The Annihilation of Annihilation

I woke up this morning trying to remember a quote that my old friend Steve, used to love.

Steve was a dedicated meditator who basically lived on my couch in Santa Cruz, when he wasn’t sitting a 3 month retreat. He became my best friend. Steve is no longer with us, which is a story for another day. But much of him lives on in me. My mind recirculates his witty aphorisms, his bad puns and dad jokes, and the essence of this one quote, only a tiny fragment of which I had stored.

This morning I decided to look it up. Turns out the quote is from Mark Twain: ‘I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.’

Just below the quote, AI posited its opinion about it. Basically AI said that the quote refers to this stark reality that is central to the human problematic: our minds are often doing a sometimes useful activity called worrying, which helps us avert danger and plan parties. And, worrying about things that could go wrong (and imagining the ensuing tragedies that could befall us) is often worse than when those things actually go wrong.

In this case, AI is not wrong. Just recently my 11 year old spent 3 weeks dreading his swimming unit. He mostly dreaded being cold – he’s probably 0% body fat. His mind had turned the future into a nightmare. He imagined having to chip through a layer of ice on his way into the water, like a Siberian fisherman. Turns out that once swimming started, the weather had turned towards spring, and he found the experience not nearly as unpalatable as the ice monster his mind had made it to be.

This email, which has become a tome, is really all about the ruminating mind, and the Dharma traditions’ distinct approach to working with it, and my personal experiences of Zen, and Metta, and more. Diving into DharmaBridge this year has taken me back into recollections about my first silent retreat experiences, and how my ruminating/worrying habit got unturned, or at least modified.

I first entered formal meditation training in the land of Zen. Meanwhile, the Metta practice had entered my world. So the two streams of Buddhist practice wove around each other in the mindstream. I think a lot about Metta these days, especially as it’s the main practice I do with my kids. We often fall asleep sending loving-kindness to loved ones. It is a damn good way to fall asleep; you get to really watch and feel how metta settles the body-mind. You can just stop reading here if you want, because that audio, as far as I’m concerned, conveys it all 🙂

Lately, thanks to the demands and promises of working within a new DharmaBridge cohort, I’ve been contemplating how metta fits into a non-dual understanding of the universe. And mostly I’ve been remembering what grace it was that I had a taste of Metta alongside Zen.

Both Zen and the Metta practice came into my life because of a boyfriend I hung with in my 20’s, whom we’ll call George. Ironically, he had mostly studied in the Theravadan tradition, with Ajahn Sumedho, who was a western Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest Tradition of Theravāda Buddhism.

In many ways that relationship was a flash in the pan. It is amazing, looking back, how much it changed the course of my life. Most of the time we were together, I wasn’t even home. I had a job that took me overseas. I was a teacher (yoga, US History, and Spanish) to support my habit of being a whitewater kayaker. I was sent to Southern Africa, Thailand, and South America, teaching a group of kids who were competitive kayakers, some training for Olympic competitions. I had been very committed to kayaking as both a career and a lifestyle for about 10 years. Life had been structured around that dedication to the degree that everything else had to fall away. I had a hard time with holding down relationships, a home, and any other educational or career pursuits. Everything that was not kayaking was subsidiary.

But when I was home, the influence of that relationship, and the deepening of my practice, led to a huge life change for me. I started to sit retreats, at a variety of centers around California. The relationship lasted a quick 2-3 years, and its trailings changed my whole life.

We humans. We impact each other.

I remember being so thrilled when I arrived at my first retreat at the Zen monastery. It was a blissful springtime in the California foothills. The air was crisp, the land was strewn with Poppies, Lupine, and Orange Monkey Flower, and I felt that my life was taking a significant turn. “I will be a Zen student now,” the mind said, pleased with itself. “I will be a Buddhist.”

The monastic community and the teacher, Cheri Huber, were full of great love and good humor. I’d felt the brilliance of the sangha during the daylong sits I’d done in the Bay Area. But there at the monastery, those elements were invisible to the naked eye; they hid underneath a prototypical Zen austerity.

There was no talking, no eye contact, no reading materials. This was part of what was called the “privileged environment”. To me, untrained in these ways, there seemed to be thousands of precise rules about how things should be done. We were made aware that our stay was contingent upon our capacity to follow the rules precisely, and that in the event of any transgressions, we would be asked to leave.

On day 2 a note was left for me on the corkboard inside the dining hall doors, right where I was told to look each day. The guest master wanted to see me.

As I sat outside the guest master’s door waiting for my meeting, I lived the human problematic that the Mark Twain quote above sought to address.

I considered what might be happening, and worried about all the millions of ways I may not be making the cut. I thought about the talk we’d been given upon arrival. Upon replaying it, I realized a number of ways I had violated the guidelines.

I’d sat by a window during lunch despite having been asked to sit facing a wall if seats were available. I hadn’t kept the schedule perfectly; I’d been a wee bit late for a meal so I could walk a little. I had thought it was fine to improvise just a little bit. I’d snuck in a journal. I’d always been very attached to journals; they were imaginary friends in my childhood, and kept disorder at bay. It seemed important to record my findings here. This, after all, was to be my salvation! The teacher said not to “noodle” on things — to avoid rumination. When I was journaling — recording some thoughts about the teachings — I had strayed into fantastical ruminations. I could see that it was happening. But it seemed like it was helpful at the moment. And who’d be the wiser?

As I sat there, with all my historical distress around hierarchies and authority breathing down my neck, I regretted the folly of trying to skirt the rules. I’d misunderstood the point of their strictness, I told myself. I should have been more careful. I realized that I’d spent my life inside the walls of a mind that was trying to optimize for “my” experience – and that had led to a string of missteps.

My mind went off the rails. It told me that all the mistakes I’d ever made were due to not being mindful. I could suddenly see all my own reactivity and defensiveness. It was clear, in this stressed mind state, that the false self had tried to prop itself up for so long, barricaded by ego’s flimsy parapets. I peered down the gullet of my own psyche and saw all the ways I had been riddled with confusion.

Then, the mind turned back upon the monastery. Why were they such control freaks, anyway? Were they trying to break me? This, I determined, was not what I thought it was. This was not the Good Place.

It was a long few minutes.

Turned out I had not been repeatedly putting my shoes in the wrong spot outside the zendo. Not a big deal, but they wanted to let me know. I acknowledged the error, and that was all. I bowed and left, unscathed. I had an hour to walk the hills before the next sit.

Amazing what the mind can do when it harbors so much undigested material, and one is compelled to be alone with it. That slight rebuke somehow surfaced so much childhood terror. Authority, in my life history, had not always been friendly.

It occurred to me later that this sort of thing was probably not at all uncommon, and was not accidental. It hadn’t occurred to me until then that they knew exactly what they were doing. The goal of Zen, after all, is not equivocal. The goal of Zen was ego annihilation. To be motivated to annihilate the ego-process, one has to see it. I saw it now. I personally had been driven in against the incredibly creative disasters of conditioned mind within 48 hours. I felt like I now knew what I was dealing with.

As unappealing as the saga had been, I could clearly see that the mind-created suffering I was undergoing was far worse that anything that was being inflicted upon me. Ruminating mind was the source of all catastrophes. I was more committed than I’d been upon arrival.

Zen meditation, as I learned, was deeply focused on mind training, and ceasing to be embroiled in the ruminating mind. No noodling. No trance states. No fancy breathwork. No imagining figures of light. No heroics. The sitting practice was simple and silent and no frills. We would sit, and be quiet, and count the breaths, 1-10, and begin again. The general thesis was that if the mind was untrained, we would be dragged into all manner of mind-created suffering — which, as the Mark Twain quote above eludes to, would create a life of imaginary catastrophes.

Frankly, 30 years later, I no longer believe that ego-death is a useful “goal” of practice. “Ego”, as a noun, does. not exist. You cannot find it anywhere. It is a process. And the process of trying to annihilate it, or to even see it as a foe, tends to backfire. Annihilation itself is a fallacy. Everything, no matter what face it wears, arises from consciousness, and to consciousness returns.

I also don’t feel that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to meditation. For me, those early Zen trainings have been layered upon, by a combination of Metta, IFS, Universal Mindfulness, the Vajrayana, and the non-dual Śaiva-Śakta teachings. The austerity of that original pathway served its purpose, and yet my current experiment of how to approach change is 180 degrees from how I understood it those 30 years ago.

All that said, at that time in my life, mind-training practices, and the formality of the setting, was extremely effective.

Later that afternoon, I went to group. There was a monk who giddily raised her hand to share a strange turn she’d seen in her own mind – a way that conditioning was operating that she hadn’t seen before. She had noticed that she was blaming someone for something — really hating on them — and she could feel the particular character of the aversion. She could see precisely how it was the same quality of aversion that she often experienced towards herself, and she could see how the circumstances of her childhood — and perhaps — who knows — lifetimes before that — had planted this tendency in her. She could see the function of it, the defensive process of it. She could see how, as my teacher Cheri Huber would say, the “process never led to product”. It only led to more of the same process. It didn’t create the protection that it meant to create. It led to the habit of more defensivity.

She shared this insight with great glee, and the sangha (with eyes cast downward) glowed with delight along with her! We all understood. It was a relief to her to share it. It was a relief to all of us, to see into it, and release it.

This, I realized, is a unique kind of experience.

In regular life, we are trained to hide our neuroses, and in hiding them, they gather steam, and we think those neurotic parts are who we are… we must hide, prop up, and protect the hidden, real ‘self’ beneath the facade. This monk was showing the outcome of the basic training of the monastery. The point was to see how those stories operate, and that those processes are NOT Self, and move forward. Just allow the insight in, and then just wash the dish.

This process was gold. And became a gentler, sweeter practice for me once it really wove together with Metta.

Metta is the practice of training the mind, as well, but we train through explicit phrases that re-install compassion in the mindstream while softening the tensions in the body. We simply repeat phrases, and feel, somatically, the impact of their intentions. Like you may have heard in the recording of Nano at the age of 6, the phrases can be sent “out” to others. That can help to heal rifts and mend upsets and retrain the mind that wants to “other-ize,” get lost in analysis, and hold grudges.

But we begin by sending Metta within, to oneself. That is to say, we send Metta to parts of ourselves that need it. To use the language of Internal Family Systems (IFS), the true “Self” is the one sending.

You could say that essence nature is just the process of compassion exchanging itself. In Buddhist terms “Self”, for lack of a better word, is emptiness, arising as compassion. In the Non-dual Śaiva tradition, it is also the Śakti, that is the power, or the dynamic energy, that is the capacity to send it. But back to Buddhist language: essential emptiness arises as compassion, and is the core of being-ness. Metta is “sent” to all the parts of oneself — including those parts that are defensive, neurotic, and self-absorbed. In this exchange, parts softly begin to reveal what is at their core. Slowly, compassion floods the system.

As it would be said in IFS, we un-blend from those parts that we think we “are”, and occupy “Self” energy. In the presence of “Self”, all parts reveal the creative innocence at the core. In Buddhism, there is actually no “Self” — but at some core level, they are arriving at the same destination. All those parts, even those that have been most encumbered, the most twisted up, are but arisings of the wisdom light, when met with compassion.

My mom is visiting me right now and it’s a delight. She likes to go on little walks around our crazy neighborhood, and do yoga on the living room floor with me. She is a playful sprite of a being. And last night we sat together and looked at an extensive spreadsheet of her to-do items, which included “preparations for death”.

Amongst her projects, which include dog walking at a local shelter, sitting with her sangha in Colorado, skiing occasionally (at 80!), and camping almost constantly, is another important line item: “Make my kids’ lives easier when I go”.

To some, that kind of planning brings up a lot of resistance, and the superstitious might even consider it ill-fated. However, after a long time of being nested inside dharma traditions, one really can take in the guidance that life is precious, and if we don’t meditate on the fact that we will die, our other practices won’t yield their full blessing energy. Meditating on death is core to being awake right now. Especially ego-death, by the way. Death of the identities we cling to. But also, death of this body.

As I sat with her, looking over her printed spreadsheet, and all of her notes in the margins — including handwritten passcodes from her daytimer (because yes, my mom is a Luddite and still uses a daytimer) — I had a few little flashbacks to imagery I’d taken in earlier that day. Scenes of the devastation in Gaza were haunting me.

In this moment, it occurred to me that there are probably so many people out there, like me, who have a lot to be grateful for, and who are also intermittently wracked with distress around what’s happening to others far away. War has always been hell. There is no righteous cause that merits this. And no matter what grace our own lives are filled with, most of us are deeply caught in the mesh of this war’s most toxic arisings. Trying, as best we can, to keep filling the world with our creative essence. Our love. Our light.

Each December, I lead a session called Blessing Energy for the New Year where we begin to explore how we can ground ourselves as we approach holidays, time with family, the intensity of greeting the new year, etc. The planning for this event is really around how to meet the new year with grace and equanimity. How to sit with our loved ones in a place of ease. How to creatively conceive of where we’re headed in the new year that’s coming… But, now, here we are. Global crisis.

In some ways, there’s not that big of a gulf between the ways that we ground ourselves for family, frictions, and complexities within, and the way that we create strength and expansiveness as we watch the world roil with conflict. In all cases, we’re dealing with our own minds. Our own analysis. Our own capacity to listen, to take in, to drop our own projections. Everywhere, we get to watch where we shut down into old patterns. And to ease towards the places where change is possible.

Questions we discuss are…

What are the dharma practices that most ground us and generate resilience, but also expand us, and open up our hearts toward what is happening now?

What are the places in life where we get most triggered, where we need the most support?

What are the stories that get the most fixed in our minds?

And what are the obstacles within, that keep us from our spontaneous essence, the only place from which we can take liberated action?

We have conversations about how to become resilient and resourced enough in ourselves. We take ourselves into silent practice, so that we can awaken to our natural, spontaneous essence. And we write, and share, and allow for the release of tensions we are holding.

Visit here if want to join us in December.

UPCOMING EVENTS


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