We are living in very difficult times. We are still dealing with COVID. The economy is struggling. There is a deepening climate crisis. Authoritarianism is on the rise. Rights are being curtailed. There is a war in Europe. And there are repeated mass shootings taking place under a government that seems incapable of responding. During one of our recent meditation practices, one of the attendees asked how we can maintain faith that things will get better, particularly in light of the recent shootings. How do we not get dragged down into despair?
The truth is that we cannot know when things out there will get better. They might very well get worse before they get better. In times like this, when it’s difficult to maintain faith that the world around us will improve, it is my faith in the Dhamma that gives me peace. It is my practice itself that shields my heart from despair.
When we establish the intention to maintain continuous nonjudgmental self-awareness of the activities of this body and mind – coming out of the narratives that the mind fabricates again and again and returning to the actuality of present moment experience – we come home to our true nature and discover a peace and ease that has nothing to do with how well or poorly things around us are going. We, in a way, start to uncouple our felt sense of wellbeing from what is happening to and around us, both the pleasant and the unpleasant.
It’s not that we uncouple ourselves from the world. That would be impossible, and to try to do so would be delusion. We are always intimately connected to and interdependent with the world around us. One of the strengths of our Mahasati tradition of insight meditation is that it is practiced with the eyes open and the body moving. We are learning to know the peace that is our true nature, while we are in the world and engaged with our daily lives. The intent is never to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore the world’s problems. It’s simply to uncouple our heart’s sense of wellbeing from what our bodies and minds experience. We take the perspective of the living knowingness that is at the heart of our life, and we let go of our preoccupation with the pleasant or unpleasant qualities of the myriad things that are known by the body and mind, and which are constantly changing.
In a sense our practice gives us a way to prevent the world from holding our hearts hostage. This gives our hearts the freedom to engage with the problems of the world far more effectively – from a place of calm and strength rather than one of fear and despair. We can do what’s right in the face of the world’s suffering without being so worried about how it might turn out. So, it is at times like this that our practice becomes even more important.
We can learn to free our heart from its bondage by again and again coming out of our mental narratives and concepts and bringing nonjudgmental awareness to the actual present moment phenomena that is continually arising and passing away in this body and mind. If we set the intention to do this as continuously as possible, it is inevitable that we will eventually encounter this sense of peace and ease because it already exists within each of us. It is only obscured by all our wantings and not-wantings.
Of course, one will forget oneself again and again and find oneself once more feeling lost and confused. That’s OK. Just come back to your own body in this very moment and see the feeling of confusion as just another phenomenon that comes and goes within the mind. Return again to the knowingness itself. If we persist, eventually our practice stabilizes, and we taste for ourselves that peace that is not contingent on anything at all. This is where we have a true shelter – a place from which we can work with the world’s problems wholeheartedly, without burnout or despair.