Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Experience

Kabir (1440 - 1518)

When "I" was, the Divine was not, 
now the Divine is and I am no more: 
All darkness vanished, 
when I saw the Lamp within my heart.

The effulgence of the Supreme Being 
is beyond the imagination: 
Ineffable is its beauty, 
to see it is the only "proof."

It was a good thing the hail fell on the ground,
for it lost its own selfhood:
Melting, it turned into water
and rolled down to the pond.
That which I went out to seek, 
I found just where I was: 
It now has become myself, 
whom before I called ‘Another.’

When love renounces all limits, 
it reaches truth.
With the load of desires 
which you hold on your head, 
how can you be light?
Wherever you are is the entry point.
Just throw away all thoughts of imaginary things,
and stand firm in that which you are.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Three Hard Teachings

Teaching 3: Liberation Through Equanimity

(This is the final posting based on a public talk given by Joseph Goldstein on January 4, 2011.)

On any spiritual journey, there are countless pitfalls and booby traps lying in wait for the unsuspecting traveler. Some of these hazards can be big and overwhelming, but most are tiny and easy to miss. Until you get ensnared. 

One such tiny trap on the path of mindfulness meditation is using the practice in order to make something unpleasant go away. This is what I have come to call the "Self-Soothing Trap" (see my blog of 1/18/10). If we use our meditation practice as a method for self-soothing, there is always the danger that we will become attached to this outcome and become trapped in it. If we have this expectation of relief, and the feeling we don't like does not go away, we will suffer.

In this practice, we are taught to turn toward pleasant or unpleasant experiences with equal attention. This is one definition of "equanimity": the ability to move into the unpleasant experiences just as deeply as we move into the pleasant ones. In his public talk, Joseph Goldstein said that "being with something in order for it to go away" is a strong indication that we are clinging to an outcome, or resisting something unpleasant through aversion. He suggested that we adopt an attitude that tells us, "If it stays for the rest of my life, it will be okay." So if you are looking to this practice to help you get rid of fear, for example, you are already caught up in clinging to an outcome. 

As mentioned above, "turning toward" the experience is the skillful and appropriate response toward pleasant or unpleasant events. Turning toward them in order to make them stop, however, would be an example of being stuck in expectations. If this is the case, then we will never become truly liberated from the fear.

Furthermore, we need to examine any tendency that might be present to resist the experience. The smallest resistance to something can, once again, lead us into a mind trap of clinging, aversion, and resultant suffering.

So what's the point of having a practice that doesn't help us feel better? Isn't the point of all of this to relieve suffering? The point, as Joseph wisely noted in a Dharma talk some years ago, is that "anything can happen, any time." When we are able to consciously witness the changing nature of things, without interfering or imposing our desires upon them, we develop a new kind of relationship with the unpleasant as well as the pleasant. This allows us to see these experiences from different perspectives, and in doing so, the situations themselves actually change on their own. It may not mean that an unpleasant thing will go away, but it will mean that there can be less suffering around it.

Naturally, of course, our preference would be to not have pain, fear, sadness, loss, and so forth, but this is not possible to control, since anything can happen at any time. That is why I consider this to be a "hard teaching." I believe we would do better to cultivate an attitude of gently cradling our experiences, and our life, in a soft, open hand, rather than constricting it within a closed fist. When the tight, grasping hand is opened, we and our suffering are set free. So in reality, liberation is as easy as remembering to unfold the fist.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Three Hard Teachings

Teaching 2: Don't Give the Arrows a Place To Land

(This is the second of three blogs inspired by a public talk given by Joseph Goldstein on January 4, 2011.)

In the previous blog, I mentioned the Parable of the Second arrow from the Samyutta Nikaya. Here is an excerpt of the first part of that parable:
When touched by a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows.
So it really comes down to this: For the arrow to hurt, it has to have a place to land. In other words, if we understand that all of our suffering is created by the mind, we must also understand that there is no "self" other than what the mind creates.

In his program, Joseph called this process of creating a self where none exists "selfing." I had never heard that word used as a verb before, and it turns out to be quite apropos. According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1973), when "self" is used as a transitive verb it means "to pollinate with pollen from the same flower or plant" (p. 1048). So when we "self" we are engaged in a sort of inbreeding feedback loop. First the mind receives a sensory stimulus, then it creates information (accurate or not) about that stimulus. When we come to believe that information, we create "I, me, and mine." A self is born.

(Perhaps not incidentally, the online Urban Dictionary defines selfing as "the act of saying something ridiculous, with absolute self-righteousness behind it, only proving how much of an idiot the person actually is." And apparently - according to their website, at least - it has become slang for describing masturbation. Who knew?)

Meanwhile, we still have that pesky first arrow to contend with. In the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha concluded that a person who does not create a self based on the sensory stimulus of the first arrow:
...feels one pain: physical, but not mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, did not shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pain of only one arrow. (From "Sallatha Sutta: The Second Arrow" SN 36.6, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight, June 7, 2009.)
The cultivation of "no self," or anatta as it referred to in Pali, the language of the Buddha, is perhaps the hardest teaching in all of the Dharma. Because of this, however, it is the most valuable. Anatta offers us a way out of suffering while still allowing us to be fully engaged in life. It is not the same as denying the existence of the "sense of self" created by the mind, Nor is it a trick of somehow detaching mentally from an unpleasant predicament.  It is, however, about knowing every experience that arises for what it is, and being able to live skillfully in the midst of it, without creating more suffering.

Again, as I said in the previous blog, and as the Buddha says above, there really is legitimate pain in life. And good luck trying to avoid it. What we may be left with are horrible memories that can torment us for the rest of our life. The cultivating of anatta is a process of knowing those memories for what they are - objects of mind - and not as facts that are happening in the present moment. In this way, even the most painful images from the past can be allowed to simply move through us, just as the second arrow does when it has no place to land.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Three Hard Teachings

Teaching 1: We Are Responsible for Our Mental Suffering

Recently, I went to see the esteemed vipassana teacher, Joseph Goldstein, give a public talk. Joseph was one of the first Americans to be granted permission to teach vipassana in the West back in the '70's, so I believe he knows whereof he speaks regarding Buddhadharma. (Although he will be the first to tell you not to believe anything he says, but rather to experience things for yourself.)

I have been sharing the Dharma for a while now - coming up on ten years - and although I may never have the gravitas of a Joseph Goldstein, I know a little bit of what it is like to be up there presenting these sometimes (often times) difficult to understand and accept teachings. They are hard.

In the first part of his talk, Joseph spoke about compassion. A nice, easy subject that isn't too controversial and doesn't make people squirm in their seats. After all, this was not his sangha, and he did not know the "experience level" of the audience, so keeping things light is a good way to start. 

The pitfall of this kind of approach, however, is that it can give rise to contradictions. If I'm talking about one of the main hallmarks of compassion as being the desire to help someone, I am contradicting the teachings of the Dharma that are clear about releasing attachment to desire to change anything (more on that in a forthcoming blog). This is exactly what happened to Joseph.

When it came time for the Q&A portion of the evening, however, he was able to take the temperature of the audience, and he could see that they were open to a bit more than just the vanilla Dharma talk he had presented. Finally, in answer to a question, he replied, "You may not want to hear this," (I love it when Dharma teachers begin a statement like that), "But we are one hundred percent responsible for the suffering in our own minds."

This means that any mental suffering that we experience, we create ourselves. It does not mean we are responsible for abuse perpetrated upon us, or for any physical illness or pain we may experience. It means that we are responsible for the suffering that comes after those events. If I was abused as a child, the initial responsibility for that abuse rests with the abuser. The continued suffering I carry with me is my responsibility.

It is the same principal as the Parable of the Second Arrow (see 10/31/09 & 1/16/10 blogs). If I am shot with one arrow, that is legitimate, physical pain. If I curse the shooter, lament my sorry situation, and go into a panic, that is the suffering created by the mind.

An antidote to this suffering is to deploy the first three of the Four Noble (or Knowable) Truths. If you find yourself suffering over some past event (the First Knowable Truth), ask yourself, "Is this thing happening right now?" The answer, of course, is "No. It happened a long time ago." So the suffering is caused by clinging to the memory of that experience (the Second Knowable Truth). To stop (or at least ease) the suffering, you merely need to release the tight, clinging fist from around this memory (the Third Knowable Truth). (For more on the Four Knowable Truths, see my series of blogs on the subject from July 18 to 23, 2010.)

This does not mean that we deny the experience happened, nor does it mean that we condone the harm that was done to us. It means that we can be with the memories of the experience in a new way - a way that promotes seeing the events clearly for what they are: objects of mind. When we cultivate this kind new relationship with these past events, we decrease our level of suffering around them. We can then understand more fully that the memories are thoughts, and not facts.


Monday, January 17, 2011

Uncle Bob

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting my 95 year-old uncle Bob for the first time. He is my father's half-brother, and both of them were the sons of Percy Llewelyn Fison. Until just a couple of years ago, uncle Bob was unaware that he had any living relatives. Thanks to the internet, and a timely posting of Fison family information by my cousin, and indefatigable family historian, Susan, he discovered that he had dozens of relations, some living only a few miles from his Carlsbad, California home.

My paternal grandfather, Percy, was a bit of a rake, you might say. He was a dreamer and a schemer, too, always chasing rainbows in every direction, never staying in one place - or with one woman - very long. And he never made his money the conventional way. For example, I have a picture postcard of him with one of his wives - a souvenir that they sold to finance their successful attempt to walk from Colorado Springs to New York City on their honeymoon in 1912. 

Family myths have arisen around this Will-o'-the-wisp opportunist.  My dad told us that Percy painted advertisements on the sides of barns in the Ozarks region (perhaps this is where he met my grandmother who was a resident of that area). 

Another myth is that he tried to get into the motion picture business during the industry's "gold rush" days in the early 1920's, moving my grandmother and infant father to Los Angeles. Like so many fortune hunters, he never found gold, and the best he was able to do was a few days here and there as an extra. My grandmother, however, like so many other pioneer women, supported the family by dreaming up the idea to provide "boxed lunches" for the extras. So while she stayed home cooking fried chicken and biscuits, Percy sold them to his colleagues on the studio lots. 

More than one family source has commented that he could never pass by a piano without playing it, although he'd had no musical instruction that anyone is aware of.

It seems Percy had a very bad habit of either marrying or taking up with various women, having children with them, and then abandoning them all when the whim took him. My own grandmother fell prey to this pattern twice, and uncle Bob was an innocent victim of Percy's wanderlust, as well. He says he has no memory of his father being there during childhood, and never met his father as an adult. 

Like his other half-brother, my uncle David, Bob has been a minister, and continues to possess an abiding faith in the power of prayer. No doubt, he must have prayed for a family at some point in his life. And in their season, those prayers have been answered.

Bob's daughter told that he is not well, and has been diagnosed with lung cancer. He seemed vital and mentally agile when we met on Saturday, however, and his wife of more than 65 years, aunt Sylvia, moves with an ageless sense of grace, although she is 87. A spiritual center seems to be an important ingredient to longevity. It has been proven so in recent studies, and my own family appears to confirm it.

In comparing notes with my family in recent years, I have been struck by the similarities that run through the Fison clan. Percy's father, Sherwood Fison, was a minister, and two of Percy's sons became ministers as well. (My uncle David commented to me that I have a ministry as well in the form of the meditation sangha I have been leading for ten years.) Like Percy, my father never liked working for anybody else, and always told me to "be your own boss." That's the way it's been for me all of my adult life. I even came to California looking to strike it rich in showbiz.

Like Percy, all of the Fison men are musical and/or artistic. My dad played harmonica, uncle Dave plays the saw (no joking), and I've played guitar, mostly by ear, since I was nine. Now my own son, Zachary Sherwood Tatum-Nolan, cannot pass a piano without tinkling out a few phrases. And of course, he is completely self-taught.

It would appear, therefore, that the Dharma of interdependent causes and conditions that give rise to everything, exist within the family structure, as well.