The backward step…

Maia Duerr, who does the online sangha — Waking Up to Your Life — I’m associated with, sends out a message each full moon, sharing Zen insights and life advice. This month’s message is particularly helpful and wonderful to me, so am sharing here. Hope others find it helpful also.

This is her message for the Full Pink Moon (which isn’t pink, by the way — its name comes from the herb “moss pink” which is coming out this time of year):

Full moon / April 2017

Stop searching for phrases and chasing after words. Take the backward step and turn the light inward. Your body-mind of itself will drop away and your original face will appear. If you want to attain just this, immediately practice just this.
– Eihei Dogen (Fukanzazengi)
In the Zen tradition I practice in, the phrase “taking the backward step” is often invoked as a way to affirm the importance of zazen (sitting meditation) in a fully engaged life. That may sound contradictory – isn’t meditation about withdrawing from life?
Not at all, at least not how I understand it. To me, “taking the backward step” is a revolutionary act, one we must do if we are to have a deep understanding of how the world works, and how we work within it. It’s only through that kind of understanding that we can then take skillful action that does not create further harm, and may perhaps even contribute some good.
When I started writing this letter last week, the U.S. had just bombed Syria, in response to the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. Both of these acts set off a wave of reactions across the globe, and within my own heart. I imagine you, too, may have felt an urgency about responding. When the intensity of world events is that amplified, the notion of “taking a backward step” may seem impossible, and out of step. We have to do something, don’t we? Or at least that’s how it feels.
And then I think of Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh’s stories of being in Vietnam during the war. Even as bombs dropped on nearby villages, he and his sangha continued to practice meditation, but they also went out to help those who were suffering. In his classic book Peace is Every Step, he writes about this decision:
When I was in Vietnam, so many of our villages were being bombed. Along with my monastic brothers and sisters, I had to decide what to do. Should we continue to practice in our monasteries, or should we leave the meditation halls in order to help people who were suffering under the bombs? After careful reflection we decided to do both – to go out and help people and to do so in mindfulness. We called it engaged Buddhism. Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?
We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help. If we maintain awareness of our breathing and continue to practice smiling, even in difficult situations, many people, animals, and plants will benefit from our way of doing things.
So as you hear the local and global news each day and perhaps struggle with how to respond, I encourage you to find ways to take your own backward step: a moment to re-connect with your breathing; a morning to take a long, quiet walk; a long weekend to go deeply into your practice. There is no better way to spend your time, for the benefit of all beings.
blessings,
Maia
(Maia offers lots of ways to expand and deepen one’s practice, so drop in on her website and check out all the wonderful stuff there! She’s also doing a beautiful retreat in New Hampshire in July which looks wonderful! — John)

Another voice

A very interesting perspective on life and death comes from Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli author whose books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus have received great critical acclaim.

In an article in The Guardian, Harari, who was raised in a secular Jewish family in Israel, provides this perspective on meditation:

AA: What does meditation do for you?
Above all it enables me to try and see reality as it is. When we try to observe the world, and when we try to observe ourselves, the mind constantly generates stories and fictions and explanations and imposes them on reality, and we cannot see what is really happening because we are blinded by the fictions and stories that we create or other people create and we believe. Meditation for me is just to see reality as it is – don’t get entangled in any story, in any fiction.

His view of life and death are quite interesting, if challenging. The Guardian article provides this summary of his idea of humanity:

At the centre of the book is the contention that what made Homo sapiens the most successful human being, supplanting rivals such as Neanderthals, was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Religions, nations and money, Harari argues, are all human fictions that have enabled collaboration and organisation on a massive scale.

In response to a question about death, arguably the central idea in most religions, he says:

Over the past three centuries, almost all the new ideologies of the modern world don’t care about death, or at least they don’t see death as a source of meaning. Previous cultures, especially traditional religions, usually needed death in order to explain the meaning of life. Like in Christianity – without death, life has no meaning. The whole meaning of life comes from what happens to you after you die. There is no death, no heaven, no hell… there is no meaning to Christianity. But over the past three centuries we have seen the emergence of a lot of modern ideologies such as socialism, liberalism, feminism, communism that don’t need death at all in order to provide life with meaning.

The article and the interview are very interesting and thought-provoking: Yuval Noah Harari: ‘Homo Sapiens as we know them will disappear in a century or so’.

No Escape

[Continuing with the theme No Hope, from the last entry]

In the teachings of Chogyam Trungpa, and the presentations on those teachings that we have from his student Pema Chodron, one of the great themes is that an essential element in walking the ‘spiritual’ path, the path of radical compassion, radical acceptance, as it has come down to us through the centuries from those who have followed and interpreted the teachings of Gotama the Buddha, is that there is no escape.

The first noble truth of classical Buddhist teachings is “Life is suffering.” Though this idea is widely misunderstood by most of the Western translators and interpreters of the Buddha’s teachings – the sense of the original is better translated as “All clinging to life involves or creates suffering” – it is essentially just an observation about the reality of human experience: we can’t escape these feelings of dissatisfaction, this sense of lack that permeates our lives.

This is the “hopelessness” that Pema holds out as a positive thing, much to the dismay and confusion of most of us. The reactions I get to suggestions that hope is not something to cling to range from shock to outright anger:

What? Give up hope? Never! Hope is all we have! Never give up! Believe in the ultimate wonderfulness that we can achieve and never stop hoping for better, more, never abandon the quest for perfection.

That may be overstated, but it catches up much of what passes for wisdom in popular self-help psychology. And it sells. For some, it seems to work, at least temporarily. But it misses some really profound understandings of our human situation.

What we tend to do when things get tough, when things aren’t going the way we should like them to, is look for some escape from this unpleasantness. Much of what fills the world today, materiality, activity, religion, philosophy – any realm really – is nothing but some highly refined and developed effort to escape from reality, to fill that void with something.

We seek sensual and intellectual pleasures to escape that gnawing sense of dread, and we find all manner of sophisticated means to avoid the pain that comes from too much reality.

But in the end, there is no escape.

Whatever we do, it always ends. There’s always something happening that we wish would go away, or something we wish would happen that just won’t. And when we get something we want, we know that it could be lost in a heartbeat.

This is the truth of life that the Buddhist teachers speak of as “impermanence” or “emptiness”. The Buddhist path involves, at heart, being willing to bang into that truth over and over again until it comes clear to one that this is the nature of our life. “Sampajanna” is the Sanskrit term, which means something like ‘constant and thorough understanding of the truth of impermanence.’ Everything changes. It’s an obvious truth that we spend most of our energy denying.

It is this sense of no escape that is intended in the teachings of hopelessness, in the idea that our only salvation lies in giving up hope. Radical acceptance. Coming to terms with reality.

There’s nothing wrong with the hope that lets us undertake a new journey toward a goal that is clearly and simply a way to get beyond some thing in one’s life, or in society at large, that is problematic. When you see a problem, you address that problem in clear-eyed ways, and the ‘hope’ needed there is simply to see that yes, it is possible that I can do this. It’s not some unrealistic goal, and there aren’t insurmountable obstacles to realizing it. It’s possible. That’s a positive, human kind of hope.

It is when hope is used as an escape from the reality of our lives that it becomes a block to development of contentment and joy. It is when hope becomes an unrealistic quest for lasting, permanent security and grounding that it leads us down a dead end road.

Impermanence is a fact of life. It is as unavoidable as death itself. Finding any kind of contentment in this life necessarily involves acceptance of that truth, else we go from disappointment to disappointment, careening along leaving a trail of disasters, and never find peace.

No Hope, No Fear

Hope.

We all need hope.

Or so we think, and so we are told by everyone from politicians and salesmen to preachers.

But Buddhist teachers, notably Chogyam Trungpa and his student Pema Chodron, say that hope steals from us the only thing we really ever have: the present moment.

Hope is almost universally regarded as a positive idea, indeed as essential to our happiness and mental health, and its opposite, hopelessness — being ‘without hope’ or ‘beyond hope’ as it is often encoded in our language — is considered the realm of despair and fear, the sign of depression and despair, utter psychological desolation. In most popular psychological literature, the work of self-help gurus, and other widely read and highly regarded sources on the subject (not to mention TV melodrama, which thrives on the ‘hopes and dreams’ genre), hope is offered as the solution to depression, a remedy for feelings of worthlessness or frustration, the drug of choice for conditions of poverty and oppression, the ultimate ‘feel-good’ answer.

Hope, however, is highly overrated.

I say this often to folks, and without fail I get disbelief and scoffing, confusion or anger in response.

I’m usually unable to explain in a satisfactory way why I think hope is not what it’s cracked up to be, so I’ve been going back into the writings of Pema Chodron and the pithy slogans of the Lojong — that wonderful group of teachings from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition related in Chogyam Trungpa’s book Training the Mind — to try to sort out for myself, and perhaps explain for whoever might occasionally read this blog, why “no hope/no fear” is the better part of wisdom.

First, a simple statement of the essential thing here: hope is always based on the idea that things, oneself, conditions, should be other than they are. This assumption clouds our ability to see that true happiness, joy, and contentment come through acceptance.

It is critical at this point to make clear that, at least as far as I understand it, I’m speaking of this on the personal level, not the social level. As a socialist/anarcho/syndicalist, I’m committed to the idea of social betterment, working and planning to make the social conditions that prevail in our world better for everyone on the material plane. I don’t advocate accepting how things are organized in a world that is clearly run on the principal of violent domination and oppression of others as the path to material success. I have hope that this condition in the world can be changed, as a rational approach seems to require that we believe in the possibility of change for the better. This is ‘hope’ simply defined as seeing that something is possible and thus being willing to make efforts toward it.

The ‘hope’ that I consider to be highly overrated, and in fact a detriment to happiness, is that hope which posits that one’s personal happiness is dependent on the external conditions in which one finds oneself, and thus concludes that the only path to joy and peace is for things to change in our surroundings. I’m certainly not saying that one should not work to improve the conditions of one’s life, I’m simply saying that to conclude that such improvements are the necessary and sufficient path to joy and happiness is an error of strategy and a path to perpetual dissatisfaction. Once we decide that things being better in our external conditions will make us happy, we will always find things that need to be ‘better’ in order to maximize our happiness.

As Janis Joplin sang in “Work Me Lord”, “The worst you can say about me is that I’m never satisfied!”

For most of us, that’s the essential problem. We never have enough of whatever it is we think we need to be happy.

So the true solution, the true path to happiness, is not hoping that things will get better, or even working to make them better because we ‘haven’t lost hope.’

No, the true path to happiness, or better, joy and contentment, is learning to see that what we have is really enough. What we need is the clarity of mind to accept ourselves as we are, without that nagging feeling that we’re just not good enough, just not strong enough, just not whatever-it-is-that’s-lacking-this-moment enough — and that as soon as we get that, we’ll be fine.

A basic teaching on this comes in Lojong #15, “Four practices are the best of methods.” One of those ‘best practices’ is, as Trungpa says, just let it be without scheming to get pleasure and avoid pain. There is much in these teachings about flipping the normal human proclivity to seek pleasure, avoid pain. It’s built into our program by the evolutionary journey, so it’s not a “wrong” thing, it’s just that it doesn’t work very well when it comes to developing into a spiritually mature, compassionate person. If we were still out there on the edge of the forest scrabbling with the little beasts for carrion, it would make sense. In our world, it’s counter-productive. In fact, it’s precisely the program that has produced this world of violence and oppression, so there’s probably a very good argument to be made that giving up hope and fear is the best way to elevate society to a more humane, fair and compassionate state.

Most of the talks in Pema’s book When Things Fall Apart are permeated with the notion of ‘no hope/no fear’, and her book The Wisdom of No Escape is specifically dedicated to this idea. It’s important to understand that in all of this, there’s no sense of this being what one “should” do. It’s rather offered in the spirit that if one finds one’s mind turning to the dharma, turning to the path of compassion, here is some heart advice on how to make that happen in your life.

So if you don’t like the idea of giving up hope and fear, truck on down that road. When life turns you around, perhaps you’ll come back to these teachings with a new openness, a new willingness to see how it plays out in your life.

In a chapter in WTFA titled “Hopelessness and Death”, Pema says:

To undo our very ancient and very stuck habitual patterns of mind requires that we begin to turn around some of our most basic assumptions. Believing in a solid, separate self, continuing to seek pleasure and avoid pain, thinking that someone “out there” is to blame for our pain — one has to get totally fed up with these ways of thinking. One has to give up hope that this way of thinking will bring us satisfaction. Suffering begins to dissolve when we can question the belief or the hope that there’s anywhere to hide.

A little further on in the book, she says:

Hope and fear come from feeling that we lack something; they come from a sense of poverty. We can’t simply relax with ourselves. We hold on to hope, and hope robs us of the present moment.

[I will continue with a second installment on this theme in a couple of days — I hope! :)]

[And I have! Hope rewarded! Next]

The new year

Despite the traumas and tragedies of 2016, we will ride on into the new year. Taking some time to reflect on what we would like to see happen in our own lives is good to do at this time of year, setting intentions for growth and development, especially in terms of our personal project of awakening.

Maia Duerr has a great post that outlines this process, which she suggests to do on the new moon, which is today I think. “How to do a Reflection and Intention Process…” offers some great suggestions for the content and ritual process that can help us make this a meaningful time, and maybe it will help us all set an arc for a better 2017!

 

The Need for Silence

Reading a disturbing essay by Andrew Sullivan this morning, shared by my wonderful friend Melissa Stiers Kretzschmar, that articulates so well why we need meditative silence. Published in New York Magazine, his new venue I think, the essay is titled “I Used to Be a Human Being.”

Whatever we may think of Sullivan, (must say I’m not really a fan of Andrew’s, as he has been a leading conservative, neo-con, libertarian, neoliberal – God knows what he is) he’s an astute social observer for sure, and this account of his personal experience is telling. It’s also a chilling exposè/analysis of the dangers of the wired world… I say as I sit here blogging.

So this is not to be taken as the final word, but as food for thought. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been trying to measure and mediate my own interaction with the news & culture media stream, and I’ve found, as Sullivan articulates in great detail, that it’s hard. Once you slip back in, it begins to grasp you more and more. Though I am staying pretty clear of the political aspects that tend to really stress me out. Didn’t even watch the debate last night. Won’t read about it. Can’t deal with it…

But I do find what Sullivan says about how meditation and retreats helped him to be very interesting. This is not a guy you’d expect to hear these things from. He’s a gay, British Catholic conservative writer, so not someone I’d ever think would do a 10-day retreat… but apparently he did.

The article is long but well worth the read. A few excerpts on silence:

Among these meditators, I was alone in silence and darkness, yet I felt almost at one with them. My breathing slowed. My brain settled. My body became much more available to me. I could feel it digesting and sniffing, itching and pulsating. It was if my brain were moving away from the abstract and the distant toward the tangible and the near.

The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn. …And yet our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. … Except, of course, there is the option of a spiritual reconciliation to this futility, an attempt to transcend the unending cycle of impermanent human achievement. There is a recognition that beyond mere doing, there is also being; that at the end of life, there is also the great silence of death with which we must eventually make our peace.

He also weighs in strongly in favor of a disciplined meditation practice:

I cut my daily silences from one hour to 25 minutes; and then, almost a year later, to every other day. I knew this was fatal — that the key to gaining sustainable composure from meditation was rigorous discipline and practice, every day, whether you felt like it or not, whether it felt as if it were working or not. Like weekly Mass, it is the routine that gradually creates a space that lets your life breathe.

I’ve experienced much the same decline in my practice, probably due to these same influences he describes, and lately I’ve been making efforts to get my practice re-established. But it may be that I have to make a cleaner break with the media stream to actually make this work.

I’m working on a new approach to both media and meditation… I’ll try to keep blogging through this process… but it may fall by the wayside also. A conundrum.