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Aligning Ourselves With Change

By Matthew Daniell

(Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper on April 24, 2020)

In the spiritual traditions of Asia that I lived in, people would come to the monks and ask questions about the future.  They wanted to know how it would be, and it was said that the great meditation masters could see the future.  I heard a story that the great Thai monk Ajahn Cha would never respond to such questions. One time though, when pressed by a sincere devotee he gave in. After much fanfare and excitement he simply said I can tell you something certain about your future, that one thing is uncertainty.  I recently read a financial pundit who said, in essence; give me the bad news over uncertainty any day.

In this time of Covid-19, as in other times of great instability, as we try to cope with great and unpredictable change our minds struggle.  

I watched a movie recently where there were crowds of people mingling.  At one point I turned to my partner and told her ‘that’s bad social distancing’.  It was a joke but inside me the feeling was real. I had already begun to internalize the ‘new normal’ and see the scene as from another time. 

Perhaps this was an unconscious coping mechanism to create security and stability where there wasn't any. 

The Buddha's central teaching is that, trying to find permanence, and the mental imposition of permanence onto impermanent things, is the root cause of mental suffering.  

Insight meditation teaches us to align ourselves with change through the power of our attention in a way that transforms our relationship to it.

The practice is to ground and steady our attention in the present moment, not seeking inordinate security in thoughts of the future or past.  First, one focuses on simple natural patterns of changing experiences like the breath, the body walking. This brings calm.

As this mindful practice matures present moment awareness grows.  This becomes a resource of clear seeing we can bring to bear on changing conditions in our emotional lives and the world.

Thich Nhat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, tells of how during the Vietnam War refugees got on rickety boats and set out onto the open ocean with the hopes of making it to Thailand and safety.  It was a perilous journey and many boats perished in the rough seas. He later found out that on the boats that survived there was often at least one calm person on board. Many of these calm people had learned to steady their attention by practicing mindfulness of breathing.  Sitting and breathing mindfully on a boat in the midst of stormy seas they could watch their own natural human emotions of fear and anxiety come and go, and naturally hold those of others with more care and spaciousness. Their presence was not only supportive on the emotional level, but also in terms of wisely seeing around them what might need to be done to stay on course and remain balanced.  

We are on that boat right now.  You and I and everyone. In our homes, with our planet, in all of our relationships.

There is a fundamental wisdom that comes in facing insecurity and not knowing outcomes.  We keep trying to adjust to the ‘new normal’, but it keeps changing. The Buddha said we are looking for this security in the wrong place, as long as we continue to do so we will suffer.

What if the ‘new normal’ was living from the place of present moment awareness, with calm, clarity, and wise resourcefulness?

Aligning ourselves to change is a great challenge.  The teachings of Insight Meditation are here to help.  

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