devon hase loves long retreats. Cumulatively, she’s spent four years in silent practice in the insight and Vajrayana traditions. She teaches at the Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, and other centers around the world. Along with her life partner nico, devon co-authoredHow Not to Be a Hot Mess: A Buddhist Survival Guide for Modern Life. She continues to spend a good part of the time in wilderness retreat in Oregon, Massachusetts, and elsewhere. For more, visitdevonandnicohase.com
In this dharma talk, given at IMS’s Cultivating Awareness and Wisdom retreat, devon reflects on right attitude. Her talk has been shortened from the original. To hear it in full, click here.
Recently, I spent 18 months on retreat in a cabin in Oregon, mostly in solitude and silence. Winter in the mountains is good weather for practice—the snow and the cold help us stay a little quieter and less greedy for exploring the outdoors.
A few months into my retreat, I got the news that someone I trusted had betrayed me. I felt such heartbreak, and then a huge well of anger and ill will towards this person opened up in me. It was intense, fiery, hot rage.
With no other distractions, I was just sitting with my rage. That was painful. But I also had judgment, shame, and guilt because I was spending all my time on retreat filled with this intense ill will.
With the help of a teacher, we started calling this particular form of guilt the ‘Buddhist super ego.’ It said, “You’re not allowed to have this fiery hot F-bomb kind of rage happening on your retreat. Good yogis don’t have this kind of ill will.”
Working with the skillful support of my teacher, I started to see that this was an attitude issue.
I had so much rebellion, resistance, and aversion to my rage that I felt stuck. And in fact, the aversion, judgment, shame, and guilt were more painful than the hot burning rage. When I saw that, I was able to gently turn towards—and feel—the heat, discomfort, and anger. And it changed.
When I could truly be with all the anger, it changed because I was resting in an awareness that was curious rather than judgmental. I was learning how what was happening—in the body, mind, thoughts, emotions—all interacted. Through that experience, I knew more about anger. And of course this helped it lessen over time. So, some wisdom arose from that.
Experience in two parts
In learning right attitude, it’s helpful to see our experience as made of two parts. First, we have the object. And there are many objects of our awareness: the body, breath, sensations, thoughts, emotions, moods, etc. Second, we have our attitude, or what we feel about those objects. Do we like those objects? Do we not? Do we ignore them?
Here’s Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s definition of right attitude: “Accepting, observing, and learning from your experience, just as it is.”
And Shwe Oo Min Sayadaw, Sayadaw U Tejaniya’s teacher, says this, “Don’t try to do anything. Don’t try to prevent anything. But don’t miss what’s happening.”
Even in subtle ways, we’re usually trying to have a different experience than the one we’re having. When we do this, we can’t really see the present moment, and this prevents us from learning about the nature of things. That’s what we want to do—just learn. So, it’s important to be with what’s uncomfortable, so that we can learn from it.
The observing mind has the capacity to watch the push and pull and not get caught in it. The observing mind is free from the wanting and not wanting, and it sees through the confusion and delusion. This is how it’s a refuge.
Experiences of greed, aversion, and delusion, teach us how to be free of them. We’re not getting rid of them; we’re learning how to be with them with an awareness that’s accepting, observing, and learning.
Sayadaw U Tejaniya says this is the right frame of mind for meditation. It’s a mind that’s free of compulsive liking and disliking, and therefore can see things clearly—as they are.
Eat the shrimp
There was a yogi who was sitting a retreat at Shwe Oo Min, Sayadaw’s center in Burma. She was standing in line for the lunch meal. She was far back in the line, but she could see that there was shrimp for lunch (this was not a vegetarian center). Shrimp was her favorite thing. She saw greed arise, and then anxiety and clinging, as she was far back in line and wondered if there was still going to be shrimp by the time she got there.
She had some time in the line, so she started observing the greed with right attitude. With curiosity, she looked at all the thoughts, worrying, and judgment. By the time she got to the shrimp, the greed had gone.
That’s a moment to pay attention to. When you’re observing with right attitude, you can watch the arc of these mind states and you see that they do go away—eventually. Sometimes the moments when these mind states go away are harder to see because we have negativity bias—we’re always looking for what’s wrong. But it’s important to notice the moments of freedom as well.
Later, in a group interview, the yogi reported what happened, and Sayadaw U Tejaniya was very interested in her retelling. When she got to the part where she was free of greed, he said, “So, did you eat the shrimp?”
She said, “Well, no, I didn’t need to. I didn’t need it anymore.”
And Sayadaw said, “Eat the shrimp! When you’re free of greed, you can do it; you can enjoy!”
That’s a beautiful permission. Eat the shrimp.
Whatever you’re experiencing is the right experience
Whatever you’re experiencing in this moment is the right experience. You don’t need to like or dislike what’s happening. We’re just curious, open, and receptive.
And of course, we’re going to have lots of reactivity. We’re going to have a lot of attitudes about things—liking, disliking, and ignoring. And sometimes it can feel like a ripple effect. We have an unpleasant experience or some kind of defilement in the mind, and then we have an attitude about it, which is usually judgment, not liking, trying to get it to go away. Then we think, “That’s not right attitude,” and “That’s wrong.” So we have these layers that ripple, that’s the nature of aversion.
Right attitude helps us back up and see that we have the original unpleasant experience, and then we have a judgment about it. And we know, “I can watch that, I can be with this.” That’s where we can stop the perpetuating cycle.
We can drop reminders to ourselves: What’s the attitude in the mind? How am I feeling about what’s happening right now? When we’re not driven by all these reactivities and judgments, we can get very curious about them. We learn how they function, how they arise, and how they release.
Sayadaw asks, “Is the mind observing with wholesome qualities or unwholesome qualities?” Unwholesome refers to stuff that gets in the way: judgment, aversion, or wanting more. He says, “When any kind of dissatisfaction arises, try to recognize it, fully accept it, and watch it very alertly. These steps add a new dimension to being continuously aware, namely an active and purposeful inner investigation. During this process of observation and exploration, the causes of dissatisfaction may become clear.”
The mice are getting in
During my cabin retreat, it snowed for a whole week, and over that time, mice started coming inside. This cabin was built in the 1970s, so it has a lot of cracks and holes between the boards. And it was interesting to watch my mind when the mice started getting inside.
At first, I chose to watch with delusion, denying that the mice were even there. But it didn’t really work to ignore them, so I started getting curious about them instead.
I have a friend who is the caretaker of the cabin, and he was very concerned. So together, we brought our awareness to this project. Where are the mice getting in? So, there’s all this awareness, attention, and curiosity. And I was also motivated by aversion to figure this out. And Scott, our caretaker, said, “Put all your food in the cabinet under the sink, because that’s sealed very well. There’s no way they can get into that cabinet.”
So, with a lot of awareness, mostly at night, I was listening for the mice. And I became pretty sure they were under the sink. They were getting into my airtight food cabinet! And in fact, we figured out that they were climbing up the long, vertical, slippery, wet drainpipe and coming out of a hole in the pipe under the sink! They were like super mice.
When we figured this out, we pushed steel wool into the hole and they stopped coming in. Hooray!
This is a good example of awareness plus wisdom. We had enough awareness, we kept looking with curiosity, and then eventually we’d gathered enough information. And then the light bulb went off.
And it’s so freeing when we have that light bulb go off, “Oh, I see, it arises this way with these conditions, or it ceases with these conditions.” That’s the wisdom that knows causes and conditions. These mind states come and go; they’re conditioned. In this way, our wisdom keeps growing so that eventually we realize certain conditions can be put in place so that we suffer less.
Understanding the causes of greed, hatred, and delusion is what dissolves them in a real way. Once we do, the mind will naturally begin to incline towards wholesome, steady, and more attuned states of mind.
Right attitude develops your skills in dealing with the three unskillful root qualities: we like some experiences so we grasp at them; we don’t like some experiences so we push them away. And ignoring—there’s so much that’s outside of our awareness. This practice helps us see—with right attitude—what’s happening.
Sayadaw says it’s important to know the whole experience. When we see that awareness has room to know lots of different things, then we see how they interact.
This practice takes a lot of patience, faith, and resolve to be with discomfort. It takes a lot of care for ourselves to know, “I can be with this.” It takes so much strength and perseverance. And sometimes we don’t give ourselves enough credit. It’s hard work, but the payoff is so great.