Friday, January 15, 2016

The cause of suffering is attachment, not what you're attached to

As meditation moves away from its Buddhist roots and into the mainstream, with Congressional representatives and news anchors touting its benefits, and tasteful studios serving shamata to the Soulcycle crowd, I seem to be heading the other way. My practice is traditional Tibetan and my interests are more narrowly focused that way.

Over the past two and a half years years and nearly 90,000 prostrations, mandala offerings, purification mantras, and other practices that are part of ngondro, the Tibetan preparatory practices, my attitude has changed. On a mundane, outer-world level, finding time for a two-and-a-half-hour practice every day isn't a problem -- it's just what I do. That puts me at odds with a world where scientists are at work trying to pin down the least amount of time people have to meditate to achieve its benefits so they don't waste an extra moment simply sitting.

Since 2013 I've been part of a seven-year program to learn traditional practices in a particular cycle of teachings. Last week we got word that it actually is a 10-year program, three years longer than expected. This created some internal consternation, bringing to the foreground
something that's a constant question for me: How do I understand spending all this time doing things developed centuries ago in a culture that has so little in common with contemporary life, practices aimed at preparing for death, when all around me there is life and people are suffering? How do I balance the choice to spend my time alone in a room, visualizing, when outside people need help and I might be able to provide that? What good is it anyway?

Usually my answer to myself is that my practice is what enables me to be in the world and be of benefit rather than swamped and struggling by what I find there. I'm calmer, less attached to transient things that I want to be permanent (including my view of myself), more open. I hold things less tightly, leaving room for the world and others to arise and change.

But faced with three more years of practice -- even though my lama has said that the practices we will learn are what we will do for the rest of this life -- I tightened. And in that tightening, I realized that I had been attached to a particular idea of practice, that the space around it had closed in rather than opening up.

But if grasping -- attachment -- is the cause of suffering, grabbing on to a practice isn't the way out of suffering. Doing it, experiencing it as it presents itself, being present for the experience rather than creating a specific experience, is the way out.

While we are alive we are embodied, and desire is in some way our natural state. Though we can choose how we act, whether we follow desire or not, we can’t just shut down our desires inside ourselves, as that cuts us off from our own vital energy. What we can do is embrace our longings without necessarily acting on them. We can rest without the belief that their satisfaction will somehow solve our human dilemma.  -- Beth Lee-Herbert
We can learn to the love the questions themselves, to quote Rainer Maria Rilke. Requiring answers and deadlines closes space down. Loving the questions opens it infinitely.

I lead meditation every Wednesday at a local yoga studio. It's a beautiful space, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to introduce people to the practice, to share its benefits. But how do I relate to people who think they can't find time to meditate every day?

Recently a student came up to me after class and asked how long I've been meditating. Almost 10 years, I told him. His eyes lit up. "You must have seen God then," he said. I waffled and said I've had experiences that have brought more ease into my life. What I thought was: I see you, you potential buddha waiting to wake up.

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