Off- Kilter Dharma
There was once an idealistic young Buddhist practitioner who took the teachings on no-self to mean he didn’t actually exist and other people didn’t either. He avoided the non-existent people for fear he might find them attractive or be drawn into their fantasy of being living humans. He used meditation to confirm this not existing, emptying his mind of all evidence of personality. He sought out texts that confirmed he was an illusion. Making the mind empty was a supreme virtue and having thoughts, especially if one felt the need to voice them, was evidence of shoddy practice. This Lonely But True Monk was someone I knew very intimately. Thankfully our relationship didn’t last very long!
That is one example of a limited or confused way of being/seeing or off-kilter identity style that we might fall into after we’ve done practice for a while. What I will unfold in this essay is in the same spirit as the Shurangama Sutra’s 52 Skhanda Demon States- a teaching about some different ways in which clinging to the fruits of practice creates problems. It's not a new thing that this happens. The identity styles I’ll address may arise from genuine insight- but then self image grabs ahold of it and filters it through its desire for power, security, certainty, comfort and love. Self-image doesn’t know what to do with the teachings and the experiences that come from implementing them other than fold them into self-image. It can also be that someone just reads something and goes, ‘Oh, yeah, I get that…’ and because it's not a genuine experience, it comes out performed in an inauthentic and distorted way.
Let's start with the off-kilter identity style I Am A Chosen One. I Am A Chosen One is beginning to feel that your practice is good and that the universe is on your side, because you're on the true path. You're special, because you're doing meditation or spiritual work. You're one of the high commandos of consciousness, you're going to usher the world into a new era of awakening, you're raising the vibration of Portland, Oregon, or wherever you are. And therefore, you're different. If you really watch the mind, funny or even appalling things appear there. You might think, ‘Oh, so and so got in a car wreck, that wouldn't happen if they were a practitioner’, or ‘So and so got a sickness. People who do the dharma don't seem to get sick…’ You might find extreme thoughts you might never vocalize coming in that accompany the sense that you're special by practicing. You may hear the teachings as telling you you’re on the True Path, part of an elite group of people. And then you feel a little bit above and separate from others, because you finally have arrived at the Purpose Of Life.
I Am A Chosen One may happen because in practice experiences arise that can be profound and beyond our understanding. Self image sees this and it seems that other people aren't having that experience, which may be true. But then someone feels, well, now I'm unusual, A Chosen One. There are old stories of the student teacher relationship in Chan and Zen that can sound excessively rough. You hear about teachers shouting, or people getting tossed out of temples, or even physically assaulted. And those are sometimes understood in a modern context as abusive, patriarchal moves. An important thing to understand about that is what is called the Stink of Zen. Fully digested awakening doesn’t leave an extraordinary object in its wake, therefore these teachers are helping to shatter the notion of the extraordinary object, trying to help the student arrive at ordinariness, shedding the stink. If practice and its fruits become an identity structure that creates a buffer between us and others, between oneself and the world, we’re back at square one.
Good preventative medicine for working with I Am A Chosen One is spending time with family or old friends- people who knew us before we silently slid into the new identity. It is common to associate with people who confirm the beliefs we have about ourselves and avoid those with differing opinions- when Sangha serves this function it sadly colludes in blindness. So hang out with family or old friends, especially those that tell it like they see it. Notice who you avoid and risk asking people close to you for feedback about your state of mind or behavior.
There is an identity style, a particular form of perfectionism I call Do It Right. The logic could be boiled down to ‘If I do it right, I'll get the teachers approval, and be one of the best students… if I do it, right, I'll get the spiritual experience, or follow the text to the letter, or keep the precepts or be a really good girl, and meditate really well…’; ‘I'm going to try really hard at this and at least that way, I cover all the bases. Nobody can say I didn't try, I am doing it right. And so if I don't get enlightened or end suffering, then this thing just doesn't even work because I'm doing it right….’. Another version of this is the sense that, ‘If I do the spiritual path correctly, I won't feel pain anymore…’ i.e. one won't have to experience the human condition. If you're in that state of mind, you might look at somebody who's suffering or going through an emotional upheaval and think, ’Well, they're not doing it right…’. People who do it right, don't suffer because practice ends suffering- thats the logic.
This was something that the Buddha addressed as one of the 5 Fetters- attachment to rites and rituals as a mistake. Attachment here meaning the belief that if I follow the path and its prescriptions to the letter, then the right thing will happen. If you think about the spiritual life and how it demands an existential nakedness, we can empathize with clamping onto perfectionism as a strategy. To engage in spiritual life is to make oneself naked to the mystery, to become naked as the mystery, and that's no small task. This demanded nakedness gnaws into all of the strategies that we've developed before we come into practice and that we bring into it. So I have some compassion for the instinct in myself to Do It Right, to try to get it perfect. In one of the old Zen koans, a teacher says “The old masters have been through your sickness and so shed tears for you.” A very tender line.
We can learn a lot from wakefulness with what comes over our bodies as we listen to teachings, are on the threshold of entering a practice space or are siting down on our cushions to meditate.This kind of perfectionism might come with rigidity in the body. Rigidity is how perfectionism feels. We lose a certain softness or relaxation. Because we're imposing an exo-structure, a fixity on top the fleshy, asymmetrical reality of ourselves.
Another off-kilter state of mind addressed in Zen literature is what I’ll call Fine As It Is-ism. This is exactly what it sounds, it's an ideology, or it's taking a stance that everything is okay just as it is. This can manifest in all kinds of different ways- there can be hedonistic indulgences. There can be a disregard for relationships, a disregard for other people's feelings. ‘Well, that's just their practice. Not my problem…’ There can be a disregard for character work. Many people are concerned that this sickness is a sickness of Buddhism, manifesting as an indifference to social issues. Maybe Fine As It Is Ism is a part of climate crisis inaction. Fine As It Is Ism is a problem because it's been made into a conceptual stance. There is a genuine and vital insight that everything is fine as it is. The direct experience of this and the idea are worlds apart.
I’ve noticed that Fine As It Is-ism can conceal an indifference to one’s life flourishing. To flourish would be to take a close look at what is not working in one’s life and to feel the feelings associated with that, feelings that we may rather ignore or stuff away. Sometimes simply becoming aware that one has a level of indifference to one’s own happiness can be enough to melt it. Sometimes we have to face a profound fear of life and loss.
Within the culture of spiritual communities, because non-attachment is celebrated, one can easily slide into over-detachment. One way that can happen is a refuge into the mind. Awareness is taken as something that is separate and aloof from experience. The Cartesian split is taken for actual realization- a total sham. The capacity to witness experience as a detached observer is mistaken for the freedom of Dharma. Awakened awareness is fully intimate, it's not aloof, it is 100% participation as life. Yet it's free in that participation. Especially if we have a distaste for embodiment - pain, feeling, desire - this detached observer is very tempting. One can read Buddhist teachings and their analysis of experience and then take a rational, isolationist retreat into a Dispassionate Observer That Knows The Nature Of Things.
A related off-kilter identity style is Beyond This World, insight into impermanence followed by the conclusion that things that can go away are not valuable. Essential to contemplative training is seeing the flux of experience, directly apprehending that the self-and-world arises and disappears moment by moment. It can't be any other way. Things are change, non-things. Truly, you can't put your eggs in any basket without them and the basket breaking. Yet the conclusion that life is not worth investing in is confused. Here's a place where I may be a heretic.
To take the insight into impermanence, and conclude that life's not worth engaging, to disinvest, this is taking that insight and using it to step out of the mess in service of fear. ‘Why should you engage in something that is so flimsy and ephemeral as love, beauty, people, the planet?’ - that outlook is indifference rather than equanimity or wisdom. Wisdom says ‘Why don't you invest a little bit less of your heart in controlling things?’ Wisdom extreme says ‘Anything that changes is not worth putting my heart into.’ It keeps us from having both feet on the ground, truly landing on the earth. And yet seeing impermanence without such conclusions is to be and be in the midst of profound creativity. Wherever you look, whatever you hear, whatever you touch, it's happening. Impermanence- the absence of dead spots, life so alive that life misses the mark.
Now lets talk about Love Armor. This is when one gloms onto a practice like loving kindness as a buffer from actual, normal relational friction. One is spreading Niceing, spreading Pink Niceing over everything to sweeten all the conflict away. ‘I should be loving all the time…’ This is essentially the belief that one should be one - dimensional. It feels good, it’s love, baby, that’s all you need, right? So the problem here is a one sidedness than tends to avoidance. It's taken as Big Love, because you’re All Love but it's actually small love, because you’re not loving the parts of you and others that don't love. And because you don't love the parts of other people that aren't loving, you want to convert them to your loveliness.
There is also what we can call the Holy Server. This is when we hear teachings about Bodhisattva-being and selfless service and we disown self care- ‘I don't matter, only serving others matters…’ If that came from a place of true selflessness, a place where you're transparent to the point where you have few needs or desires, spontaneously available to others with a natural desire to offer yourself, fantastic. Seasoned practitioners do experience times of very little self-interest and spontaneous concern and action for the well-being of others. But this could be a strategy to earn the love or approval of others, a strategy to not face a certain kind of inner void or stunted relationship with life. One doesn’t actually know how to enjoy it.
The Holy Server is not the giving that frees one from self-obsession. It’s idealizations of generosity meeting the Pleaser. Before coming to practice one may have been socialized to forgo their own needs for others. The Pleaser: attending to other’s needs not out of altruism, but out of needing to be seen as good or useful or needing to be needed. If you're a Holy Server, you're always looking for something or someone to help or fix. If you're a teacher who gets captured by the Holy Server, you're always looking for someone who's suffering, you have a Suffering Detector and your medicine to End Suffering at the ready. You need there to be people who are suffering so that you can do an identity-dance of being useful and needed and wise.
Confusion happens, I commit to understanding that confusion - an interpretation of one of the Four Bodhisattva Vows. We practice sincerely and some kind of insight just arises. But self image appropriates it and says, ‘I'm wise. Look what I experienced. I don't think the other people in the room are having this experience!’ The Buddha taught that only the most spiritually advanced people are totally free of self-image’s distortions. So it may be realistic to expect that self image will appropriate or distort the different experiences that arise and interpret the teachings for its own success, comfort, certainty, power and safety. ‘Oh, I had a life changing insight at the Ayahuasca ceremony, time to start an Instagram account and put myself out there as a Tantric psychedelic facilitator..’ or you know, fill in the blank.
We might reject the possibility that we could fall into these states of mind and then dismiss some vital introspection. It may be that subtle versions of these things are so common they fly right under the radar. Your teacher or your community could be under their spell. Perhaps I am, taking a condescending position that I have some authority to comment on the confusion of others. Confusion and unintentionally sullying the Dharma is one of the things I do, for sure! Maybe thats why I have a tidbit of perspective. If I do have perspective, it has alot to do with working closely with teachers for an extended period of time, positioning myself such that I was and am available for feedback about my practice. If off-kilter Dharma practice is something you’re interested in not doing, consider regular work with a qualified teacher- someone who has done the same thing themselves. The most off-kilter practitioners I’ve met have been those who forged off on their own, many times breaking off with a teacher prematurely in reaction to getting direct feedback. Some of them end up guiding others, never having had true supervision, and this is a dangerous thing for those others.
So these are a few things I've noticed and come across. Falling into these things for a time is not necessarily a terrible thing. Carl Jung and his descendants see in the meandering path a movement towards life deepening itself. One of the best ways to do that is to suffer. Suppose that life wants to feel itself and encounter itself vibrantly, to know itself widely and with intensity and going down challenging by-paths or falling into awkward and confused states is one way that can happen. Having it all together is not necessarily the path to wisdom nor the path to the building of character. Shodo Harada Roshi would counsel after a grueling retreat, “Continue!” and I take solace in Dogen Zenji’s words “My life was one continuous mistake.”