This excerpt has been adapted from Tricycle’s online course “Real Life,” with Sharon Salzberg. Learn more about the course and enroll at learn.tricycle.org.
There is an image I often come back to, where I am sitting at home, minding my own business, quite content, [when suddenly] I hear a knock at the door, only to get up and discover that it’s greed, fear, jealousy, or hatred at the threshold. How do I act? What do I do in that moment? In the past, I have flung open the door and said, “Welcome home, it’s all yours,” only to forget that I live here. My consciousness, my awareness lives here. My capacity to love lives here. This is just a visitor.
When I think back on the Buddha’s reminder that the mind is naturally radiant and pure—the mind is shining—I can chill for a moment because the visitors are just dropping by. They’re not permanent. They aren’t indicative of my deepest, innermost self. The Buddha said that it is because of visiting forces that we suffer. So it’s in that spirit that I work to reconfigure my relationship to all of these difficult and challenging states that may come, that will come.
Naming the Experience
To establish the beginnings of a more authentic relationship [with this unexpected guest], see if you can recognize what’s going on by naming it. Every time my mind says, “this is a bad thing to feel, it shouldn’t be here,” I try to retranslate that identification from “bad” to “painful,” “difficult,” “full of suffering,” or “devastating,” and watch to see what happens.
Watching the Mind
I talk about sitting and looking at my own fear. One of the things we say in mindfulness practice is that we pivot. Usually, with a strong emotion, our interest is going toward the object. If you really want a new car, for example, you likely spend your time thinking, “Should I get that kind of upholstery or that kind of upholstery?” It’s not that common to turn our attention around to the desire itself and say, “What does it feel like to want something so much?”
What is this feeling? What’s it like in my body? What’s the mood of it?
And that’s how we come to understand feelings as compounds. It’s not just anger. Within the anger, you might also see fear, sadness, and helplessness. When observing my own fear, I notice that despite the world’s pronouncement that we’re afraid of the unknown—which, of course, is true—I’m actually most afraid of all the stories that I tell myself.
When I first went back to New York after many months away, ahead of that trip, in my mind, I was just watching [my mind create narratives/stories], “I haven’t been back to my apartment in New York for four or five months. I heard people can get Legionnaires’ disease when they turn on the faucet after it’s been off for a long time. My faucet hasn’t been turned on for a long time. I wonder what the water’s going to look like. Will I be able to tell? Does it smell a certain way? What are the symptoms? What am I going to do if the first night in New York I come down with Legionnaires’ disease? There it is!”
Whereas, even in the midst of that, if I remind myself, “You know what? You don’t know. This is just a story. You’re not even in New York yet.” Then I relax. I feel space. I feel openness. So the goal in some way is that space. It’s not an icy distance, it’s space. It’s important that you’re not all caught up in it, [that] you’re not defined by the emotion and driven into action. That’s a state of freedom.
Mindfulness is the place in the middle, which is not sucked in and overcome by something; nor is it pushing it away or recoiling from it in fear.
Not Compounding Suffering
Some things in life just hurt. Losing somebody hurts. People can be so unjust toward themselves in the light of that, insisting “This should not hurt. If I were a better person, if I’d been meditating longer each day, it would not hurt.” Which is quite unfair. There’s a layer of extra suffering [in our making] assumptions and interpretations that we do not [actually] have to endure. [When this takes place], we pile [it] on and we’re not holding that original hurt in a compassionate light or with any spaciousness.
One of the extra layers of suffering we add on to our feelings or stories is what I call our inner critic. I’ll suggest to people that they give it a name, give it a wardrobe, give it a persona, because the transformation is going to be in how you relate to your inner critic, so we establish a relationship that way. I say [this] with apologies to any Lucys who may be [reading, but] I named my own inner critic Lucy, after the character in the Peanuts comic strip. I named my inner critic Lucy, because a friend had rented a house for many of us to do a retreat, and [when] I went into the bedroom set aside for me, there was a cartoon on the desk. And in the first frame of the cartoon, Lucy is talking to Charlie Brown and says, “You know, Charlie Brown, what your problem is? The problem with you is that you’re you.” Poor Charlie Brown replies, “Well, what in the world can I do about that?” And then Lucy responds, “I don’t pretend to be able to give advice. I merely point out the problem.”
Somehow, whenever I was walking by the desk, my eye would fall right on that line. “The problem with you is that you’re you.” Because that Lucy-dominant voice had been so strong in my childhood, in my earlier life. Soon after seeing that cartoon, my very first thought was, “It’s never going to happen again.” And I greeted that thought with, “Hi Lucy.” Over time, my favorite response to Lucy became, “Chill out Lucy. Just chill.” That’s different from, “You’re right, Lucy. You’re always right. I’m completely worthless.” It’s also different from, “Oh my God, I’ve been meditating for forty years. Why is Lucy still here? I spent all that money on therapy. Why is Lucy still here? She shouldn’t be. I’m a failure.”
Mindfulness is the place in the middle, which is not sucked in and overcome by something; nor is it pushing it away or recoiling from it in fear. In a vast oversimplification of a certain Tibetan Buddhist practice, they would say:
Invite Lucy in for a meal. Keep an eye on her. Don’t let her have the run of the house, because you might end up with no silverware, but you don’t have to be so afraid. You don’t have to be so ashamed. You don’t have to be so freaked out. Your awareness, your capacity for kindness, for compassion, is actually much stronger than Lucy. Lucy may come. Lucy may come a lot. But you’re OK because of the environment that’s being created.
I used this as an example for the group I was teaching, and some of them didn’t like it. So I said how about inviting Lucy in for a cup of tea? They didn’t like that either. So I said, “OK, what’s acceptable?” And one said, “How about a cup of tea to go?”
If We Can Be with Something, We Can Learn From It
Interestingly enough, something we often mistakenly do is insist that Lucy never show up again, but that is not going to work. Instead, we can consider what’s skillful and unskillful, realize that we’re not going to prevent things from arising, and refocus our attention toward how they are met.
The states that lead us toward contraction and suffering are translated as defilements. Whatever we call them, they only function as actual hindrances when we relate to them in a certain way. Otherwise, they’re more like clouds moving in the sky.
If a certain emotion comes, for example, and you try to dismantle it or evade it immediately, there’s not going to be a lot of learning. But if you can hang in there with it, take some interest in it, pay attention in this different way, there can be a lot of learning, just as I learned in that very personal insight about my own fear. It could be a personal insight, or it could be a more universal insight like, everything that arises—everything—is impermanent. If you look at anger and you see moments of rage and moments of fear, moments of sadness, moments of helplessness … that’s an alive system. That emotion that arose seems so solid, maybe so unchanging, but really look at it: it’s constantly changing. Physical pain arises in a superficial glance, it feels like some entity has just taken over our knee, our back, or our head. But if we really pay careful attention, we see, “Oh, it’s moments of burning, moments of twisting, moments of piercing, moments of iciness. None of that sounds good. None of that feels good. But that’s an alive system. And within that, there’s movement and flow.”
I have a friend, for example, with a very severe chronic pain condition, who said to me, after working in this way, “I found the space within the pain.” We like to think when we look at pain, that it’ll just go away. But it may not be that way. And yet something can happen that brings a whole other kind of relief, if we can find the space within it. We’re investigating when we’re not running away, when we’re not drowning in something that is arising and yet temporary.
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