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4 Lojong Slogans That Save My Life

On a sunny Sunday morning last April, I woke up late, took a sip from the half-empty bottle of beer on my end table, and felt my pancreas explode.

I was rushed to the nearest emergency room, pumped full of morphine, and put on a diet of “simple saline” for three days as I suffered through simultaneous acute pancreatitis and delirium tremens. When I was released, I had no job and was forced to give up drinking, my only significant hobby, at risk of death. Suddenly, I had a whole lot free time.

1. First, train in the preliminaries.

In 2012, when I found my self throttled with debilitating panic attacks, a rather unorthodox therapist introduced me to Shambhala Buddhism, a distinct lineage brought to the West by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Its central practice is a deceptively simple sitting meditation. On the floor or in a chair, one sits with an erect but comfortable posture - “upright but not uptight” - and breathes. That's it. If thoughts arise, which they will, one labels them “thinking” and gently allows them to go their way, feeling the associated feelings without creating a storyline around them.

When I dipped into Shambhala Buddhist study, I encountered Lojong, a set of 59-or-so aphorisms Trungpa adapted from the work of the 12th Century meditation master Geshe Chekhawa.

At my therapist's behest, I purchased a deck of Lojong cards and meditated semi-regularly. It helped with the panic. But my life and my self were still burdensome, as was my heroic intake of booze and cocaine. In early 2014, I distinctly recall thinking, “I'm exhausted. I can't keep doing this.” A few months later, I was in the ER.

As my pancreas healed, I began to sit in earnest and contemplate the slogans in depth.

2. Don't Misinterpret

I tried different schools of therapy before. I've been hammered with depression most of my life, and in 2008, I went shopping for a particular sort of therapy. Something that would help me unburden myself of the crippling guilt I carried around. The guilt of behaving like an alcoholic douchecannon. Who didn't really want to change.

Meditation is different. Meditation is quite literally a pain in the ass. There is no endgame. The only objective is to sit firmly in this moment. And this moment. And this one. Whatever this moment may bring. There is no escape from the moment.

I had to be willing to feel stupid. I had to observe my pain, to see how it changes. I had to examine my tapestry of “self” until it began to fade and fray.

Someone once asked Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche what bliss is. “To you,” said Trungpa, “it would probably feel like pain.” He also wrote, “the true definition of bravery is not being afraid of who you are.”

As I learned to sit with myself, I relinquished hope and fear. I watched my ego do its work without calling it “I.” I started to realize that perhaps I am not such a douchecannon after all. I started to entertain serious questions about this whole “I” business in general.

3. Observe these two, even at risk of your life.

We're talking here about the two main commitments of Lojong practice. Work on yourself. Help others.

I've always liked to fancy myself the compassionate sort. I have compassion for all the right people! The good people, of course. Who has time to experience compassion for the monsters of the world? That's for namby-pamby, wishy-washy suckers. Maybe I'll get around to the rest of you when I have the budget for it.

As I worked on myself through Shambhala, the borders of what I had once thought of as “myself” became porous indeed. I began to think less of “my self” and more in terms of something I'll glibly describe as being not dissimilar from the basic principles of the Butterfly Effect.

In some moments, I noticed myself getting lost in spirals of ego and shame, and I thought, “thinking.” In other moments, I began to experience, for myself, something that has been called “interdependence.” This is the sort of interdependence I cannot recall knowing since my early childhood, when my symbiotic bond with my mother was undeniable, and my similar connections with other organisms were not yet mine to know or explore.

To probably misquote Thich Naht Hahn, “whatever it is, I am that, too.”

4. Regard all dharmas as dreams.

My life is too damned weird to take too seriously. It's a precious paradox, a profound joke. If I tried to explain it all, that would take the fun out of it.

Shambhala and Lojong wisdom does not recommend detaching from reality. But it softens the boundaries of “reality.” The Buddha himself, after experimenting with hardcore asceticism, elected to walk among his students, to make the world his school and his laboratory. And out there in the “real world,” he taught that nothing is permanent.

I tend to be hyperanalytical and paranoid, horrified that no one can be trusted and everything goes on my permanent record. That's why I don't smoke weed. I usually end up hiding in my bed for three days, ordering a pizza, and being too scared to eat it.

Being deep in this practice has had something like the opposite effect. When something happens, I need not add it to a set of assumptions and rules about the way things are. Because things change constantly. I can fully feel the feelings associated with it and then release the association. I can learn my lesson and keep moving.

“Nowness is the sense that we are attuned to what is happening,” Trungpa wrote. “The past is fiction and the future is a dream, and we are just living on the edge of a razor blade.”

It is not always comfortable, this moment. But it is home. And this one. And this one.

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