The Lotus Blooms in the Mud

by Lisa Ernst

The lotus flower is revered in Buddhist lore because of the way it grows and blooms. Lotus plants thrive in muck and mud, yet they produce some of nature’s most glorious flowers. The Buddha taught that the muddy, murky condition of the mind is the very place where our own Buddha nature thrives. We don’t need to eliminate this imperfection to awaken to our true nature.

Recently I became aware of a specific situation in which this teaching manifests clearly in my own life. I live within walking distance of Radnor Lake, a beautiful state park that is pristine and peaceful when it’s not packed with people. Because its so close, I exercise on the trails at Radnor several times a week. Often in the rainy season the hiking is muddy and the crowds are a bit smaller; no doubt many want to avoid stepping in the muck and getting their shoes dirty. This doesn’t prevent me from hiking as I know its part of the experience, but I still find myself trying to avoid the muddiest parts.

Usually I arrive sometime in the afternoon, hoping to beat the after work crowds. I’ll hit the trail at a brisk pace, with little intent of communing with nature, often mentally engaged in whatever is going on for me that day. My mind is often moving as fast as my body. I’ve done this for so many years now that I’ve ingrained a pattern of launching my hikes nearly oblivious to the beautiful sites around me and the joys of nature. Yet, seemingly in spite of this, Radnor Lake is where I have many of my deepest “off cushion” insights.

Some people who are hiking alone at Radnor talk on their cell phones or listen to their iPods, apparently uninterested in enjoying the simple sounds of nature. Others may come here with the express desire to walk mindfully along the trails. This can be a nice practice in and of itself, but it may only offer a brief respite from our often overactive minds. For me, without life’s usual external distractions, the intensity of my thoughts and feelings becomes more apparent to me as I hike. I’m often immersed in the muck, regardless of whether the trails are muddy or dry. Yet this immersion in my human imperfection provides the ideal opportunity for me to access my wisdom.

If we hold on to an idea that only peaceful mindfulness is appropriate at a place like Radnor Lake, we block our chance to truly enter our own great nature. Ideals like this can be used to resist what’s truly present. When I first began to notice how unsettled my mind was during my hikes, I tried various means to fix it. I brought mala beads to Radnor and I tried to practice metta along the trails. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, my intention with these practices was incorrect: I was seeking a way to shut down my discomfort rather than to use the practices as skillful means to open heart and mind. Needless to say, they didn’t work and I abandoned the effort. One benefit of practicing sincerely over time is that we begin to discern more quickly whether we are using a particular practice skillfully or to resist and repress what’s really present.

It takes courage to face ourselves just as we are, to let go of a spiritual ideal and to reside in the midst of our own human imperfections with no distractions. Now when I hike at Radnor, I recognize that the path to clarity and equanimity is right in the midst of my own unsettled mind. When I am willing to pause long enough to genuinely touch the tenderness, the anxiety or fear that often accompanies a mind full of thought, the sounds and sights of nature become vividly alive. This softening and presence of heart may bring a tear or a smile, but the spinning of my mind simply stops in the midst of this moment. At this juncture, each step along the way, whether the trail is dusty and dry or squishy with mud, happens with effortless presence and gratitude. Whatever I was struggling with clears and is no longer a problem to be solved. The lotus indeed blooms in the mud.

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