November 13, 2010 Saturday Night, Stone House Retreat, NC

Keywords: karma, dependent origination, meditation/practice

Aaron: Good evening. My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. I hope you've have a good day, a beautiful day for practice. I was very moved watching you doing walking meditation, a dozen of you out in this field walking back and forth, each of you deep in your practice. It was very beautiful to watch.

I want to talk a little tonight about how karma relates to dependent origination. (dependent Origination is the theme of the retreat and was the topic of the morning instructions from John and Barbara, not recorded) You all understand the basics of karma. Karma is never punishment. Karma is energy, action. Each of you is part of a karmic flow or stream.

Karma relates to habit.Think of a clear, flat piece of ground. A raindrop falls. It makes a tiny indentation. The ground is not quite flat, almost flat, so that drop of water hits and then runs off. Another raindrop falls in the same place, and a third, and a fifth, and suddenly you have a little channel maybe half an inch deep. Now the water that falls on either side of it flows into that channel. Because there's a channel, it rolls down into it from either side. So the channel gets deeper and deeper until eventually you have the Grand Canyon, all from the little raindrop.

There is a catalyst, and because of your conditioning you respond in a certain way. That response seems helpful even if it's not a fully wholesome response. In other words, somebody is angry at you, you yell back and it feels like you protected yourself. The next time anger drops on you, the same response comes forth. You keep repeating it. You forget there's any option so you get stuck in that particular flow of conditioning.

Years later, your friends and you all think of yourself as an angry person. You have friends but they constantly tell you, "Why are you so angry all the time?" You have no idea. But back when you were a child and people yelled at you, you became angry.

Often for a child, when they are treated abusively, they can't get angry at the person who is abusing them so they turn the anger on themselves. This is one particular kind of habitual patterning we see a lot of. The anger keeps turning on the self through many, many years until there is a deep sense of unworthiness. It has kept one safe from what seemed even harder to face, which is the anger at the other person, which might, for the child, even have been dangerous.

So the child survived. but at the cost of having to fall into this habitual pattern, into this rain-cut ravine. The pattern keeps washing through and washing through. This iswhat we would call karmic stream, a certain karmic tendency.

In any situation if there is a specific kind of karma that's closest, like what I just described–when something goes wrong, yelling at others or blaming oneself, two different karmic streams there – if there's one that's predominant, that's what will come. We think of it like cattle clustered by a gate, waiting for the farmer to open the gate and bring them in for their food. If there's one big boss cow, he will keep the others away and be closest to the gate, and when the gate opens that cow goes out first and the others follow.

If there's no big boss cow, the cows that are closest to the gate will go first. If there's a big boss habitual tendency and something triggers the pattern, that's what comes out. If there's no one habitual tendency but a lot of little tendencies, they'll cluster together and come out.

So what is the cure for all of this? You know the answer or you wouldn't be here: mindfulness. As soon as we bring mindfulness to the fact that we're hooked into a certain kind of response in a certain situation, there's the possibility of freedom. Each time that something triggers –I'm going to use unworthiness here, we've heard from a lot of people today who are experiencing feelings of unworthiness– each time something comes up that triggers that feeling of unworthiness, if you blindly fall into it, blaming yourself, "Oh, I'm no good. I'm stupid. I messed it up again," it's like many raindrops falling into the ravine and deepening the ravine.

If there can be mindfulness that sees that thought coming, "I'm no good--wait a minute, that's just a thought. I don't have to believe everything I think," you can ask after that thought, "Is that so?" Three little words, very helpful words when something like that comes up. "Is that so?" No, it's not really so, it's just the habitual patterning. Here is the trigger; here is the thought, "I'm no good. There I go again, messing things up." Is that so?

Now all that's happening here is the impulse energy to act in that way, to think in that way. What if I don't follow it? That is the act of the hero, truly a courageous act to say, "What if I don't follow?" What if I choose a different course not to believe the stories of a lifetime? This is the path to freedom.

Let us pretend that, working with the practice today, a certain catalyst comes up. J, will you come and assist me here for a minute? I'd like you to push me. Now push me again. That's the first habit. Push. Push back. Okay, now what? Push. (continues pushes) I don't have to push back. Oh, he's pushing me. He'll keep pushing me until he gives up. I just stand here. I don't have to keep pushing back. It's very easy.

When the trigger is so strong to push back, you jump into it. Stop. Breathe. Feeling that impulse energy, intention to push. I must push. Is that so? What if I don't have to push? What if I let my armoring down, realizing I'm not letting him push me over on the ground? That would be equally unwholesome. I'm just not getting caught up in the catalyst. Whatever the catalyst is, I just let it keep going. Eventually it will wear itself out. Thank you.

We work with it by mindfulness. What triggers you to the most challenging experiences? Those challenging experiences will differ for each of you. One may get snared in judgment of others, another in judgment of the self. One may be the one who feels he or she never gets it right; the other be the one who always has to be in control, perfect, or feels that the whole world will crash around you.

Whatever it is, we see it arise and immediately know, this has arisen in me, and this experience is probably unpleasant, but is either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If it has a big trigger for you it's probably going to be unpleasant. What is my relationship with it? Start by asking each time it arises, what is my relationship with it? How can there be more spaciousness with it?

If it arises, it will pass. The heart can be open to it. When one gets lost in the stories, it's harder, because you have to bring yourself back. You can bring yourself back but it's harder. The more mindfulness you develop sitting on the cushion, where perhaps the stories are not quite as big because there's nobody standing over your head yelling at you or no broken glass at your feet, or whatever catalyst has arisen, there's just the thought in the mind. You're sitting on the cushion and there's this memory of somebody's anger, memory of breaking something, memory of getting lost, memory of not saying the right words. So there's a little more space. As you become more confident with such catalyst on the cushion you find you can take it out into the world.

You are literally changing the karma. There are 2 parts to healing karma. The first is resolution of the karma. You are resolving the karma by ceasing to get caught in its incessant stories, and then you balance the karma. You balance the karma by teaching it to others, that's one way. You balance the karma by seeing the harm that's been done through the flow of that karma and righting that harm.

If you've had a very angry relationship with somebody, beginning to seek ways of creating healing-- healing words, loving wishes, that allow you to connect heart-to-heart with that person. This is balancing the karma.

Perhaps the strongest piece of karma that all of you carry is this whole illusion of a separate self. We address that by watching the illusion in the sitting and in everyday life. You're in the supermarket and you're just about to walk into the line when somebody barges in front of you with a big cart. Anger comes up. Now I'm not suggesting you should allow people to barge in front of you. A later step will be to be able to say to that person, "Now just a minute, I was here first." But a preliminary step is simply to find compassion for that person and to get out of the ego that says, "No, I was here! They can't do that!" But they are doing it. Can there be compassion for that person, because you can't say no from that place of ego and anger? That's just deepening the karma. You say no from a place of kindness.

So we need to break through the illusion of the separate self through compassion, through generosity, through the open heart. Then at a later visit to the store when somebody barges in, your hand juts out and grabs the cart. You look at the person. "Where are you going? There is a line here. You're welcome to get in line behind me." It's kind but it's very clear, "No, you cannot do that." It's not wholesome karma for that person to barge in front. You're helping them. You're keeping them from falling into their own karmic channel, "Oh, I'm late, I've got to rush!" Gradually it carries out into your whole life. It's a progression of presence and kindness, deepening presence, deepening kindness, and the growing freedom that brings.

Start where we started with the instruction today. That's all you need. What has arisen in this mind and body? Is it pleasant, unpleasant or neutral? If it's unpleasant, can I watch that unpleasantness and if dislike arises, can I see that moving into aversion? Who is feeling aversion? Is there a self there or is it just old conditioning? Of course if something's very stinky, it might burn the nostrils. "Eww, skunk!" But there still doesn't have to be aversion, it's just unpleasant.

What would it feel like to smell that skunk smell, know the unpleasantness of it and not feel aversion? What would it feel like to look at that apple cheesecake, smell it, taste one bite, and then put it aside, watching the grasping mind saying, "Mmm, like, pleasant, liking, more!" That, "Bet you can't eat just one," of the potato chips.

Just get to know these aversive and grasping energies and that they're not the boss. If they are not the boss, what is? When they are the boss it's because the self is solid. When they are not the boss you're much more resting in awareness, resting in Buddha nature or Christ Consciousness, in clear, pure being. What you are after is to learn how to live in the world from that pure being.

There's a beautiful sutra in which the Buddha says, "Abandon the unwholesome. If it were not possible I would not ask you to do it. Cultivate the wholesome. If it were not possible I would not ask you to do it." Trust then, one can cultivate the wholesome and abandon the unwholesome.

Abandoning does not mean getting behind it and kicking it with hatred; that's just more anger. Abandoning means knowing there is a choice here. I don't have to follow the old conditioning. The farmer has opened his gate, the lead cow has dashed into the barn to get food, all the other cows are dashing, but oh, there's a meadow full of grass out here and it's beautiful. Why don't I just stay out here and graze? I don't have to follow the herd. I don't have to follow the herd of my own karmic patterns. Rather, love can make a clear choice.

Let's stop here to leave you some time for questions. Much more to be said on this topic but I want you to be able to ask questions both of John and of me.

Aaron: Questions?

Q: I appreciate your words tonight; they're very helpful. I've had a problem in the past being motivated to do a daily practice. I'll come to a retreat like this and get all of my energy pumped up and I'll practice for a month or two, and then I feel like I've got control of everything. And I take back the steering wheel and drive the car into the ditch. Is this something I'm going to have to repeat forever? Or not forever, but do you have any suggestions to... I know my life works so much better when I meditate daily. Even before the mindfulness, just the calming energy of meditation helps my life immensely. I guess that's all I have to say. Thank you.

Aaron: So you're saying that after a retreat you meditate regularly and then it falls away? First, effort must come from a place of love and not from fear. Given that place of love, we still need to persevere.

Do you swim, brother, do you know how to swim? (Q: Yes.) Could you swim 100 yards? Now imagine that you've been told that you're going to have to swim across a mile-wide river but you don't have to do it for 2 months. The water is warm and you can practice every day. The first day 100 yards, the next day 150, 200, 250. You can practice in that way and build up your stamina so that by the time this invading force comes and you have to flee for your life with your loved ones, you feel confident: "I know how to swim across the river. I won't drown, I can swim that far." Do you think you would practice every day?

Q: I think one of the problems I've had is because my practice started 20 years ago and I practiced every day for 5 years. And then I spoke with a dharma teacher and he told me that forcing myself to meditate was an act of violence against myself. So it's exactly your point, does the willingness come from love or fear?

Aaron: Yes, it is. Inviting yourself to meditate works well. From the story I just told you, could you invite yourself into the water every day? Let's say it's not invaders coming and fleeing for your life–that's fear. Let's say that there's going to be a big swimming race and you really want to participate. You've dreamed of participating. You've watched this race for years. Now you feel your swimming ability is good enough. But you don't have much stamina.

So there's no fear pushing, you just love. Drop my other example, it was not a clear one for you. Now, knowing the race is coming, you've got it circled on your calendar. You don't have to prove anything to anybody. Nobody cares whether you win or not. It's not even a race, just who gets across and who doesn't. You'd rather not have to get picked up by the boat half way across.

So there's a deep inner aspiration, "I want to swim. I want to do this. It will bring me joy. I'll feel good about myself if I can do it." Do you think that would lead you into the water to swim, one day 100 yards, then 150 yards, just stretching it out each day? Can you see how that might work?

Q: Yes. Is there a way to cultivate that desire?

Aaron: Do you suffer?

Q: Yes.

Aaron: Do you wish liberation from suffering?

Q: Yes.

Aaron: There you are!

Wake up in the morning and make the decision each morning, "Do I wish to perpetuate suffering today or do I want to try to make a dent in my understanding of the path to liberation?"

One friend years ago who had resistance to daily practice took a little box, a jewelry size box, and wrapped it in exquisite paper and left it on her night table. She had it arranged so she didn't have to unwrap it completely, just lift the decorative lid off. And inside the box was a lovely note with the word, "Practice". When she awakened in the morning, instead of a negative thought, ,"Oh, now it's time to practice," she saw this beautiful present and could remind herself, "Here is my gift to myself this morning. Open the box. 'Practice'. My gift to myself." It's all in the mind.

If there is resistance, you need to ask yourself what the resistance is about. Sometimes as challenging as our suffering is, we hold on to it because it seems to protect us from something the mind thinks will be even worse.

I hear this often from people who deeply suffer from feelings of unworthiness. When I ask them, "What is the resistance about? What if there were not unworthiness?" there's simply a nameless dread. They feel unable to look there. When they do look, they find it's usually about fear or anger. Old grief. Very old feelings. Feelings related to experiences of abuse or abandonment, experiences of severe loss, places that they're afraid to go. But once you go there you find it's not so bad and you don't have to keep avoiding it.

It's a bit like having a neighbor who's a very challenging person for you so you avoid them. Whenever you see them coming you walk across the street. Sometimes you walk half a mile out of your way to avoid them. You start to have to look out your door to see, is this neighbor anywhere to be seen? Instead of going from here to there, if he's next door to me, I have to go all the way around the block to get down to the corner.

Eventually you ask yourself, "What am I dodging? Is this really worth it? Maybe I just need to walk up to this neighbor and ask, 'What are you? What is this that I've been running from my whole life?'"

It's like a fire burning. You're always running from the fire. Meditation provides a fire break. It's a point where you can stop and look at what you've been running from. Is that the gift you want to give to yourself? It's your choice.

In the Buddha's words, "If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it."

(A question about whether past life conditioning is partially responsible for the intensity of anxiety over a present life situation. Aaron's comments below.)

Aaron: In any situation there will always be past life conditioning that created the pattern. As John said, the past conditioning is in the past. You know what's happening now. Simply assume, yes, there's some deep conditioning here that's bringing up the fear.

Some lifetimes in which the beings I was were not safe, perhaps perished or others perished, or had no livelihood. Could not help those around me, and so forth. Then do metta for those beings. You don't have to know exactly who they are. Just recognize, "All beings who have lost their means of livelihood and suffered thereby, not had a home or enough to eat, not been able to provide for their loved ones, to all of those I offer compassion."

Opening the pathway to healing and then turn it back to yourself. "In whatever lifetimes I have not been able to provide for myself and others I offer myself compassion. May I have well-being." And begin to see if there is any resistance to receiving that well-being. I sense that there may be.

What if you truly know, it's not a question of being worth of it or deserving, every being is worthy of happiness, there is no such thing as unworthiness. Every being deserves well-being and happiness. What does it mean to receive that blessing? What part of yourself has cut yourself out of your heart and said, "Maybe I'm not worth of these blessings?" That's what needs to be healed.

(Additional short comments and sharing on the topic)

Q: This is a question about karma. I've felt at times that I was either consciously or unconsciously addressing karma from my family, my parents, that family. Is there much value in examining the particular memories or understandings of my family's karma, or is it more effective just to deal with what's happening right now?

Aaron: Both. Being with what is happening now but also spend time reflecting, what is the family karma? In what ways am I perpetuating it? When you find freedom for yourself, you find freedom for all your ancestors, literally. You're switching the whole stream for that family. That changes it for your children. But don't dwell on that, simply understand that and let it go and come back to now.

Q: I had an experience of being my father. I felt just as though I were he...I just feel somehow he's merged with me. It was very strong at first but now I feel there's something else inside of me that wasn't there before, a particular supple strength and groundedness.

Aaron: Yes, that sounds reasonable. That's understandable because you accessed a part of yourself. Finding that within yourself which is the father. You found both the wholesome and the unwholesome. And as you were able to see and clarify the unwholesome, you also touched on the wholesome and the strength. It comes together.

(additional description of personal feelings)

Aaron: What parts do you want to enhance and what parts do you want to let go? ...What if your grandmother made a special soup that she had created and your mother gave you the recipe. The soup mostly was delicious but it had a bit too much pepper in it. Always when you made that soup your mother said, "Now make it exactly like the recipe."

Now your grandmother is gone, your mother is gone. You're about to make the soup. There's that little voice that says, "Make it just like the recipe," and there's the inner truth that says, "But there's a little too much pepper." Are you going to make it without so much pepper? It's the same thing.

Build on what is wholesome and leave off the rest. And have gratitude for that which is wholesome.

(session ends after closing comments)