Monday, February 20, 2012

Minding the Gap and Getting out of Samsara

Tibetan Buddhism has a contribution to make to global society, in the realm of psychology. Sometimes people live in a fantasy that Tibet was some kind of utopia. It definitely was not. However, what differentiates Tibetan Buddhism from other Buddhist countries/places, is that Tibetan monks and mystics lived in relative isolation for over a thousand years, living in a virtual laboratory for studying the mind. As a result, the insight that Tibetan Buddhism offers us into how the mind works is extremely profound. One particular teaching that I find especially helpful and interesting is the wheel of life image (see above), which has a lot to do with karma.

Tibetan Buddhism's examination of karma includes a series of causes and linkages called the 12 Nidanas. The cycle of confusion that keeps humans in a perpetual state of suffering called samsara is a result of the Nidanas. These are depicted through the 12 images around the outside of the wheel of life.

Starting to the right of 12 o'clock, the images include:

1. blind old woman (ignorance),
2. potter making a pot (formation),
3. monkey in a tree (consciousness),
4. three men in a boat (name and form),

Whether taken literally or as a state of mind, we can end up
in the hell realm quickly when we fail to understand karma. 
5. house with 6 windows (the 6 senses),
6. couple making sweet love (contact),
7. man with an arrow in his eye (feeling - youch!),
8. man drinking milk and honey (craving)
9. monkey gathering fruit (grasping)
10. pregnant woman (becoming)
11. woman giving birth (birth)
12. man carrying a corpse (death)

There is a lot that can be said about each Nidana, but it gets most interesting at number 7. This Nidana is called "feeling" and it describes exactly what it sounds like: physical or emotional feelings.

Up to this point, in nidanas 1-7, you have no choice about how things play out in the human psychological condition. Becoming conscious of things, naming them, experiencing stimuli through the senses, etc. occur without you making any decisions about them. However, at #7 "feeling" arises and you get to make a choice about what you are going to do with that feeling.

The 8th Nidana, "craving," arises out of feeling, and it is an effort by our ego to protect us from pain. We may crave relief or escape from a bad feeling or we may crave more of something we find delicious.However, before craving occurs, between nidanas 7 and 8, there is a gap, a way out of the cycle of samsara. This is the part we should really pay attention to, because this is the gap that meditation can help us develop. After we have a feeling, but before we act out, in fact, before we even have a craving for something based on what we just experienced, there is a chance to break the reactionary cycle we are programmed to perpetuate.

The 9th Nidana is "grasping" or "attachment," and this is where you act out your craving through physical action or speech. The idea behind the picture of the 9th nidana  in the wheel of life is that in grasping for the fruit one reaches one's arm out and grabs hold of something, hence the term "grasping." Then the 10th Nidana, "becoming," is when all of the seeds are planted for the next moment.

So let me get back to this gap between nidanas 7 and 8.... I knew a guy that was unfaithful to his wife. This might have started out as a feeling of boredom mixed with a longing in his loins (#7 the Nidana of feeling). He could have meditated on the feeling of boredom and left it at that, but his ego took over and he started fantasizing about other women (#8 craving). He started dressing up, driving a fancy car and flirting with women at bars. Eventually, he slept with one of them (#9 grasping). Sleeping with other women planted seeds of karma that would eventually ripen and change the course of his life (#10 becoming). Whether his wife ever found out about the infidelity or not, you can bet that it changed the way he went about his business, either being secretive, or furthering the loss of connection with his wife. Eventually, they got a divorce (#12 death).

I'm not using this example to be moralistic or to pass judgement. In fact, none of this is about morality. It is just an observation of cause and effect. One thing leads to another. We could apply limitless examples that are far less dramatic. The Tibetan Buddhist teachings say that you are constantly going through all 12 nidanas every moment. Just walking into a store will put thousands or even billions of these cycles in motion in just one shopper!

It might seem like the real choice happens between numbers 8 and 9, at the point between when craving arises and you act on the craving. But while there is certainly a conscious choice being made between nidanas 8 and 9, the off-ramp out of samsara happens earlier. By the time you get to #8, the ego has already taken over. So, if you get to #8 (craving) and you resist getting to #9 (grasping) you've still done a useful thing, but it was "I" who did a good thing. The ego buys it and commodifies it and puts it on a t-shirt. Too late.

The real exercise is to avoid going from the feeling (#7) to the craving (#8). That seems SUPER hard! It might seem nearly impossible. So how do you unlock this super power so that you don't automatically go from a feeling to a craving? You guessed it... meditation.

Through the process of meditation, we can cultivate the gap that allows us to exist in peace without the ego taking charge of everything. If you could do this all the time, you'd be enlightened. But even those of us that aren't enlightened can experience this gap. When someone cuts you off on the freeway and flips you the bird, your ego might not kick in. You might have cultivated enough compassion through meditation to realize this person is confused and more miserable than you. You might not react, hence, you refrain from planting destructive seeds of karma out of that situation. You benefit not only yourself this way, but everyone.

Pema Chodron talks about groundlessness a lot, and this is something we need to grow comfortable with, if we are going to stop jumping from feeling to craving. In her interview with Bill Moyers, she said the following about groundlessness:

Well, what is groundlessness? Well, you experience it all the time. You experience it all the time. And I don't know about you personally, but generally speaking when people react against it. We experience it as unpleasant when it's insecurity. You know, you feel insecure. That's a groundless feeling. Embarrassed. Like off center, you know? When my husband told me that we were breaking up, you know, he was having an affair and he wanted a divorce, that was a big groundless moment. When the planes flew into the towers everyone felt groundlessness. It was like our reality as we knew it wasn't holding together.

If you are interested in a great description of moving from feeling, to craving, to grasping in one profound moment, go to minute 5 of this interview with Pema Chodron:

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