― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart:
Heart Advice for Difficult Times
"It is only when the mind is free from the old that it meets everything anew,
and in that there is joy.”
― Jiddu Krishnamurti
|Bodhidharma by Shokei, 15th Century|
This can lead to all sorts of problems.
My first boss, Charlie Winchester, foreman of the maintenance department at a small factory in a small town north of Chicago had a decidedly less delicate way of making the point. The memory brings a smile and warm glow to my heart.
I started working at that factory as a high school sophomore in the summer of 1962. A working class kid, I had come of age. Dutifully eschewing summer days splashing in the local lake, I needed to get serious and start saving money for the college education that would propel me up a notch in status, if not in income, as a public school teacher.
In those days, like many of us, I was able to get a relatively good paying union job for the summer at the factory where my dad worked. Although I began as a stock handler on one of the assembly lines, I was soon able to transfer to the maintenance department where my tasks ranged from mowing the extensive grounds to learning how to fix things. Although it was often noisy, dirty, and sometimes even dangerous, I loved it.
My boss, Charlie, was a kind and able mentor. That spirit pervaded the maintenance crew and during the seven summers I worked there, I learned a lot about how things work -- on many levels.
One particular lesson on the nature of reality that first summer began when Charlie came around the corner to find me standing in front of a simple piece of production machinery gone amuck. Lurching erratically and making tortuous noises after my attempt at repair, it threatened mayhem. The afternoon's production quota now in question, I quickly explained what I had done and why.
With the ever present cigar stub in his mouth, Charlie quickly shut the machine down, then immediately took a pen from his shirt pocket pen holder and wrote the word "ASSUME" on a piece of paper.
"You know what happens when you assume?" he asked.
I don't need to go into the details of his lecture here (he was actually quite gentle and compassionate with me considering the circumstances), but to illustrate the points he was making Charlie grinned and added two strategic slashes, leaving me staring at the piece of paper. It read:
After 45 years of Practice, it has become quite clear to me that our assumptions and preconceptions consistently stand in the way of actually seeing what is right in front of our noses. What makes matters even more interesting is that this usually operates subconsciously. We don't experience them as the assumptions they are.
At the deepest levels, clung to and codified into belief systems, they create a perceptual screen that filters the way we experience the world. To make matters even more challenging, the way ego often operates, this screen often filters out data that doesn't verify the "truth" of that what we "believe" to be true. Then, if someone actually appears to directly confront these belief systems, fear and anger often emerge as a defensive reaction.
This, of course, has enormous consequences.
The Mind of Not-Knowing
This runs pretty deep. The software coding of our conditioning, if not the genetic hardware of our species itself, has most of us operating from a system of fixed ideas about who we are, who "they" are, and how things are. Moment to moment, we have been conditioned to think and feel that we are seeing and responding to an objective reality "out there" that somehow exists and operates independently from us -- and that we ourselves can objectively assess it's nature and go from there.
Whether it is conceptualized as the Kingdom of Heaven or Nirvana or Sat Chit Ananda or the Tao or Being or Presence, each of them pointed to a dimension of experience that transcended the "conventional" reality presented. Oftentimes they had to confront the religious authorities of their day.
I consider myself lucky to have come of age in the late 60's, a time when a lot of us caught the tidal wave of a worldwide Collective Kensho, and surfed our way into personal mystical experiences. Back then, many of us sailed through modes of consciousness where the Teachings of Jesus and Buddha made perfect sense. The bottom line? There was spiritual plane of existence. We saw it with our own eyes, felt it with our own hearts.
And yet -- here's where Practice comes in -- a lot of us came to understand that "knowing" that we are All One and that Love IS the Answer, doesn't quite hack it. In fact, clinging to that experience as a belief structure could lead to all sorts of side-effects: arrogance, self-righteousness, and closed mindedness perhaps being three of the most obnoxious. (I've managed to manifest each and everyone of them all too often over the years.)
Although I hadn't realized at the time, the Practice that emerged wasn't about taking a magic carpet ride to ecstatic states. It would involve diving into the nether realms of my own subconscious. Over time, it entailed exploring and reconfiguring the framework of conditioned belief structures, thought, and feeling that had always operated beneath the level of conscious awareness. That conditioned point of view that some refer to as the ego, continued to freeze the world I lived in, separating me from aspects of myself and the One Love that exists at the Heart of Being moment to moment.
This is where meditation comes in.
The development of a regular meditation practice can be extremely helpful in deepening an awareness of the essentially spacious quality of consciousness that always exists within and beyond the constrains of our conditioned patterns. It can also afford us the opportunity to gaze at the essentially fluid nature of all experience. This may be a bit unsettling at first because the thrust of our ego conditioning is to "nail down" a fixed reality.
Believe it or not, that may be the easy part.
Another, perhaps more daunting, aspect of the Practice is the process of taking a deep look at our own conditioned patterns, to get in touch with even the darker, "unacceptable" aspects of ourselves, those that are most often reflexively denied or repressed.
Both on the meditation cushion and elsewhere, this takes a commitment to look at ourselves in the mirror so honestly and so compassionately that we are able to not only touch the more miraculous aspects of who we are, but to face --and embrace -- the ghosties and ghoulies, the gnarlier aspects of our own conditioned personality. This is the Heart of Practice, the process of opening our hearts to cultivate a clear, open and accepting mind.
As the Practice unfolds, more and more, we are able to more clearly discern the difference between knowing and thinking that we know. As we become more aware of our actual experience, time and time again we will witness directly how often our assumptions stem from conclusions previously drawn (ranging in time from the moment before, to as far back as early childhood), and that these preconceptions then actually obstruct our ability to see and respond appropriately to the situations that present themselves. In time, we develop the ability to catch this as it happens in the here and now. With Practice, more and more, we are able to just drop it -- and open to what Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn called "Don't Know Mind."
Life gets a lot easier when that happens.
In the midst of the ordinary events of our lives, Not-knowing opens us to a realm of mystery and unimaginable wonder. Life itself becomes Iridescent.
Moment to moment, letting go of thinking that we know what is going on, we are able to be Present with an Open Heart and a Clear Mind.
It just takes Practice.