As much as we want to, we can never say, “This is the only true way. This is how it is. End of discussion.” As individuals we, too, have plenty of fundamentalist tendencies. We use them to comfort ourselves. We grab on to a position or belief as a way of neatly explaining reality, unwilling to tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort of staying open to other possibilities.
The root of these fundamentalist tendencies is a fixed identity. With a fixed identity, we have to busy ourselves with trying to rearrange reality, because reality doesn’t always conform to our view. In Buddhism we call the notion of a fixed identity “ego clinging.” Ego clinging is our means of denial. The fixed identity is our false security. We maintain it by filtering all of our experiences through this perspective.
Meditation practice starts to erode that fixed identity.
The purpose of the spiritual path is to unmask, to take off our armor. The Buddha taught that the fixed identity is the cause of our suffering. Looking deeper, we could say that the real cause of suffering is not being able to tolerate uncertainty—and thinking that it’s perfectly sane, perfectly normal, to deny the fundamental ambiguity of being human.
We have a choice. We can spend our whole life suffering because we can’t relax with how things really are, or we can relax and embrace the open-endedness of the human situation, which is fresh, unfixated, unbiased.
— Pema Chödrön
True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absence of clutter and ornamentation. It’s about bringing order to complexity.
-Jonny Ive, WWDC 2013
You don’t open a letter with a chainsaw.
–Matt Mullenweg, Automattic founder
Setting intention, at least according to Buddhist teachings, is quite different than goal making. It is not oriented toward a future outcome. Instead, it is a path or practice that is focused on how you are “being” in the present moment. Your attention is on the ever-present “now” in the constantly changing flow of life. You set your intentions based on understanding what matters most to you and make a commitment to align your worldly actions with your inner values.
As you gain insight through meditation, wise reflection, and moral living, your ability to act from your intentions blossoms. It is called a practice because it is an ever-renewing process. You don’t just set your intentions and then forget about them; you live them every day.
We think that if we just meditated enough or jogged or ate perfect food, everything would be perfect. But from the point of view of someone who is awake, that’s death. Seeking security or perfection, rejoicing in feeling confirmed and whole, self-contained and comfortable, is some kind of death. It doesn’t have any fresh air. There’s no room for something to come in and interrupt all that. We are killing the moment by controlling our experience. Doing this is setting ourselves up for failure, because sooner or later, we’re going to have an experience we can’t control: our house is going to burn down, someone we love is going to die, we’re going to find out we have cancer, or somebody’s going to spill tomato juice all over our white suit.
The essence of life is that it’s challenging. Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter. Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens. Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100% healthy. From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends, and finally get it together is death because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience. There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride. To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest. To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment as completely new and fresh.
From “The Pocket Pema Chödrön,” by Pema Chödrön – Shambhala Pocket Classics.
Pema Chödrön defines maitri as loving-kindness toward ourselves and others. There are four qualities of maitri that are cultivated when we meditate:
- Steadfastness. When we practice meditation we are strengthening our ability to be steadfast with ourselves, in body as well as mind.
- Clear seeing. This is another way of saying that we have less self-deception. Through the process of practicing the technique day in and day out, year after year, we begin to be very honest with ourselves.
- Experiencing our emotional distress. We practice dropping whatever story we are telling ourselves and leaning into the emotions and the fear. We stay with the emotion, experience it, and leave it as it is, without proliferating. Thus we train in opening the fearful heart to the restlessness of our own energy. We learn to abide with the experience of our emotions.
- Attention to the present moment. We make the choice, moment by moment, to be fully here. Attending to our present-moment mind and body is a way of being tender toward self, toward others, and toward the world. This quality of attention is inherent in our ability to love. These four factors not only apply to sitting meditation, but are essential to all the bodhichitta (awakened heart) practices and for relating with difficult situations in our daily lives. By cultivating them we discover for ourselves that it is bodhichitta, not confusion, that is basic.
From “Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion,” by Pema Chödrön.
Meditation takes us just as we are, with our confusion and our sanity. This complete acceptance of ourselves as we are is a simple, direct relationship with our being. We call this maitri.