I have been reading Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson because it’s the book my class read in my absence and I want us literally to be on the same page.
On page 60 he writes that the three processes of being with whatever arises, working with the tendencies of mind to transform them, and taking refuge in the ground of being, are essential practices of the path of awakening.
He says that as we practice we encounter certain stages of growth. The first is acting out unskillfully without even being aware of it, not even seeing how we are causing suffering to ourselves and others.
The second is noticing our behavior, our words, our thoughts and how they are causing suffering, but not being able to do anything able to do anything about them.
The third is being able to transform these thoughts or feelings midstream, so that they don’t get acted out. They still cause us suffering to a more limited degree, but we have not put it out into the world.
And the fourth is a level of non-reactivity, where the situation doesn’t automatically set off reactions that cause suffering.
As meditators we may recognize these stages as part of our own experience, because as we begin to meditate we create enough spaciousness to start seeing our own thoughts and behavior.
Hanson says the most difficult stage is stage two, where we first notice our unskillfulness but feel helplessly caught up in it.
This initial period of inner awareness can be painful! It can even stop us from meditating because we don’t want to see the truth of things. We would rather be oblivious! Who could blame us?
This is the value of having some guidance, if just to have someone assure you that it’s normal to have this reaction, to have these thoughts, to feel the shock, shame and disappointment to discover our own innate unskillfulness.
If we do stay the course, continuing to meditate, we may discover a softening of our hearts and an increase of patience, so that we can hold our flawed selves with more compassion. Having opened to this experience, having survived the initial shock of discovery, we find a willingness to sit with whatever arises with less judgment and more curiosity. It becomes less personal. Reading Hanson’s book with its physical explanations for why we are the way we are increases our ability to get how impersonal it really is!
But still, what arises, if painful, if frightening, can be difficult. These difficult thoughts, emotions and sensations, we can consider as dragons at the gate of the inner temple of our own awakening. This image has helped me over the years to recognize and value the experience of sitting with difficulty as a vital part of the spiritual experience of accessing the spaciousness within.
Instead of an extended talk, for this class I asked the students to take some time in the garden in walking meditation or sitting in contemplation, giving themselves the silence, the time and the attention to notice whatever arises. If you did not attend the class or did but would like to repeat this on your own, try this in a garden or park or out in wild nature.
As you walk at a slow pace, bring full consciousness to physical sensations of the body: the foot rising and falling, the breath, the air on skin, the sights and sounds. Whatever arises in the mind is to be noted for its tonal quality, whether it’s an emotion or a thought stream, whether it’s a judgment, a memory, a plan, etc. Some times you may just be caught up in the flower or the lizard or the patterns the leaves make on the deck or the sound of the waterfall. At other times a stream of associative thoughts or emotions will ensue. Whatever arises, bring as much awareness to them as possible, being curious. Notice how the mind does what it does, as if it were a lizard pumping in the sun. Give it as much of that kind attention as possible.
Afterwards give yourself the gift of a little more time to reflect on and internalize this experience before returning to normal activity.