metaphor

In case of self-doubt, remember who you really are

robert the bruce in battle, from ‘Bruce and de Bohun’ painted by John Duncan (1866 – 1945)

Recently I found myself feeling dejected and depressed, when a simple thought came into my mind that changed everything. It’s something I want to share with others, because I think it might help them too.

The other day I was out for a walk, and I was mulling over Wildmind’s precarious financial situation. Right now we don’t have enough sponsors to break even, and the bank balance has been dropping alarmingly.

I find it dispiriting, doing something I think is valuable and that not being supported. In my darkest moments I wonder if that means that what I do isn’t valued, and that can lead to me thinking I’m not valued.

These are the kinds of gloomy ruminations that were going on in my head as I was walking. I was feeling pretty down.

Finding the Warrior Spirit

Then, out of nowhere, came the thought, “You’re a warrior.”

I don’t normally think of myself that way. But as soon as the word “warrior” entered my mind, I felt a surge of energy and confidence.

“Don’t complain about your problems,” I thought. “Be a warrior and tackle them head on.”

And that made me think of how I come from a long line of people who have fought for survival.

We’re all the descendants of strivers and survivors

When my dad was nine years old, he father died in an accident. He ended up working at a very young age to help support his sister, brother, and my grandmother.

My dad’s mum had been orphaned at the age of 15, and she and her younger brother ended up in an orphanage. But when she was 16 she got a job as a cleaner, and got her brother out of the orphanage, effectively becoming his parent. She worked so hard that when she was 70 she looked like she was in her 90’s.

Her parents both had hard lives and passed away at the ages of 50 and 40, of infectious diseases common among working class people.

Her grandfather was a ship’s cook on a wooden cargo ship that caught fire while en route to India, shipwrecking him in Mozambique.

Most of the family before then were farm laborers or servants. They all had hard lives. But they all hung in there long enough to have surviving children.

My life is positively luxurious and care-free compared to most of theirs. I really have nothing to complain about.

Remember Who You Are

In fact I take inspiration from my ancestors.

We’re all the descendants of survivors: of strivers and warriors. I choose to emulate them by not letting myself be overcome by self-doubt.

I know that what I do is valuable. I know that I matter. I just have to keep reminding myself that financial challenges are a battle to be fought and won. It’s not that I’m aiming to conquer or harm anyone, of course; don’t take the warrior imagery too literally. But the difficult situation I face is one I turn toward, confidently, like one going into battle.

As the Buddha is reputed to have said on the eve of his enlightenment, “It is better to die fighting than to live as one vanquished.”

So if you doubt yourself — if you experience despair or hopelessness, when you feel like giving up — remind yourself of who you are. You’re a survivor, from a lineage of strivers stretching back four billion years. Take inspiration from the past as you face the future. Be a warrior.

If you feel inspired to help support Wildmind’s mission to teach meditation, and want to know the many benefits of doing so, click here to learn more about Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative.

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“Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.” Rainer Maria Rilke

"Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help." Rainer Maria Rilke

“Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help,” Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to a friend and protégé, encouraging him to make peace with his inner demons.

It’s an interesting phrase, “inner demons.” We think of the demonic as being that which is evil, that which aims at our destruction. And yet I don’t believe in the concept of self-sabotage.

Yes, I know, you sometimes act in ways that keep you from doing what you want to do, even when what you want to do is likely to bring your happiness. And I know, you sometimes act in ways that limit you and keep you bound to suffering, even though you want to be free from suffering. But these actions are only self-sabotage from the point of view of the wiser, more aware, more conscious and thoughtful part of you. From the point of view of the more habitual and unconscious parts of you that give rise to these behaviors, these decisions are not acts of self-destruction, but of self-preservation.

One of the biggest delusions we can have about ourselves is that the self is unitary. That we are one thing. That we have one mind. In fact, each of us is a composite of many minds, resulting from the modular, hit-or-miss, cobbled-together evolution of the mind. Engineers call this form of “design” a “kludge.” A kludge is a workaround: a clumsy, inelegant, yet quick and “effective-enough” solution to a problem.

Our brains are kludges. They were not designed from the ground up. Existing, basic, designs were altered. New components were bolted on to an existing structure. Layer was added upon layer. And this happened over and over, creating a rambling, shambling mess, that more or less works, but at the cost of a lot of inner conflict.

Older parts of the brain (or mind) have primitive programming that bases their actions on selfishness: greedily grasping after benefits, hurting others when we need to, running from threats. More recently evolved parts of the brain are more considered: they are able to reflect on the consequences of our decisions, to recall the past and to draw lessons from it, to run simulations of the future and to imagine how decisions we make now might affect our future well-being, to imagine new ways of acting, to consider abandoning unhelpful habits.

And the old brain and the new brain are often in conflict. We might know that we need to change something in our lives (a job, a habit, a relationship) and yet some ancient part of the brain floods the body with chemicals that induce a sense of fear. We might know we need to say something to another person that might be taken critically, and yet we’re paralyzed with anxiety; what if we’re rejected, end up friendless, alone forever? And so we limp along the same old familiar but painful pathways of life, battling with ourselves as we do so. Our self-struggles simply add another layer of pain to our lives. And it can seem that things can never change.

But this isn’t self-sabotage. This is, from the point of view of our ancient impulses, self-preservation. This is us avoiding rejection. This is us not risking making a jump from the frying pan into the fire.

Our demons are not trying to destroy us. They’re trying to keep us safe. It just so happens that make a lousy job of doing so, but isn’t it good to realize that your demons aren’t actually destructive at all? That they simply want to find peace and happiness, and to avoid suffering — just the same as every other part of you?

These demons need our help. They are, to a certain extent, helpless. They are more than half blind. They are incapable of learning on their own. They need to be regulated and their circuits need to be reprogrammed.

And this is where practice comes in. Practice is where you train the mind. The word “training” is very traditional (it’s sikkhā in Pali or śikśā in Sanskrit), and the Buddha often compared training the mind to training a wild animal.

“Excellent are tamed mules, tamed thoroughbreds, tamed horses from Sindh. Excellent, tamed tuskers, great elephants. But even more excellent are those self-tamed. For not by these mounts could you go to the land unreached, as the tamed one goes by taming, well-taming, himself.” – The Buddha

This animal-training analogy is very appropriate, given the primitive, animal-like perspective that some parts of the brain have. So that part of us that’s most aware, that has the longest-term perspective on our lives, the most accurate perception of the connection between actions and consequences, has to help the rest of the brain have a wiser perspective on life.

First, the wiser and more recently evolved parts of us have to stand back from and become aware of the demons within, which of course aren’t really demonic, and are more like badly house-trained animals. This “standing back” is mindfulness, and it gives us more wiggle-room in which to maneuver.

Mindfulness is vital, but it’s not enough. We have to get on the cushion, and to spend some serious time training the brain. We need to strengthen our habits of mindfulness, and to develop our habits of kindness. As long as we relate to ourselves and others in terms of hatred and fear, we’ll keep feeding our wild animals, and they’ll keep directing our lives. The Buddha said that meditating was like tethering a wild animal to a stake. If it’s just a rope, with us on one end and a wild animal on the other, we’re in trouble. We’ll be mauled, or dragged along behind the animal, or caught up in an endless tug-of-war. We need to stand our ground in meditation and to have a fixed point (the object of the meditation) to which we keep returning.

We need to reflect, and to develop wisdom. We need to strengthen our habit of looking at past experience and seeing where it led us. We need to look at what we’re doing now and see where it might take us.

In doing all this, the more recently evolved parts of your brain are getting stronger. In neurological terms we’re learning to regulate our emotions. In poetic terms the wild animals within are becoming less wild, and less fearsome. They’re being tamed and trained.

And it’s strongly advised that we don’t try to do all this alone. The task of the mind training the mind is too hard for most of us to do it unaided. Associating with other self-trainers is enormously helpful. It gives us role-models. It allows us to see others facing their inner wildness. It helps us become more aware of our blind spots. It gives us a source of support and encouragement. And it gives us, ultimately, a chance to be of benefit to others as they turn toward their own terrifying things, and find that they are no more than helpless parts of themselves, helpless parts that need help.

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Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away

Some years ago I noticed an odd thing; a lot of the Buddhists I knew (including myself) didn’t talk much about getting enlightened. We didn’t talk much about what, specifically, we were doing in order to get enlightened. We didn’t talk much about what enlightenment was. And this was not just my impression. I asked other people whether this was what was going on, and they all agreed: enlightenment was not on our radar. And this is very odd, since the only reason that Buddhism exists is to help get us enlightened. The Dharma is nothing but the Way to enlightenment. And it seemed few of us were interested in going all the Way. So what were we interested in?

When think about what we’re doing in our Buddhist practice, we often think in worldly terms. We think about becoming a better person, about being kinder and more content. We think about how the Dharma can help us with specific problems we have. We think about being happier. These are all very good aims, and I’m not going to knock them. But Buddhism’s about much more than becoming more positive. It’s about transforming, on a very deep level, the way we see the world.

So I made it a project to be more concerned with enlightenment and how to get there. I made a point to make this concern more central in my life, to reflect on what enlightenment means, and what I should be doing to get there. And that brings us on to insight meditation, or vipassana. Vipassana is the next step beyond being more positive, which is a samatha activity. Vipassana is the practice of looking closely at your experience in order to recognize that everything constituting that experience is constantly changing. This what we call the “mark” or impermanence, or anicca. When we recognize the impermanence of our experiences, on deeper and deeper levels, this leads to us recognizing that there’s nothing in our experience worth grasping on to; after all, if our experiences are all constantly changing, then none of them can be the basis of lasting happiness. That’s the mark of unsatisfactoriness, or dukkha. And an awareness of impermanence, applied to ourselves, drums in the fact that there is no permanent self here to do any grasping. This is the mark of anatta, or not-self. These are the three marks. This is what vipassana is about. It’s about recognizing these three marks. It’s not just about intellectually understanding them, although some intellectual engagement is necessary, but about seeing their truth in our own experience.

Vipassana is an activity that we can do in any meditation practice. It’s not a special kind of meditation. So we can do it in the mindfulness of breathing practice, the metta bhavana, or just sitting. There are practices in which vipassana is more explicit, however, such as the six element practice, but this isn’t an exception. We could do the six element practice as a samatha (calming) practice, but as a matter of course we include insight reflections: “This is not me, this is not mine, I am not this.”

We can do vipassana reflections outside of meditation as well — when walking, taking the bus, having a conversation, cooking — although activities in which there’s some mental quiet are more conducive to this kind of reflection. And to reiterate an important point, vipassana is not opposed to samatha. What we’re meant to do is to calm and concentrate the mind, and then to take that calm, focused mind, and apply it to investigating the existential issues of the three marks. Samatha and vipasssana are like two wings, and we need both if we want to go the way to enlightenment.

Not knowing how near the Truth is, people seek it far away.

Now, how far away is enlightenment? We generally think of it as being very remote, which is perhaps why we don’t think about it very much. But as Hakuin said:

Not knowing how near the Truth is,
People seek it far away. What a pity!

I think there are a number of reasons why we think Enlightenment is far away, when it’s actually close by — right under our noses, or even closer than that.

Some of the perspectives of the Mahāyāna don’t help. In early days, when the Buddha’s feet were walking India’s dusty soil, people often got enlightened immediately. Many, many people seem to have had a radical shift of consciousness just upon hearing the Buddha speak for the first time. It just took a slight reorientation of the way they saw things, and bam! they were awakened. This didn’t happen to everybody, of course. Obviously some people had to practice for years. But many of them became awakened in this lifetime. Now the later Mahāyāna tradition, starting from about 500 years after the Buddha, were keen to build up the status of the Buddha. Presumably they were playing the game of “our teacher is the best.” So they built up the goal of Buddhism. Buddhists were now seeking enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, not just in our world but throughout the entire universe. And achieving this task would take countless lifetimes. Countless lifetimes, needless to say, is a long time. Elevating the status of the Buddha and of enlightenment in this way may have been very inspiring, but it also made the goal seem very remote. And those ideas still linger and influence us.

It’s interesting to note that although many contemporary schools call themselves Mahāyāna, few if any of them still emphasize these cosmic timescales. The Zen schools focus on awakening right here, right now. The Theravadin schools emphasize awakening in this life. The Pure Land schools are slightly different, because they emphasize awakening after death: we die and, through the grace of Amida Buddha, we are reborn in his Pure Land paradise, Sukhāvati, where we are assured enlightenment. So even there we’re aiming for enlightenment just after this very lifetime — not countless lifetimes from now. The Tibetan schools, or at least most of them, emphasize the possibility of awakening in this life. I think we need to embrace the notion of enlightenment in this lifetime, and not be overly swayed by this Mahāyāna perspective.

Another reason we think of enlightenment as being far away is because of a lack of self-worth. We think we have so many problems. We’re unworthy! We’re often very aware of our flaws. And then what do we not know about ourselves? Freud gave us this idea what there’s all this nastiness under the surface. I remember a scene from the comedy movie The Front Page where a Viennese Freudian psychoanalyst asks a condemned murderer about his childhood. The murderer replies that he had a perfectly normal childhood, to which the shrink replies, “I see. You wanted to kill your father and sleep with your mother.” So this is quite literally what Freud thought a “normal” person was like — a incestuous parricide kept in check by the super-ego. We’ve been affected by these ideas and we fear that there is unknown emotional baggage holding us back from enlightenment.

And I think we fear enlightenment. Being fully enlightened would surely involve a big change. What would it be like? Would I be a different person? Would I still have my life. What about all my likes and dislikes? We like our attachments! We fear that there might in fact be so much change that enlightenment would be a kind of death. So this is scary. We might fear that we’re going to lose ourselves, and our individuality. I remember having this thought once, that if Buddhas are all perfect, then are they all the same? They’re clearly not, but we can fear that our personalities are going to be erased.

The models and language we use — even very traditional language and models — can be unhelpful. The Buddhist tradition has tended to talk in terms of exalted states of consciousness. We think of the jhānas. There are these four jhānas, and most of us have only limited experience of these. And then the commentaries take another set of four meditative states — the formless spheres, or ayātanas, and pile them on top of the jhānas. So there’s now this towering skyscraper that we might thing of as ever-more blissful states of consciousness, disappearing up into the sky. And we might think of enlightenment as being piled on top of all that. And here we are on the ground, or maybe, if we’re lucky, on the first floor from time to time. If even the jhānas are hard to get into, then enlightenment must be quite literally unattainable for us!

But this way of looking at enlightenment is inaccurate. Enlightenment is not a meditative state similar to the jhānas. It’s a way of looking at the world. We need some jhānic experience to prepare ourselves for having a breakthrough into insight, but we don’t need to have experienced all of the jhānas to have insight, and we don’t go through all the jhānas and find enlightenment awaiting us at the top. Enlightenment is more likely to happen at a time of crisis, or during a conversation, than during meditation. Many people, according to the Pāli scriptures, got enlightened when they were depressed and suicidal, or when they heard a teaching and had a “holy crap!” moment.

Another aspect of language that can mislead is when we talk about the “path” from saṃsāra to Nirvāṇa. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this language, but we often take it too literally and slip into thinking that saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are almost literally like separate places, geographically isolated from each other. We think of the path as disappearing somewhere over the horizon, vanishing goodness-knows where. And then we think that this isn’t the place, this is not the life, in which we’re going to get enlightened. We may think that on some level we have to move away from this life in order to get to this “place” called enlightenment.

But saṃsāra and Nirvāṇa are not separate places. They’re not even places — they’re states of mind. The way to nirvāna is by looking closely at your samsāric mind. It’s not by getting away from where you are now, but by totally being where you are and getting to know that place intimately. We need to look at how we structure our experience into self and other. We need to question our assumptions and come to see how we misinterpret our experience. We need to look at things we think are permanent and come to see them as they are. We need to look at things we think are sources of lasting happiness and realize that actually they aren’t, and can’t be, sources of lasting happiness. We need to look at what we take to be a permanent and substantial self and to see that there’s no self like that to be found.

This is the place where we get enlightened. Awakening is just a shift in perspective away. So I suggest adopting the perspective that awakening is not far, but is right here. And when you make that shift in perspective, one of the first things that’s going to strike you is, “Why did it take me so long to see something so obvious?”

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When spiritual practice gets in the way of spiritual progress

Spiritual practices are intended to help us free ourselves from self-clinging, but sometimes they can become subtle, or not-so-subtle ways to cling.

The Buddha said his teaching was a raft: something designed to help you get to the “other side.” Once you arrive at the destination, it’s pointless to hoist it onto your head or carry it on your back. But sometimes even before we get to the other side, we find ourselves overly attached to the raft. It’s as if we push the raft half-way into the water, but don’t quite launch it. And then we get quite proud of the fact that we’ve constructed such a beautiful raft. And maybe we spend a lot of time tweaking the raft, so that it’s going to be nice and comfortable for the journey. Or we have a little snooze on it. Or maybe we look around at other designs of rafts and wonder whether our raft is good enough; maybe we need to spend a bit more time checking out various raft designs before we commit ourselves to crossing over?

“And what should the man do in order to be doing what should be done with the raft? There is the case where the man, having crossed over, would think, ‘How useful this raft has been to me! For it was in dependence on this raft that, making an effort with my hands & feet, I have crossed over to safety on the further shore. Why don’t I, having dragged it on dry land or sinking it in the water, go wherever I like?’ In doing this, he would be doing what should be done with the raft. In the same way, monks, I have taught the Dhamma compared to a raft, for the purpose of crossing over, not for the purpose of holding onto.”

So we end up clinging to the raft, and not using it for its intended purpose. Take a simple practice like bowing. This is, in essence, a simple act of paying respect. “Clinging” to a practices like bowing might involve trying to get more out of it than it can actually offer, because your sense of self depends upon it. So you might get very caught up in “doing the bowing just right” as if the exact performance of the act of bowing inherently makes a difference, irrespective of the spirit with which it’s done. “Doing it right” becomes a matter of getting the physical act correct rather than the inner act of reverence and mindfulness.

We often, in fact, mistake a kind of self-critical judging of actions as being a kind of mindfulness. And this becomes an “other-critical” judging of actions as well, so that we look down on others for not following the rules. This is the opposite of the point of practice, which is to lessen our attachment to a sense of self. Non-attached bowing is simply a non-selfconscious act of showing respect. It’s done mindfully and in a positive frame of mind. And there’s no judging or competition involved.

Sometimes, people have negative clinging, or aversion, to a practice like bowing. It reminds us of self-abasement and monarchical political systems, and the ego feels threatened. But of course bowing in a Buddhist context is just the equivalent of shaking hands respectfully in a western context.

Before we go any further, though, I’m not really talking about bowing. That’s just an example of a practice we can take as being an end in itself. Any practice can be misused in this way. Buddhist ethics, for example, is about taking responsibility for your own actions. But what’s the first thing that happens, often, when the question of ethics and precepts comes up in a discussion class? People start offering up examples of how other people don’t follow the precepts. This totally misses the point, and rather than helping us to let go of our self-clinging, it does the opposite, but allowing us to convince ourselves that we’re fine, and that it’s other people that are the problem.

So here are some examples of how we can sometimes use meditation in ways that reinforces self clinging:

  • we could for example be overly concerned about whether we’re doing the practice right
  • or we could be convinced that we are in fact doing the practice right (and others aren’t)
  • or we could invest a lot of energy in insisting that there’s only one right way to meditate (which, coincidentally, is the way we’ve learned to meditate)
  • or we could be doing the practice in a mechanical and half-hearted way that lacks genuine openness, curiosity, and investigation
  • or we could be attached to particular meditative experiences so that our meditation practice keeps us in place rather than takes us forward
  • or we could think that the amount of time we spend on the cushion is more important than the quality of what we do
  • there might be a lot of emphasis on “doing” in meditation and not enough on “receptivity”
  • there could be an emphasis on being mindful in meditation that we drop as soon as the final bell rings for the meditation
  • there could be excessive pride involved in our practice
  • we might be continually looking for a “new, improved” form of practice, because we think it’s the tool that’s going to make the difference, rather than the degree of skill with which we use it.

Confession: I’ve done all of these things!

Actually, it’s inevitable that we’ll do these sorts of things. It’s in the nature of the unenlightened mind that we cling — that we look for security and safety and try to stick to the known. In fact we’re doing this most of the time, in one way or another. What we can do, though, is to set up conditions so that we’re more likely to go deeper, and to find that spontaneous occurrences of “letting go” happen.

Mainly, I think, it’s the quality of attention that we bring to any practice that makes it genuinely useful. The main qualities that we can cultivate that allow for spontaneous experiences of letting go to occur include:

  1. Humility: Recognizing that we have a long way to go in our practice, and that there are infinite depths to explore compared to the shallows that we know from our current experience.
  2. Curiosity: What’s going on here? How does this work? What happens if I try this, instead of that? Being prepared to step outside of the known is hugely enriching to our practice.
  3. Kindness: Being a friend to yourself helps your experience to unfold. Treat every experience as a welcome guest with an interesting story to tell, and you’ll find that you learn more. Treating experiences as unwelcome guests is a good way to shut your experience down.
  4. Receptivity: Don’t be one-sidedly concerned with doing in your meditation practice. When you are doing something — anything — be aware of what effect it’s having. But sometimes you need to remember just to be.
  5. Wonder: If you think you know what it means to be human, you don’t know what it means to be human. Because no one knows. Life is a mystery. Experience is a mystery. Allow yourself to feel wonder.
  6. Respect: The Buddha emphasized the importance of the wise friend — the person who is further along the path than we are. Yes, we do need to question authority, but we also need to respect the wisdom and compassion that others have developed.
  7. Appreciation: The unappreciative mind is starved of joy and learns little. When we appreciate the simplest things about our lives — the fact that we can breathe, and be conscious, and that the universe supports our existence — then every experience becomes an opportunity to explore. The appreciative mind is open and ready to embrace change.

There’s no way to guarantee that our practice isn’t going to be a hindrance to spiritual progress, and as I’ve said it’s inevitable that it will at times, but these qualities, as well as an awareness of the dangers of using our practice to bolster self-clinging rather than abandon it, can help us to push our rafts into the water, where they belong.

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“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” George Orwell

Metaphors can be traps. We can end up taking them too literally. The point of a metaphor is to help us see things more clearly (“time slips through our hands like sand” helps us connect something intangible and abstract, like time, to a physical experience, like sand trickling through our fingers). But sometimes metaphors mislead, and make it harder to see things clearly. The image of the path is one of those metaphors that can potentially trap and mislead us.

The Buddha himself used the image of his teaching being a path. One of his key teachings is the Eightfold Path (aṭṭhaṅgika magga), and in a famous teaching he explained that he was like an explorer who had beaten a path to an ancient city that had been lost in the jungle, and has come back to lead others along the path to see his discovery for themselves. It’s a venerable image. The problem isn’t the image itself, but how we relate to it.

How long is this path?

The thing that strikes me as a problem with the path metaphor could be expressed in a question: how long do we think the path is?

In the Buddha’s day, people would often get enlightened very quickly. In some cases they just had to hear a phrase, and insight would arise. In some cases it would take longer — perhaps some years of practice. But it was doable. Even people living householder lifestyles would get enlightened without too much difficulty. I’m not aware of examples of householders getting enlightened immediately, but there were, according to the scriptures, thousands of lay followers who attained the first level of enlightenment, and many hundreds who were just short of full awakening. The path was short. In the case of those who got enlightened immediately, it wasn’t so such a path as a single step.

The later Mahāyāna teachings tended to elevate enlightenment in order to glorify the Buddha’s attainment and inspire faith. The bigger his attainment, the greater the spiritual hero we was, right? And the greater a spiritual hero he was, the more inspiring he was? The problem was that they started talking in terms of the path to awakening stretching over an uncountable number of lifetimes. Sure, this was meant to inspire us, but if you believe enlightenment is unattainable in this very lifetime, what’s the chance that it’s actually going to happen? If you think it’s going to take thousands of lifetimes to get enlightened, it’s probably not going to happen to you in this life. Not next year. And certainly not right now, in this very moment.

An alternative to the “path” metaphor

So what’s the alternative to thinking of enlightenment as being at the end of a long, long path? You could think of it as being at the end of a short path: that’s pretty much what the Buddha seemed to have in mind. Or you use a different metaphor, and think of awakening as being right here, right now, but you’re not seeing it because you’re looking at your experience the wrong way. It’s like one of those “Magic Eye” 3D pictures from the 1990s that looks like a mess of squiggles and images fragments, until you let your eyes refocus in just the right way, and suddenly there’s a stereoscopic image right there in front of you. In a way, the image has been there all along, but you weren’t looking in the right way. Maybe at certain points you didn’t believe that you could ever see the image. Maybe you started to doubt there was anything there. But if you persist then — boom! — there it is.

Our spiritual cognitive distortions

There are a couple of Buddhist teachings that I think relate to this metaphor of the image that’s right in front of us, but unseen. One of these is the “Four Vipallāsas.” The word vipallāsa means “inversion, perversion, derangement, corruption, distortion.” It’s similar to what psychologists nowadays call a “cognitive distortion.” These four vipallāsas — or “spiritual cognitive distortions” — are that we see things that are impermanent as being permanent, see things that are sources of pain as being sources of happiness, see things that are lacking in inherent selfhood as having inherent selfhood, and see things that are ugly as being attractive.

Here’s the interesting thing: it’s not as if impermanence, for example, is hidden from us. We just don’t see it. It’s right in front of us, all the time, but our minds don’t seem to be equipped to notice it. In fact, I’ve noticed that Buddhists often like to talk about impermanence more than actually observe it.

So it’s happening right now. Anything you notice is changing. When you notice your body you may think “Oh, there’s my body” but actually all you’re noticing is an ever-changing pattern of sensation. There’s no “body” there that you can perceive. Right now you’re reading these words. What you’re seeing is constantly changing. What’s in your mind is constantly changing. Everything in your mind is constantly changing. Try looking for something in your experience that doesn’t change. Having any luck? You say that the coffee cup in front of you isn’t changing? But you don’t ever experience a “coffee cup.” You have sense impressions of a coffee cup, and those sense impressions are in constant flux. Your eyes are jittering around all the time, because the receptors in your retinas stop responding if they’re exposed to the same stimulus for more than a fraction of a second. If your eye was frozen in place you’d literally be blind. The only reason you can perceive anything is because of change — impermanence.

So change, non-self, etc., are there all the time. We just need to pay attention. Look. Look right now. Everything you’re experiencing is changing. Keep looking. Eventually, as with the Magic Eye pictures, you’ll see what’s been there all along.

Not seeing the wood for the trees

I said there were a couple of teachings relating to not seeing what’s in front of us. The vipallāsas constitute one such teaching. The third fetter of “sīlabbata-parāmāsa,” usually translated as “dependence on rites and rituals,” is another. This is one of the three fetters that we break when we attain stream-entry, the first level of enlightenment.

The first fetter is straightforward — it’s when we no longer believe that we have a permanent, unchanging self. We keep observing that our experience is changing all the time, and eventually it clicks — that’s all there is. There’s just change.

The second fetter is doubt. Until we experience the breaking of the first fetter, there’s always some kind of doubt that it’s even possible. We may doubt that we can do it. (Sure, other people can see these Magic Eye pictures, but I can’t.) Or we may doubt that there’s a picture there. (“It’s a trick,” we say, as we stare hopelessly and the jumbled image.) Once we’ve seen that the separate and permanent self we’ve always taken for granted is an illusion, and once we’ve realized that it’s true that everything in our experience — everything! — is a constant flux, we feel a surge of confidence. We’ve stepped out of illusion, we know that the Buddha’s teaching is right, and we have confidence that further progress is possible. Actually, it’s inevitable.

But that third fetter — “dependence on rites and rituals” — what’s that got to do with anything? First it’s not a very good translation. “Sīla” is ethics, and “vata” (the second part of sīlabbata) is a religious duty, or observance, or spiritual practice. This is referring to the problem of our getting caught up in spiritual practices so that they become a hindrance to enlightenment, rather than a means to realizing enlightenment.

Enlightenment is right here, right now

One of the most striking aspects of the experience of stream entry is a feeling of immediacy. When we have that perceptual shift and realize that what we’ve thought of as our “self” (permanent, unchanging, separate) is nothing more than a constellation of constantly changing events, it also strikes us that this is “obvious.” It’s right in front of our nose. It’s been in front of our nose our whole lives. But we just haven’t noticed.

Even the spiritual practices (sīla and vata) that we’ve been engaged with have sometimes prevented us from seeing the truth. We’ve been talking about impermanence, but not looking at it. We’ve been studying the path rather than walking it. Sometimes perhaps we’ve been walking the path, but haven’t wanted to stray too far, because it’s safe staying with the known.

So I suggest that sometimes, at least, we forget about the metaphor of the path, and instead think of enlightenment as being right here, right now. It’s just a question of recognizing what’s really going on — of allowing ourselves to see the impermanence that permeates every one of our experiences. We just need to look, and keep looking, until we see the obvious that’s sitting right in front of our noses.

“To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle” is from Orwell’s essay “In Front of Your Nose,” which was first published in the Tribune newspaper, London, March 22, 1946.

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“Hand Wash Cold” by Karen Maezen Miller

This is my first time reviewing a book for Wildmind. I agreed to write this on Bodhipaksa’s recommendation that this book might be “up my alley” since one strong interest I have is in how the Dharma works for me in my life right here and right now. This is how Karen Maezen Miller’s book, Hand Wash Cold: Care Instructions for an Ordinary Life, came into my hands.

Another thing I especially delight in is books written by women. Sexism is a meme that’s still alive and well in the world, and I love coming upon anything that tends to dispel that kind of malignant influence. Dharma books by women teachers have been especially dear to me.

Title: Hand Wash Cold
Author: Karen Maezen Miller
Publisher: New World
ISBN:
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle store, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

I haven’t done a book report (fancy name for a review) since junior high school, but I remember some of the key things our teacher wanted us to address. What is this book about? Who is the main character and why do you care about what’s happening to this person? What’s the main message of this book. Should we read this book too? Or don’t bother? Why and why not?

At first, I was charmed but her use of the “hand wash cold” metaphor; but then, I began to get annoyed and also a little confused — was this a clever dharma talk? a women’s magazine confessional à la “Can This Marriage Be Saved”? I found myself saying, “Come on, where are you taking me in this story, and are we there yet?” Which is a curious thing to need — to go somewhere (anywhere!) when the main event in Zen (and really most of Buddhist practice) is to stay right here, fully attentive, in the present moment-by-moment.

At the same time I was reading “Hand Wash Cold”, I was reading “The Great Failure” by Natalie Goldberg. I often have several books going at once, and often I get rewarded by unexpected concurrences and contrasts. Now, Goldberg is a writer by profession, and you could argue that her superior technique turned my head. You might be right, too, but I think I’m seeing something other than technique that is bothering me about Miller’s story. Both used a confessional format as a way of demonstrating things that are true for all of us. But where Goldberg’s story was no less painful or baffling to her as she was living it as Miller’s must have been, Goldberg let the drama of her story be something that carried the forward pulse of the book, if you will, but this was far from the point of her telling the story. Miller’s story was dramatic but in a way that seemed to be trying to capture the experience solely from the standpoint of where she was then, in that more self-centered, egoistic voice. This made it hard to cheer her on or see where she was going with this (except to relate this to her housework metaphor). Goldberg let the maturity of her practice — that is her present experience, the benefit of the wisdom she has accumulated — inform the story of the not-wise-yet past “her” and how she wised up. It is in this way that Miller’s effort shows the limitation of making the metaphor work so hard to organize the ideas and insights that it loses its ability to zing and reframe. Yeah, we do all these ordinary tasks, and they’re great occasions for mindfulness, but in and of themselves, they’re too flimsy to hold the Dharma.

I do a bit of gardening from time to time, and there are times I’ve been pulling weeds and think of how it’s such an apt metaphor for how we purify all our ratty, pernicious, negative habits — and how simply cutting them down leaves the roots intact and able to grow back — gotta dig right down into the dirt, get your hands dirty, and slowly but surely pull, pull, pull and then out they come, and that’s the end of it. I wrote a dharma talk one time using gardening metaphors for dharma practice and the spiritual life. By the time I was done, I was really tired of that metaphor. It ended up barely material enough for a 30 minute talk. For a whole book? No metaphor is sturdy enough to carry an entire book. I think Miller fell in love with this metaphor and then got stuck with it. It’s a danger we all face whether writing something, giving a talk or even in how we converse in everyday life. Just like the time I had made a decision to buy a vintage Volvo wagon and restore it and then saw Volvos everywhere. That was cool, for a while, but then it wasn’t, and that car needed to be sold some time later, and then I bought a Honda Fit and then I saw THEM everywhere. There are, in fact, all sorts of cars everywhere, but what we fall in love with we then see to the exclusion of other things and our world narrows.

So there’s a big long part (or it seemed long) where Miller is young and concerned with her hair and make-up and career and “having it all.” Then her marriage becomes unsatisfactory, and she tells us all about how it was unsatisfactory and she didn’t know what was what or how to make it better, and I kept thinking, “And where’s your practice?” It wasn’t clear to me when she actually began taking her spiritual life seriously — it seemed like one more thing she was doing so well — but there wasn’t a sense of increasing depth or how she saw her practice as integral to making sense of the rest of her life. The story of that would have been much more interesting. And then she’s a teacher at a Zen Center … how’d that happen? And so now everything is okay? Hmmmm… and is all her laundry fresh and sweet and all put away now?

So I think in the best, deepest sense, this book is about how we have to wash the ignorant and unskillful parts of ourselves with our own hands. That the accoutrements of modern life, which can, in our immaturity, include our Buddhist Center, teachers, sangha-members and even the Dharma and practices themselves, aren’t enough if we’re passive consumers of them. We change us, accompanied and influenced by everything and everyone that surrounds us, seen and unseen. And we accompany and influence them as well, whether we see how we do that or not. But better to see, and see more deeply and compassionately, and commit to doing so on purpose.

I wish Miller all success; I’d give this book a miss.

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“Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants,” by Arnie Kozak, PhD

Wild chickens and petty tyrants 108 metaphors for mindfulnessA delightful, readable, and humorous book offers 108 images to help us understand the intangible qualities of mindfulness practice.

This enjoyable little volume offers 108 different images and metaphors to apply to one’s experience of mindfulness. It is written by Arnie Kozak, the founder of Exquisite Mind, a consultation service offering mindfulness to manage stress and enhance one’s quality of life.

Title: Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness
Author: Arnie Kozak, PhD
Publisher: Wisdom Publications
ISBN: 0-86171-576-4
Available from: Wisdom, and Amazon.com.

The book is divided up into five main sections.

Metaphors for mind
This includes such things as: “Doggie Mind and Monkey Mind” and “Different Kinds of Snow”.

Metaphors for self
This includes such things as: “Thoughts like Soap Bubbles” and “The Finger Pointing to the Moon is Not the Moon Itself”.

Metaphors for emotion, change, and “ordinary craziness”
This includes such things as: “Thirty-one Emotional Flavours”,” Perfectomy”, and “the Pause Button”.

Metaphors for acceptance, resistance, and space
This includes such things as: “The Swept Floor Never Stays Clean”, and “Don’t Waltz in the Minefield”.

Metaphors for practice
This includes such things as: “Learning to Play a Musical Instrument”, “Just Do It!” and “Sit … Sit … Sit … Good Puppy!”

Here’s an extract from “Divide and Conquer,” in the “Metaphors for Practice” section:

In Northern New England, where I live it snows–a lot. During one storm it snowed two feet. My driveway is over one hundred feet long. That’s a lot of snow–thinking about it, it must be literally tons of snow. Pondering the sheer weight of all that snow, together, I didn’t think I could possibly do it. But instead of thinking of the whole thing I made an effort to just mindfully move one shovelful. And then another. And one more. Eventually, I cleared a path, one shovel-full at a time…

At the end of the book there are five appendices that give full instructions on the mindfulness of breathing, body scan meditation, walking meditation, relationship practice, and informal practice.

Each section is very brief — no more than two or three pages of the small format volume. This makes the book very readable and the tone is light and humorous.

Although I personally found the book lacking in depth, it is admirable that the writer has attempted to come at mindfulness in this non-conceptual, image-based way. At heart, mindfulness is of course ultimately inexpressible and all writers who are exploring the subject must navigate through this paradox: how to communicate the inexpressible through words?

Arnie has done the subject a service by offering images and metaphors as ways of evoking the qualities of mindfulness without trying to pin down the topic too precisely. The book stands as a worthy companion and balance to other volumes that investigate mindfulness in more depth from a more conceptual point of view.

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True heroism is to practice love

Buddha and his protector, Vajrapani

Life as a battle is a common metaphor — even in Buddhist teachings. Bodhipaksa shows how the Buddha subverted the language of violence so that true heroism was to practice love.

If you look closely at life you’ll probably see that in at least some respects you see it as a battle.

Sometimes we say we “struggle” to keep up with our responsibilities. At times it seems we’re in “competition” with others for approval, status, or power. We talk about “fighting off” a cold. We say that “forewarned is forearmed.” We say that we made a suggestion, only to have it “shot down.” Doctors are constantly searching for new “weapons” to fight disease. Law enforcement workers “fight crime.” Advertisers “target” us with ad “campaigns.” The language of battle is a part of everyday life, as are the emotional attitudes that come with competition.

And we often see success in terms of how many victories we have, how well we’ve protected or expanded our turf, and how successful we’ve been in fighting our way to the top. Power, and its trappings — money, possessions, and the deference of others — are our society’s measure of success.

This verse from the Dhammapada —

If one should conquer thousands in battle,
and if another should conquer only himself,
his indeed is the greatest victory.

— is a reminder that there are other kinds of attainment.

These words are also powerful example of an instructive device that the Buddha often employed, where he takes an externally-performed action that is highly valued and shows that it gains even greater value when turned inwards.

The Buddha lived in a world that to us would seem superstitious and even barbaric. Society was in the grip of a rigid social system where people were judged not on their intelligence, capability, or attainments but on their birth origins. The way to happiness involved fulfilling without question the duties of one’s caste. One of the main religious practices was to slaughter animals in order to propitiate the gods. In order to purify oneself from ethical lapses it was believed that all one had to do was to bathe in rivers — even if the rivers were literally polluted. And war was not only common but brutal, and warriors believed that if killed in the heat of battle they would be lifted directly to heaven.

And in the midst of this madness was the supreme sanity of the Buddha.

According to the Buddha:

  • The true “Brahmin” (religious person) is not someone born into a certain family but someone who acts in an ethical manner. Anyone can become a holy person, irrespective of birth.
  • The true outcast is not someone born into a lowly family but someone who neglects his or her human potential and acts ignobly, by speaking or acting in a selfish or violent manner.
  • The way to happiness does not consist of following externally-imposed duties, but of following an inner path of cultivating wisdom and compassion.
  • True sacrifice doesn’t involve slaughtering animals but practicing generosity and renouncing our addiction to violence.
  • Purification comes not through external rituals but through living ethically and by observing the mind in meditation.

Over and over again the Buddha attempted to subvert the common understandings of his time. This was a subtle and intelligent approach to take. Rather than directly oppose those who saw things in a deluded way, and thus giving rise to resistance, he tapped into their concerns. He suggested, for example, not just that battle was cruel and destructive, but that you could become a greater warrior by seeing that there is a higher form of battle — an inner struggle against destructiveness, selfishness, and delusion.

And sometimes, just as the outer world can seen as combative, so too the inner world can seem like a battleground. There are times when we are involved in a struggle with ourselves, when our thoughts seem to be assailing us and when we are trying to fend them off.

Martial metaphors are in fact common in Buddhist teachings on meditation, with Shantideva encouraging us to pick up our mindfulness as swiftly as we would pick up a sword dropped in battle, the meditator being compared to a fletcher straightening an arrow, and the Buddha’s monks being compared to warriors battling sensual distraction.

But we have to be careful with these martial metaphors, perhaps even more so than with other figures of speech, although there are dangers in all forms of literalism. We do have to do inner work, and sometimes that work will seem to be hard and unrewarding — or to be a “struggle.” We do need qualities that are traditionally associated with the warrior spirit, qualities such as courage, clarity, steadfastness, loyalty to a cause, and the ability to handle discomfort.

But we need to be careful not to bring attitudes of ill will into our meditation practice. In meditation it’s ourselves we are struggling with, and in a battle where we regard ourselves as the enemy we can’t win. Elsewhere in the Dhammapada the Buddha says:

Hatred is never overcome by hatred.
It is overcome by love – this is eternally true.

Ultimately we need to love the thoughts and feelings that assault us in meditation. We do need to overcome our selfishness, our ill-will, and our delusion, but we can’t meet them on their own level. We need to meet them with love and compassion. And when we experience victory over ourselves in this way, we have a happiness greater and more lasting than any external victory can bring.

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