Coming into relationship with what is – that’s what we are doing in our practice. We can stop running around pretending, covering up, or reframing the truth. Instead we open to whatever arises in our experience in this moment. Whether it is pain or beauty. We acknowledge it. We let it all in. No extra added ingredients, no preservatives, just this, life expressing itself through us and around us. The unvarnished, unedited, unqualified moment to moment multi-dimensional experience of existence.
The Four Noble Truths are all about this coming into relationship with what is. By acknowledging that, along with all the delight and wonder, there is also pain and suffering, we can relax a bit. The cat’s out of the bag! What a relief! We don’t have to keep pretending that there’s some iconic perfection of a life that we must strive to fulfill in order to be allowed to be here. This is life. Just as it is in this moment.
This is not a passive stance, not “Oh well, I might as well give up and accept that I will never amount to anything, that I will never be happy.” Quite the contrary! This is actually a very empowering stance. Standing fully in the reality of this present moment is the only point of power we ever have.
If our thoughts dwell in the past, we find ourselves incapable of being engaged with the present in a full and meaningful way. It is an unstable stance in which we are constantly pulling the rug out from under ourselves. For example, we may feel that because of some past event we don’t deserve this moment. So we can’t even see the invitation we are offered to fully partake in the richness of life. It is valuable to notice what messages from the past are streaming through us in this moment, to notice what we are telling ourselves and question the source of that message. We are often seduced into using the past as a measuring stick to determine what we are capable of doing. When the thoughts tell us things like, “I flunked algebra so I can’t do math related things,” or “I come from humble origins so I don’t belong in this rich person’s mansion,” then we can see that we are standing in the past and thus not fully present. While we may feel more comfortable in certain areas than others, or in certain places than others, it is still valuable to question that comfort, to question all assumptions whenever they start chaffing and causing suffering by making us feel there are areas that are off limits to us.
Likewise, although projecting into the future feels powerful, as if we are in control of our destiny, this stance sets us up for comparing everything that happens to some imagined ideal future. It makes us vulnerable to ‘lose’ things we never had to begin with – an accomplishment, a house, a child, a mate. It is possible to create suffering out of dashed hope, a mirage created in the past that haunts the present, making this moment seem incomplete. Standing in the future leaves us so totally out of balance, so outside of our immediate experience, that we are unable to receive the gifts that are arising in this moment, opening doors to futures beyond our limited imagination.
We may feel we are in the present even as we hold ‘the broad view’ of our lives, able to take measure of our achievements and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses. We feel this informs us, but our broad view is not broad enough or informed enough to take as truth! Staying present with what is — not just at ‘this time in our lives’ or ‘this week’ or even ‘today,’ but in this millisecond, this fleeting flash of consciousness — is an opportunity to step into the very specific experience of being alive. Just because something bad happened this morning doesn’t mean the whole day needs to be flavored by it. We are so easily seduced into calling it a ‘bad day’ or a ‘bad week’ or even a ‘bad year,’ so ready to ring in the new with the thought that it will somehow save us. We are so desperate for a blank slate, but then so ready to call it ruined by anything that happens. This is nonsense! Truly! Staying fully present in the moment, we don’t need to wait or throw away whole blocks of time! We recognize the unique nature of each moment and let it stand on its own, unencumbered.
If at some unitive moment of deep clarity we get a glimpse of our whole life, then we may understand how all our harsh judgments, expectations, disappointments and demands were totally off the mark. But for now, it’s just better to remind ourselves that there’s a whole lot we don’t know. This moment fully experienced is the only access point to deeper clearer perception.
The basic practice of meditation invites us to open to whatever arises in our thoughts, emotions and senses, acknowledging it, perhaps even noting it, saying, for example, ‘planning,’ all within the spacious awareness of the breath rising and falling, if that is our focus. We often talk about ‘returning’ or ‘coming back’ to the breath, and this may be useful at first but, for me it seems that it eventually gets in our way, like training wheels on a bicycle when you’ve achieved a sense of balance. It is misleading to suggest that we have ‘gone’ anywhere. There is no ‘away’ and no place to ‘return’ to. We have been sitting here in this position the entire time. Our thoughts have been streaming through the field of our awareness. Sometimes they are so powerful, or our energy feels so scattered that our awareness gets disoriented, as if a wave has turned us upside down momentarily. Over time, with practice and clear intention, we develop skills to keep ourselves oriented in a way that our minds can handle whatever waves of thought or emotion that pass through without getting so completely disoriented every time.
This spacious mind is a place that feels safe, where even though we may experience pain, we can sit quietly with it and begin to see it more clearly. It is a place where we notice the heavy arsenal of weapons we carry, and we can lay them down and rest. We can see how we have created fun-house-mirrors that distort our view of ourselves and the world around us. We can see through our faux confidence in the fancy sword-play techniques we use to go into battle with any thought or deed that threatens to unmask some deep core belief we hold to be true about ourselves and the way of things. We recognize our fear.
We may see how we create mine fields that we then walk through or discover that others have stumbled upon, and we then see the pain caused by our unconscious emotional bumbling. Over time we may see what trips the triggers, what ignites the fuse to the bombs we set off, and later regret. All of this and so much more we sit with and allow to rise and then fall away, giving it all the same kind compassionate attention we give our breath that rises and falls.
Resting in this state of non-judgmental awareness, we understand that this is what it is to be human, to err, to bumble, and to go unconscious. Having laid our weapons and shields down, we can cultivate compassion for ourselves and for those in our lives who act out of this same bumbling unconsciousness.
Here, as we sit with what is, things can get very simple and very clear. Stories fall away, leaving only the residue of emotion that finds some physical expression – an achy chest, for example. We rest with whatever arises. If we find a physical sensation, we attend it with openness and compassion, not trying to change it, but simply letting it fill our experience in this moment, letting it be as big or small as it wants to be, letting it sink like a rock or lift like a feather. We hold it in a compassionate open embrace, and let it inform us. This physical sensation exists in the present moment and, held in awareness, may transform. Opening to what is present in this moment is powerful healing, not just the physical pain but for the associated emotional pain as well.
This practice of quieting and opening is not unique to Buddhism. It is a part of every spiritual tradition. And it is not uniquely spiritual. It is a natural state we are born to experience. If not honored as valid and valuable, we lose it.
I remember as a small child having this quality, being able to shift into this kind of open accepting awareness. Perhaps you have noticed, as I have with my granddaughter, that children seem to have a way of self-nurturing, of calming themselves down when they have become over-stimulated. It’s important to honor that ability and not try to commandeer the experience. When we make this self-nurturing activity seem oddball, then a child naturally looks for that sense of calm through other more socially accepted means: Mindless television, video games, snacking, etc. – all those unskillful avenues with potentially painful side effects that we as adults may find ourselves pursuing in an effort to self-nurture, to find that calm quiet place to simply be.
So we may come to meditation as if it’s some foreign experiment in mental transformation. But when we actually sit, we find we are coming home to something we once knew, even if only briefly, and it feels as welcoming and safe as our long lost ragged blanket or love-worn teddy bear.
As we practice, we see how giving ourselves back this spaciousness also gives us back a sense of openness and playfulness in our lives. It gives us other more skillful means than weapons to approach any challenges we may face.
When we talk about embodiment, this anchor to the present moment, this effective means of healing, we are not talking about something foreign either. As babies we began very much in our bodies, very much in the body of being, feeling undifferentiated and physically connected to the world around us. So as a very important part of our practice, we sense in to the body.
Words are useful, but they can only point to experience, they cannot be the experience itself. So it is the senses that really ‘knock some sense’ into us, really show us wherein resides the core story, what one might call ‘the big lie,’ that we tell ourselves, the one that keeps us feeling separate, judged, shamed, and afraid.
If this sounds off-putting, remember the embodied experience in turn enhances our ability to savor the sweetness of life. So it is a great gift, this ability to sense in. To feel the boundless nature of energy expressing itself as breath, temperature, vision, sound, smell, touch, texture, pressure, tightness, release – is life itself and the way to joy in living.
Embodiment practice is the way to discover for ourselves the Second Noble Truth. It is the most immediate way to be with what arises, to recognize suffering, to accept it into our experience in order to know its roots and associative behaviors, emotions and thoughts. So when you are sitting, fully inhabit the body. When you are walking, fully inhabit the body, letting go of all ideas of where you came from and where you are going, just this moment of experience, open to the kaleidoscope of senses telling you everything you need to know.
That is the practice.