By Dana Gornall
Bodhichitta, the awakened mind,
is known in brief to have two aspects:
First, aspiring, bodhichitta in intention;
Then active bodhichitta, practical engagement
As corresponding to the wish to go
And then setting out,
The wise should understand respectively
The difference that divides these two.
~ The Way of the Bodhisattva By Shantideva
It was many, many Christmases ago and my son (who is now 18 years old) wasn’t quite one yet.
Huddled around the linen covered table at my aunt and uncle’s house feeling a little too warm from the heat of people and the oven that had just cooked all of the holiday fixings, we sat. Worn out with lack of sleep and still feeling a little plump from the baby weight, I balanced my son on my lap as he grasped a purple Barney stuffed toy and flung it up and down, gurgling and giggling. My cousin was chatting with me (about what, I don’t remember) and suddenly my son lost his grasp (or simply got bored holding it) and dropped Barney to the ground.
Without losing a beat in the conversation, my cousin picked it up and handed it back to him. A few minutes later he drops it again, and she repeats what she did, bending down and handing it back to him—my son now laughing at this new game.
This went on for a few minutes—my toddler, perched on my knee, drool bib resting just under his chubby chin, a wide smile and a mischievous glint in his eyes, would toss the purple stuffed Barney onto the floor and my cousin would reach down and pick it up. Again. And again. And again.
Finally my brother pointed out, “You haven’t learned yet….,” he laughs and tells my cousin, “he’s going to keep doing it until you do.”
It’s funny how we all do this. We keep repeating some ridiculous behavior over and over again (in this case to the delight of my son, so at least he had fun) until something clues us in that what we are doing is just producing the same result. We are just a cog in some machine. Except sometimes we never seem to learn it, or even when we realize it, we just keep doing it because “it’s what we have always done.”
Wasn’t it Albert Einstein that said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?
This thought came to mind this morning again as I was making my breakfast and drinking my coffee while texting. I was in a conversation about how people sometimes make the same mistakes over and over in their jobs and then seem surprised when there are consequences at some point from those mistakes.
Thinking about my own life, I thought about the times I have messed up, knowing full well that I, myself am also not perfect.
Picking up my phone I texted, “We all fuck up from time to time. It’s just how you apply what you learn from those fuck ups in the future that matters.”
(Author’s note: My text actually autocorrected to “we all fuck yo from time to time…” which prompted some hilarity on my end and resulted in me sending a gif of Amy Poler in a hoodie flashing a peace sign)
We all fuck up from time to time. I know I do.
I forget to pay some bills on time (more often than I should). I have cut people off in traffic and have cursed in my car with the windows rolled up at those that have in turn, cut me off in traffic. I have ran late to work. I have been crabby with my kids or my family and have been short with them when they didn’t deserve it. I have not always been compassionate in times when I should have been. I have watched way too many episodes of Mama June: From Not to Hot.
And I know I will make mistakes again.
Just like my son throwing that purple stuffed Barney onto the floor over and over again, and my cousin leaning down and picking it up over and over again, I will probably make more mistakes in the future.
As my practice grows (albeit slowly), I find that I’m more aware of these repetitive cycles. I believe that the Buddhist term for it is Samsara—in Catholicism we use purgatory, although that is referred to postmortem, it is still in this resting point of non-Heaven, non-Hell. To me this is also Samsara.
In this purgatory of repetition, in this state of in between, we continually do the same thing over and over expecting to have a different result. It’s what we have always done, it’s our go-to, our fail-safe, our gut reaction. So how do we change?
That’s where that magic little word mindfulness comes in.
Familiarity tends to win out because it’s safe in our minds—even when in reality that safe space is actually putting us back into a place of just being a cog in the machine again.
The first step in any path toward change is simply to know you are doing it. If we look at any addiction/recovery program that is usually the first—if not always the first—step to take: admitting you are repeating an act you don’t want to repeat.
Do we realize we have been bending over and over again to pick up the same toy because our backs are now beginning to hurt? How many times does it take to figure it out? Just because we know we are doing it doesn’t mean we can snap our fingers and suddenly stop.
It’s what we have been doing, it’s what we have always done. But, what if we want something different?
You know that feeling you get when you are driving down a road filled with traffic? Cars are everywhere, darting right and left in between lanes. Orbed headlights and taillights hinder vision and reflect off the road, and you may find yourself gripping the wheel a little tighter. Then suddenly a clearing opens, you aim for it, pressing your foot harder on the gas pedal and moving past all of the cars and congestion.
The road is open. Clear space ahead, the darkening horizon lies in front of you, and suddenly you can move along the road with ease.
This is how it feels when change happens. It’s a period of chaos, that feeling of being squeezed and anxious and not knowing which way to go. And then, one day after chaos, a new path is set forth in front of you. At least until the next traffic jam, that is.
The road is yours. What will you do?
Editor: John Lee Pendall
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