“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.” Rilke
“So that when I walk from here to the town square, I’ll notice the purple flowers that bloom along the way.” Anagarika Munindra, when asked why he meditated.
My Grandma had a way of being with joy in life no matter what the circumstance. She would pause from peeling yet another basket of apples or lift her arthritic fingers from kneading the weekly batch of homemade bread. “Ain’t life grand,” she would chuckle, without reference to anything in particular. Her mind and heart remained relentlessly wide and open, despite a life that had been touched by poverty and blistering hard work, disabling illness and heartbreaking loss. It was a joy to hear her words and be reminded. Though my Grandma never heard of meditation or the Four Noble Truths, in this wide open heart, she and the Buddha would have been great pals.
Today, though, the grand-ness of this life is escaping me. Whatever it was that Grandma and the Buddha were contemplating is elusive. I am overwhelmed and caught in an undertow. Not so joyful. My systems are just not working well together, either internally or externally. Externally, I am repeatedly flummoxed by the unexpected technical difficulties of the online class I am offering. Internet:5; Sharon:0. The frustration and my efforts to control the uncontrollable cloud my mind, which now becomes confused by all the choices as I ponder which essay to offer the class. Stuck. I am stuck in overwhelm. Stuck. Stuck. Stuck. My brain wanders across a variety of themes that I would like to address. What does it mean for an emotion to be wholesome or not? What is emotion, anyway? How do different people use these words? What does “pleasant” have to do with it all? Where do love and joy fit in? As I attempt to address these, I can’t find a way to start. No joy. Just mental confusion and anxiety. Judgment. Prophecies of doom.
So here I am, in the middle way…
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure….
I pause…so it’s like this now…like this in the mind which is so crowded and busy I can’t find the body. I relax a bit into acceptance…Life is like this for me today.
I see that my brain and my body have moved out of what neuroscientists would call a state of coherence and into what the Buddha would call a state of mental defilement: an obscuration, a cloud that keeps me from seeing clearly. My reactivity and determination to control is pushing me out of a wholesome range. A certain amount of stress is a goodness. It helps me to expand at the edge of the unknown, to reach and grow and evolve into ever greater understanding, integration, complexity and capacity. Without that challenge, I would devolve into dreary, boring and lifeless rigidity. But now I am at the other extreme; my body is tense and my brain is overwhelmed in chaos as personal grief and responsibility come crashing into one another. I struggle.
… And so each venture Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate, With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by (those) whom one cannot hope to emulate… T. S. Eliot
Where, in all of this, should I focus my attention?
In his own journey, Siddhartha – perhaps similarly – found himself in what appeared to be, literally, a dead end. In the zeal and diligence of his spiritual quest, he was near death from starvation. He had taken his ascetic practice, it appeared, just about as far as it could go. With meticulous insight, he saw that he was clinging to a view of sensory experience that was too extreme. He was not allowing himself a sense of belonging in the natural world; he was trying to subdue and overcome his own nature rather than use his humanness as a vehicle for inquiry and insight. He paused and relaxed. Letting go of clinging to his ideas about things, he opened to see a middle way, a path that brought more honor to his humanness. His heart and mind broke open with love and compassion for the functioning of his own body/mind as he received the gift of a simple bowl of milk rice. He ate.
He remembered a time when, as a child, he had had a similar experience of broken-hearted love that included all of the joys and the sorrows of this human life. Love for all. Rejecting nothing. Nothing internally. Nothing externally. With a coherent balance there, he became able to function more effectively, to see ever more deeply into how life with all its confusions and messiness actually works. Where is suffering? Where is holding on and clinging? What is needed for happiness to deepen, for suffering to be released? These were not conceptual questions but a very personal inquiry.
Allowing himself this sensory goodness didn’t lead him to suddenly abandon his robes and his spiritual quest. Quite the opposite. It was a key moment in his path to full enlightenment as he released his previous view and saw a path between rigid sensual asceticism at one extreme and chaotic indulgence at the other. He saw that he could nourish his spiritual journey through a kind appreciation of his actual, not imagined, humanity. He had a deeper clarity that the way to enlightenment was through his humanness, not around or in denial of it.
So for me, I see that the place to investigate today is the actual experience of confusion and overwhelm. Like Siddhartha, nothing wholesome is likely to come for me from my being lost in and identified with my incoherent body/mind: no happy relationship with a new essay and no resolution of the course’s technical dilemmas or the pains of my sense of singular responsibility and impotence. Can confusion and disappointment be known; can it be allowed? It’s like this now, in this body, in this mind. This is how it is.
“Neuronal gossip”: that’s a clue. I see that my brain is trying to solve its confusions with neuronal gossip: old and very specific ideas and agendas and without connection to my body or the present moment. In doing that, the brain is feeding a cycle of anxiety with more and more stress-related perceptions, thoughts, memories and stories. These all, in turn, agitate the body still more, which then agitates the mind still more…which then agitates the body still more…and so it goes: an ever deepening cycle of stress and tension. Dukkha. Further, my self is trying to address these alone, without a sense of belonging to life, nature, community. I remember the aspiration that I had at the beginning of the course: to relax more into community, to feel a sense of community more as I teach.
I decide to step back and nourish the body/mind a bit more in the flow and community of nature. I walk, seeing the sky, the purple flowers, hearing the bulbuls and doves call to one another. The rising moon. The cooling evening breeze on my skin. The simple easy joy of movement. There is still confusion but more coherence, more space. It’s like this now. I notice my own sense of belonging and tune now to remember the sweet support of a number of emails from the class. “It’s OK,” they remind me. Taking in the nourishment of their care, the support of relationship and the natural world brings more ease. This body/mind relaxes; it’s like this now.
As I return home, there is still a course to guide, essays to write, technology problems to solve, decisions to be made, one way or another. But there is coherence now, capacity. I am a part of life flowing on, all of life, not just an isolated “me” against it all. The incoherence and obscurations have faded. I have more physical energy and mental space to inquire into the guidance of other aspects of the Dhamma: wise understanding, wise intention and wise effort. Investigation and refuge. I see what Grandma and the Buddha meant. Life is grand and a grand adventure. I am born from, woven into, and returning to the fabric of life and all is OK.
Look within. Be still.
Free from fear and attachment,
Know the joy of the way.