“Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves….” As he lay dying, the Buddha gave this advice to his beloved disciple Ananda, who was imploring his great teacher for guidance for himself and for his fellow monks. Some versions of this teaching use the word lamp. The word diipa means both island and lamp, Island is the accepted meaning, and the essential meaning is the same. “Those who are islands (or lamps) unto themselves…should investigate to the very heart of things.”
The spoke of being your own refuge. He didn’t mean be cut off from the rest of life. Meditating means unplugging from the thinking mind that endlessly compares ourselves to others. It means turning the attention to our own experience, accepting it as it is so that we might directly experience the cause of sorrow. Even in a life of total seclusion, alone in a cave or a cell or alone on an actual island, couldn’t help but notice the life inside and outside changing, waxing and waning.
Be your own living proof. See that this is the nature of life. See that the truth of suffering does not separate you from others. It unites you. The Buddha didn’t mean be totally self-sufficient, proudly independence above all, beholden to no one. The Buddha (along with all wise beings) understood that our freedom and our power comes as we come to realize that we are part of a greater whole, and that we owe thanks in every direction for this life of ours, inside and outside, up and down, north, south, east, and west, the way Native people give thanks.
By being an island the Buddha meant be grounded, dare to touch the earth of your own living experience in the present moment, not grasping for ideas from outside, from “experts,” but by being willing to experience the living truth. The practice of meditation allows us to settle down and open up. As we learn to relax, we travel from the surface to the depths of our human experience We might feel, for example, how good it is to be alive, and how mysterious. Last night was despair, perhaps, and yet here we are, supported by benevolent forces.
We may realize the true scale of the present. It contains the whole of our lives. “To practice the way of the Buddha means to completely live out this present moment—which is our whole life—here and now,” teaches Zen master Kodo Sawaki Roshi.
In such a moment it can seem as if our ancestors are with us, witnessing life through our eyes. Or we can discover that our sense of isolation is an illusion. We can suddenly realize that we are not blame for all the ills of the world–and become free to truly respond. Beneath all that thinking, those defensive postures, that delusion that clouds the mind, we are responsive creatures. We are kinder than we think. We are more.
The Buddha taught that craving is the root of all suffering. Another way to understand being an island is being still in the midst of that flood of desire and grasping, observing and experiencing craving without reacting. Scientific research shows that mindfulness quiets the part of the mind involved in rumination and obsession. As we learn to be still we let go of stories about who we are that are based on not having what we want and being burdened with what we don’t want.
Being an island means remembering where we are and who we are, that we are living beings on a living earth, under a sun, part of a vast and mysterious web of life. In such moments we see that attention itself is an extraordinary gift and a means of transformation and freedom.
As an experiment, notice how it feels to stop and be still in the midst of the rushing stream of life. Allow yourself to remember to the depth and extent of your life. If you wish, tell about it.