“Craving creates an illusion, a misperception, a deluded mental reaction, which causes the mind to contract into stress and anxiety. If this state is avoided or released, the mind is naturally calm and luminous.” Phillip Moffitt
My elderly friend Walter hoards things. To enter his home is to arrive in overwhelm and congestion. He once owned an “antiques” store; when that closed, he simply moved its contents to his already teeming house and garage and shed and yard. On the extra old furniture and appliances, overflowing the shelves and corners and closets, filling the sleeping and bathing spaces, tumbling onto the floor, are mounds of disorganized clutter – papers, old clothes, unopened mail, unread books, magazines, lists and broken tools. The piles, he says, offer him a sense of familiarity and security. He says he will read or fix or sell or recycle or use it all some day. In any case, he is reluctant to part with even the smallest item for fear that he will let go of something crucially important for his happiness.
I understand. When I examine my own mind, I see: “Yes, me, too.” While my home and external surroundings are simple and tidy, on close reflection I see that my internal mental world is often that of a hoarder. Habitual preferences, old views, random repeating thoughts, memories, beliefs, opinions, stories and behavioral strategies that have long since outlived their usefulness clutter and crowd my daily reactions and awareness. The fact that these arise is not so much the problem; it’s how most human minds (brains) work, offering up old and familiar strategies. My suffering, the Buddha teaches, arises when I indulge these, when, out of habit, I hang on and repeat and reinforce them and am unable to simply see their arising and their not-so-usefulness in the present: when I grasp and don’t allow myself to let them go
For instance, this morning, I see the mind’s clutter. Earlier I called to check on the delay of some home maintenance that was scheduled to be completed last month, only to be told that it has again been rescheduled, now for next month. It is disagreeable; there is a tightness in my throat and chest. In addition, however, there is a mind that wants to ruminate with objections, intent on justice as it tries to make this work out the way that I want. In all of that thinking, I see familiar clutter as views and opinions proliferate about how things – both internally and externally – should be unfolding. There is a pull to hold on. My mind seems determined to cling, to try to control something over which I have no control.
Like Walter’s old furniture, this holding on, though stressful, is, at the same time and in a strange way, comforting. It is known. My rumination enables me to imagine that when I suffer, the cause is “out there.” As I look more closely, I see that the avalanche of thought also helps to obscure how I actually feel: uncertain and disappointed. Further, there is a belief that my thoughts, views and opinions are somehow necessary in order for me to take effective action in my world. There is a pull to hang on to what is familiar. Nevertheless, there is something “off” about all of this. There is suffering, dukkha.
I turn to my practice which invites presence with all of this clutter. As I see directly both the external situation and my internal mental and emotional agitation, I am reminded that simply seeing all of this is good Dhamma practice. “The important thing is to be aware of yourself, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing.” Yes; there is dukkha here; I’m not getting what I want and I don’t like it.
Without first seeing this, I might mistakenly try to use my meditation as a means to find spiritual, or even more conventional, security and happiness by indulging or acting out or denying or figuring out or fixing or refining or escaping or drowning in or spacing out or simply moving around my mental clutter. Without noticing and investigating the mental activity for its true character and its real usefulness, I can be, like Walter, compounding my suffering by simply adding more struggle into my already crowded mental house. Without the clarity of the first noble truth, I might, in the confusion of one extreme, attempt to use my meditation to try to suppress or overwhelm my discomfort with a silent and blank emptiness. At the other extreme, I might exhaust myself with working hard to protect and grasp at what I want, or by endless efforts to fix – or at least tidy up – all of this internal and external muddle.
I am invited to relax. “It’s all like this now.”
I start with consent, with a kind permission for both the external event and my experience of it to be, simply, what it is: the product of countless causes and conditions. With that, I bring breathing and presence, curiosity and friendliness. I simply see this cluttered activity of my mind: this, too, not under my personal control right now. I am now invited to let go of indulgence in my mind’s stories and ruminations about why this is happening, about its similarities to other events in my past life, about what it all means about who I am and who the other is and about what really should be happening instead.
There begins to be consent, very simply and directly, to what all of this feels like in the body. When I look closely, there is heat. There is a tightness in the chest and throat. There is a sadness, even, a drooping in the face, a wetness behind the eyes. “It’s like this now.” If I don’t keep retreating into story and rumination, I find that the feeling, while unpleasant, is quite manageable. There is kindness and compassion. Ouch. Dukkha, stress is like this: for me, for everyone. As I allow the experience, it shifts and softens.
In the fullness of this allowing lie the clues about any action that needs to be taken. I consider what is needed, possible, available. Internally. Externally. As I examine the details and options in this particular case, investigation reveals that a wholesome response for me today seems to be primarily internal, in letting go, in simply not hanging on to what is not helpful. My practice invites simple caring for myself as I encounter these difficulties of human life. My heart opens, too, in a bit more caring for the agent who, I see, is also not really in charge of the overwhelmed contractor’s decisions and actions. There is caring even more widely, too, for all beings who, in this moment, struggle with being overloaded or in not getting what they want.
In other circumstances, there might be a call for strong and forceful action of some sort. For me, though, in this case, presence reveals “not here, not now.” Life is like this. Even for those old associations that get triggered by this event: the invitation of my practice is toward softening into forgiveness. They are past. I need address only the experience of this moment; all can be healed in the tender light of kind presence.
There is clearing. A move into patience. A smile, even. A bit more freedom. Life is like this. Not always difficult, but sometimes. Nothing to hold onto here. Time to let go, internally, externally: today’s wild ride.