Insight, Wisdom and Enlightenment are big, impressive and rather scary words. It’s easy to think that they are far beyond the level of our daily practice and that what’s relevant right now is just simple ethics, mindfulness and trying to be kind. But digging a bit deeper into the issues we confront, and especially considering them in the light of the Buddha’s teachings, they often turn out to touch on deeper truths. The things that happen to us every day and the thoughts that occupy our minds show us our relationship with reality, and reflecting on them in the light of the Dharma takes us into the province of those big scary words. Wisdom doesn’t mean understanding something that is far away from our current experience: it means finding a different way to perceive and engage with that experience.
That’s really the point of the teaching of the worldly winds. Sit down quietly and focus your mind on the breath or a sense of loving kindness. There is some peace and quiet … and then the wind starts blowing. We often speak of the five hindrances to meditation, or the states that arise in an unconcentrated mind: ill will, desire for sense experience, restlessness and anxiety, sloth and torpor, and doubt. This is how the mind maintains a sense that things are knowable and familiar, when the truth is that they’re constantly shifting and changing. In other words, the five hindrances are how the mind resists and protests against the experience of the worldly winds.
Here is what the Buddha says about the worldly winds in a sutta (an ancient Pali scriptures) on the subject:
‘When gain, loss, status, disgrace, censure, praise, pleasure or pain arise for an ordinary person they do not reflect: “Gain (etc.) has arisen for me. It is inconstant and subject to change.” He (or she) does not discern it as it actually is. He welcomes the gain and rebels against the loss. He welcomes the status and rebels against the disgrace. He welcomes the praise and rebels against the censure. He welcomes the pleasure and rebels against the pain.’
(Anguttara Nikaya 8:6. If you’re interested in following up the source you can read the sutta in full here)
Everything that happens to us is impermanent. Things always change. However hard we work to establish favourable conditions, many things in our lives are entirely beyond our control and they change all the time in ways we cannot possibly predict or influence. That’s why our lives can never be perfect. As I suggested in my posting yesterday this tells us a truth about the world that we often see played out dramatically in the news. But this reflection is also a key to understanding ourselves. As the Buddha says, typically we welcome gain status, praise and pleasure . That’s because we deeply, deeply want them to fill our lives and we get excited when they come our way believing they are what we truly deserve. And we rebel against loss, disgrace, censure and pain because somehow, on some level, we cannot accept their presence. The five hindrances describe the process of welcoming and rebelling in more detail, adding that we also sometimes refuse to engage with what’s happening and switch off, hover in uncertainty or wriggle around in restless agitation.
We can engage with these tendencies in various ways, and these include reflecting on impermanence. You can reflect on impermanence in general and then bring that to mind when things go well or badly; or you can take what happens as a prompt for reflection. Loss, pain and criticism are great teachers because they threaten our prized and illusory ideas about how life should be. But so do pleasure, praise and so on, if we are honest enough with ourselves to notice how intoxicated we can become. Think of the Roman generals celebrating a triumphal parade through cheering crowds, and the slave who stood behind him whispering ‘Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento! Memento mori!’: “Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man! Remember that you’ll die!”
Reflecting on what happens to us in the light of the Buddha’s teaching of the worldly winds means reflecting on impermanence. It is an Insight practice of the highest order. Not a sublime meditation on an exalted truth but seeing what is happening in our lives and our responses right here and right now.