Here at Gravity our practice doesn’t proceed in laid out stages exactly – mostly we’re sitting and feeling our breathing. Over time you can feel your body breathing without you interfering so much. When you start practicing the instruction is: try to feel your body breathing without changing the breath.
The Buddha described four stages of mindfulness. Mindfulness of: 1. body (which we’ve been exploring with the breath), 2. feelings, 3. mental states 4. everything. But if you can’t get the first part, mindfulness of the body, then it’s very hard to deal with strong emotions (2) when they arise. The first phase is really important, the beginning of mindfulness practice is to feel the breath without sculpting it. When the mind grows more still and concentrated, it’s possible to open the practice up, and allow meditation to go on around whatever arises, to allow whatever is there to be received in awareness. What we study via awareness is grasping and letting go of grasping. We watch as the mind grasps and lets go.
Sometimes I have the feeling that beneath all the grasping and stories and wanderings and compulsion is awareness, not awareness of anything in particular, simply awareness. In Zen they have this phrase: ordinary mind. It doesn’t mean the mind we have every day, the mind that is jumping from thought to thought, instead it means “natural mind” or “original mind,” where the mind isn’t holding onto anything. There’s nothing extra.
If you look at a candle in a dark room it’s special and vivid. But in meditation our practice is like looking at a candle in a well lit, sun drenched room. The candle is ordinary in this room. When you start grasping, a thought arises in that bright space, and the thought is either helpful or not helpful.
The Buddha said:
“Abandon what is unwholesome
One can abandon the unwholesome
If it were not possible I would not ask you to do it
If this abandonment of the unwholesome would bring harm
I would not ask you to abandon it
But as the abandonment of the unwholesome brings benefit and wellness
therefore I say abandon what is unwholesome.
Develop the wholesome
One can cultivate the wholesome
If it were not possible I would not ask you to do it
If this cultivation of the wholesome would bring harm and suffering
I would not ask you to cultivate it
But as the cultivation of the wholesome brings benefit and wellness
therefore I say cultivate what is wholesome.”
Before he died, the Buddha said that if his teachings were codified and passed on, he wanted them dished in the idiom of the people, it shouldn’t be just for priests and experts. I take this to mean that we should take the teachings and apply them to the issues we’re swimming in. For instance: around money.
When I first heard the word “wholesome” I thought it sounded like someone else’s idea of holy. But wholesome makes you think of the whole – interdependence, interbeing, ecology. How we’re part of each other. From a Buddhist perspective, unwholesome is a mind state driven by grasping. Wholesome is a mental state where there is an absence of grasping. These terms refer to mental states – the way we’re receiving data. Why are they important? Because our actions are often preceded by thoughts. Wholesome thoughts often come before whole actions. If you plant a kale seed, you get kale, you don’t get watermelon. If you plant wholesome seeds, that’s the kind of garden you grow. When you plant seeds of angry or jealousy or mistrust, that’s the kind of garden you’re cultivating. That’s why it’s important to be mindful about how you enter a room, or tie your shoes, or meditate, or send emails. Is it wholesome?
The Buddha said that in meditation practice, when you notice the trajectory of an unwholesome thought, then it stops. You don’t have to counter it with a wholesome thought (it’s not a thing that’s unwholesome, it’s a state of mind). The Buddha emphasized that this is how to deal with grasping, you work with it by bringing it into awareness, by noticing it, being curious about it, seeing how it works. How does my grasping occur? Can I learn to see the frames that make up the film of my experience? When I can look into the frames, slowing experience down, I can see how the seeds are being laid down, and I also notice that I can’t have a wholesome and unwholesome thought at the same time. Neuroscientists call this: reciprocal inhibition. You can only have a happy thought or a sad thought, not both at the same time.
There are some things like grass, trees or rock that don’t have a big charge around them when encountered. Unless you’ve experienced trauma around trees. But there are some psychic realities that trigger us into wholesome/unwholesome thoughts pretty quickly. These psychic realities have oppositions built into them – eg. sex, politics, religion – they attract opposition. You know it’s a psychic reality because it’s hard to bring up at a party. Each one is a mixture of biography, archetypes, culture and gender, all blended up into a single idea.
We spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need to impress people we don’t like. The story we have about money usually offers two versions: either I need to earn more or spend less. But money is about the intersection of grasping and internalized stories, in other words, it’s an arena for awakening. Can we follow the money? Can we make money wholesome?
Karl Marx said that money is part of a system that deeply unjust, it damages the people who succeed and those who don’t succeed. The only escape is to overhaul the entire system and get off the conveyor belt. On the other side is the Chicago School of Economics. They feel money is neutral, harmless, and that it should flow freely. More freely than people even, given the nature of so-called free trade agreements, where money can flow across borders but people can’t. They feel that if everyone works according to their self interest wealth will be distributed by “an invisible hand.”
The Buddha believed the workplace, or “right livelihood” was as much concerned with the spirit in which work is done as the economic results. There could be an atmosphere of kindness and co-operation, mindfulness and generosity.
When there’s a lot of grasping around money, around the thing that I want more than any other thing, how central is this want to my becoming a good version of myself? What is this thing actually for in my life? When you really want something, where will this thing go in my life? How does it fit into the cultivation of myself? What kind of role should this thing play in my life and community? How central is it to living a flourishing life? How does this thing support friendship, the earth, modesty and helpfulness?
Peter Levitt: his whole practice is to be happy, be helpful, be modest, be kind.
*photo credit: e-magic*