A young student of Buddhism is recorded as having a conversation with the great Tibetan teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche. Trungpa reportedly said something like, “To practice is to walk the path between hope and despair, straight into the face of uncertainty.” He was not simply suggesting that there’s no solace in hope, but that we cannot hide in despair. Instead, we’re apparently asked to reside in not-knowing, in the ever-changing reality of existence.
In a life that is full of situations that could lead us to despair, how do we avoid pain? Is that even possible?
Buddhists believe that in order to unlock the gate to freedom from suffering, we have to face our addiction to hope. Hope is associated with comfort, a false sense of security. As we practice, we must loosen our grip on safety and ease, and move toward uncertainty. This is only possible within the loving, supportive environment of sangha or community. Many people practicing Buddhism romanticize the possibility of a spiritual solution. They often experience an initial shift, a kensho or opening. However, this surge of freedom and joy cannot be sustained; in fact, it is not even the goal. If we do not continue to mature in practice, this kensho will take the form of hope and make our reality more difficult. Kensho does not signify the end, it’s an invitation to keep moving in practice.
As you move deeper in practice, you will reach a place that tempts you to despair. You come face to face with your reality, the pain of this world, and you naturally resist it.
Shinzen Young offers this equation: suffering = pain x resistance. Without resistance you simply experience pain. Life unfolding as it will. Suffering is pain multiplied by the resistance. If you feel some of this deep dropping of identity too soon in practice, the likelihood is that you’ll just leave practice. You’ll trigger too much resistance. Traditionally, one of the important functions of the teacher is to help students as they stumble and fall, as they face the fears that arise, and allow them to let go of false hopes, and avoid a slide into despair. However, I also think that this is too big of a job for the teacher alone. Without the love and support of your community, you simply can’t tolerate this undoing.
Jack Kornfield writes: “Traditionally the Dark Night (the moment of doubt) arises only after we have had some initial spiritual opening. In the first flush of practice, joy, clarity, love and a sense of the sacred can arise. And with them, we experience a great excitement at our spiritual progress. However, these things will inevitably pass away. It is as if they arise for us as initial gifts but then we discover how much discipline and surrender are required to remain in these realms.” And this is the entry into the long, long mission.
As we mature in our Enlightenment, we give up on trying to redirect life or avoid what we dislike. Oddly, in choosing reality, we have to include the suffering. This triggers some of the most difficult forms of resistance — the resistance to allow things to be as they are. This is why we have to cultivate real intimacy as spiritual friends, so we can tolerate these kinds of challenges and help guide one another toward freedom and away from despair.
At this point in your practice, you can’t count on anything that previously gave you hope. All you’re left with is the present. Dongen encourages us to reach this fundamental point because when there’s nothing left except the present moment, we give up all the ideas about ourselves and all the roles that gave us an identity. There’s nothing left from a conventional perspective, and everything is available from the awakened perspective. We’ve emptied ourselves, yet we’re full. And so we choose to come back, over and over to this moment and this life. We let go of the absolute, we let go of our kensho, we let go of the spaciousness, and we let go of the resistance. We let go of it all. After practicing with some dedication, we land right back in the middle of our lives.
In this spacious mind of awakening, grounded in everyday-ness, we move beyond hope and despair and face uncertainty. From an ordinary perspective, we are guaranteed to lose everything. We begin to see, however, that in the bargain we gain the whole world.
If you are looking for a spiritual community to guide you and support you in your practice, join one of our meditation and prayer groups. If you have questions about other ways to join the community at Seton Cove, call our office at 512-451-0272.