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Dharma Post #12: Uncertainty

Dharma Post #12: Uncertainty

♫ ♫ ♫ “To the Unknown” — a piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.” ~Pema Chödrön

It’s been a while since I posted here (brushing the tumbleweeds off the blog). Sorry it’s been so long! This summer has been wild and woolly, with a lot to juggle. I’ve been keeping multiple balls in the air and experiencing uncertainty with many of those balls. As a result, I’ve had difficulty making plans and attaching to outcomes or expectations. And you know what? It’s been good for my practice. Sure, I’ve experienced uncertainty before. A whole lot of it. Haven’t we all? This summer has, however, reminded me yet again that change is integral to life, that life, as I’ve said here before, is a dynamic process and not a static edifice.

We like to have our feet on terra firma, in other words, to know where we stand. Uncertainty throws terra firma to the four winds. As a result of experiencing uncertainty, we often try to find something to cling to, whether from the past or in our notions of the future, which means that either way, we aren’t fully present for now. Making peace with uncertainty – harmonizing ourselves with the nature of life being change – helps us cultivate our capacity to be fully present and aware of what’s going on in our lives moment by moment, instead of clinging to the past or dreading the future.

Perhaps our most common reaction to uncertainty is fear of the future – fear of what might happen, fear of what might not happen, fear of our own fear. Sometimes we experience apprehension to which we can give no name, a feeling through which we convince ourselves that because we’re experiencing uncertainty, we are bound for some terrible fate. Other times, dread is locked up in storylines we create about ourselves or about other people. Either way, our mental constructs cause suffering.

Why? Well, through mental constructs, we seek anchors. We seek security, something to latch onto, something we hope will make us feel safe. But those anchors – security blankets – can’t last, since everything changes. Our first reaction to change – the gateway to the unknown – is fear or dread, and we scramble to get our feet on what we earnestly hope is solid ground, impermanent mental constructs that we either think up for ourselves or borrow from somebody else’s ideas.

When we’re faced with the prospect of change, especially when we don’t know what the change will entail – and let’s admit it, when and how can we possibly know the full ramifications of change? – we fall into habits of reaction, some of which have their origins in early childhood as coping mechanisms by which we tried to make sense of the world, and then we’re off, reacting and reacting and reacting, not seeing clearly, and becoming frustrated and angry when our anchors crumble and the ground under our feet turns out to be air.

The world changes along with us, and us along with the world. Everything together – us, the traffic on our street, the wars being fought across the globe, our next-door neighbors’ marital struggles, the abandoned kitten foraging for food two streets over, the tadpoles in the pond on the mountain, the joys and agonies and triumphs and disappointments and comings and goings and busy times and quiet moments of beings all over the world – are all part of the same thing, and it changes all the time, with nothing anywhere ever remaining the same.

This moment, whatever it is you’re doing, thinking, or feeling, is unique. It’ll never come again. At the same time, it’s part of the continually unfolding process which we term our lives, the world, the cosmos, the universe, and our experiences of these things as we perceive them. When our perceptions — ego-clinging, bending and skewing what comes in to fit our views — obstruct clear seeing, then we fall into confusion. Delusion. Our need for anchors, for certainty and for absolutes, is part of this dynamic.

Many people think they need anchors in order to find peace, but they search all their lives without finding anything. Anchors slip. Certainty is illusion when change is the only constant. Finding peace in uncertainty – notice I didn’t say “despite” uncertainty – is part of the path of practice. I have a phrase for this: “keeping my seat.” When things go crazy around me, I strive to keep my seat. By seat, I don’t mean an anchor. Rather, I mean expansiveness, or letting go, to the extent I’m able, of the need for anchors, for certainty.

“Seat” refers to sitting meditation, but it also refers to coming back to the breath which rises and falls, coming back to the moment I’m currently experiencing – in other words, now, the only time I really have. Keeping my seat also means staying aware – paying attention to what is happening now, since life is a flow of nows. In making peace with our nows, we build lives of peace, a calm inner abiding that doesn’t depend on mental fabrications of “certainty” existing out in the world to serve as anchors. Things arise, then they pass. With awareness, with clarity, we can see this process, and we can accept it.

When we’re less attached to anchors, we can open ourselves more – our minds and our hearts. We don’t resent the traffic on our street. How does our annoyance at traffic change it? It doesn’t. Our annoyance only annoys ourselves and perhaps those around us as well. We are able to be better friends to those around us, to engage in deep listening, deep caring, and give of ourselves more freely. “What’s in it for me?” is one of the most pernicious anchors of all, wherein we feel that whatever good we do, there ought to be some promise or expectation of reward. But life isn’t a carrot and stick proposition. Rather, as Pema Chödrön says, life is a good friend and teacher. That applies especially when its lessons are particularly challenging.

So why feel fear, why feel dread at the prospect of uncertainty, of the unknown? No matter what happens, we can learn from it and cultivate not just knowledge but wisdom and compassion, which are far more important than knowledge in how we live our lives. When we deeply look, listen, and investigate, we come to know our true nature through the experience of realization.

Whatever is before us, whatever might be happening, can be a means of awakening. And uncertainty – the unknown – is made up of boundless possibilities for liberation.

Dharma Post #11: Attachment

Dharma Post #11: Attachment

♫ ♫ ♫ “Attachment” — a little piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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One man can conquer a thousand times thousand men in battle,
but one who conquers himself is the greatest of conquerors.”
~The Dhammapada

There’s a lot of talk in Zen teachings – well, Buddhist teachings in general – about attachment and how it’s the cause of suffering. Sometimes people fixate – um, attach – to this concept without investigation and claim it means Buddhism is a path that encourages people to become automatons who don’t care a fig about anything or anyone except for the dust in their navels.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. My understanding of attachment is that it springs from deluded, dualistic views of “self” and “other.” The path of Zen practice encourages freedom from dualistic views, and as a result, we actually learn to care more freely and expansively for ourselves, others, and our world than while living under the yoke of attachment.

Photo by Hartwig HKD on Flickr.com.

One form of attachment that creates tremendous suffering is found in conditional love. When we place conditions on our love for others, we are, in essence, attaching ourselves to an idea of those people that we’ve created in our minds. We layer on storyline after storyline about who a person is and who we want him or her to be. If the person dares to step outside the parameters we’ve placed around him or her, we withhold our love as punishment or as motivation to try to get the person back in line with our comfort level. As I have discussed in earlier posts, this isn’t love. It’s control. Conditional love is attachment to delusion – to limited concepts about another person’s selfhood that exist only in our minds and cannot possibly encompass the shifting, changing being and his or her infinite range of possibilities.

I’ve always liked this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” Something in the gist of this quote rings back, for me, to the words of the Buddha in the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Some people who misunderstand Buddhism take “With our thoughts we make the world” literally and label it ridiculous. What it means, though, is that we truly make the world in which we live by how we choose to see it, live in it, act in it, and react to it.

If we perceive the world as evil and ourselves as victims, then those thoughts, in every present moment, will reinforce the cycle of misery, since it’s in the present moment that we create not only our lives (worlds) but our future. If we become “feverish selfish little clods of ailments and grievances,” then we have nobody to blame but ourselves, since we’ve attached ourselves to the fever, to the selfishness, to those grievances, to those ailments, and have defined these things as ourselves. The good news is that we can stop the cycle at any time by letting go of what is hurting us, thus refusing to stay in prisons of our own making. When difficult things happen and challenges arise in our lives, we can use these things to help us grow in wisdom and compassion by choosing whether we’ll react with the same-old, same-old hurtful patterns, or with greater mindfulness, awareness, and big-picture perspective. And with every occasion we make the latter choice, we grow.

With unconditional love, we love without limits. That doesn’t mean we love everything a person does, any more than it means we love everything we do. But when humility and honesty – compassion and wisdom – enter the picture, we more readily acknowledge that everybody makes mistakes, including ourselves. We learn to forgive and let go of grudges. We release attachments to concepts of who we want other people or ourselves to be, and we open our hearts and minds to others and ourselves as ever-changing phenomena that manifest moment by moment. Love without control. Love without strings. Love without fear. We find that our ability to love not only grows but exponentiates.

One of the most pernicious prisons we build for ourselves is comprised of bricks that are made up of attachments to the past, which can take the form of all kinds of things, among them anger, addiction, guilt, annoyance, irritation, and holding grudges. All these emotions and reactions keep our mind tethered to the past so that we are unable to experience, with any clarity, the present moment: where our life is actually happening, where it’s actually unfolding. When we attach ourselves so fiercely to the past, we also limit our capacity for unconditional love, since we’re defining ourselves and other people in terms of what we or what he or she did in the past, so that we aren’t allowing ourselves to be open to the possibilities in ourselves and others as we and they exist now.

Another kind of attachment that impedes present moment awareness is looking toward the future, whether desiring and craving or worrying and fearing. When we load ourselves down with expectations and storylines about the future — what’s going to happen, what won’t happen, what might happen — we can’t experience the present moment as it is. Present moments rush by while our minds are anchored to the future, a construct that doesn’t even exist. And the future will never exist, since by the time it manifests itself, it becomes the present moment.

People can make themselves miserable pining for a future that will never exist: “My life must be this way, that way, and this other way, or else I can never be happy, content, or peaceful.” That’s not a good way to achieve goals. It is, however, a great way to drive yourself nuts. Believe me, I know. I’ve done this kind of thing, and I bet everyone reading this post has, too. But it’s delusion. Think about it. How many things in your life have turned out exactly as you planned? How many things in your life are exactly as you thought they’d be? Very few, I bet. When we set expectations in stone, we’re bound to be disappointed. Sure, hope is great, but I recommend an open-ended hope, where we keep ourselves open to surprises and to those myriad things that happen throughout our lives which we could never have predicted but which continue to open up more and more possibilities to explore.

Trying to attach to a concrete future is rather like trying to attach to to a concrete self. The moment we attach to a conception of what we are, that we will have changed in the interim. We desperately try in so many ways to grab onto something solid: me, you, this situation, that circumstance, or this scenario. And while all these things feel real, there’s actually nothing to grab, and when we truly start to learn that there’s nothing to grab, we can increasingly allow things to be and to make peace with ourselves and with our lives. I’m not saying we shouldn’t consider the future. But increasingly, I believe that the very best way to create happy futures for ourselves is to focus clearly on the present moment and treat it with as much care, gentleness, and attention as it deserves. When our minds are constantly on the run, whether to the past or to the future, we can’t bring awareness to life as it is happening. With such muddy minds, is it any wonder we get sucked into negative patterns of reactivity?

Without attachments, we’re free. The Buddha knew this because he discovered it for himself. One of the many things I love about Buddhism — and Zen, in particular — is that it’s grounded, practical, and applicable to our day-to-day lives. You don’t have to believe in the supernatural, nor do you have to accept unverified — and unverifiable — claims. Instead, you experience — investigate — for yourself.

To my mind, Zen is scientific, in the sense that you can try it and see if it works. Practice, however, needs to be a commitment. Patterns built up over a lifetime can’t be dismantled in, say, a day. In the context of practice, too, a person needs to be careful about attaching to expectations. Rather, we think of practice as we think of life: one present moment at a time. Growing in wisdom and compassion is about the way we relate to each of the present moments that make up our lives: being there for those moments and being mindful, kind, aware, and gentle to each of them. In this way, we let go of constructs like the past, the future, and conditional love, all of which blinker deep awareness of this phenomenon we call our lives.

Letting go of attachments doesn’t mean we become automatons. Rather, it means we take responsibility for ourselves and our minds, hearts, and lives. And letting go of attachments doesn’t mean we renounce our capacity to love. Instead, when we renounce those attachments that cause us to suffer, we free ourselves to live in a wiser and more honest and compassionate way in which we increasingly recognize, in clarity and luminous awareness, how incredibly precious is every present moment, every beating heart, and every living being.

Dharma Post #10: The Power of Forgiveness

Dharma Post #10: The Power of Forgiveness

♫ ♫ ♫ “The Power of Forgiveness” — a little piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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“You’re mean to me
Why must you be mean to me?
Gee, honey, it seems to me
You love to see me cryin’.” ~Billie Holiday

Over the course of my life, I’ve learned a great deal about the power of forgiveness. When we hang on to the past, when we continually bring into the present moment our grudges from the past, we can’t find peace. By clinging to the past and whatever pain we might have experienced there, we’re effectively building a phantasmal prison in which our hearts and minds dwell, and that prison functions to warp and bend our perceptions, plunging us deeper and deeper into delusion.

Often when relationships get into trouble, it’s the baggage of the past that’s weighing them down. This happens when people will not let go of that baggage. You would think people would want to let go of heavy, painful baggage, just in the same manner as a person would want to put down a heavy burden while taking a long walk. If you can move more freely, who wouldn’t choose to do so?

It’s a funny thing, though, being human. Sometimes we cling to painful baggage from the past because, in some form or fashion throughout the years, we’ve convinced ourselves that the baggage somehow defines who “we” are, and that if we release the baggage, we’ll be in some kind of frightening free-fall whereby we no longer know ourselves or what we’re about. It’s much like how people often define themselves by opinions and views.

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Photo by Hannah on Flickr.com.

This tendency seems to be particularly pronounced when people are clinging to hurts from childhood. It’s as if they formed their self-image partly by building up defense mechanisms against those old hurts, whether anger, jealousy, self-hatred, a need to always be “right,” or all of these in combination. And as adults, they experience great difficulty in letting go of these defense mechanisms, since those have become so ingrained that they seem to define the self. But do they really? Can they really?


When we cling to defense mechanisms rooted in the pain of our pasts, we’re continually creating a self that’s defined by something which no longer exists. The past, no matter what might have happened back there, is gone. The past is no longer here. The only thing here is now, and the only thing now is here: the present moment. If we let the past go, then every present moment becomes a clean slate to which we can pay attention and utilize to stop the cycle of anger, blame, and finger-pointing. We set ourselves free, not only from the past but from our ongoing perceptions, the painful moment-by-moment re-creations of something we carry forth like spectral barnacles which are no longer truly with us but whose hooks we tell ourselves we still feel in our backs.

Just as we can choose in every moment to be kind, we can also choose to forgive. Hanging onto the past is a conscious choice. Forgiveness is also a conscious choice. The former keeps us in a prison of our own making; the latter sets us free. If we have been deeply wronged, the act of forgiveness doesn’t mean that we condone what the other person has done. What it does mean is that we open our hearts and minds in order to extend understanding and compassion to the person who has behaved in a hurtful manner.

In every present moment, we have the power to create relationships anew. Let’s say we hold a grudge of the sort, “She’s been mean to me.” Well, maybe that’s true. But if we’re honest with ourselves, can we claim we’ve never been hurtful to her? And we can’t fully know what caused her to behave the way she did. To admit we have behaved badly and/or we cannot possibly know everything about a situation can be humbling, but humility is actually the very tool we need to break these ongoing negative cycles. When we’re honest enough with ourselves to see and admit that it takes two to tango and that each party has played his or her part in contributing to painful dynamics, we free ourselves to make peace with one another in the here and now, so that we can move forward together with kindness and compassion, thereby strengthening our relationships, not degrading them.

Forgiveness and unconditional love walk hand-in-hand. Unconditional love requires courage. Love is frequently misunderstood as something we give to or withhold from others based on whether they stay in the parameters we have set for them. It’s the old “I’ll love you as long as you do what I want you to do, say what I want you to say, and avoid doing or saying anything that makes me uncomfortable.” But that’s not love. It’s the opposite of love, which is control. Most of us have done that kind of thing out of fear, whether insecurity or hurts rooted in the past which we worry might rear their heads again in the present. Basically, it’s about protecting ourselves.

buddhism, meditation, mindfulness, dharma, dharma post, forgiveness, zen

Photo by Hartwig HKD on Flickr.com.

What is this “self” we try so desperately to protect by holding grudges, perpetuating anger, and refusing to forgive? The self is nothing more than an accretion of experiences. Likewise, perceptions are only perceptions; they aren’t set in stone. Memories of the past are malleable. They’re based on whatever our perception was at the time the events happened. Perception is in no way absolute, any more than anything else in our changing and impermanent world, including our changing and impermanent selves.

Forgiveness opens us back up to unconditional love through relinquishing control. When we recognize and acknowledge the ephemerality of the self which changes from year to year, month to month, day to day, and moment to moment – the ephemerality not just of our selves but of other selves – we find the courage to be vulnerable, opening ourselves to the possibility of love that expands far beyond the limited kind of thing associated with the love of “mine:” that is, “my” husband, “my” mother, “my” friend, or “my” child.

That limited kind of love is based on a sense of ownership: this person is “mine,” therefore, he or she must do or say what we want, otherwise, we’ll make them suffer by withholding lovingkindness from them and by refusing to forgive. When we fill our present moments with this ongoing anger and resentment, we’re creating for ourselves a misery of our own making, which simply doesn’t have to be. When we acknowledge that we don’t sit high up on some lofty, unimpeachable perch in our judgments of others – picking and choosing, “I love you for this, but by golly, I’ll make you pay for that” – we can get relationships back on a healthy footing by letting go of rigid expectations, broadening our views, and opening our hearts and minds to the whole person – his or her possibilities and mystery – instead of putting the person and ourselves in narrow little mind-boxes.

No more “us” vs. “them;” no more “me” vs. “you.” We feel not separation but connection. We no longer impose conditions on love. We set ourselves free from our inner control freaks. That’s the power of forgiveness. Through forgiveness and letting go of “me” and “mine” and the controlling feelings that arise from the ego, we develop our capacity for unconditional love, peace, and joy.

I’ll close with wise words from Zen Master Dōgen (yes, I’m a Dōgen Fan Girl ;) ):

“Do not be concerned with the faults of other persons. Do not see others’ faults with a hateful mind. There is an old saying that if you stop seeing others’ faults, then naturally seniors and venerated and juniors are revered. Do not imitate others’ faults; just cultivate virtue. Buddha prohibited unwholesome actions, but did not tell us to hate those who practice unwholesome actions.”

Dharma Post #9: No More Samsara-ing

Dharma Post #9: No More Samsara-ing

♫ ♫ ♫ “Samsara” — a piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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Someone asked, “What is ‘true insight’?”
The master said, “You have only to enter the secular, enter the sacred, enter the defiled, enter the pure, enter the lands of all the buddhas, enter the Tower of Maitreya, enter the dharma realm of Vairocana and all of the lands everywhere that manifest and come into being, exist, decay, and disappear.
~from The Recorded Sayings of Chan Master Linji Huizhao of Zhenzhou

As I review my Dharma Diary that spans over the past twelve months, I find, over and over again, a pointed instruction to myself: “No More Samsara-ing.” It appears in the very first entry of my diary, and its most recent appearance was only a few days ago. My need to remind myself “No More Samsara-ing” comes up again and again, on multiple levels and in numerous contexts, much like the turning of a wheel over ever-changing terrain.

Reminder to self: No More Samsara-ing.

Ha. Yet again. :)

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Photo by Hartwig HKD on Flickr.com.

Some explanation is in order. The literal meaning of samsara, a Sanskrit word, is “wandering on.” In Buddhism, samsaric existence is the life we lead – billions of “selves” with unquiet minds, endlessly searching and seeking, creating storylines for ourselves and others, constructing situations and circumstances – worlds – for ourselves in which we attempt to dwell, only to find that these worlds can’t last. They keep changing, morphing, even collapsing, and when we try to hold onto them, we suffer. And not only that: when we develop aversions to our worlds, we also suffer. Regardless of whether we grasp or reject the situations of our lives, we keep suffering, and as a result, we wander on and on, hoping that the next world, the next circumstance, will satisfy us and we’ll find peace at last.

Well, it doesn’t work.

I’m a novelist. A composer of music. A creator of all kinds, not the least of which the architect of my life. In the course of my trips around the sun – and particularly, in the course of my Dharma practice – I’ve learned (and continue to learn) that the worlds I create are no more permanent and enduring than the barest wisp of a thought entertained at the sight of a rare mushroom in the forest. I have a lot of fun playing in my fictional and musical worlds. Yet as I look back on my life, I see that not only have I suffered a great deal as a result of my many mind constructs but that other people have suffered from them, too. So it is, I suspect, with all of us.

It’s a strange thing, human thought and creativity. We become so invested in our views that we bend and distort what gets processed through our senses to where we can fit what we want into our view and ignore what’s left – what we don’t want to see – serving as the rationalization to continue our world-building, to continue turning on the wheel of samsara. We suffer, but then we often blame anything – or anyone – outside ourselves whom we can find as a handy scapegoat. It’s ironic that when we seek peace, we also look outside ourselves for its signposts, then continue our world-building to that end. Again, we wind up disappointed. We think peace and happiness are attainable only in samsaric existence and that we need only to build the right world to house our egos. That’s what we’re taught. That’s how we’re conditioned from birth. That’s how we develop layers of habitual reactivity, self-perpetuating negativity, and dissatisfaction.

Why is samsara an ongoing death spiral? It’s because we can never build a permanent, unchangeable edifice wherein our egos can dwell in perpetuity. That assumption is built on the idea of an unchanging self, which is nothing more than another delusion. Our “selves” change all the time, from year to year, month to month, moment to moment. “Self” is never the same. Like everything else in the world, we are all in a state of flux and flow. If we could somehow build a “perfect” and unchanging circumstance or situation in which our selves could dwell, the nature of self is such that we would eventually become dissatisfied because our “selves” – a dynamic process, not a static edifice – would change.

When we grasp something, that means we like it and we want to hang onto it. We cling with all our might to what we want to be its permanence. This dynamic is evident not only in our distaste for acknowledging our own mortality but also that of our loved ones. How paradoxical that we cling – even though we know such clinging is irrational and unrealistic – to the idea that our loved ones will be with us forever and ever, because such clinging to the idea of relationships as permanent often leads to taking these relationships for granted, thereby imperiling them. When we delude ourselves that our relationships will last forever, we don’t fully open our hearts to our families and friends and care for them as much as we might otherwise, if we acknowledged the fleeting and brief nature of our human lives.

Ajahn Brahm has a wonderful simile: we take much better care of a fragile, china cup than a comparatively indestructible plastic one. Why? We know the china cup will someday crack, so we handle it with care. The plastic cup, by contrast, can be thrown from wall to wall, and nothing much would happen. That’s why, when we stop clinging to the idea of permanence, we’re better able to care. We delude ourselves by clinging to the notion of permanence, when there’s no such thing in this world. In her song “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell sings, “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / ‘Til its gone.” That’s a sad reality in many of our lives – attaching ourselves to the notion of something being permanent, only to find ourselves devastated when our hopes are inevitably dashed. So it seems to me that part of stopping samsara must be to care for each moment, whatever and whomever that moment is filled with, since the moment will never come again.

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Aversion and rejection are part of samsara, too. Take worry, for instance. When we worry, we’re creating worlds that don’t exist. After all, what we’re worrying about might not happen at all. A big problem with worry is that when we immerse ourselves in its world, we expend a great deal of energy and emotion on possibilities that might never come to be. And a mind clouded by fear – the essence of worry, since worry is about fear of the future – cannot see anything with clarity. Fear bends and distorts everything that comes into our minds and twists it to its own ends, so the outcome of worry tends to be more worry, and the outcome of fear tends to be more fear. Instead of insight, we have delusion, and instead of skillful action through which we can handle situations in life with wisdom and compassion, we create more negativity and more wheels turning and turning. Many, many more. And all of them are of our own making. That’s the essence of samsara. No wonder the Buddha sought to find the path out of it and put an end to suffering.

What about true insight, to which Linchi refers in the quote above? In The Record of Linchi, he refers to “the ocean of birth and death.” That’s another way to describe samsara. People who believe in rebirth conceptualize awakening – that is, getting off the wheel of samsara – as putting a stop to a continual cycle of literal births and deaths. As with all spiritual paths, many interpretations are possible, and indeed, the Buddha encouraged questioning and investigation, both of which are integral to the path of the Dharma. I tend to think of “the ocean of birth and death” as the same thing as samsara, in which we create, in our minds, so many habitual responses and attitudes toward the things we experience in our lives, and these attitudes cause attachment – grasping or aversion – which results in suffering. Far better to climb out of the ocean, stand on the shore, and see the whole thing, in all its undulations, waves, ebbs, and flows for what it is than to spend our lives in a tempest-tossed boat, making our whole lives about what the water is doing at any given moment instead of realizing that not far away, there’s a shore on which we can stand upright with dignity, a shore from which we can get a clearer perspective on the whole ocean and from which we can, with greater stability, choose our actions.

Meditation and mindfulness can help us off the boat in which we feel ourselves at the mercy of the ocean of birth and death. In meditation practice, we see how the mind grasps and rejects, how thoughts arise and then fall away, and how we can always return to the breath, which gives us clarity. It’s the same thing with mindfulness practice, since returning to the breath – the calm center – helps us to develop insight and a more peaceful mind that doesn’t bend what comes in through the senses to suit the ego’s purposes.

We get off the wheel of samsara by letting go, letting go, letting go. We let go of views, we let go of self, we let go of judgment. It doesn’t mean we disappear. Letting go means developing a clear perspective on these things – that is, that ego and views and judgment do not, nor can they ever, define us or others. The more we let go, the more stable we are, the more calm we are, the more peace we can make with ourselves, with other people, and with life. This is what I think Chan Master Linchi was getting at when he spoke about true insight.

Consider all the tiny births and deaths that happen every day. On a hike, say, I find a rare ladyslipper orchid, breathtakingly beautiful by the side of a rugged mountain trail. A birth. On a subsequent hike, I find that the orchid has withered. A death. I spend lots of time preparing an extra-scrumptious meal and feel anticipation, culminating in my and my husband’s enjoyment of the meal. A birth. Then, the meal is gone, and there’s no more left. A death. I go to sleep at night. A death to the day that has passed. I find myself in a delightful dream. A birth. I wake up from the dream. It’s the death of the dream but a birth to the new day.

Instead of experiencing the moments of our lives as births and deaths – as an ongoing samsaric wheel in which we feel inextricably caught – we strive to experience with less clinging to outcomes, with more gratitude and mindful action, and with the clear recognition that our lives are, indeed, this and this and this.

Reminder to self: No More Samsara-ing.

I’ll end with one of my favorite teachings from Zen Master Dogen: “That you carry yourself forward and experience the myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forward and experience themselves is awakening.”

Dharma Post #8: Chop Wood, Carry Water

Dharma Post #8: Chop Wood, Carry Water

♫ ♫ ♫ “Chop Wood, Carry Water” — a little piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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As I’ve talked about here before, I keep a Dharma diary. Well, three days ago, June 4, marked my one-year anniversary of committing to daily sitting meditation. Of all the paths I’ve chosen, the path of mindfulness and meditation practice has been one of life’s most enriching. Before June 4, 2011, I meditated sporadically and read about the Dharma, but I quickly discovered that there’s a great deal of difference between occasional practice and study and integrating practice into one’s life. It has brought new perspectives, angles, balance, and mental space on everything imaginable, and as the past year has ripened, I have discovered more and more how fluid is this thing I call life, how fluid is this thing I call self.

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Photo by Matias on Flickr.com.

Practice is a continuing journey. According to the ancient Zen masters, not only do we all have Buddha nature, but we’re already awake; it’s practice which helps us realize that. And realization can manifest in many ways. I had a fascinating realization earlier today.

For the past year, I have done my formal sitting meditation in the evenings. That’s all well and good. Through meditation, I’ve become more mindful of day-to-day life, putting behind habits of acting and reacting by rote, and carving out fresh mental space to really pay attention to what’s going on inside me and how I react to experiences.

Did I mention that putting those habits behind me has been a process? And clearly, as shown by today’s realization, it’s very much an ongoing process! To begin, a little bit of background: first thing when I get up, there are a number of tasks I must do along the lines of daily household maintenance. I like to deal with these before hitting the day’s writing and creative work. As life has become more busy, I’ve been experiencing a disconcerting mental and emotional state upon finishing my chores and segueing to my writing and creative work. In short, I’ve felt frazzled out of my gourd. And there’s really been no reason why I should feel this way.

I’d been reflecting on my past year of daily evening meditation. And yesterday, I hit on the idea of making a daily habit of meditating first thing when I get up, as well. Instead of one evening sit, I’d commit to two daily sits, one when I first get up (a Start the Day sit) and then my usual second sit in the evenings. Today, I did my Start the Day Sit for the first time, and I was astonished – British people would likely say “gobsmacked” – by what I discovered.

My evening sits vary from day to day, as sits will do, but they tend to be, on the whole, pretty calm and peaceful. By contrast, I discovered, via my first Start the Day Sit, that my mind was in a knot, right after waking up and getting out of bed. Who knew? Certainly not me. At least, not consciously. It was as though I had discovered an obsessive-compulsive runner in my mind, poised at some kind of mental Starting Line, his muscles knotted and coiled in tension as he waited for the day’s starting gun to fire.

Good grief. No wonder I’d been feeling so frazzled after completing my first-of-the-day chores. From the moment my feet hit the floor, my mind’s runner was already all wound up, and all this when he had yet to move so much as a muscle.

What a realization!

My first Start the Day sit went well. Discovering my obsessive-compulsive mind-runner, who’s all tied up in knots at the start of each day, gives me not only awareness of what leads to my frazzled feeling later in the day but also gives me the tools, via practice, to calm down my mind-runner and let him widen and broaden his view to where he’s no longer caught frozen in a bug-eyed, thousand-yard stare off into the future. Instead, over time, he’ll learn to accept that the day’s work can still be accomplished without starting out as a human pretzel.

Implications of this realization are things I knew intellectually, but now, through practice, feel more viscerally: whatever it is I’m doing, do it with my full attention, in the present moment. Writing prose and composing music deserve my full attention, sure, but sweeping, laundry, and cleaning up kitty messes deserve my full attention, as well.

When I rush through chores, continually cracking a whip over my own head (talk about contortionist antics!), I’m spiraling down into a delusion which I call “crazy making of my own invention.” It’s time to stop the crazy-making, time to untie the knots. As the old Zen saying goes, “Before enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: Chop wood, carry water.” Life is practice, practice is life. Meditation is mindfulness, mindfulness is meditation.

Be present for my life. Make peace with each moment. Bring kindness, gentleness, care, and awareness to each moment. And the days will unfold ever so much more peacefully.

Dharma Post #7: Opening the Heart – Letting Go of Grudges

Dharma Post #7: Opening the Heart – Letting Go of Grudges

♫ ♫ ♫ “Letting Go of Grudges” — a brief piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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In the comments for my last lovingkindness post, Querulous Squirrel, blog buddy and flash fiction writer extraordinaire, brought up some excellent points. She talked about how sometimes, it’s easier to be kind to strangers than to people with whom we share a longstanding personal connection. She went on to say that when we share complicated histories of many years’ duration with family members and friends, they know how to push our buttons and vice versa. This mutual button-pushing provides fodder for grudges, which then bubble up into a stew of toxic resentment.

Toxic resentment. Sounds awfully close to toxic waste. But all too often, it’s the cause of good relationships gone sour.

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Photo by Tambako The Jaguar on Flickr.com.

Or is it? Toxic resentment, in and of itself, isn’t the cause of anything. Toxic resentment is an effect, not a cause. So what causes toxic resentment? Grudges. There again, grudges are an effect, not a cause. So what causes grudges?

Grudges are caused by hanging onto bad feelings about another person. In other words – or, specifically, another word – they’re caused by attachment. In this case, a grudge arises when someone attaches to a negative feeling they’ve experienced in conjunction with another person’s behavior and his or her own reactivity to that behavior. A grudge by definition can’t be a grudge unless we hang on to it. If we let it go, it ceases to be a grudge. It’s no longer anything at all. And by letting go of grudges, we reduce the pitfalls on our path of lovingkindness practice.

I’ve often noticed the spectacle of people reacting in heated, angry fashion to something said by spouses, parents, or children when the same comment by a stranger passes unnoticed. Why is this? It’s toxic resentment at work. When somebody we’re close to says something that pushes our buttons, our egos assume it’s an attack against US. I think that’s why we hang onto grudges. We think our grudges protect us against those attacks, the button-pushing. We think those grudges serve us as a defensive barrier, emotional plate-mail armor of sorts, to keep other people’s daggers out.

But you know what? They don’t. Grudges never protect us from anything. They only lead to more resentment which, in turn, provokes deeper grudges or even new ones. Sure, we can delude ourselves that our grudges protect us from hurt, that they keep us on guard against other people’s personal attacks and/or button-pushing – but the reality is that the only thing grudges ever do is to close our hearts and harden them into tight, little stones with the density of neutron stars. The harder and tighter our hearts get, the more ego-invested we become in keeping that way. An unpleasant cycle, to be sure. It’s hurtful to others and to ourselves.

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Photo by Lourdes Nightingale on Flickr.com.

When we view other people – whether a spouse, a parent, a friend, or a child – as “the other” who’s “out to get us” and doing nothing less than wielding emotional daggers against our hearts every chance they get, we’re not just hardening our hearts but we’re also closing our minds. We’re telling ourselves a story, a simplistic, black and white story that doesn’t even begin to approach the complex nuances of what’s really happening. We tell ourselves, in self-congratulatory fashion, that we know everything about a person, that he or she is chronically angry, say, or naturally argumentative, that everything they say or do is intended to provoke us, make us feel bad about ourselves, or reduce us into insignificance. But notice the recurring theme: the ego. US. We make everything about us, and when we do that, we put on blinkers and increase our suffering a hundredfold, whether in our relationships with our nearest and dearest or with a cashier at the grocery store.

Instead of “us vs. them” or “me vs. you”, it’s helpful to think, simply, in terms of the relationship. To paraphrase something Ajahn Brahm often says, it’s not about us, it’s not about them, but it’s about the relationship – what lies between us, all of us, no matter how near, no matter how far. And when we find ourselves in habits of reactivity with our nearest and dearest, it’s helpful to ask ourselves, in the context of longstanding grudges, how did this grudge arise?

We might think we figure out the answer in pretty short order, but do we really? Take what seems to be the answer, and trace its origin back, as far as you can. You’ll find that what we perceive as concrete, defined grudges against another person are nothing more than the result of years and years of telling ourselves storylines about what “they” said, what “they” did, and heck, we might not even have been right about what that other person intended so long ago. Even if we are close to right, that still doesn’t make us correct (to paraphrase Ajahn Chah). And it doesn’t mean we’re justified in making black and white, absolutist judgments about other people any more than they’re justified in doing so to us.

Let’s say somebody calls you a blockhead. If you let it go without harboring a grudge, the person has called you a blockhead once. Let’s say, instead, you hold a grudge against the person for calling you a blockhead. That means every time you see the person or interact with him, you’re reminding yourself that he called you a blockhead. In other words, over the course of a year, you’re letting him call you a blockhead one-hundred times. Maybe two-hundred. And if you hang onto the grudge over the course of a lifetime, you’ve let him call you a blockhead somewhere around the neighborhood of 20,000 times.

Who needs that? Not you, and not the other person, either. If you reduce him in your heart and mind to “that person who called me a blockhead,” that doesn’t do much to nurture the growth of the relationship in a positive direction. And all this, when he probably didn’t mean, deep down, to call you a blockhead at all. Sure, he shouldn’t have insulted you and acted out. But even if he thought he meant it at the time, tit for tat doesn’t solve a thing and only escalates the cycle of resentment. How many times have we acted out against others? When we acknowledge our own misdeeds, it helps us be more compassionate and understanding toward other people when they make mistakes.

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Photo by Adriel O. Socrates on Flickr.com.

In the Samyutta Nikaya, we find this story:

“The untrained layman, when touched by painful bodily feelings, grieves and laments and is distraught. But the well-trained disciple, when touched by painful bodily feelings, will not weep, nor grieve, nor lament; nor will he be distraught. The layman, when touched by painful bodily feelings, weeps. He experiences two kinds of feelings: a bodily one and a mental one.

“It is as if a man is hit by one arrow, and then by a second arrow; he feels the pain of two arrows. So it is with the untrained layman; when touched by a painful bodily feeling, he experiences two kinds of feeling, a bodily one and a mental one. But the well-trained disciple, when touched by a painful bodily feeling, weeps not. He feels only one kind of feeling: a bodily one, not a mental one. It is as if a man is hit by one arrow, but not by a second arrow; he feels the pain of one arrow only. So it is with the well-trained disciple; when touched by a painful bodily feeling, he feels but one feeling, bodily pain only.”

We can, I think, extend the metaphor of the two arrows to (1) Arrow Number 1: what other people do or what happens in our world, and (2) Arrow Number 2: our reaction to Arrow Number 1. The first arrow is often beyond our control, and it includes not only our bodily sensations but things we experience in our lives, such as the behavior of other people, especially those people to whom we’re close. Arrow Number 1 can hit our vulnerable points, which can quickly become sore spots if we keep jabbing those spots with Arrow Number 2. The way I see it, though, is that Arrow Number 2 is up to us. It flies through the air, but it doesn’t need to hit. We can move out of the way so the arrow falls harmlessly to the ground. When we nurse and harbor grudges, though, we’re picking up Arrow Number 2 and stabbing ourselves with it, not just once, but often again and again and again. Arrow Number 1 can be challenging enough to deal with, so it serves no useful purpose to ourselves or anyone else to pick up Arrow Number 2 and start stabbing, thereby compounding the difficulties.

Everything changes. Everyone changes. Moment to moment. When we shut our loved ones up in airtight mental boxes, we close our hearts and minds to an infinitude of possibilities: who we can be, who our loved ones can be, and who we can all be in the context of the relationships we share. None of these things are fixed, and we can view flux as a good thing. Change and impermanence lead to suffering only when we latch onto what we think should be concrete and permanent. When we increasingly make peace with change and impermanence, we approach what Alan Watts called “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” which allows room for growth, room for choice, and the room, in every moment, to make the decision to pull off our emotional plate mail armor and let those grudges go. Who can grow when confined by plate mail? Nobody, that’s who.

In relationships, we must strive to be both vulnerable and courageous. The only way to deepen our relationships is to open our hearts – that is, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable. And making ourselves vulnerable – that is, throwing aside our emotional armor – requires a great deal of courage. Our willingness to become both vulnerable and courageous is something that needs to be renewed every day and regularly nourished in the face of day-to-day ups and downs. That includes our relationship to ourselves. We must learn to be kinder to ourselves, and in so doing, we better learn how to be kind to others. Indeed, how we feel about ourselves is often reflected in how we treat others, especially those who are closest to us.

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Zen Master Foyan presented a wonderful teaching called “Investigate All the Way Through.” It’s excellent advice for life in general, and it provides deep insight into helping us let go of many things, among them our grudges. When we hold a grudge and are reacting to it, one of the best things we can do is mindfully investigate where the grudge comes from. A great deal of self-honesty is required here. Without self-honesty, we make the grudges we hold all about “the other person,” but hmm… who feels the grudge? Who picked up Arrow Number 2?


Since none of us is a fixed entity – we’re changing all the time, and so are our loved ones – is it wise to hang onto something like a grudge which we, in our delusion, conceive to be something written in stone for all time, throughout the ages? No. Grudges are like heavy rocks in backpacks we’ve all forgotten that we are carrying. When we investigate all the way through, we discover we’ve been lugging around that heavy pack for a long time, maybe since early childhood. Once we discover we’re lugging the pack around, we can make the choice to loosen the straps and drop the thing. It falls away. We are free.

I’m not saying this is easy-peasy or to expect overnight results or anything like that. Breaking patterns which we’ve built up over many years, sometimes over the course of a lifetime, usually requires – guess what – many years. But that’s okay. With day-to-day mindfulness practice, we can steadily work, over time, to unravel those patterns. We cultivate mindfulness of what happens when our buttons are pushed by our loved ones and what happens when we push back. We become mindful of what happens when we experience annoyance, anxiety, and anger that results from grudges we have been holding. The more we learn, the more we can, through investigation, make a free, open space from which we can create new actions and attitudes to replace the old reactivity, space in which we nurture not grudges but patience, compassion, and gentleness toward others as well as to ourselves.

I’ll close with a quote from Zen Master Foyan:

“This is a matter for strong people. People who do not discern what is being asked give replies depending on what comes up. They do not know it is something you ask yourself — to whom would you answer? When people do not understand an answer, they produce views based on words. They do not know it is something you answer for yourself — what truth have you found, and where does it lead?

“Therefore it is said, ‘It’s all you.’ Look! Look!”

Dharma Post #5: With Metta (Lovingkindness)

Dharma Post #5: With Metta (Lovingkindness)

Metta is a Pali word that’s often translated as “lovingkindness.” Lovingkindness would seem to be one of the simplest things in the world, and indeed, the best parts of all major religions and spiritual paths emphasize the importance of kindness. But people sometimes find it difficult to be kind.

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Photo by Barbara S. on Flickr.com.

Here’s an excerpt from Shobogenzo, masterwork of the thirteenth century Japanese Sōtō Zen Master Eihei Dōgen:

The poet Haku Rakuten of the T’ang dynasty was a lay disciple of Meditation Master Bukko Nyoman, who was a Dharma heir of Baso. When Rakuten was governor of Hangchow, he trained under Meditation Master Dorin of Choka.

Rakuten once asked Dorin, “Just what is the major intention of the Buddha Dharma?”

Dorin replied, “Refrain from all evil whatsoever; uphold and practice all that is good.”

Rakuten remarked, “If that’s all there is to it, even a child of three knows how to say that!”

Dorin replied, “Though a three-year-old child can say it, there are old men in their eighties who still cannot put it into practice.”

Upon hearing the matter put this way, Rakuten then bowed in gratitude.

So why is it sometimes hard to be kind? From the time we’re born, we’re conditioned to go through our lives on autopilot, not thinking or questioning too much. Instead of functioning as aware beings who make conscious choices about how we think, speak, and behave, we tend to let ourselves be led around by whatever impulse might arise in us at any given moment. The more we’re led around by these impulses, the more we develop patterns of habitual reactivity that are centered around those impulses. Patterns of mindless reactivity are seldom conducive to lovingkindness. Instead, they usually reinforce self-centeredness and self-grasping, solidifying the delusion, “Everything’s all about ME, ME, ME.”

Buddhism teaches that if we want kindness, then we must be kindness. To practice metta, we take responsibility for our speech, actions, and behavior. We make a conscious choice in each moment to bring kindness to every situation in which we find ourselves. As the Dalai Lama wisely said, “It is always possible to be kind.”

That doesn’t mean metta practice isn’t challenging. Our ego-centered minds, while in the throes of habitual reactivity, continually find ourselves, other people, and life wanting if these don’t measure up to our expectations. We become all-too-easily mired in negative patterns. The problem is grasping: grasping at situations, grasping at relationships, grasping at outcomes we think we must have. Disappointment results from grasping at things which, by their nature, are unrealistic and impermanent, and the ego processes disappointment as an insult.

Dharma practice, including meditation, helps develop the groundwork from which we can, when confronted by a challenging situation, halt our habitual reaction before it manifests. By doing so, we create a clear space in our minds from which we can make a conscious choice to be kind. Ajahn Brahm, my favorite monk, says, “Anger, violence, tit for tat, that’s what creates all this pain, misery, wars, aggression, violence, and separation in our world.”

When does the cycle end, in our lives and in the world? It ends when we choose to be kind.

I’m sure everyone has had the experience of driving in heavy traffic and either becoming the target of some other driver’s anger or even being the angry person himself. I recall a day when my husband was in the hospital, and I had to run an errand to the grocery store. Though I’d been driving since the age of sixteen, I had only recently learned how to drive a stick shift (manual transmission). I was driving our Jeep in a line of traffic leading up to the store’s parking lot. Anyone who drives stick shifts will know that start-and-stop traffic going uphill is a huge challenge for a person who’s new to manual transmissions. I had to take things slowly and carefully so as not to roll back and hit the car behind me. I kept killing the motor, too. Talk about herky-jerky.

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Photo by Rennett Stowe on Flickr.com.

As things turned out, I took things so slowly – and so herkily-jerkily – that people in the cars behind me started honking their horns, hollering and even cursing. I could hear their angry voices from many yards away. It was as if they thought I was deliberately trying to make their day miserable. The truth? I was a newbie stick shift driver, my husband was sick in the hospital, and I was doing my best in a tough situation. My point? When we’re stuck in habitual ego-centered reactivity, we react unkindly when we perceive we’re being inconvenienced, and indeed, the ego takes things a step further: it makes the situation personal – all about “ME” – generating reactions that are even more unkind. And all this, over something as trivial as arriving at a grocery store a few minutes later than planned.

When practicing metta, we put aside “Everything’s All About ME, ME, ME” and open up our hearts and minds to reality – that is, we open up our hearts and our minds to the fact that we can’t control every situation. We open up our hearts and minds to the fact that we can’t fully know – or judge – the circumstances of a person by whom we feel inconvenienced. In other words, lovingkindness means we give other people the benefit of the doubt. We show them the kindness and respect that we ourselves would want to receive were the situations reversed.

We’ve all made mistakes. We all know what it’s like to feel confused, befuddled, and stressed out. We’ve all accidentally gotten in somebody else’s way. To me, though, lovingkindness removes from the equation the concept of other people being “in our way.” When you take away “Everything’s All About ME, ME, ME” you can give other people the benefit of the doubt and start to understand that maybe – just maybe – this person, like you, is struggling with challenges in her own life and that her circumstances and behavior aren’t intended in any way as an inconvenience, an insult, or an impingement on you.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt is an important component of lovingkindness practice in friendships and familial relationships. The difficulty is letting go of the ego, which wants to be right, which wants accolades, which wants everything to be “just so,” which resists letting go of expectations and demands of exactly how “just so” is to be defined. The challenge is realizing that one person’s “just so” needn’t be another person’s “just so” and opening the mind and the heart to truly seeing that our expectations of the world aren’t going to coincide with everyone else’s. When we are able to open up and acknowledge this, we can quell our impulses toward anger, impatience, and intolerance.

Disarming our egos means letting go of our inner control freaks who cling to expectations of how everything “must” be. When we disengage from our inner control freaks, it makes a tremendous difference, not only for ourselves but for those around us. When we’re no longer trying to control other people, we can give them the gift of unconditional love: that is, metta.

What about when somebody behaves unkindly toward us? Giving him “tit for tat” never makes anything better. Anger and vengeance only lead to more anger and vengeance, spiraling down into hatred, one of what the Buddha calls the Three Poisons (hatred, greed, and delusion). The Buddha also said that hate is never conquered by hate; rather, hate is conquered only by love. So again, we can make the choice to be kind. Instead of reacting to a person who is behaving unkindly with unkindness in turn, we can step back, apply wisdom to the situation, and realize that since we don’t know everything about what’s going on with the person, how can we feel justified in judging and condemning him?

This doesn’t mean we like how the person behaved or that we approve of it; rather, it means we choose the best way to move forward, and the best way to move forward is always to be found in wisdom, compassion, and kindness. We can’t change what the person has done or said. We can, though, choose how we’ll speak and behave right now. And since anger and revenge will only lead to more anger and revenge, choosing to act from those emotions can’t possibly improve the situation. It seems to me that common sense is a counterpart of both wisdom and lovingkindness. Common sense shows again and again that when we bring kindness to a situation, we improve it. Think about all the times you’ve been hurt, confused, deluded, or angry. Is criticism what you have needed in the heat of the moment, even though you might have been receptive to constructive criticism later, following a cooling-off period? Has somebody’s in-your-face anger or derision ever improved your own behavior?

Of course not. By nature, we shrink away from anger and harshness, and we open up toward lovingkindness and compassion.

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Photo by zhouxuan12345678 on Flickr.com.

When somebody behaves unkindly toward us, it’s still possible to be kind. Kindness is always an option. Kindness isn’t about giving in, showing weakness, or allowing people to take advantage of us. Rather, the person who chooses to be kind is courageous, and the person who holds onto his grudge is showing weakness, since he’s letting impulse and reactivity lead him around by the nose. In clinging to his anger like a protective amulet, he’s demonstrating fear, not strength.

Kindness is the courageous choice. With kindness, we don’t seek vengeance, thereby spewing more negative energy out in the world. On the wheel of samsara, anger and vengeance are the paths of least resistance. Kindness stops the turning of the cycles of reactivity; as a result, we enjoy a more peaceful mind from which we can govern ourselves with wisdom, compassion, dignity, and integrity. And the person who has treated us unkindly might become a little less unhappy if we’re kind to them, and perhaps they’ll be less inclined to behave hurtfully in the future.

When we understand that we can’t know everything that influences a person, we can say to ourselves, “If I had that much pressure on me, I might be having a tough time, too.” In so doing, we’re not making excuses for the person; instead, we’re showing empathy by imagining ourselves in his shoes. Empathy enhances metta. We can also choose to realize and acknowledge that we, too, have had times in our lives when we have behaved unkindly. Humility also enhances metta: in acknowledging “I’ve had my moments, too,” we aren’t as apt to judge others harshly.

When you’ve acted out and treated other people badly, has it been out of happiness? Of course not. When I’ve behaved in ways I regret, it has always been out of unhappiness and confusion. When we’re faced with a person who’s treating us unkindly, we do well to remember that her behavior – just as when we’ve been unkind ourselves – comes from unhappiness and confusion. We can then feel compassion for the person. The unhappy person who behaves unkindly isn’t “the other” or “the enemy.” She is our mirror, and we are hers. When we reflect kindness back to her, we become helpful mirrors.

Kindness comes in many forms. It doesn’t mean being a doormat. It does, though, mean willingness to truly listen to another person and open ourselves to insight and understanding of a given situation instead of layering our egocentric storyline about events over the top, blinding us to wisdom and hardening our hearts. Our storylines about ourselves and about other people are simply that: storylines. The truth of any person — any sentient being — is much larger than any storyline.

There’s a great deal in Buddhist teachings about karma. The popular conception is, of course, that of “good karma” and “bad karma.” To me, though, karma simply means what we consciously choose to DO in each present moment. Indeed, the Sanskrit word Karma means “action” or “deed.” In each present moment, we have a choice. Do we choose anger and disconnection, or do we choose kindness and connection? When we make good karma, we’re bringing metta – lovingkindness – to each present moment, thereby actively creating a more positive future for ourselves and for others.

Yes, it’s painful to receive or witness unkind behavior. There are so many beings in the world, so many beating hearts, and they all want – bottom line – compassion and kindness, not suffering and pain. Yet suffering and pain continue to arise in our world because of confusion and delusion and because of choices, made through ignorance, that perpetuate painful patterns of negative reactivity. We can’t control the choices other people make, but we can consciously choose our behavior, thoughts, and words, moment by moment, and in so doing, we can strive to, as Gandhi puts it, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Dharma Post #4: Hungry Ghost

Dharma Post #4: Hungry Ghost

I can’t get no satisfaction
I can’t get no satisfaction
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try…

~from “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones

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“Wheel of Life” photo by Dennis Jarvis on Flickr.com.

What’s a Hungry Ghost? According to Buddhist tradition, the Hungry Ghost Realm is populated by beings whose existence is characterized by constant craving which they can never satisfy. The Hungry Ghost is a creature with an enormous, empty belly, a long, thin neck, and a pinhole-sized mouth. In the realm of the Hungry Ghosts, these creatures search incessantly for food and drink, but their constricted throats and tiny mouths make it impossible for them to get any nourishment. When Hungry Ghosts try to drink, water turns to fire and ash in their mouths, making their thirst even more acute.

Ouch. Sounds like a pretty tough gig, being a Hungry Ghost.

Buddhist tradition is rich in imagery that lends spot-on psychological insights, and Hungry Ghosts are no exception. From the psychological point of view, then, what’s a Hungry Ghost? Perhaps each of us can look in the mirror and see one, if not a current Hungry Ghost, then a Hungry Ghost from our past. So often, we search for satisfaction and fulfillment, only to find that it turns to fire and ash in our lives. We latch onto the idea of that job, that relationship, or the achievement of that goal as The Thing which will finally make us happy, which will finally make us feel good about ourselves. When we actually grasp The Thing we’ve set our sights on, we find that our emptiness still aches inside, so we scramble after the next Big Thing. Here we have the essence of the Hungry Ghost realm, brought to our human experience.

In modern society, we’re surrounded by endless things, infinite distractions, and numerous talking heads who try to tell us how to sort it all out. Many of us run on treadmills for hours each and every day and night, staying so harried and busy that we can hardly find time or space to think. No wonder we are so hungry inside. Not for food, but for meaning. We grow restless. So we latch on to whatever we think will bring meaning to our lives, only to experience profound disappointment when things don’t turn out the way we expected and we’re left still wanting, still aching.

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Let’s step back and examine this. After all, when do things ever turn out the way we expect? Life is unpredictable. The only predictable thing about life is that it will keep on surprising us. The fundamentals of human existence are change and impermanence. When we accept these aspects of human existence, we come to see more clearly why it’s impossible to remedy with externals what we perceive as emptiness inside.

We’re starved for meaning, yet we go seeking it where we can never find it. The Hungry Ghost phenomenon brings to mind the lyric, “Looking for love in all the wrong places.” Why wrong places? Well, when we’re fixated on what we think will bring us fulfillment, we’re not present for our lives as they exist right now. Sure, it’s great to have goals, but when we define ourselves by those goals – or worse, when we make our peace of mind contingent on getting this or achieving that, we become a Hungry Ghost. Whatever it is we grasp or achieve won’t stay the same. It’ll change, and our experience of it will change. We’ll grow dissatisfied, and we’ll be left searching yet again.

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We find the Hungry Ghost in obsessive, compulsive, and addictive behavior, in which the obsession, compulsion, or addiction becomes the most important thing in a person’s world, and she gives all her energy to the addiction and to the pursuit of its short-lived, illusory gratification.

We find the Hungry Ghost in lonely people who feel isolated and alienated from others, who seek love and friendship but set their expectations so high that they flee at the first, sixth, or seventeenth sign of challenge, dropping current relationships to search for the next lover, the next friend. And the next. Then, the next.

We find the Hungry Ghost in people who latch onto ideologies of whatever stripe as their life’s anchors in what they view as a hostile, frightening, and turbulent sea bent solely on their destruction, who then denigrate and castigate those who don’t share their opinions, and who come to embrace intolerance and hatred as ego-comforts.

We find the Hungry Ghost in the person who is never satisfied: no matter how many good things he might seem to have in his life, he focuses on what he terms “bad” and closes his eyes to the “good.” On and on he seeks for the good, but he never, ever finds it, because no matter where he looks, he sees only “bad.” No matter where he is or what he’s doing, he’s not at peace. He always wants to be somewhere else, doing something else. With the Hungry Ghost mentality, nothing is ever good enough.

And haven’t we all been there, at some point? Or at many points?

Ajahn Brahm, one of my favorite Buddhist teachers, talks about the judging and criticizing mind, which is pervasive in human psychology and ties into the Hungry Ghost mentality. The judging and criticizing mind always hones in on what is wrong and is never satisfied. When we’re never satisfied, we go seeking, grasping, and clinging. The Buddha taught that grasping and clinging – that is, attachment – is the cause of our suffering.

Why might that be? Since we are all changing and life is in a constant state of flux, it follows that whatever we grasp, whatever we cling to, is impermanent and will ultimately prove unsatisfactory. Hence we’re disappointed yet again; we grow restless, and the Hungry Ghost cycle begins anew, gaining momentum like a wheel spinning round and round, like a machine whose only purpose is to fill our bottomless pits. As Hungry Ghosts, we spy what we think is a shimmering pool of water that will quench our thirst, only to get closer and find it’s a pile of dust.

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According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, samsara is defined as “wandering on.” In other words, samsara is what we’re doing all the time, when we create the storylines of our lives, live them out, and create new ones. Again, we glimpse the Hungry Ghost. This storyline doesn’t satisfy, so we drop it and make up a brand new one. Lather, rinse, repeat. The operative phrase is “make up.” By their nature, storylines aren’t real. They’re concepts. Mental constructs. Yet we often make them terribly real. In samsara, everybody wanders around mindlessly; our storylines intersect and often become big, snarled webs of difficulty, complication, and trouble. We painstakingly weave our storylines, they cause suffering (that is, turn to fire and ash in our mouths), then we drop them and weave new ones. Again and again. I’ve heard insanity defined as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. That’s what we do in samsara.

Buddhist practice is about stopping samsara. When we still our minds, we learn to let go of tight ego constructs and recognize our Hungry Ghosts for what they are: mental phenomena which serve to reinforce egocentricity. In the Hungry Ghost mentality, everything’s all about ME, ME, ME. Except that it isn’t. Not really. What’s ME? It changes all the time. When we still our minds, we lessen our tendencies to wander, we calm our restlessness, and we can examine with increasing space and clarity: What is this “ME” who continually wants, seeks, demands, and deludes? Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche gives excellent advice when he suggests that we all look in the mirror first thing in the morning and remind ourselves, “It’s not about you.” Talk about a reality check. Or an Awakening Check. No pun intended. :)

Putting an Awakening Check on our Hungry Ghosts helps us to be more grateful for what we have and to recognize what, in our day-to-day lives, is most important. When our Hungry Ghosts no longer drive us across the mountains and valleys of samsara, we free ourselves to develop skill and equanimity in the face of challenges. Instead of mindlessly reacting to difficulties with volatility and unskillful behavior, we bring wisdom to bear in order to skillfully attend to the present moment while reminding ourselves that this storyline, too, shall pass. We grow in clarity, wisdom, and compassion. We become aware of our deep connection with other sentient beings, with all life. We awaken to Original Mind, source of all flux and flow, and there, we discover our place of calm abiding.

We no longer try to stuff samsaric phenomena into pinhole-sized mouths. Instead, we open up. Not our mouths, but our minds and our hearts. We maintain perspective. We keep our seats.

I’ll close with a quote from Zen teacher Kosho Uchiyama: “Life is universal. When we’re born, we come from this universal life. We are all, without exception, universal. Only our brains get caught up in the notion that we are individual. We’re universal whether we think so or not, and reality doesn’t care what we think.”