Muddy Waters and Howling Wolves

Dharma talk given by Rev. Sarika Dharma at the IBMC

The average person, before developing a meditation practice, has a mind like a drunken monkey, jumping from branch to branch, never stopping. These are our thoughts. The process of meditation helps us to first sober up the monkey, then teach it to rest, and finally turn it into a serene monkey, one with equanimity. Ultimately, there is no monkey and no mind.

To try to stop our thoughts is like taking a glass of clear water, dropping some dirt into it, and pushing the dirt down with a spoon. Of course, the water becomes muddy from our interference. But if we put the glass on the counter and leave it alone, the dirt settles and the water becomes clear again.

This is the way to clear our minds.

To go at it with gritted teeth, to fight for clarity doesn't work. If I tell you not to think of elephants, what happens? Elephants fill your mind -- Indian elephants, African elephants, pink elephants, Dumbo the flying elephant. The harder we try to push the elephants out of our mind, the more elephants parade in front of us.

The muddy waters settle when we set up the right situation, when we provide a silent space where we do not add more dirt to the mix. Even if we practice zazen every day, the settling becomes much clearer when we do a retreat.

I remember the first weekend retreat I came to; it was here at IBMC back in 1974. I had only been meditating about a month, so I didn't know enough to be scared at the idea of sitting many hours without moving, something that was rarely possible for me at the time; I was such a fidget. I trusted my teacher as well as the other monks. I was shy and felt a bit uncomfortable, but since everyone did everything together, I saw no reason why I couldn't do it as well. I remember our Abbess' warm smile and Dr. Thien-An's compassion.

It was not easy, but it wasn't that hard either. I didn't have any expectations to make comparisons. Yet, it was extraordinarily different from any other experience in my life. I had what I later realized was my first conscious spiritual experience. Being with strangers, sitting, eating and working with them, without talking to them, I became aware of my connection to everything, connection of the heart/mind.

We had a short discussion at the end of the retreat: we went until 5 pm on Sunday in those days -- and gave feedback. I was really rather stunned by the experience. I remember saying that the quiet was so wonderful! I came from a family where either the tv or the radio were always playing and where people were constantly talking, frequently at the same time. I couldn't believe the peace I felt. I remember Ven. Karuna laughing a big laugh of understanding, and I knew I had found my home.

Most people have a positive experience in the beginning of their meditation practice. At least the ones who keep coming back do. Waters clear, inner peace arises. We may want to just keep meditating and not go back into the chaos of the external world. But everything inside of us comes up when we practice meditation: not just bliss, not just peace; the wolves begin to howl. When the water is clear, the sound carries.

Who are these howling wolves and where do they come from? To me, they are the remnants of all the feelings we have denied and repressed. Of our conditioning in our families and schools and society in general. They are usually emotions we see as negative: fear, anger, frustration, and feelings of inadequacy among others. For this reason, they are feelings that we don't want to acknowledge.

I grew up in a family that was not able to deal with emotion. My father got angry and yelled a lot. We yelled back sometimes. The problem was that nothing was ever discussed or resolved. Everyone blew off steam, but we never talked about the issues underlying the anger. And we all felt bad after it happened.

As I got older, I was told that if I wanted to cry, I should go to my room. After I while, I just went to my room before anyone had a chance to tell me. If anyone cried, everybody else felt helpless and unable to fix the problem. So I sat in my room with the door closed and read books. I learned about emotions by what was presented in novels. And I went to movies. Some of my best times were spent in front of a large screen in a dark theater. Yet, I couldn't deal with my own feelings, with the reality of my parents' and siblings' feelings. I was ashamed and saw emotion as weakness. Now I know that many people are brought up that way, that most families do not interrelate in an open way around this issue.

Even at work, showing emotion is unacceptable, unprofessional. And people who express intense emotions often become pariahs. "Oh, she's always on the verge of hysteria, or he's got a lot of anger, stay away from him." It can affect our careers. And even our friends can't always handle our need to discuss emotional states.

In Buddhist meditation, we understand that along with the peace and even the bliss that comes to us through our practice, also come feelings. Heart and mind is written with the same character in Chinese. Feeling/thoughts are not different. And we need to see them: the process is to watch, to see, to accept and to let go. Equanimity doesn't come from repression, but from acceptance and seeing clearly.

One of IBMC's practioners explained that, to her, the difference between detachment and nonattachment seems to be the difference between pushing thoughts away and accepting them. So when the wolves howl, we don't need to go after them with a shotgun. We need to hear what they're howling about.

The trigger for fear and anger and other feelings is not necessarily the whole story. Being treated without respect may be what causes a flash of anger. But past experiences of being mistreated can cause that flash to become a forest fire.

I doubt that even the Buddha was beyond emotion. After all, enlightenment is a condition that doesn't negate humanity. I saw my teacher when he was upset and when he was angry. But he let go of those emotions very quickly. They passed right through him. Sometimes he would use anger as a teaching device, to make a point to someone who hadn't responded to more gentle suggestions. He didn't carry the anger around with him like a rock in his heart. When we can't let go, that is the burden we carry, and it can make our lives so much harder.

But if the muddy waters settle, and we let the wolves howl, we can liberate ourselves and attain true freedom.