Dismounting Dead Horses: A Metaphor for Change

The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from one generation
to the next, says that when you discover you are riding a dead horse,
the best strategy is to dismount.

Of course, we may first try other strategies.

We might whip harder, or offer sugar, or change riders, or appoint a committee to study the horse. Nevertheless, at the end of the day, we
will still be left on a dead horse.

Why would anyone (or any organization) hold on to a dead horse?

For many reasons, possibly. We have believed in the horse, hoped for the horse, and loved the horse. We doubted or denied the horse could ever die.
Perhaps we even relish the hero’s role of resurrecting a dead horse, or the martyr’s ideal of self-sacrifice alongside the horse.
Dismounting seems to mean giving up, or doubting that there will ever be another live horse again.

Actually, discerning our dead horses takes uncommon wisdom, and rarely happens without an intentional process. Perhaps such discernment begins with noticing, not denying, a lack of forward movement. (Others of us must absolutely crash!) The discernment continues as we discover that despite trying harder, or smarter, or more aggressively, we remain at the same place. And we finally acknowledge that the same
place is not our desired destination.
Spiritually, the temptation to keep riding a dead horse comes from a misplaced faith. We think our horse is sacred, and we are in ultimate control. Whether the horse is a relationship, a job, a dream, or an
ideal, we think we must stay on and ride it out, with our own blinders blocking any other vision.

Paradoxically, sometimes only by dismounting,

by letting go of our dead horse, can we begin a new trek.  It can be the hardest thing we ever do.

As I reflect on my own life, I find myself reminded of a dead horse or two.

I think I’ll try sugar first.

–Ron Johnson, Ph.D.
Samaritan Counseling Centers


What About Buddhism?

A Simple Definition

 Throughout 25 centuries, Buddhism has combined rationality (logical thinking) with the testimony of one’s own experience.

It’s a practice that instills freedom of thought within the individual, while rejecting dogmatism, resulting in the release of humankind from the fetters of ignorance.

Fundamental to the study of Buddhism, is not the performance of prayers, but of meditation, which purifies the mind in order that truth can be realized making Enlightenment possible. Blind faith is dethroned and replaced by confidence based on cognitive science, knowledge and truth.

This simple definition is the outcome of the following equation: Awareness + Contemplation = INSIGHT.

Feelings or Emotions?

During our Sunday sittings this month, I have been sharing my knowledge about what many people report to be the effects that Mindfulness Meditation has on them. It certainly cultivates our ability to see with a deeper sense of clarity, in the present moment, with nonjudgmental awareness…but there is other, more scientific information available to share.

Last week, we talked about the most recent medical findings pertaining to people who meditate, which elicited important conversation pertaining to emotions, mainly how stress occurs within us, the neurobiological reasons why, and what effect(s) this has on our bodies and our minds. Within that discussion, someone wanted to know if the assumption was that meditation naturally led to the end of us having emotions, (being emotion-less) which gave me the impetus to develop the most recent talk entitled, “Awareness of Feelings”. As a result, our sitting group had a wonderful exchange of personal insights into the experience of emotions.

In the practice of meditation, our emotions are not to be discounted, meaning that we don’t throw them away or push them under the rug. Rather, we become more and more aware of them but not attached to them. I commonly use the term: “hijacked” by their power over us. Thoughts and emotions, which normally follow so regularly and are habitually linked, go like this: if the feeling is unpleasant, a negative reaction occurs; if it is pleasant, grasping arises. Thus, the mind is mostly just reacting: liking and/or disliking. The result is that you are being caught in the conditioned cycle of distress at the linkage of feelings and grasping. Nevertheless, there is no need to be. By intercepting the primary feeling at the “sense-door,” without the following emotion, the feeling will go no further, therefore no attachments, no liking or disliking, end of story, and end of suffering.

We were somewhat perplexed as to whether feelings preceded emotions, or emotions preceded feelings. I thought of this quote: “The way to transcend hope and fear is not to block it, cut it off, or try to prevent it from arising. Rather, the way to transcend hope and fear is to meditate on hope and fear’s true nature.” With the practice of “open awareness” (sometimes referred to as “choiceless awareness”) in our meditation experience, we ultimately discover the true nature of all experience, and by doing so, we become unlatched to our hopes and unshackled by our fears.


React or Respond?

“We recognize that it’s spaciousness that truly enables us to respond, rather than react to any given situation.”

If you could add up all the times you’ve reacted to today’s events, and the amount of times that you actually responded to them, would those numbers be out of balance? To which side would the scale tip for you? Contemplating this rather important image, the question arises, “How do I actually get to choose to respond to situations that happen in my life, rather than just react to them?

Presented to simply stimulate thinking, please pardon the oversimplification made in the following paragraphs. To begin with, let me suggest the major difference between reacting and responding.

When you respond, you meet the surprise and wonder of life as it arises, finding out what instructions life has for you, rather than what instructions you have for managing your life. Reacting just pushes ahead one’s own perceived agenda but does not allow for very much discovery. Since everything is impermanent (meaning all arises and all eventually falls away,) when we attempt to grasp onto things, or in other words, to control life, we ultimately wind up being frustrated–thus suffering. Any attempt to illlicit control over the events surrounding us is futile, and if thought not so, will only lead to more reacting, thus the more suffering.

Barring the “flight or fight” experience; we might say with assurance that reaction = suffering because, at its core, reacting is an emotional experience. Plain and simple, when we react, we see ourselves standing arm and arm with some kind of pain.

This image came to mind when meditating on reacting or responding: You are present at the local county fair as you approach the Ferris wheel. You have a choice to purchase a ticket for the ride, or maybe not. If you go for the ride, you hand over your ticket to the operator and sit down into one of the boxes and get locked in tight!

Remember, the ride is controlled by another person who, at his or her decision, moves you up one side and down the other. Fast or slow, round and round you go!

Another choice might simply be to stand beside the wheel, perhaps at its fulcrum and witness the ride occurring. If you watch it operate, you beget information about how the inner workings of the wheel turns by watching all the belts as they move in relation to the motor. You’re able to see all the different expressions on the people in each individual box as they circle around and around and you get to see the operator who’s at the control. Either way, on or off the ride, you’re still having an experience.

When you’re on the ride, your perspective is a rather limited one since you are being entertained in captivity while spinning–going high then low, backwards or forward. While standing and watching the ride; however, you’re able to get most of the same information with your feet firmly on the ground.

So too is the choice of reacting to any situation, or responding to it. Neither negates all the potential for emotions that could be experienced, they’re just experienced differently. As the rider, you are bound to the experience and not in control. You have no choices. Watching the ride; contrarily, there is no attachment to it (remember, your feet are on the ground) but you still can laugh, you can still get dizzy and you can still get scared just seeing the Ferris Wheel turn, stop, and go backwards.

This example may seem silly to some, but it provides an important simile; if we are able to be a witness to, and thus put space between the actions that happen around us, then we are able to consciously decide to create a response to them, or decide… maybe not. It really is our ability to recognize that it’s spaciousness that truly enables us to respond, rather than react to any given situation.

If we take the time and breathe between actions from our environment (including the people in it,) and also the actions that will emanate from ourselves, we find a whole lot more potential of possibilities.

The spaciousness is there, it just needs to be cultivated in the mind, and practicing meditation is an excellent way to begin to provide for this “space of allowance” sometimes referred to as Mindfulness.

Carrying Judgment

Two monks were casually walking by a stream. As they passed, a woman standing at its waters edge was struggling to get across. She asked softly if one of them could help her complete her mission (Buddhist Monks, you may know, are not suppose to touch anyone of the opposite sex.) One of the two, without much thought, went to her side. He lifted her up and with great care, carried her on his back across the river safely to the other side. After accomplishing his mission, she thanked him and went on her way. Upon returning to the other side to join his fellow monk, he noticed his friend shot him a stern glaring look, but without comment, they continued their walk, in silence.
About an hour later, the monk turned to his friend and said, “You know, that was inappropriate for you to do–carrying that woman across the river back there.” His friend, smiled rapidly to the Monk holding question, and gently put his hand upon his friends shoulder to stop their walk. Peering into his eyes, he replied, “My dear friend, I carried that woman across the river and put her down well over an hour ago; however, since then, I see you are still carrying her on your back. Let us rest a while, you must be exhausted!

I enjoy this story very much, because to me, it exposes with simplicity the multiple layers in reference to the topic of judgment while demonstrating the enormity of potential difficulty we (conscious or otherwise) incur when we judge others. Unknowingly, we ultimately wind up carrying their doings on our backs for as long as we hold onto whatever particular judgment (for whatever reasons) we’re attached to.

Observe how this may relate to yourself in the present moment with someone you work with. Perhaps with your partner or maybe consider how it demonstrated in a recent past situation. It doesn’t take long to realize that all of us carry around a lot of judgments about other individuals we know and many we don’t (how about the guy who cut you off on the freeway yesterday!) Similarly, political organizations, social groups and even inanimate objects are a “bulls eye” for us to fire the arrow of judgment at. When you think about it in this way, we just become more easily aware of how ominous the load can be!

But before we even approach the easiest target for this introspective exercise (the enormity of “how we judge ourselves,”) let’s look at how we viewed and continue to view, our parents. More precisely, ask the question of: are we holding onto judgments about how they did or didn’t perform they’re specific roles as Mom and Dad?

Most psychotherapists put this item in the top 5 as potential watersheds during therapy–and refer to this as a patients necessary exercise for the transcendence of consciousness in their process of healing. When appropriate, walking through this issue can unfortunately be painful, but at the same time, it can be extremely liberating. As Albert Einstein said, “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity!”

A quick for instance: A woman I know was never able to cognicize (cognate and recognize) that she was schlepping around a heavy loaded “blame game” about her parents that in particular, had to do with her sexuality. She was in fact, an unhappy, angry Lesbian. Angry that she didn’t wind up like her sisters: “familied” and living the “American Dream” THAT she felt, left her out in the cold.
The stress and anger she unconsciously had toward her parents got acted out with almost everyone she encountered. Those who she allowed into her life (to be close with) were stricken with the weight of her pain and suffering in a multitude of unhealthy ways until finally, she was able to cross the river, put the load down, and release the chains that bound her.

Having the realization in therapy and then the ability to embrace the idea that her Mom and Dad did the best they could with the resources they had at that time, allowed her to finally release the bundles of blame-issues she had been carrying around most of her young adult life. She realized that this simple (albeit deep) judgment, held in the back of her mind, was preventing her from experiencing many of life’s delights (not unlike the monk who was holding onto his judgment for an hour.)

The very simple story and this real life example, shines a beam of light on a complex psychological issue that sometimes can evolve into becoming a vicious psychosis: that we all participate (at some level) in “demonizing with blame” those who raised us. However, when we begin to sit and take a breath, and give ourselves the time to watch how our mind really works, we then, and only then, are able to allow ourselves to receive the gift of unloading the heavy judgments we’ve been carrying around…making our own lives less burdensome and as a result, more joyous and loving.

Loving Kindness

Insight (or Mindfulness) Meditation is a path to freedom from suffering. That suffering originates in the addictive quality of the mind and our habitual tendency to grasp at pleasure and push away pain. All addictions stem from these roots.

Mindfulness also offers a spiritual and psychological process of transformation that has proven to be a most effective treatment for our human addictions to thinking and all the suffering we create with the mind. And it’s one of the most potent tools there is for recovering our original wholeness, our natural fullness.

Recently, I came to recognize something I said was delivered without the clarity intended, so here goes:
“Loving Kindness” sometimes translated as Universal Love (Metta in Pali), is an integral part of and is an important concept that is put into practice in the Buddhist teaching. It is usually presented in systematic ways to train the heart to attain happiness. This is an essential part of the entirety of the Dhamma, and at some point, one is expected to be fully able to embrace this concept. What we call love, friendliness, compassion, gratitude and joy, are all words that fall under the umbrella of Metta, which Buddhists use to describe this specific vehicle of learning.

More importantly, once Metta is truly cultivated within, it is not to be embraced alone, but shared with others. We would all agree that the world could benefit from a whole lot more loving-kindness, yes?

While discussing this important topic, my words have carried with them a sincere element of caution, rather than negation.

The caution I suggest, however, lies with trying to discover Metta before we actually learn to quiet the mind; before we are actually able to cultivate clear, stable nonjudgmental awareness; before we are truly able to be Mindful.

The nature of mind falls under two categories: the inside or essence, and the outside or appearance. Our essence is freedom, liberation, mindfulness, equanimity. Our appearance is our projections, and they are not real.

Trying to discover something outside and draw it inside is often a trap, because when we jump to do the “warm and fuzzy” stuff, without getting a handle on our own inner workings and defaults, what often shows up is a thickened, shiny patina of behavior patterns that provides concealment of the malicious truths within.

Acariya Maha Boowa, a Thai Forest teacher, says it this way: “When our hearts never have time to rest and attain calm, they are not fundamentally different from other animals. But when our hearts rest, relax and receive training, we will be able to see the harmful affects of thinking and imagining, and turbulence they cause the heart. Then we will see the value of a calm heart. Once we have attained a state of mental calm, we will have reached the first stage of Dhamma which will lead us steadily onwards.”

It’s essential for our spiritual practice not only feel good, but to, at the same time, rout out the appearance and negative thinking that often invades our psyche causing us to wander aimlessly in the cesspool of victim hood potentiality.
Practice concentration, open awareness so first the heart can be still. This first stage he calls ‘mental calm” is Mindfulness which then leads us steadily onward toward the second, called Metta.

Buddhism: The Religion of No Religion

Throughout last month or so, we’ve crisscrossed objective and subjective viewpoints in our journey of discovery on just what emotions are…identifying how and when we are experiencing them, scanning recent, scientific data about our biochemical markers, and examining just what to do with our emotions when they arise.

The talk elicited some lively discussion; actually, it was more like intelligent discourse that, in Buddhist learning circles, has always been encouraged and held in admiration and honor. This reverential fact (among many others) holds the Buddhist teaching apart from most all other spiritual disciplines and makes it really, the religion of no-religion.

Religions of the Far East- Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism-do not require a belief in anything specific. There is no required obedience to anything supernatural or its ideas or doctrines. Rather they point toward a transformation of consciousness and our sensation of self.

As reported, it was the Buddha himself who repeated over and over again, the necessity of the individual to rely upon their own liberation, not to look to any external authority. No one can purify or defile another person; each of us is responsible for his/her own decontamination or defilement. The Buddha said, “By oneself, indeed, is evil done; by oneself is one defiled; by oneself is evil left undone; by oneself, indeed, is one purified. Purity and impurity depend upon oneself-no one purifies another.” (Dhammapada)

Because the Buddha’s way is the way of rationality, he did not ask for absolute faith in himself or his teachings. Rather, as he instructed his students, he said that we must not believe anything merely because it was handed down by tradition, or said by a great person, or commonly accepted, or even because the Buddha said it. He taught that we should believe only that which comes into our awareness in the light of our own experience, that which conforms to reason and is conducive to the highest good and welfare of all beings. The path of the Buddha could be expressed as, “Ehi Passiko”-“That which invites everyone to come and see for him/herself.” In Buddhism, openness to self-knowledge is the key that unlocks the door toward illumination, enlightenment, freedom and liberation…not blind faith.

This is what seems to create so much difficulty for us Westerners in understanding the Buddhist conceptual possibility of being spiritual without deism or theism. The word spiritual itself, happens to originate from the Latin Spiritus: of breath, and surprisingly, has nothing to do with anything supernatural. Yet, we continually are stuck trying to sort out the experience of having any kind of deep, introspective, insightful moment(s) as something anything other than a rational, human one.

Alan Watts who I find incredibly wise and witty, once said, “Irrevocable commitment to any one religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown.”

For us Westerners, this foreign concept of looking inward for openness, as a means toward liberating human suffering is not an easy to embrace. After all, it is hard to think outside the box once inculcated with a worldview based upon the performance of Abrahamic religiosity, which requires the self to rely on something outside of it for deliverance. Perhaps having a different viewpoint of the world in which we live would alter many of our preconceptions, or rather misconceptions.

Sariputta, who was supposedly one of the Buddha’s main disciples, in the Discourse on No Blemishes, stresses the role of honest self-assessment as a prerequisite of spiritual growth.
He points out that just as a dirty bronze bowl, deposited in a dusty place and utterly neglected, only becomes dirtier and dustier, so if we fail to recognize the blemishes of our minds we will not make any effort to eliminate them, but will continue to harbor greed, hate and delusion and will die with a corrupted mind. And just as a dirty bronze bowl which is cleaned and polished will in time become bright and radiant, so if we recognize the blemishes of our minds we will arouse our energy to purify them, and having purged ourselves of blemishes we will die with an undefiled mind.

The task of self-knowledge is always a difficult one, but it is only by knowing our minds that we will be able to shape them, and it is only by shaping our minds that we can unshackle them