The Abenaki Indians tell a story about a curious young warrior, an ancestor from mythical times and something of a mischievous trickster, who sets out one day to stop the wind. He had been trying to paddle his canoe across the river but the wind kept blowing him back, making it impossible for him to get to the other side. He goes after the wind, determined to find its source, and heads into it, hiking over vast stretches of land. After a long search, he finds it high on a mountain in the Adirondacks, in the form of an old wind-eagle whom he calls Grandfather. He tricks Grandfather into falling into a crevice between two mountains and thereby takes all movement out of the world. The weather gets hot, the ponds dry up and fill with scum, the fish and animals die, and the people are miserable. Stopping the wind makes everyone very uncomfortable.
In Tibetan Buddhism, and especially in the Tibetan medical system, “wind” is used as a metaphor for mind because both are in constant motion. Anyone with what we would call an emotional illness is said to have a “wind” disorder. There is a prominent wind disorder that afflicts meditators who try too hard to calm the mind, to force it into submission. The mind squeezes and tightens and “rises up” in rebellion at the attempts to subdue it, and the meditator gets more and more anxious and frustrated.
For the Abenaki people, their story is about how impossible it is to eliminate any one aspect of the world, no matter how angry it is making us. The story applies equally well in a Buddhist context. Just as wind is a part of creation, so are anger, thoughts, or family turmoil. Stillness does not mean the elimination of disturbance as much as a different way of viewing them. If we can let anger rise and fall naturally, it becomes, in the Buddhist view, self-liberating. We get into trouble with anger if we try to eliminate it too perilously, through denial or avoidance, or if we turn it into hatred.
Using meditation or therapy to try to shut down parts of our experience is ultimately counterproductive. We do not have to be afraid of entering unfamiliar territory once we have learned how to hold experience within the gentleness of our own minds. Learning to transform obstacles into objects of meditation provides a much needed bridge between the stillness of the concentrated mind and the movement of real life. As the practitioners of many martial arts often put it, we must learn to respond rather than to react.
Read Mark Epstein’s “Be Here Angry Now.”
Excerpted from Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart: A Buddhist Perspective on Wholeness, by Mark Epstein, M.D, © 1999 Harmony. Reprinted with permission from Harmony.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.