Yesterday we were busy at work and things weren’t going how I wanted them to. Little fires of anger and self-righteousness started to smolder here and there in my mind. At first I tended to each one as they came up, stomping out the little flames with mindfulness.
But I was tired and feeling a little bit lazy. Things have been piling up, too: dissatisfaction with work, impatience with the publishing process, wanting to just pick up and move to India. So without even thinking about it, I let one of the flames go untended. It was the one that started with the spark of “If I were in charge…”
Within minutes my mind was a raging wild fire. There was no mindfulness at all anymore. No awareness. No practice. Just anger and the certainty that I was the only person in the world who really mattered. It wasn’t pleasant or pretty. I even exploded at one point, huffing and puffing and swearing for all my co-workers and friends to hear and see. All that did was make the flames burn even hotter.
I’d like to say that at that point I caught myself, that I suddenly saw what was going on in my mind and remembered to practice. But I didn’t. Things just kind of settled down by themselves. The fire just burned itself out.
Now, the teachings say that we should use these moments of intense anger (or desire or self-grasping) to be acutely aware of what’s going on in our minds. We’re supposed to observe the emotion like we’re sitting on a river bank watching bits of debris float on by. In this state of calm detachment, we have the opportunity to see how every emotion, every thought, is just like a wisp of cloud: it comes out of nowhere, shapeless and formless, and then it’s gone. This is how we begin to experience the illusory quality of all those intense thoughts that we are so convinced are really real.
Of course that’s the textbook instruction. As I beginner, I can barely do that kind of exercise when I’m sitting calmly on a comfy cushion in my nice little meditation room, with incense and candles and quiet. More often I do what I had to do with yesterday’s experience, what I call “retroactive mindfulness”.
Here’s how it works. Even though the anger and the self grasping are long gone, I can take a moment or two to reflect that all those intense emotions don’t define me, that they are actually impermanent and illusory. I can reflect too, on the intense self grasping I felt and ask, “Where is that me that was so certain he was the only person on earth? Is he in my body, my mind, some place outside of these, pulling the strings of me like some mysterious Wizard?”
When I don’t find anyone or anything there, I can rest in that little bit of certainty that I’m not the limited, confined, independently existing and changeless entity that I thought I was just a few hours ago.
I think this is a good way for me to practice right now. Of course I try to be mindful all the time, but I have to be patient with myself and realize that I am a beginner. I can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater either and think that “Oh no! I still get angry! This practice isn’t working…” Better to take the baby gently into my arms, keep filling the tub until the water overflows so it finally quenches the fire in my mind.