Egoic Block, Dharma Bomb

Michael McAlister Blog 1 Comment

I recently gave a Dharma talk that seemed to just bomb. I’m used to this, though. My A-game isn’t always there now that little kids have been brought into my world. Sleep is a luxury and meditation can easily get interrupted. Dirty diapers, in my current world, trump meditative samadhi. Is there such a thing as dirty diaper samadhi?

Anyway, the talk that bombed related to how we can constructively, and consciously, live our lives in that gap that opens to us between being in the world and yet not being caught by any of it. I owed heavily to Christ’s teachings in the talk, but threw in some good old-fashioned Buddhadharma for good measure. I’m sure most purists consider my approach to expressing the teaching to be a significant deviation from the Buddhist norm, but that’s okay. I’ll bet that the Buddha and Christ would have agreed on just about everything anyway. But again, I digress.

Anyway, after the talk, the question and answer session that followed made me smile. I realized that the questions and comments that were coming up suggested that my points were in many cases missed entirely. At least this was true for several of the questioners. While this apparent flaw in my ability to effectively express the Dharma is nothing new, these questions were coming from individuals who’d been doing this meditation thing for some time and had been showing tremendous progress. I errantly thought that they’d moved past most of the sticking points they were bringing up. While this isn’t really a problem as much as it is both a surprise and a reminder that the pedagogy of expressing the Dharma can get tricky. All of us that sit on the cushion in front have a huge responsibility not to let suppositions get mixed in to the actual craft of the teaching itself. Their “mistakes” acted as a reminder for me to allow each moment to be fresh and new. Where to push students, where to pull them and where to do nothing at all aren’t covered in any Dharma teaching credential classes. What’s more, Dharma teachers don’t get together very often to discuss “best practices” with each other. We just do what we do. And when we bump into each other at spiritual teacher get-togethers, there isn’t all that much to say.

“So how’s the teaching of that awakened space beyond name and form going for you?”

“Fine. You?”

“Oh fine. A few surprises here and there. Recently had some senior students recently ask some questions that suggest they’ve got further to go than I’d thought. But pretty good, on the whole. Lot’s of stillness and silence. Laughter here and there. Some sore knees. A little sciatica. You?”

“Same thing going on in my sangha. Pretty amazing, this view from the cushion.”

“No kidding.” Then after a truly extensive pause, “’Kay, see ya’.”

“Ciao and bows.”

“Back at you.”

Of course, this dialog and its context are entirely made up. But it’s not that far off from what I’ve experienced. So often, we teachers just don’t have that much to say to each other. We’re funny that way. We just stare blankly at one another with goofy smiles on our faces, like we’re all repeatedly hearing the punch line of the same, timeless joke.

Anyway, repeated and intense questioning of the teacher and the teaching is precisely what a student is supposed to do. The teacher’s job is to keep the student’s focus on his or her clinging. At the same time, the teacher must gauge the student’s ability not only to hear the teaching, but to integrate it over time, and then repeatedly deliver its expression. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t go so smoothly.

With this in mind, I remember roundly dismissing much of what my teacher said as my path started to lead me more deeply into the unknown. Maybe his gauge was off with me like mine can be with my students. Maybe my teacher was right on. Maybe, for that matter, I delivered my recent talk perfectly and the resistance to my delivery has worked in some meaningful way to help my students shed this sticky layer of self that keeps light from not only coming in, but also from moving out. Whatever the case, I remember distinctly as a student that the longer, and more concentrated my sitting practice became, the deeper my teachers’ words could resonate, even the words that at one time made no sense.

Perhaps that’s the issue here. Students stop actually meditating and just show up to hear me give talks, mistakenly assuming that just hearing words coming out of my face will do something to wake them up. Perhaps not. They might just be working very hard and things are working perfectly. Whatever the case, it doesn’t really matter. The fact remains that “Being in the world, but not of it” talk brought out some attachments that came up in the form of three comments.

“When I practice, I feel so alienated from everyone. This suggests to me that my practice must be failing me at some point.”

It sounds to me like your practice is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing and your hard work is paying off. Feeling alienated is one of the most common experiences we get to face as an authentic spiritual paths begin to reveal their offerings. A clear measure we can use to see if our journey is leading us somewhere worthwhile arises when we see that our stillness practice, combined with the relationships we have with our teachers, the teaching we’re sampling and our spiritual friends starts to radically shift our views. At some point we notice that emotions don’t show up the same way. For example, feelings may be experienced more deeply, more profoundly, and yet deep practice helps us see that they don’t matter like they used to. It’s as if our emotional life begins to be lighter even though we meet it more fully. We find that our anger, or grief, or joy, or bliss are all simply passing experiences instead of states with which we identify ourselves. Instead of “I am angry,” we recognize that “anger is arising in this moment.” It’s a quantitative and qualitative shift that is guaranteed to help support a sense of separation from our old ways of being, and by extension, our old pals that helped support the very habits that we’ve started to drop.

“I’ve been doing this practice for some time and it doesn’t feel so good to me anymore. It’s hard work and I’m at a stage in my life when I want to feel relief from the daily grind rather than being forced into total awareness of it all the time. It’s like there’s no escape.”

Sorry to tell you: there is no escape from reality when we explore it with intense curiosity combined with the spaciousness that a stillness practice supports. If you are looking to feel good, authentic spiritual inquiry isn’t for you. Authentic practice shows us that feeling good or bad isn’t nearly as important at being totally aware of feeling itself. Good and bad are temporary states of being while awareness only increases its availability. Meditation may have attracted you initially because it helped slow you down and you suddenly felt more joy and ease in your life, but once you commit to continuing down the path you inevitably see that you’ve got some house cleaning to do if you are to ever maintain the openness supported by our practice. Feeling good, in other words, might encourage us initially, but being totally aware in the face of anything and everything is what allows us to awaken. For that matter, if feeling good is the intention awakening will forever hide itself from us.

“You should open parts of the teaching up for group discussion. I’m betting we could come up with our own answers to Dharma questions.”

I’m a big fan of group discussion. Often I’ll break audiences up into small groups in order to process and question things I’ve shared after a Dharma talk. This methodology goes against tradition, but I’m not much of a stickler for tradition. I am, however, a stickler for keeping the heat turned up on the ego. I’m especially interested in cooking the aspect of ego that thinks of itself as enlightened. Sometimes group discussion will elicit the perfect exchange of non-personal expression in such a way that nothing needs to be said, deconstructed or adjusted. It’s happened a few times and it’s a beautiful thing when it does. But more often that not, egos are interested in “getting it” when the “it” that is being offered in a Dharma setting, by definition, can’t be “gotten.” Group discussions can work against this realization. The blessing of awakening can be pointed to. It can be allowed in and through. It can dance its way through our hearts and minds. But it can’t be understood by minds that are hell-bent on clinging to their own interpretations of it. Limited views, in other words, that work collectively can mistakenly see themselves as expansive keep us forever in the dark when what we’re looking for is light.

While other teachers and advanced practitioners of the Dharma will easily see the ego at play in all sorts of comical ways here, I’m reminded that we inevitably hit significant blocks as our practice deepens. And these blocks are hard to see much of the time. Deepening our examination of them as well as becoming more accepting of whatever it is that any of us faces can’t help but start pushing the awareness of our experience out in every direction; so much so that we can’t metaphorically fit into whatever structures used to give us refuge. Without any familiar kinds of shelter at our disposal, we become intimately aware of our vulnerability and seek safety wherever we can find it. And yet this search tends to yield very little. Instead we find that there is no safe haven from the Universe’s offering of freedom. Rather than release more fully into freedom there is a point where we flinch and do our best to get back to the egoic habits that have always offered us the safety of familiarity. But we also hit a point where we see that this familiarity keeps us small and atomized, divided and insecure. The good news is that once we hit this rough patch, we have an opportunity to explore the roots of these challenges with deep sincerity. And this sincerity is exactly what allows for the teaching to bloom… rather than bomb.

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