Sunday, March 22, 2009

True Nature

"The capacity of the mind is so great, it’s like space…In this world of ours, space has room for the sun and the moon and the stars, the earth and its mountains and rivers, every plant and tree, bad people and good people, bad teachings and good teachings, heavens and hells. All this exists in space. The emptiness of our nature is also like this….Our nature contains the ten thousand dharmas (things). That’s how great it is. "

The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Ancestor, trans: Red Pine

Right now I’m sitting in a motel room in Barstow, California, deep in the Mohave desert. I just made myself a cup of tea, and as I sip it I’m remembering Spirit Rock, and the many times during my month of silence this February that I sat on the bench in front of the dining hall with a cup of tea warming my hands, looking over the hills to the sky beyond. How much I appreciated each sip, how much I appreciated the sky and clouds as they changed, the echoes with other retreats when I had sat on that same bench, the breeze against my face.

In some ways, that’s all that happened for that month of silence. I sipped cups of tea, I sat in my room with my breath, I walked the beautiful open hills, I listened to birds. Sometimes I walked in rain, sometimes in sunlight. Sometimes my mind was clear and light and easy, sometimes cloudy. I could just leave it at that, and it would be accurate. At the end of a retreat, the teachers advise that if someone asks you about your retreat, just smile and say, “It was great.” That’s all people want to know anyway. But I want to say more, at the risk of saying less, because the gifts that come from retreat feel beyond the personal. They’re glimpses into what it means to be human, what we really are, what our minds can know and hold, what is possible.

The quote above is from a teaching given in 8th century China by a great Zen teacher, Hui-Neng. The teaching was so inspiring and encouraging and powerful that it has been read and memorized and quoted for the last twelve hundred years or so, in China, Vietnam, Korea, Japan, and now the West. It sounds lofty and abstract, but I think he’s just talking about something as close as this mind, right now. Space is nothing special, but it can hold everything. The human mind seems confused, but it can hold everything too: heavens and hells, happiness and sadness, birdsong and the sky and the gritty feel of sand in the palm. That’s what I saw, in this month of silence – not “saw” in the sense of “intellectually understood”, but “saw” in the sense of “directly experienced”. And it came through an unlikely teacher: pain.

Those who know me know that I’ve wrestled with a chronic illness for a long time. One of the symptoms, when the illness is active, is severe body pain, like the pain of a high fever. I was in pain when the retreat started, and for about half the time I was there. Strong pain while in silence can be quite overwhelming, because there’s no distraction, no buffer between the mind and the pain – no book to read, no movie to watch, no telephone to pick up to call a friend. I’ve left retreats because the pain was too strong and my misery was too great. But developing a relationship with the illness and with pain is important, because it’s part of my life, not anything I can push away or pretend isn’t there, and I wanted to see if something other than misery was possible.

In the first few days, I wondered whether I would have to leave. I wasn’t sure I could be in silence and hurt that much. My mind felt like a white-water river, tumultuous and frightened. But as the days passed and my mind settled, I could feel myself getting calmer and wider and happier, like that same river when it comes out of the mountains and on to the plains.

I remembered a teaching by Darlene Cohen, the author of Turning Suffering Inside Out. Darlene has had rheumatoid arthritis for thirty years, and is also a Zen teacher. One of her teachings is, “Find what doesn’t hurt, what is pleasant. That’s there too.” When we’re in pain we tend to lock on to the pain, to close down around it, but at the same time that there’s pain, there’s also sweetness – the warmth of a cup of tea, the softness of fabric against the skin – and if we’re not careful we’ll miss the sweetness altogether, lost in our bad dream. When we open up a little, there’s room for pain and pleasure, sweetness and suffering, and that changes our relationship to both.

At the same time, one of the teachers at the retreat gave a talk on a traditional Buddhist teaching about how we relate to sense experiences. Basically, every time we have a sense experience – seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, thinking – right away there’s one of three possible visceral responses to it: we like it, we don’t like it, or we’re not sure whether we like it or don’t like it. That response is almost hard-wired, although we can grow to like things we once disliked, and grow to dislike things we once liked.

What usually happens is that we miss the moment of that visceral response, and go immediately to trying to get more of it (ice cream, for instance), or less of it (physical pain, for instance). This activity actually takes up a lot of our waking energy. Traditionally it’s taught that if you can just see that initial response in a neutral way (“Oh, this is unpleasant”), without going into the cascade of “Oh, make this go away”, there’s the possibility of freedom, right in that moment.

So I applied both those teachings to the physical pain I was experiencing: I opened up my senses to the things that were happening that weren’t painful, and I just noticed when something was pleasant or unpleasant. And, miracle of miracles, I found freedom, right in the midst of the pain. I found that I could know that pain was happening without contracting around it and desperately wanting it to go away, and that the experience of not contracting was actually joyful. I could be in pain, notice the light through the leaves of the tree, feel happiness in my heart, and sip a cup of tea. Room for everything, just as Hui-Neng said. The mind vast like the sky. What a discovery.

And the strange thing was that the pain itself responded, and instead of staying steady day in and day out, it would come and go, as if it was also more free, now that I wasn’t clenched around it. And whatever it was doing, I was OK. More than OK. Really happy.

I had a dream, while I was there, that I was in a high wind, and the wind was buffeting me and pelting me with stones and silt, but my mind was peaceful and steady, even in the middle of the chaos and roar of the wind. To know that it’s possible to be peaceful in the high winds of life, and not just when things are easy ….that’s freedom.

And it’s not just possible for people who spend months in meditation. People who spend months in meditation are like astronauts going to the moon or oceanographers diving deep in the ocean – they do it for the rest of us. We may never do those things, but what they learn about the nature of the universe opens us up to new possibilities. I learned a little about my own nature, which is the same as yours – and now I offer it to you.

“In your dark
house of afflictions
keep the
sun of wisdom shining”

The Platform Sutra


  1. Florence,
    Thanks for the gift of your insights. What a blessing.

  2. Florence - your writing touches me, again. I'm not suffering in the same way with chronic physical pain, but I can certainly identify with many of the ways I habitually react to pain of any sort. Thank you for sharing your experience and your insights. I am inspired, and will be working to remember and practice (yes, PRACTICE) the freedom you describe! ~ Karen JOY