by Tim Burnett & Robin Boudette, October 2021
Engaging with Difficulty
THE BUDDHIST ROOTS OF MINDFULNESS & COMPASSION 2021
In October 2021, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett and his long-time collaborating teacher, Robin Boudette. co-led a 5-day online retreat on on the ways mindfulness and compassion support each other as we engage with difficult circumstances. The “roots basis” for our exploration were the teachings on the foundational Buddhist teaching the Upanisa Sutta on “Transcendent Depending Arising.”
Our Roots of Mindfulness and Roots of Compassion retreats and classes explore the deep Buddhist roots of the modern mindfulness movement, applying ancient Buddhist wisdom to the everyday stresses and deeper concerns of our times.
The traditional Buddhist text we were studying can be explored here.
Talk 1: Tim Burnett – Setting the Stage
Good morning and happy Indigenous People’s day. Maybe happy isn’t the right word there but it’s notable to watch Columbus Day finishing it’s flip to this side of the coin. I had no idea actually and was surprised to see a note up at my bank this last week saying, “We’ll be closed on Monday for Indigenous People’s Day” – once you’re back into the news there’s a really interesting and thoughtful article in the Washington Post about the use of “Columbus” as part of the American myth and how that symbol is peppered across the land with the many towns and geographic features named Columbus and Columbia.
So this is perhaps a good time to remember we’re each of us here sitting on contested land, lands that were taken by our Euro-American ancestors. And that here where I sit the people of the Lummi and Nooksack nations continue on. I want to just pause a moment in appreciation of their endurance and stewardship. An example in my few decades of living here was watching the Lummi Nation successfully challenge and defeat a proposal to build a new major coal port a day’s walk north of here. Protecting the waters and the fish, protecting all of us from industrial scale greed and confusion and in this case the violent spasms of a dying industry. So let’s acknowledge Indigenous People’s day with gratitude and also with sorrow and apology for the trauma and hurt that’s much bigger than I can understand. [pause]
And here we are beginning a week of concentrated practice while, for most of us, also being at home with all that implies: the comforts and challenges of home.
Some of what was discussed last night bears repeating: if you have a long history of doing in person retreats it would be easy for the comparing mind to judge the set up of this experience from a certain frame. We call that experience “retreat” and we’re calling this experience “retreat” – but that’s the problem with words and designations isn’t it? They are totally different experiences. And that’s true at deeper levels even with things that do seem the same. If we actually believe in this mindfulness stuff we all know that it’s never the same. We’re different, the situation is different, the world is different from what was happening last time.
The invitation here if you’re starting with a sense of wishing this were otherwise – like we were gathered in person at a lovely retreat center like at Camp Samish – maybe you can take a minute to acknowledge that longing and the suffering that always comes with wishing things were otherwise. And as gently as you can set it down. Maybe you already have. I think I’m maybe 90% there – settling into this retreat at home.
The beautiful thing about when we can set down a wish for something to be otherwise we also open a bit more to the possibilities of what’s right before us.
And here we are. 22 intelligent, sensitive, devoted human beings who have chosen to devote themselves to this practice for a week. Yes, over Zoom, and yes – YES – we are connected. We are here together in real time and our nervous systems are cleverly and actively seeking resonance with everyone here through our little pictures. This is part of why we request cameras on as possible – your face actually helps us all if you can believe that (my face?!).
For a week we have this support. We know at a deep level that 22 other people are doing their best to follow the schedule and keep practicing all day even when we aren’t formally gathered together. This is a powerful support and it’s even more powerful if we deliberately bring this to mind. When you feel a little stressed or disconnected from the practice at times this week, maybe you can pause and actively remember – “I’m on retreat with 22 people right now, and just like me some of them are struggling a bit to stay on the beam” – and see what happens.
And when something, or someone, “distracts” you in some way maybe you can see that as part of the retreat too. Not as an obstacle, but as opportunity to do things a little differently, as opportunity to practice deeply at home. To meet everything as practice. As retreat.
Maybe this week can be an opportunity to take a fresh look at time at home, too. What’s actually possible in this life of mine, right here, with this situation? Can this be a deeper field of practice? And perhaps that could be true all the time?
It’s nice to remember simple mindfulness definitions as we start a week of mindfulness practice. We often quote these two:
Jon Kabat Zinn: Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.
Linda Carlson and Shauna Shapiro: Mindfulness is the awareness that arises out of intentionally paying attention in an open, kind, and discerning way.
What’s really here in these definitions? Paying attention. Awareness. Intentionality. Present-centeredness. Openness and kindness. Discernment.
Maybe we think of these as suggestions to ourselves.
This week I will do my best to • Pay attention. • Be awareness. • Return to the present. • Be open, be kind. • Be intentional. • Be discerning.
Or maybe we can simplify down a bit:
Attend to awareness and return to the present, in an open kind, intentional and discerning way.
Or down to just a question like:
What’s happening now?
Really – what’s happening now? And how can I meet it?
And we might also notice what’s not in these definitions. They don’t say anything about being calm. They don’t say anything about having brilliant realizations. They don’t say anything about working on your problems. They don’t say anything about thoughts stopping. They don’t say anything about feeling any particular way at all.
In fact the don’t say a darn thing about the outcomes of mindfulness practice at all do they? Well I do appreciate that the second one says something about an awareness arising. But they don’t define it any further than that. Something happens when we practice. But what it is? We’ll see. Maybe we can’t exactly tell what happens.
These definitions just say pay attention, be present, and orient yourself a bit as you do that: see if you can be a little kinder and more accepting of what arises as here it is.
And of course this practice of retreat can support pleasant states. At one point or another you’re likely to feel all of those nice feels and have some interesting realizations. Not because mindfulness makes that happen exactly but mindfulness helps you to show up and notice that it is happening. Yay for that. Should you have some wonderful beautiful states and moments of clarity this week that’s great, I’m all for it.
And of course this practice also includes unpleasant states. At one point or another you’re likely to be grouchy, depressed, discouraged, sick of this. You might get all judgy – of yourself maybe, of the teachers, of the set up. If you don’t think at least once this week, “why the heck did I sign up for a 7 day retreat on stupid Zoom?” I will doubt your humanity.
But here’s the thing unpleasant states and difficulties can be much more than what you endure. They are also the practice. They are the teacher.
When something hard comes up there are essentially three options available to us, and we might mix these together a bit too:
1) Option 1: unhealthy coping – you could add some shoulds or throw some second darts at yourself, you could try to avoid the uncomfortable feelings with distraction of some kind, you are very capable, I think, of making even a minor stress into a full blown catastrophe. Just one little click and you could turn this zoom room into some interesting reading on the internet right?
2) Option 2: healthy coping – apply those skills – do the process, accept that what is, is, take a breath, refrain from blaming yourself or others. Wonderful and for sure mindfulness helps make this more possible.
3) And then there’s Option 3 which isn’t exactly coping. It’s more like valuing suffering in a certain way. What can I learn from this? And then I think there’s an option 3A and a 3B.
a. Option 3A: how can paying more attention to this suffering help me to learn and grow? This is a kind of advanced option 2’s healthy coping but it’s making more room for change and growth. That it’s not just about skillfully getting through something out there but letting what’s in here adapt and change too.
b. It’s Option 3B that’s subtle and tricky and potentially incredibly good for us. 3A implies a kind of stability of self. This me that I’m used to could grow and change from this meeting with suffering. Option 3B is taking things a step further. More like asking the question: if I really experience and allow this suffering might it cause radical change – transformation – might it lead to a re-imagining of my life, my beliefs, my assumptions about how things work and who I am and what I’m capable of?
Option 3B is essentially what the Buddha taught. He didn’t teach coping skills. There’s a whole thread in traditional Buddhism basically saying “don’t get too comfortable!” And it’s not easy to bring this up or practice with it. It’s not so great to tell someone, or yourself often, this horrible thing that’s happening to you or your family is a good thing: it’ll wake you up. It’ll lead to transformational change. Horrible is still horrible.
So it’s tricky to bring this spirit into an introductory workshop on mindfulness or even an 8-week MBSR class, although it often does show up of it’s own accord. We point in this direction by inviting curiosity when people are examining their stress and suffering. We point in this direction by suggesting that we don’t need to be fixed and discouraging advice giving. We point in this direction by staying grounded when people ask the teacher for advice about how to fix their problems with mindfulness. By sitting in compassion as people dig into how hard it can be to be a person and not suggesting that mindfulness, or anything else, will make everything work out the way they want it to.
One of my early MBSR mentors is a gifted doctor named David Kearney who brought MBSR and loving kindness to veterans at the Seattle VA hospital. One time a one of the vets in class was telling him, “it’s just so hard to do these practices, it brings up so much pain, but it gets better right?” He smiled gently paused for a moment and said, “It will change.”
It will change, and it will change us is what these teachings remind us. Option 3B is letting suffering transform our lives. It will change, yes, and we will change. And there’s noting wrong with Option 2, and there’s nothing wrong with Option 3A – how can we cope better in a healthy way? How can suffering suggest some improvements to my life? But there’s usually some subtle resistance in there, some trying to hold on to the idea of who I am, some trying to fix things that aren’t really fixed or fixable example – it’s understandable as that’s how we’re conditioned.
Option 3B is about letting suffering transform us and there’s a lot of letting go in that. And our conditioned selves can be pretty frightened, upset, and overwhelmed but such things.
And with the powerful support and space of retreat we can explore option 3B a bit together. What’s great is, despite all of these many words that I’m tossing out right now, we don’t actually have to do anything here but show up with curiosity. Really show up.
This isn’t about figuring out suffering, it isn’t about solving resistance, it isn’t about somehow eliminating stress from your life. It’s about including it all. It’s about holding it all more lightly than you have before. Allowing it all more fully. Being present and seeing what happens. Let retreat hold you gently as you allow whatever arises to roll over you like a wave.
But the hope is that maybe these words and teachings will plant some seeds that support a shift in our habitual responses to suffering. How we try to avoid and wriggle out and justify and compartmentalize and so on and so on. Maybe these teachings will encourage us to just let that wave come and wash over us. Of course we’re conditioned to be afraid we’ll drown, that’s natural. But what if instead of drowning, the waves of suffering are healing? Are transformational? Are revealing of things we didn’t understand before. Point to assumptions we’ve always made about who and what we are that don’t really stand up against the wave. And oddly, what if we’re better off without that stuff in the end.
When we think about stress we often think about two categories. Acute stressors and chronic stressors. In this simple model acute stressors are short term issues and challenges that if we can muster the resources can lead to growth and positive change. We access a kind of Challenge Response to we touch into a Growth Mindset. And perhaps we’re moved to seek support – the Tend and Befriend response with the stressful thing inspiring us to get out of our bubble and get some help.
And option 3B can show up here too. In the Mindful Self-Compassion class there’s a unit about “Silver Linings” – have you ever had a tough and stressful period or event that had the silver lining of opening up new possibilities in your life? Most of us have actually. So an acute stressor, even when we feel like it just buried us as the time, and we didn’t do any of these great coping choices to rise to the occasion can have value.
But chronic stressors – those low level ongoing out-of-balance lives we can fall into where it’s just too much all the time – chronic stressors are bad stress in this model. That gets us sick and shortens our lives. We need to find a way to make a change in how we’re living in our lives, in the circumstances of our lives, in how we understand what’s going on. That’s just bad.
Or is it? Maybe that’s just a different kind of opportunity to see if we can practice option 3: what can I learn from this suffering. And eventually 3A – how can I improve matters – can somehow turn to 3B – it’s not just improving matters – that’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as it’s going down – what’s needed here is a whole new life that I never imagined before.
This week Robin and I are going to have a particular Buddhist teaching in mind but I don’t know that we’ll reference it very directly as our mission in the Roots of Mindfulness and Compassion retreats is to translate this stuff into useful, everyday language and it’d be easy for us to get lost in the Buddhist geekery.
The Buddha saw the chronic stressor of being alive as a conditioned being not as a problem to solve but as a great gift. As the opportunity for transformation. As the essential grist for the mill that leads us towards option 3B. So we’ll have the Buddha’s teachings and methods in mind as we try to explore this idea of transformational change that’s inspired by suffering.
The Buddha was a fabulous geek of his day actually. Teaching his precise systems of liberation and understanding how the mind works and how to be ultimately free of suffering in so many different ways. The one we have in mind this week goes by the awkward name of “transcendent dependent origination” – for the Buddhist geeks among us there is one early Buddhist Sutta where he essentially unwinds the usual 12-fold chain of dependent origination that runs from ignorance to mental formations and right through the chain of how we generate a world right through to existence, birth and death – this kind of 12-spoked wheel of samsaric existence. In a Sutta called the Upanisa Sutta the discourse on supporting conditions – he spools this chain out the other way towards faith, joy, and liberation.
If that last little bit didn’t make a lot of sense that’s fine – just a little tidbit for the Buddhist geeks among us.
The point being this teaching begins with accepting and exploring suffering in all it’s guises. From mild annoyances, to understandable pains, to this often vague sense we all have the something just not quite right here.
And bringing this wonderful attitude of mindful and compassionate curiosity to the fore again and again. “What might I learn from this?” is a great place to start and from their inviting a deeper curiosity that the idea of “I” in the middle of “what might I learn from this?” might be. Who is this me in the middle really? What is transformed in the end? We each have such an elaborate theory of who we are and how we work. What if those ideas too aren’t quite true in the ways we think they are?
Thinking of the many limitations we believe in about ourselves as a place to start.
A few examples from my life in case they’re helpful.
[Story of Pat Burleson helping me see that not being an elementary school teacher was my path]
And the other example is my marriage. I was married for 29 years to my high school sweetheart and together several years before we got married too. Our togetherness was just a fact of existence. All I’d really known up to my early 50’s. There would always be “timnjanet”. The first decade or so were, I think, actually pretty wonderful. But gradually we ended up in separate lanes. Cordial for the most part. Sweet with each other even. But without my really noticing the loving connected seeing each other deeply part had drifted away. I lost myself in other things that gave me meaning – my work in creating and nurturing Mindfulness Northwest for one thing. And then circumstances somehow conspired for me to see that the marriage – the timnjanet that seemed eternal – wasn’t actually nurturing me. It was wrenching and incredibly confusing and it totally turned me upside down for a few years. And the choices and actions I took in that confusion were unlike “me” in many ways. I’m sympathetic of what the Tim in that situation did but some of the things I did and said I’m not exactly proud of. But eventually coming out the backside of this as a single person for a year or so and then big surprise a new and really wondrous relationship and life partnership has emerged. And it’s not just that I changed life partners but I’m the same me, I feel so different in so many ways. Transformed by the suffering of letting myself – pretty unknowingly really – cruise along for a decade or so too long in a marriage that wasn’t right for me. Maybe that’s just what I needed, or what the old “I” needed to help give birth to the new “I” – who knows?
But here’s the big point the Buddha makes, I’ll end with that. It’s not just that we can learn to meet suffering more wisely and learn and grow and transform. It’s that this process helps us to have faith and trust in a bigger process than “me”.
And the big possibility of increasing faith and trust in suffering leads to transformation is that it reminds me that I’m not done. This new relationship as wonderful as it is right now isn’t “all set” in some way. This work I’m doing at Mindfulness Northwest it’s all settled and done with but also subject to change and growth and transformation. And these things I tend to put in the wonderful column in my inner scorepad: relationship and work are also subject to stress and suffering as they continue to nudge me onwards towards more change, transformation and growth.
It’s hard for us, believing in our kind of fixed idea of who we are, to really take in the radicalness of this isn’t it? That everything, including us, just continues to change. This could be a totally overwhelming reality – and it can be for sure – but the turning here, the practice point here, is that this continued change including it’s many challenges for us is life itself. And life itself with the support of practice and teachings can keep reorienting towards trusting the process of life itself. I first met this term “the unfolding” with Jon and Saki too actually. Trusting the unfolding of life. And we don’t get there without suffering. So maybe the poet David Whyte is exactly right: this life we have refused – the real life with it’s instability, suffering, and change – there is this tendency to refuse to see that. To seek stability. To want to be done and all set. And rather than being blown over by the intensity of the reality that there is no stability in that way we can embrace is and have trust in it. And even faith in it.
All of this not to deny the suffering of others and the planet. Of oppressed peoples, damaged ecosystems, and injustice. It’s hard to hold this point wisely and in balance. We still do all we can to help. But in our own lives: right here, right now, those of us here with the great good fortune to do this practice, we take on a certain kind of responsibility I think. A responsibility to embrace and hold the hold thing as wisely as we can for our own sakes and for the sake of everyone else. So that we can show up more fully for the good. And maybe as we do this, little by little – sometimes it feels gradual, other times there can be be woooshes of change – as we practice with this let’s see if our trust and faith in this process, as mysterious as it is, doesn’t strengthen and increase. Helping us to continue, and helping us to serve others in a certain way that wasn’t available to us before we touched whatever this transformational possibility is.
Talk 2: Robin Boudette – On True Happiness
Talk 3: Tim Burnett – Energy & Patience
Sutta: Happiness supports concentration
And clearly concentration supports happiness
The value of single pointedness in a time and culture of fragmented attention
Totally fits mindfulness definitions and studies like Killingsworth (worth telling that story again and/or reading their intro paragraph).
The mind wants to know what’s going to happen and the mind is acquisitive in it’s search for happiness but the practice is the opposite: by letting go of less satisfying mental objects we make room for more satisfying
B Bodhi on faith in something we don’t yet know – pare this paragraph down for them
Beneath its seeming simplicity it is a complex phenomenon combining intellectual, emotional, and conative elements. Intellectually faith implies a willingness to accept on trust propositions beyond our present capacity for veriﬁcation, propositions relating to the basic tenets of the doctrine. Through practice this assent will be translated from belief into knowledge, but at the outset there is required an acceptance which cannot be fully corroborated by objective evidence. Emotionally faith issues in feelings of conﬁdence and serene joy, coupled with an attitude of devotion directed to the objects of refuge. And at the level of volition faith reinforces the readiness to implement certain lines of conduct in the conviction they will lead to the desired goal. It is the mobilizing force of action, stirring up the energy to actualize the ideal.
Yesterday experiencing a shift – access consciousness? – where suddenly the distractedness of mind settled way down and there was a good feeling.
Our projections into the future are constant and limiting – usual note about retreat as an opportunity to study our relationship to time – but it’s more subtle we think we more or less know what will help us feel better, feel happier and more content – and we perceive that as something we can get.
And yet the emergence of happiness-concentration seems to be more organic and surprising. We make room for it with the practice of non-distraction.
Say something about the practice of not-knowing -a koan besides the usual one on not knowing is most intimate?
We sit down truly not knowing what we’ll experience each time we practice, and gradually we can realize we don’t know what we’ll experience in the next moment and we release from the desire to control our mental states by distracting ourselves towards something we associate with that dopamine hit.
The suffering we’ve experienced (and is in us from generations before, the culture, and systemic oppressions if we’re in an oppressed group) is always bubbling in us too – dividing us.
Katherine Tanas – why we are at war, p 101 – is good here.
Talk 4: Robin Boudette – Disenchantment is a Good Thing
Talk 5: Tim Burnett – Transforming Suffering in Everyday Life
It’s been such a pleasure to get to hear a little about how everyone’s practicing this retreat at home. There are many experiments happening around setting aside the usual comfort activities – the Dharma of not watching Netflix comes up again and again! – and how practices like that, practices of renunciation make room for new discoveries and clarity around old and new patterns.
And the key thing being that these discoveries are not ideas, not lists of things to check out, they are actual felt experiences.
Often these shifts involve questioning a familiar narrative.
Like the inner voice saying, “I’m too tired, leave the dishes, I’ll too them tomorrow, I just want to flop and watch a show.” With maybe, “and grab a beer” mixed in there for some of us.
The support of our retreat – the support of the increased attention and intention – is making it possible to try it differently.
Turn towards the dishes. Do them deliberately and with care. One dish at a time, one moment at a time. Feeling the warm water, appreciating the nice shapes and colors and textures of the dishes I get to eat off of. Finishing the dishes. Sitting down to listen to the rain with a cup of tea.
This turns out to be a surprisingly peaceful and satisfying evening doesn’t it?
We talk a lot about pausing in mindfulness – at lot about tapping on the brakes – and we tend to think about that in the context of a busy day of rushing around. We think about it at work. Or we think about it about rushing to get the kids off to school.
So it’s exciting to also think about that pause into deliberate action. Our of reactivity and into mindful response even at the end of the day when we’re slowing down and faced with undone tasks. The mindfulness of doing dishes, sweeping the floor, caring for our space. How that’s also an expression of appreciation and gratitude.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests the use of little verses and expressions to remind us that opportunities of mindful awareness runs through every moment of the day. These are based on a wonderful old Buddhist text but he casts them into the modern day. There’s a book of his with a whole bunch of suggestions called Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Gathas for Daily Living. Here are a few of them for daily life:
Waking Up Waking up this morning, I smile. Twenty-four brand new hours are before me. I vow to live fully in each moment and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.
Brushing Your Teeth Brushing my teeth and rinsing my mouth, I vow to speak purely and lovingly. When my mouth is fragrant with right speech, a flower blooms in the garden of my heart.
How about this one for talking on the phone – we could recite something similar before writing a text or an email:
Words can travel thousands of miles. May my words create mutual understanding and love. May they be as beautiful as gems, as lovely as flowers.
And of course he has verses for formal practice:
Walking Meditation The mind can go in a thousand directions. But on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, a gentle wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.
This will sound very familiar but we don’t usually teach the second half:
Sitting Meditation I have arrived, I am home In the here, In the now. I am solid, I am free. In the ultimate I dwell.
Just like it can be wonderful to compose your own verses for loving kindness, it can be wonderful to compose your own verses for daily life mindfulness.
Washing the dishes and sweeping the floor, Scrubbing and sweeping with care, I remember that caring for my home allows my home to care for my family.
This can be a nice support if you actually do recite these little verses regularly for a while. So they really get in there. Into your bones.
What’s been most fascinating to me in hearing about folk’s experiments and practices at home is a sense of discovery. Of realization. Of our seeing something new in our everyday life that’s so full of assumptions that we often don’t even notice are there. That’s really exciting isn’t it?
With this sustained practice there’s also more room in the mind to see how what we perceive isn’t just seeing and hearing what’s in front of us, it’s an interpretation of evidence that we build into meaning, and the feeling and emotion that arises as we construct that meaning is conditioned by so much that isn’t here right now: our past, our culture, more assumptions.
I’ve had some moments like this lately around how I perceive my partner’s 17 year old son. He’s been struggling a little lately as I mentioned and a few days ago he simply refused to get up and go to school. So upsetting to his mother, and surprisingly upsetting to me. I mean he is a part of my household and family now – I care about him for his own sake and also on behalf of his mother whom I’m in love with. But still it seemed such a big reaction: very heavy on my heart. A feeling of impotence too: you can try to negotiate and talk sense into an almost-growth kid but you really can’t make them do anything.
And then I realized an association with past suffering was probably at play in me. My own son in his senior year a few years ago had a minor break down into depression – like Jurrien he never was willing to tell his mother or me what he thought it was all about – but he just stopped going to school. Early in those difficult months I remember sometimes he’d get up on time, we’d eat breakfast together as was our custom, I thought he was about ready to put on his shoes and go to school but I had to go to work so I left for the morning, only to come back and find him in bed. Instead of continuing on to the front door and out he’d turned around and crawled back into bed. And when we tried to talk to him about it he’d totally shut down and get upset and incoherent. By the skin of his teeth he did manage to graduate high school but it was such an awful time for us as parents. Our bright young son in danger of flunking out – it was just shocking to us.
So here it is again. Probably a big part of why it’s upsetting to me seeing my partners’ son skip school in a similar way. At least that’s a reasonable assumption: who really knows?
So what we perceive now isn’t just what we perceive now. All this talk about being in the present is a little more complicated than some kind of simple “bare” awareness really? Our past is totally included in the present in ways we sometimes get an inkling of, often we’re unaware.
That was on Monday but then he did manage to go the rest of the week.
And then this morning I came downstairs and noticed that his shoes were still in the shoe rack. The fact that I even noticed this is interesting: my nervous system is definitely in a vigilant state about this kid not going to school! I kept going. Door closed, room dark. Darn it! My partner had decided to do some early work so she was still upstairs. Maybe she didn’t notice. Should I go tell her? Should I knock on his door myself? Should I just leave him to his fate? He does have to learn how to take responsibility for himself here. How much support is truly supportive and at what point are we limiting his growth and development but being a kind of crutch of nagging? I was pretty bamboozled – what to do?!
And then I remembered: today is a teacher work day. No school. It was right and proper for him to sleep in. I’d constructed an entirely false reality through my eye sense seeing shoes, a closed door and a dark room. And in a combination of present and past suffering I’d frozen up for a while.
Have you noticed the presence of the past in your present moments too this week? Have you noticed assumptions baked into your constructed reality? Have you noticed that the senses aren’t just neutral doors to some clear and understandable world? They are more like inputs and triggers and possibilities really aren’t they? Think about it from a physics frame: the eyes aren’t little windows to the outside world that the little you inside your head looks out of. They are light sensors that sense electrical signals through the optic nerve than get fed into this hugely complex neural network we call “the brain” and somehow out of all of that we have a visual image and all kinds of ideas about what the image means to us. And along the way we have some idea of who this person who’s doing the looking is and what she’s all about.
It’s interesting to ponder these things and it definitely can reduce suffering when we catch our falsely created realities and nudge them back closer to so-called reality. But we’ll never really figure it out. And in the Buddha’s teachings he often urges us not to try to figure it all out.
Over an over he encourages us to bring our attention back to suffering and freedom from suffering. The classic Buddhist encouragement is to deeply accept that on the one hard there is suffering, there is pain, there is trouble, and there are more subtle forms of suffering including a kind of vague sense of “something’s not quite right here” that might be around a lot of the time.
But to accept suffering doesn’t mean all is lost and there’s nothing we can do. There is plenty we can do – suffering can for sure be reduced and classical Buddhism even suggests that suffering can end altogether – but we’ll continually undermine our efforts when there’s resistance to the presence of suffering. We talk about this in MBSR right? How we can multiple a painful moment with our resistance to it leading to a whole big bunch more suffering from that moment of unpleasant experience.
The first aspect of a 4 pronged approach the Buddha recommended is acceptance. Acceptance of everything. The Zen teacher I was quoting, Katherine Thanas, was talking about learning to love the world as it is.
The second aspect is to get a lot more curious about the cause and effect relationships that involve suffering and freedom from suffering. As so many of you have been this week.
What if my desire to check out and watch a show just leads to more suffering? I’ll do an experiment and wash the dishes mindfully even though I don’t feel like it.
What if my assumption that it’s a problem that Jurrien should be at school is just plain wrong?
What if I accept that I can’t really change this or that? How much suffering there is from wanting things to be some other way than they are.
And we have these little surprises where there’s release of stress, an opening to more contentment in small and big ways – oh bliss! And we keep going we keep going. We recognize this is a long road, a winding path. But gradually our faith and trust in this process increases and strengthens. We sit down to meditate the day after the retreat even though that old voice in our head makes a very convincing case for taking a morning off “you just sat for a week! Take it easy!” and maybe you can meet that voice kindly and say, this is actually better for us than futzing about on the internet for 20 more minutes, that’s not taking it easy that’s low level suffering and I could sit instead.
And we recognize that we wake up together. Probably too much of our remarks and guidance this week has made it sound like this is something you can figure out on your own, that you practice by yourself and for yourself.
One of my favorite mindful moments during our afternoon off was going on a run with my friend. We’ve been on and off running buddies for years and we’re also incredibly comfortable together talking about just about anything. I hadn’t seen my friend in a few weeks and during the big transitions of my life these last few years our runs have fallen from frequent to a trickle. But it’s the kind of friendship where even after not seeing each other for several months either of us can see an opening in our day and text the other, “run at 2?” so he did that yesterday morning and what great luck that fit into our flexible afternoon.
It wasn’t a long run, there was a light drizzle the whole time, we didn’t talk about anything too amazing or insightful, just checked in a little and run for 3 miles together. But there’s something about being side by side, running at a good pace, with my friend that is incredibly healing and totally regulates my nervous system down a big notch. It’s kind of amazing really and so very low key. I’ve gotten curious about the idea of “co-regulation” that when we’re with others – and here we are with 20 others even over Zoom – our systems are interacting in deep ways and our big brains are helping each other out in all kinds of ways. This can run the other way too of course if you have a conflict with someone – it’s amazing how big the effect of that can be.
And of course here we are together practicing so steadily. 22 people devoting a week of their lives to this way of being. This way of practicing. This way of exploring our lives.
This is an important point. In Buddhism they talk about the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha.
The Buddha we can think about as our amazing potential.
The Dharma we can think about as teachings and practices that constitute the path.
And the Sangha is what I’m pointing to here: the community. The togetherness. Our undividedness isn’t just an internal experience it’s an experience we have with others too. So easily our conditioning narrows us down and we trick ourselves into thinking “I’m on my own, it’s all on me.” Sure we each need to take some responsibility but it’s not just on you, I’m here to help just as I know you’re hear to help me. We’re all here to help each other. It’s what we were born for and how we’re wired. Someone just sent us a really convincing memo along the way, “you’re on your own buddy – good luck with that.” It’s time to pop that memo into the shredder.
The last stops on the Buddhist road map towards peace and liberation we’re looking at have to do with understanding that this ordinary life isn’t so ordinary. That there’s a depth of meaning available to us in everything we do – in every moment. That though we get so lost in the details there’s also a bigger feeling behind all of the business of life. Sometimes that feeling slips through. Maybe it feels like a moment of everything just being completely okay, just as it is. Sometimes that feeling slips through in a powerful experience of beauty of awe if we tune in. As Robin said those sunrises and sunsets are there every single day. Sometimes that feeling shows up in meditation itself – that glimpse of the vast open blue sky mind. This practice can be misunderstood as a kind of determined quest to have experiences like that. I think that’s an unhelpful attitude myself. But it’s also unhelpful to say there’s nothing more to life than getting through the day a little more mindfully and then doing it over tomorrow. There’s something bigger here don’t you think? Or better to say: don’t you feel in your heart and in your bones? Maybe we don’t have language for that sense of something bigger, maybe we forget all about it much of the time, but we know it’s there.
Tomorrow is our last full day of retreat and Robin and my talk will be a dialog between us and a Q&A responding to your thoughts and questions. To give everyone a little space to think and express themselves we usually take written questions and thoughts. I created a simple Google Form to collect these for us. I’ll paste the link into the chat.
At some point between now and when we leave for our afternoon if you could just click that link. It’ll open the form in your browser and you can come back any time between now and tomorrow after breakfast and share a thought or a question with us if you like. It’s really no biggie if you don’t either. It’s not a school assignment or something.
Okay, let’s continue with this endless joyful practice of being alive together. It’s challenging sometimes that’s for sure, but if it wasn’t probably life wouldn’t be so meaningful. In the man in the desert who finds an oasis the trudging through the desert part was important too. Without that we don’t end up with “oh bliss! Oh bliss!”