Exercises For Integrating One's Life
Session Four: Overview of the Entire Training and Focusing on Our Fathers
In our last session we tried the exercise, focusing on our mothers, and so, like adjusting new glasses, then if you have any question about the mediation, about the process and so on, then we can adjust it before doing it again.
Question: Can we say that the meditation on the four immeasurables is linked to this practice we just made about our mothers?
Alex: Well, they are not completely unrelated, but the emphasis is totally different. With the four immeasurables, we are directing love and compassion, and so on, to others. Here, we’re not so much directing any feelings towards others, but rather it is more closely connected with remembering the kindness of motherly love, so remembering the kindness that we have received. It's not that the object is different. We’re still focusing on others, let's say our mother or our father or our friends, or whatever. Focal object is the same, but the way that our mind is relating to it is different: In one case, we are directing toward that object a feeling of love and compassion, etc.; and in the case of the exercise we've done, we are appreciating the beneficial things that we’ve received from them. The object is the same, but what the mind is doing with the object is different.
So, I think this illustrates very well, why Tsongkhapa emphasizes that if we want to generate a certain positive state of mind to practice through familiarity, the main thing that we need to know are these two points: What are you focused on, and how is the mind relating to it. So, here’s a good example that we have the same focal object, but a different way of relating to it. Whereas, we can have the other case, in which the object changes, but the way the mind relates to it is the same, as in doing the same exercise that we just did, but focusing on our father rather than on our mother.
So, you had a question.
Question: If you could you please clarify the points…
Alex: We need to familiarize ourselves with the steps because what we have left in the course is to now apply the same method to different objects. There’s whole long list of objects that we need to consider. Let me just list these things so that you have some idea of the scope of this practice. And then, as the time permits, we can do little pieces from each.
For each of these things, we bring to mind a picture of the person or an image representing the item. Then, if necessary, we recall the shortcomings or negative qualities of this person or item. We see that they’ve arisen due to causes and circumstances, and we decide that there is no benefit that comes from dwelling and complaining about these faults. So, then, without denying these faults or shortcomings, we put aside any further consideration of them. Then, we next recall the good qualities of the person or thing, and what good qualities we’ve gained from our interaction. And we focus on these facts with firm conviction. Then, we recognize the benefits we've derived from the person or item in terms of what we've learned. And then we focus on these facts with deep appreciation and respect. And then we try to feel inspired to develop them further. So, this is the way in which we relate to the object, and now we apply this to many different objects.
So, first category would be family members – so mother, father, brothers and sisters, and other close family members from childhood. So that could include grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. So, what we’re focusing on here is going back to childhood and looking in terms of the development of ourselves.
Then, next we focus on our native country, and region, and culture, and the religion that we were born into. That's extremely important and very relevant for anyone who particularly leaves their native religion and turns to Buddhism, for example. Very often, when they do that, they look back at their native religion and just see the negative things about that, and that makes for a lot of emotional trouble, actually, at a very deep level. And so it's very important to recognize the positive things we have gained form that native religion.
Now, here I need to bring in something that we don't find in the Buddhist teachings, but which is very helpful from one scheme of psychology called “contextual therapy.” And this has to do with the whole issue of loyalty. What's been found, at least clinically, is that there’s a great need in us, as human beings, to be loyal to something, to our background. And so what often happens is that we have “misplaced loyalty.” And so, if we are only focusing on the negative aspects of our background – let's say our native religion – and we reject that, then unconsciously what happens is that we are loyal to those negative aspects. So, if the native religion was very closed-minded, and sectarian, and we rejected it, in a way we just mimic that same thing. We become very closed-minded and sectarian about the new religion that we've taken. I mean, where it’s found more clinically would be that the parents are always saying, “You're no good; you're a loser” and “You'll never accomplish anything.” And in order to be loyal to that, the child in fact acts that out and becomes either criminal or a drug addict, or something like that; because if they are loyal to what the parents called them, then they are accepted by the parents for that. So, it works on a psychological level in that way. So being loyal to the parents, then they’ll be accepted by them. So, the therapeutic approach for this is to get the person to be able to acknowledge the positive things about their background, so that instead of being loyal to the negative aspects, they can be loyal to the positive aspects.
So, this insight in teachings from contextual therapy also has shaped the formation of this type of exercise. It’s not specifically a Buddhist teaching, but it fits very well into the Buddhist teachings in terms of the emphasis on remembering the kindness of the mothers, the motherly love. Because in the step in the seven-part cause and effect bodhichitta meditation, in which we develop this appreciation of the love that we have received and wish to repay it, what are we doing? If we translate it into the terms of contextual therapy, we are acknowledging the love that we have received and we are going to be loyal to that and extend that love not just to our next generation, but to everybody. So, it's very consistent with the Buddhist teaching.
OK, so then, the next focal object of this process is to consider all the major fields of study that we have learned. We may have learned many different things in school, but we may also have music. We may have learned sport; we may have learned many many things, so to review all the benefits that we've gained from that in order to try to integrate it all. If we learned a little bit of history, a little bit of geography in high school, that has benefited us in terms of understanding the world. It might be a little bit more challenging to see the benefit that we've gained from high school algebra, but one needs to think about that. One needs to really examine: Have I learned something from algebra? Maybe it's just a method for, when you factor an equation, to analyze a situation and try to see what were the components that caused it? It's a way of thinking that certainly could very well have benefited us. I think perhaps you could get the idea. One could look back at high school algebra and, “auuu,” say, “This was a complete waste of time; it was so boring. I hated it,” and then certainly that doesn't help to integrate that into our lives as part of our education. But, if we look at: “Well, I did learn from that a certain way of analyzing situations. I'm not denying that maybe it was boring at the time and I hated it; but nevertheless I learned something from it.”
The next area is to focus on our teachers, for both spiritual and non-spiritual topics, who have significantly contributed to our development. This is also suggested in the Buddhist teachings when we are thinking in terms of the teachers, our spiritual teachers, we also consider the teacher who taught us how to read. If we hadn't been taught how to read, then we wouldn't be able to read, obviously. And so we use reading a lot in our spiritual study as well, so the person who taught us how to read has contributed greatly to my whole development.
Then we look at our partners and our children, and in terms of this we can also extend it to all the… not just our marriage partner, if we’re married, but the various partners that we've had along the way to become married. Or if we've become divorced, the various marriage partners that we've had, and our children and grandchildren. So the first one was looking back at the family members who influenced us as a child, but now, it is those that have influenced us as more of an adult.
And then the next step is not just to consider, as we did in this previous step, our girlfriends and boyfriends that we've had romantic relations with, but also all our close friends, both past and present, focusing especially on everyone who’s loved us.
And then the next step is to think about the significant phases of our life, including both influences from health and economic factors, and from the different places that we've lived and traveled. For example, in different times of our life, we might have lived in different places or even if in the same city, in different houses. And we might have had phases in our life where we had not very much money and other phases in our life when we've had plenty of money, or phases in our life where we've faced a major sickness, or other phases of our life where we've been very healthy. So, we look at these different phases and what are the beneficial things that I have learned from that experience. I didn't actually write down here, but I think that we can include this in the fields of study that we’ve learned or perhaps make a different category, in terms of, a lot of people have a sports life, or belong to some sort of social club, or some sort of hobby like photography or something like that. This also can be, even as a subcategory of what we’ve studied and learned. Also, I was thinking about the different phases of our life, we need to include the different jobs that we've had, in terms of our employment.
Then, if we want and we have a little bit of insight into this, we can take this a step further, and also take into consideration situations from previous lives that we can infer the patterns in our present life, such as perhaps having been a monastic, or having been a hunter animal. All of this fits into or is harmonious with the Buddhist teachings of rejoicing. We rejoice in the positive things that we have done in the past, which have resulted in the good qualities that we have now. Whether we’re talking about education, or we're talking about constructive things we did in a previous lifetime that caused my current precious human rebirth, all of those are objects that we focus on with rejoicing, we're happy about it, in our Buddhist practice. So, this is quite similar to that. And if we have studied and are aware of things like astrology or numerology, we can also bring that in as well. The various benefits that we've received from the position of Venus or Mars or the moon or so on, the various aspects in our astrological chart or any number combination of our different names.
So, these are the various fields in which we apply this methodology for step one of the exercise of the process. This is like in my Developing Balanced Sensitivity: Each of the exercises could take several months to work through, because each exercise has a very large number of steps.
Step two of this process is how you actually integrate all of these things together, put it all together. At first we need to acknowledge all the pieces and gather all the pieces. Once we have done step one and we've done that quite thoroughly, you don't have to do that over and over again. Once you've gathered all that information about the positive things that we've received from all these others, from all these situations, and we develop a strong sense of appreciation for that, then what really needs to be repeated over and over again is the process of putting it all together. We need to put it all together into an integrated whole in terms of how the way that we are has arisen dependently on these positive factors, not just negative factors, as I said, from the usual therapeutic type of way, but also these positive factors. But, I'll outline that tomorrow, the process by which we integrate all of this. But this gives you a general overview of this process that we’re dealing with here. It's a very broad extensive process, but one that I’m becoming more and more firmly convinced can be very very beneficial, as a working basis for both “Dharma Lite” and “Real Thing” Dharma -- working just for this lifetime or for future lives, liberation and enlightenment.
Question: So the question is when involving ourselves in this process, at the beginning we acknowledge the shortcomings of the person or the situation, and also even if we have the firm intention not to dwell in it and not to complain about it, but just acknowledge it and then go to the appreciation of the positive things, what happened if those negative things haunt us and they come back to us as much as we don't want, and they become a hindrance in our practice? What should we do?
Alex: I assume that what we’re referring to here is a situation in which the various methods for quieting the mind are not effective enough for us – the methods being letting go, or seeing that these thoughts about them are like clouds in the sky, or letting things settle down like waves in the ocean, there are many different ways to quiet down. But if these don't work, then what do we do? This is your question. And so we can think of examples in which this might be the case.
Let's say if we were sexually or physically abused by a parent or grandparent or whatever. In this situation, and mind you, I am not a therapist so I don't have a great deal of clinical experience here, but as far as I understand, in that type of situation what probably would be best, especially from a Buddhist point of view, would be to put consideration of this person aside and work on all these other aspects in terms of the benefits that we’ve received, the love, the kindness that we've received. Because, often, when you've been abused, what is been drummed into you is that: “I'm no good; that somehow, I deserve to be abused.” And so, if we can reinforce from the other aspects here of all the benefits and kindness that I’ve received, then that can perhaps counter and give a little bit of strength to our self-image, so that then we have the strength to face in our minds this person who abused us, and be able to acknowledge positive qualities of this person as well. Gain a more positive feeling of strength and self-image and then you may have the strength to deal with your past experience that was so traumatic.
Also, someone who has been abused usually doesn't trust anybody. And so if you can learn to appreciate all the kindness and love and benefits we've received from others, that helps to counter this feeling that, “I can't trust anybody.” Another syndrome that we find sometimes with people who have been abused is that they identify so strongly with having been the victim that then they pretty much demand from others that they recompense. In other words, “Well, you have to give me more and more and more because poor me, I was the victim. So, parents, buy me a new house, indulge me, etc., etc., etc.” And this also is very destructive and so, if we can realize that we have been receiving a great deal of benefit from others, not on the basis of having been a victim, but just in general, that also might help to break this syndrome of: “I’m the victim, therefore, I deserve to be treated specially.”
We also find this type of syndrome among holocaust survivors who’ve been in concentration camps, and those who have lived through very heavy communist suppression, whether we are talking about the Soviet system or we’re talking about the Cultural Revolution in China -- that “the world owes me something, because I suffered so much,” this type of syndrome. “The world owes me something; therefore I am going to take as much as I can.” Well, if you acknowledge that we have already received a great deal, even without having to be aggressively taking – and the way that you have this aggressive capitalism now in China and so on – that this maybe can help calm down that situation. But I don’t know based on clinical experience; this is just thinking theoretically.
I think sometimes, when we analyze how you would deal with a very extreme situation, here in terms of really heavy abuse, that it gives us a little bit of perspective on how to deal with less dramatic situations that we ourselves might have experienced. You know, like my business partner cheated me in business, or my previous wife or husband cheated on me in the marriage, I mean, these things are less grave then having been sexually abused or a victim of the Cultural Revolution.
Now, let us then apply this process toward our father. We did it toward out mother; let’s apply it to our father.
I think that it is particularly important to work with mother and father, because, especially as we grew up – I mean unless of course our parents were divorced and we were raised by a single parent, and they died or something like that – but, in any case, these are usually the strongest influences that we have had. So it's important to have a more balanced view of what have we gained from them. And even if we were raised by a single parent, or one of our parents died when we were young or they were divorced and one of those parents didn't have very much to do with us, we can also try to see what have I learned from that, what benefit have I had from that. For instance, it might have caused me to take a little bit more responsibility in my life, if, let's say, one of my parents died when I was a young teenager and I had to sort of grow up more quickly. And although this process is fairly easy to do with someone with whom we've had generally a very positive and good relationship, it is far more beneficial to try to do this with someone that we've had a difficult relationship with.
And, to go back to what the previous question was, and if there is somebody that is too difficult to work with, skip that person until you get a little bit stronger in this practice and then come back. I think that underlies our appreciation of the importance that's placed in all the love, compassion and bodhichitta meditations in Buddhism. That the foundation for it is equanimity – that unless you can clear your mind of attraction, repulsion – repulsion here being hatred of this person that we had the difficult relationship with – and indifference, unless we have that foundation, we're not going to be able to direct love, compassion, etc. in the full Mahayana way, which is directing it equally to everybody. And even more, it underlines the significance of the fact that before trying to practice on the advance scope of motivation, if we look at the scheme of the graded pathway minds – the lam-rim – that before this advanced level of Mahayana, working in terms of love, compassion, help everybody, that we have the intermediate scope, in which we are working on overcoming – at least to a certain extent – our disturbing emotions: attachment, desire, greed, hostility, and so on. Unless we have a basis in that, it’s going to be very hard to accomplish this first step in the advanced level practices of equanimity. To just say, “Well, you know, be free of attachment, repulsion,” etc., by thinking in terms of how we’ve had all sorts of different types of relations with everybody; well, unless you have weakened your attachment and repulsion earlier with the exercises and practices on the intermediate scope, that’s going to be very difficult, to just attack that for the first time on the level of the practices of equanimity. We have to take quite seriously the fact that these are graded stages and there are steps and there’s a purpose for that. It’s not just made like that for no reason.
OK, so let’s work with our father.
First, we need to establish the container, the mental and emotional container for the exercise, which is the quiet mind and the caring heart. Quiet down, and then develop a sense of, “I’m a human being, I want to be happy and not to be unhappy, and have feelings, and so I care about that, so I'm going to try to deal with that.” That's the container within which we do any of these exercises.
So, first we quiet down, and the simplest method, as we explained before, is just sort of let go. As in “throw out the garbage,” don't just keep it forever, in the house. Flush the toilet. And then the caring attitude. “I'm a human being, like everybody else. I have feelings, like everybody else. I like and I want to be happy; I don't want to be unhappy. So, I care about that. I want to take care of it and try to bring about more happiness. It's not that I have to earn it, or deserve it, or be given permission to be happy. It’s just the natural direction to go in, like a plant growing toward the sun.”
Then we think of our fathers. We can picture him in our minds; that’s very good. If not, don't worry about it. And try to first of all recall the shortcomings and negative qualities, and try to understand how they have arisen due to causes and circumstances in terms of his past and the times in which he grew up, etc.
And decide that there is no benefit in dwelling on these faults, and, without denying them, put them aside. If we feel that it’s helpful to forgive our father for his faults, fine; but the whole issue of forgiveness or not forgiveness is really not an issue in Buddhism. It doesn't matter whether we forgive or not forgive. But, if that's helpful, forgiveness is fine. It comes from a different conceptual framework from the Buddhist one, but no harm. Forgiveness has more to do with our own feelings; the shortcomings of the father is just a fact, it’s just neutral. From the Buddhist point of view, rather than forgiveness, what we need is understanding.
And then we recall the good qualities of our father, and what good qualities we might have gained from our interaction with our father. And here we have to think of not only what good qualities I might have learned from my father, but also what good qualities I could learn from him, whether or not he’s alive now. And we focus on these facts of these good qualities, what we've learned, with firm conviction that it's true.
Then, we recognize the benefits that we've derived from our fathers in terms of what we’ve learned, what we’ve gained, and we try to focus on that with deep appreciation and respect. We try to feel inspired to develop these qualities further. Inspired by their examples. So we feel uplifted, brightened, energized. We can imagine yellow light coming from our father, from his heart, and entering our heart and filling us with inspiration and strength to develop these qualities. His gift to us.
And now our mother joins him, and we recall all her good qualities and what we’ve learned from that, and yellow light comes from her as well, to us, and fills us with inspiration to develop those further. Her gift to us as well. With the combination of these two lights, feel uplifted and brightened to develop these things more and more. Feel that, filled with light, we shine with this light, and are able to inspire everyone else to develop these qualities as well.
We let that sink in. Slowly return to our usual states. Again, we think whatever understanding, whatever positive force, positive experience we’ve gained from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for being able truly to help others as fully as possible.
Just one last comment here for those who might be familiar with certain types of tantra meditations in Buddhism. Perhaps you’ve noticed we're following the exact same structure here, but rather then working with a Buddha-figure, like Chenrezig, and we’re filled with compassion, the yellow light, and then we shine with that compassion and send it out to everyone; here, we’re working in terms of the more ordinary sources of these qualities that we’re received from various people and various aspects of our life. For most of us, this will be far more accessible then working with the idealized form of it, in the aspect of a Buddha-figure. So it could be a stepping stone to that type of practice.
We’ve done the dedication so we can end here.
Tomorrow, we'll work with some of these other categories of objects from which we’ve received benefit and have good qualities. But for your own practice, it would be good to expand what we’ve done here with other family members that have influenced us since we’ve grown up. So that in the end, we imagine our whole family around us, everybody sending yellow light, and feel the integrated whole of all the wonderful things that we have benefited from, from our family. This is really our heritage.
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