I am grateful that our weekly meeting continues, thanks to Zoom, and that there are gifts within the challenges of a COVID-19 world. This week one of the gifts was to be able to see out our collective windows not just Mt. Tamalpais here where we usually meet, but also Mt. Konocti and Mt. Shasta further north — a powerful earth support system that reminds us of our interconnection.
Because we are meeting online, and because many of us are feeling stressed, I spend more time leading a guided meditation, though I never know exactly what I will share beyond my regular guidance. This week we spent a lot of time focusing our awareness on receiving the warmth of our hands — on our foreheads, on our hearts and on our other hand. This was a concentration practice as we refined our ability to focus on a particular sensation — the passive receptor rather than the active movement. It was also a way for us to give ourselves the touch we crave at this time when we are not getting the hugs we may be used to, and certainly not the massages.
In this unusual time when there is a lot of ever-changing emotional content to deal with, I spend more time listening rather than giving a formal dharma talk. The dharma weaves itself into the conversation, responding to the shifting relationship we each have to COVID-19.
This week one student had just learned of the unexpected death by drowning of someone she knew. Of course, she was in shock and experiencing sadness. Beyond that she was noticing the ripple effect of thought patterns, recognizing the fragility of life — how that could have been her child, or herself. That this experience of being in this body is finite, and we just don’t know. We just don’t know.
That not knowing can be quite unnerving. But it can also be exhilarating. We struggle so hard to feel in control of things, and we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve got it covered. Then the reality of being alive in this temporal body makes itself known in one way or another.
There’s a classic Buddhist story you may be familiar with that speaks to this. It’s told in many ways. I think I will tell it this way:
Imagine: You are walking along in a field thinking your thoughts and planning your future when you hear a sound and glance behind you to discover a huge fierce tiger running toward you, and you know in an instant that you will be his dinner tonight. So you run faster than you have ever run in your life, terrified. But as you get into the rhythm of running, you also feel exhilarated, as if the tiger has given you a new sense of purpose.
Then you come to the edge of the field where it drops into a deep canyon. You are about to take a flying leap, preferring to take your chances rather than be devoured by a tiger, when you see that there are more tigers circling below. In a panic, you trip and tumble off the ledge. Desperately, you grab onto a vine. It is well-anchored in the cliffside and you feel grateful that it is sturdy enough to support you. Now your whole life depends on how tightly you can hold onto that vine. You feel safe from the tigers snarling above and below, but your hand and arm ache and you don’t know how long you can hang here. Then you see out of a little crevice in the cliff, two mice venturing forth, going about their business. Unfortunately, their business seems to be gnawing on the vine upon which your life depends.
Just then you notice a strawberry, plump, red, and full of life. You pluck it and take a bite, relishing its juicy sweetness.
Close your eyes and let yourself receive the story.
What resonates? What disturbs? What baffles? What message does it have for you?
Some things we can see are that life is like that. We don’t know. And we don’t have as much control over things as we’d like. There’s the old joke that if you want to make God laugh, make plans. That’s certainly ringing true for many of us these days, isn’t it?
The real core for me is that we have no control over what arises in our experience, but we can cultivate a skillful way of being with it. In our meditation practice and by incorporating the Buddha’s Eightfold Path into our lives, we have many more skills. A friend of mine who is a longtime meditator is also a surfer. Knowing how to meet a wave and ride it is in her skillset. We may not be ready to hang ten, but we can ‘hang eight’, using the Eightfold Path to guide us, checking in to see ‘What is my intention here?’ and ‘Am I using wise effort?’ (If you are unfamiliar with the Eightfold Path, start with this blog post and then keep going. We’ve been exploring for months.)
We are cultivating a skillset to help us handle what arises. It may not be all we are doing, but it is the most immediately appreciated part of our practice.
One of the projects I set for myself during this shelter in place is sorting through the letters I wrote to my parents in my twenties. One I came upon speaks to developing a skillset. I was a newlywed and had no cooking skills. In one letter I mentioned a ‘successful’ meal I’d made that was a little chopped up cooked chicken and hard-boiled eggs combined with some chicken and rice soup mix, and then more Minute rice all put on top of toast. Agh!
In a letter a month later, I shared that I had decided to learn to cook. (What a good idea!) “I went & got myself a whole bunch of spices I’d been doing without — sat down one day & read Joy of Cooking through & through — & all of a sudden I’m 1000 times better at cooking than I was the week before…Will is absolutely astounded & extremely pleased — I even made a successful loaf of bread the other day.”
I’m still not a great cook, but I certainly learned something important back then: With a little wise intention and wise effort, we can learn new skills.
That’s all we are doing. Developing our skills. Learning to notice. Learning awareness. Learning to open to receive the infinite lovingkindness, and then, once we feel it fully, naturally radiating it out to all beings.
This is not an escape route! This is the juicy sweetness of being in the midst of it all, however fleeting.