I feel more than a little self-conscious about trying to elucidate my personal, private creed. For after all, when a person strips down all the way to her innermost beliefs and in public, she stands awfully exposed. Nevertheless, it strikes me as a very useful experience to sit down with one’s self and seriously think through one’s beliefs and convictions. I recommend it to everyone without any necessity, however, of crying one’s findings aloud from the rooftops.
The trail of my beliefs and their development leads back to my childhood and has been impacted by people I’ve met throughout my life. In college I met my dear friend Summer. She was reared in a deeply spiritual family…..a sort of matriarchal clan ruled over by her maternal grandmother.
Summer had a strong and devout personality, beloved and respected by all who knew her, guided by simple but firm beliefs. Foremost, she believed in God. In worldly matters, Summer believed that every person, without regard to race or religion, has a virtually sacred right to dignity and respect; that all men are brothers and are entitled to be treated as equals and to enjoy equality of opportunity; that principle, integrity, and self-respect are never to be worn as loose garments. For everyone she touched with her open heart, these beliefs almost automatically came to be part of our very being. For me, this was particularly so, since she was one of a limited number of people in my life whose genuineness was unequivocal.
Summer and I had a special bond….in our youth, we both had what many would consider a poor and hard life. (But as I recall it, I was never unhappy) We were both taught how to appreciate and get the most out of very little, and that happiness in any circumstance is primarily a matter of control over one’s own state of mind. Certainly, most everything in which I now believe stems from the simple lessons I’ve learned throughout my life….even Summer’s untimely death. The beliefs I acquired quite unconsciously and unthinkingly in the years I knew her, the lessons on how to approach life and its many problems, have been my unfailing guideposts.
Like Summer, I have an implicit belief in the Universe and a supreme will beyond the kin of mortal man. In this, I find both comfort and security. From Summer, I learned to hold that it is right to believe in oneself, but it is wrong ever to take oneself too seriously…..for a keen sense of personal values, and that humility which accompanies a balanced perspective, are indispensable to congenial adjustment to life in society. In this regard, (and although I’ve only been there a few times) I love to visit the Kangra Valley of the Indian Himalayas…..to stand on the rim of the valley surrounded by stately and deliciously fragrant deodar cedar trees, not only to marvel at its majestic splendor but to reflect on how puny, indeed, is man individually and collectively when confronted with nature’s awesome grandeur.
Summer believed in the worth and dignity of the individual, and that no being can be happy within him/herself if dignity and self-respect are surrendered. She had faith in people…..in collectively their essential goodness and good sense….always with the understanding that there will be individual mavericks on every human range. She believed that men can learn to live together in harmony and peace in the international community as in domestic communities, and she was unfalteringly devoted to helping women and children around the world. Summer believed in looking always on the brighter side of things, in the ability of right somehow ultimately to prevail, in never pressing time or fate, in taking life philosophically and in stride…..both the good and the bad….and she had an ample measure of both.
Today, as I reminisce and hold in my heart what would have been Summer’s 51st birthday, I reflect on what an incredible person she was and share some, at least, of her beliefs. And, although those “mavericks” that Summer was very much aware of believe her voice was permanently silenced, I’m here to celebrate that her beliefs carry on for me (and many others) as imperative beacons, without which life would be utterly lacking in direction or meaning.
Happy Birthday Summer. Your work will forever continue…..
My Teacher Sudharma once explained that life should never be hindered by fear. It seems the older we get, the more fearful. Children rarely question climbing a tree…..but something changes in us. Perhaps our minds become overwhelmed with what might happen….we let fear take control.
For all the horror and trauma that terrorism creates, its lasting power resides in the largely irrational fear we create and then magnify with our minds. Today, statistics show that airplanes are twenty-two times safer than automobiles, yet many people have stopped flying because of the fear that the September 11 attacks engendered. We are afraid of death by biological attacks, yet in America some 20,000 people die of the flu each year, and only half of those most at risk get vaccinated. Clearly, the fear of terrorism will not be appeased by providing information, rationalizations, or statistics. It resides in a deep aspect of our consciousness. In order to work with it, we need to understand how it develops.
The force of so many horrific recent events (beheadings, schoolgirls being kidnapped, students being killed in Pakistan, Ebola, attacks in Paris….I could go on) has created a series of reactions that many of us are going through.
The first is a numbness precipitated by the trauma to our bodies and minds. At this stage, all we can do is sit with the numbness until we’re ready to open up and let our feelings arise. When they do, we need to allow them to come up and not suppress them. Because these feelings will be powerful, we may be able to deal with them only briefly. That’s okay. We then need to consciously let them go and return to the center of our being, to our still point. After some time, we can begin to work with our feelings again. Depending on the intensity of the trauma, we may need to repeat this process over months or even years.
Some people may have to deal with anger. When we’re overwhelmed, an alternative to going numb is to become angry. We set up a target to deflect our feelings away from ourselves, thus avoiding any responsibility for them. Yet, like fear, we create anger by a series of thoughts that result in a particular emotional and physiological state. Anger doesn’t just happen to us. If we’re able to catch an angry thought as it’s budding, we can let it go. The same is true of despair or hopelessness. And when letting go is too difficult, a good medicine for dealing with these emotions is to reach out and help others, healing them and ourselves.
This is not an easy process to go through. The strength to engage it arises out of our meditation practice, our vows to awaken, our commitment to wisdom and compassion, and our spiritual fearlessness. The fearlessness of the great spiritual teachers like Moses, Jesus, Gandhi, Saint Theresa, Buddha, and Bodhidharma was the fearlessness of the spiritual warrior. Different from stoicism, naïveté, or arrogance, this fearlessness is selfless, generous, and compassionate. Fearlessness is not a matter of ignoring fear, but of really acknowledging it and being empowered by it. We’re confident that we can deal with whatever presents itself to us, regardless of the outcome.
In the martial arts, falling down and getting up are not two things; they are one reality. Falling down…..failure…..is a dimension of returning to one’s feet…..success. Instead of seeing these two aspects as inseparable, most of us set them against each other, fearing them both. And so we spend our lives caught between two iron mountains: We’re afraid of dying, and we’re afraid of really living. How do we break free from this prison to advance without hesitation?
When we do not separate ourselves from our fear, we transcend it. Each one of us is born with this same kind of fearlessness, but we need to realize it as our own lives, the life of all buddhas, all beings.
We are living in painful times. From the point of view of the Buddha-dharma, crises are also opportunities to transform our lives. We can shy away from the difficulties, hoping that if we ignore them long enough, they will fade into the cobwebs of our mind. Or we can convince ourselves that we are dealing with them in our practice, while simply suppressing them. Until we honestly go through the process of working with our feelings as they arise, they will just fester within us, waiting to resurface.
We can choose to get lost in our personal terror, but the fact remains that we are the only ones who can heal fear, anger, and pain by the way we use our minds. The ten thousand things, all the barriers, all the peace and the joy of this world, are nothing but the self. The question is, how do we understand it? Now, more than ever, we need to trust ourselves and let the years we have put into our practice come alive.
The Buddha was the foremost scientist of mind and matter (nama and rupa). What makes him a peerless scientist is his discovery that tanha, or craving, and by extension, aversion…..arises from vedana, or sensation on the body.
Before the time of the Buddha, little if any importance was given to bodily sensation. In fact, it was the centrality of bodily sensation that was the Buddha’s great discovery in his quest to determine the root cause of suffering and the means to its cessation. Before the Buddha, India’s spiritual masters emphasized teachings that encouraged people to turn away from sensory objects and ignore the sensations that contact with them engenders.
But the Buddha, a real scientist, examined sensation more closely. He discovered that when we come into contact with a sense-object through one of the six sense doors (ears, eyes, nose, tongue, body, mind), we cling to the sensation it creates, giving rise to tanha (wanting it to stay and to increase) and aversion (wanting it to cease). The mind then reacts with thoughts of either “I want” or “I do not want.” Buddha discovered that everything that arises in the mind arises with the sensations on the body and that these sensations are the material we have to work with.
The first step, then, is to train the mind to become so sharp and sensitive that it will learn to detect even the subtlest sensations. That job is done by anapana…..the practice of awareness of the breath…..on the small area under the nostrils, above the upper lip. If we concentrate on this area, the mind becomes sharper and sharper, subtler and subtler. This is the way we begin to become aware of every sort of sensation on the body.
Next, we feel the sensations but don’t react to them. We can learn to maintain this equanimity towards sensations by understanding their transitory nature. Whether pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral, gross or subtle, every sensation shares the same characteristic: it arises and passes away, arises and passes away. It is this arising and passing that we have to experience through practice, not just accept as truth because Buddha said so, not just accept because intellectually it seems logical enough to us. We must experience sensation’s nature, understand its flux, and learn not to react to it. As we reach deeper states of awareness, we will be able to detect subtler and subtler sensations, or vibrations of greater rapidity, arising and passing with greater speed. In these deep states, our mind will become so calm, so tranquil, so pure, that we will immediately recognize any impurity accompanying the agitated state and make the choice to refrain from reacting adversely. It becomes clear to us that we can’t harm anybody without first defiling ourselves with emotions like hate or anger or lust. If we do this, we will come to an experiential understanding of the deep truth of anicca, or impermanence. As we observe sensations without reacting to them, the impurities in our minds lose their strength and cannot overpower us.
The Buddha was not merely giving sermons; he was offering a technique to help people reach a state in which they could feel the harm they do to themselves. Once we see this, sila, or ethics, follows naturally. Just as we pull our hand from a flame, we step back from harming ourselves and others.
It is a wonderful discovery that by observing physical sensations on the body, we can eradicate the roots of the defilements of mind. As we practice more, negative emotions will become far more conspicuous to us much earlier; as soon as they arise, we will become aware of sensations and have the opportunity to make ethical choices. But first we need to begin with what is present to us deeply in our minds at the level of sensation. Otherwise, we will keep ourselves and others miserable for a very long time.