Monthly Archives: January 2019

What keeps us from awakening?

3marks-3poisons500At the very center of the graphic chart of all the Buddhist teachings are the Three Marks of Existence: anicca, the impermanence of all life; anatta, no separate self; and dhukka, suffering that comes from our ongoing argument against the truth of the first two Marks. Hmm, they must be super important to be at the very center, right? They are! When we deeply understand these, then we awaken to a sense of aliveness and joy that lets us celebrate with gratitude this very moment, just as it is.

But most of us just can’t seem to embrace these Marks as true. We either don’t know about them because they’re not talked about in our culture, or we can’t make sense of them. They seem obscure. So, we suffer.

For example, if we get depressed or upset when we see wrinkles or we lose some abilities, we suffer, don’t we? We are not suffering because we are aging, but because we don’t see impermanence as a natural part of life.

The poet Mary Oliver died this week. Her ability to celebrate the natural world and bring meaning into our own lives was a powerful gift. May she be at peace. If anyone knew the nature of impermanence, it was she; for she observed it intimately every morning on her walks in the woods and marshes. That’s the kind of understanding of the nature of things that is not some cerebral notion, but a deep awareness. I am so grateful that she was able to share that wisdom in a way that resonated with so many.

We also suffer when we believe that we are separate isolated entities encased in skin sacks, and that our main job is to polish and promote this separate self we call ‘me’ to obtain respect, power, love, admiration, etc. When our underlying reason to do things is to build up a separate-seeming self, then we feel lost and out of balance, dependent on the approval of others to be okay, and so we suffer.

We are not suffering because we are unlovable or because other people don’t understand us. We are suffering because we believe ourselves to be impermeable solid objects interacting with other solid objects in a stressful game we might win or lose.

If we look more closely at the nature of our existence, how every breath we inhale and exhale reminds us that we are intrinsically connected to all life, then we begin to open to the possibility that we are not alone. Further investigation shows us that skin is not an impermeable barrier that defines the boundary of our being, but is porous and very much engaged in life. And, if we take our investigation to a molecular level, we can see that all life is made up of the same stuff creatively arranged in constantly shifting formations, in a mind-boggling complexity of patterns, systems and networks that, once understood, release any sense of being isolated that we might have. We are all stardust. Not separate at all. And releasing our attachment to the idea of being separate frees us from a great deal of suffering.

Now notice how on the same chart of Buddhist teachings, encircling the Three Marks of Existence at the center are the ‘Three Poisons’: Greed, Aversion and Delusion. 

Why, we might wonder, of all the Buddha’s teachings, would these two sets of three be so intimately entwined? Let’s investigate.

Might we say that the Three Poisons keep us from understanding and embracing the Three Marks of Existence? If so, how?

If we see impermanence as something to fight against, then we activate greed to shore up a sense of permanence: ‘If I just had that job, that house, that perfect body, that relationship, etc., then my life would be perfect forevermore.

We activate aversion to go into battle with the idea of impermanence. ‘I refuse to get old and I’ll do everything I can to look younger.’

And, to support the greed and aversion, delusion blinds us to the true nature of existence and creates a smoke screen that tells us that greed is good and we must protect ourselves from all that is ‘other’. Delusion tells us that if we can just get and do all the right things then permanent perfection is possible. Maybe even guaranteed.

If we feel isolated, then we activate greed to build up our fortress of self, believing that the more stuff we have, the more experiences we have, the more respected and desirable this separate self will be.

Aversion is activated at the scary notion of a separate seeming self, something that is learned when we are very young children. We feel we need to always defend this separate self against the ‘enemies’ that we perceive through our lens of fear.

Delusion delights in all this drama, creating mythologies, beliefs and a disorienting fog that together reinforce our belief in a separate self. Think of all the collective cultural myths that support the idea, for example, that life is a competition, that people who look different are dangerous, etc. It’s so easy for people in power to play on these delusions, and then we all suffer.

So the Three Poisons encircle the Three Characteristic of Marks as a hyper-vigilant barrier to deep understanding and awakening. Can we notice these Poisons arising in our experience, prompting our thoughts to play out all kinds of dramas? And instead of condemning what arises, can we just see them for what they are and hold them with a sense of compassion?

When we can do that, when we can perceive the patterns of the threads of thoughts, how they arise and fall away, impermanent and not us, then we can find the heart of the Buddha’s teachings coming alive in our awareness. That’s awakening!

A Triad of Collusion

toxic-symbol-3-poisonsWe have been looking at the Three Poisons, the patterns of reactivity that we humans tend to fall into, thus losing our ability to be awake to this moment. While the Poisons of aversion/hatred and greed/craving are fairly obvious to notice, it is much harder to tell when we are experiencing delusion. As I write this, outside my window is a thick January ground fog. How appropriate! Delusion masks the lay of the land. In class, during meditation, I heard fog horns out in the Bay. It could have been someone’s cell phone on vibrate instead of mute, but it sounded like a fog horn. Either way, it made me realize that as we investigate and discover delusion in our experience, we are a bit like ship captains recognizing fog, sounding our fog horns.

But with delusion, more often than not we don’t recognize the fog we are in as fog at all. If it’s a lifelong delusion, how could we know we’re in it? If someone told us we wouldn’t believe them. It is easier for us to see when someone else is walking around in a cloud of delusion. Can we cultivate compassion and understanding for them? When we are able to do that we discover that whatever aversion we may have had for them softens. We’re not buying into their myopic view, but we can feel compassion for them as fellow beings caught up in the suffering of delusion.

Once we have begun to recognize delusion in others, we can gently open to the possibility of the existence of delusion in our own experience. It’s tricky, but having extended compassion to someone else, we have the capacity to extend it to ourselves, allowing us to see delusion without aversion blocking our way. 

Delusion is manufactured and supported by the other two Poisons of greed and aversion. And in turn, delusion provides a blindness that is necessary to sustain craving and hatred.

Say, for example, as I am passing by an ice cream shop, craving arises. Delusion rushes to that craving’s aid by whispering very selective pieces of information, like how much protein there is in ice cream, or the memory of how as a child ice cream was a reward and a sign of parental affection, etc., and so I find myself standing at the counter reaching for that cone.

But before I can enjoy it, maybe aversion rushes in — shame on me, I’m so weak, etc. — supported by more selective bits of information about how much sugar and calories are in this cone, how fat I am, how people will be judging me, making the cone feel like a handful of embarrassment instead of a simple pleasure. Of course with all this going on, there’s not much room for being present with the experience of tasting and enjoying the flavor, texture, coldness, etc. so that I end up feeling both guilty and unsatisfied.

Whether or not you relate to this particular example, you can no doubt find other examples that show how the three Poisons support each other in what we might call a triad of collusion.

There are many more facets to delusion than just providing cover and shame in the purchase of an ice cream cone. There is a difficulty in seeing things as they are and a willingness to buy into stories that under analysis make no sense. These stories can be part of our family mythology that feel like the bond that holds family together. If you think about your family, notice if there are any unspoken agreements about how to explain uncomfortable things. You might think of it as the oil that makes the machinery of family run more smoothly. The story may have begun with the best of intentions, a white lie to avoid hurting people’s feelings or sharing what might be considered shameful truths. But the acceptance and solidifying of the lie into the family story is delusion in action, supported by the two other poisons: craving normalcy and hating to be seen as abnormal or immoral, etc. In class I shared a story from my own family, which is not for sharing on the internet, but it was a good example of the delusion of family mythology.

Our collective cultural mythology is supported by propaganda and our desire to be a part of something positive and powerful, not something subject to human failings. It’s frighteningly easy to prey on our human desires and aversions by fueling it with resonate selective truths or total fabrications. We can be suckers for persuasion if it plays into what we want to believe is true. Facts be damned! Again, it’s much easier to see how ‘the other side’ is delusional. The idea of there being sides may be the biggest delusion of all. Who knows?

Our ongoing investigation is asking, ‘How can I be in skillful compassionate relationship with this?’ When it comes to a body of information, especially the complex intricacies of the family mythology, perhaps the most skillful compassionate way is to acknowledge that we don’t know.

If the story is harming us, it’s worth investigating, getting beyond delusion. This is certainly the case in sustaining a viable democracy. Whether a bit of familial folklore is actually causing harm is debatable. But in either case, it’s skillful to recognize that we don’t know the whole truth. We can see how we have the tendency to cling to what we want to believe, and the tendency to believe anything negative about anyone we don’t like.

Can we see that our happiness is not dependent on any story being true or false? Whether it’s about ourselves, our family or our country, can we acknowledge that we don’t know everything? Can we be open to other views and new facts we hadn’t previously known? This kind of open exploration doesn’t threaten us. Our identity is not built on what we believe to be true being true! We can find a wonderful richness in being able to relax our stranglehold on our precious truths. We can hold them in an open embrace, look at them with a more discerning eye, and know that they do not define us.

‘I don’t know’ is a powerful liberating phrase. Once on a retreat I spent a whole day discovering the proverbial tip of the iceberg of all the things I don’t know, and seeing my assumptions of knowing fall by the wayside. For example, I was doing walking meditation across a patio of concrete squares, and there were some things I took for granted that I knew about them, but there was so much more that I didn’t know — how thick they were, what was under them, who laid them, where the material came from, etc. etc.

I looked at trees this way and discovered that my ‘knowledge’ about any given tree is only what I’ve been told or have learned from seeing fallen trees with innards exposed, but in fact I know very little about any particular tree — what all is going on inside, what life forms reside there, where the roots actually run underground, etc. The more I investigated, the more I realized I don’t know.

And that was a joyous recognition. Because there’s no way to know everything and I could let go of the presumption of knowing and the need to accumulate knowledge as if there will be a test. I can explore the world following whatever veins interest me, and learn as much or as little as I please, and no matter how much I learn, even about subjects I study in depth, there will always be lots of room for acknowledging that I don’t know, that the information I received is incomplete or misleading. Making room for that possibility, that likelihood, freed me from feeling incomplete for not knowing everything.

So joyful a discovery was this that I wrote a note to my teacher and pinned it on the board saying simply ‘I don’t know!!!’ A few hours later a note appeared on the board with my name on it and inside was her reply: ‘Yay!!!!’

Consider how, if you’ve ever looked through a microscope, you might have been astounded by the worlds within the world we think we know. The world as we know it is totally based on the lens of our own perceptions through senses that, while amazing, are quite limited. The more we know, the more we know we don’t know! So we stop assuming we do. Yay!

‘I don’t know’ may on the face of it seem like a delusional state, but it is not the dulled down ‘duh’ of delusion. Instead it is a sense of awakening to the interconnected complexity of all life’s systems, networks, patterns, infinitesimal to infinite space, all in a constant state of flux, expansion and contraction, in cycles of birth, growth, death, decay that nourishes new life. I am, you are, we all are, a part of all this, and for me that is more than enough to know! Even as I thirst for knowledge, it is enjoying the process of investigation rather than the idea of accumulation and becoming a walking encyclopedia of indisputable truths.

Sensing the infinite and interconnected complexity of life, perhaps we can relax our misguided efforts to be separate from it. We can let go of our need to stand out in a crowd in order to be admired or loved. Each of us is an intrinsic part of it all, radiating and receiving in every moment, a living breathing-thinking-feeling floating, ever-changing field of aliveness we call ‘me’. Whee!

Is it true?

Byron Katie is a popular author and teacher beloved by the Buddhist community for her wise way of challenging delusion, one of the ‘three poisons’ (The other two are greed and aversion). While she has written many books and given lots of workshops for adults, it is the children’s book, Tiger Tiger, Is It True? I bought for my granddaughters that for me most clearly illustrates how the things we tell ourselves are making us unhappy.

tiger-tigerIn the introductory note to parents, Katie says that people always want to change the world so they can be happy. But they have it backward. She recommends changing the projector – the mind – rather than trying to change what’s projected. She uses the example of a piece of lint on the lens of a film projector. Nothing you can do on the screen will remedy that. Imagine someone at the front of the theater using all kinds of cleaners to scrub the screen clean — how frustrating! The projector just keeps on projecting the shadows of the lint on the lens onto the screen.
When the mind is projecting shadows, we function in a state of delusion, relying on this misinformation we are projecting. So it’s important to look closely at the nature of our thoughts and to question whether what we assume about everything is actually true.
A few weeks ago we looked at other people’s delusions as an entry point into noticing our own. As we think about a family member, friend, person in the news or character in a novel; does it become easier to recognize some false idea they are clinging to? Some assumption they are operating under that keeps landing them in unpleasant circumstances? If you find yourself thinking, ‘Yeah, keep telling yourself that.’ then you know you are looking at an example of delusion.
After looking at other people’s delusions, hopefully we are better able to develop a compassionate way of seeing them. Then we can turn the light of that understanding onto our own patterns of thought and emotion as they arise. We can begin to notice and investigate what we accept as true without question.
It may feel threatening to question our own long-held beliefs. Why? Because we have built solid-seeming identities out of these beliefs. It may be difficult to imagine who we would be without these beliefs. When I say ‘beliefs’ I am not necessarily talking about ideas, philosophies or religion. Many of our deepest beliefs are simply about ourselves, how fundamentally flawed we are in a variety of ways. We may believe ourselves to be incapable of certain things — speaking in front of a crowd, for example; or bad at things, say sports, or good at things, like maybe cooking. We may get into comparing mind around these things and feel all kinds of uncomfortable emotions. Who would we be without defining ourselves in this way? These are just mental formations. They are not who we are! How would life be without that persistent pattern of thinking that keeps making us miserable?
Being able to recognize delusion is a vital skill, enabling us to awaken.

mkondoSpeaking of wise women who share their gifts with the world, Marie Kondo now has a series on Netflix called ‘Tidying Up’. I wrote about her book almost three years ago, and have been following her recommendations ever since. Now with this series we can see her in person and delight in her very meditative and compassionate way of coming into skillful relationship with our stuff. Whether you’re already a fan or just need help organizing in a way that is compatible with your practice, tune in to her series or read her book.