I have read only a couple of dharma books and listened to less than 100 dharma talks and podcasts.
A lot of people get confused and think that if they listen to enough talks or media, that will help them awaken or get the thing out of meditation that they are looking for.
The opposite can actually be true. If you listen to someone who is perceived as a higher status than you talking from a place of authority about what your experience is, at the wrong moment this can be just as likely to hold you back. Status is one of the biggest masks for truth. You end up towing the line instead of validating your own experience.
Do not get me wrong – the talks that I have listened to have been invaluable, but I am ruthless about only listening when I feel someone is sharing from a place of authentic desire to share their truthful experience in the service of helping other people be more present with their own experience.
Lots of dharma talks are about things that other people have told that person. This has kept the tradition alive but it’s not really the Dharma.
The dharma is being present with the truth of your reality and literally nothing provides this better than just having the resolve to be present with whatever is there. Both on the cushion and off. The more you are able to do that, the wiser you become.
This is insanely hard and takes a huge amount of courage and clarity to face ourselves and our realities. There are loads of things stopping us being present, which is why it’s easier to listen to other people talk about what other people have said about it than to just do it.
“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own soul.”
There are some tools and techniques that help us with becoming more present with experience, but they are pretty simple and can be understood in a few hours. The trick is then applying them to the endless complexity of our own lives and experiences. It is worth saying that you are just as likely to learn the tools for being present in a therapy room as you are in a meditation hall.
It is insanely helpful if someone is providing their presence and hard-won experience generously towards helping you be present with your experience – but most teachers are more about towing the line and maintaining the system than giving each student what they need at that moment.
When a student asks a question, I get the sense that a lot of teachers are thinking how can I get this person to understand what I want them to understand, to see things how I want them to see things. Rather than what is this person experiencing, how can I validate that and perhaps share something that will support them to move forwards in understanding the truth of their own reality.
Most teachers are still listening to the teachers above them who are listening to the teachers above them. And it goes on, building a world where the people with the status feel protected with a sense that their ideas are right and allowing everyone to avoid being present in a moment where status and book-knowledge actually means very little.
I think one of the reasons that people like to listen to so many talks and go on so many silent retreats is because it gives them a sense of belonging in the world. It helps them to understand who they are. They can tell other people ‘I agree with such and such idea’ or ‘I’ve gone on this many retreats’.
Sadly, this type of belonging is mostly an illusion. It is the fake nourishment of needing to justify who we are and assert our status as experienced meditators.
Real belonging comes from being a part of a community where we are seen, loved and respected for who we are in that moment, not for who we feel we need to adopt a certain persona to be.
We are so used to needing to put on personas as coping mechanisms. I wonder how many people have actually had the experience of being allowed to be their true self and being accepted for it. I would guess not many.
Even if it’s just for a few moments it can be a life-changing experience. It is infinitely easier to be present with our experience in this environment than in an environment that is pitted against us.
In conclusion, I think it’s worth questioning where you are getting your dharma from.
Are you doing it in order to find some ‘answer’ that is going to mean you don’t have to be present with the truth of your experience in this moment?
Are you doing it to prop up a sense of who you believe you are and how you want to be perceived?
It’s fine if the answer to either of these questions is yes. Life is hard and we don’t have the perfect conditions in our life for awakening or being present. But in the spirit of truth and the dharma, it’s better to be honest with yourself about them so you can understand how you are moving through the world.
If a lot of people are answering yes to both of these (which I believe they are), then this a sign that we need to change the environment, not the people.
What if we made it so that it was much easier to be present with the truth of our experience, by creating environments where we felt safe, loved and accepted? What if we made it so that people didn’t need to prop up a sense of persona in order to feel seen?
My vision is to create better conditions for the truth of people’s experience to be experienced and expressed.
Being present with real experience happens for people a thousand times faster if they are given clear and explicit validation for what they are thinking and feeling in that moment. This happens by holding space for people to speak and express their own truth and understanding of the world, as well as by people learning to sit with themselves and experience in silence.
It’s important to make space for the challenges and difficulties of what is actually going for people, rather than trying to force people to fit into some unattainable mode where they can just switch their thoughts and feelings off and be an ocean of calm.
Retreats can be calm spaces that help people relax and feel safe, for sure. But it’s important to also use this space as a foundation where people are encouraged to bring a full expression and understanding of who they actually are in the moment – the only place their truth can be found or their experience can be had.
In order for this to happen teachers have to let go of the idea that they know more about a student’s experience than the students know themselves. And students have to let go of the idea that teachers know more about their experience than they do.
How are people supposed to move through the world in a way that uncovers and validates their own truth, if the environment where they are practicing this in is set up in such a way that they have to adopt the ideas of other people in order to be accepted?
We should be giving people space to dismantle the ideas that they have been given, not making them believe they have to act or feel a certain way in order to belong and ‘get it right’.
Some people may have wisdom, skills and experience that are helpful for a lot of people in a lot of moments, but ultimately, we are all sharing in this experience equally together and more people will be able to be more present if the environment reflected this.