By Rita M. Gross
Before writing this short essay, I puzzled for some days over what is most meaningful to me, especially pertaining to my Buddhist identity. There are many candidates. I value my relationship with my teacher; I value my sangha or community; I value being a Western Buddhist, which allows me to critically evaluate which aspects of Buddhism to take on and which, such as its sexism and patriarchy, to reject; I value all the training and inspiration I have received over the years.
But the more I reflected on the question, the more it seemed that I should write about the flexibility of mind that results from Buddhist meditation practice. This discipline has been summed up by a great contemporary Buddhist teacher as learning how to “touch and go.” When one meditates, all sorts of ideas come up and one learns not to repress them. It is important not to censor the meditating mind, but to let it be free to come up with anything, no matter how silly or unacceptable.
That is the “touch” part. But then, it is just as important to let go of any and every thought that may occur. Becoming fixated on a thought, hanging onto it, or believing in it, even if it is very profound, is always a mistake and inevitably causes suffering. That is the “go” part of meditation, which is often very much more difficult for people to practice. We easily get attached to our thoughts and then we are imprisoned by them.
What makes this exercise different from daydreaming is that one also has a “reference point” or focal point, usually the breath, that keeps one mindfully in the present. One is instructed to gently keep one’s focus on the breath, and to return focus to the breath when thoughts distract one, especially when we start to cling to them and believe in them. Many people have the mistaken impression that meditation is about not thinking or suppressing thoughts, and they give up because they find if impossible to concentrate solely on their breath. But actually, one form of basic Buddhist meditation consists of a very skillful dance between stabile focus on the breath (or some other object) and unfettered mind, mind for which nothing is off limits—except seizing on any specific thought, hanging onto it like a bulldog, fixating on it, believing in it.
The long term outcome of such regular mindfulness practice is tremendous flexibility of mind. One no longer buys into one’s thoughts and beliefs in the rigid and ideological manner that is so common in our society and which often makes political or religious discourse so painful and confrontational. It is not that one is indifferent to problems and values or has no point of view, but that one holds them with looseness and flexibility. As a result, one has energy and confidence without being overbearing. One can make one’s point without alienating one’s audience and polarizing the situation further.
I will illustrate with a personal story. Last winter in Wisconsin, the whole state was in turmoil over actions taken by the newly elected governor, demonstrations against him in the state capitol, and the departure of much of the state senate from the state to try to forestall a damaging vote. I teach a small meditation group in the city in which I live and many of its participants were seriously affected by the governor’s actions. Some of them were very fired up, held very clear opinions, were very angry and were quite miserable as a result. One evening when I arrived for our weekly meeting, everyone asked me, “And where do you stand?” I replied that I knew what my opinions were but I wasn’t letting them make me miserable, a statement that many found startling, but also very refreshing. Passions are again high in Wisconsin as petitions to recall the governor are being circulated. I am happy to report that the meditators, now somewhat more adept at “touch and go,” do know their minds, do know where they stand and what actions they will take, without being so miserable, so burdened by their beliefs. They were much more cheerful, but realistic at the same time. That is one aspect of the flexibility of mind that I value so highly.
It would be so helpful if only more people could approach discussion of difficult issues concerning religion, politics, and economics with such flexibility, such softness, and gentleness. Serious long-term training in “touch and go” gradually teaches us not to take whatever emotions or thoughts may be in our minds at the current moment quite so seriously, as if they will be true for all time.
Not taking ourselves and our views quite so seriously is essential for the flexibility I am praising so highly. It is also the opposite of the dogmatism—the fixed, rigidly held beliefs—that so often mars religion and politics. Nothing is gained by rigid polarization or by demonizing those who think differently. But unless all parties in a discussion are willing to be less ideological and more flexible, the situation is very difficult. Flexibility is not something easily practiced unilaterally. But I can think of nothing that would improve the quality of civic discourse in our society more.
Such flexibility of mind has many other virtues. It allows one to continue to work on “hopeless” causes cheerfully, without burning out, knowing that whatever change for the better does occur is incremental. It allows one to take on new projects and learn new things, with delight and joy, even as one ages. It means that one can change one’s mind when such change is warranted. It brings enthusiasm and energy, with continued delight in the unfolding adventure of life. And one can hope that it will also allow one to lay down one’s life without regret or reluctance when that time comes.