Finding Wisdom from within

In this short video Srimati describes how she helps people to open up to their inner wisdom through dropping more deeply into their experience. Over and over again, she finds that people are able to bypass the superficiality of the mind and come up with deeper and more authentic guidance from within.

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Fear is my ally

Eagle in flight

Fearlessness isn’t the absence of fear, but the ability stay with one’s fear and use its energy wisely. Sunada explains how working with (as opposed to fighting against) our fears can point us toward our own place of freedom.

We tend to think of fear as a bad thing. Something that gets in our way. After all, one of the enlightened qualities of a Buddha is fearlessness. Doesn’t that mean we should work toward eliminating fear from our experience?

Not so fast!

Let’s think about what fear is. On one level, it’s the instinct that propels us to run when we’re in danger. Think caveman running away from tigers and bears. Heart-pounding adrenaline.

if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world.

Now let’s dial down the intensity to normal everyday levels and remove that dreaded bite. It might help to imagine that same caveman walking through the woods without being chased, but still needing to be vigilant. What are the basic qualities at play here? I imagine he’d be mentally alert, with all his senses open and fully receptive. He’s physically alert as well -– nimble and ready to respond immediately and appropriately to any new sights and sounds. His mind would be clear and engaged. He’s in the present, and ready to deploy any of the skills and knowledge in his mental quiver. It’s his instinct and intuition that’s engaged. He’s in a state of readiness –- not to the point of hyper-anxiety –- but a clear, focused alertness that can respond intelligently to whatever comes his way.

Those qualities, I would argue, are the gifts that fear gives us. If that caveman had nothing to fear, he’d feel no motivation to be so keenly engaged. He’d just blunder through the woods, self-absorbed and doing whatever. So if we tone down the intensity of fearful energy and strip away our idea that it’s “bad”, we find underneath it an intrinsic motivator for actively and intelligently engaging with our world. It also has the potential to draw out our inner resources that we may not even be aware of. It’s a force that can move us forward.

…what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself.

In our present society, fear isn’t so much about physical danger. Most of us don’t encounter bodily threats regularly like that caveman did. For us, fears are mostly of the psychological kind –- like risking a leap into a new job or relationship, or a fear of loneliness or a lack of money. But fundamentally, all fear is the same.

I think we’ve so oversold ourselves on our collective belief that fear is “bad” that it’s become a hindrance. Sure, we all encounter fear from time to time, and yes, it’s very unpleasant. But I sense that what we’re really afraid of are our uncomfortable feelings about the fear, not the object of the fear itself. We hate that gnawing in our gut so much that we try to run away from it –- an instinctive reaction from our caveman days. But we can’t run away from ourselves. Not only is it futile, it’s also self-defeating.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us.

If we have a particular fear that comes up repeatedly for us, I think it means we’re up against a self-created wall that we know is limiting us. We’re at a boundary and know there’s freedom on the other side. That emotional charge wouldn’t be there if that thing on the other side weren’t so important to us. But it doesn’t feel safe to go there. And the more we try to fight our fear, the more it engulfs us. It fills our minds and dictates our thoughts. We’re left immobilized, and boxed in the same old limited place. There’s an adage that goes something like “what we put our attention to is what grows.” So this is another illustration of that principle.

Rather than fighting our fear, what if we used it intelligently, like that caveman walking through the woods? When we feel fear, we’re not in any real danger in that moment, are we? So stop, take a breath, and be with the fear. When we feel that emotional charge, recognize it for what it really is –- our wish for freedom. It’s something to be welcomed, nurtured, and cherished. Let’s use it wisely.

When I listen to [my fear], it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go.

So when the fear temperature rises, stay with it. But don’t fight it or indulge it. Recognize any doomsday thoughts that come up for what they are — just thoughts. In that moment, with your heightened awareness, look for what’s really calling for your attention. What’s one step we can take to move forward? As we sit, mindfully listening to our fear, we gradually loosen its hold on us. And slowly, we build our confidence to really step through to the other side, in an intelligent and grounded way.

I’ve grown to see fear as my ally. When I listen to it, it points me in no uncertain terms toward where I need to go. It’s not just any helpful direction, but the exact place where I’m most in need of breaking through. The flip side of the same coin of fear is courage, or the fearlessness of the Buddha. Ironically the more I embrace my fear, the more strongly I connect with those little wisps of courage I can find within me.

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Which voice in your head do you trust?

It’s all very well tuning into your inner wisdom, but how do you know it’s reliable? How do you know you are following true guidance and making the right decisions? In this short video, Srimati (Maggie Kay) talks about how to know which of the competing voices in our head to trust. She suggests listening to the inner guidance that leads towards expansiveness and freedom.

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Opening to insight

Flowers at various stages of opening

Fundamentally, we don’t know anything about anything. How then can we even begin to cultivate insight into how things really are? Author, practitioner, and Dharma teacher Kamalashila suggests how we can learn to open up to reality.

It is late summer and 10:22 in the morning.

I am in my room in Birmingham. Just a few yards away, framed in the open window, are the upper branches of a luxuriant copper beech, its leaves displaying to the eye subtle, dark greens (olive, patinated bronze) as they reflect the morning sunshine.

The fine outer branches shift almost imperceptibly, shedding complex darker shadows within.

The tree is full of beech nuts, and the leaves on a few small branches have already turned a dead, uniform orange-brown. In such a calm moment as this, I can enjoy describing to myself the rich detail of a beautiful object.

But do I see it as it really is? There is a framework of assumptions that we impose on the reality we perceive. “It” “is” “10:22” “in” “the morning.” “I” “am” “in” “my” “room” “in” “Birmingham.” Just a few yards “away,” framed “in” the open window, “are” the upper branches of a luxuriant “copper beech.” These accentuated words point to ideas that we use continually, ideas with which we make sense of life. We built them up painstakingly, over the long years of childhood.

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Yet on each of the countless occasions that we have uttered these names and prepositions, we have to skip over fundamental problems that arise in communicating our experience.

We don’t really know anything at all

We forget that we are raising matters concerning being, time, space, and form — matters which we profoundly do not understand. We do not even know what the word “is” implies. We don’t really know anything at all.

In our daily dealings with others we disregard this great ignorance we hold in common, devastatingly basic though it is. Otherwise, everything anyone said would entail long, irresolvable discussions on metaphysics. Everyone tacitly agrees to put these matters aside, since we cannot readily understand them. Yet they really are mysteries. We do not understand what a copper beech, or any particular object, truly is. Of course in the ordinary way we do know that a copper beech is a “tree.” It is a large woody perennial “plant,” with a distinct trunk, giving rise to branches or leaves at some distance from the ground.

Yet do we really know what a plant is? Yes, a plant is any living “organism” that typically synthesizes its food from inorganic substances, possesses cellulose cell walls, responds slowly and often permanently to a stimulus, lacks specialized sense organs and a nervous system, and has no powers of locomotion.

But then what is an organism? The dictionary explains that unless it happens to be an “animal,” an organism can be any living “plant.” But we have only just seen that a “plant” is a living “organism.” So all we can discover is that a tree is a plant, which is an organism, which is a plant, which is an organism.

We must wonder, sometimes, if there is any way to see reality as it is. Religions may tell us that we cannot expect to, that such an idea is hubristic, even blasphemous. And the accepted materialist theories about life all miss this point. So the mystery eventually becomes too much; it appears that we can only speculate – which seems idle, a waste of time. Most of us end up taking the position that we (whatever we are) just need to get on with living (whatever that might be).

The way we see our existence is thickly colored by the emotions and assumptions we hold, and leaves little room for compassion. Our world is perceived in a flickering half-light of wants and dislikes, and accounted for by an unquestioning common sense. We are so used to this perspective that it is difficult for us even to realize there is any problem. We repress the uncomfortable awareness that we understand nothing about life.

 …when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all

What can set the seal on this repression is that pain and fear often accompany our glimpses of reality. Despite the childhood years spent learning about life and developing an urbane adult shell, we have still not fully adjusted to it. For when death and other exposures to reality force open our eyes, we can bear to look at them only briefly, if at all.

We really cannot bear much reality. It shakes the jelly at our core when friends or lovers separate from us, or when they die. Such experiences can be like lightning striking at night. Seeing for an instant just how much what we relied upon was founded on wishful thinking, we are reduced to a bare and naked state, in a vast, unfathomable universe.

Yet life must go on. Numbly, we piece it back together. It is the old, old story: human existence is fragile, uncertain and inexplicable. Samsara, the endless cycle, is profoundly unsatisfactory. So it is a definite relief when, soon enough, the terrible questions are washed over by familiar concerns: work, chat, shopping, washing-up, bedtime drink. We welcome the crack in reality closing again. Yet, as we return to normal we know something has been lost. Along with the relief of returning to daily life, we feel once more imprisoned by a wall of unknowing.

Can there be a middle way between the unbearable intensity of reality and the unbearable dullness of ignorance? If there is, it must somehow be through relying on something real, and not on wishful thinking The path that transcends these painful extremes is the Dharma. Buddhist practices, because they arise out of an insight into reality, are effective in helping us to come to terms with it.

The cultivation of insight requires two qualities known as samatha and vipassana. Through a long-term development of samatha (which broadly means calm), the mind becomes strong, happy and confident.

Along with that strength comes greater receptivity, so we’re more able to see things as they are, without being seared by the experience. The ability to look is samatha; the actual seeing is vipassana. It is not that reality as a whole is intrinsically painful, but that we are not sufficiently large or awake to sustain the totality. In our weakened state, the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain; yet we know it is an opportunity, as an experience of a universal truth.

…the light streaming in through the crack is too intensely brilliant to sustain

We can take up this opportunity if we begin to cultivate that calm, receptive strength. Through so doing, we shall eventually become strong enough to sustain the sight of the total reality. Some degree of such a vision is to be expected in more experienced meditators, whose senses are somewhat calmed, and who look closely at their experience.

Vipassana can be induced by meditation, and that is generally the way it is cultivated. But insight into reality can arise anywhere, at any time, when circumstances make us question our assumptions about reality.

This may be sparked by some critical occurrence like a death, or a relationship ending. But it may arise at a quiet moment when our thoughts come together at a single point — we see that all things really are impermanent and we experience, as in a vision, what this central reality implies for our human potential. These experiences seldom arise, however, unless the mind has been prepared over a long time by meditation.

Having created a foundation of samatha, we generate vipassana by reflecting on the Dharma with the mental lucidity conferred by that tranquil state. Achieving this tranquil state requires considerable preparation in the rest of our life. We can prepare in a general way by cultivating mindfulness, and following a more ethical way of life. This brings integrity, consistency of character, and a buoying happiness.

We take the integration deeper by regularly practicing samatha meditations, such as the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana.

At the same time as establishing this foundation in samatha, we also cultivate a second foundation of Wisdom, in its preliminary stages. That is, we learn about the Dharma, and reflect repeatedly on what we have learned. We mull over what we hear and read, make sure we understand what is being said, apply that to our own experience, ask clarifying questions, and in this way cultivate a thorough understanding of what the Buddha taught.

These two preliminary stages of “learning” and “reflecting” prepare the ground for Wisdom itself. Learning and reflecting on the Dharma are strands of spiritual life that one never stops cultivating. To examine afresh our understanding, even of the most elementary aspects of the path to Enlightenment, always bears fruit. Our appreciation of the Dharma is enriched as it gradually loses its tendency to literalism.

To examine afresh our understanding always bears fruit

Along with meditation, reflection is the most important Buddhist practice. Given some understanding of the Dharma and regular meditation, it is quite easy and natural to reflect. It is a more or less spontaneous activity, provided we are not too distracted. But it is more difficult to create a mental environment in which reflection can happen.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities. This habit not only allows us no time simply to sit and sift our thoughts as they disentangle themselves and spread out in the mind, it also stunts our ability to reflect. Understanding needs an inner space in which to unfold.

If we can see the importance of developing the inner life of our thought, then that will naturally become our main priority. All other Buddhist practices will then aid this project of deepening reflection. Mindfulness (of body, feelings, mental states, and mental objects) will particularly help as a focus, as we notice our response to every experience, and remind ourselves in each response of our overall aim.

Developing the inner life of thought is an essential preparation for meditation, because through it we move towards a synthesis that allows us to have faith in the possibility of Insight. This is not an intellectual synthesis, even though we could probably formulate some aspects of it verbally. It is a kind of knowing, yet its character is also emotional and volitional, so that with it comes sufficient confidence for us to open to whatever the truth might be.

Freedom from emotional conflict is essential if we are to do this, because the method of cultivating vipassana is to open the mind to some crucial point of Dharma, such as the truth of impermanence. It is a considerable step, and we must want to take it.

Nearly all of us are deeply addicted to filling our time with activities

To be effective, this opening up must be carried out when our minds are calmed and purified by dhyana, the conflict-free concentration brought about by samatha meditation. Thus in our samatha practice we need to have moved, at least to some extent, beyond conflicting emotions.

We have to entrust ourselves to the samatha practice in order to concentrate the mind, and move beyond the distractions of craving, anger, dullness and excitement — tendencies always present in ordinary consciousness. It is only in a mind unified and elevated by dhyanic meditation that vipassana contemplation can be nurtured and matured, through openness, into Wisdom (prajña).

It is obvious that the mind is now in a quite different condition than at the preparatory levels of learning and reflection, when we are thinking out our understanding with the ordinary, relatively distracted mind. With vipassana in the context of meditative absorption, the mode of contemplation is uniquely light, flexible and spacious. It combines potential for lucid thought with great receptivity.

In this way we rest our mind on some aspect of the Dharma, perhaps the “emptiness” that is said to characterize all phenomena. A tree, a plant, an organism, a being, a Buddha: does any “thing” have a nature of its own, and if so what is that nature? There can be no fully satisfactory verbal answer. Yet our willingness to relax and open ourselves to the truth, cultivated over years of practice, may tip the balance so that truth is glimpsed and begins to light us up from within.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon

The Buddha saw things as they actually are. His teaching is a way to cultivate the same insight into reality, and that insight is the aim of all Buddhist practices, from Right Livelihood and skillful communication, through mindfulness, to the various kinds of meditation. We easily lose sight of this aim. Left alone with Buddhist practice, we tend to grind to an agreeable halt at the foundations, at the happiness that comes from skillful actions and states of mind.

It is encouraging to know that Buddhism makes us happy, yet this form of happiness cannot be relied upon. Our skillful mental states are not permanently established; there is a danger that when circumstances change, our confidence and habitual goodness may deflate like a punctured bubble. Only Wisdom, once developed, provides a reliable response to the ravages of impermanence.

Morality and happiness, important as they are, are insufficient in themselves; happiness can even be so intoxicating that it obscures spiritual vision. So if we never develop insight, we will sooner or later lose the conditions for our happiness. In the end, in a large and unfathomable universe, it is our openness to wisdom that really matters.

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Aldous Huxley: “We can only love what we know, and we can never know completely what we do not love. Love is a mode of knowledge…”

Halfway between “the season of goodwill” and Valentine’s Day, Bodhipaksa looks at Huxley’s understanding of what love really is. Is love a feeling, or is it a way of knowing?

What do we mean when we say the word “love”? What does it really mean to love someone? In what way is love “a mode of knowledge.” When we’re talking about the fact that we love ice cream we obviously mean something very different from the love we talk about having for a person. One’s just a simple desire for sense-fulfillment while the other is much more complex. But even when we talk about loving another person there are many different forms of love. At one extreme there’s a kind of “love” where we don’t really see the other person at all: a love that’s based on projection and on wishful thinking, a love where we idolize the other.

Lovingkindness is not conditional in any way. It’s based on an empathetic resonance with the other person.

In a similar vein, there’s also a form of love that’s highly conditional. We love the other person as long as they’re enjoyable to be with, or as long as their desires are in accord with ours, as long as we get what we want, perhaps as long as the other person doesn’t change. When conditions change — for example when we stop getting what we want, or when the other person ages, our “love” collapses.

The love that Huxley talks about here is something very close to what Buddhism calls metta or lovingkindness. It’s not conditional in any way. It’s based on an empathetic resonance with the other person — or to put it more simply, we are aware of the other person as a feeling being, we are aware that just like us the other person wants to be happy and wants to escape suffering. This is just about the most basic thing that we have in common with others. Although this is a very basic form of knowing, it’s not an easy thing to remember that others have the same basic aspirations as we do. But when we do experience metta we can hold love in our hearts for others whether or not we like them or even know them. It’s a completely unconditional love.

Whenever we want something from another person, there’s a danger that we’ll lose sight of that basic commonality, that sense that we’re all in it together, sharing a mode of being in which suffering and its end are our deepest drives and our deepest connection. We can lose touch with this understanding very easily. Just think about when you’re in a hurry and other people do things that delay you — they stop you to have “a quick word” or they drive in front of you more slowly than you would like. We can very easily see another person as an obstacle rather than as a fully-fledged fellow human being. Whenever we crave something from another person we’ll tend to lose sight of their humanity and see them primarily in terms of what we want from them, even if that’s just to get out of our way.

When we know the longing for happiness that lies in the heart of all beings we can start to really love them.

As Huxley says, we can only love what we know. When we know the longing for happiness that lies in the heart of all beings we can start to really love them. Without that awareness, we can’t love other being in any full sense. So metta (lovingkindness) involves a certain kind of knowing, or insight, into the nature of sentient beings. Lovingkindness requires a degree of insight.

Talking about love in this way though is very general, though. All beings want to be happy. All beings want to be free from suffering. But we don’t just love people en masse. We can love humanity, but we’re not ourselves fully human unless we love particular human beings. This is perhaps why the development of lovingkindness meditation doesn’t just include the last stage, which is where we send thoughts of lovingkindness out towards all beings. There are a number (either four or five, depending on the exact form of the practice) of stages where we cultivate lovingkindness towards people we know personally. In cultivating metta in this way we are developing relationships based on love and appreciation, especially when we’re cultivating metta for someone we already regard as a friend.

Love involves curiosity and appreciation.

A word for this particular form of love is friendship (as opposed to the general “friendliness” of the final stage of the practice), but even that doesn’t do the word justice. The powerful bond that can form between two people, whether or not they’re romantically connected to each other, can’t really be called anything but “love,” no matter how ambiguous and overloaded that term is. Love that seeks to “know completely” is what I think of as real love, with the other meanings of this multivalent word being mere shadows and distortions.

What Huxley’s quote reminds me is that this kind of love involves curiosity and appreciation of another person. We want to know the other person on ever deeper levels. Even clashing with a person we really love leads to us wanting to understand them (and our relationship with them, and hence ourselves) even more. This kind of love involves a deep desire to know and understand another person intimately, because that kind of knowing is the most satisfying thing we can do in life.

Wisdom and compassion are not in fact two different but conjoined qualities. They are one thing.

This I think takes us somewhat beyond simple lovingkindness (although there’s nothing very simple about it) and into the realm of insight. There are many words used to describe insight, but one of the more interesting is “vidyā,” which Sangharakshita parses (PDF) as “aesthetic, appreciative understanding.” One Sanskrit dictionary includes in its definition of vidyā, “knowledge of soul.” Vidyā, as a form of wisdom, is a “mode of knowledge,” and it seems to unite in some way the traditional understanding of wisdom (as a kind of cognitive understanding) and compassion.

Wisdom and compassion together are the two “wings” of enlightenment, and are considered to be inseparable. Vidyā makes it clear that wisdom and compassion are not in fact two different but conjoined qualities. They are one thing, which the unawakened mind persists in seeing in a dualistic way. The term vidyā rather beautifully helps us to overcome that dualistic tendency.

So this I think is what love is in its fullest sense: it’s vidyā, a desire to know ourselves and others completely, an appreciative desire to understand reality to its very depths. Love is a mode of knowledge, or even a mode of exploration. The more we love, the more we want to understand, and the more we understand, the more we love.

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True wealth…

Gold lily

Although the Buddha encouraged his householder disciples to create wealth, he also repeatedly pointed out the relative worth of outer and inner riches. This short teaching outlines seven sources of inner abundance.

Then Ugga, the king’s chief minister, approached the Blessed One and, on arrival, having bowed down, sat to one side. As he was sitting there, he said to the Blessed One: “It’s amazing, lord, & awesome, how prosperous Migara Rohaneyya is, how great his treasures, how great his resources!”

[Then the Buddha said:] “But what is his property, Ugga? What are his great treasures and great resources?”

“One hundred thousand pieces of gold, lord, to say nothing of his silver.”

“That is treasure, Ugga. I don’t say that it’s not. And that treasure is open to fire, floods, kings, thieves, and hateful heirs. But these seven treasures are not open to fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs. Which seven? The treasure of conviction, the treasure of virtue, the treasure of conscience, the treasure of concern, the treasure of listening, the treasure of generosity, the treasure of discernment. These, Ugga, are the seven treasures that are not open to fire, flood, kings, thieves, or hateful heirs.

The treasure of faith (saddha),
the treasure of virtue (sila),
the treasure of conscience and concern (hirī & ottappa).
The treasure of listening (suta), generosity (cāga),
and wisdom (paññā) as the seventh treasure.
Whoever, man or woman, has these treasures,
has great treasure in the world
that no human or divine being can excel.
So faith and ethical conduct, confidence (pasāda) and insight into the Dhamma
should be cultivated by the wise,
remembering the Buddhas’ instruction.

The Ugga Sutta, from the Anguttara Nikaya of the Pali canon.

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