October 6, 2011

Six Steps to Free Yourself.


“We cling to this identity, this thought of ‘me’ and yet our freedom depends on letting it go.” Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche.

Did it ever occur to you that it was you who set up this whole thing? That you are the mastermind behind this lifetime of experience? That you chose to incarnate and created this whole reality?

I used to hate when my spiritual friends would talk like that. I had a really hard life. Why would I ever choose to go through that? Like many survivors, I already blamed myself for the bad things that happened. For years, I refuted the teachings that said we chose our parents. In order to heal psychologically and emotionally, I needed to see my childhood innocence as real and hold others accountable for their actions.

Today, feeling resolved about my history, I revisit these spiritual questions with curiosity. I have a good life. I’m happy. I’m healthy. I have loving relationships, a great job, and I enjoy myself. I’ve worked hard to establish myself as a self with an acceptable and respectable identity. However, despite this psychological achievement, there exists an even deeper yearning that goes beyond the creation of a better dream with ease and comfort. While all of those things are good and worth having, I can’t deny a deeper longing to be free. It occurred to me recently that until I realize the truth, the big truth, the ultimate truth of who I am, I’m going to continue to set up situations to  challenge my concepts of self clinging. It is clear to me now that no one else is orchestrating this unfolding. Whatever happens from this point on, I guess you could say, I asked for it since I became interested in waking up.

“Our wakeful self is always shaking us up and turning on the lights…it provokes, arouses, prods, and instigates until we’re inspired to take action.”

REBEL BUDDHA, the latest book by Ponlop Rinpoche has helped me look at events in my life from a radically different vantage point. According to the Buddhist teachings, the root of all of our suffering is our clinging to a self as solid, separate, and permanent. This sticky point has always been like a hook around my neck. I couldn’t really break free. I had worked hard in my young adult life to establish a self. Living in New York City forces you to be strong in yourself just to be able to get by. Then, I became a therapist, and trained in self psychology. Most people would agree that you need to have a self, a solid sense of self, to be mentally healthy.

However, at the same time, I met my teacher and began practicing the dharma. As hard as I’ve tried to keep this whole self thing going, something deeper has grown unsettled wanting to break free from any layer of self deception that I’m hiding behind. I realize that I’m not going to rest and feel at peace until I can relax in the openness that is closer to the truth.

“We cling to this identity, this thought of ‘me’ and yet our freedom depends on letting it go.”

Traveling solo in a foreign country where nobody knows who you are is an adventure of the shamanic kind. Driving around southern Italy by myself in a foreign car with a stick shift while Italian people were running me off the road was not easy. Plus, I was totally dependent on a GPS device which sometimes worked and sometimes took me off road into random olive groves. “Recalculating…recalculating…recalculating…”

Most people in the places I was exploring did not speak English. I had to find my way with what little Italian I knew. After visiting my grandparents’ villages on the Ionic Coast, I drove to over to Tropea, a god-realm on the Tyrrhenian coast. I was staying in an adorable villa right on the beach. I spent my days luxuriating in the warm sun and calm salty water. Later in the afternoons, I would wander through town into the Piazza to eat, drink, and abide in relaxation. Everything was pleasurable and perfect, right down to the sun setting on the calm and quiet ocean.

It was a perfect dream, until a storm swept over the region and everything shut down. It was too windy and rainy for the shops to open and the ocean was wildly turbulent. After just one day of pounding wind and rain, the waves had crept halfway up the beach. Admittedly, with all the crazy weather we’ve been having, I was scared. Since I was flying out the next day, I decided to spend the night inland and closer to the airport. Winding back up the costal roads, my GPS now failing me, the perfect dream had become an imperfect dream, and continued through the evening into somewhat of a nightmare. I had made a last minute reservation and hadn’t had time to tell anyone where I was. I chose a fancier hotel with the hope of feeling safe, but the place I arrived at was neither fancy nor safe. The area was sketchy and I was too tired and lost to explore other options. I laid down hoping to get some rest, but all I could think about was the terrible things that could happen to me and no one would know. I guess you could say, I was having a full blown panic attack. Because it was late at night and there was no where to go, I had to face my fears directly.

“When we’re caught up in a confused, agonizing state of mind, the best way to free ourselves from it is to fully experience that pain. That’s what will inspire in us the determination and commitment we need to go beyond our habitual patterns.”

In the midst of this whole thing, I had the sharp awareness that everything currently playing out in my mind had actually already happened. I had already been raped, abducted, assaulted, violated, and I’m still here. My practice came to mind and I was overwhelmed with appreciation for my teacher and how hard he has tried to have me see who I really am. In that moment, I was able to connect with the purity in my heart and the unbounded state of luminosity. I realized how many “Tinas” I’ve been over the years, how many incarnations I’ve lived through in this life, how many times I’ve died, left my body, and come back to life. You see, nothing can take away from our true essence. Nothing can defile, remove, change, or harm our Buddha nature because it is empty and therefore pure. It’s not to say that the fear went away, but the experience of bringing my practice to my own personal terror was so powerful that I believe it helped me relax, just enough to fall asleep that night.

As I contemplated the experience over the course of my return flight home, I wondered if that rebel part of me planned out that whole mini-adventure so that I could bring myself to the edge. The intensity of my fear was just enough to help me let go of this clinging to myself and my identity. I wondered if it was true what those people said, maybe I did choose this whole lifetime to wake up to the truth? Maybe if I can remember the realization that there really is no “Tina,” no separate person here that can be destroyed, than I could stop torturing myself. If only I could maintain my allegiance to the awakened state…

“When we discover the true nature of our mind, we’re relieved from a fundamental anxiety, a basic sense of fear and worry about the appearances and experiences of life.”

There are dreams and there are nightmares. There will always be more improved versions of your current dream, but truly the ultimate freedom is waking up from the dream altogether.  One of the many things I appreciate about Ponlop Rinpoche is how he introduced and emphasized analytical meditation. Analytical meditation is a contemplative practice where you explore and examine core beliefs in the open space of your meditative mind. You use thoughts to examine other thoughts, especially those sticky thoughts that have solidified over time. These types of inquiries help to keep your ego in check. They can become powerful tools when you are pushed up against your edge.

How to practice:

  1. Assume your meditation posture.
  2. Relax your body. Relax your breath. Relax your mind.
  3. Ask yourself a question, e.g., “Who am I?” Just ask and keep asking and see what happens. Be genuine with your internal responses whether they are thoughts or feelings. By staying present with yourself you can begin to see where you are hooked.
  4. Stay focused on the original question. Let yourself explore, but not get lost in spacing out. Challenge yourself and be provocative. Stay honest with yourself and the answers that arise.
  5. If you find yourself getting too worked up, just let the whole thing go, and come back to your breath.
  6. Follow these conversations as far as you can until you exhaust yourself and the original question.

“The Truth about who we really are, beyond all appearances, is knowledge worth seeking.”  Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche REBEL BUDDHA.

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