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Buddhist teachings and my life – Sarah Kokai Thwaites

“What for you is the essential teaching of Buddhist practice and how does it influence your life?”

I’ve found this an unexpectedly difficult question to respond to: each time I tried I met a brick wall. There are probably a variety of reasons for this including I think a mountain of resistance that I have been sitting with in recent weeks, but one big block was because I was trying to narrow it down to one teaching and struggling to find the ‘right’ words that might fit. My practical experience of the teachings is much more interwoven than that and my language to describe it is limited. Instead I’m now just keeping it simple and sticking with how it feels in my life at the moment. If this makes any sense to anyone else that will be a surprise bonus.

For me it feels that the core aspects of Buddhism are impermanence, emptiness and no-self but here again words can get in my way because how they feel to me doesn’t necessarily fit how they sound. In my simple brain however together they amount to there being nothing to grab hold of. Everything is changing moment to moment, there is nothing fixed that I can label and pin down,  whatever I’m sure I ‘know’ about something is likely to be at best only part of the picture and that includes anything I can conceive of as ‘me’.

Now I guess that could be experienced as either threatening or liberating. I know that for much of my life it would have sparked complete terror. Now it feels liberating. Sometimes I think I’d like to have something to hold on to, something that doesn’t change but if I’m really honest with myself that is not only impossible but I probably wouldn’t like it even if I could.

I’d like to have the people I love stay nearby. Or at least I think I’d like to, really I just like the idea of that. My daughter will (all being well) move away this autumn to university. I will miss her dreadfully. But do I want her to stay here, freeze her in time as she is now? Of course not. She has grown to adulthood and the baby, the toddler and the young schoolchild I remember so fondly have now gone. Only at one level though they haven’t. The love I feel for her is the combined love I’ve felt over the years for all the ‘hers’ that there have been in her life, as well as for all the multitudes of possible ‘hers’ that she might become in the future.  I suspect that,as it did when my son moved away, our times together will feel even more of a treasure to me in future because of the growing geographical distance between us. Her life will change and her with it and I’ll get to enjoy meeting whichever hers arise.  And in the meantime I’ll also be changing and neither of us will ever really know the other completely, only how we are seeing each other in that moment. That feels exciting.

There are times that feel so special that I’d like them to last but even the best moments, the ones we try to freeze in our heads as treasured memories, are only selective recalls of a fleeting moment and even the very best moment repeated ad infinitum would soon become tedious.  Just as a sunny day feels all the more precious because of the cloudy days we know so well, so our most joyous times have added depth and poignancy because we know that life isn’t always like that, that these times are not to be taken for granted.  When I remember this, instead of regretting the times lost, I can more fully appreciate what is here now, in all its shades and textures. I don’t have to decide if I like or don’t like it, to decide in advance what sort of memory it will turn out to have created. I can just live it. I’ve found a delight in this simplicity that I overlook if I try to make life conform to my expectations.

And as for no-self, that has been the biggest delight, maybe in part because I didn’t ever really like the me I took myself to be since I defined that in very negative terms of things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. It’s not that there is no-one called Sarah (I go to work and get paid for work done in my name and need to take responsibility for my choices and actions), but just that this is not and can never be the full picture. Any assumptions I make about myself turn out to be as limited and ultimately futile as my past attempts to freeze life at a perfect moment. And whilst logically this maybe should feel unsettling, it doesn’t feel any more unsettling than the times I was trying to create certainty and security. And there is also a freshness and a vitality that comes from this, a sense of potential. This finally takes my ramblings back to emptiness which to me feels more like a boundless potential. When I admit I don’t know how and what something is, there is a freedom for it to be anything. When I hold everything lightly it feels life flows more freely. When I forget this, sitting shows me where I need to “cut the crap” and stop fooling myself. Forgetting and remembering and bursting out laughing over and over again.