We begin with an old story about a traveler who came upon a farmer hoeing in his field. Eager to rest his feet, the wanderer hailed the farmer, who seemed happy enough to come over and talk for a moment.
“What sort of people live in the next town?” asked the stranger.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer, answering the question with another question.
“Bad. Troublemakers all, and lazy too. The most selfish people in the world, and not one of them to be trusted. I’m happy to be leaving.”
“Is that so?” replied the old farmer. “Well, I’m afraid that you’ll find the same sort in the next town.
Disappointed, the traveler trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work.
Sometime later another stranger, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and they stopped to talk. “What sort of people live in the next town?” he asked.
“What were the people like where you’ve come from?” replied the farmer once again.
“The best people in the world. Hard working, honest, and friendly. I’m sorry to be leaving.”
“Fear not,” said the farmer. “You’ll find the same sort in the next town.”
That’s the story. And I do want to affirm that sometimes the town you might be living in is objectively toxic, and you really ought to leave. But, as the story suggests, often enough the only kind of change that needs to happen is a change in one’s attitude and one’s heart. Home is not so much a place out there as it is a place in here, which you carry with you wherever you go.
Pagans and New Agers say it this way: “As within, so without.”
A Zen Buddhist gem of a story takes us deeper into this insight.
A university professor comes to ask a Zen master named Nan-In about the Zen he is master of. Nan-In then proceeds to pour him tea and he just keeps pouring and pouring until the cup is flooded and tea is spilling everywhere and the professor can’t believe what is happening right before his eyes. Calmly, Nan-in says to him, “Like this cup, you come to me full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”
Other Buddhist stories use a different metaphor. Instead of calls to empty one’s cup, they talk about “monkey mind” and how we get lost in our mental chatter. Sensations and emotions and thoughts come and go like the weather, and we are in their grip, we are immersed in them and believe that who we are is whatever the weather at the moment happens to be. There’s little to no capacity to distance and just hold whatever is happening in awareness. It’s reactivity instead–free-associative pinballing from one negative thought to another. Still other times it can be a fixation on a worrisome thought or a memory of being hurt.
Whichever metaphor we use—full cup of tea or monkey mind—the point is that Zen can’t get in. Zen—meaning richness, vitality, happiness, creativity, compassion, transformation, peace–can’t get in. It’s because the space of the mind is already full of mind-stuff, and that mind-stuff is primarily anxiously self-referential. Why did she look at me that way? What did he mean by that exactly? Why did I do that thing I did? Is my nose too big? Am I too short? Do I sound weird?
Are they liking this sermon?
“The story of me,” says mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn “is often a depressing story. And a fear-based story. We’re like driving the car with the emergency brake on.”
Just one example: you are traveling, and you find yourself in a place that just amazes you, and this is the thought that pops into awareness: “This place is beautiful! I want to come back here someday!”
What? But you are there already!
Already you are separating yourself from the full pleasure you could be having if only you could be here now.
We are driving the car with the emergency brake on.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s findings on all this are echoed and extended by that of happiness researcher Matt Killingsworth. People are indeed less happy when their minds are wandering than when they are in the moment, and this is true no matter what might actually be happening in that moment. “People don’t really like commuting to work very much. It’s one of their least enjoyable activities,” says Matt Killingsworth, “and yet they are substantially happier when they’re focused only on their commute than when their mind is going off to something else.”
But what’s also amazing is his finding that people’s minds wander 47% of the time.
Did you think that that percentage would be so high?
47% of this time, the cup is overfull and no Zen can come in.
47% of the time, the inner monkey is swinging from tree to tree, screaming up a storm.
47% of the time, we’ve lost track of the inner home where the heart is and the soul thrives, and we take this inner sense of homelessness and project it outwards so that the external world feels homeless too….
So: what are we going to do about that?
Let’s turn to a figure who is practically synonymous with this question and its answer: Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. Listen to this story he told 2500 years ago, about acrobats, two of them: an adult male teacher and a little girl student, performing every day on the streets.
Their act? The teacher balances a tall bamboo pole on his head. The little girl climbs to the top and stays there while the teacher walks around.
Why? So they can earn enough money to buy food. They are very poor.
But how can the acrobats maintain concentration and balance and prevent an accident? Empty the cup is of course the answer. Calm down the inner monkey. Find home within, be in the moment, be fully mindful, be here now.
But, say more. How, exactly?
One possibility is to do as the adult teacher who balances the tall bamboo pole on his head says. He says to the little girl, “I will watch you and you will watch me.” That’s his solution. But it’s not the Buddha’s. From the Buddha’s perspective, it’s a form of self-denial, really. It implies that personal development is unjustifiable self-indulgence. “I will watch you and you will watch me,” says the teacher to his student, and that’s like any of us today saying, “There is so much to do and so little time and so how dare I take some of that precious time away from you and go to a church class on meditation or to my yoga studio or to somewhere which is for me, for the sake of my soul….
This is yet another way we drive through life with the emergency brake on: when we equate self-development with selfishness and personal indulgence.
And note very carefully how, in the story, it’s the adult teacher who has succumbed to this falsehood. Age is not necessarily synonymous with wisdom.
The Buddha puts the right answer in the little girl’s mouth, who says in response, “I think it would be better for each of us to watch our own self. To look after oneself means to look after both of us.”
How else will we learn to be more in the present moment, and therefore more at home? When we are already mindwandering 47% of the time, how are things going to get better by just doing more of the same? That’s like trying to sharpen an ax by chopping wood.
If we are ever to find home in the present moment, we must have the right resolve of the little girl. This is what the Buddha says.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree,” Abraham Lincoln once declared, “and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”
Think of your day. How much time is given to sharpening the instrument of your awareness, so it can serve you well as you use it? Do you allow yourself enough spiritual growth time, or is the voice of the adult teacher in the Buddha’s story booming in your mind, telling you that it’s self-indulgent and shame on you?
I’m starting my Mandala Meditation Class on Sunday mornings in the Fireside Room, starting September 11. It will begin at 9am. It will never go past 9:45am since I’ve got this thing I need to go to at 10:15am (you too!). But 45 minutes will serve us perfectly well. The goal is for the class to be a place and time where experienced meditators and people completely new to meditation can come together, build community, experience different kinds of meditation, and most of all (here’s my highest hope) that participants take their meditation practice into the rest of their week. We will explore that. We will do that together.
Let’s find home within, so we can take that wherever we may go.
But, know this up front: there will be no spiritual bypassing going on in class. Take a look at this image, which will help me explain what I mean.
The meditator is blissed out. They are “At One With the Universe.”
Isn’t that a common stereotype about meditation?
Meditation takes you straight to the Divine?
And it can happen. There’s a sense in which it’s inevitable. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique, believed that our psyches—the mind/body/spirit complex—are like the ocean, and while on the surface it seems like there’s an incredible amount of activity going on, at the depths the ocean there is absolute calm and stillness and peace. Meditation is about teaching the mind to settle so that it can experience the peace that is truly and deeply already there. With continued practice, that inner calm remains as we go through our days.
But the “spiritual bypassing” I am talking about is when our goal is strictly about becoming instantly blissed out. “Spiritual bypassing” is when we discount the meditation experience or the value of meditation if we aren’t having blissed out experiences but other kinds of experiences instead….
What other kinds of experiences??
Go back to the Buddha’s story of the two acrobats. Remember, the little girl has just said that her teacher ought to watch himself, and she will watch herself, and in this way they will take care of each other.
So the adult teacher will watch himself. Considering that he’s an adult and has gone through a lot of hard knocks in life, what most likely will he be watching?
Most likely, one of these things will be his poverty, and what he thinks about that, and how it makes him feel. The poverty that forces him to walk up and down the street with a small girl balanced on a tall bamboo pole balanced on his head.
Maybe it makes him feel humiliated and full of rage.
Or sad and worried.
Or all of it and more.
If he can allow the hurt to be there, without trying to judge it or push it away, he’ll still have sufficient presence of mind to maintain concentration and balance.
On the other hand, the little girl goes flying if he spends needless energy telling himself it’s wrong to feel what he’s feeling. Or maybe he indulges himself in victimology and feeds the demon of resentment. Again, the little girl goes flying.
Either way he loses focus and can no longer take care of the girl.
Emotional weather is tearing through him, and he’s just adding fuel to the fire because he can’t hold it mindfully. This is the sort of suffering that makes a person definitively homeless. Because we are refusing to be where we are, warts and all. We are rejecting our very life. We are demanding, futilely, that what is should not be so.
Everyone here has a bamboo pole balanced on top of their head, and some kind of little girl is up there, and we are charged with taking care of her. The life circumstances that have conspired to put us in this challenging position might hurt as much as the teacher in the story hurts, or maybe even more. But there you are, here I am, here we all are, and it’s a hard moment. And, we can’t afford to refuse to be where we are.
We’ll drop the girl.
The only way out is through, and a key source of power that can take us from here to there is compassion. Which meditation can teach us, in spades.
I’ve been telling a lot of other people’s stories, so here’s one of my own. It’s from years ago, and I’m in a yoga class. I’m in one of those pretzel-looking yoga poses and surrounding me are all these other people, each in the same pretzel-looking pose as me. But maybe their pose is not as “good” as mine. See, that’s where my mind goes. I’m judging the other yogis around me. I guess a part of me has decided that if I’m going to do yoga, it’s got to be competitive yoga! So the voice in my head says, My Adho Mukha Shavasana is so more fully expressed than theirs! My Vrikshasana is so much more stable! I can do Shirshasana and they can’t! And so on.
Immediately following this came the judgmental inner voice, shaming me with slap-in-the-face intensity: What’s wrong with you? Yoga is not a competitive sport! Besides, look at that yogi over there! She can do Adho Mukha Vrikshasana and you can’t! So much for you, Mr. Senior Minister yoga-man!
In that moment, the judgy voice in my mind felt like a crazed monkey with a baseball bat smashing away at my self-worth. A negative downward spiral was unfolding. Ugh. But I was on my yoga mat, after all, which was a symbol of the intention to bring meditative awareness to whatever might arise in the course of doing yoga. Whatever at all. The mat is the symbol of that. Unrolling the mat and getting on it is a ritual way of saying, “I give myself to the flow of my experience. I will be curious about it and follow it wherever it leads.”
And then it happened. I’ll never forget the feeling. A wave of compassion came upon me. Of warmth. A wave, a wave, a wave. In that moment, I saw how my judgmentalism of others—my need for yoga to be a competitive sport and for me to win—only expressed how deeply unworthy I felt, and how I had been bullied and hurt by various life events and people. It didn’t matter whether people hurt me intentionally or not. My judgmentalism of others and myself was simply the cry of my soul that had only wanted to be seen and valued and loved unconditionally, without regard to being useful to others, or convenient to others, or successful according to social standards.
And then I thought of people who disgusted me, whose religious and political convictions and allegiances disgusted me because they seem so unreasonable, unethical, and cruel–or at the very least cynical. And I wondered about what had happened to them and how deeply they must feel unseen and abused and empty. So much so that the only politics that speaks to them is a politics of resentment, and the only politicians they vote for are those who excel at stoking resentment. I found myself feeling compassion for them. It didn’t change my mind about how I saw their positions as wrong or destructive. But the impulse to demonize them–to make them less-than-human–ahh, it got much smaller….
What is the saying? Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
Meditation teaches us first and foremost compassion. At least that. Starting with ourselves, and then we extend it to others. Maybe bliss will come—maybe an experience of God or Goddess (a glimpse or a full immersion, maybe)—but definitely compassion.
All of us are in a hard place in America right now. So easy to be anxious and afraid. Or angry all the time. But there is a sweet little girl balanced on the bamboo pole on top of your head, and she is your family and friends, the things that bring you alive, and definitely this church and all the people here who love you.
The Buddha says, Don’t drop her.
Allow the present moment to be what it is, be in this moment, be here now, with an open heart, with compassion.
There can be no other way to happiness, if happiness is to be found.
The Mystery unfolds.
Empty your cup, so the Zen can come in.