Believing in progress
A Dharma Glimpse by Philip
I was sitting in the shrine room on my own close to the end of another year. I wasn’t feeling great to be honest. My mind and body were unsettled. These aren’t new phenomena for me. Indeed, they are old friends even if I haven’t always seen them that way. But slowly, gently as I sat there for longer things settled a bit.
I’m not sure where my efforts and practice, as irregular as they are, are going. Sometimes it feels hard to believe things are going in the right direction. Sometimes it feels hard to know what that direction even is, or if direction exists at all in reality and is just a human concept to function in, and make sense of, a purposely narrowed world.
I recalled after my time in the shrine room an assembly by an R.E. teacher when I was growing up. I wasn’t too fussed about listening if I’m honest. I doubt that I was the only one. I don’t think other talks had particularly resonated or felt of personal value, and I assumed the teachers must see it as a chore to be giving an assembly talk. Maybe most did. I didn’t hold that against them. There was no way I wanted to be talking in front of us. I didn’t hold much hope for this one. He was one of the teachers I had the least interaction with and I didn’t hold R.E. in particularly high esteem as a subject. The R.E. teacher said when he was around 10-years old he assumed 13-year olds had life sussed. When he became thirteen, he assumed it was the 16-years old who had life sussed. When he became sixteen he assumed it MUST be the 18-year olds who had life sussed, judging by their personas and confidence. Then, when he became eighteen, he realised probably no-one had life sussed. It was an assembly I never forgot. I’ll never know if it was a chore for him giving the assembly or he genuinely wanted to share some life experience and wisdom to us knowing, deep down, we were all plagued by questions of the meaning of life, and when and how it would reveal itself to us. And, for some of us, we didn’t believe in ourselves and were afraid of both life and death.
I’m not sure how much has changed for me since that day in assembly. I still like to believe there is an answer, and that others are at least very close to it even if I can now more readily accept perhaps nobody fully has it. I still don’t believe in my own abilities and value. I still don’t have what could be called a strong faith in anything. Maybe, sitting there in the shrine room and through conversations with others recently, I can start to believe I am making progress in some sort of way. Even if it’s not something I can easily or readily see and feel. And knowing that progress is sporadic, frequently misdirected and involves almost as many steps backwards as forwards. That there are still plenty of things I am desperately clinging on to without wanting to let go and allow more liberation from unnecessary suffering and delusion. I’ve start to wonder if ‘progress’ might involve, or indeed be, things imperceptibly shifting internally. Or, perhaps, at times collapsing (which is much more perceptible!), rather than some sort of linear, forward motion. That faith, trust or belief is equally about one or more of those in the self, and that what we are doing day by day, week by week, year by year, is of value and worth as much the belief in something bigger than us. Because the gap between myself and where I think I need to get to can feel so depressingly and despairingly big, insurmountable and even pointless in reducing.
I also start to wonder if I am, and we are, already in the Pure Land, whatever one might perceive and conceive that to be, but are not yet able to really see, feel and taste it. And it’s not about whether I deserve it or not. I do. But that necessary progress is also about going into the external world where loss, failure and suffering are inevitable, with an increasingly open and braver heart and a wiser, calmer, curious mind, in order to return back to where we started in order to see, feel and taste a bit more of the Pure Land for a bit longer. It reminds me of part of a T. S. Elliot’s poem:
“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”
Maybe that place is the Pure Land. Maybe it is already here. And maybe, just maybe, I can believe I am making progress towards experiencing it. And that’s enough to keep me going for now.
Namo Amida Bu