A rapid-fire post about practice over the last month:
Several particularly nasty things have happened to loved ones of mine over the last month or so, seemingly one a week- the phrase ‘it never rains, but it pours’ comes to mind. I have been well placed to help out, fortunately. These events have made me feel anxious, sad, angry, impatient and self-pitying at times- sometimes almost overwhelmingly so, with me struggling to keep my reactions from really being something I’d regret. But there has also been an equanimity that has carried me through, which has been a subtle and amazing gift. It has not been an active feeling of fluffy grace, light or pleasantness. There has just been a sufficient space around the thoughts, feelings and behavior so as to allow mindfulness and choice to occur, for the knowledge that they are not me, not permanent, and not all there is, to be known. And, as is usual in the best of spiritual practice, it’s largely a gift rather than a ‘choice’ to be mindful, a gift I have tried to respond to by using it to be as kind as I can. I really cannot claim that my practice has been so excellent as to have warranted it.
The sense of spiritual challenge has been there; the interplay between the wish to enrich my spiritual practice using this as grist for the mill, the need to pragmatically look after myself, and the simple need to look after those directly affected rather than allowing my own reactions to take centre stage has been very evident. It has made my own level of spiritual development very obvious: that I am still rather self-centered, but lord am I trying. Lord, am I trying, and this acknowledgement has led to a lot of self-acceptance. Psychologically, resilience is all: the ability to recover to your optimum level of functioning quickly, rather than wallowing or hiding or flailing for extended periods. Spiritually, there is a kind of resilience too: the mindful snapping-back into good habits, to protect whatever integrity I am trying to cultivate, and the intent to have the contemplative mindset towards everything. If God never forces me to change, then I have to keep giving consent, and sometimes I hate to do so.
The humility has not been so painful now that it is cast in such practical terms. The equanimity is more an absence of reactivity; so, too, the humility is not a humiliation, but just a recognition that on a scale of nought to infinity, I’m closer to nought. I really have limited resources and dealing with all this has made me tired, ill, moody. I’ve had to let go of some ego and some of my more practical wishes in order to put my spiritual integrity first (whenever I have remembered to do so; once again, the gift of mindfulness has not been ever-present). It’s led me to some hard choices that some people will likely have condemned and others thought were very wise, in the name of staying sane and caring for the ones that have really needed it, and that has been another dimension: the desire for some kind of cast-iron social approval as an intersubjective stand-in for the explicit approval of God, neither of which I can experience.
It’s thrown me into the present and that has not always been nice. The present is deeply unsatisfying and uncertain by nature, when seen as an abstracted concept. It includes a Me that hasn’t become all the things I want it to yet, that seems to have dreadful negativity bias, that I can only partially control, that wants so many impulsive things- generally some ridiculously over-stated pleasure as a ‘reward’ for having decency. (If I seem hard on myself, there’s actually a matter-of-factness now that is a facet of equanimity: there is no need to glorify or minimise my actions and intentions, they have occurred and that is that, as will any judgement thereof.) ‘This too will pass’ is what has gotten me through, and represents a development of more insight regarding the transient and non-inherent nature of the often intense sensations I seem to simply be conditioned to experience for extended periods of time, and to be sensitive to. The only now that is free of this dukkha is the ever-changing now that is a fluxing, un-pin-downable flow where I am more an action(s) than a thing.
Most damnably, I know I have to keep turning back to this conceptual world in order to deconstruct it. I can’t just relax into the flow all the time, because I’m not capable of it yet: I can’t do it, because only a self that delusively thinks of itself as a static doer would even conceive of trying to ‘get into the flow’. The flow occurs and I crystallise it as my ‘enlightened action’ as automatically as I swallow a mouthful of lunch. At the moment, contemplative practice for me is not so much the turning towards the Unconditional all the time: how on earth can one do that as an insight practice? Bathing in the sun is not the same as becoming scintillating. Polishing oneself so that God’s light is better reflected would be a better, and more traditional, metaphor, pointing to the need for very grounded sila practice as a cornerstone of practice. Instead, the panya is in the using the conditioned to look at the conditioned: rather than ‘just letting go’ into oblivion as a method of spiritual bypassing, I have to face what boils down to the unpleasant feelings of craving and aversion in my body that are, to my conditioned self, unacceptable. The body looks at the body and is repulsed; it’s beyond me to do anything but try to tolerate that wrongness in reality. I can’t do anything but simply agree not to look away. To cringe, whine and moan, but not to stop.
Whatever holy crucible that converts that into the acceptable, that makes me equanimous in the face of that dukkha suddenly and without my choice, is beyond me.