Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity, March 5, 2013
We’re studying a book called A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life by Shantideva. It’s an eighth century Indian text written in the largest Buddhist university in the world. Last week we talked about “Riding the wave practice.” When an emotion large or small comes you can sit in a chair, and stay with body sensations and track their changes and note where they are in the body, as the emotion moves through you. This practice can be a link between formal sitting practice and waking life. Can you ride out the feeling of addiction, the craving for chocolate, to check emails, to go on Facebook, for another cigarette, can you sit in the chair and ride it out until the end? If you can, then that for that moment at least, the emotion doesn’t have complete power over you. Instead, the practice invites you to sit down and try not to inject stories into the knot of energies. Without stories, these emotions quickly pass away.
From the Dalai Lama’s excellent book Healing Anger. “(Anger) is a bit like a river which is flowing quite strongly, in which you cannot see the bed of the river clearly. If there was some way you could put an immediate stop to the flow from the direction the water is coming from and the direction the water is flowing to, then you could keep the water still, and that would allow you to see the bed quite clearly.
Similarly, when you are able to stop your mind from chasing after sensory objects and when you can free your mind from being totally ‘blanked out’ then you will begin to see under this turbulence of the thought processes a kind of underlying stillness, an underlying clarity of mind. You should try to do this, even though it is very difficult at the initial stage. Especially at the outset, since there is no specific object to focus on, there is a danger of falling asleep.
At the initial stage, when you begin to experience the natural state of consciousness, it will be in the form of some sort of vacuity, absence or emptiness. This is because we are so habituated to understanding our mind in terms of external objects that we tend to look at the world through our concepts, images, and so on. So when you withdraw your mind from external objects, it’s almost as if you can’t recognize your mind. There’s a kind of absence, a vacuity. However, as you slowly progress and get used to it, you will begin to see an underlying clarity, a sort of luminosity. That’s when you begin to appreciate and realize the natural state of mind.”
We recognize our minds in relation to images, people, conversations. But when you detach from these pictures it can be hard to recognize. Underneath all the din of wanting is quiet, where you can appreciate “a natural state of mind.” Once you get hooked on awakening practice, and then you drop that too, what shows up is appreciation. Appreciation for how broken you are, for your broken parents, for your awkwardness, the way you speak. An appreciation for the actual conditions of your life. When we practice we turn the light inward, as Dogen says. One of the problems with strong emotions is that they objectify, and then we imagine that the trouble is with the object. It’s always someone else’s fault. Why do I have to wait so long in this line-up? Why doesn’t the teller give me my refund? Why does my partner talk to me like that?
I don’t think this so often, but today this thought balloon arrived: it’s hard to be a dharma teacher. How do I convey what happens in practice to a roomful of different people? I can only teach what I practice, and as we’re reading Shantideva I’m practicing it. But I can’t practice for you. And maybe my way of processing is only the same as a small handful of you.
I try to drop different kinds of hints. Like a trail. Take the question of discipline for example. This is the title of chapter five, which can also be translated as enthusiasm or the right kind of effort. When you sit on a cushion, what is the right kind of effort? If you’re too tight you can become exhausted. That’s not the kind of concentration we practice, we come in through the other door. We relax. What kind of virya (enthusiasm) do I give to practice? In the past I’ve gone to retreats and tried to concentrate so hard that I’ve developed migraines. On retreats when you try too hard, you try too hard all day long. For a few days you can get into bad technique. So you really learn on retreat how technique needs to shift. In other words: you learn how to monitor yourself. In psychology this is called affect regulation. How can we soothe ourselves and be awake at the same time?
The genius English psychologist Adam Phillips rolled into town recently and said, “We remain children for so long (well into adulthood).” In sitting practice it’s not unlikely that childhood patterns will show up. If you don’t know how to soothe yourself, then practice creates a superego, a demanding parent. Sit more! Sit longer! You’re not good enough! It becomes another self punishing mechanism. And that means that you’re no longer here and present, you’re stuck in some older, smaller, version of yourself. There’s some old story that wants to be told again and again as if was yourself.
There’s an attachment theory experiment where they put a child in a room, and when they get upset a caregiver might come in and soothe them, and then leave them alone for a long time. Some get so overwhelmed by feelings they collapse. Others do so much they cover over their feelings. These are two basic forms of attachment. The first is: feeling not dealing. The second is: dealing not feeling.
This really shows up in sitting practice because we’re all still children. The Dalai Lama spoke about this in terms of hyperactivity versus spacing out. And I would add: that these two modes flow through the plumbing of childhood. So when you’re practicing, check out your relationship to discipline, which has to do with our capacity to monitor ourselves and soothe ourselves. If we don’t look at these patterns it’s easy to perform spiritual bypassing, especially if you’re idealistic.
You need to be mindful of how you are meditating so you can find the right kind of effort. The “doing mind” is what keeps us unsettled. It takes a while to be touched by that unwinding sense. I find if I meditate and I’m trying to do something with it, bend it towards some aim, I can’t sit. When I’m in charge, I can’t get into it. We’re all householders, we live in this crazy city, we all have doing minds. Does anyone here have too many emails in their inbox? It’s hard to switch from doing mind to sitting. That’s why it’s good to do sitting practice in the morning, to arrive on the cushion from a liminal space. I know I’m settling when there is observing but no observer. Then, there can be observing from different places, different filters. Watch the thinking mind observe, watch the body observe. When you look at the sky, or the floor, can you see the overlay? What are you adding? Where do you see that from? Who is seeing this?
So far we’ve looked at four chapters. The first speaks about bodhicitta, the desire to awaken. The second and third are about ways to prepare for awakening through atonement, forgiveness and mindfulness. The fourth is about conscientiousness. Now we look at virya: enthusiasm and discipline.
Geshe Yesha Tobden, who passed away in 1999 after living in a one room hut above McLeod Gang, comments on the start of chapter five. He says, “There are thousands, even millions of these frightful beings, and it is impossible to bind all of them securely. What we can do, however, is tame our own minds, since by doing so these enemies will be subdued… Otherwise everything will be a source of problems.”
However, if I overcome thoughts of anger alone,
This will be equivalent to vanquishing all foes.
Where could I possibly find enough leather
With which to cover the surface of the earth?
Yet (wearing) leather just on the soles of my shoes
Is equivalent to covering the earth with it.
Likewise it is not possible for me
To restrain the external course of things;
But should I restrain this mind of mine
What would be the need to restrain all else?
Although the development of a clear state of concentration
Can result in taking birth in Brahma’s realm
Physical and vocal actions cannot so result
When (accompanied) by weak (mental) conduct.
…even if recitation and physical hardships
are practiced for long periods of time
they will be meaningless if the mind is distracted elsewhere.
These words might have been written about modern yoga practice. While practicing the geometry of postures I can become a technician of internal and external rotations. But the mind can be elsewhere, and if it is I still won’t know how to enter a room at the bottom of an exhale. I’m just going through the motions.
Perhaps all these words are saying that right effort or discipline or focus and concentration are all leading towards the punch line of generosity. We all know that self importance creates suffering. And the absence of self importance is generosity and appreciation. The “natural state of mind” as the Dalai Lama puts it, is clear, and what that clarity touches is generosity. Generosity is not so much the act of giving, but having that be the default desire within us. Wanting to serve is how we get happy.
There are four practices laid out in this chapter.The first part of the book is basically saying that you might imagine there are Buddhas around you all the time. This is how you can guard your mind. Imagine all day around you are neighbours with Buddhas and bodhisatvas, people who want you to be awake. They might be dharma cheerleaders (Give me a D!), protectors, sometimes they’re just going to hold your hand. The second practice is to be with others and be totally yourself. How can you be in a group of people and be yourself?
The third practice is that when you’re alone, behave like you are when you are with a group of people (who are practicing). This is very helpful when contemplating sending emails. What if everyone could see the email you are writing, not just the intended recipient? Are the words harmful, are they as clear as they can be? The fourth practice is that when you’re with others, say to yourself, “Now I’m going to be totally awake. I’m going to use this experience to awaken.”
When beholding someone with my eyes,
Thinking, “I shall fully awaken
Through depending upon this being”
I should look at that person with love and an open heart.
Using these mindfulness practices, and concentration practices, we’re learning all the places where we dig in our heels, where we’re too hard on ourselves, where we’re being unkind.
Sometimes these Buddhist magazines arrive on the doorstep. When I look at the cover I wonder: isn’t this like the last issue? The headline always seems to be something about being more loving to yourself. It makes me wonder, what is happening to Buddhism on US soil if we can only talk about kindness to self? And then I wonder if that isn’t exactly right, maybe that’s exactly what we need. When you’re hard on yourself you identify with hardness in practice. What is happening in practice is a shift in the process of perception and identification. The cultural habit pattern invites us to identify with the reigning emotion (that anger is me! all me!). The habit pattern of the practice (call it: the new groove) invites us to identify with Buddha nature, with the possibility of awakening.
The emphasis in this chapter is discipline but we might as well call it courage. The courage to change. We need to have deep self-reflection. Look clearly at the tricks and ways you get mean and dig in your heels. And how to look without guilt or shame, without adding more of that to the pile (it’s high enough already!) Instead of identifying with your judgmental nature, perhaps it’s possible to identify with the wisdom side. Identify with Buddha nature. Who is it that is observing entrapment? Shantideva says that if you try to be virtuous you’ll see how you can cause harm. If you try to be generous you see how you are stingy.
The Sanskrit word paramita means to cross over to the other shore. Paramita might also be translated as perfection, perfect realization or reaching beyond limitation. There are six paramitas: generosity (dana paramita), ethics, patience, joyous effort/enthusiastic perseverance (virya paramita), concentration (dhyana paramita), wisdom (prajna paramita).
There was a Tibetan monk who as a child loved to go to the snow lion dance which featured people in snow lion costumes. There would be a large parade and then a dance. It was so beautiful, but then would grow terrifying. The next year he would go again, and be just a little less frightened. One year he realized: they’re wearing costumes. He sees that it’s not real (in the way he thought it was real).
We invest our thoughts with so much snow lion terror. Seeing the emptiness of things is the ultimate antidote. Like when you drop your idea of the customs officer and see the person. Or with politicians. Where in us do we feel or sense the mood of another person? Which perception do we use?