sequential / simultaneous causality

Meditation practice -or better yet, the life of a practitioner isn’t always about achieving some lofty state of freedom and bliss. Sometimes the sensations and thoughts of the present moment are unpleasant. Sometimes instead of the subtle breath, you get the heavy chest and tight jaw. Sometimes you get the cloudy mind, the frustrated mind, the angry mind.

During the difficult times, it’s easy to let go of our practice. It’s easy to fall into old patterns and bad habits. If we’re not able to contact the happy, concentrated, centered, peaceful nature of our awareness — why bother sitting on the cushion? Why not turn on the tv, crack a beer and skip the sitting?  I have a few thoughts on this matter. Maybe they’ll help you if you’re having one of those days [weeks, months, years?].  Maybe they’ll help me, if I can get them out and organize them.

I’ve been very inspired lately by the book The Island. In it, there is an excellent explanation of the buddhist concepts of interdependence. I always had a very simplistic view of this, namely,”all things are connected” which is not very meaningful or helpful in guiding one’s thoughts or actions. The concept in the book, however, does provide some guidance (and also seems to solve the ‘free will problem’ in a way I’ve not seen it approached before). Causality functions in two ways — in sequence and simultaneously. They give two examples. You write a friendly note to someone, then, when you see them next, they have some pleasant thought arise upon seeing you.  This isn’t your typical billiard ball cause and effect – it’s operating through time, but not one-moment-to-the-next. It’s also operating in the realm of psychology, not physics. The second example is physical and simultaneous: the sun shines on you and you cast a shadow.  There is no delay between the cause and the effect. They happen at the same time. Allowing for these two different modes of cause and effect produces a complex, interwoven matrix of events and objects interacting upon each other from both the past and the present. It allows our past actions to cause our current situations AND our current attitudes to play a role as well.

In Buddhism, you hear about Karma. Typically, we think of Karma as a simple formula – past actions bring current conditions; current actions bring future conditions. But this more complex view of causation allows us to not only plant seeds for the future, but also to meet our current conditions in different ways – bringing different results. We inherit the fruits of our past, but we also have a choice – we have some freedom. We can meet conditions either unconsciously and with a reactive mind – or with awareness and equanimity.

Another way to look at it is that we are not just creating our future – we are also creating our present moment. If our past actions have planted seeds and brought us some unpleasantness.. we still have the opportunity to greet the resulting bitter fruit with a graciousness and acceptance that can free us from the cycle – can keep us from replanting those same seeds. “Ah, bitter fruit tastes like this.”  As with all experience, we have the opportunity to really see it – really get to know it. With this kind of loving attention, the mechanisms of grasping and rejecting cease to function. Knowing takes the place of reacting. We free ourselves just a little more.

Thought of in this way, our difficult times become tremendous opportunities to be present, be kind, and let go (or burn up!) some of what is keeping us bound.

So when you are flying high on the Dharma and feel the strong pull to the cushion – Sit! When you are living in the unpleasantness and frustration of life – Sit!

Meet it all with kind awareness, as best you can. No matter what it is. As they taught us in the desert, “Right now, it is like this.” That’s a great one to remember, as often as possible – even in the tough times.

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