Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Without This Perspective, You'll Never be Happy

The Two Truths

At first when we meditate, we spend most of our time simply observing our breath. And that is difficult enough. But as we relax into our meditation, we develop insights about how our mind works.

One of the insights we have early on is that there are good sits and bad sits; there are meditation periods that feel like we are really meditating and others where we can barely get two breaths in a row without a distracting thought.

As we continue to observe this, over a period of weeks and months, we realize that meditation is just meditation, and whether we have a “good” meditation or a “bad” meditation is simply a question of how we choose to label it. If we get ten breaths in a row, then we might say, “I’ve had a good meditation.” If we’ve only had nine, though, would that make it bad? And what about 5 breaths twice or three times in a row?

In fact, it simply becomes good or bad when I have my self-talk tell me it’s good or bad. It doesn’t take long to realize that meditation is neither good nor bad; it is, intrinsically, empty of any definition or value, meaning or weight until I assign it a definition, value, meaning and weight.

On an implicit level, most people understand this. They understand that we can “reframe” things; we can alter the meaning or value of something by altering its context or definition, as the Taoist farmer story illustrates.

Taoist Farmer Story

This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to condole him over his terrible loss. The farmer said, "What makes you think it is so terrible?” A month later, the horse came home--this time bringing with her two beautiful wild stallions. The neighbors became excited at the farmer's good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, "What makes you think this is good fortune?” A week later, the farmer's son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, "What makes you think it is bad?” A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer's son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. "What makes you think this is good?" said the farmer.

What isn’t explicit, however, is that the reason we can reframe things is that they don’t have any permanent, set in stone, definition or value. That is the point of the Two Truths and we must realize it if we are to become peaceful and happy.

What This Means

This means that whether we like something or don’t like something is the problem, whether we label it good or bad is the problem. It’s not the nature of the thing that’s problematic, just the definitions and values we superimpose on it. When we realize the Two Truths, we stop assigning values in a way that makes us anxious and stressed and start assigning meaning from a place of peace. We shift our meta cognitive conversation so that it brings us and our families, friends, communities and world to a better place.

The solution suggested by this Two Truths concept is hard to execute, but relatively simple to understand. We must recognize that us and things are both real in an everyday sense and not real (meaning lacking in any intrinsic definition or meaning) at the same time. This isn’t denying the existence of anything it is simply explaining it in a different way. So the question is: Why is there a need for a two-pronged explanation?

The reason for understanding ourselves and the universe from this two-pronged perspective is that when viewed from only one of these, not both, we are making ourselves uncomfortable and stressed. If, for example, we tell ourselves something is good, then we have a positive emotional response to it and want more of it; similarly, if we tell ourselves something is bad, we have a negative emotional response and either want to get rid of it or ensure that we don’t get any more of it. In either case, we are left, at least a little but sometimes greatly, uneasy.

The middle path is when we see both of the truths as one. The middle path, the merger of the relative and absolute truths, is when we see the mundane while at the same time knowing that it is a mental construct open to constant revision rather than as something permanent.

Further, the Two Truths point to us to a deeper understanding of No-Self and that to a realization of Non-Self (see page 000). By no-self we mean that we are a fabrication, a mental construct based on our past memories and the stories we have told ourselves about those memories. It’s not to say that we don’t exist, that would be nonsense. Rather, it is to suggest that we make up stories about who and what we are. We might think we are great neighbors–we’re quiet, keep up the property, and very complain; our neighbors might disagree–they see us as aloof and unfriendly. We might think of ourselves as easy to get along with, some of our coworkers might disagree and think of us a rigid or stubborn. No one here is correct, no one incorrect. Why? Because any opinion is as valid as any other in a world where nothing is permanent.

Again, this is not to deny our existence or the existence of the things around us, but simple to say that we an they have no particular value or meaning until we assign it.

We all live as if we had a firm basis to our being, and that understanding of the universe generates our chronic disconnect, our endemic discomfort with life. If I understand all my ideas of self, all my concepts and ideologies, all my role definitions, all my emotions and definitions as having no inherent, permanent meaning or value, then my life eases up. I stop having meta cognitive conversations with myself about how bad things are, how they should be different, about what I have to avoid to be peaceful, etc. Instead, I recognize and realize things for what they are: just “things” here and now. When this happens, everything becomes clear. We simply tell ourselves to do what is next and appropriate, and it is always obvious what is next and appropriate.

The ultimate goal of Buddhism is to end our everyday uneasiness and discomfort, our anger and suffering, largely through behavioral shifts that occur when we practice with reflective meta cognitive voices instead of just falling into habitual dukkha-producing patterns.

Practicing with the Two Truths

That’s Not True” Practice: To gain a better understanding of how we assign negative values and meanings to things that then cause us to be upset, try this practice: Every time you feel yourself irritated or frustrated or upset in any way, ask yourself: What’s upsetting me? (That Lincoln Navigator just cut in front of me; I hate when people do whatever-it-is.) And when you get the answer, tell yourself: “That’s not true.” (If you need to, add something like: She probably couldn't see me, there must be big blind spots on an SUV of that size.) Then immediately let go of the incident.

With the “That’s Not True” practice, we are developing the Two Truths into new meta cognitive voices, recognizing both truths at the same time, then immediately letting them go without any discomfort arising, without any further story-telling about how this or that shouldn’t have happened.

Note that this is a process. The more you do it, the faster and more effective it becomes, and the more peaceful you become. Here’s explicitly what happens: First, you notice that you have an internal meta cognitive conversation that is responsible for how you define and assign value to things and events, people and actions. Next, you recognize its content and effect on you. Third, you see what triggers the conversation. Then you change the meta cognitive voice to one that will lead you to reflect on what’s really happening in a way that leaves you feeling peaceful not upset. Finally, you notice that this new voice is making your life easier and so you use it more and more, rehearsing with it internally when you can, and externally when it would be beneficial.

Or Not” Practice: Philip Whalen, the renowned Zen Master from San Francisco, had a single two-word phrase that he repeated incessantly: “Or not.” Whenever anyone said anything with great assurance, whenever an opinion was raised strongly, whenever almost anything was said confidently by a student or would-be student of his, he would say, “Or not.” This was his reminder to us of the Two Truths.

If you say it often enough, both in self-talk and verbally so others can hear, you eventually find any assertion silly and laughable. You eventually find you are shifting to a less secure “permanent” view of things to a fluid understanding of the world, to a Two Truths understanding of the world.