(Follow this link to see the July 2020 Priory Newsletter where this was originally published.)
One of my fellow monks, when talking with people of other faiths, will often describe our mediation as a prayer of listening. When we sit, we attempt to let go and in this letting go (not pushing away, just letting what is there be there and change as it will) we can learn to not get caught up in our fears and worries, patterns from the past and ideas and opinions about the way things are. In this quiet place of meditation, which is below the turmoil of our minds, we have the opportunity to deeply hear the voice of our own suffering; hear what it has to say to us and give it an opportunity to find peace.
In the world of audio engineering, there is a term: signal to noise ratio. In the electronic audio world this means the clarity of the sound transmitted across a circuit (for example from a microphone to a set of speakers) versus the amount of noise (from static or electronic distortion) introduced by the circuit. I am sure we have all heard an audio recording where we could barely make out the sound that we wanted to hear because of all the extra noise from static and all that.
Anyway, one way to look at our spiritual lives is that we are going through a process of letting go of and training ourselves to stop acting on those aspects of our mind which produce the “noise” that keeps us from hearing the deeper parts of ourselves, “the signal.” Of course the noise is produced by acting on greed, anger and ignorance and the signal has to do with our own Buddha nature. But more than that, the signal that we would do well to listen for and hear is right in the middle of our suffering.
What I mean by this is that sometimes there is an anger or a fear or another feeling of suffering working within us and it will be out of control, out of control in the sense that it is influencing our choices and behavior in an unseen and often self-defeating way. The suffering will influence our lives until we are able to sit still enough to see it at work; still enough to hear or see the heart of the suffering and let it go to peace.
Seeing the heart of our own suffering, hearing its voice, can take awhile and the process asks us to have faith: faith that it is possible to diffuse the suffering from within and faith that simply persisting in doing the practice, no matter how dark it might seem, will lead us to that Place of Peace.
The practice of the precepts is also part of this prayer of listening: I know that at the heart of me and at the heart of all the suffering I have seen in myself and have caused, there is a wish to not cause harm. I am not wise or smart enough to know for sure if it is completely true, but it is the teaching of Buddhism and our tradition that something like this wish is at the heart of all beings, so, having seen its truth for myself, I proceed as if it were true, or at least highly possible, for others as well. At the heart of our suffering there is the wish to not cause harm; there is love.
Of course, often this wish gets distorted – for myself and others – and it takes patience and effort to see it clearly. So, because we have this distortion, as we walk along the path of meditation, we also restrain ourselves in an outward way using our intellect and the precepts and within this restraining, we are helped immeasurably by listening carefully within.
In Buddhism there is an idea of practice being like a lotus plant rooted in the mud at the bottom of a pond. It is very important that we do our best to not despise the mud: for our lotus, the mud provides the nutrients for the blossom to grow strong and beautiful.