Every once in while, a line we read or hear will leap out at us. Today, that line came from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who writes: “The self loathes suffering and loves the causes of suffering.”
I think what rang true for me was how succinctly this truth was expressed, and how absurd of a paradox it is that we live this way. And yet, we all have this self, and we do the best we can with it, amidst all its complexities and ironies.
The complete quote from the book “What Makes You Not a Buddhist”:
“From time immemorial we have been addicted to the self. It is how we identify ourselves. It is what we love most dearly. It is also what we hate most fiercely at times. Its existence is also the thing that we work hardest to try to validate. Almost everything that we do or think or have, including our spiritual path, is a means to confirm its existence. It is the self that fears failure and longs for success, fears hell and longs for heaven. The self loathes suffering and loves the causes of suffering. It stupidly wages war in the name of peace. It wishes for enlightenment but detests the path to enlightenment. It wishes to work as a socialist but lives as a capitalist. When the self feels lonely, it desires friendship. Its possessiveness of those it loves manifests in passion that can lead to aggression. Its supposed enemies – such as spiritual paths designed to conquer the ego – are often corrupted and recruited as the self’s ally. Its skills in playing the game of deception is nearly perfect. It weaves a cocoon around itself like a silkworm; but unlike a silkworm, it doesn’t know how to find the way out.”
– Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
I thought today about this blog and how I couldn’t remember the last time I posted on it. There’s a tendency, once something has been neglected for so long, to just leave it alone and let it die. Then it occurred to me that the same thing happens to a meditation practice, or yoga practice. If we get out of the habit, our inertia keeps us away. So I resolved to do something about it and write anyway.
Lately, I changed my homepage on my internet browser to a website that posts dharma quotes each day. This one is impressive, often with four or five new quotes a day:
It’s nice to think about starting my time on the computer with a gift of a thoughtful reflection, or reminder of larger concerns.
Yesterday in the kitchen, my roommate dropped a jar of raspberry jam on the tile floor. Actually, she almost threw it in her awkward attempt to catch it mid-flight, smashing it completely. After the delicate barefoot avoidance sweeping and sponging up the mess, she later lamented to a friend: “what a waste of jam. I just opened it.” The friend smiled and just said: “it was an offering!”
This brought about a memory on a teaching I heard from Reb Anderson at Green Gulch, who proposed that gifts are not only something to be done in the here and now, but could be given in the past. That it was always possible to transform what you thought was a loss into a gift. A parking ticket that cost you hard-earned money becomes a gift to the city who desperately needs it to maintain the roads. And as my roommates’ friend suggests, anything could be an offering to the divine, to an unknown spirit, to God, or to the Universe where nothing ever goes wasted. It’s only a different frame of looking at things, but while dwelling on loss usually brings disappointment and regret, this is the frame of mind that can bring peace.
While sitting today, I thought about how I sometimes feel as though nothing is learned by meditation. But today, it occurred to me that might be true cerebrally, but perhaps not so much physically. Meditation gets stillness into the body. The body tangibly feels what it means to stop and not do, to consciously and willfully be okay with inactivity. This is a difficult thing to convince the body to do in language, in intention, or in promise. The body doesn’t necessarily listen to the mind’s provocations, but in the experience of sitting still, day after day, the body comes to its own understanding and acceptance.
Of course, the body and mind are not two different things as we typically think of them. The effect of quieting the body is often directly linked to quieting the mind. It could happen the other way around too, but since we are so much in our heads as a culture, it helps to re-orient to physical grounding that then radiates in sympathy from there. Perhaps even to others whom we encounter along the way.
This morning, I was struck again how the space of meditation is a place for freedom. Typically, our conception of freedom is the ability to do whatever we want. But meditation offers a different view of freedom: a liberation from having to do anything at all.
Paradoxically, these exact opposites might be much closer than we think. What is clear is that when we don’t feel free, it is because we believe we have to do something we don’t want to; some responsibility, some obligation, some authority directing our actions. And, often, it is good that we feel this responsibility, because the world needs help. But some time sitting quietly opens up the space for liberation from even our own authority, which attempts to direct our lives and tell us what to do.
This can happen inside of meditation as well, the mind can become autocratic, insisting that it’s not being done right for one reason or another. But pursued far enough, the absurdity of this position becomes clear. There is no reason you can’t think in meditation. You don’t have to follow the breath. You don’t have to be some perfect practitioner. There are always guidelines, which can help if we don’t know where to go next, but as soon as the oppressive feeling of any kind of authority arises, we can relax and remember that this is a safe space to not have to do anything or be anyone.
While listening to a recorded talk this morning, I was reminded of an expression that Shunryu Suzuki Roshi made in Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind:
“To give your sheep or cow a large, spacious meadow is the way to control him. So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them. The best one is to watch them, just to watch them, without trying to control them.” (p.32)
In the talk I heard, various other examples were substituted for “people,” such as the mind and desires. Of course, the way that is recommended by a Zen priest to give space to your cows is to sit in meditation. This pausing in the day to return to basics is a widening of the pasture of life.
It is often heard that city life is hectic, stressful and overwhelming. I believe this is due mostly to excessive input: everywhere we look, information is coming in and we have to synthesize, form opinions, react . . . it can get exhausting. This is why so many cities have a vent, a place to go and get away from the stimulus. A beach on an ocean or lake, the mountains, or a large park are useful places to detangle from the input and push the reset button.
Similarly, meditation can do this, by providing the space for thoughts to wander themselves out without getting an accelerating push from additional stimulation. By realizing there’s nowhere to go, the mind can quiet down a little bit and some rejuvenating space can appear. The cow wanders contained in the pasture, but with enough space to feel the possibility of movement.
After breakfast this morning, I walked back into my room with a vague intention to meditate or practice yoga. I saw the computer, conveniently sitting on the desk. It’s only sleeping. A simple brush of a keystroke will wake it up and bring to me the infinite and addictive world of information and connection. This is a familiar pull, the lure of the screen. Living in the Bay Area, I see a tremendous number of people on the street, or waiting for a train, or on the bus using screens. Interacting with their electronic devices. Getting things done, being efficient, or avoiding boredom. I do it too. But sometimes the lure of the screen can pull me away from something I really do want to do, such as meditate in the morning, or simply relax.
So I sat down in front of my computer. And didn’t turn it on. I just stared at the screen and followed my breath and practiced patience and the feeling of spaciousness in the presence of the screen. I felt I was doing a kind of re-education, letting my body learn a valuable skill: that I can sit in front of a screen and not interact with it. That I can be free of the need to acquire more information and organize my schedule and messages a little more. This not-using of the computer gave me a gap where I could simply relate to my computer as a mute object with no demands on me. This small amount of freedom was a great relief.
And then I calmly turned my computer on and began to write.