Thursday, April 30, 2009

What's Eating You? A Reflection on the precept "Not Indulging in Anger"

“What’s eating you?” is the perfect thing to ask since anger really does eat away at us emotionally and physically.

I see it as a habitual, conditioned response that shields against anything that would require me to feel more fragile and open. There is always something underneath anger I'd rather not experience—usually fear or sadness. My anger can be ignited by something as minor as an unintentional bump in the subway, or by something I perceive to be poor treatment by someone else: a remark that I decide is hurtful, or a behavior that I interpret as insensitive.

What lays beneath my anger is the misconception that there are certain ways in which the course of history ought to progress, and when it doesn’t go according to my grand plan I want to pick up my marbles and run over to another corner of the playground where everything is more to my liking.

My mind is like a mini courtroom with a virtual judge and jury that constantly weighs in on every situation I encounter. I deem some of these situations to be unfair or unjust and I get a lot of pleasure out of coming up with reasons as to why I'm "right". Most of the time the defense produces a very compelling case that justifies why I am angry and who is to blame. Not surprisingly, this inner jury almost always decides in my favor.

There is no such thing as “righteous anger” because nothing good is ever produced from an angry thought or a decision made under the influence of this emotion. Our culture is very big on expressing anger and even psychologists and psychotherapists encourage us to do so. I used to think that expressing anger was a wonderful thing, even if it meant punching a pillow or screaming out loud in an empty room. I’m no longer so sure that expressing anger really does anything beneficial at all—and in fact I tend to think that doing so might be harmful and ultimately counterproductive. I think the best way to deal with anger is to simply experience the emotion, to be aware of the thoughts that set it off, and to feel physical sensations that accompany it. It really does feel great when we lash out at another person by yelling, arguing or behaving aggressively—for a moment. But anger is a bottomless pit, an insatiable fire that wants to be constantly fed with the coals of our insecurities, our sadness, and our fears.

Some people think that getting angry is a necessary component of social change. But the people that are looked up to the most in this world acted with a passion that was tempered with awareness, patience, and loving action. None of the public figures that we admire today (ie Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama) attained their status by being aggressive or cruel. What makes them so memorable is that they achieved great things by helping countless numbers of people through their positive actions and their virtuous examples.

We can work through anger by being aware of it and how it really feels in our bodies. It is important to become aware of the underlying emotions and thought patterns that give way to the rage we suffer from if we ever hope to move beyond it. If we relate to our anger instead of from it, we have a chance to free ourselves from the pattern of behaviors that cause so much harm to ourselves and others. If we let ourselves simply experience anger instead of reacting whenever it comes up, it will gradually lose its hold over us.

It isn't a stumbling block on our way to waking up. It is an invaluable tool that will help us do so, as long as we pay attention.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Buddhism and Sexuality

This was a response I added to a posting on another blog about sexworkers and Buddhism. It is rather brief considering how complex a matter sexuality is, but I think it effectively sums up my view about sexuality and morality:

I think sexuality or any other area of life can be engaged in wisely or unwisely.

It is true that a sex worker could misuse sex. It is also true that a psychologist could misuse psychology or a hair stylist could misuse cosmetology. If we are not mindful, aware, and well-intentioned, the results of any of our activities can be negative.

If our aspiration is positive, and we stay present and aware as much as possible, the effects of our behavior are more likely to be positive. This goes for a sex worker, bricklayer, politician, psychotherapist, athlete, whatever.

It is odd how people single out sex for misuse and put a lot time and energy into moralizing over it while at the same time claiming that buddhism is not a judgmental religion.

Let’s be mindful of that and not give in to the usual negative knee jerk reactions when it comes to sexuality.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Just Sitting or Just Hiding?

My initial approach to meditation was very misguided-I believed it was going to do all kinds of things for me and make my life easier. I thought I'd morph into this robo version of myself, replete with a soft voice and permanently pasted on smile, never getting angry or upset or bothered by anyone. I'd be impervious to anything negative and pearls of zen wisdom would spontaneously pour from my lips as needed.

It took me a while to realize that the changes that come with practice, if there are any changes at all, are more subtle than that. And if they do happen, they aren't all that noticeable right away, or at least they weren't for me.

Most religions or philosophies offer the promise of a grand prize if you play the game of life just right. The motivation for being a "good person", whatever the hell that is, is that you'll go to heaven or have a better next life or get the bicycle of your dreams if you can just visualize it strongly enough (remember The Secret?)

The way I see it, Zen offers no guarantee of a better afterlife or even a better next week. What it does offer, if we practice, is a better experience of life overall. In this moment. Right here and now. There are no fairytales or promises or magical cures, just an emphasis on a regular sitting practice so that we can better know ourselves and our minds so that eventually we are longer be so beholden to our thoughts.

That's something I can work with and believe in.

It's very tempting to view practice as a means of escaping rather than a tool for embracing our lives as they are. This was certainly how I saw it in the beginning.

The real payoff comes when we learn to stop running away from this moment in search of something better because true joy is right under our noses right now but we're too blind to see it most of the time.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Big Mind, Big B.S.

There is someone out there who claims "you will have in one day — before lunch actually — the clarity and experience that a Zen master has. But Zen is seen as the school of sudden enlightenment. And we're just making sure it remains sudden."

I find it troubling that someone can package enlightenment as if it were a lunchtime Botox session, with no down time.

By "sudden enlightenment" I'm sure no one ever meant that sartori should come about without the necessary time spent on a cushion or in a chair meditating. A seed does not produce a tall and steady tree in just a few days—it takes a good deal of time and a confluence of proper conditions ranging from good soil to light and adequate hydration. When and if it does come, I'm told, it can seem quite sudden indeed, but to promise people that your patented "Big Mind" process will provide them with a shortcut to enlightenment is irresponsible and even dangerous.

Anyone can be part of the Big Heart Circle plan and go on a 5 day retreat in Stein Eriksen Lodge Deer Valley, Utah on May 18 for only $100,000! If that's out of your price range another option is to go to Hawaii in June for only $50,000. And for if you can't afford that, you can take advantage of the $10,000 weekend in Utah this July. I'm not joking, you can see all of this HERE.

Just as I was about to publish this piece, I got a spam email from a website with the name "Sartori" in it that peddles psychic readings for up to $7.99 per minute. I'm an astrologer and I'll be the first one to tell you that while a reading can be very helpful and insightful, it isn't going to give you enlightenment. That is something we all have to discover within ourselves after a lot of hard work and time on the cushion.

As our practice matures, we move from a place of wanting to get something out of it to simply doing it. And over time, if we're really practicing well, we aspire to practice so that we can be of better service to others rather than being preoccupied with what practice can do for us. (The JFK speech comes to mind about what we can do for our country vs. what it can do for us.)

So it is very disturbing to hear Genpo Roshi packaging Zen Buddhism as if it were instant oatmeal.

Let's face it, very few things that are lasting and meaningful in life come about without at least some degree of effort and struggle and patience. And those things that do fall onto our laps easily are the very things we end up taking for granted in the long run.

We all want stuff to happen quickly and easily, and promises like these are very tempting. In fact, during my early days of practice I started watching Genpo Roshi clips on Youtube but fortunately something told me I wasn't hearing authentic Zen Buddhism and with very little research was able to see why.

Buyer, beware.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ven. Samu Sanim of the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom

Samu Sanim is a Korean Seon sunim of the Jogye Order. He received Dharma transmission from Zen Master Weolha Sunim in 1983. He has taught primarily in Canada and the United States, having opened centers in Toronto, New York, Ann Arbor, Michigan and Chicago, Illinois as well as Mexico City.

He was born in Korea in 1941, suffering the loss of both parents at an early age. He was orphaned at age eleven and became homeless. After several years of living on the streets, Samu was ordained as a Buddhist monk at Pomo-sa in Pusan, Korea in 1956 (age 15). He moved to Japan in order to avoid conscription and relocated to the United States in 1968, where he established the Zen Lotus Society in New York (today named the Buddhist Society for Compassionate Wisdom).