A little while ago, while I was in the shower, I had a series of realizations.
I was unmindfully mulling over a financial problem, because my bank had messed and moved all my money into someone else’s account, and then I became aware that I was caught up in unhelpful and distracted thinking.
My initial thought was that I was being blown around by one of the “four worldly winds” that Buddhism talks about: gain and loss. We often end up thinking that getting and having stuff is one of the most important things in life, and therefore think that losing stuff is important too.
As long as I’m not starving, loss isn’t really a problem. (I’ll get the money back, I’m told, although it seems to be taking a long time.) But the problem of money is fundamentally a practical one, and doesn’t have to be an emotional one. I don’t have to let loss affect my sense of wellbeing.
The other worldly winds are high and low status, approval and disapproval, and pleasure and pain. These are various things that we think are important. Sometimes in fact we think that they’re the most important things in life, because they’re where happiness comes from. But the Buddha didn’t think that.
I think of them as being a bit like “The Matrix” in the movie of the same name. They’re a virtual reality that we create and then live inside of. We become absolutely convinced that they’re real and important. It can be hard sometimes to imagine any other way of seeing our world.
Anyway, all of that flashed into my mind, and then I had my epiphany, which is probably nothing you haven’t heard before: The only important thing is to love.
This wasn’t something that came to me as a general statement, but as a personal one. The only important thing in my life is love. I need to take love as the central principle in my life—the one thing that I remember at all times. The worldly winds aren’t important. They’re things that we delude ourselves into thinking are important.
But it’s not always easy to be loving. We can realize things like “The only important thing is to love” and still behave like a jerk. I often do. The worldly winds are part of our genetic inheritance as mammals and they’re hard to set aside.
Our genetic inheritance sometimes makes us behave like assholes. There are circuits in our brains dedicated to tracking our importance in terms of loss and gain, high and low status, etc. The perception of loss of money, a risk to our status, and so on, triggers powerful feelings, which then lead to the brain’s resources being devoted to “fixing” the perceived problem. Those “fixes” sometimes make us treat others badly, because our worldly wind–driven habits are strong and fast. They often overwhelm us. And so while we may believe, on some level, that love is the most important thing, we still act as if it’s less important than things like status. (Think, for example, of when when we bicker with a partner and don’t want to admit we’re wrong. Status, in this case, trumps love, even though in the long term it’s much better to be loved than to be right.)
Then I realized I had a second thought to add to the first:
1. The only important thing is to love
2. And to remember to love.
But as Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails sang, “Love is not enough.” Actually, it’s the feeling of love that’s not enough. I can think of plenty of times in my marriage when I felt I loved my wife and told her so, but it wasn’t enough, because I wasn’t acting in ways that made her feel loved. Love is not enough.
So we need to learn to show love, and not just feel it. We need to learn what it is that people need in order to grow in happiness and to become free from suffering, and offer it to them. Usually that thing is empathy, and listening. Sometimes it’s a wider and wiser perspective.
Now I’m up to three things:
1. The only important thing is to love
2. And to remember to love
3. And to keep learning how to show love.
And then as I was soaping my self, I have another thing to add to those three. This is something to be done, not just thought, and so the fourth reflection is: “Am I being loving right now?”
Well, was I? No! I wasn’t being harsh, but I was washing my body in a rather unmindful way, because I’d been having all those thoughts. (It wasn’t a very long shower—thought is fast.) So I soaped myself with love. I felt the love in my heart. I let it fill my hands. I washed my body with kindness and affection. I took pleasure in the sensation of hot water splashing on my body. It felt like these realizations now meant something.
So now I had four things:
1. The only important thing is to love
2. And to remember to love
3. And to keep learning how to show love.
4. Am I showing love right now?
And then my shower was over.
Although the fourth thought came last, it actually seems like it’s the key one. It’s the one that the others are expressions of. It’s the question I need to keep returning to.
So these are the four things (which are really just one thing) I’m going to let rest in my mind. I’m going to keep coming back to these phrases over and over again. This is something I don’t want to forget.
Brilliant advise, I need to make the “Am I showing love right now?” my mantra.
[Looking for the “like” button…]
Who or what exactly is the “I” that shows, perceives, or even knows love?
If “I” is the ego (the imagined separate self) then by trying to become more loving one will only make it stronger. I’m pretty sure most people are aware of the viciousness and recurring nature of this pattern. You try to remember to love, you forget and get angry, you try harder to remember to love, then you get mad when the doctor makes you wait, you immediately catch the feeling and tell yourself, once more, the importance of being loving. It becomes a daily struggle that never really effects the permanent change sought after.
As I see it, the issue is not becoming more loving, but becoming more aware of exactly who it is that desires to become more loving. Attention turned this way, with persistence, cannot be resolved with decisions to become more aware of one’s thoughts and feelings. You can’t even think about it. It’s just awareness aware of itself. I believe this is the deepest and at the same time, the simplest of Buddha’s attempts to point at truth and reality. After all, we are already love itself, we just don’t believe it due to conditioning and identification with the mind and body. So, there really is nothing to “do” since there is really no on there to do it
“Who or what exactly is the ‘I’ that shows, perceives, or even knows love?”
That begs the question, since there is no I that does anything. And yet doing happens. (You might want to read this article in order to gain a better understanding of what anatta is actually about, and how it relates to the Buddha’s emphasis on training.)
“If ‘I’ is the ego (the imagined separate self) then by trying to become more loving one will only make it stronger.”
The imagined self is just that — imagined. It therefore can’t become stronger, although the belief in it can.
“You try to remember to love, you forget and get angry, you try harder to remember to love, then you get mad… etc”
Well, that’s a lot of assuming! First, it doesn’t have to work that way. To use a familiar example, beginners to meditation often “try” to be mindful, lose their mindfulness, and then get angry. Those who have been meditating longer learn to simply accept that mindfulness comes and goes. It’s the same in cultivating kindness. You might at first get annoyed with yourself for behaving unkindly, but with practice your response to that becomes kinder too.
Second, by your logic it’s not possible to develop kindness at all, and yet clearly that’s not the case.
“It becomes a daily struggle that never really effects the permanent change sought after.”
The aim of the practice I’ve suggested is simply to become kinder, not to become perfectly and permanently kind. If you’re working on becoming a better tennis player, you’re not aiming for perfection, but improvement.
“As I see it, the issue is not becoming more loving, but becoming more aware of exactly who it is that desires to become more loving.”
Well, that’s a legitimate aim as well, but it’s not one that obviates the aim to become kinder through practice. The Buddha taught a path in which we both consciously cultivate skillful qualities and question our assumptions that there is a self that has or doesn’t have skillful or unskillful qualities. If you think that insight practice is the only legitimate form of practice, then I’m afraid you’re following something that’s very different from the Buddhadharma. Unfortunately, that’s a common distortion of the Buddha’s teaching these days.
I practictled mindfulness for years, but it was mostly walking meditation. Then a 20 year old injury came back and I couldn’t walk anymore. On top of that I developed a painful condition called Pudendal Neuralgia which makes sitting painful. So I went from having the deep kindness and patience you describe to almost the same anxious person I was before (but still with more tolerance of others). I reached the point where I became mindful of my lapses in thought and behavior (as you describe) My point is that mindfulness seems to be only a beginning step. So I guess my question to you is, can mindfulness practice by itself bring about permanent realignment of the mind, or is it a lifetime daily practice that, if suspended, will have the same result as someone who stops working out?
All of my doubts spring from learning, recently, about non-duality. Is this at odds with object oriented meditation? It seems that as long as your meditating on the breath, or on how you walk or eat, etc. you are remaining in a subject (me)/ object relationship.
I might as well ask another question, what meditation would you propose for someone who has pain both sitting, standing and walking? When I search this question all the answers I come up with are either: place your attention directly on the source, the bare awareness that is aware of itself. Or sometimes the answer is to surrender.
Thank you for replying. I haven’t read the article you linked yet so that my answer some of my questions. If it does, then just tell me so and I will take the time to read it (the pain meds I am on make it more difficult for me to actually absorb what I am reading and writing just this reply took quite an effort).
I am willing to admit that some of my first reply may have underlying anger at my situation and apologize if that crept in.
Sorry for the delayed reply, David. It’s been a very busy time.
“Can mindfulness practice by itself bring about permanent realignment of the mind, or is it a lifetime daily practice that, if suspended, will have the same result as someone who stops working out?”
I think it’s more like the latter. We need to keep working at practicing mindfulness, partly because there are strong reactive habits in the mind that will tend to reverse any gains we’ve made, and partly because there are aspects of our conditioning that the initial mindfulness we’ve developed hasn’t begun to touch. I’ve been meditating for over 30 years, and there are emotional habits I have that I’m only just starting to get a handle on. I’m sure there are some that I haven’t even found out about yet. But you can get to the point where mindfulness is an automatic habit, and self-sustaining. At that point the work will take care of itself.
“Is [non-dual meditation] at odds with object oriented meditation?”
From a traditional view, fundamentally it isn’t. The early Buddhist tradition talked about this apparent tension in terms like these: You want to get to the end of striving, so why should you strive to get to the end of striving? It’s like making an effort to get to a place where you don’t need to make any effort, like a deckchair overlooking a beautiful view. Once you get to the deckchair you can stop and just sit there, but unless you do the work that’s involved in getting there any resting is just going to be a hindrance, not a help.
So there’s work to be done in terms of becoming more mindful, “unselfing” through developing kindness and compassion, etc. This work involves overcoming reactive tendencies in the mind, and this is necessary work. But once you’ve overcome a certain amount of reactivity and have strengthened your skillful tendencies to the point where they kick in automatically when needed, then there’s less and less of a sense of “work” being needed. Awakening starts to emerge spontaneously.
“What meditation would you propose for someone who has pain both sitting, standing and walking?”
If there’s always pain, then you need to learn to meditate with pain, for example by looking very closely at the sensations you identify as pain so that you can see what they “really” are. You’ll find if you look very closely at pain, that there’s no pain there. It would be helpful to find a posture that would minimize pain, though. I don’t know if you can meditate lying down, or on a reclining seat, etc. It’s worth experimenting. Lying on your back tends to promote sleepiness, and the traditional approach is to meditate on the side.
Thank you so much for the thorough reply. I think that when I was doing all that walking meditation for 5 years, the change was so gradual that I just took for granted the reduction in stress, anger, etc. that came with it. In line with part of your reply I now feel that I should haven’t placed so much on the relief that mindfulness confers and realized that there are much deeper (perhaps bodily rooted) conditioned responses that take more time and probably a different approach. It’s odd, in retrospect, how I took for granted all the benefits of mindfulness and just assumed they were permanent changes. The well of illusion is much deeper than I ever imagined.
It’s an easy mistake to make. I think this is why the Buddhist path is generally thought of as consisting of two approaches, which in one model are termed samatha and vipassana.
Samatha is changing our mental habits, so that we’re calmer and more positive. That change can be quite profound, but it’s ultimately reversible, because it’s about changes in our mental states, and those come and go depending on our conditions. (We probably never entirely lose the changes samatha practice brings about, but it’s easy to lose most of our gains, quite quickly sometimes!).
Vipassana, in the sense of directly penetrating our delusions, changes us more fundamentally, and once insight has arisen it’s irreversible. At that point, as I said earlier, awakening starts to emerge spontaneously. That’s when we relax our effort, and when we start to recognize for real that practice happens, but there is no one doing the practice!
“So I soaped myself with love.” That mental image just made my day :D
Thanks so much. That is such a helpful teaching. Really appreciated it as I have also been having a worry about money. I made a rather foolish decision about an investment. It may not even lead to a loss in the long term, but I keep worrying about it anyway! Your teaching helped to put it in perspective. I am a daily meditator, and keep telling myself that loss, even perceived loss, is a wonderful teacher – to work with the eight worldly winds and really feel them. It is just a bit scary how tenacious this worry stuff is! I told a friend about the issue and she said: ‘This is your GOLD!’ She meant the teaching itself, the opportunity to learn from it and let go some more. Marvellous. All good wishes.