“Well, it is easy for me to go and be alone and be the fierce ascetic off in the forest. What is difficult is to be with other people, to learn how to spend time with others.”
“Practicing the Dhamma is not just being good at sitting with your eyes closed. It involves learning how to be skillful in everything you do.”
What a perfect time this is for practice. The world seems to be a mess. No matter your political persuasion, every day brings a new headline seemingly designed specifically to generate confusion, fear and anger, division, angst and heartburn. Accusations and counter-accusations, opinion and disbelief abound. My own mind often churns with “Yes, but” and “However…” as I fail in my attempts to discuss with relatives the day’s most pressing drama.
Dukkha. This is dukkha. We live nearly submerged in the first noble truth. What a perfect time for practice. We are called to bring much wisdom and discernment, though, in how we focus our attention and our energies, both in what we bring attention to and in how we bring that attention.
As a metaphor, I offer the story of a gift given to me years ago by my friend Monica. I had wanted an oriental carpet for my new office and I had been told that the Farmville store was the place to go. When I arrived, however, I was quickly overcome. The “store” was actually several huge warehouses spread over many rambling acres; they proudly carried “over a million carpets.” I wandered aimlessly among Persian carpets, Pakistan carpets, Indian carpets, Afghanistan carpets, Transitional carpets, hand-tufted, machine loomed, wool, cotton. While many were beautiful and interesting, lots and lots of carpet-data quickly filled my mind with an overwhelm of waaaay to much carpet information for this naïve consumer to process! I fled, not only confused and carpet-less, but with my mind and entire nervous system agitated and discordant. Dukkha. This, too, was dukkha.
Monica, a skilled interior designer, heard my story and took pity. She asked a number of artful questions and listened patiently. Her presence and care helped to calm me. She then took me – almost literally by the hand – back to Farmville. As we entered, she guided me through the seemingly infinite rooms and piles of carpets. “Don’t look at this,” “Don’t look at that,” “Don’t look at those,” she instructed over and over as we made our way deep into the bowels of the Farmville carpet universe. Finally, we stopped at a rack of twenty carpets. Twenty. She asked me to choose several that I liked. We laid them on the floor, then took the finalists outside to see them in natural light. In just a few minutes, I had a winner which I love to this day. Monica had helped me to narrow overwhelming data into an amount that was both a manageable quantity and that met my own actual need. Guided by her wisdom, care, discipline and focus, I was able to reach my goal.
These days, bombarded with the distractions of near-infinite warehouses full of “breaking news,” we need to take ourselves by the hand in similar ways. As in all of our practice, it is always a personal choice. On the one hand, we can, of course, be distracted by juicy stories and by our own immediate perceptions and agitated mind states. As with my carpet-wandering mind, this quality of attention brings with it a certain level of sensory satisfaction, even as – beyond a momentary pleasure – it contributes to a deepening of confusion and chronic stress. But if our goal and intention is a deeper kind of happiness than the simple pleasures of indulging our own immediate mental states, there is a call for a deeper and more disciplined kind of skill. Like the Buddha, living and teaching in the political turmoil of his own time, our own spiritual practice invites us to discover how to find that deeper happiness even as we remain awake and alive in this turbulent and suffering world.
We first need to listen patiently and carefully to our own deepest goal, to know it and know the taste of it in our minds and bodies. Over and over, Siddhartha did that. He had attained profound states of awareness and concentration, but still he relentlessly practiced. He stayed focused on his goal of complete freedom from the suffering caused by internal mind states that are tossed about by the world’s inconstancy, stress and life’s unfolding beyond one’s personal control.
Once we are clear on our own goal, we might – with equal curiosity and patience – inquire into where we are just now in relation to that goal. Sometimes we are so lost in reactivity – and so far away from happiness – that we find ourselves, in Marsha Linehan’s words. “trying to put up a tent in the middle of a hurricane.” Here the immediate challenge might be to step ourselves away from the stimulus for a bit in order to calm the aroused nervous system and to give the mind and body a chance to settle down. Being in nature can help with that, or music, or physical movement, or rest, or a cup of tea, or the calm presence of a wise and loving friend. Avoiding public or private discourse that is driven by the poisons of greed or hatred can offer a respite from unnecessary turmoil. All of this matters and each is a goodness.
The Buddha points to the limitations of these,however, not because they are wrong or less than desirable but because, no matter how perfect they are, they are incomplete. They are more like important sustenance for the journey than its end. With enough balance and stability of mindfulness and concentration, we can inquire more deeply into the ways that suffering is fabricated, not by external events, but by what we cling to in our own minds. The Buddha invites us to become aware of our perceptions, the verbal labels we apply to experience, and then to the narratives and stories that we expound about those perceptions. Clinging to these, he says, is the source of the suffering that leads to more suffering.
To return to my carpet metaphor, he invites me to see that there was, indeed, suffering not only in my confusion and overwhelm, but also in my addiction to too much sensory data, which, in turn fed my perceptions and narratives about what was possible. He invites me to notice that, while I had no control over the external conditions themselves, I did have much choice about how to proceed. I was in control of my own attention and my own mind state: whether or not I allowed that suffering to lead to the familiarity of more suffering or to choices and action that led a certain measure of (in that case, limited) freedom.
Our spiritual practice invites us to, over and over and over and over, remember our deepest goal and our most wise intention. This is not a mandate but an invitation; we can of course, always have lesser goals aimed at a bit of immediate happiness. I was free, indeed, to allow my attention to wander to every single beautiful or not-so-beautiful carpet in Farmville’s warehouses. Even on such a mundane level, however, I quickly came to see the drawback of that kind of attention: short term satisfaction of my curiosity that became a mental obscuration and an obstacle to my reaching my larger goal. It took a degree of wisdom and discipline – and a good bit of help from my wiser friend – to remain committed to my deeper goal.
So it is with our spiritual practice. Not every indulgence of reading the days’ news will help us to find greater freedom from suffering. Our practice invites us to notice that which, in our present experience, supports our deepest intention and which leads us at least somewhat closer to that deepest goal. It requires us to exercise wise and sometimes heroic effort which guides us in four skillful ways: to prevent the arising of unwholesome states of mind which deter calm and clarity, to abandon unwholesome states that already have arisen, to arouse not-yet arisen wholesome states and to maintain and nourish wholesome states that already have arisen, bringing them by attention and practice to full development.
The goal of complete happiness and freedom from suffering sounds lovely but it is not tidy, easy or even simple. It is in difficult times like these that we can receive the blessing of the realization that there is an urgent need for practice and that such practice is not for the faint of heart. We are asked to be rigorous in how we attend and breathe and think and act. We are invited to be kind and compassionate and patient when we lose our composure and find ourselves (and others) distracted and overwhelmed by what is not essential. We are asked to begin again and again to take ourselves in hand and to be fierce guardians of ourselves and to rigorously and continually weigh our attention, thought, speech and action with respect to its helpfulness in guiding us toward a responsiveness and action in a world that is grounded in wisdom, calm, clarity, compassion and ever greater freedom from suffering.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. People are going back and forth across the doorsill Rumi
and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study
and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
Where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill