Monday, October 01, 2018

When Dharma (and/or Dharma Teachers) Seem/s to Say You Suck

I just got done teaching a weekend program in Chicago with Acharya Charlene Leung. The title was Healing Harm for Vibrant and Just Community: Exploring Social and Personal Power.

It was a revision from a previous program she has been working on for a few years, a version of which we did in Minneapolis awhile back. The version she had been developing focused more on unconscious bias, especially with race, and social conditioning. How to shake that social conditioning to build more vibrant Shambhala centers with true inclusivity and equity.

However, we were making the final course description when the Shambhala situation broke, and it became clear to both of us immediately that the program needed to be able to more directly include what was now a big part of our community. Thus, the new title - and new focus - was born.

The program was rich and deep, and we both learned a lot, as well as the participants, about all that goes into all three components: power, harm, and healing.

However, what stays with me most, and what I want to write about today, is an insight Charlene had towards the end of the weekend, as the two of us discussed our plan for Sunday's portion of the program. It relates to the hairy territory of intention versus impact, both in regards to teachers, and in regards to teachings.

I was describing how it can be possible to hear an absolute teaching - the one we were discussing is the idea "disease is the ignorance of not knowing our absolute nature of basic goodness" - and take it as a sign we have failed somehow. For instance, as I have a chronic illness (IBS), I could construe that as being something like, "I have a chronic illness because I have not yet realized I am basically good." On top of that conclusion, I could actually blame myself, "I am 'still sick' because I haven't worked hard enough to understand my basic goodness."

Even if I consciously "know full well it is not my fault," still, there is a deeply entrenched programming around my basic badness which is constantly fighting to be verified.

And Charlene said something then that blew me away. "We can use the teachings to confirm our inherent unworthiness, even if they aren't intended that way."

Whoa. Immediately, my mind flooded with endless circumstances, especially since the whole Shambhala situation has blown up, but easily many others from over 15 years of being on the path, in which I *heard* what a teacher was saying as a confirmation of just how not-realized I was yet, how it was my fault that I was suffering, etc.

Now, I want to state really clearly here that sometimes a teacher's intentions are mixed, even when they don't realize it. When I am in power as a teacher, I bring all my shit to the fore.

For instance, a woman in our program was hurt when I cut her off while discussing gender pronouns. She laughed because she was afraid of making a mistake (nervous giggle) and I felt the impact of that laugh as if she were saying, "This is really no big deal." I got enraged at the idea that anyone would take gender as no big deal (because plenty of people do feel that way) and responded too harshly with a correction. Because I was in the teaching position, the impact of that correction, and my harsh tone, was multiplied tremendously. The impact of my correction hurt her, and in fact, part of me wanted to "put her in her place." I didn't see her as a nervous human being, I saw her as embodying ignorance.

Later, she was brave enough to bring it up in front of others, and I felt relieved we could address it and I could learn how she was coming from fear of fucking up. It reminded me that my interpretation is far from correct just because I am a teacher. She was relieved to hear my anger came from misinterpretation of her laughter (which she honestly didn't recall doing, but believed she did) and not because I thought she was fundamentally fucked up.

I have also had plenty of instances where teachers have used a teaching to punish me, with the express, even if unconscious, intent of "putting me in my place" in dharma contexts. So it is NOT always that the teacher's intention is good. Teachers can manipulate dharma to get laid, to get people to do things that are immoral, and justify it as being part of the teachings.

But what I really heard in what Charlene's statement is that the dharma's intention is good. Teachers and students alike can skew that, and believe the dharma is trying to confirm our fundamental faultiness.

So I began to wonder. What would happen if I never used the dharma to confirm my badness? What would happen if every time that feeling arose, I either questioned the teacher's intention, or took a look at how my subconscious (most often) is appropriating the impact to hurt myself with it? What happened if, in other words, I didn't question the dharma or my own goodness, but rather, the person delivering it, or how I am receiving it?

This feels like an exercise with a great deal of richness in it for me right now, especially considering how groundless Shambhala feels at the moment. I find lots of people using dharma as weapons to shut each other down, prove each other wrong, or protect themselves or each other. This is understandable - trying to deal with groundlessness while triggered is deeply difficult, and can feel life-threatening. But what if I didn't allow the basic ground of goodness to be shaken by anyone's arguments? And if it does get shaken by someone's arguments, instead of questioning myself or the inherent intention of dharma, I questioned the speaker/teacher, and/or look gently, but clearly, at how I might be using the teaching against myself?

And, as a dharma teacher, what if I made a pact to never use the teachings to undermine especially someone in a "power under" position with me - eg a student in a course with me. What if I directly stated when teaching, "If I ever seem to be using the dharma to confirm your fundamental unworthiness, please say something so we can explore what is going on?"

When I later approached the woman who spoke to how what I had said and how I had said it had hurt her, she and I noted the endless times - often when we have been together on the path - when teachers have not only not considered it possible to "hurt someone with the dharma" but definitely not accepted responsibility. So we might question a teacher about their intention, or try to inform them of their impact, but we may not get useful results. 

So the best I can do is call in a teacher whenever I sense they might be miscommunicating - their intent is not matching their impact - and work on being aware - not hyper-self-conscious, not spaced out about, but aware with open gentleness - of when I might be doing the same. When I interrupted the woman to correct her, *I* felt how hurt she was, not just how hurt I was. I was aware of it, in no small part due to my years of Karuna Training.

Slowly working our way through these micro hurts and harms helps to cut down the barriers we build up between each other and the teachings. Those kinds of barriers can calcify and create resentment, exhaustion, and lack of connection - not just to each other but to the dharma itself

Finally, but importantly, when someone lives already in a marginalized identity, the tendency to doubt ourselves is already strong. Teachers are already in a higher power position than students, and often already in a chronically higher social power position than a marginalized student (eg white male teacher, black female student). When we don't recognize the power imbalance is already there, we can cause tremendous harm. Being willing to recognize the impact of our unconscious bias, or even the impact of teachings which to the same social group as us may not seem harmful, but to a different, marginalized group has negative results, is essential.

None of this is policing. It is all to be worked with in the wide open space of not-knowing. It can be so hard as a teacher to know what we don't know, and to acknowledge that. Even as dharma teachers, we get caught in the idea that we should always have answers, or know what to say or do. To be caught in the gap of not knowing and be with that, feeling out ourselves and the human beings we are teaching, is essential. It matches the view of dharma, which is to cause no harm with the teachings themselves, and ultimately to alleviate suffering, rather than contributing to it.

So. This is my pact to you, dear reader. I will continue to explore the power of teachings like the dharma - coming through human beings, like they do - to trigger our age-old social beliefs around our unworthiness. I will continue to interrogate my own teachers, and invite interrogation of my own teaching. I invite you to let me know if any dharma teaching I offer, or try to offer, seems to confirm your faultiness. It may feel scary to confront me, and I acknowledge that. As much as it feels possible, I want you to let me know.

I want to investigate this together. And I invite you to explore with me, whenever it is possible, whenever you have a brave and caring space to do it, to ask some of these same questions as you read dharma books, listen to talks or podcasts, and especially as you engage one-on-one or in groups with teachers or leaders in dharma. 


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  3. Thank you for you honesty and sharing this deep inquiry,Miriam. Such rich food for thought for all of us. I go forward with my day today with you in my mind and heart and with an aspiration to cultivate more awareness of these issues and to remember that we all can use more gentleness and kindness. Miss you , dear dharma sister ! Sending you love and deep gratitude.

  4. This describes one of the most difficult traps for dharma teachers, or for human beings altogether.

    Gurdjieff once said that the biggest obstacle to enlightenment is the sexual drive. I think he was wrong. My experiences and a study I once read lead me to think the urge to control other people is more deeply seated and harder to uproot. And causes a lot more trouble.

    This is the same cusp where people look to dharma teachings for things that will 'solve' samsara. Never will. As if dharma has something salient to say about political systems, rules of law, justice, how society functions, and by extension, how other people should behave. That's just not what it's about. If it is approached in that way, aggression will be part and parcel.

    No question that dharma study and practice will have some influence on those things, if people who progress on the path happen to engage in those things, not that those things become 'Buddhified' but that clear vision and compassion will be part of whatever they do.

    However, when it is the goal to use dharma/practice in those ways: to improve politics, to get other people to behave a certain way, to tell other people how and what they should see and believe, then we fall into theocracy, and we don't need to look very far and wide at all to see how well that doesn't work.

    Two quotes come to mind. A quote from Trungpa Rinpoche, that “Communication shouldn't be about convincing the other person.” Try it. Try talking to someone, to teach without trying to convince the other person. It's a subtle but dramatic difference from how most of us normally communicate, and speaks volumes about our intent.

    And because our impulse to judge others on an ego level (good,bad,right,wrong, etc. – which is necessary on a secular level to make society work, but on the level of discovering the true nature of reality is more like a side effect) ...because this urge to judge seems to be at the heart of this issue, a quote from the album “Halcyon Days” by Bruce Hornsby, as good a poetic expression of tonglen as you're likely to find:
    “Some rise by wrong,
    And some by virtue fall,
    And those convicting may be the guiltiest of all.
    Wash it all away.
    I'd love to bring you, on a silver tray, some halcyon days.”