Like most of us, I have been shaken by recent events in the U.S. and abroad and I feel anxious about what my next notification fromThe New York Times will say. When I started practicing mindfulness, I believed it would eventually bring me a clear and permanent understanding of life that would allow me to always feel comfortable and solid. I thought all that sitting, slow walking and paying attention with intention would provide me a feeling of groundedness.
Not really. I’ve found that the more I practice mindfulness, the more my security erodes. And the more I look deeply into my life as it is, the less anything feels solid or predictable. And that turns out to be a good thing.
Here is my dog, sleeping next to my foot as I type away on the computer. My mind is filled with thoughts about him: he’s the anxious one who nips at men who approach too quickly, he’s had some past trauma, he is warm and cuddly. These thoughts are ideas generated by my own mind, they aren’t him. When I reach down and touch Roger, my fingers register “soft” for the moments I am petting him. But can I ever really understand or define Roger?
“THE BAD NEWS IS YOU’RE FALLING THROUGH THE AIR, NOTHING TO HOLD ONTO, NO PARACHUTE. THE GOOD NEWS IS, THERE’S NO GROUND.” — CHOGYAM TRUNGPA RINPOCHE
The same question arises for my husband, my sister, or my desk. Whatever I think I know about them is based on a limited number of my own past experiences, not always involving them. I have a working definition of each of them which is influenced by the way my brain happens to put historical information together and how I am feeling in that moment. Pretty flimsy perception, isn’t it? And yet we make all kinds of decisions, including whether to love or hate, hug or shoot, based on limited and very biased information.
In one of his densest teachings, the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha said, “In a place where there is something that can be distinguished by signs, in that place there is deception.” Meaning, the moment I identify something and name it — my dog Roger, for example — I deceive myself. That’s because when I think I know who or what something is, I have crammed something infinite and fluid into a finite box with a label on it. Conversely, when I recognize that the black and brown mass lying next to my foot isn’t only what my brain holds in the box labeled “Roger” and is really something so much more, then I begin to see who Roger really is.
Gene Gendlin, author of Focusing describes experience in terms of a felt sense, which is always something more than words can describe. My current non-verbal felt sense of Roger gets closer to reality, but it’s still not the full enchilada. That’s because Roger as a separate being doesn’t exist. Roger is a concept used to describe a collection of sights, sounds, smells, thoughts, perceptions, etc. What I perceive as Roger is as much about my own mind and background as it is about his.
Without everything that Roger has encountered in his short life, he wouldn’t be who he is now. It’s all in there — his mother and father, his litter-mates, his earlier homes, the food he eats, our family, my idea of him — all of it. Like a rainbow, which is created by an interaction between the atmosphere, the sun, and the human retina, Roger is made of many non-Roger elements.
Quantum physics would say that Roger, as we now see him, is simply a temporary densification of matter. Roger is a momentary happening. As am I, as are you. And the further we move away from the present moment, the less we can predict about what or who Roger is. After this moment, all bets are off. This Roger lasts only this moment, the next moment the being I call Roger has changed. It gets pretty unfathomable, doesn’t it?
In his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Thich Nhat Hanh says:
As long as we are still caught up in ideas and signs, we are blinded by them. When we walk in the dark, we cannot see reality as it is. But when we are free of the concepts of signs — of forms, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile objects, and objects of mind — we are like those with perfect vision walking in the midday sun. We can see directly into the world of “wondrous reality,” where everything reveals its true nature.
So what about the floor underneath me, or even the earth? How do I know they will hold me when I take my next step? Well, I really don’t know. There is nothing necessarily keeping me from careening through the universe. There is something called gravity and something called earth. But, like Roger, they are always in flux. I don’t find any permanency or safety here either, but appreciate that they keep showing up. It turns out that instead of security and stability, practicing mindfulness has given me a bigger sense of awe and its resulting gratitude.
When I have this insight of groundlessness, I know that nothing can be counted on to stay the same from one moment to the next, so I continue to be grateful and surprised each time my husband walks through the door and is happy to see me, or when a cool breeze flows through my open window on a humid Washington DC night. And even these moments of groundlessness are impermanent.
But feeling gratitude and awe isn’t always enough. I also want to act in ways that help reduce suffering and generate more happiness. Fortunately, gratitude and awe may be the real ground on which any truly helpful actions can be made in the world. When we approach others with wonder and gratitude rather than smug sureness, we recognize that, like us, they are made of unlimited influences and aspects. Objects and beings are so expansive we can never truly grasp them using limited concepts like nouns and names.
When a furry little creature snuggles up closer to me — the little creature formerly known as Roger — rather than assume I know who and what he is, my practice reminds me to wonder. So I smile and then I reach down to let him know how happy I am that he is there, by gently stroking his terrier beard. It feels like a real moment of connection, one infinite being to another.