what am i doing? lessons from the edge


Hardly the next power couple in the dharmic world but we are perhaps a good example of karmic consequences of not steering clear of muddy waters.  Frank & I lead a retreat on the Buddhist roots and ethics that underlie mindfulness programs at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. This was an opportunity gifted through the immense generosity of Chris Germer, Kristy Arbon, Mu Soeng, and BCBS Executive Director Laurie Phillips, all of whom galvanized the work we’ve been doing on making explicit the root teachings that inform the psychological aspects of contemporary mindfulness.  Although the retreat was not intended to be a journey into personal practice, it had that effect and spoke to the need for these foundational teachings. It keeps what tends to be superficial attempts at attention and awareness grounded in the original intentions of practice.

Stepping into that liminal space between Buddhist philosophy and psychological models of suffering is not difficult. But it does require a willingness to let go of one’s tribal mentality and concede that wisdom only arises as a result of contact and community. It was uplifting to be with so many practitioners who willingly entered into the intention of the retreat and shared their personal and professional wisdom with us.

Happily, our article, Traditional and Contemporary Mindfulness: Finding the Middle Path in the Tangle of Concerns, was published in Mindfulness the day before the retreat. The email response so far is mostly positive and supportive with one rather wild foray into psychology-bashing & mindfulness as the Ultimate realm where everything is One. This, along with a few comments from surprising sources, makes me wonder if we’ve forgotten that the Buddha recommended teaching to one’s audience. I tried to make the point that most people don’t show up on my doorstep and say, “I’m struggling with the evanescent nature of experience.” They tend to come with a felt though poorly articulated sense that something is amiss. As teachers of any ilk, we are meant to meet those who suffer where they are on the path, not where our elevated egos think they should be.

Not just “know your audience” but also “what am I doing?” This is the edge we found ourselves walking moment by moment as we opened up the texts and poetry that inform contemporary mindfulness. Of course, “what am I doing” occasionally took on the feeling tone of “why the hell did I think I could do this!?” But that’s a post for another day.

I’ve thanked Justin Whitaker in the article but it is worth repeating it here: Thank you for keeping this discussion going at so may levels.

what choice do you have?

It’s easy to make more of something than it is.  It’s easy to put a negative face on a person or situation to justify our anger, frustration, helplessness, and ultimately, our reactive actions.  

A couple of weeks ago, I made a phone call to an agency that, over the last 15 years, has referred people for psychological treatment.  I needed some paperwork sent for a particular client so they could take part in one of our programs.  The colleague I spoke with was embarrassed; she hedged around her answer and then blurted out, “You’re no longer on our provider list.”  She was upset about it, working on re-instating our clinic, but until then her hands were tied.  As the story wound out, it seems someone from my ignoble past has slid into my professional life with an agenda.  From what we could tell, this has been cooking for about four years and has ripened into action.

I spent a few days embellishing various fantasy scenarios of retaliation.  To give myself credit only one or two involved violation of the precepts.  Mostly, hunger strikes on the steps of the agency, opening a free clinic, and holding protest marches tended to be the flavour of my hit-backs.  Now before you go all Awwwww on me, let me point out that the ego is still quite rampant in the latter scenes despite the great Gandhi-like camouflage.  And then there were days of practicing one of the Shadow Fourth Noble Truths: Noble Outrage; I envisioned miles of needy patients snaking down hallways, winding out into the parking lots, and drifting in wounded aimlessness down the street.  I rarely worry about the closure of DVD rental places; there are ample life has uploaded into my mind. 

And then, in sangha, a friend asked what we were going to do to protect ourselves.  I responded, “Nothing yet.  It’s only been four years.”  True, there is potential in this situation for injustice, inconvenience, and the up-ending of projects waiting to be activated.  All of which to say, there is great potential for high drama and the tilting at windmills.  Yet once I strip away all the drama, faux-calls-to-social-engagement, and I call into play that powerful practice of patience, I’m left with a very different set of choices.

Reading The Misleading Mind by Karuna Cayton, it was good to see I’m not too far off base.  In the book, Cayton describes four steps to vanquishing the delusional mind.  Step One: You have a Choice!  I do absolutely have a choice.  There is a choice in viewing something as just what it is.  No more, no less.  As I sat with the not-doing, this was an additional realization: to narrow* our focus on the individual or the situation as it is now is the delusional process.  And no choice of skillful actions can arise out of that perspective.

Cayton sets up a four-step process of training the mind.  I don’t quite follow the set up of the book to see how the four steps match up with the chapters.  But maybe that is just my hobgoblin mind wanting a clear map.

Regardless, it doesn’t take away from the practice he describes and which I’ll explore this week.

* Edited 2012 May 21 @ 0941