Being the river

In this excerpt from the chapter on the Water Element, I discuss how water is the archetype of all change. All things flow, and we ourselves are not static and separate entities, but eddies in the stream of life.

Title: Living as a River
Author: Bodhipaksa
Publisher: Sounds True
ISBN: 978-1-59179-910-8
Available from: Sounds True,,, and

The most striking thing about the Water Element is its quality of flowing. It’s because of this characteristic that I too think of water as being the archetype of all the other elements. The Earth Element does flow, to be sure. It flows in a literal sense, as with landslides or the movement of tectonic plates—but these movements are either rare enough that they spring to mind infrequently, or they happen on timescales that are remote from our day-to-day experience. We generally expect mountains to remain where they are and the ground beneath our feet to provide a reliable support. Fire (energy) and air also flow, but these aren’t directly visible like the flow of water. On the other hand, it’s part of my everyday experience to perceive water flowing. I see water flowing from the sky, flowing along the river that passes by my house, flowing from faucets, and flowing down drains. I hear the trickle of urine on my periodic trips to the bathroom. I can feel the blood pumping in my arteries and the saliva sloshing in my mouth. This ready familiarity means that the flow of water becomes a metaphor for the other elements that compose our bodies. As the Buddha once said: “Just as a mountain stream, coming from afar, swiftly flowing, carrying along much flotsam, will not stand still for a moment, an instant, a second, but will rush on, swirl and flow forward; even so . . . is human life like a mountain stream.”

When I meditate upon the various elements entering this human form, swirling around, and passing out again, it is in fact the image of a river that most often comes to mind. Sometimes I imagine that I’m sitting next to a six-foot stretch of river that represents my self—my body, feelings, thoughts, and memories. I sit on the bank, watching the waters flow by in this length of river that represents what is myself, me, and mine. As I watch the waters roll by I’m forced to recognize that what constitutes this “me” is forever changing. What I’ve just identified as “me” is now gone, and has been replaced. This is disconcerting, and I begin to realize more and more that I constantly grasp after a kind of self-definition and try to delimit the self, as if I fear that I will be lost in the flow of the elements. The grasping becomes more conscious, the identification more obvious. Yet as I continue to reflect on the transitory nature of the elements as they pass through my form, I realize that grasping is futile. One may as well try to hold onto flowing water as to claim the elements as one’s own, or as oneself. The moment of identification is followed so closely by the moment of dis-identification that they are essentially the same moment, and the moment of grasping becomes the moment of letting go. I find myself experiencing a sense of ease, less compelled to try to grasp the ungraspable. I begin to feel liberated.

Sometimes the image is different. I imagine that I sit before a waterfall. The sheet of water is like a cinema screen, and on it is projected a photograph or movie of my body. I can see myself, and yet there is nothing static within the image. What makes up the representation of myself, what constitutes the substance, what is apparently “contained” within the image I see of myself, is not a thing but a flow, an endlessly changing current, an ever-moving wall of water. In no two moments am I the same person, because the waterfall is not the same waterfall. As with the image of the river, the contents of the form are forever being replaced. There is an appearance of substantiality—of something static—but there is no essence. And again, sitting with this image, as I continue to observe the transitoriness of my self, I have a sense that there’s nothing to grasp. Indeed I begin to sense that there’s no one to do any grasping, since it’s my self that is void of substance.

Being the River

Early in my introduction to Buddhist practice, I had an opportunity to participate in a puja, the collective chanting of some inspirational and philosophical texts. Most of what I heard went straight over my head because I found the idiom foreign and the concepts abstruse. But it was one of the more baffling texts that I also found most intriguing: a work called the Heart Sutra. The Heart Sutra is so named because it explains the core philosophical teaching of the Mahayana school: a teaching known as shunyata, or emptiness. Actually, the word “explains” is not entirely accurate because of the highly paradoxical nature of the text, which combines two different perspectives on the world in order to illuminate the self’s indefinable nature. And so we
have statements such as:

Form is emptiness,
Emptiness is form.
Form is only emptiness,
Emptiness is only form.

This kind of statement is in effect saying, “Look we have something we call a ‘self’ (which includes a ‘form’ or body), but when we look closely at that self we find that it lacks (or is empty of) the characteristics we assume it to have: characteristics such as permanence and separateness. The self is made up of stuff that is/was/will be ‘not self.’ And when we say it is ‘made up’ of this not-self stuff, that’s not to imply that it’s static. The not-self stuff that makes up the self is simply flowing through.” As you’ll see, it’s hard to talk about the Heart Sutra, or the teaching of emptiness, without lapsing into the same kind of paradoxical talk it employs.

The words of the Heart Sutra rattled around in my young mind (I was in my early twenties at the time, and coming toward the end of a grueling degree in veterinary medicine), both fascinating and frustrating me. To some extent I intellectually understood the teachings it summarized, but I knew that a direct appreciation of the teachings eluded me. It was as if I’d been studying the geography of France in textbooks but had never set foot on the country’s soil. Then, one day, as I was hoeing a patch of ground in the West End of Glasgow (I was spending part of my summer vacation working in a Buddhist gardening cooperative), an image appeared to me that explained the Heart Sutra in a way that went deeper than mere intellectual appreciation. I hadn’t exactly set foot in France, but it was if I’d found myself flying low over the French countryside, finally getting a clear view of it through a gap in the clouds. It was a direct experience, albeit a brief and distant one.

The image involved water. Specifically, I had an inner vision of an eddy in a river. Like many boys who had access to country streams, I’d grown up fascinated by water—the way it flows, its textures, its sounds, and the way in which it ultimately defied all my attempts with dams made of mud and stone and branches to hold back its flow.

Eddies particularly fascinated me. I was intrigued by how they held their form in the midst of constant motion, and by the fact that it was their motion that allowed that form to exist. It’s also quite astonishing that water can have a hole in it, which is essentially what an eddy is—a restless hole in the water.

An eddy never holds exactly the same form for two consecutive moments, but there is often a relative constancy of location and shape that give it, to the human mind, a sense of permanence. The kind of relatively static eddy that forms at the edge of a stream looks more or less the same over a period of time. It may change, but I have a sense that it is the same eddy. The mind in fact names this thing “the eddy,” implicitly assuming that this eddy is a “thing.” But when I look more closely, what do I see? There is no clear boundary to the eddy. Where does it stop and the river begin? It’s impossible to say.

Although I still perceive a form there, it’s a form without a boundary or, to put it paradoxically, a form without a form. Even wondering where the eddy stops and the river begins implies an assumption that the eddy and the river are in some way separate, as if the eddy could be extracted from the river. That of course is nonsense, but it’s a nonsense that in some way my mind creates by regarding “river” as one thing and “eddy” as another. Even if I edit the question to read, “Where does the eddy stop and the rest of the river begin?” there’s still a mental sense of separation that I find impossible to avoid. The fission of the concept of a river into “eddy” and “rest of the river” inevitably implies a real division. I can’t help but look for the eddy’s edge, and every time I fail.

What’s the eddy made of? Obviously it’s made of the same stuff as the rest of the river—water. But just as Heraclitus’s river isn’t the same river in two separate moments because the waters that form it have changed, so—and for the same reason—is the eddy not the same eddy in two consecutive moments. Do we then have a succession of eddies, one following another in rapid succession? If I assume this then I’m forced to ask when one eddy ends and the next begins, and I’m faced with the same situation that I encounter when I look for the eddy’s edge. I’m looking for boundaries in a situation where there is only continuity. Our imagined eddy has an apparent form, but that form, when we look for it, is elusive; the eddy is not permanent and neither does it have any separateness, even though my mind expects to find both of these characteristics.

All of this came to me, as I was gardening, in a few brief moments, rather like a bolt of lightning; and it occurred to me that the metaphor encapsulated what the Heart Sutra was expressing, and that this applied to all forms, including ourselves. I too am a kind of eddy in the flow of elements. I have an apparent form, but that form has neither permanence nor separateness. The eddy that I call myself is made up of stuff that is not-self, and that “not-self stuff” is simply flowing. When I look for the boundary between myself and the world, I can’t find one. When I look for some defining “stuff” that is in me and constitutes the essence of me, I can’t find that either, because everything is in motion. I can see my self, but I can’t pin down what it is. My self seems to be indefinable.

Excerpted with permission from Living as a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change, by Bodhipaksa (Sounds True, October 2010)

Read More

Do you know where you’re going to? The Teaching of Guru Garth

There is a profound teaching in the movie Wayne’s World. When asked by the evil Benjamin “How do you feel about making a change?”, Wayne’s friend and side-kick Garth responds in a deadpan voice “We fear change.” It’s a popular part of the movie, with thousands of references to it online, and like many jokes it has a significant truth at its heart.

We really do fear change. We don’t know what change may bring us, and for many people that fear of the unknown is so strong that it not only stifles their growth and development, it keeps them in abusive relationships or jobs that they hate. For many people the security of the familiar, however unpleasant, appears preferable to the uncertainty of change.

I recently took part in some training on the Solution Focus coaching methodology OSKAR, and I was very struck by the way that this approach is particularly effective in working to overcome our innate fear of the unknown.

As you’ve probably guessed, OSKAR is an acronym, and the O stands for Outcome. (I don’t intend to explore the whole methodology here, you can follow the links if you’d like to know what the other letters stand for.) In OSKAR, Outcome has two aspects:

• clarification of what the client wants to achieve, both overall and within the context of the particular coaching session (known as Building the Platform)

• imagining a Future Perfect, in which a miracle has taken place and the desired outcome has been fully achieved (in Solution Focus this is known as the Miracle Question)

In demonstrations of the OSKAR approach I was struck by the way a whole session could focus almost exclusively on clarifying what the client wanted to achieve. Sometimes we’re so hung up on what we don’t want in our current situation, that it’s hard to see through to what we do want instead. Just gaining this clarity about the desired goal can be all that we need – a strategy and the imperative to act seems to naturally emerge from it.

Of course different people have different responses to the idea of change, and different responses to life itself. In Buddhist psychology a simple distinction is made between what are traditionally known as ‘greed types’ and ‘hate types’. I usually explain this by asking people to imagine a buffet table at a party or event. A greed type will approach the table and have an internal discourse along the lines of “Ooh look, mushroom vol-au-vents, I like those … and there’s some nice looking samosas … oh, and look at the puddings!” because he (or she) pays attention to the aspects of their situation that they find attractive.

In contrast, a hate type’s inner discourse will be much more along the lines of “I hate eating standing up … and I can’t eat chicken wings … and look they’ve put celery in the salad, I can’t stand celery … and those puddings are really fattening”, because they pay attention to the aspects of the situation that they dislike.

When they look at the future, greed types and hates types imagine very different things: greed types get excited and enthusiastic about all the things they’re looking forward to, and hate types worry about how everything might go wrong! Greed types are natural optimists and hate types are inveterate pessimists, and as the pioneer of positive psychology Martin Seligman points out in Learned Optimism, optimists live longer, healthier, happier lives – albeit with an occasional tendency to naivety and seeing life through overly ‘rose-coloured spectacles’.

Of course I’m exaggerating the differences here to emphasise a point. We are all greed types and hate types to different degrees at different times, depending on circumstances and how well-resourced we are. Nevertheless this simple model can be one of many useful lenses to look at our habits and help to address our resistances to change.

Useful though the OSKAR methodology can be, the importance of clarifying your goal is fundamental to change of any kind. It’s not a new observation, but we seem to need reminding of it again and again. Back in the 1940s the Hindu teacher Swami Ramdas was unequivocal: “although many embark on a path of spiritual development few make progress because most lack a clear idea of the goal they wish to reach, and they also lack a clear idea of how to get there.”

If you don’t like where you are now, then be careful to clarify where you’re trying to go at the very start of the journey, otherwise fear of the unknown may undermine your ability to get anywhere at all.

Read More

Relationships: your emotional signature

pen, accompanied by a paperclip bent into the shape of a heart

How do we get unstuck from our emotional patterns so we can respond to our experiences spontaneously? Ponlop Rinpoche explains how awareness and acceptance can help us out of our emotional ruts.

You would certainly recognize your signature on a piece of paper, but do you know your own emotional signature? We all have one. It’s our predictable way of reacting to situations. Your friends probably recognize your emotional signature better than you do. When you get into a fight with your partner, for example, they can predict just how it will go. They know if you’re likely to slam a door, storm out of the house, or call your mother. They know if you’ll be processing the argument for days or immediately shut down and clam up. How do they know so much? They know because they’ve seen it all before. Our behavior may seem spontaneous to us, but to those who know us, we’re not too surprising.

We may not like to admit it, but we’re creatures of habit.

Why don’t we pay more attention to understanding our own patterns? We may have a solid financial plan worked out that will buy us a house, pay for our kids’ college and our retirement, but we don’t give much thought to getting the most benefit out of one of the most precious resources for happiness — our emotions. Often, we just leave it to chance.

We may not like to admit it, but we’re creatures of habit. We have our daily routines all worked out. It’s how we keep our busy lives simple and convenient. We don’t have to decide every day whether we’ll walk to work, take the bus, or drive. We even fall in love and handle our relationships in predictable ways. Just as we have our daily routines, we have habits of thought and feeling that keep our emotional life simple. We don’t have to guess who’s going to pay the bills and who’s going to spend most of the money (although we may talk about it a lot). We have our own special ways of telling our partner, “I’m annoyed with you, don’t talk to me,” or “I’m bored, so I’m not really hearing anything you’re saying.”

In spite of all the challenges they pose, there’s nothing wrong with having emotions.

When we’re hurt, scared, furious, or jealous, we don’t have to figure out how to show it. Our emotional triggers are set; they go off in the same ways again and again, carrying us to the same places every time. If we have a habit of blaming, we accuse. If we have a habit of withdrawing, we disappear. If we have a habit of controlling, we threaten. Everyone else we know may be able to predict how our patterns will play out, but we’re often blind to the process. Even when we can predict how we’ll react, it usually doesn’t change the outcome. There’s a popular saying that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. We resist the idea that this anger or this jealousy isn’t justified. We may not like it, but we don’t see how to avoid pulling the trigger.

In spite of all the challenges they pose, there’s nothing wrong with having emotions. Emotions are a fundamental part of who you are — an expression of your basic intelligence and creative energy. When you can explore and get to know them without reacting immediately to their energy, they can be a source of wisdom and compassion. They can open your mind and your heart. They can lead you beyond your habitual patterns into new emotional territory. They can teach you generosity, patience, and courage. It’s only when you don’t allow yourself to feel your emotions or when you distort their energy that you can get into trouble with them.

If we’re going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state.

When we operate primarily on the basis of our habitual patterns, we run into problems. At the first flash of emotion, we move so quickly into our habitual ways that we completely miss that first moment. It was so authentic — it could have told us so much. But we never even saw it or felt it. We’ve already lost touch with the fresh, creative energy at the core of our being and skipped to our usual way of expressing our anger or jealousy. The regrettable words have been said, the door has been slammed.

We’re also very judgmental of our emotions. If we think they’re too raw, if we think they’re impolite, we try to dress them up with positive thoughts and make them more respectable. When we manipulate our feelings this way, consciously or unconsciously, we’re trying to get them to match up with our familiar emotional signature. But that’s just another way to lose our connection to their vitality and wisdom.

The Message of our Emotions

If our partner hurts our feelings, offends us or shocks us, we can’t even name the intense emotions we feel at first. The feelings haven’t yet formed into anger or any other solid emotion. For a moment, we’re suspended in a space of pure openness, where anything is possible. If we can just stop and remain in that space for a moment — without any answers or judgments — we have a chance to connect with the wakeful qualities of our emotions and hear their message. Especially in crises of the heart, our emotions are the first responders, but if we jump to conclusions too soon, it’s like we’re ignoring their instructions. They’re trying to tell us which pathways are clear, and where the emergency exits are (this way to insight, that way to humor — and if all else fails, leave before you do something you’ll regret). If we don’t pause and listen to our emotions, we might just end up running back and forth inside a burning building.

We don’t have change everything … we can take one small step at a time towards waking up in the present moment.

If we’re going to understand ourselves, much less another person, we have to look beneath our patterns and face our emotions in their natural, undisguised state. When we’re stuck at the level of our habitual dramas, it’s like going through the day half awake, barely conscious of the world’s brilliance. Some part of us may like this half-asleep state, where nothing is too bright, too energetic, or too unknown. But another part of us can hardly wait to be free, to take a chance, to see what’s on the other side of the mountain.

How do we get unstuck from these patterns so we can respond to our experiences spontaneously?

We don’t have change everything about who we are and what we do. We just have to bring awareness to our thoughts and emotional reactions. We can take one small step at a time towards waking up in the present moment. That’s where we hear a note of music and feel its life force. It’s where we enjoy a laugh, soothe our aches and pains, and feel our heart opening.

Everyone’s emotional signature is different, but we all share the experience of being alive. We all know the joys and sorrows of love and hate, hope and fear, altruism and self-centeredness. And we all instinctively know that life, despite all its challenges, is precious. So, it just makes sense to look into the life we have and find ways to make it as meaningful and happy as possible After all, we don’t throw money away or put artwork in the trash with our junk mail! We take great care of our personal assets, and one of our most valuable and misunderstood resources is our emotions. To become free of the unhappiness they can cause in our relationships, we only have to respect and accept our emotions, moment by moment, and be willing to work with them.

Read More

John Dewey: “The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of action.”

John Dewey

Dewey’s saying echoes Buddhist notions of impermanence and not-self. Bodhipaksa points out that the Buddhist position is not merely descriptive of how things are. Rather it amounts to a technology of happiness — a set of perspectives and tools that allows us to create more deeply fulfilling lives.

One of the most crippling — and often unacknowledged — beliefs we can have is that the self is something fixed and unchanging. When we have the idea that our personalities are set like words carved in stone the possibility of change is closed off to us.

A mountaineering friend of mine once commented that when coming down a hill you were faced with innumerable choices about whether to go to the left or right of a particular rock. The very first choice you make conditions all the others, but every single choice you make shapes the route of descent. Depending on the choices you make, you can end up where you wanted to be, or miles away from there. You can end up safe, or you can end up in grave danger.

Choices that in themselves may not amount to much cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

I see this principle in action in my own life all the time. I’m always making choices that in themselves may not seem to amount to much, but which cumulatively create very different experiences of life.

Now often when people talk about choices they think about the big things in life, like choosing a job or a life partner. Or often people think about trivial things like which breakfast cereal they’re going to have. But the choices I’m talking about making are generally not huge. Usually they are tiny decisions about things, like how I’m going to respond to a particular thought that has popped into my head. That thought that’s critical of a co-worker, will I spin it into a story about his failings, or will I just let it go? That fearful thought that tells me the article I’m writing isn’t going to be interesting, am I going to believe those doubts or will I let them pass by and throw myself into the act of creation? These aren’t major life-style choices, although they do matter. They affect my moment-by-moment sense of well-being, and they affect whether my life feels like play or like drudgery.

It’s because paying attention to these choices makes a difference to my well-being that they’re important. There are some choices we make — which cereal we’re having for breakfast, whether to wear the gray or the black socks — that really have no significant effect on our lives, although sometimes we put a lot of energy into such decisions, perhaps to divert ourselves from more important issues.

Just as with coming down a mountain, the accumulation of small decisions can lead us to very different places. When my two-year-old has a tantrum, do I lose my temper with her and try to use aggressive control to force her to do what I want, or can I find a more gentle and compassionate response that gives her reassurance and models a more mature form of self-control? What happens in those moments where we are faced with a screaming toddler turn out very differently depending on what mental habits we’ve developed.

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves

Over the course of a lifetime, we can radically reshape ourselves. I’ve seen people go from being crippled with anxiety to being confident leaders. I’ve seen people go from being prickly and aggressive to being friendly and loving. You might think a lifetime is a long time for change to come about. Surely there’s a faster way? Some new therapy or psychological tool that can bring about change in a weekend? It’s true that sometimes we can change rapidly — I’ve known some people to go from “difficult” to “mellow” in just a few weeks of meditation — but while that can happen the greater danger is that we’ll spend our entire lives looking for a quick fix rather than changing ourselves in a slow and steady way. Looking for quick change we end up making no change.

To be able to make the choices that allow for growth, that allow for the creation of a more meaningful and satisfying life, we need to have mindfulness. Without mindfulness we’re largely unaware that there even are choices to be made. Without mindfulness we simply respond habitually to our lives and there’s no possibility of change. We need to be able to stand back from ourselves, pause, and consider what’s the best way to respond.

We also need a degree of insight. Insight’s nothing magical — it comes from observing ourselves and realizing, for example, that losing our temper generally makes things worse, while being patient generally makes things better. Insight can also come from listening to other people who have made a bit more progress in working with themselves than we ourselves have done. At the very least we need to have a general sense of how we can tell the difference between impulses that are likely to create unhappiness and those are are going to lead to well-being and harmony.

We can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process…

We need patience as well. We all work within limitations. We may have strongly developed habits of unhelpful behaviors that have taken years to build up. We’re not going to be able to change those habits overnight. But we don’t have to. In going down the mountain we don’t leap from the summit down to the base; instead we simply take each rock as it appears in front of us, and decide whether we’re going to go to the left or the right. And we do that over and over again. Sometimes — often even — we’ll make the wrong choice, or fail to make a choice at all. But there will be plenty of other rocks for us to maneuver around. If I lose my temper I then have the opportunity to respond to that situation creatively — for example by letting go of my pride, by apologizing, by making amends, and by resolving to be more aware in the future.

All this amounts to what we could call a “technology of happiness” — a set of tools that allows us to transform our lives, moment by moment, into something creative, joyful, and filled with meaning.

Eventually we can come to the realization that the self is not a thing but a process, or rather a parallel series of interconnected processes. When we look at ourselves we don’t see a “thing” that needs to be changes, but multiple interwoven streams of matter, sensation, emotion, thought, and habit — each of which is already and always changing. We can realize that the problem is not bringing about change, but lies in shaping the direction of change. This is a liberating realization. Not only do we experience a sense of freedom from the idea of a fixed self, but we realize that there is nothing holding us back from further change — and there never was.

Read More

Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

Antoine de Saint Exupéry

A common misquotation of a saying by a famous French writer gives Bodhipaksa pause for thought: are both the misquotation and the original saying true, even if they’re saying opposite things?

“No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected. To live is to be slowly born.”
— Antoine de Saint Exupéry (1900-1944).

Antoine de Saint Exupéry was a famous French aviator and writer who most notably wrote the children’s fable, The Little Prince and who died when his plane crashed in the Mediterranean while on an Allied surveillance mission over France during World War II. His writings are deeply philosophical, poetic, and charming.

Interestingly, this quotation from his memoir, Pilote de Guerre (“Flight to Arras”), more often appears in English-language websites (and even in several books of quotations) in a mangled form: “A single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected”* rather than “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

The misquotation thus reverses the meaning of Saint Exupéry’s original statement, but still manages on the face of it to be true. (At my more cynical moments I wonder whether perhaps the secret of being deeply poetic and philosophical is to make statements that, when reversed, are still meaningful).

Let’s look at that reversal: “A single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected.”

The experience that’s known as “conversion” or “awakening” or “spiritual rebirth” or “realization” or “the arising of insight” can certainly be imagined as a single event, and in such events we find that a new being has manifested within us. We have changed, suddenly, and sometimes irrevocably. We see a new aspect of ourselves. Our being has become reoriented around a new insight, a new meaning. The purpose of our life has changed. We have new values, new priorities. We have changed so radically that there has awoken within us a stranger whose existence was previously unsuspected. Hence the mangled statement appears to be true.

But Saint Exupéry’s point in saying “no single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected” was not that sudden changes do not occur. In the passage following in his memoir he acknowledges in fact that this does happen: “Sometimes a sudden illumination seems indeed to propel a destiny in a new direction,” for example (Une illumination soudaine semble parfois faire bifurquer une destinée).

His point rather was that these “sudden illuminations” are not random events. They may appear to come from nowhere, but in fact they have their causes. They may appear to be single events but rather they are the culmination of an inextricably linked chain of events and causes. And what are those causes?

The answer lies in “To live is to be slowly born” (Vivre, c’est naître lentement). Living is the cause of awakening, or more precisely it is a certain kind of living that leads to awakening, or “sudden illumination.” It is living with mindfulness that leads to the creation of sudden illuminations and the revelation of new destinies.

When we live mindfully we do two things: we are more conscious in the moment of choice, and we open the channels of communication to a deeper level of wisdom of which we are not normally conscious while caught up in the fray of day-to-day living.

In living mindfully we are more conscious in the moment of choice. First we become more aware that there are actually choices to be made. Mindfulness creates, or perhaps better reveals, a gap between stimulus and response. In every moment we perceive sensations, thoughts, feelings, and emotions, and we habitually respond to these.

Perceiving in another person a neutral face or a frown when we expected a smile leads to a proliferation of thoughts and feelings. We start to wonder what we’ve done wrong, what kind of trouble we’re in. We perhaps start, depending on temperament, to plan how to get our retaliation in first or how best to placate the other person.

With mindfulness, however, we simply perceive the other person not smiling as expected, and we experience a feeling that’s not entirely pleasant. We notice that feeling and then we pause. Mindfulness creates a gap, and in that gap we realize there is a choice. We are aware of the habitual impulses described above, but we are also aware that we don’t have to act those habits out. We realize that we can call on other perspectives within which we can view the situation: we can wonder, perhaps, whether the other person is feeling all right. Lovingkindness has arisen. We can decide to ask them how they’re doing. Compassion has manifested.

In stepping out of the cycle of stimulus followed by mindless response, we have created a gap, and not only have we created a space in which we can choose how to respond, but we have created a gap through which the light of wisdom and compassion can shine, from within.

Sometimes, just sometimes, what shines forth through the gap is a complete surprise to us. We realize truths that we’d never before suspected. We see things in a new way. We discover that we are not who we thought we were. There is a stranger living within us, unsuspected, and little by little we are being united with him or her. The “Buddha within” is, moment by moment, choice by choice, action by action, becoming us. And in some of those moments there appears through the gap a great surge of wisdom and compassion, and we have become the stranger, or at least we have become a great deal more like the stranger, who lives within.

This is illumination. This is the arising of Insight. This is spiritual rebirth, or conversion. And “illumination “is but the sudden sighting, by the soul, of a path long under preparation” (Mais l’illumination n’est que la vision soudaine, par l’Esprit, d’une route longuement préparée). That path consists of moments of mindfulness, a myriad of single events, of tiny awakenings that lead to the birth of a new us.

[* Author’s note: Actually, the translation into English, lifted direct from Lewis Galantiere’s translation of Pilote de Guerre, is usually “No [or a] single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us” but I found this neither elegant nor entirely faithful to the original French, and so I retranslated the phrase as “No single event can awaken within us a stranger whose existence we had never suspected” (Aucune circonstance ne réveille en nous un étranger dont nous n’aurions rien soupçonné).]
Read More