I've had a “real” cell phone, as opposed to the flip phone my hubby and I shared for more than a decade, for less than a year. To my surprise, I like it. I like the texting and the easy portable searches, especially for directions and maps. And I like the camera. But I haven't mastered the selfie. This comes to mind today because of hearing from a friend across time and space after a fairly lengthy silence at both ends of the conversation. This happens from time to time. And each time I realize that the pictures publicly posted on my FB page and website, where friends find me, are a few years old. I'm frozen in time there.
Here comes the metaphor. Sorry, but I have a mind that naturally works that way. Some people think in pictures, some in music; I have a mind that inclines to metaphor. In traditional Buddhist teaching the notion of anatta, no solid self, is central. An easy “idea” to get hold of on the level of superficial language, but a difficult one to understand, to feel the reality of in heart and mind. We take internal “selfies” at pivotal moments and hang on to them as if they define us. We ignore the inevitable flow. Not deliberately, but because we just don't see it. We see ourselves in a static way that isn't necessarily reflective of the way things are now, and then now, and then now.
The results of this are many fold. We become emotionally invested in these snapshots. Not only of ourselves but of others in our life. And so it is painful when change grabs our attention because it is too big or too sudden to miss. Or we find ourselves working hard to hold on to what we believe defines us, even when the time has come to let it go. That might be a job, a relationship, a hobby, the place we live, a point of view. All of these not just subject to change but characterized by change.
Everything is flow, wise teachers say. Sometimes we know this. Watching the sky and the weather, sitting by the ocean or a river, planting and harvesting our garden. Other times we want to deny it. Holding our small child in our arms. Hugging a friend goodbye and waving to the moving van.
Harder still is to know that I am flow, change. It's a folk truth that the years go faster as you age. I think, instead, the truth is that they have always moved fast. As we age, we begin to notice. It's as if we move from the center of the spinning wheel where the motion is barely detectable and handstands and soap boxes are easier to stabilize, to the outside rim where the wind is in our faces and our grip tight on the rail and while we still might do handstands or hold forth on our views, we have a sense of the shaky foundations of both.
I'm at a place in my life where I'm sorting at some subliminal level. I'm looking for what might be solid when I know nothing is and it can stir a bit of vertigo. There have been roles I've put stock in. I let some of these “selfies” go willingly or reluctantly long ago and others fluttered from my fingers without much fanfare along the way. Some I've pasted in my mind's album where they keep coming up for view whether they hold truth any longer or not. And some, well, the wind is rustling the corners out here on the rim.
This is a good thing to pay attention to because it is real. Uncomfortable and sometimes beyond that to painful, but refreshing and full of possibility too. Flow, by definition, can't be pinned down. You dip your hand into the river, but can't hold it.
I'll eventually practice enough with selfies to have new ones to post but I'm also practicing with unselfing in my life, really seeing and experiencing the flow of change. Because it is inevitable whether I accept it or not.
It's a complicated world. Even with the wish to simplify, it can seem impossible not to be faced with many “necessary” obligations, and confronted by multiple “unnecessary” hurdles. The simultaneous arrival of reminders to renew vehicle registration, replacement cards to be verified, some item that requires organizing repairs, and running out of milk half way through a batch of pancake batter can just seem like too much. The items in the list may vary, but from time to time there is a sudden onslaught of overwhelm. And the first reaction of this mind is to resist: close the doors, run away, scream and push back. Fortunately, after having watched this little sequence for so many years, I know this reaction is interruptable, like a false start in a race. Energies have been marshaled, and the course may seem determined, but the gate hasn't opened yet. Fortunately, in that brief space is the place to see what I'm doing, to reset the footing and begin again.
A breath and the understanding that this sense of panic is something I'm doing is the key. Time slows a bit and if I investigate I see that each thread entangling me is spooling out from my own hands. It's a bit of a magician's trick, really, what the mind pulls. The sense of entanglement seems to come from the world, but the threads are my own, the ones I use to tie knots of obligation and urgency. There are things to do, yes. But they aren't threatening me. The suffocation and the struggle are of my own mind's making. Follow them back and I find that the tangle of thread in the middle is all there is. No me at all.
This isn't something new or unique to me. These are human emotions. Responses of overwhelm or sorrow or anger or fear are just that. Feelings that arise and dissipate. Whether they linger or even grow has to do with how I view them, what I do with them.
When my children were small and sometimes it felt as if everything and everyone were making demands of me, I used to imagine a rocket ship in my closet that could just carry me away. It was exactly the same impulse that my kids had when things weren't going their way. I might think they were being unreasonable dissolving in tantrums or tears, but I couldn't see so easily that my own reactions were the same as theirs. There was some growing up to do for all of us.
Ice cream cones get dropped in the dirt, other kids get chosen for the team, the homework assignment means working through the weekend, the gift you waited for all year for your birthday is broken when you open the box and you have to return it and wait again. From our perspective as adults we see that none of these things are as tragic or as big as they seem for the child at the time. And none of them should be a surprise. Things are lost or broken all the time. What we yearn for can't always be reached and even when it's in our hands, it may not be what we had hoped for. The things we're asked to do are not what we want to do.
And yet, in our own adult lives we have difficulty with these same principles. For the same reasons. We refuse to believe what observation and experience reveal as true: Despite our best efforts, life continues to be uncertain, and all too often, unsatisfactory.
My most recent episode of overwhelm came on a night when I was too tired, the day had had a number of detours from my “plan” for it, including long periods on hold on the phone with various government offices and service companies, and then the dog decided he wouldn't come in at bedtime. Not a tragic set of circumstances, but each brought my victim self out whimpering, so that throughout the day I reset in the starting gate time and again.
The antidote to this kind of suffering is to remember: The world I live in might be complicated, but a skillful response is really pretty simple. Breathe. Re-set. Begin again.
If I were asked to compose a list of things I love to do, none of the usual tasks involved in house cleaning would appear there. There may well be people out there who just naturally love to polish windows or vacuum carpets or (shudder) dust shelves, but I'm not one of them. Still, years ago when I took these tasks on differently, as part of my mindfulness practice, I began to find a deep satisfaction in doing them that serves me well. Moments spent in mindfulness are always moments that have some measure of joy laced through. Even a sad moment, lived mindfully, is vibrant with attention and vibrates a little with energy that is food for the heart. It is not a moment thrown away. And that, for years, was the problem I had with household tasks...I treated them as throw away moments, something to rush through to get to something else. What brings this to mind now? The congruence of two experiences.
I choose to live most of my life without a soundtrack. That is, I don't often listen to music in my vehicle or my office or my home in general, unless someone else has turned on the tunes. When I do listen to music, it is usually as an activity in itself: sitting down to listen to a specific Leonard Cohen album; playing a favorite CD by a musician friend who lives on another continent and, in this way, spending time with her; choosing something gentle to listen to as I relax, snuggled with our dog on the carpet or slouched back in my favorite chair. Like watching a movie or reading a book, it's a singular activity. Except perhaps for the ever-present cup of tea I like in the evening.
But a few weeks back when the house was empty, which it rarely is, and I began the weekly scouring of kitchen and bathrooms, I suddenly had the wish to hear a set of lovely Eve Decker songs. This album is a cycle of 10 songs that each highlights one of the 10 Paramis or virtues the Buddha suggested for cultivation. Allowing the unusual impulse its head, I dug out the CD and plugged it in...old school technology. Here's what I found: In moments tears were running down my cheeks and dripping into the sink I was scrubbing. A little later I was frozen in my tracks on the carpet, passing through between rooms, caught by lyrics that lifted my heart and hollowed out my belly simultaneously with a stark yearning.
I still got the work done. And the tears, well I think they were cathartic this time. Bodily awareness made clear once again how much I yearn for patience and equanimity and wisdom, how painful it can be to trip over myself in the development of healthy determination. Life hurts enough lately that suffering is clear, and I know that a step to a different perspective makes living with joy and peace, even in the midst of suffering, possible. But sometimes that step feels impossible. It was the sweet promises in the songs that broke open my heart. The reminder of moments when I've touched the kind of patience and equanimity, wisdom and determination that are possible and integral to the path. But the peace of mindful work was lost that day.
That's what came to mind with the second experience which was seeing a poster on Face Book of someone washing windows without and then with music. Dragging sullenly through the task as opposed to moving with energy. This triggered a memory. My husband used to vacuum to Queen or The Who in the wee hours of the morning when we were first together and still childless. The music rocked our little rented home, some distance from any close neighbors, in the hamlet of Nacmine, and blotted out the mundane nature of his work. He danced his way through to the next thing on the list.
I'm back to choosing silence. I'll listen to Eve again. Her songs move me, as music is meant to do. But I don't want to treat them as background, like the radio tunes in the supermarket. I want to give them and my bodily responses a lot of attention. And I want to give attention to my household tasks as well. Distracted sink scrubbing is not immediately and obviously dangerous, like distracted driving, perhaps, but it feels like a disservice to my intention to live mindfully.
Coming out of the garage last week, my hubby happened to look up and made a troublesome discovery: a quite large and active hornets' nest hanging from the eaves. Oh dear!
Now in the past, dealing with this problem would fall inside my husband's domain. He's always been the handyman and maintenance guy in the close to 35 years we've been together. I've been planning consultant, assistant or emergency back up. Final decisions, therefore, were generally his, even if they sometimes fell contrary to my views. Wasp nests and ant invasions...well, there are sprays for that.
So, the hornets.... Because of my Buddhist views I tend not to readily turn to the option of extermination. May all beings be well and happy, even the little creepy crawly ones, or flying critters like mosquitoes and bees and hornets. But in our home, as my husband struggles with his debilitating illness, I take on more of the things he used to do and he becomes planning consultant, a role reversal we're coming to terms with as the months pass. He's finding it easier to let go; I'm finding I'm more courageous about what I'll take on. But this problem went beyond courage about my physical ability to do what was required.
We had spray in the garage. Although I'm allergic to wasp/hornet stings, I have an epi-pen for emergencies, and boots and scarves and coveralls to limit their access if I'm invading their territory.
So whose territory was this, anyway? Our garage, OK. That's one view. Nature in general is their purview. And I try to live by a vow of harmlessness.
Harmlessness. It's not such a simple thing to actualize in life. But it is a true aspiration. I've had interesting discussions with many friends on the general problem of insects. Mostly I try to live with them. We had a resident spider in our bathroom for a number of years. Don't know where he finally moved on to. A solitary ant or beetle or such is pretty easily transported outside. Flies can be shooed out doors or windows with some persistence. Citronella or Off keep mosquitoes at bay and they usually respond to brushing away even if they circle back. I know I kill insects on my car windshield and step on them in the grass. There are hundreds of ways, I imagine, that I take small lives every day. It's intentionality that I'm talking about. I intend no harm. The acts are not deliberate aggression.
Spraying this hornets' nest would be. I remembered a story of a monastery where hornets built a nest overhead of the entrance to a building. Eventually the Abbott of the monastery himself determined to take on the bad kamma of destroying the nest. I spent some time in reflection. Sooner or later, the hornets would feel invaded as we moved in and out of and around the garage. Our cat's home, his private condo, was almost directly beneath the nest. Vague memories of seeing videos of moving nests and fantastical schemes I had about how to do this seemed impractical, impossible alone, and probably dangerous for all participants.
I settled for this: Sitting, I chanted for the well-being of these small creatures. I wished well for them in their continuing journey in Samsara. Then after dark, when they were quiet, I pulled on the coveralls and boots, wrapped a scarf around my neck, made sure my epi-pen was handy and shook the spray can to ready it. It had a powerful stream and the act itself took only moments. But I did not want to trivialize the choice I'd made or the small bodies that I could see piled in the nest opening in the morning. I have been sending metta to those I harmed and to my own wounded self since. These little lives invade my dreams so I know I am still filled with regret.
I don't know what the “right” action was in this case. I know that I acted in the way I felt I needed to for the safety of other creatures and humans in the area, but against my heart's wishes for non-harming. It wasn't only about some flying insects. It was about choosing to take life. I know though that self-harm results when I fall into another hornet's nest, the nest of guilt, so I'll hold to the hand of metta and goodwill until that sting lessens. With my intention for harmlessness no less strong than before, I will soon be able to safely back away.
Life is especially full these days and time for “me” isn't easy to come by. When I feel the tickling of ego's demands, I come back to some simple and effective methods related to metta or loving kindness practice but that also inevitably incorporate reminders of anatta, the not-self that is so often obscured by my busy self-creating.
It's immediately effective for me when “self” wiggles and pinches, to simply change my perspective. Ignoring the committee voices in my head that tell me my plans and activities are so important, I step across the imaginary gulf between myself and other. In any interaction, I imagine the need or desire that is pressing for the other? Putting on, for a moment, the skin of the “other” turns priorities upside down. Not, then, my need to get to my computer and work waiting, but my husband's need for assistance with an awkward task, my son's wish for a snack, my guest's desire to talk awhile, the telephone solicitor's need to make a certain number of sales, the dog's need for a walk, the cat's for a cuddle. I don't mean to imply that all other needs and desires come before my own. But this process, this experiment with a change of point of view reminds me that we are, all of us, beings with needs and desires. It tempers a response of impatience or irritation. It reminds me that this “personal” need I find so pressing is just one in an ocean of many, that I am one in an ocean of many.
This often opens the necessary space for reflection. It may mean I respond with more kindness even if I continue on my way to the computer, or, quite often it may mean that I see that my sense of urgency about my own need is my own creation. And suddenly I am drawn happily into helping with the awkward task, preparing a snack, taking part in a conversation, cuddling the cat or walking the dog...and at least listening to the full spiel of the voice on the phone and politely declining, rather than responding gruffly and hanging up.
Metta practice is about goodwill and harmlessness. But it is not just a gift we give to others. Not some magnanimous act, like a prince on parade leaning down to sprinkle coins among the populace. Rather it is a reframing of perception, opening the heart to all beings, acknowledging the value of all beings, and finding level ground. It is not even the prince climbing down off his horse. It is the realization that the horse and the crown, and the coins were all illusion. That in opening this heart, I include everyone, even this deluded and imaginary separate and defined self. And the result is joy.
I can honestly say that when I have engaged in this practice of reflection and then found myself choosing the need of another over my own, I have never been sorry. It has always resulted in more ease and happiness for me. I have, however, chosen the need of another over my own in a willful and grudging way, locked into my own perspective all the while, and been grumpy and miserable as a result. It's not, then, what I choose to do, but how I come to the choice to do it. The framework, the open-heartedness of metta makes all the difference.
The stories our committee of voices tells us about the importance of our activities, of our needs and desires, are persuasive. And habitually we listen to them. This is, after all, how we get things done, meet our goals, look after ourselves. There are many ways of practicing metta, and when they are done sincerely and effectively, they all turn down the volume of these demanding voices, which is, in itself, a blessing and relief. This particular practice of entering the mindspace of another, spins us around in a way that can be a little dizzying at first in its unfamiliarity, but it opens our perceptions in new ways. We might even reevaluate some of the goals that drive us. We might realize that we sometimes mistakenly have been explaining greed as self care, or resentment as justified. Maybe. Or we might just find a sweet moment of joy. That seems a reward worth the effort.
Last night before sleeping I continued to read A Gift From the Sea, a lovely “meditation” written by a woman on vacation from her life as mother and wife. A central image she uses rang so true for me: the woman needing to the the “still centre”. Of the home, of the family, I think she means, writing this in 1955. She describes a wheel and the still hub. But I see these as descriptive of a single life, the woman's life. All the myriad activities in the outer rim pulling her off balance. Anne Morrow Lindberg, the author, observes that so often we put our energies into those rim activities instead of being still. She has such insightful things to say about the value of being alone and how traditionally a woman's role allowed for that, as well as for creativity through baking and sewing and teaching the children. Yet now, and she was speaking of a time when this was new, we let convenience items and machines catch all this up and we fill the space with chauffeuring and shopping and trivialities. She's not arguing for a return to the way it was, but for an awareness of how we use new freedoms. In the new millennium, with freedom from so much manual labor for so many, we've only spun the world a little faster, added spokes to the wheel with technologies.
And then I think of a friend's comment yesterday that she'd like to just read and study and meditate and how often I've felt those are my own true callings...yet these are generally viewed as trivial in the light of action and “productive contribution.” Are we letting the center be lost in our outer focus? For years now I've been stumbling along, trying to get this right again. To learn to be still. To stop focusing on production and activity. To be the still centre. It's hard work changing a lifetime of conditioning. I see how I devalued my own stay-at-home mother's role and modeled myself on my father. And I'd like to be able to tell her I'm beginning to be able to see this differently.
From a friend's unexpected death recently rises another great wave of cause and effect. Here in my life, this event makes me aware of the choices we make, the precarious preciousness of each day, each hour. Mindfulness is a kind of magic that allows time to accommodate all without a sense of panic or rush. Remembering how when I immerse in the moment nearly any task is joyful...marking, cleaning, sorting...not just baking, writing, reading, walking. If I'm there...remembering where I am, working to be present, then I live the moments of my life and don't lose them to wanting to be elsewhere. What fills my own life are activities I've chosen and people dear to me. Do I need a separate place, a vacation like the one Anne Morrow Lindbergh took, to relocate this still centre, or can I find it in the midst of this?
If my parents were alive, I'd call them this morning to chat. Take time I didn't always take. I miss them. And love them. There is an impulse now to draw in those I love, even those gone from me. Although tired, I am shot through with a kind of twanging energy as well. So much living to do. Yet I feel patience and awareness, not always within reach, are possible in each undertaking right now.
Easy to see how others add stress to their lives with their choices. But we can be blind here, caught in the spin of the wheel itself. I try to look at my own life to see where I have made choices that do this. Commitments that mean stress and worry. Recognizing the need to commit to space to be still.
So this morning, vowing to make time for quiet contemplation...lighting a special candle Mom gave me the last Christmas of her life. Morning light is murky. I play Gregorian chants that are set against the barking of one lonesome dog I'll soon go out to. His doggy companions aren't enough and he's only content when people are around, a mirror to the busyness of bustle so many people choose. I send him loving thoughts. Write a little. Sit a little. Anchor in to keep a still, clear view.
Outside my window the wide springy branches of a spruce tree bounce and jostle in the wind. From time to time this afternoon rain has fallen as well. Inside, I'm warm and dry, steeped in the silence of my home such that only the click of my fingers on the keyboard, and occasionally the shuffle of my husband's feet moving in the kitchen fall on my ears, always against the low buzzing white-noise of computer and appliances.
I've been wondering why I think sometimes that I need a retreat. My home is often quieter than the monastery. But in the midst of the quiet and the yearning that can come into it (for something else, for retreat) I'm learning about preferences.
Examine what arises, teachers say. There's a space of silence and peace arises, but wishing and yearning arrive too. And where do these lead? The peace is good. But something about it draws out the wishing...for escape from the conditions of the way things are. Today I listened to a teacher who talked about a greater ability to be in the world as it is that grows from practice. So I back up here. What is at the root of the yearning? Clinging. Holding onto the way things are when they momentarily reflect the way I want them to be. This sense of quiet and safety and open space then. That is my preference. And so, the seed of unease, disquiet inside, the opposite of what I want, is created by that preference itself.
I'm sipping green tea. Pausing often here. Looking inward. Ajahn Sucitto, in a book of his that I'm reading, talks about understanding future and past as being only “penciled in”, not given substance in the moment. The memory, the plan, the wish lifts itself into the moment via the mind in the same way that the shushing of feet on the floor, the tapping of fingers on the keys, lift into this moment via the ears. The tang of tea on the tongue, pressure of back into the chair, itch of the mosquito bite on my ankle. Not a full blown reenactment or creation, but suggestions that touch mind and fall again. When I see this penciled notation of yearning for what it is, nothing there has the capacity to drag me in. It's ephemeral, fleeting and harmless. When I forget...and lean into this, the pencil lead breaks through and mars the paper, a preference is created whole and dark, a vessel substantial and deep enough to fill with discontent and lack.
So these sweet moments of safety and quiet can be a gift. Or they can, instead, give rise to unhappiness. It depends on my vigilance in keeping watch, and intention to keep the mind open and not clenched around any one thing that lifts from the array of what consciousness touches. It depends on allowing the natural flow of time and the stream of experience, relaxing in the freefall.
A retreat would be nice. A space where conditions are more controlled and directed toward cultivation of a quiet mind. But quiet mind arises here and now as well. When conditions are right. Right effort takes me in the direction of contributing more often to more conducive conditions, while maintaining greater awareness of the possibilities that arise when this is so.
I am grateful right now for two teachers who live with me. Both have four legs; one has serious brown eyes, the softest curly hair imaginable, a playful nature and demanding attitude; the other is given to complaining, fluctuates between deep affection and snotty aggression, seeks my lap any time I sit in his presence, and can be the epitome of laziness. My dog and my cat, obviously. Pets? Well, maybe. Teachers, definitely.
We may think when we take on the care of a dog or cat or some other creature that we're making a choice about ownership, that something living belongs to us. Maybe we think we're purchasing love or companionship or loyalty. But what becomes apparent in a short while, is that we've chosen to live in the presence of a being who is capable of living in the moment much more readily than we are. A life coach who takes up residence on our couch.
Living in the moment is not equivalent to living mindfully in the moment, so I'm not saying animals don't have an agenda. They know what they want and are quite capable of learning how to get it, whether it takes climbing, opening, pushing, and other physical action, or the more subtle skills of manipulation...winding around our legs when we've been busily ignoring them, staring soulfully into our eyes when we are eating something delicious. So it's not a matter of learning to live like a cat or a dog. But living with them, if we're observant, we learn both how to behave and how not to.
When a dog goes for a walk it's not about getting somewhere. It's about the looking and the hearing, and mostly about the sniffing. A dog takes time to explore and is not a slave to the clock. A dog knows about the heart. I've never shared time with one that didn't seem sensitive to my moods and bouts of blues. Whether it was pressing a little closer or licking my hand or nuzzling into my shoulder or under my arm, they've found ways to say “I'm here for you.”
But dogs can also be territorial and they are not reserved about claiming “this is mine”. In the raised neck hairs, exposed teeth and throaty growls we see how this kind of behavior transforms our darlings. It isn't pretty. It's not pretty when we give in to this primal response either.
A cat generally ignores the opinions of others. He knows when doing nothing is a good choice. But when a cat follows its cat-nature, he is capable of treating other living things as objects, playing with the mouse, not just hunting to eat, draping itself across your computer keyboard regardless of your efforts to shoo him away.
These animal beings behave in direct response to their desires and aversions. There is no window of consideration, no choice of this or that. And when I watch them, I see a reflection of how I behave when I give up my human capacity for reflection...the pause between what I want and how I act. I learn to watch my own motivations more carefully. If I observe these furry life coaches, there's a possibility I will learn which impulses to act on, and which to overcome.
Be in less of a hurry. Be there for those needing comfort. Be less territorial, and less prone to aggression, don't allow the opinions of others to hold too much sway but know their value as living beings and don't treat them as objects, or “extras” in my own life drama. Be aware of my motivations. Choose with wisdom. Treat others with kindness and allow them their dignity, including the coach on the couch.
Yesterday in the afternoon, in a lull between sporadic rain showers, we sat for awhile in the bright sun in our yard. It was late enough in the day that the busy sounds of mowers and chain saws and traffic on the road were absent. We live far enough out not to hear the reverberations of the celebratory music at Party in the Park. The air was filled with sunlight and birdsong. Happiness coming in by the sense doors...warmth and light and lilting song. A deep gratitude arose in my heart, often sore and a bit tender these days. What was especially lovely was that this gratitude was not tinged by any melancholy. For a moment, a sensory based facsimile of Nibbana.
Just sitting, body moving with the breath, absorbing warmth, allowing notes to fall on open ears, breeze on my skin and stones beneath my feet stirring tactile sensation; this impermanent moment was enough. Into the space my husband let fall a question: “What do you think it would take for you to retire?”
Sometimes I am pretty busy these days with writing in my little study room, not for solid blocks of hours I used to carve out, but for intermittent spaces of time throughout each day at odd hours, whenever it's possible. And sometimes I am busy with teaching and meetings and the like that take me out of our home for various reasons, mostly for just an hour or two here and there, but nearly every day at times. And sometimes I am just busy with the work of a household...cooking, shopping, paying bills, cleaning, making calls, that long list that could fill pages. We also have, right now, the shared necessity of dealing with his illness and his treatment, whatever arises day to day. So what does “retiring” mean in this context?
It means, I think, a state of mind. Not to allow these various tasks, paid or unpaid, to become “work”. To do what needs doing, moment to moment, and not to take up the mental load of listing and anxiety. I could pare down the to-do list, I've done it before, but if I am not successful in putting down the mental loads that go with what is left, nothing really changes. Contrary wise, I can maintain my current commitments and open up mental space around them and feel the cool sense of ease which is, I think, what many people hope for when they express a longing to retire.
There are, of course, things I can do to make that heart-mind space more accessible. Own less, simplify my needs. But letting go of expectations, a wish list, the need for approval from others, these are internal moves, this is mental space clearing. Not as easy as resigning a position or selling a house or stepping off a committee.
Retiring means stepping back. For a longtime Buddhist practitioner this rings bells with the language of abandonment, or letting go, or disentangling. In our society it usually just means quitting your job. This popular definition can lead us to believe that “just doing what we want to do” equals the freedom we've desired. I think many people find this isn't so when they try it. It's either empty and meaningless play or maybe new burdens of recreational residences, financial and organizational strain of travel, boats and toys to maintain. It's important, I think, to remember that freedom, a felt sense of freedom, is not the presence or absence of things or duties in our life, but our attitude toward what life holds.
My husband's question led to contemplation. What I'm reflecting on is how I hold the things I do, the things I have. Re-visiting my intention to hold loosely, not to allow the small self to indulge its greed for achievement and approval, but to find the more enduring joy that is there when I open and trust the moment, letting fall through open hands what cannot really be held anyway.
The great difficulty with seeing clearly is that we are embedded, permeated, marinated in our conditioning and our habits. When life runs along as it mostly has always done, we don't have occasion to see where our prickly points are, where we've laid claim and built walls. The changing conditions of life, however, might reveal where these boundaries have been drawn.
At various times in my life, something has happened that shone a bright light into these corners. Recently there was one more. The way I organize things, the day's schedule, were both upset and altered by an influx of visitors. Welcome and much loved visitors. Visitors helping in all kinds of ways for which I was and am extremely grateful. However, side by side with these positive emotions came a whole rabble of negative ones. It was instructive to notice what I'd claimed as “mine” without being even aware of it. I wasn't aware of it, of course, because nothing upset my routines and expectations...until something did. It's a bit like seeing everything fuzzily until you get new glasses. You aren't aware of the sharp outlines of things until the new condition, the new lenses, are in place. Then you know what you've missed. So it was that sharing my home space and home duties and daily activities with these others, made me aware of how “I” have spread out to become all of this.
And there's the core of it. My kitchen, my cupboards, my rooms, my home. We all feel this. And so long as we can move along handling things as we like, there's no problem. But when someone rearranges, or takes over, the self makes a problem. It's not a big problem. I don't mean to say that I felt invaded or angry or resentful. But there were prickly edges of irritation that took me by surprise. My mental space became a bit uncomfortable.
Right mindfulness means not only noticing this, but noticing how this reflexive response triggered suffering. How it took the edge off pleasant moments. How it opened the flood gates to secondary negative feelings like guilt and shame. How this cascade of aversive emotions could arise like a wave from a cup placed in the wrong cupboard. Wow!
I've been thinking about a world in which so many have trouble getting along. Members of families, neighbors, provinces side by side, countries with shared borders, people who feel they have equal claim to something whether it's physical or ideological. In my recent mundane and ordinary experience, even with the intention to be mindful, even successfully observing the little prickles, “the psychic irritants” as my teacher calls them, I was aware that effort was required to move the mind to a more positive place. To shift the thought stream from irritation, to gratitude. From shame and guilt, to self-forgiveness and compassion. And in the world, most of us are not making this consistent effort. We are not aware of how our conditioning and our unconscious claiming colors our responses. We see only that what is “ours” is threatened: our livelihood, our peace and quiet, our way of life. Generally, the rising up of this kind of protectionism and self-righteous anger is even considered justified.
My visitors have gone home. The space and pace I claim as mine have settled into whatever I want them to be again, and so discomfort no longer arises to provoke a careful examination. It's easy to think I don't make claims, except that I remember.
Sati, the Pali word for mindfulness, is sometimes translated as remembering. Remembering to look and to investigate, remembering also what experience has taught us. Unusual circumstances are a blessing because they may bring unusual mental responses. What is sleeping but present is revealed. And the work of deliberately changing responses, deliberately responding in a way other than that which is reflexive, begins. Practice continues.