Q. Could I put this question onto the forum: Rather than getting caught up and over identifying (i.e. anxiety, obsessive thinking) with difficult emotions or feelings, my tendency is more to push them down and suppress them, as a way of 'dealing' with them. Often this action seems to happen unconsciously, the fullness of a particular difficult emotion is put out of my conscious mind. It then may come up, say, when in a quiet moment or especially on retreat. One side effect of this seems to be sloth, blocked energy, which then becomes freed when the emotion is finally fully experienced. Do you have any advice on how I can counter this tendency to push down, and sit more in the fire of my experience, pleasant or unpleasant, fully experiencing it when it arises?
A. We push these things away because we can't/don't want to face up to what they are and the fear and self-loathing that often results from these intense emotional experiences. To learn to open up to ourselves in a wholehearted and non-judgmental way is the key to change, but it takes a lot of practice - and the key to skilful practice is the understanding of the very important concept of familiarity. Familiarity means getting to know, over a good period of time, our emotional reactions, and learning to resist the temptation of falling into old and unskilful reactive habits. Facing up to what we are is a very difficult matter, and, when the experience is a powerful one, almost certainly impossible to pull off. So how do we go about dealing with these deeply-ingrained attachments? We start with the small attachments that we have, which are (emotionally) manageable, and learn to contain and take them into the Dharmic environment. Here we can learn to look into them and know and understand how all these things become the sticky messes that they are. With this knowledge in place, it will allow us to contain the volition driven by the emotions so that the habit/fear and notions of 'me' can return to their original state before this 'pollution' took place - that is, Buddha nature. Learning to work with the small things gives us that vital familiarity with practice; our fears then begin to ebb, giving us the courage to stay with other more difficult and traumatic experiences. Eventually we begin to see that actually there are no 'big' attachments to deal with at all, only an endless collection of little ones. As the old maxim states: 'Take care of the little things and the big things take care of themselves'. This familiarity and understanding gives us the courage to open up more and more and accept ourselves for what we are. Accepting ourselves without judgment leads us to loving ourselves, and in that spirit of love transformation of samsara takes place, allowing it to return to its original nature.
Q. How does mindfulness relate to awareness? How do each relate to the practice of loving kindness?
A. I have tried to highlight the differences between the two in my second book, Dharma Mind Worldly Mind, so reading that should give you a good picture as to my understanding on this vital subject. As to the specific relationship to metta, in my view, the principles apply in the same way as for any other 'subject' that is in our presence. Mindfulness is the deliberate bringing of our attention to the moment and skilfully keeping it there. With metta we do that during the metta meditation. For example, musing over words, pictures, feelings and emotions, all retained with mindfulness. When we have reached that degree of familiarity (see previous question) we can bring to bear these experiences in our daily life and our relationship with ourselves, others, and life in general. This 'skilful means' can only be retained and nurtured with mindfulness as it 'battles' with the restless mind and self-interest. Mindfulness promotes a one-pointed mind; when we have this, the fundamentally pure and eternally bright jewel of awareness is freed from the veil of our emotions (which is intertwined with the chattering deluded mind), and shines forth. It is in these precious moments that we realise our fundamental humanness, and our unfettered heart can respond to circumstances without hindrance and bondage, and spontaneously care for and love all that lives.
Q. Buddhist tradition uses several images of the need for single-minded determination in Dharma practice (I am thinking of one in Zen of the sword about to rain down upon one's neck). Simultaneously, Enlightenment is talked of as being always present, almost in quite an ordinary, simple, and easy way. Given that there must be value in both of these descriptions, how does one, or should one, apply effort in the spiritual life?
A. Spiritual practice is always full of paradox. We must be wholehearted with total commitment, as if there were no tomorrow. And yet the fruit of such practice is to realise the everyday ordinariness of reality. As the famous Zen saying goes: How wonderful! How marvellous! I sweep leaves, I drink tea. In order to realise what is in front of us we need to apply single-minded determination, but single-minded determination in a correct way -a Dharmic way. This 'single-mindedness' should really be seen in inverted commas, for it can be misunderstood as ordinary worldly, wilful effort. Dharmic effort is the middle way, and this is different and very special. Single-minded (Dharmic) determination is applied by not reacting in our familiar karmic-producing habitual way to our everyday experiences, whether towards ourselves, others, or life in general. To, as it were, 'stand our ground' (emotionally) and through experience learn to create the Dharmic environment that transforms your attachments (not you), thus returning them to their original state. This requires a commitment so serious and immediate we must accept the urgency to take this task in hand NOW, as it will be the only way to prevent our head being cut off and being forever lost in the death of samsara. To apply this immediacy we have to contain and just be our ordinary everyday selves, nothing at all special. When we are this unfettered ordinariness, nothing special then the middle way is attained, awakening takes place. We will return to the profound ordinariness of this moment.