I want to recount my movements this past week. How daily life and dharma met.
It began last week, when I was deep in preparation for a meditation retreat. As a volunteer in my local Buddhist center - our Maine branch, I was helping to lead a full-day retreat on Saturday November 14 called Tranquil Abiding - Buddha's astonishingly clear teachings on how to still the mind, to bring it to complete focus.
The meditation we would be focusing on was called 'Equalizing Self and Other'.
I was following my teacher, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso's exquisite teachings in his books Joyful Path of Good Fortune and Eight Steps to Happiness. In this meditation, we use logic and reasoning to evoke a mind of love. I had been allowing this logic to touch my mind deeply in the lead-up to the retreat. Here it is quickly, in a nutshell:
We don't need to look far. Who is working to create the electricity that powers this laptop? Who even made this laptop? Which musicians recorded the music that I am listening to as I type? Who made the clothes that I am wearing? Who grew the tea that I am drinking? Think of the cow who made the milk for this tea. All these beings are helping me - I am receiving so much benefit from their actions.
Do we really exist in some kind of vacuum, where we are not bound up with the kindness of others?
If we like, we can make our mind really big at this point, and consider the fact that if our mindstream is endless, if we have had countless lives before this one, then in every life before this one we had a mother. Where are all those mothers now?
They are all the living beings around us now. This, you could say, is mother nature in her most beautiful form, she is alive in every living being around us.
Then, we move into the second level of logic: all these kind living beings are just like me. We are equal. Isn't that correct? Or are we somehow more important than everyone else? Just as I wish to be free from suffering and only experience happiness, so do they. We are no different.
We hold our mind in this recognition, this equality.
Then, the third level of logic comes: I am one, others are countless. How can I only focus on my happiness, and not also on theirs? How can I think of my own freedom from suffering, and not wish for theirs?
In this way, we allow our mind to open right up, like the petals of a lotus. Our heart opens as we start to see how many other beings are surrounding us and how much their happiness matters.
I had spent the past few weeks preparing for this retreat, by holding my mind to this posture every afternoon. At first, my mind was flickering a lot, there was a lot of distraction. But with each passing day, the posture became more fluid, more comfortable. I began to love this meditation. It felt so nourishing - so plugged into reality.
Early on Saturday morning, I got a text message from my American mother-in-law. She wanted to know if my parents in France were okay.
I didn't know what she meant and checked the news and felt that tight grip on my stomach. I turned on Skype to call my parents in the French countryside. They answered with wavering voices, tears audible. There it was, the mass killings of innocent people. Our world in deep, horrific, manifest pain.
I headed to the center for our retreat and we sat for the entire day and held our mind to this insight. That every living being matters. That they are all our kind mothers.
We trained in holding this mind of love, to let it percolate our very being, to imprint strong habits of loving-kindness onto the mind, like a printing press.
We were deliberately moving our mind out of the hallucinatory orbit of self, and into the ocean of all beings.
The next morning, I had to remain in this mental space as I was helping to lead another class: Meditations for World Peace.
Our meditation object on Sunday, in the circle of Lamrim meditations that we cycle through each week, was Bodhichitta - the mind of enlightenment. This is where we make the decision, to train our mind to its very highest potential in order to release all beings from suffering.
This thought takes deep training, it doesn't arise naturally. We make a pledge, a decision, to become a Buddha for the benefit of all.
This doesn't mean we start to try to convert everyone around us to Buddhism, by the way!
Far from it - we leave them be. We learn to deeply respect them. Instead, it means we make the pledge to go deep into our own heart, and institute change within.
We set off a campaign of inner peace and a campaign, in fact, to destroy the part of our mind that exaggerates our own importance - to overcome all selfishness in our heart, and build and empower our love for others.
When I came home, it was time to finally turn on the BBC and NPR - and let the news wash over me.
I saw the horror. I saw all the horrific details flood in, mass shootings and violence. I heard the fear and anger and disbelief in voices on radio roundtables. I saw the stream of prayers appearing on Facebook.
But before I leave you, can I just share one final thing that happened?
They were banging wildly. My husband jumped up and opened the door, and it was our neighbor yelling that the house behind us was on fire.
We grabbed our winter coats and ran out of our apartment building.
We stood on the sidewalk under a cold winter sky. There were huge flames coming out of the building. Smoke was bulging and the sky was red. It looked like a battle scene. It could have been a street in a war zone. I felt the ordinary, safe contours of my American life fall away. I saw the panic that comes when humans have their normality ripped away.
But then I looked closer.
And surrounding this building were fire trucks with flashing lights. Men and women were dressed in coats and they were walking straight into the burning building. They had appeared from nowhere like guardians, to protect life. I saw their kindness, directly.
In coming weeks, I will be dwelling on this image:
A person who walks into a burning building while everyone else is running out.
The being who sees the suffering and heads straight into it, with the wish to extinguish it. It occurs to me that perhaps this is the mind of a Bodhisattva. Who makes the conscious decision to act on behalf of the wellbeing of others.
I will be using my time, as much as I can, to build peace within - to meditate and create its architecture and awaken its reality in my heart. Because our planet needs this peace. And surely it has to begin in the mind.