“Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves….” As he lay dying, the Buddha gave this advice to his beloved disciple Ananda. Death reveals the true value and meaning of life, which can be summed up in two words: it passes. Life goes on with us or without us.
When the Buddha spoke of being an island he didn’t mean be cut off from the flow. Even without using his cosmic vision, he saw that nothing alive ever stops flowing. Even in a life of total seclusion, alone in a cave or a cell or on an actual tiny island, the body ages, the life inside and outside changes. Resistance leads to suffering.
Nor did the Buddha mean be self-sufficient in the way of some of my ancestors. Among the early white settlers of New York, these people prized independence on every level, feeding and sheltering and ruling themselves, beholden to no one. The Buddha (along with all wise people) understood that we are all part of a greater whole, and that each of us owe thanks in every direction, 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 something beyond, ideas implanted in us by others and other habits and thing that take us away. from our own experience. The practice of meditation allows us to settle down, inhabiting our own human experience without judgment or fear. As we learn to relax, we travel from the surface to the depths, from thinking and emotional reactions to deeper human feelings and insights. We might feel, for example, how good it is to be alive and breathing this morning, sipping good coffee, listening to bird song, feeling cool air through an open window. Last night was despair, and yet here we are, born anew.
In some moments, it can feel as if our whole lives are present in a moment. This may seem extreme, the life review that happens before we meet our fate (either our soul mate or the long walk to the gallows). But it can be any moment: “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.
When we completely live out a moment, we remember the basic goodness of life. In such a moment it can seem as if our parents and our ancestors are with us, witnessing life through our eyes. We are more than we think we are. We can feel so isolated. We can decide that we are this way or that way. And yet in a moment, we can find ourselves feeling simple joy on a bright cool morning, or spontaneously embracing a child or a dog. Beneath all that thinking and judgment and those predictions, we are responsive creatures. We are kinder than we think. We are more.
The Buddha taught that craving is the root of all suffering. Contemporary science shows us that desire floods the brain with dopamine. Another way to understand being an island is being still in the midst of that flood, observing and experiencing craving without reacting. Scientific research shows that mindfulness quiets the posterior cingulate cortex, the neural area involved in rumination and obsession. We build stories about who we are based on not having what we want and having what we don’t want.
And yet there are moments of remembering where we are and who we are, that we are living beings, under a sun that brings warmth and light, part of a vast and mysterious whole. In those moments we see that attention itself is an extraordinary gift and a means of transformation and freedom. We remember that just stopping in the midst of the rushing stream of life and bringing attention to our experience is a way to be grounded in the midst of it all. We can be islands and refuges