09/30/2015 04:17 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Touching the Ground of Liberation

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If we listen to the tale of the Buddha's enlightenment, one of the most prominent themes in the story is that it occurred when he, Siddhartha, returned to a simple, natural state of being, known as dhammata, or naturalness in pali. What we find in the pali canon, related in majjima nikaya sutta 36 and elsewhere, was a Buddha who decided to forgo austere the painful and physically demanding postures (especially the painful physical contortions and dietary practices of the Jains). He was, according to this text, inspired by the simple meditative practices of his childhood, where he sat comfortably in the shade of a tree, observing experience without striving. So he simply ate some solid food and found a bodhi tree to sit beneath (had a comfortable chair been available in the jungle, I like to think he would've occupied it). And so he directed his focused attention inwardly to develop what is known as the jhanas, or states of concentrative tranquility.

When the Buddha attained the three great knowledges* and attained his awakening, suffering did not immediately subside. It seems that from the depths of his mind a series of darker emotions appeared--sorrow, fear, negativity and passion--all personified in the form of Mara, a mighty lord with an army of demons that proceeded to torment the awakened one. Mara questioned the Buddha's enlightenment, both its validity and possible merits. It must've been a terrible experience. But the Buddha remained unmoved; he didn't defend himself from these internal demons, nor did he struggle; he responded to this psychological torment by touching the earth.

What did this gesture, touching the ground, mean? Perhaps, in making contact with actual, present time sensations, the Buddha was reminding himself "What I directly experience matters first and foremost, not the concoctions of my mind." All the views, opinions, commentaries one adds to the bare sensations and impressions of life is secondary, a false refuge from what is felt. The message is to sit peacefully with our experience; refusing to fight back against what arises; refusing to identify with whatever mental content appears; refusing to seek the false shelter of external distractions, as the content of the shadow self will return again and again until it is observed and felt.

The goal is to keep the mind from collapsing around stressful mental content, giving in to attention's tendency to identify with and believe in virtually any thought, no matter how catastrophic, that appears in the mind (it's my thought, so it must be true). This is not done by pushing thoughts or images away, but by opening up awareness:

• Amidst all the bombardment of negative inner chatter and catastrophic images, can I greet the agitation with a simple acknowledgment: Yes, this is what I'm working with right now. Remember, there is no right or wrong content for pure awareness, sati sampajanna, to hold and contain.

• Everything that arises in the mind is always changing, moving, in flux (anicca in pali). Yet amongst all the internal turbulence and unrest, there is always a stillness from which I can observe what is arising and passing. This is the part of the mind that observes, the awareness that witnesses experience from the outside.

• Again and again, we return to the breath, to the sensations of the body, to the felt experience of sitting, planted on the earth: these are the means of detachment from the disturbances of the mind.

So we're invited to practice in the great tradition of the Buddha, sitting upright beneath the tree, balanced, present, awake. What does this mean for you?

* * *

* 1) Insight into the samsaric ignorance that fueled previous lives;
2) Insight into the law of Karma, or the causal actions that create suffering and tranquility;
3) Insight into the Four Noble Truths, which explains which forms of suffering are inevitable, versus which kinds of suffering can be prevented by following the eightfold path.