Friday, January 31, 2020

HOW we Relate

     Suffering arises primarily from having a distorted view of ourselves & the world, and thereby relating sub-optimally to ourselves & the world - as if lost in a dream, drifting on autopilot. 

     "... in my direct experience, I suffer when I perceive myself as separate from life." Caverly Morgan

     We can end suffering by waking up, perceiving reality as it really is, and relating more appropriately towards ourselves & the world.

     "We are liberated from suffering by correctly perceiving reality."

                                                                                                                              Yongey Mingyur

     From personal experience, we know that when we feel threatened, we become "contracted": physically our muscles tighten; mentally "the world shrinks" we're only concerned about our self or at most, our immediate family; emotionally we feel isolated, alone against a suddenly hostile world. We feel rigid, hardened, "up-tight," "a stranger in a strange land" physically, mentally & emotionally. In this contracted, grimly self-centered, "siege mentality", our actions naturally reflect our immediate outlook on life: "nasty, brutish, & short."
     There are many valid reasons why we become contracted - at times. Life presents all of us with some heavy, unavoidable challenges. However, the vast majority of our suffering is completely "discretionary" - completely unnecessary, IF we were interested enough to learn to live more wisely! But we become so thoroughly accustomed to being at least somewhat contracted, that all we may notice is that "life is stressful, but I'm coping as well as most" - "it's just normal stress" - (Freud's) "ordinary unhappiness" - just the normal momentum of my life.

     Again from personal experience, we also know that when we feel happy, satisfied, at peace, we become "expansive": physically our muscles relax; mentally "our world expands" our circle of interest & concern spreads far & wide across our one "global village," we entertain big creative nurturing thoughts & intentions to help solve common global problems; emotionally we feel part of & responsible for the entire human family, all living creatures, all of nature. We feel open-hearted, open-minded, at peace, relaxed, thoroughly at home, physically, mentally & emotionally. In this expansive, generous, nurturing mind-set, our actions naturally reflect our true nature: a wise nurturing grandparent who holds themself & all others in safety & unconditional love.

     Research also shows that we feel truly happy only when we're fully present; that it’s the quality of our presence, not the external environment, that brings happiness.
      Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT. “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind.” Science 2010; 330(6006): 932. 

     Enlightenment has been defined as "intimacy with all things."

     Though we all have experienced episodes of expansiveness, for most of us it's a relatively rare, short-lived accident. We have little or no encouragement, guidance or support to learn to inhabit our true expansive nature.
      Even for those who learn mindfulness meditation, which is specifically designed to recognize & release contraction, and thereby allow us to naturally embody expansiveness, the momentum of contracted conditioning is so strong that they quickly forget about mindfulness, and resume sleepwalking through life in a contracted state.

     “… the main goal in meditation is not to get to certain good
      states, but rather to eliminate what gets in the way of those
      good states.” Shinzen Young

     “Your task is not to seek for love, 

      but merely to seek and find all of the barriers 
      within yourself that you have built against it.” Helen Schueman

is not for everyone. It takes clarity of mind, courage & perseverance to very gradually, intentionally, progressively let go of habitual patterns, that have us stuck in unhappiness. A very small proportion of us do choose to intentionally mature wisely by way of an ongoing regular mindfulness practice.

Expansive Nature

Friday, January 10, 2020

Power Phenomena in Meditation & Shamanism

     A pointer towards deepening meditation practice & liberation:

     “In Zen, if you buy into the content of 'makyo' experiences (power phenomena), it’s going to shunt you away from the direct path to liberation. 
     However, my take on it is informed by that, but also it’s a little broader. These power phenomena are basically the wish list for new age spirituality: encountering entities, gods, ghosts, ancestors, angels, remembering former lives. And they map onto a lot of shamanic experience culturally around the world. But the good news is that if those phenomena are happening, then that’s an indication that you’ve dropped into a deep level of consciousness, so that’s a good thing. It’s actually a kind of feedback to tell you that you’re going deep. 
     So in Native cultures, this would be called the Spirit World, and of course it’s very real to those cultures – so there are the Spirits let’s say. And then there’s what we might refer to as the Great Spirit or the Source, which in Buddhism would be called the Dharmakaya. And I would take that as that primordial perfection, that formless doing that molds ordinary and extraordinary experience, moment by moment. 
     So if you’re encountering spirits, it means that you’re getting close to the Great Spirit. That’s good. But the Great Spirit is formless, so by paying attention to the energy flow that envelops the manifestation of those unusual phenomena, you’re keeping yourself pointed towards the formless Source that is the Great Spirit. And so in terms of traditional Buddhist vocabulary, by observing the impermanence of the power realm experiences, that’s pointing you to the force that molds them. We can draw a metaphor from physics: force is proportional to acceleration. So as you’re watching how these things sort of vibrate and undulate, you can get a sense that there is a formless activity of consciousness that is molding these spirits. That’s the same thing that molds the ordinary so-called physical world. And by doing that, you ride the spirit world directly down to the Great Spirit. 
     But if you get either frightened or enchanted by the contents of the spirit realm, then you could go off in a horizontal direction and not realize it, and so you stop going deep – you just go out into the power realms. 
     Our remote ancestors practiced shamanism. And the spectrum of classical shamanism around the world is a spectrum of angles. One angle is you go out into the power realms and you don’t go any deeper into purification or get closer to the formless. Those people become one kind of shaman that’s sometimes called a Witch or a Sourceror or a Power person. Then at the other extreme are the people that just deconstruct, deconstruct, deconstruct, until they find the no-self, true self, formless Source of it all. And that extreme is sometimes traditionally called a Holy Person. And then there are an infinity of oblique angles, where your growth has a component of interest in the content of power realms, but also a component of movement towards the formless. 
     And so that spectrum is the real old time religion of this planet. It’s what most people did for their spirituality for most of human history. So it’s something to be honored from that point of view, but it’s also something to be understood.”
       Shinzen Young Buddha at the Gas Pump Interview #2:

Monday, January 6, 2020

Three Stages of the Meditative Journey

     “Most beginners start with the idea that meditation is supposed to be peaceful. If they feel peaceful, they conclude that they are doing things right. Soon enough a disturbing thought or emotion erupts, and this is identified as a problem. We do not like disturbances. We start off with this dualistic preference. We want smooth ocean waters with no waves. When the waves come, we say we cannot meditate; or we assume that the presence of the waves means we are not meditating correctly. But the waves keep coming anyway, always. It is how we perceive them that changes. We can relate to these waves as threatening monsters and try to push them away. We can apply certain mental techniques to subdue them; or we can pretend not to notice them or try to deny their presence. But there is no liberation in trying to get rid of the waves; and actually, if you examine the mind that is trying to get rid of the waves, you will discover that it’s stuck on the problem. It is making a mountain out of a molehill. We can also tell ourselves intellectually, These waves are essentially empty. We can play with the ideas and concepts of emptiness and use intellectual logic to convince ourselves that the wave is not really a monster. But our hearts still feel the threat, and react to protect ourselves from it. This describes the first stage of working with the mind.

     In the next stage, we are introduced to resting the mind in the spacious, nonconceptual aspect of mind that transcends the limited self. The waves might still be terrifying, but we begin to glimpse the boundless expanse of water beneath the surface, and this gives us more confidence to let them be. We do not yet see them as just waves, but our perspective has become so much bigger than the waves. Our personal stories of fear and loss, of rejection and self-recrimination are there – but they do not pervade every bit of space in our heads. Our fixed minds have loosened up a little; and once we recognize that our own version of reality exists within a vast impersonal experience of reality, these same stories do not disturb us as much. We might begin to think, Oh there’s a wave forming on the surface of my mind. Or, There’s a monster in my head. Okay, no problem. We can acknowledge the problem without reacting to it. We see it, but we do not feel it as much as we did earlier. The understanding of emptiness is dropping from the intellectual head to the experiential, feeling heart. The ratio is shifting: The more we rest in recognition of the spacious empty mind, and the more we embody the wisdom of emptiness, the less impact the disturbances have. The wave is there, but now it is just a tiny movement in the vastness of the ocean. But at this point, we still get stuck on the surface with the waves, and lose touch with the ocean beneath.

     In the third stage, the wave no longer appears as a problem. It’s still a wave – big or small – but we don’t get stuck in it. We have become comfortable resting within the ocean itself.
     The ocean does not become calm and still. That is not the nature of the ocean. But now we have become so familiar with the full expanse of the ocean that even the biggest waves no longer bother us. This is how we can now experience our thoughts and emotions – even those we have spent our lives trying to be free of. Every movement of the mind, and every emotional reaction, is still just a small wave on the vast surface of the awakened mind.
     Although the mind is always free, it remains imprisoned in constraints of its own making. Concentrating on a sense object can protect the mind from feeling overpowered by the waves. For example, focusing the mind on a flower, or on watching the smoke from a stick of incense, can protect the mind from obsessing on marital discord, or on a business scheme. This type of focus may provide temporary relief. Still, it does not allow us to experience freedom. When we connect to our own awareness, then we can accommodate whatever arises: the big waves of loved ones dying and relationships ending, and the ripples of crashed computers and delayed flights. No wave stays the same shape: all crests fall. Let it be. Let it pass. Become bigger than the thought, bigger than the emotion. Everything is always in flux; by letting it be we simply allow for inherent movement. We can notice preference and desire, but chasing after them blocks the flow of change. Awareness contains impermanence, not the other way around. But they have this in common: Our liberation comes from recognition.
     Let it be makes it possible to see that our true nature is free from problems, distress, and suffering – and that it always has been. When we stop trying to make the surface calm – and accept that the very nature of ocean is change – we begin to experience this inner freedom.
     But this is not freedom from distress and anxiety. It is freedom that can be experienced with stress and anxiety. We are liberated from suffering by correctly perceiving reality; this means that we have the insight and experience to know that our minds are so much vaster than we generally think they are. We are not the size and shape of our worries. To recognize reality as-it-is makes recognition and liberation simultaneous." 
       Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, Helen Tworkov. “In Love with the World. A Monk’s Journey through the Bardos of Living and Dying.” Spiegel & Grau, 2019. A well-written, practical book for serious meditators.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Metabolizing Difficult Emotions in Real Time

     In mindfulness meditation, we practice physical processing: 'leaning into' challenging emotions - WHILE these show up as unpleasant physical sensations. We approach these opportunities with curiosity, interest & equanimity knowing that, what we used to mistakenly consider frightening solid objects, DO with this approach disintegrate into harmless bits of energy.

     “Most people don’t maintain a continuous mindful relationship with their subjective thoughts & feelings, so most people do not have the ability to experience anger, fear, sadness, shame, & confusion without suffering. When an objective problem presents itself, it produces uncomfortable subjective mental & emotional states, and you suffer. A salient feature of suffering is that it distorts behavior. You cannot perform the delicate act of threading a needle while somebody is holding a flame to your body. Your whole body shakes; the objective functioning is distorted because of the internal suffering. In the same way, the delicate act of human interaction is frequently subjected to the distorting influences of (perhaps subliminal) suffering. Because of this subjective suffering, our objective responses to objective situations are often less than optimal, and sometimes horribly distorted.

     When objective responses are nonoptimal, they sow the seeds for new problems – new objective situations that cause distress. Then we respond suboptimally to that new situation. This can create a feedback loop that has the potential to spin out of control at any time.
     Even in situations where the suffering appears to be quite small, the distorting influences can add up. For example, a current cultural norm in the United States is to go from passionate love to acrimonious divorce in just five or ten short years. How does this happen? It happens in dozens and dozens of small daily interactions, some of them a little bit emotionally charged and a few of them charged in big ways. When interactions that are unpleasantly charged are not experienced completely in the moment, they are not metabolized. They leave a ghost, a remnant suffering that haunts the cellar of our own mind. That remnant suffering sinks into the subconscious and distorts our subsequent responses. We make cutting remarks when we merely need to reply. We yell when we merely need to be emphatic. We bite when we merely need to bark.
     The same cycle destroys a relationship here, a career there; leads to a war here, a rampage there; a repressive dictatorship here; an ethnic cleansing there. That is the basic pattern on this planet: People do not understand how to experience pain fully, that is, without suffering. Suffering distorts their response to the source of the pain, and this distorted response can easily lead to more pain and, hence, more suffering.
     Here’s a diagram that sums up the problem.  

     So where does meditation come in? Meditation allows us to experience pain without suffering and pleasure without neediness. The difference between pain and suffering may seem subtle, but it is highly significant. When physical or emotional pain is experienced in a state of concentration, clarity & equanimity, it still hurts but in a way that bothers you less. You actually feel it more deeply. It’s more poignant but, at the same time, less problematic. More poignant means it motivates and directs action. Less problematic means it stops driving & distorting actions. I appreciate that merely hearing these words may not be enough to clarify the concept. But look back; perhaps you’ve experienced something like this in the past. If not, having read these words here will help you know what to look for in the future.”

       Shinzen Young. “The Science of Enlightenment. How Meditation Works.” Sounds True, 2016.
       *** HIGHLY recommended ***