Reevaluation | Doubt, Patience, Purpose

Recently, I have thought about gratitude a lot. I know it’s crucial to a healthy mindset, and at times about a year ago, I had a fair amount of it, even as things felt like they were falling apart around me. Now, not so much. It’s all I can do to hope that my life will make sense again some day. Every day, I feel like I’m waiting to die, and the only gratitude I have for the last couple years is the clarity of boundaries I need to uphold for the future and for the friends who’ve shown they care when I have felt utterly worthless.

A tarot reading recently brought this into focus. It showed two paths forward for a question – one was trying to find gratitude and convince myself that those perspectives were valid. The other was sitting patiently in confusion, in mourning, in meaninglessness and despair, sitting with the feelings of doubt — being intimate with the mysteriousness of being rather than trying to explain it away. The second of the two actually looked like the more positive long-term path, and ultimately, it made me feel more at ease with a sense of failing my own values.

How so? I doubt everything – I doubt there’s any point to existence, the full-on absurd of Camus as a felt existential experience. The key with that comparison is that the task is then on me to affirm and create my own purpose. That seems impossible. More daunting, and more painful, I doubt ideas of the dharma. In my best days, I feel like showing up and doing well for myself and others is all that matters, understanding that we all share the pain of samsara, but at times, the nihilistic overtones in my perspective make me wonder if that’s even true, if it all washes away in impermanence.

However… I hold to the idea that those doubts are precisely the strongest possibility for seeing clearly and really feeling compassion and wisdom fully. I’ve remembered that Zen emphasizes doubt as crucial to breaking through to enlightenment, and Dogen emphasizes a chiasm of intimate intertwining between delusion (doubting the dharma in this case) and enlightenment. My own feelings of doubt are rooted deeply in personal loss, and when I really pause, I can’t help but see the impermanence of it all – love is empty. It’s a passing construct like all the rest that exists, and as a Buddhist nun I know speaks about such things regarding gain and loss, “How could it be otherwise? Nothing is more natural.” As such, why do I cling???????

All I do know is that showing up for others teaches me time and again that my own pain is not separate from the human lives around me all the time. It’s easy to fall into your own ego narrative, but when you see the passing of time and the confusion and pain of others, it’s easier to be patient with their own selfish treatment towards you as their own delusion from a misunderstanding of time and life, of dharma, as well as to see your own moments of being lost rather than skillful, and furthermore, it’s clear that those moments of seeing clearly and helping others are the most fulfilling, even when life seems meaningless. I hope that continuing to invest in this and to take up practices like meditating on the brahmaviharas, which feels right, will grow the seed of new purpose through the nutrients of patience, growing in the rich soil of doubt – just as the lotus grows in the muddy water

Here are a few quotes that I hope will fit with this – first a quote regarding the Tibetan slogan practices and the cultivation of bodhicitta. I find the Tibetan practices some of the best at overturning our understanding and valuation of self.

How bodhicitta works is very simple. When we look outward and see how much all other beings are suffering–even though they want to be happy just as much as we do–then our care for our small, individual self naturally transforms into care for a much bigger “self”. We grow from having self-care to universal care. Right away our own suffering becomes smaller. It doesn’t instantly and totally disappear, but diminishes naturally and progressively as we free ourselves from attachment to the small self. When the sun shines, it absorbs all the light of the moon and stars into its brightness. Similarly, when we have bodhicitta, the brilliant light of our universal love and care outshines and absorbs our concerns for this one individual.

– Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche, The Intelligent Heart: A Guide to the Compassionate Life, p. 12-13

Once again, I’m going to throw in Dogen’s Genjokoan, but I’ll use another translation this time, regarding self-involvement, buddhahood, delusion, enlightenment, and practice:

To carry the self forward and illuminate myriad things is delusion. That myriad things come forth and illuminate the self is awakening.
Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings. Further, there are those who continue realizing beyond realizations and those who are in delusion throughout delusion.
When buddhas are truly buddhas, they do not necessarily notice that they are buddhas. However, they are actualized buddhas, who go on actualizing buddhas.

– Dogen, “Actualizing the Fundamental Point” (Genjokoan) in Treasury of the True Dharma Eye (Shobogenzo), trans. Kazuaki Tanahashi, p. 29

Finally, Mumon’s commentary on the famous first koan of the Gateless Gate (the Japanese/Zen version of the Chinese/Chan originals) emphasizes the importance of doubt for breaking through and having a great experience of kensho. Aside: I’ve actually written previously about this wonderful koan in relation to a heavy song by my favorite band here.

For the practice of Zen, you must pass the barrier set up by the ancient patriarchs of Zen. To attain to marvelous enlightenment, you must completely extinguish all thoughts of the ordinary mind. If you have not passed the barrier and have not extinguished all thoughts, you are a phantom haunting the weeds and trees. Now, just tell me, what is the barrier set up by the patriarchs? Merely this Mu (Z note: the key word of the koan that means “nothing”) — the one barrier of our sect. So it has come to be called “The Gateless Barrier of the Zen Sect.”

Those who have passed the barrier are able not only to see Joshu (Z note: the master in the koan) face to face but also to walk hand in hand with the whole descending line of patriarchs and be eyebrow to eyebrow with them. You will see with the same eye that they see with, hear with the same ear that they hear with. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful joy? Isn’t there anyone who wants to pass this barrier? Then concentrate your whole self into this Mu, making your whole body with its 360 bones and joints and 84,000 pores into a solid lump of doubt. Day and night, without ceasing, keep digging into it, but don’t take it as “nothingness” or as “being” or “non-being.” It must be like a red-hot iron ball which you have gulped down and which you try to vomit up but cannot. You must extinguish all delusive thoughts and beliefs which you have cherished up to the present. After a certain period of such efforts, Mu will come to fruition, and inside and out will become one naturally. You will then be like a dumb man who has a dream. You will know yourself and for yourself only.

Then all of a sudden, Mu will break open. It will astonish the heavens and earth. It will be just as iff you had snatched the great sword of General Kan: If you meet a Buddha, you will kill him. If you meet a patriarch, you will kill him. Though you may stand on the brink of life and death, you will enjoy the great freedom. In the six realms and the four modes of birth, you will live in the samadhi of innocent play.

Now, how should you concentrate on Mu? Exhaust every ounce of energy you have in doing it. And if you do not give up on the way, you will be enlightened the way a candle in front of the altar is lighted by one touch of fire.

– Mumon, The Gateless Gate, trans. Koun Yamada, p. 10

Two last notes: Hakuin, a Zen patriarch, is quoted as saying, “The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening,” although I’m struggling to find a solid source for where he said this, but the idea is clarified well here in this article from Tricycle about great doubt in Zen, written by the very translator for The Gateless Gate above. Furthermore, Yamada Roshi, said translator, is summarized as seeing Zen practice as such in the foreward to his translation: “Genuine fruit of Zen practice, he repeatedly maintained, is manifested when a human being is able to experience an emptying of one’s ego, and truly live out one’s humanity with a humble heart, at peace with oneself, at peace with the universe, and with a mind of boundless compassion” The Gateless Gate, p. xii. I think that’s a fantastic inspiration to close this with and a guiding aspiration, one I didn’t have when I started to fumble through writing this post. It’s a happy accident, the best thing that I could find in writing this.


May this inspire others to break through their perspective with great determination and great doubt.

Gassho!

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 8: Reclaiming Shards of the Past

For the longest time, I’ve been unable to listen to one of my favorite songs. Why? During my time with my ex, it became a song about our relationship, and sometimes, even she called it “our song”. This song is “Your Hand in Mine” by the ever-magnificent Explosions in the Sky. This post-rock anthem has always tugged at my heartstrings, despite having listened to it hundreds of times.

After being dumped, the reminders of everything were just too much to listen to this song. At this point, it still plucked at those heartstrings but in a way that I could not bear. I’d just skip it whenever I heard it. Recently, though, I found myself listening to this song again one morning over my ritual cup of coffee. Not only did I listen to the song once, I repeated it numerous times, taking a simple joy in listening to this beloved song for the first time in a long while.

It’s very difficult to get past the emotion in such things. Most people try their damnedest to forget by covering up their past or running from it. That’s not really moving on though (See an earlier post on this here). That’s just as reactive as clinging to something, and running like that leaves unresolved issues, untended wounds seeping deep inside. It takes time and patience–a resolve and open courage–to face the terrors and tortures that you experience in life and sit through them, yet there is no better way to be authentic and to walk your life’s path with a compassionate and awakened heart.

I’ve also found an ability to listen to this song recently which has always symbolically reminded me of the connection of the love between me and her. Now, the pain of that connection is no longer frightening or anxiety-provoking. It just is. I can hear these songs and experience the joy and beauty of them along with residual feelings of pain and sadness. That no longer scares me. After all I’ve been through in the last few months. I can sit with equanimity through many more of life’s challenges; strong, courageous, and awake–the tender presence that gives birth to deep compassion.


Thoughts and emotions will always arise. The purpose of practice is not to get rid of them. We can no more put a stop to thoughts and emotions than we can put a stop to the worldly circumstances that seemingly turn for or against us. We can, however, choose to welcome and work with them. On one level, they are nothing but sensations. When we don’t solidify or judge them as good or bad, right or wrong, favorable or unfavorable, we can utilize them to progress on the path.
We utilize thoughts and emotions by watching them arise and dissolve. As we do this, we see they are insubstantial. When we are able to see through them, we realize they can’t really bind us, lead us astray, or distort our sense of reality. And we no longer expect them to cease. The very expectation that thoughts and emotions should cease is a misconception. We can free ourselves from this misconception in meditation.
In the sutras it says, “What good is manure, if not to fertilize sugar cane crops?” Similarly, we can say, “What good are thoughts and emotions–in fact all of our experiences–if not to increase our realization?” What prevents us from making good use of them are the fears and reactions that come from our self-importance. Therefore, the Buddha taught us to let things be. Without feeling threatened or trying to control them, just let things arise naturally and let them be.
When ego-mind becomes transparent through meditation, we have no reason to be afraid of it. This greatly reduces our suffering. We may actually develop a passion for seeing all aspects of our minds. This attitude is at the heart of the practice of self-reflection.
-Dzigar Kongtrül, “It’s Up to You”, pp. 8-9

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May this inspire you to find your own ability to let things be and to utilize your own experiences to increase your realization.

Gassho!

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry– Entry 7: Letting Go of the Person You Used to Be (Part 2)
Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry– Entry 9: Scar

Heartbreak Wisdom Journal — Entry 5: Depression – Experience & Practice

My last entry was meant to focus on and express my experiences of depression in heartbreak, a particularly vexing set of painful emotions that keeps coming to visit, even after all this time. However, instead, I got into a philosophical examination of how depression alters our experience. This time, I’m going to focus on my experience and offer some tips/support for those readers out there who suffer from the same problems of the heart.

The world is barren. Nearly every day, I feel utterly lonely. It seems like there is no one who can hear me, no matter how hard I try to be heard. There’s no one who really cares–not really. People might show up on their own terms, but can any of them truly bear witness to me in my entirety? No. At least, I don’t know who that person is. Some days, I wonder who would care if I died tomorrow. My family, surely, but anyone else? Let’s stop here. Let me emphasize that these are feelings. Like I wrote about last time, I know that they are a particular alteration of perspective–a very pained one, curled up in a ball and wishing that the pain would end. Let’s not take these feelings to be truths, and let’s definitely not take them as blame on anyone who may be reading this. They’re my feelings, my reactions, and you hold no blame or responsibility for them. That being said, it has been particularly hard for me to move forward in recent weeks. I’m stuck at a job that irks me with false promises, poor pay for my responsibilities, and NO benefits–not even sick days, forcing me to expose my co-workers to illness out of my inability to afford missing a day. Furthermore, I struggle to find meaningful connectivity–something I’ve lacked throughout most of my adult life, despite my best efforts. Honestly, at this point, I’ve virtually given up. Who else reads philosophy for fun and yearns to learn as much as possible in this life? Who else is working hard at being an intensive practitioner of the Dharma? I don’t know such people, and they’re hard to find…

I’ve had an idea in my head for some time of returning to my ex’s city to live with some friends who stepped forward in my heartbreak and appeared as family to me. I’d love to show up and support them. However, each job I apply for comes to naught, and the other people I know there seem to be slowly denying or forgetting my existence. If I reach out and write something kind on one of their blogs or social media profiles, I get no response, but at the same time, I can see when they mention my ex and how great she is in whatever way. I guess she succeeded: in a certain way, I’m dead.

All of these difficulties have exacerbated those intense feelings I’ve expressed, and now, I’ve expressed them, both to let these feelings out and to let others know that they are not alone, not in the slightest. However, despite these feelings, I’m OK, and to explain that, let’s shift to how to deal with such feelings and such times in life. We all go through hard times, so let’s face these together with bravery, tenderness, and equanimity. The following are what I use to get through these feelings that could easily turn me into a blubbering mess; through these methods, I manage to have some grace, dignity, and joy in the wounds of heartbreak.

  1. Take care of yourself. You can’t continue with your life and show up for it if you fall into the abyss now (although there is no judgment if you crash at this point–no shame. Hang in there and recover). Taking care of yourself can make the unbearable a lot more manageable–not nice, not easy, but survivable. Not taking care of yourself will let it crush you. Also, taking care of yourself will give you the base of strength you need to excel with the other tips to follow. So–shower, exercise, continue to do things you like, reach out to friends and family to talk–don’t be afraid: others understand your pain and heartbreak, and the best way to feel loved is to reach out and find that others care, even if they can’t necessarily help beyond just listening. Personally, I had many of these self-care tools well-established this time from other bouts with depression, but this time, I learned that dressing well–that simple move of treating yourself with respect, with dignity–helped keep me positive and empowered day to day. This is not about being ostentatious or dazzling others–it’s about finding and holding your dignity. If you can find a way to do the same, do it. You could be wearing anything–your favorite band shirts and shorts. Just wear something that makes you feel that you matter and that you are embracing that.
  2. Be authentic. I’m not a big fan of the term as it is thrown around to the point of near meaninglessness. Here, I mean: show up for what’s happening. It’s easy to run away from such feelings or fall really deeply into them. Instead, try authentically showing up. These feelings show the depths of your heart. Let these feelings come up. Don’t fight against yourself or your emotion. Instead–gently be present. You’ll find that these feelings come and go, if you don’t grasp at them or fight against them. They’re just another part of your myriad possibilities of human experience. The brave, compassionate practice is to gently lean into them and surrender the fight against your emotional demons, finding that they, like a monster in your dreams, are part of you. It hurts, but it’s not good or bad: that’s just a reaction to that emotional experience. Don’t be afraid. Be brave, tender, and gentle towards yourself.

    Bringing awareness to depression works the same way. People often feel very bad about being depressed. When we don’t understand what depression is, it bears down on us. But when we get the hang of it, so to speak, we can allow more space around our depression and just let it be. Depression often comes when the hidden, dark corners we’ve tried to avoid actually surface. It may feel like a tight knot in our chest or an incredible sense of anxiety. It may feel like the earth has cracked open in front of us and we’re falling into some miserable lower realm. Or we may just feel blue. Depression is often accompanied by strong physical sensations. In the Tibetan tradition, this physical imbalance is called sok lung, or “wind disturbance.” But no matter what it feels like, remember that depression is just “experience.” And the experience of depression can be very valuable in coming to know aspects of our mind. When we come to know our mind, we feel much freer and less fearful. Whether depression is physical or conceptual, the important thing is to try and relax with it. Just relax with depression without feeding it by reacting–physically, mentally, or emotionally–with fear. There is no need to fight or identify with these habitual responses. This only makes them seem more solid and difficult to deal with. Initially the experience of depression is not such a big deal; it is more like a headache. If we bring awareness to depression. it won’t dominate our life. It is important to always return to the understanding that suffering is not personal. It’s an integral part of being alive and something that we all share. A great deal of understanding can come from bringing awareness to suffering, rather than thinking about or judging it. A quality of wakefulness comes with any sensation, which enables us to appreciate any experience. — Dzigar Kongtrül, It’s Up to You, pp. 57-58

  3. Move beyond “me”. You might notice that my expression in my story was all about I, me, and mine as well as how the world/others were not going in line with my expectations/desires. The suffering of samsara comes primarily from the grasping of self, and this is strongest with my attachments, especially in the stories of how I wish the world were. We fight very hard for these things, but in the end, they are impermanent–we lose them, and it hurts. OR we never get them at all, and it hurts because we want them so! We could discuss elaborate counter-plans of changing goals and such, but really, that just is a continuation of the same dynamic. It’s the same game with a different strategy to win. The real step forward as a brave spiritual warrior is to let go of the “me” game altogether. This sounds dramatic and incites immediate aversion, but it’s not the end of existence to stop staring at your belly button and look at the world instead. In this case, start small–engage in things that are about supporting others, even if that’s just doing things for a single friend. It can be as small as getting a plant or a goldfish to take care of and as major as volunteering to feed the homeless every week. Look your cashier in the eye–really see them, and thank them for helping you. There are truly opportunities everywhere. Small things spread positivity in the world and end up not only making you feel more positive but also getting you outside the miasma of your feelings.
  4. Engage, connect, process, and learn. There are so many resources beyond friends and family to help you feel witnessed, learn how to grow/heal, and take up your path as a brave warrior. Check out the book by Susan Piver that inspires these Heartbreak Wisdom Journal entries: “The Wisdom of a Broken Heart”. There are many blogs here in WordPress to read with others’ expressions of their experiences, tips, and tricks. I follow one called: “How to successfully get out of depression… and never go back!” The author adds lots of new ideas regularly, and they are well-informed and practical. Check that one out for a start! Find a therapist or a spiritual community. Know that you are not alone in this experience and that there are many avenues to find help and others who know your pain.
  5. Finally–Try meditating. You might scoff at this, but there is no better way to find peace. We externalize so many of our reactions, and our minds often run willy-nilly without much ability on our part to find mental calm. We think that happiness will come from realizing all the desires of “me”. Meditation sees through this and finds the basic goodness of who we are. It offers the true path to a happiness beyond the constant games of grasping and attachment. Just a few minutes a day can change your life and pull all these other suggestions together into an empowered, present, tender, brave, and beautiful embrace of your life.

May this post help others find companionship in their experience of depression as well as give them some help finding peace through it. As in the quote below, may your heart be big enough to hold all of these experiences with courage and tenderness. Gassho


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In both Western and Tibetan cultures, having a big heart is associated with generosity, kindness, warmth, and compassion. In Tibetan culture, a person with a big heart is also someone with the ability and courage to hold even the most painful truths in his or her heart without becoming despondent. During difficult times my mother used to say, “You need to make your heart big enough to hold a horse race inside.” Working with difficulties in a compassionate way doesn’t necessarily mean we can resolve them. Samsara, by its nature, can’t be fixed. It can only be worked with and transcended–which means seen through. A traditional Buddhist image of compassion is that of an armless woman watching her only child being swept away by the raging torrent of a river. Imagine the unbearable anguish at not being able to save your child–and not being able to turn away! In the practice of bodhichitta, this is the unconditional compassion we try to cultivate toward all sentient beings, even if we’re unable to truly help them until we ourselves become free. The willingness to not turn away from our anguish as we reflect on the suffering of samsara is the bodhisattva path. This path is possible only because we have seen that the true nature of suffering is egoless, or empty. Not turning away from suffering doesn’t mean “toughing it out.” It means that, having seen the true nature of suffering, we have the courage to encounter suffering joyfully. — Dzigar Kongtrül, It’s Up to You, p. 89

Previous Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry — Entry 4: Depression’s World Next Heartbreak Wisdom Journal Entry — Entry 6: Forgiveness