I’m not so sure, after all, that we get to choose our path or whether it is actually the path that chooses us. It has seemed to me a bit like falling in love. In the course of a lifetime we meet lots of attractive, compatible, amiable, respectable people, but only rarely does magic happen and we fall in love. We can’t talk ourselves into being in love, and neither can we talk ourselves out of it. Much later, if love lasts, we validate it and justify it with rational reasons. It seems much the same to me with my path choice.
In the 1970s, when spiritual search was much more the zeitgeist than it is now, I was a somewhat intrigued, mildly interested participant in the scene. Although it would be a better story to be able to say that I was compelled by spiritual longing, it wouldn’t be true. Mostly, I was keeping my husband company in his zealous exploration of a variety of spiritual paths.
My own personal lack of zeal was not a reflection of a peaceful heart. Indeed, I had plenty of alarm as I grew older, and as my children grew older, as I woke up to the insecurities and complexities of life and the inevitability of pain and loss. I just had not clearly understood the connection between this dilemma and spiritual practice. The various meditative paths to which I had been introduced seemed to have more to do with exotic mind-states and magical powers than with ordinary peace of mind. Contemplative practice had seemed quite apart from everyday life. When I was introduced to vipassana practice in 1977, I was immediately captivated. Never had I heard so much straight talk about suffering from people who seemed so happy.
Suddenly, I had dedication and zeal. It was important to me that in the American vipassana tradition there wasn’t a particular mystique around teachers; I saw them as being people very much like me. I thought, “These teachers who recognize (as I do) how difficult life is, nevertheless, seem happy! It must be this practice that has made them happy! If they can do this practice, I can do it, too!” The fact that I could respect my teachers without feeling intimidated or daunted gave me confidence in myself.
It also suited my independent nature to hear a lot of emphasis placed on discovery through personal and direct experience rather than acceptance of anything on faith. One of the teachings I most valued as a beginning student was the instruction given by the Buddha in the Kalama Sutra that one should rely on one’s own experience rather than on the word of others, no matter how exalted their rank. I interpreted this teaching to be an affirmation of confidence in my ability (and everyone else’s) to discover truth for myself. I loved a practice that respected me.
The fact that vipassana practice, at least in America, has very little ritual and form was attractive to me. As my appreciation for Buddhism has grown over the years, my comfort and even pleasure with form and ritual has grown. In the beginning, it would have been awkward for me, coming as I did from a religious background with forms and styles that I knew well and still found pleasure in, to do something that felt foreign. In this practice, I didn’t need to.
I was delighted with the notion that lovingkindness, compassion and a spirit of generosity could be consciously cultivated. This continues to be the best interpretation I have for the path step of Right Effort. I appreciated the idea that developing these habits of mind would be part of my sadhana (path) and that I need not wait until some far future time after years of practice to enjoy them.
I continue to be pleased that vipassana instructions are so simple. It suits my personality. Every year I find that I am giving the instructions, and indeed the theory behind the instructions, in a shorter and shorter form. My current two sentence version is something like this: “By bringing a full, balanced and alert appreciation to each moment and every domain of experience, we see things clearly and arrive at the realization of freedom. To maintain balance of mind, we cultivate composure by returning attention to neutral, repetitive experiences such as breathing and walking.”
I often wonder whether all these reasons I’ve mentioned, albeit true, are not ex post facto rational justifications for a choice that actually was intuitive. Over the years, I have found that there are two stories that I retell about events that engaged my heart in a direct and profound way. Both happened during my first meditation retreat. The first is rather ordinary, and perhaps even silly, but it was an event that caught my attention. The second is somewhat more difficult to convey, but was of such substantial import to me that this would be an incomplete report without it.
The first event involved overhearing an interchange between one of the teachers and one of the retreat managers. (It is important to know that at this point I was totally unsophisticated about practice, had hardly a clue about what I was doing there, and was mostly on retreat on the advice of friends that this was a good thing to do. Furthermore, I was not having a good time. Indeed, I was struggling with a lot of pain in the body and confusion in the mind.) As I walked by a manager who was speaking in urgent tones to a teacher, I couldn’t hear exactly what the problem was but I could glean that there was some difficulty. Mumble, mumble, furrowed brow, etc. The teacher responded quietly and kindly, “Look, I’m not into hassling. . . .” That was all of the conversation that I heard. I was astounded! I had not known that not being into hassling was a possible option in life. I thought, “If that is what they learn to do in this practice, I want to do it too.”
The second event happened on the last night, after the silence was broken when I phoned home to clarify my return flight arrangements with my husband. Had anyone asked me before that phone call if anything had changed for me in the two weeks of the retreat, I might have allowed that I was a little slowed down, a bit sharper in my sense perceptions, but nothing much different. I most definitely did not have much clarity about what I was doing, or hoped to do, in terms of working with this practice. In the course of the phone call I inquired about my father’s health, as he had not been feeling well before I left for the retreat. My husband replied that he was sorry to tell me that my father had been diagnosed with cancer, indeed a cancer for which there was no cure. In that moment, I knew that something had changed for me. As I heard what he said, I felt terribly saddened as my father and I had a very close and warm relationship. And yet I did not feel frightened in the way that I normally would have been when confronted with such awesome news. What was new for me, which it took this uniquely unfortunate circumstance to show me, was to discover that the mind has the capability of opening deeply to profound feelings, to the most painful feelings, while still maintaining some degree of balance. I knew that I would feel grief about my father’s sickness and death (and I did), and I also intuited that it would be manageable (and it was). I could not have articulated it then, but perhaps I can now, that a most meaningful part of spiritual practice for me is to know that life is embraceable and peace is possible in all circumstances.
Sometimes when I have told this story, people have speculated about what would have happened if these same serendipitous events had happened in another kind of retreat, as well they might have. And I don’t know. Perhaps I would be doing some other practice. But I’m glad they happened where they did because, temperamentally, this practice of vipassana seems just right for me. And, it has brought me a lot of happiness.