Do you ever get the feeling that, for any problem you face, there is a solution hidden in plain sight? That even if the situation seems impossible, there really is a way through, just waiting to be discovered? And that if you had enough experience, or enough patience, or enough presence of mind, you would see it?
We have an innate natural wisdom, a resource that is constantly available, always ready to help us find those solutions we need. This isn’t some mystical Source of All Knowledge, but rather the energy that lets us turn the knowledge we already have into helpful action. This is a facet of prajna, the deep insight of Buddhism: it’s the electricity that turns on that lightbulb in your head when you suddenly understand something.
This wisdom is freely available, but something prevents us from connecting with it. We call it “getting in our own way”, but what is it, really, that gets in the way? Habit, conditioning, autonomic reflexes – whatever terms we use, I find that I can consciously refrain from letting those kneejerk reactions take over. And when I do, a clear naturalness appears and my actions are unhurried and organic. These actions bring the best results for me and those around me.
I heard once that Buddha said, toward the end of his life, that he had spent forty years swimming against the stream. I feel that way too – this profoundly deep current of subconscious habit is so strong that I have to continuously swim against it to keep from getting swept away.
When I’m typing fast on my computer, trying to get my thoughts onto the screen quickly, I feel that stream almost like an outside force. It’s rushing me, so my typing isn’t accurate and I spend quite a bit of time backspacing and retyping over my mistakes. However, when I’ve “come back to myself”, when I slow down and am clearly aware of each keystroke, the force of the stream disperses and the mistakes stop.
This happens when I’m in conversation, too. I find myself saying things I don’t really mean, or nodding in agreement with statements I don’t necessarily agree with, just to keep up with the speed of the conversation. Here again is the feeling of being remotely controlled, of a nervous energy propelling me along that isn’t really connected with the needs of the moment. And just as when I consciously step back from the frenetic pace of typing that causes errors, if I pause and clearly consider my statements before making them, even though there can be seemingly awkward silences and breaks in the pace, what I say is much more attuned to what is true in the situation.
This takes effort! Much of the power of that habit stream comes from our survival mechanisms: primal fight-or-flight responses and psychological defenses that help us react instantaneously to danger. All the training we’ve gone through and all the lessons we’ve learned about self-protection are distilled together into a set of conditions and responses, and these kick in when we find ourselves in a new situation. Sometimes these pre-programmed responses are simply not appropriate, but we still feel compelled to do something - even if that something doesn’t really fit current conditions. “No time to think about it – just do it! Do it!” says the primal urge. “Do something!”
This doesn’t just happen in new situations – we very often find ourselves reacting to the same kind of situation in the same inappropriate manner over and over again.
When I make an effort to deflect the urge, to give myself some time to breathe and be fully aware, that light of wisdom has a chance to shine and reveal new options. Sometimes, no options appear! In those cases, silence or simple lack of action may be most appropriate. Instead of saying just anything to break an awkward silence, how about staying silent? Instead of frenetically clicking the keys on the keyboard to keep pace with the thoughts, how about clearly considering each one before tapping it?
Natural wisdom: clearly available when I’m open to the moment, and obscured when I’m propelled by the habit stream. Maybe I’ll seem a little strange if I don’t immediately agree with what someone said. OK! Maybe that nervous energy will overwhelm me if I don’t keep up the frantic pace of typing. OK! Maybe I’ll see that it would have been nice to give the full moon to the burglar who broke into my little hut last night.