(The title of this post should be sung to the tune of “For Whom The Bell Tolls” while imagining James Hetfield doing the splits.)
We’ve got a situation here. This last week our domestic environment exploded in fits of verbal violence that leave my family and I mostly displaced from the dwelling that was intended as a shared home. We’ve been spending the days in our car or with family, coming back to sleep fitfully at night. Our son has thankfully avoided a lot of the fallout, though not for any positive reason – his friend is missing, so Zane and his mates have been roaming Brisbane to find him. Things are calming down now – the main aggressor is talking about moving out, which is a huge relief.
These events are the symptoms of a maligned culture in demise – they are the cracks that result from collective ways of being that are unsuitable for our nature. I say this not to exonerate myself from my part in the verbal violence – I made the mistake of retaliating, yelling, have accepted my responsibility for the maladaptive reaction I contributed to the escalation of a situation that could have been avoided if I and others had been more skillful, and I resolve to learn from this how to do differently next time. There’s more of that at the end of this draft.
Nikki and I are doing forgiveness meditations to reconnect ourselves with the still/-loving essence at our core – in particular a meditation guided by Jack Kornfield through the three directions of forgiveness. We are taking the opportunity to look at the wounds that were poked rather than fixate on the spear they were poked with. The lojong teaches us to treat our “enemies” as teachers. We accept that each of us alone (with support) is responsible only for the thoughts and feelings that motivate our actions. No one can wound us more than we wound ourselves by holding on to hurts that others’ behaviour has reminded us still need treatment. We are grateful to have been reminded that wounds remain and need to be treated at their root.
These events have, and are, catalysing an awakening to which priorities are most important – love, kindness, compassion, healthy healing relationships, forgiveness, self-care and the empowerment of resolve to rectify the situation of our culture so that ways of being can be discovered that are more-suited to our social and loving nature. Wording is not happening with fluency at the moment, but I act from where I am and the expression of these thought-feels is necessary – as part of my spiritual practice and psychological processing, and as part of the gift I bring to the world: compassionate communication of whatever insights I can transmute from the suffering of our current situation, domestic and global.
Our situation at home is not isolated – as much as I cherish and respect the autonomy empowered by individual responsibility, we are not exclusively responsible for the way we behave(d). Our behaviour is, to a considerable extent, a result of culture – it is also predominantly motivated by our subconscious, but it’s the culture aspect I want to focus on here.
Our culture of rationalist economic self-interest has caused systemic isolation and atomisation among humans whose nature is social. Unskillful self-interest pits one against the other and corrodes collectivist collaboration, the way of the village. It is my belief that an unconscious power grab (a maladaptive will to control) has over-run the insecure who through karma have incarnated into the echelons of the elite – a consequence is a divide-and-conquer mentality: maladapted gatekeepers corrode the social fabric because they fear for their security and must hoard from others and the planet to defend themselves against the discomfort of uncertainty, insecurity, a perceived sense of scarcity, and a fear of their own mortality.
This is another rabbit hole I won’t go too far down right now, except to say I believe this divide and conquer mentality results from a glitch in our evolutionary response to the conceptual revolution of 120 000 years ago – glitch might not be the right word, but maybe something like ‘hiccup’ or ‘blip’. We have not yet learned to constructively adapt to the evolution of the sense of self that seems to separate us from each other and the rest of nature. The myriad and amorphous metaphysical, psychospiritual and evolutionary causes of this malaise are a rabbit warren of story I am trying to navigate, unravel, understand, illuminate, but that is not the scope or purpose of this post.
That purpose is not known, but what I want to explore is that while behaviour is informed or influenced by and somewhat caused by culture, behaviour is also the cause of culture. Culture does not happen to us. We happen, and the result is culture.
Therefore we change culture by changing our behaviour. We change our behaviour by changing our thoughts and feelings. We change our thoughts and feelings by shining the light of consciousness into our unconscious. We do this through various methods of meditation both on and off the cushion. And our meditations are guided, supported, facilitated, and nourished by teachings we find along the way – podcasts, meditation apps, conversations with friends family and sangha, books and the various psychospiritual literatures.
One of the teachings I am grateful came across my path on Twitter as I was sitting down to write this draft is from the Surangama Sutra – my reading of this excerpt interacted with a memory of a teaching about inviting in unwanted guests, so I looked that up and rediscovered Rumi’s poem “Inviting Mara to Tea”. I’d like to explore that interaction here. There is also a link with the lojong slogan I interpret as “let your enemies be your teachers”. I can’t remember which slogan it is right now, or if that idea is just my interpretation of a teacher’s interpretation of a slogan.
From the Surangama Sutra:
Then the World-Honored One stretched forth his arm and opened his shining, cotton-soft, finely webbed hand, revealing the wheel-shaped lines on his fingers. To instruct Ananda and the others in the great assembly, he said, “After my awakening, I went to the Deer Park, where, for Ajnatakaundinya’s sake and for the other four monks, and also for all of you in the four assemblies, I said that beings in their multitudes have not become Arhats, nor have they become fully awake, because they are confused by afflictions that are like visitors and like dust. What in particular, at that time, caused the five of you to awaken and become sages?”
Then Ajnatakaundinya stood up and said respectfully to the Buddha, “Of all the elders here in this great assembly, I was the one who was given the name ‘Ajnata,’ meaning ‘one who understands,’ because I had come to realize what ‘visitor’ and ‘dust’ signify. It was in this way that I became a sage.
“World-Honored One, suppose a visitor stops at an inn for a night or for a meal. Once his stay is ended or the meal is finished, he packs his bags and goes on his way. He’s not at leisure to remain. But if he were the innkeeper, he would not leave. By considering this example of the visitor, the one who comes and goes, and the innkeeper, the one who remains, I understood what the visitor signifies. He represents transience.
“Again, suppose the morning skies have cleared after a rain. Then a beam of pure light from the rising sun may shine through a crack in a door to reveal some motes of dust obscuring the air. The dust moves, but the air is still. Thus by consideration of this example — the dust, which as it moves obscures the air, and the air, which itself remains still — I understood what the dust may signify. It represents motion.”
The Buddha said, “So it is.”
When the sun has just come up, early on a clear fresh morning, a morning after rain, the sun shines through a crack in the door or perhaps a crack in the wall, and it displays the fine bits of dust bobbing up and down in space, moving all around in the sunshine. If the sun doesn’t shine in the crack, you can’t see the dust, although there is actually a lot of dust everywhere. But while the dust moves, bobbing up and down, space is still. It doesn’t move. The ability to see the dust in the light that pours through the crack represents the attainment of the light of wisdom. When you reach the first stage of an Arhat and overcome the eighty-eight kinds of deluded awareness, you have the light of wisdom. Then you can see your ignorance, which moves like the dust in sunlight and which causes as many afflictions as there are sand-grains in the River Ganges. You will also see the unmoving stillness of your essential nature.
This translation is from Buddhism Now, citing Surangama Sutra: A New Translation with Excerpts from the Commentary by the Venerable Master Hsuan Hua. Buddhist Text Translation Society, ISBN 978-0881399622.
And here is Rumi’s “Inviting Mara to Tea”:
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
Some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,Rumi
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
I found this copy of Rumi’s poem on Tara Brach’s website, where it is accompanied by a beautiful reflection on making friends with the worst of ourselves — the anger, the hatred, the shame and the fear. By facing in ourselves the expressions of Mara, we are more able to embrace them in others and more spontaneously feel compassion for the suffering from which Mara springs.
My reflections are that the visitor at an inn, welcome or unwelcome, is transient – don’t let the unwanted guest be like the innkeeper, who takes up residence. Allow the visitors to blow through, no matter their character (virtuous or vicious).
The dust mote (our afflictions) also is transient, seen as so with the light of wisdom illuminating the stillness of the air (our true nature) through which the motes fleet. We cannot see the motes without the illumination of consciousness and that illumination shows the afflictions are moving, transient – allow them to flow through.
If we don’t allow all guests in we may not now the gift of wisdom they bring in disguise, but we must allow them not to dwell – they must move through our stillness, whether they are welcome or undesirable. By allowing the unwanted guest we may see their transgression as a source of insight – the transgression may prompt us to ask what has been transgressed, which wound has been illuminated and can now be seen with wisdom.
To see the enemy as teacher we must address the wound that was poked, not the weapon – we do not bandage the knife when we get stabbed.
By learning about the true (inter-connected) nature of the wounded self from being transgressed, we undermine the root cause of the culture that promises the rewards of self-interest but delivers only isolation and the misery of lonely social creatures, and by weeding out this root cause we prepare the ground for the seeds of interconnection-awareness. We do not remain with the innkeeper, identifying ourselves as the distrusting victims of self-serving visitors – we do not allow the unwelcome visitor to dwell, but neither do we bar their passage through the inn. They deserve to visit, as part of our whole.
I feel like the above reading is somewhat garbled, but it contains insight for me and may illuminate some insight for a reader – so there is its purpose!
Perhaps as a result of the process of drafting these interactions, an insight has just arrived through some clarity portal among the mental chaos I’ve been living with this week. My family and I are displaced from our home after mistakes were made and because the aggressor was unrelenting for days in their offence. I accept responsibility for my behaviour, and have made peace with my mistakes. My conscience is clean because I have stopped doing the behaviours that made the situation worse in the first place. We have tried to make amends, but the other party is not stepping into their accountability. Their ongoing aggression has been unwanted, unwelcome – I am experiencing afflicted thoughts and feelings about the whole situation, naturally. These teachings have helped me to understand that I can allow these motes/afflictions to pass through my stillness and out – the unwanted guest of our aggressive housemate, they too can be allowed for a time, until they blow off enough steam to come down from their anger, which, since beginning this draft, they have done. By not continuing to retaliate, we seem to have allowed the situation to diffuse itself. Bully for us!
Meanwhile I have learnt through pattern recognition (this is not the first time I’ve been in such a situation) that there are boundaries around the closeness of the people with whom we are able to co-habit, in the same sense that a therapist shouldn’t treat their own child.
And I have learnt that if a housemate wants me to tell them whether I have some grievances to raise, maybe I can let them speak their mind and try to assure them that my grievances are not much to worry about. That’s how I could have been more skillful in this situation. The aggressor was concerned that I had a problem with them – I didn’t want to talk about it when they raised the subject, but I could have been more compassionate and tried to put their mind at rest.
Live and learn – live and let the motes fleet.
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