“What is the work of the Buddha’s whole life?” Yun Men replied, “An appropriate response.”
“The breath is moving, but that which knows the breath is not moving.”
Five feet. Hurricane Michael’s storm water surged five feet. In the pale light of midnight, we could see it flooding all of our roads, floating dumpsters and lawn chairs, relentlessly crawling up the sides of the parked cars and the building. This body stayed alert and the mind began to churn as our third floor apartment swayed in the wind; it was hard to sleep.
We can wax philosophical about the inevitability of these sorts of external worldly “floods,” the sometimes profound traumas and grave injustices and confusions of our modern world. We can also know the floods of our own minds: the internal storms – some of them familiar and decades old – that trigger and overwhelm our nervous systems, that throw us out of balance, that impair our energies and functioning and judgment and relationships and that lead us into the unwholesome action of mental and physical combat and war. What to do in response? What does our spiritual practice teach about how we might actually be with all of this? Should we stay awake? Bear witness? Should we organize and canvas and vote and join with others who shout and demonstrate and work publicly for social and political change? Should we rant and force our partners and our children to finally wash the dishes and feed the dog? Demand at the holiday dinner table that Uncle Ralph stop waxing eloquent about the “Lost Cause?” Should we let go? Of what? Should we rest passively in deeper mindfulness? Know simply that “It’s like this now?” Should we withdraw to a monastery? Set boundaries? Take medication? Drink more wine? Move the car? Find a therapist? Go on retreat? Step back from a toxic relationship? Endure? Take a nap? What is wise?
Pause. Consider that for a moment with respect to whatever is your current flood: it depends.
All of the Buddha’s teachings are meant not as rigid “rules” imposed from outside, but as profound and wise instruction for our own reflection and exploration and yes, trial and error. On his deathbed, the Buddha famously told us to contemplate the Dhamma and, with that as guidance, to “make of ourselves a light,” to deeply investigate as we consider and discover what aspect of the teaching applies here, now, with this. In his teaching to his young son, the Buddha had guided Rahula to reflect, to use his own awareness and to look carefully and continuously at his own direct experience before, during and after any action. Spiritual teachings and practices were to be used toward one end: the ever deeper and more subtle knowing of suffering, its causes, and its end – for oneself and others, leading always toward what is needed, in this arising, this moment, this experience.
Still we can wonder: on a practical level, what does this mean? What, in this circumstance, is a wholesome result? Enlightened teacher Ajahn Chah often spoke about his own early struggles with this question. One of his biographies describes his important turning point:
(In 1946, after 10 years as a Buddhist monk, he) ”…was wrestling with a crucial problem. He had studied the teachings on morality, meditation and wisdom, which the texts presented in minute and refined detail, but he could not see how they could actually be put into practice.
(He went to see…his teacher…) Ajahn Mun (who) told him that although the teachings are indeed extensive, at their heart they are very simple. With mindfulness established, if it is seen that everything arises in the heart-mind, right there is the true path of practice. This succinct and direct teaching was a revelation for Ajahn Chah, and transformed his approach to practice. The Way was clear:
Peace arises in the heart mind, not in external or even internal arisings. The practice is in making peace in the heart mind a continuous reality: right there is the true path of practice.
Regardless of external circumstance, regardless of internal circumstance, the path of one’s own practice is in one’s own heart mind. Crossing life’s floods is independent of circumstance, both external circumstance and internal circumstance.
The path of one’s own practice is in one’s heart mind? Doesn’t that mean that there are some arisings – externally or, at least, internally – that are unacceptable?
What arises is what arises, conditioned by all sorts of internal and external factors. When Ajahn Mun speaks of “the heart/mind, what he is referring to is not the specific activities of the brain, but rather the awareness that knows all of experience and that can discern what is truly worthy of our attention, care and action and what is not.
Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn reiterates this core Buddhist principle by saying, “In any condition or situation, our mind is clear like space. This means it is clear like a mirror: when red comes before the mirror, there is red; when white comes, white. The clear mirror never holds anything, and it is never moved by what appears in its infinitely empty face. Then when we see, when we hear, when we smell, when we taste, when we touch, and when we think, everything-just-like-this is the truth.”
Suffering, the Buddha taught, is caused not by what the mirror reflects, but by how clouded and obscured the mirror is. The mirror becomes obscured by our clinging to our hungers and “defilements.”
Awareness is this ability to, simply and clearly, know what arises, internally, externally. Attention is how we focus on these aspects of our experience. This is where our freedom is. We can (learn to) choose what to attend to. From there, we can choose if and when and how to speak and if and when and how to act. Awareness, then, is what we recognize when we sit in meditation. Attention is what we train.
“By bringing our pure, open, attentive awareness to any experience, including a (difficulty)…, we learn to be present with an unbiased mind that is neither for nor against what is happening. It is somewhat tricky, however, to include all of our judgments, preconceptions, and emotional reactions in our unbiased awareness. So we start practicing (with attentive awareness) impartiality toward our preferences and reactions. Over time, (this) ….gives us the space to react less and less. We start to see more clearly.” Zen teacher Diane Musho Hamilton
We begin to see more and more clearly what the Buddha describes as the real source of our suffering: our addictions and drives, our personal struggle to GET and to BE. We see the unskillful urgings of the mind: the hungers for things to be (always) pleasant, for things internally, externally, to satisfy ME. We see the relentless insistence on being recognized and important, to have things go according to MY idea. We begin to see the hungers for ultimate safety for permanence, for control. We see our addictions to our personal views and personal stories about all of these. We see the opinions that we have about self and other: how we or others should be.
In our practice, we are asked to learn to first know these addictions and then to soften – finally to fully abandon – this clinging to our preferences, views and opinions. In the letting go we can – more and more simply and clearly – see what is happening, now. With that awareness, we are better able to experience the wisdom that reveals what, (if anything) is needed. This open awareness leaves us available for the gift and guidance of magic and grace.
Diane Musho Hamilton describes what happens next: “Soon we begin to develop greater equanimity and the skillful means to deal with difficulty. In any situation, with clear vision and an even heart, we can access the innate wisdom of the moment and open ourselves to the compassion that permeates our existence.” We begin to see “the happiness that is inherent in our being. It doesn’t need to be earned, explained, or worked for. It is a joy that is always there, just below the surface, arising naturally when it is not obscured by our worries, our complaints, judgments, and struggles.”
Free from fear and attachment,
Know the joy of the way.
Whenever you (want to) do a bodily/verbal/mental action, our practice is to reflect on it: What is driving it? Where is my heart? Where is the mind? Is the mirror clouded? Is there a clinging demand: a clenched insistence that I get something or be something, here, now, that is other than how it is? Our practice asks of us an ongoing and never-ending inquiry into affliction and the ending (or lessening) of affliction in the present moment, guided by now, not the memories of the past and not the fears for the future.
As I stood at the apartment window that night, the mirror of awareness reflected: eyes watching the shifting light and the rising waves, ears hearing the crashing of waves and the murmurs of our neighbors’ voices and the cat’s worried meows. Awareness knew the body sensing the swaying of the building and the movement of the air and curtains against the skin. The mind became busy with second guessing the past as it calculated whether I had, indeed, moved the car far enough out of harm’s way. More thoughts offered the beginning of worries about the future. Unpleasant sensations; difficult thoughts. There arose concern and compassion for the young mother in the news who had chosen to stay with her children in the storms’ path. Mindfulness also brought awareness, though, that in that particular moment, there was nothing that was mine to do, nothing helpful for me or others in further thinking or worrying or doing. I had done what I could. If I lost the car, I would deal with it. Morning would come with new information and, likely, plenty more to consider and do. A rested body/mind would help. I petted the kitty, drank some water and hugged my husband. Together we all crawled back into bed and fell asleep.