envelope

What to Do About Christmas


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I’m going to use a couple of traditional frameworks—at least I’m going to experiment with a couple of traditional frameworks—to talk about the holiday season, and the two frameworks will be familiar to many of you.

One is the three marks of existence: our old friends impermanence, suffering and non-self. Or as Wes Nisker likes to put it, “Life’s tough, it’ll put you through some changes. Don’t take it personally.” Or, as my friend Jon Parmenter puts it, “Forget about it. You’re not going to survive. You’re never going to get your emotional needs met. And there isn’t anybody to be anybody, anyway.”

The second framework is the Mahayana expression of the three marks of existence and is known as the three gates to freedom or the three doors to freedom. They’re a little less obvious.

The first one is no characteristics: nothing to hold onto, nothing to define anything by, which is the expression of impermanence.

The second is no aspiration: nothing to hope for, no wishes. Just the usual Buddhist cheerfulness, you know.

And the third is our friend, for many of you, that wonderful word—emptiness, which, of course, is the Mahayana equivalent of non-self.


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Now, as I said this is a bit of an experiment so hope you’ll bear with me, but the first one I want to look at is impermanence.

The holiday season, if we look back in the course of history, we find that all cultures have a way of marking the cycle of the seasons. Now the seasons vary from culture to culture. In a temperate climate in which most of us live we have winter, spring, summer, and fall. In Newfoundland, where I grew up, there were just three seasons—winter, spring, and fall. In India, you really only have three seasons: you have the dry season, the hot season, and the rainy season. And that’s it.

But there’s always this cycle. And one of the effects of this cycle is that we become aware that time has passed—you know, things have returned. So one of the aspects of the holiday season is that it always involves a sense of—“Oh, we’re starting something over again, something has passed, and well what happened in what has passed?”

And so it’s a very strong reminder of impermanence—that things have passed and that things do change. And because of that, it’s also a time for review, something we do naturally. “Well, I’m here again. What did I do between the last time I was here again and this time that I am here again?”

And we have this wonderfully in our New Year’s resolutions, for instance, which for most people are something that you keep for approximately 24 hours or less. But in the Tibetan culture their New Year is at a different time, but it’s the same kind of thing.

They do a lot of review and clearing away of all of the negativity of the past year. In monasteries it usually takes the form of a week of protector rituals, and then you have this big celebration, and then another week of renewal rituals expressing intention and direction for the new year.

So that’s one of the things that’s going on in the holiday season. We’re reminded that we’re growing older; we appraise the efforts that we’ve made over the last year, we set direction for the new year, and there are often uncomfortable feelings associated with all of that.

How many of you achieved everything you expected to over the last year? Oh well, not a lot of hands, right? Often our aspirations are a little bigger than our abilities. But that’s a good thing in the larger picture, but it also can occasion a bit of disappointment or self-criticism.

So what I’d like to do now is just for us to sit together for a few minutes and just take this in, because it’s a particularly suitable day—it’s grey and cloudy, it’s the end-of-things kind of day—and just take it in, and just let yourself feel: “Okay, what have I done over the last year. How has that been? What do I regret? What do I feel good about?” And just take a few minutes with that right now.

[Long pause]


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What can you do about the things that you regret? They’re in the past. Words said, things done, can’t be undone. In some cases, one may be able to make amends, make up for it in some way, and that’s very helpful to do. But in many cases, that’s not possible.

In the Tibetan tradition, there’s an old saying: “The only good thing about unwholesome action is that it can be cleared away.” [Repeats] “The only good thing about unwholesome action is that it can be cleared away.”

And what this means—and this is what I want us to do next—I imagine most of you came up with at least one thing you regretted over the last year. Well, the purpose of practice, including the noble eightfold path, is not so much about doing things right, as about being completely in the experience of whatever we are feeling or doing at every moment.

Now there is a very powerful effect that comes from that. That is, when you are right in the experience, then you will sense in the moment what is in balance and what is out of balance. And you will naturally move to correct imbalance. So very often the effect of it is to do what’s appropriate in the situation. But that’s not actually the purpose. That’s kind of a side effect that comes from this. The purpose is to be in the experience.


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So what I would like you to do now is to take any one of the things that you thought of that you regret, and move right into the experience of regret. Not with a sense of chastising or beating yourself up, because that is really not fruitful. It happened for whatever reason, and when you move into this, there is going to be a natural tendency to start thinking about, “Oh why did I do this” or “How could I have done something so stupid,” or silly or selfish or mean or cruel or whatever. All those things are going to come up.

But do remember that the function of thought is to take you out of what you are experiencing—it’s to dissipate attention. So all of those stories are going to arise, but don’t get lost in them. And the way to avoid getting lost in them, the way to prevent that, is to be right in your body, to be in the experience of the body.

This is where we have the first foundation of mindfulness, the mindfulness of the body. Very, very useful. Nothat’s going to be, in some cases, a little uncomfortable. When you actually feel the regret right at the physical level. So if you feel a little nauseous or sick or really itchy or antsy, that’s the experience. Again, touch into it to the extent that you can.

As you do that you’re going to become aware of emotions connected with this. Could be the emotions of regret and possibly shame and guilt and all of these different things. Just keep sitting in all of those, and just let them be there along with all the physical feelings, physical sensations, and see what happens.

So you’re going to have all those three components. You’re going to have the physical feeling—sensations—the emotional feelings, and you’re going to have all of those stories flying around. That’s what constitutes the experience. Just be in it. In attention. Totally awake to the extent you can. And let’s see what happens.

[Meditation]


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Okay, so regret and sadness and those things can be seen as a layer of emotional things which actually hide or cover a deeper set of emotions, and one can keep going down that through layer after layer.

Now we’re going to turn to something you feel good about from last year and go through the same exercise. How does that feel physically? What are the emotions that arise in connection with it? What are the stories, memories, associations, and so forth?

Okay.

[Meditation]

[Post-meditation discussion not recorded]


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A couple of things here from your comments.

Just as the regret was multi-layered and covering up a bunch of stuff, so the feeling of feeling good is multi-layered and covering up a bunch of stuff. They’re different in tone but not that different in substance.

We do the same thing that—as Karen was pointing out—that we have a whole bunch of events which, when things work out we say, “Oh that was good. Didn’t I do a wonderful thing?” And when things don’t work out we say, “Oh that was bad. Didn’t I do a terrible thing?” when the number of conditions and factors responsible are actually much more complex than that.

I mean in the Abhidharma, for instance, the whole notion of causality is very, very different from the Western notion of causality, where we’re very used to the idea of one thing causing something else. You know, if you throw a brick through a window, from the Abhidharma point of view, there are several causes for the window to be breaking. One of them is that the glass wasn’t thick enough. You see puts a whole different twist on things, you know. Or the brick was too hard [laughing]. So forth. You know, I threw it too hard, and so forth.

So, and then there’s Diane’s experience, which I think is also quite important, that when something is experienced completely, good or bad, it’s done, that’s it. Yes?


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Student: I have a question [unclear].

Ken: All of this is connected with impermanence because we know the passage of time by recalling what we’ve done and that engenders all of these feelings. But as we’ve seen, if you experience things completely in the moment, they tend to leave fewer traces and fewer reverberations or resonances around. So that’s one of the things to take out of this.

In the Zen tradition, Suzuki Roshi says, “Whatever you do, do so completely [so] that there aren’t even any ashes left, ” which is an extraordinarily intense way of living. But you see this reflected in the attitude of a lot of athletes, of basketball players. “Don’t leave anything on the court,” which is, “Do it totally.”

So I just want you to think for a few moments about what it would be like that everything you do, you do with your total attention—complete. There’s nothing left. What would life be like that way?


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Now I want to move onto the second of the three marks which is suffering, or a slightly different way of looking at it, is trying to get our emotional needs met.

Now, we’ve just done this exercise with regret and accomplishment or feeling good about ourselves, and these feelings operate in absolutely everybody. And they may be slightly different in terms of flavor and emphasis and so forth, but they aren’t different; everybody has the same kinds of feelings. Can you control this? Can you control what feelings arise in you?

Student: No.

Ken: No, you can’t control it. How much effort do you put into trying to control it? A lot. “I don’t want to feel this way.” Well, that’s a sure indication that you are feeling this way. [Laughs] So, there are many, many techniques in Buddhist practice for working with emotions.

But what’s very, very important to understand is that none of them are really about trying to control what you feel. Many of them are presented that way, mistakenly in my opinion; many people interpret them that what you should be trying to do is control what you feel. For instance, when we get into the four immeasurables, people think, “I am meant to be feeling this, I am meant to be feeling that.” But that’s not how it works. By experiencing your own emotions completely, then they cease to weigh you down. Actually, it’s a way of getting rid of the baggage, if you wish.


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One of the more powerful techniques that I know, which I think is particularly appropriate for this time of year, is the technique of taking and sending. Now taking and sending is a specific technique from the genre of mind training in the Tibetan tradition.

The way mind training techniques work is that they bring a particular perspective and approach to the world into friction with our habituated way of approaching the world. And that friction generates heat, and if you can stay in the heat, that fuels your attention, and you can experience things completely.


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So, our next meditation together will build on what we’ve just done.

As you breathe in, take in all of the feelings of regret, shame, guilt, criminality, negativity—you know, the whole bit—from all other beings. Now if you want to make this a bit more specific, because all other beings is a bit big for most of us, start with your family, say. Because there’s a lot of family stuff that goes around at this time.

Take in all of their feelings of shame and regret and experience them for them. Experience those feelings for them. So that they are free of it. Just as some of you found out when you experience it completely, it’s freed.

So you are going to experience their feelings completely. And everything that you feel good about, that you feel you’ve accomplished, that you feel good about yourself over the last year as you are now, this is what you give to other people so that they experience it completely.

Now we make this a little easier for ourselves by imagining that all of those negative and painful and difficult feelings take the form of black smoke and come in as we breath in through our right nostril and into our heart.

And all of those good feelings things that we enjoy, and feel good about, and makes you feel warm and open and clear, have a place in the world, etc., all of those take the form of moonlight coming out of our heart and going to them out through the left nostril and going to them.

So you don’t have to do a lot of thinking here, and that’s one of the things that many people fall into in taking and sending—they do a lot of thinking. Just take a couple of feelings and use that breath coming in to feel what is painful or difficult or disturbing completely. And the light going out so that you feel what is positive and joyful and happy and spacious and all of that.

And what’s very important here that I’ve found is do both with each breath. Don’t concentrate on the one because those of you who are more comfortable feeling bad will just go, [heavily] “Uh! Uh! Uh!” and those who are more comfortable feeling good will go, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” and it gets totally out of balance. So you do each one with each breath.


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Any questions? Trudy.

Trudy: When you say taking in all their shame and bad feelings and negativity, you mean as you imagine they feel it?

Ken: Well, what else are you gonna work with?

Trudy: Your own.

Ken: Pardon?

Trudy: You could work with your feelings generated by the difficulties you’re having, and you know try to…

Ken: No, you’re taking their feelings. And the result of that is you are going to feel your own more completely.

Trudy: Right.

Ken: Okay? And also in the other direction, as you give away your own happiness and joy, you actually have to experience it. Causes a lot of trouble for some people.


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Student: And they’ll get happier.

Ken: Yeah.

Student: They’ll experience their own [unclear], too.

Ken: Well that’s more of the joy aspect. Because this exchange is taking place you’ll feel really good about it. Okay? Any other questions? Okay. Let’s do this together. Yes?

Student: My nostril…at the moment—does that matter? Because at the moment my dominant nostril is the left.

Ken: Just imagine it. Whether the breath actually goes through that nostril or not doesn’t matter. It’s just imagining it.

Student: Then you imagine it coming out through the heart?

Ken: The black comes in through the right [nostril], and the light goes out through the left [nostril].

Student: Did you mention heart?

Ken: Yes, both. One comes into your heart and the other comes out of your heart.

Student: But you don’t transform it?

Ken: It’s not a transformation of one into the other. No. It’s just the old thing we have in L.A.—in with the bad air and out with the good air! [Laughter]

[Meditation]


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Now, around the holiday season, we find ourselves interacting with people, and there are all kinds of expectations and hopes. And with those, the inevitable disappointments and frustrations. And there are also feelings of connection and warmth and love.

So I’d like now for you to do taking and sending again, imagining yourself in some of those situations. And do taking and sending with a whole panoply of feelings that are likely to be present. Okay.

[Meditation]


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This specific form of mind training is aimed at undoing what is called self-cherishing, or to put it in more modern language, taking care of ourselves first. And that’s ordinarily how we approach situations.

“What do I need here? What do I want here? How can I get it?” We get a fair amount of reinforcement from our culture to approach things this way. But when we do that…and there’s also a very deeply conditioned thing—you know, about survival and all of that—to focus on ourselves first.

But when we focus on ourselves first, we immediately create a separation—based on the sense of self—from experience. And that introduces an imbalance, and the more that we function under that imbalance, the more out of balance it gets.

When we open to the totality of feelings in a situation, not only our own but also everybody else’s, and I want to emphasize this doesn’t mean excluding our own but including everything, then as Karen was saying, “Well, we know where to go. We know what to do.” But now it’s not based on a sense of an I separate from experience, but based on a sense of being in experience. Make sense to you?

Student: Okay.


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Ken: Okay, and this leads to the third mark, which I want to touch on briefly. When you are fully engaged in a situation, how conscious are you of yourself?

Student: No, I’m not.

Ken: Okay. When you’re not fully engaged, how conscious are you? And a wonderful example of this is, “I’m bored.”

Student: Is what?

Ken: “I’m bored.” Because boredom is all about self-consciousness.

So, I want you to take some of the situations you’re likely to encounter in the next three or four weeks, you know, this wonderful holiday season. And imagine engaging them completely, whatever they may be.

Now there’s an important piece in engaging something completely, you have to have an intention. And what many people do is go into situations without a clear intention. And when you go into a situation without a clear intention, you get carried away in the currents of whatever reactivity that situation provokes in you, because that’s where you’ll end up going. And that’s how you get lost in your own feelings in your own reactions.

But if you have a clear intention, then you can fully engage the experience. You may or may not be able to affect or make much progress with your intention, but then that calls into question what are you actually doing there? Should you be there at all in that situation?

So imagine going into these various situations. And I’d like you to pick one, one that you may think will be challenging, and take a few minutes to become clear about your intention, and then imagine going into the situation and engaging it completely. And that’s what we’ll do together now.


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Katherine: Can you sort of give an example of that? Say your intention is to buy your mother a present.

Ken: Well, let’s say your intention is to visit your mother, okay?

Katherine: That’s so complicated! [Laughter]

Ken: That one is so complicated? Well, no, I think that’s the important—because buying a present is just part of that, isn’t it?

Well, what’s one’s intention in visiting one’s mother in the holiday season? And that’s a very good example: What is your intention here? Why are you doing it? That’s what to think about and reflect on.

And when I say think about it—that’s really a bad use of language on my part. You have this situation in front of you; feel it and feel what your intention is and see what comes up. “Why am I actually going here?”

And you can ask yourself why again and again. “Well I’m going because I have to. Well, why do I feel that I have to?” That takes you to the next level, and so you just keep cutting into those levels. And at some point you are going to hit a feeling which you may or may not be able to put into words but it will be really clear. Okay?

[Meditation]

Ken: Okay. What was your experience here? Let’s hear from some people we haven’t heard from to this point.


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Helena: I’m well aware of the fact that I ’ve done many things in my life and there is frequently a sense of obligation [unclear].

Ken: So one point there is, when we are coming out of a sense of obligation, it feels like something is being imposed on us. But when we become clear about our intention, then there’s a sense—“Oh I’m doing this,” and do you feel as separate from the situation then?

Helena: No, not really, no. It’s just part of me.

Ken: So rather than something being imposed on us from outside, we discover our own connection with the situation and what we intend to do with it.

And my apologies, Katherine, because your first example would have been fine to take: “What is my intention in buying my mother a present? What am I intending to do here?” You could have worked with that just as well. Okay?


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Anybody else? This give you any clues as to how to approach things?

Student: Yes.

Ken: What were some of the clues?

Student: Well I found my lack of clarity over a Thanksgiving where I felt trapped for a few days. Literally trapped. I really wasn’t, but inside I just felt trapped, and this whole exercise is giving me that awareness that had I had this intention, those days would have been less trapped. I would have been less trapped.

Ken: Well not only would you have been less trapped, but you might have actually enjoyed them! [Laughter]

Student: Oh what a change!

Ken: Yes, and both your point and Helena’s point. When we feel something is done to us, we feel separate from. But by being clear about our intention, the only way we can become clear about our intention is dissolving the sense of separation from the situation. “I’m in it, what am I doing here?” And then we can engage it—then we lose that sense of self by being clear about our relationship with the situation.

Yeah, very good.

Student: That’s beautiful.

Ken: Anybody else?


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Student: How about when something really is imposed from the outside, such as judgments and criticisms are going to be coming my way, and I’m not really sure about how to have an intention about that.

Ken: Ah, when judgments and criticisms come your way. Well, I think one can have an intention. It can vary. One very common intention is, “I’m going to disregard this.” But another, possibly more fruitful one is, “What can I learn here?” In my own experience, whenever somebody fires some criticism or judgment at me, which happens quite frequently, one of the things I’ve found very useful is, “There must be something I have done that has led this criticism to come.” Now it doesn’t mean to say that I’m 100 percent responsible. I don’t mean that for an instant. In some cases I may well be. But that’s not an a priori assumption. But there’s some reason that this person is focusing their criticism on me. And it may be because at one time I spoke in a certain voice which reminded them of their critical father. Something like that. It may be a very small bit on my part.

And so what I try to do in situations where I am being criticized is, “What can I learn from this? What was my part in it?” And I look at it that way. And that way, whenever criticism comes, I don’t regard it as a negative. Now I don’t know whether that applies to you or not, but possibly.

Student: It’s from my mother, and I don’t understand where it comes from except that maybe I’m an extension of her and her self-criticism.

Ken: Now instead of trying to figure it all out, why don’t you make your intention to be in the experience of being criticized. Just to be right in that experience. Because it sounds like this has happened a few times before. Right? And you’re still buying into it. You know who you are. Are you this terrible person?

Student: [Unclear]

[Laughter]

Ken: [Laughs] That’s up to you! You know. So, just work with what we were discussing at the beginning. You know, just be right in the experience.

Student: Okay.

Ken: And see what happens there.

Student: I can make that the intent.

Ken: You can make that the intention, yes.

Student: Okay that will work.

Ken: Okay, very good.


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So we’ve run out of time here. I hope this has given you some useful tools for the next few weeks. I like doing these meditations and getting the feedback. Does it work for you guys? Okay. We will probably continue with something like this. Now I think there were a number of announcements before we close.


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