Lessons from a River

IMG_1505 (800x600)Sitting on the edge of the North River where I grew up, I feel the energies of the water’s flow, the water molecules and its soulsong moving through the landscape and through my own soul. Known for its rapids, it attracts many visitors in the spring (when its wild rush from snowmelt takes the breath away) and in the autumn (when the trees’ fiery colours blaze against the white foam). There are many places to sit amidst the rapids when the water is low enough, and that’s where most people like to sit, right in the heart of the dramatic whirl and rush of water as it crashes, engulfing the senses until you can hear nothing but water, water, water.

But it’s not here that I like to sit – I much prefer to be at the bottom of the rapids, where the drama ends and then there’s a flat stillness, where the bubbles and foam slowly pop as they moves downriver, the surface reflecting the trees and sky above. I sit on a rock and feel the rush of movement to my right, the great dramatic unfolding of the rapids. To my left is utter stillness, where the ducks and gulls are fishing. Right before me is where the two meet, slowing into stillness, settling into another current of energy. Where edges meet there is great power and learning.

I turn my head to the right and look back up to the rapids, and see my own thoughts as the rocks that the waters of my soul crash up against time and again, causing the water to explode high into the air or tumble in whirlpools, hitting one rock and then another on its way down. Those rocks are someone who still tries to upset, annoy, or undermine me and I smile to those rocks, compassion flowing though my soul and the through the landscape towards that person as I see their own personal suffering, even though I long ago decided I wouldn’t stick around for further abuse. I see my physical limitations, my body slamming against the rocks of rheumatoid arthritis and perimenopause, and the hidden rocks within my genes that may surface one day as breast cancer or high blood pressure. I smile to these rocks as well, knowing that even as I crash against them I am still moving around them, ever downriver towards the calm when there are no more rocks. I see a myriad of thoughts that my brain crashes against, creating dramas and I smile to all of these rocks, turning my head to follow the flow and see ahead of me where it begins to settle, as I settle upon my rock watching the willow leaves fall around me and into the river, a heron flying past.

I see that water is water, whether it is still or riding on great foaming crests that reach many metres into the sky. The water that roils is the same water that settles, and when all the obstacles are taken away it resolves to a beautiful and serene flat plain that reflects everything around it. Through meditation and compassion, integration with the world around me, seeing the soul behind the soul and the true nature of all existence, I too settle and reflect the world around me, a calm and peace from deep within. Though there may be more rapids ahead, I know the nature of water and of my own soul, for they are one and the same.

Toxic consumption

Leo Babuata’s recent blog post about reality came at a serendipitous moment when I was reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology“. It is often said that we create our own reality, but I think that those words are often misinterpreted. Those who are suffering from famine or abuse have not necessarily created that reality – everyone’s reality is also a combination of others’ reality. However, what Leo and Thay point out that it is what we consume that helps to create our reality.

We are a consumer culture, here in the West. Some of us are trying to bring more awareness to what we consume, whether that is in material goods, food, petrol or electricity consumption, etc. What Leo and Thay speak of however is what we are consuming with our soul, with our heart, with our brain, mainly through media but also in the form of speech, gossip, etc. Thay speaks eloquently about this matter, stating that a lot of what we visually consume from the media is toxic. We watch television shows that are violent, or that pit people against each other in dishonourable ways. We are influenced by advertising. We may speak ill or dishonestly of others, or about ourselves. When we are doing this, we are taking in a toxicity that affects our very being. We can stand up for ourselves, certainly, speaking out against injustice with honesty and awareness. It doesn’t mean we will never speak out. What it does mean is that we become engaged in our living, in our being, in a positive way that benefits the whole, not just the self.

Life is a choice, for the most part. We can choose to not take in this toxicity, or be a part of it. That is not to say that we shut ourselves off from what is happening in the world. We need to know of the suffering that is occurring in the world in order to help alleviate it. But we can say no to violence as entertainment, to disrespect someone in order to “pass the time”. Everyone knows the saying “You are what you eat”. Let’s open this out to everything else that we consume. We can choose to be a part of this world, aware of what is happening, without taking in the vast amounts of toxic images and words; it is within our power.

Be aware of the world. Know that people are suffering from a horrific tragedy in Kenya. Know that people are suffering in your own hometown. Know too that you can choose to not play violent video games, or watch gory movies, to intake that violence into your consciousness. You can fill your heart with peace and loving kindness – it is your choice. You don’t have to read that magazine with photoshopped men and women. You don’t have to comment negatively on someone’s Facebook status. You don’t have to gossip about someone, or read about it in the latest trashy mag. You choose what you put out there into the world.

When we fill ourselves with positive things instead of toxic things, we can hopefully make this world a better place. What are your thoughts?

Defeating the Goblin King

Dreams
I’m a big David Bowie fan, after having fallen in love with him as a young teenager, watching Jim Henson’s film, Labyrinth. He played the Goblin King, a creature who was used to getting things his own way – he was all powerful, and the Labyrinth was his to control. Or so he thought.

It’s a wonderful tale, of a young girl coming into adolescence, of learning that life is not always what it seems, and that life is unfair. It’s also about making friendships along the way, about being kind and also familial obligations. There are so many ways to interpret the film, and I thought to look at it from a Zen point of view. It was interesting.

Our thoughts often control us, without our even realising it. These thoughts, these intangible things, have so much power over our lives. We believe in our thoughts so much, and hold to them so much. We hold on so tightly to our thoughts, and to ourselves. Who would we be without our thoughts?

Yet in Zen we try to realise the control that our thoughts have over us, by acknowledging them, by becoming the observer. Bit by bit, as we sit in meditation and go through our daily lives, we begin to see patterns emerging. We may have a thought about ourselves – I’m artistic. We tell everyone that, reinforcing that thought. Yet that is not all that we are – we may be good with animals, gardening, maths, etc. The repetitive thoughts, the ones that we say over and over again to ourselves, become a reality for us. Yet they are still thoughts, not reality. There is no substance to them.

Of course, not all thoughts are bad. We need to think, to work out problems, to get out of bed in the morning even. It is in the attachment to the thoughts that gives them a false substance, a false reality. It also can give us great pleasure, living in this fantasy land of our thoughts – it means the hardships of real life cannot affect us there. We are safe, in the bubble of our thoughts.

Most of us spend a lot of time being controlled by our thoughts – we never even realise it. Much like Sarah, the protagonist in the film, was being controlled by the Jareth, the Goblin King without her knowledge, we aren’t even aware of the power that they hold over us. They make us run around in circles, not getting anywhere, simply thinking, thinking, thinking – where is the doing? Where is the experience? We get angry at someone, and have a thought about that. Then we attach to that thought, and it can affect us for the rest of the day, week, year, or our entire lives. We all have emotional responses to situations, and thoughts about everything – but the attachment to them is where stumble and fall on each and every step. There is no progress – we’ve fallen down the oubliette of our thoughts until we are completely trapped in a small, dark and confined space.

Instead of simply experiencing the anger and then letting it go, we’ve become a prisoner of our thoughts about the situation. And all the while, the Goblin King laughs to himself, safe in his tower, loving to watch us run around in circles as the sands of time run out.

When we sit in zazen, however, we begin to notice our thoughts, our patterns of behaviour. By being the observer, we can take a step back from our thoughts and look at them without attaching to them. We can see the physical manifestations of them in our body as well – a contraction in our jaw, the hunching of our shoulders, our heart beating faster. By becoming aware, of thoughts, and indeed, of all our surroundings, we are better able to respond to situations than before. Sarah didn’t see through the illusion for a long time in the film – even though she was reminded by other characters, time and again, that nothing is what it seems. Slowly though, the illusion wavered, and the cracks in the false reality began to show. The bubble was broken, and Sarah was somewhat freed, for a time. When she finally saw through the illusion fully, and took the great leap into the unknown, literally and figuratively, that’s when she was able to come face to face with the Goblin King himself, to bring him out of hiding and face him in a final battle.

So, after much practice in zazen, after much meditation and time spent being the observer to all the thoughts that run around in our head, without getting caught up in them, we face them down. We say “enough” – we are not going to be controlled by them any longer. We see the thoughts for what they are. The thoughts fight back, with everything that they’ve got – Jareth holds out the most potent, alluring thing that we all hold so dear – our dreams. He offers them to Sarah, but Sarah now sees through the false reality. She then recites the final lines from her book back to the Goblin King, saying the powerful, magical words that will defeat him.

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City, to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.”

Those six words – “you have no power over me” is what can release us from the labyrinth of our minds, from the traps that our thoughts can create when we attach to them. We suddenly become free, to experience, to return to our pure self, to break loose of the chains and to truly live life to the fullest.

So, the next time we fall into despair, wishing our lives were different, we can simply say those six words – you have no power over me. When our minds are rushing around as we try to meditate, we simply observe them without getting caught up in them, and repeat you have no power over me. When someone says something nasty to us, we feel the emotion, we react (hopefully with compassion) and then we let the experience go, without attaching to it, simply by saying you have no power over me.

Then and only then can the Goblin King be defeated, and we freed from the labyrinth of our minds.

Though, I must admit, I’m sure some of us would prefer to stay in there with David Bowie 😉