Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Ego"s Bad Rep

In spiritual circles, ego has a bad rep. It's something one is supposed to get rid of. "If I could only control my ego, I'd be enlightened," is often thought, if not said. And so there are numerous strategies to do this.

This seems to me to put the cart before the horse. Ego, after all, is trying to make us bigger -- trying to make us as big as we really are, that is to say. And how big is that? Infinite!. But it doesn't know how to go about its project. It's looking at you from the outside and imagining if you are admired by others, that means you've made it.

People struggle and struggle to deny this urge that sometimes seems so powerful. But what really solves the problem is discovering how big one already is. The real thing -- not just an image. Then the goals of ego seems pretty shallow and not that interesting. It doesn't mean that ego goes away necessarily; it just doesn't matter that much anymore.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Is Honesty Always the Best Policy?

In the centerfold of the Summer 2017 catalogue of the Buddhist publisher, Wisdom, there is a whimsical drawing of a bear and raven in dialogue. Their interaction is reported as follows:

"Black Bear came to a meeting late and said, 'I'm feeling frazzled after dealing with my cubs. What if I don't feel compassionate?'

"Raven said, 'Fake it.'

"'That doesn't seem honest,' said Black Bear.

"'It doesn't begin with honesty,' said Raven."

There is no attribution, so I suspect that this is a traditional Buddhist teaching story.

But whether this particular story is traditional or not, in my experience it does represent an important attitude in Asian Buddhism: behave not based on what you are but on what you aspire to be. Or, in other words, fake it 'til you make it.

When I was twenty-two, I lived in a Buddhist temple in Japan and this attitude came up again and again. Once, I was told to write a letter to my mother telling her how grateful I was for everything she had done for me. Like most 22-year-olds, I had my share of resentments toward my parents. Giving thanks to them for what they had done for me while omitting what they had done to hurt me seemed dishonest.  Black-bear like, I complained, "But I don't feel grateful." "That doesn't matter. Do it anyway," my teachers replied.

It actually caused me pain to be false to myself in this way. I don't know whether Asians experience this or not. But I think most Westerners, contrary to Raven, would say that it does begin with honesty. My main teacher was Adyashanti, a third-generation American Buddhist -- that is, his teachers were all American-born. And he definitely stressed honesty -- to the extent that it may have been his most important teaching. 

Why is honesty important? Well, for one thing, it takes a lot of energy to lie and keep track of your lies and make sure that they have had the intended effect -- which is usually to either enhance your ego's standing among other egos or to make sure, at least, that it isn't diminished. If you are using your energy in this way, you are wasting it, and it's running counter to the realization of oneness that a glimpse of egolessness will give you.

So I'm with Adya on this one. That said, I do still tell social lies. If someone invites me to dinner whose company I don't enjoy, I don't tell them that. I usually, like most people, find an acceptable excuse for bowing out. Perhaps this is a cop-out, but I can't see a reason to hurt someone unnecessarily.

With intimate relationships, though, and, most especially with oneself, honesty is essential. Lying in those circumstances will bring one further and further away from the Truth one is seeking.When I find myself lying in those situations, I try to remember to ask myself, Why did I do that? What was I hoping to gain?  And, most importantly, Why am I so lacking in trust -- in myself, in the universe, or in a loved one -- that I felt the need to try to manipulate through lying?

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

And One More Time: There is NO Separate Self

Recently, I heard an interview with an engaging, modest man named Robert Wright, who has written a book called, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. 

One thing I notice when Westerners write books about Buddhism, though, is that they rarely mention the most important aspect of enlightenment, maybe even the only aspect that really matters: one realizes that the separate self doesn't exist.

(I really want to emphasize this because some people imagine that the separate self somehow disappears.
And so they are looking for evidence in behavior in order to decide if a given teacher is enlightened. But the fact is that the idea of a separate self exists in the mind; and once it is seen through, one knows that it never existed in the first place.)

So, as usual, this fundamental fact was ignored in the interview, which, I think, means that Wright doesn't know it.

I decided to look for a review of the book and found a thoughtful one in yesterday's New York Times, by a Antonio Damasio. But the lack of clarity about the lack of a separate self results in this conclusion to his piece:

 "The self appears fragmented, in daily life and in meditative states, but subjectivity does not break down. It never disappears, or we simply would be unable to observe the fragmentation in the first place.

"I would venture that in most meditative states some subjectivity remains, as representative of the biological interests of the individual. As far as I can imagine, the complete disappearance of a subjective view would result in a “view from nowhere.” But whose view would that be, then? And if not ours, how would we come to know let alone seek such a view, such an emptiness? Mindful meditation is no stranger to the world of paradox. Is there anything stranger than discovering the pleasures of not feeling?"

Whose view would it be then, indeed? The emptiness that we actually are is doing the looking (and at the same time IS the objects it is looking at).

Emptiness is form
Form is emptiness
Emptiness is NOTHING BUT form
Form is NOTHING BUT emptiness.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Comparison with others is never helpful

I've noticed that comparing oneself with others is never helpful, especially in spiritual matters.

Comparison come in lots of packages. The most obvious is, "I'm better (more enlightened, have a better spiritual path, etc.) than you." But just as unhelpful, though it disguises itself as humility sometimes, is "You are better (more enlightened, etc.) than I am. If I were more like you, I'd be a better person."

In fact, the second kind of comparison can be more insidious because something in us often reacts to our putting ourselves down this way, and we end up with a projection that looks something like, "That person thinks s/he is so much more enlightened than everyone else!"

Comparing ourselves to a beloved spiritual teacher is even more tricky -- just because it is so natural to do this. It seems that if we could just have the experiences our teacher has had, we would be just as enlightened. So we often ask the wrong questions of him or her. "How did that experience of illumination come about?" "How did you learn to live in the eternal present?" We want cues -- a road map. And if our teacher claims to have followed a road map that doesn't feel like the right one for us -- or doesn't feel like one it is possible for us to follow, it can be distressing. But it can also turn into the teaching we really need.

I remember once one of my teachers was saying that this, that, and the other was true. (I don't remember the details anymore.) I finally raised my hand in exasperation and said, "That doesn't seem right to me."

She replied, "Well, what's the problem?"

It was obvious to me what the problem was: here was a teacher who was the embodiment of what I wanted, but what she was saying seemed wrong.

My teacher kept probing: "Why do you think you have to see things as your teachers see them?"

"Well, they are enlightened, and if I want to be enlightened, then it seems I need to learn to have their view."

"But you see things as you see them and therein lies the enlightenment."

And so it was.


Saturday, May 6, 2017

The provisional nature of life and thoughts

I had a stroke in February and my left side was paralyzed. I got to the emergency room quickly and, after some imaging and tests, was administered this miracle drug that reverses the effect if your stroke is caused by a clot (as mine was). It seemed a miracle that suddenly I could move my arm and leg again! But just as I was celebrating, two women entered the room, at least one of whom was clearly a doctor. She said, "Well, that's the good news. But the bad news is that you are bleeding  in your brain so we need to give you a drug to reverse the effect of the one we just gave you, so that you can clot again." I said, or at least thought, "You're kidding."

But no, they weren't. "We talked to Dr. X and Dr. Y by phone and they agree that this is necessary."

I asked if I would then be paralyzed permanently. Probably, they said. And if I said no, would I die? If the bleeding continues, quite likely you could, they said.

I was in turmoil. Would I rather be paralyzed the rest of my life or dead? But then, I came to the conclusion  that I'd lived a long, fruitful life and if it was over, that was all right. I had nothing left it was imperative to do before I died. I would choose that over lifelong paralysis.

As it turned out, they'd misread the Cat-Scan -- what they thought was bleeding on the image was only a shadow. But I didn't know that then. And because I didn't know what, I had the opportunity to discover something.

I've wanted to say that I discovered I'm not afraid of death, but that doesn't feel exactly true. What I discovered, more exactly, is how provisional our thoughts are, and how determined by our physical and environmental situation. At the moment when I had to choose, everything I usually think is important fell away. My mind only was thinking about the dilemma in front of me.

So actually, "I am, (or, am not) afraid of death" makes no sense. The "I am" statement is just the way we create our psychological selves by imagining that we are identified with a thought we have and that it continues over time.