Dharma Post #12: Uncertainty

♫ ♫ ♫ “To the Unknown” — a piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.” ~Pema Chödrön

It’s been a while since I posted here (brushing the tumbleweeds off the blog). Sorry it’s been so long! This summer has been wild and woolly, with a lot to juggle. I’ve been keeping multiple balls in the air and experiencing uncertainty with many of those balls. As a result, I’ve had difficulty making plans and attaching to outcomes or expectations. And you know what? It’s been good for my practice. Sure, I’ve experienced uncertainty before. A whole lot of it. Haven’t we all? This summer has, however, reminded me yet again that change is integral to life, that life, as I’ve said here before, is a dynamic process and not a static edifice.

We like to have our feet on terra firma, in other words, to know where we stand. Uncertainty throws terra firma to the four winds. As a result of experiencing uncertainty, we often try to find something to cling to, whether from the past or in our notions of the future, which means that either way, we aren’t fully present for now. Making peace with uncertainty – harmonizing ourselves with the nature of life being change – helps us cultivate our capacity to be fully present and aware of what’s going on in our lives moment by moment, instead of clinging to the past or dreading the future.

Perhaps our most common reaction to uncertainty is fear of the future – fear of what might happen, fear of what might not happen, fear of our own fear. Sometimes we experience apprehension to which we can give no name, a feeling through which we convince ourselves that because we’re experiencing uncertainty, we are bound for some terrible fate. Other times, dread is locked up in storylines we create about ourselves or about other people. Either way, our mental constructs cause suffering.

Why? Well, through mental constructs, we seek anchors. We seek security, something to latch onto, something we hope will make us feel safe. But those anchors – security blankets – can’t last, since everything changes. Our first reaction to change – the gateway to the unknown – is fear or dread, and we scramble to get our feet on what we earnestly hope is solid ground, impermanent mental constructs that we either think up for ourselves or borrow from somebody else’s ideas.

When we’re faced with the prospect of change, especially when we don’t know what the change will entail – and let’s admit it, when and how can we possibly know the full ramifications of change? – we fall into habits of reaction, some of which have their origins in early childhood as coping mechanisms by which we tried to make sense of the world, and then we’re off, reacting and reacting and reacting, not seeing clearly, and becoming frustrated and angry when our anchors crumble and the ground under our feet turns out to be air.

The world changes along with us, and us along with the world. Everything together – us, the traffic on our street, the wars being fought across the globe, our next-door neighbors’ marital struggles, the abandoned kitten foraging for food two streets over, the tadpoles in the pond on the mountain, the joys and agonies and triumphs and disappointments and comings and goings and busy times and quiet moments of beings all over the world – are all part of the same thing, and it changes all the time, with nothing anywhere ever remaining the same.

This moment, whatever it is you’re doing, thinking, or feeling, is unique. It’ll never come again. At the same time, it’s part of the continually unfolding process which we term our lives, the world, the cosmos, the universe, and our experiences of these things as we perceive them. When our perceptions — ego-clinging, bending and skewing what comes in to fit our views — obstruct clear seeing, then we fall into confusion. Delusion. Our need for anchors, for certainty and for absolutes, is part of this dynamic.

Many people think they need anchors in order to find peace, but they search all their lives without finding anything. Anchors slip. Certainty is illusion when change is the only constant. Finding peace in uncertainty – notice I didn’t say “despite” uncertainty – is part of the path of practice. I have a phrase for this: “keeping my seat.” When things go crazy around me, I strive to keep my seat. By seat, I don’t mean an anchor. Rather, I mean expansiveness, or letting go, to the extent I’m able, of the need for anchors, for certainty.

“Seat” refers to sitting meditation, but it also refers to coming back to the breath which rises and falls, coming back to the moment I’m currently experiencing – in other words, now, the only time I really have. Keeping my seat also means staying aware – paying attention to what is happening now, since life is a flow of nows. In making peace with our nows, we build lives of peace, a calm inner abiding that doesn’t depend on mental fabrications of “certainty” existing out in the world to serve as anchors. Things arise, then they pass. With awareness, with clarity, we can see this process, and we can accept it.

When we’re less attached to anchors, we can open ourselves more – our minds and our hearts. We don’t resent the traffic on our street. How does our annoyance at traffic change it? It doesn’t. Our annoyance only annoys ourselves and perhaps those around us as well. We are able to be better friends to those around us, to engage in deep listening, deep caring, and give of ourselves more freely. “What’s in it for me?” is one of the most pernicious anchors of all, wherein we feel that whatever good we do, there ought to be some promise or expectation of reward. But life isn’t a carrot and stick proposition. Rather, as Pema Chödrön says, life is a good friend and teacher. That applies especially when its lessons are particularly challenging.

So why feel fear, why feel dread at the prospect of uncertainty, of the unknown? No matter what happens, we can learn from it and cultivate not just knowledge but wisdom and compassion, which are far more important than knowledge in how we live our lives. When we deeply look, listen, and investigate, we come to know our true nature through the experience of realization.

Whatever is before us, whatever might be happening, can be a means of awakening. And uncertainty – the unknown – is made up of boundless possibilities for liberation.

Dharma Post #11: Attachment

♫ ♫ ♫ “Attachment” — a little piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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One man can conquer a thousand times thousand men in battle,
but one who conquers himself is the greatest of conquerors.”
~The Dhammapada

There’s a lot of talk in Zen teachings – well, Buddhist teachings in general – about attachment and how it’s the cause of suffering. Sometimes people fixate – um, attach – to this concept without investigation and claim it means Buddhism is a path that encourages people to become automatons who don’t care a fig about anything or anyone except for the dust in their navels.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. My understanding of attachment is that it springs from deluded, dualistic views of “self” and “other.” The path of Zen practice encourages freedom from dualistic views, and as a result, we actually learn to care more freely and expansively for ourselves, others, and our world than while living under the yoke of attachment.

One form of attachment that creates tremendous suffering is found in conditional love. When we place conditions on our love for others, we are, in essence, attaching ourselves to an idea of those people that we’ve created in our minds. We layer on storyline after storyline about who a person is and who we want him or her to be. If the person dares to step outside the parameters we’ve placed around him or her, we withhold our love as punishment or as motivation to try to get the person back in line with our comfort level. As I have discussed in earlier posts, this isn’t love. It’s control. Conditional love is attachment to delusion – to limited concepts about another person’s selfhood that exist only in our minds and cannot possibly encompass the shifting, changing being and his or her infinite range of possibilities.

I’ve always liked this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.” Something in the gist of this quote rings back, for me, to the words of the Buddha in the Dhammapada: “We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we make the world.” Some people who misunderstand Buddhism take “With our thoughts we make the world” literally and label it ridiculous. What it means, though, is that we truly make the world in which we live by how we choose to see it, live in it, act in it, and react to it.

If we perceive the world as evil and ourselves as victims, then those thoughts, in every present moment, will reinforce the cycle of misery, since it’s in the present moment that we create not only our lives (worlds) but our future. If we become “feverish selfish little clods of ailments and grievances,” then we have nobody to blame but ourselves, since we’ve attached ourselves to the fever, to the selfishness, to those grievances, to those ailments, and have defined these things as ourselves. The good news is that we can stop the cycle at any time by letting go of what is hurting us, thus refusing to stay in prisons of our own making. When difficult things happen and challenges arise in our lives, we can use these things to help us grow in wisdom and compassion by choosing whether we’ll react with the same-old, same-old hurtful patterns, or with greater mindfulness, awareness, and big-picture perspective. And with every occasion we make the latter choice, we grow.

With unconditional love, we love without limits. That doesn’t mean we love everything a person does, any more than it means we love everything we do. But when humility and honesty – compassion and wisdom – enter the picture, we more readily acknowledge that everybody makes mistakes, including ourselves. We learn to forgive and let go of grudges. We release attachments to concepts of who we want other people or ourselves to be, and we open our hearts and minds to others and ourselves as ever-changing phenomena that manifest moment by moment. Love without control. Love without strings. Love without fear. We find that our ability to love not only grows but exponentiates.

One of the most pernicious prisons we build for ourselves is comprised of bricks that are made up of attachments to the past, which can take the form of all kinds of things, among them anger, addiction, guilt, annoyance, irritation, and holding grudges. All these emotions and reactions keep our mind tethered to the past so that we are unable to experience, with any clarity, the present moment: where our life is actually happening, where it’s actually unfolding. When we attach ourselves so fiercely to the past, we also limit our capacity for unconditional love, since we’re defining ourselves and other people in terms of what we or what he or she did in the past, so that we aren’t allowing ourselves to be open to the possibilities in ourselves and others as we and they exist now.

Another kind of attachment that impedes present moment awareness is looking toward the future, whether desiring and craving or worrying and fearing. When we load ourselves down with expectations and storylines about the future — what’s going to happen, what won’t happen, what might happen — we can’t experience the present moment as it is. Present moments rush by while our minds are anchored to the future, a construct that doesn’t even exist. And the future will never exist, since by the time it manifests itself, it becomes the present moment.

People can make themselves miserable pining for a future that will never exist: “My life must be this way, that way, and this other way, or else I can never be happy, content, or peaceful.” That’s not a good way to achieve goals. It is, however, a great way to drive yourself nuts. Believe me, I know. I’ve done this kind of thing, and I bet everyone reading this post has, too. But it’s delusion. Think about it. How many things in your life have turned out exactly as you planned? How many things in your life are exactly as you thought they’d be? Very few, I bet. When we set expectations in stone, we’re bound to be disappointed. Sure, hope is great, but I recommend an open-ended hope, where we keep ourselves open to surprises and to those myriad things that happen throughout our lives which we could never have predicted but which continue to open up more and more possibilities to explore.

Trying to attach to a concrete future is rather like trying to attach to to a concrete self. The moment we attach to a conception of what we are, that we will have changed in the interim. We desperately try in so many ways to grab onto something solid: me, you, this situation, that circumstance, or this scenario. And while all these things feel real, there’s actually nothing to grab, and when we truly start to learn that there’s nothing to grab, we can increasingly allow things to be and to make peace with ourselves and with our lives. I’m not saying we shouldn’t consider the future. But increasingly, I believe that the very best way to create happy futures for ourselves is to focus clearly on the present moment and treat it with as much care, gentleness, and attention as it deserves. When our minds are constantly on the run, whether to the past or to the future, we can’t bring awareness to life as it is happening. With such muddy minds, is it any wonder we get sucked into negative patterns of reactivity?

Without attachments, we’re free. The Buddha knew this because he discovered it for himself. One of the many things I love about Buddhism — and Zen, in particular — is that it’s grounded, practical, and applicable to our day-to-day lives. You don’t have to believe in the supernatural, nor do you have to accept unverified — and unverifiable — claims. Instead, you experience — investigate — for yourself.

To my mind, Zen is scientific, in the sense that you can try it and see if it works. Practice, however, needs to be a commitment. Patterns built up over a lifetime can’t be dismantled in, say, a day. In the context of practice, too, a person needs to be careful about attaching to expectations. Rather, we think of practice as we think of life: one present moment at a time. Growing in wisdom and compassion is about the way we relate to each of the present moments that make up our lives: being there for those moments and being mindful, kind, aware, and gentle to each of them. In this way, we let go of constructs like the past, the future, and conditional love, all of which blinker deep awareness of this phenomenon we call our lives.

Letting go of attachments doesn’t mean we become automatons. Rather, it means we take responsibility for ourselves and our minds, hearts, and lives. And letting go of attachments doesn’t mean we renounce our capacity to love. Instead, when we renounce those attachments that cause us to suffer, we free ourselves to live in a wiser and more honest and compassionate way in which we increasingly recognize, in clarity and luminous awareness, how incredibly precious is every present moment, every beating heart, and every living being.

Dharma Post #10: The Power of Forgiveness

♫ ♫ ♫ “The Power of Forgiveness” — a little piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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“You’re mean to me
Why must you be mean to me?
Gee, honey, it seems to me
You love to see me cryin’.” ~Billie Holiday

Over the course of my life, I’ve learned a great deal about the power of forgiveness. When we hang on to the past, when we continually bring into the present moment our grudges from the past, we can’t find peace. By clinging to the past and whatever pain we might have experienced there, we’re effectively building a phantasmal prison in which our hearts and minds dwell, and that prison functions to warp and bend our perceptions, plunging us deeper and deeper into delusion.

Often when relationships get into trouble, it’s the baggage of the past that’s weighing them down. This happens when people will not let go of that baggage. You would think people would want to let go of heavy, painful baggage, just in the same manner as a person would want to put down a heavy burden while taking a long walk. If you can move more freely, who wouldn’t choose to do so?

It’s a funny thing, though, being human. Sometimes we cling to painful baggage from the past because, in some form or fashion throughout the years, we’ve convinced ourselves that the baggage somehow defines who “we” are, and that if we release the baggage, we’ll be in some kind of frightening free-fall whereby we no longer know ourselves or what we’re about. It’s much like how people often define themselves by opinions and views.

This tendency seems to be particularly pronounced when people are clinging to hurts from childhood. It’s as if they formed their self-image partly by building up defense mechanisms against those old hurts, whether anger, jealousy, self-hatred, a need to always be “right,” or all of these in combination. And as adults, they experience great difficulty in letting go of these defense mechanisms, since those have become so ingrained that they seem to define the self. But do they really? Can they really?


When we cling to defense mechanisms rooted in the pain of our pasts, we’re continually creating a self that’s defined by something which no longer exists. The past, no matter what might have happened back there, is gone. The past is no longer here. The only thing here is now, and the only thing now is here: the present moment. If we let the past go, then every present moment becomes a clean slate to which we can pay attention and utilize to stop the cycle of anger, blame, and finger-pointing. We set ourselves free, not only from the past but from our ongoing perceptions, the painful moment-by-moment re-creations of something we carry forth like spectral barnacles which are no longer truly with us but whose hooks we tell ourselves we still feel in our backs.

Just as we can choose in every moment to be kind, we can also choose to forgive. Hanging onto the past is a conscious choice. Forgiveness is also a conscious choice. The former keeps us in a prison of our own making; the latter sets us free. If we have been deeply wronged, the act of forgiveness doesn’t mean that we condone what the other person has done. What it does mean is that we open our hearts and minds in order to extend understanding and compassion to the person who has behaved in a hurtful manner.

In every present moment, we have the power to create relationships anew. Let’s say we hold a grudge of the sort, “She’s been mean to me.” Well, maybe that’s true. But if we’re honest with ourselves, can we claim we’ve never been hurtful to her? And we can’t fully know what caused her to behave the way she did. To admit we have behaved badly and/or we cannot possibly know everything about a situation can be humbling, but humility is actually the very tool we need to break these ongoing negative cycles. When we’re honest enough with ourselves to see and admit that it takes two to tango and that each party has played his or her part in contributing to painful dynamics, we free ourselves to make peace with one another in the here and now, so that we can move forward together with kindness and compassion, thereby strengthening our relationships, not degrading them.

Forgiveness and unconditional love walk hand-in-hand. Unconditional love requires courage. Love is frequently misunderstood as something we give to or withhold from others based on whether they stay in the parameters we have set for them. It’s the old “I’ll love you as long as you do what I want you to do, say what I want you to say, and avoid doing or saying anything that makes me uncomfortable.” But that’s not love. It’s the opposite of love, which is control. Most of us have done that kind of thing out of fear, whether insecurity or hurts rooted in the past which we worry might rear their heads again in the present. Basically, it’s about protecting ourselves.

What is this “self” we try so desperately to protect by holding grudges, perpetuating anger, and refusing to forgive? The self is nothing more than an accretion of experiences. Likewise, perceptions are only perceptions; they aren’t set in stone. Memories of the past are malleable. They’re based on whatever our perception was at the time the events happened. Perception is in no way absolute, any more than anything else in our changing and impermanent world, including our changing and impermanent selves.

Forgiveness opens us back up to unconditional love through relinquishing control. When we recognize and acknowledge the ephemerality of the self which changes from year to year, month to month, day to day, and moment to moment – the ephemerality not just of our selves but of other selves – we find the courage to be vulnerable, opening ourselves to the possibility of love that expands far beyond the limited kind of thing associated with the love of “mine:” that is, “my” husband, “my” mother, “my” friend, or “my” child.

That limited kind of love is based on a sense of ownership: this person is “mine,” therefore, he or she must do or say what we want, otherwise, we’ll make them suffer by withholding lovingkindness from them and by refusing to forgive. When we fill our present moments with this ongoing anger and resentment, we’re creating for ourselves a misery of our own making, which simply doesn’t have to be. When we acknowledge that we don’t sit high up on some lofty, unimpeachable perch in our judgments of others – picking and choosing, “I love you for this, but by golly, I’ll make you pay for that” – we can get relationships back on a healthy footing by letting go of rigid expectations, broadening our views, and opening our hearts and minds to the whole person – his or her possibilities and mystery – instead of putting the person and ourselves in narrow little mind-boxes.

No more “us” vs. “them;” no more “me” vs. “you.” We feel not separation but connection. We no longer impose conditions on love. We set ourselves free from our inner control freaks. That’s the power of forgiveness. Through forgiveness and letting go of “me” and “mine” and the controlling feelings that arise from the ego, we develop our capacity for unconditional love, peace, and joy.

I’ll close with wise words from Zen Master Dōgen (yes, I’m a Dōgen Fan Girl 😉 ):

“Do not be concerned with the faults of other persons. Do not see others’ faults with a hateful mind. There is an old saying that if you stop seeing others’ faults, then naturally seniors and venerated and juniors are revered. Do not imitate others’ faults; just cultivate virtue. Buddha prohibited unwholesome actions, but did not tell us to hate those who practice unwholesome actions.”

Dharma Post #9: No More Samsara-ing

♫ ♫ ♫ “Samsara” — a piano sketch composed by me, Thomma Lyn ♫ ♫ ♫

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Someone asked, “What is ‘true insight’?”
The master said, “You have only to enter the secular, enter the sacred, enter the defiled, enter the pure, enter the lands of all the buddhas, enter the Tower of Maitreya, enter the dharma realm of Vairocana and all of the lands everywhere that manifest and come into being, exist, decay, and disappear.
~from The Recorded Sayings of Chan Master Linji Huizhao of Zhenzhou

As I review my Dharma Diary that spans over the past twelve months, I find, over and over again, a pointed instruction to myself: “No More Samsara-ing.” It appears in the very first entry of my diary, and its most recent appearance was only a few days ago. My need to remind myself “No More Samsara-ing” comes up again and again, on multiple levels and in numerous contexts, much like the turning of a wheel over ever-changing terrain.

Reminder to self: No More Samsara-ing.

Ha. Yet again. :)

Some explanation is in order. The literal meaning of samsara, a Sanskrit word, is “wandering on.” In Buddhism, samsaric existence is the life we lead – billions of “selves” with unquiet minds, endlessly searching and seeking, creating storylines for ourselves and others, constructing situations and circumstances – worlds – for ourselves in which we attempt to dwell, only to find that these worlds can’t last. They keep changing, morphing, even collapsing, and when we try to hold onto them, we suffer. And not only that: when we develop aversions to our worlds, we also suffer. Regardless of whether we grasp or reject the situations of our lives, we keep suffering, and as a result, we wander on and on, hoping that the next world, the next circumstance, will satisfy us and we’ll find peace at last.

Well, it doesn’t work.

I’m a novelist. A composer of music. A creator of all kinds, not the least of which the architect of my life. In the course of my trips around the sun – and particularly, in the course of my Dharma practice – I’ve learned (and continue to learn) that the worlds I create are no more permanent and enduring than the barest wisp of a thought entertained at the sight of a rare mushroom in the forest. I have a lot of fun playing in my fictional and musical worlds. Yet as I look back on my life, I see that not only have I suffered a great deal as a result of my many mind constructs but that other people have suffered from them, too. So it is, I suspect, with all of us.

It’s a strange thing, human thought and creativity. We become so invested in our views that we bend and distort what gets processed through our senses to where we can fit what we want into our view and ignore what’s left – what we don’t want to see – serving as the rationalization to continue our world-building, to continue turning on the wheel of samsara. We suffer, but then we often blame anything – or anyone – outside ourselves whom we can find as a handy scapegoat. It’s ironic that when we seek peace, we also look outside ourselves for its signposts, then continue our world-building to that end. Again, we wind up disappointed. We think peace and happiness are attainable only in samsaric existence and that we need only to build the right world to house our egos. That’s what we’re taught. That’s how we’re conditioned from birth. That’s how we develop layers of habitual reactivity, self-perpetuating negativity, and dissatisfaction.

Why is samsara an ongoing death spiral? It’s because we can never build a permanent, unchangeable edifice wherein our egos can dwell in perpetuity. That assumption is built on the idea of an unchanging self, which is nothing more than another delusion. Our “selves” change all the time, from year to year, month to month, moment to moment. “Self” is never the same. Like everything else in the world, we are all in a state of flux and flow. If we could somehow build a “perfect” and unchanging circumstance or situation in which our selves could dwell, the nature of self is such that we would eventually become dissatisfied because our “selves” – a dynamic process, not a static edifice – would change.

When we grasp something, that means we like it and we want to hang onto it. We cling with all our might to what we want to be its permanence. This dynamic is evident not only in our distaste for acknowledging our own mortality but also that of our loved ones. How paradoxical that we cling – even though we know such clinging is irrational and unrealistic – to the idea that our loved ones will be with us forever and ever, because such clinging to the idea of relationships as permanent often leads to taking these relationships for granted, thereby imperiling them. When we delude ourselves that our relationships will last forever, we don’t fully open our hearts to our families and friends and care for them as much as we might otherwise, if we acknowledged the fleeting and brief nature of our human lives.

Ajahn Brahm has a wonderful simile: we take much better care of a fragile, china cup than a comparatively indestructible plastic one. Why? We know the china cup will someday crack, so we handle it with care. The plastic cup, by contrast, can be thrown from wall to wall, and nothing much would happen. That’s why, when we stop clinging to the idea of permanence, we’re better able to care. We delude ourselves by clinging to the notion of permanence, when there’s no such thing in this world. In her song “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni Mitchell sings, “Don’t it always seem to go / That you don’t know what you’ve got / ‘Til its gone.” That’s a sad reality in many of our lives – attaching ourselves to the notion of something being permanent, only to find ourselves devastated when our hopes are inevitably dashed. So it seems to me that part of stopping samsara must be to care for each moment, whatever and whomever that moment is filled with, since the moment will never come again.

buddhism, dharma, meditation, mindfulness, samsara, dharma post

Aversion and rejection are part of samsara, too. Take worry, for instance. When we worry, we’re creating worlds that don’t exist. After all, what we’re worrying about might not happen at all. A big problem with worry is that when we immerse ourselves in its world, we expend a great deal of energy and emotion on possibilities that might never come to be. And a mind clouded by fear – the essence of worry, since worry is about fear of the future – cannot see anything with clarity. Fear bends and distorts everything that comes into our minds and twists it to its own ends, so the outcome of worry tends to be more worry, and the outcome of fear tends to be more fear. Instead of insight, we have delusion, and instead of skillful action through which we can handle situations in life with wisdom and compassion, we create more negativity and more wheels turning and turning. Many, many more. And all of them are of our own making. That’s the essence of samsara. No wonder the Buddha sought to find the path out of it and put an end to suffering.

What about true insight, to which Linchi refers in the quote above? In The Record of Linchi, he refers to “the ocean of birth and death.” That’s another way to describe samsara. People who believe in rebirth conceptualize awakening – that is, getting off the wheel of samsara – as putting a stop to a continual cycle of literal births and deaths. As with all spiritual paths, many interpretations are possible, and indeed, the Buddha encouraged questioning and investigation, both of which are integral to the path of the Dharma. I tend to think of “the ocean of birth and death” as the same thing as samsara, in which we create, in our minds, so many habitual responses and attitudes toward the things we experience in our lives, and these attitudes cause attachment – grasping or aversion – which results in suffering. Far better to climb out of the ocean, stand on the shore, and see the whole thing, in all its undulations, waves, ebbs, and flows for what it is than to spend our lives in a tempest-tossed boat, making our whole lives about what the water is doing at any given moment instead of realizing that not far away, there’s a shore on which we can stand upright with dignity, a shore from which we can get a clearer perspective on the whole ocean and from which we can, with greater stability, choose our actions.

Meditation and mindfulness can help us off the boat in which we feel ourselves at the mercy of the ocean of birth and death. In meditation practice, we see how the mind grasps and rejects, how thoughts arise and then fall away, and how we can always return to the breath, which gives us clarity. It’s the same thing with mindfulness practice, since returning to the breath – the calm center – helps us to develop insight and a more peaceful mind that doesn’t bend what comes in through the senses to suit the ego’s purposes.

We get off the wheel of samsara by letting go, letting go, letting go. We let go of views, we let go of self, we let go of judgment. It doesn’t mean we disappear. Letting go means developing a clear perspective on these things – that is, that ego and views and judgment do not, nor can they ever, define us or others. The more we let go, the more stable we are, the more calm we are, the more peace we can make with ourselves, with other people, and with life. This is what I think Chan Master Linchi was getting at when he spoke about true insight.

Consider all the tiny births and deaths that happen every day. On a hike, say, I find a rare ladyslipper orchid, breathtakingly beautiful by the side of a rugged mountain trail. A birth. On a subsequent hike, I find that the orchid has withered. A death. I spend lots of time preparing an extra-scrumptious meal and feel anticipation, culminating in my and my husband’s enjoyment of the meal. A birth. Then, the meal is gone, and there’s no more left. A death. I go to sleep at night. A death to the day that has passed. I find myself in a delightful dream. A birth. I wake up from the dream. It’s the death of the dream but a birth to the new day.

Instead of experiencing the moments of our lives as births and deaths – as an ongoing samsaric wheel in which we feel inextricably caught – we strive to experience with less clinging to outcomes, with more gratitude and mindful action, and with the clear recognition that our lives are, indeed, this and this and this.

Reminder to self: No More Samsara-ing.

I’ll end with one of my favorite teachings from Zen Master Dogen: “That you carry yourself forward and experience the myriad things is delusion. That the myriad things come forward and experience themselves is awakening.”