Working With Mantras (written 2016)
I have a habit of keeping index cards near the small altar in my sitting space. I like to write on them short teachings or mantras, or sometimes lists that are helpful in my practice. What I've found is that a particular short teaching will speak to me very strongly for a time, addressing what is going on for me in my life, and being a great aid in working through what life is offering. Then, inevitably, another teaching and/or another phase will take over in the constant change that is life, and I might almost forget the “mantra” that was so fruitful for a time. Paging through these cards periodically I have discovered so often that the path is a loop, or a series of loops, and I will find a time again when what was helpful once before is exactly what I needed reminding of. Lately an interesting coming together has occurred between a previous such “mantra” and a new one.
Some time back I began to work with the phrase “just what the body does”. This is a clear and gentle reminder that this body I think of as mine is a biological organism, subject to the laws of living things. That is, despite my efforts to keep it healthy, it will sometimes sicken; despite my efforts to keep youthful vigour and strength, it will inevitably age. And, hardest of all to accept perhaps, despite my inability to imagine my eventual death, the passing away of this body, this will be the case. Human beings have a strong sense of self. And because the body seems to serve and obey in so many ways, we come to think of it as ours and in some way under our control. Me, my, mine...the central error of ego, enters into our lives on many levels, but it is especially strong in the case of our physical bodies. And yet, it becomes clear on reflection, that the body is vulnerable in so many ways. And being subject to aging, illness and injury are “just what the body does”. This reflection may seem like mere words, but taken as a perspective to work with pain, with grey hair, with wrinkles and scars and limps and unwelcome diagnoses, then carried into meditation as a way of looking at what arises in the body, it can become a lens for truth. We do what we can do, eating in a healthy way, getting exercise that makes sense, not throwing ourselves into danger, but, in the end, the body will do what the body does. It is not a failing or a mistake to grow old nor to sicken. When the mind is still and calm and such a way of observing is used, there is peace with what is.
Yet, for some reason, perhaps because I'm a lover of words, and have an academic inclination, I never thought to apply this formula to the mind. Recently, reading a wise teacher's account of his own practice experience I came across the corollary that gave me pause: “just what the mind does”. The teacher was speaking of the experience we have all had if we have done any amount or kind of meditation. We place our attention on the meditation object and then in a little time or maybe after a good long while, we find that we are “thinking” of other things. We are feeling sleepy perhaps, or we are remembering the lyrics of a song, or we are wishing for the meditation time to go quickly, or we are unable to quit obsessing on an itch in the sole of our left foot. It could be anything. Teachers may give us a variety of instructions but generally it amounts to just noticing what has happened and coming back to the meditation object. Over time, however, we begin to think we are failing. Once again, caught in the central error of ego, we see the mind as me, my and mine. We fail to acknowledge that thinking is “just what the mind does”. When we notice this movement of the mind, it is nothing to be bothered by any more than the aging of the body, which we notice in the mirror, or the illness of the body, which medical tests reveal.
The secret then is no great secret. Everything unfolds according to its nature. Picking up mantras such as these may mean that we are able to observe without clinging to some illusory ideal, and may come back to the meditation object without aversion and judgment. In understanding “what the body does and what the mind does”, we relax into an acceptance that contrarily brings peace, and in the case of the mind, may even bring the stillness we were aiming for.