Our National Nerve Channel
This past weekend we witnessed (and continue to bear witness to) the chilling sounds and images from Charlottesville, Virginia and as I update this, days later, continue to watch them race through our nation's already fatigued nerve channels, setting off even more sharply the alarm bells of our national unease. In these days of anxiety and distress, like so many people, aside from a small universe of actions I can take from here, and between work and family and family and work, I wonder (mostly to myself) how can I help? What can I do? For the world, for those I love, even for myself?
Times of discord and suffering can reveal opportunities to further our work in becoming better people, effect positive change, and make compassionate choices. They can also leave us feeling destabilized and disconnected both from ourselves and from others, although sometimes even this can be necessary as part of our overall progress. And if this happens too, we can just notice it without judgment or adding to it, and then when we're ready, return to our practice, whatever that may be.
Meeting Ourselves Where We Find Ourselves
In times such as these, but really always, our capacity to even know our hearts and minds is itself fully dependent upon the quality of our awareness. That is, we can only think, speak or act in relation to what we ourselves are able to hear, see, feel or perceive. If we are hearing only the noisy wheels of our agitated minds, or the clattering echo chamber world around us, then whatever words or actions we take or even changes we make internally will only occur at that level, like ripples across the top of a shallow pool of water. Soon enough some other breeze of our mind or the world will ruffle the water again and blow it the other way, or maybe with enough wind or son, the water will just evaporate. Anyway, you get the point. If we want to connect with ourselves and the world around us at some deeper level, and do personal work that has more far reaching results both in relation to both, then we need to be able to access that deeper place.
Deepening our awareness means quieting our mind, so that we can hear, and access, subtler levels of ourselves, and of phenomena around us. Staying with the water analogy, when we do this, the water also becomes more still, and more clear, and we can begin to actually see what else is in the water too.
Sure it can be difficult to see this at first - our minds produce an endless stream of thoughts and projections and emotions - a non-stop Quentin Tarantino movie! Like listening to the sounds in a room, we may not even recognize just how much noise there is in our minds, or how many different places that noise is coming from - until we are able to sit with it and, listen for a while.
The Buddha's first teaching is often misinterpreted to be: "Life is suffering." A more accurate interpretation of the Pali word, "dukkha," would be "There is suffering," or actually to be more accurate, "There is dissatisfaction or unease.") And to heal it, we need to be able to accurately see and hear it.
Mistaking Experience for Awareness
At this time, it's also worthwhile to point out the hazard of mistaking experience for awareness. Most of us are pretty good at generating octane-fueled thoughts and emotions. Like drinking a Starbucks Double Shot Red Eye or doing an intense physical workout, in order to get through the less desirable noises and feelings of our minds, we create our own mental and emotional intoxication. And because we can feel the emotions or rapid fire thoughts that we generate - it's easy to mistake this "feeling" for awareness.
It is an awareness on one level, but it's come about not by quieting our minds, but by ramping up the volume of our thoughts and emotions (and our body sensations) so that we can't help but experience them and drown out the other, unwanted stuff - so this is a little different.
The Practice of Mindfulness
So if awareness is the quality, what is the practice? Well, Mindfulness is the practice. Mindfulness may be popular now, but it's no fad! The 8th century Buddhist master Shantideva wrote extensively on the benefits of mindfulness practices in his most famous text, the Bodhisattvacharyāvatāra, A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life. Connecting, listening to your breath, to your body, to the ever changing sounds or light in a room, even contemplating a raisin!, these are all common, and yet so beautiful, mindfulness practices that help us to develop this precious gem of awareness.
The Ever-Present Gem
To see and hear things as they truly are, without judgment; this is the ever present jewel of awareness.
Without judgment or labeling. From this can arise deep compassion for all other living beings, profound love and joy, and true wisdom.
The remarkable thing is, we can access it at any time, in the flash of a moment, and it is always new. While developing our ability to return to this place takes repetition, neuroscience explains that after a few weeks, our brains actually change and create new connections from this repetition. The practice becomes us; we become the practice.
It is as our own true nature. It never leaves us. Because it is always new, we cannot grasp it. Though it holds profound insight, it is free from judgment. While we can apprehend it, it has no form. Because it has no form, it is indestructible. It can be accessed at any moment, or at every moment, or forgotten and neglected for eons. It is always fresh, and profound, and always insightful, loving, compassionate and deeply wise, and yet beyond these labels at the same time.
Why it Matters: Service to Others
And because it is inexhaustible, it can be shared and offered as a gift not only to ourselves, but to others also and without limit, with love and compassion in these challenging times and all times. So we can see, this is not an abstract point. This is a real way to help heal ourselves and the world, and all those in need of healing and peace. A way to offer insight, and understanding.
May you and all those you love, and all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness and free from suffering now and always.