In some ways, everyone is equal in terms of meditation. If you sit with a group, it can feel that way. Everyone has to sit, and do very little. Everyone experiences some physical pain as they do this for a length of time, and some resistance even doing it for short periods. Sitting meditation is in many ways so difficult and boring that everyone is equalized. The flickering and anxious qualities of our minds are equal in many ways.
At the same time, people really aren’t equal. That’s why some people are surgeons and some are farmers. I wouldn’t want a farmer operating on my brain, or a surgeon trying to grow my food. Some people are meditation teachers. It’s worth getting to know one, if you want to practice (or a priest if you want to pray). Having some instruction is helpful. There is a meditation instinct, so doing it is natural, but at the same time, getting in touch with that sacred instinct is very slippery, so having some guidance can save you some time. I worked on my own, mostly, for about three years, maybe four years, before I got serious instruction from teachers, and I do regret this a little. I imagine what amazing progress I would have made, had I found a teacher right away. I’m joking a tiny bit, but it’s true- just being on your own slows things down.
So there is that hierarchy. In the Tibetan tradition, the guru is seen as very important. The guru is the master teacher, at a high place in the hierarchy. Of course, getting to the point where you want to work with a guru, and trust one, is slow, basically careful work (with some element of recklessness and desperation mixed in).
There is hierarchy all over the place. The world has a natural order to it, and even if the changing of the seasons and the tides, the shifts of the moon and sun, the animals that permeate even suburban life, seem unimportant in this modern context, even if considering that seems like dancing with absurd cliches, it is true, and it is something I’ve come to appreciate a lot, having studied meditation. Meditation involves you in the world.
I’ve always appreciated sunlight, and seeing big beautiful patterns coming through windows in the late morning and afternoon. The same for the stars, I think. You don’t have to go overboard and pretend to be in love with trees. At the same time, it could happen naturally, as the meditation experience bleeds out from the confines of your room, into the larger world.
There’s no need for practice at all. Things are perfect. The universe is infinite. God is all. You’ve heard this logic before, probably. I don’t think you can argue with it.
In college, probably like lots of young thinkers, I spent quite some time thinking about these kinds of formulations, and discussing them with my friends. Sometimes beer and other substances were involved. Both the substances and the ideas were intoxicating.
There is the ultimate. This is the nature of reality. Then there is the relative. This is how it is experienced.
I’m trying to put this in simple terms, so I don’t confuse myself, get it wrong, or waste too much writing on a subject I understand very shakily.
The experience of relative life, with cars, birds, water, food, seems separate from the ultimate reality. The latter is also called suchness; it’s a direct experience of things, but beyond the limitations implied in experience (with the assumption of a separate self).
That duality, of self and world, seems like a problem, at least to spiritual types. What about God? What about the gods? What about the ultimate? How can we experience sacredness fully? The logic that it’s all there, already, and that it’s perfect seems clear enough. But then how do you really fully experience that? Doesn’t it just become head games, intellectual arguments, even delusion?
That is where practice comes in. Practice can take it into the realm of experience, and it is so down to earth and simple and good that it’s hard to mess it up, or make it intellectual or delusional. You just sit and work with the body and the breath. Somehow, the world of the gods begins to interpenetrate the world of the humans, or this mingling that was always perfectly there becomes more apparently there, in appearances. Trying to see it, trying to figure it out probably won’t do it. Many an acid trip have been spent “really figuring it all out.” I remember meeting a friend of friends on a road trip who’d just recently tripped on something, saying “I have it all figured out!” I knew right then that he was way off, and felt bad for him. Trying to figure it all out, or just trying to feel the presence probably won’t do it. Relaxing will help, maybe, and certainly doing the work of sitting, a bit every day.
I had a friend, whom I met in college, and spent a lot of time hanging out with after college. He is a very intelligent guy, a decent guy, and also liked, at least at one time, going on the internet to find pictures of deformed animals. We’d be talking on the phone, and he’d say “I just found this picture of a two headed cow! It’s so funny.”
I have become friends with another English teacher here in Thailand, oddly enough, with the same name as my old friend, and the other day he told me that some Buddhist temples here keep deformed animals preserved, in bottles, because they’re believed to have some sort of power, some magical properties. Let me say that if, on reading this, you have some interest in studying Buddhism, not all of our temples are full of jars of preserved deformed animals.
If you look to mythology and symbolism, there are myriads of monsters with bodies combining various things. They all seem to have magical powers, as well. Here in Thailand, they have horse dragons, and magic lions (the latter which adorns a popular brand of beer). In Europe, there was a belief in werewolves, and there was that half-bird, half snake thing that could turn you to stone (I forget the name right now).
It should come as no big surprise that there are actual ideas behind these symbols. If you see them as symbols, instead of as silly archaic ideas, it might be more helpful. Lots of cultures, I think, hide their wisdom teachings in symbol, and if you work at it a little, or talk to people who have had this transmitted to them, you can tap into the meaning of those symbols.
Just going back to the deformed animals thing, people are not that different. That’s one of the big ideas in horror movies, I think (although I’m too much of a wimp to have watched many). You see the people acting badly, and the person who actually turns into a ravenous wolf, and you get the idea that people have these different sides. People can be like animals.
When you sit, whether on a cushion, or a chair, you can see this. In your mind, you might have images of yourself as a wise teacher, a kind friend, or a rapist. You might replay an argument you had earlier, or wish you’d had, and thrown in some firsticuffs, with you as the champion. It’s my understanding that part of people’s issues come from not being able to accept that we are this way: both miserably crazy, and good. We’re like werewolves (nice werewolves). So, without giving in to the violent or lustful impulses whenever they happen, it’s possible to be human, which oddly enough happens through some sort of acceptance of that monstrous side.
I get the feeling that, when you hear about priests going astray and abusing children, or gurus stealing their disciples money, part of the problem is an expectation that, as spiritual people, you’re supposed to be holy. This means cutting out the parts that are like deformed animals. Somehow this repressive take on the process comes back to bite you; you act kind and pure, but then the scary parts sneak up when you’re that uptight.
Ethical practices and discipline are essential, in my opinion, but there’s a parellel track to this- the shadow, or the unpleasant-seeming undercurrents. I’ve gotten the sense from my readings, and from teachers I’ve studied with that one of the most important things is not being afraid of those deformed elements, not feeling that they’re so terrible and powerful that they need to be destroyed, because somehow that makes them even stronger, and that can lead to stress, shame, and somehow to actual misdeeds.
The other side of that coin is that people read you. You’re in constant communication with others, with the world. I experienced this working in education. I never ever tried to date or have an affair with a student, but I’ve experienced tons of sexual tension with older students. This is something I’m gradually becoming better at working with, as a teacher. I have been in classrooms where the tension between me and a female student was a bad thing, a distraction (and a way for one or both of us to manipulate some situation).
On the one hand, being a sexual person is natural, and that’s one of those deformed monsters to relax with; it’s not terrible to have sexual thoughts or feelings. On the other hand, if you let those thoughts run the show, off the cushion, your world will tend to get a little more chaotic. That’s one of those basic lessons it took me a lot longer to learn than most people, and one I’m learning now. Being married certainly helps (at least it helps me; I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone).
Trunpa Rinpoche talked a lot, especially in his earlier teachings, I think, about “projection.” This was a psychological term he took on, and transformed for his own uses. His use of it was brilliant, and a little confusing. One thing I do think is that people “project” images of themselves out into the world in various ways, oftentimes unconsciously or subtly, oftentimes with the body. If you project a deformed and monstrous version of yourself, the world will probably answer back with something unpleasant. This is in spite of the fact that people have goodness, and a good heart in them. This is one of the most frustrating and agonizing things about living in the world, I think: even really wonderful people, if they have a demonic or deformed self-image, will get a lot of unpleasantness and chaos projected back at them. As a result, the deformation is confirmed, or seems to be, and things get worse. This is one big reason that it’s important to understand sacredness, or Buddha nature.
One thing that sacredness means is that goodness is more powerful and pervasive than confusion. As Buddhists, we recognize harm and hurtful actions, but we don’t talk about evil. Even calling confusion evil is giving it too much power, to high a place. It’s really confusion.
What you expect from your mind is not what it will give you. My mind seems to go through lots of dreams and ideas and feelings, like an engine of thoughts and emotions, sometimes abstract, sometimes hopeful, sometimes monstrous. I expect, lots of times, for it to behave, for it to be good, for it to be pure, but it never fails to disappoint me. On good occasions, I’m able to take the perspective to my own mind that it’s a little amusing, funny, or even that it’s interesting and cool (it’s so intricate, intoxicating, and full of infinitely complex ideas and dreams).
Maybe that has to do, in part, with the inspiration to practice, revulsion, and samsara. The mind seems to be at the root of so many problems. It’s easy to get down on it. Unfortunately, hating your mind won’t make you suffer any less.
This expectation process seems, for me, like some kind of faking-it thing, acting. I want to seem to know what I’m doing at all times, and expecting various things is like a magical process of trying to make them happen, or give a kind of appearance of them happening. It’s like conjuring up a feeling or presence of things happening. I think this inkling is positive and true in a way, but gets distorted easily into unrealistic expections for the mind. The mind will not conform to expectations, hopes, and fears. Practice helps remind and establish this as a habit; by seeing the mind doing its loopy thing a million or a trillion times, you start to get the idea. It’s a mind. That’s what it does. It’s like a circus. You don’t expect the circus to be an office and do paperwork. A circus is a circus. Get some popcorn!
The mind does lots of ornate and fantastic things, maybe like a circus full of monsters and deformed beasts, and it also labels. The idea that things are not their labels is one “thing” I got right away, or thought I did. Not only do you think and plan and reconstruct all the time, you give names and categories to things. It’s like that moment. There’s that thing that I know. It’s a fan.The TV is making sounds.
Instead of hearing and seeing, you get a slightly shady version of hearing and seeing- labels. Would that you could just rip the labels off, but you can’t. That seems to be part of problem and confusion with psychedelic experiences; they promise to bring you to some direct experience of reality, when they just push certain buttons, tending to give the illusion of direct experience.
Perhaps then there’s some dance between appreciating the craziness of the mind, and gently removing those labels, in order to experience the world. In both cases, certainly, awareness is introduced to the realms of thoughts, and perceptions, creating a more true and spacious situation. That sense of dance is also shown through the intoxication of it. As soon as you approach, it fades away. As soon as you have it, the song is over.
Training is a good thing, but it only goes so far.
This has a few implications. One, that you shouldn’t expect perfection, breakthroughs, or an easy road. The path is, as I’ve experienced it, not always clear, but very strong and worthwhile. I’m not enlightened, but I am amazed over and over at how the teachings touch my life, and grow inside me in interesting ways. Recently, over the last year or so, I’ve been working at using visual art, drawings mainly, as part of my spiritual practice. No big deal, but some interesting things happening there. I wouldn’t have expected that; I didn’t when I started out. That seems to be how it works.
Second, since there is perfection, or unity, we’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. Somehow, you do a lot of work, meditating, listening to talks, trying to be a good person, but there’s something beyond that, which isn’t a matter of hard work, intellect, or listening to the right people. There’s something at the heart of things which is good, which is not a matter of how good you think you are, how nice you are, or what you’ve done. This sometimes can lead to tricky ethical points, but I don’t think it needs to.
In general, the best bet is to be a decent person. That means mostly the same thing to various people, and even if the definition differs, that’s fine. It’s a personal definition, and somewhat based on intuition. Societally, things will work more smoothly if you’re decent. You’ll make you’re own life easier. This means, also, more stable practice. There are definitely fine points, whenever ethics is discussed, and I’m no great theoretician or philosopher (or meditator, for that matter). I think that’s okay, for two reasons. There are, and have been. great thinkers to work out those fine points. Also, the fine points don’t seem to figure in to day to day life too much. Maybe they should, but they don’t.
So it’s a good idea to be a good person, but this does not guarantee realization or accomplishment. Finally, it just helps a bit. Reality, god, whatever you call it, is not bought off by people being nice or good.
Practice is for everybody. If you’ve been a virtuous person, great, try practicing. If you’ve made lots of mistakes, and hurt yourself a lot, fine, try practicing. If you’ve done a lot of good, and kept your nose clean, you may have an easier time sitting. Those good deeds may help you in the long run (although selfishness is said to poison good works). If you’ve had a hard time, and have cause a lot of damage, then practicing can help you get back on track, so you should try it.
I know I said finally, but here’s one more. Training methods are only training methods. I’ve had a number of teachers tell me that sitting meditation, for Buddhists, at least, continues on for the whole path, for a lifetime. You can learn advanced techniques- breathing methods, visualization, working with energy in a sophisticated way, even more- but you still need to sit, and it all, I think feeds back into your sitting practice, strengthening it, deepening it. So sitting keeps going, although you never know. Even that might stop after some time. (I’m thinking decades here, possibly.) Other techniques seem to come and go more. They are more like bridges or stepping stones. This is an interesting point. Assuming that sitting continues on forever, but other techniques come and go, this is then the practice of practices, the best of the best.
A discussion about that might be beyond me at this point (and there are definitely advanced meditators out there who do other practices as their main practice, not sitting, so I would be remiss if I left that out). It, however, interesting, to take that tack. Lots of techniques can be worked with for some time, but the main practice seems to stay. It’s a testament to brilliance of the practice tradition that there are all these different techniques out there, which can change your life, and then be put away when their usefulness is gone.
It is a good thing to have a mind, a mind that is workable and strong. Meditation teacher and activist Ethan Nichtern once said something to effect that, “Meditation is almost entirely about relaxing.” Part of the idea with relaxing in practice is that the mind is good, and strong. It works.
It is both good, and it can be purified, or strengthened. However, I think a lot of teachers emphasize the inherent goodness and strength of the mind because if you emphasize the possibility of purifying it, you might make people think they’re bad, that they are dirty. This is not the idea at all. The idea is not that people are nasty and brutish, that they’re animals, beasts. Actually, the potential of people is somewhat godlike, in some wisdom traditions. Some Buddhists masters, gurus who have passed on, are worshipped just like deities. This is maybe more common in Tibetan Buddhism than in other sects (although I know the Thais treat accomplished monks this way too, building statues of them, and wearing amulets with their images on them). This might offend some monotheists (but for better or worse, traditions are different, and can’t be made into some kind of homogenized super-religion to smooth everything out).
How do you know that the mind is essentially good and strong? Here’s one way. I can think of how I was for some time (depressed, in turmoil, mind clouded by drugs and alcohol). I took some of the problematic stuff out of the picture, I started taking better care of my body and eating better, and things changed. My mind and body started working in synch more often. I was able to manage my emotions a little better. It wasn’t that my mind and body were flawed, or evil. It was just that I had some bad habits, and some ideas that weren’t helping anyone. Once I tackled these things, my experience cleared up significantly.
Think of it this way. Think of a time when you’ve had too little sleep, and worked too much. Think of a time when you’ve felt at ease, and happy. For me, I somehow think of the happy times as few and far between (although that’s not really the case these days), it’s easy to see that the stressed, shabby mind is not who I am, essentially. Maybe I’m not the happy person, either, but I’m more that than the stressed out, crazed self.
Think of it this way- have you ever seen a crazy, or high person on the subway, or wandering the streets? Was that who they were, in their heart of hearts? Of course not.
Part of meditation practice is the sense of expansiveness, bigness, what Trungpa Rinpoche called “vastness.” This is part of certain kinds of practice, and I am not really qualified to dispense practice advice, especially not by book (in person it seems a little more realistic and possible).
The sense of expansion and largeness can be found in many aspects of life. The best is probably looking up at the sky. I was going to say, the more you can see the better, but I don’t know. It might not matter. It’s vast and infinite no matter how much of the thing you can see.
If you look up at the sky, especially if there aren’t too many clouds, you can get a sense of space and hugeness. It goes way way up. You can get this feeling so many times throughout the day, if you can look or go outside. People can get this feeling from looking at architecture too. Cathedrals have definitely given me this sense, a wonderful feeling of smallness in relation to something other, something vast.
This quality is, at least in part, a quality of mind. I think it’s safe to say that also means it’s a quality of body. Body and mind seem to be all mixed up together, to the point that they’re impossible to separate out, like the ingredients in a curry sauce. Anyway, that vastness is somehow part of you, or you’re part of it. If you can experience it, maybe in art, or in a natural setting, it is somehow a part of you. You should still practice though! Feeling that is not a reason to not sit in the morning. It doesn’t replace it; it enhances and confirms it.
From personal experience I can attest to this. I can’t tell you how many times, as a kid, a teen, a young adult, I experienced something greater than myself, something mysterious, and appreciated it, enjoyed it, and then tried to figure it out and make something out of it. Of course, I wasn’t a meditator then (which is the same as saying I didn’t pray back then). That process of taking the vastness and confining it in your brain is a problem. It’s like taking the intricately decorated sky, with golden clouds and playing birds, and confining it in your brain. It’s not happy there. That’s not its natural environment. It’s like putting a big bird in a small cage. It’s like putting a tiger in a tiny cage. It’s not happy there. It starts to go crazy, pacing back and forth constantly. Those experiences of something greater work so much better when a) left alone, or let go, and b) combined with the meditator’s lifestyle. The latter is, again, because such experiences enhance and confirm practice. Those tastes of intricacy and largeness are ways that practice begins to drip out into the rest of life. That is a lovely experience as you go along. At first, practicing off the cushion, on the spot, can be artificial and difficult. Slowly, it becomes more natural, and “glimpses” appear occasionally without effort, as uninvited guests.
It’s not possible to tell the dimensions of your own mind. Think about your mind. It has gone places, experienced highs and lows, felt hate and love, been sleepy, feverish, had outlandish fantasies and maybe invented works of literature or new technologies. Wherever you’ve been in space or time, it’s been with you.
So you could not measure this thing, the mind, even if you tried. It seems somehow vast, but immeasurable. As soon as you look for its space, its dimensions, you get lost. You can find its edges. It’s like chasing your tail, or your own wings.
I’m going to talk about one of my drug experiences, and a positive aspect of it. Maybe this is a mistake; I don’t know. On the one hand, I know that drug use is dangerous, can be destructive, and can lead to a lifestyle that weakens the mind, and kills the body. Worse yet, they make meditation pretty much impossible. Still, I did have a few experiences when high that I value still, for their insight. Now this doesn’t mean that you should go and get high, to have some deep insight. Ninety percent of the big ideas and revelations I had on drugs turned out to be bullshit the morning after. I’d like to also say that, aside from caffeine, drugs don’t support or enhance the creation of art. They certainly don’t improve conversation. Anyway, you can wreck your mind with drugs, and ruin your chances of enlightenment, but I won’t deny that occasionally you come up with something decent.
Here are two, both on LSD. Again, let me say drugs, definitely psychedelics can damage your mind (these, especially, if you have “bad trips”- these experiences can traumatise you can stay with you for months or even years, and there’s no guarantee you can ever avoid them). They’re both from the same trip. First, I had taken the stuff and was sitting in someone’s room, a dorm room. At one point, I knew it had kicked in, and I was looking at my pants morphing and melting. This happened a lot, on acid and mushrooms, watching stuff melt and move around. Not actually that interesting (and not lot in the movies, where it’s like going into another world- it’s not like that). I was trying to express something my friends, then, maybe just what I was feeling, and I had the experience of not being able to- I would get so close, and then be unable to say it. My words seemed to get within a hair of being able to contain the truth, a very simple truth, and then they’d change at the last second. I laughed, and of course, was unable to express this unexpressability, either.
Near the middle of the trip, I was sitting outside, on the grass, with a group of people in front of a particular dorm. My friend and his girlfriend were there. I thought that she was sending me some sort of subtle erotic signal when she talked to me, which she wasn’t. I become fixated on this, and asked her if it was true (and this was in front of the boyfriend, a friend of mine and nice guy, and a bunch of other people, most not on any serious drugs). She became emabrassed and said, no, not at all. I was convinced though, and I kept asking her, eventually getting it. I apologized to the boyfriend, who was somewhat amused at my making a total fool out of myself, and probably a little embarassed for me. He said it was ok. I felt that there were these demonic social dynamics going on, people choosing sides and picking their sexuality, like two tribal camps, out there on the lawn. This big trip occurred in my head. I may have said this out loud, this insane fantasy about sexual tribes being formed. This, like the girl (not) flirting with me, took on immense, epic proportions in my mind, and then came crashing down when I expressed it to someone. Again, massive embarassment. My friends decided maybe it was time to watch a movie (inside). They took me inside. I said a few other embarassing and crazy things.
In both experiences, my mind and reality were at this frustrating disconnect. There was this odd and fluid distance between ideas and reality. In the first experience, the limitations of words, especially in light of communication, and the flux of things in realtime, became clear. I still like thinking about that one sometimes. In the second experience, I built up crazy stories about social situations, about what was going on around me, which went wild in my head, and were not accurate. Both of these things happen in normal life. Seeing them in vivid relief in those trips gave me a sense of understanding (albeit with a side of horrific embarassment, and some discomfort for my friends, certainly very tolerant people that I’d like to thank for putting up with hours of my idiocy).
The mind is a vastly intricate thing. Volumes of words pour out and in, but they can’t seem to grasp or capture reality. They carry a lot of beauty anyway, and the dance of working with them seems enjoyable and worthwhile. The mind can take something small, and distort entire situations into horrific nightmares. Being on drugs will help create such nightmares, but they happen in the midst of sober life, too.
Meditation is much safer way to expand your mind. I recommend it. Through the practice, which is gentle, you can begin to see that your mind is without limits. Somehow I keep limiting it, binding it into yoga-like poses that make it actually less flexible, less healthy. But that is what meditation is for- to indirectly remind you of the way your mind is.
It’s good to care less on occasion. Compassion is a part of the deal, but relaxation is too, and you can’t drive yourself to exhaustion just trying to accomplish, to feel, or to help, even.
In the end, you won’t know the results of your own efforts and actions. It’s like throwing a bottle up into the air. You know it will come down, but you don’t know what the breaking will sound like, or where the shards will go.
In his book about his intensive studies with Trungpa Rinpoche, meditation teacher John Perks wrote about Rinpoche’s use of a specific phrase towards the end of his life: “Couldn’t care less.”
Like so much of Trungpa’s language, this has multiple meanings. The first is the sense of “boundless equanimity,” the feeling of vast unbiased mind. To a master such as this, things like burnt toast and smelly clothes don’t ruin a day. Some people get to this level- they don’t care at all about the trivial stuff. That’s a good thing (and not easy to do, at all). It’s very easy to get caught on trivial stuff. This is how most of my arguments happen. I’m in a bad mood, and one little thing catches me off guard, and off we go, into tantrum land.
“Couldn’t care less” means total lack of bias. If you look at your preferences, when you get up in the morning, eat, go to work, you’ll see that you have a lot. This is the way the ego works, in terms of preferences. We try to narrow in on pleasure and security through preferences. Having more equanimity probably means letting go of the particular ego that clings on to those sets of likes and dislikes, at least a little, and that feels weird. But it also means more freedom (and a little less arguing).
“Couldn’t care less” also, I think, means compassion, heart. He could not have cared any less. Rinpoche’s heart was so vast. That’s the sense I get from seeing videos, hearing him, reading his work, reading his students’ comments. This has been true of lots of enlightened teachers, and it is the direction the path is leading in (compassion).
Somehow, those opposites combine in the human being. I’ll put it this way, as someone who struggles with the compassion part especially: if your practice is going along, but you don’t feel more tenderness and compassion for suffering, then there’s an issue. Practice slowly uncovers the heart, I think, but it is really easy to let the covering grow back. You could care less, so you have to work at caring, and feeling, and not just for yourself, but for others too.
Meditation slowly (for most) brings you into a world that is quite different. This sacred world is not something I can talk about too much, and that’s probably okay; it’s something to be experienced. Insofar as it can be experienced, it is real. I think at one point in my practice the fear of insanity was greater, but since then it’s become much less monumental (and this is actually a wonderful thing for me- being afraid of going crazy and of crazy people was something I’ve carried around since I was a little kid).
Without going into detail, the opened perceptions meditation helps tune you into can be very ordinary at times, and surprising at others. This can make you think you’re losing it. When you find that you’re able to perform you job, talk to people, and take care of yourself, and when those feelings and experiences begin to become a normal part of life, you start to see that it’s not a matter of going crazy. It’s more like the mind was just too cloudy before, or was maybe partly shutting things out (maybe because of a fear that they were crazy).
The “experiential” approach is key here. You can believe in the idea of energy, but until you experience energy firsthand, clearly, it’s just a head trip. Being a practitioner means that there is a significant difference between hopes and reality. There’s a difference between a given person’s metaphysical musings, and the experience of real life. One incredible thing about practice is that it bridges the gap between those two places.
In Thailand they have a king, and have for centuries. I believe before that, before unification, they had various kings and warlords who ruled smaller areas. In America, we have a president. For Americans, the idea of a king is old-fashioned at best, dictatorial at worse, a loss of personal freedom.
What I’ve been writing here, my thoughts on philosophy and ethics and meditation, are strongly influenced by Chogyam Trungpa’s Shambhala teachings, and also the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. These are slightly different. Trungpa Rinpoche gave teachings on the Shambhala principles beginning in the 1970‘s, and although this body of work is based in Buddhism, and shares a lot in common with Buddhism, it is somewhat different, too. One thing Rinpoche did by presenting those teachings was to reach out to people of diverse backgrounds and faiths, and give meditation instruction to them. People weren’t required to take vows or become Buddhists in order to learn about the principles of Shambhala. People could be Christians, or Jews, or Jains, and practice what they learned in Shambhala Training (as long as they thought it went along with their understanding and their faith).
In the Shambhala teachings, as in some Buddhist teachings, the image of a king is used. This is due in part to the history of Buddhism, which arose in a time and place when kings and queens were commonplace. If you look at Christian writing, I believe similar imagery is used, for similar reasons.
I’m a believer in the potential of democracy (although it seems to often fall flat in America, in so many ways), and I’m not suggesting that politically we should move in the direction of monarchy. One of the reasons for kingly imagery being used is the sense of dignity and power. This is something that can be lacking in modern life, I think. I said before that I liked South Park. I still do. But immerse yourself in that kind of culture too much, and things get sad. Maybe it sounds like I’m a little obsessed with TV and media and what you take in in those terms (and I am a little bit). That’s not the point. The point is really the result; the result of a lot of modern culture is a loss of dignity, and power.
Tuning into sacredness, you can experience something of that dignity and power. This is, of course, different from pretending to feel it, or telling yourself you feel it, or thinking of quotations and references to great works of literature and philosophy. It’s something that is naturally existing, and usually has to be transmitted, “mouth to ear,” from one person to another. If you can touch in with that goodness, sacredness, I think you’ll see that people in contemporary times often miss that. You can see it in them, a kind of doubt and lack of confidence. If you experience sacredness, it’s hard to have a lot of doubt, and little confidence.
Practice has a few connections here. First, of course, practice helps you connect to the sacred universe (and not in some head-in-the-clouds way, but in a simple, earthy way). Second, practice is one of the most powerful and dignified activities people can engage in. Through simple actions, more or less ritualized, people can tune their energy, open their minds a bit, and contact the reality that is most important to them. Even people meditating just to relax, destress, and so on, experience some of the kingly goodness of it. Their bodies and minds start to relax and release their knots a little bit, and natural dignity begins to expand.
There’s something very sad about people who have lost touch with the energetic forces that are so entwined in the world, people who just believe in science and material things. It’s not that they lack in hope, hope is very dangerous in its own way. Hope can be like a drug. It’s that they deny certain areas of life, and live less, as a result.
The image of a king, or queen, is not an arrogant one. For practitioners, and actually for everybody, it’s the natural image of a person being who they are.
Not only do you experience resisting, and lots of thoughts, when you meditate, you might experience negative emotions, too. Finally, Buddhists consider emotions as neither good nor bad (and they’re actually said to be positive, to be a form of good energy, when you’re awake enough to perceive that).
Negative emotions are the things that tend to get you into trouble. They include anger, lust, and stupidity. During practice, they are generally treated as just another form of thought. They aren’t resisted, or thrown out, or completely indulged. They’re seen as sort of neutral, during the meditation process.
Negative emotions are like anything else that happens during practice. Feeling really angry is not different from getting lost in a memory of a dream from last night. Personally, I love dreams, and I love thinking about them, remembering them, even writing them down sometimes. I have a bunch of my old dreams written down, starting when I was eight, or nine, I think. In meditation practice, feeling a powerful negative emotion, like rage, is the same as remembering something, making a plan, or having a pop song looping over and over and over.
Off the cushion it’s clearly a different matter. I’m learning this directly being married. I’d never lived with someone before getting married, and moving in with my wife. I’m glad I did it, but it’s rarely easy. One thing I’ve started to learn, a little, is that, on my own, I could go through moods, and feel bad, wallow in it a little, or go through whatever I was going through. Living with someone else, when we’re together at home, which is lot, we like to nest, I can’t just go through my emotional turmoil; it affects someone else very quickly and obviously. I have to pull myself together with more skill.
Sometimes teachers talk about “wrath.” This is a way of talking about positive anger. Working in schools, I’ve seen teachers do this with their students on occasion- the tough love approach. Depending on the situation and the skill of the teacher, it has varying degrees of effectiveness. It’s much easier to be kind than to use tough love, at least I find this personally. However, you can be tough on yourself sometimes, to good effect. This is called being wrathful with yourself.
When you practice, you just do the practice. When you’re going through the rest of the day, it could be necessary sometimes to just pull yourself together. A key point is that you’re still being friendly to yourself, overall. You don’t want the toughness to evolve into self-loathing. In my experience, it’s more of a kind of quick snap, when you’re tough with yourself, as opposed to a kind of undercurrent of hate (which would be self-loathing).
When I wrote last about negative feelings, I wrote mostly about anger. I’d like to write about desire now. (I called it lust last time.)
Addicts are well-acquainted with the experience of desire, but in that sense, we’re all addicts. I think America today has a sort of diagnosis-crazy mentality in some ways- everyone’s addicted, everyone’s disabled, everyone’s mentally ill. I think this has some truth to it, as long as people realize they have the tools necessary to conquer these mental afflictions as part of their basic makeup, naturally. Having a group to work with helps, as many addicts will tell you. But you have the tools already, and practice sharpens these.
Actually, emotions can be tools, themselves. They can be used to achieve things. I think athletes are aware of that kind of logic. You can get fired up in order to outperform the other team, in order to bring out the best in yourself.
Stepping into the world of practice, your desires can be guided into new areas. I think people generally have desires for predictable things, and I’m part of that trend too. People want pleasant things, status, sex, comfort, security, adoration. As you become a practitioner, you start to see that there’s something a little fishy about those desires. They cycle through your head and influence your decisions, but often they’re hard to achieve perfectly, and even when you get really close, it doesn’t seem to be enough.
It is possible to get desirous about practice. You can get fired up about practice. This is something I feel when I go on retreat (although to be honest, retreat tends to involve a lot of resistance and irritation too). Maybe think of Baptist churches in America. People dance and sing. You can get really fired up about your practice and your faith. That’s a good thing. You take a feeling that can get you into so much trouble, drag your life down so much, and turn it towards something positive.
The Buddhist approach to emotions is complex, nuanced, sophisticated, and something I’m only beginning to understand. There are maybe two basic approaches, though: taming, and transforming. The latter is more advanced, and I don’t know much about doing it.
Everyone works at taming their emotions. Even nonreligious people do that. It’s a basic ethical, or even functional matter. You don’t want to feel angry all the time. You don’t want to be obsessed about something for your entire day. Maybe you do want to feel angry about something, so you think about it. Maybe you do want to obsess on something, so you think about.
The other kind of approach involves taking emotions and working with them in a more sophisticated way. Meditation masters are masters at doing this, turning emotional lead into gold. What I’m talking about in terms of desire involves firing up desire for the really important things in life. Right now I think about getting a house, someday, to have with my wife. There’s nothing wrong with having a house. Americans love our houses. That’s fine, I think. Maybe it will come true, someday. But I know, at the same time, that having said house won’t make me happy. It won’t be enough. So I keep my mind on practice, accomplishing things with my practice.
One aspect of basic goodness is that seeing negative emotions doesn’t mean getting uptight, or judgemental. I think it can get easy to imagine that, since you’re experiencing some negativity or hellish state of mind, you’ve really messed up, and that you’re a lousy person.
It’s like if you get really upset, and you tell a friend, a friend who’s not directly involved in whatever problem it is you’re talking about. The friend would probably tell you to calm down, that it will be okay. Those words aside, there’s the feeling you get, on telling that friend, which is very special, and also no big deal- it’s a subtle change of perspective, going from being in your own head, stuck on some ideas and feelings, to seeing someone else react and not be stuck on it. Suddenly, there’s a tiny gap of space between you and the state of mind, embodied in your friend. I remember this used to happen when I was a kid. I’d get worried about something, and then when I told my parents, I wouldn’t feel so bad anymore. I would see they thought it wasn’t such a huge problem, and my own turmoil was put into a bit of perspective.
Practice involves perspective. This is a feeling, I think, and one that is cultivated and introduced through practice. It generally does not happen through study or books (so if you’re interested, please do try out at least one meditation class and see what happens).
This perspective happens indirectly. You can’t really produce it or create it, because the “you” that would create or produce is part of the turmoil. Egolessness is big, deep topic, and one I’ve touched on in a very superficial way. Maybe I’ll talk more about it as the book goes on. What I’m talking about is an example of egolessness. You’re brought out of yourself, at least for a moment. This is considered very important in Buddhism, and essential to wisdom, and compassion. Wisdom and compassion don’t exist without this egolessness. It’s very important to mention that, although the serving-others kind of egolessness is related, it is not completely the same. Egolessness does not refer to being a saint, per se, but is about the nature of reality. The nature of reality has to do with the nature of the self, without question, since selves are always involved, and question of self is touched into when you talk to someone else (especially when they really change your perspective).
I find this pretty interesting. It’s one of many examples of where the practice tradition overlaps with secular culture, and secular modern culture basically gets it right (but doesn’t understand the deeper implications). Sometimes people will tell you that someone is “too much in his head,” or “needs to get out of their head.” I had a friend tell me this in college. This is the same idea, a change of perspective, a lightening up of thoughts.
This comes back to basic goodness. The idea of perspective-shift seems obviously connected to space, or to the sky. There’s a sense of expansion that can come with that shift. But that’s also basic goodness. The shift, if you tell someone about your problems, and they help you let go of it via perspective (and really do it, not just tell you relax, this is a matter of feeling and usually surprise) is a reminder of basic goodness. Things aren’t pure hell. There is something larger and good out there, somewhere.