Monday, October 26, 2009

The Selfless Self

The Second Noble Truths points to the primary cause of suffering, misperception, and suggests that because we don't know ourselves clearly we relate to the world with attachment and aversion.

The primary thing we are misperceiving is the self. It is the one thing we are absolutely sure of, that we have a self and that we exist intrinsically or from our own side.

The self essence or instrisic-ness is expressed through three subjective qualities: Permanence; Singularity; Separateness.

Ask yourself these questions:

Are you the same person you were yesterday? And the day before? Did "you" get out of your bed yesterday morning? When you look at a picture of yourself when you were a child, do you feel that that is you? This is the perception of permanence, that we have an intrinsic self that persists over time despite all apparent changes.

Now ask yourself how many selves do you have? How many of "you" are there? This is the perception of singularity, that we are only one person, unified, autonomous and whole.

Now ask yourself if you are a separate entity? Do you exist outside and apart from other living things and people? Are others outside and apart from yourself, while you are inside yourself? This is the perception of separateness, that we exist independent from others and the world around us.

Now stabilize your mind, calm your nervous system and apply deep analysis and penetrative investigation to the self that you hold as intrinsically real, permeant, singular and separate.

There is no part of you that is unchanging. Your body, sensations, perceptions, mental constructs 9thoughts, emotions memories etc.) and consciousness are not static but change. All of the components that make up the so called self are in constant flux, arising, persisting for a short time and transitioning into something else. Modern science has shown us that the molecular building blocks that make us up are in a constant state of change and that no cell in the body exists after a set period of time. Our mind and thoughts change in the same way. Therefore, there is no self that is permanent.

Now how about the fact that you feel there is just one of you? Is there really? Are you the same person to your mother as you are to your father? The same person to your boss as you are to your colleague? The same person yesterday when you won the lottery as you were 10 years ago when you were broke. Even in the same day are you the same person when you are happy as when your are sad? Even in the same moment are you the same person once you received or extended kindness to another person? There are many selves, many face, many people who show up each day looking like you but acting, thinking and feeling different. Which one is the real you? No single one of these selves is the "real" you they are all only the relative appearance of you.

Now examine your sense of independence and separateness. That you feel self contained apart from the world. Again, here, beneath the immediate appearance, lies a deeper reality. A reality that is difficult to perceive with the ordinary eye, but opens to the calm eye of meditative analysis. On a molecular level you are in constant interdependence and exchange with the environment. The air, heat, light and energy you take in comes from outside yourself and has been shared by other living organisms. Biologically, you are the product of your parents and gene pool, connecting you with others in a familial lineage and to a species. Psychologically, there is nothing in your mind that hasn't originated or been shared with another mind. In the grand scheme of thing you are not that different or that separate. You are actually more related and interdependent than you can ever imagine!

Now that you have dissolved the misperception of self, contemplate how much damage, suffering, dissatisfaction, stress and alienation it has caused you, operating under the instinctual programming of your permanence, singularity and independence?

What would life be like if you intuitively experienced your impermanence, multiplicity and interdependence?

This is the selfless self that the Buddha encourages us to experience by deconditioning our misperception, attachment and aversion through trainings in lifestyle, contemplation and insight.

We are free, completely free, not bound by any self imposed limitation, free to learn grow, change, relate and enjoy all things around and within us.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Four Noble Truths (2.0)

The Four Noble Truths provide the fundamental framework for Buddha's psychology of freedom and happiness. A traditional medical model describing the symptom, etiology, prognosis and treatment for suffering, the Four Noble Truths are presented in two causally linked dyads: 1) suffering and its causes; 2) freedom and it causes.

Suffering is to be understood
The Cause is to be abandoned
Freedom is to be realized
The Path is be cultivated
-The Buddha

Short Outline:

I. Truth of Suffering
A. Ordinary Suffering
B. The Suffering of Change
C. The Suffering of Conditioning/Habit

II. Truth of the Origin
A. Attachment
B. Aversion
C. Misperception

III. Truth of Cessation
A. Complete freedom is our nuature
B. Suffering is created by mind, thus the mind can learn, self-correct and experience its true nature

IV. Truth of the Path
A. Three Higher Trainings
B. Three Types of Learning
C. Three Reliances of Learning


I. First Noble Truth: Suffering
The unconscious or unawakened life leads to unavoidable suffering and dissatisfaction. The nature of suffering is threefold:

A . Ordinary Suffering: Birth, illness, old-age and death, separation from loved ones, having to be with difficult ones, and the loss of objects of desire are unavoidable and painful because we experience them unconsciously or mindlessly.

B. Suffering of Change: All things are impermanent, temporary and fleeting. Even people and experiences that provide some measure of happiness eventually become the source of suffering because we do not relate to them accurately.

C. Suffering of Conditioning: Our experience of suffering and stress is conditioned by our patterns of biological and psychological reactivity based on our misperception of the self and world. As current stress research suggests, our mind/body process has evolutionarily (genetically and biologically) been conditioned by fight-flight reactivity. In other words, stress (our response to perceived threat) is somehow “embedded” or programed into our nuero-biology in order to ensure survival. Our psychology or personality is similalry conditioned by our past, particularly by traumatic experiences, which occurred during childhood when we were particularly vulnerable, dependent, and impressionable. These traumatic events and memories create and reinforce schemas or core beliefs about our selves, others and world and condition patterns of interpersonal relating that contribute to our continued experience of suffering, dissatisfaction and alienation. If we do not consciously override our biology and reprogram our psychological scripts we will continue to experience stress and trauma.

II. Second Noble Truth: Cause of Suffering
Buddhist psychology is based upon a rational and empirical science of causality and avoids two extremes of theism (the belief that a God figure or external presence determines our life and events) and materialisms (the belief that things are random and without causal determinants). Buddhism asserts that one’s current experience of suffering or happiness is the direct result of one’s previous actions (karma) conditioned by disturbing emotions (klesha) or inaccurate perceptual filters.

There are Three Causes of suffering (two secondary and one primary):

A. Desire/attachment: The untrained, unconscious mind compulsively pursues pleasure in objects, experiences and people outside of the self, unaware of their impermanent nature. Desire is due to a perceptual exaggeration of the positive qualities of an object, while attachment is the inability to let them go.

B. Aversion/Avoidance/Anger: The untrained, unconscious mind compulsively avoids, rejects or resists unpleasant objects, experience and people, unaware of the causal process of their arising. A desire thwarted, lost or unattained leads to disappointment and anger. Anger is due to a perceptual exaggeration of the negative qualities of an object.

C. Delusion/misperception: The primary root cause of the other two secondary causes is our habitual state of unawareness, which erroneously misperceives reality. When we are unaware of the salient characteristics of reality (ie. emptiness/interdependence, impermanence, and suffering) we cannot accurately respond to our situation. At the heart of our desirous attachment and aggressive avoidance is the incorrect belief that a self, within us and things, exists as an intrinsically real, separate, independent, fixed and permanent entity. This is our fundamental misperception. Because of the minds instinctive tendency to reify (making something real that it not) the self, we become self-centered, preoccupied with gratifying the self, and hostile about protecting the self.

C.2. Three Characteristics of Self and Phenomenon:

1) Emptiness or No Self: There is no intrinsically real, unrelated, enduring, separate, autonomous self within us or things. This does not mean that no self exists at all, as is asserted in nihilism. Our self and objects do exist in an interrelated, interdependent, constantly changing matrix based on causes and conditions. According to Buddhism nothing exists absolutely; everything exists relatively or interdependently. Things that are fixed or absolute by definition cannot be related to, as they theoretically lay outside the causal matrix of interdependence. The flip side of emptiness is that because all things lack intrinsic reality or a fixed self, they can change. We could not learn, grow and change if we were really as fixed as we unconsciously believe ourselves to be. When you hear “all things are empty” this does not mean they don’t exist, it simply means they are empty of inherently existing from their own side. Ultimately, the “self” is a mere consensus designation of language, falsely reified and superimposed over a causal arising of interdependent phenomenon or parts, themselves lacking any inherent, intrinsic reality. Another way of thinking about selflessness or emptiness is as unlimited potential. The self we are attached to or identified with is our limits, concrete unchanging and reified, when in fact our nature is pure and unlimited potential. The minute you reify, hold, fix or make permanent, the self or world, you create suffering, because you are going against its true nature.

2) Impermanence: Because things are empty and lack inherent autonomy/existence they are impermanent and non lasting. The molecules and sub-particles that comprise things and the sub-processes that constitute the life systems are empty of any lasting core, thus come into being, persist for some time and eventually decay. Change, the flow of life and the passing of time is contingent upon emptiness.

3) Suffering: Because things lack inherent existence (emptiness) they are subject to change and do not endure (impermanence). As a result of this constant change process (birth, death and rebirth) some measure of suffering is unavoidable. It is the price of being part of an open interdependent system. Some amount of pain is built into the fabric of existence because it is not static, rather an open system. The question is how much extra suffering do we create by misperceiving, attaching and avoiding this natural process. As they say, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional”. Other sources consider the third characteristic to be Freedom. Phenomenon are impermanent because they lack an essential essence, and because they lack any essential essence their nature is "free" to learn, grow and change. The most fundemntal characteristic of mind is its potential for enlightenment or complete freedom.

III. The Third Noble Truth: Freedom
It is possible for a human being to be completely free of the causes of suffering. The word Buddha means “Awakened”, and represents the full flowering or peak potential of a human being. The word freedom means “free from something” as in “sugar free” and “caffeine free”. There are two things an awakened person is free from: afflictive emotions (kleshas) such as greed, hatred, delusion, pride, envy, jealousy etc; and compulsive habits/actions (karma). Nirvana means to cease, to end. What ends for the awakened mind are the emotional afflictions and the compulsive habit actions that emerge from the afflictions.
Habits here are threefold and include any action of body (behavior), speech (words) and mind (thoughts) that are done with unawareness or inattention. Karmic results and consequences are determined by one’s intentions and actions. Good karma is the result of actions of body speech and mind done with a positive mental state, realistic perception and altruistic intention, while bad karma results from actions committed under a negative mental state, unrealistic misperception of self and reality and self-centered intention. Since current intentions are so vital in producing future outcome and experience, in Buddhist psychology a premium is place on decreasing afflictive emotions that obscure pure perception of reality in order to create wholesome actions.

Since the causes of suffering lie within the mind through afflictive emotions, unconscious habits and misperceptions, than freedom also lies with in the mind, through sublime emotions, conscious and altruistic habits each based on accurate perception of self and reality.

The Third Noble Truth asserts a generous and optimistic view of the mind and its potential. In order to say that all minds can eventually become free, it is understood that an innate inborn potential for freedom is already present, albeit obscured by misperception, habit and afflictions. The path of Buddhist psychology becomes the process of removing the misperception, bringing the cessation of actions and afflictions, and consciously developing virtues (paramitas) such as generosity, morality, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom that will lead the mind to full awakening. The fully developed or awakened mind is characterized as infinitely “clear and knowing”.

IV. The Fourth Noble Truth: The Path to Freedom
The Path to freedom entails Three Higher Educations, Three Types of Learning, and Three Reliable Sources of Learning.

Three Higher Trainings:
1. Ethics or Virtue:
Right Actions, Speech, and Livelihood
2. Mental Discipline:
Right Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration
3. Wisdom:
Right View of reality and Intention

Three Types of Learning:
1. Wisdom born of “hearing” includes listening to, reading about and studying the Dharma using one’s intellect.
2. Wisdom born of “reflection” takes the concepts one has studied and applies critical reasoning, reflection, discussion and debate in order to come to a more correct and intuitive understanding.
3. Wisdom born of “meditation” takes ones intuitive understanding and applies it in an analytic meditation in order to come to an experiential insight. An analytic meditation does not necessarily occur on the meditation cushion, but can be any moment in everyday life when you apply learning and self-correction to your experience.

Here meditative learning is just one aspect of the contemplative path. Ideally we should not overemphasize meditation practice to the exclusion of studying correctly and reflecting accurately about contemplative principals. Time for studying and discussing is as important as time on the cushion.

Three Reliances of Learning (aka Triple Refuge):
A realistic reliance or reliable refuge is where one goes for safe direction during times of difficulty. There are three reliances:

1. Teachers. The Buddha or one’s mentor. The source of knowledge acquisition in the Buddhist tradition comes through a long lineage of masters that trace their origin directly back to Shakyamuni Buddha. Role modeling is essential, as knowledge is passed directly from mentor to student. But the ultimate teacher, is Reality itself, one's innate potential for freedom and happiness. When one bows to a statue of the Buddha, one acknowledges the potential for awakening that exists in all living beings.
2. The Teachings and Methods. In order to develop along the contemplative path one not only needs a teacher, but also the precise science, methodologies and arts that lead to awakening.
3. The Community. Traditionally the community is constituted by those who have experienced awakening, ie. the realization of selflessness/emptiness. It can also mean anyone who values and upholds the teachings and methods that lead one to Reality. Because contemplative learning is largely counter intuitive and counter cultural, strength and support is often found in numbers.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Guidelines for Starting a Meditation Practice (repost)

I. Space: Where to Meditate
II. Posture: How to Sit in Meditation
III. 5-Point Instruction for Mindfulness Meditation (as taught in class)
IV. 5 Stages of Meditation (Traditional Formulation)
V. When and How Much to Meditate

I. Space: Where to Practice Meditation
The following are guidelines for those who would like to begin to meditate on their own at home, in addition to the guidance of teachers and the support of a community.

1. Choose a quite space in your home or in a safe environment.
2. Create some privacy, close the door or ask others for some alone time.
3. Turn off any cell phones and other electronic devices such as radios or TV’s.
4. Clean and tidy the space, as this will help put the mind at ease.
5. Make the space pleasing to the senses, meaningful or sacred by arranging flowers, lighting candles or incense, setting up pictures or statues of inspiring people or places and making offerings and gestures of gratitude. This helps to demarcate the meditation space from ordinary space.

II. Posture: How to Sit in Meditation (from the 7 point Vairochana Posture)

In the beginning comfort is more important than form. The form includes:

1. If seated on the floor, place your legs in full or half lotus position or just crossed them in front of you. The right hand is placed in the left hand, palms facing upwards, with the tips of the thumbs gently touching. If seated in a chair, place your feet flat on the ground and hands folded in your lap.
2. Eyes are half open gazing softly at the space a foot or so in front of you. This will help prevent you from falling asleep. If restless, trying closing the eyes completely to help the mind begin to relax.
3. Keep your spine erect like a stack of coins, upright but not ridged. This will help keep you stay alert. Position your meditation cushion beneath your rear to raise the spine and tilt forward the pelvis. If in a chair come forward slightly with your back away from the back of the chair and your rear at the front half of the seat.
4. Shoulders are even and relaxed. Be mindful of hunching and slouching.
5. Dip your chin down slightly.
6. Keep a relaxed space between lips and teeth, and do not clench the jaw.
7. Rest you tongue softly on the roof of your pallet.

III. 5-Point Instruction for Mindfulness Meditation

1. Begin with reflecting on your spiritual aspiration for your life in general and clarifying your intention to meditate in particular. The more specific your intention the clearer the direction for your mind.
2. Select the object upon which you will focus your awareness (ie. the breath, sensations, emotions, sounds, consciousness, a specific theme, a visual object etc.)
3. Breath diaphragmatically in order to trigger the relaxation response. After a short period you can allow the breath to settle into a natural rhythm.
4. Once you realize you have been distracted from the mediation object, return your awareness back to the focus with an attitude or disciplined determination and non-judgmental care, patience and friendliness.
5. Seal your meditation with a dedication, recommitting your energies toward your initial aspiration. Here again, be specific as to what you will dedicate your energy towards during your between meditation period in everyday life.

IV. 5 Stages of Meditation (Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Approach)

1. Preparation: The mind is prepared by a number of activities including reflection on refuge, aspiration, four-immeasurables, visualizing the field of merit, seven-limb prayer, mandala offering, and other prayers.
2. Contemplation: Reflecting on a particular theme from the Stages of the Path Literature (Lam Rim) such as the “preciousness of human life” that motivates your practice. Select an object of meditation based on the contemplative theme or stage in the progression.
3. Meditation: Can include any combination of techniques: Analytic contemplation, single-pointed concentration, and visualization.
4. Dedication: Dedicate the positive force or energy (aka merits) generated by the practice to one’s own or to another’s spiritual awakening, before the potency is destroyed by afflictive emotions.
5. Between Sessions: Reflect on and try to assimilate the meaning of the particular meditative theme or topic as it relates to your daily activities and life.

V. When and How Much to Meditate

1. In general it is advised to meditate first thing in the morning when the mind is fresh and well rested. Practically speaking however, consider when your own energy level is optimal and when you have the time in your schedule.
2. In the beginning, commit to slightly less meditation time than you think you should do. Once you’ve decided on length of time, follow through without exception. Quality, consistence and follow through are more important that duration. Ideally you should end meditation while you are still enjoying it so that you desire to return to practice the next day. This is called ‘developing a taste for the practice’. If meditation becomes a drag to early, chances are you will abandon the practice altogether. Try starting with 5-10 minute intervals working up towards 25-30 minute periods. Most research suggests that 30 minutes of daily practice over 8 weeks results in various health benefits.
3. Consistency is important. Better to do a little meditation every day than to do a long stretch once or twice a week.
4. Remember that meditation alone does not constitute the entire contemplative path. Balance your meditation practice with readings, attending lectures, participating in discussions and debate with others, and spending time reflecting on the significance of spiritual themes in your own life. For more on this see the Fourth of the Four Noble Truth in an earlier post.