Dharma Dog

Lilly and Daisy in snow

Lilly and Daisy. Photo by Celia

“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” ~Milan Kundera

“If you can sit quietly after difficult news;

if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;

if you can see your neighbors travel to fantastic places without a twinge of jealousy;

if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;

if you can fall asleep after a day of running around without a drink or a pill;

if you can always find contentment just where you are:

you are probably a dog.”

~Jack Kornfield

“There never yet has been a dog

Who learned to double cross,

Nor catered to you when you won

Then dropped you when you lost.”

~Mary Hale

Dear friends,

Some days wouldn’t you rather be a dog? Life would be so simple. Dogs don’t worry much about what comes next, or how to be a better dog. There is no complex examination of morality or conflicted intention in action because clearly, if you are smaller than I am, you are to be chased and if you are larger than I am, you are to be chased. Not much scheduling or planning—car’s broken, oh well, let’s eat something and have a nap. Pretty much all unpleasantness in a dog’s life arises because of external conditions since dogs do not have a sense of self like you and I. It is this profound difference that creates so much trouble for us humans and can make us our most painful companions.

Last week a friend told me the teaching story of farmers looking out at their fields in April. If they think of everything that needs to happen between spring and harvest, their heads would pop off. I could really relate. Just trying to keep my life on schedule brings me dukkha of planning. Mixed into this adventure is the fear of making a mistake (FOMAM). The mistakes I am speaking of will not result in an oil spill, a train wreck, or a bridge collapsing, but they are painful and inconvenient for me and those who are waiting for me to show up.

I am looking into this unpleasantness through the lens of the system of causation the Buddha set forth, the twelve links of Dependent Origination. This is a complex and accurate map of how we get stuck in repeating behavior from the past in the present moment and creating our future. This simplest description of this web of cause and effect is from Thich Nhat Hanh, “this is because that is.” Looking into what “that is” can take us through past experiences, to see how we recreate our habits, our longings, and addictions and perpetuate the view of who we believe we are.

Last week, I was fifteen minutes late to a school meeting and forgot a phone meeting, both on the same day. These two missteps have stuck with me much more than all the things I did right on that same day, including arriving at two other meetings on time with traveling over an hour each way. This propensity to dwell on mistakes is part of our natural negativity bias. A useful trait for the continuation of the species, this innate evolutionary function emphasizes the unpleasant or painful in order to instill avoidance of events and situations that can bring us suffering. I see this bias in the view that glosses over all the ways I was organized and on-time that day.

Negativity bias pulls us into auto-pilot mode and adds fuel to the self-critical voice, and to our doubt and reactivity. Instead of focusing on our ability to meet the challenges in our lives, we hone in on the mistakes, the imperfections which may lead us to believe and cling to these roles as flawed or wrong. As we respond to these self-imposed labels, we either push against them (I don’t want to be the late one) or we embrace them (I am happy to be the responsible one). They can last for a few moments, or for a lifetime, bringing with them a tangle of views and behaviors to solidify or purge these traits.

In his astonishingly comprehensive book, The Foundations of Buddhism, Rupert Gethin (1998) describes the mind which mistakes biological responses to life for a personality as “merely an underlying mass of ever-changing causes and conditions, arising and falling, but which none the less, as it flows on, maintains a certain pattern which gives it the appearance of relative identity” (p. 246). When we believe we are what we think we are, we repeatedly take birth in our self-view. Each time I am late, I can further reinforce my belief, I am flaky—or each time I am on time, I could reinforce the idea that I am punctual, but even a pleasant identity will also cause pain on the day I get stuck in traffic. And being late will go against the identity I want to present, to be seen as competent, mistake-proof, reliable, as someone who lives up to their promises. So, we can see that all of these labels will eventually cause us the pain of trying to live up to them, or the pain of trying to run away from them.

This week, you may like to try this exercise, to list all of our self-views, all the good and the bad: compassionate, cruel, aggressive, patient, intelligent, slow, generous, selfish, all the ways we limit and evaluate our behavior. We tend to reward and punish ourselves based on these views. Consider what would it be like to have the same amount of acceptance and caring for ourselves when we have disappointing labels as the good ones? Can we stretch our compassion to include all of our existence without exclusion and offer ourselves to ourselves even when we make a mistake? I wonder if this is the secret of dogs? To not be sad about what we did last week and to not know how to withhold our love.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

TNH_15_are_you_sure_ag_grande

Calligraphy by Thich Nhat Hanh

 

Reference

Gethin, R. (1998). The foundations of Buddhism. Oxford, New York: Oxford Press.

Stuck in the Mud

“‘But what, friends, is the reason, what the cause, why unarisen aversion arises, or arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance?’ ‘The theme of irritation,’ it should be said. ‘For one who attends inappropriately to the theme of irritation, unarisen aversion arises and arisen aversion tends to growth & abundance.…’” ~ Sectarians
Titthiya Sutta (AN 3:69)

“Aversion, my friend, makes you blind, makes you sightless, makes you ignorant. It brings about the cessation of discernment, is conducive to trouble, and does not lead to Unbinding.” ~Channa Sutta (AN 3:72)

“They, superlative people, put out the fire of aversion
with good will.”  ~Iti 93

all translations by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

Marsh in winter

Marsh in winter. Photo by Celia

Dear Friends,

There’s a phenomenon that plagues all practitioners from time to time—it lessens as we progress along the path, but it’s a sticky thing and can catch us unaware. I am going to call it getting stuck in the mud. I had one of those muddy days last week where even before I opened my eyes my thoughts were brimming with the injustice of how others were making my life hard. The wrongness of this ate at me and as I opened emails, I saw brusqueness and blame and fights to be fought. Everything was irritating: My spouse was impatient and vexatious. The cats were quarreling. My son moped like a dejected prophet and wouldn’t accept vegetables in his lunch. The news was particularly distressing, hate crimes were up and the British labor party had split over overt anti-Semitism and bullying in the party. The world was going to hell and I was ticked off.

The only one who wasn’t irritating me was the dog sleeping on the floor. Even my meditation seemed pointless to help with these big problems of the world. And—I was supposed to be peaceful and happy, which made another thing wrong. But I didn’t want to feel better; I wanted to be miserable. I was right to be miserable because things were miserable. In short, I had jumped into the mud pit of vexation and aversion and was stomping around in it.

It was still morning and already I was tired of myself and this mood, but I was in it, victimized and defended. Aversion sat victoriously upon my chest, like a pugnacious toddler in a dirty diaper, stinking and drooling. I felt irritable and knew that this mind-state would lead to even more suffering as the day wore on.

I decided if I was in this hell-realm, I was going to really do it right and jump in with both feet.  I would make a list of all the things that were the source of my irritation starting with the dent in my car, the cat’s mysterious dandruff, the medication my health insurance wouldn’t cover, the neighbor who thinks I am odd, the meeting that didn’t get rescheduled because of snow, the never-ending winter, this wind that’s threatening to bash in the door. The list went on and by the time I got to the oligarchy in America—my aversion had changed. I could see that I was hating the whole kitchen sink of events, and they were stupendously uncontrollable. As the weight of the list got heavier and more unwieldy, I began to see my aversion as just plain aversion. In fact, I was smiling as I contemplated me complaining loudly against the litany of wrong in the world.

Deer footprint in snow

deer footprint in snow

Ajahn Sumedho (2014), a senior Thai Forest monk writes about falling into this pit of aversion and becoming very righteous and indignant. He suggests we “bring it up into conscious form, where you can see it, make it absurd, and when you have a perspective on it, and it gets quite amusing. You can see what comedy is about!” (pp. 44-45). My list of irritations was not going away, or trivial, like climate change, they were difficult and challenging conditions created from ignorance, fear, and delusion, but when I saw them all heaped up on the scale—the enormity of my judgment was what was causing the pain and coloring my view of everything.

Instead of suppressing aversion, the permission to let it be, allowed it to flower into a mass of ridiculousness. It does become funny when we can stop pushing back against the aversion and believing it—stop taking our likes and dislikes so seriously that they pull us into reactivity and stop us from being able to see clearly—and they rob us of all the enjoyment and potential to act with wisdom and discernment at this moment.

Being able to look at aversion separates it from the unconscious belief that we are the aversion and gives us the necessary space to observe our choices. Caring for our irritation means we stop fighting against it—we stop the internal conflict that judges the judgment and creates more suffering. This is an act of loving kindness—of metta. Not accepting ourselves in this less than ideal state and always wanting to be loving and cheery is what Ajahn Sumedho calls “impractical idealism” (p. 34) that leads us to the punishing judgment of being a “good Buddhist” (p. 33). We can use our caring attention to contact the aversion and as Sumedho advises, “Have metta for the aversion you feel, for the pettiness of mind, the jealousy, envy, meaning peaceful coexisting, not creating problems out of the difficulties that arise in life, within our minds and bodies” (p. 35). The difficulties don’t stop—but we stop going to war with what is difficult. Sometimes things are painful and feel bad and knowing it, making peace, and laughing at our seriousness and the sticky righteousness of our unpleasant and grumpy thoughts is as good as it gets right now.

Maybe you have never visited the aversion pit, or maybe you can always get out easily—maybe painful feelings and judging don’t catch you up—lucky you! But if you find yourself stuck in the mud, please remember sometimes letting ourselves roll around in it is enough to get us free.

May we all trust our light,

Celia

Mindfulness is a source of happiness

Reference

Sumedho, A. (2014). The seeds of understanding: The ajahn Sumedho anthology. Hertfordshire, UK: Amaravati Publications.