A monk decides to meditate alone, away from his monastery. He takes his boat out to the middle of the lake, moors it there, closes his eyes and begins his meditation.
After a few hours of undisturbed silence, he suddenly feels the bump of another boat colliding with his own. With his eyes still closed, he senses his anger rising, and by the time he opens his eyes, he is ready to scream at the boatman who dared disturb his meditation. But when he opens his eyes, he sees it’s an empty boat that had probably got untethered and floated to the middle of the lake.
At that moment, the monk achieves self-realization, and understands that the anger is within him; it merely needs the bump of an external object to provoke it out of him.
From then on, whenever he comes across someone who irritates him or provokes him to anger, he reminds himself, “The other person is merely an empty boat. The anger is within me.”
I am traveling home from a few days with my mentor, on a bumpy plane ride with a heart full up after spending time with the wonderful women in her circle. They are all healers, with different specialties and ways about them, but there is a special kind of magic that happens when we all gather. It is fulfilling, invigorating. The old man calls it the coven, which makes me laugh. If he only knew.
The first time that I attended a 10-day meditation retreat, I roomed with about 7 or 8 other women. The accommodations were simple, but comfortable, low wooden bed frames with single mattresses on which I put a sheet and my sleeping bag.
When you take a vow of silence, this doesn’t mean just speech. It means gesturing too. So when you are living with a group of people, you learn to wait. There is someone in your way? You wait. You don’t make your needs known in any way. You wait. Your awareness of others becomes heightened so as to not bother them, to not take them out of their bubble of awareness. The thing I feared most was that I would thoughtlessly jar someone out of their deep inner work. I tread lightly all day, and as the days progressed I become an island of solitude in a room full of other people.
At this first retreat, there was one woman whom I was very aware of the whole time. She was small and loud. She had a stomp-y way of walking, and she seemed to hurl her body into her bed, causing it to rattle against the wall. She would rifle through her duffle each morning and night and it sounded frantic and chaotic. Everything she did seemed to draw attention to herself.
During those nine days of silence, a good part of my time was spent thinking about this person. We didn’t get much of a chance to meet people before the first meditation and the call to silence, so I hadn’t spoken to her before. I imagined her voice loud and abrasive, cutting in to conversations and being opinionated. I could not for the life of me imagine what someone like her would be doing here. She must be going crazy in the silence, I thought, being so self-centered and immature. I considered what she did for a living, what her voice sounded like, how we might get into arguments, and about what.
Basically, of this precious time when I was privileged to shut out the outside world in order to live the contemplative life of a monk, some of it was spent hating on this chick.
On the last day of these retreats, when the last instruction comes and we head to the cafeteria to break the silence, everyone’s mouth starts babbling a million miles an hour. I happened to have the good fortune to sit next to this person, my nemesis! Up close, her skin was that creamy color that pairs with most redheads, and she had a light to her face that was captivating. We started speaking and she was gentle, sweet, humble and funny. She worked with homeless people, and was getting her masters in social work. She was a delight.
We spoke for a while and she turned to speak to someone else. I sat quietly for a moment and allowed the realization to fall on me. “Oh!” I thought.
“I’M the a*shole!”
Here I was spending all of this time that I could have been spending on actually meditating, becoming one with consciousness and finding my infinite self, and instead my ego was dumping all of its own judgments and insecurities and self-centeredness on to this delight of a human.
This is the first memory that came to me when I thought of the boat at the beginning of this post, this meditator who gets so riled up by an imaginary insult. Here I was, putting all of this negativity into this boat, and at the end of the day it had absolutely nothing to do with the boat. It was all me, baby. All that junk was just a big old boat of Clem ugliness. It’s all me.
What a profound teaching. As we go through the world, the mind is constantly judging: looking backward to see how Now compares, looking forward to anticipate what might come. Every moment is judged with past or future, and every being is judged according to others we’ve experienced, or by wishing them to be different. This constant activity of the egoic self is what we believe life to be, this constant comparing and assuming. We are constantly creating our own reality, that often has nothing to do with what the other people in the room are experiencing.
I think of this often when I walk into a business and walk to the counter, look the person working there in the eye, speak directly and clearly about what I’ve come to purchase. Nine times out of ten, this person will ask me to repeat what I’ve said. I know that they’ve heard me, I know that they were looking at me, but I also know that there were not there for the first request. They were in the past, or in the future. They were looking at me and some memory, some judgment, some emotion has bubbled up, blurred their vision, taken them away from the moment. I guess this is why eye-witnesses often have differing ideas of an event. It is a rare person who is right here, right now.
When I relate this to music, it is so clear, and kind of funny. How many times have I created a phony person out of someone’s performance? How many times have I created a whole personality and life for someone as I watch them sing or play, only to discover later that they are sometimes the opposite of what I had dreamed? In this case, I see all my own desires and needs and preferences in this false creation. Later, backstage, when I see what I think is the reality of the off-stage person, I know that this too is a judgment, a creation.
At the retreat, I assumed so much about the woman I was rooming with. When I heard her walk down the hall, memories flooded my brain of all the people who I have known who walked loudly. I was never seeing her, I was seeing my reactions, the decades of reactions to situations real and imagined, and those reactions were clouding my vision, creating a reality that was all mine.
What if on that last day all of my ideas about this woman had been true? What if she had been self-centered and cruel? Then, what I would have thought I was seeing is a confirmation, but really, it would have been just a confirmation of my own ugly thoughts and beliefs. I am still not seeing the real person. By looking at her this way, I would be robbed of my capacity for mindfulness, for compassion, for love and for bliss. What would life be to meet difficulty with ease and love? The point of it all is that it doesn’t matter how the other person appears. It is my reaction that is creating my reality.
When you let go of reaction, then what happens? We just experience, without story and without judgment. We fall into awareness. True awareness devoid of reaction means that there is just experience. Often, when I fall into awareness I ask, Who is Experiencing? That question brings me below judgment, and I see very clearly the Clem who judges and needs things to be different.
I love the story of the Buddha, sitting under that tree, saying, screw it. I’m sitting here until I finally understand reality. And what is the reality he studied? The only one anyone truly knows: the sensations of the body. Everything beyond the body is suspect, after all. Are we being dreamed by some big being? Are we a hologram? A mirror? All we know is our reactions, our reactions on the physical body that are connected to our thoughts and emotions rising in reaction to external stimuli. So the Buddha sat, and just observed all these reactions, and the Sankaras that were created. Sankaras are the deep, dug-in attachments to our experiences. When he let go of these reactions, he released the Sankaras. He declared he finally understand reality. Finally he understood that to let go of our reactions and judgment is to live in the reality of the true light of being.
This awareness is freedom, bliss and freedom. If I had been truly aware in that first retreat, if I had found that unconditional conscious awareness and had just been in those moments, then where is judgment? Who is there to judge? Clem would not have been robbed of the bliss of living in each moment. Instead, there would have been a joy in each sound experienced, joy for being alive in the moment, and love for every stompy reverberation that fell infinitely and forever. The boat would have been bumped, and there would be no boats, no bumps, just the delight of a river sighing.