Rocky Mountain Insight Rocky Mountain Insight

October, 2013

What does it mean to be on the path?

What does it mean to be on the path in Buddhism?

I think as humans in general we often struggle with trying or wanting to be perfect, right, correct, good, or flawless. We don’t want to make mistakes much less admit them to anyone.

For those on a spiritual path this innate desire to be perfect can get amplified and distorted even further. We want so desperately to be good that the slightest stumble on our path becomes devastating.We turn our path into an excuse to beat ourselves up because we didn’t live up to our own expectations.

For example, we may have a strong aspiration to overcome our anger. I think anger is fairly common. We all experience it. From the tiniest irritation to full-blown rage. That is anger. So we see the pain and destruction of anger and resolve to overcome it. But then we are in traffic and another person cuts us off. We go to work and our boss is there telling us how much extra we need to work today in order to meet our new deadline. And there anger is again. It builds and builds and then finally it breaks through-probably not at work though. No, our anger waits until we are home with our spouse or children before it strikes. It comes out in harsh words, a snappy comment, or even a scream. Then we spend the rest of the evening trying to make up for our momentary burst of anger. Then this cycle repeats. It may go on for years.

So how do we know we are on the path? My guru, Ponlop Rinpoche, says that in order to be on the path all we need is to genuinely try. Succeeding comes later. Being on the path means genuinely and authentically trying to overcome our anger, greed, jealousy, and other destructive patterns. Just try. Don’t worry about succeeding.

This means genuinely or really trying, not just making an excuse. If we genuinely try to transform our mind through practice it will happen. We don’t need to stress about it or beat ourselves up over each little success or failure. All we have to do is try. Whether we succeed or fail in any given moment is not as important as a genuine endeavor to transform our mind.

That is the path.
To genuinely try to transform our mind.
Don’t worry about success or failure.

The Separation of Experience

Our brains work in funny (but brilliant) ways.

In order for us to learn, our brain has to make connections. These cognitive processes help us make connections based on experiences. For example, we see a blue block. First of all, we call it a “blue block” because we have seen something colored like it and that color is called “blue,” and we also call it a block because we have seen something like it before and it is called a “block.” The cognitive aspect of our brain helps us learn. We learn through experience and by making connections with the world.

However, there is also a conative aspect of our brain. Associated with certain objects are feelings, emotions, etc. Perhaps in the past we have grown to like blue-colored objects and we like neat, orderly things, so therefore we like blue blocks since they’re colored blue and they are easily stack-able. But, this conative aspect of our brain causes us to start sorting experiences into categories.

For a classic example, as a kid I saw a hot stove. I went and touched the hot stove and burnt my hand and experienced pain. I know I don’t want to experience this unpleasantness, so I now know not to touch the hot stove. I sort that experience (naturally, not consciously) into “experiences I don’t want to have.”

Our natural tendency is to start sorting everything into experiences I want to have and not want to have. This isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing – it’s completely natural. It’s how we learn! However, the effects of such sorting are harmful to ourselves and others.

Out of categorizing our experiences, we start to experience craving. We crave for those emotions and feelings we enjoy or cause us temporary happiness; we crave not to talk to people who we don’t like or who aggravate us. When we don’t get our way (which is most always), we experience dukkha – unpleasantness, discomfort, or suffering.

A product of dukkha is ill-will or even hatred. We simply “can’t believe that person is acting that way” or “the universe hates me” or “my life is so uncontrollable.” This happens to all of us very often.

The question becomes: How do I stop separating experiences?

It is the ultimate question, because when we stop separating experiences, we stop experiencing dukkha. The ultimate cessation of dukkha is reliant on the cessation of craving, or tanha. The Buddha laid out a Noble Eightfold Path for us to follow. However, as important as the Eightfold Path is to the complete cessation of dukkha, I feel it is important to realize that most of us don’t have the capacity to practice all eight “folds” simultaneously as the Buddha prescribed.

We lead busy lives and we can always work on cultivating a better practice. That being said, we have to be realistic, and I feel the following are 5 basic practices of what you can do.

  1. Recognize everyone has their bad days. We all have those days that just go wrong. Who’s to say the person that just cut you off on the highway isn’t having one of those days? Experiences we don’t want to have aren’t just emotions or feelings – they include actual actions.
  2. Wish them to be happy and free from suffering. When you get out of that awful business meeting or off a phone call with a client you can’t stand, imagine that person standing or sitting in front of you. Say to them “May you be happy. May you be free from suffering.” This helps cultivate metta (loving-kindness) and karuna (compassion) toward those who you have the most difficulty with.
  3. Flip the situation around. Have you ever cut someone off on the highway? Have you ever been snippy with a client? Have you ever said the wrong thing and then regret it? Realizing that most people act the same way and usually regret things they do or hope no one “hates” them for it helps us see, in the moment, that we don’t have to be angry at them.
  4. Make sure your brain is engaged before your mouth is in gear. In a world where social media and e-mail have assimilated into everyday life, we have to be very careful what we say, whether it’s spoken or written. Our actions do “speak louder than words,” but our words are just as powerful to hurt or help someone.  Thinking about what you are writing to the other person and seeing that ranting at someone isn’t beneficial to them or you (despite your temporary relief) helps stop dukkha. Also, postpone the angry e-mail to your employer for a day and see if you still want to send it.
  5. Be generous. While this may seem like a disconnected practice from the above four, being generous in your time, money, love, or anything else helps you feel a little better and less worrisome. Be generous to yourself and schedule time simply for you.

The final question is how do the above practices stop the separation of experience?

It’s an excellent question. When we are generous, we realize others are in poor situations as well. We stop worrying about experiences we want to have and start helping others achieve their own goals. Having appropriate speech (samma vaca) toward others helps us stop the cyclical categorizing of experiences. Instead of wanting your friend to say the “right thing,” you can say the right thing to them and know the outcome will be a-okay. Flipping the situation around helps you realize that the experience you are not wanting to have has happened to you before, and that craving isn’t helping you be happy. Generating metta and karuna toward the rest of humankind helps break the barrier of experiences you don’t want to have – now it’s okay to experience them because you are wishing them to be happy and free from suffering anyways. Recognizing everyone has their bad days assists you in seeing they have the very same craving of experiences as you do.

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to attain nirvana – the end of suffering and escape from rebirth.

I like to think of nirvana as the ultimate state of happiness.

We all can be happy.

RMI Fall Retreat

Hello Friends.

I am just coming back from a weekend Vipassana retreat through RMI that was held at Mt St. Francis retreat center right here in Colorado Springs. What a wonderful experience.

If you have never been to Mt St. Francis it is quite a treat and I highly recommend it. The property boasts a retreat center, nursing home, chapel, and residence for some of the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. In between sitting meditation we had individual time for walking meditation on the grounds where we joined some of the local wildlife: deer, hawks, squirrels, birds, and bunnies. In the shade of wooded hills we walked the outdoor labyrinth and brought mindfulness to each step. Dr. Lucinda Green lead the retreat with her usual engaging energy and care.

For those who have not been on a retreat before and are interested in the experience I can tell you there is nothing else like it. This was a silent retreat with instruction from Lucinda interspersed throughout. On Friday night we checked into the center and found our rooms. By a series of unexpected events this turned out to be my first retreat with a private room! We did not observe silence during that first dinner meal so that we could all get to know each other before settling in for the weekend. After dinner we had our first evening program where Lucinda taught the basic techniques for us to practice that weekend. Then there was a ring of the bell and the real party began. Silence.

On Saturday we had a great opportunity to deepen our practice. Each 45 minute sit was followed by 45 minutes of walking or individual meditation time. In the middle of the day we had small group interviews where we were able to break silence enough to ask questions, share our experience, and get personal teachings from Lucinda. Each meal was vegetarian and well prepared by the retreat staff. We ate mindfully and in silence. In these conditions you can really taste your food.

The attendees ranged in experience from first time retreatant to Vipassana veterans. From the sharing at the end it sounded like everyone got exactly what they needed from the experience. Everyone was respectful, polite, welcoming, and kind. And they were all of these things while not speaking a word.

Lucinda gave instructions on mindfulness of the breath, recognizing vedanna (initial sense impression or feeling), impermanence, and the 5 skandhas. We also got to kick off the retreat with some chanting in both English and Pali. I especially enjoyed the chanting.

Sunday just before noon we had our final program and metta meditation before breaking silence for our final meal together. We laughed, joked, and shared stories over lunch before packing up and saying goodbye. At the end we reflected on all of the things we were taking with us from the retreat: peace of mind, renewed energy for practice, an appreciation for ourselves, and a passion to experience liberation. We took many things with us, but we also left some things behind: self-doubt, worry, fear, and our stories. It was a great experience that I hope to repeat in the near future. Perhaps you will join me?

Ben Mikolaj