(normal text is Rebecca, italicized text is Lama Willa Miller)
Well here we are Buddhism fans, week seven of my “Everyday Dharma” challenge. This is the final week which covers self-discipline, enthusiasm, and wisdom. So far each week has still been manageable with regards to time you need to devote to it. Writing everything up takes much longer than actually doing any of the exercises from the book. I’m still struggling with the meditation. I’ll be curious to see if I keep trying to do it after I complete this week. Let’s dive in, shall we?
Day one discussed self-discipline, a thing I sorely lack. However, the self-discipline that Lama Willa talks about isn’t making sure you clean the bathroom or take out the garbage every week. This is spiritual self-discipline, which oddly I find less intimidating. Self-discipline with regards to “Everyday Dharma” is “the art of living life within spiritual boundaries.” The boundaries Lama Willa discusses are the Buddha’s ten moral imperatives: practice nonviolence, respect property, be sexually responsible, be honest and direct, speak with kindness, make peace, speak meaningfully, be loving and forgiving in spirit, be generous of heart, keep your perspective in line with truth. When you give any of these any thought, you realize that they’re much harder than they appear at first glance. However, still easier than me cleaning the apartment weekly! The exercise was to pick three moral imperatives to observe the rest of the week. These can be Buddha’s or of your own design. I picked be honest and direct, be loving and forgiving in spirit, be generous of heart. They seem simple enough on paper, much more challenging to do.
Good choices. Moral imperatives are rich ways of working with our daily habits of body and mind. The purpose of working with moral imperatives is not about trying to be perfect, but about developing mindfulness. Mindfulness is a simply a state of paying attention. When we carry around a moral imperative, we begin to become more mindful of our actions, our speech and our internal attitudes. So, for example, Rebecca is working with being more honest and direct. When we carry a vow like that around, we begin to think about our speech. We start to pay attention to the subtleties of what we say, and our reflex habits of responding in conversation. For example, when someone asks me, “How’s it going?”, I may answer “fine” just out of habit, even though I am feeling lousy. By doing this, it may seem as if I am saving the other person the burden of my troubles. But what if I really told him or her that I am having a hard day? It might open up a whole different direction in our conversation. It might help us connect in a more real and straightforward way. Because it feels hard, we don’t always try this kind of openness. But if we don’t try it, we don’t discover what will happen. Honesty is not always easy. But it a deep practice to try to live with honesty. It builds self-discipline internally, and it makes you a more trustworthy friend.
Day two dealt with enthusiasm and how battling laziness and complacency are key to a spiritual practice. The exercise for the day was working with discouragement. You say what you’re discouraged about, then the reasons you’re falling short, and finally you reevaluate these reasons. I will readily admit to being discouraged, unfortunately I find I can’t sum it up as a simple statement of thing. I suspect that many people would agree with me that sometimes things aren’t so easy to define.
This is a good point and I’m glad you brought it up, Rebecca. This can go on the list for things to explore more here if there is ever a second edition! Actually, if there is ever another edition, it will probably not resemble the first one all that much. It is interesting that once you write something, you discover that there is another, completely different book inside you.
Back to discouragement. There’s a certain kind of sluggishness that goes along with discouragement. Perhaps that is why the Buddha classified it as a type of laziness. When we are feeling discouraged, we just feel frozen. It is easy to complain about the external conditions. These conditions are making us feel discouraged. Or our we take the problem on ourselves: We feel inadequate, and that makes us feel discouraged.
But, there is a usefulness to discouragement. We can look at discouragement as a kind of internal constellation in which we temporarily forget the powerful potential of our own will. When we forget our will, it seems as if we cannot change conditions. But if we use the experience of discouragement as a way of remembering, it becomes like a spur. Just by noticing we are feeling discouraged, we take the first step. From noticing comes remembering. What we remember is that we possess will. When we remember the power of will, discouragement spurs us to reconfigure our priorities, think creatively and take action. If we see can see a part of discouragement that spurs, it helps us reclaim our power from external conditions. With that reclaimed power, we can come up with solutions and alternatives, and find a reserve to keep going in the face of difficulties.
Day three was about the important qualities of curiosity, carefulness, and concentration, and how they support enthusiasm. Although Lama Willa discusses these three things, it is concentration that the day was really about. Meditation requires concentration, a thing that I lack. My mind does not like to quiet down and often it feels as if it fights me the whole way. The exercise was practicing meditation while gazing at an object. I have found that meditating with my eyes open has helped prior to now. Adding an object does not make it any easier or harder.
Generally, Tibetan forms of instruction recommend meditation with eyes open. At first, this can seem distracting to some individuals. But after awhile, the mind learns to settle down with a visual field. Open eyes let in light, leaving the mind brighter and more alert. Because you are more alert, dullness does not sneak as easily into your meditation. In addition, the open-eyed gaze mirrors our ordinary, waking experience, so meditation is more easily integrated into life off the cushion. Open eyes lead to open.
Day four was the first of three days dealing with wisdom. “Wisdom,” Lama Willa explains, “in Buddhism, does not refer only to kitchen-table wisdom. It refers to that part of our mind that knows truth – not partial truths, but the whole truth.” It’s difficult to sum up the whole of what she was talking about, but I’ll give it a try. Essentially truth can only be understood through the nondual wisdom in which the knower (you) and the known (truth) become one. You find this in losing yourself, being in the zone. The exercise was to perform a simple repetitive activity and try to become absorbed in it and become one with the activity. This is harder than it sounds!
This exercise is a practice of meditation in motion, or active meditation. Ironically, active meditation is best accomplished when you just let go completely into what you are doing. That means not even trying to be absorbed in your activity. As long as we are trying to be absorbed, that state will avoid us. But you have to start somewhere, so you begin by trying to become absorbed. Eventually, you need to let the activity “do” you.
Day five discussed wisdom as being innate. That’s right folks, right now you are wise. Not a wise ass. Lama Willa explains, “Innate wisdom is more than an idea; it exists within and of you. It is too intimate to be known with mind, because it is the mind, in its quintessential sense. Wisdom is awareness, the bare, naked, aware, conscious nature of mind.” Therefore your wisdom is your awareness. The exercise for the day was to meditate on your essence, your awareness. As per usual, I struggled with my chattering mind. I must be hyper aware! Look at all the nonsense in my head!
You have showed perseverance these past several weeks! Meditation is not even about making thought go away, but about discovering a new relationship to thought. Contrary to how it may seem, mental chattering is a normal and natural experience when you begin meditation. At first, it seems as if the clattering will simply not slow down, and it seems as if it is preventing us from meditating. But if we persist in practice, two extraordinary things happen. I say “extraordinary” because these things really change us on a deep level.
First, over time and with practice, we get more skilled in relaxation. As we learn to relax physically more deeply when we sit down to meditate, our mind begins to relax and let go. As our mind relaxes, our mind’s chatter settles out. It becomes more like a flow, rather than incessant agitation. Still, it does not go away.
Which brings us to the second thing that happens. Thought does not go away, but as we develop a regular practice, we gradually discover that thought and meditation can peacefully co-exist. The mind can be focusing on something—like your breathing for example—and still experience thought, without getting hooked by thought. Even though thought occurs, it does not disturb the focus necessarily. The only thing that becomes disturbing is when we get “caught” by a thought and follow after it. What we discover here is that focus, and the mental tranquility that comes from focusing, can co-exist with thought. In short, it is possible find a reservoir of peacefulness under the waves of the chattering mind and learn to rest there. It seems hard to believe that this could happen when you first start to meditate. That is why persistence is critical.
Day six examined the three qualities of awareness: luminosity (In this case, “it does not mean that awareness is glowing with some kind of physical light. Awareness is simply and naturally a light unto itself. While experiences change, the light-unto-itself quality of the mind does not.), emptiness (“To say that awareness has the quality of emptiness means that, while awareness is luminous, it is not a thing. It has no inherent identity.), and unimpededness (To say awareness is unimpeded means that awareness is without limits or without an edge). The thing that Lama Willa stresses is that awareness is all of these things at the same time. So if what you’re experiencing in your awareness has all three qualities, then you know you’re onto something. The exercise for the day was again meditation looking for these qualities. As you probably expect by now, it did not go so well for me. It did help to have something I’m supposed to think about, but that focus didn’t last.
Keep it up. It takes time for meditation practice to unfold. I hope that in these seven weeks, you have “tasted” your inner Buddha!
Day seven was processing the journey. This day was about reflecting on the past seven weeks. The exercise was essentially to examine what you’ve done, what practices you will continue, what goals to set, etc. Let’s talk about this next week with my big ol’ summary/book review type article, okay? It’s agreed then, see you all next week.
Congratulations Rebecca on completing the course! It has been a wonderful and educational journey for me to be witness to your responses, your persistent practice and your enthusiasm!
About Lama Willa:
Lama Willa Miller is a meditation teacher in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She has studied and practiced meditation for the last twenty years, training with Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, Venerable Dilgo Khentse Rinpoche, Lama Norlha Rinpoche, Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, and other teachers.
She completed two seminary trainings [three-year retreats] at Kagyu Thubten Choling in upstate New York, becoming authorized as a lama, a Buddhist minister, upon completion of her training. Before and after her retreats, she spent time in Nepal, Tibet, and India, studying Buddhism and engaging in service work.
She currently lives in Arlington, MA with her husband and two dogs, where she writes, teaches Tibetan Buddhist practice and meditation, principally with Natural Dharma Fellowship. She is also working towards a PhD at Harvard University.
Lama Willa is author of the book “Everyday Dharma: Seven Weeks to Finding the Buddha in You” (2009, Quest Books), a practical guide for getting started on the spiritual path. Visit her website here.
To follow Lama Willa on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/lamawilla.
On Facebook? Join the Everyday Dharma Facebook group