June 8, 2020
Dear Fellow Practitioners,
At this time, it feels so important to make our minds and our sympathies as large as we possibly can. With that in mind, I offer the follow recent divination carried out with the Chinese divinatory text, the I ching, about the current world situation as well as some reflections on it.
It is the Way of heaven to reduce excess and augment humility, the Way of earth to transform excess and spread humility. It is the way of ghosts and spirits to ravage excess and enrich humility, the Way of people to despise excess and love humility.” (Hinton, IChing, Hexagram 15).
Excess Beyond Excess
How may we understand what is going on in the world now, horrifying and terrifying as it may be? And then see what we as practitioners can offer and what we can do to address it? COVID19 erupted into a world that has become wantonly excessive in its gross materialism, excessive in its escalating social inequities, and excessive in its reckless exploitation of the environment. A Vajrayana teacher I know recently proposed that COVID19 is the visible face of ultimate reality that has burst upon all of us, holding up the big mirror to what has been going on and beginning to dissolve the wild excesses of our out-of-control human world. He is suggesting that, within the sacred economy of the universe, the pandemic has arrived to save us from ourselves, or at least to give us one more chance to wake up before it is too late.
And then, more recently, the killing of George Floyd has laid bare the massive, unfair, and abusive excesses in the way social, institutional, financial, and racial power is wielded in the United States. The police are charged with protecting everyone. But what is in fact protected too often seems to be the wealth, power, and privilege of the ruling elite. And, related, African Americans are disproportionately bearing the brunt of corona virus cases and deaths, and of massive unemployment. Thankfully, finally, the inhumane and sometimes criminal excesses of this unequal and unjust exercise of social force are visible in a way that no one can any longer ignore. The scab has been ripped off the festering wound. Those who have been brutally repressed are finding their voices and their cry is resounding throughout the U.S. and the world.
Spiritual traditions tell us that the human ego, with its ignorant and destructive selfishness, does not get to have the final say. In the I ching quotation above, the universal dynamic is described: Heaven, what is ultimate, will put up with these kinds of human, ego-driven excesses for only so long, and then it will redress the balance. Through events such as COVID19 or the outrage of human hearts that can no longer bear vicious and degrading inequality, Heaven will do its work, undermining all that excess and returning the natural balance where all things abide in modesty, due proportion, and harmony. And, as we see, Heaven, what is ultimate, won’t be stopped. In order to be aligned with the Way of Heaven, with the bigger picture, with what is universally good and true, it seems critically important that we understand, respect, and accurately respond to what is occurring.
But there is a big problem: the sickening groundlessness, uncertainty, and fear that so many are feeling can be destabilizing and incapacitating. The virus has literally thrown everything on our planet into question in a way that has never occurred before. With George Floyd’s murder, the very social fabric of the United States is now in serious doubt. And the endless conflicts and dysfunctions within the U.S. government are causing some to despair about our ability as a society to find our way through.
Many of you have emailed me about the anxiety, fear, and underlying somatic dread that you are feeling now. This makes sense to me because, as meditators, we are often particularly aware of feelings that others may share, but less acutely. You have also been reporting that these feelings sometimes leave you not just uninspired, but paralyzed and unable to meditate or think creatively about what to do.
And yet, as we know from the teachings, the first step in any kind of extreme, negative situation is to experience and see things exactly as they are, openly, nakedly and with fearlessness, and not turn away. So the question is, how are we going to do that? Here I want to offer a meditation to help us be fully with what is happening as the first step toward addressing it. Briefly put, we need to bring all of our extreme feelings about the current crisis, with its untold human uncertainty, fear, and suffering, directly into our practice. It may be that we as a species are now being called upon to feel some of the most difficult feelings it is possible to experience. And we as meditators can take the lead in processing these feelings and transmuting them into energy for effective, compassionate response.
A Vajrayana Meditation For Transmutation
- Turn and face, directly and fully, whatever feels threatening or terrifying, our dread, terror, panic, whatever.
- Initially, de-identify with it. See it as not you in your entirety, but some particular thing that is going on in you.
- You are looking at that disturbing feeling as something distinct, as its own thing. Pay attention to your heart and perhaps visualize that it is a ball of something at chest level, just a little in front of your heart center, in the space but very close to you. This is the most disturbing, unsettling, threatening thing. This is what we are going to transmute.
- Now notice that that feeling has a particular somatic signature; it has a specific texture, temperature, color. We are not speaking literally here, but analogically, for even these terms are not accurate to the somatic experience. We could say that it has a certain felt-sense.
- Now, leading with your heart, let yourself approach that “something” that is the troubling feeling. Your body, you, are gradually moving closer to it and, as you do, begin to sense into it.
- Now see if you can feel into it fully, exactly how it is and what it is.
- Finally, open the global consciousness of your bodily awareness into that dreaded feeling and keep opening until your awareness IS the global feeling. But now the feeling will have long since been emptied of labels, concepts, and judgments; it will just be pure felt sense. So your awareness and the feeling are in no way different or separate. The feeling is the mood, the tone, the energy of awareness itself. This marks the moment of transmutation.
- Now see how it is with you. What would you say about your previous sickening dread, or whatever it was? Is there energy still there, but is it now free of the previous fear and accompanying judgments? The transmuted energy you may find is known as selfless compassion in Buddhism and this, in turn, can now give birth to all kinds of compassionate action in response to our present dire situation.
The Transmutation and Compassion of “Turning Toward”
Many of you, in your occupations, your families and relationships, in your volunteering and your creative work, in your social activism, have already for a long time been bringing your practice into direct engagement with others and with our society’s injustices and ills. But I think for all of us, the current crisis raises questions about whether or in what way we can now carry forward in these activities. I personally find it helpful to remember that the Dharma itself is the ground of the most effective social action because it lays bare, and helps us transmute, the root cause of all social dysfunction and distress–which is the human ego itself. The Dharma helps us dismantle the underlying ego forces of all unfairness, exploitation, and cruelty.
More than that, amazingly, the Vajrayana shows us how to transmute any extreme negativity into fuel that brightens our being and brings tremendous new energy to our bodhisattva activity. And it helps us think in completely fresh and new ways about ourselves and our world. In fact, for the Vajrayana, the more extreme the negativity, the greater the spiritual opportunity and the greater the transformation possible, in ourselves and in the collective, if we approach it from within our practice. This is the meaning of the often quoted phrase, the very poison that usually kills us humans, the Vajrayana is able to transmute into amrita, the elixir of immortality.
In reference to the opening quotation, I’ve talked so far about the excesses that need to be reduced. But what about the humility mentioned there that needs to be augmented? A saying of Jesus comes to mind: “the meek shall inherit the earth.” These are first and foremost the people who, owing to historical circumstance, find themselves disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited because of their race, gender, age, sexual orientation, economic status, education, health, or any number of other things; who find themselves silenced, invisible and forgotten; the ones who have been denied their fair share at the human table. But Heaven’s love is far larger than just for us humans. Perhaps, then, the meek also include the myriad animals who have suffered enormously at our hands, the ancient life of the vegetal world for whom there is no one to speak, and the mountains, the rivers, the valleys, the seas, and the sky, all of whom observe us humans in timeless silence. Surely they also are the meek and surely this world belongs as much to them as to us.
The meek shall inherit the earth, because it is the Way of Heaven that they shall. Short term, the rapacious human ego can run its excesses unchecked and can fend Heaven off. However, long term, as we see especially right now, it is a losing battle. When we stop and think for a moment, we can see that we humans are completely insignificant in the larger scheme of things. Though in our hubris we may try, we can’t stand up against the sacred operation of the universe. It is the Way of heaven to reduce excess and augment humility…” It would seem that our best course is to align ourselves with this cosmic truth and to surrender with intelligence, full attention, and presence to what is occurring; to open to the endless suffering, confusion, and fear of so many among us; to transmute them in our practice; and then to see what light may emerge and where it may direct us. We know how to do this; we absolutely know how to do this; we are meditators carrying on the ancient practicing lineage of the Vajrayana. This has always been our work, and so may it continue to be.
In the Practicing lineage,