Obstacles and Antidotes
by Shastri Andrew Sacamano
As we move from winter to spring to summer to fall there is a natural process that takes place in the earth. There is a period where the earth needs to be quiet, there is a period where it needs to blossom, there is a period where it needs to grow. Our own body-mind calendar goes in a similar cycle.
~ Sakyong Mipham, Online Don Season Teachings, Halifax, January 27, 2008
Traditionally the days leading up to Shambhala Day are known as “Don Days,” and are regarded as a difficult time of year. There are ten don days, followed by one neutral day, followed by Shambhala Day.
Even though we may not be as obviously influenced by the seasons as our ancestors, we still have cycles of more or less energy – individual, social and environmental. At this time of year the cycle is low: our energy is spent, and things that have been quiescent come to fruition. This is a ripe time for obstacles to arise. We call these obstacles “dons”. Although we understand that these are manifestations of our own mind, our experience of them is like malicious agents or spirits out to get us, so we talk about them as though they are as real as we are.
In general, anything that cuts our progress on the path is regarded as an obstacle. But this is not just spiritual difficulties: communication with friends and family becomes difficult, our possessions break easily, and people and animals close to us can easily get worn out and become ill. On an inner level, our discursive thoughts and emotions can feel stronger. And at the innermost level, we can begin to doubt our own basic goodness.
When this is very strong, we begin to feel like the entire world is arrayed against us, and that we are completely out of step with our own bodies and emotions, the people around us, and the world we live in. At moments like this it is easy to take things very personally, and deduce that we are somehow especially unworthy. But in fact obstacles are part of the path for everyone, always. Even the Buddha had to work with obstacles all the time.
We would all like someone to come and save us from this situation. Even just having the idea of someone to ask for help can be very appealing. Friends and family (and doctors, mechanics, contractors, and so on) are important parts of caring for ourselves and our world. But ultimately, as warriors of Shambhala, we must rely on our own innate wisdom to see the nature of these obstacles and our own innate strength to overcome them at their roots.
We begin with mindfulness. Not just paying attention to our meditation, but to our entire lives. Although obstacles are the ripening of our karma, mindfulness is only way to begin to counter them. A student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was once hit by a car, and then asked Rinpoche about the reason for the accident, perhaps expecting esoteric insight in to karma. Rinpoche replied that it was a sign of lack of mindfulness. Only with a foundation of care, appreciation, and attentiveness to the details of our life will be we able to counter obstacles.
The second important aspect of working with obstacles is humbleness – absence of arrogance. We may be very accomplished practitioners, very important people, but reality cares nothing about that. We must not be cavalier about our difficulties. Instead we must rely on our skill as warriors to find a balance – recognizing the power of dons, while at the same time recognizing their essential workability.
And the third way to engage our obstacles is with practice. Traditionally, protector and purification practices are done this time of year. We use the skillful means of practice to unsettle our fixed mind, to remind us to look up and see the space around obstacles that only seem to fill the entire world.
In particular, in the Shambhala community, we do a practice known as “Pacifying the Turmoil of the Mamos”. One definition of “mamo” is, “the basic feminine principle that governs the universe”. Ma representing ultimate space, and mo representing the insight that comes from that space. All human beings have aspects of this feminine energy, just as we all have aspects of masculine energy – skillful means and activity. But generally, the feminine aspect is more pervasive, more universal. So when it feels like the whole universe is out to get us, it is because of difficulties in our relationship with feminine energy. Because this can feel so real and external, we adjust our attitude by making offerings to the perceived external attackers: making physical offerings at the shrine in our centers, and making psychological offerings by chanting and requesting that the mamos stop attacking us and become friendly again.
We should understand that the vivid imagery of the mamo chants and other protector chants reflects how we can relate to the obstacles that arise in our own mind – and not how we should act in the world, or ask others to act on our behalf. This imagery is meant to poke at our kleshas so that we can see them and overcome them.
In addition to giving us advice about how to work with our attitude and emotions, the lineage also gives us some very practical advice about don season.
First, slow down and be less ambitious. Allow yourself ten days of less agenda, less planning, less emailing. But don’t just flop into comfort and entertainment – the dons are on very easy ground there. Instead, practice, go for walks, cultivate space in your life for reflection and looking ahead as a practitioner and as a person.
Secondly, tidy your mental space. Rather than working the parts of your to-do list that are about accomplishing new things, focus on finishing unfinished interpersonal business. Return borrowed items, and clear debts. We should be especially mindful of our interactions with other people, and practice being gentle and simple.
Finally, clean your space – your kitchen, your bedroom, your workplace. We manifest in the world from the base camp of these places – so they should encourage and support lungta and our connection to basic goodness. Find items that you can give away, recycle, or discard. This can be part of an elegant ceremony of recognizing the new year, and is a great way to use the neutral day to clear out the last vestiges of dons from your physical and psychological space.