How am I doing? By Dr Alan Sidi

Often we enter into spiritual disciplines in the hope of becoming better people, achieving something or improving our lives in some way. While these desires can motivate us to practice, they can be the very things that prevent us from entering into an awakened state, that is here and now.

Metal statue of a woman thinking, entitled "la Pensadora" by José Luis Fernández in Oviedo


ÁWá, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

For those who are in the practice, and have been in the practice for a while, there is the temptation to ask questions like, “How am I doing?” or “Why aren’t I doing better? Why aren’t I getting better results?” We must put all that aside: all questions about achievement and I, me and myself, and just hand ourselves over the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. That’s all we need to do. What happens if we place ourselves into greed, hatred and delusion? We’re simply imprisoned by them. If we hand ourselves over into the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, we find freedom. The empty heart and mind can function freely. It’s up to us to choose, because really the mind is quite free. It is free to hand itself into greed, hatred and delusion, or, on the other side, into those Three Jewels.

What the heart truly desires is to be at one with what is in this moment. Both what is pleasant and what is unpleasant are just part of life, and according to the nature of things are impermanent. Picking and choosing, grasping and rejecting, in a bid for happiness will always fail. What the heart wants to do is to participate – to be in this moment.

 There’s a very nice quote from Thomas Merton (*1):

 “Perhaps we have a deep and legitimate need to know with our entire being what the day is like. To see it, to feel it, to know how the sky is grey, paler in the south, with patches of blue in the South-West. With snow on the ground, the thermometer at 18, and a cold wind that makes your ears ache. I have a real need to know these things, because I myself am part of the weather, part of the climate, part of the place, and a day in which I have not shared truly in all of this is no day at all.”

 What we really don’t like is the idea that in order for the mind to be free, we have to let go, we have to lay ourselves down, because we can’t conceive of the notion that a free mind is one that doesn’t include “I, me, and myself”. In our reluctance to do so, we don’t see the prison in which we place ourselves.

My mother and brother live in San Francisco, and the last time I was over there I visited Alcatraz with my brother. I must say I didn’t particularly like the prison. Anyway, I told my mother that I’d been there and she said enthusiastically “Have you?” My mother is a big fan of Clint Eastwood she has seen every one of his films. “Have you seen the film” she asked. “No I haven’t,” I replied “Oh, you’ve got to see the film,” she said. And she sat me down and put it on and we watched it together. It was fascinating because, having been to the prison, I found it resonated with the practice. In the film, Clint Eastwood plays the main character who, along with two other people, two brothers, took part in the only successful escape ever from Alcatraz. Why I felt it had a parallel with the practice is because Clint Eastwood and his friends knew they were in prison. They knew why they were there, and they also knew what freedom was like too. The main character was a very determined individual. He didn’t just accept his situation. He was very determined to get out. What he did was he fully investigated the structure of the prison. He looked at every possible angle, every possible way the prison was set up, what the guard duties were. He looked at every piece of minutiae and he figured out that at the back of his cell there was a space – a service space. He devised a very elaborate plan to get out, and he spent a whole year putting it into place. It wasn’t easy. He had to keep it secret from the other prisoners because he was afraid somebody would expose him. He could only trust the two brothers who he was planning to escape with. He had to avoid being caught by the other prisoners as well as being caught by the guards. It took a tremendous amount of self-discipline, of preparation, of patience, but they pulled it off. Mysteriously, they were never caught and never found.

 If we look at ourselves in our daily lives, are we not in prison? Are we not just in a prison that is actually of our own making? We keep falling back on our collection of repeated habits. The prison building, the prison routines are our habits of greed, hatred and delusion. Our denial that any kind of freedom exists, the sense that we are trapped, is part of our daily suffering. And yet despite all of this the heart and mind are potentially free. Because, like in the prison, the moment the doors open the prisoner walks out. It doesn’t matter how long he’s been in there, or what he’s done in the past. The moment the doors open there is freedom.

 So we have to ponder on the freedom we’ve lost, raise the aspiration to free ourselves, and set about investigating the obstacles that hold us back. These are summarised in Buddhism as the Five Hindrances; Greed, Hatred, Sloth & Torpor, Anxiety, and Sceptical Doubt.

It takes great strength and determination to carry this out. I don’t find these things in the delusion of “I”, but they are there, and it is up to us to really look below the surface, cultivate them and find that desire for freedom. It is there. It’s what makes us feel that something isn’t quite right: “I don’t have it”, “I can’t do it”. It’s true that I can’t do it. I have to hand myself over, because there is something else there that can do it. The Dharma leans on nothing, because it has nothing to gain and nothing to lose. Pleasant or unpleasant cuts no ice with the Dharma. It cuts no ice with just how things are at this moment. Things are just as they are at this moment: subject to change. We need to change our perspective, change how we perceive things, change how we connect with things, change how we behave.

 There is a story of a man who led a pretty dissolute life. He didn’t really care much. He did what he wanted, was greedy, hateful, and eventually he died. And when he died, to his surprise he found himself in a wonderful place. And there appeared next to him a man in a white suit who called him “Master” and said to him “If you need anything at all, just think of me and I will appear. Ask me what you want and I’ll bring it to you”. The man was pretty pleased with this. So he called him up, asked for a nice house, and there it was. He asked for all the things he ever wanted, and got them. This went on for very, very long time. Of course eternity is a very long time – many, many kalpas. In the end he started to get bored and fed up. He had exhausted all his ideas about what he could ask for and what he could do. So one day he thought of his manservant again, and when he appeared he said to him “You know, I’m a bit fed up with all of this. I’ll tell you what I’d really like. I’d like a job. I’d like some work. I’d like to do something useful. Can you bring me some work?” But the manservant shook his head and said, “I’m very sorry. I can bring you anything you want, but that I can’t bring you.” The man got really annoyed because he had got so used to things just being provided for him. “What? That’s ridiculous. How can that be? I might as well be in Hell” And the manservant gave a little smile and said “And where did Master think he was?”

 We think greed, hatred and delusion will bring us what we want, but it never does. There’s another perspective on that too, on “me” always having centre-stage even when it comes to spiritual practice. There’s a story of a parish priest.(*2) The priest had a small community and a church and all was going well, but he felt he wanted to develop his spiritual practice a bit more. He heard there was a place where there was a retreat, and he was told by his friends that the abbot was particularly helpful. He was told that on his first day he should ask for an interview with the abbot, and ask the abbot to give him a question that he could then meditate and pray on during his week there. The priest thought it sounded good and he signed up for it and went along and asked for this interview. When he saw the abbot he explained that he was a parish priest and that he had his community, and that he wanted to further develop his spiritual practice, and he asked for a question to work on. The abbot replied “Yes, I think I have a question for you. This is your question: What do they want?” So the priest went away and started thinking about the question, and thought of one or two possible answers. But it just didn’t seem to gel with him. It didn’t seem like the right question for him at all. So after a couple of days he asked for another interview with the abbot. He saw the abbot and said, “I do respect you, but you’ve got it wrong. This question isn’t the right one because I want to develop my spiritual practice further.” And the abbot replied “Yes, I think you’re right. It wasn’t the right question. I have another question for you: What do they really want?”

When I take centre stage, I’m blinded. There needs to be a turning around, a looking outwards, and it is only that way that we can free ourselves from this Alcatraz of our own making.

 (*1) Thomas Merton: When the Trees say Nothing: Writings on Nature; Sorin Books (2003) edited by Kathleen Deignan.

(*2) J Kornfield and C Feldman: Soul Food; Harper One (1996)

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