Though the sun is out this morning, the sadness in the world right now is stunning. Probably close to a billion people in some form of lock down or quarantine, industries and wages brought to a standstill, thousands sick, thousands dead, thousands dying, thousands denying that the situation is serious
The ancient human lament – How did this happen? When will it end?
The Shambhala teachings say that when we break entirely from our habitual patterns, the tender heart of sadness emerges — and here we are, completely groundless, impermanence and dissolution manifesting in all realms simultaneously
a tenderness, a sadness so thick that we essentially bathe in it
Unable to swim home, we lie back, floating, and look to the sun, look to the vast and empty sky, rising and falling on the endless waves in this ocean without shores
About five years ago, I needed a dog. We’d just lost our beloved golden retriever, Abby, to cancer and I was lonely. My wife was out of town, so I stopped by the local pet rescue place to check out any puppies they might have. As karma would have it, they only had one puppy left, a seriously shy black pup who was hiding at the back of the puppy pen, trying very hard to avoid any eye contact with humans. I asked the woman at the front desk what the story was with this guy, and she said that he and two litter mates had been rescued from a “kill shelter” downstate a couple of days earlier (they’d been 12 hrs. from the gas chamber at the time.) His brother and sister had already been adopted and this little guy was left behind, mainly, she thought, because he was so shy.
I got down on the floor and picked him up. He wasn’t crazy about the idea and looked away from me the whole time as I tried to give him a scratch. Not exactly the golden retriever “lean” I’d come to expect from a dog after 30 yrs. of goldens. I was bothered by this, but like I said, I needed a dog, so I told the woman at the counter that I’d take him. He wasn’t a golden, I’d never had a black dog, and I hadn’t had a male dog since high school. What could go wrong?
They thought he was about eight weeks old, a Labrador-border collie mix (wrong- he’s lab for sure, but also pitbull and pointer and…) Like I said, my wife was out of town, so it was just the two of us for several days. He was scared and I was sleepless, having forgotten how often a puppy needs to go “out.” Many was the time we looked at each other and asked- who’s bright idea was this?
I could have returned him- the rescue folks would take him back anytime up to three days post-adoption. But for some reason, I decided we’d hang on and see what we might work out. Picking up on his readiness to play and hike anytime night or day, I named him Jackson after the cartoon character from my childhood- “Action Jackson.”
Well, as I said, we’ve been together for over five years now. I can say without reservation that he’s the finest dog I’ve ever known. He’s smart, gentle, athletic and, in his own individual way, very affectionate. In the days, weeks and months after he came to live with us, Jack set about training us in how he wants to be loved. He still isn’t big on “cuddling,” or on direct eye contact, and please don’t reach toward his face to scratch his head. But if you’ll let him hold a ball while you’re petting him, he loves the “carwash” (scratching both sides as he slides between your legs), loves a belly rub on a sunny afternoon, and would absolutely accept an invitation onto the bed at night, though he always jumps off when its time to sleep.
In short, we couldn’t make him something he isn’t. He’ll never be a golden retriever. But he’s been patient with us, and over time, we’ve come to understand who he is and how to respect that. I was thinking about this history over Christmas this year as my kids, friends and family gathered in our home to celebrate the holiday. Inevitably, a human behavior laboratory like this can create frictions and irritations. No one, it seems, behaves as we’d like them to. Especially for family members and children, if they’d just listen and maybe take a hint, things would go so much better, no?No
Why can’t I treat my sons, for example, as I’ve come to treat Jack? Why can’t I tune into how they want to be loved and do my best to give them that? Why, in other words, can’t I just treat my kids as well as my dog? I remember stories of students meeting with the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala. They say that CTR always spoke directly the basic goodness in everyone, not to their superficial neuroses. Maybe this “like a dog” thing is similar. My projections for Jack didn’t fit, and he shook them off, well, like a dog shakes off water. So I dropped the projection and began to see the real black dog in front of me. Suffering was reduced; love grew.
So that’s my New Year’s resolution – I’m going to try to treat everyone close to me like a dog. Try genuinely to see them as they are in themselves. Try to slap down my projections for them when they arise. Let them show me how they want to be loved, and try my best to give them that. My wife is always telling me that I give Jack too many treats — I tell her that one day, Jack is going to die (as dogs do,) and when that happens, she’s going to wish she’d given him more treats. So that’s on the New Years list too- more treats, fewer “corrections.”
We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, I have a dog. A beautiful one who I love to distraction, and for that I’m profoundly grateful. By the way, Jack and I have talked at some length about this business of dogs dying. He’s promised me that he’ll never die, that he’ll stay with me forever.
Last Sunday evening, I drove straight from staffing a weekend meditation retreat in Salt Lake City (Shambhala Training Level 2 – Birth of a Warrior) up to the top of Guardsman’s Pass above Park City. With camera and tripod in the back seat, my plan was to grab some pictures of the famous “blood moon” eclipse that was to happen that night. Rich with visions of the solitude of the mountain ridge beneath a disappearing moon, I was more than a bit surprised by the mob scene that greeted me at the top. Cars and people were EVERYWHERE, hundreds of folks brought out by the relentless press coverage of this “once in a lifetime” celestial event. Oh well, the sky was still the sky, so I beached my car (which later yielded a modest parking ticket…) and headed up the hill in the dark.
Below us, the entire Salt Lake valley was shrouded in clouds, but up here, all was clear, except for one thin band of clouds that seemed designed to obscure the rapidly eclipsing moon. Bright as this overly large moon was, it was completely hidden. Looking at the rest of the sky, one could tell that the cloud would eventually move on and that the rising moon would eventually emerge, but the crowd around me wasn’t in a waiting mood.
The local press had publicized the exact time of the total eclipse, and dang it, this moon was late! Cars began to pull out and families to leave. As the clouds began to part, there was still more disappointment – “I thought it would be bigger” I heard. “It’s not very red, is it?” said a teenage girl standing with her friends. Slowly, the hill began to empty, the air growing colder as it neared 9 pm.
In the Shambhala teachings, we talk a lot about hope and fear. In the Sacred Path teachings on the qualities of an enlightened being, it is said that the Garuda, symbol of outrageousness, of freedom and authentic response to the world, can only be captured by driving it into the valley of hope and fear. These narrow valley walls, each the inverse of the other, are how we struggle to constrain the future into the specific outcomes that we desire.
Through hope and fear, we’re basically saying I’ll be fine if THIS happens, but not if ANYTHING ELSE happens (hope, as used here, doesn’t mean optimism, but rather a kind of greed for a specific outcome.) Over time, I’ve become acutely aware of how this mechanism of hope and fear, of expectations, is clanking along almost constantly in my subconscious mind and coloring my experience of the world.
Like a mental map of acceptable possible futures, my mind is always scanning this imagined future and comparing it to whatever is actually arising. Like so much dharma, I think this is probably an evolutionary adaptation that serves us well sometimes, but often gets in our way in a modern world. Specifically, it gets in our way by triggering a sense of poverty, or disappointment, when the real world fails to comply with our often-unstated preconditions of hope and fear.
Just becoming aware of this machine can be huge- the other day I had a real sense of disappointment about something that happened, but I couldn’t put my finger on why that was. Only when I stopped and asked myself what it was that I thought I expected could I see how I’d created a narrow valley of hope and fear and then tried to push the rich world of experience into it. Didn’t fit.
Back on the hill, the night was growing cold and the moon, doing what it would, was now in full eclipse. The hillside was nearly empty with only a few of us still there to witness the moon’s eclipse and its gradual emergence from the shadows. My earlier thoughts of solitude on a mountain ridge beneath a vanishing moon were coming to pass. Camera shutters clicked. The wind began to blow and the moon to brighten. It was big, and very red, and very much worth the small parking ticket.
What is this vehicle we call the self? Certainly, the infamous ego is a part of it, but is that all of it? What does that even mean?
From the perspective of our 21st century consumer economy, the self has become the repository for all that we try, over the course of a lifetime, to accumulate — think of the shopping cart icon on any of your favorite e-commerce sites.
There’s a famous Zen cartoon of a little man who is born into this world and proceeds to ingest the full contents of a massively rich cornucopia, to pass the residue, and then, in due course, to die, leaving behind nothing more than a sizeable pile of, well, you get it…
My friend and noted Buddhist teacher, Ken McLeod, often says that what we call the self isn’t a thing, it’s an experience (sorry Ken if I misquote a bit here – see Ken’s excellent website, Ken Mcleod- Unfettered Mind ) Like a child’s flipbook, these experiences pass so fast that we mistake them for a continuous film, an entity with some sort of permanence.
And then of course we die.
As anyone who has ever had the duty of cleaning out the cherished possessions of a dead loved-one can attest, even the most closely held keepsakes are simple junk once we’re gone.
So, using this life, this self, as a cosmic shopping cart probably won’t work out.
But neither can we function without a self, an identity- we’re creatures of a relative world. The IRS insists that we maintain a self, and our significant others probably do as well. So how do we work with this self?
How best to drive this rusty vehicle?
One classic Buddhist image of ‘self’ is of waves in the ocean, each somehow distinct but each still entirely of the water, inseparable from it. I like to think of each of us as a local concentration of sentience, of mind, of life force. Why the universe has chosen to organize itself this way I have no idea; but I think it does — moreover, I think it’s through this manifestation that the universe expresses itself and looks to experience itself.
If I’m right about this, then our mortal selves remain essential, but in a rather different way — what if the point isn’t to see how much we can accumulate for our selves, but instead to see how much we can express of our selves?
This shift changes everything — instead of contracting and gathering, our life experience might take on the quality of a gift to be offered rather than a treasure to be hoarded.
This expression of self, of life, can take almost any form – an art, a skill, parenting, a job. The blood of the difference is in whether or not we’re subtly trying to bargain for a specific outcome from offering. Again, Ken McLeod talks often of the insidious nature of the exchange mentality, the bargain of the marketplace co-opting all of our human actions. For artists who need to sell their work to pay the rent, this is a perpetual quandary. Even in the spiritual realm, we’re so deeply conditioned to the exchange that we’re often subtly (or not so subtly) looking for a payoff. But that’s just another form of shopping, of using our precious time on this earth as some sort of coin.
No, I’m suggesting here that the only “payoff” worth the race is the freedom to stop gathering, to stop hoarding.
By “expressing the self fully,” I mean taking this life-stream as a gift to be given completely, as an offering of all of one’s talent
and all of one’s difficulties –
as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, no privacy.
Whatever our gift, we manifest it fully, without reservation,
We live completely into our lives through the full offering of them
to this sacred world.
We come to recognize our own basic goodness and that of the world
as being one in the same.
We manifest sacredness and we offer that back to the source.
This week I headed up a local trail here in Park City with a good friend- an hour or so of decent uphill, and I remembered this post from last summer. When I revisited it this morning, I decided to re-post it as the first of a series of “Reflections” that have been cooking for a few weeks here. “Old Bones” will always work with the interplay of image and word/ poetry and photography. But there’s more to be said, always more practice to to be done…
The stillness of sitting meditation would seem to have little in common with the effort needed to power up steep single-track, nor for that matter with the rush of rolling downhill at speed through tall stands of aspens. But every time I head out on my dusty mountain bike, I get flashes of insight that feel like they reach straight from the cushion to the trail. So this piece is about bikes, and it’s not. And it’s about meditation, but not so much. In point of fact, its about mind, the one that both sits in shamatha and the one asks, “self, how did I get here,” as the trail angles steeply toward that ridge line way, way up there…
As a rider, I’m still pretty new to “real” mountain biking (i.e., in the mountains, at altitude with meaningful elevation gain and multiple miles of joyful, if sometimes difficult descents,) so it took me some time to see a basic truth—that to get the good stuff (strength, stamina, the joy of descending) I had to get over my resistance to riding up things. Without the effort, there’s no progress. Moreover, I needed to commit to climbing these hills over and over again. One big climb doesn’t make a season, or a rider. The juice is in the consistency.For me, climbing on a bike is a shamatha practice—get to the cushion, put in the time, develop the discipline. The masters that came before all had to do it. No shortcuts. As Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche said (long before Nike…), “just do it.” But climbing kinda sucks. It hurts, at least for me. So right away, I get to work with my mind in order to work with my body. This is the flip side of a long meditation retreat where I get to work with my body in order to work with my mind (because quite often there’s often bodily pain involved in long practice sessions.) In either case, my ego comes alive and whining as, on the bike, I watch my more gifted pals leave me in the dust (I’m kinda slow…just like in meditation I suppose.) So here’s a chance to practice some serious gentleness with myself. As Popeye says, “ I yam what I yam.”
So be it. What I do have is doggedness- I can generally hang in when it starts to hurt. Recently, I’ve even been able to find a place of some peace amid of the pain. I find it helps here to try to shift to a larger perspective- to lift my gaze from the trail and check in with the incredible space I’m riding through. Just as in sitting meditation, being aware of the space seems to relieve the sense of claustrophobia, of compression that can arise in a long sitting session (or climb.)
If climbing is shamatha, then maybe descending is vipashyana. Here, it’s all about space, moving through it using more instinct and less discursive thought. Insights come often and at speed. The first is to ride more, steer less. A mountain bike (and the mind) is designed to flow over the terrain and the rocks. If I can relax my grip, give up on over-managing the process, things seem to work out a lot more smoothly. The innate wisdom of the situation has a chance to emerge. The second is closely related to space – raise the gaze, see down the trail. A proper view is critical. Caution (fear) can lead me to focus too much on the trail right in front of me, but it’s too late to react to anything there. The karma of the ride is going to blow me past these rocks before I could ever hope to react to them. So expand the view – the farther down the trail I focus, the smoother the ride passing under my wheels seems to flow. Again, see the space — trust the wisdom of the situation. Trust the path. Number three is an extension of number two- ride through the changes. Tight switchback turns, abrupt changes of direction, can be sketchy. It’s ok to check some speed coming into a turn, but once its started, look through the change, not at it. View again- the larger the better. Ignore the stones under the wheels and look through and well past the turn, and allow the bike (and the mind) to pull itself through and into whatever is next.
Finally, at some point a particular truth is likely to emerge that’s common to both biking and sitting- eventually, you’re gonna fall — beef it, dump it, wipe out. Comes with the territory. We can’t control how much a fall is going to hurt, and it will hurt. Even small falls hurt. But with luck, you get back up and carry on. For a while, you’re going to be a little shaky. You don’t want to fall again. But as long as this thought infects you, your riding sucks. You can’t ride, or sit for that matter, if you’re trying to protect yourself all the time. But eventually, the adrenaline fades, the discipline of your practice reasserts itself and the ride smooths out again. And then its over. The trail ends, the bell rings. For me, the hours immediately after a challenging ride are wonderful. My body is spent and my mind is blown open. Everything slows down and there’s all the time in the world. Whatever thoughts were churning during the ride, or on the cushion (and as you can tell by this piece, there are often quite a few…,) pass away without a trace. The rest of life flows back in and on we go. Until tomorrow. When it’s brand new and fresh once again. When the bike, and the cushion beckon. The bell rings, and its time again to practice. And to ride.