There are many versions of a cartoon where a meditator sits with closed eyes, cross legged on a cushion, a serene expression on her face, while in the blank space around her are thought bubbles containing individual thoughts: “follow the breath”, “ I hate my hair”, “I wonder what time it is”, “Om”, “these pants are too tight”. As the cartoon indicates, the ordinary mind is a busy place, often referred to as monkey mind, and if you're a meditator, new or experienced, the cartoon brings both a smile and a grimace. Yes, it's like that.
The mistake a beginning meditator may make is in thinking that this is not the way it's supposed to be; I'm doing something wrong. Or even: obviously my mind is not a mind that can settle on a single meditation object. But at least twice in the cartoon bubbles described above, the meditator has managed, if only for a nano second, to come to a meditation object...the breath or a mantra. The mistake we can continue to make as we garner experience is believing that the mind should immediately settle on the object and never waver. Well, it might. But what it might do is fling itself from branch to branch for some time. It may revisit thoughts, and the breath is one of those places it may land from time to time, perhaps even resting there awhile. This would likely be the case, even were we to leave it free and unguided.
But in meditation the mind is not playing on its own; we are watching over the mind as we would watch over a small child learning to walk in a place full of potential hazards. We sometimes just block the path to the edge of the pool, for instance, and the child may change course happily enough. Other times we might take his hand and lead him along awhile, through the litter of bright things on beach towels that belong to other people and shouldn't be touched, despite their allure. Or we may point and squeal and express delight about the plastic duck we want him to be interested in. These are the same techniques we use as we sit. We follow the monkey. And we watch out for where it's headed. We block the thoughts that draw us away from the meditation object. We lead skillfully perhaps by counting breaths or silently chanting mantras. We cultivate curiosity about the breath or the mantra or whatever we are using as meditation object.
If we relax our vigilance, it's possible the little child we're watching over will be alright on his own. It's also possible he'll lean too far and fall into the pool, or pick up someone's sunglasses and totter off with them. He might become interested in a burning cigarette or a broken bottle instead of in the toy duck. Our job is to keep watch. Our backs might get tired from stooping. Our shift as baby sitter may seem overly long. But we know the safety of the child is in our hands. We can do this.
We can do this too when we're on the cushion. We can bring the mind's attention back from the tired back to the gentle touch of the breath. We can turn away from thought baubles about dinner or the weekend and return to the dependable breath. We can draw back from a fantasy or elaborate planning story and find the moment we're living, right now. Just this. But it isn't easy. It requires vigilance, ongoing effort and skillful choices, moment by moment. Most of all it requires an understanding that this is valuable. Keeping the child safe is worthwhile. Schooling the mind is important.
It seems obvious when you're shadowing the uncertain footsteps of a toddler that what you're doing is for the good. With loving guidance, we do what we can so that the child will eventually learn to walk alone with skill, to stay away from danger and to choose wisely in the world. Even when he walks with confidence, we keep an eye out, we attempt to nudge in positive directions. This is also so with our own monkey mind. With vigilance and persistence and effort we shape its behavior. In time it needs less nudging and the benefits of peace and insight grow.
Out of love for the child we do what's needed; out of love for ourselves and our well-being we do what's needed. We benefit and the world benefits from this good work.
Sometimes, lately, I feel the heavy tiredness I remember clearly from the years my children were small. It's not just being physically tired. My doctor at that time said, “You're in your 40's, have a chronic illness and are raising two young sons, of course you're tired.” Well, it was nice to have his blessing, so-to-speak, his reassurance that what I was feeling was normal or at least not an aberration. Yet, I don't think it was all physical even then. It wasn't just about not enough sleep.
I had a sheepskin coat when I was a young adult. The kind that has the thick wool turned inside and tanned skin out. Panels and panels draping to mid-calf. It pressed me to the ground and anchored me in winds, both a protection and a burden of weight on my not-exactly-brawny shoulders. The tiredness I felt when I went to the doctor a couple of decades back was like that. I was weighed down with worries. I didn't think I had a choice.
On a trip to West Edmonton Mall when my second child was an infant, I discovered in practical terms what it meant to not be able to physically restrain or focus solely upon a nearly-five-year-old with incredible curiosity. A little one could slip away in the time it took for me to stoop to lift the babe from his stroller.
How could I keep all of us safe?
This is a refrain in a heart-song mothers know well, but it's not just ours. It belongs to everyone who loves: family, friends, country, the world we share.
The problem is not the sentiment...the wish for the safety of what we love. It's putting on that heavy coat. That one that feels like it's all on our shoulders and that enduring safety is a possibility if we just do the right things.
I can keep us all safe if....
I no longer have the material coat, but the metaphorical one, apparently, was still hanging at the back of the closet, since I've unearthed it again. It's dusty and uncomfortable and not only do I not want to wear it, these days I know it's not necessary that I do. But that doesn't stop me from slipping an arm into a familiar sleeve from time to time.
How do I keep everyone safe?
Reading the words of a wise teacher recently, I came to a phrase that spoke to me. Things don't always go the way you want them to, he observed, “But, it's not your fault.” People sometimes say “What did I do to deserve this?” referring both to joyful and tragic turns in their lives. We look for a direct tie between cause and effect, but we don't look beyond the slender, linear thread that runs from our own fingers.
Cause and effect are complicated. Living things, ecosystems, and economies are fragile. The lone thread in my hands, or in yours, won't pull them back from danger. I know this. Practice has revealed that I handle the thread I hold, the bit I can do, much more skillfully without the heavy coat. When I take a wider view of what is so in the world, I recognize that the burden of safety, of everyone's well-being, is not my responsibility alone. That something going wrong is not my fault and not mine alone to fix. I'm learning an important truth again: I more skillfully play out what I can do when I am light and at ease, flexible and aware, not stooped and weighted by ineffective worry.
When I was in my late twenties and had first left the city where I grew up, I would go back now and then and stay with my parents for short visits. My dad used to say I was like a duck coming in for a landing, implying that I never stayed long. He wasn't just referring to the brevity of the visit as a whole. I'd lived in Calgary and region for the best part of 30 years before moving elsewhere and I had so many ties there, so many friends scattered within that city's reaches. I was still young enough to be caught in the illusion of endless time where I'd be able to do it all. The siren call of lively friends and interesting experiences easily won out over tea and talk with my aging parents. It was embarrassing to listen to their nostalgic family anecdotes, mildly irritating to be expected to give up the more enticing entertainments beyond their door. I have often regretted my carelessness in those years, but I do not see my behavior as unusual or intrinsically wrong in some way. It is a truth of life that children grow and yearn to leave home while parents yearn for more of what has been. Viewpoints that result from life experience are necessarily different at different places along the arc of a life. The young yearn more for what is in front of them, the aging yearn for what seems to be behind. So the ducks land, grab a bite or two and fly on.
I'm in my sixties now. My own children behave as I did. Not in order to hurt me, but in order to live their lives according to what is most enticing now. Now I am the parent, less enticed by flying and more inclined to tell embarrasing stories. Alas, nothing unusual here.
What I'm pondering as another family holiday passes is how both ends of the spectrum are caught in yearning...whether it is forward or back. While I now understand the impermanence of youth and the limits of time, often I am no wiser when it comes to lessening the suffering of desire. So I find myself hearing my father's voice as I usher the kids out the door at the end of a shared celebration meal. Then, with the whisper of my dad's words in my ear, and the image of his sardonic smile in my mind's eye, I bring to mind skillful effort to be mindful not just of the events of this moment but of the emotions stirring, and the crossroads I'm standing at. If I am diligent, I am able to smile as I close the door behind them and open to what remains here with me, rather than sinking into sadness. I am able to wave desire out the door with them and settle back into now, which is fine and full.
Here there is a warm home and much that is beloved. Yet all of this, like the company of my children, will not last. I can be caught in sadness or not and the choice is here in this brief moment of seeing how it all passes. The tulips I bought to symbolize the spring that has not yet made itself known outside the windows, are already drooping heavy heads. The scent of the lilacs is sweetening toward decay. Even so, all that I love is leaving. Should that make it less a source of joy and sweetness while it's here?
I wonder if these words will seem melancholy to the reader and hope, perhaps unrealistically, that they will not. For what makes for more melancholy in my experience is to know we miss the sweetness here in our haste to travel forward or wish to travel back. My wish now for myself, for those I love, for all beings, is that we live this fleeting moment unfettered by desire's push or pull.
March in Alberta. What I notice as I scan the sky, check the outdoor thermometer, look up weather forecasts and pause to take in the bright beauty of a supermarket bouquet centered in my kitchen, is that March is emblematic of desire in this northern clime. We'd like March, in Alberta, to be a verb, moving steadily forward in a tidy and disciplined manner toward the longer days of sunshine and ease. Days without boots or slush or parkas. Days of pussy willows and tulip shoots and sleek does with spotted fawns at their heels. March makes me lean forward.
What is it about such anticipation that is so bad? It's not sinful or evil in some intrinsic way. The problem is simply that indulging it leads to dissatisfaction with what the present blessed moment holds. Recently I heard a wise teacher talk about anger. She said that while a spark of anger is OK and may even lead to skillful action, such as working to correct an injustice, the problem with anger is dwelling there, taking up residence in the story, becoming the anger. This insight applies as well to desire.
The Buddha names three poisons that creep in to undermine the potential happiness of a human life: greed, hatred and delusion. Anger would fall under the general category of hatred, strongly negative states of mind, often referred to as aversion. Desire falls under greed, the reaching we all do, more often referred to as clinging or craving. Delusion refers to the mistakes we make when we do not acknowledge what is. It always seems to me that delusion accompanies both greed and hatred. There is something we are overlooking, by deliberate design or from ignorance when we allow ourselves to dwell in one of these painful states.
It's the dwelling that makes it a problem. If I scan the sky and then return happily to my breakfast, check the thermometer and then choose my parka for another day, look up weather forecasts and then change the plans I had for the day when I find a storm alert, there is no problem. Even purchasing and enjoying the colorful flowers on my counter is only a source of joy, so long as it does not lead me to grumpiness about the lack of nature's color beyond my window.
The key to doing what we need to do in the day and allowing joy where it arises, is strong mindfulness. I may lean but I return to center. Just as I watch the breath in meditation, notice that an external sound has drawn my mind out to contemplate its source, and then deliberately return to the breath, I touch the petals with pleasure and resist the pull of fantasy and whining that could follow, staying here in this moment of joy. I see the dull sky but also the bounty on my breakfast plate. The thermometer allows me a moment of gratitude for the cozy warmth of the parka I'll soon don and the pleasant temperature of the building I live in. The forecast provokes sensible choices, encouraging letting go of plans that are not appropriate to the conditions of the day.
Not taking up residence in some future place desire has created and not ignoring the way things are at the moment, permit a swift return to this place and time and the gifts right here. Strong practice in a mindful March will inevitably give way to an April of continuing awareness.
This morning I'm reminded, viscerally, of the value of retreat. I am not on retreat in any “official”way but it's Sunday, there are no appointments, meetings, classes, pharmacy pick ups or necessary errands marked on the calendar. Yesterday marked the end of a weeks long stretch when there were large numbers of all of these, usually several in each day. Because it is my habit of mind anymore, I have managed, mostly, to be in each moment and with each event or activity as it arose, but there has always been that forward momentum. When you are skiing down hill, you keep moving, your job being to stay keenly aware of each nano-second of the journey, the obstacles, the best path of descent. Much of this happens in a way that is so close to automatic it feels magical. Yet the senses are wide open and the beauty and exhilaration of each moment is felt, as is the heart-stopping possibility of danger when it arises. It's been a bit like that. What periods like this make clear to me is that it is not essential to get away from it all, to go to the mountain top, into isolation or silent retreat to maintain mindfulness. But it takes a lot of energy to stay alert, to avoid the rocks and cliffs and not just to lie down in the snow and give up. Sometimes, it's all happening a little too fast to be as skillful in the adjustments needed as you might wish. This is also the case in daily mindfulness practice.
Today then, opens like a retreat. A friend of mine recently described a solitary retreat of hers as “creative quietude”. What a beautiful and evocative phrase. Today is a taste of that. I didn't sleep in or laze about, but I am conscious of each moment opening up into a larger space. I sit and I do yin and I read, both Dhamma and news. I don't check lists. I am unperturbed by the slowness of the internet and turn to this fresh page to write, even noting a gurgley bubble of gratitude that lifts my heart at finding an unchosen, unscheduled time that opens to writing and contemplation.
Because of the circumstances of this period in our life marked by my husband's illness and treatments, I have not stepped out of the “world” into retreat for nearly six months. But today, without the context of retreat centre or monastery, without bells and long sitting periods, without meals in silence and gatherings with other silent, breathing bodies in meditation halls, there is still a sense of the spacious, the protected and the sacred. A reminder of what it is to stand at the bottom or the top of the hill and notice the more intimate, minute, and inevitable changes, the texture of the snow and breath. This is vastly different from the rushing journey between still points, even when the speed is handled with grace and skill. Today, I'm given the gift of time with nothing to do and nowhere to be. It is more precious than a vacation, which is underscored by a sense of bracketing from real life and all too often has doing and going as part of its own agenda. It is just this: an unexpected period of space. A time out. Not to be squandered by filling it up.
Waking to this this morning, I remember when these times were bruised and ruined by fear of boredom. When I believed that doing and going were what it took to achieve happiness. So long into practice I know that boredom is a form of aversion and something I created before I learned to rest here. I note the arising of wishing for more time like this, and let that be too, dissolving. Take this gift and hold it, gently, my hands and heart open, for experience teaches that these moments of stillness are no more lasting than those that move swiftly by in the busy times. Yet, whatever grace and skill I manage then is the product of clear knowing now. This, I am reminded, is the value of retreat.
It isn't comfortable to make a mistake. A mistake is like poking a stick through the bars at the ego you keep mostly safe and tame and properly protected. Like a lazy lion, ego will often nap in the sunshine of satisfaction, of productivity, of accomplishment. But that lion can pace and growl or even roar when you make a mistake.
This is an image that works for me, anyway. When I'm doing my best, something I was taught to do since childhood, dotting my i's and crossing my t's, the lion of self is pretty quiet. That is, I feel contented, OK mostly with the stuff I can't control, feeling I've got a handle on what I can control. That, I think, is where the problem lies. I'm only human, you see, and so I don't necessarily control even what seems to be mine to control. I lose things, forget things, do things too hastily maybe. I burn toast, forget important dates, shrink clothes in water that's too hot, misplace something I borrowed. I make mistakes. Small ones, medium sized ones and big ones too. But I don't like to make mistakes. Well, none of us do, do we?
We don't like the inconvenience or trouble or irritation it causes for others, nor the worry and shame it causes for us. Wait a minute. It's not the mistake that is to blame so much for this last segment of the picture. Rather, it's the knowing that “I” screwed up. It's the way we've framed the experience...a threat to self, to the ego. And this second arrow, the story about “me” screwing up, is often the most painful of all.
There's usually a scramble here. We might try to tell another story to ourselves that lets the lion be and turns the blame on someone or something else. We can shift the shame and discomfort into anger maybe, which stirs a different kind of discontent. What is hard to do is just to share space with the mistake. To acknowledge there's something a bit threatening coming at the self, and still stay calm.
I feel this kind of threat in my whole body. And everything in me wants to make it right. When it's something I can't fix, it's at its worst. So the work of mindfulness here is just to see even the mistakes. Admit them, to ourselves and maybe to others if they were impacted. Because even though my own actions may have been the cause, the discomfort in my body is exactly like a threat to which I did not contribute. It's like being accused wrongly. It's like being threatened. It sets adrenalin running and can disrupt ease, waking and sleeping.
Pop wisdom might suggest that mistakes lead to discovery or growth, but our bodies have a different first take on such an experience. Mindfulness allows us to see this first impact. To feel it. To move towards living with as much ease as we can in a world that includes the repercussions of the mistake. We can't return to the place before the mistake. It isn't enough to just eat the burnt toast, re-schedule the appointment we missed, find a new use for the shirt we shrunk, or replace the lost item. The important work is inside. Noticing that the impact of this mistake is exacerbated by a bigger one...the delusion that I am someone who can do everything right all the time. This is the delusion that puts the lion in a cage to begin with, neatly confined and defined but at the mercy of slings and arrows and sticks through the bars.
Often when people come to join us for the first time in our regular meditation group they are in a troubled place in life. Human beings are good at just getting on with things as usual, even when the usual is uncomfortable. It takes a pretty big bump sometimes to get our attention. The car is rattling along but it's moving down the road. When we finally drop the muffler, or worse, we pause for a look. Other times it's just the wearing down that brings us to a halt. We run out of gas and pull over for awhile to assess things. Sometimes that assessment will lead to the meditation hall.
I've been at this a long time now and such periods still arise. Running out of gas and dropping a muffler, that is. I'm not immune to the vagaries of life. But I know where the road signs are now and I have a well-stocked tool kit, so I'm not stymied for so long on the roadside. I'm able to move into the next moment and then the next, not so easily drawn into that unskillful state described in the suttas as the “craving for non-existence”. That phrase sounds dramatic but this is just a world weariness that can manifest as the desire for sleep maybe, or zoning out, or watching whatever happens to be on TV, or playing repetitive games, or drinking, or finishing the last half of the chocolate cake...you can fill in the blank with any behavior that allows us to “escape” for awhile from the unhappy place we're in. What we do might be described as stopping thinking, but it's far from the skillful place of meditation. In fact, we often describe the state we reach for as “mindless” and think we're doing ourselves a favor. But this sort of opting out numbs the mind and misses the moment. And when the show ends, the cake's gone, morning comes, we're still unhappy and still stranded on the road. The practice of meditation, on the other hand, is about bringing the mind to a place of joyful awareness. About turning the car around and finding a new direction.
It's a process though and it can be work. This is not what we want to hear when we're stranded by the side of the road. We don't want the long walk for gas, or the hard work of repairs. We'd just like a ride to our destination, a hot bath, a good meal, and a little comfort.
I'm in a place now where the work is necessary. There's the road sign. I can read it. I'm carrying the tools. But my feet are sometimes heavy and the journey is daunting. My teacher calls this “3 a.m. mind”. That is, when I hear the stories my mind is weaving, I have to deliberately remember they're unreliable. The stories about just sleeping awhile, about shutting out the pain, about ignoring the way it is.
In the mornings right now, my habitual time for formal sitting practice, it can happen that the night runs into the day with circadian rhythms confused in a house of illness and tough treatments. I can physically just be very tired and it's tempting to follow that into permission to skip the habits of two decades. One such day lately, sitting was delayed till late morning by other immediate needs. Weary as I went to my cushion, I noticed the selfing that was asserting itself. The I-making. So settling on my seat, I asked a question that is often suggested for reflection: “What is it that holds on?” This is just the inverse of “What is it that can't let go, accept, relax?” I let the question float. Breathing it in and breathing it out.
The drop into deeper concentration was such a surprise, I nearly pulled back out like you do when you lower a foot into water too hot or too cold. The unexpectedness causes a reflexive retreat. Then a breath again and a knowing, because I trust this place I've been to before, that what I needed to do was let go, lower into the water. The settling brought sweet relief.
This is not escape but immersion, yet the self dissolves here. When you least expect it, worn out and giving in, whatever it is that holds on, lets go.
There might be a danger in the translation of the Pali word “sati” as “mindfulness” in that in the English speaking world the mind is too often equated with the brain and so assumed to be located in the head. Common ways of speaking of mindfulness reinforce this. To speak of seeing or watching or noticing seems to be talking of activities in the head. To speak of an inner eye or even the third eye also invokes placement in the head. And certainly our cultural emphasis on “thinking” means we turn to the brain, come back to this aloof place, aloft from the rest of the body.
Interestingly, some neuroscientists and philosphers take a different slant, speaking of the mind as present in the whole of the body. This seems to better take into account the kind of learning we often call muscle memory, the kind of learning we're surprised by sometimes when our feet know the way somewhere our visual memory can't call up, when our hands play a tune we learned long ago but can no longer name the notes for. This is embodied mind and when I think of mind this way it feels more true.
What I know, what I recall, what I notice, what I feel are not only in my head. Pali also has a word “citta” that is usually translated as mind, but often also as heart/mind, acknowledging a knowing that is deeper and more central to the body than to the head alone.
This is the kind of mindfulness that truly keeps us present. Not aloof and watching but entering into the body's full experience. This is the kind of awareness yoga teachers try to suggest with their cues about grounding and riding the breath and placing attention in various parts of the body. I think of it not so much as some little messenger from the brain scooting down neural pathways to the thumb of our right hand, for example, but rather awakening to the sensation that is already there, just as we open our eyes to what lies in our visual field already. A simple noticing. Simple? Well, maybe not so simple, because we have given up this kind of awareness or noticing for so much of our lives. Dancers might have it. Athletes. At least in the context of their disciplines. But many of us have given over the control of our bodies to our heads, treating the body like a robot/avatar servant we ride around in. We've distanced ourselves, using the body as a tool, as if it merely gathers samples and sends them to the all important brain. Vision particularly is given so much precedence. Virtual reality counts on this almost entirely. Is seeing in 3D the same as experiencing with the body as a whole?
What happens if I stand or walk with my awareness open in my feet, in my limbs? If I eat with awareness in my entire body and not only in my mouth? If I sit, aware of the placement of my limbs, the curve of my spine, the weight of my hands at the end of my arms? This type of embodied awareness is a kind of awakening in itself. It is difficult to maintain, but worth the effort. Even some measure of success may change your understanding of what mind is and so enhance your practice of mindfulness.
About to pull out of my parking space in a large lot the other day, when an SUV coasted by in slow motion, the driver casting a wide arcing gaze over the row, not making eye contact with me. I hadn't even taken my foot off the brake yet, so there was no danger of colliding vehicles, but I noticed a collision of emotional states in my mind. One was what I think of as “gotta get there” mind. This state is characterized by a preoccupation with either some future/pending destination or just a general sense of restlessness that requires movement to scratch the itch it conjures. The other was an instant underwater sense of admiration for this taking-her-time driver who was focused on finding her own space, neither rushing nor distracted.
This is one of the outcomes of consistent mindfulness practice, the seeing clearly those squiggles of thought and sparks of emotions and the interesting conjunction of opposing/colliding states at the same time. Way back, decades now, when I was a graduate student in philosophy of mind, one avenue of debate with colleagues was over whether we could have more than one stream of thought simultaneously. I remember dazedly coming down the elevator from my little cubby hole office at the university and negotiating the wide but crowded hallways to a coffee kiosk, spending the entire journey trying to notice whether there were multiple levels of chatter going on in my mind. I guess I considered the mind stream that was carrying me successfully on the journey to be some sort of autopilot separate from actual thought, because I didn't count that into the tally I was making. I did this experiment a lot so I'm not sure why this one episode remains in memory. Perhaps only because it provided for me the definitive answer: there were multiple voices in there, seemingly overlapping and often contradicting one another. Wow! Why hadn't I noticed this so clearly before? At that time, still in my 20's, I'd never meditated. Years later, when I began to meditate, I became intimately familiar with these voices, the whole committee of changeable members. Like “me” they have no solid substance, but like “me” they sometimes have a familiar feel and other times strike me as surprising newcomers, strangers in my own head.
“Gotta get there” mind is one of the familiar ones. I'm sure you also have such a voice or thought stream running much of the time. Our lifestyles praise and reward such a view point. It's given plenty of attention and fuel so it's bound to find a space to flourish. Yet, it's a voice that runs contrary to the path of peace. When we are assessing the skillfulness of our thinking, a useful guideline is to ask whether this thought stream leads towards or away from peace of mind. I have yet, in years of watching, to see an instance when “gotta get there” gave rise to peace. Sure, as I pulled up in front of somewhere I was going, or completed the last item on my do list, I'd feel a moment of release and contentment. But that only came about because “gotta get there” was finally quiet. This is the conundrum. We sometimes run at double speed seeking that single brief breath space where we'll feel a moment of relief and peace. Working harder, doing more, multi-tasking, breathing curses and complaints at whatever gets in our way, rather than attending to the breath itself.
Mindful living may not mean that we are successful in shutting out these voices that add to our dissatisfaction and suffering. But it does mean that we clearly see them. And as my recent parking lot episode illustrates, it also means we are likely to notice all the members of the committee. In that case I also heard my admiration and felt the pulling into that moment of slow-motion. Good enough. This was the window that gave me choice. When you're in a crowded room engaged in conversation with an individual, it is skillful to learn to screen out the competing voices. Not to listen in on the babbling chatter, not to be following the lyrics of the background music. So it is every moment in our own minds. Listen, choose, select skillfully where your attention is best placed. What is important? What leads to peace?
I am grateful to my parking lot teacher for such a moment of clarity.
When bad news comes thick and nasty as thistles
I breathe and remember
Not to raise shields of indifference
But to wade in with an open heart.
Maybe two decades ago was the first time I remember a period like this. Bad news thick as thistles. It seemed for awhile that the phone only rang to deliver some new loss or sorrow. It was a painful time. When this sort of thing happens we are tempted to guard ourselves against it. We may think it's better to be distant and indifferent, immune to the pain. But coming through that one, I learned that an open heart is its own protection. If you lean against a door refusing an unwelcome wind, it will batter away to get in, but if you open not just this door but all the windows and other doors too, maybe it will just whistle through, reorganize your living space a little, but leave you standing.
What is the felt difference between acceptance and indifference? How is turning toward something painful more skillful than turning away? It's important to remember, I think, that there needs to be some momentum in the turning toward. Not a lingering in the suffering but an opening to it. A recognizing that this is what it is to live and to love. Just an open heart and a moving forward. Letting go as life happens. There is a Dhammapada verse (348) that instructs us to do just this:
Let go of the past.
Let go of the future.
Let go of the present.
With a heart that is free,
cross over to that shore
which is beyond suffering.
A heart that is free is not indifferent, not unkind or uncaring. It is not tangled in the thistles either, nor cowering behind shields of self-protection. When people say about some tragedy or trouble in the world that they can't afford to care, they are mistaken. One cannot afford not to care. A heart so shielded is never free.
Is it like buying red boots and then suddenly seeing them everywhere? Is it like waiting for your baby to arrive and suddenly the world is populated by babies? When we're hurt or grieving, the world's hurts seem more close at hand, more numerous. Yet, it's a fact that I've friends who are facing their own illnesses and worries right now. And that today I received news of the death of someone from the past once very dear to me, though our lives have not intersected for years. Still, I notice echoes reverberate longer in a heart that is set to that tone. I'm wired for pain right now. And there's a danger in that, the danger of losing the balance. So as I watch my responses I tune into the felt difference between acceptance and indifference. I keep an open heart.