The Exquisite Risk

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Dear Still Water Friends,

Recently I found myself reexamining my sense of safe ledges for an uncertain reality and felt what seemed might be a handhold. I’d turned to Mark Nepo’s The Exquisite Risk, a book I was drawn to in a Tuesday evening Dharma discussion in Gaithersburg.

For much of my life I’ve held to this marked, sometimes wavering and yet hauntingly unshakable sense. Sharon Salzberg sums it up for me this way: “Whatever takes us to our edge, to our outer limits, leads us to the heart of life’s mystery.” To me, that sounds noble, potent enough. Still, nudged toward the edge, I clutch too tightly; can find the terrain, or lack of it, dizzying. Fearsome. Beyond words. Uncontainable, unthinkable. And yet….

Nepo’s book spoke simply to me of what I can so easily forget. He tells of “an old friend slowly losing her hearing…forced to go on beyond and listen below. One day…tired of straining so hard for all the words, (she) began to listen to eyes, to bodies, to gestures, to the face behind the face…the warmth coming from another.”

“There are many languages that words only point to,” Nepo gently reminds us. “Many ways of knowing that the mind only traces. And all the languages together bring us to that vital place beyond knowledge, where the life of being and feeling lead.”

What drew Nepo’s attention and mine was how the way in which we understand the concept of Prajna Paramita, the perfection of wisdom, changes everything. Do I see the perfection of wisdom as the excellent wisdom, the best, the highest wisdom? Or is perfection to be found in going beyond wisdom? Are seeing kindness, patience, energy or effort, meditation or concentration of mind all “virtues through which one must go, beyond which one must live?” Is wisdom itself, Nepo asks, this threshold we are called to cross into a yet deeper experience of living? Is true wisdom only to be found in opening ourselves to the possibility that “the deepest experience exists beyond the doorways that knowledge opens…. our penchant for thinking and speaking in concepts and words only one way into the depth-experience of life?”

“We don’t have to go far to know this,” Nepo observes. “For our suffering quickly breaks down what we think we know and have to say into a more authentic and humble taste of being and feeling.” What does this mean in our daily lives? Since the word educate means ‘to draw out, to call forth what is already present,’ Nepo suggests that our journey is one of self-education: “of calling forth through experience that which is already present within us, until we find the world within us and ourselves in the world…. such a way demands that we listen to more than just what we think we have to say.”

What does Thay say? I was grateful to find on the Still Water website (Dharma Topics, Not Thinking Too Much, 7/6/2006) this excerpt from a question and answer at Plum Village about thinking and mindfulness:

"Usually I do not respond to the situation with my thinking. I usually respond to the situation with my whole person, not just my thinking. If you have practiced nonviolence, compassion, brotherhood, you know that you have developed that capacity to respond to situations with brotherhood, understanding, and compassion. So you allow yourself to respond naturally to the situation. And that response is very peaceful, very natural, and very pleasant. And if you respond in a non-pleasant way, you know that that is not a natural, a good response. With your capacity of observing, you see why and how this negative response has been produced. And you know that kind of response without compassion, without equanimity, without love, has its roots within yourself. And you may tell yourself that is not the best way of responding, as far as you are concerned. Through the practice of breathing, you may like to respond differently to that situation, that will bring you more peace and the situation more peace.

"In fact, I do not base on my thinking for responding to situations. I allow myself to respond naturally, first. From time to time we need thinking to intervene. But I don’t think that thinking is the best ground on which we can base in order to respond. It is like when you hear the bell. We don’t have to think that this is the bell and I have to stop thinking, stop talking, and I have to breathe in and out. You don’t think. You just respond to the bell in a very natural way, with pleasure. No thinking is needed. When you walk, when you enjoy the morning sunshine, the trees, the friends, you don’t need thinking to do all that. We have to learn to be in a non-thinking mode in order to get in touch with the wonders of life. I think we all think too much."

The mysteries and the wonders of life – Thank you, dear Thay.

This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we’re invited to share our experiences of edges, safe ledges and handholds; of languages we’ve heard that words only point to, the mysteries and wonders of life, and where the life of being and feeling lead us.

Below is Celebrating mystery, a short verse chapter from Ursula K. Le Guin’s version of Lao Tzu’s Tao To Ching. On Thursday we will revisit it, read together the rest of Going Beyond, our offering from Mark Nepo’s The Exquisite Risk, and reflect on Thay’s and our own personal responses to the question of thinking and mindfulness.

I hope you can join and share with us.

Gene Klinger

Follow Mitchell’s blog as he travels to Scotland and Plum Village here.

From Ursula K. Le Guin’s version of Lao Tzu’s Tao To Ching.

Celebrating mystery

Look at it: nothing to see.

Call it colorless.

Listen to it: nothing to hear.

Call it soundless.

Reach for it: nothing to hold.

Call it intangible.

Triple undifferentiated,

it emerges into oneness,

not bright above,

not dark below.

Never, oh! Never

can it be named.

It reverts, it returns

to unbeing.

Call it the form of the unformed,

the image of no image.

Call it unthinkable thought.

Face it: no face.

Follow it: no end.

Holding fast to the old Way,

we can live in the present.

Mindful of ancient beginnings,

we hold the thread of the Tao.