Patient Awareness, by Corrado Pensa

There is this line in the gospel of Luke:
In your patience, you will own your heart. (1)

Buddhist deity Benzaiten (Sanskrit: Sarasvati), is depicted playing a biwa. Photo  © @KyotoDailyPhotoThe Greek word for patience also implies constancy, perseverance. It is a strong word. ‘Heart’ comes from ‘psyche’ and psyche also means life, mind, soul. So, in your patience, you will become one with your heart. I remember when I first read this line being struck by it. A word like ‘patience’ which is a rather grey word in our normal way of talking comes out rather luminous and strong from this passage.

Then, years later, I happened to read some important reflections on this topic by a well-known Christian author, Henry Nouwen and a couple of co­authors, in a book entitled Compassion (2). He says: ‘If we cannot be patient, we cannot become patient. We cannot be compassionate. If we ourselves are unable to suffer, we cannot suffer with others, which is the meaning of compassion.’ Now, in dharma language we may say: ‘If we are not open to our suffering, if we are not ready for a direct experience of our suffering, there is not much hope of having empathy for other people’s suffering.’ Henry Nouwen continues, underlining a couple of very crucial things: ‘Patience is the capacity to see, hear, touch, taste and smell as fully as possible the inner and outer events of our lives. It is to enter our lives with open eyes, ears, and hands, so that we really know what is happening. Patience is an extremely difficult discipline precisely because it counteracts our unreflective impulse to flee or to fight.’ And then he concludes: ‘Patience requires us to go beyond the choice between fleeing or fighting. It is the third and most difficult way. It calls for discipline because it goes against the grain of our impulses.’ (3)

Dharma practice in the scriptures is called patiloma which means ‘upstream’. Patience involves staying with it, living it through, listening carefully to what presents itself to us here and now. It seems to me that the affinity between this description of what true patience is and the doctrine, the conception of mindfulness or sati in the dharma, is very remarkable, so much so that we could put the words together and talk about patient awareness in the same way that we talk about nonjudging awareness, equanimous awareness, affectionate awareness. In other words, it is a little help towards understanding this tool, mindfulness -­ sati, so crucial in the teaching of the Buddha, to understand it better and better. What we need to understand of course is that these qualities—patience, equanimity, caring, non­judgmental spirit—are in­trin­­sic to awareness. If they are not there, any aware­­ness is not the true aware­ness; it is not authen­­tic awareness. You cannot have a judging awareness, etc. That is not awareness. True patience, therefore, is one of these intrinsic qual­ities which define the jewel offered to us by the Buddha.

How can we define aware­ness? How can we define mindfulness, sati? Sati is the capacity to connect with things in an intimate way and yet in a spirit of nonattachment and nonidentification. From the point of view of ego it is a contradiction, or it is a paradox, or it is, frankly, not understand­able, but this is the definition, the struc­ture of awareness, mindful­ness, sati. Needless to say, developing true sati, true awareness, a little bit re­quires an immensely patient training and a gradual refining of our understanding, of our insight.

Let us take an example. Suppose we are sad, suppose that our pre­dominant emotion or mind-state is sadness. What do we do usually, habit­ually? Our reaction is a conditioned one and ultimately condition­ed by ignorance. We know what happens. Frequently, although not neces­sarily, we get lost in sadness, we get identified with sadness. There are a number of variations. We can fall into self-pity because of sadness, or we can fall into irritation because of sadness, thereby multiplying its power, its strength. This is our habitual reaction. In a sense we might say that sadness in all these forms could be called ‘unclean sadness’. It is loaded with layers of reaction and fears and aversion; it is not pure sadness. Now, granted that the ultimate conditioning is ig­norance, if we look more closely, what do we see that is more accessible to our immediate understanding? First of all we see the very great power of habit. The habit of reacting in certain ways creates deep ruts, and it is not easy to come out of ancient and ingrained routines. This is why it is crucial to develop a counter-habit, if we may call it that: the practice—an adequate, proportionate strength to counteract all the negative habits, all the afflictions or intoxicants which generate our fundamental suffering in life.

In addition to a general habit, however, I think that if we look closely we shall see something very subtle and maybe even more important. This is the tendency to invest great energy in the desire to get rid of sadness. I am not saying always, but it is often there. Sometimes we can be relatively free from this tendency. At other times our tendency is to indulge in sadness—we don’t want to get rid of it, we want more. But there are many other situations in which we can see clearly how much energy is invested in trying to get rid of sadness. Lots of energy is literally thrown into the desire to get rid of it. Of course, I am not referring to those small acts of wisdom in which one gets together to talk things over with a friend, for example, or going into nature, I am referring to something compulsive, something obsessive—thinking, judging, reacting about how to get rid of this unpleasant feeling. We might as well talk about total nonacceptance of sadness; we might as well talk about aversion to sadness. A lot of energy goes into this desire. The desire is understandable and we will come back to that, but now we will look at the problematic aspects of it.

Skimming Stones. Artwork © @TessaMacDermot Recall the Buddha’s teaching (about the two arrows) in which someone is hit in the leg by an arrow. (4) To put it briefly the teaching is that the developed individual only suffers because of the physical pain—it is clean suffering. But there is another type of person, the worldling, who suffers because of the second arrow—and the second arrow is this strong mental reaction to the physical pain. We can conceive of an infinite number of two-arrow teachings, but in this case the first arrow is sadness, and the second is the aversion to sadness. This is specified in a very clear way in this sutta, this teaching of the Buddha, that the second arrow is the big problem. The second arrow strengthens the latent tendencies to aversion and also empowers the latent tendencies to attachment to sense-gratification as the only way out of suffering. So it nails us down more and more into aversion, into attachment—not the first arrow, but the second one.

Here, we are talking about the second arrow in the form of a strong desire to get rid of an unpleasant state of mind. It is important to understand that this desire, this energy to get rid of sadness, for example, is a much bigger problem than the sadness itself. Why is this? Because this desire is an energy which separates us from experiencing directly the truth of sadness. This energy, this desire, is in the way, it is in-between and prevents us from having a direct perception, a direct experience, of what sadness is really like. Because we are haunted by this desire to get rid of what is unpleasant, instead of opening to sadness, we close down in front of it. And this is the second arrow; it is the problem and creates an endless problem.

What happens next? We stay trapped in our conception of sadness and in our reaction to this concept, but we don’t have a living experience of sadness—or whatever the mind-state happens to be—because of this thing interfering, because of this thing being in the way of a direct experience, this movement against, this desire to get rid of. It is energy; it isn’t a thought; it isn’t something irrelevant; it is very relevant. No wonder the Buddha gave such a central place to desire fuelled by ignorance. No wonder he gave this as the main cause for suffering in life. Here we are talking about this—no more, no less. The more everyday life, the more simple the examples, the better. Otherwise, we tend to idealise dukkha, we tend to think of it only in terms of dramatic episodes, whereas dukkha is the fabric of our days—until we start understanding it. And that is the practice, the gift of the training that we are doing.

Because of this energy which distances us from experience, we stay in our minds, in our imagination about sadness, in our concepts, our proliferations, anywhere except in the reality of sadness, the truth of sadness. So this is the frequent conditioned way of reacting in front of so-called negative emotions. We might very well call this conditioned way ‘the impatient way’. Again, Henry Nouwen says: ‘Whatever the nature of our impatience, we want to leave the physical or mental state in which we find ourselves and move to another less uncomfortable place. Essentially, impatience is experiencing the moment as empty, useless, meaningless. It is wanting to escape from the here and now as soon as possible.’ (5) I don’t think we have any objection to this.

What would it be like to have an awake, aware and patient response to sadness, or any of the other mental states? First of all it would mean giving a lot of energy to awareness itself, an immediate awareness of what is happening. If we did, we would start to wake up, we would start to have direct perception—and that is very different from reaction.

Guina Pig Artwork @TessaMacDermotThis is a turning point. And the key is an interest in turning more and more towards awareness, an interest which becomes almost like an instinct. Take hunger, for instance. The mind and body know that without food we are going to die, so we want food, we have this instinct. Now, as the practice develops, something similar starts to happen with awareness. We realise that the more awareness is available, the more we choose awareness, the better we live. So we want more of it. It is that simple. As long as we do not realise that the more awareness there is the better our lives, the interest just does not develop and we start falling in love with a concept. We like to talk about awareness, speculate and read all about it—period! Fortunately, there are retreats.

When something starts happening along these lines, we move into something very different from what we called the primacy of thinking and doing, which we mostly have. As individuals and as a culture, the priority goes to thinking and doing. But we begin to move into the field of contemplation. Contemplation is being aware, it is looking in a nonjudging, caring, equanimous way. So, let us go back to our example. Sadness arises, but we now want to encounter it, we now want to experience it, become intimate with it; we want a relationship with it because life is being in relationships. So, we want to change our attitude with regard to mind states and emotions. We start having the intuition that the mind is the core of our life. ‘The mind guides,’ says the Dhammapada, ‘and all the rest follows.’ So we want to have a different experience. But if we are possessed by the desire to get rid of sadness, how can we expect to encounter it? If all the energy goes into the desire to push sadness away, where is the energy for awareness? We may mean well, we may want to be aware of this mind state, but if we don’t fully realise that energy goes into the desire to be rid of it, it is as though we are trying to ignite a flame in the middle of a strong wind. The awareness is constantly being put out like the flame in the wind, and therefore our efforts are in vain. We may be very motivated, determined, we may really want to be aware and get frustrated when all the energy goes into the opposite direction. Unless we see this, we cannot begin to desist from this pushing away. Once we do see it, however, then there is a chance for awareness to be kindled and encouraged to stay.

The possibility of direct experience is well-known theoretically, of course, but in practice it is not so easy. Direct experience can happen only in the moment, only moment by moment. We know it and we don’t know it. As soon as we are not aware of the present moment any more, we are immediately into thinking, judging, and reacting. We then have to go back patiently, very patiently, to the moment, the moment, the moment . . .  Otherwise forget about having the direct experience of what is happening inside ourselves; we will be thinking about it instead. But the training is not about thinking. When we recognise ourselves as feeling sad, the point is to feel it directly, in the moment, in the body and in the mind—the sensations, thoughts and emotions, opening up to what is happening moment by moment. At first this can hurt. It is a turning point and when we start learning how to apply the practice and having more direct experience of what is happening, it can hurt. Usually we are wrapped up in so much thinking and reactivity that we feel much less. If we start letting go of all of these layers, however, we are more sensitive, more raw, so the first impact at least can be painful. But if we stay there, if we sustain the practice, then the painfulness is bound to change. The negative emotions, once stripped of their layers of reactivity, thinking and judging, become different. They become more pure; we said ‘clean sadness’. They become less threatening, less painful. Our relationship changes. We are led by an interest which is almost an instinct to be with what is there, and we want to learn more to be with what is there because we see and hear patience.

Crimewatch Artwork @TessaMacDermotIt needs to be mentioned that we can slide back very easily and regress into very primitive, primordial modes in which reactivity seems the only reasonable thing and we are not interested in direct experience or things like that. A whole ideology can arise in a matter of seconds. And we believe it; we believe it completely. This is what the scriptures called the power of avijja, the power of ignorance. It is not, in dharma language, the absence of something; it is something very active, and again it takes a lot of patience to deal with all the ignorance we carry with us.

So, patient contemplation, affectionate contemplation of our sadness, is just one more invitation to practise contemplation first instead of practising reactivity first, judging first, talking first. In this way we are being invited to cultivate the primacy of contem­plation as opposed to the primacy of thinking and doing. When contem­plation, the affectionate awareness of whatever is there, starts being a real central value in our lives, something very interest­ing happens. We feel that we are be­gin­ning to have a reliable source for right thought, right action, right speech. But contemplation comes first. And I don’t mean con­tem­pla­tion in any vague spiritual way; I mean contemplating what is there, moment after moment.

This is upstream, this is patilo­ma, because we react first, we don’t contemplate first. It takes re-­education—practice is re-education, realignment, revolution. This is not an excessive word. It is an inner revolution. It has got to be an inner revolution, and without much noise. In our patient awareness, our patient contemplation, we can become one with our hearts, at peace with our hearts.

I would like to mention a contribution from an American teacher in the Zen tradition, Chery Huber. She says: ‘Exploring exactly what it means to be tired can reveal the part of the personality that holds in place a belief about tiredness. What is it about being tired that I don’t like? What are my underlying beliefs about it? That I’m going to fall over? That I’m going to die? And what are the implications in my life of holding such beliefs? How do those beliefs limit me? Someone told me about doing a simple task that involved just two movements and what a joyful experience it was. She realised that it was joyful because her attention was fully focused on what she was doing. Now what would happen if we focused our attention on the feeling we labelled “tired”? We might have the same sort of joyful experience, simply by being abso­lutely present to the sensations of the body and that in itself might generate energy (an interesting side-effect). In any case, without a label, those sensations would no longer be perceived as tiredness.’ (6)

I will sum it up by saying that, if we keep contemplating, we find out that the crucial problem is a kind of knot inside our body, and that knot is our resistance to what is happening. The problem, again, is not tiredness but our resistance to tiredness. Do we know it? Yes and no.

I would also like to mention an experience of mine. During the year I teach meditation classes on Monday and Tuesday nights which means going to bed late. If I go to bed late on Wednesday night and Thursday night as well, what is in store is a very off-centred Friday. And I’ve studied it because it has not happened only once. So there is fatigue and there is the feeling of being off-centred. And I’ve noticed that what arises is a subtle way of undermining the practice because this voice in me says, ‘You should be more careful. You should be more disciplined. If you were, you would be able to practise in a much better way.’ But my practice is ‘fatigue’ in that moment. This thinking, ‘If I had been more careful, I would be . . . ‘ etc, is in order to avoid what is there. And what is there is fatigue and off-centredness once I wake up to that fact, because I can forget it. A couple of weeks go by and the same thing happens again, and here I am again telling myself, ‘You should be more careful,’ and all that. And then, fortunately, I wake up again and start practising on fatigue.

This means that instead of batting and resisting, instead of complaining, I open up to what is there. I see the contraction of fatigue, bodily and mentally. I see some attachment to what might bring some relief. At times, if I stay with that, something nice happens: under this mental movement of fatigue, I find there is something peaceful. If I hadn’t stopped, however, I wouldn’t have seen it; I wouldn’t have touched that peaceful area. Fatigue is unpleasant, but fatigue in itself isn’t a problem. Resistance to fatigue is the problem, the self-judging because of fatigue is the problem. If fatigue were the problem, there would be no possibility of touching peace, touching spaciousness. That is the proof that fatigue is not the problem, that mind states in themselves are not the problem. It is the way we deal with them that is the problem. The second arrow is the problem, not the first arrow of fatigue.

It is interesting also to think of what happens when we are full of energy and wellbeing. What happens very easily is that we start channelling that energy into projects, into thinking, into some immediately helpful, useful action. Why? Because these are our values. We believe that in this way our wellbeing is not wasted, it is being invested in good thoughts and good actions. Now, wellbeing is a beautiful thing; there is no inherent shortcoming in wellbeing. The problem is in our excited reaction to it. The problem is in our not even conceiving of actually contem­plating wellbeing. ‘Are you kidding? Contemplate wellbeing? Let’s enjoy it!’ You don’t contemplate well­being. Why? It is there, why not con­template it? What happens is that even more easily we react with some peaceful state through the contem­plation of well­being. And once again we have the distinct impression that we are touching the most reliable source for right action, right thought, right speech, instead of acting on our wellbeing.

Wanting to get rid of sadness is an expression of the universal aspiration to happiness. But unfortunately it is distorted, and as we see again and again it doesn’t bring happiness. We should remember, therefore, that one of the major aims of our practice is to purify this kind of desire so that the desire for happiness, the aspiration for happiness, can blossom in the right way.

I find these reflections are important in helping one not to be judgemental of one’s attachments and aversions and of other people’s attachments and aversions. Underneath those attachments and aversions is a desire for happiness. Unfortunately it is distorted—at times incredibly so—but the origin is the same for all sentient beings. If we get in touch with what is common, our chances in­crease of developing under­standing and com­­­pas­sion and real­ising these qualities which have been called two wings to enlightenment.

More articles by Corrado Pensa here.


Footnotes (Back to top.)

1 Luke 21:19

2 H.J. Nouwen, D.P. McNeill, D.A. Morrison, Compassion, New York, 1983, p.92

3 Compassion, p.93

4 Sallasutta, Samyutta Nikaya, 36.6

5 Compassion, p.96

6 Ch. Huber, Sweet Zen, Present Perfect Books, 2000, pp.33-34

4 Responses

  1. I could not find the line “in your patience, you will own your heart” in Luke 12,19. Are you sure this is the correct reference?

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