Experiencing the Impermanence of Vedana

One Mind Dharma Mindfulness, Social Issues 0 Comments

Full disclosure… I am writing this first paragraph as the post is already completed below. I sat down to write about what is going on with me, specifically addressing the multitude of emotions in the past few weeks. As I began writing, two somewhat different “events” came through. My intention is to share authentically, so I left it how it is. I apologize if the two topics seem completely unrelated, or if they seem silly to include in one post together. However, the dharma touches everything, and I think experience is experience. As I finish this post, I actually have gained some insight into this myself. Although there are different things going on in my life and the world, I can use the dharma just the same to meet experience.

When wisdom awakens within you, you will see the Truth wherever you look. Truth is all there is. It’s like when you’ve learned how to read, you can then read anywhere you go.
-Ajahn Chah

Life is crazy. As I continue to live with a practice, I see more and more the perpetual change of feelings, thoughts, and experiences. Life is always changing, the body changes, emotions come and go, and it can be overwhelming sometimes. The events in our community the last week (and decades) have been painful, angering, and simply sad. The unnecessary violence and injustice toward people just hurts, and I am still learning what to do with the hurt. At the same time, I have a lot going on in my own personal life. We just moved from Los Angeles to Sonoma County (north of San Francisco) last month. We’re trying to settle in a new area where we have little personal relationships. We’ve started a couple new meditation groups, are trying to dive into a new sangha, and bring our practice to a new community. With so many things going on, there’s one thing that really stands out… Three weeks from today, I am getting married. That thought brings up quite a flurry of secondary thoughts and emotions. There’s fantasizing about the wedding, a shock-factor, love and joy, and of course some fear.

The Unpleasant

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Regardless of how happy, spiritual, awakened, or fulfilled we may be, we all experience unpleasant thoughts and emotions. The recent acts of violence against our fellow human beings here in the United States has been unpleasant to say the least (and there are many more humans dying from violence across the world). Scrolling through comments on articles or my Facebook feed is just as unpleasant. There’s a lot of hatred, judgement, and ignorance in our world, and I’m not above it myself. I want to tell everyone to just love everyone else, and have it magically work. I want to avert from the feelings arising with some spiritual bypass techniques. I’ll just extend metta and compassion to everyone from the comfort of my home. Or perhaps I will respond with anger to get my point across. These unpleasant experiences have encouraged me to look at my practice deeply, investigating what it means to respond to such suffering with some kind skillfulness. I don’t have any great, deep, words of wisdom or the fix-all that I crave. What I do have today is the understanding that I don’t have a fix-all at the moment. Unpleasant experience happens, and its fertile ground for practice. I can meet the pain with care, and teach the dharma in which I truly believe. As I practice myself and teach, I can bring these practices to what’s going on, encouraging others to investigate how the dharma can work with the violent acts through my behavior and my conveyance of the path. As for the current state of the presidential elections, I perhaps should save my experience of practice with that for its own post!

I’m also experiencing quite a bit of fear in my own life. Money is tight, I’m away from the friendships I’ve built over the years, and I’m about to get married. Overall, everything is okay. I don’t love when people say, “Everything is going to be okay.” In my experience, everything is CURRENTLY okay, even when I’m suffering. We have some money saved, we’re building new friendships and still in touch with old friends, and I’m able to be present for the unfolding of life (more on that later). To be clear, I’m not having second thoughts about the marriage or Elizabeth; rather, I am experiencing some fear surrounding my own growth into an adult. As a recovering drug addict living with a bipolar mind, I am super proud of how far I have come and the life that I have worked to build with the support of those around me. However, I still just don’t feel like an adult. As I’ve expressed this to friends, my dad, and my mentoring teacher, I’ve come to realize that I don’t have to “feel like an adult,” and I am benefiting from taking a look at what that even means to me.

Can I commit to this marriage completely, and love Elizabeth? Can I continue to support her in any way that I can? Can I take responsibility for my own behavior? Can I show up for myself, for her, and for life? The answer is yes. The fear is around an idea of what it means to be an adult, a delusion in my head that “adults” have it all together and know what they’re doing. My first sponsor in Alcoholics Anonymous, who is now 88 years old, told me the other day that he still wakes up some mornings and wonders what he’s doing with his life. He still has to ask for help in dealing with problems, paying taxes, or how to meet life on life’s terms. I have a full life; I teach meditation several nights a week (which I absolutely love), I am the Director of Business Development with a company I love, Elizabeth and I have One Mind Dharma, we have each other, she’s in graduate school, I have a personal practice and wonderful friends to share it with (and whom share theirs with me), and we have the privilege of living in a wonderful home in a beautiful area of the country. However, I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing. And that’s okay. The unpleasantness of the fear has given me a place to bring my practice, and I have been able to stay with the thinking mind enough to see the delusion and resistance that is present. Of course I still fall into fear, but the dharma has allowed me to be with the fear with compassionate attention rather than resistant aversion (sometimes). Although I still suffer over this idea of being an adult I am also grateful for the suffering, as it has led me down the rabbit-hole of investigating delusion in the mind in a new way. The unpleasant is just that: unpleasant. My relationship to it is a work in progress.

12096531_10153223858558946_7135405121303259212_nThe Pleasant

There’s also quite a bit of pleasant stuff going on. It happens in many different ways and communities, but I personally see the Buddhist community rallying together to address the issues going on in the world. With East Bay Meditation Center being a truly groundbreaking example for the world in my opinion, dharma communities are addressing the role of our practice in relation to the events going on in our communities. People of all religions (and atheists of course as well), traditions, races, and beliefs are reaching out to their communities and doing wonderful work. My personal experience is with the Buddhist community, and it brings me great joy to find people that wish to meet, sit, and discuss what is going on in the world in language that I understand. We all fall into moments of aversion and anger, but I also have the opportunity to sit amongst folks that are solution-oriented, meeting the world with compassion, patience, and kindness. I wouldn’t wish suffering of this magnitude upon anyone. I do think that when things like this are happening in the world, we have a choice in our response. And the response of the community I sit with has been inspiring, greatly educational, and hopeful.

In relation to the changes in my life and upcoming events, I am filled with an immense amount of joy. I had a great experience in Los Angeles, but I’m happy to have a backyard (especially for Carol, our Australian retriever), to be in the country a little bit, and to adventure into a new experience. With the wedding, I have tears in my eyes as I just begin to think about it as I am writing. Elizabeth and I have an absolutely perfect relationship. That is, we both have our own imperfections, the relationship has its imperfections, we have fun together, we grow together, we challenge each other, we argue, we react poorly, we share in dharma together, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Joy is a severe understatement of how I feel in our relationship. The pleasant emotions are abundant in our relationship and when thoughts of the wedding arise. We’re having a small wedding with family and some close friends, and going on a nice little honeymoon after. The practice here is to recognize the impermanence and changing nature of the joy and gratitude. Love is impermanent, care is impermanent, and this relationship is certainly impermanent! I don’t mean I expect us to divorce. Rather, I recognize that the experience of the relationship is constantly changing. The relationship and the experience of being in a relationship are in a constant state of flux. I don’t care for her the same way today as I did yesterday. I don’t love her the same way when she’s here with me as I do when she is away and I miss her. And our relationship is constantly changing as we grow and change ourselves. I am slowly learning to go with the flow. As the relationship changes, I am able to meet it where it is, enjoying it int he moment rather than clinging to how I think it should be.

The Impermanence of It All

With both of these experiences, it is obvious to me that experience is not as black and white as I often believe. Yes, an individual experience is often either pleasant or unpleasant. But there are often multiple experiences, perceptions, and vedana arising and falling in rapid succession. The unpleasantness and pleasantness dance together, co-arising and co-passing. As I sat this morning in meditation, I was acutely aware of the tangled up experience of vedana I was having. Even if we drop the labels “good” or “bad” with our experience, we can still fall into the trap of believing something is completely pleasant or unpleasant. Life and experience aren’t as fixed as I habitually perceive.

When I really tune in, using the dharma as my guide, impermanence becomes quite apparent. The idea of impermanence isn’t just that things die or go away. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that things change, are not stable, or ebb and flow. The unpleasant experiences and pleasant experiences are constantly moving and changing. Joy may be present for five minutes straight, but it changes in quality constantly during those five minutes. The pain or fear may be present throughout my day, but it rises and falls in amplitude and changes from sadness to grief to fear to hopelessness and so on. Even a few moments of investigating pain shows this. When I look at the pain, I may feel a tightness in the chest and an aversive thought pattern of trying to fix it all. In the next moment, the tightness may lessen as I sit with the pain with some compassion.

As the experiences change, different things are brought into our attention. The unpleasant experience becomes more subtle, and suddenly we feel the pleasantness of joy. Then we begin thinking about the suffering in our communities and that we aren’t doing enough about it, and the unpleasantness takes center stage. All the while, both joy and sadness may both be present in some capacity. Experience isn’t fixed. I have a tendency to say I am happy or sad in a given moment. It may be more appropriate to say that I am experiencing more pleasant stimuli or more unpleasant stimuli at the moment. Maybe it’s mixed. Maybe it’s neutral. As we begin to investigate and know impermanence in our lives, we find some freedom. The Pali word anicca that we call impermanence in English actually means inconstancy or not continuous. We don’t have to be the victim of every pleasant and unpleasant experience. Recognizing impermanence, we can begin to let go of clinging and aversion. Life will never be all pleasant. It’s futile to try to push away all the unpleasantness. This is my practice today, to experience life as it is and respond with a deeper understanding.