Eightfold Path

Questioning Habit Energy

By Jack Lawlor

Each day, our culture sends innumerable messages urging us to consume. If we are modestly observant, we can see that many human consumption patterns threaten the air we breathe, the forests we admire, the other species we profess to love, and even the ability of less fortunate people to earn a living wage under adequate working conditions. And yet we struggle to curb our desire to consume even more, even when we've sensed that compulsive consuming thwarts-rather than enhances-our ability to live happily and to be truly free.

Our habit energies know us well, and we often feel stuck in them. Think of all the energy we expend on this never-ending, never satisfied cycle of appeasing our wants! The Irish novelist, Flann O'Brien, found a kind of humorous pathos in our tendency to be recidivist victims of desire. In his brilliant novel, The Third Policeman, O'Brien's characters are condemned to an eternity of repeating the same patterns, circulating the same emotional landscape over and over, by their unacknowledged grasping. In Buddhist terms, O'Brien was describing manifestations of karma.

The teachings of the historic Buddha look deeply into the connection between desire and suffering. The First Noble Truth sets forth the Buddha's observation that life contains suffering and unease; the Second Noble Truth observes that grasping and clinging are often a direct cause of this suffering. We are invited to experiment with these insights. We may well find that it is unhealthy to incessantly feed the flames of desire, yet we do. We often give in to compulsion in an effort to appease it, only to find that a fresh compulsion arises. If we give way to a fraction of the messages we receive urging us to consume, or if we give way to every desire that arises in us, we will find ourselves spent and exhausted. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the Second and Third Realizations of the Great Beings candidly assess the relationship between compulsive desire and our experience of unhappiness:

... more desire brings more suffering. All hardships in daily life arise from greed and desire. Those with little desire and ambition are able to relax; their bodies and minds are free from entanglement.

... the human mind is always searching for possessions and never feels fulfilled. This causes unwholesome actions to ever increase. Bodhisattvas, however, always remember the principle of having few desires. They live a simple life in peace, in order to practice the Way, and consider the realization of understanding as their only career.

The good news experienced by the Buddha is that freedom from destructive habit energy is possible, and that the way is an Eightfold Path of appropriate view, thinking, mindfulness, speech, action, diligence, concentration, and livelihood-practices that enable us to dwell in freedom during this very lifetime. These teachings are known as the Third and Fourth Noble Truths. For most of us, liberation from compulsive behavior does not arise from intellectually grasping the Buddha's analysis or memorizing the various lists that summarize the Buddha's teachings. Instead we make real progress in liberating ourselves from compulsive behavior when we directly experience the fruit of the teaching.

We are fortunate to practice in a mindfulness tradition that emphasizes the centeredness and peace provided by conscious breathing. Everyone who has experimented wholeheartedly with sensing and feeling the breath has tasted the freedom from anxiety, fear, and compulsion afforded by just a few moments of dwelling in the present moment. Conscious breathing enhances our capacity to be aware and alert, not rutted or stuck on autopilot. This experience enables us to stop—samatha—and look deeply—vipassana. Taking refuge in the island of mindfulness in the midst of confused, chaotic, and turbo-charged contemporary circumstances enables us to be the calm person in the cultural boat of consumerism. When we practice samatha, we find a respite from our habit energy of consuming in order to fill the aching void we sometimes find within ourselves, particularly when we feel tired, stressed, or unappreciated.

Taking refuge in our breath in the midst of doubt and confusion provides a moment of freedom and the option to follow the road usually not taken. If the desire to consume frivolously arises, we can recognize its emergence and disengage from it for a moment by enjoying our breathing. Rather than be swept away by habit energy, we can pause and observe what is actually going on. We can take a moment to reflect on how our habit of giving way to compulsion often gives way to greater complications, weariness, and suffering. And we have an opportunity to look deeply into the causes and conditions of our desire, in order to transform at the base our habit of compulsive acquisitiveness. A complete mindfulness practice involves both stopping and looking deeply in this way.

I have found that moments of desire are a precious opportunity to practice an insight meditation inspired by the chapters on Right View and Right Thinking in Thich Nhat Hanh's book, The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching. There, Thay essentially invites us to ask ourselves four questions: "Am I sure?" "What am I doing?" "Hello, habit energy! What are you asking me to do without my knowledge?" and "Where is the bodhicitta, the mind of love, in myself and those I am with, and how do I nourish it?" For me, these questions are a kind of natural koan that arises in the context of daily life. The moment of freedom provided by our practice of conscious breathing gives us the chance to ask these questions when confronted by desire.

We are constantly urged to consume. When we are surrounded by the Sunday morning paper, gleaming with colorful advertisements, the thought arises in us that we need a new car. The day provides a wonderful opportunity to remain home, alone or with loved ones, but the seed of new car ownership is also arising. We breathe, smile, and say hello to the thought, perhaps breathing through it to sense its marrow. I find it is helpful to ask Thay's question, "Am I sure? Am I sure I need a new car? Don't I already have one with only 114,000 miles? Am I sure I want to disrupt the grace and ease of a lazy Sunday morning at home with the family, the funny papers, and Dave Barry's humor column? And aren't car dealerships closed on Sundays?"

Nonetheless, the day will come when the air conditioning breaks down for the second time, making it uneconomical to engage in further auto repairs. I may find myself at the dealership, being magnetically attracted to the Behemoth showroom. Thay's second question arises then, like a guided meditation, "What am I doing? I came here to buy a replacement for my 1991 Ford Taurus and I find myself eye-level with the floorboards of new Gigantors. The family, the dogs, and I can make do with much less. What am I doing? Why? Am I about to affiliate with a symbol rather than a reality? If the goal is to vacation with the family in a natural setting, why not go home and make plans to do that rather than purchase a symbol that proclaims that some day I may get around to doing it?"

If we look deeply into our consumption patterns, we may find the same theme recurring beneath the surface of our behavior. "Am I trying to make a statement rather than 'walk the talk'? Am I trying to find an easy way to affiliate with an image rather than live genuinely and free? How much time, money, and energy are spent on this kind of behavior? How many hours of extra work?" This is Thay's third question: "Hell o, habit energy. What are you asking me to do without my knowledge?"

Oftentimes, when we are mindful and awake, the mere recognition of habit energy will drain it of much of its strength. On the other hand, some of our habit energies are quite strong, having been well-nourished and accommodated for many years. When strong habit energies are encountered, we can also nourish what is strong and healthy in us. For example, many Americans have strong seeds that value equality and fairness. When we weigh our consumer tastes against the air pollution and resource depletion that results from our consuming, our desires may be tempered by empathy for other people and species who share our desires to breathe air and drink water that is as clear and unpolluted as possible. "Where is the bodhicitta in myself, and in those I am with?" we might ask. This is Thay's fourth question: "What is the best way to nourish the mind of love?"

How do we nouri sh what is best in ourselves and others? How do we water the seeds of compassion? If our insight meditation proceeds to this question, the interdependence of self and other becomes clear, and the Dharma door to taking refuge in Sangha is thrown open. Individually, we feel weak in the face of habit energies, especially those that are fed with the vigor of our mass culture. Collectively, as a Sangha, we can slowly build what Thay and Father Daniel Berrigan call a "community of resistance" to societal and individual habit energies. Practicing alone, our efforts may seem minor and insignificant. Convening regularly as a Sangha to sit in meditation and explore the Mindfulness Trainings, we know that we are part of a collective effort to transform suffering at the base.

The practice has both individual and collective manifestations. A few years ago, I read a little cartoon showing two meditators sitting beside each other on their cushions. One turned to the other and said, "Can you watch my breath for me? I have to feed the parking meter." Of course, neither the Buddha nor Thay--nor monks and nuns, nor the local Sangha--can watch our breath for us. They cannot practice samatha for us, or ask Thay's four insightful questions about our habit energies. Nonetheless, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha serve us as a kind of collective compass that helps in moments of doubt and confusion. And even when doubt and confusion arise, with a few moments of conscious breathing, we can take refuge in the sanctuary of mindfulness. Taking refuge in this practice in the midst of temptation, habit energy, and confusion can provide us the opportunity to ask a few very important questions about what we are actually doing. Most practitioners find that stopping and looking deeply can free us from the compulsions that rob us of our time, our freedom, and our happiness. We can learn from small successes in taking the road not usually traveled. We build upon these small successes and pretty soon, we're following the very Eightfold Path the Buddha spoke of as the means to transform our suffering.

As the founder of our lineage, Lieu Quan, observed in his enlightenment verse, "For the realization of True Emptiness to be possible, wisdom and action must go together."

Dharma teacher Jack Lawlor, True Direction, practices with Lakeside Buddha Sangha in Evanston, Illinois, and leads retreats throughout the American Midwest.

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The Fifth Mindfulness Training

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into how I consume the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society and the Earth.

Cultivating Our Blue Sky Nature

Skillful Means for Emotional Healing

By John Bell

In the mid-1990s, John Bell began leading workshops on handling stress for the young people and staff in the YouthBuild programs throughout the United States. At the workshop, John introduced them to meditation and to methods of emotional healing.

John has been exploring ways of combining meditation and methods of emotional healing for many years. In one pivotal insight, he noticed that feelings often come up when sitting in meditation and that if we pay specific attention to them, either then or immediately after sitting, they will naturally release themselves and became conscious doors for liberation.

Several years ago John began offering an annual Day of Mindfulness focusing on mindfulness and emotional healing for folks from the greater Boston area Sanghas.

Each year, more people attend. In the fall of 2003, in Berkeley, California, Dharma teacher Lyn Fine and John teamed up to offer a weekend retreat on the topic. Another one is being offered this June, in Connecticut.

This article offers an invitation to use emotions as an object of meditation. It highlights some of the methods John uses to uncover, hold, and transform difficult feelings.

Feelings

There are some things we know about feelings.  They are impermanent, always changing. They often connect us most directly with ourselves. Typically feelings are problematic, a source of confusion and suffering. Feelings are usually riddled with our judgments—I should feel this way, or, I shouldn’t feel that way; this feeling is bad, that one good. In the midst of the confusion we try our best to handle them. Often we wind up suppressing or repressing the feeling that is present, or perhaps acting out the feeling inappropriately. This leads to more inner turmoil and distress. Hurtful experiences, plus our judgments about the feelings that accompany those experiences, soon lead us to feel that there is something wrong, or that “I’m not okay.” This negative self-judgment obscures our ultimate nature.

Five Practices for Handling Feelings

In a Dharma talk reprinted in the Fall 2000 Mindfulness Bell, Thich Nhat Hanh teaches five main practices for handling feelings, each of which is intimately connected to the others. As a brief review, the five are:

  • "Blue sky": Ground ourselves in the ultimate The blue sky is a metaphor for the nature of things, ultimate reality, our home. It is always there behind the local, historical dimension that we get conditioned to think is reality. The blue sky is the is-ness, the ok-ness. To describe it, we use words like “spacious, free, happy, connected, oneness, well-being, no separation, no separate self ”. Each of us has experienced our blue sky nature many, many times. Perhaps in music, love-making, nature, a moment of being “awake.” In C.S. Lewis’s happy phrasing, “surprised by joy!”

  • "Noting": Learn to observe feelings coming and going. After establishing ourselves solidly in the breath, we allow the different feelings to arise and fall away like waves on the We can use helpful phrases like “feeling sad” (or, “angry, jealous, fearful”, and so on), or “this feeling too” to whatever comes. Relating back to the “blue sky” practice, we can be aware of different feelings like clouds moving across the blue sky.

  • "Change the peg": Move attention off suffering, onto something positive or interesting, or at least In older methods of carpentry, pieces of wood were attached with a peg. Sometimes a rotten peg would have to be replaced by pounding a new one into the same hole. Originally taught by the Buddha, Thay uses this metaphor to point to the many tools at our disposal for “watering the positive seeds.” When a negative feeling seems to dominate our awareness, we can deliberately choose to get our attention off our troubles by reading a poem, listening to music, taking a walk, reciting a sutra, caring for another person. This list is unlimited.

  • "Taking the hand of suffering": Embracing what Accepting, befriending feelings. Thay urges us not to treat our sadness or unhappiness as an enemy. “Dear anger, I recognize you. Come, stay with me. I know you are suffering. I know how to care for you.” The practice is to just be with the feeling, not get overwhelmed or swept away, and not run away. This is a variation of “noting.” “So this is what sadness feels like. Hmm. Very interesting.” Kind and gentle.

  • "Look deeply”: Examine the roots of With persistent feelings that seem to have a deep hold on us and won’t go away, we can practice exploring the roots of distressed feelings. In my experience, the roots are either in repeated experiences of hurt beginning early in our lives, or in a severe incident of trauma or hurt at any vulnerable moment along the way. What is helpful is to have a friend listen warmly and attentively while we explore the past. Typically tears and fears and laughter and anger will accompany the release of deep and long-lasting hurts. The emotional release will allow understanding to arise. “Oh, that’s why I have always felt like that!” Insight.

Each of these five practices is deep. Each can be greatly elaborated and extended over time. Each can be practiced individually or in community. We can take feelings as an object of meditation. Our Sanghas can help us practice emotional healing. We can learn to deliberately deepen safety to explore feelings. We can create space to allow for feelings. We can be internally attentive to our judgments about feelings. Over time, we can develop comfort and skill with any and all of the five practices mentioned above. Here, let us focus on two practices, the first and the last, “Blue Sky” and “Looking Deeply.”

Blue Sky Practice

In the Spring of 2001 at a retreat called “Mindfulness and Emotional Healing” for the Boston area Sanghas, Order of Interbeing member Joanne Sunshower and I introduced a “Blue Sky Practice.” We started by inviting everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s happy and familiar song, “Blue Skies”:

Blue skies, smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies do I see
Blue birds singing a song
Nothing but blue birds from now on

We talked about our blue sky nature and how feelings and other mind states are like weather passing through the blue sky. If we identify with the weather we can easily forget that the blue sky is always there and holds all weather, and that weather is temporary. Finding ways of touching where we live, our ultimate nature, our blue skies, is a deep and useful practice.

To explore this we asked people to break into pairs, with each taking an uninterrupted ten minute turn to tell the listener about times we experienced blue sky. We asked them to think of this as a two-person Dharma discussion, listening without interruption.

After breathing in silence, the speaker might remember a time he or she felt whole, connected, completely loved, one with everything, in touch with unlimited compassion, or other aspects of the ultimate dimension. Or she might look around and touch the blue sky in the present.

We asked the listener to assume the attitude of Buddha. How would Buddha look at the speaker? How would Buddha listen? What attitude would Buddha have toward the speaker? These questions can be helpful when we remember that what Buddha would be seeing is the Buddha nature of the speaker.

In sharing about the experience afterwards, practitioners reported delight in being able to bring memories of blue sky times into present awareness, or to simply look, listen, and feel the blue skyness of

the moment. For some, tears flowed surprisingly quickly when they turned their attention toward the ultimate reality. Basking in the warm attention of the listener seemed to help the process. This practice has elicited similar responses each time I have introduced it over the past several years.

Practice of Looking Deeply at Suffering

Grounding oneself in the ultimate dimension can form a solid base for exploring our pain in the relative dimension. The Blue Sky practice can form an anchor. Repeatedly, my experience has been that when I can listen deeply to another person for a long enough time, the person often spontaneously moves toward looking deeply at the roots of their pain. Why do we do this so reliably? My own practice over the years convinces me that it is a natural process.

Our inherent Buddha nature gets obscured by hurt, oppression, misinformation, lack of information, family conditioning, inherited cultural beliefs, and a million other forms of harm. Such accumulated hurts shape our patterns of perception, ideas of self, and other mental formations. Mindfulness meditation, practiced with diligence and persistence, can eventually penetrate these veils and once again put a person in touch with the freedom and equanimity of the blue sky. Paying attention to feelings, looking at suffering, is not hard to do in a mindfulness context. It is a necessary and inevitable process along the path of liberation. Recasting the Four Noble Truths to focus on emotional hindrances might sound something like this:

There is suffering. Here we are speaking of emotional distress and physical hurt. Buddha named suffering as the first truth to help us acknowledge and accept suffering rather than deny or avoid it. All Western therapeutic schools likewise state that healing begins when a person faces the pain. “It hurts.”

There is a cause of suffering. Buddha taught that the cause is ignorance of reality, is thinking there is independent existence, is not understanding the impermanent nature of things and trying to hold on to what must change. Wrapped around these big issues for any individual are the scars of untold layers of hurtful experiences—things that happened to the person because he or she is born into a whole world full of suffering and falseness. Things like being unloved, scorned, rejected, not valued, humiliated, abused, disrespected, mis-educated, oppressed, ignored, not welcomed, lied to, mistreated, made to feel powerless, misled, physically hurt, pampered into numbness, not accepted, insulted, demeaned, or made to be afraid.

There is a way out of suffering.  For Buddha, understanding the nature of reality meant liberation from suffering. Along the emotional healing path, increased freedom from suffering comes as a person heals past trauma, reevaluates the past, sheds old patterns of thought and behavior, and gradually identifies with a healthier sense of self. As many people have noted, one has to have a strong, integrated ego in order to transcend the ego and move to the deeper insights that Buddha taught. Buddhist psychology speaks of purification as a step towards liberation.

The practice of the path is the means for ending suffering. Buddha put forth a comprehensive Eightfold Path—a set of moral guidelines, concentration practices, conceptual directions, and practices for daily living that, if followed diligently, can lead to insight and the transformation of suffering. What might be some elements of the path to end emotional suffering? Here are ones that I have found useful and consistent with Buddhist teachings.

  • Cultivate a noble view of human beings. Know that every human being, by nature, is Buddha I use this description: By nature, human beings are

    • inherently valuable

    • deeply caring

    • enormously intelligent

    • immensely powerful

    • infinitely creative

    • naturally cooperative

    • innately joyful

Whenever I’ve asked a group of people to repeat these words out loud, the tone rises immediately. Why? Because the words reach for the noblest of human characteristics, and most of us intuitively know that we are these things, if we could only be free of what holds us back. I could say that by nature, human beings are impermanent, aimless, and empty, but these words don’t instantly resonate with most people in the West like the first set of words!

  • Listen deeply. What are the elements of deep listening? We practice these in our Sanghas.

    • Hold the person in high regard; visualize their Buddha nature.

    • Treat the person with complete respect.

    • Be present and

    • Assume the person knows best how to lead his or her life.

    • Communicate acceptance and lack of judgment.

    • Give your undivided attention, focused concentration, and mindful

    • Encourage awareness and recognition of feelings; recognize that release is a key component of healing.

Deep listening is a powerful tool for healing. Our listening can improve with practice. Invoking Avalokiteshvara’s name states: “We aspire to learn your way of listening in order to help relieve suffering in the world. You know how to listen in order to understand. We invoke your name in order to practice listening with all our attention and openheartedness. We will sit and listen without any prejudice, without any judging or reacting. We will sit and listen so attentively that we will be able to hear what the other person is saying and also what is being left unsaid. We know that just by listening deeply we already alleviate a great deal of pain and suffering in the other person.”

  • Hold some understanding of the impact of distress. Hurts lead a person to develop self-defense patterns of thought, feelings, and behaviors. Buddhist psychology calls them “kleshas”—powerful reactions that drive our behavior. Initially developed as survival mechanisms to deal with the hurt, these patterns take on a life of their own and persist long after the hurtful experiences have passed. In other words, the negative seeds have received too much water! They tend to control our vital energies and obscure our inherent nature. The most persistent of these patterns are chronic—that is, they operate almost all the time and a person tends to identify with them. Think of someone who is chronically angry, or chronically depressed, or always ready to criticize any good idea, or can be counted on to be the center of attention, or is painfully shy.

  • Practice separating a person from his or her patterns. Always view that person as wholesome and worthwhile, deserving nothing less than complete Always view their patterns as a map of the ways they were mistreated or hurt; not an inherent part of their being, but an add-on. Nurturing compassion is another form of this practice. For example, Thay suggests we practice visualizing our father or our mother as a six-year-old child. Even if we have suffered greatly from our parents, seeing them as younger can open our hearts— we might see them as innocent and pure-hearted, or we might see them already hurt at an early age, and set up to pass that hurt on to us.

  • Welcome feelings. One level of healing happens as a person releases the emotional distresses that are the glue of the patterns. Crying, laughing, shivering, feeling hot with anger are outward signs of the release of distress feelings. This release is natural to all human beings, as can be observed most readily in small children: when hurt they cry. In my experience, most people can learn how to accept and express their pent up feelings appropriately rather than suppress them or act them out. Dealing with feelings with mindfulness is a learned practice. We can learn to feel them without getting overwhelmed by them or identifying ourselves with them.

  • Practice appreciation and validation. “Violence never ceases by violence, but only by love,” said the Buddha. Our hurts have caused us to direct huge amounts of internal violence towards ourselves in the form of self-criticisms, low expectations, lack of self-worth, and so on. Such internal negative chatter cannot withstand a steady dose of self-appreciation. Repeatedly telling yourself things like “I forgive myself,” or “You are fine just the way you are,” or “I’ll never give up on you,” done with mindfulness and persistence, can bring healing tears of release and joy. Loving kindness, or metta meditation points us to our inherent well-being: may I be filled with love and compassion; may my body be peaceful and at ease; may I be safe from fear and harm; may I be happy; may I be healthy. Directed towards oneself, metta is a form of self-appreciation that serves to counter the sometimes constant drone of negative self-talk. Directed towards others, it becomes an effective practice of appreciating others that also has a deep healing effect on oneself.

  • Hold a direction towards our inherent nature. Here is where we circle back to the Blue Sky Regular practice of noticing the presence of the good, the beautiful, the true builds our strength and can put us increasingly in touch with the reality of our inherent nature. In a Dharma talk (November 25, 1999, Plum Village), Thay said: “To allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the negative feeling when we touch what is wrong, is not a good thing to do. Therefore we should…recognize the positive elements for our nourishment and healing.”

Skillful Means

Of course, all of these practices, concepts, and methods are simply skillful means, as are all Buddhist teachings—potentially helpful aids along the path of liberation. As layers of suffering are released, practices change or are sloughed off. Eventually, or at least for longer and longer moments, we won’t have to practice metta, we will be living metta. We won’t have to practice listening deeply, we will be present. We won’t have to practice welcoming feelings, we will accept whatever comes. And so on. But along the way, such practices are powerful compasses to help steer us through the prevailing fog of falsehood. So, in addition to sitting in silence, we may also have to let ourselves do a lot of crying and laughing, and feeling scared and angry. We can become very skillful at providing the safety, clarity, boundaries, encouragement, and practices for our Sangha sisters and brothers to do mindfulness-based emotional healing.  All it takes is practice.

John Bell, True Wonderful Wisdom, practices with the Mountain Bell Sangha in Belmont, Massachusetts. He is the founding director of the YouthBuild Academy for Transformation, which provides the tools, insights, and training that promote youth transformation. He has thirty-eight years of experience in the youth field as teacher, counselor, community organizer, and parent of two.

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