In the Asian tradition of Vipassana meditation, all of life experience falls into one of three categories: pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. New mindfulness students tend to believe that the goal of meditation is to experience only calm and happiness. In contrast, advanced meditation practitioners strive to overcome aversion to unpleasant sensations by facing them and, in doing so, discover the value of neutral.
There’s a humorous expression locals use in Maine, “You can’t get there from here,” spoken dryly to any tourist asking for directions. The words are meant to discourage tourism in the deep-woods state, but there is a wisdom to them that can be applied to states of depression. Anyone who has tried to go directly from depression to happiness knows that it’s not possible. You can’t get there from here.
Bubbly happiness or the fog of depression may sometimes seem solid, like personality types, when actually these mental states are different gears in the mind. When driving a car, you have to shift to neutral before switching gears. Trying to shift directly from 6th to 1st (or any other gear) is either impossible or, if great force is applied, damages the car. We see this damage when people are depressed and trying desperately to be happy and then beating themselves up, falling into a downward spiral of worse for failing to be happy. The fault is not theirs; our cultural roadmap to well-being is lacking. If you don’t drive, you can think of neutral as “OK” mode. When wanting to shift from depression to happiness, aim for feeling “OK” first. Find a neutral position. From a place of neutrality, you can begin to see more objectively. You may be surprised to realize that when you observe happiness deeply it is not actually pleasant but a subtle form of agitation in the mind. If you can’t see that, enjoy your happiness. The next time your happiness runs out, you can go on a meditation retreat and look deeply once again. Conversely pain in the heart that seems unbearable can be a seed of transformation and inner peace when faced.
Grief and depression tend to arise during big life transitions because the mind is seeking stability that isn’t there and, not finding it, the mind longs for the stability of the past or expectations of a future that cannot be grasped. It’s hard to undergo the strengthening process of finding our own way through the unknown, supported only by our own deepening roots. The reward of facing the unknown and adversity is a depth of wisdom and autonomy that cannot be achieved through surface happiness, by bouncing from one form of pleasure to the next. The safest vehicle I’ve found through life’s uncertainties and adversities, when the stress of transition is overwhelming, is a state of neutrality.
For me, the Buddhist symbol of the Dharmacharya is a clear representation of neutrality. While the spokes of the wheel symbolize the 8 aspects of a moral human life, it is the center of the symbol that is special to me: a small knot at the center of the wheel that symbolizes discipline. This is a neutral discipline. This type of discipline does not arise out of ego. It is not discipline in order to become more beautiful or stronger or better than other people. The Dharmacharya’s quality of discipline is simply a place to rest the mind in the present moment. It’s that simple. The mind is so attached to thinking about the past and future that when you begin to be mindful of each present moment in the rush of daily life, your attention may feel a bit wobbly, like it doesn’t know where to focus. Acting with gentle discipline in the world gives our mind a neutral, stable place to rest in the present. By gently organizing ourselves and our environment – ever-changing – we come to know the quiet space of the Zen master. We are more willing to be present with the emptiness of life’s transitions and, in being so, create space for peace to arise within ourselves and our environment.
The Dharmacharya wheel represents the 8-part moral path that protects against suffering, with each spoke representing 1) right view or understanding of truth, 2) right speech, 3) right intention, 4) right action, 5) right effort, 6) right livelihood, 7) right mindfulness, and 8) right concentration. The center represents discipline. Photo by Ellen McCarty.
If you think you’re superior to other people – congratulations, you have good karma but you’re not enlightened. Too much good karma can actually hinder moral development if a person is caught in a delusion of superiority. We can trace the human drive for superiority to the Ancient Greeks. In the first Olympics, there were no second or third places, only first. Any competitor who didn’t win 1st place in the Olympic games was shunned. Unfortunately it seems that deep within our modern subconscious lies a destructive Western belief that if we are not superior to others – if we are not special – then we do not exist. Hence Alexander the Great won his name from an unethical life of war and conquest. By dominating others he became “great.” In contrast in Buddhism and other indigenous cultural traditions, both superiority and inferiority are considered forms of mental illness.
Any wise person recognizes that all beings are equal. Every single life is valuable and has its place in the biosphere. This understanding of equality is what creates our sense of belonging and peace. The moment we choose superiority or inferiority, our connection to others breaks and we feel separated, isolated, out-of-place, dissatisfied. How ironic that our drive to be special and superior undermines our desire for well-being. Striving for a superior position is so deeply rooted in Western culture that it is wise to carefully evaluate any choices we might be making in order to appear superior to others. Superiority is a mental state of self-defense, not connection. Fortunately practicing equality is contagious because the value of equality resonates with all of us at a deeper level. It reminds us of our true home, which is our interconnectedness to each other. In this light, jealousy is pointless. The carrier of gifts does not matter. Each person’s unique gifts are meant to benefit everyone. As you wait for the universe to weave its tapestry of gifts and transitions through time, tend to your suffering. Suffering can be a mechanism of destruction or enlightenment depending on one’s choice to escape it or face it.
Suffering is one way to lose our sense of superiority and develop fearless compassion. It is a blessing in disguise. The challenge in the midst of suffering then becomes not to fall into a pit of inferiority and despair. When life is full of adversity and transitions into the unknown, we can support our well-being by making an intention to cultivate the10 paramis, or ancient universal perfections (translated below from the Pali language) as well as neutral discipline. In this way, even a difficult life is not wasted. We refine our minds and this process of refinement slowly dries up the roots of suffering. Each morning, I read the 10 paramis in Pali to remember them because in our modern, materialistic world it is easy to get lost in the fog and forget higher intentions and the purpose of life.
The 10 Paramis or universal perfections:
1. Dana, generosity and service
2. Sila, virtue and morality
3. Khanti, patience
4. Adhitthana, endurance and determination
5. Viriya, energy and effort
6. Panna, wisdom
7. Sacca, truthfulness
8. Metta, loving kindness and compassion
9. Upekkha, equanimity, peace
10. Nekkhamma, renunciation
It is important to note that the Buddhist principle of moderation arose out of renunciation or nekkhama, which can be dangerous in excess. In the Buddha’s time, he came across ascetics who practiced such severe renunciation that they were starving. In this deprived state, the ascetics were unable to acquire wisdom. The Buddha taught moderation as a wonderful balance to the pursuit of perfection. Patience also protects the mind from extremes. Do not forget to enjoy your life and dance in the sunshine.
Sometimes we choose renunciation. We can ordain in our various religious orders and give up our worldly possessions. But sometimes renunciation chooses us: when we lose our home or our health or our loved ones, or when we don’t get what we want in life. Renunciation is difficult but whether we choose it or whether it chooses us, if we let it, nekkhamma is a universal perfection that yields wisdom and inner peace. Resistance to renunciation is human. After a time of mourning, we must choose to face loss and experience its strengthening and deepening processes in order to benefit from it. This acceptance of what is can be part of humble, neutral discipline. We choose to continue to be present with our human lives, to willingly participate in backbreaking or heartbreaking cycles of sowing and reaping with the intention to become better people over time.
When I ordained as a Silashin nun at age 23, my head was shaved by Burmese nuns at a ceremony in Yangon (Rangoon). I expected to feel sadness about the loss of hair but was surprised to feel profound relief that my value had nothing to do with beauty. When we let go of everything we think we need in order to be happy, ironically we find that well-being is our true nature. We are love. We are peace. We are equal. Acquiring dilutes what we are. Renunciation, chosen or not, teaches us to let go of what we think we want so we can recognize what can never be destroyed: our true value which is equal to all others. To recognize this is to cultivate a feeling of interconnectedness, which protects against the kilesas, a Pali word that roughly translates as negative mental states or “inner demons.” The kilesas are strongest when we pursue a path of the separate self via superiority or inferiority, both of which depend on a mind focused on acquisition rather than renunciation.
The perfection of renunciation is the opposite of beliefs such as the Law of Attraction. This “law” is a reflection of our society’s cult of materialism: the belief that our purpose in life is to acquire and get what we want and that the more we acquire, the happier we are. This is a rose-colored view of greed. In reality, acquisition as one’s life purpose is a superficial view of one’s own potential. Our lives were meant to be deeper and more noble than that. Renunciation helps us discover that our deepest need is not happiness and acquisition but peace and interconnectedness. Every major religion in the world teaches this: the path of peace. We are not here to acquire pleasures but to let go of all things. If life does not teach us this, death and dying will. We are all powerless in the face of death. Giving up all forms of power over others before death, we live in harmony with reality. Renunciation, letting go of what we think we know and want, is a gateway to inner peace that eclipses happiness. In a state of upekkha, you will not want superiority or excessive wealth, which like any addiction is never satiable. In alpine Europe, the word gemütlichkeit captures the cosiness of a simple life - the spirit of just enough, the ability to take care of oneself happily without excess, which allows all other human beings to take care of themselves with just enough, too. What a beautiful concept.
Nothing in excess. Know thyself. The ancient Greeks were also wise.
Excess allows a person to live in a constant state of pleasure, or escape, avoiding knowledge of self. The self has pleasant, unpleasant and neutral aspects. It is the unpleasant aspects of the self that drive us into escape, into a pursuit of superiority. We have to make a conscious decision to face these unpleasant aspects or our lives will be shaped by the kilesas not our higher selves. You can recognize this directly by honestly evaluating the meaningfulness of your own life. If you notice that living in excess – constantly escaping unpleasants by seeking pleasant experiences – creates a quality of meaninglessness in your life, you can shift from the path of greed to explore a path of moderation. Examine every area of your life and gradually reduce the amount you have so that you have just enough. Notice if you are holding onto anything to support your need for superiority. Ask yourself if this excess is truly making you happy. Notice how your mind feels before, during and after each practice of renunciation and follow the peace. Note: when you give to others, it is more beneficial to give in person not just mail a check. Our modern cult of materialism teaches us that the poor need the rich but actually the rich need the poor. Serving the poor and those who are suffering is a gateway to enlightenment, also defined as the freedom from aversion.
If you want to face your inner demons as a process of renunciation, give up the pursuit of happiness as a form of acquisition of people and things in the external world. Renunciation clears away external distractions so that we can turn inward and take the time to know thyself. Transitioning from a modern life of escape to an ancient practice of facing the kilesas can be a shock at first so make an intention to overcome aversion to your self. Cultivate loving kindness towards yourself and realize that all the gears of the mind have something of value to offer. The more gears we are willing to experience – unpleasant, pleasant and neutral – the wiser and more compassionate we become. On intensive retreat, kilesas reveal themselves as simply deeply unpleasant sensations. We can be compassionate and understand the depression that arises when kilesas drive us into the deceptive web of our materialistic world, which is caught in the illusion of a separate self – glamorizing superiority. This thick cultural fog blocks our sense of interconnectedness. Fortunately fog is relatively easy to dispel if we know how to recognize it and navigate it.
Intelligence, sensitivity and depression tend to go together because to understand the modern world is to understand the construct of the separate self and its profound suffering. It can be overwhelming to the sensitive person who has the ability to face and perceive this construct. Constructs can be ideological or physical in nature; they can also be changed but to change them requires engagement with the world. By that I mean we have to reinforce our will to live and our will to face unpleasant sensations and great pain in order to train and refine our minds and hearts. We have to want to be here, to live. We have to be willing to cultivate mastery of our minds in the world autonomously, even when we are alone and our path to interconnectedness is not yet clear, even when suffering seems unbearable.
When our will to live is weak, when we don’t see the value of this physical world and cannot face its pain, we disengage and check out. Our smart phones, media entertainment and video games have trained our minds to become experts at escape, at going into a blank state when the physical world becomes unpleasant, so we need to exert effort to pop out of that escapism into a present awareness of reality as it is. Our roots cannot deepen unless we are present. When exerting effort, it is important to use viriya, or right effort. It is very easy to be lazy or too aggressive with ourselves. Western culture was built on aggressiveness; it is one of the reasons sensitive people check out in the first place. Right effort is an antidote to that aggression – it is simply a neutral and gentle shift of attention to the present moment. It doesn’t matter whether the present moment is pleasant or unpleasant. The benefit of this shift of attention to the present moment occurs either way. Note: This discipline should arise out of internal motivation not external pressure from an adult, which can deepen a young person’s depression if they cannot measure up for example, to adult expectations of discipline. When trying to help others, be sure to practice the perfection of khanti, a patience so gentle it does not need suffering to end. Seek to inspire others through deepening your own discipline and meditation practice rather than forcing mindfulness on others, which is actually not possible.
As we are willing to remain present with unpleasant experiences and pain, we become less afraid and experience less aversion. Our mind becomes more stable, able to observe and face what is. We stop focusing on the concepts of suffering and allow our mind to rest in the neutrality, simplicity and clarity of the present moment. We enjoy our deepening roots in times of uncertainty. As we cultivate neutral discipline, our meditation practice and the paramis with a desire to serve others rather than dominate them, synchronicities start to occur. We end up at the right place at the right time. We connect with the right people and experiences. When we are alone, we trust the natural world to reveal our place within it. We discover the quiet self where emotions dissolve into a peace that is greater than our individual selves.
The same day I wrote the first draft of this blog on August 7, 2017, I was given a horoscope cut from that day’s San Francisco Chronicle:
“Let go of those things that have outlived their purpose, invest your energy in dawning affections and aspirations and you’ll see that you really can get there from here.”
From a neutral position, all directions are possible.
Photo and blog content © 2018 Copyright by Ellen McCarty. All rights reserved.