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Lions Roar : November 2019
loneliness, as well as to the root of all the other feelings we experience?” Sometimes, in order to become comfortable with the thing you’re most afraid of, such as being alone or lonely, you have to go straight into it, facing it head on rather than running away from it. While it may seem counterintuitive to cut oneself off from the world in order to find true connection to it, Buddhism has us do exactly that. Whether it’s on the cushion for half an hour or on a longer retreat, we remove ourselves from external distractions and let the opinions, conditioning, and expecta- tions of our habitual minds settle down. Our minds are like glasses of murky, muddy water, making it hard to see, hear, and perceive clearly. Practicing is simply the act of putting that glass of muddy water down. When we stop shaking it up, the mud slowly sinks to the bottom of the glass. By allowing the mud to settle, the water clears. It’s the same pro- cess when we practice meditation. Our thoughts settle down, and our minds clear. With this clear mind, we can be just where we are, with things just as they are. We return to the breath that connects us to life. We become still enough to hear the sound of the wind, feel our bodies touching the earth, and become aware of the thoughts and feelings that come and go. When we pay attention in this way, inside and outside become one. We can finally taste for ourselves that cosmic cookie dough of which we’re all made and feel ourselves part of and connected to the entire universe. From this place we have a chance to experience what the Buddha taught when he said, “All things are created by the mind alone.” And that, of course, includes loneliness. Those of us who are privileged enough to come across this teaching have our work cut out for us—to digest the depths of its meaning and to pass it on to anyone we can. This “pass it on” mindset is itself what connects us back to each other. Over the last decades, I’ve been blessed with many opportu- nities to practice meditation on solo retreats. In such solitude, we can appreciate “small” things, like the pleasure of tasting rice, the sound of a creaking pine branch, or the smell of the fire at dusk. On a solo retreat, even though we may be physi- cally alone, miles from anyone, we may feel more at peace than ever before. In the spaciousness of that solitude, many kinds of mind appear and disappear: bored mind, sleepy mind, afraid, jealous, doubting, angry, desiring, hungry, loving, trying mind. Beginner’s mind. There are certainly some times of feeling lonely too, but solitude’s grace allows loneliness to come and go, without pushing it away or clinging to it. We realize no one is in any of it. “Nobody home,” as it were. “Nobody home” means that no matter how much you reduce yourself down to the cellular level—the electrons, the quarks, whatever the smallest part is that you can reference— it’s moving and changing. There’s no constant “self ” that’s experiencing any of this. As basic as this notion may be, it’s the ever-elusive essence of the Buddhist path. This is the point we keep coming back to over and over. Why does it require so much time and energy? Because our habit of approaching the world from “my” point of view is so deeply embedded in us that it’s difficult to remember that my is just smoke and mir- rors. In this context, loneliness, like all the other emotions that come and go, is no problem. On the other hand, loneliness, when not experienced in this rarefied retreat atmosphere, or you could say “loneliness left untreated,” is altogether a different thing. It’s a destructive state that changes our brain chemistry and even its formation. Think of the millions of abandoned children left to languish in orphanages around the world, with no loving, protective relationships. Their loneliness isn’t just an existential loneli- ness, it’s a day-to-day reality of knowing there’s not one soul out there who has their back. Not everyone has the luxury, the free time, or the life situation that allows them to pursue a meditation practice. So how do we put this all together? What role does Buddhism have in this larger setting of global connectedness and well- being? In my Korean Zen tradition, we wake up early every mor- ning and before doing 108 bows we recite the four great vows together. The first of these four vows, “Sentient beings are numberless, we vow to save them all,” takes us back to Man Gong’s point that the sangha is the most precious of the three jewels. We numberless sentient beings all need each other. Not only us humans, but also the paper needs the cloud and the flower needs the bee. In order to stay alive, we need the sky, earth, oceans, and rivers, and now they need us too, more than ever. The second vow is, “Delusions are endless. We vow to cut through them all.” Practicing helps us get to the root of that biggest delusion of all, the sense of a separate “I.” Once we make “I,” we make “not I,” and this is where all manner of opposites begins. Without a separate “I,” there’s no such thing as loneliness. The third vow says, “The teachings are infinite, we vow to learn them all.” Though it’s not possible, we set our minds on all the various teachings of wisdom, love, and compassion. We try to learn about truth, forgiveness, and clarity. We learn from our elders, from each other, books, and life itself. There’s no end to the lessons, yet we vow to learn them all anyway. This means learning never stops. Finally, the fourth vow says, “The Buddha way is inconceiv- able. We vow to attain it.” The Buddha way brings it all together and represents our path. If you live your life with these four vows in mind, you may be lonely once in a while, but you’ll know exactly what to do with loneliness when it appears. 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