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.

Living the Questions Dharma Talk and Guided Meditation by Lisa Ernst

This dharma talk was recorded at Insight Nashville on October 1, 2014. It includes a guided meditation on working with deep questions in your life.


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.