February 1, 2012

Getting off the hook.

The vast volumes of Buddhist philosophy can be boiled down to two words: Let Go.

The practice of meditation increases our awareness and equanimity. Awareness of what, exactly? Our nonstop, eternal, flabbergasting CLINGING!

A recent dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal of Audio Dharma fame, explains the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths thusly:

1) First and foremost, Buddhism presents us with a problem called dukkha (a.k.a. suffering)
2) The cause of suffering is craving and clinging (and aversion).
3) There is an end to suffering (hallelujah).
4) The way to end suffering is the noble eightfold path (right view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration… more to come on each of these later this month; I’m planning to write an 8-week series on the Eightfold Path!)

With sustained practice, meditation calms and quiets the mind, so that we are better able to see our own patterns of craving and aversion, clinging and pushing away. This can be disturbing, especially at first. Ultimately, meditation enables us to answer the questions: “Where is the clinging?” and “How can I let go of it?”

As 2011 wound to a close, I read Taking the Leap by Pema Chödrön on the Kindle my parents gave me for Christmas. The book is all about getting unhooked. Around October of last year, I had watched Bill Moyers interview Ani Pema and discuss shenpa. (Coincidentally, my fellow elephant yoga blogger, Kate, and I must be on the same wavelength, because she, too, wrote about being hooked just a few days ago!)

Pema teaches:

The usual translation of the word shenpa is attachment. If you were to look it up in a Tibetan dictionary, you would find that the definition was attachment. But the word “attachment” absolutely doesn’t get at what it is. Dzigar Kongtrul said not to use that translation because it’s incomplete, and it doesn’t touch the magnitude of shenpa and the effect that it has on us.

If I were translating shenpa it would be very hard to find a word, but I’m going to give you a few. One word might be hooked. How we get hooked.

Another synonym for shenpa might be that sticky feeling. In terms of last night’s analogy about having scabies, that itch that goes along with that and scratching it, shenpa is the itch and it’s the urge to scratch. So, urge is another word. The urge to smoke that cigarette, the urge to overeat, the urge to have one more drink, or whatever it is where your addiction is.

Well, as I have been absorbing these teachings and working with shenpa, strange and marvelous things have been happening, as if orchestrated by the universe to teach me some powerful lessons. For example, I spent the last five days of 2011 sharing a lovely house with a stranger who turned out to be adorable and amazing. (We were placed in the house together by our mutual friends.) This occurred at the mystical Lake Atitlán, which happens to be my favorite place in Guatemala. It was intense and euphoric. We found ourselves thrust into a honeymoon without having had the relationship, engagement or wedding.

I would read, write, stretch, and bask in the warmth of the stone porch overlooking the lake and volcanoes; he would make breakfast and do the dishes and make jewelry and speak to me in Spanish. We played house, and it was delightful. All the while, I was reading Pema’s book and consciously working with the intention to unhook. It was easy to be present that week; I was on vacation mode, the whole scene was surreally romantic and near perfect. The trouble is…

Hooking up whilst also simultaneously unhooking, as it turns out, is not so easy.

I’ve written about this concept before, in one of my first posts for Elephant Journal, back in 2010. (Evidently, all I have to do to receive a lesson in life is write a blog about it.) My faux boyfriend at the lake is a traveler. Just passing through. (Aren’t we all?) I’ve been striving to avoid my normal traditions of daydreaming, fantasizing, ruminating and otherwise falling in love with the storyline. Last weekend, he told me he just wants to be friends. The painful emotional reaction I felt at that proclamation showed me just how very hooked I was, just how miserably I’d failed at dropping the storyline and living presently.

Pema continues:

Step One. Acknowledge that you’re hooked.
Step Two. Pause, take three conscious breaths and lean in. Lean into the energy. Abide with it. Experience it fully. Taste it. Touch it. Smell it. Get curious about it…
Step Three. Then relax and move on.

Step one. Check. All too acknowledged. Step two. Okay. Leaning in to the insecurity, jealousy, heartache, rejection, tenderness, vulnerability. Ouch. Curious… Step three. Breathe. Let. Go. Inhale “Let”; Exhale “Go.”

Step by step, millimeter by millimeter, we relinquish the thoughts, opinions, beliefs and ideas we hold so dear regarding the five ways we experience this life, through our body, our feelings, our perceptions, our inner mental landscape and our consciousness itself.

We get off the hook.

It’s simple but not easy. As you go deeper and become aware of more subtleties, you start to see the depth of your own clinging. It can seem bottomless, but trust that with devotion and discipline, you can gradually unclench and release. As we progress along the spiritual path, it is not uncommon to cling to the practice itself. To grasp on, white-knuckled, to the dharma teachings, for dear life. Instead, try using this mantra:

“With destruction, fading away, cessation, giving up, and relinquishment of attraction and clinging, I recognize that my mind is free.”

Just don’t ever think, “Okay. Yup. I’m done.” That is most likely an illusion, unless you’ve attained full enlightenment, which is to be totally awake, totally free from clinging. And that, my friends, is a lengthy process that takes incredible devotion and discipline. Good thing we have all the opportunities every day to practice!

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