Well we've been at this for a while now, haven't we? Beth and I were talking and realized we are both so amazed at everyone's level of commitment to this process. And what an odd kind of process it is, isn't it?
Isn't it amazing how many opinions that mind can have about how you're doing? You're doing great. You're doing terribly. You'll make it through. Maybe. I have come to think over time that the unstructured time in between our meeting in here - the so called breaks - are one of the most important times in the retreat. How is the mind doing then? Interesting having nothing you have to do isn't it? Sometimes that might be peaceful and wonderful - wow, I don't have to do anything! - other times it's really hard the mind is agitated and wants something - stimulus? something purposeful to do? It can't settle.
Even when those times in the breaks are uncomfortable I think they're really valuable. There's a kind of integration that's happening. And of course the mind and heart don't always integrate in a nice tidy way. I often just run out of steam at some point during a retreat. Okay, I'm done. Let's go. Nothing to see here folks, let's move on. But then the structure of the retreat schedule and the community holds me and I move through that. And little by little there's a deep movement towards contentment and happiness that's availableto us regardless of the circumstances.
So I hope you appreciate the breaks even if all you can do is collapse in a heap or you are sitting there impatiently waiting for something to happen or you're worrying a lot about something. Still something good is happening there.
Sometimes a lot of gratitude arises [me for them, Beth, Norman]
As we move into the more elaborate compassion and loving-kindness practices I want to be sure you know that there's a warm warm invitation here to adapt and change them to suit you. Or to ignore them altogether. As I was saying yesterday when we try to access the deeper reaches of the human experience and we out of necessity have to use language and imagery and so on that particular language definitely won't be a perfect fit for everyone. So if black smoke, for instance, just isnt the thing or is troublesome in some way, don't worry about it. invite your own imagery or don't worry about imagery and breathe the the feeling itself.
And another note on the news of the world. It's still raining in Texas and Lousiana as Tropical Storm Harvey starts to wind down. The recorded rainfall already from this story of 51 inches is the most rain ever recorded from a storm in the U.S.
And of course the messages we read and hear about the "the world" are very U.S. focussed. In Southeast Asia things are far worse it turns out. The annual summer monsoon season in India and surrounding countries was far far more intense than usual this year. 1200 people have died from flooding in Bangledesh, the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and in Nepal. 1200 people. Hundreds and hundreds of families devasted by the loss of a loved one. And even more troubling for the longer term vast areas of crops, and soil, were washed away. Writing about Bangladesh, Al Jazeera news reports, "Crops on 10,583 hectares of land have been washed away while another 600,587 hectares of farmland have been partially damaged, according to the disaster ministry, in a big blow to the farm-dependent country which lost around one million tonnes of rice in flash floods in April."
A million tons of rice and who knows how much soil. It's hard to understimate the importance of soil and yet we take it for granted don't we? The layer of soil that's biologically rich and will support crops is just a thin blanket over the surface of the earth. And once it's washed to the bottom of the sea it's gone. Biologically healthy soil can take decades to build itself up again.
The USDA says, 'An often asked question is, “How long does it take to form an inch of topsoil?” This question has many different answers but most soil scientists agree that it takes at least 100 years and it varies depending on climate, vegetation, and other factors.'
The thing our eyes don't always distinguish is that there's biologically rich topsoil and then there's biologically poor mineral soils. Just dirt and rock. Lacking the complex communities of organisms in top soil that help plants grow. Fungi, bacteria, insects and worms of all kinds. There are tiny tiny little worms called nematodes which are important in healthy soil. I looked it up and was astonished to find out 25,000 species have been describes so far. Tiny: many are microscopic but there are some big 'uns that get to be an inch long and .1 mm in diameter.
We were up in a sub-alpine meadow on a hiking retreat with Red Cedar Zen Community a few weeks ago and I noticed clearly for the first time that in the areas that have been trampled by people the level of the ground was about 3 inches lower than it is right around the inact vegetation. Looking closely this time I saw that it's not just 3 inches of dirt that's gone. That 3 inches is the soil that the plants need to survive in the short time each year they're out from under the snow. Looking at it right under some heather and mountain blueberries I could see the color and texture of the dirt (soil) was quite different. A bit lighter in color, flaky, and if i had a microscope i bet looking at samples of the two different "dirts" would have been like night and day.
So it's a complex and fragile world we live on isn't it. And our view of what's going on, how it all works, how it's change, and where the suffering is is always a bit confused and befuddled by our lack of knowledge and the bias and distortion in the reports we receive. Almost all of our information is second hand at best and we construct a picture of the world from that, don't we.
Let's offer a minute's pause, or prayer, if you prefer for the suffering people in India and Bangladesh - to have your little farm that your families depends on for food and income wiped out and perhaps some of your relatives carried away. Most people in the third world don't have the opportunity to learn to swim either so flooding is extra dangerous but even strong swimmers can't handle much on the scale of a real flood. So however that lands for you let's do a little compassion practice for them, for all of it, for all of us. All of us humans on a fragile world.
[pause 1 minute]
Thank you. Let's get back to our studies now. Not just because it's kind of interesting - at least I think it is - but because these are tools we can learn and adapt and grow through so we can be more available and compassionate in this world of ours.
The third point in the Lojong training system is "Transform Bad Circumstances into the Path" - this is my favorite part of this Indo-Tibetan approach to compassion and to life in general. Practicioners of this have shown time and again that human beings can respond to bad circumstances in remarkable ways. I've read several biographies of Tibetan monks who were imprisoned and even tortued by the Chinese government. And they come of that experience without demonizing their captors at all, rather they felt compassion and sympathy for their captors - that they were in such a horrible situation of having to inflict harm and how bad that is for them - and they consistently talk about what a powerful opportunity for practice being imprisoned was. Of course they would all rather have not had that happen I'm sure but there's a deeper engagement with it than just suriving or using tools to find a way to endure or anything like that. It was a transformational and helpful experience in their growth and development in many ways.
None of this is to minimize the deep harm caused by trauma. And all of us, even those of us who grew up in relatively peaceful circumstances and to whom nothing too terrible happened in this lifetime so far, all of us have been harmed by trauma. This is a real thing too.
So this point is very challenging that way. It's a holding opposites kind of thing. On the one hand bad circumstances, even really terrible circumstances, can be turned into the path of learning and growth, can become a vehicle for becoming even more loving and compassionate. And on the other hand trauma really is harmful for all living things - to be be reduced and avoided when it can be.
But here's the thing: remember that last line of the four contemplations? Accept the inescability of pain and suffering. Trauma actually can't be completely avoided and we need tools for not just reducing it's harm but transforming it into good.
And I started with a very dramatic example so let's back this off into much smaller kinds of difficulties that we can work with. The many ways life offers us circumstances we don't want; and denies us the things we do want. We're building the same "heart muscle" that those heroic Tibetan monastics were able to access even when we practice with much smaller things. That's the other key point about these practices: everything matters. There is no moment that's too trivial to be important to the wellness of ourselves and our world.
This weekend we're going to begin our 9-month Mindfulness Teacher Training Program and one of the things i'm looking forward to is watching once again Jon Kabat-Zinn being interviewed by Bill Moyers in the early 1980's about his work bringing mindfulness to the hospital where we was working. He has some great comments about how every moment matters. And matters critically. "There are no throw-away moments," he says, "because these moments are our lives."
So if the bad circumstance you encounter today is that you are deparate for a cup of coffee and you get to the kitchen and get your cup out and squeeze the lever and .... psssssbllllhlll.... nothing but air comes out, that's a bad circumstance too. One we can turn into the Path. We start small to build up for the big stuff. And we never know when the big stuff will arive.
The first slogan mirrors the title of this point:
Turn all mishaps into the path.
What can I learn about my mind from this moment of irritation, or anger, or pain? In the practical world this does seem again somewhat impossible. Bad stuff is bad stuff. Better ignored or gotten through or managed. And that may sometime be true as it's more than our inner resources can handle just then.
Picture three concentric circles if you would. The center circle is safety. The in between ring is growth and change. The outer ring is overwhelm.
Sometimes we need safety. We need to hide. We need to be under the covers for a while. We need to just tune...it...out. That's okay, it's part of our full range human life.
But other times we didn't really need to hide. Hiding is wasting our time and losing our lives sometimes too.
We can poke our heads up and turn towards the suffering. Be fully with it. Learn from it. Breathe it in as we're starting to train ourselves in.
But other times it's just too much we're in the outer ring of overwhelm. This is the area of the classic fight or flight stress response. Our frontal cortex shuts down. We are not good to ourselves or anyone. Time to seek support and get ourselves back to safety.
So turning all mishaps into the path is a subtle art with much discernment needed. And we need to move that point of discernment out of the usual "What do I WANT" realm into "What do I, and the others, really NEED here." No one wants to be with suffering. But sometimes we all neded to be with suffering. sometimes being deeply in relationship with suffering is by far the most imporant thing. That's exactly where healing and growth are.
As a Dharma teacher I often feel extremely close to the people I get to work with. It's an honor to be allowed into the hearts and suffering of others. To get to bear witness to that and be in companionship with others in such a deep and real way. To get to offer support and a little help. These can be some of the most excruciatingly beautiful relationships actually.
And then something can go wrong, like in any relationship.
I've been thinking alot lately about a young woman who came to our Zen sangha. She had undergone horrible, horrible trauma in childhood and then somehow she stumbled into the dharma as a teenager only to end up in another traumatic and abusive situation (not as bad as the childhood stuff, but still: abusive).
She started sitting with us and gradually opened up to me about what was going on for her.
Somehow, even though I don't have lots of formal training in responding to trauma or understanding it's dynamics - I do have some thankfully, it seemed like I could really be of a lot of help. Just being with it. One time she was trying to decided whether to move to a new apartment for instance and she invited me to go see it with her. While there something about leaving the old place or this new place or I really don't know what triggered I assumed to be a full-blown PTSD response. She was sobbing and couldn't think straight and utterly wrecked. And I was able to help just by being there. By being stable, by loving her regardless of whether her reactions made sense or not, by not trying to fix it. We just sat side by side on the steps of this building for quite a long while. Eventually she came to herself and said, "well I guess i'm not ready to move." "I guess not," I said. And we parted.
Then a few months later she didn't like something I'd said and did and she told me she was never going to see me again. This is a bad circumstance for me. I didn't like this at all. My defensive voie immediately was shouting, 'hey! after all I did fro you! why you ungrateful..." luckily i didn't express any of that and soon the more compassionate voice was there, "this is what she does - it's a manifestation of her suffering." But it still hurt. It still hurts right now. She wounded me. But for a while there I was in overwhelm about this and I needed to give it time to hide out in safety befor eI could contemplate the growth and learning possibilities for turning this mishap into the path.
I've been thinking about how to turn it into the path of compassion. Should I be more cautious about opening my heart to Dharma students? No, that's why I was able to be helpful to her in the first place. Do I need to deeply recognize the inevitability of human suffering including my own? Yes. I think that's it. As I connect with people it's not that I need to steel myself or be ready for an inevitable rejection, but I need to feel the full dimensions of the connection. It's so much more than me, nice guy Dharma teacher, helping him or her, person in distress. It's a mutual interaction of humans with love and trauma in their hearts and that doesn't have a happy ending sometimes - many times really. May my experiences with this student just help me to be more compassionate, more open, more fully available, and may I show up with the wisdom borne of suffering.
As we do turn mishaps into the path we can start to practice the next slogan I want to bring up:
Be grateful to everyone. And they really mean everyone. Be grateful to people who are kind to you and be grateful for people who are unkind to you. They are both helping you in different ways. The kind ones help you to feel safe and secure. The unkind ones help us to let go of our self-centered need to protect ourselves all the time. They help us to practice compassion in the face of stress and pain. They help us to actually grow that circle of learning and growth even bigger.
The last slogan I want to mention in point three, Transform Bad Circumstanes into the Path, is the most powerful in this section but also the most confusing.
Drive all blames into one.
This means take responsibility. Don't blame others. Don't blame yourself exactly either. But do take radical responsibility for your own state and your own being and emmanating out of that take radical responsibility for the world that touches your life. See it as absolutely your job in life to make things better. To be a better person and to leave behind a better world. Drive all blames into one means there is no one to blame.
My teacher used to say, "It's not your fault but it is your responsibility." (and then oddly that expression popped up in the MSC curriculum attributed to the UK compassion psychologist Paul Gilbert - who know who said it first).
It's not your fault in that you didn't choose this conditioning, this background. You didn't choose the trauma your parents went through or your culture went through. You didn't choose the bias, racism, sexism, and so on that permeates our cultures. You didn't choose to be here at this unbelievable time of enviornmental change and crisis. And yet here you are. Drive all blames into one is the same as "it's not your fault, but it is your responsibility." Who but you is going to help this situation? Do you think you can just hang around and hope someone else will take care of it? I think we're probably in the era that's solidly beyond the idea of just trusting our leaders, right? That's been horrible in it's way but also I think very important and in the long run a good thing. There are no leaders who can save us. Or maybe it's better to think we are all the leaders who can save us every one.
And our habit towards blame doesn't help and has never helped. The way it's expressed is a little odd and it might be a great one for your future studies but the way I practice with Drive all blames into one is like that. Of course i can't do it alone either, I need help and support, but it's fundamentally my responsibility not someone else's.
Let's end today by hearing a little from Pema Chodron on the intent behind the Tonglen giving and receiving practice. I'm looking forward to hearing from you what you make of all of this later on - perhaps it will come up in the interviews or perhaps at the end of the retreat or next time we see each other. You don't need to be too quick to figure this stuff out either. It's good to just marinate in it at first.
[close by reading Pema on the theory of Tonglen and letting go of resistance - demon story into Tonglen description, last 2 paragraphs of p. 35 to top of p.38]