By Brother Phap Hai
It has been an important practice for me to regularly take time to consider where I am in my journey and to set a practice intention.
When I was reflecting on this year, and what would be a helpful focus for my personal practice and perhaps that of others, three words kept coming to me: Surprised By Delight.
It can be so easy, sometimes too easy, in the face of the overwhelming challenges we are experiencing as individuals and as a nation to lose touch with the simple delights of the moment. Yet somewhat counter-intuitively it is the contact with and recognition of the everyday moments of nourishment and joy that give us the strength to fully face internal and external challenges and difficulties.
In one of our evening chants we are reminded that happiness is something that can be utterly simple and uncontrived: “Sitting here in this moment, my happiness is clear and alive.”
What? The person is just sitting there? How can that be happiness? What is happiness anyway?
I’m reminded of the time that Nelson Mandela, soon to become the former president of South Africa, visited France and was asked what he was looking forward to the most. He replied, “I am looking forward to simply sitting and doing nothing.”
How and when did having nothing to do simultaneously become “the dream” and also everyone’s secret horror? It’s truly the shadow side of our modern way of living. We feel pushed to constantly have plans. To always have something to do, to accomplish, to get to.
It is almost as if we enter a mild form of existential angst if we have nothing to do and yet we constantly complain about being busy or way over-scheduled. Let’s be honest with each other: we actually tend to define ourselves in this way, by what we do rather than the quality of our being-ness.
When we are busy, we dream about having nothing to do but it seems that when we get to the weekend, or to the elusive vacation, we actually can’t handle doing nothing. There is the Netflix queue, there’s this activity, or that book to read or a restaurant to go to…. We are never quite doing nothing.
Doing nothing can take a lot of discipline. It is a radical act. I challenge you to have a do-nothing hour. Don’t read, don’t watch the TV, don’t even “do” formal meditation practice. Just be.
See if you can do it. Yes, a challenge! In the beginning it can feel a little forced, just like any new discipline. Over time, though, this practice infuses our life with an openness and spaciousness that can help us to encounter each moment much more fully and completely.
Our meditation practice needs to have an element of delight. Otherwise it is dry, clinical, forced: it becomes yet another thing to do.
Delight is food for the heart. We see this word many times in the sutras: “Delighting in solitude ... delighting in simplicity.” Suffusion with delight is indeed a fruit of meditation practice.
In my own meditation practice I have found that approaching my steps with delight, approaching my breath with delight, approaching my practice and my sangha with delight and openness is a powerful practice. I like to compare this quality of attention to the delight we feel when we are reunited with a dear friend that we haven’t seen for many years. Delighting in our breath, our mindful steps, in the simple joys of this moment can be powerful medicine indeed.
To cultivate the energy of delight, I have found it necessary to become aware of the focus of my attention. We are hardwired to direct more attention towards that which seems incomplete or imperfect. This is a psychological adaptation called the Zeigarnik Effect which has a very useful function in that it can spur us to action. However, on the flipside, it does mean that we have a tendency to focus on the negative.
Choosing to nourish delight is to recognize that whilst things may not be perfect, there are conditions of happiness available to us in this very moment. There is more to the picture.
This does not mean that we swing to the other extreme: put on our rose colored glasses and ignore the suffering, the discrimination and the violence that are present in the world and in the heart; rather, by choosing to nurture delight, we are ensuring that we have the capacity as individuals and society to look suffering right in the eye but not become it — whilst taking action to transform it.
The other quality that is mentioned in the calligraphy is surprise. It is easy to become a little jaded — whether with our practice, or with the everyday tasks of our life, or with the situation of our world. We’ve seen it all before, we’ve gone through this a thousand times.
We think that we know already what it is to breathe, what it is to walk, who the other person is — and of course, we believe that we know ourselves.
To invite surprise into our lives is to choose to cultivate what is called in Buddhism the Beginner’s Mind. This is a mind that approaches each moment, each encounter, as a new moment. To paraphrase Einstein: this is the mind that, rather than choosing to experience everything as “ordinary,” chooses to experience things as “miracle,” as gifts of life.
This is the focus of my practice at this time. I think that these times are the times in which our world needs Bodhisattvas — fiercely compassionate beings — emerging not from the sky, but just as in the Lotus Sutra, from the depths of the Earth, from the very heart of lived and embodied experience. Our world needs us to bring our whole selves.
These times are the times that we were made for.