Student: I love the focus on training. It has completely changed the way I set up practice commitments. In fact, I have been trying to model the principles I see used at the Monastery in the practice structures I create. The principle that has been most helpful to me is the non-negotiable nature of guidance.
Facilitator: Would you say more, please?
Student: There is an explicit encouragement to explore whatever comes up in my practice, and there is an implicit protocol for interaction. Guestmaster notes are a great example. If I receive a note that says please close the doors carefully, then I pay attention to how I close the doors.
Facilitator: So the structure provides a direction, and it is your job to implement it while working with everything that comes up for you around that?
Student: Yes! I’m so conditioned to want to explain that I did not mean to bang the door shut, that it was an accident, that I was trying to rescue a bug, that it happened only once and it will never happen again and it would be unfair to judge me on this one instance for not doing something perfectly and beg for forgiveness and ask for absolution.
Facilitator: And not being able to do all that allows you to practice something different?
Student: Yes. First, I get to practice making it not about “me.” When I do that, I open to being “guided” to see something other than the conditioned process. And then I can make the movement from an orientation that regards the world as “something wrong and to be defended against” to something I am part of and can participate in.
Facilitator: So there is an opening to being assisted?
Student: Yes. Appreciating that the guidance is for my benefit allows me to discover what the benefit is of attending to things like doors in a way that I never have and seeing how everything can assist me to wake up. I get to be interested, curious and receptive instead of closed, suspicious and defensive.
Facilitator: So letting go the ego orientation opens the door to an experience of life that is not limited by karma.
Student: Yes. Ego interprets the note from the guestmaster as “I” did something wrong and focuses the attention on maintaining “I” by using the content to defend, explain or justify what “I” did. The note was really an invitation to presence – what would my experience be if I attended with care to the door?
Facilitator: What was your experience?
Student: I have never attended to something like I attended to that door to the Meditation Hall. I am so totally in love with it. I discovered that wholehearted attention is really unconditional love!
Buddhism is often described as the negative way – “neti, neti, not this, not this.” From conditioned mind’s dualistic perspective, “negative” is “bad.” Therefore, it is not surprising that the negative way is defined by ego as lack, deprivation, austerity and denial. It takes practice to step out of the karma of “no” to recognize that “not this” is actually pointing at “then what?” “Not this” is really an invitation to get off the conditioned karmic wheel and set off on a journey of discovery of ALL that is other than “not this.” All structures in practice, from Precepts to guestmaster notes, are designed to assist us to see beyond the limited perspective of conditioned mind and respond to the invitation.
Training is designed to challenge the ego, to reveal the conditioned process and give us the opportunity to choose “then what.” When challenged, the ego-identity maintenance system leaps to “self”-defense. If we pay attention to that process, we see the defense strategy consists of making the challenger (practice, the Monastery, the Guide, the facilitator) the enemy and recruiting the human to protect the ego against the threat. It becomes “me” versus “them,” firmly ensuring the “me” stays alive. This can be as subtle as rolling the eyes at receiving a note or as blatant as the urge to curse the monk who posted it.
As a result of the attention being hijacked by the conversation of how mean they are or how awful I am or how silly this all is, we lose sight of the fact that we signed up for the training and asked for the assistance that is being freely offered. The willingness to acknowledge that everything in our experience is assisting us in the path of our choosing (despite ego’s grousing and churlishness) is an excellent way to practice something other than the conditioned default.
From there, we can up the training ante by exercising the choice for “not this” in every encounter in our daily lives. Where ego might resist, we graciously accept; where ego would confront, we agree to collaborate; when ego wants to criticize, we show appreciation; where ego holds back, we give generously; where ego judges, we offer compassion; where ego withdraws, we forge connections. In this way we train to dissolve the ego-I’s orientation of fear, worry, anxiety, resentment, suspicion, doubt and hate. We build the exit ramp off the karmic wheel and reclaim our authentic orientation to life – open, curious, unbiased, trusting and adequate to what arises.
This is an especially hard practice when we encounter cruelty, hatred, prejudice, intolerance, bigotry or injustice. It feels impossible to access unconditional love and acceptance when faced with something that breaks the heart open. Instead of staying with the compassion that arises in the opening, we are conditioned to respond with some form of the same hateful process that hurts our heart in the first place.
We can all recall examples of feeling intolerant of the narrow-minded, prejudiced against the bigoted, critical of the judgmental, dislike of the hateful. Conditioned mind would like to debate the validity and appropriateness of these “feelings.” Awareness Practice encourages us to examine whether the response is helpful. Does it help us awaken?
As the Buddha taught:
In this world
Hate never yet dispelled hate.
Only love dispels hate.
This is the law,
Ancient and inexhaustible.
Stepping out of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate is the only choice that leads to transformation of consciousness. This is why practice constantly challenges us to choose unconditional love, no matter what. Whether it is a hate crime that is the news of the moment, an unjust accusation from a co-worker, or the self-hate that arises when the guestmaster posts us a note, we bring the attention back to “what would love do?” How do we bring it all into conscious compassionate awareness?
“Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” --Buddhagosha
Making the choice for unconditional compassion, keeping the heart open, ends suffering, not just for “me” but for all beings. When attention moves from separation/duality/egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate to unconditional love and acceptance, what divides self from other ceases to exist.
Even “not-this” dissolves into all that is.
For the next 48 hours practice following “then what.” See if you can use the mantra “What would love do?” to short circuit conditioned reactions and choose the unconditonal.
Create a training regimen that allows you to practice collaborating when ego wants to confront, being generous when ego holds back, communicating when ego wants to withdraw, being appreciative when ego wants to criticize, offering compassion when ego wants to judge, accepting when ego resists.
Record and Listen to what arises.