One topic I explored as a kid at camp was the water cycle: how evaporation from lakes and rivers condenses into clouds, falls as rain or snow on glaciers, and melts into streams that run down to the ocean, starting the cycle again. Remembering that process inspires me to contemplate interdependence, and how water is life: our one world, one water — the sustenance of the only life we have.
When we label our experience, it is like freezing liquid water into ice: “It is always rainy in Seattle,” “They are always late,” etc. We take a particular flow of sensory and mental phenomena and attempt to solidify it into a convenient, frozen block that we can hold on to and store away. Or so we think. But like its elemental analog, at room temperature the seemingly solid block will start to melt. It’s not as static as we hoped. In fact, if we look deeply, we see that its nature is constantly flowing from one state to another. Such fluidity is completely natural and totally inconvenient to the black-and-white framework of our conceptual understanding. Things change. People change. We feel pain when they no longer correspond to the frozen mental images we have of them.
Instead of expending the tremendous mental effort of trying to solidify everything in our experience, what would it feel like if we let go of our fixed concepts about people, things and situations we experience? What if we recognized that we are all like waves on the ocean; not separate, static individuals, but ultimately interconnected within the same ecosystem?
As Milarepa, the great yogi of Tibet, sang to his female student Paldarbum:
If meditating with the example of
The ocean is as easy as you say
Waves are just the ocean’s play
Settle within the depth of the ocean itself.
If meditating on your mind itself
Is as easy as you say
Thoughts are but your mind’s play
So stay within the depth of mind itself.*
Our mind’s habit of trying to freeze its experience into something solid is as natural as water freezing into ice. This habit in and of itself isn’t “bad” or “wrong.” But it is problematic to try to force that solidity when it no longer applies, especially when we experience the suffering that comes from such futile efforts.
* From “How to Remove Hindrances and Enhance the Practice” in Songs of Realization as Taught and Sung by Khenchen Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche (Nalandabodhi, 2013), p. 50, translated by Birgit Scott.
Instead, we can meditate as Milarepa instructs.
- Settle the mind with calm abiding (sitting relaxed and upright in meditation posture and observing our breathing).
- Look clearly at the arising, abiding, and ceasing of thoughts.
- Ask, Where do these thoughts come from, and where do they go? What is the vanishing point like on the horizon between past and future?
We can observe the cycles and phase states of water in nature and apply those metaphors to our own mind. We can investigate for ourselves and see how it feels, and what we might discover.