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Lions Roar : July 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2012 38 Everything has a life cycle, with beauty in every part of it, and the passing of any part of it evokes a response, either of relief or nostalgia. Eighteen-year-olds are usually glad to be finished with adolescence and off to whatever they’ll do next. A woman in a class I was teaching recently said her daughter, at that point anticipating her marriage a week hence, was sad that all the excitement of planning and imagining would soon be over for- ever. An elderly man who once took a seniors’ yoga class I was teaching thanked me after the class but said he would not be coming back. “It is too hard for me,” he said. “But I would like to tell you that I was a member of the 1918 Olympic rowing team.” I find now that time seems to be speeding up. I’ve become seventy-five years old in what feels like a brief time. The woman I see when I look in the mirror is my Aunt Miriam. It still startles me, but it also inspires me. Knowing that I have limited time left inspires me not to mortgage any time to negative mind states. I am determined not to miss any day waiting for a better one. “Carpe diem!” has never seemed like a more important injunction. An immediately helpful aspect of my earliest insights into impermanence was the increased tolerance and courage I expe- rienced in difficult situations. However much I had known intellectually that things pass, more and more I knew it in the marrow of my bones. I responded better to difficult news. Hear- ing that my father had been diagnosed with an incurable can- cer I felt both deeply saddened and uncharacteristically confi- dent. I thought, “We’ll manage this together. We’ve run 10K races together. We’ll do this too.” On a more mundane level, I noticed that I was more relaxed about ordinary unpleasantness. “This painful procedure at the dentist is taking very long, but in another hour I’ll be out of here.” From the beginning of my practice, the insight about suffer- ing, especially the extra mental tension that compounds the pain of life’s inevitable losses, made sense to me. A melancholy boy- friend I had when I was in high school enjoyed reciting Dylan Thomas poetry to me. I found it romantic, in a Bronte kind of way, but also depressing. I definitely thought it would be wrong to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” and I knew I didn’t want to do that. When, years later, I learned about Buddhism’s four noble truths, I was particularly inspired by the promise of the fourth noble truth, the path of practice that I thought would assure me of a mind that did not rage. When I first began to teach, I would explain the four truths this way: Life is challenging because everything is always changing and we continually need to adjust to new circumstances. Adding struggle to challenge creates suffering. Pain is inevi- table but suffering is optional. Peace is possible. In the middle of a complicated life, the mind can remain at ease. The path for developing this kind of mind involves attention to ethical behavior, to disciplining the habits of mind through meditation, and to ardent intention. I loved the third noble truth, the truth that liberation is pos- sible. I felt that after hearing about the ubiquitous ways that we are challenged—and how heedlessly and habitually we respond to the challenges in unwise ways—it was a great relief to hear, “Peace is possible!” I said it with great conviction and I believed it then and I believe it now. What I’ve started to add now, out of my own experience, is that however much I know that struggling makes things worse, I still suffer. If I am pained enough, or disap- pointed enough, or anxious enough, I still suffer. Some life experiences bring us to our knees. Someone in a class I was once teaching, after I had talked about the intensity of even terrible experiences modulating with time because “everything passes,” said, “In my case I think I am going to pass before the hor- ror of this passes.” I was humbled by the anguish I heard in what that person said, and it has kept me more real and more honest. For a while, in an attempt to be honest but lighthearted, I added what I called the third-and-a -half noble truth: that the intention to “surrender to the experience” doesn’t necessarily cause it to happen. These days even light-heartedness seems glib to me, so I don’t do it anymore. I say, “When the mind is able to surrender to the truth, grieving happens and suffering lessens.” But there is no timetable for that to happen and the only possible response I can have is compassion for myself and for other peo- ple. Maybe that truth—that we suffer in spite of knowing that peace is possible, and sense it is true for everyone—contributes to our sense of kinship, the sense of feeling like I’m accompanied that I sometimes experience in a crowd of strangers. The idea of no separate, enduring self—emptiness—is a pecu- liar idea until we have a direct experience of it. It certainly feels that there is a little “Me” living in our bodies that decides what to do, that sees out of our eyes, that realizes it has woken up in the morning. The “Me” has thought patterns that are habitual associated with it, so it feels enduring. If I woke up one morning thinking other people’s thoughts it would be deeply disturbing. So it was a complete surprise to me, some years into my retreat practice, to be practicing walking meditation, sensing physical movements and sights and smells and heat and cool, and realizing that everything was happening all by itself. No one was taking that walk: “I” wasn’t there. I was there a few seconds later, recovering SYLVIA BOORSTEIN, PH.D. has been a psychotherapist since 1967 and a dharma teacher since the mid-1980s. She is a co-founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California and the author of five books on Buddhism and mindfulness, including Happiness Is An Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.