A boy was given a small bird for his birthday. The boy, not knowing any better, squeezed the bird as hard as he could. “This is MY bird. It will be mine always. I love this bird and it’s not going anywhere.” Then the boy looked down in his hands and saw the bird was squirming and in pain. The boy felt bad, and loosened his grip just a little bit. The bird began to chirp as it had more space to move, more space to change. Then the boy would get scared. “But it’s going to leave!” And he would tighten his grip again. The bird would start suffering, and he would loosen his grip. This is our practice. When we are suffocating the bird, we need to learn to loosen our grip. If we get scared and squeeze again, it’s okay. It seems it’s our nature to cling to things. Just smile and let go.
Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’m not sure that I agree. I think I understand what Socrates meant, however. And I often ponder this question myself. Me, I’ve spent the majority of my life in an obsessive examination of my own (and others) behavior, intentions and consequences. Some methods of seeking included drugs of all kinds and alcohol. Some methods included going into the wilderness alone. But now, I found the middle path, where I am able to examine life in general without an attachment to it, or needing it to be a certain way.
The examination these days has turned its gaze inward. When I sit and meditate, and become quite concentrated and calm, the process reveals itself right in front of me. I sit and bring awareness to my body. “Am I my body?” I think. Here I sit with this body…. This skin, bones, muscles, sinews. And when I was younger, I also had skin, bones, muscles, sinews. But, all of our cells are constantly regenerating. There is not a single cell in our body today that was flourishing in our body from infanthood or toddlerhood. This body that I sit with and contemplate today is completely different than the body I grew up with. It grows, it shrinks, it lives and dies and lives again. It looks different almost every day. More hair here, less hair there. More muscle here, less muscle there. It seems the body isn’t a reliable place to lay the claim that “This body is who I am.” Aside from that, the very fact that I can directly observe my body, watch it, sense it, relate to it, means that it can’t be me.
What about my thoughts? Am I my thoughts? Can I claim my thoughts as mine? Well let’s see. I sit and watch my thoughts. I wait for the mind to generate some talk. “I wish I could be in Thailand.” This is quite interesting. Without my forcing it or willfully conjuring it, an image of Thailand arises. And, that image is accompanied by a feeling. In this case, it was a lightness, a warm tingle in my chest and through my spine. And I label that feeling as pleasant. And then, without my help, the image disappears. Next thought. “My back hurts.” This thought too was accompanied by a feeling. It was an unpleasant feeling, a tight and sharp sting in my upper back. And I label this as unpleasant. It’s also accompanied by an autonomic response; namely I begin to sweat and blood rushes to my extremities. Whatever the “I” is, it doesn’t seem to like physical discomfort. But I choose not to listen to it. I choose not to get up. I stay and watch, and listen. I can’t be my thoughts. I sit here and watch my thoughts, and choose, one after another, which one I will attend to. I interact with my thoughts, I exist in this space between my thought and the subsequent reaction. I am not my thoughts.
Am I my feelings? Ever since I can remember, I have felt things with incredible acuity and sensitivity. If I was happy, I was elated. If I was sad, I was heartbroken. In my past, I could see how many occasions that I took my feelings to be “Me.” I was heartbreak. I was anger. I was resentment. I was guilt. But this is no longer the case. Through meditation, I no longer identify so richly with my feelings. As a matter of fact, I sat last night with numerous feelings. I was upset. I was regretful. I was sad. But my relationship to those feelings has changed. And the very fact that I am in relationship to my feelings, is a clear indicator that I am not my feelings. Just like the thoughts, or a pain in the body, the meditator can watch the feelings arise. We can create a space for the feelings to do their dance.
So what does this mean for us? We have this river of sensations, thoughts, feelings, and volitions. I am learning to rest in the space of awareness that can observe all things but not be limited by them. As humans, we are constantly searching for things to cling to as “Me,” or “Mine.” And invariably we do. However, what happens when those things change? What happens when they are taken away? What if we’re not ready to let go? What if we haven’t practiced letting go? This causes confusion beyond measure…. The dark night of the soul. Learn to rest in the uncertainty. Don’t hold so tightly to your opinions. Don’t squeeze the life out of your lover, or your children. When they change, let them change.
Rest in that space of awareness that can observe all things, and not be limited by them. Have a “mind like sky,” as my teacher Jack Kornfield would say. In neuroscience, they call it raising the window of tolerance. I call it a sense of fearlessness, to sit on your one cushion and say, “yes.”
Dr. Zack Bein