As I stepped into the barn on this cool morning, all three horses were still and silent. I was among them, welcomed. They neither turned to greet me nor turned away. They simply accepted my presence as part of their own.
For most of us, the barriers that we erect to keep our ‘self’ safe preclude this kind of openness. We brace for impact at every turn, living in our endless stream of thought, preempting rather than being. Yet, despite our best efforts, the world has a way of grinding against our sense of safety and seldom operates on our terms. What would happen if we were to open to life exactly as it is? What would happen if we were to open to one another in this way?
Here is a wonderful story about one of the most well-know Zen masters of all time, Hakuin Ekaku, (1686-1768). Hakuin had a reputation for being brash, harsh, and flamboyant. He was a brilliant man, whose energy and excellence has inspired countless students of Zen.
A beautiful girl and her parents who owned a food store, lived near the monk, Hakuin. One day, to their horror, this girl’s parents discovered that she was pregnant. They were furious, and demanded to know who the father was. For weeks, she steadfastly refused to confess his name. But, after much harassment, at last she pointed the finger at Hakuin. In a rage, the parents went to the master and confronted him, telling him about their daughter’s condition. “Is that so?” was all he would say.
After the child was born, it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation as a monk. Still, he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and begged for money for everything else that the child needed. A year later, the girl could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth – the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fish market. The mother and father of the girl went at once to Hakuin to ask forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back. Hakuin willingly yielded the child, saying only: “Is that so?”
Few of us would be able to manage this level of welcoming whatever comes! Even in meditation, we want things to be just so. We want. We want peace. We want bliss. We want something nice, something extra, something that will be a beautiful add-on to how we already envision ourselves. This wanting removes us completely from how things are.
The art of meditation is to be a welcoming host to whatever lands on our doorstep – to get our judgemental self completely out of the way, so that how things really are at this moment, can appear fully. Rather than bracing for impact, or struggling to achieve something, the art is to simply welcome.
This isn’t a new experience for any of us. It’s not something alien or a special skill that we have to learn. If you’ve ever had a butterfly land on you, you know the moment of total stillness, of wonder, of incredible gentleness, as you simply let it be a butterfly, just where and as it is.
But life isn’t all butterflies and wonder, and neither is meditation; and meditation isn’t about mentally escaping from difficulties or turning them into butterflies and bliss. What about when we’re in pain – physical, mental or emotional? What about anger? What about that mind that refuses to settle, and races randomly like a freight train?
Welcome this too, with compassion.
These are the experiences of meditation that teach us more than any kind of bliss. Welcoming our sadness, our discomfort, without buying into a story line and fanning its flames, is a lesson in living. To simply remain present, with deep compassion for the human-ness of things not being as we would wish, teaches us.
Sit quietly, with dignity and an open heart. Listen to the sound of the rain outside, or to the hum of the fan. Feel the temperature of the air. Experience the sensation of your own breathing. Welcome each sensation, each thought, each breath, each moment, on its terms. Notice the insubstantial nature of the assessment that the air is too warm or cold, and return to welcoming, gently, moment after moment.
In bliss, boredom, or broken-heartedness, there is no escapism here. Rather, it is the experience of being fully awake and alive, just as you are. It’s not exotic or un-reachable. It’s your birthright.
Photo copyright ZenDoe