All the teachings are just reasons to not grasp at or onto things.
The methods are ways to let us see those reasons directly, or to give us the courage to not grasp. The grasping mind is what’s at work behind all our problems. Grasping links things together that aren’t naturally bound up.
I have a lot of social anxiety, so let’s look at rejection as an example.
If we’re attracted to someone, ask them out, and they turn us down, then we experience emotional pain. The brain literally reacts to rejection the same it reacts to physical pain.
Rejection and pain aren’t the same. If they were, then whenever I stubbed my toe I’d cry out, “Why don’t you love me?!” If they were the same, then when I was rejected by someone I wasn’t really into I’d still feel pain.
So pain isn’t the essence of rejection, and rejection isn’t the essence of pain. They’re naturally empty of each other. Something links them together into a causal process. The grasping mind.
When we grasp at being accepted by someone we’re attracted to, that creates a link between acceptance and pleasure. Since everything’s a bipolarity here, it also creates a link between rejection and pain. None of our links are one-sided. If we link 1 to 2, we also link -1 to -2.
In this case, the way to empty out the pain in rejection is to stop grasping after or onto acceptance. If we completely non-grasp acceptance, then there’s no link between rejection and emotional pain.
You could do a knit-picking, selective kinda practice if you wanted to. You could clear your mind, ponder all the things that regularly cause you pain, and put them in a column called, “Cause.” For me that’d look something like:
Death of a loved one
Poor body image
Fear of illness
Being around arguing people
Each of those does or has caused me persistent emotional pain. Then we can identify the opposites and make another column called, “Grasping Links.”
Grasping at continued life of the ones I love
Grasping at a conventionally attractive body
Grasping at health
Grasping at acceptance
Grasping at harmonious environments
Grasping at fulfilling work
With that in hand, then we can approach each factor on this and work at cultivating non-grasping. When I completely non-grasp each of those incentives, the link between stimulus and reward or punishment dissolves.
Life is life and death is death. Beauty is beauty, ugly is ugly. Health is health, sickness is sickness. None of those things are in themselves rewarding or punishing. They’re just appearances and events.
We work at non-grasping by studying the teachings, meditating, and living ethical lives. If our target is narrow, then we can be mindful of our list, recognizing when we’re grasping onto certain things in day-to-day life.
Once we recognize grasping, we can interrupt the process by using a meditative method like grounding in sensory awareness. The more often we interrupt the process, the weaker our associations between a particular stimulus and reward/punishment get. As we become more aware, awareness itself seems rewarding. The more aware we are, the less we rely on stimuli to reward us.
Non-grasping is a moment of silent illumination. The silence is non-grasping itself, illumination is the clarity of mind that non-grasping allows.
That’s the knit-picking route. Buddha and the ancient Chan teachers recommended something a little more extensive: total non-grasping.
The Surangama Sutra said that just listening practice is the best method for this time and place. I guess we could call that tingchan, Listening Meditation. With that, we just concentrate on listening and forget the other senses. We’re not judging, labeling, or thinking about what we hear, and we’re not lost in thoughts about the past or future. Just listening.
As we listen, we use the hua tou, “Who’s listening?” to pierce the experience. The Sutra describes this as turning listening inward to hear our True Nature. That nature’s the Luminous Mind, silent illumination.
Tingchan works well for me because hearing is my dominant sense. I often naturally experience the dropping off of the senses—even thought—while sitting, but hearing always remains.
Hearing might not be your dominant sense, for most people it’s seeing. In that case, you could do shichan, Seeing Meditation and ask, “Who’s seeing?”
When the senses drop away while we sit, that’s because we’re non-grasping them. We’re grasping onto the method instead. When all of our grasping tendencies are focused on the method, then there’s only the method, it’s our whole universe. Then we take the leap, and non-grasp the method as well.
Unlike anything else in the world, our method can be reliable throughout our lives. If we completely grasp onto it, then we’re no longer gonna grasp onto acceptance. That means there’ll be no connection between rejection and pain, between loss and pain, between illness and pain.
If we’re totally established in a method, then even our own pending death wouldn’t make us flinch. Even during our death experience, that final trip we take ourselves, we could use the method. Even that experience will be an opportunity to non-grasp, turn about and realize our natural luminosity.
In fact, the Tibetans wrote whole volumes of teachings about how to practice Buddhism after our bodies have died and our brains are running out of oxygen.
Our method is everything. It’s our raft. Whether we’re knit-picking or going for complete enlightenment, our method is our tour guide to freedom from pain.