There’s an unusual connection between Ebola and Buddhism.
Ashoka Mukpo, one of a handful of Americans who have contracted Ebola, was identified soon after his birth as a reincarnated lama, or Tulku.
Mukpo is the son of Diana Mukpo, who married Tibetan lama Chogyam Tungpa in Scotland. Ashoka is not Trungpa’s biological son, but was raised as his child after his mother became pregnant while romantically involved with another of Trungpa’s followers, Dr. Mitchell Levy.
As a child, Ashoka was identified as the reincarnation of Khamyon Rinpoche, and he was enthroned as a tulku in Tibet.
Although Mukpo regards himself as a practicing Buddhist, he decided not to pursue a monastic life, and he works in the U.S. division of Human Rights Watch. He has also worked as a freelance cameraman for Vice News, NBC News and other media outlets. He spent two years working in Liberia, doing research for the Sustainable Development Institute, a nonprofit that highlights the concerns of workers in mining camps outside the west African country’s capital, Monrovia.
It was in Liberia that he was diagnosed with Ebola. Soon after he was moved to Nebraska Medical Center for treatment, where he is recovering.
NBC News reports that his parents say he “would likely rather the attention be paid to the West African countries that have been ravaged by the disease.”
Although many people in the west are anxious about Ebola, we should remember that the vast bulk of the suffering that’s taking place is in Africa, where thousands have been infected, and where its possible that a million people could contract the disease.
This article on Forbes suggests ways that individuals can contribute to fighting Ebola in Africa.
Earworms are those tunes that get stuck in your head. Sometimes you’ll be meditating and have a favorite song stuck on replay. Sometimes it’s a song you hate. Either way, earworms aren’t very helpful to our meditation practice. In fact they can be so persistent that they drive us nuts!
Over the years I’ve tried a whole bunch of techniques to try to get rid of ear-worms. I’ve tried just listening to the song, accepting its presence and using it as an object of meditation, but songs can be intoxicating and I’ve found that I don’t develop much mindfulness and end up rocking out.
Sometimes I’ve listened to the lyrics closely to see if they’re trying to teach me anything, and from time to time I’ve been surprised to find that in some way I hadn’t expected the words of the song are deeply meaningful for me at that moment. That hasn’t necessarily made the song go away, but it’s given me something to reflect on.
I’ve tried imagining that I have a volume control in my head. I visualize turning this slowly from 10 down to 0. As I do so, I hear the song fade out. But then a few moments later I hear it fading back in again.
Finally I came up with an effective approach to earworms. It’s really simple: listen. Really listen.
Listen very attentively to the sounds around you. Include them in your meditation practice. In fact paying mindful attention to them becomes your meditation practice. Sounds make as good an object of meditation as anything else, so doing this isn’t a “distraction” from meditation but going deeper into meditation.
Listen in all directions at once. Listen to sounds in front of you and behind you, to the left and right, above and below. Let your auditory attention feel like it’s being stretched in every direction at once.
Allow all sounds to enter your awareness, rather than focusing on one individual sound, or moving from one sound to another.
The thing is that you can’t listen to the external world in this way and also listen to yourself singing internally. When you’re completely listening to the sounds around you, you can’t create an earworm. Listen intensely enough, and your mind becomes silent.
Whenever your attention begins to drift from the sounds outside, you’ll start to notice the earworm again. Now this might seem like a bad thing, but it’s actually wonderful, because now you have a built-in mindfulness meter! When the earworm appears, it’s letting you know that your mindfulness has slipped a little. So now the earworm is actually helping you to meditate, and instead of seeing it as annoying you can now be grateful toward it.
A sense of playfulness around this whole thing is important. Don’t see it as a test: you can’t fail. See it as just a game, so that you enjoy both the times you are able to pay attention to sounds, and the times that the earworm comes along and gently reminds you to come back to mindful awareness.
What you need to do to become a stream entrant
There are certain things you need to do, and attitudes that you need to cultivate, if you’re going to set up the conditions for insight to arise.
You’ll need periods of intensive practice, such as going on retreat. And I don’t mean just getting away for the odd weekend, which is all some people say they can manage. You need to have intensive spells of meditation for a week, ten days, two weeks, preferably longer.
Sometimes we find it hard to have the time. I heard someone say that when you say you don’t have time to do something it’s not a statement of fact, it’s a statement of values. When we say we don’t have time to go on retreat, this is a statement of what we think is important. Certainly there are practical difficulties — if you have a young child it’s very hard to get away for those first few years — but with time (and willingness) we can overcome these difficulties.
You need to do a lot of work to become a more positive person. You need to get rid of the gross manifestations of greed, hatred, and delusion. You need to be reasonably ethical. You need to work on being kind. You need to take responsibility for yourself. You have to have done a lot of letting go. You need to work on bringing Buddhist practice into your daily life. Your practice can’t be a hobby, and has to be the central orienting principle in your life. So your life has to be your practice. Your work has to be your practice, your parenting has to be your practice, your parenting and your friendships have to be your practice. Every aspect of your life has to become an avenue for cultivating mindfulness, compassion, and insight.
You’re going to need a sangha to do all of the above. We need other people to encourage us — and to challenge us. It’s all too easy for us to kid ourselves on about how spiritual we are, or to let ourselves off the hook when we face a spiritual challenge. A sangha holds a mirror up in front of us, so that we can see ourselves more clearly.
You need to have an enquiring mind. It’s very difficult to develop insight if you’re not prepared to question. And by this I don’t mean making a pain of yourself and arguing about everything. Gaining insight is about questioning your experience and questioning your assumptions about the world — your assumptions about where happiness comes from, your assumptions about who you are, your assumptions about things having permanence. Unless you’re prepared to question, you can’t break the fetters.
The enquiring mind is not afraid of uncertainty. In fact the enquiring mind thrives on uncertainty. I think a lot of what holds people back is too quickly assuming that they understand. It’s so easy to assent to Buddhist concepts, and being clever and having a quick mind can be a problem as well as a blessing. It’s easy to take ideas on board because they seem reasonable, without really thinking them through. The reason I decided to go study Buddhism at university was after I started noticing this in myself. I discovered that I could hold two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time. I could switch seamlessly from one to the other without ever noticing the contradiction, and I wanted an opportunity to be forced to think clearly. To give one example, it’s common to hear that the “eastern tradition” is that we should never talk about spiritual accomplishments such as enlightenment. So if we get enlightened we should be modest and never say anything about it. And then five minutes later we’ll read a sutta where the Buddha, or one of his disciples, proclaims his spiritual attainment, and think how wonderfully confident this all is. Another example would be believing that we literally have to aim to save all sentient beings in order to awaken, and in the next moment reading the Buddha’s life story in which he first gets awakened and then feels impelled to teach and help others. Often we never notice that we have two contradictory ideas in our mind, since each is only evoked under specific circumstances.
Stream entry involves breaking three fetters
Stream entry involves breaking three out of the ten fetters that hold us back from full awakening. These fetters are habits and views and acts of clinging that stop us from making progress.
The first fetter is “self-view.” It’s often expressed as “fixed self-view.” This is the assumption we have that we have a fixed and separate self that’s running the show of our lives. It’s not just that if we think we can’t change, we won’t, although that is true. This fetter is rather more subtle than that. It’s the view that there is a self that is somehow separate from our ever-changing experiences. So we may notice that our experiences are changing, but assume there’s some kind of stable, permanent self that has those experiences. But where could this kind of self lie?
To break this fetter, we have to simply notice, over and over again, that there’s nothing permanent in our experience. It’s not that we just understand impermanence intellectually. That’s often what we do. We talk about impermanence rather than just looking.
We watch our physical sensations. over and over, and see that they’re changing. We enquire. We look deeply. We question assumptions. So we find ourselves thinking “I’ve had this headache all day.” Well, actually you haven’t. Look closer. You’ve had it for a microsecond. Before that you had a slightly different headache for a microsecond. You’ve had a gazillion headaches, all a microsecond long, and each one different. So you notice this endless parade of headaches, coming and going, pulsing and throbbing. You come to realize that the headache is not a permanent thing. At some point you realize that everything that constitutes our sense of self is like that. Even the consciousness that notices the headaches coming and going is changing all the time. There’s nothing here but change. There’s no room for the kind of permanent self that we assume “has” our experiences.
This fetter, although we call it “(fixed) self view” is literally the fetter of “real body view” (sakk?ya ditthi) and this literal sense of the term is an important component of the fetter. At a certain point we lose the sense of having a body, and instead we experience ourselves as a mass of ever-changing sensations. There’s a loss of the sense of solidity and permanence of the body. But this experience of the body dissolving doesn’t stop with the body. It extends to every aspect of our experience, and even to our sense of self.
So this is all you need to do. Just look. Notice that everything’s changing. And keep doing this until the penny drops that all there is is change. It’s really simple. We do this with physical sensations, feelings, thoughts, etc.
The second fetter is doubt. All three fetters break at the same time, so this one goes automatically when the fetter of self view breaks. When we break the fetter of self view, we see everything’s changing. This is changing, that is changing, everything is changing. And then it clicks, there’s nothing here that’s permanent. There’s nothing solid in my self.
Now this is very liberating! We’ve been under the grip of a delusion all our lives — the delusion of having a fixed and separate self. There’s been doubt about all this Freudian stuff lurking under the surface. There’s been doubt that we may be fundamentally incapable of becoming enlightened because of all the baggage we’ve been dragging around. And there’s been doubt about whether Buddhist practice can even go beyond making us a bit happier. Now doubt vanishes. Now we have confidence — confidence that comes from the evidence of our senses. So where could there be doubt? Where could it exist? How can your baggage hold you back when it’s impermanent and insubstantial? You’ve seen the reality of not-self, and there’s no room for doubt. (There will be other doubts about other things, but this particular doubt has gone).
The third fetter is “dependence on ethics and religious observances.” The wording of this fetter is strangely complex compared to the others, and it’s also harder to connect this with an experience that happens at the same as the other two fetters break. But apart from the stunning insight that there is no substance to the self, and the surge of confidence we feel as doubt falls away, there’s one other powerful experience that happens at stream entry — a sense of the immediacy and obviousness of the insights we’ve just experienced. Now that we’ve seen, we wonder why we haven’t seen before. After all, the reality of the insubstantiality of the self is out there in the open, just waiting to be seen. The reality of impermanence is not exactly a secret. So there’s this sense of wonder that this is all so easy to do, and we puzzle over why we haven’t seen it before.
So how does this relate to dependence on ethics and religious observances? Basically, this fetter seems to refer to the practices we’ve done that have ended up being a distraction from seeing impermanence and seeing the insubstantiality of the self. We get caught up in external practices that are distractions, like trying to be a “good Buddhist” and trying to impress, and especially trying to understand intellectually rather than just looking and seeing what’s right there in front of us.
Of course we need, in a way, to rely on ethics and religious practices. But sometimes we use them as distractions. We cling to the form of our practice and forget the spirit. We keep forgetting, on some level, what the purpose of practice is. And actually all we have to do is look. And look again. And again. Until finally the penny drops.
San Diego–based Seyo Cizmic is a surrealist artist who creates bizarre objects whose everyday uses have been subverted. This particular work is a striking reminder of the Buddha’s “two arrows” teaching, in which he points out that we take an initial instance of hurt and replay it over and over in our minds, magnifying and intensifying our pain. In other words, most of our suffering is caused by ourselves.
(Thanks to Caroline Hagerman on Google+ for bringing this image to my attention!)
Here’s a meditation tip for you to try. It came to me when I was on retreat a couple of weeks ago. One morning, on the first meditation of the day, I found that my mind was all over the place.
I really needed to calm down my racing thoughts, but I had a hunch that the more I “tried” to do something about them, the more I was going to create more disturbance. In Buddhism we sometimes talk about this as being the task of “catching a feather on a fan,” because more effort equals more disturbance, while a gentle and sensitive effort will get the job done.
As I paid attention to the sense of my body letting go on each out-breath, I heard three words accompanying the exhalations. Breathing out, I’d hear “Relax.” Breathing out, I’d hear “Rest.” Breathing out, I’d hear “Reveal.”
Each of the words had a different effect. “Relax” would direct my mind to the sense of natural relaxation that takes place every time we breathe out. Focusing like this on the physical release that takes place when we exhale helps the body to relax more deeply.
The word “rest” encouraged my mind to let go. As I breathed out, my mind settled into a natural sense of ease, non-striving, kindness, and acceptance.
As I hears the word “reveal,” I experienced a sense of openness to whatever was arising in that moment, whether in the mind or the body. There was a gentle sense of attentiveness and mindfulness — a balance of receptivity and active observation.
These three words, cycling though my mind, gave me a series of little reminders, each as long as an out-breath: let go in the body; let go in the mind; notice and accept whatever’s arising.
Very quickly, my thoughts slowed down. That process started almost the moment that I started saying these three words.
After a little while I found I didn’t need to “hear” the words as thoughts. I could let the mind be silent. My thoughts had substantially died away, and yet even without the verbal reminder, on successive out-breaths I was still relaxing, resting the mind, and allowing my experience to reveal itself to me. And whenever my thoughts started to reappear, I was free to reintroduce the thoughts once more.
Do feel free to try this, and even to adapt it to your own needs. See what doesn’t work, and what does. Meditation is “open source,” and you can adapt it in the light of your own experience.