There was no real intention at the outset of the week to get into the Five Hindrances; the talk by Sharon Slazberg on Tricycle’s online retreat seems to have penetrated more deeply than I expected. The Five Hindrances are desire, aversion, anxiety, restlessness, and doubt. They colour our vision and skew our perception in ways that create profound suffering.
Salzberg’s suggestion of turning into the experience of the arising emotion is a conventional approach to the Five Unholy Terrors but when she called it pivoting, it sparked a whole set of images for me. Of course, at one level, we’re talking about the stance we take to the various experiences unfolding in our sensory realm (see the comment by Jeanne Desey, our dear Dalai Grandma, on Monday’s post). At another, it’s about consciously breaking the trance of the activating event (riffing on Tara Brach) and choosing a different part of the horizon to hold in our vision.
When difficulties arise, I tend to repeat to myself over and over: it’s not the event, it’s the experience that you’re reacting to. Sometimes, it stops me from falling over the edge between equanimity and reactivity. Sometimes it’s about as useful as Charlie Brown’s teacher going “wha-whan-wha-wha”.
Anger/aversion is a good example. Lately, my mind-field has been exploding, sending out a number of shards over some events and my perceptions of the people involved. It took some serious deconstructing and brutal honesty with a good friend who finally said (in so many words): I know you don’t tolerate fools – gladly or otherwise – but aren’t they the ones most deserving of your bodhisattva practice? My response: Yeah, whatever. Very gently he pointed out that while he agreed about the critical elements of the situation, he failed to see why I thought skillfulness and therefore liberation would happen just because I was involved. That smart. I might start speaking to him again in few months.
Salzberg suggested that when anger arose her teacher recommended that she imagine a spaceship had landed on the lawn and Martians (why is it always Martians?!) came up and knocked on her door. They asked: What is anger? Please tell us what is anger?
So I’ve been trying to do that but it’s tough. These Martians need such basic explanations about socialization, virtues, values, and gosh, a whole class on the grasping that is fortified by organizations. Then I saw a goose on the verge of the boulevard as I was driving home.
Kensho from a goose. Really.
Along the Aviation Parkway, if you drive slowly enough (and please do!), you will spot a family of geese. Dad and Mum with their clutch of goslings. In the dusk they were hard to see and I think they were trying to cross the road. It struck intense terror in me; my gut froze, cold and hard. My breath caught and I thought I was going to suffocate. My mind raced through thousands of horrible images of what would happen to the goose, gander, and the little fluffy yellow babies. I was distraught to the point of wanting Frank to go back at 10 PM and check on them (he didn’t but he biked by today and reported they were fine).
My reaction fascinated me. The Martians asked, What is this? What is this? The image of the goose (the male?) kept surfacing. He stood on the rise of the grass about 10 feet from the curb, neck long and firm, body braced and his gaze fixed on the cars going by. Each time that image arose, I sensed in my body the same gathering up of muscles and firm intention in my posture. Protective, determined. Willing to take on the sedans and SUVs to get to the other side. In the end its stalwart stance may not matter because a speeding car is no match for a goose’s conviction that it can and must protect its young. With that thought, anger arose in me.
And I understood.
Something precious to our work has been taken and there are some forms of attacks, such as greed and its attendant grasping, we cannot protect ourselves from. It’s unfair and it enrages me if I think of it in terms of ownership and trust. I have to remember that we offered our skills freely, trusting in the integrity of the process, and the dharma is not owned by anyone. And while that trust may have been violated, the greater violence would be in getting swept away by the rage and losing our own integrity because of it.
I’d like to add Sharon’s response to a question about the usefulness of anger and fear as means of motivation and protection:
I think a couple of distinctions might be helpful. One is between feeling something and being lost in it. Even in a situation of real and immediate danger being overcome by anger or fear might severely limit our options for action, though the most natural thing in the world is to feel them. So can we have the integrity of those feelings, and even utilize them, without being overcome by them.And the other distinction would be between feeling something appropriate in a situation as compared to having that feeling become habitual, so that we perceive threat where there might not be a threat, or personalize impersonal events, and are often angry and afraid.
You can read more comments to her talk here.