August 1, 2022

Meeting Our Life with Wise Attention and Wise Attitude

This is a shortened version of a dharma talk given by IMS teacher Carol Wilson during a retreat titled, Cultivating Awareness and Wisdom, at IMS’s Retreat Center in May of 2022.  


We often think that right attitude is just a willingness to be present with what’s happening with an open mind and perception. But as we know, it doesn’t happen so easily.

You may notice that when we talk about “wholesome and unwholesome” or “skillful and unskillful,” our mind tends to label right away “good or bad” or “right or wrong.” Our habit is to have a feeling that unskillful is “bad.” It’s not the one we want. So right away, there’s some aversion to unskillful thought.

It’s such a habit that when anything’s arising that can be put in one of those two categories, it’s normal that as soon as it’s noticed, there can be this tinge of “this shouldn’t be happening.” In a subtle way, that is greed and aversion in the mind that is aware. When we recognize it, it’s not a problem. When it’s not recognized, and it’s coloring the awareness, that’s when we couldn’t call it right attitude. It distorts the perception of whatever’s happening, and we don’t know because we’re so used to it.

As we get more interested in the quality in the mind that’s aware, the interest takes over from the subtle “good” or “bad” judgment. That’s when you start to get the feeling of what it’s like when there’s right attitude in the mind.

The Buddha’s not saying nothing matters—though it can sound like that if this is new to you. In life, we make choices all the time. In our meditation, the mind is making choices all the time, what to pay attention to, how to react, what to do, etc. The invitation of this practice and of the Buddha’s teaching is to look deeply into how the heart and mind is working. And our key to this, of course, is steady awareness with right attitude.

What’s really arising when we’re making choices? When we don’t know, there may be some distortion in the perception and the mind has already made a subconscious choice or assessment you’re not aware of and then whatever action we do in the world is based on that, which we may assume is quite true or we may not even recognize it.

But the invitation here is to get so interested with our steady awareness and how the mind is working, that we learn for ourselves—not just believing anything any of us say or what the Buddha says—but to learn for ourselves what’s really happening. So that the decisions and the choices we make aren’t arising from some unrecognized assumption or something we think we should believe based on what we’ve read or what should be good. You know how it is—you decide you’re going to do this “good” thing from now on, but what does “good” even mean in this context? It’s relative, based on somebody’s opinion or what’s going on in the culture.

The invitation with this awareness is to learn rather than to judge—to allow what’s really going on in the heart and mind to reveal itself. And then when we make choices, they’re based much more in reality.

The Buddha said if you must identify with something (which he never would say you should identify with something), but if you’re going to, it’s better to identify with the body than with the mind, because the mind changes so much more quickly than the body.

When the Buddha tells us, “This leads to suffering,” and “This leads to freedom,” it is not meant as a statement to unquestioningly adhere to, but rather it is an invitation to each of us to explore: is this true? Not through thinking about it, but through the steadiness of a friendly, kind awareness with your experience. Don’t just believe that craving is the root of suffering. Look at it, take it as an invitation to explore. Just believing doesn’t do anything. Everything we say is an invitation to explore.

The Tibetan teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche says, “If we want to be happy, we must recognize what causes and conditions lead to well-being. Similarly, if we do not have a clear understanding of the conditions that create suffering, how can we possibly expect to free ourselves from it?”

This is where the steadiness of awareness with wise attitude is our key—it’s the doorway to recognizing what’s already going on. It’s not about transforming this mind and body into another plane to be free from suffering. It’s about seeing what’s happening now. And when there’s more accurate recognition, the choices that the mind and heart make are more in alignment with what is not going to increase our own confusion, or lead to unhappiness for others, or at least that we’re not going to contribute to it.

And we do need the power of awareness to reveal things as they are. I have a deep faith that the accurate recognition of things as they are naturally allows for the arising of the beautiful states of heart and mind. It’s not an act of personal will.

This is about getting really interested, exploring, and trusting that we really want to have a clear recognition of how the deluded mind works. Tibetan meditation master, scholar, and poet Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche said, “There’s two aspects to our whole practice. One is to recognize, realize the free nature of mind and heart. And the other half of the practice is to understand and learn how the deluded mind works.”

We trust in the continuity of the awareness of the right attitude to let the way the mind works reveal itself. This is the condition for wisdom. Wisdom does the work of freeing, it’s not an act of will. That’s not depressing. That’s great information! You don’t have to figure it all out. It’s already how it is, we just settle back, and keep trusting awareness. We don’t always notice it, but we will again. When you notice you’re lost in thought, awareness has come back. That’s how you notice—more and more, we trust.

Theravada Buddhist monk Sayadaw U Tejaniya says, “Someone comes along and calls us a fool and we get angry. So, we think that this person made us angry. But we don’t often see the subtle thought processes that might have been going on—identification with self, the pride that doesn’t want to be called a fool—and that’s what gets the mind riled up and angry. Not the person calling you a fool. Because we want to learn about the nature of mind and objects, we don’t necessarily try to calm the mind down as soon as it’s not calm. We don’t try to remove objects. We don’t interfere or control but observe because we want to understand the mind and objects in their natural state. That is right view.”

And so, hanging out with the beautiful, the difficult, the boring, with losing awareness, with awareness coming back, just have curiosity or an interest to see: How is this working? What states of mind and heart lead to more dis-ease, discontent, frustration? What supports being at ease with whatever may be arising?

When we talk about being at ease, we don’t mean that every difficult thing has gone away. The ease is that quality of awareness in the mind that sees, “Oh, this is difficult and it’s like this.” Rather than “This is difficult, and I can’t stand it and what am I going to do about it?”

I have a friend who has spent half his life in Southern India, and he told me that, as far as he can tell from talking to Tamil people who live there, there isn’t actually a word for noise because it’s always so noisy there. He found that the word means something more like “sound,” without the unpleasant connotation that comes with “noise.”

When there’s a wedding in Burma, the villagers rent gigantic speakers and put them outside their homes or stalls and they play really loud music. If you’re lucky, it’s only for 12 hours. One time I was practicing there and there were four weddings going on at the same time. It was the battle of the loudspeakers—like being at a rock concert that went on all night. And U Tejaniya said, “This is great. This is really good practice.”

And it was! Because we think that noise is causing me suffering and so it shouldn’t be there. The idea “shouldn’t be there” is bringing up aversion. The noise might be unpleasant. But “unpleasant” doesn’t have to mean we get lost in aversion. And because it was incessant, and I was there to explore what’s causing suffering, and how can I bring awareness to the whole thing, not how to block it out, but how to be with it. Because it went on for 24 hours, you either practiced with it and explored it, or you really had a hard time. So, it was wonderful practice for exploring what is the nature of suffering.

Each moment that you recognize it’s possible to re-recognize awareness—have confidence in it again—that gives a kind of strength, flexibility, and a brightness to the mind and heart. And then you can think, “Oh, wow, this whirlpool of worry—there are so many people experiencing this.” And, instead of hating it or thinking you’re a bad person, what comes up is, “So many people are feeling this.” That’s compassion right there—not from trying to get away from it, but by opening into it with awareness.

The Dalai Lama says, “What I call true human values, our good qualities—wisdom, compassion, generosity, equanimity—are our true nature. And this is what naturally manifests in response to life, when our hearts and minds are not clouded by confusion and ignorance.”

This is what steady awareness can really open us into—more steadily, but also just for a moment. Notice those little moments because that starts to shift the habit of mind always to go towards the confusion. Awareness starts to become more available, because we trust it more, we recognize it more, we touch it more, we give it more interest.

That is a little encouragement to keep recognizing whatever’s happening. And to trust that—when it’s recognized accurately—the response of heart and mind really does naturally come from the beautiful. It’s not something we have to try to create—luckily.

Listen to the whole talk here: