September 29th ! Happy Birthday Ruth Denison. Pioneer and Dharma teacher extraordinaire. We are so grateful to you, Rutchen, for your generous, magnanimous and profound sharing of the Dharma. Thousands of lives have been touched to the core and transformed immeasurably by you and your teachings. You are a living treasure!
Here is a story about Goenkaji’s passing. It turns out that he passed away on Ruth Denison’s 91st birthday. He was a major contemporary contributor to the flourishing of Vipassana Meditation world wide. You can read more about him here.
What a statement, “I want.” It’s natural for all of us to want, to crave for things. We crave for family to still be alive, for memories, emotions, safety, and happiness.
However, I’ve noticed that my wanting is less about material things and more about me being right. For example, when I see a younger kid riding his bike without a helmet, I think to myself “He should be wearing a helmet.” I’m wanting for that child to do the right thing and wear a helmet (making me right), but in reality, I have no control over that situation. Even if I walked up to him and started yelling at him to wear a helmet, he probably wouldn’t do it anyways.
When we want, we experience dukkha. Dukkha is a Pali word (Indian dialect) that doesn’t have any literal translation in English, and so most westerners translate dukkha as suffering. However, I prefer “dissatisfaction” or “unpleasentness.” Dukkha includes pain and sorrow, but also melancholy and those “bleh” days.
One reason we experience dukkha when we want, as the Buddha teaches, is because everything changes. We usually crave for things to last, whether that’s the company of an individual we really enjoy, a memory to stay fresh, or continue experiencing the same emotions. In reality, no moment is the same as the previous moment. You may stay still for eternity, or sleep for days, but the world will continue revolving and changing. This principle of constant change is called anicca.
Another reason we experience dukkha when we want is our unawareness of anatta, or the emptiness of the everything. Anatta a a “high-level” concept, but think of it like this: we, as people, are a result of everything around us. We were created by two other people, and everything we consumed to keep us alive and help us grow (food, minerals, water, air) were not “us.” Then what really makes me, “me?” The Buddha explains that every human has five “aggregates” or skandhas that create the world around us. We experience the world around us through our sense organs (eye, ear, tongue, nose, body) and the interpretation of what we are experiencing through our brain (considered the sixth sense organ in Buddhism). The skandhas are as follows: form, sensation, perception, mental formations, consciousness. Essentially, there is an object, the eye “senses” (sees) the object, the brain interprets the object and associates it with other familiar things, mental formations occur due to this, and consciousness arises.
This question is the pinnacle of Buddhism. Let me first address the two principles I just mentioned: anicca and anatta.
When we become mindful of anicca and realize that everything will change, we can start realizing the craving really doesn’t do us any good. We already know that craving causes us to experience dukkha and we now know that craving can’t keep anything here permanently – the universe will carry on and things will change, so why do we still crave? Stopping the wanting is a difficult process, because wanting isn’t just for material things – it can also be for situations to occur/not occur, for you to be right, etc.
This is because we fail to recognize anatta.
The inherent truth of reality is that it’s an illusion. If everything we feel and sense is simply an interpretation of our brains, then there isn’t really a “real” world – it’s a matter of interpretation. Everything we are is a creation of everything else, which means there is no distinct “me.” There isn’t an “I” or “me” in any which way, which does mean Buddhism fails to accept the Freudian principles of the id, superego, and ego.
Ben Mikolaj, a friend and teacher at Rocky Mountain Insight, said it best:
When we are ignorant of the illusion of reality, we start sorting our life into situations we want to have and not have, people we want to see and not see. Our ignorance breeds wanting, which breeds ill-will/hatred.
“Ignorance” is a very strong word, but it literally just means “not knowing.” We are unknowing or unmindful of the effects our wanting has on others.
However, the most important “cure” to craving is the Eightfold Path.
The Buddha said in his Four Noble Truths (listed in order as follows): inherent in life is dukkha, the reason we experience dukkha is our craving (tanha), we can cease experiencing dukkha if we cease our craving, and there is a path which leads to the cessation of dukkha.
The Eightfold Path is the literal “practice” of Buddhism. Read more about the Eightfold Path here »
The Buddha taught that there were three marks of conditioned existence: dukkha, anicca, and anatta. Craving causes dukkha and our unknowing of anicca and anatta causes us to crave.
In the words of the Buddha: “There is no fire like passion, there is no shark like hatred, there is no snare like folly, there is no torrent like greed.”
I want to give credit for many of these ideas to Phillip Moffitt, a Yoga Swami for many years before becoming a Theravadan Buddhist Dharma Teacher. I sat in retreat with him at Spirit Rock, SF area, in 2005.
Expectation indicates the juncture between where you are and where you want to be. Where you want to be is your desire, and where you are is your set-point or habit of thought. And somewhere in there is what we would call expectation. Expectation, whether it is wanted or unwanted, is a powerful point of attraction. Your expectation is always what you believe. But the word expectation does imply more what you are wanting than what you are not wanting.
The Buddha likened it to “wanting mind”, the first of the five hindrances which is desire. The others are ill-will or anger, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and skeptical doubt. To explore desire, the first hindrance, is to explore the question, “What is it I really want and need in order to be happy?” What keeps us from that happiness is often a thought, expectation or fantasy. As Jon Kabat Zinn says “If I can’t find the truth right where I am, where else do I think I’ll find it?”
We all have had expectations over time that turned out to be a delusion. One of mine, being a yoga teacher, was that I would be flexible beyond my years with devoted practice. Not true. Though I am flexible for 67 years, it certainly not as great as I had envisioned. Arthritis, a few cancer tumors in my pelvis now and then, a little weight gain, reduced physical all have contributed to the reality of less flexibility. Of course, I have had the gift of practicing aging with the awareness of the present so gradually my delusion about this has faded even though the disappointment still comes and goes.
Expectations can imprison us—toward ourselves and others, over results and the control over our lives….big and little. How do expectations play out? Usually, we don’t know how attached we are to expectations until we feel disappointment…the knot in our stomach, tight shoulders, or a sad heart.
I think of past expectations around how I wanted holidays to be, often experiencing delusion. Images of loving connections with family, unstrained even though in ordinary life, they are. The pictures in my mind included generous acts of giving and receiving, a spirit of celebration and joy, sitting down to an abundant Christmas meal, everyone appreciating all the effort it took. This ideal or any other is sentimental and nostalgic and puts incredible pressure on everyone I know in the form of expectations. Depression can set in over a scenario of things not being what we want.
When we get caught up with rigid expectations, we close off the opening to possibilities. Here’s a story to illustrate this: “Welcome to Holland” by Emily Perl Kingley.
“I am often asked to describe the experience of raising a child with a disability—to try to help people who have not shared this unique experience to understand it, to imagine how it would feel. It’s like this:
When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip…to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum. Michelangelo’s “David”. The gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.
After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The flight attendant comes and says, “Welcome to Holland.”
“Holland?” you say. “What do you mean, Holland?” I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy. But there’s been a change in the flight plans. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.
The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to a horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease. It’s just a different place. So you must go out and buy new guidebooks. You must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.
It’s just a different place. It’s slower-paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills; Holland has tulips; Holland even has Rembrandts.
But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I planned.”
And the pain of that will never, ever, ever go away because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss. But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.”
It’s not so easy to be mindful and trust our present experiences as the Buddha so often taught if we are imprisoned by our expectations. They blind us to possibilities because we’ve nailed ourselves down to something floating in the past or future. The possibilities are grounded in the NOW, opening the mind and heart to whatever is. So more occasions come up for intuition and flexibility and imagination. When we’re in the space of the possible, we can open up to whatever occurs in our meditation and in everyday life. Our practice can be a wonder of possibility. Suzuki Roshi said “In the mind of experts, there are few possibilities; in the minds of beginners, there are many.”
So how do we see through these more rigid expectations when we are in delusion? Larry Rosenburg in his book Breath by Breath talks about delusion as ignorance but also feels that it is often just CONFUSION. “When we get to delusion, it’s more as if we don’t know what’s what; life is not in focus. We don’t know what’s good or bad, whether to go forward or back, whether to go meditate or sit down and read. Because we don’t see clearly, we spend a great deal of time running after things that don’t make us happy, striking out at whatever is unpleasant, running away from things that can’t really harm us.”
Even though attachment and aversion can be intense habitual states, Rosenburg thinks confusion is the most difficult. “There is a great value placed on decisiveness in our world, being strong, bold, knowing what to do. So when we are confused, we want to choose something or another and get away from the discomfort. The challenge in both Buddhist practice and life is to stay with it, see what the energy of confusion is really like. Clear and deep seeing into confusion is the most reliable road to genuine clarity and decisiveness.”
So Rosenburg advises “When you’re feeling confused, don’t see it as interfering with your practice. It IS your practice; it is your life at that moment. Stay with it and thoroughly examine it. Allow confusion or delusion to take you to clarity. He relates a story from Lawrence Shainberg’s book, Ambivalent Zen, where Kyudo Roshi is advising his student in a moment of doubt: “Can’t decide? Ah, great decision! If you confused, do confused. Do not be confused by confusion. Understand? Be totally confused, then I guarantee, no problem at all.”
B. Alan Wallace, assistant to the Dhali Llama and author of Boundless Heart: The Four Immeasurables, says “the most fundamental of our afflictions is delusion”.
“If the root problem is delusion, then the root antidote must be something that meets that delusion head on, and it’s probably not loving-kinding. Loving-kindness can serve as an antidote for hatred, indifference, or self-centeredness and promote connection. The best antidote for delusion is the wisdom of insight, seeing into the nature of the three marks of conditioned existence: Dukkha or the inherent struggle of like, Anicca or impermanence, and Anatta or no separate permanent Self.
Where do Goals come in? Are goals expectations? Goals are future-oriented, give direction, help us allocate our time and how to spend our precious resources. But even here, we need to be careful. Expectations are a kind of hardening of goals. Goals provide the spice of life but we sometimes swap a goal for an expectation.
What about Anticipation? This can be a hidden expectation, eg., when we anticipate our long awaited vacation and we think the weather will be perfect and we’ll get so much rest and then it rains or we get caught up in all the “doing” that feels just like our ordinary life. This may throw us off. Or we could say “Oh, this is different. What will happen now?” In many ways, we are opening up to a sense of spaciousness.
Carl Sagen, a well-known scientist, once said “ Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” which leads us to HOPE.
What about Hope? Expectations are often disguised as Hope. Healthy hope is grounded again in possibility, open to mystery and in a “don’t know” mind. Without this, life would be flat and dull. I think of times in world history…catastrophes and wars… and in my own life when things seemed hopeless. When healthy hope arose, it allowed me to stay open to the possibility of less struggle and more joy and acceptance in some cases. When we narrow to a certain expectation, it isn’t healthy. Hope deteriorates into expectation when we are caught into hope ONLY looking a certain way, eg., having “a meaningful connection” with a relative or friend or expecting those you care about to be grateful and generous, as during the holidays, even though the moment isn’t offering this.
Our intention in our meditation practice is limited by an expectation of “what it is supposed to be”. Now don’t get me wrong. We need guidelines and some structure, effort balanced with relaxation and certainly, concentration. It is our relationship to that that will determine if it is healthy,and we can hold the experience with ease.
So, is it possible NOT to have expectations? Quite rare. Delusion is not being able to see how we get caught up in the attachment of something being a certain way and not allowing change, the comings and goings. Getting out of our own way invites this new relationship toward expectations.
Is it possible to NOT get seduced by expectations? Yes, and one way is laughing at our judgments: “Ah, this sit isn’t as good as the last time. My metta meditation was lousy today. This retreat wasn’t too good. I don’t like the teacher.”
There’s a wonderful story about the Dhali Llama when he was at Spirit Rock, CA, for a retreat and a man who had practiced conscientiously for years raised his hand and said, “You know, I’m so disappointed in my practice. I’ve tried and tried and it’s just not what I want it to be.”
The Dhali Llama sat quietly a few minutes and finally said, “You know, I have felt that way too. But as I look back….5 yrs., 10 yrs., 20 yrs., I also see how my practice has matured.”
So if we can approach our practice and our lives knowing there will be those disappointments, those moments when we get lost, are confused and not meeting our expectations BUT also not identifying with those moments, then we will have matured. And we bow to this as well.
Give up to grace.
The ocean takes care of each wave till it gets to shore.
The Four Brahma Viharas or Divine Abidings are often grouped under the phrase “Metta” when actually there are four different qualities we can cultivate in this practice of unconditional care: Metta or Loving-Kindness, Karuna or Compassion, Mudita or Sympathetic Joy, and Upekkha or Equanimity. I will be focusing on this fourth quality in this dharma talk.
Equanimity, in its most basic understanding, is all about “letting go”. “Of what?” you may ask. The Buddha would answer trying to control what cannot be controlled including all the inevitable changes that are apart of life. We experience our fears, frustrations, and joys and sit with them all, trying to eventually come into an evenness or peace around them.
The same is true with the pain of the world. We see that we can’t fix it but rather meet it with a compassionate heart and bring peace to ourselves and others in the presence of our witnessing, helping where we can without attachment. Jack Kornfield, Theravadan Buddhist teacher, reminds us that “equanimity allows us to see the woven pattern of both suffering and joy in our lives and the world.”
When I ask others what they want most in their lives and for their loved ones, most answer “peace”. This, too, is equanimity. With this understanding, we know we can’t protect our loved ones from suffering or rob them of making their own choices and experiencing their lives just as we do when we make our own choices.
With equanimity, we are reminded of the Buddhas’s teachings that all beings are the owners of their karma. Their happiness and unhappiness depend on their actions, not on my wishes for them.
E. B. White, a famous American writer, once wrote “I wake in the morning unsure whether to save the world or savor it.” With equanimity and compassion, we can be present to both.
How is “letting go” different from “getting rid of something”? Is it really possible to get rid of something? We can repress, reject, and resist until we are blue in the face and still not be rid of something. By burying, hiding, denying, and then refusing to look, we fool ourselves into believing that we’ve gotten rid of something. This is ego’s way of handling what ego doesn’t like or want. It is based on the illusion of separateness and duality, namely that ego (“I”) is separate or different from whatever it finds objectionable. Ego assumes that it has control over this unwanted something else and can get rid of it whenever it wants to. Letting go allows us to see that we were never in control in the first place.
Joseph Goldstein from his early book Insight Meditation shares student questions and his answers regarding equanimity.
Q: I have passions for many things: gardening and writing, to name just a few.
Without these passions, my life would feel pretty meaningless. Does the
cultivation of equanimity mean flattening out the intensity of my feelings
about the things I care about?
A: Equanimity doesn’t mean not caring. When we open our hearts, we can
connect to all things, and that’s as it should be. The point of equanimity is not
to lose one’s heartfelt connection with the things going on around us. Rather,
it means balancing that connection with a clear recognition of the way things
are. So, for example, we see what we genuinely cannot control, no matter
how obsessed we might become with trying to. We see how much things are
constantly changing. Even in the midst of intense devoted activity, we can be
served by seeing such truths clearly and remaining balanced.
Q: I have a friend who smokes three packs of cigarettes a day. She suffers from
a chronic disease which makes this addiction even more dangerous to her
health. It’s hard for me to keep my cool when I see her suffering so much,
and then lighting up another cigarette on top of it. I mean, if someone won’t
wake up to something that’s killing them, isn’t it appropriate to yell?
A: We all wish ardently for the well-being of those we love. The gift of
equanimity is to be able to recognize where our boundaries are and what our
responsibility really is. The source of your friend’s suffering is beyond your
control. Your job, in this case, is to continue to offer her compassion and to
support her health in whatever ways you can, but to maintain the perspective
of wisdom. The fact is that she is ultimately responsible for her behavior.
Psychologists would say that this understanding releases us from
codependency. That release actually helps our loving kindness endure,
regardless of outcome.
Q: I often find myself identifying with my emotions, believing that they define
my experience. Then I feel trapped and hopeless. How can I work with these
A: Tibetan Buddhists use an analogy I’ve found helpful. They liken the mind to
a vast, clear sky. All our sensations, thoughts, and emotions are like weather
that passes through without affecting the nature of the sky itself. The clouds,
the winds, the snow, and rainbows come and go, but beyond it all the sky
remains clear and unperturbed. Let your mind be that sky, and let all these
mental and physical phenomena arise and vanish like the changing weather.
In this way, your mind can remain balanced and relaxed, without getting
swept away in the drama of every passing storm.”
What the ancient Taoists called “the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows” come and go over and over again. As the Buddha said, “pleasure and pain, gain and loss, praise and blame, fame and disrepute” constantly arise and pass away, beyond our control.
Finally, a reminder of the connection of Equanimity and Patience comes from a poem by Walt Whitman in his Leaves of Grass.
I exist as I am, that is enough.
If no other in the world be aware, I sit content.
And if each and all be aware, I sit content.
One world is aware, and by far the largest to me,
And that is myself.
And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand
Or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness,
I can wait.
Simple Equanimity Phrases—The Meditation
Allow yourself to be in a comfortable sitting position, alert but at the same time relaxed. Soften your shoulders, jaws, and eyes. Bring your awareness to your brow, the Ajna Chakra, and draw your gaze inward at this place and drop down from the inside to the flame of your own dear, dear heart. Reside in your own dear, tender heart and just sense it. Settle yourself inside your heart.
And then take a few minutes to “remember your own goodness”. Think of a quality you like about yourself or an incident when you thought, said or acted in a way that you felt was good. Through memory, experience this again and remember your own goodness.
The traditional format for Equanimity, as with Loving-Kindness and Sympathetic Joy is to start with yourself and then spread your wishes out to a loved one, neutral one, difficult one, and then to all sentient beings. In Compassion practice, you start with someone who is suffering.
In this meditation, start with yourself and say:
May I accept things the way they are.
May I be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
May I be at peace.
Repeat these phrases and take your time, lingering as long as it takes to feel complete.
Next, picture a loved one and say their name to yourself, repeating the same phrases:
May you accept things the way they are.
May you be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
May you be at peace.
Then, think of a neutral person, one you do not have strong negative or positive feelings toward. Perhaps they are a mere acquaintance….someone you see walking in your neighborhood or a cashier at your local grocery store. You may not even know their name. If you can’t place such a person, you may remember someone you once had a strong relationship with but no longer do.
Knowing that neutral people also want to be happy independent of your relationship with them, is apart of seeing the connection to all beings in our basic desire to be happy. With this simple awareness, we are less separate.
Say to your neutral person:
May you also accept things the way they are.
May you be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
May you be at peace.
Next, choose a difficult person in your life and then notice your reaction to your choice. If you feel strong resistance, you may want to choose someone you have a milder reaction to since this practice is authentic, unpretentious, and unconditional. If you continue to meet resistance, incline your mind toward unconditional regard and a genuine intent for well-being toward your difficult person.
Often seeing your difficult person in a more vulnerable state such as an infant or on their death bed softens our emotions and feelings of separateness.
Another option for this category is to give these wishes to the difficult aspects of yourself, perhaps ones you have been trying to understand lately or even over a long time. Opening your mind and heart as much as you can, say:
May you also accept things the way they are.
May you be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
May you, too, be at peace.
Expand your awareness out into your household, neighborhood, city, state, country, and planet Earth and beyond to include all sentient beings. Include humans, animals, birds, fish, insects, trees, plants, flowers….all living things. And say:
May all sentient beings accept things the way they are.
May all sentient beings be undisturbed by the comings and goings of events.
May all sentient beings be at peace.
Remain in this expanded awareness for as long as you like and then eventually start pulling yourself back to the planet Earth, country, state, city, neighborhood, house, room and then finally back to the center of your own dear, tender heart and reside there.
Remember these words from the Buddha:
You can search the entire world over and never, ever find anyone more deserving of your love than you.