Updated On — 27th Jul, 2020
I am often asked why I meditate. Sometimes it’s phrased – What are you trying to accomplish by just sitting on a cushion?
“Since my house burned down
I now have a better view
of the rising moon”
This moving haiku was written by Mizuta Masahide, a 17th century poet and samurai. It has spoken to me deeply many times. I can see it clearly engraved in my heart, especially when it turns to stone, as it did when we learned 2 weeks ago we have to have to vacate our current house – and home of the Aloha Sangha community I love so much.
I am often asked why I meditate. Sometimes it’s phrased –
What are you trying to accomplish by just sitting on a cushion?
Depending on who asks, I answer something like – To clearly see why I suffer, and with that understanding to cultivate peace of mind and a kind heart.
I have personally found mindfulness practice does just that.
After his own spiritual awakening, the Buddha distilled his understanding of our human situation into three insights, traditionally known, in an awkward sounding translation, as the three marks of existence.
The three facts of life
Let’s just call them the three facts of life:
- Everything is temporary;
- We habitually react to our world with resistance, felt as tension and suffering; and
- Nothing solidly happens by itself, everything is contingent on causes and conditions.
There is a cool, refreshing relief I feel when I acknowledge these facts for myself. They help me appreciate what’s truly important in this fleeting world.
They wake me up as I move through my life in a kind of daze, checking email on my phone, going from one task and one distraction to another.
Because everything is changing, a flower has poignancy.
When I realize this I pause.
And because everything is evanescent, everything is precious. Our obligation is to spend this moment well, with wisdom and compassion
Because I suffer at times, “the sure heart’s release” is more appealing.
And because everything is contingent on something else, I appreciate my interconnection and responsibility to everyone and everything.
The Korean monk Haemin Sunim, in his lovely book The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down, expresses the third fact in this way:
The whole universe is contained in an apple wedge in a lunch box. Apple tree, sunlight, cloud, rain, earth, air, farmer’s sweat are all in it. Delivery truck, gas, market, money, cashier’s smile are all in it. Refrigerator, knife, cutting board, mother’s love are all in it.
Everything in the whole universe depends on one another.
The Buddha taught that deeply experiencing these three facts with mindfulness in our daily life brings about wisdom and compassion, and greatly eases our distress and anxiety. I love Sylvia Boorstein’s line:
Life is like a continuous quiz show where the only question ever asked is, “How are you going to manage whatever is happening now without confusing yourself and creating suffering?
And daily life is the best place to practice releasing needless suffering and growing in love and compassion. Our everyday lives serve up unending opportunities that catch us, triggering our habitual reactions of “liking and disliking.”
Mindfulness allows us to catch ourselves before life does.
The issue is we find ourselves wanting to have a different experience in other than the one we are having.
For example, folks are often drawn to meditation out of a desire to feel better in some way. But if we meditate with this desire to feel good, we selectively internalize that meditation is all about feeling good, calm, and peaceful.
And when we don’t feel calm or peaceful, we can get frustrated, even agitated.
Despite repeated encouragement to relax and let go of our ideas about meditation, and our fantasies of how we should feel when it works, it can take a while for this to really sink in.
Crucial to the practice is learning to be radically OK with ourselves just as we are in the present moment. In doing so, we also let go of the notion of self-improvement.
Mindfulness meditation often starts out by working with an uncooperative and rebellious mind. You know this mind-it’s the one that spaces out, goes into la-la land, feels anxious, and wants out.
It’s the mind that opens its eyes during group meditation, looks at the clock, and says “Ugh, ten more minutes!”
Mindfulness takes us right up to the boundaries of our physical and emotional discomfort. But it allows us to be OK there, to settle down, and lose the fear.
Folks who meditate in order to feel better often find the opposite. Eventfully they see that it’s the letting go of the wanting of happiness, that actually brings it!
Sayadaw U Tejaniya of Burma writes:
Don’t practice with a mind that wants something or wants something to happen. The result will only be that you tire yourself out.
In time you will delight in ordinary mental presence, and you forget about extraordinary anything. Extraordinary experiences are not the goal of meditation. They do come and go, as side –effects of your practice.
This is a huge turning point in your practice – the more you let go, the happier you are. You clearly see that ultimate liberation is the ultimate letting go of everything.
I will leave you this week with the words of the Thai forest teacher Ajahn Chah.
Do everything with a mind that lets go. Don’t accept praise or gain or anything else. If you let go a little you a will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace.
Hey, is that a moon I see up there?