Monday, February 23, 2009

Rustling Leaves

Rustling leaves
a robin
awakens me

Walking down the sidewalk on a bright late Winter day, I was absorbed in thinking, caught up in ruminations about the past and future. Suddenly, startled by a sound next to me I looked down. There was a robin, squatting among brown, dried out leaves, looking up at me quizzically. …

As I write this now, the mind wants to make it into some kind of metaphor. Yet all it was is what I described. There was a sudden sound that shifted attention from thinking to the sensory world. Attention shifted from the narrow world of thought, of past and future, to the lively spacious world of now. So much more vital than any metaphor could be.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Luminous Mind, Cloudy Mind

The following quote came to mind this week as I was working on a talk about bringing mindfulness to consciousness, which is the simple quality of knowing associated with a sensory object. The Buddha said:

      Luminous is this mind, brightly shining, but it is colored by the attachments that visit it.

Then I remembered first noticing this luminous quality of mind. I often find that going for a walk is one of the best times for listening to the mind and one of the times when insights most naturally arise. When I used to walk down the street, I would be caught up in stories about my life. There were stories about things that needed to be done, or issues I had with other people, or regrets about the past, or hopes for the future. My attention was largely absorbed in these stories, only superficially noticing the world I was walking through. Then, one day, after years of practice, I was struck by the silence in the mind. It had become quiet and it wasn't getting caught in thoughts, sensations or emotions. When I walked down the street, there were just the sensations of walking, the sights of houses, cars, and trees and the sounds of birds and children and traffic. In the beginning, the silence of the mind was a little eerie.

Now it is just the opposite. The silence of the mind is commonplace and comfortable. It is a mind of contentment. What stands out now is when the mind does get caught up in the things that visit it and the mind becomes disturbed. For example, recently I received some news that I found quite unpleasant. It felt like I had been personally attacked and the mind moved into defense-and-attack mode. So I said something harsh in response and, of course, once it was said I realized that it didn't help the situation at all. Saying it didn't even bring peace to the mind. What was most apparent, though, was how painful it is when the mind is caught up like this and is disturbed, agitated and obsessed. It is quite a painful state of mind and body. Yet that is the mind that most of us live with all the time, often without even being aware of it. It is the mind that keeps us searching for that next pleasant experience, whether from food or drink or sex or shopping, all in an effort to avoid the unpleasantness.

No wonder one of the Buddha's early followers, Sariputta I think, described the mind freed from greed, hatred and the view of an enduring and substantial self or essence as the highest form of happiness.

"Luminous is this mind…": The Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya, translated by Jack Kornfield and Gil Fronsdal in Teachings of the Buddha, Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996, p. 2

Monday, February 2, 2009

Right Socks

In the meditation hall we do not wear shoes. It's a way to keep the floor clean, which is important since many people sit on it when meditating. But we do wear socks, especially when the weather is cold.

When I was on retreat a few weeks ago, during an extremely cold night, the water pipes in the meditation hall froze. As the first period of sitting meditation in the afternoon began with the sun warming the building, there was a loud popping, then a gurgling sound followed by a shower of water from the ceiling.

As water began flooding the floor, I ran for a bucket. When I returned I stripped off my socks and stepped into the water, trying to catch what was falling from the ceiling. I was quickly joined by another retreatant, Floyd, who stripped off his socks as well, while other retreatants ran to shut off the water.

After the water was mopped up, I grabbed my socks and returned to my meditation cushions. We settled in and continued with our meditation practice for the remainder of the day, our last full day of the retreat.

That evening, as I was packing, I noticed that the socks I had been wearing didn't look quite familiar. Although they were the same brand and color, these were in much better shape. The socks I thought I remembered putting on in the morning had been quite worn out in the heels while these were like new.

While I continued packing, the mind struggled with what to do. The first thought was to ignore the obvious, that these were Floyd's socks and he had mine. —The mind can be quite shameless, it seems.— There was a sense of not wanting to make a big deal out of it. But then there was the thought that these were a kind of wool sock that I have always regarded as somewhat of a luxury, so how could I just ignore that I had the newer pair of socks. Then there was the thought that it wouldn't be a big deal to Floyd, who is a kind and generous man.

Finally, though, there was the realization that while it might not make a difference to Floyd, it would make a difference to me. It would keep the mind and heart agitated. There would always be a sense of guilt if I didn't make the effort to exchange the socks. Each time I encountered Floyd, I realized, this uneasiness would come to mind and would interfere with my ability to be present with him.

As I had expected, when I brought the socks to Floyd's attention and we exchanged them, he commented that "In the scheme of things it's not a big deal." Immediately, though, I noticed that the mind became more clear and calm and the heart more open.

This was a lesson for me in why it is so important to be scrupulous with our ethics. When we are not, it comes between us and others and prevents trust and intimacy. When we are not scrupulous with our ethics, it leaves our minds agitated, even if only in a subtle way. This is probably part of the reason why the Buddha began his path of spiritual transformation with ethics and why all spiritual traditions emphasize ethics. Ethical behavior creates conditions of mind and heart that are conducive to meditation and to seeing things as they are.

So it's important to carry on the practices of Right, or ethical, Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood — and Right Socks.