If you are a good practitioner, every step can be a healing step, a nourishing step.
There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way. — Thich Nhat Hanh
Dear Still Water Friends,
I grew up something of a schemer, in the sense that I spent a lot of time figuring out how to get things that I believed were valuable and would bring me happiness. My focus was on the ends — especially getting good grades, which mattered to my parents and often gave me enjoyable “better than” feelings. But I also wanted other things, such as recognition and certain material objects. I thirsted for anything that would make me more attractive to girls and later to women. My thinking was: If only I could get this, this, and this, life would be better. I would be happy.
I was pretty good at what I did, at least in terms of grades and achievements, but not really good at it. There were always some who were much better. Always some who seemed to easily achieve what I wanted and could not get. I tried harder. I was persistent. Outwardly I was doing pretty well. Inwardly, I was miserable.
Recollections of the scheming and unhappiness of far too many years of my life came back to me this past week as I prepared for and helped lead a workshop on volition and karma (though that was not the official title). In Buddhist psychology there is a word — cetenā in Pali and Sanskrit — which is usually translated as volition, but also as will, intent, desire, or aspiration. Emotion is a also a possible translation, especially in its original sense of that which moves us.
Cetenā, volition, occurs in each moment of our lives. The basic notion is that we receive sense impressions, and we filter the sense impressions through our dispositions or mental habits — essentially our personal, social, cultural, and genetic inheritance. Out of that brief, primarily unconscious, processing of sense experience cetenā, volition, arises. We are moved to do something, to take an an action, which might be a thought, an act of speech, or a behavior. We decide to drop out of graduate school. We complement a friend. We reach for the cookie.
The critical element Buddhist psychology adds to this analysis is that in addition to the aim of our intentions — the object of our desire — each of our volitions also carries with it other mental energies. Some are wholesome and helpful to us, others, and the world at large. Others are not. The Buddha taught that when our volitions (and therefore our actions) are permeated by the three poisons — greed, hostility, and confusion — suffering follows. And when our volitions are permeated by their opposites — generosity, loving-kindness, and clarity — happiness and joy more easily arise. The Sanskrit word karma, meaning action, is a encapsulated description of this ubiquitous and inevitable process.
My experience of the past decades is that while an intellectual understanding of volition and karma offers some relief, what really moves our lives toward more peace and joy is developing our capacity for present-moment awareness. Nourished by sitting and walking meditation, we develop incrementally the capacity to notice the karmic qualities of our volitions and actions. When we are aware of the unwholesome energies arising, we can work with them. We can make changes. We can stop. We can act in ways that nourish the wholesome energies.
Growing up, I was focused on ends. Mindfulness practice taught me the importance of means. Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step:
“There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” This means that we can realize peace right in the present moment with our look, our smile, our words, and our actions. Peace work is not a means. Each step we make should be peace. Each step we make should be joy. Each step we make should be happiness. If we are determined, we can do it. We don’t need the future. We can smile and relax. Everything we want is right here in the present moment.
During the workshop this past weekend a participant told me how a stranger helped her see the karmic energies in her actions. She was working as an electrician on a big project along with other electricians, all of whom were men. Although they spent a lot of time together on their job, she felt distanced from them. There was not much communication and little warmth. She was unhappy with the situation and didn’t know what to do. For months, on her way home, she noticed a sign a young man was holding at an intersection. She didn’t pay it much attention. And then one day she did. The sign read, “Everyone you know is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind.” She took the advice to heart. She acted with more kindness at work, and she got a different response from those she worked with. Weeks later on the way home she stopped to tell the young man how grateful she was for his sign.
This Thursday evening after our meditation period we will focus our Dharma sharing on the idea that “There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” We will begin with these questions: Has your attitude toward ends and means changed? Have you been able to bring more generosity, loving-kindness, and clarity into your everyday life?
You are invited to join us.
This week is also the first Thursday of the month, and, as is our tradition, we will offer a brief newcomer’s orientation to mindfulness practice and to the Still Water community. The orientation will begin at 6:30 pm, and participants are encouraged to stay for the evening program. If you would like to attend the orientation, it is helpful if you let us know by emailing us at info@StillWaterMPC.org.
A related perspective on ends and means by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield is below.
from An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Chris Hadfield
In space flight, “attitude” refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth and other spacecraft. If you lose control of your attitude, two things happen: the vehicle starts to tumble and spin, disorienting everyone on board, and it also strays from its course, which, if you’re short on time or fuel, could mean the difference between life and death. In the Soyuz, for example, we use every cue from every available source—periscope, multiple sensors, the horizon—to monitor our attitude constantly and adjust if necessary. We never want to lose attitude, since maintaining attitude is fundamental to success.
In my experience, something similar is true on Earth. Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude towards the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction. So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal.