How can we have any sense of happiness in ourselves during a pandemic, when so many are sick, and we fear getting sick ourselves? And the nation, for another 47 days or so, is still led by someone most of us recognize as malignant, ignorant of the very idea of caring for the lives and well-being of others. When a nation is led by a person who speaks and acts as DT does, every day is an assault on our lives and our humanity⎼ on our sense of compassion, love, and beauty.
Or every day asks us how can we create, right now, a sense of strength and caring amidst the chaos and sickness? How can we, knowing what we know, find happiness in our lives? What can we do to liberate our hearts instead of allowing a would-be oppressor to subvert it? What is the payoff and what is the price for not asking or answering such questions? There is a letting go, a release needed here that I haven’t yet found.
In the Winter 2020 Issue of Buddhadharma, the Practitioner’s Quarterly, Akincano Weber, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist, talks about “Radical Attention,” the attention needed to touch the earth in a specific place, or a specific person or situation, and discern in it a universal truth. He talks about approaches, “life-hacks” that can help us do this, one of which is skillful questioning.
Think about questions. Did a question ever stick in your mind and you couldn’t let go of it? They can act as hypnotic suggestions. Ask the right question and you receive what? Attention. Your mind is directed, not just to some place, but possibly to the act of searching itself. Questions can focus the mind very narrowly, on one place, or on every place, the tree or the forest.
To answer a question we must leave behind any exclusive focus on self-concern or we never get to the object of concern itself. We must immerse ourselves in wherever the question takes us, live there so we can feel what that place is like, think from that perspective, and then move on. Such questioning can open us up to other practices that help us keep in our mind and heart the larger whole from which we are never separate.
Love, obviously, can also do this, switch us from “me” to “you,” self to other. I am sitting now with two of my cats and watch them sleeping. One of them, Milo, turns over, exposing his belly, and puts his front paws over his eyes. This gesture of his just floors me every time. The cats lie there, trusting me enough to be vulnerable. They want to be with me. Suddenly, I feel totally different. Because I love them, I feel loved in return. They mirror back to me my own feeling. Because I am open to them, they reveal myself to me.
But when we feel hurt or threatened, we sometimes protect ourselves by trying to not feel anything, or we get angry at those we love for exposing our vulnerability, possessive. Love can hurt. But if we do this, turn away, we know the consequences. We isolate ourselves and lose touch with the strength and intelligence buried in feeling. So as much as we can, and as gently, we notice the urge to move forward residing under the fear and sense of loss; in the courage to love is the strength to act in appropriate ways to protect us all; for example, to act politically, or to imagine the openness and caring for others that we feel spreading out to the world around us.
One of my favorite ways to wake up in the morning or let go of the day at night is to read. In the morning, after my eyes open, I yawn, look around me, stretch, get up, do a little exercise, and meditate. Then I read a poem, maybe, or something that enlivens my heart and mind. At night, reading helps me let go of the day, let go of self-concern. In the morning, it helps me aim my day into larger realms of life.
When we read and let our imagination do its work, and feel, not just think⎼ we feel what is embedded in each word we read, and gifts are given. Reading is not passive. We give energy and attention to the word and receive back a sense of meaning, maybe beauty; the word acts to mirror back to us our connection to it.
When I write, I let whatever I’m writing about, whatever I am questioning or exploring, fill me up. Writing can be used to enhance and deepen the thinking process. Critical or clear thinking requires a process beginning with clarifying the question⎼ and then immersing ourselves in it, studying the details, facts, diverse answers to whatever the question is. We imagine the context and question what we think are the details, the implications and consequences of possible answers. How would the world work if this possible answer was THE answer?
And attention is needed, mindfulness. Immersed in the parts, we can lose the sense of the whole, the question itself. We have to step back in order to let our heart-mind step forward, sort the material, work it out. Gain perspective. Feel what we feel about the details, possible solutions, and where we are in the process of finding an answer. Do we feel we have enough material and perspective to reveal an answer, or must we look even more deeply or broadly?
We take a breath. Get quiet. Once we perceive all the trees, we can shift our perspective to the forest as a whole. And then, like a great work of art, insight, an answer, some understanding may come.
Or we go to a park, or just look outside a window and study what we see. Maybe it’s a city scene, maybe a forest. Today, outside my window, large snowflakes are falling. I look up and, at first, the sky is a deep, extended grey-white. Then individual flakes stand out and it seems the sky is falling. The overall grey explodes into discernable fat flakes rushing down at me. There is a sense of pressure, an expectation that they will shake the earth. But they don’t. Each flake is so soft. Each one touches the earth and dissolves. And slowly, the green grass becomes white. The branches of trees, which just a second ago were brownish grey, now wear the grey-white sky like a shawl. The sky, the grass and trees, are all one continuous, fluent scene.
I am not happy when the world feels disconnected from me, alien, even malignant. When I can’t see beyond self-concern or can’t be open to the world, the world is not open to me. I hurt. So each moment we replace in ourselves any malignance with loving, greed with compassion, ignorance with insight into interdependence. We notice who we are, what we can do, and we do it. In whatever ways we can in the moment, however seemingly small, we step into the world instead of back.
Now, that makes me happy.
This post is republished on Medium.
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