Life is a balance of effort and letting go. This talk explores how we engage in our practice without over striving and find the sweet spot of the middle way.
In Buddhism we often talk about remaining fully present and mindful in the midst of unpleasant sensations, thoughts and emotions. Most people understand this, but actually sustaining presence beyond noting and momentary awareness is often quite challenging.
When we’re in the midst of difficult feelings or sensations, we may transition from avoidance into full presence for short bursts of time. That’s an important step. But with especially intense discomfort, it’s all too easy to quickly re-engage with external stimuli and old stories to blunt the intensity. Somehow it feels safer than stepping over the edge and letting go, where it seems the discomfort may swallow us.
I’ve found a practice approach that helps me sustain attention when I need a little extra encouragement. I look for simple, even playful ways to increase my capacity to stay present long enough to counter my ingrained resistance. What I’m doing is interrupting the flow of mental formation long enough to create a gap.
I discovered this practice at a time when I was so upset and miserable that the last thing I wanted was to increase my discomfort by feeling it more fully. This very resistance was a clue – time to face it, not run away. But my mind was like a wild horse, rearing and bucking, ready to run. To redirect the energy I asked myself what this horrible sensation tasted like. As someone who especially enjoys food, this question stimulated my interest and interrupted an entrenched reactive pattern. My resistance went down a notch; my mind stilled a bit. If you are more auditory or tactual, look for a specific sound or touch instead.
The key here is that you are engaging in direct experience, what’s actually present, no analysis or stories added. Just find a visceral taste, touch or sound. The answer to my own question was mud and manure – that’s what the discomfort tasted like. Really unappetizing and not even food! This lightened me up a little and engaged my curiosity. After the first few moments of really tasting mud in all its dark grit, the present wasn’t overwhelming anymore. I could stay with it. As I let go, the last slivers of separation and resistance dissolved into immediate experience. The mud dissipated on its own.
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 monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He’ll never give up.
If he’d let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.
On a cool, sunny June afternoon I started one of my frequent hikes at Radnor Lake. There’s a steep paved road just past the parking lot that leads to the lake. In one area, damaged by a major flood, the road is all gravel and a bit bumpy to traverse. As I approached the graveled area, I saw a young man in a wheelchair suddenly grab his wheels and try to turn back toward the parking lot. He protested loudly about riding over the gravel and appeared quite frightened. One of his companions calmly encouraged him not to be afraid, reminding him that the lake was just past the gravel so he needed to go through it to enjoy the scenery. This seemed to calm him down a bit and he let go of his efforts to escape the gravel. At that point he had already ridden halfway through anyway, so either going or returning meant equal contact with the gravel.
As I walked past, he appeared more relaxed as one of his companions moved him forward in the chair. Suddenly he opened his mouth and allowed the sound of his voice to reflect the bumpiness of the gravel. It was as if his whole body had become one with the gravel, completely connected with the experience of going over the rocks. I realized he was giving a wonderful dharma talk – directly reflecting how he had let go of aversion and was allowing himself to experience the moment fully. There was no fear in his voice, just a manifestation of the moment’s bumpiness.
I smiled as a deep gratitude arose in my heart for the inherent wisdom we can all access through the simple, yet often challenging act of letting go. This young man was intellectually disabled in a way that kept him from communicating as freely and easily as most of us. Yet in facing his fear and releasing his efforts to escape the gravel, he relaxed into the moment and allowed the bumpiness to penetrate his whole body. Soon he was back on the smooth pavement and had the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful lake just ahead.
May we all find the wisdom to let our whole hearts and bodies meet the gravel when it comes and to enjoy the serene, deep lake that follows.
by Lisa Ernst
This moment of joy is an owl’s perfect song
Again and again each time the same
How does it know to sing just this way?
The thought like the owl can’t be caught and held
It drifts on its way but the joy remains.
An open heart leaves nothing outside
receives all yet holds none
so owls can sing and then fly away.
– Lisa Ernst
What happens when you resist? Have you spent some time in your practice cultivating true intimacy with your mind and body in a state of resistance? You probably know where you hold your tension, where your body contracts and how your mind seeks diversion. But the true payoff comes when you take an even closer look. Can you become truly intimate with the tension in your body? Get to know it like a mate or a best friend? Open your heart and mind wide enough that it penetrates every cell, every infinitesimal particle of time and matter. When you can do this, you will taste complete freedom. This is where transformation occurs; in a moment of full surrender, when your resistance dies, you die. But your great nature, your true self that embraces all and leaves nothing out, remains. What is this true nature? You can only find out for yourself. Just let your Bodhicitta, your inherent desire to wake up, guide the way.
– Lisa Ernst