Sunday, 14 November 2010

Staying Compassionate in the Present Moment (Pema Chödrön)

When we were digging the foundation for the retreat center at Gampo Abbey, we hit bedrock, and a small crack appeared. A minute later water was dripping out. An hour later, the flow was stronger and the crack was wider.

Finding the basic goodness of bodhichitta is like that-tapping into a spring of living water that has been temporarily encased in solid rock. When we touch the center of sorrow, when we sit with discomfort without trying to fix it, when we stay present to the pain of disapproval or betrayal and let it soften us, these are the times that we connect with bodhichitta.

Tapping into that shaky and tender place has a transformative effect. Being in this place may feel uncertain and edgy but it's also a big relief. Just to stay there, even for a moment, feels like a genuine act of kindness to ourselves. Being compassionate enough to accommodate our own fears takes courage, of course, and it definitely feels counterintuitive. But it's what we need to do.

A friend was telling me about her elderly parents in Florida. They live in an area where there's poverty and hardship; the threat of violence seems very real. Their way of relating to this is to live in a walled community protected by guard dogs and electric gates. It is their hope of course that nothing scary will enter. But through their isolation, their sense of insecurity only grows stronger and they are becoming increasingly unable to cope with an unpredictable world. This is an accurate analogy for the workings of ego.

As Albert Einstein pointed out, the tragedy of experiencing ourselves as apart from everyone else is that this delusion becomes a prison. Sadder yet, we become increasingly unnerved at the possibility of freedom. When the barriers come down, we don't know what to do. We need a bit more warning about what it feels like when the walls start tumbling down. We need to be told that fear and trembling accompany growing up and that letting go takes courage. Finding the courage to go to the places that scare us cannot happen without compassionate inquiry into the workings of ego. So we ask ourselves, "What do I do when I feel I can't handle what's going on? Where do I look for strength and in what do I place my trust?"

The Buddha taught that flexibility and openness bring strength and that running from groundlessness weakens us and brings pain. But do we understand that becoming familiar with the running away is the key? Openness doesn't come from resisting our fears but from getting to know them well.

Rather than going after those walls and barriers with a sledge-hammer, we pay attention to them. With gentleness and honesty, we move closer to those walls. We touch them and smell them and get to know them well. We begin a process of acknowledging our aversions and our cravings. We become familiar with the strategies and beliefs we use to build the walls: What are the stories I tell myself? What repels me and what attracts me? We start to get curious about what's going on. Without calling what we see right or wrong, we simply look as objectively as we can. We can observe ourselves with humor, not getting overly serious, moralistic, or uptight about this investigation. Year after year, we train in remaining open and receptive to whatever arises. Slowly, very slowly, the cracks in the walls seem to widen and, as if by magic, bodhichitta is able to flow freely.

An interesting metaphor used in Tibetan Buddhism that can help us with this process is that of the "Three Lords of Materialism". These are like three moats obstructing us from reaching and pulling down the walls of ego, three strategies which we use to provide ourselves with an illusion of security from the world, but which then turn against us as we journey inwards. Their water is stale and dirty, a poor substitute for that which we seek, but we can get addicted to it.

The first of the three lords of materialism is called the lord of form. It represents how we look to externals to give us solid ground. They may bring happiness in the short-term, which makes them all the more beguiling. We can begin to pay attention to these methods of escape.

1. What do you do when you feel anxious and depressed, bored or lonely?

Shopping? Alcohol? Food? Drugs? Sex? Seeking out adventure? Retreating into the beauty of nature or the delicious world of a really good book? Phone calls? Surfing the net? TV? Some methods are dangerous, some humorous, some quite benign. But we can misuse any substance or activity to run away from insecurity. When we become addicted to the lord of form, the feelings we're trying to escape still lurk beneath the surface and often get stronger. A traditional analogy of this is of a mouse caught in a mouse trap, but the Dalai Lama offers us an interesting twist on this analogy. He tells how as a boy in Tibet, he would try to see if he could outwit a mouse, but in all his time he never managed to catch one. So Tibetan mice became his models of enlightened conduct. Unlike most of us, they had figured out how to refrain from the short-term pleasure of the cheese for the longer-term pleasure of surviving. Our usual reaction to dissatisfaction or feeling trapped is not to become curious, to stay and investigate the strategies of ego, but instead to reach for something familiar which we associate with relief and later wonder why the dissatisfaction still remains. The radical approach of bodhichitta is to pay attention and acknowledge without judging whatever is going on.

The second lord of materialism is the lord of speech. This lord represents how we use beliefs of all kinds to give us the illusion of certainty. Any of the 'isms' – political, ecological, philosophical or spiritual can be used in this way. When we believe in the correctness of our view, we can be very narrow-minded and prejudiced about the faults of other people.

2. What beliefs do you hold above others, reacting negatively if they are challenged?

The problem isn't with the beliefs themselves, but with how we use them to get ground under our feet, to feel right and another wrong. It reminds me of a fellow I knew in the 1960s whose passion was for protesting against injustice. Whenever it looked as if a conflict would be resolved, he would sink into a kind of gloom, until a new cause for outrage arose and he'd become elated again. Being caught by the lord of speech may start with just a reasonable conviction about what we feel to be true. However, if we find ourselves becoming righteously indignant, that's a sure sign that we've been sucked in and our ability to effect change will be hindered.

The third lord, the lord of mind, uses the most subtle and seductive strategy of all. The lord of mind comes into play when we attempt to avoid uneasiness by seeking special states of mind. New meditators often expect that with training they can transcend the pain of ordinary life. It's disappointing, to say the least, to be told to touch down in the thick of things, to remain open and receptive to boredom as well as bliss.

3. What states of mind do you look back on or look forward to, wishing to get "there"?

Sometimes out of the blue, people have amazing experiences. Recently a lawyer told me that while standing on a street corner waiting for a light to change, an extraordinary thing occurred. Suddenly her body expanded until it felt as big as the entire universe. She felt instinctively that she and the universe were one. She had no doubt that this was actually true. She knew she was not, as she'd previously assumed, separate from everything else. The problem arose when she started to hang onto her experience. She wanted it back. Ordinary perception was no longer satisfying; it left her feeling troubled and out of touch. Even though peak experiences might show us the truth and inform us about why we meditate, they are essentially no big deal. If we can't integrate them into the ups and downs of our lives, if we cling to them, they will hinder us. We can trust our experiences as valid, but then we have to move on and learn to get along with our neighbors. As the twelfth-century Tibetan yogi Milarepa said when he heard of his student Gampopa's peak experiences, "They are neither good nor bad. Keep meditating." The states themselves are a good sign. They only become a problem if we become addicted to them.

Each of us has a variety of habitual tactics for avoiding life as it is. In a nutshell, that's the teaching of the three lords of materialism. This simple teaching is, it seems, everyone's autobiography. The first lord teaches us to "stay" and not deny our own experience, the second to be "compassionate" and not deny the experience of others, and the third to be here "in the present moment" and not deny the experience of now. In summary, they tell us to "stay – compassionate – in the present moment". And we do this by staying compassionate in the present moment. As Trungpa Rinpoche says, if we recognize and just relax with the reality of impermanence, egolessness and dissatisfaction, then we have no problem. There's no cure for hot and cold. There's no cure for the facts of life. When we stop investing our energy in struggling with the facts of life, or hiding from them, in strategies that trap us, then a lot of energy is released. But often we don't recognize this, and the lords of form do give the illusion of providing genuine relief.

4. What is it we should be staying with, compassionate in the present moment, if right now in this moment we are caught up by one of the three lords of materialism?

Compassion? Love? Silence? Faith? Or just the simple recognition that what we experience as a refuge is but a respite? Is recognition enough, or is it but the root of hypocrisy unless we act upon it in some way? We can stop running away, but most of us have been running so long we've forgotten what it is we're running from. We know we are caught by the three lords, but we don't know why. So what should we be staying with that would reveal our fears in the reality of impermanence, egolessness and dissatisfaction and give us the opportunity to ride them down? Perhaps it is allowing the mindfulness of meditation to permeate through our whole experience of life.

The Fountain

Don't say, don't say there is no water
to solace the dryness at our hearts.
I have seen

the fountain springing out of the rock wall
and you drinking there. And I too
before your eyes

found footholds and climbed
to drink the cool water.

The woman of that place, shading her eyes,
frowned as she watched, but not because
she grudged the water,

only because she was waiting
to see we drank our fill and were

Don't say, don't say there is no water.
That fountain is there among its scalloped
green and gray stones,

it is still there and always there
with its quiet song and strange power
to spring in us,

up and out through the rock.

(Denise Levertov)

When we use strategies to escape from ourselves or others or the present moment, we become less able to enjoy the tender and wonder that is available in the most unremarkable of times. Connecting with bodhichitta is ordinary. It is a natural force waiting to emerge. Whenever there's an opening it will always appear, like those weeds and flowers that pop out of the sidewalk as soon as there's a crack.

Source: This and The Courage to Awaken to Bodhicitta are both based on Pema Chödrön's "The Places That Scare You". 

kathycustren: Thank you, Okei, for providing this look from Pema Chodron at the things that can drive us in our material world. Being aware of them is to acknowledge there is work to be done. :) Namaste ~ Blessings!

aspara121: Thanks for sharing this inspiring article by Pema Chodron. Each time I read her unique thoughts, I realize the depth of her wisdom and understanding of the human condition. We are very fortunate to have her as an enlightened spiritual leader. Btw, I really enjoyed listening to the Chopin video. It added emotional impetus to Chodron's profound thoughts.

Great post! :)


okei: It is my firm belief that Chopin & Chodron go together. (Edit: But I'm not holding that belief over anyone, lol.)

I hope to try to become more aware myself or the answers of the first three questions for me.

The fourth is really a difficult one. Is it possible to pull ourselves up from our own bootstraps? The closest I can get to an answer of what we "stay" with is Love or Silence. Or stillness, or emptiness.

A thought just occurred to me... that in the emptiness of silence, we might be able to sense that which is impossible to sense because it is everywhere, as a fish that is always in the water can have no concept of anything other than water, or indeed as the men in Plato's Cave can have no concept outside of shadow-beings. That which is everywhere is something like life force, that which makes us alive and gives us free will, what Christianity describes as the "Holy Ghost" and I remember Thich Nhat Hanh on hearing about it said, "I like your Holy Spirit", recognizing it as a universal point of dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism.

To get from that to something practical in our lives is something of a leap of faith!

midniterainbow: I'm constantly working on understanding. The closest that I can come is through the eyes of a child. How unfortunate that we age and lose such wisdom until we regain it just before exiting. Children haven't yet acquired the traps of disbelief in themselves or others.

okei: Yay... faith in yourself... that whatever may be... no problem!

Video: Chopin's Raindrop played by Valentina Igoshina.

The blog and comments originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers. 

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