Student: I could use some guidance. But I’m afraid what I say may sound unskillful! Can I just say what’s going on?
Teacher: By all means. How can you end suffering if you can’t bring what is causing you to suffer into the light of awareness?
Student: Ok, here it is in a nutshell. It seems to me that “Practice” is a rarified space in which a small group of people hangs out and talks about kindness, respect, love, presence, compassion.... It feels so out of touch with reality!
Teacher: And reality is….?
Student: Reality is people killing each other because of differences in color, religious belief, sexual orientation; the privileged manipulating power to protect their way of life, and if you follow the media, a prurient fascination for the stupid, the hateful and the divisive. How can I believe Life is intelligent and compassionate when there is so much unconsciousness and hatred?
Teacher: It’s the age-old question isn’t it?
Student: Perhaps. But it seems to me that “intrinsic purity” could be a little more pro-active! The negativity today is so ubiquitous. I can’t have a conversation with anyone without touching on the current political situation in the U.S. and what the country is coming to. I can’t walk down the street because I’m afraid the criminal element is going to open fire randomly in a crowd. I can’t open my computer without seeing something hateful about something! I can’t buy food at the grocery store for fear of how some greedy corporation might have doctored and lied about the ingredients. I don’t feel like I have a say in the kind of world I live in and that makes me feel powerless and angry and depressed!
Teacher: I happen to know you have a wonderful little girl at home. What did she do recently to make you laugh?
Student: I beg your pardon?
Teacher: What do you enjoy about your daughter?
Student: What do I enjoy about my daughter? Well… I love her innocence, her little form; she’s perfection in miniature! And now I think about it, I can’t stand the thought of her growing up in this world of violence, fear, and hatred.
Teacher: What’s your favorite thing to do with your daughter?
Student: My favorite thing to do with my daughter? Well, she loves to play in the park. We sometimes spend hours watching bugs and chasing butterflies and feeding the ducks in the pond. Just yesterday we came upon a patch of tall, wavy grasses and she decided she wanted to dance like they were dancing in the wind. It was the cutest thing! We spent a good twenty minutes standing in front of those yellow stalks, imitating their wave dance. Her world is one of perpetual delight and wonder!
Teacher: And when you are with her, isn’t yours?
As you read this, were you able to experience the delight of a child dancing with the waving grasses in a sunny park? If you didn’t quite get to delight, take a moment to direct attention to what you love, what you find beautiful, what you are grateful for…. Really drop into the experience. Perhaps for you it is
- the dance of the hummingbird
- the taste of a fresh apple
- the soaring notes of your favorite symphony
- the laughter of a baby
- the peal of the wake-up bell at the Monastery
- gazing at the silvery moon in a starry sky
- a taste of cold water on a hot day
- the Mentor’s reassuring presence
Directing the attention is a powerful tool to bring the mechanics of the suffering process to a screeching halt. It’s one of the best ways to put a spanner in karma’s workings. This is perhaps why you might have heard a SIBILANT whisper, dismissing the efficacy of directing attention in dealing with “violence, hatred and greed” while attempting the exercise above.
“It is because we don't know Who we are, because we are unaware that the Kingdom of Heaven is within us, that we behave in the generally silly, the often insane, the sometimes criminal ways that are so characteristically human. We are saved, we are liberated and enlightened, by perceiving the hitherto unperceived good that is already within us, by returning to our eternal Ground and remaining where, without knowing it, we have always been” Aldous Huxley
The Buddha taught that ignorance is the root cause of suffering.
A synonym for ignorance is an absence of awareness. When attention is on a conversation in conditioned mind, there is no awareness of any reality other than the illusory one fabricated by the conversation. In this state of “collapsed awareness,” nothing exists other than negativity, despair, fear, intolerance, and darkness—the “reality” of egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate. What the voices say is designed to deflect attention from the awareness that there is more to Life than
JUST what’s “wrong” and
that our day-to-day experience,
INCLUDES goodness, kindness, innocence, and love.
When we redirect attention to compassion, kindness, innocence and love, we are
to “perceive the goodness” that is eternally present and also is,
but gets “ignored”
when all the attention is on a conditioned conversation.
This is why we are encouraged to practice what Wendell Berry models so beautifully:
“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
To keep itself alive, ego-I devises some clever maintenance strategies. One of the more pernicious ones is to use “goodness” as “content” for separation and suffering.
Let’s take an example of a young woman whose inherent goodness is expressed in taking care of the environment.
This person is a vegetarian, recycles, always takes bags to the grocery store, carries her own cup into her favorite coffee shop, drives a hybrid, cycles everywhere she can, and switches off lights before leaving a room. She lives what she believes.
How do the voices get her?
She is checking out at the grocery store, and her gaze falls on a newspaper headline: “Legislature debates selling clearing rights in State Forest.”
She feels genuine despair. “How could anyone bear to cut down those trees?”
Enter Stage Right: The voices rubbing their hands with glee.
Voices: “That’s right! Who would cut down trees? Someone unfeeling, short-sighted and focused only on what benefits them! Guess that describes all our elected officials. I hate politics! I just heard that X Corp funded Mr. Y’s campaign. What chance do trees have in the face of rampant human greed! I guess I just wasted that money I donated to the Redwood Fund.”
Cue water running down the sidewalk from neighbor’s sprinklers…
Voices: “See there! People are so unconscious! Doesn’t he know there’s a drought? Why can’t people see that water is precious? I can’t believe I live in a town that does not have the sense to pass laws to enforce water usage. It’s hopeless…”
An analysis of how separation and suffering is created…
Input: Anything we care about.
Process: Convert into a conversation about “What’s wrong with a world and everyone else who doesn’t care about it!”
Result: A separate someone (delusion) attached (greed) to a point of view that she needs to defend against those (hate/aversion) who do not care about what “I” care about.
The takeaway from catching this bamboozle in action is that the content of the conversation is irrelevant.
When we are talked into believing the “world needs to be different,” we buy into the assumption that we are not PART of all that is. Blaming an “outside force” for how the world is removes the need for us to take any responsibility for the only transformation that is possible: Ours. How we are is how the world is. The world does not have to be different; we do.
Here is a little Zen story to illustrate the movement we are all called to make:
An old woman decides to join a Zen temple famed for its beauty. She is inspired by the way the monks tend to and take care of their surroundings. Every cushion, every tree, every rock, every plate is treated with exquisite reverence and tenderness. One day, on her way to the meditation hall, she notices a bucket of dirty water near the side gate.
“This is so not like the monks,” she thinks. “I hope they remember to put it away. It looks so out of place where it is.”
The next day, she notices the bucket is still there. “I can’t believe someone did not notice this dirty bucket!” she exclaims.
The bucket is still there when she walks to meditation…
The next morning,
and the morning after that,
and the morning after that.
Each time she walks by the bucket she gets angrier and more puzzled. Her beloved temple is being “despoiled by a bunch of unconscious monks who won’t pick up after themselves!”
A month goes by and then it drops in. “I’m a monk! This is my temple. Perhaps putting away the bucket is for me to do.”
We have a saying in Practice that “we grow up spiritually when we stop thinking about what we can get and start thinking about what we can give.” Conditioning fights to keep us small, to keep the awareness collapsed so we never admit to ourselves that we can “be the change we want to see in the world.” (Mahatma Gandhi)
When awareness is expanded, it’s not that “greed, hate, and delusion disappear.” But it appears, from the vantage point of ALL that is, that “greed, hate, and delusion” cease to occupy a disproportionate amount of space and time. Expanded awareness allows for something other than a conditioned reaction. From center, we experience what the lives of our spiritual heroes demonstrate: that it is possible to counter hatred with compassion, greed with generosity, egocentricity with unconditional love.
Conscious compassionate awareness
will not respond in a way
to perpetuate greed, hate and delusion.
When we believe the voices that say there is something wrong with you, we are robbed of an acceptance of our divinity, of the awareness that we are inherently the light that dispels darkness. Perhaps spiritual maturity is accepting and stepping into the responsibility, that we are and can choose to be the light in the darkness.
Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge to ourselves
that our spiritual aspiration
is nothing short of becoming the Buddha.
“The saint undertakes appropriate training of mind and body,” … the aim of training “is primarily to bring human beings to a state in which, because there are no longer any God-eclipsing obstacles between themselves and Reality, they are able to be aware continuously of the divine Ground of their own and all other beings ; secondarily, as a means to this end, to meet all, even the most trivial circumstances of daily living, without malice, greed, self-assertion or voluntary ignorance, but consistently with love and understanding.” Aldous Huxley
Cue voice: “Wait a moment. Who says we are going for sainthood?”
It is easy to get caught up in the results achieved by “saints” of our time such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Mother Teresa and create a standard of sainthood that feels out of reach. Here we might turn to another saint for a perspective.
“God requires a faithful fulfillment of the merest trifle given us to do, rather than the most ardent aspiration to things to which we are not called.” St. Francoise de Sales.
Perhaps we train to be saints in the lives we live.
Perhaps we aspire to sainthood through simple acts of love and kindness.
Perhaps our saintliness is expressed by dancing with little children in the park and taking out the garbage cheerfully.
Perhaps we are saints because we
choose to put ourselves on the difficult path to practice compassion instead of judgment in each moment
And when the voices cause us to feel
that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean,”
we can remember
the ocean would be less because of that missing drop”
AND DO IT ANYWAY!
Once upon a time, there was an old man who liked walking to the beach in the morning before beginning his work day. One morning, after a huge storm, he noticed the beach littered with starfish, stretching out in all directions as far as the eye can see. A little child was also walking on the beach. Periodically the child would stoop, pick up a starfish and throw it back into the sea.
“I don’t want them to die when the sun comes up,” the child explains when asked.
“But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference,” said the old man.
The child picks up a starfish and throws it into the sea and smiles. “It made a difference to that one!”
- adapted from “The Star Thrower”
Practice living in an experience of expanded awareness.
What is your experience of being the little child on the beach? Record the many ways in which you have made a difference. How have you “faithfully fulfilled” the “trifles you were called to do?”
Record your experience of being the STARFISH that was returned to the sea. How has Life treated you with kindness, compassion, and unconditional love?