Jack Kornfield’s recently published book, No Time Like the Present, contains many insights that pertain to our Dharma practice. Tonight is the first in a series of Dharma talks that present highlights from each chapter.
The first chapter starts with an Ojibwa saying: “Sometimes I go about pitying myself, when all the while I am being carried by great winds across the sky.” Jack reminds us that seven billion human beings inhabit this planet, which is orbiting among billions of stars in the cosmos. Most of us seldom connect with the vastness of the sky and outer space, which holds the moon, planets, stars and galaxies. When we recognize how spacious our universe is, around us and within us, we touch freedom. We see worries and conflicts in perspective, carry emotional states more lightly, and act with peace and dignity amidst the world’s challenges.
Jack transmits teachings about what Thai Master Ajahn Chah called “the One Who Knows,” referring to the original nature of mind and the silent witness of spacious consciousness. Ajahn Chah’s simple instructions were to become a witness to all that arises. After decades of dedicated meditation practice, he knew that from a spacious heart comes a natural awareness that knows and accommodates everything.
When you pay attention to the movie showing in your life right now, you can identify the plot: Is it an adventure story, a tragedy, a romance, a soap opera or a battle scene? Wake up and recall that you are the audience as well as the protagonist. You can step back from the drama to witness with a broader perspective what is unfolding.
Although the freedom of loving awareness is always available, we must practice in order to remember and to trust it. Whenever you feel lost and stuck in a tiny part of the big picture, you can breathe, relax, and visualize yourself stepping back to witness the contracted body, the scared emotions, and the worried thoughts—and to hold it all in tender awareness.
Let’s try one of Jack’s brief guided meditations: Close your eyes and sit quietly, breathing into the heart and letting the mind and heart become spacious like the sky. Imagine clouds floating in the sky and sense yourself becoming the sky. Note inner clouds passing by. Let yourself open up, merging into space with love. Relax and rest in the immensity that surrounds you and that is within you. Notice how vast loving awareness is. As the One Who Knows, witness it all, letting loving awareness make room for everything: boredom and excitement, fear and trust, pleasure and pain, birth and death (p. 13).
When you walk into a grove of giant redwoods or into a great cathedral, a sacred stillness permeates you. As spaciousness opens inside, you can experience a profound inner stillness. This is the vast silence that surrounds life. On retreats, we call it Noble Silence. Trust it and rest in the stillness. As your heart opens, you feel more fully alive. Everything that arises from this silence is like a cloud in the vast sky or like a wave on the ocean. You can rest in the depths of silence.
The nature of consciousness is vast. If you gaze directly at it, you see that the mind is transparent, spacious, with no boundaries, and that the heart is as wide as the world. Arising out of a great mysterious space are waves of thoughts, emotions and sense perceptions. As you observe attentively, you notice that there are pauses between these waves, gaps between breaths and thoughts. Gradually you learn to rest in these pauses. As the waves arise and fall, you become silent loving awareness itself.
With practice resting in loving awareness, trust grows. You trust the universe to run itself, and you trust awareness to hold it all. You can rest in spacious and refreshing stillness without judging, grasping or rejecting the experience. Jack cites author Steven Wright, who declares, “I have the world’s largest collection of seashells. I keep it on all the beaches of the world. Perhaps you’ve seen it.”
Spaciousness, awareness and love are interconnected. Recently I learned a hard lesson from a hospice patient whom I’ll call “Charlie.” He has been attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings to help him quit a longtime addiction to smoking meth. A few weeks ago, Charlie told me about a peak experience that he claimed convinced him that he could feel blissful without using drugs. I responded enthusiastically and believed that he was on the road to sobriety. Last week, I brought to work some new guitar strings for Charlie’s guitar to celebrate his progress in the N.A. program. To my dismay, I learned from a nurse that in reaction to failing a random drug test, Charlie abruptly checked out of hospice and resumed abusing drugs on the streets.
In meditation that evening, I connected with the One Who Knows, recognizing my attachment to Charlie’s recovery from addiction. In spacious silence, I let go of taking Charlie’s sudden departure personally. I faced my tendency to want happy endings for anyone I care about. In the stillness, I acknowledged both my kindness and my gullibility. As a witness, I observed how I tend to look for the best in people and to believe what I want to hear. I ended the meditation by sending Metta to myself and to Charlie. As I let go of my agenda for him, I connected with trusting that the universe is unfolding as it should. Both Charlie and I are learning karmic lessons. Our relationship has given me valuable insights for my chaplaincy training that can benefit my interactions with other hospice patients.
We’ll conclude with a guided meditation called “Mind Like the Sky.”
Sit comfortably and at ease.
Close your eyes.
Let your body be at ease and your breath natural.
Take several full breaths and let each breath release gently.
Allow yourself to be still.
Now shift your attention away from the breath.
Listen to the play of sounds around you.
Notice whether they are loud or soft, far or near.
Notice how sounds arise and vanish, leaving no trace.
Listen for a while in a relaxed, open way.
As you listen, let yourself sense or imagine that your mind is not limited to your head.
Sense your mind expanding to be like the sky—open clear, vast like space.
There is no inside or outside.
Let the awareness of your mind extend in every direction, like the sky.
Allow the sounds you hear to arise and pass away in the open sky of the mind.
Relax in this huge openness and just listen.
Let the sounds come and go, far and near, like clouds in the vast sky of your own awareness.
The sounds play through the sky, appearing and disappearing without resistance.
Then, as you rest in open awareness, notice how thoughts and images also arise and vanish.
They are like the clouds.
Let the thoughts and images come and go without struggle or resistance.
Pleasant and unpleasant thoughts, pictures, words, and feelings move unrestricted in the space of mind.
Problems, possibilities, joys, and sorrows come and go in the vast open sky of mind.
After a time, let this spacious awareness notice the body.
Become aware of how the body is not solid.
The sensations of breath and body float and change in the same open sky of awareness.
In awareness, the body can be felt as floating areas of hardness and softness, pressure and tingling, warm and cool sensations, all appearing in the space of the mind’s awareness.
Notice too, how the breath breathes itself; it moves like a breeze.
Let all experience be like clouds.
The breath moves as it will.
Sensations float and change.
Allow all thoughts and images, feelings and sounds to come and go, floating in the clear open space of awareness.
Finally, pay attention to the awareness itself.
Notice how the open space of awareness is naturally clear, transparent, timeless, without conflict, allowing things to be but not limited by them.
Remember the pure open sky of your own true nature.
Return to it.
It is home.