All life consists of flow and change, the nature of our bodies alone requires it. If it stopped, we would stop as well. But we are conditioned to hold aside from all this, and attach ourselves to the fixed and changeless — mentally if not physically. We have a nagging need for security that translates into fixed ideas and opinions, and we become afraid of change, because it threatens our security.
But at the same time, we are fascinated with the arts with their grace and fluidity. I was once a member (though not a dancer) of a choreographic ballet group, playing the piano and making the tea. Once I was asked to fill in for someone, and suddenly I realised they were all staring at me, and I realised my concentration had slipped for a moment, and they all noticed. I had never before realised how strong their mutual awareness was.
When we begin to learn to meditate, we start by trying to still the mind and ‘fix’ it on something. This, hopefully, begins to halt the rush of thoughts and ideas that pour through the mind, but it is still mind battling mind. Then, when we are a bit more proficient, we get to the hard bit, to let go and realise that the whole process of stopping the muddle in the mind, is part of the muddle itself.
We have to accept the flow and change of mind and its moods and humours, and accept that they are all part of the change and flow. But there is always an awareness of these changes occurring, and that awareness accepts them as part of the nature of things, yet is untouched by them.
The more we become conscious of this awareness, and our attention is drawn to it, the more it becomes a safe refuge for us: this endless, traceless and brightly shining space of which the Buddha spoke.
But how was the problem caused in the first place, if this awareness is an intrinsic part of our very nature? Since childhood, we have been taught that everything must relate, be connected to something else, and we must be part of that ourselves, and then this all becomes part of me and my ego. Every shining new possession, every little win, encourages our egos, and helps to persuade us that without their control over things, we would be helpless, with no worth or identity.
Like Milton’s fallen angel, Belial, rather than be less, we would rather not be at all. But what happens if we drop this, even for a moment? There is suddenly more space. Now we are no longer trapped in a fractious little bubble. This is, alas, what happens so often on social media. But now, perhaps we can begin to sense the intuitive awareness that patiently awaits us in these moments, like a wise parent. But then we are seized by the need to ‘be’ something again, to reassert our identity. That, and so much that we see around us, is boxed up in a package to make it look familiar, even if it isn’t. Anything to allow us to cover that emptiness, of which we are afraid, but oddly of which we are part. Little habits can help, like following the Zen master’s advice and remembering which shoe you put on first in the morning, or where you put your keys. I find the walking exercise very effective, and it was my first clear experience of this awareness.
Our minds are accustomed to trying to get things or trying to get rid of them (all part of the mind’s control system), and in the process, we become more and more bound to the things that are causing our problems. As the awareness grows, we become, hopefully, more and more aware of this process. But as we turn more and more to the awareness, we can learn to allow these currents to come and go, as they will do according to their transitory nature. It is only when we bind them to us that they remain to cause us problems in the long run.
Our lives are full of should and shouldn’ts, which is how we were conditioned and this is where we need to become aware of what is happening, and the emotional states that go with it, as well as the efforts we go to to distract ourselves from these painful moments. As Ajahn Sumedho says: ‘This distraction is an unconscious habit, and now we have the chance of just opening to it and allowing it to arise and cease, which when not grasped at, it does.’ There is no judging involved, you are just allowing things to be as they are. Thought and mental conditions all create boundaries, but as he says: ‘This awareness is expansive, unlimited.’
There is always something that is not caught in these painful illusions, and we need, particularly in this age, to rest in something that is always there for us, a stillness that never goes away even in the most difficult circumstances. As Ajahn Sumedho says: ‘As you sustain awareness in this way, consciousness can expand and become infinite.’ When this occurs, you are just present in a conscious moment and you lose the sense of being a self, being a person, being this body. It just drops away and can no longer sustain itself; it’s a kind of coming home.
You can read more articles by John Aske here.