Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Swimming Upstream

I remember reading once that the Buddha said the path to liberation is like swimming upstream. It's completely against the current. At the time I thought about this statement in an intellectual way. 'Okay, so it's against the norm. Sure, I can see that. Choosing to live your life authentically, to step outside of the herd, so to speak, yes -- that's swimming upstream.'

I can see now that this was small thinking on my part. It's good to remind myself that the Buddha always spoke from experience, not simply from ideas or opinions floating around in his head.

My goal this morning was to sit for an hour. I made it about forty minutes in, which is fine. I'm not so sure the amount of time really matters all that much right now. The fact that I am sitting, this is enough. But sometimes I get this dreaded feeling when I'm getting ready to sit. I know how hard it's going to be, and I start to dread it. Sometimes this dread leads me to avoidance all together, or excuse making, various task-doing until I simply run out of time. It takes a certain real quality of discipline to acknowledge all of that, and still do the insane thing -- sit anyway.

This is what is meant by swimming upstream. I sit anyway. And sure enough, for the first twenty minutes it's as if I were trying to paddle my way upstream, against the current. The current of the stream is the constant thought flow, the desire to go sleep or get up and wash dishes, get lost in thought, think about yesterday or tomorrow, create my grocery list. To swim against this stream is to let it all go.

What's particularly hard about this, what makes it truly swimming against the stream, is that it's also a terrific balancing act. There's a certain amount of effort required to tune into the present moment, to have the mindfulness to return again and again when the mind constantly, out of old deep habits, wanders off down stream. So, I push and I paddle. I get angry with myself. I feel frustrated every time the current takes me. I can feel myself tightening inside -- the breath constricting, my eyelids clamping down instead of easefully shut.

This is now trying too hard. One must let go. Relax. Release. Be gentle. But not too gentle, not too relaxed... because there you go, falling asleep. Where's the breath? Am I even awake right now?

Even though I sat today for forty minutes I could have sat for an hour and the "sit" would have been much the same. This is what they mean when they say the spiritual path is like swimming upstream. If I paddle too hard, I'll wear myself out and drown. If I don't paddle at all, I'll simply be swept down the river with all the other fish.

There are certain virtues that we need to take along with us on this journey. All of the great religions talk about it. To be close to God, whatever you concieve that to be, requires a lot of faith. Surrender. Devotion. And even patience.
(Note: Buddhism, however, is not a religion in this sense. It never speaks of "God" as it is more of an eastern psychology, than an eastern religion.)

I find the notion of taking refuge really helpful at this point in the practice. Taking refuge is like taking solace -- it's a kind of reassurance. For over 2500 years people have struggled, just like I am struggling, to meditate and they've made it through to the other side. When I think of all those that have come before me, who have made this struggle, I feel a sense of connection. This was hard for them too. When I think of Siddartha himself, I am especially encouraged and feel tremendous compassion, as well as gratitude for what he did. I'm fortunate to have the dhamma -- books upon books written by others to help guide me along, to tell me how and what and why. Siddartha had nothing. He didn't even have the method. He had to discover it all on his own. I can't hardly imagine having the insight that if I just sat in one place, with all of these particular qualities at work -- concentration and equanimity -- that this would be the way to liberate the spirit from the cage of the mind. What a miraculous gift he brought into the world! 
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