“Keep calmly knowing change.” How can we not notice change as the Upper Valley once again begins to turn towards fall? It is so obvious. The sunflowers are toppling over; the yard is filled with the song of well-fed goldfinches; and over-ripe pears litter the ground — bringing great pleasure to the bees. It is both wonderful and overwhelming, perhaps with a touch of sadness for some of us. School is beginning. Suddenly, it’s cold … but, then it is warm again.
“Change”, often referred to in the teachings as “impermanence”, is one of the characteristics of our conditioned world. The word in the Pali language is “anicca” which also can be translated as uncertainty, or insecurity. Our inner emotional lives as well as our external circumstances condition our experience of reality. One thing we can all easily and directly notice is that these internal and external conditions are changing – often in ways that we cannot control and often in ways that are initially less than satisfactory. What shall we do?
I was felled recently by the great surprise of a summer cold. One day I was strong and energetic. Then in the night, I felt a tickle in my throat. When I awoke, I was scared and proceeded to do everything I know to do to minimize colds: Echinacea tea, garlic and golden seal, zinc, neti pot nasal washes, steaming, “cold calm,” aspirin, rest, metta meditation… These actions may have helped me somewhat, but still the cold took its own slow course. I couldn’t control it; I got very sick. The virus was probably strengthened in its symptoms by the hot, humid weather and by my level of fatigue. I surrendered. Even now two weeks later, though much better, I am not fully recovered.
During the course of it, the most helpful thing I did in relation to the cold, the action that softened the suffering a lot, turned out to be what Pema Chodron calls “teaching myself the Dhamma.” I remembered the truth of suffering – the 4 Noble Truths as a practice. I reminded myself that: “Illness is unavoidable; I too am subject to illness.” I reminded myself that everything rises and falls, even the immediacy of this illness. I remembered the article on patience I had written a couple of weeks ago for the sangha newsletter. I got closer to the experience with interest and even practiced loving kindness for me and for the virus – wondering what exactly does it mean to wish a rhinovirus well?!
I once heard the Dalai Lama asked this question about meditation and illness: Does it help to focus the attention on an injured place in the body for a sustained period of time? He pondered a minute and replied that it can at times, that sometimes sustaining “wise attention” on an area for 4 or more hours will improve a physical condition – though we must be careful to not have aversion towards the area we are focusing on. Then he chuckled. He said actually that “wise understanding” is a much easier way to soften the suffering that can come with illness. “Teaching ourselves the Dhamma” helps us from succumbing to the additional suffering that can arise when we see an illness or the un-harvested fruit rotting on the ground as our own personal failure…
To “keep calmly knowing change” is to teach ourselves the Dhamma. Whether it is joy or a difficulty that is arising in the moment, we are encouraged to not just notice it, but also to know it – to stop, to pay attention and to feel the experience in its many manifestations: the thoughts, emotions, body sensations, behaviors, etc.
This quote that I use so often is from the doctoral dissertation of a monk named Analayo. His intellectual and practice-related book, titled SATIPATTHANA: THE DIRECT PATH TO REALIZATION, is a very accessible teaching on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. He opens and expands on the use of the word “knowing” in Buddhist teachings. Key to our lessening the suffering of our lives is “knowing and seeing the way things really are.” “Knowing,” which is an ordinary mental event, becomes through our meditation practice and our related direct understanding, an extraordinary experience, one which can liberate the mind from its “excitable, uncertain and difficult to train” nature into the calmness that allows wisdom.
Ajahn Chah, a wise Thai teacher, tells us: “The Dhamma is everywhere.” It is you know. Our lives are our greatest practice arena, whatever the circumstances. Keep calmly knowing the change that is our lives — with patience, interest, love and compassion. Keep returning attention to direct experience. That is what we can do; and that is wisdom, the direct path towards less suffering for ourselves and for those we share this world with. Wise, compassionate and appropriate action will grow from this.
So, take care of yourself, rest, and let the heart bask in the sun when it is present. “Peace,” says beloved Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, “is all around us. It is not just a matter of faith. It is a matter of practice.”
Peace and best wishes,