Category: Buddhism

Acceptance Isn’t Resignation

Photo freely given
by Troy T on Unsplash

When I was a young twenty-something, besotted with the writing of the Beats and of Chuck Palahniuk, I bough myself a Moleskin notebook to carry around with me everywhere I went. This accessory (combined with my Gauloises cigarettes) was partially proof to the outside world that I was a man of depth, and partially a legitimate tool for me to begin writing my own poetry and short stories. My poetry was shit, but I like to think that some of my short stories were half-way decent for a person who had never really done any writing. At some point, I began to see a thread in my writing. I would often use the image of the protagonist taking a drag on a cigarette as a symbol of resignation. The most clear example of this was the following paragraph –

I stood out on the sidewalk, gingerly fingering a lump on my neck that had appeared a couple of days ago. ‘What is this thing?’ I asked nobody. ‘It’s probably cancer. That’s fucking great, I have cancer now. I’ll probably die alone from throat cancer.’ I took a drag of my cigarette. ‘I guess I could go to the doctor and have him look at it. Nah, I’m not going to pay some fucking doctor just to tell me I have cancer. Fuck it.’ I flicked the butt into the street and went back inside.

Some random thing i wrote

First, I would like to say that looking at this now, I am surprised to find that I unwittingly wrote a perfect example of Papancha (proliferation of the mind) many years before learning what it was that I was describing.

Secondly, I think this is a good way for me to set up the contrast between acceptance and resignation. In a tweet I posted recently, I said –

I had a lot of different directions that this thought was going in my mind. One of my new Twitter friends, Duane Toops, followed this up with a great post that captures part of what I was thinking. He did a great job covering this, so you should read his post, and I won’t go too in depth on this part. The short version is that we all have things that we find difficult to accept in ourselves. We need to learn to accept the truth about ourselves to grow as people and to skillfully make choices and deal with our life. The key thing is that accepting doesn’t mean that we have to be resigned to those areas not changing.

There were two other directions that I was exploring when I posted that tweet, the first being my approach to my practice, and the second being my approach to the outside world.

Acceptance in My Practice

I am still learning to see my practice as being a fluid and impermanent thing. It isn’t a straight line. It is a squiggly zig-zag, filled with ups and downs. I have recently found some rigidity creeping into my sittings, which is naturally accompanied by less ease and friendliness. I can get frustrated that I am not concentrating as well as I would like. I am finding that part of the reason for both my frustration as well for the actual cause of my frustration, is that I am bringing a lot of expectations and unnecessary striving into my time on the cushion. I have not been approaching my practice with friendly acceptance for what it has to bring. Over the last week I have been trying to approach my time in meditation with a spirit of acceptance. That doesn’t mean that I am not applying effort to continuing to improve my practice, merely that I am trying to accept that this is what my practice is like in this moment.

Acceptance in the Public Arena and Politics

With everything that has been going on in the world recently, this one has been a real problem for me. How can we accept the inaction of our government (speaking as an American) on issues like climate change and gun violence? This is where the concept of acceptance vs resignation really starts to get tricky.

Photo freely given by whoislimos on Unsplash

In the wake of two days in a row where I encountered news of mass shootings in our country, it was not easy to accept what was happening. I could feel my heart racing and tension building up with anger that this is continuing to happen with such regularity. Working with accepting what was arising internally helped me begin to accept what was happening externally, which lead to my anger turning to compassion for the people in El Paso and Dayton who are dealing with the pain of what has happened in their communities. It also directed my energy toward the question of what I could do to effect change. This wasn’t resignation, it was acceptance of the reality of the circumstances that exist and an exploration of how to skillfully deal with those circumstances.

This process is not easy, and we do have to be mindful to avoid the trap of confusing resignation for acceptance, but it is the only way that we can skillfully respond. In order to determine how to best fight the battle, you have to understand the battlefield. Not accepting leads to reaction, while acceptance can guide us toward skillful and effective response.

Using Meditation as a Drug

I’ve talked a little in a previous post about how difficulty in my personal life originally brought me to meditation. Discovering these practices helped pull me out of a dark period of my life, and have continued to be useful to me as a means of confronting difficult emotions and the events that lead to them. As I continue to work through some of these issues, I have seen that there is a difference between using my practice to skillfully face the things that arise in my life, and in turning to my practice as a means to numb myself to them.

As a culmination of a two year process, my wife and I recently came to an agreement that we would be separating. Although the events of the last couple of years have already caused me to deal with many of the most painful parts of this experience, this has still been a difficult development for me. I have been determined to be present with my sadness, anger, and the plethora of other emotions that I have been feeling this time around. In talking to my meditation and Dharma teacher this week, she brought up the fact that I needed to remain mindful not to use my practice as a means to numb what I’m feeling. I can honestly say that I haven’t been doing that to this point, but the reminder that this can be a seductive choice is a valuable one.

meditating by a lake
Photo freely given by Simon Migaj on Unsplash

Looking back at my practice over the last couple of years, I can definitely see times when I used meditation as a means of getting over some difficult emotion or another. Joseph Goldstein often refers to this type of behavior as being an example of “in-order-to mind.” I am focusing on my breath in-order-to calm down my feelings of anger, or running to my cushion in-order-to get past my depressed feeling. In fact, my initial foray into meditation was all predicated on the idea that it could help me get over my depression and anxiety. While this kind of practice did sometimes give me temporary relief, it didn’t really treat the actual diseases of greed, hatred, and delusion, which manifested themselves in my sadness and fear.

In working with the Fifth Precept, I’ve discovered that my practice can become an unexpected intoxicant that can cloud my mind. True mindfulness requires that I be aware of my difficult emotions, engaging with them fully. While relief from suffering can thankfully be a side effect of this practice, the real benefit is in growing in liberation from the root causes of my suffering. When we use our practice to avoid our feelings, we are basically just putting them on layaway, where we will eventually have to pick them up, and often the payment will have interest applied.

Every morning as I say the words, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants that cloud the mind,” I have been examining my intentions to watch for the desire to escape my feelings in my practice. I don’t want to avoid these feelings. I want to be present with them, and learn what they have to teach me. This is all part of my path.

Beginning Again

For the last year or so I have been trying to start and end each day with a little journaling. Consistency in this endeavor has been spotty, but I do the best I can. As a part of this habit, I have a gratitude list that I write in the morning. Most mornings I start with a simple phrase that has become a bit of a mantra for me; “Beginning again.”

I first started incorporating this phrase into my life shortly after I began meditating. I noticed that several of the people who I was reading would describe the basic meditation practice as some variation of, “Sit with your back straight, focus on the feel of your breath going in and out, then notice whenever you get distracted, gently return your attention to your breath, and begin again.” The idea that I could begin again at any moment was so at odds with the way that I was raised, and I found the concept liberating in a way that I hadn’t expected.

begin coffee mug
Photo freely given by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

It is not uncommon to hear about “Catholic guilt,” but the guilt of those of us who grew up as Evangelical Christians hasn’t gotten as much press. I learned early on that I was a sinner, and that every sin that I committed was responsible for putting Jesus on the cross. That’s a lot for a kid to deal with, and as I went through life, I accumulated a collection of sins that weighed on me like an anchor. The guilt really got out of control around puberty, as I discovered a minefield of sexuality that had me spending countless wakeful nights lamenting the lustful thoughts that I had experienced during the day, fearful that I couldn’t be forgiven for such persistent sin.

I don’t really remember a time when I didn’t have a voice in my head that loudly and constantly told me I was a horrible person. I know the voice was there by the time I was 12 or so, because I can remember specific incidents where I would cuss out the kid down the street or lie to my parents, and would spend hours thinking about what a bad person I was, and that I was probably going to hell. As I grew older, the voice only got louder, and had begun to berate me for various other inadequacies, and not just my sins. I felt hopelessly caught in a loop of the same mistakes, and I had begun to genuinely hate myself.

We all have this type of voice in our head, although the contents and severity of this inner critic varies from person to person. This voice will tell us that we aren’t good enough, or that we are a fuck-up. It might compare what we have to what someone else has, or cast judgmental aspersions on someone we pass on the street. The thing is, we are not our thoughts.

you are not your thoughts
Bad photo by Ben 😉

I was thoroughly convinced throughout my whole life that this voice in my head was me, stating the facts about who I was. The very first lesson that I learned from my meditation practice was that those thoughts aren’t me. They are just thoughts, and I can notice when they are arising, watch them float by, and begin again. Not only that, I can apply the same practice off of the cushion. For instance, as a part of my 31 Day Precept Project, I have committed to eating a vegan diet. Somehow, when I ordered a butterscotch latte at the coffee shop yesterday (with oat milk, by the way,) it didn’t occur to me that butterscotch was not vegan. It has BUTTER in the name for crying out loud! In the old days, I would have beat myself up for failing in my quest for dietary perfection. Instead, I accepted that it was an honest mistake, and that this is only my fifth day of veganism, and today I can begin again.

In my practice it can be easy for me to get caught up in “succeeding” at meditating. I have days where my concentration isn’t what I would like it to be, or when I can’t shake a feeling of grogginess, and I can have moments of frustration with my perceived lack of progress. At times where I am more mindful, I observe that frustration arise and watch it pass away, and then I thankfully remind myself that I can always return to my breath and begin again.

The Precepts Project: Third Precept – Sexual Misconduct

I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct

The Third Precept

Today is August 1st! It’s the official beginning of my 31 Day Precept Project. So, let’s talk about sex.

The topic of sexual misconduct within our society has been getting a lot of attention recently, and the Buddhist community has not been immune (see Noah Levine and Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche for a couple of recent examples.) In thinking about the third precept, I think that there is a lot of light that can be shed on a skillful way of applying this precept. The #metoo moment that we are in offers a lot to think about in regards to the complexity of sexuality.

As I’ve pointed out with other posts in this series, the five precepts are not a list of commandments, but a list of guidelines for how to live a life that minimizes suffering, both to ourselves and to other beings. Human sexuality is a powerful influence that can cause a lot of suffering if handled carelessly. The craving of sexual pleasure can be consuming, and under various circumstances can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, and other emotions, as well as sometimes leading us to make harmful choices. It can also lead us to mistreat others when we prioritize our sexual desires over the needs (emotional, sexual, safety, etc.) of other people.

Photo freely given by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

My understanding of the third precept for us laypeople, is that we should be mindful about how we use our sexuality in order to not cause harm to ourselves or others. The precept itself is pretty vague, but a few of the specific things that have often been seen as addressed in this precept are; sex should be between consenting adults (no rape, no sex with minors, no animals) and that it is not proper to cheat on yours or another’s marriage. These precepts line up with many common cultural mores around the world. I think that stopping at a list of behaviors to avoid, however, isn’t really the point.

In thinking over this precept from a modern lens, I think a broader view of how we can misuse our sexuality is appropriate. The current climate that we find ourselves in has demonstrated that there are a lot of imbedded problems involving power dynamics and sexuality in our society. As a man, I feel like my exploration of this precept has to include a consideration of whether I am sufficiently aware of how my actions, whether purposeful or accidental, can make another person feel sexually threatened or objectified. I would like to think that this is an issue that isn’t a problem for me, but I realize that the current conversation has pointed out that a lot of men in our society have some significant blind spots in this area. If nothing else, asking the questions is a worthwhile endeavor.

Another area of thought for me is the question of pornography. Does consuming porn contribute to the suffering of the people involved in its production? I feel that it probably does in some cases, if not all. Is there also an element of taking what isn’t freely given? My assumption is that some of the people involved in the porn industry could be understood to not be 100% free of coercion, either in a literal sense or in an economic one.

Finally, I think that an important part of dealing with this precept is examining the level to which lust controls us. Sexual desire is a hardwired part of our makeup as humans. We don’t have to try to suppress that desire, but we can practice not getting carried away by it. We can accept it, be with it, even enjoy it, but not cling to it or push it away. Ultimately, the wise approach to sexuality seems to be a focus on non-harming. In regard to myself, can I be present with feelings of sexual desire, without craving, aversion, or delusion? In regard to others, are my intentions and actions in the realm of sexuality causing harm or distress to anyone? This is an area that requires a lot more vigilance than most of us give it, but if we are to learn anything from the current moment, it should be that it is an endeavor that is incredibly important to undertake.

Giving Flowers

The Precepts Project: Second Precept – Taking What Isn’t Freely Given

I undertake to abstain from taking that which is not freely given

The Second Precept

In spending some time reading and thinking about this precept, I realized that I probably hadn’t really framed this project correctly in some earlier posts. Studying the second precept really reinforced that this work with the precepts is a practice. These aren’t a set of rules to be followed, which I did allude to in previous posts, but framing them as a practice is an important part of all of this. The practice is to really examine our intentions and actions and the impact that they have on us and on other beings.

One of my first experiences with really thinking about the precepts was watching a series of videos about ethics on the 10% Happier app (I promise, I am not getting paid to mention 10% Happier, it just so happens that the book, app, and podcast have had a big impact on my early practice.) The videos, which were intentionally set in a bar, featured an open conversation about the precepts between Dan Harris and JoAnna Hardy. JoAnna’s explanation of the precepts was so eye-opening to me that I reached out to her to begin working with her as my first meditation and Dharma teacher. All of the videos in the series were helpful to me, but the couple of sessions about the second precept were the ones that shifted my thinking the most.

Coming from a conservative evangelical Christian home, I was used to thinking of ethics in terms of right and wrong, sin and virtue. The ten commandments were the alpha list of rules in Judeo-Christian traditions, including the injunction, “Thou shalt not steal.” In my first reading of the precepts, I read the second precept as a Buddhist corollary to the eighth commandment. What I found in JoAnna’s teaching on the second precept was the idea that this is more of a guideline of how to live in order to do the least possible harm to others, and to be at ease in our life and meditation practice. She also helped me to see that this is a practice of exploring the different ways that we might take what isn’t given to us, beyond the obvious examples of overt stealing.

Over the next month I will be doing a lot of exploration on what it means to take what isn’t freely given, but just to give a framework of some things that I hadn’t initially considered that I’ve come to think about, here are a few examples –

  • Do I waste time that I am being paid for?
  • Do I waste people’s time with talking to them about things that I know they probably don’t care about, but that I feel are important for me to share?
  • Do I purchase products that are made by people who are being forced by economic circumstances to work in poor conditions? What about products that cause the citizens of an area to have their land or homes destroyed or taken away from them?
  • Do I only use photos, etc. in my blogging that were freely given by the producers?
  • Do I take photos of people without their consent to post on social media?
  • Do I take flowers, rocks, or other “mementoes” from private property or public lands?
  • Do I “borrow” things without getting permission?

These are just some examples to illustrate the complexity of this precept. Ultimately, it can be difficult in the modern world to be perfect in not taking something that was not freely given, but the important part of the practice, for me anyway, is to be mindful, and to make every effort to consider the impact of my choices and actions, and to do what I can to avoid causing suffering to other beings. This practice has already been beneficial to me, and I know that I will continue to find peace and joy in exploring further.

Featured image freely given by Sean Kowal on Unsplash

The Glass is Already Broken

Almost exactly two years ago, my conception of my life as a steady and reliable institution came crashing to the ground when my wife informed me that she was unhappy in our marriage and was ready to call it quits. As is generally the case, this did not come completely out of the blue. There were no extreme motivating factors; no cheating, traumatic events, abuse, or even any significant fights. If you asked either of us, we would say we loved each other and considered the other to be our best friend. We did, however, have some longstanding issues that had slowly operated as a death by a thousand cuts. To use an age-old cliche, we had grown apart. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been aware enough to see how much that was true.

After some anguished late night conversations, we decided not to take any immediate action. I told my wife that I loved her and was committed to doing whatever I could to fix our problems. I told her that this wasn’t something that I wanted, but that I would respect her wishes and follow her lead. Unfortunately, in the wake of our conversations, I found myself lost and without a clue as to how to fix anything. I quickly turned to various mechanisms for numbing the jumble of emotions that were hitting me in crashing waves. I work in the wine and beer industry, and already was a heavier than average drinker. My worst instincts took over and as I began to heavily self-medicate, a sense of creeping despair covered me like a blanket.

About a year after our initial conversation, we were still living together, albeit more as roommates than spouses. Simple economic considerations and inertia are probably the only reason that we maintained the status quo. It was during the summer of 2018 that I picked up the book 10% Happier by Dan Harris on the recommendation of an old friend. As I’ve written previously, this book launched me into a consistent meditation practice, and introduced me to a reading list of books that went on to have a huge impact on my life, the first of which was Dr. Mark Epstein’s book, The Trauma of Everyday Life.

Epstein’s book was eye opening in many ways, and really deepened my interest in Buddhism as a means of coming to understand the suffering that I had experienced my entire life, and was experiencing intensely during that particular stage of my life. There was one specific paragraph of the book that continues to have a huge impact on me today.

Epstein relates a story of a group of students meeting with the great Thai Forest teacher, Ajahn Chah, and asking him about what he could tell them about the Buddhist mindset that they could take home with them. His response was one of those classic Buddhist illustrations that take an easily relatable situation to show a larger truth about the true nature of reality.

Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. “Do you see this glass?” he asked us. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.”

Mark Epstein – The Trauma of Everyday Life

This simple paragraph hit me like a thunderbolt, exposing so many things about my life and about the specific situation I was living through. I had been heedless in my approach to my entire life, not to mention my relationships. Not only that, but I recognized that in my married life, I had combined a lack of attention to my wife and her needs with a dependent clinging to my life with her. When this thing that I had latched onto as a stable and dependable part of my life had demonstrated it’s impermanence, I had crumbled under the shock of the realization.

Photo freely given by KaNajib Khali on Unsplash

In my 20s, I used to quote the oft-used interpretation of the Buddha’s words that states, “life is suffering.” This was literally all I knew about Buddhism, and this quotation had more to do with an angsty interest in Nietzsche and nihilism than any understanding of Buddhist philosophy. It was equivalent to saying, “life is hard, and then you die.” As I’ve undertaken my study into Buddhism, I have learned that this understanding of the Buddha’s words is misleading, to say the least. Many of the teachers that I hear discuss this concept offer the additional translation that life is unsatisfying. Suffering is an appropriate term in a way, but this suffering is due to the fact that we don’t experience the world as it really is, and as such life doesn’t meet our expectations. We futilely cling to things (all of which are impermanent) that we find pleasant and fight so hard to push away things we find unpleasant. In short, we desire for life to be other than it is.

Over the last year, I have spent a lot of time working on seeing the glass as already being broken. To me, this has meant being more present with both the good and the bad. It means truly being with life as it is, engaging fully and authentically in my relationships, and not seeking out distractions and numbing agents to avoid experiences that I find boring or unpleasant. It means being present to fully experience all the things that I love about the glass, and appreciate each sip that I take from it, knowing full well that the glass is impermanent. This makes each moment more precious.

In the end, this practice doesn’t guarantee that life circumstances will follow the trajectory we want. After trying for a couple of years to repair our relationship, my wife recently told me that she didn’t feel like she could see us ever getting back to where we need to be for her to stay in our marriage. Too much baggage had been accumulated by the time we started to work on things in a meaningful way. This has been a painful experience, but by being fully present for it, this time has been one of tremendous personal growth. I have found a peace in actually giving myself the space to be with my feelings, rather than trying to numb them out of existence. Dealing with difficult emotions isn’t easy but, in my experience, running away from them is impossible.

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