Sunday, February 5, 2012

Got Attitude? Overcome blind reactivity to develop a skillful mind with Buddhist anger-management techniques.

From Tricycle:

Got Attitude?

Overcome blind reactivity to develop a skillful mind with Buddhist anger-management techniques.
Steve Armstrong

Patter Hellstrom, Conflict, acrylic ink on polypropylene, 2007; courtesy of the artist; © Patter Hellstrom

A few years ago I was in the middle of a difficult negotiation with the Maui County Department of Water Supply, a local government agency, trying to resolve a long-standing stalemate. Things already weren’t going my way when the leading official said to me, “You surely don’t need me to remind you that life’s unfair! You’re old enough to know that!”

His rebuke triggered a wave of emotion and reactivity. Embarrassment, humiliation, shame, and then indignation washed over me. I watched the impulse to be angry with him rise like a tide and flood my mind. Schemes, strategies, and thoughts of revenge rushed to the surface. I was tense and self-conscious. I longed to escape.

Fortunately, thirty years of awareness and insight practice allowed me to see these thoughts, feelings, and judgments. I knew from experience to simply wait until my mind arrived at the understanding that “This too can be dealt with.” Settling down into a willingness to deal with the way things were, I was able to acknowledge the truth of his statement, and we continued on to the next item on my agenda.

Skillful attitudes of mind are the key to facing potentially explosive situations and the ongoing highs and lows of life and practice. In fact, recognizing these attitudes and cultivating their antidotes is the foundation for all spiritual growth. By cultivating skillful attitudes of mind, we will respond to more and more of life with awareness and wisdom. With steady awareness of the way things are, the perseverance to stay with that awareness, and the willingness to learn from it, we maximize our sense of well-being.

Acquiring skillful attitudes involves developing two qualities: continuity of awareness and insight knowledge, which is the progressively refined intuitive understanding of impermanence (anicca), unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and conditionality (anatta). Stabilizing the mind and refining wisdom are the natural results of developing faith, energy, and awareness through insight practice. These five qualities together—faith, energy, awareness, stability of mind, and wisdom—are known as the “controlling faculties of mind,” listed below with their Pali equivalents.

Faith (saddha)

When I first started practice in the mid-1970s, I went on staff at Insight Meditation Society—a meditation center that had recently opened in Barre, Massachusetts—after no more than an initial two-week intensive mindfulness retreat. On one of my first days on the job, I told another staff member with great enthusiasm, “I have no doubt that in this lifetime, I will realize the dharma!” Looking back, I am amazed both at my ignorance (I did not know what it meant “to realize the dharma,” and had no idea yet what was involved in doing so) and my supreme confidence that insight practice would take me the distance. Yet it is this type of exhilarating faith that provides initial inspiration for our practice, although it is also vulnerable to contamination by hidden hopes, expectations, ambitions, desires, assumptions, and illusions. And in the presence of unexamined beliefs, immature faith actually supports greed: The mind expects desired, pleasant, or imagined experiences, and hopes to avoid unpleasant feelings. These expectations prevent connecting with the present moment as it is because our mind is fixed on how we want or imagine it to be.

Then, when expectations are not met, disappointment and a loss of faith can be the result. As one student observed, “There’s nothing like a good sitting in the morning to ruin the rest of your day!” As we know, pleasant sittings can condition attachment and a sense of being entitled to pleasant meditations in the future. We keep looking for what we had, or we try to make it happen again. It rarely works like that, and such striving leads to more suffering.

Or, if our hope for a great sitting is fulfilled, we become vulnerable to inflated pride and increased attachment to the agenda to “improve” our self through practice. We resist a self-image we disapprove of and become infatuated with a new and improved self-image we prefer. Our faith may feel strong, but really awareness is being undermined by attachment to the excitement, anticipation, and expectation of fulfilled hopes. Attachment and aversion then both cloud the mind, causing suffering.

How do we avoid misguided faith? We practice awareness and non-attachment. Seeing attachment, aversion, expectation, and disappointment as they arise allows the mind to understand and to disengage from them. Awareness breaks the spell; the mind is no longer enchanted when we see the defilement for what it is. When a defilement has no hold on the mind, suffering ceases. Awareness can simply wait and observe the next present moment as it arises. These moments gradually refine faith, and skillful wisdom increasingly arises in daily life.

Mature, empirically-based confidence and unshakeable faith develops as wisdom increases and our suffering decreases. As my Burmese teacher Sayadaw U Tejaniya put it, “When your understanding of the true nature of things grows, your values in life will change. When your values change, your priorities change as well. Through such understanding, you will naturally practice more, and this will help you to do well in life.”

Energy (viriya)

Though energy is a controlling faculty of insight, more effort does not equal more insight. It’s easy to try too hard and to rigorously apply skillful techniques, but insight is better supported by a gentle perseverance in continually showing up for the present moment.

In my early years of practice as an ordained monk in Burma, my monastic schedule called for alternate hours of sitting and walking meditations from 3:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. with short breaks for two meals, bathing, and check-ins with my teacher, Sayadaw U Pandita. With my strong commitment to practice, I soon began increasing the length of my sits until I was sitting for four hours or longer. This led to excruciating pain in the body. After a couple of weeks, Sayadaw U Pandita asked me, “Do you know why you have so much pain?” Expecting deep understanding and secret teachings, I responded, “No.” He replied, “Because you sit too long!”

In his “Manual of Insight,” Mahasi Sayadaw identifies the practices that serve to rebalance energy and reboot one’s attitude when it veers off course in overzealous practice. Among the many manifestations of an overzealous mind, Mahasi Sayadaw lists many of my own experiences: “determination to not to miss anything, checking every missed experience, clenching the jaw, gritting the teeth, clenching the hands into fists.” In my eagerness to become proficient in the technique, I had mistaken effort for understanding and had seen neither my agenda nor my attachment.

There are many skillful techniques for dealing with challenging meditation experiences. Bowing, labeling experience, sitting straighter, opening the eyes, silently chanting, cultivating loving thoughts, offering forgiveness, returning to the primary object of meditation—all can be useful for dealing with difficult states of mind. But each of these techniques can also be used unskillfully; while it is tempting to rely on and become proficient in many techniques, these same skills can lead to missing the present experience. Now I notice that when I’m about to resort to any technique, I’ve missed the prior moment that conditioned the impulse to shift to that technique. Not seeing the arising of an unpleasant mental state sets in motion a chain of causal conditioning that links the unpleasant to aversion, aversion to intention, intention to another well-learned (and now habitual) technique. This occurs without my having noticed or having understood the process. Yet this journey of discovery we are on depends on seeing and understanding these unconscious links of conditioning, which can only be done with balanced energy and continuous awareness, not by perfecting a technique.

As Sayadaw U Tejaniya has said, “It is not difficult to be aware. It is difficult to maintain it continuously. For this you need right effort, which is simply perseverance.” Perseverance is the willingness to show up for whatever arises in the body, mind, or environment. This then develops into continuity of awareness that reveals understanding of the ways, means, and end of conditioning.

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