Last blog I wrote about the major topics covered by the book Living in the Light of Death: on the art of being truly alive by Larry Rosenberg with David Guy, namely the Four Messengers of aging, sickness, death, and spiritual attainment. My favorite part of the book, however, was actually the last half, which talks about how to bring one’s newly awakened or deepened commitment to practice into every moment of daily life.
Rosenberg says that we have to stop looking at meditation or any other aspect of our practice as being goal-oriented, because ironically, if we focus on a goal, we hinder our ability to attain it:
On the one hand, sitting is one of the most practical things you can do. It definitely has beneficial effects on your life, as anyone will tell you who does it. But when you sit in order to gain them . . . you undermine yourself. You limit what sitting can do. It is fine to have a sincere aspiration to be a free and sane person; that can give enthusiasm and direction to your practice. But very often we put something in front of us to run after, and that separates us from full and direct contact with the present moment. A corner of the mind is occupied with the goal and is unable to see what is right now.
I relate to this out of my own struggles to establish a regular sitting meditation practice, which took me nearly two decades. Looking back, what hindered me most was my attitude, which was very goal-oriented: I had to meditate in order to achieve some calm and aware state of mind that would make me a better person. However, calm awareness seemed utterly unattainable. The goal thus became a massive mental block that nearly crushed me every time I even thought about meditating. It made actually sitting on the cushion feel like being imprisoned. I literally used to feel claustrophobic when I sat down, clenching my teeth as I resolved to make it to the end of my self-appointed meditation period, when I’d be free to get up and enjoy life again. Needless to say, that attitude was not at all conducive to establishing a regular practice, let alone a joyful one.
I understood and experienced meditation in an entirely different way once I understood that all I needed to do was to “just be”, to relax my clenched teeth and bring my awareness to my breath and the present moment. I wasn’t sitting to achieve anything – I was sitting just to sit. Ironically, having made that mental shift, I actually started to achieve what previously I’d believed to be unattainable. I even experienced a shift in my awareness of time! I’d often complained that I didn’t have any time to meditate. Once meditation became a joy, the time that I always thought I didn’t have, simply appeared. Rosenberg says that he’s had lots of people make similar excuses about being unable to find time for sitting meditation or retreat practice. He says that while those are wonderfully valuable things to do, they don’t represent the confines of our potential practice. He writes:
The simplified, protected situation of formal sitting practice is invaluable, but can we also practice while we are raising our children, going to school, going to work, writing a novel, even driving the car or going to the bathroom? The mind-set that sees certain periods of time as available for practice and others not is mistaken from the outset. All of us can practice, with everything we do. It is just a question of whether or not we dare to do it.
When people approach practice in that way, when they bring it into their daily lives, what often happens is that they see benefits from it, and their practice catches fire, and suddenly time for sitting practice looks different. When they come to understand that sitting is the real basis of practice, it is amazing how time suddenly shows up for it. It almost happens by itself.
I love the shift in myself that came when I started thinking of practice as Rosenberg describes: not just sitting meditation or retreat practice but practice throughout each moment. Since I used to find the concept of meditating for a short period once a day to be unbearable, you might think that conceiving of practice as including every minute of the day would be completely intolerable, but paradoxically I find it freeing. Perhaps this is because there are so many chances to get it right: this moment, this moment, this moment. Every moment a new chance for mindful awareness.
My husband has said that he thinks it would be an improvement if, rather than saying “Live each day as if it were your last”, people said “Live each day as if you had a thousand years.” When I first heard this, I thought it would make things worse: if people thought they had that much time, they’d become lazy and waste opportunities; they would take the people around them for granted. But my husband explained that he saw living each day as if it were your last as encouraging hedonism while discouraging the moral behavior necessary for long-term positive consequences. However, if people believed that they were going to live for a thousand years, they would have a clear self-interest to conserve resources, engage in long-term self-improvement, and invest in positive social change. It’s an interesting switch of perspective.
Ultimately, I think either phrase works; they are both true in an “emptiness is not other than form and form is not other than emptiness” way. Thay talks a lot about the wave and the water: our individual experience of this life is that of the wave, but the ultimate dimension is water. Our perception of life and death – coming from and returning to the water – is illusory because a wave is never other than water. I think we must both live each day as if it were our last (being present to each moment) and also as if we were going to live for a thousand years (caring for all of Indra’s Net). It’s a dance of aimlessness in which we must care about our means as much as our ends.
Rosenberg beautifully sums up path as goal, aimlessness as practice, in the following:
Our mind is constantly calculating. We want to get from A to B or, if we are really ambitious, A to Z. This practice is about getting from A to A. It takes an expansive approach to the present moment, experiencing the full range of what is happening.
We tend to think of the present moment as a means to some end. If I just do this in moment A, I think, I will be happy in moment B. But in this practice every moment is a means and an end. The point of moment A is just moment A. There is no moment B in which you will be more fulfilled than in moment A. Every moment is absolute truth.
The Buddha’s teaching is about awakening, or liberation, and that sounds like a goal. But the only way to get there is fully to be where you are, absolutely present in this moment.
I know for myself that when I am most focused on achieving a goal, I am also most blind and deaf to my surroundings and my present condition. Sometimes that zoning out (or perhaps in the case of goal-oriented behavior, zoning forward) is an intentional way to deaden my senses against anxiety, fear, or boredom. The problem is that I never know what else I miss when I’m not paying attention.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.
by Naomi Shihab Nye from Words From Under the Words: Selected Poems