Friday, January 4, 2019

Where does the idea that we have to eliminate ego come from?

Recently, I read an in-depth interview with the Zen teacher, Norman Fischer, in an old issue of THE SUN (August 2018). Most of what he said felt deeply wise to me. But what caught my eye was the title of the article: "Our Grand Delusion: Norman Fischer on the Tyranny of the Self." 

I realize that, in the case of most publications, the person who writes the article doesn't necessarily write the headline, and that is probably the case here, because the title didn't seem to represent the content very well. This disparity, however, only helps makes my point: for those involved in Eastern spirituality, the "ego" or "self" is seen as the bad guy. Norman Fischer may not see it that way, but whoever wrote the title assumed it to be true.

Recently I came across an on-line article that discusses this issue in depth:
tenayaasan.com/myths-pitfalls-egoless-nature-reflections-19-years-spiritual-master/  (May 14, 2017).
As the title implies, the author discusses the problems with trying to get rid of the ego. Can we ever really do this? Or is it more realistic, and likely to produce a better outcome, to face the ego and all that it contains -- all that we think of as the "me"? 
 
Clearly, the author thinks the latter approach is better, and I agree.  But I do wonder about the author's idea -- a generally held one -- that we are taught that ego is bad. I'm not sure it's that simple. Surely, there is an element of that not only in Eastern spirituality but also in the teachings of Western religion and culture: "Remember: be good and share with your sister."  But  I wonder if there is not already an innate conflict that grows out of being born human. Maybe there is an innate knowledge, or at least suspicion, that we are not really separate, that separation is an illusion. The ego comes to represent that illusion because it is seen as the emblem of the separate self.
 
Indeed, the job of the ego is to protect the separate self. But the resolution to the dilemma is not to get rid of ego (if that is even possible) but to realize that the self is not really separate. The ego can go ahead and do its job on one level, but on the deeper, truer level, there is no separate self. 

 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Lessons of THE HOURS

Adapting a beautifully evocative, deep, and wise novel to film isn't easy. Those who succeed usually figure out somehow to stay true to the original concept while at the same time using the visual possibilities of cinema to advantage and telescoping scenes, bringing out their essence while respecting a film viewer's attention span. It isn't easy.

Last night I saw THE HOURS for the second time. The first time I saw it, when it came out in the early 2000s, I felt something deeply but wasn't sure what it was. This time, it was clearer.

Perhaps on first viewing the meaning eluded me because I was stuck in my own ideas about what Ultimate Truth is: that there would be a realization that we are outside of time, of "The Hours." But here were the creators of this film – the screenwriter and director along with Michael Cunningham, the book's author, trying to say something new to me. This time, I listened:

Everyone has a life's trajectory – and we experience life to the fullest when we let go and live it, whatever it may be. It may be we are destined to live a "happy" life. Or it may be we are destined to die young, or to abandon our children. We are not in control. And when we come to know that, we are free. We also come to know compassion, both for ourselves and others, because we understand that it's not a matter of choice.

It happened that I saw another film the night before that tangentially speaks to the same truth: CRAZY WISDOM, a biography of Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher who died early from complications of alcoholism. He and Suzuki Roshi, of the SF Zen Center, were friends, and, in a biography of Suzuki I once read, the Roshi reportedly said that he was concerned that Trungpa, who was decades younger, would predecease him, cutting short all the work he was doing to establish Buddhism in American. Trungpa was said to reply that alcohol abuse was his karma and he wasn't going to interfere with it.

I'm sure lots of people who have overcome alcoholism and other kinds of addiction would disagree, but Trungpa's way of living, without resistance to whatever was happening to him in the present, gave him a power that most of us lack. He didn't waste energy asking the question, “How shall I live?” He just lived, without concern for consequences.

Of course, some will say that Trungpa was foolish, and that he hurt people by his actions. Others might say that an enlightened being might live like that, but ordinary people would cause chaos if they tried. But a third possibility is that we are not, in any case, in control of our destiny; we only think we are. We create a narrative that gives our ego the comfort of an illusory unified self when really it is all just happening; then, when life goes in a direction our narrative doesn't call for, we suffer.

In any case, this viewing of the film of THE HOURS was transformative for me. Being one with the life I am living, not needing it to be something I imagine to be more complete – that is the secret of happiness.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Experiencing Essence together, beyond the personal self, is the true purpose of a nondual group

For the last nearly two years, I've been a part of a wonderful nondual spiritual group. For most of the last year or so, we haven't had facilitation. This has worked, probably because, at the beginning, we did have two facilitators and were guided as to how to be in the group.

 In a group with a leader, it is implicitly conceded that the leader gets to decide what the group is: people who don't like it can leave. But in a leaderless group, everyone believes they have a right to their own view and are more likely to stick it out when they are dissatisfied, believing they can re-form the group in their own image. I've been in a several leaderless spiritual groups previously, including a couple I started myself. Having no one in charge is really tricky because what often happens is that everyone has different needs, and therefore different ideas of what a group should look like. One group I was in, for example, seemed to spend half of its time together discussing what it was really about. I began to wonder if it could ever work to have a leaderless group that actually functioned and that allowed people to go deep into Truth without someone's guidance.

I want to say that there is nothing wrong with guidance. I've had lots of it, some of it in a group format. But the idea that someone "knows" and therefore guides, and that the rest of the participants need guidance because they don't know is inherently false. It may or may not be helpful for seekers to initially project our True Nature onto another -- a guru or teacher -- but in the end, we are all equally Aware Essence. And it seems to me that a leaderless group more accurately replicates this truth than one that gives all the power to one member.

In this most recent group in which I participate, we all understand that the purpose of the group is for us to be together on the level of essence -- or whatever one wants to call that which we essentially are that is beyond the mind, beyond words, and that manifests as love and wisdom. Ego comes up, but it doesn't get very far because we all know why we are there: to meet each other in pure awareness, beyond form. So we do a lot of gazing into each other's eyes, where we meet as essence. We talk as well, but the words emerge from those depths.

I've thought a lot about what has made this group the only one I've ever been in that has given me what I was seeking. I think it is the INTENT. Most spiritual groups either are about teaching a doctrine, or they are about delving into each person's inner process: how that person is approaching Truth (however a given group defines that) and what the impediments are. In contrast, because the members of our group know that there really are no "individuals," we do something that looks quite different. The point of our meeting is to experience together "The I That Is We," as Richard Moss put it. It's a completely different approach from that taken by most spiritual people.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

When the body-mind seems not to "get" the deepest Truth

I just listened to an interview with Rupert Spira on BATGAP (Buddha at the Gas Pump) from 2011. At the end, Rupert talks about the relationship between realization and the body-mind's adjusting (my word, not his) to the Truth that has become known. He says that this takes usually takes time, and that this adjustment can happen before or after the realization of the truth of nonduality -- or both before and after -- and in fact seems to continue indefinitely.

I think those of us who have realized Truth to the extent that it is clear that there is no self often reflect on the contradiction that in daily life, many of the old patterns of behavior persist. That is, I often behave, internally (in thought) or externally (in behavior) as though I really truly believe I am a separate self. There continues to be that deep knowing that there really isn't anything separate, but I must admit that one looking from the outside wouldn't be able to tell that!

I've become much more relaxed about this. My programming from childhood was to become "perfect" in order to be loved, and that has given way to a kind of compassion for the illusory separate self that seems to show me up as less than perfectly enlightened! (See how the "me" creeps in -- as though enlightenment were something "I" do?)

Fundamentally, just as enlightenment isn't something "I" do, neither do I create the separate self.  "I"  am not the author of it nor responsible for it. Life does everything.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Sometimes an obscure explanation is best

I am reading about a woman with a Zen background who goes to a temple of the Shingon sect in Japan to study the teachings.  (Shingon is an esoteric form of Japanese Buddhism.)  The priest at this temple tries to explain the distinction between the teachings of Shingon and Zen. He starts by saying that, as he understands it, the point of Zen is to be nothing, to be in the void. By contrast, he says, the point of Shingon is not to be nothing but to understand that everything is and is not actually concrete. He goes on to explain how, while a cup will not continue to exist, its atoms will. It's not clear whether this is meant as an analogy or an explanation, but the listener seems to take it as the latter.

This, the listener says, is the simplest, clearest explanation she has ever heard.*

But I wonder.

It is true, in my experience, that things do and don't exist. The way I like to talk about this is that forms have no substance. That is, everything is empty. I like to say it this way because, there is a danger, when you start talking about atoms, that the mind will think it understands, when it really only gets it abstractly, scientifically. This is not the kind of seeing that matters when we're talking about awake consciousness.

Again, I like Zen's mu  because "emptiness" cannot easily be grasped by the mind. The point isn't to know the Truth, but to see it. And one can only see it when one has become it, if only for a moment -- when one realizes that one is oneself empty, nothing, only then is it possible to realize everything as oneself.

*This exchange comes from the memoir, When the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, by Marie Mutsuki Mockett.  This book will be reviewed on my literary blog, Literary Journeys to Truth, when I've finished it.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Can Enlightened Beings Have Faults?

There is a certain assumption -- one which I myself carried for a long time -- that somehow awakened people have ideal personalities. They only get angry when it is justified and useful. They know exactly when and how to say "yes" and "no." They are always happy, if not blissful. They are never judgemental. And they never show any indication of ego, or of wanting to be liked, noticed, or admired. They don't judge, and when they are judged by others, they never get upset.

Does this sound like your ideal enlightened being? I know it long sounded like mine. If any of my teachers displayed any "faults," I was quite upset. Is s/he really completely enlightened? Why is s/he showing signs of ego? Could I really believe in someone who was, in effect, still human?

Sometimes students are encouraged to believe that all their faults will be eliminated when they step into the Truth of their Being. But often, the idealism doesn't come from the teachers but from aspirants themselves. In fact, the word "aspirant" says it all: I will become something better -- oh, much, much better! -- than I am now! Everyone will love me, and most important, I will love myself.

Maybe for some people, it works that way. If so, I'd love to hear from them. For me the process has been quite different, and not something that I could have anticipated:

What changed, basically, was my belief in what we call the "world." This "world" is really composed of and created by thought. That world includes, especially, one's ego. And as that ego and its world become more and more transparent or unreal -- there is less and less reason to argue with it or want to change it.

Why would I expend energy to change something that is not real in the first place?

Now, it may well turn out that not believing anymore in the entity called "me," causes a diminution of what are seen by most as the faults of the ego. When we know we are not our ego, we don't need to defend it as much. But if that doesn't happen -- if, that is, an awake human being still displays the personality traits -- including the negative ones -- that s/he has always displayed, it really doesn't mean anything. The important thing is knowing what Truth really is. Becoming a better or more admirable person, if it happens, is only a by-product.

Monday, December 18, 2017

What is Love?

In her very important memoir, Anita Moorjani, who awoke to Truth during a Near Death Experience, writes: "Each of us, at our core, already is pure and unconditional love. However, when we express it here in the physical realm, we filter it through the mind, and it then expresses itself as human emotion."

This sounds right. But what is it, exactly, that happens when we filter unconditional love through the mind?

First, it enters the domain of duality. In other words, I experience that I love you, and you love me, or I hope you do anyway. In the absolute realm, we aren't separate, so love just is, but once we experience separation, it appears that love resides in each of us (or doesn't) and needs, therefore, to be transmitted to the other and "received."

The element of time also enters in -- this one is tricky. In the infinite realm, love just is. But once we have time, love is also subject to its passage. I love you today, and you love me, but will you love me tomorrow? And once we declare our love, the other person expects that that is how we will feel from then on out. But actually, it may only be what we felt in the moment. And we may feel we are betraying the other if we cannot find the love in us that we used to feel for him or her.

Yet, when I watch carefully what happens, it's more like I feel love in one moment, and the next moment I don't -- not because of any change in the relationship necessarily but just because feelings are transient. Just as thoughts move from one to another at breakneck speed, so do emotions, which are a mixture of thought and bodily sensations.

Thus, it is impossible that we will continue to have the same feeling we felt a few moments ago because every moment is completely new. But it's hard to accept this. We need stability in our self-image, and our self-image is composed in large part of beliefs about how we feel about people and things. So we need to bridge the gap between the discrete feelings of love that arise over time by telling ourselves a story:  I love you not just at this moment, but into the foreseeable future. We believe it; the other believes it. But it's all a house of cards.

Can we experience another kind of love, then -- the infinite, unconditional kind? For me, that happens when my ideas about myself and the other take a break. Then the love that we both are reveals itself. Then it's not a matter of giving or getting but being what we truly are. And this experience too passes as thoughts come back in. But once we know it, we know it doesn't change, even if our minds do.