Aaron's Talk
June 21, 2008 (Second Night)
Emrich Retreat

Keywords: Wisdom, compassion, learning through challenge, karma, habit energy.

Aaron: Again, my blessings and love. I’ve given literally tens of thousands of dharma talks, but it’s only in this lifetime speaking through Barbara that I have to remember to press buttons! (he is working with the recorder buttons)

I’m not saying that’s worse, only different. But I do ask you to observe how dependent you’ve become on your technologies. They’re assistants and if you use them properly, they can be helpful in your life, but don’t grow dependent upon them.

So for those of you who are feeling sleepy tonight, yes–there will be a transcript (laughter). But instead, I urge you to wake up and listen… That’s more helpful. Be here and present.

It’s so good to come together like this with the opportunity to share the dhamma….

There are 2 components to your practice: the development of wisdom and the development of compassion, and they must come together. We develop wisdom with the everyday practice, watching objects arise into experience and pass away. Sometimes they are pleasant objects, sometimes unpleasant objects, sometimes neutral objects. Sometimes when they’re unpleasant, aversion arises. Sometimes when they’re pleasant, grasping and clinging arise.

You begin to see how one object follows another quite logically. Everything depends on conditions. Summer follows spring, follows winter because of climatic conditions. Joy follows sorrow and sorrow follows joy because of the inner climate.

You may not like it that way but when you agreed to come into an incarnation, basically you agreed to experience all of this, and the reason for experiencing it is that it teaches you compassion. So on the one hand you’re developing the wisdom to understand that it’s all impermanent and not based on a separate self, to find more spaciousness, to let go of the terrible stories that spin out and unbalance you. On the other hand, because those stories do exist, because the pain does exist for you and your loved ones, you develop compassion.

The primary learning on the human plane is compassion. There will be other parts of the journey beyond the human experience where wisdom can deepen further. For now, there needs to be enough wisdom that you step out of this cycle of samsara, this repetitive cycle of karma, or you simply keep drawing back to you another series of uncomfortable events in this lifetime, another series of uncomfortable lifetimes.

Let’s talk a bit about karma. The word “karma” basically means action. Karma is often likened to the planting of a seed–you reap what you sow. If you want sweet apples, you must plant a sweet apple seed. If you plant sour apple seeds, there’s no way that tree is going to give you sweet apples no matter how much you care for it.

So in every moment you ask yourself, what kind of seed am I planting? Is it wholesome seed or unwholesome? Is it based in separation and ego or is it based in caring for all beings and deep understanding of interconnection?

Here’s where the wisdom comes in. If you have no meditation practice, no mindfulness, you would not really understand what I mean by interconnection. You can explain this more easily to a young child. She gets it because she is not yet so fully grown into separation. But you, as adults, you’ve got to remind yourself, nothing is separate.

If I show you only that (showing finger tips with the hand hidden behind a piece of paper), what would you think? We’ve got 4 wiggly digits, here. We arm one with a knife, another one with a gun, another one with a flaming stick, and they attack each other. But would the 4 fingers of the hand do that to each other? Of course not. They’re connected (showing full hand).

John and I look like 2 beings sitting here, but we’re connected. You, all of you, you’re connected. You’re connected to everyone and everything in the world. But my words mean nothing, you must learn this from your own experience. And that is one part of why you meditate.

Slowly, through your practice, the wisdom deepens to see 2 different things. One is that all objects in the conditioned world arise with conditions and then pass away, and they are not grounded in a permanent self. And the flip side of that is that when you cease to think in terms of a permanent self, you have a direct experience of egolessness. So it’s not just conceptual. You can see that “self” arises from conditions. You can see that there’s no real basis to it.

There has to be the direct experience of emptiness of self. What do I mean by emptiness? I do not mean that you don’t exist. I promise you, you’re here and you’re real. But a minute from now you’re not going to be who you are now. In fact, 30 seconds from now. So who are you?

John spoke this morning about the aggregates to one of the groups. The aggregate of form. Is there anybody here who believes they are only their form? No. Feelings. Feelings of pleasant and unpleasant and neutral. They rise up and they pass away. Thoughts arise. You are not your thoughts. The whole stream of consciousness, you are not that.

You might see it conceptually as waves in an ocean. When the wind is blowing and the ocean is a bit stormy, the waves come in big. You see a large wave coming toward you and then it breaks on the shore, or perhaps it breaks out at sea, even better. Building up and smashing down, and then where is it? Is there any wave left? It is the ocean, as it has always been. It did not disappear, only changed its expression. When we talk about emptiness, we’re not talking about non-existence. The waves and the water are one. I think that’s clear to all of you.

You are waves. What is the water to which you are waves? The wave doesn’t have cognizance as you do so it doesn’t know the ocean, but you have the capacity to know the ocean. This is also the fruit of your practice.

You come to know the ocean in two ways. One is by doing the practice of watching objects arising and passing away until you are certain that it’s all arising out of conditions, at which point mind begins to ask, what is the base? What is the ocean? Out of what are these arising and into what are they passing? You still don’t know. I promise you that if you practice this way for awhile, you will begin to experience the space between the objects.

Most of you have done this exercise with us, but let’s do it here together. Hold the fingers up. Wiggle the fingers. Stare at the fingers as you’re wiggling them. Nothing there but fingers. The body, the mind, the emotions, the stream of consciousness, feelings, perceptions, it’s all there, wiggling your hand. Now while it’s still wiggling, look through the fingers, look up here at me. The fingers haven’t gone anywhere. The fingers are still there. See the vastness beyond the fingers, yet he fingers are still there.

In your practice you do not push the conditioned objects aside in order to grasp and try to hold this space, nor do you stay so focused on the conditioned objects that you forget about the space. As your practice deepens, you begin to watch the conditioned objects arise out of who knows where. You’re not trying to figure that out, just out of conditions. Arise… present, present, pulsating, present, and then passing away. And as with this exercise, when it passes away, there’s that moment in which you look through–Ah, that’s it! That’s where the wave goes. That’s it, I’m there. The thought arose and it died away and ah, suddenly there’s space. There’s nobody thinking about it. There may be thought but there’s no thinking. There may be sensation but there’s no solid self saying, “Now I am feeling this.” Simply, there is hearing or pressure, feeling, thought, tension, spaciousness. The self falls away. Many of you have had this experience, and for those who are new to the practice, the practice will lead you into this experience.

When you first have this kind of experience, you emerge and say, “What was that? Did I imagine that?” But you know you could not possibly have imagined that. I would not go so far as to say it is life-changing when you first experience this, but it certainly does shift your perspective and help you to understand, “I am not the center of the universe. There’s no I here, it’s just this collection of aggregates, and the ground from which the aggregates arose and into which they dissolve.” So your practice leads you into direct experience of that ground.

All the way there, there can be a lot of challenge–body pain, emotional pain, memories that are unpleasant and objects that you don’t want to touch with that proverbial 10-foot pole. There can be resistance, sadness, feelings of shame or unworthiness, confusion--these will all arise, they’re part of the human experience.

The wisdom experience of objects arising and passing away without a central self gives you enough insight to know there is something beyond this mind, body, and consciousness; you start to trust it, and that trust in itself becomes a foundation that allows you to get closer to difficult experience. Even though there’s spaciousness, even though there is the Unconditioned, there are still the fingers. There is still this conditioned body and mind and its experiences. And they’re rolling over each other, the habit energy, and resistance is creating the struggle and suffering that you experience in your life.

To experience emptiness gives you a foundation and yet there is still the body pain that arises, the emotional pain that comes, and the need to understand how to be present with these experiences. This is the learning of compassion. The heart opens deeply knowing all beings experience loss, all beings experience fear. It stops being “my” fear, “my” grief, “my” confusion, and becomes our confusion, our fear, and the heart opens, holding in love all beings who are experiencing such things–all sentient beings, not just humans.

This opening into compassion is profound, really in many ways more life-changing than the experience of no separate self, of emptiness of self. Because while that gives you a direct experience of something, you really don’t know what that something is. But with compassion, you start to discover the nature beyond the individuated self. If I can put it in this way, the waves are water, and we start to discover the nature of the water. So it’s one thing to say there’s no self, but what is this no self? What are the ingredients of it? Compassion is a primary one, the loving heart. Awareness is another one, presence and love.

I’m not asking for a show of hands here, just raising the question: how many of you have felt deeply opened by compassion to the point of that profound opening and recognition of “The Heart of Compassion?” It’s such a different perspective. It really does lead you into the experience of emptiness of self. It’s not just me that is suffering; all of us are suffering. And this heart is part of us all.

I want to relate a story to you. This comes from one of my many past lives. It’s a story of a profound opening into compassion.

The being that I was, lived on a tropical island. That karmic ancestor was a fisherman, an elder in his community. Many of the old ways had died out. It used to be that the people were very attentive to dreams but now people didn’t have time for such nonsense, as they called it. My grandson came to me one morning and said, “Grandpa, I dreamed of a terrible wave coming toward the land and sweeping over everything.” This grandson had had precognitive dreams before and they had often proved to be true, and he was not given to making up stories, so I took him seriously and related it his dream to the other elders.

They said, “Well, it’s time for the fishing boats to go out. We don’t have time to worry about that now. Maybe we can talk about it around the fire tonight.” And I said, “No, it needs to be talked about now.” “No, no.” Even my son said no. He was not an elder but the elders also said no. This was not a convenient time.

In those days I was past my time of fishing and I often took care of the young boys, taught them simple fishing skills, did things with them during the day while their older brothers and fathers were at sea. Women took care of the girls, but I took care of the boys. So I took my grandson and many of the boys and also my wife took many of the girls and we climbed the mountain behind our village. We packed a lunch and we climbed up high. I was not leading them from fear, but from respect for the power of the dream.

Part way up, the earth shook. Rocks slid, trees fell. The children were frightened but they were safe. We continued to climb. We soon came to a spot where the shore could be seen and watched in some horror as a huge tidal wave came in and completely inundated the village. Of the men who were at sea, nothing was ever seen. Of those who had been in the village at the time, some bodies were found. But no one but my wife and I and these pre-teenage children survived.

I felt enormous bitterness at first. I raged, “Why me? Why us? Why should our whole village be destroyed? Why am I being punished? Why are these children being punished?” So I made it something personal that had happened to me.

We coped the best we could, my wife and I and the few adults that were with us and this group of perhaps 30 children. We rebuilt ourselves a village, not right by the water where it had been. I fished again to bring in food. We found different kinds of food. As the years passed, we raised the children as best we could, a half-dozen adults and 30 children. We were father and mother, teacher and comforter to them.

As the months and years went by, I didn’t have time to give to my rage anymore, but underneath I knew there was still a very hurt spot, a place of rage, powerlessness and fear. My heart was closed. I was simply coping, doing what I needed to do for the children. I think if the children had not been there, I would simply have let myself die.

One day I went further in my boat than was usual. Some of the boys who had been close to 12 at the time of that disaster were now 15. I was teaching them more about sailing and fishing and we went off a further distance. Through these 3 years we had not seen other people although there had once been other villages. It was my assumption that they were all wiped out, and in that time I had not had a big enough and sturdy enough boat to go and investigate nor the spare time to leave the children, to endanger myself to go and investigate.

I was not planning this trip as investigation, it was a teaching trip for the children, but because we did go far, I was curious what we would find. Two days out, I saw signs of life on land so we came close. Apparently something very similar had happened in this neighbor’s village, just a few adults and a handful of children that had survived by moving into high ground. But they had not coped as we had coped. The adults were filled with rage and anger, filled with superstition. The children were acting almost as slaves to the adults. Everyone was harsh and fearful. There was much anger.

They were not as big and as viable a community as we were but still I could see the damage that the rage and fear had done. And suddenly something opened up in me and I realized that only my love for these children had gotten us through this terrible situation, because I had dared to love, because my wife and a few other adults had dared to love through our grief. But these people had not dared to love so they were holding themselves constantly in fear. They would not go out on the water so there was a great scarcity of food. Not many fish could be caught from shore. There were some foods but they would not venture far from each other to explore, so they were ragged and starving.

My heart opened in compassion. There am I, if my heart had not been able to open. Our coming there was life-changing to them. They asked us, “Was your village not destroyed?” “Yes, it was. Just a handful of us survived.” “How are you going out on the sea? How do you dare this?” But there is no choice. One must dare to live, to deeply open one’s heart to life. There is no choice.

So we learn to trust the compassionate heart and that it can see us through whatever it needs to see us through. It ceases to be MY disaster, my trauma. We open our hearts to the trauma of so many beings.

I have had the great privilege to talk on 3 different occasions to people who were survivors of the Holocaust, people who spent years in a concentration camp, who experienced torture, and the death of their loved ones. These were people who did things they did not think they could possibly do, like carrying bodies into pits and dumping them there. They learned to forgive themselves for participating. They did not do the damage. If they had not carried the bodies, they would have been killed.

But it’s not about just survival. What helped these people survive is that they knew they had to live because they knew their life was important to others. Three is not many to interview but I’m grateful to have spoken to these 3 in different times and places. Each of them contributed so much to the welfare of others in these squalid, tormented conditions. Each found ways to provide extra food for people, blankets for people, to secure medicines. Each spent many nights simply holding people while they died. Each allowed him/ her self to be fully present in this horrendous situation. And they knew that if they allowed themselves to die they would be taking this support away from others, so each of them said, “I did not save myself for myself only, I saved myself for all beings, and it’s that that carried me through.” This is the living heart of compassion.

This is the power of living compassion. You do not do your work here for yourself only, you do it for all beings. Each of you has places in your personal history in this life that are difficult, and each of you has conditioning from past lives that is difficult. You do the practice not to save yourself but to save all beings, literally, because you inspire others, and because each person who allows themselves to connect with something deep and difficult in themselves, see it for what it is and let it go, not only gives inspiration on the relative level but shares the energy of liberation.

Liberation has its own energy. You’ve all been around people who seem almost transparent. They’re not reactive, they’re openhearted, they’re kind, and you can feel that energy. It’s real. When you nurture that energy in yourself, it adds to the whole world.

I spoke earlier of karma. As you do this work, you find that places that used to tighten up with certain conditions no longer become so tight. Openness increases, grounded in this mix of wisdom and compassion.

For example, let’s say that you had a, I want to give a hypothetical example that will not be too personal to anybody…. Let’s say in early childhood your mother died; you were the oldest of a number of siblings so that you felt that you had to take care of all the siblings. You in a sense became the mother. Maybe only 10 years old but you had to take care of everybody else. Then the deep conditioning might be there that you have to take care of people and yet a resentment also, a resentment that the 10-year-old could not express. How could he or she express such resentment when 3 younger siblings were dependent on him or her literally for their welfare? So you may have grown into the adult that both has to take care of everything and resents having to take care of everything.

Or perhaps you were the child whose parent died and whose older sibling did not take care of you, and you grew up constantly feeling needy, having lost your mother. Afraid, feeling invisible, feeling unloved.

You all understand how current situations can further those old feelings, feeling unworthy, invisible, unappreciated, unheard, or feeling constantly responsible with such a huge burden on your shoulders.

Somebody says something that triggers these feelings and you note the tension. Let’s take the one who has to be responsible. Something goes undone, some mention is made of it, and though it was not your responsibility your first thought is, “I should have seen that. I should have taken care of it.” Why? It wasn’t your responsibility to begin with.

We watch the tension that arises. I should. I have to. Feelings of shame, deep shame–why didn’t I see it? Why didn’t I take care of it? I’m not responsible enough. I’ll fail people. This is karma. It’s the habitual energy. You’re planting one seed over and over again.

What happens with the practice is that you begin to look at that response from a more dispassionate place. You see how that story, “I should have,” and the accompanying feeling of shame arises over and over. First you look at the thought, “I should have.” Ah, interesting, I keep thinking that. “I should have, I should have,” look how judgmental I am of myself. I wonder why?

Then you notice that when you don’t act on that “I should have,” strong shame comes up, but it feels too frightening to touch that shame, it’s easier just to act out that impulse to take care of everything and then feel resentment. “I have to do everything.” You keep it going. You think you have to do everything; then other people will think, sure, he or she is going to do everything. That’s not the way it is. They’re not dumping it on you, only–you’re accepting it. You’re inviting it, in fact. You’re inviting it so you can have the release of doing it and then feeling the resentment, and it’s just a vicious circle, karma. But the feeling of shame feels so unmanageable, that you just keep the karma going.

But at the point where you say, “Okay, out of this heart of compassion, for the good of all beings, I’m willing to look at this difficult feeling of shame,”–or in the reverse situation of the one who felt unloved, unheard, unseen, this feeling of unworthiness, “I’m willing to look deeply at this feeling of unworthiness,” Because of the ground of your practice, watching small objects arising and passing away and knowing they are all arising out of conditions, dissolving as the conditions cease. The shame or the unworthiness is no different, it’s just an object.

So wisdom helps you get a bit closer to it. And then you may work with metta, you work with the compassionate heart. You work with the resolve to do this work for the good of all beings. And you start to see how caught up you are in your ownership of feeling shame or unworthiness, that you’ve been feeding off of it for all these years, and how much it’s creating your suffering.

I am not suggesting that feelings of shame or unworthiness will then cease to arise, magically, but they’ll have a very different texture. You won’t get so deeply immersed in the story. There’ll be much more spaciousness that’s able to say, “Ah, here is this again. Ah, fear again.” Or “Hello, unworthiness.”

If you’ll forgive me, those of you who have heard this story a hundred times, I will tell the story of Milarepa. Milarepa was a Tibetan saint. The story is that he sat in his cave meditating when the demons of fear, greed, and hatred appeared. They were hideous. The flesh hung in shreds from the bones, gore dripped out. The organs were oozing out. There was a foul stench. They carried bloody knives and swords.

Milarepa took one look at them and said, “Come, sit by my fire, have tea.” They said, “Aren’t you afraid of us?” He said, “No, your hideous appearance only reminds me to be aware, to have mercy. Sit by my fire, have tea.”

So this is part of what you’re doing here, this week. First you’re gathering the tools, those of you who are new to the practice, and then as you deepen the practice, you’re literally inviting your demons in for tea and finding out that they, just like anybody else, enjoy the warmth of the fire. And they’re not really so horrible as they appeared. Compassion opens for them.

There’s one secret here–you sit by the fire and have tea with them but you don’t get into a conversation with them. No dialogue with them. Shh! They want to tell you their horrible stories–“Shh! Have more tea. More tea. Sit here in my presence. I hold you with love. Whatever shame, unworthiness, fear, greed, whatever it may be, I hold it with love but no, I’m not going to get caught up in the stories because I’ve done that forever and it hasn’t helped. It’s only enhanced the suffering. No stories.”

As you become able to sit with these demons with more equanimity, you cease to experience them as so solid, and you cease to experience the self as so solid, it’s just all arising and passing away. And then something at the retreat is left undone, some chaos ensues, people are running around frenzied, and the thought comes up, “Why didn’t I see that? I should have taken care of it!” and you just sit down and ask the self. “Is that so?” You watch the creeping of shame, and that it dissolves when you cease to listen to the stories. Shame asks, “Aren’t you going to feel ashamed? Are you deserting me?” “Yea, I’m deserting you. I don’t need to feel ashamed right now.” The little “Is that so?” is working.

Somebody turns to you and ignores you, perhaps, looks over your head and talks to somebody else and unworthiness comes up. The story comes up. The demon says, “Hey, you’re not really loved.” “Oh, is that so?” “You’re not worthy of love.” “Is that so?”

Develop the ability to answer in that way and let it go. This breaks the back of the karma; it just ends it. In a sense it’s forgiveness that ends it, forgiveness of all the people involved in this story that’s been spinning for so long, of the self, of others, of the whole world that’s immersed in these kinds of stories, and letting it go.

After awhile, when somebody ignores you, you don’t take it personally. When somebody makes a mistake and tries to pin it on you, shame doesn’t come up. It just stops. This is freedom. I’m not saying this is total liberation but it’s somewhere along the path where you’re able to respond appropriately, not to take others’ abuse, to say no in a kind way to abuse. When somebody blames you for something that’s not your responsibility, just to say, “I’m sorry that you’re experiencing so much pain from this. I was not involved. Please don’t blame me.” And not feel shame. When somebody speaks abusively to you, just say, “Please do not speak to me that way. It’s unkind.” Don’t take their stories personally.

This kind of freedom, this resolution of some of the strongest habit energies for each of you, is a base. Your path is a spiral and it leads you to a readiness to move deeper into the place of emptiness of self. The experience of being separate from others dissolves further. You still have to drive your car responsibly. You have to take out your garbage. You can’t say, there’s no self so let my neighbor take out my garbage. If there is no self, there is no separate neighbor. Who will take out the garbage? Each expression of emptiness takes care of the responsibilities that come past.

Here we have the integration of the relative and the ultimate. You begin to live with attendance to the relative plane, but there are no stories about it. One simply takes out the garbage. No “Why me?” No “Who created all that garbage in the first place?” You’re living alone, but “Who created all that garbage in the first place?” No stories. Taking out the garbage, you just take out the garbage. If it stinks, hold your nose and take out the garbage.

You ground yourself more in the ultimate plane and yet still live in the relative plane. You cannot divorce yourself from the relative plane. You are here in human form because you have things to learn in this human experience. And if you go off for a vacation into the ultimate and decide you’re going to stay there because it’s so peaceful, how are you going to learn anything? If you live deeply on the ultimate, do you really believe you will create no garbage? This heavy vibrational body does leave shit behind!

There’s a wonderful story of a monk who lived high on the mountaintop in a cave. He was so peaceful; no matter what happened around him he was peaceful. His disciples thought he was wonderful and decided they wanted to bring him down to the city so he could help more people. He finally agreed to go. They took him on a airplane and then from the airport by subway, and he was traveling with all this noise and mayhem, traffic everywhere, people, and he took one look around and he freaked out! And they said, what happened to your equanimity? He said, “That was only on the mountaintop.” You’ve got to bring it down to the valley, to the town, to your lives.

When challenging experiences happen–perhaps it’s not the food you wanted at dinner or the person next to you in meditation is coughing, a lawnmower is running–not the way you wanted it. You want to use the bathroom and the door is locked–not the way you wanted it. I want it now! I want it this way! This is not a problem. There are no problems, there are only situations that ask for your loving attention. Stop creating problems. Take everything as teacher with gratitude. It may stink, like a load of stinky garbage. Take everything with gratitude.

You don’t have to say, “What am I learning from this stinky garbage?” just be present with the stinky garbage with an open heart and learning that you don’t have to figure it out. The more you can be open and present with the stinky garbage, the more you can be open with the beautiful flowers. How many of you have really ever seen a flower? I would ask each of you during this retreat to sit yourself down on the ground at some point next to one of the flowers that’s growing here and spend 15 or 20 minutes with it just looking at it. Just–not even be with it, be it. Feel its life energy, feel its radiance. Feel it in you as well. At the end of the week, visit that flower again, and see that it’s dying. That’s okay too. It will fall off and become the compost that enriches the soil. It doesn’t cease to exist it just changes its teaching place.

So I hope I have inspired you a bit tonight. Practice with as much love and attention as possible, for yourselves and all beings. Your being here is such a gift. Some of you may be thinking, “I am leaving my family. I’m taking time away from those who need me.” They need you much more awake and enlightened than they need you crabby and confused. Use this week well to find the love in your heart and the wisdom in your heart so that you can bring it fully into your lives.

I thank you for this opportunity to speak with you.

Copyright © 2008 by Barbara Brodsky