Talking Dharma – Talking Angry Wisdom
Let’s begin with a couple of questions. Is anger an appropriate response to worrying or does it only cause more worry? Is it helpful or unhelpful? Can anger be harnessed into the wisdom of compassionate action? As we will hopefully come to see, the answers to these and other similar questions can be found in understanding what it was that the Buddha actually communicated, as opposed to what classical Buddhism promotes within its religious institutions. To begin this exploration we need to understand the distinction that the Dharma makes between anger and aggression. According to the Buddha aggression is an expression of the three poisons of want, not want and confusion that gives rise to the worrying mind. If we open our eyes with integrity into the way we live our own lives, how society is and even human history we will have to admit aggression is the greatest cause of the destruction of peace of mind and primary creator of worry.
This is because, what defines aggression is the existence of the self-biased mind. Aggression is the energy of anger in the service of all that we define as “us.” Because of the pre-conscious drive to survive it is there ready to defend our sense of self and attack anyone and anything we perceive to be a threat. But, when anger is released from its service to the self-biased mind, it ceases to be aggression and simply becomes the energy of wisdom and compassion. Contrary to the marketing departments of classical Buddhism the awakening experience does not eradicate anger. It transforms it into compassionate action. It is totally possible, if not probable, that you can have an angry Buddha. It is just that the awakened mind is at peace with itself, others and the world around it because it is born of compassion. The anger of the awakened mind is the power to say no to worry. The angry Buddha is not angry with us, they are angry for us because they have been where we have been and know our experience and are driven by compassion to help alleviate it or eradicate it. That is what motivates the awakened mind to communicate the Dharma and nothing else.
According to the ancient texts it is said that the Buddha’s compassion expresses itself through four types of energy. These are called helpful means. They are the four different ways that wisdom and compassion go into action to alleviate or eradicate worrying. First, the Buddha, in his imaged form or representation, can pacify us. It can help us to quench the flames of want, not want and confusion. The calm and pacifying Buddha image or representation is the one we’re most familiar with when we observe a Buddha image or statue at a Dharma centre centre or temple complex. Just observing such an image can find our worries often melting away and it is no coincidence that the Buddha figure has come to be recognised as a symbol of peace throughout the world and can be found now in domestic gardens of those who subscribe to theistic religion. Next is the energy of enrichment when we come into contact with the teachings of the Dharma, that wealth of resources that highlight our potential for awakening. The next is the energy of seduction where we are no longer alone but share our journey with others by way of mutual support. These first three energies align with going for refuge to the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The fourth energy is that of Bodhicitta, the arising of the will to realize awakening for the benefit of all beings. So, we can see within this teaching, in its pure, awakened form, when it is not driven by the self-biased mind, the energy of anger can be appropriate because it is born of compassion.
This can often be hard for people to accept, but compassion is not always a fluffy pink bunny. There will be times, if compassion arises in its wisdom state which is outside of the influence of the self-biased mind, when compassion can seem harmful when you observe what is being said or done from the perspective of the ethical training principles. But often when that happens it is because we have possibly reverted to thinking they are black and white rules and regulations as opposed to being a way to observe and transform our mental state. When someone refuses to collude with our confusion we can take that very personal sometimes. In its pure, awakened form, when it is not driven by the self-biased mind, anger can be of benefit to us, others and the world around us. In our personal lives, it helps us be honest about our own infallibilities and also to have the courage to help others see how they are damaging themselves, but only when our motivational intent is authentically based in kindness, which of course is where the development of conscious awareness comes in so that we can be aware of our motivational intent. If it is not established it could so easily tip into unhelpful criticism. On a much larger scale, compassionate anger has been the energy that has inspired great movements for freedom and social justice, right back to day of the Buddha himself who taught against the prevailing religion of his day because of the way he recognized it moved people in the opposite direction from awakening and gave rise to the worried mind.
So, the work in progress for the Dharma practitioner is to explore and find ways to work with the energy of anger so it doesn’t result in aggression, as well as exploring and finding ways to tap into its inherent wisdom aspect. There is a need to discover experientially where aggression arises from and how and why. That exploration primarily takes place within the practice of the four principle assignments, which of course is the eight-fold journey that incorporates both ethics and meditation. Within that it can be helpful to understand that although there are five basic ethical training principles, they are, in effect, all reflections of the overriding principle to seek to do the least amount of physical, emotional or psychological harm to ourselves, others and the world around us.
Most human beings aren’t physically violent, but because of the self-biased mind and our conditioning, what we say and do can often contribute significantly in the emotional or psychological harm of others. The really sad part is that it’s usually the people we love or care about who experience this the most. We can also contribute to the harm within society when we collude, turn a blind eye or remain silent when we see or hear things that we know or even suspect are causing harm to others and that may even include having to be open and honest with ourselves about our own consumptive habits and choices. The overriding ethical principle applies to acts of body, speech, and mind. They are led primarily by the aspect of the principle that actively encourages you to live on the basis of kindness as a means of doing less harm by the observation of the quality of the state of mind in any moment. It helps us to choose how to think speak and act as an on-going learning opportunity in the development of human conscience.
The Buddha set out a number of helpful meditation practices that are based in awareness so we are not swept away by the force of conflicting emotions like aggression. These practices allow us to take advantage of the brief gap in the mind between impulse and action. Through the practice of awareness, we become aware of impulses arising and allow a space in which we can consider whether and how we want to act. We move from the reactive mind of habitual patterns to allowing ourselves to respond as is appropriate to the experience.
Without excusing, condoning or ignoring anything, it’s helpful to recognize that aggression is usually someone’s habitual reactions to their own worrying mind. There will be times when that will include us. So we need to be aware that caring for ourselves and cultivating kindness and compassion for ourselves first is not being selfish. It only becomes selfish when we cling to it without sharing it with others. As we have learned in the first principle assignment worry is inherent in the unawakened human condition. We are beings who worry and we don’t handle it too well. Often we try to ease our worry and only make it worse because we try to avoid it, divert it or deny it. The awareness of kindness practice as it develops gives us the confidence and space to experience our worrying without losing our stability or a need to blame others. Eventually, even when we are the targets of aggression ourselves, knowing it may come out of the other person’s conditioned, confused and worried mind helps us to respond in a more kindly and helpful way.
Fear shame or guilt distorts the basic energy of anger and creates worrying. We fear that intense emotions like anger will overwhelm us and make us lose control. We’re ashamed that such unhelpful emotions are part of our makeup at all. And of course within our culture we have been conditioned to do guilt, give ourselves a hard time or beat ourselves up for not being perfect. As a result we protect ourselves against the energy of anger by either suppressing it or acting it out. Both are ways to avoid experiencing the full intensity of emotion. Both are harmful to ourselves and others. What we need is the courage to rest in the full intensity of the energy inside us without suppressing or releasing it. This the key to the approach to working with anger that was set out by the Buddha.. When we have the courage to remain present with our anger, we can look directly at it. We can experience its texture and understand its qualities. We can investigate and understand it. What we discover is that we are not actually threatened by this energy. We can separate the anger from the self-biased mind and the stories it creates. We can realize that anger’s basic energy is helpful, even enlightened. For in its essence, our anger is the same as the Buddha’s.
When the energy of anger serves the self-biased mind it is aggression. When it serves to ease, alleviate or eradicate our worries and the worries of others it is wisdom. We have the freedom to choose which. We have the power to transform aggression into the wisdom of anger. The awakened energy of anger is the wisdom of clarity. It is sharp, accurate, and penetrating insight. It sees what is helpful and unhelpful, what is actuality and what is confusion. The good news is that the confused and misdirected aggression that causes worrying is just transitory and insubstantial. Now we just need to realize that.
At some point in the future, if a scholar or historian could provide evidence to suggest that no such character as Siddhartha Gautama ever actually existed, it would not make one bit of difference to the validity of the Dharma. It has never been and never will be about the communicator. It has always been about the communication. There is a well known image within Buddhism that is replicated on the back cover of the book “No Worries” which highlights this. It is a picture of a finger pointing at the moon. The moon represents actuality and the finger represents the awakened mind pointing towards it. But, a historically updated version of the traditionally handed down life story of the historical Buddha is still of great relevance to us. The story itself is full of symbolism and inspiration that can help us to understand why his original communication is as relevant for us in modernity as it was back in India 2,600 years ago.
The single most important point about the story is that Siddhartha began his life as an ordinary human-being the same as you and I. There was no divine intervention. There were no pre-ordained special circumstances. He arrived on this earth simply as a result of the human birth process that resulted from his parents having sex. We have been told his birth in Lumbini was a complicated one and led to the death of his mother a few days later. His father was the head of a regional clan and would have been a relatively wealthy man and the young Siddhartha, would have wanted for nothing. Here is our second significant connection with the story. No matter what our personal or financial circumstances, materialistically speaking, we are far better off now than the young Siddhartha would ever have been. Just as Siddhartha would have been educated within the culture, traditions and beliefs of his time, so were we in ours. He would have been conditioned by his surrounding influences just as we have been. In so many different respects, his early life would have matched most of ours with personal relationships, job, family, social network and the on-going pursuit of things he liked that gave him pleasure and the avoidance of things he didn’t like. This is what the symbolism of the story is all about. If he could break free from his worries, there is no reason why we can’t.
By the age of 29, he was happily married with a young son whom he adored and had every available pleasure available to him. Yet life began to raise big questions for the relatively young Siddhartha. It began when he noticed that he couldn’t find lasting satisfaction with anything. Much of his life was very pleasurable but he noticed that pleasure could not be sustained. When pleasure ended, he would find himself sad, bored or restless again. He began to reason that there must be more to life than his current experience. He began to dwell on such things as the meaning of life and questioned whether it just meant that you are born, age, get sick and die, and throughout that process you go round in circles of pleasure and pain. These ideas appear to have weighed very heavily on him and caused an ever increasing sense of worry about the direction of his life. If we reflect on this for a while, once again, we will see how connected we are to this part of the story. This kind of questioning arises in many different ways for different people and can act as a trigger for change. Someone close to us might have died. We might have lost our job. Our relationship with a partner might have come to an end or we have reached some other kind of crisis in our lives that makes us stop and take a look at the bigger picture. Or, for some, it just might be that niggling feeling of background angst that we can’t seem to find the reason for and that is preventing us from experiencing contentment. There is that underlying sense of incompleteness that we need to have something, do something, or be something to be whole.
However people arrive at this moment it can be crunch time. For some it will be the trigger for a change in direction and for others it will be a missed opportunity. They will try to suppress the experience, ignore it, hide from it or justify their situation. They continue to go round in the same habitual cycles of pleasure and pain because in the background there is some kind of fear of change. For many it is clear that there is a comfort blanket effect in clinging to what we think we know, even if it hurts us, rather than be prepared to step outside of that comfort zone and embrace the opportunity and actuality of change. It certainly was a crunch moment for Siddhartha as he concluded that the only option for him was to leave his comfort zone and go off in search of an answer to why he worried and if it could be ended.
For many, the thought of leaving our family, friends, job or our home would be the last thing we would do and there are those that think that what Siddhartha did was a bit of a cop out or showed a lack of responsibility, but this was quite the norm in India during this period. It is clear that both his son and his wife were well taken care of during his absence and they were all reunited later. Fortunately for us, because of his decision to go in search of an answer to the worrying that he was experiencing, we do not have to do so. He did all the hard work for us, and as a result we now have a practical method that can be applied to arrive at the same conclusions, without the need to put ourselves through everything that he did. Nevertheless, it probably won’t be easy. We live in a very different world and have very different things to overcome but essentially, what he communicated is that we too can reach this state of clarity by our own efforts in whatever life circumstances we find ourselves.
Having left his home he spent the next six years living as a wandering beggar. During this time he met and aligned himself with all of the apparent spiritual teachers he came across during his travels. We are told that he was an ardent student who tested and challenged everything he was taught to the max and was often invited to join various communities as an equal to the teacher. But, he always declined because he found that despite being of great benefit, none of these teachers seemed to have the answer he was looking for. With each method, technique or teaching, he found that even when he pursued it fully with 100% integrity it always fell short in some way or other. Having done the rounds and tried out everything that was on offer, he turned to taking up extreme austere practices, such as almost starving himself to death or subjecting himself to extreme physical pain. Back then and even today in some parts of India you will you find the most bizarre practices being carried out by those who are on some kind of spiritual quest.
When we reflect on this part of the story, perhaps we can recognise something of ourselves in it. How many of us have dabbled in a never ending range of activities that promised us the happiness we sought? What fortunes have we spent on self-help books or the latest book or DVD by our celebrity guru? How many times have we been apparently healed by crystals, reiki, gongs, mantra’s or prayers only to find we are very quickly back at square one? How many different meditation methods have we tried and decided that they didn’t work after a couple of sessions? How many apparent teachers have we found and dismissed because they did not match our expectations, or projections, or as is usually the case, because we didn’t like them? Do we try anything or anyone new that comes onto the scene or the market? We really do need to be honest with ourselves about this because this kind of thing is exactly what Siddhartha was doing for six years and got nowhere. There is a massive message within this part of the story for us if we take a good look at it and learn to laugh at ourselves about it.
We now come to the second major turning point for Siddhartha. This, I suggest, was his first insightful experience. Having experienced and exhausted two extremes of behaviour namely living a full-on hedonistic life of pleasure and the other extreme of austerity, he came to the conclusion that neither extreme was the answer. He concluded therefore that there must be a middle way and it was this insight that moved him to give up extremes in favour of the simplicity of finding a middle way. This middle way philosophy is a theme that runs through almost everything he ever communicated. During the six year wandering period, he learned and excelled at taking up a range of meditation practices but none of them had taken him all the way. It was, as he sat under the shade of a large fig tree in a place called Bodh Gaya that he remembered when, as a child, he watched his father ploughing a field and how when he placed his full attention on the slow and gentle movements, his distracted thought patterns subsided and he became very centred and concentrated..
For Siddhartha this was a bit like the last chance saloon so he vowed that he would sit there and not move until he had finally found the answer he was looking for. This decision highlights to us the important fact that we will not find the answer in anyone or anything that is external to us. What he was about to do was to go to the only place where the answer could be realized. He was about to do battle with this thing that we call the mind. Everything he had ever learned, all of the intellectual knowledge he had ever amassed, all of his beliefs, views and opinions were going to be released, so he could enter into a state of meditative absorption that would lead to an irreversible insight into the nature of actuality and thereby realize peace of mind. There would be no tinkly tinkly music playing in the background, no pan pipes, no sounds of dolphins singing. No banging gongs for him to tune into, no chanting of secret mantras. There was nobody leading him on a journey down the garden path and he wasn’t lying on his back with his knees raised and his head supported by a soft cushion. He was seated in an upright position, his spine straight, his legs folded to create a stable base. He was ready to do battle with his conditioned and confused self-biased mind.
Talking Dharma – Talking Forgiveness
Our ability to forgive allows us to express the actuality of the inter-relatedness of non-separation as a lived experience of compassion. But it seems that forgiveness for many is not that easy. When there is a perception that we have been harmed, hurt, betrayed, abandoned, or abused, forgiveness is often the last thing on our mind because we are caught up in the worry of the experience and are in self-defence mode. This can often result in a want for revenge or what we think is justice. Yet, if we are to develop and maintain peace of mind we have no alternative but to find ways to forgive otherwise or we will be unable to let go and move on from the unhelpful mind states that are causing the mind to worry.
Imagine for one moment what the world would be like without forgiveness. Imagine what it would be like if every one of us remained attached to every single perceived hurt, every single resentment, all the anger that arises in so many different ways when we don’t like what someone else says or does. If we just keep clinging to it and never let it go, the mind can never be at peace with itself, others and the world around it. Without forgiveness, we’re forced to carry the worrying mind of the past moment into the current moment and then project it into the next moment. Forgiveness is about letting go of the past. It is not really about your perceived harmful behaviour of someone towards you. It’s about your own relationship with your past. When we begin the work of forgiveness, it is primarily a practice about and for the benefit of ourselves, that then benefits others.
The practice of forgiveness releases us from the power of fear and allows us to act on the basis of kindness and compassion. First we need to understand what forgiveness actually is experientially. Then we need to learn how it can be expressed as a lived experience of it. Then it is practiced as an on-going journey of forgiving ourselves and others as we learn to accept things as they are by reducing judgement of ourselves and others. In an ancient text we find the Buddha saying words to the effect: “If it were not possible to free yourself from entanglement and greed, ill-will, fear, and confusion, I would not teach you or ask you to do so.” On the Dharma journey we undertake to try and do the least amount of physical, emotional or psychological harm to ourself, others and the world around us. To assist this we develop the awareness of kindness meditation practice. Forgiveness is a significant part of engaging with that practice because it allows us to be open to the inter-relatedness of compassion. Our ability or even our potential to forgive allows us to make space for our ability to meet our own worrying and the worrying of others with kindness.
Forgiveness does not collude or gloss over what has happened in an inauthentic way. The practice is not about having a false smile on your face that says “It’s OK. I don’t mind.” It’s not a misguided effort to suppress our worry or to ignore it. If there is a perception that you’ve suffered harm as a result of the words or actions of another, forgiveness may be a long process of mixed emotions, many of which will initially be unhelpful. Forgiveness is a deep process, which is repeated over and over and over again in our Dharma life. It recognises the grief, the betrayal, the hurt. It does not deny it. It takes time and effort for the fruits of the practice of forgiveness to ripen into the freedom to forgive authentically. An important first step is acknowledging with integrity that we ourselves are not infallible and it is more than likely that we too have said or done things that may have caused harm to others. We’re not always just the victims. Sometimes we also may need to be forgiven or to seek forgiveness from others without doing the old guilt trip thing of beating ourselves up for being a bad person.
There are three different aspects to the formal sitting practice of forgiveness that then become expressed as a lived experience just as we do with the awareness of kindness practice. There is the forgiveness from others, forgiveness for ourselves and the forgiveness for those we perceive have hurt or harmed us. You begin by sitting comfortably as you would in preparation for any other sitting practice. Allow the eyes to close and the breath to be as natural as possible. Go and look for any physical, emotional or psychological resistances, any fear and breathe kindness and acceptance into the experience to assist a release of the tension. These resistances arise because you have yet to forgive yourself or others. This is why you are here. This is the aim of the practice. Don’t reject the experience but be aware of it as it is with acceptance and a willingness to transform it.
Stage one: Forgiveness from others. As you are breathing into whatever is being experienced, open yourself to the ideas of forgiveness. Begin to explore your personal history, your memories, acknowledging, with integrity, that there are many ways that you may have hurt or harmed others. Bring them to mind and experience them again but with no guilt or shame attached to them. Allow yourself to remember the different ways that you may have betrayed, abandoned, or caused harm, knowingly or unknowingly, out of your own pain, fear, anger, or confusion. Let yourself remember and visualize these experiences in full and then ask the person forgiveness. Take as much time as you need to picture the unhelpful memory that you still cling to and as each person comes to mind, just gently say, “I ask for your forgiveness or please forgive me” And only if it is genuine tell them you are sorry. When you experience some movement, a shift, a letting go or a sense that something has been resolved bring this stage to an end.
Stage two: Forgiveness for ourselves. As you are breathing into whatever is being experienced, open yourself to the ideas of forgiveness. Begin with an acknowledgement, awareness and acceptance that just as you may have caused suffering to others, there are many ways that you have also hurt and harmed yourself. Begin to explore your personal history, your memories, acknowledging, with integrity, where you may have betrayed yourself or abandoned kindness for yourself by what you thought said or did, knowingly or unknowingly. Bring them to mind and experience them again but with no guilt or shame attached to them. Let yourself remember the ways that you have harmed yourself. Begin to extend forgiveness for each act of harm, one by one. Actively forgive yourself for the ways that you have hurt yourself through action or inaction, out of fear, pain, and confusion. With each memory resolve to let go, to move on, to forgive by repeating to yourself “I forgive myself” until you notice some movement, a shift, a letting go or a sense that something has been resolved and then bring this stage to an end.
Stage three: Forgiveness for those who may have hurt or harmed us. As you are breathing into whatever is being experienced, open yourself to the ideas of forgiveness. Become aware how harmful it has been for to carry the worry of non-forgiveness for so long. Acknowledge with gratitude of allowing yourself to seek forgiveness from others and to forgive yourself and then extend that opportunity to those you think may have hurt or harmed you. This in itself is an act of kindness. Begin to explore your personal history, your memories, acknowledging them with integrity. Bring them to mind and experience them again but with no guilt or shame attached to them, but with an acceptance that it is likely that it happened because the other person was in pain or had unresolved forgiveness issues of their own. Just as you find ways to resolve your issues allow them the opportunity to resolve theirs. Don’t force it. Every incident of harm does not have to be forgiven in one sitting. The point is to exercise in a very small way something that you think you are ready to forgive, let go of and move on from right now in this moment. Remember the many ways that you have been hurt, wounded, or harmed and bring in awareness of the others pain, confusion, fear, anger that they have been carrying just as you have. Say to the other person “I forgive you” keep repeating it until you notice some movement, a shift, a letting go or a sense that something has been resolved before bringing the practice to an end.
This practice, like so many others, is about the development of trust in the practice. Trust is only established when we engage with a practice with integrity and experience directly how helpful it is. If we engage in a lack lustre way, or out of a sense of duty or obligation we will never resolve our worries. The entire Dharma journey is an on-going experiential learning process. That’s the beauty of these and other practices. We surrender to them when we learn that we’re not in control of the fruits of our practice, but we are in control of how we do the practice, whether we do it with patience and integrity with effort and energy. We’re not in control of how it then expresses itself in our lived experience of it. It becomes a natural expression of the journey. We’re not trying to make anything happen, because in the trying to make something happen, we will miss the beauty and the delight of what does happen.
Dharma practice is a voluntary undertaking. The only commitment you ever make is to yourself. The commitment to forgiveness is a particular heavy duty emotional practice that you might be initially scared to engage with and if that is so I suggest, as always, to give it a go at a very low level to begin with so you can at least be aware what the resistances are all about and learn something even from them. Think of it like you would with physical exercise. We don’t start with the 100 kilo weight. We start maybe with a couple of small barbells and we work with those to get the muscle going. So start with the minor issues and work your way up. And then eventually your ability to forgive allows you to meet forgiveness in all its liberating glory. If we are not ready to forgive ourselves or others right now, we can sit quietly and see if there’s any small, even tiny little potential opportunity on the horizon. All things after all are subject to change. If we think that we can’t extend forgiveness to others because we think that something is completely unforgivable, then we can know that too. During this practice we reflect on whatever worry we’re holding onto and how that is affecting the quality of our own current mind state. This is a deep, unfolding process that can take a lifetime to work through. If all else fails maybe you can just be forgiving of yourself for not being ready to let go, and move on right now because that’s OK as well.
Talking Dharma – Talking Anger
Within western culture anger is often understood to be a bad thing, yet it is a very normal emotion that can be helpful and unhelpful depending on the circumstances in which it arises. When you consider that the average time span of an angry moment lasts no longer that 15 seconds you have to ask yourself why it is considered to be such a problem? The answer must be surely be: how long does it take to pull the trigger of a gun, to lash out with a blade of a knife or simply to say something that will cause long term emotional or psychological harm? Before we explore the circumstances where anger could be considered appropriate, justifiable or even necessary, it will be helpful to consider how our cultural and psychological prohibitions against anger can be unhelpful for us if we are to understand the nature of anger, its cause and its connection with the worrying mind.
It needs to be borne in mind that the undertakings of the ethical training principals is not about setting up the standards by which we criticize ourselves when we make mistakes, or even worse, to criticize others when they make mistakes. Nor are they meant to be moral straitjackets for controlling our own behaviour or anyone else’s. Instead, they express what the authentic practitioner does naturally within the Dharma journey. As with all of the training principles, we need to work with anger in a way that liberates rather than confines us. That means not using the overriding principle to do the least amount of harm to reject or suppress what is actually happening. Because anger is so universal, frequent, and varied, it serves as a particularly helpful practical model for the exploration of that first principle.
First of all, it’s important to move beyond an oversimplified picture of what anger is. Anger takes many forms, and it’s good to explore its subtle and not-so-subtle variations so that each of us can find out precisely what works for us as a practice. Think of all the words there are for anger: rage, outrage, wrath, fury, resentment, annoyance, irritation, displeasure, indignation. Then there are favourite expressions such as ticked off, boiling mad, stewing, annoyed, simmering, or a descriptive such as to blow up, snap at, hit the ceiling, see red, get under someone’s skin, lose it. In addition to all the different kinds of anger are all the different things we do with anger. Some of us suppress it, some of us act it out, some of us disguise it as something else and some will pretend that they are not angry. Some of us get very angry at ourselves, and some of us haven’t the vaguest idea that we are ever angry. Some of us even get angry at things. How is that even possible? Have you ever tried working with windows 10? Because we have been conditioned to believe that anger is wrong, it is easy to think we should practice simply not being angry. But that approach is too general and abstract. It’s important for each of us to be precise, to be real, to be personal and honest, so we can find out exactly what our anger is and to be able to do that we need to ask ourselves lots of questions about its actual nature.
The first step is to discover our own particular version of anger. Once we’ve seen the quality of our anger, the next step is to get to know it intimately. Like many emotions, anger has both a cause and an object. Its cause might be that your favourite mug was broken through carelessness, but the object of the anger is you, the one who broke it. Getting to know your anger means turning your attention away from its cause and its object, and all the stories about it, to the anger itself. Getting to know the anger means not having any judgments about it, compassionately allowing it, and being curious about it. Suppressing anger is one obvious way of avoiding getting to know it, but so too is acting it out. In the latter case the anger is like a hot potato that you can’t get rid of fast enough.
What makes us avoid getting to know anger itself, rather than focusing on its object? Often it will be fear. The most common would be a fear of being rejected by the one with whom we’re angry. Then there is the whole conditioned guilt thing to contend with which does not allow us to admit it even to ourselves. One other area could be that we have created such a powerful self-image that we will not let others witness our infallibilities because it would be perceived as a sign of weakness. These are all different variants of fear.
A valid question to ask now would be: why is it important to know all this about my anger? Why not just not be angry? For one thing just not being angry is easier said than done. For another, there is no freedom in avoiding or suppressing it. Again, the training principles are not about rejecting any part of yourself, in this case, the one who gets angry, but rather getting to know that part of yourself and accepting it without any judgment. This is such an important step in working with the first principle. The more we can truly accept who we are, all the way to the point of becoming OK with it, the more we give the principle a chance to arise naturally. Some of us need to practice not acting out our anger and knowing when and how it shows up can be an enormous help in that regard. Others of us need to get in touch with our anger and not be so afraid or ashamed of it. Here too, getting to know the anger, even welcoming it, is an enormous help, especially when we have the courage to admit to others that we’re angry. For those with a self-image of never being angry, it’s important to realize that a never-angry self-image projects a self just as much as being angry does.
Perhaps the most important reason for getting to know our anger is that anger is an energy that becomes anger only when it is caught up in the complexities of the habitual patterns of the self-biased mind. Those patterns will include the stories we create about our anger’s cause and object, as well as many confused beliefs, not the least of which is the confusion of separation. This energy needs to be processed and transformed in a helpful way rather than distorted or destroyed. When we are unable to experience our anger fully, with integrity, it will inevitably result in a worried mind. When we open ourselves to it and understand it we gain the potential for change and worrying subsides.
To make the practice of working with anger personal and precise, it is helpful to explore the following kinds of questions. You can do this on your own but it can also be helpful if you work with someone else, as in another person asking you the questions, then silently holding the space while you answer. The first thing to explore is what kinds of situations you get angry with, or at, with questions such as: When do I get angry? What makes me angry? Do I get angry when I’m criticized? Ignored? Not getting my way? Do I get angry at someone who treats others badly? Do I ever displace my anger onto the wrong person, or take anger at myself out on someone else? What happens when I get angry? Does angry language pop out of me?
Then you explore into the nature of your anger with questions such as: How do I typically get angry? Is my anger hot or cold? Is it quickly discharged or a slow burn? Is my anger suppressed, denied, or hidden? Do I walk around with simmering resentments day after day? How is my private anger different from my anger at public figures or institutions? If you have difficulty expressing anger or even recognizing that you’re angry, ask yourself these questions: When do I have difficulty expressing anger? With which sorts of people am I reluctant to express anger? Family members? Friends? Men? Women? Employers? Authority figures? Finally, ask yourself about any old angers you’ve been carrying around for a long time. It’s well worth a good old delve into our memory banks to see if the time has come to let go and move on.
The kind of anger we’re used to, the kind that isn’t helpful, can be a great teacher. Since anger by definition involves separation, it makes no sense to pretend that it is arising in a universe of oneness. When it does arise, it instantly reveals to us the confused creation of “me” and “not me,” but also reveals our interconnectedness not oneness. Anger shows us just how fast the self-biased mind can be in control of the confusion, especially when we least expect it. It can happen whether we react to someone or something with a flash of temper, or some ancient buried anger wakes up and slowly takes us over. In either case, the self-biased mind is born again and has reconditioned us. But when we see through the anger to what it is, and more importantly why it is, we can be released from the entrapment of the fixed self, even if only momentarily and our actions will arise from our compassionate original nature. In that moment we will understand the difference between compassion and pity or sympathy. To deepen this practice even more, we can try, in a spirit of simple curiosity, to get so close to our anger that we no longer know or experience it as anger. Cause and object, the self being angry, and the anger itself all drop away, and all that remains is the appropriate response to an experience.
That leaves us with the question can anger ever be helpful? I’m sure we all know stories about heroic whistle-blowers who were angry about chemicals being dumped in a river, or angry that information concerning the side effects of a drug had been withheld. That kind of anger is not about defending the territory of self. It is for the benefit of all. There is a selflessness there that is borne of compassion. There is a kind of cleanness, clarity, and purity to this kind of anger because there is no aspect of the self-biased mind present. But again, it can so easily be rationalised or justified if actually what is happening is little more than righteous indignation. This is why the Buddha linked ethics with meditation as a means of exploring our motivations within conscious awareness.
The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh has a very beautiful thing to say about getting to know our anger. “Treat your anger with the utmost respect and tenderness, for it is no other than yourself. Do not suppress it, simply be aware of it. Awareness is like the sun. When it shines on things, they are transformed. When you are aware that you are angry, your anger is transformed. If you destroy anger, you destroy the Buddha, for Buddha and Mara are of the same essence. Mindfully dealing with anger is like taking the hand of a little brother.”
Talking Dharma – Talking Perfection
Within western culture we have been conditioned to be imperfect. We have been conditioned to believe that there is something out there that can make us whole, complete, perfect. There is a great story from the second reformation period Buddhism known as the Mahayana, that points to the actuality factor of perfection. In the story an aged father, intent on securing a future for his son, sews a priceless jewel into the lining of his coat but doesn’t tell him about it in case he wastes it on the frivolous nature of youth. The father dies leaving the son destitute so the son goes off in search of his fortune. After years of living in abject poverty and ill-health he finally gives up and lays down to die only to find it uncomfortable because of a lump in the lining. He rips open the lining and finds the jewel and then dies. What the story is pointing to is the perfection of the current moment. It is only in this current moment where you can go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and it is always perfect. You don’t need to go anywhere to engage with the current moment. All you need to do in that moment is go for refuge and that is the inward journey expressed outwardly in what you think, say and do.
One of the downsides to the Mahayana approach in relation to the Bodhisattva ideal, which is the dedication of your practice to the benefit of others, is that it omits to understand that you can’t be of much genuine benefit to another until you’ve sorted out, to some extent at least, your own confusion first. Of course that does not mean that gives us an excuse not to live on the basis of kindness, but it acknowledges that it is pointless running around like a headless chicken trying to save everybody else from living with a worried mind when we are dong so on the basis of our own. What we do know from the traditional story of the Buddha is that his own journey began from an awareness of his own worrying mind and he did not begin helping others until his own confusion had been resolved. But do we stop helping others until we think we are perfect? Or do we help others whilst working on ourselves within the spirit of living a life based on kindness? I suggest that it is the latter that exemplifies the perfection of the present moment.
Classical Buddhism tends to assert that we cannot benefit others unless we are wise, enlightened, or at the very least one of the self-created spiritual elite of religious Buddhism in case our good intentions are misguided. But that, I suggest, is just institutionalised protectionism that creates the division that exists to prevent you from realizing clarity. You don’t need a dodgy name, a robe, a title or any other kind of status to act on the basis of kindness in this moment. All you need to do is do it. The difficulty is that our conditioning is forever telling us that we can only be happy if we are someone other than our present self. That it is dependent on someday, somewhere, somehow, different than what or where we are right now. It sets up the ‘if only’ mind-set of wanting things to be other than they are, which gives rise to the worrying mind. This is how we cling to the self-biased mind that creates worry that often is expressed in unhelpful self-images, lack of self-worth or low self-esteem that seems endemic within our culture. This drives the want for a better me. The Dharma journey offers an alternative option by encouraging you to engage with the current moment as it is in its current perfect state by accepting, it without judgement, or wanting it to be other than it is. It does this so we can wake up from the confusion of the self-biased mind and act on the basis of the conscious awareness of clarity, right here, right now, just as we are.
Being confused by the self-biased mind presents the biggest obstacle to authentic altruistic action because that sense of ‘us’ keeps turning every experience into a two-way transaction. But pity and sympathy result in being of benefit to others, so until compassion arises naturally as a result of conscious awareness then we act on the basis of where we currently are in this moment. Our practice is to become aware of our limitations but not be paralysed by them. I accept that for many this is easier said than done. After all, the voices demanding perfection are not just inside our heads. They are everywhere in our culture today. They come from outside and inside. It is so easy to give in to these internal dialogues, good teacher/bad teacher, good Buddhist/bad Buddhist. But it can be so suffocating and can drain the lifeblood or energy out of our practice. Underlying this inner critic, behind the veil of rampant insecurity, we find self-absorption. If we aim to ground our lives in a fixed sense of self, before long we find ourselves drowning in a whirlpool of unhelpful conditioned habitual patterns of thinking speaking and acting.
In the West, we tend to dismiss this as an issue of self-worth, low self-esteem, or, my current favourite ‘impostor syndrome.’ But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The real problem is that we believe in the existence of a worthy or unworthy self in the first place. Worthy/unworthy or perfect/imperfect are equally false narratives. In actuality there is no worthy or unworthy self. At first, Buddhist teachings on non-self sound crazy. How can we develop confidence without clinging to what we think of as us? But the actuality of the non-self principle actually helps us to disarm all our self-concepts, turning us away from the actual source of our worries. For some this can sound nihilistic but it clearly isn’t because the Buddha taught the middle way between eternalism and nihilism. What the teaching of non-self is pointing to is a realization experience that will eradicate the worrying mind so it can be at peace with itself, others and the world around it.
This is where the Bodhisattva ideal becomes helpful. In its most helpful definition it is about the motivational intent to realize clarity so we can be of most benefit to all beings, including ourselves. It provides the bridge between being and doing. It is the journey where being and doing can be united in action. When we are doing from the depths of being, the actions themselves arise organically from compassion. It can be so easy to think that the Bodhisattva ideal is a practice for people more highly realized than ourselves. It can also, for some, inflate a sense of specialness and classical Buddhism does seem to give out mixed messages on this point. On one hand, we’re told in no uncertain terms that we must become enlightened if we’re to have the discriminating wisdom that allows us to effectively help others and on the other hand, we are told that we must act now because we have been born into a world that is in dire need of our help. The fact is, we’re taking some form of action all the time. Since we can’t avoid action, since we’re committed to appropriate action, and since even our thoughts have consequences, we’re compelled to consider what is helpful; or unhelpful to others from all of our actions and omissions.
So what are we sleeping potential Buddha’s to do? I suggest it is helpful to act with enlightened intent and to pay attention to our motivational factors with integrity. Our day-to-day commitment is to do the best we can to live on the basis of kindness, to do the least amount of physical, emotional, or psychological harm to ourselves, others and the world around us. We do what we can in each current moment to alleviate the worrying mind in order to bring about awakening, even though we are sometimes helpful self, sometimes unhelpful self, sometimes in the actuality of non-self, and at other times still confused and worrying about our own perceived problems. If our practice is authentic, what does not waiver is the guiding principle of the Bodhicitta, the arising of the will to realize clarity for the benefit of all beings. When we act on the basis of this motivational intent it becomes an insightful opportunity to break through because it tunes us into what we really are. It is the opportunity to realize that we are an expression of no-thing-ness that is always the perfection of compassion.
In this current moment, in this current circumstance, which choice will strengthen your Bodhichitta, your will to realize clarity? Which conscious choice will express that commitment to be of benefit to all beings? Which conscious choice will advance the joy of beings and their relief from the worrying mind? Maybe right now it sounds a bit grandiose for us to work for the benefit of all beings. But if we aim as high as our sights allow, then the aspiration itself will be fulfilling. We will find contentment in the clarity and energy of our enlightened intention itself. When we act on Bodhichitta, we connect not only with our true nature but with all of nature as inter-relatedness becomes a lived experience.
If, as classical Buddhism continues to assert, awakening is some kind of idealized notion of self that is forever beyond our grasp in this life, then what exactly are we advancing toward in this life other than creating the conditions for on-going worry right up until the brain stops working? The idea that it sets out in its interpretation only works if you buy into the miscommunication about past and future lives that keeps the institutions in business. If you think about it for a while you will see that it actually provides the impetus for us not to awaken in this life so that we can earn some kind of merit badge by looking after the elite so that we can cash in at some apparent time in some kind of next life scenario. This, I suggest is not the Dharma of the Buddha. It is, I suggest the dogma of religion. By creating this idealised version of perfection of the historical Buddha and putting it out of our reach it misses the entire point of the Buddha’s communication. If Bodhicitta has arisen within us, if that motivational factor for awakening to be of benefit to all beings is authentic we can no longer enjoy the luxury of waiting for a perceived perfect self to arrive before helping others. We must be willing to do our best just as we are, wherever we find ourselves on this journey towards awakening and that moment will only ever be the perfect moment. When that motivational intent is present we are already perfect. Take a good look around you. Our world needs us now. Other beings need our best efforts now. The Dharma journey is to wake up, show up, and heed the call now in this perfect moment. Can you hear it?
Talking Dharma – Talking Growth
Relating to worry is not as simple as just trying to reduce it by relaxing. A certain amount of stress is necessary for growth, and at times we need to purposefully put ourselves in stressful situations, but that does not mean that we have to worry ourselves at the same time. It is easy to confuse an apparent virtue of contentment or peacefulness with the superficial peacefulness born of inertia and the fear of change, so it is helpful at the outset to know that stress and worry are not the same thing. It is an oversimplification of the ideal of peace of mind that is the consequence of the awakening experience to think that it means the avoidance of stress. Dharma communicators throughout history have pointed out that to learn and move forward on the Dharma journey we need to make an effort, to exert ourselves, and that to progress along the Dharma journey we have to let go of our attachment to taking the path of least resistance. There is no such thing as a stress-free life on the authentic Dharma journey. Without stress there would be no journey and no wisdom to be realized.
An effective Dharma communicator will always be encouraging you to embrace fully the ups and downs of the journey. Stress can be both an obstacle and a catalyst for growth and that will depend on whether or not you try rejecting it or embrace it for what it is, as it is. It’s always helpful to step outside of your comfort zones because the moment you settle down into a comfortable spot on the Dharma journey, it won’t take long before you doze off and the thought of on-going practice will be long forgotten. Sometimes you just need to recognise that a bit of discomfort is not just an annoyance but a reminder of the need for a commitment to ongoing practice.
Not only do we have to embrace our own stress at times, but we also have to be willing to allow others to embrace theirs. It is hard to watch someone struggle without wanting to help out. Sometimes that can be helpful but it can also be unhelpful most of the time because we are not allowing them the opportunity of learning something for themselves in accord with their own experience. We really do need to be aware of this tendency to try and save everybody from themselves. I was once told by a wildlife expert that if you see a butterfly struggling to break out of its cocoon, and you try to ease its struggle by prying open the cocoon for it, that butterfly will emerge in a weakened state and may even die. Apparently the butterfly needs the stress of working its way out of the cocoon to build up strength and to dry its wings. I Also saw a gardening expert on tv once who was advising that when you plant a sapling, it is better not to stake it if possible. He said that if the sapling has to secure itself in the wind and weather, it will put down stronger roots and be healthier for it. In both of these examples of nature there is an acknowledgment that growing inevitably involves a degree of stress.
As always on the Dharma journey we are looking to find the middle way in relation to stress. Clearly, a certain amount of stress is part of life, but how much stress and what kind of stress? How can we navigate a course that is challenging but not overwhelming? The Buddha acknowledges the actuality of stress and discomfort. It is realistic, uncomfortably so, in describing the stress, pain, and worrying that accompanies our individual and collective lives from beginning to end. The first principal assignment that understands the actuality of worry may be the most difficult to understand and accept. We keep thinking that if we just fix this or fix that, tweak here or there, we can avoid it. We think that if we were smarter, prettier, wealthier, more powerful, living somewhere else, younger, older, male, female, with different parents, whatever, things would be different. But things are not different. They are as they are and we will either like that or not. That is what we do when we are on auto pilot of habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting. Since it is unrealistic to hope for a stress-free life, and that would not be all that helpful in any case, it makes more sense to learn how to deal with the stresses that inevitably arise.
In dealing with stress we need to look at both the conditions we face and how we are dealing with them. It is sometimes possible to remove the causes and conditions that are stressing us out, but other times it is not. So it is important to distinguish between the two. If we can change our situation to make it less stressful we should do so. There is no point worrying about it if we are in a position to change it. However, we may be stuck with a stressful situation we cannot change. In that case, we still have the option of changing our attitude towards it to reduce or eradicate the worrying aspect of it. We need to be realistic and honest with ourselves so that on one hand, we do not hold back when we could act, and on the other hand, we do not act just to do something, when there is no benefit in doing so. In looking at your external situation, there is no need to cover up problems or look at the world through rose-colored glasses. But you also do not need to worry yourself to death over all the world problems you are bombarded with daily in the news or let yourself be mentally glued to the endless worst excesses of human behaviour that you bear witness to.
A Cambodian Dharma communicator when asked how he maintained peace of mind and equanimity in light of the violence and horrors of the Khmer Rouge, smiled and said, “Life is full of ups and downs.” And isn’t that exactly what life is? If we take that kind of attitude, we can release some of our heavy-handed expectations about how life is supposed to go for us, which frees us to deal more simply with whatever we encounter in a way that is appropriate to the experience. If our experiences are just what they are, nothing more and nothing less, we can see that they are not out to get us nor are they a confirmation. They are simply the impersonal play of causes and conditions. This attitude is different from passivity or detachment in the unhelpful sense of disengagement, defeatism, or fatalism. It instead points to a form of engagement with the world that is intelligent and not merely reactive, that is realistic rather than wishful thinking. When you can do something about a problem, then just do it. Why worry about it? And when you do not have the ability or the circumstances to do anything about a problem, why worry? Worrying about it is not going to help anyone, let alone you.
Always remember that the Dharma journey as set out by the Buddha is a simple and practical one. It’s unhelpful to over think it, to intellectualize it. You may be the type of person who gets stressed out at the slightest little thing or you may be more hard skinned, even oblivious. But either way, you are not doomed to be under the control of the stresses you encounter because you were just born that way. No matter where on the spectrum you start out, you can begin to change your relationship to stress in a more helpful way. This is not accomplished by wishful thinking or pretending to be other than you are, but by training your mind and the development of insight, primarily via awareness meditation practices and living in awareness. A sustained meditation practice will help you to you learn to settle your mind and to tame its wildness. As you repeatedly bring your attention back to the breath, you are becoming more familiar with your own mind and it is getting stronger. It is as though your mind has more weight, so it is not easily blown about by every little breeze. It is reassuring to discover that, amidst all the mental commotion and ups and downs, there is something steady and reliable about your mind at the core. When things get tough and you feel stress beginning to take you over, you can draw on that inner strength.
Along with awareness of the breath there is the awareness of kindness. In this practice we are opening ourselves up to compassionate living. This practice is designed to draw you out of yourself and remind you to think of others. When you experience the force of stress narrowing you down and drawing you into yourself, you can resist the tendency to close down. You can look around you and through kindness see a larger perspective. Stress is exaggerated when your mind is distracted and unbalanced and it is also heightened when you are weighed down with self-concerns and preoccupied with yourself. Both awareness practices give you a way to work with stress and worrying about it. It is unrealistic to expect your life to be free of stress, but there is a real possibility that you could transform the way you deal with it. Stress brings to light unhelpful habits. So instead of viewing it as an enemy, you could regard stress as a teacher, and be grateful for it. Stress is not a waste of time but worrying about it is.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me how much stress they are under I would be very rich indeed. It would appear that it is endemic within our culture and has much to do with the economy, business, family, and all sorts of things. When I checked the dictionary definition of stress I found this: “Stress is the consequence of the failure to adapt to change.” This makes so much sense from a Dharmic perspective. Stress is the result of inflexibility and non-acceptance. In other words, it is caused by strong attachments to certain things, to certain ways or outcomes, to expectations. When there is strong hope or expectation, there is also a fear that this expectation will not come to fruition, or that things may not go according to your plan or your wishes. One of the most common reasons why people tell me that they have lapsed with their Dharma practice, they’ve stopped meditating, stopped attending Dharma classes, stopped meeting up with other practitioners is because they don’t have time. All I can do is encourage them to get back into their daily practice. When you are stressed, you often appear stuck and indecisive, so a little time spent meditating is really helpful. When you remind yourself of the Dharma of impermanence and the amazing opportunity of life and how important that support network has been in the past, maybe it will create that moment to re-engage even if external situations are not that helpful. Without this embracing of stress it is easy to be overwhelmed by the ups and downs of life, but with acceptance we can take a lighter step and get less caught up in its debilitating effect.
Talking Dharma – Talking Baggage
The secular western approach to the Dharma is not afraid to refer to the classical Buddhist version of karma and rebirth as little more than cultural baggage that is no longer in accord with known science. It does not do so out of a lack of respect for classical Buddhism. It does so because it is doing what the Buddha asks us to do. He asks us to test, challenge and let go of anything that is no longer relevant or helpful. The time has come, I suggest, to leave this baggage on the carousel until it finds itself in the unclaimed lost luggage department until finally it is disposed of into the landfill of ancient history. There can be no denial that the Buddha used these pre-existent Indian concepts to show people how unhelpful it was to cling to those aspects that were not based in actuality but were formed as some aspect of blind faith religious system. For that reason alone it is unhelpful to dismiss them out of hand because there is much within them that is helpful if they are engaged with in the way they were originally intended but explored on the basis of our own western conditioning,
So what is karma? If you strip it down to its most basic understanding it means intentional action and the results of the intentional action. An action, in this context, is a thought, something you say or something you do. Karma is nothing more than a learning opportunity to observe the fact that the quality of your mind state in the next moment is the consequence of your intentional action in the previous moment. No magic or mystery required. Helpful intentions result in contentment or peace of mind and unhelpful intentions result in the worrying mind. That is it in its most simplistic nutshell. But it is actually a bit more complex than that when you explore it at a more insightful level of understanding because not only is there the immediate karmic payoff in the next moment, but the consequences of that moment might not be fully realized until some point in a yet to materialise future moment. For instance a lie you tell today will have an immediate effect on the quality of your mind now, but the consequences of the lie might not come to fruition until much later on where it will trigger an even greater level of worrying when it is found out. And of course there is the on-going worrying of being found out.
Your present experience is shaped by three karmic factors. 1. The results of past intentions and this includes all your conditioned sense experiences. 2. Your present intentions 3. The results of your present intentions. Past intentions provide you with the raw material aspect because you’re potentially free to create any type of new karma and these conditions can interact in many complex ways. In fact, in your experience of the present, your current intention arises prior to your awareness of the senses. Without present intentions, you’d have no experience of space and time. You’d be free from their limitations. At the level of actuality, this fact is what makes awakening possible. On the subjective level of reality, it means that even though you may experience the effects from past unhelpful thoughts, speech or action, known in classical Buddhism as the fruits of karma ripening, in your current field of experience, you can bring conscious choice into play at this point with awareness so that you do not have to worry about them. In effect you can be proactive in preventing worrying from disturbing peace of mind by the practice of awareness. This is why we meditate. It is to sensitize ourselves to and become aware of our present motivational factors, our present intentions, some of which are very subtle and buried within the subconscious and unable to be seem without introspection. This sensitivity enables us to expand the range of our freedom in the present, training the mind in the skills it needs to create a helpful state of mind.
If your intentions influence the quality of the result, does this mean that every action done with helpful intentions will tend toward a helpful result? For an intention to give helpful results, it has to be free of want, not want, and confusion. Now, it’s possible for an intention to be well-meaning but based on confusion, in which case it would lead to unhelpful results. To experience helpful results, an action has to be not only helpful but also wise. This is why the Buddha communicates three qualities to develop. 1. Action based on wisdom to develop or maintain peace of mind. 2 Committing yourself to do the least amount of physical, emotional pr psychological harm to yourself, others and the world around you 3. The observation of the on-going quality of your mind state, to develop conscience, as opposed to rule bound ethics. It is a system of learning from your mistakes so as not to be fooled by an intention that seems wise and compassionate but really isn’t.
In the Buddha’s times, the Jains believed that they could burn off old karma by not reacting to the pain of their austerities and the Buddha reserved some of his sharpest ridicule for that belief. He said they should have been aware that the pain experienced during their austerities ended when they stopped the austerities, which meant that the pain was the result not of old karma being burned off, but of their present karma in doing the austerities. According to the Buddha it is possible to minimize the results of unhelpful karma though. The Buddha compared past unhelpful karma to a big lump of salt. If you put the salt into a small glass of water, you can’t drink the water because it’s too salty. But if you toss it into a large, clean river, it doesn’t make the water of the river too salty to drink. The river stands for a mind that has developed kindness and equanimity, grown mature in the integrity of Dharma practice and has trained itself not to be overcome by pleasure or pain. The Buddha used the teaching on karma to explain only three things. 1. Why you experienced pleasure and pain and worried as a result 2. That worry could be alleviated or eradicated 3. How you could engage in a practical way of living that might help you to realize clarity yourself. In effect the eight-fold journey is the karma that puts an end to karma. Beyond that, he said that if you tried to work out all the implications of the results of karma, you’d go crazy. Because his communication deals simply with worrying and the end of worrying and that’s as far as he took the issue.
One of the major difficulties with the way classical Buddhism promoted karma is that it leads to a dependence on a rule-bound system of ethics that provide no learning opportunity. It can develop in unhelpful ways such as being callous towards the worrying of others and only being concerned with yourself. It can so easily head in the direction of thinking that you can blame them because it is their karma and they somehow deserve it. It can move away from a compassionate response. Compassion does not recognise good and bad. It can also be used as a means of keeping people in their places, in poverty, away from education, from social justice by writing their current situation off on some mythical past life. I am thinking here of situation like the Tsunami in Thailand where Buddhist monks blamed the populace for creating bad karma that caused the Tsunami, or the Buddhist monks in Nepal who blamed the Nepalese for creating the earthquake that was karmic payback for their annual ritualistic slaughtering of the bulls. A belief in karma as set out in classical Buddhism is an attempt to convince yourself that somehow the universe is just and fair and not just a process of cause and effect. In an ancient text there is the story of the murderer Angulimala, who transformed his life around after meeting the Buddha and hearing the Dharma. But still local people gave him a hard time by throwing things at him when he was on his alms round because they believed he had escaped justice. In one way it is fortunate that karma isn’t always just. As the Buddha said, if we had to pay back all the unhelpful karma we’ve done in the past before reaching awakening, no one would ever awaken.
Although within classical Buddhism karma and rebirth are intrinsically linked it is, I suggest, helpful to separate the two because they both show different aspects of what the Buddha was trying to communicate about causality. It is also helpful to let go of any kind of metaphysical aspect to these teachings because the Buddha was not concerned with such ideas as the origins of the universe, life after death etc. He was only interested in the practicalities of living on a moment by moment becoming process that led to the seeing through of the confusion of the self-biased mind. He used those pre-existing ideas as a means of explaining how intentional action was the key to helpful mind states that provided the opportunity for deeper levels of concentration that would give rise to irreversible insight into the nature of actuality.
The Buddha was very clear on the point that his communication was an experiential journey and not an intellectual pursuit. He insists that you do not believe what he says but adopt a working and lived hypotheses that you test, challenge, refute or realize within your own direct experience. The litmus test as always is the quality of your state of mind. When you think, say and do this is the mind worrying or at peace? In his day there were people who believed in past and future lives and people who don’t. Nothing has changed. But what the Buddha was trying to say is that the question is irrelevant to your current experience. What he awoke to is the actuality that people’s intentional actions did have an impact on their next moment of experience that may have consequences at some future moment.
This inevitably leaves us with two questions. 1. Can I be considered a Buddhist if I do not believe in the classical Buddhist version of karma and rebirth? 2. Can I be considered a secular western Buddhist if I do believe in the classical Buddhist version of karma and rebirth? According to what the Buddha actually communicated the answer to both questions would be yes. The only thing that defines you as a Buddhist is that you go for refuge to the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. The belief either way does not get in the way of living a Dharma life in accord with the eight-fold journey. Every time you think, speak or act, you’re subconsciously calculating whether the results will be worth the effort. The fact that you’re expecting results indicates that you have some understanding of the karmic causality process. Even if you deny that you’re acting with any expectation of results, part of the mind is calculating that your denial will give good results of one sort or another. If you do something you know is unhelpful, but tell yourself it won’t matter, you’re taking a position against karma. So let’s be clear you’re taking positions on these issues all the time. The Buddha’s simply pointing out that you’ll benefit from adopting the moment by moment learning opportunity consciously and consistently by observing the mind state.
Talking Dharma – Talking Secular Awareness
Awareness has become quite the buzz word in so many different fields these days. You will find it being spoken of when engaging in any different forms of psychotherapy. You’ll find it being promoted in schools, in corporate business, the sports world and even the military. It’s quite amazing really that something the Buddha spoke about 2,600 years ago as a method to reduce or eradicate worrying has taken so long to take off. The possible reason for that could be that when the Buddha talked about it he mentioned that it needed to be developed with integrity by living within a particular framework of ethical principles.
When you explore the different fields it is now being used it begs the question are they getting the real deal or a counterfeit version? The education system in many western countries appears to be one of competitiveness and the fight to be the best at all costs. Do you have a sense that corporate business has a focus on ethics? What about the military? Programs vary widely, of course. Some have a firm foundation in the Buddha’s teachings while others make no reference to Buddhism in order to strip it of its spiritual context. Exploring this question naturally leads to another: what is the awareness of the Buddha?
The Buddha taught that worrying arises out of the confusion of the conditioned self-biased mind that exists on the basis of conditioned subjective reality and does not see the actuality of things. What he sets out in his communication is a developmental journey where we can begin to unpack experientially the four principal assignments within our moment by moment experience as we walk the eight-fold journey. It is within this journey where we can work in meditation on realizing insight into the three characteristics of actuality: 1. The existence of worry. 2. Impermanence 3. No-thing-ness. To be in a position to develop conscious awareness so that we are aware of the motivational intent behind everything we think say and do is the freedom the Buddha offers, for us to take 100% personal responsibility without recourse to blaming others or external events. Here we are working to alleviate and then eradicate the drives of want, not want and confusion that keep us trapped in cyclic patterns of habitual thinking, speaking and acting which results in a worrying mind.
Possibly the most significant tool in the Buddha’s toolbox is the development of awareness, which is the ability to be consciously aware in each moment to what is happening physically, emotionally and psychologically within the entire mind/body complex. The primary method he suggests is through the concentrative meditative process in such practices as the awareness of the breath that eventually extends to open awareness, and the awareness of kindness, that eventually extends to compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. To compliment these formal practices he encourages effort in the areas of ethical conduct, generosity and simple living. Combined together this is, in effect the whole of the eight-fold journey of the authentic Dharma practitioner. Awareness practice, both in and out of formal meditation, helps us to go beneath the surface level of our moment-to-moment life experiences, which are habitually clouded with unhelpful emotional reactions and provides the greatest opportunity to see through those conditioned habits so that we can see directly and clearly the actuality of what is happening. In our day to day life, awareness helps us see clearly what needs to be done. It helps us to understand what we are capable of doing, and how that will be of greater benefit to the development of our Dharma life.
What most distinguishes awareness as taught by the Buddha from the types of awareness techniques that are out there in the commercial market is that he does not teach it as a standalone skill. He teaches it in conjunction within a structured and self-supportive development that is supported further by others who are also making the same journey. It is there firmly embedded as one of the themes within the eight-fold journey itself which is of course the development plan he suggests that will result in the breakthrough awakening moment to the actuality of causality. Awareness supports the moment-to-moment intention to do the least amount of harm to yourself, others and the world around you and to let go of the unhelpful worrying mind so you can develop and maintain a helpful mind state that will be at peace with itself, others and the world around you. It is awareness that helps us to engage with integrity the other themes within the eight-fold journey such as emotion, speech, effort, livelihood etc. Awareness as a stand alone practice may well lack the ethical and inspirational qualities that come as the complete package on offer by the Buddha. There is one thing to be aware of because it is often suggested, within Buddhist texts, that awareness is always conducive to developing a helpful state of mind. But in actuality the development of awareness can, if it is not supported by ethical practice, also provide opportunities where we can gain an advantage over others or be in a position to manipulate them in some way. Clearly this was not the Buddha’s intention or position.
No matter what the circumstances are in which it is taught, it is clear that awareness is a helpful tool when it is based in sound non rule bound ethics. It creates focus, clarity of thinking, reduces or eradicates the worrying mind and provides the opportunity to develop contentment and peace of mind. It helps to maintain that helpful mental state and this, after all, was the only reason the Buddha communicated this and everything else he taught. Awareness, within a Dharma context has one objective only. To eliminate the worrying mind and replace it with a mind that is at peace with itself, others and the world around it. When living on the basis of conscious awareness we are walking the Dharma journey alongside the Buddha and embracing with integrity the gift of the Dharma he gave to us.
Awareness is a valuable tool that can be helpful to highlight blind spots. At the centre of what the Buddha communicated is the practice of getting to know, with integrity, the unhelpful aspects of the journey so that we don’t have unhelpful and reactive stuff going on as a part of our experience. This is what the blind spot is all about. Another very important aspect when bringing awareness in is to be aware of our tendency to cling to our habit of re-conditioning our self-biased minds by building and managing a persona as if it was a real, solid, consistent, enduring, unshakeable thing. Have you ever found yourself acting more calm than you actually are, or of veering away from admitting unhelpful behaviour, or of discussing the unhelpful, as if you're above that now? If so, you may be well having the experience of a blind spot. The worst thing about the blind spot experience is that it is so self-sabotaging because it is actually a really big hindrance to authentic progress.
What are its symptoms? There are many, but a few of the most general ones to watch out for are a tendency to use Dharma practices as a means to avoid dealing with uncomfortable experiences, old wounds, unresolved hurts or any other worry that is preventing peace of mind being realized or maintained. Often this materialises as a withdrawal from ourselves and others by hiding behind some metaphysical belief aspect that can seem so appealing at times when worrying is at its most active. This often results in an exaggerated gentleness, niceness and superficiality. To be fair, this is most common within classical Buddhist schools and its adherents and possibly our secular western approach does not give us so much opportunity to do this, but I have to say I have witnessed it quite strongly within western Buddhist circles. Other symptoms include exaggerated detachment, emotional numbing, repression and overemphasis of the positive or overly tolerant compassion all of which will only ever lead to a lop-sided development. If we are not bringing awareness to what is actually going on within our experience, Dharma practice can very quickly become a defence mechanism that allows us to rationalise or justify unhelpful thoughts, speech and actions that we engage in. When we find ourselves having a hard time maintaining our individual practice do we reach out for yet another Buddhist book, or another you tube video and think to ourselves that it is really helping us in some way? Is the answer to our worrying in that book or video, or in this thing we call mind that we are avoiding confronting? Playing the game of the Dharma life gets you nowhere. You can pretend all you like that you are someone who is constantly at peace with yourself, even though what is actually happening seems like the weight of the world is actually crushing you, but all that does is make you more and more inauthentic. When blinded it is so easy to deflect personal responsibility for maybe saying or doing something hurtful to someone else because somehow you think they need your advice, or you find yourself just uttering a Dharma cliché such as “it’s all an illusion” or “it is what it is.” Being aware of a blind spot is no easy task because the self-biased mind is invested in always being right and will go to great lengths to convince you that you are far more advanced than the rest of your peers who you tend to see as slackers. If you ever find yourself having those kind of thoughts, it’s time perhaps to remember that it is not a part of your practice to judge the practice of others and to start taking a little more responsibility for your own.
The blind spot is about taking a phrase based in reality such as “it is what it is” and using it to ignore our own subjective reality such as the grief we experience at times of loss, or the remorse or regret we experience when we have not been at our best ethically. What we need to be doing is repeating to ourselves often, on the personal and interpersonal level is that it’s actually OK not to be OK and that’s OK. This is where integrity comes into play. Before we can actually deal with our worries we have to be honest about them and accept them for what they are. Although this is paramount to making progress it is easier said than done because it requires a level of vulnerability which most are uncomfortable with. Nevertheless, if we grant validity to the Buddha’s advice that the Dharma journey provides the opportunity to shape the evolution of humanity, it seems wise to confront the intricacies of our own blind spots sooner rather than later. Doing so could not only prevent years of developmental stagnation, but also help implement new levels of self-awareness that our world so desperately needs.
Talking Dharma – Talking Questioning
It is often said that the origin of the Zen tradition and its approach can be traced back to a single incident where the Buddha, without saying a word, raised a lotus flower in the air and held it in his hand. It is said within this story that one of his followers realized awakening on the spot within that experience. This may or may not have happened of course and as always we are aware of the need to create stories, myths and legends within the early oral tradition of classical Buddhism. What we do know is that modern day Zen had its origins in China as Chan, but this school was more or less an academic approach to the Dharma based on textual study. It began to move away from that approach when it reached places like Japan and Korea and placed an emphasis on meditation and realizing clarity within this lifetime.
Within Zen, an approach was developed to use a single question as a point of focus within the meditative process as a method to encourage experiential insight. In the Korean school the question is often phrased as “What is this?” This method, we are told, came about following an incident between the Master Huineng and a student sometime around the 6th century. According to the story the Master asked his student “where do you come from”? And the student gave the area where he was born and lived. The Master replied “What is this and how did it get here”? The student could not answer and left in a state of confusion. Apparently he worked on only that question in meditation for a number of years until he had a break through moment and then went back to the Master with his answer for conformation that he had understood. His answer was “To say it is like something is not to the point. But still it can be cultivated.”
With a koan, the whole story is the question. “What is this”? is just the focal point of concentration as in any formal concentrative meditation practice. The practice itself is very simple. Whether you are walking, standing, sitting or lying down, you ask yourself repeatedly “what is this”? There is a need here to be aware that you do not slip into intellectual analysing, for you are not looking to find an intellectual answer. In this practice you are turning the mind of inquiry back onto yourself and your entire experience in each moment. You are not asking “what is this thought, sound, sensation or external thing”? In this practice you are, in effect, asking what is it that is hearing, emoting, thinking? You are not asking “what is the taste of the coffee or the coffee itself”? You are asking “what is it that tastes the coffee”? “What is it before you even taste the coffee”?
Although koans were not the favoured method promoted by my own Master, he did encourage us to explore this approach and I did personally find it very helpful to work in meditation in this way. To try and understand how this works it is helpful to understand that the answer to the question was not a thing, because you could not describe it in terms of physical, emotional or psychological or a combination of those things. It was not no-thing-ness either because no-thing-ness cannot speak. It would not be realized insight because you are not yet awake. It was not the physical body or the source of aliveness, or any other designation, because there are just words and not the actual experience of it. So, you are left with questioning. You ask “what is this”? because you do not know.
I found within this method it became clear that I was not speculating with this thing we call mind. It was more a case of becoming an integral part of the question itself. What I discovered was that the most important part of the question is not the meaning of the words but the actual question mark at the end. This led me to understand that what I was doing was asking a question with no strings attached. It was an unconditioned question, “what is this”? without looking for an answer and without expecting an answer. It was more about questioning for questioning’s own sake. I found it to be a practice of questioning and not answering. It was about developing an awareness of openness and wonderment. As I asked the question “what is this”? I opened myself fully to the experience of that moment. It is a very active practice where there is no place to rest or hide. Within it we are letting go of our need for knowledge and security and allowing the mind/body complex to become a question.
It’s a bit like diving into a swimming pool. The entire mind/body complex is engaged in the act and is refreshed as you surrender yourself entirely to the question. I can only describe what this is like experientially by saying it’s the kind of bewilderment you experience when you have lost something. You are going somewhere, you put your hand in your pocket to grab your keys and they are not there. You search everywhere, returning to check the pocket at least another three times but there is nothing there. Just for a moment, before you try to remember where you’ve left them, you are totally perplexed. You have no idea what might have happened. This is what it is like when working in this form of Zen questioning.
In this form of meditation, concentration and inquiry are brought together. The question becomes the anchor or focal or fixed point and as the mind settles down within the process, calm and spaciousness begins to unfold. This practice is about just being present in the experience and asking “what is this”? and being open to this as it happens to be without wanting it to be anything else. This questioning allows for more possibilities and less certainty. It’s a bit like the mind of a child that meets all experience as it is, a brand new unique experience without any labels. It is an immediacy that is not lost in the past or projecting into the future. Normally, a thought emerges so fast that you are not even aware of its arrival. You just think it and there is a habitual reaction. Practicing in this way develops a sense of ongoing awareness that appears to slow down the process to a speed that highlights more choices that open up the opportunity for a creative response. This approach is not about encouraging or allowing the thinking process to stop as in other awareness practices like the awareness of the breath. It is more about helping you to discover what and how you think.
Practically speaking, I find that linking this practice to the breath is very helpful. You breathe in and as you breathe out you ask the question “what is this”? and then sit back and see what happens. If there is any sense of agitation, confusion or you find yourself analysing or speculating return to the breath and let go into the breathing process until it settles down and then ask the question again. It’s important to remember at all times that you are not trying to find an answer. You are simply giving yourself wholeheartedly to the act of questioning. The answer is actually in the questioning itself. It’s a bit like a child who has never seen snow. You tell them it is white and cold. The image that pops up for them is like a piece of white paper in the fridge. So, you take them to a mountain and point out the top. They say it looks like coconut ice cream. They will only know when they actually touch the snow, experience it, play with it and taste it that they will really know what snow is. It is the same with the question and the tasting is in the questioning itself.
The most important aspect of this practice is for the question to remain alive and for the entire mind/body complex to become a question. There is a saying within Zen that says you have to ask the question with the pores of your skin and the marrow of your bones. Another Zen teaching is: great questioning, great awakening. Little questioning, little awakening. No questioning, no awakening. What follows is a basic guide to the practice, but please bare in mind this practice is not one of the practices that form the basis of meditation instruction within the context of the Dharmadatu Buddhist Order and Sangha.
What is this? Awareness practice
Begin as you always do by gentle preparation, a few deep breaths and a body awareness period.
With the first few breaths, connect the question to the out-breath. As you breathe out, ask, “what is this”? You are not repeating the question like a mantra. You are cultivating a sensation of perplexity, asking unconditionally, “what is this?
This is not an intellectual inquiry. You are not trying to solve this question with speculation or logic. Do not keep the question in your head. Try to ask it from your belly. With the whole of your being, you are asking, what is this? What is this?
The answer is not found in the Buddha, or in a thing, or in empty space, or a designation.
You are asking what is this? because you do not know.
If you become distracted, come back to the question again and again.
The question what is this? is an antidote to distracted thoughts. It is as sharp as a sword. Nothing can remain on the tip of its sharp blade.
By asking this question deeply you are opening yourself to the whole of your experience, with a deep sense of wonderment and awe.
When the session is finished, move your shoulder, back, and legs, and gently get up with a fresh and quiet awareness.
Talking Dharma – Talking Openness
The awakening experience could be said to be the complete falling away of our conditioned habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting and all of the beliefs we have accrued during our lifetimes worth of conditioning that has been overseen and stored away by the self-biased mind. This falling away is not as proclaimed often within cultural Buddhism as a one-off final experience, but simply opens up a space for the actualization process to evolve as a different line of deep inquiry. With the suspension or eradication of the self-biased aspect of this thing we call mind, we begin a new journey of discovery that unfolds with each new experience being as it is without the clutter of “us” getting in the way. It is a journey where actuality provides expanded opportunities and new insights that transform and support compassion to be expressed as a natural response to all experience.
Often we hear the term open minded being banded about in conversations. But when you explore those conversations deeper, they seem to be little more than projections of one’s conditioned beliefs. The nature of a belief is that it becomes fixed and then needs to be defended. How is it possible to be open-minded if your mind is full of conditioned beliefs? It doesn’t make sense. This thing that is called the open mind is not open at all. It is closed shut and actuality has no opportunity to break through all the while we cling to our conditioned fixed beliefs. Understanding this is a helpful starting point to begin that de-conditioning integration process that is the Dharma journey.
For example, from early childhood I refused to eat eggs. I simply couldn’t get my head around the thought of eating anything that came out of a chicken’s bum. As I grew older and learned about such thing as hygiene and how eggs met health standards I then had to find another story to justify why I still would not eat an egg. I had new information but that subconscious belief was still there in the background. The next story to appear was that there was a baby chicken inside the egg and that would be me depriving it of life. That was OK for a while but then I learned that the eggs in the shops were not fertilized so in effect it was just a blob of stuff that was healthy to eat. Oh no. Another story needed. So there I was exploring the differences between battery hens, caged birds, free range and all that kind of thing. What was going on here? Where was the open mind? Of course it was open because I was taking in new information all the time but it was also closed to actuality because of my early conditioned beliefs about the chicken and the egg. On the first morning of my honeymoon, my new wife, who was totally unaware of my life-long angst about eggs served up two poached eggs on toast. I can’t even begin to describe the thoughts and emotions that came rushing in at the precise moment that plate was put in front of me. But what happened in that moment was a falling away of the closed mind as I opened myself up to the experience and surrendered fully to it in that moment. Eggs are no longer a problem and are often now a food of choice and all because of openness.
As we all know, with absolute certainty, brussel sprouts are in fact the food of the devil himself. Now, I accept that my mum was not the greatest cook in the world. In fact I didn’t know toast could come in different shades other than pitch black until I was introduced to the concept by my wife. Throughout my childhood toast only came burnt to a cinder and had to be scraped to make it edible and not taste of raw charcoal. But the smell of these insipid little green monsters being boiled to a slushy pulp haunted me for years. On the second leg of our honeymoon we went for a meal at a restaurant and the veg of the day was, you guessed it, brussel sprouts. Now, these little critters seemed to be a bit in disguise as they were dressed up in creamy butter, pine nuts and bits of bacon and they certainly didn’t smell like my dads underpants on wash day like the ones my mum cooked. In that moment the mind opened and so did the mouth. Not bad, not good, fairly neutral but not something I would go out of my way to eat again. Phew, thank you closed mind.
Years later I was on an ordination retreat in Norfolk and was invited to have dinner with the ordination team who in the Buddhist world are about as close to Dharma God as it gets. Bear in mind I had never revealed this aversion to sprout hell to anyone but my wife. What was dished up? Brussel sprout pie. Now come on, who has ever heard of anyone cooking a brussel sprout pie in the entire history of humankind? Just the smell of it invoked all of those childhood memories of being more or less force fed all manner of nasty things that always seemed to come from the inside of one animal or other combined with a variety of vegetables that has no discernible colour or taste to them, apart from the brussels. So there I sat, very hungry after an intensive day studying and meditating, watching everybody else tucking in with delight to this abomination. Was it a test? Was I being dragged into a brussel sprout cult? No matter how important this dinner was that mind was going to remain firmly shut and it was. When they inevitably asked me why I hadn’t eaten the pie, I could easily have ducked the question or told one of those cute little white lies, but I chose to be up front about it and we all had a great laugh. Please note, nobody offered to try and make it better for me by providing me with an alternative. Thankfully the pudding was great so I didn’t go to bed hungry. Fast forward to modernity and now I have opened myself up to the world of brussel sprouts and include them raw in my health conscious smoothies. I’m not quite fully open to the cooked variety yet, but did manage to eat one that was cunningly disguised with breadcrumbs. So, be warned. These little devils are out there to get you one way or another.
What was actually going on in these and other situations was that I was trying to defend my old belief systems about taste and diet. I wasn’t ready to open myself simply to the experience of taste without the stories getting in the way. All of those unhelpful thoughts and emotions kept closing the mind down. In came the rationalizations, the justifications. “Well, they might be nice, but not today thanks.” “Maybe next time.” There was no justification really. It was just me in closed-mind mode. But both of these experiences and others did become learning experiences. They became things that moved me further into exploring openness on an ever developing deeper level. I did hear a rumour that the Buddha never ate brussel sprouts either but I think it was me that started that rumour.
The realization of actuality is very much like this. It is very difficult to be fully open until we have realized some degree of insight into what that experience is. Once we begin to explore those fixed beliefs that close the mind and work to deconstruct them by opening ourselves up to actuality it becomes easier to let go into whatever the experience is with no fear or worry. Even the doubt that we are ready to let go is washed away within the process of allowing the experience to be as it is without the conditioned story.
We cannot escape the fact that we are seriously conditioned beings. Possibly every aspect of our self-identity has arisen by a unique conditioning process that has led us to fix ourselves as this separate ego-identity we call “I.” Not even identical twins have identical conditioning. Currently, there are something like 7.5 billion uniquely conditioned human beings on this planet. Probably most of them believe that they are open minded but in fact the vast majority of people will be operating on the basis of habitual patterns of thinking, speaking and acting that is in accord with their conditioning factors and rarely, if ever, take the opportunity to challenge those habits by engaging in introspection. As a result we gather around us what is known as our core beliefs. These are the beliefs that we will defend at all costs yet still declare that we are open-minded.
The experience of openness is about meeting all experience as it is without adding in a story from within our historical conditioning. It is a neutrality, or middle way, a choice-less-ness that does not judge the experience as good or bad and does not give rise to a thought that relates to “I like it” or “I don’t like it” or a thought that wants to change the experience into something else. It’s a willing-ness, an acceptance, a surrendering to the experience as a new learning opportunity in developing conscious awareness.
So, can you see why the Buddha from the outset specifically asks that nobody believes anything he says? Why he encourages people to test and challenge everything with the intensity it takes to melt gold and not cling or become attached to beliefs about anything? Because he knows that to believe closes the mind to further discovery. Even after the realization of clarity he continued to experience new insights. That is what the actualization process is and why this thing that is called enlightenment is not a one-off fixed experience to be believed in either. When you hold a fixed belief about anything it becomes a part of the reconditioning process that moulds your personality. As a result, the moment your belief is challenged by someone else it is perceived to be a threat to the pre-conscious, biological, nature drive to survive so you go into defensive mode. And what is the accepted best form of defence other than to attack.
The practical solution to this problem of belief is to adopt what I call the transitory view, or if you like, the current theory of everything. This is the way that science evolves as an on-going learning experience. It arrives at a current conclusion based on all of the accumulated known facts and presents it as a current theory and ten remains open to anyone challenging that view with facts or new information that will refute it and if and when that happens the current theory is replaced with a new current theory without any drama whatsoever. This is the root cause of our worries. In this context it is out attachment to a belief that sets up the conditions for worry, whereas the transitory view allows the mind to be at peace with itself, others and the world around it because it has nothing to defend. It has no argument to win.
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