Because we care, we choose to practice.
We yearn for peace, for genuine happiness. And so we come to the cushion and engage with the crux of our predicament: what does it mean to be here?
The feeling of being here is the gateway to all life’s vicissitudes, from the ever-shifting sensory landscape around us to our personal thoughts and emotions. It all arises right here.
We often neglect the fullness of presence in favour of a reliance on thought. But thought is only one small part of being here, and it tends to ride on the back of a lot of unconscious emotional conditioning that we pick up through parents, culture and complete accident.
And so we accept the invitation and allow our attention to come to rest in the present moment. We do this through focusing on what is always present to us: the body, and in particular, the breath. Moment to moment, feel any movement, heat, pressure, tension or tingling associated with the breath, in the abdomen. Feel the breath, in the breath.
But for something so readily available, staying attentive to the breath is not as easy it seems - within seconds the mind begins to wander, to get distracted, to question the practice, to re-stream the past and concoct the future. Why is it so hard to just be here?
After the inevitable frustration with our apparent inability to stay with the breath, we begin to realise the extent to which our minds are dominated by a largely unconscious push and pull with our own experience. These demands, defences and distractions consume our attention and create a world of things to own, to have - to protect and reject.
But this ‘thingness’ is an illusion - we are open processes, surrounded by and immersed within other processes in constant flux and co-evolution. Or as the Buddha put it, all things are impermanent. And yet our dream of happiness is based on the desire to make permanent some part of this hurricane of sense. And it hurts when we want things to be other than they are.
So we accept the invitation again: to be here, now, with the patience and forgiveness to return, again and again and again, and to be understanding when we fail, again and again and again.
This forgiveness is itself integral to the transformative nature of meditation, rather than a frustrating interlude. We often believe that focusing on the breath and the ensuing clarity is where the ‘real meditation’ happens and punish ourselves when we inevitably get distracted. But these judgements of inadequacy and failure are part of the same illusion, and play a central role in our war with experience.
If the mind has wandered, it has wandered; if there is anger, there is anger - regardless of what we might want, right now, these are the truths of our experience. See this, and then gently return to the breath.
These different facets of experience have no intrinsic value over each other. They are all just a part of what is happening, at any moment. In fact the content is not so important - the mind spins any fantasy it can get a hold of. What is important is our sincere intent to truly experience the agony or the ecstasy, to know this life as it unfolds, right now.
Through an intimacy with our own experience, we come to know first hand, as it happens, that clinging or resenting different parts of our experience is stressful. This isn’t something we have to believe - the first moments of the mind releasing its hold on experience can bring a profound peace. Finally, some respite.
As the controlling tendencies of the mind begin to slow or stop, a palpable spaciousness can open up. Through the intent to courageously experience whatever arises, we realise that this spaciousness is vast enough to gently hold all of life’s dissapointment, stress and suffering, without the need to turn away. There is the potential to give old tensions new space to breathe, to finally have their say and go on their way.
Tensions dissolve of their own accord, once the contraction holding them in place is loosened with a curious, caring attention. However, the call to ‘let go’ can very easily become co-opted into ‘pushing away’, and once again we are fighting experience.
All I can do is to let life unfold in the space of awareness, rather than the contraction of expectation. The rest follows naturally.
As our practice deepens we come to see that mindfulness is a means to tune into something more fundamental; awareness itself, this mysterious knowing at the heart of life. We can also choose to enquire further - Who is aware? What is knowing? How much effort does it take to be aware?
Insight into the effortlessness of awareness reveals to us that the peace we so persistently seek is already here. Freedom is already free, and we can slowly grow into it not by carving out our own idea of freedom, but by intimately knowing the ways in which we lock ourselves out of it.
Where exactly this practice will take us is unknowable. Transformation is always unimaginable. If we could imagine it, it wouldn’t be a transformation. We don’t know where we’re going, but we can know where we are, and we can consciously orient this presence in ways which are more skillful and less stressful.
What you support, grows. When we support clarity, equanimity and spaciousness, these qualities grow, and our experience of life alters accordingly. If we can match our determination and sincerity with as much self-forgiveness and compassion, awakening is unstoppable. Our capacity for self-forgiveness is actually limitless, and there is something very profound in this.
Because we care, we struggle through life trying to find happiness in dreams that quickly recede in the transience of the world. But by maintaining contact with our moment to moment experience, by caring about what is actually here, and by being curious about what it means to be here, we learn from the struggle.
We come to freedom through knowing how we suffer. We are transformed through a conscious experience of the struggle. And as some of our more superficial desires wither, our ultimate desire, for peace, for happiness, for rest, can slowly ripen into a living actuality: here and now.
This post was inspired by my recent retreat experience at Gaia House. The retreat was “Right now, it’s like this…” led by Martin Aylward
5 May 2013