“Our business in life is to become fluent with the life we are living.”
Musician John Cage
“Grace is the composure that comes naturally when your thoughts are no longer able to shift your mind away from the details of this moment.” Angel Kyoto Williams
Our spiritual practice invites us to discover fluency and grace in this life. This one. Not some other life, some other person’s life or some other version of my own life. This life. This moment. Becoming fluent, alive, responsive, loving. It really means learning to dwell in love with it all.
Years ago, attending one of my early Insight Dialogue retreats, I found myself partnered with the one person in the room that I had least wanted to practice with. Complete strangers to each other, I had nevertheless a mental basket full of perceptions, assumptions and stories about him. I knew that I didn’t like him, that there was nothing I wanted to learn in practicing with him, that this was not going to go well. Do you know the experience?
As we sat down together, I formed an intention to not battle with my perceptions and mental chatter and, at the same time to not allow myself to be controlled by them. The Insight Dialogue guidelines helped. I practiced with Pause, Relax/Allow, Open, Trust Emergence. I determined to Listen Deeply and to Speak any Truth that wanted to be spoken. We sat together and began. I don’t remember the content of the contemplation; it doesn’t matter. What I remember – and feel in my heart and my bones to this day – is that we, together, fell into a deep presence with one another. We fell, together, into love. It wasn’t personal.
We spoke and listened beyond our own individual selves and our personal quirks and histories. There was no separate self to explain or defend. It was truly a truly magical dip into the infinite, all the more exquisite because it was so clearly not about the details of the moment or our personal selves. It was truly a moment of grace, in which we touched, together, into pure awareness, what our Buddhist practice calls “the fundamental nature of mind.”
Constructive or wholesome emotions are those which both guide us toward and, in moments of grace, simply emerge from this deeply integrated state of awareness. Destructive emotion or unwholesome emotion refers to mind states that obscure this spacious awareness, that cause us to tense and hold and contract into a mind/body state that is, in poet David Whyte’s words “too small for us.” No, that’s not right. Destructive emotions are not that the basic mind states themselves are too small. Emotions are destructive when we identify with them, when we inhabit them and elaborate upon them and allow ourselves to be guided by them as more than the fluid, highly conditioned human experiences that they are. Emotions become destructive when they block our vision and cause us to imagine things to be true that are not true. Our suffering is a clue.
We suffer because we are contracting into a space that is too small. And because we have come to believe that this is who we are. The suffering is a clue that there is a mistake. Not that we are a mistake or that life is a mistake, but that our belief and reliance on our mind state as the last word is a mistake. Allowing ourselves to be guided by limited and partial knowledge, like when folks believed the world was flat and feared that they would fall off the end. Suffering arises when our mind states, our conditioned patterns, our identifications block us from the grace and radiance that is the nature of our fundamental being.
It sounds good, doesn’t it? Well, sort of. It can seem right until we read the day’s headlines about racism or Isis or this season’s political candidates. We can doubt our own capacity for grace when we get a phone call about the latest family crisis or as we watch the neighbor’s dog dig up our cherished flower bed. We can lose heart and despair when life seems too much, when it overwhelms our resources and we fall quickly into perception, stories and identification: “me and you, us and them, good and bad, right and wrong.” So our practice is to first see these places of suffering where we get stuck; to simply see them, not as some ultimate truth or reality, but as a potential doorway to our own larger reality.
Buddhist monk Ajahn Amaro describes his own experience of coming to, first, simply see. He tells a story about discovering his own mind states of anxiety and worry on a monastic tudong, an 830 mile walk from one English monastery to another. It was only in reading his journal several years later, he reports, that he realized how often he had referred to being afraid and, especially to worry. He notes that when he first wrote a book about his experiences on the journey, that mind state had not occurred to him as odd. His says that his new realization led him into a deeper awareness and a slow investigation of his own anxiety and of the ways that he lived with a conditioning that “if something existed, my default was, apparently, to worry about it.” For him, allowing himself to, first, simply see this – to come to know it – offered the beginnings of another journey, one of inquiry and practice as he investigated a pattern of suffering that, he came to realize, had become embedded as a child in his mind and heart.
So the invitation of our own practice is to see these troublesome mind states (and speech and behavior) as not so special, really. Though the details vary widely, for each of us born into this human life, this human body, there is dukkha, stress, suffering.
So first, we make contact with the simple truth of our actual experience. We then cultivate artistry and skill as we explore: What, of this is it wholesome to attend to? How do I pay attention? Where is peace? Therein lies the art and the very most personal nature of our practice, and about which I’ll write more. But first, we train ourselves to simply see, to know the experience of dukkha: our suffering when our world is too small for us. Only then are we invited to use the teachings and all sorts of skillful means to develop our own fluency with disturbing objects, with the difficult, even destructive emotions that arise for each of us on this human journey. We each must make this path our own, in every circumstance, as we discover over and over and over and over again our own path to the fluency and the grace that, universally and eternally, is the birthright of each one of us.
from “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte
The world was made to be free in.
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
from “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte