I feel like the universe has been throwing a lot at me lately, sort of slapping my head with a signboard marked “impermanence” while I keep saying “ouch! I get it!” But I guess I must not really “get it” based on how thrown I keep feeling by each successive incident. I’m not feeling particularly centered or focused lately; I’m noting a lot of heaviness within. At the same time, I’m feeling a lot of gentleness with myself, which is encouraging. I’m not being harsh or disappointed with myself. I know that this is hard stuff, and I’m okay with the fact that it’s throwing me.
Pema Chödrön is one of my favorite Dharma teachers for her ability to both be gentle and inspiring. Her writings are in the vein of Suzuki Roshi, who once looked out on his students and said “All of you are perfect, and you could use a little improvement.” In The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, Pema Chödrön expresses this wonderfully:
When people start to meditate or to work with any kind of spiritual discipline, they often think that somehow they’re going to improve, which is a sort of subtle aggression against who they really are. It’s a bit like saying,
“If I jog, I’ll be a much better person.”
“If I could only get a nicer house, I’d be a better person.”
“If I could meditate and calm down, I’d be a better person.”
Or the scenario may be that they find fault with others; they might say, “If it weren’t for my husband, I’d have a perfect marriage.”
“If it weren’t for the fact that my boss and I can’t get on, my job would be just great.”
And “If it weren’t for my mind, my meditation would be excellent.”
But loving-kindness -maitri- toward ourselves doesn’t mean getting rid of anything. Maitri means that we can still be crazy after all these years. We can still be angry after all these years. We can still be timid or jealous or full of feelings of unworthiness. The point is not to try to change ourselves. Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are. . .
People often say to me, “I wanted to come and have an interview with you, I wanted to write you a letter, I wanted to call you on the phone, but I wanted to wait until I was more together.” And I think, “Well, if you’re anything like me, you could wait forever!” So come as you are.
That line still gives me chills: come as you are.
Last night at group meditation my body and mind were all over the place. I couldn’t settle either one. I was very grateful to one of my fellow Sangha members who had happened to place a lovely photograph of Thich Nhat Hanh right in front of me. I sat there, adjusting my uncomfortable body and watching my distracted mind flail about, and then opened my eyes to see Thầy’s peaceful face looking at me with compassionate understanding. Thầy is so blessedly gentle with those who come to learn the mindfulness practices he teaches. He believes that the world will be a better place if more people embrace these practices and learn to live in the present moment. He’s said that the world needs more Buddhas, not more Buddhists. And he’s even willing to be gentle on that point. As he writes in his new book Work: How to Find Joy and Meaning in Each Hour of the Day, “You don’t need to be fully enlightened. A part-time Buddha is good enough. The only thing you need is the freedom of the present moment.”
A part-time Buddha is about all I can manage at the moment. Perhaps for right now, perhaps for this lifetime, that is enough.
Mind Wanting More
Only a beige slat of sun
above the horizon, like a shade pulled
not quite down. Otherwise,
clouds. Sea rippled here and
there. Birds reluctant to fly.
The mind wants a shaft of sun to
stir the grey porridge of clouds,
an osprey to stitch sea to sky
with its barred wings, some dramatic
music: a symphony, perhaps
a Chinese gong.
But the mind always
wants more than it has —
one more bright day of sun,
one more clear night in bed
with the moon; one more hour
to get the words right; one
more chance for the heart in hiding
to emerge from its thicket
in dried grasses — as if this quiet day
with its tentative light weren’t enough,
as if joy weren’t strewn all around.
~ Holly Hughes, American Zen A Gathering of Poets