Sunday, August 14, 2011

Bad dreams

The other night my four-year-old daughter had a bad dream. She was so upset that I carried her into my bed and held her for the rest of the night. Last night, before she went to bed, she said, "I can't stop thinking bad things."

I felt wretchedly helpless; if there's one thing that's torturous for a parent its to see your child suffer. She was having so much anxiety about her dreams that she couldn't stop thinking about them. I said everything I could to put her at ease. I told her that thoughts are like clouds, and just like you wouldn't be afraid if a cloud looked scary, the same applied to thoughts.

That didn't work. Neither did my explanation that you can't eat a mental slice of pizza, so why be scared about other thoughts?

I should take my own advice. My daughter was suffering from the same habit that most people do--she was hooked by her thoughts, taking them much too seriously. In fact, thinking that they are real. We create these mental maps--simulacra--and forget that they are empty constructs. Like in the photo above, we make monsters out of shadows.

Suzuki Roshi wisely said, "Don't believe everything you think." I wish someone had told me that fifteen years ago!

Most of us are so caught in our little fantasies, our mental narrative where we are the star, that we can't even recognize when we're telling ourselves stories. And what's worse is our resistance to our thoughts and emotions. We want to eliminate any that we deem "unpleasant," and replace them with pleasurable ones. I think that we're hard-wired that way. This inevitably leads to more suffering and anguish as we try to escape the realities of the human condition. Like I said in my last post, pain is unavoidable, but suffering is optional. We compound our discomfort by resisting it, just like my daughter did by trying to run from her "bad" thoughts. If only we could learn how to accept them--good, bad, regardless of their content--then those labels would begin to empty. Which is what they are in the first place.

That's why koans are so useful. They cut off all discriminating thought and bring us back to the here and now. They force us to respond with our entire beings, to drop all conceptualization--where are you right now? When answering a koan, the present moment feels razor thin. Who knows, maybe that's the way life always is, and koans simply wake us up to the fact. Because that's what the practice is about--waking up.

But obviously I couldn't tell that to my daughter. So last night I just held her, assured her everything was going to be fine, and waited for her to fall asleep.

I see my own struggles in her fears. My own nightmares and anxieties echoed in hers. And not just mine, but the suffering of the whole world was present.

There was a moment that first night when I was holding her as she slept--when all I wanted to do was make everything all right--that I felt like I finally understood Buddhism. A gap closed, or maybe something opened. And all that remained was the present moment. Pure, sharp, and clear.

Photo borrowed from Creative Commons flickr user: gfpeck.

1 comment:

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