Breaking the Suffering Habit

This blog posting is based on the talk “Breaking the Suffering Habit” by Cayce Howe at InsightLA Long Beach, March 2017

The wonderful Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Anam Thubten, once said, “The truth is that security is unobtainable because it is the very fabric of reality. Reality is all pervading. We can never fall out of it. We are already secure and we are always secure. Searching for security is our biggest neurosis. It keeps us deluded. All modes of striving for security are forms of fear and obsession and our heart cannot be open as long as we’re ruled by them. Compassion and love can only arise from an open heart.”

Anam Thubten is speaking about the blending of wisdom and compassion. Ignorance leads to hope and fear- attachment and aversion. This hope turns into desire and greed. And we all know what happens with fear. It leads to hate, division, and separation. But it all stems from ignorance; ignorance of not seeing things as they truly are. If we see things as they truly are, then love can arise easily. It’s a shift from ignorance to non-ignorance. Right now we see but we don’t really see. We just see a half truth. We don’t see full truth. But if we can see very clearly, then liberation is there for us.

This is another one from Zen teacher Norman Fischer. “The definition of enlightenment from the vantage point of Zen, is to realize and remain consciously aware of the impermanent, interdependent, and egoless nature of all conditioned things”.

“The definition of enlightenment from the vantage point of Zen, is to realize and remain consciously aware of the impermanent, interdependent, and egoless nature of all conditioned things”.

These are the factors of ignorance. Ignorance simply means that we forget the impermanent, interdependent, and egoless (or empty) nature of phenomena. Because of this ignorance, hope and fear arise. Because of hope / desire we do good things and good things return to us. But still, it is with this intention of needed something. In reality however we don’t need to get anything at all, we already are what we’re seeking. There’s no seeking of security when we’re already secure! Similarly, out of fear, we do less than wholesome things and create trouble for ourselves.

We’re caught in this cycle. Transcending this ignorance is a matter of releasing and we can have this release if we remember these things; if we see clearly impermanence, emptiness, and interdependence.

Now I will inadequately elaborate on this! These things are so clear and so simple and yet so frustrating to speak about at the same time because it’s almost like we force ourselves not to see them. They are so blatantly clear, and yet so difficult to see.

Emptiness

Traditionally speaking, Buddha talked about a chariot. He said, “where is the chariot in the chariot? Is it in the wheel? Is it in the steering mechanism? Where is it for real? We say, where is the car in the car? A car is a collection of parts. We don’t see the collection of parts, we see it as a whole. When we look at our hands, we don’t see the bones and the flesh, we see a hand! We don’t see the “whole” of it, even though we know it’s there.

So a car has a function. Anything that functions like a car we call it a car. We label a collection of parts. We label that functionality. So “car” is a thing, but it’s nothing, because it’s no-thing. The thingness isn’t there. Because where’s the car in the car? This is really important because this is what we’re attached to! This is our grasping. We are attached to the label. So you take a car, when a car stops functioning like a car, we get upset, because the car’s job is to take us from A to B. When the car doesn’t turn on, you’re like, “What’s up?” Like, “You’re a car, this is your job!” Because I’ve labeled you car, which means take me from A to B.

This is how everything is, a collection of labels. We do this with people, with our boyfriend or girlfriend. Has your boyfriend or girlfriend ever been broken? Or husband or wife? Because they have a function! If the boyfriend quality is broken, you say, “You know what, I’ve labelled you boyfriend, and you’re broken, you’re not working because a boyfriend is supposed to bring me flowers, talk nice to me, do all these things. But you’re not. Your “boyfriend-ness” is broken. Now this person is a collection of thoughts, emotions, body sensations, memories etc. That very label of boyfriend or girlfriend is totally and completely yours, and yours alone.

“You know what, I’ve labelled you boyfriend, and you’re broken, you’re not working because a boyfriend is supposed to bring me flowers, talk nice to me, do all these things. But you’re not. Your “boyfriend-ness” is broken…That very label of boyfriend or girlfriend is totally and completely yours, and yours alone.”

Inherently they are not that. They are much, much more; an infinity more. They are a son, a daughter, a brother, a sister, a friend. They’re not one permanent fixed thing. That’s yours! You labelled that onto them. What we are doing here is to see that what we grasp onto as solid, is a bit more in flux. They’re not as solid as we think.

So therefore our grasping mind can release a little bit. A lot bit. It can actually release all the way into freedom.

Interdependence

The second piece is to remember interdependence. Forgetting interdependence is another way attachment arises and it is also how these labels are formed in the first place. It is how we construct “thing-ness”.

Does the number 3 exist without 2 and 4? No. Because of 2 and 4, 3 exists. But 3 doesn’t exist in and of itself. It’s dependent on something else to arise. Like this everything we see is dependent on our own mind to arise; there is a subject and object. And how it arises, or I should say what it arises as, is up to us.

For example, I have a Tibetan singing bowl. For me, the bowl is mine, and I have a history with it. For everyone else it is arising differently because of your own history or non-history of Tibetan singing bowls. Of course even this label is silly because most of the world has no idea of “Tibetan singing bowl” and might have a different view of it all together. On it’s own it is not a “Tibetan singing bowl.” That is our label and it is dependent on our own minds and many other factors for it to manifest like that for us.

If you look out into the ocean you see a small boat. You only say a small boat because there’s a bigger boat behind it. Is this idea of small boat solid or not? This is all we’re looking at. Yes, it’s totally true, relatively speaking that’s a big boat or a small boat. No problem with that. The problem is that when we start believing that this is true in an ultimate way, that we become attached and begin to suffer. This is where it becomes problematic.

For example, if we’re dreaming and we’re getting chased by a wild animal, then we wake up from the dream, we’re free automatically. We don’t think that we actually outran the animal. We wake up and say, “I was dreaming!” There was no wild animal. It was just my mind. It’s like that when we wake up from our labels! There really is no suffering, because there is no “thing” that we are suffering from. Ultimately we are suffering from the belief of separation. But that is only a belief in self and other. The idea that I’m not secure already, that’s a belief. We can never not be secure, we can never not be love. It’s a belief of separation.

The analogy of believing a wild animal is real in a dream, then feeling fear, then running from it, this is just like samsara. Hope and fear arising but without a base.

The analogy of believing a wild animal is real in a dream, then feeling fear, then running from it, this is just like samsara. Hope and fear arising but without a base.

A good dream is still a dream. Even enlightenment is a false enlightenment because non-enlightenment was never there in the first place. People say when they “transcend the ego” they will be free, but there’s no ego! It’s like saying that I need to get out of a ditch, but there’s no ditch.

Impermanence

When we talk about these topics sometimes people feel a little ungrounded. Always remember that love and awareness are the true ground. We usually try to find ground in things that are impermanent and yet when we talk about these impermanent things existing a bit differently than how we usually think, we get ungrounded. For one they are impermanent anyway! But our innate peace is always there beneath what comes and goes. Check in right now, check into your awareness, it is always there, it’s solid in that way, you can always take refuge in non-judgmental compassionate awareness.

All conditioned things are impermanent, no matter what we attach ourselves to, they’re all impermanent. Even though we know this, we don’t know this. We don’t carry this knowing with us. Maybe one percent we carry with us. When we see our friend, we know our friend is impermanent. We know all meetings end with separation. We know this. But we don’t really want to know it. So we don’t know it, we hide it. We don’t know it like we know the sun’s going to rise in the morning, we don’t know it like that.

We’re trying to hold on and find ground in things that are impermanent instead of just noting all of that crap that I really want is impermanent. Awareness is permanent, check in, where’s awareness? It’s waiting. Check in. Is your awareness there? Always hanging out waiting for you. What is known is impermanent. What is known is falling away all the time–thoughts, emotions, body sensations, external phenomenon–all those things that awareness knows is falling away all the time. The knower however is steady as can be.

Emptiness is the firmest ground you will ever stand on. Naturally arising within that space of emptiness, non-attachment, loving-kindness, compassion, forgiveness, etc. are always there.

Let go of your attachments for a moment, love is right there. You want solid ground? Love is solid ground.

Let go of your attachments for a moment, love is right there. You want solid ground? Love is solid ground.

I’m not talking about attachment love, I’m talking about your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife gives you a call and they’re in Mexico, and they say “Honey, I met somebody else and I’m happy.” And you say, “I’m happy too. I’m happy for you!” I’m talking about that kind of love. Not “what can you do for me” – that’s not love. As soon as we ask somebody what they can do for us, it’s done. Over. If we think a relationship is what we get out of it, that’s not love. The solid ground is this unconditioned love energy. It’s just love for love’s sake. This is solid.

Real life

Ok, so how do these topics relieve our day to day suffering? Let me give you some real life examples of a couple events that happened to me this week.

So I’m going to work and I park in a parking garage. When I pull in, the parking garage has a south entrance and a north entrance. The north entrance where I usually go is shut down because they’re doing maintenance. What’s this a reminder of? Impermanence of course. The gate of the parking garage has a function, but it’s not functioning now. So the label of what the function is, which is interdependent upon lots of different parts, is not functioning anymore as I labelled it. They reroute us to the south entrance. So I go there.

The next day, I go back, because of my habit, to the north entrance- but it’s still broken down. “Ugh, it’s still broken down!” I go to the south entrance. The third day, I wise up, I go to the south entrance, but now the south entrance is closed! I wanted to get back into a routine. You see, this is an example of the habit of suffering. The habit of forgetting impermanence. As soon as I am in a routine, which means I’m projecting, it’s unreliable. Routine is thinking that something is reliable. This is what wisdom is saying, everything that you want to be reliable is unreliable. My response was to go to something that I wanted to be reliable, and again impermanence told me– “unreliable!”

The next day, because there was a new system, there was a parking attendant there. So I labelled him parking attendant. He had a specific job to do. His job was to tell people how the new system works. If you put your card up to the wrong part, he says “Red button! Red button!” And you go to the red button and you get in– that’s the new system.

So I show up and there are a whole bunch of cars waiting. Somebody can’t figure it out. And I’m thinking, “where is the parking attendant? He’s not doing his job!” Already, I’m suffering because of my habit! I’m supposed to just go right in.

Everything I’ve labelled is supposed to work as I’ve labelled. This parking attendant, maybe he was using his cell phone or something, he wasn’t paying attention, because of interdependence. Because he was maybe a husband, a bunch of other things other than my label. His full existence was not just a parking attendant. There was so much more going on. And even his “parking attendant-ness” was impermanent.

In my mind I was saying to myself “Oh, it’s your job. You’re sitting right there. That’s all you need to do!” I heard myself suffering. Maybe you can relate? It’s so hard not to get irritated. If I had remembered all of those things that I know but have a hard time remembering, then when all those things happened, it would’ve been different. Of course! I would have said to myself, “Of course the parking garage broke down! It’s impermanent! Of course the parking attendant didn’t function like I thought, it’s unreliable of me to think that! Of course!”

So this is our mantra: “Of course. This is how things are! Things are impermanent!” When we’re good with that, life is so good. There’s no problem.

So this is our mantra: “Of course. This is how things are! Things are impermanent!” When we’re good with that, life is so good. There’s no problem.

Because there is no hope, fear, and expectation anymore. When we hang out with truth, there is no problem. This wisdom, this being okay with how things are, it is not carelessness. We’re not being okay with things and not caring. When we look at injustices in the world, or people ailing, or people dying, we don’t say “Oh, this is just how things are I’m okay with it.” It is because of our non-attachment that true love and compassion can arise. If this is not your experience, it may mean that there is only a conceptual understanding, and you must go a bit deeper. This is really important to note. It’s not nihilism. It’s compassion in action.

So this is it. Freedom lies in our ability or inability to accept the very nature of reality. Just remember to love yourself along the way. Surrender is a tough long road. I will leave you with a quote from Chogyam Trungpa.

“My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and is too demanding. I suggest you ask for your money back, and go home. This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you. So, it is best not to begin. However, if you do begin, it is best to finish.”

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