“Spiritual practice is not just sitting and meditating. Practice is looking, thinking, touching, drinking, eating, and talking. Every act, every breath, and every step can be practice and can help us to become more ourselves.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
“Mindfulness is not difficult; we just need to remember to do it.” ~ Sharon Salzberg
“What are you using that time for? Are you using your time to worry or using your time to live?” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
It’s not hard to love people when they’re silent. On silent retreats, especially those with extended periods of quiet and intensive meditation practice, I can send metta and imagine my fellow retreatants in perfect health. I can wish they have no sorrow and their lives be filled with joy. Fast forward to the end of the retreat and my dedicated practice of openhearted friendliness and wishing the best for others can come to a screeching halt when they open their mouths. Even after deep realizations about our interconnectedness, our non-self nature and how we are caught in habit patterns, all these valuable and worthy insights seem to evaporate when we are faced with folks behaving the way they sometimes do. All our insights and wisdom are put to the test in relationship, in working and living with others who may say or do the wrong thing. Showing up as a part-time Buddha in our real life is what we are practicing for.
A week ago, I was on staff at the For a Future to be Possible retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. What is both wonderful and challenging about Blue Cliff is that it’s a place where we are embodying the Dharma in a relational way. It’s a sort of mindfulness lab where we can experience mindful living in community. We practice mindful working, eating, communicating, and even being a mindful roommate. For this retreat, I came with the expectation of encountering confusion and clarity, moments of disconnection and community, and times when folks liked what I did when they didn’t—and I wasn’t disappointed. I met all of that and more.
In life and on retreat we encounter the Eight Worldly Winds or vicissitudes that blow through life. The Buddha was the ultimate systems analysist. He saw all life as functioning in conjunction with the concert of wholeness and that our perception is a small fragmented piece of what is truly arising. In the Lokavipatti Sutta, AN 8:6, the Buddha described a way to understand our experience of being in relationship with others and ourselves using the teaching of the Eight Worldly Winds. They are a codified example of the moving and fluid nature of our perception—and a reminder that our experience is not as personal as we think. The Worldly Winds are presented as pairs, with one aspect being something desirable and pleasant, and the other—not so much: they are gain and loss, status and disgrace, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.
You may have shared this experience of encountering one email praising us for something we’ve done and another letting us know that the exact same thing did not meet another’s needs—both on the same day. Because of the ingrained negativity bias in humans, we may find the email not liking what we did, sticks in our minds. It’s easy to run past the praise, dismissing it as coming from someone who’s easy to please, or that what we’ve done isn’t really that great—and we may find it easy to focus on criticism and get caught analyzing how we have missed the mark for the other person.
The negativity bias is part of our biological evolutionary strategy and was a useful tool for our ancestors who needed to be aware of the poison berries, the snake that bites, the warlike tribe or person who threatens our lives. We humans got very adept as distinguishing threat and avoiding it to protect our gene line and this biological evolutionary adaptation is still in play today. Although most of us don’t have to focus on which roots are edible and which will kill us, we, as a species, still give priority attention to what harms us and makes life dangerous.
Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, Ph.D. tells us that in relationship we store up the bad and skip over the good—so much so, that it takes five positive interactions to diminish the sting of one negative encounter. We are so sensitized to criticism that we as a species tend to overestimate threat and interpret another person’s disapproval as dangerous and threatening. We can get very tight and defended when we encounter the downside of the Worldly Winds. What can help to keep us in an open relational state are two things. The first is to recognize that in moments when we are not hearing the acknowledgment or acceptance we are longing, that this is our turn at experiencing disapproval. We can remind ourselves that we also experience praise and that both these shifting winds are temporary, inconsistent, and depend upon conditions. The second way to practice is to bring our own care and compassion into this experience and to let ourselves be fully present without pushing away this feeling of sadness, disappointment, or hurt. We can look deeply at our instrument of emotion—our body—noting where this experience directly in the body. What does it feel like to be blamed? Where does it live in the body—in the flushed cheeks, the constricted throat, the burning of adrenalin in the hands? Can we stay with the sensations as they too shift and live out the life of this impermanent emotion?
A young nun on the retreat shared her experience with anger with me and a group of teens. She said she was aware when she was hurt and angry there was the desire to hurt the other person as much as they had hurt her. When we look at the range of experience we have in life, the hurt can take on a different meaning. It can be the portal to the way we practice with this condition in the world—the condition of blame or bad reputation. Doing our best to live in accordance with the Dharma involves actively working to reconcile and address these hurts and miscommunications as they occur. It takes bravery and vulnerability to stop continuing in the same pattern of aversion and distancing. Seeing these moments as part of this greater system of life can allow us to see these painful experiences not as torture and grounds for war, but as practice opportunities.
When I find myself tossed about by the changing winds, I remind myself, oh, this is what blame feels like. It doesn’t feel good—and I can be present for this too. I care about this feeling. The simple joy of fearlessly feeling what we feel can be a surprising balm for the painful side of the Worldly Winds. And moment after moment, we learn to trust that we can befriend ourselves through both gentle breezes and the wildest storms.
May we all trust our light,