samsara

Step six: Placing positive values at the centre of our lives

Eight Step Recovery

When I reflect deeply on this step, I can see how unreliable my addictions are. In the end they bring great suffering. Once upon a time, my addictive habitual behaviours were at the centre of my life. I was so unhappy. I didn’t realize how unhappy I was until I began to place more reliable refuges at the centre of my life.

In the 12 step tradition people turn their lives over to a God of their understanding, they do this because it is a reliable refuge. Placing a God of your understanding at the centre of your life is far more reliable than our addictions.

In Buddhism we call this Going for Refuge, or taking Refuge in the Three Jewels. We take refuge in the Buddha, not the human being, but the aspiration of what the Buddha attained at the centre of our lives. We place the Dharma, the truth, the teachings at the centre. And we place the Sangha, the enlightened spiritual community that has gone before us.

The Eight Steps

So we turn our lives over to freedom and liberation from Samsara, from the hell of our minds.

We can begin by turning our lives over to the breath. Often we turn our lives over to our thoughts, because we think we are our thoughts. We think our thoughts are facts. Often we lean into our suffering with thought and become so overwhelmed that we end up in the vicious cycle of addiction.

If we leaned into our suffering with breath, disappeared into the breath rather than disappearing into the thoughts, when we are at risk, it may keep us abstinent and sober.

  • So reflect on what is at the centre of your life.
  • What are you turning your life over to?
  • What is your God of understanding? Is it reliable?
  • What are you going to refuge too when things get hard in life?

For a free sample of the book study and 21 meditations of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction,” please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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You are the child of all beings

A well-known Buddhist teaching explains that all (or at least most) beings have, at one time or another in the inconceivable past, been close family members:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration [saṃsāra]. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating and wandering on [literally “saṃsāra-ing”]. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find. [Māta sutta]

A millennium or so later this was elaborated by Buddhaghosa into a reflective practice, so that we contemplate in detail how any person we’re feeling resentful of has, at some point in the past, as our mother, carried us in her womb, given birth to us, suckled us, and taken care of us. And as our father, this being has previously worked tirelessly and took great risks to provide for us, and even went to war to protect us.

The point of this practice is to eliminate ill will. Recognizing the debt we owe to others, we can think, “It is unbecoming for me to harbor hate for him [or her] in my mind.”

Being of a scientific bent, and not putting much stock in reflections that hinge upon a belief in rebirth, I find myself approaching this advice in a different way. Let’s take rebirth as a metaphor: change is happening all the time, and so we’re each moment we die and are reborn.

This is what I think the Buddha had in mind, rather than literal rebirth, when he said in the Dhatu-Vibhanga Sutta:

Furthermore, a sage at peace is not born, does not age, does not die, is unagitated, and is free from longing. He has nothing whereby he would be born. Not being born, will he age? Not aging, will he die? Not dying, will he be agitated? Not being agitated, for what will he long?

If there’s only a constant process of death and rebirth, moment by moment, then there’s no “thing” that can be born, age, or die. Thus there’s nothing to mourn or fear, or to long for.

If we look closely at our own moments of death and rebirth, we see that ultimately each one of them takes place not with us as an isolated unit, but as an inextricable part of a greater whole. Each momentary contact with the world is part of this process of death and rebirth.

Each perception is the birth of a new experience, and thus of a new “us.” Each time we see someone, hear someone, touch someone, or even think of someone, a new experience arises and we change; in a sense, we die and are reborn with every contact we have with another being.

Right now, as you read these words, my thoughts are echoing in your mind, evoking new experiences. Each word gives birth to a new you that didn’t exist a moment before.

And since the constellation of experiences that is me arises in dependence upon many other beings, your reading this article right now connects you to everyone who has ever been in my life, everyone who has been in those people’s lives, and ultimately all beings who are or have existed.

And since, in our immensely complex world, the unfolding, never-ending death-and-rebirth of each being is ultimately connected with the never-ending death-and-rebirth of each other being, all beings are our mothers and fathers.

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Reflections on Samsara

circular star trails

If we believe that we are not responsible for our mental suffering then we are implying we are helpless.

If we believe everything is permanent then we are implying there is no room for change.

If we believe in a fixed self then we are implying we can not transform ourselves.

If we cling on to these thoughts and think they are facts we will continue to be swamped by the ocean of samsara.

If we can begin to see that our mental suffering arises out of our strong habitual behaviours we will begin to transform ourselves.

Ask yourself:

  • What thoughts that arise do I believe in?
  • What would I do if I could just witness my thoughts arising and ceasing?
  • What is permanent in my life?

Our thoughts are an illusion, a game of mis-interpretations, assumptions, and judgements. Our thinking is the dis-ease of resentments, jealousies, dissatisfaction. They keep us trapped in the ocean of Samsara.

Begin to free yourself.

For example when the thought I hate myself arises. Say to it with loving kindness where is the self to hate? Free yourself from the mental bonds of suffering.

Twenty three years ago I walked into a Buddhist Centre with ‘I hate myself’ ranting around my head as if it were some sacred mantra. With the practice of loving kindness it restored me to sanity, helping me to cultivate a calm and sober mind. The undermining voice began to cease, and I would hear I love myself. However I resigned myself to the fact that sometimes the voice of ‘I hate myself’ would arise and, I would just match it with ‘I love myself’. But somewhere I was still believing in this thought.

Then one day the voice arose, ‘I hate myself’. And I spoke to it loud and clear, telling it: ‘There is no self to hate. There is no self to identify with.’ Finally I was beginning to let go of this thought, and the undermining voice becomes quieter, and quieter every day I continue to practice loving kindness and remember there is no self to identify with.

Knowing that there is no self to identify with, gives those of us with addictions hope and the opportunity to transform. It is the freedom and liberation all humans need if we are to grow, change and develop.

When we see this clearly we can begin to heal the addicted mind. The mind that is addicted to thoughts.

  • How can we abstain from our thinking?

When we do we begin to cultivate sobriety of thoughts. Thoughts that just arise and cease calmly, with out a tinge of ill will, craving, doubt, anxiety or inertia.

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Fourth reminder: The defects of samsara

ocean

Samsara
Is an ocean of suffering,
Unendurable,
Unbearably intense.

Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

So what is Samsara? Most of us have heard of Nirvana. And assume Samsara is the exact opposite. Nirvana is more the juxtaposition of Samsara that can give a feeling of balance. Nirvana and Samsara are here, in this present moment. Both of them right here, right now. If we have suffered from an addiction we would have experienced a taste of what Samsara could be.

I’m not sure it is helpful to define either concept. Though of course Samsara is some of what I have alluded to before. Our lack of recognizing that we have had a precious birth, our denial of our own death, the karma of taking a human body, all this is Samsara. It is the cycle of life, and it’s consequence of decay and death.

All beings have suffered for eons, and will continue to do so until Nirvana is attained. Nirvana is more than a state of bliss or peace. It is indefinable. But I would say that we are moving towards it if we can cultivate, equanimity, simplicity, stillness and contentment in our lives.

The Four Reminders

I’m aware of having spoken much about the finality of life, or the part of the cycle of life which is death. But there are many of us who will get sick for a prolonged time before we die. Many of us who will age, and loose much of our mobility and even our faculties before we die. Samsara is right in this moment of not accepting, old age and sickness. It is possible to be happy in sickness, happy in old age, and happy at the point of death.

How can this be? The Buddhist path offers a path of liberation, a path of ethics, meditation and wisdom. This threefold path can lead us to the point of seeing that there is an end of suffering, and if we take this path it will lead us away from suffering. It will point us in the direction of Nirvana.

There is much hope in life, if we take the opportunity and invite the full cycle of life into our hearts and minds. I find myself reflecting on the following questions often.

  • How do we hold death lightly?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may be diagnosed with a terminal illness tomorrow?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to an old age with little mobility?
  • How do I hold lightly that I may live to be a 100, be well, but have no friends or family alive around me?
  • How do I live?

I must live in the now. Moment by moment without the distraction of the past or the future.

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Day 12 of Wildmind’s 100 Day Meditation Challenge

100 day meditation challenge 012Almost everyone is going around making judgments all the time, about others — and about themselves. It’s hard to remember to be compassionate, or to actually be compassionate if we remember. Here’s one perspective that helps me.

Behind every negative emotion, there’s a positive intent or valid need. So when we’re grumpy and unpleasant to people, for example, there’s a need and an intent to defend ourselves (our feelings being fragile and easily provoked at that time). When we crave something it’s because we’re short on happiness, and see the object of our craving as a source of the happiness we need. When we’re worrying about something we’re looking for a solution to something we find threatening. And so on.

Negative emotions are strategies for achieving happiness. The problem with them is that they don’t work! In fact they cause us further problems, which we then try to solve using more negative emotion. This is the vicious cycle that the Buddha called samsara — the endless “Faring on.”

Mindfulness and compassion are more effective strategies for dealing with those same needs. So our feelings are fragile and we mindfully and compassionately pay attention to them so that we don’t bite people’s heads off; we notice our craving, realize we’re in need of happiness, are mindfully aware that the thing we crave isn’t going to work, and seek a more skillful way to bring a sense of well-being into our lives; rather than worrying about change we learn to accept what we can’t change and focus on changing what we can change, etc., etc. The underlying needs, and the intent to meet those needs, are the same. But the way we go about meeting those needs is different. And more effective.

And it’s interesting to realize that all those people who annoy us by not being the way we want them to be (often by acting unskillfully) are themselves blindly trying to find happiness, pursuing failed strategies for the umpteenth time. They’re acting out of suffering, and as a result seek happiness but only end up creating further suffering for themselves and others. Because they don’t know of any alternatives.

When you realize this, it’s easier to be compassionate.

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‘Samsara’ filmmakers seek meditative flow

Pam Grady, SFGate: Twenty years after they made “Baraka,” filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson are back with “Samsara,” with Fricke directing, Magidson producing and both men credited with concept, treatment and editing.

Shot in gorgeous 70mm over five years in 25 countries on five continents, like “Baraka” and 1983’s classic “Koyaanisqatsi,” where Fricke started his career as co-writer, co-editor and director of photography, “Samsara” is dazzling visual poetry that blends the sacred with the profane, the industrial with the natural. Fricke and Magidson recently sat down for a phone chat about their latest cinematic wonder.

Q: How do you find out about some …

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Meditating on our global interconnectedness: A conversation with Samsara filmmakers Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson

Alexandra Marie Daniels, The WIP: When I set aside my dance career, my fascination for movement in time and space had not ended though my interests had shifted from the proscenium stage to film.

At the time, I asked my friend James, a film producer, to please make me a list of must see films.

The next morning I received an email with a list of five movies. The film Baraka was at the top of the list with a note that said “Watch this film on the big screen.”

It has been twenty years since filmmakers Mark Magidson and Ron Fricke created …

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Meditative stream of images in ‘Samsara’ raises questions

“Samsara,” a dazzlingly beautiful documentary directed by Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson, consists of a non-narrative stream of images shot in 25 countries. It is best enjoyed as a kind of meditation, writes Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald in this review. The film is playing at Seattle’s Cinerama.

Ron Fricke and Mark Magidson’s stream-of-images documentary “Samsara” floats by, its pictures piling up like turned pages in a magazine. Shot in 70mm and playing on Cinerama’s massive screen, it’s often dazzlingly beautiful — a shot of clouds erupting like cotton over a volcano; a massive church whose windows are a candy-colored kaleidoscope of stained …

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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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