The Mind's Drama

Wednesday January 10, 2007

Poplars

So there I was, day three of the retreat at Gaia House and sitting in meditation exploring the flickering impermanence of experience – the fleetingness of thoughts, bodily sensations, moods, the coming and going of the breath – when suddenly my mind went into overdrive.

“Impermanence,” my mind said. “There’s a thought.” And then it was off. All at once, I found myself caught up in wild speculations. It was pretty windy outside the meditation hall, I noticed. What if the poplar tree at the bottom of the garden back in Birmingham had blown down? It would destroy half the house! Images arose before me of the house, torn apart by the falling tree. Before I had time to reflect upon this image, another one arose. Bodhicattva! The thinkBuddha cat! What if he had been crushed by the falling tree? Or, alternatively, he might have been cut in two by a passing Zen practitioner (see here). Increasingly lurid scenarios arose in my mind, of their own accord. Anything could have happened whilst I was sitting there on my cushions! I had to know! I should leave my meditation place right then, sneak off and telephone to make sure that everything was all right…

Then I realised: this was just my mind, with it’s usual liking for high drama. To be sure, any of these things might have happened. But any number of other things might have happened as well. Anicca, often translated “impermanence” can also be translated “uncertainty”. This tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios is not, in fact, a recognition of anicca, but a means of running away from it, an attempt to impose some kind of certainty – even a gloomy one – on the radical uncertainty of the world. And seeing this, I also noticed that in all these dramas, I myself inevitably had a central role. These dramatic imaginings were merely yet another manifestation of that constant building and rebuilding of the self as the centre of the universe, another aspect of what are known as ahamkara and mamamkara. Here’s Buddhadasa Bhikkhu on the subject.

The saying of the Buddha which deals with the practice in regards to emptiness is the one that is the heart of the Buddhist Teachings; ‘Sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya’ which translates literally as ‘No dhamma whatsoever should be grasped at or clung to’. If one amplifies the meaning a little it may be rendered as ‘no one should grasp or cling to anything as being I or mine’. ‘No one’ means that there are no exceptions; ‘should grasp or cling’ means to give rise to ego-consciousness; ‘as being I’ refers to the feeling called ahamkara, the grasping at a (nonexistent) soul or abiding ego-entity; ‘as being mine’ refers to the feeling called mamamkara, the grasping as phenomena as being connected to ego. So don’t have ahamkara or mamamkara with regard to anything at all starting from a worthless speck of dust up to valuable objects such as diamonds, sapphires, gems and the objects of sensual desire and on to things higher than that – Dhamma, it’s theory, practice and attainment, the Path-Realization, their Fruits and Nibbana. Nothing whatsoever should be clung to as being “I” or “mine”…”

When I realised all of this, I recalled some of my earlier reflections on dropping the drama. This proliferation of wild fantasies served no useful end. It could only lead to further agitation and frustration. These endless cycles my mind was turning in were fruitless; they served no purpose. This mass of suffering… mind-made, all mind-made.

So, still sitting on my cushions with the wind continuing to howl outside, I decided to stop, to drive out the drama. I struggled and struggled, but the drama went on and the task seemed impossible. My mind simply wouldn’t stop coming up with ever more ludicrous stories.

Then I realised: to attempt to resist the drama was merely to replicate the problem, to fight fire by fire by making a drama of resisting the very tendency towards drama. Noticing this, something in me relaxed. It was as if my mind lost interest in the drama, as if – at least for a moment – I had seen through it. The lurid fantasies disappeared, and I was left on the cushions, with the breath coming and going, with the sound of the wind outside. Space. Freedom.

I got back from retreat to find the poplar tree still standing. No passing Zen lunatics had cut Bodhicattva in two. But I also arrived back with, if not a resolution then at least an intention: to watch for these fruitless mind-made dramas, and when they arise to see them for what they are, as thin, wispy, ghost-like, spectral things, without substance or meaning. So far, this has been an interesting experiment. Life seems quieter, calmer and, in a way, richer. Occasionally I find myself hankering for a bit of dramatic spice; but when I do, I remind myself of the insubstantiality of it all, and of the fact that the world is unpredictable far beyond my grasping or my imagining…

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