Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Enlightenment takes effort

When I lead meditation, I start by asking people to feel the floor under them, to notice where their
hard places come into contact with the building's hardness -- to feel the strength and stability of that solidness, and to think about how the building connects to the earth. It's easiest to notice where hard places come in contact -- it's one of the first places we notice discomfort.

And feeling the evidence of that connection to the building and its connection to the earth, I ask them to trust that, to relax into it, to let it hold them. There's a relaxation that comes with being held by something or someone you trust.

I thought of that recently when I heard a teacher use the phrase "being held by the dharma." It struck me and stuck with me, so I contemplated it.

Being held by the dharma is like relaxing into the ground -- you can let go completely, trusting that it will be big enough and strong enough to hold whatever weight you carry. You are not too heavy
for the earth and nothing is too big for the dharma, which is limitless.

I think this is the quality -- this trust, this safety -- that Stacey D'Ersamo is referencing in  her New York Times essay, Is God Just Not That into Me? The essay is about her relationship with the man she lives with, who is a Zen Buddhist priest.

She's jealous of his trust in buddhanature, in the ultimate OK-ness of reality, which she compares to falling in love with God. "How come he got access to all that divine unconditional love? What am I to the universe? What do I have to do to get the good stuff?" she writes. Her monk, as she calls him, reads this. “You already have it,” he said. “You are it.” He paused. “By the way, we need coffee.”

How come he got access to all that divine unconditional love? What am I to the universe? What do I have to do to get the good stuff?
You have to work at it. Maybe some people are born with that. Most question, test, examine. And when they find the thing that can hold them, they relax into it.

The Buddha lists Wise Effort as a step on the Eightfold Path, and exertion as one of the paramitas, or perfections of the heart (ie practices we can do to cultivate perfect heart). There's no switch that turns on enlightenment. You move toward it with your effort. It's an effort that might be unrecognizable to those who think "effort" mean trying hard. You have to try soft -- to be curious and open to whatever it is that results. Effort doesn't mean gritting your teeth and pushing through to the other side; it means sitting where you're stuck and not running away.

It means being present and lifting the mucky veils to see clearly -- which means, Ms. D'Erasmo, understanding and using appropriate words, not ones that amuse you. Your Zen priest, who is not a monk, gets access to "unconditional stuff" because he's worked at seeing causes and conditions that cloud the mind and block access to buddhanature.

Being held by the dharma isn't a passive stance. Relaxing and trusting isn't easy. It takes effort not to tighten up, to expect certain results, to demand that an outcome be as anticipated. You can't grab the dharma and shake it until you get what you want.

You can't hold onto the dharma and be held by it. You have to let go. And then it will be there.

"Give up the mind that wants to meditate and calm down. Focus on nothing at all. Disturbing thoughts and lazy indifference are not liberation. Remain unstained by thoughts and circumstances. Rest relaxed in the uncontrived nature of mind, free of elaboration or alteration. For the benefit of one and all, simply preserve peerless awareness."
~ Wisdom Dakini Sukhasiddhi

Friday, April 11, 2014

What does gentle look like?

I was on retreat last fall with a teacher whose message is to meet everything with compassion. "Enlightenment is when you meet all the pain in life with compassion," he said.

I don't know what that means, I said. Let's say I have pain in my knee sitting here. I know how to be present with the pain, how to observe the sensation, to not get caught up in the stories about what I might have done or the congenital structural defects I'm cursed with, to not wander off into thoughts about whether I need a knee replacement and how I can fit six months of rehab into my life and and complications from surgery and ...

I know Shinzen Young's equation: suffering = pain x resistance. I can (and have) worked with all that.

But I don't know where compassion comes in. I don't know how to move from bare attention to kind attention. "Seeing what's happening is preliminary," he says. "You first learn to tolerate it, then move toward love and compassion."

How do I do that? I beg. Out loud, I ask the question, but internally I hear my pleading. It is a mystery to me. Tell me how.

The answer is the heart practices, the brahmaviharas, the divine abodes. Lovingkindness. Compassion. Appreciative joy. Equanimity.

I have done those, and I do those, and I appreciate their effects. I'm a nicer person. Really. Less defended, less rigid, more flexible. I see the inherent dignity of others, and I remind myself that I am equally worthy. But I don't know how to be that, to realize it, to embody it. And I want that. I see that I can't find equanimity in the world without finding it in myself.

The advice is to be gentle.

It's not the first time I've heard this piece of advice. It is something of a theme in my Buddhist life. The Bodhisattva name I was given translates to "gentle dawn," and when it was spoken people in the room -- who knew I had cried through most of the previous week of silent meditation -- went "awwww," the audible sound of the quivering heart.

I've been told that I'm hard on myself when I think I am merely stating things as they are, dispassionately.

What does it mean to be gentle to myself? I wrote in my journal. What does that look like?

Then I came home from the retreat and picked up with my life. The question lingered in the back of my mind: What would gentle look like?

Then this week, a video surfaced in my Facebook newsfeed. Pema Chodron had posted it in 2010, but it was circulating as if it were new.

Are you willing to commit to being gentle to yourself? Working on that for the next year? she asks.

Oh, a challenge.

Ani Pema didn't explain how to be gentle to myself. It's not like walking 10,000 steps with a FitBit to tell you every day that you've hit your milestone. You'll have to figure out what that means, she said.

So that's what I'm doing, making my next 12 months my year of living gently.

As an added incentive, in a recently published paper in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, Brandeis University researchers found a connection between a self-compassionate attitude and lower levels of stress-induced inflammation.

According to Medical Press,

It's long known that can trigger biological responses similar to the effects of illness or injury, including inflammation. While regulated inflammation can help stave off infection or promote healing, unregulated inflammation can lead to cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer's.
Self-compassion describes behaviors such as self-forgiveness or, more colloquially, cutting yourself some slack. A person with high levels of self-compassion may not blame themselves for stress beyond their control or may be more willing to move on from an argument, rather than dwelling on it for days.
Participants in the study took stress tests and had their levels of a particular stress marker measured. Researchers were surprised to find that people with low self-compassion continued to show high levels of the stress hormone after the stressors had ended.

"The high responses of IL-6 (the stress marker) on the first day and the higher baseline levels on the second day suggest that people with low self-compassion are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of this kind of stress," a researcher said.

The research illustrates how easy it is for stress to build over time and how a seemingly small daily stressor, such as traffic, can impact a person's health if they don't have the right strategies to deal with it.
Another teacher suggested that self-compassion is being willing to forgive yourself. Forgive everyone everything, including yourself, yet another teacher suggests.

Yeah, I'm on a quest. I'm going to find that gentle and bring it home?

Does that sound aggressive?

Friday, April 4, 2014

Only love stops hate

When a cookie company launched an ad campaign with the tagline "This is wholesome," the response was anything but.

The ad showed a variety of families, including some with two fathers and some with male-female parents of different races. Some people complained. Some of them used hateful speech.

This was how the company responded:

Hatred can never defeat hatred. Only love stops hate. The Buddha said that.

This is wholesome way to respond to haters.

Hatred never defeats hatred.

The genocide in Rawanda that took place 20 years ago is one of the worst displays of ethnic hatred in modern times. Nearly a million people were killed.

How does a country heal from that?

One person at a time.

There is a continuing national effort at reconciliation. As part of that, the Association Modeste et Innocent, a nonprofit organization, counsels small groups of Hutus and Tutsis over many months, culminating in the perpetrator’s formal request for forgiveness. If forgiveness is granted by the survivor, the perpetrator and his family and friends typically bring a basket of offerings, usually food and sorghum or banana beer. The accord is sealed with song and dance.

Photographer Pieter Hugo took photos of some of the pairs of perpetrators who had asked for forgiveness and their victims who granted it. The portraits, some of them published in the New York Times, and the comments are stunning.

From the Times:
In interviews conducted by AMI and Creative Court for the project, the subjects spoke of the pardoning process as an important step toward improving their lives. “These people can’t go anywhere else — they have to make peace,” Hugo explained. “Forgiveness is not born out of some airy-fairy sense of benevolence. It’s more out of a survival instinct.” Yet the practical necessity of reconciliation does not detract from the emotional strength required of these Rwandans to forge it — or to be photographed, for that matter, side by side.

Laurent Nsabimana Perpetrator (right) Beatrice Mukarwambari Survivor Nsabimana: “I participated in destroying her house because we took the owner for dead. The houses that remained without owners — we thought it was better to destroy them in order to get firewood. Her forgiveness proved to me that she is a person with a pure heart.”
Mukarwambari: “If I am not stubborn, life moves forward. When someone comes close to you without hatred, although horrible things happened, you welcome him and grant what he is looking for from you. Forgiveness equals mercy.”