It is the middle of January in the year 2021.
There is a spring thaw, although of course it's an illusion and not yet spring. We're still in the middle of a deep Maine winter. It was simply a rain storm that swept in and caused the brook to flow with a spring-like energy. In a few days, that water will freeze over again.
And I don't know about you all, but I had to pull myself out of bed this morning. I sat drinking my morning tea and my mind felt rocky and rough and muddy. And mildly annoyed. I felt pushed into a corner. A bit like my elderly cat who jumped into a deep and empty bathtub early this morning and couldn't jump out again.
More specifically, my mind was attaching itself to a few minor criticisms I had heard during the workweek. It was hyper-focusing on those criticisms, and angling towards annoyance. And because we no longer leave our homes apart from essential grocery missions, and my home is now my office, those mind habits were taking on a newly exaggerated quality.
January's Resolution: Leave Facebook
I was also feeling increasingly alone with my thoughts. At the end of December, I had decided to do a social media retreat.I would not go on Facebook and Instagram for a month.
Like many modern beings, I have a love/hate addiction issue with social media. I know it is a drug. And yet it's also our town halls, our community spaces, our friendships... Maybe I could just leave for a month.
So I triumphantly announced this on Facebook, then disappeared. I would stick to LinkedIn because I had to for work. But other than that, it was going to be a social media cleanse.
At first, it was a very welcome and healing break. I was reintroduced to the nectar of silence in my days. I could sit and just think. I found myself reading books again. But after a week, things began to get hairy:
On January 6th, thousands of armed Americans stormed the Capitol. Notifications ripped through the hearts of millions of Americans tethered to their devices.
On January 8th, I visited a cancer center to get multiple biopsies for three lumps. I stepped into that medical center filled with people moving gingerly with stooped postures and manifest suffering. They moved slowly and solitary through the freezing parking lot. I came home that evening, feeling raw. And instead of mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, I now started to manically scroll through CNN and the New York Times.
I walked through the following week with the specter of cancer looming over my body. I applied Dharma minds and can say the teachings brought me tremendous strength and support. But nonetheless, the worry felt like a suit of armor that I carried, clanging, with every heavy step. I couldn't let it go.
On January 12th, I got a call from the surgeon, saying the lumps were benign. And I danced around the house to Bowie.
Then on January 13th, I suddenly began to feel inexplicably low again.
On January 15th, I furtively opened my Facebook app.
I suddenly realized this thing: I just need to see my people.
It was extraordinarily healing to see my friends and extended family. To hear their voices -- even though they were simply disembodied pixels on my phone. To see their joys, their inspirations. A significant number of my Facebook friends are Buddhists, and as I scrolled through the feed I saw so many encouraging examples of people trying their best to train their minds, to become better people, love more purely, more consistently.
I was hit by the truth that sangha, or spiritual community, is one of the three jewels we rely upon in Buddhism — and there is good reason for this. Because we need our community like we need food, warmth and light. We are inexorably linked to one another. We all exist in fellowship. In mutual dependence.
And there was love as the remedy.
While looking through Facebook, I also found an antidote to my low grade annoyance. The Dharma insight (the second jewel, Buddha's teachings - while the third jewel is Buddha himself) that helped me diagnose and provide an antidote to the annoyance.
I saw a question posed in a group that follows the same Buddhist lineage as me: The person was asking how we could bring our spiritual practice more firmly into our daily lives. And I found myself leaning in and offering a perspective. Because just the night before I had been reading transformative words of my teacher from a notebook from a 2013 festival when I traveled to Portugal. (A major benefit of reduced social media time, we start reading paper works again. That allows us to really focus.)
He was talking about a basic Buddhist view, that our mind is not the same as our body. That the two are related, of course, but our mind is formless and not physical. And it continues after death. The mind — or consciousness — doesn't stop.
(And I am ad-libbing here, he didn't say this, but the mind simply gets transformed, or recycled, and takes on a new life. This mental continuum that continues and continues... until it realizes enlightenment.)
Geshe-la then asked the question:
If we realized this, that our mind continues, how would we spend our days?
He answered it by saying that if we really believed in cause and effect, and the continuity of the mind, we would engage in the basic practices of Dharma:
Giving material help to those in need. Giving protection or saving others lives. Giving love, thinking that the happiness and freedom of others is important. We would spend all our days cherishing others more and more. Practicing loving-kindness and patience.
Because beyond the fact that loving others aligns with the nature of reality, that we are all bound up in a web of interdependence with all living beings, that we rely on others for everything... and beyond the fact it feels really good and is a healthy way to be... The fact is that the law of karma shows how cultivating loving minds brings immeasurable future benefit. A small acorn of giving our time to a friend, for example, can grow into a vast oak tree of mental happiness down the line.
Mind gardeners who understand the laws of karma, or cause and effect, cultivate love and act from this space because it's like planting healthy seeds of echinacea and turmeric in the field of our consciousness. Medicinal minds that will grow into happy effects. Whereas sitting around stewing in anger and acting from anger is like planting poisonous weeds. We know this right? We know how staying with anger just boils us and boils us until we explode.
Of course, all of this training requires meditation.
It requires us to slow down and start to sit with our mind. We learn to recognize the early stirrings of anger in our mind. We're taught to recognize the habit of anger, the hyper focus on other people's faults (which my teacher calls "inappropriate attention") and distortion that happens, as we build up an image of an inherently bad person - an entirely unrealistic caricature if we're honest.
We learn how to disrupt this toxic habit of anger. This isn't done by just repressing it and pretending it's not there. Rather, we learn how to be a skillful mind gardener. We learn to recognize this poisonous weed in the mind, meditate on the faults of anger, and choose a new mental pathway of response in the mind instead. We learn to move the mind elsewhere. We start to meditate on a true opponent, or antidote, of anger: love combined with patient acceptance.
After destabilizing the lightning storm of anger in the mind, we deliberately bring about an authentic shift to a feeling of love in the heart instead, by choosing to contemplate the good qualities of others. By contemplating how they in fact help us in so many ways -- even if only to act as our teacher in patience and training in love. How they are in fact deeply suffering too, which is likely why they may be lashing out at us. If they are relying on anger, then it is harming them like cancer.
We sit with the warm heart that emerges, that flicker of loving-kindness, moment by moment. And we practice this again and again. And this is how love grows.
The answer wasn't to retaliate or criticize the people at work.
It wasn't to sit in my own solitary view of this situation.
The answer was to open out into love. Because that person or those people are just like us. They're just trying to be happy. They're just trying to make it through another day in a debilitatingly dark and long winter. And hell, if they're at work, they have every right to offer an opinion on how our work can be improved! Why sit around feeling pissed off?
And if there is no sense in what they're saying, and they're just lashing out at us or others with anger, of course we can act firmly to stop them from harming us or others if we need to. But we can also develop deep compassion. They're hurting. They need to be loved. They're relying on anger and it's hurting them like a cancer.
Open out into love
So I'm encouraging myself to turn to keep turning to that healing light of love during this challenging winter in the grips of a pandemic and civil unrest.
Particularly on this long weekend, where my workplace has given me the gift of a day off to celebrate the life and actions of Martin Luther King Jr. I'm encouraged to contemplate the potency of love. Experiment with its forgiveness. Spend time steeping in and meditating on it.