2020-04-14: Paññā (2 of 5) Distinguishing Wisdom
2:59PM May 20, 2020
elementary school teacher
This will be the second talk on the faculty of wisdom. It's part of the field of wisdom to be motivated, to understand, to be propelled, inspired, or have no other choice but to engage in the practice of becoming free of suffering. Suffering, in one way or the other, is the cauldron fire for which practice, the interest in mindfulness, concentration and showing up, being present arises.
As we begin to practice, a very important function or capacity of wisdom - 'paññā' - is as we get more clear, as we are more mindful, we start making distinctions. There's also distinguishing wisdom. This is not wisdom that's so sophisticated, but it's the wisdom that arises out of our clarity of mind where we're able to see not just a big buzzing, confused events of the moment. But we can start seeing clearly the different elements that make it up. For example, if I'm sitting practicing or just being, and I feel terrible. I guess that's terrible if I'm feeling terrible. But terrible is very vague. It says something. It points to something. But it's a very vague category. As I settle and get a little bit quieter or start paying attention to what's going on, I can start distinguishing that the part of that involves physical experiences of maybe contraction and tension. And part of it involves certain kinds of thinking. Some of it involves certain emotions that are present. To be able to tease apart, to distinguish these different component parts of being terrible, gives me a handle on the experience. It gives me something to be more attentive to, and to find some freedom in relationship to.
The word 'terrible,' the concept of it, it's a little hard to even know what that means and where to start or how to relate to that as an experience. But as the mind's capacity to see clearly develops, we start distinguishing. If I can see that part of my terribleness is tension in the body, then I have the opportunity to bring careful attention to that tension. Maybe I've noticed there's tension in the shoulders, and so I relax my shoulders. Then my whole terrible feeling, the gestalt of it all, begins to shift and quiet down a little bit.
Maybe I notice that I'm feeling really sad. I hadn't really noticed that I was sad. But when I really see, "Oh, this is sadness," something releases. "Oh yes, that's what it is." Maybe I'm not pulling away from the sadness, the discomfort of it unconsciously. But in recognizing it, I said, "Oh, that's what's happening, a more of a settling." Then this gestalt that I call terrible starts to begin to change and be a little different.
Then I notice that I'm thinking about some of the comments you wrote here about background noise. So I'm having all these thoughts about background noise. What should I do, and what should I say? I say, "Oh, that's the kind of thought I have. I'll just explain it." Probably what you heard was that today was the garbage collection day on our street. If it was intermittent, the sound you heard, it was quite loud, the garbage trucks. It was more banging of garbage cans today than I've ever heard. I don't know if that was the issue, but we'll find out. I'll look into it.
Then I see the thoughts, and so the thoughts quiet down. Slowly by making distinctions, I start being able to see also that I have some choices. The greater the distinctions we make about what's going on, the greater the choice we have about what our experiences are, and how we relate to them.
This idea of how we relate to our experience is also part of this distinguishing quality of wisdom. There are always two things happening in very broad categories. There is what's happening, and how we relate to that experience. There might be something uncomfortable happening, and in relationship to that discomfort, there might be fear about it. There might be blame. There might be anger, irritation. There might be distress around it. There might be judgments and ideas about it - this means that. The experience and the relationship to it are two separate things. We might not be able to change the experience, but we might have some choice with how we relate to it, what we think about it, and how we feel about it. Maybe we could not be so judgmental. Maybe we don't have to be so afraid, or so glued to it, attacking it, or entangled with it.
To be able to see that there is the experience, and then there's ideas about the experience. Some of those ideas might be true, and some of them might be not so true. But to see, "Here's the experience, and here's my idea. Here's a person that I'm seeing, and here's my ideas about that person." It turns out that person looks like one of my elementary school teachers who was really scary. The reason I feel afraid of this person might be because of this idea that I associated with my elementary school teacher.
To see that on one hand, there's my whole inner experience of association, and there's the person. To make that distinction, then we can make some choice. We can see, "Oh there's nothing about that person really. I can choose to look at the person more carefully." Or I can tend to look at myself more carefully.
This ability to make distinctions and then to make choices is a very important part of the wisdom factor of practice. As we begin being able to make very simple choices - and this is the heart of this distinguishing wisdom - is to be able to distinguish between that which is healthy and that which is unhealthy. That which, in Buddhist language, is called skillful or unskillful. Wholesome or unwholesome. That which is helpful, and that which is not helpful. We become our own teachers in our ability to make distinctions.
I could see that my judgments and fear around the person who looks like my elementary school teacher - that having that kind of preoccupation, which is not necessarily accurate about the person I'm with - that's not so healthy, not so skillful, not so helpful. Now I can choose to do something skillful. I can be careful about what I say. I can be careful about what I think, or how we relate to my view of that person.
We sit in meditation and we start making distinctions. It's not that we're actively analyzing. Not that we're trying to figure it all out. As the mind gets quieter and becomes clear - as we see more clearly what's here, it's a natural functioning of the mind to make distinctions as it quiets down. It will see more clearly, "Oh, there's this, and there's that." At some point, as this settling comes in, we see that there's this and there's that, it's really clear that if I keep thinking about how - I was trying to think of something silly that would be painful to keep thinking about - but if I keep thinking about all my anger at the fact that someone left little bit of trash outside of IMC on the sidewalk, and I keep thinking and repeating it and I find myself getting more and more irritated - maybe that's not a skillfull, helpful train of thought when I'm meditating.
Maybe the skillful thing to do is to acknowledge my irritation, my annoyance, to acknowledge my concern about there's a need to keep the place a little bit clean and cared for during this shelter at home time. Now that I've acknowledged it, maybe the skillful thing to do now is to settle in, feel and breathe with the sense of tension that I'm feeling because of thinking about the trash. So I sit there, and that's skillful to do. That's a good thing to do. I'm not denying it. I'm not criticizing being this way, but I'm finding a skillful, helpful way to be with it.
So distinguishing wisdom - recognizing that there's almost a natural capacity, independent of doing a lot of analysis thinking. Maybe a little bit is used sometimes. But this wonderful capacity to distinguish also relates to how we do the distinguishing. If we keep distinguishing, if we keep seeing distinctions, and it makes us tense and makes us agitated, then it's not so skillful to keep doing it. Maybe we need to find a calmer way to do it or wait. This is not the time to do it. Maybe that'll come later. Or maybe we can find a way very gently to make distinctions that help us become more settled, calm, and quiet.
I'll end with this. One of the distinctions that are possible to make is to distinguish between different ways of thinking, different tones of voice in which to think, different speeds in which to think, different colors in which to think, different images with which to settle into if we think a lot with images. So rather than it's either or with thinking it's possible to begin thinking in wiser ways or more supportive ways for meditation. So we make the distinction between ways in which we think. If we can choose ways that help us be more settled and become more clear, and help the clarity make even further supported distinctions, then we're riding and being supported by our capacity for wisdom.
That's it for today. Because distinguishing wisdom can seem to be intellectual, remember that we're talking about a form of wisdom that really follows on the foundation of our body and being grounded - and on our faith, energy, mindfulness, and concentration. So don't be in a hurry to do distinguishing wisdom. Just use what's available that's supportive for you.
May distinguishing wisdom support you and all beings. Thank you very much.