Wednesday, January 8, 2020

How Are Your Alligators Doing?

I've just returned from a 5-day silent meditation retreat, and I want to share the first meditation instruction I received when I arrived at the retreat center, before the retreat even began. This sage advice was posted on several signs surrounding the lake behind the retreat center: 

"Do not molest or feed the alligators." I never saw an alligator while I was there, but it's practical advice, given that we are in south Florida. This is gator country.

As the lessons of this retreat rippled within me, I realized that this pragmatic warning is also a teaching. The theme of our retreat was the Five Hindrances — the five cognitive and emotional blockages that, according to the Buddha, keep us from being fully mindful and present, both on the cushion and in our lives:

  1. Sense Desires (the attachment and craving that arise from them — the grasping state of mind)
  2. Ill-will (aversion and anger — the pushing-away state of mind)
  3. Sloth and Torpor (the dull, murky state of mind, like falling asleep or being in a fog)
  4. Restlessness (agitation, anxiety, and the worried, fidgeting mind)
  5. Doubt (the confused, hesitant state of mind that doesn't know which way to go)

These Five Hindrances are the alligators in our minds: the creatures that attack from the dark depths of our unconscious, thwarting our practice, upsetting our lives, holding us trapped in their powerful jaws. When these alligators attack, there is nowhere to run and no way to escape, because the alligators are us. At times it can feel like we are under assault by all five alligators at once, the hindrances in our minds confounding us from every direction. We joked during the retreat (during the times we weren't in silence) about "multiple hindrance attacks," but our laughter was a way to diffuse the tension of recognizing how often we all fall under the spell of the hindrances, and how much suffering they cause for us in our relationships and our lives.

"Don't molest or feed the alligators" is good advice. We are the ones who molest our own minds with the Five Hindrances, and our afflictive emotions only have as much energy as we feed to them. 

But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and this advice is not of much practical value when we find ourselves under attack by the alligators in our minds.

Here's the thing about alligators, though. Their ghastly jaws are fearsome and strong when they chomp down on their prey. But the opposing muscles of their jaws, the ones that open the mouth, are quite weak. The powerful jaws of the alligator can be held shut with a simple rope or elastic band.

That rope or elastic band is our meditation practice. To the extent that we are able to be mindful and stay present with our experience and fully open ourselves to its energy — even if it's painful and chaotic, or perhaps especially if it's painful and chaotic, because life so often is — letting go of the storylines and drama that we habitually attach to our experience, then we are able to at least partially subdue the alligator's attack by binding its jaws. 

I came back from silent retreat to the news of Iran launching ballistic missiles into Iraq, attacking U.S. bases, and the devastating earthquakes in Puerto Rico, already afflicted so much by the hurricane two years ago. The president is being impeached, while at the same time instigating *another* war in the Middle East by ordering the assassination of one of Iran's top generals. This world we live in is angry and confused, full of sloth and ill-will and worry and agitation — ravaged and devastated, in other words, by the Five Hindrances.

When Thich Nhat Hanh was fleeing Vietnam, he said that the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats would sometimes encounter storms or pirates on the journey to safety. During these crises, everyone would start to freak out and panic. But he said that if just one person on the boat could stay calm and centered, not freaking out, it could diffuse the panic and, as he stated, "show the way to survive."

I am that person on the boat. If you've read this far, *you* are that person on the boat, too. It's up to us to bring the mindfulness and compassion we cultivate in our practice into this aching, burning world of pain, and offer it to those around us, showing the way to survive. Each of us who lives with conscience in this suffering world bears a huge responsibility. This is the world we are in. This is the world that needs the healing gifts each of us can bring. 

As one of the teachers at the retreat, Piero Falci, kept reminding us, "This moment is the first moment of the rest of your life." What are you going to do with this precious moment? And this one? And this one? And this one? And this one?

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