I used to hate the feeling of being confused. Instead, I loved having a sense of certainty and mental clarity. Whenever I felt confused by anything, I’d try to find some kind of clear answer, to get rid of the emotional state of confusion. I’d distract myself from it or try to get somebody else to give me the answer. I wanted the authorities, the ajahns, the big guys, to come and say, “That’s right, that’s wrong, that’s good, that’s bad.” I wanted to be clear and needed somebody—an authority figure that I trusted and respected—to straighten me out.
Sometimes we think that things like good teachers, meditation retreats, the precepts, the Refuges, or a wonderful sangha are going to make us really happy and solve all our problems. We reach out for help from outside hoping this or that will do it for us. It’s like wanting God to come and help us out of the mess. And then when He doesn’t come and solve our problems, we don’t believe in God anymore. “I asked Him to help and He didn’t.” This is a childlike way of looking at life. We get ourselves into trouble and expect mommy and daddy to come and save the day, to clean up the mess we’ve made.
One time years ago, I became very confused when I found out that one of our American Buddhist nuns had left our community and become a born-again Christian. I had just been saying to another nun, “She’s really wonderful, she’s so wise, she’s so pure-hearted, she’ll be a great inspiration to you in your nun’s life.” I was really embarrassed and confused when I heard the news. I thought, How could she fall for it? I remember asking my teacher Ajahn Chah, “How could she do that?” He looked at me with a mischievous smile and said, “Maybe she’s right.” He made me look at what I was doing—feeling defensive and paranoid, wanting a clear explanation, wanting to understand, wanting him to tell me that she’d betrayed the Buddhist religion. So I started looking at the confusion. When I began to embrace it and totally accept it, it dropped away. Through acknowledging emotional confusion, it ceased being a problem, it seemed to dissolve into thin air. I became aware of how much I resisted confusion as an experience.
In meditation, we can notice these difficult states of mind—not knowing what to do next or feeling confused about practice, ourselves or life. We practice not trying to get rid of these mindstates but simply acknowledging what they feel like. “This is uncertainty, insecurity, grief, anguish. This is depression, worry, anxiety, fear, self-aversion, guilt or remorse.” We might try to make a case that if we were a healthy, normal person, we wouldn’t have these emotions. But the idea of a normal person is a fantasy of the mind. Do you know any really normal people? I don’t.
The Buddha spoke instead of one who listens, who pays attention, who is awake, who is attentive here and now. One whose mind is open and receptive, trusting in the present moment and oneself. This is his encouragement to us. Our attitude towards meditation should then not be one of striving to get rid of things—our defilements, our kilesas, our faults—to become something better. It should be one of opening up, paying attention to life, experiencing the here and now, trusting in our ability to receive life as experience. We don’t have to do anything with it. We don’t have to straighten out all the crooked parts, solve every problem, justify everything or make everything better. After all, there will always be something “wrong” when we’re living in the conditioned realm—with me, with the people I live with, with the monastery, with the retreat center, with the country. Conditions are always changing; we’ll never find any permanent perfection. We may experience a peak moment when everything is wonderful and just what we want it to be, but we can’t sustain the conditions of that moment. We can’t live at the peak point of inhalation; we have to exhale.
The same applies to all the good things of life—happy times, loving relationships, success, good fortune. These things are certainly enjoyable and not to be despised, but we shouldn’t put our faith in something that is in the process of changing. Once it reaches a peak, it can only go in the other direction. We’re asked not to take refuge in wealth, other people, countries or political systems, relationships, nice houses or good retreat centers. Instead, we’re asked to take refuge in our own ability to be awake, to pay attention to life no matter what the conditions might be in the present moment. The simple willingness to acknowledge things for what they are—as changing conditions—liberates us from being caught in the power of attachment, in struggling with the emotions or thoughts that we’re experiencing.
Notice how difficult it is when you’re trying to resist things all the time, trying to get rid of bad thoughts, of emotional states, of pain. What is the result of resisting? When I try to get rid of what I don’t like in my mind, I become obsessed by it. What about you? Think of somebody you really can’t stand, someone who really hurts your feelings. The very conditions of feeling angry and resentful actually obsess our minds with that particular person. We make a big deal out of it—pushing, pushing, pushing. The more we push, the more obsessed we become.
Try this out in your meditation. Notice what you don’t like, don’t want, hate, or are frightened of. When you resist these things, you’re actually empowering them, giving them tremendous influence and power over your conscious experience of life. But when you welcome and open up to the flow of life in both its good and bad aspects, what happens? I know from my experience that when I’m accepting and welcoming of conditioned experience, things drop away from me. They come in and they go away. We’re actually opening the door, letting in all the fear, anxiety, worry, resentment, anger and grief. This doesn’t mean that we have to approve of or like what’s happening. It’s not about making moral judgments. It’s simply acknowledging the presence of whatever we’re experiencing in a welcoming way—not trying to get rid of it by resisting it, and not holding on to it or identifying with it. When we’re totally accepting of something as it exists in the present, then we can begin to recognize the cessation of those conditions.
The freedom from suffering that the Buddha talked about isn’t an end to pain and stress. It’s creating a choice. I can either get caught up in the pain that comes to me, attach to it, and be overwhelmed by it; or I can embrace it, and through acceptance and understanding not add more suffering to the existing pain, the unfair experiences, the criticisms or the misery that I face. Even after his enlightenment, the Buddha experienced all kinds of horrendous things. His cousin tried to murder him, people tried to frame him, blame him and criticize him. He experienced severe physical illness. But the Buddha didn’t create suffering around those experiences. His response was never one of anger, resentment, hatred or blame, but one of acknowledgment.
This has been a really valuable thing for me to know. It’s taught me not to ask for favors in life, or to hope that if I meditate a lot, I can avoid unpleasant experiences. “God, I’ve been a monk for thirty-three years. Please reward me for being a good boy.” I’ve tried that, and it doesn’t work. To accept life without making any pleas is very liberating, because I no longer feel a need to control or manipulate conditions for my own benefit. I don’t need to worry or feel anxious about my future. There’s a sense of trust and confidence, a fearlessness that comes through learning to trust, to relax, to open to life, and to investigate experience rather than to resist or be frightened by it. If you’re willing to learn from the suffering in life, you’ll find the unshakability of your own mind.