“Nothing that we perceive is finally, absolutely so.” Ajahn Sucitto
Our father used to bring us chocolate bars. He often drove us to the lake after work for a
quick evening picnic or, in later years, to a vacation week of fishing and swimming under the summer sun. He introduced my brothers and me to the Rochester Red Wings where the excitement of the crowd, the fresh greens of the baseball field, the timbre of the old organ and the fragrance of popcorn wove themselves into our nervous systems and our happy memories. Afterwards there were chocolate sodas for all at the local ice cream parlor. On Saturdays he loaded us into our family’s battered white Ford for our weekly excursion to Front Street where the smells of cheese, sausage and chickens scratching the sawdust accompanied our wanderings among the old Polish and Italian storefronts. Our father brought so many moments of nourishment, sweetness and care into our world.
Interspersed with the chocolates and ice cream, the picnics and swimming and baseball, our very same father would, from time to unpredictable time, have passionate and often violent outbursts of rage, followed by arctic silences that could last for days. Each of us, terrified, would endure assault and then retreat into frozen isolation, brokenness, and our own unique and reactive versions of that same rage.
These early experiences from infancy onward, laid down patterns of perception and story, interpretation of self and other that began to program the functioning of my body, my images, dreams and language, my mental thoughts and emotions and my social expectations and relationships. My developing brain insisted on knowing: was our father an ally who could offer guidance and refuge? Or was he – were all adults – unpredictable and menacing beings from whom I should steer clear?
The conscious part of my brain, working with the ordinary duality of language, learned to separate, label and define. It didn’t like complexities or confusion, fluidity or paradox. I concluded that what was going on around me, though scary, was all normal. When information was incongruous or missing, like a modern Photoshop program, my brain simply made up what it didn’t really know. Everything was fine; I was fine. I succeeded well in school, pleased the nuns, made good friends and stayed out of trouble. At the very same time, underneath it all, I was drowning in fear. I unconsciously began a vigilance that filtered and screened all new sensations, thoughts and emotions, all new predictions, interpretations and conclusions, according to what had come before. Reinforced by endless repetition, my perceptions and stories became ever more and more “real” and “true.” If something didn’t fit, I either ignored it, disregarded details, or invented an explanation such that it fit anyway. I became inexplicably depressed and spent enormous amounts of time and watchful energy trying to avoid conflict and be “good.”
In the genius of evolution, there was an ordinary and functional goodness in these universal activities of my very human mind. They have offered much practical value, over millennia, for the survival of a species that needed to sort through billions of bits of information in order to efficiently locate food resources and quickly find protection from danger. Humans without these filters – paralyzed by too much complex information and/or forgetful of past experience – were unable to make quick life and death decisions and so they did not survive to be my ancestors.
The Buddha, however, saw that these very same ordinary mental activities are, at best, deeply limited. He taught that the perceptions and stories that my brain makes up about its pleasant or unpleasant or neutral experience, while often useful in the short run, can actually contribute to my ongoing suffering and prevent me from living freely, in balance with the ups and downs of life as it actually unfolds.
In my own meditation practice over time, awareness of these patterns began to surface and I slowly began to see more clearly. I gradually come to a greater awareness and kindness toward the limited and narrow ways that I perceived, understood and related to both myself and my dear but troubled father. Time now has passed; all sorts of things have changed, both internally and externally. I rediscover more often, now, that old habits can be self-fulfilling prophecies when I approach life through their filters. So, this is what the Buddha meant by samsara, “…(a) wandering on… the (ever-recurring) tendency to keep (mentally) creating worlds and then moving into them!”
The teachings inspire me to more clearly see that my present-day sufferings arise internally in my mind and not “out there,” Further, that the cause of my suffering is not even in the arising of the familiar patterns themselves, but in my delusions about them. I see that if I take it all too personally, if I identify too closely, cling too tenaciously, to these old organizational processes, I will suffer. It is a blessing to see. In my daily practice, there is more curiosity: ongoing investigation of the experience of the body and of the summaries that the brain offers. I become a bit less “enchanted” with these mental forms: to know them a bit more as no more real than “a glob of foam, a water bubble, a cloud, a mirage that changes in every moment.”
This is not, however, to suggest that I can disregard the internal wounds that have impaired my ability to function in integrated, and wholesome ways. I could mistakenly imagine that my early experiences “should” have no real impact or that I “should” not need any kind of psychological help to find freedom. Just as the Siddhartha came to recognize the importance of physical nourishment and a basic level of physical well-being, so too am I invited to basic mental and behavioral health. Now that I, as a western-culture psychologist am learning so very many important means of healing from past injuries and traumas, I can delight that such healing modalities are becoming available to myself and others.
The Buddha’s teachings invite me to an ever-deeper discovery of life as it is, now.
I continue to learn to first see, and then to let go of holding on, when I find that my perceptions, emotions, narratives and strategies simply bury or sustain or even breed more and more suffering for myself or others. I explore this letting go not as a rigid belief, but as a living path that I can continually test for its ability to carry me across the floods of human suffering to reach the “farther shore” of freedom. With practice, the conditioned tangles of my body and mind gradually unwind as I learn to ride the waves of each present moment. I discover deep wisdom and compassion for myself, for my father, and for all beings who suffer.