tears in the eyes of fish
tears in the eyes of fish
“When your mind feels tight and constricted, you can make more space.” You’ve probably heard this before about meditation practice, but what specifically are we talking about here? The problem isn’t that there’s a lack of space, but the way our minds perceive space, which is related to our identity.
Most people think of the boundary of the body as a point of identity. That is, my thoughts, feelings, perceptions, heart, personality, all reside within my body. So the body is home and herein lies myself. This is who I am and where I exist. Everything I’m made of is inside is me, what’s outside is not me, or it may be related to me but still separate.
This boundary is useful and necessary living in the world. But it also has limitations when we only perceive ourselves through this narrow lens.
At times we may know that our hearts, our love, extend beyond the body. We may also feel compassion for the suffering of others and sense the boundary melting a bit. True lovingkindness and compassion function as a relative expression of emptiness or not-self. They are like a river that flows from a reservoir within our heart. But the reservoir doesn’t dry up – it has an infinite source because it isn’t limited to our body.
When we meditate we begin to see this perceived boundary of the body dissolve, we see that what we think of as “me” doesn’t have a distinct beginning and ending point. This is a liberating insight and is often an early aspect of understanding not-self. At times, we may feel less compelled to put so much energy into simply solving our own problems and “fixing myself.” This brings to mind Lenoard Cohen’s famous poem:
“Ring the bells that can still ring
Forget your perfect offering
There’s a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”
If we only view difficult thoughts and emotions and as existing inside “me” there is often a feeling of tightness, a lack of space and confusion about what we should do. When the focus is mainly on myself, other conditions seem to disappear. Yet, as we sit, as our concentration deepens, the mental focus on self loosens up. The sensations of anger, sadness and fear are seen as conditions that arise and pass away and are not “myself,” even though we experience them in our bodies. As this happens, gradually, or perhaps quickly, a feeling of space opens.
When we understand that our minds are not simply in our physical bodies, our mental boundaries open and our awareness feels less constricted. From this perspective, our challenges and pain may still exist, but now the great sky of mind has room to include them all. We have access to our wise heart that sees conditions for what they are, without the limits of “inside and outside,” and our path becomes clearer.
“If you attain your true self, then if you die in one hour, in one day, or in one month, it is no problem. If you only do “fixing-your-body” meditation, you will mostly be concerned with your body. But some day, when it’s time for your body to die, this meditation will not help, so you will not believe in it. This means it is not correct meditation. If you do correct meditation, being sick sometimes is OK; suffering sometimes is OK; dying someday is OK. The Buddha said, “If you keep a clear mind moment to moment, then you will get happiness everywhere.” ― Zen Master Seung Sahn
To open your awareness to this clear mind, try my guided “Mind Like Sky” meditation here.
In this talk I share my experiences from the Nashville flood of 2010, how it devastated Radnor Lake and how the lake recovered. From a larger perspective, I explore the question of how we proceed when a tree falls into our path, or when the path is flooded beyond recognition. Can we discover a new way even as we mourn what is lost?
A few days ago I saw a social media post by a Zen teacher, commenting on a video in which CEOs revealed that meditation was their secret to success. The dharma teacher jokingly observed, “I’ve been doing this shit for 30 years. How come I’m not successful?” He went on to write a blog post about the conflict inherent in materialistic, idealized definitions of success related to meditation. The video showcased how meditation helped CEOs focus and overcome fear. One CEO said she spent her meditation time thinking about the goals she wanted to achieve. The narrator never mentioned how living a life of compassion, generosity and non-harming were also cornerstones to success, something that is integral to the Buddhist path of meditation. Without these qualities most people are hopelessly caught in the craving self that is never satisfied with wealth, fame and achievement. Meditation only becomes a means to an end, a way to strengthen our competitive muscles and along with it, our entrenched, relative sense of self.
Much of the time we define and experience our lives in the relative, conditioned realm. In this world we are tempted to focus on “myself” and how I am fairing against a yardstick that defines whether I am successful, attractive, healthy, having a good day or week, and generally living up to my (and our culture’s) ideas of the perfect life. This focus on me and my ideals in relation to others creates a barrier to experiencing the open space of awareness that is free from self identification, which can be all but forgotten during a busy day of running from one activity to the next, or trying to alleviate anxiety and boredom through social media, television and other distractions.
Out of this near exclusive focus on the conditioned world, a sense of restriction arises, a lack of space, a feeling that there’s always something else we need to do, another place we need to reach, a better “I” that needs to be built. But of course wherever we go, whatever we do, the relative self always feels incomplete and continues seeking fulfillment through yet another scheme or activity. A simple moment of coming back to this moment, seeing this endless loop of striving, can help us remember that when we define ourselves only through this lens of self, we are stuck at the very root of dissatisfaction or dkkha.
I think of hard relativity as the time I spend lost in the whirlpool of activity and craving, when I’ve completely forgotten what available to me right now, the mind that is open, unconditioned and spacious. When the balance tips so far into conditioned awareness and activity that nothing else seems to exist, I feel hopelessly lost. Yet with a moment of remembering, of waking up from the illusion, it becomes clear that I’m not as stuck as I thought. In fact, I’m not stuck at all because who is stuck?
Why do we so often forget and get lost in this “hard relativity?” We can easily flip that question to, “why do we suffer?” Take a moment to reflect: how do you define yourself? Are you frequently trying to alter and make your sense of identity other than what it is in this moment? Who are you without your goals, your achievements, all the ways you define yourself? What if you began to reflect on this question more often in your daily life?
I’m not suggesting we let go of our heartfelt aspirations to excel or achieve. These have their place. Without some ambition, not much in this world will get done. Instead, I’m suggesting we create an intention to find ways to include spacious awareness of the unconditioned in our busy days and not only when we meditate. It sounds simple, but we tend to make it complicated: relative and unconditioned are not mutually exclusive even though they seem otherwise. They are two sides of one coin. Unconditioned, open awareness is always accessible, even when we feel caught in the vise grip of our activities, wants and self-driven cravings.
As a wake up call, you may want to pay more attention to those moments when you feel pressured to get to the next thing, be the next better version of yourself, squeezed and lacking in any space. See if you can create an intention, like a mindfulness bell, to take a moment to remember and reconnect with the open space of unconditioned awareness. Here’s a simple, yet profound Zen koan you can ask yourself to open this up: “What is my original face before I was born?” The answer is right here and nowhere else.
I’ve had a number of requests to offer a recorded version of the open awareness guided meditation I often do at retreats, “Mind Like Sky.” This guided meditation facilitates open awareness, a mind as wide and limitless as the sky.
In late April we completed One Dharma’s fourth Spring Renewal residential retreat at Bethany Hills in Kingston Springs. We had many returning and experienced meditators, only a few beginners this time. We always welcome people of all levels of experience, but this happened to tip toward a more experienced crowd overall. I’m happy to say that those who were new made it through the weekend like champs.
A number of deep and probing questions were posed during the q&a sessions and I’m sure many participants will be digesting them for a while. On Saturday night we did a guided forgiveness practice and during the closing circle many shared that the practice had a strong impact on them. In particular they discovered a deep and unexpected need to forgive themselves.
Related to forgiveness practice, I have a couple of striking experiences I’d like to share: one from the retreat and another from my own past experience. One person at the retreat gradually discovered that forgiveness is not linear no matter how strong his desire to forgive. Through the guided forgiveness practice, he discovered that he simply wasn’t ready to release a major betrayal, no matter how deeply he wanted to let it go. This was a major breakthrough that helped settle his heart and allowed him to accept his true feelings as a path toward healing.
We may go through a process of forgiveness and feel a release, only to experience the hurt and anger arising again. Many people believe they must forgive at all costs in order to be freed from anger and attachments. Perhaps
in a simpler world, liberation would come this easily. But adhering to this model often leads us to push past the pain or hurt to reach an ideal of forgiveness. In this case, nothing is truly resolved; we only encounter a veneer of forgiveness that is ready to crack at a moment’s notice.
When we can’t forgive, we may find that the hurt and sadness that arose from a particular event is still present in our hearts and calls to be acknowledged, even honored. We need to offer compassion to ourselves, to the pain, before we can begin to let go. This may take while. But gradually this process opens the door to deeper, more genuine forgiveness. When we see our own suffering more clearly, we can more readily see the others pain too and a doorway to true forgiveness may crack open. Or open wide. This doesn’t mean we allow inappropriate behavior from people after we’ve forgiven. We may need to set strong boundaries. Forgiveness does mean that we don’t continue to carry anger and hurt in our hearts in a way that weigh us down. We can’t force the timing and may need to return many times to our broken heart, our anger or pain until the heart at last finds release. Ultimately, forgiveness is done for ourselves, to free us from bondage to the past.
On the other side of the coin, we may at times cling to anger and hurt in a righteous way, reinforcing a feeling of separation of self and other: “I’m right and you’re wrong, and until you acknowledge it, I will hold it against you.” There’s something perversely satisfying about holding on to this narrative even though it keeps our inner needle stuck on anger. When we cling in this way, we can’t access our tender hearts in the present moment, where the hurt can be touched and released.
At one retreat I had a dream about a friend who I felt had betrayed me. In the dream we were squabbling over petty things, each trying to prove the other wrong. I watched myself clinging to my idea of what she should have done, and she kept pushing back that I was wrong. In the dream we never reached resolution, we were stuck in a tug of rope with no winner. When I awoke I saw the absurdity of the situation and realized it was time to let go. Through my dream, my heart was telling that I was ready and soon after our friendship resumed. This situation helped me I realize how precious good friendships are and how much time can be lost over disagreements that aren’t at the heart of the relationship.
So whether you are pushing yourself to forgive before you’re ready, or clinging to a perceived wrong that is keeping your heart imprisoned, finding the way to freedom means honoring what is most true for you in this moment. When we understand that forgiveness is not always a linear process, we can see that it requires patience, courage and compassion. This helps to bring us back to ourselves, to our wise heart, which can reveal the true way to forgiveness.
Five Session course starting on June 30, 2016
Led by Lisa Ernst
This five week practice and study course is designed for committed practitioners and will allow for deeper exploration of the process and practices of meditation and awakening. Patterned on Sprit Rock’s Dedicated Practitioner Program and led by Lisa Ernst, the class will offer specific teaching and practice approaches based on the Noble Eightfold Path. There will be plenty of time for group discussion and interaction. The basic requirements are that everyone attending has an established daily meditation practice, or will re-commit to one, and has attended at least one daylong or longer meditation retreat.
The class fee is $150. Two reduced fee spots are available in the case of financial need. A deposit of $35 reserves your spot with the balance due by June 23. To pay by paypal go here and use the “donate” button. Instructions on paying by check are at the same link. Please include your email address. Meeting will be held Thursdays, 7 – 8:30n p.m. at the 12 South Dharma Center. With one exception we will meet weekly: we will not meet on Thursday, July 7 due to the 4th of July holiday that week.
For questions contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stability and Clarity Daylong Meditation Retreat
Saturday June 11, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.
Nashville Friends Meeting
Led by Lisa Ernst
Please join us for a day of sitting and walking meditation at a beautiful Nashville location. Cultivating clear awareness of our present moment experience reveals insights into the nature of suffering and liberation. We see that everything that arises is not my “self” but a display of impermanent conditions. When the mind sees life through this clarity and is unclouded by separation and confusion, we create the foundation for well-being, joy and equanimity.
Led by meditation teacher Lisa Ernst, this silent retreat is suitable for both beginning and experienced meditators; it will include sitting and walking meditation, practice instructions, and a dharma talk. The retreat will close at 3:30 with refreshments. Please bring a bag lunch.
Cost: $50, plus dana (donation) to the teacher. A reduced fee spot is available in the case of financial need. A deposit of $50 can be paid by Paypal here. If paying by check, instructions are at this link. Be sure and include your email address. Directions and additional information will be emailed prior to the retreat.
Please contact email@example.com with any questions.