Tag Archives: Buddhism

The Ego—What Is It?

Ego is a misconstrued phenomenon. I often forget this fact when I say something like, It felt ego-driven to me. And the person with whom I’m speaking will say something like, Really? You think he was arrogant? So, here, I offer a little portraiture of this elusive, oft-misunderstood, conceptual thing.

Ordinarily thought of as arrogance, in its subtler shades, ego is desire, attachments, expectations. It is greed. It is the picking and choosing mind. It is jumping to conclusions, clinging to positions, single-minded stubbornness. It is anger. It is pushing your agenda. And it is all grounded in fear. The ego is the insecure part of us that needs constant recognition, approval, reassurance, and flattery (of which there is never enough). Mostly, ego just needs to be right. It is ignorance. It is the dualistic mind. And because of the fear generated by its exaggerated sense of self, and because of its dogged fixation on meeting its needs, it is in a constant state of alienation, worry, and suspicion of others’ intents. When these pestilent mental states are painstakingly peeled away, layer by layer, the light of compassion shines through, and we find that in this new state of lightness, we are able to harmonize with our surroundings, enabling others to effortlessly harmonize with us.

(Excerpted from my book,  Buddha in the Classroom; Zen Wisdom to Inspire Teachers, 2011)

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Heal Thyself First

It is February—the month of love, so, in the spirit of the season, I offer a note about the importance of healing your own heart first.

There is a consistent message found throughout the higher wisdom traditions, that of tending to your own healing and transformation first. They say that it is imperative to purify yourself before trying to fix the world. To put it slightly differently, although we do exactly the opposite, in the form of finger-pointing, whistle-blowing and fault-finding, the call is to look to the inside before looking to the outside.

Rather than simply take it for granted, I would like to explore the reasons why this makes sense.

Firstly, because when we are miserable, depressed and despondent, or angry and in great angst, we are less likely to be open to the needs of others. We are more likely to close ourselves off and tuck ourselves away into a cocoon where we are both unavailable and unable to be of service to anybody else.

Secondly, because while we’re on this planet, the very least we can do—even if we don’t do much good—is refrain from causing harm. And when we’re suffering, we’re likely to lash out on others in myriad ways, from the little things, like general rudeness, to the big things, like the Columbine massacres.

Finally, in a more etheric sense, an open and balanced heart center—what the Yogis call the anahata chakra—can have a natural healing effect on others. When we start to heal and our hearts start to open, we tend to radiate warmth, and that creates joy all around.

10 Houses of Suffering

Intro: These stories originally appeared on my old blog–I wrote them to illustrate the many ways that ordinary people, living seemingly ordinary lives, make themselves suffer. And in virtually every case, it is some particular shade of mental angst-a particular varietal of suffering, although none the less…ordinary. And in virtually every case, as my students quickly recognized, it has arisen because of the unwillingness to come to acceptance with the inevitable changes of life.  I recently used these in class (lecture recorded on Youtube) to introduce Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, which summarily present the madness of the human situation, namely, this inability to accept the inevitable and the pain we cause ourselves in persisting to look everywhere else but within for our peace of mind.

Lead-in: Imagine a row of ten houses facing a creek. Each one is big and beautiful, except the last one – the tenth one – which is smaller and needs some upkeep.

Inside the first house is a man who suspects his wife is sleeping with somebody else. He spends every minute of every day, in a state of paranoid suspicion. Right now, listening to her phone conversation, creeping along, crouching under the row of expensive paintings in the long corridor, he hopes the floor doesn’t crack with his sneaky footsteps, giving him him away, betraying his jealousy.

Inside the second house is a 25-year-old woman with an eating disorder. At least five days of every week are spent alternately binging and purging, and taking no pleasure from the compulsive acts. Her throat, her teeth, and her stomach are destroyed, and she lives with the fact that she is killing herself, and can’t stop. The other two days are spent in isolation, hunger, and vile self hatred.

Inside the third house is a mother too afraid to answer the phone, yet simultaneously too afraid to stray too far from the house, because her son is in Iraq, and news of her only son’s status might be delivered at any moment.

Inside the fourth house is a 33-year-old aging cover model, losing jobs to 18-year-olds. She curses at her face in the mirror, and doesn’t have any more will to get out of bed in the morning. She owes 20,000 dollars in debt from lost pay, yet just accepted one more credit card offer to schedule plastic surgery on her neck and eyes, in the hope that it will make her better and that it will make her like herself better.

Inside the fifth house is a heroin addict. He is missing out on his children’s young years, but can’t stop. Making it worse, is his wife, who calls him a loser, taunting him daily for his weakness. Every time he tries to give it up for good, he gets violently ill, and gives in to the urge to shoot up again, even though he knows it is only a temporary pleasure. It’s gotten to the point where he stands to lose his job, his wife, and the house. He no longer enjoys being sober because of the agonizing guilt that eats him alive.

Inside the sixth house is a 60-year-old woman who has just been diagnosed with incurable cancer. She knows her body will soon start to break down, and that she will have to soon face her death. She will have to come to grips with the fact that she will never see her grandchildren, or her husband, or her dogs, again.

Inside the seventh house is an 85-year-old woman who lost her husband five years ago. Having lost her will to live, she lies in bed all day long, surrounded by the dusty antique knick-knacks she spent her life collecting. Her social security checks go entirely to the illegal caretakers, paid to help her go to the bathroom, and take her to the doctor. She refuses to leave her home and go to an elderly home.

Inside the eigth house is a 19-year-old boy with agoraphobia. Stepping outside of the house is like hanging off a bridge, sweaty fingers slipping, no one to catch you. He takes his xanax, and sits in front of his computer, wearing the mask of his artificial identity, chatting in forums, witty and sarcastic on screen, hating himself all the while on the inside because he’s lonely and bored, and it never goes away.

Inside the ninth house is a 30-year-old ambitious office worker, who just missed out on a promotion due to the fact that his scheming female colleague in the next cubicle claimed his idea as her own, taking all the credit and the rewards. He takes his seething hatred out on other women, in the form of abusive relationships that leave him feeling more empty and worthless, rather than potent, and valued.

Inside the tenth house – the smallest house on the block – is a newlywed couple who bought this fixer-upper because it was the only house they could afford, given their loan qualifications. Because their house is at the end of the street, they are forced to drive past the other more glorious houses every day, going to and fro work. He imagines his neighbors’ luxurious lives, Saturday barbeques, and big TV screens; and she is filled with increasing bitterness toward him, for promising a new kitchen, plumbing that works, bathrooms she can decorate in coordinated colors, like in the magazines. Yet the months go by, and still her husband has done nothing to improve their house. Their relationship is quickly turning bitter.

To Reflect On
-This is the meaning of samsara (life sucks, but only if mind sucks.)
-This is the meaning of the expression, where ever you go, there you are (all is perception.)
-This is why it makes no sense to covet (addiction is an everyday affair.)
-This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness on the outside (pleasure is not happiness – it has a dark side)
-This is why it makes no sense to look for happiness at all – it’s not a thing to get! (it is a by-product of presence.)
-This is why the masters say to wake up to what is (to accept.)
-This is the meaning of the saying, you don’t have to believe your thoughts (thoughts are kind of like, secretions.)
-This is why monks meditate (meditating is dealing with what’s in front of you.)
-This is why you have to put out your own fire first (you create the world.)

Emotions Don’t Make a Man

Sometimes I receive notes from people I don’t know. Sometimes they ask me for advice, and sometimes I’m able to give it. Here is an (edited) version of a recent one.

Question from an unknown friend:

I have always read about “letting go…” and specifically about letting go of the ego. Isn’t this the purpose of Yoga and Buddhist practice? I think it sounds good but I wonder if it is healthy overall to let go of so much in life. Isn’t part of life just feeling good and acting upon emotions? Isn’t that part of a fulfilled life to accept those feelings? How do I know when I should allow feelings and emotions to exhibit themselves or not? I struggle with this immensely. I almost feel like ego is me and therefore only death would detach me from any thread of ego attachment. When I have an opinion – am I just supposed to suppress it? Thank you for your time.

————

My response:

Friend:

You said: ” Is not part of life just feeling and acting upon emotions? Isn’t that part of a fulfilled life to accept those feelings?”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could tell you, “Yes, you’re right, I guess that’s what life is for.” But I can’t be the one. You see, this very idea is what Yoga (and Buddhist practice) is there to correct.

The whole purpose of “having a practice” is to steady the mind. Yoga is about the mind, not the body. It is about managing your energy, your emotions and your thoughts, so that those emotions don’t manage and overwhelm you. It’s therefore about you managing you.

Imagine if we took your question (in quotes, above) and made it universal, which is to say, allowed for society at large to act on it as a sort of “rule.” The result would be exactly like the fourth grade school yard, where anytime anyone gets angry, they just stomp and scream and throw their toys at others. After all, they would simply be “acting on their emotions.”

But, here’s the thing. Society is actually like that. Most people have not learned to manage their emotions, have not evolved to where life is about anything other than their passing feelings, nor have they come to identify with any higher purpose of existence.

It’s all about “how I feel.”

And so, we have road rage, prozac, addictions, dysfunctional relationships, war, hatred, envy, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, emotional disorders, a never-before-seen number of learning disabilities, stress, tension, and political elections that resemble an afternoon at the local kindergarten.

When body, spirit and mind are in a state of balance, which is to say, at the very least, that the “negative mind” doesn’t govern, those emotions don’t seem so overwhelming and living becomes more peaceful. What does this have to do with “letting go?” We stop getting so caught up with those habitual thoughts that only keep us limited—judgment thoughts, self-deprecating thoughts, doubtful thoughts and resentful thoughts—the kinds of thoughts we don’t want to characterize our ideas of ourselves and others. Because our thoughts weave the fabric of who we are.

It’s as Yogi Bhajan once said, in his characteristically straightforward and slightly mischievous way, “it’s not emotions that prove you’re alive. The way to find that out is to check your nose. If the breath goes in and out, then you are still alive.”

You see, once we begin to quiet the spinning mind, once we begin to relate to that which is infinitely greater than our passing trifles, once we begin to become truly conscious beings, then we relate to those emotions differently. We learn not to define ourselves by them and they begin to lose their hold and power over us. We become more stable and more able!

Kind Wishes,
~Donna

Misunderstanding Religion; What Is its Purpose?

One thing students realize when they begin their readings for my class, is the lack of anything resembling unified agreement, among academics, on what religion is.

Firstly, if you’re looking for agreement among academics, you’re looking in the wrong place.

But in a more analytical vein, every attempt at a common denominator is defeated by a counter example. Even the belief in God, which isn’t embraced in the context of Buddhism, is frustrated. In short, we are hard-pressed to find one feature common to all religions of the world. So, rather than one solitary feature, scholars have taken to describing a collection of characteristics – things like community, beliefs and stories –
that are inevitably found, in some combination or another, in the world’s many religions.

One student expressed concern over the problem of interpreting those stories that are part and parcel of the world’s religions. In a disdainful tone, he alluded to the violence that is easily justified by a relativistic interpretation of religious writings.

A common and seemingly justifiable concern, considering the state of the world today.

Nonetheless, I find it lamentable because it stems from a massive misunderstanding of what the whole point of religion is and has always been. Arguing about scripture reduces it to nothing but philosophy—a discipline which is deep, difficult and meaningless, all at the same time. Joking aside, it’s not exactly meaningless, if we understand that its value lies, not in finding answers, but in the very act of asking questions. That is, meaning emerges when we stop misunderstanding its purpose.

Likewise, in the domain of religion, we get hopelessly caught up in the supposed contradictory nature of certain passages, especially where violence is implied. This is common in the context of the Jewish and Christian bibles, and in that of the Koran. But what if we were to consider the very purpose of these holy books differently? What if we were to assume its purpose lay in encouraging us to look upon our own violent ways?

Thus, rather than assume a breach between our virtues and those in the holy stories, we might consider the purpose of those stories. And more pertinently, we might let go of the assumption that these stories contain explicit instructions. In that way, the bible may become purposeful.

But perhaps the most profound problem lies in a different kind of chasm. There is an immense difference between the spiritual state of the reader and the nature of the divine. A holy book is of a different nature than a science book or a philosophy book or a car manual. Dare I say bluntly that its arcane nature will be missed by an unenlightened mind? Its higher truths will not be revealed to eyes that don’t yet see, to a mind that is not ready.

Or even more to the point, to a mind that pushes an agenda.

Anyone can misuse anything when guided by greed, selfishness, lust for power, and vengeance. A person whose mind is clouded by odiousness has eyes that are blind. He will misinterpret, misconstrue and misuse. He’ll abuse the land, other people, scripture, and everything he touches. Put that person in a position of power and watch the world crumble.

Which brings me around to the closure of the circle and to my final point, that of looking to the academics for a definition of something that does not lend itself to definition.

Just as looking for answers misses the point of philosophy—which values itself on the questions it asks, looking for definitions misses the point of religion—which treasures only experience as a means to truth.

No matter the religion, its purpose is to bring the practitioner to an experience of his or her own wholeness. When this underlying essence and purpose goes missing, it quickly and inevitably dissolves into empty rituals. How could it be anything else in the absence of an awakened consciousness? Even the meaning of the word religion betrays its supreme spiritual purpose—to remember your spiritual identity. But without clarity all we have is confusion, without heartfelt practice all we have is mechanized ceremony and without open eyes all that is left is the blind leading the blind.

What is Spiritual Surrender?

One of my Kundalini Yoga teachers, Gurudhan, often plays a song during our deep relaxation, called “Never Surrender.” Some of the main lyrics resound in my mind:

Don’t lose faith and don’t lose heart.
Don’t lose faith and never surrender. 
Don’t lose faith and don’t lose heart.
Don’t lose faith and never surrender. 

Never surrender to your tears,
though you’ve been crying them for years.
You know the pain is just a part
of what is opening your heart.

The message is to never surrender. Yet, ironically, the importance of being able to surrender is at the heart of all the great spiritual teachings. In Taoism, it is taught that you will live with greater ease through the art of surrendering to the rhythms and natural cycles of the universe—The Tao. In Buddhism, you lessen the suffering of yourself and everyone around you by applying the wisdom to accept life’s inevitable changes, regardless of whether or not they correspond to your preferences.

And in Kundalini Yoga, surrender has its place, as well. It is the way to personal evolution and ultimately, joy. It means, surrendering to the lessons presented to us, in order to benefit from the perspective they permit and thus, to grow from them. It is the courage to use those stumbling blocks as springboards to our own higher consciousness.

To add a few layers on, surrendering, in this case, is to let go of the stories we tell ourselves—the stories we use as defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms keep us stuck. And so, to get unstuck and to live in grace, means accepting, with all our heart, our own purpose in this life, while rising above that we think will consume us. And that is both empowering and fulfilling. But more, it is knowing that we have the capacity for this fulfillment and that state of knowing leaves no room for despair.

We only need courage and commitment. And so, “to surrender” is, in this context, to fully accept that commitment to live in grace. But, as the song reminds us, and as Buddha’s example of resisting the temptations of Mara, reminds us, we must not give in to the demons and destructive patterns that only hold us back.

Excerpt from Buddha in the Classroom (Our Fixation on Passion)

Excerpt from Chapter 19—Passion; Accept, Adapt, and Abandon Hope

The real problem with our fixation on passion is the near certainty that even a blazing fire will dim with time.

Then what?

Even when passion is pursued and found, the affair won’t last forever. Passion changes. We change. A dancer friend recently shared with me the common experience among the cast members of a famous musical. Far from reveling in prideful accomplishment for having been part of one of the longest-running shows, they’re sick and tired physically, and mentally jaded. Many are dancing on old injuries, and are scarcely able to find the motivation to go onstage night after night; yet somehow they manage to put themselves into their postures and glissade, on tiptoe, onto the stage, one more time, because it’s how they make their living. It is the same motivation that gets most of the world to work every day.

It reminds me of the ancient Greek myth about Sisyphus: He is condemned by the gods to push a gigantic boulder up a hill, over and over, all day long, even as it continuously rolls to the bottom of its own weight as soon as he gets it to the top. The gods understood the futility of wasted labor, so assigning it was the perfect, wicked punishment. In retelling the story, the French philosopher Albert Camus likens the absurdity of the task to the everyday predicament of every single one of us, pushing our rocks in our own way, as we struggle to meet deadlines, deal with coworkers and bosses, and solve the problems that are part and parcel of any workday, anywhere.

But Camus was an optimist.

Despite his fate, it is Sisyphus himself who decides to be happy. He can whistle and hum happy songs while he pushes his rock, or he can lament and endlessly curse his fate. The irony is that as soon as he realizes the power inherent in his own reaction, he is liberated. He makes his fate his own. It is he alone who decides to be happy or miserable. In a nod to our own capacity for liberation, Camus says, “We must imagine Sisyphus smiling.”

Dharma: The Lesson for Teachers

Sisyphus’s existentialist smile resonates with the Buddhist reminder to let go. Sisyphus smiles because he accepts his fate. To let go is to accept. And through acceptance, Sisyphus liberates himself from his sentence. To accept is to simultaneously stop resisting. When you stop resisting, you are able to enjoy your experiences, which is to say, your life.

Accept, adapt, and abandon hope, Zen says…

Mindfulness vs Distraction

Mindfulness vs Distraction

Seventh on Buddha’s eightfold path, Zen buzzword, and greatest hit of Buddhism in general, is mindfulness–which is simply the practice of being here. It at least sounds simple, and it is, but simple is not always easy. Which is why it takes practice. With slightly more elaboration, it is the deliberate, but nonjudgmental, attention we place on the present moment.

A student asked me one day about it, and why it was preferable to distraction, especially in the face of something unpleasant. For example, if you have a headache, what’s wrong with watching TV just to zone out? In brief, distraction immediately separates us from the situation, which might sound desirable, but the problem is, the discomfort remains, and worse, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to surrender, and worse still, of the opportunity to recondition ourselves out of old patterns. And as life is full of discomfort, we’ll simply continue to suffer as a result, as we try in vain to run, time after time, and find, time after time, that wherever we go, there we are.

The question is a bit like the one I was considering the other day.

Presence vs The Big Picture

During the first few days following my book’s release, I found myself checking sales statistics obsessively, looking for sales info and any other sign of excitement that would signify, what was to me, an important event. But, this kind of narrow focus only sets us up for disappointment. I reminded myself how fortunate I was just to be published and how wonderful it is that my book is finally available. Moreover, I reminded myself of the real purpose, which is to inspire other teachers. I marveled at how strange it is that being published—every author’s dream—suddenly wasn’t enough. We are funny creatures that way, endlessly grasping for the next thing while missing everything. This reminder to myself, of what is essentially at the heart of Buddha’s Noble Truths, engendered a swelling of gratitude that left no more room for frustrations.

Funny enough, the very next day, one of my Yoga masters told a story about pain. He described a midwife he knew, who had the habit of telling her screaming clients, while in the grips of agony, to remember that they are having a baby! It might sound like a silly reminder of the obvious, but it indicates importance of putting the pain into perspective.

But, isn’t this a departure from presence? You might ask. After all, the pain is as present as it gets!

But in neither case—my obsessive checking nor the laboring woman—does the reminder to see the big picture negate the importance, or, if I may, the presence of presence. It’s not obvious at first, but the fact is that seeing bigger means seeing more, and seeing more means nothing other than more presence!

You’re looking at everything, you’re in tune with all that is, rather than merely your own hang-up. And by getting in tune, you’re dropping your resistance to the current situation, and since resistance is what magnifies all discomfort and suffering, by dropping the resistance, you’re lessening, at once, your suffering.

As the Taoists would say, don’t push the river.

By coming back into reality, as it is, you’re losing the AVERSION to the discomfort, you’re with what is, rather than fighting what is…and you’re in peace.