Dear Still Water Friends,
I spent this past weekend with other Still Water practitioners at the Charter Hill Retreat Center on the Chesapeake Bay. It was our Fall Practice Retreat and the theme was Cultivating True Joy. We had mostly mild sunny weather and lovely long vistas of water, trees, birds, and sky. There was a fair amount of sitting and walking meditation, and also silent meals and quiet walks. From time to time we talked about, or read poems about, mindfulness practice and True Joy. True joy, deep joy, complete joy, however we phrase it, is a relaxed joy, free from struggle and grasping. As Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara writes, True Joy arises when we are deeply present:
True joy, with its sense of wonder and reverence, comes of itself and neither depends on nor arises out of our personal ego attachments, our projections, or our needs. True joy comes of itself, rather like the ancient Taoist notion of tzu-jan—that which naturally emerges from what is present in this moment, this situation. Often this is the simplest of moments: a surprising joy that lifts you up when you feel a cool breeze on a crowded city street; a flash of inspiration as you glimpse the moon behind the clouds, a drop of water on a leaf, a toddler laughing. It is just what is actually coming up in this moment if we are free enough to notice it.
We can’t control joy. It is something that bobs up when we are truly alive and meet the whole world in an instant. We can experience joy in every aspect of our life, in working, in caring, in creating, and even in suffering. I think the key to experiencing joy is, as we say so often, being awake. What is “being awake”? Isn’t it our capability to let go of our grasping onto what we think we want, what we think is happening to us, to drop all of those presumptions and be exposed and intimate with what is here, right now? I believe it is our resistance to what is right here, right now, that blocks the natural flow of joy. (From the article “Simple Joy.”)
These reflections on True Joy, and a feeling of well being, were in me as I began pondering the topic for this Thursday’s dharma sharing: the fifth mindfulness training, Nourishment and Healing. In the Buddha’s time the fifth training concerned not using alcohol or other drugs that lead to heedlessness. Thich Nhat Hanh expanded the fifth training to give attention to the multitude of ways our consumption undermines our health, peace, joy, and well-being. It begins:
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into my consumption of the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations.
When we talk about giving up destructive habits, whether it involves substances such as cigarettes, alcohol, or sugar, or mental processes, such as distraction, anger, or greed, the usual and implicit frame of mind is that we are engaged in a struggle that can only be won with discipline, restraint and fortitude. It is a fight of good versus bad, healthy versus toxic, wholesome versus unwholesome. When it is framed this way, in my experience, although some skirmishes are won, many others are lost. And underneath it all is is a persistent attitude of struggling and not fully succeeding.
It doesn’t seem like there is much room in this approach for True Joy. Is there another way? Can we change our behaviors and mental processes without a battle?
In Old Path White Cloud Thich Nhat Hanh retells the story of the Buddha and Sona, a monk who while persistent and conscientious in his practice, often exhausting himself, did not feel that his sufferings were lessening.
[The Buddha] asked Sona, “Before you became a monk, you were a musician, were you not? You specialized in the sixteen-string sitar, didn’t you?”
“Yes, Lord, that is correct.”
The Buddha asked Sona, “If you play the sitar while the strings are slack, what is the result?”
Sona answered, “Lord, if the strings are slack, the sitar will be out of tune.”
“And what if the strings are too taut?”
“Lord, if the strings are too taut, the strings are more likely to break.”
“And if the strings are just right, neither too slack nor too taut?”
“Lord, if the strings are just right, the sitar will provide fine music.”
“Just so, Sona! If one is idle or lazy, one will not make progress in the practice. But if one tries too hard, one will suffer fatigue and discouragement. Sona, know your own strength. Don’t force your body and mind beyond their limits. Only then can you attain the fruits of practice.”
In other words, the Buddha (and Thich Nhat Hanh) are suggesting that change and progress occur when we are diligent but do not push too hard.
As I write, one more story keeps pushing its way in. In the novel Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese a medical doctor, while unjustly imprisoned, hears another detainee tell the fabled story of Abu Kassem, a rich but miserly Baghdad merchant well-known for his sharp practices and his exceeding worn and stained slippers that he refused to replace. At a public bath Abu Kassem’s slippers were switched with a new and costly pair. Thinking it was simply his good luck, he walked home in them, considering them now his. The owner of the costly slippers filed a complaint; Abu Kassem must return the new slippers and pay a large fine. Angry at his old slippers Abu Kassem threw them away, multiple times. Each time they came back to him after causing misfortune to others for which he was held responsible. The medical doctor repeats the story of Abu Kassem to his son and then reflects:
The key to your happiness is to own your slippers, own who you are, own how you look, own your family, own the talents you have, and own the ones you don’t. If you keep saying your slippers aren’t yours, then you’ll die searching, you’ll die bitter, always feeling you were promised more. Not only our actions, but also our omissions, become our destiny.
For me, this excerpt complements the Sona story. True joy and change can co-occur when we are diligent and patient and when we fully accept our histories, our capacities, and the possibilities that life offers us.
This Thursday evening, after our meditation period, we will recite the Five Mindfulness Trainings and focus our Dharma sharing on our experiences with changing our behaviors and mental habits. What have we learned? What challenges us? Are we able to change our habitual ways with joy?
You are invited to join us.
The full text of the fifth mindfulness training is below.
The Fifth Mindfulness Training: Nourishment and Healing
Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivating good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practicing mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I will practice looking deeply into my consumption of the Four Kinds of Nutriments, namely edible foods, sense impressions, volition, and consciousness. I am determined not to gamble, or to use alcohol, drugs, or any other products which contain toxins, such as certain websites, electronic games, TV programs, films, magazines, books, and conversations. I will practice coming back to the present moment to be in touch with the refreshing, healing and nourishing elements in me and around me, not letting regrets and sorrow drag me back into the past nor letting anxieties, fear, or craving pull me out of the present moment. I am determined not to try to cover up loneliness, anxiety, or other suffering by losing myself in consumption. I will contemplate interbeing and consume in a way that preserves peace, joy, and well-being in my body and consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family, my society, and the Earth.
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