My First Retreat

Even for a brief period, say five minutes, meditation is difficult for a beginner. The first thing one notices is all the thoughts swirling around in the mind, not all of them pleasant. If the meditator makes an effort at placing the attention on the breath, frustration and self-criticism arise almost immediately. Pain in the body will inevitably follow, not only because of the classic seated meditation postures. As one teacher put it, “We could all be on BarcaLoungers and we’d still notice pain.” The longer the session, the more these things can plague us, until the timer goes off or we give up, whichever occurs first.

People can take two approaches: either build up their practice gradually, or jump in with both feet. It may be easier to get oneself on the cushion for a brief sit, but over the course of daily, frequent, and lengthy sits things will eventually start to settle down, and the meditator may experience a calm bordering on bliss. Gettting through the early stuff to what Kenneth Folk calls “escape velocity” is the key. It may be difficult to carve out the time to do this in daily life, especially when most people have jobs, families, and other obligations competing for their time and energy, and so for many people the solution will be to undertake a meditation retreat.

My first retreat was at a local, rural retreat center, where I went for a long weekend, Thursday evening to Sunday lunch. Retreat life is an opportunity to derail the preoccupations and assumptions of ordinary life with a view to focusing on practice. The type of retreat I attended was a structured retreat, with a daily schedule and rules for getting the most out it. I was enough of a rule-follower to obey the instructions to the letter. We arose early, began the day with an early sit, and then proceeded to breakfast. After breakfast there was a work period, followed by guided mediatation, led by the teacher. The rest of the morning and afternoon, broken by lunch and rest, consisted of alternated seated and walking practice.

Each day there was a group meeting, including about 12 people and the teacher. Each of us was allowed to ask a question or make a comment, after which the teacher would spend a few minutes giving remarks pertinent to what the retreatant had said. While there might be some give and take between the teacher and student, other group members were instructed to avoid responding, either verbally or through glances or body language. In the evening after supper there would be a dharma talk, with some time reserved for questions from the entire group. On the last day of the retreat the teacher left time for 10 to 15-minute individual meetings for whoever wished to sign up.

We observed Noble Silence from the ending of the introductory dharma talk until lunch on the final day. This meant that, apart from the scheduled meetings, there was no talking and very limited eye contact except for necessary communications (for example, at one retreat I left a message for the retreat director to ask people not to use the wood-burning fireplace because it was setting off my asthma). We were also discouraged from reading or even journaling, although there were some people who took notes during the dharma talks. The purpose of these directives was to minimize opportunities for distraction and turn attention inward.

I won’t mince words: it was damned difficult. My brain was like a squirrel in a cage a lot of the time; I waited all day for the group meeting, rehearsing endlessly what I would say, only to find that the opportunity for voicing any of these thoughts was next to nil. When I was sitting I waited for the chime to go off, at which point I’d be walking, waiting for the chime to go off. Music played in my head relentlessly, as well as imaginary conversations with people at home, or with the teacher. People I didn’t know drifted past me or sat next to me, and I’d surreptitiously glance at them, trying to get a sense of what kinds of people they were. I built up scenarios in my mind, developing responses of attraction or antipathy to them based on nothing at all.

On this particular retreat I practiced mindfulness of breathing, combined with awareness of the Five Hindrances: desire (I want to get up and have some lunch!), aversion (this pain in my back is killing me!), restlessness and worry (thinking, thinking, thinking), sloth and torpor (sleep), and skeptical doubt (why am I doing this?). I was aiming for a state called access concentration, where all of the hindrances finally settle and the mind is calm. Following access, there is a series of beautiful concentration states called jhanas that bring the mind more and more deeply into peace. Depending on the level of practice, a person can experience anywhere from light to extreme absorption.

My practice over the previous four months had been constant and focused enough that I had already experienced some of these things to a very modest degree. The retreat deepened the practice in spite of all the mind noise, and I was able to carry that momentum home with me afterward. Since that first retreat in the spring of 2011, going on retreat periodically has been a mainstay of my life, although retreat life continues to be a challenge: as the inner chatter and restlessness have diminished, other difficulties have arisen to take their place.

What makes retreat life difficult is the ego’s resistance to being set aside. In daily life, our ego reigns supreme, directing our activities, opinions, relationships, and self-image. On retreat, without its usual stage for strutting, the ego has a tantrum, played out entirely inside the mind. Underlying its agitation is the fundamental terror of annihilation and death. Even the beauty of the jhanas can’t quite compensate at first. It takes a long time even to access this terror, much less face it down.

 

 

I Get my Feet Wet

It’s hard to imagine that a woman of 57, which was my age when I began to meditate, would be in need of someone or something with ultimate authority to declare what is true and what is not, yet there I was. Daniel Ingram possessed superhuman authority as far as I was concerned. I attributed the same powers to Kenneth Folk, and to my local meditation teacher, who I assumed was as realized as the pragmatic dharma people. It thus caused me endless confusion and agitation to find them disagreeing on certain points, even more so when I found that Daniel’s online forum, the Dharma Overground, was in 2011 in the middle of a major dispute that split everyone into warring camps. Unfortunately, being a brawler myself, I jumped right in and called one poster a “groupie” for having an erotic dream about another teacher (she shot back that I was obviously sexually repressed). I finally flounced off in disgust and began posting on Kenneth Folk’s forum instead, only to find some of the same discussion going on over there.

Eventually everyone settled down and the dispute has now become about as relevant as a long-ago squabble among siblings. What I wanted at the time, though, was absolute assurance that the path I was on was right, and that there were obvious, discernible differences between the real deal and its fraudulent imitations. I also wanted the people in the know to be rock solid about everything. Over the years I have come to realize that all of us, authors and teachers included, are works in progress, engaged together in a learning process that is overwhelmingly social.

In the meantime, I began meditating, and posting about my sits. I began with concentration practice and stuck with it for about six months, until I turned to insight practice in June of 2011. These practices differ greatly in terms of their approach and effects. The aim of concentration is to focus on one object to the exclusion of anything else, in order to strengthen the mind and prepare it for insight. There are many possible objects that could work, but the main one is the breath. Some people focus on the sensations of the breath at the nostrils, while others follow the breath into the abdomen and out again. Focusing at the nostrils is the quickest route to becoming deeply concentrated, but because it places all of the energy in the head, the meditator can start feeling spaced-out, especially while on retreat.

Insight meditation is a different story. Its purpose is to break down the experience of the self in the world, and gain direct knowledge of the way the three characteristics permeate every single sensation. In Buddhist teaching there are six “sense doors”: the five that westerners recognize as sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, with the addition of thought. Thoughts are considered to be sensations just as are the flavor of chocolate or the sound of a bird. One form of insight practice involves focusing on any one of these senses, or on all of them, with a wide or a narrow focus. There is also something called vedana, translated as “feeling tone”, which can be pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. All sensations can be labeled as one of these three.

The three characteristics, impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and not-self, apply to every single sensation one experiences, a well as to one’s conception of the whole. For example, a momentary thought (“I forgot to buy bread!”) is impermanent (it arises in the mind and then disappears), unsatisfactory (it brings no lasting happiness), and not me (maybe “I” forgot the bread, but the thought arises unbidden and does not define me). The same might be true of a visual sensation, even one’s face in a mirror, which is in fact a picture of a face. It flickers in and out of awareness, doesn’t satisfy (even if it is beautiful; seeing one’s beautiful face gives only a momentary jolt of good feelings), and is not me. All of life is the same. One’s relationship, for example, is never permanent—even if it is long-lasting, the dynamics change from moment to moment. No one can gain complete, lasting satisfaction from clinging to another person, and no one can ever specify what the self that clings is in concrete terms.

This last insight is the hardest of all to swallow. We want to be sure of who we are, and of who the people in our lives are. That is why we label ourselves and others, and attribute to them qualities that are good, bad, or indifferent to us. When I was younger I became obsessed for a time with defining my “type,” according to the fashions of the times. Was I a romantic type? A classic type? And what clothes were best for my figure? What colors best complimented my skin and hair? Beyond the obvious goal of making myself as attractive as possible, I wanted to know who and what I was. The fascination with planning thoughts is another way of solidifying the self. If I can specify to the minute what I’ll be doing over the course of a day, I will know what I am. If I know my body chemistry, my ideal eating routines, my best times for going to bed at night and getting up in the morning, than I will know who I am.

Insight meditation dismantles the comfortable world we keep trying to build for ourselves, over and over again. When done skillfully with high concentration, it can be disorienting in the extreme. I know this is not a good selling point for doing such practice, but the truth is, most people arrive at a determination to do it only after everything else they’ve tried has failed.

 

 

The Three Trainings: Morality

This would be a good time for me to discuss what goes into Buddhist practice. There are three specific trainings: morality, concentration, and wisdom (often called insight). All three are necessary for a balanced practice.

The first, morality (sila), is what keeps a yogi on the straight and narrow. It is encompassed by the eight precepts, which for most householders (anyone who is not a monk or nun) are limited to the first five. They are as follows:

  1. Non-harming. This one is often interpreted as a prohibition against eating meat, although not all Buddhists are vegetarians. I have noticed, however, that retreat centers all serve vegetarian meals, and many are focusing on vegan food. In general, though, the non-harming precept can be understood as not engaging in violence toward other living things. I have been less likely to kill insects or rodents since becoming a Buddhist, for example, and I am in a Facebook group called People Against the Unnecessary Killing of Reptiles. When my neighbor told me she had beaten a nest of garter snakes to death with a shovel I was horrified. I also believe that limiting or eliminating meat from one’s diet is a good thing to do if at all possible.
  2. The second precept forbids a yogi to take what is not offered. Roughly, this encompasses stealing, but can also be understood as avoiding such conduct as cheating on income taxes, dating someone in a committed relationship, failing to return something one has borrowed (I’m guilty of that one), or otherwise helping oneself to things that belong either to someone else or to the community. Some of my colleagues would grap handfuls of items from the office’s supply cabinet far beyond what they needed for their work. Other people get greedy around food, especially in an office setting (guilty!).
  3. The third precept rules against engaging in sexual misconduct. For monks this means celibacy, whereas for householders there are a number of possible interpretations. Traditionally, it has meant avoiding sex outside of marriage. Today, people could regard sexual misconduct as any kind of sex that is nonconsensual, a failure to respect other people’s boundaries, or a lack of honesty in sexual relationships. Taking responsibility for one’s health and safety and that of others is part of this precept as well. Finally, avoiding sexual contact in relationships where there is a power differential is vitally important: mentors, employers, managers, and teachers must not take advantage of their power over others. Unfortunately, many scandals in the Buddhist world have had to do with violating this precept.
  4. Next is the precept of right speech. First and foremost this precept forbids lying, although I expect that extreme circumstances such as lying to Nazis about hiding Jews would be an exception. However, in ordinary life, lying to take advantage in a situation or even to save oneself embarrassment is forbidden. Even lying to avoid hurting someone (for example, denying one has had an affair) is contrary to right speech, although it is up to individuals to figure out the particulars. What about white lies, such as admiring a friend’s new haircut when you hate it? Probably it’s best to refrain tactfully from being too enthusiastic, although with practice you can figure out how to give warm feedback without lying: “It’s so much fun to try out new things!” This precept also demands we avoid gossip, harsh speech, hurtful speech, or even unnecessary speech. A person could talk a bit about the weather with someone, but it’s best not to waste hours in idle talk.
  5. The fifth precept admonishes against consuming intoxicating drugs or alcohol that lead to carelessness. Among other things, it’s difficult to practice when one is high or drunk. I have found that even a single glass of wine takes the edge off my ability to focus. Can a good Buddhist have a beer with friends? Traditionally the answer would be no, but many modern Buddhists see no harm in a drink now and then, or the occasional use of marijuana. It all depends on how it affects an individual. Many people arrive in pragmatic dharma circles having had experience with psychedelic substances, and some continue to experiment with them, often in the context of scientific studies. For these individuals, taking such drugs responsibly includes careful attention to context and setting.
  6. With the sixth precept, we arrive at the group of three that apply especially to people in monastic settings. The sixth involves training oneself to avoid eating after 12:00 noon. Some people on retreat voluntarily undertake this precept, while others can honor it by not eating in between meals and having only a light supper for the evening meal. I have always wondered how anyone could manage to stop eating at noon, but a monk I spoke to about it told me that people get adjusted to it. Occasionally at my local meditation center we will take visiting monks out to lunch after a Sunday dharma talk, and I have noticed them loading up their plates at the buffet several times. I guess that’s how people adjust to it, considering that we all need a certain amount of fuel to get through the day!
  7. The seventh precept enjoins monks and nuns from dancing, singing, or indulging in entertainment; wearing perfume, jewelry, or cosmetics; or adorning the body with garlands. Lay practitioners might choose to dress modestly and simply, and minimize distractions such as TV shows, movies, novels, parties, and the like. It all sounds extremely dreary, but on the other hand there is something to be said for keeping one’s mind from getting inundated with mental noise day in and day out. I know that fussing about my hair or my wardrobe takes energy and creates agitation. I also know that it is extremely easy to get completely caught up in the lives of imaginary people and the actors who portray them, and that such entertainments can take up significant real estate in my head.
  8. Finally, the eighth precept forbids lying on luxurious or high sleeping places, or sitting on high or ornate chairs. The Buddha was especially concerned with two things: first, that monks and nuns not place themselves above others in status; and second, that they not indulge in luxury. While this precept applies to people in monastic life, a householder today might think in terms of living simply as a way of minimizing the stress of maintaining many possessions. Similarly, laypeople can find that opting out of the competition for status is a component of a more satisfying life.

So those are the precepts. Morality goes hand-in-hand with the two other trainings, concentration and insight (wisdom), which I’ll write about later.

Pragmatic Dharma

I realize now that this blog is in danger of turning into a cliché about the benefits of mindfulness meditation, how it changed my life, and how you, too should try this wonderful technique. I apologize to those for whom this is true, but that’s not what this blog is about. For example, in many respects I am still the same silly, dysfunctional human I’ve always been, with the emphasis on human. I am not any more productive now than I was before; in fact, I’m now much less productive, although that has nothing to do with meditation. I am still distractable, I still get anxious, I still get depressed. I haven’t tried playing the violin in several years, but at the time that I stopped I was still unable to perform in public. Nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed, and yet everything has changed, enough so that I look on my life as a story about before and after. The “before” person is becoming less and less visible to me as time passes, although I can talk about her story when I put my mind to it (granted that there is no one definable person on either side of the turning point). The “after” person has been meditating, engaging in online discussion forums, reading dharma books, attending retreats, and generally being Buddhist-y in an unobtrusive way. She’s also been binge-watching TV series (loved “The Americans” with all the sex and violence), killing time on Facebook and Twitter, obsessing over the news, and fussing about all her self-sabotaging ways.

There is also the difficulty that the Laurel I have described to you so far is a bit of a tormented soul, not to mention quite the drama queen (remember, I have diagnosed myself as an aversive type). I told my history to the lead teacher on one of my retreats years ago and he said, “I’m sorry you’ve had such a sad life.” I was taken aback, because I really didn’t recognize myself in that description. Later on while meditating I entered a deep concentration state, and had the equivalent of a lucid dream of myself as a 4-year-old child, dancing to a pensive piano tune. I felt the embrace of love surrounding me, knowing that my parents adored me and that I was safe. No, I cannot say I’ve had a sad life, even if I did grow up to become aversive and an occasional drama queen. Nor is this description of myself meant to be self-denigrating or a disarming tactic. We are all of us dealing with our stuff in our own way, and my way tends to be what you see here.

I must return, however, to myself at my turning point, wringing my hands and crying over my failure to overcome my stage fright. I had been reading Daniel Ingram’s book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha (MCTB for short), and at that moment of despair I resolved to take on a dedicated meditation practice. The book I’d been reading is the foundational text for an approach that is called pragmatic dharma, and so we must turn to that phenomenon and get a sense of what it is about.

Its first overriding feature is that it is goal-directed, and the goal is transforming insight, awakening, enlightenment. The term “enlightenment” is so loaded that I hesitate to use it at all. People attach all sorts of mythology to this term; in addition there’s the problem that if you put three dharma teachers in a room and ask them what enlightenment is, you’ll get more than three answers, along with a lot of hemming, hawing, and “I don’t knows.” The leading teachers in the pragmatic corner of the spiritual marketplace don’t even all agree about what the goal is or how exactly to approach it, although certain contours emerge.

There is, along with goal-directedness, the belief that old, traditional teachings are useful only insofar as they contribute to progress. If a certain meditation technique or belief produces results then it’s fine, but if it creates confusion, blind alleys, or even serious misbehavior on the part of esteemed teachers (all too common, unfortunately), then it must be subject to rigorous criticism. Typically, the approaches that lead to abuse are anything that elevates the teacher to the position of a godlike guru whom students feel they must obey if they wish to progress. “Crazy wisdom” is one such approach: the suggestion that beyond a certain level of attainment, a person no longer has to observe normal moral standards. Rigidly hierarchical structures amplify this effect.

Most traditional Buddhist centers in the east and the west emphasize secrecy in discussing stages of insight and other attainments. Pragmatic dharma by contrast endorses openness, public discussion, and feedback from many sources. There are dangers in doing this, chief of which are competitiveness and grandiosity. Another problem is the real potential for embarrassment when a claim to an attainment proves premature. Still, the benefits outweigh these disadvantages. People learn that awakening is possible, and get to see how others are doing it. They also are inspired by the feedback loop that keeps their practice front and center. Being in close companionship with others who are doing the same is a wonderful motivator.

This companionship exists mostly on online discussion forums, but over the years there have been opportunities for people to meet at conferences and get-togethers. In addition, Buddhist and other meditators have participated in scientific studies regarding the effects of certain kinds of meditation practices on the brain. The wealth of information now available to anyone with access to the Internet has exploded just in the 7+ years I’ve been practicing. The irony is that none of these developments would be possible without the much-maligned Internet, the very medium that has been such a source of distraction to me and others for so many years.

Twitter, Distraction, and Geeky Buddhists

By the autumn of 2010 I was on the last leg of my career, although I didn’t know it yet. I had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia almost six years earlier, and had been managing to maintain a full-time schedule during that time. My symptoms were frequent upper back and neck pain, headache, unreliable sleep, and “brain fog”—a sense of operating without full command of my intellectual faculties. Sitting at a computer for long hours was especially miserable. In the meantime, any time I tried to settle down to reading something I would start to nod off. The one positive outcome of the diagnosis is that it made me more likely to keep up with regular exercise, which helped enormously.

I had always had a tendency to distraction and difficulty focusing; in fact, at one point I was even diagnosed with adult ADD. The one place where I found myself completely on task was the classroom. Teaching may have been stressful in some respects, but the pleasure of interacting with students kept me feeling fulfilled in my job. What was difficult was prioritizing tasks, “juggling” (a word I have come to hate) the responsibilities of class preparation, research and writing, and committee work. The advent of technology only made things worse. I was distracted all day by email, and the entertainment potential of the Internet was a constant source of temptation. So, knowing that I was making a huge mistake, I signed up for a Twitter account. I had already been spending way too much time on Facebook and did not need another drain on my attention, but I had just taken a summer workshop on learning to navigate an iPad and got sucked in.

Twitter proved to be a greater instant-gratification device than I had ever experienced before. I pursued a number of interests, watching intently as tweets accumulated in real time. I also browsed a bit and found corners of the Internet that I would not have accessed otherwise. It was on one of these random excursions that I hit upon Buddhist Geeks. The name itself was intriguing, so I read further. There was an interview with a guy named Kenneth Folk, who claimed to be enlightened. I had never before known anyone who would say something like that so openly. He even claimed that others who followed a similar path to his could become enlightened as well, and he mentioned a book by a certain Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. It was apparently available in PDF format for free.

My prior exposure to Buddhism had left me impressed, yet unwilling to commit for a variety of reasons. Two years earlier I had briefly attended a meditation center in my town and brought home some books from their library. After reading about traditional Buddhist beliefs and cosmology, I thought, I have enough trouble with the doctrinal system of Christianity; I don’t need to get myself enmeshed in another one. But a year later I did some intensive reading for a potential new course that included units on eastern spiritual traditions, and wondered again whether I might want to pursue it further. Then when I saw the interview with Kenneth Folk and the claim that ordinary people could get enlightened, I thought, “That sounds like a cool thing to do,” but didn’t really see it applying to me. Nevertheless, I found the link to Daniel Ingram’s book and downloaded the file onto my Kindle.

It was awkward scrolling through it on that platform, but something about it intrigued me, beginning with the author’s description of himself on the title page as “The Arahant Daniel M. Ingram” (arahant being the Sankrit term for an enlightened individual). Who on earth would say such a thing? The subtitle was “An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book.” From the outset the book was direct, quirky, and borderline confrontational. The mysterious author identified himself as a gen-X emergency room doctor, clearly a highly accomplished person. I immediately began to view his life in comparison with my own, and proceeded with a mixture of fascination and jealousy.

The message of the book was simple: it is possible to experience genuine transformations by training the mind in meditation, all the way to what we call enlightenment. There is a series of stages outlined in a fifth-century Buddhist commentary, and an assortment of powerful meditation techniques (or to use the author’s term, “technologies”), which lead to awakening when taken seriously and pursued diligently, just as Kenneth Folk had said in his interview. As I continued to read, however, I reached a point where I could no longer follow the author’s meaning, and so I set it aside, once more thinking to myself that it would be intriguing to try something like that, but not for me.

Eventually, that book would change my life. To this day, whenever someone asks what is the most significant book I’ve ever read, I say it’s that one, hands down. Nothing else even comes close.

 

The Four Divine Abidings

The Brahmaviharas, or Four Divine Abidings, circumscribe the four attitudes of mind that are the highest level response to one’s experience and to other beings, human or animal. They are metta, translated as loving kindness; karuna, compassion; mudita, sympathetic joy (sometimes translated as appreciative joy); and upekkha, equanimity. These qualities of mind can be cultivated through practice in meditation, until they become the framework for one’s interior life.

The most familiar to western Buddhists is metta, an attitude of unconditional love toward every living thing. There are phrases we can repeat to ourselves in meditation for individuals or all beings: may you be happy, may you be peaceful, may you be healthy, may you be safe and protected, may you live with ease and with joy. The exercise is most effective when concentration is deep, but we need not be perfectionists about it; repeating the phrases throughout the day, whenever we happen to think of them, is also well worthwhile.

The far enemy of metta is hatred, while the near enemy is attachment. When we first attempt to do metta, we unfortunately realize that we can’t say with sincerity that we wish good things for every living being. An immediate example is certain kinds of harmful creatures, like wasps, mosquitoes, or poisonous snakes. There are even harmless insects and reptiles that bear enough of a resemblance to harmful ones that we feel an immediate response of disgust when thinking of them. How are we supposed to wish good things to a bug?

More troubling are people towards whom we have complicated feelings, or even uncomplicated hatred. That is why it is recommended that we undertake metta practice in stages. There are four specific types of recipients: ourselves, benefactors or friends, neutral persons, and adversaries. Many Westerners have even more trouble expressing love for themselves than for adversaries, feeling they don’t deserve it, or that in loving themselves they are in danger of becoming narcissistic. A good beginning might be a benefactor, or even a neutral person, someone one sees from time to time but with whom one doesn’t have a close relationship.

As we begin working with metta, we encounter attachment as well as ill-will, which is why saying metta for intimate partners or family members is as complicated as for adversaries. We want our partners or children to be happy, successful, healthy, and strong because when the people we love are thriving, we are thriving, whereas when we have a depressed spouse or a sick child, we ourselves are naturally wounded as well. While such responses are understandable, they ultimately do not lead to peace of mind, and can even get in the way of our ability to care for the very persons whose lives are most important us. Ask any adolescent what they most want from a parent and the answer is likely to be, “space.”

Karuna, or compassion, is the response to the suffering of others that opens us to intimacy without the burnout we are likely to feel when we become identified with it. The far enemy of karuna is cruelty, while its near enemy is pity. Pity, feeling sorry for or commiserating with someone, turns the other’s story into our own, making it all about how awful we feel for them, or conversely it can set us apart from the other, causing us to see ourselves as immune to the other’s affliction. Cruelty is rejoicing in another’s suffering: “Good! I’m glad he got what’s coming to him!” While we like to feel that there is justice in the world and that “bad” people get punished, indulging in the desire to judge and punish other people can only be a source of unhappiness.

Compassion is characterized by spaciousness, which can occur only by our emptying ourselves of ulterior motives. Just as metta is wishing good things to everyone unconditionally, karuna is openness to the suffering of all regardless of what anyone deserves. There can be feeling for others, a movement of emotion through ourselves that brings us into intimacy with them, including tenderness and sadness, but without resistance, rumination, or the urgent need to fix whatever is hurting.

The third brahmavihara, mudita, is a joyful response to something beautiful and good. Sympathetic joy is the rejoicing in something good that happens to another, which may possibly be the hardest of all the divine abidings. When we think of someone we dislike for any reason, the last thing we want is to see that person thrive and prosper, especially if that person benefits through actions of injustice. We certainly don’t want someone who is arrogant, unprincipled, phony, or undeserving to get a promotion, admiration, or love from someone we admire.

The near enemy of mudita is identification, while the far enemy is envy. In the case of identification, we want those whom we favor to thrive because their success enhances our sense of self. Professionally, we want people we’ve mentored to do well as a testimonial to our influence and good advice. Still, we may not want them to do too well, which would put us in danger of being surpassed by the beneficiaries of our patronage, and tip our good feelings over into the territory of envy and resentment. We feel envy when we see people who are richer, better looking, healthier, or more influential than ourselves. Why should they have that big house, that beautiful family, that loving spouse while we are stuck in a small apartment, divorced, childless, and sick with worry over our bills?

Practicing any of these brahmaviharas is fiendishly difficult because they bring us up against our own sense of lack. Envy, ill-will, or identification all speak to a depletion within ourselves, a feeling of not being enough. When we think of another person having what we lack, we want to latch onto that person’s success in the hopes of owning some of it, or else see that person’s happiness diminished. We don’t even have to experience misfortune in our own lives to feel this way; we can want to see someone fail even when we are ostensibly doing well. The driving force is the deficiency we feel within.

The last brahmavihara is equanimity, upekkha. This is the ability to be with whatever comes up, to disattach oneself from outcomes. At first glance it may seem to negate the other three, which call for all-embracing good wishes, compassion in the face of suffering, and joy in the face of good fortune. Underlying all of these attitudes of mind, however, is the recognition that we do not control outcomes, and that good and bad things come to everyone.

The near enemy of upekkha is indifference, while the far enemy is panic and despair on the one hand and manic joy on the other. It is easy to confuse equanimity with a lack of caring. How can anyone be reconciled to the death of a child, or the tragedies that affect entire populations displaced by war or famine? How can a good person say “let it be” to monstrous cruelty? No matter how deep our practice, there will be circumstances that plunge us into overwhelming grief and pain. The point is not to no longer feel these things, but to be willing to feel them on behalf of ourselves and others. Having felt them, though, we go on; we do what is necessary, comfort ourselves and others, and above all not add any more than necessary to the weight of suffering in the world.

The Divine Abidings are a recognition that all beings desire happiness, regardless of their relation to us in life, and that our goal is to promote the sum of happiness in the world, and to diminish suffering. When we repeat phrases to ourselves—in the case of karuna, “may your suffering diminish, may it end,” and in the case of mudita, “May your good fortune continue, may it increase”—we are training the mind to turn to these thoughts automatically. We can think of them throughout the day as we encounter others, while express compassion for ourselves when we find we are feeling a sense of lack or depletion. The overriding recognition that things are as they are is what returns us again and again to inner peace.

 

 

The Three Characteristics: No-Self

Anatta or no-self (sometimes translated as not-self) is the hardest of the Three Characteristics to understand. We can all agree that the things of this world are impermanent, or that there is suffering, but to grasp that you are not you, that “you” as a separate, continuous self do not exist, hits the roadblock of a lifetime of experience. How can I not exist? If I don’t exist, then who or what is writing and reading these words? Whose life is it that I remember, whose future do I imagine? Close on the heels of disbelief is fear of what it would mean for anatta to be true. I might be able to give up a lot of things, but not my precious self!

The Buddha teaches that what we call atta or self (atman in Sanskrit) is really just the coming together of five aggregates, or bundles: form, sensation, perception, mental formation (or fabrication), and consciousness. When I first encountered this teaching, I initially felt a sense of relief that the Buddha left us with at least something to hold onto. The trouble is, holding onto any of these bundles (khandas or skandhas) leads to ignorance, delusion, and suffering. For example, identifying with the body (form)  leaves us with the unfortunate delusion that we can control it, which we do by trying to be as beautiful, healthy, or strong as possible, preferably more so than other people. People suffer from eating disorders when they desire a slender body and have a powerful aversion to fat. In the meantime, the aging process goes on its merry way in spite of our most strenuous efforts at stopping it. Illness strikes, and while medical help is available, some diseases can’t be cured.

Sensations are even less to be identified with the self. We may enjoy pleasurable sensations, but we can’t make them last, nor can we eliminate unpleasant ones. Our thoughts may seem at first to be a more likely candidate, but a few moments quietly observing them should be enough to convince us otherwise. Thoughts arise unbidden and with little coherence, if any. Still, out of the chaos of free association there will be a few thought sequences that can take hold and proliferate, turning into definitions, beliefs, and even entire ideologies. It is easy to grab onto them and find security, even if they are negative thoughts (“I’m ugly,” “I’ll never understand math”). Many of these thoughts are formed in defense against further pain, because if I can be the first to claim I’m ugly or stupid, I’m not going to be vulnerable to another person making those judgments.

What is the field of consciousness that seems to hold all these things together? Nothing more than memories, associations, and projections, which are anything but stable. Our past is gone, and the person we thought we were is gone with it. Yet the belief that each person is a self persists, and in certain respects it serves a purpose. The suffering of my first marriage resulted in part from my underdeveloped sense of self, which made it possible for me to latch on to someone who appeared to have a strong sense of self. Telling a person in that situation that the self is an illusion is utterly useless. It might be more helpful to say that the rage and insults of the partner are not personal, but that kind of statement is an invitation to spiritual bypassing.

Bypassing is a hazard in the spiritual life, regardless of one’s path. St. Augustine originally thought that his faith in God should have made him immune to grief upon the death of his mother, but it wasn’t until he broke down in tears that he began to heal. In the Buddhist path, thinking that “you” don’t really exist or that your own actions and those of others are simply forces of nature, the product of causes and conditions, can function as a form of denial. We have to confront the truth of our own experience, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.

Believing or even rationally understanding this teaching is not the point; one must experience it directly. There are practices that work to bring about such an experience. One is to ask oneself where the self can be found. Is it in the eyes? Is it in anything the eyes can see? Is there a little man behind the eyeballs looking out on the world? Is it perhaps the brain? Ah, we may be getting somewhere here. Let’s look at the brain and see what’s there. Is the brain afraid of embarrassment? If so, on behalf of what, itself or something else? What is afraid? We know there are parts of the brain that govern various functions. This being the case, then, are there parts of the brain that are the self, the prefrontal cortex, perhaps? If so, why doesn’t it succeed in dislodging unnecessary, paralyzing fear?

Such questions can be pursued with a teacher over a period of hours or even days, until direct insight hits. Other people have arrived at insight by detailed, extensive journaling, writing to discern what they know to be true, or what they know to be true of themselves. For some people, this practice is supported by years of meditation, while for others it is not. Finally, insight meditation practices—noting, body scanning, and the like, supported by concentration practice—can lead to a dismantling of the illusion of self.

The experience of a world unidentified with self is deeply liberating, but it can also be uncanny. We are dug in so deeply with the illusion that we have no idea how anything might appear without it. Life goes on, just as before, nothing changed, yet nothing the same. And absolutely nothing is personal.