Saturday, 20 November 2010

I Will Stay (Pema Chödrön)


This is third in the series of Chödrön-based teachings accompanied by Chopin.

In the last post, we discussed the three lords of materialism, three kinds of attachment which obstruct the awakening of bodhicitta, the subject of the first post. In this post, we discuss what it means to stay with our thoughts, feelings and experiences, the four qualities of maitri, and the use of training slogans to help us.

Sitting meditation, also known as mindfulness-awareness practice, is the foundation of training for the bodhicitta-warrior. Sitting cultivates loving-kindness and compassion, the relative qualities of bodhicitta – it cultivates unconditional friendliness for ourselves and parts the curtain of indifference that separates us from the suffering of others. In addition, through getting closer to our thoughts and feelings and getting in touch with our bodies, through opening to ourselves, our inner voice and self-confidence, we also open to gaps in our internal dialogue, moments of relaxed open-ended awareness without clutter, moments of unconditional bodhicitta. But there is no guarantee that sitting will do this. If we use meditation to reinforce the barriers of our false beliefs, then we could practice for years without penetrating our hearts and minds. This would be of little benefit. It would be wise for us to ask then…
Q. Why do you meditate?

Happiness? Freedom? Peace? Wholeness?

It is sometimes said that to make peace in the world, you must first make peace within yourself. But trying to fix ourselves is not helpful. It implies struggle and self-denigration. Denigrating ourselves is probably the major way we cover over bodhicitta. Self-improvement can have temporary results, but lasting transformation occurs only when we honour ourselves as the source of wisdom and compassion. Without the complete direct acceptance of ourselves, which we call maitri, renunciation of old habits becomes abusive.

There are four qualities of maitri that are cultivated when we meditate: steadfastness, clear seeing, experiencing our emotional distress, and attention to the present moment.

Steadfastness – meditation strengthens our ability to be steadfast. No matter what comes up, aching bones, boredom, falling asleep, or the wildest thoughts or emotions, we develop a loyalty to our experience. Though we might consider it, we don't run screaming out of the room. Instead, we acknowledge that impulse as thinking, without labelling it right or wrong. This is no small task. Never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we hurt. We're encourages to meditate every day, even for a short time, to cultivate this steadfastness with ourselves. Meditation isn't about getting it right or attaining some ideal state. It's about being able to stay present with ourselves.

One aspect of steadfastness is simply being in your body. When you first sit down, relax and do a body sweep to get in touch with what's going on, bringing awareness to every part of the body. If there's tension somewhere, stop and rest your awareness there for a few breaths before moving on. You can reconnect with your body like this when it occurs to you, maybe once or twice during in a sitting session. Then return to the technique.

In meditation, we discover our inherent restlessness, in body and mind. We derive security in memories, fantasies and plans. We don't want to stay with the nakedness of our present experience. These are the times when only gentleness and a sense of humour can give us the strength to settle down. In short, the instruction is "Stay… stay… just stay". Training with kindness in humans like in animals results in flexibility, confidence and the ability to not become upset when situations are unpredictable or insecure. Restlessness? Stay! Discursive mind? Stay! Fear and loathing? Stay! Knees, back? Stay! What's for lunch? Stay! I can't stand this any longer! Stay! That is how to cultivate steadfastness.

Clear seeing – After we've been meditating a while, it's common to feel we're regressing rather than waking up. Clear seeing is another way of saying that we have less self-deception, but it comes as an aspect of self-compassion, of maitri. We begin to see our defence mechanisms, our negative beliefs, our desires and expectations, but also our kindness, bravery and wisdom. Although we still associate the walls we've erected with safety and comfort, we also begin to see them as restriction. This is the beginning of the warrior way, stepping out from our familiar world.

Experiencing our emotional distress – Transformation only occurs when we remember breath by breath, year after year, to move towards our emotional distress. Trungpa Rinpoche describes emotion as a combination of existing energy and thoughts. Emotion can't proliferate without our internal conversations. Label the thoughts "thinking", and let them go. But below the thoughts, something remains – a vital, pulsating energy. There is nothing wrong or harmful about that underlying energy. Our practice is to stay with it, experience it, leave it as it is.

There are certain advanced techniques in which you intentionally churn up emotions by thinking of people or situations that make you angry or lustful or afraid, then let the thoughts go and connect directly with the energy, asking yourself, "Who am I without these thoughts?" What we do with standard meditation is simpler, but equally daring. When emotional distress arises uninvited, we let the storyline go and abide with the energy. This is a felt experience. We can feel the energy in our bodies. If we can stay with it, neither acting it out nor repressing it, it wakes us up. (People often say, "I fall asleep all the time in meditation. What shall I do?" There are lots of antidotes to drowsiness, but my favourite is, "Experience anger!"

Not abiding is a predictable human habit. Acting out and repressing are tactics we use to get away from our emotional pain. Many of us when angry seesaw between expressing rage and guilt. In Vajrayana Buddhism it is said that wisdom is inherent in emotions. When we struggle against our own energy we are rejecting the source of wisdom. Anger without the fixation is none other than clear-seeing wisdom. Pride without fixation is experienced as equanimity. The energy of passion when it’s free of grasping is discriminating awareness wisdom.

In bodhichitta training we also welcome the living energy of emotions. When our emotions intensify what we usually feel is fear. This fear is always lurking in our lives. In sitting meditation we practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotional distress.

Attention to the present moment – Another factor we cultivate in the transformative process of meditation is attention to this very moment. We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward other, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love.

Coming back to the present moment takes some effort but the effort is very light. The instruction is to "touch and go". We touch thoughts by acknowledging them as thinking and then we let them go. It’s a way of relaxing our struggle, like touching a bubble with a feather. It’s a nonaggressive approach to being here.

Sometimes we find that we like our thoughts so much that we don’t want to let them go. Watching our personal video is a lot more entertaining than bringing our mind back home. There’s no doubt that our fantasy world can be very juicy and seductive. So we train in using a "soft" effort, in interrupting our habitual patterns; we train in cultivating self-compassion.

So to answer our Question... We practice meditation to connect with maitri and unconditional openness. By not deliberately blocking anything, by directly touching our thoughts and then letting them go with an attitude of no big deal, we can discover that our fundamental energy is tender, wholesome, and fresh. We can start to train as a warrior, discovering for ourselves that it is bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.

In all activities, train with slogans! In the midst of confusion, it is knowing to pause and apply our wisdom to the way we live. For example, "always meditate on whatever provokes resentment". Once familiar with this, and knowing it, this slogan will spontaneously pop into our mind before we act out our resentment and remind us instead to stay with the emotional energy. Instead of falling prey to a chain reaction, we catch ourselves. "If you practice, even when distracted, you are well-trained." As we practice, begin to know the difference between our fantasy and reality. Become aware of when we start to tighten or retreat. "Of the two witnesses, hold the principal one." We're the only one who knows the full truth about ourselves, so we must take responsibility, and there's no running away from this responsibility. In all activities, not just when things are going well or badly, train with slogans, and remember, "Don't try to be the fastest.", "Abandon any hope of fruition." and "Don't expect applause."!

Can we give a hand to Pema Chödrön for another brilliant exposition?

Video: Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu played by Valentina Igoshina

More on the lojong slogans of Atisha, which Chödrön refers to, can be found at this site:

The blog originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers.

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