help yourself to a bit of what is all around you...'
-- from Martha My Dear by The Beatles
In class we noticed how the energy within our bodies and within the room had changed after meditating. So when we talk about energy, we are not talking about something that we have not observed for ourselves. This experience of observable phenomena is basic to the Buddha's teachings -- the importance of noticing and questioning everything. We question the veracity of long-accepted statements and explore with fresh awareness and attention what is occurring in this moment. So let’s explore together, with curiosity, this energy.
What is the nature of this energy we have observed? It’s something that is beyond our ability to name. When we name it, it suddenly isn’t what we’re talking about anymore. But still, we need a way to talk about it. Perhaps we could see it as the resting state of all that is, the default position, like an infinite body of water with no wind acting upon it. Perhaps this energy is the felt sense of the space that fills every molecule of being, the seen and the unseen.
I think of the story of the fish who looked everywhere for this much-talked-about and highly valued but elusive thing called ‘water.’ It took him a lifetime to realize that the water he was seeking was invisible to him because there was no ‘not water’ in his experience. This energy we are talking about is so fundamental to our experience of life that we don’t just take it for granted, we really can’t see it!
We see darkness because there is light, beauty because there is ugliness. All the things that are easy to see are defined by their opposite. But this quality of energy we are talking about has no opposite. The changes that occur are simply the way the energy is moved and contorted. It is still the energy. So we don’t just take it for granted, we forget it exists! And yet when we sense in, we may become are aware of it. It creates phenomena that is observable.
Is this energy the only constant in life? We observe the truth of the Buddha’s fundamental teaching that all things are impermanent because all things, including thoughts, emotions, concepts, ideas, objects, and ourselves are compounded. Two or more causes and conditions were necessary for them to come into being. We can observe this impermanence in the weather, the cycles of nature, and in the changes that occur in our bodies, our relationships and our circumstances.
Believing in permanence is a fundamental source of our suffering. When things are ‘good’ we cling to them. When things are ‘bad’ we forget that ‘this too shall pass.’ As a result, we may do all manner of unskillful things in order to avoid inevitable change. This is the pattern we can observe as we slow down and take the time to center in and really notice. Through our awareness the tight hold of these patterns begins to soften and dissolve. These patterns are impermanent too.
With this awareness, we recognize the gift of being alive in this form right now, no matter what the circumstances or situation. This moment is always the perfect moment to wake up to what is. We can see that we are active participants in the creation of current reality, whether we are conscious of it or not. When we become aware of the infinite quality of the energy out of which all arises and our ability to notice it, conduct it or amplify it, we can also see clearly how some of our life-long patterns constrict it and dissipate it.
Most of us have experienced how the energy under certain conditions becomes electrified. When large groups of people come together in a state of fear or love, the energy activates collective anger and violence, collective joy and euphoria or a profound sense of connection and intention. We’ve seen this happen at music or sporting events, at rallies and marches. We’ve seen news footage of Hitler directing this energy, arousing the collective fear into a powerful punch that still resonates so many decades later. Perhaps just reading that name sent some energetic shock waves through your body. That’s how powerful this energy is! We now know that our brain chemistry changes in a myriad of ways when we are exposed to these energy-activating experiences.
I experienced this kind of mass energy when I participated in the marches in San Francisco in 2002 and 2003 to demonstrate against going to war in Iraq. I marched multiple times, but noticed a real difference at the march where I sat in meditation with the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as the marchers assembled at the base of Market Street before the march began. To sit in silence with speakers ranting and thousands of strangers milling about within inches of me was quite a different meditation! But mindfulness training kept me fully present, relaxed but alert.
When we meditators rose and joined the march, the energy all around us felt very buoyant. There was a quality of spaciousness -- no bumping into anyone even though the crowd was dense. There was a quality of loving-kindness and gratitude for all these dedicated people from all walks of life coming together to show their concern for the well being of the peoples of the world and the planet. As we marched, this sense of spaciousness spread out from the meditators and seemed to affect the marchers around us -- who knows how far up and down the march -- allowing everyone to be centered in their profound understanding that war is not the answer rather than getting caught up in surface distractions. There was great camaraderie and deep respect. There was a sense that whatever the results of our wise efforts there that day, we were creating right there in that moment the energy of peace. How skillful!
We often think of peace as the absence of war, but peace is much more than that. Peace is powerful! It is the collective creative energy that arises out of love and respect. When we seek peace out of fear, it is a paltry thing, a wimpy sniveling craving for safety that is simply a forgetting of the potentiality of accessing the energy always available to us. This fear is absolutely understandable. We have spent our lives unaware that we have access to unitive universal energy to transform our current experience. In fact, we believe ourselves to be powerless. Any person who is truly at peace, who feels deeply connected with all beings, will create a very different resonance than one who is screaming their separateness and fear. When we actively engage the loving spacious energy within ourselves and then come together in deep respect, this is powerful peace. The energetic experience is transformative.
When we access our Buddha nature, our quiet voice within, and do so together, a collective energy arises that is infinite in its potential. When the crowd disbands, the sense of euphoria will dissipate, due to the natural ebb and flow of energy. It would be quite human to feel disappointed. In that moment we have the choice of being present with this experience, thus aligning with the energy, or getting caught up in longing for another ‘group high’ experience, thus succombing to the pattern of ‘not enough’ that constricts our ability to be present and fully in touch with our own capacity for aliveness.
I mentioned the ebb and flow of energy. This tidal quality doesn’t mean the energy comes and goes so much as it expands and compresses. We may experience the way energy rises and falls like waves, overwhelming us or draining us. Remember the rule at the ocean’s edge: Never turn your back to it! We could use that as a reminder to be awake and aware of the energy.
A friend of mine was an avid Buddhist student for many years. Then in her fifties she took up surfing. What she learned resting on the ocean and riding the waves has made sense of all the dharma talks she ever heard. The Buddha taught his students to find out for themselves. She is doing that in her intimate relationship with the ocean.
Here’s another phenomenon we may have noticed about this energy: We are familiar with how spending time with certain people makes us exhausted, as if they have drained the energy right out of us. Of course, it is not most people’s intention to drain energy out of anyone, but the effect is still there. When we rely on other people to direct, inspire, shore up our own energy, then we drain their energy. This happens when we are afraid or simply don’t know how to access our own inner wellspring of infinite energy through meditation in whatever form works for us.
People may say about an acquaintance ‘She’s so needy.’ This just means that ‘she’ (or he) hasn’t found the portal to access infinite energy, so is relying heavily on others.
Pause for a moment to sense into your body, into whatever physical sensation you notice right now -- pressure, temperature, tension, pain, the quality of energy or the movement of the breath. Now picture a person you know who drains you of energy when you are with them.
While thinking of that person, notice if your body sensations change in some way. Perhaps there is a tightness that sets in, a change in the pattern of the breath, or a sense of aching exhaustion. Just notice what, if anything, happens when you have this person in mind.
Now let that image go. Then focus on the breath rising and falling, that steady flow of energy and see what happens with the sensations in the body. If you experience a return to a sense of ease or well being, then you have just given yourself a clear demonstration of the power of this energy and the power of our thoughts to affect our experience of this energy.
The Buddha taught his students to incline the mind toward wholesome thoughts. Since he was teaching primarily young men, he was probably encouraging them to bring their awareness a little higher up than their loins. But this advice is useful for all of us. We have just seen how, when we dwell on a certain person or situation, we feel drained. When we are drained of energy we are disempowered, living in fear -- whether for the other person, the state of the world, or our own well being. We feel paralyzed and helpless.
This is where the powerful practice of metta comes in. Metta, as you probably know is universal loving-kindness. The activity of sending metta, first to ourselves, then to others and eventually to the whole universe, aligns us with our Buddha Nature. Our Buddha Nature, or whatever you are most comfortable calling it, is our access point to this infinite loving energy. When we access this energy, we feel its power to center us, bring us fully present, and hold us in a loving open embrace. Because the nature of this energy is infinite, we not only don’t need to keep it to ourselves, we can’t contain it! It glows and grows and compels us to share it with the world. Because the nature of this energy is infinite, we cannot be in it and withhold it from any being. We cannot be in it and judge some beings as unworthy of receiving this loving-kindness. So we share it, amplify it, enjoy the sense of aligning with this powerful loving-kindness that is flowing through us.
In class we did an extended metta practice, using the phrases ‘May I be well, may you be well, etc.’ In our next class we will explore this practice in more depth, especially those places where we have resistance, like sending metta to ourselves and to ‘difficult’ people. But for now it is enough to consider this idea of infinite energy and how we experience it.
If the fish had paused to notice that every time he swished his tail, something moved around him, he might have become aware of that elusive thing called water much sooner. Just so we can pause and notice the interplay of our thoughts, emotions and actions with the felt sense of energy in our bodies and surroundings.
I would also like to offer this two-minute video of a starling murmuration in Scotland as a wonderful example of the collision-free euphoric group energy seen in other species, but also quite possible in our own.