For the first few years of practising Buddhism, I was of the impression that, because of karma and stuff, it was extremely important to remain in a positive mental state at all times.
Ironically, that kind of stressed me out.
Then one day, at a festival, having worked a good 8 hours in the mud and rain selling veggie burgers for the Dharma and trying to introduce people in various drug-induced parallel dimensions to the awesomeness of meditation, I was just trashed. I couldn’t do anything about it. The days and weeks of very little sleep in a tent surrounded by djembe players on speed had left me with no resources.
I didn’t get it. There I was trying to benefit all beings, surrounded by the sangha, meditating everyday, and yet I felt ropey. I must be doing something wrong. Surely Dharma practice and acting like a bodhisattva means you’re impervious to sleep deprivation and grumpiness?
Conditionality (Paticca samuppada)
But then I realised. Conditionality.
This is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Buddhism. More properly it’s translated as ‘dependent origination’ or ‘conditioned co-production’. In a nutshell, it means that everything arises in dependence upon other stuff. This is where the Buddhist concept of ‘not-self’ comes from.
Of course I knew the theory, but some part of me didn’t think it applied to Buddhists. To have it smack you round the head like that was a pretty strong experience.
It’s not ‘if you do nice things for the universe, all will be well’ (what am I, a Catholic?) it’s that you are the result of a complex interaction between numerous causes and conditions. And they themselves are the result of a complex interaction between numerous causes and conditions. On and on, like a sea of processes, always moving, no fundamental part of it that is ‘the essence of the sea’.
So if I am working too hard, in the cold and wet, surviving exclusively on veggie burgers, away from my usual rhythms and routines, surrounded by space cadets calling me ‘brother’ and trying to get me to give them a free veggie burger, it’s hardly surprising I might not be spontaneously on top of the world. Even at a festival (my spiritual home) doing Buddhist stuff (my spiritual, er, spirituality).
If you see a happy Buddhist it’s not because they’ve found some special magical mantra that makes everything OK. It’s that they are either a) having a bit of luck at the moment, or b) paying attention to the causes and conditions that lead to certain mental states and taking wise action to manipulate that.
It’s OK to be not OK
The other thing I realised as a result of feeling bad at a festival in the mid 1990s, was that I don’t have to get too tied up in being well and happy all the time. It’s OK to be whatever I am right now. Sure, you put effort in particular directions – setting up conditions for wellness. But whether you’re happy or not happy, don’t get too attached to it. Don’t over-identify with it. These states come and go, according to a whole bunch of stuff. Some of it you can control, some of it you can’t. Some of it you can identify, some of it you can’t. If it just flows through, it’s not such a big deal. It’s when we think it’s wrong, or that it makes us a failure, or whatever you might attribute to having these feelings, that it becomes a problem. It usually sticks around longer too.
Mindfulness of elephants
This is what mindfulness is about. Not grasping after positive states and not trying to obliterate negative ones. They come, they go, no biggie.
There’s an image that’s used to explain this increasing ability to be cool with our experience, whatever it is, from the Buddhist tradition. It’s the image of an elephant (life) jumping in a puddle (you). The puddle goes all over the place.
When we’ve developed a mature practice, the elephant is still there, and still likes to jump into water. But now you are a large, cool lake. The elephant jumps in and plays around. There’s a bit of splashing, a few ripples. But the lake is fundamentally untouched by the experience, and goes back to being its usual still self as soon as the elephant’s had its fun.
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