Everyday life gives us countless opportunities for “awakening work.” I discuss ways to practice each and every moment in order to awaken to the truth of Dukkha and the ending of Dukkha, and to the truth Emptiness. In Part 3 I will talk about how we can similarly work on a direct, personal experiences of Suchness, Buddha-Nature, and the Two Truths (absolute and relative) in the midst of our daily lives.
Read/listen to Part 1
Quicklinks to Article Content:
Everyday Life as an Opportunity for Awakening
Awakening to Dukkha and the Ending of Dukkha in Everyday Life
Awakening to Emptiness in Everyday Life: Impermanence
Awakening to Emptiness in Everyday Life: Narratives
In the last episode I talked about how the most important aspect of Buddhist practice is how you live each and every moment of whatever life you have. I defined “practice each and every moment” as allowing every choice you have to be shaped by your deepest aspirations, as opposed to allowing yourself to be carried along by karmic conditioning.
To practice each and every moment, I proposed, you apply the “triple A’s:” awareness, aspiration, and actualization. This means cultivating mindfulness of everything you do and experience – internally and externally – as you go through your day, no matter how mundane an activity seems to be. Once aware, you recall your deepest aspirations, such as manifesting compassion or awakening to Reality-with-a-Capital-R. Then you set about trying to actualize, or make real, your aspirations by finding and utilizing your moments of choice. In the last episode I talked about this is not at all an easy task but involves a lifetime of growth, and learning how best to be you.
The example I offered of “practice each and every moment” in the last episode may have given the impression that I’m talking only or primarily about karma work, or learning how to manifest more skillfulness, compassion, and wisdom in your actions of body, speech, and mind. At the end of the last episode, I promised I would address how practice each and every moment, in the midst of everyday life, can also be awakening work.
Everyday Life as an Opportunity for Awakening
In Episode 236 – Spiritual Inquiry Part 5: Koans and Awakening I discussed what I call “awakening inquiry.” (You might want to read/listen to that episode before this one if you haven’t done so recently.) In that episode I said:
“Awakening work involves striving for a direct, personal experience of the deeper truths of our existence – truths we share with all life. Awakening can radically change the way we view ourselves and the world and can make karma work easier… You can think of awakening inquiry as continuing where karma work ends. In a sense, they’re not even two different things, it’s just that awakening reaches a level of our being which has nothing to do with our particular karmic package.”
To engage your everyday life as awakening work, it helps to frame your effort with foundational Buddhist teachings. You don’t have to be a scholar; you just need to keep some central aspects of the Dharma in mind:
Dukkha and the ending of Dukkha: Dukkha – dissatisfactoriness or stress – is present in almost everything you do when you are living by karma instead of by practice. Dukkha arises out of your existential resistance to how things are, and it’s possible to give up your existential resistance at any moment and thereby be at ease, even if you’re in the middle of a challenging situation.
Emptiness: Your true nature is no-self-nature; despite your perceptions, there is no fixed, autonomous, inherent, enduring, independent “self” which is guiding your life. A personal experience of this truth, the truth of Emptiness, is wonderfully liberating. All other phenomena are similarly empty of fixed self-nature, or – if you prefer – boundaryless and interdependent.
Suchness: When you are able to see things according to their true, empty nature, you are also able to perceive them free from expectations and preconceived notions… and you realize in what sense they are miraculous and precious in their Own-Being.
Buddha-Nature: Although we are empty of inherent self-nature, we are very much alive. The universe lives through us. When we can let go of our small, limited sense of self, we can participate wholeheartedly and appreciate our unconditional belonging.
Two Truths: Reality has two dimensions, and both are true simultaneously, in all times and places. The dependent (or relative) dimension is that of time, space, and causality. It’s the dimension we’re usually aware of. The independent (or absolute) dimension is, in truth, dimensionless – the undivided reality of this moment, where things-as-it-is is imbued with Suchness. When we first perceive the independent dimension, we tend to see it as separate from the dependent dimension, as a special place we occasionally visit, but that is not the case. The radically nondual nature of Reality takes practice to appreciate.
Dukkha, Emptiness, Suchness, Buddha-Nature, and the Two Truths are not an exhaustive list of all the wonderful Buddhist teachings. However, they offer more than enough for us to concentrate on in the course of our everyday, moment-by-moment practice. If we use these teachings as reference points and reminders, there are countless opportunities every day for what I call “awakening inquiry.” In the rest of this episode, I will describe opportunities to awaken to the truths of Dukkha and Emptiness in the midst of everyday life. In the next episode I’ll cover Suchness, Buddha-Nature, and the Two Truths in a similar way.
To concentrate on this topic, I will not be spending much time talking about the teachings themselves. For teachings on Dukkha, see Episode 27 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 2: The Four Noble Truths. For teachings on Emptiness, see Episode 229 – One Reality, Many Descriptions Part 1: Emptiness. For teachings on Suchness, see Episode 235 – One Reality, Many Descriptions Part 2: Suchness or Thusness. For teachings on the Two Truths, Relative and Absolute (or the Dependent and Independent Dimensions), see Episode 202 – Two Truths: Everything is Okay and Everything is NOT Okay at the Same Time.
Awakening to Dukkha and the Ending of Dukkha in Everyday Life
Some people will readily admit they are experiencing Dukkha, which can manifest as any feeling of stress or dis-ease between acute suffering and vague existential dissatisfaction. Others of us feel fairly happy, at least given our current life circumstances, and the teaching that “Dukkha is pervasive in your life” may not seem to apply to us. However, if you don’t think there’s dukkha in your life, you’re just not looking closely enough.
Dukkha is discomfort, dis-ease, or stress arising from resistance to the way things are. We resist things constantly, from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep, and probably even while we’re sleeping. We have to get up too early, our back aches, we are overburdened with responsibilities. Our partner is grumpy, we’re worried about finances, our job is unfulfilling. We wish we had a more harmonious relationship with our parent, child, or sibling. We feel our life ticking by but we haven’t done all the things we hoped we would. Someone rudely cuts us off in traffic. We read the news and feel despair about the state of the world. Someone has treated us disrespectfully. We’re troubled by health issues. It’s too hot. It’s too cold. That was a delicious meal but now we’re too full.
We naturally don’t like these experiences and situations. We naturally want them to be different. Most people don’t even question this situation. We just accept that some parts of life are going to suck, but we hope they will be balanced out by pleasant and rewarding things. There’s nothing wrong with this approach in any moralistic sense. However, our Buddhist practice inspires us to look deeper.
In our practice each and every moment, we look for situations where we find ourselves stressed, ill-at-ease, dissatisfied, or even suffering. “Ah, Dukkha!” we say to ourselves. “What’s going on here?” What is triggering our dukkha? Something unpleasant is happening, ranging from an annoyance to something truly painful or challenging, including old age, disease, and death. We explore our thoughts and feelings about it, searching for our resistance to it – the part of us that is saying this should not be, or why me, or noooooo! This resistance is what causes our Dukkha to arise.
I think of the resistance that causes Dukkha as “existential” resistance. It’s not just about not liking something. There’s little we can do about that. It’s natural not to like a painful illness, an unjust situation, or the experience of a panic attack. It turns out that our natural feelings such as dislike, dismay, or desire to be free from pain are not a spiritual problem. The resistance that causes Dukkha also has nothing to do with whether or not we are going to take action to improve our situation. You might say “practical” resistance is also not necessarily a spiritual problem.
“Existential” resistance, on the other hand, is something we experience throughout our whole being. Our gut may clench, our brow may furrow, our blood pressure may increase. Whatever unpleasant thing we are facing feels like an affront to our person. How dare they do this to us? How dare the universe do this to us? Our lack of control over the situation threatens our sense of ourselves. We don’t like when things get in our way, or when they don’t make sense.
In our everyday practice, we have the opportunity to get familiar with our existential resistance, which is marked by the stress of Dukkha. We need to get to know it intimately, not just quickly identify it and hope to vanquish it. Over time, we explore what it means to let go of our existential resistance. Again, this does not necessarily mean you’re going to give up practical resistance, although you might. Letting go simply means we’re facing our situation just as it is instead of clinging to ideas about how we would rather it was. Such letting go is deeply grounding and liberating. Even in the midst of pain and chaos we can have a measure of peace.
Learning to let go of the existential resistance that causes Dukkha has aspects of karma work. It certainly helps our behavior of body, speech, and mind. However, this isn’t just about overcoming your negative reactions to things. This is also awakening work if you allow yourself to experience the full implications of it.
Our existential resistance is based on an erroneous perception of our nature. We worry about “I, me, and mine,” and subtly or overtly imagine ourselves pitted against the world. When we manage, even for a moment, to simply release our existential resistance, what happens? Nothing! That is, our Dukkha disappears but nothing about our situation changes. We are not suddenly worse off. We don’t get sicker. People don’t take even more advantage of us. The world doesn’t suddenly go to hell in a handbasket because we have momentarily let go of our refusal to accept it the way it is.
If you contemplate the fact that your existential resistance has absolutely no effect except to cause Dukkha for yourself, it can invite you to question whether you even exist the way you think you do. Nothing seems more real to us than our existential resistance, at times. Our small sense of self is almost synonymous with it. When we experience for ourselves that it is possible to simply let go, the self begins to seem less solid. This is an important step on the path to awakening.
Awakening to Emptiness in Daily Life: Impermanence
Practice each and every moment in our daily life also gives us the opportunity to awaken to Emptiness. As I discussed in Episode 229 – One Reality, Many Descriptions Part 1: Emptiness, saying things are empty does not mean they are empty of meaning or value. In Buddhism, Emptiness refers to something very specific – being empty of inherent, enduring, independent self-nature. We generally only refer to things as being “empty” when we’re noting an absence of something we expect to be present, such as a glass being empty of liquid, or a house being empty of people. We expect there to be an inherent, enduring, independent self-nature in sentient beings. Especially ourselves. Buddhism tells us there is not!
How do we explore this teaching in our everyday lives? There are many ways, but I will explore just two very important ones.
First, we can pay very close attention to impermanence. We should become fascinated by impermanence of all kinds, as if we’re an existential scientist. Friendships die away because someone moves, or their life circumstances change. Our bodies become more and more prone to injury, disability, and illness as we age. Children grow up. Jobs are lost. Loved ones get old and die or die before they grow old. The beautiful hike or family gathering comes to an end. Our passionate vision for a project fizzles into disinterest. Memories fade.
These examples of impermanence may sound negative. When I suggest you become fascinated by them, it may sound like I’m suggesting you become morbidly obsessed with old age, disease, death, and loss. However, exploring impermanence in a deep way doesn’t mean denying the other side of impermanence – how things arise in our life. New friendships and relationships form. New things are learned. New jobs are started. We don’t have to hold an attitude that life is miserable. It’s just that we don’t tend to recognize impermanence until something we care about starts to change or comes to an end.
If you want to awaken to Emptiness, the practice is to stay mindful throughout your experience of impermanence – noticing the process of change, noticing the disorientation that comes from something ending, noticing how your respond to that disorientation. Depending on how significant something or someone was to us, it/their loss may be devastating, upending our entire life, and making us question everything. On a smaller scale, even the impermanence of experiences and mind states can be quite unnerving. When you make a study of impermanence in your direct, personal experience, it starts to become clear there is nothing to hold on to.
A typical karmic response to impermanence is to quickly distract ourselves from the discomfort of it. As soon as one thing ends, we anticipate the next thing. We dwell on what we still have, regarding too much attention to impermanence as negative and depressing. Honestly, this is not such a bad approach to life. However, if we want to awaken to the beautiful and liberating truth of Emptiness, examples of impermanence are precious opportunities for deep exploration. (If you do this, I suggest limiting how much you talk about it with friends and family unless they also do Dharma practice, as they may worry you are depressed. And, if you are struggling with depression, anxiety, or grief, you should wait until you feel stronger before doing this impermanence practice.)
When we immerse ourselves in the experience of impermanence, allowing ourselves to feel the disorienting change, it may feel something like a partial death. Something we identified with, some part of the reality on which we relied, has essentially changed into something else, or disappeared altogether. Part of us, therefore, has also been lost forever. Perceiving this, we instinctively search for what remains unchanged at the center of ourselves – some core that can weather this change. We grasp on to other impermanent things we still happen to have.
If, instead, we can manage to stay with the feeling of change and loss, we have a chance to familiarize ourselves with Emptiness. We have based our idea of ourselves on the premise that something in us remains unchanged, or changes in such a slow, gradual way that you can easily identify it throughout all the stages of our life. But we have no such essence. Everything we identify as self or as belonging to self is ephemeral and impermanent.
At first, we find the hint of Emptiness terrifying, but with more exploration we realize it’s perfectly fine. We assume we need an inherent, enduring self-nature to exist and thrive, but we don’t. This is tremendously freeing. There is no one to protect, no one who is to blame, no one who while be annihilated when we die. It’s like we have spent our lives rooted to one spot, protecting a jewel we believe to be our soul. If someone steals it or destroys it, we will also be destroyed. But then we find out the jewel has nothing to do with us. We are free to move, to journey, to live our lives without worrying about some jewel.
In the midst of everyday life, each time we are able to fully experience the impermanence we are constantly exposed to, we increase our capacity to understand Emptiness.
Awakening to Emptiness in Daily Life: Narratives
Another way to work on awakening to Emptiness through practice each and every moment is to recognize your internal narratives about yourself and your life as just that: Stories you are telling. Stories are not the same thing as Reality. They are simplifications about reality we construct to make sense of things, or to communicate our experience or perspective to others.
The human mind is constantly constructing narratives. Perhaps we didn’t do so much of this before our species began to use language, but since then we have evolved biologically and culturally to the point that language and narrative is integral to functioning in a modern society. If you had been raised by wolves, maybe you wouldn’t construct stories about your life and the world, but you also would be lacking much of the cognitive abilities and understanding you take for granted. Like it or not, we’re storytellers.
We encourage children to start telling stories about themselves and their lives at a very early age. A child pleases the adults around them when they can say, “My name is ____. I am a girl. I am five years old. I have a mom and dad and brother. I don’t like tomatoes. I am good at art. I can’t ride a bike yet.” And so on. As we age, the stories become more and more complex, reaching into the past and future and even into alternative timelines of “what if.”
We live our lives in a matrix of narratives: Our own, those of others, and those we collaborate on. Your stories might run: I am a mother/father. I am a good parent. I am a bad parent. I had a traumatic childhood. I am introverted. I am good at my job. I am intelligent. I am not so smart. I am a woman/man/nonbinary. I am a liberal/ conservative/ Democrat/ Republican. Liberals/ conservatives/ Democrats/ Republicans have a better approach to governing. I am not good at public speaking. I have a good and loving marriage. I love animals. I have to take care of my aging parents. I am disabled. I suffer from depression.
Our narratives are extremely important. They help us make sense of the world. They help us simplify things, so we don’t wander through our days with the wide-eyed wonder of a two-year-old. They help us set priorities and boundaries and make decisions. Accurate stories allow us to communicate our experiences and situation to others.
If we want to awaken to Emptiness, though, it’s important to see the empty nature of our narratives. In everyday life we are presented with prime opportunities to do this whenever one of our narratives is challenged by reality. Perhaps you think you’re a good parent, but your 20-something child has just given you a lengthy description of all the ways you harmed and disappointed them. Maybe you have concluded you’re not so smart, but life circumstances demand that you rise to the occasion. You thought you were good at your job but have just been fired. You might have spent your whole life identifying as a woman, but suddenly the terrifying but intriguing thought arises that you’d rather identify as a man. Your loving marriage has disintegrated because your spouse had an affair. Maybe you find out the people who raised you are not your biological parents, as you had believed them to be.
It can be uncomfortable, even distressing, to have to rewrite our narratives because our assumptions are challenged, or things change. We cast about internally trying to make sense of things. Am I a good parent, or a bad one? Maybe my child is troubled right now; their view is biased, and I was actually a good parent. Or maybe my whole idea about myself is false… and if I’m this wrong about how good a parent I was, who knows what else I’m completely wrong about? How do I know who I am?
We can use such situations as opportunities for practice if we refrain, at least temporarily, from trying to come up with a new story – whether that’s an entirely new narrative, or an addendum to the old one that explains the challenge we have recently faced. To practice, we spend some time in that liminal space between our old ideas and the new ones. The old narrative seemed so reliable, so real, it was part of our sense of self. Beneath that story is… what? Something alive and flowing that can’t be captured by words, names, labels, or dualistic concepts.
If you look closely at any of your narratives, it becomes clear that they are approximations we use to navigate life and are empty of any inherent, enduring reality. What human relationship is simply good or bad? Any conclusion about being smart or dull is based entirely on comparison with others, and there are many different kinds of competencies. Some stuff just happens to us; it’s disconcerting not to be in control but trying to figure out how we might have deserved to be laid off or betrayed can make us feel crazy. Even your name is an arbitrary assemblage of sounds or symbols that you and others employ to communicate about what you’re up to.
It is not unusual for people experiencing the breakdown of their narratives to feel disoriented, anxious, depressed, or even traumatized. Practice doesn’t make this a pleasant experience, but it can familiarize us with the reality of Emptiness. It appears as vast spaciousness, devoid of anything to grasp. At first, we may panic, overcome with agoraphobia, afraid that we will lose ourselves. With practice, though, we come to realize that Emptiness is not dangerous. In fact, it is the space of potentiality from which all things arise and to which all things return.
In everyday life, it’s often necessary to come up with convenient narratives in order to function in society, or to make sense of our lives. There is no problem with this unless we mistake our stories for reality itself and fear the Emptiness of all of our narratives. Each time we have a chance to pause in the liminal space between an old story and a new one, we become more familiar with Emptiness. We move closer to the point where we can relax and float in it instead of thrashing around, fearing we will drown. This experiential insight will serve us very well when, inevitably, all our narratives converge at the end of our life, where the next story will no longer include this particular protagonist.
I’ll be back next week with an episode on a different topic, but next month I’ll return to “practicing each and every moment” to awaken to Suchness, Buddha-Nature, and the Two Truths.
Read/listen to Part 1