Octopus wisdom the Buddha would approve

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When I heard that the smoke I was inhaling a few days back on the Pacific coast of the U.S. was now in Finland, I was reminded that this precious earth and its atmosphere is a living organism and each of us is an intrinsic part of the ever-changing complexity of life. Yet many of us cling to the painful habit of thinking we are self-made, self-reliant, and unaffected by the causes and conditions around and beyond us. These past six months COVID-19 has given us strong evidence to the contrary.

Why do some people continue to deny their intrinsic interconnection? What is the allure of this high-maintenance illusion of a separate ‘self’ that needs to be constantly defined, bolstered, promoted, and defended? How exhausting! And how sad. Because, shoring up an imaginary fortress of separate self is the root cause of the suffering in the world. All the discord, all the lies, all the profiteering, all the injustice, comes from a blindness to the intrinsic interconnection of all life. If that sounds like an overstatement, pause to follow the thread of any current problem back to its roots. You will find people caught up in greed, aversion, and delusion because they see themselves as separate.

When we feel stressed, as so many of us do right now, old fear-based patterns rise up to divide the world into good and bad, right and wrong, victims and perpetrators. We can feel the stress in the tightness of our jaws, the way our shoulders rise up around our ears, the way our hands form fists. That tension is a big clue that we are shrinking back in fear, preparing for a fight, preparing to defend that separate fortress of self and all it stands for that feels under attack. Notice any tension that’s present for you right now. If you find it, take a few deep breaths focusing on the exhale. Ahhh. (In my guided meditations for Marin Insight Women’s Sangha, I have been spending a lot of time on techniques to relax and release tension this year. If you need some pointers, let me know. Or join us on Zoom Thursday mornings!)

The way we are in relationship to all that arises, globally and personally, determines how much we suffer. It’s challenging to remember that we are not suffering from the events but from our reactivity to them. If there weren’t so much happening in the world right now, we would likely switch our attention to dwell on the drama in our personal lives. We get caught up in the ever-changing set of circumstances we find ourselves in by having been born. Yet, with all its challenges, Buddhists recognize that this life is a precious gift because it is where we are empowered to grow, to deepen our understanding, to cultivate beneficial qualities, and to awaken.

Even in times like these? ESPECIALLY in times like these! What may feel like the worst of times offers the most fertile opportunity to wake up. But we don’t wake up by mindlessly throwing ourselves into the fray, immersing ourselves in the news, raging, and feeling helpless. We find our way by coming home to our true nature. Home is a place we find rest and nourishment, so coming home to our true nature is taking care of our minds the way we take care of our bodies. Our minds need rest, meditation, and inspiration.

I was recently inspired by a documentary Jack Kornfield recommended called “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix. So beautiful! So touching! And such an example of how interconnected we are. That’s something we know if we slow down and pay attention, as the filmmaker did over the course of more than a year of daily visits with his mollusk friend who taught him the life lessons he needed to learn.

Among those lesson the octopus taught the importance of taking time to heal. After she was attacked by a shark and lost one of her arms, she retreated into a safe space to recover. And eventually that arm grew back! Our human limbs don’t regenerate in this way, but our minds can, if we give them the right kind of time out to take care of ourselves. Now may be just such a time. Our retreat centers are mostly closed, but we can create personal retreats to nourish and heal ourselves, unplugged, and in touch with nature. Sometimes the world is just too much with us, and we need to give ourselves the gift of rest. And then we can return to the world strengthened, better able to be effective, with more clarity of purpose.

Without time out, both in our daily meditation practice and occasional periods of longer retreats, we can get painfully tossed about by the Eight Worldly Winds. In the Lokavipatti Sutta, the Buddha teaches about these eight conditions: gain and loss, status and disgrace, praise and censure, pleasure and pain. 

We all experience these worldly winds in our lives. We tend to have a strong preference for the winds of gain, status, praise and pleasure. And we may dread loss, disgrace, censure and pain. We do unskillful things in reaction to them all, and we suffer. When we give ourselves time to reflect, we can learn to recognize these winds for what they are: inconstant, stressful, and subject to change. In coming into skillful relationship with all that arises, we stabilize and are no longer blown from one emotional extreme to another.

At first, you might wonder why those seemingly positive conditions are on the list. You can see the misery caused by loss, but not the suffering caused by gain. Why would those seemingly wonderful things that we spend so much of our lives chasing after…

Ah, there it is. Did you notice? It’s the chase. Our desire for gain, pleasure, praise, and status cause us suffering. The way we cling to them, the slog of having to maintain them, and the fear of losing them. Dukkha. Remember dukkha? Suffering that we create by being out of kilter, not remembering the interconnection of all life and the universal nature of impermanence.

It’s challenging not to be out of kilter when we live in a society so vested in promoting (for profit) the joy of gain, pleasure, praise and status. But recognizing the Eight Worldly Winds as they arise in our experience—not making an enemy of them, but seeing their nature: inconstant, stressful, and subject to change—we weather the storms by nurturing ourselves in skillful ways. We come into a state of equanimity, able to hold all that arises with greater ease and grace. We understand that yes, life is like this. And this. And this.

An ancient Chinese wisdom story helps us to remember this:

A farmer’s horse gets loose from the corral and disappears.

His neighbor says, ‘What a calamity! Poor you, stuck without a horse to plow your fields.’ 

The farmer shrugs and says, ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’

A few days later the horse returns with several wild horses in tow.

Seeing this, the neighbor says, ‘That’s fantastic! What great luck!’ 

The farmer replies, ‘Maybe yes, maybe no.’

Then the farmer’s son falls off one of the wild horses and breaks his leg. 

‘How terrible!’ says the neighbor.

“Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next week the army comes to their village and takes all able-bodied young men for conscription, but not the son hobbling on crutches. The neighbor cannot believe the farmer’s good fortune.

“Maybe yes, maybe no.” We don’t know the whole of any story, so how can we judge? Terrible things may be catalysts for beneficial things to come. We don’t know. Can we rest in the “I don’t know” mind with appreciation for being present to experience whatever arises?

Instead of getting blown about reacting unskillfully to the Eight Worldly Winds, can we focus on the Eightfold Path? Starting with wise intention and effort, can we practice concentration to cultivate mindfulness and wise view, so that our speech, actions and livelihood are wise and beneficial to ourselves and all beings? 

I think we can.


      1. Barbara, maybe it was the order that seemed off? It was the one pairing where I put the one we fear before the one we crave. So now I’ve switched them to Praise and Censure, so they all match. xo,s


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