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No More Excuses

If not myself, who?
If not this experience, which one?
If not now, when?
If not here, where?
If not for all beings, why?

Laurie Arron and I will be teaching another Intro to Buddhism and Meditation class starting in January 2014. There are only ten spots available, so if you are interested, sign up early to get a spot:
http://introtomeditation2014.eventbrite.com/

Overview:
This is an introduction to Buddhism and different types of meditation taught by Paul Baranowski and Laurie Arron. No experience necessary. Each week will start with a meditation, then study of a topic, then general discussion and Q&A. If you are trying to piece together exactly what meditation is, how to do it, and how all the practices and teachings fit together, this class is for you.

Please sign up only if you can make it to all 6 weeks. It is very important to attend all the classes. You will be asked to practice meditation every day during the 6 week period as well.

Class will be held weekly on Saturdays from 10am-1pm.

The class is offered to help you make sense of Buddhist teachings as a whole, so that when you hear a teaching you will have a better idea of how to use it in your life and what it is for. Buddhism is simply a way to happiness, it is not a religion in the sense we usually think of one.

Some testimonials:

“Two-thumbs up! I never received so much information and wisdom from any other Buddhist teachings, directly or from books, as I did from this course.”

“This class has definitely put me in a different place that I was before I took this class. Your dedication towards this work was so great that it made me curious about mindfulness. I would like to experience what it is like being mindful every day. You lit up the path and even finished the pavement so all I have to do is walk down the path. I feel so fortunate to have this opportunity to be in your class. Also your sharing on your personal experience/challenges really helped me to look deeply into my issues with an open heart. Thank you.”

“Take this class if you want to learn the wisdom of Buddhism in an easy, straight-forward manner, taught by compassionate and wise teachers.”

“Thanks very much for sharing your personal experience and moments of your life as you explained certain concepts, very useful!”

“I am astounded at the extent of what you know, how well things were presented, and your ability to answer questions that arose.”

“This course has brought the concepts of my practice closer to my life experiences.”

I am running another 6-week Intro to Meditation and Buddhism class, starting on Sept 22. More info here:

http://meditationclass-2013.eventbrite.ca/

I recently landed a job at InteraXon, a company that makes a headband that can sense your brainwaves. This device can help teach you mindfulness, among other things. They have a demo setup with the headband hooked up to a beer keg, and the computer programmed with the “meditation algorithm”. To turn on the beer, you have to produce a steady state of mind. There is a set of lights that indicate how you are doing – the more lights and the brighter they are, the more stable your mind. Once you get to five lights, the beer starts to flow. This is the video of my first time trying it out. So I tried basic mindfulness of breathing. It’s hard not to get more excited as more lights light up, but I did it! Finally my mindfulness is good for something! ;) Seriously though, this was one of the most amazing experiences ever – controlling something with only my mind. Everything else we do requires movement of some sort.

Shameless plug: If you are interested in getting one of these headbands for yourself, you can preorder one on the website.

If you feel like the meditation chairs in the last post were a little too cheap at $369, here is a way to get rid of a pesky $1800 you might have lying around. What you get is pretty amazing – a real office chair that you can sit cross-legged in, with adjustable support for your legs and a back that doesn’t make you hunched over:

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Check out their video here:

If anyone feels like buying me one, I won’t say no.

One of my friends just pointed these meditation chairs out to me…seems like a great thing for people who have trouble with sitting on a cushion. It’s also nice that it is a normal looking piece of furniture that can double as a regular chair. Here’s a pic: seagrass-08

Here’s the link: http://www.stillnessroom.com/

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The book I’ve been writing/compiling for five years, “Interdependent Liberation: The Unofficial Guide to the Zen Tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh” is finally finished.  Well, at least I got tired of revising it and so it is now deemed finished. This book is a straightforward, no-nonsense guide to the tradition for people who do not want to read dozens of books and go to a bunch of retreats before they are able to put everything together into a coherent whole. It is more of a guidebook than something you read straight through and thus is mainly focused on facts and techniques. Most newbies have a lot of questions when they show up and this is meant to answer most of their basic questions. Every topic covered has a “recommended reading” section if you want to dive into the details of any one particular aspect of practice. It is also a great guidebook for those wanting to start a local sangha.

I used portions of this text for my six week classes called “Introduction to Buddhism and Meditation”. So the material is rooted in the experience of teaching others. A number of practitioners have also read through the drafts and helped to improve the content. Thanks to all of you who helped out.

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction (Background on buddhism, how to find a teacher and a sangha, how much does it cost, what a sangha can and cannot do, wisdom traditions, etc.)
  2. Weekly Meditation Practice
  3. Introduction to Buddhism
  4. Additional Meditation Techniques
  5. Practice in Daily Life
  6. The Development of Virtue
  7. Retreats
  8. Entering the Buddhist Tradition
  9. Organizational Structure
  10. Mindful Conflict Resolution
  11. Overview of Buddhist Schools
  12. Appendix: Recommended Reading
  13. Appendix: Guided Meditations & Gathas

You can order a hard copy or download a PDF. If you go to the True Peace meditation sessions, they will be available to buy there.

Please let me know what you think and if you find it helpful. It’s one of those books that will need to be revised and re-released every few years (like travel books).

I just returned from the Ken McLeod weekend retreat on the Heart Sutra. We were studying the “longer” version where the Buddha is present. Ken asked “what is the Buddha doing there?”.  The Buddha doesn’t do anything in the sutra other than sit there and listen to the conversation between Avalokiteśvara and Shariputra. So he invited two people up to the front to re-enact the scene. My friend Laurie volunteered to play the part of Avalokiteśvara, and a woman volunteered to play the part of Shariputra. “Ok,” said Ken, “Shariputra, ask a practice question to Avalokiteśvara”.

“Do I have sit formally every day or can I just be mindful in everyday life?” asked Shariputra.

Avalokiteśvara answered somewhat flippantly, “If you can remain mindful throughout your life, then you dont need to sit.  But I haven’t been able to do that.”

Next Ken invited someone up to play the part of the Buddha to sit there serenely between them, slightly off to the side.

“Now go through it again, ask the same question and give your answer.” said Ken.

The Shariputra character asked the same question again, but it was phrased more deeply this time.

Avalokiteśvara bowed to Shariputra and started to answer:

“Thank you for your question. If you can remain mindful throughout your life…” and stopped.

Ken turned to him and asked: “You don’t want to give the same answer anymore, do you?”

“No.” answered Avalokiteśvara.

“Give the answer that you want to give.”

“If you can remain mindful throughout your life, you may not need to sit, but if you do not sit, you may not be able to remain mindful throughout your life.”

There was a audible murmur in the room and a palpable relaxing.

“Shariputra, how did you experience that?”

“With the first answer, I felt like even though it was what I wanted to hear, I didn’t feel good about it.  The second answer I felt a relaxing that it was the truth, even though it’s not what I wanted to hear.”

It was clear that the presence of the “Buddha”, even though simply represented by a practitioner sitting there serenely, changed the interaction to be more honest and real.  Everyone went to sit down again, and Ken drove home the point:

“And by the way, Buddha is always present.”

——————————————————————-

Want to listen to the Heart Sutra(the short version) chanted in English?  Click here.

Commentaries on the Heart Sutra:

Ever notice how you feel much more sociable after a group meditation session? Have you ever gone into a social situation after a group meditation and noticed how much easier it is to interact with everyone?  You aren’t alone, there are many people who experience this. In my own sangha, people often go out to dinner afterwards.  In some other traditions (who obviously don’t follow the “no drinking” thing), they go out drinking and partying afterwards.

Putting yourself into the present moment has similar effects to drinking: you aren’t thinking about the past or the future, or how you are being perceived, or what you are going to say next, rather you are just there with everyone interacting naturally. I call it being drunk with mindfulness. There is no effort involved in the interaction with other people. However, after the mindfulness energy fades (after a few hours or a few days), then any social awkwardness that was there before returns just as strong as it was before. Nothing fundamentally changes. When I started noticing this, my first solution was to meditate more to put myself into that mindfulness state more often. After trying that for a long while I finally realized that mindfulness was not going to fix my issue with understanding social dynamics. But why didn’t it?

Mindfulness is a term used to describe both a skill and a state. The mindfulness skill is used to generate a state(or energy) of mindfulness. The mindfulness state is present when we practice, and slowly fades when we are not actively generating it. Mindfulness on it’s own does not cause any transformation; only insight can do that. Insights can be big or small, but they all do the same thing – they change our point of view. We stop seeing things in a confused way, and we start seeing them in a more realistic way. And there is no way we can go back to seeing them the old way. Mindfulness gives us the energy to change our point of view. Mindfulness is required, but not enough for transformation to occur. In other words, mindfulness is temporary, insight is forever.

The case of social interaction is a strange one though: mindfulness itself seems to take away the problem. Just like drinking for some people – the problem is solved for the night at least!

So what psychological factors cause problems with social interaction? Usually it is things such as fears of rejection, humiliation, loneliness, loss of control, or feelings of inferiority or superiority. These mental formations cause all sorts of reactive patterns which tend to kill conversations and make things awkward. I was hoping that meditation would allow me to get to a point where these things would not come up and I would just be able to have normal interactions. But no matter how much I meditated, things didn’t get any better. I realized at some point that the way to get better at social interaction was to do it.

When I first tried having conversations with strangers, it didn’t take long before I got shut down. I quickly learned that people can end conversations in a range of ways that go from graceful to extremely belligerent. If the conversation ended when I didn’t want it to end, there was often a feeling of rejection. When that happened, it felt like the walls were closing in and I really wanted to leave the situation. But I forced myself to stay, to be with my breathing and remember that I wasn’t in a threatening situation. And then – a miracle happened: five minutes later I was back to normal. The walls were back in the right position, and I was no longer feeling threatened. That’s when my first insight hit me: rejection is just a feeling! If it’s just a feeling, then I knew how to practice with it: “I am not this feeling, this feeling is not me.” And then I saw the same thing with humiliation – it’s just a feeling too. Suddenly I had a way to practice.

This was a different practice than I was used to. In a social setting there was no ability to take some time and sit on the cushion and be with these feelings – I had to look at them right then and there, with people swirling around me, the feedback instant and dynamic with no way to control what was happening. I had to be with everything right there in the middle of chaos, without the benefit of time or space. But when I forced myself to look directly at the feelings, their power faded.

When we avoid something, it means we are afraid of feeling something. That fear of experiencing a painful feeling controls us. We put a lot of energy into avoiding that painful feeling. But until we have the capacity and courage to be with the feelings, it is not possible to transform them. When we look at them, acknowledge them, and make friends with the feelings we don’t like, our fear of experiencing them decreases. They lose their power to control us because when the painful feeling comes up we no longer try to avoid it. (As a side note, this is one of the things that generates integrity – when we are willing to do the right thing regardless of painful feelings we will experience as a consequence). Without being able to feel the emotion of humiliation and know it to be just a feeling, then I would always be afraid to experience it. I would try to avoid it, and by doing so I would cause it to happen. I identified with the feeling, and took the experience to be a permanent part of my identity. It was so ingrained that I didn’t even think about it as a feeling. When I started to get to know those feelings, when I stopped avoiding them and started to be with them, then their power started to fade and I started to change.

Coming back to the original question – if generating mindfulness can put us into a state where social interaction is natural and effortless, why can’t it transform us to always be that way? It’s because when mindfulness is powerful enough, we don’t experience rejection and humiliation. And that’s the problem. Without being able to experience rejection we cannot come to understand that rejection is just a feeling. Without being able to experience a feeling of humiliation, we cannot transform it. Authentically generating those feelings while sitting on the meditation cushion is rather hard (though it can be done). It’s much easier to go out and let your interaction with others bring up the stuff and practice with it in that moment. In my experience this was extremely difficult – it’s easy to shutdown and leave. If that happens, go try again another day. It’s just practice.

It’s been a while since I wrote on here, and there is a long story as to why. The short story is that I’ve been learning all about social dynamics and evolutionary psychology, both in theory and in practice (want to start learning about it yourself?  Start out with reading “The Red Queen“, “The Evolution of Desire“, and “Why Women Have Sex“).  I want to start commenting a little bit about what I have learned as it relates to Buddhist practice and sanghas. This is a post I started many months ago, but didn’t want to post it because I didn’t feel confident enough in my understanding. Now I have a much better feel for how all this works, so here goes.

So about four and a half years after I started practicing and at the point I had been the main facilitator for the Sangha for about a year, I started to receive signals of interest from women in the sangha. Some of them asked me out directly, others flirted with me, and others just sent some subtle signals my way. Previous to this I had found it pretty hard to get a date with anyone and so it seemed to me like I had suddenly struck it rich. Since I didn’t know any better at the time, took advantage of this unprecedented gold rush and either dated or spent time with many of them. Various teachers – including Thich Nhat Hanh – suggest being in a relationship with someone who also practices.  At the time I was really trying to follow that advice and was really hoping to find a partner that also practices (I have since changed my mind on this).

Suffice to say, none of those relationships worked out and surprise surprise – most of those women stopped going to the sangha after we dated. But this post isn’t about that. It’s about why those women became interested in me in the first place. I went from zero to hero, but why? From my point of view nothing had changed. I still felt like the same person. While I would love to take all the credit, I’ve discovered that it has as much to do with the situation as it does with me.

What attracts a woman to a man? Women tend to look for:

  1. Social status
    1. Being a leader of men
    2. Social alignments – having good friends & connections
    3. Attention – if women are giving a man attention, a woman seeing that is more likely to feel attracted to him
  2. Healthy Emotional Programming
    1. Non-reactive
    2. Integrity
    3. Honesty
    4. Non-neediness
    5. Self-confidence
    6. Dependability
    7. Emotional Strength
    8. Vulnerability / In touch with feelings
    9. Good manners and discretion
    10. Humor
    11. Empathetic
  3. Wealth and resources
  4. Height
  5. Strength
  6. Physical Health
  7. Physical beauty
  8. Intelligence

Let’s take this list and apply it to a meditation teacher.

A meditation teacher is the leader of the entire group(#1.1), it seems that just about everyone likes him(#1.2), and all of the attention is on him(#1.1 and #1.3).  He has alliances in the group(#1.2). The meditation teacher also has situational confidence(#2.5). He has been trained to deal with anything that comes up in that context, and is therefore is unaffected by just about anything that happens(#2.1). There is nothing that anyone can say or do that would throw him off.  He is completely at ease, has a positive vibe, and a genuine smile(#2.5). Another way to say “unaffected” is non-reactive. A non-reactive man is attractive to a woman – it conveys stability, honesty(at least in the sense of what-you-see-is-what-you-get; #2.3), dependability, integrity(#2.2), and emotional strength(#2.7). The meditation teacher doesn’t need anything from anyone in the room, rather he is the one providing a solid presence to support others(#2.4). This quality of non-neediness is another non-reactive quality which is attractive to women. He tells personal stories with humor(#2.10), he is in touch with his feelings and lets himself be vulnerable(#2.8), and he is empathetic to others(#2.11). He demonstrates understanding, authenticity, acceptance, and has a stable and consistent behavior.

If he happens to be tall, athletic, healthy, good-looking, and intelligent, then all the better (I cover the first three of those, the last two are in the eye of the beholder).

But wait, there’s more! Once one woman in the group starts to become attracted to the teacher, others will become more attracted still(#1.3)! Women like men who are surrounded by women. This is an evolutionary adaptation that is seen in other species as well (see above books for an explanation).

When you look at all of this together, you start to realize that a man in a teaching role is generally attractive to women, and in the special case of a male meditation teacher, he is able to demonstrate a number of other qualities that women find attractive. Also when you look at the big picture, it becomes unsurprising that sex scandals happen in sanghas.

We can also answer the question of why it rarely happens the other way around – where a man is attracted to a female meditation teacher. Men have very different attraction switches compared to a women. Two of the main attraction switches are youth(as defined as less than 35 yrs old) and beauty. There are almost no female meditation teachers under the age of 35. Part of that is because it’s very difficult to get to that level of practice within that time frame unless you are a nun.  But where we do see female meditation teachers under the age of 35 – for example, with young nuns in Plum Village – we also hear about men hitting on them and trying to get them to marry them.

Let’s come back to the original advice I received from Buddhist teachers, where they recommended to try to find a partner that also practices. I could go on a rant about this, but I will try to be brief for now. The only way this can work is if the other person has roughly the same amount of experience as you. Dating someone with less practice experience is bad news. Most people who come to the sangha are suffering a lot and most of them will not get very far along the path. You are playing with fire to date someone with less experience and it will blow up on you. There is an imbalance of power in the relationship in this case and there is nothing you can do to fix it. You can’t be someone’s teacher and in a relationship at the same time. It’s much better to go out and try to find a romantic partner outside the sangha. Once you get to a certain point in practice, it doesn’t matter if your partner practices or not, there is nothing that will throw you off the path and you aren’t going to end up with someone who opposes it anyway(you wouldn’t put up with it). Dating someone who practices and is at the same level as you is amazing if you can manage it, but this is rare occurrence in my experience so far.

In 2009 there was an effort to revise the Five Mindfulness Trainings(a.k.a. the Five Precepts) in Plum Village.  Many discussions were held about how to improve them and there was a whole process behind getting feedback, for example, monastics taking voluminous notes during the discussions.  In June 2009, the lay community came up with a new proposal, written below and signed off on by many lay and monastic Dharma teachers.  Nobody seems to know what happened, but Thich Nhat Hanh decided to rewrite the trainings himself instead.  No one seems to know why, so if you do, please leave a comment.

From most of the feedback I have read, many people have some issues with the the new versions of the 5MT.  The most common complaints are they are much longer, they have more Buddhist jargon which makes them less accessible, and the Third Mindfulness Training has wording that is unrealistic and potentially dangerous.  I would also add that the sentence structure in the official new version does not flow very well in English.  When I read the lay proposal, I was pleasantly surprised by how easy they were to read and how accessible they were.  I don’t think these have gotten much exposure so I am reproducing them here.

Lay Proposal of 5MT — June 14, 2009

[Brothers and Sisters, it is now time to [transmit/recite] the Five Mindfulness Trainings.]

The Five Mindfulness Trainings are guidelines for an open-hearted response to life’s challenges and for caring for our world. They are also doors that open to peace, joy, and freedom. Based on the insight of interbeing — the dynamic and supportive interdependence of all things — the trainings express the realization that our suffering is not separate from the suffering of others, and that our happiness is not separate from the happiness of others. Aware that all actions originate in the mind, the trainings invite us to embody understanding and compassion in our thinking, speaking and acting. They are to be practiced with compassion, skill and flexibility, conscious that our understanding is still developing, and that circumstances may call for new insights and ways of acting. Each time we practice a training, we offer a priceless gift to the world and to ourselves.

Respect for Life
Aware of the suffering caused by lack of respect for life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and the Earth. Knowing that harmful actions arise from incomplete understanding, I am committed to developing my insight into the nature of reality. I will practice recognizing and transforming mental states that cloud awareness, such as fear, anger, intolerance and dogmatism. I am committed to practicing non-attachment to views and will listen with an open mind to those who hold perspectives different from my own. I will also try to understand and enter into dialogue with those who seek to impose their views through means such as war, fanaticism, or terror. Aware that I harm myself when I harm living beings and the Earth, I am determined to reduce suffering and nourish in my community respect for the diversity and preciousness of all life.

Generosity and Justice
Aware of the suffering caused by self-centeredness and greed, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thoughts, words, and actions. Knowing that true happiness comes from caring for myself and others, and not from the pursuit of wealth, fame, or power, I will live a simple sustainable life and practice joy on the path of service. I am determined to take only what is freely given and I will choose the products I buy and use with awareness of their impact on other beings and our precious Earth. I am committed to finding ways to stand with and share my resources with those who are in need. I will work with others to create just and generous societies.

Cultivating Loving Relationships
Aware of the suffering caused by the unmindful use of sexual energy, I am committed to cultivating responsibility, and learning ways to promote loving and respectful relationships. I will generate joy, kindness, compassion, and inclusiveness, in myself and others—these are the foundation of true love and intimacy. Knowing that sexual activity motivated by craving harms myself and others, I will be mindful of the source of my desires. I am aware that sexual energy is sacred and at the base of all life. I will learn appropriate ways to express my sexual energy or to transform it into the energies of service and spiritual growth. If I choose to engage in a sexual relationship, I will do so only when there is love, mutual respect, and a commitment to deepen the relationship. To preserve the happiness of myself and others, I will be mindful of the consequences of my actions, and I will respect my commitments and the commitments of others. I will work to create a world in which every child, woman, and man is loved and protected, where there is tolerance and compassion, and in which there is reverence and support for both non-sexual and sexual relationships of love and respect.

Compassionate Listening and Loving Speech
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen, I am committed to cultivating compassionate listening and truthful loving speech, in order to bring happiness to myself and others. I am determined to listen with my heart, recognizing the suffering of myself and others, and to speak truthfully and kindly. I will look into the sources of my views, so that my thoughts and words are not distorted by wrong perception or strong emotions. I will choose words that inspire compassion, confidence, and joy. I will endeavour to resolve all conflicts, however small. I am committed to working for peace and reconciliation in my family, community, nation, and the global society.

Nourishing Peace and Joy
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to looking deeply into the consequences of what I eat, drink, use, purchase, and allow into my consciousness. Knowing that everything I consume has the potential of nourishing happiness or suffering, I am committed to consuming only items that nourish well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant. Rather than seeking to escape unpleasant feelings by losing myself in entertainments or other distractions, I will practice recognizing, embracing, and transforming the perceptions and memories that give rise to my unhappiness and cravings. I will breathe and walk mindfully so that I am able to touch the many wonders of life that are always available.

Here is one more note that I wrote down during the Stephen Batchelor workshop; it might be helpful in clearing away some Buddhist propaganda (paraphrased from the talk):

Often when we go into a Buddhist tradition you will hear that some particular technique that they teach “is the highest teaching of the Buddha”.  It’s usually some form of meditation.

This is kind of like saying “This is a hammer.  It is the ultimate tool you can apply to any situation.  Learn to use this and you can’t go wrong.” This works until you need to do something like cut a piece of wood in half.  We have a saying for this: “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

A metaphor the Buddha uses is that his teaching is medicine.  We don’t say that there is one medicine that takes care of all ailments.  There are different medicines for different problems.

No Drama

Drama – where do you come from?  Why do we love the so?

Maybe it’s because when there is drama, we know we aren’t alone.  Someone is reacting to us.  We have something to push against.  As long as they keep reacting then they haven’t left.  That wise sage Britney Spears said it pretty well in her most famous song:

My loneliness is killing me
and I must confess I still believe
when I’m not with you I lose my mind
give me a sign
hit me baby one more time

I am noticing when I feel drama inside me.  It seems to always come up when I feel cut off from someone. There is a flash of hurt from a loss of connection.  I am paying attention to the feeling in my body when drama arises.

Ken McLeod writes about this emotional reaction.  One of the ways we can look at our experience is through the method of the “Five Elements” . From this perspective, we react with fear to our experience in one of five different ways when we are not living in awareness, and conversely we respond with wisdom and compassion when we are living in awareness. The five fears are: instability, external threat/loss of control, isolation, destruction, and being nothing.  Each of these ways is metaphorically tied to one of the “Five Elements”(earth, water, air, fire, space).   We all have these five reactions, but we tend to “default” to one or two of these reactions most of the time.  The reaction described in Britney’s song is the element fire. McLeod gives an example of this reaction (from “Wake Up To Your Life”):

The reaction chain for fire begins with the feeling of intensity as we try to consume experience.  Suppose that your teenage daughter asks to stay out later than usual.  You are short with her: “Don’t bother me.  No, absolutely not!”  She stands her ground, saying that you are mean and unfair.  Anger flares into you and you seethe inside.  What is underneath the anger?  You can do nothing with her.  You are helpless and alone.  Your frustration and anger make you feel isolated, and the isolation is terrifying.  You intensify your reaction to as not to feel the isolation.  “No, you can’t , and if you ask again, you’re grounded!”  She makes a sarcastic comment, and you’ve had enough. “That’s it.  You’re grounded.  Go to your room.”  Whether she storms out of the house or goes to her room, you end up alone.  Now your isolation is too much for you.  You storm around your home, throwing objects, burning yourself up.

The horrible thing about our fears is that we cause them to come true.  The above example illustrates that pretty well.  But he gives an even more stark example:

Tom, an intelligent and witty person, likes to stir up trouble.  He is a bit of a social outcast.  Whenever he joins the conversation in a group, he makes comments that are insightful and accurate yet controversial and disturbing.  The conversation quickly becomes more intense, with everyone reacting to his comments.  After a short time, however, the people in the group grow uncomfortable with the level of intensity and move to less controversial topics. Tom is ignored, so he makes another insightful and disturbing comment, initiating another cycle of reaction.

The operation of the reaction chain constantly recreates the conditions that trigger the reaction. Each new cycle takes place at a higher level of intensity, spiraling upward in energy. Tom continues to make situations intense as a reaction to the feeling of isolation, and groups react by isolating him.

The crystallization of energy in the fire reaction chain increasingly distorts his perception of others.  He sees them as against him because they always reject him.  His perception is that even though he makes insightful and helpful comments nobody wants to talk with him, so they must dislike him.  He moves into the hell realm, seeing everything and everyone as an enemy.  Of course, the more he fights, the more others fight with him, so his perception of the hell realm is consistently reinforced.

Together, these two feedback loops lead to the crystallization of energy into the fixed structures that constitute our personality and view of the world.  Unfortunately, the patterns always bring us exactly what we are trying to avoid.  In Tom’s case, he is looking for connection and friendship.  Instead, he is isolated and disliked.

Some of you are in shock because he just described the exact same thing that you do all the time but no one has pointed it out to you in such a stark way before.  For others, you can say that you rarely do this. As I said before, in each of us has these fears to varying degrees.  If you don’t have this one, you probably have another one in abundance.

The above description of “Tom” was an extremely accurate representation of my actions for much of my life.  When I first read this passage, I practiced being mindful of when this reaction was present.  For the first two weeks I was in shock because I saw that almost every action that I did was based on this fear, from great big things down to the smallest detail.   Over the past year I have taken as my primary practice the dismantling of this pattern.

One small way I have practiced in daily life is using a mantra of “no drama”.  I try to observe when drama is present in my mind or when I am acting it out.  When I notice it, I acknowledge that I want excitement and connection, but I know that I will get the opposite if I create drama.  So I try to remember the mantra “no drama” and just chill.

The interesting thing is that for every one of our fears there is a corresponding wisdom. This same energy, when transformed from fear into wisdom, leads to a wisdom called “Distinguishing Pristine Awareness”. This is the ability to know exactly what you are experiencing and also have a pretty good idea of what other people are experiencing. In other words, when you connect to your experience(instead of running away from it), you know what you are experiencing. So someone who has a fear of isolation(e.g. someone who keeps to themselves) is also usually very good at reading other people’s emotional states, even though they may not even be aware of it.  As you develop this wisdom and learn to trust this knowing, you learn to separate your own emotions from others and thereby not be overwhelmed by them.  Because you understand what others are feeling, and are not overwhelmed by it, you have a better chance of connecting with them.

“I wish to draw attention to the following problem: the idea of happiness presupposes that at present we are unhappy.”

– Kosho Uchiyama Roshi

Thus begins the commentary in a chapter from “How to Cook Your Life“, a small book containing Dogen’s classic ‘Instructions for the Zen Cook’ with commentary by Kosho Uchiyama Roshi.  This is such a fantastic book I have dog-eared almost the whole thing.  Dogen speaks very candidly about his time as a young monk when he encounters an old Zen cook.  He asks the old man: “Why, when you are so old, do you do the hard work of the monastery cook?  Why do you not spend your time practicing meditation or working on koans of former teachers? Is there something special to be gained from working particularly as a cook?”  The old monk laughs and says “My good friend from abroad!  You do not yet understand what practice is all about.”  The old man tells him to come to his monastery and speak about it with him. Dogen eventually realizes that the practice of Zen is being awake and present in every moment of life no matter what you are doing.

There is a part of one chapter that is so good I had to reproduce it here, it is from the commentary:

“The reason we find hell or unhappiness unbearable and run around longing to escape is because we cling so strongly to the desire for happiness.  Traditionally, in the East, this is seen as a demon making a plaything out of you in the same way a cat does to a mouse it has caught.  Perhaps he puts us in a pot to boil or chases us up a mountain of needles.  We run around all confused and the demon taunts us all the more with our own confusion.

Or to offer a more modern-day example, a man’s business fails and then his wife falls ill.  His child has a traffic accident, which causes a nervous breakdown. All his misfortunes seem to come at once, and in complete despair, he begins to struggle.

However, since everything – in this case, even misfortune – is our life, what is essential especially in these circumstances is to meet adversity with an attitude of equanimity.  If we fall into hell, then we need the resolve to see that hell is our home. When we are being boiled in the demon’s cauldron, that is where we need to do zazen. When we are pursued up a mountain of needles, we should be willing to climb that mountain hand over hand even at the risk of our life.  When we throw all our life energy into whatever we encounter, no demon can help but retreat.  What a way to live!

In the “Record of Linji” is the following passage:

“The Self far transcends all things.  Even if the whole universe tumbled down, I would have no misgivings. Though all the buddhas in the ten directions would appear before me, I would not rejoice.  Even though the three hells might appear before me, I would have no fear, since there is nothing I dislike.”

We view heaven or hell, enlightenment or delusion all with the same eye, or to put it more positively, we throw our whole lives into whatever we encounter, and that is the attitude of living out the buddhadharma.

When we have developed this kind of attitude toward our lives, the meaning of living day by day changes completely, along with our valuation of the events and people and circumstances that arise.  Since we no longer try to escape from delusion, misfortune, or adversity, nor chase after enlightenment and peace of mind, things like money and position lose their former value.  People’s reputations or their skills at maneuvering in society have no bearing on the way we see them as human beings, nor does a certificate of enlightenment make any impression on anyone.  What is primary and essential is that as we develop this vision, the meaning of encountering the things, situations, or people in our lives completely changes.

…when we live our lives to the fullest, there is no such thing as superior or inferior, good circumstance or bad, fortune or misfortune.  There is only the one taste of the great ocean of life.”

Evangelism

I’ve had conversations with a few people recently about the early phases of Buddhist practice and Sangha life and a desire that comes up to convince other people to practice.  Trying to show others the benefits of practice and how to do it can come from both positive and negative motivations. On the positive side, these actions can come from a sense of compassion and interbeing, knowing that our own happiness is deeply connected with others’ happiness.  On the negative side it can come from fear of losing control of our own emotions. When we talk about practice to others based on this negative motivation, it often causes more discord than harmony. Others can usually sense for which reasons we are doing it and will react appropriately.  And let me say up front that the behavior I describe below isn’t limited to Buddhists.

Why do we try to convince others to meditate and practice mindfulness?  I mean, in that way that we need them to practice, like our own life depends on it?

So in the first couple years of practice, our mind calms down from our own efforts for possibly the first time in our life.  Especially after we go on our first retreat and we see life like we’ve never seen it before.  We get a taste of real clarity, calm, peace, and joy.   There is a sense of freedom, like we are no longer being controlled by something.  There is a spaciousness in our heart and we are more open to others. We see the enormous potential of this method.  It’s something so straightforward anyone can do it.  We have a great desire for others to benefit the way we have and be happy.

On the other hand, those positive feelings only last for just a few hours after our weekly meditation session, or maybe a day or two, and then our negative habits return.  Back and forth we go. We quickly realize we could lose our practice, which we now understand is our lifeline to freedom.  We have seen a glimpse of a way of life free from being controlled by fear, anger, jealously, stress, anxiety, loneliness, etc.  The people in our life are skeptical of what we are doing, some might even be derisive.  Some others are pleasantly neutral (as long as we dont talk too much about it), and some even have a few encouraging words.  Whatever their reaction, they certainly aren’t supporting you as much as we want them to.  We are acutely aware that many of them are engaged in activities that make themselves miserable, and in turn make it difficult for us to practice.  They are engaged in endless distractions, anxiety, busyness, speaking with exaggerating, slander, insults, lies, pursuing wealth, fame, excitement, novelty, power, sex, drinking and drugs, engaged in self-destructive behavior, destroying the earth, etc.  We realize how easily we could go back to being like that, and that fear takes a hold of us.

We react to this fear, we get annoyed and angry at others because they aren’t practicing.  If they were, everything would be fine.  (Ha-ha) So we try to explain to them what we have discovered.  If they were practicing, we would be able to get along with them and be their friends so much easier!

But why are we getting annoyed and angry in the first place?  Think about it…I’ll give you a minute…….  Ok, now keep reading and see if our answers match…

From what I can tell there are two major things going on here.  The first is that those other people you are hanging out with are encouraging your old negative behaviors, simply by you being around them and observing those behaviors.  Those negative habits inside of you are being triggered and are threatening to take you over.  Those habits are so powerful and you feel like you have no control over them.  You react to that fear of losing control and project back on to other people: if they were practicing, then everything would be fine.  If they were practicing, you wouldn’t be encouraged into those potentially damaging behaviors. So you try to convert them.

What you’ve overlooked in the whole process is that it’s actually your own feelings you are reacting to, not their behavior.  You dont want to feel these negative habit energies, you are afraid you might hurt yourself or someone else if they come up(note: hooray that you know this now!), so you try to convince others to practice.  And since the Bodhisattva Vow says we should try to free all beings from suffering, we think we are practicing correctly by trying to get other people to practice.  But if you actually try to talk to someone about it, the other person will feel like you are trying to push something on to them.

The second thing that I’ve noticed that’s related to why we try to convert people comes at it from the other side.  Some of our relationships (friendships, partners, family members) affect us deeply, and some can be fairly damaging to us.  Some people we know may not treat us well.  But we allow them to keep up this behavior towards us.  We might have various excuses for it, such as obligation, or we don’t understand what a healthy relationship is, or we feel we can’t do better, or we are afraid of being lonely, or we don’t want to hurt the other person’s feelings by cutting things off with them.  We have these feelings when we have an inferiority complex; we lack a sense of self-worth.  We make these excuses when we haven’t yet generated enough compassion and loving-kindness for ourselves. We keep unconsciously asking ourselves “Why am I putting up with this?” but hating ourselves even more because we do put up with it.  Because we feel like we are stuck with the person, we try to change them.

I am intimately familiar with these patterns because that is exactly what I used to do and feel for the first few years of practice.  Not everyone goes through this, but a significant number of us do that I thought it might help to mention it.  From talking to a number of people about this, it seems this is a normal process to go through.  It’s not a big deal; no one will be scared for life because you tried to get them to meditate.

How do we practice with these things?  The best way to deal with it is to have a teacher/mentor/more experienced person who can guide you away from making the really big gaffes and smooth out some of the rough edges.  Of course, simply staying away from situations that overwhelm you or taking a break from difficult situations is one straightforward thing you can do.  But this presupposes you know when you are getting overwhelmed and you know when you are reacting instead of acting.  Practice of the Five Mindfulness Trainings is also helpful here, and by that I mean practicing them with mindfulness instead of using them as another way to beat yourself up.  And finally, if you find yourself talking a lot about Buddhism to someone, try getting feedback from the other person before you go into an hour-long discourse on the Dharma.  Are they interested?  Are they asking questions about it?  Which part of it are they interested in?

Things will get better with more practice.  As you calm down your negative habit energy and develop your compassion and loving-kindness, then being around people who are doing unwholesome things doesn’t bother you (of course, we all have limits).  For example, when you see someone drinking, it will not stir a desire in you to drink; or when you hear someone talking badly about someone else, you will not want to jump in and do it too; or when you hear about your neighbor getting that thing you’ve always wanted, you are happy instead of jealous.  You will also naturally gravitate away from negative people.  You are willing to risk loneliness for freedom.

And how about you, what do you think?  Do you have any experience with these situations?  Any examples? :)