We are so close to our thoughts, including the negative ones, that we frequently simply accept them as the truth, and in that way allow them determine how we act in certain moments. Practice allows us to not give as much substance to our thoughts and to see them simply as one of the many energies that pass through the mind. It is said that the Dalai Lama was amazed to hear that people in the West suffered from poor self-esteem or self-hatred, and replied that such a stance was not one he was familiar with. In this light it is interesting to see how this meditation teacher describes self- critical or attributional thoughts as “lazy”, hinting that there are better ways of working with the mind:
There is the laziness of feeling ourselves unworthy, the laziness of thinking, “I can’t do this. Other people can meditate, other people can be mindful, other people can be kind and generous in difficult situations, but I can’t, because I’m too stupid.” Or, alternatively, “I’m always an angry person;” “I’ve never been able to do anything in my life;” “I’ve always failed, and I’m bound to fail.”
Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Had a conversation this week which reminded me that not everything works out the way that we anticipate or wish. Life rarely proceeds so smoothly that we maintain the pure clarity or carefree existence which we glimpsed at times when we were children. It is much more complex – a succession of ebbs and flows, of good moments and bad, of integrity and mixed motives. In later life, the challenge is more that we reconcile the opposites that have emerged within us – the Shadow and the light, the steps forward with the setbacks – and transform them into a wholeness which allows us fully move on in the project which is our life. At times, however, it can be hard to see a positive direction in where we currently are, as the maps and guidelines which had guided us up to now seem hopelessly inadequate. A new paradigm is needed. We are forced to acknowledge the mystery and work out a path on our own, moving into a larger life and not the one we unconsciously thought had been mapped out for us.
Everyone should be born into this world happy
and loving everything.
But in truth it rarely works that way.
For myself, I have spent my life clamoring toward it.
Halleluiah, anyway I’m not where I started!
And have you too been trudging like that, sometimes
almost forgetting how wondrous the world is
and how miraculously kind some people can be?
And have you too decided that probably nothing important
is ever easy?
Not, say, for the first sixty years.
Halleluiah, I’m sixty now, and even a little more,
and some days I feel I have wings.
Mary Oliver, Halleluiah.
Our mind is often very self-critical. and replays the faults and shortcomings of our life, over and over again, like a broken record. To work with this, some meditation traditions emphasize that we focus instead on our deep underlying goodness – our true nature – and this focus allows a practical confidence to grow, which counteracts the critical voice. We can see this approach – which shifts the orientation in our life – in the following quotation from the great Zen teacher, Dogen. It helps balance the suggestion that our life would be better if only this or that happened, or indeed, if this or that had not happened to us. It also recalls what is said in the first week of the MBSR programme: No matter where you are in you life, or what difficulties you are going through, there is more right with you than wrong. It is grounded in the belief that everyone, in their very essence, is in one sense fully complete. There is a gentle confidence in this perspective – no one will fall short and all things will come together to achieve that. The practice is to come to know this deeply, by direct experience.
No creature ever falls short of its own completion.
Wherever it stands it does not fail to cover the ground
It is no easy matter to stop short at just seeing. Mahasi Sayadaw.
These days a lot of us are travelling, or on holidays, and come face to face with new environments or with sights of great beauty. Breaks are good as they allow us discover a new gear between the full fast-forward at which life is normally conducted and full reverse – a kind of slowed-down, steady pace of reflection and ease. However, sometimes the travel and the changes involved, or even seeing places of great beauty can trigger sadness or lead us into a sense of questioning or comparing the current state of our life and its history to date. This is maybe not surprising since all travel is perhaps related to our inner sense of “home”. So we notice that it is sometimes hard to just see things directly, without them setting off the continual chatter and commentary that accompanies our daily experience. I once read Thomas Merton where he stated that he longed for some moments in which he was able to live a life without always examining it. It seems to me that we are all striving for that inner peace that allows us inhabit our lives without regret. To this end, the ascetic Bahiya came to the Buddha with the simple request – one which we all share – to teach him the path that leads to happiness. The Buddha’s reply was incredibly simple and seems in some ways uninspiring : “When seeing, just see; when hearing, just hear; when knowing, just know; and when thinking, just think.”. However, there is a great practical wisdom here that both points to the end result and is at the same time the method that leads to contentment. Real happiness can be learnt. It is related to the peace we get when we reduce the inner questioning and critical commentary, allowing us pay complete attention to whatever is before us, and thus live each moment fully, for what it is.
I should be content
to look at a mountain
for what it is
and not as a comment
on my life.
No matter how much we want it to be otherwise, the truth is that we are not in control of the unfolding of our experiences. Despite our search for stability and prediction, for the center of our lives to hold firm, it never does. Life is wilder than that – a flow that we cannot command or stave off. We can affect and influence and impact what happens, but we can’t wake up in the morning and decide what we will encounter and feel and be confronted by during the day.
Sharon Salzberg, Faith.
Have posted this poem before, but I saw this bird – the American Northern Cardinal – for the first time last week. Although, unlike Mary Oliver, I did not hear it sing, its bright colour still taught something about life, the heart, and the relationship between the body and the mind .
And this was my true task, to be the
music of the body.
Do you understand? for truly the body needs a song, a spirit, a soul.
And no less, to make this work,
the soul has need of a body,
and I am both of the earth and I am of the inexplicable beauty of heaven where I fly so easily, so welcome, yes,
and this is why I have been sent,
to teach this to your heart.
Mary Oliver, Red Bird