Category Archives: five aggregates

Barnacles can’t dance, but we can!

Every time I come home after a retreat I feel as if I’ve been released into a more natural way of being, as if I’m lightly dancing with life. I am able to see more clearly the nature of suffering and how I tend to create it.

barnacleAn image from my childhood comes to mind: The barnacles on the boats in the Marina where my friend and I used to play on sunny San Francisco days. We humans often act like barnacles, attaching ourselves to all manner of things.

We may do this in our relationships. Clinging is corrosive and can destroy natural loving bonds and connections. Think about how you react when someone clings to you. It feels more like a drain, an imposition or a demand that you are unable to fulfill, doesn’t it? The person who is clinging doesn’t realize that they are having the opposite effect of what they are trying so hard to achieve. They can’t see that what they are offering is not love or friendship at all. Love is like a dance of the interplay of energy. How does a barnacle dance? Not very well!

I think you get the idea. Where else in our lives might we be clinging rather than dancing?

We cling to our ideas of who we are. With barnacle-like persistence we fasten ourselves to an identity made up of all kinds of things to varying degrees: political affiliation, personal style, religious belief, culture, profession, physical characteristics, personality traits, possessions, family, ancestry, relationship roles, experiences, preferences, etc. These amalgams of how we see ourselves can get locked in early in life, long before we have the wisdom, experience, judgment, or understanding to question the veracity of these views. But it’s never too late to pause in a moment of mindfulness and question our barnacle grip.

The film critic Mick LaSalle was asked by a reader about his favorite films and actors. Mick replied “…I think self-definition through the announcement of favorites can sometimes shut the door on discovery.” Then he went on to list his favorites. But in that acknowledgement he kept the door open to discovery, didn’t he? And that’s what we all want to do, even while enjoying what we know and love.

In class we discussed how whole generations brand themselves by set ideas of fashion, music, hairstyles, vehicles, etc. Recently I heard the term ‘perennials’ to describe people of any generation who are less interested in age-based divisions and are fully engaged in life, ever new and unfolding. I liked that. I might even get a little attached to it!

So here we are, attached to these ideas about this self we hold ourselves to be. We may promote or berate this self, but we rarely question that it is exactly who we are. If we are not totally thrilled with this self, we want a makeover. We find the most offensive aspect or the one that is most readily changeable — weight, for example — and we focus all our distress, unhappiness and dissatisfaction on the idea that if only we lost some pounds, then we’d be happy. Or perhaps it’s wrinkles that worry us, and we invest in fancy creams, facials or surgery. Or maybe it’s fame or wealth that we believe will finally make us okay. Whatever it is, there is no end to the wanting. Achieving the perfect weight, flawless skin, rave reviews or mountains of money — none of it is ever quite enough. It doesn’t deliver on promised results. If we can check off a goal reached, we just reset the goal. It still leaves us in a state of ‘if only’.

Of course, there’s practical wisdom in maintaining a healthy weight, in taking care of our bodies and creating financial stability. But we are talking about the craving for perfection, the striving for some ideal that will right all the wrongs in our life. We expend a lot of energy chasing those ‘if only’ goals without seeing that none of them address the core challenge we face.

The core challenge is that barnacle behavior, the way we cling to the erroneous idea of self: that we are separate and must create the most appealing or impressive identity in order to navigate life’s dangerous waters.

Our meditation practice gives rise to insights that tell us something quite different. We begin to understand in an embodied way that we are natural expressions of life, interconnected to all life. We understand that all life forms a pattern — a dance, if you will — of ongoing cycles of birth, growth, death and decay that nourishes new life. What we thought was solid and permanent is instead processes, systems and patterns. Perhaps we watch a murmuration of sparrows in the sky at dusk and we realize our true nature is a dance of life, not an isolated fortress we need to defend. We no longer believe that our job is to keep repackaging ourselves to be the most attractive gift under the Christmas tree or the most impressive accumulator of stuff, power and experience

But it’s not just in our meditation practice that insights come. At any time, especially if we are troubled, we can ask skillful questions that help us see more clearly. We listen to what we are telling ourselves, and we ask, ‘Is this true?’ and ‘How do I know this is true? Another useful question is ‘How am I in relationship to this?’ Instead of running around in mental circles, telling ourselves a story about a situation, person or belief, we can examine the way we are relating to them. Can we recognize that we are grasping, clinging or pushing away? Through meditation we cultivate awareness and compassion. Then we can skillfully investigate what’s going on in any moment and gain insight. Aha!

Through the regular practice of meditation we don’t necessarily lose all the various elements of identity we believed ourselves to be. We just see them for what they are and we can hold them lightly. We let go. We un-barnacle. And in doing so we reveal the beauty of all life.

We awaken to our passion and purpose, not to claim it as ‘our thing’ or wear it as a badge that defines us, but to participate more fully in each moment, blooming where we are planted with naturally arising kindness, compassion, freedom and the grace of a dancer who’s attuned to the rhythms of life.

Coming Home to Our Senses

In our many months of exploration of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness we have been balancing concepts and simple practice. It is important to keep in mind that the practice of anchoring our awareness in physical sensation and cultivating compassion is always more important than the concepts. You can have insight practice without the concepts, but the concepts are only useful in tandem with a dedicated mindfulness practice. These are experience-based teachings. But the concepts, if you can stay with them, will make it so easier to do the practice and to stay grounded in it.  Some of the concepts explored seem abstract, others feel more concrete and easily accessible. Today we will look at just such a concrete teaching: The Sense Spheres. With this exploration we are coming home to our senses. This is where we begin every meditation and where we return to when our mind has wandered off into thought. So it is not foreign or alien. It’s one of the first things we learn as babies. The six sense-spheres are paired in two’s: the sense organ and the sense object. We have the five physical senses of eyes, ears, nose, tongue and skin. Each is paired with its counterpart object: sight, sound, odor, flavor and touch. That’s five senses. What is the sixth? The Buddha considered the mind to be one of the senses because it is an integral part of the process of sensing. Without the mind, how would the sense organs know what they were sensing? It is liberating to think of the mind and thought as just another sense and sense object, as impersonal as the eyes and sight. How refreshing not to think of the mind as who we are but as just an organ that processes sensory input using thought, reason, memory and reflection. Especially as we age and the mind sometimes falters, if we see it as an organ like the ears or eyes or taste-buds, all of which often deteriorate in some way with age, we might be sad or frustrated at the loss, but we do not see it as a personal failing. It’s just another common occurrence in the process of growing older. Applying Our Understanding of The Five Aggregates

The Five Aggregates: body, feeling tones, cognition, volition and consciousness make up the way we perceive and experience the world which we encounter initially with our senses. Knowing them, we can see clearly the stages of experience and are better able to develop the muscle of mindfulness. Here is a typical sequence of the perceptual process:

  1. Body — Initial contact with a sense object, for example: a sound.
  2. Feeling Tone – We have an immediate feeling tone response to the sound. It’s either pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. A pleasant ‘What lovely bird song!” or an unpleasant “What an irritating leaf blower!” or a neutral soft thud of a car door closing, that might not even register.
  3. Cognition – We identify or work hard at trying to identify the source of the sound. “What kind of bird is that?” Now if you’re a birder, you might go on to, “I should know that.” If you’re not but think you’d like to be, you might think ‘I should take that class on bird song’ and suddenly your mind has taken you to the local community college, and then you think about how you could go on one of those birding field trips. And suddenly you’re in an Amazon jungle, binoculars in hand staring up into the tangle of vines and leaves. Your mind itself has become a jungle.
    Or if the sound was a leaf blower, we might go, “Maybe it’s not a leaf blower, maybe it’s a chain saw.” The mind wants to identify accurately the source of any sense. “What neighbor is using that chain saw?”
    Then it goes into association that takes us on an extended journey into the past and the future: “I should probably call someone to check out our trees. That one oak has a branch that really looks iffy. I was really afraid in the last storm. Boy that was a rough night.” “I wouldn’t want it to fall on the house. God, what if it fell on the house when the grandchildren were napping in the guest room.” And on, and on in a flurry of memories, planning or fantasy.
  4. Volition – Perhaps we decide to go do something about the sound: If it’s unpleasant we might put our hands over our ears, close the door, or get away from the sound. If it’s pleasant we might move closer to the sound, or we might move our bodies to the delightful rhythms of the sound, or investigate it further to see what the sound is.
  5. Consciousness – At some point we become aware that we are lost in thought.

We don’t decide to think all these thoughts. The thoughts, projections and associations proliferate quickly into a densely woven network, and we are as helplessly trapped as a fly in a spider web. So there’s no point in beating ourselves up about having been lost. And doing so is just another tangle of thoughts we immediately get lost in. That’s why compassion is so important. The moment we are aware that we have been thinking is cause for celebration, not punishment. We are here now in this moment. Ah. How do we untangle ourselves from the web of thought? That’s an almost impossible challenge since we are not aware that we are trapped and don’t see it as a problem until suddenly we do. Wouldn’t it be easier and wiser to learn to recognize how the web arises in the mind and how to not get drawn into it? That’s what we do with mindfulness practice. We slow down enough to see how the process works. We set the intention to be with the sensory experience itself, to let a sound be a sound, a smell be a smell, etc. and to be sufficiently aware not launch into subjective mental activity that takes us out of the present moment.
Woof!   In class we talked about the value of treating the wandering mind like an excited and untrained puppy. This helps us to hold it with the right amount of loving kindness and intention to train it well. We have the puppy-mind on a leash but at first the leash is so long the puppy wanders far and wide. As we learn to hold the leash — learn to anchor our awareness in physical sensation — the puppy may begin to wander but doesn’t go very far before we gently pull the leash.

So in the example above of the mind following a sound all the way to the Amazon, with training maybe it only gets as far as the local community college. With more mindfulness practice, eventually a sound is just noted as sound.

Symphony of Silence    Perhaps you are familiar with the work of John Cage who famously composed and presented a piece titled 4’33 which he performed to a packed symphony hall. It consisted of four minutes and 33 seconds of silence on his part, allowing the sounds of the audience be the symphony. As originally performed it is reported that the audience had a lot of response, was made uncomfortable, and there was a lot to listen to. I just checked several YouTube versions of recently performed versions of 4’33, and the audience was almost completely silent! What a rich silence comes from hundreds of people sitting together paying close attention to one focus, a man with a piano and a timer, or a conductor with an orchestra and a timer, all in silence, but not waiting for anything. So John Cage taught us something hugely important. Can we incorporate it into our own practice? The willingness to be present for whatever arises without needing it to be more than simply noting ‘sound’ or one of the other sense objects. That is our mindfulness practice. 

This is not deprivation but liberation and the opening of a previously unnoticed and ignored richness of the present moment. This is awakening to the joy that rests in every moment if we are only here to experience it

Annata — No Separate Self

Last week we came to the fifth of the Five Aggregates and what did we find? That not one of these aggregates is us. Each is impermanent and insubstantial. None of them is governable. We looked straight into the jaws of the scary beast: ‘No Self’, Annata.

But just as we were about to succumb to a hollow sense of loss, we clarified our understanding of this concept by adding the word ‘separate’. There is no separate self, and the addition of that word ‘separate’ changes everything, doesnt it? Suddenly instead of a being the lone subject of a disappearing act we are invited to celebratory reunion!

The Buddha taught that there is no separate self that we need to defend or prove worthy of praise. We begin to see how we build up this separate self —  the way male birds frigatebirds inflate their pouches or the way male turkeys fan their wings. All very fine for an avian mating dance, but for humans hoping to be seen, respected, loved or appreciated, self-inflation is a very unskillful and ineffectual ploy. Instead of drawing people in, we put people off. No deep connection can be made when we are focused on the impression we make.

What is it we really want and what’s a skillful way to get it?

At the core of our being we want connection, We want to feel we are a part of something larger than we are. We want acceptance, We want communion. We want safety so we can fall apart when we have to and not be kicked while we are down. We want to hear someone say things like, ‘I’m with you. I am here for you. We’re in this together. We’re a team. We’re soul-mates.’

Do you recognize that core hunger? It’s at the heart of each of us. Our tendency is to put this core hunger down and despise what we see as pathetic neediness. We might not even acknowledge that such a hunger exists because we have masked it with other goals and purposes. But if we can see the hunger as simply a human condition using unskillful means to get basic needs met, we might find that we can be kind, not just to ourselves but to others we deem as pathetic. Our intolerance is just a projection of our own internal discomfort with who we believe ourselves to be.

Mindfulness practice teaches us is to see clearly, to stay present with it and to not turn away. With compassion we acknowledge the hunger and befriend it. Not to make any resulting unskillful behaviors okay — ‘That’s just the way I am — deal with it!’ Not at all. This is a practice of investigation, kindness and discernment. When we get into the Noble Eightfold Path we will have more opportunity to explore what constitute skillful means to have our needs met while playing well with others and maintaining high standards of integrity. But for now we are learning to see the causes and conditions of the unskillfulness of our words and actions.

By seeing clearly and responding with compassion, our behavior is more skillful. It comes from an understanding our deep interconnection, not from a reactionary chain of ‘should’ commands that are inauthentic, short-lived and ineffective.

The Banquet Table
Through mindfulness practice, we see more clearly how our hunger is the hunger of a blind person starving in front of a banquet table.

A banquet table? Yes! Because we already are intrinsically connected to all that is and the only thing that keeps us from recognizing it is the very activity of pumping ourselves up into something separate to be admired, instead of allowing ourselves our full humanity and ease of connection.

When we can see our efforts to shore up a separate identity for what they are, we can let them go. When they arise, we can acknowledge them, own up to them, and see them as leftover from a habituated pattern we are consciously releasing.

These habituated patterns are not ours alone. We often can see them in others more easily than we see them in ourselves. Typically, the very things that irritate us most about others are projections of the things we ourselves do.

Striving to be seen, to be hailed as special and unique takes us away from connection. The achievement of such goals can leave us feeling even more separate and alone than we already felt.

Once we recognize the striving for what it is, we can release that hunger, that driving desire, and allow our natural expression of connection serve us and our community. We can bloom into full expressions of the qualities, skills, and talents we are given and develop.

We can stop operating from the idea we have something to prove, or something to hide, or something to fear, and recognize that we have something to give, something to share.

If you cling to the idea of being unique and special, then be unique and special as a snowflake. Snowflakes have more in common than what minor variations set them apart, and ultimately they land on the ground and become one field of snow. Then the snow melts — ah can you feel the joy of the thaw! The warming of the ground! — and what was snow becomes a flow of water returning to the sea. That’s us too. In this experience of being alive, we have taken this form of human. The conditions vary, just as do snowstorms. But we are alive in this moment to experience whatever it is, and we are not alone.

The Uniquely Unworthy Self
Sometimes we hold ourselves apart not to prove how special we are, but because we believe our ‘separate’ self to be unworthy. We attribute our being with a set of what we believe to be uniquely damning and shameful qualities.

Again, this is not the true nature of our existence. If this resonates, there is a lovely phrase that’s worth repeating to yourself like a mantra: The ocean refuses no river. In the Dances of Universal Peace it is a song.
We sang this together in class and it created a spacious way to hold all that we were experiencing with a gentle compassionate kindness that is so important if we are to ever discover the deep connection to this and every moment, to each other, to all beings, to all the elements, to all that is.

The Danger of Longing to Belong
When we feel this hunger to be special and to belong to something greater than ourselves, and don’t recognize it for what it is, we may feel honored, maybe even thrilled, to be welcomed into groups that accept us but don’t accept others. How effectively this feeds our dual desires to be both special and connected! In creating this club-y quality, we turn that hunger into a weapon for dividing all that is into ‘us against them.’ Throughout human history and in the current headlines there is that drive to divide and conquer. That is what we see played out again and again.

But our true hunger is not to be part of something contrived and divisive, but to be able to feel our connection with all that is. To sense our being as an expression of the great isness, called by many names, including God. When people claim the name of God for their club alone, they cripple the very God they worship by such limitation.

Personifying God is also limiting. How? We have just established that the Five Aggregates that make up body and personality are impermanent, so why would we ever attribute such traits to that that we hold to be an all-encompassing and infinite power?

It’s always a fine place and time to awaken
Our meditation practice is developing the muscle of consciousness with the intention of mindfulness, and sometimes we are gifted with resulting bare awareness of the infinite nature of being, of life in the moment as illuminated expression of isness. It doesn’t matter where we are. There are no perfect settings for awakening. Why do we think we need to go somewhere else or wait for some other time to find it? It’s right here in every moment, if only we are here, anchored in physical sensation and nurturing kindness and compassion.

In that illuminated moment, fleeting as it might be, insight pierces the illusion of linear time and an infinite unity of being is felt and seen. Ah! Once we have been infused with even the briefest experience of the infinite, it informs our being forever.

I encourage you to be available for those insights, but not to aggressively seek them out. There’s a quality of relaxing into the oneness that cannot be achieved or accomplished. It is a receptive quality. We are simply present, easeful and open, noticing the arising and falling away of experience, without expectation of what will arise or what will fall away. We sit with a relaxed alertness that creates a spacious stillness, and let that be enough.

If you can’t fathom how to do this, think about how you get a baby to settle down to sleep. Do you chase the baby around the house? Or do you quiet down in your own being, and share that sense of quiet with the baby. Reading Goodnight Moon and singing lullabies. You hold the baby, using a soothing voice, rocking gently, walking back and forth as we do in walking meditation. Just so we prepare our mind to quiet down — not to sleep, but to awaken!

The Core of the Teachings
Annata, no separate self, is at the very core of the Buddha’s teachings. It sits with the two other Marks or Characteristics: Dukkha and Anicca. Anicca we have been exploring continuously as we look at the nature of impermanence. Dukkha we will become more familiar with when we come to the Four Noble Truths. Dukkha is the sense of unsatisfactoriness that permeates life, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot, caused by how we relate to the nature of impermanence.

Our exploration continues! Please allow these words to sift through your awareness. Take in whatever resonates and let the rest go. There is no test! Instead there is the ongoing opportunity to contemplate the way we relate to our experience of life.

This is an experiential practice. Give yourself periods of silence when there is nothing but this moment to notice. If you think there is no time for such non-action, you are thinking way too much.

May we hold whatever we notice with awareness and compassion.

Consciousness, The Fifth Aggregate

As we look at each of the Five Aggregates that constitute the ways we experience being and what we hold to be ‘self’, we discover if we slow down and see each aggregate as it arises and falls away, we can hold it in a spacious way.

The fifth of the Five Aggregates is consciousness. With this aggregate we see the four others. We’re conscious of this body and all material form. We are conscious of feeling tones, whether something in our current experience is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We are conscious of cognition, how we interpret the experience based on acquired knowledge and past experience. And we are conscious of volition, the urges, impulses and intentions to change or extend the experience.

In class there were questions about semantics: What is the difference between consciousness, awareness and mindfulness?

  1. Because English is a conglomeration of other languages, we often have several words that mean the same thing, and to some degree these three words are used interchangeably. But I’ll try to make some distinction between them.
  2. There have been multiple translations from Pali and Sanskrit to English, so word usage varies.
  3. The Buddhist teachings, recorded in the Pali Canon after being handed down as an oral tradition kept alive by generations of monks, also use the same word to mean multiple things, depending on the context. For example in Pali the dhammas (The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness we are currently studying) is different from The Dhamma, the overall term for the teachings of the Buddha, aka natural laws. In this same way ‘consciousness’ is used in a more general way throughout the teachings, but is assigned a specific role here in the Five Aggregates.

For our purposes here, let’s say that:

Consciousness is what we and all beings experience when we are awake. “The patient has regained consciousness.” This doesn’t mean we are in top form and ready to focus necessarily. Perhaps we could think of it as the weak muscle we are working when we take on the practice of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a practice with intention: To be fully present in this moment, anchored in physical sensation; and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. We are studying The Four Foundations of Mindfulness, so it is a skill we develop through practice and study. With mindfulness practice, we exercise consciousness, turning it into a stronger ‘muscle.’

Awareness, as in ‘bare awareness’ is a spacious, alert but relaxed mind-state arrived at through meditation practice.

To continue, the role of consciousness is to provide a perceived continuum by weaving together a pattern out of a huge but intricate network of micro-impulse events, thus creating this experience we call reality. Think of the way a piece of film travels through a projector so that small individual image come to life on a huge screen. The Buddha called consciousness the magician, working in illusion. Consciousness creates patterns that help us to navigate in the world, assembling them into the collective agreement of a solid world that we experience. This is a big job and a useful one.

Because consciousness sees all of the other aggregates, we might feel that it is who we are. At every aggregate we grasp at the straw of identity, only to discover it won’t support that assumption. And here we are again. For something to be a solid separate self it needs to be consistent, permanent and governable. Does consciousness meet any of these criteria?

Consciousness sees erratically, doesn’t it? Sometimes we realize we have been on autopilot, going about doing habituated things, lost in thoughts and daydreams. Are we conscious when we fall asleep? Are we conscious when we are under anesthesia while having surgery? No. So consciousness is impermanent, and unreliable.

Even when consciousness is on the job, it is no more in charge than any other aggregate. It sees what’s going on, but it doesn’t oversee it in the sense of directing the others. It is pretty typical for us to think of consciousness as sitting inside the brain like the driver up in the cab of a monster earthmover truck, pushing the buttons and pulling the levers to make things happen. But consciousness is in the role of bystander to our experience, just a witness, not the driver at all. And anyway part of the time it’s asleep at the wheel!

At this point one student pointed out that we have now gone through all five aggregates, and not one of them is permanent, governable or in control. ‘So is there no self?’ she asked weakly, fearful of hearing the answer.

“There is no separate self.’ That is different from saying there is no self, isn’t it? No separate self means we are not isolated and alone, but intrinsically connected to all that is. This is great news!

This great news is called Annata. Coming to a place of understanding Annata, even if only briefly, can transform the way we experience life completely. Instead of grasping and clinging to a false sense of separate self with all the suffering that activity entails, we can instead rejoice in the moment-to-moment experience of being awakened to life.

Urges, impulses and intentions, oh my!

The fourth Aggregate is volition. Like feeling tones and cognition, this is a mental formation, made of thoughts and emotions. But unlike the others, volition is what causes action to take place. It is not the action itself, but the arising urge to act.
For example, we are in a conversation, have the compelling urge to say something and blurt it out. In the moment before we speak, there is volition. Maybe we don’t notice volition as we whiz right past it into speech or action, but it is there. And it is a guaranteed life-enhancer to spend some time understanding what really happens at that point of volition.

Thinking back, most of us can see that there have probably been occasions we wish we had paused to consider the wisdom of speaking or acting out. With mindfulness practice, we learn to take that pause, see the urge, the volition, and see if it is coming from a place of kindness and connection or if is arising out of fear in a hunger for approval or the need to defend our sense of separate self.

In sitting practice we might watch how feeling tones, especially unpleasant ones, spark volition. The desire to move, scratch or stretch, for example, rises out of nowhere and now we are sitting with it. Ordinarily we would scratch or move without even being aware that we did so. But here we are sitting with a strong intention to be still, present and compassionate. So we can see volition in operation, pushing hard for an action, taunting us to do something about this now seemingly intolerable situation of a leg falling asleep or some other physical sensation that calls out for action. We are still, creating with our attention to the breath or other physical sensation a quality of spaciousness and clarity. We watch how, as we continue to notice the volition, it eventually falls away.

This is not to say you ‘must not scratch or move’, because nothing will make us itchier or more restless than the idea that we can’t. But in simply noticing the volition, we can get curious. We can pause before acting to question whether it is necessary. Maybe it’s not. Maybe if we just sit and observe the volition, it will pass. It always does, but sometimes not soon enough and we find we are no longer able to sit with it. So we act. But that awareness is there. We notice. That’s the valuable skill of mindfulness we are developing.

Just like the other aggregates, we discover volition is insubstantial and impermanent, no matter how urgent it seems at the time. Unheeded, it dissolves into nothingness, sooner or later.

Volition is also ungovernable. We didn’t make up this itch. It happens in the field of our experience. We will either be mindless and act upon it, or mindful and discern whether the action it calls for is skillful.

Clearly this insubstantial, impermanent and ungovernable volition is not who we are, but it is a valuable place to rest our awareness because it is the place we have the opportunity to be skillful, creating ease and happiness instead of suffering.

There are two kinds of volition:

  • The first is volition that is conditioned by past actions that have set in motion the arising of the same destructive decisions over and over again.
  • The second is the conditioning decisions we make in the present that affect our current and future experiences.

Each of us has plenty of source material to look at as we develop mindfulness in our lives. We can notice the arising of a decision to do something. At that moment of noticing we can skillfully pause and examine the ‘strings attached’ to this volition, this urge to do something. We can notice:

  • What thoughts or emotions preceded the urge?
  • What cause or condition sparked it?
  • Does the cause resonate with some memory of a similar situation?
  • If so, are we reacting to some long ago distress that we haven’t faced and just use as a mindless basis to keep making poor choices?

Regular Insight Meditation helps us to see through the maze of patterned responses that seem to dictate our lives, the ones we have identified as ‘I’ ‘me’ ‘my’ and ‘mine’. This examination is non-judgmental, patient, kind but clear-seeing, so that the patterned excuses we come up with are seen as well. We create a safe space to be honest. Knowing that none of this is who we are, that we don’t have to shore up and protect our identity, we can acknowledge where we are unskillful and set the intention to be more skillful by noticing the urge to act or speak and pause there.

Developing the ability to be compassionate with ourselves and others, we are seeding our present and future with the conditioning volition of kindness, compassion, joy, wisdom and peace.

Here is a quote by a 19th century Buddhist teacher and poet, Patrul Rinpoche.
Do not take lightly small misdeeds, believing they can do no harm.
Even a tiny spark of fire can set alight a mountain of hay.
Do not take lightly small good deeds believing they can hardly help
For drops of water one by one in time can fill a giant pot.

We are most of us familiar with the term karma, but we have not discussed it in this class before. A discussion of volition is the perfect spot to look at karma. We can see how our urges, choices and decisions to say or do something have the potential to set in motion actions and words that determine how our future will play out. Through awareness and compassion, we are able to seed karma that has the potential to dissolve suffering.

When we see conditioned volition arising in the present from the seeds of greed, hatred or delusion we planted through mindlessness in the past, we can meet it with the conditioning seeds of kindness, compassion, generosity, peace and wisdom. At every point where we pause and choose wisely, we are laying the groundwork for current and future happiness.

Perhaps we get impatient for our mind to cease producing urges that are painful and destructive. If we can remember that these are leftover seeds and that we have in every moment the power and the opportunity to stop feeding them by acting upon them, then we can take heart in that. Each time those urges arise, if we meet them with compassion and wisdom, they lose their potency to take us on a wild painful ride of mindlessness.

In each moment we always have a choice of which seeds we feed, which volition we act upon.

What to do when we feel helpless

I attended a dharma talk by Rick Hanson this week about the Three Marks or Characteristics: impermanence (anicca), the universal sense of unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and no-self (anatta).

Then Thursday our traditional brief reading of an excerpt from ‘Pocket Pema (Chodron)’ also happened to talk about them. So I shared with the class a little of what Rick had said because I felt the way he explained the relationship between the three, rather than just listing them, was very useful.

He said that impermanence is a given. (This is exactly what we have been learning week after week in our exploration of the Five Aggregates.) But we have the choice of whether to react to it with the grasping, clinging and aversive reactions that cause suffering –dukkha, or respond to it with anatta, no-separate-self, and hold the impermanence of experience with ease and even joy.

So, thanks to Rick for that nugget of wisdom.

As we have looked at each of the Aggregates over the past weeks, we first recognize the quality of impermanence. All arises. All falls away. Sometimes immediately, sometimes eventually, but if you attend it closely you’ll see the process is always in cycles of motion.

Every moment is a pivotal moment of change. (If we stay present in the moment we can have a conscious effect on the nature of that change! If we are living in the past or future, whatever change we cause by our actions or words is unconscious, and therefore often unskillful.)

Wanting things to be permanent or imagining things to be permanent and reacting negatively to that belief causes us to suffer. (And when we suffer, we never suffer alone. We always cause suffering to others with our resulting unskillful words and actions.)

What a relief to discover that we do not have to shore up or cling to a sense of separate self in order to be happy.

So if you have been asking the perennial student question How will this help me in real life? here’s your answer!

Everything we learn as we explore the Buddha’s teachings, and as we create through meditation practice the opportunity to have our own insights, is for one purpose, and one purpose only: To create spacious ease and happiness in you, that you may be in the world as a conduit of loving kindness, compassion, joy and balance.

We all have created suffering through unskillfulness, and we have all witnessed how suffering in one person can activate sometimes extreme suffering in others. What can we do as witnesses? So much depends on the situation, of course, and one hopes that our practice gives us the presence of mind to respond skillfully. But even when we are thousands of miles away watching on television a horrific event unfolding before our eyes, as many of us did this past week, there is still something we can do.

We can send metta.

Metta is universal loving-kindness that is a powerful practice we can do at any time. It is especially useful when we feel overwhelmed and things seem to be spinning completely out of our control. Send metta to the victims, to their families, the first-hand witnesses, the responders, and yes, to the perpetrators of this act.

Whoa! What? Why would we send loving-kindness to them?

Think about it. Their incredibly unskillful violent means of making whatever statement comes from such an unstable delusional place. So we send metta to them.
‘May you be well.’ Yes, may you be well enough in you mind to understand that this is not the way to make your concerns known.
‘May you be happy.’ Yes, if you were happy in your own being, you would never have thought up this violent scheme in the first place.
‘May you be at ease.’ Yes, it is the dukkha-driven restlessness and dis-ease that brought this thought to painful action.
‘May you be at peace.’ Yes, if there were peace in your heart, you would never have thought up this action in the first place.

Although we don’t send metta with the hopes that people will be different from who they are, still metta does have transformative power. But it is only powerful if it is as generous as the sun, shining on all life, not just sent out selectively to the ‘deserving’.

We challenge ourselves to recognize that sense of no separate self. We cannot send metta only to sweet-faced children or baby animals. We make no distinction while sending metta between those who we think deserve a good life and those whom we might instinctively wish hell on earth for the suffering they have caused.

Metta is not a reward. It is a universal well-wishing that actively creates a peaceful world. Those who are kind and generous do so because it flows through them as a natural response to the goodness they know to be the world they live in, even as they see unskillful painful behavior erupting sometimes.

Those who do violence do so because that is the world they know, the people they hang out with, the path of least resistance. This is not to justify their actions. It is to settle the reactivity that forces more actions and reactions within the rest of us until the violence feels entrenched and permanent. It is not permanent. When we allow the violence of others to activate the same violence of spirit within ourselves, then we are seduced by Mara, the tempter*, into mindlessness and unskillfulness. So we say, as the Buddha said again and again, ‘Ah Mara, I know you.’ Because we do recognize that quality, we are tempted by it from time to time. But knowing it for what it is, we see through it. We are spacious in our minds and spacious in our hearts, radiating loving kindness to all beings. May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be at ease, may all beings be at peace.

* An interesting note for those of us who are Christians: A quote from ‘The word Satan comes from the Hebrew verb satan meaning to oppose, to harass someone; so Satan would be the tempter, the one to make us trip and fall, the one to turn us from God.’
The tempter, just like Mara, who tempted Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. And just as Jesus preached wholesome living, kindness and compassion, so did the Buddha.

The Wizard of Oz — A Buddhist View

We have been investigating the first three of the Five Aggregates, those ways we experience life that we typically mistake to be who we are. So far we have looked at material form, in particular our body; feeling tones, i.e. our likes and dislikes; and cognition — the way we process information, the body of knowledge we accumulate, our natural talents or the skills we develop.

The Buddha talked about the Five Aggregates as a magic show* you might find on the road. I just saw the movie Oz, the Great and Powerful, a tale in part about how much we want to believe in smoke and mirrors.

Movies themselves are tricks, the magic of light through frames of film flickering to create a sense of continuous movement. The first time anyone saw a movie on a big screen, it is said that the audience jumped up and began to run away when it looked as if a huge train was coming right at them. When they realized it wouldn’t come off of the screen, when they began to understand the concept of ‘screen’ and ‘projection’, they didn’t leave the theater disgruntled that it wasn’t real. They didn’t ask for their money back. They settled down in their seats to enjoy the thrill. Knowing it was a kind of magic made it all the more fun.

And isn’t that true with life? Doesn’t the fact that seemingly solid objects are not what they appear actually make life more interesting and less frightening? The world looks completely different depending on what lens we are looking through: the naked eye, the magnifying glass, the telescope, the microscope, etc. At each level we see a new world. Here are three examples:

Before microscopes showed the existence of bacteria, the medical community scoffed at the idea that hygiene was important to keep patients from contracting lethal infections. When it became common knowledge, the idea that there is all this microscopic aliveness going on everywhere was unsettling and it has taken a while to recognize that it’s okay, that not all microscopic life is bad. Much of it is important to our own health.

When we saw photos of the earth from space for the first time, it expanded our idea of reality and changed how we thought of the earth, inspiring us to take better care of it. We accept new views and develop the facility, the elasticity of mind, to handle these expanded views.

When through computers the world became broken down into patterns of zeros and ones, it busted open a whole realm of possibilities. Looking at a digital photo on the computer and zooming in, there is a point at which we actually see the edges dissolve, the little blocks of pixels in a variety of shades of colors looks more like a crowd scene than the edge of a face of someone whose ill-timed pimple we are kindly removing with a poke of a digital paint brush.

So we expand our understanding of the world and in doing so we begin to see that reality at any given moment truly is a collective hunch, our best guesstimate at this time, given the abilities and technologies we have at this time.

To see through a new lens in a new way can be frightening, like the train seeming to come off the theatre screen was frightening, but it is only our fear of the unknown, ingrained in our instinctive brain. Fight or flight kicked into action. When we are able to see more clearly, expand our understanding, then we are no longer frightened, but exhilarated. What a world we live in! How great to be fully present in this moment to experience it!

Let’s go back to the story of the Wizard of Oz we are all familiar with, where each character feels he or she is are lacking something — a brain, a heart, a home, courage. They follow the Yellow Brick Road. They’re ‘off to meet the Wizard’ who will give them what they lack. They go through a lot of challenges. They are truly on a quest.

In the end — spoiler alert! — the Wizard is just a magician behind a curtain with some mechanical tricks, not the looming booming ferocious-looking face that had them trembling in their shoes.

Who is it who reveals the truth? Toto! Dorothy’s dog, who until that moment seemed just a cheerful tag-along character, probably included so Dorothy would have someone to talk to before she came upon the other characters. But now it turns out that Toto, who was never on a quest, never in search of anything, just happy to be in the present moment, is the one that sees clearly in that moment of their great distress in front of the Wizard. Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal a simple human trying to make a bigger than life impact.

All the other characters had been searching high and low, taking advice from all and sundry on where to go and what to do in order to reach their goals. Toto didn’t need to search for anything. But he was alert and present enough to sense there was something behind the curtain.
Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Lion all feel a terrible disappointment when they see that the Wizard of Oz is just a little man behind a curtain. All this struggle and they are no closer to the goals they were seeking. Who could blame them for being frustrated or angry?

But then it turns out that once he is out from behind the curtain, the gentleman from Kansas is able to offer a little wisdom: The reminder that none of them are lacking for anything. The Scarecrow had shown he was quite smart. The Tin Man had shown he was capable of great love. The Lion had exhibited great courage. Even Dorothy who misses her home has not been lacking for family on her journey. And it turns out she had the key to return home on her feet the whole time. She just didn’t know that all she had to do was click her heels.

Click your heels right now. What do you notice? Awareness of physical sensation that brings you fully present. You are home wherever you are, as long as you are fully present and cultivating compassion.

When we are present and cultivating compassion, we can enjoy engaging in the world, even if it is no more solid or substantial than the Land of Oz. Just as we can enjoy movies even though they are not real, we can enjoy the experiences of our perception of the world around us, and yet at the same time be open to the possibility that it is not all exactly as it appears.

When children cease to believe in Santa Claus, there may be sadness and a desire to continue to believe, even though it’s causing suffering because kids are teasing them. We might tell them that while it is true that there is no substantial permanent physical Santa that magically squeezes his generous girth down chimneys all over the world in one night a year, there is the spirit of generosity that Santa embodies. We cultivate that sense of generosity within ourselves, so in a way we are each of us Santa. Isn’t that more magical? More fun? More inspiring? More empowering? We each have within us the capacity to make the world a kinder gentler place because we are deeply interconnected and a change in our way of being shifts the whole world.

This is also the way we can explain to ourselves how we can live in a world where nothing is quite as substantial, solid or nameable as we thought it was. We look at how our attachment to this tidy little idea makes us suffer. We suffer because we cling to it, long for it, mourn it, resist it, blame it or vilify it. We have all sorts of strong reactions to it that are just various forms of suffering.

If we can hold it in a lighter, more spacious way, a way that doesn’t have to be tied down and locked up, we can celebrate a lightness of spirit within ourselves. We can feel liberated from that powerful need to know. We can dance in the ‘I don’t know’ mind. That’s the gift of understanding that it is all a magic act or a moving picture. It doesn’t make it meaningless. It makes it a pleasurable gift that doesn’t send us into reactivity.

This is true with each of the Five Aggregates. Cognition identifies, collects, sorts and organizes sensory input. If we enjoy the process without attachment, without needing it to be permanent, solid and governable, then we are free!

So when we grasp and cling at this illusion of self in the form of any one of  the aggregates, we are following the yellow brick road instead of simply clicking our heels, being fully in the present moment, awake, aware and able to enjoy engaging in the collective creative illusion that is this wondrous gift of life.

In our class discussion, the idea of quest or path was brought up, including the idea that Buddha was on a quest and promoted a path.

As I see it, It was when the Buddha stopped questing, recognized the futility of such a quest, and simply sat down under the Bodhi tree with intention and clarity of mind that he became enlightened. And although he suggests the Middle Way, it is more ‘way’ in ‘a way of being’ rather than a yellow brick road with a destination. The Buddha was concerned with suffering and the end of suffering. There is great suffering in thinking that our happiness is elsewhere and that we must crawl on your hands and knees across a desert to get there. 

Stop questing! Start sensing in to physical sensation. Open your eyes and be here in this moment. This is the happening place! A place of delight we hold lightly, knowing that all is an illusion, a great magic show. Enjoy!

*The Buddha is said to have used the analogy of a magic show for just one of the Five Aggregates, consciousness, but I have taken the liberty to refer it to all, since they all have similar characteristics.