Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Resistance

I don't know how your mind works, but I've known for a good long while that mine seems to automatically resist a lot of what it encounters on a daily basis. As with many things, that realization stayed totally in the background because I really didn't want to look at it.

But, as generally happens, eventually, lately I've begun to look at it -- be more aware of how often it happens, look at the situation, and realize how miserable I can make myself by such actions. I can resist anything -- a different way of doing things, something somebody else suggests (this was a real problem back when I was working!), or things that I might be considering in my own life, independent of anyone else.

A few days ago this trait came to mind in a big way. I drove from Oregon to Santa Rosa, CA, and considered many route possibilities -- all of which are long familiar to me. I ended up taking what was probably the slowest route -- 11 hours door-to-door -- while thoroughly resisting the route that would have been easiest. Even more foolishly, I was aware all along that I was resisting that route, and why, and that my reasons were not valid. I simply did not want travel through the city of Sonoma, and that was based completely on past memories of heavy traffic on weekends during tourist season, none of which would apply in this case. Still, I resisted, and chose the long way. After I arrived here, I looked at the map and saw just how close this location is to Sonoma, how easy it would be to get from here to there, and from there to good freeways. Through resistance, through simply seeing a bottleneck that didn't exist, I bought myself two or three extra hours of driving. I'll certainly return through Sonoma!

But, this time I really felt the misery I caused myself by the mere act of resistance -- which has a root in aversion. Aversion is the opposite of craving, and between the two, they are the root of all human mental suffering. Aversion comes from having something you don't want, craving comes from wanting something you don't have. Both avoid accepting what actually does exist, and thus is born unhappiness.

Lately, I've been letting go of resistances when they arose and I noticed. This incident has taught the importance of such awareness, and even more, the importance of accepting what is, and letting go of resistance. Life is easier. I am  happier. There are many more important examples, of course, but this is the one that hit home.

What resistances do you see in your own daily life? Ask yourself, is this resistance merely a habit? Is it leading me to mental suffering and unhappiness? Is it easier in the long run to simply recognize resistance for what it is and cease resisting to these simple and often unimportant issues in life?

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Solitude

Some of us are born to a solitary life, and I seem to be one of those. I have long been content with my own company, introspective and probing of my mind and its actions and reactions long before I found Buddhism. The older I get, with the constraints of work mostly in the past, the more I seem to sink happily into solitude, whether it's in a monastic setting or here in my little cottage in the garden.

I have had moments of seeing that much of my life seemed pre-designed to place me in solitude of one kind or another, with little family, little sense of home, many superficial friends and a few true friends scattered far and wide across the country. I've seen that perhaps the intention behind this design was to give me the time and place for introspection or, even more, for meditation.

I'm not sure I always saw this as a positive. There was for a good long time some amount of underlying resentment and sorrow that I never found the kind of life I wanted, that no matter what turn my life might take, it always took me in a direction that in the end promoted solitude rather than the close companionship I desired. I always worked, was always around people during the day and often into the evening, partying with co-workers or friends. But I also had lots of time for solitude, whether it was long hikes or bike rides alone, or just cocooned at home with good music and a good book.

Over the years I seem to have become totally comfortable with the solitude, although I admit that I find the heavy solitude of life at the hermitage in the redwoods to be more than even I am comfortable with! It seems strange, but I like my solitude punctuated by music I love, or the sounds of human voices on the radio or TV from time to time, although I prefer to read -- and of course, meditate -- in quiet surroundings.

My life is never without 'issues' that come to the forefront of my mind and need to be addressed. Life itself (actually, the human mind) seems to produce them in a never-ending parade and I've found that whether I'm watching/listening to media, reading a book, preparing food or cleaning house, my strong mindfulness works on these issues even in the midst of distraction. My teacher calls it moment-to-moment meditation, and it's a skill I've had for many years now. Solitude helps immensely, even if it's not silent solitude.  In fact, this subject and title came from a line in a book I'm reading. That line, some of us are born to a solitary life, struck me so deeply that I had to stop reading, had to contemplate this, then had to sit down to write this post. I'd never really seen my life in that light before, but it seemed so clear, the insights so strong.

The Buddha said that in order to attain enlightenment 'a monk' should live in solitude and contemplate the teachings and the workings of one's mind (paraphrased). Many take that literally, although finding true isolation is not so easy in this day and age as it was years ago in Asia where many hermit monks lived alone in primitive caves or forests, and where many probably still live that life deep in the mountains away from cities. It's something I've been drawn to, without the courage to follow it through.

And while I'm  pretty sure that my own style of solitude surrounded by a TV and music and a computer are not at all what the Buddha had in mind, I think it's worked fairly well for me. I've had years where I spent many hours on the cushion, in deep meditation. Nowadays, my cushion time is limited but the mind is always aware, and despite the TV, music, books and the computer, I live in happy solitude where my mind is always free to stop and contemplate whatever arises during those long hours alone. And, while the environment within these walls is something I can control, there is often noise (loud music, loud voices, barking dogs) right outside the walls, so I have constant, ample objects for contemplation! I contemplate the benefits of wholesome qualities such as compassion, kindness and generosity, while letting go of unwholesome qualities such as ill-will, resentment, anger and such as they arise. I see the inherent suffering that's connected to those unwholesome qualities. I am able to immediately see their passing impermanent nature and recognize that they are not 'mine', but merely products of the mind that will only harm me if I grasp at them. I live more and more in a calm state of equanimity with the many things that arise from within my mind or outside the walls.

And that, after all, IS what the Buddha had in mind.  Impermanence, suffering and non-self are the three marks of existence which the Buddha called the universal, fixed law of Dhamma. It is often said that full insight into the three marks of existence is the main condition for liberation leading to Nibbana. So, does it matter whether I live in a Himalayan cave in total solitude, or in a tiny cottage in a backyard garden with TV, music and books? It probably does, on some level, but this is what I have and this is a kind of solitude that seems to work for me. Most importantly, it is what is. It's what I've got at this moment in time. Rather than fight it, or long for something different, I'm happy to accept what is, with the full knowledge that no matter what I do or don't do, it will change due to impermanence. And there will be another reality to accept. And happiness comes from that acceptance.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Starving defilements

I've quoted Ajahn Chah here before and no doubt, will again at some future time. The man has a rather amazing ability to get a lot of meaning packed into a few words. I paraphrased this particular quote to a friend yesterday, but I think it deserves proper respect, right here.

Those just beginning often wonder what practice is, he says. Practice occurs when you try opposing the defilements, not feeding old habits. Where friction and difficulty arise, that's the place to work. The defilements in a Buddhist sense are greed, hatred and delusion, with delusion meaning 'not seeing things as they really are'.

Friction and difficulty. Yep. In my experience, that's really where the practice lies. That's where the work is to be found. That's where the effort needs to go. It's a red flag that says 'here -- look at me and learn'.  Not as easy as it sounds -- but most things aren't. First, you need to open your mind and develop enough awareness to realize in the middle of this friction and difficulty that this is a prime learning opportunity, not something to be frazzled about. Being frazzled is so much easier -- so much more normal for most of us, when things don't go the way we want them to.

Ajahn Chah goes on to say: The defilements -- greed,, hatred and delusion -- are at the root of our suffering and our selfishness. We must learn to overcome them, to conquer and go beyond their control, to become masters of our minds. Of course it seems hard. It is like having the Buddha tell you to split up with a friend you have known since childhood.

Defilements are like a cat. If you feed it, it will keep coming around. Stop feeding it, and eventually it will not bother to come around any more.

While it's not easy, it can be done. It takes courage to look honestly at your own mind, see that childhood friend for what it really is and realize you're much better off splitting up with that friend. The defilements are really not our friends -- they're more like enemies that keep us caught up in misery.

Starving defilements works. I've gotten fairly good at it (though far from perfect). When I recognize one arising (or one I'm already caught up in) I sort of mentally shrug it off and let it go, see it for what it is and loosen its hold on my mind. Stop feeding the cat. If you do this enough, they really will stop (or at least slow down) coming to visit.


Friday, January 10, 2014

Obstacle as Path, Obstacle as Goal

I learned many years ago to look at difficulties -- difficult situations, difficult people -- that arose in my life and see what I could learn from the situation or the person. There's always something to be learned in every situation, from every person. I made some of my greatest strides along this Path during two years I spent at one particular job, for example. I was fairly new to Buddhism then, but I knew enough to ask myself what I could learn, what the best response was to some difficult people in a difficult situation that I'd been asked to 'help heal' when I was hired.

How to do that? I'm not a healer, in any respect. But I'd been asked to help heal the pre-existing rifts within the business and I turned to metta, or lovingkindness, along with a strong awareness and intention away from making the situation worse through anger or hostility on my own part.  A deep awareness that I'd already begun fostering made this easier, brought the Path front and center in my own consciousness on a daily basis. I had to think before acting. I had to control my own actions and reactions. Merely doing that, and consciously sending thoughts of metta to others, helped the healing process for others and taught me a lot in the process. I had occasion to practice much of the same at a more recent job with different obstacles. Metta always works, although at times it may be difficult to sincerely offer metta to particularly difficult people! That makes it all the more important to practice.

This kind of response to difficult situations and difficult people has become automatic for me, refined by continued learning and experience.  I bring all this up because I've been facing a number of personal difficulties lately -- difficult situations and difficult relationships -- and have found that I need to dig a little deeper, remind myself what's important and what will move me further along this Path I'm following. I find that while it's easy for me to respond in a wholesome manner to one situation at a time, it's far less easy to do it when faced with a multitude!

But doesn't that make it all the more important? I think it does. And I think this is where and how I need to turn now -- have already done so, will continue to do so. Ayya Tathaaloka wrote a wonderful message this past summer on Obstacle as Path, Obstacle as Goal that really affected me at the time, and which I read again yesterday. I encourage you to do the same, as she says it so much better than I.  Much of her writing is so far above my head that I can't begin to grasp the full depths of her words, and that's the case with this one, but even though I don't grasp all of it, I grasp the central message. And that's enough for now.

What are the obstacles in your Path? How do you view them? If you find yourself viewing them as obstacles, try turning that around and viewing them as opportunities. Let go of the fear and stress or anger or whatever emotion may be accompanying the perceived obstacle, look at the obstacle clearly and see if there's a solution hiding within the chaos. Depersonalize whatever is happening. Know that the situation -- whatever it is -- is not permanent. It will change. I find that the kind of change I want to see will happen much more quickly if I simply change my perception -- from Obstacle to Path. Clarity arises. Peace and patience become more prevalent.

These things work for me. I hope they work for you.