You are not your karmic bundle

When we embark on the spiritual journey and begin to pay attention to the habitual patterns and core stories that have such a powerful hold over us, we discover that we’re endowed with a unique set of issues and circumstances that we don’t necessarily share with others. Some of us have health or relationship problems, others have difficulty with money and career. Many struggle with feelings of unworthiness, others with anger, aggression, entitlement, and a competitive drive to dominate. Whatever form they may take, these patterns are inevitably not our own creations, though we may consciously perpetuate them. Rather, they’re somehow handed to us through some combination of childhood conditioning and genetic endowment and then reinforced or modified by the experiences we encounter as adults. 

This  collection of tendencies, beliefs, and behavioral patterns, which was passed along to us without our conscious consent, I like to call our karmic bundle. We didn’t choose it and are certainly not to blame for it, though we may mistakenly believe it’s our fault. In the end, however, we are ultimately responsible for coming to terms with it and, if we’re on the path of awakening, releasing its hold over us. Often it’s  passed like a hot potato from one generation to the next—unquestioned patterns, issues, and tendencies shared by family members down through the ages— until one person has the courage and tenacity to face it, unravel it, and move beyond it.

In the deepest sense, our karmic bundle is our most demanding teacher, uniquely suited to provoke our reactivity and cause suffering and stress, which in turn forces us to look for a deeper ground and identity beyond the personal. At one level, the karmic bundle is another name for ego, and as with ego it’s best not to struggle with it—after all, the only thing that can struggle with ego is more ego!—but rather to welcome it as it is without resistance but also without identification and allow it to release on its own in the light of awareness. It’s not actually personal, though it usually feels that way, and it doesn’t define us; it’s not a being but a mechanism that runs on autopilot and lacks the fluidity and adaptability of awareness that is genuinely present and responsive to the way things are. The more we see this bundle not as what defines me, but as an object in the awareness that I am, the more easily we can set it down once and for all.

More broadly speaking, our karmic bundle also contains talents and skills, emotional sensitivities and psychological strengths, that serve us well in this human life and make us wiser, more successful, and more compassionate human beings. But these too are not our personal creations, but the gifts we receive, which, like the burdens we carry, do not really belong to or define who we really are. You are not your karmic bundle, whether so-called positive or negative, but the ground of awareness, spirit, or consciousness, which is beyond limitation or definition and undisturbed by the difficulties and dramas the mind creates.

The Problem with Buddhism

I’d like to preface this blogpost by saying that the only problem with Buddhism is the three letters at the end of the word. Truth can never be confined to a belief system, no matter how venerable or refined, even though the practices and pointers it offers can help guide us on our journey.

My first Zen teacher, Kobun Chino, was considered a rebel in the highly stratified and ideologically strait-laced world of mid-20th century Japanese Buddhism. Trained at the principal Soto monastery, Eihiji, schooled at the Zen stronghold of Komazawa University, with an MA in Buddhist studies from Kyoto University, he was being groomed as a young man for a post in the Soto Zen hierarchy. Instead, Kobun broke with his master, declined to inherit the family temple, and answered Suzuki Roshi’s call to the US to help establish an unconventional, coed monastic community in the wilderness near Big Sur.

Kobun encouraged his students to practice what he called “guerilla Zen,” that is, taking our meditation out into our lives and not adhering to traditional rituals and practice forms. When he ordained me a monk, he ad-libbed the ceremony, shaving my head himself and giving me his own robes to wear, rather than the new ones generally reserved for acolytes like myself. In fact, much of what Kobun did was unconventional and even provocative by Buddhist standards. 

In this spirit he often admonished me, “Never call yourself a Buddhist.” Yet, at the same time, he wore his monk’s robes wherever he went and taught classes on the Lotus Sutra, one of the most arcane scriptures in the Mahayana Buddhist canon. He was a walking paradox, devoting his life to essential Buddhist principles yet fiercely averse to any ideological limitations.

Since my formative years with Kobun in the 1970s, I’ve had a number of wonderful teachers who have inspired me to transform my life at the deepest level. And every one of them has taught that, when you wake up to your true nature, you wake up out of a tradition and a belief system and into your own autonomy and independently verifiable realization. Though the tradition may have been invaluable in providing guidance on your journey, you now no longer need it to tell you how to think and act, because you’re guided by your own awakened heart and mind. When he taught the Buddhist precepts, or guidelines for conduct, Kobun explained them not as a set of rules imposed from outside, which is the more conventional understanding, but as a description of how a truly awakened person would naturally behave.

At his enlightenment, the Buddha reportedly declared, “Above the heavens and below the earth, I alone am the world-honored one”—meaning that this realization is complete, all encompassing, and self-sufficient, nothing more need be added or realized. Buddha would no doubt have never called himself a Buddhist or his teachings Buddh-ism; indeed, the term is an oxymoron, since Buddh means awakening, and ism refers to a pre-established viewpoint. As I tell my students today, you are the path—there’s no cookie-cutter approach that’s right for you, you have to find your own way and allow yourself to be drawn to the teachers and teachings that appeal to your deepest yearning for truth. “Everything is impermanent,” the Buddha told his students on his deathbed. “Please devote yourself to discovering your own liberation for yourself.”

Does pot have a place on the journey of awakening?

I generally avoid taking a position on controversial topics because I have an appreciation for all the different points of view. In the case of marijuana, however, I felt it was important to provide a counterweight to the growing tendency not only to legalize pot, but also to legitimize regular use even among folks on the spiritual path. Recent research suggests that it can be detrimental to our health, and our spiritual unfolding, in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Here’s my latest blogpost.

About 20 years ago, at the age of 15, my stepson began smoking pot. Since I no longer lived with him and only saw him occasionally, and since most teens hide these things from their parents, I had no idea until about six months later, when he started to report hearing voices that seemed to be plotting against him. At first, he told me, he only had these hallucinations when he smoked, but soon he was having them all the time. Increasingly terrified, he quickly unraveled and had to be put on antipsychotic medication just so he could function at a minimal level. Unfortunately, the medication numbed his affect and made him so withdrawn that he was barely relational. On our annual river-rafting trip, he hardly spoke a word.

Fortunately, his mom, a psychologist, pursued aternative remedies for his malaise and eventually discovered a nutritional and herbal regimen that gradually weaned him off all medication. Now in his 30s, he shows no vestiges of the schizophrenia that sidelined him socially for years and led him to drop out of high school. At the time, we suspected that the pot smoking may have precipitated his paranoia, but there were other factors involved, and we couldn’t be sure.

ecent research has corroborated our hunch—pot-smoking does seem to correlate with an increased risk for schizophrenia, not only in adolescents, an age when schizophrenia often begins, but in middle-aged users as well. And there are other risks, which have been downplayed in our rush to legalize ot. According to a new book by Alex Berenson, Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, research into the effects of pot have been inconclusive and underreported, but studies do suggest, if not prove, that marijuana use—despite its reputation as a mellow, feel-good high— correlates with increases in violent behavior and fatal car accidents, as well as reductions in motivation and cognitive functioning. (And the supposed health benefits of cannabis are largely unproven, despite the hype suggesting that CBD* is a miracle cure for a range of ailments.) These are rather serious potential consequences for a substance that is still heralded by some as a source of inspiration, creativity, even spiritual insight.

(*I realize that CBD contains little to no THC, the active mind-altering ingredient in pot, and that many people have found it helpful with their health condition. But so far scientific research into its effectiveness has been inconclusive, despite individual, anecdotal evidence for its benefits.)

In my role as a psychotherapist as well as a spiritual teacher, I’ve worked with a number of people who’ve claimed that pot has helped them along their spiritual journey. Even such a purported authority as Ram Das has smoked pot regularly and recommended it to others. But in the cases I’ve encountered I’ve found that marijuana use tends to dull people’s minds, hinder genuine insight, short-circuit motivation and devotion, inhibit authentic, heart-centered relatedness, and add endless distractions to the already overly distractable mind we all share. Those on the path who continue to use pot regularly despite persuasive evidence for these debilitating side-effects seem to be lost in the smokescreen of denial and craving that every addiction generates—and it’s a difficult addiction to kick because there’s so much cultural rationalization to support it. Unfortunately, legalization adds to this rationale. If it’s legal, we may think, it must be OK, even beneficial.

Now, occasional, judicious use of a psychedelic like psilocybin, mescaline, LSD, or ayahuasca does sometimes seem to elicit profound insight into the nature of existence, which may propel one forward on the spiritual journey. For a fascinating account of some of the new research into the spiritual and psychological effects of these substances, I recommend Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind. In my own case, several pivotal “trips” in college convinced me that drugs did not constitute a path unto themselves but did provide a window into a deeper dimension of reality that I could explore by gentler, more tried-and-true means. After my last acid trip, I went searching for a zendo in New York City, where I attended school, and began the lifelong practice of meditation. 

But as Adyashanti has pointed out, psychedelics steal from our  house, that is, they wrest by force an innate wisdom that might be more effectively mined by more gradual means. As with anything else, it’s most important to be ruthlessly honest with ourselves and trust our heart wisdom, our intuitive discernment, about how best to proceed—wisdom that, unfortunately, is generally dimmed by marijuana use.

Closing the Gap

Most of us are habituated to avoid the unpleasant and seek the pleasant. Like the proverbial pigeon in the psych experiment that will tap a bar to receive a reward until it’s too weak to tap the bar anymore, we may be addicted to positive experiences and find difficult ones frightening or threatening. This is an understandable predilection, given our evolutionary history and genetic endowment, but it can prevent us from welcoming parts of ourselves we don’ t like and resisting the natural movement of our essential nature toward the complete embrace of all the many energies and levels of the psyche.

In a mentoring session recently, a student mentioned that she gets nervous when she feels certain emotions or impulses because she’s afraid she’ll lose control of herself and go crazy. In her twenties she did act out sexually in ways she now regrets, but there’s no evidence in her history or genetics that she would ever go insane. Even though she knows the fear is baseless, it still comes up from time to time and freaks her out because at some primal level she believes she stands to lose her marriage, her career, indeed, everything she holds dear.

Such fears are not uncommon, especially after we’ve experienced some awakening. We may have peered into the unknown and felt the ground of the familiar shift and give way beneath our feet. But we haven’t fully recognized that awakening is not a matter of falling into an abyss, but rather of recognizing and coming to terms with the fact that we already stand on groundless ground, and the belief that life is predictable and controllable is just an illusion.

In the spirit of welcoming whatever arises without identifying with it or pushing it away, I advised her to welcome the experience of fear with compassionate awareness while being curious about the stories that may have given rise to it. Then, I recommended going even further and surrendering to the fear completely and inviting it to destroy her, if it possibly could. Instead of tightening and contracting against the fear in a protective posture, she could experiment with softening and opening to it without resistance. In this way she opened the possibility that the fear could finally dissipate in the realization that who she is, and who we are, is all-embracing and indestructible.

Only by giving ourselves completely to fear or other intense emotions, which otherwise would be lurking in the shadows and controlling our behavior, can we heal the splits in our psyche between the difficult emotions and the parts that resist them at all costs. Ultimately, the integration of nondual realization involves welcoming every experience without exception, as just another expression of the essence, the awakened awareness, that we always already are.

Love Is the Way

In the face of the hatred, conflict, and subterfuge that seem to be consuming our civic and political discourse, many of us find ourselves asking, How can we bring the deeper understanding of our essential inseparability to bear in our actions for the benefit of all? How does our awakening have an impact in the lives of our fellow human beings and the rest of the planet? What can we do in these contentious times to make a difference?

The answer is simple: love. Love is not a quality, an emotion, or an element; it is the essence of what we are, our life blood, the ethereal energy out of which we’re made. We don’t make love; rather love shapes and infuses us and animates our every action. Of course, we can ignore or deny this love through years of conditioning, and the exploration of what separates us from love can be the work of a lifetime. But love keeps surging forth to reclaim us, mend our wounds, heal our broken hearts, and make us whole again. 

Our task as spiritual beings is to keep aligning knowingly with the love that we are, even though our minds may tell us that love doesn’t have enough power to make a difference. When we align with the love and invite it in to fill our hearts and radiate forth in everything we do and say, we become more authentically ourselves at every level and feel buoyed along by its energy and informed by its wisdom. Otherwise, we feel helpless, fragmented, and disspirited in the face of the seemingly overwhelming forces at work in the world. 

The only thing we need to do, in this regard, is to knowingly turn away from the countless problems and distractions that consume us, and from the helplessness and cynicism they may evoke, and attune to the love, again and again, until it dissolves the apparent barriers that seem to separate us. If we engage in an awareness practice, we can begin by resting in and as awareness, then recognize that this awareness is inseparable from love. From the perspective of this awakened awareness, we can appreciate the inherent perfection of what is, and wise and compassionate action naturally follows. 

Love is what we are—and it is the only way.

Falling in love with our divine imperfection

Many, if not most, of us come to the spiritual search bearing feelings of inadequacy, failure, and shame based on a tendency to judge ourselves harshly, which is usually rooted in childhood. In my work as a teacher and counselor, the most common core belief I encounter is some version of, “I’m not good enough. There’s something wrong with me. I don’t measure up.”

As a result, we can easily fall into the habit of comparing ourselves to the seemingly perfect examplars we read about in books or encounter in videos or satsangs. Instead of taking the “backward step that turns our light inward to illuminate the Self,” as the Zen master Dogen advises, we’re focused outward, as we’ve become accustomed to doing in the rest of our lives, efforting live up to some imaginary ideal. The great Hasidic rabbi Reb Zusya of Hanipol once said, “In the world to come, God will not ask me, ‘Why were you not Moses?’ He’ll ask me, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” Just substitute Ramana Maharshi, Adyashanti, Eckhart Tolle, or Mother Teresa, and you’ll have a good contemporary sense of what he means.

In the beginning, this ideal may inspire us to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to our meditation or inquiry. But at a certain point we need to shed it like an old skin, because it prevents us from embracing ourselves just as we are. Isn’t this precisely what the great sages that we so admire advise us to do? “ Just be yourself,” counsels Ramana. What a relief! Otherwise we’re just transposing the self-judgment that’s at the root of much of our suffering and turning it against ourselves in the name of spirituality. Believe it or not, the journey of spiritual awakening is not another self-improvement scheme.

Rather, the fruition of the search is not the achievement of personal perfection, but the ability to “live without anxiety about our imperfection,” as the Third Great Zen Ancestory Seng-tsan puts it—that is, to encompass our ordinary humanness in the nonjudgmental, nondual embrace of our essential nature. From the perspective of awakened awareness, everything is as it should be because everything without exception is the expression of consciousness or source, including what may be the most difficult expression of all to accept—ourselves.

But even knowing this conceptually, we may still be so invested in the ideal of perfection that we keep struggling to attain it, albeit in more and more subtle ways. In my work with students, even those who have experienced genuine awakening, I find this to be a recurring theme—the ongoing work of identifying and revealing the insidious voice of the inner critic that finds us endlessly lacking and seeks to control our every action. We’re so accustomed to paying attention to it that we may accept the suffering it causes as unavoidable, an inevitable side effect of being human.

At some point, however, as our awakening ripens and expands to the heart, we may find ourselves feeling overwhelming compassion for the years of pain it has caused us. Then, in a sudden epiphany, our hearts may break with the pain of how hard and unforgiving we’ve been with ourselves—and spontaneously open to our vulnerable, imperfect humanness. With this epiphany comes the profound realization that everything, including this vulnerable human incarnation, is both the inherently perfect expression of true nature, like every other being and thing, and at the same time constantly stumbling and bumbling forward.

As one great Zen master confessed on his deathbed, my life has been a series of countless mistakes—thereby skewering any attachment to the one-sided spiritual belief in perfectionOn the journey of awakening, which is about freedom from beliefs and identities, we may end up treating ourselves harshly in the name of some spiritual ideal. Here’s my latest blogpost, dear friends. Love and blessings!. Or as my teacher Suzuki Roshi used to say, embracing the paradox, we’re constantly losing our balance against a background of perfect balance.

True renunciation

Students often ask me, What can I do to bring about my awakening? What are the methods, the techniques, the meditations, the self-inquiry that will finally dissipate the clouds of illusion and reveal my true nature once and for all? My response is always the same: Awakening occurs in a moment out of time and arises from the depths of the mystery; nothing you do can make it happen, and in fact actively seeking it as another experience to add to your spiritual resume just makes it more elusive, since the mind that tries so desperately to escape from the prison of separation is the prison itself.

If techniques won’t necessarily help expedite awakening, what will? Of course, sitting quietly and inquiring with genuine curiosity into the nature of reality and the self may make you more awakening prone. But perhaps the most powerful approach is not a technique but a view, an attitude, an insight—what I call true renunciation. You see, no matter how many books we may have read, we’re culturally predisposed to believe that we can find satisfaction, happiness, and fulfillment in the manifest world, the world of relationships, work, experiences, material possessions. I’m surprised at how many sincere spiritual seekers still harbor this view, though often at a more subliminal or unconscious level. 

Perhaps you believe that life is supposed to be fair, or comfortable, or kind, or free from hardship, and when it proves otherwise you become angry or depressed. “Sure, I get that I’m not in control,” you may think, “but don’t I have a right to expect life to fulfill certain basic needs? Otherwise, what’s the point of participating?” I suspect this sense of entitlement is far more common in the comfortable middle-class world most of us inhabit. If we don’t get what we want, we’re accustomed to throwing a tantrum and demanding to speak to the person in charge. Whereas in much of the world you count yourself lucky if you have food on the table at night.

This attitude is precisely the one that the Buddha’s basic teachings are meant dispel. Yet many folks who come to the nondual teachings these days by way of books and videos may not receive this fundamental spiritual orientation. In fact, they’re more likely to be imbued with the New Age belief that you can manifest the ideal life in the material realm—career, house, car, partner—if you only think the right thoughts.

Buddha, on the other hand, taught that life is inevitably characterized by suffering. Remember, this was a man who was born as a prince and had all the perks that New Agers crave. But his contact beyond the palace walls with sickness, old age, death, and renunciation cut through the phantom comfort of his ephemeral paradise, and he could not rest until he had discovered the truth beyond suffering.

The journey begins with this basic, entry-level renunciation. You don’t have to shave your head, quit your job, leave your family, or go off to an ashram or monastery. But you can resolve to turn your outwardly focused attention back upon itself to find the ultimate source of happiness and satisfaction right here, in your own heart and spirit. 

The life you construct for yourself, based on accomplishments, stories, life experiences, possessions, is just that—a construct, made of words, concepts, mind-stuff, and entirely lacking in substantial, abiding reality. You simply won’t find fulfillment there. In this moment, free of thoughts, memories, beliefs, identities, plans, free of the construct, who or what are you? This question, in one form or another, leads to the deeper fulfillment and the ultimate meaning, beyond meaning, that you seek.

Boredom on the journey is really good news

When you first encounter the nondual teachings, you may be enthralled and inspired by the depth and breadth of the insight that’s revealed. You may have glimpses beyond the veil of the mind’s claustrophobic view of reality into the luminous essence of what is. Life may take on a magical quality, as everything seems to unfold in a mysterious and beneficent way. From being habitual and humdrum, your life now feels like it’s filled with ease and grace.

But over time this infatuation may fade, and you may find yourself feeling that everything is quite ordinary again. The bloom has faded on the rose, the mystical aura has fallen away, and life is just as it is. Nothing special—and empty of any meaning or subtantiality that the mind may superimpose. At this point, many people start feeling what can only be called boredom. The mind starts getting restless as it yearns for a return of the magic and the mystery. “What’s the point any longer?” The mind asks. “What am I getting out of this? Where’s it all headed? What’s in it for me?”

Rather than being a problem, the advent of boredom is really good news, as one of my teachers, the Tibetan master Chogyam Trungpa, used to say. The mind has been doing a very good imitation of being spiritual, and now it’s running out of steam and reverting to its old ego-centered ways. If you’ve been practicing spirituality as a subtle self-improvement scheme, a way to enrich and embellish the ego, you may feel that you’ve failed and it’s time to move on to something else. 

But if you’re really present and open to what is, you won’t identify with the boredom, any more than you would identify with any other passing emotion or mind-state. Instead, boredom, and the self-seeking and dissatisfaction it reveals, will be a reminder to reconnect with your natural state of inherent wakefulness, which is never bored or at odds with what is in any way. This wakefulness welcomes and embraces whatever arises as a precious expression of itself. As I often say, if you’re bored, you’re not really paying attention.

The value of therapy on the journey of awakening

As a psychotherapist as well as a teacher of spiritual awakening, I’m often asked how the two pursuits can be mutually enriching. After all, therapy seems concerned with supporting and improving the ego, whereas awakening is the realization that identification with the separate self is the root cause of suffering. Therapy generally aims to make us more comfortable and well-adjusted, while spiritual awakening cuts through all comforting stories and illusions and reveals the true nature of reality, no matter how uncomfortable that may be.

Most forms of psychotherapy do appear, at least on the surface, to run counter to the radical approach of Self-realization. At the same time, therapy offers a wealth of techniques that can be used in service not only of awakening but also of the embodiment of this awakening in everyday life. For example, therapy encourages us to welcome our emotions without judgment and to challenge the negative beliefs that make us anxious and depressed. In my experience, the two approaches can work hand in hand to root out the habitual patterns that cause us suffering at every level and reveal the radiant truth that lies beneath, the groundless ground of silence and peace. 

The key lies in the therapist’s understanding. In the hands of someone with deep insight into the nature of reality, whose primary intention is genuine, lasting peace, happiness, and freedom, therapy can play a powerful role in the transformation process. While pointing again and again to the bright sun of our inherently awake true nature, which has the power in itself to gradually burn off the clouds of delusion, the nondual therapist can guide us in actively investigating the clouds—the core stories, the ego structures, the habitual reactive patterns—and releasing their hold over us. 

Freud himself said that the purpose of therapy was to exchange extraordinary suffering for ordinary human suffering and to enable us to love and work. In other words, therapy is designed to help us function as relatively healthy human beings, but it can’t relieve the deeper and subtler suffering of feeling separate from our essential nature. Yet certain therapeutic approaches, by dispelling some of the illusions that obscure our clear seeing, can be skillful allies on the journey of awakening.

Hidden stories that cause suffering

Sometimes the beliefs that cause us suffering are hidden beneath strong and compelling feelings and not readily apparent. Though we may feel like we're being visited by a mood, we're actually in thrall to some very negative and judgmental thoughts that are simmering beneath the surface and generating ongoing shame, grief, fear, or anger. 

In a mentoring session recently, a student reported feeling confused and lost and uncertain about how to proceed in her life. She described it as a dark mood that had descended and that she couldn't see beyond. The feelings themselves seemed to be convincing evidence that something was wrong. Her therapist had encouraged her to feel the feelings but hadn't supported her in questioning them.

When we probed deeper, it became appareant that this student was actually happy and fulfilled in her work and friendships, but somehow believed that her life hadn't turned out as expected, hadn't fit the pictures of where she felt she should be. In other words, the feelings were based on a judgment, a thought, an invidious comparison that masqueraded as truth. Once she saw this, she could begin to reconnect with the inherent perfection and completeness of the way her life actually was.

Another student was constantly angry and frustrated at work because he believed he wasn't being appreciated or treated fairly in his job at a Silicon Valley start-up. But when we looked more deeply, he realized that he had constructed an elaborate interpretation of circumstances based on a childhood story of being mistreated that he was now more than ready to give up. In an instant, he could see that he had been manufacturing his own suffering and dissatisfaction; in fact, he enjoyed and respected his coworkers and couldn't imagine working in a better environment. When he talked with his boss about his concerns without anger or blame, he found that the appreciation was immediately forthcoming.

Most of the time, strong negative feelings and moods are just the tip of an iceberg that extends deep into the subliminal stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how reality should be. These stories make up the separate self construct, the core of the ego that mounts and sustains an ongoing argument with life as it is--an exhausting and ultimately fruitless enterprise. Diving beneath the surface, we can identify these stories, subject them to the unwavering light of awareness, and allow them to dissipate, revealing our natural state of peace and contentment.