Witnessing and self-sacrifice

I’d like to hold up a very interesting article I read by Ajahn Viradhammo in the most recent Buddha-dharma magazine, summer 2013, in his article “Unlimited Heart.” I recommend reading the whole article. It was straight to the point of practice and practicing in a household, not in a monastery.

He seems to have a very clear understanding of how to work with what he calls, “self-referencing” and learning to have stability in your “bearing witness” process to life. All this wonderful practice council was in an article about being a care-giver for his ailing mother for 9 years in which he lived in her condominium, which as he describes, “was a bit of a workout for a monk.”

He writes that lay practice brings out the “heart” of practice. Living with people that you love and taking care of them, brings out, quite naturally, a kind of self-sacrifice that may be hard to find if you live in a monastery or if your practice is self-referenced as “my practice, my practice, my practice.” He writes:

“One of the dangers of Buddhism is that it’s such a clever system of teaching and so beautifully laid out. Its intellectual structures are second to none; they are all very elegant and fit together nicely. This makes it easy to remain engaged with Buddhism just on an intellectual level. I think we all contemplate the difference between doctrine as something that awakens and doctrine as dogmatic position-taking.”

We can use the Buddha teaching reflectively, using language and awareness to awaken. Reflection is mirroring our experience rather than believing things intellectually with a host of positions.”

Just reading that, brings me back to myself, my habituated habits, my devotion to the dharma as I go through my days. It is not an intellectual view of my life but how I actualize what I “think I know” in my daily activities.

He writes that in Western Buddhism we don’t emphasize, “giving up or self-sacrifice” and if we do try it, it is usually from a place of obligation or duty and therefore burns us out. How can our “giving” come from a different place in ourselves?

Oddly enough, one of the ways we can learn to come to that sense of self-sacrifice is through meditation. Meditation is a very personal affair; you just sit there on your cushion, quietly watching your mind or your breath. But in meditation there is an opportunity to no longer be a person willfully trying to do something, become something, figure something out, or get somewhere. I found questioning that sense of self-referencing, making an inquiry around effort and will, very helpful…..we can discover a sense of spacious witnessing. That’s a huge lesson in understanding the space of the heart, which is peaceful.”

“If you’ve trained in qualities of wakefulness that are not willful and don’t have a constant agenda, becoming, getting rid of and all the other self-referencing habits, and if you have a kind of consciousness that can become more and more timeless, present, and empathetic, you’ll begin to find something in yourself that gives deep faith and trust. You can’t really trust your emotions or your personality, but you can trust the witness of and listening to emotions because it’s something that allows life to present itself as it is.”

He emphasized that while taking care of his mother, he sat a lot, often morning and evenings and perhaps midday. In that way, he could really monitor where he was at. What emotional stresses had he picked up? What did he need to process, let go of, right now? He called this — maintenance-work-awakening. He encourages us to bring the cultural reminders of silence and stillness into our lay life. That could be an altar, your spiritual disciplines and friendships or sangha.

“My own sense is that there is something profoundly beautiful about human consciousness, that we have this tremendous potential to realize the deepest peace. That seems to me to be the whole meaning of this human existence. In giving and serving, I find social meaning. But I know all the issues of burnout. If giving is our raison d’etre, if that’s all there is, it’s a recipe for disaster, because the giving is not balanced with inner silence and clarity. But if giving, self-sacrifice, is balanced with a sense of witnessing, wonderful things are possible.”