We all have our habitual ways to escape from the pressure of modern life. Many of these ways become painful habits and even addictions. They may seem self-comforting but are actually self-destructive. Perhaps we have tried them or have seen their negative effects on friends and family.
Seeing all the unskillfulness in our lives and the lives of others, it’s easy to complain and blame, but it just exacerbates the situation. We get caught up in circular habits of mind, reacting to all that happens instead of responding skillfully.
No wonder meditation has become mainstream. There is even a Barbie doll that offers guided meditation! “Breathe with me Barbie”! Note how meditation has helped her: She has joints! She can go barefoot! She has slightly more human proportions! If meditation can do all that for Barbie, think what it can do for you! 😉
Seeking self-comfort in meditation is more skillful, of course. It’s a natural human activity of quieting the mind. But when we use it as an escape from reality instead of a practice to develop our ability to skillfully cope with reality, we miss the real benefits. Meditation is not an escape. It is part of a whole system of wise self-care.
Lena Horne is quoted as saying, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.” This is exactly what the dharma tells us. It is not our mother-in-law, neighbor, job or bank account that is the problem. It’s not the world that’s going to hell in a handbasket. It is not the pain in our body or mind. It is the way we relate to all that arises. It is the way we carry the load.
In our cultivation of mindfulness, we slow down enough and stay present enough to see what’s going on, the way if you could just capture a magician on slow-mo you could see what’s really happening. With mindfulness we can see how we relate to all that’s going on, how we curse it, run from it, and blame it for our own behavior. Through our practice, we cultivate compassion to hold it not like a burden but like a cherished child, even though at times it may be squalling and smell like poop. It’s the nature of babies. And it’s the nature of life.
As we hold the load in a lighter way, we shed light on it. We develop the ability to listen and notice where there is discord and disconnection in the functioning of these patterns of thinking and behavior. We can recognize unwise actions, and that helps us to reconnect with the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. We can identify why the action is unwise. We can notice not just where it leads us (death, illness, isolation, guilt, addiction, bankruptcy, etc.) but where it started. Looking at the Eightfold Path, there’s no mystery as to where things went wrong. We can recognize unwise intention, effort, view, and/or mindfulness. And we can reset our wise intention, refuel our wise effort, reestablish our wise view, and with wise concentration cultivate wise mindfulness. Then our actions will be skillful, and when they’re not, we’ll know why. When other people’s actions are unskillful, we’ll see the pain, fear, and disconnection at the root of their unskillfulness. That will soften our hearts, make us see them as vulnerable beings like us, and our interactions will be more skillful and less stressful.
If after meditation or a retreat, we are dismayed to discover that we still have a load to bear, and perhaps we are already daydreaming about the next time we can get away to the cushion, the retreat center, the walk in the woods or the tropical beach, then we are missing a crucial aspect of the dharma: “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
I am not a backpacker, mainly because I backpacked across Europe when I was nineteen and it was painful in every possible way so I have had no inclination to replicate any portion of that experience. But backpacks today are made of lighter materials and designed to carry the load differently, taking into account laws of physics and human anatomy so that even when carrying the same amount of stuff, the load feels lighter. So that’s what we are doing with our practice and with our exploration of the Eightfold Path. We are giving ourselves the means to notice how we are carrying the load so we can make an internal shift that helps us carry it with a lightness of spirit that changes everything.
In class this dharma talk prompted students to share their own experiences around the topic of Wise Action and how they could carry the load more skillfully, especially with more self-compassion and compassion for challenging people in their lives. It’s so helpful to know that we are all dealing with the same stuff, that we are not alone in this. So please, feel free to add to this valuable conversation.