Prickly Mind (written 2018)
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.