Looking into our fetters — and finding freedom
As we practice meditation it’s inevitable that we’ll outgrow some of our initial understandings, and sometimes an aspect of practice that at first seemed straightforward is revealed to be richer and more textured than we’d assumed.
For me, mindfulness at first seemed clear enough; one simply notices one’s actions and one’s experience. A person who is being mindful remembers where he has left his car keys, while a person (maybe the same person) who is being unmindful may not even remember where he parked the car. We know we’re angry when we’re angry, and we know we’re content when we’re content. It’s that simple — or so it may seem.
A few years ago my understanding of mindfulness started to undergo a shift. Mindfulness is no longer simply knowing what one is experiencing, or remembering where one has put things, but is richer and more multifaceted than that. As my practice has evolved there are four aspects of mindfulness that I’ve particularly come to appreciate: acceptance, curiosity, lovingkindness, and insight.
Acceptance leads to integration and wholeness. By “acceptance” I mean being with one’s experience without reacting, without experiencing craving or aversion towards it, without experiencing elation or despondency. In order to deepen our mindfulness we have to practice sitting with experiences, even if they’re unpleasant or involve unskillful emotions.
Sometimes we can be quick to jump in with various tools we’ve learned to deal with the various emotional states that that arise and take us away from the object of our meditation practice — emotions such as ill will, craving, despondency, embarrassment, and anxiety — not allowing time to really be with the distraction and to see what we can learn from it.
But if we can patiently sit with our experiences, unexpected transmutations can take place. Ill will can evaporate to reveal tender sadness, or beneath craving we can come to see a wholesome yearning for completeness.
However, the habitual use of antidotes to distractions can lead to a subtle form of repression in which these parts of ourselves are forced out of consciousness, and when reaching for antidotes becomes a habit we’ve lost our freedom — and all meditation practice is about finding greater levels of freedom.
Mindfulness is active rather than passive. Mindfulness doesn’t have to merely notice experiences, but can explore them. For example, an experience to which we apply the label “pain” can be seen not as one thing but as a series of processes becoming and un-becoming.
As we investigate an experience of physical pain we can see interweaving currents of pressure,
heat, cold, tingling, throbbing, and pulsing — and sometimes the pain seems to vanish altogether. An experience we may have wished to escape now becomes a source of fascination and an object of concentration.
We can also come to see pain as part of an interconnected system, noticing how the body responds by tensing up, how the emotions respond with aversion, how thoughts of self-pity arise. And as we bring those responses into mindful awareness we realize that we don’t have to amplify our suffering through reacting to pain but instead can simply experience it as it is.
The Persian poet Rumi writes of how when dark thoughts appear we can “Meet them at the door laughing / And invite them in”. I often recall those words when challenging experiences arise. If a friend turned up on my doorstep full of self-doubt, anger, or hurt, how would it be most helpful to meet him? Would I want to try to cheer him up, or send him away, or even to try solving his problems for him?
Although I confess that trying to solve people’s problems can be hard to resist, what I’d ideally like to do is to greet him with compassion: inviting him in, sitting him down, and listening. Ideally I’d like mostly to just listen, and to provide the curiously, love and encouragement that my friend needs to let his story unfold.
When I take this approach with myself and my own dark thoughts, embracing troubling experiences with loving mindfulness and sensing the often unacknowledged pain that accompanies each one, a profound sense of relief and gratitude often emerges; the kind of sense you might have if you’d been lost without hope in a dark wood and had at last found a path home.
The Buddhist tradition offers us the paradox that freedom comes not from trying to escape our inner fetters, but from looking deeply into them and seeing their impermanence and insubstantiality.
As mindfulness develops it becomes permeated with insight. As we notice pleasant and unpleasant experiences, skillful and unskilful emotions, as they arise and fall, we come to appreciate the transience of all our experiences, and we can further come to see that those experiences – pleasant or unpleasant, skillful or unskilful — are not an inherent part of who we are.
Our sense of who we are starts to shift, and a greater degree of freedom, spaciousness, and contentment begins to emerge as our fetters dissolve into emptiness.
Mindfulness has many facets — many more than those I’ve touched upon here — and I’d encourage you to let your mindfulness reveal these and other hidden aspects, not simply noticing your experiences, but accepting them with equanimity, actively exploring their texture with an inquiring mind, embracing them with metta, and looking deeply into them with an awareness of impermanence and insubstantiality. The more deeply you look into your inner fetters the more you will find yourself to be free.