A dharma talk from Tovana retreat, April 2007
For link to the audio recording – press here
I would like to start with a story from my childhood: I was born and grew up in a kibbutz, and as probably most of you know, we didn't live with our parents, the children lived and stayed in a children house and the parents would come at night, put us to bed, tell us a story, kiss us goodnight and go home. And we would stay there, sleep there. And there would be one woman who would watch the children, usually a young woman in her twenties or so, who doesn't have children herself, someone who this was her "turn", and was assigned to do this by the kibbutz to watch the children at night, and she would be sitting on the porch in the summer, and if she would hear a cry somewhere she would take a walk between all the buildings, and find out who's crying.
So I was about 6 or 7 years old, and I was quite a naughty girl, I liked to do all kinds of mischief, and I had a very good friend, a little boy with whom I was sharing a room, very similar to what you all are doing here in the retreat, and he an I used to do all kinds of mischief at night. So the watch-woman was sitting on the porch and there was a little kitchenette with a window between the kitchenette and the porch where she was sitting. So on that particular night my friend and I snuck out of our beds and through that window we started throwing pieces of bread at the woman, and we did this a few times until she came after us, and we ran away laughing our heads off back to our room but very cleverly (and since then I know that 6 year olds can be very clever) we ran not to our own beds, but to the opposite beds: I ran to his bed and he ran to my bed. The woman came charging in very angry and told us to be quiet, to turn our heads to the wall, maybe you're familiar with this phrase: "turn your head to the wall and go to sleep!"
I was laughing so hard I peed in my pajamas, and so when that happened I was a little embarrassed and didn't want to wet my friend's bed, so at that point all I wanted was to go back to my bed and call it a night. But – the woman would not let us change beds. Why? Because she couldn't imagine we switched beds, she couldn't believe that we did not instinctively run to our own beds. She thought we were pulling her leg now, and she said, "No, stay in your bed, where you are now!". Which made me realize again at the age of 6 that grown-ups are very strange and illogical creatures.
But what was interesting about that event was that the woman would not believe the truth that was right in front of her, the truth that this was not my bed, that I was peeing in my friend's bed, not in my own! The truth was right in front of her, yet she couldn't accept it. Why couldn't she accept the truth? Because it didn't match her notion, her idea about the truth, it didn't fit with her understanding of what children of the age of six are capable of.
So much of the time we are very much the same. The truth is right in front of us, but it doesn't match up with our concepts, our notions, our preferences and expectations, our ideologies. Christopher mentioned yesterday all the "isms" in our lives, anything that ends with "ism" is a screen, a veil. Our ideologies are very much a blinder to the truth; I used to be a very ideological person, to some extent I'm still struggling with it… It's a strong blinder. What we think is right so many times blinds us to what is, to reality.
I choose to say "reality" other than "truth" because truth is a complex or charged notion for many of us, "this is my truth, this is your truth, this is what I think is true and you may think differently and then we start argue what is the truth", so I prefer to use the word "reality" because we can argue about the truth, but about reality – this is reality, this is what is, no one can argue with reality, right?
Right? [long pause, then laughter].
Wrong. We argue with reality ALL the time.
What does it mean we argue with reality?
When it rains outside and we say, "it shouldn't be raining, it's ruining my plans for the weekend"; when we say, "it should be raining, it's the end of the winter and this country needs water, it should be raining!". But it's not. We're arguing with reality.
Sometimes we are sick, we are not in the good health we would like to be, and we don't like it, we fight it, we want it to be different.
Maybe we love someone and this person used to love us but they no longer love us, maybe we got fired from work and think this shouldn't be this way. Perhaps we had some real crisis in our lives, and we feel, "This shouldn't be happening to me!". Eran spoke yesterday about being with a friend who was taking his last breath on this earth, and it came up in one of the groups today, how can it be that young people die before they reach an old age, "This is not right!".
But this is reality.
And even here, in our meditation practice, from what I've heard so far in the groups it seems there's one thing in common for most of us, no matter what we experience, whether it's a lot of sleepiness, whether it's a lot of restlessness, whether it's boredom – we think it shouldn't be. Whatever is happening, whatever we experience – it seems we would prefer our neighbor's experience! But then we sit with our neighbor in a group interview and hear that he/she is not satisfied with their experience either! "So many thoughts, I came here to meditate, I shouldn't have all these thoughts!". "This feeling, I shouldn't have this feeling, whatever the feeling is – I'm tired, I have a sexual fantasy, oh, everyone else is sooo spiritual, I'm the only one who have these thoughts!" Maybe anger arises, "I didn't come here for that, I can be angry at home!" Perhaps sleepiness arises and comes to visit us, or boredom comes to visit, maybe we wonder whether or not we should even be here, if this is the right time for me to be here, "Eran keeps mentioning the Sea of Galilee – it sounds better and better all the time!"
Any time we have the thought, "This should not be this way", we are arguing with reality.
So how can we make friends with reality? With what is?
The Buddha said, Things are not as they seem to be. Nor are they otherwise.
Where does that leave us? How can we know reality?
To start investigate reality, to start look into the nature of reality, to start coming into relationship with reality, we need to first – as the starting point – first stop arguing with it.
At one point in my life I lived for a few years with my teacher, my guru, Yogi Amrit Desai, in a spiritual community of disciples of about 300 people, and we practiced Sadhana – yoga and meditation, Seva – selfless service, Brahmacharya – celibacy, and Bhakti – devotion. I would like
to share with you some quotes of what this teacher have to say about reality:
– Reality has no commitment to follow our guidance. Until we recognize reality, we will be frustrated. We will suffer.
– Life is a perpetual adjustment to what is.
– God is a direct experience of reality.
– Positivity is distorting reality just as much as negativity.
– All experiences of pain and pleasure are not aligned with reality, it's a position we take.
– The truth is the absence of dreams, of anticipation, of for and against.
– In choiceless awareness we are in complete synchronicity with reality. And that is meditation.
So reality, as he says, doesn't take cues from us how to be, it doesn’t follow our likes and dislikes, it's not bad and it's not good, it is devoid of any attributes inherent in it, it's just is. And we have the choice to position ourselves to it.
It sounds easy, but it goes against our habits, our tendencies. Christopher mentioned Krishna yesterday, and the talk between Krishna and his friend and disciple Arjuna, and at one point in their talk Arjuna asks Krishna to show him his real form, and Krishna says: well buddy, I'm not sure you can take it, and Arjuna says, please please, I would like to. So Krishna opens his mouth, and Arjuna looks inside and he sees the whole universe, maybe many many universes, and the sight is so overwhelming, is so frightening to him, that Arjuna says, stop! Stop! I can't take it! Please return to your normal form!
Reality sometimes can be overwhelming to us, and we say, "No, no, I want back my dreams! I want back my concepts of reality, I feel so much more comfortable there."
I find it very appropriate to contemplate the liberated mind and liberation now, at Passover, when we are celebrating coming out of slavery into freedom.
It's an appropriate time to reflect on and inquire into the nature of freedom, and the nature of slavery.
So what is freedom? What is slavery? Is the meaning freedom to act on every urge I have? To fulfill every desire? Perhaps not to be controlled by others? To realize my potential, maybe that's freedom? To do what I want when I want it, to be what I want, to acquire what I want to acquire – is that freedom?
And what is the meaning of slavery? Why did God keep the Israelites in the Sinai desert for forty years? We all know it takes – what? – a week, a month to cross it? Forty years?!!
I imagine you all know the answer: God said to the Israelites who came out of Egypt, "You are not fit to be free, to come to the promised land, because you have a slave mentality. You will be stuck in this desert until the whole generation that was born into slavery dies, and only the new generation that was born into freedom will reach the promise land."
So slavery is not just an external event, of working hard with someone else tells me what to do – there's a slave mentality, as God was pointing out to the Israelites. And what is slavery for us today? In this day and age, what are the Pharohs s that we encounter today? What are the inner Pharohs that we encounter? What tyranny runs us today? From what bondage we want to be liberated?
I think this is a very relevant theme for this retreat, to ponder, to reflect on.
Also perhaps as the retreat progresses, it's also good to remember another story – I don't think it's from the bible, I think it's from later scriptures, but I'm sure you are all familiar with it.
When the Red Sea parted and the Israelites crossed it and came to the other side in safety, the Egyptian army and their horses where coming after them into the Red Sea, and the Red Sea that parted for the Israelites – closed on Egyptians and they all drowned. So the Israelites where saved, and they were dancing and singing and praising God. But then God said to the Israelites: "My own creation is drowning, how can you be singing?"
To me this is such a beautiful statement, such a non-dual statement, really: here they were drowning because of God's miracle, it was God who parted the Red Sea for the Israelites, it was God who made the Egyptians drown, and now God is saying, "How can you be singing when my own creation is drowning?"
The reason I find it so relevant to our retreat is that as the days progress we may encounter some of our own inner Egyptians, some parts that we don't like, perhaps what is called in the psychology language the dark side, the shadow, and so perhaps we can remember God's compassionate and loving words, that even as He or She was making them drown – God loved them still. God had compassion for them. So maybe we can offer the same compassion to these parts that we may see and that we may not like very much, and we can remember: these too are God's creation.
And what might be the inner Pharohs, the inner parts that control us, that imprison us? Perhaps our habits, each one of us probably has a list of habits that control or bind us, some of them we recognize, some of them we only begin to recognize when we change something in our lives and all of a sudden we realize how much we were controlled by them. For instance, in coming to this retreat perhaps we realize that it was really important for me to have my morning coffee, or to take my morning shower, or to eat at a certain time or to have my sweet snack after lunch… Perhaps some of our habitual way of thinking imprisons us, or maybe we have internalized some judgmental voices from our parents or the society, our fears imprison us, our desires, our attachments. Christopher mentioned yesterday devotion; sometimes I feel our deepest devotion and our strongest dedication is to our self-image: how other people see us, and what they think of us, and what they think of the choices we make in life. Some of us can be 30, or 40 or even 50 and we're still concerned with what our parents may think of the choices we've made in our lives. Our parents may be even dead and we still worry what they might think!
We are also imprisoned by what we cling to. The things we cling to the most, because we believe they'll bring us the most happiness, are the very things that cause us the most suffering.
So what does the liberated mind know?
The liberated mind knows: nothing is worth clinging to as me or mine.
We've been talking here about the "me", the self. So what exactly do we mean when we say that? Let's examine it here together: what is this "me"? What is this "I"?
Perhaps some of us had the experience sometimes in our lives of not being able to fall asleep at night, and we lie in bed awake and we wonder: "What's this life all about? And who and what am I?" And we may be lying in a million-dollar bed, or we may be in a hut in Sinai, we may be a million-dollar person, whatever position we have in life, still, the question remains the same: what's life about? And what or who am I? What is this thing I call ME?
The first title, the first identity that we are assigned in this life is usually when we are born and hear the announcement: it's a boy! Or it's a girl! Now days since there is ultrasound we don't wait for that moment, we know ahead of time whether it's going to be a boy or a girl, and it's interesting though, just as a side comment, that we don't say, "Oh, it's a human!" That's because one does not need to state the obvious, and if there was a chance that it would be… I don't know, a little puppy, or… "Oh, congratulations! You have a little dolphin!" Then we would say, "It's a human", but we're not that advanced yet, so… we stick to our own species.
So, being a man or a woman is a very basic identity that we have, and then we collect identities through our years… Right here, in this room, we have Israelis, we have English, some are Jewish, some are not, gay, straight… In fact, I was very privileged to be at a very courageous event just last week, I was at a conference of lesbian Palestinians, and these very brave women have decided to come out not just of the closet, but out of a very restricted society, and voice their voices and share their experiences and offer support to others, while risking their lives doing that, really. So right there there were… let's see, how many identities: women, Palestinians, feminists, lesbians, and some were what we call disabled. So sometimes it's important to us to cling to, or to claim an identity, usually it seems that groups that are oppressed in society tend to hold on to that particular identity more strongly. But don't we all, really? Through the years we have acquired various titles; here, for instance, we have different kinds of professions, we have a baker here, an architect, some are teachers, computer techies, social workers, business men and women and so forth.
But where are they right now? Where is the yoga teacher right now? Where is the bus driver or the film maker right now? Where is the healer right now? In the thoughts? In the memories?
Some of us are brothers or sisters, all of us are a son or a daughter, we had to come to this world through someone, but where is that son or daughter right now?
Some of us are parents – now, that's a hard one, so breathe – where is the parent right now? Where is the father right now? Where is the mother at this moment?
We also have some more subtle identities: I'm a person who's always cold, I'm an angry person, I'm a free spirit, I'm a sensitive person, etc. Where are all my credentials at this moment? Where is my history right now?
At this moment I'm sitting here as a Dharma teacher, but just twenty minutes ago I was walking outside with you all on the grass, I took my socks off – such a lovely sensation, I recommend it to any one who hasn't done it yet, to walk barefoot on the grass – so there I was, "step, step, thought, thought, oops, where am I? Oh yes, step, step" – where was the Dharma teacher then?
And right now, let's look at what's happening right now: there's a large room, about a hundred people sitting in it, some are sitting on the floor, some are sitting on chairs, one is sitting on a bed, most everybody is silent, one person is uttering sounds – aa, e, ee, uu, – these sounds are received by hearing faculties – the ears – and form words that hopefully make sense. So what's happening right now is that there is talking and there is hearing. Where is the Dharma teacher right now, and where is the meditation practitioner right now?
What is there in the space between the thoughts? What exists behind the memories?
So, if I'm not all the things that I think I am, what does it leave me with? What or who am I then? If I'm not all these titles and identities that until this moment I thought formed me, and distinguished me from others, then what am I without them?
I'd like us to take a moment to just be with this question, without trying to answer it right away. And if a ready-made answer pops up in the mind – let it go for a moment. Especially if it's a "Buddhist" one, like: I'm a process of aggregates and samkaras arising and passing away according to cause and conditionings – let it go. Let go for a moment of any prefabricated, well-known and reassuring notion of who you are. Because whatever we think it is – it is not. And whoever we think we are – we are not.
And if the mind is frantically trying to come up with an answer and to figure it out, perhaps we can turn our attention from the mind – to the heart, and just be with this question: who or what am I? And when I say "be with the question" I don't mean: "let's think about it", I mean: be open to it, breathe into it, relax into it.
So let's all close our eyes, just as we are, you don't have to change position, and just let this question rest in our hearts, without trying to answer it, just to be with it, very very gently.
May all beings live free of clinging, may all beings be liberated.