Monday, March 23, 2015

Parallels, again

Jean Klein: The point of sitting in meditation is only to find the meditator. The more you look, the more you will be convinced that he cannot be found...

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche: Repeatedly you hear, 'recognize mind essence; attain stability in that'. What this really means is that we should repeatedly look into what thinks. We should recognize the absence or emptiness of this thinker over and over again, until finally the power of deluded thinking weakens, until it is totally gone without a trace. At that point, what remains to prevent the state of enlightenment?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

On giving up the search

Let's start with an axiom: the primary thing everyone wants is to be happy.

Maybe "happy" isn't the most precise word, but everyone wants to feel content, satisfied, complete, okay, not troubled, whatever. That is the primary and ultimate drive. If we don't agree on this point, the rest of the post won't make a lot of sense.

Second: the mind is a seeking mechanism.

That is, the mind's main purpose in life is finding ways to fulfill the primary drive. Being a mind and all, it does this through conceptual mechanisms: calculating, predicting, estimating, etc.

Sometimes it comes up with short-term solutions: eat this delicious cake, get this fantastic massage, etc. This is a local optimization strategy. Other times, it has to do a bit more work and strategize. It comes up with an eight year plan to get a degree, thanks to which it will get this job, based on which it will achieve this income, at which point it will buy this house.

If all goes exactly according to plan (which I'm sure I don't have to tell you is rare), there comes a time where mind says "whew, got it." The seeking stops for a moment and all is well. Then, of course, it notices that the blinds don't exactly match the wallpaper, and it's off to the races again to earn its keep.

What it refuses to acknowledge is an equivalence so simple and obvious that it must be lying when it says it doesn't understand or agree:

Happiness = Any pause in seeking happiness

The happiness felt when the house was acquired was a result of, or identical to, the temporary gap in which the mind stopped scheming ways in which to get happiness later. How's that for a conflict of interest? The mind's only job is to put itself out of a job. Don't say the universe doesn't have a wild sense of humor.

One way to see this firsthand is to put the mind under a microscope for long periods of time. Like a microbiologist might watch her protozoan specimen carefully for hours on end to precisely understand its behavioral patterns, it's possible to watch the mind contort itself in all sorts of fascinating ways to pretend to bring its stated project closer to the end.

When the mind suspects you're getting too close to the truth, maybe it decides to play along:

Hmm... maybe I could just be happy with what I already have....

Le sigh. But of course this is disingenuous. Have you ever heard of someone realizing happiness by accepting this obvious truth? Of course not. The game is rigged. A simple refutation is always waiting in the wings.

...but then I'd be a pretty useless human being. I'd probably just sit on the couch in my undies eating Cheetos all day.

Being happy with what we have is not how our hominid ancestors pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and got on with creating the awesome civilization we have today.

And with that bit of logic, the knot is tied: the seeking mechanism is necessary after all, and the mind retains its rightful place as Arbiter of Happiness.

But maybe doubts still surface from time to time.

Wait a minute. Might it be possible to feel grateful for and fulfilled by what I have now, and still be a productive member of society?

There's really only one way to answer that question: try it and see.

But how do I try it? You haven't given me any instructions!

Actually, if you've been following carefully, I have. You drop the seeking. You drop the mind. Utterly and completely. Doing it halfway is like jumping halfway out of an airplane.

You can spend years, decades meditating, but you'll never get one bit better at dropping it. What you may get, however, is tired of pretending that you can't. That you need more instructions, more time.

A great master once told me:

You don't need to prepare to drop it. You don't even need to know how to drop it. You just drop it. Spontaneously. Like this: aahhhh (head tilted back, tongue out, staring at the sky).

Didn't work right away? Welcome to the club. But at least now you can rest knowing that you've been told the answer.

(Okay, maybe "rest" isn't the right word to describe what happens once you realize with utter certainty that all your scheming plans are doomed to failure. But hey, maybe you can pretend you never read this. That's worked for billions of other people, after all.)

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Some insights on gratitude and "being okay"

Listen til "I'm okay": A Patient Speaks. Also see this segment.

I think many of us take pride in holding ourselves to such high standards that we beat ourselves up in the process. We don't cut ourselves any slack. There's this sense that if I'm not getting on my case, I'll just... degenerate. I'll turn into one of those societal leeches.

But it turns out that when I'm really, truly, deeply okay, I perform much better, not worse. And we're so rarely completely okay, that it's hard to believe this. How could I keep my standards high and be completely accepting of the way I am? That's paradoxical, so it must be impossible. It's not.

The second problem is that I may not know how to love myself. There are no manuals for this sort of thing (actually there are, and they're great). So instead I just let this gnawing take place continually in the background, until one day it manifests as an anxiety disorder.

Maybe I'm thinking "speak for yourself. I don't beat myself up." But is it really true? Have you spent enough time carefully looking at your innermost thoughts to really know this? Remember, there's a strong incentive for you not to discover this. I have a hell of a lot of practice, and I'm still surprised to find myself thinking things like "man, Aditya, you've spent years meditating... how is it that you still give in to temptations like eating chips?" There are still a million subtle reasons I have for not feeling unconditionally loved.

If I wouldn't say it out loud to someone I love dearly, I have no business saying it silently to myself. It doesn't become any more okay just because it's targeted to myself.

See also Radical Gratitude.

Radical Gratitude

Below is a cut-and-paste from an interview with David Godman, biographer of Ramana Maharshi.


We all think that we are in charge of our lives, that we are responsible for our well-being and the well-being of our dependents. We might acknowledge at a theoretical level that God is in charge of the world, that God does everything, but that doesn’t stop us planning and scheming and doing. Sometimes, we find something we can’t control – a child may be dying of leukemia despite the best medical treatment – so we turn to God and ask for divine intervention. This is not surrender; it’s just more doing. It’s seeking an extra resource when all the traditional ones have failed. 

Surrender is different. It’s acknowledging that God runs the world every minute of every day, that He is not just an extra resource, a deus ex machina that one turns to in times of need. Surrender is not asking that things be different; it is acceptance and gratitude for things being the way they are. It’s not a grit-your-teeth stoicism either; it’s the experience of joy in God’s dispensation, whatever it might be. 

About twenty years ago I read a Christian book entitled Thank You God. Its basic thesis was that one should continuously thank God for the way things are right now, not petition Him for things to be different. That means thanking Him for all the terrible things that are going on in your life, not just thanking Him for the good stuff that is coming your way. And this should not just be at the verbal level. One needs to keep saying ‘Thank you, God’ to oneself until one actually feels a glow of gratitude. When this happens, there are remarkable and unexpected consequences. Let me give you an example. 

There was a woman featured in this book whose husband was an alcoholic. She had organised prayer meetings at her local church in which everyone had prayed to God, asking Him to stop this man from drinking. Nothing happened. Then this woman heard about ‘Thank you, God’. She thought, ‘Well. Nothing else has worked. Let me try this.’ She started saying, ‘Thank you God for making my husband an alcoholic,’ and she kept on saying it until she actually began to feel gratitude inside. Shortly afterwards, her husband stopped drinking of his own accord and never touched alcohol again. 

This is surrender. It’s not saying, ‘Excuse me God, but I know better than You, so would You please make this happen’. It’s acknowledging, ‘The world is the way You want it to be, and I thank You for it’.

When this happens in your life, seemingly miraculous things start happening around you. The power of your own surrender, your own gratitude, actually changes the things around you. When I first read about this, I thought, ‘This is weird, but it just might work. Let me try it.’ At that point in my life, I had been having problems with four or five people whom I was trying to do business with. Despite daily reminders, they were not doing things they had promised to do. I sat down and started saying ‘Thank you Mr X for not doing this job. Thank you Mr Y for trying to cheat me on that last deal we did,’ and so on. I did this for a couple of hours until I finally did feel a strong sense of gratitude towards these people. When their image came up in my mind, I didn’t remember all the frustrations I had experienced in dealing with them. I just had an image of them in my mind towards which I felt gratitude and acceptance.

The next morning, when I went to work, all of these people were waiting for me. Usually, I had to go hunting for them in order to listen to their latest excuse. All of them were smiling, and all of them had done the jobs I had been pestering them for days to do. It was an astonishing testimonial to the power of loving acceptance. Like everyone else, I am still stuck in the world of doing-doing-doing, but when all my misguided doings have produced an intractable mess, I try to drop my belief that ‘I’ have to do something to solve this problem, and start thanking God for the mess I have made for myself. A few minutes of this is usually enough to resolve the thorniest of problems. 

When I was sixteen, I took a gliding course. The first time I was given the controls, the glider was wobbling all over the place because I was reacting, or I should say overreacting, to every minor fluctuation of the machine. Finally, the instructor took the controls away from me and said ‘Watch this’. He put the glider on a level flight, put the controls in the central position and then let go of them. The glider flew itself, with no wobbles at all, with no one’s hands on the controls. All my effects were just interfering with the glider’s natural ability to fly itself. That’s how life is for all of us. We persist in thinking that we have to ‘do’ things, but all our doings merely create problems. 

I am not claiming that I have learned to take my hand off the controls of life and let God pilot my life for me, but I do remember all this, with wry amusement, when problems (all self-inflicted, of course) suddenly appear.