Monk(ey) Business Part 7: Facing Myself
Monk(ey) Business is a blog series chronicling the joys, challenges, ups, and downs of my nine years as a Buddhist monk. Enjoy!
I have a complicated relationship with boredom. I didn't grow up in the iPhone generation, but I did grow up when Nintendo and Sega ruled. I vividly remember waiting in anticipation for school to finish so I could go over to my friends house and binge on the latest video games until my mom had to drag me home. Eventually my parents bought me my own gaming system, and I sat, stared, and got my hit of dopamine day after day. Video games were like crack to me, and it was normalized by all of the junkies on my block. Of course now video games have exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry, and with virtual reality games recently taking over, abstinence seems to be the best method to prevent me from slipping into a giant black hole of not being able to get anything done. Although its been years since I’ve seriously played video games, habits die hard, and it seems that my childhood distractions have been replaced by a consistent poking at my iPhone! Anything to avoid, distract, replace, and not be bored.
Although I’ve had my moments of consciously facing boredom throughout my life, entering long term retreat was a whole new beast. I knew that for the first time I was severely limiting my options for distraction, and deliberately choosing simplicity in order to grow in my Buddhist practice. Part of me really wanted this, and the other part was scared shitless. After about a week of being alone in my retreat cabin, the boredom became excruciating. After years of resisting and ignoring, there was nothing else to do but to sit and face it. I squirmed, writhed, and resisted, but in the end I just sat with it. Actually, I am still sitting with it! For me, boredom is often a large clue that I am resisting something in my experience. It expresses itself as an unwillingness to be in the present moment with whatever is happening right now. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche even describes boredom as a necessary part of our meditation practice: “Boredom is part of the discipline of meditation practice. This type of boredom is cool boredom, refreshing boredom. Boredom is necessary and you have to work with it. It is constantly very sane and solid, and very boring at the same time. But it’s refreshing boredom. The discipline then becomes part of one’s daily expression of life. Such boredom seems to be absolutely necessary. Cool boredom.”
Encountering quotes and teachings like the one above gave me hope that learning to accept and sit with my boredom was the right thing to do. In fact, I don’t think it could have been any other way. Eventually we have to be willing to face ourselves in order to progress. We have to be so sick of ignoring reality, that we almost become fanatical about uncovering it. As I continued to sit with my meditation practice I slowly got to know myself. Some of my habitual patterns began to make sense, but I still didn’t know exactly how to relate with them in a healthy way. Traditional Buddhist instruction often makes adversaries of disturbing emotions, and because I had been running from myself and suppressing my emotions for so long, it was easy to form a concept of some sort of epic battle between good and evil taking place within me. Although this initially helped, it also became a way of bypassing my experience, as I strove to find awakening somewhere outside of myself.
Some days when I couldn’t bear the site of my retreat cabin any more I would take long hikes. The untouched wilderness that surrounded the retreat center was vast and wild. I would wander up the creek, or climb steep hills looking for caves. Nature became my teacher and lover during this part of my life. I would often just sit on the earth and feel it’s naked and pure quality. It soothed my loneliness and offered solace within the wonky and challenging early days of my commitment to celibacy. I was not used to being alone so much, but the combined container of retreat and monasticism became a laboratory for self reflection and transmutation. As a monk, craving and sexual desire were just raw and in my face much of the time. Especially in those early days. At 28 I knew I didn’t want a traditional romantic partnership, but everything in my body was screaming for attention and love. It was at that point that I started to experience the benefits of celibate monastic practice, that place where the rubber meets the road and the Dharma really asks us to look at our habits, behaviors, and assumptions.
Understanding and knowing suffering and it’s causes is not easy. Up to that point I had a pretty good intellectual understanding of what that meant from a Buddhist perspective, but I was stuck in my head, and it was difficult for me to accept the reality that life is not always comfortable. Coming up against my sexual desire, and making the conscious choice not to seek external relief was one of the ways I worked with this truth. To most people this sounds like torture (and it was sometimes), but there is an alchemical process to it that is very hard to explain to people who have not worked with long term celibacy vows. At it’s core, it did not feel like a denial of my sexuality at all. It was more the challenge of finding new ways to relate to it, to transform it into a path of understanding and wisdom. In Vajrayana Buddhism we also have a way of looking that does not deny the hidden potential of awakening within strong emotions and impulses. I enjoyed experimenting with the range of what this meant as a monk externally keeping the vow of celibacy. How could I open up the space within myself to allow, watch, and access insight, yet to not break my vows? As with any practice, this was and is a process.
During these first few years as a monk I would alternate between periods of strict retreat and travel to study with my teachers. Although I didn’t understand it at the time, Lama Zopa’s advice to not be myopic and overzealous in my approach to living as a monk became increasingly useful. He didn’t feel it was beneficial to either be in strict retreat the entire year, or out and about studying. Without providing specific time frames, he advised me to sometimes be in strict retreat, sometimes with others taking teachings, and to also spend some of my time in self-study. This balance proved to be a very good combo for me, as I had a very hard time not talking to or seeing anyone during the extensive periods I would spend in solitary retreat. There were also some very beautiful moments in solitude, where I was able to access some spaces within myself that would have been impenetrable in more social and frenetic environments. When it was tough I learned to treasure those times, finding a refuge in the Dharma and its unfolding from within.
At some point I began to take an interest in Buddhist teachings outside of my chosen lineage. At the beginning there was a strong resistance to this, as I picked up that it was a taboo to study and practice in multiple lineages. I had heard strong warnings that one could become confused or off track in one’s practice. As I reflected on this for myself I came to the conclusion that I loved my chosen lineage, but there were some practice issues that were coming up for me that I couldn’t get answered from the material I had access to. I also started to come into contact with the viewpoints of the Rimé movement that were popularized in Eastern Tibet in the late nineteenth century. Rimé can roughly be translated as unbounded or all-embracing. The movement was mostly championed by the masters Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892) and Jamgön Kongtrül (1813-1899), and was most likely in response to growing sectarianism within the dominant Tibetan Buddhist schools of the time. Ringu Tulku writes: “Rimé is not a way of uniting different Schools and lineages by emphasizing their similarities. It is basically an appreciation of their differences and an acknowledgement of the importance of having this variety for the benefit of practitioners with different needs.”
As I read and came into contact with the teachings of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (an incarnation of Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo), Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and others, I found this variety. I also developed a growing thirst to study with a student of these great lamas, as they had already passed away. It was around this time that I travelled to Vajrapani Institute in the Santa Cruz mountains to attend a weekend course with one of my teachers. Walking into the library a book that someone had left on the table caught my eye. When I read the title I felt a spark, some kind of intuition that I couldn’t ignore, but also couldn’t explain. The book turned out to be written by Tsoknyi Rinpoche, one of the sons of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. Reading it, I understood very little intellectually, though underneath there was some kind of deep familiarity and knowing that began to grow within. Returning to my retreat cabin I continued to read the book, and would often spend part of my practice sessions outside meditating in the open. An ease and connection with myself began to take shape, and although it was extremely intimidating at the time, I knew I had to make an effort to meet and take teachings with Tsoknyi Rinpoche. It just so turned out that both he and the reincarnation of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche would be traveling to Colorado to teach in a few months time. After giving it some thought, and sending a few emails, my travel plans were set. I consciously told myself it was no big deal, but somewhere deep down I could feel a major shift happening in my Buddhist practice and life.