by Tim Burnett & Robin Boudette, October 2022
Not Being Carried Away by the Floods
THE BUDDHIST ROOTS OF MINDFULNESS 2022
In October 2022, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett and his long-time collaborating teacher, Robin Boudette. co-led a 7-day retreat on the teachings on the foundational Buddhist teaching the 10 Paramis.
The focus was on a traditional Buddhist teaching called the Paramis (Pali) or Paramitas (Sanskrit). These “perfect practices” include generosity, ethical living, renunciation, patience, and wisdom. These practices help us to be stable and steady in the face of life’s joys and challenges. We are less often “carried away by the floods” when we are anchored by the Paramita practices.
A nice summary of the Parami’s is available at Wikipedia.
Talk 1: Tim Burnett – Generosity and Morality
Or course Robin and I are conditioned to want to say the right thing and give the right teachings and have this all feel valuable and worthwhile so I was looking at the website to see what we promised to provide in this daily lectures which are a feature of our “Roots” retreats – to say something about the roots of these mindfulness practices which we feel are mostly found in Buddhism with a healthy dash or modern interpretation, positive psychology and maybe a sprinkle of neuroscience.
So here’s what we put there:
THEME: NOT BEING CARRIED AWAY BY LIFE The practices and talks by Tim and Robin will focus on a traditional Buddhist teaching called the Paramis (Pali) or Paramitas (Sanskrit). These “perfect practices” include generosity, ethical living, renunciation, patience, and wisdom. These practices help us to be stable and steady in the face of life’s joys and challenges. We are less often “carried away by the floods” when we are anchored by the Paramita practices.
And then last night we listened to why everyone was here. And what a touching gathering of thoughtful and passionate humans that was, didn’t you think. So moving and important. Anyway at one point Robin leaned over to me and pointed out, “they aren’t here to hear all about the parami’s!” what would I heard as a note of relief. We don’t have to give you brilliant Buddhist teachings really!
But we’ll do our best. And actually that’s totally right: we aren’t here to give you brilliant Buddhist teachings as this isn’t a Buddhist retreat. We’re hear to share something of what we’ve each learned and are practicing with from the Buddhist tradition and reflect with you on how it’s useful as a support to your practice. When we do mention Buddhist terminology and ideas we hope it’ll be in service of that with, I think, a useful sense of broadening the frame of where all of this came from. That can help us with our trust and patience in the practice to know this all came from somewhere with a lot more history – a long living tradition – that has served people in good stead for many generations.
There are plenty of modern elements in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindful Self-Compassion classes we offer.
MSC especially is full of exercises created by psychologists and psychology is a very new scientific discipline really. I’m not a psychologist, Robin here is actually, but I’ve been paying attention to these things for a few decades now and I’ve been able to trace back a lot of what’s in that curriculum to other psychological trainings. This is from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, ACT, oh that’s from Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), hmm that seems influenced by Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT). An alphabet soup of stuff that was mostly all invented in the 1970’s and 1980’s and refined since so there’s 40 or 50 years of tradition there.
But all of it’s really underlain by some deep ideas and practices developed and refined in Buddhism for 2,500 years and then modernized and translated to the west in the last hundred years or so.
I’m going to engage in a little historical side note here. Roots grow up through history:
There was actually a wave of modernization in the 18th and 19th centuries first when Christian missionaries started showing up in Asia and Buddhist leaders felt some pressure to compete with the influence of new religious system showing up. This actually led in a few areas to innovations that are echo’ing in this room right now. Mostly around teaching meditation to ordinary people, not just to the monks and nuns. And some de-emphasizing of the more esoteric aspects of Buddhism which actually does include some elaborate cosmologies and mythic stories and figures. It’s not all some kind of “science of mind” as some people have tried to reduce it, or tidy it up to.
Anyway in my primary practice tradition, Soto Zen Buddhism from Japan: the founding teacher in the west for my branch of things, Sunryu Suzuki roshi, was born in 1904 and came to American in 1959 at the age of 54. Funny that I’m now a bit older than he was then. 1959 – 63 years ago and we’ve been engaged in a rich mix of trying to stay true to the system of practice he brought us while also innovating and tweaking in various ways as we fit it into our cultural frame – and hopefully let it change our cultural frame a bit too.
But back to the basic Buddhist ideas there are here and hopefully I can link all of this to this theme of “not being carried away.”
One is that when we’re hung up in one of 3 streams of thought-experience you’re more likely to be swept away by external circumstances and internal impulses – much more likely to be knocked off your feet and to suffer.
The first is misunderstood desire. Or maybe misunderstanding the actual outcomes from the things we want and don’t want.
There’s the obvious level here of thinking that if we could just get the stuff that we want we’ll receive lasting happiness. It’s not too hard to see how this isn’t quite true in the material world. We get pleasure from stuff for sure, but it’s not lasting in the way our desire-mind projects to it to be. It also breaks. It has to be stored somewhere and clutters up our lives. Then they release a better version of it and suddenly our amazing thingy seems dated and inadequate.
But of course we can do that with human relationships too. If only so-and-so would straighten out a little I’d enjoy her so much more. That’s a desire that we can convince ourselves makes perfect sense: it’s be better for her too!
And as you can see desire here includes wanting more of something and also wanting less of something. Being averse to something is also desire. I don’t want that.
And there are many wrinkles and twists to this of course. Humans and human societies are complicated. Of course we have a desire for more peace, less violence, and for our ecological systems not to be destroyed. (Which at the same time we have a desire for convenience like being able to drive our cars very quickly to Samish without traffic delays and if we still have a gas burning car well…you know I’m planning to get a electric as soon as…).
Do think about, and feel into, your desires this week. Silent retreat is an incredible place to study this. The simplified circumstances and the sometimes challenging freedom of giving up control over your schedule and diet and leisure time choices and all of that can really bring up desire. Sometimes it’s subtle because we’re very good at rationalizing and justifying our views. We’ll get back to “views” in a minute.
And that’s exactly the Buddhist suggestion for us: study this. Know your desires and aversions. See how they move you. Perhaps you’ll notice that some of them have been operating a bit more in the shadows showing up as impulses. I like this, I don’t like that. Without much clarity around where that came from. As we slow down, notice, get curious, and also make more space for all of this with the great space-opener of acceptance we may see more patterns and possibilities in our desires. And little by little more freedom from them. Not that they go away, it doesn’t seem to work like that, but that they don’t have the strength they did to carry us off.
So that’s the first stream of thought-experience that can carry us away: desire. Aversion and desire. And more specifically a kind of misunderstood desire.
The “misunderstood” bit there is challenging. There’s a relevant Buddhist term which is translated as “ignorance” that is confusing too: it’s pointing to a reality that there are some fundamental misunderstandings in people that are so common and so stable looking that we actually have no idea we’re misunderstood. We think we’ve got a clear idea of who we are, how we work, and how this world works. It’s a kind of survival strategy for us I guess. Another type of shorthand.
Buddhism strongly urging us: yeah? Take a fresh look. At everything.
The 2nd stream of thought-experience that’s really powerful and sweeps us off our feet is our conception of self. This is an even trickier thing to study than desire because we are literally right in the middle of our concept of self 24-7. It’s hard to have any kind of perspective on this stream because we’re swimming in the middle of it.
And because we usually don’t turn towards our experience of self as we’re so busy coping with everything. And when we do it’s often with a really simplistic short hand collection of views: I’m an introvert, or an extrovert, I’m this type of person or that type.
And we also assume a kind of solidify and stability to our personality traits: It’s just how I am. I got this form my mother – or maybe I am the opposite of that in reaction to the way my mother was.
I thought it was interesting how a few people pointed to this in talking about your intentions for being here. Daniel particularly pointed right towards it when he said something about wanting to have some perspective on the constant stream of thinking. To be able to step out of that and see it. That’s a shift in experience of self. Maybe a kind of temporary splitting moment: there seems to be one “me” that’s mind chattering away, worrying, daydreaming, frightened, excited, on the surface sometimes other times feeling into something deeper. And then there seems to be a second “me” who can watch all of that.
And again this gets complicated fast. Conditioning from the past and from our surrounding society and peers and media and all of it is incredibly powerful. Many more streams that flood. But at the same time it’s all a process that’s formed a complex story we each call “me” that we constantly tend and tweak and love and hate and react and respond to.
And the Buddha suggesting here too: study this. Know this. And with awareness, like Robin was saying in regards to tension in the body, we may find more freedom. More possibility of change. And maybe more that’s already changing all the time only we didn’t notice. I’ve been through some big personal changes in the last few years that I never imagined would happen. And not just to my circumstances but inside myself. And talking to folks over dinner I think that’s true for many of us – maybe all of us. Perhaps one of the surprise blessings of the challenging years of pandemic: massive change all around us facilitates change within us.
So that’s the second stream of thought-experience that carries us away, a lot: our conception of self.
And the third one I’m going to mention is actually divided into a 3rd and 4th in the traditional teachings but it makes sense to talk about as one thought-experience stream: our views.
Basically our conception of self is a specialized collection of views about ourselves and this category of views in general is our conceptions about everything else.
Here’s how one of the Buddhist teachers we’re studying for these talks explains about views – this is Ajahn Sucitto who is a British person who took a new name when he ordained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand:
‘Views’ refers to the instinct we have to hold beliefs, opinions and dogmas in order to gain a standpoint. They could be anything from ‘Buddhism is the best religion’ to ‘The liberal party is fair and just and seeks for the welfare of the nation’ to ‘Women are hopeless drivers’ to ‘Our nation is the source of truth and harmony in a brutal world.’ Or a view could be a lot more personal, ‘I’m a Taurus, and that means that I’ll get on well with Scorpios.’ Such broad-brush generalizations form an easy basis for our decisions, loyalties and world-view. And so, throughout history, societies have adopted views such as, ‘There are witches who consort with the devil and bring blight onto the crops and plague into the city.’ Or they have adopted the view that Jews are a contamination and should be eradicated; or that communists are infiltrating public life in the USA and about to take over. And these views, based on a sense of the pure, the right and even of Divine Will, have justified slaughter and cruelty, hatred and loss of liberty. We can indeed be horrified by such events, often to the degree whereby the extreme nature of these views blinds us to the fact that we are all susceptible to the flood of views. ‘Joseph is an idiot who should never be allowed to drive a car.’ ‘Start letting those kids have their own way and you’ll be heading for trouble,’ etc. Even ‘I never subscribe to any view, political or religious because it’s all hot air’ — that’s just another view.
There are several salient features to the flood of views. One is that it puts life into the abstract, sums people into groups, and makes a ‘something’ that we can stand back from. From this perspective the mind can form neat divisions: between my party and the others. The flood of views therefore isolates; and more tellingly it draws a dividing boundary across which negotiation, empathy, and at times even ethical standards, do not cross. So having decided that you’re an idiot who shouldn’t be allowed to drive, I’m not going to discuss with you why I think that way (though I may shout it in your face), and if I think that you are innately unskilled, I’m probably not going to offer to instruct you. And in the cases of those whom views have labelled as the ‘evil’, the ‘condemned’ or the ‘insignificant’, not only is there liable to be no negotiation and no checking of facts, but also actions may be administered without compunction, even though they bring death, ignominy and punishment. In sixteenth century Europe animals were deemed as feeling no pleasure or pain, and lowering cats into bonfires to witness their antics was a source of entertainment. And so on. With the adopting of views, empathy and ethics are under threat.
Another feature of the flood of views is that it gives one a standpoint whose loftiness at times exceeds reason and the life-instinct itself. In the twentieth century, the Heaven’s Gate Christian sect so fervently believed that a heavenly space ship was tailing the Hale-Bopp comet as it swung by the Earth that they committed suicide in order to get on board. Prior to that, mothers in Iran had gladly sent their sons marching across mine fields as human martyrs in that country’s war against Iraq, delighted by the view that their children were thus bound for Heaven. Extreme examples again; but notice when you get that sense of standing up for your beliefs, how the energy flows, or floods, through your heart and up into your head where it shuts off alternate ways of seeing things. Wait for the next domestic argument and witness how wronged and just and firm you become. The flood of views inflates the ego and supports the identity flood of becoming.
This flood is difficult to check, because views are the benchmarks we have for our reality and our actions. We all use abstraction to define things in accordance with certain perspectives. There is a degree of usefulness in talking about Belgians, or film directors, or Carthusians, but it’s in the blind adherence to those concepts as ultimate definitions of an individual that the flood arises. If it is blindly adhered to, even the view that ‘all views are problems’ creates problems, as that condemns any relative statement as invalid — and then what can be said about anything? No, it’s the adherence to any view, not the view itself that is the crux of the problem. The flood of views is this intoxication and adherence, an ongoing mental action that cuts off those who believe a view from the ‘rest of the trouble-makers.’
A remedy that is recommended then is to note a view as a starting place from which to investigate or enter dialogue with others. In this we acknowledge that we have a personal perspective and can’t avoid having one. This is already a breakthrough, because the fallacy that supports the flood is that any individual can have an all-encompassing view — whereas the very act of holding a view immediately places the viewer in a state of isolation from scrutiny. To acknowledge subjectivity may lead to the recognition that ‘my’ position isn’t really mine, but one that is conditioned by the information I’ve received or an experience I’ve had, and is therefore capable of being reviewed and moderated. So: ‘I think you’re a terrible driver because I saw you reverse into the gate post, and I heard that you never indicate when you’re making a turn, and Susan said that she was terrified at your speed when you drove her to town.’ If I’m practising truthfulness, then at least I’ll acknowledge that most of my information is second-hand, and that I was angry at having to fix the gatepost. And if I’m also inclining towards equanimity, I’ll also be willing to have my reasoning examined and even refuted. Then it may be that the partial truth in that view (after all, you did drive into the gatepost) would encourage us both to look into how we are all liable to do such things — and mutually review driving skills and standards. Thus we overcome the sense of division, and specific kindness gets established.
And of course here again silent retreat, especially the “silent” part is a great opportunity to study our views. They come up, the move us around, they absolutely connect to the first two streams of thought-experience: self-concept and misunderstood-desire. You can watch them feel very important in your mind for a while. Urgent. And then they often will lose their potency. They can be views about what we need to do later. They can be views about our neighbors. About the teachers and the teachings. About just about anything. And sometimes we can see them as just-that: views. Oh that’s an interesting opinion I’m attached to isn’t it?
And our general efforts to strengthen our acceptance – again few things make so much internal space in us as acceptance – and especially our curiosity.
If you’re a Buddhist geek really tracking things here and wonder what the 4th traditional stream of thought-experience that carries us away is it’s ignorance. Ignorance in the sense that I was describing before of not seeing that our views and understanding are limited and subjective and not inherently true and correct. It’s different from the everyday ignorance of someone not knowing something but there’s a connection there too. You can see why I’d combine ignorance with views in thinking about the ways we get swept away.
So that’s the landscape of these teachings. Three overlapping powerful streams of thought-experience that sweep us off our feet and create suffering and confusion. And can lead to things far, far worse too: violence, war, genocide. These streams are a kind of deep root of trauma and the behavior that leads to trauma too. So it’s serious stuff.
The Buddhist tradition has many possible practices and sets of teachings to help us stay rooted in the earth in the face of these powerful streams. One such is our topic this week. A set of 10 orientations, 10 teachings, 10 sets of practices we can do. Called the 10 Perfections. Perfection is a bit of a loaded word but we’ll circle back to that because they don’t mean that kind of perfection exactly.
Sometimes you’ll hear Robin or I using the terms “paramis” or “paramitas” which is just the Buddhist language we were each trained in. The word for “perfections” in Pali and Sanskrit respectively. But we’ll try to keep things in plain English for the most part.
Here is a thumbnail sketch of the first 2 or these ten Perfection practices: generosity and morality.
Generosity means just what it says. Practice being generous. When generosity really lands hearts open, don’t they? In a moment of loving giving and receiving the world stops. Everything feels complete. The three streams pause in their tracks. There’s no desire, there’s a whole different sense of self, there aren’t views about this or that pulling us away. It’s just like “wow! Thank you” and “Oh my! You’re welcome!”.
I had a strong experience of this yesterday. Someone arrived here I hadn’t seen in some years and gave me a gift. A lovely gift made by hand wrapped in love. I don’t want to speak for the other person’s experience but for me is was one of those moments of everything stopping. Wow. So much gratitude can arise from an act of deep generosity.
There’s a reason major holidays are based in giving and receiving and gratitude: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas.
I also appreciated that someone last night in talking about where she was from said she lives on “Coast Salish lands” – sure enough and here we are in the very spot of a major Samish Nation winter village called ____. One of the powerful gatherings they hard here in their huge cedar long house was the practice of potlatch. A big gathering with gratitude in the center. Families with wealth giving away their riches to others in the community.
The Christian settlers and the governments they created to try to run things here were kind of shocked by these gatherings: how long they went on, all of the giving away of wealth, even ceremonial burning and destruction of valuable things – it shocked and confused them so much they banned the potluck ceremonies from the 1880’s to the 1950’s. This place came into the Community of Christ in 1959. This all happened not so long ago.
So generosity practices are in the soil here I think. In the air. There’s a reason why so many of us last night also talked about what a special place this is. I don’t want to make any particular “spiritual” claims about why this is but I do think it’s more than that it’s a pretty, quiet, place with nice views.
And of course, the familiar theme here too that it gets complicated. Generous acts can also go sideways. There are strings attached – maybe strings we didn’t know that were there – if we don’t get the response we wanted from the person we give our gift too we’re upset, deeply wounded. And you feel all three streams having a flash flood there: the desire for a different outcome, the woundedness of our self-concept, the many views we hold about how giving and receiving is supposed to work.
The “perfection” in the list of 10 perfections we’re talking about could be adding the word “wise” to each area of practice. What is wise generosity? What does that feel like for you? What does it look like when it happens?
And giving an object is just one tangible way of looking at generosity. How about giving time and energy. I work with a lot of caregivers – a work life that when it flows well is nothing but giving to others. Giving support and kindness. Giving medicine. Giving the gift of listening and attention. Giving errand running and cooking and house cleaning and all kinds of gift-actions.
And most of them are in danger of burnout. So clearly that’s a lot to study and learn about how to practice generosity wisely and sustainability.
The different between overlapping impulses of helping, sympathy, empathy, and compassion are here within this practice of wise generosity. The “Perfection of Generosity” the Buddhists would say.
So consider generosity this week. Not as an action plan or as a review of your life story – was I wise in my generosity that one time? – but as every action and moment of our days together. Is there generosity here? Is it the wise generosity that supports us in pausing the flooding streams – or perhaps feeling that the flooding streams actually can be allowed to flow right around us and aren’t as powerful as we thought they were. Or is there a kind of distorted generosity that happens where desire and self and views come ranging forward.
The second of the 10 perfection practices is a huge topic that I only have time to mention. It’s the practice of morality. Of living in an ethical way. Being upright. And wow here’s a topic that we always need to investigate with wisdom. What’s a wise ethical choice here? We start, probably, with a big set of internalized rules of conduct, but do those always lead us to the best choices? The most helpful actions for ourselves, for others, for this world?
Buddhist ethical frameworks touch on the common choices of behavior and interaction that most ethical systems, including the ten commandments, touch on. I’ll just list the 10 core ones in the Zen tradition: not killing, not stealing, not misusing sexuality, not intoxicating self or others, not speaking ill of others, not praising self a the expense of others, not being stingy and greedy, not holding onto anger and ill will. You can hear how much of that list is about our interactions with each other and when we study them we always think about the positive alternatives to them. Like the precepts on “not stealing” is exactly an encouragement to do the opposite of stealing which is giving. Back to generosity.
Since we’ve vastly simplified our choices on retreat, especially again by not talking, we have way fewer opportunities to mess things up with this list right? We aren’t talking so we can’t lie or speak ill of others or overly praise ourselves – for the most part anyway. We aren’t flirting. Hopefully you’re free of opportunities to intoxicate yourself with substances at least, ideas can be intoxicating. And if you get annoyed with someone here and keep practicing you’ll hopefully see the you don’t have to hold onto that annoyance, you can let it go.
But in the reduction of choice and action when something that rubs against the harmonious grain of ethical living does come up in you boy you really feel it more. Like I have more or less free run of this place since I’ve been here to much. They literally trust me with the keys to the castle. So once in a while I overstep. And you know I feel it more and usually it keeps me in harmony with my intentions. But not always.
Like one time they didn’t have the snack area set up and I really just had this comfort desire for a snack. So I snuck a bag of leftover tortilla chips out of their pantry. They were actually kind of stale once I got them to my room (where I further ignored the signs they’ve posted recently not to eat in the cabins for fear or ants and stuff getting the crumbs). And well speaking of desire. That was NOT a satisfying experience at all. I feel badly about it. And I do have some perspective, I know it’s no big deal but it was just yet one more opportunity to watch all of this stuff play out.
So generosity and morality, living every moment of our lives in an upright way. Those are the first two of ten areas of practice that can support us in not being swept away by the floods.
Talk 2: Robin Boudette – Renunciation & Wisdom
Talk 3: Tim Burnett – Energy & Patience
Our topic today in how to withstand the floods that carry us off our feet are the connected practices of energy and patience. Energy and patience, you can feel immediately how relevant that is to what we’re doing here at Samish. Doesn’t require extra explanation to point out that a week of this kind of silent, rigorous practice takes energy and patience. Right?
Last night I had the opportunity to practice a lot of patience with feeling flooded.
I don’t know that the details of how I got triggered matter too much, but I received a message from someone and I got triggered. The message that triggered the upset in me arrived right at bed time. I felt waves of anger, resistance, a desire to straighten the other person out. I watched the mind go to rehearsing my response. I watched my mind generalize about the other person in that “she’s always doing this!” kind of way. I felt shame at my timidness in not responding to what felt like a pattern over time and even shifting blame to myself for the person’s difficult behavior – I’ve I’d only called her up last time and explained why that’s a boundary violation this wouldn’t have happened. So it’s my fault. That’s an old pattern for me.
Looking at this now with you I can actually celebrate a little that I am so much more aware of my feelings and the many ways a strong reaction to something shows up in my mind. I can watch the churning without acting on it and especially I can celebrate that I can return to my own needs in a relational situation and not just drift into eating all the blame myself. I admit I did start to draft a response but I stopped myself again.
But last night there was no celebrating. I was pretty miserable. I was upset. And there was no way I was going to sleep anytime soon. So I lay there, breathing, steadily moving my mind back away from the narrative and the problem solving and planning, touching into my feelings but also trying to dwell on them. Acknowledging the upset and coming back to breathing in the body. I was in that state for a few hours before I fell asleep. I don’t think I actually said to myself, “okay: now practice patience, Tim” but that’s what I did.
And gratefully, I did sleep. And I also wasn’t surprised when I woke up a little early – not too bad though – and instantly the whole thing snapped right back into my mind.
I also noticed that it was helpful to hold lightly the predicting idea that “you’re not going to sleep tonight and you’ll be a wreck tomorrow” – how much worse that thought can make things right?! I was able to bring that back to “well I’m not going to sleep as much as I’d like, and who knows how I’ll feel tomorrow, I might do ok.” Because I’ve noticed again and again that although my need for sleep is for sure a real thing, my system can usually handle one night of low sleep ok. Sometimes actually I just feel a bit softer and gentler and more relaxed rather than exhausted and miserable. So far that’s how it is for me today. So far.
So I also studied energy and my theory of how energy works. And tried to hold that lightly.
We are so darn influenced by our mechanistic view of things -we do tend to think of ourselves like machines. We think of the need to eat and sleep like filling up our gas tanks and then we’ll run smoothly the next day. If we don’t get enough sleep or the right food we’ll suffer. That’s not totally wrong but my experience is it isn’t that simple. We are so much more complex than cars.
Here’s a quote from Ajahn Succito about energy – speaking here more to our general state of energy in time of life more than the daily ups and downs:
None of us has too much or too little energy; all that we suffer from is imbalance and ignorance about it. So if you are physically not very strong, you make your boundary fit that condition. Staying within that limitation, saying ‘yes’ to fewer physical activities and ‘no’ to many more, you will find that your energy will accumulate within the boundary. Similarly, if you are not feeling emotionally robust, form a boundary for your aspirations that enables you to stay focused and mindful with ample energy. Find a way of establishing your boundaries, and then have confidence within them. (p. 106)
So there’s a practice of skillfulness and working with expectations around energy too.
And energy and patience really do go together well. It was wise of the ancients to list one after the other on this list of 10 practices.
Patience isn’t just putting up with stuff. There is a kind of straight-up tolerance and endurance that’s needed, but what’s meant by patience here is a more active engagement than what we sometimes think of patience.
The usual patience has an element of checking out in it. Okay this wait in line at the post office or this being on hold with customer service is annoying and it’s going to take too long so I’ll just check out until it’s over.
The parami of patience, the perfection of patience, is a wise and aware patience that’s all about checking in and being present.
This patience in the Buddhist tradition is said to include three aspects: gentle forbearance, endurance of hardship, and acceptance of truth.
Gentle forbearance. Gentle is really important to our practice and our lives. Gentle is so linked to kindness and most of us struggle around being gentle or kind – especially with ourselves. If a child scrapes her knee and is crying it’s so natural for us: gentle, kind, reassuring. “It’ll be alright.”
But when we are hurt we usually don’t go there do we?
We can go to beating ourselves up. I did a little of that last night: it’s just words, why are you so triggered, you should be able to let this go! I’m glad I didn’t get too caught in that.
We can go to problem solving. Nothing wrong with solving problems but as a default strategy there are a lot of problems with problem solving. Some things just can’t be solved in that way. And especially not in the moment we’re having the upset.
We can for sure globalize and predict, see the upset of evidence of something bigger. Maybe evidence of our essentially flawed nature. Shame is in there. Blame too. “I’m always doing this” or the “she’s always violating my boundaries” that was part of my upset narrative last night.
We do have a rich collection of methods for making things worse. Yet one more thing that we can study on retreat!
Forbearance is a bit of an old fashioned sounding word. Robin and I were just talking about how everything we learn from Buddhism is through translation and most of initial translating that was decent enough to stick happened in the 19th century so we end up with words that were more common then and sound a little quaint to us now. Like there’s a traditional list of difficult conditions that come up in practice called the five hindrances, Robin mentioned those the other night without too much explanation. One of them is just feeling tired and sluggish – that “I’m so not up for this” feeling – that state was translated as “sloth and torpor” very much not everyday language for us now. How you doing? Oh: lots of torpor today. Maybe that’s true here with forbearance.
Anyway forbearance means bearing things with a sense of restraint. So gently bearing what’s going on and refraining from all kinds of ways we can make it worse.
So can we train this week if you get upset or overwhelmed or tired of all of this to go to gentle forbearance. Can you hold yourself like that crying child. “Ouch! This is hard. Hang in there, you’ll be okay.”
The second of those 3 components of the parami of patience, of wise patience, has a lot of overlap with “gentle forbearance” – it’s “endurance of hardship.” There’s always going to be challenge and hardship in human life. Much of it can’t be fixed and must be endured somehow.
I recently found out that an old Zen friend who’s my age, had a sudden onset of rheumatoid arthritis early last year – the bad systemic kind not just her joints getting swollen or something. Bad enough that she’s given up her 2nd career as a Unitarian Minister. That’s real hardship. As a Buddhist friend she’s really trying to practice with this. She’s actually teaching a class on practicing with illness called “Dancing in the Dark Fields”‘.
So she’s definitely practicing patience in all thee of those ways. An active engagement of: gentle forbearance, endurance of hardship and for sure with a lot of the third quality here of acceptance of truth.
It really sounds very sudden from what she says. She was going along okay and really loving her work as a minister and then she started having a lot of issues with energy and pain in the body. Deep aching pain she hadn’t felt before. I don’t know if this was weeks or months. And then she got the diagnosis and one morning when it felt almost impossible to get out of bed for the pain realized, “I have to give up my job. Period.” Acceptance of truth. This is not easy.
I bet many of us here have gone through similar changes. I know some of your stories which are quite similar to this one.
In my friend Florence’s talk on her journey she quoted another Buddhist teacher she’d studied with named Darlene Cohen who had severe pain, also from rheumatoid arthritis which came on her 30’s. Darlene practiced and learned how to use her own suffering and pain in her practice and teachings. She wrote:
I think many people have a skewed idea of what accepting pain is. If you have the idea that coping well should resemble serenity or equanimity – something like the proverbial “grace under fire” – and you think you should resign yourself with a big cosmic grin regardless of what horrors are being visited upon you. Actually, “accepting” fails to convey the tremendous energy and courage it takes to accept physical pain as part of your life. Truly accepting pain is not at all like passive resignation – rather it is active engagement with life in it’s most intimate sense.
This all applies equally well to mental and emotional pain too:
Actually, “accepting” fails to convey the tremendous energy and courage it takes to accept pain as part of your life. Truly accepting pain is not at all like passive resignation – rather it is active engagement with life in it’s most intimate sense.
So acceptance and patience which have a huge overlap requires a lot of energy.
And our energy might not be the finite supply we think it is. Somehow when the tank seems empty humans have an ability to keep going, to dig deeper, that can’t really be explained.
One of the simple ways to practice energy at retreat we’ve all been doing is the practice of showing up. The bell rings to get up and you get up. The bell rings to come to the hall and even if you really aren’t feeling it, have serious doubts about it or about your ability to do all of this, but you come anyway.
And study of energy brings us back to living a more present-centered life. To being less caught by our predictions, but also studying and being aware of the cause and effect relationships we have. I may be able to do okay with one night of low sleep but after that all bets are off and ultimately I do crash.
I dip in and out of the scientific literature around mindfulness so I always want to add a caveat when I talk about “the science” that it’s just a slice of science that I’m aware of as a non-specialist outside the research community but one study I remember, done in Australia, was a broad study looking at health outcomes in general in people who tend to stay more rooted in the present, who live more present-centered lives, verses those more likely to spend more time and energy on what happened in the past and what might happen in the future.
The results were impressive. Present-centered people in their study were healthier in general, recovered more quickly from illness, responded to treatment better and so on. Were less anxious and had lower incidence of depression.
Being present is good for us. Study after study one way or the other points in that direction.
So that’s what we’re doing this week. That’s what all of the energy and patience is needed for. Being present. So simple and somehow it all gets pretty complicated!
That’s why we take up a practice of renunciation living this simplified concentrated life for a week, and trying to apply a little more wisdom to how we hold and process our experience.
That’s why we’re trying to be more generous and upright with ourselves and others.
We’re learning to be more present.
It’s not a learning like remembering facts and great quotations and lists of practices although that learning can be supportive. It’s experiential learning.
And it’s often not easy. But as I was clumsily trying to say last night it’d not exactly hard either. It’s just being. You don’t exactly have to do anything at all. I guess really it’s neither easy or hard. It’s just the experience that arrives moment after moment. Easy and hard are concepts that can really limit us.
I do love the metaphor that these 10 Buddhist parami practices are to help us to “withstand the floods” and the pointer that the floods are largely composed of desire, overidentifying with things, fixed views, and a fundamental kind of ignorance or confusion. That all seems very wise to me.
I flooded last night. Maybe you flooded earlier in the day or the day before or maybe you will later on. It happens. Maybe you won’t – that’s nice, that also happens. Robin and I are focusing a lot of our energy on trying to offer support and encouragement for the challenges of this. If you feel like “huh, I’m just cruising along – should I be suffering more?” please let that go and enjoy your week!
And yet – and I think this is an important and yet – these floods are just an idea. They aren’t real life the floods that recently ravaged Pakistan or Florida. Reactivity in the mind is reactivity in the mind. Pain in the body is pain in the body and the layers of resistance and catastrophizing are layers in the mind. Predictions about how hard or easy it’s going to be for the rest of the day are projections of the mind. So much of what seems so real and certain to us arises in the mind. In the narrative of who we are that we can be so tossed around by, that we’re so in the middle of we lose track of the possibility that there’s anything else to our experience.
And then once in a while we feel into something beyond the narrative. The floods that were so strong, pushing at us so hard, we could barely hold on suddenly we experience them as insubstantial – more like fog and less like a raging torrent of strong water like the great current of the Colorado River that tumbled me around in the Grand Canyon.
Maybe we have a feeling of everything stopping, of the insubstantial nature of these floods, in a moment of seeing great beauty, of receiving or giving great generosity.
Maybe it’s a moment during meditation.
You can feel this. And I am quite confident we all have. Maybe you just haven’t thought about that moment of peace and ease in a long time. Maybe it happened in childhood. There’s a famous part of the Buddha’s enlightenment story where he remembered a moment like this from his childhood. It was a important turning point in his practice.
That’s what I was trying to get at in the morning sit today.
There’s a great freedom that’s possible even with all of our problems. An unbinding from them.
They don’t all go away: they still matter, we still have a lifetime of work to do but a moment of clarity, you might call it, can work wonders. It’s not all as bad as we thought. There’s more to us than these problems. Problems are just problems. I’m okay. I’m actually okay.
There are lots of ways to think about this but ultimately it’s not about thinking: it’s about experiencing our life beyond the narrative of our life.
That’s what I love about that poem “One Morning” by Rosemerry Trommer and other attempts to express this. This verse from her poem comes to mind:
We will wake up that morning and we will have misplaced all our theories about why and how and who did what to whom, we will have mislaid all our timelines of when and plans of what and we will not scramble to write the plans and theories anew.
And I love the next part too where she points out that there’s an ordinariness to this process too:
On that morning, not much else will have changed.
Whatever is blooming will still be in bloom.
Whatever is wilting will wilt. There will be fields to plow and trains to load and children to feed and work to do.
Much like in Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese:
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers.
Widen your perspective!
And then Rosemerry Trommer circles back to gratitude as the natural result of this process.
And in every moment, in every action, we will feel the urge to say thank you, we will follow the urge to bow.
It’s not easy to feel grateful for difficulty. Maybe I’m 20% of the way there with the upset I experienced last night. I can see that my feeling triggered by a few words from someone – and she’s someone I know and appreciate with a great heart and excellent intentions – that my suffering in response is a pointer to practice, a gateway for learning, an opportunity to grow. But it’s not easy.
Darlene Cohen whom I was quoting earlier from my friend Florence’s talk said her practice with herself and her efforts to share with others is the path of “suffering and delight.”
Suffering and delight.
Patience and energy.
Let’s keep going. Breath by breath. Step by step. Day by day. We are blessed with very good circumstances for practice. There’s lots more time and who knows what will happen. Only one way to find out.
Talk 4: Robin Boudette – Renunciation & Wisdom
Talk 5: Tim Burnett – Truthfulness & Resolve
So we come this morning to the last two of the 10 “parimi’s” – these “perfect” practices for swimming skillfully in the floods of life.
The last two are resolve and truthfulness.
And remembering that you don’t need to keep all of this straight by any means here is the full list of 10 for context in the order we’ve shared them with you.
1) Generosity 2) Ethical Living 3) Renunciation 4) Wisdom 5) Energy 6) Patience 7) Loving-Kindness 8) Equanimity And now 9) Resolve 10) Truthfulness
And it’s not like this is the be all and end off of helpful practices with the “floods”. One I was really appreciating this morning was gratitude. Gratitude arose in my around Robin’s skillful guidance through those isometric movements exploring the different muscles involved in sitting upright.
Resolve and truthfulness.
Some time ago I created a one-page handout about mindfulness to use in our introductory workshops. There is just so many one can say and share about mindfulness and so many practices and ideas and benefits and all of that. I wanted to create an easily digestible summary of all of that I could hand out and then highlight different points in our presentations. I figured it would be also help people relax and just take in the experience of these introductory mindfulness workshops if I could say that the quote I just shared with them or the practice we just did was on the handout. Less need for that distracting acquisitive mind to be so active.
Same reason we reassured you folks that we’ll email you the poetry and we’re recording these talks. You can just take them without that “Oh I liked that one! I want to remember it! What’s it called again? I’ll write Robin a note and ask” which pulls us out of the moment to moment experience and also injects a certain amount of anxiety, right? That “I want to remember that!” feeling is often underlain with a fear of forgetting something valuable. And that’s probably underlain with deeper feelings and experience of loss and fear. Everything’s connected.
So anyway I realized I could hand out our 70 page manual from MBSR if I really wanted to at the introductory workshop – tons of great info in there – but that’d be overkill and distracting as who doesn’t want to leaf through the handouts and start reading.
And for some reason I thought about how when you used to buy a consumer gadget – a VCR maybe (remember those?) – they used to come with a manual explaining how to set it up and all of the functions in several languages. But lately instead there’s one big folded up piece of paper with just visual diagrams and as few words as they can manage and links to a PDF online somewhere if you need more. The paper often being called the Quick Start Guide.
So I created a Quick Start Guide to mindfulness. We’ve used it a lot, seems to be helpful.
And the process of creating this handout also helped me focus in on what do I really want to say about mindfulness here? What’s essential?
So I have definitions of mindfulness, summaries of formal and informal practices, a list of evidence-supported benefits of mindfulness and some little clip art diagrams. And then I realized I often talk about key attitudes that really help us in engaging with mindfulness.
One I always talk about is curiosity. The way curiosity is a great antidote to generalizing, habitual, autopilot way of living is so key. How curiosity can also help us notice so much more in our lives, our environments, each other and how often that leads to a feeling of wonderful and surprise that’s so engaging. Curiosity really wakes us up. So I always include curiosity in my key attitudes lists.
A second I always include is one of today’s parami’s: willingness. You have to be willing to try stuff. Willingness points to the experiential nature of this work. If you only read about mindfulness but don’t actually do the practices that’s not going to change your life, right? Think about the points Robin made yesterday about neuroplasticity: our neural networks shift based on how we use our mind. Most of us already have strong pathways around reading and digesting information and storing it away in our ideas bank. So reading about mindfulness isn’t very different from reading about big wave surfing or something – reading is reading. We can feel some inspiration from reading about a topic, it’s true, and it can help us awaken some intentionality and a sense of purpose or direction so reading about mindfulness can be a helpful factor in actually doing mindfulness but it’s the actual doing that does it. Which is a wonderful phrase I think I just invented:”It’s the doing that does it!”
So willingness. Being willing to try this stuff. Being willing to keep going with that gentle effort until the bell rings. Being willing to put yourself in a potentially uncomfortable social position sitting in a circle in a mindfulness class. Being willing to hang in there through a 7-day retreat.
We are amazed, by the way, Robin and I by how many of us here are doing your first 7-day retreat. A big step. That’s a TON of willingness right there. Wow.
So back to my list of Keys to Mindfulness. I always include curiosity and willingness and for some reason I think there should be 3 keys. 3 things is easy for me to remember I guess mainly.
So in some versions of this handout I’ve put down “kindness” as the third key. That’s really good. As we all know, on the whole, our kindness towards ourselves and our experiences isn’t so strong. A quality to focus on and develop. And essential companion for awareness: once you’re more aware of something how do you meet it? Us conditioned emotional humans don’t really meet anything that matters with neutrality – we always have an attitude. That’s great, that’s terrible, I’m ashamed by that, proud of that. So how about being more deliberate around how we respond to something that comes into awareness and invite some kindness instead of a bunch of random stuff conditioned by our current mood and our past? We don’t have total control of our attitudes and leanings that’s for sure but we absolutely can bring forward an intention and as they say in the trade “incline the mind” in that direction. Towards kindness. Kindness is a central theme to the entire 8-week Mindful Self-Compassion class we offer for good reason.
And kindness is in this parami list too. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing several talks by Robin over the years about loving-kindness which is a big part of the branch of Buddhism she practices in and has been so pivotal for her in her journey from resisting the very idea of it (my history too!) to seeing how essential it is and the wonderful steady curiosity she holds around real life opportunities to practice loving kindness.
So sometimes my Keys to Mindfulness are: curiosity, willingness, and kindness.
But other times the factor of honesty comes more strongly to mind. And that’s our 10th parami. I so appreciate how the mindfulness classroom is a place of honesty and vulnerability. With support of the practice and also of making some shared agreements around confidentiality, respect, and interpersonal safety and with plenty of modeling from the teacher we can be in a space where it’s okay to be more fully ourselves.
One of my favorite ways to talk about this is to express how much I love being in a situation where we can acknowledge our whole humanity. The ways that everyone one of us is competent, educated and organized – holding together the complex lives we’re each holding together is no small feat, and….that we’re a mess. We all have moods and bad days and get confused and overreach and misunderstand and screw things up.
Usually I get a good chuckle out of that way of talking and, more importantly, I can feel the room relax a little. Oh, it’s okay to be broken here? Maybe I am welcome in this circle. And that we don’t need to be lost in our broken-ness either, we’re also doing just fine.
This makes me think of another favorite saying by Suzuki Roshi, looking out at his somewhat rag-tag group of early American students he said, “well I think you’re perfect just as you are” – and I can only imagine what was going through people’s minds at this – the great Zen master is telling me I’m pefect? Wah? – and then Suzuki Roshi goes on to say, “and I think you could use a little improvement.”
So it’s both isn’t it? And that’s a wonderful example of the practice of honesty. Not hiding our faults and flaws and fears.
But this honesty is balanced by awareness and our willingness to practice and grow. Remember the second stream in the floods: the stream of our self-concept. Maybe it’s more helpful to say the stream of over-identifying. You aren’t your shame, right? You aren’t your problems. You aren’t your thoughts either. You are so much bigger than all of that. It’s real enough but it’s not “you.”
In his teachings on honesty Ajahn Succito lays out a nice little road map around how the other parami practices support the practice of honesty. Here’s how he lays it out:
The first two perfections, generosity and morality, arouse the heart and create a sense of empathy with other beings. We are willing to share with other beings and are concerned for their welfare.
Renunciation takes that process further by differentiating the deeper knowing in the mind from the impulses and feelings that it experiences around sense objects – the ability to step back in order to gain perspective on how the mind is being affected – to see things more clearly. This doesn’t mean not having things and only rejecting things. It means knowing that the most important thing is to be guided by clear awareness. A skillful letting go will also fill the mind with clarity, steadiness and understanding.
Next is wisdom, the ability to discern. What’s really important here? Or this that thought or impulse just a conditioned, confused or fearful response to something?
Balanced energy arises once we have begun to establish this inner guidance. Energy supports and empowers wisdom. Instead of being hesitant, or reckless, instead of hanging back in confusion or blindly surging forward, one begins to see more truthfully, ‘This is true, this is right, this is to be done. This is false, invalid and to be put aside.’ One applies oneself to what is good, true and useful. So applied energy is the vital food for ongoing cultivation.
Next is patience, the ability to bear with something. This is most significant when we have to bear with disagreeable impingement, failures, abuse, blame and sickness.
When we can find a stable abiding place in awareness, we can witness moods, feelings and impulses changing. That is their truth; and that is the truth of all conditions. If I’m in touch with this truth, I experience doubt or irritation as superficial. They may happen, but they don’t have to be adopted, rejected, blamed or reacted to. They’re not me, not mine, not self. They arise and pass in awareness, and are what they are.
Accordingly, our actions can be based on the awareness of the thought, mood or impulse: we’re not in their grip. We can act upon them or let them pass, with a clear understanding of consequences. So through being filled with the truth of awareness, one acts in terms of truthful behaviour.
So this parami of truthfulness is more than the ethical dimension of being truthful with others. It’s about being truthful with ourselves in the deepest sense of discovering what’s true for ourselves and what’s true in the situations we’re operating in. And knowing that that’s a fluid process not a fixed thing: we continue to explore and investigate and discern and learn more.
So far I’ve come up with four Keys to Mindfulness: curiosity, willingness, kindness, and honesty.
I guess if I had to add a 5th it would be humility. If you learn about your mind with any degree of clarity especially around this topic of what’s really true you see more clearly the layers or confusion and misunderstanding and misperception. You see how often you’re mistaken about yourself and others. It’s really humbling.
I enjoyed Robin’s sharing of a modern translation of the Buddhist teaching – the Sutta – on Loving Kindness. I’d never heard that translation and it made a lot of things clear but at the expense of the poetry of some of the translations I know. And I’ve also been so enjoying our singing in the evening about loving kindness. (and again if you don’t love that that’s alright too!).
So I thought I’d not go on quite as long today and end now with a song. Here’s a version of the Loving Kindness teaching – the Metta Sutta – that we’ve started singing at my Buddhist center. I
Sutra on Loving Kindness Sung. More literal translation. Solo intro by Kokyo: This is what should be DONE…. Sangha joins in: by ONE who is skilled in good-NESS. And who knows the path of PEACE. Let them beable and UP-RIGHT, Straight forward and gen-tle in SPEECH. Humble and not con-ceit-ED, Contented and eas-ily sat-ISFIED. Unburdened with du-TIES, and frugal in their WAYS. Peaceful and CALM andWISE and skill-FULL, Not proud or de-mand-ing in na-TURE. Let them NOT do the slight-est THING, that the WISE would lat-ter re-PROVE. Wishing in gladness and in safe-TY: May all BEINGS be at EASE. Whatever liv-ing BEINGS there may BE, whether they are weak or STRONG, o-mit-ing NONE, the GREAT or the mi-ghty, medium, short or SMALL, the SEEN and the un-SEEN, those living near and far a-WAY, those BORN and to be BORN: may all BEINGS be at EASE! Let NONE de-ceive an-o-THER, or des-pise an- y being in an-y STATE. Let NONE through anger or ill-WILL wish HARM UPON an-o-THER Even as a MOTHER pro-TECTS with her LIFE her CHILD, her on-ly CHILD, So with a bound-less HEART should one cherish all liv-ing BEINGS. Radiating kind-NESS over the en-ti-re WORLD. Spreading upwards to the SKIES, and downwards to the DEPTHS; Outwards and un-bound-ED, freed from hatred and ill-WILL. Whether standing or walk-ING, seated or ly-ing down, FREE from drow-SINESS. One should sus-TAIN this re-col-lec-TION. This is said to BE the sub-LIME a-bi-DING, By not holding to fixed VIEWS, the pure heart-ed ONE, having clarity of vi-SION, Being FREED from all sense DESIRES: is not BORN A -GAIN IN-TO THIS WORLD.
Tomorrow’s talk Q&A submit your questions for us to respond to. Take a moment to consider if you can put whatever your thought is in terms of question please. So much easier for us to respond to. I’ll try remember to put out a little basket or something to put these in and make sure there are enough little slips of paper left when we get down to lunch.
Oh and a by the way: the schedule on Sunday morning is under review by Robin and I. That’s ages from now so don’t worry too much about it. We’ll let you know what’s happening with enough notice. And know that you should be able to take off around 11am that morning like the website said. The printed schedule says noon but we should be done cleaning up the place by 11. Partly because of the great work we’re going ongoing tidying up the bathrooms and the floors and stuff. Thanks for that.
And a few community announcements: Barbara Ann, Laura, leaving (see if they’re here).
And one reminder about the process: come here to the Hall for the four blocks of practice every day if you possibly can. You can take a more restful approach while you’re here if you’re feeling exhausted. Unless you’re sick or it’s just clear as a bell “I just need to go back to sleep” or something the experiential value of doing retreat together is centered here. It doesn’t matter as much how “with it” or “on it” you are when you’re here. The value is in showing up and being together in the field of practice we co-create.
Talk 6: Tim Burnett & Robin Boudette – Question and Answer session