Monday, September 29, 2014

Ego as Spiritual Guide

The person who does spiritual practice “on their own” has ego as a teacher and guide. That can sound extreme, which it is, and it can sound like an advertisement, which it is not.

At some point while training in Zen Awareness practice, I got it that anybody could be my teacher. Anybody. I knew that as long as I didn’t agree to “guidance” in conflict with the Precepts, I’d be fine. The secret to the whole process is not finding someone wise to follow; it’s in becoming wise enough to follow.

I read that Thomas Merton struggled against the direction of his “superiors,” and speculation was that his willingness to submit to the guidance of those who were his intellectual and spiritual inferiors made him the saint he became.

I’ve “joked” for years that our difficult decisions would be easy to make if we were willing to stop someone on the street, tell them our story, ask what we should do, and do what they said. Of course I’m not joking; it’s just that the suggestion is so appalling to conditioned minds that only as a joke can the idea enter at all.

The ego is quite content to “practice” awareness as long as it’s not threatening. To “understand” how things work, to gain insights, to learn what enlightened masters knew is all perfectly acceptable. But when it comes to the serious side of life—children, health, money, career, retirement—ego needs to be put firmly in charge of the decisions. After all, something could happen. Something could go wrong. A mistake could be made.

All this letting go, accepting what is, trusting, facing the inevitability of death is a wonderful theory, but it’s not going to fly when push comes to shove. On a bright sunny day, with a full stomach, after a good night’s sleep, cash and credit cards safely ensconced in the wallet, it’s lovely to be open, expansive, and generous. But when there’s an unexplained pain, an accident, a loss, a frightening diagnosis, the closing down and tensing against feels automatic. The mind races, the heart pounds, the body contracts. Survival. It’s not even a conscious thought. The system just lurches off frantically in search of the thing that will make me safe.

Promise me something. Tell me what to do and sound like an expert when you say it. Be the authority I can believe. Save me!

Egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate “lives” for those moments. (Consider it’s trying to manufacture that urgent, threat-to-survival scenario throughout days when absolutely nothing threatening is happening. Be careful, watch out, what about…, what if….) When something “legitimate” happens, there’s a near-hysterical ramp up of fear, anxiety, and worry.

Urgency is the single most powerful weapon egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate has in its arsenal. Get a human being in a state of urgency and that human will do just about anything the voices of ego-identity say to do. Panic and unconsciousness go hand-in-hand and are potent fuel for a rapid descent into suffering.

It’s true that every moment of life is our best opportunity to wake up and end suffering, and some best opportunities are better than others. Those “big jolt of fear, giant resistance, dig in the heels and hold on (or push away) for dear life” times are the best of the best. Sadly, almost everyone misses those best of the best opportunities to awaken and end suffering because those are the very times the conditioning is strongest to look to ego-identity for information and direction.

For those of us practicing awareness, that “legitimate” moment is our signal to stop. Just stop. Sit down. Breathe. Attend to the breath until calm is restored. Pick up the recorder; talk to the Mentor. Get that repetitive, fear-mongering voice in the head outside the head. Breathe. Listen to the wisdom, love, and compassion that’s available. Make no decisions in a state of urgency. Realize the yammering voices in the head are not urging “good” decisions. Take some time. Trust life. Look to the heart. Remember what’s important.

If this were the end of my life, how do I choose to be?
May I live each moment in that way.

In gasshō,

Saturday, June 21, 2014

In the Hope of Clearing Up a Misconception


One of the most difficult pieces of practice to get is that we are not one, single, monolithic “self” called “I.” It seems so obvious that I am me and I always am and always have been me. And even though I behave in contradictory ways, hold incompatible opinions, and can cycle through a whole range of conflicting emotions in a day—or in a situation—I remain convinced there’s no inconsistency that threatens my “I” solidity. Sure, over the years I’ve changed when it comes to darned near everything in my life: I don’t look the same way, feel the same way, believe the same things, want the same things from decade to decade, but I’m still me, for goodness sake!

Ego-identity is successful at keeping people in that belief because we’re trained not to look too closely at what we’ve been taught to believe. If it seems true and everyone says it’s true, well, that’s good enough.

In awareness practice that’s not nearly good enough. In fact, in awareness practice there’s no such thing as “good enough.” In awareness practice we notice, we look, we see, we scrutinize, we examine. Everything. We do this because we are in the process of waking up from the somnambulant state egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate has reduced us to. We are finding our way out of the “world of opposites,” the dualistic faux reality that makes an illusion of a self that is separate from Life appear real.

One of the first steps along the path of reclaiming the authenticity we were required to abandon as we moved from innocence to “productive member of society” is to recognize the various aspects of the personality that we gave up in our effort to “fit in and survive.” We re-connect with that little child who was told “you can’t be that way, feel that way, act that way” and was punished and rejected, even though there was absolutely nothing wrong with the being, the feeling, or the behavior.  (Attend a There Is Nothing Wrong with You retreat for an “in depth” on this process.)

As we see that young person’s innocence and hurt, two things (can) happen. 1) We realize what happened to that child had nothing to do with the child, and 2) we want to give that child a different life experience.

At this point things can get a bit dicey for a very powerful spiritual “reason.” Almost everyone that hasn’t done a lot of awareness practice believes they are that mistreated child and spends most of their life acting out the ego-identity reaction to what happened to the child. Here's a made-up example: My father was an alcoholic; he would get drunk and hit my mother. I can remember being in a crib or playpen, watching it happen, terrified, not crying because I knew if I cried he’d hit me. Fast forward to me in my forties. I’ve been telling this story for as long as I can remember. That’s what happened to me and I am angry and bitter because my father was a drunk and my mother didn’t protect me.

But, actually, that’s not how it happened. The little child watching is still abandoned there, and “I,” the ego-identity survivor of the situation, tell the child’s story as if it’s mine. (Please stop and take that in; it is life-changing when we see that process.)

So, in awareness practice we learn to move out of the whole egocentric, karmically conditioned, self-hating scene and move into the conscious, compassionate awareness that can embrace the child. (Another way to say this is that we are, once again, the innocence the child never left.)

That’s a simple and straightforward process, except for one thing: the ego-identity that’s been “making a living” off of that story doesn’t want to give it up. “I” gets to be angry. I’ve been victimized! The people who should have cared for me didn’t, and my life is a mess because of them!

If I, the person who practices awareness, am to free the child and heal the trauma, I need to disidentify from that very compelling story and take responsibility for doing what needs to be done. I need to “be the grownup.” I need to let go that ego-identity, move into unconditional love, and care for the innocence embodied as a child.

The good news is that it is an utterly joyful way to live.

Now, a couple of things to consider: First, that “child” (the innocence of authenticity) is perfectly fine. She (in this case) doesn’t need anything, not even unconditional love, but I (the human being waking up and ending suffering) gets to “become” unconditional love and acceptance in order to embrace her. She’s not going to be angry or resentful or blaming—that’s the ego-identity doing that. She doesn’t need to be “made up to” and doesn’t hold a grudge. Here’s the best part: The child doesn’t even know the story of “all the awful things that happened to me.” None of it happened to her—it was just a good story for ego to tell to get support and protection for acting out its victim, blaming, hateful agenda. The innocence the child embodied is now expressed through a grown up living in conscious, compassionate awareness, practicing waking up and ending suffering.

So, the child doesn’t need to “be in the world and be accepted for who she is.” She doesn’t need to go to work or have relationships or be seen or heard. She needs to be embraced in unconditional love and acceptance, and the person who can do that is the disidentified, centered, unconditionally loving human incarnation I still think of as “me.” Is it me? No, it’s unconditional love and acceptance. It’s just being expressed through this form.

Lucky “me,” having a front row seat as all this wisdom, love, and compassion unfolds.


Monday, April 28, 2014

Time to Drop It?


Initially, most egocentric, karmically conditioned, self-hating humans experience egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate as “just me.” Those attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, behaviors, and the voices yammering away in my head are “just who I am.” Because we’re heavily conditioned to believe we think for ourselves and make our own decisions, it can take a fair amount of time to realize we’re utterly controlled by an ego survival system we’re programmed to assume is free-thinking, autonomously acting “me.” 

Those of us who have, blessedly, made our away to awareness practice have had a chance to step back (disidentify) and recognize the brainwashing program we were trained with through at least one lifetime. With more practice we can recognize what is conditioning from socialization by family, education, and culture, and what is likely a karmic orientation playing itself out as an over-arching process.

Herein lies the danger.

In the first situation (“it’s just who I am”), we give all of our attention to egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate because we don’t know anything else is possible. In the second case (I’ve seen the brainwashing system for what it is), we give all our attention to egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate even though we know something else is possible.

Here’s how we can make a different, conscious, choice should we choose to.

We can basically be in one of two states: identified (with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate), or disidentified (stepped back from ego-identity into awareness.)

If you are:
~~listening to a conversation in your head
~~trying to figure something out
~~feeling bad
~~attempting to “see where you are”
~~being right
~~making others wrong
~~trying to get what you want
~~attempting to conceal something
~~wanting it to be different than it is
~~avoiding something,
you are identified with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate.

If you are:
~~aware and paying attention,
you are likely not identified with egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate.

If you have been practicing long enough to be aware that the focus of attention has gone to any of the processes in the first list, you are ready to drop that and redirect attention to what you choose as your focus in thisherenow. No hesitating, no noodling, no wondering, no second-guessing, no better ideas—just drop it! There is nothing more for you to learn from karmic conditioning.

It can be very helpful to choose ahead of time what you want to redirect the focus of attention to when you disidentify. In the absence of a focus, habit will sweep us back into having attention on egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. So here’s a suggestion: Make it something larger than “you.” Let your focus be on something ego-identity will have a hard time hijacking. Unconditional love, peace, compassion, generosity, gratitude—all good choices. And for all the extra time you’ll have when ego-I isn’t dragging you into conversations of self-hating gloom and doom or behaviors of distraction, find something in service to others that lights you up.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

“Why My Life Doesn’t Work”

During a recent Open Air show we had a discussion about content and process that I’ve returned to with some regularity. Yes, we speak often about content and process, but the specifics of this particular conversation I’ve found helpful to explore.

The suggestion was that, with minor variations in phrasing, each of us has spent a good deal (probably most) of our life force in a story of “I want X, I’m not getting X, that’s why my life doesn’t work, that’s why I’m unhappy.”

The content may be something as apparently insignificant as forgetting to buy milk for my morning coffee or something bigger such as gaining several unwanted pounds or bigger yet, a fear of not having enough money to pay my bills or something huge like the breakup of an important relationship, losing a job, or having a life-threatening illness.

The content, though compelling in the moment, is essentially irrelevant, while the process, a constant state of mild to severe suffering in a story of “something wrong, not enough,” is the consistent point.   “This is what I want (right now), I’m not getting it, I’m unhappy (right now) because I’m not getting what I want and that’s why my life isn’t working.” The content is temporary, but the conclusion-- “my life isn’t working”--though rarely in conscious awareness, becomes permanent and global.

We’re conditioned to see the current content as riveting, and we’re trained to unquestioningly believe the current story we’re hearing.  Thus, we fail to notice that our state of dissatisfaction is a perpetual undercurrent. We don’t recognize this “bottom line” because our attention is constantly drawn to temporary content rather than the underlying process.

An example: I’m unhappy in my job. I obsess about staying or going.  Finally I decide to go. I find a new job but before long I don’t like it. I start hearing how this one is no better than the old one and maybe I should have just stayed with that one.  I’ve gone through this whole drama for nothing.

Initially I may have had a clear awareness of a situation: I really am unhappy in this job. But rather than stay with a spirit of inquiry that will explore what’s going on with me—in and out of the content of the job—conditioned mind becomes obsessive with thoughts about “the problem,” rapid-fire thoughts that conclude in a mental state of fear, anxiety, and urgency. The result is an action that feeds and perpetuates the process of dissatisfaction.

In that conversation on Open Air, we speculated that each of us, going back over our lives, could see this process of dissatisfaction being played out with content after content. My teacher in first grade picked on me and I wasn’t good at sports and I wasn’t as popular as my best friend and my clothes weren’t right and my grades were never good enough and my parents wouldn’t buy me a car and I didn’t get into the school I wanted and my partner was too ____ and there was not enough ____ and I couldn’t afford ____.  And now…?