Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Four different practices to work with challenging emotions in daily life

The next slogan in the #lojongchallenge is "Four practices are the best of methods". My excuse for not having blogged for such a long time is that this slogan is really very all-encompassing. But I am finally there (on vacation, so with a bit of time to write), so let's go through the four practices and see how they fit in daily life. Right now my daily life is a ballet intensive so some of it will be applied to that.
An arabesque in Budapest, where I am for the ballet intensive with a friend

The first of the practices is the accumulation of merit. When I first became a Buddhist, I always found that quite a mysterious term. But Khandro Rinpoche explains it quite simply as being about working with yourself to display your qualities. For example, if you take a shower and comb your hair, you display your quality of beauty. This is the opposite of wailing in a poverty mentality of thinking you do not have enough and you are not good enough. Your body and mind are sufficient to be kind and generous, and this is the most beautiful. This is helpful for me as a reminder during my ballet summer intensive, because I sometimes get quite frustrated with my legs and feet which don't allow me to stand on pointe in a beautiful way. But I can still work with what I have, and just do my best to stretch my legs as much as possible so my legs are as beautiful they can be, but then take courage from the fact that I have other qualities such as remembering combinations quickly or displaying joy while dancing. I found the first day, especially when one teacher was berating us about not stretching our legs on pointe that I really got stuck in this mentality that I am incapable of dancing, but when during the second day I changed my mind and focused more on working with what I have, then I felt much better.

The second practice is that of purification. These are practices in which we remember the actions and thoughts that are not so wholesome, we purify them through visualization (for example), and then we vow not to commit those actions again. It is a great way of working with pride, because we acknowledge we have some negative sides, but also that they can be transformed. It's not intended to be the case that we get completely discouraged and feel worthless, but rather that we feel our negative sides can be purified. For me the visualisation practices are quite helpful, because they allow me not only to work with my own negative aspects, and face them, but also to work for healing of all beings who are suffering or are in pain. Right now in the situation surrounding Rigpa, I use this practice to apologize in my mind for all the harm done in the context of this organization and to bring well-being and happiness to all those who are suffering (on all sides of the equation). And that whatever my role in that has been, for example to not speak up or check in with people who may have been suffering, will be purified, so that in the future I will be able to take more action. Alternatively, I sometimes practise for specific people I know who are sick or suffering, and it is so wonderful to be able to do something and keep them in mind.

The third practice is the practice of offering torma, which according to Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche relates to thanking the trouble makers on our path. Working with the challenges they provide helps us to repay the karmic debts for all the things we have received from others. In the context of this ballet intensive, that is very much working with challenging teachers. One teacher really likes to berate us for not paying attention, for not listening to the music, and for disappointing her, whereas I feel I cannot do much more than I am doing. So then instead of enjoying the work of dance I start to feel nervous and insecure. Now I think here is my chance to work with the challenging circumstance, to work with the demon in more traditional terms, and just face it: just face the feelings but also enjoy the lesson on my own terms. I am sure the person is trying to help, but has a somewhat odd way of communicating, probably heavily influenced by the way they were taught. And in the end, it is a good exercise in diminishing arrogance: just giving what I have to give without expecting praise or anything in return.
This shows very nicely a moment where I am enjoying the dancing  (from a performance at Zhembrovskyy Ballet Dance Fitness )

The fourth and final practice is that of offering to the protectors. This is a very traditional practice clouded in mysticism, but I found Khandro Rinpoche brought a very helpful explanation to it: the most important protector is our awareness, because when we are aware of our thoughts and emotions, this prevents us from doing stupid things that bring harm to others. So it is a reminder to cultivate awareness of our thoughts and emotions, which is done in the context of meditation, but should obviously be extended to the context of everyday life.

In short, this slogan captures really the whole Buddhist path, so we are really never done, but nevertheless these are some helpful reminders.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Trusting the power of our own wisdom and daring to question

A few weeks ago I attended a teaching by Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel. I think she is a wonderful Western Buddhist teacher in a Tibetan tradition. It was very refreshing to hear her perspective on the Dharma. While she teaches traditional teachings, she also gives it a distinct modern flavour. What I really liked was that she very much encouraged people to question everything. Because according to the Buddhist teachings, the main problem is that we think we know how things are, but we hold onto our image of things instead of seeing how they are changeable and interdependent. So it is important to never be completely convinced that you are accurate, because there is no solid thing out there to be accurate about. This is interesting because as scientists we know more than anyone that science is only true until proven wrong by the next study. And that is fine (in some way, that is part of the fun...). The challenge is the willingness to remain curious and to bear witness to the complexity of life.

Another important topic that she discussed was the concept of agency: we are more powerful than we think we are. The problem is that we get stuck in relationships with others in which we act as if we aren't. For example, we often end up trying to do what we think makes other people like us--then we are not really free (I'm guilty as charged on this one!).

A particularly challenging relationship she taught about was the relationship with the teacher. Here we sometimes create a dynamic by acting like a child in relationship with a parent, instead of claiming our own agency. She said we should never just do what the teacher says but always question what works for us. The role of the teacher is to challenge us, and the role of the student is to seriously engage with these challenges (and actually not bypass them). Then we have the tendency to deify the teacher, which sets us up for disappointment, after which there is a tendency to demonize the teacher. These tendencies show up especially in situations where abuse occurs (which sadly is not that uncommon). When mistreated (or even just disappointed) it becomes very attractive to victimize ourselves. This is particularly attractive because it feels good to be right and point out that someone else is wrong.

While victimizing is attractive, it is also dangerous, because as a victim, you lose agency and you get stuck in the situation. If instead you can work to view the complexity of the situation, where you are almost always also somewhat involved, then you can learn from it and work with it. This of course is not a permission for anyone (and especially any teacher) to mistreat people, but things happen. And if we work together as a group of people to understand the situation, we can also work to create circumstances that make abuses less likely to happen in the future. And definitely asking questions, listening to each other and remaining curious are very important there. Because very often it is not that clear what is right and what is wrong in a situation when you are in the middle of it. Then the challenge to us is, as Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel phrased it, to try to make our mind big enough to be able to hold a horse race inside.