The fact is there is no escape from the pain of losing what we love and inevitably become attached to. No escape from the fear, confusion, anger and broken heartedness that comes with the territory of human relationship or simply being Life in the form of a human body. There is no escape from the fall, no escape from the hard landing and no escape from that dark bottom of the well where we find ourselves at these times. When the outcomes of these encounters are painful or even “disastrous”, is it possible to see them not as failures but rather potential dharma gates of deeper compassion, understanding, forgiveness and loving kindness? Is it possible to really meet these times, no matter how agonizing, with an open heart? To meet even the heart that shrinks in pain and fear with gentle attention even when it seems that every fiber in our body and mind want to just get away? This is the heart of our practice and unless we want some artificial, dualistic, imaginary practice we must learn to work with them as such; facing all of this on and off the cushion and meeting these moments that at some times seem to stretch on endlessly with an awareness that allows whatever is there to simply be there. If there is sadness, be there with it as long as it needs your presence. The same with fear, worry, anger, rage, feelings of rejection and failure, broken heartedness and loneliness. This is not about thinking our way out, but rather about learning our way into these seemingly awful times through the power of attention. This is a fierce practice that requires a fiercely loving heart; a loving heart that can hold and contain even the heart that’s broken.
Two ancients comment on this experience of finding oneself at the bottom of the well. Case 10, from the Mumonkan has a student pleading to his teacher saying, “I am Ching Shui, solitary and destitute. Please give me alms.” (teacher) “Ching Shui!!” “Yes.” He answers. “You have already drunk three cups of the finest wine in China and yet you say your lips are not yet moist.” This is a koan that deserves it own exclusive commentary, but for our situation it is useful in the following way: How is it for you when you find yourself like our ancient monk; solitary and destitute? When you figuratively find yourself at the bottom of the pit of your agonizing life situation and you are alone? You are destitute. You are deeply grieved and grieving. At these moments even though we may have people who care for us, we are cut off, unreachable, solitary and destitute. And how can it be otherwise? It can be helpful to talk with friends, a therapist or teacher, but can anyone really reach us when we have lost a child, a partner, a loved one, received a devastating medical diagnosis? When we find that our mind or body is not the immortal and invulnerable something we had thought it was? When we suddenly realize that we are “old”? When we realize that we may not see old age? May not see our children grow up? When the self-image that we hold onto so tightly and identify with so completely or the future we envisage and so desperately hope for is completely shattered or called deeply into question? We want so desperately to be comforted. We want so desperately to be held in a way that just makes it go away; makes it somehow all ok, as though simply because it is painful and frightening it is not ok. And in a certain way it really is not ok. How could anything that so completely throws us down the well be ok? Life makes no mistakes and at some point if we are to truly be alive and free regardless of our life situation, we simply must learn to live beyond the limited images and hopes to which we so desperately cling. As Joko Beck once said, “The one thing in life we can truly count on is Life being exactly how it is.” For some losses, disappointments, betrayals, devastating life changes there is nothing that will make the pain go away and nothing that will mend the rupture that we find ourselves to in fact be. We are that pain, and trying to get rid of it creates a conflict in the mind between what is and what should be that only makes the fire burn more searingly. There is, however, a second part to this koan that indicates what is possible for us in such extreme conditions. But first, here is Ikkyu’s take on the matter:
Frogs at the bottom of a well
There we are face down in the muddy-yuk of our life, thrashing around solitary and destitute, looking maybe even quite ridiculous to onlookers, feeling sorry for ourselves and angry that this happened to “me.” Who’s to say that this is wrong or should be some other way? So very right!! Just this mess, this pain, this confusion, this longing! And when someone calls out “Susan!”, “Bob!” “Doug!” do we not lift our face up out of the mud, look up and answer “yes!”? At that moment, who answers? Is the one who answers solitary and destitute, still thrashing around in the mud in the agony of self-pity, fear or judgment? At that moment who are you?!
The key to working with our “having tumbled down condition” is to see that even at the moment of impact things have changed already and that this moment is not what we think it is. In fact, it is not what we “think” at all! Thinking is always “old”; just a bit behind the curve of life, if you will. Have you looked closely enough, deeply enough? Have you let your situation speak to you its’ complete truth without your assumptions, presuppositions and images of how it should or could be? How will you know if and when this situation and what it stirs up is finished with you, rather than when you are finished with it? Can you see that thinking about whatever is present in your life right now is quite different from what is actually here right now? Have you really become so completely attentive that there is no “you” there observing and hence no separation at all? Are you willing to not feel better too quickly and to follow this pain right down to its roots? This is demanding and austere practice, but if you have not done it then there is more work to do; if you have done it, there is probably still more work to do. And there is no one, absolutely no one, who can do it but you. It is important to have companions on the Way and someone who can encourage you onward with the confidence of having walked this Way before, but only you can do the work of your life. To go so completely into this moment that “you” disappear: What is that? Then, who are you? Are you the one who suffers, or are you the One who knows?
Where is your True Home? Where and how do you really want to live the precious moments you have?
The Buddha points us this way,
Do not cling to the past. Do not lose
yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet
come. Looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, the
yogi dwells in stability and freedom.
In this way, even the very bottom of the deepest well becomes the most correct place of our practice. Whatever this moment is, we can learn to dwell here in stability and freedom, not mourning a past that no longer exists nor jumping into a future which we fear or hope for. And if grief and fear are a part of this present moment we can meet them with kind attention, allowing them their rightful place without encouraging them to stay any longer than they need to. In this way we may find ourselves suddenly out of our imprisoned condition in the well and free once again. Until the next time.
– A Clearly Enlightened Person Falls