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Same Difference

There is a big difference between ignorance in the common sense of the word and the Buddhist sense of the word. In the common sense of the word, ignorance is being unaware, lacking in general knowledge or understanding. This common kind of ignorance when applied to people who seem different from us, different races, different cultures, different sexual orientations, different abilities can lead to division, derision, hate and violence.  People, ignorant of our ignorance imagine that the problem and threat rests in those we perceive as different, rather than in our own faulty perception.

In the Buddhist sense of the word, rather than a general lack of understanding, ignorance is a specific false awareness, a false sense of self. We wrongly imagine that we are something separate from everything else. Buddhism teaches that this sense of a separate self, this ignorance, causes our suffering. It is one of the three poisons, along with anger and desire, that afflict us. It is the source of distance between ourselves and people we perceive as different from us.

In my college intro psych class we were asked to a simple psychological experiment on ourselves. The professor told us to be aware of the saliva in our mouths and then to swallow it. No problem. Then we were asked to imagine spitting that saliva into a sterile glass and drinking it. Disgusting. The spit that was part of us, became spit that was separate from us and suddenly became repulsive. Like the spit experiment demonstrates, we can have dramatically different reactions to the same thing depending on our sense of separation from it.  Setting ourselves apart from the world and those different from us leads to all the hate, intolerance and violence in the world.

People are different from each other like we are different from the rocks and trees of the planet. Unlike the rocks and trees, as people, we suffer. We suffer from our general ignorance and specific ignorance. We don’t have to be Buddhist to practice awareness of our suffering and the suffering of others and to practice compassion for ourselves and each other by identifying the source of our suffering and trying to make things better. With enough awareness we could uproot our ignorance, see the world from each other’s point of view and create peace. We are one in our desire for peace, personal, interpersonal, and world peace.

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Suffering Now and Zen

When your current experience of suffering brings you to look at Zen as a way to deal with it, you have come to a good place. You bring your suffering to that place and the place accepts you and your suffering. A Zen or mindfulness practice will change your approach to suffering. Instead of trying to hold your suffering at arm’s length, you hold it in your hands, which happen to be at arm’s length anyway.

A Zen practice may not change the position of your suffering, it will change your perspective in relation to it. Instead of seeing your pain as not having what you want, you see your pain as coming from the wanting instead of the having. Wanting may seem like it comes unbidden and as soon as you want something that’s it, you want it, but that’s not the end of it. When you examine the want and see it as a passing fancy, it passes. The pain passes with it.

Without a Zen approach to suffering, we see suffering as residing in our circumstances, in fixed things outside of ourselves, which change slowly as circumstances do. With a Zen or mindful approach, we see our suffering as residing in our thoughts, which change rapidly. As we do what we can do to alter our circumstances we can find peace in our minds right now, with a peaceful thought, or with no thought at all.

Suffering will still come and go as thoughts do and circumstances change. However, when we practice a different approach, we can have a vastly different experience of the same place.

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Feel Good Zen

Zen is not a warm and fuzzy practice, except when your experience is warm and fuzzy. Zen is a practice of rigorous discipline designed to help practitioners realize their True Nature. This realization may be confused with a specific state of mind. It may be idealized as enlightenment. It may be seen as a great spiritual goal. It may be a confirmation of something you have always known. It may feel good.

The goal of Zen is not personal enlightenment or realization. That is a stepping stone. That is another moment. The primary goal is the Buddhist goal of relieving suffering for all beings. The goal is not to sit on a mountaintop in eternal bliss, but to compassionately engage with the world to bring an end to suffering. That is a lofty goal. Understanding that goal, places the other lofty goal of personal realization much closer. Understanding that larger goal and our role in realizing it, produces a sense of the humility with which we approach these goals. It is a fine line between humility and futility, but it is clear that we cannot achieve that goal alone. If I can stop suffering and you are still suffering, I am only half way there, and I am nowhere at all.

A beautiful byproduct of all these practitioners throughout time and around the world, on mountaintops and on city streets, practicing pointedly to end suffering is that they have discovered  and developed techniques and skills to help people who are not interested in discovering their True Nature. Some people reach for a warm fuzzy cat to feel good, others reach for Zen. Those who immerse themselves in Zen, feel good sometimes and feel lousy sometimes, they use both feelings to help them remain present and look into how things are.

Wanting to feel good is a natural place to begin exploring Zen, mindfulness, meditation, alcoholism, drug abuse, and other feel-good practices. When we notice that desire to feel good, we notice it from a place of suffering. One thing we can learn from Zen is to meet that suffering, directly, with compassion. Whether we practice Zen in a cave for nine years, or conversationally at parties, meeting suffering with compassion, rather than hiding it under a warm and fuzzy blanket is a way to feel better. Compassion is our essence, it is a skill, and also, it feels good.

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Searching For the Obvious

The solution to any problem is obvious once you see it, but when your problem is worry, self-doubt and self-loathing, it can take some time to see it. Like ancient astronomers spent eons staring at the stars before they realized that the Earth was not the center of the universe, you need to spend time watching your thoughts before it dawns on you that you are both good enough, and exceptional. You are worthy of love and don’t deserve loathing.

That is the obvious part that is not obvious. What is also obvious is that things go wrong, things have always gone wrong and new things are going wrong all the time. Excessive worrying is something that is currently going wrong, as you imagine what else might go wrong. That worry affects how you feel and it hurts. Because you don’t want to hurt, you worry about what might hurt you, or what has hurt you, instead of working with the hurt that is happening. All that hurt and worry obscures the more basic fact that you are a good, lovable, human being, trying your best to get along in a confusing world.

It takes some time to untangle the habit of worry, self doubt and self loathing. You don’t have to begin by loving yourself, that comes more naturally when you become comfortable with yourself. Comfort with yourself, begins with tolerance of yourself. Take a look at where you are now, take a deep breath, see that you are suffering, and notice your desire not to suffer. The act of doing that is the first step in creating a habit of compassion for yourself. That is a kind, loving gesture toward yourself.

Noticing worry or pain and taking a breath breaks up your normal response and confirms your goodness, your desire to feel better and to help the situation. It helps you deal with the hurt that is happening and clears your mind to better address hurts that have happened or may happen.  When you take a breath you have a moment to see what your thoughts are. See if those thoughts are judging you or others. See if they are about the past or future. Take another breath and remind yourself that they are thoughts.

Thoughts come and go. They come in waves, and they dig channels. Those channels are the opinions that you develop about things and about yourself. When you practice noticing the coming and going of thoughts, and notice how pain and hurt comes and goes with those thoughts, and practice compassion in response to pain, those channels change. Those opinions don’t seem as true anymore.

With steady practice of returning your attention to your breath, to your vision, hearing, taste or touch, you build your awareness of your thought habits and your capacity for compassion. You will still worry, doubt yourself, and maybe even hate yourself from time to time, but you will come to understand that those are just more thoughts and they will pass and you will be your fine, good, lovable self when they are gone.

 

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The Three Purposes of Life

The purpose of life is to suffer. Another purpose of life is to be compassionate to that suffering. The third purpose of life is to meditate.

When we expect not to suffer, to transcend suffering through practice, we end up suffering more whenever we suffer. When we make the purpose of our lives to work with that suffering, we don’t resist so much when the suffering appears again. When suffering appears, we remember to work with it. When it goes away we remember our practice works. Compassion is the practice of working with our suffering to help it pass.

When you meditate, the purpose of life is to meditate. All the rest of the stuff that you do opens up the space to sit with your awareness, in your body, being alive. That is the purpose. Life is the opportunity to experience all of this wonder, and to wonder what it is all about.

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Breaking Up

When an intimate relationship comes to an end, and one or both people decide that it’s time to stop being a couple, there is suffering and confusion. The amount of suffering and the style of suffering will differ for each individual. The amount and style of confusion will also differ from person to person. Sometimes the confusion causes more suffering, sometimes the confusion masks the suffering. Confusion is confusing that way. Suffering is just suffering. To break up the confusion from the suffering that comes from a break up, you need to look at yourself, and look at your thoughts.

Confusion lives nowhere but in your thoughts. Confusing thoughts about yourself tend to cause suffering. When a couple breaks up, what was one becomes two, and each person has to redefine that part of themselves that was attached to being a couple. It is especially hard to figure out what you are, when there is so much suffering going on. It is hard to deal with the suffering when you are so confused about what you are. To get out of the cycle of thinking and suffering you need a handle to hold onto to get your bearings. That handle is your breath and the present moment.

When you suffer, thinking that you will always suffer, that you will never love, that nobody will ever love you, or anything like that is normal, but it is also pure confusion that comes with suffering. If you notice any of those thoughts, take a breath, and notice your confusion. Noticing confusion is wisdom, which breaks up confusion. Compassion, noticing suffering, looking into the cause of suffering, and doing something to ease suffering, will break up suffering.

When you are the more suffering person in a broken up couple, it may be difficult to find compassion for the less suffering person, so begin by practicing compassion for yourself. To depersonalize the pain of a lost relationship, it helps to look at the cause as confusion, a changing definition of yourself, rather than imagining fixed character flaws and personal deficits. To add compassion, remember that you are a good person, going through a difficult time, that you want to feel better and deserve to feel better.

When you learn to meet your suffering with compassion and meet your confusion with wisdom, you will soon come to terms with the break up of the relationship and the break up of your idea of yourself. If you use the suffering and confusion of a break up to learn to know yourself, and practice compassion, you will become the less suffering person of the former couple. When you, in your wisdom, can see the suffering and confusion of the other person, you may notice yourself feeling compassion for them. Compassion is powerful like that, it can beak up all kinds of thinking. The practice of breaking up confusion and suffering begins each time with a conscious breath, over and over again, for as long as it takes.

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Nobody is Ignorant

In Buddhism, ignorance means believing in the existence of a self. From the no-self standpoint, there is nobody to be ignorant.

When the self seems real, there is ignorance. This ignorance is important because it is the primary cause of suffering. The sense of self gives rise to desire, attachment, greed and anger, which are each sources of suffering. When there is suffering, it is the self that suffers. When there is no self, there is no ignorance and no suffering.

If the no-self is the fundamental state of existence and the self is an illusion, then even those who believe in the self, fundamentally have no self. However, we still suffer from the illusion. In order to examine the illusion, we have to look into our sense of self. We can see what it is that we think is uniquely us that is something apart from everything else. We can look into what we are.

What we seem to be is a perspective, an awareness that is attached to a body. Already there is an attachment. The body is attached to a life force that is sustained by other people and the planet. The planet that sustains our life can only do that because of where it is located in relation to the Sun. From our perspective, we can observe and theorize about the extent of the universe and the nature of time and space. As we observe and participate in all that is going on, it often seems that we are something separate.

Accepting the idea that we don’t have a self does not immediately end our suffering. It provides an avenue for exploration as we look into why we suffer. Whenever we notice ourselves suffering, we can remember to look at our thoughts and beliefs and see how they relate to our sense of self. We can see how we measure our self, judge our self, and belittle our self.  When we learn to see our self comparison as ignorance, comparing our self to our self, a mental habit that reinforces an illusion, we can dispel our ignorance. When we see what we truly are, nobody will be ignorant.

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Why Suffer?

The universe, in its infinite wisdom, created suffering. The universe and suffering arise simultaneously. Suffering, in its infinite wisdom, created the universe.

The main reason that we suffer is that we don’t have an option. We simply suffer. Things hurt. If you want to find a reason for your suffering, you can come up with one. You probably already have one. You have several. There is an endless list of what can make you suffer. You can suffer from love, wealth,  justice, smells, noises, thoughts, loss, boredom, excitement, life or death. You can suffer from not knowing what is making you suffer.

Suffering is a part of life, but it is also a habit. It is not the only reaction there is to pain. It is one reaction. We don’t choose to suffer. We invariably choose to do things that will ease our suffering. What we often choose to do to ease our suffering does not work and can lead to more suffering. Drugs, food, sex, entertainment, are all things we reach for to ease our suffering, but they provide temporary relief at best.

To find relief from suffering we have to forget about relief from suffering. We have to accept our own suffering. We have to see that our suffering comes from within us. It is our reaction to the world around us. To change our habitual reaction, we have to remind ourselves that we can work within our suffering. When we begin to work directly with our suffering, it loses its edge.

If we imagine that somebody has made us angry, we will be angry for a long time. If we imagine that we have become angry because of our own anger habit, we approach our anger from a different angle. We work within our anger and it loses its edge.

When you notice yourself suffering, remember that suffering is something you are adding to the circumstances. Feel what feelings are actually there beneath the suffering. See what thoughts come with the suffering. Notice if the thoughts are about yourself. Notice if the thoughts are about somebody else. Notice if the thoughts are about the past or future. After you have recognized suffering and observed your thoughts and feelings, take a moment to be right where you are and see how the suffering changes.

If you notice that you are suffering and you get frustrated with yourself for suffering, that is creating suffering. If you notice that you are suffering, remind yourself that there are other possible reactions and actively change your suffering habit. Why suffer if there are options?

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Zen Easter – Jesus

Jesus’s journey from suffering on the cross to death to resurrection provides a good example for how to transform suffering into awakening. Crucifixion, death by torture, is an extreme example of suffering. Death is an extreme example of acceptance, of giving in to the inevitability of circumstances. Physical resurrection from the grave is an extreme example of awakening. Sometimes it is helpful to have extreme examples to point out a more moderate path.

In Zen we are fortunate to have to opportunity to resurrect ourselves constantly. We begin by noticing that we are suffering, that we are on the cross. We recognize our inherent divinity or basic goodness. We understand that we don’t want to be on the cross and we don’t deserve to be on the cross. As we learn to accept our circumstances, which include our experience of suffering, we can see into the nature of our suffering. We can see into the nature of suffering. At that point we give up our resistance and experience a peaceful, living death. As we continue to live our life with this realization, we experience resurrection.

Once we learn to transform our suffering and practice resurrection in every moment, we can help others learn to work with their suffering and their minds to experience their own transformation. When we remember our basic goodness, we naturally feel compassion for everybody as they bear their crosses. Happy Easter.

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Compassionate Breathing

Anytime you are feeling out of sorts, you can practice compassionate breathing. To breathe compassionately, just remember compassion and breathe. You can take compassionate breaths anytime, anywhere. Nobody but you will notice, everybody will benefit.

Compassion begins with noticing suffering. If you have eyes or ears, you likely notice a fair amount of suffering in the course of your day. If you have ever seen or heard a news program, you will have heard of suffering. If you interact with other people, you will notice suffering in them. If you have feelings, you will notice suffering in yourself. Compassionate breathing can help with any of these situations.

When we encounter suffering in ourselves or others we are often at a loss because we don’t know what to do. We automatically think that there is nothing we can do, so we shut down. We turn away. We may get angry. There is always something we can do. Knowing just what to do begins with a compassionate breath.

When we take a compassionate breath we acknowledge the suffering we have encountered. We recognize that the suffering has touched us. We may see something we can do about it. We may just acknowledge it and breathe it out again.

As we walk down the street, sit in our cars, on our busses, or at our desks, we can practice compassionate breathing and spread peace through the world. Since we’re breathing anyway, we might as well add some compassion.

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