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Lions Roar : September 2013
SHAMBHALA SUN SEPTEMBER 2013 44 I had been trying to invent meditation by walking in subtropi- cal forests on the weekends when I heard that some Tibetans were coming to town. I had a vague idea that they were experts in the inner life, trained in the mind. They were offering a monthlong silent retreat and as soon as I heard about it, I signed up. I didn’t really understand anything about meditation, Tibet, Buddhism, or retreats, and I was the sort of person whose legs jiggled when I sat. We were instructed to bring a cushion; I brought a useless throw pillow filled with tiny bits of foam. Sometimes I still feel the unsteady, oceanic rocking that was induced when I tried to sit on it. The lamas held an introductory talk to help you understand what the retreat was about, so you could decide if you wanted to go, but I didn’t attend that. I didn’t want to be disappointed or to find reasons not to go. A friend who knew the lamas said, “If you do it, it will change you. In some sense you’ll never come back.” She was already too late, though. It was curiously like an impulse buy. I was prepared to make sacrifices; my life took a shape and even a dignity just from hearing about the retreat. The medieval Japanese teacher, Hakuin, said, “If you try meditation even once, all your crimes are wiped away.” I didn’t have to try it even once. I enjoy people who are starting out on the path and notice that change doesn’t have to be slow. A woman signed up for a beginning koan class. In the week preceding the class, she noticed how much was going on in her mind and began to look for “Zen moments,” as she thinks of them. She was talking to a friend about being cut off in traffic and the inevitable road rage. She realized that she could just let everyone get in front of her, let them have a nice day, and not get mad about it. She didn’t have to have road rage. She didn’t even have to show up to the class for the practice to start working in small ways. Sometimes we are not really lost; we already have what we need, but we haven’t noticed. Eventually a tenderness opens in us and we start to change. It doesn’t matter if it happens after long years of struggle or if it happens quickly. We just have to be grateful when it comes. You just need to turn the donkey’s head a bit The problem of trying too hard is intrinsic to the mind. Per- haps something has opened in us and we have become calm or delighted or free of grief. We don’t yet understand what hap- pened but we want it to happen again. Something opened our hearts, and then we want it delivered right to us as if it were a hair product. But this authoritarian strategy is the opposite of the road we came by. If you stepped into freedom one time by walk- ing into a wardrobe and pushing through the winter coats and finding Narnia, the next time it might be a different gate. Perhaps you will fall off a donkey or someone will curse you on a freeway. I knew a man who had a life-changing experience on LSD and spent decades trying to recapture that experience in Zen retreats. He was a sweet person, and what was genuine and wonderful about him was his trying. The reaching itself was beautiful, but he didn’t notice that. It took me a long time to learn meditation because at the time feeling unworthy was a way of life for me, and struggling made me feel that at least I was doing something, taking steps and all. If peace appeared I didn’t recognize it and hurried by. Unworthi- ness and shame were a way of hanging on to my identity. But clueless meditation did turn the donkey’s head toward the barn, and that proved to be good enough. Later I could see that all states of mind are clear and that even turbulent states of mind are bright inside, but then I was just struggling and full of doubt. One day when my mind was wildly, absurdly unruly, I realized that being miserable like that was just being pompous and I laughed and gave up. A tenderness for all living things began to appear. Then naturally my mind fell free and the world shone. The simplest meditation can just be noticing whatever the mind is doing and then not bothering to do it—struggling, for exam- ple. This is meditation for people too lazy to improve themselves. A meditation practice actually occupies the space before we start to think about ourselves. Part of the Buddha’s discovery was to eat when he was hungry, to give up striving to be something strange and special, and so to enter life without conditions. Spiritual practice is a love of this life, the actual life we have. Mistakes open the tenderness in us A woman recently wrote me saying, “I’ve started keeping com- pany with the koan ‘There’s nothing I dislike.’ I saw a hawk the other day, and something strange happened that reminded me of the koan, although I don’t really know why. I felt like I was him for a second, maybe not even a second. It was a very strange feeling, and since I am just groping in the dark with this stuff I figured I would mention it.” When we are free, we are not separate from things. It’s not a crazy state; it’s an expansion of empathy. It’s not that you don’t know who you are in some basic sense—two legs, two eyes, a taste for piled-up hair and intergalactic blasters—that’s just not crucial information and it doesn’t exclude other possibilities. For a moment we might be a bird, or a person of the opposite sex, or a tree, and there is joy in this, in being at home in the universe and not worrying about what bad things might happen to us. Freedom can be triggered by an entirely modest event, but then, any piece of joy is all of joy. A university student said, “I was wor- rying a lot and then a guy’s sneakers at the gym squeaked and it was the coolest sound.” PHOTOBYLENAEHRENSTRÖM/JOHNÉRIMAGES