In his book The heart of the Buddha’s teaching, Thich Nhat Hanh tells us:
We may think that our restlessness is ours alone, but if we look carefully we will see that it is our legacy from all of our society and from many generations of our ancestors. Individual consciousness is made of collective consciousness, and collective consciousness is made of individual consciousness.
Like much of his work, this reminder is premonitory, especially as we continue to navigate evolving coronavirus protocols, the escalating climate emergency, and the deadlocks in US policy that end. the possibility of a truly progressive and human-centered policy. In juxtaposition to these extremes, we might get the impression that we are standing still, that we are not progressing on our path, or that we no longer have a choice about how we come to exist.
These moments don’t have to be a disruption. They are an opportunity to recognize impermanence and to recognize the roots of our suffering.
From the little time of trying out a new recipe to the big time of asking a lover if he would like to be exclusive, states of not knowing live on the same plane of existence. This is where this danger lies against which Thich Nhat Hanh warns us concerning the collective conscience. When we are bombarded with the public discourse of our “unprecedented times”, no matter how small the problem, we are likely to get lost in the narrative of what we think about our suffering. We allow outside influences to immerse us more deeply into the worldly truth of our thoughts and feelings instead of recognizing that in these liminal waters of uncertainty, fear and helplessness will intensify.
Recognition is not an easy task.
Last summer, I built an intimate relationship with fear and helplessness. I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager, and this particular season of heaviness made me think that I could never “get better”. The fear of looking down the road and finding myself constantly in the grip of depression was present. So was the helplessness of my mind’s narration that “that’s all, that’s all, that’s all that will ever be and you have no choice.”
These thoughts are mental formations, or chitta samskara. Anything else that is made – whether it is a plant or our fear and helplessness – is mental formation, and just like unpredictability itself, these formations are present at all times. These are aspects of our consciousness that come from healthy and unhealthy seeds (kleshas), which will be watered and fertilized differently, depending on our current situation and our individual life experience. External triggers “water” these seeds and allow them to take root. Our current societal conditions, for example, have “watered” and reinforced our fear, helplessness and uncertainty to the improved states many of us feel today. I suffered from these effects during the depressive episode this summer, but the feeling has always been there. Ignorance of that time magnified the feelings. I would dare to guess that whatever your particular seed of pain, the same has happened to you. What’s left out in the conversation is that it’s actually a dynamic space to be in.
Dharma invites us to embrace these often painful energies as teachers. When a feeling of an unhealthy seed comes to the surface, we should witness it gently. That alone takes strength. Allow yourself to be a living person fill the holes the feeling may require some degree of release. When our suffering is deep, this invitation can seem even more difficult to navigate, the heaviness too heavy to bear. Whatever the feeling, however, allowing yourself to go to its depths can help you touch the emptiness of emotion.
If we can recognize and accept our pain without pushing it away or holding onto it, we can better see that the joys and sorrows are really the same. By letting go and touching the void, we can then choose a compassionate response.
Consider the seeds of uncertainty, fear and helplessness that have taken root and sprouted to the surface within you. With sweet curiosity, you may ask: what does this seedling look like? How does it move in your body? Can you give it a sound? If you could touch it, how would you feel? This intimacy can lead you to see what actions you take in response to these seeds and to know your usual responses. With creative wisdom, you can investigate your unhealthy seeds and note, “This one drags me to the bottom, but here is bodhichitta too.”
Once spotted and identified, the seedling must be properly maintained. It is to appeal to good diligence. With diligence, you can get back to your agency. Instead of this unhealthy seed being unwanted suffering or vulnerability where we might collapse on ourselves, we can recognize what that pain looks and feels like and how we can move forward towards a skillful and compassionate response.
It is the joy of being in the middle and looking into the disturbance. It is from this place that we can choose to take the next steps that anchor us on our uncertain paths.
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