This past weekend we all watched the horrific events in Charlottesville, Virginia, fuel distress upon the nation's already fatigued nerve channels, and further raise the levels of our national anxiety. In these troubled times, like so many people, I wonder how I can help - what can I do? How can I be of the most help to the world, to those I love, to myself?
Times of discord and suffering often reveal opportunities to further our spiritual practice, to become better people, to join with others to effect positive change. They can leave us feeling destabilized and disconnected , too. But sometimes this also can be part of our overall preparation. So if this happens too, we can just notice it without judgment, and then, when we're ready, release that, and return to our breath, to our practice, and continue on.
Meeting the world where we encounter the world.
In times such as these, but really always, our capacity to see where we are in our in our hearts and minds depends upon the quality of our awareness. That is, we can only do our personal growth work in relation to what we are able to really hear, see, feel or perceive. Perhaps we just hear the noisy wheels of our minds, or the clattering echo chamber world around us. If that's the case, whatever changes we do make, or insights we have, will simply be at the surface, like ripples in shallow water. The changes will not last very long before some other breeze of our mind, or emotion, ruffles it again and blows it the other way, or maybe it just evaporates.
Deepening our awareness means quieting our mind, so that we can hear, and access, subtler levels of ourselves, and of phenomena around us. When we are able to listen, and hear, and access, on this quieter level, our perceptions and insights go deeper, and are less affected by the fluctuations of the day, or of our thoughts or emotions. (Staying with the water analogy, the water becomes more still, and more clear, and we can begin to actually see what else is in the water too, without these waves of disturbances.)
Sure it can be difficult to recognize this - our minds produce so much constant noise and activity- thoughts and projections and emotions - a non-stop Quentin Tarantino movie! Like listening to the sounds in a room, we may not even recognize just how much noise there is in our minds, or how many different places that noise is coming from - until we are able to sit with it and, listen for a while.
The Buddha's first teaching is often misinterpreted as "Life is suffering." A more accurate interpretation of the Pali word, "dukkha," would be "There is suffering," or actually to be more accurate, "There is dissatisfaction or unease." And to heal it, we need to be able to accurately see and hear it, first.
Mistaking Experience for Awareness.
At this time, it's also worthwhile to point out the hazard of mistaking experience for awareness. Most of us are pretty good at generating octane-fueled thoughts and emotions. Like drinking a Starbucks Double Shot Red Eye or doing an intense physical workout, in order to get through the less desirable noises and feelings of our minds, we create our own mental and emotional intoxication. And because we can feel the emotions or rapid fire thoughts that we generate - we can sometimes mistake this "feeling" for awareness.
It is an awareness on one level, but it's come about not by quieting our minds, but by ramping up the volume of our thoughts and emotions (and our bodies) so that we can't help but experience them and drown out the other, unwanted stuff - so this is a little different.
So learning to connect to our awareness - to even become aware that there is such a "thing" as awareness - is necessary if we are to learn how to hear and listen to ourselves, and to the people around us, and how to heal, how to develop, how to be of service.
Indeed it is this quality that allows us to know where we are at any moment, in relation to ourselves and the world around us, so that we can know just what to do next to make it a better one.
The Practice of Mindfulness
So if awareness is the quality, what is the practice? Well, Mindfulness is the practice. Mindfulness may be popular now, but it's no fad! The 8th century Buddhist master Shantideva wrote extensively on the benefits of mindfulness practices in his most famous text, the Bodhisattvacharyāvatāra, A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life. Connecting, listening to your breath, to your body, to the ever changing sounds or light in a room, even contemplating a raisin!, these are all common, and yet so beautiful, mindfulness practices that help us to develop this precious gem of awareness.
The Ever-Present Gem
To see and hear things as they truly are, without judgment; this is the ever present jewel of awareness.
Without judgment or labeling. From this can arise deep compassion for all other living beings, profound love and joy, and true wisdom.
The remarkable thing is, we can access it at any time, in the flash of a moment, and it is always new. While developing our ability to return to this place takes repetition, neuroscience explains that after a few weeks, our brains actually change and create new connections from this repetition. The practice becomes us; we become the practice.
It is as our own true nature. It never leaves us. Because it is always new, we cannot grasp it. Though it holds profound insight, it is free from judgment. While we can apprehend it, it has no form. Because it has no form, it is indestructible. It can be accessed at any moment, or at every moment, or forgotten and neglected for eons. It is always fresh, and profound, and always insightful, loving, compassionate and deeply wise, and yet beyond these labels at the same time.
Offering Peace to Others
And because it is inexhaustible, it can be shared and offered as a gift not only to ourselves, but to others also and without limit, with love and compassion in these challenging times and all times. So we can see, this is not an abstract point. This is a real way to help heal ourselves and the world, and all those in need of healing and peace. A way to offer insight, and understanding.
May you and all those you love, and all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness and free from suffering now and always.
Endnote: Now that the cat's out of the bag, perhaps next time we'll take a look at some of the ways we cultivate this precious gem through our mindfulness practices.
Tony Boris is one of the directors of Darvanayoga, and Director of our sister center, The Shantideva Center for Mindfulness and Peace, where this blog was initially published.
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