Come from the shadows
The poison of ignorance is spread through desire, passion and ill-will. One who abandons the arrow of craving and expels the poison of ignorance is one rightly intent on Nibbana.
- Majjhima Nikaya, 105
It is hard to think of fighting the forces of greed, hatred and delusion "out there" when they are very much within us. We march for peace and attend rallies and vigils but true peace in the world must begin with personal disarmament. It is an interior work that each of us can nurture through moral vigilance and spiritual discipleship and its hiddenness does not make it any less powerful.
We can see how this inner turmoil is ever present, how the world assaults us day by day, bombarding the six sense media from all directions. We are pierced by the arrow of craving and wounded with the poison of ignorance. Mara's well-disguised messengers continue to crowd into our consciousness. Beguiled, we welcome them. "Come in, take over, it's OK." As always, they fail to keep their promises.
We thirst and cling and grasp, trying to prop up the body, succumbing again and again to the tyranny of the senses, to desire and aversion, the lust for things and the escape from them. We live on the precipice of fear, in dread of waking up, of seeing how, repeatedly, we make ourselves ill or empower other people to make us ill, or how an insidious unrest touches everything around us.
Still we are ignorant about the nature of our suffering, oblivious to the cause of the poison in our hearts. We try many kinds of remedies and antidotes, making choices and organising our lives in futile attempts to gain control. We may become addicted to pills and outside therapies, even retreats, to calm down. There is nothing wrong with these. But they are just placebos. They give temporary relief from our pain or disquiet without ministering to the illness itself.
Under the veneer of contentment, we are too busy to see what we are doing, too restless to stop or to keep our minds still. It isn't just a shifting around so that we can find the right posture or the right set of conditions in life; it's a deep inner angst.
At first this sense of disquiet manifests as nascent feelings that we would never have allowed ourselves to feel before and that expose how wounded we are, how tired, how ill. We begin to recognise our entanglement, the stress we are holding, how disappointed or angry we are - at ourselves or our friends, at our children or our parents, our loved ones or our ex-loved ones, the world, our jobs, our bodies, our lives.
Actually, this restlessness is a cry of urgency, of samvega. It is the first glimmering, an unconscious step towards waking up to our vulnerability and the immanent danger we are in. Intuitively, we realise that if we carry on in this way, we are like ghosts, robots. We may be very busy, rushing from one important activity to another, but we are not really living our lives - we are not consciously in our bodies, nor can we authentically connect to what we are feeling.
This is living like a cardboard cut-out of a human being, swaddled in cotton wool and well-concealed and disguised so that we don't have to feel our fear, or acknowledge how angry we are, or touch our grief. We cope. And the more unskilful the ways of coping we adopt, the worse our condition becomes - until the mind gives up, or wakes up.
This is a rare and redemptive insight. It is a gift of intuitive wisdom revealed in the most simple act - contemplating or sitting quietly in the forest, listening to the birds, feeling a sense of wonder and stillness. Unexpectedly, the whirlwind of mental passions and habitual thoughts that spin us around on the ferris wheel of samsara - the desires, craving and unrest, the opinions we have about ourselves and others - fall silent. For a moment, we are not thinking.
At that moment, what is it that we experience for the first time? Maybe we notice the delightful song of a bell bird dissolving all the incessant chatter in the mind. Or we stop to witness, with rapt awe, the setting of the sun or rejoice at the sight of a butterfly poised on a leaf. In these acts of pure listening or pure seeing, we relinquish all thoughts of past and future and we enter the silence of the heart.
That silence protects the cittaviveka or seclusion of the mind. We are able to see or hear and know what truly is seen, heard and known with unsullied attention, curiosity and reverence. Such a moment may be recaptured in the exquisite purity of a mother tenderly gazing at her newborn child. It is to approach Kuan Yin, Mother of Compassion herself, and light the flame on her shrine. When it doesn't light, we don't grab it and say, "Come on, you, light, hurry up!"
Pure unconditional love is not like that. It has an attitude of caring for the moment. We sit with the interior candle. We devote ourselves to it patiently. All the resources that we need, all the ingredients for illumination are already there - the wax, the wick and the match; mindfulness and discernment, our experience of the world, and clear perception of it in sense-consciousness. When these come together in the right way, the flame of wisdom ignites.
Each of us can manifest this quality, but we have to sit very still and be so patient, mindful and all-forgiving as the moment unfolds. The Buddha sits in our own hearts - the true, uncontaminated, untainted energy of enlightenment that is available to each of us if we are able to rest in it, open to it, feel it, taste it, offer ourselves to it, surrender to it.
But even as we experience this quality of mind, disquiet, discomfort and dis-ease can easily compel us yet again to wander in pursuit and even worship of pleasant experience; and to run from and resist what is true. We find ourselves caught in the snare of samsara - not feeling, not daring to see what we really need to see in order to extract the poison of ignorance from our hearts.
We resolve to be vigilant and hugely compassionate to ourselves - applying our mental skills, the power of mindfulness and clear seeing, and the ability to navigate with them, especially in difficult moments. We return again and again to simplicity and stillness. And with faith and courage, we undertake to study ourselves, to let go the identification with 'self' as we look at, investigate and feel our stuff. We invite it in without resistance. We make it welcome.
This is our mandate - to be disciples of the moment, to approach our pain with compassionate honesty, to sit with patient resolution facing whatever destructive emotions may arise - self-pity, regret, negativity, boredom, anxiety. We won't die of any of these. But they can destroy us and they do - each time we are driven out of present-moment awareness, prised away from a direct experience of truth by our 'need' to get up and go somewhere, do something else, talk to someone, start a project, surf the net, have a cup of tea.
Each time, we return and begin again. We reaffirm our willingness to remain attentive, with pure intention and mindfulness, close to the silence and solitude long enough to enter deeply into the moment. We tenderly approach and touch what is present - fear or despair or restlessness or joy and excitement - and we begin to see the peril of the corrosive mind that keeps toppling into the past and spilling into the future. Even the joy is dissolving, and disappointment follows on its heels. Until we see this, we remain disconnected from what is true, believing that what is impermanent and disintegrating almost imperceptibly within and all around us is stable, that the festering wound will heal by itself.
We have the power to meditate and observe the seasons of our hearts until right view matures enough for us to see that we are not our thoughts; to develop a calm abiding through the worst tempests of fear or despair until light illumines our consciousness and enables us to come face to face with all the internal monsters. We can feel them, not in our heads - but here, in the body, and, in this way, reach the very centre of that burning. We sit in the flames and burn!
Being still enough to witness the origin of our suffering helps us to understand how each one of us is its very architect, and how we serve the unwholesome energies of the mind. At first, we are so afraid of that burning - until we discover that it is actually the fire of enlightenment, unveiling the truth of our own purity, our true nature.
We dare to peel away the layers of perception, to see the instability of everything of this world and its inherent emptiness. We watch the relentless currents of empty phenomena arising and ceasing in a river of impermanence, the memories and projections, fantasies and moods, judgments and obsessions, and how our habitual reactions to them - grasping, clinging, denial or rejection - overwhelm us. Giving way to them brings us greater harm and undermines the possibility of purifying the mind. Giving way to anxiety takes us to more anxiety, anger to more anger, grief to more grief and so on.
But when we feel distress or rage and consciously experience the quality of its energy without judgment, we disempower it, we tame and transform it with compassion. When we allow ourselves to open and be with it, penetrating through to the pure experience of it, perseveringly, and resolve to see it for what it really is, then we awaken.
Ask, "How can I heal? How can I extract the poison arrow?" To avoid getting caught again, we can let go the wanting to know why it is there, let go the 'because', let go the blaming mind, the guilty mind, all those aimless or negative thoughts and self-obsessed habits of mind. They will never free us. They are the chains that imprison us and keep us from experiencing true happiness and wisdom.
Knowing the thoughts and moods of the mind enables us to extract the arrow, apply the antidote to the poison within us with compassionate understanding, and face whatever demon arises in the heart and say, "I know what you are". We witness it without hostility or negativity and name it: anger, aggression, loneliness, despair, depression, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, fear, blame, self-disparagement, excitement. We allow it to be and wait without waiting, without wanting or demanding it to be other than it is. Finally, each form of the mind's energy, in its turn, will change or dissolve. It is empty. The only power it has is our belief in it.
But this process hurts. Why? Because we are seeing the impostors - what we know or think we know - begin to collapse. What is familiar is no longer secure and must be given up. But to allow ourselves to sit with what is unknown, risk uncertainty and enter into those dark unexplored caverns of the heart - we would rather die in the ruins of our fear than brave the refining fire of truth.
Viktor Frankl wrote, "What is to give light must endure burning." We want to give light but we're afraid to suffer. We're afraid of pain when our very freedom lies in the middle of that pain. Our very quenching of thirst lies in the middle of thirst; just like the very healing of our wound lies in probing into the wound itself and removing the arrow. Mindfulness is the probe, but the awakened surgeon of our wisdom mind must also take urgent action. We can't remove the arrow simply by looking at it and saying, "What a nice wound, what a deep wound, oh look at my wonderful wound!"
We can't light the candle of discernment on the altar of life until we burn through to clear insight of the way things are. This is radical simplicity. It is an act of pure love, pure awareness. It is gratitude itself and great compassion. This is caring for ourselves, tending to dukkha.
With assiduous mindfulness and right view, we see clearly how suffering arises in this moment and how we perpetuate that suffering through fear of change and our unwillingness to trust, to accept what is real. Faith summons us to go towards what we fear, to turn away from the craving mind, to create the conditions for the heart to grow still and powerful, even to hold pain of impossible depth and remain unshaken.
Such one-pointedness leads to the energy of illumination. In that awakening, there is a holocaust. It is that refining fire that liberates us from the poisons of the internal media of the senses as well as the external media "out there" - the attractions and addictions of samsara. It is a heroic disarmament that takes us to the emptiness of transcendent knowledge.
Let us consider this our entry into the lineage of the Noble Ones, to understand the truth of impermanence, suffering and not-self. It is the pure knowing of our natural energy with the eye of Dhamma. We are that energy, not separate from it. And as our vision is purified, we are no longer ransomed to the aggressions of lust or anger or fear or neurotic thought that excite and exhaust the helpless mind.
Such clear seeing is the catalyst for rescue, an operation to remove the poison arrow, a commitment to transformation. It compels us to make dramatic changes in our lives and that can be terrifying in itself. Our ways of seeing life, our fundamental values, lifestyle, work and friendships may change. Change is frightening because it is unknown. But what can really be known beyond this moment?
Why live in darkness? If we want to be true and to know truth, we have to come from the shadows and live in truth. And to live in Truth, we have to light that candle. We light it and we endure the burning, the holocaust that will purify our hearts from the poisons that have infected us for lifetimes.
Until we do this work, we are stooped from the weight of misery, bent by the burdens of our mind, collapsing in upon ourselves. That's not old age. That is the physical dimension of mental suffering. We may be young but we are already defeated by worry, stress, frustration and guilt.
Look at the cramped tightness around your heart area - this chakra. Just feel what that feels like. How much armour are we carrying? It is not an armour of patience and strength but an impenetrable wall to keep feelings out, a shield that we hold over our hearts. "Don't come near me, gulp!" This is a natural outcome of having learned to respond to pain from unwholesome mental habit and spiritual malnutrition. Any time the truth gets too close, we revert to a posture of defendedness to separate or freeze ourselves and, at some level, we unconsciously shut down. We feed the inner violence.
This is my process too. I am resolved to live in kindness, to live in purity, to surrender to this holocaust. It's not the Holocaust my parents lived through, but the cleansing fire in the midst of my own heart. I am willing to endure that burning because I see the results in myself, in the bright quality of my being and energy shaped through the bearing of pain, humiliation and surrender.
It's not as if we ordain and renounce and that's the end of it. Every day is a profound renunciation that is unknown: I don't know what's going to come up, I don't know where I'm going to have to let go pride, let go this security that I hang on to which is unreal anyway, let go unconscious living and wake up, let go defending myself from my own fear and anger and illusion and the desire to be somebody, to be something when I know it's just a deception. So the holocaust here in my own heart must happen if I am to learn to see what is true - and if I am to live in truth.
The fruit of this practice is an invisible growing, a deep interior ripening, a gradual unfurling as our eyes open and the dust of lifetimes begins to clear. It may seem as if nothing significant is happening, but that doesn't matter - we keep going. The more we train our minds and retrain our habits, the more we go to the places that terrify us, the more we disarm the terrorist who dwells in there. Finally, we stand alone, free from fear, free from danger.
No longer are we dazzled and intoxicated by the sense media, the sights, tastes, distractions and exotic pleasures, the riches, power, fame and success of society, all the false delights of samsara. We give them up for a simple, humble diet of clear pure presence, compassionate wisdom, patient endurance. We are radiant, serene, able to live in joy, gratitude, harmlessness and inner peace.
Lighting the candle of discernment is not just for us. It's for the whole world. As long as our asylum is cowardice, complacency and mediocrity, we live only for ourselves. The quality of our life is cheapened and we carry on as slaves to death and decay.
It's time to abandon poverty, time to walk out of the ghetto of illusion and artifice and take refuge in fearlessness. This is the way of the Buddhas: to know the diamond purity of our Buddha nature - not through fear and self-effacement, nor desire and arrogance, nor through the plundering of and flight from the samsaric rounds of pleasure and pain, but to know it in silent witness to and awareness of their inherent emptiness - in the flame of no flame, in the cooling of the last ember. This is right refuge, this is freedom.
© Ayya Medhanandi