Escaping thoughts prison: ramblings from a dream interpretation

thedayyoudecideA buddhist teacher once told me, while describing samsara, that the most diabolical prison would be one in which the inmates were completely unaware they were in prison. Then not even the thought to escape would cross the prisoners’ minds. Whether the prisoner experienced relatively good conditions or terrible conditions, being completely unaware that she is held, she would simply accept and manage those conditions without even considering that she had an alternative — to leave the prison.

In a dream I had the other night, a puppy is drowning, its small body sinking under the surface. I lift it with both hands and it’s very heavy. At first I can’t get enough leverage from the lake bottom and my arms are not strong enough. But after the first time I’ve touched his small body, I realize he is seriously in trouble and I will myself to get a proper footing and lift with all my strength. This time the puppy surfaces, choking, limp and heavy. I put him down on the beachfront and he proceeds to throw up all of his internal organs. He does it neatly, in one heave. Everything from inside the dog comes out tucked into a bag of fur that now hangs from the dog’s mouth. It’s not just the contents of his stomach, it’s all the internal organs, all tissues, all blood. And I realize he is empty. I feel fear that he will die, but instead, the sac filled with his innards falls away from his mouth to the ground. He licks a little blood from his mouth and wanders off in the direction, presumably, of home. At the time, I was filled with the fear that he would die. Now I realize he was a dream dog and can never die.

In some circles of buddhist dream interpretation, water is associated with attachment. Dreams of your house flooding, feelings of grief as heavy and wet, puppies drowning: all symbolic of attachment.

What do you understand attachment to be? When you hear buddhists talk about giving up attachments, do you feel some pressure to quit what you might consider to be your bad habits? Do you think attachment is about your compulsive habits? For example, your attachment to chocolate, to wine, to cigarettes, to sex, to gossip? Does ‘letting go’ suggest to you some way to be a better you? A superior version of you that is not blown by the winds of craving. A you that experiences everything evenly, peacefully, serenely — free from nagging desires.

Attachment also lives much closer to the bone. Yes, you will live a lighter, happier life, the more you let go of your attachment to ‘good’ or ‘bad’ compulsive habits. And this freedom is worth striving for. Discipline, wisdom, effort in this direction is worth it.

But the root ties that bind you to suffering are more subtle, more difficult to see. For example, we are attached to our thoughts. We believe the content. Even if we step back and question it sometimes — ‘am I going crazy?’ — we never really let go of our belief that through our thoughts we can find a ground to stand on. That our thoughts represent some concrete phenomena.

Thoughts never stop arising in our minds continuously, day and night. This steady narrative is for the most part what we are referring to when we say ‘reality.’ What is your reality? Other than your direct sense perceptions, it’s your thoughts, isn’t it?

But what is the ‘reality’ beyond your thought-story about reality? What is there beyond our thoughts of this world? What is the world other than our thoughts about it? Although I write these as questions, it’s not best considered a theoretical topic for discussion, it’s not about creating a philosophy.

More thinking is not the way out of this prison.

To cross over and borrow wisdom from another liberation movement, I give you Audre Lorde:

“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Freedom from the suffering of your thought prison is a matter of internal exploration. It is experiential. Only a direct experience will be of any use. Being told that your thoughts are a prison that bind you is one thing, seeing for yourself the walls of that prison, and planning an escape, is quite another.

Row, row, row your boat

rowyourboatYears ago, more than ten now, when I started getting into buddhist teachings, I recall listening to an hour-long discourse given by a monk on his interpretation of the spiritual meaning to be found in the children’s song:

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a dream

It was a brilliant talk — simple, memorable. I was amazed. He layered meaning into words I’d known most of my life. Words I took at face value. It’s a boat and you’re rowing it down the stream. If I thought of the words, it conjured images of blue summer skies and light clouds. If I thought of the song, it reminded me of amusing ourselves on long car rides or around a campfire. There was some magic in it, a lyrical beauty; the wonder to my young ears, of songs sung in rounds.

For nearly a decade after the monk’s talk, I went regularly to what amounts to thousands of hours of dharma talks – evening sessions, weekend retreats, weeks-long festivals. But that one hour I remember vividly, perhaps because it was early days in my spiritual seeking. I hadn’t yet given up the hard cynicism, the burden, of my adolescence. It was some perfect combination of familiar words mixed with the wisdom of thousands of years of inner exploration.

Of course, his talk was more strictly tied to a formal buddhist practice, but here is my current (yes, that’s a pun) interpretation:

Row, row, row is putting one foot in front of the other, powering yourself. There’s not just one ‘row’ because there’s not just one time that you apply effort. You show up for life again and again and again. It pushes you around and sometimes you struggle and it’s hard work and the oars are heavy. But you carry on rowing because no one else can do it for you. Your boat is your life, your vessel. Row, row, row could also be said to be your body, speech and mind, the components of your boat. An ipso facto sort of thing: row, row, row is your boat.

Gently is how you treat yourself and others, and also how you treat thoughts and beliefs. Gently, with compassion: with a soft and loving heart. And also gently, with wisdom: hold lightly to what appears, because it’s nature is interdependent, changeable and open to interpretation. The stream is the path your boat takes. And travelling downriver is letting go of control. Use the power of the movement of the water itself. You apply effort by rowing – sometimes to correct your course, sometimes to add speed – but always with the flow. Gently down the stream is humility. Keep your mind and body easy, natural and supple.

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily are the ‘four immeasurables’: equanimity, love, compassion, joy. In buddhist thought, our natural state — the ground of our awareness — is bliss, pure joy. When you stop discriminating good and bad (equanimity), and cultivate love and compassion, the mind is said to be naturally joyful. I think of it as a child-like grace. A small child has not yet made the myriad decisions, the thoughts that pile up and then calcify into a painful judgmental worldview. Be like that child, now, now, now, now.

Life is but a dream.

Let’s talk about that some other time. I have a day to get out and enjoy.

Happy Saturday morning!