“So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.” – T.S.Eliot
The reality of suffering (or ‘Dukkha’ in Pali) is the very first of the Four Noble truths of the Buddhas Dharma teachings. Both externally in our world, in our lives, for those we love, and within our own hearts. These are of course matched with great joy and beauty, or as the Buddha put it, “The ocean of tears, and almost unbearable beauty” that makes up our human realm.
But what to do? How to live in balance, and peace and joy? Thankfully, in the next three Noble Truths he offers an explanation for Dhukka, and then in The Noble Eightfold Path, a solution. But, I’ll save all that for another time…
One of my favourite stories is that of the great Theravadan meditation teacher (and my personal hero) the Venerable Ajahn Chah, walking through the forest with a group of novice monks.
Spotting a large boulder to his right, he asks them “Do you see that boulder?”, “Yes” they reply. “Is it heavy?” he asks them. “Yes” they reply. Turning to them with a sweet smile he answers “Not if you don’t pick it up!”
Ok, so we all get the concept, don’t pick up the rock, but finding a way to respond rather than to react, not to feed into our own insecurities picking up heavy resentments and fuelling discord, and to find a path through confusion, fear & attachment is easier said than done, and requires compassionate and skilful practice. Living in peace and joy is not for the faint hearted, and in the Sixth Noble Truth, the Buddha helps us to see that a little effort goes a long way.
So, what is Right Effort? There are many teachings about Right Effort (Sammappadhāna in Pali & the sixth part of The Noble Eightfold Path) but in essence, it is simply the effort to be mindful, to be present with loving awareness, learning how to generate or cultivate what is skilful, caring for the world around us, and living more in the now. The effort to abandon old habits and fears of suffering, and the effort to sustain new, positive patterns.
This from Alan Watts, “The art of living in neither careless drifting on the one hand, nor fearful clinging to the past or anticipation of the future. It consists of being sensitive to each moment and regarding it as utterly new and unique, and having the mind and the heart open and wholly receptive.”
Our daily life is by its very nature made up of our activities and habits. By practicing Right Effort, gradually we become more mindful, conscious and caring about how we drive our car for instance, or how we relate to people we encounter, how we choose and prepare our food, and how we eat our meals. All of this leading us to a clearer and calmer state of being. More compassionate to ourselves and therefore to others.
The Buddha often spoke specifically about four states of mind, the four ‘Brahma Viharas’ as divine or god-like dwellings, or four ‘Sublime States’. These being kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. He considered these to be the great healers of tension and conflict, builders of harmony and cooperation, serving as potent antidotes to the poisons of hatred, cruelty, envy and partiality so widespread in our human realm.
The fourth Brahma Vihara, is what is known in Buddhist practice as Equanimity (or ‘Upekkhā’ in Pali translation). A wonderful quality of calm spaciousness and balance of heart offering room for one of my personal favourites (when I can manage it!) the ‘Sacred Pause’.
Says Victor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor of the need for this spaciousness, “In between stimulus and response there is a space, in that space lies our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
So basically, when triggered, before firing off that angry text, cutting comment or bitter look, by pausing, accepting and simply recognising what’s going on comes the space to stop, to regroup and breathe. Yes, it is hard, yes it hurts, but hurt will pass, pain can be soothed and no gain will ever be achieve0d long term through anger and reactivity.
The Buddhist teacher and psychologist Tara Brach puts this beautifully in her book ‘Radical Acceptance’.
“Often the moment when we most need to pause is exactly when it feels most intolerable to do so. Pausing in a fit of anger, or when overwhelmed by sorrow or filled with desire, may be the last thing we want to do. Pausing can feel like falling helplessly through space – We have no idea of what will happen. We fear we might be engulfed by the rawness of our rage or grief or desire. Yet without opening to the actual experience of the moment, acceptance is not possible.”
Through meditation, this sense of balance and equanimity will develop naturally, but it can also be cultivated, allowing us the possibility of finding some semblance of peace in our hearts amidst turmoil or fear, if we can recognise, and continue to recognise that life is not in our control, and that we are a tiny part of a great and beautiful dance.
Having been many years in recovery I have recited, possibly a thousand times, the well-known serenity prayer, “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Wisdom recognises that although we may deeply love others and offer them assistance, in the end we must all be there and learn for ourselves. Our spiritual journeys are our own, and only we can be the source of our own liberation. The practice of equanimity helps to provide this balance, combining a wise and understanding mind with a compassionate heart.
A few years ago, the great Zen master Suzuki Roshi invited a few great up & coming Zen masters to help teach him on some important panel in Huston Texas. One of these was a man called Katagiri, who didn’t speak very good English. When asked to teach Dharma he became a little embarrassed, Roshi encouraged him saying “hey, you don’t need to speak great English to teach the Dharma.” Look I’ll show you.. So the Bell was rung and Suzuki Roshi stood up in front of this huge audience and said these simple words.
“Today is today, today is not yesterday. Today is not tomorrow. Today is today” and then he bowed and got down and smiling, said to Katagiri. “Ok, six words right? There’s a Dharma teaching for you.”
In meditation we learn to breathe, to quieten the mind, opening our hearts to the beauty of things as they really are, coming to rest in the present moment, alive where we are.
This is really the game, the essence of spiritual practice, and it is in this moment that we can discover balance, timelessness, how not to be lost in the past or the future. Recognising that the past is simply memory, and the future is fantasy, we discover that it is only in the reality of the present that we can truly love, awaken, and find peace, understanding and connection with ourselves, and the world around us.
“Our eyes are filled with dust. There is no need to seek a Pure Land somewhere else. We only need lift our heads and see the moon and the stars.”
Fragrant Palm Leaves 🌿 Thich Nhat Hanh 1964.