Some time ago, I wrote about practice as a way of return, of recollection, of remembering…..coming down out of our thoughts and memories and dreams, to the experience of being in a living, breathing body, here and now. I wrote about how this movement of return can feel like a last resort, something we turn to when all our thinking and distractions fail.
This week the universe taught me a deeper lesson. On Sunday, I taught a meditation workshop in the morning in celebration of the International Day of Peace that is sponsored by the United Nations. Afterwards, a group of about 55 people made their way into Manhattan for a tour of the U.N. and an enjoyable day in NYC. A wonderful big group turned out and we were even able to see part of The People’s Climate March where almost 400,000 people came together in peace to shine a spotlight on environmental issues ahead of the U.N. Climate Summit that began today. Afterwards, the energy was so powerful and exciting that I practically sprinted to Grand Central Station. I was so happy! I felt so blessed to be able to share the wonderful art of meditation, the art of return, to a big, diverse group of people. I felt with life and in perfect agreement with it.
I took my seat on Metro North, began to search for my book in my Nun’s bag and I realized I had been pickpocketed! The envelope with all the money that had come to me in that beautiful spirit of dana (generosity) was gone! In an instant I felt bereft. The city had been beautiful and full of light and now it was all in darkness…..hurt, battled with rage and even embarrassment. Years ago, my cousin had been pick pocketed and she shouted on a subway after she discovered she was robbed: “I’m a life long New Yorker! I was born here!” As though only tourists deserve to be robbed.
Then hurt and self-pity took over. All that effort….I had planned to use the dana to support the apple picking event that is held with a local orphanage…only to have the dana snatched from me! I began to tell myself about how unfair it was, how cursed I was….WAIT…what was I saying to myself? The awareness seeped in that I had been teaching all day….all week….just about most of my adult life….about the way spiritual practice allows you to be with life as it arises, about the way it allows you to find a freedom and happiness that isn’t welded to what is happening.
Practice opens up the space between stimulus and response….from the minute level of stimulus that is constantly streaming in (car horns, sirens, indigestion), to the macro level of robberies, floods, Academy Award nominations or bad reviews. The movement of return, of recollection, of breathing and sensation helps us remember that we have a choice. I realized that I couldn’t change what happened….life is quite surprising, in spite of our best efforts. Yet, I didn’t have to go into a story about it. I could choose not to believe I was cursed or assign blame or any of the rest of it. I did not have to make an identity out of it. I could simply relate to it as something that happened. Before it happened, I had been soaring along, with life. Was I not still with life?
Whoosh….in flowed a vibrancy and light and freedom. I saw that things happen.
I once had the strangely unique experience of having my monastic badges, driver’s license and malas stolen during a retreat in monastery. Reporting the theft to a State Trooper so I could get a new driver’s license, I mused to him that what was so strange was that the theft happened at a place where nothing bad ever happened. He looked at me as if I had just dropped in from Mars. Good and bad things happen everywhere. Life goes up and down. The gift of spiritual practice is that our deeper peace and happiness, our sense of connectedness to a greater whole, doesn’t depend on what happens. It gives us a capacity to open to a deeper truth, a greater whole.
Later on Sunday evening, I looked up the word “bereft,” and discovered that it comes from a root that literally means to be robbed or have something snatched from you….not just money or property but deeper qualities like dignity, freedom, happiness. This is what injustice feels like, I realized. This is what many beings feel every day. Bereft. I also realized that the feeling among the group of us….the feeling of mutual dana or generosity…..could not be stolen. This is not hippy delusion….if we are a little bit more free inside, we can see more.
When something shocking or upsetting happens, when loss or blame….or wild good fortune happens….where do you turn? If you are like me, there are favorite stories you can slip into like old sweaters, cozy but ugly…..stories about being unlucky or unloved or cursed. And what is it like to not to put on the sweater of failure? What would it be like to dwell in the space between praise and blame, stimulus and response. To listen to the silence instead of the old stories?
For Dad….Happy Birthday.Wishing you so much love on your new journey…. Sung from one of my longtime heroes to you…my lifetime hero.Thank you for teaching me how to maneuver in the river of life…I love you.
A couple of nights ago, someone approached me, looked me in the eyes and asked how I was doing. They were sincerely interested in me and my life. They actually stood in front of me and waited for an answer!! It was an almost bizarre feeling for me because in this fast paced world, “How are you?” has become an illegitimate question tossed about as a nicety….rarely do we wait for the other person to answer….rarely do we look into their eyes when we ask the question….rarely do we really care to listen to what they have to say…..and most often the answers are “Great, how are you?” which is regurgitated out as easily as expelled air from our lungs. After all, if we wait too long to actually listen to the response, we may get stuck in an endless stream of hum-drum complaints. So we ought to make it as quick and polite as possible… and keep walking!!
Recently, I’ve been thinking about what “true friendship” means in the context of the Buddha’s teachings and the presence of “heart” in relationships. Is it really a two-way street or can it be a one-way road? The Buddha taught us that in the general context of skillful friendships, one-way roads lead to dead ends, and if we always give so much of ourselves…if we always take extra steps, the extra steps become extra miles and eventually, one becomes tired of walking. In my experience, what people most need is to be shown as much unconditional love as possible, released from all expectations. I don’t think you have to be an expert in any way. Be natural, be yourself, be a true friend, and the person will be reassured that you are really with them, communicating with them simply and as an equal, as one human being to another. Sometimes, I think, all it takes is a friendly, “How are you?” and TRULY meaning it.
The Buddha said, “Show everyone you encounter unconditional love,” but in some situations that is far from easy. We may have a long history of suffering with the person, we may feel guilty about what we have done to the person in the past, or anger and resentment at what the person has done to us. It’s difficult and the different schools of Buddhism teach us different ways to manage.
The First Noble Truth is that in life, there is suffering. We also understand impermanence….there are lies, there is truth, and the constant changing of people who surround you. Friends may hurt you. Boyfriends/Girlfriends will come and go. However, there is one person you can always count on. You. Your relationship with yourself is one that is never-ending, no matter good or bad. Being comfortable with who you are and the decisions you make is essential.
Heart is a direct presence that allows a complete attunement with reality. In this sense, it has nothing to do with sentimentality. Heart is the capacity to touch and be touched, to reach out and let in. Our language expresses this twofold activity of the heart, which is like a swinging door that opens in both directions. We say, “My heart went out to him,” or “I took her into my heart.” Like the physical organ with its systole and diastole, the heart-mind involves both receptive letting in, or letting be, and active going out to meet, or being-with. In its own different way, spiritual work removes the barriers to these two movements of the heart, like oiling the door so that it can open freely in both directions.
What shuts down the heart more than anything is not letting ourselves have our own experience, but instead judging it, criticizing it, or trying to make it different from what it is. We often imagine there is something wrong with us if we feel angry, needy and dependent, lonely, confused, sad, or scared. We feel guilty about asking for help because often we feel people don’t want to hear it. We place conditions on ourselves and our experience: “If I feel like this, there must be something wrong with me… I can only accept myself if my experience conforms to a standard of how I should be.”
His Holiness the Dalai Lama once shared his great surprise and shock at discovering just how much self-hatred Westerners carry around inside them. Such an intense degree of self-blame is not found in traditional Buddhist cultures, where there is an understanding that the heart-mind, also known as buddhanature, is unconditionally open, compassionate, and wholesome. Since we are all embryonic buddhas, why would anyone want to hate themselves?
The Buddha described the essence of our nature in terms of basic goodness. In using this term, he did not mean that people are only morally good…..which would be naive, considering all the evil that humans perpetrate in this world. Rather, basic goodness refers to our primordial nature, which is unconditionally wholesome because it is intrinsically attuned to reality.
This primordial kind of goodness goes beyond conventional notions of good and bad. It lies much deeper than conditioned personality and behavior, which are always a mix of positive and negative tendencies. From this perspective, all the evil and destructive behavior that goes on in our world is the result of people failing to recognize the fundamental wholesomeness of their essential nature.
A couple of nights ago when that person stopped and truly showed they cared about me, my journey, my story…it was proven to me that the thread of goodness lies in every being on this planet. It’s how we choose to share it with the world around us that is the important step. Sometimes, all it takes is for someone to ask, “How are you?” and then stick around long enough to listen.