Sunday, January 12, 2014

Seeing Stories as Stories Rather Than Truths

Our Stories Are the Problem

Introduction to Stories

Think of the mind as a filter: it filters the environment in a way that makes sense to us, that are consistent with our understanding of the world–filtering a very few things in, filtering most everything out. These filters are initiated by the most primitive parts of our brain. They are, for the most part, pre-cognitive. They happen without our knowing it. We call them sankharas–meaning stories.  We naturally believe and cling to our stories, causing ourselves to suffer.

There are several different models for analyzing our stories so we can see that they are, on the most fundamental level, fictions. When we see this we can use our stories in a very lightweight utilitarian way (to know your car from mine) without assigning them a weightiness that requires us to buy-in and suffer.

Yes, we need stories to function in everyday life. We need to know our children from the neighbor’s, our house from the neighbor’s. But if we believe these stories are capital T true, not as mere understandings, we suffer, and suffer needlessly. If the don’t capital B believe them, then there’s no, or at least very little,fear,  stress or anxiety or irritation and frustration, or worse.

One of the most effective ways to understand that the real nature of our stories is, ultimately, false, is to examine how we construct a story. When we analyze the construction of a story itself, it becomes obvious that all our stories are false and foolish–albeit useful.

Here are six models in which we construct stories. They are great tools for deconstructing any story that is causing you to suffer. Deconstruct the story effectively and the suffering falls away, regardless of the content of the story.

The Subjective Nature of Stories

All stories are simply a perception of what is there or what is happening; they are not actually what is there or what is happening. Not really. Take what we see as an example. The rod and cone cells in the retina allow us to see and differentiate colors, but only in what is called the “visible light spectrum,” which is about a thousandth of the light spectrum. So what we see isn’t what’s there, but only what our rods and cones can make contact with. We each have different amounts of rod and cones, so while our brain is telling us that what we see is what everyone else sees, in fact, we are all seeing something different.

Consider smelling. We have very limited sensory abilities in this area. As with seeing, each of us has different olfactory abilities. A professional wine taster or a perfume maker can perceive vastly more aromas that I can. But the way I perceive odors is the way I think everyone does; I don’t think, I wonder what I’m not smelling when I sniff a wine or dab some cologne on my wrist. I just think we all smell what I do. Which is not at all the case.

Compared with, say, a dog, who can track us by following our scent days after we have been there, we barely have any olfactory sensibilities. To a dog, we are smelly water bags, leaving a stench that lasts for days everywhere we have been. Fortunately, when we are in a room together, it is generally impossible for us to smell each other.

What our senses tell us is there really isn’t; it is just our story, our very limited subjective perception of what is is there, of what is happening. It is our fiction; not actually what’s there. And because of the way the brain feeds us the information, we believe it is true, real, solid and the way every sees it. But it simply isn’t so.

An Analytic View of Stories:

All stories have certain characteristics:

  1. For things to be other than what they are
  2. For us to know what to desire more of (or get less of), and
  3. To present a world that if permanent (reification)

Also, stories:

  1. Provide the basis for our self-awareness, and
  2. Make our sense of self and of the world consistent

But, all stories are

  1. False, and
  2. Foolish, yet
  3. We are required to believe them because they are us, they are our explanation of who we are

In the end, all stories are troublesome for they inherently lead us to see the world through filters that causes us stress and anxiety, pain and suffering, never peacefulness. We need to be very clear that our stories are the source of all of our suffering, not the events the stories are about.

In practice, we can’t just move from bad stories to no stories where we are simply present and fully engaged with what’s happening. We need an interim step. We need (1) to weaken our stories, not to believe or attach to them with our usual intensity; and (2) we need stories that cause us to act in ways that move us toward progressively more and more peaceful behaviors and attitudes.

Use these “good” stories as rafts. Let them take you to a place in your life where they are no longer necessary and then simply allow them to flow away. Patiences, compassion and generosity are three of the most important rafts to happier and healthier lives.

A Structural View of Stories

All stories are constructed with three structural elements:

  • I am the center of the story (universe); everything revolves around me. This is the only way the brain can present us with information, in the “I am” format.
  • What my brain is telling me is true. The brain presents us with information to make the world consistent with what we believe and understand; it is not particularly reason and logic based. Consistency always trumps reason.
  • Inanimate objects (people and animals we don’t know fit into this category as they are perceived as functional inanimate) have interpersonal relationships with my. For example, when I look out the window of a train, the trees go by me.

An Aggregates View of Stories

When we make a sense contact, we cling to our feeling about the contact–our affinity or aversion. If the contact and its attendant feeling are strong enough, we cognize it, meaning we label it, filter it in, and set our brain to writing a story about it. The stories are fabricated from memory fragments assembled because they somehow seem close to what’s happening, and because they make sense in terms of our previous understandings and beliefs. The brain then sends the story to our consciousness and we asset it is who we are and what we believe. So the story is written without our knowledge from fragments of older stories, each similarly written from fragments of older stories. It’s a house of cards; it certainly has nothing to do with what is happening in the present moment.

An Emptiness View of Stories

The way we process information is to reify things. We do that by creating stories that falsely make things appear as concrete, separate and permanent. We know better. We know that nothing is concrete, separate and permanent.

If anything were permanent, the time and space it occupies would have to be permanent. That means the planet would have to stop spinning, the universe stop expanding, and so on. We know better. We just don’t belief it

So the stories our mind presents to us are not permanent, they are empty. We know this because everything arises in dependence on other things, and if anything were permanent it could not, by definition, arise in dependence on other things. In order for something to be separate and independent, it could not depend on anything else for its existence. This means that our stories, while practically useful in the everyday world, are ultimately false, ultimately mistaken views–not to be taken seriously, certainly not to be clung to.

A Dualistic View of Stories

In the nature of the way we create the stories that tell us who we are and how and what the world is, we aren’t actually describing what is happening. Instead, we are comparing what appears to be happening to some other similar but opposite story and then creating our story of what’s happening based not on the event but on the comparison.

For example, I look in the mirror and say to myself, “Wow, look at all that gray hair; you’re really getting old.”  There are three events happening: the wow, the gray, and the old.  The wow event arises when my mind compares some imaginary image of me with considerably less or no gray to what I see in the mirror and then tells my brain to be surprised rather than calm and comfortable with the difference. The gray event, again, is a comparative story, not what is actually there. Of course there is some gray hair, but “all that” means I am comparing it to some image of myself with considerably less gray hair and using the comparison to negatively value myself. Finally, I am not really getting older looking in the mirror, unless I compare what I see to a younger image I have of myself and then write the getting older story.

On analysis, any story the mind creates and tells you, you will find is build dualistically, built through comparison with an opposite story–less gray / more gray; old / young, etc. It is never about what is happening in the here and now.

The Four Nutrients

The Four Nutriments

One of the early teachings of the Buddha is that we there are four kinds of nutriments or sustenance: edible food, sense impressions, intentional thoughts, and our consciousness. These life sustaining, life giving and life defining nutriments are instrumental in the way we conceptualize and live our lives. But the bottom line is, if we don't get a handle on these they will drag us into more and more dukkha while implying and suggesting to us that they offer the answer to ending our suffering. Why? Because hunger and craving stand behind all four, because delusion is the result of buying into these as good for us.

One of the traditional ways of exploring these is through similes in which each is made vivid and emphatic in an undeniable way. Take some time with each and consider their role in your life. Are they sustaining you in ways that are more helpful or harmful? Do you understand how they arises in your life, how they can end, and how getting a handle on them leads to right view?  It takes time and a lot of chewing to digest these!

1. Edible Food
Simile: Crossing the desert and finding themselves without food, a couple eats their little child so they can reach their destination.

Often, in our search for food and nourishment, literally and figuratively, we destroy what is most dear to us.

2. Sense-Impression

Simile: A skinned cow, wherever she stands, will be constantly attacked by the insects and other creatures living nearby.

Like a skinned cow, we are helplessly exposed to the constant excitation and irritation of our ever-changing sense-impressions, attacking us from all sides, through our six senses.

3. Volitional Thought

Simile: We are like a man being dragged by two others into a pit of glowing embers.
The two dragging forces are man's karmic actions, good (but still deluded) and evil. It is our karmic proclivities, our self-centered and life-affirming volitions, our plans and ambitions, that drag us into that deep pit filled with the glowing embers of intense suffering.

4. Consciousness
Simile: Consciousness is like a criminal whose punishment is to be pierced with three hundred spears three times a day.

Conscious awareness is the punitive result of past cravings and delusions. It's sharp spears pierce our protective skin and lay us open to the impact of the world's objects.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Truth About Blame

It’s Always My Own Fault - There is Never Anyone To Blame But Me
Slogan 12 of the Lojong

This is a great practice for ending suffering, ours and everyone else’s.

Faulting and blaming others is, as we all know, easy and convenient. But it is also seriously flawed as a way of life, and ultimately counterproductive.

When things in our society aren’t the way we think they should be, our first line of “reason” is to determine who is responsible, who’s to blame. With little or no evidence to support us, we simply blame or accuse another person or group for what we feel is wrong. At times it is the person or group who is accusing us of exactly the same wrong-doing, but no matter. After all, we’re right. Take religious or nationalistic conflicts–both sides feel they are right and  correct in blaming the other.

The flaw in this way of reasoning is the assumption that I am always right; it’s the flaw that assures me others are to blame. When we look closely, however, we observe that there is no right and wrong.

Similarly, when things in our personal lives aren’t the way we think they should be, the first thing we do is to look for someone to blame.

What makes this such a dangerous and maladaptive way of living is that it never works; blaming never solves the problem. Why? Because blaming others never gets at the cause. And the cause is never external–the cause of our suffering is always internal, always in the way we choose to narrate the event.

What mindfulness is suggesting is that, as we go about our lives the moment we sense fault or blame arising, we tell ourself to come to a screeching halt. We look inward instead of outward and we notice that our suffering is coming, not from what others are doing or the external situation, but from how we have chosen to write the narrative about those people and conditions.

The Practice: Commit to make a concerted effort to paying attention to how blaming arises and what patterns it takes.  See what happens when you shift it to the inward gaze of the Middle Path. Notice how your suffering weakens, and how other’s suffering disappears as you see need in others rather than suffering.

Two Renowned Tibetan Lamas on This Slogan

Chogyam Trungpa's Commentary: "Drive all blames into one means that all problems and the complications that exist around our practice, realization, and understanding are not somebody else's fault. All the blame always starts with ourselves….The intention of driving all blames into one is that otherwise you will not enter the bodhisattva path. Therefore, you do not want to lay any emotional, aggressive blame on anybody at all. So driving all blames into one begins with that attitude."

Jamgon Kongtrul's Commentary: Whether you are physically ill, troubled in your mind, insulted by others, or bothered by enemies and disputes, in short, whatever annoyance, major and minor, comes up in your life or affairs, do not lay the blame on anything else, thinking that such-and-such caused this or that problem. Rather, you should consider: This mind grasps at a self where there is no self. From time without beginning until now, it has, in following its own whims in samsara, perpetrated various nonvirtuous actions. All the sufferings I now experience are the results of those actions. No one else is to blame; this ego-cherishing attitude is to blame. I shall do whatever I can to subdue it."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

See Everything As A Dream, Part 1

See everything as a dream.

When we sit quietly and meditate by watching our thoughts, rather than concentrating on our breath, we see that everything appears very solid and substantive, real and permanent. But when we look closely, we notice that, as vivid as our mind seems to make things, it really is not so. Nothing is solid and happening, not in the way we perceive it. Everything is, in fact, more illusion than a reality.

Realizing this, we work to see everything as a dream.

Everything is always passing away. As soon as something appears, in that same moment, it disappears. Things certainly do appear to be here, but as we look more closely, it is less certain. The me that is here now may seem solid and substantive, but isn’t it really different from the me that was here ten years ago, or ten months ago, or ten weeks ago, or ten days ago, or ten hours ago, or ten minutes ago or ten second ago, or ten moment ago, or even the me of an instant ago? We think of ourselves as a permanent entity with changing characteristics–really; really.

The closer you look, the harder it seems to get to actually see what is happening.

When we think about it, the world and us in it really are more dreamlike than permanent. When we see things in this context, as an illusion, things become less concrete, we tend to attach less, and our suffering lightens. If we realize then that what we are seeing is more dream than reality, we experience and easing of our discomfort with things; we become less judgmental and we lighten up in the face of difficulties, not matter how big or tough they seem.

Practicing with slogan two: In addition to practicing with a slogan as explained in the previous blog, try this: As people, places, things, thoughts, emotions, experiences “arise” and “cease,” see if you can notice the point when you appropriate them, the point at which you identify with them making them and you solid and apparently permanent. Notice the “ceasing” part to, how you let go of something as solid, autonomous and there.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Learning Buddhism Through Slogans

Practice with Slogans

Slogan are a great learning and teaching devise, especially in Tibetan Buddhism. The Lojong, Atisha's 12th century teaching, is a systematically ordered series of 59 aphorisms, or slogans, arranged under seven headings to show us how to transform our day-to-day difficulties into open, compassion, other-centered, peaceful and clear hearts and minds.

This blog is an exploration of the first slogan, “Train in the preliminaries,” which has four aspects, also known as the four reminders.

1.     Maintain an awareness of the preciousness of this life.
2.     Always remember that while the time of death is uncertain, death itself is certain for all of us.
3.     Know that whatever you do–with body, speech or mind–leaves a karmic imprint.
4.     Remember that judging everything good or bad and then wanting more of the stuff you like and less of the stuff you don’t like will never make you happy.

There are online commentaries galore on the Lojong. Popular now in book form are those by Pema Chodron. Also, there’s an interesting Japanese Soto Zen interpretation of these slogans by Norman Fischer. The aim of this blog and future blogs on the Lojong, is not to provide a commentary but rather to present a few of the slogans as practice tools. In this blog, we will explain why we start with these four and how to work with them. Also, we will be taking aim at the “Yeah, I get it” phenomenon.

Let’s start with the ‘Yeah, I get it” phenomenon. You’ve already read the first slogan. If you’re like many of my students, you’ve put a check mark next to it, said to yourself: “Yeah, I get it; life is precious” and then you dismissed it as done. In classes, when I ask students to explain why life is precious, I get blank stares or vague statements that really don’t address the question. When I pry, students often seem, to their surprise, dumbfounded.

If we are to become people of compassion, people in whom peacefulness arises naturally, we must start with a realization that this human life is precious. One very effective way to accomplish this is to practice with the slogan. How?

I suggest you start my making the slogan physically present all through your day. Put sticky notes on the dashboard of your car and the corner of your desk at the office, on the bathroom mirror and the refrigerator door. Wherever and everywhere. Make it your screen saver. Buy a composition book, there are 25-30 lines on each page. Write the slogan once on each line. Do a page a day until you finish the book.

Next, set an intention to contemplate the slogan everyday. Sit in a comfortable quiet place, gently watch a handful of breaths, allowing yourself to quiet, then begin thinking about the slogan.

Start with the broadest questions about its general meaning and work toward tighter and more detailed questions, more narrowly focused questions. Think hard and stay focused, but let you mind go wherever it needs in this contemplation, as long as you don’t stray from the slogan. Establish the slogan as the most important thing you could possibly consider in that moment; keep delving into it. Question every thought, every phrase, parse each word that arises. Also, ask yourself how you would explain this to a 10-year old, then rehearse (actually say it out loud so you can hear yourself!) explaining it to that youngster. Do the same with a peer who isn’t likely to understand it easily. Rehearse. Finally, rehearse how you might explain this is a dying parent. Each of these daily sessions should be only about 5 minutes, 10 at absolute max. Doing this daily will allow you to slowly delve deeper and deeper into its meaning.

Sometimes, and you can be anywhere, just have the slogan to flood over you. Encourage and allow it to arise from deep inside you when you are showering, dressing, eating, exercising, working, relaxing, getting ready for bed. Gently play with it whenever it arises, then let it drift off. Eventually, it will just become a part of you, resetting your default intention to a place from which compassion arises without hesitation and peacefulness ensues whatever the conditions.

The goal is to have these slogans as ingrained as the ones we grew up with, like “A diamond is forever” and “They’re Gr-r-r-eat” and “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” and “The best part of waking up, is….

Another view of how to practice with these slogan comes from Zen Roshi Norman Fischer:

The best way to develop a mind-training slogan is to work with it initially on your meditation cushion. The technique is simple enough: sitting calmly with breath and body awareness, simply repeat the slogan silently to yourself again and again, reflect lightly on it, breathe it in with the inhale, out with the exhale.

The point is not to sit and think about the slogan as much as to develop it as an almost physical object, a feeling in your belly or heart.

Doing this repeatedly will fix it in your mind at a level deeper than is possible with ordinary distracted thinking. After this initial fixing of the slogan in the mind, you can think about it more, journal about it, talk about it with friends, write it down, repeat it to yourself—maybe when you are walking or driving, or any time you remember to do it—committing yourself to holding it in your mind during the day as often as you can. You can post it on your refrigerator; float it across your computer screen.

When you suddenly notice you have forgotten it and your mind is muffled with anxiety or worried rumination, use the very moment of forgetting as a cue to remembering rather than as a chance for self-judgment. This is, after all, mind training. Of course you are going to forget! But noticing that you forgot is already remembering. Mind training requires commitment, repetition, and lots of patience.

If you practice with a slogan in this way, soon it will pop into your mind unbidden at various times during the day. Hundreds of times a day instances will arise that seem germane to the slogan you are working with. In this way, you can practice a slogan until it becomes part of your mind—your own thought, a theme for daily living. –

Fischer, Norman. Training in Compassion: Zen Teachings on the Practice of Lojong

There isn’t one correct way to work with a slogan, but with a little practice and experimentation, you will find the ways that work for you to make the slogan yours. Just remember, it takes patience and commitment to make these slogans ours, to make them work for us.

The important thing about the preliminaries is that they nurture a very special attitude toward life, one which makes us realize the importance of being here and motivates us to act for the long term benefit of all beings. We start by realizing the preciousness and importance of each moment, it’s impermanence making it so valuable, and from there we move to resetting our intentions so that our karmic thrust leads us more and more toward the peacefulness that arises from helping others rather than being self-serving, which always leads to some level of discomfort. Finally, we conclude from this short sequence of practice that it is being of benefit to others that really makes us wholesome and happy, not acquiring more.

A few weeks, or months, or lifetimes on these four and we will be ready for the second slogan!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Two Truths

The Two Truth is on the short list of most important Buddhist concepts. This is material to chew on for a lifetime of practice, not something we get on a first or even second or third read through.

The Two Truths

Excerpted from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The theory of the two truths is the heart of the Buddha's philosophy. It serves as the mirror reflecting the core message of the Buddha's teachings and the massive philosophical literature it inspired. At the heart of the theory of the two truths is the Buddha's ever poignant existential (based on experience) and soteriological (salvation) concerns about the reality of things and of life. Nirvaṇa, ultimate freedom from the suffering conditioned by desires, is only ever achieved, according to the theory of the two truths, from a correct understanding of two truths. Knowledge of the conventional truth informs us how things are conventionally, and thus grounds our epistemic (the nature and scope of knowledge) practice in its proper linguistic and conceptual framework. 
Knowledge of the ultimate truth informs us of how things really are ultimately, and so takes our minds beyond the bounds of conceptual and linguistic conventions.
In India the theory of the two truths the Buddha had explained, of course without much elaboration, stimulated rich philosophical exchanges amongst the Buddhist philosophers and practitioners. The transformation of the two truths theory from a simple to a complex system of thought with highly sophisticated concepts is perhaps the most significant contribution resulting from the schisms the Buddhism experienced after the Buddha passed away (ca. 380 BCE). Various schools with varying interpretations of the Buddha's words soon appeared in Buddhism, which resulted in rich and vibrant philosophical and hermeutic (the way we study written texts) atmosphere.
After the Buddha the philosopher who broke new ground on the theory of the two truths in the Madhyamaka system is a South Indian monk, Nāgārjuna (ca. 100 BCE–100 CE). Nāgārjuna saw himself as propagating the dharma taught by the Buddha, which he says is precisely based on the theory of the two truths: a truth of mundane conventions and a truth of the ultimate. 
He saw the theory of the two truths as constituting the Buddha's core teaching and his philosophy. Nāgārjuna maintains that those who do not understand the distinction between these two truths would fail to understand the Buddha's teaching. This is so, for Nāgārjuna, because (1) without relying on the conventional truth, the meaning of the ultimate cannot be explained, and (2) without understanding the meaning of the ultimate, nirvāṇa is not achieved.
Nāgārjuna's theory of the two truths is fundamentally different from all theories of truth in other Indian philosophies. Hindu philosophers and other Buddhist sects all advocate a foundationalism of some kind according to which ultimate reality is taken to be the “substantive reality” or foundation upon which stands the entire edifice of the conventional ontological structures where the ultimate reality is posited as immutable, fixed, irreducible and independent of any interpretative conventions. That is so, even though the conventional structure that stands upon it constantly changes and transforms. [This, of course, contradicts the most fundamental teaching of the Buddha, that all things are impermanent, and is, obviously, illogical, as Nagarjuna repeatedly explains in his writings.]
Nāgārjuna's central argument to support his radical non-foundationalist theory of the two truths draws upon an understanding of conventional truth as tied to dependently arisen phenomena, and ultimate truth as tied to emptiness of the intrinsic nature.
Since the former and the latter are coconstitutive of each other, in that each entails the other, ultimate reality is tied to being conventionally real. Nāgārjuna advances important arguments justifying the correlation between the conventional truth vis-à-vis dependent arising, and emptiness vis-à-vis ultimate truth. These arguments bring home their epistemological and ontological correlations.
He argues that wherever applies emptiness as the ultimate truth, there applies the causal efficacy of the conventional truth and wherever emptiness does not apply as the ultimate truth, there does not apply the causal efficacy of the conventional truth.
According to Nāgārjuna, ultimate truth's being empty of any intrinsic reality affords conventional truth its causal efficacy since being ultimately empty is identical to being causally produced, conventionally. This must be so since, for Nāgārjuna, “there is no thing that is not dependently arisen; therefore, there is no such thing that is not empty.
Why is this so important? Because, only if we get it that things really aren’t what they appear to be, can we stop our grasping and clinging and attaching and end our suffering.