Aaron's Opening Talk, April 24, 2005

Aaron: Good evening. My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. I hope you have had a very pleasant day, one filled with insights and ease. It is a great gift to be here by the sea.

Tonight I will speak about balance, not just the balance of everyday life and the spaciousness of spirit, but the various techniques of balance by which you may come to that ultimate balance. To begin, several paragraphs from a book.

Reading from Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindburgh.

"The problem: how to remain whole in the midst of the distractions of life. How to remain balanced no matter what centrifugal forces tend to pull one off center. How to remain strong no matter what shocks come in at the periphery and then tend to crack the hub of the wheel. What is the answer? There is no easy answer, no complete answer. I have only clues, shells from the sea. The bare beauty of the channeled whelk tells me that one answer, perhaps a first step, is in simplification of life, in cutting out some of the distractions. But how? Total retirement is not possible. I cannot shed my responsibilities. I cannot permanently inhabit a desert island. I cannot be a nun in the midst of family life. I would not want to be.

"The solution for me surely is in neither total renunciation of the world nor in total acceptance of it. I must find a balance somewhere or an alternating rhythm between these two extremes, swinging of the pendulum between solitude and communion, between retreat and return. In my periods of retreat, perhaps I can learn something to carry back into my worldly life. I can at least practice for these 2 weeks the simplification of outward life as a beginning. I can follow the superficial clue and see where it leads. Here, beach living, I can try."

Some of you, when you come to a retreat, have very profound experiences, very blissful experiences. Then you return home and you lust after that experience. "Where did it go? I want it back." You then wage a war with your everyday life, thinking, "How many more weeks or months until I can have another retreat?" Some of you have the opposite experience. You come into a retreat and there is no peacefulness, perhaps in part because you're grasping after it so much.

In the long run, your practice is only as valuable as your ability to integrate that practice into your daily life. If there is no integration, no matter what kinds of experiences you have, they're not very useful.

This is a vipassana retreat. Some of you have probably heard the story of my final lifetime in which through this practice of vipassana I found liberation. You may raise a question at my use of the word "I". How can there be an "I", a self that finds liberation? That karmic collection that I was, that human being that was the outflow of all the karma of all the chain of beings before, and who found liberation. Vipassana is a beautiful vehicle, and it will take you home. It's enough.

But some of you are impatient. You want to do it faster. Speed is not always the most important thing; in fact, speed can be a detriment. Integrity is more important. Carefulness is more important. But also, once you have that ground, and are working to integrate practice and everyday life, it's certainly wholesome to bring in those practices that help to provide balance. Otherwise, you're like the tightrope walker who says, "I don't need this balancing pole." It's harder to walk on the tightrope without the balancing pole, why not use it?

So you have certain support practices that will help to bring balance. This is my core focus tonight. First I want to describe to you briefly what vipassana is best at. With vipassana, you note the arising of conditioned physical sensations, emotions, feelings, thoughts, and consciousness, called the skandas. With careful watching, you see how they arise and pass away. That there is no self inherent in them. Rather, what arises is situation. It arises because the conditions are present for it; then it passes away. These are the first two characteristics of conditioned experience, that what arises s impermanent and does not arise based on a separate self. You also see deeply into the third characteristic of conditioned experience, that when you grasp what has arisen, or push it away with aversion, you suffer, because you can't hold on to anything and you can't really push anything away. It comes when the conditions are ripe; it goes when the conditions are released. Insight into impermanence, the no-self nature of conditioned experience, and the causes of suffering, these are the first fruits of the vipassana practice.

Within the vipassana practice, you come to a point where you have deep insight into the nature of arising and dissolution. You see that the liberation that is sought is not anywhere to be found in the conditioned realm, that you must break through into the Unconditioned mind. The everyday mind that observes the movements of conditioned reality cannot know this liberation. But you don't know how to invite that shift. At first you flounder. You know what is needed but not where it is. Ironically, it's always right there, you just can't see it, so you look elsewhere. This may be compared to the person who goes out looking for the elephant who's sitting in his front doorway. In his front yard he sees elephant footprints all around. He goes off tracking it. Where is it? Where is it? But it circled around and it's sitting in his front yard.

So you go around tracking the Unconditioned. Where is it? How will I ever find it? Finally you relax in exhaustion because your tracking has done you no good. And in that moment of letting go, "Ah, there it is!" At least, there it was, that brief glimpse and then it's gone. It comes, it goes. It's always there, it just plays hide and seek. I sometimes have thought that the children's game of Hide and Seek could be an excellent introduction to knowing the Unconditioned. One could develop that game first for the child to find you, the conditioned human. Then you introduce the child to the idea of, resting in awareness. Children take very quickly to this, You simply sound the bell and invite the child to stay with the sound and go where the sound goes. Let's do it.


Was there a moment for you when everything stopped, before the sound of the waves or a thought like "What next?" came? Did some of you feel that moment? The child can learn to identify that moment. Then one can play Hide and Seek with the child. Where is it? One doesn't need to call it rigpa with a child, just stillness. Spaciousness. Or let the child make up a name for it. When you're busy with conditioned things, in that moment ask the child, "Where did spaciousness go? Can you find it? Ah, yes."

I'm not telling you this so you can teach your own children or grandchildren, but to teach the child in yourself to stop frequently and ask, "Right now, where is the Unconditioned? Where is space?" To be able to recognize it, first you have to have a better sense of what it is. It's very hard to know what it is because it's not concrete. We can better say what it is not. That beautiful definition of the Buddha's: "the unborn, undying, unchanging, uncreated". It expresses certain qualities of love, light, space, peacefulness. There are certain sounds and senses associated with it. But it's very hard to pin it down.

This is where the practice of dzogchen or pure awareness practice becomes very useful. In dzogchen, we step beyond the arisings and dissolutions of the conditioned realm. We don't deny their existence, but we open to that vast view of spaciousness, rest in that space, and then observe the whole conditioned realm popping out and fading away, like fireworks in the sky, just exploding out.

When the fireworks explode into the sky, you do not mistake them for the sky. Nor do you get lost in the fireworks and think the sky has disappeared. The fireworks are there and the sky is there, as object and ground. Resting in Pure Awareness teaches you this. It teaches you to be present with the fireworks of your life and still rest stably in that spaciousness and know it as the Unconditioned. Perhaps it's not a deep entry into the Unconditioned, just touching around the edges. You don't have to jump into the ocean 2 miles out to know ocean. It's enough to look out the window, or walk in and wet your toes. It's still ocean.

So dzogchen may not immerse you 2 miles out and a hundred yards down in the Unconditioned. You wet your toes. But you know the quality of it. You learn how to rest in and hold that spaciousness. This is the greatest aid I know to the integration that will be called for later when, through your vipassana practice, you have a deep immersion into the Unconditioned, that "2 miles out and a hundred yards down". When you come out of that experience, you'll know what it is.

Dzogchen is also helpful for those of you who come to that edge that we call no-self, and panic. Everything is dissolving, including the ego and the body! "Will I annihilate myself?" You all know this experience. The self begins to dissolve, the ego begins to dissolve, and fear comes up.

Imagine if you had never seen the ocean, and I brought you by helicopter to the edge of a cliff on a very foggy day, right at the edge, with the ocean below. The sea was calm that day, only small waves hitting the rock wall, almost a sheer cliff, very safe to jump, but you couldn't see anything, and I said, "Well, we're here, why don't you jump?" Could you? Pretty scary! Where is "here? Where are we?"

Suppose I led you down a long path toward the water. We wade in from the beach. We swim out a ways. Small swells are rising and falling. Waves are hitting the rock wall but not in a dangerous way. They're not going to dash you against the rocks. From up close you can see the cliff rising 15 feet above you. Can't see all the way up, just the first 15 feet. Then it fades into mist, but you get a sense of where you are. We swim back, climb the path, come to the edge of the cliff, and I say, "Jump." "Jump? Into what?" you inquire. "Into the sea you were just in. No different. After you land in the water you can swim a bit and then swim back to the beach we just came through and out." It's much easier now, is it not? Yes, you know what's there. Dzogchen gives you that taste of the Unconditioned so you don't have to take it completely on faith. Mind knows, "I will not annihilate myself" when there is move into that space in the vipassana practice. It allows for the letting go that's so essential, because there's much less fear. You know where you're going. At least you've had a taste of it.

Within your vipassana practice and within your daily life, many experiences arise, variations of peacefulness and anger, joy and sorrow, ease and grasping, and so forth. Greed may arise, and all of the hindrances. The mind that is aware of these arisings is not caught in them. We begin to see the personal, every-day mind and the big mind, and know the ground of that Pure Awareness. Such knowing brings balance.

There are so many wonderful practices for balance. Last night you took the precepts. Simply holding to the precepts as a guideline, remembering the precepts, supports balance. So often there's an impulse energy born of old habit, and you stop and you remember the precepts. It makes it much simpler. You don't have to think, "Should I do this? Should I not?" No, you've taken the precepts. You know what to do. Here is this hornet flying around the room. You reach for a shoe. You're about to smack it. But you took a precept not to kill. But the hornet may sting you! But you took a precept not to kill, not only when it's convenient but always. Then how can you work skillfully with the fear you feel of the hornet, bring more balance in so that you have more choice, rather than just to kill to avoid fear? With the ground of the precepts, you are reminded to stop and invite metta, karuna, mudita, and so forth. This is to invite balance.

We work with the hindrances and the factors of enlightenment to bring forth balance. With each of the hindrances we find factors of enlightenment that will bring balance. These factors are mindfulness in the middle, energized factors and tranquil factors. When you're agitated with fear, working with some of the tranquil factors like concentration can help to balance the fear. When you're working with lethargy or sluggishness, inviting some of the more energized factors like investigation will help bring in more energy. Again, balance. This is just the basic balance for your practice and for living.

One seldom-offered practice in these days that used to be used quite a bit and that I learned 500 years ago, is a simple practice called "Buddha-gazing." Simply breathing out, breathing in, resting the gaze on the Buddha. It may be done with or without a physical reminder of the Buddha, a picture or statue. Bring awareness to a quality in yourself that has either been troublesome today or a quality in yourself that you would more fully like to develop.

Let's start with the latter, with the quality of equanimity. Perhaps you've had a restless day and mind has been judgmental, opinionated, and you've sought more equanimity. Know the equanimity in the Buddha. Breathing in, breathe it into yourself. Breathing out, really feel this equanimity. It's not a practice you can do in just 2 minutes of sitting. It's something to which you'd want to devote at least 15 minutes, choosing that quality and knowing it in the Buddha with absolute certainty, and then seeing the reflection of it in yourself and beginning to feel it. Right there with all the agitation and judgmental mind, feel the innate equanimity.

If there has been a lot of anger in you, you can look at the Buddha and see deep compassion, spaciousness of heart and mind, freedom from anger. You are not creating something in yourself, you're using the Awakened One as a mirror to reflect back to you that quality that you seek, to reawaken the memory of it, and know it in yourself. Then you can close your eyes and just be present with that quality.

Working with the brahma viharas is a wonderful practice, bringing into your experience any of these very beautiful qualities. You are not creating them, you are reawakening the memory of them, allowing yourself to experience. As we do this, working with the brahma viharas, working with Buddha-gazing, working with the factors of enlightenment, sometimes we need to ask ourselves, "What is blocking the experience of this already-intrinsic quality? If there is already equanimity, why can't it be felt? If there is love, why do I feel so much anger? What blocks the experience of loving kindness?"

Here we come to another practice that I would like to speak about at a bit more length. This is practice with the 4 Elements and this site is a wonderful place to do this practice. Actually there are 5 elements: the four basic elements of earth, air, fire, and water, and space. We call space the Great Mother out of which the other elements arise. Space is that infinite openness in which we find earth, air, fire, and water.

Each of you are born with an imbalance in the elements. If you came into the incarnation with the elements perfectly balanced, you'd already be an enlightened being, for only those enlightened beings have perfect balance of the elements. Some of you have more subtle imbalance, some greater imbalance. If you reflect on yourself, each of you, I think you'll find a predominant element. Earth is the heavy grounded energy, but sometimes it can be too grounded. When it's balanced, it's just a ground. When it's imbalanced, it becomes a lead weight, too heavy. Air, when air is in balance there's spaciousness and ease, but unbalance air and your energy is too high. There's no grounding at all. Fire, without the fire element there's no energy, so a balanced fire element is energetic. An imbalanced fire element is filled with anger, filled with restlessness and tension. Balanced water element is fluid. Imbalanced water element is undependable. It's constantly in motion. There's no anchor to it.

You'll notice I'm using some of the same words. It's obvious that water and fire would seem to be opposites. An easy remedy for great anger is just to go sit in a cool wet stream. Very hard to maintain the anger sitting under a cool waterfall. We don't think much about why, but of course you're bringing in the water element and it cools the fire. When your energy is low and you're feeling sleepy here in the meditation, and you go out and walk briskly on the beach, with the onrush of cool air, it brings up energy. You're bringing in the air element to balance the heaviness of the earth element.

I said that each of you are born with certain element imbalances. This is why each being is unique. One of Barbara and Hal's children rarely cried after birth. He was a very peaceful infant. Another one screamed as he was coming out of the birth canal and continued to scream for weeks. There was a lot of fire energy. Clearly each individual is unique and brings this difference in from birth, karmically conditioned.

For a start, then, begin to reflect on which elements feel balanced in your physical body, in your emotional body, in your mental body. The balance may be different in each body. The mental body may be very balanced and the physical body imbalanced, for example. Begin to reflect, when you're feeling a strong imbalance whether it's expressing itself in an external way or not, in other words, when you're feeling agitation without a large external expression or when you're feeling agitation and anger as the external voice of the agitation. The simple reflection, "There is imbalance here. My intention is to bring back balance so as to support harmony, so as to support my intention to live the precepts, so as to support my intention to liberation." This brings in the practice of Clear Comprehension. What is my highest purpose in this moment. Is my response suitable to that purpose? And clear comprehension of the dhamma: what conditions give rise to a suitable or an unsuitable response?

Holding up that intention, the next step will not be one of grasping but one of easeful positive choice. What do you need to bring balance? In order to know that, you're going to need to spend some time sitting on the beach and getting to know each of the elements as they appear in the outer world and as they appear in yourself. Sit and look at the ocean and feel the energy of it. See the waves surging and breaking, building and ebbing. Hear the sound of it. And focus in to the water element of your body, both the literal water element of the whole water structure of the body, the blood in the veins, the high water content of the cells, and also, let's call it the energetic tides of the body. Learn it from the ocean so that you are in better contact with it in the body.

Close your eyes and feel the sand, feel the deep earth underneath you. Here at the seashore there's a lot of water mixed in with the sand so it's a little harder to find, but you can find it. Dig yourself a little hole in the sand and sit in it. Even lie down in it, in a depression to hold the body so that you're deep into the sand. Feel the earth element in your body. Learn it from sand.

Feel the hot sun shining on you (we hope the rain will cease!) Feel the hot fire on you—please do not look into the sun, but look at the light of the sun hitting the sand and the sea, feeling its heat; that's enough. Feel the fire element in your body. A core of the fire element in the body is right behind the navel. Begin to imagine a hot sun burning there. Feel it radiating through the body. How is the fire element in the body? Is it awake? Is it out of balance or in balance?

The air, lots of breeze here. Feel the air element, external and internal, in the same way, and in this way, familiarize yourself with how the elements are in your body. Then during your day, if you feel lethargy or restlessness, mental agitation, anger, or sadness, stop and ask yourself what imbalance exists in the elements right now which is contributing to this mental or physical state? Of course, there's not just one cause of any state, but there can be a decision to invite balance. What happens when you sit down and say, "Instead of perpetuating the present agitation I feel, I'm going to bring in balance. The fire element is out of balance. I can either release some of the fire element or I can bring in more water to balance it, bring in more earth to balance it. Which is most appropriate in this moment?"

How do you bring in water? Look at the ocean. Begin to feel the water element in yourself, how it neutralizes the fire element. Feel the sand. Feel how it grounds and neutralizes the fire element. And conversely, if you're sitting here falling asleep, and during the walking period you go out and feel great lethargy, would prefer to your room and go to sleep, instead feel how the earth element may be too heavy in you in that moment. Bring in more fire. Bring in more space and more air, space and air being two separate things; I haven't spoken of space yet, let's leave that aside for now. Bring in more fire and more air. Feel the movement of them in the body.

This is where we come back to vipassana practice. You start to see that there are certain habit energies whereby you move into a specific element imbalance. It's very helpful to see how you do that, and that it's just habit energy. You don't have to do it. It's just the habitual response. The air is a little warm, you're sitting still, lethargy comes. With lethargy, the fire element dwindles, or the earth element becomes very heavy. Watch it. I'm not telling you to push the elements around, but you're the one who chooses. The elements simply come as habit energy. You're not stuck with them forever in those imbalanced patterns. For some of you, the imbalanced patterns of the elements have led to physical ailments, and some of these physical ailments can literally be healed through work with the elements. This can become a very important part of your practice, then, when there is some specific physical ailment.

Finally, working with the elements, there is the opportunity to realize the true nature of the body in another way, that the body is simply composed of the various aggregates and the elements. We don't talk much about the elements when we talk about the aggregates, but the elements are right there within the physical body, within the form aggregate, within the feeling aggregate, within the thought aggregate, and so forth. When we go beyond just the aggregates themselves, we begin to see the whole element composition of them. Insight into that is a great aid to releasing self-identification with the experience of the aggregate. If, within the mental aggregate you're experiencing a depressed state, it's simply the outplay of heavier earth element. That's not the only reason why you're experiencing that depression, but if you resolve to balance that element within the emotional body, then you can see what happens to the depression. Almost certainly there will be a change. More important, you cease to take the depression as self. You see how it simply has arisen from many conditions including the imbalance of the elements. You attend to it appropriately but you don't have to fix it. That perfect balanced state is always there.

This brings us back full circle. You can see how valuable your vipassana practice is because it gives you the means to look at what is arising. Without vipassana you feel anger or depression, you don't even know what you're feeling. Or supposing you have the ability to say, "Well, I'm angry." There such big an I! "I am angry!" There's so much self-identification, and there's no clarity about the nature of the anger.

So vipassana is the starting place and the ending place. Everything else is support, but very valuable support. I was speaking at length about the elements because of the site here, and practice with the elements is a wonderful support here where you have them so very accessible to you. But all the supports are of value.

Remember that there is nothing that you need to create. That balanced, enlightened being is right here. I know you'd like to meet him or her! He or she is here and will not depart, simply waiting for you to wake up to the experience of that aspect of your being and know it. I hope that will be the path of this retreat for all of us: deeper insight into that Buddha nature, deeper recognition of it. Thank you for this opportunity to speak with you tonight. Let me ask here before I stop if there are any questions.

Q: Aaron, my question is, what element is linked to the emotional state of fear? And how can you work with that emotional state through the elements?

Aaron: An imbalance in the elements does not cause fear. Fear arises mostly on the basis of the delusion of a separate self and other. Seeing the self as impermanent, for one example, but seeing without perspective so impermanence threatens, then the habit energy is for fear to arise. The whole mind and body contract with fear, reinforcing the experience of separation as a way of protecting the self.

Once fear has arisen, certain elements will come into play. Fear can have many different voices. One common expression of fear is anger. If anger arises in relation to fear, as expression of fear, then the element of fire will be out of balance. That may mean there is not enough of the balancing elements, that fire is at a normal level but water and earth have diminished and need to be elevated. Or it may mean that fire is supercharged and it needs to be released to come down into a level with earth and water.

Another example, with fear there may be closure, contraction, shutting out, and a kind of withdrawal. Here there's too heavy an earth energy. You'll have to be intuitive about this, but it's not the fear itself that you need to look at but the expression of that fear in the mind and body, and then ask, "What is out of balance here?" As you bring the anger into balance, releasing the fire or bring in more earth or water, you may come back to the direct experience of fear and an impulse energy to push the elements out of balance again to build up the anger or withdrawal, to express the anger or withdrawal as a way of avoiding the direct experience of fear. Here you've got to be very kind and patient with yourself, acknowledging the fear, holding a space for the direct experience of fear without stories of anger or withdrawal or whatever other story may arise. We work with vitakka and vicara. That is another talk!

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