Author Archive | Robert Brumet

Love

It’s what many of us want more than anything else. Most people cannot get enough of it. Children need it as much as they need food and water. It’s the theme of countless songs, movies and novels. Some people will die for it; some people will kill for it. It’s perhaps the most wanted, the least understood, and the most distorted, of all human aspirations.

And yet, paradoxically, love is what you are; love is very the core of who you are; it is your true nature.

Love is real; it is an archetypical reality; a divine idea. It does not come from you, it flows through you.

We seem to be desperately yearning for what we already are. How can this be?

Love, like sunlight, is indestructible; and yet, like sunlight it can easily be blocked or distorted.

It all began when we were born. Not yet able to access our own love, we craved it from others: first from mom, and then from dad, and then from other family members and later on from our peers, friends and lovers. From “day one” we were conditioned to seek love from external sources.

Our parents, being human, were imperfect. Perhaps they did the best they could; perhaps not–but either way their love was less than perfect. It may have been inconsistent, or conditional, or distorted in some way. It was not necessarily their fault; they were imperfect human beings living in an imperfect world.

We developed strategies for getting the love we desired. These strategies became habits and eventually became the very fabric of our identity–our ego structure. We learned to be good, or smart, or pleasing, or tough ….or whatever it took to get the love we needed.

These strategies worked to get us what we needed (otherwise we would have tried something else) and yet in some sense they did not work. They did not work in the sense that anything less than unconditional love cannot nourish our soul. Imperfect love may sustain the body and mind but the soul remains malnourished. And thus we keep searching for the perfect love that will nourish our soul.

The deepest desire of our heart is to be loved unconditionally (as we are) and that’s dificult to come by in a world of imperfect human beings.

The great irony is that the ego’s strategy to acquire love externally is the very thing that keeps you from experiencing the love that you already are. To discover the love that you are you must be willing to give the ego’s strategy for finding it outside of yourself.

And you must remove the barriers to realizing the love that you are.

One way to begin this process is by examining and releasing all misconceptions about what love is. Our culture is rife with false beliefs about love. We are inundated with these fallacies from television, from movies, from books, from songs. And even though you may not buy into them consciously, they may still be embraced deep in the subconscious.

A few common misconceptions about love:

• Love is an emotion.
• Love must come from another person.
• I am incomplete until someone loves me.
• I must be worthy of love. Love must be earned.
• Love means getting my needs met. (And vice versa)
• Love means that you will do anything for me. (And vice versa)
• Somewhere there is the “one and only” that can give me all the love that I need.
• Love means being nice. It means never saying no. It means never being angry.
• Love is about the other person. “I love him/her because s/he is so wonderful/beautiful.”

We experience real love only as we are able to identify and release our false beliefs about what love is and what it means to love and to be loved. This requires self-awareness and the willingness to feel our feelings. It takes courage and diligence. But it can be done–and it is well worth the effort!

We will continue with this topic in our next blog.

 

 

Dharma Paradigm Shift 

The Buddha’s teaching of the Eight-Fold Path is a prescription for freedom from suffering. The path begins with Right Understanding (aka Right View). Right Understanding involves a radical shift from the everyday perspective of our life. This could be called a paradigm shift.

A paradigm is the framework by which we understand reality. A paradigm consists of the unconscious assumptions and premises that we assume to be true as we live our life each day. For example, we assume that every effect has a cause; and we assume that the cause must always precede the effect. We also assume that every object must be located somewhere in time and space and that no two objects can exist in the same place and time.

These assumptions appear valid in the everyday world governed by Newtonian physics but with the discovery of quantum mechanics we find that these assumptions are invalidated by observation. To understand quantum physics we must abandon the Newtonian “common sense” paradigm and operate under a whole different set of assumptions.

So too, our dharma practice must function from a different set of premises than our everyday “common sense” mind. It parallels quantum science in that it seems to defy our “everyday mind” point of view.

My everyday mind tells me that if I am not happy it’s because I don’t have something that I desire or that I have something that is not desirable. The same mind tells me that if I want something I don’t have I must do something to get it, and I have to do it in a certain way—i.e. do it “right.” The premise is that if I do it right then I will receive the payoff that will bring me a measure of happiness.

This is true for most of what we do as human beings: we study, we practice, and we work in order to get what we want. Whether it’s joining a gym, enrolling in a school or embarking on a new diet, our basic premise is that we do something to gain something we want or to get rid of something we don’t want. “I must do something, and do it correctly to get what I desire.”

Most beginners engage meditation practice with that same set of assumptions; believing that if I do this right (or do it long enough) then I will acquire my goal of peace, happiness or enlightenment. Individuals who begin meditation practice commonly ask “What will I gain from this…and how long will it take?

Dharma practice requires a paradigm shift akin to that of shifting from Newtonian to quantum physics. We need to let go of our previous pattern of striving for results and begin with the premise that this moment is enough; that nothing is wrong or broken or missing. In the dharma practice we are not trying to get anywhere, we are not trying achieve anything or get rid of anything: there is no future goal. What we most desire is already here. What we seek is the seeker itself.

But someone may well object, “My body hurts, my mind is crazy, I feel anxious and my life is a mess. How can you say that I have everything I need to be happy right now?”

My answer is in the form of a question, “Have you ever had a very scary dream where you have felt absolutely terrified…and then you woke up?” Your heart may have been pounding, your palms sweating; but when awake you saw that you were perfectly safe in your own bed. You may even have been lying next to someone who loves you very much. You spent several minutes in pure hell when in reality you were safe and loved. The problem wasn’t that a monster was about to devour you, the real problem was that you were identified with a world that isn’t real.

We have become identified with a self and a worldview that is not quite real. Our distorted perception causes us to believe that this moment is not enough: that I must acquire something or get rid of something in order to be happy. The basic premise usually is that this moment is not enough (or is too much!).

This premise leads us to believe that our happiness lies in some future moment; so we reach for that future moment. The best the next moment can offer is some temporary satisfaction or relief. This temporary satisfaction (or the lack of it) drives further grasping toward the next moment hoping that it holds the permanent happiness that we deeply desire. On and on and on this goes, driving what Buddhists call “the wheel of samsara,” which is the endless cycle of suffering from lifetime to lifetime.

In our meditation practice we assume that the source of the happiness and satisfaction that we seek is already within us; it is our true nature. Our practice is not an attempt to get something that we don’t have but rather to see when and how we fail to open to the reality of the present moment. In seeing clearly how we avoid our present moment experience we can choose to cease that habitual avoidance and learn to stay open and present in the moment. Seeing our resistance in the present moment without adding further resistance will eventually dissolve it.

Clear nonattached awareness dissolves delusion. The light of awareness dissolves the shadow of darkness. When the mind is no longer deluded we experience the ever-present radiance of our true nature. We then realize that happiness is not based upon any condition and we are free from all suffering.

 

Impermanence

 

It has been said that the entire Buddhadharma might be summed up into three words: “Not always so.” Perhaps the essence of the dharma lies in the realization that there is nothing permanent in this world that we can hold on to; that the nature of this world is ephemeral. This principle is epitomized in a quote from the Diamond Sutra:

Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world: A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream; a flash of lightening in a summer cloud, a flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

This was taught by the Buddha some 2500 years ago. Interestingly, this teaching seems to be validated by 21st century quantum science. Today many scientists are referring to the physical universe as a type of hologram; the entire universe seems like “a phantom and a dream.”

This idea can mentally be very interesting but emotionally it may be very distressing. The human psyche craves some ground to stand upon, something solid to hold on to. To not have this sense of solidity can be very stressful; it may feel like we are in a freefall.

Frightened by this fall we may attempt to hold on to concepts and objects and relationships. But sooner or later we discover that these too are impermanent; they are freefalling just as we are! We may attempt to cling to our body and to our personal identity. Mortality is a continuous teaching of impermanence. To die is to fall into the great Unknown.

The bad news is that there is nothing you can hold on to. The good news is that there is nothing you need to hold onto. Our free fall is an illusion; there is nowhere to fall but into reality itself. Your body will die; but you will survive. Only illusions die.

When I was a child I experienced falling into deep water and nearly drowning. For many years I was terrified of being in the water. I would be in a swimming pool only if I could feel my feet planted firmly on the bottom. But this limited me to the shallow end of the pool; I could not swim in the deep end like most of my friends. I felt quite frustrated and alone. I was a prisoner of my own fear.

A turning point came as I was standing chest deep in water when a friend challenged me to touch my toes. With some trepidation I took a deep breath, bent over and reached for my toes. To my amazement my feet came up off the bottom! I felt a brief moment of fear but then I experienced my body floating in the water– with no effort on my part. It was wonderful.

By letting go of clinging to the bottom I learned to trust the water and eventually became a very proficient swimmer. I experienced what I most wanted, which was freedom and safety. And I discovered that safety came from letting go rather than from holding on.

When we open to the experience of fear rather than push it away we discover that fear itself is impermanent. Fear is just another experience– and every experience is impermanent. And as we open fully to the reality of impermanence we can discover that which never changes. We discover that every experience always occurs here and now; it is always in the present moment.

You, the one who knows, is present in each moment. The one who knows is present in every experience. This presence is not impermanent; it does not change. The poet T.S. Eliot called this the “still point.”

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement.
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

Everything in this world is impermanent; it’s all a dance. Deep realization of this brings us home to the still point: the eternal presence in every moment.

 

Dukkha

In the ancient texts of the Pali Canon the Buddha is frequently quoted as saying “I teach one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.” Many wonder why he seemed to focus so single-mindedly on the topic of suffering.

It is helpful to look at the Pali word from which the English word suffering is translated. That word is dukkha. This word has several possible translations besides the word suffering. Some of these are: dissatisfaction, anxiety, or stress. Some authors simply call it the human condition. By whatever name we use, we are all familiar with it. It’s the chronic sense of dissatisfaction and the existential angst that exists at the core of every human ego.

Sometimes we can divert our attention away from this experience of dukkha. Often we feel partially satisfied and sometimes we may feel completely satisfied; but that feeling soon disappears and the familiar question, “Is this all there is?” will arise.

Sit quietly–doing nothing at all for a short while–and you will see this ever-present dissatisfaction at work! You will experience the energy that drives the endless quest for satisfaction that has become a way of life for our culture.

Dukkha (aka the human condition) is not personal; it is not your fault–and no one else is to blame! Once we see this and accept it, it may become more bearable. When we refuse to acknowledge it, it can dominate our life! Accepting the fact that human life is inherently difficult can relieve us of the pressure of trying to hide from or run away from this reality. This acceptance allows us to live our life more authentically and opens us to more compassion for ourself and for others.

The Buddha’s message is not at all pessimistic; in fact it is incredibly optimistic. He tells us that it is possible to transcend (trance-end) the human condition and to be unconditionally satisfied at all times.

One of the many apocryphal stories about his life tells us of a time when he was walking along a road and a passerby noticed his extraordinary countenance. He approached the Buddha: “Pardon me sir, Are you a man?” The Buddha replied, “No.” “Then, are you a god?” “No.” “Are you a diva or an angel?” “No.” “Then what are you?” The Buddha’s response was, “I am awake.”

He demonstrated in his own life that it is possible to become more than human; it is possible to become awake. (“Buddha” means The Awakened One).

And how do you and I do this? Virtually every one of the Buddha’s teachings is an answer to that question. These teachings are epitomized in the Four Noble Truths. This teaching tells us that to become free from suffering it is essential to see the causes of suffering. He taught that suffering is caused by clinging to that which is impermanent; this includes all objects, concepts, relationships, conditions and experiences. He taught that suffering is caused by clinging to the concept of a separate self which is inherently empty of existence. He taught that suffering is caused by clinging to existence itself.

The human mind cries “My God, what else is there?” He never gave us the answer to this question in specific words, for that would not be possible. But he did give the answer with his very life itself. He demonstrated that it is possible to awaken from the human condition and to discover the reality of Being Itself, which is the only thing that will bring true and lasting satisfaction.

The Nature of Spiritual Practice

 

If you ask most Westerners about their religion (if they have one) they  will likely tell you what they believe. They may also tell you about worship, rituals, or sacraments that are part of their religious observance. If we were to turn to the (traditional) East and ask someone that same question, we might hear more about spiritual practice (yoga) than about belief or ritual.

The word yoga literally means yoke, which refers to one taking on a particular discipline or spiritual practice. The essence of spiritual practice is that of cultivating the growth of one’s consciousness rather than trying to achieve salvation after death.

Many religious approaches to spirituality start with the assumption that we are spiritually (and perhaps psychologically) broken or incomplete and are in need of some form of redemption. This assumption is embedded deep in the Western psyche–even for those who may not profess a religious affiliation. Many people in our culture turn to psychotherapy rather than religion to heal this sense of brokenness or deficiency. Psychotherapy can help, but it cannot heal our deepest wound.

Many people turn to some form of Eastern spiritual practice–usually meditation–with the intention of healing this sense of internal deficiency or brokenness. They see spiritual practice as a potential remedy for their deep pain. Starting with feelings of depression, anxiety, or emptiness they may engage in meditation to try to heal this condition. Meditation can help, but as long as the motivation is to fix something that is broken progress will be limited.

Effective spiritual practice begins with that which Buddhists call Right Understanding and Right Motivation. (The word “right’ can be interpreted to mean “wise” or “skillful.”) Right Understanding and Right Motivation can perhaps be illustrated with a story about a time when someone asked Michelangelo how he was able to transform a block of marble into the masterpiece known as David.

It is said that Michelangelo replied, “It’s quite simple. I bought a block of marble and chiseled away everything that wasn’t David!” He perceived “David” already existing within the stone block and he removed everything that wasn’t part of this vision.
And thus it is with spiritual practice: we begin by resting in our deepest truth: we sit as the Buddha or the Christ; we rest in True Nature as a here and now reality. Spiritual practice will then bring into our awareness all of the internal resistance that blocks our conscious experience of this fundamental Truth. This resistance may be hidden from consciousness until it is uncovered by our spiritual practice.

What are we to do with the resistance that arises? In a nutshell: “Just keep engaging the practice.” We meet this resistance as would the Buddha or the Christ: we meet it with awareness, clarity and nonresistance–without judgement, interpretation or analysis. As resistance is consciously recognized and met with nonresistance, it will begin to dissolve. Fear, anger, judgment, shame….whatever arises, we meet it with an open mind, an open heart and with no reactivity. This will eventually dissolve all forms of resistance.

We don’t have to agree with the story or narrative that may be part of the resistance. (“Ain’t it awful.” “Shame on them.”) –but we don’t argue with it either. We simply allow what is, to be what is, without adding anything to it. We experience the resistance in the form of body sensations, emotions and thoughts without attachment, identification or resistance.

To understand and believe a spiritual truth is a good start but it is not enough to transform ones consciousness. Transformation occurs only through some form of spiritual practice. Having a good map can be helpful, but only if one engages the journey!

 

 

 

 

Hindrances to Spiritual Awakening

An essential part of dharma practice is awareness of mental states–especially those mental states that lead to suffering. The Buddha taught that suffering was caused by craving (greed), aversion (hatred) and delusion (ignorance). He taught that delusion can take three primary forms: unconsciousness (sloth), agitation (worry) and doubt. These five mental states became known as the Five Hindrances. We will explore each of them in this blog.

Craving (also referenced as greed or clinging) could be defined as the physical and mental grasping for some experience that does not exist in the present moment. It may be grasping for some physical, emotional, mental or spiritual experience; or it may be grasping for some external possession, relationship or circumstance. No matter how it is defined, we all know what craving feels like!

In rural India monkeys are sometimes caught by placing food inside of a gourd that is tied to a stake in the ground. The opening of the gourd is large enough for the monkey to slip its hand in but is small enough that once the monkey has made a fist he cannot extract it. So the monkey is trapped unless he is willing to let go. However, it seems that letting go does not occur as an option to the monkey so he remains trapped by his own grasping. How often do we do the same thing–just in a different way!

Aversion (also referenced as hatred) can be defined as resistance to an experience that is present in the body, in the mind, or in our life conditions. Once again, the experience is easier to recognize than to describe; it’s that mental state that says, GO AWAY! Craving and aversion are often intermingled. An aversion to something is simply craving that it ceases. For this reason, in some teachings the term craving includes aversion.

The hindrance of unconsciousness is sometime referred to as sloth or sinking mind. In our sitting meditation it can appear as sleepiness or drowsiness. In our everyday life it can appear as dullness and spaciness, or as daydreaming and fantasizing. Indulgence in intoxicants and mindless entertainment will exacerbate this hindrance.

The hindrance of agitation is also referenced as worry or restlessness. In its mental form it is sometimes called the monkey mind. Agitation is characterized by an inability to sustain concentration and by a state of continuous distraction. This condition is endemic in our culture today and is catalyzed by our addiction to the cell phone and the internet. Our minds are becoming habituated to distraction!

Doubt is the hindrance behind a belief that our spiritual practice is not worth the effort. It can appear in subtle forms such as becoming “too busy” to do our practice or telling ourself that “I’m too scattered” or “I just don’t feel up to it.” It can also appear as questioning if our practice is “doing any good.” If it is not recognized it’s the hindrance that can most effectively stop our practice in its tracks. Anytime you find yourself wanting to skip or shortchange your spiritual practice, be on the alert for this one!

How can we overcome the hindrances? In one sense we should not even try because any effort to “destroy” them only makes them stronger. The hindrances tend to dissolve on their own when we see them clearly and directly as they are. This is because the hindrances are rooted in delusion and the only way to overcome delusion is to wake up to reality—to see things as they really are. And thus we practice Insight Meditation (vipassana) to see things as they really are; we look at each experience with clear, direct awareness and with complete equanimity. The recognition of an illusion is the first step toward the experience of reality. The mind that recognizes delusion is not deluded.

It’s very important to not perceive the recognition of a hindrance as a mistake or as something gone wrong. It’s perhaps more appropriate to feel a sense of happiness because we have recognized something heretofore hidden and that recognition itself is the first step to freedom. The apparent bad news is really good news!

A very useful meditation is to simply recognize and name each hindrance as it arises. We can do this sitting on our cushion or active in our daily life. Again, it’s very important to not create any stories or judgments about any of them but to objectively see and name each of them as they arise. This practice can lead to greater freedom from suffering.

When Things Fall Apart

“It feels like the wheels are coming off the world!”
“Everything is becoming unglued!”
“It feels like my life is falling apart!”

I’ve heard these statements many times. I’ve made these statements myself many times!

Whether it is our personal world or the entire planet that seems to be falling apart, it is a very difficult experience for any of us.

Paradoxically, these times of upheaval can be extraordinary opportunities for personal and social transformation—if we engage them with great skill and wisdom.

The skill needed is to be willing and able to experience our inner and outer worlds with clear awareness and with an open heart–and without creating a story about what is occurring. Our “story” is typically one of blame or victimization. It’s often some form of “I told you so.” This story usually reinforces our sense of identity.

The wisdom needed is to recognize that our distress is caused not so much by change itself as it is the threat to our sense of identity that change can foster. What’s really falling apart is our internal belief structures. The deepest of these belief structures is our sense of self-identity.

Our sense of self is internal but it is also projected outward on to other persons, organizations and the world around us. When there are changes in these externalized projections of self then changes in the world can trigger the feeling that our identity is falling apart.

When relationships, careers or social structures end it can feel as if part of us has died. If a person identifies with his career and this identification supports his sense of worthiness and self-esteem, then when that career comes to an end, so may his feeling of value and self-esteem. He may then sink into a deep depression. When someone experiences a divorce she will often experience a sense of deep loneliness and sense of not being loveable or accepted by others. This too can result in feeling very depressed.

If we can consciously allow our self to experience these feelings without becoming lost in them, then a much deeper sense of self will eventually emerge–a self that is not defined by others or by the world. We then experience our essential nature more directly and we will function more freely in our everyday life.

This process essentially reverses the ego-construction process by which our true nature became identified with a limited sense of self defined by external factors. This occurs in our childhood. By the time we reach adulthood our essential nature is entrapped in several layers of identification that stifles our freedom, our creativity and our ability to love unconditionally.

These layers of identification are usually supported by external circumstances. We then live with the fear of losing these external supports. And when these supports break down we may suffer greatly.

If we bring awareness and nonresistance to our suffering then we begin the process of transformation. This can be very painful, but it is ultimately very freeing.

The key is to stay aware, to stay open to change, to be willing to experience discomfort and to trust the process as it unfolds.

Be the observer of it all. The observer is not touched by any change—it is our true self. As we come to identify with the witness self the breakdowns and the experiences of falling apart are seen as opportunities to free true nature from its egoic prison.

The Meaning of Life

Perhaps the deepest need of any human being is to have some sense of meaning for his or her life. “Why am I alive?” “Why do things happen as they do?” We can bear almost any experience if we believe that we can understand why we are having that experience. The German philosopher Nietzsche wrote: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

Of all human experiences the experience of meaninglessness is perhaps the most unbearable. Folks who are prone to depression and suicidal thoughts will inevitably state that they feel their life has no meaning. And when a tragic and unexpected event occurs in a person’s life one the very first questions she will ask is “Why did this happen?” “What does this mean?” Children who experience abandonment or abuse will often blame themselves because it’s the only explanation they have available that gives meaning to their experience. Such is the depth of our human need for meaning.

Primal cultures developed myths and folklore to explain what has shaped their lives and their world. We moderns rely on science for our answers. Although science is extraordinary adept at telling us the how of things it is unable to explain the why of things; science cannot tell us the meaning of life. With the demise of religion as a source of meaning in our culture we now find ourselves deep in a crisis of meaning. For many has led to nihilism and despair. Many in our culture have turned to entertainment and consumerism in a vain attempt to find some meaning in their lives. It doesn’t work for very long.

Meaning is something we create internally; it is not inherent in the objective world. A particular tree can have meaning to us because of the memories we associate with that tree, but the tree itself has no inherent meaning. “A tree is a tree is a tree” (as is a rose).

Rather than trying to discover the meaning of life (or of any particular experience) it is more helpful to look at our state of mind from whence the search begins. When you have been in a state of ecstasy did you look for the meaning of life? When you have experienced deep pleasure were you inquiring into what that experience meant? When you are truly enjoying yourself are you on a quest for the meaning of what is happening?

Probably not.

When do we look for meaning? Usually, it’s when we are dissatisfied or unhappy. We look for the meaning of our suffering; but do we look for the meaning of our joy?

Not very often.

Why is this?

When we experience pleasure, joy or satisfaction, the experience is its own meaning. When we experience sorrow, pain or suffering it would seem that it isn’t. We look for a reason for our discontent. Believing perhaps that if we can find a reason “why” then we can bear that which otherwise seems unbearable. If we do seem to find a reason or meaning then perhaps it does help us to bear the load for a while. But it’s interesting to see that the search for meaning usually arises out of a feeling of dissatisfaction or aversion to our present experience.

When we experience pleasure or joy we say that the experience contains its own meaning; but when we experience something unpleasant we find it more difficult to say that the experience contains its own meaning, as it is.

But why would it not? If the meaning of joy is to experience joy; then why isn’t the meaning of pain to simply experience pain?

Because we have internalized our cultural belief that we should not have to feel pain; if we feel pain then something is wrong! “If I am suffering then someone has failed or is evil or negligent” (hence our culture of endless blame, fault-finding and litigation.) We believe that “all pain should be eradicated.” Many see the primary function of the physician, the psychotherapist or the health care community as that of removing our pain.

It is true that pain may indicate something needs our attention. And, I am certainly not in favor of experiencing unnecessary pain. Generally speaking, I believe that we should alleviate pain, if it is possible–and if doing so does not have harmful consequences.

I am simply challenging the notion that we should not have to feel pain. Pain is as inevitable as pleasure; both of these experiences are inherent in a physical body. Animals experience both pleasure and pain. I don’t think that animals believe they should not have pain; they simply respond to their pain as nature directs them.

The meaning of life is to experience life. The meaning of human life is to experience human life.

Some would say, “We are here to learn and to grow spiritually; doesn’t that require us to find the meaning of our experiences?”

Perhaps we are here to learn and to grow. The best way to do this is to experience life fully and consciously–then learning and growth will happen automatically. We learn best through direct experience. Our soul will experience the growth and learning it needs if we simply stay fully present in each moment.

No one could offer you more
Do you know what I mean?
Have your eyes really seen?
…………………….Elton John

 

The Role of Ethics in Spiritual Practice

It’s important for us to understand the role of ethics and morality in our spiritual practice. For many cultures religion has been the traditional means of providing mandates for ethical and moral behavior. In our modern culture morality, religion and spirituality have become somewhat conflated; many people tend to equate these terms with one another–but they are not the same thing.

Ethical behavior is an essential part of spiritual practice. The purpose of spiritual practice is to awaken to our true nature. A spiritual practice may transcend any particular religion or belief system; it does not necessarily depend upon any particular religion (or any religion at all) for its foundation.

Our ethical practice is not imposed upon us from an outside source; instead, we see it as a natural consequence of living as an awakened being. In the awakened state we recognize that we are inherently connected with all of life and with every being that exists; ethical behavior is a natural consequence of this realization.

In spiritual practice we live as if we are already awakened—and then we discover everything within us that doesn’t believe this! We see all resistance to practice as a defilement of the mind which is born from ignorance, fear and grasping. In spiritual practice our intention is meet these energies with compassion and with clear nonattached awareness; this will eventually dissolve the defilements.

We practice ethical behavior by creating the intention to follow a particular ethical guideline. We do this for the purpose of spiritual awakening, not for the purpose of being “good” or escaping criticism–either internal or external. Creating the intention of enlightened (ethical) behavior we then become aware of those times when we behave otherwise. We consider each infraction as an opportunity to see parts of self that are lost in fear and ignorance. Our intention then is to respond to these with compassion and wisdom.

Perhaps the most universal ethical guideline– one that is found in virtually every religious tradition– is the so-called Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If we find ourself behaving otherwise then we use that opportunity to become acquainted with the lost part of ourself that is driving this behavior, bringing in wisdom and compassion as best we can. Sometimes we may need external help in the form of a teacher, therapist, or support group.

Another universal ethical mandate is to Do No Harm. We see this reflected in the physicians’ Hippocratic oath, as well as in the Buddhist ethical precepts. The Buddha’s Eight-Fold Path includes the Five Precepts of Right Behavior, which is a further delineation of the mandate to Do No Harm. These Precepts specify non-harming by not killing any living being; by not taking what is not given; by refraining from sexual misconduct; by avoiding the misuse of intoxicants, and by practicing Right Speech, which is defined as speech that is true, kind and necessary.

These precepts are subject to some interpretation– as is any teaching. “Am I violating the precepts if I use pesticides in my garden, or eat meat, or take antibiotics? What if I am member of the armed services, or I drive a gas guzzling vehicle?” Practicing the Precepts in our complex modern world reveals many gray areas that are subject to our personal understanding.

But the point is to not get lost in searching for an absolute “right meaning” of an ethical precept but rather to ask “How can I best use this precept to support my spiritual practice?” Rather than getting lost in a debate about legalisms, it is far better to return to the intention of spiritual practice which is to awaken spiritually and to help others awaken.

I find it helpful to use the precepts as I would use the “rumble strips” on the edge of a freeway: to let me know when I am straying from my intended path. If I find myself violating a precept or doing harm in any way then I can take a deep breath and look at that part of self that is suffering from ignorance and fear and bring awareness and compassion into that dark place.

If I discover that I am violating an ethical precept then it is very important that I not respond with guilt or self-criticism; this is not helpful. Rather, I look honestly and compassionately at the energy within my own psyche that is calling for my attention. I then hold that part of myself as a mother would hold a troubled child: with compassion, wisdom and a gentle discipline, as may be needed.

 

 

Working with Difficult Emotions (Part II)

 

Mindfulness practice is being aware of the entire spectrum of your experience in the present moment. An important element of this practice is being mindful of emotions, which means recognizing and fully accepting your present emotional state without identifying with or acting out these feelings.

This is challenging when we are experiencing strong emotions or desires because we have tendency to identify with these intense feelings. It can also be challenging because a particular emotion or mood may be so familiar that we fail to recognize it.

To work with emotions skillfully there are several things to keep in mind. Some of these “tips” are listed below.

1) Nonjudgmental awareness is the key to working with these difficult emotions. It’s also very helpful to name the emotions as they arise. See if you can name an emotion as precisely and as accurately as possible (without analyzing it) as soon as it arises. Develop a descriptive vocabulary of the full spectrum of your emotions.

2) Feeling an emotion fully does not mean that you must act it out. You can feel intense anger without striking out at someone and without suppressing your feelings. You can feel strong fear and yet still act boldly and calmly without suppressing the fear.

3) Emotions are based on perceptions. Perceptions are not reality. As is well known, ten people witnessing a crime or an accident will give very different accounts. In a court of law an eyewitness account is generally not considered to be solid evidence.
If we see something that appears dangerous we will respond with fear even if the appearance turns out to be a total illusion. If I am in the forest and my eyes see a large bush but my mind perceives this as a grizzly bear then my brain/body will respond with fear.

When you feel an intense emotion it wise to feel it but to not assume that it is always reality-based. When sharing strong emotions with another person it is far better to say “I saw (or heard) X and now I feel Y”, rather than “When you did X it made me feel Y.” You can honestly share your perceptions and your emotions as your own without making someone else responsible for your experience.

4) It’s very helpful to be aware of messages that you received from your family of origin regarding emotions–especially those emotions that were taboo in your family. Usually a taboo is not recognized by those in the family: the forbidden motions are simply never expressed. If someone were to express this emotion family members might respond by shaming or punishing the individual or by threatening some form of punishment. e.g. “If you don’t stop crying I will give you something to cry about.” “Nice girls don’t get angry.” “Big boys don’t cry.” Sometimes the messages are more subtle–such as being silently ignored or shunned by parents or other family members. (That may be even more difficult to deal with!)

5) A feeling of safety is needed to bring healing to our emotional wounds. It’s very helpful to have a support system of some sort. This could be a counselor or support group. A trusted friend can be of help as long as he or she can be present to you without commiserating or trying to rescue you or fix you.

6) Find safe ways to express strong emotions. Find a way to release the energy in a non-harmful way. This could include weeping, shouting, pounding or kicking. It could also include journaling, voice dialogue, body movement and ritual.

7) Emotions have both a mental and physical component. That which we experience as an emotion is actually a combination of a mental belief/ perception combined with a physical sensation. If we practice mindfulness of emotions we can experience each of these components separately.

Imagine you are looking at a large ball of pink yarn from about ten feet away. As you move closer to the yarn and pay careful attention to it you might see that what appeared as pink yarn is actually made of interwoven red and white threads. (But no pink ones!)

To work with this experientially, let’s imagine that you feel very angry. If you can momentarily drop “the story” about what happened (i.e. let go of thinking about it) and focus completely on the physical sensations in your body you will begin to see the underlying mental processes without attachment to the content (i.e. the story) and without the reactivity.

8) Practice awareness of craving, aversion and delusion; this is the key to freedom from suffering. An intense emotion usually contains one or more of these factors. Craving is grasping—typically for something pleasant. Aversion is resisting or pushing away an experience—typically something unpleasant. Delusion is perceiving something to be true that is false, i.e. perceiving an illusion to be real. Blaming others or our life circumstances for our suffering is a common form of delusion.

By using this practice of nonjudgmental awareness of your emotions you will release craving, aversion and delusion and can turn a difficult emotion into a pathway that leads to awakening and liberation from suffering!