DT-The Way Things Should Be

Tonight’s dharma talk is titled “The Way Things Should Be” and draws on a chapter in Joko Beck’s book Ordinary Wisdom. Some meditators believe that if they practice enough, they should become enlightened. Others think that a spiritual life should be pure and shouldn’t include anger or greed.

Joko quotes W.H. Auden: “Our claim to own our bodies and our world is our catastrophe.” The more attached we are to the delusion that we possess our bodies, our acquisitions, and our relationships, the more suffering we cause for ourselves and those around us. Gradually, we realize that even if we have a good health, a loving partner, a desirable job, and a comfortable home—all of which should have brought us satisfaction—we want more.

Letting go of habitual claims to what is truly “unclaimable” requires ongoing inner work. Although much of meditation practice is unexciting, it lays the groundwork for averting catastrophes. When we pause to sit still, we notice what we are grasping and what we claim to own. We become aware of our claims trying to assert themselves. Under the lens of awareness, the claims vanish.

As Joko says, “The essence or core of why we’re here on earth is to learn. And the habit of claiming keeps us from learning.” If we think that something is ours and that it should be a certain way, we set ourselves up to be disappointed. She uses the example of a cup of water falling to the ground. When I consider that cup to be “mine,” I feel upset that it’s broken, or I blame myself for being clumsy and dropping it.  But when I release my attachment, it’s simply a cup shattering and becoming different in form.

Similarly, I can learn to be less possessive about my body. Even though I take good care of it by bathing, exercising, resting, and eating nourishing meals, I can let go of the delusion that I have complete control over my body and what happens to it. That delusion of “my own body” being separate and disconnected from everything around it leads to suffering.

By trying to control our bodies and our interactions with others, we become rigid and fixed in our ways. In our attempts to fulfill our image of how life is supposed to be, we ignore the precious uniqueness of each moment arising spontaneously.

This year’s Kentucky Derby was full of relevant dharma lessons. Most thoroughbred horses are owned by big-name trainers and conglomerate owners, who invest big egos and huge sums of money in striving to win each of the Triple Crown races. Some of the more competitive trainers inject their stallions with drugs to enhance their performance. Horrifyingly, seven horses died over the span of ten days—five leading up to the Kentucky Derby and two during the race itself.

Mage, the horse that won, has an unusual story. He is owned by 400 people with ties to Venezuela. The trainer, exercise rider and jockey are all Venezuelans. Three men each own a 25% stake in the horse, and the other 25% belongs to Commonwealth, a private group that sold micro shares to 382 international stakeholders, some of whom contributed as little as $50 for a single share.

People from all walks of life—executives, surgeons, factory workers, and laborers—participated. The trainer’s son said that Mage’s success meant everything to people who are struggling to survive in Venezuela: “They need something to be proud of …. It’s about [showing] that we’re capable too, and in a good way it’s a blessing for my country.”

One co-founder of Commonwealth concurred, “When that horse crossed the finish line [first], you [forgot] how many shares you have. You [felt] like the king of the world.” Standing in the winner’s circle, he added, “What good is a great stage unless you can share it with others? [This horse allows] us to connect with people … in so many ways that we don’t even realize.” The other co-founder continued, “The fact that this wild idea has turned into something that has had a ripple effect and brought so much joy to so many people, that’s really what it’s about. We all share in that emotion, and we’re all forever connected by it.”

Anticipating the Preakness race, the second leg of thoroughbred horse racing’s Triple Crown, one of the 25% stakeholders spoke about intending to enjoy the race no matter where Mage finishes: “There’s no need for us to put added human pressure [or] expectations on a horse. He’s going to race. He’s going to give his best effort, and on our end, [we’ll] just soak it all in … and enjoy it and just love the process.”

On meditation retreats, we have opportunities to observe the conditioning that prevents us from seeing freshly and acting spontaneously. Joko’s view of prolonged practice is “enduring whatever I endure, enjoying whatever I enjoy, but just sitting there, what becomes clear to me is that 99% of what I’m doing is trying to claim the world and my body for myself…. [B]uzzing thoughts support my claim that life should go my way. It should give me no pain, no difficulty, no disappointment, nothing that I don’t like. That’s my claim.”

As we sit, we observe parts of the body that hurt. Comparing mind arises: “I wonder if anyone else’s neck aches as much as mine.” Or we bargain, “I’d give anything if my neck pain would stop.” Only when we release thoughts and simply note the sensations in the body, without trying to fix them, do they change naturally, sometimes intensifying, and other times dissolving. Eventually, through building a capacity to sit through boredom, pain, irritation and restlessness. Our armor softens, our grasp loosens, and spaciousness opens around us.

After long hours of meditating, we begin to see our preferences more clearly, “I like what pleases me and dislike what doesn’t.” We recognize that our feelings of anger are connected to the idea that something is interfering with what we think of as “mine”—my body, my time, my place, my relationship, my stuff, etc.

In Joko’s words, “A major cause of delusion is that we think the environment causes our reactions. We think they’re inevitable. If a certain thing happens or if somebody is a certain way, we think we must have a particular reaction to it. We’re … kind of proud of how we react to it. We like our reactions. We think of the world as separate from ourselves: it’s the world out there against me. So, we try hard and then expect praise and a reward. When we don’t get it, the world doesn’t feel fair.”

Most of us can relate to the familiar complaint that I’m a good person, so why is this undesirable situation happening to me? It takes diligent practice to give up the drama about being treated unfairly and being a victim of life.

Last week, I had an opportunity to reflect on the strength of character it takes to transform victimhood into freedom. Mark and I attended a performance of the Houston Symphony and soloist Augustin Hadelich playing Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto #1. Impressed by Augustin’s remarkable dexterity on his precious 1744 Guarneri del Gesu instrument, I noticed how unusual his physical appearance was and how oddly he handled the violin.

The program notes mentioned that he was born to German parents in a rural Tuscan community in Italy. As a child prodigy, he traveled to study violin in Germany and then at The Juilliard School. Now, amidst a busy international concert schedule, he resides in the United States and teaches master classes at the Yale School of Music. Listed was his extensive discography, but there was not a word about his personal struggles.

An internet search revealed that at the age of 15, on a visit to his family’s farm in Italy, Augustin Hadelich had been badly burned when a nearby tractor exploded. The entire upper part of his body and his dominant hand had third degree burns. Augustin was airlifted to a hospital in Germany for skin grafts and multiple surgeries. His doctor informed him that he would likely never again play the violin. After more than a year of excruciating pain, facial reconstruction, and despair, the teenage prodigy began to practice, little by little, on his neglected instrument. Even at that young age, he was determined not to be a victim of tragic circumstances.

His teachers were amazed by his willpower and ability to adapt his deformed hand to perform even the most challenging repertoire. He far surpassed all expectations and was named Musical America’s 2018 Instrumentalist of the Year. The owner of the famed “Leduc ex-Szery” violin recognized Augustin’s extraordinary talent and resilience by awarding him a long-term loan of the 18th century instrument.

Reflect upon how often you think, “It’s not fair” in your relationships. Joko declares, “I haven’t yet encountered a relationship that’s fair. It’s not the nature of relationships to be fair …. In an unhappy relationship, it’s rare that either party [thinks] that they are the one being unfair …. A relationship that you can’t just discard when it’s no longer easy is the most wonderful teacher. In a long relationship there are a lot of little things to practice with …. [I]t’s a good idea to practice with smaller things so when something big comes along, we have some idea of how to practice.”

I resonate with Joko’s statement, “In truth, nothing upsets us except ourselves.” When circumstances occur that we dislike, we become upset. Our vision narrows and we misread cues around us. Sitting in meditation is a path to liberating ourselves from the desire for control. We taste the freedom of a truly experienced human life.