Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Groundlessness. It's so much fun.

When I have a "big thought", it tends to be messy and tangled. English typically wants thoughts to be linear and logical. It occured to me that my experience at work offered a glimpse (somewhat fleetingly) into this Buddhist notion of groundlessness. As the thoughts in the previous post swirrled through my head, I had an overwhelming insight into groundlessness. The word just seemed to pop into my head, and I then thought I'd check out what Chogyam Trungpa or Pema Chodron or Tenzin Palmo had to say about this. Every morning, I read a chapter from Pema Chodron's work. Right now, I am working through The Places that Scare You, so I thought I would start there. I flipped to the table of contents and low and behold, there was a chapter called "Groundlessness". So, I turned to the end of the book and read what it had to say. In essence it is a commentary on the Prajanparamita Sutra, literally translated as "The Sutra of the Heart of Transcendant Knowledge", and more simply "The Heart Sutra". So far, it is my beloved Sutra, (for many reasons.) You can read the translation that I chant here: The Heart Sutra.

This expresses one of the central teachings and truths of Buddhism (and for me, of reality) - that of Shunyata - emptiness. Our existence is characterized by impermancence. Nothing, including ourselves is solid or predictable, and suffering results when we try to create permanence.

"But the Buddha knew that our tendency to seek solid ground is deeply rooted. Ego can use anything to maintain the illusion of security, including the belief in insubstantiality and change"
(p.99 The Places the Scare You)

When I think about my work, I try not to pin myself to categories that come from the inside out or from the outside in. When I named my oppression, I realized the inherent danger in becoming obsessed with the term. I touched on this idea, as a way to situate myself, but at the same time, not wear it as a beacon for others pity, or blueprint for self development. Part of my turmoil really is rooted in this idea of change - a big change is upon me, and it seems so much easier to cling on to this identity that I have created for myself - Heather the teacher, Heather the part-time faculty member, even Heather the oppressed teacher and faculty member. Letting go, or walking away from these roles, is scary and rightly so. Practically speaking, there will be no more financial security, and on another level, I will not longer be able to self identify with my job. This manifests in the most mundane places too - as I tidy up around my cluttered home, I think about the books, the articles that I have amassed since I started teaching. Should I save them? Donate them? Underlying all these questions, is a Heather that is fearful of being unfettered, and free of those labels. After all, this is a pretty safe place to be, even if it is oppressive (after all, that means someone else is in control). I have a cozy nest of habits and patterns, responsibilities and worries. Creating new ones will require a bit of freefalling. Admittedly, I not a thrill seeker. I'd rather stay cozy and warm in the ski-lodge. I am sensing this underlying panic beneath all the anger and despair about my work. is really a fear of the unknown. What Buddhism offers me, is that this experience is normal.

What I love about the Heart Sutra, is that it pulls the rug from under its own self proclaimed truths. Buddhism, happens to have four. Yet the Heart Sutra tells us "Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness..... no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no non-attainment..." I always chant this with a sense of delight. There is a built in sense of twisted humour that I completely embrace. Imagine reading the very last line of the Bible, and it says "P.S. None of this is true or real, Na Na..Love God." That statement in the Heart Sutra is that grave, and that light at the same time.

And Pema Chodron adds
" The Instruction on prajnaparamita is a teaching on fearlessness. To the extent that we stop struggling against uncertainty and ambiguity, to that extent we dissolve our fear. The synonym for total fearlessness is full enlightenment - whole hearted, open-minded interaction with our world. Meanwhile, we train in patiently moving in that direction. By learning to relax with groundlessness, we gradually connect with the mind that knows no fear" (p.103 The Places that Scare You).
So, in part, my response to groundlessness and the uncertainty of my job, was to tell myself that "Its over, time to move on, find new things." I convinced myself that this was the answer that I needed to embody and accept. This meant, that I had to process through sadness, and loss - since despite the bureaucratic crap, I love what I do, and love working with my students. What other job am I going to be able to play with these kinds of ideas and thoughts? I figured it was an exercise in letting go, in renunciation.

On Monday, I went to my weekly Buddhist evening, did my chanting, did my sitting, and sat in the shineroom with my sangha for discussion. A longtime member popped in, with a friend connected to Shambhala International, but had never has the opportunity to visit our centre. We were having a conversation about the 5 Skandhas (how ego is formed) and I shared something about myself and the work that I do. At the end of our evening, the guest introduced himself and gave me his card. It said "Part-Time Faculty, Department of Religious Studies." (from a univeristy out of province). Ha! Then he asked me to get in touch, because he was helping coordinate a workshop on contemplative education. Then my mind reeled. This was right up my alley! The speed of thought is inexpressible, and in a second I had made connections with my practice and how I teach... and there is another place for me to develop this! And then I thought, too bad its all over for me...too bad my RS career is done with... But who made THAT decision? See...there goes that rug out from under me again.

Groundlessness. It's so much fun.


Eric said...

Heather, I encourage you to follow your heart. Go for things that you enjoy doing. You have lots af talent and smarts to accomplish anything.

Kalsang Dorje said...

Hey Heather,
I invite you to visit my blog (as per usual, click my name :) I'm in the same stage of practice with the Cherizig Sadhana. Part of that practice is the Heart Sutra. My very short blog is basically there to contemplate and integrate teachings. Oddly enough, my teacher is from the East. He's from Nova Scotia though. I must say that with practice has come a lot of returning to myself and what is real. I often come across the idea of if I could get rid of everything, things would be easier. But at the same time I don't know if this is the real meaning of renunciation.

hotboy said...

Brilliant, brilliant post! I love this. I'll come back to it and re-read the sutra. I haven't got the time mostly due to investigating ra bliss. But this is a very positive post! Groundlessness? I was disappointed when I read that the dharmakaya was an absolute. I was just getting into everything changing. Anyway, I'll make a mistake so I should stop here. But this is the biz. Great post! Hotboy

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes. I think I just wrote a post on this topic, but I didn't know it was called groundlessness.

I'll try not to let the label keep me from experiencing it - but given my track record, I think I'll probably just have to catch myself when it does.

Thanks for a great post.