The Unhindered Heart: How to Hold Love and Suffering

The unfolding immigration tragedy that has left children separated from their parents, detained in prison-like cages, has provoked one of the strongest outpourings I’ve seen of grief, despair, anger and confusion, along with fierce protests and calls to our politicians to end the practice immediately. Through these efforts we’ve seen some movement on this issue but know there’s much more to be done. Even in the midst of this energetic effort, I’m reminded that we also need to remember that there is no “other” out there, or anywhere, to hate. Otherwise, weariness and despair can easily overtake us. We can protest, speak out, call our politicians; we can also remember our interconnected nature at the deepest place in our hearts. We are capable of both. Recently  I was moved by a quote from Phillip Moffitt and want to share it here:

“The Buddha said, “Hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.” By holding the truth of our interdependency and refusing to participate in this endless cycle of hatred, you can help to heal the wound of the world. Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. But if you love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back, then your reward will be great.’

No one can accuse Jesus or Buddha of being cowards in the face of injustice; therefore, their teachings are about how to hold the difficult in the heart. You have to decide if you share their beliefs, and if so, you practice living in this manner as a reflection of your deepest values. It is a proactive, courageous way to live. This does not mean responding passively when you encounter wrong action, for you should always act to stop those who harm others.”

This reflection on interdependency reminds me of an article I wrote a few years ago after I watched a movie about a woman who was stoned to death in Iran. As the movie ended, I was overwhelmed and struggled to get to sleep that night. During the next morning’s meditation, however, I gradually remembered that the mental creation of good and bad, enemies and friends just brought about separation that prevented my heart from bearing the pain of this act. In remembering the truth of interconnection, I found that I could open my heart to the stunning pain I felt at the stoned woman’s plight and to feel compassion for the great suffering of her entire community, even the perpetrators. To experience interdependency at this level in no way precludes wise action to stop suffering. While there was little I could do personally to stop the practice of stoning in Iran, there is much I can do in this country to help turn the tide away from cruelty. I can’t know if my efforts will succeed, but I know they are worth doing.

The One Who Casts the Stone and The One Who is Hit

by Lisa Ernst

Recently the impending stoning death of an Iranian woman made worldwide headlines and sparked international outrage. The pressure on the Iranian government to change her sentence has been immense. For most of us, it is incomprehensible that death by stoning is still a form of capital punishment in some parts of the world.

I was especially moved by the cause of this woman because I had recently watched a movie about the stoning death of another Iranian woman, “The Stoning of Soyora M.” The movie is based on a book of the same name, the true story of a woman falsely accused of adultery and stoned to death in her home town in the 1980s. This movie depicted the woman’s stoning in a very accurate, unflinching way and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever watched on film. She was dressed in white and marched through the streets of her home town while men lined the way, rhythmically clapping stones together as a prelude to the execution. When she reached the stoning ground, her arms were bound to her sides and she was buried to her waist. A perimeter line was drawn, perhaps 20 feet away, behind which everyone in the town stood to stone her or to watch. A barrel of stones had been collected so the townsmen could all have their turn.

For a stoning execution, the stones are chosen for their size – not too large to kill the person immediately, but not too small as to do little harm. In Soroya’s case, I had hoped that her suffering would be brief, but stonings are deliberately stretched out over a period of time to create a gruesomely painful form of torture. The woman’s dignity was completely stripped away as her husband, her sons, and the men in her community threw stone after stone at her head, as she cried out in pain and disbelief, fell over to the ground, yet continually lifted herself back up with whatever strength she could muster. Slowly her white dress became completely stained with red. Finally, after perhaps an hour she was dead.

As the movie ended, I sat stunned and speechless, as tears spilled down my cheeks. It was just before bed and I wondered if I’d be able to sleep after witnessing such heinous torture. Somehow, I was able to fall into a restless sleep. The next morning I got up to meditate, having briefly forgotten what I had seen the night before. As I settled into meditation, the stillness of the morning and the sweet birdsong brought my heart fully awake. Then, in this place of stillness and open heartedness, the stoning images of the night before returned. There was great sadness in my heart, yet I didn’t close down or turn away. What I’ve learned through my practice is that when my  heart fully awake, it has the capacity to accommodate not only great love but great suffering. This is the “door of compassion” that Thich Nhat Hahn beautifully speaks of in this poem:

“Please Call Me by My True Names”
I am the 12 year old girl, refugee on a boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands, and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people, dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.

My pain is like a river of tears, so full it fills up the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and
my laughs at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names so I can wake up,and so the door of my heart can open the door of compassion.
– Thich Nhat Hahn

Buddha taught that there is no inherent self separate from others; no self separate from all phenomena. This is called  emptiness. Through committed meditation practice, we gradually increase our capacity to experience emptiness.  We begin to understand at an experiential level that all of existence is none other than our own true nature. This insight is the basis for recognizing that all beings are Buddha, the awakened one. But what is often not stated, yet cannot be otherwise, is that we also are the pirate who rapes the 12 year old girl, and the man who stones his wife. If we selectively associate our understanding of non-separation with the highest of good, choosing to see only what we like and admire, we risk closing off our hearts to the often unspeakable suffering of our own humanity. Unconditional compassion and love can only arise when the heart is open to the full spectrum of experience, from great kindness to profound cruelty. This is true non-separation. Admittedly however, this kind of open- heartedness is not always easy;  there are times when we may see or experience suffering that is beyond our heart’s capacity to bear.  During these moments, some compassion for our own inevitable limits can soften the edges of our pain. At other times we may find the way to truly open our hearts and no longer look away:

You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided
Franz Kafka

With a compassionate heart, we may weep at the inconceivable cruelty of this world and feel joyous when witnessing a deed of true kindness.  During the quiet of the morning when my heart touched the great suffering inherent in the act of stoning, for a few moments I could see without flinching the depths of  unkindness that is part of human nature. The same heart that fills with joy upon hearing a symphony of birds greeting the morning sun, also breaks for the woman who died the most unimaginable death at the hands of her own husband and community. They are all none other than me.

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Hard Relativity and the Gateway to Freedom

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.

Learning from Our Enemies

This short piece from Pema Chodron fits into the them of a dayong retreat I’m teaching at Spirit Rock Saturday, so I’m sharing it here.

Ego clinging is our means of denial. Once we have the fixed idea “this is me,” then we see everything as a threat or a promise—or something we couldn’t care less about. Whatever we encounter, we’re either attracted to it or averse to it or indifferent to it, depending on how much of a threat to our self-image it represents. The fixed identity is our false security. We maintain it by filtering all of our experience through this perspective. When we like someone, it’s generally because they make us feel good. They don’t blow our trip, don’t disturb our fixed identity, so we’re buddies. When we don’t like someone—they’re not on our wavelength, so we don’t want to hang out with them—it’s generally because they challenge our fixed identity. We’re uncomfortable in their presence because they don’t confirm us in the ways we want to be confirmed, so we can’t function in the ways we want to function. Often we think of the people we don’t like as our enemies, but in fact, they’re all-important to us. They’re our greatest teachers: special messengers who show up just when we need them, to point out our fixed identity. – Pema Chodron

Bridging the Gap: When Compassion Starts Here

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By Lisa Ernst

As with many spiritual traditions, Buddhism emphasizes cultivating compassion as vital to a spiritual life. Most of us want to be compassionate at heart yet at times we may struggle to manifest it skillfully in daily life. What happens when we see a homeless person on an empty street and we recoil rather than feeling a warm yearning to reach out and help? Maybe a family member needs our support but we’ve had a long history of conflicts and misunderstandings and we struggle to extend a hand. Perhaps a co-worker who always seems aloof or combative has a tragic loss. Instead of feeling a sense of caring and interconnection with their suffering, we initially feel neutral, detached.

At times like these our response to misfortune and suffering may not align with our ideals and intentions. When we see this gap, we may feel even more separate. This can easily turn into self-judgment and criticism: “I’m not a very compassionate person;” “I don’t have the courage to help;” or even, “that person doesn’t deserve my kindness.”

When our response doesn’t conform to our ideals, it helps to remember that a compassionate response is unlikely to arise unless we acknowledge and explore our immediate reaction This is the gap—when our response and our ideals are out of sync. Instead of identifying only with our ideals, or judging ourselves for an unwanted response, we can drop down and learn to stay in the gap, the place beneath our thoughts where we can experience our fear, our hurt or our frustration when our desire to help goes nowhere. In these situations, this is where compassion begins. Returning to this place, our bodies, our hearts, what is truly arising at this moment?

If you’re walking down the street and encounter a homeless person, can you see the moment aversion arises and just experience it? It may not happen immediately, but once you’re aware of it, take a few breaths and stay in the midst of your experience. As you learn to do this, your conditioned response will begin to diminish. The contraction of fear will soften, the sense of separation, born of that fear, will also start to dissolve. As we lose identification with ourselves as a separate entity, we experience the homeless person’s suffering more directly. Maybe there’s nothing we can do in that moment to help beyond offering a few dollars. Sometimes the correct response is to distance ourselves if the situation seems unstable. But if there’s no immediate threat, perhaps simply a smile, an acknowledgement that we actually see this human being, is the kindest response. Longer term, we may feel motivated to seek out concrete ways to take action.

The roots of suffering run deep. As we learn to stay in the gap, not turning away from our fear or aversion, a skillful and compassionate response is closer at hand. As Ajahn Chah puts it, “There are two kinds of suffering. There is the suffering you run away from, which follows you everywhere. And there is the suffering you face directly, and so become free.”

Functional Identity and No-Self

Every morning we put on clothes that allow us to function within our daily activities and obligations. For early exercisers, workout attire is the first clothing of the day. Others begin the morning with work clothes or simply day wear. We all wear clothing that gives us a functional identity in the world, whether a standard uniform, jeans and t-shirt or more a more formal work outfit.

In the same way, we take on functional identities in our lives to fulfill needs, aspirations and obligations. We may be a parent, a friend, a spouse, a programmer and an artist, all in one day. We may also be a meditator and yoga practitioner. Take a look at what you do each day and see how fluid your identity is based on your activates and interactions. I call this functional identity because it serves a purpose but is not fixed; it is subject to change over hours, days, weeks, years and decades. If you cling to identity as concrete and unmoving, you will suffer through the inevitability of change and impermanence.

Most of us don’t cling to our clothes, at least not for long. We change them as needed and realize they aren’t who we are. We recognize the impermanence of any particular set of clothes. If only we could view our perception of self in the same way, our suffering would decrease significantly.

When you realize experientially that the identity you cling to is not fixed and is subject to change and impermanence, you will taste liberation. Your functional identity serves a purpose and doesn’t need to be denied or eliminated, but it is ultimately a kaleidoscope of change over the course of a lifetime. It’s no more permanent than your clothes.

What is your true nature, what is your mind? When you let go, you will find joy and equanimity in this very moment. You will begin to wake up from the illusion of a fixed self and know freedom within the endless flux of experience, of activity, of living and dying.

“I came to realize clearly that mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide Earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.”
~~ Eihei Dogen

A Dharma Lesson from India

During my recent tour of India, I was reminded over and over that one definition of dukkha is unreliability. India is a truly magical place of great beauty and spirituality but travel can be challenging at times. When Westerners first encounter this, it can be unnerving as we expect systems to work consistently. But when this unreliability is met without our usual expectations of a specific outcome, we no longer suffer. In India, when our group was able to flow with the nature of the unknown, especially in relation to travel, we didn’t suffer. Indians learned this long ago and I observed how they meet this unreliability with equanimity. So in this case there was no dukkha. And we also observed impermanence when the challenge of travel led us into spectacular scenery and magical new places to see and experience.

After returning home from Nashville, I was driving to Tuesday night meditation when I encountered a major traffic jam on 1-440. I decided to take an alternate route via West End and Murphy Road. But many others had the same idea. West End was jammed with cars and I had to sit through four cycles of the light at West End and Murphy, each of which took nearly four minutes. I watched as the clock ticked away knowing I was running later and later. As I’m a punctuality freak, this was a little unnerving. But just as frustration was about to set in I remembered the lesson of unreliability from my travels in India; I exhaled and relaxed. All was well. When I arrived at One Dharma, about 15 minutes later than usual, I jokingly told our opening volunteer that I had turned over a new leaf and had thrown punctuality to the wind!

Here are a few words from Joseph Goldstein about dukkha as the inherently unreliable nature of things:

One way we experience dukkha, the unsatisfying, unreliable nature of things, is through the direct and increasingly clear perception of their changing nature. Many people have been enlightened by this one short teaching: “Whatever has the nature to arise will also pass away.”

But because this statement is so glaringly obvious we often ignore or overlook its deep implications. On the conceptual level, we understand this quite easily. But in our lives, how often are we living in anticipation of what comes next, as if that will finally bring us to some kind of completion of fulfillment? When we look back over our lives, what has happened to all those things we looked forward to? Where are they now? This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t enjoy ourselves or enjoy pleasant experiences. It just means we need to remember the very transitory nature of that happiness and to deeply consider what our highest aspirations really are. Excerpted from “Mindfulness, A Practical Guide to Awakening.”

Reflections on Skillful Effort

 

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We can view wise effort as taking a canoe to the water and making the effort to put it in. Once the canoe is in the water, it floats on its own – we don’t need to make it float. Our effort is to launch the canoe. Once in the water, we have paddles and can direct the canoe, but we don’t have to try and make it float. –
~ Lisa Ernst

Stay right at that point of balance where you’re not pushing it too hard and not being too lazy or lax — just the right amount of interest, the right amount of attention and intention to keep things going — so that the breath can have a chance to heal the wounds in the body, soothe the mind, and bring both the body and the mind to the stages of practice where the concentration gets stronger and your insights grow sharper, more subtle. It’s important that the groundwork be done. Just keep on doing the work. Things will develop.

~ Thanissaro Bhikkhu

According to Stephen Batchelor, Enthusiasm is a better translation than Effort. He offers the 8th century poet Shantideva’s views on Wise Enthusiasm as finding joy in what is helpful and having a passion for living a mindful life, a moving force like wind that fills our sails and moves us.

Delusion and Enlightenment Have a Conversation

Taking Flightcrop

D: Hi Enlightenment, I’ve been waiting for you, where’ve you been?

E: I have been here all along, but you rarely recognize me. You look right at me, but you don’t see me.

D: I thought you were over the next hill or two and that I have to keep searching. I catch glimpses of you from time to time, but you always disappear.

E; That’s what everybody says

D: To tell the truth, I’m surprised you’re here. I’m not good enough for you. Probably never will be. I’m trying to be a better person but I feel like a failure.

E; Yeah, I hear that one a lot too. Go ahead and work on being kinder and more compassionate, but do it for others, not me. Do it for the world.

D: Thanks, but that might be hard. I seem to be stuck in a lot of, well, delusion.

E: That’s ok, I’m not going anywhere. I don’t care how deluded you are.

D: Really? Is my practice a waste of time then? I’ve got a long to do list and I need to get on it.

E: If you don’t meditate, you won’t see me as much, you won’t recognize me. But now that we’ve met, if you think you know me, you’ll be mistaken. You’ll be stuck with only memories. That’s fine, its not my business, but it will make you miss me even more – its your nature to miss me.

D: Then how do we work together?

E: We are together, we’re not separate. I’m always here, even in your most deluded moments. You can’t get rid of me and I can’t get rid of you so let’s make peace.

D: Ok, that sounds good. But can I check my phone first?

Waking Up Through Anger and Love

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At times like this, you may be tempted to let the momentum of anger and outrage pull you away from meditation practice. In fact, sitting still with anger can be very uncomfortable. But don’t let that stop you. Keep sitting – not to get rid of anger, if that’s what you’re feeling, but to become intimate with it. Welcome the discomfort. In the stillness we can allow our awareness, our love, to embrace the anger. What is it telling us at the heart level? Perhaps as we sit, as the dust settles a bit, we become more aware of the fullness of the anger and what accompanies it. For me, right now I encounter sadness and fear for our country. I also encounter a love that can’t be vanquished by hate. Tears flow and I find room in my heart for it all. The beauty and the ugliness – they all serve to awaken my heart and remind me to remain steadfast in love while standing against hate, prejudice and separation, whether in my own heart or in the world.

I’m reminded of these verses from the Shambhala Warrior training:

“In the crucible of meditation, bring forth day by day into your own heart the treasury of compassion, wisdom and courage for which the world longs.

Sit with hatred until you feel the fear beneath it. Sit with fear until you feel the compassion beneath that.

Do not set your heart on particular results. Enjoy positive action for its own sake and rest confident that it will bear fruit.

When you see violence, greed and narrow-mindedness in the fullness of its power, walk straight into the heart of it, remaining open to the sky and in touch with the earth.

Staying open, staying grounded, remember that you are the inheritor of the strengths of thousands of generations of life.

Staying open, staying grounded, recall that the thankful prayers of future generations are silently with you.

Staying open, staying grounded, be confident in the magic and power that arise when people come together in a great cause.

Staying open, staying grounded, know that the deep forces of Nature will emerge to the aid of those who defend the Earth.

Staying open, staying grounded, have faith that the higher forces of wisdom and compassion will manifest through our actions for the healing of the world.

When you see weapons of hate, disarm them with love.
When you see armies of greed, meet them in the spirit of sharing.
When you see fortresses of narrow-mindedness, breach them with truth.
When you find yourself enshrouded in dark clouds of dread, dispel them with fearlessness.

When forces of power seek to isolate us from each other, reach out with joy.

In it all and through it all, holding to your intention, let go into the music of life. Dance!”

 

 

Delusion and Buddha Nature Are Not Separate

One recent morning while meditating, I was reflecting on the nature of delusion. 2017 started off as a difficult year for me, and having struggled with a multiplicity of challenges, I felt at times as if I were drowning in delusion. Then, a moment of remembering and I was at peace: the awakened mind is nowhere but here, right in the very midst of seemingly impenetrable delusion.

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This is my reflection:

Delusion and Buddha Nature are not separate. Our human nature includes delusion and clarity. When delusion is fully seen and known, this is enlightenment. What allows this alchemy? Letting go of identification with a fixed “self.” A simple shift in perspective and the seeming duality of delusion and enlightenment dissolve.

When we think we have a self that we need to endlessly polish, hone and improve, we get caught in the illusion that awakening is elsewhere. Yes, we need our practice to help us remove what clouds the clarity of mind. As Suzuki Roshi said, “Enlightenment is an accident. Practice makes us accident prone.” Yet in the very midst of delusion, if we see it fully, we are free.

How does this happen? As the mind and heart become still, desire and grasping fall away and there is only this moment and no one needing to do anything, change anything or even see anything. Here there is no self to fix , no self to enlighten. Here is the place of peace. I’m reminded of a quote from Albert Camus: “In the midst of winter I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy.”

Shortly after I wrote this reflection, I vaguely remembered this teaching from my very early years of practice in the Zen tradition. At that time, my understanding of this teaching was beneficial to me, but it only occasionally extended beyond my meditation practice into daily life. A google search brought me to Dogen’s Genjo Koan. Here’s a short piece:

“Delusion and enlightenment are originally inseparable. What is called delusion is as it is and what is called enlightenment is as it is. Delusion should not be detested and enlightenment should not be devoured. They are as they are and they do not get in the way at all. They are inseparable. This is what is reverberating beyond words and you should not overlook this.

If Buddhas recognize themselves as enlightened there is polarization of self and other. This is not enlightenment. You realize enlightenment through delusion and you are deluded through enlightenment. At the place of seeing, knowing perishes and the mind is stilled.”