Over and over, the seeds all get planted;
Over and over, the rain-god sprinkles rain.
Over and over, the farmer farms the field;
Over and over, the food grows in the realm.
Over and over, beggars do their begging;
Over and over, the givers give out gifts.
Over and over, the giver who has given;
Over and over, goes to a better place.
Over and over, he tires and he struggles;
Over and over, the fool goes to the womb.
Over and over, he’s born and he dies;
Over and over, they bear him to his grave.
But one whose wisdom is wide as the earth
Is not born over and over,
For he’s gained the path
Of not becoming over again.
~SN 7.12 PTS, Udaya Sutta: Breaking the Cycle
translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki
This past week there were big shifts in my life, and I recognized my old friends, anxiety and fear, who invariably arrive when I am facing change. I felt the familiar restlessness in my body and the scrambling in my mind and I could say, “I know this.” This understanding made these two characters less intimidating and their arrival was far less terrifying than in the past. They lacked the power to take away my sleep and keep my mind twirling about how to escape difficulties and change the unchangeable. In fact, they were—predictable and sort of boring. I could see that they were arising out of habit, both with the lovely intention of keeping me safe and sound. I could also see through them to the fear that this shift of circumstances awoke, the real vulnerability of living in a transient body that longs for security in an insecure world. We know that life does not give us any guarantees and things can and do change all the time. This is the essential insecurity that calls for us to be unrelenting champions for ourselves.
There is a word samsara (Pali/Sanskrit), which signifies the endless rounds of rebirth we engage in. According to scholar-monk Thanissaro Bhikkhu, samsara directly translates as “wandering on.” Samsara is the big picture of repeated life cycles, the endless rounds of birth and death the Buddha spoke about, but samsara is not limited to actual births and deaths. The cycle of samsara is constantly arising. We can change our environment, move across the country, go to therapy, do all the things we should—and remarkably, we can find ourselves still caught in the stickiness of repeated habits. This is samsara in real-time.
The Buddha described the system of repeated action in The Twelve Links of Dependent Origination. This system begins with the avijja, the fundamental ignorance of how things really are. We think we are a discrete entity with a birth and death date, and we are, but we are also more than that. When we lose sight of our interconnectedness, our non-self nature and forget, we tend to repeat the behavior and “become” again. We become the angry person, or the righteous individual, we become the victim, the rescuer, the depressed one, the wronged, the winner, the loser. When we agree with these arisings, we are back on the wheel of suffering. The Buddha asked his followers:
Which is greater, the tears you have shed while transmigrating & wandering this long, long time — crying & weeping from being joined with what is displeasing, being separated from what is pleasing — or the water in the four great oceans?… This is the greater: the tears you have shed… (SN 15.3)
While creating time and intention to practice may seem daunting, when we look in the rearview mirror of our lives, we can see the ample tears that have marked our lives and the cost is exhaustion. The question becomes, where do we want to put our energy? Into reliving the same pain and experiences, or into finding liberation? Both take effort.
With patience, we can learn to stay and see the arising and passing of mind states—even ones that look so daunting. Carefully titrating the dosage of suffering can allow us to stay present with ourselves without overwhelm. This relentless determination to be a compassionate presence can help to break the bonds of samsara and release us from reacting to our same triggers over and over again. When we can see these patterns, without becoming swallowed by the big feelings, we have taken a step towards the shore of liberation. The willingness of learning to stay, to accompany ourselves on our journey with all its joy and sorrow takes energy, but it provides us with a true refuge. We become the very place of shelter that we are searching for and when we can find this solidity in ourselves, we are beyond the reach of fear.
May we all trust our light,