We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
A Love Affair with Aloneness
At this point I would like to offer a few reflections on my own experience of these timeless teachings.
I came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I was a young, idealistic college student during the era when the assassinations of both Kennedy brothers and of Martin Luther King happened, and when the Vietnam War started.
All these events radicalized my outlook about living in America, and about life in general—as it did so many of my contemporaries.
When I graduated from college, I taught in the public school system of the Ocean Hill-Brownsville ghetto of New York City—partly out of idealism, partly to avoid military service in a war I opposed. After two years of this I was physically exhausted, and my idealism for social change was tempered, if not obliterated altogether.
I re-read Walden. Thoreau’s example inspired me, and I resolved to move to northern rural Vermont and live a simple life there. Many others my own age were dropping out of the mainstream at this time. We looked at the society around us and told each other that it was corrupt and harmful and we wanted no part of it. This was the closest my generation could come at that time to expressing a sense of renunciation as the Buddha taught it.
With the energy and optimism of youth, we fervently believed that we were the virtuous ones and that our communal expressions of virtue could change the world. We left the suburbs, cities and ghettoes and headed for the woods. We built our own cabins, grew organic gardens, started food co-ops, got high, closed our eyes and repeated Sanskrit mantras—striving to transcend.
I myself did this for four years, and I can see clearly, in retrospect, that although it was a useful experience, I didn’t learn all that much about what it really means not to cause further harm. Even though I had left the noise of the outer world behind, I took my own noise with me. I carried, like a bacillus, the inherited, internalized noise of my conditioning in the society in which I was raised.
This cultural noise seemed to have many discordant, recurrent themes—aggression, competitiveness and especially the constant need for entertainment. Trying to live with my wife and friends in a simple, quiet, rural environment, I dimly heard these themes echoing endlessly in my subconscious gossip. Nor did my idealistic efforts to live a virtuous life protect me from the ordinary pains of marriage, domesticity and misunderstandings between friends—much of it my own creation. Still, that internal noise was a mere whisper, relatively speaking, because I had not yet entered fully into a commitment to pay really close attention to my inner world.
Nausea From All This Spinning
The Tibetan word for renunciation is ngejung. It literally means “really happening” or “completely becoming.”
The word conveys a sense of total commitment. You are not dabbling or playing at renunciation; you are entering into it, fully and completely. You gradually come down from your habitual state of mental speed, with its endlessly overlapping patterns of fantasies, expectations, hopes and fears.
There is almost a sense of nausea, as one might experience while withdrawing from an addiction, or when stepping off a ride at an amusement park. It’s a kind of spiritual cold turkey initiation. Suddenly you find yourself standing on still ground when you have become accustomed to spinning in circles. My teacher called it “nausea with samsara” and preferred to use the word “revulsion” over “renunciation” when offering these teachings.
None of this happened during my “back to the land” years in Vermont, when I renounced the world. Instead, those years passed in a kind of righteous, romantic haze. The life I lived there became another cocoon. I had not yet begun to face my life unconditionally. I was still blaming the world, and congratulating myself for having outsmarted it. I was still fantasizing that I was living a spiritual life, despite the pain of all the habitual actions and reactions I still carried with me day to day.
No true commitment to a different way of living could actually happen until I met my spiritual teacher, heard his message, experienced his overwhelming genuineness and began to do intensive meditation practice. At that point, I was fully initiated into the experience of nausea with my own personal samsara.
Recalling Torment as Motivation on the Path
The Fourth Reminder describes the nausea in this way:
“The homes, friends, wealth, and comfort of samsara
are the constant torment of the three sufferings,
Just like a feast before the executioner leads you to your death.
I will cut desire and attachment and attain enlightenment
During my first meditation retreat, I practiced for 30 days in succession, 10 to 12 hours each day, I had no escape from the claustrophobia of my habitual patterns and kleshas. It was like being forced to ride with a very irritating passenger on a long trip in a small car.
I was the passenger. I was also the driver. The retreat was the car.
There was nothing to do but to continue moving forward, letting all of this material come up, be experienced, and pass away—like a vivid, ever-changing landscape seen from my passing vehicle.
Finishing one 30-day intensive, I committed shortly afterward to another, then a third. Slowly the claustrophobia, anxiety, restlessness, speed and sense of personal melodrama began to lift. By the time the third retreat ended, a subtle but profound shift had begun to take place. The temperature of my boredom dropped.
Hot Boredom and Cool Boredom
The hot boredom I at first encountered was the boredom of the addict, marked by the feeling that I would go crazy if I did not find a way to fill the emptiness inside, to experience anything other than what I was currently experiencing. After going through all the symptoms of withdrawal, the cool boredom that eventually developed had the quality of settling down, into myself, with less evasion. I began to abandon the need to psychologically channel surf. I stopped looking for a different experience than the one I was having.
Traditionally, this is described as beginning to taste your mind as if it were a cool mountain stream. Its constant flow does not offer entertainment, but it does refresh you in a profound way. When you stop struggling to make your experience of the present moment other than it is, the relaxation that begins to dawn in you is such a relief.
This kind of cool boredom is the blessing of genuine renunciation. It has nothing to do with literally abandoning the world and holing up in a cave for years. It is simply the recognition that the games of your ego-fixation are ultimately hopeless. Even if they seem to work for a while, they will leave you empty-handed in the end.
This realization was the fruit of those three months I spent in group retreat practice, and it left an imprint that has stayed with me ever since.
The Living Buddha Within Me
After this initiation among a group of fellow practitioners, I began to do solitary retreats. At first they were only a few days long. As the years passed, they got longer. Unlike group retreat practice where other people offer encouragement, a schedule and rules, in solitary retreat there was no peer pressure of any kind—no one else to push me to stay with the practice.
In these solitary months of meditation, I truly tasted the mind of my teacher—the mind of the living Buddha within me. I entered into a love affair with an aloneness that I had never experienced before, and have rarely experienced in a sustained way since. I settled down fully with my own mind. I stopped looking for any feedback from the world to tell me who I truly am. There was no one else there to praise or blame me, or for me to praise or blame.
There was just space: the vastness and beauty of the natural world all around me; the quality of the light as it changed continuously throughout the day; the depth and stillness of the night sky with its countless stars; and especially the shifting moods of stillness and movement, memory and expectation, boredom and elation, joy and sadness that passed day after day through my inner world. Everything was vivid, but nothing was permanent. For the first time I was content with the endless display of the vast, undivided world around me and within me. My whole being relaxed and rejoiced.
As my teacher wrote once of his own experience of retreat:
“Good and bad, happy and sad, all thoughts vanish into emptiness like the imprint of a bird in the sky.”
I understood the meaning of this personally and unmistakably for the first time. Far beyond the old loneliness that was so desperate for company or confirmation, I fell in love with an aloneness that was deeply content to be alone. I knew then, and know even more poignantly now in retrospect, that it was only the beginning of my journey without goal. But it was a precious discovery, and it changed my life.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner