“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.”
–Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne
Stress, hurry and flurry over small stuff –all the busy-iness is also a way not to be ‘here’, being present means being able to feel what is actually being felt. It is hard. Thus, we learn to cope by escaping ‘being here’ by being somewhere else, where it feels urgent, necessary, important, but not quite alive. If we don’t feel alive, how can we feel love?
If emotion can be understood to be a type of fuel or energy for our lives, we can’t run on low quality fuel all the time. Emotions have energy—higher level emotions give clarity and happiness is a feeling that all people can recognize. We are hard-wired for it. Poor quality feelings such as fear can’t replace working on love and peace. Love and peace lead to a profound sense of happiness, whereas chronic worry and fear lead to chronic dissatisfaction. How can feeling worry and fear to drive oneself forward lead to happiness at the end of it?
Most people live in fear. Fears of all kinds, if it isn’t fear of survival, it is fear of hell and damnation. If it isn’t fear for the self, it is fear for the children. Politicians utilize this fear, to hypnotize us and let them lead us.
Turn the TV on, and the news is full of reasons why we should be even more fearful. If we aren’t afraid, very afraid, we’d be dead! We feel quite dead before we even got to live.
Yet, bad stuff—really bad stuff doesn’t happen every day in our personal experience. When it does, we don’t get better by feeling worse and worse. First is the arrow of the harsh event, and the second is the painful arrow of what it could mean about us! “How can things ever be the same now that ‘this’ awful thing happened to us? Only to us, nobody else!”.
Unpleasant things happen every day to many people around the world. Our suffering is our common lot. But our kindness and caring towards each other can reduce our suffering. This realization, that we can change things by changing our minds is at the heart of meditation training in Buddhism and other meditation centric paths. The realization of our own power was called, awakening by Buddha.
Awakening can be very sudden. Just like a baby cries and cries when born, awakening can make us thrash about in shock, in pain, in tears of grief until we realize another level–that this too will change!. Buddha’s work is not about making us into what we are not or any kind of ‘self-improvement’. It is about being our true nature, which is loving and kind. So we are only going back to who we are, not improving or removing our sin etc.
Unhappiness does not distingiush. People can have everything, money, good lucks, a great family, social status and yet be full of angst. They can be poor, sad and full of suffering. Our emotional states have little to do with our financial or social state. I’ve met people with nothing who are miserable and people with a ton of stuff who are equally miserable. I have met beautiful people who are miserable and wonderful people who are miserable and crazy people who are miserable. Worldly things have nothing to do with inner happiness.
People can spend years just checking if they are pretty enough, lovable enough or good enough to be happy. What an incredible waste of time. Because happiness is inside. No external person’s love can replace the love that people feel inside themselves or the close connection that is necessary with oneself.
No matter how much some man loves a woman, unless she feels love herself, she cannot enjoy it. Instead it becomes a source of suffering…the ego starts its whining, ‘but, does he really love me? Will he love me tomorrow? Does he love me more than so and so??” Suddenly all the joy turns into worry and anxiety. This is a sign of attachment and any attachment to outcomes, takes away energy from the present moment. Or there could be an immense sense of delight—so much delight that people don’t see the reality of the person that they are in love with and how impossible it is to actually build a long-term life with the person.
Buddha says that most people experience life through two emotions, one is revulsion and the other is infatuation. Either we are over the moon in love with an idea, or we are fearful and in a state of hateful emotions.
Yet, life has both states. To avoid suffering, we have to watch both with an attitude of equanimity. Equanimity means to stay grounded, in the middle and when the wave of revulsion or infatuation comes it does not topple you over, instead you watch it with calm amusement. ‘What comes here today?’
Emotion is a wave, it passes. It is a feeling. It tells us we are alive. Our judgements come from the waves of infatuation and revulsion that we experience. Can we just let it be? “Yes, he is cute. Yes, she is nice. Yes, he is weird, and yes, she is a bit empty headed.” But it isn’t a big deal. It is not an issue, it is not about YOU. Detachment means that people can be allowed to be who they are, so nobody disappoints you. Your relationships are free. How people behave isn’t a big enough reason to be miserable or angry. Imagine life without attachment!
How do you feel without attachment? Do you feel free, liberated or terrified that life is not at all what you had been taught it was about through media and society?
We grow up hearing, ‘you are bad if you cry, good if you don’t’ or some version of judgement that isn’t actually how it is.
Most people learn to fear feelings and push them back down, because it isn’t ‘normal’ and it ‘shouldn’t be’. Strong beliefs about ‘how life should be’ can also come from cultural beliefs and scientific dogma. The reality of life may be very different from the, ‘should be’. When people see the reality vs. the ‘should be’ they may not be resilient enough inside to greet it with equanimity.
Emotional truth is important because only by experiencing and knowing what we dislike can we know what we like. Whenthings that we truly feel or desire are not deemed acceptable, the psyche can burst under the pressure. Also, our true self can be very different from the self that society rewards. Most people therefore life barely lived half lives. Live of quiet submission, or ‘lives of quiet desperation,’ as Henry David Thoreau called it in Walden.
Meditation unveils the suffering. Meditation also heals the suffering. When we are peaceful we can look at the feelings with equanimity. Far too many people think they meditate when they actually don’t meditate. They may follow a ritualistic process of meditation, that yields little insight. Or if insight is there, the energy to transform the insight into peace and love may not be there.
Thus comes the Sangha or your meditation group. There are three main aspects to meditation training that monks practice. First is the refuge in Buddha. Buddha is a symbol of enlightenment, he embodies what it is like to be a pure soul. Second, is the Dhamma, the teachings of Buddha, where he explains the four noble truths and the 8 fold path out of suffering.
The third aspect is the meditation group—the Sangha. The Sangha consists of the monks, nuns and laypeople who have practiced before, thus they hold the space for your practice and show you that you can be your pure authentic, loving self. Not only that, but that you are safe while you learn how to shine your light so that others can benefit from your kindness and learn how to be kind.
Therefore meditation teaching needs a container that has all 3 aspects in it. The intention, the teacher, the well understood teachings of the mind as understood in Eastern philosophy and the group. Meditation as taught by the Buddha—including the four noble truths and the eight fold path, is a complete ‘way’ that transforms our inner life from one of wearing a mask to cope with the world to becoming peaceful. You don’t however have to be Buddhist to master meditation!
The place of empowered equanimity that meditation brings you to is a place of no judgement, and it is also a quality of faith. This faith doesn’t come from belief, but comes instead from a suspension of belief and a direct realization of ‘what is’. Everything that comes into being ceases to exist and that truth when seen directly needs neither belief or non-belief. It is enlightened realization of truth.
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.
Saima Shah, Notes while at Birken Buddhist Monastery, October 2015
Note: Buddha was a psychologist, not a metaphysician, nor a prophet.