Dharma Gleanings


cynthia rich

May 5, 2005—May 11, 2005

May 5, 2005
Thich Nhat Hanh says that we should approach the world as if we were astronauts who thought they were stranded on the moon but were able to return—how glorious it would all seem to us! I’ve often thought about our aversions this way. If there’s, for instance, a noise during meditation that is annoying us, we can imagine that we have gone deaf, and are just coming out of surgery, so that the noise that seems grating to us is the first sound we hear. How sweet it would sound, how much an affirmation of the rich variety of this sensory world we have the privilege of being part of!

May 7, 2005
I’m not sure if what I’ve been practicing is what they call metta, but if not, it probably should be. It began with looking at faces of people—on the street, in stores, at the Y—and feeling my way to the nature of their suffering, not their suffering of the moment, but what the chronic dukkha of their lives might be, what they are, as it were, holding at bay. I see if I can sense their underlying anxiety, or persistent struggles with anger, or their disappointment with life or their grief. It’s not important whether or not I am correct, but these insights allow me to see these strangers in another dimension, less merely visual, a dimension that helps me to experience them more fully. The practice lets me experience in a tender and less abstract way the first noble truth.

This is not the same as what we call empathy, where you tell me your cat has died and I plug in how I felt when my cousin died, and imagine that I feel your pain. This is more recognizing and respecting the experiences of others—not in that specific moment, maybe they are just counting their change in the grocery store. Instead, my practice is to imagine—from the individual faces they have made for themselves—their ongoing or recurrent dukkha.

Then, I imagine what they would look like if they were free, and it becomes easy to love them.

Out of my own mindfulness as I move through my daily life, I have begun another practice, that takes me not to dukkha but to a deeper connectedness than I’m accustomed to in the world. I watch an old man eating his oatmeal slowly in the booth across from me, or see a cashier folding a shirt in Target, or a child hanging by her hands from a pole in the playground, and feel my way, as it were, behind the person’s face, but this time moving directly into their consciousness so that I feel that I am them, doing just what they are doing, feel the spoon on their hand and the oatmeal on the tongue or the silky cloth of the shirt and the hard floor under their shoes—sharing their experience of being in the world at that moment. Other people may do this regularly, novelists surely must do it, but for me it is a new sensation, an outgrowth of my own mindfulness. I am now practicing this with non-human species, watching a bird or a rabbit and imagining my way into their consciousness, their own awareness of the feathered neck jerking up and down and the seed against the beak, or the strong taste of the leaf while the back feet sink a little into the sand. Again, there are probably many animal lovers who imagine their way in like this, but it is new to me.

Both kinds of imagined experience bring me more fully into the world, and the world more fully into me. They make me see that I have, out of some lack of trust, closed myself off from the richness of the world around me.

Neither of these practices work as well with people we know, since we have built too many constructs that stand between us and the purity and simplicity of these ways of imagining ourselves into their experience.

Jo used to speak wistfully of her longing for “connection,” by which I think she meant connection to other women she knew—myself, Sande, Nants, whoever. But for the reason I just gave, those are actually the more difficult connections to make in the Buddhist sense. We “connect” to people we know largely through our ordinary self connecting to their ordinary self, in other words, through all those constructs that comfortingly make us feel we “know” who the other is, that bundle of assumptions collected from our past encounters, those preprogrammed attractions and aversions that person awakes in us. That’s ok, it can get us through the day (though it will often cause problems for our day), especially if the other person is someone who clings tightly to her identity so that you and she can build a fictitious but agreed-upon solidity about just who she is. But connecting to others in that way is crude stuff, just as our own sense of self—as this individual with this history and these likes and dislikes—is crude. Interesting that the books I’ve read suggest that we begin metta practice with people we love. That sounds logical of course. But if we want to experience a deeper sense of connection, we’d do better to start with strangers and birds.

May 11, 2005
When we judge other people, it’s as if we become an inspector in a factory deciding which widget is acceptable and which should be discarded, which should go in the brown box, which in the blue or the red or the yellow. The person making those decisions takes a certain pride in the accuracy of her judgments, and maybe even builds her identity on the precision of her critical faculties.

When we do this in our lives, we are not being accurate. Our judgments distort our perceptions of others, ignore the rich and ever-changing fluidity as we try to turn them into mechanical widgets, deciding which can be used for our purposes while we toss them into our pre-set judgments. In what we see as our shrewdness and efficiency, we not only misperceive the reality of others, we reduce our own minds to a factory, replace our creative, inspired ways of encountering life with a collection of rigid boxes.