What for you is the essential teaching of Buddhist practice and how does it influence your life?
I find that this, the essential teaching, varies for me. When I read Buddhist books, I usually think – aha, this is it! And then, on the next page – no THIS is it! But also, when things change, and as I change, what becomes my focus also changes. So the simple answer is that it depends.
Right now, the teaching I keep coming back to is the importance of awakening. Rather than drifting along, lost in mind games, stories about the past, wishing things were different, it’s so important for me to just stop and sit still. You could call it zazen, in fact! And then, of course, the same mind games, memories, desire for things to be different, remain, but they themselves become objects of curiosity and investigation. This is a much more bodily process than analysis in any mental sense, as the latter tends to spin off into even more thoughts and debate. By observing the physical tensions and noticing where in my body they’re located, quite often what happens is an enormous sense of relief. A process of ‘cutting the crap’, dropping the roles, back to basics, simplicity. And sometimes the tensions dissolve. Sometimes.
In practice, what am I talking about? I’ve been going through a tough time since November – recurring water infections, endless trips to the doctor, illness, physical pain and fatigue. Much of this is normal with progressive MS, but infections aren’t always so relentless. I miss being well, I hate being ill. But on top of that are the spin-offs – beating myself up about not getting things done, wanting to see people but feeling too grotty and not having the energy to do so, inability to make any plans for fear they’ll have to be cancelled and that’ll be very disappointing as well as letting other people down, feelings of relentlessness, not being useful, pointlessness, anxiety, depression, obsession with my own body and mind. And seeking endless distractions to keep some kind of hold on sanity, escape the unpleasant feelings and boredom, to try to ‘fix’ or delay the physical and emotional feelings. By the way, it doesn’t work (it can still be a temporary relief), but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped doing it.
If it wasn’t for zazen, awareness, awakening, being present – these words I’m using synonymously – I don’t think I’d be able to handle things. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of ‘handling things’ as I’m letting it all be whatever it is. And sometimes I realise that this is only a part of what is going on. The amazing thing is that I find that I do feel more curious and more engaged with other people. I’ve come to appreciate so much more the kindness and love of others. It’s magic, really! But it also involves consistent work, the effort to stop and sit still and breathe. Do I detect a paradox here? But of course, this is Zen! I’ve also become more aware of other people’s struggles, so I appreciate the good fortune I have in other ways – a happy childhood, financial security. I love Thich Nhat Hanh’s word, ‘interbeing’, although I can’t pretend to have really experienced that.
The other thing which often arises for me is the fact that old age, sickness and death are the norm, not the exception. And physical and emotional sensations really do change. Every infection comes to an end, one way or another. Now the sun is shining, I’ve been infection-free for three weeks (a personal best this year!) and friends are making plans with me for excursions and diversions. Phew! Sometimes life really does improve too.
Is this ‘essential teaching of Buddhist practice’? I don’t know, but it helps me every day.