In beginning any spiritual path it is important to fully recognize what it is that propels us to undertake the journey. What is it that brings us to take up a path of practice, any practice? It is important for each one of us to clarify this question in depth so that it can become a guide, a reminder, a foothold for those times when our spiritual journey is difficult or confusing.
Some of us step onto the path of practice because we believe that deep down we are flawed, wrong, bad, or just not good enough in some way. Maybe we are struggling with personal emotional difficulties or our life seems empty or meaningless. Many of us experience terribly isolation and feel an unease that seems to pervade our lives so thoroughly that at times our heart breaks and we wonder is this all there is.
To acknowledge the truth of this unease in our lives is considered an ennobling truth in Buddhism. Once it is acknowledged then we can seek a cure. In the early texts the original pali word for this unease is dukkha. One etymology of the word dukkha can be ‘Du’ meaning difficult and ‘Kha’ meaning hole, specifically the empty axel hole of a wheel. Our experience of dukkha can be compared to that of grit embedded in the grease that lubricates the smooth turning of the axle as the wheel revolves. Take a moment and sit with that image in your body. In your imagining feel the axle as it turns, as the wheel revolves and the cart moves along. Something is not quite right. There is an irritant. That ‘forever’ relationship finishes. People disappoint us and the experiences or objects we thought would bring us happiness turn out to be unreliable and unsatisfactory. Even when things seems to be going well we are uneasy. Our life is bumpy.
Sometimes our strategies for dealing with this pervading dukkka are temporarily successful but inevitably we wake up one morning and it has resurfaced. Finally we admit defeat and we stop running. We acknowledge the pervasiveness of this unease in our lives and that our attempts to assuage the feeling have all been to no avail. With this stopping a door in the darkness opens and our spirit beckons. A voice, an intuition, stirs deep within. If we are lucky we respond and our spiritual search is ignited. We take action. Take a moment now and sit quietly. Be still and open your senses. Bring your attention to the One who hears with these ears, who sees with these eyes. Let the separation between self and other become transparent, like something in a dream. Know, deep in your bones, that from the very beginning you are perfect and complete. This is the truth that spirit reveals and that a path of practice can lead us to realize personally.
For most of us it seems we have to travel a well worn path to put this unease to rest, to awaken to this great source which is the root of our life. Without a path our way can remain murky and unclear. At first we don’t know how to take that initial step and so we search.
The great Sufi master Mullah Nasruddin was on his hands and knees searching for something under a streetlamp. A man saw him and asked, “What are you looking for?” “My house key,” Nasruddin replied. “I lost it.” The man joined him in looking for the key, and after a period of fruitless searching, the man asked, “Are you sure you lost it around here?” Nasruddin replied, “Oh, I didn’t lose it around here. I lost it over there, by my house.” “Then why,” the man asked, “are you looking for it over here?” “Because,” Nasruddin said, “The light is so much better over here.”
This story can be seen as a great example of how we can fall at the first entrypoint to our journey. Let us not be afraid of the dark, of the unknown. Be aware of the ease of falling into old patterns of behavior in our search. Perhaps, instead of been dazzled and distracted by the various novelties as we have been in the past now we are dazzled and distracted by the dharma, by spirituality. It is the same craving habit pattern but now has a different name. For years we may do nothing but devour dharma books or listen to teachings and teachers endlessly. We accumulate knowledge instead of bracing ourselves to step out into the darkness, into the uncharted territory of an actual practice. Don’t let the fear of the unknown hold you back. Be a beginner. Choose a practice, keep one eye open and establish a relationship with a spiritual friend. Receive some guidance and begin. It’s good to first learn how to settle the busy mind. Take up a practice such as sussokan, gently bringing all of your attention to your breath. Count woo……n. on each exhalation uniting body and mind. Each breath just this one. Breath after breath. When your attention wanders bring it back to one. Senses wide open, letting everything just be one. Sit regularly, daily if possible. Cultivate your concentration. When you have established some stability of mind then take up a practice that leads to insight such as ‘raising the mind of great questioning’ with this koan of Zen Master Bassui.
If you would free yourself of the suffering of samsara, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realization of your own Mind. Now what is this Mind? It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born and hence before our own birth, and which presently exists, unchangeable and eternal. . .This Mind is intrinsically pure. When we are born it is not newly created, and when we die it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It cannot be compared with anything, so it is called Buddha-nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this Self-nature as waves arise in the ocean or as images are reflected in a mirror.
If you want to realize you own Mind, you must first of all look into the source from which thoughts flow. Sleeping and working, standing and sitting, profoundly ask yourself, “What is my own Mind?” with an intense yearning to resolve this question.” Bassui
For some the practice of ‘turning the light around and shining back’ might resonate more. Here we turn the light of awareness around and trace its radiance back to its source. Instead of focusing on the objects of awareness we cast our attention on the one who see, the one who hears. The mahamudra texts tell us to rest in this looking and look in this resting. Senses wide open. Who is looking? Who is resting? You can also take up one of the more traditional koans or an awareness practice with a guide who is trained in this type of practice. There are many skillful means to develop insight so find one you resonate with and begin the journey. Develop patience. Let us be careful that the voice of our aspiration or our desire to awaken does not turn into a bully. Most of us bring too much tension to our search, to our practice, to our bodies, and our path becomes one of self striving rather than one of relaxing into the vast treasure house that is the present experiencing of this one breath, this feeling tone, this sense gate, this koan. If we are the type that tends to relax too much, erring on the side of sloth, or in believing that there is nothing to do and we just sit here distracted or dazed, then it is good to tighten things up a bit. Bring some attention to our motivation, our body and our mind. Remember what brought you to practice in the first place. Use your intelligence to rouse your energy. Remind yourself as it says in the Zen evening chants, that time passes quickly by. For a while our practice may move between these two poles and it is important to find our own way in the midst of them letting go of feelings of shame or failure or complacency. How we learn to do this is part of our journey. We may walk similar paths on our path to awakening but each individual’s journey will always be unique. Trust yourself. Experiment. See what works.
Once we have settled onto a path and learnt to truly relax deep into our practice, various experiences will naturally arise. Times of great confusion and doubt along with feelings of great peace. We can experience times when there is just the breath, just the question, just the sound. States that feel tranquil, vast and peaceful and when we emerge from our meditation periods we feel refreshed. The silence seduces us. It feels like something is happening. There will be times when we experience a oneness with the universe. A sense of unity. A spacious awareness. Do not let yourself be seduced into thinking this is the end of our path. These experiences arise through causes and conditions and when the necessary conditions are absent they disappear. It is a good sign that our practice is progressing but in the end they are still conditioned states of mind. Let go of them. Release your grasping mind and then in one timeless moment you will awaken to the root-source of this vast life – this great treasure house that you are. Having returned home for the first time you emerge deeply changed with an embodied knowing that your being and everything around you is rooted in and is an expression of that which is vast, unborn and unconditioned. Your heart is open. You have entered the stream of awakening and your practice, joyfully, begins anew.
In your practice remember the story of the Buddha who practiced under many meditation teachers and mastered many meditation techniques. But none of them answered his questions. Then he recalled that once when he was a child he sat under a tree and fell into a deep concentration paying attention to his breath. He took this simple practice as his guide and the rest, as we say, unfolded. There are many lessons in this story for us. It is frequently used to illustrate the importance of focusing upon the breath as a first step in building up concentration and stability but I find the reminder to trust what felt natural to him to be the most instructive here. The tradition, the teachings and teachers can only be at best guides, pointers in a direction. It is easy to make a prison out of our instruction and the many techniques of meditation turning them into vehicles for striving and subtle repression or escape rather than an path of entrusting into the root of impermanence that is our life as it flows in each ungraspable moment.
Trust that you are always held in the arms of this Great Buddha Life and keep your practice honest. In our desperation sometimes we hang our common sense on the coat hook at the entranceway of the path and we are seduced by the figure of the teacher. Old personal wounds can reappear on our practice path and we find ourselves idealizing traditions or teachers in a blurred attempt to heal these wounds. Sadly we may even find a guide who falls into this transference and both people become lost.
At the end of the day this is about you! There is no-one to impress here. No one to approve you. Keep your question and your aspiration alive until your doubts are truly settled and you know you have found what you are seeking. Learn to fully be this ungraspable wave on the vast ocean that is your life. Stay true to that which inspired you to begin this path. Choose a way and then give it time. Again, be patient.
So please, take up a practice and follow it into the unknown. When you step into the darkness, the unknown that surrounds and pervades all, then you will see that it is mysteriously radiant. Your unease is resolved. Your questions are answered. You will see that each thing shines with this light. Be diligent and continue on your path until you see this Mind. Practice until you come to know this light that you are.