Postscript on vulnerability

First, I want to assure you that I am quite well! The experience I shared in the last post was a wonderful opening for me, not something I am upset about or wish had been different. Not at all. It was exactly the teaching I needed at exactly the right time. Isn’t it always?

Second, I want to say how incredibly privileged I feel to have people who aren’t just reading what I’m writing here, but are thinking about it, reflecting on their own experience, sharing and dialoguing, and just generally being supportive–allowing this to be much more than one meditator’s personal narrative. It’s really a testament to the ability of our current technology and this particular manifestation of “sangha” to build authentic community. One which is coming and going, continually evolving, and discovering its various strengths and weaknesses. So, thank you, thank you so much.

I shared what I did in the last post for whatever reason I did. Part of what this blogging practice is about for me is accepting that I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t because I wanted consoling or defending. It wasn’t really even about me or the guy interviewing me or that particular experience. It was intended as more of a genuine exploration, as a part of the inquiry. So I guess I was a little surprised that a number of people were concerned about my wellbeing and felt I was being “too hard on myself”. I applaud Nathan for not only saying maybe I shouldn’t be too soft on myself, but for taking what I had shared and expanding upon it, applying it to his own daily life and practice and emphasizing the importance of “paying attention to patterns of disconnection and avoidance…even if it’s just little incidents.”

I wonder if you noticed how you felt reading the post? How did the heart react to my vulnerability? Did it make you uncomfortable? Did you respond in the way you did because it was what you believed I needed to hear or because it was what you needed to hear? What might you be projecting about the story, about me? Were you identifying in some way? And to pick up on K’s comment, re the immediacy of this mode of communication, did you sense any desire or aversion motivating your action? Whether it was stopping reading mid-post, or commenting on the post, or whatever? Because it happens right here, right now. Nowhere else. This closing and opening of the heart. And it’s absolutely no one else’s responsibility. As Aly said, in the end, “it doesn’t matter what he/she was or wasn’t projecting–just use it!”

And a last word on the crucial need for flow between the inner and outer aspects of practice, from Nathan:

“[R]egardless of form, whether long retreat, ‘practice intensive,’ or just a daily sitting practice or sutra study – none of it necessarily leads to being a more open, vulnerable, and alive person. The threads often need to be deliberately teased out, so that the introspective insights are translated into awakened relationships based on love, vulnerability, and wisdom.”

Yes. And here’s to that awakening, that awakening to deeper and deeper love…

Opening to vulnerability

Chris Rand

This practice is really about deeper and deeper love. That’s what my teacher Doug says. It’s true, I know, but there are so many walls up still. It’s quite difficult to plow straight into the heart. And it’s much easier to just keep it all nice and intellectual, even in the practice itself — to somehow divide mind from heart. But, that’s just not how things actually are. And it catches up with you.

Last week I had an interview of sorts. There was a lot invested in the one half-hour I was allotted, and due to train delays, etc., I was running late. I arrived with a ton of nervous energy and was over-heated, hurriedly pulling off layers as I sat down across from this stranger. There was a smile on my face that didn’t go away well into the conversation. It was a smile that, though perhaps genuine on one level, was belying what was actually happening inside. And the person with whom I met was an incredibly perceptive person. And he turned the lens inward, and forced me to look at that disconnect. He challenged me in so many ways, (and I was uncomfortable in so many ways!). The visceral reality of the pain in my cheeks — because I could not get them to relax, try as I might — and the rawness that emerged in the middle of my chest were together perhaps one of the most intense felt experiences I’ve ever had. I did not want to make myself vulnerable because if I did, the tears were going to fall.

You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation…and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else.–Herman Hesse

Here I was relating. Here someone was giving me the incredible, unconditionally loving, gift of reflection. And boy, did it hurt. There was so much contraction! Fear. “Don’t want to look, don’t want to feel, don’t want to know.” Here I am, dedicating my life to the work of self-inquiry and meditation, and someone holds a really clear mirror up to me and I realize there’s a virtual fortress around my heart.

It started with the question: “Can I be real with you? Can I challenge you?” And then, an observation about how I was relating. And it was not what I would want to hear. Specifically, he told me that I was alienating him. The words I was using were alienating. Here I am, wanting so badly to connect, to relate, to open my heart and all it’s doing is closing. All I could think was, “wow, do I really do that?” Am I just alienating people all the time? Am I putting up barriers so that I don’t have to be vulnerable? So that I don’t have to look at these soft spots? Have I alienated you, dear reader, friend?

Where the self, the ego, the me is, love is not. –J. Krishnamurti

It was difficult to talk about “me”. It became clear in the context of this conversation that I have conditioned myself to talk in generalities, not about my mind, but about the mind. And it’s useful–it’s a way to intellectually encourage an understanding of anatta, of things not being personal. But perhaps it has been premature, in the sense that there hasn’t been enough experiential understanding. Perhaps there’s a sterility there and, as a result, a distancing. And then there’s all the conditioning of just not being in my body. Not being heartful. Being so much more comfortable analyzing, theorizing, reading, talking, etc., rather than just being itself. Experiencing as it is. Opening up to all the story lines that make up my suffering. Allowing them to unravel as part of this process. If I don’t do that–if I just say “oh, they’re not real anyway”–then I’m ignoring, detaching. I’m acting out of fear and aversion. And that’s not wisdom.

Sometimes I think that’s why I don’t write. Why I have trouble writing substantive emails. Why I have trouble writing more often here. It’s that perennial tension of wanting intimacy (thus I generally only relay personal experience) but fearing it at the same time–with every expansion, there’s a contraction. Undoubtedly, after pressing the publish button on this post, it will be followed by the exclamation: “Doh! Why’d you go and do that?” And that’s why being in a situation where there’s no running away, no distracting oneself — whether in a conversation with someone who’s not going to let me hide, or on retreat — is so important. If all you can do is sit, lie down, or walk, essentially do nothing, a lot of “people” are going to show up for tea (see Ken McLeod’s “Something from Nothing”). And if you’re willing to meet them, there’s a lot you can learn. The walls go up every time I insert media, Internet, book, etc., into the mix instead of just feeling whatever is being felt, instead of just knowing what’s being thought. There’s so much distraction from “me”. And it means that if someone is going to meet me in that space of vulnerability, I’m going to have a much harder time meeting them because, if I can’t meet myself intimately, how am I possibly going to meet another?

Yes, this practice is about deeper and deeper love. And it starts right here.

Thanks to Parabola for the Hesse quote.

Solitude and the mirror of relationship

reflecting solitude

by Ebru Sidar

A commenter on a previous post asked “I wonder if you have read the story of the great Zen master Bankei?” And then proceeds to tell the story: “He was on retreat for 10 years and nothing changed in his life. One day he discovered his own Unborn Buddha mind at the age of 26. From that time on he taught only that. He told others all the retreat and practices are basically meaningless. They are all just ‘Zen devices’. Retreat or no retreat makes no difference. The only people qualified to teach the Dharma are those who have experienced it directly, and then they do not teach. Those who know, do….those who do not know, teach.”

I wasn’t familiar with the story of Bankei, but it’s not an unfamiliar story generally speaking. Certainly the questions of whether retreat practice is important or not, or whether women or men are given equal opportunity as monastics, etc., are not remotely relevant in terms of absolute reality, but they do have bearing in terms of conventional reality; and since much of our lives operate within this plane, it may in fact be of some value to consider such questions. However, with that being said, in my own experience, practice is all of life, so at least the question to which the commenter is referring is sort of moot. It’s only in moments of doubt that the question even emerges: how am I living in this world?

I’m fascinated by the statement: “Those who have experienced it directly…teach. Those who know, do…those who do not know, teach.” But that’s not what I want to discuss.

I will discuss how intentionally living a life of solitude (in my case, initially on retreat and now less so, but still to a certain degree) has influenced my perspective on things. I also feel like it’s worth following up on another post, in which I discuss the difficulty of expectation, both in terms of practice and relationship – which are of course totally intertwined.

The question is what is relationship? Be related to everything. Relationship means care; care means attention; attention means love. That is why relationship is the basis of everything. If you miss that, you miss the whole thing.―J. Krishnamurti

If this practice isn’t about relationship, fundamentally, then I’d question what awakening means to the person who claims as much. Whether it’s realizing the no-self, the Self, or the nature of mind–whatever you want to call it, waking up has something to do with seeing the illusion of separation. Embedded in that is relationship. Relationship of observer to observed, of mind to object, of self to other. Buddhist practice and meditation are then not about disengaging with the world but rather engaging with it fully. But this daily life practice, practice in relationship (which is really all of practice, since the body and mind are always relating to experience), can be difficult to do with no support system, with no conditions ripe for cultivating stillness and solitude. Why? Because of deeply embedded habit patterns, grooves of behavior, conditioning. Because, from Reggie Ray: “Relationships stir up the toxins in us, to the surface.” Particularly those where physical intimacy is added to the equation, and much for that reason, I assume Joshu Sasaki says: “The best monastery for Americans might in fact be marriage.”

What’s so complicated is, while relationship itself is the default experience of life, we can’t entirely choose to be in romantic relationship. By far, more than any time in my life, there is real contentment in being alone. I have no interest in dating or casual encounters, certainly. And the prospect of having to make life decisions with only myself to consider is not as daunting as it once was. I credit intensive retreat practice and deep solitude with allowing this acceptance of what is, this clear seeing into our fundamental aloneness. Thanks to a couple of good friends for making me admit it, the undercurrent of my expectation post, however, was that I would like to have more intimacy in my life – namely because I see the mirror of relationship to be an important, if not the most important, element of this practice. And in order to spiritually evolve and grow as a human being, I think it’s essential to be in relationship; and those that trigger the difficult emotions which help us the most can be that much more valuable as a result. But how to want this without attaching to any particular expectation?

One might say that looking for love at all is looking for it in the wrong places, because behind that there is the idea that we can do something to make love happen or create it or somehow through a serious search, discover it or lure it out of hiding. This very activity of looking with a result in mind is somehow off the mark. In this there is something a bit too controlled or contrived; too much of “me”; that “me” that is the source of separation.―Doug Phillips

Meanwhile, I live my life between the extremes of solitude and engagement. I live in the woods, where I don’t see a whole lot of people. I don’t go to work every day, dealing with the ins and outs of those relationships. I’m not making many new physical connections. Much of the relating is actually virtual through social media and email. And then, 180 degrees away from that reality, I go to the nursing home. And I am present. I bear witness. I invest in a relationship that I know must end, and far too soon. I share intimately with another human being at a time when he or she is suffering immensely — physically, emotionally, spiritually. There is no expectation, there is no need for reward or acknowledgment, there is no distraction, no reactivity, no impatience. There is just being. Bringing loving attention. It is amazing practice. I hope to find a way to make this something which can also be a livelihood, as much as I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I’m working on it, slowly but surely.

At the same time, in the absence of a love relationship, I choose to be with my parents (among other practical concerns) because they have to be the next best thing to a partner in terms of drawing out the defilements, in terms of triggering all the habit patterns that I am most averse to in myself. It is ugly and painful much of the time, but it is also enriching, especially in those moments of clear seeing: ah, this is this several-decade old storyline, there’s nothing to believe here! But it has gotten to be a little much. And I’m taking a break.

Back to Burma in less than two weeks. One and a half months is all I can do this time, because of an obligation here at home, though self-retreat may follow that period. Like an introvert needs time alone to recharge, this practitioner needs retreat to calm the storms that have begun to brew as the momentum of prior conditioning has grown stronger. So too, retreat from this forum for a while. I’ll check in from time to time, if not here, then Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook.

Do I think we need retreat to wake up? No. Do I think we need relationship to wake up? Yes. Can we entirely control the way our life unfolds? Do we just go out shopping for a meaningful vocation? A spiritual partner? Enlightenment? Of course not. But, whatever life doles out, all of it is practice. All experience serves its purpose and we do our best to learn its lessons moment by moment. With an open heart and mind, to a continuing unknowing, this wanderer travels…

Ah, the wonders of social media: thanks to Dharma Ocean Foundation (via Facebook) for the Reggie Ray quote today and to Whiskey River (via Twitter) for the Joshu Sasaki quote, also today.

More Reading

J. Krishnamurti, “The Mirror of Relationship: Love, Sex and Chastity”, Bombay, February 13, 1966

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, Sylvia Boorstein, John Tarrant, Polly Young-Eisendrath, Love & Relationships: What the Buddhists Teach, Shambhala Sun, November 2008

See also Susan Piver, e.g., “Love, Buddhism and Marriage Vows” and John Welwood, e.g., “Intimate Relationship as Spiritual Crucible”

A revolutionary view on relationship

When one has a dedicated meditation practice, one of the things that is unmistakable in watching our thoughts, bodily sensations, reactions, emotions, mental wanderings, and the like is that everything is impermanent. Anicca. How does the idea of a committed partnership or love relationship reconcile with this very basic fact of life, the arising and passing of everything? In many ways it doesn’t. And yet, there is such a good reason to work at it, and commit to relationship as practice, as long as we keep in mind the following reflections / remembrances.

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

I am of the nature to have ill health.
There is no way to escape ill health.

I am of the nature to die.
There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change.
There is no way to escape being separated from them.

My actions are my only true belongings.
I cannot escape the consequences of my actions.
My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Remembering this, I believe there is a totally different way of approaching relationship. Below are some excerpts that speak to this revolution. And if you haven’t read any J. Krishnamurti, his writings / talks on relationship are essential teachings. He had a strong influence on both Toni Packer and Vimala Thakar. More on K in another post.

JokoWhy are relationships such excellent practice? Why do they help us go into what we might call the slow death of the ego? Because, aside from our formal sitting, there is no way that is superior to relationships in helping us see where we’re stuck and what we’re holding on to. As long as our buttons are pushed, we have a great chance to learn and grow. So a relationship is a great gift, not because it makes us happy–it often doesn’t–but because any intimate relationship, if we view it as practice, is the clearest mirror we can find.

- Charlotte Joko Beck, from Everyday Zen: Love & Work

More from Joko Beck’s dharma heir, Barry Magid (teacher at Ordinary Mind Zendo, NYC)

tonipacker…We think, we dream, and we talk about happiness and security. We also talk and dream about love–imagine it, long for it, pray for it, promise it to each other, and pursue it strenuously. But genuine happiness, security, and love aren’t products of anything. They cannot be made intentionally. They cannot be possessed. And if they are dreams and ideas they are not genuine. They come uninvited when the mind is still and open, not engaged in the conflicting movements of self-centeredness. They arise unexpectedly when the mind is not in want or fear and therefore not in pursuit of anything…

…Discovering, understanding, and caring do not arise in a mind that is enclosed in fixed ideas about itself and others. In living together, can there be openness and genuine interest in whatever my be coming up in both you and me at this moment–be it desire and longing, prejudice and fear, tenderness or tension, anger or pleasure, misunderstanding, loneliness, rejection, blockage, a feeling of isolation or whatever?…

…What does it mean to see each other exactly as we are? Past memories about ourselves and each other are not what we are right now. Memory is an incomplete and inaccurate recording of the past. Now is something entirely different. Quietly looking and listening now is not memory. It is an entirely different mode of mind. It is a cleansing of perception…

…Can we human beings share life on earth together without trying to own each other or trying to get rid of each other? The idea of possessing each other gives an illusory sense of security. Along with it inevitably goes the fear of losing what we have become accustomed and attached to.

With the loss of another–real or imagined–comes the pain of grieving, of feeling forsaken, abandoned, lost, and sorry for oneself. With the idea of losing someone to somebody else comes the agony of jealousy, anger, hate and violence. One can verify all this thoroughly by oneself.

We may cling to each other for fear of losing each other, but possessing someone has nothing to do with love. Possessions cause pride as well as fear, dependency, and sorrow. Love knows no fear and no dependency. It has no possessions and no attachments. Love is without sorrow…

- Toni Packer, from “LIving Together”, The Work of this Moment

Everything called into question

So there were two parallel transformations going on while I was in Mongolia. The first involved the putting into daily practice one of the deepest heart connections I have ever experienced with another person, and had previously had in an almost exclusively verbal and intellectual realm from afar; and the second involved seeing how simply people can live and contentedly so.

Ultimately, I was being faced with the decision between freedom and security. I chose freedom, even though it certainly felt like it was being chosen for me.

Vimala Thakar, who died in March of this year, has been an incredible influence on me in the recent past. Her writings resonate with my own experience of life and meditative inquiry in a way that really encourages me on this particular path. Recently, I came across a passage on love, and it struck me.

“Love is a state of being in which one has arrived at the humility to act without the ego; in which one does not want anything from anyone in the world; in which one does not want to use life as a means to an end, but is satisfied in living life as an end in itself. Such a person is capable of loving.”

So which one of us is capable of loving or knows anything about love as so defined? It is so far from our conventional concept of love and yet, it makes so much sense. To dispose of judging, comparing, preferring, and the desire for security that is translated into the “love” relationship, would seem to me to be the only way to truly love. But how many of us actually do that? Or even want to do that?

Although family ties are extremely strong in Mongolia, and those who follow a traditional lifestyle in the countryside live in a one-room circular home with extended family members, with no privacy and very circumscribed divisions of labor based on gender; I would still suggest that their lives are more representative of freedom than security. When one is not presented with options on how to live, it may seem that this is bondage, but I would argue that in some ways it is the incessant choice that we are provided and the fear of change that really chains us (but mostly the bondage of the mind!). In Mongolia, the livestock are free to roam and the dogs are always unleashed, even in the cities. Most of the land, which is so sparsely populated and strikingly beautiful, is considered common (i.e., not private property). These things affect a culture. I spent several days living with a reindeer-herding community, and each day was shaped by birth and death. Quite literally. How can you argue with the law of impermanence under these conditions?

Meanwhile, I am putting so much energy into getting to know and understand this other person, this person who I feel so incredibly compatible with on every level. I am truly cherishing every interaction we have (in the 24 hours a day that we are together) because of the ability the relationship has to serve as a mirror, and to reveal my reactions, my own grasping and rejecting mind. And I want it to be forever. I want this to be the person I grow old with and do the hard work with. And I want it so badly that I can’t accept any other possible outcome. But when it involves another, it is ultimately out of our control. Nothing I could do to change that.

But perhaps this ideal partnership is not my path, either with this person or anyone else for that matter. And how much self I clearly have to lose to approach a relationship with another person without that grasping and desire, with a motive of pure interest and inquiry. Free of the conventional measures of “progress” and “success” in life that are attached to concepts of marriage and family, I realized upon my return to New York that the way I had been living my life was for exactly this projected future. But what about now? What about living my life for now? Well that’s what I am going to do from now on.

While Mongolia and this brief but intense relationship were catalysts, the trajectory of this particular life has been fairly steady in fact. As the inquiry has become more and more focal to my life, and the practice of Vipassana the mechanism by which I best come to understand the movements of the mind – the insights of which I can then translate into all relationship – I realize that this is the only direction I can go that won’t make me continue to feel dis-integrated. In order to actualize love, there is no doubt that I must fundamentally change my life and discover the truth alone.

Within three days I had a plan. Quit my job, get out of my apartment lease, place my dog in the care of my parents, sell / give away my earthly possessions and return to Asia. And specifically, engage in a three-month self retreat because I don’t think any less is enough time to really discover the silence of the mind; and do so in Myanmar because, that’s where the heart of Vipassana is; and go so far away because I really want to commit to this path (with no possibility of escape) and I want to be in Asia on the other end. I am completely surrendering to the unknown and letting life move me. This is freedom.

To end with words from Vimala:

vimala“We do not know what is the movement of total energy within us. And in that silence, when energy is not dissipated, is not scattered in any direction whatsoever, the movement of that total energy brings about mutation, transformation. That movement of total energy may be called: movement of innocence; movement of ever fresh, ever new light of life. I may call it movement of renunciation: a person moves in life without wanting to acquire anything psychologically from anyone in the world. He moves without expecting, anticipating, selecting, or rejecting. He sees life as it comes. He understands life as it unfolds itself. He watches life, but does not try to impose himself upon it.”

Excerpts taken from Mutation of Mind (1972)

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