The Buddha’s teaching of the Eight-Fold Path is a prescription for freedom from suffering. The path begins with Right Understanding (aka Right View). Right Understanding involves a radical shift from the everyday perspective of our life. This could be called a paradigm shift.
A paradigm is the framework by which we understand reality. A paradigm consists of the unconscious assumptions and premises that we assume to be true as we live our life each day. For example, we assume that every effect has a cause; and we assume that the cause must always precede the effect. We also assume that every object must be located somewhere in time and space and that no two objects can exist in the same place and time.
These assumptions appear valid in the everyday world governed by Newtonian physics but with the discovery of quantum mechanics we find that these assumptions are invalidated by observation. To understand quantum physics we must abandon the Newtonian “common sense” paradigm and operate under a whole different set of assumptions.
So too, our dharma practice must function from a different set of premises than our everyday “common sense” mind. It parallels quantum science in that it seems to defy our “everyday mind” point of view.
My everyday mind tells me that if I am not happy it’s because I don’t have something that I desire or that I have something that is not desirable. The same mind tells me that if I want something I don’t have I must do something to get it, and I have to do it in a certain way—i.e. do it “right.” The premise is that if I do it right then I will receive the payoff that will bring me a measure of happiness.
This is true for most of what we do as human beings: we study, we practice, and we work in order to get what we want. Whether it’s joining a gym, enrolling in a school or embarking on a new diet, our basic premise is that we do something to gain something we want or to get rid of something we don’t want. “I must do something, and do it correctly to get what I desire.”
Most beginners engage meditation practice with that same set of assumptions; believing that if I do this right (or do it long enough) then I will acquire my goal of peace, happiness or enlightenment. Individuals who begin meditation practice commonly ask “What will I gain from this…and how long will it take?
Dharma practice requires a paradigm shift akin to that of shifting from Newtonian to quantum physics. We need to let go of our previous pattern of striving for results and begin with the premise that this moment is enough; that nothing is wrong or broken or missing. In the dharma practice we are not trying to get anywhere, we are not trying achieve anything or get rid of anything: there is no future goal. What we most desire is already here. What we seek is the seeker itself.
But someone may well object, “My body hurts, my mind is crazy, I feel anxious and my life is a mess. How can you say that I have everything I need to be happy right now?”
My answer is in the form of a question, “Have you ever had a very scary dream where you have felt absolutely terrified…and then you woke up?” Your heart may have been pounding, your palms sweating; but when awake you saw that you were perfectly safe in your own bed. You may even have been lying next to someone who loves you very much. You spent several minutes in pure hell when in reality you were safe and loved. The problem wasn’t that a monster was about to devour you, the real problem was that you were identified with a world that isn’t real.
We have become identified with a self and a worldview that is not quite real. Our distorted perception causes us to believe that this moment is not enough: that I must acquire something or get rid of something in order to be happy. The basic premise usually is that this moment is not enough (or is too much!).
This premise leads us to believe that our happiness lies in some future moment; so we reach for that future moment. The best the next moment can offer is some temporary satisfaction or relief. This temporary satisfaction (or the lack of it) drives further grasping toward the next moment hoping that it holds the permanent happiness that we deeply desire. On and on and on this goes, driving what Buddhists call “the wheel of samsara,” which is the endless cycle of suffering from lifetime to lifetime.
In our meditation practice we assume that the source of the happiness and satisfaction that we seek is already within us; it is our true nature. Our practice is not an attempt to get something that we don’t have but rather to see when and how we fail to open to the reality of the present moment. In seeing clearly how we avoid our present moment experience we can choose to cease that habitual avoidance and learn to stay open and present in the moment. Seeing our resistance in the present moment without adding further resistance will eventually dissolve it.
Clear nonattached awareness dissolves delusion. The light of awareness dissolves the shadow of darkness. When the mind is no longer deluded we experience the ever-present radiance of our true nature. We then realize that happiness is not based upon any condition and we are free from all suffering.