by Jeff Martens
It is a rare thing in my life, not to see another human being for five days. My wife at the time, Michele, was out of the country for almost four weeks and I found myself visiting a friend’s cabin in Northern Arizona with my dog Ginger. The long drive from the city and I have arrived, the vibrations of the road leaving my legs. I am surrounded by thick log walls wrapped in silence and cloud cover and high-desert trees. I came here on a journey to assess my marriage which was starting to crack along the edges, and as an experiment to really be alone with my mind. And at first the silence is a little daunting. The beauty here, the feeling of peace, is monumental. Such peace brings tears of joy that moisten the heart and eyes.
Peace like this can be rather daunting though… For such peace easily reveals the ramblings of the mind which suddenly have no place to hide. In considering my experiment I find that my mind has a different idea of this vacation, especially at the beginning. Incredibly enough, after being in the cabin a grand total of 30 minutes, mind was already trying to figure out how to come back up here – to the place I already was! Scheming how to own a cabin or a piece of land in the area. Plotting how to find more time in the future to visit this place again. This was actually fairly entertaining to observe, better than a dog chasing its own tail. Not that Ginger’s almost people-smart mind would be caught dead ever doing such a thing.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the Klesa raga (strong attraction and attachment) is lobha’s close cousin. Patanjali considered this type of greed to be so significant that he recognized the yama of non-covetousness (aparigraha) and the niyama of santosha or fulfillment as a necessary state of being in order to experience the path of yoga. In Buddhism, lobha or greed is one of the Klesas or main afflictions in life. Sitting in the cabin’s beautiful silence and watching my mind sweep all presence away in an unchecked river of greed, I begin to understand the full significance of the Buddha and Patanjali’s emphasis on this greed, and the idea of ownership as a true affliction.
What mind has not learned — and may never really learn — is that the struggle for ownership and the attainment of possessions does not bring peace or joy. In all of the mind’s contortions and gymnastics about how to own property or how to make it back up to this cabin, it was missing the most obvious point possible — that I ALREADY WAS HERE. What could be a more ludicrous situation then to desire to be somewhere that you already are? And yet this is the mind’s constant predicament, always wanting something else. And even if mind gets what it wants it will go on seeking more, never quite realizing that you have arrived, that you are already always HERE.
My first 30 minutes of internal greed turned into hours and then a day. Night passed as I watched the fierce, ephemeral gears of my mind start to churn a bit slower. Observing the mind’s tendency towards greed without judgment, I become more fully present in the moment and am able to see and recognize things in the morning sunlight that the mind had passed over in its frenzy of possessiveness and was not able to appreciate before. Tiny decorative containers sit in bejeweled intricacy on the windowsill of the enormous picture window. A miniature statue diorama of a mother javelina and two sucklings rests on the log post supporting the stair rail, probably to lovingly remind my friends of their home in the Ahwatukee desert. A grape-like cluster of small, round gold bells hangs in a bunch from the decorative head of a large spike connecting two logs. Enormous logs scissor into each other at the room’s corners. A room filled with thoughtful and gentle touches, all of them passed over the night before in the mind’s quest to possess.
When I raise the shades covering the picture windows the view is so stunning that even the mind becomes quiet, but just long enough to greedily devour the view. It will take yet another day for presence to emerge more fully in my experiment so that I can fully appreciate where I am. But for now the process has already started, the mind is already clearly separate from my present state of being.
Slowly, bit by bit as I release my attachment to mind and mind releases its hold on me I begin to experience the world with senses unclouded by greed. Spider webs of dawn light dance through swaying palm needles. I open the door and step out into a coldness that is surprisingly dry. Gray clouds laden with rain skim through the ocean-like sky and I can taste, I can feel the desert underlying everything even here at thirty-some degrees, hidden like the bottom of an iceberg beneath a wet ground soaked with four day’s rain.
As presence asserts itself more through me I become conscious of finer and finer levels of greed. I also become aware of the mind’s obsession with time. I stopped wearing a watch nearly 20 years ago after noticing the mind’s obsession to constantly check the time. Here in this cabin, for all intents and purposes, there is no time. There is nothing to “do” and all of the clocks here read a different time. I resist the fleeting urge to go out to my truck and check for the “correct” time. Is it time to eat? Time to sleep? Time to go for a walk? Without the ordinary placeholder of time and the routine of familiar surroundings I rely less on clock time and more on internal sense and direction. A different distracting strategy emerges at this point, and like dog being walked by its master, at first I find myself being dragged and lurch absently along…
On the last day of my stay here I will see a Mountain Lion. It will be off in the distance on a trail far from the cabin. Out in the wilderness. I will see the big Cat far off, but not so far as to fail to raise an internal built-in automatic alarm that instantly quiets the mind and freezes me in my tracks. I will look down at Ginger walking off-leash and observe with great clarity that she has not seen the Cat yet, for she would be very curious…
But right now I am only two days into my experiment, several days from seeing the mountain lion, yet I have observed subtle urges to organize and pack clothing or check engine oil levels for departure become apparent. This is my mind’s strategy for success, to solve or fix or get things done ahead of time. Such strategy can keep me constantly busy and unconscious. But subtle projections slowly give way to a calmer rhythm of actually staying present. Is it a good day? A cold day? A lonely day? I observe and smile at the mind’s incessant need to try and package each moment with a label at the expense of experiencing the actual moment itself.
Perhaps the mind tries to own time more than any other desire, constantly mortgaging the present for some imagined and better future. Or mind can go the other direction, reliving past moments that the mind has made perfect only because they are now unattainable. Mind forgets that when it was actually there, in these past perfect moments, it was most likely doing the same scrambling then that it does so well right here and now.
It is the purest nature of the mind to want whatever is not present. Because mind deals in the currency of duality (me-you, right-wrong, day-night, black-white) its very existence depends on the mental comparisons that come with greed and possessiveness. At these times I find it important to practice smritihi (Buddhist “mindfulness”, or Patanjali’s “correct use of memory”) to realize that there is no such thing as a “still” mind or a mind without greed. Mind, asmita, and I-am-ness as a concept is defined by its motions, and when the mind finally does become still, it ceases to exist. In that moment, what has becomes present is YOU.
The Yama of aparigraha or non-greed is not something that can be forced. The longer I practice yoga, the more I realize that you cannot force the mind to change and become non-violent, truthful and fulfilled. Rather, these states are the qualities of your true nature that emerge as a by-product of truly being present. As long as we live in a world of duality and form, the mind definitely has its uses, but this mind of ours is really meant to be used consciously as a tool. The carpenter does not think himself to be the hammer. The pilot does not wake up and mistake herself to be the plane. The statistician does not come back from lunch and mistake himself as his computer. All true spiritual teachings and all the great Masters and all of your own deepest, most heart-felt experiences will tell you that the mind was never meant to be who you are.
With presence or awareness, it is easy to realize that mind will never be able to tell you who you are, never be able to comprehend, experience, enjoy or figure out life’s most sublime moments. Only the YOU, who you are in this moment, can do that. And this is possible because that YOU beyond the mind is able to recognize itself in the true perfection that is present wherever you are, with nothing else to seek, nowhere else to go and nothing else to own. This YOU that is free from greed is also free to experience and live in this moment as pure awareness itself. And it is only by living fully present, now, in this moment that we begin to approach that fullness and fulfillment that the mind is so desperately seeking somewhere else.
It is a cloudless morning, the first since I’ve been here after a previous week of rain. A hard freeze visited the earth over night and froze every pebble and grain of dirt solid into the ground. The thermometer reads in the low 20s as I set out on a long forest hike with Ginger. The sky is a deep crystallized blue, the color of Caribbean waters frozen to my touch. Sharp angles of sunlight blaze off of a nearby pond branding dazzling bursts of radiance into the very backs of my eyes. The walk is pure, blissful and serene. Ginger chases a Goose and two elk. I breathe the bite of winter deep into my lungs. We stop to listen to river water trickling beneath a thin coat of ice, instantly feeling the profound temperature difference between sunlight and shade. The mind informs me that I will be leaving soon… I listen without reacting.
We continue walking together and I joy in the absolutee stillness. The only sound is Ginger’s cloud breath as she trots up the next rise and snuffles around some elk droppings, head down near a bend in the trail. I top the hill and feel so at peace, the stillness seems to melt into my pores and then rebound back out carrying me with it until I can feel spaciousness itself. Out of this stillness I see a motion so natural and graceful that my eyes barely notice.
The Mountain Lion crosses the trail a few hundred yards ahead and pauses. It is the only thing that has moved. The silence is so thick that even Ginger’s voracious sniffing seems to be swallowed up in a place without time. All motion comes from stillness. All sound comes from silence. And everything returns back to where it came from.
I signal Ginger to heel and turn softly toward where we came from, making sure that she does not look back over the rise. I feel alive and wonder at the mind’s urge to look back or replay events, to add fear or drama or worry as the mental apparatus starts to whirl and grind back into motion. But beneath all of this motion I can sense a silence more still than deepest winter, and a stillness untouched by sound. These are just waves that rise and fall, the vritti, the whirling and churning. The surface motion that defines the mind. Descartes is famous for “I think, therefore I am.” Only now it is so obvious to me that he forgot one thing. He forgot to find the one who was thinking. The silence that is aware of all sound.
Back at the cabin, after eating breakfast, I set up the hammock. The sun has climbed in the sky, its warm rays soaking deep into the heart of things. I stretch out between two trees feeling weightless and content. The sky is clear, the sun warm enough that I can lift my shirt and roll up my pant legs and feel completely comfortable. My body is at ease. My breath is easy. There is not an ache or a pain or a yearning in my body. My belly is full, I am not thirsty. The only sounds come from a gentle breeze rustling treetops, the caw of a raven, the tree-trunk scampering of a squirrel. And in the middle of this sensory paradise, in the midst of this peaceful paradise I can sense the mind anticipating. Wondering if the truck will start. Urging me to start cleaning and packing. Wondering if I’ll stop anywhere on the way home. I settle deeper through these thoughts and feel my marriage. I feel the love that is there but also feel the ending of things that is just beginning. The wave of loneliness sweeps over me with its feline cunning finality. I want to run away or hide. I have never felt so all alone.
I bring awareness to these thoughts and feel the roller-coaster swirl of anticipation and worry in my belly. Worry is praying for what you don’t want, I remember reading somewhere. But what do I really want? What is really possible? I feel anther surge of panic and bring awareness to the swirling, to this manifestation of my mind’s doomed strategy for success, and gently breathe and observe the feelings. I realize I don’t know what to do or where to go. I remember a mantra from Thich Nhat Hanh: Breathing in, “I can feel you are suffering”, breathing out, “That’s why I am here for you.” I rock and mother the churning mind like a lost child. I place a hand on my belly and practice mindful breathing. Slowly the reality and truth of my comfort and bliss reestablishes itself as I open my being-ness to presence. And I am once again back in the hammock, floating amid the trees, my belly and mind calm and peaceful.
And in the midst of suffering, Joy.
santosad anuttamaha sukha-labhaha
Fulfillment in this moment brings unsurpassed joy. Y.S. 2.42
An Akusidasya is one who is without greed. In the Yoga Sutra, for the akusidasya even the exalted spiritual states are not craved or clung to in favor of dwelling in pure awareness, presence and integration. (Sutra 4.29) This is true freedom, and what it truly means to live without greed.
In the present moment wherever you are is home and whatever you are experiencing is true. The owner and its imagined possessions are gone leaving only the feeling of oneness, joy and Grace. When we are this present there is a oneness and integration of presence far more profound than the mind could ever hope to achieve. In an experience of truth such as this, such an elemental feeling of being-ness arises that to consider it with gratitude or appreciation is almost to cheapen it with mere words. In such a moment there is nothing lacking. In this moment — the only moment there really is — there is nothing more to get and nothing else to attain. In this state even non-greed becomes obliterated as santosha becomes your natural state of being. It is in moments like this that the mind’s ramblings vanish on their own accord like a candle-flame held to sunlight.
And now it is actually, really time to leave the cabin, but the experiment is not over. Now I can actually begin to pack and clean and prepare for the journey home, back to the city. And I know that I am guaranteed one thing: the mind will try its strategy of greed and anticipation and want to be doing something else. Luckily I am not the mind. I have proven to myself that when it comes to freedom, the mind’s strategy for success and peace does not lead to fulfillment. I shall continue the experiment on the ride home and beyond. I can be patient with the mind now. I can be more naturally patient with myself, with my marriage and with all existence because now I know, with all my heart, that whatever is to happen, I have always already arrived.
Jeff Martens is a teacher, writer and co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga. All suggestions are voluntary. Consult a qualified teacher or your physician before you embark on any practice in which you are unfamiliar.