May 30, 2007
Looking into our fetters — and finding freedom
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.