Perception, Compassion and The Other

Sometimes during meditation I reflect on those I have put out of my heart. Not necessarily specific people at first: rather opening the doors where my heart feels closed. Whenever I do this I feel the underlying energy of what I’ve locked away. It isn’t pleasant but its totally ok. This practice shows me how “self and other” forms around subtle ideas of who I am and how I perceive others.

Buddha taught that there are three distortions of view – seeing what is impermanent as permanent, what is unsatisfying as satisfying and what is non-self as self.

Let’s look at the third one, seeing no self as self in terms of how we identify with and relate to others. Inadvertently we may use the idea of self to create views about others based on our own karma and conditioning. We make very complex decisions about other people in mere moments. Sometimes our perceptions are clear and intuitive, but often they are distorted simply because of our own conditioning. If we don’t bring awareness to this, we will then concretize those mistaken perceptions into reality. In many cases, the actual person is entirely different from the one in our head.

This hit home several years ago when I attended a celebration of life for a friend who died of cancer at an early age. As people enumerated the ways she touched their lives, I was shocked that the woman they described only vaguely resembled the one I knew, or thought I knew. This taught me a great lesson in letting go of fixed perceptions.

In the course of a day, week or month, how often do we create unexamined value judgments about others? This is far more pervasive than we might want to believe unless we examine it. Often we unconsciously favor those who help us uphold and solidify our sense of self over those who don’t. This can lead to loss of connection, it can also of course lead to prejudice and hatred.

Compassion practice can help us open our hearts to those we ignore or shut out; when practiced deeply, compassion shows us where our hearts are closed. When we are meditating we can examine our perceptions within a more spacious medium that includes our wise heart.

Take a moment to gently identify who you angry or frustrated with, who you have closed from your heart. Who do you ignore or attribute characteristics that you know in your heart may not be true? Sometimes the first step is simply to identify and acknowledge these beings. You don’t need to force people into your heart if you’re not ready. As you investigate, allow any sadness, anger or other emotions to be as they are. What thoughts are associated with these feelings? As you sit with it, does an action present itself, one you already identified but haven’t yet acted on, or an unexpected prompt to take your insight and compassion into the world? If not, that’s fine too.

More than once during challenging times I have discovered that the person who most needs including in my heart is me. First the “self” of my imagining, which allows me to see the ways I distort and cling to identity. Then I see the “imperfect self,” the one who will never live up to my ideals. Awareness dissolves this illusion of self into the open heart of kindness and wisdom.

This practice allows me to let go of self-identity and realize emptiness. As my false ideas of who I am fade away into silence, any rigid perceptions I hold about others also melt away. Interconnection is fully evident here. I’m left with a kinder, more open heart and a way forward that is far more inclusive than when I began.

For more on compassion practices for people we ignore or keep out of our hearts: Invisible People: Why They’re Important in Lovingkindss Practice.

Practice Tip: Three Steps to Releasing Difficult Thoughts in Meditation

When we meditate, at times difficult, unresolved encounters with friends, loved ones or co-workers may dominate our thoughts. If we don’t repress them (and normally we shouldn’t) they may instead begin to take over our meditation session as we swing from replaying the encounter to trying to figure out how to address it. So what to do? How do we find the wise middle way between over-identification and repression?

As an example, let’s say you and your boss were brainstorming how to solve a problem and your boss failed to listen to an idea you felt was important based on your firsthand knowledge of the situation. Instead, your boss decided on a plan you knew missed important information. You tried to convey this but your boss wouldn’t listen and ended the session. You left the encounter feeling frustrated and unheard.

The next morning during meditation, the situation came back full force. You replayed the encounter several times wondering what you could have done differently, then tried to figure out the next step, whether to approach you boss about it and what to say. Then you realize 10 plus minutes have passed on the cushion and you were completely unaware of your breath, body and immediate surroundings.

In situations like this, I have found a three step process helpful for creating space to work with unresolved situations. Staying with our example, first recognize the thoughts replaying the meeting with your boss as “past.” This may sound obvious but consciously noting that the thought content is focused on the past, without repressing it, can reduce its seeming solidity. Then notice and explore what sensations and emotions are present that accompany these thoughts.

Now, looking forward to your thoughts of how to address the situation with your boss, note that these thoughts are about the “future” but also be aware of how these thoughts show up here and now. Perhaps when you think back to the encounter with your boss you notice anger or even sadness for not being heard. When you think ahead to your possible next step, maybe you notice anxiety and tension.

Now bring it all into the present. Of course thoughts only exist in the present moment. While we may think about the past or future, every thought is only arising in the present moment. So now we see the past and future thoughts as “present” and our physical responses, sensations and emotions as “present.”

Past, future and present are all just this moment of awareness. As we see them coalesce, chances are they will lose their grip, soften and begin to settle. The sense of me against the other begins to fade. From this more settled, less self identified place, we have more possibility of seeing the situation clearly and with insight. This is not about passivity. In fact, a clear plan of action may arise from this emptier, steadier state. (If nothing arises, that’s fine too.)

You can use this three step process for most situations that begin to dominate your meditation. Occasionally a situation may be too charged to work this way. In that case, its fine to move to a more neutral focus of attention such as the breath, body or sound. Only return to the investigation if you feel able.

This practice can help us let go of the sense of self at the center of our narratives. Seeing our challenges with the clarity of present moment awareness broadens perspective, reduces the suffering of reactivity and opens new possibilities.

How to Recharge Your Practice with a Tried and True Inquiry

Even if you’ve been meditating for many years, you probably encounter old patterns that seem impervious to your mindful awareness. Maybe at times these patterns are dormant, but during challenging moments they reappear and perhaps feel intractable. Often these patterns become entangled in identity – stuck and unfixable with no space between the knots. It may seem no amount of meditation can penetrate this mess.

What to do? I suggest bringing out a tried and true inquiry. When you first began meditation practice, you may have engaged the simple practice of asking, “who am I?” Done correctly, this inquiry penetrates and quiets the analytical mind since there is no logical answer. You access something truer and more immediate. You can also bring this inquiry to your stuck places, the patterns that often feel impenetrable. Here are a couple of inquiry examples: “who is the one who is always anxious?” or “who is the one reacting, the one who has always reacted?” You’re asking the question here and now, but you’re applying it to a narrative that has persisted for a very long time, has a history and a story.

This inquiry can momentarily stop the reactive pattern and the attendant thoughts. Its not designed to bypass anything but to create a different vantage point, to dis-identify from a strong and ingrained sense of self that gets entangled in the pattern. Then you have space to experience how the dilemma shows up in present time in the body and emotions. This is the ground of insight. Deep, limiting beliefs may come to light that may have been obscured in the reactivity.

When I engage this inquiry practice, I often feel lighter and less stuck; at other times a deep sadness may arise from witnessing how a pattern has perpetuated itself for so long. But in every case I clearly see how the “I” and “mine” of the narrative have contributed to and further entrapped me in the pattern. Once the entanglement is seen and self-identification released, there is space to respond from a wiser, more compassionate part of myself, I find freedom to act in accordance with my truest values and insight.

 

The Essence of Compassion

The essence of love and compassion is understanding, the ability to recognize the physical, material, and psychological suffering of others, to put ourselves “inside the skin” of the other. We “go inside” their body, feelings, and mental formations, and witness for ourselves their suffering. Shallow observation as an outsider is not enough to see their suffering. We must become one with the subject of our observation. When we are in contact with another’s suffering, a feeling of compassion is born in us. Compassion means, literally, “to suffer with.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Practice Tip: Compassion For Unwanted Thoughts

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Normally when we direct self-compassion toward our suffering or challenges, we find the places inside where we feel stuck, inadequate or hurt. This includes identifying where the discomfort shows up on the physical body. But to do this, we need the capacity to pause and investigate what is happening.

Sometimes that’s hard when the mind is caught in the rapids of thought, rushing ahead, seemingly out of control. Most of us have certain thoughts that get caught on continuous loop, reactive, negative, critical or comparing. In traditional mindfulness training, we’re taught to find the place in our bodies where we feel the corresponding sensations to help us stabilize our attention in the present moment. This is very effective. Sometimes the mind is so busy, though, that finding this stopping point is difficult. Or we may do this briefly then get caught again in the rapids, perhaps thinking, “there’s that thought again, I wish it would stop but it won’t.” When you see this, why not pause briefly and offer compassion to unwanted or unwelcome thoughts rather than try and stop them? This may seem counter-intuitive, but just a moment’s pause can help slow the rapids.

We are simply directing our compassionate awareness to the mental activity that is present. This practice will begin to create a different relationship to the unwanted thoughts. Instead of aversion or over identification, just meet the thoughts with compassion and kindness. Once there is a little stability, you can then begin to expand the compassion to include your body and heart.

Remember that thoughts are not you, but are generated by some aspect of your conditioning. Liberation always begins where you are. Kind awareness, even toward unwanted thoughts, goes a long way when all else seems unworkable.

Lisa Ernst

Invisible People: Why They’re Important in Lovingkindness Practice

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I’ve been doing lovingkindness practice for 20 years, mostly following the standard formula – starting by offering kindness to myself, then family, friends, teachers and benefactors (people easy to love) and on to indifferent people, difficult people and finally all beings. The practice of offering kindness to indifferent people in particular has completely changed my orientation and perspective. It has led to a deeper exploration of what “indifferent” really means and some interesting revelations.

I began to notice in metta instructions that indifferent people are often described as service workers, clerks, repair people, those we don’t see or interact with as regularly as others. In some cases they may at a lower point socioeconomically than the largely middle and upper middle class Americans that practice lay Buddhism. In many cases, our unseen or unacknowledged privilege may render certain people indifferent, or even invisible.

My first insight into this happened in a grocery store. I have long frequented a Kroger near my home that has a well-stocked organic produce section. A man who works in this department is normally present stocking and restocking in the morning when I often shop. He is likely an immigrant as are many employees in the Kroger produce department. For a few years, he was essentially an indifferent person to me, and often invisible.

One day I touched some produce that was very wet and my hands were dripping. He quickly came over with a paper towel so I could dry my hands. This simple act of kindness and attention penetrated my heart. I felt tears welling up as I realized how often I had overlooked him, how I had unconsciously rendered him not just indifferent but invisible.

After that I began looking around the store and noticing people who were stocking the shelves, working the cash registers, etc. and offered them wishes of kindness and wellbeing. Inevitably, a friendly hello or a smile followed. As an introvert I often keep my attention to myself in public places, but these simple acts of acknowledgement opened my awareness and loving friendliness in a way that broke me out of conditioned patterns and created friendly interactions. This practice was a new avenue for me to recognize and appreciate the innerconnection we all share.

I was further broken out of my complacency with indifferent people after I read an article by a disabled person describing his experiences in public. He’s in a wheelchair and he explained how people either reflexively look away or view his disability with morbid curiosity. He wrote that he simply wants to be seen and acknowledged as a human being. This is an example of how some of us may unconsciously render a person, or a group of people, invisible. Even if we see them, if we primarily see their disability or their “otherness,” they are invisible.

I often walk at a park near my home and I began to consciously acknowledge those in wheelchairs with a friendly, simple hello. I could see right away the gratitude that arose from this acknowledgement of inherent humanity that is too often withheld from those seen as “different.” This is one of the great teachings of metta – at heart all humans all have the same needs for safety, wellbeing, and freedom from suffering. To make someone the “other” and render them invisible, strips away this reality and separates our hearts from the compassion, kindness and love that naturally dwells in awareness.

Now when I offer an extended guided metta meditation, I ask the participants to explore what categories of humans are invisible to them. For some of us, it may be the homeless or disabled, for others, people of different ethnicities, sexual orientation or the elderly. Even if we see them, do we categorize them too quickly into stereotypes and preconceived ideas of who they are? If so, they are invisible to us. If we want our metta practice to be genuinely inclusive, we need to bring them into our practice consciously. Buddha admonished us to offer kindness to all beings and it is part of our practice to do so.

Sometimes, we also make certain parts of ourselves invisible. When I was leading this meditation at a recent lovingkdiness retreat, a man of color described his experience doing this practice:

“When the Metta practice pointed towards invisible people, as a person of color, I thought to myself, ‘how many times have I made myself invisible in the company of those that do not share my diversity?’

And also, how many times have I faded into the background so that a particular group of people, seemingly different from my diversity, could feel safe?

Thoughts of my teenage years came back when my white friends would say, ’don’t go over there or don’t hang out with those people because they are the N-word,’ then someone would say to me, ‘sorry.’ Then someone else would say to me, ‘you’re not a N-word’ and I would think to myself ‘yeah, I’m not a N-word.’

During this practice, the realization of how thin that veil is allowed me to witness deeply where I have been spiritually bypassing my diversity.

Then, the following phrases came to mind.

May I, you, we, be seen
May, I, you, we, be heard
May, I, we, you be understood and not misunderstood
May, I, we, you be held and cared for with compassion, love and grace.”

The final category of metta is “all beings.” While it does include invisible beings, it is not specific and doesn’t address how bias, bypassing and racism render some beings invisible. The practice of including invisible people more specifically is not a panacea, but a simple invitation to make visible and explore that which has been hidden. May we allow our hearts to open to all of the beings we overlook or ignore, may we extend compassion without limitation.

Lisa Ernst

 

Hatred will Never Let You Face the Beast in Man

This is a post I wrote in 2016, and it is just as pertinent now.

Hatred Will Never Let You Face the Beast in Man
Lisa Ernst

Buddha taught us that we must cultivate compassion for all beings, without exception. This doesn’t mean that we stand by passively while people trample over us, compassion isn’t incompatible with firm boundaries that declare, “this is not ok.” But if we begin to justify holding hate in our hearts, we become no different from those we feel in opposition to. The Dalai Lama understood this, even as he was exiled from his homeland of China. And Albert Einstein said, “Problems cannot be solved with the same mind set that created them.”

Thich Nhat Hanh has been one of the most eloquent voices advocating that we always remember interconnection and that we love our enemies. Not that it’s an easy easy path. We have to overcome habitual tendencies to create the divisions that naturally arise out of fear.

Recommendation is a powerful poem in which Thich Nhat Hanh encourages compassion for all, without exception.

Promise me,
promise me this day,
promise me now,
while the sun is overhead
exactly at the zenith,
promise me:

Even as they
strike you down
with a mountain of hatred and violence;
even as they step on you and crush you
like a worm,
even as they dismember and disembowel you,
remember, brother,
remember:
man is not our enemy.

The only thing worthy of you is compassion –
invincible, limitless, unconditional.
Hatred will never let you face
the beast in man.

One day, when you face this beast alone,
with your courage intact, your eyes kind,
untroubled
(even as no one sees them),
out of your smile
will bloom a flower.
And those who love you
will behold you
across ten thousand worlds of birth and dying.

Alone again,
I will go on with bent head,
knowing that love has become eternal.
On the long, rough road,
the sun and the moon
will continue to shine.

This poem was written in 1965 in Vietnam for the School of Youth Social Service. This group rebuilt bombed villages, set up schools and medical centers, resettled homeless families, and organized agricultural cooperatives. They worked with the Buddhist principles of non-violence. Thich Nhat Hahn was banned from his homeland in 1966. He has never become bitter or let hate fill his heart even as he became a great teacher for the world. If he had not had this heart of great compassion and interconnection, its doubtful he would have risen to the stature he has. His mind and heart were bigger than those who created division, destruction and war. May we all remember to keep love and compassion in our hearts, even in the most difficult times.

A Phantom and A Dream: Social Media, Connection and Loneliness During the Holidays

OregonCoast

Oregon Rain
photography by Lisa Ernst

As I scrolled through social media the day after Thanksgiving, I saw numerous photos of people celebrating the holiday with family and friends. I shared their joy as they basked in the warm glow of their loved ones. Yet I couldn’t forget the people who had not posted, some who were either alone or lonely.

For the most part, people who share their holiday moments on social media have no ill will or intent to arouse jealousy. Often these photos are quite meaningful to distant family or others who appreciate seeing their friends in joyful times. But because people who feel less fortunate are unlikely to share, a false picture emerges. We can easily overlook that these feeds hardly represent the full spectrum of human experience – we may forget to extend compassion to those who need our kindness or to simply acknowledge that not everyone is celebrating.

Mudita, or sympathetic joy, is the capacity to appreciate the success and good fortune of others without reservation. When I scroll the feeds and see happy, fulfilled faces of friends and relatives surrounded by loved ones, mudita arises in me. But if you are alone or lonely, as I was for many years, it’s not so easy to summon sympathetic joy. Social media can amplify feelings of disconnection with its easy access to images of warm, happy gatherings on the screen, even though not all of these images paint a true picture. In fact, this is a good time to remember Buddha’s teaching in the Diamond Sutra that this fleeting world is but a phantom and a dream.

Having spent many holidays alone when I was younger, I became quite intimate with the seasonal pressure to be joyful and connected. That’s partly why I’m sensitive to those who may not communicate their loneliness or feelings of detachment during the holidays.

Although I wasn’t raised Christian, growing up I immersed myself in the spirit and excitement of the holidays. When I was 13 my mother died in the fall and I moved to Nashville to live with my grandmother. Even with my mother gone I prepared for the season with great anticipation. It would only be Granny and me, but that was enough. When Christmas finally arrived, we started the day with Gran’s whipped cream custard and presents. As the day progressed, however, she fell into grief for what she had lost: her only child and her husband. She began drinking heavily and I spent the rest of Christmas alone in my room, devastated that the day didn’t live up to my expectations.

This pattern would repeat itself for years. My disappointment, at its core, reflected the grief and loneliness that I couldn’t yet face. I unconsciously hoped that the warm promise of the holidays would wash away my pain. When my father died from alcoholism a few years later, my holiday loneliness only intensified and extended well in to the grey, wet Tennessee months of January and February. Often relief came only when the longer, sunny days of spring finally arrived.

After struggling with loneliness and depression for many years, I started to address my losses, aided by meditation and therapy, which helped me untangle from my holiday gloom. The shame of being alone slowly lifted. During meditation, I began to feel a deep heart connection to all that is present, or as Dogen put it, intimacy with all things. In my daily life I cultivated friendships and relationships that nourished me. Slowly, the holidays and those dark grey winters that followed were easier to bear.

These days I’m grateful to have loving people in my life. Yet my heart still touches that deep loneliness from time to time. Mostly I have room for it now; I can feel both connection and loneliness in the fullness of my heart. And I remember that, despite the images we see on social media, some people are lonely and grieving this year. If you’re one of them, may your heart find peace; may you know that you are not alone.

Winter solitude –
in a world of one color
the sound of wind.
-Basho

Pacifying the Mind, Freeing the Mind

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As the Second Patriarch stood in the snow, he pleaded to Bodhidharma,
“My mind has no peace as yet! I beg you, master, please pacify my mind!”
“Bring your mind here and I will pacify it for you,” replied Bodhidharma.
“I have searched for my mind, and I cannot take hold of it,” said the Second Patriarch.
“Now your mind is pacified,” said Bodhidharma.

In practice, we often investigate how our idea of self is generated – craving, desire, pride, embarrassment and clinging. Usually we see this “self” in past or future – an impression of who we are arises related to a future situation or desire, or a past action. Even if we are mindful in the present moment, we may mistake sensations, emotions and thoughts to be ourselves. But right in the midst of this delusion, awakening is always possible. Why? Because the true mind is always present, free and unsullied by these impressions that come and go.

Here’s an inquiry to try that might help you illuminate this illusion of self:

When you are meditating, try creating a self. This may like seem like a strange instruction, but let’s break it down. Sit with your sensations, thoughts and emotions for a while until the mind begins to settle and your identification with “I, me, mine” dissipates. Then, from the ground of inquiry ask “what is this?” See if you can find a self taking form. Something solid and fixed, a definite “I.” You will probably find it totally impossible. The sense objects remain present and you may experience mental energy around this effort, but you can’t make a self harden or solidify. In fact, you may directly realize how truly illusive this “self” is. In the midst of seeking for self, you can see that the true mind, the unconditioned, is present at all times.

This simple exercise is an easy way see that the open space of mind is always present, naturally clear and without struggle. No striving necessary. And this is a moment of liberation.

About this mind –
In truth there is nothing
really wrong with it.
It is intrinsically pure.

Ajahn Chah

 

Flip the Switch: How Not to Ignite the Engine of Self

Most times, what we think of as “self” is in foreground, the driver’s seat. Our identity, who we believe we are with our attendant desires, opinions, thoughts and feelings, is often running in a dream state. Usually this orientation operates unconsciously, with little or no awareness on our part. One reason many of us practice meditation and mindfulness to hone our lens of awareness to see through this dream of a separate self.

Through practice, the unconditioned mind, the unborn, as Buddha called it, is occasionally consciously accessed. With deeper practice, it comes forward, it advances on its own. As practice matures, the switch has been flipped for longer periods of time.

When we cultivate smadhi (meditative absorption) our awareness becomes established in the unconditioned mind for a time and “self” may try to come forward but doesn’t easily take hold.

When no-self is foreground, this is the mirror switch. From our mind’s perspective, they are two sides of a coin, front and back. Usually the unborn seems to be at the back, out of our conscious awareness and “self” in the driver’s seat. Of course it is only an illusion but our human perspective will give us a reference point that creates this appearance. So we practice and use tools as best we can to bring us to the unconditioned. This is as Buddha intended.

As a new Zen practitioner, when I had encounters with emptiness and no-self , the experience felt fragile and tentative, like something I needed to hold on to for as long as possible. But of course it always faded away. It took me a while to see the fluidity of this awareness and to realize it wasn’t a problem.

At a recent retreat I was enjoying an extended time of ease and equanimity. Self referential thoughts were not operating at all and the mind was spacious, responsive and awake. During meditation, I noticed subtle thoughts popping up about plans, ideas and self referencing but didn’t follow them. I saw the mind trying to engage, like an engine trying to start but without the fuel of desire and craving, it wouldn’t ignite. The mind of awareness kept the fuel from entering the engine of the self creating process.

During the retreat I happened to read this passage from Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness and found his experience and description nearly identical to my experience of subtle thoughts and self referencing trying to ignite the engine of self:

“On a recent retreat I had a revealing experience of how easily we fall under the spell of ignorance and how, in a moment, we can wake up from that spell. You are probably familiar with the experience of waking up in the morning and then, perhaps, slipping back into a dream state for a few minutes before waking again. This might happen just once or maybe several times before we’re fully alert. On this particular retreat, I was noticing that phenomenon very clearly. Then, later in the day, in times of walking meditation, I began to notice more clearly how often there is a thin layer of background thoughts, images, fragments of stories, floating like a thin layer of clouds across the mind. This stream of thoughts is really the hardly noticed but ongoing creation of the world we inhabit. And almost always the thoughts were self referential in one way or another, memories, plans, likes and dislikes. What struck me forcibly at the at that time was that the experience of slipping into and out of these background thought worlds was the same experience of slipping back into a dream state after being awake. I realized that we are simply dreaming the self into existence. And I found that occasionally repeating the phrase during the day “dreaming myself into existence” reinforced the strong aspiration to stay awake and notice more carefully the dream.”

During retreats and any time we have time and capacity for deep Samadhi, the experience of no-self advances to the foreground of consciousness and we can more readily see the mind dreaming itself into existence – we can observe the “self” grasping at returning to the foreground. Awareness can occasionally catch it before this fabrication takes over our equanimity and spacious great nature. This is not an easy practice and is more likely to be accessible during extended retreat, when distractions and external stimulation are minimized.

So you may ask if there’s any value in this practice when we are engaged in our busy daily lives. Yes, because once the mind has settled for a time in the unconditioned we can return home with fewer hooks, see our lives with new eyes and act from a more skillful, responsive place. Equanimity allows us to see our habits and self referential behavior and not immediately fall back into old, familiar patterns, at least for a while.

Buddha taught that true liberation is the end of craving – unchecked thirst, desire, longing and greed. As humans, we will invariably be driven by forms of craving. To try an eliminate it completely is not a path most of us will take. But we can cultivate awareness when craving is the primary driver that brings us back to self absorption and self referential thoughts. Unconscious craving, when acted on, leads us to drink salt water when we’re thirsty. When our awareness opens to wisdom and we see the futility of this craving, the effort to relieve the suffering of self identity, we have more room for a compassionate response to life.

Compassion is the active form of wisdom, which takes root as we let go of unconscious craving and our usual self referencing perspective, and open the lens of awareness to the truth of our interconnectedness to all of life.

With practice we can put down our craving for “something else, somewhere else,” for a while and instead allow our thirst to be quenched with the clear water of our true mind that is always right here.