Making decisions

If you cannot make up your mind, just accept that. Simply stay in this “space”; recognize and accept what is happening. It is OK to feel indecisive, confused, or restless. Look at this mind state and try to learn from it. Whenever it happens, this is your practice…Thinking that you need to make a decision will only make things worse. If you can just stay with such a mind state and keep observing it, the mind will eventually settle down and make its own decision. Never try to force an issue. Just acknowledge, accept, and keep observing until things unfold naturally.

- Sayadaw U Tejaniya, Awareness Alone Is Not Enough, p. 161

These words were in response to a student asking his teacher about the self-judgment that was arising when he had trouble getting up in the morning for meditation practice. They apply to the most basic of decisions we have to make at a given moment, but are equally valuable if we are trying to make larger life decisions. Inevitably when talking about decision making, the issues of free will and determinism emerge – a topic that’s equally of interest in Buddhist and western philosophical circles. I’m not particularly well-versed in either, and I know that what I have to offer in particular as a writer is not academic in nature, but rather practical, so that’s what you’ll get here.

There was a time when I believed that “I” was deciding something, particularly when it came to the major things like dropping out of high school, going to college, quitting a job, dating a boy…I would employ all sorts of analytic methods for arriving at a logical decision, but in the end, it was always made at more of a gut level. Because it felt right. There is no doubt that mind and heart work in conjunction with the big questions in life, but in the end I’m not sure that anyone is actually making a decision. It just happens. Conditions line up, there’s cause and effect, things happen, conditions change, other things happen.

We can see this with all that occurs in our everyday lives. Take for example some basic bodily function like going pee, or eating a meal. Well, first, how about getting up? What is happening when the body wakes up after a night’s sleep? Do we decide to get out of bed? Or do things just happen? Rolling to one’s side, one foot on the floor, another on the floor. Bladder needs relieving, one foot after another moves in direction of bathroom…When people are severely depressed or intensely grieving, sometimes breaking down reality in this way is helpful for seeing that we are just experiencing one moment at a time. There’s no need to get overwhelmed when we can be more present in this way. Similarly, hunger arises, so food is prepared. We eat.

A Fork In The Road (Thailand)

Deciding to leave Burma, well, that was a bit more challenging. The last couple months were spent in a cloud of confusion, in anxiety over not knowing when was the right time to go, of not feeling ready. But the cloud lifted, clarity shone, and then the decision was made. I did not make a decision, the decision unfolded because the proper conditions arose – namely clarity. I sure did wish I had a copy of the I Ching at the time though!

Now, I’m faced with not so much confusion, but uncertainty. Where is this life headed? There is much more clarity about it than probably ever before, in terms of what ways I will be in the world. But what’s lacking are the specifics on how. As I’ve discussed previously, there’s a needing to be gentle with oneself. Fortunately, I have pretty much zero obligations and a very supportive family, so there’s not a whole lot of pressure. There’s an ability to just take it one step at a time, moment to moment. However, there are external circumstances that reinforce the idea that a decision must be made, even so. If I want to go back to school, for example, there is a window in which I can apply, and there are a ton of logistics that will have to be taken care of before heading back to Asia (if that’s what I end up doing).

So, this is where neither head nor heart is able to clear things up and I resort to divination! The I Ching is a phenomenal text, from which I will always be learning. Originally written in ancient Chinese, it’s difficult to capture the meaning through translation into modern languages, particularly Western. But there are a couple versions I have found that leave much room for interpretation, which is necessary for an oracle. The more one uses it, the more familiar one becomes with the lexicon and with the personal meaning contained in certain ideograms. I’m still a total tyro after 15 years. I only consult it with big decisions, though, so it’s not like I’m practicing with it all the time.

So the decision I’m currently grappling with — I consulted once, then two weeks later again. In both cases, it was abundantly clear that I am not supposed to act immediately. Whatever you believe or disbelieve (I’m pretty agnostic) in regard to these matters, it’s fascinating that this is what I end up with.

First, I receive 54: The Marrying Maiden. The gist of this hexagram is: you have to wait until the right time (or the right person). Don’t act in haste. You’re on a threshold and you must penetrate slowly as water. Be flexible and accept the imposition.

Second, I receive 52: Keeping Still (Bound). This hexagram is pretty unambiguous. Acknowledge the obstacle or limitation. Abide in stillness, stop! The image is of a foot stopping while in movement. The idea of being bound “articulates what is complete and suggests what is beginning”. One knows how and when to talk or to stop talking. One knows how to remain still in the heart.

The changing lines convert to 33: Retreat. The advice here is to withdraw and preserve one’s strength for the appropriate hour. The image is of retreat from the world, such withdrawal being constructive and necessary for one’s growth.

Certainly, these readings support the pre-existing sentiment around this particular issue for me, and one could argue that all the hexagrams are open enough to interpretation that this would be the case. Perhaps that’s true. But perhaps it’s also true that the I Ching is able to serve as a mirror, and that it taps into the subconscious and shows just what you need to see to strengthen your conviction. To help clear away the doubt.

If I did a cost-benefit analysis to help with resolving this question, it would be virtually impossible. Most of the benefits involved in any of this are totally unquantifiable. So I’m left largely to the heart, knowing that as Ramana Maharshi exclaimed: only confusion comes from confusion, and clarity from clarity (paraphrased, as referenced by Robert Wolfe). The thing that’s so extraordinary is that when it’s clear, it’s clear, and there’s no longer a decision. Maybe that’s one of the reasons the I Ching has become such a trusted friend.

Things just are the way they are.

Some resources on the subject of free will and decision-making

Ken McLeod, Unfettered Clips & Audio, “Making life decisions”

B. Alan Wallace MP3s on Free Will and Buddhism can be accessed here

(Ed. 8/30/2010) Meditation and Mental Freedom: A Buddhist Theory of Free Will (PDF), Ricardo Ripetti, Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 17, 2010

“Think you’re acting on free will? Think again.” via Wisdom Quarterly

Will Buckingham: “Thinking about free will”

Neuroscience and Free Will (video)

The I Ching translations I use most often

I Ching: The Classic Chinese Oracle of Change, Rudolf Ritsema & Stephen Karcher (1995)

Awareness for daily life

Awareness is your refuge:
Awareness of the changingness of feelings,
of attitudes, of moods, of material change
and emotional change:
Stay with that, because it’s a refuge that is
It’s not something that changes.
It’s a refuge you can trust in.
This refuge is not something that you create.
It’s not a creation. It’s not an ideal.
It’s very practical and very simple, but
easily overlooked or not noticed.
When you’re mindful,
you’re beginning to notice,
it’s like this.

- Ajahn Sumedho

“Awareness just is.” My teacher said through a crackled, hollow Skype connection half-way across the world. Regardless of the aural challenge, ears alert – in fact, hanging on every word – this simple sentence really broke open a stuckness I had been experiencing for nearly two months.

Ah, yes, awareness – that thing that always is, if we just tap into it. That thing that lies beyond conventional reality, concepts, beliefs, ideas, time and yet is the one constant. The one thing that is always there. As my Burmese teacher says, “just be happy that you are aware!”, even if that awareness comes from realizing that you were previously unaware. (This sentiment was also expressed in a recent post at Mind Deep.)

Awareness is not consciousness; according to Zen tradition, it is rather “the self prior to our parent’s birth”, at least so says Dainin Katagiri in Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life. Katagiri goes on to explain that it’s pretty difficult to know this “self” since consciousness is virtually always operating and carrying us away from one thought to another. The best way to research it, however, he says, is “to sit down and do zazen and let the flower of life force bloom in thusness.”

So, awareness is the essential self, and we get to know it deeply through the practice of meditation. There are Zen ways and Theravada ways of talking about it, and it seems the Dzogchen and Mahamudra teachings in Tibetan Buddhism particularly stress it as well. In fact, perhaps the one piece that is consistent — regardless of the method being taught, from what tradition the teaching comes, or what words are used to point to the Dhamma — is awareness. This is the crux of mind training and to realizing meditation as a way of life.

Awareness is something that we can and should be cultivating all the time. However, as Ajahn Sumedho and U Tejaniya both say, it’s not a creation; it’s cultivation in the sense of bhāvāna, the Pāli word for meditation. And while an awareness practice’s potential for deep insight is probably greatly reduced without formal meditation and time for intensive retreat, awareness in daily life has a lot of benefit in and of itself.

Even though I have not fully returned to a conventional life and am to some extent continuing to live in retreat mode, daily life is the core of practice right now. Why? Because the great majority of our day is spent in daily activity and not in formal meditation. And awareness is applicable to whatever situation we find ourselves in – whether we are doing chores, talking to friends, in meetings at work, driving, doing exercise, engaging in social media (that’s a tough one), practicing sitting or walking meditation, etc. There are lots of relevant quotes on what awareness and mindfulness consist of. If you follow the links you can see some of my favorites. But Charlotte Joko Beck, as always, gets right to the point with the following:

There’s an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichū, ‘Please write for me something of great wisdom.’ Master Ichū picked up his brush and wrote one word: ‘Attention.’ The student said, ‘Is that all?’ The master wrote, ‘Attention Attention.’ …

For ‘attention’ we could substitute the word ‘awareness.’ Attention or awareness is the secret of life and the heart of practice….[E]very moment in life is absolute itself. That’s all there is. There is nothing other than this present moment; there is no past, there is no future; there is nothing but this. So when we don’t pay attention to every little this, we miss the whole thing. And the contents of this can be anything. This can be straightening our sitting mats, chopping an onion, visiting one we don’t want to visit. It doesn’t matter what the contents of the moment are; each moment is absolute. That’s all there is, and all there ever will be. If we could totally pay attention, we would never be upset. If we’re upset, it’s axiomatic that we’re not paying attention. If we miss not just one moment, but one moment after another, we’re in trouble.

As a part of my own practice – of ensuring that this writing is supportive – in the next few posts I hope to explore different elements of our daily life practice including things like intention, the four right exertions (reflections on effort and wholesomeness), right speech, Wisdom 2.0, and aspects of relationship that serve as fodder for self-inquiry.

Until then, a couple of exercises that may be worth engaging in:

  1. Notice the state of mind when you first get up and when you go to sleep. What activity do you engage in and what’s the mood and thought content associated with the activity? And how do you engage in that activity?
  2. Per instructions from Andrea Fella’s daily life retreat, pick a recurring activity throughout your day (standing up, checking email, etc.) and make an effort to be mindful as you engage in that activity. See what you discover. If you realize you’ve forgotten to be mindful, just recognize that you’ve now remembered and see what that feels like…As U Tejaniya says, notice what the difference is between being aware and not being aware.

And some recommended reading / listening on daily life practice:

Every time you talk to someone on the phone or when someone approaches you, try to remember to check how you are feeling. What do you think and feel about that person? Throughout the day, whether at work or not, make it a habit to always check what kind of emotional reaction you have every time you interact with another person. How do you feel when the phone rings? Is the mind eager to pick it up quickly? You need to notice these things.

I really emphasize this moment of remembering. And what is helpful over time, is that you get familiar with what it feels like to be awake, to be aware — that moment of coming back into awareness. When you get familiar with that feeling, you’ll actually discover it happens a lot. It happens a lot to us throughout our day but we usually don’t recognize it because that moment of coming back into mindfulness is kind of subtle, and we generally leap onto what we’re paying attention to and start thinking about it, so we miss the fact that we’ve become mindful.

  • Interview with Charlotte Joko Beck posted at Ox Herding, originally published in Shambhala Sun, and an excerpt from Nothing Special: Living Zen published in Tricycle from which the above quote was referenced

Keep questioning!

After reading Toni Packer’s The Silent Question again, I am reminded why I don’t readily adopt labels and that proclaiming that I’m Buddhist could put me in a box that I don’t want to be in and that doesn’t reflect reality. The fact is I currently have a lot of saddha (faith or confidence) and I have to in order to meditate all of my waking hours. I am immersed in a Buddhist culture, am living with monastics and have dedicated my life solely to practice right now. We’ll see if things change upon leaving Burma, getting back to the States, etc., but what’s important is that this practice is about daily life, and about making meditation a way of living, so that’s why for the first time I feel a need to identify with the religion…but really, it’s the self-inquiry and the questioning that matters (which can be entirely independent of anything faith-based). And the learning. The direct experiential learning. My teacher said the other day that wisdom (paññā) is what makes life meaningful. Wisdom being a synonym here for knowledge, insight, skillful practice, all in terms of the understanding of ultimate reality (anicca, dukkha, annatā).

What this kind of meditative work comes down to (yes, if only it were so simple!), at least from a Theravadan perspective, is understanding the teaching of anicca or impermanence, dukkha, which is translated most often as suffering but also as unsatisfactoriness or stress, and anattā or “no-self”. Anattā is referred to more as emptiness in the Mahayana schools and across the board is probably the most important single element of the Buddha’s teaching even though he supposedly said: “I teach only dukkha and the ending of dukkha”. Of the three, the first two concepts are a little easier to grasp than the last one. The Four Noble Truths state that there is suffering; not that everything is suffering but rather that there is the experience of suffering. It’s a fact. It’s not something we have to believe in, just like we don’t have to believe in the sun and that it will come up tomorrow. Similarly, we intuitively understand impermanence through the loss and death we experience in our lives, and more simply in things like cut flowers or sunsets. And meditation allows us to explore these truths much more deeply. But at the core of it all is the attachment to self, to the identification of all that we experience as “me” or “mine”. So then the work requires that we investigate the concept of self and really understand what it is. So we ask questions like, “who is aware of this moment?”, “what is experiencing this pain?”, “what is hearing this sound?”, “who is it that knows this experience?”. Toni Packer describes this type of investigation, this effort to move outside of conceptual thought in order to gain some understanding of anattā, in the following passage:

“I remember going through all this many years ago, racking my brain about this ‘I’ and ‘me’, trying to get to the root of it while driving to Rochester on the interstate. And if you, too, are interested in finding this out, go quietly into it any time it comes up for you. It is amazing to experience this quandary, this wondering, and investigating into not-knowing, because it really seems to exercise the brain and allow it to move outside its accustomed pathways of talking and thinking. Questioning can shake it up. Loosen its stuckness. Like we’ve said before, ‘cracking the cement of language’.”

Everything we relate to, we do so in terms of our self; it’s the only way we know how. But we’ve also probably all had the kind of bare awareness where the ego just falls completely away (imagine being alone in a forest hearing the wind rustling the leaves, or the moment of inspiration when something creative just comes oozing out of your fingers). It doesn’t happen often, and usually we’re not trying for it, but it’s pretty powerful to tap into this awareness that’s always there but unfortunately hidden by our normal ways of thinking about the world.

Sayadaw U Tejaniya teaches the practice of moment to moment awareness and the development of wisdom. He begs us to see and know ourselves that pain, happiness, whatever object the mind relates to, that it is all just nature, heaps of mental (nāma) and physical (rūpa) process happening over and over. Arising and passing away relentlessly. There’s nothing to hold onto. The “I” and all the adjectives we use to describe it are a concept and only that. So any label or word that I use on here is just a convention, a means of communication. It is a pointing to, a representation of something factual, but it in and of itself is not. (See next post for more on this topic.) So, Buddhist or not doesn’t really matter. Questioning, investigation, meditative inquiry, and realizing wisdom – we can all do that.

I’ll end this post with a few quotes (that I’m retiring from elsewhere on the Inernet) from two important influences, both adamantly “non-religious” though deeply “religious” people…

“But being a religious person, I would like to question the validity of everything for myself. That is the essence of religion, which is humility. Not to accept anything unless you understand the meaning there of, personally in your life. If you accept without understanding, you will be imposing upon the mind. And then you are neither true to the mind, nor true to the meaning. The essence of religion, which is humility, lies in uncovering the meaning of life, uncovering the meaning of every moment, learning the meaning for ourselves.”
- Vimala Thakar

“In the space which thought creates around itself there is no love. This space divides man from man, and in it is all the becoming, the battle of life, the agony and fear. Meditation is the ending of this space, the ending of the me.”
- J. Krishnamurti

Minding the mind

So, I’ve escaped for a morning to Skype my sister on her birthday (just barely…roused her from sleep at 11 PM) and to do a little grocery shopping. It’s the beginning of week 9 here and it’s the first time I’ve left the center other than two short trips by foot to the village to buy fruit and cookies. Amazing how time flies when you’re doing virtually nothing.

It occurred to me that the work that we’re doing here, it’s really like rehab for the mind. Sayadaw U Tejaniya teaches continuity of mindfulness, with an emphasis on watching and understanding the mind and how feelings, perceptions, opinions, and thoughts influence and reinforce each other. It’s certainly no quick fix. When you take a good look, you find there’s a lot of bad mind habits (which manifest particularly in the form of greed and aversion). Meditation is the work of developing good qualities of mind. Easier said than done. Old habits die hard. As anyone who has struggled with an addiction knows, it’s the craving for the object of desire and the remorse or shame that results if we give in to that desire that causes us to suffer. We have these same mind habits around almost everything we feel, sense, perceive, remember, project, experience period. So I’m here de-conditioning, un-training, and re-wiring the mind so that I can suffer less and hopefully naturally cultivate loving-kindness, generosity and wisdom while I’m at it.

The unfortunate thing is that while I’ve greatly simplified my life in coming here and removed so many of the distractions that I have been known to have unhealthy relationships with, I cannot remove the mind! And the mind is the problem. It’s also the same tool that can see through the delusion it has always suffered, but it is unwieldy and the patterns of behavior so entrenched that one must be very patient and willing to persevere many setbacks.

If “meditation is the science of the mind” as Ayya Khema put it, then it’s probably the most difficult thing we’ll ever study. Even though we can investigate and know the mind in every moment of every every day with right effort, this kind of thinking and understanding is so far from what are minds are wont to do. I realize it takes a lot of faith in the Dhamma (the Buddha’s teaching or reality) to keep at this. Even though my mind is only just starting to calm down, so many weeks into this full time, I understand so much better how much I value solitude; because it is only in quiet, still reflection that we can build up the strength of concentration to truly be mindful and to learn about the way we experience and judge everything that touches our sense doors. We keep so busy in modern life that we rarely have any insight into what’s really going on inside. And I think for most people it’s scary, because there’s a lot ugly stuff that might get uncovered. But the thing is it’s not personal. We all have the same mind. It’s just nature, as U Tejaniya says.

The contrast of the life I’m leading now to the one I lived in New York is so immense, so extreme. I cannot imagine going back to the running around, constantly working and internetting, entertaining, producing, consuming, etc., of that urban life. At the same time, Shwe Oo Min is not a really strict place, and there are plenty of opportunities to slacken in the practice and many distractions. There’s quite a bit of socializing, which is good practice because for me this is all meaningless in the end if I cannot integrate it into relationship with others and into a more worldly life.  It does make it harder to establish a relaxed state of mind, but that’s reality. As is this dark internet cafe in a strange shopping plaza in Yangon. But I’m thinking it would be nice to get back to the other one, so that’s it until the next installment.

Almost forgot to mention that I’ve put in a request to extend my visa so I may be with similarly intermittent communication until February or March. May you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be free from suffering!

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