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.


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