When someone speaks negatively about you, you usually feel that you need to retaliate. Every time you react, you create certain neural-pathways in your brain. The more you react, the more you strengthen those same pathways, while weakening others.
Overtime you build the habit of always reacting in a particular way whenever someone is negative toward you. These habitual reactions then lead you into more anger, fear, and hatred. Your need to punish whoever is causing you suffering, so you can find some sense of relief, only makes you suffer more.
Although habits are challenging to break, your mind is capable of changing. You can water the seeds of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love in your inner garden. You don’t have to water the seeds of anger, fear, hatred, delusion, and craving. When you are aware of what you are doing, of how you’re thinking and feeling and perceiving, you won’t react as blindly to the events of your life.
When someone is unpleasant, you want to react. You want to cause them the same amount of suffering that they caused in you. Only then, you believe, will you be satisfied, but you never are for long. While it is common to react when you feel angry, misunderstood, unloved, and so on, there is another option.
You can pause instead.
When you pause, you can use those few seconds to make peace with yourself. You can be mindful of your anger, fear, sadness, and uncertainty. You can be aware of what may happen if you do react.
All you need to do is return to your breath.
Counting deeply, notice what is happening: your heart beating, your head aching, your shoulders tensing. When you stop to breathe in and out, in and out, you can transform your destructive energy into compassionate energy.
Every irritation will be a chance for you to come back to yourself.
When you are angry with someone, you are usually more focused on them than on your own feelings. Your house is on fire, but rather than putting out the flames, you want to burn everything down.
If you can find the inner-space to tend to your own anger first, you will begin to feel relief. When you embrace your feelings, when you do not add fuel to the raging fire, you will gain insight into who you are. Then you can make more skillful choices.
You can acknowledge to yourself, “Breathing in, I feel anger. Breathing out, I feel anger.”
You kill your anger when you smile to it.
When you show compassion to yourself, you can turn what is destructive into what is healing. You don’t need to hide from anger or pretend that it doesn’t exist or judge yourself so harshly. Your tender care of your anger will make you a more peaceful person.
Sometimes when your emotions are loud, you cannot hear what other people are saying to you. When you can sit quietly with yourself — neither judging, expecting, nor condemning — then you can hear the world again. You and the world are one.
As you look at your thoughts, you can let go of your thoughts. As you look at your feelings, you can let go of your feelings. You can see what arises and passes.
When you are in a conversation, you don’t need to interrupt, justify yourself, or blame. You can just hear what someone is saying. Even if they are hateful, greedy, or full of wrong perceptions, you can listen to them deeply.
You can help them, even if only through your presence, your loving words, or your small actions. When you see their humanity in yourself, you want them to be free from their suffering.
Through a regular practice of mindful breathing, you can make peace with yourself.
When you are kind to your suffering, you can relieve the suffering of others.
Often when people listen to each other, they don’t really listen to each other. They only hear their own interpretations, opinions, and beliefs.
When you are not calm, when your mind is muddied by thoughts and feelings, then you are not aware. You react to events blindly then, lost in your stories. When you are present, you sink into stillness, connected to your mind-body. Muddy water clears when you are still.
If you feel upset, you don’t have to speak or act out. Return to your body instead. Breathe in and out. Listen to the other person’s perspective without internally commenting on whether they are right or wrong, good or bad. Speak truthfully, but compassionately, trying to understand what they mean.
Will your speech cause more suffering or will it bring harmony to your relationships?
When you make a mistake, apologize. You don’t have to conjure up excuses to justify yourself. Apologies can relieve a lot of suffering in the other person. At the same time, don’t abuse yourself either.
Practice forgiveness so you can let go of your burdens and begin again.
When you suffer, your suffering will affect others.
When you are peaceful, your peace will radiate out from within.
There is already a lot of violence in civilization. You have to be mindful of your thoughts, feelings, and actions, so that you do not contribute to more hatred, fear, anger, greed, and ignorance. Violence only creates more violence. To prevent the next war, you must practice peace now.
In Zen Buddhism, when you walk, you are walking. When you sit, you are sitting. When you are going to the bathroom, you are going to the bathroom. Whatever you are doing — whether you’re sweeping the floor, listening to a song on the radio, or biting into an apple — you are fully aware of what is happening. You are caring for each moment like you’re cradling a baby in your arms. When you’re fully engaged in your life, you’re not separate from what is outside of yourself. You (the subject) and what is out there (the object) melt away.
When you practice Zen, you’re not only practicing on the meditation cushion. Zen is ordinary life. There is no real difference. What happens is happening with no clinging to what is happening. “Forgetting the self is the act of just doing the task, with no self-consciousness sticking to the action.” (Aitken, Robert)
When you lose yourself in storylines, you can return to where you are. You don’t need to beat yourself up, saying, “I’m such a bad person for thinking, for feeling upset, for worrying so much.” Just note that you have drifted away from the present. Then you can come back, over and again.
It’s natural to feel sad and mad, excited and bored, and on and on. You are a human. You don’t need to block out your feelings and thoughts and sensations. You’re not a stone or a block of wood. Instead of seeking distractions, rationalizing, intellectualizing, or forming judgements, watch what is here, now, arising and passing. Breathe and let go.
Anger comes, anger goes. Sadness comes, sadness goes. Peace comes, peace goes. Your shoulders may tense up, your heart may beat faster, your insides may hurt, a bird may chirp on a nearby tree, and two squirrels may chase each other over an acorn. There is no need to hold on. You can smile instead. You can smile to your fear, smile to your happiness, smile to your tears, smile to your indifference.
From looking at your fear, you can see the fear of other beings. Your desire for happiness is like so many others before and after you. Your joy becomes their joy. Your suffering becomes their suffering. When you are peaceful, you want others to be peaceful. Their peacefulness becomes your peacefulness, their happiness becomes your happiness, their suffering becomes your suffering. When someone is in pain, their pain often spills over on those closest to them. Instead of judging them, you can love them. You can tend to them in your heart because you tend to yourself.
“In Zen, we practice to realize what has always been true. We wipe away concepts and hang-ups, delusions and attachments, but as Hakuin Zenji says, ‘Nirvana is right here, before our eyes.’” (Aitken, Robert)
When you can see through your delusions, there is space. Freedom. You no longer need to blindly react. You are simply here, aware of what comes and goes. You see the phenomena of the past, present, and future — interacting, changing together, inside you, around you, inside and around you. Everything is a cause and an effect.
When you are sitting, you are sitting. When you are standing, you are standing.
You are standing on the soil, in the sun, in the air, near the sea, under the trees. You’re standing with the bees pollinating the flowers and the birds eating the worms and the caterpillars crawling on leaves. You’re standing with your ancestors and descendants. You are standing because of the stars that burst millions of years ago. You depend on so many things to be. In every moment, you inter-are with your ancestors, with your feelings, with your thoughts, with a mountain that is two thousand miles away.
Everything is changing with each other.
You are not separate from the rest of the universe. You’re an expression of it — going as far back as the Big Bang, as far back as subatomic particles forming into atoms, and possibly even before that. You’re made up of the sun just as the sun is made up of you. You cannot be without spacetime, without the rain, without the carbon dioxide that you exhale, without the roots beneath your feet. What is out there, what is in you, is an interrelated process.
What you cultivate in yourself is not only for yourself, but for others as well. You are already perfect, yet you have a lot of work to do. Through your lifelong practice, you can let go of what holds you back from seeing yourself as you are. But who are you?
Children are conditioned to accept the codes of their given society. They are reinforced with different symbol-systems from their parents, religions, schools, communities, cultures, peer groups, and so on, internalizing these systems (to varying degrees) overtime. They eventually think, feel, and act in accordance with these “reality tunnels,” despite whether they rebel against or conform with them. Ultimately, they will assimilate certain “realities” into their identities.
One of the first symbol-systems they learn is language. They learn what the agreed upon symbols to designate meaning are. Different cultures have different tacit agreements over not only what some words mean but what should be said and not said, what should be in one category and not another — essentially how their chosen realities are to be divided to make sense.
Children not only have to learn the codes of language, but they learn, whether consciously or not, many other forms of agreement.
“For the necessities of living together require agreement as to codes of law and ethics, of etiquette and art, of weights, measures, and numbers, and, above all, of role. We have difficulty in communicating with each other unless we can identify ourselves in terms of roles — father, teacher, worker, artist, ‘regular guy,’ gentleman, sportsman, and so forth.” (Watts, Alan)
People identify with the categories, and sometimes stereotypes, chosen and placed upon them. They aren’t merely one role, but a multitude of related roles. Father and son, laborer and high-school drop-out. Daughter and sister, amputee and white veteran. Son and brother and fatherless. Methodist and Japanese. Out of the innumerable roles available, people learn to identify with a conventional view of “self.” They believe that they have a persistent identity with a history, apart from everything and everyone else.
“According to convention, I am not simply what I am doing now. I am also what I have done, and my conventionally edited version of my past is made to seem almost more the real ‘me’ than what I am at this moment. For what I am seems so fleeting and intangible, but what I was is fixed and final. It is a firm basis for predictions of what I will be in the future, and so it comes about that I am more closely identified with what no longer exists than with what actually is!” (Watts, Alan)
The history of a person’s identity, of their memories of past events, is continuously selected for and interpreted (often without conscious awareness, depending on the emotional intensity and regularity of those events). Out of an infinitude of events that transpire in one’s life, some are chosen as significant while others are not. Experiences that are seen as insignificant, nonsensical, irrelevant, and so on, are discarded overtime.
People interpret the events of their lives using the different symbol-systems that they have internalized. Experiences are processed through their mental filters to make sense to their perspectives. They select one type of past and not another. One event is seen as good or bad, right or wrong, scary or pleasant, but not another. Some experiences are chopped up into familiar signs, while other experiences are forgotten. These signs represent only a narrow spectrum of “reality” out of all the information that exists.
What is represented is only a finger pointing to the moon. As Alfred Korzybski wrote, “The map is not the territory.”
Furthermore, people communicate their realities with language. Their language is an “abstract, one-at-a-time translation of a universe in which things are happening altogether-at-once — a universe whose concrete reality always escapes perfect description in these abstract terms.” (Watts, Alan)
To account for all that happens in the universe, to even perfectly describe a “a particle of dust,” would take an infinite amount of time. Thinking (communicating with ourselves), speaking (communicating with others), using a string of symbols abstracted from the past, will never fully grasp “every breath, every beat of the heart, every neural impulse.” (Watts, Alan)
“Taoism [on the other hand] concerns itself with unconventional knowledge — with knowing life directly, instead of in the abstract, linear terms of representational thinking.” (Watts, Alan)
Conventional thinking isn’t shunned, but rather, is used as a tool and not as the Truth. Taoism is based on a hunch, an intuitive state. Peripheral vision of the mind. Taoists will “feel” a situation and know it, without limiting it. While the intellect is trying to box the world into rigid categories, and grasp at the past and future, the Taoist doesn’t cling to their experiences. The intellect will exhaust itself in seeking the Tao, in its need to define it.
Chaung-Tzu once said, “The perfect man employs his mind as a mirror. It grasps nothing; it refuses nothing. It receives but does not keep.”
The mind isn’t reduced to idiocy, although those who are conditioned to accept Western systems as true may believe that to be the case. The Taoist plays with his innate intelligence, spontaneous and aware. Instead of forcing out a solution, she lets go of her mind until stilling into a pure naturalness. Then he directly knows the Tao, unconscious of good and bad, moral and immoral, black and white, up and down.
Rather than darkness or light, there are infinite shades of the Tao. To define the Tao is to not know the Tao. To grasp it is not to grasp it. In the doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism, as in Taoism (which heavily influenced Zen), there is no “true” division in life. Human beings, but not nature itself, are the ones to separate “things, facts and events” into categories. These categories are relative to different perspectives, but they are never truly fixed, permanent, or absolute.
“Ordinarily a human organism is counted as one thing, though from a physiological standpoint it is as many things as it has parts or organs, and from a sociological standpoint it is merely part of a larger thing called a group.” (Watts, Alan)
For a Buddhist, to describe “reality” in a fixed, linear manner with symbols, is not to know “reality.” To describe it, or the self, as permanent and separate, is to not grasp the changing ineffability of life. There is no enduring self that persists, for “the ego exists in an abstract sense alone, being an abstraction from memory, somewhat like the illusory circle of fire made by a whirling torch.” (Watts, Alan)
Every moment is a rebirth, a coming back to the present. Buddhism above all is a practice, seeing the world with clear awareness. “Such awareness is a lively attention to one’s direct experience, to the world as immediately sensed, so as not to be misled by names and labels.” (Watts, Alan)
There is a watching of sensations, feelings, thoughts, without any purpose or judgement. Like a mirror, the mind is “passively active,” purely reflecting what arises and falls away. When there is nothing to be grasped, there is no one to grasp it. When there is no one to grasp, then there is no division, no subject and object.
The Buddha did not try to create a philosophical system to satisfy the questions of restless minds. He often maintained a “noble silence” about questions dealing with gods and the origins of the universe and absolute reality, because to him, they were irrelevant when understanding the way to liberation from suffering (dukkha).
To seek such answers is to cling to abstractions again. Lost in the perpetual cycle. Many of the questions that people ask about meaning, life and death, are merely subtle ways of trying to categorize the world, turning their uncertainty and fear into familiar ideas. “Thus the world that we know, when understood as the world as classified, is a product of the mind, and as the sound ‘water’ is not actually water,’ the classified world is not the real world.” (Watts, Alan)
To be liberated is to have no intention of liberation. To try to become someone important, to achieve something outside of oneself, to adhere to some dogma of ultimate truth, is to be confused with the compulsive habit of symbolizing. The more one tries to figure out the Answer, the more frustrated he or she becomes.
“I have no peace of mind,” said Hui-k’o. “Please pacify my mind.”
“Bring out your mind here before me,” replied Bodhidharma, “and I will pacify it!”
“But when I seek my own mind,” said Hui-k’o, “I cannot find it.”
“There!” snapped Bodhidharma, “I have pacified your mind!”
To try to empty the mind is to get caught up in the mind again. To let go of the mind, of thoughts and impressions, “neither repressing them, holding them, nor interfering with them” is to free the mind. To practice no-thought is not to block all thoughts from coming in. Then one would be as good as a stone. Thoughts come and go. That is all. To let go is to trust in one’s natural spontaneity. There is no effort.
Línjì Yìxuán said, “There is no place in Buddhism for using effort. Just be ordinary and nothing special. Relieve your bowels, pass water, put on your clothes, and eat your food. When you’re tired, go and lie down. Ignorant people may laugh at me, but the wise will understand…. As you go from place to place, if you regard each one as your own home, they will all be genuine, for when circumstances come you must not try to change them.”
One doesn’t try to silence one’s feelings, thoughts, impressions. One is not trying to be indifferent or removed from the world. There is an awareness of what is. Subject and object, knower and known, white and black, arises relative to everything else. Everything depends on everything else to be.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “If you are a poet, you will see clearly that there is a cloud floating in this sheet of paper. Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without trees, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If the cloud is not here, the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are. ‘Interbeing’ is a word that is not in the dictionary yet, but if we combine the prefix ‘inter-’ with the verb ‘to be,’ we have a new verb, inter-be. Without a cloud and the sheet of paper inter-are.
If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so, we know that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are. And if we continue to look, we can see the logger who cut the tree and brought it to the mill to be transformed into paper. And we see the wheat. We know the logger cannot exist without his daily bread, and therefore the wheat that became his bread is also in this sheet of paper. And the logger’s father and mother are in it too. When we look in this way, we see that without all of these things, this sheet of paper cannot exist.
Looking even more deeply, we can see we are in it too. This is not difficult to see, because when we look at a sheet of paper, the sheet of paper is part of our perception. Your mind is in here and mine is also. So we can say that everything is in here with this sheet of paper. You cannot point out one thing that is not here-time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper. That is why I think the word inter-be should be in the dictionary. ‘To be’ is to inter-be. You cannot just be by yourself alone. You have to inter-be with every other thing. This sheet of paper is, because everything else is.
Suppose we try to return one of the elements to its source. Suppose we return the sunshine to the sun. Do you think that this sheet of paper will be possible? No, without sunshine nothing can be. And if we return the logger to his mother, then we have no sheet of paper either. The fact is that this sheet of paper is made up only of ‘non-paper elements.’ And if we return these non-paper elements to their sources, then there can be no paper at all. Without ‘non-paper elements,’ like mind, logger, sunshine and so on, there will be no paper. As thin as this sheet of paper is, it contains everything in the universe in it.”
There is no such thing as a separate self. Everything relies on everything else to be given a shape, even non-shapes. One’s mind-body gives structure to experience, while there isn’t experience without one’s mind-body. Sunlight makes sight as sight makes sunlight. The “individual” and “external universe” are simply abstract limits that one has set up. There is no “between” between the two, because the division is not truly there. People give importance to their ideas of what is “me” and “mine” in contrast to the experiences that they have, as if they are apart from them, as if they “have” them. They identify with narrowly selected memories and social roles and feel as if they are permanent. Meanwhile life passes them by and they don’t notice. They have become so fixated on their ideas of what life is rather than seeing what is happening to them.
To even get caught up in ideas about what Zen is, and what Zen isn’t, is to stink of Zen. One can be as attached to their spiritual self as to their material self, believing they are a certain type of person and not another.
“For this reason the masters talk about Zen as little as possible, and throw its concrete reality straight at us. This reality is the ‘suchness’ (tathata) of our natural, nonverbal world. If we see this just as it is, there is nothing good, nothing bad, nothing inherently long or short, nothing subjective and nothing objective. There is no symbolic self to be forgotten, and no need for any idea of a concrete reality to be remembered.” (Watts, Alan)
Once a master drank tea with his two students. Then he suddenly tossed a fan at one of them.
“What’s this?” he said.
The student opened it and fanned himself.
“Not bad,” he said.
He passed the fan to his other student.
His other student placed a piece of cake on it and offered it back to his master.
When there are no longer any names, the world isn’t “classified in limits and bounds.” While most people want to classify things in their proper places, a master trusts in spontaneity, in “no second thought.” Zen masters are not emotionless beings without pain or hunger pangs. They can be sad, jealous, angry, and so on. The difference between them and others is that they are wholehearted, neither blocking out nor indulging in what they are aware of.
Zen is not to “confuse spirituality with thinking about God while peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.” (Watts, Alan)
Thoughts fall away when they’re not necessary anymore. Muddy water is best cleared when left alone. Zen is about seeing reality concretely — undivided by labels and titles and names and numbers and right and wrong. To sit in quiet awareness is to let the distinctions of me and other, subject and object, come go and come again. Without commentary, without purpose, there only is. Zen masters are neither gods nor are they perfect. They are simply human. Nothing special.
As Ikkyu said:
“We eat, excrete, sleep, and get up;
This is our world.
All we have to do after that —
Is to die.”
One awakens to what reality isn’t. Ideas of what one is, of what the universe is, seem more nonsensical the deeper one goes into it. Reality is ineffable, despite whether someone claims that “they are nothing” or “they are something” or “they are everything.” Rather than flitting from system to system, all people are already here, their “senses fully open to receive the world.”
There is nothing to be achieved, no one to blame, no past, no future, no birth, no death.
Only here, only now.
To some Westerners, the present seems like “nothing more than the infinitesimal hairline,” dividing the past from the future. For the linear-minded, for those who only know about reality through their compulsive thinking, the world will rush past them. Their ideas seem all-important to them, but their symbolizing can never sustain their heart beating, their breath, or the operation of their muscles, glands, senses, and organs.
They believe they are consciously in charge, but their minds only grasp at slivers of experience, which they are constantly interpreting and analyzing, dividing and separating. Yet in only a moment, they can see life as it truly is. The past and future, which they are so preoccupied with, is an abstraction. There is only this moment, moving but still. it’s here for everyone. Precious and timeless.
With every breath, we can return to life as it unfolds. We can be aware of our emotions and thoughts and bodies and minds. We can gently smile to where we are. When we wake up, when we sip our tea, when we drive to work, when we shower, when we eat, we can be fully here. We offer our presence to each moment. Time is a precious gift that we shouldn’t waste with regrets about the past and anxieties for the future. Sometimes we’re so used to our habits of compulsive thinking that we are unaware of anything else. But if we practice our mindfulness daily, we can free ourselves. Rather than watching TV while scarfing down our breakfast, we can savor every bite and smell. Rather than worrying about our lost romances while washing the dishes, we can feel the warm soapy water against our skin. When we walk mindfully, we can feel the soft soil under our every step. We can breathe into the stillness our minds. We can feel alive where we are and don’t need to rush off to anywhere else. Mindful breathing harmonizes us. We are brought back to the home inside ourselves. As we breathe in and out, we are as spacious as an open sky, as solid as a mountain, and as fluid as an ocean. We can breathe with loving-awareness. There is no need to blame and praise. Our breath is our foundation for dealing with all areas of living. When we are mindful of our breath, we can develop our concentration. When we develop our concentration, we gain insight. We may feel a lot of anger, fear, confusion, and other negative emotions during our practice. Sometimes these emotions rise within us like storms. They may only be temporary, but they feel so intense and permanent. Rather than ruminating too heavily on what we are feeling, we can pay attention to the energy behind our feelings. We can notice when our face flushes, when our shoulders tighten, when our heart beats rapidly. We must offer the gift of compassion to our suffering. We can look deeply into ourselves and care for our feelings and thoughts and sensations. From looking deeply at ourselves, we can let go of our suffering, watching as it comes and goes, comes and goes. Then we can care for other living beings with the same loving-kindness that we have shown to ourselves. We can see ourselves at different stages of our lives: when we are born, when we are babies, when we are young, when we are adults, when we are elderly, when we are dying, when we are dead. We can view other people in the same way, not perceiving them only as they appear in the moment, but looking at who they were and are and will be. All humans were once vulnerable and innocent. Everyone needed to be cared for and loved. Not everyone was. Just as we are the continuation of our ancestors, those around us are the continuation of their ancestors too. Sometimes they carry their family’s violence from childhood all the way into adulthood. Sometimes they’re devastated by their traumas. Sometimes despair passes through many generations. We must meet people with the intention to lessen their suffering, to help, to embody peace and justice. When we engage others only for what we can get out of them, whether in the form of power, status, or money, we cause those around us to suffer. We become unhappy as well. It is easy to conform to what is around us. If what we consume daily, such as in the form of meals, newspapers, television, radio stations, websites, and so on, comes from negativity, then we’ll be greatly influenced by that negativity. We should mindfully pursue what is nourishing and wholesome. To avoid consuming negative sources is hard, especially when we’re forced to live in environments where there is a lot of despair, hatred, ignorance, and greed. Nevertheless, we can always water the seeds of generosity, compassion, and kindness in ourselves and in other living creatures. We can care for people, animals, plants, trees, oceans. We can love who we are so we can love the world. The two are not separate. Our lives are here or never. Often we look for our happiness in ideas of the future, and dwell on memories, not wanting to look deeply at our suffering. Even when we do get what we want, we aren’t satisfied for long, and we fear losing what we have. Our expectations are never our realities. When we chase after our desires, we only want more, noticing what we lack more than what we have. All that we have is temporary. We are subject to illness, old age, and death. Everyone we care about will deal with these same issues of existence. While we are capable of being happy, we often ignore where we are, who we are, and what is around us. There is nothing for us to gain. We are able to be peace now, happiness now, joy now. We already are where we we want to go. We already are who we want to become.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, scholar, and peace activist. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh” is a collection of his teachings for 365 days. Each of his passages, while short and simple, are meant to be studied with care. For those who practice mindfulness and compassion, “Your True Home” is a book of transformation.
Often when we see people, we don’t really see them. When we hear people, we don’t really hear them. We only know of others through our prejudices, preconceptions, and projections. Our ideas limit us to the ideas themselves, but not to other possibilities. When we are filled with beliefs, opinions and views, we are no longer here.
We must be as still as a lake before a white mountain. When we are upset, we can watch our upset. When we are sad, we can watch our sadness. Instead of reacting, we can notice our breathing, our minds, our bodies, our environments. Then we can be as still as a lake and as solid as a mountain.
We can be mindful of our minds.
We can watch our thoughts and feelings. Coming and going, coming and going.
They pass through us like clouds.
We can look at our perceptions without getting caught up in them. Our minds can open to what is here. Instead of assuming that we know all the answers, we can question ourselves. “Is my perception really true? Do my ideas encompass the entire universe or are they only a fraction of what is happening?” Instead of judging others, we can look within ourselves compassionately. There is no resistance or holding on, only letting go.
When we look into the conditions that make us who we are, we find that we are not separate. We are interwoven in the changing cosmos. We cannot exist on earth without our ancestors. Our descendants cannot exist without us either. We are dependent on the air, the water, the sun. We are dependent on the plants, the trees, the soil beneath our feet. Without the clouds, there would be no rain. Without the rain, there would be no plants. Without the plants, we cannot be here.
There is no birth, no death. Only a continuation of ourselves in another form.
Life is full of suffering, but it is also full of wonder. In our distracted society, we often forget about the simple joys of being on this planet. We can step on the grass and brush past the silky petals of blue flowers. We can sigh with the breeze. We can look up at the trees as they sway together in silence.
We can drive, eat, wash the dishes, and go to the bathroom mindfully. Everything can be a spiritual practice when we are aware enough to notice. From mindfulness, we develop concentration. From concentration, we gain insight. There is no wasted moment.
When we look up at the mountain, we see ourselves. When we look at ourselves, we see the mountain. There is no mountain without our perception, but no perception without the mountain. Both depend on the other to inter-be.
When we trap ourselves in categorizations, we forget our humanity. Then we can only see a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Buddhist, a male, a female, a Republican, a Democrat, a boss, an employee, a father, a daughter, and so on, without looking any deeper. These may be important parts of our identities, but they are not all of who we are. When we can peel away these labels, we can recognize each other as human beings.
We must be careful about what we consume. This doesn’t only apply to what we eat and drink, but to the music we listen to, the television we watch, the newspapers we read, who we spend our time with, and what thoughts we focus on. There are negative influences all around us. We don’t need to consume despair, hatred, fear, and violence. We don’t need to seek out the things that harm us. We can look for what heals us, what nourishes us, what helps us to awaken.
We can help to relieve other people’s suffering as well. If someone has a wrong perception, we don’t need to punish them. We can listen to them deeply, show them compassion, care for them, practice loving speech with them. These simple actions can help us to form harmonious communities and remove discrimination.
Our ideas about our happiness are often obstacles to our happiness. We believe that we’ll be happy in the future when the conditions are sufficient enough, such as when we get a new promotion, when we buy an expensive car, when we get married to the perfect spouse, when we buy liquor on a Friday night, when we hold a diploma in our hands. Our desire for happiness removes us from the present moment. We fear losing what we have and want what we do not have, but do not realize that we are alive now.
Even if we do gain what we desire, it never lasts, and our reality is never the same as our expectations. To be truly happy, we have to let go of our ideas of happiness. We have nothing to attain but ourselves.
We can treat our in-breath and our out-breath with tenderness. In meditation, we are not straining to show how much we can endure from our sitting. We are caring for ourselves as if we are holding a baby in our arms. We cradle our anger and happiness and fear and disappointment. We are lovingly aware of our joys and sorrows.
We don’t need to meditate in a cave or on a mountain top. There is nothing to attain. We already are who we want to be in the future, but do not realize it. There is nothing lacking in us. When we can be at peace in the present moment, feeling the warmth of sun on our skin, tasting the juice of an apple, listening to the birds in the leaves, we have already arrived. Nirvana is nothing more than the sound of rain.
“Mindfulness requires letting go of judgement, returning to an awareness of the breath and the body, and bringing your full attention to what is in you and around you. This helps you notice whether the thought you just produced is healthy or unhealthy, compassionate or unkind.”
When we breathe mindfully, we communicate. We know we’re breathing in, breathing out. In this awareness, we are in tune with our body-mind, with feelings and thoughts, with the environment.
“Breathing in, I know I’m breathing in. Breathing out, I know I’m breathing out.”
When we’re mindful, we’re free. When we’re consumed with anger, anxiety, and fear, we’re trapped. Instead of holding on to our storylines, and avoiding the present, we can release our suffering and return home, again and again.
A lot of our thinking comes from dwelling on the past, controlling the future, imagining scenarios that have never happened. We worry so much. We worry about ourselves, about what other people think of us, about meaning, about money, about everything that we can. We get caught in our ideas, talking, talking, talking, thinking, thinking, thinking. Distracting ourselves with constant amusements and dramas.
Instead of realizing that our perceptions are only perceptions, we mistake them for reality.
When we mindfully breathe, we can return to where we are.
“It’s enjoyable to breathe in, to breathe out; it’s enjoyable to sit, to walk, to eat breakfast, to take a shower, to clean the bathroom, to work in the vegetable garden. When we stop talking and thinking and listen mindfully to ourselves, one thing we will notice is our greater capacity and opportunities for joy.”
Mindfulness lets us open up to our fear, our pain, our sorrow, our love. We don’t run away from life. We become aware of life, nurturing the present, letting go of what causes us to suffer.
We are no longer afraid to be with ourselves.
“We can just continue to follow our in-breath and our out-breath. We don’t tell our fear to go away; we recognize it. We don’t tell our anger to go away; we acknowledge it. These feelings are like a small child tugging at our sleeves. Pick them up and hold them tenderly. Acknowledging our feelings without judging them or pushing them away, embracing them with mindfulness, is an act of homecoming.”
When we know our own suffering, then we can learn to see the suffering of the world. Exploitation, discrimination, racism, poverty, homelessness, war, and so on, cause a lot of suffering to us and those around us. We cannot help others until we look at our own sorrow and fear, pain and anxiety, depression and anger.
We need to listen deeply to ourselves. Only then can we release our burdens. Only then can we stop the destructive patterns that we’ve inherited from our ancestors, from our parents, from our past.
“If a lotus is to grow, it needs to be rooted in the mud. Compassion is born from understanding suffering. We all should learn to embrace our own suffering, to listen to it deeply, and to have a deep look into its nature. In doing so, we allow the energy of love and compassion to be born.”
To be effective at communication, we need to know ourselves. Then we can practice mindfulness, deep listening, and loving speech. Other people may complain, insult us, manipulate, whine, and judge. When we listen deeply with compassion, we can look at people as they are, and not be stirred up emotionally. We can love them without judging them, care about them without giving in to anger and resentment.
As we listen, our purpose is to help others to suffer less. We want ourselves to suffer less too. Instead of judging and blaming, we can be mindfully aware.
When we are not mindful, we will not see our own suffering. Then we will make everyone around us suffer as well. We may believe that we know the people around us, such as our family members and friends and colleagues, but maybe we have never truly listened to them. Maybe we’ve never truly listened to ourselves.
We must be skillful with how we communicate. Do we use words of kindness, compassion, and truth, working to reduce another person’s pain and anxiety? Are we gentle or harsh in our tones? As we begin to understand more about ourselves, we can understand others. We can listen and speak kindly and choose the right words for the right situation.
We can use peaceful language instead of abusing, condemning, judging. We don’t need to exaggerate. We don’t need to speak one way to one person and another way to another person, attempting to manipulate. Our truth can be gentle, consistent, and loving.
Not everyone has the same perception or understanding. When we talk, we can adapt ourselves to each person, learning about how they think and feel. Not everyone will be receptive to the same stories, the same messages, and the same knowledge.
Our speech should be used for well-being and healing. When our speech causes ill-being and suffering, then that is wrong speech. We can make those around us feel loved through our presence, through our gentleness and care.
As we look into ourselves, we know that we’re not perfect. We have strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. We feel pain and joy and compassion and fear and anger and on and on, just like everyone else.
We don’t have to judge ourselves as bad, because we have positive qualities too, but we don’t have to swell with pride either, because we make mistakes too. No one sees us for who we are in totality. They are only partly right. We don’t see everyone else for who they are in totality either. People may have many experiences, feelings, and thoughts that we will never be aware of.
When we feel angry, we neither need to act nor suppress our anger. Anger may have a sense of urgency to it, but when we act, we often escalate the situation.
Rather than falling into the same habitual patterns, we can treat our anger with tenderness. We can embrace our energy and breathe and let go. Even a small pause can be beneficial.
We can ask ourselves whenever a thought arises, “Is that thought right? Are we really sure?” Instead of committing to a wrong perception, we can slow down and question our certainty.
Unless we can communicate mindfully with ourselves, we cannot improve the quality of our relationships. With mindfulness of suffering, compassion arises. When we see the suffering in others, we want to help. We cannot force others to become who we want them to be, but we can change ourselves.
When we are compassionate to ourselves, our desire to help our communities grows.
Our love grows.
Our lives are interwoven. We are dependent on each other for survival and well-being. If our communities can listen to each other, communicating with loving-kindness and non-judgmental awareness, we can systematically change our civilization.
We live in a world of ill-being, but not in ill-being alone. Where there is ill-being, there is well-being.
Where there is darkness, there is light. There is no birth without death, left without right, inner without outer.
This is a lesson in inter-being.
We can live a path of well-being. A noble path. Well-being can be found in our every breath, in our every step, in the seeds we plant daily.
We can plant the seeds of loving-kindness, equanimity, generosity, and mindfulness.
What we do, how we think, what we consume, changes us. If we do not plant the seeds of well-being, then our plants will wither away.
Our life is only available now. We can touch the clouds with our minds. We can be aware of the energy changing under all our storylines. Rather than feeling anxiety about the future and regret about the past, we can enjoy this moment. Our freedom comes from being aware.
Right now, let’s smile to our bodies, smile to our minds, smile to our breathing, smile to the sun and trees and rivers and oceans and mountains.
When we drink tea, we can smell its rising steam and taste a gentle warmth that soon fills our bellies. When we are tired, we can lay and sleep. When we are hungry, we can eat.
There is wonder in what we are doing, in our changing lives, but we are often too distracted. We avoid and resist what is.
Is it possible to touch the silky petals of a white flower? To feel a heart in our chest? To step barefoot in sand and sit down and listen to the waves foaming on the shore?
We are often caught in a dualistic trap of desire, aversion, and ignorance. We make judgements about life, categorizing events as good or bad, pleasurable or painful, right or wrong, moral or immoral.
We desire what seems attractive and pleasurable, while we avoid or resist suffering, pain, distress, confusion, uncertainty, and hurt.
Then we ignore what doesn’t stimulate us, what seems uninteresting and boring. In many cases, we ignore what is too hard and painful to accept. Distracting our minds from what is.
Through tonglen practice, we can change our relationship to desire and aversion and ignorance.
Rather than being averse to pain, clinging to comfort, or ignoring what we don’t like, we can be mindful of ourselves, of all the energy in our bodies, without judgement, without attachment.
We can work with our suffering through being present. Instead of categorizing experience as good and bad, right and wrong, pleasurable and painful, we can simply be with what is.
When we drop our storylines, we can become friends with our pain and not cling to fleeting pleasures.
Then we can transform ourselves from our awareness of a changing, nuanced life.
We can inhale our suffering and exhale our joy. As we breathe, we can wish others to feel our joy and to not feel our suffering.
Rather than hiding from our sorrow and pain, we can directly engage with it—not in following the storylines of our sorrow and pain, or in justifying why we feel or think in a given way, but in seeing the energy behind everything.
When we look into ourselves with honesty and compassion, we can extend our view to others.
It is so easy to believe that we are the only ones who feel anger and pain, fear and depression, and so on, but we are not alone. Other people feel like us too.
Rather than reinforcing old habitual patterns of alienation and isolation, we can remind ourselves that we are all human and dependent on each other.
When we feel sadness, we can connect to the sadness of others, when we feel happy, we can connect to the happiness of others.
Our lives are the perfect material for our compassion. The more we focus on our patience, the more we realize how impatient we are. The more we focus on our anger, the more we discover how often we become angry. Every moment is a teacher, helping us to become better humans.
When we breathe in, we can imagine ourselves inhaling thickness, darkness, heat, heaviness, claustrophobia, or pain.
When we breathe out, we can release all that dark energy, transforming it into cool, bright light.
We can take in what is hard and let it go.
We can use our friends, our family, our troublesome associates, anyone, as material for our practice.
When we suffer, we can wish for others to not suffer as we are suffering. When we feel happiness, we can wish for others to feel happiness as we do. Through our practice, we can compassionately connect to all of life.
From “taking and sending,” we can awaken our compassion.
Instead of hiding from our suffering, we can learn to embrace it. We can visualize ourselves taking in pain, then sending out tenderness and care.
We can take in what is dark and send out the light. Through this daily practice, we will soon find that the distinction between what is given and what is taken, the inner and outer, life and death, good and evil, blurs.
Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also be in touch with the wonders of life. They are within us and all around us, everywhere, any time. If we are not happy, if we are not peaceful, we cannot share peace and happiness with others, even those we love, those who live under the same roof. If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace. Do we need to make a special effort to enjoy the beauty of the blue sky? Do we have to practice to be able to enjoy it? No, we just enjoy it. Each second, each minute of our lives can be like this. Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing. We don’t need to go to China to enjoy the blue sky. We don’t have to travel into the future to enjoy our breathing. We can be in touch with these things right now. It would be a pity if we are only aware of suffering.
We are so busy we hardly have time to look at the people we love, even in our own household, and to look at ourselves. Society is organized in a way that even when we have some leisure time, we don’t know how to use it to get back in touch with ourselves. We have millions of ways to lose this precious time we turn on the TV or pick up the telephone, or start the car and go somewhere. We are not being with ourselves, and we act as if we don’t like ourselves and are trying to escape from ourselves.
Meditation is to be aware of what is going on-in our bodies, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world. Each day 40,000 children die of hunger. The superpowers now have more than 50,000 nuclear warheads, enough to destroy our planet many times. Yet the sunrise is beautiful, and the rose that bloomed this morning along the wall is a miracle. Life is both dreadful and wonderful. To practice meditation is to be in touch with both aspects. Please do not think we must be solemn in order to meditate. In fact, to meditate well, we have to smile a lot.
Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said, “We are so sorry to hear your horse has run away. This is most unfortunate.” The farmer said, “Maybe.” The next day the horse came back bringing seven wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, “Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have eight horses!” The farmer again said, “Maybe.”
The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, “Oh dear, that’s too bad,” and the farmer responded, “Maybe.” The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, “Isn’t that great!” Again, he said, “Maybe.”
The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad — because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune; or, you never know what will be the consequences of good fortune.
Alan Watts telling the parable
What is good arises with the bad. What is bad arises with the good. There is no in without an out or an up without a down.
Each depends upon the other, follows the other, is within the other, changing from extreme to extreme, and from nuance to nuance, in an intricate web.
Life is a changing process with no definite end. Things happen to people and then people judge those events as right or wrong, good or bad. They make divisions in the world of symbols and act as if those divisions are true. Separating the whole into an innumerable number of parts and clinging to specific parts, while denying the rest of life.
It is easy to make judgements about life. When something unpleasant happens, a person claims that it is terrible, clinging to an idea of terribleness. When something appears to be good, then someone will claim it as good and cling to an idea of good, but will suffer when it goes away.
Those who are wise are not attached to ideas of good and bad, right and wrong, ugliness and beauty. They patiently watch without judgement, aware of change, and open to what may come. They are not as fixed on conclusions about the answer in life, but rather, live in the mystery. They listen in stillness, not overflowing with opinions about how something appears, or should be, or what they believe about it. Mindfully, they accept what is arising and passing. They do not hide from their fear or anxiety or uncertainty. They flow with what comes, not stuck to their thoughts, open to unfolding nuances.