This story, adapted from When You’re Falling, Dive, continues to be one of my favorite teachings.
A novice monk was given the task of cleaning the Zen Master’s study. As he was doing so, he inadvertently knocked over the teacher’s beautiful and extensive collection of glass prisms. Contemplating the shattered shards of glass on the floor, the monk was overcome with fear and guilt. The teacher would be so disappointed in him! How could he have been so careless? Would he be thrown out of the Monastery? How could he ever replace what his beloved teacher had so treasured? As he stood shaking in trepidation, assaulted by a barrage of self-recrimination, the teacher walked in. She took in the situation at a glance, smiled kindly and said, “Those prisms were meant for enjoyment, they were not meant for suffering.”
We can forget that Awareness Practice is about cultivating awareness.
Because we begin this practice by paying attention to how suffering is created and maintained, we can get talked out of practicing awareness when there isn’t any “suffering.”
When life is going my way,
when ego is not being threatened in any way,
when karma is not rearing its ugly head,
when there are only minor lapses in attention, which are simply par for the spiritual course and can be corrected by the use of our tools,
…there is the temptation to stop participating in Practice.
We may not be aware (there’s the clue!) of the subtle case being made to stop paying attention! If I’m in well-being, if I R/L daily, sit regularly, need I go to group? Should I participate in a Socratic email class with the Guide, if there is nothing I currently need guidance around? Why practice two-handed recording if I’m happy? Aren’t these practices meant to be done when we’re suffering? What has Practice to offer when things are going well?
It’s telling, isn’t it, that it doesn’t occur to us that we could practice contentment, happiness, gratitude, acceptance, generosity, compassion, love, laughter, wonder, curiosity, delight? It’s a subtle takeover in conditioned mind when Practice becomes only about seeking support to transcend unhappiness. If nothing else, we aren’t seeing the egocentric assumption that limits an entire spiritual practice to just seeing ego in operation. It is true that many of us come to a Practice when we’re suffering. But as we see and see through the layers of content we suffer over, the seeing itself becomes the focus of the training; what I see is almost irrelevant. Just because I get less frequently identified, just because I’m more skilled at paying attention, doesn’t mean practicing is over. On the contrary, this is where spiritual practice begins. It behooves us to keep paying attention so lack of practice does not blunt our ability to be present, aware, here. How else can we keep the aperture of awareness from being silted over by ego/karma or ensure the fallen barriers to Love don’t get reconstituted?
Lest we think that maintenance of well-being for fear of a future ego takeover is an insufficient reason to practice in “good times,” here is another perspective to consider: Thisherenow is a fascinating realm to explore, a vast playground compared to the limited world of conditioned assumptions and beliefs. Getting intimately acquainted with “what sees” is a joyous pursuit that can last a lifetime. As the teacher in the story above points out, we can be here for what life is…rainbows and broken prisms; it’s suffering (I’m an awful person for breaking them…it should not have happened! No more rainbows for me!) we don’t need to indulge. So when there isn’t “suffering,” thisherenow offers itself for our exploration. As Kafka said: “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”
And when we learn to see Life itself, there are more frontiers to explore. The progression in a practice of awareness is the training to move from awareness of (whatever the object--suffering, ego, Life, God)) to an awareness of Awareness. We could describe this movement as a shift from an object orientation of awareness to a subjective experience of Awareness, awareness aware of itself as the Intelligence that Animates All. The Guide recently gave us a beautiful example statement of this shift. From this place we might no longer say “I don’t feel happy.” We would say “I am happy.” The identification is with Awareness itself! It takes practice to make this movement. No wonder we stumble when there is no “suffering.” We’re on the brink of a breakthrough of a lifetime! This is a moment to stay here, now, paying close attention, as Life sees Life as it is in a way it has not been able to previously.
Yes, the first noble Truth is that suffering is. But the “is-ness” of suffering doesn’t have to be. The possibility the Buddha offered us is transcending suffering so we can be here for a continuous experience of True Nature, which he chose not to define, not because it doesn’t exist, but because it is beyond definition. The Buddhist way is often described as the “Negative Way,” but not in the conditioned sense of negation. Isn’t “Not this, Not this” simply an admonition to never stop looking? Isn’t it just an exhortation to constantly expand the perspective that can perceive the All that can never be constrained by definition? Or in the words of Rumi:
Suppose you know the definitions
of all substances and their products,
what good is this to you?
Know the true definition of yourself.
That is essential.
Then, when you know your own definition, flee from it,
that you may attain to the One who cannot be defined,
O sifter of the dust.
What a marvelous journey awaits those of us who are seeking to end suffering! For what else were these sages talking about other than Being Happiness?
So amazing this choir of
socks, shoes, shirt, skirt, undergarments,
earth, sky, suns, and moons.
No wonder I too, now, sing all day.
Plucked from fields
Full of croaking frogs:
Float them in your wine
And enjoy every minute!
Such love does
the sky now pour,
that whenever I stand in a field,
I have to wring out the light
when I get
-St Francis of Assisi
Don't forget love;
it will bring all the madness you need
to unfurl yourself across