If you never awaken the mind, but merely live a perfunctory life based on the momentum of your habits acquired when young, then as you get older, those habits become less vital but more entrenched. The force of habit is like a cage; it is something that imprisons you. People talk a lot about freedom in the sense of being physically able to do what one wants. And yet that kind of freedom can lead to slavery—we can become addicted, habituated, to various unskilful actions, attitudes, and tendencies that we never see through or get beyond.
That is why, sitting here on a zafu [meditation cushion] for a week or so on retreat, is like an incarceration. You are told to keep silent; you are not to go out and play games, dance and sing, or run around the fields, play football, cards, dress up and make yourself alluring, or listen to music. The most exciting thing that happens in this situation is the arrival of chocolate sometimes in the afternoons.
When you are on retreat, restrictions are placed on your physical actions and speech. But there are also mental restraints and limitations. You are not to simply let your mind go wild or indulge in fantasies. Instead, you are to learn to bring the mind into the present. It goes off into tirades, into its habits, fantasies, or obsessions, and you gently bring it back to the here and now, to the body, the breath, the silence. This is a gentle way of centring and bringing attention to the present. And it is the ultimate kind of restriction. You sit here in the present, in the here and now, and sometimes that does seem like tying yourself down.
On the other hand, this is freedom—you are not just a helpless victim of habits, thoughts, desires, or fears; it is a way to contemplate, to develop, to cultivate, and to understand this experience of human consciousness, human existence. This is what we’ve got. We contemplate the existential reality of this moment.
On the conventional level we are all here in this room sitting together. In terms of the way it is, however, you are actually in my mind. I don’t really mean ‘my’ mind, but this is the limitation of speech. The room is ‘in my mind’. My eyes and the light in the room allow me to see, and that is a conscious experience—eye-consciousness. You, then, are in the conscious experience. You can see me, but I cannot see me as an object. I can see bits of my knees and so on, but the full view of me I cannot see. For each one of us, this is the axis mundi; it is the centre point in the universe. Each one of us is the centre of the universe in terms of direct experience in the present. This is a reflection on the way it is. It is not an ego-trip. One doesn’t say, ‘I am the centre of the universe,’ as a person. That would not be a reflection, but a perception which one might foolishly grasp. As far as your experience goes, however, in terms of conscious experience you have always been the centre of everything, from the time you were born until the time your body dies—it is the way it is. The rest of us come and go. You all come into and go out of my consciousness. And when you are all gone, I am still here, wherever that may be. Even if I go, I am still wherever I am.
Noticing this centre point is very important. One is conditioned into perceiving oneself as a personality, as being another person in the room, and one’s consciousness as being in the brain, maybe, or in the head. If we never question, never investigate, all the views we have about ourselves—our bodies, our personalities—we just operate from an attitude of ignorance. Having not awakened to and examined the way things really are, we operate in the realm of conventional agreements.
We can all agree to certain conventions, and each particular culture has its own unique quality. Why, for example, are the English not exactly the same as the French? Why is it that all the French are not exactly the same? And why are the Americans different from the English, not to mention the Chinese, Russians, Thais, and Sri Lankans? The assumptions that we acquire, say, when we’re growing up, come from the prejudices of our particular ethnic, social conditioning. So, if you were born in Yugoslavia, you would think of yourself as Yugoslavian, although that term is passé now, isn’t it; they are back to smaller ethnic identities. Whatever, angst and prejudice is derived from attaching to identities because that is not the centre of the universe. Being a ‘Croat’ or a ‘Serb’, an ‘American’, or anything else, is to operate from a biased view.
What brings us on a meditation retreat? In a situation like this you can begin to recognise the spiritual aspiration of your life, something very good. Something very beautiful inside brings you to a place where you will have to suffer, go through the physical torments of sitting still and of facing the mental obsessions and fears that arise. But there is a willingness to do that. Why? Because, basically, human beings are spiritually oriented beings. When we contemplate humanity in this way, we begin to see everyone has the same potential. It is possible, then, to look at each other in terms of being spiritual beings rather than as being English, French, German, Japanese, or whatever.
February 2002 Buddhism Now.
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[The above is from a talk given during a retreat at Amaravati in May 1999. Courtesy of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery.]