One of the great things, and crucially important things, about practicing with a group is how it facilitates the shedding of our limited, confined self and all the things we use to reinforce it. When we are in a group everyone around us becomes a mirror reflecting our false self back to us. When one person is fidgeting and we suddenly become annoyed, thoughts might arise like “why can’t they sit still?” “Don’t they realize sitting that way is going to lead to fidgeting?” "If only that person would sit properly!" “How annoying!”
What a wonderful gift we have been given! The person fidgeting is not the problem! So why are we annoyed? The source of our annoyance comes from within our own minds, and that annoyance, by our conditioning, is directed outward in search of something to blame. The person fidgeting falls into our sight and the mind says, “Aha! That’s the cause of this annoyance!” And now we can satisfy our small confined self by saying, “If only that annoying person would go away, I would be practicing perfectly! That person is the reason I am not satisfied with my practice today!”
Practicing alone, we wouldn’t have this wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. When we practice with a group we learn from all the beautiful shining mirrors around us. When we understand this, we can see that our minds, out of conditioning, are trying to attach an outside cause of our rising inner disturbance.
Rather than stay focused on external causes, we redirect our minds to the feelings of disturbance in our bodies. We observe what is revealed to us from that exploration. And in so doing, we might discover that the disturbance, in this example, annoyance, has nothing to do whatsoever with that person fidgeting. Instead, we discover that the annoyance might be coming from our resistance to staying with what is arising in us, or that experience of annoyance is actually the product of our wrestling with that resistance. It can be hard to admit a reluctance to explore the discomfort that is alive within us or to accept that we are the origin of this discomfort. So, instead, we search, sometimes quite happily, outside of ourselves for the cause.
This initially is more satisfying, because that way we aren’t responsible for our own wellbeing. We can defer the responsibility onto others to satisfy our needs and make us feel happy. But this is a short-lived satisfaction because it is not true satisfaction. Often, we are aware on some level that we are trying to avoid responsibility for what we are feeling (which can also make us feel annoyed!). This externalizing is based on the belief that there is a problem that needs to be solved, and that problem is for someone other than us to fix. However, when we actually look at disturbance as it arises within us, we discover there is no problem at all! Problems only arise when we shift attention toward an external cause. Fixing those now self-created problems, create more and more problems to fix.
You might ask: Isn’t having a disturbance a problem? The answer is no. Having a disturbance, whether annoyance, fear, worry, whatever, isn’t a problem. It's just what is alive in you at that moment. It might be a calling to attention a need that is not being met. How is understanding what we are experiencing a problem? Believing it's wrong, or unskillful to experience inner disturbances is like believing that it's wrong or unskillful to experiencing pain when a hand touches a hot stove. The sensation of pain tells us to pay attention, to move the hand from the heat now! Imagine if we instead, kept our hand on the hot stove while we looked around for someone to blame for putting our hand there! Pretty silly. Yet, that is what we do all the time!
Do you see now what a wonderful gift our sangha sisters and brothers offer to us? This kind of insight often doesn’t happen when practicing alone. It’s too easy for us to feel satisfied with our practice when we have no mirrors around reflecting back our attempt to externalize what is actually going on inside us. While it’s true that anyone, even strangers, can act as mirrors for us, sangha members are our sacred mirrors. Because of our deep practice with each other, our sangha members' mirrors offer us kindness, compassion, and patience. When our inner experience is mirrored back this way, we have the potential to transform any perception of disturbance without shame or self-consciousness. We can celebrate the insights we gain, because of the precious and sacred gift our sangha members give.
Ven. Myohye Do'an
A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members