It’s difficult for me to believe that in just five days, our time in India will be finished. After nearly ten engaging and transformative months, the time has come for us to leave- a good opportunity to apply all the knowledge of impermanence and non-attachment we’ve been practicing! I feel blessed beyond belief to have had this time to grow closer to Giulia, to myself, and to this country that simultaneously confounds and fascinates me.
We have had the great fortune to spend most of the last two weeks receiving teachings from two highly realized beings: HH the Dalai Lama, and more recently Tenzin Palmo, one of the first western women to be ordained as a nun in the early 1960s, who spent twelve years in solitary retreat in a Himalayan cave.
Fortunately for us, since coming down from the mountain, she has worked tirelessly to share her insights, as well as to construct a nunnery to redress some of the discrimination that nuns have faced (I told you that institutional Buddhism is not always as great as we’d like it to be!). It’s difficult not only to summarize the main point of her two days of teachings (because it was all important) but also the feeling that we had while being in her presence. There is an undeniable power about being with someone who incarnates the wisdom we’ve only read about in books. Her radiance, peace, and humor confirmed for me that this is the effect of the dharma when put into practice; when she looked me in the eye, I felt she invited me to actualize that same potential within myself.
One thing she said that struck me deeply was that ‘negative’ emotions and ignorance are not such a bad thing. In the same way that ice is liquid water trapped in a different form, the energy of our afflictive emotions actually contains a vast wisdom, if only it can be transformed. The energy that gives rise to jealousy, anger, and pride is actually wisdom that has become perverted. If we understand this, then the war against these supposedly undesirable states of mind ceases, and we come to see that obstacles can actually become the path itself.
This resonated with me for a number of reasons. For one, like many people interested in spirituality, I had hoped that practices like meditation would allow me to transcend all the pettiness and egotism within myself. It took me awhile to realize how I had used spirituality in the service of trying to create a better me, an attempt that was fundamentally ego-based (the subject of Choose Your Metaphor). When the negative parts of myself would not just ‘go away’ (even after diligent practice) as I would have hoped, I despaired, and thought there was something wrong with me if I couldn’t ‘get it.’
But as I’ve seen again and again, the struggle and the ‘failures’ and the ‘obstacles’ are what make us grow. As I discovered working in Buddha Garden, the ‘weeds’ become the fertilizer to grow something ‘useful.’ We think that spiritual practice will deliver us to a state beyond all our junk, where we can be perpetually blissed out, unaffected by the stuff that other people have to deal with. As I read in a great little book called What Makes You Not a Buddhist, what we don’t realize is that happiness is not the goal of the path. It may come along the way, but as long as we’re basing our practice on the expectation that someday we will be only happy, we will continue to be frustrated when the inevitable unhappiness and challenge comes along. As Chogyam Trungpa put it, the craving for nirvana without samsara is just another function of the samsaric mind’s tendency to try and isolate one thing to the exclusion of its opposite. The truth is that both happiness and unhappiness come and go; the desirable as well as the painful are equally impermanent.
What Tenzin Palmo was trying to get us to see is that the things that happen to us are neither good nor bad; it’s all in what we do with it. But we won’t be open to the unpleasant and undesirable if we impose on ourselves the concept that spiritual practice is about eliminating the obstacles.
There is no better proof for this than our very presence here. In December 2010, Giulia and I were shocked and saddened by the Canadian government’s refusal to grant her a working holiday visa for the second year in a row (this time because she photocopied her signature). We had intended to spend 2011 in Montreal living and working together, but life had thrown a wrench in this plan. So we started thinking about other options, since being unable to work in a foreign country would be a difficult position for Giulia to be in. We realized that coming to India would not only be a cheaper way of living than in the west, but would also allow us to pursue and deepen our spiritual practice. As soon as we decided this, helping hands came to encourage us along the way, including approval for my grant to teach in Auroville and an unexpected inheritance from Giulia’s grandmother who passed away last year.
And being here has allowed us to see how it works the same on the internal plane as well. I’ve mentioned here that our relationship has been through some tough times, including a period where we nearly split up. But when the underlying love we share was allowed to melt the solid blocks of pride and jealousy we had trapped ourselves in, we discovered a deeper level of connection and communion than we had ever known before. More than that, those difficult times have softened me, and allowed me to see that what a suffering person needs most is simple recognition and empathy, not a formula for how to fix themselves. When we do face difficult moments, it’s hard to remember that it’s a gift. But looking back on it, we can clearly see the blessing.
This is probably one of the most difficult things in the world to do. But maybe that’s why they call it spiritual practice. If we have to devote years or even decades to develop artistic or athletic abilities, what makes us think that taming the mind will require any less effort?
Oh, and Giulia just received news two days ago that she’s been finally approved for permanent residence in Canada! Whether this is a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing remains to be seen 🙂