We Must Do Our Own Work (Lessons of the Breath)

“‘One is one’s own refuge, who else could be the refuge?’ said the Buddha. He admonished his disciples to ‘be a refuge to themselves, and never to seek refuge in or help from anybody else. He taught, encouraged and stimulated each person to develop himself and to work out his own emancipation, for man has the power to liberate himself from all bondage through his own personal effort and intelligence. The Buddha says: ‘You should do your work, for the Tathagatas(1) only teach the way.’ If the Buddha is to be called a ‘saviour’ at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves.” (What The Buddha Taught by Dr. Walpola Rahula)

I know, I know, sometimes we just want someone else to take out the trash.

But when it comes to developing our own happiness and mental health, no one can do the  job for us. I remember being younger and actually wanting the structure and rigidity of an austere religious community. Realistically, the reason was that I just wanted someone else to make up the rules, tell me what they were so I could just follow them and do what I was told to do. Now I can laugh about that time. I recognize my innocent desire to be good and that feeling of wanting the actual work of being good to be a pretty straightforward affair.

It’s one thing to follow the rules because someone tells you too. Some say that’s part of what holds society together. We agree on certain rules or at least guidelines. When we all agree, things go along pretty smoothly. But, often enough we break those rules and trouble ensues. Why is this? Maybe in part because as long as those rules remain external, imposed from some outside force, god or government or whatever, we don’t really make them part of us. Rules which aren’t internalized are easier to toss out the window of desire. Also, that gives us the room to argue all day about right and wrong based on fear of punishment or judgement. 

What mindfulness makes us do is SEE FOR OURSELVES what is – what is beneficial and what is not. What is really in here and out there. (Not that there’s a genuine difference but that’s a conversation for a whole other day.) Anyway, we have to do the work of seeing and discerning for ourselves. And I know, sometimes that’s really hard. But we must turn in to face that hard feeling and in doing so we begin to develop our own awakening mind, we clear away the dust on the mirror of the mind, the fog of emotions and see what reality is without anything added on to it. 

Thankfully, the more we practice formally, on the cushion or bench, the easier it all gets both there and in our real practice, every day life. We can let go of whatever thoughts and emotions are streaming through our consciousness more easily much in the same way we practice letting the breath come and go, sometimes long, sometimes short, without trying to control it in any way:

     “Mindful, he breathes in, and mindful, he breathes out. He, thinking, ‘I breathe in long,’ he understands when he is      breathing in long; or thinking, ‘I breathe out long,’ he understands when he is breathing out long; or thinking, ‘I          breathe in short,’ he understands when he is breathing in short; or thinking, ‘I breathe out short,’ he understands        when he is breathing out short.

    “‘Experiencing the whole body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Experiencing the whole body, I       shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe in,’ thinking         thus, he trains himself. ‘Calming the activity of the body, I shall breathe out,’ thinking thus, he trains himself.

(The Way of Mindfulness The Satipatthana Sutta and Its Commentary by Soma Thera © 1998 from Access to Insight)

Thus we learn to observe, with interest, with curiosity, the various phenomena in us and around us, without getting emotionally or mentally hijacked. We can then, live with far greater peace, harmony and happiness no matter what’s going on because we see that like the breath coming in and going out, all things are constantly changing, impermanent and thus not worth our getting our underwear in a tangle over so much. 

We can enjoy what is pleasant and cry when it’s time to cry. We are not trying to make the mind and heart quiet, or suppress emotions, quite the opposite. We are trying to be fully present with what ever is. We want to put out the welcome matt for all of it, as Jon Kabat-Zinn has it. Because whatever it is, you know, that stuff’s going to change. Like it or not.

So, how are we our own refuge? By paying attention, fully and completely, right here and now, on purpose, without any judgements or without adding anything to the experience. We don’t even need to say anything about it. We see, discern and then respond as beneficially as we can on a moment by moment basis.

We can just let it all BE.

And if you want to really be inspired by someone’s ability to let go, watch this amazing short TEDx talk by Home Nguyen. Watching it will make you want to practice even more. (I promise you!)

I wish you much success on your quest for authentic presence, happiness, connection and well-being. Thank you for stopping by.


Author: Hillary Johnson

Improvisational documentary and fine art photographer.

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