What is it like when a poor man has
A wonderful treasure in his home,
But doesn’t know it? Just as he is still poor,
You are still entangled in a net of unaware thinking —How heartbreaking, you beings, benighted in samsara!
A key principle found in all of the great contemplative traditions is that when you are able and willing to rest in whatever you are experiencing, however difficult it may be, you discover possibilities you did not know were there.
Take any experience, anything that troubles or disturbs you. Open to the experience, resting in it while you look right at it.
Translations of traditional teachings often say to examine or investigate your experience, but in my view, these instructions are mistranslations, influenced by the mistaken view that Buddhist practice is some kind of science of the mind. Forget this idea, which was originally developed in the late 19th century as a way of establishing credibility for Buddhist thought in the face of colonial domination in Asia. Buddhist practice has a totally different methodology from science (and different aims). The core methodology of science is to develop a model or theory that can be tested against experimentation and observation.
Another interpretation, more due to Western psychological methods, is to analyze where that particular experience comes from, what gives rise to it, etc. From a meditation perspective, all you are doing here is building stories out of other stories. You get lost in endless narratives, albeit narratives that are often seductive though sometimes helpful.
The “examination” or “investigation” in Buddhist practice is more akin to looking carefully to see a bird or other animal in nature, looking until you can see the animal even though it is camouflaged against its background — resting and looking until seeing arises rather than hypothesis and experimentation that develops into a theory or analysis and deduction that leads to a compelling story.
When we rest and look, we become aware of a mass of unaware thinking. These movements in mind have many layers — reactive thoughts, bodily sensations that both trigger and are triggered by thinking, reactive emotions that spill into thinking and other bodily sensations, beliefs, prejudices and ideals, emotional projections, agendas and interpretations, stories upon stories, uncomfortable and difficult feelings on top of other uncomfortable and difficult bodily sensations, feelings of extraordinary well being, physically and emotionally that we seek to hold onto or duplicate, clarity, dullness, peace, turmoil, all piled on top of each other and interwoven in a bewildering and chaotic mess. The truly surprising discovery is that when we don’t try to sort any of it out, when we drop our attraction, aversion and indifference to what we are experiencing, we find a knowing quality that seems as vast as the sky, that can and does include everything and that is at one and the same time freedom, peace and clarity. This is the wonderful treasure we did not know was in our own home.
The Great Way is not difficult
for those who have no preferences.
When love and hate are both absent
everything becomes clear and undisguised.
Make the smallest distinction, however,
and heaven and earth are set infinitely apart.
If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.
— Seng Tsan
In other words, it is from knowing completely our own experience, through and through, whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral, that we discover what is possible. This is not about a psychological understanding of why we do things, what motivates us or how our reactions are structured. That may arise in the process, but it’s a side-effect. Nor is it about being a better person, whether in the eyes of the world or in our own eyes, though that again may arise as a side-effect of our efforts. In the process, we come to know intimately how our own pain and suffering comes about, how it comes from wanting things to be a little different from what they are and from struggling to make them be what we want, internally or externally. Long before we find any freedom or clarity, we feel compassion for others, because we know, through our own experience, that they are doing the same thing — struggling with their experience of life because they want things to be different from what they are. This compassion is not based in pity, mercy or charity. It is based entirely in our own knowledge and experience of the human condition.
When we then discover this peace, freedom and clarity, our heart also bursts open. We see how we have been entangled in our own reactivity (samsara), living in the darkness of ignorance, unaware of a totally natural clarity that is present in all that we experience and we understand that others are caught in the same web of confusion. Compassion now takes on a different quality. It is no longer a feeling. It now becomes that clarity expresses itself in our lives.