Emrich Retreat - February 26, 2000 (Saturday)

Weekend focused on vipassana and mudita  (sympathetic joy)

Barbara: I hope you've had a good day. I'm enjoying the rain. On the way walking over here from my room,  I saw the he white pine by the path covered with little crystal drops of rain at the end of every needle. It's exquisite, like a thousand diamonds.

Aaron requests that people sit up for his talk. He says he doesn't want to put anybody to sleep. He'll try to be entertaining, but it's easy to fall asleep when you're lying down. You can give better attention when you're seated.

He's asked me to start by reading a quote to you from this book, The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. I'm reading from the first paragraph in chapter 1. This is quoting the Dalai Lama.

"I believe that the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness. That is clear. Whether one believes in religion or not, whether one believes in this religion or that religion, we are all seeking something better in life. So I think the very motion of our life is toward happiness."

Aaron will speak.

Aaron: I am Aaron. Good evening and my love to you.  The purpose of life is happiness?  This may seem like a radical statement to some of you. And yet of course it is. But so many of you are afraid of happiness. Why are you afraid? In part it is culturally conditioned but there are deeper roots than even your own culture's conditioning. I think the issue is that each of you wants happiness so much, yet you're not sure what it is or how to get it. Because of this aspiration to happiness and because of your confusion, you tend to grasp at things which provide pleasure and not lasting happiness. And then, when you don't find happiness there, you become afraid. "I will not find what I seek. My needs will not be met." You start to grasp at and cling to the bits of pleasure that come your way. There is a lot of fear which further hinders real happiness.

For people like yourselves who are on a conscious spiritual path, there is deep aspiration to purify your energy. You look at this light of the divine, this perfect radiance, and against it you see what seems to be your own shadow, the shadow of your fear, your anger, your greed, your impatience; all of these different emotions which you have viewed as negative and which are an outflow of fear.  So there is a confused move to happiness, grasping at pleasure,  seeing the greed and fear in this grasping, and then judgment.

You see the grasping at happiness in yourselves and you judge it.  Instead of seeing the grasping  for what it is, a voice of fear, you react to this grasping with the thought, "I shouldn't want this. I must diminish this grasping at happiness."  You misinterpret that into the idea, " That means I shouldn't seek happiness. It's selfish."  But grasping for happiness and inviting happiness are not the same.

Most of you have not fully understood that the happier you are, the more you can give out to others. Happiness is not a limited quality in the universe. When beings are suffering, and deeply mired in that suffering, it's very hard for them to give out happiness to others. When beings understand the nature of happiness and how unlimited it is, how it multiplies upon itself, then it becomes possible to wish happiness for yourself. Until you can wish happiness for yourself and feel joy, real delight in your own happiness, how can you wish happiness on others and take delight in that happiness?

So you keep moving to a narrower and narrower place. You have so much confusion with the emotions which come up, so much judgment, need to get rid of or suppress the thoughts of demeaning others' accomplishments, judgment, comparison, avarice.  Most of you think of such thoughts as "negative" qualities. It's so hard for you to understand that these are just the movements of mind which come from certain conditions, and they are not innately good or bad.

They do often lead to unskillful behavior. It's not the thought of avarice that leads you into grasping and clinging. Avarice doesn't do that. Avarice, just as with any other so-called negative emotion, can lead you into deeper compassion. When this state of mind arises, if you see it for what it is and know it, "Here is fear's voice. Here is a place where I am afraid my needs won't be met and greed has arisen.", it can lead you into compassion instead of into an expression of that greed. It can even lead you into generosity, not because you think, "I feel avarice;  therefore I should give to combat the avarice" but because you realize, "I feel avarice. There is fear. I will tend kindly to that fear." As you offer kindness to that fear, then the loving heart naturally opens up in generosity.

There is also the possibility of deepening wisdom here. When the thought of avarice or grasping arises, if you bring attention to the tightness of mind, the heat or prickliness, just knowing “here is the mind filled with avarice,” or “here is mind filled with  grasping,” then you experience these textures or moods of mind and don't get so caught in the content. The noting mind is already more spacious, less likely to be caught in the stories the mind has produced. Awareness focuses on the bare experience of aversion or grasping, and is far less caught up in the object which catalyzed that aversion or grasping and far less caught in identity with fear..  This focused awareness, which is calm, replaces the agitated state of aversion or grasping.

The primary difficulty I'm pointing to here is that most of you meet most of these so-called negative mind states with a strong guardedness and distrust. This catches you deeper into the content of these states, deeper into agitation, and into the idea that they must be “fixed.” You've learned through so many lifetimes of habit to be on guard for these mind states because what follows habitually has been something harmful to yourself and others. I said to one of you today, you then get out a club in one hand and put on your running shoes with the other. And when such a mind state arises, you prepare either to club it to death or to run away from it.

There's nothing wrong with your having this reaction, you simply have not received proper training. Nobody upon whom you could model yourself has said, "Stop! Drop the Nikes! Drop the club! Let's just sit here together with greed, with jealousy, with comparison, with a demeaning attitude of mind. Let's just sit here and see what this is about, what this mood of mind is like." But in fact you've been trained the other way by your culture, by your parents, by your peers.

Now you have the wonderful opportunity to stop and look. Your vipassana practice gives you this. Here is the opportunity to explore the contracted, frightened mind and also the spacious mind. The wonderful states of metta (lovingkindness), karuna(compassion), mudita (sympathetic joy) and upekkha (equanimity)  radiate naturally  from the spacious, focused, quiet mind.

In working with mudita, one does not start with a "I should" attitude. Otherwise it's not sympathetic joy at all; there's no joy in it. It's just more outflow of judging mind, cracking a whip over you and saying, "Now feel joy!" How can you do that on command?

The only way you can feel authentic joy for another is if you can feel authentic joy for yourself. In the spaciousness of that joy, you begin to trust it and know it is unlimited. Then you begin to be able to extend that joy out into the world.

One thing we need to establish here is, what is the nature of happiness? Most of you are past believing that happiness lies in a new car, a cone of your favorite flavor of ice cream, a new job or a hug from your beloved. These are all very pleasurable experiences. They are not lasting happiness. You can't keep that car from getting scratched. You can't assure yourself that your beloved will want to hug you tomorrow.  The ice cream cone will drip, leave sticky stains and a dreadful aftertaste.  Happiness has a much deeper level of being. Happiness is that place of centeredness where whatever is going on around you, the mind is at peace. This does not mean there's never aversion or attachment, but aversion is seen just for what it is, and so is attachment.

We must understand these difficult mind textures and the habitual relationship to them. You see how the mind connects with an object and moves into liking or disliking the object, and then into attachment or aversion. It's a process; I'll describe it to you in a few minutes.

So we realize there is a process whereby we move into a certain mind state and we do not take that mind state so personally. Let me ask you a question. If you were walking barefoot here in the room, in the hall, and if there was a thumbtack point up on the floor, and you stepped on it, would your foot bleed? Would there be pain? Of course. You're human. Would you think, "I shouldn't be bleeding. I shouldn't be feeling pain. Something must be wrong with me." Quite the contrary, you'd be surprised if there was no blood, no pain. You acknowledge this human body is made a certain way. If it is punctured there will be pain and it will bleed. The pain may be unpleasant but you never think, "I am bad because I'm feeling this pain." You never think, "I am bad because I am bleeding." Instead, you hold the foot carefully, tenderly. You wash off the wound and put a bandage on it. You treat it with kindness. You've learned that offering such kindness to a small wound is very skillful. It alleviates the immediate pain and it helps it to heal faster.

Here we had the example of foot making contact with a sharp object. This creation that you call self, this is not quite a foot. But certainly we agree that it's a something. There is a Ken out there and a Kate out there and a Vicki out there; you all exist. The foot is a, what is the foot? It's a mixture of cells, water, nerves, bone. They are impermanent.  New cells are coming into being all the time and old cells dying away. We call this combination of materials a foot and we give it an identity, "my foot". What's the difference between a foot and a hand? They're shaped differently. They grow on different extremities of the body. If we took a cell from the foot and a cell from the hand, could we  identify them under a microscope and say, "This came from the foot and this came from the hand?" I don't think so.

In this way we might say that the foot is not self. It's made up of non-foot elements such as skin, bone, blood, water. . It's made up of various elements that form the bone. Taking that to what you call yourself, you are also formed of non-self elements. Buddhist teaching calls these the skandhas or aggregates. Form. Feelings of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral. Thoughts. Impulse, and the whole flow of consciousness. You put these together much as the foot is put together and you think, "This is my foot, this is my self." But then, you're not consistent. When the foot is punctured by the tack, there's kindness. When this created self feels bruised by somebody else's anger, by someone else's blame, by someone's impatience or jealousy or abuse, and certain conditions of pain akin to the pain in your foot arise, conditions we call anger and other similar conditions, then you jump to the conclusion, "Oh, I'm bad. I shouldn't be feeling this." Well, you're either going to have to get your thinking straight and start to give the same kindness to the bruised self that you give to the foot, or you're going to have to be more logical and when you stub your toe or step on a tack, and there's pain and blood, to say, "Oh, there can't be, pain because this is just a collection of aggregates", and I don't think you want to do that.

Can you begin to give this kindness to the self, not to attack it when negative thought patterns arise, but simply to realize, “These arose because certain conditions were present for them to arise”. To attack the result is illogical. It's like saying, "I want an apple tree" and then planting a lemon tree in your back yard. It grows sturdy and beautiful, and one summer you are rewarded with thousands of lemons. Then you get angry and say, "But I wanted apples!" You grab all the lemons and throw them in the garbage. You yell at the tree, "I wanted apples!" How are you going to get apples from a lemon tree? If you want apples you've got to plant an apple tree.

If you want generosity and lovingkindness, patience, compassion, you have got to plant the seeds for it. You have got to stop nurturing the seeds for anger, jealousy, greed, and so forth. Don't get caught in the results; attend to the conditions from which those results spring. How to stop nurturing those difficult seeds is a  part of your practice. How to plant the seeds for the positive qualities is another part of your practice. And you must investigate it carefully to understand how it works. I'm going to tell you a bit about how this but I don't want you to take my word for it. This is an investigation that you must carry out for yourself, and then you'll be convinced.

There is an old teaching story. If you are going to travel to a place where there are rumored to be tigers, you might say to me, "Aaron, I don't feel safe going there. There are tigers." And I might say to you, "No, there are no tigers there." You might think to yourself, "Everyone tells me there are. Maybe he's just never seen them. Maybe he's been dozing." But if you go and you look for yourself and you don't find any tigers, then you know.

You have got to find out for yourself how these various mind states arise, what nurtures them and what reduces and helps to dissolve the difficult mind states.

Aversion and attachment do not just happen, there's a process. First you have physical senses and also the mind. Buddhism lists these as 6 different senses. There are the sense organs - the eyes,  ears, nose,  tongue, and the body which touches, and the mind. There are sense objects. The object of vision, the object of hearing, the objects of taste, smell and touch, and the objects of mind. There are sense consciousnesses, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking. It's very clear-cut. When the sense organ touches a sense object, the consciousness becomes active. Sometimes you may not be very present, so even if the eyes are registering or touching on an object, there may not be any perception of the object. At some level, seeing is happening but it's not registering.

For the most part, though, when the sense organ touches an object, there is a resultant consciousness and there is an awareness of that. Hearing, seeing, thinking. Depending on your past conditioning in part and on the nature of the object, it may be perceived as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Every object will have these qualities, and like everything else in the conditioned realm, they are not permanent. The heat in the room feels pleasant for awhile, then it's too hot. You turn it down. The cessation of heat feels pleasant, then you start to feel too cold. You have a visit from a friend and you're joyful to see them. You've forgotten how much they like to talk and after several hours, you're feeling a bit weary. This face and voice that were so pleasant in the first moment suddenly begin to be unpleasant as it nears midnight and you're tired.

So it's important that you see that the qualities of pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, are not innate to the object but depend on your relationship to them.

Very occasionally that relationship is what we call "bare perception", being just with this object as it is in this moment without any prior conditioning to influence how you relate to it. As a simple example, if you had never seen fire, somehow you had lived your entire life and never seen even a candle flame, if you came into a small village after traveling through a cold winter night and somebody invited you into his home where  fire burned in the hearth, giving off warmth, in that moment it would be very pleasant. Right there, nothing but the fire. Nothing but that moment. No past conditioning. Yet even here, there is past conditioning that equates warmth with comfort, so already there is some slant.

Think how different it would be if you were traveling on that cold dark night because your home had just burned down and all your family died. There might be a pleasant sensation of warmth from the fire, but your overall experience of fire would not be pleasant. Usually you bring this old conditioning into the moment and so it taints your experience in this moment. It's very hard to see clearly just what's here right now.

It's not easy to bypass that old conditioning. Often the best you can do is to know, "My response here is conditioned by old experience" and to allow a spaciousness which is not so attached to the view, "This is good" or "That is bad". One notes,  "In this moment this feels good to me. It feels pleasant and wholesome. But I acknowledge that consciousness in part is based on past conditioning."

How often have you arrived at a conclusion based on old experience? Judging this person to be bad and that to be good, this situation to be bad and that to be good. And of course, the discriminating mind does have a function. You do need to learn from past experience or you'd simply walk without looking across a highway and be run down by a truck. But the mind that gets you safely across the street and keeps you out of dark alleys at night does not have to be based on fear. It can be based on wisdom.

It doesn't have to jump to the next step after "unpleasant". It can know, "This is unsafe based on past associations. I won't go off with these people. I won't go into this alley. I won't sit down and talk to this person because his personality feels grating to me. It's unpleasant." Dislike does not have to follow. Try to catch the difference there. Think of something that's unpleasant but to which you really feel no strong aversion. Think of something that is pleasant and how it might be possible to experience that without clinging.

There are too many possibilities to run through each one. The point I want to make is that the experience "pleasant" in itself is only part of the condition that leads to craving. There's also got to be some fear based on old conditioning. "My needs won't be met." The experience of unpleasant in itself is only one of the conditions that leads to aversion, to strong dislike. There has to be some old associations, some old fear. Here is the place where you can begin to cut into this chain, getting to know how pleasant becomes grasping, how unpleasant becomes strong aversion and dislike, and then how dislike turns into hatred, how pleasant turns into grasping, turns into all of these states of comparing, avarice, greed, and so forth.

We got into this segment of this talk beginning with my statement, "If you want apples, don't plant lemon trees." You cannot attack the results, these thoughts of clinging, avarice, jealousy, hatred, with the idea, "I'm going to conquer these. I'm going to get rid of these." You've got to  see the conditions that gave rise to them. And the only way to attend these conditions is with kindness, noting that there has been a fear and that fear is based on your very natural human desire to be happy, to be safe, to be loved. Not wanting the pleasure which grows from things you may have collected and cling to, but that deep stable happiness that exists independently of conditions; this is the  happiness everyone wants.

What is this place that is independent of conditions? Where do you find it? This is the other fruit of your practice. When we looked at the foot, we saw it was made of non-foot elements. When we look at the self we see it's made of non-self elements. If you are not any of these aggregates of self, what are you?

Different religions will speak of this differently. I stay away from the Judeo-Christian term "soul" because it's often misinterpreted. The mental body is often added. What we're speaking about is the pure spirit body. This is like the drop of water placed into the sea. Once you drop that water into the sea, you can't see where it began or ended. It's still a drop of water; it has not ceased to exist. But you begin to understand that it is part of the sea. Anywhere you look over tens of thousands of square miles, your drop of water is there. If you can't point to it and say, "This is it" then it's in everything.

Try something with me. Take a deep breath; now exhale. Follow your breath. Where did it go? Quick! Grab it, your own breath and only your own breath. Bring it back into you.

You can't do it. Why? Where did it go? Has your neighbor got it? Is it floating up near the ceiling? Where did it go? Don't tell me it's disappeared. Certainly it has not ceased to exist. But you can't point to it and say, "There, that little patch of air; that one's mine." It's all over the room and it's floating out the windows. It's gone and it's everywhere.

This pure spirit body bears great similarity in this way to the metaphors of the drop of water and the breath. This is akin to the Zen koan, "What is your original face before you were born?" Who and what are you? When you cease to identify as your body, as your feelings and thoughts, as your whole stream of consciousness, what's left? You cannot answer this question from the brain. The brain is simply a tool for the discursive mind. This "what's left" can only come to know itself, pure awareness aware of itself.

Pure awareness is not consciousness. Pure awareness is that which knows awareness. It doesn't have any thoughts, judgments or opinions, it's simply present. Because of the nature of your being, it is an innately kind and radiant presence. We speak of the radiance of pure awareness. It partakes in what we call ground luminosity, an innate radiance of being. All I can say about it is it exhibits certain characteristics, such as this radiance and presence, an innate kindness. But none of these are it, they're just conditioned-realm characteristics of it. Buddhism says “the finger pointing to the moon is not the moon itself.” This radiance  is a finger. The only way to get to the heart of this is in non-discursive meditation. You stay with objects as long as they arise and watch them arise and cease, arise and cease, until you know the nature of arising and dissolution. You can only watch arising for so long before you begin to turn your attention to what this has arisen from.

It would be like watching a stream in your back yard. Let's say that you lived out in the country high up on a hill, and right there in your backyard was a fast running stream. There's no snow on the mountains above you; this isn't snow melt. You watch the stream, always flowing, whatever the season. . You get your drinking water from it. You splash in it on a warm day. You keep focusing on the characteristics of the stream until eventually you are led to ask, what is it? What is its source? And then you follow it up the hill until you come to the deep underground source from which it springs.

Let us call this underground source the Unconditioned itself, dharmakaya. We use the word dharmakaya, dharma meaning truth and kaya meaning body. This is the deepest and purest expression of that which is, the deepest and purest essence of God, constantly exploding out into the world. In one of our discussions today the comment was made by one of you about how reassuring and helpful it is to remember that everything is expression of the Unconditioned. It's like the spring constantly giving off water, a great cornucopia of abundance, the Unconditioned constantly giving off everything in the conditioned world, infinite expressions of itself..

Your practice can lead you to this kind of happiness. When you rest in that space, seeing how the entire conditioned world explodes out of the Unconditioned, seeing or directly experiencing the innate divinity of everything, then not much that comes along in the conditioned realm can rock you off that stable place. Whatever turmoil is going on in your life, you know it for what it is. There may be grief. There may be discomfort. There may be anger. But there's also a place which knows, "This is okay. This is safe." My dear ones, even death is safe. Dare I say that to you? You've all done it many times. When you move into incarnation, death is inevitable. Eventually you're going to die. How could it not be safe? Is birth safe? If birth is safe then death is safe. It may not be pleasant. It may not be pleasant to be born. When you're born, there are unpleasantnesses, and  you are born into all the joy of seeing butterflies,  running barefoot in a meadow and hugging your friends. When you die, there are other joys, and there is the loss of this conditioned realm for awhile.

From this place of deep knowingness, of direct experience of the Unconditioned, you start to trust, "I am safe." This is really the foundation for personal happiness. Even just a bare glimpse of this space is enough to  shatter infinite lifetimes of old fear and allow you to relate to the world in a very different way, to relate to your life in a very different way.

In the radiance of that truth of who you are, of your own divinity and divinity of all around you, it's very hard to be petty, jealous, comparing, demeaning, and if those behaviors do arise, it's much easier to note them simply as the outflow of fear, to come back to rest in this place of deeper knowing of truth, and very kindly to ask yourself not to engage so strongly in these fear-based behaviors. Then we can do a practice like mudita. There's no  "I should"  behind it here.  Rather, it's the movement of kindness. It's the moment when you see the lemon tree and bite into the lemon and say, "No, I want apples", go out and dig a hole and plant an apple seed, and make the commitment to nurture that seed.

But nobody's going to plant the apple tree for you. Nobody is going to do these practices of gratitude, of generosity, of kindness to beings, for you. You have got to get the spade out and dig the hole. There's got to be some effort. But it is no longer a fear-based effort, it's a loving effort for the good of all beings. It's effort which springs forth from  the deep commitment, "May all beings be free of suffering. May I be free of suffering. May all beings be happy. May I be happy.  May all beings be free. May I be free. Literally, free of this cycle of birth and death. "

This is not something you have to dream about for some lifetime thousands of years hence, it's something available today. If at some level you didn't believe in that, I don't think you'd be here at this retreat.

Honor your vision. Honor the truth that resides in your heart and continue to work in skillful ways toward awakening, toward kindness, toward freedom. I thank you very much for your presence and for hearing me tonight. I would be happy to hear your questions. That is all.

(remainder of session not yet reviewed)