I spent many years in my life of meditation practice waiting, in a subtle way, for the definitive moment when I would awaken, once and for all. I suppose that I thought this event would occur while I was in a deep meditative state, and then the rest of my life would be a cruise. If we regard meditation practice in this way, as a particular set of activities (such as formal sitting and walking meditation) that culminates in a specific, idealized “experience” such as enlightenment after which life is free and clear, we can miss the essence of the practice. We will likely be disappointed and confused if the clarity and power of the meditative experience does not seem to transfer effortlessly to the more active parts of our lives. For me, it has been a tremendous relief to see through this view and to put down the burden of unrealistic expectation. When we realize that our deepest meditation practice is a cultivation of attitude rather than a search for some special experience, our whole life opens up. Every activity can become a vehicle for awakening.
Life is made up of moments. Mindfulness practice is simply a cultivation of the ability to meet whatever is arising from moment to moment with fullness of presence and an open heart. In meditation we learn how to greet our experience with kindness and clear seeing; we find the courage to acknowledge things just as they are without needing to hold onto or reject anything according to our preferences or opinions. This is the way of peace. This attitude is available to us in each and every moment of our lives, but we must be willing to call on it.
This willingness is the challenge of embodying our awakening. Will we expand our attitude of “practice” beyond formal meditation or whatever other borders we may have unwittingly set for ourselves? It is not always easy. The glow of insight, the happiness of a heart that is free from clinging, can seem obscured when we plunge into our complex and active lives. It can seem a distant memory, out of reach and unrecoverable unless we go back to the cushion to find it. We may ask ourselves, Where is the mind of non-clinging when I need it? It’s fine on retreat, but what about in the middle of this family drama? This is the moment of challenge. We must remember that our insights and awakenings do live on with us. They manifest in our willingness and ability to bring the quality of fresh, nonpartisan and direct attention to whatever is happening. If we can do this in formal meditation, we can do it anywhere.
The questions then become, “Do we have the confidence and commitment necessary to meet our life in this way? Do we, in fact, want to awaken within this moment? Are we willing to greet whatever is happening—joy, sorrow, fear, desire, confusion—with the same clarity of perception and openness of heart we would try to bring to a moment in meditation practice? Will we give the same degree of energy and enthusiasm that we bring to our formal meditation to all situations in our lives? Do we believe it to be possible?”
What is required of us is tremendous commitment. Yet how can we sustain such a commitment? I have found it enormously helpful to bring my highest aspiration in life into clear consciousness. When I make a commitment to myself to follow my deepest purpose, it becomes a source of strength. When I am faced with a difficult decision—as large as what work to do or as seemingly small as how I meet my feelings of impatience—my sense of purpose can shine like a beacon in my heart, and quite often the response is obvious. If my deepest aspiration is to awaken—to serve the dharma in whatever way shows itself—it becomes clear that I must meet my impatience with mindfulness rather than blaming circumstances, that I cannot avoid a difficult situation just because I prefer to be comfortable. In fact, one of my personal mantras is, “Do I want to be comfortable or do I want to be free?”
Several years ago I was traveling alone on an overnight train in India. I found to my discomfort that I was sharing a four-person sleeping cubicle with three men. I lay on my top bunk and tried to ignore the men, who were lying quietly on their bunks staring at me. Although I knew that staring is not considered impolite in India, and the men were otherwise leaving me alone, I was quite ill at ease. I faced the wall, could not fall asleep, and gradually became more agitated. I felt resentful that these men were intruding in my space, in my sleeping cubicle. After quite a long time of nursing these resentful thoughts and feelings, it suddenly occurred to me that I wasn’t seeing things clearly. It wasn’t my cubicle, it was ours. This simple recognition changed everything. My discomfort disappeared, and I felt happy and at ease. When daylight came, the men brought their wives and families into the cubicle, greeted me as a friend, and jumped out at the stations to buy me tea and Indian sweets. It turned into a lovely trip.
The shift of attitude, from living through my limited perspective, thus feeling trapped and victimized by circumstance, to seeing through my self-centered view and resting in trust of things as they are, was simple. It was the willingness to let go of self-involved perceptions that was difficult. Self-referencing is so familiar, so comfortable. It is just here that having a conscious sense of aspiration comes to our rescue. Do I want to be comfortable or do I want to be free? A simple remembrance of what really matters gives us the courage to look again, to come face to face with whatever we’d rather avoid. In the process, we rediscover the truth of who we are. However obscured we might have felt it, however far away from our recognition in our busy lives, when we honestly commit our hearts to truth, it is always available.
Take some time to reflect on what is truly important to you in this life. We each have so much choice: where to live, how to live, how to support ourselves and our families, how to use our spare time, how to relate to the myriad situations and people we meet every day. How often do we choose or respond unthinkingly, out of habit, as if asleep? How often do we act in accordance with what really matters to us? Referring to our sense of overarching purpose requires a willingness to examine our intentions and perceptions honestly, without judgment. We may recognize that quite often we would rather be comfortable! This is the moment when our conscious commitment is invaluable. Even though I may prefer to be comfortable, remembering my deeper commitment, I can make the hard choice. It has always been the more fulfilling choice for me.
More often than not, the choice I speak of is merely a shift of attitude, a shift in how we are relating to a situation. If you have experienced in your meditation the joy and contentment of being present and awake without wanting anything, then you can rediscover that truth in the middle of a shopping mall. When we intend to live our life from our deepest purpose, we no longer feel trapped or defined by circumstances. Rather, circumstances become a doorway for the truth to shine through. The truth, the dharma, shines everywhere. Our task is to learn how to recognize it, and then to remember to do so.