June 23, 2017
A new volley of cacophony rolls out of Washington almost daily. How many varieties of dissonance are there? I’m fascinated and disturbed by all the thinly disguised ill will. Democracy requires an informed citizenry. How can I stay engaged without my mind churning like a clothes dryer filled with tennis shoes and cans?
The Buddha offered a metaphor. If we drop a lump of salt in a cup of water, it makes it undrinkable. If we drop the salt in a large, flowing river, we barely notice it. (Anguttara Nikaya 3.99)
Life has its lumps of salt — its aches, outrage, grief, and folly. Some people try to keep the salt out of their cup. But we don’t have the power. Life is what it is. Others try to dull their senses using distractions, drugs, numbing out, and preoccupations. This doesn’t really work for long. Life wants to be alive and aware. Without awareness of pain, there is no compassion. The heart naturally wants to help.
So the Buddha recommended enlarging our container — rather than shutting out or shutting down, we allow ourselves to expand out including more and more. We can’t control the amount of salt. But the more expansive we are, the less disturbing it is.
More prosaically, expanding ourselves means cultivating equanimity. There is no way to directly cultivate equanimity because it’s already a part of us. But it’s quiet by nature. We don’t notice it when we’re busy or surrounded by cacophony.
However there are ways to indirectly cultivate equanimity. The two the Buddha spoke about most were relaxing tightness when we’re tense and savoring peace when we aren’t. These are the practices of the second and third ennobling truths. When we notice stress, rather than trying to control the stressors or control our responses, we just let them be without over-thinking. Then we notice the tension in the stress and let it relax or soften. This allows the natural inner peace to gradually find its way to the surface.
And when peace, wellbeing, or other uplifted qualities show up spontaneously, we savor them. Let them soak into our bones. It doesn’t help to grab hold of them, but it does help to recognize them and let them spread through us a little more, to nurture us. This is so important and too easily overlooked. I hope you can include this in your practice.
There are lots of ways to relax tension and savor wellbeing. What are your favorites? How do you manage stress and cultivate moments of peace?