– A reflection on Buddhism –
There is a little island at the north end of Danzante. It doesn’t really have a name of its own, you will not find it on any map; however, many years ago I gave it the name Stillpoint Island and whenever I talk about it I use this name, often probably with a slight tone of significance or reverence. Maybe I secretly hope that it catches on, but it is such a remote place, who cares about the name of this little island?
Danzante looks like a submerged prehistoric monster, its back sticking out of the ocean, and Stillpoint Island is perhaps just the little nose of it. To me it is a mysteriously beautiful place. It’s mostly nothing but a barren rock, but there is a magical atmosphere around it.
Even though it is a mystical place when the weather is calm, it is of course far from being a still place all the time. It is facing north right into the notorious howling northerlies here, and like the cutting edge of the bow of a ship, for days and weeks at times, it is trembling under the bombardment of wild violent seas crashing into its shores.
At low tide there is a land bridge to Danzante. But at medium tide a nice little channel remains, just wide enough to paddle through most of the time. (Gareth calls it Afghan passage, probably referring to my story: ‘The Queen of Afghanistan‘). Over the years I spent many hours lifting out big rocks to widen this unique passageway and keep it navigable for kayaks.
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So why the name Stillpoint? It sounds nice, and, of course, it’s just a name, but it came to me when I was meditating there a number of times quite a while ago while investigating the basic defining principles of Buddhism.
Buddhism is often called The Middle Way. If we seek happiness purely through indulgence, we are not free. If we fight against ourselves and reject the world, we are not free. It is the middle path that brings freedom. One who has fully understood this universal truth is regarded as awakened. The middle way is far from being something like a middling, something like a half good way, it is rather the delicate exquisite optimum between equally unsatisfactory extremes.
The middle way describes the middle ground between opposites, between attachment and aversion. It advises not to take sides and rather rest in the reality of the existence of such opposites. The more we follow the middle way the more deeply we come to rest between the play of opposites as mere empty phenomena and not alternatives we have to choose. Try to be mindful, and let things take their natural course. Do not let your happiness depend on the outcome of things; things are what they are, they go by themselves. We are in the world but not of the world. The sages call it “complete non-referential ease”. They say: “the middle path does not go from here to there; it goes from there to here”. When we discover the middle path, we neither withdraw from the world nor get lost in it. We can be with all our experiences in all their complexity but don’t get fully entangled and enwrapped in them, we can have all our thoughts and feelings but do not quite believe them, and we can live the full drama of our lives but do not really identify with it.
Learning to rest in the middle way takes immense trust in life itself. It is a bit like learning to walk for a baby or learning to dance for us. You can’t do it with will alone and you never get it by just waiting for it to come by itself. When you trust the natural potential within you, it comes with ease and grace. The middle way invites us to discover this ease everywhere, in meditation, in the marketplace, in creative work, in sex and yes, also in violence.
“Security is mostly a superstition. It doesn’t exist in nature. Avoiding danger is not safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all”. I always loved this quote from Helen Keller and it fits so well into the wisdom of the middle way. There is nothing for certain in this world; only when we give up searching for this haunting phantom will we find the freedom we are looking for.
There is the beautiful image of ‘the already broken cup‘ in Buddhist teaching: To the wise man a precious teacup he owns is already broken. Can we ever prevent something breakable from breaking? One day, one way it will break; fragility is its nature. We know that this cup can be the cause for suffering when it breaks. If we reflect beforehand that it is already broken, even when it isn’t, the cause for suffering disappears. When we see the cup in its entire nature, intact and broken, not only one side of the story, not attached to our preference, we remain on the middle way. Because we know its fate, we can fully enjoy it here and now, and when it eventually breaks the natural course of things is just completed. Only the ignorant sees pessimism in this. Understanding this simple truth of intrinsic, universal uncertainty lets us relax and become free. We have trust that the world works by itself, we can plan, intend, react, and care, but know we cannot control the outcome, we stay at the still point.
The insight of uncertainty necessarily also frees us from the thicket of views and opinions. We have so many views and opinions, what’s good and bad, right and wrong. They are only views. When we believe our own thoughts and opinions we become fundamentalists. What is an opinion other than taking sides between opposites? But the world is made of opposites; the world is the eternal, infinite play within the entire range between opposites. With views we are stuck. Only when we are free from views are we willing to learn. Without views we listen more deeply and see more clearly. As my eternal friend Rilke said: “For there are moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and a new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”
It was T. S. Eliot who speaks about the “still point of the turning world” in one of his poems: “Neither from nor toward, neither arrest nor movement…” I think that’s where I picked it up. At the still point you can sit in the middle of it all, the paradox, the messiness, the hopes and fears, the full catastrophe of life. You can take your seat like a king or a queen on the throne and allow the play of life, the joys and sorrows, the fears and confusions, the birth and death around you. Don’t think you have to fix it. The Hindus have this wonderful metaphor: “Be the uninvolved witness”, the one who observes but doesn’t judge, who experiences but doesn’t suffer, the one who rests in the middle, unperturbed, seeing it all but not taking it personally.
The still point is where nothing happens but everything is possible.
Klaus November 20. 2011