By Kristopher Drummond
“There is a huge amount of unnecessary suffering in the world—unnecessary because it does not arise directly from our life circumstances, but from the conditioned way in which we react to our own memories, stories and beliefs. From the ego’s perspective, emotions such as anger, shame, depression, and anxiety appear to be involuntary and automatic. We seem to be “at the mercy” of these emotions. But, in fact, they are not just emotions, but reactive forms of violence, directed against self and others. Because of our ego confusion, we waste tremendous amounts of time and energy in self-defeating emotional patterns.”
One of my favorite spiritual observations came from Tibetan Mahamudra teacher Susan Mickle. Teaching a weekend retreat at my local Dharma center, she stared out at the expectant American faces waiting for exotic instructions to unwind our busy minds. Smiling, she took a sip of water.
“After years of teaching, I find the most profound mistake we Westerners make in our practice is to confuse the meditation cushion with a psychotherapy session.”
An embarrassed giggle rippled around the room. It was true. In one way or another, we’d all come to our practice, complete with colorful clothes, crystals and beads, clever spiritual quotes and ruthless, smiley acceptance through a sense of lack, meditating in an attempt to fix ourselves. With the spiritual institutions of the West long since bankrupted, we each – understandably – found our way to the Eastern teachings in search of meaning and healing.
Buddhism: A Tempting Sales Pitch
In looking for the wholeness lost to our self-addicted Western culture, Buddhism carries a tempting sales pitch. Nirvana, freedom-from-suffering, equanimity, balance and “enlightenment” are alluring breadcrumbs. To a neurotic population like ours who learn from childhood that the way to happiness is through striving and achieving, our hearts ache for something more, something that confirms the hidden suspicion that it may be okay to stop; that maybe, there’s more to life than material success. And this is a natural and healthy yearning. But in our conditioned understanding, we imagine that like everything else we’ve known in life, spirituality will be a personal fix-it quest.
The problem with this “fix-it” attitude to practice, as Susan put it, is that Buddhism was never meant to solve our personal problems. Unlike psychotherapy, meditation is not about making our self-directed lives more bearable. It’s about dismantling the mechanism – the gravitational center of selfhood – which clings to a history that needs fixing. From a truly Buddhist perspective, freedom is found not in making a better self, but in seeing all the way through the imagined one to what is beyond.
Healing Self-Hatred…Wait, What??
There’s a parable that runs through Buddhist circles about the Dalai Lama being profoundly confused when a Western student approached the microphone to ask a question about how to heal self-hatred. He had to check with his translator multiple times because he simply couldn’t grasp the idea that someone would harbor hatred for themselves. To other cultures in other times, the self-denial that passes for normal in the Western world would be seen as a profound sickness. Buddhist meditation was designed to correct the misperception inherent to language-based beings, the innocent ignorance of one’s own true nature. It was never intended to be a cure-all for the traumatic consequences of individualistic, success-driven cultures.
But here we are. And luckily, there are luminaries among us. Recognizing that historical teachings are inadequate for the task at hand, Western Buddhist teachers are getting creative and combining traditional practices with established and emerging psychological modalities. Shadow work, self-compassion, group process, somatic experiencing, and many other techniques have found sure footing in contemporary spirituality, and when combined with mindfulness and traditional Buddhist teachings, form a powerful toolkit to uproot the deep ruts of self-loathing and confusion.
The First Noble Truth
In my experience, it takes a multifaceted approach to really address the deep knots. Suffering brought me to the doorstep and the awareness gained through meditation allowed insight into a more realistic view of my mind. Through my sitting practice, I gained experiential knowledge of what the Buddha called the first noble truth, which is the truth of suffering. I saw the threads of profound confusion, the swirling discontent, the many little selves locked away. But that’s all.
Retreat after retreat, I faced my demons, struggling as they dragged me into my imagination and more stories, into more fixing – more attempted psychotherapy. I spent all my willpower returning to the moment and my aching body, but eventually, will fails. There was too much trauma for effective meditation. Apparently, I needed to do some fixing before I could really get anywhere spiritually. And realizing this, I expanded my search.
Who knows how the path unfolds. It’s unique to each of us, and I can’t say that I notice any specific cause/effect relationship with certain practices and corresponding results. But through good fortune or karmic timing, I stumbled upon the practice of Mondo Zen. And from the first meeting, I knew that I was heading in the right direction.
Rather than the usual silent sit followed by a teacher talking, we gathered in a circle to meditate for 40 minutes with our eyes open, “because we’re right here, in this room, in reality.” When the sit ended, we found a space in the meditation hall to stand and do Qi-gong, a Buddhist movement practice that moves energy in the body. And after about 20 minutes of that, we came back to the circle to engage in the “ego deconstruction koans,” which hold the real power of this emerging school of modern Buddhism. Like a traditional zen koan, the Mondo koans are riddles meant to confuse the mind into a temporary state of stoppage. If this “stopping” is deep enough, then in theory, realization of true nature becomes possible.
It was my first time in the intimate group, so the attention was focused on me. I was nervous. We always know, on some level, when something important is about to happen.
The teacher smiled and started simply, saying “just answer from a place that is open, honest, and vulnerable. Don’t work too hard.”
“Alright then. Here we go.”
Gazing at me, he rang a bell, and in a near-whisper, said “listen.”
The bell rang again.
“Listen deeper than you have ever listened.”
“The first koan is, ‘is it possible to listen without an opinion? To simply hear?”
I let the bell ripple inward, watching my mind struggle to get the right answer. The facilitator kept ringing, his gaze fixed on me, a slight smile curving his lips upward.
Suddenly, mind pushing, something shifted. There was hearing. And indeed, there was no opinion about it. Just hearing.
“Yes,” I answered, “I can listen without an opinion.”
The night continued in this fashion, as the space of awareness grew in the circle. I began to relax into the experience, and as I looked at the facilitator and the other members of the group, the normal sense of me, the solid entity that seems to live inside my head, was absent. I broke into a smile, seeing six sets of eyeballs sharing a single, unified, undivided experience. It was so simple, so beautiful, so effortless. Love began to bubble up, and the teacher smiled back at me, understanding.
“Not so many clouds.”
All I could do was nod. Here I was. Here we were.
In Mondo, this place of stillness and simplicity is known as “Clear Deep heart/mind,” and the goal is to, as much as possible, live from this clear and open heart.
From the Mondo website:
“Our Mondo Zen protocol is designed to accomplish the first step upon this ancient, updated and renewed path of awakening, a transmission of Correct Understanding. The Koan questions asked in our dialog can be confusing because they are designed to deconstruct your current philosophy, creating a new philosophical understanding and awakening you into Clear Deep Heart/Mind. With this two-fold understanding – experiential and philosophical – we will experience the openness and fearless stability within our ordinary mind. We will acquire new language: language that will allow us to recognize, realize, and maintain awareness of Clear Deep Heart/Mind.”
Clear Heart and Mind
While “deconstructing your current philosophy” sounds a lot like the fixing I was criticizing earlier, it’s actually a very different approach. Mondo Zen practice depends on a facilitator who is able to hold and transmit the space of Clear Deep Heart/Mind. When this energy, or space, is present, it allows the other person to view their own mental patterns from the clear light of awareness. And when the mind is seen from that place, it is no longer a problem to be fixed. Rather, it’s just another passing phenomenon. Another sensation. And we are free. The deconstruction aspect comes through regular practice, as the meditator learns to identify more and more with Clear Deep Heart/Mind and less with conditioned mental habits.
Although Mondo Zen is still a relatively new practice in the contemporary spiritual world, a strong following is emerging and groups and retreats can be found in much of the Western Hemisphere. The space that Mondo practice opens up is not special, is not rare. I read so many spiritual books that I was expecting a big bang of sorts, an explosive ah-ha that would obliterate my ego and land me in perpetual bliss. Instead, I got reality. Simple, gentle, unassuming. I got to see, for that night at least, that all the work I’d been doing was essentially a denial of what was already right here. That I was already free, if I could just stop convincing myself that I wasn’t.
And if it were that simple, if all it took was a single experience, I’d be off in a cave somewhere, laughing at moss growing on the wall. But alas, mindfulness is deeper than that.
And so I practice.
I still find myself lost in fixing mind, solving mind, creating-a-problem mind most of the time. But now I know that Clear Deep Heart/Mind is real and worth cultivating. Now I know that it doesn’t have to be this way. And now, even if I forget, I finally know that there is nothing to fix.