An article by Janice Cittasubha Sheppard on the theme for the October 2017 retreat.
Like many who grew up in the 1950s, I have happy memories of playing ping-pong in our basement “rec room” and of hearing my father’s stories about his skill as a ping-pong master when he was young. Playing ping-pong is fun, but having a mind and heart that swings back and forth like a ping-pong ball is decidedly not fun.
It can take some time, even decades, to notice that swinging between peaks and valleys of emotion, attention, energy, and effort is exhausting. Our attachment to the peaks sometimes has obscured the truth of the equal and opposite valleys. Or sometimes we have decided that there must be a way to get the peaks without the valleys, and we just have to figure out what it is. But slowly we come to realize that the peaks are paired with the valleys; we can’t have one without the other. As wisdom and clarity grow, we begin to acknowledge that fact, and it begins to weaken the attachments that keep us picking up the paddle to play the ping-pong game of the heart.
The Buddha taught about this challenge in his very first discourse, Setting the Wheel of Dhamma in Motion (Dhammacakkapavattana Sutta SN 56.11). In that seminal sutta, he established two of the foundational teachings of his entire dispensation: The Four Noble Truths and the Middle Way. Of the two, The Four Noble Truths receives more attention, but the Middle Way is also an essential teaching for following the path laid out in the Four Noble Truths, though it is sometimes given scant attention.
The more we investigate the Noble Truths and try to follow the Noble Eightfold Path (the fourth of the Noble Truths), the more relevant this teaching on the Middle Way becomes. The path factors of the Noble Eightfold Path are often translated as right view, right intention, right action, etc., but it may be more helpful to think of them as balanced view, balanced intention, balanced action, etc. This translation highlights the way in which the teaching of the Middle Way is inseparable from the teaching on the Four Noble Truths. The sutta says that this Middle Way that leads to vision, knowledge, self-awakening, and Nibbana is in fact the Eightfold Path.
“And what is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding? Precisely this noble eightfold path: right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that—producing vision, producing knowledge—leads to stilling, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to unbinding.”
So investigating how we know and directly experience the Middle Way in our body, our mind, and our heart is how we can stay on and develop the path to peace. And the ideal place to begin our investigation for finding greater balance in body, mind, and heart is through meditation. How can our meditation itself support the embodiment of balance? Meditation is a bodily experience, but learning how to just be with the bodily experience is often swamped by thoughts about how we can ‘do’ bodily experience or by reactive confusion which feeds even more thought, critical judgement, and self-doubt.
In meditation, we reestablish balance by recognizing how unbalanced we may be toward favoring thoughts over experiential bodily sensations. So the first step can feel like tipping too far the other way. However, if we are far out of balance one way, we do need to overcorrect in the opposite direction to begin to learn where that Middle Way may be.
Using natural images and metaphors is always helpful because we are part of nature and what applies in nature also applies to us. For example, prairies grow up and then require fire to clear out each year’s new growth and release the seeds for the next year’s growth. We can think of that like a balancing from extreme growth, to bare ground and back to balance in the spring with the new growth emerging. If the fires occur too frequently before the plants have produced mature seed, or if there are no fires to heat and release the mature seed, then there is no new growth, no balance.
Similarly, a heart that is totally absorbed, caught up, obsessed with thought is like a field that is burned too frequently so the seeds of calm and stillness don’t mature. Stillness and calm begins to arise, but is interrputed, ‘burned away’, the frequently arising fires of thought. Conversely, a heart that is absorbed, caught up, obsessed solely with bodily sensation is like a field that is never burned by the heat of investigation and discernment, so while it is filled with mature seeds, their fertility isn’t released.
Many of us are out of balance toward the fire/thought end of things. To reestablish balance in meditation, we have to favor the bodily side for a bit longer. We do that through learning what it means to come into the breath and bodily sensations—to rest just in the direct experience of bodily sensations—and staying there long enough to allow the seeds of calm, clarity, and ease to mature and develop. The joy and beauty of doing so is that being in the body is pleasant and easeful. Being here, in our own bodies, is the only place we really can be, and so not wishing to be somewhere else or run away from where we are is peace.
We reestablish an embodied and balanced heart by staying with the breath and bodily feeling. Resting in the breath, we find the courage to open to bodily sensations, even if they are uncomfortable or painful. We do this because bodily experiences are the path to the heart and self-awareness. Really allowing ourselves to settle into the experience of the body and breath is how we slow the growth of proliferating thought. Once we are fully settled and solid in the body and breath, we can apply the heat of discerning investigation to bring the light of wisdom and clear comprehension. Embodiment and investigation, operating together, in balance, are the conditions for the heart to be open for intuitive knowing and insight into the truth of the way things are.
In meditation, we relearn how to “know” what is going on for us; instead of thinking about it, we learn to feel it, through the organ of feeling, the body. This takes practice, patience, and for many of us, a good deal of relearning because our natural sense of the body has been overridden for years or decades. We have to regain our embodied sense. What it doesn’t take is striving effort.
Over-efforting is the greatest enemy to embodiment as it is the fastest route to feeding the thinking mind and losing connection with the body. What we are relearning is how to be interested in and awake to the body, without pushing or demanding that it be a certain way or do what we want. We are learning to trust the body and allow it to take the lead. Doing so takes bravery and confidence that we won’t lose control. It is similar to the way we learn to support and respect another person. We need to have confidence and trust in ourselves to release the reins of control, open to the other person, and let them be who they are. That is how we build relationship with others, and how we get to know our own body and emotions as well.
Balance requires that we recognize the habitual pull to take charge of the body and mind and instead cultivate a willingness to listen to and feel what is actually present, in the body, in the breath, in the heart. When that happens, the struggle ceases, and we can find ease and even pleasure in embodiment—in whatever feelings of warmth, quiet, tingling, pressure, or energy may be present in the body—and recognize the pulls, compulsions, and habitual reactions in the heart. We know that these are simply what all bodies and minds feel and do and that peace, wisdom, and clarity reside in the knowing of them.
In this retreat, we will consider, “where is balance?” in the body, breath, and mind, during all of our activities and positions during the day and night. Through cultivating balance we will slow and settle ping-ponging thoughts, feelings, plans, or memories, and cultivate the seeds of open-hearted kindness and good will. Through being in the body and with the breath, we will find a steady mooring to know for ourselves the balance point, the Middle Way, to ease and the end of suffering.