Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Four Noble Truths according to Louis C.K.

There's a six-minute video of Louis C.K. on the Conan O'Brien Show explaining where he won't buy his daughter a smartphone that's making the rounds among Buddhist types, people who usually share quotes from the Dalai Lama and pictures of nature. Why? It expresses the essence of the Buddha's teaching that life is suffering (and we try to get away from the truth of that by distracting ourselves with Angry Birds and other apps) but that it doesn't have to be:
 You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That's what the phones are taking away, is the ability to just sit there. That's being a person. Because underneath everything in your life there is that thing, that empty — forever empty. That knowledge that it's all for nothing and that you're alone. It's down there.
And sometimes when things clear away, you're not watching anything, you're in your car, and you start going, 'oh no, here it comes. That I'm alone.' It's starts to visit on you. Just this sadness. Life is tremendously sad, just by being in it...
That's why we text and drive. I look around, pretty much 100 percent of the people driving are texting. And they're killing, everybody's murdering each other with their cars. But people are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own because they don't want to be alone for a second because it's so hard.
Or, as the Buddha succinctly said: Everybody suffers. Not every minute. Not always in big dramatic ways. But, yeah, everybody suffers. (The First Noble Truth)

Why do we suffer? We want the newest smartphones to take distract us from our feelings, which may be unpleasant. But that only works for a while, so then we need something new. (The Second Noble Truth: The cause of suffering is craving or desire or the belief that getting that new smartphone will give us lasting happiness.)

But the good news is: You can stop suffering (Third Noble Truth). There is a way. (Fourth Noble Truth.)

To a great extent, that way involves being able to stay with the emotion we were trying to get away from by escaping into stuff and realizing that it's not all that bad. Suffering is the fear and anxiety about what will happen if we feel the bad thing -- which itself isn't as bad as the suffering.

Louis C.K. talks about hearing the Bruce Springsteen song "Jungleland" as he's driving:
And I go, 'oh, I'm getting sad, gotta get the phone and write "hi" to like 50 people'...then I said, 'you know what, don't. Just be sad. Just let the sadness, stand in the way of it, and let it hit you like a truck.'
And I let it come, and I just started to feel 'oh my God,'and I pulled over and I just cried like a bitch. I cried so much. And it was beautiful. Sadness is poetic. You're lucky to live sad moments.
And then I had happy feelings. Because when you let yourself feel sad, your body has antibodies, it has happiness that comes rushing in to meet the sadness. So I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness. It was such a trip.
The thing is, because we don't want that first bit of sad, we push it away with a little phone or a jack-off or the food. You never feel completely sad or completely happy, you just feel kinda satisfied with your product, and then you die. So that's why I don't want to get a phone for my kids.

That pretty much sums up every book Pema Chodron's ever written. But we also get bored with teachings and think we need to make it more complex. Really, though, it comes down to: Notice what you're feeling. Notice how you want to escape from it. Don't. Stay with it and see what's on the other side.

And do that for the rest of your life.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The dark side of meditation

Buddhist meditation is a way of working with your mind, which means that whatever is is your mind is going to come into your awareness. That's how you learn to work with it. But if what's in your mind is threatening? What if your investigation into thought patterns leads to unresolved trauma?

What if you can't handle your own inner truth?

The issue's come up recently because Aaron Alexis, who shot 12 people at the Navy Yard near Washington, D.C., this week has been reported to be a meditator who lived for a time at a Buddhist center in Texas.

Such violence contradicts the popular notion that meditation leads to calmness and reduces stress and anxiety. Dozens of scientific research projects have found measurable beneficial effects from meditation.

But meditation isn't a magic pill. A serious meditation practice, particularly a Buddhist  meditation practice, involves working with your mind, discerning habitual ways of reacting to conditions and circumstances, and investigating them -- where they came from and whether they're still appropriate ways to cope. That awareness can bring buried issues to light.

People with depression or past experiences of trauma, for example, may find themselves feeling increasingly anxious during  meditation, no matter how much they try to focus on the moment. Or they may be plagued by intrusive thoughts, feelings and images of the past during their mindfulness exercises.
That’s why [University of Washington researcher Sarah] Bowen suggests that people with depression or trauma issues who want to benefit from meditation should try it with expert guidance.  “If you get stuck in ruts like rumination, there are ways to work with that,” she says, “It’s important to have teachers who are very familiar with meditation to guide you as you are learning.”  Experts can let people know what to expect and offer emotional support to help them through rough patches.
Extraordinarily popular (for good reason) Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron notes that "meditation is not just about feeling good ... even the most settled meditator experiences psychological and physical pain. Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity."

Brown University neuroscientist Dr. Willoughby Britton, who has published research on using meditation in treating depression, is working on what she calls the “dark night” project. Her interest was piqued after she treated two patients who had attended meditation retreats and went on one herself where she experienced mental distress, Szalavitz reports.
She eventually learned that overwhelming anxiety, fear and emotional pain— sometimes including symptoms severe enough to merit psychiatric diagnosis— are “actually classic stages of meditation”  that eastern practitioners are familiar with. But Western doctors and researchers who co-opted the practice and began advocating meditative techniques to treat mental illness were not studying them. They saw only the calming ability of meditation to focus the mind.
Meditation allows us to settle our minds and look at what's there. It won't give you a serious mental condition, but it -- alone -- probably can't treat one. And especially without guidance or grounding. I've heard Buddhist teacher Vinny Ferraro say that his mind is like a bad neighborhood -- he won't go there unarmed. The weapons he carries are meditation techniques.

The Buddha sent his first adherents out into the forests to meditate, only to have them return, terrorized by demons they thought were in the forest. Recognizing that the demons were projections of internal fears, the Buddha taught them how to do metta, lovingkindness meditation. By changing their view of the demons -- meeting them with kindness rather than fear -- the meditators found they were no longer a threat. There are other stories of meeting demons -- those thoughts that bedevil our minds -- with kindness, inviting them to tea, feeding them, not fighting them.

When I began studying Buddhism in 2006, I was depressed and anxious. Therapy and medication helped, but Buddhism and meditation provided the tools that helped move out of familiar patterns. I am deeply grateful to the path and especially to teachers who provided guidance. It took time and getting to know myself and what I could be with. For some people, jumping into emptiness can be threatening and disorienting -- sometimes you need ground -- in ways that last longer than the empowerment ceremony or the weekend retreat where you practiced it.

I practice meditation. I teach meditation. I wholeheartedly endorse meditation. But it's not all good. Sometimes it's bad. Meditation is about being aware of all that and learning how to respond skillfully.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Take joy in your joy

An important part of metta, or lovingkindness, meditation is extending that feeling to yourself. You can't fully extend love to others if you don't feel it for yourself. So you with yourself, then make the wish that others will be safe, happy, healthy, and at ease. (Some teachers start with a benefactor, then move to yourself.) This is a profound experience for many people because it's just not something we do often.

When it comes to joy, we don't go through the same process. Mudita -- sympathetic or appreciative joy -- is the third of the brahma viharas, or divine abodes, following metta and karuna, or compassion, the aspiration to take away others' suffering and give them ease. It's a logical progression.

By definition, sympathetic joy means feeling joy for others. But it seems to me that it's difficult to appreciate the good fortune of others if we don't appreciate our own good fortune. If we don't know what the experience of joy feels like, how can we share in it?

For me, William Wordsworth offers the best description of the feeling of joy: My heart leaps up. There's an energetic spark, an almost palpable feeling of lightness, of opening, of expanding out. When it's ignited by someone else's good news, it's a hug or high five that happens spontaneously, without any decision to give it. It's the fans leaping to their feet when the ball goes into the net at a soccer game.

When it comes as a result of our own good fortune, especially something we've done, we often clamp down. Are we showing off? Do we seem arrogant? Selfish? Prideful? Has our self-joy turned into an over-the-top end zone dance that's out of proportion to our achievement? Are we rubbing other people's noses in it? Or do we risk losing our joy if we make it public -- if we're too happy, we fear we're jinxing ourselves and inviting unseen forces to take it away.

So it's difficult to simply be with our joy, to rest in the feeling of lightness and openness, filled to the brim with good feelings.

My friend Maura related a conversation she had with her 98-year-old cousin, Sara, in Ireland: "Sara said what bothers her the most, looking back on her life, was that most of the time she was happy she didn't realize it." That's what we need to realize.

Scientific research suggests that we actually have three times more positive experiences than negative ones, but we remember the negative ones. There may have been evolutionary reasons for that -- our ancestors who remembered which beings or conditions were threatening and took steps to avoid them were the ones who survived. 

But we can change that. The first step is to notice moments of joy, bits of unadulterated OKness, that feeling of all's right with the world. And instead of panicking and trying to find the thing that wrong or backing away because it can't last, just be with it. Find it in your body -- maybe your back straightens when your heart leaps up, or the corners of your mouth rise. Maybe your shoulders sink because joy isn't tense.

You don't have to explain it or justify it or hide it.It won't last -- nothing does, good or bad. But soak in it as long as it's there. Become familiar with it. Know it. It'll go away, but it'll come back. And you'll be better able to recognize it when it does. And you'll get more comfortable with it, which will let it flow more easily when others share their joy.

Because research also says that sharing joy is good. Sharing joy increases it. (Note that the  study involves sharing joy with a close friend or romantic partner, who will be supportive.)

And if you hear a voice in your head whispering "selfish," consider this: Research has found that your happiness affects those around you. So far from being selfish, feeling your joy will bring joy to others -- which you can appreciate (mudita), creating the best of all possible feedback loops where everyone's joy reinforces everyone else's in the circle..

Monday, September 9, 2013

Anger is a (necessary) energy

Buddhists are supposed to be placid, right? In statues and paintings the Buddha is sitting implacably in deep meditation. Cartoons show wise gurus in caves dispensing pithy, if incomprehensible, advice. Popular Buddhist authors like Tara Brach and Pema Chodron and Shinzen Young talk about radical acceptance of things as they are right now, about witnessing the rise and fall of emotions as thoughts and bodily sensations and staying present with the experience.

Buddhists don't get angry, right? They may witness the arising of anger in themselves, but they don't bite that hook. Acting out of anger is unskillful. You can Google up a gaggle of articles to tell you that. It's an issue that's come up for me lately, in personal conversations and as I read about  the debate over whether nations should take action against Syria for its use of nerve gas.

That is, however, a limited and limiting view, which doesn't fit with a philosophical system that teaches that we are limitless, that our wisdom and compassion know no boundaries.

Tantric Buddhism teaches that -- as John Lydon sang -- anger is an energy. Specifically, it is the neurotic, or confused, aspect of the energy of the vajra family; the enlightened aspect is clarity, clear-seeing.

The Dalai Lama says in a recently translated interview that anger is essential to achieving social justice.

There are two types of anger. One type arises out of compassion; that kind of anger is useful. Anger that is motivated by compassion or a desire to correct social injustice, and does not seek to harm the other person, is a good anger that is worth having. For example, a good parent, out of concern for a child’s behavior, may use harsh words or even strike him. He may be angry, but there is no trace of any desire to hurt him.

...The question is a person’s state of mind or the motivation that causes the action. When we act, that act arises out of a cause that already exists in us. If we act when our inner motivation is hatred toward another person, then that hatred expressed as anger will lead to destructive action. This is negative action. But if we act out of consideration for the other person, if we are motivated by affection and sympathy, then we can act out of anger because we are concerned with that person’s well-being.
For example, he says, that if a child is playing with poison, a parent may shout or strike the child's hands to keep him from putting it in his mouth. That anger "was directed toward the child’s actions that could harm him, not toward the child himself. In such a case, it is right to take the necessary measures to stop the action, such as anger, shouting, or striking."

On a larger level, anger about social injustice is necessary, he says, but should be directed at the social injustice itself. "The anger should be maintained until the goal is achieved. It is necessary in order to stop social injustice and wrong destructive actions," he said.

What that means is that you need to keep going inside and re-examining your own motivation and intention. What situation does the anger point you to? Often we displace anger at one thing onto a more convenient target or we simply explode, shooting anger out in all directions, hitting the innocent and the obstructors. What is the wise or skillful way to act?

Rita Gross, a Buddhist teacher and former history of religion professor, spent most of her life bringing to light the ways that patriarchy has tainted Buddhism and hurt women. It wasn't an easy path, but she sees benefits for herself and others.

New Lotus, an online magazine, describes her as a faithful Tibetan Buddhist who has been "fearless in critiquing the human-made power structures of Buddhist institutions," it says, citing her "pugilistic" approach. "She can afford to be because she is acutely aware of the important difference she has made with her contributions to Buddhist-feminist scholarship."

Gross cites Buddhists teachings interpreted to mean that only males can be enlightened as at the core of the patriarchal institutions -- and her own path. “Female rebirth is necessary to have people in female bodies speak out against the injustice of patriarchy,” she insists, with an uninvested charm that only retired people can afford. “Had I not been born in a female body, I could not have likely walked the path I did, wrote the books I wrote, and made the difference that I made,” she says.

Anger isn't a problem, it's an energy. As with all emotions, it's what you do with that energy that matters.

This doesn't tell you whether Buddha would bomb Syria. He pretty much stayed away from those questions -- but he suggested that you look at your intentions, motivations, and the possible consequences and act with clarity.