just be it It’s about the work involved in establishing a dedicated practice to feelings of a bigger belonging through practices aimed at increasing feelings of compassion, gratitude and forgiveness

Fighting Thoughts, Fighting Words

Published on 07/10/15
by randy


For several years I’ve worked with inmates at the Rush City Prison facilitating them in developing a meditation practice. While the group I work with is founded on the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, it’s a diverse group coming from several faith traditions and ethnic backgrounds. Many have found themselves in prison because they momentarily lost their center and violently reacted to another. They all deal with the need to hold their center while in prison lest they lengthen their sentence or get placed in isolation due to their reactive behavior. We teach the men how to settle into an upright posture that helps still the restless mind. Sitting erect, guided in finding a relaxed, yet precisely tuned posture, we generally use the breath as the focus of meditation. We begin the session in silence, do a brief check-in, sit in stillness for fifteen to twenty minutes, followed by a brief topic presentation and discussion. Almost all of the men report how their lives go better when following a meditation practice. When confronted with life’s difficulties they’re less likely to react to the words of another. This is particularly challenging when living in the close quarters of a cell with another prisoner. So how does this relate to the Four Noble Truths?

While Jesus teaches us to love one another as ourselves, the Buddha discovered some basic truths that express the same wisdom but with some very practical ways to accomplish this. He noted that: 1. It’s of human nature to encounter ‘dis-satisfactoriness’. 2. Our suffering in life comes from our attachments to these desires and cravings to have things different. 3. It is possible to end our suffering by letting go of these attachments and returning to what ‘is’. 4. He elaborates on methods to do this with his Eightfold Path. When we sit in stillness, allowing thoughts and emotions to be dismissed, there’s an increased awareness to the impermanent nature of the passing moments. There’s also a deep awareness to the mystery of life and a sense of everything being connected. With a dedicated practice, the meditator increasingly becomes more and more skilled at identifying attachments to thoughts and emotional feelings. With this earlier identification, the thoughts can be released allowing the freedom to return to the moment and awareness of breath. Without this awareness, we can attach to our thoughts, elaborate on them, develop our opinions and judgments, and eventually move to a place where we will fight others to defend them. The key to successfully living in peace is to stop the momentum in being carried away with our thoughts, especially when they’re filled with negative emotion. We learn to see them as nothing more than attachments that grow to a place with potential to cause deep suffering. The extent of this suffering is proportional to the strength of the attachment. The violence we witness in the world is proportional to our unchecked awareness of these attachments and the power they have on us to cause harm to others. Whether we call people ‘fundamentalists’, ‘idealogues’, ‘bull headed’, etc., these people have strongly attached to their notions of being ‘right’ and have closed their awareness to possibility with frequent statements of ‘I know that’. All war stems from these notions of ‘being right’ and the need ‘to change another’.

It hasn’t been very effective, has it? We continue our attachments to ‘rightness’, failing to respect our extremely limited information to what’s really going on. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara did an excellent documentary on this topic in his senior years of life called The Fog of War. He details how we attached to the ‘thought’ that the Vietnam war was about communism vs. democracy. Close to sixty thousand Americans died and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were killed on this incorrect thought. With further information and time to review what happened, it was clear we acted on an incorrect ‘thought’. It was essentially a civil war. We continue along these same lines today as we engage in multiple sectarian and civil war disputes attached to the ‘thought’ that democracy needs to be pushed. Others attach to the ‘thought’ that Christianity needs to be pushed, while others believe (attached thought) that Islam is to be pushed. Unfortunately, today we risk another global conflict as Putin (Russia) has attached to the thought of a strong, authoritarian government and our government leaders have attached to the notion of a free government by the people. Whether it’s countries and the potential for war or our spouses and the potential for divorce, we’ve given momentum to our thoughts, elaborated and grown them to a point where we’re ready to fight. Yet, our spiritual teachers and elders advise us to just sit with one another, to just allow ourselves to be in one another’s shoes, to compassionately meet one another’s suffering, allowing that which is bigger than us to bubble up with a bigger, better response that what comes from our small, linguistically based, reasoning minds. Our forefathers called this surrender to a bigger, better response Divine Providence. It came from a place where all parties were willing to momentarily surrender their ‘thoughts’ in recognition to the truth that there’s no understanding without this. Most of our diplomacy only feeds further violence as we try to get the other to think like us. The famous linguist, Noam Chomsky, has noted how violence underlies all attempts to persuade or change another. Dr. Martin Luther King has written about how another can smell our underlying contempt (sense of rightness) when meeting with another of different thought.

So we work with the inmates in Rush City, training them in their capacity to recognize that thoughts are linguistic. Language is made up from arbitrary symbols. The meaning to words is not in the word but in the persons relationship to the word. The experience of the Divine is universal, yet the words we use are varied. The open, flexible mind holds a solid confidence that we’re supported in a bigger way. The smaller, closed mind is locked into changing things in a way that we’ve become attached to, insensitive to harm caused. In practice, the men learn how to see their thoughts, release them in pause, and take actions that are less likely to make a mess of things. Yesterday we had a group that testified to the effectiveness in this mindful practice. Men who used to ‘react’ from their attachments to the meaning in words were experiencing a better life filled with positive momentum from their freedom to ‘let go’. As we left the prison, I overheard a correctional officer relaying a recent experience with another where he said, “Those are fighting words for me.” I reflected back on a teaching my parents gave me in grade school, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can’t hurt me.” I know I’ve found freedom and joy in realizing ‘what you think of me is none of my business’. I know my life runs more smoothly when I let go my desire to change another. Rather, it works to ‘just be’ with them. When I can see that thoughts are like sweat, just bubbling up, only to evaporate, I’m more joyful. This is perhaps life’s hardest work, this training to suspend fixed belief. Culture pushes us to fight and the Divine pushes us to love. Culture attaches to the illusion of our separation. Our spiritual experience expands our awareness of ‘being one another’.

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