One of our sangha members arrived at class this week saying that she had just spent the morning stripping. I supplied a line of ‘ta da da da TUM, chicka boom, chicka boom’ strip tease music, and she laughed, then amended her sentence to include that she had been stripping the altar at her church in preparation for Good Friday.
After meditation I read from our next-up weekly Pocket Pema Chodron, Lesson #86 titled ‘A Process of Surrendering,’ in which she says, ‘The journey to enlightenment involves shedding, not collecting...like taking off layer after layer of clothes until we are completely naked with nothing to hide.’ Wow, with two prompts about disrobing, how could we not make this the focus of our discussion?
The word ‘surrender’ has such a negative connotation. Only losers surrender in battle after all, and no one wants to be a loser. But there are some losses that benefit us and the act of surrender in the context of our own spiritual exploration has great value. Let’s be clear that we are not surrendering to another person, letting their will dictate our behavior. What we surrender is the tight fear that holds us back from being authentic in our lives, the layers that keep our Buddha Nature hidden.
The mention of disrobing reminded me of my piece, The Dance of the Seven Veils -- a process of becoming aware of how we hide behind layers of belief about who we are. We often hold ourselves to be the labels we have been given and have taken on. We let these layers define us and limit us. It is perceiving these layers of identity that happens with insight meditation practice. Once perceived, we can see beyond the layers. We shift our understanding of who we are. So it is a strip, but it isn’t a tease. Because underneath the layers we discover and allow to be known the self that is beyond label, beyond fear, beyond the need to prove anything to anyone.
When we sit in meditation our minds have the capacity to become spacious so that whatever arises is easier to see. We can see the tight knots of fear-based patterns, our defenses that we think protect us but in fact just keep us from sensing our deep connection with all of life. When we begin seeing, then the patterns begin to dissolve and we are able to let go of them. It’s important that we understand that this disrobing process, this surrender, is a letting go, not a pushing or tearing away. These patterns are to be held gently, compassionately up to the light of awareness. The light itself does the dissolving. To rip them to bits and throw them away is just another reactive destructive pattern that creates more dense layers that obscure rather than release.
So our surrender is an ongoing process. We surrender our spiritual striving, our ambition to become perfect beings. We are not trying to trade in one set of layers or labels for another that might be seen as nicer, holier, better. We surrender our striving when we become aware of it, noting it to be just another constricting fear. What are we afraid of? We fear disappearing if we disrobe from our layers. We fear that we are not an integral part of all that is, not an expression of the oneness of being.
Metta practice is very helpful for revealing our deep unbreakable connection to all that is. We send metta (loving kindness) to ourselves and to all beings. Developing awareness of the quality of universal kindness and compassion allows us to sense that we are also held by it, that we are loved, have always been loved, will always be loved. No matter what.
With a balance of insight and metta, we can begin to surrender the self-hatred that is inherent in so many of our patterns, that then ricochets against others as well.
Our Buddha nature is not on some distant mountain top but sitting quietly within us, waiting patiently to be heard.
Gratitude for Silence
Following up on my recent review of The Dhamma Brothers, last night I saw the movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love. I imagine most people have read the book or seen the movie or both, so I won’t bother commenting on anything other than how the section in the Indian ashram reminded me how glad I am that I go on SILENT retreats!
Although retreatants at the ashram could take a vow of silence and would wear a badge saying “I am in silence,’ that vow didn’t look to be the norm. When Elizabeth tried to sit quietly she was constantly accosted by a soon-to-be friend Richard, a gruff American who took to calling her ‘Groceries’ because of the amount of food on her plate. This labeling didn’t feel the least bit endearing to me, nor to her, and she reacted defensively to his running commentary on her shortcomings and misunderstandings. Yes, he did soften up, show his own vulnerability and became a friend, but I don’t understand how he felt he had the right to invade her quiet moments at every turn with his brutal instruction.
So this is a little note of gratitude to Spirit Rock and all meditation centers where silence on retreats is the norm rather than an individual choice. When we are freed of the need to interact, either through words, gestures or eye contact, with other people, then our spiritual journey is authentically our own. We have instruction from teachers, guidance at appointed times or whenever we request it, but our co-retreatants, our sangha sibling, honor our practice by giving us space and having their own. In this way, we practice together, inspiring through our dedication to a time-honored tradition.
After our disrobing discussion in class earlier in the day, watching this movie and seeing Richard’s barrage of intrusions into Elizabeth’s experience felt like watching psychic attacks, ripping off her layers instead of honoring her process. It had a violence to it and was totally inappropriate.
In class we had just been talking about our unique spiritual paths, and how none of us can walk another’s path. We can perhaps suggest taking along water, a compass, a good pair of shoes, etc. We could at rough moments offer a cup of tea and a listening ear. This is the role of sangha. But the spiritual trail we choose and the way we hike it is our own journey.
We took turns talking about our own journeys, what nurtures our spiritual sense of well-being and what inspires us. You might take a few minutes now to check in with your own journey. Whatever it is, or isn’t, it is yours and yours alone. It is only with respect that we can support each other, giving room to grow in our own way at our own pace, discovering what we need to know when we need to know it, and not a minute sooner!
In that spirit, may this blog be a support in your exploration. Feel free to peruse the list on the right for topics that speak to you at any given time.
I honor your journey.