I spent a week at Cloud Mountain meditating and it was wonderful. Yet inevitably, challenges both big and small can arise in the course of deep practice. Some are comical, some poignant. I share a few of these experiences in this talk.
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.
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.
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.
Is enlightenment an esoteric experience that we must cultivate or is awareness itself enlightenment? Perhaps its closer at hand than we think.
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.”
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This program will help you deepen your own practice and learn the vital tenants of Buddhist mindfulness meditation in a format for skillfully sharing it with others. You will also learn how to lead effective guided meditations, give meaningful talks about mindfulness and meditation and answer questions skillfully. You will benefit from an engaged learning environment with peer and teacher support.
This course provides:
24 hours of teacher led class time, 30+ hours of course study, practice and peer engagement, guidance for daily study, teacher support and review. Our study guide for this class will be Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein.
A minimum of two years consistent meditation practice, meditation retreat experience, participation in a sangha or other such community.
This program is not a lineage empowerment to teach the Buddhadharma, which requires years of study, teacher mentoring, deep commitment to daily practice and numerous meditation retreats. But for those interested in this path, the program can serve as a step along the way. For others the training will provide a foundation for deepening your own practice while learning how to effectively share it with others.
On successful completion of the course you will receive a certificate from One Dharma and Lisa Ernst verifying that you have been trained and approved to facilitate and instruct others in essential mindfulness and meditation practices. Opportunities through One Dharma and the greater community will be available.
If you are interested, please email Ernst.firstname.lastname@example.org for full course description, fee, class dates and application. The class will begin on June 21, 2018.
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.”
Updated, easy to navigate, a greatly improved site. Click here to visit One Dharma’s new site.