“It is not for us to decide who deserves our compassion and who should be forgotten; that’s a game of egos. If there are humans, there is suffering; if there is suffering, there must be compassion.”
“The more we consider the suffering of others, the less our suffering becomes. Once we can recognize the ego working to save itself, we can save ourselves from the ego.”
When I posted these quotes on my Facebook page the other day, someone asked me if they were the teachings of some mysterious Buddhist master, someone they had never heard of. You can imagine the disappointment they probably felt when I revealed that such philosophical tidbits were gleaned from my own brain. But to be sure, as a writer, though I may be more eloquent in describing such ideas, they are not difficult ideas; you don’t have to be smart, nor a writer to understand them. Coming to clarity about our existence is more about practice than anything else. As an art dealer gains experience, they no longer need the references of others to confirm the authenticity of a painting; through practice and training, they develop their own words and methods of explaining how the features of a piece either confirm or deny its genuine claim. This is the nature of practicing meditation and Buddhism: just as we train our bodies to be strong and able, we must train our hearts and minds to reach their full potential as well.
I realize this concept of training the heart and mind is somewhat strange. In western culture we consider the heart and mind to be reflections of our innate personalities, an undeniable part of ourselves in which change is not only difficult, but also undesirable. In the western world, our personality is our mark on life, our footprint, our very identity.
What would happen if I suddenly stopped being angry and critical of everyone? What would happen if I stopped insisting my own ideas, and instead, listened to others’? Who would I be if I decided it’s okay for that homeless guy to buy booze with my dollar?
And so, things aren’t so easy; we grasp to our egos and hold tight for their security. We fear what happens when others can’t recognize us, what happens when we can’t recognize ourselves, when we drop the script and stop thinking about who we are.
I wrote this article because, throughout my 5 years of dedication to the practices of meditation and Buddhism, many of my friends and the new people I meet become curious about a spiritual life outside of Christianity. People want to know about the alternative ways that others feel fulfillment—and that’s a good thing. That being said, I’ve gravitated toward Buddhism because I wasn’t getting what I wanted out of Christianity. However, I’ve always felt a deep need to live a spiritual life, and Buddhism has helped me do that in ways I never thought possible. Our spiritual choices should always help us to live better and happier lives. For me, Christianity just didn’t fit well; instead of feeling hopeful and open, I felt angrier and more cynical. I just wasn’t getting the benefits I so desperately sought after.
Yet, with Buddhism, everything changed. Suddenly anger became manageable, non-threatening, and even humorous. I started to feel a powerful sense of hope and excitement as I continued my practice, and eventually, came to a place of unprecedented comfort. All of my old bad habits of selfishness, hurtful actions and words, and even depression, began to chip and slowly fall away. What’s more is: these positive effects are lasting; they haven’t waned over time. In fact, they’ve only gotten stronger. When people hear all of this, a lot of them ask about the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. The truth is that there aren’t many differences at all. I became the better person and achieved the same spiritual life I sought in Christianity, but by walking a different path. I once read somewhere: There are are many paths up the same mountain. I think that rings true; no one path is right for everyone, and yet, we all pursue the same summit, hoping to bring out the best in ourselves.
So, for those who are still curious, I’ll share a bit about how I got started and then throw out some tips on where you might begin yourself.
In my first year of college, I took an Eastern Religions course to fulfill the cultural component of my required course material. I wasn’t particularly interested in the more familiar avenues of another Spanish course I’d probably fail, or even a “culinary” course that just seemed like a fancy excuse to teach me how to make eggs. I already know how to make eggs; I also eat them well. I wanted to try something different, mystical even, something that was completely foreign to me, and therefore, expected nothing of me. And so, recalling the ever salient images of the round and jolly statues of Buddha, I figured a guy that fat and happy would never dare to give me a failing grade.
Walking into class on the first day, I took one look at the presiding professor and automatically knew that things were off to a good start. He was a ginger version of the epic tale of Paul Bunion, a giant lumberjack whose sidekick was a blue ox with testicles the size of that boulder that nearly crushed Indian Jones in the Temple of Doom. Donning a long orange beard and a mane to match, his small framed glasses sat upon a rosy nose that was squished between two plump and freckled cheeks. His piercing eyes were of a sky blue hue and his gaze had an uncanny glow to it. There was a strangeness about his presence, a hypnotic flow of relaxed energy that seemed to disarm you and diffuse your working mind. And when he spoke, there was a nakedness about his voice: it was the weathered tune of a traveled man, unbothered by the demands that seemed to grip the students that filed in.
He began each class with a 5-minute mediation session, and spent the rest lecturing about the various sects of Buddhism, some of their evolution, and how Buddhism fits into the modern ways of life. I think it was the last part that interested me most: the idea of how Buddhism offered valid practices to a modern world, that for all its marvels, just couldn’t seem to quiet the restlessness within all of us. This is where the seed really got planted within me. As a student of psychology, the mysterious role of spirituality in modern humanity was too yummy of a philosophy challenge for me to pass up. After I completed the course (I got an A), I spent a lot of time at Barnes and Noble reading up on Buddhism from a myriad of perspectives.
I used to worry a lot. Well, okay, I still do. A lot of people don’t know that about me, though, as I’m often the relaxed sociable guy who generally steers clear of most catastrophes. So, by the time I had landed my first counseling job after graduating college, I was a mess. I was biting my fingers down to the bone, my cuticles bleeding all over the damn place. It was from this added stress that I somehow, accidentally fell into meditation. At that time, I would often lie awake at night with worry about a countless number of things, and, it got to be so bad that I had trouble sleeping at all. The insomnia that ensued night after night had begun to take its toll on me, as the ill effects had me teetering on a mental breakdown. One night, while lying awake with worry, I started to imagine my worried thoughts as bricks. Concentrating on the issue at hand, I would picture the problem as a brick upon my forehead that I would smash with deep breaths taken subsequently. Sometimes it took three or four deep breathes to “smash” the bricks over my head, so that they rained down, flowing over my entire face like cool water from a gentle stream. I did this almost every night, until my insomnia went away. Elated by my success, I began to experiment further.
Eventually, I settled into a regular routine of laying down flat upon my bed and relaxing each part of my body with my mind, while concentrating on my breathing. During one session, I remember experiencing flashes of bright colors and sensations of heat throughout my body. There was a surging of energy I could feel circulating through my body, and truly, the experience both frightened and intrigued me. When I woke up, I was forever changed. I remember thinking that this particular experience proved, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is far more to the human experience than meets the eye. It was then that I realized the power of the mind, and so, I began reading more deeply about meditation and other related mysticisms of human energy, like the Kundalini.
After discovering the fantastic experiences brought on my deep meditation and the related mystical practices of human energy, I actually forgot about Buddhism; I didn’t think so much about many of the life changing practices of compassion and philosophy that have become so vital to my practice now. At this point in my journey, I was obsessed with these supernatural experiences, many times generating a kind of “high” from them that made my body tingle and my head feel light as a feather. I spent a lot of time sitting on my rug with my shirt off in the dark, or among candles, desperately trying to manifest experiences of sound, light, and a surging energy flow that made it seem like my body had dissolved. And then, something happened.
I didn’t realize how deep I’d gotten until I found myself doing jumping-jacks, in my underwear, on my front law at 3am in January. I was desperately trying to ground myself, to feel my body again. My most recent meditation experience had released a phenomenal surge of energy that almost drove me insane. There was a strange feeling of being disconnected from my body, almost like living as a shadow, and it frightened me. Luckily, because of the avid research I had done prior, I was able to keep from loosing my mind completely. But after that night, I stopped meditating and gave up on mysticism, as I was afraid I might destroy myself.
Though I maintained an interest in Buddhism, my passion fell by the wayside for a while until a nurse at my job introduced me to a new mentor. His name is Jack Kornfield. An esteem author, clinical psychologist, and former 7-year monk out of Thailand, Jack has a unique ability to explain the core aspects of Buddhism and make them accessible to westerners. Being an American and an academic, he is considered one of the foremost authorities in the blooming field of Buddhist Psychology. In the first book of his I read, A Path With Heart, Kornfield uses a collection of stories about his own personal struggles, teachings from his Thai Buddhist master, and instructions on beginning meditation to help newcomers settle comfortably into their study of Buddhism. I found the book remarkably insightful, as it provided me a new approach to meditation and the practices of Buddhism. Inspired by his words and unique vision of modern day spirituality, Jack helped get me back onto the right path of practice. Soon after getting into this book, I started meditating again and found a more fulfilling and effective path to my practice.
In the book, Jack often mentions his master, Ajahn Chah. And through his quotation and depiction of the master, it’s easy to see that he is exceedingly wise. So, you can imagine my ecstasy when I found a book of his teachings, in the master’s own words: Being Dharma. Being Dharma is one of the most profound books of Buddhism I have ever read. Within its pages is the simple breakdown of complex ideas in Buddhism, by a man who clearly understands them deeply. Albert Einstein once said:
If you can’t explain something simply, then you don’t understand it.
The master’s book is not one inundated with esoteric prayers or mystical language, you don’t need to know anything before reading it; it’s a book of straight forward explanation that cuts through the bullshit and gets right now to the meat of it. Ajahn Chah combines a soft tone with endless metaphors and analogies, which are so simple and accessible, that the knowledge within them becomes undeniably clear. A large part of understanding Buddhism and its practices is reading. So, if you’re looking for a place to start on your path to Buddhism, or perhaps you just want to broaden your cultural horizons, these two books are a must.
For those of you who might feel nervous about pursuing something that potential violates your current religion, allow me to put your mind at ease. Buddhism is more a philosophy than it is a religion. People often confuse Buddha for a god; Buddha is not a god. People bow to Buddha for two reasons:
A.) Buddhism originates from ancient Eastern cultures, which often used bowing a sign of respect. These cultural remnants can be seen in the modern versions of those societies today, and so, too, Buddhism.
B.) As an ordinary man, Buddha achieved Nirvana, transcending his human existence and conquering suffering by seeing the nature of things as they truly are. This is a great achievement for human beings, and so people bow out of respect for his transcendence of human suffering.
Buddhism provides a set of principals and ideals by which practicing can cultivate compassion for others, and free us from suffering. If this concept is difficult to grasp, imagine trying to brush your teeth with your non-dominant hand—it’s extremely difficult! But after much training, your non-dominant hand becomes comfortable and equally efficient at brushing your teeth. Suddenly, there are no problems with it; you don’t fear the weakness and inability of a hand you’re unfamiliar with; you don’t worry about rotting teeth; and, you begin to wonder how more training might make your life easier. So, Buddhism practice is like this. At first, the ideas seem too difficult:
How can I really have compassion for strangers, or for enemies? How can I forgive others, or myself, when I feel so much anger? How can sitting in silent meditation do anything to help me? It all seems like a waste of time, doesn’t it?
And so, it’s difficult and we want to give up and forget about practicing. We want to go back to the things we know and cling to ego and safety. We want to stay angry and punish those who have hurt us. We want to continue our obsessions with money and desire, and all these kinds of good feelings. Who wouldn’t!? But, then, too often, we realize we are still unhappy. We have chosen all the things we want, and have made all the decisions we know, and still we can’t find peace; still we can’t seem to feel comfortable. Here, Buddhist practices help us begin to train our minds and hearts to view things differently. But, much like learning anything, or training our bodies, we must continue practicing everyday. Everyday we must ask ourselves questions and try to see things for what they are. Then, over time, through this process, we can begin to understand suffering better. Eventually, then, we can learn to set our burdens down, clear the confusion, and open our eyes.
I hope this post has served to give you at least some idea about what potential Buddhism holds. The one great thing I’ve always loved about Buddhism is that it never asks you to believe anything; it asks to to see for yourself. If you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comments or message me through my Google+ account. Thanks for reading. Be well, everyone. 🙂