In the last post, we looked at the gift of simplicity and how to dance with our veils of thought and emotion, letting them be light and flowing. Sounds lovely, right? But, as most of us are all too aware, our thoughts and emotions aren’t always so sheer and flowing. Sometimes they are burdensome, blinding, binding, and block even the idea of dancing with life.
So let’s acknowledge that part of our experience without making an enemy of it. Without thinking we’re uniquely cursed or flawed because we aren’t dancing through sunny fields with our multi-colored billowy veils.
Whatever is arising in our experience doesn’t dictate how we will feel tomorrow or even a minute from now. But while we are experiencing it, can we hold it in a way that allows us to breathe, to be present, and maybe even to find a gift in it?
A gift? Really?
Yes. Recognizing how it feels to deal with challenging knots can help us cultivate the gift of compassion for others who may be blindly struggling with burdensome veils. Instead of reacting against the person who has said or done something unskillful, we might pause to notice how they are caught up and entangled in painful thoughts and emotions, running the stories they don’t question and feel compelled to prove are true because they believe their thoughts and emotions, their veils, are who they are. They may be a burden but they create a seemingly safe haven to hide in, a set of armor to protect them. They can’t imagine ever letting them go or even questioning their veracity or value.
Instead of letting exposure to their struggle tighten our own fearful knots and plump up the threads of our own fear-based stories, we can refocus our attention away from those painful threads, come back into the felt sense of the present moment. We can see clearly what’s going on. We can recognize if there is any real threat that needs a fight or flight response. Usually not. More often it’s just like a bird’s feathers getting ruffled. We can calm down and recenter our awareness. But at that moment, we can also recognize their desperation and misery as something we too have experienced. We experience empathy. Not pity. And not projecting our experience onto theirs as if they are the same. But we can recognize the patterns of reactivity, the way attention chases down the same threads over and over again, and how challenging it can be to bring ourselves back to compassionate awareness.
Now we may not want to hang out with this person, and if we feel vulnerable, it’s probably wise that we don’t. But we can feel an affinity, not an agreement with the story, but understanding how it feels, this very human tendency to get entangled and be unskillful.
We can send metta, infinite lovingkindness. And just that generosity of spirit, that sense of connection, can gently begin to unravel the tightest knots of fear. Eye contact that is compassionate but not pitying, understanding that doesn’t pretend to have the answer. All done without expectation. Just a natural response to our practice of being present, practicing the wise intention to cultivate compassion for all beings, including the most challenging ones, and including that most challenging one of all: ourselves.
Compassion provides us with the willingness to look at the veils that arise in our thoughts. Often this is simply to remind ourselves to come into the present moment, to be here now. But sometimes we can sit with the threads, consciously following the thought threads to see how one led to another. This may take us back in time, to the memory of an original painful experience that keeps this thread so active. With compassion for ourselves and for whomever we may remember, we can consciously hold, explore, and question the validity of the story. There are so many ways to do this, depending on the contents of the memory. But if we allow our own inner wisdom, that still quiet voice within that gently guides us and assures our safety, we can soften and loosen the tight knots of thought that have us so bound and burdened.
But, we may wonder, why did we even begin thinking about that? Probably the thought began with a sensory experience, something we saw, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled, that triggered a memory and sent our attention chasing down a thread of thought. Or perhaps it was something we did or said, unwise action or speech, that set off inner scolding, self-blame, or defensiveness. When we are able to anchor our awareness and observe these knots of fear-based thought and emotion, we can identify them as greed, aversion, or delusion. What the Buddha called the three poisons.
We can notice the seductive unskillfulness and deception of greed, aversion, and delusion. The Buddha saw them arising again and again in himself. They arise in every human mind. We can even identify them in our bodies.
Try this exercise:
When I say the word ‘greed’, close your eyes and notice where you feel the word in the body, without getting caught up in mental images that keep you from noticing physical sensations.
What if anything shifts or changes?
Maybe you notice a leaning in, a kind of hunger, or a grasping.
Now, what about when I say “aversion” or “hatred” or “anger”. Does that feel different?
Where do you feel it? How does it feel? Maybe you feel a pulling back, a withholding, a tightening, hardening or clinching, a rising of residual anger, judgments, grudges, perhaps a turning away in disgust, or a readiness to fight.
And now, “delusion”.
That’s a whole different feeling, isn’t it? Can you pinpoint where you feel it? Or is it just an overall spaciness? A foggy feeling? Or perhaps you notice some defensiveness, an aversion to the word ‘delusion’, the suggestion that you could possibly be deluded.
If you felt something, you can see that greed, aversion, and delusion are easily activated. They aren’t foreign to us, they are right here in our minds, in our muscle memory, and in our nervous system.
But they don’t define us. Just because we experience greed, for example, does not make us ‘a greedy person’ as if greed is a personality trait. But these fear-based reactivities are important to notice. They dilute or dissolve our wise intentions and wise efforts. They scoff at our wise view. They try to lure us away from wise mindfulness and wise concentration. And they trigger unskillfulness in our speech, actions, and livelihood.
Our veils of thought and emotion are made heavy by them. And when we consciously investigate a tight knot, shining the light of compassionate awareness on it so that it loosens enough for us to see it from all angles, so that the threads are revealed, we can recognize the greed, aversion, and delusion at play. The more we see them, the less power they hold.
On the eve of Siddhartha Gautama becoming enlightened, a Buddha, he meditated for hours, taunted by greed, aversion, and delusion arising again and again in ever-changing seductive, terrifying, and convincing manifestations. And to each manifestation, he simply said, “I know you.” He recognized them for what they were. Illusions. He didn’t make an enemy of them, making them more real, engaging, and entangling with them. Instead, he became enlightened. His veils became lighter, sheerer, he could see through them to the oneness of all being, to the nature of impermanence, and the cause of suffering.
Throughout his life, he continued to notice when greed, aversion, and delusion would arise. He understood their fear-based illusory nature, and how they weave thick threads of thought and emotion that could be taken for real and true if he didn’t cultivate mindfulness and follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
That discovery reminds us how human are we. And how fortunate are we to be cultivating this skill to look more closely, not making an enemy of anything, but able to see how joyless life seems when our thoughts are so tightly bound in knots of fear.
How fortunate are we to be strengthening compassionate awareness as our core practice, so that we can see greed, aversion, and delusion as the fear-based illusions they are, and how quickly they fade when we reset our wise intention and cultivate wise view.
Wise view makes us less suggestible to the lurings of greed, aversion, and delusion. When we forget the wisdom of perceiving the universality of impermanence, when we forget the inseparable nature of being, then greed, aversion, and delusion take hold with convincing stories that thicken into emotionally laden threads that keep our minds in knots of suffering that we struggle to escape from in even more unskillful ways.
Shining our growing light of compassionate awareness loosens the knots and lightens the veils. With our natural curiosity, we can explore and question what fear-based illusions have been trying to weave into our veils, making them burdens rather than light billowy gifts to experience the wonders of this temporal existence.