January 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Tenzin Palmo was raised in London, England where she became a Buddhist and then later left for India in 1964. There she became a Buddhist nun and underwent many years of intensive practice, at one time going into strict retreat for three years. In the 1990’s she was asked to start a nunnery and, quoting from her website, “In January 2000 the first nuns arrived and in 2001 the construction of Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery began and is now, with the ongoing construction of the traditional Temple, nearing completion.” In February 2008 she was given the rare title of Jetsunma, which means Venerable Master.
On January 5, 2015 Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo gave a talk at the Florida Atlantic University on how to make the mind a good companion in life. I found her words to be particularly encouraging as they reinforced my own understanding as well as opening up new avenues of thought and practice. Here is some of her talk but if you are interested in hearing her words first hand please use this link.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo began by speaking on the need to heal the mind. She said that while Buddhism seeks to demolish the ego before this could be done it must first be made healthy and balanced.
An unhealthy ego, said Palmo, is like an injured arm. When we injure our arm we keep it close to the body for protection. We think about it all the time because it hurts and if anyone touches it we feel pain. But if our arm is healthy we don’t think about it and we move it about freely. In the same way, if our sense of self is injured we think of it all the time and withdraw to protect it. But if our sense of self is healthy we are free to be open and think of others.
Palmo also spoke of the importance of just seeing and observing our thoughts without becoming immersed in them. To see thoughts as just thoughts, “This is a very important thing,” said she and, as we do, awareness becomes stronger.
She said that as we learn to observe our thoughts we could then begin to select the useful ones and exchange negative thoughts for positive ones. This ability is enhanced by the gap that develops between what we think and how we react to those thoughts. As that gap gets larger we have more time to choose are actions, rather than just impulsively react to whatever arises in life.
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo went on to say more but I find it encouraging that she affirms the direction of my own practice that also emphasizes the importance of seeing thought as just thought. And that this leads to self-healing as we become increasingly aware that our thoughts are not reality.
January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment
A common Tibetan Buddhist practice uses visualization to hallucinate a central figure, usually a deity, out of which many other figures are then made to appear. When all these personages have appeared they are reabsorbed back into the central figure that is then reabsorbed back into the practitioner. The ultimate aim of this practice is to realize that all phenomena are but a dream illusion born from our imagination. A central part of this process is realizing the emptiness of the central and accompanying figures before they are reabsorbed.
In the West we have little time to spend on elaborate visualizations but in a way it isn’t necessary, as we already have created in our imagination numerous “others” to amuse and berate us. It only takes a little bit of self-observation to see that this is true. We are always imagining our self as happy or sad, worthy or unworthy, or in some other fashion as a “this or that” kind of person. Or that we often have on going dialogues with the image of some significant other like a father, mother or spouse (who often take positions opposing our own).
It is easy to see how others act as if their inner persons are real. An individual who was historically abused will often behave, for example, as if an abuser is still around when no such person exists, except but in memory. What is not so easy to see is the strength of our own belief in these inner others and how it leads us to live a life of dream illusion.
In the Tibetan practice the solution to living in dream illusion is to reabsorb the inner personages back into the mind. This may sound mysterious but in fact it has its parallel in modern therapeutic psychology that directs us to make unconscious content conscious. The lesson we learn from the Tibetan practice is that it was only when our thoughts were identified as self or not self that they became autonomous figures. To reintegrate them we must reverse this process by realizing that the inner faces we put on our thoughts are not real people but our own imagining. This allows us to accept the thoughts we disowned, denied or projected out into the world and to reabsorb them back into consciousness.
Inner others are not the result of an overactive imagination. As social beings it is natural for the brain to present ideas as people. But the mind does not stop there. These others also serve as guardians of our mental health in that they act to prevent unwanted or dangerous thoughts from rising into consciousness. It is because of this that Tibetan practices emphasize the need to first realize the emptiness of these figures and the thoughts they represent before reabsorbing them.
There is a positive effect on consciousness that comes from realizing the emptiness of your inner others that has its negative counterpart when this realization is lacking.
Whereas before it seemed that your awareness was crowded by thought, this new state of consciousness has an open and spatial quality to it that creates a feeling of distance between you and your thoughts. When the effect is positive your mind is clearer and more open. When negative, the effect is like suddenly stepping off a cliff.
People who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can and do experience this “stepping into mid-air” effect quite strongly. It arises when their sense of safety is suddenly stripped away leaving them feeling completely vulnerable, exposed and terrified. Needless to say this can be quite debilitating.
Even if you do not have PTSD you still need to take care. Your inner others guard you from undesirable content by directing your attention away from the unconscious. Once you realize their essential emptiness they lose that quality. But as you have yet to realize the emptiness of the new content, encountering it can be as debilitating as a PTSD attack. It is advisable to expand your awareness in this new space gradually by nurturing the realization that the true nature of your unconscious is also emptiness.