I really appreciated Robin's talk yesterday. I loved the way she just reminded us of our actual experience in life that we're often aggitated and sluggish, we're constantly grasp for one thing, and pushing something else away, and we have to very much doubt. About everything!
And then she brought out the VERY good news that this isn't just how it is for you - you aren't the only one who's like this and you're stuck with it. Actually it's a universal pattern. And it's also something we can study and work with and have a healthier relationship to. And…super cool news…this was described 2500 years ago and there's a traditional Buddhist teaching on it.
So that's a great way to consider these Buddhist Roots of our modern mindfulness pratice which we all know helps us so much. To see if we can shift out of a kind of academic focus or even worst a kind of acquisition focus: if I just grab onto some new information or some new techniques it'll all be much better.
What we love about the Buddhist teachings is that in that they describe our reality. Our everyday lives. And they describe it from a usefully different perspective from our habitual one and they make suggestions about a path forward. But they are talking about our lives. About our everyday lives in bodies with hearts and minds. And when we find ways to take them fully in they can be so helpful.
So I thought Robin's talk about the 5 hindrances did that so well and I hope you're taking this stuff to heart as best you can. That said it is TOTALLY FINE if you forget everything we say up here. It's not about new info, it's about your own experience. Our broken record suggestions to just see how it is right now are very sincere. The truth is actually there. In experience itself. In your engagement with experience itself. Not in some old book from another culture and time.
And yet these old books do help.
Just to remind you the five hindranes are:
desire, aversion, sloth-and-torpor, restlessness, and doubt.
Yeah sloth-and-torpor is kinda of a weird 19th century translation into English but Robin is right it is accurate. The original Buddhist term for this is two terms: thīna-middha. And thīna means sluggishness or dulness of mind, and middha means sleepiness or drowsiness. Maybe my issue is more with the English word "sloth" - when we were in Costa Rica on retreat, Robin and I and Jim and Beth where there too, saw a sloth be released into the jungle and she moved quite quicky actually! They are just wise creatues that once they're settled in the tree and have had enough leaves to eat just choose not to move. Keeps them safe. Predators look for movement so they don't move. It turned out that strategy is tricky in the modern age though. The sloth that was being released had apparently stumbled across a road and felt threatened. So she did what sloths do for safety: scurried up a tree (very quickly mind you!) and then froze there. Problem was the particular tree she choose was actually a utility pole and then the utilty crew came along to do some work and she had to go. There's yet another example of a strategy that's usually quite adaptive being a bit non-adaptive in a different time or setting!
In all of the teachings in Buddhism and I think in all teachings in general that's an interesting dynamic between acceptance and improvement.
So I want to touch on that a bit before I speak about the seven factors of awakening.
On the one hand we are full of desire for things to be different, resisting how things are, feeling all drowsy and sluggish, getting all antsy and distracted, and then doubting everything under the sun is a big problem for us. And problems are always in search of solutions the moment we label them as problems right?
So Robin offered some fine solutions. And I love the way the essence of every solution in Buddhism and in mindfulness is always awareness and understanding. Always we start there, we return there. What's really happening here? How do it feel? Am I perceiving this as accurately as I can? Might there be a different way to look at it? And we receive encouragement to get out of our limited frame: Tell me, Buddhist teaching how do you suggest I look at it?
We can be so quick to start solving the problem we think we have. But what if we're climbing the wrong tree? What if it's really a power pole? So these teaching always start there: are you sure you have it right about what the problem is? Pause there a minute before you open up your tool kit. You might be about to jam a flathead screwdriver into a phillips head screw. You're gonna strip it no matter how hard you press and turn.
So we feel, we identify, we're curious. And we're curious about all the extra layers we're adding too. Maybe those are more of a problem than the so-called central problem. We feel a little restless or a lot sleepy and we're then telling ourselves how NOT OKAY that is. We should be better at this. We're distracting our neighbors. They are clearly very excellent meditators. What's wrong with me? And then something small becomes something big.
Is the problem there the restlessness or sleepiness or the story we're telling about it?
But yes we can zoom in on our problems, understand them better, and gradually re-wire things. This is true. It takes a while and it's never perfect but yes over time with practice there is less of all of this on the whole, most of the time. Some strong new stimuli can still show up and fire off mega desire and resistance, but I do notice on retreat and, I think, the rest of my life that I'm a lot less reactive to things than I used to be. And I've been through a lot of retreats and a hell of a lot of reactions and I know Robin has too. One of the things I love about Robin is how open she is to sharing about her struggles. But yes gradually whether we always quite realize it or not be become more accepting, less reactive, more just seeing clearly. Robin's been talking about "clear seeing": It is how it is right now. How could it be any other way? And it's all kind of perfect in an odd sort of way. Until I lose it about something that blindsides me! We are all works in progress.
So knowing and improving is a part of this path. For sure.
But so too is accepting.
And this is a really deep thing, this accepting. The five hindrances are a helpful teaching but it's also helpful to forget about the five hindrances too. To not keep trying to parse everything out like we do - is this this? is this that? what's supposed to be happening here? does this fit that suggestion the teachers made? what was that suggestion anyway, darn it I forgot? why don't they write stuff on the white boards to help us remember?
To just meet every moment of experience with all of it's flavors as complete and perfect and exactly what needs to arise on this moment. Deep, deep acceptance. The universe sent you this moment. All your history and everyone else's history brought you this moment. Buddha brought you this moment. God brought you this moment. There's a beauty to this side of the practice too that's very very powerful and deeply healing.
We say "Buddhist Roots" in talking about this reterat but actually there are many Buddhisms. The Buddhism Robin studies is in the Theravada/Early Buddhism branch and they emphasize more the wise analysis of the problems, and the Buddhism I study is in the Mahayana branch and we emphasize the understanding that there are no problems - that's just the way you're looking at it, that's the real problem.
Both are super valuable so I'm so happy we can have both perspectives. And that's part of what keeps us teaching together: we learn so much from each other. These teachings on the 7 Factor of Awakening and the 5 Hindrances are studied and known in my Buddhism for sure but they are deeply studied and practiced in Robin's so I get to know them more deeply by hanging around with her. It's cool. So that's a little back story in case you're interested but the relevant bit is this:
Always take a moment to consider: is this a problem I need to understand and respond to more wisely, or a problem I need to simply deeply accept? In fact is it even a problem at all?
And the answer in essense is to that choice between wisely improving and accepting is: YES!
Yes it's a problem you will benefit from deep study of the things you perceive as problems and finding wiser ways to meet them, no question. AND, yes, you will benefit deeply from letting go of the idea that it's a problem at all and accepting your moment to moment experience just exactly as it is.
To hold these apparent opposities I love this Suzuki Roshi quote, "I think you are all perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement." That's us. That's our world. Actually perfect as it is, believe or not, but could use a little (or a lot) of improvement. If we hang out only on one side of this equation nothing works.
If you're always trying to fix everything - even doing it the wisest and most subtle way you can with all that great stuff I said a minute ago about re-examining the problems, seeing deeply, seeing what you're adding, working through all the layers, applying just the right kind of effort and intelligence to wisely shift things in a good way, even you're wisest problem solver in the universe: if your life becomes nothing but problems you've lost your life.
And if you're too far the other way same problem. Everything is fine as it is. I can deeply accept it. I am at peace and one with the world. I am enlightened. Ahhhhhh…. I dunno maybe you inspire someone to meditate or something but you're missing the richness and possibilities of playing and working and meeting the other amazing beings in this messy and wondrous world, including the amazing beings inside you. And you've also lost your life.
Zen is full of odd little stories that point to this. Here are a few, I'm not going to unpack these much so just receive them in an impressionistic way. There's a lot of coded language in Zen.
Great Master Ma was unwell. The temple superintendent asked him, “Teacher, how has your venerable health been in recent days?” The Great Master said, “Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.”
The Sun rises, the sun sets, the moon rises, the moon sets, it's okay to be well or unwell. It's a natural thing not a problem. And Buddha - awakening, things just as they are, fundamentally meeting reality is in ever moment. It's in moon moments and sun moments. It's when we feel well and when we don't feel well. Sun Face Buddha, Moon Face Buddha.
There's another just for fun:
Great Master Yunmen said, “I do not ask you about the fifteenth of the month. Come; give me a phrase about after the fifteenth.” And he himself responded, “Every day is a good day.”
The fifteenth of the month on the lunar calendar they used then is the full moon so let me know do a little quick replacement there, and as you hear this again know that the full moon also represents enlightenement:
Great Master Yunmen said, “I do not ask you about the full moon. Come; give me a phrase about after the full moon.” And he himself responded, “Every day is a good day.”
So don't focus so much on fixing your problems - reaching enlightenment - you can do all the deep spiritual work you want, that's okay with me. How about after that? Every day is a good day. And we could also have him ask us the same thing the other way 'round and I'm sure the great Zen masters would approve:
Great Master Yunmen, said “I do not ask you about the full moon. Come; give me a phrase about before the full moon.” And he himself responded, “Every day is a good day.”
Every day is a good day. This is a powerful tool too. Does it help you figure anything out? Maybe. But it helps with your attitude and approach. It helps to heal the divide we can make between problems and acceptance.
Try it out: when Ruth trots by with the bell tomorrow morning and you wake up maybe you'll remember to say to yourself, "ahh….every day is a good day." And then when you get bent out of shape about something a little later it's not a denial thing but it changes how you see it: "yes this is happening, yes it's hard in this or that way, and every day is a good day."
Isn't that helpful? So anyway I go on about this a bit because I find it so facinating and also so important to unpack our very approach to experience: is this a problem? if so how to I meet it more wisely? but….wait a minute is is a problem partly just because I'm thinking it's a problem? As Robin said: if it's in the way it is the way. Your way. She was quoting a poem that I don't remember if she read yet (I hope I wasn't in sloth and torpor and just missed it when she read it) but here's the poem:
Alison Luterman - Because Even the Word
Try to love everything that gets in your way:
the Chinese women in flowered bathing caps
murmuring together in Mandarin, doing leg exercises in your lane
while you execute thirty-six furious laps,
one for every item on your to-do list.
The heavy-bellied man who goes thrashing through the water
like a horse with a harpoon stuck in its side,
whose breathless tsunamis rock you from your course.
Teachers all. Learn to be small
and swim through obstacles like a minnow
without grudges or memory. Dart
toward your goal, sperm to egg. Thinking Obstacle
is another obstacle. Try to love the teenage girl
idly lounging against the ladder, showing off her new tattoo:
Cette vie est la mienne, This life is mine,
in thick blue-black letters on her ivory instep.
Be glad she’ll have that to look at all her life,
and keep going, keep going. Swim by an uncle
in the lane next to yours who is teaching his nephew
how to hold his breath underwater,
even though kids aren’t allowed at this hour. Someday,
years from now, this boy
who is kicking and flailing in the exact place
you want to touch and turn
will be a young man, at a wedding on a boat
raising his champagne glass in a toast
when a huge wave hits, washing everyone overboard.
He'll come up coughing and spitting like he is now,
but he'll come up like a cork,
alive. So your moment
of impatience must bow in service to a larger story,
because if something is in your way it is
going your way, the way
of all beings; towards darkness, towards light.
Even saying "obstacle" is an obtacle, if something is in your way it going your way, the way.
So the seven factors of awakening are:
And the great early Buddhists and their modern descendants see this as a causal chain which I didn't understand before. In Zen we tend to see any one thing as equally containing all the others in more of a web or a network than a chain of one thing leading to the next. And I think theres a kind of both-and reality there too.
First is mindfuness. Mindfulness in traditional Buddhism is a little narrower than how we use the term in the mindfulness movement. It means the firm and steady remembering to bring awareness back to what you were intending to bring it to. We set the intention to notice each moment of experience as directly a we can and our strong mindfulness helps us remember that's what we're doing. If we forget of course we aren't doing it much. There are other mental factors in Buddhism that come into play whenever we do that. That are activated and cooperate together to make this all workable but we can just say mindfulness for now. Mindfulness of what is. Here is it. Here is it.
And then the first factor of mindfulness makes the second factor possible: investigation.
Then we get curious: what is this really? how am I experiencing it? how am I perceiving it? what's arising in me in realationship to it? Is this desire or aversion? Oh look it just faded away, I don't see it anymore. Ah it's hear again.
This piece is important and deeply helpful: to really see that everything comes and goes. That's a deep wisdom and an idea that's so obvious right? Everything is impermanent, everything comes and goes. And yet we try to fix things with our minds. Investigation helps us to learn this experientially which is a much different form of learning that just in our intellect. I mean we all KNOW full well that everything impermenant and yet we get upset when things change or we try to make thing not change even though we know they will.
Oddly we seem to especially like to fix difficult mind states to make them stick around a long time. We do that mostly by identifying with them. I am angry. I am angry. Here's why I'm angry. Let's replay that scene again. Yes: I should be angry, absolutely, can't believe how angry that makes me. And then half the time when it starts to fade away or the mind basically starts to lose interest in our anger story what do we tend to do? Wait a minute! How am I again? Oh right! I am angry! That's how I am. So angry. But actually it's not that the anger shows up and is a fixed thing in the mind, it's that we keep regenerating it right?
So investigation is all about studying these patterns once there's enough mindfulness to have some stability in the mind. Investigation is different from thinking things through although thought is involved for sure. Invesitgation uses all of our layers and faculties and senses to tune into experience. What is this? That's a great question and the answer does not have to be in words. Just "what is this?" and then open to the feeling of it without neededing to put it in the right category. Or imagine explaining it to a friend later on after the retreat. Do you have those imagined future conversations going in your head?
So we have mindfulness helping us be here with what's arising, and we have investigation helping us see what's here.
The third factor is energy. A natural thing that happens is we get interested! I often say this about breath awareness: the breath isn't just a clever tool or an object to help you be more present. The breath is interesting in and of itself. So rather than MAKING you attention go to the breath why don't you invite your mind to get interested in the breath. What does it feel like? How does the body move exactly? What feelings seem to cascade through your nervous system with this kind of breath or that kind of breath. It's really interesting to me. And in that interest is an enlivening.
A Zen teacher friend of mine is super fond of the term, "aliveness" - can you feel the aliveness of this breath? Of this moment. I never get bored in meditation retreats actually. I have some challenges sometimes for sure but it's never boring. It's really interesting even when it's painful. Here it is, what's this. Wow! So it's the wow at the end there. Energy.
My Zen teacher likes to call this factor "enthusiastic energy" and encourages us to invite enthusiasm. Woah: a whole week hanging out in this body and mind! That is exciting. Can't wait. I wonder what I'll see!
And then this system of teachings points to something really interesting that's kind of great. Joy arises! In it's full form it's a quality of joy that doesn’t need to be attached to any particular sensory experience. It's not that the breath is joyful or the thought of Laura's berry sauce on the oatmeal is joyful is just joy. Ahhh…..just joy…..
We tend to think of the whole process of meditation as very cool and calm and collected. And my Zen tradition has a seriously bad case of this that I actually messed myself up with this a bit. I got too cool and calm and collected and repressed my emotional range and in the the course of that repressed joy too. This can come around and bite you later is my experience so that's not a good way to practice.
And it DOES help us and is very important to calm down. Oh my goodness. When we're so agitated all the time running around and moving fast it's super hard to be mindful or to investigate and we cut off the arising of this joy. We're just too frantic for this process to unfold.
But it becomes a problem when we make any one outcome The Thing. So I ended up making calm The Thing and overdid it. I got too good at calm. It shut off certain parts of me and I'm on a long quest, which periodicaly takes another big twist or turn, to open up to the whole me. I was just writing to a friend that I think I'm feeling more of Whole Tim lately and he's not just calm. He's also passionate and vibrant and even turbulent and confused too! But he's more whole than Calm Tim. So many layers to this thing. So mamy.
So joy. We warm up. Maybe it's the kind of smiling joy. As I said the joy in the ancient teachings is actually objectless but a wonderful pathway to joy here at Samish on retreat is through the senses. Open the sense doors as Robin was saying earlier. I once had a huge joy experience tuning into one of the little English field daisies in the lawn. They are tiny scruffy little things. Not sure we can see them this time of the year. But I was doing walking meditation and looked down and really saw a little daisy. They are woundrous and complex. I was completely enthralled.
As so is everything. Everything is wondrous and complex. So tuning in is a quality of investigation that supports the emergence of this joy. Take your time moving around the grounds. Look up. Look down. Listen. Smell. We are in paradise right here and right now and when we use our mindfulness and investigation energy and joy arise. Maybe they arise together really: energy-joy, joy-energy.
But no matter about the exact mechanics. The old teachings say it's energy then joy not energy and joy together, but they could be really really close together. in this system here are 65 moments in one finger snap (appologies to the teacher training cohort I was a few orders of magnitude off earlier). So maybe these four mental factors happen in a very fast sequence that feels like a co-arising: every 65th of a finger snap we can cycle through mindfulness, investigation, energy, joy!
But then we might get a little elevated. I was just preaching against getting too into calm but there's there are similar problems if we get too into energy and joy.
So the next factor is tranquility. We coooool down. We're peaceful and content too. But I'll say more about that tomorrow.
So you might have noticed we have been stealthily suggesting this little sequence in the meditation instructions.
Robin is good at this so I've left that mostly to her: with mindfulness we can investigate, what's here, with investigation we can connect with interest and energy arises, as we connect with interest and energy arises joy can just flow right in.
Isn't it wonderful to be present? Isn't it wonderful to be alive? Regardless of what mind states are happening. Here we are. Wonderful. That's, in the end, what all this is about.