8 mins read.
A question … when you’re not identifying with your Buddha nature, what are you identifying with?
Over the decades I’ve observed a couple of elements that seem to make all the difference in terms of whether or not people get deep experience and realizations of meditation. One is simply consistency, continuing to show up for our practice through thick and thin – as Buddha said, keeping a kettle on the stove over even a very low heat will cause the water to boil. The other is practicing confidently in the context of our potential.
(Talking of decades – there was a mega storm at Manjushri Kadampa Meditation Centre a month ago, which felled over 30 huge and ancient trees in the course of one unexpected night. I was thinking how death is like that, how it is starting to fell the first generation of Venerable Geshe Kelsang’s students who are all getting up there in age. How absurdly short this life is, yet how important. I’m hoping and praying that an even greater number of saplings and young trees are growing into their power.)
So, the second element … by far the most helpful thing we can do when we sit down to meditate is to stop believing and holding onto our limitations by identifying instead with our limitless potential for spiritual progress. The alternative is to try and meditate while identifying with the self we normally see, which gets us precisely nowhere because that self doesn’t exist.
For example, instead of identifying with the limited useless person who probably needs to meditate but can’t, we can base our sense of self on our boundless potential for joy and liberation, with being someone who really can meditate.
Chatting about this over a cup of coffee in Harlem last week, I asked a friend to give me three good reasons why she likes identifying with her Buddha nature. Here is her reply:
- Identifying with what we already identify with, which is a crappy, limited, depressed self who thinks they are not good enough and can’t meditate for the life of them, is clearly useless.
- We need to be aspirational. When I was at acting school, a brilliant instructor told us that when we’re acting Shakespeare we never bring Shakespeare down to our level but bring ourself up to his. When aspiring to be a Buddha, we don’t bring Buddha down to our level but bring ourself up to his. We need to let the language of Buddha nature become our new language.
- Grasping at our limited self is so flipping boring, not just for ourself but for everyone else we inflict it on. And then we create a boring world where we could be having such adventures. After all, to quote you back at yourself, our very subtle mind or actual Buddha nature is not even human.
Everyone needs this
She added that people in general need to identify with their Buddha nature, ie, not just during meditation and not just Buddhists, but all of us all the time.
“I was watching my brother Adrian depressed in a room with the curtains drawn, no food in the fridge, watching TV, his life passing him by moment by moment. He slept for so much at one point, two weeks, that he didn’t even know Brexit had happened. His reality is identifying with all this past hurt. And I was thinking, because I know him, “Hold up, that isn’t you. That isn’t you. You’re sitting on the sofa watching the TV and/or sleeping all day while meantime there is boundless potential within you. Start identifying with that. All the trauma of our childhood and you think ‘I will watch the telly because my mind can then shift from my pain to Netflix. It is respite.’ But all it is is a pause button.”
People are far greater than they realize. For the Buddhas, we are all Adrian. Enlightened beings just want us to realize who we really are and what we are capable of. As this friend put it:
“One day he was up off that sofa and awake, and it felt so good to see him engaged with the world, including his daughter, his joy, his interests, and the people who love him. Buddha is called “Awakened One” because he has woken from the sleep of self-grasping ignorance and now wants all of us to wake up and connect with our enlightened world, joy, and other living beings.”
So it’s important to nurture our spiritual and general well-being by centering in our pure potential every morning and as often as we can throughout the day. Otherwise it is very hard to change.
I was talking to an incredibly talented page-turner of a writer the other day, asking how her new novel was coming along. She confessed to any amount of self-doubt leading to writer’s block and long delays. If it wasn’t for the book advance, she might have given up by now. I wondered, “How, as a best-selling novelist, do you entertain self-doubt about your writing, and where does that leave the rest of us?!” She replied that of course she knows it makes no sense, but that there is always someone who is a better writer.
I have thought about that a lot because self-doubt and self-sabotage seem to be a modern plague, contributing to a lot of mental illness and societal dystopia.
Miss USA jumped off a building while I was in NYC. It was so sad. Very obviously beautiful, intelligent, and talented, she reportedly still never felt good enough and, at the tender age of 30, was dreading getting older. I wish she could have found Buddha’s teachings on her pure indestructible limitless ageless potential.
And if we are not identifying with our Buddha nature, this self-sabotage and self-destruction applies just as much to making progress in Dharma. Another friend was explaining what an incredibly good experience she was having on retreat. But then she got scared and wanted to run away because things were starting to shift too much. She didn’t want to look in the mirror of Dharma any more because she felt too unworthy to change. And that was insightful of her because I think it is true that looking in the mirror of Dharma can feel uncomfortable unless we are identifying with our limitless potential and know that the blemishes we see are not actually us. As Geshe Kelsang says:
Whilst acknowledging that we have delusions we should not identify with them, thinking ‘I am a selfish, worthless person. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
The dictionary definition of worthless is, “have no good qualities, deserving contempt”. Or we could say, unworthy, not good enough, no spiritual potential. Relating to this self is the reason we feel stuck and also the basis for self-dislike or self-contempt.
I know way too many people who have been practicing Dharma for years and know it works, and yet still can’t or won’t allow themselves to get anywhere. They are stuck. Yet we have an ever so bright and interesting future if we can just feel it. Thinking of the famous gold nugget example:
Buddha compared our Buddha nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for no matter how disgusting a person’s delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruelest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion and wisdom. Unlike the seeds of our deluisons, which can be destroyed, this potential is utterly indestructible, and is the pure, essential nature of every living being. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
How are we supposed to get rid of the dirt if we feel we ARE the dirt?! On the other hand, if we are the gold nugget, are we not happy and even relieved to look in the mirror to see where the dirt is so that we can brush it away? At all times, we need to get used to remembering and believing:
… our faults are really the faults of our delusions and not our self. This prevents us from identifying with our faults thus feeling guilty and inadequate, and it helps us to view our delusions in a realistic and practical way. ~ The New Eight Steps to Happiness
Identifying with our boundless potential, we step into our Buddha nature instead of constantly holding out and holding back (and feeling bad). We step into our greatness.
Slow down, wisen up
Here’s one simple way to do this. Basically, through allowing the mind to slow down and settle through some breathing meditation, it naturally becomes more peaceful, at which point we shift our focus from the breath to the experience of peace itself. We just gently abide with that good feeling in our heart center — not thinking about it but simply abiding with it. Then we recognize that this peace is arising spontaneously from just letting go of following our ordinary thoughts. We can think:
“I am connected to my own natural source of peace and happiness. And because awareness has no boundary or limit – there is infinite formless space within us — this indicates my potential for even greater peace and happiness. In fact, this is my potential for the permanent happiness of enlightenment. This is my Buddha nature. I can understand that this is who I am at heart. I am a peaceful person with limitless potential.”
The longer we spend getting used to this idea, the quicker we can change our sense of who we are. And on this basis we can continue to improve our sense of self by developing and identifying with the experiences of love, compassion, faith, pure view, and so on that we develop through meditation, all the way up to enlightenment.
Part 2 of this topic is here. I would love to hear from you on all this!
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