― 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
Of course, not having a clue rarely stops me these days.
In fact, at age 68, it seems to be the best stance to take in any given moment. It certainly seems the most appropriate. The presumption that we really know what is going on is most often only just that, a presumption. Clung to, it can be patently presumptuous.
And even that's being a bit charitable.
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.
I started working at Clayton Mark and Company as a high school sophomore. Dutifully eschewing summer days splashing in the local lake to save for the obligatory college education (neither of my parents were college graduates), I was going to have to "work my way through." As good fortune would have it, I ended up in the maintenance department where my tasks ranged from mowing the extensive grounds to learning how to fix things. Charlie was a kind and able mentor.
One particular lesson on the nature of reality began as Charlie came around the corner one afternoon to find me standing in front of a machine gone amuck. Lurching erratically and making tortuous noises after my attempt at repair, it threatened to self-destruct in a cloud of smoke. The afternoon's production quota now in question, I quickly (and sheepishly) explained what I had done and why. With the ever present cigar stub in his mouth, Charlie quickly shut the machine down as he listened, then took a ballpoint pen and small spiral notebook from his shirt pocket. Letter by letter he printed the word "ASSUME" and held the page up right in front of my nose.
"You know what happens when you assume?" he asked.
I don't need to go into the details here (he was actually quite gentle and compassionate with me considering the circumstances), but to illustrate the points he was making, Charlie 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 nose. What makes matters even more interesting is that this consistently operates subconsciously. We don't experience them as the presumptions they are. Then, 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, the screen often filters out data that doesn't verify the "truth" of that what we "believe" to be true. Then, if someone or something actually appears to directly confront these belief systems, fear and anger often emerge to propel a defensive reaction.
This, of course, has enormous consequences. (Continued warfare and environmental devastation being two of the most glaring examples.)
In the Know
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 Collective Kensho to surf our way into the Experience. Many of us sailed through modes of consciousness where the Teachings of Jesus and Buddha made perfect sense. There was spiritual plane of existence. We saw it with our own eyes, felt it with our own hearts.
And yet -- here's where the Practice comes in -- some of us came to understand that "knowing" that we are All One and that Love IS the Answer, didn't really hack it. In fact, clinging to that experience could lead to all sorts of side-effects: arrogance, self-righteousness, and closed mindedness perhaps being three of the most obnoxious. (I continue to manifest each and everyone of them quite well at times.) As most credible Spiritual Teachers point out, to actually be a clear, kind and considerate human being with any consistency was going to take some time and effort. It would take Practice.
Although I didn't realize it at the time, the Practice that emerged wasn't about taking a magic carpet ride to ecstatic states. It would ultimately involve diving into the nether realms of my own subconscious. Over time, it entailed exploring and re-configuring the framework of conditioned thought and feeling that operated beneath the level of conscious awareness. It would take Ceaseless Practice to untie the mental/emotional/energetic knots that operate to freeze the world I lived in and separate me from aspects of myself and the One Love that exists at the Heart of Being.
This is where meditation comes in.
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, even the darker, "unacceptable" aspects of ourselves 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 and cultivating a clear, open and accepting mind.
As the Practice unfolds, more and more, we are able to 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 then drop it and open to what Korean Zen Master Seung Sahn called "Don't Know Mind." Moment to moment, we simply open to what is.
Life gets a lot easier when that happens.
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. There, knowing appears in and of itself -- even when we don't know it!
It just takes Practice.
Originally posted, February 28, 2015. Revised