Resiliency: The Maturing of Mindfulness

Resiliency: The Maturing of Mindfulness

Breathing In and Breathing Out, I stop the war. 

Many years ago––probably in the early 1990s––I heard a talk by the now-deceased Dharma teacher Stephen Levine in which he spoke of something that had happened at a workshop he taught at the Omega Institute the year before. In the workshop he had repeated a story told to him by Paul Reps, an early American Zen practitioner. It seems that Paul began studying Zen during World War II as a young man. At that time all the skilled teachers were in Japan, and Paul was determined to study with them. He was not in the military. Somehow he got to East Asia and proceeded to the northern border of Japan, where he was of course stopped by a border patrol of armed soldiers. They thought he was crazy, perhaps a spy––an American trying to get into Japan while their two countries were engaged in a brutal war. In response to their belligerence, Paul simply and calmly said, “Drinking a cup of tea, I stop the war.” 

The story goes on to say that the soldiers let him cross into Japan unharmed, and he was able to find the teachers and further his studies. Stephen, whose Omega workshop was specifically geared for people facing terminal disease, reported to us that after he told this story, at the end of the session, a participant, a young man, stood up and said to the whole group, “Dying of cancer, I stop the war.” 

I remember experiencing a strong, somewhat eerie feeling when I first heard this story, and to this day I often recall Stephen’s voice speaking that phrase. I have paired the phrase “I stop the war” with many moments, many activities in my own life over these many years. To me, the story is a metaphor for the direct experience and power of presence––the clear, spacious awareness of mature, fully developed mindfulness. In the Buddha’s earliest teachings, mindfulness is first highlighted and teased out as an important mental factor in the Satipatthana Sutta, the Four Establishments of Mindfulness Discourse. It is also strengthened in this important series of reflections and meditations. Through repeated practice, we learn to identify and master the obstacles to mindfulness (the Five Hindrances), and we begin to know the seven mental attitudes (the Seven Awakening Factors) which especially support the simple-but-not-easy establishment of mindfulness: “just enough mindfulness to be present in every moment” (from the Satipatthana Sutta description).

The Buddha’s next set of instructions for developing mindfulness as an unshakeable, war-stopping presence of mind is found in a more advanced teaching––the sixteen steps of the Anapanasati Discourse, which literally translates as “mindful of in and out breathing.” Here the Awakening Factors are further developed and mindfulness further refined.

It is this Mindfulness of In and Out Breathing practice that we will be working with at the VIMS December 14 daylong at Saint Barnabas Church in Norwich. See the the website Retreats page for further information and to register. Please join us as we come together as a community––in this dark time of year, in this time of great collective turmoil and strife––to cultivate the path of peace, to walk it together.

What might it mean to you to “stop the war”: Acceptance? Non-resistance?

Equanimity? Concentration? Inner peace? Outer peace? Compassion?

How might it feel as a direct experience to “stop the war”: Calm? Tranquil?

Friendly? Non-contentious? Beautiful? Joyful? Energetic? Interesting?

In a group discussion some months ago, one of our sangha members said that when, after many years of practice, she stopped treating her meditations as a war with herself, her practice took root and grew exponentially––as did her understanding of the teachings and her comfort level as a human being. We all knew what she meant. So many skilled and important teachers are telling us this again and again: don’t be so hard on yourself; take it easy; love whatever arises––all your flaws and shameful parts; train yourself to be kind to yourself. “Stop the war!”

Anapanasati practice does just this. It trains our minds and hearts towards peace by strengthening mental qualities that work in harmony to get us behind the battle that we sometimes engage in––internally and externally––a war fueled by painful, hindering states of mind. The practice makes the assumption that through some variant of the Four Establishments of Mindfulness Teaching, we are familiar with and have some skills in mastering these five harmful categories of mental experience: greedy desire, hate-filled aversion, lazy sluggishness, nervous restlessness, and skeptical doubt. In his book Mindfulness, which is on the Satipatthana Sutta, Joseph Goldstein writes:

“In order to proceed on the path, we first need to know how to work skillfully with what impedes our journey” (122).

Along with developing skills in recognizing and dealing with the “inner tyrants,” we also need some good friends in the realm of mind states, some inner kalyanamittas.  [See the Reflection in the VIMS website of April 2019 for more thoughts on this word, which is often translated as beautiful or spiritual friendship]. The teachings name seven such states, which are invaluable to sane and compassionate living. These are also first identified as the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, but they are brought to fruition through Anapanasati. Not surprisingly, mindfulness is the first and foremost of these states. The others are curiosity, sustained attention, joy, tranquility of body and mind, collectedness, and balance or perspective. From one point of view, these six are aspects of mindfulness, while from another, they are stand-alone mental factors. Either way, when brought into balance with mindful awareness, these friends enable us to learn to reside in an unshakeable peace in body, heart, and mind. They offer us a cease-fire, a resiliency that is continually finding a calm abiding––in our own minds and in the changing world around us––a flexibility that ranges between an engaged, joyful interest and a calm, steady balance––moment by moment.

Living my life fully in a changing, uncertain world, I stop the war.


Previous Post
Compassion or Despair
Next Post
In Stillness

Dharma Reflections Archive: