“Acceptance” is a word that is often associated with the practice of meditation. It appears in blogs and talks and even in a best-selling book by Tara Brach. Meditation is often characterized as a practice of acceptance. So what do we mean by “acceptance?” If we’re going to practice acceptance, it would be good to be clear about what we’re practicing.
Consent to receive or undertake (a thing offered).
How does this apply to meditation? When we meditate, our environment, our body, and our mind are continually communicating with us, offering us sights, sounds, sensations, thoughts and emotions. We have a choice in how we respond to these offers. We could consent to receive them – that is, we could consent to perceive sights, sounds, perceptions, thoughts and emotions willingly and without manipulation, or we could refuse to consent to receive them — we could attempt to repress, filter or alter our perceptions.
In meditation, we practice an attitude of openness and patience toward our perceptions. We hold our seat, allowing any perception at all to visit us, and to depart again. We accept them all, and allow them to come and go unaltered. We consent to receive our perceptions fully and clearly, just as they are.
So, in our meditation practice, we could understand the word accept as “to consent to perceive clearly.” Notice that “acceptance” in this sense doesn’t include an evaluation of the characteristics of the sound or of the sensation. It doesn’t say whether we think the sound is good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, whether we find it “acceptable” or “unacceptable.” In the practice of meditation, acceptance precedes judgment.
This non-judgmental type of acceptance may be different than the way in which we usually think of accepting. A more frequently use of the word accept is given in an alternate definition also supplied by the Oxford Dictionaries:
Receive as adequate, valid, or suitable
In this definition, acceptance is contingent upon our judgment. If we find the offer adequate, valid, or suitable, then we will accept it. If not, then we reject it. Judgment comes first, and acceptance may or may not come afterwards. For instance, we may be offered food, and we will decide whether to accept it – whether it is food that is suitable for us to eat, and whether this is an appropriate time to be eating it. This kind of discriminating acceptance is very useful – it helps us navigate our day-to-day life.
But how can we decide whether something is suitable or not if neither perceive the thing offered clearly nor perceive our own condition clearly? That would be like trying to decide whether to accept food without being able to see it or smell it, and without being able to sense whether we are hungry or not. In order to be able to decide whether something is suitable we must first allow ourselves to perceive clearly what is being offered, and in what context it’s being offered. After we have perceived clearly, we can decide whether something is suitable or not. If we don’t perceive clearly, we are only guessing or relying on habit or prejudice. In meditation, we practice perceiving clearly so that in everyday life, we can more easily determine what is suitable and what is not.
When we practice non-judgmental acceptance of our perceptions, we will notice that there are some perceptions that we are not at all willing to receive. Old painful memories, and fears of future disasters visit us, and we try not to see them. We look away from them as if they were guests we don’t want to talk to at a party. We will also notice that there are other perceptions that we are trying very hard to receive. We may hope for a certain kind of mental state – open, calm, blissful – and try desperately to perceive that state, even though our current mental state is not like that at all. Our hopes and fears urge us to overlook some perceptions and to fabricate other perceptions. So being willing to perceive clearly means being willing to go beyond our hopes and fears.We consent to receive our perceptions just as they are — even if we fear that they are not at all adequate, suitable or valid; even if we hope that we could have some better perceptions.
Practicing this kind of acceptance builds bravery. We develop the strength of mind to be willing to endure the pain of hopes that don’t come true and fears that do. We develop the patience to be willing to be in contact with things we don’t like and not in contact with things that we do like. This strength and bravery — this willingness to meet anything — is also called compassion.
When our compassion is fully developed we are willing to meet the totality of our experience just as it is. As the Bad Lama says, “compassion is being willing to meet any pain.” Not only does compassion have the strength to meet any object, it also has the willingness to do so. We even develop the willingness to perceive our own weaknesses. The willingness to see our own weakness — even our own lack of compassion — is itself an instance of compassion. Ignoring our own weakness is not strength at all – it is lack of compassion on top of weakness.
Being willing to perceive clearly is one thing; being able to perceive clearly is another. Even if we have developed the compassionate strength of mind that consents to perceive everything in our experience clearly, our ability to perceive clearly in this moment may be compromised. For instance, when we are experiencing strong emotions, those emotions tend to narrow our mind, and therefore distort our perceptions. If we’re feeling angry with someone, we usually can’t see them clearly at all. Instead, we are focused on only one part of that person: the very annoying attribute that is irritating us. Or if we’re feeling very desirous of something, we can’t see that thing clearly. Instead, we are focused on only on the highly attractive characteristic that has us hooked.
Even if we’re in a calm and open emotional state, we still may not be able to see clearly because of conditioning that we carry – we may have a bias to perceive things in a certain way because of the prejudices and beliefs that we carry. Instead of perceiving clearly, we perceive what it is that our prejudices lead us to expect.
Being able clearly to perceive is wisdom. The bad news is that there’s usually some distortion in the way we perceive things. The good news is that we can consent to perceive that distortion clearly. For instance, we might be very angry with someone and think to ourselves, “Wow! I’m really angry! I can barely hear what that person is saying!” Or we might see someone on TV and think, “Wow! I have a very strong cultural bias toward this person! I’m so busy maintaining my stereotype that I can barely notice at all what this person is really like.”
Just as the willingness to meet our own unwillingness is a practice of compassion, so the perception of our own distorted perception is a practice of wisdom. Any state of mind we’re in – even if it’s a highly judgmental mind-state, full of angry emotion – can be a practice of compassion if we’re willing to witness that mind-state fully. Any kind of perception – even a highly distorted perception that is not at all an accurate reflection of its object – can be a practice of wisdom if we’re willing to witness that distortion. So any kind of mind-state can be included in meditation. Any kind of perception can help us develop compassion and wisdom.
We develop our compassion and our wisdom through the simple practice of accepting — consenting to perceive clearly the objects of our experience. We learn not only to accept our perceptions, but ultimately to accept the objects of these perceptions. We even accept ourselves. This self-acceptance partakes of both definitions of “accept.” We consent to perceive ourselves just as we are, without judgment. And when we do that, we can go further and accept ourselves as fundamentally adequate, valid and suitable — and also flawed and frightened. We realize that, on the one hand, we are fundamentally worthy, and, on the other hand, we have layers of painful habits that we can learn to release. To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, when we accept ourselves, when we see ourselves clearly, we realize “We are all perfect just as we are, and we could all use a little work.”
Imagine that you see a friend walking toward you from far away. You can tell by the way that your friend is walking that she is sad. What do you notice about the way she is walking? Maybe her head is down and her shoulders are slumped forward. Maybe her steps are slow and heavy.
We can often tell something about someone else’s mental state by their posture. We can tell if someone is happy or sad, nervous or confident by the way they hold their body. Mind and body are in constant communication. The body listens to the mind, and embodies what the mind is saying; posture is a reflection of mental state.
The communication between mind and body is not just one-way; our body also talks to our mind. Our posture also influences our mental state. Try this experiment: Think of something that makes you angry, and get in touch with the energy of anger. Let it express itself in your body; put yourself into the posture of anger. Notice what happens in your body. Maybe your neck will become tense and your shoulders will tighten. Maybe your eyes will narrow and your jaw will clench. Whatever manifests in your body as anger, go ahead and really let it express itself. Hold onto that posture – the posture of anger — and say, “I’m really, really angry with you!” How does that feel? Probably, the posture lends energy and force to your words. It feels natural to say angry words when you’re in the posture of anger.
Now put yourself into the posture of anger again. This time, hold onto the posture and say, “I love you!” How does that feel? Probably the words don’t feel sincere to you. It feels unnatural to say loving words when you’re in the posture of anger.
You can try this again with the posture of boredom. Put yourself into a posture of boredom. What do you notice? Perhaps your shoulders slump and your head hangs down. Maybe your eyes roll up and you sigh with irritation. Hold onto the posture and say, “Oh god, this is so BORING!” That probably feels natural.
Then, hold onto the posture of boredom, and say, “Wow, this is really interesting!” Does it feel like what you’re saying is sincere? The posture of boredom supports indifference and irritation. The posture of boredom does not support delighted interest.
Our mind influences our body; when our mind is experiencing boredom, our body will naturally take on the posture of boredom. Our body influences our mind; when our body is expressing the posture of boredom, our mind will find it easier to experience boredom and less easy to experience delighted interest. This feedback loop between mind and body can create strong habits of mind and body. (These psychophysical patterns are called formations or samskaras in the classic Buddhist psychology of the abhidharma.) Those strong habitual patterns manifest easily in everyday life. We can become experts, for instance, at experiencing boredom mentally and expressing it physically. We can begin to manifest boredom effortlessly! Then we can have the pleasure of living in a tedious world in which almost nothing of interest ever occurs. Yay?
Luckily, we have a choice. We can break unhelpful habits of mind and body, and learn to create new, more helpful habits. We can use our body to help us with this by working with our posture. When we find ourselves acting out a habit we’d like to break, we can notice our posture and change it. For instance, if we find ourselves going into the habit of anger, we can break the habit by noticing that we’re taking on the posture of anger and instead choosing to be in the posture of friendliness. Even if we don’t feel very friendly, we can still pretend. We can imitate the posture of someone who is friendly.
We can be like an actor. An actor doesn’t need to be experiencing an emotion in order to express that emotion physically. The actor can pretend – they can act as if they are feeling sad, even if they’re not really sad. They can imitate a sad person. We can also be like children at play, imitating someone else. For instance a child may decide to imitate a king, and take on the strong, confident posture of a king. Or the child might imitate a monster and take on the scary posture of a monster.
In every day life, we may find that we imitate others unconsciously. We take on the posture of those around us without thinking about it. We must be careful about this, because we might take on posture that represent qualities that we don’t really wish to encourage. It is much more helpful to learn to imitate consciously.
Sitting down to meditate, our posture talks to us. It makes its own statement. You might say the posture itself is the meditation. – John Kabat Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are
We can practice conscious imitation in our meditation. When we sit, we can imitate the posture of enlightened beings. Try this experiment: Imagine a person who is very alert and awake, and is also very relaxed. How would that person sit? Try to imitate the way an alert, awake, and relaxed person would sit in. Now, imagine that this person is also very kind-hearted and generous, and has a lively sense of humor. Add that into your imitation of how they sit. And now imagine that that person is powerful, and wise and patient. Imagine all of those attributes together, and imitate the way that person would sit.
Now, please realize that that person is you.
It’s true: you have all of those qualities. Some of the qualities might be covered over and hard to get in touch with, so it might be hard for your body to express them. This is why we practice imitation. We might be able to see those qualities in someone else more easily than we can see those qualities in ourselves. So we imitate the posture of someone else, someone who embodies those qualities. When we do this, our body holds our intention for us — our posture becomes our embodied aspiration. We aspire to connect to those qualities of enlightened mind, so we ask our body to take on the posture of those qualities. Then our body becomes an ally to our aspiration, a support for the cultivation of the qualities of enlightened mind.
When we take on the shape of awakening, it’s easier to cultivate awakening. When we take on the shape of generosity, it’s easier to cultivate generosity.
When we practice using our body in this way, then our body will be able to tell us when we’re losing touch with our aspiration. For instance, if we aspire to be awake and alert, and we find that our body is expressing the posture of boredom, we will probably find that our mind has become dull and bored. Then, we can ask the body to express the posture of wakefulness again, and use that to support our mental wakefulness.
Through this kind of practice the body and mind grow closer in a mutually beneficial relationship. In the words of Trungpa Rinpoche, we synchronize body and mind; in particular, we synchronize our body and our intention.
[This posture] is a perfect expression of your Buddha nature…These forms are not a means of obtaining the right state of mind. To take this posture itself is the purpose of our practice. When you have this posture, you have the right state of mind, so there is no need to try to attain some special state. – Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
We start out by imitating the posture of enlightened beings, and expressing qualities that we might have a hard time feeling in ourselves. But through practice we contact those enlightened qualities within ourselves. Then our bodies begin to express naturally those qualities to which we aspire. We no longer need to imitate. Eventually, we will not sit like enlightened beings; we will sit as enlightened beings.
Practicing in this way is a great benefit to us and it’s also helpful to others. Others notice our posture and our affected by it. We can present others with the posture of anger, or the posture of loving-kindness. We can present them with the posture of boredom or the posture of interest. It is said that one of the greatest gifts we can give others is the gift of freedom from fear. Imagine that there is a child alone in a train station. The child is lost and afraid and looks around at all the people rushing by. Everybody seems too busy to help, and nobody looks friendly. Then the child sees you standing nearby. How are you standing? What does your posture say to the small, frightened child? Imagine that your posture is relaxed and friendly. Imagine that you look open and willing to help. Imagine that the child comes and stands near you and relaxes and feels less frightened.
When your mind is lost and afraid, think of it as a small child. Put your body into a posture of friendliness and openness so that your frightened mind can come and stay near your body and be comforted.
Our posture can be a support to our own best aspirations. It can help ease our fearfulness and the fearfulness of those around us. In Buddhism it is said that it is very fortunate to be born a human. Please use your body humanely!
Buddhism teaches that there are three common strategies for dealing with discomfort:
- Try to get something that you’re lacking.
- Try to get rid of something that’s bothering you.
- Ignore the discomfort.
These three strategies are known respectively as greed, anger, and ignorance. Buddhism also teaches that all three strategies are ultimately unsuccessful, and that although they may give some short-term relief, in the long term they create more discomfort. For this reason greed, anger and ignorance are called the three poisons, or the three roots of non-virtue.
It’s not too hard to see how greed and anger can lead to greater discomfort. Greed trains us to become more and more sensitive to a feeling of lack. We end up endlessly chasing after things that we hope will make us happy. Anger trains us to become more and more sensitive to irritation. We end up endlessly on guard, ready to lash out against whatever we perceive as destroying our happiness. It is more difficult to see the negative effects of ignorance. Why? Because when we’re ignoring discomfort, we’re hiding. And we’re not just hiding from the discomfort. We’re also hiding from ourselves.
We hide in a of comfort zone, a cozy place that soothes us and shields us from directly experiencing our discomfort. We might hide in the comfort of cigarettes, or alcohol, or we might hide in the comfort zone of Netflix or Facebook, or in the comfort zone of romance novels or action films. There are many kinds of comfort zones that we might hide in. Most advertisements will try to sell you one. When we hide in a comfort zone, we’re distracted or numb — we dull out the sharpness of the feeling of discomfort, so we feel some relief. But our discomfort is in the here and now, so when we dull out the sharpness of the felling of discomfort, we’re also dulling out the sharpness of our awareness of the here and now. Dulling the sharpness of our awareness is called ignorance.
When we hide from the world in this way, we feel secure. We may think we have quieted our fear, but we are actually making ourselves numb with fear. We surround ourselves with our own familiar thoughts, so that nothing sharp or painful can touch us. –Trungpa Prinpoche
Trungpa Rinpoche called this kind of cozy, dulling comfort zone a cocoon. Like a cocoon, our comfort zone keeps out discomfort, and also prevents us from clearly perceiving or touching the here and now. Since we can’t clearly perceive and touch the here and now, we have a hard time understanding the effect of our actions. Not understanding the effect of our actions is also called ignorance. Since we can’t understand the effect of our actions, we may think that there’s really no cost to hanging out in our cocoon. “We’re just resting!” we might say, “Give us a break.” But we’re not resting in the here and now, we’re hiding from the here and now. Resting in the here and now would be called meditation, and that resting would give us more strength. Hiding from the here and now is called ignorance, and that hiding is the root of our weakness.
There are many costs to hiding in a comfort zone:
Swinging from hummingbird to couch potato – When we’re hiding in our cocoon, we’re not dealing with our day-to-day obligations. So when we emerge, we find that there are many things that we need to do. We have to work very hard to catch up with all our work, buzzing back and forth from activity to activity like a hummingbird. There’s so much to catch up on that we become overwhelmed and exhausted, so we give ourselves a break by slipping back into the comfort zone. Which makes us fall behind again.
Mind Wandering – As we become more dependent on our cocoon, we find ourselves slipping back into the cocoon without meaning to. We might be in the middle on an important conversation, and then realize that we weren’t paying attention for the last few minutes, because we were distracted by thoughts of our favorite Netflix series. What was that other person saying? We find ourselves daydreaming, losing track of what we are doing and what others are saying. We space out.
Hangovers – many comfort zones are addicting and a little toxic. For instance, we may forget our troubles and feel a little better when we drink, but the next day the troubles are still there, and we also have a hangover. The hangover may be physical, and it may also be emotional. It’s not only substances that give us hangovers — if you spend hours on Facebook, you may find that your mind and body don’t feel good when you finally close the computer. Fear – As we spend more and more time in the cocoon, we lose touch with the here and now and we can begin to become fearful of it. The world outside of the cocoon feels threatening. The cocoon begins to feel like our safe place, and we only want to stay inside. The world outside of the cocoon seems like just too much to deal with. In fact, the world seems so much of a hassle that we feel like we deserve to be in the cocoon. We begin to develop the view of Poor Me. The here and now seems like our enemy and the cocoon seems like our friend. Now we’re really becoming addicted to our cocoon. The Bad Lama says that developing the view of Poor Me is even worse than being a murderer. If you are a murderer, you might eventually realize that you made a horrible mistake and try to change. If you develop Poor Me, it’s hard to ever realize your mistake, and instead you just try to build a bulletproof, escape-proof cocoon.
Depression and Lethargy — As we get more and more addicted to our comfort zone, our energy collapses inward and we become lethargic and lazy. We begin to manifest dullness and torpor. We stop caring for the here and now. We may stop taking care for our environment and taking care of our body. Why wash the dishes? They’ll only get dirty again.
The Bad Lama says that the mental diseases of depression and lethargy are very hard to cure, because there is so little energy to work with, and so little desire to connect to the here and now, where the problems are occurring. (Why take a shower right in the middle of your internet Solitaire game?) The mental diseases connected with greed and anger are easier to cure, because they are directed outwardly toward an external object. This outward directed energy can be guided and trained. The inwardly collapsing energy of the diseases of ignorance are harder to engage and work with.
When we hide in a cocoon, we seek comfort in a fantasy here and now and lose touch with the actual here and now where we happen to be living. But our fantasies are occurring in the here and now, so we always have the possibility of connecting to this very moment. We can always break out of the cocoon. The way to combat the diseases of ignorance is to bring our awareness back to the actual here and now, clearly and energetically, again and again. Since our body is always in the here and now, we can use it to bring our awareness out of the cocoon and into the present moment. When we’re in our cocoon, our body can feel like just another of the many things hassling us. (What, do I have to bathe you again?) But if we want to break out of the coccon, our body can be our best ally in reconnecting to our awareness of the present moment. We can bring our attention to the posture of our body, to the activity of our body and to the sensations of our body.
If our energy is very low, we can use our body to rouse our spirits. We might we take a brisk walk, or run, or swim. Think of this as your body making the mudra of activity. We can also realize that our immediate environment affects our mind, so we might begin to take care of our immediate environment. We could do some cleaning meditation.
When our energy is low and our addiction to the cocoon is strong, we might need to rely on some discipline to help us. It is good to get others to help us support this discipline, so finding a practice group, a sangha of follow practitioners, can help. Poor Me, with its feelings of despair and fear of being overwhelmed is just a story, a series of thoughts. We can combat this by familiarizing ourselves with more helpful thoughts – we can read and study inspiring texts. (Again, a group or class can help us with this discipline.)
We can also rely on a role model to gives us a sense of confidence and support. It doesn’t matter who the role model is – it could be the Dalai Lama or Lady Gaga. It is only important that the role model give us a sense of confidence in our ability to meet the world outside of the cocoon.
Finally, we can combat Poor Me by looking for people who need our help, and then doing our best to help them. At first we might just contemplate that there really are people other than Poor Me who need help. We might begin to notice them on TV or on stories on the internet. Then we can notice them closer by — on the street or in the classroom or in the place where we work. We might even notice them at home. And then we can reach out and do something. We can actually help someone else who needs our help. When we do that, Poor Me begins to dissolve, and we realize that we can be effective in this world.
Poor Me is always afraid. Poor Me is convinced that there is just too much pain and hassle in the present moment. That’s why Poor Me wants to hide in a cocoon. In order to let go of Poor Me, we need to develop the confidence that we can meet our pain directly. Actually, we have no choice about whether we will experience pain. We only have a choice about how we will meet our pain. We will either meet our pain fearfully and cloudily or bravely and clearly. We can do it! And once we meet the pain, we can learn to go beyond it, not identifying ourselves with the pain. We are not our pain. We are bigger than that. We are not Poor Me and neither are we Wounded Me.
We can step out of our cocoon and into the bright fresh air. We can stop hiding from the present moment, and stop dulling our awareness. We can learn to find freedom and ease in the present moment. We can let go of our fear and find relief. When we connect clearly and energetically to the present moment, our awareness becomes sharper and sharper and grows grow into wisdom. Then we can really help ourselves and help others. We can learn to be really useful people in the world. We can be brave, wise people in a bright, vast world, or fearful, ineffective people in beautifully furnished luxury cocoons. Which sounds better to you?
Doctor: Well, don’t do that.
In our lives, we will experience many different kinds of physical pain. We will experience the pain of injury when we cut ourselves or bruise ourselves or break a bone; we will experience the discomfort of heat and cold; we will feel the pangs of hunger and thirst. There’s no way to get through life without experiencing some physical discomfort.
These pains will disappear when their causes disappear: if we injure ourselves, the pain will disappear when our body heals itself; our hunger will fade away after we eat.
Doctor: Remove the spoon before drinking.
We will also experience mental pains. We will have painful thoughts that cause us to feel fear and anxiety. We may worry about what will happen to ourselves or to those we love. Even if there’s nothing wrong right now, we may suffer greatly worrying about what might happen in the future. We might relive the past and feel painful regret or burning anger.
We might feel as if our painful thoughts are attacking us. They may wake us up at night. They may prevent us from enjoying our food. Our painful thoughts may cause our body stress, and over time may cause a physical illness. If we examine our experience, we may notice that the majority of the pain we feel is actually mental pain, not physical pain.
Just as physical pains will fade away when their causes cease, so mental pains will fade away when the thoughts that cause them cease. Sometimes this is a surprise to us. Perhaps you can remember a time when you were caught up in painful thoughts, worrying about something. You’re all wrapped up in these thoughts, feeling the mental pain of them, and then you turn a corner and suddenly – WOW – you see the most beautiful sunset. The colors are so intense that they stop you right in your tracks. All the thoughts fly out of your head. While you stare at the beauty of the sunset, your worrying stops and you don’t feel any of the mental pain that the worrying thoughts caused you.
It’s good to notice moments like this. Notice how quickly the mental pain vanishes when the thoughts that cause that pain are interrupted. And notice how quickly the mental pain starts when the thoughts reappear.
Someone hits you once, and then you hit yourself over and over again in your mind. – The Bad Lama
Imagine this: you’re rushing out of your room, and you bang your elbow into the doorframe. OUCH! And you say to yourself “Wow, it really hurt when I do THIS!” And bang your elbow into the doorframe again. And you say to yourself “Wow, it really hurt when I do THIS!” And bang your elbow into the doorframe again. And you say to yourself “Wow, it really hurt when I do THIS!” And bang your elbow into the doorframe again.
It’s hard to imagine doing this to yourself, isn’t it? And yet, that’s exactly what we do with our thoughts.
Imagine this: Someone says something unkind to you. And later on you think to yourself, “Wow, it really hurt when they said THIS!” And bang the words into your memory again. And you think to yourself, “Wow, it really hurt when they said THIS!” And bang the words into your memory again. You keep thinking about how mean and unfair those words were, and you keep banging them into your memory again and again. You feel more and more mental pain as you bring the thought up again and again, just like banging your elbow into the doorframe again and again.
When we experience this kind of painful recurring thought, we may think that it was what the other person said that is hurting us. But that person stopped speaking a long time ago. What is hurting us is our own continual resurrection of the painful memory. We are choosing to hurt ourselves. The majority of the pain we feel is mental pain, and the majority of the mental pain that we feel is of our own making.
The good news is that we can learn to stop hurting ourselves in this way. The path of shamatha-vipashyana meditation teaches us how to stop hurting ourselves with painful thoughts. For this reason, the primary target of shamatha-vipashyana meditation is the thinking mind, also called the conceptual mind. The primary goal of meditation is to learn to work well with our conceptual mind, to use it to increase our happiness, not increase our pain. We do this by first taming it, and allowing it to calm down, and then by training it, so that it develops deep wisdom.
We should be clear about this:
It is not the goal of shamatha-vipashyana meditation to reach a state that is physically blissful.
It is not the goal of shamatha-vipashyana meditation to achieve extraordinary mental states or powers.
It is not the goal of shamatha-vipashyana meditation to destroy the conceptual mind.
The goal of shamatha-vipashyana meditation is very simple: to learn to work well with our conceptual mind so that we use it to increase our happiness and the happiness of those around us, and to decrease our pain and the pain of those around us.
If you have time to freak out, you have time to sit. – The Bad Lama
Maybe you recognize this situation: you’re running a little late for something important, and you’re feeling speedy and jittery. The pressure is on. A nervous little song is running through your mind (“I can just about make it. But I gotta go fast, gotta go fast, gotta go fast!”) You’re holding it together, and you think you might be able to pull this off. And then the universe seems to conspire against you. The printer jams. You can’t find your keys. A construction vehicle pulls in front of you on the road, blocking you, and then starts to drive R-e-a-l-l-y S-l-o-w-l-y.
Damn it! The pressure you’re already feeling boils over, and you’re caught up in a surge of annoyance. It runs right through you and out your mouth. Maybe you shout or pound the steering wheel or kick something. You’re having a minor freak-out. And this seems justified; it seems natural — an automatic response, not something you can control.
It may seem to you that you’re freaking out because you’re running out of time, but really, you’re running out of time and you’re choosing to freak out. Your freak-out is your choice. You may not have any choice about the spurt of anger you feel when the printer jams, but you do have a choice about how you respond to that anger. You can choose to allow that anger to blossom into angry action. But ask yourself — if you’re running out of time on your deadline, do you really want to spend the little time you have left shouting and kicking the printer? It may feel momentarily good to kick the printer — it will probably even make a pretty satisfying sound when it cracks — but will it actually improve the situation?
The Bad Lama advises, “If you have time to freak out, you have time to sit. If you have time to complain, you have time to sit.”
In this case, “sitting” doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in a formal meditation practice. If you’re stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle, you don’t need to pull the car to the side of the road, break out a cushion, and light some incense. (Although, if everyone did that, it would make rush hour a very different experience. Imagine the Long Island Expressway lined with meditating motorists.)
“Sitting” means not fanning our anger. “Sitting” means taking a few breaths and letting ourselves calm down. “Sitting” means that when we find ourselves on the verge of a freak-out, we can decide to pause.
“Sitting” doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is going to work out just as we wish. We may not find the keys. The printer may stay jammed. We may be stuck behind that tractor for miles. But at least we’re not making the situation worse. We may arrive late, but at least when we arrive, we might have recovered some spaciousness of mind, and some clarity, rather than arriving completely irritated and frazzled.
Think about it this way: you will probably never say, “Things got really intense, but luckily I freaked out, so things turned out alright.” But you might say, “Things got really intense, but luckily I managed to calm myself down, so things turned out alright.”
It’s been a while since we’ve posted on this blog. Lama Tenpa (the Bad Lama) was on sabbatical, and Tom (the mouthpiece) took a break during that time. Now we’re back at Naropa, teaching a new semester, so we hope to add more posts and begin editing old posts in the hope of creating a book.
Remember: just sit!
Samatha concentration [is like] immersing oneself into the cool water of a crystal clear lake in order to rest and relieve oneself of the oppressive heat of the afternoon sun. … Vipassanā concentration, on the other hand, is like immersing oneself in the same way, but having been relieved of the heat, instead of resting there, one goes on to explore the content of the lake: the plants, fishes, shells, rocks, pebbles, etc. — Ven. Jotinanda — Reflection on the Dhamma
In general, Shamatha meditation comprises practices of resting and Vipashyana meditationcomprises practices of investigating. Vipashyana engages with the world and wants to understand it. Shamatha opens to the world and accepts whatever it experiences. Shamatha culminates in samadhi, a mind that is completely gathered and focused in the present moment. Vipashyana culminates in prajna, the wisdom that such a mind experiences. These two balance each other: accepting without understanding is a kind of dullness; understanding without resting is a kind of agitation. Ultimately, shamatha and vipashyana merge and are experienced as the active and receptive aspects of an awakened mind.
There are many methods that train the inquisitive, vipashyana aspect of mind (and thus develop wisdom.) In Buddhism, the foremost method for developing wisdom is be hearing, reflecting and meditating on the teachings of the Buddha – the Dharma. But, because the inquisitive aspect of mind is always active, we don’t need to restrict our training to formal contemplation. Throughout our daily lives, we have endless opportunities for training in vipashyana: whenever we meet an experience, we can notice how we attempt to understand that experience. In particular, we can notice what kind of questions we ask (and what kind of questions we don’t ask!)
Our inquisitiveness should bring us closer to our immediate experience, more fully into the here and now. A good question should help dissolve the sense of separation between ourselves and others, and foster compassion and understanding. And just as vipashyana is balanced by shamatha, a good question should increase our ability to rest with our experience as we find it.
But when we pay attention to the kinds of questions that we tend to ask, we may notice that we don’t always use our questions to draw closer to our experience. Often, we use our questions to create justifications for trying to distance ourselves from parts of our experience. In particular, we often use the question “why” to push away our experience. In fact, the Bad Lama says that we should not ask “why” at all. “Well,” you might ask, “why not?” What’s wrong with the question ‘why’? Fair enough. Let’s look at how we use the question “why?” and how it can lead to problems.
Less complaining, more appreciating – the Bad Lama
The Complaining Why
When something unpleasant happens to us we may groan, “Why me?” When we ask this question, we are not seeking to get closer to our experience; we are actually complaining about our experience. “Why me?” usually means, “I don’t like what’s happening, and I’d prefer it to happen to someone else.” This Complaining Why is aggressive toward our experience (which we’d like to get rid of) and toward others (on whom we would like to dump our experience.) So the question not only separates us from our experience, it also separates us from others around us.
The Complaining Why isn’t really a question at all, because it’s not really looking for an answer. When we ask someone, “Why can’t you just keep your big mouth shut?” we’re not looking for the reasons for their talkativeness; we just want them to shut up.
If you’re not looking for an answer, don’t ask a question. If you’re angry, it would be better to express that directly rather than disguising the anger in the form of a question that you don’t really want answered.
Don’t wait in ambush – Atisha, The Seven Points of Mind Training
The Judgmental Why
Sometimes, when we ask “why,” we’re not open to all possible answers — there are some answers that we’re willing to accept and some that we are not. For instance, if a friend is late for a lunch date with you, you might be willing to excuse them if their car broke down, but not excuse them if they simply forgot what time they were supposed to meet you.
When we approach someone with a judgmental why, we’re setting a trap for that person. If they give the right response, they escape the trap, but if they give the wrong response – SNAP – the trap is sprung. If our friend admits that he simply spaced out and forgot to come to lunch on time, we spring the trap, and justify our anger with a storyline: “You’re so inconsiderate! I’m very busy and my time is precious! If you really cared about me, you wouldn’t space out.”
This Judgmental Why is a way of seeking cover for our aggression or greed. It offers us a justification for perpetuating bad habits and toxic relationships: “Why is she abusing me? I did something wrong, and deserve to be punished.” “Why am I committing adultery? Because nobody understands me like he does!” “Why am I drinking to excess? Because I had a hard week and need to blow off steam!”
When we try to meet our experience with the Judgmental Why, we don’t develop wisdom – instead we develop confusion based on the superfluous adjectives “justified” and “unjustified.” We can meet our experience in a more direct way without the Judgmental Why: We can recognize that something that is helpful at this moment is helpful at this moment, regardless of its origins, and we can recognize that something that is harmful right now is harmful right now regardless of its origins.
The Alternate Universe Why
Sometimes, when we ask why, we genuinely would like to work with our experience, but we search for insight in the wrong place. Instead of drawing closer to the present moment in order to develop insight about our experience, we try to find insight by drawing closer to the past. But we can’t actually examine the past; the past no longer exists. So instead, we create conceptual reconstructions of the past, and examine those reconstructions. Our conceptual mind is endlessly creative; we can create myriad versions of fantasy-past and become completely lost there. We might even create false memories in our attempt to pin down an explanation of our present situation. When we do this, we lose contact with the here and now.
We may become obsessed with some injustice in the past, and try to find a way to fix it. But we can’t fix the past, because it’s gone. In our attempt to repair the past, we might pursue revenge and retribution. Or we might mourn some unfortunate thing that we left undone, and become heartsick with the thought “if only…” Not only does this fail to repair the past, it causes damage in the present.
If we are experiencing a problem that we want to solve, it would be more profitable to inquire about what can be done here and now rather than trying to pin down the cause in the past.
Q: What about when you recognize fear and try to figure out where it comes from?
A: You can do that, but it’s an endless process. Analyzing the cause is not letting go. It is going to arise again and again, and each time you’ll have to analyze the new causes. When insight is developed, you can see the fear and let go of it. We don’t have to figure out the cause of our problems, we have to let go of them. — Joseph Goldstein, The Experience of Insight
The Problem-Solving Why
The question “why?” can represent a lot of intelligence. It recognizes that we live in a world of cause and effect. It proposes that if we understand the causes of a specific problem, we may be able to prevent that specific problem from arising again. However, as Joseph Goldstein points out, in the quote above, there are myriad possible problems that can arise in the present moment. Understanding the cause of each problem is an endless process.
Even if we could understand the causes of all of our past discomfort, we couldn’t avoid all present discomfort, since each discomfort arises from its own unique causes. Moreover,the attempt to avoid discomfort creates its own effect – we become more and more anxious, more obsessive and hyper-vigilant as our attempts at discomfort-eradication fail. The very attempt to avoid discomfort is itself a cause of discomfort.
As Goldstein points out, our work is not to analyze all the causes of our present problems, our work is to let go of our problems in the present moment.
If the inference from cause to effect is to be indubitable, it seems that cause can hardly stop short of the whole universe. — Bertrand Russell, Our Knowledge of the External World
The Over-Simplifying Why
Finally, the question “why” usually proceeds from a faulty premise. When we ask “why” we’re usually seeking a simple answer – a single cause. But all of our experiences arise out of a web of myriad causes and conditions. Every event has endless antecedents. Buddhism recognizes this in the idea of “beginningless time.” So trying to come up with a simple answer to a complex phenomenon is like trying to pour the ocean into a shoe. It won’t fit.
After conversing with thousands of children, I’ve decided that [when they ask “why?”] what they really mean is, “That’s interesting to me. Let’s talk about that together. Tell me more, please?” Dr. Alan Greene — Why Children Ask Why
The Childlike Why
Three-year-olds may drive their parents crazy when they repeatedly ask “why?” But as Dr. Greene points out above, the problem is that the parents are trying to answer a closed-ended reductionist “why”, but the children are asking an open ended, exploratory “why”. This open-ended, wondering kind of questioning is a good use of the question “why”. This is how we can ask why, too: Whatever our experience, we can wonder about it, withholding judgment, like a child. We can ask questions that draw us closer to our experience: What is this situation like right now? How do all the parts fit together?
The Bad Lama suggests that there are two questions that we might choose to ask rather than “why”: “What can I learn?” and “How can I help?” When we ask, “What can I learn?” we draw closer to our experience. Each experience can teach us something; no experience is without value. When we ask, “How can I help?” we develop friendly intentions toward our experience and to others who are involved in our experience. There is no experience and no person that we need meet with aggression. When we ask these questions, we not only can develop wisdom, we can also develop the friendliness and non-aggression that will allow us to rest easily with all of our experiences.