Gods & Kings for Modern Times
by Gaylon Ferguson

After a recent visit to my doctor for an annual physical exam, I thought about the anxiety-reducing effect of receiving an insightful medical diagnosis. Even before beginning a course of treatment, there is often some relief in just being told what the problem is, its underlying causes, and the best course of treatment.

Ancient spiritual teachings were often grounded in penetratingly accurate diagnoses. Consider, for a famous example, the Buddha’s four noble truths, which could be summarised this way: Being immersed in a painful process of getting and losing is the illness; its root causes are diagnosed as craving and fixation; and the recommended cure is a mindful approach to living (the eightfold path). There is inspiration in so clearly seeing the challenges of living a good human life.

All Things Shining and To Uphold the World provide contrasting forms of approaching some very large questions: How are we doing collectively? What are the possibilities for increasing, not only our personal sanity and happiness, but global harmony and justice? Can we find valuable resources for restoring contemporary communal health in classical Indian and Greek societies?

In All Things Shining, philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly sing the praises of the sacred world vividly evoked in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey: “The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away.”

Their name for this modern ailment is nihilism, the sense that nothing grounds the choices we make. In the modern world, we have a wider range of choices than ever before — choices about who to become, how to act, and with whom to align ourselves — and we feel a lack of genuine motivation to choose one option over the others. “Far from being certain and unhesitating,” say Dreyfus and Kelly, “our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.”

Dreyfus and Kelly distinguish trivial, everyday questions such as “Shall I hit the snooze bar again?” or “Is this shirt too wrinkled?” from deeper choices such as “Is it time to move on from this relationship or job?”; “Shall I pursue this opportunity or that one, or none at all?”; “Shall I align myself with this candidate, this coworker, this social group?”; or “Shall I choose this part of the family over the rest?”

Deeper choices can feel as though they cut to the core of who we really are and can seem so familiar to us that we assume that human beings everywhere, at all times in all places, were subject to the same dilemmas. Not so, according to these passionate professors of culture and history. “Although the burden of choice can seem inevitable,” they say, “in fact it is unique to contemporary life. It is not just that in earlier epochs one knew on what basis one’s most fundamental existential choices were made: it is that the existential questions didn’t even make sense.”

In the medieval Christian West, for instance, people could not help but experience themselves as created and determined by God. In a thoroughly religious culture, theology comfortingly grounds one’s identity, authoritatively telling us who we are: the children of God who should act accordingly, obeying His laws. This suggests some of the appeal, even for many today, of religious faith and some forms of fundamentalism, despite the extensive rational critique of religion by “new atheists” such as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

Dreyfus and Kelly identify the widespread illness of the contemporary world as “not just that we know the right course of action and fail to pursue it; we often seem not to have any sense for what the standards for living a good life are in the first place. Or said another way, we seem to have no ground for choosing one course of action over any other.” This is the disease of cultural nihilism, the anxious sense that nothing beyond our own sheer willfulness underwrites the values and choices we make every day.

Most of All Things Shining is the story of how culture shifted “from the fixed certainty of Dante’s world to the existential uncertainty of our own.” Dreyfus and Kelly are lively storytellers, narrating in a persuasive fashion the decisive tipping points and transitions over the last three millennia. The crux of the matter seems to have been the radical diminishing of human connectedness to the natural world and sacred powers, until, after Descartes, we have come to experience ourselves as isolated, autonomous individuals, fundamentally separate from the reality of a dead world around us. I may be attracted to the beauties and wonders of my surrounding world, but the choice to move toward someone or something is, we feel nowadays, entirely my own. Not so in the stories of Homer’s Greeks. There is a divine force called Aphrodite that moves Helen to fall in love outside her marriage, and a martial energy called Ares that brilliantly motivates Achilles as a warrior in action.

There are modern examples of being strongly motivated by something larger than ourselves, and Dreyfus and Kelly want us to take such moments seriously. These amazing upsurges of being moved to action manifest in inspiring political speeches, stellar achievements in sports, and the compassionate actions of contemporary heroes like Wesley Autrey, the New York “subway hero.” In 2007, Autrey dove onto subway tracks and saved a stranger who had fallen between the rails during a seizure, holding him down as a train screeched to a halt inches above them. He commented afterwards that he didn’t feel like a hero, just simply someone doing what had to be done.

The experience of certainty about the significance of events is what both distinguishes and links life in Homer’s Greece and ours in the twenty-first century. “The most important things, the most real things in Homer’s world,” say Dreyfus and Kelly, “well up and take us over, hold us for a while and then, finally, let us go. If we had to translate Homer’s word physis, then whooshing is about as close as we can get. What there really is, for Homer, is whooshing up: the whooshing up of shining Achilles in the midst of battle, or of an overwhelming eroticism in the presence of a radiant stranger… These were the shining moments of reality in Homer’s world.”

The key to experiencing whooshing up is gratitude, appreciation, and a sense of wonder in everyday life. In this way, it is related to mindfulness. Mindfulness releases us from the mental prison of taking the ordinary details of life for granted, from the sense of if you’ve seen one breakfast before work, you’ve seen them all. When we wake up to the sensuous details of this morning’s yogurt and orange juice — plus the kindness of our companion across the table from us — we discover a new world in the old, whooshing up in the midst of our everyday life.

In Bruce Rich’s history of Indian emperor Ashoka in To Uphold the World, we see the violence and destruction that often accompanies martial whooshing ups. Ashoka, whose grandfather Chandragupta Maurya is said to have met Alexander the Great, was born more than 2,300 years ago into the reigning Maurya dynasty. Ashoka’s armies slaughtered more than a hundred thousand people in a famous victorious battle to unify his empire. Saddened by the sight of such violence and hearing the Buddha’s teachings on loving-kindness and compassion, Ashoka renounced violent conquest. His name literally means “not sad,” since after his conversion he rejoiced in propagating a nonviolent way of life. The Oxford History of India characterised Ashoka’s bloody conquest, his remorse, and conversion to a new ethos as “one of the decisive moments in the history of the world.”

Rich’s journey with Ashoka begins at the battle site of Dhauli in Orissa, India, where, as the Dalai Lama says, “Ashoka changed his mind.” Rich, an attorney and author widely known for his work on global environmental and development issues, explains that when the British deciphered the Ashokan rock inscriptions found there, “they were astounded to find that they commemorate not a victory but the king’s conversion to a state policy of nonviolence and the protection of all living things. The king declares his ‘debt to all beings,’ announces a halt to almost all killing of animals on his part for rituals and food, and proclaims the establishment of hospitals for both humans and animals. He declares religious tolerance for all sects and sets forth principles of good governance.”

What is the relevance of this ancient king for our own time? Rich notes that “after September 11, 2001, more thoughtful observers began to link the violent eruption of fundamentalist terror with growing disjunctures in the global system.” Philanthropist George Soros calls our attention to “an overarching message from 9/11 that world politicians still are mostly ignoring.” Here is Soros’ succinct geopolitical diagnosis and cure: “We have global markets but we do not have a global society. And we cannot build a global society without taking into account moral considerations.”

Ashoka faced a similar dilemma. On the one hand, there were advocates for an amoral, ruthlessly efficient political economy; on the other hand, there was the clear necessity for a humanely ethical basis for society. Rich is critically realistic in his assessments yet unwaveringly optimistic about the enduring value of Ashoka’s reconciling aspiration:

Ashoka’s shorter-term goal of a unifying ethic for his empire was perhaps foreordained to eventual failure. But like all the great ethical teachers of humanity, he consciously left a message for all times, and here paradoxically he has succeeded. Certainly Ashoka’s attempt to put into practice over a huge empire an ethos of nonviolence and pacifism — imperfect in practice, and not always applied though it was — is one of the most astonishing events in history… The beauty and simplicity of the Ashokan Dhamma is that the principles of protection of human rights and environmental protection all flow from a secular application of the Buddhist/Jain principles of nonviolence, ahimsa, and respect for all sentient beings.

When Ashoka heard the Buddha’s teachings on compassion, says the Dalai Lama in his afterword to Rich’s book, he became convinced that nonviolence and service to others was the path to a meaningful life. “It is my hope and prayer,” the Dalai Lama says, “that readers today may be inspired by this tale of a powerful ruler, who was such a force for good throughout ancient India, to find ways to contribute to making the world in which we live a more just and peaceful place.”

All Things Shining and To Uphold the World look back to two ancient visions of a good life — Homeric Greek and Ashokan Indian — and shed light on how we can move forward in our own perilously challenged times. As always, it’s up to us. Once again we are called by these cultural diagnoses to mindfully engage the challenges of personal and communal, national and global transformation.

You can use a lamp that is reflected in a mirror. Instead of concentrating on the lamp, concentrate on its reflection and remain with that meditation object.

— Gampopa

Tibet House (Cultural Centre of His Holiness the Dalai Lama)

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

I hope this email finds you and your families safe and healthy.

At this time, the world is undergoing unprecedented distress, turmoil and uncertainty, as the COVID-19 debacle fans across the world, and leaves its mark on nations and families. The cause of such widespread suffering of COVID -19 at the collective level is no doubt the result of afflictions and acts of cruelty, with their concomitant intentions, be they directed towards animals or other human beings.

It is timely, therefore, that we come together for healing to undertake a GROUP OBSERVANCE OF THE ASPIRATIONAL BODHISATTVA PLEDGE after reflecting on the four seals, the wisdom of emptiness and bodhicitta. Geshe Dorji Damdul, Director of Tibet House, The Cultural Center of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, will lead the practice. Additionally, we also request him to offer some advice on how best to turn this time of crisis into an opportunity, by utilising one’s time meaningfully, as well as positively channelising and transforming any potential feelings of distress and anxiety into progress on the path.

We would therefore like to invite you, and anyone who would like to virtually attend, to join us for a BODHICITTA DAY, on Friday, 3 April 2020, at 9 am IST *(Singapore time 11.30am)*. You may join the live broadcast, with or without a Facebook account,by clicking on the Tibet House Facebook Page:

https://www.facebook.com/OfficeTibetHouse/

In case your schedule does not permit you to join the live proceedings, please make use of the recordings to carry out the practice in your own time.

The proceedings will make use of this text – The Blaze of Non-Dual Bodhicittas. In preparation, if you can keep to hand the following items, that would be beneficial:

· Tealight candles
· Incense
· Water offering bowls
· Eatables as offerings

In case you are unable to do so, that is fine, too.

No special commitments are required for this one day practice.

Let us all join this Bodhicitta Day group practice of taking the Aspirational Bodhisattva Pledge.

~ Message from Tibet House Team.

佛法是否有效,遇到逆緣才知道
十七世大寶法王

真的修持,是自己要實踐。我們聽了很多,但如果這些法門沒有成為我們對治煩惱的方法,這些聽聞到的知識就會成為空談,不僅對我們沒有任何用處,也會讓這個人變得很可怕。

就好像有些出家人,看到那些很有信心、精進的在家眾念誦念很多、做很多修持等等,他會覺得不以為然,會認為「那些沒什麼,就只是嘴上念念,外道也會」等,會有我慢和輕視,但真正想想,真正有實踐的行者是不會這樣說的,因為就算是外道也是不容易的,也會得到三界之頂的世間成就,雖然沒有超出三界,但要成就三界的禅定,也是不容易的,因此就連成就人、天果位福德和修持都沒有,更不用說二乘的果位了。

我這裡的意思是,會這麼容易輕視他人,是因為自己沒有修持,根本不知道困難在哪裡,因此會說得好聽,說出「這些外道也做得到」的話。但其實不要說大乘法門或小乘做到多少,有時去看看外道的功德,自己都還不具備呢,因此真的不能我慢,真正要好好修持、恆觀自心、斷除煩惱。

「對治煩惱」是整個修持的重要根基。有時我們在佛堂中修持,環境很舒適,所以覺得自己很有慈悲心、禅修很好。其實要在日常生活中,在工作或與親人家人相處中,才能看得到佛法的力量。

尤其是當你心中有煩惱或遇到逆緣時,此時才能看出佛法對你是否真有用處、是否幫助你對治了你的煩惱。若平常用不上,只是在舒服房間才有修持,那佛法就並未成為對治煩惱的方法。

兵法說:“養兵千日,用在一時。” 我們會花很多時間、經費訓練和教育,目的就是要在一場戰爭上獲勝;我們修持也是如此,修行像是和煩惱打仗一樣,平時就要不斷去練習、去修持,當逆緣、煩惱真正生起時,才真正知道「我的修持有無做到?」此時,佛法的力量才會展現出來。

裡應外合,打敗煩惱

當我們在對治煩惱時,要具備兩種對治。「外在的對治」指的是准備好有力量的對治,「內在的對治」是指心理上制造叛變。

首先我們對治煩惱時,「外在的力量」是指我們「聞思」的修持,「內在的力量」是我們認知到煩惱是不好的,就像是要攻占一座城堡一樣,你會需要裡應外合,結合內外的力量,外在的力量是准備強而有力的軍隊,內在的力量是指派一些內應、間諜,去散布謠言、制造人心晃動等,才有可能攻打下城堡。

修持也是如此,我們現在是聞思都做得不錯,外在軍隊也都准備好、很有力量,但問題是,我們內心的逆轉力量不夠,換句話說,我們內心並未百分之百的認為煩惱是不好的,我們常會三心二意,有時覺得行善不錯,有時又覺得造惡沒關系,這樣就永遠不能對治煩惱,將自心攻占下來。

重點是除了外面准備好,裡面再作內應,兩者具備、因緣和合時,才會發現對治煩惱沒有這樣困難,裡應外合下,你很容易、很歡喜的就可以消除煩惱。

不然若心中覺得「斷煩惱?我沒怎麼想斷,但不得不斷」,那還不如不要修持來得好,這樣的修持不會有用,因為你還在三心二意。

The essence of dharma lies in being true to oneself (one’s innate nature) and in exerting great effort to be courageous. When truth and the courage to walk on the path of truth are joined with mindfulness, a practitioner truly begins to practice the dharma. Until these qualities of truth and courage are generated, we will be vulnerable to our own pretences and fabrications.

The arising of truth and courage allows us to realise the core essence of dharma. Not understanding this leads us into the trap of endless cyclic existence. A lack of courage keeps us from being true to our buddhanature.

Both virtuous and nonvirtuous actions are formed in the mind. Actions ’though more apparent’ are secondary to our motivation. Even an apparently virtuous action is of little benefit if the root of our motivation is selfishness. Any action performed with wisdom and selfless motivation is an expression of our own buddhanature.

— Mindrolling Trichen Rinpoche

The Practice of Love
by John Welwood

Freud once admitted in a letter to Jung that “psychoanalysis is essentially a cure through love.” Yet while many psychotherapists might privately agree that love has some kind of role in the healing process, the word “love” is curiously absent from most of the therapeutic literature. The same is true for the word “heart.” Not only is this term missing from the psychological literature, the tone of the literature itself also lacks heart.

My interest in the place of heart in psychotherapy developed out of my experience with meditation. Although Western thought often defines mind in terms of reason, and heart in terms of feeling, in Buddhism heart and mind can both be referred to by the same term (chitta in Sanskrit). Indeed, when Tibetan Buddhists refer to mind, they often point to their chest. Mind in this sense is not thinking mind, but rather big mind — a direct knowing of reality that is basically open and friendly toward what is. Centuries of meditators have found this openness to be the central feature of human consciousness.

HEART AND BASIC GOODNESS

Heart, then, is a direct presence that allows a complete attunement with reality. In this sense, it has nothing to do with sentimentality. Heart is the capacity to touch and be touched, to reach out and let in.

Our language expresses this twofold activity of the heart, which is like a swinging door that opens in both directions. We say, “My heart went out to him,” or “I took her into my heart.” Like the physical organ with its systole and diastole, the heart-mind involves both receptive letting in, or letting be, and active going out to meet, or being-with. In their different ways, both psychological and spiritual work remove the barriers to these two movements of the heart, like oiling the door so that it can open freely in both directions.

What shuts down the heart more than anything is not letting ourselves have our own experience, but instead judging it, criticising it, or trying to make it different from what it is. We often imagine there is something wrong with us if we feel angry, needy and dependent, lonely, confused, sad, or scared. We place conditions on ourselves and our experience: “If I feel like this, there must be something wrong with me… I can only accept myself if my experience conforms to my standard of how I should be.”

Psychological work, when practised in a larger spiritual context, can help people discover that it is possible to be unconditional with themselves — to welcome their experience and hold it with understanding and compassion, whether or not they like it at any given moment. What initially makes this possible is the therapist’s capacity to show unconditional warmth, concern and friendliness toward the client’s experience, no matter what the client is going through. Most people in our culture did not receive this kind of unconditional acceptance in their childhood, so they internalised the conditions their parents or society placed on them. Conditions like, “You are an acceptable human being only if you measure up to our standards.” Because of this they continue to place these same conditions on themselves, causing them to remain alienated from themselves.

The Dalai Lama and many other Tibetan teachers have spoken of their great surprise and shock at discovering just how much self-hatred Westerners carry around inside them. Such an intense degree of self-blame is not found in traditional Buddhist cultures, where there is an understanding that the heart-mind, also known as buddhanature, is unconditionally open, compassionate, and wholesome. Since we are all embryonic Buddhas, why would anyone want to hate themselves?

Chogyam Trungpa described the essence of our nature in terms of basic goodness. In using this term, he did not mean that people are only morally good — which would be naive, considering all the evil that humans perpetrate in this world. Rather, basic goodness refers to our primordial nature, which is unconditionally wholesome because it is intrinsically attuned to reality.

This primordial kind of goodness goes beyond conventional notions of good and bad. It lies much deeper than conditioned personality and behaviour, which are always a mix of positive and negative tendencies. From this perspective, all the evil and destructive behaviour that goes on in our world is the result of people failing to recognise the fundamental wholesomeness of their essential nature.

MEDITATION, PSYCHOTHERAPY AND UNCONDITIONAL FRIENDLINESS

While studying Rogerian therapy in graduate school, I used to be intrigued, intimidated and puzzled by Carl Rogers’ term “unconditional positive regard.” Although it sounded appealing as an ideal therapeutic stance, I found it hard to put into practice. First of all, there was no specific training for it. Since Western psychology had not provided me with any understanding of heart, or the intrinsic goodness underlying psychopathology, I was unclear just where unconditional positive regard should be directed. It was only in turning to the meditative traditions that I came to appreciate the unconditional goodness at the core of being human, and this in turn helped me understand the possibility of unconditional love and its role in the healing process.

The Buddhist counterpart of unconditional positive regard is loving-kindness (maitri in Sanskrit, metta in Pali). Loving-kindness is unconditional friendliness — a quality of allowing and welcoming human beings and their experience. Yet before I could genuinely express this kind of acceptance toward others, I first had to discover what it meant for myself. Meditation is what allowed me to do this.

Meditation cultivates unconditional friendliness through teaching you how to just be — without doing anything, without holding onto anything, and without trying to think good thoughts, get rid of bad thoughts, or achieve a pure state of mind. This is a radical practice. There is nothing else like it. Normally we do everything we can to avoid just being. When left alone with ourselves, without a project to occupy us, we become nervous. We start judging ourselves or thinking about what we should be doing or feeling. We start putting conditions on ourselves, trying to arrange our experience so that it measures up to our inner standards. Since this inner struggle is so painful, we are always looking for something to distract us from being with ourselves.

In meditation practice, you work directly with your confused mind-states, without waging crusades against any aspect of your experience. You let all your tendencies arise, without trying to screen anything out, manipulate experience in any way, or measure up to any ideal standard. Allowing yourself the space to be as you are — letting whatever arises arise, without fixation on it, and coming back to simple presence — this is perhaps the most loving and compassionate way you can treat yourself. It helps you make friends with the whole range of your experience.

As you simplify in this way, you start to feel your very presence as wholesome in and of itself. You don’t have to prove that you are good. You discover a self-existing sanity that lies deeper than all thought or feeling. You appreciate the beauty of just being awake, responsive, and open to life. Appreciating this basic, underlying sense of goodness is the birth of maitri — unconditional friendliness toward yourself.

The discovery of basic goodness can be likened to clarifying muddy water — an ancient metaphor from the Taoist and Buddhist traditions. Water is naturally pure and clear, though its turbulence may stir up mud from below. Our awareness is like that, essentially clear and open, but muddied with the turbulence of conflicting thoughts and emotions. If we want to clarify the water, what else is there to do but let the water sit?

Usually we want to put our hands in the water and do something with the dirt — struggle with it, try to change it, fix it, sanitise it — but this only stirs up more mud. “Maybe I can get rid of my sadness by thinking positive thoughts,” we say, but then the sadness sinks deeper and hardens into depression. “Maybe I’ll get my anger out, show people how I feel.” But this only spreads the dirt around. The water of awareness regains its clarity through seeing the muddiness for what it is — recognising the turbulence of thought and feeling as noise or static, rather than as who we really are. When we stop reacting to it, which only stirs it up all the more, the mud can settle.

This core discovery enabled me to extend this same kind of unconditional friendliness toward my clients. When I first started practising therapy and found myself disliking certain clients or certain things about them, I felt guilty or hypocritical. Eventually I came to understand this in a new way. Unconditional love or loving kindness did not mean that I always had to like my clients, any more than I liked all the twists and turns of my own scheming mind. Rather, it meant providing an accommodating space in which their knots could begin to unravel.

It was a great relief to realise that I did not have to unconditionally love or accept that which is conditioned — another’s personality. Rather, unconditional friendliness is a natural response to that which is itself unconditional — the basic goodness and open heart in others, beneath all their defences, rationalisations, and pretences. Unconditional love is not a sentiment, but a willingness to be open. It is not a love of personality, but the love of being, grounded in the recognition of the unconditional goodness of the human heart.

Fortunately, unconditional friendliness does not mean having to like what is going on. Instead, it means allowing whatever is there to be there as it is, and inviting it to reveal itself more fully. In trying to help clients develop unconditional friendliness toward a difficult feeling, I often say, “You don’t have to like it. You can just let it be there, and make a place for your dislike of it as well.”

Similarly, letting myself have my whole range of response and feeling towards my clients allows me to be more present with them. The more maitri I have for myself, by letting myself be, the more I can be with others and let them be themselves.

This of course holds true for all relationships. For instance, it is only when we can let our fear be, and hold it in a friendly space, that we can be present with our loved ones in their fear. We only react to others with blame and rejection when their experience mirrors or provokes some feeling in ourselves that we cannot relate to in a friendly way. In this way, developing loving-kindness toward the whole range of our own experience naturally allows us to have loving-kindness toward others.

The health of living organisms is maintained through the free-flowing circulation of energy. We see this in the endless cycles and flow of water, the cradle of life, which purifies itself through circulating, rising from the oceans, falling on the mountains, and rushing in clear streams back to the sea. Similarly, the circulation of blood in the body brings new life in the form of oxygen to the cells, while allowing the removal of toxins from the body. Any interference with circulation is the beginning of disease.

Similarly, when loving-kindness does not circulate throughout our system, blockages and armouring build up and we get sick, psychologically or physically. If we fail to recognise the basic goodness contained within all our experiences, self-doubt blooms like algae in water, clogging up the natural flow of self-love that keeps us healthy. If we can extend unconditional friendliness toward our own or another’s whole range of experience and being, this begins to penetrate the clouds of self-judgement, so that our life energy can circulate freely again.

This understanding allowed me to approach psychotherapy in a new way. I found that if I could connect with the basic goodness in those I worked with — the underlying, often hidden longing and will to be who they are and meet life fully — not just as an ideal or as positive thinking, but as a living reality, then I could start to forge an alliance with the essential core of health within them. I could help them meet and go through whatever they were experiencing — as frightening or horrifying as it might seem — just as I myself had done on the meditative cushion. Orienting myself toward the basic goodness hidden beneath their conflicts and struggles, I could contact the deeper aliveness circulating within them and between the two of us in the present moment. This made possible a heart-connection that promoted real change.

I was inspired in this approach by the example of the Bodhisattvas in Buddhism, who, in their commitment to help all sentient beings, join compassion with the discriminating wisdom that sees through people’s suffering to the embryonic Buddha within. For me, seeing the Buddha in others is not a way of denying or minimising their suffering or conflicts. Rather, in the words of Robert Thurman, “A Bodhisattva sees simultaneously how a being is free from suffering, as well as seeing it with its suffering, and that gives the Bodhisattva great compassion that is truly effective.”

When Bodhisattvas engender this kind of all-seeing compassion, according to the Vimalakirti Sutra, they “generate the love that is truly a refuge for all living beings; the love that is peaceful because free of grasping; the love that is not feverish, because free of passions; the love that accords with reality because it contains equanimity; the love that has no presumption because it has eliminated attachment and aversion; the love that is nondual because it is involved neither with the external nor the internal; the love that is imperturbable because totally ultimate.”

HONOURING OUR EXPERIENCE

The poignant truth about human suffering is that all our neurotic, self-destructive patterns are twisted forms of basic goodness, which lies hidden within them.

For example, a little girl with an alcoholic father sees his unhappiness, and wants to make him happy so that she could experience unconditional love — the love of being — flowing between them. Unfortunately, out of her desire to please him, she also winds up bending herself out of shape, disregarding her own needs and blaming herself for failing to make him happy. As a result, she ends up with a harsh inner critic and repeatedly reenacts a neurotic victim role with the men in her life. Although her fixation on trying to please is misguided, it originally arose out of a spark of generosity and caring for her father.

Just as muddy water contains clear water within it when the dirt settles out, all our negative tendencies reveal a spark of basic goodness and intelligence at their core, which is usually obscured by our habitual tendencies. Within our anger, for instance, there may be an arrow-like straightforwardness that can be a real gift when communicated without attack or blame. Our passivity may contain a capacity for acceptance and letting things be. Our self-hatred often contains a desire to destroy those elements of our personality that oppress us and prevent us from being fully ourselves. Since every negative or self-defeating behaviour is but a distorted form of our larger intelligence, we don’t have to struggle against this dirt that muddies the water of our being.

With this understanding, work with our psychological blockages becomes like Aikido, the martial art that involves flowing with the attack, rather than against it. By recognising the deeper, positive urge hidden within our ego strategies, we no longer have to treat them as an enemy. After all, the strategies of the ego are all ways of trying to be. They were the best we could do as a child and they’re not all that bad, considering that they were dreamed up by the mind of a child. Realising that we did the best we could under the circumstances, and seeing ego as an imitation of the real thing — an attempt to be ourselves in a world that did not recognise, welcome or support our being — helps us have more understanding and compassion for ourselves.

Our ego itself is testimony to the force of love. It developed as a way to keep going in the face of perceived threats to our existence, primarily lack of love. In the places where love was missing, we built ego defences. So every time we enact one of our defensive behaviours, we are also implicitly paying homage to love as the most important thing.

As a therapist, meditation was my Aikido teacher. As I sat on the meditation cushion with a whole range of “pathological” mind-states passing through my awareness, I began to see depression, paranoia, obsession and addiction as nothing more than the changing weather of the mind. These mind-states did not belong to me in particular or mean anything about who I was. Recognising this helped me relax with the whole spectrum of my experience and meet it more inquisitively.

This helped me relax with my clients’ mind-states as well. In working with someone’s terror, I could honour it as the intense experience it was, without letting it unsettle me. I also took it as an opportunity to meet and work with my own fear once again. Or if I was helping someone explore an empty, lonely place inside, this gave me a chance to check in with that part of myself as well.

It became clear that there was only one mind, though it may appear in many guises. While this might sound strange and mystical, I mean it in a very practical sense: The client’s awareness and mine are two ends of one continuum when we are working together. Fear is essentially fear, self-doubt is self-doubt, blocked desire is blocked desire — though these may take on a variety of forms and meanings for different individuals. Realising that I shared one awareness with the people I worked with allowed me to keep my heart open instead of retreating into a position of clinical distance.

Whenever two people meet and connect, they share the same presence of awareness, and there is no way to divide it neatly into “your awareness” and “my awareness.” This basic fact — that other people’s experience resonates in and through us, whether we like it or not — is why other people can grate on our nerves and “drive us crazy.” Yet this “interbeing” is also what allows us to feel genuine empathy for what someone else is going through. Before we can truly embody this vast space of empathy and compassion for others, where we can totally let them be who they are, we must first be on friendly terms with our own raw and tender feelings. For many of us this may be the hardest path of all — opening our hearts to ourselves.

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We suffer without choice. We do not want to suffer and we try everything to be happy but suffering happens regardless of our wishes, and we can’t do anything about it. Why is this so? It is because we have already created the causes for suffering in the past. But where are those causes of suffering? They are within your mind right now, it is the self-centered mind and all the disturbing emotions that come from it. If you recognise this, you will understand that you are responsible for your suffering and that there is no one else to blame. Understanding this you will be able to tolerate difficulties and avoid more suffering in the future. If you want to be happy you must know the causes for happiness.

— Garchen Rinpoche