"Did I Love Well?" (excerpt) A PATH WITH HEART — A GUIDE THROUGH THE PERILS AND PROMISES OF SPIRITUAL LIFE by Jack Kornfield
Even the most exalted states and the most exceptional spiritual accomplishments are unimportant if we cannot be happy in the most basic and ordinary ways, if we cannot touch one another and the life we have been given with our hearts.
In undertaking a spiritual life, what matters is simple: We must make certain that our path is connected with our heart. Many other visions are offered to us in the modern spiritual marketplace. Great spiritual traditions offer stories of enlightenment, bliss, knowledge, divine ecstasy, and the highest possibilities of the human spirit. Out of the broad range of teachings available to us in the West, often we are first attracted to these glamorous and most extraordinary aspects. While the promise of attaining such states can come true, and while these states do represent the teachings, in one sense, they are also one of the advertising techniques of the spiritual trade. They are not the goal of spiritual life. In the end, spiritual life is not a process of seeking or gaining some extraordinary condition or special powers. In fact, such seeking can take us away from ourselves. If we are not careful, we can easily find the great failures of our modern society—its ambition, materialism, and individual isolation—repeated in our spiritual life.
In beginning a genuine spiritual journey, we have to stay much closer to home, to focus directly on what is right here in front of us, to make sure that our path is connected with our deepest love. Don Juan, in his teachings to Carlos Castaneda, put it this way:
Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary. Then ask yourself and yourself alone one question. This question is one that only a very old man asks. My benefactor told me about it once when I was young and my blood was too vigorous for me to understand it. Now I do understand it. I will tell you what it is: Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use…
When we ask, “Am I following a path with heart?” we discover that no one can define for us exactly what our path should be. Instead, we must allow the mystery and beauty of this question to resonate within our being. Then somewhere within us an answer will come and understanding will arise. If we are still and listen deeply, even for a moment, we will know if we are following a path with heart.
It is possible to speak with our heart directly. Most ancient cultures know this. We can actually converse with our heart as if it were a good friend. In modern life we have become so busy with our daily affairs and thoughts that we have forgotten this essential art of taking time to converse with our heart. When we ask it about our current path, we must look at the values we have chosen to live by. Where do we put our time, our strength, our creativity, our love? We must look at our life without sentimentality, exaggeration,, or idealism. Does what we are choosing reflect what we most deeply value?
Buddhist tradition teaches its followers to regard all life as precious. The astronauts who leave the earth have also rediscovered this truth. One set of Russian cosmonauts described it in this way: “We brought up small fish to the space station for certain investigations. We were to be there three months. After about three weeks the fish began to die. How sorry we felt for them! What we didn’t do to try to save them! On earth we take great pleasure in fishing, but when you are alone and far away from anything terrestrial, any appearance of life is especially welcome. You see just how precious life is.” In this same spirit, one astronaut, when his capsule landed, opened the hatch to smell the moist air of earth. “I actually got down and put it to my cheek. I got down and kissed the earth.”
To see the preciousness of all things, we must bring our full attention to life. Spiritual practice can bring us to this awareness without the aid of a trip into space. As the qualities of presence and simplicity begin to permeate more and more of our life, our inner love for the earth and all beings begins to express itself and brings our path alive.
To understand more deeply what evokes this sense of preciousness and how it gives meaning to a path with heart, let us work with the following meditation. In Buddhist practice, one is urged to consider how to live well by reflecting on one’s death. The traditional meditation for this purpose is to sit quietly and sense the tentativeness of life. After reading this paragraph, close your eyes and feel the mortality of this human body that you have been given. Death is certain for us—only the time of death is yet to be discovered. Imagine yourself to be at the end of your life—next week or next year or next decade, some time in the future. Now cast your memory back across your whole life and bring to mind two good deeds that you have done, two things that you did that were good. They need not be grandiose; let whatever wants to arise show itself. In picturing and remembering these good deeds, also become aware of how these memories affect your consciousness, how they transform the feelings and state of the heart and mind, as you see them...
...The things that matter most in our lives are not fantastic or grand. They are the moments when we touch one another, when we are there in the most attentive or caring way. This simple and profound intimacy is the love that we all long for. These moments of touching and being touched can become a foundation for a path with heart, and they take place in the most immediate and direct way. Mother Teresa put it like this: “In this life we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love."
Some people find this exercise very difficult. No good deeds will come to their mind, or a few may arise only to be rejected immediately because they are judged superficial or small or impure or imperfect. Does this mean that there are not even two good moments in a lifetime of one hundred thousand deeds? Hardly! We all have had many. It has another more profound meaning. It is a reflection of how hard we are on ourselves. We judge ourselves so harshly, only an Idi Amin or a Stalin would hire us to preside over their courts. Many of us discover we have little mercy for ourselves. We can hardly acknowledge that genuine love and goodness can shine freely from our hearts. Yet it does.
To live a path with heart means to live in the way shown us in this meditation, to allow the flavor of goodness to permeate our life. When we bring full attention to our acts, when we express our love and see the preciousness of life, the quality of goodness in us grows. A simple caring presence can begin to permeate more moments of our life. And so we should continually ask our own heart, What would it mean to live like this? Is the path, the way we have chosen to live our life, leading to this?
In the stress and complexity of our lives, we may forget our deepest intentions. But when people come to the end of their life and look back, the questions that they most often ask are not usually, “How much is in my bank account?” or “How many books did I write?” or “What did I build?” or the like. If you have the privilege of being with a person who is aware at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple: “Did I love well?” “Did I live fully?” “Did I learn to let go?”
These simple questions go to the very center of spiritual life. When we consider loving well and living fully, we can see the ways our attachments and fears have limited us, and we can see the many opportunities for our hearts to open. Have we let ourselves love the people around us, our family, our community, the earth upon which we live? And, did we also learn to let go? To live through the changes of life with grace, wisdom, and compassion? Have we learned to forgive and live from the spirit of the heart instead of the spirit of judgment?
Letting go is a central theme in spiritual practice, as we see the preciousness and brevity of life. When letting go is called for, if we have not learned to do so, we suffer greatly, and when we get to the end of our life, we may have what is called a crash course. Sooner or later we have to learn to let go and allow the changing mystery of life to move through us without our fearing it, without holding and grasping.
I knew a young woman who sat with her mother during an extended bout of cancer. Part of this time her mother was in the hospital hooked up to dozens of tubes and machines. Mother and daughter agreed that the mother did not want to die this way, and when the illness progressed, she was finally removed from all of the medical paraphernalia and allowed to go home. Her cancer progressed further. Still the mother had a hard time accepting her illness. She tried to run the household from her bed, to pay bills and oversee all the usual affairs of her life. She struggled with her physical pain, but she struggled more with her inability to let go. One day in the midst of this struggle, much sicker now and a bit confused, she called her daughter to her and said, “Daughter, dear, please now pull the plug,” and her daughter gently pointed out, “Mother, you are not plugged in. ” Some of us have a lot to learn about letting go.
Letting go and moving through life from one change to another brings the maturing of our spiritual being. In the end we discover that to love and let go can be the same thing. Both ways do not seek to possess. Both allow us to touch each moment of this changing life and allow us to be there fully for whatever arises next.
There is an old story about a famous rabbi living in Europe who was visited one day by a man who had traveled by ship from New York to see him. The man came to the great rabbi's dwelling, a large house on a street in a European city, and was directed to the rabbi’s room, which was in the attic. He entered to find the master living in a room with a bed, a chair, and a few books. The man had expected much more. After greetings, he asked, “Rabbi, where are your things?” The rabbi asked in return, “Well, where are yours?” His visitor replied, “But, Rabbi, I’m only passing through,” and the master answered, “So am I, so am I.”
To love fully and live well requires us to recognize finally that we do not possess or own anything—our homes, our cars, our loved ones, not even"our own body. Spiritual joy and wisdom do not come through possession but rather through our capacity to open to love more fully, and to move and be free in life.
This is not a lesson to be put off. One great teacher explained it this way: “The trouble with you is that you think you have time.” We don’t know how much time we have. What would it be like to live with the knowledge that this may be our last year, our last week, our last day? In light of this question, we can choose a path with heart.
Sometimes it takes a shock to awaken us, to connect us with our path. Several years ago I was called to visit a man in a San Francisco hospital by his sister. He was in his late thirties and already rich. He had a construction company, a sailboat, a ranch, a town house, the works. One day when driving along in his BMW, he blacked out. Tests showed that he had a brain tumor, a melanoma, a rapid-growing kind of cancer. The doctor said, “We want to operate on you, but I must warn you that the tumor is in the speech and comprehension center. If we remove the tumor, you may lose all your ability to read, to write, to speak, to understand any language. If we don’t operate, you probably have six more weeks to live. Please consider this. We want to operate in the morning. Let us know by then.”
I visited this man that evening. He had become very quiet and reflective. As you can imagine, he was in an extraordinary state of consciousness. Such an awakening will sometimes come from our spiritual practice, but for him it came through these exceptional circumstances. When we spoke, this man did not talk about his ranch or sailboat or his money. Where he was headed, they don’t take the currency of bank-books and BMWs. All that is of value in times of great change is the currency of our heart—the ability and understandings of the heart that have grown in us.
Twenty years before, in the late 1960s, this man had done a little Zen meditation, had read a bit of Alan Watts, and when he faced this moment, that is what he drew on and what he wanted to talk about: his spiritual life and understanding of birth and death. After a most heartfelt conversation, he stopped to be silent for a time and reflect. Then he turned to me and said, “I’ve had enough of talking. Maybe I‘ve said too many words. This evening it seems so precious just to have a drink of tap water or to watch the pigeons on the windowsill of the medical center fly off in the air. They seem so beautiful to me. It’s magic to see a bird go through the air. I’m not finished with this life. Maybe just live it more silently.” So he asked to have the operation. After fourteen hours of surgery by a very fine surgeon, his sister visited him in the recovery room. He looked up at her and said, “Good morning.” They had been able to remove the tumor without his losing his speech.
When he left the hospital and recovered from his cancer, his entire life changed. He still responsibly completed his business obligations, but he was no longer a workaholic. He spent more time with his family, and he became a counselor for others diagnosed with cancer and grave illnesses. He spent much of his time in nature and much of his time touching the people around him with love.
Had I met him before that evening, I might have considered him a spiritual failure because he had done a little spiritual practice and then quit completely to become a businessman. He seemed to have forgotten all of those spiritual values. But when it came down to it, when he stopped to reflect in these moments between his life and death, even the little spiritual practice he had touched became very important to him. We never know what others are learning, and we cannot judge someone’s spiritual practice quickly or easily. All we can do is look into our own hearts and ask what matters in the way that we are living. What might lead me to greater openness, honesty, and a deeper capacity to love?
A path with heart will also include our unique gifts and creativity. The outer expression of our heart may be to write books, to build buildings, to create ways for people to serve one another. It may be to teach or to garden, to serve food or play music. Whatever we choose, the creations of our life must be grounded in our hearts. Our love is the source of all energy to create and connect. If we act without a connection to the heart, even the greatest things in our life can become dried up, meaningless, or barren.
You may remember that some years ago a series of articles ran in the newspapers about plans to start a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners. At this time a concerned feminist wrote to the Boston Globe pointing out that if there were sperm banks there should also be egg banks. The Boston Globe printed a letter of reply to her from George Wald, himself a Nobel Prize—winning biologist from Harvard University, a gentleman and a man of wisdom at that. George Wald wrote to her:
You’re absolutely right. It takes an egg as well as a sperm to start a Nobel laureate. Every one of them has had a mother as well as a father. You can say all you want of fathers, but their contribution to conception is really rather small.
But I hope you weren’t seriously proposing an egg bank. Nobel laureates aside, there isn’t much in the way of starting one technically. There are some problems, but nothing as hard as involved in the other kinds of breeder reactors. . . .
But think of a man so vain as to insist on getting a superior egg from an egg bank. Then he has to fertilize it. When it’s fertilized where does he go with it? To his wife? ‘Here, dear,’’ you can hear him saying, “I just got this superior egg from an egg bank and just fertilized it myself. Will you take care of it?” “I’ve got eggs of my own to worry about,” she answers. “You know what you can do with your superior egg. Go rent a womb. While you’re at it, you’d better rent a room too.”
You see, it just won’t work. The truth is what one really needs is not Nobel laureates but love. How do you think one gets to be a Nobel laureate? Wanting love, that’s how. Wanting it so bad one works all the time and ends up a Nobel laureate. It’s a consolation prize.
What matters is love. Forget sperm banks and egg banks. Banks and love are incompatible. If you don’t know that, you haven’t been to your bank lately.
So just practice loving. Love a Russian. You’d be surprised how easy it is and how it will brighten your morning. Love an Iranian, a Vietnamese, people not just here but everywhere. Then when you’ve gotten really good at it, try something hard like loving the politicians in our nation’s capital.
The longing for love and the movement of love is underneath all of our activities. The happiness we discover in life is not about possessing or owning or even understanding. Instead, it is the discovery of this capacity to love, to have a loving, free, and wise relationship with all of life. Such love is not possessive but arises out of a sense of our own well-being and connection with everything. Therefore, it is generous and wakeful, and it loves the freedom of all things. Out of love, our path can lead us to learn to use our gifts to heal and serve, to create peace around us, to honor the sacred in life, to bless whatever we encounter, and to wish all beings well.
Spiritual life may seem complicated, but in essence it is not. We can find a clarity and simplicity even in the midst of this complex world when we discover that the quality of heart we bring to life is what matters most. The beloved Zen poet Ryokan summed this up when he said:
The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away, and the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure. . . .
Then the moon and flowers will guide you along the Way.
All other spiritual teachings are in vain if we cannot love. Even the most exalted states and the most exceptional spiritual accomplishments are unimportant if we cannot be happy in the most basic and ordinary ways, if, with our hearts, we cannot touch one another and the life we have been given. What matters is how we live. This is why it is so difficult and so important to ask this question of ourselves: “Am I living my path fully, do I live without regret?” so that we can say on whatever day is the end of our life, “Yes, I have lived my path with heart.”
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Jack Kornfield’s Website
---Pictured - The Road to Sedona
I would love to have to ability or the inclination of conscience that would allow me to block out the events occurring in the world right now. I could tell myself that just by not watching the news, I succeed in keeping the horror show of destruction and murder from my life - my quiet neighborhood - but that is just illusion....more illusion. The horror is global and it travels within the psychic field of life. Deep in the intuitive reaches of my soul, I am immersed in the sensation that the system of life itself has gone on alert - somehow humanity is coming close to losing its fundamental reverence for human life. That reverence is our essential touch stone with our humanity. A collective madness is manifesting in choices that are repeat performances of previous slaughters are rationalized to be sound judgments - once again. If ever a person wanted to understand the handiwork of darkness, one need only look at how acts of hatred are rationalized. There is no reason for someone who identifies him or herself as a "conscious" much less "civilized" human being to ever participate in an act of hatred - ever. That first time you declare yourself to be "conscious", you are saying that you have successfully rid yourself of those demons that give you permission to violate your own spiritual beliefs. You are saying that you have shed the option of violence because you see the folly in it, the uselessness of it - that indeed such acts only lead to more. You are saying that you have discovered more "conscious" resources within you with which you will now engage with life You are saying that you are strong enough, conscious enough to recognize when a demon - pressing upon the Victim or Martyr archetype in you - is talking you into betraying your higher instincts. You are telling yourself that your soul has the stamina to withstand the tsunamis of life without turning dark and hostile. Human actions are increasingly becoming the antithesis of instinctual choices that lean in favor of humanity. We are growing increasingly frightened instead of increasingly open, loving, and global. We are moving in the opposite direction of where an "advanced" society should be headed. We are imploding. We can feel the tension building in the collective atmosphere - even if we cannot name that tension. An ordinary woman, interviewed for a comment on the Malaysian crash said, "What's happening in our world?"
All life breathes together. All events impact all life one way or another. Some people are physically wounded and others will absorb the wounds on the psychic level. Even those who ignore the events will experience the consequences as they continue to unfold. If ever we needed to pray for the world and for humanity, it is now. We much be about the business of utilizing what it means to be "spiritually conscious". You become conscious in order to put your soul to work. If it feels right to you, consider this prayer of your own version of it, "I open myself as a channel of grace for healing and restoring the balance of life. I ask that all life be blessed." And stay ever mindful of how easily anger and hatred bite at your heels...."Hover over me God..."
Her Website: http://www.myss.com
---Psychological Self vs. No-Self
As a therapist and a meditation teacher, I live a surreal life. At the office I’m helping people to gain greater self-esteem, more positive self-regard, and encouraging them to see themselves as competent, empowered and strong. But when I teach meditation I strongly encourage people to see that the self is an illusion. On the outside it could seem as if I’m working against myself.
It’s the same for a lot of people who meditate. Most meditators accept that no-self is a core truth of reality. But many have also taken intro to psychology classes and have read a lot of self help books that promote healthy acceptance of the self. It is not unusual for people who regularly attend meditation retreats to also do a lot of self-development, such as adult education and travel. Clearly, in meditation circles, it can seem like we are pretty mixed-up about ourselves. It’s as if we have a love-hate relationship with the “self.”
How are we to make sense of this apparent paradox? The self is indeed an illusion, but why care for and cater to it?
The Psychological Self vs. No-Self
The self in Western psychology is viewed as that function of the mind that helps us to organize our experiences. It takes raw sense data, memories, and other cognitive functions and turns them into recognizable narratives. It is critical for everything that we do. Without a strong sense of self, we literally could not make sense of anything that happens to us.
What is fascinating is that in the western psychological view, the “self” or the “executive function” is actually a process and not really a thing. It waxes and wanes all the time, goes into the foreground and background of awareness depending on how much we need it, disappears when we sleep, is not the same as it was when we were little, much less the same as it was last year, and is even subtly different than it was last week.
So far, this should make a lot of sense to both psychologists and meditators. But here is where things get interesting: we all know that processes are not solid and change all the time, yet in this particular process there is a nagging sense that there is a solid permanent “me” hiding in that process somewhere. As if the process itself were a real solid thing in the same way that a table or chair is.
It is this unshakable sense of a solid “me” in the midst of this process that is the “self” that is referred to in the Dharma. When we talk about “no-self” in Buddhism, we are pointing to this sense of a solid self in and calling it an illusion. The process of “selfing” is real, the belief that it is somehow a permanent “me” is not.
To help understand how important this illusion is imagine that another mental process had this same illusion tied to it. Take memory for example. When we experience a memory we know that it isn’t “real” in the sense that it does not have a reality outside or our mental functioning. We know that memories come and go, are subject to change and can be forgotten. But what if every time you remembered something you assumed that the memory itself was “real” in the same way that a table or chair is real. That it was substantial and lasting. Even though you could not literally see or experience the memory with your five senses, you still had the unshakable belief that it was a real and solid thing that is supposed to last. Wouldn’t this be a set-up for frustration? Memories slip and slide out of consciousness and like every other mental function they are subject to dramatic change. If we expected them to never go away and always be there, we would constantly be in distress. This is exactly what is happening with us in terms of the self-process.
While the self-process creates narratives that organize our experiences into something recognizable, the illusion of self is inserted as a main character into all these narratives. We expect the character to be the same all the time, to never change or go away, to be “real.” And yet each moment we are running into a stark reality: the self is not as real as we believe it to be, and it certainly does not last. Over time this sense of solid “me” becomes the most salient feature of all of our experience and our greatest source of anxiety. The fact that we see this constantly changing process as a solid “me” creates endless problems for us because it sets up a never-ending fight between us and reality (and reality never loses).
What is odd is that according to psychology, this sense of a solid self is not an issue. In fact it is not really addressed at all. One part of the psychological literature explains that the self is a cognitive process like any other, and then another part of the literature goes on about protecting and promoting a healthy “self.” The fact that we are taking a process and turning it into a solid thing in our minds is simply not addressed.
In psychology, this point may have been missed because of the bias to study and theorize about pathology rather than health. The illusions and problems inherent in a “normally” functioning mind just don’t get a lot of research lab-time. So most theory in psychology works to get damaged selves back to “normal functioning.” Buddhism on the other hand, starts with the assumption that normal functioning is full of suffering caused by a false sense of self, and works to get people from a state of “normal” to enlightened.
Joining the Psychological Self with No-Self
In the book Transformations of Consciousness Jack Enlger, a psychologist and meditation teacher, attempts to reconcile the eastern and western approaches to self by proposing that these two traditions should be joined in a “spectrum model of self development.” The central idea being that the illusion of a solid self is a necessary developmental step that supports people in their learning and growth, but that once resilient mental health has been attained the direction for further growth lies in the shedding of this illusion.
What is great about this model is that it proposes that you can support someone in building their self-esteem and support another person in seeing through the illusion of self, and you are really doing the same thing: encouraging growth along the spectrum of self development, but from two different points. Further, Engler suggests that movement along the spectrum is a fairly linear process. People must begin with a strong solid self in order to move to the next developmental step of seeing it as an illusion. Engler is famous for boiling this idea down into the phrase: “you have to be somebody before you can be nobody.”
I see a lot of value in Engler’s model, but given my own experiences I would change it sometwhat. Rather than a linear model where the person goes from developing a self to seeing through the illusion of self, I would propose a dimensional model, where self development and insight develop concurrently. This can be imagined as an x/y axis with self development and insight development as separate axes.
This model makes more sense for a number of reasons. First, people who attain very high levels of insight also tend to be greatly engaged in further self development: travel, education, career changes, relationships, etc. They also tend to make the same mistakes that go with self development that people without insight make (any review of the scandals of meditation teachers should confirm this). This is something that you really wouldn’t expect with the linear model, because self development should stop when you reach that part of the spectrum where you are attaining insight into no-self.
In my personal experience, growth in insight has in no way inhibited or stopped self-development, rather it has made the process more fun and easier to understand. At the core of this dimensional model is an assumption that is somewhat different than Engler’s: seeing through the illusion of self does not make the self disappear. The self remains, it continues on in the lived experience, but it is no longer the center of experience anymore. It is put in its proper perspective, as a simple, natural process of the mind, like any other. The sense that this organizing process is a real permanent “me” diminishes with insight. Even with great insight the natural process of growth and change, of what we would call “self development” continues to unfold, but the self is no longer believed to be “real”, it is simply an experience like any other.
So, while on the surface it can seem like we in the enlightenment traditions are pretty mixed up about the self, the opposite is actually true: we are clear about who we are. That does not stop us from growing, having fun and being human. It simply gives us greater awareness of the process.
Ron Crouch is a therapist and meditation teacher based in Hawaii. He is particularly fascinated by the intersection of western psychology and eastern wisdom, and is working on research projects to better understand what happens in meditation in terms of psychology. Like his teacher, Kenneth Folk, he is open about enlightenment and is not shy about making meditation practical and down-to-earth. Ron is a new father who is currently torturing his young family by learning to play the ukulele. A consummate slacker, his favorite place to meditate is in a hammock on the beach. Ron also teaches meditation.
Website: Aloha Dharma
by Ron Crouch
---“Persistence of Memory” by Salvador Dali
Throughout our day we can pause, take a break from our usual thoughts, and wake up to the magic and vastness of the world around us. Pema Chödrön says this easy and spacious type of mindfulness practice is the most important thing we can do with our lives.
One of my favorite subjects of contemplation is this question: “Since death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, what is the most important thing?” You know you will die, but you really don’t know how long you have to wake up from the cocoon of your habitual patterns. You don’t know how much time you have left to fulfill the potential of your precious human birth. Given this, what is the most important thing?
Every day of your life, every morning of your life, you could ask yourself, “As I go into this day, what is the most important thing? What is the best use of this day?” At my age, it’s kind of scary when I go to bed at night and I look back at the day, and it seems like it passed in the snap of a finger. That was a whole day? What did I do with it? Did I move any closer to being more compassionate, loving, and caring—to being fully awake? Is my mind more open? What did I actually do? I feel how little time there is and how important it is how we spend our time.
What is the best use of each day of our lives? In one very short day, each of us could become more sane, more compassionate, more tender, more in touch with the dream-like quality of reality. Or we could bury all these qualities more deeply and get more in touch with solid mind, retreating more into our own cocoon.
Every time a habitual pattern gets strong, every time we feel caught up or on automatic pilot, we could see it as an opportunity to burn up negative karma. Rather than as a problem, we could see it as our karma ripening, which gives us an opportunity to burn up karma, or at least weaken our karmic propensities. But that’s hard to do. When we realize that we are hooked, that we’re on automatic pilot, what do we do next? That is a central question for the practitioner.
One of the most effective means for working with that moment when we see the gathering storm of our habitual tendencies is the practice of pausing, or creating a gap. We can stop and take three conscious breaths, and the world has a chance to open up to us in that gap. We can allow space into our state of mind.
Before I talk more about consciously pausing or creating a gap, it might be helpful to appreciate the gap that already exists in our environment. Awakened mind exists in our surroundings—in the air and the wind, in the sea, in the land, in the animals—but how often are we actually touching in with it? Are we poking our heads out of our cocoons long enough to actually taste it, experience it, let it shift something in us, let it penetrate our conventional way of looking at things?
If you take some time to formally practice meditation, perhaps in the early morning, there is a lot of silence and space. Meditation practice itself is a way to create gaps. Every time you realize you are thinking and you let your thoughts go, you are creating a gap. Every time the breath goes out, you are creating a gap. You may not always experience it that way, but the basic meditation instruction is designed to be full of gaps. If you don’t fill up your practice time with your discursive mind, with your worrying and obsessing and all that kind of thing, you have time to experience the blessing of your surroundings. You can just sit there quietly. Then maybe silence will dawn on you, and the sacredness of the space will penetrate.
Or maybe not. Maybe you are already caught up in the work you have to do that day, the projects you haven’t finished from the day before. Maybe you worry about something that has to be done, or hasn’t been done, or a letter that you just received. Maybe you are caught up in busy mind, caught up in hesitation or fear, depression or discouragement. In other words, you’ve gone into your cocoon.
For all of us, the experience of our entanglement differs from day to day. Nevertheless, if you connect with the blessings of your surroundings—the stillness, the magic, and the power—maybe that feeling can stay with you and you can go into your day with it. Whatever it is you are doing, the magic, the sacredness, the expansiveness, the stillness, stays with you. When you are in touch with that larger environment, it can cut through your cocoon mentality.
On the other hand, I know from personal experience how strong the habitual mind is. The discursive mind, the busy, worried, caught-up, spaced-out mind, is powerful. That’s all the more reason to do the most important thing—to realize what a strong opportunity every day is, and how easy it is to waste it. If you don’t allow your mind to open and to connect with where you are, with the immediacy of your experience, you could easily become completely submerged. You could be completely caught up and distracted by the details of your life, from the moment you get up in the morning until you fall asleep at night.
You get so caught up in the content of your life, the minutiae that make up a day, so self-absorbed in the big project you have to do, that the blessings, the magic, the stillness, and the vastness escape you. You never emerge from your cocoon, except for when there’s a noise that’s so loud you can’t help but notice it, or something shocks you, or captures your eye. Then for a moment you stick your head out and realize, Wow! Look at that sky! Look at that squirrel! Look at that person!
The great fourteenth-century Tibetan teacher Longchenpa talked about our useless and meaningless focus on the details, getting so caught up we don’t see what is in front of our nose. He said that this useless focus extends moment by moment into a continuum, and days, months, and even whole lives go by. Do you spend your whole time just thinking about things, distracting yourself with your own mind, completely lost in thought? I know this habit so well myself. It is the human predicament. It is what the Buddha recognized and what all the living teachers since then have recognized. This is what we are up against.
“Yes, but…,” we say. Yes, but I have a job to do, there is a deadline, there is an endless amount of e-mail I have to deal with, I have cooking and cleaning and errands. How are we supposed to juggle all that we have to do in a day, in a week, in a month, without missing our precious opportunity to experience who we really are? Not only do we have a precious human life, but that precious human life is made up of precious human days, and those precious human days are made up of precious human moments. How we spend them is really important. Yes, we do have jobs to do; we don’t just sit around meditating all day, even at a retreat center. We have the real nitty-gritty of relationships—how we live together, how we rub up against each other. Going off by ourselves, getting away from the people we think are distracting us, won’t solve everything. Part of our karma, part of our dilemma, is learning to work with the feelings that relationships bring up. They provide opportunities to do the most important thing too.
If you have spent the morning lost in thought worrying about what you have to do in the afternoon, already working on it in every little gap you can find, you have wasted a lot of opportunities, and it’s not even lunchtime yet. But if the morning has been characterized by at least some spaciousness, some openness in your mind and heart, some gap in your usual way of getting caught up, sooner or later that is going to start to permeate the rest of your day.
If you haven’t become accustomed to the experience of openness, if you haven’t got any taste of it, then there is no way the afternoon is going to be influenced by it. On the other hand, if you’ve given openness a chance, it doesn’t matter whether you are meditating, working at the computer, or fixing a meal, the magic will be there for you, permeating your life.
As I said, our habits are strong, so a certain discipline is required to step outside our cocoon and receive the magic of our surroundings. The pause practice—the practice of taking three conscious breaths at any moment when we notice that we are stuck—is a simple but powerful practice that each of us can do at any given moment.
Pause practice can transform each day of your life. It creates an open doorway to the sacredness of the place in which you find yourself. The vastness, stillness, and magic of the place will dawn upon you, if you let your mind relax and drop for just a few breaths the storyline you are working so hard to maintain. If you pause just long enough, you can reconnect with exactly where you are, with the immediacy of your experience.
When you are waking up in the morning and you aren’t even out of bed yet, even if you are running late, you could just look out and drop the storyline and take three conscious breaths. Just be where you are! When you are washing up, or making your coffee or tea, or brushing your teeth, just create a gap in your discursive mind. Take three conscious breaths. Just pause. Let it be a contrast to being all caught up. Let it be like popping a bubble. Let it be just a moment in time, and then go on.
You are on your way to whatever you need to do for the day. Maybe you are in your car, or on the bus, or standing in line. But you can still create that gap by taking three conscious breaths and being right there with the immediacy of your experience, right there with whatever you are seeing, with whatever you are doing, with whatever you are feeling.
Another powerful way to do pause practice is simply to listen for a moment. Instead of sight being the predominant sense perception, let sound, hearing, be the predominant sense perception. It’s a very powerful way to cut through our conventional way of looking at the world. In any moment, you can just stop and listen intently. It doesn’t matter what particular sound you hear; you simply create a gap by listening intently.
In any moment you could just listen. In any moment, you could put your full attention on the immediacy of your experience. You could look at your hand resting on your leg, or feel your bottom sitting on the cushion or on the chair. You could just be here. Instead of being not here, instead of being absorbed in thinking, planning, and worrying, instead of being caught up in the cocoon, cut off from your sense perceptions, cut off from the power and magic of the moment, you could be here. When you go out for a walk, pause frequently—stop and listen. Stop and take three conscious breaths. How precisely you create the gap doesn’t really matter. Just find a way to punctuate your life with these thought-free moments. They don’t have to be thought-free minutes even, they can be no more than one breath, one second. Punctuate, create gaps. As soon as you do, you realize how big the sky is, how big your mind is.
When you are working, it’s so easy to become consumed, particularly by computers. They have a way of hypnotizing you, but you could have a timer on your computer that reminds you to create a gap. No matter how engrossing your work is, no matter how much it is sweeping you up, just keep pausing, keep allowing for a gap. When you get hooked by your habit patterns, don’t see it as a big problem; allow for a gap.
When you are completely wound up about something and you pause, your natural intelligence clicks in and you have a sense of the right thing to do. This is part of the magic: our own natural intelligence is always there to inform us, as long as we allow a gap. As long as we are on automatic pilot, dictated to by our minds and our emotions, there is no intelligence. It is a rat race. Whether we are at a retreat center or on Wall Street, it becomes the busiest, most entangled place in the world.
Pause, connect with the immediacy of your experience, connect with the blessings; liberate yourself from the cocoon of self-involvement, talking to yourself all of the time, completely obsessing. Allow a gap, gap, gap. Just do it over and over and over; allow yourself the space to realize where you are. Realize how big your mind is; realize how big the space is, that it has never gone away, but that you have been ignoring it.
Find a way to slow down. Find a way to relax. Find a way to relax your mind and do it often, very, very often, throughout the day continuously, not just when you are hooked but all the time. At its root, being caught up in discursive thought, continually self-involved with discursive plans, worries, and so forth, is attachment to ourselves. It is the surface manifestation of ego-clinging.
So, what is the most important thing to do with each day? With each morning, each afternoon, each evening? It is to leave a gap. It doesn’t matter whether you are practicing meditation or working, there is an underlying continuity. These gaps, these punctuations, are like poking holes in the clouds, poking holes in the cocoon. And these gaps can extend so that they can permeate your entire life, so that the continuity is no longer the continuity of discursive thought but rather one continual gap.
But before we get carried away by the idea of continual gap, let’s be realistic about where we actually are. We must first remind ourselves what the most important thing is. Then we have to learn how to balance that with the fact that we have jobs to do, which can cause us to become submerged in the details of our lives and caught in the cocoon of our patterns all day long. So find ways to create the gap frequently, often, continuously. In that way, you allow yourself the space to connect with the sky and the ocean and the birds and the land and with the blessing of the sacred world. Give yourself the chance to come out of your cocoon.
This teaching is based on a talk given to the monks and nuns at Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, where Pema Chödrön is resident acharya (senior teacher). It has been adapted for a lay audience.
Waking Up to Your World
By Pema Chödrön (from the Shambhala Sun Website)
Waking Up to Your World, Pema Chödrön, Shambhala Sun, September 2008.
In order to discover God you have to stop clinging entirely. Why does one cling to God? For safety, of course. You want to save something; you want to save yourself. I don’t care what you mean by saved, whether it means just feeling happy, or that life is meaningful, or that there is somebody up there who cares. If you do not cling to one god, you cling to another: the state, money, sex, yourself, power. These are all false gods. But there has to come a time when clinging stops; only then does the time of faith begin. People who hold on to God do not have any faith at all, because real faith lies in not holding on to anything.
In the Christian tradition this nonclinging is called the cloud of unknowing. There is a book about it written by a fourteenth-century British monk. He got it from a man called Dionysius the Areopagite, who had assumed the name of Saint Paul’s Athenian convert, a Syrian monk living in the sixth century. Meister Eckehart, Saint Thomas Aquinas, John Scotus Erigena, and many other great medieval theologians studied Dionysius the Areopagite. His book was The Theologica Mystica, in which he explained that, in order to come to full union with God, you must give up every conception of God whatsoever. And he enumerates the concepts that must be given up: don’t think that God is a oneness or a threeness or a unity or a spirit or any kind of anything that the human mind can conceive. He is beyond all that.
This is called apophatic theology, a Greek term that contrasts with catophatic. When you speak catophatically you say what God is like. Dionysius also wrote a book of catophatic theology called The Divine Names. Catophatic theology tells what God is like according to analogy. He is like a father. We do not say God is a cosmic male parent but that he is, in some respect, like a father. This is the catophatic method. The apophatic method says what God is not. All those theologians who followed Dionysius said that the highest way of talking about God is in negative terms, just as, to use Dionysius’s own image, when a sculptor makes a figure he does it entirely by removing stone, by taking away. In that same spirit, Saint Thomas Aquinas said, “Because God, by His infinity, exceeds every idea to which the human mind can reach, the best way to speak of Him is by removal.” That is, removing from our view of God every inadequate concept. This is what the Hindus refer to as neti neti, saying of the Brahman of the supreme reality, “It is not this, it is not this.”
This intellectual operation of destroying concepts must go hand in hand with the psychological operation of ceasing to cling to any image whatsoever. Simply cease to cling, because there is no need to. There is no need to cling because when you were born you were kicked off a precipice. There was a big explosion, and you are falling, and a lot of other things are falling with you, including some pretty large lumps of rock, of which one is called the earth. It will not help you to cling to the rocks, when they are falling, too. It may give you an illusion of safety, but everything is falling, and falling apart. The ancients said, in the words of Heracleitus, “All is transient, all flows.” You cannot cling to anything; it is like grabbing at smoke with a nonexistent hand. Clinging only makes people anxious.
When you come to the realization that you cannot cling to anything, that there is nothing to cling to, there transpires a change of consciousness that we can call either faith or letting go. In Sanskrit they put it this way: — tat tvam asi, — meaning literally “That are thou,” or as we would say, “You are it.” And if you are God, then you cannot have an idea of God any more than you can chew your own teeth. You do not need any idea of God. The sun does not need to shine on itself. Knives do not need to cut themselves. All the things you see on the outside are states of the nervous system in the brain. When the Zen master suddenly discovered that carrying a pail with water in it was a miracle, he realized there isn’t anything except God. If you really know that, you don’t need to have a religion. You can have one, because it is a free world, but you don’t need one. All religion—any outward manifestation of religion—is pure gravy after that realization. It is like a man with lots of money making some more; it is quite unnecessary.
According to the very best theologians, it was never necessary for God to create the world; it did not add anything to Him. He did not have to do it, was under no compulsion. He did it out of what Dionysius the Areopagite called—to anglicize it—super fullness, or, in other words, for kicks. We do not like using that kind of language in connection with God, but it is completely contemporary and exactly right. That is what the Bible says, only it puts it in a more sedate way. It says, “His majesty did it for his pleasure.” That is the way you talk about somebody who is the king. As Queen Victoria said, “We are not amused.”
It says in the Book of Proverbs that the divine wisdom speaks as an attribute of God, but standing aside from God, in a sort of primitive polytheism. The goddess Wisdom says that in the beginning of the world her delight was to play before the divine presence, and especially to play with the sons of men. The word in Hebrew is “play,” but in the King James translation it is “rejoice,” because that is a more sedate word. You may rejoice in church, but not play. You may not have fun in church, but you may rejoice. Do you see the difference? The point of the matter is that there was no reason to make the world, and it was done just to make celestial whoopee. Alleluia. That is why the angels are laughing. Only when you hear it in church, everybody has forgotten what alleluia means. Alleluia is like bird’s song. Bird song is not about anything, it is just for kicks. Why do you sing? Why do you like dancing? What is music for? For kicks. That is what alleluia is. When nothing is being clung to, one gets to the point where everything blows up. That is what is meant in Zen by satori, “sudden awakening.” You suddenly see, “Good heavens, what was I making all that fuss about?” Because here we are. This, right here, is what we have been looking for all the time. It was right here.
Many little children know from the beginning what life is all about, only they haven’t got the words to tell us. That is the whole problem with child psychology. What child psychologists are looking for ideally is an articulate baby who can explain what it is like to be a baby, but they will never find one. By the time you teach a child to speak, you mess it up. You give it language, but it can’t think big thoughts with this funny, limited language, especially using the words children are started out with. Then finally, when they’ve got the poor child completely hypnotized, they tell it the most preposterous things. They tell it that it must be free. They say, “You, child, are an independent agent, and you are responsible. Therefore we command you to love us. We require that you do something which will please us, and that you do it voluntarily.” And no wonder people are mixed up!
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