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Here are some brief excerpts from an interview with Khandro Rinpoche by Sandra Scales entitled “Compassion Is About Awareness” that beautifully express some of the dynamics between compassion, awareness, and wisdom.

From the book “Sacred Voices of the Nyingma Masters,” pages 185-187:

Sandra Scales: There are so many teachings about love and compassion, and I trust in them. But why does compassion actually work? Is there logic behind it? Would you talk about what true compassion is?

 Khandro Rinpoche: Compassion is not about kindness. Compassion is about awareness. Compassion in the general sense of kindness would be an expression of awareness, but one that might not necessarily be free from the stain of ego grasping. Genuine compassion is egoless. It is the inherent essence expressed, inseparable from awareness. This natural essence, which is genuine compassion, does not need to be formulated or even expressed as something like “compassion.” We see this exemplified in our great teachers. Their genuine compassion does not require phrases and expression or even actions. Just their presence, who they are, is nothing other than the quintessence of compassion. We, in contrast, have to invent and demonstrate compassion. Our contaminated compassion still requires effort and deliberation. That is conventional or general compassion.

SS: If we practiced this kind of conventional, ego-tainted compassion repeatedly, would that lead to awareness compassion?

KR: Yes, the good thing about the use of deliberate or conventional compassion is that it matures the mind so that ego grasping diminishes. It definitely has that effect and is therefore a skillful method for developing awareness compassion.

SC: Thank you, Rinpoche. This afternoon, you were talking about looking into or through the eyes of others. Would you speak more about that?

KR: We talk about compassion but in a very impersonal way. Genuine compassion arises as the ability to go beyond self. This requires that we transcend our preoccupation with our own happiness and suffering. As meditators, one of the first things we can do is to honestly look at the world from behind another’s eyes. Experience that person’s craving for happiness and fear of suffering with the same immediacy that we would if his heart and mind were ours. We may see that this individual’s immense hope and fear are even greater than our own. See the similarities we all share. We cannot even begin to commit ourselves to the path of selfless compassion if our mind is unable to sense the sameness of the ground we all stand upon. Ultimately, to understand selflessness, we have to go beyond self.

SC: This breaks down some of the imaginary barriers between us?

KR: And can also lead to the understanding of all-pervasive ground, an understanding that “Oh, yes there is the same happiness, the same suffering, the same ignorance and the same wisdom.” And yet this mind of ours thinks, “No, it is different. Your problem is your problem, my problem is my problem.” And so separation begins. When that separation is established, we definitely have a natural instinct to safeguard our own selfish interests and to be unaware of other’s needs.

But if we were able to really look into the eyes of another, we would see the oneness of all sentient beings and the sameness of the ground we all share. And then we would know the immense potential each being has for complete liberation at that very moment.

Here’s a wonderful quote by Tsoknyi Rinpoche from his book “Carefree Dignity” that points towards the nondual nature of mind. Granted, this perspective is quite subtle and elusive, especially if we are coming from the perspective of a meditator trying to grasp or attain some sort of state or realization. I am very grateful for Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s freshness and directness.

From the book “Carefree Dignity,” page 66:

“There is only one mind; it is not that there are two minds, one recognizing the other. In the very moment of recognizing, it is like a knot that is untied. We don’t have to do anything further than that, leave it untied. In the moment of looking, it is already seen. It is not that later on we come to see. Why? Because mind and mind essence are very close. The second reason is that it is not that mind essence is something that we have to get our sights on; it’s not like that. It is not that we need to hold the awareness on it for a while, like one or two minutes and slowly it will appear within our experience. Since there is only one mind, the moment you recognize, it is simply a matter of letting go.  The thinker or knower of that moment is just like a new knot, like a new thought. The moment you abandon it, it unties. We are already arrived at where we need to arrive at, we are already in the nature of mind.”

Today is the start of the five-week discussion group I’m facilitating for Colloquy Downeast on Buddhism in America. During this colloquy, we will be examining the three main expressions of Buddhist practice in the United States—Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhism. Along the way, we will discuss what makes Buddhism an accessible spiritual tradition in our modern world and how Buddhism addresses universal issues such as suffering, compassion, wisdom, and inquiry into the essential nature of existence.

You can see more information about the colloquy and a link to Colloquy Downeast at a separate blog page I’ve posted.

Once you’ve established or re-established some momentum with your writing practice, it’s best to do everything you can to stay on track and keep building on your forward motion. In a sense, you’re working to develop a writing habit so that writing naturally becomes an integral part of your daily life. You may reach a point of sensitivity where you actually don’t feel quite complete unless you’ve honored that inner call to create and write.

I still remember a phone conversation many years ago with a close writing friend. She asked how I was doing and I bitched and moaned about this nagging sense of dissatisfaction and vacuity that was plaguing me.

After I finished my diatribe, she asked me, “Have you written today?” and I had to admit I had not.

She said, “Sounds to me like you’re simply a writer who isn’t writing.”

I had to sheepishly admit that perhaps this was indeed the crux of my somewhat melodramatic angst.  We hung up after agreeing that we would each sit down then and there and write for a set period of time, gaining solace and support in the fact that across the miles a fellow friend and writer was engaging in the same process and the knowledge that, each in our own way, we were honoring our urge to write.

Find What Works For You

There are no hard and fast rules for the craft and process of writing—for practically every single rule about writing, there are examples of established writers who have successfully broken them—but there are certain guidelines that seem to work for most writers.  I will summarily list a few here and discuss them in more detail in future posts.  The point is to start discovering what works for you and gather around yourself a sense of a structure and methodology that supports your writing. Some of these guidelines may sound simplistic and none of them are original but, as in the phone call with my friend, sometimes it’s refreshing just to be humble and open to commonsense and practical advice, to awaken anew to what in Zen is called Beginner’s Mind.

Write on a regular basis. Nothing will build an inner sense of trust and confidence in your identity as a writer than a track record of continuity in your writing practice.  Become an habitual writer.

Suspend the editorial, judgmental mind.  You can critique or edit your work later. For now, just write. As Natalie Goldberg advises:  Allow yourself to write the worst junk in America.

Develop a team of writing allies.  These can be actual mentors, friends or writing group members or “virtual allies” in the form of authors and books that inspire your creative writing endeavors.  A few creative writing books to look at include:

Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg.  Now considered a classic for “freeing the writer within.”

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. A guided 12-week program for recovering and enhancing one’s artistic creativity.

Writing Brave & Free by Ted Kooser & Steve Cox. Plenty of practical advice and “encouraging words for people who want to start writing” that apply as well for those of us who have been at it for a while.

If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.  Another timeless classic on writing and the creative process.

Anyone who’s been around powerboats knows that if you really want to get anywhere, you have to get your boat “up on a plane” and that to do so takes an initial expenditure of extra power and acceleration.  When a boat begins forward motion through water, the hull is essentially plowing the water aside, making for rather slow and sluggish headway. But when you gun the engine and power the boat through the water, you begin gaining momentum. First the bow and then the rest of the hull kind of lift up and on top the water, so that the boat hull is now planing across the water’s surface, quickly gaining speed with diminishing effort. Then you can back off on the throttle and just enjoy the exhilaration of cruising.

Starting and maintaining a writing practice is not a dissimilar process. Initially, it may take quite a bit of effort to carve out the time and set aside your fears and procrastinations, to actually sit down and begin writing on a regular basis.  At first, it may feel like you’re slogging against water but the more momentum you gain, the more habitual you become with your writing, the easier the process unfolds. And once you have a writing practice established, the easier it becomes to maintain.

However, for most of us, if you let your writing practice slip—just like a powerboat that slows down below a certain speed settles back deeper into water—you’ll have to start over again and expend that initial extra effort to get yourself back up on a plane. I don’t mean to sound discouraging, but the truth of the matter is that writing is hard work, even for many prolific and established authors. There are very few writers for whom words just come streaming out onto the page like water from an open faucet. Most writers have to learn how to live with the fits and starts that come with slipping in and out of their writing groove.

A successful writer—from the context of considering writing as a practice and process—is someone who has found the ways and means of entering into and maintaining the flow of their writing. A major determining factor between successful and would-be writers comes down to the tenacity and perseverance that one brings to the practice of writing.  And a measure of our determination is the ability to come back to the writing table, time and time again, even when it means that we have to go through the sometimes tedious process of getting ourselves back up on the plane.

Rather than seeing this as a discouraging reality, I find that it helps to understand that these are simply some of the mechanics for establishing a writing practice.  Just as naval architects study the parameters for designing planing hulls, we writers can devise our individual methods for getting—and keeping—our writing up on a plane. And whenever we find that we have settled back into the waters of inertia, we know that we simply have to apply that extra burst of energy and determination to get up and cruising again.

I’ll be discussing some ways and means for enhancing writing practice in future posts.

To become a writer, to be a writer, is deceptively simple:  All you have to do is write.  As soon as you begin writing, you are a writer.  Plain and simple.

Whenever I facilitate writing retreats and workshops, we always start with a short free-writing period.  The purpose of this exercise is to wade into the stream of writing, to get ourselves wet. By doing so, we establish right from the beginning that every participant is indeed a writer.  Then I encourage everyone to let go of, or at least suspend, any nagging internal debates like: “Am I or am I not really a writer? . . . Do I have what it takes to be a writer? . . .  Am I fooling myself in wanting to write? . . .” etc. Such conjectures are not helpful or conducive for establishing a writing practice. So for now, as best you can allow yourself, just drop them.

Writing is a process and one enters the process as soon as one engages in the act of writing.  This commonsense notion is so obvious that we often overlook it, but sometimes it’s refreshing to remind ourselves how easy it is to just begin writing.

Gail Sher, a writer and longtime Buddhist practitioner, outlines four axioms in her book One Continuous Mistake, Four Noble Truths for Writers that are somewhat analogous to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. These are:

FOUR NOBLE TRUTHS FOR WRITERS

1. Writers write.

2. Writing is a process.

3. You don’t know what your writing will be until the end of the process.

4. If writing is your practice, the only way to fail is not to write.

        I love these “truths” for their simplicity and directness and their implicit encouragement to enter the stream of writing. So wade on in. And if you occasionally find yourself cast up on some shore, high and dry, just recognize that you’re simply a writer who hasn’t been writing.  The stream of writing is always there, ready and waiting for your return.

        Finally, back from our vacation trip, meandering the California coast from San Francisco to Santa Barbara. So wonderful to discover that some places, especially Big Sur, seem impervious to change and still resonate with the wild beauty I first found when hitchhiking along the coast in 1970 and during subsequent visits over the years.

        We stopped off at a few choice pilgrimage spots, including the Henry Miller Memorial Library, and found his ghost still lingering amongst the redwoods and within the funky bookstore cum library cum shrine that is housed in the former home of Emil White, Henry’s dear old friend.

        I felt re-infused and re-enthused by Miller’s exuberant energy, which I first experienced as a pre-adolescent boy, looking for “the dirty parts” in my parents’ copy of Tropic of Cancer, and later, when I inhaled several of his novels in my twenties.  I’ve always admired his vitality and enthusiasm; the way he seemed to live life as a bold experiment—merging the art of writing with the art of life itself.

        Here’s a quote that appears in the book, Henry Miller on Writing:

           “Writing, like life itself, is a voyage of discovery. The adventure is a metaphysical one: it is a way of approaching life indirectly, of acquiring a total rather than a partial view of the universe. The writer lives between the upper and lower worlds: he takes the path in order eventually to become that path himself.

            “I began in absolute chaos and darkness, in a bog or swamp of ideas and emotions and experiences.  Even now I do not consider myself a writer, in the ordinary sense of the word.  I am a man telling the story of his life, a process which appears more and more inexhaustible as I go on.  Like the world-evolution, it is endless. It is a turning inside out, a voyaging through X dimensions, with the result that somewhere along the way one discovers that what one has to tell is not nearly so important as the telling itself.  It is this quality about all art which gives it a metaphysical hue, which lifts it out of time and space and centers or integrates it to the whole cosmic process.  It is this about art which is ‘therapeutic’: significance, purposefulness, infinitude.

            “From the very beginning almost I was deeply aware that there is no goal.  I never hope to embrace the whole, but merely to give in each separate fragment, each work, the feeling of the whole as I go on, because I am digging deeper and deeper into life, digging deeper and deeper into past and future.  With the endless burrowing a certitude develops which is greater than faith or belief.  I become more and more indifferent to my fate, as writer, and more and more certain of my destiny as a man.”    – Henry Miller

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