June 16, 2012 Saturday, Emrich Retreat

Aaron: Good evening. My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. I spoke just briefly this afternoon, and again I will speak briefly tonight; I want to lay some framework for the retreat.

First, this is a vipassana retreat. That's our central focus, learning and deepening this practice. It's new for many of you. You come with a variety of backgrounds and intentions, so I want to put in place how vipassana will help you.

In our practice we begin by bringing attention to the breath, or whatever you are using as a primary object. Some of you have much more vipassana experience and use different objects as the primary one and not the breath, and that's fine. Whatever your primary object is, you're probably going to stay with it anywhere from 5 to 60 seconds, and then something is going to pull your attention away. Something becomes predominant, such as a sound, or an itch, or a thought.

When something pulls your attention away from the primary object, you're not doing something wrong. I heard somebody say today, “I can't keep my mind focused.” Well, you're not trying to keep your mind focused on one object and exclude other objects, but to be deeply present with your experience, with whatever is predominant, whatever it may be. Sometimes that object is pleasant, sometimes unpleasant, sometimes neutral.

So there's contact with the new predominant object. Let's say a fly buzzing, bzzzz, around your head. Hearing, hearing. The ear sense organ touches the object, and hearing consciousness arises. There's nothing particularly unpleasant about a fly. The challenge here is that you want it to be quiet so you have a different expectation; then there's aversion to hearing that fly. There's nothing unpleasant about hearing the breath of the person next to you, but you may feel, “Their breathing is so loud. How can I possibly meditate?” It has nothing to do with their breath. It has nothing to do with the fly. It has nothing to do with the itch. How do you relate to what comes up?

Vipassana gives us the chance to explore relationship. There's a wonderful story told by a senior teacher in this tradition, Joseph Goldstein. He was on retreat in Burma with a well-known Burmese meditation master. When Joseph got there and settled into his room, they were doing construction, and there was hammering on metal right outside his window. For a day he gritted his teeth and tried to put up with the hammering. Finally he went to the teacher to tell him what was happening. “Hammering, all day long! Noise, incessant noise!” And his teacher merely said, “Did you note it?”

What he was saying is, if there is sound then there is sound. Sometimes you have control of that sound, sometimes you don't. If you have control of it, if it's as simple as getting up and walking to another place, that's fine. But if you don't have control of it, look at the suffering that arises with this strong aversion to hearing and strong grasping for silence.

Look at the suffering that arises because your minds give rise to thought, because that's how the mind is. The body experiences sensation. When you touch, there's sensation. When you look, there's seeing sensation. One assumes that when one touches, body sensation will arise. Barbara experienced this deeply years ago on an extended retreat, sitting near a window on a very hot night, with an occasional breeze. She saw the clinging to breeze and the aversion to heat, and that they came and went on their own, not related to her preferences. The suffering was in the grasping, not the heat or breeze. Letting go, she found deep peace.

The nature of the mind is to give rise to thoughts. If the mind gives rise to thoughts, and you just let the thoughts arise and pass by and don't attach to them, there's no problem. But through this retreat you're going to create enormous suffering for yourself if you believe “My mind should stop thinking.” I'm not saying that the mind won't stop thinking; eventually it may, but not because the ego voice says, “Stop thinking!” It won't happen.

Can there be equanimity with objects that arise in your experience, pleasant or unpleasant? But if there is strong aversion toward the unpleasant or strong grasping at the pleasant or grasping toward cessation of the unpleasant, can that also be noted? Just watching, what is the direct experience of aversion? “I don't want this.” Where does it touch in the body; where does it hit? In the belly or the chest or the throat or shoulders? What is the direct experience of aversion without any stories? Can you just be there with whatever has arisen and not take it so personally?

A central focus of this retreat is looking at old conditioned mind, looking at the stories: the stories of the one who has to be the good one and take care of anyone; the one who doesn't feel safe unless he or she is in control; the one who is told a thousand times how inept he or she is and now believes it; the one who feels unworthiness; the one who feels depressed and self-judgment about that depression; the one who believes the body should heal or can't heal. What stories did you come with?

I'm not asking you to figure that out, but within your vipassana practice to become deeply aware of the stories that become predominant. A friend calls them the Top Ten Hit Parade, the stories that play over and over. “I should. I shouldn't. He should. He shouldn't.” Judging, judging. Judging is a kind of story. Planning is a kind of story. If planning becomes excessive, you can ask, “What does this planning protect me from? If I were not planning right now, what might I be experiencing?”

These are not foes that you are out to destroy; they are teachers. Whatever comes up in your experience, that is the teacher. The more often it comes up, the more pointedly it's telling you, “I am the teacher. Here I am.”

We're not getting rid of anything. There is nothing to get rid of. We are moving through all of these objects and beginning to see what's there when you're not caught up in a sense of self as the center for experience. We find more space for the stories and shake free of them: the one who is planning and shouldn't be planning. The one who has body pain and doesn't want the body pain. The one who feels unworthy and either should or shouldn't feel unworthy. It could go either way, that story. “Of course I feel unworthy, I am unworthy.” Or “For all my life people have told me how unworthy I am, but I shouldn't feel that.” All of these are just judgments and thoughts.

Many of you have done this exercise with me before, but let's try this together for a moment. Hold up your fingers in front of your face. Wiggle them. Let's call this finger the body, this one the thinking mind, feelings, perceptions. There they are, all wiggling around. Stare at them. You can't see much else. We get so caught up in these feelings, thoughts, perceptions, sensations, and consciousness itself.

Now with the fingers still wiggling, I want you to look through them. Look right up here at me. If you can see me rather than Barbara, so much the better! Look straight up here. Can you see all the space beyond the fingers? The fingers are still moving. You haven't lost them. But suddenly there is realization that there's vast space out there.

Come back to the fingers. Notice how you lose the space. Go through the fingers without losing touch with the fingers, aware of the fingers but simultaneously aware of the space.

In our practice this week we're going to be looking at the nature of these fingers - of body sensations, thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and consciousness - to see that they are not solid. They are what we call “not self”; that is, they are not of the nature of a separate solid self but have arisen out of conditions. If you stub your toe, there's going to be pain. You would not say, “There shouldn't be pain.” Only, “Ah, I stubbed my toe. The pain will subside in a minute or two.” You may judge yourself with the thought, “careless,” but still you would hold your foot and take care of it. There's no denial of the experience of pain, but mind is not rushing off to suddenly be hospitalized and the foot bandaged in a cast, thinking it will never heal, and you'll never walk again! It's just a stubbed toe.

How often do you rush into those kinds of stories with the smallest objects? The planning mind coming up, then, “I shouldn't be planning. Oh this is going to be a terrible retreat. I'll never be able to meditate. All I can do is plan here. I might as well give up and go home.” I repeat: we are learning about the nature of relationship with our mind and body. These sensations, thoughts, feelings and perceptions are arising out of the emptiness, arising based on conditions, into this mind and body that you call by whatever name you go by. But there's no one solid there.

What happens as you watch this and suddenly see that there's a choice? Not a choice about the fly buzzing around your head, but a choice about how you're going to relate to that fly. Not a choice about the thoughts that keep arising, but a choice whether you simply note them and come back to your breath, or whatever primary object you're using, or whether you become caught up in stories. “I shouldn't be thinking. What a poor meditator I am. Look, everybody else around me looks so serene. Here I am, agitated. What's wrong with me?” Stories, stories.

So we keep watching the arising of these stories and coming back to a spaciousness that can see through them and that's able to say, “I let this go. I don't need this anymore.” A story, “I'm unworthy” or “I'm inept”, “I'm not pretty” or “I'm not smart.”  “I'm not capable.” Ask, “Ah, is that so?” This is my favorite teaching for the week. When these stories come up, just go back into it, asking, “Is that so?” Of course it's not so, it's just a story.

Some of you have been meditating a long time and some less. Some, while you may not have vipassana practice experience, have much other spiritual experience. Some of you will get the feel of this spaciousness quickly; some of you will be slower. There's no good or bad about that. It's just the willingness to continue with persistence. “Is that so? I let go of this story and that story and come back into the divine self, into Buddha nature, into spaciousness, into love.”

My dearest sons and daughters of Light, you are angels. I call you angels in earth suits. If you did not intend to learn, you would have stayed on the astral plane. You would not have moved into a body. Why would you want this sometimes harsh or struggle-filled human experience?

You came to learn and to teach. You came because you see the possibilities of love, of non-dual awareness, of connection, and that remembering these truths is what can heal yourselves and the world. This is the deepest healing. And because of your commitment, not just for yourselves but for all beings, to bring this forth in the world, there is a willingness to put up with the inconvenience, with the body that's aching, the mind that's running in circles, and so forth, because this is the ground for your learning. How else are you going to learn? You have been born into a mind and a body to use as teachers. There are no bad experiences. Unpleasant ones, yes; but not bad ones. So pay attention and greet each object that comes to you with a spacious heart that says, “Ah, here is this, here is this, here is this.”

Many of you have heard my looking through the fingers story and this next one, the story of the Tibetan saint Milarepa. He was meditating in the doorway of his cave when the monsters of greed and anger and fear appeared. They were hideous. The flesh hung in shreds from the bones. The bones rattled. Gore dripped out. There was a foul stench. Milarepa looked at them and said, “Ah, I've been expecting you. Come, sit by my fire, have tea.”

“Aren't you afraid of us?” they asked.

“No. Your hideous appearance only reminds me to be aware, to have mercy. Sit by my fire and have tea.”

So he sits them down. They're drinking their tea, and he notices, yes, they're all here, the whole gang; fear, anger, greed, jealousy, pride, all of them. I can just sit here and drink tea with them. I don't have to get out a stick and chase them away, because I can't chase them away anyhow, no matter how hard I might try. But eventually they'll go on their own.

There's one rule about this tea party with your demons. Each time they speak up and try to tell you, “You shouldn't feel that. He shouldn't have said that. This is bad, that's bad.”—just reply, “Shhh. Drink your tea. No dialogue.” So we don't get in a dialogue with the demons. We just let them be and eventually they'll go. They're not a problem.

This is perhaps the hardest thing for you to understand, those of you who are on a deeply intentioned spiritual path, wanting to purify yourselves and to live your lives with love. You're so conditioned to the idea “I shouldn't be angry.” If you step barefoot on a tack, is it going to bleed? Would you say there shouldn't be blood; there shouldn't be pain? That's how the body is.

When anger or any other such strong emotion arises, it's arising because of conditions. Certain conditions have not yet been purified. You might say, “I wish anger wasn't arising. I don't like the anger, but here it is. Can I simply be present with it and watch? If I give more anger back to it, I simply escalate the negativity, the contracted energy. But if I hold kind space for it, it will go.” In this way you are purifying the conditions that led to the arising of these emotions.

I promised to be brief, so this is just a bare beginning of the direction that we'll take in this retreat, each of you learning at your own pace and working with your highest intentions to be loving beings, to live your lives with kindness. You also become aware that the conditions out of which negative emotion arises are not yet purified; when something triggers anger, triggers fear, triggers greed or desire, there it is. The response; “I've been expecting you. Have tea.” It's not a big deal. It will go.

Please consider the title of my book, Presence, Kindness, and Freedom. When we are present with whatever arises with an open heart, with kindness rather than attacking it and trying to chase it away, eventually there's freedom: freedom from needing to react; freedom from self-identification with what has arisen and building stories on it. Eventually there's a shift.

We went around the room and many of you heard from people who have been practicing for a long time about the life changing quality of their practice, because there's no longer self-identification with what arises. There's space. The arising ceases gradually, but it does taper off. The stories taper off, and there's a deep peacefulness and joy. And all of the stories that you've carried with you for so long, these deeply self-limiting stories, begin to dissolve.

Who are you when you're not your body, when you're not your mind, and you're not all these stories? What remains? You are beautiful. You are free. You are an angel, a divine being. And you all are that, even with the stories that are still clinging.

Once we did an exercise in class in which we took batches of sticky notes and just stuck them on people. A hundred, 200 sticky notes, put all over you. Are you the sticky notes? How would it feel to be covered—nose, forehead, cheeks, ears, shoulders covered with sticky notes? You've all been accumulating sticky notes for lifetimes. Don't need that one anymore, nor that one. Then let it go.

I wish you all that freedom. I would ask you to do some reflection this evening and tonight, what are the predominant limiting beliefs that you've carried with you? The one who must take care of everybody or everything will collapse, or the one who is helpless and inadequate. The one who must prove how worthy he is, or the one who must always show how unworthy he or she is. The one who judges and shouldn't judge. The one who is angry and shouldn't be angry. The one with a body that's not working quite right, and who is self-identified with that lack.

Don't get caught up in trying to fix these things because they're just sticky notes. There's nothing to fix. Look under the sticky notes. What remains? When you cease being the one who must control and take care of everything or the world will collapse, what remains? When you cease being the unworthy one, what remains? Don't tell me, “Then I'm worthy,” that's just the other side of it. If there's no unworthiness, there's no worthiness. What remains?

I'm going to end here. Thank you for your attention, and I will hand you back to Barbara, John, and Lisa for your evening practice. I very much look forward to this retreat with you.

I'm thinking of one more thing. Impossible to do at this retreat, but in April we had a retreat on the seashore. The first day, the opening talk of the retreat, I had collected shells from the beach to give one to each person, but they were not the whole and beautiful shells that lay there, they were broken shells. As I gave each person a shell I asked each to see the perfection in that broken shell. Don't look at it and say it's broken; see the beauty and perfection in it.

Gradually people got it. This shell, it's just perfect the way it is. This human being, it's just perfect the way it is. With the shell, we can wash off some sand or tar. With the human we can dust off some of the smudges that have collected. But it's done with love and kindness, not to fix, because there's nothing to fix. The inherent perfection is revealed and invited to express.

Thank you.

(session ends)