Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Pleasantness of Presentness

Meditation practice this morning was a struggle again. The weather today is magnificent, crisp and blue and too early in the spring for biting insects to be out, a perfect day for hiking, and all I could think about as we sat there in the shrine room was how much I wanted to be outside instead of sitting there on my cushion watching my mind run in circles.

There are some days when I wake up and I just know it's going to be this way. Moods and states of mind are like the ever-changing weather here in the wilds of Nova Scotia, on the rugged coast. Some mornings, as soon as I sit up in bed, the clouds in my mind are already there, and a hard, wild wind of discursiveness is blowing my awareness this way and that -- like the wind that blows down from the mountains and up from the sea here in Pleasant Bay, a wind that uproots and knocks down 40-foot trees.

My first three weeks here were difficult because I was fighting against the wind and noise in my mind, which -- I have begun to realize -- is as pointless as fighting against the wind outside. You can rage against it all you want and it doesn't make a damn bit of difference to the wind. The only difference is that it makes your experience of the wind that much more frustrating.

This week I've noticed a shift in perspective taking place. I have observed a new kind of serenity beginning to emerge in my mind, establishing itself alongside and around the monkey that dwells within. On days like this, when the monkey screeches, I am learning to step back and let him screech all he wants. As with The Borg on Star Trek, so with the monkey in my mind. "You will be assimilated," it seems to say, "resistance is futile." And so I am learning to stop resisting, which is an easier practice on some days than on others. But it seems that so much of our suffering comes from our resistance to the way things are, from our raging into the wind and telling it to stop, from screeching back against the monkey and telling it to be quiet.

In our evening chants we have a verse that says:

In order to remain in nonwandering, the ground of dharma,
Relying on the meditation practice of dathun,
Completely free from the movement of discursive thought,
May we give rise to the samadhi of one-pointed shamatha.

I used to think this verse meant only that we should, ultimately, be aiming for a state that is thought-free. "One-pointed shamatha" was, in my understanding, a kind of narrow focus on a single point of pristine awareness, like a laser beam shining on a diamond in a vacuum of mind where nothing moves. The regular screeching of the monkey in my own meditation practice was the abundant, incriminating evidence of how far I was (and am) from attaining that lofty goal.

Recently, though, as I've begun to acquire a more relaxed attitude towards the monkey, it has occurred to me that perhaps there is another definition of "one-pointed shamatha" or "nonwandering." If our awareness is expansive enough that we are able to be open, spacious and relaxed with whatever is arising in our experience at the present moment, even if what is arising is monkey mind jumping all over the place, then we are not really distracted, at least not completely. If awareness can encompass all that arises, then there is no such thing as distraction. Freedom from the movement of discursive thought means allowing enough space for discursive thoughts to arise and pass, not jumping on them like bicycles and pedaling to ride them further. One-pointed shamatha is no-pointed shamatha, because there is no "point" on which to "focus" when the point is everything that arises.

Someone was telling me yesterday about a teaching they'd received from Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He advised his students, when they go on retreat, to establish very strong boundaries between past, present and future, and to really do their best to stay in the present. Dwell in "the pleasantness of presentness," he instructed them. Before coming here to Gampo Abbey, I tried to arrange my life in such a way that I could do exactly that, a way that would allow me to dwell as little as possible on outside obligations or thoughts of past and future. But still, some days, the pattern of wanting to be somewhere else blows up and rattles my serenity, out of nowhere, like the fierce wind that blows up from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and shakes the Abbey buildings.

Today during the exercise period I went out and hiked up the nearby mountain, Gampo Lhatse, to clear my mind of the fog from this morning's frustrating three-hour meditation session. As I climbed the mountain, I was grumbling to myself about how much I wanted to be up there, among the open sky and the trees and the ocean, away from these people at the monastery and their damned schedules and rules and requirements upon my time. Halfway up the mountain I stopped and looked back at the calm blue sea, 600 feet below me, and at the Abbey nestled among the trees beneath the mountains in the distance, and at the clear blue sky embracing all of it, and my resistance melted away. Close to the top of the mountain, in a sort of clearing where a statue of Kuan Yin sits nestled among a cool, shaded garden of cedar trees, I froze in place as I heard the crunching of fallen tree branches beneath the feet of something very large moving among the rocks and brush below. A moose or a bear, I do not know which, and I dared not climb up further to find out. The bears here are timid black bears, but bears nonetheless, and at this time of the year, very possibly with cubs.

Halfway back down the mountain I stopped again to wait for my new friend to come by -- a tiny little chickadee that lives in the area. I waited in the same spot as we met the other day, and sure enough, he came along within a couple of minutes. I whistled to him, and he flew from tree to tree, getting closer and closer as he checked me out to see if I was one of the good ones. Apparently he decided that I was, because I held out my hand and he flew over and landed on my index finger, just as he had done two days ago. Seeing that I had no food to offer him at the moment, he flew away to a nearby tree branch, and we proceeded to have an extended conversation in chickadee language. "HEEE-hey-hey," he would call out, and I did my best to respond, and then he would call back again -- sometimes before I had even finished responding. Our conversation today lasted for a minute or two before he flew off to seek food in other places.

Moments such as these do not leave much room in your mind for resistance. They crack your heart open and make you realize how precious it all is, and how fleeting. How pointless it is to want to be anywhere other than where you are right now. To finally see this, I realize, I need to be here, in a place where the sea and the sky and the mountains reflect the brilliance and spaciousness of mind's true nature, a place where friendly birds land on my finger and foxes come round at dusk to eat the ritual torma offerings that are tossed out, like clockwork, behind the monastery during evening chants at the close of each day. A place where my meditation cushion sits close enough to the window that I can see the fox sneaking across the lawn at the close of chants, stealing for the torma.

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