On The Tools of Practice

On Habit Energy

The True Meaning of Dana and its Practice
Barbara Brodsky

From the Board President
Sandy Wiener

On Anger and the Elements

Aaron Quote

On the Tools of Practice
September 19, 2005
Barbara Brodsky

Barbara: Good evening. It feels good to be back here after a summer away. I planned tonight's talk with no idea who would be here. Long-term students, moderately experienced people, new people? What words to that range of practitioner can be meaningful to everybody? But the dhamma is always helpful, when spoken clearly and heard with attention.

The most frequent question I've been asked through the years is, what is your practice? I know this question touches us all. It's a very hard question to answer! It depends what day you ask me and what time of day, and what's going on in my life in that moment. So the practice, I don't want to say it changes but it takes up many different strands of practice, moment to moment.

Practice is both a tool and a way of living. As a way of living, practice is just being present, with an open heart. In that presence and kindness, there's no place to go. As a tool, it's meant to do something, to take us somewhere. So we've got to know what it is we want to do, where we want to go.

Where are we going? Why do people come to spiritual classes, meditation classes? What is our purpose here? What is our fundamental purpose in life? Some people might say, my purpose in life is fun. I've seen a bumper sticker that says, "Whoever dies with the most toys wins!" It's probably not what anybody in this circle would be wearing on a bumper. But certainly we all know people who think they are just here to be comfortable. I can't criticize that. If that's what they want out of life, I wish them well.

What do I want out of life? Ask yourself the same question. Some people might say, "I want liberation." Now this has a hook in it because there's a big I in that statement. Who wants it? With the self, there is grasping. There can be real lack of kindness to oneself and other people if one is just trying to get liberated. I remember reading that if we do this practice for seven years we'll find liberation and thinking, "Let's see, that will take me to 1993. That's not too bad; I'll do it!" Ha! Yes, perfect mindfulness for 7 years would bring liberation, but if I'm only mindful 5% of the time,… Well, you figure it out. And it leaves us asking, "What is liberation, and who is liberated?"

Some people have said, "What I want is to become a better meditator." That also has a hook to it. If I were a carpenter I might say, "I want to become a better craftsman," but not, "I want to be outstanding at using the drill press." Do we want to become meditators or kind, compassionate, wise people?

Meditation can be misused. If we don't have a clear sense of direction, there can come to be hardness to the practice, a sense of trying to control everything, to force it. "I'm going to be a good meditator." Does being a good meditator mean that the mind never wanders? I don't know anybody whose mind never wanders, including the most experienced spiritual practitioners. Sometimes the mind wanders.

So we need to know what it is we want. "I want peace." That seems to fit better, but there's still an I. The Dalai Lama is quoted as saying, "Kindness is my religion." That really resonates for me, to work with practices that lead me deeper into that already existent heart of kindness, into the already existent peace, and already present liberation. With the growth of kindness and wisdom, freedom will certainly come, not as a goal but as a natural result.

Another purpose might be, "I want to become more present." That works for me, to learn to be more present in my life. This still has an I and wanting, but we must distinguish between intention and grasping. Right effort does require focused intention. Wisdom and compassion can't develop without presence, so this one seems to come first. Yet kindness informs presence. Even presence is not enough by itself because there's got to be a texture to that presence. I can be present with a tension that's ready to jump on everything, or I can be present with a lot of spaciousness. So presence and kindness intermingle for me. No surprise, the title of Aaron's book is Presence, Kindness, and Freedom.

When I first met Aaron, I was doing a primarily devotional meditation practice. I was also doing a kind of vipassana practice, but there was a distortion to it because I thought at that point that vipassana meant staying with whatever object arose. If there was pain in my body, I would grit my teeth and watch the pain, and consequently push away the object of aversion to pain. It was a practice with blinders on, no willingness to see the big picture. I was using my practice in some ways to protect myself from things that were uncomfortable.

Body pain can be very uncomfortable, but the anger around the pain can be even more uncomfortable. Anger was a very difficult object for me. There was commitment to non-harm, commitment to a "spiritual path," strong aversion to anger, and a deep belief in the idea, "I shouldn't be angry." I was able to protect myself from the anger by focusing on the pain. I did this in every area of my life, not just with physical pain, but with the pain around being deaf. I believed that if I stayed with that pain, eventually it would disappear. I'd drift into some vast spaciousness. And then along came Aaron and he said, "No, that's not how it is. It may disappear, it may not. Is it pleasant or unpleasant? If it's unpleasant, know it's unpleasant. If it's pleasant, not the pain but some other body state, know it's pleasant. If pleasant, is there grasping? If unpleasant , is there aversion? Watch the flow of experience."

So my first practice with Aaron, 17 or 18 years ago, was learning what we call choiceless awareness, to just be present with whatever arises into our experience. Not building any stories around it, mind watches the emergence of the story also as an object.

Some of you know what I mean when I say stories and some don't. Sitting. Pain arises in the knee. Unpleasant. Then the thought comes, "I don't want this." And then another little thought, "What a poor meditator I am, I can't even sit still for 15 minutes." Judging, judging. That is just a thought, "I'm a poor meditator." But I may carry it to an extreme and say, "I might as well just get up and quit this. I can't possibly meditate. My mind is all over the place, I'm no good at this." Stories. Or maybe with pain there's a story, "My knee! Maybe I'll need to go to the ER. I won't be able to walk again for weeks!" We can call this story telling. We all do it. At least, I do it. I assume you all do it too.

So we all have these stories. It's so important we be on friendly terms with ourselves, to hear the story but not indulge in the content of the story. Just know, here is a story.

One of the first ways I learned to do that was by bringing space into my vipassana practice. Dzogchen practice, pure awareness, is one way of bringing space in. But there are many ways.

Space is everywhere. Look around the room; look at the different objects and people. Look at the floor, the ceiling, the lamps. Are there pleasant objects? Are there unpleasant objects? Neutral objects? If there was a pile of dog feces on the floor, you'd say, "Phhhth! Unpleasant object!" And some neutral objects—tape recorder, that's a neutral object.

What about the space? Can you see all the space in the room? What if a big truck came and filled the room with sand: there wouldn't be any space left in it. Space is interesting because it doesn't have any special quality of its own. It's not beautiful, it's not ugly, not heavy or light, bright or dark. It has a pleasantness to it, once you get used to it, but some people feel it's frightening.

Look at any two people in the room, and see the space between them, defined by the edges of their bodies. Every object that arises in our experience is preceded by space and followed by space.

Listen to the bell. No sound; space. Then there's going to be sound, (Bell), and the sound dies away into space.

For me, my practice is a balancing act. When I'm not present with objects but tend to get lost in all that vast space, I need to bring in more mindfulness and be very present with objects, such as body sensations, thoughts, or whatever kinds of objects arise. When I'm overly present with objects so that I can feel a tension in my body, grasping, holding each object as if I'm trying to push my way into it, then I need to step back, take a deep breath and find the space. I need to be present in that space as well as with the object.

There are a number of ways I do that. One is just watching the breath and finding that space at the beginning and the end of each in-breath and out-breath. Try it. Breathing in, space. Breathing out, space. You can really go into that space; it's profound, it's immense. Breathing in, space. Breathing out, space.

You can see it with pain in the body. Last week I was drifting on the lake in my boat, and out of nowhere, literally, a yellow-jacket flew into my face and stung me. Big pain! Ouch! I just had the most fleeting glance at it and it was gone. Physical sensation of burning, stinging. So I took water and washed my face with it. I actually laid down on the boat and put my face in the water, to feel the coolness of the water on my face. So there was the heat, then there was cold. And when I pulled my head up, there was heat again. I had to keep pulling my head up to breathe. The sting was on the cheek near the mouth so it was hard to get my face in and keep my mouth out. So I was just putting my face in, cold, coming out, hot, going back in cold. Hot.

Then Aaron asked me, where is the space between the heat and the cold? Can you find it? I found that space where there was really no sting. It was a very interesting experience to feel the burning, put my face in, feel it get cold, and then as I pulled my face out it wasn't cold any more, it wasn't burning. It was probably only for a second, 2 seconds, then it started burning again.

Space. So we remain aware of that space. Take it further.

The phrase "I am" is a thought. "I am." There's a space before and a space after it. We tend to judge certain words; we think, "Wow, that's profound," or "That's ridiculous, meaningless," or whatever we may think about it. But when a thought arises, it's just an object like the bee sting. "I am" is an articulation of a thought. It's a thought that there's an I that exists, me, I am.

The breath exists, rising, and then it's gone. There's a space, and then the falling breath. Certainly at some level, I am. There is awareness, there's something there. But we also start to see the space around any thought and how the whole content of the thought can collapse into the space the same way that the burn from the yellow-jacket collapsed into the space. There's just a vast amount of spaciousness. The burn is little; the thought is little; the space is immense.

There were times in my practice when I began to get lost in the immensity of that spaciousness, preferred it to anything uncomfortable that was happening here and now. Then my practice would shift to being more present in the body, more present with the mind, a deeper mindfulness of the present moment and to the objects arising in the present moment.

It's really all mindfulness, with mindfulness of the body and mind and mindfulness of the immense space into which these objects arise, and into which they fall away.

Into that basic practice of vipassana and spaciousness, 10,000 little practices have come. They change depending on what's going on. A major practice for me this summer has been gratitude. Remember I spoke about balance. When I start to feel tense, I find just pausing and really feeling the gratitude that's there, touching on the wonder of whatever is before me, and expressing gratitude for it, opens my energy field. If I'm starting to pull out of my body, gratitude pulls me back into my body. If I'm tense or the body energy feels contracted, "thank-you" is a wonderful reminder.

That day on the boat, drifting around after the first 10 minutes of, "Why did that bee sting me? I wasn't bothering it! That's not fair.—I just stopped and started to say, "Thank you." That sting was a little wake-up call. Be more present. Be more present in the body. Everything that happens has some reason, and I may not know the reason, but in some way this was an invitation to be more present. I had been just drifting, literally drifting on the lake in a slightly spaced out way, and this certainly woke me up and brought me back to the present!

Gratitude for all the bee stings I did not get in the past year. Gratitude for the rest of my body that didn't hurt. It pulled me in almost immediately to people who are experiencing very severe pain in their lives, people in very difficult situations where there's strong body pain, not just something that's fleeting but people with long-lasting pain. Gratitude for the health of this body.

In the morning, drifting on the lake, gratitude has been my predominant practice. I usually paddle down to the west end of the lake so that I can look east at the sunrise. It's pretty dark when I set out, but by the time I reach the other end of the lake and look, the sky is getting pink; then I just float in a beautiful cove. As the sun begins to come up, there's a big marsh behind me and hundreds of birds appear, swooping over the water, swooping over the marsh. The first rays of sun come over the hill and start to hit the water where I am. The water is absolutely still, mirror smooth, often covered with mist. There's just enormous gratitude for the gift of this incarnation, for this opportunity to be alive and to experience such beauty. Joy is tied in with it because one can't experience that kind of gratitude without joy.

I find this creates a balance for those moments of tension, "How do I handle this? How do I handle that? Will this come out okay? Will that come out okay?" Worry, stress. I'm finding more and more that when I'm feeling stress or pain about something, if I can stop and breathe and remember there's a gift in this, and really allow myself not just to hold a concept of gratitude, but to touch that place in my heart that feels genuine gratitude, something shifts. My mind doesn't fixate on whatever concern is there, but the spacious mind comes back.

An important part of practice for me is this returning to the spacious mind. We need to remember in our practice that we're not trying to create anything. It's not like I start with a small, tight mind and if I do it right finally I'll get a spacious mind. Rather the spacious mind is there and I haven't seen it because I've been too busy looking elsewhere. When I relax, suddenly there it is, spacious mind. Big mind. Peace is there. Joy is there.

My practice then is in looking at what blocks the direct experience of peace and joy, contentment, spaciousness in this moment. I don't mean looking in an analytical way, but rather, it's as if my back was turned to the window and I said, "Why is it so dark? I don't see any light coming in any windows." Somebody said, "Turn around. Look out the window." There is light! We need to remember to turn around. The window light, spaciousness, peace are always there, but we get so involved with looking in, trying to figure out how to fix or control, that we forget to breathe, we forget to look at the light.

So much of my practice is about just coming back to big mind, to all that light, space and joy. And yet remembering not to grasp at it and try to hold it, not to push away relative reality, which is sometimes unpleasant. They're both there, the light and joy and all those stumbling blocks, those objects we stub our toes on in relative reality.

Working with the elements has been a major part of my practice. Aaron first taught me element practice sitting on a rock high up on top of the Greek island, Santorini. The island once was round; an ancient volcanic eruption knocked a chunk out of the circle, leaving a crescent. So from one side the land rises like a gradual cone; it drops almost straight down on the other side, blown away. There are many caves in that steep side. Some of them have been made into very rustic hotel rooms. I got up the first morning and walked out of my cave onto a tiny, railed, flat space with a drop-off going hundreds of feet to the sea There I sat.

There was a beautiful blue sea. The volcanic island across from me is still steaming, still smoking a bit. Very interesting to watch it. It's not an active volcano. But there's just this little bit of smoke coming out of it. Volcano fire, sun fire, sea, strong breeze blowing, and of course the mammoth rock I'm sitting on, earth energy.

It was the first rest day after much travel. Mind and body held tensions, and planning. Aaron asked me to note the tension that I was feeling, a lot of fire energy. Agitation. He said, when one element is predominant, don't try to get rid of that element, but note its predominance and draw in what's lacking for balance. Bring in the earth, feel the solidity of the rock I'm sitting on, bring in the water, the coolness of it, the fluidity of it. Allow it to balance the fire energy and the agitation.

He suggested I move into the shade so I wasn't getting so much fire energy coming at me. I did that. Then looking at the water, feeling the rock, I could feel the energy in me coming into balance, and mind quieted.

All those five days, I did this practice. It was just a perfect place to learn about the elements. Feeling lethargic, bring in more fire energy. It didn't necessarily mean to go sit in the sun. Feel the fire energy in the air, look at it in the agitation of the waves, the wind blowing the water, the volcanic smoke. Just sit in the shade and see the sunlight out there. Start to feel that fire burning in the body, balancing lethargy. Feeling stuck, watch the waves and feel the wind.

This has become a very predominant practice for me now. It's something I do almost without any conscious direction to do it. If something happens that creates tension, like a traffic jam when I'm late, and I start to feel agitation, I don't have to look out at the vast sea: I can just close my eyes for a moment and imagine that big expanse of water. And I can feel the water in my body, moving gently back and forth through the body. Feel the spaciousness. Just sitting there in my car, I know my car is on the road, the road is ground, and I feel that earth energy. I feel the possibility of opening.

I use that word in a hesitant way, the possibility of opening, because we're always open. What we're really experiencing is the innate opening that's always there, like turning around and seeing the window, seeing the light. Seeing that which is open and balanced. So when I work with balance it's very important not to think I'm doing something. I'm not creating balance; I'm inviting myself to reconnect with the innate balance that's there and allow myself really to feel that balance.

Sometimes we hold on to our anger. We're feeling annoyed at something and we just want to be angry a bit. In the long run we probably don't want to be angry, but just then it feels good. So it's very important when you're doing a practice like this element practice, to ask yourself: What is my intention here? If I want to hold on to my anger, then I don't want to tune into this innate balance. But if I really do want to release my anger, then I really do want to tune into this innate balance. If I'm not tuning into the balance, I can't say, well my energy is just unbalanced right now. My energy is unbalanced as a result, in some way, of my wanting to hold on to the anger. I've got to acknowledge that. Maybe it's just habit energy. Somebody says something and it's irritating and the mind is spinning around with, "What should I say to him? I don't like what he said." I need to acknowledge, anger is here, and there is some attachment to the anger, or to the power I feel through anger. So a big part of my practice through the years has been the non-duality of the agitated state and the spacious state. The non-duality of anger and peacefulness.

It's both challenging and wonderful having an inner teacher who's always there: I can't get away from him. Occasionally, when I'm holding on to anger, after a few minutes Aaron says, "Are you enjoying your anger?" "Yeah, Aaron, I am!" Then he asks, "How long do you want to hold on to it?" Just a gentle reminder, you have a choice here. If you're holding on to the anger, at some level you want to hold on to it. Acknowledge that and make it clear, "I am holding on to my anger." How does that feel? Is it a pleasant or unpleasant feeling? Is this really what I want in the long run? Feel the spaciousness, which doesn't mean the anger is gone. The body may still be resonating with anger. But, there's also spaciousness. It comes back around to object and space.

This is why it's so hard to answer when people say, "What is your practice?" They all are interdependent. I feel as I look back that it's been as if I said, "I want to become a carpenter." And somebody said to me, "OK, you have to learn to use a hammer and nails." And after a couple of weeks of practice I was really proficient at driving a nail and I said, "OK, I'm done. Am I a carpenter now?" "No, you've got to learn how to use a drill and a screwdriver. A saw. A mitter box. You've got to learn about the grains of wood."

So at first it seemed like there were so many different places where my attention was going. I couldn't see a connection between them. It was the feeling one has doing a jigsaw puzzle. When you get all the red flowers together, and here's the orange tabby cat, and the blue vase, but you have no idea where they go in the picture. With trust and relaxing, it will all come together. Those connecting pieces will appear.

This is what happens in our practice. As we're working with one specific form of practice or another, there's that moment of deep insight when we realize, "Ah, this is how these parts go together." And then there's an ability to utilize those pieces more stably, more skillfully, toward the desired end result of living our lives with more presence and kindness, finding more peace.

In Theravada Buddhism, there are many lists. The Three jewels of Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha, the Four Noble Truths, the Five Spiritual Faculties, the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, the Eightfold Path, the Ten Precepts: those are just lightly touching the total. As I studied these many years ago, I couldn't see any connection between them. From the perspective I have now, I can really see how they all relate to each other and that each one has an importance.

I remember early on with Aaron, he was teaching me the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. There are arousing factors like joy. There are calming factors. Mindfulness is in the middle. He began to teach me the hindrances and to point out to me what Factor will bring balance with any specific hindrance. For example, which of these factors of enlightenment balances lethargy? He would remind me that the Factors of Enlightenment are not something you're going to get someday; the factors are there, seeds under the surface that can be nurtured.

So if you're feeling lethargy, then more joy, more mindfulness, concentration, will help awaken the lethargy. If you're feeling a lot of agitation, concentration will quiet it down. One focuses directly on the experience of agitation in mind and body. If you're feeling anger, joy and gratitude: reflection on metta will bring balance.

There is the learning to use each tool, discovering how it works and what it balances, and learning to hold firm in awareness what it is that I want. No matter how much I might be enjoying my anger, awareness knows that what is aspired to in the long run is not to hold on to that anger but to transcend the anger. That's what will really bring happiness. The intention is to move beyond the anger, beyond the greed, beyond the fear, beyond living based on a sense of a small self. These supports invite us to move outward, more and more and more into the depths of our practice and to trust the practice and find what works.

The toolbox just keeps growing. All of you have already pulled together a pretty big toolbox. It might not be articulated in Buddhist terms; that's fine. But you all have a vast toolbox. What works? There must be clear intention, willingness to let go, willingness to step beyond our prior limits, our fears, the small ego self, and so forth, and just ask, in this moment, what works?

Another practice which has been a very important one for me is the practice of "Just this." It's the practice of not trying to take everything on at once, but being present with one experience and knowing it as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. We see it as it is, not compounding it with all kinds of what-if's and fears. Just this. It's the practice that allows me on a very busy day to be as deeply present as I can with each thing as it comes along, rather than getting lost in all the planning or mind running back into what I could have said or done earlier in the day. Just this.

Some years ago, John Orr and I were talking with Aaron about mindfulness and being more present in the moment. He said, every time you go through a doorway, stop, take three breaths, and know, "I am passing through a doorway." Know where you're going, know where you've been, but most important, stop in the space of the doorway and just hold the space. Just this. Then move on to wherever you're going. But no stories while standing in the doorway, just this, just this doorway. I would smell something burning on the stove, remember that I had left a pot on, and start rushing through from my office. Stop at the doorway. Three seconds more are not going to matter. "Just this."

"Just this" has many meanings, but for me one of the biggest meanings is coming back to spaciousness. Just this. Then I find that in each thing that comes up, no matter how busy during the day, there's always space around it. There's always time. Just this. When I practice in that way, I'm a lot less agitated. I'm a lot more peaceful. I'm kinder to myself and to people around me.

There are so many more little practices I could talk about. The main one of course is vipassana, mixed really with the awareness of space and with kindness. It feels like I'm writing a cookbook here: 7 parts vipassana, 3 parts kindness, 4 parts mindfulness, and a deep breath. Add 2 parts trust, just learning to trust your practice and to trust yourself and a liberal sprinkling of joy. Savor the taste! Ahhh.

On Habit Energy
Excerpt from Spiritual Inquiry Class
June 8, 2005

Aaron (reading from question): "One of the most useful concepts for me is habit energies. Sometimes these have been so strong, I am frozen into the patterns. I have had to walk away. As my awareness/observation of my emotions has increased, I can come back and correct this."

Aaron: There is no question here but I wish to comment. Habit energy is very powerful for all of you. Awareness, sati, dissolves the force of habit energy. There's a difference between sati and mindfulness. Mindfulness is a practice that invites sati. Can you feel the relationship? Mindfulness is something that you can practice: to be mindful. When you are mindful, you open the door of sati, of awareness. Sati is more a way of being, to rest in awareness. Resting in awareness comes when there is mindfulness.

When you are willing to be present with the habit energies, this mindfulness is the first step. Presence does not dissolve the habit energy but brings it into focus. We've talked about the practice of Clear Comprehension. Clear Comprehension of Purpose asks: What is my highest purpose in this moment? Clear Comprehension of Suitability: Is what I'm doing, or intend to do, suitable to that purpose? If my highest purpose is to create harmony with my neighbor who is furious with me, and what I'm doing is shunning him, that's not suitable to the purpose. If what I'm doing is repeating the stories and trying to blame him, that's not suitable to creating harmony. Neither is kowtowing to him and letting him get away with abusing me. That won't create harmony. However, if my purpose is to make myself feel powerful, then I may wish to act in one of those ways.

With mindfulness, we look at the habit energies. In the past when somebody pushed me, I pushed back. Or when somebody pushed me, I ran away. That's not suitable to my highest purpose in creating harmony, in learning to live with love. Therefore, I need to address that habit energy. I address it by asking myself to be more present with it. Back to vipassana, watching a habit energy come and come and come again.

Here we must distinguish between habit energy and the outflow of that habit energy. Two Pali words: anusaya, habit energy, and asava, outflow. For example, the habit energy may be to judge the self. Whenever somebody looks askance at you, expresses some discomfort with you, immediately the thought, "Oh, I did wrong. Oh, I'm bad," comes. That's a habit energy. When that thought comes up, there will be a specific outflow of it. You might become belligerent, or you might blush with shame and wish to disappear. You might reinforce the story, "I'm just no good."

What happens for most of you is that the outflow, the asava, is very clear. You keep experiencing it and you think of that outflow as the habit energy. But asava is really a result of the habit energy. You end up trying to fix the outflow, saying, "I won't become belligerent," "I won't blush, become ashamed and withdraw," or "I won't be no-good; I will become better." But what you're doing is trying to change the result without addressing the cause. Shame arose, or the story of hopeless arose because of the conditions. The more you focus on the result, the more you are able to hide from the conditions, which are the anusaya. The habit energy here is the whole belief in a specific personal self that is unworthy in some way, that's inherently bad in some way, flawed. It's an old myth. When you see that the outflow is the result of a condition, and that that habit energy is the condition, then if belligerence comes up, you note it. If withdrawal or feeling of separation comes up, you note it. If feeling of inadequacy arises, you note it. You attend to it, take care of it. But you don't try to fix it; it's a result. There is nothing to fix since there is certainly no one who is truly inadequate.

There is a direct experience of tension, blushing, an empty feeling of separation perhaps. Be with the direct experience. Don't create a self around it. Do watch the tendency to do so, which is part of the asava.

If you are painting a wall and the paint looks too bright, you don't say, "What's wrong with the paint?" You understand, "the basic colors from which the paint was mixed were not the colors I wanted." You don't keep painting over the wall with the same bucket of paint, thinking, "Maybe the next time it will be better." Go back to the original colors and tone it down a bit. Address the conditions, not the results. When I address the condition, the results will take care of themselves. So we address the conditions of habit energy. We see what's coming up as the outflow, but we know that's a result; the basic condition is the whole idea of a separate self and all the stories we create around that self.

We don't have to go back that far in the beginning; we just have to realize, "here is an habitual outflow." For example, consider somebody with the habit energy to think, "Life is not safe, I'm not safe, others are not safe," and who, as outflow, always needs to control other people, control situations. The habit energy is based on a feeling of helplessness, a lack of power. If I have that habit energy, then I'm going to have to act controlling in the world.

I don't slap my hand and say, "No, I won't control!" I notice the contraction that accompanies controlling words or actions and I note, "Here is the outflow; what is the base habit energy? The thought of helplessness. Who is helpless? Can I find that person?" No. There's no one there; just conditioning. One does not have to look into childhood and see what created the conditioning, only to note that it arises and brings an immediate outflow. Each time "controlling" arises, one might note "fear." One notes with kindness, and not to fix, just to observe. But you are bringing in a new element. Instead of bringing more fear to the experience, there is spacious, kind observance. Here, fear may diminish; here there is opportunity to ask, "What if I just hold a space for fear and do not control as reaction?" Then we can see what happens.

The outflow that stutters with shame and withdraws, its base habit energy is often a sense of unworthiness. We don't have to ask so much, "In what past life did I pick up a sense of unworthiness?" or "What psychological, emotional conditions in this life bred this sense of unworthiness?" We just note, "Here is the feeling of unworthiness. It came out of conditions." Then ask the question, "Was there ever a self, as continuous object, who was unworthy?" The parent always said to you, "Oh, shame on you." The idea "I'm unworthy" came up. It's a myth. We see how the habit energy of thinking of the self as unworthy came, and then the outflow of a certain kind of behavior came because one thinks of oneself as unworthy.

So one doesn't try to fix the behavior. Rather, one uses the behavior to turn back on oneself, see the basic habit energy and inquire about it. What is this habit energy? Not, "How do I fix it? What is it?" It's a symptom of one's confusion. It's the place where one does not understand one's true self. If you understand your true self, how can you get lost in the idea "I'm unworthy"?

When you fully hold the true self, then you see the thought "unworthy" and you know, "This is just the habit energy. It doesn't have any roots any more but it keeps coming up." Then each time it arises you greet it with kind, mindful attention. Eventually it will lose its power and disappear.

Of course there are times when it is helpful to look deeper at the habit energy, through your meditation or with the help of a counselor. But please don't allow that looking to further solidify the self. There is something there that needs to be understood, some area of pain that was not yet accessible. See it, but don't create stories around it, such as "victim." Don't create more self through this exploration. Just see what needs to be seen and focus on the process of creating the outflow, not the content of the story.

The True Meaning of Dana and its Practice
Barbara Brodsky
November 2005

The Pali language word dana is often translated as "generosity," but its more precise meaning is the generosity of unconditional giving from the heart, with no expectation of return. The real return is enormous though. It's the deep joy of sharing something precious with another, feeling their joy. This is mudita, which is sympathetic joy for another's happiness. To understand dana, one must understand mudita. Dana is not given out of obligation or in order to avoid looking cheap. It is an expression of our love and compassion for all beings.

In the Buddhist tradition from which the dhamma comes, the teachings are considered priceless. They can never be sold, but are made freely available to all who can benefit by them. However, it is helpful to understand dana as a "practice" of wise attention, rather than a custom. It is the practice of developing the beautiful qualities of heart that enable us to live in this world, with inner and outer happiness, lovingkindness, gratitude, compassion and letting go. This not only creates harmony in our lives but also creates fertile ground for liberating wisdom to grow in our hearts.

Our culture has taught us to hoard for ourselves, to make ourselves the center of everything. This behavior leads to grasping and to suffering, for we can never get enough, and can't hold on to what we get. With the teachings of dana and mudita, we explore a different way of living from a place of love that steps out of self-centeredness. We release the duality of self/other, and know that as long as anyone is suffering, starving because of what we hoard, we can never know true peace. Dana can push us at times, challenging self-centeredness and attachment, but the fruit of the practice is a softening, joy and peace.

Through our mindful practice of dana, we use wise reflection. We consider our giving in a very thoughtful, careful, and respectful manner. Otherwise, we may give in a hurry-up, unconscious way, through habit, or just because it seems to be the custom. When we practice with care, it elevates giving from a place of unconscious habit to a place of more conscious intention and leads to awareness of where we grasp.

In this way, we begin to understand with deeper confidence that there is compassion and wisdom developing in our hearts. Through compassion and generosity we benefit others, and through wisdom we know that we are also benefiting ourselves by nourishing our own highest spiritual aspirations.

When Deep Spring Center was started in 1989, Aaron asked me to never sell these teachings. As much as possible I tried to do that. It was easier then, since it cost me nothing to open my living room and to teach, accepting dana offerings that provided support so I could give my full time to this work.

Later, there were rental fees. Aaron pointed out to me that the monk doesn't sit in his hut and wish someone would bring him food. He must be honest about his needs, be willing to stand with bowl in hand. His asking is also a gift, as it gives people an opportunity to practice generosity. He is completely willing to go hungry if need be, inviting generosity but never demanding it. It was a scary step to put out not only energy but money and to trust that if this dhamma was truly valued, the support for it would come. It seemed appropriate in that spirit to tell people how much it cost to rent space for a class. Thus, I held out my begging bowl, offering students the opportunity to practice, and to reflect deeply on the value of dhamma in their lives.

As DSC grew and had more needs, things changed. There was an active Board now that was fiscally responsible and whose members interpreted that responsibility as a need to be sure income and outflow in a budget were balanced. With that in mind, building fees were collected for classes. Those fees and the donations of the sangha have paid rent, Office Manager salary, utilities, insurance, and for equipment and mailings. Now we have a budget of about $76,000/year. Dana practice continued as the teachers offered the teachings freely, accepting dana as it was offered.

Once again the DSC Board and teachers are looking at our policies. We feel a desire to return to the complete dana system. Yet, to be responsible, the Board does need to let you know what it costs to run the center. We're going to try out a plan where we give a suggested donation range that expresses the real expenses. Please see it as an empty alms bowl. A donation of $10 to $20 / class meeting would be shared by teacher(s) and the Center. This amount would cover the real expenses, and extend an appreciation to the teacher(s). No one will ever be excluded for financial reasons. This is not a payment for the class, which is offered freely, but allows you to make a thoughtful decision, based on your resources; you'll know what it costs to offer a class so you may support it in the way you wish.

We realize that some people have more time than money, and offer the dana of their energy in various ways. This is no less valuable. We need volunteers or we can't function. We bow with immense gratitude to all who give so freely of their time and energy.

This semester there will be no fixed fee for classes, only a suggestion to give you information so you can make a wise decision about giving. It gives me joy to see us open our hearts in trust and try to return more fully to the dana system, and also to make the effort at education so that each of you knows the realities of our budget. Let us see if together we can shift from any sense of payment to the immense joy of giving and receiving freely.

With love,

From the Board President
Sandy Wiener

November 2005

From Board President Sandy Wiener

Dear Sangha Members,

In September I became the new Board president. About three years ago I joined Deep Spring. Previously I had gone to Yucca Valley, CA, for holotropic breathwork with Stan Grof. Jack Kornfield was an equal part of the week there, and I was powerfully taken by that exposure to meditation. I had attended a few of Barbara's classes at her house some thirteen years ago, and so a little while after returning from California, it seemed natural that I join Deep Spring.

Earlier this current year I had a cancer in my throat, eliminated now through chemo and radiation treatments, and through enormous waves of healing energies and prayers coming my way, in good part from Deep Spring persons. That, plus the great lessons I have learned through classes, reading, and conversations with Barbara, Aaron and others, have been wonderfully helpful in guiding me through the rough spots in the treatment … so I am very glad to be here.

What do I see as important matters to mention here as we are about to head into the new year?

Certainly important is the next step in the long visioning process the Board and Sangha have been undertaking during the past year. The end result of the October 23 Sangha meeting about our future was that we would examine two distinct possibilities.

One of them is to stay where we are on Washtenaw Avenue. The other is to find a space to rent with the Interfaith Center. In that connection, a joint committee of Deep Spring and Interfaith Center members has been formed to look at the practical details of how this could work.

Lots of details about the two possibilities, as well as two other possibilities voted upon, are available through the Deep Spring Web site. Also available there are details about what happened at the Sangha meeting.

It is important to note here that both possibilities are being examined equally. Also, that we are considering only a sharing of the expenses of renting space together—not an integration or merger of our two communities.

Another matter: by and large, Deep Spring programs are thriving. Deep Spring offerings and participants have been growing: meditation retreats and workshops; classes, not only at Deep Spring but also at Rec and Ed and other Ann Arbor locations as well as in Chelsea, Toledo, and even Mexico; a healing circle and yoga classes each week; social activities for Sangha member; open Dharma talks; Sunday sittings … and an increasingly busy library and bookstore.

With this growth, the teachers have decided that Deep Spring should train potential new teachers. Thus, nine Sangha members (yours truly among them) are now being taught by Barbara, Frank Levey, and Jim Whiteside.

And, of course, Deep Spring continues to encourage individual spiritual growth, to spread the teachings, and to build spiritual community.

Many blessings for this holiday season and the coming year!

Sandy Wiener

On Anger and The Elements
Spiritual Inquiry Class
June 8, 2005

Aaron: Good evening. My blessings and love to you all.
(reading a question)
"We have talked a lot about anger and the elements. Where does fear fit with the elements? I find myself being afraid much more often than angry."

I think you've hit on something important, which is that underlying the anger is fear. Anger is an expression of fear. It's a particularly fire-heavy expression of fear. We often move into the expression of anger and even the experience of anger because it feels safer to be angry than to be afraid. Fear is a stuck energy. It lacks any real movement, though it may sometimes simulate movement in erratic jerking.

Let us look at the elements side by side: air, earth, fire, water. They are all interconnected. Consider fire energy: there must be adequate air to keep it moving but not so much air to extinguish it. There must be enough earth energy that the fire energy doesn't just explode out, and adequate water and moisture in the air to keep it from taking over everything. Then we have a balanced fire energy.

This is literally Energy, with a capitol E. Without such fire energy, nothing can happen. So here we're seeing balanced fire energy as Energy. There is no contraction to it. It's fully in balance. When it moves into an imbalance, then it may move more into anger. With anger we have either too much fire or too little earth, too little water.

Unbalanced energy tends to swing back and forth like a pendulum. It is heavy with this, then heavy with that, so it expresses one extreme or another extreme rather than demonstrating balance (demonstrating with a pendulum).

In fear, often the fire energy is very strong. But because of the strength of the fire energy, too much earth has been brought in. There's not enough air. It's stuck fire energy. Think here of the volcano before it erupts: heavy lava, but it's not even lava yet; it's just hot earth, heat. There's very little water. No fluidity or movement. Even in lava there's water, but very little air. One of the useful things to remember is, in fear there is very little air. You can feel that in your body and in the smallness of the breath. As soon as you open up and breathe into it, it opens up the fear, it balances it. This is one kind of anger. You all know how it feels.

There is an imbalance where there's too little air. Because there's too little air, the water is heavy, earth-like, as mud more than flowing water. There is fire but it's under the surface, suffocated by the heavy earth, unmoving. It's stuck. One may move into that kind of fear. It feels so uncomfortable that one of the things people do when they're in that kind of elemental fear state is to (big gasp) bring in so much air that it not only shakes loose the heavy earth, but the fire: it's like blowing on fire. And the anger comes out. This is anger that is ungrounded, very volatile, with a lot of water and forceful air. This is the anger that spews itself outward. You all know the feel of this one too.

Anger is just another imbalance. Now, when we talk about any of these states—fear, anger, desire, confusion—when we talk about any of them, there is a specific quality of lack. It's useful to ask yourself when you're intensely feeling some kind of energy, not so much what's out of balance but what's lacking, then to bring it in mindfully, not grasping at it. So when there's that heavy fear state, instead of trying to use the energy of the fire to break through, which brings up anger, one can simply be aware, "Here is heaviness, fear, stagnation." Breathe into it, right here in the belly. Feel the fire just slowly building up, not an explosion of fire, just slowly building up, so that the fire is usable energy. Then pause before the fire gets out of hand and feel whether there's flow. Is it jerky or is it flowing? If it's not flowing, bring in water either through the visualization or just go and put your hand under running water. This helps to open the fear energy, bring in the energy aspect of fire without anger, bring everything into balance.

Try an exercise to experiment with this. Close your eyes and think about something that brings up fear. It might be some object that you're afraid of, like a snake. It might be something that's happening in a relationship. It might be the world news.

First, simply reflect that this exists, this difficult relationship, this difficult creature, this difficult world circumstance. And that because this exists, you experience a sense of danger. Because of this, you could be hurt and your loved ones could be hurt. Whatever image you have drawn, feel it coming toward you: an irate person, the snake or rat or tiger, or feel yourself in the situation where you're juggling too many balls, lots of people booing each time you drop one. Feel the tension there. As you imagine this, see if you can feel your energy closing down, becoming heavy.

Can you feel the predominance of an airless and waterless earth energy, holding your energy field down as you move into the remembrance of fear? Take it deeper. It can't be conceptual; you've really got to give yourselves something that brings up fear.

Imagine a dear loved one becoming terribly injured. The doctors don't know if he or she will live. Feel your energy field close at that news. He or she has been in an accident. You are waiting in the outer room and the doctor comes out shaking his head. "I don't know, it's touch and go. She might not live. If she does live, she may have lost her brain function. We don't know." Feel the fear coming up, and the energy system shutting down.

Now several hours have passed. Finally you're allowed in to see your loved one. She is hooked to many instruments, breathing apparatus. There are bandages all over the body. And the doctor says to you, "Maybe there is hope. If we can keep him or her somewhat present here, you're going to have to do it. We'll need you to sing and talk to him. Let him feel your presence."

It's going to take energy to do that. From the shut-down space of fear it's very hard. Feel what may give you the energy to come forth and be present in that way, to touch, to talk, to sing. Feel that fire energy coming up. But if you don't balance it, it's going to come forth as anger. "This isn't fair! Why did this have to happen to my loved one? The accident was the other driver's fault, an innocent victim. It's not fair!" Feel the fire energy coming up.

If you go back to fear, it's too heavy. You can't talk from fear, you can't talk from anger. Breathe in to the whole complex balance of elements. Find within you that which balances and yet provides enough energy. You're going to have to sit here for 12 hours talking, keeping in contact, keeping your heart open. What's going to allow that? At that critical stage, what allows you to stay present, to do what is needed? It cannot come from either fear or outrage.

R: Compassion.
Aaron: Compassion, and what helps to open the heart of compassion? The breath? Water? Flow, yes. Others?

R: Letting go.
Aaron: Letting go, and what allows letting go?

R: Breathing.
Aaron: Breathing. The heavy earth can't let go. Fire just burns everything. Where does letting go come from? Intuitively you can feel what's needed, I really think you can. The obstacle is not lack of insight into what's needed; the obstacle is the opposite of letting go, the wanting to hold on to the rage, the feeling that the rage will give power, or the wanting to hold on to the fear, which is a way of sheltering yourself, cutting yourself off in separation. Can you see the ways it's easier to either stay buried in fear and separated, or to move into the outrage, feeling the fire and power of it as an outlet for your frustration and grief?

But when you acknowledge, "Neither of those is really suitable to my purpose here, which is to help save the life of my loved one," then you're willing to make that sacrifice, to release the barricade of fear and not to go into the outlet of rage, but to keep it balanced. It's only in that balance that you can attend.

Q: Is each element balanced by itself?

Aaron: We cannot talk about it that way. There may be a little bit of fire or a lot of fire; there is however much fire there is. The question is, are the elements together in balance? What would balanced earth or balanced fire look like separate from any other element? It's like having colors and saying, "Is the blue, blue? Is the green, green?" They only have meaning in relationship to each other. If the painting is too heavy with cool colors, it may feel out of balance. If it's too heavy with hot colors, it may feel out of balance. But it's only when you bring the colors together that you get a sense of whether there's balance.

Q: Is that the purpose of living, to learn how to balance? Is that what Buddhism teaches?

Aaron: In a sense, we could say that. It's not how I would put it, but …yes. (Q: Sounds dry!) Aaron: At the sangha meeting here recently, I said that I felt that the core of Deep Spring was love. And that the reason all of you are here in your incarnation and what has attracted you to the work of Deep Spring is the intention to learn how to live your lives with love. It's not a matter of Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Hindu. These paths are just approaches to learning love. The question is how do we really learn to live our lives in love? Whatever path is helpful, we use. If there's a practice that comes out of one religion or another, that's fine. We're not doing it to enter that religion; we're doing it because it's a useful tool.

If a man is an electrician and he needs to get into a cabinet somewhere in order to adjust the wire, and somebody says, "Well, you need a wrench for that. Here's a plumber's wrench," he won't say, "I can't use that; I'm an electrician." He uses the tool at hand.

So we don't get caught in from what faith is this practice or that practice derived. Rather, what is useful here to help open the heart, to bring forth the deepest expression of love? What's helpful to bring it forth, no matter how difficult the situation? It's easy to love somebody who's very lovable. How do you love somebody who's not so lovable? How do you love those difficult people in your lives?

Balancing is one tool. It's not the purpose of life, but a tool toward that purpose, of Love. There are many tools. For me, vipassana is the core tool because it's a practice that gives us a way to look directly at our experience rather than the stories about our experience. As long as you're looking at stories and concepts, you're a step away. The only way to approach this is to be fully present, and so we teach vipassana. We don't teach vipassana to be a Buddhist center; we teach vipassana because it's a vital tool. But vipassana can become sterile. It can be devoid of any heart-centeredness. It can become mechanical and be misused as a way of manipulating experience. So we teach the practices of lovingkindness, compassion and so forth.

We work with energy. We talked about kyo and jitsu energy, balancing energy. We use the elements. We use chanting or prayer, various forms of devotion. We use wisdom, deepening your wisdom. That's part of vipassana. They're all tools. You're building a house, a house of love.

Let us use this metaphor for a moment. Let's say that you've always lived in a rented apartment and you've dreamed of having your own house, but you don't have the money to buy a house. Then one day somebody knocks on your door and says, "That site down the street, I don't need that any more. It's yours." Fine, you can put a tent on it but you don't know how to do anything else, and you don't have the money to build a house.

But somebody then comes along and says, "Here is a huge truckload of materials: wood, roofing, windows and doors, concrete blocks for the foundation, plumbing and electric materials. It's all yours, a gift. Here." Now what are you going to do? You've got all the elements for your house. You don't know which end of the hammer to hold. You've got to start somewhere. You begin to refine your knowledge of tools. First you just have to take a piece of wood and a nail and a hammer and you practice until you can drive a nail in straight. Then you look at the building materials. You find a big shovel. You start to dig out the space for the foundation. You hammer some stakes in for the corners. You dig and you dig until you've got a deep hole. You take your hammer and nails and you start to build, but you realize, "This isn't going to work for the foundation. I'm going to have to learn how to lay cinderblock, to do masonry work." So you develop another tool.

The house starts to go up. It's not quite right, the corners aren't accurate. It's wobbly. Then somebody hands you a T-square. "How do I use this?" A level. You develop skill with the tools. As the house goes up, you discover what you do not yet know, what is needed in order to bring forth this finished house. You've mastered the masonry and carpentry. Everything is square and level and the house is going up, and you think to yourself, "It's dark. I have no windows in it." So you need to cut some holes in the walls and put in windows. That's another skill you have to learn, how to set in the windows. How to hang a door. And it goes up, and at the end of the day you're hot and sweaty and you think, "It would be good to take a shower. Ah, there's no water in here. I don't yet know how to work with plumbing." The house is out of balance: It's lacking water. It's lacking electricity, no fire. What's needed?

Finally, you end up with a house that's in balance. It's finished, it's livable. To me, a livable house is a house grounded in love. The house of your own human body and personality. How to express this love out into the world in a wholesome way, in a compassionate way, not a maudlin, sentimental way. Not in a way that invites abuse. A strong love. How do you invite this? How do you live this?

Now, to take this a step further, your purpose is not only to express that love in the world: that's only one step. You are learning to express that love in the world because there is the intention to express that love not only to your family, your neighbors, your workmates and so forth, but to learn how to express that love in the whole universe. Not just to human beings but to all beings.

Do you know the metta sutra? Let me quote a bit of it to you.

"Wishing in gladness and in safety,
may all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born,
May all beings be at ease."

So you're learning this not just to relate to humans; you're learning it at a soul level. The human experience gives you a wonderful place to practice. You don't train a five-year-old musician by putting him or her in the middle of a symphony orchestra. It might help that child to listen to the orchestra, but she's not ready to work with the music at that advanced level yet. First she must learn to play scales, to learn the simple techniques.

I don't mean to minimize your earth experience, but it is a controlled environment wherein you can learn the basic techniques. You don't have to think about the whole galaxy here: all you have to think about is how to deal with the person who is angry at you, and with whom you have to resolve a conflict tomorrow morning. It's limited. So you can practice with it and you can try it if it works. Good. If it doesn't work, then back to the drawing board. What will help?

So your earth experiences are literally the child's learning of the playing of the instrument and hearing of harmony. You learn through observation and participation, and come to know harmony and discord, the manifestation and results of each. Barbara's children participated in a Suzuki music program when they were young. They were playing a cello. The fundamental process of learning was listening and mimicry. The teacher would play a line of a song. The children were not to watch the fingers on the instrument so much as to hear and to begin to listen to their own instrument and hear what fingering and what bowing creates that sound.

So they would listen until they found they could recreate the sound. It was only years later that they learned the names of the notes. How do I hear just one note and play it beautifully? I think that's a very perfect metaphor for the human experience: how do you hear one note and play it beautifully? You don't need a name for the note; you don't need a lot of intellectual information about it. What is the direct experience of the open heart? What is the direct experience of presence? What is the direct experience of patience, generosity, joy, or compassion? And, as with the note, if you play it and it squeaks, what do you need to do to make it sound clearer, the way it sounds from the teacher? Put a little more resin on the bow or more pressure with the bow or more pressure with the finger. Suddenly it comes out clear. And then you play another note.

Your human experience through many lifetimes gives you the opportunity to learn it in this way, not just to be dumped into the middle of an orchestra and be told, "You should be able to play." You've got to learn it piece by piece, whether it's the building of the house or the playing of an instrument up to orchestra level, or the living of the life with wisdom and compassion. Once you've mastered that, then wherever you are in a human or non-human form, at any level of your being, when there is fear, aggression, misunderstanding—the heart is open and you know how to work with it.

As part of the vipassana practice, we see the move to build stories with what comes, and that this tendency doesn't help. So that when something comes at you and brings up fear or anger or confusion, instead of building self-identity—"This happened to me, how am I going to fix it?"—rather you begin simply to know the bare experience of fear or anger or confusion. No stories. What is the experience of fear before the stories come? What is the experience of anger before the stories come, the bare experience? Not, how do you relate to it but how does love relate to it? How does this emptiness of self, this place of non-dual love, relate to whatever catalyst has come to you?

As you learn how to do that, you become a model of such loving expression in the world, in service to all beings. When you offer love, you invite love. When you offer fear, you invite fear. It's very simple. Would you rather live in a universe where most beings are offering love and returning love, or a universe where most beings are offering fear and returning fear? We don't have to ask which one is better: it's very clear which one you'd choose.

Aaron Quote

Fear is the teacher.

Its omnipresence is a reminder

that you have a choice.

The choice is not to destroy fear

but to cease to heed fear as master.

The choice between love and fear

speaks not of destruction

but of responsibility and awareness.

Of love. Of choice.

Of awakening

into the realization

of that choice.

~ Aaron

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