Are We Vulnerable to Conspirituality?

What is conspirituality?

Charlotte Ward and David Voas first coined the term “conspirituality” in 2011, to describe the merger of conspiracy theories and New Age spirituality. I like to put a hyphen between the con and spirituality because it is a con. Spirituality is conscripted into the service of gurus and influencers concerned only with their success in terms of numbers of followers, who can then be turned into paying customers. When these gurus start espousing conspiracy theories, their followers – if they’re not critical thinkers and misinformation resilient – tend to believe them, and so the theories proliferate. Fact or fiction, the more people share them, the more people believe them. It’s easy to share that meme or opinion because it seems okay on the surface, but not checking it carefully before sharing is dangerous, for us and for society.

Just look at Trump’s conspiracy theory about the 2020 election. The result is the destabilisation of American society and an assault on the Capitol building.

Conspirituality is ‘a rapidly growing web movement expressing an ideology fuelled by political disillusionment and the popularity of alternative worldviews. It has international celebrities, bestsellers, radio and TV stations. It offers a broad politico-spiritual philosophy based on two core convictions, the first traditional to conspiracy theory, the second rooted in the New Age: 1) a secret group covertly controls, or is trying to control, the political and social order, and 2) humanity is undergoing a ‘paradigm shift’ in consciousness. Proponents believe that the best strategy for dealing with the threat of a totalitarian ‘new world order’ is to act in accordance with an awakened ‘new paradigm’ worldview.

 A 2011 article by Ward and Voas from the Journal of Contemporary Religion

The spiritual, new age, yoga and wellness industry is full of charlatans who will say almost anything if it will increase their social media following regardless of whether or not its true. If it gets lots of ‘Likes’, ‘Shares’, and comments, they’ll keep saying it. If we’ve come away from Buddhism holding the vague kinds of beliefs commonly professed by many of these gurus or influencers, we can easily be led into the rabbit hole of their sphere of influence.  We may adopt a con-spirituality mentality and become part of groups that are every bit as much a cult, if not more so, than the Buddhist cults we left behind.

The problem with con-spirituality

Our devotion to Sogyal would have kept most of us away from the New Age and wellness movement’s lightweight spirituality, but I wonder how many of those who have left Rigpa might be turning to it now. Why is that a problem? Because listening to some people in that community might lead you to think that conspiracy theories are true, and if you embrace them as truth, you end up living in a world of your beliefs that bear little relationship to reality.

A viral outbreak of con-spirituality has arisen in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s based on a critique of modern technology, medicine, and governance. They claim such things as that the COVID-19 pandemic is a construct of the deep-state and a sign of end-times, often aligned with ideas emanating from the far-right, apocalyptic QAnon movement which frequently draws on Christian millenarianism.

Where spiritual people and groups’ questioning of modernity is critical, informed, non-violent, and employ ideas and practices whose validity is bolstered by genuine and fully understood science, that isn’t con-spirituality. People with conspiritual views ignore, denigrate or twist science and evidence and hold opinion and feelings to be the final arbiter of ‘truth’. (Do you recognise this kind of thinking from those in Rigpa who defended Sogyal’s abuse?) This kind of perspective and a lack of media literacy in regards to ascertaining what is true or false is what makes people easy prey for conspiracy theories.

Just as in any cult, adherents feel they are privy to the ‘real truth’ and thus more enlightened than mainstream society. Their form of spirituality is individualised, based on personal choice—often stating that truth can only be known by looking inside themselves—and commodified, which is why conspiritualists see coronavirus restrictions as a threat to their personal freedom. In actual fact they are not only a threat to the health of society, but also completely deluded; they’re fighting an enemy that simply doesn’t exist.

Though lip service may be given to the importance of love, genuine compassion seems to be lacking. Conspirituality movements are full of privileged white people whose philosophy doesn’t work well for those without the means to pay for and take time off their job for the latest sweat lodge or tantric sex weekend, not to mention having the means to purchase the expensive supplements peddled by the wellness influencers. Love is professed only in so far as it makes followers feel good and because talk of it boosts the influencers’ social media followers. As with Sogyal and Rigpa, when it comes down to it, money is their real motivator.

Contemporary spirituality places an emphasis on positive thinking for personal wellbeing and economic gains, and yet individuals cannot simply think themselves out of this COVID-19 crisis. This has resulted in mass spiritual bypassing, with more privileged individuals and groups — who are far less likely to be affected by the coronavirus — denying the reality of the suffering that the virus is inflicting on the less privileged and more vulnerable.

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/covid-conspiracies-and-conspirituality/12760976

People drawn to conspiracy theories often share the same qualities we find in people drawn to spirituality. You may recognise some of the qualities that make one vulnerable to conspiracy theories in yourself, such as:

  1. An openness to unusual beliefs and experiences. If you’re very creative, with a capacity for original, innovative thinking, that openness could be harmless, but you may also be prone to beliefs that are unfounded in reality—especially if you misunderstand the indivisibility of form and emptiness and how that relates to every part of ourselves and our lives.
  2. Prone to very independent thinking, suspicious of authority, suspicious of official narratives, suspicious of mainstream medicine, big pharma, and much more drawn to alternative medicine and alternative healing practices. 
    These qualities are not problematic if measured with common sense and critical thinking, our decisions are evidence based rather than intuition based, and we have a nuanced—rather than black and white—view of the world. If we paint all pharma, all mainstream medicine, all government as bad and all alternative medicine and healing as good, then we’ll be easy prey for the con-spirituality gurus and their cults.
  3. Have a tendency for the narcissism seen in new age spirituality and conspiracy thinking. Both can be a form of Gnosticism, which is based on the idea that you are part of the special elite that has seen through the illusion of ordinary reality and accessed secret truths. (Recognise Rigpa culture here?)

The wellness and alternative spiritual crew have united over the past decade to expose the vested interests of the food, pharmaceutical and oil industries – for valid and worthy reasons. Drug companies have abused our health. The Gates Foundation should be more transparent and accountable, considering the massive influence it has over global public health. And the fight to expose truth has united this community.

Meanwhile, political trust is at an all-time low globally. Media and other moral structures that once held the status quo accountable have desiccated. It’s understandable that we be suspicious and questioning. I am on a number of issues. But as the world gets more complex and noisy, truth can easily become confused with “truthiness”.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/15/the-wellness-realm-has-fallen-into-conspiritualism-i-have-a-sense-why

Could your desire to expose the truth, the same desire that lead you to help expose Sogyal’s abuse and support his victims, lead you into the delusion of conspiracy theories?

‘Spiritual’ beliefs that make you vulnerable to conspiracy theories”1.

  1. Everything is connected;
  2. Nothing happens by accident;
  3. Nothing is as it seems.

Do any of these ring true to you? Aren’t they things we believed in Rigpa? Aren’t these the kinds of beliefs that became slogans used to explain away abuse? These are the core beliefs that have been misunderstood and misappropriated by conspiritualists. If you understand the dharma basis of these beliefs well—including what they don’t mean—are social-media literate, and use your critical-thinking faculties when engaging with con-spiritualists—meaning that you insist on actual proof from recognised trustworthy sources (like properly interpreted genuine science)—you won’t be at risk of falling for the con. However, if your understanding of their spiritual basis is vague, and you are too willing to ‘go with the flow’ and believe whatever someone says when they ‘sound’ reasonable—those skilled in cult induction techniques tell you what you want to hear—you’re at risk of falling into delusion in a big way.

How do we avoid being conned by con-spirituality movements?

People fall for conspiracy theories because they want certainty in an uncertain world. So accepting the limits of your certainty and becoming comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty of human existence will help inoculate you against falling for conspiracy theories. If we long for certainty and security, we’ll hold onto beliefs or hopes or ideologies that give us this certainty, even if they’re a false narrative.

In Buddhist terms, excessive attachment to views is a form of ego clinging, so knowing those teachings will help make you less inclined to become attached to a conspiracy, or any other, theory. Some solid Buddhist study—with genuinely qualified teachers—will help you realise that these beliefs, as they’re stated above, are gross oversimplifications. Apart from being a useful spiritual education, this will help you to avoid being conned by those with no clue to their real meaning. Alternatively, or simultaneously, dropping all ‘spiritual’ beliefs would also work as an inoculation against conspirituality. At the very least, you could develop a questioning attitude to such beliefs and to people who profess them.

In simple terms try to find a balance between being open to alternative experiences and beliefs, but not believing any old nonsense or falling into magical thinking—the belief that unrelated events are causally connected despite the absence of any plausible causal link between them. 

And learn how to do genuine research:

We will indeed need to do our own research and demand more truth. But we will also need to defer to and respect science to do so. We need to understand that research done via YouTube is not “your own research”. It’s an algorithm at play that handcuffs us to our worst cognitive biases. We need to be sceptical – but for the sake of understanding, not to create more tribalism. I would argue that we also need, at a broader level, to instigate fake news resilience training, like Finland has. It works.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/15/the-wellness-realm-has-fallen-into-conspiritualism-i-have-a-sense-why

So along with our spiritual sensitivities, we need to value evidence from our shared physical reality. What seems to be true to us is not the same as what actually is true in reality. If we don’t look for external validation of our beliefs in the form of evidence, we risk becoming completely unhinged from reality, and there is no greater delusion than that.

For more on con-spirituality listen to the Conspirituality Podcast. This episode on why spiritual people are vulnerable to conspiracy theories is particularly relevant.

References.

https://conspirituality.net

https://www.vice.com/en/article/93wq73/conspirituality-explains-why-the-wellness-world-fell-for-qanon

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/covid-conspiracies-and-conspirituality/12760976

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/15/the-wellness-realm-has-fallen-into-conspiritualism-i-have-a-sense-why

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/28/fact-from-fiction-finlands-new-lessons-in-combating-fake-news

Could Your Desire to Wake up to Your ‘True’ Self Lead You Deeper into Delusion?

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings warn that where there is the greatest potential for enlightenment there is also the greatest chance of delusion. If you embark on the spiritual path without correct understanding of the subtle concepts involved, your desire to ‘wake up’ to your true self could lead you deeper into delusion. This is why they say that Vajrayana and Dzogchen should only be undertaken with a qualitied teacher who can make sure that the student doesn’t misunderstand the subtle teachings. But it also applies to any level of spiritual study and practice.

In Rigpa, we enthusiastically lapped up our Dzogchen teachings, never for a moment thinking that we might fall into the kinds of misunderstandings that increase our delusion, rather than freeing us from it. We were brainwashed into believing that we had a great master who was teaching authentic Dzogchen. Given our knowledge now of the man behind the teacher, however, of someone who, along with his most devoted students, thought his actions were not subject to the law of cause and effect of the material plane, it appears that he didn’t understand the teachings on the indivisibility of relative and absolute truth. No matter who you are, if you’re a physical being and you hit another physical being hard, it hurts them and results in blood and bruises. Apart from this being made clear in the teachings on dependent arising, it’s just common sense.

Genuine understanding or vague concepts?

Despite what you may believe or may have been told by those who haven’t really studied the teachings, there is no enlightened plane separate to the physical world, and no inner spiritual world that we can enter to find out what is happening in our external world. That knowledge comes from our outer senses and intelligence backed up by facts presented from reliable integrous sources. Inner examination might show the vastness of inner space and even the way the outer world exists, but it doesn’t show what’s happening ‘behind the scenes’ in the physical world, and it doesn’t change what is actually real to suit our beliefs. If we believe that what we ‘know’ about the outer world from our intuition or ‘inner guidance’ is the same as what is actually true in the external world, we’ve misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘truth’ in relation to what we find by looking at our own awareness.

The Buddha made the relationship between the outer and inner spheres of our experience and perception quite clear when he said, ‘Form is emptiness; emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness; emptiness is no other than form.’ Sogyal said that often, as did we all, but how many of us truly understand its meaning or honestly admit that we don’t really get it and look into it further? How many of us studied beyond Rigpa’s curriculum—which was lightweight in terms of Madyamika—enough to understand dependent arising? Without those teachings we are unlikely to fully understand this statement on emptiness from the Buddha. If we didn’t see the full profundity of this, along with other often-repeated phrases, then they were little more than cult slogans.

Even with the Four Reliances there is opportunity for misunderstanding

Luckily for us, Nyushul Khenpo, who presumably saw the danger inherent in a teacher with many students and no formal training, undertook to give him that training, and Sogyal did follow his words—and those of other respected teachers—precisely. So if we followed the words of the dharma rather than the teacher, we did receive authentic Dzogchen teachings, especially if we fully followed what’s known as the Four Reliances.

1. Rely on the message of the teacher, not on his personality;

2. Rely on the meaning, not just on the words;

3. Rely on the real meaning, not on the provisional one;

4. Rely on your wisdom mind, not on your ordinary, judgemental mind.

The Buddha, in the Sutra of the Teaching of Akshayamati and the Sutra of the Questions of the Naga King Anavatapta.

Even so, there is still much opportunity for misunderstanding. How, for instance, are we to know the real meaning, let alone the difference between our wisdom mind and our ordinary, judgemental mind? Did we seek other teachers and other texts to give us the real meaning? Did we examine the meaning in light of our meditation experience? And did we really use our wisdom mind—which is free of all concepts and has a direct experiential understanding of the meaning of emptiness and its relationship to the physical world—or some vague state still within the realm of concepts and assumptions? Did we mistake intuition for true wisdom? Whether we did or not, I think, would depend on the quality, amount, and consistency of our study and practice. Rigpa’s basic curriculum may have been light weight in some areas, but their lists of quality books to use as resources for each module of study were comprehensive. There was no reason why those with the time and inclination for study and practice could not have understood the true meaning.

Unfortunately, however, those closest to Sogyal, who worked incredibly hard, had the least amount of time for study and practice, even if they had the inclination. And Sogyal taught some very subtle teachings to casual students uninclined towards intensive study who lacked the grounding from which to fully understand them. These he taught in retreats where he’d created the atmosphere of a group trance state, and the danger was that people went away thinking they had understood because they confused a pleasant trance experience with genuine understanding or experience. Such assumptions solidify delusion.

Generosity or greed?

The potential for misunderstanding is the reason why these teachings were supposed to be taught to no more than three students at a time, and why those students were supposed to be only those who were ready for them, those who had done the pre-requisite study and practice. Sogyal, however, boasted at his generosity in making them available to everyone. I’m not complaining, since I benefited greatly from those teachings, but I see now that it was not generosity, but rather greed that led him to be so free with the teachings. Offer something special and the pundits come in droves with open wallets! In this he was no different to the new age gurus he so despised. He certainly had little ability to correct misunderstandings or to go into great depth. I’m fully aware that I learned the definitive details from books, not from Sogyal. He was good at inspiring people and essentialising the teachings—something I appreciated—but essentialisation does not impart the full meaning; it summarises. And if you haven’t studied what is summarised, you could easily come away from such a teaching with assumptions that are incorrect.

Why is this potential lack of understanding an issue? Because having only a vague understanding of key spiritual ideas opens us to falling deeper into delusion, not just on a personal spiritual level, but also on a worldly level.

How can wanting to ‘wake up to your true self’ lead you deeper into delusion?

Misunderstanding ‘spiritual’ ideas or ‘lightweight spirituality’–picking just the bits that appeal and not giving ideas any kind of rigorous investigation—can lead not only to deepening personal delusion but also to worldly delusion because conspiracy theorists share some of the same kinds of ‘sloganisable’ beliefs. By sloganisable beliefs I mean easily sharable stock phrases that sound right to ‘spiritual’ people but about which they may have erroneous assumptions or incomplete understanding. When reduced to slogans, the very beliefs you subscribe to because they are what you ‘feel’ to be true in light of your path to wake up to your true self are used to hook you into the delusion of conspiracy theories. In the cause of waking people up to the conspiracy theories in which they believe, they are spouted equally by narcissistic New Age and wellness gurus / influencers and the white supremacists, anarchists and far right Christians that spread conspiracy theories.

For instance, ‘Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear.’ Sounds fair enough. Sounds like something we heard often in Rigpa, too. Remember Sogyal’s oft repeated slogan ‘all fear arises from an untamed mind’? That suggests that we can, and should, get rid of fear by ‘working with our mind’ which in Rigpa essentially meant ignoring one’s thoughts and emotions—never giving any credence to the fact that acknowledging the validity of our fear could save our life.

‘Don’t let yourself be ruled by fear’ is also, according to the Conspirituality website page on the language used by conspiritualists, ‘a stock phrase used [by conspiracy theorists] to denigrate anyone who, in the time of COVID, abides by public health directives. The term implies that the virus is not real, but rather a constructed social control effort. Meshes well with victim-blaming language that suggests fear itself is a degraded or immature state.’

Note that last sentence. Isn’t that exactly how it was used in Rigpa?

See the danger now?

See how easily someone could hook you with that slogan because we’re familiar with it from Rigpa where it was also used as a method of denigration for and dismissal of valid concerns?

Do you believe that your personal transformation/enlightenment is part of a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which ‘all things will be changed’? Millenarianism—defined as a religious, social, or political group or movement that believes this—is part of the con-spirituality mind set. Your desire to see a better world where everyone has woken up to their true nature can easily be the way you inadvertently share a slogan with links back to a bunch of conspiracy theorists for whom the great awakening means waking up to the truth of the Q-drops, and also to ‘the storm, or the wave of mass arrests that will finally awaken the nation to the reality of the Cabal.’  Once you’ve shared something that, even if it seems innocuous on the surface, was posted by a conspiracy theorist you’re a target for recruiters who know exactly how to hook you. Be careful or your desire to see society wake up might become the hook that draws you into another cult, because make no mistake about it, the groups that spread conspiracy theories are cults, dangerous ones too.

Look what happened in Washington on the 6th January 2021.

Where do you find truth?

New Age, wellness and other modern ‘spiritual’ communities where many have fallen prey to conspiracy theories put great stock in following one’s own intuition or inner wisdom, not only to guide you in life but also as a method for ascertaining ‘truth’. I agree that we need to follow our inner wisdom to find our essential nature, but my understanding of ‘inner wisdom’ or ‘finding the truth within’ doesn’t preclude me from using my critical thinking faculties. Nor do I confuse ‘finding the truth within’ with finding the truth of what has actually happened or not happened in the outer world – which is what those who have fallen into conspiracy theories have done. They think something is true because it ‘feels’ true or because they believe it is true.

Again, look at all those who believe Trump won the 2020 US election? It doesn’t matter what evidence you try to give them to prove that Biden won. They’ll just tell you that they ‘know’ Trump won.

If you don’t know how to differentiate between your ego mind and your wisdom mind (the mind that recognises emptiness), then following the idea that we should turn to our wisdom mind in order to find the ‘truth’ could be dangerous. Whether we’re following our ego—undoubtedly cloaked in its wise form on order to fool us—or our wisdom mind, we’d better have a healthy dose of common sense and respect for external truth as validated by actual evidence in the real world. Without it, we could easily fall prey to those who push conspiracy theories.

Non-rational forms of knowing, such as dreams, intuitions, inspiration and mystical experiences have their place, of course. They can be important sources of wisdom and healing. Many great scientific discoveries and cultural creations have come from ecstatic inspiration, from Newton’s discovery of gravity to Milton’s Paradise Lost. However, it’s crucial to balance our capacity for ecstatic / magical / mythical thinking with the capacity for critical thinking.

Too much left brain thinking without any ecstasy, and you end up with a rather dry and uninspiring worldview. Too much ecstasy without critical thinking, and you may be prone to unhealthy delusions, which you then spread, harming others. You may be so sure you’re right, so hyped in your heroic crusade, you may block things that are really helpful and spread things that are really harmful.


https://emotionsblog.history.qmul.ac.uk/2020/04/conspirituality-on-the-overlap-between-spirituality-and-conspiracy-thinking

Most of us in this post-Buddhist cult community are good people. I’m sure that none of us want to ‘spread things that are really harmful’. So if we do it by accident—and that’s easy to do if we don’t take the time to check the source and critically evaluate what we read—then we can always simply admit our mistake. We’ll all learn by hearing your story.

What experience have you had with conspiracy theories? Do you know or have you been approached by anyone pedalling conspiracy theories? How did they try to hook you?


Image by Nicky • 👉 PLEASE STAY SAFE 👈 from Pixabay

My next post will look at other ways we might be vulnerable not only to conspiracy theorists but also to the narcissistic wellness gurus and influencers who will happily hook us into their brand of spiritual in order to sell you their wares.

References.

https://conspirituality.net

https://www.vice.com/en/article/93wq73/conspirituality-explains-why-the-wellness-world-fell-for-qanon

https://www.abc.net.au/religion/covid-conspiracies-and-conspirituality/12760976

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/15/the-wellness-realm-has-fallen-into-conspiritualism-i-have-a-sense-why

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jan/28/fact-from-fiction-finlands-new-lessons-in-combating-fake-news

When will my goodbye come? – Contemplative Poetry

pond

This morning I went for a swim in the rain, then I wrote what I guess you could call a piece of contemplative poetry. I share it, not because it is anything special, but because it’s not. I want to celebrate the ordinary, the freedom of not trying to be anything, of not seeking, not chasing after peace or enlightenment or anything else, just being me – whatever that is. Not knowing is fine. Not defining anything is fine. Everything is fine, even when it’s not.

Here’s my poetic contemplation:

When will my goodbye come?
When will be the last moment my eyes look upon this beauty?
This fresh green;
This velvet water.
Caressing my skin as the cicadas sing.

So fleeting is my life,
My stewardship of this land with which I am one;
All that I have built;
All that I have nurtured;
One day I must say my final farewell.

I do not know when;
Be it soon or later, this moment is all I have;
The birds chirping;
The gentle falling rain;
I greet you with gratitude for the gift of this moment.

These photos are of my garden. It’s what I looked at as I wrote. Yes, I am truly blessed to live somewhere so beautiful.

If you have any artistic expressions in words or photos that you’d be willing to share, please send them to me at tahlia (a) beyondthetemple.com. (Replace the a in brackets with the usual email form. I write it this way so bots can’t grab the email address.) I think we all have something to contribute from our own experience, something that will resonate with others living beyond the temple.

Feel Helpless? Good. That Means You’re Feeling!

I recently recorded a video in which I shared what I do when I feel helpless. I shared it because I figure that I’m not the only one feeling helpless, at least occasionally, when we look at the world situation, particularly climate change and the dire predictions for our future. In the video I share how the way I deal with such an emotion takes me from a place where I feel helpless to a place where I realise that I’m not actually as helpless as I think I am. In the video that’s a kind of esoteric place – for want of a better word – but that’s not the end of the story. What I find interesting is how the sense of empowerment gained through working with an emotion in that way can help me find ways to help on the level of action in the physical world.

Emotions in Buddhism & Rigpa

This story begins with allowing myself to truly feel that helplessness, trusting the wisdom in that and allowing the results of feeling deeply to naturally unfold. Too often in the past, I’ve given no credence to my emotions and not taken note of their message. Aspects of Buddhism can be misused or misunderstood in a way that diminishes the importance of paying attention to our emotions.

There’s a lot of helpful advice and teachings in Buddhism about dealing with emotions in a way that trains us not to get caught up in them, but if we’re someone who comes to Buddhism with a childhood training in repressing emotions, then these teachings can be used to continue that repression – especially if it’s in the interest of your teacher to stop you from listening to or acting on what you emotions are telling you.

In Rigpa, for instance, we were trained to watch Sogyal abuse others without having a reaction. If something ‘arose’ in us in reaction to his bullying, we were taught to ignore it, told to just ‘let it go’. Never were we allowed to consider that that feeling might have an important message for us – like, ‘Hey, wake up; this guy is abusing those people.’ No; emotions were to be mistrusted. Essentially, we were taught to ignore our emotions and see their expression as an indication of a lack of spiritual progress.

That isn’t what the Buddha actually taught, however. The basic meditation instructions are to neither repress nor indulge thoughts and emotions, but to simply watch and they will naturally pass. Some teachers – such as Tsoknyi Rinpoche – teach you to acknowledge feelings as part of the process of letting them go. In Rigpa, that part was missed out, and so ‘letting go’ easily became pushing them away or squashing them.

The mindfulness of feeling is an important part of Buddhist training, but it wasn’t something we spent much time on in Rigpa. We learned about it, practiced it for a bit and then ignored it, probably because having us all aware of our feelings wouldn’t serve Sogyal’s purpose. More of us would have left earlier had we listened to the feeling in our gut telling us that what we saw wasn’t kindness; it was verbal abuse.

chenrezig.jpg

Having emotions doesn’t mean you’re stupid

Even this wise quote from Shantideva can make you think – if you’re someone with a tendency to repress – that being unhappy is a problem. That you’re stupid because you’re unnecessarily feeling helpless or sad or whatever.

“Why be unhappy about something if it can be remedied? And what is the use of being unhappy about something if it cannot be remedied?”

Shantideva. Chapter 6, vs 10 of Bhodicharyavatara

I know that quote well. I’ve used it as a guide ever since I first heard HH Dalai Lama say it. It’s very useful in reminding us that there are simply some things that we can do nothing about, and accepting that fact is necessary for our own happiness. I can’t help vote Trump out and that doesn’t make me feel helpless, and I can’t stop a wildfire racing towards me, but that does make me feel helpless, no matter how pointless that feeling is according to Shantideva.

So to break out of the tendency to repress, I need to remember that it’s okay to feel something uncomfortable or even get upset, and HH Dalia Lama demonstrates this – I saw him weeping on a video when he heard about the way some teachers were abusing their students. I have to remind myself that it’s not only okay to feel however you feel, it’s also healthy and even wise – if you pay attention; it’s not foolish if it’s over something you can’t do anything about.

I can’t do anything about Trump, but I can still weep for all those people who died because of his negligence. If it throws me into a deep depression, that’s something else, but if we have a way to express our feelings in a healthy way – even if it is over something we can do nothing about – then they will naturally pass. It’s going over and over the same issue in our minds that will keep those emotions around and cause long term issues, not simply feeling it in the moment without indulging or repressing. And the feeling of it doesn’t mean you’re paralysed by it, not if you watch it with awareness, then it can lead to surprising realisations. Not allowing ourselves to feel, however, that is a problem. Now I’m learning the wisdom of acknowledging what I feel.

Image by Alexas_Fotos from Pixabay

Breaking the pattern of repression

I have to consciously make an effort to pay attention and overcome my training from childhood and Rigpa in order not to rush to the ‘letting go’ stage. I have to allow myself to feel it and acknowledge it and then allow it go, rather than actively ‘letting it go’ which becomes more of a pushing it away. And if anyone suggests that there’s something wrong with me having a feeling of any kind, I have to remind myself that whatever I feel is okay, no matter what it is, and no matter what caused it. My psychologist emphasises this point – she also teaches the grounding techniques I mention in the video.

It’s interesting how insidiously the application of the teachings we received infiltrates our way of being. To overcome that warped application, we have to:
– know the actual teachings (neither indulge nor repress our emotions, and pay attention to them with mindfulness);
– understand in what way we were taught to apply them was twisted – it became repression/dissociation in the service of enabling an abuser;
– watch for negative attitudes – that displaying emotions indicates some lack of spiritual maturity – and habits – such as the habit of ignoring them – when they arise in ourselves;
– and notice when and how other’s reactions to our emotions affects us – perhaps making us feel bad about ourselves.

So that’s the background for this video. For me to be so public about feeling a feeling was quite a challenge.

Feeling helpless can lead to action

If you watched the video, you’ll see that the process of feeling and watching that feeling with awareness takes me to a place where I recognise that I’m not quite as helpless as I might feel. But even on a relative level, sometimes being unhappy about something that you think you can’t remedy pushes you to find a way to actually do something.

But since this post is long enough already I’ll go into that in my next post.

Does any of this resonate with you? What’s your relationship to your emotions these days? Has it changed since your time in Rigpa?

Art as Meditation & Contemplation

In this video I talk about creativity as a form of meditation, art as meditation, and personal art as a focus for contemplation. I talk about visual art and craft – including flower arranging – but it also applies to the performing arts, of course. And even to creating gardens and home decorating, anything where you can put aside your thoughts and tune into the deep well of creativity inside you, the creative mind that, in my experience, is the same as the ‘meditative’ mind.

I know quite a few in the Beyond the Temple community who find a refuge in creativity and who create art of some form. Some of them do use art as meditation and contemplation. I mention colouring in in the video, but I also know a painter, two photographers, several musicians and many who create beautiful gardens and homes or who simply appreciate looking at something beautiful.

As I see it, everything we do is self-expression, but by focusing on self-expression in the form of something that we find aesthetically pleasing, we nurture the light that is specifically ours and help it shine forth to lighten the darkness for others.

So, please, if you’re someone who creates and has a photo of the results that you can link to in the comments, please do. I think we can all gain inspiration from what others are doing to reclaim their spiritual life.

Do you do any conscious creating? Or use art making as meditation. If so, please tell us what you do and any special way you do it, and if you have any image or recording of it online, please put a link in the comments.

(You could also try right clicking on a Facebook photo, choose copy and see if you can paste it into your comment. )

What is the Point of a Spirituality Divorced from the World?

I’ve noticed that just about everyone I know who has left a Tibetan Buddhist cult has moved more into the world than they did while a Tibetan Buddhist. During our decades of Tibetan Buddhist study and practice, we focused very much on ourselves and our own ‘spiritual progress’, despite the teachings on love and compassion where our focus was supposed to be on others.

Self-focused spirituality

The ‘logic’ behind that was that we can’t really help others until we have sufficient wisdom and compassion ourselves to know what is the wisest course of action. This makes sense to me to a degree, but I saw the result of taking this attitude to its extreme point just after the truth of Sogyal’s abuse became public knowledge. A friend, who is still a Rigpa devotee and who remained faithful to the idea of Sogyal as a Mahasiddha, told me that though he felt sad for those who ‘felt’ they’d been hurt, he couldn’t do anything to help them at the moment because his focus was on gaining enlightenment ‘for the sake of others’. He felt that at some time in the future, once he’d gained enlightenment, then he would be able to do what was wise and compassionate. In the meantime, he just carried on with his self-focus. This is the epitome of a spirituality that is so inwardly focused that it is completely divorced from the world.

Christians tend to do all sorts of charitable activities. Social engagement in order to help those who are struggling is part of the Christian way. But Buddhists are not known for social engagement or charitable works. They build temples and monasteries, not homeless shelters, and they spend years in retreat completely cut off from the world, focused on their own mind and their own spiritual development.

The effect of the monastic ideal

This idea that spiritual progress cannot happen without being separated from the world is a hang-over from the traditionally monastic nature of Tibetan Buddhism and of Buddhism itself. Buddhism began as a monastic religion – the Buddha’s followers renounced the world, shaved their heads, donned robes and took to the forest – and monasteries have remained an important part of Buddhism in all areas of the world. Ordinary householder Buddhists go to the temples to pray and meditate, but the attitude in Asian cultures is that if you’re serious about enlightenment, you become a monastic. You separate yourself from worldly life. You can practice meditation at home, of course, but the householder’s life is seen as inferior to the monastic one for those wishing to gain enlightenment.

Vajrayana is supposed to be a way to remain in the world while progressing spiritually, but completing the practices requires a huge commitment to retreat, to separating yourself from the world, in some form or other – even if it’s just spending several hours a day in meditation while otherwise trying to earn an income.

Spending time each day in contemplation or meditation is a wonderful thing, and so is taking time for a retreat, it’s one’s attitude once back in the world that can be problematic. If, while living in the world, one’s main focus is on one’s own spiritual progress – even if it’s supposedly for the sake of all beings – then one’s ability to engage with the world and to help those who need assistance will be compromised to some degree.

The effect of the bodhisattva ideal

Of course, we were all supposed to be trying to be Bodhisattvas. We were taught that wanting to achieve enlightenment for the sake of others was the ideal, and that to seek enlightenment for ourselves alone is an inferior and slower path that leads not to enlightenment but rather some look-alike state from which we still need to progress in order to gain full enlightenment.(As if the Buddha wouldn’t have taught a path to full enlightenment!) But in practice, how many of us truly, despite saying our bodhichitta prayers, were focused anywhere other than on ourselves and our own spiritual development? I didn’t see it until I stopped trying so hard to be a good little Buddhist.

The compassion practices are supposed to be focused outwardly, supposed to be caring for others more than ourselves, and many of us spent hours doing the compassion practices, but they all involved sitting on a cushion doing mental gymnastics rather than going onto the street and taking a homeless person out for a meal.

Don’t get me wrong, the mental gymnastics are a great preparation for acting with compassion in the world. The issue is that practitioners tend to not take their training in compassion that step further and actually use their supposedly opened hearts to bring benefit to the world beyond their prayers and practices.

Those who make the decisions in Rigpa at the international level, for instance, have shown themselves quite incapable of acting with genuine compassion towards those who Sogyal abused. Everything they try with the aim of ‘reaching out’ keeps them safely in their bubble of beliefs with no need for them to actually look at themselves or open themselves up to the reality of those they think they are ‘helping’. Their actions come from a sense of superiority, as if they are grandly doing something ‘to help’ the victims. But they have proved themselves incapable of hearing what Sogyal’s victims and their supporters have been saying to them.

The bodhisattva idea is a noble one, but if you’re fooling yourself that you have bodhicitta when you’re really just concerned with your own spiritual progress, or you use that ideal as an excuse not to engage with the world, then you’ve failed to understand – let alone realise – the teachings on compassion.

Can we wait until we’re all enlightened to lend a helping hand?

One doesn’t have to be enlightened to see that the first step in helping others is to actually ask what they need, and then provide that, not just deliver something you think will help. In order to help others, you need to understand their needs, and in order to do that, you have to engage with that person, to hear their concerns, open your heart to them and put yourself in their shoes as much as possible. Believing that you can best help others by working on yourself keeps you remote from others and gives you a convenient excuse not to get your hands dirty.

What a copout!

Right now, our world and all the beings in it need us all to get our hands dirty. We all need to pitch in and do what we can to right the growing injustices, to clean up our act, and to help people prepare for an uncertain future.

One doesn’t have to be enlightened to help out with any of the charities in our areas, to join in a protest for the sake of the future. People are in need now. Our planet is in need now. What is the point of focusing on our own ‘spiritual’ development while the world falls apart around us?

Spirituality grounded in the world

The option is to turn our attention to working in the world, to using life itself, with all its challenges, to facilitate our spiritual awakening, rather than remaining outside of the world as we were while in our cults. And this is what I’m seeing in my friends that have left Rigpa and other Tibetan Buddhist groups. They are using all sorts of ‘in the world’ activities as their spiritual path –  work with homeless people, domestic abuse victims, children in disadvantaged areas and so on; growing bonsai as an aid to healing; environmental activities and activism; being advocates for those with disabilities; developing a permaculture farm and so on. And though these things can be a spiritual path, that’s not why they’re doing it; they’re genuinely doing these things for others and for the future of the world.

And then there’s the things we do in order to refresh ourselves and stay healthy; things such as walking in nature, exercise, yoga and gardening. My meditation these days has a large component of physical yoga in it. It helps keep my mind and awareness grounded in my body, something left out of the Rigpa version of spirituality.

Grounded Spirituality requires us to engage with what life presents to us, to act in as wise and compassionate way as we are able as well as spending some time in self-reflection. It needn’t be an either/or situation. The challenge those who are going beyond the temple have taken up is acting in the world while seeing with the vast awareness afforded us by our contemplative practice – be it in the past or the present.

One of the stories of the Buddha is of him telling a woman, an ordinary householder who could not become a nun because of her family responsibilities, to be aware of her every action as she did her work, and she became enlightened. Just by doing that. No removal from the world was necessary.

So there is no need to feel that by giving up your hours of Buddhist practice that you’re giving up your shot at enlightenment. If the ideal of enlightenment still matters to you, you can work on it every moment of the day just by focusing on what you’re doing in the present. You don’t need to separate yourself from the world.

And of course, the more you can look at your own awareness and peel away the layers of misperception caused by your beliefs and concepts, the more you’ll see your link to everything and everyone.  Once you realise that you’re not separate from anything, when the knowledge that we are all one in essence is a constantly lived experience, then acting in the world becomes akin to tending to our own sore toe. It simply becomes necessary. In the meantime, before we have that realisation, the job is the same – tending to the sore bits.

How has your focus changed since leaving your cult? Are you engaging with the world? In what way?

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Climate Revolution Requires a Shift in Consciousness

Changing the world requires a change of consciousness. Think about the big shifts in human development – the French Revolution; the abolishment of slavery; voting rights for women; equal opportunity for all regardless of race or gender – when these ideas first appeared, the mainstream thought them extreme and they met a lot of resistance, but eventually enough people saw the importance of breaking out of old patterns that our civilisation made these changes, changes that benefitted a huge number of people.

The shift in consciousness required now is essentially one that changes our pattern of plundering the natural world (e.g. burning fossil fuels) to one of caring for it (e.g. using renewable energy sources).  

‘Humanity needs a transformation of belief – a drastic reshaping of human values. People around the world must come to see the planet as our “common home,” one that we share with other countries and other species.’ 

James Engell Professor at Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences English Department

The reshaping of human values of which Engell speaks is one based on an understanding of interdependence, impermanence and, at the deepest level, the compound nature of all phenomena. Sound familiar?

But there is enormous resistance in some quarters to making that shift. In Australia our government is practically a puppet for the fossil fuel mining companies, whose greed outweighs any sense of responsibility they might have to future generations.  And yet the climate science is so clear. So why can’t those in power in Australia and the US, and those who support them, see what’s right in front of them? Why can they not embrace the necessity of change?

Answer: Essentially they lack the necessary level of mental awareness to be able to escape the fear-driven machinations of their own minds.

Blinded by attachment, aversion and ignorance

“I used to think the top environmental problems facing the world were global warming, environmental degradation, and eco-system collapse.. but I was wrong. The real problem is not those three items, but greed, selfishness and apathy. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”

James Speth, former head of the Council on Environmental Quality and a top Washington policy maker.

In other words, the reason some cannot see the evidence before them is attachment to money, aversion to anything that threatens oneself and one’s comfortable life (selfishness), and ignorance or lack of concern or interest.

‘The transformation that Speth speaks about is a shift to a higher level of attention and seeing the world from a more objective vantage point with a witnessing or reflective consciousness.’ … it’s a ‘shift from an “embedded consciousness” that is locked inside the habits of our thinking mind to a more spacious “reflective consciousness” that enables us to become a fair witness or objective observer of our lives. … A reflective or witnessing consciousness also promotes a feeling of connection with the rest of life. We begin to see and sense our intimate relationship with all of life and this, in turn, naturally fosters feelings of compassion and caring.’

Duan Elgin, Climate Change Consciousness, Huffington Post

A reflective consciousness uses the skills we developed through meditation practice and that millions of others around the world are developing in secular mindfulness programs.

If we care about our children and future generations, both human and animal, and about our planet, we will care about doing our bit to halt climate change, and for some of you this might mean working to assist people in making this shift in consciousness by teaching meditation in your local community hall.

Thoughts and beliefs give rise to speech, and action follows thoughts and speech.

Mind is the master. Change starts there.

Mental revolution

As Buddhists or ex-Buddhists, we should have learned a bit about how our minds work. The idea of being able to look at our own thoughts and beliefs without getting involved in them is not just something for us to do on a mediation cushion; it’s something to apply to our lives. We practice so we can apply that skill of being non-judgmentally aware of our mind to our life.

We also, if we’ve studied a bit, have learned that, according to Buddhism, in order to see reality directly, we have to be able to drop (if even only for a moment) the four things that obscure us. These are cognitive obscurations (our concepts and beliefs), habitual obscurations (our habits), emotional obscurations (the emotions we get caught up in), and karmic obscurations (the actions we take without awareness that are driven by past actions).

We can only truly see reality without these overlays. If we can recognise these concepts, habits, emotions and impetuses in ourselves, then we can start to let them go, or at least step outside of them enough to see without filters for a moment or two.

In meditation we practice doing exactly that. We practice simply seeing, without commentary, without becoming distracted by whatever rises in our minds. We practice seeing reality as it is without the overlay of concepts and beliefs about what we see, and without habitual or karmic reaction or getting carried away by whatever emotion whatever is in front of us might evoke. This makes the skills learned in meditation essential for this shift in human consciousness to occur.

What causes denial and inaction?

We saw the result of Buddhist practitioners not applying their meditation skills to life when many in our old communities refused to believe that our ex-gurus abused people, despite being presented with solid evidence to the contrary. Instead of seeing the evidence as it was, they let their concepts, emotions, habits, and unconscious reactions blind them. Those who made no decision as to the truth or untruth of the accusations of abuse misused the madyamika concept of emptiness and the meditation instruction to not get involved in risings as justification to not act.

Those who thought, ‘It didn’t happen to me, so it doesn’t affect me,’  or ‘Hitting transformed me, so those who felt abused simply weren’t able to work with it in the right way,’ allowed those ideas/concepts to blind them to the truth. They didn’t look with an open mind. They looked with a heavily conceptually and/or emotionally obscured mind (habitual and karmic obscurations would be in play as well). So they didn’t see the evidence as it was.

And most likely these reactions were driven by fear of change and the results of accepting such an uncertain future. Accepting the evidence would mean they would have to re-evaluate their beliefs, their actions, and their place in the world, and likely certain beliefs and the emotional support they give would crumble as a result – a scary prospect. No one wants to have to do that. As human beings we tend to cling to our comfort zone and do whatever we can to protect it. Only a great shock will jolt us out of our torpor of ignorance.

It’s easy for people to reject the evidence of climate change because up until now it appears to have happened fairly slowly or it hasn’t impacted on us directly yet, because media propaganda has made some think that climate change is not real, isn’t as serious as the majority of scientists say or is a matter of belief not fact, and because it suits us to ignore the signs – just as we ignored the signs that Sogyal wasn’t actually the person we thought he was, and we were brainwashed by the Rigpa party line. And it’s easy to reject predictions for the future because they seem too extreme, the same reason some rejected the ‘stories’ of Sogyal’s abuse; they just couldn’t believe it could be that bad.  And in the same way, we don’t want to believe that our future could be as bad as predicted. It’s just too scary.

They [climate change deniers] reject the knowledge because it’s incompatible with their worldview, their sense of identity, their anti-government and governance bias, and with all they would have to do and be if they were to take in these truths. 

Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton

If practicing Buddhists can’t manage to accept clear evidence, to see without obscuration, is it any surprise that ordinary people can’t do the same when it comes to climate change? Is it any surprise that they/we react with fear (emotional obscuration), disbelief (cognitive obscurations), resistance to change (habitual obscurations) and that we continue to be driven by the four hopes and fears – hope for happiness, fame, praise and gain, and fear of criticism, loss, pain and suffering – (karmic obscurations)

The mental health challenge

Of course, acceptance of what the climate science research is telling us is a challenge for our mental health. Anxiety and depression are on the rise – and no wonder. This is why it’s important for us to find out what we can do in our own lives to help and then do what we can.

If we fall into despair, dwelling on the worst-case scenerios and thinking there is nothing we can do, or that we, as individuals, can’t do enough, then it becomes another reason not to act and that only compounds the problem.

The Australian PM, Scott Morrison (aka Scomo or ScottyFromMarketing) often says that Australia only contributes 1.3% of the global total of carbon dioxide emissions and he uses that as an excuse to not cut emissions more. His thinking is, ‘Why bother, if we lack the power to do anything that makes a difference?’ But apart from that figure giving a distorted picture by leaving out some important factors (like that our per capita emissions rate is one of the highest, along with the USA), if we put together all the countries responsible for less than 2% of total global emissions they make up something like nearly 40% of the global total. Imagine what a disaster it would be if they all took the same attitude as the present Australian government. The point being that everything helps. Even if it seems like very little, if enough of us do it, it will have a huge effect. For instance, imagine if all of us put our superannuation into an ethical super fund that doesn’t invest in fossil fuel companies and instead funds renewables.

My key to mental health this year is telling myself, ‘I will not fall into despair.’ Remembering that when I feel really down about it all, stops me from getting depressed and keeps me focused on what I can do, not on what I can’t do. Despair is debilitating. Action is empowering – even if it’s small.

Watch out for distorted truth in this discourse

Near the bottom of a comprehensive article on climate change by Warm Heart Worldwide is a section that warns of how people’s reactions can distort the conversation around climate change. I quote it below. You’ll notice that it’s very similar to the kinds of reactions we saw to the accusations of abuse by our Tibetan Buddhist gurus.

‘Fringe environmental groups, right-wing internet blogs, politicians of all stripes have spread falsehoods far and wide or distorted the truth to serve their own ends. Beware three particular versions of “science” abuse:

My cause is so critically important that a little exaggeration/a few lies are no sin’: This is the most common version indulged in equally by left and right. Environmentalists feel that “life on earth” or whatever is worth any price; the hard right believes that the “climate myth” is simply another internationalist plot to impose government control on free people – whose freedom must be protected at all costs. In both cases, attention to the truth takes a back seat.

The sky is falling – Oh, give me a break’:
Here the divide is between the doomsayers (“Climate Change Impacts Could Collapse Civilization by 2040” report)  and the perpetually disengaged (“Americans don’t worry much about climate”). The doomsayers will find any excuse to believe the worst; the “whatevers” see no reason for concern about anything. To put these contending positions in context and observe the misuse of science in action, remember, first, the 1970s and the gloom that surrounded the impending exhaustion of world oil resources that led to a policy of “pump America dry first” and then, second, the “oh, give me a break” reaction to the efforts that ultimately led to the 1970 Clean Air and Water Act.

”They only believe in/deny climate change because they are [dumb, insane, evil, deluded, godless, terrorists…]’:
This is such a common type of “argument’ that it must be mentioned, although it is so illogical an “explanation” that it is hard to consider. Most people learned in primary school that such ad homonym attacks do not constitute compelling refutations, but such assertions form such an essential part of what passes for global “public discourse’ today that it bears repeating that any such contention only bears tossing out.’

We all know how frustrating it is to deal with these kinds of responses, but if we are to help shift consciousness, we must restrain our anger when we’re trying to have a conversation with those who use these tactics. When you’ve finished talking, go yell into a pillow, not at the object of your anger; it only polarises people and causes them to be even more protective of their own beliefs.

Anger feeds a divisive politics that cannot help us to address our big collective challenges. By retreating into social media echo chambers where mockery and disrespect are the norm, we risk losing entirely the social cohesion and trust needed for democracy to work.

A whole-of-society discussion about our collective future is urgently needed. Now is the time to reinvent how we communicate about climate change, particularly with those who don’t see it as an urgent concern.

theconversation.com/not-everyone-cares-about-climate-change-but-reproach-wont-change-their-minds-118255

Not everyone cares about climate change, but reproach won’t change their minds. We know that all too well from trying to converse with those who don’t care about guru abuses. This article from The Conversation gives some excellent pointers for communicating with those who simply don’t seem to care enough.

The good news

The good news is that by merely accepting that we need to make major reductions in carbon emissions and radically up our level of environmental care, we contribute to the necessary shift in global consciousness. Just that awareness and understanding, even with no other immediate action on your part, contributes to a positive future. Why? Because you’ll naturally transmit that understanding to others, and it will eventually have an effect on your behaviour and the behaviour of your friends and family.

But we need more than acceptance of the facts to deal with the plethora of issues involved in turning this around, we need a level of genuine awakening, the kind that many of us who have studied and practiced Buddhism for decades already have, one based on an understanding of interdependence, impermanence and the compound nature of all phenomena.

Climate change is not the concern of just one or two nations. It is an issue that affects the whole of humanity and every living being on this earth. This beautiful planet is our only home. If, due to global warming or other environmental problems, the earth cannot sustain itself, there is no other planet to which we can move. We have to take serious action now to protect our environment and find constructive solutions to global warming.

When we see photographs of the earth from space, we see no boundaries between us, just this one blue planet. This is no longer a time to think only of ‘my nation’ or ‘our continent’ alone. There is a real need for a greater sense of global responsibility based on a sense of the oneness of humanity.

HH Dalai Lama. Message to Delegates to the COP24 UN Climate Conference December 5, 2018.

More good news is that this shift in consciousness is already happening. The Beyond the Temple community is evidence of that in the way we support each other on this journey of awakening, and our communication technology supports us in those efforts, enabling us to share ideas with others across the globe. The amount of information and opinion open to us through social media is enormous if we’re interested enough to access it.

With the combined power of our communications technologies, we are fostering a new level of collective consciousness that can overcome our apathy, selfishness, and greed and enable us to discover a common future of sustainable prosperity. We are a witnessing species. Assisted by the communications revolution, we are becoming more fully awake and able to respond to the supreme test of climate change from a higher level of perception and understanding.

Duan Elgin, ‘Why Climate Change Requires a Consciousness Change.’

In his new book, The Climate Swerve: Reflections on Mind, Hope, and Survival, Psychiatrist and historian Robert Jay Lifton argues that we are living through a time of increasing recognition of the reality of climate change, a psychological shift he refers to as a “swerve,” driven by evidence, economics, and ethics. “It’s becoming more and more difficult to take the stand of climate rejection,” he says, “because there is so much evidence of climate change and so much appropriate fear about its consequences.”

Compassion is another means to facilitate the shift

Like Australia, Bangladesh is also feeling the disastrous effects of climate change and so is Indonesia – for them it’s trial by water not fire. And like Australia, Indonesia also faces government inaction even though 60 people died in recent floods. People in these countries are already suffering from climate change, and their poverty makes it all the more harder for them to takes the necessary steps to cut emissions and to deal with the results of not doing so. All the more reason why we, the affluent nations responsible for the majority of the emissions, do more.

As the huge generosity of people in supporting bushfire victims in Australia shows, many people find it hard to stand by and do nothing when people and animals are suffering.  The suffering they witnessed in their own backyard, or in a culture so similar to their own has been the impetus for many to find out more about climate change and its role in what we actually are experiencing now. I have seen a shift in my own friends and family to a consciousness that wants to actually do something to help thwart the gloomy picture of the worst-case scenario future. Because of my raised awareness of the issue, I am looking into what changes I can make in my life, and no doubt others are doing the same.

As people with a greater understanding of mind than the average person, I believe that we have a role to play in facilitating this shift of consciousness. How that will play out in our own lives and actions, I have no idea, but if we are true to deepest ourselves as experienced without obscurations , I’m pretty sure we’ll naturally have a positive effect on the climate change discourse and therefore the future of the planet and its species. Caring is key.

“We have to make an effort, so that even if we fail we have no regret. Ultimately this is a matter of our survival. … Taking care of the planet is taking care of our home.”

HH Dalai Lama

Do you have any additions, comments or suggestions on this Buddhist perspective on the consciousness change required to thwart climate change?

If you need facts of climate change, click here to read a post I wrote on Medium.

Image by Sumanley xulx from Pixabay

After religion? Do What Makes Your Heart Sing!

When you’ve become aware of the corruption in the religion you’ve followed for decades and moved on from it, what replaces the dictates of that religion for your spiritual study and practice? What comes after religion?

Tibetan Buddhism gave us a form to follow, one we thought we could trust until we discovered we’d been taken for a ride and all the pretty words we resonated with were ultimately being used as a way to capture slaves for a corrupt king. We had daily meditation practices to do that set our minds on a good track for the day, and those meditations had forms, even if only the simple one of starting with a motivation to benefit beings, practice without concepts, and at the end dedicate the practice to the benefit of all. We didn’t have to work anything out for ourselves, and if a practice didn’t suit us for some reason, we did it anyway, or tried our best.

Tibetan Buddhism appeals to people with a deep sense of spirituality, those who want to immerse themselves in the spiritual and mystical aspects of life as much as their lives allow, so how do such people move on in such a way that they continue to nurture that aspect of themselves? Some assume that we’re left with nothing, that we’ll simply flail about forever without a path and without anything to nurture our connection to our deepest self, but that’s not what’s happening.

The refugees from Tibetan Buddhism that I talk to in the Facebook groups What Now? and Beyond the Temple are much stronger than that. What I see are people forging their own paths and showing incredible joy in doing so. They are revelling in the freedom they’ve gained from leaving the religion. And their guiding light and constant spiritual practice is trusting and honouring their deepest nature.

‘Dwell with yourself as your own island, with yourself as your own refuge, take no other refuge. ‘

The Buddha, Mahāparinibbāna Sutta.

The point of all of Buddhism is to recognise your enlightened nature and remain in that awareness. We were told again and again that we can’t do that by following anything outside ourselves and that the ultimate teacher was within us, in the nature of our own mind. And yet everything in the religion kept us dependent on something outside ourselves. Now we are free of that, we can do exactly what we should have been doing all along – looking in to our own true nature. Taking our wisdom self as our refuge. That’s what we’re doing and it’s a very powerful practice.

What does trusting in your enlightened nature mean in your daily life?

It means different things to different people, of course, but for me it means turning my mind into my own awareness every time I remember and acting from that place. It means pausing before making decisions and checking in with my inner wisdom. I ask myself, is this the right thing to do? Or what do I need to know right now? Or why do I want this? Do I need it? And so on. Then I wait, looking for the next thought. I find that there’s a space and our of that space whatever comes is spot on what I need at that moment.

Times when I find it’s good to do this are:

  • At the beginning of the day to find out what’s most important to focus on for the day;
  • When someone pisses me off or I get strong emotions for any reason;
  • When I turn to social media;
  • When I want to buy something;
  • Between activities.
  • And pretty much anytime.

It also means following your interests and doing what makes your heart sing.

Following your interests

Being a Tibetan Buddhist took up a lot of our time, and now we have time to spare. People have found it really good to reconnect with the things we liked to do before we got caught in our respective cult. I’ve rediscovered yoga and finally taken a course in counselling – something I wanted to do when I was much younger. Others have gone back to making music or spending more time in their garden or in nature, but we do it now with more awareness – after all, many of us did spend decades practising meditation. Mindfulness kind of naturally came with the territory.

Something about those activities spoke to us then, and they speak to us again now. They nurture us on a deep level. We feel as if we’re reconnecting with a part of ourselves that we neglected while trying to conform to the Tibetan ideals of what a ‘good practitioner’ would look like. They may seem like superficial things to a TB ‘true believer’ but our interests can lead us towards our hearts in service of our best interests if we let them; if we do them consciously, with awareness.

A spontaneous desire to try Chakra Dance, for instance, could lead you to find out about the chakras according to the Indian system, and that could lead to you finding an alternative way into meditation, a way that does not catapult you back into the quagmire of pain you associate with Tibetan Buddhism. And we’re not likely to suddenly become so enamoured with the ‘system’ that we become a Hindu! Rather it becomes a tool in a new spiritual toolbox.

Sometimes when on social media, something someone shares may catch your eye; things that you would have ignored before, you now may be more willing to explore, just for the sake of curiosity. We’re more open to what’s on offer, more able to be spontaneous, even though we’re also more suspicious, more able to easily spot a potential charlatan. We have our eyes open now. Hopefully we have examined why we joined our cult and so can avoid falling into another one. We can dip in and out of anything that draws our interest, just to see where it takes us, and if we trust that following our interest in this way will lead us where we need to go, then it will.

Doing what makes your heart sing

It’s easy to make choices with our ordinary mind, our limited self, rather than our awakened Self, and if we didn’t manage to get familiar enough with meditation practice to be able to easily recognise that awakened Self, we could be lost as to how to connect with that part of ourselves. This is where the term ‘makes your heart sing’ can be helpful. Choosing activities and directions in life that make our heart sing is a way to bypass our thinking mind and connect with our deeper self. There’s something about the word ‘heart’ that speaks of deep nurturing and profound layers of being, so if we tune into that feeling of our heart singing, we’ll be going in the right direction for creating a life that nurtures our spirit.

I have lived my life according to what makes my heart sing, and it’s lead me to have a very interesting, creative and fulfilling life. For a time TB made my heart sing, but it had stopped doing that long before I decided to leave Sogyal and Rigpa. And I gave up too much of what did make my heart sing in order to fit myself into someone else’s idea of who I should be, so I stagnated within the religion. Now I’m back to following what makes my heart sing and it’s lead me via a round about route back to meditation, a meditation without the TB baggage. Meditation inspired by music, combined with dance and yoga and out of which is emerging a unique form suited just to myself. It was getting back to yoga, which makes my heart and my body sing a very happy song which set this in motion, and it’s not a static place that I’ve come to, not something to define and stick to, just another step along the path of my life.

Creativity has always been a kind of refuge for me, and I know others are the same. The hat and the mask are mine from my Tahlia’s Masks Etsy shop. The others just a couple of examples of the creativity in our community.

What makes your heart sing?

So let’s celebrate what makes our hearts sing. Here’s what some of the other members of the Beyond the Temple Community have been doing that makes their heart sing.

One joined a choir, another enjoys ‘doing nothing, watching my cat and learning from her. Learning from anything around me.’ Another told me they love ‘dancing, video editing, focusing on my work that I love so much. Writing, quilting, loving.’

Janet Trew is busy putting love out there with a book that encourages children to accept all kinds of differences in the world.

Another of our group has taken up dancing with ‘a beautiful bunch of women who make me laugh, keep me sane, and make my heart sing in a different way than I’m used to.’

Sandra Pawla spends time colouring in, and creates beautiful pictures that she shares with her social media contacts.

Another said: ‘Painting the Medicine Buddha Mandala gave me so much joy and peace.’

Another takes joy in cooking, even making a tiramisu yuletide log from scratch.

Mary sent me photos of her garden and said: ‘Why does gardening make my heart sing? Partly aesthetic, partly mother earth, partly trans dimensional. I guess a Taoist metaphor would work best – there’s everything you need to nourish your spirit in nature. I try of work with nature, rather than taming it. My gardens are largely intuitive – they happen as I go along rather than to plan.’

Michael is getting into photography again, along with the occasional bit of poetry, as well as eating good food and deepening his vlogging.

One response to this question that I really love is ‘I’m enjoying thinking! After having thought demonized and non-thought glorified for so long, I am enjoying the way some thoughts make my body tickle, other thoughts make me sense, some make me laugh. It is overall, really fun to just lay in bed and think!’

So in a nutshell, just trust that doing what makes your heart truly sing, such that you feel it in your heart, rather than doing what you think you should do will take you in the right direction for you as you are here and now. And if you do these things with your whole heart and awareness attuned, then they go far beyond a simple pastime.

Have a great new year everyone. I hope this post sets a good tone for 2020.
I’m on holiday until the end of January, so don’t worry if you don’t hear from me for a while.

Do you Need Structure to Facilitate your Spiritual Life?

One of the reasons people join a religion is because the structures of that religion help them make time to contemplate the spiritual dimension of life. Christians head off to church every Sunday, for instance. Many people who aren’t Christians or who don’t belong to a specific church believe in God, but without the ritual of church and listening to a priest give a sermon, they may never take the time to think outside of their worldly existence. And most people do need something to remind them to at least aim to be a good person. It’s easier for the worries of life to take us over if we don’t take time to meditate or contemplate or pray or just sit and enjoy some mental space or peace and quiet.

So what do those of us who don’t want a religion do?

The downside of religion

Most of the readers here have discovered how corruption can infest even a religion that purports to teach wisdom and compassion. We’ve seen how Tibetan Buddhist beliefs on the student teacher relationship can result in abuse. This is a result of holding onto beliefs created for another place and time, beliefs that have a questionable basis to start with, and that certainly have no place in the modern world.

Most of us probably thought that Buddhism was better than the other religions, but as we’ve seen, just like all religions, when Buddhism is taken in a rigid way, it stops people thinking critically, logically or even sensibly. The danger of following stupid beliefs isn’t just for individuals, it can be seen on the level of society in the way our politician’s religion affects how they run the country.

“From an analysis of their theology and the political company they keep, it is evident that neo-Pentecostal churches are content to leave global ecological issues up to God. They believe that God loves humans and, ultimately, humans can do what they like with natural resources, because God will take care of the global climate.”

Mairead Shanahan ‘Australian neo-Pentecostal perspectives on anthropogenic climate change.’

When held by people in power, the consequences of this kind of belief has negative ramifications for the whole planet. Though Australia is presently feeling extreme effects from global warming, our prime minister, Scott Morrison, rather than using it to bring in the kind of strict emission reduction measures the world needs, does nothing to lower our emissions further because he believes that God will take care of it. Duh!

This is just one example of how religion can have a negative effect on society, all while those who follow it believe that they are the chosen ones, the ones who have it all worked out, the ones who will be saved, the ones on the right path and so on.

Why bother with religion at all?

Most religions seem to have some teachings that encourage people to be kind and ethical to some degree, but just how far that actually goes probably depends on the practitioner more than the religion. Since people seem to find it easy to be selfish and hurtful, encouragement to moderate that kind of behaviour is surely a good thing. And if we don’t occasionally remind ourselves of the importance of being kind, we’re likely to forget about it and stumble blindly through life hurting people and ultimately ourselves. But we don’t need a religion to remind ourselves to be kind and so on, we just need a way to help us remember.

Given that religions most likely also have some harmful beliefs or teachings, surely we’re better to come up with a way to remind us of the spiritual dimension of our lives without submitting to a dodgy package deal. The Christian Bible, for instance, has some truly hideous things in it! Like this one in which Samuel, one of the early leaders of Israel, orders genocide against a neighbouring people:

“This is what the Lord Almighty says … ‘Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’ ”

1 Samuel 15:3:

And here is St Paul’s advice about whether women are allowed to teach men in church:

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

1 Timothy 2:12

Doing it for ourselves

I never wanted a religion, but I found that the Buddhist teachings on mind, particularly the dzogchen teachings and practice spoke to me, so I ended up in one. But the teachings and practices that speak to us can be used outside the framework of the religion that brought us the teachings. There are plenty of books from which we can learn, after all, and we can join in events lead by various spiritual teachers without getting caught up in their whole deal.

We can do yoga classes and/or Tai Chi or meditation classes and spend time walking in nature and reading whatever book has caught our eye at this stage of our life without having to subscribe to whatever yoga, tai chi, meditation or belief system our teacher follows. We can do them all at once and simply use what they each have to offer to help us make time for the spiritual dimension of our lives … to remind us of what we likely already know, but can so easily forget, and to help us tune in to unbounded awareness.

We could have a journal where we write down anything we read that speaks to us and so create a personal book of spiritual guidance. And we can make a schedule for ourselves to help us to take time for whatever practice we find nourishes us and our spiritual awareness – or just our kindness. Or we can just wing it without any structure and trust ourselves to remember.

This I see as the challenge of living beyond the temple, and I talk about it a bit more in this short video.

Of course, our spiritual and daily lives are not necessarily separate.  But most people need committed time in individual spiritual practice to develop the qualities that will make them truly spiritual people in daily life.

Sandra Pawla ‘How to Make Space for Your Spiritual Life.’

I’m using yoga each morning to help me take time for the spiritual aspect of my life, and I’m dabbling with tai chi, but my ongoing practice, as I say in the video, is still dzogchen. But, at this point, it has nothing to do with any guru or religion; it’s simply a way I work with my mind.

So what helps you to live beyond the temple? If you haven’t entirely given up on the idea of having some form of spiritual practice or contemplation or self-reflection time, do you need a structure to encourage you to make time for such things? If so, what kind of structure do you use or could you use? Do you use anything you’ve learned from Buddhism – either consciously or unconsciously?

Image by apic from Pixabay

The challenge of losing your spiritual path

When members of a Tibetan Buddhist group discover that their leader abused people, their reactions tend to fall roughly into the following categories:

  1. Those who deny or ignore the abuse or explain it away according to their belief system (thinking it’s genuine crazy wisdom) and remain committed to their religion and their group;
  2. Those who accept that the abuse happened and know it was wrong, but stay in the religion and the group, believing that the group will genuinely change such that abuse can never happen again;
  3. Those who leave the group but not the religion;
  4. Those who leave Tibetan Buddhism but remain a Buddhist;
  5. Those who leave Buddhism.

Retaining the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual path

In four out of five of those broad categories, the student retains their TB spiritual path. Those in group 2 or 3 will make some adjustments to how they view the religion or the group in order to accommodate what happened; they will convince themselves that the abuse was an aberration, and that they can find other lamas who don’t abuse his or her students. They continue with Tibetan Buddhism either with another group or with getting teachings from a variety of teachers.

They may will find it very hard, if not impossible, to trust a guru fully again, and they may be very suspicious of all gurus. They will feel adrift for a while, until they work out how to move forward with their religious path. Moving forward for them may entail reading books and/or seeking a new guru and will likely entail some strengthening of their trust in their own discernment. They may be reticent to join another group and will be more aware of cult warning signs, but they can continue with (or eventually return to) their religious practice. They can go back to their Ngondro (many lamas use the Longchen Nyingtik Ngondro) visualising Guru Rinpoche or the Buddha or even the letter Ah as the guru. This continuity of practice will give them some stability, a sense that they have not lost their spiritual path, that this difficulty is just a challenge they will overcome and continue on. For them, it’s not a matter of finding a new path, it’s a matter of developing a new relationship with the religion.

‘I think so many people tend to think of faith as blind adherence to a dogma or unquestioned surrender to an authority figure, and the result is losing self-respect and losing our own sense of what is true. And I don’t think of faith in those terms at all.’

Sharon Salzberg

Retaining a general Buddhist path

Those who give up Tibetan Buddhism but continue with Buddhism can still feel that they’re on some kind of spiritual path – it’s not Tibetan Buddhism anymore; but it’s still Buddhism, and there is a prescribed path. Even so, they struggle with the loss of community, loss of innocence, loss of a set shape to their daily practice and loss of continuity of practice. But if they are willing to retain some Buddhist practice in their life, then they’re not set entirely adrift. After a period of feeling lost, they will eventually find their way back to incorporating some form of Buddhist spiritual practice in their lives.

They may return to basics, study the Theravaden teachings and practice uncontrived meditation only, or study from a variety of sources and focus on compassion practices. There are many options for those who can still engage in some kind of Buddhist practice.

No matter which group you presently fall into, you’ll experience some sense of loss as you adjust to changed circumstances. But those who leave Buddhism entirely, face the most uncertain future. They face the greatest challenge, but also the greatest opportunity for genuine freedom of mind.

Adrift

If you’ve lost your spiritual path, you tend to feel adrift, lost, directionless, floating, groundless. You have no idea where you’re going in terms of your spiritual path. This is particularly difficult for those who followed the structure of the Tibetan Buddhist practices in their daily life. Such students were used to being told what to do each day—for example; one hundred and eight one-hundred-syllable mantras; 3 of a certain prayer, and/or a certain number of accumulations of a vajrayana practice. If now they can’t face doing any of those practices, they feel completely adrift.

How do you progress on your spiritual path when you don’t have one anymore? Are you faced with a life time of not fulfilling your spiritual yearning? That’s a scary prospect for those who have been committed to living a ‘spiritual’ life.

Spiritual path or religious path?

The first thing to realise in handling this situation is to differentiate between a religious path and a spiritual path. One’s spiritual path may include following a religion as part of it, but the spiritual path continues before and after, as well as during, one’s involvement with a religion or cult. We may not always be or have been part of a religion, but we’ve always had a spiritual path, even if we didn’t know we had one – don’t we keep growing simply as part of life? And now, even if it doesn’t feel like it, even if we feel at a loss, we are still on a spiritual path. We are on our own spiritual path, and if it doesn’t look like anyone else’s spiritual path, that’s not because it’s wrong or misguided; it’s because we are unique and so is our spiritual path. Even if on the outside our path looks similar to others, it will never be the same path.

‘The spiritual path – is simply the journey of living our lives. Everyone is on a spiritual path; most people just don’t know it.’

Marianne Williamson

What is a spiritual path?

I couldn’t find a definition of spiritual path that didn’t use a religion’s frame of reference, but Wikipedia did provide a modern version of the word ‘spirituality’:  

Modern usages [of the term spirituality] tend to refer to a subjective experience of a sacred dimension and the “deepest values and meanings by which people live”, often in a context separate from organized religious institutions, such as a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaningreligious experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension”.

wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirituality

Characteristics of spiritual paths are such things as prayer, meditation – the development of mindfulness and awareness – contemplation, ethical values, a belief or awareness that there is more to the world than what we perceive with our physical senses, deep self-investigation and conscious personal growth, a commitment to service to others and to ‘truth’ – whatever we perceive that to be. Engaging in such things gives a spiritual dimension to our lives even if they aren’t ordered into some kind of path with a beginning, middle and end. (Our life provides its own beginning, middle and end.)

Is there an end?

The word ‘path’ gives us a sense that there is an end point, something we will achieve at the end of the path – enlightenment, Christ consciousness, satori, nirvana and so on – but I find that idea problematic because it suggests a static state, free of mental suffering perhaps, but is there any point at which we cease changing and growing? The nature of the universe is that the only constant is that everything changes all the time; was the Buddha exempt from that? How can there be an end point past which there is no more growth?

The wisdom of not seeking

As I see it, the spiritual path is not about getting to an end point; it’s about how you live your life in every moment.  It’s not about seeking some attainment in the future, but about fully being now and trusting that your very desire to live attuned to what is real and true will naturally move you forward.

Something I’ve found transformative is dropping the idea of seeking enlightenment. It’s held up as such a high state that one is only ever likely to fail to achieve it unless you’re some very special rare individual – so most of us, in seeking this rarely defined state, are setting ourselves up for failure. I’m better able to be focused in present awareness without that constant striving for the unachievable.

We turned to Buddhism probably due to some yearning to connect with a ‘spiritual dimension’ in ourselves and our world, but we can do that by simply tuning into our present awareness. And there are many secular tools we can use to assist us to do that – meditation, yoga, gardening, walking in nature, engaging in art and craft, listening to or creating inspiring music, singing, reading something inspiring, or just sitting quietly and watching the world go by.

‘The practice of being on a spiritual path isn’t about being the best meditator or the kindest possible person or the most enlightened. The practice is about surrendering to love as often as possible.’

Gabrielle Bernstein

The role of teachers

Of course we do need spiritual teachers at some point in our lives to give us pointers for how to work with ourselves, but those of us who’ve had decades of Buddhist study and practice should be able to trust our inner guide by now – that is the point of the path, after all.

Teachers that illuminate our inner beings in some way don’t even have to be a ‘spiritual’ teacher. They could be our yoga teacher or our swimming coach or our counsellor or therapist. There are many different layers to our ‘self’ and many different ways we can learn about them.

Different teachers can teach us different things at different stages of our life, and options will appear to us even if we aren’t looking. If we’re toying with the idea of taking teachings from someone, we just have to examine that someone and their community carefully, trust our gut feelings, and not buy into hopes and projections born out of our of our insecurities.

The trick, I think, of relating to teachers and religions is not to fall into the idea of thinking that they’re ‘the one’ and that they’re all you’ll ever need, all the way to the end of your life. That idea just closes one down to opportunities. The idea that we only need one perfect teacher is untrue and could be dangerous.

Sogyal taught us to abhor the spiritual supermarket – picking a bit of teachings from here and there – but perhaps that is exactly what we need right now. Perhaps that is our path for now. Yes, we could get confused, but once we realise we’re confused, we’ll find some way to move on from that confusion. Certainly, there is a lot to pick from from within the Buddhist path itself, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t avail ourselves of all those different options.

The greater the loss the greater the opportunity for awakening

Steve Taylor in his book The Leap: The Psychology of Spiritual Awakening talks about the research he did into people who exhibit characteristics of awakening. What is clear from his research is that awakened people, or people who show some degree of awakening, are much more numerous than Buddhism would have us believe. Taylor considers awakening as the inevitable future of the human race, the result of the inexorable march of evolution. And he discovered that the thing that causes awakening most often is some major crisis in one’s life where you experience great loss, some time when the rug is ripped out from under you – such as the death of a loved one, a serious accident or illness, anything that sets you adrift, where your old ways of being simply don’t work for you anymore.  

He discovered that though long term religious practice helps one wake up from the ‘sleep’ state experienced by the majority of people, it’s a slow process and it is most transformative when an extended period of religious practice is followed by some traumatic event that changes everything for you – perhaps like the loss of one’s religion.

Don’t despair

So don’t despair. Trust in the natural process of life as spiritual practice. All we have to do is turn up for it and pay attention to ourselves, others and whatever life presents us with. If we stay open, curious, and aware, we can trust that we’re still progressing on our spiritual path. The very yearning that brought us to Buddhism in the first place, is still there, still directing us towards whatever will help us wake up even more. We just have to be open to it and realise that opportunities for growth might not look a bit like how we expect them to.

Don’t worry if you feel lost, directionless, bereft, rudderless, and so on; those states are full of potential for transformation. Being adrift is also being without reference, and that’s something we aimed for as dzogchen practitioners, so let’s embrace our new state, whatever it is. We don’t need to know where we’re going in order to appreciate the journey. We’re on a pathless path, a journey without an end.

You also might be more awakened than you think you are. When you read the qualities of awakening laid out in the above book, you might be surprised just how many of those qualities you already have. And honestly, does it really matter where you are on the ‘enlightenment scale’? Isn’t the important thing not where we’re heading but how we live each moment?

I went to a yoga class yesterday. The first one since I joined Rigpa. And oh, how I enjoyed it. I’ve also been doing some art and craft, and gardening.

What activities do you find are an outlet for that part of yourself that yearns to connect with the ‘spiritual dimension’? And please share any thoughts you have on walking a pathless path?

Image by Jim Semonik from Pixabay