The building where I used to run a meditation group was on the same street as a fire station; one could almost guarantee that sometime during the meditation a fire engine would come rushing past, sirens wailing. Not surprisingly, people would afterwards complain: “How could I meditate with that going on?”
How often have we felt something similar? There’s an unspoken assumption that the mind can only become quiet if the world around it is quiet. We imagine the ideal meditation setting to be somewhere far from the madding crowd—a retreat deep in a forest, a peaceful chapel, or the quiet of one’s own bedroom, perhaps. It is much harder for the mind to settle down in a noisy environment. Or is it?
I suggested to the group that the next time a fire engine came blasting by they look within and explore whether the sound really was that disturbing? After the following meditation, a participant reported how the noise no longer seemed a problem; it was there, but it didn’t disturb her. The disturbance, she realized, came not from the sound itself, but from wishing it weren’t there.
This was the essence of Buddha’s realization 2,500 years ago. We all experience what he called dukkha. The word is conventionally translated as “suffering,” but in Pali, the language of Buddha’s time, dukkha is the negation of the word sukha, meaning “at ease.” So dukkha might more generally be translated as not-at-ease, or discontent—an experience we all can relate to.
The root meanings of these words add further insight. Sukha stems from su (good)-kha (hole), and usually referred to a good axle hole in the wheel of a cart. The wheel was a great technological boon of the time, and whether or not it ran smoothly around its axle would have been a primary concern for both comfort and efficiency. Conversely, the root meaning of dukkha is duh (bad)-kha (hole). There is resistance to the smooth running of the wheel, leading to friction and discomfort.
So it is with the mind. When we accept things as they are and “go with the flow,” there is ease—sukka. This is our natural state of mind—content and relaxed. Dukkha arises when we resist our experience. Our natural state of ease becomes veiled by a self-created discontent.
Thus, as Buddha and numerous other teachers have pointed out, we can return to a more peaceful state of mind by letting go of our attachments as to how our experience ought to be and accept it as it is.
Upon hearing this, people often ask: Does this mean I should accept injustice and cruelty, the homeless sleeping on the streets, or the recalcitrant attitude of my partner? Of course not. There are numerous situations that we should not tolerate, and each, in our own way, will be called to do what we can to improve the world.
“Accepting our experience as it is” means just that; accepting our experience in the moment. If we are feeling frustrated, angry, or indignant, accept that feeling. Don’t resist it, or wish it weren’t there; but let it in, become interested in how it feels.
Even more valuably, we can explore the resistance itself. It can be quite subtle, and not easily noticed at first. So I find it useful to simply pause and ask: “Is there any sense of resistance that I am not noticing?” And gently wait. I may then become aware of some resentment towards my experience, wishing it were different, or perhaps just a sense of tension or contraction in my being. Then rather than focusing on whatever I may
have been resisting, I turn my attention to the resistance itself, opening to this aspect of “what is.”
Rather than dividing experience into two parts—the experience in the moment, and thoughts and judgments about that experience—any resistance is now included as part of the present moment. Not resisting the resistance, the veil of discontent dissolves, and I return to a more relaxed, easeful state of mind.
That is what is meant by a quiet mind. Not an empty mind. We are aware of the world just as before. Aware of sounds, sensations, thoughts, and feelings. We are simply allowing our experience to be as it is. Not wishing for something different, not creating unnecessary discontent.
So when you find something seeming to disturb your inner quiet—whether it be a friend’s behavior, some politician on TV, or a passing fire engine—pause, and notice what is happening inside. See if there is any sense of resistance to your experience. If so, open up to the experience of resisting; be curious as to what is going on and how it feels. Allow this part of the present moment into your awareness, and you may well discover that you can be at ease in situations where before you would have suffered.