness. Instead we can simply acknowledge that we suffered when we heard the words spoken by the other person and communicate authentically with them, acknowledging both their point of view and what we ourselves think and feel.

I develop those qualities of paying attention and noticing what’s really going on by cultivating mindfulness in meditation — mainly by paying attention to the breath, and to investigating what’s going on when I’m not able to pay attention to the breath. The process of developing mindfulness can be challenging, but it’s also ultimately very satisfying. A concentrated mind is a joyful mind. But it does take a lot of work to develop mindfulness.

There are other practices that help us to develop the qualities necessary for surrender. If we have a basic attitude of distrust towards ourselves, others, or the world in general it’s going to be hard to surrender. We need to develop a sense of trust and confidence in ourselves, and in others, and in the wisdom of letting go. There are various meditation practices that can help here, such as the Development of Lovingkindness practice, which helps us to feel more at ease with ourselves, and to develop a sense of other people as beings who are fundamentally struggling to be happy. And there are various insight meditation practices that help us to observe impermanence and the non-separateness of the self. These practices, like mindfulness meditation, are both challenging and nourishing. There’s no escaping the pain of change, but also change brings its rewards.

Lastly, there are some meditation practices where the emphasis is less on doing and more on being receptive. These are practices of surrendering. There is sadhana, where we visualize a representation of reality in the form of a Buddha image, and where we let the compassion of the Buddha flow into us. And there are practices where we simply trust the mind’s basic goodness, letting the light of reality shine from within. In these kinds of practice we don’t do much but remain in a mindful state as best we can and let go into reality. But in order for these practices to be effective we have to have done a fair amount of work preparing the mind by developing mindfulness and lovingkindness, both in meditation and in daily life.

3. What happens when you surrender?

There can be long periods of wanting to surrender, but not being able to. There can be periods where we need to let go of some view or habit that’s holding us back, and when it feels like we’re just unable to change. But then then suddenly something shifts and the old way of being shatters. Sometimes this is temporary and we experience a shift of consciousness that may last for a few minutes or hours. Other times there’s a more long-term (possibly permanent) change in the way we see ourselves and the way we see the world.

In letting go there’s usually a sense of entering a much more profoundly satisfying way of being. We’ve laid down a burden that sometimes we didn’t even realize we were carrying. We’ve broken fetters that were holding us back in ways we couldn’t have known until we were free of them. And there’s a sense of joy and fascination with the new way of seeing things. Again, this can be short-lived or long-term.

4. What is the Ego or mind? What’s holding on?

The ego is a set of strategies for finding happiness. The ego attempts to find happiness by keeping at bay things that we think are sources of unhappiness and by clinging to things that we think are sources of happiness. But this strategy is mistaken. It doesn’t bring us happiness or keep unhappiness at bay because happiness and unhappiness aren’t inherent in the world around us. They are properties of our mind that are produced by our own actions. And the main sources of our own unhappiness are — ironically! — the very aversion and clinging that we think will bring us happiness.

It’s worth noting that our basic desire for happiness is fine. It’s not a problem and is actually a good and wholesome thing. It’s the strategies we adopt in order to find happiness that can be the problem. The question is, do those strategies work? And the ego strategy of clinging and aversion simply doesn’t work.

Clinging, or holding on, is simply the attempt to stay with those things that we think are sources of happiness. Ultimately this is fruitless because everything changes. If I see a new relationship or a material object as sources of happiness, I’ll suffer when that relationship or material object change — as they inevitably will. It’s not that I can’t enjoy these things: in fact I’ll enjoy them more if I don’t cling to them, because I won’t be surprised and disappointed when they change.

Where happiness comes from is accepting impermanence. The mind that lets go is a mind that is at ease. It’s a mind that’s no longer trying to “fight” reality by trying to grasp the ungraspable.

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John Dewey: “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.”

John Dewey

Dewey’s saying echoes Buddhist notions of impermanence and not-self. Bodhipaksa points out that the Buddhist position is not merely descriptive of how things are. Rather it amounts to a technology of happiness — a set of perspectives and tools that allows us to create more deeply fulfilling lives.

One of the most crippling — and often unacknowledged — beliefs we can have is that the self is something fixed and unchanging. When we have the idea that our personalities are set like words carved in stone the possibility of change is closed off to us.

A mountaineering friend of mine once commented that when coming down a hill you were faced with innumerable choices about whether to go to the left or right of a particular rock. The very first choice you make conditions all the others, but every single choice you make shapes the route of descent. Depending on the choices you make, you can end up where you wanted to be, or miles away from there. You can end up safe, or you can end up in grave danger.

Choices that in themselves may not amount to much cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

I see this principle in action in my own life all the time. I’m always making choices that in themselves may not seem to amount to much, but which cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

Now often when people talk about choices they think about the big things in life, like choosing a job or a life partner. Or often people think about trivial things like which breakfast cereal they’re going to have. But the choices I’m talking about making are generally not huge. Usually they are tiny decisions about things, like how I’m going to respond to a particular thought that has popped into my head. That thought that’s critical of a co-worker, will I spin it into a story about his failings, or will I just let it go? That fearful thought that tells me the article I’m writing isn’t going to be interesting, am I going to believe those doubts or will I let them pass by and throw myself into the act of creation? These aren’t major life-style choices, although they do matter. They affect my moment-by-moment sense of well-being, and they affect whether my life feels like play or like drudgery.

It’s because paying attention to these choices makes a difference to my well-being that they’re important. There are some choices we make — which cereal we’re having for breakfast, whether to wear the gray or the black socks — that really have no significant effect on our lives, although sometimes we put a lot of energy into such decisions, perhaps to divert ourselves from more important issues.

Just as with coming down a mountain, the accumulation of small decisions can lead us to very different places. When my two-year-old has a tantrum, do I lose my temper with her and try to use aggressive control to force her to do what I want, or can I find a more gentle and compassionate response that gives her reassurance and models a more mature form of self-control? What happens in those moments where we are faced with a screaming toddler turn out very differently depending on what mental habits we’ve developed.

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves. I’ve seen people go from being crippled with anxiety to being confident leaders. I’ve seen people go from being prickly and aggressive to being friendly and loving. You might think a lifetime is a long time for change to come about. Surely there’s a faster way? Some new therapy or psychological tool that can bring about change in a weekend? It’s true that sometimes we can change rapidly — I’ve known some people to go from “difficult” to “mellow” in just a few weeks of meditation — but while that can happen the greater danger is that we’ll spend our entire lives looking for a quick fix rather than changing ourselves in a slow and steady way. Looking for quick change we end up making no change.

To be able to make the choices that allow for growth, that allow for the creation of a more meaningful and satisfying life, we need to have mindfulness. Without mindfulness we’re largely unaware that there even are choices to be made. Without mindfulness we simply respond habitually to our lives and there’s no possibility of change. We need to be able to stand back from ourselves, pause, and consider what’s the best way to respond.

We also need a degree of insight. Insight’s nothing magical — it comes from observing ourselves and realizing, for example, that losing our temper generally makes things worse, while being patient generally makes things better. Insight can also come from listening to other people who have made a bit more progress in working with themselves than we ourselves have done. At the very least we need to have a general sense of how we can tell the difference between impulses that are likely to create unhappiness and those are are going to lead to well-being and harmony.

We can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process…

We need patience as well. We all work within limitations. We may have strongly developed habits of unhelpful behaviors that have taken years to build up. We’re not going to be able to change those habits overnight. But we don’t have to. In going down the mountain we don’t leap from the summit down to the base; instead we simply take each rock as it appears in front of us, and decide whether we’re going to go to the left or the right. And we do that over and over again. Sometimes — often even — we’ll make the wrong choice, or fail to make a choice at all. But there will be plenty of other rocks for us to maneuver around. If I lose my temper I then have the opportunity to respond to that situation creatively — for example by letting go of my pride, by apologizing, by making amends, and by resolving to be more aware in the future.

All this amounts to what we could call a “technology of happiness” — a set of tools that allows us to transform our lives, moment by moment, into something creative, joyful, and filled with meaning.

Eventually we can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process, or rather a parallel series of interconnected processes. When we look at ourselves we don’t see a “thing” that needs to be changes, but multiple interwoven streams of matter, sensation, emotion, thought, and habit — each of which is already and always changing. We can realize that the problem is not bringing about change, but lies in shaping the direction of change. This is a liberating realization. Not only do we experience a sense of freedom from the idea of a fixed self, but we realize that there is nothing holding us back from further change — and there never was.

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A leap of faith

child placing its hand in an adult's hand

Learning and growing as an individual is a do-it-yourself project… up to a point. Sooner or later, there comes a time when we need to take a risk and leap into something new and unknown, beyond our control. Sunada shares a recent experience and how it reinforced her understanding of faith.

One of the things that Westerners tend to find appealing about Buddhism is its emphasis on rationality and self-reliance. A lot of the Buddha’s teachings are very much about taking ownership of our lives. Meditation, study, and living by the ethical principles are all about objective, self-directed efforts that help us grow as individuals.

This is all accurate… up to a point.

To me faith means I don’t need to be so much in the driver’s seat of my life. I can let go of control to something I don’t entirely understand.

Here’s the irony. The more I practice in this self-directed way, the more I’m growing in faith. To me faith means I don’t need to be so much in the driver’s seat of my life. I can let go of control to something I don’t entirely understand. And there are forces greater than me that I can tap into to my benefit. So what’s that all about?

I’d like to share with you something that happened yesterday. I participated in a voice workshop in which I sang a solo in front of a small audience. Many of you know that musical performance anxiety is one of my biggest fears. I’m OK performing with a group, but solos are a completely different matter.

It’s something I’ve struggled with my whole life. On the one hand, music has always been my passion. I’ve been told by many people that I have a lovely voice. I’ve also been told I have a gift for communicating with an audience, and really enjoy doing so in other contexts, like speaking and teaching. But I didn’t get much encouragement as a child to pursue music – in fact got DIScouragement from some key people in my life. So that’s how my “I’m not good enough” demons came into being. Even though I know better in my head, those inner voices still taunt me, decades later.

I can put my boat [in the river] and try to paddle against the current, or I can let go and harness its energy so it carries me where I want to go.

For years, I did all the objectively “right” things. I’ve taken music lessons of one kind or another for my whole life. I studied music in college. I honed my technique by practicing diligently. I figured that if I felt more confident technically, I’d feel more self-assured as a performer.

That was true… up to a point.

But yesterday, I took some leaps. When the nerves started tensing my body up, I breathed more deeply, and lower into my belly. I put my trust in my body — and its ability to calm me down. I focused on the story I wanted to tell, and what emotions they brought up. I put my trust in my feelings — and their ability to connect me with my audience. When a difficult passage came up, I dropped more deeply into my present experience. I put my trust in my breath — and its primary role in supporting and gliding my voice through the tough parts. When my fear threatened to shut me down, I looked it in the face and risked being even more open. I put my trust in my authentic self, flaws and all — and how my willingness to be vulnerable makes me more engaging.

I’d known all these things in my head for years — that they were the best ways to get through an attack of nerves. But this time I really did it. I took a leap of faith.

It’s not a blind faith. I’ve put effort into learning about the nature of the river. I now feel I understand [it] well enough to feel confident in putting my trust in [it].

For me, my faith grew out of the deepening of my awareness. The more I learn about the nature of my body, my breath, my feelings, and the world around me, the more I see how they are not really in my control. They all have a certain energy about them, a way of moving and flowing that I can tap into, but not own. I suppose they’re like the flow of a river. I can put my boat into it and try to paddle against the current, or I can let go and harness its energy so it carries me where I want to go.

Faith is like putting my trust in that river. It’s not a blind faith at all. I’ve put effort into learning about the nature of the river – in this case my body, breath, and so on. I now feel I understand them well enough to feel confident in putting my trust in them.

I also know that they are part of forces in the world far greater than this small self that I think I am. To fight against them is futile and self-defeating. It makes so much more sense to give my trust to those larger energies, and let them carry me along. And what I’m seeing is that by doing so, they take me to places I couldn’t have gotten to on my own. That was certainly the case when I sang my solo yesterday.

It makes so much more sense to give my trust to those larger energies, and let them carry me along… by doing so, they take me to places I couldn’t have gotten to on my own.

I’m sure we all have situations in our lives where we’d like to do more and be more. And it’s likely we’ve taken many of the objectively “right” steps to try and get there. This is all well and good. We need to understand ourselves, our situation, and how to make our way through them. It’s a positive and constructive way to go about it.

This is all good… up to a point.

But then we come to the end of the path. We see that we have a choice. We can either stay stuck there doing what we’ve always done, or take a leap of faith into the river. And those are our only options.

So this is my understanding of where the Buddha’s path leads us. First, take responsibility for ourselves — make our own efforts to understand, to grow in awareness, sharpen our skills, and learn how the river flows. But at some point, take everything we’ve learned and put our boat in the river. Sure, it might be a rough trip. But we understand the river and ourselves well enough to ride it out. The more we do that, the more our confidence in that greater flow grows. With that faith, we’ll go much farther, and faster, than we ever could on our own.

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