Meditation is a practice that, if done regularly, affects how we are in relationship to all that arises in our lives, experiencing it with greater clarity, compassion, and equanimity. (If you meditate regularly, have you noticed that in your life? If so, as a kindness to others who may be struggling with doubt, share examples by commenting below. Or, if you prefer, contact me and I can share them anonymously in future posts.)
Clarity comes from an ability to be present, to see through the veils of thoughts and judgments our attention usually chases in reaction to something we’ve seen or heard about. “Oh, such and such, yes, I know all about that!” our autopilot mind spouts and then follows an oft-traveled thread full of opinions, judgments, and assumptions, all of which are stale and yawn-inspiring rather than awe-inspiring, even to ourselves, let alone other people. We might notice one or more of what the Buddha called the Five Hindrances rising up in the veils, sabotaging our wise intention and wise effort: Craving, Aversion, Restlessness & Worry, Sloth & Torpor, and Doubt. Any of these can get in the way of clarity, compassion, or equanimity.
We have all experienced these hindrances at times. It’s skillful to notice when one or more arises. That recognition alone can bring us some clarity, and hopefully self-compassion and equanimity. Pause for a moment and think of any Hindrances you may have experienced recently, maybe even right now. Any cravings? Any feelings of anger or hatred? Any restlessness, feeling antsy? Any worry? Any sluggishness in the body or the mind? Any sense of doubt in yourself or in the efficacy of your meditation practice or these teachings?
Whatever comes up, can you see it simply as one of the Five Hindrances that are a part of the experience of being alive as a human being? Can you accept that these hindrances are a presence in your life and in the lives of all humans? Can you see them for what they are when they arise in your experience? Without making an enemy of them, without activating another hindrance to combat the first one? Recognizing the Five Hindrances when they appear saves us from a lot of misery. When we see them for what they are, they lose their hold over us. And if our awareness is compassionate awareness, rather than critical awareness, the Hindrances lighten, soften, and release their hold on us.
If you have a habit of mind of being critical, cultivating compassion may feel quite the challenge, especially universal compassion, not picking and choosing who is deserving. This true compassion comes from a willingness to be present with suffering when we become aware of it. Our own suffering and the suffering of others.
Compassionate awareness comes from a deep sense of the interconnection of all life. You might take a peek at this clip of the 1990 film Mindwalk, where Liv Ullman beautifully explains interconnectedness. “The essential nature of matter lies not in objects but in interconnection….At a subatomic level, there is a continual exchange of photons and electrons matter and energy, they are all part of one inseparable web of relationships.”
An inseparable web of relationships might be one way of talking about the core Buddhist teaching of no separate self, anatta. You can spend years thinking about this concept or you can experience it for yourself by meditating on the elements, the felt sense in your body of the earth, water, fire, and air elements interacting within and beyond the skin-edge you may think defines you. (Try these guided element meditations: earth | water | fire | air .)
Without this profound understanding of our intrinsic interconnection, we can easily fall into the Hindrance of Doubt. And if we can’t quite grasp the idea of no separate self, can we allow for the possibility that we don’t know. The ‘don’t know’ mind is one of the most liberating offerings of Buddhism. It lightens our veils of so many heavy locked-in judgments and prejudices. And it frees us to send metta to ourselves and all beings, even if we have been doubting it has any value.
The practice of sending metta to ourselves and then to all beings is a way of cultivating and practicing compassion. We do this practice at the end of meditation in our class. Perhaps you do metta in your own meditation, and maybe you do it whenever you are struggling or see suffering in the world. It is the process of opening and accessing to infinite lovingkindness, channeling it as blessings of well-being, ease, peacefulness, and awakening to the moment. Once we feel full to overflowing with this infinite lovingkindness, we become conduits for it, sending those blessings out to others we know are suffering. We then expand the scope of our focus, sending metta out into the community, out into the world, surrounding the whole planet with metta’s open and loving embrace. We send metta to all beings, without exception. If we feel a holding back, we are not accessing infinite metta but a finite idea of who ‘deserves’ to receive it.
(The Tibetan Buddhist practice of Tonglen also has the intention to end suffering, but it is done by breathing in the suffering of others and then breathing out the blessing of well-being, spaciousness, healing.)
Whether it is your suffering or the suffering of someone you know, or a person you see on the street or a whole population under attack from a foreign government, you can practice Metta to be present with the inevitable pain of life and to activate compassion.
Once we have cultivated clarity and compassion, we find we have also cultivated equanimity, the ability to be present and hold all that arises in an open and loving embrace, even when it’s difficult.
With equanimity, we understand the nature of impermanence so that we’re not surprised or toppled by an ocean wave because we are present to see it arise, slap the shore, and pull away. We see how tides come in and out. Everything is always changing. Those who live near the ocean know to never turn their back to it. And that’s the same with us in our lives. When we stay present, aware, and open to whatever is arising, cultivating clarity and compassion, we find equanimity in living in a way that life’s waves won’t leave us drowned or gasping, or sucked out to sea in the undertow. Instead, we can respond, perhaps even dance, with whatever is here.
Facing the ocean doesn’t mean keeping on top of the news for fear of missing out. And it doesn’t mean looking at the horizon and trying to guess what kind of waves are coming. Waves, like the rest of life, are unpredictable. But facing the ocean of life, we can greet what comes responsively and responsibly.
So if you feel overwhelmed, stressed out, tossed about by every wave, consider beginning or returning to the regular practice of meditation to cultivate clarity, compassion, and equanimity. Meditation is a warm invitation to turn toward the ocean of what is, stay present in life, and savor being alive in this moment, just as it is.