spiritual practice

The real victory

He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.

Sun Tzu

The primary focus of spiritual work and the purification of consciousness has to do with the eradication of fear, which underlies all the false egoic tendencies we call desire. The practice of this eradication involves determining internally which actions/responses are being driven by fear at their core, and working to dissolve those barriers. The more barriers we dissolve, the more we liberate our authentic selves to freedom.

The external actions we take are not especially relevant, as they are really only a byproduct of the internal process. It is one’s own inner work that is of primary importance, not how one appears externally to others. (For this reason, it is nearly impossible to evaluate another’s spiritual progress by merely observing their conduct or behavior.).

External peace between people is a beautiful thing. But real external peace cannot exist if there is internal turmoil and fear. Discontent can be suppressed and silenced, or negotiated or compromised away, but that is a false facade of peace, not authentic peace. In this sense, external peace becomes a kind of utopian ideal towards which we strive, but rarely achieve. Those who do achieve the virtuous ideal become spiritual masters and titans of humanity.

Many of us are conditioned from childhood to remain silent, or to refuse to engage in a provocation with an aggressor, in order to keep the external calm and social order. This serves to maintain a necessary social cohesion and quell unrest and chaos, without which there would be anarchy, but it is not peace. The authentic ideal requires a much more arduous and complicated journey.

When we embark on the spiritual path, we are initially taught not to engage in interpersonal combat, and to remain silent in the face of provocation. That is a wise initial teaching. By not engaging and refraining from combat, we have the space to turn the focus inward, and work through all of the triggered feelings and beliefs that the provocation activates. This work happens in layers and takes years and years to complete. As our competency in this area matures, we come to see the incredible value of this teaching. By refraining from engagement and using the provocations (so plentiful in our world) to fuel the work, we are able to travel to great internal depth and really discover ourselves fully. A seasoned practitioner of this process will actually arrive at gratitude towards his aggressors, because the attacks illuminated the wounding that was in need of awareness. That is how provocations (and evil at large) serve us, and that is why we ought to “turn the other cheek” in our usual practice.

There comes another stage of spiritual work and purification that asks us to externally work through our fears. Here we are called to a different sort of activity. In this area, having healed all of our primary wounds, we must now work on developing courage. The approach to provocations here is different, taking on a combative nature. This is the other side of the spectrum, which involves bringing increasing awareness to our self-oppression and self-silencing in order to “keep the peace” and “avoid rocking the boat,” because those things aren’t “nice.” We must recognize the places where we remain silent and refuse engagement out of fear of confrontation and avoidance. Then we must reconcile the fears, and find our voice, our anger, and learn how to utilize those tools effectively. They are vital parts of our humanness, and through proper expression they must be brought into balance within.

In some spiritual communities speaking up, engaging when provoked, standing up for oneself or against injustice, or using appropriate expressions of anger are shunned and shamed as “not spiritual.” This is a mistake. Those communities remain stuck in the initial beginner level teachings, rather than advancing to the more mature stages of spiritual growth. They impose “peace” and “calm,” which often becomes abusive and oppressive to the members, especially when malevolent actors are at the helm.

In this more spiritually mature arena, in order to claim that we are consciously choosing to remain silent and forbear when attacked, there must be a valid and viable alternative. That means that responding, or not responding, must be equally available paths of actions. Then it can be said that there is a legitimate choice being made between two paths. If responding to the provocation is not an available path, it is because fear is standing in the way, and then the decision not to respond is not a choice, but an avoidance. We can even call it a cowardice, succumbing to fear, rather than acting on our authentic feelings.

In this part of the work, we must choose very carefully when to respond or not respond, and how precisely to respond to the correct degree, determined mostly by which path scares us most. The responses must never come from a place of vengeance or the pursuit of power or domination. They must always be underpinned by justice and ethical decision-making. By recognizing the fear that blocks us, working through it, and then moving forward in that direction conquering the fear, we will win. That is what is really meant by this piece of wisdom. The one who masters this process wins.

The winning does not have to anything to do with what happens externally. The practitioner doesn’t necessary win against his opponent in physical reality. His external opponent and the external outcome of the fight do not matter. What matters is if he is internally making the right, courageous, wise choice – utilizing the provocation in the best way possible, pushing himself further and further towards the conquest of fear, and responding in just the right way. If this is carried out correctly, he will win, and the victory will be of the most important kind.

Acceptance and tolerance are not the same thing

People often confuse acceptance with tolerance.

To accept something does not mean to tolerate it. 

Tolerance is “to allow the existence, occurrence, or practice of (something that one does not necessarily like or agree with) without interference.” Tolerance is to endure with forbearance. It carries a negative quality. Tolerance requires patience, causes frustration, and drains our vital energy. Inevitably, tolerating too much of something, ends in some kind of explosion when we “just can’t take it anymore!” 

Acceptance, on the other hand, is a welcoming. It’s a positive emotion. It’s a seeing the goodness, benefit, correctness of a situation or condition. It is taking something we believe to be negative, and fundamentally altering our inner feelings about it. 

The distinction is so important.

Tolerating something is allowing it to be, and trying to ignore it. Acceptance is looking deeply at the truth of a situation, and making positive interpretations of what’s there. Not just a silver lining, but the entire thing.

Acceptance is “yes! Please.”

Tolerance is “ugh. Fine.”

It begins with ourselves, accepting aspects of ourselves we don’t like, and finding why those aspects are actually positive. Then looking at aspects of others, and finding why those aspects (which we seem not to like) are also positive.

This is not an easy practice. Our minds are not trained to do this by default. It takes a significant effort to look inward. To see what is being resisted. And to bring it into acceptance.

 

Life doesn’t happen to you; it happens for you.

Often times when some negative event befalls someone we know, everyone shakes their heads in sympathy. “What a shame. Poor guy. He’s such a good person. How could this happen to him? He was always so kind and caring.” We make the mistake of thinking that this bad thing that happened is some kind of misfortune. A stroke of bad luck. Perhaps a consequence of the victim’s poor choices even. But this kind of thinking traps us in suffering. It is a victim mindset – that we are all hapless victims of a cruel and random fate.

This is how most people live life from within, but it is not the right way to live.

Bad things happen to good people all the time. Being a good person, or always making good smart choices, doesn’t protect us from negative events. Not even a little bit. Ultimately, death comes for us all. It’s one of the only certainties we have. There is nothing inherently bad about it. Of course, grief, or loss, or illness, can be terribly painful, but there is an important distinction to be made about the actual pain we experience, and the larger story we hold about the experience. The actual suffering is one thing, the larger perspective is another. 

It is a misunderstanding of cosmic justice that bad things only happen to bad people, or that by being a good person we can somehow stay on fate’s good side, preventing tragic outcomes. That’s not how it works. Each of us has a particular life experience to live and work through. All of the things that come into our lives, good and especially bad, come to teach us lessons we have chosen to learn. At their core, all the lessons are about love – how to do love in human form.

When we hold negative events in the wrong perspective, we feel afraid and powerless. we hope for the best and constantly worry about the worst, living in a perpetual state of anxiety. We end up entirely missing the very lessons we came into this life to learn. Life is not about success or failure, as we ordinarily understand those things. It’s not about achievement. It’s not about controlling all the variables to make sure everything goes according to our plans. We have only an illusion of personal control.

Life is an opportunity to learn really profound lessons. It’s an experience of love, manifested in human form. It’s a beautifully designed play; orchestrated by an incredible intelligence, full of pain, and joy, and grief, and bliss, and heartbreaking injustice and suffering; all intricately mixed together, in just the right amounts for us, individually, to learn what we came here to learn. It’s all a dance of light and shadows in three dimensional form. We have to turn towards all the events and embrace them fully, as much as that’s possible, changing the larger perspective, so that we might endure the actual pain with less resistance and more personal agency. 

Mystics have been writing about this for centuries, trying to share this wisdom of perspective. While it can be very hard not to feel victimized by fate in the throes of pain or grief, pro-actively, intentionally shifting the larger perspective, accepting circumstances and taking ownership of ourselves within those circumstances, letting the resistance drop away and finding the power we do have, actually helps us to move through and out of the pain, getting us out of our suffering much faster.

There is a subtle but pervasive tone of frustration in the writings of all the mystics, that no one understands this, or if they do intellectually understand it, they don’t put it into practice in their own experiences. These aren’t just lofty poetic ideas, they are actual tools of practice. They have to be implemented and lived, but people seem to reject these ideas, therefore seemingly choosing to remain in needless suffering. 

One of the marvels of the world is the sight of a soul sitting in a prison with the keys in its hand

Rumi

What do you do about anxiety?

Anxiety is a pretty common occurrence, especially in stressful busy lives. I suffered with anxiety for many years, as did many of my friends and colleagues. One of the first things I learned about anxiety, years ago, which was very helpful to me (particularly at times when I felt like I was losing my mind with panic), was that the thoughts you think in those moments aren’t true. 

They are “anxious thoughts,” which arise from the aroused state of your body/brain in that moment. You don’t need to believe those thoughts, or magnify them, or engage with them when they are spinning out of control. You can just let them be, and they will go away when your body settles back to normal. This idea alone was incredibly comforting. Naming them, separating them, and discounting their validity, especially during an anxiety attack, can be helpful and stabilizing. 

One of my favorite teachings on handling negative emotions comes from Pema Chodron’s book, Getting Unstuck: Breaking Your Habitual Patterns and Encountering Naked Reality.

Pema describes encountering an experience of unabating anxiety every time she sat down to meditate, while she was on a retreat. She struggled with it for days. Unable to find its source, or make it subside, she visited her teacher looking for guidance. Upon describing her experience and frustration to him, Dzigar Kontrul Rinpoche said “Oh, that’s the Daikini’s Bliss! That’s a high level of spiritual bliss.” As soon as she heard this, Pema became instantly excited about her next meditation practice, no longer concerned with feeling it, she became eager to feel it. And after Rinpoche left, she sat down on her cushion, ready to experience it again, but the feelings were gone.

When he said that, that was melting it, or space coming into it, or warmth coming into it. You change the way you look at it.”

The teaching on negative emotions, like anxiety, in many spiritual traditions (in this case, the Shambala lineage of Tibetan Buddhism) is first to drop the resistance. Resisting the emotion (wanting it to stop, trying to make it stop, worrying that it will never stop) will only make it worse. Instead of focusing on getting rid of it, change your relationship to it. Welcome it.

I know that sounds crazy; why would you ever welcome anxiety?

Well, because the very disposition of trying to push it away makes it worse. The resistance exacerbates the situation and makes it last longer. And that will create new anxiety about having anxiety. The mind is brilliant at creating traps like this for you. It’s one thing to have a panic or anxiety attack which last for a short time, but the fear and anticipation of having one again, at any moment, can haunt a person all the time. 

So, in order to “welcome it,” to work on dropping the resistance to it, when you feel it beginning, treat the anxiety with curiosity. This is a fantastic tool. Get curious about your anxiety. Instead of continuing the inner dialogue about how bad it is, or how much you wish it would stop, make it your Daikini’s Bliss, and drop your eager attention into your body to investigate it.

Try to locate the experience of anxiety in the different parts of your body. You could slowly scan each area with your mind, and ask yourself “do I feel anything anxiety related in my right foot? In my left foot? In my right leg? In my left leg?” Do this slowly, and concentrate on really investigating and feeling each area of the body. Continue going all the way up your body, until you’ve located the areas where you are experiencing the anxious feeling. (For me this is usually in my stomach, in the center of my chest, in the back of my head, and in my hands).

When you’ve found it in your body, start to articulate the actual sensation of it with words. “I feel a huge weight in my stomach. It feels like an anvil sitting in there, pushing downwards. It feels heavy, and it’s pressing on all the organs under it… In my chest, I feel outward pressure, like a huge pocket of air is trapped in my chest. It feels hot, and like it’s expanding…” Continue to tell yourself about the experience for as long as you feel it, in great detail.

You will notice that the more you focus your attention on the feelings in your body, rather than on the terrifying thoughts that triggered the anxiety, the quicker the feelings will subside. In essence, by dropping into your body, you are cutting off the story-line in your head, which is feeding the anxiety with fearful thoughts. And you are unhooking your attention from the scary thought stream, and redirecting the attention into your physical sensations. This is a form of grounding into the body and out of the mind, and staying fully present with the experience. 

You can try this practice with any negative or unpleasant emotion, like anger, sadness, shame, guilt, etc. In my experience, this practice is an extremely effective tool. When you get used to doing this, you come to find out that you can actually enjoy the experience of any emotion, even the bad ones. The more you allow yourself to feel them, the greater your capacity and resilience to process them through. They don’t need to be suppressed or numbed. You can welcome all of your emotions, and get better and stronger at welcoming them, and really savor the experience of being human.