Saturday, October 30, 2010

Thoughts on Attachment (and Some Creative Writing Links)



I did something else with the previous post about writing, which you might see at a later time. But for now, I'd just like to offer a few comments and links to my new creative writing blog, as well as a post here about attachment. For those of you who have an interest, I have posted the following over at Creative Writing the Dharma:

*a poem about second language learning

*some haiku
from my early days as a Zen student

*an essay about medieval maps, the painter Vermeer, imagination, and Europe.

* and a short prose poem.


Now, let's take a look at some comments from Dean's current blog post on The Mindful Moment. About his 16 month old son, he writes:


The process of attachment, in seeing him do this, is really quite interesting. If I spot him before he makes his way over to the TV remote and remove it before he arrives he's not too upset. He'll just stand this a little disappointed look on his face and watch you walk away with this prize. If I get to it when he's already hovering over it he'll cry a little that something so close to his grasp was taken away. If I'm too late and he gets hold of it the level of emotional angst he'll experience will be proportional to how long he's had hold of it. If only for a second then not too bad. If he had it for 10 seconds or more then he'll let us know he's upset that we've taken it away.

But isn't this something we all do? I see people craving after their iPad's or iPhones (or whatever it is they desire) and if the deal falls through they are a bit disappointed. If we get our hands on it however and it gets stolen we'll wail and cry much like my son. Even as adults we do the same thing!! Our level of suffering is in proportion to our level of attachment.


This last line is most interesting to me. It gets at the way in which, for example, the habits we have for a long time are the hardest to break. For example, the fact that I sometimes bite my nails in response to stress and/or anxiety. This is an old, old habit of mine, dating back to childhood. And even though it's not as strong as it used to be, it's rare that my finger nails make it a month without being chomped on, at least a little bit.

But habits are just one kind of attachment. Or one way to describe how we might attach to someone or something. Lately, I have experienced a lot of opportunities to pay attention to attachments around identity. Honestly, they seem almost endless. Just when there is a letting go that happens, and some relief seems to come, right behind it another narrative comes flaring up in an effort to fill the gap. This isn't a terrible thing; it's just how it is.

Dean talks in his post about pushing beyond the boundaries you've created in your life. How the attachments to a certain way of living limited him and how he's been making some conscious effort to shift that. Right effort has really been on my mind lately, especially given that I had spent much of the past several years living a busy, sometimes in overdrive life, and now am in a period that's quite the opposite.

Attachment to spiritual teachings, rituals, and methods are pretty common. And I think as such, it's probably a good idea to go against the grain of whatever it is you hold precious once in awhile, to check that attachment. What's this have to do with Right Effort?

Here is a traditional set of teachings from the Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty:

Abandoning the wrong factors of the path

"One tries to abandon wrong view & to enter into right view: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong resolve & to enter into right resolve: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong speech & to enter into right speech: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong action & to enter into right action: This is one's right effort...

"One tries to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter into right livelihood: This is one's right effort."


All good stuff I'd say. And yet how easy it is to get hung up on "right" and "wrong," trying to maintain some sort of purity. If your like me, you probably have had some of that "good Buddhist" story running through your head. It's insidious. And if you have a whole community of people running that narrative, then it's doubly reinforced for each member.

So, what would it be like to deliberately enter into say "wrong speech" or "wrong action," not to be contrary, but to notice attachments to being seen as a good practitioner? For most of the past two years, I have been skipping out on retreat practice. The reasons behind this are a mixed bag, but lately it has occurred to me that doing meditation retreats is something that some Buddhist communities - including my own - view as part of being a dedicated practitioner. Dedicated is really just another word for "good" when you look at it closely. And I've noticed the tension I have experienced around this issue - how I sometimes get hooked on what my fellow dharma brothers and sisters are thinking about my absence from retreat practice. It's kind of silly when I think about it - wanting to be "seen" as a "good student" - because in the end, it's really not about that at all. Being respected and elevated within a community doesn't mean squat when it comes to breaking through greed, hatred, and ignorance. But it's so easy to forget that when you've spent much of your life trying to be liked and cared for by others.

15 comments:

Peter said...

Nathan,

Good post.

Peter

Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, great post and thanks for reading my blog and finding it beneficial. I'm glad my comments were helpful for you.

If I can offer one piece of feedback. I don't completely agree with the thought "Dedicated is really just another word for "good" when you look at it closely."

I've noticed you've commented recently along these same lines of good and bad but I don't think dedication has anything to do with good and bad. Dedication is about commitment which has to do with selflessness towards something BEYOND yourself. Good and bad are divisive ways of thinking created by the ego, which has to do with understanding something in relation TO yourself. Right effort then isn't about how good or bad you do it, just that you ARE doing it. Try try try for ten thousand years.

Evaluating how we are viewed by others shows we are struggling with our own self identity and how comfortable we feel with the practice, which is in itself revealing the internal struggle of self-attachment. With this comes the perception of "How do other's perceive me?" and "How do I feel about being perceived as such?" I SO relate to this because I've struggled with this for many years until I'd say in the last 6-12 months it has shifted for me.

In reality I realised people weren't so concerned that I'm my practice is good or bad, they just care about my spiritual development. It was me that was caught up on these ideas. I look back now and realise my teacher was patiently waiting for me return to him all those years. It was me that was evaluating me, not him. Looking back now I see that my "Self" was limiting me and creating the problem all along. Right effort then came from a removal of self-attachment, not from actually trying to be or do something I aspired to be.

Thanks for the wonderful contemplations.

Metta,
Dean
http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com/

Nathan said...

"I've noticed you've commented recently along these same lines of good and bad but I don't think dedication has anything to do with good and bad. Dedication is about commitment which has to do with selflessness towards something BEYOND yourself. Good and bad are divisive ways of thinking created by the ego, which has to do with understanding something in relation TO yourself."

I agree with you about this. But I also would say that the idea of dedication very easily gets linked up with "good or bad practice." My point being that I sometimes - when listening to talks at my zen center, or online, or when reading modern Buddhist books - hear something like this:

"Dedication to practice is shown mostly or only by putting in many, many hours on the meditation cushion, preferably through long meditation retreats." This is a very common notion amongst Western, convert practitioners - and it's one that I view as limited. Especially for lay practitioners.

What I'm finding challenging is how to navigate the fact that the way I see things is somewhat different from a fair amount of my fellow practitioners. There is a self hangup somewhere in all of this, which needs more attention. A lot of it has to do with belonging and a desire to avoid conflict. I'm aware of these tendencies in myself. And given where I am in my sangha - being in a leadership role and not being able to hide much - these issues are coming out more clearly.

But I'm also interested in how all this comes down communally, and what it might look like for the next generation of practitioners. And I really believe that if you look at the history of Buddhist practice, different things are emphasized in different generations. So, sometimes my own baggage gets mixed in with my interest in the broader picture - and this post has some of that going on in it.

Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, yes some good thoughts. I think that the fact that you have awareness of this around you as well as inside you highlights that it is something you are currently contemplating, so you see it everywhere. At the source of it is not what it seen (the content) but the way it is being seen.

That said, I think it is a valid point you make, how do we balance promoting solid practice and not putting beginners off feeling welcome? I think this comes down to how welcome we make them feel and how accepted we make them feel. The more they feel accepted for whatever stage of their practice they are at will help support them. They won't feel like they are being compared. With this foundation the messages of "It's important to meditate" are given within a context of acceptance and a willingness for them to embrace it when they are ready.

When it comes down to it, it has to do with acknowledging the level of attachment of a person has and working with that. People are naturally going to be resistive because of their own attachments. Isn't this the whole point and challenge? Then comes the natural question, "Then how do we work with people's attachments?" and we come full circle to the Buddha's teaching and the fourth noble truth, there is a path to the cessation of suffering.

People are always going to approach the path with attachment and the natural remedy is meditation but I think they'll be more accepting to try when we are more accepting of attachment we see in the world. This is the first noble truth - there is suffering.

That's what I love about Buddhism, wherever you look there is further confirmation of the Buddha's teaching.

Metta
Dean
http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com/

Petteri Sulonen said...

Very interesting thoughts, Nathan. I sort of tend to agree, although I think there's a danger of turning "lots of cushion time isn't necessarily indicative of dedicated or good practice" into an excuse not to sit.

I was struck by how Daniel M. Ingram almost dismissed the matter of integrating whatever insights you've gotten from your practice into your life by pointing out that generally that's not the problem; the problem is getting the insights to start with, which is hard work. That's certainly true, but then how come there are a good many people who have unquestionably practiced a lot and almost certainly gotten some pretty remarkable insights, but have spectacularly failed to walk the walk in their lives?

I think dedication in bringing the practice off the cushion is as important as practicing on the cushion. Take Gniz from (NOT) Reblogging Brad Warner, for example. By his own account, he sits 20 minutes a day, does your basic breath practice, and doesn't care for—or at least talk about—intensive forms. Yet, somehow, intuitively, I think he's a far more sincere and dedicated practitioner than most of us.

Nathan said...

"People are always going to approach the path with attachment and the natural remedy is meditation but I think they'll be more accepting to try when we are more accepting of attachment we see in the world." One of the reasons I write about too much emphasis on meditation practice - it's an old theme of mine if you look back in the archives - is that there are millions of Buddhists who do little or no formal meditation practice. Entire schools that focus on chanting, for example, or generating compassion and doing "good works" for example. I guess the way I see it is that formal meditation practice is a skillful means, as is chanting, and other forms. And I think it's possible for someone to wake up without a lot of formal meditation practice. This is somewhat heretical amongst Zen students, but I feel that chanting practice, for example, can function as a meditation. I guess you could say I'm interested in diversity of forms, because I have in my own practice, had a diversity of forms.

Nathan said...

Petteri,

I think you're right to point out the dangers of de-emphasizing meditation practice. I also agree that insights tend to not come when one is just hanging around and not looking closely at their lives.

It's funny. I write a little bit about de-emphasizing meditation practice somewhat regularly (almost monthly it seems), and yet in my own life, the opposite is happening. For the Fall Practice Period, I've upped the daily commitment to an hour of zazen, and basically have been doing 45-60 minutes 6 days a week. Sometimes more certain days. I always have one down day that I don't do as much - something that the old teacher at our sangha emphasized. But I feel more dedicated now - to pick up on Dean's comments from a few days ago - than I have in a long time.

I also tend to have a lot of chanting practice in my life. It takes various forms. Formal chanting during zazen. Chanting the Jizo chant while biking. Lovingkindness chanting while walking on the city streets. I've always been interested in incorporating different approaches into most anything I might be doing.

Nathan

Dean Crabb said...

Nathan said:

"I guess the way I see it is that formal meditation practice is a skillful means, as is chanting, and other forms. And I think it's possible for someone to wake up without a lot of formal meditation practice."

Well exactly, I read a story once about a guy who's job it was to count fish all day at his work. All day counting fish, one two three, four, and so on. After years of this he obviously refined the mind through concentration and then one day ... POW! ... and there was deep insight. The point is there are many things to meditate and concentrate the mind on. So sure, all practices are beneficial.

We must realise the obvious though, silence and stillness allows insight. Considering you can't separate the mind and body typically when the body moves so too does the mind (and vice versa). Also, you can't separate the mind from the environment and so when the environment moves so too does the mind. (and vice versa) That said, when the mind is still so too is everything hence why you can wake up through any form of concentration.

Formal meditation allow this development to happen in probably the most direct way, by abiding in silence and stillness, but this is why most schools of practice have meditation at their heart and have other skilful means as important supplementary practices.

So I think your point is accurate but it comes down to not arguing "Can you have insight through other means?" of course you can, but if you are serious about waking up you have to ask "What is the most direct way to wake up?" Why waste time? If you are going to practice then practice. If you aren't then don't. The trap is being caught in the middle thinking you are when you aren't and just going about it in a kind of luke warm way.

Metta
Dean

Nathan said...

"So I think your point is accurate but it comes down to not arguing "Can you have insight through other means?" of course you can, but if you are serious about waking up you have to ask "What is the most direct way to wake up?" Why waste time? If you are going to practice then practice."

See, this is the thing - I don't know if it's helpful to have a view that zazen practice is the most direct way to wake up. How can we know for sure? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Each person's makeup is different.

If I hadn't experienced such shifts in my own life - despite the bucking I have been doing in posts like this - then I would have dropped zazen long ago.

The other thing is that I think we fail often to recognize the underlying rhythms in our lives - and just keep doing what we think is the "right thing," but might not be. I sit more now than I did two years ago, but less than I was doing the first three years I was a Zen student. Perhaps I was being more lazy two years ago than now. And perhaps something else was being called for. Like the uptick of yoga practice that was occurring at that time.

Dean Crabb said...

Nathan said: "I don't know if it's helpful to have a view that zazen practice is the most direct way to wake up. How can we know for sure? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Each person's make-up is different."

We know for sure by doing it and seeing what our nature is, how it works and how to overcome it. This is the Four Noble Truth's. It is very simple. The problem is we like to think we know better. To think we know better than the Buddha though is the problem. This is self still caught up in itself and it's view of how it "thinks" things work. Eventually through the practice we see that each person's make-up isn't different. It is the self that likes to think it is different, it is unique.

I wrote a post called "Who am I?" that talks about this.

http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com/2010/08/who-am-i.html

The others question to ask is "What way have you found that is more direct way?" Is there a more direct way? Go and try it and I know for sure you'll come back eventually around to the same realisation. I actually talk about this in my post Queitening the Inner Chatter. Let me know if it is helpful.

http://themindfulmoment.blogspot.com/2010/10/quietening-inner-chatter-part-1.html

Metta
Dean

Nathan said...

"Eventually through the practice we see that each person's make-up isn't different. It is the self that likes to think it is different, it is unique." The way I see it we are all the same, and each different at the same time. If Shakyamuni felt everyone was only the same, he would have offered the exact same teaching in the same way to everyone that came to him. Instead, he offered what boils down to the same set of teachings in a wide variety of ways, depending upon who the audience was. Yes, he recognized that our inherent natures aren't different, but he also - I think - saw that relative differences need to be taken into account, even if they are ultimately an illusion.

I'm going to go read the post you linked to now. I appreciate you pushing me on this.

Dean Crabb said...

Nathan, I should correct myself ... mindfulness is the most direct way, meditation is a good means of being mindful.

So what you say here is correct and I agree, it varies for each person but at the heart of it is the same thing ... mindfulness.

To go Zen on the topic, if I hold up two apples, one green one red, and ask "Same or different?" how do you answer? This is the point.

The problem is the self that thinks it's unique or evaluates this or that, same or different. Look around, isn't this from where all problems arise, in thinking we are unique and our individual view is right? So in teaching to this a teacher has to present the information with respect to the person and their current level of understanding. So the Buddha offered the same teaching, just stated in many different ways. So here we can ask the same question "Same or different?" If we think, then we are stuck. Is one way of mindfulness different to another? Same or different?

We must return to the mindfulness for the answer. Right here! This is it! Not same, not different.

I'm enjoying this discussion. We are saying the same things in essence, the problem is in the communication of ideas ;-) Please forgive my failings.

Metta
Dean

Petteri Sulonen said...

"The other thing is that I think we fail often to recognize the underlying rhythms in our lives - and just keep doing what we think is the "right thing," but might not be."

Thi is very true, and zazen isn't an exception. I have heard of people trying to meditate their way through problems that required an entirely different kind of intervention, with poor results.

Nathan said...

Hi Dean,

Yeah, I do think we're probably talking similarly, but language struggles to keep up with what's actually being expressed. It's interested that after I read your last comment, I sat back from the computer, took a look around the room I was in, and then went right to the breath, pulling up a phrase from the Anapanasati Sutra we've been working with. So, maybe it looks different, but it's not really different.

Dean Crabb said...

Yes exactly!!

You know that's a really hard shift in "way of living" for people to understand. Most people jump back into the thought rather than returning to the mindfulness. It is vitally important for people to come to this understanding and to start to rely on meditation as a way of living, evaluating and experiencing the world. It's a complete paradigm shift in how to approach life. This is why meditation and mindfulness are important. It brings us to this place of understanding. But how are we to get to this place if we don't meditate, if we aren't mindful?

My first few years of meditation where Zen based and it is within this space that we should evaluate koans. For me this was the paradigm shift. Don't think to understand, be mindful to understand. In mindful awareness there is our answer. This is operating on a whole different level. So if someone asks "When you see something move, what moves first, the mind or the object you are seeing?" To answer we return to this moment, this mindfulness. Right there is the answer! If someone holds up two apples and then asks "Same or different?", returning to mindfulness, there is the answer.

Great thread. Really enjoyed this dialogue. Thanks for your patience and understanding.

Metta
Dean