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The Best Season of Your Life

by Matthew Daniell

(Published in the Newburyport Daily News newspaper on May 27, 2017)

Spring rushes forth in all its glory this time of year, trees and grasses bright and green and growing strong, bird song amidst warm breezes. Is spring your favorite season, or summer, autumn, or winter?

The ancient Chinese Zen master Wu Men had an interesting take on this theme.

Ten thousand flowers in spring
The moon in autumn,
A cool breeze in summer.
Snow in winter.
If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things,
this is the best season of your life.

Do the words of this ancient Chinese sage resonate with you, touching a quiet hidden place within that yearns for stillness and connection? Do these words even make any sense, outside of being a nice poetic refrain, given the hectic nature of our lives? What does it mean "if your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things," when many of the "things in our minds" are the stuff of memory, planning, anticipating, etc., that are necessary to survive and thrive in our lives.

Wu Men evokes an interesting possibility in us, and the Buddha’s teaching on Insight Meditation show us how to work practically to uncloud the mind.

Let’s begin by exploring with the clouded mind.

There is a story told about a man who was shot by an arrow in ancient times. As he lay bleeding he desperately needed medical attention. His friends were just over a grassy knoll nearby and could not see him. Instead of calling to his friends for help or seeing what could be done to remove the arrow himself he lay silent, thinking to himself angrily, who shot the arrow? Why did they do it? I’ll get them. The teaching is that initially he was shot by one arrow, this is what life does to us that we don’t appreciate, but then that he shot himself, through his unwise inner mental and emotional activity, with a second arrow. The suffering of the second arrow is optional, the first is not.

Can you relate to this teaching on the "two arrows"?  How much time and energy do we waste when things don’t go our way complaining, criticizing (ourselves and others)? We shoot ourselves with a second arrow, then perhaps a third, and this can go on for some time, years, a lifetime even, countless arrows, lots of "clouding the mind"!

We don’t see the costs to the quality of our own lives when we get caught in what may be called "vicious cycles" of thought, emotion, unpleasant physical sensation, and the inner and outer reactions that follow.  Sometimes it can be as simple as overthinking a situation, or getting stuck in the love of thinking about a situation at the expense of what is actually called for.

Insight mediation offers a clear strategy for dealing with this cycle of reactivity, learning to unclutter the heart and mind. It starts by simply learning to take mindful pauses.  These are moments when we let go of thought and enter into the simplicity of present moment awareness. Opening to the environment, a breath, or a footstep teaches us this possibility.  You can pause and do this right now if you like. What happens? For a moment we are no longer "thinking about", we are simply here. And in these moments, as medical research has shown, we are renewed and refreshed.

As we train this present moment awareness, or mindfulness, we begin to come out from underneath the power of thoughts, emotions, etc. We learn to see them more clearly, and create greater choice in how we respond to their demands.

Many years ago I was in Sri Lanka learning from a famous scholar monk. I would walk by a sweet shop on my way to his hermitage, and sometimes would go inside and happily partake. One day as I approached the sweet shop I felt a tremendous urge to go inside. However, I clearly saw the impulse in my mind, before I was already inside and ordering. For some reason I decided "no", I did not travel halfway around the world for sweets, and kept walking. My ability to be aware of my thoughts, emotional urges, etc. gave me a choice, and I moved from the freedom this showed me. Even though there were clouds (strong thoughts, emotional urges) present, my mind anchored in present moment awareness was not clouded.

Some years later I was a monk in Thailand practicing in the forest. I had a small hut to meditate in and a walking path to practice walking meditation on. Leaves would fall on the path, and since the leaves fall in all seasons there it was a daily job to sweep the path. I remember being frustrated by the fact that as I was sweeping more leaves would fall, and the path was rarely clear. There was a wisdom in this routine of daily living that I didn’t quite get at the time. The great Thai Forest meditation master Ajahn Cha, however, did. He taught:

"Our lives are like the breath, like the growing and falling leaves. When we can really understand about falling leaves we can sweep the paths every day and have great happiness in our lives on this changing earth". (From the book A Still Forest Pool).

Our understanding grows as our present moment awareness matures and is able to relate to not only the falling leaves with interest and balance but to our joys, sorrow, thoughts and inner stillness as well. Wu men challenges us to make all of our life worthy of our respect and awareness. It is in the quality of how we relate to the moment that makes this the best season of our life!