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Lions Roar : July 2015
When I am dismayed by a situation, if I can remember that “This is the result of a huge number of lawful causes far beyond what I want or I don’t want,” I am able, at the very least, to avoid adding anger to an already difficult situation. If there are wise responses to the situation, I can try them. If they are not success- ful in changing the situation, perhaps I can remember, “Strug- gling with what is beyond my control will create more suffering for me” and use all of my energy to accommodate the situation. Here’s an example of the liberating potential of understand- ing contingency. My friend Martha died of pancreatic cancer several years ago. As her condition worsened she said to me, “I don’t think I am being a very good Buddhist about this, Sylvia. I am not calmly opening to my experience.” I said, “Of course you aren’t. You have a very undesirable dis- ease. You just need not to be angry at it.” “I know that,” Martha replied, “but I am.” “That’s okay,” I said. “Just try to not be angry at yourself for being angry.” “But I am angry at myself,” she responded. “I know I am making things worse. When I let myself think, ‘Why me? I don’t deserve this,’ I suffer. When I think, ‘Why not me? People get pancreatic cancer and I’m a person,’ I stop suffering. I’m not any happier about dying, but I’m not suffering.” While our circumstances may not be as dramatic as Martha’s when she was facing her death—or the Buddha’s on the night of his enlightenment—all our lives are a continual unfolding of potentially confusing experiences. Because things are always changing, it’s hard to get and remain comfortable. Life is like a continuous quiz show where the only question ever asked is, “How are you going to manage whatever is happening now without confusing yourself and creating suffering?” We are always vulnerable to becoming sidetracked by plea- sure and pain. Pleasant cues seduce us. The enticing smell of pizza that wafts out the restaurant door as you pass by initiates the thought, “It would be great to stop here now for lunch.” An alert mind can override that idea with the awareness, “If I do that, I’ll arrive late for my meeting.” Unpleasant experiences arouse negative thoughts. You are disappointed by the news that the affordable-housing initiative you supported lost by a few votes. “What’s the matter with those idiots?” you blurt out angrily to a co-worker before you learn that she is one of the people who voted against it. You are chastened by your impulsivity and resolve to be more moderate in your public speech and less impulsive. Even when our experiences are neutral, the mind is not safely poised, because if it is untrained, the mind will lose interest when nothing dramatic is happening. It stops paying attention, and can’t be depended upon to make wise decisions. One enduring challenge we all have is our recurring aware- ness that (unless we die suddenly and unusually early) we will lose our youth, our health, and our vitality—as well as all the people who are dear to us (unless they lose us first). In terms of maintaining our energy and enthusiasm for liv- ing, it’s probably a good thing that the sickness and death and loss all around does not preoccupy us constantly. I’ve discov- ered, though, that recognizing the ever-present possibility of being parted from what we love wakes up the mind. Here’s an example of that, from my own experience: A few years ago, my husband Seymour fell desperately ill and was in a coma on a respirator for nine days. It was unclear whether he would survive. As I sat alone with him in the I.C.U., I thought, “Either he will live or he will die. I cannot do anything about it. My life will be one way if he lives, and another way if he dies. Either way, I’ll manage because it will be the only choice I have.” My mind was steadily concentrating all day, assessing the moni- tor screens with their moment-to-moment calculations of his bodily functions, seeing the periodic flashing of red warning lights, and hearing the beeping of signals to call the attention of the nurs- ing staff to changes. I was alert, but not frightened. I knew that the period of intense stress would pass. I also knew that the outcome depended on circumstances totally beyond my control, and that was a relief. There was nothing for me to do but wait. Also, because Seymour’s life was in jeopardy, I realized just how dear he was to me. My mind was so focused by the high- alarm situation that recollections of petty annoyances simply could not arise in it. I thought, “If he lives, I will never again get annoyed about such-and-such a habit of his.” As I described it to a friend, “All the nonsense falls out of your mind when your head is screwed on straight.” Or as Tibetan Buddhists say, more elegantly, “All defilements are self-liberating in the great space of awareness.” He did live, and recovered completely. Pretty soon I found his habits irritating again. But they were less irritating and easier to overlook if I brought to mind what I now think of as “the experi- ence that shocked my mind into clarity and reorganized my values.” These days, if an aversive reaction starts to form in my mind in response to any long-held “I don’t like what’s happening” pattern, I think to myself, “Wait! Don’t disturb the peace!” I think of the Buddha’s teaching that anything that the mind “ponders and dwells on, by that will it be shaped.” Part of my meditation practice these days is noticing, when I meet or even think about people I am in relationships with, whether old grievances associated with them come up in my mind. If they do, I pause in my thinking, take a long, calm, breath, and try to hold that person, and myself, in warm affection. I recognize that the stories that fuel long-held negative opinions are holding my natural good heart hostage. My everyday practice is denying them “air time” in my mind. Of course, it would be wonderful if we could so thoroughly incorporate the insights we gain in times of particular clarity into our lives so that habits of confusion never again arise. My SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2015 56