Question: There are times on the path when I feel isolated from society and the people around me. Perversely, this always seems to be when I am meditating the most and really clearing my head. Superficialities and consumptive tendencies seem very exaggerated, and I find myself feeling alien in the world around me. I don’t think this is the proper response. What can be done to combat this?
Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche: It is a natural part of the process of meditation to feel a bit disconnected from the outer world. As you become aware of negative emotions or obsessive thought patterns that interfere with the flow of life, you are motivated to retreat and draw attention inward. By bringing non-conceptual, naked attention to whatever you are feeling or sensing, the impermanent nature of your perceptions is revealed. You witness the dissolution of that which appeared solid.
Each time you cut a habitual pattern by becoming aware of it, you become a bit dissociated in the sense that you can no longer continue doing or believing in the same old thing. At this time, you may feel somewhat disconnected from your life, even if what you are cutting has clearly been a negative pattern.
But it is not enough to disengage from habitual patterns. It is important to continue in your practice and look directly into the absence. As you go deep inside, connect with the quality of openness, the unbounded space inside yourself, and become aware of that spaciousness. As you abide there, warmth and creative energy will spontaneously arise and bring about personal transformation.
You cannot make a real, personal transformation when you feel dissociated from the world or from a sense of self. You have to reconnect after you have disconnected from the distorted and painful patterns of body, speech, and mind. You have to connect with the qualities of true, open presence. Transformative qualities will naturally come from that openness. By abiding with clear attention to the space of openness itself, you will develop patience and strength to host the arising of sensations, recollections, emotions, and thoughts—all varieties of experience— and see them as the doorways to the unbounded space of being, the source of all positive qualities.
Again, these qualities will naturally arise and support full engagement in life. I believe it is important to work with a qualified teacher who can support and guide the practitioner to progress from calm abiding to engaging and fully connecting with one’s experience in order to act spontaneously for the benefit of others.
Throughout the day it is possible to work directly with challenges as they arise. I recommend to my students that they take three “pills”: a pill of stillness, which means in the midst of activity bringing focused attention to discover the stillness that is always available; a pill of silence, which is bringing attention to the silence pervading all sound; and a pill of spaciousness, which, when discovered, brings the warmth of connection. In simple language, stillness of body opens to an experience of unbounded spaciousness; silence of speech brings awareness that is infinite and full; through spaciousness, or openness, you discover warmth and bliss, the enlightened creative quality. In this way your meditation practice on and off the cushion can support full engagement in the world.
Buddha spoke of guiding all sentient beings of the six realms of existence. Today we speak of global consciousness and of having an impact on one’s community. In order to bring forth enlightened qualities, it is important to connect with the warmth of awareness that reveals the interconnectedness of all life. A sense of creativity and drive will come as you open fully. Again, this openness is discovered by initially retreating from distorted patterns and discovering their insubstantial nature. As you connect to the openness that is discovered by doing so, creative, dynamic energy spontaneously emerges from the openness itself. In this way, each of us becomes an agent of individual, social, and global transformation.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: In quieting the mind and investigating the true nature of phenomena and ourselves, we are answering an ancient echo that invites us into a deeper life, exploring what truly brings peace and lasting happiness. This takes us beyond appearances and helps us see that our efforts to find happiness by consuming, for example, only bring us further away from what the heart yearns for.
This kind of understanding is a natural outcome of meditating. It is what the Buddha called the second noble truth: recognizing that the cause of suffering is ignorance or craving. With greater attentiveness and wisdom, we are more likely to see not only our own delusions but those of others as well. At times, this sense of separation can feel intensified, but it is just a phase of the path.
I would encourage you to turn toward that sense of alienation and investigate its nature. Is it fear? Is it reactivity? Is it doubt? Are you clinging to a sense of self? The feeling of alienation is a signal that a sense of self is being constructed, that you are identifying with your perceptions. You may come to see that you are attached to a concept of who you are in relationship to what you are seeing, and that from this comes the perception of self and other.
It is said that we don’t see things as they are, but rather we see things as we are. In other words, everything we see is colored by our state of mind. It’s good you are aware that something is not quite right. Sometimes practitioners become more critical of others the longer they practice and don’t question this sense of separation.
In the quiet of samadhi, there is still a sense of self. The silence of samadhi is conditioned, which means things need to be a certain way for this silence to occur, and they need to remain that way for it to continue. We may attempt to grasp after the quiet, to try to make it last. Then, when anything threatens to take it away—to disturb “my” meditation— we feel cranky and irritable. Attachment is always problematic, even if it is attachment to refined meditative states. The feeling of alienation from those around you becomes reified when there is attachment to this kind of silence.
However, there is a kind of silence that is reliable. This silence comes with seeing through the sense of there being a solid and permanent self who is meditating. It is accessed by including all phenomena in the field of awareness. The emphasis is on being aware instead of overly focusing on objects of awareness. If you practice in this way, at least at times, you may become more familiar with mental states and feel less need to exclude them. Instead of trying to “clear your head,” be interested in whatever way things are from moment to moment. Be aware, not just in formal sitting sessions but in every moment of the day. Be interested in the kilesas (kleshas), the disturbances happening in your own mind. Look at what is happening, and allow the torments of heart to dissolve in the light of awareness.
Gradually your perspective will shift and you’ll see that this sense of separation is something unnecessary and extra. Instead of judging the actions of others, you’ll see with discernment and compassion. Rather than looking from afar, an intuitive sense of sympathy and kindness will arise. In this kind of silence, compassion comes naturally.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman: You seem to be asking what can be done to combat the alienation you experience when you see the exaggerated consumptive tendencies of our
society. Indeed, we have an extensive advertising industry designed to promote and further exaggerate these tendencies. But even in the Buddha’s lifetime, he spoke of greed as one of the “three poisons” that cause suffering in our life. In the teaching of the six realms of existence, beings in the hungry ghost realm (the realm of insatiability) are depicted as having large bellies and thread-like necks, so it is impossible for them to ever fill their bellies. If you can see greed as an affliction, you may be able to cultivate compassion for those beings with exaggerated consumptive tendencies, rather than a sense of alienation.
Instead of judging yourself (i.e., “I don’t think this is the proper response”), you might cultivate gratitude for your good fortune at having met the buddhadharma, and for the teachers and companions on the path who have welcomed you and may have demonstrated to you a more compassionate way to live this precious human life.
Are you familiar with the practice of cultivating the four heavenly abodes (the brahmaviharas)? They are: metta (limitless loving-kindness toward all beings), karuna (limitless compassion toward all beings), mudita (limitless joy at the liberation of all beings), and upeksha (limitless equanimity toward all beings). Traditionally, one always begins with oneself. For example: “May I be happy. May I be free from suffering and the causes of suffering. May I have ease of well-being,” etc. Next, one moves outward to those who are near and dear, followed by those toward whom we feel indifferent. Finally, we include those who give rise to difficult feelings in us, until we can truly extend our heartfelt loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity to all beings without exception.
By cultivating these qualities, we can begin to be more aware of our deep connectedness with all beings and alleviate the suffering of alienation.
Zenkei Blanche Hartman is former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center
Geshe Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche is a lineage holder of the Bön Dzogchen tradition of Tibet
Narayan Helen Liebenson is a guiding teacher at Cambridge Insight Meditation Center