The Decisive Moment

Michael Schmidt

Michael Schmidt

An excerpt from The Power of an Open Question

The way we respond to the stream of momentary experiences we call “our life” determines our move toward our habitual search for security or toward awakening. The Buddhist tradition has many ways of explaining our tendencies to shrink from experience, but all these explanations have one thing in common: pain and suffering proliferate when we can’t stay present with what we encounter. When we feel overwhelmed by the rich energy of experience we put a lid on it, try to consume it, embellish it, or react to it in one way or another.

The Buddhist Abhidharma tradition uses a poignant image of an old blind woman to illustrate this decisive moment. Her blindness symbolizes that the truth overwhelms her. In fact, this blindness, or ignorance serves as her means of escape from resting naturally in the open fullness of experience. Does this tendency have a beginning? We can’t say. But this example indicates that we can recognize this tendency in each moment of our lives and know that we have a choice.

Unless we engage situations that challenge habitual mind, such as  meditation practice and retreats where most of our usual distractions aren’t present, we often don’t experience this choice. My friend Rosemary went into her first retreat many years ago. The minute she entered her cabin, the prospect of facing the rawness of her undistracted mind posed an excruciating threat. She bolted out the door and just started running. As she ran deeper into the woods and farther from her cabin, a question arose: “Where can I possibly go?” Unable to answer, she went back to her cabin. Thus began her venture into the exploration of mind, the unknown, and the rest.

To see that we have a choice either to stay present or to run is a powerful thing. It gives us the option of reclaiming our life, which means responding intelligently to what we encounter. What would happen if, instead of shutting down around the rich energy of experience, we made a conscious choice to rest in open stillness? What would happen if, like Rosemary, we went back to our cabin to sit?

The example of the old blind woman raises an important question: if our struggle finds its genesis in our habit of turning away from the open state, what would happen if we habituated ourselves to staying open?

Katarina Bergh