“Being mindful of the fires of dukkha will burn up any illusion you have of achieving lasting happiness through trying to get things to be just as you want them. This is a necessary, vital insight.” Phillip Moffitt
“We must also remember that heart and mind need to work together. If we understand something rationally but don’t love it, there is no completeness for us, no fulfillment. If we love something but don’t understand it, the same applies… In the beginning our understanding will only be partial, so our love has to be even greater.” Ayya Khema
At the gas station this sunny spring morning, all went well. As I replaced the nozzle and prepared to leave, the machine popped up one more instruction: “Have a nice day!” As I drove off, my mind began to puzzle: what, exactly, did that machine mean? What is this “nice day” that the machine so earnestly wished me?
So I watched. As I ran errands and stopped to pick up a prescription for my new and extremely unpleasant food allergy; as I stood in line at the grocery store behind the unhappy woman who wanted three, not two of the items on special, I wondered. Later as I cruised my garden, bursting with new life amid thousands of dying daffodils, as I heard news of a dear friend, newly enrolled in Hospice, as I heard about politics and refugees and new viruses on the evening news; as I met with other old friends at our local meditation group and received the blessing of Susan’s wonderful Dharma talk: is this “having a nice day?”
Does the machine wish me only pleasant events? What would those be? Daffodils that bloom and never die? A body that never objects to toxins? Only sunny days? No lines at the grocery store? A great Dharma talk that never ends? Only happy news? Happy for whom?
It was Siddhartha’s great inquiry. He had a pretty happy and comfortable life; good food, a secure and happy family, a loved wife who shared his spiritual interests, pleasant surroundings and activities, relative peace in his world. He saw, though, the tendency of the mind to try to hang on to these things: by constant struggle to try to perfect or increase or simply sustain them. He saw the mind’s constant struggle to try to avoid the inevitable unpleasant – or at least, to ignore it. So, while he delighted in all of the goodness in his life, he also saw limitation. He saw the sufferings of struggle and wanting. So he began his famous inquiry: what is a happiness that knows no bounds? What, in its deepest meaning, is “a nice day?” And how are we to find unshakable happiness in the actual days, the actual lives (and deaths) that we are given? He practiced and he finally was able to see. He became awake to a deeper possibility for a human life. As “the Awakened One” setting out to teach after his enlightenment, he realized that the insights he had discovered required one to carefully – and kindly – investigate beyond the surface appearances of life. He saw the challenge of this:
One of the first, challenging, paradoxical, and not-so-obvious teachings that have come to us from the Buddha is that, to have a good day, I should first of all know suffering by bringing my awareness directly – personally, immediately, deeply, experientially – to it as a pervasive companion in my life. To go beyond concept directly into the felt experience in the body and in the emotions and in the mind. What?!?! This?? This is the beginning of what constitutes a “nice day?? Surely this is not what my gas-station machine meant!
No, it probably isn’t. This guidance is quite different from what I usually encounter in my own ordinary thinking where suffering is seen as a bad thing, caused mainly by factors external to myself, and avoidable if I am good enough or smart enough or try hard enough or have enough money and access to the pleasant things in life. The Buddha invites me to discover suffering as an inside job, arising in my own mental experience of – my own mental and emotional resistance to – the ordinary pains, impermanence and ultimate uncontrollability of my own and others’ lives.
It’s not my fault. There’s no one to blame. It’s how the human life and the human mind works. The Buddha invites me to investigate the mind’s crucial contribution to suffering and, through this inquiry, to come to an awareness in which true freedom becomes possible. “Negative emotions,” from this perspective, are simply those mental states that either deepen or sustain or relentlessly recreate the ordinary pains of my life. In one sutta, the Buddha calls unwholesome mental states “afflictions.” I like that word. It seems to resonate with my experience. “Affliction:” like having an itch, a mosquito bite, that doesn’t go away no matter how much I scratch. To notice suffering is to notice affliction is to notice the doorway to freedom. If there is something I am doing with the mind that leads to affliction, there is the possibility that I can change my relationship to the mind in some way to allow something deeper and more powerfully sustaining to emerge beyond my relentless hunting for the ephemeral pleasant.
Interesting. Challenging, but interesting.
I’ve just finished reading an inspiring book, Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption by Bryan Stephenson, a fearless advocate for American justice in impossible circumstances. Like the Buddha, he has discovered the mercy – and the gifts for himself – in getting close to the pains and confusions of the personal and societal wounds of our American justice system. He writes about the suffering that is perpetuated when we allow fear, anger, and distance to shape our minds and our individual and collective behaviors. Bryan writes of a moment of personal collapse and of an insight that enabled him to go on:
“My years of struggling against inequality, abusive power, poverty, oppression, and injustice…finally revealed something to me about myself. Being close to suffering, death, executions, and cruel punishments didn’t just illuminate the brokenness of others; in a moment of anguish and heartbreak, it also exposed my own brokenness. You can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy (for my client) …and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt— and have hurt others— are different…but our shared brokenness connect(s) us…We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity.”
Bryan writes about learning “to stop all the foolishness” about suffering as he became clear that “it was time to be brave.”
I has a perhaps similar experience as I accompanied my mother on her journey into and through the long injustice of dementia. I learned to allow my own suffering and confusion and then (sometimes) to release ideas and goals and to listen and wait. I learned the sweet joys of a shared peach ice cream or of holding hands while we snuggled and napped together on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I learned that I wasn’t wonder woman and I learned to open more deeply to receive the generosity of my dear brothers and friends who visited and fed and sang to her when my own well went dry. I learned with open-mouthed astonishment to delight in the mystery of lucid and Buddha-like insights that my mother and her friends offered at the most improbable of times. I learned the preciousness of small things. The time of her journey was difficult and hellish – and one of my life’s greatest gifts.
The Buddha invites each of us on these journeys. The first step is to notice. To notice the places of suffering and affliction and to be kind. To ourselves, first of all. Only then can we begin to see where we are caught and what might be needed and, in this, to discover a goodness in our days that is beyond our most wild dreams.
Peace is This Moment Without Judgment
Do you think peace requires an end to war?
Or tigers eating only vegetables?
Does peace require an absence from
your boss, your spouse, yourself? …
Do you think peace will come some other place than here?
Some other time than Now?
In some other heart than yours?
Peace is this moment without judgment.
That is all. This moment in the Heart-space
where everything that is, is welcome.
Peace is this moment without thinking
that it should be some other way,
that you should feel some other thing,
that your life should unfold according to your plans.
Peace is this moment without judgment,
this moment in the heart-space where
everything that is, is welcome.