Cheryl Wilfong teaches mindfulness meditation at Vermont Insight Meditation Center when she isn’t rearranging one of her 28 flower beds or tending her out-of-control vegetable garden. Master Gardener and mistress of metaphor, she delivers the Dharma into daily life in the garden.
The first thing we do on a beach vacation is go to the store and buy 2 beach chairs, a noodle (for me), a beach umbrella, and a little cooler. At the end of vacation, we usually leave the beach chairs etcetera at our Airbnb.
Since i can see that our host already has a stash of paraphernalia at his condo, and since there’s a Lamborghini, an Audi, a Range Rover, and a Ford F-150 parked in the driveway, i’m pretty sure the people here don’t need more stuff.
We spent our last beach day at the beautiful Boqueron Balneario (town beach). As we packed up, i gave my noodle to the only family within sight. The children were busy burying Mom in the sand.
Near us sat a 30-something couple. We gave them our 2 beach chairs. She had beautiful braids way down past her waist; he had a shaved head. They were from Connecticut, and it was her birthday!
Who knew that when we bought those beach chairs, we were buying a birthday present!
I am on vacation in Puerto Rico where impermanence is everywhere i look. I feel distressed. Buildings blown to bits by hurricanes–Maria in 2017 and the less powerful, but slow-moving Fiona in 2022. Wrecked theme parks, billboards, and boats. The famous art museum of Ponce closed since the 6.4 earthquake in 2020 centered nearby.
As a cultural WASP, i just want to tidy things up. Yet the spiritual lesson is in letting things be. Look at the destruction. Be comfortable. Or rather, be comfortable with the discomfort of infrastructure working on a thin thread of acceptable.
Within sight of my Airbnb lies two miles (miles!) of dysfunctional oil refineries. Rusted pipes galore. Rusted oil tanks just waiting for the next hurricane to shatter them and blow their sidings out to sea.
I can also see 2 wrecked ships, rusting into the shallow sea in a nearby bay.
Yet, people still go to work. Fishermen fish. Families go to the beach on Sundays.
It also means Order of the British Empire, but during the past year, OBE, in common parlance, means Overtaken By Events. All your well-laid plans have to be scrapped because something has suddenly and unexpectedly happened.
OBE is a military term, which means that all your carefully laid plans and strategies are out the window, due to events beyond your control. Think : Ukraine.
OBE brings to mind another military term, which is much more graphic: SNAFU–Situation Normal: All F**ked Up.
We could say that SNAFU is a condensed–very condensed–version of the Buddha’s teachings. SN–situation normal–is the 1st characteristic of all experience: anicca = impermanence, and change is normal, whether we like it or not. AFU is the 2nd characteristic: dukkha–suffering or unsatisfactoriness. Then there’s the unasked question: Who’s in control here anyway? Because, obviously, the situation is out of control, and the controllers seems to be MIA–missing in action. That’s the 3rd characteristic: anatta or not-self. Yoo-hoo. There is no controller.
What do you do when confronted by OBE or SNAFU? What’s your innate response to sudden change? Fight? Flight? Or freeze? Do you resist? (Fight.) Do you flee? (Looking for safety or something pleasant.) Or do you freeze in your tracks, not knowing which way to jump? (Confusion.)
What’s the wise response? I call it surrendering to things as they are. You might recall the Serenity Prayer: Grant me the serenity to accept the things i cannot change.
Peace or serenity is available in every moment, even those moments when we are OBE, when everything is a SNAFU.
The Buddha’s most difficult teaching is that of not-self. When some people hear about not-self, no-self, non-self, they put on the brakes and stop meditating altogether. Not-self sounds scary. Who am i, if i’m not a self?
So let’s start here. What is this “self” anyway?
The Buddha has given a list called the 5 Aggregates. Combine (or aggregate) these 5 things, and voila! You have a self.
Namarupa–name & form. Yes, this body seems to be my body.
Vedana–Feelings or hedonic tone. Yes, my feelings are my feelings.
Perception–Yes, my 5-sense door perceptions are my perceptions.
Consciousness–Yes, my consciousness seems to be my consciousness.
Sankharas–of which there are 52. Yikes! These are variously translated as concoctions, fabrications, mental formations (Yes, my thoughts and dreams are mine.)
But let’s leave this mind-boggling list behind. What, in your lived experience, is the self?
First, where is the self located? Say “I, I, I, I, I” until you feel it in your body. Say “me, me, me, me, me” until you feel it in your body.
Some people say the I is behind the face or more specifically behind the eyes. Isn’t there a homunculus sitting behind the eyes pulling the gears and levers? Sort of like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain? Some people point to their chest; some to their belly.
Ask “Who am i?” for 10 minutes at the end of meditation. Jot down your list. No need for the mind to go chasing after answers. Simply drop the question into the quiet-ish pool of your mind. Let the question sink. Maybe no answer arises. That’s okay. Keep asking.
Ask “What am i?” and jot down that list.
Whatever you have on your list, use that as a contemplation the next time you meditate. Ask yourself: Do i have a soul? Is something in me continuous? Am i a very particular collection of patterns and habits? Is that true? Truly true?
Keep looking for that self that feels so sure of itself.
My friend, Nancy, renewed her Christian faith in her 50s. I asked her how she did it. “I re-interpret everything I hear,” she said.
Ai-yi-yi, i thought. That sounds like way too much work.
But let’s try it. Let’s translate the well-worn, worn-out greeting, “Merry Christmas” into Buddhist-speak.
Take the word “merry”–an old word, not much in use in nowadays. Merry Christmas, merry-go-round, Merry Wives of Windsor, merrymaking. Or “Row, row, your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily….”
Merry means joy or joyous, and joy is a more familiar word to us meditators. Joy is one of the Divine Abodes (Brahmaviharas). Joy is one of 7 factors of awakening. Joy is the first of the meditative absorptions (jhanas).
Christmas was originally Christ Mass–the mass celebrating the birth of the Christ-child (though he wasn’t a Christ yet.) The Christ is a personification of love and compassion. Some of my friends who both meditate and go to church say they like the loving-compassion of Jesus, while the Buddha left a boatload of very clear instructions for living our everyday lives.
A mass is a time of communion–communing with our spiritual community. Here we recognize the refuge of sangha–our spiritual friends who keep us on the high road even when we’d rather give in to our low-road impulses.
One of our nearby rivers is shallow and sandy. The other evening i walked out about a hundred feet and sat down on the sandy bottom. The water came up to my armpits. I felt like i was sitting in the river of Life.
One of my personal mantras is “Surrendering to the flow of Life.” As the river flowed around me with a definite current, i felt i could be carried wherever. I practiced surrendering to the river of Life.
A student recently asked about worry. “If i don’t worry, i don’t care,” he said.
Question that belief.
In the first place, worry is a hindrance. There is no reason in the world to cultivate worry. Cultivating worry or anxiety just spreads negative vibrations around. Why would anyone want to sprinkle (their own) anxiety into their child, for instance.
Worry is a mental weed. Stop planting weed seeds. Stop worrying.