April 24, 2002 Wednesday Night Group

Aaron: Good evening. My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. My dear ones I hope this spring day has made your heart sing, as it has mine. You may wonder at that because I don't have a physical body, and yet I do experience energy. The energy of this new life bursting forth from the earth is so full of love and hope and courage. It does make me smile.

It takes enormous courage to move into incarnation. It takes a willingness to come back and do again and yet again the work that has proved hardest in the past. It is different work for each of you but always that one step beyond where you have been before, coming forth with a willingness to let go of old limits and emerge into the fullest expression of your fearlessness and radiant beauty. I honor each of you for your willingness to be here in this body, doing your work with so much love. I say that regardless of whether you feel you are succeeding or not, for from my vantage point you are all succeeding. That is, you are all learning what you came to learn, even if sometimes it feels as if you are not.

This morning Barbara and I began to review several hours of conversation from last week with the visiting monks and nun. They are all very steeped in the Theravada Buddhist tradition and in the current presentation of that tradition. We talked at length about these pure awareness teachings and how they fit into that tradition.

One of the Ajahns commented that the Buddha did not teach pure awareness. While he did not find it contradictory to anything the Buddha taught, he felt some kind of conflict because it was not the specific path the Buddha presented and in which he had been trained. I noted that the Buddha was teaching in Hindu India of 2500 years ago. The predominant Hindu spiritual practices were a devotional practice invoking the various Hindu gods, putting faith in those gods to save them and also a high concentration practice, jhana practice, moving into very powerful altered states of being in which there was profound bliss and peace.

The Buddha, in his wisdom, noted that while there was bliss and peace while resting in those states, when one came back into one's everyday mind and body, the bliss and peace were not retained. Defilements or heavy emotions still arose, not while one was resting in those states that are secluded from such emotion, but afterward. So one was not karmically free of this whole cycle of becoming, of rebirth.

The Buddha's work 2500 years ago was to invite people to come more into their everyday experience as spiritual practice. His teaching of vipassana was a way of inviting people to come into the mind, to come into the body and note the arising and playing out of the conditioned realm. His statement was that freedom does not lie in escaping from this mind and body experience but in being present with it until the wisdom develops to note its conditioned nature and to deeply understand the interdependence of all things, to know that nothing is separate. Only then can one move deeply into the original state. Here, while present with the mind and the body, one notes true nature so clearly one is no longer contracting around mind and body experience and begins to realize the ground out of which all this conditioned realm explodes, and into which it sinks again. The trick is not to choose one over the other but to understand that you must experience both.

The reason I offer these pure awareness teachings and practices side by side with vipassana is that for the most part in your culture, you do not have a background that introduces this true nature. Your culture is very much involved in control. Many of you are not so much in your bodies but the mind is constantly spinning, trying to control the different conditioned experiences that come your way.

For balance's sake then, it's much easier if you find this spaciousness and begin to understand that it's always there. So I told these respected monks that I did not feel that this practice was contradictory in any way, but complementary.

My question to you tonight: where are you, each of you, in this balance? Some of you may have a preference for moving out of your body into blissful experiences, and may have learned certain techniques that allow that. Fine; enjoy it. But know also that it is not freedom, but just a nice vacation.  Some of you may be very focused in this more traditional path of practice, being present with all of the arisings of the mind and body. If there is any distortion to the practice, you may feel overwhelmed by the constant process of arising and ceasing of conditioned objects, distortion because you have not been taught to see the space between objects and to rest in that space. . There's no space, there's no joy, there's no light or peace in your practice. If so, the balance needs to extend out to more spaciousness. Then the pure awareness practices become very supportive, bringing balance.

I would ask you to look deeply at whatever spiritual practices you pursue ands note if the spaciousness of which I speak is present along with the conditioned world. There's an exercise we do here sometimes, a very simple exercise. I invite you to do it with me here a moment. Hold your hand up 8 or 10 inches in front of your face, eyes open. Stare at the fingers and wiggle the fingers. Move the hand gently, fingers in motion. Focus on the fingers, only on the fingers. If the head needs to turn up and down as the fingers move, do that. Keep focused on the fingers. You can't see anything beyond that, just the fingers.

When I tell you to do so, I want you to keep the fingers moving but I want you to shift your gaze and look through the fingers. Do it now.

See how you can take in both? The fingers don't disappear, they're still moving but the background is there, the space in which the fingers move. Both are present. What would it mean if we asked which is real? Both are real. The space is real and the objects that move into and out of that space are real. When you fold your fingers on your lap, the space does not cease to exist. When you raise the fingers and move them again, the space does not cease to exist. The space remains. Fingers come and go. Right hand, left hand, right hand again. You can draw your attention back to the fingers and lose the space temporarily, but it doesn't cease to exist.

In a similar vein, think of a boat sailing on the ocean. You sit on shore and watch this large ship pass. It's an interesting ship and it catches your attention. You may be focused on the ship in such a way that you cease to notice the ocean, but the ocean doesn't go anywhere. The ship goes across the ocean and then passes away out of your view. The ship may go into port. Maybe it's an old ship and they dismantle it, cut it with a blowtorch into little pieces. So the ship can cease to exist. The ocean remains. Maybe a different ship comes out, this time, a wooden schooner. The objects appear, the ocean remains. Even if you are riveted in attention on the ship, the ocean remains.

This is the balance required in meditation practice, whether you are working with vipassana or some other form of meditation. There must be awareness of arising of conditioned objects of mind and body and how you relate to those objects. This is necessary if wisdom about the phenomenal world is going to develop. Furthermore there must be a very specific kind of attitude toward what arises, one of presence, but not one of control, only kind, spacious awareness. It is only out of that kind presence that compassion deepens so that the heart is able to hold any object, lovely or difficult, and give it space. The space in your heart is not different than the space of the sea or the space beyond the fingers because your heart is infinite. Your heart is part of this Divine or Unconditioned.

When it is no longer your heart but THE heart, you rest in that spaciousness. But you cannot escape into that spaciousness and avoid your relationship with the conditioned realm. If it's an ugly old garbage scow and it heads toward the beach right where you are, you've got to be aware. It stinks, it's unpleasant. If it's a little rubber dinghy with 2 children in it and they scream for help, awareness and kindness go out into the water and help them. Nobody is saving somebody, just kindness flowing.

So there is activity and attendance in this awareness. Watching whatever arises, aware of the conditioned object and that space. We do many different exercises to help you understand the nature of the space. Some of you have done a formal pure awareness or dzogchen meditation. Some of you have worked with the sound of that space, the sound of silence, nada. Some of you have worked with the radiance of it. Some of you have worked with a simple awareness practice such as noting, “That which is aware of anger is not angry. That which is aware of greed is not experiencing the greed, just watching it”. You are not disassociated from it or you could not attend to it skillfully. Just watching it. Present!

With metta and awareness, nothing is labeled as good or bad, right or wrong. Some acts or words may be unskillful; you attend to them. But there's no self to be bad and nothing bad coming from the self. This is the heart of your practice. Because you are all so deeply conditioned to these old mind states and the dualistic idea, "This is bad. I must take a stick and beat it until it leaves," equanimity has not developed. The self stays firm. Here we witness the ancient controlling aspect of the mind, which has created an imbalanced practice for you and denies spaciousness. When you can rest in the space, seeing old conditioned beliefs and attitudes, and holdings of the body arise, that presence so deeply helps you to relax with what has arisen, even if it's very unpleasant, so you do not  get caught in a war with it. And it is only in this state of non-war that there can be the resolution of karma.

Some of what you work with is very difficult for you. I said earlier that you each come to the edge of your prior experience and ask yourself to let go and step into the unknown, and that that takes courage.

In your culture, work with heavy emotions is one of the predominant parts of your practice. Of course, working with difficult body sensations is also a strong focus for some of you, but I think emotions in your culture offer an even stronger focus. So many of you were raised with the belief that you should not have certain kinds of emotions, that you were bad to have those emotions. You have devised elaborate systems to avoid, deny or suppress such emotions. There is a lot of fear for many of you in your relationship with others. For some, fear that you will not be loved, heard, or understood, for others, a fear that you will poison others by your own anger or other negativity.

In the realm of heavy emotions, you seldom rest in a spacious place watching the emotion arise, but rather, when it arises, greet it like a garbage scow. You jump aboard ready to burn the garbage or to cover it up with huge tarpaulins. Hide it out of sight. Sink the scow!

How can we bring these heavy emotions more into our practices, and with kindness? This week I talked to a few of you using a metaphor, or illustration, of the balloon, the porcupine and the armadillo. You all know the rock, paper, scissors game. The scissors will cut the paper. The rock will break the scissors. But the paper will cover the rock.  It's the same with balloon, porcupine and armadillo. The porcupine has sharp prickle. When something threatens, his spines raise up leaving a sharp defensive surface. He warns in that way, don't come too close.

At first glance the balloon may seem to be defenseless. Think about this carefully. If the porcupine has no qualms about harming another then the balloon is defenseless. That is true.  If the porcupine does have a deep intention to non-harm but also a deep intention not to be hurt itself, and its conditioning still raises its quills, what happens? If we have 2 porcupines who confront each other in an angry way, if one raises its quills and the other sheds its quills, dropping them off so all that's left is a surface like a balloon, soft and tender, what will happen?. As long as the other's quills are up, the first one can stand on its own ground, making a show of its strength. But when the other one sheds its quills and is soft, if our porcupine with its erect quills approaches he sees, "I'm going to puncture him. I'll damage him." If he's angry enough and does approach and harms the other, then he may feel shame. So in a sense the one who has gone soft and lets go of his quills has power. Can you see how that works?  

This is part of the power of non-violent action, although I'm not going to explore that theme tonight. The dropping of one's quills can be done in a deeply loving way, accepting that one takes responsibility for dropping those quills and forgives the other before any damage is done, for the possible damage. It says, "I see your sharpness. I understand that in letting go of my sharpness, I am in some ways permitting the possibility of your damaging me. Because of the force of your thrust, I recognize that may happen, and I forgive you."

When done in this way, as what Gandhi called satyagraha, or soul force, it is a loving power.  But it can be done in a much more manipulative way, breeding unwholesome karma, a way that says, "As soon as I see your prickles, I become helpless, knowing that your impetus is going to roll you into me. You'll hurt me and then you'll feel such disgrace, such shame, and then I have the power. And all I have to do is be willing to suffer some pricks from your quills, to bleed a bit. But I'll have the power."

So we have the porcupine and the balloon or quill-less porcupine. What about the armadillo? These fellows, they can curl up in a ball, completely covering any sensitive, soft area. They look almost like you can roll them when they're curled up, just a hard spiny exterior. No quills. They can't damage anything. They can't be damaged. They cut themselves off entirely.

Let's imagine here an imaginary creature, a porcupine who had the ability to lay his quills down smooth and flat and make an armored coating like an armadillo. If you imagine that creature, then consider these 3 different sorts of porcupines: one with quills that pop out when he feels endangered,  one who can lower his quills and become an armored hulk, and the one who can drop off his quills, and if done in a self-centered way, become powerful through appearing to be vulnerable.

Each of you has certain patterns that you follow when you feel threatened. You become one of these porcupines. Yet rarely do you stick just to one pattern. Most of you go through all 3 at one time or another, although one will be predominant. Different situations will lead you to withdraw, to armor yourself, and separate yourself, to arm yourself, ready to fight with sharp points, or to move into an appearance of helplessness, thus putting the other person in a place of full responsibility instead of acknowledging your shared responsibility.

When there are strong heavy emotions, and especially anger, and you move through these 3 different patterns, look in yourself and see how you usually respond when anger is present. I ask you to look not with the idea "I must fix this" but simply become aware of this and aware there's a choice. Whatever patterns you habitually follow, if you're locked into old habit, you're not free. Fear is impelling the habit rather than lovingkindness.

How does this connect to the earlier part of my talk tonight, to spaciousness? When you lock yourself into an identity with any of these habitual faces of the porcupine, you're stuck. Looking back you may feel remorse. But right then, you're stuck.

Dare I repeat myself once more? That which is aware of presenting itself as a porcupine with quills does not need to engage those quills? That which is aware of its tendency to roll itself up out of harm's way and disappear is able to stay present. That which is aware of its habitual tendency to control through a guise of helplessness need not manifest that aspect of itself when it sees that it is unskillful and unwholesome. This spacious awareness is what gives you the ability to be present even with the most difficult emotions without getting caught in them. It is not something that comes easily or quickly. One must be very persistent in one's practice. See how easy it is to get lost in the emotion, with the force of old habit. From a ground of practice come back to the breath, bringing awareness to the anger and knowing that which is not self-centered and identified in the anger. I'm using anger as an example but it can be any heavy emotion.

The heavy emotion is an object like the fingers. Awareness is the space. When your practice develops in this way, slowly the identity with the movements of body and mind falls away, and the ability to respond appropriately emerges. This ability is the fruit of your deepening wisdom about the nature of conditioned arising and about the nature of what I would call true self, this innate goodness, kindness and radiance that is your true being. You do not hide in that goodness in denial of the arisings of negativity, nor are you prompted to grab a club and beat the negativity into submission. And here at last is, I wouldn't call it balanced practice but balanced living, balanced relationship. From this place of equanimity, deeper insights can emerge; a deeper peace can build.

I thank you for allowing me this opportunity to share my thoughts with you. That is all.

(remainder of session not reviewed)