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.

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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

New Dharma Talk – Two Practice Approaches: The Scientist and The Baker

What is your primary practice? Are you drawn to the “baker” approach of direct experience or the “scientist” method of mindful observation? Is one better than the other? In this talk, Lisa also explores the idea of sudden enlightenment and gradual awakening related to practice approaches.

Awakening to Joy: The Art of Letting Go

Daylong Meditation Retreat, Saturday 7/14/18

Nashville Friends Meeting, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Led by Lisa Ernst

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Life is a balance of effort and letting go. Meditation practice gives us tools to be present, to work with our minds and to uncover the heart’s true wisdom. This wisdom also points us toward letting go. As we release our personal agenda, spiritual joy arises through the capacity to touch this ever-changing life with a compassion and kindness that sees no ultimate separation.

The retreat is suitable for both beginning and experienced meditators; it will include periods of sitting and walking meditation, practice instructions, dharma talk and q&a.

Cost: $50 – 75 sliding scale, plus dana (donation) to the teacher. A scholarship spot is available in the case of financial need. Directions and additional information will be emailed prior to the retreat. Payment can be made through paypal here. If paying by check, instructions are at this link. For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com

Giving No Fucks and Equanimity

Excuse my language, but this attitude of “giving no fucks” is currently popular in guided meditations. For many, its easy to equate the outlook of not caring with equanimity. Sometimes our desire to avoid vulnerability and pain is so great that we may try to “give no fucks.” This talk explores how to reconcile this with true equanimity.

New Dharma Talk: Awareness and Enlightenment – What’s the Difference?

Is enlightenment an esoteric experience that we must cultivate or is awareness itself enlightenment? Perhaps its closer at hand than we think.

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.”

Update on November’s Buddhist Tour of India and Nepal

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For more details, cost and registration go here.

Check Out My New Meditation Website!

Hi, I’ve finally completed my new website, dedicated to my dharma teaching and meditation. Please drop by and let me know what you think. If you’d like to subscribe to my new email newsletter, just scroll down to the bottom of the front page and you’ll see the sign up form on the right.