This excerpt has been adapted from Tricycle’s online course, “Dependent Arising” with Christina Feldman, Akincano Weber, Stephen Batchelor, and John Peacock. Learn more about the course and enroll at learn.tricycle.org.
Christina Feldman: A perspective on dependent arising that we’ve all shared and is important to draw out is that we’re not talking about future births or another lifetime. We’re talking about what’s happening right now for us and how to get out of cycles of repetition.
Think of times when you return to your family home as an adult for a holiday dinner, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas. And you find yourself suddenly acting through the lens of being a child again and repeating the same patterns of reactivity that are so familiar to you. This is situational patterning, how our world has been shaped in certain ways historically and then how that world is repeated in the present.
I’ve seen it while teaching at Gaia House, a center in the UK that I helped to found. It was an old convent—one of these very gray, English, huge buildings. I’ve seen students come in for retreats and they’re enthusiastic, willing, and sincere. And then they see the building and they’re thrown back into memories of boarding school. They find themselves acting in fearful, contracted ways again from the past being brought into the present, and almost reborn in the present. It’s not just the past being repeated, but also the sense of self shaped by those conditions in the past that’s being repeated.
But we can step out of this. We can walk a different pathway if there’s sufficient awareness and understanding of what is actually happening.
John Peacock: But how much can we step out of this situational patterning? It seems to me that we can never completely evade our conditions, but we can start to liberate ourselves from the destructive conditions that we find ourselves having, such as experiencing emotions you had as a 12-year-old when you’re placed back in a boarding school. That experience comes not only with that recognition but also with a whole load of emotional baggage that perhaps isn’t helpful anymore. It seems that it’s not about evading the totality of conditions in which we find ourselves, but it’s about evading those destructive conditions that we enact and play out with others.
Akincano Weber: I think it’s clear we’re not getting out of conditionality. We’re getting out of specific patterns of conditionality. I don’t have the boarding school experience, but I have monastic experience where you start off with a business discussion and suddenly something switches in the room and you have three elder siblings enacting family dynamics. How did this happen? This is a specific incidence of familial patterning, familial dependent arising suddenly constellating itself in the psychic realm of three people talking with each other, constellating histories that they may not even be conscious of.
Christina Feldman: In many of these repetitive patterns that we can find ourselves in, it can feel as if there is no choice. We’re not quite sure how we ended up there, reacting in this particular way—we just ended up there. But the teachings of sati, or mindfulness, highlight the gift of being able to choose what we feed, what we attend to, and how we attend to it. This brings the teaching of dependent arising into a much greater sense of immediacy. In this moment, I can choose to feed those habitual familiar patterns, and if I choose to feed them, I can be pretty certain they’re going to return. Or, I can choose to walk a different pathway. And in that sense, it’s a kind of fasting, which opens a door to a new way of responding rather than the kind of repetition that often leads to a sense of weariness or despair.
Akincano Weber: What’s most alive for me in the teaching of dependent arising is the word “respond” juxtaposed with “react.” The possibility for responsiveness implies that there is something asked of me outside of my self-construct. I can actually respond to something that is put forth to me as a possibility, injunction, or need. I can meet this and engage with it in a way that isn’t determined by my own narrative or opinions.
John Peacock: Life is calling for a response. And the question is, how much do we listen to that call to be able to respond to things? Because otherwise we’re locked within the narratives of the past, so we continue to do the same things again and again. Where does that sense of choice come from? Is it from the awareness that I’m being called upon by something greater than myself to respond? Or is it coming from understanding patterns of mind that can lead to some sort of volitional activity?
Stephen Batchelor: There’s a quotation from philosopher George Santayana, who said, “Those who do not learn the lessons of history, are bound to repeat its mistakes.” The framework of dependent arising gives us a greater awareness of how we have acted and lived in the past, both personally and as a member of the society. Without that mindful attention to those patterns that are already within us, it’s very difficult to have a clear sense of when a volition is coming out of a pattern or when it’s coming out of a space that is not determined by a pattern. The volitional choice is somehow emerging in that free space. And reactivity is problematic not only because it causes distress, but also because it blocks us, it becomes a hindrance that prevents us from acting from that free space.
John Peacock: That sounds like you’re making a creative space.
Stephen Batchelor: A creative space, exactly. I would say an ethical space, too.
Christina Feldman: But isn’t that free space also arising out of conditions?
Stephen Batchelor: Yes.
Christina Feldman: I’m not quite sure that the word free sits comfortably with me because it’s also arising out of other conditions. It’s also, initially, at least for people on this path, about cultivating wholesome patterns of ethics, kindness, and compassion. It’s about cultivating wholesome patterns that allow for responsiveness rather than reactivity.
I’ve appreciated placing this teaching of dependent arising in the context of ethics. That makes this teaching not only about my personal wakefulness, happiness, and freedom, but it becomes relational because my patterns impact inwardly and outwardly.
Akincano Weber: In any case, there is a freedom from.
Stephen Batchelor: One image that I found helpful is thinking of a prisoner in a cell. They are very limited in what they can do because they’ve got bars on the windows and there’s not much space. But that doesn’t mean they can’t do anything. Rather, their freedom is extremely limited. Then if you find yourself in an open prison where you don’t have the walls and the bars, you’re still constrained, but there’s greater freedom to act.
The reactivity and the patternings that we get trapped in can be extremely confining. In my own experience, I can be totally trapped in anger about something, and I also have moments when I’m not so tightly constrained by a particular emotion. I think the practice of mindfulness and the dharma in general is about opening up that space.
Watch the full conversation here.
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