At a recent retreat, Ajahn Da urged the retreatants to practice so that their awareness can blossom like a flower. For me, this reminded me of the blossoming lotus often used as a symbol for Buddhist practice. What makes the lotus flower such a wonderful representation of practice is the way that the lotus grows. It begins its life deep in the mud and muck of a still pond, but over time rises up to form a beautiful blossom above all that muck and mud.
This is such a nice metaphor for our practice journey. We all start out in the muck and mud of dukkha – unable to see clearly due to all the wanting, aversion, sadness, anger, fear and anxiety, and the endlessly proliferating thought that accompanies it all. Yet, through right understanding, right effort, and the development of mindfulness and clear present moment awareness, we are able to rise above all this muck and mud, and offer something that is both beautiful and beneficial to the world around us. When we are not consumed by our own stress and anxieties, it is then that we become truly available to others in our lives.
Though the lotus rises above the muck and mud, it does not exist apart from it. The seed of every lotus flower begins its journey toward to the water’s surface in the mud at the bottom of the pond. And it gets the nutrients necessary for its growth from the muck and mud around it. In a similar way, our awakening is supported by the muck and mud of our lives. The path to transcending the muck and mud does not involve trying to suppress it or make it go away. Rather, we meet it all with openness and curiosity – investigating how it arises, how it feels, and how it passes away. Just as the growth of the lotus is supported by the mud and murky waters around it, so too the wantings, aversions, stress and anxiety of our daily lives support our practice and give it depth. These things become our teachers.
The first step in being able to take advantage of the mud as a source of support for our growth, is to learn to see it clearly in the present moment without any narrative interpretation. This means learning to disentangle awareness from conceptual thought. We do this by repeatedly bringing our awareness out of the stories being concocted by the mind by turning attention again and again to the present moment experience of the body. But we don’t focus on the body too strongly, because we do not want to suppress thought. That is, unless something really emotionally charged is happening and we are just getting swept away by it. Instead, our strategy is to allow thought to occur, while repeatedly stepping out of it and returning to the present moment. If we can hang in there with this practice of repeatedly exiting proliferating thought, awareness grows stronger and stops identifying itself with thought. We gradually learn to live side by side with thought – recognizing it as merely a phenomenon that is happening in the present moment – a phenomenon that is sometimes useful for us and sometimes not, depending on the circumstances.
This is the first stage of growth for our lotus flower – strengthening awareness so that it can stand apart from thought and is no longer pushed around by it. Just as the water at the surface of a pond is clearer than the water at the bottom, so too when our lotus plant reaches this height it is surrounded by clearer water. Now it can begin to see and understand how anger, greed, fear, and anxiety arise in the mind. We are no longer blinded by the mud of proliferating thought that exists at the bottom of the pond. We also begin to get glimpses of the sunlight that is at the pond’s surface. At this point, our lotus plant will naturally move toward the surface in a very simple and direct way – until it blossoms in the sunlight and open air.