Saying Yes: The Cabin in the Woods

This dharma talk focuses on the aggregate of thought as it applies to perceived limitations we may encounter in our meditation practice. The main focus of the talk is in working with trauma and I tell my own story about my cabin in the woods — the most difficult time of my life.

 

Buddhist Psychology Workshop

Nashville Friends House
Saturday, October 17, 9 a.m. Noon
Led by Lisa Ernst

Dependent origination, also known as Buddhist psychology, stands as the Buddha’s deepest insight into the nature of suffering and liberation.

Buddhist Psychology provides us with a map of the inner terrain of mind and heart. Not simply a concept, but a way of living life, a path to liberation that we can experience and wake up to right now. In this class we will explore the links of dependent origination, emptiness, and the path to transformational insight. You will gain a deeper
understanding of how all things arise in dependence on multiple causes and conditions and how your practice can help you break the cycle of suffering.

The class will include instruction, experiential practice and discussion. Cost is $40 and can be paid by Paypal here. Instructions for paying by check are at this link. Be sure to include your email address with your check. A reduced feet spot is available in the case of financial need. For questions, email onedharmaretreat@gmail.com.

Meditation or Medication?

“Allow dark times to season you.” Hafiz

25 years ago I took a hesitant step into a psychiatrist’s office. My boyfriend at the time was worried about my mental state and urged me to seek help. My grandmother had just died, preceded in death by my mother and my father. My grandmother was my last close family connection and I felt utterly alone. I had no idea what was happening to me as I sunk further and further into a dark hole of despair.

The psychiatrist said I was clinically depressed and wanted to prescribe anti depressant meditation. This threw me. I had been living with depression for so many years it seemed like an irreparable part of me. I had come to accept that I was chronically depressed and perhaps always would be. But as we talked, and I assessed my mental state more objectively, I knew in my heart that I couldn’t go on this way any longer. At that very moment I decided I would try meditation. I let the shrink know I would not be taking him up on his offer of medication, but I did agree to begin seeing a psychotherapist to help me deal with childhood trauma and grief from my losses. This was a vital step for my mental well being. But I knew therapy alone wouldn’t be enough. In fact, my new therapist was very supportive and encouraging that I had begun a meditation practice.

Taking up meditation was an easy decision for me. Looking back, I have no idea why I was so confident. 25 years ago there wasn’t nearly the volume of information on meditation and the brain that there is now. But I had always been inspired by Buddha’s emphasis on meditation as a part of the path to freedom from suffering. Intuitively I knew meditation was for me, but I also knew I would have to commit myself to the practice with my whole heart.

As a meditation teacher I frequently meet people who are seeking relief from stress and depression through meditation. Often they’ve read encouraging studies and scientific papers and they hope to see the same results. But it works for only a few. Its not that meditation isn’t effective; what I’ve consistently observed is that only a small number of people truly commit to the practice wholeheartedly. If relieving depression is the only reason to meditate, most people will become impatient and doubtful too soon to experience any significant change. Others will practice only sporadically, yet still expect results. This won’t work.

For some, meditation isn’t the right path, at least not initially. Certain mental illnesses need to be treated clinically and sitting in the midst of grief and depression may overwhelm or intensify anxiety. Some may combine medication with meditation initially. Longer term, meditation can be a wonderful way to further steady the mind and begin to see and relieve the roots of human suffering, of clinging and aversion.

When I began my meditation practice, I committed to sitting a minimum of 30 minutes each day. I gave myself no leeway at all on this. No matter what, I meditated daily. Sitting through grief, anxiety and fear, along with joy, equanimity and bliss. The practice itself stabilized my mind enough that I could stay present in my experience without being overwhelmed. As Thich Nhat Hanh explained, “when we go home to ourselves with the energy of mindfulness, we’re no longer afraid of being overwhelmed by the energy of suffering. Mindfulness gives us the strength to look deeply and give rise to understanding and compassion.”

I quickly forgot about whether meditation was helping with my depression. I became so interested in the process itself that my mental state actually took a back seat. Not that it was unimportant, but it wasn’t my primary focus. Studying and seeing my mind, as well as the world around me, in such an intimate way each day fascinated me. Those moments when I broke through a barrier to deeper insight into my heart and mind had a liberating and profound effect on me.

Gradually, almost without even noticing it, my depression lifted and I became less isolated and lonely. Even today, daily meditation is a foundational element of my mental health even though it isn’t the primary reason I’ve continued to practice.

Some people will take up a serious meditation practice at a very dark and desperate time in their lives and it works – they begin feeling better and slowly their meditation practice falls away. Maybe it was all they needed and they had no further aspiration with this form of practice. Personally I’m glad I didn’t stop. I so appreciate the clarity that arises when I witness and experience the myriad manifestations of thought and emotion I encounter. Most of all, this path has helped me deepen compassion for myself and others, to pierce the illusion of a separate self, which allows me to be more kind, open and receptive to life in its ever changing forms.

De-composing Your Songs

Have you ever gotten a song stuck in your head and no matter how hard you tried, it wouldn’t stop? I often hear this from students on their first residential retreats. They become frustrated that their minds are filled with a particular song to the point that there’s no space for anything else. In truth it’s not really a problem, but until students realize this, they feel totally stuck. This situation isn’t too far off from how many of us live our lives, immersed in certain repetitive narratives that seem to squeeze the space and energy from our lives.

Most of us are familiar with our stuck stories, the ones that rear up at inopportune times, or when things don’t go our way. For some of us, our dark repetitive thoughts may accompany us every day and lead to full blown depression. For others, they’re more like a damp, cloudy drizzle, arriving just after we’ve settled at the park with our picnic blanket and basket. Either way, these old songs have a way of taking over our minds and snuffing out awareness and appreciation of our daily activities.

As young adult I was terrified of public speaking. The first time I spoke in front of a group at work, which was only about six people, I nearly fainted! My boss suggested I join Toastmasters, a speakers group, to gain experience and confidence. Reluctantly I agreed. In the process of doing what I feared most, I began to see the stuck stories in my head: If I speak in front of a crowd I’ll freeze up and forget what to say; I’m too introverted, I’m not capable of public speaking; I don’t have anything worth sharing with a crowd. These songs were tied to fixed identity I held of myself as a shy and private person. But they were just a narrative and had nothing to do with me as a fluid, ever changing being. This became clearer and clearer the more I spoke in public. The fear didn’t dissipate completely but I learned to accommodate it; my old songs still appeared and I simply acknowledged them while getting on with my presentations. As they lost their power over me, I was able to tap into the creative energy that had been blocked by those old songs. My presentations improved and I began to do public talks on a regular basis.

What are some of your songs? Do you fall into self-blame and criticism when you don’t achieve an objective? Are you sensitive to how others perceive you, maybe a person whose approval you care about says or does something that leaves you feeling rejected? Are you afraid of being alone and left out? Often, we perceive people or events in accord with rigid ideas about ourselves and twist them into something they’re not. If this happens enough, we may even give up on a relationship or an important intention in our lives.

On my first week long meditation retreat, the teacher kept encouraging us to dig deeper into our koans. I was practicing in the Rinzai Zen tradition at the time and koans were a vital part of our practice. Halfway through the retreat I was feeling frustrated and stuck, telling myself that this particular koan was too difficult. That night during a dharma talk, my teacher spoke with deep conviction that all of us there needed to believe in our innate capacity to awaken, that we were capable of far more than we knew. His words cut to my heart; I knew they were true. Right at that moment I saw through the song I had created about my limits, that the koan was too hard. I recommitted to working with the koan and had a breakthrough. Similarly, I’ve seen many dharma students give up on a committed practice because they didn’t believe they had the capacity to awaken deeply. But sincere practice often brings a series of smaller awakenings that begin to accumulate over time and lead to major insights. Patience is needed, returning to this breath, this moment, over and over.

Here’s another example. Let’s say you’ve decide to start a daily meditation practice. You know how important it is, you’ve read all the studies and heard testimonials from teachers and students alike who say it is life changing. You get off to a good start and sit daily for a week, a month, or even longer. Then something comes up, internally or externally, and you start to miss a day here and there. Pretty soon you’re missing days or weeks. At some point you try to recommit, but the juice, the excitement and motivation are gone. Did your enthusiasm for meditation just wear off, or is there more going on in your mind that dampens your efforts? This is where taking a closer look at your old songs can illuminate your mind.

What are you really telling yourself about this effort? What’s your song? Look beneath the familiar excuses about lack of time or the vague promise that you’ll get back to it someday soon. If needed, let it be an open ended question until a clear answer appears. Practice patience. Look at your responses when you ask the question, where do you feel it in your body? Is it a contraction at your chest or a twinge of anxiety in your stomach? This practice will help you settle your discursive mind and access insight. Your sincere intention will support you. Once your song is visible and out of the dark, you can start to de-compose your song and resume your practice with a much greater chance of consistency.

We can de-compose our songs by seeing them clearly. It’s really pretty simple; the hard part is letting go of the spiral of reactive thoughts and emotions that accompany our narratives and lead us astray. If we train our minds to keep coming back to this moment, we can experience our stories as a felt sense, right now. The more we do this, the more will find open space where once there were tight, dark knots and a rigidly defined sense of self. We access energy and the power of insight that will begin to diminish our clinging, open us to new possibilities and ultimately lead us to liberation.

A Three Way Stop of Awakening: Intersecting Dependent Arising, Equanimity and Emptiness

For many students of Buddhism, reaching an experiential understanding of equanimity and emptiness is quite challenging. Throw dependent origination into the mix and it may lead to all out confusion. But pulling the three together into an understanding of how we suffer and how we get out of suffering may simplify the matter.

Let’s start with dependent origination, also known as Buddhist psychology. Buddha taught that everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions, that nothing exists as a separate, independent object or entity, including ourselves. Because most humans perceive and react to circumstances as if there were an isolated, distinct cause, we easily become trapped in a chain reaction of suffering. We usually see a situation only through our personal viewpoint and conditioning, only a small part of what’s arising. If we then try to control, change or get rid of it, we create problems for ourselves and others. But when the illusion of a separate, independent self dissolves, we begin to see conditions more clearly. Our vision expands beyond our limited viewpoint, which leads to wise view, insight, and right action when necessary.

For example, when something arises, say, a twinge in your knee during a meditation retreat, you may initially tense against it, try to ignore it, or begin worrying that the pain will get worse. You may analyze where it came from, what you could have done differently, etc. Soon you are lost in and suffering. If you just return to the discomfort, see that it has already arisen, recognizing that many conditions led to that pain, and just let yourself experience it directly, you begin to dismantle the suffering. How? If you don’t nourish your reactivity through resistance and habitual thoughts, there’s nothing to feed your karma and ingrained patterns. The duality of you against the pain begins to dissolve. What’s left is an ever changing pattern of sensation. But you have to be willing to take down your protective veil of separation from the pain itself to reach this insight.

The protective veil arises from a sense of self against the external world. Our boundary of the skin, or somewhere just beyond that, creates a perception of separateness. Of course, that relative boundary is very important in many situations for protection and care of our health and well-being. But suffering occurs when we believe this boundary of self is fixed and unchanging. In reality our bodies and minds are constantly in flux and the concept of our identity is also subject to perpetual change. Just look back ten years and see if your identity, who you believe you are now and who you believed you were then, are exactly the same. There may be an underlying awareness or spark of life that feels unchanging, but is this something fixed to your self-identity?

Quite often, people who haven’t yet experienced no-self will call Buddha’s teaching on emptiness a concept. Yet how many of us refer to our sense of self as a concept? It’s easier for most of us to perceive the self as real and emptiness as an esoteric idea or concept. In reality, if we reverse the two we will be closer to a genuine understanding.

It helps when we can meet our experience, what arises in the moment, with equanimity. People often mistake equanimity for indifference or detached neutrality. But it’s actually the ability to stay present with our situation without reactivity, or if we do react, to see it and stop feeding it. If we experience a loss, for instance, meeting the pain of that loss with equanimity doesn’t mean we don’t feel the pain. Instead, we allow the arising of that pain without interference, and eventually it passes on its own.

To pull the three together, equanimity, dependent origination and no-self, I’ll share an example from my own experience. For many years I was in an unstable romantic relationship. I was sure he was “the one” and did everything I could to ensure his long term commitment. Yet, he kept pulling away. I would go through waves of pain and suffering whenever he left and rely on my therapist to help me find the root of the problem so I could get on with life.  She was quite helpful to me, yet each time I reached a point of acceptance, my boyfriend came back. Again and again I took him back into my life while ignoring the troublesome patterns inherent in our relationship. “This time things will be different,” I repeated like a mantra. Regardless of my hopeful attitude, our old patterns always reemerged along with his restlessness.

This pattern went on for a number of years.  Through therapy and meditation, I learned to work with my reactions, clinging and desires until significant space opened up. I felt more relaxed and less needy, I dated other men and felt relatively content. But just when I felt truly ready to get on with my life, he asked me to move in with him. Intuitively I knew it was a bad step. But the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that we had both changed enough to make it work. Soon, however, our new level of togetherness revealed our incompatibilities even more acutely. I stubbornly persevered until one night we had an irreconcilable disagreement. Suddenly all my years of effort and therapy, everything I did to make it work, came crashing down. I had been so focused on trying to control the situation, to make it right, to fix the “cause” of the problem, that I ignored the obvious and deeper conditions that prevented us from being compatible. In my limited view of the situation, I missed to the full spectrum of conditions that were beyond my control.

I had been blinded to dependent origination because I craved his attention so badly. I thought his love would complete my identity, my sense of self, even though living with him didn’t fulfill me at all. I finally saw the disconnect, the broader conditions that made our relationship incompatible. At last I had the courage to completely let go. I realized I had been holding on to a fixed idea of my identity as someone who needed to be in a relationship no matter how flimsy it was. And most of all, I was finally able to meet the situation with equanimity. The truth hurt but I didn’t push it away. I quit trying to cover it over with a worn out narrative about how one more step, one more effort at self improvement, would unlock the door to our love.

This awakening was one of the most liberating moments of my young adult life.  I realized that this “self” didn’t need someone outside of me to validate my very existence. There was nothing fixed about my identity; moment to moment my “self” was in flux, yet also worthy of kindness and compassion. This realization didn’t mean I quit longing for a loving relationship. But I realized that it wasn’t essential to my existence or happiness. Living this moment brought true fulfillment, with an open heart, in sadness and in joy. At last I could embrace my loneliness, my broken heart, something that had been with me long before I met and lost my “ideal” man. Through accepting that broken heart with equanimity I found for the first time in my life the joy I had been seeking for so long.

– Lisa Ernst

Seeking Completion

“Humans are afraid to forget their minds, fearing to fall through the Void with nothing to stay their fall. They do not know that the Void is not really void, but the realm of the real Dharma.” -Huang Po

Recently I was taking an afternoon hike at a local state park when I came upon a hiker a few yards in front of me. Instead of trying to pass him, like I usually do, I saw a bench ahead and decided to sit down for a few minutes and simply enjoy the stillness. As I approached the bench, an image came to mind of all the benches that I pass with people sitting on them, seemingly waiting for something, occupying themselves with their smartphones or tablets. Even in nature.

I appreciate my iPhone and iPad. They serve me well and when used wisely, enhance communication and connection. But I never carry my phone on hikes, its one of the places I prefer to disconnect completely. As I sat down on the bench undistracted, I sank into the fullness of the moment, the song of the birds and the wind rustling through the leaves  emanating from my very heart, joyfully interconnected. I felt deep gratitude for the beauty of this moment, perfect and complete.

As I returned to my hike, I felt a moment of wistfulness for the dying art of just siting on a bench with nothing in hand. Humans seem to be loosing the capacity to simply enjoy the present moment, just as it is, without the need for constant stimulation. I believe that’s one reason why mindfulness meditation is becoming ever more popular. We instinctively know we are missing something essential, even as many of us grow increasingly dependent on our electronic devices and other distractions to fill the hours, to plug what appears to be empty.

Distractions aren’t new. Throughout history, humans have always found ways to divert their attention from the present moment.  Most of us recognize that our diversions aren’t simply external, but a reflection of our often restless and seeking minds. Now, however, it seems these external distractions are growing exponentially so that we never need spend a moment in stillness and silence. At some point, we need to reflect on this emptiness that calls to be filled. How often do we stop in the midst of our attempts to satiate the void, mindfully slowing down long enough to take a closer look? Could it be that the very feeling of emptiness we want to escape, when no longer resisted, is actually a source of fulfillment and joy?

Seeking completion is a key element of the human condition. From one perspective, we view our individual self as fixed and permanent, yet simultaneously we feel incomplete.  Something is missing. So we seek ways to make ourselves whole.  For most people, it’s a quest with no end. As soon as we achieve the imagined completion, such as finding a mate, career and financial success, or even spiritual achievement, the fullness dissipates and the self again seems incomplete. Our quest begins anew. The constant need for affirmation and recognition can’t really touch the deep emptiness inside; it only skims the surface with a shallow illusion of fulfillment. Even our journey on the Buddhist path will only go so far. As long as we continue to pursue completion of the self, we will feel an uneasy sense of emptiness at our core.

The way to fill the self is to release our attempts to complete it. This may sound easy, but in practice it requires a radical and courageous opening, again and again, in the midst of our myriad distractions as well as our deepest fears.  We need to come face to face with the fear that “I” don’t exist, the driving force that keeps us seeking fulfillment in every nook and cranny of our lives. In our willingness let this self go, to repeatedly face this fear, we at last have the chance for true fulfillment. When we realize that the self we are trying to complete is empty, we find completion in the joy and fullness of this moment.

– Lisa Ernst

Letting Go of The Ladder

by Lisa Ernst

On a recent visit to Colorado, I enjoyed a hike with my two teenage nieces to a place outside of Boulder called Mattress Rock. My oldest niece, Mary Katherine, had recently spent the night camping at the top of this rock and she wanted to show us the view. When we arrived, I saw the top was quite high and completely inaccessible through climbing. But a ponderosa pine was fairly close to the rock, and my niece said that’s how she and her friends had climbed up.

Nancy, my younger niece, enthusiastically grabbed a pine branch and began climbing. With some encouragement and guidance from Mary Katherine, she got across to the top of the rock without too much difficulty. Then Mary Katherine suggested I climb the tree. This caught me completely off guard. I looked up and didn’t like what I saw, not to mention the fact that I hadn’t climbed a tree since I was about my nieces’ age. Seeing my hesitation, Mary Katherine said, “Oh, Aunt Lisa, it’s just like climbing a ladder.” Suddenly an image of a ladder popped into my mind and I saw myself climbing with ease. My hesitation gone, I grabbed the tree and began climbing.

My mental association with the ladder had broken me out of my fear of the unfamiliar; I had confidence from my ingrained memories of easily climbing ladders. About halfway up, however, the ladder vanished from my mind and nothing was left but my immediate experience of climbing the tree. It was far more challenging than climbing a ladder and required a good bit of maneuvering. I didn’t look down and kept my mind completely focused on the task at hand. At the top, there was a daunting gap between the tree and the rock. I had to reach across and find a toe hold on the side of the boulder and carefully hold a thin branch while I maneuvered over to the top. A little shaky, but pleased to be done with the climbing, I enjoyed a beautiful view of the Colorado mountains.In Buddhist psychology, we often speak of ingrained patterns and associations that prevent us from fully experiencing our lives in the present moment. The mind is hard wired to filter experience through past associations and to label these experiences according to what it already knows. Pure, present moment experience, without this mental veil is very challenging and goes against our mind’s blueprint. Seeing and undoing these patterns and reaching pure experience are at the heart of mindfulness meditation.

When I was a young child, before my mental associations became fully ingrained, the feeling of walking barefoot on the fresh grass of spring was a blissful delight and the sensation of the ocean washing at my ankles brought a moment of pure magic. As I grew older, the childlike wonder of fresh and pure experience began to fade. Perhaps I could briefly touch it from time to time, but mostly it became a distant memory.

Through my meditation practice I learned that returning to this pure experience requires courage and commitment to see things as they are, without the filter that alters the moment into something other than what it is. In the case of my associating tree climbing with a ladder, it was a positive comparison that gave me the courage to climb. Once that association evaporated, however, I was left with the immediate challenge of climbing the tree. This was essential as the situation demanded that I bring my full attention to the task at hand – safely getting up the tree and onto the rock.

Quite often our past associations are of fearful or unpleasant experiences that cause us to seek refuge from this moment, where we imagine the danger remains. Meditation practice provides an excellent opportunity to see this pattern clearly. For instance, during a phase in my early years of practice I encountered a high degree of financial and career anxiety, at times so strong that I often avoided meditation because I feared the anxiety would overwhelm me. I had an ingrained tendency to try and avoid the anxiety, which felt unsafe. This is a normal human response to anxiety. The true origin of the anxiety had some deep roots and I knew I didn’t want to experience it directly.

Over the course of a few months, I saw that the anxiety wasn’t abating and realized that resuming my daily meditation practice might help prevent the anxiety from ruling my life. So I began sitting again, committing myself to staying as fully present in the discomfort as I could. I also began to see and disassociate from the story lines that accompanied my anxiety. At first, I had a strong impulse to escape just moments after I settled onto the cushion. But as I gently recommitted myself to presence in the face of fear, I slowly found room for the anxiety in my immediate experience. I didn’t need to follow the embedded thoughts and stories to cover it over. Just touching the discomfort lightly at first gave me confidence that nothing bad was going to happen; this began the process of undoing the chain of reactivity that had kept me in stuck in anxiety.

As my confidence increased, I often extended my sitting practice to an hour or more in order to fully experience the discomfort. Usually, about halfway through the session, the anxiety would melt away into the sweetness of the morning birdsong and the sunrise filtering through the window. As my heart opened to the fear, it also opened to the unconditioned beauty of this moment. Out of this intimacy a sense of gratitude and peace would arise. Repeatedly doing this practice revealed that I didn’t need to be afraid of embracing the discomfort, and my mental association of anxiety with danger began to fade.

To this day when anxiety arises I often feel the urge to escape. Mental patterns have power, and it is unrealistic to believe they can be completely eliminated. Although the impulse to turn away remains with me, less time elapses before I remember to meet the anxiety intimately with an open heart. Just as my association with the ladder faded into the immediate reality of climbing the tree, my experience of anxiety, just as it is, dissolves into the spacious, unconditioned nature of this moment.