Last week, my daughter and I stayed in a little ocean-side condo in Florida. Every morning we walked on the beach, and at least some mornings we let ourselves be buffeted about in the vast jacuzzi of the ocean. Every evening, we cooked, laughed, and talked with my 91-year-old father, sister, nephew, and their loved ones. Every day I was reminded of what is constant by the waves, and every evening I was reminded of impermanence by my father’s growing frailty and my own growing sense of not having unlimited time.
I had a very limited ability to be online. When I did, I was very touched and interested in the activity in this blog space on the subject of what is a path or what does it mean to follow a path. One line and comment in particular captured my attention and imagination. Elizabeth wrote of doing contemplative reading of passages from the Bible each morning, giving as an example Jesus teaching his followers that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field. She offered the insight that the field or ground might be the ground of our own being. I walked on the beach in the morning reflecting on what kinds of conditions have to be present to explore that ground and find that treasure.
One of the things that came up as I walked on the beach in the morning or lay in bed at night thinking about the way life melts away was the Third Noble Truth, the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Suffering. When I was younger, I wondered why the Buddha bothered to make a separate truth about the end of suffering. Why not skip straight from the craving and ignorance that causes suffering to the Fourth Noble Truth, the Eightfold Path that leads to liberation? It seemed pointless and even negative to me to emphasize the cessation of craving; the rejecting, relinquishing, leaving and renouncing of it. It seems clear to me now that my aversion to this particular truth was/is rooted in the fear that it is life denying. Be as aloof and austere as a monk or nun, that’s the way to avoid suffering: abandon all craving, even, especially, to that seems lovable and gratifying.
Now I’m beginning to understand that liberation from suffering is like a treasure buried in a field. It is the discovery that there is something richer to be found when we are ready. There must be a real need–keen enough to an attitude that is calm and alert, able to drop the objects, people, and opinions we think we have to cling to. Relinquishing our usual certainties, we become able to look into and over the situation, to scan the field. In a state of even the most temporary cessation, given the briefest pause from our usual automatism, the mind discovers it actually can open to investigate–our suffering itself and the craving that causes it becomes a field of investigation.
How and where can we find relief from the suffering that flows from the inescapable impermanence of life, and from the sense that nothing happens quite as we dream or expect? There is an open-mindedness and an inner attitude of investigation and search that come from far afield. The treasure is found by relinquishing belief in our own thoughts, forsaking our own will, becoming poor in spirit so that we may receive what lay waiting for us with open hands.
Jesus and Buddha urged their followers to practice a way of homelessness, especially of psychological homelessness. Can this be practiced by lay people in the midst of this anxious, materialistic world? Yes, in the moment. We can practice the renunciation of fixed views and prejudices. We can relinquish our attachment to the pursuit of ever more information (including spiritual information) and control. We can stop running and turn and look at our own suffering and reactions, gently investigation and inquiring how it feels, what it’s true nature is. That questioning, if its sincere, can be like a diving rod, leading us to living water.
So there at the beach, I investigated my fear to time, my pangs of love and worry for my father, my sense that I should do something hard and substantial, build something that will stand against the onslaught of time, be like the little pig who build his house of brick. One night, my eyes fell on these words from Sabbath by Abraham Heschel–and the Sabbath is of course about the holy day of cessation: “Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives….The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information [or any other kind of material wealth which is a forgery of happiness, according to Heschel] but to face sacred moments.”
I begin to suspect that the deathless, the kingdom of heaven, is to be found in cessation, in stopping and turning to face sacred moments.