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January 2022 Musings

This excerpt from The Key was the subject of our exploration during the New Year’s retreat. 
There are four causes of suffering…
Not getting what you want
Getting what you want and not being satisfied with it
Being separated from those or that which you love
Having to endure the presence of those or that which you do not love
These four all come down to the same thing—not getting what you want.
The momentary satisfaction we experience when a desire is fulfilled lulls us into believing that getting what we want is the key to well-being. It reinforces the deeply held belief that happiness is conditional and dependent on external circumstances arranging themselves in a particular way that conforms to our expectations. It furthers the illusion that somehow we have the freedom to choose the shape and content of our personal universe. (We do, but not the way we are conditioned to believe!) When “my” will is thwarted because the universe doesn’t deliver what I want, I feel resentful, frustrated, victimized, disappointed, hurt—I suffer! But suffering is not a mistake. Suffering causes us to examine our assumptions around autonomy, agency, control and free will. Suffering, oddly enough, is what causes us to seek freedom from suffering by exploring the very nature of happiness and well-being. 
It’s like growing lotus flowers. You cannot grow lotus flowers on marble. You have to grow them in the mud. Without mud you cannot have lotus flowers. Without suffering, you have no way to learn how to be compassionate and understanding.
– Thich Nhat Hanh
“Not getting what I want” encounters give us the opportunity to grow up spiritually. Growing up in Awareness Practice seems to involve accepting, not intellectually but experientially, that what I want at the content level may not be on offer. Facing this fact can be devastating, bewildering, shattering. Without a practice of some sort that anchors our hearts in what cannot be shattered (whether or not we “know” what that is!), we can’t process that what actually shatters is the belief that we’re not okay if we can’t always have what we want. A spiritual practice assists us to recognize that when what’s on offer isn’t what we might like, prefer or wish for, it is our best opportunity to discern the boundaries of freedom and to clarify for ourselves what we really want.
The sense of not being free comes from trying to do things which are impossible and even meaningless. You are not “free” to draw a square circle, to live without a head, or to stop certain reflex actions. These are not obstacles to freedom; they are the conditions of freedom. I am not free to draw a circle if perchance it should turn out to be a square circle. I am not, thank heaven, free to walk out of doors and leave my head at home. Likewise I am not free to live in any moment but this one, or to separate myself from my feelings.
– Alan Watts
If we want to end suffering, we have to recognize that being free of suffering comes with conditions. If we’re willing to accept the conditions of freedom, not suffering is possible. Suffering persists because we continue to cling to the possibility that satisfying the ego and ending suffering are not mutually exclusive. Growing up spiritually is accepting that we can either be happy or be dissatisfied, and we ARE free to make that choice in each moment. 
The only real choice in a situation where I don’t get what I want is to choose not to suffer. This requires the situation to be what it is and for “me” to change, by which we mean the ego (position, preference, orientation, assumption, expectation) has to dissolve. One can’t but admire the brilliance of this training structure! The wisdom of no escape is the only way we would submit to “thy will be done.” It is only in surrendering to Life on Life’s terms that we arrive at the clarity, spiritually speaking, that the real desire of our hearts is not to satisfy the ego but to be free of its control over us. 
It is possible of course that we arrive at that clarity and choose to continue to identify with ego. We are certainly free to suffer until we don’t want to. 
Being so long accustomed to the oppression [of the intellect], the mental inertia becomes hard to remove. In fact it has gone down deep into the roots of our own being, and the whole structure of personality is to be overturned. The process of reconstruction is stained with tears and blood… It is no pastime but the most serious task in life; no idlers will ever dare attempt it.
– D.T. Suzuki
A more familiar word for letting go “what I want if it’s not on offer” is acceptance. Acceptance cannot be faked. If we have not truly surrendered to “thy will” in a particular content area, if an identity or a karmic orientation hasn’t dissolved completely, the circumstances that will result in ego dissolution will keep surfacing. This appears to be the nature of awakening, another “inevitable” we may not want to face but we get to accept!
If the nature of Awareness is Unconditional Love, it is uncompromising in what it demands: total surrender of the conditional, unconditionally. As practitioners of awareness, we can’t shrug our shoulders and redirect the attention from the voices in conditioned mind as an intellectual exercise. Sometimes we have to beard the lion in its den and experience the suffering, not as something to get over, get past or get through on our way to a utopian alternate reality, but as the only way to transform separation from Life to a union with living.  To seek and find compassion in the midst of suffering, whenever and wherever suffering occurs, especially in those times and places when it feels like all is lost, is the journey to an unassailable Center.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving; 
To rest at noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the Beloved in your heart and a song of praise on your lips.
– Kahlil Gibran
If we examine the shape of our lives, we may see that perhaps we are acutely aware of our dissatisfaction but only vaguely aware of our well-being. What if we cultivated the ability to be present to the expanse of our existence when all is well, in addition to practicing the skill to navigate places of suffering?
An exclusive focus on dissatisfaction, even if it is on transcending discontent, misses an essential teaching of the Buddha. The First Noble Truth says “Suffering is;” it doesn’t say “Life is suffering.” We’re deeply conditioned to ignore all that is always on offer, much of which supports, nourishes, and delights us. Being aware of the Unconditional when life is working in our favor is as important as discovering the Unconditional in the midst of our suffering. An active practice of acknowledging and appreciating All That Is in its generosity and abundance is a necessary component to awakening. Without such a practice, Divinity might be on offer everywhere in every moment, but we will fail to see it, not because it isn’t there but because we have not prepared ourselves to receive its Presence.
We seek the real because we are unhappy with the unreal. Happiness is our real nature and we shall never rest until we find it. But rarely do we know where to seek it. A person of low intelligence believes, against all evidence, that they are an exception and that the world owes them happiness. But the world cannot give what it does not have; unreal to the core, it is of no use for real happiness. Only what is compatible with your real being can make you happy.
– Nisargadutta Maharaj
It’s easy to get talked into believing that a spiritual focus—the elimination of desire, letting go of what I want, the dissolution of “me”—condemns us to a life of austerity and grim deprivation. No seeker will deny that transformation involves crucifixion, but once our trajectory is a search for happiness, we won’t be satisfied by a mere relief from suffering. Life’s longing for itself eventually shatters all limitations. “I” cannot constrain the Lover’s desire for the Beloved. Can that seeking be joyous? Assuredly it can be if we actively reframe the narrative of our practice adventure to encompass the totality of what it is, which is not just a struggle to let go ego but the fulfillment of Life’s longing for itself, or even Life’s longing for “you.”
As we begin another year of practice, might we heed the words of Rumi to make this journey to the realization of “That Thou Art” a happy one?
If you are seeking, seek us with joy 
For we live in the kingdom of joy. 
Do not give your heart to anything else 
But to the love of those who are clear joy, 
Do not stray into the neighborhood of despair. 
For there are hopes: they are real, they exist – 
Do not go in the direction of darkness – I tell you: suns exist!