The Wisdom of No Escape

Frozen on the side yard, perched still as a statue, he trains one perfectly round black eye at me. I wonder what he sees; how he knows me and what he’s saying. My vision blurs with the coming darkness, enough that the rabbit’s mottled gray is camouflaged into the bushes beyond. All but transparent, his white rimmed eye remains. Rabbit is one with this place; as he becomes invisible, I turn my attention to the sea of green waving in the wind and lit with the last yellow of day. Recalling the depth and texture of a Monet canvas, I enter into its whimsy and watch the greenery pitch and roll, moving in the whole of my vision. And then the vision fades. I stare at the bunny on the lawn who holds my gaze as he remains frozen. The instant I signal my continued approach, he surrenders with the flip of a white tail.

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Sometimes the teachings emphasize the wisdom, brilliance, or sanity that we possess, and sometimes they emphasize the obstacles, how it is that we feel stuck in a small, dark place. These are actually two sides of one coin: when they are put together, inspiration (or well-being) and burden (or suffering) describe the human condition. That’s what we see when we meditate.

We see how beautiful and wonderful and amazing things are, and we see how caught up we are. It isn’t that one is the bad part and one is the good part, but it’s a kind of interesting, smelly, rich, fertile mess of stuff. When it’s all mixed up together, it’s us: brilliance and the suffering are here all the time; they interpenetrate each other. For a fully enlightened being, the difference between what is neurosis and what is wisdom is very hard to perceive, because somehow the energy underlying both of them is the same. The basic creative energy of life–life force–bubbles up and courses through all of existence. It can be experienced as open, free, unburdened, full of possibility, energizing. Or this very same energy can be experienced as petty, narrow, stuck, caught. Even though there are so many teachings, so many mediations, so many instructions, the basic point of it all is just to learn to be extremely honest and also wholehearted about what exists in your mind–thoughts, emotions, bodily sensations, the whole thing that adds up to what we call “me” or “I.” Nobody else can really begin to sort out for you what to reject in terms of what wakes you up and what makes you fall asleep. No one else can really sort out for you what to accept–what opens up your world–and what to reject–what seems to keep you going round and round in some kind of repetitive misery. This meditation is called nontheistic, which doesn’t have anything to do with believing in God or not believing in God, but means that nobody but yourself can really tell you what to accept and what to reject.

The practice of meditation helps us get to know this basic energy really well, with tremendous honesty and warm heartedness, and we begin to figure our for ourselves what is poison and what is medicine, which means something different for each of us. For example, some people can drink a lot of coffee and it really wakes them up and they feel great; others can drink just a thimbleful and become a nervous wreck. Everything we eat affects each of us differently; so it is with how we relate with out own energies. We are the only ones who know what wakes us up and what puts us to sleep. So we sit here on these red cushions in this brightly lit room with this fancy, colorful shrine and this huge picture of the Karmapa. Outside, the snow is falling and the wind howling. Hour after hour we sit here and just come back to the present moment as much as we can, acknowledge what’s going on in our minds, come back to the present moment as much as we can, acknowledge what’s going on in our minds, follow the out-breath, label our thoughts “thinking,” come back to the present moment, acknowledge what’s going on in our minds. The instruction is to be as honest and warmhearted in the process as you can, to learn gradually what it means to let go of holding on and holding back.

The message is that each of us has all that it takes to become fully enlightened. We have basic energy coursing through us. Sometimes it manifests as brilliance and sometimes it manifests as confusion. Because we are decent, basically good people, we ourselves can sort out what to accept and what to reject. We can discern what will make us complete, sane, grown-up people, and what–if we are too involved in it–will keep us children forever. This is the process of making friends with ourselves and with our world. It involves not just the parts we like, but the whole picture, because it all has a lot to teach us.

Pema Chodron