Learning takes place only in a mind that is innocent and vulnerable.
RAIN is a useful acronym for the four key principles of mindful transformation of difficulties. RAIN stands for Recognition, Acceptance, Investigation, and Nonidentification. A line from Zen poetry reminds us, “the rain falls equally on all things.” Like the nourishment of outer rain, the inner principles of RAIN can be applied to all our experience, and can transform our difficulties.
Recognition is the first step of mindfulness. When we feel stuck, we must begin with a willingness to see what is so. It is as if someone asks us gently, “What is happening now?” Do we rely brusquely, “Nothing”? Or do we pause and acknowledge the reality of our experience, here and now? With recognition we step out of denial. Denial undermines our freedom. The diabetic who denies his body is sick and ignores its needs is not free. Neither is the driven, stressed-out executive who denies the cost of her lifestyle, or the self-critical would-be painter who denies his love of making art. The society that denies its poverty and injustice has lost a part of its freedom as well. If we deny our dissatisfaction, our anger, our pain, our ambition, we will suffer. If we deny our values, our beliefs, our longings, or our goodness, we will suffer.
“The emergence and blossoming of understanding, love, and intelligence has nothing to do with any outer tradition,” observes Zen teacher Toni Packer. “It happens completely on its own when a human being questions, wonders, listens, and looks without getting stuck in fear. When self-concern is quiet, in abeyance, heaven and earth are open.”
With recognition our awareness becomes like the dignified host. We name and inwardly bow to our experience: “Ah, sorrow. Now excitement. Hmm, yes, conflict; and yes, tension. Oh, now pain, yes and now, ah, the judging mind.” Recognition moves us from delusion and ignorance toward freedom. “We can light a lamp in the darkness,” says the Buddha. We can see what is so.
The next step of RAIN is acceptance. Acceptance allows us to relax and open to the facts before us. It is necessary because with recognition there can come a subtle aversion, a resistance, a wish it weren’t so. Acceptance does not mean that we cannot work to improve things. But just now, this is what is so. In Zen they say, “If you understand, things are just are they are. And if you don’t understand, things are still just as they are.”
Acceptance is not passivity. It is a courageous step in the process of transformation. “Trouble? Life is trouble. Only death is nice,” Zorba the Greek declares. “To live is to roll up your sleeves and embrace trouble.” Acceptance is a willing movement of the heart to include whatever is before it. In individual transformation we have to acknowledge the reality of our own suffering. For social transformation we have to start with the reality of collective suffering, of injustice, racism, greed, and hate. We can transform the world just as we learn to transform ourselves. As Carl Jung comments, “Perhaps I myself am the enemy who must be loved.”
With acceptance and respect, problems that seem intractable often become workable. A man began to give large doses of cod liver oil to his Doberman because he had been told that the stuff was good for dogs. Each day he would hold the head of the protesting dog between his knees, forces its jaws open, and pour the liquid down its throat. One day the dog broke loose and the fish oil spilled on the floor. Then, to the man’s great surprise, the dog returned to lick the puddle. That is when the man discovered that what the dog had been fighting was not the oil but his lack of respect in administering it. With acceptance and respect, surprising transformations can occur.
Recognition and acceptance lead to the third step of RAIN, investigation. Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh calls this “seeing deeply.” In recognition and acceptance we recognize our dilemma and accept the truth of the whole situation. Now we must investigate more fully. Buddhism teaches that whenever we are stuck, it is because we have not looked deeply enough into the nature of the experience.
Buddhist practice systematically directs our investigation to four areas that are critical for understanding and freedom. These are called the four foundations of mindfulness—body, feelings, mind, and dharma—the underlying principles of experience.
Here is how we can apply them when working with a difficult experience. Staring with investigation in the body, we mindfully locate where our difficulties are held. Sometimes we find sensations of heat, contraction, hardness, or vibration. Sometimes we notice throbbing, numbness, a certain shape or color. We can investigate whether we are meeting this with resistance or with mindfulness. We notice what happens as we hold these sensations with mindfulness and kindness. Do they open? Are there other layers? Is there a center? Do they intensify, move, expand, change, repeat, dissolve or transform?
In the second foundation of mindfulness, we can investigate what feelings are part of this difficulty. Is the primary feeling tone pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral? Are we meeting this feeling with mindfulness? And what are the secondary feelings associated with it? Often we discover a constellation of feelings.
A man remembering his divorce may feel sadness, anger, jealousy, loss, fear, and loneliness. A woman who was unable to help her addicted nephew can feel longing, aversion, guilt, desire, emptiness, and unworthiness. With mindfulness, each feeling is recognized and accepted. We investigate how each emotion feels, whether it is pleasant or painful, contracted or relaxed, tense or sad. We notice where we feel the emotion in our body and what happens to it as it is held in mindfulness.
Next comes the mind. What thoughts and images are associated with this difficulty? What stories, judgments, and beliefs are we holding? When we look more closely, we often discover that many of them are one-sided, fixed points of view or outmoded, habitual perspectives. When we see that they are only stories, they loosen their hold on us. We cling less to them.
The fourth foundation to investigate is called mindfulness of the dharma. Dharma is an important and multifaceted word that can mean “the teachings and the path of Buddhism.” It can also mean “the truth, the elements and patterns that make up experience.” In mindfulness of the dharma we look into the principles and laws that are operating. We can notice if an experience is actually as solid as it appears. Is it unchanging or is it impermanent, moving, shifting, re-creating itself? We notice if the difficulty expands or contracts the space in our mind, if it is in our control or if it has its own life. We notice if it is self-constructed. We investigate whether we are clinging to it, struggling with it, or simply letting it be. We see whether our relationship to it is a source of suffering or happiness. And finally, we notice how much we identify with it. This leads us to the last step of RAIN, nonidentification.
In nonidentification we stop taking the experience as “mine” or part of “me.” We see how identification creates dependence, anxiety, and inauthenticity. In practicing nonidentification, we inquire of every state, experience, and story, is this who I really am? We see the tentativeness of this identity. Instead of identification with this difficulty, we let go and rest in awareness itself. This is the culmination of releasing difficulty through RAIN.
One Buddhist practitioner, David, identified himself as a failure. His life had many disappointments, and after a few years of Buddhist practice, he was disappointed by his meditation too. He became calmer but that was all. He was still plagued by unrelenting critical thoughts and self-judgments, leftovers from a harsh and painful past. He identified with these thoughts and his wounded history. Even the practice of compassion for himself brought little relief.
Then, during a ten-day mindfulness retreat, he was inspired by the teachings on nonidentification. He was touched by the stories of those who faced their demons and freed themselves. He remembered the account of the Buddha, who on the night of his enlightenment faced the armies and temptations of Mara, a powerful demon of Buddhist folklore who personifies our difficulties and obstacles on the path. David decided to stay up all night and directly face his own demons. For many hours, he tried to be mindful of his breath and body.
In between sittings, he took periods of walking meditation. At each sitting, he was washed over by familiar waves of sleepiness, body pains, and critical thoughts. Then he began to notice that each changing experience was met by one common element, awareness itself. In the middle of the night, he had an “aha” moment. He realized that awareness was not affected by any of these experiences, that it was open and untouched, like space itself. All his struggles, the painful feelings and thoughts, came and went without the slightest disturbance to awareness itself.
Awareness became his refuge. David decided to test his realization. The meditation hall was empty so he rolled on the floor. Awareness just noticed. He stood up, shouted, laughed, made funny animal noises. Awareness just noticed. He ran around the room, he lay down quietly, he went outside to the edge of the forest, he picked up a stone and threw it, jumped up and down, laughed, came back and sat. Awareness just noticed it all. Finding this, he felt free. He watched the sun rise softly over the hills. Then he went back to sleep for a time. And when he reawakened, his day was fully of joy. Even when his doubts came back, awareness just noticed. Like the rain, his awareness allowed all things equally.
It would be too rosy to end this story here. Later in the retreat David again fell into periods of doubt, self-judgement, and depression. But now, even in the middle of it, he could recognize that it was just doubt, just judgment, just depression. He could not take it fully as his identity anymore. Awareness noticed this too. And was silent, free.
Buddhism calls nonidentification the abode of awakening, the end of clinging, true peace, nirvana. Without identification we can live with care, yet we are no longer bound by the fears and illusions of the small sense of self. We see the secret beauty behind all that we meet. Mindfulness and fearless presence bring true protection. When we meet the world with recognition, acceptance, investigation, and nonidentification, we discovery that wherever we are, freedom is possible, just as the rain falls on and nurtures all things equally.
Excerpted from Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are by Jack Kornfield. Copyright (c) 2011 by Jack Kornfield. By permission of Shambhala Productions. Available wherever books are sold.
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Aversion, anger, and hatred are states of mind that strike against experience, pushing it away, rejecting what is presented in the moment. They do not come from without. This insight is a reversal of the ordinary way we perceive life. “Usually,” says Ajahn Chah, “we believe outer problems attack us.” Things are wrong and people misbehave, causing our hatred and suffering to arise. But however painful our experiences may be, they are just painful experiences until we add the response of aversion or hatred. Only then does suffering arise. If we react with hatred and aversion, these qualities become habitual. Like a distorted autoimmune response, our misguided reaction of hatred does not protect us; rather, it becomes the cause of our continued unhappiness.
The Buddha declares, “Enraged with hate, with mind ensnared, humans aim at their own ruin and at the ruin of others.” How do we break this tragic legacy—both in our own lives and in every blood-soaked corner of the globe? Only through a deep understanding of anger, hatred, and aggression. They are universal energies, archetypal forces that cause immense suffering in the world. Their source must be traced in the depths of our human hearts. And then we will discover an amazing truth: that with compassion, with courage and dedicated effort, we, like the Buddha, can meet the aggressive forces of our own mind and of others, and these energies can be transformed.
Freud and his followers believed the aggressive instincts to be primary. Culture’s “commandment to love one’s neighbour as oneself…is really justified by the fact that nothing else runs so strongly counter to original human nature as this.” Later, in the aftermath of World War II, sociobiologists such as Konrad Lorenz and Robert Ardrey hypothesized that our species, like our predecessor apes and many other animals, had necessary and inevitable instincts of territoriality and aggression.Today, evolutionary biology and neuroscience are carefully charting the genetic function and neural mechanisms of aggression.
But the fact that aggression, anger, and aversion are built into our universal heritage is only the starting point in Buddhist psychology. After we learn how to face them directly, to see how they arise and function in our life, we must take a revolutionary step. Through the profound practice of insight, through nonidentification and compassion, we reach below the very synapses and cells and free ourselves from the grasp of these instinctive forces.With dedication, we discover it is possible to do so.
Aversion and anger almost always arise as a direct reaction to a threatening or painful situation. If they are not understood they grow into hatred. As we have seen, pain and loss are undeniable parts of human life. Buddhist texts speak of a mountain of pain. They tell us our tears of grief could fill all four great oceans. When our experience is one of pain, hurt, loss, or frustration, our usual habit is to draw back in aversion or strike out in anger, to blame or run away.
Like pain, fear is the other common predecessor to anger and hate—fear of loss, of hurt, of embarrassment, of shame, of weakness, of not knowing. When fear arises, anger and aversion function as strategies to help us feel safe, to declare our strength and security. In fact, we actually feel insecure and vulnerable, but we cover this fear and vulnerability with anger and aggression. We do this at work, in marriage, on the road, in politics. A fearful situation turns to anger when we can’t admit we are afraid. As the poet Hafiz writes, “Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I’d rather see you in better living conditions.” Without insight, we are doomed to live our lives in this cheap room.
Fortunately, we can train ourselves to live with mindfulness, to meet fear and pain with wisdom instead of with the habits of aversion and anger. When a painful or threatening event arises, we can open our eyes to it. When we learn to bear our own pain and face our own fears, we will no longer blame and inflict it on others, neither family members nor other tribes. With mindfulness, instead of reacting, we can respond with spacious clarity, purpose, firmness, and compassion. A wise response includes whatever action, fierce at times, is the most caring toward life, our own and others’.
Imagine a healthy mind as one that is free from entanglement in any level of hatred. At first this might seem impossible, an idealistic attempt to impose decorum on our innately aggressive human nature. But freedom from hatred is not spiritual repression, it is wisdom in the face of pain and fear.
In a healthy response to pain and fear, we establish awareness before it becomes anger. We can train ourselves to notice the gap between the moments of sense experience and the subsequent response. Because of the particle-like nature of consciousness, we can enter the space between instinct and action, between impulse and reaction.To do so we must learn to tolerate our pain and fear. This is not easy. As James Baldwin put it, “Most people discover that when hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with their own pain.”
That’s why we start by paying attention to small things, small pains and disappointments. When I start to get into an argument with my wife, if I pay attention I notice that I usually feel hurt or afraid. If I speak to her angrily, she will become defensive and the argument will grow. But if I’m mindful, I can talk about the hurt or fears instead of being lost in anger and blame.Then my wife becomes interested and concerned. Out of this a different and more honest conversation occurs.
"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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Let us look at the qualities of spiritual maturity:
Nonidealism: The mature heart is not perfectionistic: it rests in the compassion of our being instead of in ideals of the mind. Nonidealistic spirituality does not seek a perfect world; it does not seek to perfect ourselves, our bodies, our personalities. It is not romantic about teachers or enlightenment based on images of the immense purity of some special being out there. Thus, it does not seek to gain or attain in spiritual life, but only to love and be free.
The frustration of seeking perfection is illustrated by a story of Mullah Nasrudin. One day in the marketplace he encountered an old friend who ! was about to get married. This friend asked the Mullah whether he had ever considered marriage. Nasrudin replied that years ago he had wanted to marry and had set out to find the perfect woman. First he traveled to Damascus, where he found a perfectly gracious and beautiful woman but discovered she was lacking a spiritual side. Then his travels took him farther to Isfahan, where he met a woman who was deeply spiritual yet comfortable in the world and beautiful as well, but unfortunately they did not communicate well together. “Finally in Cairo I found her,” he said, “she was the ideal woman, spiritual, gracious, and beautiful, at ease in the world, perfect in every way.” “Well,” asked the friend, “did you then marry her?” “No,” answered the Mullah, “unfortunately, she was looking for the perfect man.”
Mature spirituality is not based on seeking perfection, on achieving some imaginary sense of purity. It is based simply on the capacity to let go and to love, to open the heart to all that is. Without ideals, the heart can turn the suffering and imperfections we encounter into the path of compassion. In this nonidealistic practice, the divine can shine through even in acts of ignorance and fear, inviting us to wonder at the mystery of all that is. In this there is no judgment and no blame, for we seek not to perfect the world but to perfect our love for what is on this earth. Thomas Merton saw it this way.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths where neither sin nor desire can reach, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way there would be no reason for war, for hatred, for cruelty ... I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
- A second quality of mature spirituality is kindness,. It is based on a fundamental notion of self-acceptance, rather than guilt, blame, or shame, for the ignorant acts we’ve committed or the fears that still remain within us. It understands that opening requires the warm sun of loving- kindness. It is all too easy to turn spirituality and religion into what Alan Watts called “a grim duty.” Poet Mary Oliver wrote:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves . . .
In deep self-acceptance grows a compassionate understanding. As one Zen master said when asked if he ever gets angry, “Of course I get angry, but then a few minutes later I say to myself, ‘What’s the use of this,’ and I let it go.” This self-acceptance is at least half of our spiritual practice. We are asked to touch with mercy the many parts of ourself that we have denied, cut off, or isolated. Mature spirituality is a reflection of dour deep gratitude and capacity for forgiveness. As the Zen poet Edward Espe Brown writes in The Tassajara Recipe Book:
Any moment, preparing this meal, we could be gas thirty thousand feet in the air soon to fall out poisonous on leaf, frond and fur. Everything in sight would cease.
And still we cook, putting a thousand cherished dreams on the table, to nourish and reassure those close and dear.
In this act of cooking, I bid farewell.
Always I insisted you alone were to blame.
This last instant my eyes open and I regard you with all the tenderness and forgiveness I withheld for so long.
With no future
we have nothing
to fight about.
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