Everyday Suffering, Everyday Freedom

by Mary Leigh Burke

When people asked the Buddha about metaphysical issues (is there a God?  Is the soul reborn?) he replied with some variation of: “I don’t speculate on these things.  I teach only suffering and the end of suffering.”

So some people think Buddhism is atheistic; however, it would be more accurate to say it is agnostic.   You can follow any faith (or no faith) and do Buddhist practice.   Everybody suffers, and everybody wants to end suffering.  

What do Buddhists  mean by “suffering”?  We can start by asking ourselves: what do I mean?   Where in my life am I dissatisfied?  What keeps not working for me?   What do I keep trying to get hold of that keeps slipping through my fingers?  What am I afraid of losing?  The teaching says that suffering comes from two sources in the mind: either grasping: trying to hang onto or get hold of something we want; or aversion: trying to get rid of something we don’t want.   

Suffering arises when you  unconsciously create an illusory mental world  (a story in your head).  For example, maybe I’m out for a walk in my neighborhood, enjoying the fresh air just after a rain, when I come across the neighbor’s yard filled with amazing plants and beautiful landscaping.  Before I know it, the envy-and-inferiority story : “Why can’t my yard look like this? What do they know that I don’t?  I should be home mulching instead of wasting time on this walk. Maybe I should pay somebody; but I can’t afford that …. ” and off we go.   An entire  scenario has taken form that is a complete fabrication, based on grasping for a perceived need and aversion to a perceived reality.  What is actually here now? an early autumn walk, a beautiful green yard, the scent of the air fresh from the rain.

Meditation practice teaches you that  it is possible to step back from your stories about your life and – like falling backwards into the softest of pillows – fall back into life as it really is.

Most Buddhist meditation begins with simply sitting quietly and noticing your breathing; how exactly you notice it and what you do then varies quite a bit, but the basic idea is to come fully and completely into the present moment and then disover what the mind does with that – in other words, to watch the story-making in action without buying into the story.  At first, you’ll lost in those thought worlds and repeatedly coming back to the anchor of the breath.  Over time, you will begin to see that:

  • The stories are impermanent: the thoughts arise and then pass away
  • Who you think you are is being generated as part of these stories
  • There is an awareness that is independent of thoughts and stories, desires and aversions, and even a permanent sense of “me”.

What happens next is freedom, which includes really living your life.  

Does all suffering, all dissatisfaction, disappear forever?  Are you now living in uninterrupted bliss, happiness, and unity for the rest of your life?  Do all your problems go away?

The Buddha might say that’s an irrelevant question: there is no “rest of your life”; there is only this moment.  We practice moment by moment, seeing (and being) life as it is, instead of the stories and interpretations our minds want to project onto life.  In any given moment, engaging wholeheartedly in this practice of coming into the present, liberation – really living your life as it is – is possible for everybody.


On berating oneself

One of my most deeply rooted, and least helpful, habits was berating myself when I thought I had said or done something “wrong.”  At one point I stumbled across a loving-kindness meditation in Ezra Bayda’s Beyond Happiness (see below.)  I began launching into the meditation whenever I caught myself starting to beat myself up.  It was just long and complicated enough to shift my mind out of “self-denigration mode” and gradually I found myself slipping into self hatred less and less.

Breathing in, dwelling in the heart.
Breathing out, extending loving-kindness to myself, exactly as I am right now.

Breathing in, dwelling in the heart.
Breathing out, there’s no one special to be.

Breathing in, dwelling in the heart.
Breathing out, just Being.

Reminding Me — A poem

Reminding Me
A vulture circles.
Clouds play chase, then bumper cars.
Bees hunting nectar, intensely.
A hot sun dismissed by a wistful wind.
Sparks dance while flames laugh,
Reminding me –
Who stopped time today.
                        – Rich Duncombe

A Problem

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Most of the time I live as though life is a problem…like there are issues I need to solve.

Of course the alternative, and the focus of Zen, is that life is a gift…and being fully in the present allows us to experience the joy of that gift.

But my addiction runs deep. I looove solving problems. Never mind that problems represent separation…my way from the way things really are…and…I like things my way.

…that’s all for the present moment; I have to go solve some problems.

Namaste and Friendly Bows _/|\_

Being Present

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Being present has seen many stages in my practice. There was the early awareness stage when I first became aware of all the mental noise. It was quite shocking.

The next stage was dominated by a sense of being trapped in a thick layer of cotton. I had memories of being present as a child but I struggled to reconnect through all the protective filters I have accumulated through my life. I’m working on this and seem to be making progress.

This week I had a new ah ha. Part of the dullness was chemically derived from the allergy medicine I’ve taken for years.

In sesshin a few weeks ago, I got a new appreciation for the difference between open awareness and focused concentration. I also overcame extreme back pain during zazen by making the linkage to previous injuries and adapting my posture until I figured out how to compensate for my body’s asymmetry. Previously, being present meant spending a lot of time with the physical pain.

I’m not sure what’s next. It’s a fun, curious journey. I hope to see you on the path.

Forest Morning

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It was a little before sunrise in the Great Vow Zen Monastery forest. I was sitting on a bench that had become a usual haunt over the week of meditation.

Shortly after sitting down 2 owls started calling in the forest.  I couldn’t decide if they were hunting or if these were calls of love but the calls permeated and penetrated the forest. My meditation focused on those calls…deep, repetitive, shifting trees every few calls.

Suddenly another sound caught my attention.  About 10 feet down the path I heard some scampering. It was hard to distinguish in the pre-dawn light and now I regretted leaving my glasses back at the zendo.

A leaf would pop up…then silence. Suddenly the next leaf over would stir. It was still too dark to distinguish but I thought it might be a frog.

This zazen period would fly by as I peered deeply into the darkness. A few minutes later someone started walking my direction. My brain was shouting for them to go away so they didn’t disturb my entertaining frog; but, I could say nothing. Fortunately they turned and headed a different direction.

More staring. More shuffling leaves as the forest creature moved closer.

Pre-dawn light picked up momentum and my creature friend looked less frog-like. More scampering and frolicking leaf play brought this tiny being closer. It seemed fuzzy and about half the length of my thumb. For nearly an hour I watched as the play grew ever closer.

Finally I was able to distinguish that my friend was a tiny forest mouse. It was adorable; but, in the growing light its behavior seemed more erratic…almost like it was blind.

A hazy thought occurred that baby mice are born blind – I wasn’t sure but given its small size this seemed like a logical explanation. I watched as it cavorted to within a couple of feet. More leaf play. Tumbling…ending up on its back and struggling to roll back over.  It would grab its tail and tug almost desperately. Then it would lie quietly for a few minutes before repeating this play.

I knew zazen would be over soon but I hoped to see one more burst of activity before the bell. My little friend was on his back…lying still.  I could see his little stomach expand and contract with each breath.  Come on…my brain quietly screamed. The bell rang.

I stood up expecting my friend to startle and scamper under the nearby ferns. No movement. I slowly approach – still no activity.

I’m on my knees now directly over the mouse but there is no movement. I search for a twig to waken my friend from the path. A gentle nudge. No response. My heart fills with shock and grief. What I had mistaken for playful activity was actually the death throes of this tiny, beautiful creature.

I gently moved its small little body onto a leaf and place it off the path near where I first noticed its presence. This little creature’s drama still reaches deep into my heart.

During our next session of zazen I hurried back to where I left the mouse hoping I was wrong and that it had recovered…but its little body greeted me…still…lifeless.

That evening as we chant about firewood not becoming ash but having a before and after my heart croaked it’s rough, off-key music to my mouse friend’s…before and after. There is no promise of a tomorrow – just this opportunity to be eternally present.

My Metta Practice

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This Sunday we talked about metta so I thought I would share my practice.  If you are new to metta the idea is to “offer metta” first to yourself, then to a loved one, then to a neutral acquaintance, and then to that difficult person.

I don’t always have time in the bustle of the day to do the complete rounds but it’s usually obvious where I need to focus.  May you have a light heart in practice.

May I love my fear,
May I love my frustration,
May I love my obsessive thinking,
May I love my self-doubt,
May I love my confusion,
May I love my compulsive doing,
May I love my awkwardness,
May I continuously discover the clarity, inner peace,
and humor that allows me to welcome each moment.
May I love myself exactly, exactly as I am.

Namaste and friendly bows _/|\_


Agenda or Enjoyment

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This is my shorthand reminder as I bump along through the day.  Agenda represents Agenda or Enjoymentego me (or little self) that has opinions about the way ‘I’ want things to go.

Rather than wait for the world to get a clue, I take a breath and mental shift to enjoyment of the way things are.  I’ve found this quick reset helps to bring me to the present with a smile.

Always Practicing

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With Zen practice, sometimes I find myself just going through the motions; sometimes I feel a peaceful integration; and sometimes I get an enlightened glimpse of living.

Yesterday while doing the evening dishes a question popped up…What would it feel like not to worry? …Not surprisingly, I have a bunch of things festering just now.

I explored the things that were bothering me and they were washing-a-dishall based on how I wanted the future to be.

It was pretty much the standard list: “be liked”, “be appreciated”, “be secure”, and more importantly, their opposites.  I don’t want to be “disliked”, “unappreciated”, and “incompetent”.

When I thought more about my question – none of these fears were occurring “right now”…standing there washing dishes.  Only my head was in future world; my hands were in the sink.  To the extent I could let go of future world my fears abated.  It was me and dishes.  Warm water. Suds. An occasional squeak.

This led to the next aha.  I am always practicing.

I am either practicing living in and with the present – focused on my connection with the world and others through awareness, loving-kindness and compassion, or I’m practicing how to bend, shape, and control my little ego based world.

No wonder Zen is so hard.  I am continually reinforcing what my ego desires at the expense of true connection.  The weirder thing is, I’m doing a bad job at both.  All that ego churn is uncomfortable, unproductive and ridiculously time consuming.

Ah, ego…my crazy little friend.  It makes me, me.  Over the years it has developed a personality.  It has some habits I like and others I’d like to change.  What I’m coming to understand is that we are good friends when my ego and I are aligned in awareness and compassion with our world. When our focus is outward.

But when my ego turns inward and focuses on me…things fall apart.  The fears and mental loops trap me.  It’s anxious and uncomfortable.

And that’s where I was when I was washing the dishes before I realized I was practicing mental anxiety instead of connection.

I’m always practicing.

Mark’s Vows

(a derivative of the 4 great bodhisattva vows)

Daily activities are numberless, I vow free them from my judgements, ambitions, fears, and expectations with Sangha Member Blog Postsawareness and a commitment to discovering and sharing compassion and loving kindness with all.

Delusions are inexhaustible; continually distracting from this very moment.  I vow to end them with awareness humor and gentle perseverance.

Opportunities to practice are boundless.  I vow to enter them with openness, appreciation, curiosity and honesty.

The Buddha way is unreachable without living these vows.  I vow to embody them and live a joyful, wakeful, accepting life.