"When understood, the Buddha’s universe..is anything but alien and inhibiting. It is a world full of hope, where everything we need to do can be done and everything that matters is within human reach. It is a world where kindness, unselfishness, non-violence, and compassion achieve what self-interest and arrogance cannot. It is a world where any human can be happy in goodness and the fullness of giving." ❦ Eknath Easwara

March 17, 2012

Dealing With the Mind's Ambivalence to Awakening

"Aspiring to awakening can awaken the deepest fear of all: discovering we do not exist in the way we think we do. The fact that we need to grasp at all and go on grasping is continual evidence that in the depths of our being we know that the self does not inherently exist. The fact that we talk incessantly to ourselves about ourselves in a never-ending internal monologue betrays our anxiety about the emptiness we might fall into if we stopped.

'Without any true knowledge of the nature of our mind....the thought that we might ever become ego-less terrifies us,' says Sogyal Rinpoche. This 'secret, unnerving knowledge' is unwelcome and unwanted. It makes us chronically restless and insecure. So we talk ourselves out of it; 'I can’t do it;' 'I don’t deserve it;' 'I’m tempting fate;' 'Others won’t understand;' 'I’ll end up alone.'

Any process with the potential for real change evokes this kind of ambivalence. 'Every patient,' says Robert Langs, 'enters therapy with a mind divided.' But the mind is ratcheted up enormously in spiritual practice because ego projects awakening as something outside ourselves, and therefore perceives it (rightly!) as the ultimate threat to itself. As a source of suffering, 'ignorance' (avijjà) in Buddhist teaching doesn’t simply mean not knowing the facts: not knowing the truth of anattà, [not self]for instance.  Ignorance means 'ignoring': a dynamically charged ignorance; a not-wanting-to-know, a resistance to knowing, an allowing ourselves to know only so much.

'The resourcefulness of ego is almost infinite,' says Sogyal Rinpoche, 'and at every stage it can sabotage and pervert our desire to be free of it. The truth is simple and the teachings are extremely clear, but... as soon as they begin to touch and move us, the ego tries to complicate them because it is fundamentally threatened.'

Anticipate the mind’s ambivalence and resistance to awakening, and then we will not be dismayed or deterred. Left to itself, the mind will always hedge its bets. 'Your mind has a mind of its own,' my first vipassanà [insight meditation] teacher, Sujata, once wrote—'Where do you fit in?' That part of us would prefer not-to-know and will settle for relief instead—any relief if we feel badly enough—anything that will ease the pain and discomfort without requiring deeper inquiry into its source. Rather off-hand one day, Sujata said, 'Let’s face it—we’re all pigeons for a little bit of sukha (pleasurable feeling).' I resented his crudeness at the time, but in part because he pointed to something I did not want to recognize.

Have you ever noticed how much more problematic happiness or joy are than unhappiness and misery? Happiness actually frightens us, doesn’t it? 'It won’t last,' we tell ourselves. 'I’ll crash, and then I’ll feel worse than before. At least when I’m miserable, I have nothing to lose. It sucks, but it’s familiar, and I don’t have to live with the anxiety of keeping this high wire act going. I don’t deserve to be happy anyway. I’ll pay for it one way or the other—God or fate or my karma will see to that. If they don’t, my superego will.'

A poet-professor of mine wrote many years ago in a meditation on the sacred in art, 'It’s not the skeleton in our closet that we fear. It’s the god.' It is not ghosts which evoke our deepest anxieties. It is glimpses of freedom. Like the prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave, the shackles are off but the light outside is too bright; better the comfort and familiarity of the shadows on the wall of the cave. Sometimes even though the cell door is flung open, the prisoner chooses not to escape.

Instead of practicing for awakening as a real possibility, we hold enlightenment up as a remarkable and rare attainment, the highest ideal of the spiritual life. But enlightenment doesn’t work as an ideal. As an ideal for a few, it distances us and discourages us. At the same time, of course, this puts it comfortably out of reach where we can venerate it without feeling we have to do anything about it. And then we have to defend ourselves against our disappointment that it will never be ours. So we take the opposite position that it doesn’t really matter anyway—all that matters is being awake in the moment.

This may be true, but here it is used as a rationalization. By minimizing its importance, we make our own self-doubts and insecurities easier to live with. Idealizing awakening and minimizing its importance are both defensive, and repeat what has already happened in the history of Buddhism. Awakening was a common occurrence in the beginning if we believe the suttas; over the centuries it came to be viewed as a rarer and rarer event as it took on more of a mystical aura, and most Buddhists eventually abandoned the aspiration for awakening in this lifetime. Is this coincidence?

Buddhaghosa [the 5th century commentator] called practice a visuddhi-magga or 'path of purification.' Wholehearted aspiration is often mixed up with pressures to unwittingly turn practice into another means of shoring up ego. From this initial alloy, the impurities are refined out in the fire of practice. But this requires intention, desire, the will-to-do—the mental factor Buddhist Abhidhamma calls 'chanda.' Without this will or desire or intention to awaken, awakening will not happen.

'I wanted to know the meaning of my life,' a student once said to Kapleau Roshi. 'How did you ask your question?' Roshi replied. 'Only when you are driven to cry from your guts, ‘I must, I will, find out!‘ will your question be answered.' Aspiration can be confused with longing; longing is only a wish for what we believe we will never have. Aspiration is setting our face to the wind with conviction, purpose and intention. What we don’t intend we will never accomplish."

"Practicing for Awakening" by Jack Engler

This excerpt is from "Practicing for Awakening," part of a day-long workshop given by Jack Engler at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on November l, l997. Jack is on the study center board of directors, teaches at Harvard Medical School and practices psychotherapy in Cambridge.
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