Letting in the Sun
by Matthew Daniell
(Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper, February 10, 2018)
About nine years ago I had solar panels installed on my house in West Newbury. I did this so that the natural power of the sun would provide an energy source of electricity for the needs of my family. One concern I had was that the amount of shading from nearby trees would block the sun over time. This didn’t happen much in the first few years but sure enough the trees have grown and the efficiency of the whole system has diminished. So I have thought to myself, if I want to maximize the availability of light what is the best course of action: Should I just live with it as it is? Should I spend a lot of money and time to have the trees cut back, and then do this again in some years, or have a selective tree or two cut down? So far I have done nothing, but I know the power I am receiving from this natural abundant source is slowly diminishing.
This story serves as a metaphor for the power of present moment awareness, the truth of the nature of the forces that block it, and strategies we can employ to keep this natural source of renewal alive and our connection to it unblocked.
Many studies have shown how simply learning to pay attention to the present moment through watching the breath or experiencing our senses more fully can provide a powerful source of energy for our lives. Like the sun this source is renewable. All we need to do is not block our ability to be present and be nourished by the things that touch us in life. In this metaphor the branches and leaves that block the sun are like the thoughts, judgments, opinions, worries and other preoccupations that take us out of being fully present in our lives.
Let’s say you are watching a sunset and your mind is elsewhere, and then you criticize yourself for thinking that you did all this work to get here to enjoy this beautiful view but you are not present for it. Or we are having a wonderful meal with our partner or friend and then we find our self-obsessing on dessert or spending so much time judging the food that we don’t really taste it. Somehow we are left feeling a bit empty even though we are physically full and we don’t know why. It is simply that we don’t see this moment as it is.
Our habits of mind are deeply conditioned to comment on or manipulate experience in our search for happiness. If only we, or others, or political situations in the world were different then we could be happy, then we could be truly present. Or if we are really happy and connected, nourished in the moment then we think we must capture the experience, bottle it, and this will bring us true lasting happiness.
This is an unfortunate situation. Ajahn Chah, the Thai meditation master, pointed out that the nature of all of life is to change, and it is not in our control in all the ways we would like it to be. When we don’t see this we suffer.
Insight meditation has a twofold way to address this unnecessary suffering and bring to us more reliable happiness. Our power of renewal comes from training in simple present moment experience, outside of all of these "drama making" habits of the mind: the nourishment of a breath, a fully experienced sip of tea (one of my favorites), a felt footstep, a sunset seen with full care and attention. This is the power of the sunlight in our metaphor.
The second aspect is to shine the light of this present moment awareness on all of our experiences, including thoughts, emotions, images, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in a way that is clear and non-manipulative. Insight meditation (or vipassana) means clear seeing or special seeing. We are intimate with but don’t feed or reject our experience. It is a wonderful state of mind. Experiences come and go and we remain steady, alert, relaxed.
When we grow this skill set it shifts our relationships: we listen more fully, eat more fully, sleep, make love, grieve, laugh, etc. all with more natural awareness and connection. We see the mind’s temptation to impose on experience but we don’t. In our analogy, the roots of the tree no longer receive the nourishment they need to grow, so the tree, this tree of not seeing clearly or ignorance, is weakened. The branches don’t grow and the leaves fall. In time, without sufficient nutrition the tree may even fall, opening an unimpeded potential to receive the sun’s rays; the solar panels can now be fully charged.
You may ask why not just cut down the tree? In the physical world this can be done, but in our inner life it cannot. If you disagree please go ahead and try. From the perspective of insight meditation that is not how the process of removing that which clouds our hearts and minds works. Instead we train in mindfulness practices of calming and steadying our attention and seeing clearly into experience. As this capacity matures we see that, like the leaves falling, obscurations to clarity reveal their impermanent nature. When their energy is expended they naturally fall away. What is left is the power of our clear present moment awareness, which was there all along, just like the sun. This warmth, energy, and clarity affect the quality of our life and the lives that we touch living on this planet.