(Follow this link to see the November 2019 Priory Newsletter where this was originally published.)
One day some time ago – I think I was 25 or so – I was contemplating going to the temple for a Wednesday evening class. That evening, there was some type of social evening planned. Being all social with groups of people has never been my thing, so I didn’t really want to go. I was probably tired from work but on that evening I didn’t have to get up early for work the next day so, if I was honest with myself, I didn’t have a solid practical reason to not go. My usual practice at the time was to recognize this aversion and the quibbling and to try to work against it by defaulting to going to such things, even if I didn’t want to, as a way of training that habitual pattern. (To do things just because we “want” to, or because we don’t “want” to, can very easily become habits contributing to our suffering.)
At the time, I had also begun to work on trying to rely less on the rules of practice (like, if I have an aversion, I do the thing I don’t want to) and more on the process of sitting still and listening within myself for what might be called spiritual intuition: the prompting of some deeper part of myself. That evening I kept having the feeling that I should stay at home and, after a bit of internal debate, finally, I decided to stay. I think I called someone to let them know that I wasn’t coming, in case there was something I was responsible for, and then settled in to an evening of watching Barbara Woodhouse on TV with my dog.
At the time, I was driving an old, very beat up Volkswagon Squareback which was parked around the corner on a hill so that I could push-start it. After watching TV for a while, I had the thought that I should move the car into the driveway of the house I was sharing with some friends, so that I could do some work on it the next day – probably I thought I might fix the ignition problem.
I backed the car up the hill of the driveway and sat idling in front of the garage door so I could check the brake lights. As I was sitting there, pushing on the brakes, my foot went to floor: the car had sprung a leak in one of the brake lines. Good thing I trusted my intuition and didn’t go out that evening! (I was able to get it fixed over the next couple of days and safely get myself to work.)
Most of the time, listening for and following my intuition has not resulted in such dramatic consequences, but I think it has been an invaluable practice in helping me to learn to trust myself and helping me to understand and integrate Dharma practice into my life.
Listening for that intuition has become just a little pause in which to be willing to let go of the momentum of my thinking mind to see or hear within myself if there is some other information that might be useful to pay attention to. Sometimes there is something, sometimes there is nothing, but it seems like the pause and willingness are always helpful.
Sometimes this listening for spiritual intuition can be thought of or talked about in Abrahamic-like terms, like listening for the “still small voice” of God. Or maybe something like following the prompting of Buddha Nature. For myself, while I don’t want to exclude those possibilities, I have tended to shy away from thinking in those terms: it seems a little dangerous and presumptuous for me to think that I am listening to or following the “Voice Of God.” It is not that I doubt that Buddha Nature is a vibrant and living presence everywhere, it is more that being human, I, and we, seem pretty prone to hearing our own desires and wishes reflected pretty much everywhere. So, while I am cautious about it, I also see this listening for my intuition as being a sort of open invitation to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to show up and offer their aid.
For myself, my purpose in practicing is to uncover and live from what I sometimes think of as my True Self. These days, while I can’t say that I “know” what this is, I also cannot say that I do not “know” what this is. Maybe it is safest to say that the True Self is undefinable but nevertheless somehow “here.” So I practice as a means of getting close to the True Self and because it is the best means I have of giving expression to it. Doing practices like training myself to let go of doing things just because I want to, is a way of helping to clear away greed, hatred and delusion, to clear away the small self, to give that ineffable True Self a means of coming forth.
We sort of want this True Self to be all cool and flashy but mostly it just seems like the ordinary mind unimpeded by the three poisons (which is kind of a big deal, if you think about it!). This True Self is not really mine so, so far, one of the best things I can do to fulfill my purpose is to work on getting the small self out of the way and just let the True Self take care of itself.
Listening for this intuition, whether it is from God or Buddha Nature or the True Self or just my regular unconscious mind, is a good way for me to loosen my grip on the small self: to open up my internal doors and windows and let light and air in.
One of my most venerated teachers, Rev. Master Daizui MacPhillamy, a man who seemed to embody living in this world from a deeply awakened and skillful place, seemed to embody living from his True Self, used to say that his intuition got it right a little more than fifty percent of the time. But still, he was open to intuition.
I have certainly gotten this wrong at times. One time, about the time of the Volkswagon incident, I had this strong feeling that I should move to Spokane. I sort of liked Spokane and I have extended family that lives over there, but there was no real reason for me to move there. But still, it was intuition; maybe there was something great but unseen for me in Spokane?
So I went and talked with a monk about it. She had come to know me pretty well and sort of laughed and said something like “really? why would you want to do that.” I think in the end, as I looked more closely at it, it turned out to be fear masquerading as something that I wanted to do. I am happy to say that I stayed in Portland and faced whatever it was that needed facing: I think I was between jobs and was worried about finding work, which I eventually did.
Our intuition is not infallible so we always need to check with the precepts, and it is very helpful to check with our Sangha, especially about things that will impact others. Checking with the Sangha doesn’t mean that we give up our power or will to the Sangha, no matter what those around us say or do, we always must choose for ourselves and take responsibility for what we choose to do, even when we choose to follow someone else’s lead. But checking with the Sangha and with the precepts is a way of grounding ourselves in reality and helping ourselves see when we are fooling ourselves. For me, checking with the Sangha helps me see when I am acting from something other than my True Self.
A lot of times in our practice, when we are in the midst of a difficult time, our mind is stuck with what appears to be two options, neither of which is satisfactory. Like with taking refuge in the Sangha: it doesn’t work so well just going around doing whatever I want, pushing away the advice of the Sangha, in my attempt to find independence (because we will always have a limited view, and the Sangha can make a bit more wisdom and insight available to me). But it also doesn’t work to just do whatever we are told as if we are children (because then we never find our own wisdom and strength). Sitting still in between these opposite poles can help us to see a new way to be with the situation and step into a different way of relating that reveals a new choice. (The Sangha, if it is true, has a really great ability to remind us to sit still and look within for the answer, rather than telling us what the right answer is.)
So, sometimes this intuition is, to borrow from Rev. Master Jiyu, that third way “flashing past” and giving us an opportunity to go forward in a new way.