Here we are in the U.S., about to celebrate another Independence Day, celebrating our freedom from the tyranny of a king. But we all know there are other tyrannies afoot.
Definitely, let's celebrate, but let's celebrate something even more hopeful: our ability to cultivate our own hearts and minds so that we can remember that we're not so much independent as inter-dependent, and that when we remember to pay attention, we really might be able to find some way through this mess we're in, to liberty and freedom for all.
Hi everyone, this is Judi Cohen, and this is Wake Up Call #307. It’s July 1st – almost Independence Day here in the U.S.
We’ve been exploring the Dhammapada, which is this succinct and beloved set of the teachings of classical mindfulness. So far we’ve looked at the first chapter, the Dichotomies. In its opening lines, the Dichotomies reminds us that when we speak with a “corrupted mind,” suffering follows as the wagon wheel follows the hoof of an ox, and when we speak with a peaceful mind, “happiness follows like a never-departing shadow.” It also could be speaking directly to us as lawyers in terms of helping us to see what little importance most quarrels have, when it recites that, “many do not realize that we here must die. For those who realize this, quarrels end.” Finally it takes a longer view, offering a kind of admonition, on the one hand, and promise, on the other, with the lines, “One who does evil grieves in this life, grieves in the next, grieves in both worlds. Seeing one’s own defiled acts brings grief and affliction.” And, “One who makes merit rejoices in this life, rejoices in the next, rejoices in both worlds.” I think a few folks picked up on the optimism last week, because I received some wonderful gifts – a link to a Bob Marley recording; a comic that was exactly on point; all, really, contemporary takes on this ancient and basic teaching: do good and rejoice, do bad things and feel their reverberations for a long time. Thank you, friends!
The second chapter of the Dhammapada is called Vigilance in one translation, and Heedfulness in another.
The overall concept is, we really need to pay attention to what we’re saying and doing. And to be able to do that, we really need to take good care of, and cultivate, our own minds and hearts.
The Dalai Lama once said that everyone always says to follow your heart, but don’t just do that – because, don’t follow your untrained heart. Train your heart. Then you can follow it.
Being heedful, or vigilant, is about, first, taking the time, putting in the time, to know our hearts, and then, to train our hearts. I know that my own heart, or mind (which is the same) tends towards grasping, that I hold tight to things, that I worry about having what I need – so that’s good, knowing that, but it’s not enough. My task is not just to know that, but to train my heart and mind to let go. To train it in the practice of generosity, for example, which is one of the counterweights to grasping and worry, and in self-compassion, and in the many other ways to cultivate a kind and loving heart and mind.
Yet even that is not enough. I need to practice well so that I understand my own heart and mind, and cultivate wholesome states of mind. But then, I need to pay attention moment to moment, being vigilant and heedful, using my portable mindfulness practice, to see when this mind, this heart, is trending in a direction that is about to cause harm, or has just done that when I wasn’t looking (or maybe, when I was). And then make a course-correction as soon as I see it.
The languaging of the chapter is intense. It says, “Vigilance is the path to the Deathless; Negligence the path to death. The vigilant do not die; the negligent are as if already dead.” So first, a couple of definitions.
“Deathless,” in classical mindfulness refers to a state of complete freedom. It is a state of heart and mind that is completely at peace and which cannot be battered by the vicissitudes of life. It means, classically, there is no rebirth, but more practically, it means no longer being caught, as most of us otherwise are, in the cycle of unkindness and correction, aggression and reparation. “Death,” as in, “negligence is the path to death,” refers to a state of suffering, that cycle with which I’m very familiar, and maybe you are, too, of saying and doing things that are unkind, however I may not ever want to do that or mean to do that, and then correcting them; or, having my aggression come up, however I may not ever want it to or mean for it to, and then having to make some kind of adjustment or reparation. And of course we all know better than anyone what negligence means. Substituting “freedom” for “deathless,” and “suffering” for “death,” and something like “failing in our duty of care,” for “negligence,” the lines might read something like, “Vigilance is the path to freedom; failing to take good care of our own hearts and minds is the path to suffering. The vigilant are free; the negligent are caught in a cycle of suffering.”
It is vigilance that puts us on this path because it puts us at choice. We watch carefully and then – and pretty much only then, for me – we really know our own hearts and minds, can take an honest look; and then train them; and then keep a close watch, moment to moment, so that if we see unkindness popping up, or aggression creeping in, we can we shift. If we’re negligent in this more or less basic task, we’re caught: we maybe haven’t taken the time to train our hearts, we don’t see our own states of mind clearly – or we haven’t cultivated the courage to do that, maybe we don’t see our impact, and since we’re not seeing any of that, we can’t pivot.
Here we are, three days before the Independence Day in the U.S., which marks the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Although that moment proclaimed the freedom of the thirteen American colonies to be self-governed rather than governed by a king, it would be five years of revolutionary war before the British surrendered, and twelve before the U.S. Constitution, which proclaims our great experiment in forming a more perfect union, was ratified.
It’s been a long experiment, and hopefully this democracy will survive, but also very much hopefully, it will change, because it is very much imperfect. And perhaps one of the reasons it is imperfect – one of the reasons it fails to insure domestic tranquility for everyone, promote everyone’s welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to everyone, is because we haven’t been vigilant. As a nation, we haven’t cultivated lovingkindness. We haven’t been compassionate. We’ve been negligent. We’ve missed the fact that we belong to one another, and we belong to the earth. And until we start being more heedful of that, more vigilant, we can’t really be free. Because until we’re all free, no one can be free.
I was with the Working Group for Law & Meditation on Tuesday night – all of us lawyers, judges, and law professors. And one friend said, speaking to racism but they could also have been speaking to our extraction economy, to late-stage capitalism, to the patriarchy, that our country has a collective disease. And that although some of us, who are white and privileged, may feel inoculated, we are living in a long moment of non-vigilance - a long, negligent, moment.
And, we have this incredible practice. We have the ability to wake up right now. To pay attention to when the mind and heart are aligned with good, and when not, and to choose kindness every time. To remember our interconnection, and that true independence from tyranny comes from knowing we belong not to a king, and not even to a constitution, but to one another, and to the earth. And once we are vigilant more often, to influence those around us to be vigilant. To abandon negligence altogether, and in this way, to point at a different kind of freedom, a freedom that really could mean tranquility for everyone, everyone’s welfare, and liberty and freedom for everyone.