Musing It has taken me a few days to find my voice since the election. Like many, I was surprised by the results and taken aback by a strong wash of feelings that begged to be examined.
The initial reaction was one of shock: I had a hard time believing the results even as I was watching them. The results were so unexpected that I had to examine my strong sense that things would go as I had imagined. The fact that it didn’t left me feeling a bit groundless- as if ‘my’ world had disappeared. I was stunned by the complacency that came with a certainty of my position.
This groundlessness brought forth a cluster of (among other things) fear, sadness and blame: fear of what may be, sadness at the perceived loss of beloved values and standards and a blame directed at everyone who would make me feel so uncomfortable.
The days went on and time on the cushion held the powerful reactions enough that they could be seen and known. Hidden in the swirl of thoughts and emotions was the growing recognition that I was completely ignorant of the apparent pain and suffering of many of my fellow citizens. I have been happily ensconced on the West Coast and supportive of all the steps for a more inclusive country. I did not realize that this inclusion would be threatening to others both socially and economically. I did not see the pain of my fellow citizens. I did not see or hear ‘the other.’ But, the election broke through my ‘ignore-ance’ and I see and hear them now.
Time on the cushion also showed the pain brought on by strong emotions stirred by rhetoric and fear. It became clear that the pull of extreme views had stretched me beyond looking at causes and conditions and right into dyadic thinking with its either-or thinking and black and white coloring. The harsh language became a condition for moving to the extremes. The smoothness and ease of watching things unfold was lost to a grip of panic that hardened and solidified my reactions and thoughts.
But- what about this situation is so new? The external world has always been beyond our control and moves along as it does. At times, we approve of its movement and, at others, we don’t. When we don’t we try to fix things to get back to our comfort. It is an aspect of dukkha the Buddha identified for us: getting too much of what we don’t want and not enough of what we do. This distress has been part of the human condition as long as there have been humans and is one of the areas of investigation in practice. And yet- we struggle against it, perhaps trying to undo or change what is uncomfortable/ aversive and try to move to our comfortable state. But- what is our comfortable state? Is it an external thing or is it an approach to the external? How do we keep our balance when the external circumstances have changed?
One fact to realize during these times is that YOU haven’t changed, only the world around you. You still have a practice to examine things, the unique perspective that practice brings and the growing knowledge of skillful action. You can still act in ways that express your values and ethical behavior. In a way, this has always been a truth: that the external world will change and present us with different circumstances which we have to address. This is no different than it ever has been. Now, however, we are seeing this truth in stark relief.
What a great time for practice! I have been asked recently “What do we do?” I think we just keep on with our practice and let that help us see wise action. As much as we are able, we continue to act in accordance with the Path to consider the effects of our words and actions, to develop compassion from the dregs of our suffering, and to begin to see ‘the other’. We can still do what we do no matter what the world around us is doing. The steady course is within us- not around us.
It seems we are being presented with a new and horrific tragedy every day. It is more than difficult to absorb the news of an increasing spate of terrorist attacks or witness the powerful images of the shooting deaths of our fellow citizens or to hear the stories of survivors and loved ones. The turbulence of the times can cause one to wonder what holds to be true anymore; as if the old ways just aren’t holding and nothing else has formed. There is uncertainty, a sort of groundlessness where there just does not seem much to support or steady us. And, it’s not as if the rest of our life goes on hold; it keeps right on happening as well. Even if we do not have to personally endure a terrorist attack, we still have serious uncertainties and stress in our daily lives. Our sittings can be filled with difficult, often painful and frightening emotions, thoughts and reactions.
Over the years, it has been my privilege to be with many of you as you have examined these feelings. Many of you have felt this groundlessness, this loss of the predictable, in your personal lives and have reported on it individually or in sangha. One of the most heartening phenomena I have seen come out your process was the renewed reliance on practice to address these heartaches, to find the something that could be relied upon.
In this course of this exploration, many of you mentioned a developing recognition for self-care: of holding one’s self dear while going through these trials, of a humble recognition of our limits, of a caring and tenderness for one’s being. These are often described along with feelings of compassion, friendliness and kindness towards one’s self. It occurs to me that the development of a wise and caring heart may require just this sort of painful examination.
In our sittings, as we seek refuge through the pain of our thoughts, we might be able to notice a quiet that holds us, a certain softness that supports us while we wrestle. This space is different than the arguing and rationalizing mind. It is more of an approach than a decision, more of a quality than a definition; it holds a space and offers support. It is often marked by gentleness and interest and permission to be. And, while it supports us as we examine our experience, it seems to suggest another approach to the very same experience.
One of my favorite metta prayers begins with “May we dwell in our hearts” and ends with “May our hearts flower.” Perhaps we are experiencing some of this flowering. In the midst of any preoccupying troubles, let us not forget to notice and cultivate the flowers growing within us.
Another ski season has come and gone and I find myself tallying the bodily effects of my participation in the sport. Old aches and pains are reactivated and new ones have been added. As I go over these various points, I find I can recall their origin: this one from the most recent encounter with a tree, this is the exacerbation of a fall I took as a kid, this is the old ache that resurfaces every season- but each time with a bit more presence. Additionally, some are so general as to defy knowledge of origin. We do get to know our bodies in this life! Our intimate knowledge of our physical state over our lifetime can reveal the partial map of our choices and their effects.
I began to muse upon this as another way to see karma. Usually karma seems so distant and indistinct as to be more conceptual than experiential. Perhaps the exploration of our choices for our bodies can show us something of the ways of karma. Karma results from our intentional acts of speech, thought and action. It is also the basis for those thoughts, words and deeds. Karma means ‘to act’ or ‘action’ and is closely related to the word sankhara which means to ‘act with’ or ‘act together.’ These sankharas are the habits of minds that lead us to choose one thing over another and so begin to define our interests and attention. They are both ancient within us and yet arise anew in each situation.
So- how can bodily aches and pains teach us something of karma and its ways? Karma is said to plant seeds that ripen over time. Just as the minor sprain I took as a child was barely noticeable at the time, it remains in the body and becomes a bit more strained with each season of use. Over time, the body holds itself in such a way as to be reflective of this strain. Another example could be that certain aches and pains only arise in certain conditions (i.e., skiing) and then go dormant until the next season when they rise up again.
Karma is like that. Patterns can solidify into set ways that define (and maybe limit) the way we experience ourselves. Also, patterns reoccur at times when conditions are right for them to do so. What we set into motion has an effect that is both immediate and long-term. Our actions have an effect at the time and also set ‘seeds’ that will ‘ripen’ over time into ‘fruits’. Normally, we think of karma as something mysterious and ephemeral but karma is happening all the time. What you are thinking and experiencing is the result of your karma; it is the result of what you have thought and done and will affect the trajectory of what you can think and do. Karma has to do with those mental habits that define what we can experience and how we can respond.
While we cannot find the origins to our thinking as easily as we can a sore body part, meditation can serve to bring awareness to these karmic patterns. We can often see a pattern of behavior that began when we were young that has grown with us into a set way of responding to the world…..and the results of that choice on ourselves and others. We can begin to evaluate the skillfulness of such patterns and their effect on our happiness. As we uproot and explore the thinking and views that support some of our habitual patterns, we can perhaps discover other aspects of our experience that support us differently and lead to different outcomes. Karma is a fluid force. Choose your actions wisely today; they will create your tomorrow.
January has always been one of my favorite months. I appreciate its stark simplicity after the decorated exuberance of December. I also find this cold quiet time conducive to reflection. Indeed, the name of January comes from the Roman god Janus who had the ability to look both forward to the future and back at what has been. During this time of traditional resolution making, I find this looking back to be quite beneficial. Perhaps our intentions are best served when they are based on knowledge of what has been rather than simply looking forward towards what we think would be good or helpful. May our intentions be based on our growing knowledge.
In Recollective Awareness meditation, we develop our ability to look into what has been, to explore beyond the obvious, to discover views that have defined our actions and words. Looking back over the past year, you, too, perhaps have some stark memories of your words and actions-some of which may bolster you and some you may regret. If bolstered, look to what bolstered you. If regret, let the regret guide your considerations. The recognition of one’s ability to hurt another can be painful knowledge but it can also lead on to more compassion for yourself and the other.
Perhaps the year has brought the loss of loved ones. In the painfulness of the loss, there is also a knowing of the fragility of life and our wonder-ful connections with each other. May we nurture each other in ways that reflect this cherishing and knowedge of fragility.
Each year brings with it a host of conditions that affect us. Your growing practice is one of those conditions. As you sit in meditation and reflect back afterwards, you are developing the capacity to tolerate difficult feelings. This tolerance can allow you the freedom to explore the experience a bit more to see what else is there- to discover underlying views or opinions as well as hidden supports. Practice can be your companion and offer a unique perspective on your situation.
May your thoughts of the future be based on your knowledge of the past.
With metta, Mary