Noticing Improvement

//Noticing Improvement

Noticing Improvement

Pablo Casals needs likely no introduction one of the greatest cellists of all times. One day he received a visit at his home from one of his friends. Pablo was in his nineties practicing his cello when his friend arrived. You are the greatest cellist who ever walked this earth, and you are in your nineties, why are you still practicing Pablo? asked his friend. His answer: Because I notice improvement! (Thank you Howard for telling me this story). There is a similar story about Vladimir Horowitz, a great classical pianist. Asked why he was still practicing in his eighties, he said: If I dont practice for a day, I hear it; for 2 days, my wife hears it; for 3 days, everybody hears it! Both gentlemen fully accomplished, world-renowned representatives of their art. Zen would say, After enlightenment, the laundry.

As we work on awakening awareness from autopilot, many look for the end result, for the prize at the end of the effort. In my student groups I can feel the familiar striving energy of yearning people. Often, such striving is accompanied by an idealized view of the teacher as having arrived exactly where the student strives to arrive one day. At work is an automatic psychological mechanism, through which students project their own existing, but disowned authority onto the teacher as they fill their conscious self-image with imperfections. This mechanism manifests when we have not yet integrated disowned/dissociated parts in us. The result: We dont feel at peace, we identify our sense of who we are with this state of discomfort, and the problem-solving mind presents to us goodness as a solution to be found outside. No wonder students want to get there where the teacher is. They count the minutes and hours, impatient to get there where their problem-solving mind tells them to go and they believe the teacher is. They dont notice that the teacher is exactly there where they are, maybe just a bit more so! I am known to jokingly encourage my students not to hurry too much towards integration, because this situation keeps them coming, which helps me pay off my mortgage.

The ideal we seek is an imagined state of contentment and relief from whatever pain we suffer from. Freedom never appears to be there where we are, but is imagined either somewhere else or at a future time. We want to be happy when we are not, or happier than we are. We are in the grip of a psychological seizure, driven by discomfort to get to the place of relief as soon as possible. The problem-solving mind plans for us to get from here to there as quickly as possible, never mind that we dont have the faintest idea of where here is and how there looks like. The big secret nobody wants to hear is that there is much like here maybe even more so!

In the beginning of the mindful journey this ideal of where we are supposed to end up is like a mirage. As we progress, it recedes farther and farther away. Eventually, as we get closer and closer to realizing what we are looking for, the mirage disappears completely, only to leave us with the endless trail snaking into eternity in front of us. For a moment we may be despaired and lost, because the closer we get to the ideal, the farther away we seem to be from it. Why? Because the ideal is just an idea, a thought, and not liberation itself. The idea of liberation is just a fantasy not to be worried about. Not only the ideal disappears, but the trail itself dissolves and we discover that the path is not linear at all, but meandering sloppily in all directions instead. We grow into all directions, and eternity is touching us from all directions until we can finally satisfy ourselves that once and for all, and for all eternity, becoming has no direction and no arriving.

Each of the vignettes I mentioned above depicts an important principle on our journey of letting go of such striving. The image of a journey can be misleading, because it usually implies a destination to be reached. Horowitzs journey is more a container than a way to reach a destination. He observes changes in his relationships as a consequence of his way of being. Liberation from suffering is the practice of not having anyone notice. If others do notice, we face an intelligent audience we are related to, ready to help us modify our course! That is love! The subtle internal work we do is intimately connected to others, and we cannot hide our internal world without affecting others. How we regulate our own energy and information flow directly affects others, and vice versa. The resonance circuitry of the brain responsible for our dependence on relationships is exquisitely sensitive; there is not much leeway, only 2 days, and then everybody notices. Our practice needs to occur not only with our fellow humans in mind, but in the field of our relationships all our relationships. Relationships and their harmony are at the core of spiritual awakening, because our brain is a relational organ, wired for relationships. As Buddha already knew, one of the three refuges our practice can find safety in is sangha, the community of people on the path to awakening. The journey to a better place is the story of a deeper and more refined settling into the web of relatedness that already exists.

Casals statement is hauntingly beautiful. Old, at the end of his life, he continues to improve, unknowingly celebrating how neuroplasticity in the brain persists throughout our life time and never stops. You are perfect as you are, and there is room for improvement. Your perfection is the manner of your becoming. Room for improvement is the infinite potential for ever deeper acceptance, clarity, simplicity and love in every moment of becoming. The goal on this journey of liberation is the becoming, the journey itself that sounds almost trite, as I am sure you have heard and intellectually absorbed that a million times. What is intriguing here and what makes the difference between intellectual understanding and being as lived experience, is to realize what becoming is all about.

You are already becoming (and disappearing) moment-by-moment nature does that for you without your consent. You are form arising with a main trajectory already laid out. You become as a life form, not as a rock; you become as a human being, not a lizard; and you become with a temperament and certain proclivities, not as a tabula rasa. You already are a river flowing, coming and going, and you cannot push the river. As humans we have the brain and mind capacity to interfere with becoming for better or for worse. You have the capacity over a life time to strongly influence the shape, size and direction of the riverbed by regulating the rivers flow. But you cannot stop it, or push it uphill without negative consequences. Because we can regulate the flow, and because we usually use only a small fraction of our brains capacity (the problem-solving mind) to regulate, we can regulate really badly. We can regulate so badly as to pushing the river and not noticing that we are involved in such hopeless non-sense. Then chaos and rigidity arise and we get sick.

You can now see where I am going: Realizing how the journey is the goal is not as simple as it may sound. That is the reason why the world teems with spiritual teachers who tell you how there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, and how liberation is right here, right now, already there for you to enjoy, and you just dont see it; and why the world also teems with students who believe they are so imperfect and the teacher so perfect that they dont see that the emperor has no clothes! How simple that sounds do nothing, let go, and you are already enlightened, already free. And I am not kidding; it is indeed simple once you get it. But getting to the point of getting it (if there even is such a thing as a journey to a point to be gotten!) is the challenge or the art, whichever you prefer.

I always have to chuckle when I hear spiritual or meditation teachers give endless sermons on how liberation cannot be attained, how there is nothing to do to get there, how there is nowhere to get, how you should even relinquish trying to meditate, how all is available just here, just now, how all you have to do is nothing and just wake up and meanwhile they run around crisscrossing the planet like politicians during a campaign leading retreats, contradicting themselves by teaching meditations they say are useless anyway because there is nothing to do to wake up, and giving talk after talk about the emperor not having clothes. If there really was nothing to do, if it was really that simple, why not shut up, retire on a beach drinking a green tea if you want to be spiritually correct, or sucking on a Martini if you want to be spiritually snazzy, and enjoy how humanity spontaneously falls into happiness and spiritual enlightenment? This is by all accounts not what happens doing nothing only seems to make suffering worse! What is supposed to be so clearly available, so much always already there for the taking, is oh so elusive! Where do we go from here?

There is an art, a challenge to this business of freedom from suffering, to this business of effortless effort. What is this art? What is the challenge? It is developing the ability to recognize and then connect all parts of what we are as human organisms into a harmoniously functioning whole; connecting the intellect with the heart, the guts and other human beings. This does not come easily because we are biologically wired to condition ourselves with all kinds of bad habits. As the river inexorably flows, we naturally tend to damage our capacity for skillful regulation and create suffering. We spontaneously and unwittingly tend to create chaos and rigidity in our lives. This natural and spontaneous capacity to create suffering can fortunately be met with an equally natural, but not usually spontaneously available capacity to decrease and eliminate suffering. To make it spontaneously available requires a certain attentional training of a very particular sort, called mindfulness training.

However, here is the hidden treasure: The very engagement in that training is the prize! Enlightenment or liberation is the very real and embodied experience of relief that comes when we have decided to actively get involved in the integration of all our parts into a more harmonious whole. Case in point: One of my students came to see me about 2 months after having completed the introductory mindfulness program. He admitted he had stopped practicing formally, even though he had found the program to be of great benefit to him. He didnt know why he had stopped. At some point after we had discussed a few issues, I invited him to join me in a formal practice. We meditated together for about 20 minutes. As we ended he looked at me and said: I had forgotten how useful this is!

There is no finish line to this endeavor, except maybe to say that we have arrived the moment the mirage of the perfect place dissolves; the moment the necessity to engage on this path has become so clear, so obvious to us that we never question it again and we become eternal students of existence. That is the laundry after enlightenment; enlightenment means to stop worrying about enlightenment as you go about the business of the laundry. Arent you enjoying the clean clothes after your laundry? What more do you want than looking forward to the next laundry?

To be a student in that fashion does not end up in a degree, but on the contrary entails the fascinating journey of unknowing and knowing that there is no end to wisdom; knowing that there is always more after we get anything, and that every time we get something, we are challenged to let it go and transform into something new, into what comes next in the flow of the river. What relief to drop into the space of the eternal student who knows there is no end to being a student and no excellence to chase after. What soothing experience it is to know that on this eternal path of study we have a chance, every moment of our lives, to integrate a bit more, to follow the rivers flow with a bit more ease, a bit more clarity, a bit more stability, a bit more depth, and a bit more love that is mastery! In every moment of our lives we have this incredible opportunity to lovingly embrace imperfection and with delight notice improvement. But we have to actively take the opportunity, and it takes attention and effort (albeit effortless effort) to do so. Once the opportunity is taken, it takes learning effortlessness to bring opportunity to flourish thats IT!

Dr. Stphane Treyvaud

Copyright 2012 by Dr. Stphane Treyvaud. All rights reserved.

By |2012-09-12T15:43:01+00:00September 12th, 2012|Mindfulness|