October 25, 2016 Tuesday Morning, Oakwood Retreat

(This talk not yet reviewed by Barbara and Aaron)

Morning Instructions on Presence, Chain of Dependent Origination

Aaron: Good morning. My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. Have you ever watched a very accomplished skier ski down a big hill? Maybe you've seen it on television or the Olympics. Their weight is balanced. We're not talking about a smooth hill but one they call the moguls, mounds, so there are places that stick up like a cone, a big bump. The skier probably doesn't want to go right over the bump— a bump like this, one foot on each side, straddling it. Bumping up in the air. So they use the bump as an indication, the come up to the bump and go around it. The bump glides them around it. The bump, then, is not seen as an obstacle in the path but as a support to the smooth trip down the mountain. How many of you have skied at all? I'm not saying great skiers, I'm just saying, you've skied down a hill now and then? So you understand what I mean by that.

For those of you who have never skied, try to imagine it as if you are walking down the hill. You're walking step by step by step, and suddenly there's a big mound in your path. Are you going to try to climb up it and down the other side, or just to walk smoothly around it and use the pitch of it to move around it? Can you picture that, swinging around it? Going the other way around the next one. Moving smoothly, gliding. So easy. The terrain under your feet helps you to know which way to balance and how to move.

Now, vipassana practice is a lot like this. You sit. There you are at the top of the hill, and you don't know what's going to come between the top and the bottom. But you're going to trust yourself and just push off from the top. Deep breath, sitting. We've got miles to go. It's a very big mountain. No tension, just easily gliding. Sitting and breathing. Using whatever you may use as a primary object. How many of you usually use the breath as a primary object? How many of you often use nada as a primary object? How many of you sometimes use spaciousness as a primary object? How many sometimes use luminosity as a primary object? So these are not all the primary objects that you can use, but these are some major ones.

We start with a primary object. And then as you come around a bend in the trail, walking or on skis, suddenly there's a bump sticking up that high, that high, THAT high! Feel yourself as you come around the bend and see it, can you feel yourself tense? Can you feel that? Uh-oh, big bump! It may be a memory of something painful. It may be a strong emotion like anger or sadness. It may be strong body sensation.

This bump in the path will pop up. It may be seen as frightening or uncomfortable. We watch ourself tense around it. We note it, “Bump in the road.” Knees aching, sadness, anger, mind churning with planning. They're all bumps. How am I relating to this bump? John is probably going to talk more about dependent origination tonight. But it's simply the process of contact with an object, seeing the bump, feeling the pain. Consciousness, right there with contact comes consciousness. So we're aware of the experience of this object. The feeling of pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. And then what we call the active moment, where pleasant shifts off into grasping or unpleasant shifts off into aversion without knowing it.

So in this moment, as we're coming down the mountain. Picture yourself on a beautiful sunlit morning on a path that has swung gently through trees. You're just gliding on your skis. Even if you've never skied, you've got balance and you know how to do it. Just gliding down the mountain. And then you come around a bend and there's a big bump right in the middle of the path. Seeing. Unpleasant. Aversion. And all the stories: “I'm going to fall. I'll break a leg. There's nobody here. They'll never find me. I'm going to die here on the mountain.” You can always stop, take off your skis and walk around it. It's not a problem. It's only a problem because your mind says, “Oh! Big bump! Problem!” Pain in my knees. “They're going to have to carry me away from here. I won't be able to stand up after the sitting.” Anger. “When I get up after the sitting, I'm going to start punching people. What am I going to do?”

Ahhh… it's just a bump in the path. It's navigable. Relax. When you are present with it, the bump on the skis actually helps you move around it because you change the weight from one leg to the other, and the skis just swing around and continue on down the smooth path again.

When you note anger in this way, it helps remind you of compassion. Here is anger, fierce anger. Contracted, hate-filled anger. Ahhh…. Just trust my legs to carry me around it. Trust my practice to carry me around it. Relax, it's just a bump of anger. No stories necessary. Just flowing down the hill. No problem here.

Each time that something pulls you away from your primary object, we call it a predominant object. Your practice is not to push away what has become predominant and come back to the primary object, but to become as deeply present as possible with whatever is predominant until it resolves itself. And then the primary object is there again.

So we don't fixate on anything. We don't grasp at anything. We simply relax and greet these different moguls that pop up on our path. Maybe one of them won't be a mogul, it will be a 50 foot crevice, two feet wide. Well, your skis are longer than that. If you just keep going you'll glide right over it. If you stop and say, “Oh! Big crevice!” and try to inch your way across, it may crumble and you'll fall in. Just notice it and glide past it. But if you do find yourself stopping, you're standing right on this deep crevice, and because you're not moving past it, you're standing there, it all crumbles. The snow drops you down. You've fallen in a hole. You're going to have to climb back out.

Do you know this wonderful poem? Oft-quoted in dharma circles.

Autobiography in Five Short Chapters

Chapter 1

I walk down the street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I fall in.

I am lost ... I am helpless.

It isn't my fault.

It takes forever to find a way out.

Chapter 2

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I pretend I don't see it.

I fall in again.

I can't believe I am in the same place.

But it isn't my fault.

It still takes a long time to get out.

Chapter 3

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I see it is there.

I still fall in ... it's a habit.

My eyes are open.

I know where I am.

It is my fault.

I get out immediately.

Chapter 4

I walk down the same street.

There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.

I walk around it.

Chapter 5

I walk down another street.

~ Portia Nelson ~

(There's a Hole in My Sidewalk)

There are going to be holes in the sidewalk. Unless you're completely enlightened, completely awakened, there are going to be holes in the sidewalk. And in fact, you're really here at the meditation retreat to encounter those holes and learn that they are not 50 ft crevices that you'll fall into and take weeks to get out of. If you fall in, you fall in. If you're mindful, you'll note it and find a way to go around it, or go down a different street, the street here being the habitual tendencies that each of you carries, that take you in your sitting to this place or that. Stories of unworthiness, stories of blame. Stories of fear of the body aging and falling apart. Fear about relationships. Fear about your capacity to do your work, fear about the clarity of your mind.

People come to me and ask, “Aaron, am I moving into dementia? I keep forgetting things.” So I give them an assignment. Go home and spend this week really focusing. Every time you walk through a doorway, stop. Remind yourself, “I am walking through this doorway to go into the kitchen to get a cup of tea.” When you get into the kitchen doorway, “I am here to get a cup of tea.” Stop in the doorway and breathe three breaths. Know where you're going and why. Getting the cup of tea. “I am now going back to my office, to my desk.” Walk through the doorway. Know where you're going before you walk through the doorway. Know why you're going. So I give people this practice and ask them, every doorway, all week, stop and remind yourself where you are going and why. Come back to me next week. “Are you developing dementia?” “No. I learned how to stay present and remember where I'm going.”

It's not just where you're going. I'll use Barbara as an example. She took her glasses off once to read the “Good Date” label in the refrigerator. She couldn't read it with her distance glasses, so she put the glasses down. She opened the refrigerator door, put the glasses on the refrigerator shelf, read the dates, threw away anything that was outdated, closed the refrigerator door. An hour later she said, “Where are my glasses?” Yes, I see by the laughter that it's at least possible for many of you!

It's not a matter of forgetfulness, it's a matter of presence. Forgetfulness, of course some people's minds do develop lack and distortion. But for most people, even if your mind is headed in the direction of some sort of Alzheimer's or dementia, it can be shifted a lot by simply being present. Knowing where you're going and why you're going, and with an open heart.

So we're skiing down the hill and we need to pay attention. We've got a 45 minutes sitting, it's a 45 minutes slope. Who knows what's going to come up? You come around a bend and there's a big stag in your path. Wow! You skid to a stop. You look at him for a while. You're totally absorbed in him. Wow! The wonder of his presence. And then he just walks off into the woods. You start to ski on, but you're so absorbed in the stag that you don't see the rocks in the path. You're not present. You're lost in what happened five minutes ago, that wonderful stag! Well if you're going to ski down the hill, let go of the stag and ski down the hill. If you're going to focus on the stag, just stay put and focus on the stag. Remembering, remembering, present with that as an object.

Pleasant objects can capture your attention that way, lead to grasping and forgetfulness of everything else. If you absorb into an object, just be present with it. It's okay. As I said, we're not practicing to make anything special happen. We're not practicing to stay present only with the primary object. But if something is predominant, be with it. In the same vein, if you're doing walking meditation, you are walking, walking, just looking at the ground in front of you, and suddenly there's a beautiful flower. Are you going to ignore the flower and just say, “walking, walking”? Even step on it as you walk past? Stop. Seeing, seeing. In that moment you're no longer walking. Seeing, pleasant, beautiful.

Whatever happens is a teacher. If there's grasping, “I don't want to walk anymore, I want to just stay here with this flower,” note the contracted energy. Grasping, flower, staying with the flower. If there's no grasping but just present with the flower, the energy field open, seeing, seeing, joy— another predominant object, seeing and then joy, the joy of this beauteous thing right there in front of you, gratitude. And whenever you're ready, be it ten seconds or ten minutes, begin the walking again.

So we stay with what has become predominant until it changes or dissolves, until it is no longer predominant. As long as it's predominant, be with it and note the texture of the experience— pleasant, unpleasant, probably not neutral or you wouldn't be staying with it— and note that shift. I'm coming back to this active moment, the shift from pleasant to grasping. The shift from unpleasant to aversion. What is the direct experience of aversion without any stories? So instead of the flower in the path, suddenly you see a skunk. No smell, just, there he is, this little black and white fellow, darting across your path. Skunk. Or snake slithering across. Contracting. Seeing all that's happening is contact, eyes seeing the object, consciousness, seeing a skunk, seeing a snake. There's nothing unpleasant at that point about the snake or the skunk, it's all in your head. But there is all the old conditioning in your head so you say, “Snake, could be dangerous.” “Skunk, what if he shoots off his smell?” Contracting. Seeing is no longer predominant. The skunk or snake is no longer predominant. Contraction or fear or aversion is predominant. Can you feel that shift?

So it's just another mogul. We come to it. We see it. We pause. What will come next? If the skunk stays there in your path, maybe you're just going to wait until he leaves. The contraction will not stay forever. Eventually it will open. As the contraction releases, let me phrase this very carefully with very specific example. Coming down the path. Big snake. Seeing, seeing. If you have a fear of snakes, unpleasant. If you love snakes, “Ooo, pleasant, what kind of snake is it?” But in either case there's a leaning toward it or a pulling away from it.

Let's use for this example the idea that there is fear of snakes. Seeing the snake. Contracting. The contraction is just a contraction. I won't hit the knee because it's tucked under this bench, but knee-jerk reaction. Seeing something that frightens you, contraction. If the contraction is just a contraction and you give it space, it will dissolve. But the usual next step is it moves into a story. “Is it poisonous? Will it bite me? What will happen to me? Will I be safe?” Mind filled with stories.

Then we note, “story.” It's very different to observe mind giving rise to stories than to get caught in the story. The story is just a story. This is important. Do you get this? The distinction between the mind observing the arising of a story. I's just another object. It has no power over you. It came because conditions are present. It will pass. Or, getting caught up in the story and how long are you going to spin in it.

This is the heart of your practice. As the contraction dissolves or the story that it led you to dissolves, simply start gliding back on down the mountain. Return to your primary object and breathe.

There's one more part to this. Really I'm giving a week's worth of instructions, here! We'll break it down through the week, but each of you can choose the area that is most applicable for you.

We're gliding down the mountain again, and the path is still filled with moguls but we've gained confidence in our skiing ability, so we're just gliding, sweeping around the moguls, looking up at the mountain and enjoying the vast beauty, the mountains in the distance. Feeling joy. At a certain point where there's a magnificent view, you come to a stop. Seeing, vast view. The whole sense of self falls away. There's nothing there but awareness and joy. Resting in spaciousness.

So in our practice, from the conditioned mind's perspective, objects will continue to arise and pass away. From the perspective of spacious awareness, nothing is really arising and passing away. It's just, if I take this hand, I can see it now and it's moving around, seeing, seeing, seeing, seeing, seeing, — it's gone. Has it really gone anywhere? Seeing, seeing, seeing… seeing, seeing, seeing… If I sit here saying, “Where is it?” then I'm still connected to it. But if I realize it never really arose or passed away, from the conditioned realm perspective, yes, everything is constantly arising and passing away, but from the perspective of awareness, nothing arises and nothing passes away. Am I talking riddles?

Think of a person that you love, someone you really love deeply. Feel how the love is in your heart. I want you to really focus on that. Nod your head, if you have a person like that in your head. I'm waiting for some of you to nod, so I'm waiting to know everyone has such a person. Now I would ask you to focus and think of a time when there was anger toward that person. Can you think of this person you love so dearly, but here was anger. Really think about how it felt to be so angry with this person. Breathing… feel the tension of the anger. Feel the body contract with the thought of that anger. Now come back and ask yourself: right here with the anger can I find the love? Where is the love? Can you feel the simultaneity of the anger on the surface and the love deep in the heart? The love is like the sun going behind the clouds— the anger is the clouds. The sun hasn't gone anywhere, but briefly you've lost track of it because the clouds are blocking the way. The love is here. Oh, it's so beautiful, it's so beautiful — where did it go? It's always there. The open heart is always there. The awakened mind is always there. Full presence and unity with all things is always there. Where would it go?

Think of the ocean. Big waves on the surface. Pounding, pouring, huge waves. You've got a scuba tank and a mask. Dive down, and down, and down. There's a beautiful line in Flight of the Garuda that we'll use during the week: No matter how many waves may arise, they never depart from the sea even in the slightest. The waves are just an expression of the sea. Anger, sadness, fear, they're just expressions of the human. They are expressions of your ability to love, really, because unless you can deeply love, you get lost in these waves. The love is what takes you down to the depths to a centered place.

So in our practice we keep coming up to these “obstacles”. I would prefer you say, not obstacle but teacher. “Oh, hello teacher. Here you are. In this moment, I can open my heart to you. In this moment it is safe to be with you. You are unpleasant because you frighten me.” There's nothing unpleasant about the skunk or the snake. But if we see them as threatening us, they seem unpleasant. There's nothing unpleasant about a person who is angry facing us except we see them as threatening us. But that person can awaken our compassion. Opening the heart.

This, then, is your practice. Present with the primary object, but not fixated on it or clinging to it. Able to see the flowers that go past. Able to see the blue sky. Open to whatever comes. Use labeling or not. If labeling gets in the way then stop labeling. You don't have to label contraction to know that there's a contraction, just feel it. What is the direct experience of contraction? What is the direct experience of throbbing? What is the direct experience of the wandering mind? Just knowing it as direct experience. If labeling helps, as it will for many of you, label it. As it changes or dissolves, come back to the primary object. It really is as simple as that.

Watch how you get caught in stories, how you fall into the crevasse because you froze up when you saw it. Instead of gliding over it, you froze and fell in. If you fall in, don't blame someone else and don't blame yourself. “Ah, old conditioning.” That's not blame, it's just realizing, “Ah, old conditioning. I'll climb out.” Or do you want to stay there and feel sorry for yourself? You have that option. How long are you going to stay down there? We'll come back and throw you some food. You've got a week. I hope you'll climb out soon! Eventually you'll just glide over it. You might even stop and bow to it after you get past. “Thank you, teacher.” Here was fear. Here was an old memory. Here was body pain. “Thank you, teacher,” and glide past.

And in those times when the objects cease to arise so fast and furious and there's just spaciousness and ever-deepening joy, the vast view, rest there. Enjoy it. Don't try to hold onto it. This also will pass.

I'd like to take five minutes here just to see if there are any questions.

Q: What if there are enemies coming out of the trees while you're skiing?

Aaron: Stop and bow to them. Just stop and say, “I see you. Why are you here?” We can ask a number of different kinds of questions. We can acknowledge, “You frighten me. But I honor that you have a right to be there. But no, you may not harass me. I will not take a stick and try and chase you away.” This is the first Milarepa story. “I offer you tea. I'll even sit down with you, shh, silently. You cannot talk to me. You can't start telling me bad things. I won't listen. This is part of the rules of our meeting. I offer you tea, and I will sit with you. I will even do loving kindness meditation with you, wishing you well. I will not become entrapped in your negativity.” And eventually you finish the tea. He's still there leering at you and sticking out his tongue and waving his arms. “I'm leaving now.”

We continue down the path and suddenly there's another one. This one looks even more hideous than the first one. Fear, fear! It's important to know when we are afraid, to watch the contraction that comes with fear, and to remind yourself the “enemy” jumping out of the trees is not the predominant object so much as your own fear. Breathing in, I am aware of the fear. Breathing out, I hold space for the fear. I don't try to meet that “enemy” until I have made space for my fear and found compassion for myself. And that may be all I can do at the moment. He can do whatever he wants. Jump up and down, turn blue, start throwing rocks.

If he starts throwing rocks, energetically— we're not talking about a real person here and real rocks that could harm the physical body, we're talking about an energetic realm. If you feel him starting to throw rocks or darts, ask spirit for help. Form an energetic, not an armor so much as a protection around yourself. Armor doesn't let anything in or out. The energetic protection lets your light flow out but it does not permit anything dangerous to come into you. Ask me for help. Ask the Mother for help. There are many entities in this room. <> with your higher selves and your guides in this room helping to protect you until you feel safe and you feel a reduction of the fear.

And then, speaking to this entity, “Why are you here? I know you have come in some way as a teacher for me. I do not hate you. Although fear comes up, I will not give into that fear and get carried away by stories. But I've had enough of dealing with you. It's time for you to leave.” Each of you is going to encounter such a creature jumping out of the trees some time during the retreat. Some old shame, some old grief, some old confusion. Our work here is to remember that love and expansive spaciousness, the deepest intention to do no harms to ourselves or any being, the recognition of light and high vibration, that these are unconquerable. These truly are your resting place. This awakened mind is your resting place. And it is available to you.

We can talk more about this in a small group meeting if it will be helpful.

Q: You said when an object changes or dissolves, you said go back to your primary object. But it sounds like when he says it, there's a situation when it changes without dissolution, and you go back to the primary object. That's the situation for me, that I wait until it dissolves.

Aaron: But we don't try to figure out what is it now, where did it go. We just note it has dissolved, come back to the breath, even just for one or two breaths until it appears in a different form again. If it comes back, then be present with it again.

For example, a planning thought. We note planning. And as we note planning, we're not planning anymore. So we come back to the primary object, let's say the breath. And almost immediately, planning comes again. So we note it. Again, as soon as you note planning, you're not planning anymore, so you come back to the primary object. But then, 5 or 6 times mind jumps to planning after two breaths. What is this planning? And suddenly you feel the undercurrent of fear. I'm using fear as an example here; it's not necessarily fear. But you might feel the undercurrent of fear and that the planning is an expression of the fear. The planning protects you from acknowledging the fear. So now it's a different predominant object. It's not the planning mind anymore, it's the contracted energy of fear. And we don't just note “fear,” that's too big. Fear right here, right here. How does it feel? Fear as contraction, fear as visions of horrible things in the mind, seeing. Fear, fear. Breathing in, I am aware of fear. Breathing out, I hold space for fear. What does it mean to just be present with the direct experience of fear without letting the mind run off into stories, without trying to fix it saying, “No, I won't be afraid.”? Just present with fear. And eventually the fear dissolves. Then come back to the primary object.

So we can often ask ourselves, if I were not experiencing this particular planning mind or whatever right now, what might I be experiencing? If I were not experiencing this enemy leaping out from the trees, one after another, what might I be experiencing? Maybe old feelings of helplessness, rage, feelings that didn't feel safe to experience and so we created or allowed some other kind of experience in its place.

Q: In your description you mentioned active moment. And very often I ski past that active moment. I don't see it. Any suggestions?

Aaron: If you have skied past the active moment, as soon you recognize it, know it. Because we're not actually on skis we can go back easily. You don't have to climb back uphill. So, using an example here. Something that brought up aversion, and then suddenly right into anger, rage, stories pouring off. There's going to be some point where you say, “Oh, I skied past the active moment.” What is the predominant experience in this moment? The rage, the aversion to the rage— we're into a whole new series of objects and active moments. That moment when you recognize, “I went past it,” that's it. You're not past it anymore. Instantly you're back there. The rage is still there and that which is aware of rage— the loving kindness that's back here, the rage and the loving kindness— Oh, where's loving kindness? Where is kindness in this moment? I choose kindness without negating the real experience of rage. I don't deny that there's rage, but I choose not to become lost in the rage as perhaps I have 10,000 times. This one moment of presence with rage and seeing rage for what it is changes everything, because it changes the whole flow of karma. It changes the way we relate to this object forever, from that point on, because we know we don't have to get lost in it and tumble down a 100 foot crevasse. We can stop.

I want to tell just briefly the beautiful story of Angulamala from the Buddhist sutras. He was a murderer with a horrible habit. When he killed somebody he cut off their finger, and he threaded them on this necklace, a mala. Angula in that language is the finger, digit. So he had a mala of fingers, and they called him Angulamala.

The Buddha came into a town. People came to the door and said, “Come inside, quickly! Angulamala is in town! He'll kill you!” The Buddha said thank you for the warning and then he just kept walking down the street. Others shouted out the door, “Come inside!” — “Thank you.”

So the Buddha kept walking down the street, when, no surprise to him, there was a shout behind him. “You there, stop!” The Buddha kept walking. The voice came closer, more angry. “I said stop!!” The Buddha kept walking. Finally this man ran around in front of him, blocked his way. “I told you to stop! Do you know who I am?! I'll kill you in a moment! I told you to stop!” And the Buddha simply looked at him and said, “I have stopped. It's you who haven't stopped.” This awakened Angulamala. He realized the truth of these words. He recognized the potential to stop. And in that moment he fell to his knees and asked the Buddha to take him as a disciple. He eventually became fully awakened because he recognized that he had not stopped, and that he had the capacity to stop.

In what ways have you not stopped? We are not murderers, but are you murdering yourself little by little? In what ways have you not stopped?

So the Buddha is right here with us. Jeshua is right here. All the great loving beings, the great Masters of history are right here in this room with us, reminding us that we all have the capacity to stop. Whatever the old habitual tendencies are, whatever the crevasses we habitually fall into, we can stop. And the practice gives you a very beautiful way to do this.

That's enough. Let's end here and have a half hour for sitting… Enjoy your day. My love to you.

(session ends)