As I sit at my desk this morning, I am listening unwillingly to the rhythmic, reverberant, and unrelenting blows of a pile driver on cold steel. Wham! (Pause). Wham! (Pause). Wham! The crashes continue for another twenty minutes, as they have for the past few weeks. Charitably regarded, this disturbance of the peace represents the embodied spirit of Progress. Alfred University is building a new recreation center, a half block away from our home. But for many of us who live or work nearby, the noise has been the aural equivalent of a chronic, throbbing toothache. It has been an unwelcome sound.
In this it is far from alone. Most of us, I suspect, have our lists of unwelcome sounds, and more often than not, those sounds are beyond our power to abate, much less eliminate. Under such conditions, a scriptural reminder might be helpful: “And we exhort you, brethren . . . be patient with them all” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:14). But help may also be found in Buddhist teachings, which offer three distinct practices for dealing with unwanted feelings and sensations.
To be human is to have preferences. Sweet over sour. Consonant over dissonant. Quiet over loud. And to enforce our preferences, we include certain things in our awareness and exclude others. But as Zen teacher Roshi Pat Enkyo O’ Hara explains, it is possible to do otherwise:
Just imagine what it would be like if you were to include everything that arises. Usually, all of us only include a certain amount: what we like, what we are willing to see about ourselves and others. We don’t include the things we don’t like about ourselves or about conditions and situations. We push them away. Denial.
As a countermeasure, O’Hara exhorts us “to constantly include everything that is arising.” As an example, she recalls her experience in a soup kitchen, where she became consciously aware of her disgust (“Is this man going to throw up on me?”). By so doing, she opened herself to “reality, to the conditions of the world of which we are a part.”
The phrase “include everything” gives O’ Hara’s practice a fresh turn, but the attitude she advocates is rooted in the Faith-Mind Sutra, a classic Zen text. The putative author is Seng-ts’an, the Third Zen Patriarch, who reassures us that “the Great Way is not difficult / for those not attached to preferences.” To “set up what you like against what you dislike / is the disease of the mind.” To heal ourselves, we must put our likes and dislikes in abeyance, allowing things to exist as they are.
Undertaken intelligently, the practice of inclusion can conduce to greater openness, tolerance, and compassion. In my experience, however, the practice requires vigilant self-awareness, lest the effort to be inclusive foster self-deception. Encountering an unpleasant sound, sight, or feeling, I may think that I am including that sensation or feeling in my awareness. But I may also be fooling myself.
If we can truly accept an unpleasant reality, that practice alone can pacify our minds. But should that effort fall short, we can take the further step of investigating our experience, with a view to gaining insight as well as immediate relief. This practice may be divided into two stages, the first pertaining to external reality, the second to the practitioner’s internal response.
One summer many years ago, I found myself subjected to disconcerting sound. At the time I was living in a room at Trinity College, Dublin. My window looked out on Pearse Street, a noisy thoroughfare. The din of traffic was constant—or so I thought, until I stopped to listen. Sitting in zazen one evening, I turned my attention from my annoyance to the sound itself, and I was surprised to find that it was neither constant nor in itself unpleasant. Listening closely, I noticed that the sound came in waves, as traffic halted at the stop light, fell silent, and resumed a minute later. Experienced in this way, the once-troubling sound became an object of curiosity rather than consternation, and my tension eased.
In that same sitting, I also examined my emotional response. If the sound itself was not unpleasant, what had caused the inner conflict? What beliefs, assumptions, or unacknowledged expectations had created my internal tension, and with it my negative perceptions? Those questions could scarcely be answered–or laid to rest–in a single sitting. But merely by entertaining them, I released myself from the confines I’d created.
In the Faith-Mind Sutra, Seng-Ts’an offers further advice. “In this world ‘as it really is,’” he writes, “there is neither self nor other-than-self. / / To know this Reality directly / is possible only through practicing non-duality. / When you live this non-separation, / all things manifest the One, and nothing is excluded.”
In our ordinary experience there is indeed a “self” and “other.” And much of the time, that imagined separate self is at odds with a perceived other, whether it be a person of a different class, nation, or persuasion or the world itself, where inclement weather alters our plans and pile drivers intrude upon our peace. But as Seng-Ts’an observes, in undifferentiated reality there is no self or other, no Hearer or Heard. And as the Indian sage Tilopa reminds us, with practice it is possible to “remain in the flow of sheer awareness,” where “the appearance of division and conflict / disappears into original reality.” Dwelling in that awareness, we can experience the world not as concatenation of solid things but as an unending flow, where nothing is excluded, and even the wham-pause-wham of a pile driver is heard as the pulse of life itself.
Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, “Include Everything,” Shambhala Sun, November 2012, 61.
Photo by Julo