Norman gives his first talk on Suffering and Clinging to the Mar de Jade December 2012 Sesshin.
Suffering and Clinging
Edited by Barbara Byrum and Cynthia Schrager
Welcome to our annual retreat. I hope everybody is okay, settling into the practice. What we are trying to do this week couldn’t be more simple or clear. Some of you who haven’t done a seven-day silent retreat may think that it is very difficult, but, actually, it is quite easy. What is really difficult is your ordinary life. That’s what’s hard, all the stress and strain of ordinary life.
The Buddha’s great insight was this great stress and strain of ordinary life: a life in which you often do not get what you want; a life in which you very often have to endure some trouble; a life in which you have emotions that are unpleasant and difficult; a life, in which, eventually, if you are lucky, you get old, you get sick, and you die. This was the Buddha’s great insight: stress and suffering is absolutely inescapable. Because it is inescapable, when you try to escape the suffering, you only make it worse.
Facing this reality, the Buddha had a brilliant insight. He saw there was a way out of stress and suffering, not by escaping it, but by seeing through it. The way to see through stress and suffering is, first of all, to understand it and to admit how powerful it is, how pervasive it is, and how inevitable it is. When you see this and you understand this, then you can see right through it. When you can see through the suffering, it becomes possible to live with some composure and some dignity.
This is pretty simple and clear. It’s a tall order. It’s not easy to do, but it’s not very hard to understand. This is the point of our sitting here together this week: to begin to face our stress and our suffering, and to begin to be able to see through it, and, therefore, to begin to make our lives better.
The practice we are doing is also pretty simple. The first thing is the posture, paying attention to your body, opening up your body, lifting up the chest, lifting up the back of the head, so that the back of the head is reaching up for the sky. The whole upper part of the body is lifting and opening. You are not making your body be in a certain posture, but allowing it to open up like a flower, just the way it wants to open, if only you will let it.
Then, hands like this. This is the best way, with the left hand on top of the right, and the thumbs just touching slightly, and resting the hands nicely in your lap. As you sit, pay attention to the position of your hands. Again, not something that you impose on your hands, but you just allow your hands to be gentle. You feel the beauty of the gesture made with your hands, this ancient gesture, made over the centuries by millions of practitioners. Then you can place your mind inside the palms of your hands. The mind is not inside the head. The mind is everywhere, inside your body, and also outside your body. So, you can put your mind in your hands.
You can pay attention to the breathing in your belly. If you pay attention, you see how your belly gently rises and falls with your breathing. Then it might be good to count each breath, one to five or one to ten, as you exhale.
So these are the things we’re paying attention to: the opening of the body and the feeling of the body, the gentle breathing in the belly, the feeling in the hands. No matter what else happens to distract you from this, as soon as you notice you are distracted, you gently come back. Come home. Come home to the body. Come home to the breathing. Come home to the feeling of being present in this moment, with your human condition.
When you practice like that, all you are doing is paying attention to the feeling of your life. Such a simple thing. That is your life, right? That is the feeling of your life. The feeling of your life is the feeling of your body. It is the feeling of your breathing. It is the feeling of your presence and your awareness. That’s your life, right? Whatever problems that you are wrapped up in, whatever difficulties you think you have at any time in your life, your life is always your body, your breathing, your presence.
This is such a miracle. Why would you be here at all? How did that happen? We know all kinds of things, but we don’t really know why we are here. How did we get here? What a blessing! What an opportunity.
Of course, when we are all entangled in our human problems, we don’t think of this. We forget the miracle. We forget the blessing. All we do is complain and try to escape. For these six days of retreat, we have removed all problems. No problems. Everything is beautiful. All you have to do is feel your life. There is nothing to distract you from that.
No matter what is going on in your mind, just come back to your life, not only when you’re on your cushion, but all of the time. When you are doing walking meditation, come back to your life. When you are chanting in the service, come back to your life. When you are eating the meal, you come back. When you are working. When you’re on the beach. Come back, come back home to your life. When you forget to do that – because you are going to forget a million times – use the forgetting itself as a device to remember to come back. Notice that you forgot, notice that you are not in your in life, and as soon as you notice, come back. Right there you can come back. Nothing stops you.
Try your best not to evaluate yourself too much, or to measure how well you are doing. Measuring how well you are doing is almost always a trick of the mind, a sneaky trick of the mind to keep you entangled in your suffering. Try not to let that happen too often. If you find yourself frustrated because you think you are not doing very well, or because your mind is full of worries and thoughts, or maybe your body is painful, and you want to move around on your seat, just realize that all this is perfectly normal. It has nothing to do with you, and it’s not your fault. In that very moment, come home. Come home to the body and the breathing. Cut through all of that thinking and just come back.
In every moment, no matter what’s going on, no matter how compelling it seems, even if it seems that you are just at the point of figuring out everything in your life, just forget about it. Then come back to your breath. Come back to your body. Even if you do come back, and you are there for just half a second, and the next half a second you are again wandering all over, that’s perfectly okay. In that moment come back. You only have to practice for one moment. That’s all it takes: one moment.
The story of the Buddha, his spiritual path, began with suffering. Although he himself was a young man and very privileged, and he seemed not to be suffering, he noticed that other people were suffering. Other people were old. Other people were sick. Other people were dying. Of course, this is no news to us; we all know this. But usually we think, That’s the problem of other people. That’s not my problem. Maybe we are a little more thoughtful about this and we say, Probably some day that is going to be my problem…later. Or maybe we think, No, no, maybe I will be able to escape all of those problems. If you do yoga every day and eat vegan food, and you only put good things into your mind, and you are very healthy, it’s possible that you might be the one exception, and you might live practically forever as a young, healthy person. You are laughing, because it is a ridiculous idea. Yet, a lot of people actually think this. Maybe, most of us actually believe this.
The Buddha didn’t look at it that way. Quite to the contrary, he took the suffering of other people very personally. He actually saw the suffering of other people as his own suffering. He profoundly realized that if even one person is suffering, he is also suffering. Feeling this, he thought that there was no other choice but to go forth into the spiritual life, to find a path to end suffering.
A lot of religious people start out with some big truth: how the world is created, what reality is, what happens after we die, or why we have to die at all. But this was not the Buddha’s concern. His only concern was suffering and the end of suffering, and the way to live a human life, taking suffering into account, and yet still finding true happiness. All of his instructions were only about this. He would often say, “I only teach two things: suffering and the end of suffering.”
What causes suffering? If we want to end suffering, we better find out what causes it. The Buddha taught that the cause of suffering is clinging. Why is clinging going to cause suffering? Because we are trying to cling to something we can’t hold on to. So, it is frustrating, and the frustration grows into deep suffering. If we cling to our health, and we are sick, that is suffering. If we cling to another person, and that person leaves us, that is suffering. If we cling to our money or our house, and we lose our money or our house, that’s suffering. If we cling to our good reputation, and people disrespect us, then that is suffering. If we cling to life when we are dying, that’s suffering. All these things do happen to us. We can’t hold on to the things we cling to. So we suffer.
Why do we cling? Why do we do that? We cling, because we feel incomplete. It does not seem enough for us to accept this moment of life. We think we need more. Maybe we think we need another person to complete this life. Or we need some special state of happiness or gratitude to complete this life. Or we need to be intelligent or youthful. Or we need special status among others.
We cling to these things because we are not enough. Even if we are successful in acquiring many things to make us feel complete, we still don’t feel complete. We are clinging more and more and more. Clinging makes more clinging, and we are suffering.
To end suffering and clinging, we need to see through this sense of our own incompletion. This means that we need to understand more deeply who and what we really are. We have to admit that this feeling of incompletion is very deep in us. It is really at the center of who we think we are. To this extent, all of us are, in some profound way, wounded. We have all been taught and believe that we must be more. We are not enough. We must be more and we must go on being more. This is something we deeply believe, but it is simply not true. It’s not true.
In this moment of your sitting here and breathing, hearing the sound of the sea and my words, you are lacking nothing. You don’t need anything more than this moment, this moment of your living the blessing of your life. When this is clear to you, not only right now, but all the time, then you are free. You are no longer bound to clinging and grasping and suffering. Whatever arises in this moment, will be okay, even if it is something difficult, even if it is some grave loss. It won’t be suffering, when there is no clinging and no grasping. Even death, when there is no clinging, may be perfectly okay. It may be a letting go of all barriers and all boundaries, a great leap into the endlessness.
So this is the point of our practice and the goal of our meditation. The real reason to make effort to sit here and pay attention is not just to be peaceful for a few days, or to have some wonderful spiritual experiences – although, I hope you do. The real reason is to find out who you really are. To cut through the forest of your many, many viewpoints. To see your life more deeply. When you see more deeply, there is less clinging. When there is less clinging, there is more happiness and less suffering.
This is really simple and really clear. But as you will find out, you will still have to work at it, because the ancient, human habit of self-ignorance and clinging is really strong in all of us. The good news and the bad news is that it is not just you. It is not just your personal defects. That’s the good news and the bad news. It is all of us; it is being human. That’s the problem. That’s why, although this is very simple and very clear and very natural to us, it is going to take some effort to overcome this. It is very clear: if you don’t overcome this, you will suffer. If you overcome it a little bit, you will suffer a little bit less, and you will be a little happier. If you overcome it a lot, you will have a lot less suffering, and you will be a lot happier.
As all of you who have been doing this practice for a while know, much more is involved than meditation. Little by little, as you go on, pretty much everything in your life is involved in spiritual practice: the way you think, the way you speak, what you feel, how you feel, your actions, your choices, your friendships, what you want to do or don’t want to do. Pretty much everything in your life is involved. But this is not something that you force, or advance through will power. It all just happens gradually as you continue to sit and listen to teachings, especially as you continue to pay attention to your living and notice more closely what makes you suffer and what brings you joy.
The Buddha said that the path involves your whole viewpoint, your intentions, all your actions, every word you speak, your livelihood, the quality of your awareness, your effort, your determination, and your meditation practice. Of all of these, maybe for us the meditation practice is the most important, not because in itself it is so important, but because it is the best thing that we can do to help us practice with all the other things. The strength of the meditation practice can, little by little, draw our whole life toward clarity.
It really is a blessing that we are able to be here this week together, doing nothing but practicing meditation. So I want to thank each and every one of you for coming and doing this. Please continue through these days with energy, with effort, with care, and especially with gentleness and love. Remember that when you take care of your own practice, it doesn’t just help you. It has an impact on everyone else in the retreat. Everyone in the retreat will be affected by your strong effort to really do the practice. Everyone will be inspired by that, and they will practice more. In this way, just by taking care of ourselves, will take care of others. Together we can do what would not be possible for any one of us alone.
I can tell you for sure that this practice works. If you really give yourself to it and stay with it, it will really open up your life and make your life more beautiful. My job is to tell you this. Your job is to make my words real.
Thank you for listening.