What's Asleep Inside of Us

Saturday, January 16, 2016 - 8:16pm

What's Asleep Inside of Us

The idea of “having faith” in someone or something — to trust a person, to believe in a particular idea or feeling, to live according to a certain religion or ideology — is often tied to stories, to assumptions, to specific and pre-determined ideas of what faith should be.

Though we may know the conventional meaning of the word “faith,” I wonder how much we consider what the feeling of faith really is at all. In Pali — the language of the original Buddhist texts — the word for "faith" is saddha. At its most literal level, saddha is translated as “to place the heart upon.” If and when we place our hearts upon something, we are letting go, opening our fist, and releasing our grip.

That letting go isn’t easy, though. Our culture puts a premium on control, valuing self-discipline, hard work, and competition — literal and metaphorical white-knuckling in all facets of our lives. We are more likely to associate clenched fists with strength than the ability to rest, which is actually quite difficult. To have faith requires a deep intellectual, emotional, and intuitive understanding that the heart is innately capable of loving, trusting, and letting go. With faith, we can “know” with all of our being, not just our minds.

When I encountered Joseph Goldstein at my first meditation retreat in the 1970s, I did not know he was eventually going to be one of my closest friends. Not because of anything Joseph did or didn’t do when we met, but because I was in my own state of frustration at the particular moment we crossed paths for the first time.

My first experience with meditation happened on a ten-day retreat in India, and my initial impressions were less than pleasant. I came to meditation with a very focused desire to find myself and somehow leave behind years of personal suffering for “enlightenment.” But I was surprised to realize that the practice of meditation gave me space to see the inner workings of my mind, from which much of my suffering emerged. The beginning chapters of my practice were overwhelmed by disappointment and confusion — and, most notably, excruciating knee pain!

At some point during the retreat, I found a way to save my knees from suffering so much. For each meditation sitting, I’d go to the hall quite early so I could lean against the bookcases. Doing so totally rescued me from having to deal with distracting body pain as I also began to notice other, more subtle activities of my mind in action. One day, as I was getting up from a sitting, I happened to look at the plaque on the bookcase:

"This bookcase was donated by Joseph Goldstein.”

I didn’t know who Joseph was at the time, but I had come to rely on this bookcase. Jokingly, I thought to myself, “Joseph Goldstein saved my life.”

The day I finally met Joseph, I was coming from a sitting during which I found myself thinking, "If your mind wanders one more time, you should just bang your head against the wall." Luckily, the lunch bell rang and the group made our way to the dining hall. Still feeling the residue of self-judgment, fear, and anger about my apparent inability to experience immediate nirvana, I overheard someone ask a man in the lunch line, “How was your morning?”

The man calmly answered:

“It was difficult. I couldn't concentrate at all, but it'll probably be different this afternoon.”

The man’s answer annoyed me; I couldn’t understand how he had such a calm attitude. Nor did I understand the more fundamental wisdom behind his calmness and acceptance — that there is nothing wrong with the wandering of the mind, and that noticing such activity is the nature of the practice. I was too caught up in thinking meditation should look a certain way.

Later in the retreat, I finally met this man officially, and he turned out to be Joseph Goldstein. It was only then that I could express my gratitude for his “saving my life” with the bookcases. It was only later that I understood that my grasping, angry attitude wasn’t a sign of being a “good meditator,” but a byproduct of deep self-criticism. I also learned to understand that Joseph’s attitude was not blasé, but based in a real, expansive, and sustainable feeling of faith.

There is a great difference between self-preoccupation and love. At the time of my first retreat, I thought of my self-discipline as a form of self-care. In fact, I was positioning myself in a rigid mental chamber. Joseph’s wisdom scared me. His answer challenged the story I had been convincing myself to believe — that becoming lazy is a necessary result of self-acceptance, which is a story that was keeping me in a state of frustration and self-blame.

Faith may be asleep within each of us, but we can choose whether or not to wake ourselves up. Faith is an awakening, a simple recognition that we are able to move toward compassion, love, and connection, and away from judgment, fear, and isolation.

When we talk about balance or “the middle way,” the goal isn’t to find some kind of average between self-indulgence and self-mortification, to punish our pleasure, or reward ourselves for our punishment. The middle way emerges from “resting the heart upon” acceptance of the tension, stress, and general discomfort associated with these extremes. With that acceptance, we move to a place of real balance, and when we make that movement, we are propelling ourselves forward into the unknown with faith.

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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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This is beautiful, thank you Sharon. I have always found the concept of faith hard to wrap my head around. Too sceptical for my own good at times! I loved this line "The middle way emerges from “resting the heart upon” acceptance of the tension, stress, and general discomfort associated with these extremes. " and the idea of stress as resting upon, having faith that it's OK to relax.

I'll take this with me - if we can have faith in ourselves, we open to the possibility that it is alright to relax just as we are. Exactly where we are.

the ego has our true self under siege at all times, making sure the true self never has time to be still and grasp our situation. Meditation is an act of revolution against the dictator that ego has become in our lives. Ego uses many abuses to control and disempower the true self, as any formidable violent dictator might. In this arena, the confrontation must be non-violent or it will not succeed. Fighting back with the same tactics as the ego, will only doom us to continued denial and abuse of a true self that feels the need to win and by win i mean control the self with force - not the experience of being a true mindful self with compassion and love, which is our freedom.

I connect to this metaphor. Thank you for sharing it.

Consider the lilies. That is my thought at the moment. I have planted lots of bulbs. I have taught more people; however, than planted. The emergence of early green blades remind me of faith. We know where the light and the middle places are. Sharon, your discussion here gives me more opening area for the light to come in. God has always been radiant for me. Thank you.

Reading your article, Mrs. Salzberg, I can identify so well with your thought process. It immediately reminds me when I was asked by His Holiness the Dalaï-Lama to meditate alongside him (India, 2004). Honoured, I accepted without too much thought or hesitation, of course. Little did I realize though that this would be the occasion where I was to make myself feel most uncomfortable!

Unable to just witness my breath as silence invaded the room, I was in constant awareness of “His” presence like a teenager on a first date. Needless to say, I felt later that same day, and months ensuing, that I had let myself down from experiencing something greater.

Morgan Scott Peck wrote, "The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers."

Over the years, I’ve revisited from memory multiple times that supposed failed occasion. It was only after letting go of my pride (ego) and by factually sharing my mindset of that day, have I now come to comprehend that point in time was actually a valuable lesson in misguided awareness. That most uncomfortable of blessed situation was finally to be a pivotal stage of development.

There are times, years past, when I would practice meditation, never for long, never establishing a permanent practice. So I am a true beginner once again.

I don't know if I can conjure up 'faith' the way it is portrayed here but I am willing to try to engage - to act for the time being as if faith was present - and see what happens. I'm doing the February Challenge for a start because it makes getting into this as a habit easy, sneaking regular practice into my life. I am looking for an escape from the noise that constantly: from deep frustration that I seem to be stuck and time is slipping away, knowing that years of self criticism haven't helped me or anyone around me, but simply lead to paralysis and unhappiness. Anyway, so all I want to do for the rest of the month is practice as if . . .

Thank you, Sharon. I love your writings, both here and in your books. I agree that when the Middle Way is seen as an "average," it loses potency and seems diluted. This incorrect "average" interpretation reminds some people, unfortunately, of Jesus' saying, "If you are lukewarm, I will spew you out..." They then want nothing to do with a "Middle Way."On the contrary, to get a bit analytical/mathematical for a moment, I have come to see the Middle Way illustrated most effectively as being like a normal-curve-shaped graph on an X and Y axis (i.e., like an upside down "U"). Both low and high values for X on the X axis (defined here as measuring self-denial all the way up to self-absorption) are reflected by low values on the Y axis (Y axis reflecting skillfulness, happiness, and freedom from suffering). Seen this way, the Middle Way of balance is anything but lukewarm and average. It produces the most intense levels of happiness.

Thank you for this Sharon, I've tried to keep my heart & mind in check over the years by "my fists"~

beautifully unraveled
very hard to come close to this balanced idea, but you've made a great move into dismantling the knots through words
thank you :)