handful of leaves

Last week, I spent 5 days at the Omega Institute learning about mindful self-compassion.  The potential redundancy of the topic title and the nuances of dharma may chafe a bit but it does point to the current trend in turning Buddhist psychological concepts into therapeutic processes.  That’s not a bad thing because given what interventions actually work and the paradigm shift we need so we can improve as therapists, another approach would be a Godsend… or Buddhasend in this case.  In fact, when done right (read: commitment to training on the part of the therapist), there is no greater accountability than that for a professional who has to test the medicine before administering it.  And what medicine it is!

The Buddha said that what he had taught was a handful of leaves in comparison to the numerous leaves in the simsapa forest.  In the Simsapa Sutta, he explained that what he had not taught was irrelevant because 

… they are not connected with the goal, do not relate to the rudiments of the holy life, and do not lead to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Unbinding. That is why I have not taught them.

The Buddha went on to say that he taught one and only one thing: suffering and the end of suffering.

A few things about this sutra have bothered me for a long time.  First, why the heck would he avoid teaching something because it did not lead to suffering*?  By inference, it means some of the things he taught opened us to suffering – which, of course, is what he said.  Second, in my pea-brained head what he taught has always been two things: (1) suffering and (2) the end of suffering.

Somewhere in the week of the retreat/training, I had a chance to walk with a dear dharma sibling.  As we discussed the intricacies of what the Buddha taught (and didn’t teach), I wondered out loud why suffering never seemed to cease.  Why was it that each time we drilled down into that deep gut somewhere under the hara, we reliably struck the oily, thick, black smoke of ancient twisted karma?  We talked some more about this “walk of disillusion” we often take as practitioners, this path of disenchantment, grief, and sorrow that we mistake for an obstacle to our progress.  Stopping under a towering tree (close as we can get to a simsapa forest), I chuckled with the realization that perhaps we had become experts in drilling for suffering.  Perhaps we only found suffering each time because that precisely was what we drilled for at every sitting.   Perhaps it was time to hang up that dowsing rod and turn to something more balancing.

I can’t think of a better argument for a practice of love; not just compassion but also lovingkindness, equanimity and joy.    The fourfold practice that warms and opens the heart.  And ends suffering.

So the Buddha did teach one and only one thing.  Our practice is not only about the origins of suffering and the defilements that cause them.  It is equally and likely even simultaneously about the cessation of suffering through the practice of warming the heart so it can open and not fear being broken.

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*The Buddha’s teaching are not simply an exercise in intellectual exploration of suffering.  In order to understanding suffering, we first need to open to it in the body, experiencing the very sensations we struggle against and strive to avoid at all costs.  So paradoxically, his teachings lead us directly to suffering because that is the only route out of this tangled mess born of craving, hatred, and ignorance.

if i can know my pain, i can know your joy

This is a “Pregnant Plant” given to me by one of my clients.  It’s quite beautiful and an easy keeper except that it lives up to its name.  The little leafy nodes cove the larger leaves, eventually dropping off to form more plants.  Prolific little thing and over time I’ve become less and less skilled at weeding out the excessive growth.  

Then again, I’ve always thought of excess as not only requiring deep weeding but itself as something to be weeded out.  An undesired feature of all life systems, excess signals something gone wrong in a delicate balance.  And it’s no different with emotional regulation systems where excess of any emotional state can bring on suffering.  Where sadness is a normal response to loss, hurt, and disappointment, in excess it can evolve into a depression that freezes out light and love.  Where anger can be a natural response to threat, in excess it can become damaging verbal and physical aggression.  We know this, don’t we?  In this particular venue where topics focus on practice informed by Buddhist thought, we know that this is why we practice: delicate attention to that tipping point between love and obsession, dislike and hate, grief and dissolution, joy and mania.

Did you catch that last one?  I’ve been doing some deep thinking about joy.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about the joy we feel – or try to feel – in the successes of others.  In terms of the Four Divine Abodes, it’s called mudita or sympathetic joy – an arising of goodwill and appreciation when we learn of the success of our fellow beings.  It’s often taught as a practice of feeling joy and cultivating that appreciation of goodness that flows for others.  Little is ever said about what has to be weeded out in order for that to happen because, let’s be honest, in today’s competitive environment, the success of others is sometimes, if not often, at the cost of our own.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, Ben Howard’s terrific post on mudita was reprinted in the Upaya newsletter today and it not only added grist to my thinking mill but provided me with the opportunity to observe envy at his consistent scholarship, annoyance at my lazy-ass attitude to improving my own, and a ream of not-so-nice thoughts about the unfairness of the world in recognizing genius other than mine.  

 I urge you to read Ben’s post here and I credit it for getting me to revisit the thoughts I had about sympathetic joy back in June when it was originally published.  Although not central to the theme of the post, he touches on this issue of conflicting emotions when we are faced with the successes or good fortune of others which Ben points out are perfectly human.  As much as we may be pleased by the success of others, we tend also to harbour unseemly wishes for their failure.  These latter wishes seem to be driven by three things: a belief in limited resources and rewards, a feeling of inadequacy, and a belief that all successes are the same.  But they also have a purpose.

In many cases, resources and rewards are truly limited.  There is often only one top prize – be it the Nobel Prize, the marathon, or the best pie at the country fair.  So it’s quite realistic to feel a sense of urgency in such situations.  Even when rewards are plentiful, seeing others achieve success can fire up feelings of not being good enough and the bizarre worry that our successes may not be as good as theirs.  And finally, we struggle with seeing that a Noble prize is no more valuable a success than best pie at the country fair because success is meant to be something larger than our everyday life.  (As a side note, having competed at country fairs, I can say confidently that there is no Nobel prize winner who would stand up to a local Queen of Tarts in a face off!)

The purpose of our competitive nature and the unwholesome thoughts it nourishes is quite simple.  It keeps us moving forward, trying harder, and becoming creative in our contributions.  Or it should but more often deteriorates into something damaging to self and others.  So in this case, a bit of weeding is necessary before things get too cutthroat – or perhaps it’s too late even for that hope.  Another purpose of our negative slant is also to push us into evaluating our own successes and appreciating them for just what they are.  This is doubtless a more difficult and challenging practice but without which we are destined to become the Silas Marner of the 21st century and beyond.

If it’s starting to look like the practice of mudita is hopelessly complicated, you’re probably right.  But you know that practice is not easy and in this case, it’s not even simple!  

So let me push your edge a bit by suggesting that along with using our dark thoughts skillfully, we must also cultivate our joy if we are to keep expressed joy in the success of others from being a saccharine knee-jerk reflex of being Buddhist or a sycophantic chorus to gain the approbation of others.  We can appeal to the process of empathy to lay this on firm ground.  Empathy is the capacity to connect with the suffering of another because we too have suffered in a similar way.  I cry with a friend who has lost a parent because I too have lost mine.  To be more specific, I touch the sadness of having lost a parent just as my friend touches the sadness of having lost theirs; and, in that mutual connecting to our felt sadness, we resonate with authentic understanding.  This is really important because empathy is not about sharing events; it’s not an “I’ve been there.”  It is the willingness to connect with our emotional states and experience them fully.  Without this there can be no resonance with the suffering of others and therefore no empathy for sorrow.   Or for joy.

Mudita then is what I call resonant joy because  is possible only as a cultivation of empathy, an authentic understanding of what it means to my friend to enjoy accolades, successes, and accomplishments.  It can be accessed because we touch willingly our own pain of self-judgment and perceived or real failures.  We turn from the profound and damaging recriminations and chose to examine what we have and honestly have not.  We work doggedly at valuing the gifts we have and the gifts they have brought us.  And only then can we say our pleasure in the joy of our friends is authentic and supportive.  And we fail.  And we get oh-so-close-to-it.  And we remember that it is likely the most challenging practice only because without it we are consigned to a much larger failure.