Sunday, July 25, 2010

Becoming Human

The Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi said "The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner's mind. …In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities; in the expert's mind there are few. … The beginner's mind is the mind of compassion. When our mind is compassionate, it is boundless."

Joseph Goldstein has said "There are many different descriptions of awakening, but all Buddhist traditions converge in one understanding of what liberates the mind. The Buddha expressed it clearly and unequivocally: 'Nothing whatsoever is to be clung to as "I" or "mine."' … Our unfolding experience keeps changing—sometimes it is pleasant, sometimes unpleasant—but the practice of freedom is always the same, namely, liberation through nonclinging."

And, Ajahn Sumedho has said "These are the things we can contemplate. We can’t control what arises in the mind, but we can reflect on what we are feeling and learn from it rather than simply being caught helplessly in our impulses and habits. Even though there is a lot in life that we can’t change, we can change our attitude towards it. That’s what so much of meditation is really about—changing our attitude from a self-centered, "get rid of this or get more of that" to one of welcoming life as it is. … Welcoming discomfort, feeling fed up, wanting to run away. This way of welcoming life reflects a deeper understanding. Life is like this. Sometimes it’s very nice, sometimes it’s horrible, and much of the time it’s neither one way nor the other. Life is like this. "

It seems to me that we often approach our lives and our practice from a position of self-improvement. We believe that if we only practiced hard enough, if we only had enough clarity, if our hearts were only a little more compassionate, or maybe a lot more, then we would no longer experience difficulty in our lives. Yet as the Buddha pointed out in his First Noble Truth, human life is inherently dukkha. It can be difficult, problematic, and sometimes filled with suffering and is ultimately unsatisfactory.

We can think we understand this Noble Truth and end up living with a kind of grimness. Gritting our teeth and bearing our way through life. Living with a quality of tension which few of us were seeking when we began this practice. But this grimness is a sign that we aren't quite there yet. There's still some resistance.

Yet really, we don't have to do anything to change things even if there is still this resistance. Can we be curious about resistance? What is it really like to feel resistance for the way our life is? Can we feel it, can we allow it to be known in our hearts as well as our mind?

Suzuki-roshi, Joseph Goldstein and Ajahn Sumedho are all pointing towards this ability to just be curious and open to what it is that we are experiencing in this moment. I've noticed that for me one of the most interesting things that happens when I can really just accept that this is what is right now in my life is that it leads to a real sense of intimacy with life that wasn't there before. Not just an intimacy with my own life, though it most assuredly does that, but also an intimacy and compassion for the life of others.

This practice of non-clinging, of seeing that this is the way life is right now, is really a process of opening up to what it really means to be human, what it means to lead a human life. As the Taoists say there are ten thousand sorrows that we open to, but there's also ten thousands joys. And this quality of intimacy is a surprising joy.

The Buddha said "Ehipassiko" which means "Come and see." It seems to me that each moment of our lives, whether easy or hard, gives us just this opportunity to come and see for ourselves what it means to be truly and fully human.

Goldstein, Joseph. One Dharma. New York: HarperCollins, 2002, p. 134.
Sumedho, Ajahn. "Life is Like This," from Fearless Mountain Newsletter, Summer 1999, Vol. 4, No. 2.
Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. New York: Weatherhill, 1970, pp. 21-22.