The Sweetest Bite

Many people, myself included, come to Buddhism because we can’t find an escape from our suffering.  Full of fear and uncertainty, we find that Buddha’s Four Noble Truths provide some mental relief.  There is suffering. There is a cause to suffering. There is an end to suffering. The is a path out of suffering (the Noble 8-fold path). As we learn to walk this path, to let go of our resistance to the endless arising and passing away of conditions, we begin to experience this moment just as it is and we see our suffering diminish. The path opens up, we see that Buddha’s teachings are applicable in our own lives. The dharma works. But the mind is a tricky little fox and soon the very path that was leading us to liberation may become yet another thing to cling to, something to keep us safe from the inevitable storms of life. We probably don’t even see this subtle shift until we’ve strayed far from the path.

A man walking across a field encounters a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger had come, waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white and one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine in one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

This is our life, we will never be protected from the tigers and the vine will whittle away until we fall to our death. No one has ever escaped death. So what is our response? If we use this practice to keep us safe, it will fail us. Genuine practice isn’t safe.

If you’ve gotten comfortable with your practice, you need to examine with total honesty the boundaries you’ve created. Has the practice become a container or bubble that keeps your heart sheltered from the darkest realms of your own existence? Has it tipped that way without your even knowing it? What happens if you burst the bubble, the boundary that you dwell in? Are you suddenly face to face with what you most fear, what you hoped would protect you from falling, from failing? Can you then, in this very moment, reach for the strawberry right in front of you and enjoy it, no matter what you fate, savoring the perfect sweetness that permeates your whole being? If so, you’ve found your true path, genuine freedom, your home.

The End of The Path photography by Lisa Ernst

The End of The Path
photography by Lisa Ernst

Winter Residential Retreat Recap: The Razor’s Edge

This past Sunday we completed our fourth residential retreat at Bethany Hills. Each retreat has its own flavor, its own joys and challenges. This retreat brought a unique weather situation that weaved its way into the retreat, and for several, their practice.

For much of the weekend, the temperatures hovered just above freezing. With near constant rain, this brought uncertainty and for some, anxiety, of freezing, icing and power outages. The weather was at an edge, a fine line between serious difficulty and simple wet and cold. Until Sunday the weather never hit that tipping point.

For several, learning to sit with the uncertainty of what was to come, to allow the situation to unfold in accordance with nature, was a practice in letting go. On Sunday at daylight we could see the trees and some areas of the grounds beginning to freeze as the rain pounded down. It was beautiful and many brought their cameras out during the break as the rain finally stopped. Others grew concerned about transportation and possibly traveling home on icy roads. Fortunately, though, the freeze was short lived. Worries faded as warmer temperatures melted most of the ice by mid morning. One person shared at the closing how her mind had become caught in anxiety, the “what if’s” of the weather, yet ultimately she could see her fear with some humor and let it go.

If we are practicing sincerely, we often find interior edges, places of uncertainty and doubt that limit and confine us. This is particularly true at retreats when we are spending considerable time meeting our present moment experience in its endless flux. Retreats are designed to bring us to our edges, to face the limits we imagine we have, then to find a way through those limits until they simply dissolve. But first we need to recognize the voice that tells us we’ve reached our threshold and can go no further. This awareness is the starting point. Then we can see that the narrative is composed of thoughts, not special, incontrovertible truths. As our resistance falls away, we also touch the fear and anxiety that often accompanies these thoughts.

Sometimes we do need to back off and take a break, to step away from our edge. But as soon as we find our courage and compassion, we can begin again. As we move back to our edge, letting go of our hesitation and any thoughts of doom, we begin to loosen our self imposed limits. The boundaries of our beliefs, the ideas that inhibit our direct experience of the dharma, of life itself, begin to soften. Ultimately, the “I” that holds us back dissolves into open space. This release from our false limitations liberates us, opens us to the joy of interconnection and true intimacy with this moment.

Frozen Pond

Frozen Pond


Misty Ice at Bethany Hills

Misty Ice at Bethany Hills