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Some Helpful Distinctions

The underlying central aim of all spiritual work is to be present in every moment. This aim may be formulated in different terms in different traditions but it is generally recognized to be both the aim and method of our searching. How do we do this? Well, it’s probably better if we do it intelligently.

In Buddhism, intelligence is defined as the ability to make distinctions. It’s a very simple and quite practical definition. For instance, a carpet merchant, at least a good one, is able to distinguish subtle differences in wool quality, dye and design quality, and other aspects of carpets that the uninformed person might not even think about. So, in the area of carpets, the merchant is very intelligent. Similarly, a psychotherapist may be able to distinguish subtle differences in the emotional states of individuals and thus key responses precisely to what the client is feeling. A financial planner is able to distinguish the advantages and disadvantages of various financial plans, again differences whose existence or importance might not be understood by his or her client.

In these notes, I offer some distinctions that I’ve found help to clarify and focus my own efforts.

The first distinction is between two ways we use the word training. On the one hand we train a dog to fetch a stick. When we throw the stick, the dog automatically runs to fetch it. This is a form of conditioning. Behaviorist theory is full of this kind of training. At a certain level, martial arts training can become automatic. This can be both a good thing and a bad thing. In this use of the word training, there is no sense of awareness or response, there is only reaction, trained reaction.

On the other hand we can train ourselves so that we have an ability. In this use of the word, the element of choice is present. We have developed the capacity to act or respond in a precise way to a certain situation but not at the expense of the awareness to know whether that response is appropriate or not. Without this awareness there is no choice, only reaction.

This second sense of the word training will be the one I use here.The second distinction concerns three areas of focus for our training: internal, interaction and natural presence. All three are important, yet many people focus on only one or two.

Area I: Internal

Internal training is the area of psychological and spiritual work. The focus is on the removal of blocks and the freeing up of natural abilities. In modern popular psychology, the neglected, wounded, or undeveloped inner child is one model used to give a form to blockages within us. Unfortunately, in this model there is often a conflation of two different internal structures: the comfort seeking, immature child that doesn’t want to grow up but wants the world to conform to his or her perceptions and feelings and the creative dynamic inner child who wants, or is at least prepared, to face the full world of experience. In this model, the aim is to let go of identification with the comfort seeking inner child and reclaim one’s connection with all the natural abilities that are our human heritage.

In the spiritual realm, the aim is similar but taken to a deeper level. The blocks aren’t seen as coming solely from conditioning influences from our family and environment but are regarded as unavoidable and deeply habituated patterns of misperception that confuse our understanding of what we experience. The fundamental block, in this model, is the lack of direct knowing of what we are.

(Ask yourself, “What am I?” If you observe closely, you will see that there is first a moment of clarity in in which nothing is seen, then a felt sense that nothing is seen, then a reaction of fear to that emptiness, then a solidification of position and then, usually, a retreat into some intellectual formulation.)

In Buddhist thought, the direct knowing of what we are is our human heritage (buddha nature), and all the various spiritual practices, meditation, contemplation on such themes as impermanence, suffering, non-self, compassion, emptiness, koan practice (in Zen), the four immeasurables, taking and sending, etc., are concerned, at least in part, with removing the blocks that prevent that direct knowing or with cultivating that direct knowing explicitly (as in mahamudra, shiken-taza, dzokchen, etc.)

Area II: Training in Interaction

Interaction training is concerned with how we interact with our experience of the world. There are essentially two sides: making connection and meeting conflict. Making connection is about relationships, connecting with people, places, things, bringing people and efforts together, unifying, facilitating cooperative effort, cultivating leadership qualities, etc. In Buddhist thought, the cultivation of the higher emotions of love, compassion, joy and equanimity are fundamental to this kind of effort. In business circles, the ability to be a team player, to participate in goal-setting, win-win strategies, etc., fall into this area.

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