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Tuning Our Lute Strings

by Fleda BrownNovember 28, 2011
Tuning Our Lute Strings

I’m thinking of this week’s discussion in our local meditation group through the lens of Joseph Goldstein’s quote in his book, One Dharma: “As awareness becomes steadier and concentration stronger, the quality of bare attention begins to reveal deeper insights into the world and into ourselves.” So, how does this happen? What is “bare attention”? This is what we talked about.

Goldstein says—and we agreed—that often we have the idea that thinking itself is something to be gotten rid of. Even if we intellectually “know” that’s not the idea, somewhere in our heads we think if we were doing it right, our minds would settle into a state of absolute quiet. We must be doing it wrong! “The aim of practice,” says Goldstein, “is not that; it is to be aware of thoughts, rather than to be lost in them.”

The goal of bare attention is to become like a mirror, he says, reflecting what appears and disappears, not getting hooked into it. It includes EVERYTHING. A mirror doesn’t choose what it will reflect.

Then the question comes up, which Goldstein anticipates: won’t this mean I’ll be passive, resigned to the bad things happening? Resignation, he says, contains an element of aversion and continues our cycle of being hooked-in.

The three kleshas, (Sanscrit) or “poisons” that seem to trigger all the others that keep us hooked in to our daydreams are ignorance, attachment (desire), and aversion.

The less we’re hooked, the more we act with clarity and precision. Our actions are perfect. They’re not skewed by our confusions, our storehouse of desires and aversions. We can be effective.

This practice is not easy. Many of us are quite aware of that! It’s easy to start meditating. It’s much harder to keep it up. The more we sit, the more we see. We see our fears, our desires, our anger, what we’ve done in the past that hurt people; we see our restlessness, our ambition—all of it. Who wants to look straight at all that? It makes us want to turn away. And THAT’s easy to do. Get back to our work, our friends, watch a lot of TV, play video games, or whatever. We can re-convince ourselves that the daydreams we live with are really the way things are. Or at least good enough for us for now.

Goldstein says we need viriya, the Pali word for effort, sometimes translated as courage. There’s the Buddha’s explanation to the skilled musician—how do you tune your lute strings? Not too tightly, not too loosely. The right amount of effort, and each one of us knows what that is, for us.

The reward for all this is to see. To see clearly what is actually the case. What is actually true. This is what I want for myself. I don’t want to miss this opportunity of my short lifetime to see this.


Poet and writer Fleda Brown reflects on the gatherings of her weekly meditation group, speaking to you as one who has long practiced meditation but still comes to the practice with a learner’s mind.

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