It was an ordinary day in the Bali coffee shop.
The hot Indonesian sun poured through the window; traffic roared and screeched in the narrow street outside; patrons called to each other in a dozen languages; John Denver sang of West Virginia heaven on the music loop. I calmly sipped my morning brew.
The three men in black entered in a silent line. Two of them disappeared into a back room. One quietly sat down at the table directly across from me.
He rested his machine gun on the table, casually pointing it in my direction.
In an instant, eyes saw, ears heard, the mind began assessing: Oh my! What is this? Good or bad? Safe or not? Action needed? Like an efficient bodyguard, the brain spewed instant messages to try to make me safe. A few of the mental flashes were formed from present context; most were the conscious and unconscious result of a lifetime of conditioning.
In many ways, it was well and good that the human organism has evolved to do this. Our animal ancestors who were slow with these exquisitely sensitive skills didn’t survive the perils of daily life in the wild. Nevertheless, the modern brain, determined to avoid the unfamiliar and determined to make me “safe” has no shame about being not here and, furthermore – quite enthusiastically – wrong.
I can be pulled into reactivity, into drama, into a cascade of not-so-wholesome responses if I reflexively believe and then hang onto every assessment, opinion and conclusion that the brain offers. From infinite data, the brain, conditioned by past experience, selects just a few bits that seem immediately worthy of attention. From those it adds meaning, assumptions and conclusions. Unquestioned, these become beliefs, bolstered by ongoing narratives that become repeated both internally and externally. There is action, which, unexamined, further cements this whole process ever more deeply into a kind of knowledge regarding “what’s true.”
The Buddha called this the arising of a problematic clinging to views which, if not met with wisdom and clear seeing, can pull us into a relentless cycle of personal and collective reactivity and unwholesome action. I see this in all sorts of tragic ways reported in the daily news, with its reports of white neighbors who call police in response to others who are “living while black.” Minds, conditioned by centuries of trauma, fear and division, see bits of data and then quickly react. We can each understand with compassion what happens “out there” as we watch that process relentlessly unfold in our very own minds.
Wander the world offending people.” SN 4:9
The challenge is to slow down and cultivate skill in attending more fully to the direct and embodied experience of what is arising in the present moment. This is what we learn in the “practice” part of meditation and one important way in which meditation is seen as an antidote to suffering. In meditation we develop skill at simply knowing data as it arises in the body/mind and in choosing where (and how) to place our attention: back at the beginning of the sequence, with a clear and curious and kind and compassionate knowing of the actual (and unique) sensory experience.
Internally, this mindfulness invites a simple moment by moment knowing of sensation: the hardness or softness, fluidity or dryness, coolness or warmth, movement, stillness or space. We let go of clinging to any subset of these or even to the conclusions that the mind may want to draw. Externally, we take in more and more data, with confidence that all experience is workable and that even unpleasantness or difficulty can be a source of wonder and learning. This mindfulness invites a release of a desperate reach for certainty and security and a bringing of attention more widely, both to context and to a more full range of immediate experience. We learn to not be limited by a helpless clinging to the instant conclusions that the brain may want to impose.
As I practiced in the coffee shop, there was internal awareness of an alert and focused mind. Physically, eyes widened; the heart rate and breathing quickened; posture stiffened and muscles tensed. There was confusion and uncertainty. Opening beyond this body, more was known. I saw that others’ business was carrying on as usual: for them, nothing exceptional seemed to be happening. My new machine-gun toting neighbor took out his smart phone and casually began to scroll. This body and mind relaxed. Soon his other friends emerged, carrying a bag that I now guessed to be the day’s receipts. They all wandered out. Ah, I thought: the Indonesian version of Brinks Armed Security. In this case, all was well.
The experience gave me a wonderful window into how the mind works and how it can quickly engage us in suffering and troublesome speech and action. It was a lesson in slowing down, in noticing, in letting go of clinging to immediate perception and ideas. Freedom.