stress (n.) From Online Etymology Dictionary:
c. 1300, “hardship, adversity, force, pressure,” in part a shortening of Middle English distress (n.); in part from Old French estrece “narrowness, oppression,” from Vulgar Latin *strictia, from Latin strictus “tight, compressed, drawn together,” past participle of stringere “draw tight”
Over that past several weeks I have become more and more aware of the effects of the seemingly endless “being on guard-ness” that the state of humanity is in. It permeates virtually all social interactions and media. The Fourth Estate is dominated by expert-pundits who bankroll their mini kingdoms and their egos by extolling the virtues of being on guard, so much so that all of their followers are being encouraged to be on guard against being on guard. The necessary protections that we have been encouraged to use to protect us against ravages of the pandemic, social inequality, poverty, and harm are, in some circles, things to be on guard against because they threaten our personal freedom. There are security services for every aspect of our lives; remote door and bedroom cameras, drone surveillance, satellite surveillance, phalanxes of bulked up private security guards, et.al., all for the purpose of being on guard.
Where or when can we put down our guard in these days?
During practice a few days ago, an image presented itself while I was reflecting on stress and its causes and conditions. I was experiencing my body in stress as “tight, compressed, drawn together,” twisted, as if I were trying wring out all the fear, anxiety and tension that seem to be the fuel for my revved up habitual thinking. The image was of my hands using all of their strength to wring water out of a towel. No matter how hard or how long I wrung it out, the towel never was completely dry. Then I let go of the wringing and allowed the towel to open up all the way and imagined hanging it in the sun until it was dry.
It was a simile for the practice of meditation. Often when I begin to sit, my thoughts are a jumble of judgments and self corrections and I try to “wring” the thinking out of my experience, trying to compress it into something manageable or to override it with “better” thinking. With practice, though, my attention loosens and broadens. I am able to expand the experience of thinking so that the light of knowledge about the causes and conditions of this suffering and stress can “dry out” my experience. The more that light of understanding permeates the experience, the more the habitual, and mostly unconscious, thinking evaporates like water in a towel hanging in the sun. And for maybe a moment or more I let down my guard and experience stresslessness.
In time and with rhythmic, consistent practice, those moments have become experiences that inform my understanding of the nature of things. Now there are times throughout the day that the practice and this awareness, of the nature of the causes and conditions of the “on guard-ness” of the stress, allows me to stop wringing, tightening, and compressing this life. So that I can hang it out in the sun and expose it to the light of the knowledge of the true nature of things as they are. In those moments, I find myself compelled to move and speak and act, in this stress filled, on guard world, to give everything over to alleviating the suffering of all beings, whatever it takes. Not by wringing out fear, anxiety and stress, or by telling folks what to do in order to be free, but by making space, expanding, like an open sky, my own narrow version of self to include all beings, so that the inherent nature of all beings as loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity, may be revealed.
I dedicate these words and this practice to all buddhas, bodhisattvas, enlightening ones and teachers throughout all times and in all directions.
Warmth and ease all around!
The Sangha of the Pandemic is a small cohort of folks who practice together virtually a few times per week and we would like to invite you to sit with us in hopes that our practicing together might lift a little bit of the burden in these stressful times. There is no obligation, long term commitment, previous experience or fee required. Just a willingness to work toward the gradual relief of suffering for ourselves and for other beings.
We currently meet on ZOOM four mornings per week:
Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays: 9 AM Eastern Time
Sunday at 10 AM Eastern Time
Wednesday evening at 7:30 PM Eastern Time
ZOOM Link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/89989680789