We all have phrases we tell ourselves to put things into perspective. ‘This too shall pass’, for example. These words realign us with our understanding of the world and how things are.
Pause for a moment to think of one or more phrases that you tell yourself when you are in a funk. Maybe your inner Doris Day rises up and sings ‘Que sera, sera’ as mine does. Whatever inner advice come up, just notice.
If something came up for you, remember it, because we will do a little exercise to assure that this inner advice is helpful, effective and wise. But first, a little background.
We’ve been exploring over the past weeks the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path. We’ve set wise intention, examined whether we are using wise effort, practiced wise concentration with which we have cultivated wise mindfulness — the ability to be present in the moment and hold what arises with compassion. (If you missed any of those, go to the bottom of the page and click on the left-side link to the previous post.
After meditation practice, we find that during our daily life, we can cultivate mindfulness as we do our chores, have conversations, go for walks, etc.. Thoughts freely come and go, but our practice of mindfulness — just feeling the earth under our feet as we walk, for example — keeps us present. And that sense of presence makes us more receptive to insights that may arise. These aha! moments are our own inner wisdom’s way of giving us guidance and perspective, helping us cultivate Wise View in our daily lives.
So how do you know if an aha! moment is revealing wisdom?
Here are some clues.
An insight is wise if it:
- arises out of the practice of gently listening in to your own inherent wisdom.
- makes you feel more connected to all beings and all of life, instead of isolated and in need of shoring up your identity, proving your worth.
- helps you see the suffering you are creating through some habitual pattern of thought and behavior.
- helps you soften your tight hold on what you love and your tight fist against what you hate.
- helps you understand the nature of impermanence and how railing against it causes suffering.
- helps you have compassion for someone beyond your immediate circle of friends and family.
- takes you beyond resignation into an open embrace of this moment just the way it is.
- makes you less reactive (as in knee-jerk) and more responsive (engaged in a wholesome way).
- allows you to see that you are not your story.
- puts things into perspective so that you see that one painful thing isn’t the only thing that is going on in this moment.
- keeps you from comparing your insides to other people’s outsides.
- inspires ethical behavior not because you might not get away with some action but because you feel connected and compassionate for all life.
- makes you realize that you can be open and inquisitive about life, rather than being acquisitive, amassing information to shore up your sense of a self ‘in the know’.
I could go on, but you get the idea. At the very core of the Buddha’s teachings are three deep understandings: That there is no separate self; That everything is impermanent; That not accepting the truth of these first two causes suffering because we want things to stay as they are and grasp for and cling to things, relationships and experiences to build up our sense of being a (very special) isolated being.
If your aha! moments have given you such insights, then that’s your wise inner voice, your inherent awakened nature finally being given a chance to be heard. You cultivated the space, time and willingness to listen in. Congratulations!
Insights are often very simple, but just what we need to remember. They often come out of moments of difficulty when you are following a familiar pattern, but your increasing mindfulness lets you see it afresh. ‘Aha! Here I am aggravated at a stoplight, when really it’s just a reminder to pause and be present.’
Where I used to live, I had to drive by a hospital on the way to and from home. I couldn’t believe how many crazy drivers there were! Then I realized that on that stretch of road a higher percentage of drivers were dealing with a crisis, a dying loved one, a lack of sleep because of the birth of their new baby, or the receipt of the worst news of their lives. Suddenly my heart opened and I felt great compassion for everyone on the road.
It wasn’t too big a leap to extend that compassion to other roads and out on the freeway. There is a saying that everyone is carrying a great burden we know nothing about. If we live with that understanding, our harsh judgments and irritations fall away. We may wish they wouldn’t drive a two ton lethal machine when they are not fully present and able to do so, but we take it more as a reminder to ourselves not to do so, rather than blaming them for their temporary mindlessness. That’s compassion.
Walks in nature in silence — at a speed that allows us to really look, smell, feel and notice all that is present in the moment — is one of the most likely ways to come into Wise View. If we are finding it hard to deal with change, nature reminds us that all life is ever-changing, and yet the cycles continue on and on. Can we allow for the release of whatever in our lives needs letting go with the ease of a tree whose leaves drift off in the autumn wind?
All of our practice is really a way to quiet down enough to allow our inherent wisdom to be heard. We can hear wise words from others and appreciate the thought, but it’s only when we come to an insight in our own experience that we really wake up. I have heard countless dharma talks and read many wise books over the past decades, and they have been interesting and helpful in keeping me practicing. But moments of personal insight transform me and mark me indelibly.
So we practice with dedication and patience, not waiting so much as being open to the possibility of aha! moments arising out of the most mundane experiences.
One caveat: Of course, there are people who are delusional, whose ‘insights’ are not wise at all. How do we distinguish between them? A delusional insight will be harsh and demanding, will want some action right now and won’t take no for an answer. This is not inner wisdom but the supercharged fear-based pattern of destructive thought. We all have these needy fearful aspects, but if a person is so out of balance that some inner voice feels like a vengeful god talking, and the person feels they must do what they are told, then, that is a call for immediate help from a medical professional.
But for most of us, these inner aspects are simply annoying patterns of thought that sap us of joy, upset our sense of equanimity, cause us to be harsh in our judgments, quick to anger, restless, sluggish, anxious, self-doubting and depressed. This is the mind bouncing off the walls of causes and conditions of life without the help of a meditative practice. And this is exactly why we practice! Because our mind without meditation is like the worst party we ever attended. And we keep expecting someone more interesting to arrive and change the music, the lighting, the food and the conversation.
But we actually ARE the change we’ve been waiting for! Dedicating to a regular practice of meditation, even if for only ten minutes a day and a class once a week, can turn that inner party around very quickly. And one person being fully present can change the energy of any real gathering — even a family dynamic or a workplace dynamic that feels very locked in — just by being present and compassionate. If you are practicing meditation regularly, and you are awakening to the wisdom within, then don’t under-estimate your own power to radiate presence into a situation, and cause a softening, warming effect. Watch out for the temptation to be ‘powerful’ in the limited sense of having power ‘over’ someone. This is a loving power that is contagious when it arises.
Wise View is usually not arrived at all of a piece. Instead it arises in incremental insights that come from dedicated practice, and the willingness to compassionately question the veracity of the ongoing thoughts that we have taken for truth for so long.
So look at that phrase you tell yourself to make you feel better and see if it is offering wisdom. If not, quiet down, be present and let your inner wisdom — that quiet, patient, loving voice — offer you its precious treasure.
Read more that I’ve taught over the years on Wise View: