The Proliferation of All That Will Ever Be

Saturday, January 23, 2016 - 5:22pm

The Proliferation of All That Will Ever Be

Munindra-ji once gave me a wonderful piece of advice. I went to my meditation teacher very upset about something. I’m not quite sure I even remember what it was about; I just wanted someone to talk to. In response, he looked at me very calmly and asked:

“Why are you so upset about the thoughts coming up in your mind? Did you invite them? Did you say, ‘At 3:15 I’d like to be filled with self-judgment?’”

Written down, these questions seem facetious or even sarcastic, but Munindra-ji was being earnest.

We can blame ourselves so harshly — as I was doing — for things we cannot control, rather than being empowered by what we can control, and how we relate to those thoughts that have arisen in our minds. He was urging me towards letting go of blaming myself and picking up the transformation I actually had available to me.

All of this can be easier said than done though. At the time, I probably knew the answers to his questions on some level, even if I didn’t realize it. I was in a state of distress not so much because of my initial feeling of anxiety or sadness but because of my reactions to those tough feelings. I was overanalyzing why I felt upset, and beating myself up. I probably started to feel guilty for letting myself feel unhappy, or maybe I perversely reasoned that I’d feel better if I blamed myself.

These lines of thinking happen to all of us, and yet we rarely talk about it. We’re conditioned to turn away from tough emotions, and even to feel shame about them. But the irony is that we make that difficulty worse for ourselves. Rather than inviting in an emotion like anger in order to learn more deeply about it, we create a nest of tangled up feelings and lose touch with the reason we were bothered in the first place.

Over time, I’ve come to recognize all of these distorted ways I was relating to my own pain, and that’s really how I “learned” the importance of compassion.

In Pali, the language of the original Buddhist texts, there’s a word, papancha, which is usually translated as “proliferation.” I have heard papancha described as the imperialistic tendency of the mind, where something happens and the whole world is taken over. One minute of feeling frustrated turns into a vortex of frustration and self-criticism: I can’t believe I’m frustrated. What did I do to deserve this frustration? I’m an angry person and always will be. What will my frustration feel like in an hour?

The possibilities for the “proliferation” are basically infinite. The only thing that can calm down the proliferation is awareness. It disrupts the cycle of adding on supposition, conclusions, anxious speculation. And in that disruption, we can come back to what is actually happening.

Years ago, my friend Joseph Goldstein and I were teaching a retreat together and happened to be sitting in the kitchen having a cup of tea one day when a student came in looking very distraught

Student: “I just had this terrible experience.”

Joseph: “Well, what happened?”

Student: "I felt all of this tension in my jaw, and I realized what an incredibly uptight person I am, and how I always have been and I always will be.”

Joseph: “You mean you felt a lot tension in your jaw.”

Student: “Yes. And I’ve never been able to get close to people and it’s never going to change.”

Joseph: “You mean you felt a lot of tension in your jaw.”

It was really interesting watching them go back and forth, and back and forth. Finally Joseph said to him:

“Why are you adding a miserable self image to a painful experience?”

It’s painful enough to have tension in our jaw, but then all that we will ever be starts to proliferate; all our future, and how our life is going to unfold, gets assumed. It’s truly like the imperialistic tendency of mind. And we tend to do it quite a lot of the time. Turning around that habit is a way of directing our lives, having a sense of agency and empowerment that is far more real than the futile effort to determine that our jaw, or our hearts, will never hurt to being with.

While we might have some control of our lifestyle choices, relationships, jobs, and more, we can’t actually create or stop certain feelings from coming up. The real sense of freedom and empowerment in our lives is not from the fact that we can think or feel whatever we want, but that we can relate differently to the things we do think or feel.

I’ve learned that being in touch with how things are right now, without so many add-ons, inevitably leads to our feeling less boxed in, more spacious, and more resilient. This inevitably leads to our feeling a sense of inner resource. When we feel less exhausted, deprived, overcome within, we have room to be kinder to others. Simply learning how to see through proliferation and return to what is helps bring us into a different way of living.

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Sharon Salzberg

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears monthly.

She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace.

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Thank you for this post, and the anecdote contained within. It made me smile...and recognize the baggage of self-judgment that I haul around like a martyr. I so appreciate your writing and wisdom. Your book Loving Kindness quite literally changed my life, forever altering how I deal with interpersonal conflict. What a blessing!

Ahhh yes. All too often it's not the event that is hard for me, it's the story I tell myself about the event that make it so difficult. It is not easy to change that, but slowly I am starting to stop, breathe, and just be with the feeling. And with.time, breath and love, i can let go and just let the feeling be. Thank you, as always for this beautiful post.

I am caring for my dying spouse. I have had to deal with feelings of despair, fear of the future without him and being on my own for the first time in 48 years, and grief over knowing I am going to lose the person I am closest to in the whole world. Accepting my fears and grief as what they as are : emotions, and deliberately refusing to build imaginary pictures of what my future may be like, has helped me to live contentedly in the present of each day and to be fully present in the time the two of us have right now. I don't know how I would have made it through this time of parting without the knowledge I have gained from mindfuless practice. Thank you, Sharon.

Thank you Paula for this beautiful inspiring post. "Living contentedly in the present each day and to be fully present in the time the two of us have right now." Thank you again. Clearly you can trust your practice, a refuge. How fortunate for your spouse that he/she has an open hearted, clear seeing companion.

To Paula ~ Thank you for sharing that it's possible to use this inspiration in the most difficult situations, to be fully present with your loved one in the most difficult and sometimes beautiful moments. May you both be Safe in each other's Love. May you both be Free as each moment changes. May the Love of the Universe Engulf You....

Thank you for this post. It truly came at an appropriate time for me, a time of great need. Just this week I had the revelation: "it's okay to feel angry." For so long I have judged myself for feeling anger, and would too quickly shut off, box in, and ignore the emotion - never truly understanding its true essence. I was too preoccupied with the idea of having control over my emotions, of using meditation and loving kindness to overcome emotions. What I didn't realize though is that practicing mindfulness meditation is not a solution to 'problems' - it does not prevent anger, sadness, disappointment, heartbreak, despair. But rather, mindfulness allows you to listen to the heart, to quiet the mind and suspend judgmental thoughts long enough to pay attention to the small voice of the pain hidden within and understand the nature of the suffering.

Thank you.

Thanks for this. It helps to be reminded of how we can exaggerate our discomfort. In my mindful practice, I try to remember to do my best, and trust God with the rest.

Thank you for this post. It's one of those things I know and yet forget over and over again. Gentle reminders like this one help me slow down enough to be patient with me. Instead of my usual "I should know better" reaction, they help me think, "oh yeah, I can do that."