Central to Buddhism is the understanding that there is no place to get to, that enlightenment is not some distant place, but lives ever present within us. This sense of presence is called our Buddha Nature. It is our inherent loving-kindness, our spacious mind that knows we are each expressions of a whole rather than the separate individuals we habitually believe ourselves to be.
This Buddha Nature may be a treasure we have yet to recognize, hidden in plain sight but camouflaged by our habitual patterns of seeing. But have no doubt! It is there, shining within us, a light of incredible brilliance that, when discovered, illuminates our experience, clarifying our understanding and dissolving the tangle of fear-based roots that has kept us feeling tethered, weighed down and out of kilter.
We have been studying the Third Noble Truth that promises that we can know and even live fully from this Buddha Nature. Our practice is to make ourselves available to this Buddha Nature by being as present in this moment as we can. We relax into the moment, for it is in this ‘here, now and fully-relaxed’ state that the inherent Buddha Nature makes itself known.
It seems simple enough to do this. The instructions are clear. Yet often, sitting after sitting we come away feeling as if we have waded through a bog of mental mud! We begin to doubt if we are capable of finding clear spacious open-heartedness or even a little precious peacefulness where we can momentarily rest our weary minds. We begin to worry that we are the only person in the world who doesn’t actually have Buddha Nature.
This is absolutely normal. There are so many ways our habitual mind sabotages our intention to access our Buddha Nature. We know that habits die hard. I remember when my mother finally quit smoking after her doctor told her she had emphysema. She told me that it wasn’t the addiction that was so difficult; it was her inability to imagine who she would be without a cigarette in her hand. In her mind, smoking made her more sophisticated, intelligent and glamorous. Without that little burning stick in hand, who would she be? After she quit, she was still just as vital, beautiful and exciting as she had ever been. And once the smoke cleared, she could see that that cigarette did not define her and had instead been hindering her from full enjoyment of life. But for so many years she had been too afraid to let go, to find that out; and that fear fostered the self-destructive behavior that killed her.
My mother’s experience illustrates how we cling more tightly than ever to our habits if they are entwined with our self-image. So if, for example, we like to think we are practical and not susceptible to any woo-woo nonsense, then we create a strong resistance even to something that offers us the possibility of a happier life.
This is not to say we should abandon good judgment and fall for every feel-good scheme that gets marketed to us! Quite the opposite! Instead, we need to become aware of our OWN inner wisdom. When we are disconnected from it, if we are honest we can feel that disconnect. During a period many years ago when I was ‘too busy’ to meditate or even to give myself much-needed alone time, I remember saying to a co-worker, “I feel totally separate from myself.”
This was a potentially pivotal moments in my life. Had I heeded the words coming out of my mouth instead of just finding them amusing, I might have saved myself and those I love a lot of subsequent suffering. (Often the wisest words are words we say ourselves, and just as often we don’t listen to them. It really pays to notice what advice we are giving others. It’s often for us as well.)
But I didn’t pay attention to my words of caution. Instead I continued my grueling schedule and ended up getting a serious chronic illness that incapacitated me, forcing me to leave my career, cutting our family income in half. Had I heeded my own words, I might have been able to make a milder and less painful course correction.
I began to meditate again, and since there was little else I could do, I meditated as if I were on what turned out to be a nine month retreat. I had been so out of balance and then so ill that that level of intensity felt necessary. In this way, I came home to my own inner wisdom, my own Buddha Nature, not just in rare moments, but as a steady guiding light in my life. Eventually that inner wisdom diffused in such a way that I understood it was not some separate inner guru replete with personality, but simply a shift of perception, from a sense of separation to a sense of connection.
These habits of mind we all have are deeply rooted in this disorienting belief that we are separate and isolated beings encased in envelopes of skin. I say ‘disorienting’ because at some level we know it is not true, so we have angst and restlessness, as we look all over for the things in the world that will make us feel connected. When everything fails to satisfy this deep longing, we feel steeped in fear that expresses itself in all manner of negative emotions and results in suffering, for ourselves and those around us.
As we meditate, we practice developing the mental muscles of setting clear intention to be present with whatever arises in our experience. We practice relaxing our muscles and letting our bones support our bodies. And we develop a sense of compassion so that we can meet our distracted minds with kindness rather than our habitual harangue. With steady practice we begin to find more spaciousness, and more clarity to notice habitual mental and emotional patterns. With compassionate curious attention, these patterns soften and may even dissolve.
The briefest glimpse into this spaciousness can be sufficient to begin the unraveling of these old fear-based habits. Buddha Nature is timeless, and therefore, once known, once perceived, is always available. Years ago there was a popular activity of staring at a visual puzzle, where an image was hidden within a complex pattern. People would stare and stare at this puzzle. Some would become frustrated and give up. Some would see it quickly. With others it took time, but by relaxing and keeping their vision refreshed, they finally saw it. But everyone who saw it couldn’t later un-see it. The image would always be there. This is also true of Buddha Nature. Once you know it, you can never un-know it. You may ignore it, but you will never again be unable to sense it if you open to it.
Since we are creatures of habit, we can set the intention to develop new healthy mental habits – habits of noticing, habits of being aware of sensation, habits of compassionately observing our mind at work. This is a very effective way to prepare ourselves for whatever shift in consciousness that might arise out of repeatedly making ourselves available.
Allowing for the possibility, making ourselves available – these are good ways of thinking about how this shift of awareness happens. They remind us that this is an opening to what already is, rather than a search for something hidden elsewhere. It’s more like tuning our instrument to play harmoniously. Perhaps we are currently strung too tight and so are playing a sharp instead of a natural. Or perhaps we’re strung too loose, sluggish in our energy, foggy in our thinking, sleepy in our meditation, so we need to focus on refining, clarifying and brightening our concentration. This is not done by hunkering down, gritting our teeth or bracing ourselves, but through opening to the energy that is ever-present. We can draw it into our being, feel its strength and healing power, and let it rise up to express itself through us.
As we open, allowing for the natural shift to a more fluid connected state that is always available, we can see that in this state the old habits of fear that we thought were serving to protect us serve no purpose. Their efforts only exacerbated negative situations, escalated arguments and confrontations, and cut us off from healthy interaction.
The idea of retiring our emotional weaponry sounds nice, but what if we are feeling stuck in fear? What if we are fearful of the ideas presented here? First, let’s remember that none of this is new news but draws from the well of universal wisdom that is at the core of all world religions and spiritual traditions. And, if religion scares us, we can find the same wisdom in the latest scientific findings.
Secondly, it’s valuable to recognize that all of these habits of mind are striving for our survival as best they can. They are trying to protect us from a perceived harm. So it is just another fear-based habit of mind to feel threatened by the habits themselves. It is more useful to see them as misguided allies.
I have occasionally referred to working with the various aspects or voices we discover as we really listen to our thinking mind. I have found in my own experience the value of inquiring into the specific desires and concerns of these aspects, and then compassionately negotiating a way for the aspects needs to be met without undermining my well being.
You may recall the story of my inner aspect ‘Slug’ and his resistance to exercise. He loved bed. Bed was for him a big mommy hug, and he missed his mommy. Well, of course, I missed my mommy too as she had died a few years before this encounter. But I knew my mother wouldn’t want me lollygagging in bed anymore than my own inner wisdom did, so I found a yoga class with a teacher about my mother’s age and who, at the end of class, as we students were lying on the floor in shivasana pose, would come to each of us with a blanket and tuck us in. Well, of course Slug LOVED this yoga class. And that’s how I was able to negotiate getting some much-needed exercise.
But as useful as it can be to work with aspects of self in this inter-personal way, giving them cute nicknames and personalities to encourage compassion in our dealings, there are many other ways to view these complex inter-workings of our mind.
These habits of mind are caught up in a view that is totally relative. Through the lens of these habits steeped in fear, we see things from an embedded perspective, like a journalist embedded in a military operation. We see a very intense, very personal, but very one-sided view of things. And it is so intense — this living a life — that we completely buy into it being the whole truth. But all the while we are stuck in this perspective that is vested in maintaining this singular point of view, as if we have pledged allegiance to it and must defend it, or are employed as its public relations representative.
We are not! We are free agents! We are free to walk about and observe with fresh eyes and see for ourselves what is true and what is not. How much of what we hold to be true have we really questioned or examined?
I was so taken years ago when I heard about a listening project in the Southern US, where trained volunteers visited homes and simply listened to the inhabitants express their views of the world. They were trained to notice when they made statements that seemed rote, as if accepted long ago and not examined since. And they knew how to probe, encouraging deeper self-reflection, so that on their own the interviewees began to see the flaws in their own arguments, and through further exploration, using their own good sense, they found they didn’t buy into the pre-packaged hateful things they had so readily spouted just an hour before. In this way the listening project did not promote another view; it just provided the space for exploration.
And this is what we do. We provide space and a willingness to notice and question our standing operating procedures, our pre-packaged beliefs, our previously unquestioned inheritance of values and ideas. We see where we may be holding two opposing beliefs at the same time and have never stopped to question them. No one else can do this inner work for us. We may be inspired by what others say, but the experience of questioning is an ongoing inside job.
For some this idea might at first feel very threatening. Our inherited beliefs may seem comforting, something to hang onto in a dangerous world. They may seem like the one way we do feel connected to something. And it may be true that at core they do offer that entrance to a sense of connection, but unexamined, accepted as truth without exploration, they are about as powerful as a baby’s security blanket.
Opening to the possibility that these habits of mind — these negative emotions, judgments and discomforting thoughts — are not personal but universal, helps us to feel safe in our exploration. Understanding that most of us look at the world from a particular mindset — not from our deepest and truest nature — helps us to let go of the need to defend our position.
How refreshing and relaxing it is to realize that these habits of mind are not traits that define us, but common patterns that course through us, shaping our thoughts and our behavior. These patterns are like the readily visible patterns in that visual puzzle mentioned earlier, before we see the image that is hidden in plain sight.
Insight meditation is the practice of noticing these patterns of mind, actively observing in a spacious way. If we notice when we are getting caught up in them and pause to breathe more spaciousness into our noticing, and then look with fresh eyes in a more relaxed way, we can begin to see something else emerging.
These relative mindsets we have believed to be our true selves all these many years, do not define us any more than my mother’s cigarette defined her. As we make that distinction and begin to see that we are not these habits of mind, then we can open ourselves more easily to the possibility of allowing them to pass through our current experience without feeling we have to rise up and do battle with them. In time we see that bringing spaciousness into our relationship with them gives us the ability to see them more clearly, to see all the thoughts, emotions and image associations that give us deeper understanding. Eventually, with that shift into seeing from our inherent Buddha Nature perspective, these habits lose their sense of purpose. With their need to protect us gone, they can dissolve quite naturally.
So what keeps us from knowing our Buddha Nature? Believing that our habits of mind –our endless thought stream, and our ocean of emotion — define us. As we let go of our clinging to this sense of separate self we become available for the revelation of the absolute reality of oneness with all that is that patiently waits within us. This is our Buddha Nature.