Dharma Talk: Suffering and Freedom From Suffering

This is a dharma talk I gave at One Dharma’s 2014 Spring Residential Retreat. I focucs on the First Noble Truth of Suffering and finding the way out of suffering. This talk is about 20 minutes in length.

Bridging the Gap: When Compassion Starts Here

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 prod 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 feel neutral, detached.

At times like these our response to misfortune and suffering is misaligned with our ideals. 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 kindness.”

When our response doesn’t conform to our ideals, it helps to remember that compassion won’t blossom until we accept 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 learn to stay in the gap, the open place where we can experience our fear, our hurt or our frustration when our desire to help goes nowhere. 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, even dismantle. The contraction of fear will soften, the sense of separation, born of that fear, will also dissolve. As we lose identification with ourselves as a separate entity, we experience the homeless person’s suffering directly. We know its not different from our own, just another flavor made manifest. Maybe there’s nothing we can do in that moment to help. 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 seek out concrete ways to help if we feel moved in this direction.

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.”

Freedom and The Demons

White Heron in Open Sky photography by Lisa Ernst

White Egret in Open Sky
photography by Lisa Ernst

I often encourage practitioners who are struggling, tied up in knots and feel stuck with nowhere to run, to surrender and put their heads in the mouth of the demon. Its one of my favorite teaching metaphors because its so vivid and unambiguous. From some this image draws stunned silence or a wince; from a few others a slight smile and a nod. Even though many practitioners reach an intellectual understanding, I’ve found that only a few fully experience the liberation that comes from an intimate view inside the demon’s mouth

This metaphor arises from an anecdote about the Tibetan yogi Milarepa.  Here’s the story from Tara Brach in her book, Radical Acceptance:

The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa spent many years living in isolation in a mountain cave. As part of his spiritual practice, he began to see the contents of his mind as visible projections. His inner demons of lust, passion, and aversion would appear before him as gorgeous seductive women and terrifying wrathful monsters. In face of these temptations and horrors, rather than being overwhelmed, Milarepa would sing out, “It is wonderful you came today, you should come again tomorrow … from time to time we should converse.”

Through his years of intensive training, Milarepa learns that suffering only comes from being seduced by the demons or from trying to fight them. To discover freedom in their presence, he has to experience them directly and wakefully, as they are.

In one story, Milarepa’s cave becomes filled with demons. Facing the most persistent, domineering demon in the crowd, Milarepa makes a brilliant move—he puts his head into the demon’s mouth. In that moment of full surrender, all the demons vanish. All that remains is the brilliant light of pure awareness.”

Most of us have ingrained responses to painful and difficult challenges. Usually these patterns involve resistance and struggle, which worsen our suffering.  As the noose tightens, the problems may grow into unfathomable monsters that we must avoid at all costs.  We create an “other” out of our suffering or we create an “I.” Either way, we start to view these conditions as problems we must solve or personal afflictions we must vanquish.

 As committed practitioners, over time we become more skilled at meeting these challenges. Gradually we’re less fearful of our demons, at least some of the time. We have the space to explore them with less reactivity, maybe inviting them in for tea once in a while. The intensity of our suffering diminishes and the demons disperse. Yet at other times, a particularly menacing demon may return, bearing down on us with full force. At moments like these we may feel that nothing can save us.

The demon is staring us in the face and we’ve got nothing to stop it. We’re sure the demon will devour us if we don’t find a way to protect ourselves or escape. Fear consumes us. At this juncture I’ve found that the full act of surrender, of putting my head in the mouth of the demon is the true way to freedom. It’s not really something I do as something I let go of. I release my need to survive, to protect or preserve the idea of myself in any form at all. I’m willing to let what I dread devour me.

Although this might sound scary, ultimately it’s the opposite. The moment I let go, when the demon has entered me and I have entered it, the demon dissolves into open space.  I dissolve into open space. There’s nothing inside or outside, only the sweet, unobstructed stillness of this moment. Gradually wisdom arises out of this emptiness. The situation reveals itself; the delusion dies.

There’s an important place for compassion in this process.  Sometimes we’re just not ready or able to move closer to the demon or even invite it in for tea. Taking a step back and offering lovingkindness to ourselves and to the fear, even the demon, can soften us. When we’re truly not ready to meet the darkness directly, we need to soften our hearts and minds into kindness and compassion. Then gradually we’ll find our way to the next step, of giving all of ourselves to the demon. At last we see it’s all a grand illusion and the demons of suffering and fear transform into equanimity and openness.