Ever wonder what it feels like one day just to step off the edge of a cliff, relax with your back to the ground far below and just watch the clouds and hear the birds sing as you plummet.
It is truly wonderful.
Several decades into adulthood, I finally paused to take a look at what I was. I didn’t like what I saw.
My problems could not be solved by my mind which was blind to its own limitations. I use the words “my mind” as a short-hand label for the bundle of conditioning, habits, thoughts, ideas, opinions and past experiences that I assumed determined what I am and what I will be.
My mind no longer worked, was closed off and unable to look within, cast blame outside, was selfish, looked for happiness through the continued satisfaction of transient and unfulfilling desires and was clouded and deluded. It was a mind that did not understand that love, joy, peace and happiness can be independent of the changes and currents of daily life.
I started with a determined leap of faith – a faith that the answers I sought would come from jumping off the cliff of everything that I understood or knew. Beginning in January 2003, I started investigating and practicing prayer practices taught by mystics, meditation and mindfulness practices from Buddhism and contemplative practices from Western and Eastern traditions.
In November 2009 while I was driving to see some friends, I again heard a familiar recurring internal voice of discontent. This self-critical “voice” was berating the fact I hadn’t seem to become more spiritually “advanced” – that I seemed to be unable to be naturally grateful and content. I parked by a tree with gorgeous autumn foliage. Stepping out, I stood, breathed and looked up at the tree. I wound up spontaneously laughing. I was able to gently escort the voice out of my mind, as if it were a guest that was temporarily rowdy and needed to be let out to wander elsewhere.
“People are scared to empty their minds fearing that they will be engulfed by the void. What they don’t realize is that their own mind is the void.”
~ Huang Po
Today I have experienced that my mind is not empty when it is submerged in mistaken views, thoughts, emotions, concepts and rules. It is in the emptying process that spaciousness is allowed. Freedom turns up as an incidental and direct result of the emptying.
Following are a few lessons that I’m continuing to learn.
1. I don’t have to know what others are thinking.
As a child I tried “magic.” I believed that if I concentrated hard enough, I could magically read my parents’ minds and ward off my dad’s verbal, emotional or physical violence or my mom’s anger. Every meal when my dad was present was precarious. I vigilantly read “tea leaves” in my parents’ expressions and words while my stomach was consistently knotted – only to experience over and over again rage from one or both of my parents.
Despite my constant inability to prevent such rage, as I became an adult, I thought it was a still a good idea to develop the ability to read other peoples’ minds. Conversely I had developed unconsciously an expectation that other people should be able to read my mind and therefore not disappoint me. Of course all of this was completely unworkable.
Learning to communicate honestly is a practice. Listening is a practice. Not acting from negative, afflictive and other toxic emotions is a practice. All these practices require a continuing practice of pausing – not becoming caught in the familiar reactive projections of the “mind” that I had become used to as years went by.
2. My value doesn’t depend on what other people think.
One of my earlier childhood memories after coming to the United States was my dad telling me that I played “too loud” and that it reflected badly on him and my mom, the Woo clan and all Chinese. This message was constantly repeated as to my speech, behavior, facial expressions, thoughts and every aspect of daily living.
My parents were also “Tiger” parents infected with the ideas that everything needed their judgment and that nothing was adequate unless it was perfect – especially their eldest son (me). The Chinese names they gave me meant “Duty” and “Honor” in Mandarin.
Somehow I wound up absorbing some of these messages despite the fact that they are suffocating. They make even any enjoyment of my own breathing contingent on validation from what other people may think.
Today whenever I become aware of thoughts that I need to be important, I catch myself and laugh. In this way I don’t have to solve or fix anything at the moment. Instead I make a mental note that the next time I meditate to include some time to contemplate the question:
“Why does my value depend on what other people think?”
I’ve learned that my version of the analytical, conceptual, judgmental and intellectual mind uses inferior tools for insight. The language of this mind is already limited by unexamined views, concepts, ideas, feelings and rules.
In contrast, through practice I’ve found that the true language of the Heart is vast and open. The Heart accepts me as I am and others as they are.
The only certain way for me to enter into the Heart is through a continuing daily practice of pausing – through the varieties of prayer, meditation, mindfulness, contemplation, listening and compassion practices that infuse my life today.
3. Everyday conflicts arise from my own mind.
My parents’ friends included many hard-drinking veterans from World War II or the Chinese Civil War. Many family friends were also like my dad, engineers or managers. At gatherings, they would degenerate into arguing and yelling – sometimes physically.
We visited my paternal grandfather every weekend up through my high school years. I remember once when we were having a meal at a Chinese restaurant in Oakland. The waiter looked to be in his 70’s or 80’s. Grandfather decided that the waiter didn’t show him sufficient respect, so he got up to try to get into a fist fight with the waiter. My grandfather was an angry, belligerent man. My dad had become an angry, belligerent man. I was beginning on a path to becoming an angry, belligerent man.
Family clan members and other people in my parents’ lives were generally educated and intelligent. Many had significant accomplishments in their careers and the military.
Unthinkingly I picked up the impression that truly intelligent people established their worth through arguments about how right they are. Years later I picked a career in law to really polish off this belief system, and I was rewarded for becoming skilled at being “right.”
As I began to let go of my mind, I used some words from the Buddha as a daily mantra:
“People with opinions go around bothering other people.”
This mantra reminds me to practice pausing, to refrain, to listen, to share rather than argue, to say nothing if any part of my mind is impelled by hostility, anger, fear, the will to be “right” or many other forms of discontent and delusion. In such practice, I’ve learned many, many times that I was generally never “right.”
Ram Dass (in his new book “Polishing the Mirror: How to Live from Your Spiritual Heart”) says:
“Our predicament is that our ego wants to be right in a world of people who don’t understand how right we are.”
I laughed when I read these words for their simplicity, truth and humor.
Pausing sounds too simple to be a solution for anything and yet it has been one of my most difficult practices to learn and use in everyday activities.
In “The Storytelling Mind” chapter in “The Wise Heart” (pages143 and 146-47), Jack Kornfield says:
“There is a vast silence around us always. Wherever we are, we can take a deep breath, feel our body, open our senses, and step outside the endless stories of the mind. We can stop. We can rest our awareness in a spacious and compassionate heart. Then we can see thought streams, worries, and images as only one part of a much larger story”…
“Within the stillness of meditation we see the insubstantial nature of thought. We learn to observe how words and images arise and then vanish, leaving no trace. The succession of images and associations –often called mental proliferations – builds thought castles. But these castles and plans float for a time and then disappear, like bubbles in a glass of soda. We can become so silent that we actually feel the subtle thought energy appear and vanish again.
“But if thoughts are empty, what can we rely upon? Where is our refuge? Here is how the Indian sage Nisargadatta answered this question:
‘The mind creates the abyss, the heart crosses.’ The thinking mind constructs views of right and wrong, good and bad, self and other. These are the abyss. When we let thoughts come and go without clinging, we can use thought, but we rest in the heart. There is an innocence to the heart. We are the child of the spirit. And there is an innate wisdom. We are the ancient one. Resting in the heart, we live in harmony with our breath, our body. Resting in the heart, we become trusting and courageous, and our patience grows. We do not have to think it all through. Life is unfolding around us. As the Indian master Charon Singh put it, ‘In time, even grass becomes milk.’”
4. Principles are independent of flawed human beings.
Because my dad would slap, hit or yell at me if I responded that he didn’t practice what he told me to do, I wound up rejecting not only him, I also rejected his words even if they made sense. My dad actually said things that would have made life easier if I practiced them.
In time, I realized that there was a part of my dad that wanted me to live differently than he was. I realized that in rejecting his words, I was developing rules requiring standards of perfection which no human being could meet. I wouldn’t consider trying something for myself unless the speaker “walked the talk.”
I confused principles with flawed humanity. I learned that instincts of self-protection, opinions, hyper-judgments, perfectionism, anger, fear and “being right” are not principles.
Any principles that I may have show through how I live, and to strengthen principles, I had to allow myself and everyone to make mistakes, to be flawed … in other words, to be human.
5. Principles require repeated practice in everyday life.
I learned that spiritual simplicity requires a tremendous amount of practice before it becomes (in momentary flashes) evidently simple. Similarly with principles, they do not live in a vacuum; they live in everyday activities.
To give rise to insights into principles, I started the practice of pausing. Pausing that was non-existent at first and difficult to practice has become more natural and easier. In the pauses, I began to see things differently.
“Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains,
and waters as waters.
When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point
where I saw that mountains are not mountains,
and waters are not waters.
But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest.
For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains,
and waters once again as waters.”
6. Difficulties are the source of teachings.
Whenever today I feel discontented, agitated or otherwise disturbed, I do not push away such feelings but defer action to later. In effect I pause. Pauses gave me the opportunity to experience everything differently, and they taught me that I have always been a negative amplifier of any disturbing emotion or event through my reactions.
When I began to empty my mind, I had a momentary insight that I was a selfish asshole. Two years after this insight, I realized that was a spiritual moment. Truth is not always pleasant. I can still be an asshole. However I hope that with accumulated years of practice, I’ve become a more compassionate asshole.
It is only through difficulties that my spiritual practices have developed – for they have given me an insight that any joy or happiness has to start within and without some contingency as to another person or event.
This today is the meaning for me of the Zen proverb “When the student is ready, the Teacher appears.”
The Teacher is life itself.
7. Nothing is wasted.
The past is never wasted for without my own past, I would not be here this moment composing these words. The “past” does not predetermine who I am or can be. Everything changes.
“That I feed the hungry, forgive an insult, and love my enemy…. these are great virtues! But what if I should discover that the poorest of the beggars and the most impudent of offenders are all within me, and that I stand in need of the alms of my own kindness; that I myself am the enemy who must be loved? What then?”
~ Carl Jung
I know now that I can try to be a seed of kindness, compassion, empathy, acceptance, tolerance and forgiveness no matter how imperfectly I practice these principles. I will always be imperfect in doing so.
Or I can sow discontent, agitation, anger, worries and fear. I always have the choice.
I can look at a tree, the moon or sun, stars, the waters of the Puget Sound, a cat, a dog, a bird, other human beings, a plant, an insect and become filled with wonder and awe.
Every person that I ignored in the past and who have become my teachers through books or video, in person or on the phone – whether or not they call themselves teachers, have added to my life by helping the emptying process.
“All men have stars, but they are not the same things for different people. For some, who are travelers, the stars are guides. For others they are no more than little lights in the sky. For others, who are scholars, they are problems… But all these stars are silent. You-You alone will have stars as no one else has them… In one of the stars I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so it will be as if all the stars will be laughing when you look at the sky at night..You, only you, will have stars that can laugh! And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me… You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me. And you will sometimes open your window, so, for that pleasure… It will be as if, in place of the stars, I had given you a great number of little bells that knew how to laugh.”
~ Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
I have learned to breathe and to laugh.
8. When forgiveness shows up, everything is freed.
Forgiveness is for me a process that reveals love. This includes self-forgiveness.
“Each of us is just this paradoxical mixture of confusion and wisdom; of the ability to be very cruel and the ability to be very kind. We are just such a mixture of things.”
~ Pema Chödrön
When my dad was dying in 2011 and I saw him in the hospital, I experienced a forgiveness for him that opened up my breath and body. From that moment on, I was able to sit and help him die over more than 10 weeks.
Some months later, I was meditating on 3 December 2011 when some words composed themselves. I wrote them down:
“The Perfection of Incompleteness; the Completeness of Imperfection
When we accept things as they are, right now and here, our hearts comprehend that we are complete and perfect in this moment. When we forgive what we think we are, right now and here, we understand that incompleteness is perfection. Neither do we have to escape nor fight. Time ceases. We return to a natural state of spaciousness and from such, our intuition will guide us for the right response – whether of action or restraint, with what is within or before us. This is the moment of liberation – happiness and joy will follow.”
9. Today counts.
My “hard-wiring” for anger and fear was short-circuited and misfired in childhood. My childish attempts to try to figure out what I had done wrong to merit my dad’s rage and punishment, and the persistent wishful belief that I could somehow prevent the next emotional catastrophe developed in adulthood into guilt, shame, remorse, anxiety and fear, with anger overlaying everything.
The pausing practices (silence and solitude, meditation, mindfulness and contemplative practices) have been slowly rewiring my entire system (body, mind and spirit).
Sometimes I recognize changes as they were occurring; more times I recognized them only in hindsight. I realized that by giving to life “no matter what,” life in all its forms have meaning.
The fact is that today counts. The only time and place that I can give to life is in the present moment.
“Once you realize that the road is the goal and that you are always on the road, not to reach a goal, but to enjoy its beauty and its wisdom, life ceases to be a task and becomes natural and simple, in itself an ecstasy.”
~ Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
Our continued and most heartfelt thanks to Daniel Woo for his generosity in sharing with his wonderful writings and blogs as well as his insight and personal spiritual journey. We are most grateful, Daniel!