How To Move Through Difficulties As A Transformative Initiation

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“So, we were just sitting for half an hour or so practicing mindfulness, which I also like to translate as loving awareness. The quality of presence that combines knowing what’s present with an open heart to receive with love or compassion, this human life this human experience. And in that way, this form of meditation, because there’s lots of good forms of meditation, but this form of meditation that’s mindfulness is not oriented toward achieving a particular state or experience but rather an invitation for a shift of perspective, to quiet ourselves, quiet the mind a little bit and listen and to remember what matters to us or to remember who we really are.

The Christian mystic Simone Weil says, “The danger is not that the soul should doubt whether there is any bread but that, by a lie, it should persuade itself it is not hungry.”

And she’s really speaking to the way that we can lose ourselves in the busyness and complexity and demands and difficulties of life and somehow not have the time to stop and listen to what matters most deeply to us.

And it becomes especially important because we’re in a time, at least as I’ve been teaching in this last year or more, of a tremendous amount of cultural anxiety. I could ask how many people in this room have experienced anxiety in this last but don’t bother raising your hand. And increase in addictions of all kinds, certainly the opioid crisis but whether it’s the addiction to the Internet or shopping or keeping ourselves busy are all consuming or all those things are news, not to speak of continuing war and racism and the environmental issues and destruction that are happening, all of those things and it’s so important in some way to have a bigger picture because otherwise what we forget and we lose touch with the possibilities of the heart and the possibilities of living from a place of greater wisdom in the midst of these challenges.

We live in this human body, you get a human incarnation, and the best description of it is “mystery”.

How did you get in there? How did you get into that body with little patches of fur in certain places or you lose the fur. But anyway, and it grows in other places and that’s what my friend Wes Niska who teaches here says, “Yeah the hard parts become soft and the soft parts become hard as you age.” But it’s weird, you know. I’ve talked about there’s a hole at one end of the body in which you stuff dead plants and animals and glug them down through the tube and these weird eyeballs and ears that stick out, mine quite a bit, you know. You ambulate by falling one direction and catching yourself in the other way. I mean, how did you get in there, you know? And what are we going to do with this human life? So, it’s mysterious.

And then the Buddhist texts begin, some of them with the phrase, “Oh, nobly born. Oh, you who are the sons and daughters of the awakened ones of the Buddhas of the awakened ones, remember who you really are.”.

This poem from Juan Ramon Jimenez called, Yo No Soy Yo.” I am not I. “I am not I. I am this one walking beside me whom I do not see, whom at times, I manage to visit and at other times I forget. The one who remains silent when I talk. The one who forgives sweet when I hate. The one who takes a walk when I am indoors. The one who will remain standing when I die.” And he is really talking to us about some reality that’s not just the small sense of self or kind of limited identity but that we are actually beings of spirit that when you were conceived or when you were born, there is a spirit that comes into this body that you get and when you die. If you’ve had that privilege of sitting with someone as they die.

It’s kind of a remarkable thing. Essentially, it’s a conscious death. There’s that moment when they’re alive and they’re there and then you can see or feel their consciousness spirit leaves the body and then it’s just you know stuff it’s not them anymore. It’s wild. And of course, the really wild thing is it’s going to happen to you. Ooh. Uh oh, you know.

So, when we sit, we take our seat in the middle of this human mystery of our life and we learn somehow with loving awareness and mindfulness to step out of the plot, the small sense of self so we can bow with what arises to our feelings and thoughts and sensations and stories and you can name them and they all come and we become the loving awareness.

And so, the heart grows in a kind of spaciousness or courage or compassion. But it’s not all that easy. Oh, come and sit and breathe in and out and everything, inviting ease and calm because as you get quieter, you get the unfinished business of the heart; the tears you haven’t wept, the longing you carry, the fears or anxiety or restlessness that’s in there or the doubts about yourself or others.

You also get waves of joy and delight. Some people are so loyal to their suffering they don’t know what to do with all that good stuff when it comes. It’s unfamiliar to them and you discover, as Whitman says, “I am large. I contain multitudes,” and little by little there comes a kind of trust that you can be with all the waves of experience that are your humanity and rest in the center of them with loving awareness or rest and a kind of openness, the trust grows.

But when it gets really bad, I know this from leading many retreats here and people will be sitting and walking on retreat as they do here, we have wee long and month long, two month retreats of silent practice, and then they get really restless or really bored or really frightened or whatever and the first instruction is to name it gently and make space for it and bring compassion to whatever difficult experience.

And then when it gets really really bad, the instruction is, all right, you’re so restless. Let yourself be the first person to die of restlessness at Spirit Rock in 2018. Just say, “Okay, take me I can’t stand it.” And what happens when you’re so bored or so restless or so frightened or whatever that state is that’s difficult when you say, “All right take me,” is that it gets easier because most of the difficulty is actually your resistance to the experience. And when you say, “All right, I’ll die of restlessness. Restless, restless, dying, dying.” OK. And then of course you think I wonder what they’re going to have for dinner, you know? Because the mind has no pride, right?

But you begin to realize that you have the capacity, because who you are is awareness, you have the capacity you have within you, the great heart of compassion and awareness itself, to be present for this human life which it is means to be awake and to do so in a way that’s liberating.

Now sometimes this happens in small ways, little by little we learn how to tolerate and be with things that are difficult moment to moment. And sometimes it comes through what I’m going to talk about more night which is initiation and using the language of initiation is a way of honoring and reframing the difficulties that you go through. How many of you have gone through a lot of difficulties? Don’t raise your hands, alright. But it’s honoring the importance of the difficulties that we go through.

So, initiation. You all know or probably have heard historically and culturally and so forth that traditional cultures particularly value and celebrate the power of initiation so that, for example if you you’re a young man among the Maasai people in East Africa, to prove your manhood you will go out with a spear or whatever and you know, kill a lion. Now there aren’t so many lions left unfortunately but it’s a way of facing some great danger and showing that you’re ready to be included in the community not as a child anymore but as a man.

And there are initiations for women – not just having children. I have a friend who lived with, for a long time, with a group of people way up in the Guatemalan Mayan community. And over several years a woman went through their very deep initiation which required all kinds of difficult things to become seen as a woman in that community.

And I know when I was a monk in Thailand and Burma and so forth, it used to be that every young person in Thailand either as a teenager or when they turned 19 or 20, would shave their heads as a young man or often as a young woman as a nun and go and spend a year in the temple and you were considered not ripe. You were like a green piece of fruit until you had done that and that year in the temple, yes you would learn to make prayers and sit in meditation but you would also go out with your , bowl and you would eat once a day whatever food was given to you and you’d have to learn to trust the world that you’d would have enough to eat.

And you’d have to sit up all night on new moon and full moon and quarter moon days and not move and sit on the stone floor and just learn how to be with the pain and pleasure and fear and so forth and somehow going through those difficulties it was said, that’s what ripens the spirit of these young people so that then they’re ready to go out and participate in the society as an initiated person. Of course, I’m sorry to tell you that what initiation most prepares you for is further initiation but that’s a whole other story.

Initiation in another language means that you have to go through a narrow place that’s so difficult to get through you can’t take your baggage with you. It sort of strips you down in some difficult way.

And this from the Zen teacher Karlfried Durckheim, he says, “The person who really being on the way falls upon hard times in the world will not as a consequence turn to those friends who offer them refuge and comfort and encourage the old self to survive. Rather they will seek out someone who will faithfully and inexorably help them to risk themself so that they may endure the difficulty and pass courageously through it. Only to the extent that a person exposes themself over and over again to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found within them. In this daring lies dignity and the true spirit of awakening.”.

So, this is initiation and sometimes it’s a calling that you feel, a spiritual calling or a longing, you have to do something, you have to show prove yourself, go through something difficult, a vision quest or a retreat or a sabbatical or a time out in nature and often it comes to unbidden. And in these last days I’ve been visiting some close friends who are in the hospital with some major difficulties, strokes and other kinds of things, it also can come collectively as our cultural anxiety moment that we’re in.

And in Greek it’s called a katobas – which means a below, a crisis that comes. You’re going along tootling along with your life and then all of a sudden something happens and your life changes. And it will happen, just in case you hadn’t noticed. It does happen to us as people. And it requires you to step out of the ordinary way that you’re moving along in your life and learn something new through that crisis or difficulty individually or perhaps now for us collectively as a culture. In some way we’re in the process of some deep cultural initiation – just as an individual might.

And so now I want to shift the language and talk in a more mythological or archetypal way. Because one of the things that seems to have happened in recent years culturally is that the furies have been released. And in ancient Greece the Furies, they have various names to them, but there are Furies, a vengeance and hatred and so forth, they appear when truth is not being honored, when oaths are not being kept, when the kind of honorable respect that people have pledged their life to or devoted themselves to in some collective way or individual way has been undermined and betrayed.

And the thing about when the Furies are released is that, in the Greek mythology anyway, nothing can stop them which is not very good news. I mean, that’s how powerful they are, and we can see it in a certain way collectively. But then there was, as you read in the Greek myths, there was finally a resolution to the Furies that came from the political and societal betrayals in ancient Greece and so forth, and that is when the goddess Athena invited them into her temple, the goddess of wisdom, and made a place for them in the temple of wisdom and said you too have a place here and made an altar and an honor and said even the Furies that arise in us out of deep betrayal and so forth a vengeance and all those, if they can be held in the temple of wisdom then we can all come together again.

So, I leave that for you to reflect on what that could mean for us and maybe a little bit of this will get clearer as I speak.”

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