In our home there is a room off the garage that I recently designated ‘The Sorting Room’. That’s a fancy name for the place where I can go through boxes I haven’t looked through in over thirty years without having to repack them quickly to make room for the evening meal. But the room has taken on a sweeter quality than its utilitarian purpose would imply. It is an inviting space so I don’t dread going there. It celebrates the process of its purpose.
In exploring the Buddha’s teachings of the EIghtfold Path in upcoming posts, we might cultivate a kind of internal Sorting Room. After meditation, for example, is a good time to create a mental space that is welcoming and safe to notice the complex threads of thoughts and emotions and discern the interwoven repetitive patterns without getting entangled,
One friend on retreat years ago said that she was walking around Spirit Rock in that sometimes dazed, but often mindful way one does when one is doing seven sessions of sitting meditation a day, and she noticed a thought that just kept passing through her awareness. I don’t remember her exact words, maybe ‘Oh you again.’ The awareness that these are just thoughts, not who we are, is intrinsic to awakening. Her experience was much like the way Siddhartha Gautama, sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, recognized the patterns of illusion without claiming them as who he was or making an enemy of them, just greeting them and letting them go.
When we believe these thoughts to be who we are, we attach great significance to them. They become precious and we hold them up to be admired or deplored. In our meditation practice we begin to recognize that this is just part of the illusion. We spend time in The Sorting Room with clarity, compassion and a sense of insight, gratitude, connection and perhaps release.
In the room off the garage, I spent a little time freshening it up, making it an inviting place to be. Just so, we can cultivate a more welcoming internal sorting room by being selective and compassionate in our choice of entertainment, the company we keep and the activities we do. Consider some of the films, shows, games and books you have spent your time with recently. Are they contributing to your well being? Or are they amplifying some fear-based inner pattern that already feels like a burdensome rant? Notice how you feel after you partake of an activity or spend time with someone. If you find you feel depleted, tense or exhausted, then make note to make wiser choices.
In class, my students talked about some of the films they’ve been seeing at the Mill Valley Film Festival. One student found herself so oppressed by the cruelty of all the characters in one film that she finally walked out. We each need to be aware that we have the option to walk out, to turn off the TV or shut the book whenever we find that what we are exposing ourselves to activates fear, tension, depression, hatred, etc. This is not the same as putting blinders on to avoid seeing the world as it is. It is recognizing that taking care of ourselves so that we can be useful in the world, to ourselves and for the benefit of all beings, is a top priority. We will talk about this more when we explore the Eightfold Path aspect of Skillful Action.
In the Sorting Room, I could easily get caught up in just making the room nicer and nicer, or just while away my time there and think that is all it’s for. I could forget that at least part of the reason we created this room was to go through our hoard of stuff so that it’s not creating unnecessary clutter, nor adding undue hardship to the grief of our heirs.
In the same way, we could develop a practice of meditation and enjoy the fruits of it without ever feeling the need to sort through anything. Perhaps we, unlike most people, haven’t accumulated patterns of thinking that are self-destructive, undermining or sabotaging. Perhaps, we are uniquely free of aversion, greed and delusion. Great! Maybe. Living in a continual bliss state may work until some situation causes a disruption, and then it would have been good to have a set of practices to rely on.
You may have seen a recent 60 Minutes segment on the research into psilocybin, the hallucinogen that can change brain patterns to such a degree that some people give up addictions easily and lose all fear. Why not just go through that experience, as fraught for many as it may be, and get instantly past this attachment to ego, this confusion of illusions? Well, first, it’s not legally available to the public. Second, it’s potentially dangerous for some. And third, you’d miss out on this amazing skillful process!
Taking the time to practice meditation, have insights and apply those insights to what shows up in the inner sorting room, is not drudgery! Done skillfully, it is fun. “Aha! What’s this?” we say, activating our inner Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew, with a little heartfelt inner Marie Kondo.
As we embark on discovering the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path, it’s a perfect time to assure that we have created a welcoming space to receive it, that we are taking it on not as a hunk of knowledge to learn in case we’re ever competing in a trivia contest.
To think of this as just another piece of knowledge we can claim to know, stow away or forget about, would be doing such a disservice to ourselves when this is the Buddha’s finest gift to us. He spent six years preparing his own ‘sorting room’. He made space for the wisdom to be well received when it came to him. Maybe we can honor his efforts with gratitude and with a generosity to ourselves by cultivating a receptive space to receive it.