So this weekend Khaydroup was giving a teaching on “The Progressive Stages of Meditation” or the Anapatasatti Sutta and she said a few things which struck me in a new way and I wanted to talk about them a little bit and to explore my thinking and understanding around them. You may be excused if you don’t have any interest in this topic, but please come back to class before third period begins so I don’t get in trouble with Mr. Slanson, thank you.
One of this difficulties in attending teachings and working with them is that they are unavoidably filtered through the medium of our own cognition- in other words, I don’t actually receive the teachings in pure form- I get only a rough approximation of them- really, I hear what I want to hear or what I’m ready to hear, and the rest remains unavailable to me. So please don’t think that what I’m talking about is really what’s in the teachings in a pure way- it’s just what’s left after I get through leaving out most of what’s important. But, still, it’s valid to take in what you can and really process that- otherwise, you know, it’s a lost cause.
Okay, enough disclaimers.
1. “Human beings hate suffering, but we love the causes of suffering.” This was a quote from someone, I think one of Khaydroup’s teachers, but I didn’t catch the name. This little gem describes my predicament pretty succinctly. It’s the grossest part of our confusion, I think, this grasping on to the causes of suffering thinking that they will actually make us happy. Instead, they reliably set up the conditions for our continued suffering. Even once we begin to catch on to what we’re doing, we still think there’s an exception when it comes to our behavior.
There is not.
2. She was talking about how in meditation there is the mindfulness of the body first, then mindfulness of feeling, then mindfulness of emotion- and how if you just watch that progression you can begin to understand how emotion is kind of an end stage manifestation of something arising earlier and not a thing in itself. We have a physical sensation first, then we have a reaction to that sensation, we either like it or we don’t like it or we’re neutral about it. And how if we’re able to remain mindful then when the mental formations of emotion begin to assemble, we don’t have to buy in to them as solidly real in any way- they are just the natural activity of mind, manifesting in response to causes and conditions.
Anyway, she explained how we can have this feeling of sadness, say, that begins as a sensation, we then react to that sensation with aversion, we don’t like it, it’s bad, it’s unpleasant and we don’t want it, and then the mental formation of sadness assembles into this thing and we feed it and make it grow and make it into something solid with our own attention to it. And so it doesn’t collapse on its own, it doesn’t shift into something else, it maintains itself and we begin to shift our behavior and our thoughts and our whole awareness in relation to that mental formation of an emotion. And that’s really a mindless, knee-jerk reaction, but it need not be. It can be interrupted and broken down by merely being aware of what it is and what’s happening.
And this made sense to me, I do this all the time with negative emotions, but it was the next step that I had never really explored and that really blew me away. Happiness is the same thing.
Happiness is the same thing.
Happiness, as an emotion, begins as this physical sensation. Then there’s a reaction to it, there’s this feeling- hey, I like this, I want this to keep going, I want more of it. And then we’re off to the races. We build this up, we make it into a whole solid thing, and begin to shift our words, actions, thoughts, and behaviors toward supporting this new formation, making it stick around, not letting it be taken from us. But, invariably, it is taken from us. It does shift, the mental formation collapses altogether. And then another one arises. But we still want that formation of happiness to be there, to be the one solid thing, and it isn’t, and then we’re on to the negative emotions, over and over.
So this understanding really helped me to see my own myopic view- I’ve been pretty willing to do away with unhappiness, but I still cling to happiness. I still don’t see anything wrong with it. Or, at least, I didn’t until now.
And I don’t think this means all kinds of happiness, or any good feeling at all, because there is a deep joy, a bliss, that is the state in which advanced meditators exist- but one that is grounded in equanimity. It is a deeper, oceanic experience I think than this simple “happiness” which is perhaps more like the waves on the surface.
And so what? What does this mean on a practical level?
Well, for me, it means that I’m suddenly feeling much more aware of how much of my suffering really is caused by this chasing after “feeling better.” Right? I am pretty sure that beer or two is going to remove my unhappiness and replace it with feelings of happiness. And, really, usually, it does. Mission complete! Happiness on scene!
But that relief is so short-lived, and it brings with it all of these negative consequences, a whole train of physical, mental, and emotional sufferings- some subtle, some less so. Same with procrastination, or eating too much, watching Netflix instead of getting to the cushion- all of these are really just my mind trying to get comfortable and not really understanding what it’s actually doing, what the results are going to be.
I hate suffering, but I’m in love with the causes.
So, I think this is such good news. I hope the understanding has an effect on my thinking and my behavior. I believe it will.
3. This third thing isn’t really related to Khaydroup’s teaching, it’s from Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche’s teaching I watched over the same weekend.
Near the end he talks about what giving up the ego is like in the most beautiful way. (Okay, I think maybe not this video, but one from this series. Anyway, it can’t hurt to watch this one and take in what he’s saying.)
So he’s talking about giving up the ego and for us it’s like a child at the pool, terrified, grasping at the ladder on the side of the pool- we want to stay safe, we want very much to stick with what we know, what we understand, what we’re used to. And it’s terrifying to let go of solid land! It’s definitely not safe! There’s nothing to hold us up, to protect us, to keep us from drowning!
And what we learn to do is like learning how to swim, when we give up the ego, when we give up solid ground- yes, it’s true, there’s not solid ground we can rest on anymore, it’s gone- but we can swim, we can enjoy this much greater level of freedom and ease that egolessness can provide.
It hit me in a visceral way as being exactly correct, it aligned with my own experience and I think it’s a beautiful way to express what’s being asked of us.
This week I watched a Frontline on the holocaust and another one on the Syrian war that showed the aftermath of the chemical weapons use by Assad’s forces. Sarin gas. All of these dead babies, little children, a room just full of them. Adults, too. Suffocated by lung paralysis. Terrible way to die.
And the images of the thousands of dead and near dead in the camps in Germany.
I don’t know what to do about it, about any of it, but it’s been a powerful activator of my own bodhichitta. I see the dead body of everyone I encounter as vividly as I see their living body, and I know that they are the same thing. Our time is brief, our suffering is endless.
And I’m not trying to fix anything here. I simply want to see it all. I want to attend to everything.
And give whatever I have, whatever I am, towards easing that suffering for everyone.
The other thing that’s happening in my own small awareness is that I really have the experience, the feeling, that none of us is limited in space or time. We’re limited in our perception, but our actions, our thoughts and words and deeds, ripple ever outward, interlacing with everything that ever is or ever will be. Our thoughts are things in a way that things aren’t even.
So, you know, your prayers are important. Your thoughts are important. Your compassion is important. Don’t be fooled because it doesn’t seem to be having an effect.
It most certainly is.
Okay, class is over. Wait for the bell before you guys run out into the hallway, and don’t forget next week everybody has to bring in a picture they drew of their favorite person!