By Mark Oppenheimer
It’s endlessly amazing to me how, when we open up to our experiences, everything we need to know is happening right in front of us.
We can stop the search. We can stop the endless obsession for “peak experiences;” those experiences we believe we prefer over other experiences. You know the ones we believe uncover ‘The Truth.” The experiences we write articles or memoirs like these about, when actually the dharma is always flowing through us moment to moment, in the most banal and mundane experiences which, without mindfulness or awareness, we basically pass over.
As Joseph Goldstein mentions in Mindfulness, his lectures on the Satipatthana Sutta, our experiences are constantly in front of us. Yet, we almost always with utter certainty look through them, or over them, plagued with the idea that something better is on the way.
Occasionally, conditions are favorable, I’ll remember all of this and mindfulness reappears. I have noticed in my life where I have genuinely bullshit myself endlessly into a deep coma with ideas and utter spiritual nonsense, and then missed the simplest and most profound experiences. Life actually passed me by simply by me being anywhere but in the present experience. As one of my teachers puts it, “bracing against experience.”
Our life, which we could conflate with The Path, is always present. Yet, the nature of our minds, with the endless pouring out of thoughts and images, is not the problem. The problem or opportunity to see our minds arises when we believe or identify with those thoughts and images to be us—to be I, me or mine.
I guess that the question that’s occupying my mind at this time is: Can I be okay with and welcome whatever appears in my mind on a moment to moment basis, whether it’s pleasant or not, and recognize this experience as natural to the mind?
Moments ago, the housekeeper broke a very special, unique bottle of wine my dear friend Kelly gave me for my 60th birthday. It was a 2012 Odetta Cabernet Sauvignon from The Stags Leap district in Napa Valley, one of my favorite wine regions of the world. It’s pricey, rated 95 by Parker Wine Advocate, named after Odetta one of the French wine judges in France when California Cabernet climbed onto the world stage beating France in a blind tasting.
This is a brute of a wine.
For a brief moment I wanted to believe I’d made up the crash, that I really didn’t hear it. I sat still. Slowly, reluctantly, I walked over to the wine area. I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico in a small casita, without a proper place to store wine. Because it’s cool indoors even when hot outside here, I line the cool tile floor of the curved hallway between my bedroom and the kitchen with about two dozen bottles. It’s less than ideal, but, overall it works.
Staring down at the purple juice flowing in all directions, the shattered glass of an artisan bottling, jagged edges threatening, immediately my heart sank. Desire and loss appeared in my mind—anger, sadness, loss—all of it showed up.
Are you fucking kidding me? I screamed in my mind. I want that bottle of wine back! Now!
Oh yeah sure. Of course, the housekeeper breaks another thing in my house. On the very first day she broke my favorite tea cup I’d had for years. Fuck! Immediately, all these thoughts on their own began appearing in my mind. How do I replace it? My mind raced, thoughts kept appearing (none of which I had asked for).
What am I willing to give up to replace it? What can I trade for it? Will it magically reappear? I think of Joan Didion’s, Year of Magical Thinking, waiting for her deceased husband to magically reappear (she keeps his shoes).
Is there another bottle available? I look online, and make a few calls. Can I still get one? Moments before I’d just returned home where I had spent over a grand on my dog Bubbha, who was massively sick. I tell myself so what’s another $100 plus?
I’m not an amateur to feel desire or loss of the object. I know all the moves, the secret and not so secret games we tell ourselves when we want something so badly, and make up outlandish trades in our minds to get it. It’s like mental diabetes—trading calories for carbs. Only we don’t get well from it. Mindfulness reappears again, and I watched as my mind clung to the object. Yet, is it still mindfulness when we act from a point of greed?
My mind, agitated, I clung to the object, I’m pissed. I wanted that bottle. How do I reconcile this? Is the mind aware?
I hear Ajahn Sumedho’s famous dictum, “Right now it’s like this!” Yet mind continues, agitated and unsettled. Is reconciliation even an option? Next to me Bubbha lies sick on the couch. There’s no negotiation, there’s just choices and who we are are reflected in those choices that we make and how we really inhabit them so genuinely as to burn like a fire of truth in our hearts.
I’m angry, upset and desirous of that unusual bottle, my birthday gift from a good friend. I fucking want it, G-d! Do you hear me? (I’m a bad Buddhist; I still pray and talk to G-d.)
This is real time here—I’m in this now.
Yet, the option exists to use this moment as a point of practice to see if I am who I say I am—not in judgment, measuring or some new age airy fairy spiritual bypass about attachment bullshit. I own that shit. I wanna have my stuff, now! That bottle is gone! Fuck acceptance!
Fuck letting go.
I’m not big on those words or ideas; they don’t ring true for me. They lack authenticity. No one lets go! The things they love are ripped right out of their white knuckled grasp!
Ajahn Chah says the cup is already broken. That to live one day with the knowing that the wind or an elbow will knock that cup over and it will crash to the ground shattering. To know my heart is already broken open, and to know one day my dog Bubbha will die (not today, but he’s 14).
Letting go is an action that speaks to embracing the truth of life’s experiences in all of its beauty and tragedy. I want the wine. That’s what is true now. What about eating the best parts of the meal last, savoring it… haha! Can I get back all I’ve lost been owed, denied or withheld? I know this diminishes me in a massive way. Yet, I feel the pull of that broken bottle gone and I mourn its loss, really.
I recently moved to Santa Fe to change my life, to uncover in myself, my views about life, my guiding principles, intentions and aspirations. Humbled, I had no idea what that meant (not sure I do now either). Life can be terribly strange and mysterious. How do we really see the views that limit the authentic experience of our hearts and minds, more importantly my heart and mind from opening to a vaster more vibrant world greater than anything that I can imagine is what’s at stake here.
Is this possible? A life’s work to be sure, but is it possible to rethink the paradigm of a life? I hope so as that’s my intention, my aspiration.
Is heartbreak, the breaking open of our hearts, to be embraced or pushed aside in favour of more pleasant times? We’ve earned the right, the privilege of our heartbreak, yet we look past it so easily, denying the healing fires of change. Yet, think of Kintsugi the Japanese art of mending broken pottery with veins of gold making them more beautiful than they were originally.
Mindfulness reappears, and I wonder, seen with Dhamma eyes, if the bottle of wine is my key to freedom. But, don’t let me fool you. I still feel the intensity—that deep pull of wanting what’s gone.
The 2nd Noble Truth: Craving or Habitual Reactivity—abandon it, see life as it is and allow our experience to be just a bit more spacious than the contractions of habitual reactivity of our conditionality, biology and neurology; going against the stream of what we once thought was us.
The 1st Noble Truth: Embrace life—experience every moment; the suffering, dissatisfaction and unreliability in any form. It’s our nature, that, like the heartline in a Zuni fetish is the image of breath. Impermanence and unreliability are the essential qualities of taking human form. Like the breath, unless we embrace our suffering, wisdom will not appear
We can’t impose a sense of equanimity on experience, but if conditions arise, when we remember to be mindful, equanimity can find us. The image of the bottle gone, shattered on the ground is for the moment etched deeply in my mind.
Understand, I’m not looking for answers, or for resolution, or what I could have done better, but, to further refine the questions, to see the process of mind, to experience the mystery, to live the Dharma. For me, it’s all original investigation.
I’ll leave you with this last thought, as it’s just appeared. I wonder if knowing we probably can agree that all experiences leave memories that we draw from, and inform us as we go along to help us make choices that will bring peace and love to us and all whom we encounter. Well then, perhaps the untimely breaking of this bottle of wine will bring more to me broken than if in some unknown point in the future I had opened it with friends or a lover.
Perhaps as a bottle of champagne consecrates the maiden voyage of a ship setting out to sea, this spilling of sacred juice acts similarly. I know, had I drunk it rather than it being broken it most probably wouldn’t have opened my heart in this way.
We’ll never know.
Mark Oppenheimer recently moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to follow his passion for cooking working as a Private Chef. Mark feels at home in Santa Fe. He says, “I try living a contemplative, meditative lifestyle where it feels as though I’m always on retreat.” He loves Thomas Merton’s account about living on retreat. “I did not become a monk to suffer more than other people; I became a Monk to suffer more effectively.” Before Santa Fe, Mark lived in Los Angeles for 30 years and worked in the film industry as a First Assistant Director on movies, commercials and music videos. Of his life in Santa Fe, Mark says, “We embrace each other.” Mark came to Vipassana after a woman he loved broke his heart open. He quickly fell in with an amazing sangha hosting a cadre of fantastic teachers practicing at Against the Stream and InSight LA. In Santa Fe, he practices an amalgam of Zen, Tibetan and Theravada Buddhism. He practices the open landscape of One Dharma as opposed to following the doctrines or tenets of one tradition. Mark says it brings an endless feeling of nuance and a richness that breathes with life, “I feel as though I’m always a beginner…I can’t wait to practice each and every day!” Mark lives with his two dogs, Bubbha and LB — “The Spanish God Of Thunder.” He is currently working on a cookbook for kids, “Bread is Raw Toast.” You can find Mark on Facebook.
Photo: (source/Paige Bradley)
Editor: Dana Gornall