In Buddhism, the third of the four noble truths is the truth of cessation from the grasping that causes suffering.
Samsara is a playground filled with paradise myths that promise us happiness and fulfillment, if only we were in possession of the glittering prizes that lie just out of reach.
We are surrounded by so much abundance in the West that we are told that we cannot be truly happy until we possess all of the wealth, glory and power that we see around us in the lives of the celebrities and super-achievers of our culture.
In Dharmic spiritual practice, one takes a close look at who or what is doing the grasping to see how grasping arises in the mind.
In Buddhism, this is called understanding how things exist and, in particular, how the self exists, since it is the self that is doing the grasping.
If one is fortunate, what one discovers in the course of spiritual practice is that the idea of the self is highly conditioned by subconscious mental habits—and by becoming aware of these mental habits, we can see clearly how the self exists and stop the constant grasping for pleasure in the mind that is so characteristic of the self or ego.
When we dissolve the illusion of a separate self in our minds and when we see the degree to which the narrative of reality that we have always thought of as existing independently of ourselves really exists mostly in our mind, then we also dissolve the illusion of the grasping ego and free ourselves from ignorance and needless suffering.
When we stop the grasping at a self, we have the possibility of liberating ourselves from self-created suffering.
The big problem with the cessation of grasping is the degree to which the body-mind (skandhas, aggregates) are deeply embedded in all aspects of our awareness and experience. It may or may not be easy for us to let go of samsara during a meditation session—but it is much more difficult to do so when we are constantly surrounded by the pleasures and perils of the world as we go about our lives with passion and engagement.
The goal of spiritual practice is to create the ability to live engaged lives but with cognitive-spiritual skills that help us to see how the self exists at all times, so that we are not fooled by the grasping ignorance that causes suffering.
The good news is that the path works; the bad news is that it won’t always be easy.
One of the functions of retreat is to separate ourselves from our day-to-day environment, in which our subconscious habitual tendencies are most deeply rooted.
Ultimately, the greatest retreat is our daily spiritual practice, so that we can stay as detached-engaged as much as possible wherever we are, without having to go away to a retreat center.
As the great Zen master Dogen said, “the lesser hermit goes to the mountains and the greater hermit remains in the city,” reminding us that we need to combine our everyday life with a strong spiritual practice that helps us sort things out in the midst of all the temptations and distractions of samsara.
It’s so easy to talk about the great truths of spiritual practice and so difficult to fully (or even partially) realize them in our moment-to-moment practice.
For people deeply affected by the suffering of life, it is easy to understand the desire to go on retreat or even the desire to adopt a religious vocation, so that one’s spiritual practice is both the form and substance of daily life.
What is sad is that so little of our daily life in the West, for Dharmic spiritual practitioners, is tied to our practice and so it is easy to feel a strong disconnect between our relationship to samsara and the spiritual practice that we value so much—and which gives us so much (one hopes!) inner-peace and freedom.
Certainly, the sangha can help Dharmic practitioners to live a spiritual life but at the end of the day, we will need to find a way to make our spiritual practice the core of our life, no matter what the form our our association to samsara takes in our career (or lack of ) and our private life.
Spiritual practice is something that we can do each moment of the day and the rewards are instantaneous.
The liberation from suffering that we seek is proportional to the strength of our practice and the degree to which we can use the skills and insights from meditation to manage the challenges of our daily lives through contemplation, wisdom and compassion.
The Heart Sutra of the Buddhists is famous for saying that, “samsara is nirvana,” which means that it is the sufferings of life that are the foundation of the path—and that liberation has meaning only when it is the liberation from the facts of suffering that we experience, as the grasping of the self at the treasures and pleasures of samsara.
The pleasure created by the liberation from suffering that arises when we stop grasping after illusions is a very subtle pleasure…but it is the kind of bliss that we can have in each and every moment…if we are willing to be mindful and fully present to our current mindscape.
Editor: Bryonie Wise
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