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Posts Tagged ‘Buddhism’

This week I was faced with a question/dilemma/problem, it was all born out of a harmless comment in someone’s eyes I am sure, but these words maybe me look within and turn to the dharma for guidance. The dharma has never steered me wrong, it has always cleared everything up for me, but this case was not immediately cleared and I am asking all of you. What is right speech? And what does it mean to practice right speech? Let me put everyone to speed, I find that most will see how it is not as easy as one might think.

I was at work, a good day, I was wearing a new Fred Perry polo (I must admit that I am a total fan of this clothing line, bordering on obsession!) and one of my bosses was also wearing a new Fred Perry sweater. I always feel a certain feeling of joy when I wear a new item by this designer and I can see that I am not the only one that feels that way when we find that awesome shirt and get to share it with those around us. My boss was wearing a colour that some might say was more “effeminate” than the green that I was wearing. A colleague of mine asked me if I had seen his new sweater and I said yes in a tone that clearly stated my approval of his new digs, he then proceeded to say “I asked him if he switched teams and this is his way of telling us”, and this is where my debate and reflection starts. Is it right speech for me to call him on his homophobic statement and get to question why he thinks that first of all being gay is derogatory, that the colour that we were explains our sexual orientation, and lastly, seeing as how he is newly a father, what kind of role model is he being for his son and how he will view the world in the future.

Right speech is usually understood as one of the ethical conducts in the eightfold path as:

Right speech is the first principle of ethical conduct in the eightfold path. Ethical conduct is viewed as a guideline to moral discipline, which supports the other principles of the path. This aspect is not self-sufficient, however, essential, because mental purification can only be achieved through the cultivation of ethical conduct. The importance of speech in the context of Buddhist ethics is obvious: words can break or save lives, make enemies or friends, start war or create peace. Buddha explained right speech as follows: 1. to abstain from false speech, especially not to tell deliberate lies and not to speak deceitfully, 2. to abstain from slanderous speech and not to use words maliciously against others, 3. to abstain from harsh words that offend or hurt others, and 4. to abstain from idle chatter that lacks purpose or depth. Positively phrased, this means to tell the truth, to speak friendly, warm, and gently and to talk only when necessary.

As one quickly understands, this is aimed at the individual and the actions that the individual does in the world. I am really questioning, if we are to practice engaged buddhism, if this act of calling people out on their racist or homophobic comments not a part of right speech. It is slanderous speech, the words that are used are malicious and create a world where it is Ok to use homophobia as an insult towards someone. I have always had a hard time when people use terms like faggot to joke around when someone is not being manly enough or good at a certain task, to the point that I am seen as a hyper sensitive person that has no sense of humour because I object to the fact that this term is being used. I should know that it is not what they mean and should not take it so seriously, I find the phenomenon of the normalisation of hate to be a plague in our society and assures that prejudice will continue for many generations to come.

What I wish I said to my co-worker, instead of simply ignoring the homophobic statement and saying that I was glad that at least one person had taste in clothing in the office, I wish I would have asked him first of all why he finds homosexuality to be derogatory, that he should take some time to reflect on what kind of role model is he being for his newborn son, and how would he react if one day he learns that his son was gay (would his vocabulary change)? I find that it is important to study the normalization of hate in our society, language is an extremely subtle tool for hate, the more we hear something the easier it is for us to use it in the same context. I am trying to be as mindful and aware with my dharma practice, so why would I not stand up to hate and respond with love, teaching others how they can be less hateful on a daily basis? I find that it is my duty to stand up and call people out on their ignorant comments, that is what right speech is, speaking out to help others suffer less. I owe it to my colleague to let him know what happened to me when he uttered what he believed to be “harmless” words, I owe it to him, and I especially owe it to his son!

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Bodhi Day is a Buddhist holiday commemorating the day that the Buddha achieved enlightenment, which is translated as Bodhi in Sanskrit or Pali.  Bodhi Day is always celebrated on the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, this is what is believed was the day that Siddhartha Gautama while sitting under the Bodhi tree became the Buddha. Sid, who was born in a very noble and privileged Hindu family, left his material comforts in the search for answers to the problem of suffering, specifically old age, sickness and death. He thus sought bodhi through meditation, self-mortification, and practicing other austerities.

After several years of intense practice, he realized that bodhi was to be found through meditation, but through a Middle Way, away from the extremes of self-mortification and self-indulgence. The story goes that he meditated in Bodh Gaya (I am sure that you have all heard of the famous Bodhi Tree that is supposed to have been grown from an original branch of the tree that rested atop of the Buddha, it is one of the main pilgrimage sites for Buddhists from all over the world) under a peepal tree (a species of Banyan fig), now famously known as the Bodhi tree, and resolved to continue meditating until he achieved bodhi (enlightenment). It is believed that after 49 days of continuous meditation, Gautama achieved bodhi (enlightenment) at the age of 35. Since then he was known as the Buddha (‘enlightened one’). In other words, he kicked Mara’s ass and was freed from the shackles of suffering.

In Buddhism, Māra is the demon that tempted Siddhartha Gautama by trying to seduce him with the vision of beautiful women who, in various legends, are often said to be Mara’s daughters. In Buddhist cosmology, Mara personifies unwholesome impulses, unskilfulness, the “death” of the spiritual life. He is a tempter, distracting humans from practicing the spiritual life by making the mundane alluring or the negative seem positive. We have all wrestled with Mara at one point in our lives, I know that I do it on a daily basis, I just keep working on not giving Mara too much power in my life and how I act within the world. I am sure that everyone that has attempted to sit and meditate has tasted the allure of what Mara has thrown at them, the important part and what I try to do every time is simply to say “I see you Mara” and keep on keeping on.

People usually celebrate and commemorate this day with meditation, studying the Dharma, chanting sutras (Buddhist texts) or by doing kind acts towards others. I find that all these activities are all great ways to commemorate this moment, I also find that it is a great time to reflect on what has brought us to this practice and what keeps us going on this path… So why not take some time today to sit and meditate on our practice and how we are progressing on the path. I know that I like to check in on my practice at least once a year and I can’t think of a better time than now. So take a moment to reflect and renew your effort towards your practice and the path that you have chosen, if you do not practice meditation or the dharma, there isn’t a better time than now to start!

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I started watching the MTV reality show called, If you really knew me…, about Challenge Day and the impact that they have in schools all around the US. If you are not familiar with the work that is done you should really take some time to check out Challenge Day, it is a great answer to helping solve what is happening in schools all over with bullying, racism, etc. During the day, students are put into small groups and they each take turns letting people know the real them, we hide so much of ourselves to others which in turns creates real separation between people. They say that we are like icebergs, we only show 10% of ourselves to the world, so the exercise is to drop the waterline (get out of that comfort zone) and expose 100% of ourselves and be “real”.  What happens is that once everyone has started sharing how they really feel and what they are going through, we realize that we all have our struggles and insecurities, and that all we want is to be accepted for who we are and free to show ourselves and not hide behind masks.

Buddhism does also talk about the other and how we relate to them, especially when discussing the Bodhisattva vow and its mission of releasing all beings of suffering before leaving this earth. Awakening compassion is something that I have struggles with, especially towards myself. I am sure that we all have struggled with the inner critic inside of us, distancing myself from emotional pain – my vulnerability, anger, jealousy, fear – by letting it be covered over with self-judgment. So by pushing away parts of myself, I was digging myself deeper into the trance of unworthiness. I was not able to accept my experience because my heart was hardened by fear and blame. As long as I can remember I have been relentlessly badgering myself, ignoring the hurt in my heart. I think that it had all started with my relationship with my parents that were always quick to judge and criticize me when I was dropping my waterline, I thus developed an incapacity to acknowledge the real suffering that I was living with these harsh words and instead judging myself for being so stupid to show my real self to the world. I would never be accepted and loved if I didn’t create an image of myself that had his shit together all the time, and maintained an image that was respectable with the others around me.

This all came back up when I was watching these kids pour their hearts out, I saw myself and I remembered how hard it was to hold myself with compassion the first time that this surfaced in my meditation practice. I remember doing the body scan to see where in my body I could feel these feelings of unworthiness and judgment, feeling in my chest like my heart was bound with tight chords, realizing how painful this pain really was even though I had become used to feeling it all the time. Realizing how sad I felt to have always been carrying this pain with me, and for so long, ever since I could remember in my childhood. I had read that I should put my hand on my heart, the area where I felt the pain, and to say to myself  “I care about this suffering”. For the first time I could remember I was acknowledging the pain that I felt and realizing that it was Ok for me to care and tend to it. With time and practice, I must admit that the pain slowly softened, it never went away, but I must admit that I have a much more compassionate response to it. This care that I had always offered to others was for the first time in my life being directed towards myself, I could comfort myself with words of kindness and understanding. So now when I start feeling judgments about myself and the physical pain that comes with it, I am able to put my hand on my chest and offer words of kindness by saying that I care about my suffering and the pain and anger subsides and it is replaced by a warm feeling spreading throughout my whole body. My edge has softened with time and I am much less angry than I was.

May this suffering awaken compassion, these are the words of the Bodhisattva, a beautiful promise that is given by people who will dedicate their lives to awaken the compassion of all beings so they may be free of suffering. Challenge Day and its amazing staff are doing the work of the Bodhisattvas, they are showing that we are all suffering and we all want to be heard, loved, and accepted. We all live the same fears, insecurities, and we all have the same desires of being free from suffering. I find that they are showing that we are all in this together, so why do we judge and bring more suffering to people? We should be accepting and loving towards all people, no matter if they are different, because in the end we are all the same. I find that we get so caught up in our own stories sometimes that we forget and make the other to simply be an enemy or an object and forget the humanity that lives inside them. All beings experience love, fear, suffering and we should welcome them with love and openess in our lives. I find that the other is an illusion that we create to help justify our selfishness and to validate our suffering, that it is something that is out of our control. But if we take the time to open to our experiences and meeting them with kindness we can see ourselves in all beings. It reminds me of a story that I read once:

An aged spiritual master calls his two most devoted disciples to the garden in front of his hut. Gravely, he gives each one a chicken and instructs them, “Go to where no one can see, and kill the chicken.” One of the men immediately goes behind his shed, picks up an ax and chops off his chicken’s head. The other wanders around for hours, and finally returns to his master, the chicken still alive and in hand. “Well, what happened?” the teacher asks. The disciple responds, “I can’t find a place to kill the chicken where no one can see me. Everywhere I go, the chicken sees.”

Bring this wisdom into your life and I can assure that you will live a much kinder and compassionate life. I try to bring this attention and compassion to everything that I do, and I find that a Challenge day also lets a school see that we are not alone in our suffering and we should be helping each other out instead of creating boundaries and fear. So tomorrow when you are at school or work, say hello to someone that you normally would not talk to and let them know that you are there and you are listening!

 

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Hello everyone, it has been a while since I have written, I must say that I have not been going super well. As always, I have also stopped having a dedicated daily practice and now feel that I have dove deeply into suffering on a daily basis. The five hindrances have taken over and now I feel like it is hard to escape them! This feeling of sinking is something that I know all too well these days, and then comes my old friend doubt which makes me question everything. I was driving home this week from a Chuck Ragan show in Ottawa back to Montreal and had a close call with a moose on the highway, it is moments like this that sometimes wake you up! This moment, which lasted just a few seconds, made me realize that it is time for me to take back my practice and my life in many ways. I realized that this practice is most important when things aren’t going well, no matter how hard or unpleasant it may be. It is when the work pays off and we are able to truly see the benefits of meditation practice. I mean, my life is not that bad; I have a job surrounded by good people, I am in a healthy relationship, I have a roof over my head with a fridge full of food, so why am I suffering so much? I know that it comes down to my usual issues: I have a hard time seeing the goodness inside of me, accepting that my projects may seem like they are so far away from being fulfilled, and that I must stay true to myself.

My practice suffered when things seemed to feel like they were all falling apart: I was no longer able to volunteer in the penitentiary that I was going to for the last three years (cut-backs, etc.), I was not able to participate in further training with my teacher due to financial obligations, my meditation group going on hiatus due to lack of participation, and the list goes on. This filled me with feelings of hopelessness and despair. All that I seemed to have been working towards all see to fall apart in about the same timeline, which made me seriously question my role in the dharma and if this was actually the path for me. Of course, this made it that I stopped practicing on a daily basis and I started indulging in less healthy habits on the side. Seeing as things weren’t going well inside I tried to change things around me to try to give myself pleasure from external sources. Of course, this never helps and I know this to be true, but it is such an easy thing to indulge in our cravings and try to numb our pain. I am also an expert at that! It is so much easier to tell ourselves that we will be happy if we get the new record by such and such an artist, that going out drinking with help numb the pain that we feel inside (except that we wake up with even more suffering).  I realized after the moose that my life had been completely taken over by the five hindrances and it is time for me to shape up and face my demons, no matter how ugly they may be!

The five hindrances are important in meditation practice, and discovering their antidotes even more:

1- Lust: Sense desire is a great distraction from serenity and mindfulness, craving is such an ingrained habit in all of us and we live in a society that feeds off it! This hindrance is not only in the sexual way, even though a lot of people do suffer with pornography instead of intimate relationships, but it can also be something as simple as consuming a lot of different albums or books like me. Concentration is the anitdote for this hindrance. When the mind is strong enough to (seemingly) effortlessly stay on a single object, there is no danger of falling into the trap of discomfiting lust, greed, and yearning. By practicing mindfulness we are able to avoid the trapping of consumption or craving, it helps us to realize that we will not be happy if we get that new gadget etc.

2- Anger: This is an emotion that I know all too well, ill-will is a miserable tendency that destroys calm, cool, collected states of mind in a blinding instant — like an explosive hot flash reducing everything to cinders. Most people would agree that anger is not a pleasant experience, I am sure that if we take a second to think about it, the physical experience of anger usually comes as a tightening of the chest or something similar. Most people do not realize how much annoyance, irritation, and ill directed resentment they’re carrying around — that is, until they try to sit peacefully and silently for a few minutes. The antidote is cultivating kindness (also known as Metta), compassionate recognition (karuna), and joy-in-others-happiness (mudita). These give rise to a sublime state of looking on (upekkha) with acceptance and understanding. One becomes unflappable but perfectly able to respond. “Warm detachment” — not to be confused with cold indifference.

3- Restlessness: Worry, or being scattered, results from inattention to the object and too much effort. More effort makes one more awkward, inartful, and inarticulate. The more one wants something, the LESS one is able to get it. When we are less concerned with the outcome, the more confident we will be, and paradoxically, the MORE success we will have. And with more success, more confidence. We have to couple the concentrated mind with a pacified heart, we must learn to balance both, because too much thinking will be a hindrance to our practice. Too much effort quickly leads to dissatisfaction and prematurely giving up.

4- Drowsiness: Also, known as sloth or torpor, is one I am sure that we have all experienced on the cushion. It has happened more than once that we will doze off during our sits, this can be caused by legitimate tiredness, but the other is a habit of delusion (moha) or foolishness (bala): If in the past (as now) one was not keen to hear the Truth, not interested in things as they are, but negligent, heedless, inattentive, then mindfulness, diligence, and one-pointedness leading to insight will take more time. Rest well before sitting, and persevere. Persistence and regularity are antidotes to pernicious drowsiness.

5- Doubt: This has definitely been my biggest struggle on the cushion, in my life even, and is one that I know I will always have to wrestle. I find that this hinderance can sometimes be overwhelming, it makes one completely question everything. How can we avoid being totally over taken by doubt? There are a couple of ways, one is to simply put it aside for later, or get up and work at getting your question answered (there are always teachers or at least books lying around that can help you). If we get lost in a different views when we are trying to figure stuff out, we can very easily just get confused and sink even more, it can become a crutch. Suspend disbelief, lay down the doubting mind, abandon reasoning from a position of faulty assumptions. The Truth is true; your thinking won’t make it otherwise. The Truth is here to see and inviting. There’s a time to argue, a time to study, a time to investigate and question. That time is certainly not when you sit on a mat and cushion.

So that is exactly what I am going to do, I am going to allow a time and a place for all things in my life. I have to be kind towards myself and develop a strong practice again if I want to free myself from the suffering that I am experiencing these days… These are the times when meditating is the hardest, but also the most important! I hope that this will help me dive back into the dharma and assure that I do not stray too much from this path again… I also have to remind myself to not be too hard on myself and think of this as one of many bumps in the road ahead! I know that a dedicated meditation practice may not eliminate my demons completely, but it will help me live with them. It is what it is folks!

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What is the first images that appear in your mind when you think of racism, most people would probably have images of swastikas, slavery and Ku Klux Klan members, these are the images that have been ingrained in our minds for the subject. They are not false, the Nazis and KKK have become the images of intolerance and rightfully so. Racism, as a term, was coined in the 1930s, primarily as a response to the Nazi project of making Germany judenrein (‘clean of Jews’), the Nazis claimed that the Jewish people were a race. They were a distinct race that posed a threat to the Aryan race, the race that authentic Germans supposedly belonged. This idea that Jewish people were a distinct race gave currency by Nazi racial science. Also, what the Nazis did can now be seen as what we call ethnic cleansing. The idea of anti-Semitism, which is the longest form of racism or the oldest hatred, was coined in the 1870s by German Wilhem Marr to characterize his anti-Jewish movement “the anti-Semitism League”. Anti-Semitism had the advantage of sounding scientific instead of plain old religious bigotry.

We can all agree that it is now accepted and truly believed that it is morally wrong to judge someone by the colour of their skin, or of reliving the Anti-Semite sentiment.  This I think can be agreed upon, with maybe the exception of radical hate groups like Neo-Nazis etc. Racism can not be so clear-cut, it is much more complex and ambiguous. Let me explain, is racist intolerance just based on what we call a “race”? What about homophobia? What about Islamophobia?  It has been commonly believed that Prejudice + Power = Racism, but it is not so simple. There is also the problem of institutionalized racism, there have been many cases in England of prejudice based on class, gender, and race in the past years. This is much more widespread than we might think, I read once that people in the south of the USA after the civil war (the war that was about many issues, but slavery is definitely the one that trumps all issues) that people’s heritage played a part in the land that you were able to buy and have. This became the history of US debates and legislation that revealed the consistent difficulties in defining what the black population was. Here is where the ‘one drop’ rule was born in the Southern states:

which implied that any black ancestry, however far back, consigned an individual to the wrong side of the white/black divide, determining (disadvantaging) where s/he could live, what kind of work was available, and whether marriage or even relationships could take place with a white partner. One drop of ‘white blood’, though, did not carry the same weight in defining racial status.

Like Ali Rattansi states in the quote before, racism was clearly based on race at first, but in our post 9/11 world, it has delved into many more areas of society and daily life. This has become obvious the many protests that have occurred during the construction of Mosques in the US, of profiling in airports and the unfair deportations of American and Canadian citizens to Islamic countries or off-shore penitentiaries. Institutional racism is very much ingrained in our societies.  In the USA black men are 10 times more likely to go to prison than whites, and 1 in 20 over the age of 18 is in jail. Amnesty International reported in 2004, black defendants convicted of killing whites have been sentenced to death 15 times more often than white defendants convicted of killing blacks. I think that we can all agree that there is still a lot of work to do in terms of educating people that these outdated beliefs are wrong and completely not true, that racism is a vehicle of fear and causes only harm and that tolerance and acceptance is the only right answer. I also want to be clear, racism doesn’t only apply to whites (I know that these are the examples that are used here, but there is also prejudice against whites, we have to change our attitudes towards everyone, visible minorities included. There is a lot of healing that must be done so we can be able to live in a society that is kind and caring, no matter what we believe and look like, as long as we are tolerant and open to everyone.), this is a problem that is everywhere and must stop! Education, compassion, understanding, love, and forgiveness are the only answers that I see fit.

I am left with a question, seeing that I am a Buddhist, I ask myself, what can I do with my practice to combat ignorance and hatred like this? What is a Buddhist to do about racism? So I am asking myself WWBD or WWBS (What Would Buddha DO? or What Would Buddha Say?) about all of this. The closest thing to “races” in the Buddha’s time would be the caste system and he spoke out against it, seeing as all being have to ability to be enlightened, no matter what caste, he saw the value in all beings. Buddhism is a philosophy that is born out the idea that there are no differences between men and women in society, I must admit that it would be hard for the Buddha to approve any form of racism with that statement. The Buddha would also tell us that our Body and Mind are borrowed from the earth. We don’t own them. We also suffer from sickness, old age, death, and mental illnesses. These mental illnesses are greed, hatred, and ignorance of the true reality of the world. So-called countries, religion, gender, land, etc. are all man-made. We live temporarily inhabit our bodies, homes, land and eventually give them back to the earth. If we all realize this fact, there should be no racism, fighting or any other unnecessary activities.

In the Samyutta Nikaya the Buddha states:

From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. A being who has not been your mother at one time in the past is not easy to find… A being who has not been your father… your brother… your sister… your son… your daughter at one time in the past is not easy to find.

If one truly understands this, there is no need for racism and no way that one could believe this theory of hate and ignorance to have any ground. I truly believe that this path that stresses loving-kindness, and living a life a wisdom and compassion; there is no place in this world for such hatred and ignorance. I have always felt that people who hold prejudice towards any group of human beings is born out of fear because they do not understand the difference that they have with this group. It is clear that with some openness and education, we can all learn to appreciate the differences that we have with them and learn to love one another. So the next time that you see someone and are struck with prejudice or fear, take a moment to reflect why exactly you are feeling the way that your are and then think how it must feel if the shoe was on the other foot. I am sure that in no time you will see that your fears are unjustified and that you will approach the world with more openness and compassion. Also, do not be afraid to ask others when you hear ignorant comments coming out of their mouths, help them reflect on the ignorance that is in their hearts. Racism is not just based on the colour of your skin, it is from any judgments that you hold against someone without cause. We must learn to be more open to what is different if we want the world to have peace.

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I am back from retreat; the normal stuff happened, went in without expectations only to find that I had them anyways; my old friends all came to say hi during my sits, fear, doubt, anger, etc. One thing came up though, mundane moments (at least what I would consider to be mundane in my everyday activities) seem to take on more meaning and I realized that all moments are precious and not mundane at all if we take the time to be present during these moments, when we meet them with mindfulness we are able to see how all experience is precious no matter the quality. One thing that I always noticed, and must say that it was much more present this time, is the whole speech of bringing our mindfulness practice into the real world. I have always found this somewhat awkward as a statement, I mean, isn’t it real life when we are in the retreat center living with a 100+ people in a somewhat small area, you are living everyday life (I mean I had to get up, be in relationships with people even if it was silent, and have to ‘work’ by scrubbing toilets everyday… sounds like real life to me…). What I find harder is the mundane moments in this “real-world”, we are bombarded with stimulus every second that we are awake, right now I am typing on this computer and have some punk band blaring in my ears, so it is completely normal that we get bored with these so-called mundane moments and are stuck in plans for the future when we are doing a job that we find repetitive and pointless unless you are one of those lucky ones that actually has a job that you love and enjoy those moments. I feel like I am babbling a little too much, but lets look at mundane moments to show that there is no real such thing and we can finish off with what I find is the best example of accepting our situation in life to be able to find happiness in what we do with our friend Sisyphus.

Mundane moments, you bored right now and find that nothing is going on?, look around there is so much to experience! If meditation practice has taught me anything (besides loving-kindness and calming my mind of course) is that life is a gift and we must experience it, every moment is a gift and a teacher. We sometimes find our teachers in the oddest places, I have been surprised how some of the most mundane repetitive moments in my life have been some of my greatest teachers. Meditation is teaching me to approach every moment as if it was the first time, I try to bring the curiosity of a child to all moments of my life. Nothing can save you from the mundane, there is no one coming to help us; eternity is all just more of the same. Novelty is the last refuge of that dream that is my ego. There is no escaping the minute specificity of repetition required to move anything (in any way) from here to there. There is no escaping the minute specificity of repetition required to keep anything (in any way) from moving from here to there. Again and again, I must lift this foot then that one.

Congrats, you’ve done the dishes, do them again! Congrats, you had a good night’s sleep, do it again! Congrats, you went to work and dealt with the daily grind of getting there, do it again! Congrats, you made supper, do it again! Tonight your eyes will close and in the morning they will open again, then you will blink your way through yet another day. Again, I’ll breathe in. Again, I’ll breathe out. Breath: the mark of the scrupulous and saturating specificity of the repetition that is being. Breath: the raw iteration of life itself. Life is nickels and dimes. Every moment, ten thousand points of iterated resistance, ten thousand irritating mornings in the bus or subway, ten thousand irritating customers, ten thousand pleasures and ten thousands pains. We all dream of living life frictionless, floating in zero-G. I dream of that symmetry breaking moment when everything will shift into the adjacent possible, my tax refund having finally (and definitively!) arrived. I dream of that “end” at which all of my (spoiled) actions aim. But, instead, we should be happy that this end never arrives!
Don’t get me wrong, novelty can and does come. But no matter how good and tasty it may be, it will not bring me what I hoped. We want a new job and we get it, but we still have to deal with interpersonal relationships with difficult people in the workplace, we still have that annoying commute every morning and afternoon. You still have to breathe – inhale again, exhale again, repeat! We want to fall in love, and we get the opportunity, but then all the tedious aspects of a relationship still come into play, dirty laundry, cleaning the house, the asynchronicity of libido, that sale at Walmart to get the hockey equipment for your child, etc.
This reminds me a little of Albert Camus and his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, in which Sisyphus is the absurd hero. I am not going to get into it too much, the absurd is a concept that I have used in my early life to help make sense of the world and my relationship to it. When we examine the absurd with Camus it is important to note that it is not a negative thing, it is a stepping stone to help us in creating meaning in our own lives. Sisyphus is a great example of this, condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a mountain just to have the boulder roll back down to the bottom and Sisyphus have to start all over again, for the rest of eternity. The reason for the punishment is not important here, but his relationship to his punishment. The gods thought for some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labour. This is why Sisyphus is considered by the ancient Greeks to be one of the wisest and most prudent humans. So Sisyphus does this punishment, get to the top of the mountain and the boulder falls back to the bottom by its own weight and does it all over again (you have done the dishes, great! now repeat!). He watches the boulder roll down to the bottom and makes his way down to push it all over again. During one of the returns to the bottom he walks with heavy feet to begin the torment of which he will never know an end. The lucidity that was to consitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn. If this descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This cannot be stressed enough. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism. His fate belongs to him, his rock is his thing, when he contemplates his torment, it silences the gods. There is no sun without shadows, and it is essential to know the night. He knows himself to be the master of his days.
But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Novelty can be a red herring. There is no place to go. You won’t find what you want over there. You’re still going to have to breathe – again and again and again. Repeat. At every step in the problem, life demands that we show all of our work. No credit is given just for getting the right answer. There’s no skipping ahead. It’s groundhog day every day.Can you bear it? Can you root out that secret wish for the banality to end? Can you cut the cord to this secret wish, the secret wish that animates your basest fantasies, your most ordinary chores, and your most authentic spiritual longings? How many disguises does this wish – this wish for an end to the paper cuts! – have? Have many faces does it wear? How much life does it suck from the color of your cheeks?If you think I’m being bitter, you’ve misunderstood. I’m being compassionate. There is no help on the way, eternity will just be more of the same, I promise! This wish for novelty is the last dream of the ego. No one will save us from the grace of the mundane. Breathe. Nothing could be more merciful.

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I am about to go on retreat, the usual preparations are happening in my head (What am I hoping to get out of this? What do I want to explore and bring to my practice Is it going to be better than the last one? etc.), and I was struck by a memory of my last retreat at IMS (which was my first real retreat). The Comparing Mind is a concept that is very common in Buddhist teachings and a usual struggle for me in my practice, I seem wired to compare myself to others. I always find this to be true when I am on retreat, everyone seems to be meditating peacefully and here I am sitting on the cushion wrestling with my mind on the cushion, feelings of bitterness come up which make it even harder for me to focus on the breath and find calm. I am sure that we have all had moments like this, it is funny how we can get so obsessed with how we think that it should be going and seeing as it is not exactly that way then we are failing. Thoughts of judgment start to take over our mind and we are caught in a cycle of thoughts that criticizes us and our abilities, we then begin questioning why we are doing this seeing as how we are just going to fail etc. I find that the Comparing Mind is a strong foe in meditation practice and something that can be really fruitful for us to work with.

As humans, we have a natural tendency to compare the various objects in our lives and there is nothing inherently wrong with the Comparing Mind. We can pick up an object and look at it on its own, then we are able to see it as it really is. If we hold it up next to a bigger plan we then start to compare it, it can seem small, ugly, not colorful enough, etc. This size, beauty, and color is only in relation to other things. The object is not inherently small or not colorful, if we are talking about inanimate objects, comparing things isn’t so bad. It can help us say things like ” I thought that object was very pretty” or “give me a bigger marker to write on the board with”. Not really a big deal if you look at it.

It is completely different with people. When we start to think that something inside of us is worse than another person, it sets off a chain reaction which is hard to stop. A common thought is our impression that we are uglier than others, our brain is amazingly reactive, this thought also seems to propel much faster and sticks around the longest. Once that thought gets started, the neurons in our brains start “gossiping” and talking it up until we’re positive that we’re not only hideous but that everyone around us knows it and talks about us behind our backs. This is how the comparing mind works, you may have a jogging routine with scheduled day of rest. When you are on your day of rest and walking around the neighbourhood and see a jogger pass by you start to feel lazy and worthless, because this jogger obviously did not take a day off. What we don’t seem to realize is that we don’t know the other person’s running schedule and that it is completely healthy and reasonable to run 3-5 times a week, and that these days off are necessary to avoid burnout and injuries.  If we don’t become aware of the Comparing Mind the thoughts will zoom by in our head and end up with the idea that the other person is a more dedicated runner.

It is also not good to think that we are better than someone, you can think that you are the smartest and most competant person in the office and that it is you that deserves all the important projects. If you then get a project that is a little over your head and someone else gets it instead you just can’t believe it. I mean, come on, you’re smarter than them! You’re the one that deserves that project! When we are caught in that cycle of thoughts we may not realize that the other person might be perfect for the project, but you are caught in thoughts about how you are better and smarter than that person and that you deserved all the projects. Plus, you get yourself all bent out of shape and depressed when really it would be a lot less painful to just admit that different people are better at different things and move on happy that you don’t have to do the difficult work.

The bottom line is that it’s best to just let go of Comparing Mind as it relates to how we perceive ourselves and others. It can only lead to clinging and to suffering and it’s not worth it. This has been a very difficult practice for me. We must admit that it is somewhat gratifying to indulge in those thoughts about how we are better than others, it may not be the case as much with our thoughts that others are better than us, but still, self-pity can be very comforting for some. To believe that we are always the victim and that the world has dealt us a shitty hand no matter how hard we try can give us an opportunity to push our responsibility to another. It is much easier to admit that it is not our fault that we are not advancing in the world, it is hard sometimes to reflect and realize that we are responsible for our actions and how we progress in the world. It is never our fault and always someone else’s fault, so much easier to come to terms with, but it is rarely the case. Our neurons are so used to gossiping about how “other” people are better or worse that they don’t even bother to let us know they’re doing it. We often only see it when we lose our cool entirely and break down into either sadness or anger or even reticule towards another. It usually takes an explosion for us to even realize that the reaction had been going on at all. For the next week I challenge you all to take some time with the Comparing Mind, to take up this practice, to observe when we find ourselves falling into old comparative/competitive habits and we can then noticed that it can be very helpful to be on the look out for these sorts of reactions before they occur. Just to see if that subtle comparison with others is causing suffering.

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