Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds

In exploring the Buddha’s teaching stories and analogies, I find myself elaborating and embellishing. It feels to me as if I am re-hydrating sharings that over the years had become single sentences or bare-bones concepts without sufficient details to make them juicy and alive for us today. It is up to each of you to decide whether these embellishments add or take away from the value of the teaching, but I want to be sure that it is clear what is received teaching and what is elaborated upon by me. I think the most important thing in learning and sharing teachings is that we each return to the well of our own inner wisdom, our own ability to question the veracity of any teaching. If it rings true, we draw from it; if not we let it go.

Having said that, I continue my exploration of the Buddha’s river analogy which students are telling me has been so helpful throughout the week. This time I am adding in another of the Buddha’s teachings, because I see within this river analogy an opportunity to discuss the Buddha’s Eight Worldly Winds.

The Winds are four pairs of opposites. They are: pleasure and pain; loss and gain; praise and blame; and ill-repute and fame. These paired opposites are worldly winds because the winds blow and we are all affected in some way.

We have often talked about how it is not the causes and conditions of life but our relationship to the causes and conditions, the things that happen to us, that we focus on and can skillfully affect. So here are these eight causes and conditions, these eight worldly winds. What is our relationship to them? How do they affect us? Or do we react to them?

Returning to the Buddha’s river analogy of the Middle Way, we can see that wind is definitely something one considers when one is on a boat. Understanding the nature of the winds is important for skillful navigation. So understanding the nature of these Eight Worldly Winds is skillful for our navigating along the Middle Way.

With these four paired opposites, we can see how they could easily blow us toward one shore or the other. (Remember that one shore is over-indulgence, the other self-denial. We are through our meditation practice, maintaining our course on the river, finding the rich nourishing infinite river that courses through our being.)

First there is the wind of pleasure. We experience pleasure and if we are skillful we accept it for what it is, appreciate it as one of the gifts of life, and let it go when it passes. As if a butterfly briefly alighted on our outstretched palms, we hold the pleasure in an open embrace, neither crushing it nor shooing it away.

But the World Wind of pleasure can blow us off course and leave us stuck aground on the shore of self-indulgence. How does this happen? Maybe the first thing we do is wonder why we don’t give ourselves this pleasure more often? And then we start planning just how we will do that, or beating ourselves up for never doing it. Thus we have fallen out of the moment and into the suffering on one shore or the other.

We can easily get habituated to pleasure, begin to feel that we deserve it, then can’t possibly live without it. Once we’ve slept on luxury sheets, maybe we say we’ll never go back to 200 thread count again! Thus we tighten the limits of our experience more and more, the borders of what we are willing to tolerate.

So what is skillful here? Pleasure comes, we are in the moment with the pleasure, appreciative, and then the pleasure passes and we are ready for whatever happens next. But even if we have missed the opportunity to have that straight-forward a response, we can, whenever we realize where we have gotten lost, come back again to the river, to the awareness of the present, with compassion for ourselves. We can also use our skillful questioning to explore our assumptions, thoughts and feelings that we notice arising. “Is this true? How do I know this is true?”

Pleasure’s counterpart is the wind of pain. Which shore does it blow us toward? Pain can feel deserved and thus blow us toward extremes of self-denial or we can fight to mask the pain with seeking the shore of self-indulgence, hiding out in that bottle, that pill, that comfort food or that mind-numbing activity.

As we practice, we learn that we can stay with the experience of pain and notice how what we believed to be one giant sensation is really a symphony of smaller sensations arising and falling away. This level of noticing makes it possible to be present, to let go of our thoughts that compound the pain, the ones that say ‘Oh no, not this pain again!’ or ‘How long will this last? I can’t stand it if it goes on like this forever!’ Thus staying present with it, we discover the joyful aspect of impermanence because we see that the sensation changes from moment to moment if we are being aware.

Someone says something devastating to us and we feel pain. Perhaps it blows us way off course, but once we are able to be present with the pain, we can use compassion to bring us back to the river. First compassion for ourselves as we hold ourselves in tenderness as we would a child who is in pain.Then we extend compassion to the other person, because in order for them to to inflict pain on someone, they must be operating out of fear and be in pain themselves. That fear has made them either mindless so they are unaware of the power of their words to harm, or it has made them feel they need to wield cruelty as a protective mechanism. Being able to find compassion for them softens the blow of our own experience. We understand that it is not all about us, any more than the wind is purposely trying to topple us.

Then skillful questioning is needed. We can certainly look to what role we may have played in provoking the hurt. We hear our thoughts and we can ask if they are true, without feeling the need to defend them. We can also question whether it is healthy for us to be near this person. Perhaps we are in a vulnerable state and need to put our own well-being as a priority. Compassion is not meant to enable other people to treat us badly. So there is a level of wise discernment necessary, and being fully in the moment, ‘on the river,’ helps us to see more clearly than when we are stuck deep inland, wandering lost.

Next there are the paired winds of gain and loss. When we gain something in life, does it throw us off course, like a wind pushing us to one shore or the other? Think of the lottery winner who goes on a spending spree of indulgence. But again, gain could cause one to feel uncomfortable, as if we don’t deserve what we’ve received, and cause us to go to excessive self-denial. I think of when I ‘gain’ a batch of cookies I have baked. For reasons I am still exploring for myself, I just can’t rest comfortably until they are all gone. For now, I don’t bake. If I want a cookie I go buy one cookie. This is sad because of course homemade cookies fresh from the oven are so much better than store-bought. But if I feel this way about cookies, I can imagine how a recipient of a great windfall might feel the same: that this money, ‘undeserved,’ must be squandered. That quality of undeserving is best explored from the vantage point of the river, the breath, the present moment, with compassion and a willingness to question in.

Gain’s counterpart is the wind of loss. Loss happens to us all. Loved ones die. We lose a relationship, a job, an ability, a home. And where does this wind blow us? Do we seek the shores of self-denial, blaming ourselves for the loss, beating ourselves up, denying ourselves comfort? Or do we seek mindless pleasures, addictions, something that can at least temporarily mute the loss through oblivion?
Again, once we are conscious enough to remember the river, we are back on it. We can be instantly present, anchored in physical sensation, feeling this moment in all its fullness.

The winds of praise and blame blow and what happens? Does praise roll off like water on a duck’s back but blame sink in deeply? Or does praise give us a big head so we get lost in self-indulgent thinking, hearing echos of the praise in our thoughts, becoming addicted to recreating conditions for more praise to come? Having done volunteer stints of teaching art to children, I know that comments, even praise, can throw a little (or big!) artist off track during the process of creation. The desire to please the teacher or the parent or the friend starts to change the simple joy of creation into a goal-oriented process, and the artist loses their way. This is true in any area where we are hoping to simply live our own lives as authentically as possible, to be the most honest expression of the gift of life in this form, as it has been given us. But if our parents have different ideas of what is a proper career for us, we may be thrown off course for years, maybe for our whole life, because we want to please them, we crave their praise and approval.

Conversely, rather than seeking praise, we can be so uncomfortable with praise that it can send us into self-denial, reminding ourselves of all the ways that the praise is undeserved.

And then there is blame, the opposite of praise. How to we relate to it? Are we able to stay present with the experience? Can we breathe and not feel under attack, as if our life was at stake? If the blame is justified, can we take it in as useful information, make the necessary apologies and amends, make note to self not to do that again, to be more mindful and wise in our behavior? Or do we race into mindlessness, on one shore or the other, seeking the oblivion of compensatory pleasure or the deserved pain of a bed of hot coals?  How does our reaction change when the blaming is unjust?  Say you get an email from the library that a book is overdue, a book that you returned weeks ago. What is your reaction? Do you simply call or go to the library and ask them to check the shelves, or do you go to some dark internal ranting place, expressing outrage at the ‘accusation?’ Which is more skillful? More mindful? More effective?

The last pair of opposite Worldly Winds is fame and ill-repute. Most of us feel this is not something that concerns us. We are neither famous nor infamous, so we can just let this one go. But let’s see it on a more human scale. We all have a reputation for certain qualities in our community of neighbors, family, friends and coworkers. Are we known for being trustworthy, dependable, compassionate, etc. or have we got a rep for being always late, or not to be trusted to follow through on what we promise? And how do we relate to this reputation, whatever it is? Do we go mindless, getting lost in believing ourselves to ‘be’ this reputation, thus hang on tight to our labels, even if they seem bad to others, for without them, who would we be? Is our behavior blown by the wind of our reputation? Do we modify our behavior in order to be seen in a certain way? ‘What would the neighbors think?’ is a typical expression of this being blown by the wind of fame or ill-repute.

And yet of course we live in communities. Hopefully we can be present and compassionate enough to say and do what is wisest for ourselves and those in our community. Both through awareness practice and through Wise Intention we live mindful of our impact on the whole web of life, knowing that we do not live in isolation. Through the practice of meditation, generosity arises, as do other virtues. This is a natural part of the releasing of the tightness of operating out of fear. If we are practicing being in the moment, we will be less likely to live in a way that is adversely affected by these Worldly Winds.

Wind could be thought of as an element of communication, the media, the way information travels on the airwaves, sometimes emitting a lot of hot air. We are often buffeted to one shore or the other by the news we receive and our reactivity to it; the face-to-face comments, emails, phone calls; radio, internet or television news; texts and twitters we receive and our reactivity to those as well. Notice how the next piece of news you read or hear affects you. What emotions arise? What defenses? It may help us to think of these received words as one of the Worldly Winds, capable of blowing us toward one shore or the other. With regular meditation practice, we develop this ability to stay or easily return to the center of the river, the calm center of our being. Meditation doesn’t make us impervious to anything, but it does help us to recognize where center is and how to get there.

Sometimes these winds are hurricanes, tornadoes or typhoons. It is not surprising that we then find ourselves deep inland on one shore or the other. Perhaps we have been unconscious for a time, but whenever we do become conscious, we are able to remember the river. Like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, who after being misguided to follow the yellow brick road discovered that by simply clicking her shoes she could return home, we can ‘click’ our paired intentions to anchor into physical sensation to bring ourselves into the present moment, and to be compassionate with ourselves so as not drag ourselves further inland. And just like that we are back on the river, back in the center of our being in this moment, whatever this moment holds. And when we are truly in it, not caught up in planning the future, regretting the past or worrying about something beyond our present control, we find that this moment is maybe not so bad, maybe even absolutely stunningly alive, rich, multi-layered; and we find ourselves feeling an incredible gratitude for the unique fleeting gift of this moment.

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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