Sample Classroom Talk (Room 2)What awareness practice is like for me . . .
About Hawaiians, Buddhists, and Martin Buber on a Streetcar
By John Bilby
I always try to remember to practice mindful awareness whenever I enter sacred places. I remember from Hawaiian history how much importance the ali'i, the royal family members, placed in keeping the *kapu*.
It was not possible to keep these "taboo rules" without practicing awareness. There were so many little unconscious blunders that one could commit within sacred areas (things like approaching a higher chief incorrectly in one's exhuberance to talk) that only by maintaining a thread of inward awareness could one possibly be alert enough to avoid not only serious reprimand, but possible expulsion, and even *sacrifice* for the most serious (however trivial in ordinary considerations) breaches of the sacred rules.
Hawaiians could offend the gods by failure to keep the kapu, and die by unexpectedly having trees fall upon them, or hot lava come pouring across their path. And even the little royal princes and princesses of Samoa would put their lives at risk if they failed to remain at attention and catch the wrung-out kava roots that the kava-maker threw quickly over the shoulder as they were being squeezed.
From this and conversations I had with kahunas at Makua Beach more than thirty years ago, I concluded that the Polynesian kapu system (Tahitian, tapu) was a methodology for teaching awareness from childhood to the men and women chiefs who participated in their rituals.
Sure, any kane or wahine on the Island might have enough presence of mind not to break the kapu and wander uninvited into the area around the heiau where the kahunas worked. But for those who entered into these areas, a much higher standard of presence of mind was always required.
When this was maintained, the ranking kahuna pronounced: "Pono," which means "righteous." When the presence of awareness was broken--as if there were distraction among the ali'i by the barking of dogs off outside the heiau,. the ranking kahuna pronounced: "Hewa." As you might suppose, that means "unrighteous."
Interestingly, when the Missionaries came--hundreds of years after the Hawaiians had been there on their own--and they made a translation of the Holy Bible into Hawaiian called the Palapala (the Hawaiians had no written language before this), the good Boston clergy men and women adopted these words, "pono," and "hewa," to stand for "righteousness" and "sin." And thus the very words of the kahunas' primitive kapu ceremonials were married to those golden words of our dear rabbi, Jesus.
Whenever I go to a Buddhist shrine or gathering place, I try to "keep the kapu," and be awake, in loving honor of the presence of Buddha consciousness, and the great teacher that the Buddha was and *is.* When a time comes--as is usually the case--for a period of silent sitting meditation, I like to participate in this as much as the others.
If I am already awake, as we gather and sit on the cushions, then I go right on being awake as I do sitting meditation (my favorite over the years has been counting breaths by tens). And when the bell sounds ending the meditation period, I try to keep awake as I am opening my eyes and standing up.
During sitting meditation, counting breaths is the mantra. It is a very inward experience of being alive. Up and around again, the mantra is waking up on the different phenomena of life that are around, while, at the same time, remaining awake within. One's eyes are open. One is moving and doing things. And one is still meditating by being awake.
After the sitting meditation is over, I try to continue being awake--forgetting sometimes and then remembering again (and sometimes this forgetting and remembering again happens over and over) . . . but being awake as much as I can remember-to during the goodbyes that are being said . . . and then walking to my truck . . . and driving home.
When I am practicing during portions of the day, it is this same process for me whatever I am doing. I try to remember that there is awareness, and I come into it and practice it whenever I do remember, and I go right on doing whatever I'm doing and have awarenesses of that. It takes a little effort here and there, yet by practice I can keep a momentum of remembering going pretty well . . . at least, that is, when I remember to. I slide into it more and more easily on certain occasions by stepping up the practice. And I *like* this experience of being in awareness! It brightens up my life, and has many practical uses.
When I forget about awareness for awhile, I walk around in sleep (or, ordinary consciousness) and do the things that people do in sleep--often being insensitive, judging, projecting all kinds of things onto others that aren't so, being self-ish, manipulating, trying to get my own way, wanting to get people to change and be who I want them to be, instead of who they happen to be--stuff like that. This is my "shadow side."
This is the way it goes with me in the practice of mindful awareness. Sometimes I'll be awake and I'll stay awake for awhile. Sometimes I'll be asleep. Then I'll remember I'm being asleep, and I'll wake up all over again. I'll be tracking along, doing whatever I'm doing, perhaps even doing it pretty well. Like the other day, when I was at the supermarket, and I was pushing along my cart, and finding lots of neat things.
Only now there was something different than the last time I had been in this store. Many items that I picked up had two prices, quite different from one another, the larger being the price I'd have to pay unless I signed up for a "value card." (No doubt, it's a smart idea for getting customers to keep coming back. But I was already doing that. And I felt that I was being manipulated in the tensions that were coming up inside me.)
Failure to comply here would result in a price increase of quite a number of dollars for me. So I went to the booth and I did it. I was a little stiff with the clerk, probably, as you can see (and I can say "probably" now because I'm becoming familiar enough with the patterns of my shadow side in sleep)--as I'm kind of an independent type that doesn't always like to join up with the way other people are doing things. And when I later reached the check-out counter, I wasn't happy when I found that it was not at all easy to keep track of whether I was getting the proper discounts for my value card. The "other" prices I remembered had been so outrageous! Here, the numbers on the cash register went whizzing by. And, I was beginning to become really upset.
Now, unbeknownst to me, during this whole episode, I had been being "asleep." That is, I was not "dwelling in the inward experience of aware presence." I was lost in my thoughts, instead.
And emotions were being kicked off, right and left. My self-importance and desires had come to the fore. And here, at the cash register, I was on the verge of possibly acting out some unseemly and discourteous behavior with a check-out clerk who was simply another involuntary participant in the whole scheme of it all.
Well, I had not been asleep all that time I was shopping. I'd woken up here and there, very briefly, while examining a few new products that I thought I'd like to try. And I like to practice waking up when I pass solitary shoppers in the aisles, too--remembering that Martin Buber, the great Hassidic existentialist, had caught on to his whole "I and Thou" approach while sitting on a streetcar and realizing how profoundly he always shut-out and ignored the stranger sitting right there next to him on the very bench where he was sitting.
He recognized this as a component of the "I and it." And he realized the reciprocal "I and Thou" in the idea of not making an inanimate object out of the other person that way, but instead having the presence of mind to relate with the other person awarely as a fellow human being, a real person in there, with feelings and thoughts and desires, such as Buber knew in his own self, after all. And, don't we all? (My teacher, Mitsuo Aoki, who had studied with him, told us this story about Buber finding the "I and Thou" on the streetcar--in his class at the University of Hawaii thirty years ago.)
So, in looking back on the supermarket story I can see that I was practicing some of the usual awareness exercises that I like, as I was gathering my cart full of stuff. But I know that this evening I was particularly unaware! Waking up for brief periods was fine. But along the way there were long periods of sleep. And when I encountered those little tags that showed I might have to pay $1.39 for oranges, or else $.69 with that plastic value card . . . these annoying little warning tags impacted upon my body very greatly! They "bent me out of shape," is an incisive and experiential way of putting it. I was "uptight," wound up, and ready to spring!
And these little tags "knocked me out," every time, into deeper and deeper sleep--and into the kinds of ordinary human reactions that take place in sleep when a person is impacted by upsetting events and begins to automatically act-out his or her "shadow side," the side where our darker self dwells.
Here, I remembered my Buddhist brothers and sisters, knowing full well that they would be reminding me of patience and altruism and singing of loving kindness all along my trail among the aisles. This did seem to calm me down for awhile. I like it best that way. And here popped up Thich Nhat Hanh saying, "The bell is ringing," which reminded me again: "Peace is every step."
But then I was being emotional about it again! (Fine to have emotions, only I wasn't being aware of them at the time, or aware of how much they were driving me.) And every one of those tags that I saw set me off to thinking about it all over again. (One of my teachers once said, "The way you know you've got a problem is that you're thinking about it.")
My ego was arroused in full sway, and I had to make something out of it. I had to be treated in a certain way. I had to *be somebody*, and do something about it! Do you know what I mean? Did you ever have this powerful experience of the internal struggle that can go on within us? We don't want to act-out badly, yet the impetus keeps coming back so powerfully!
I had to do something about it! . . . Yet, what could I do? Complain to the manager? My basket was filling already. I didn't want to have to go someplace else. I *had to play their game!* But unwillingly! I knew I was being manipulated. I didn't want that!
When I'm into my personality like that, I don't want to have other people tell me to do things differently than the way I am used to. And I can become very agitated about it. In the course of my life I've been known on occasions to say rather cutting things. I can be a Rebel when I'm asleep. I can even be off-the-wall and outrageous at rare times. Again, all of this is my "shadow side."
And this brings me back to the check-out counter, where the numbers are whizzing by, and I have started to have paranoid fantasies that the store is taking advantage of me. (I trust I will not be regarded as sub-human in this reaction.) And I was about to speak to the young woman who was working late at night at the register there. Oh-oh.
And then I remembered to wake up! I sensed the tension in the air, and I woke up on it. It stopped me. I came to. I had the presence of mind to settle down and remember I could keep awake and be careful not to hurt this innocent person.
Yet my body was still swelling and shrinking with the drives and the tensions of my previous stance. I was *busting* to get it off my chest, if you know what I mean. I was about to open my mouth and let fly.
Here, the old Hawaiian *aloha* came back into me again. Keep the kapu! Make no mistakes! Stand firm, and upright --*ku*, present! Be righteous. Do not offend the gods in this sacred place! Aloha! ("Eh, Bruddah. Make nice. Ain't no beeg t'ing!") --"Pono!"
And I kept on being centered, quivering as I was. I selected what I said to the cashier very carefully. I was honest. I said, "I don't find I'm being comfortable with the value card process." I was speaking of my own experience, as Mits had taught me how. I said, "I find it hard to tell if I'm getting the full value of the card. And I'm scared because those other prices were so high."
Instead of putting me off with a sneer, as I might have expected, or being too flustered to reply, the busy check-out woman leaned over the counter and put her hand on my arm.
"I know how you feel," she said. "A lot of people have been complaining. It's been a hard day."
And the tone of her voice reassured me so much--on a soulful, intuitive level. Life was okay again. I was suddenly relaxed. I was able to tell her with sincere compassion that I understood how it was being for her, too. A momentary glance showed me that she, too, felt *heard*.
I think this is sort of what Buber saw in his mind that day, as he was riding on the trolley-car beside that stranger . . . a vision of the world where people have the presence of mind to wake up and care about each other, as living human beings who are actually *in here* -- instead of just acting-out in wounding ways with others, as we sometimes do under the pressures of life, and treating the other living person like an inanimate object.