Meditation: Open Hearts in the Festival of Life, by Lama Catherine Rathbun
In ancient times, human beings alternated between times of feast and times of famine. In today’s world, the cycles of primitive humanity have been replaced by a ‘new normal’. In our part of the world feasts are always available; just visit your nearest supermarket, caterer or restaurant so long as you have money in your pocket. Sadly, there are places where famine is a daily torment; our televisions often show us desperate people running to escape war, drought, typhoons and tidal waves. It does seem that we are now fully in the Kaliyuga, a dark and perilous time on our planet.
Back in the 1960s, which now seems like ancient history, we thought that there was no reason at all for the people of the earth to suffer so. It was merely a question of re-distributing the wealth of the First World to benefit the Third. We thought of increasing transport of food, as pictures of truckloads of apples being plowed under were enough to cause expressions of outrage. How simple the world looked then; how complex the world looks now, how insoluble its problems. The upheavals of climate change and the upheavals of the entire Mediterranean basin as well as the sub-Sahara, our seeming inability to help our First Nations people to emerge from cycles of addiction and poverty can easily cause us to become despairing or cynical.
We need to ask, from the comfort of our homes, how to approach and justify feasting when so many are going without? If our lives do not permit us to gift large amounts of money or to go directly into community involvement, what else might we do to raise our awareness and to live respectfully?
Here are some of the ways I try in my life to bring this motif forward.
Whenever there is a potluck at the meditation centre I founded (Friends of the Heart, Toronto) I find myself commenting on the marvel that is the feast which is spread before us. We begin with a prayer of reflection, giving thanks to all those who have worked to bring this food to us: the farmers, the truck drivers, the grocers, the cooks.
Whenever I teach a retreat, I ask participants to gather together to give thanks before the meal “for all that we have” and add my personal prayer, “May we always remember to share what we have with others.” Whenever I cook, I only allow people to cook with me who are in a good mood. Bad tempered people are asked to leave my kitchen. Whenever I cook meat or fish I try to pray for the creature who has given up its life so that I may have the strength to live mine. Whenever I gather friends and family around my dinner table, I try to encourage topics of conversation that engage the mind in a positive way.
In this way, I try to honour each day of life as a feast that the gods have laid before me and give thanks and appreciation for being so blessed.
In our Western culture, there are special days dedicated to feasting. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the two that most often spring to mind. Many people give themselves permission to overeat, drink too much and consume too many sweets. The resulting physical discomfort can be extreme.
All too often, these same events are marred by family tensions. Expectations of ‘togetherness’ can lead to old quarrels being resurrected. Christmas in particular seems to bring this up. Though Santa Claus has long ceased to visit the adults, anticipation of happy times seems to frequently produce its miserable opposite, tension and disappointment.
From Buddhist spiritual training comes one possible antidote. It is the open-heartedness found through the experience of deepening Sunyata. If we can enter those festival times with a sense of open heart, without expectation and without self-referencing, then we can allow the experience of whatever arises to flow through us. This is never an easy thing to do. It is especially difficult with family members, for our relationships with them may be fraught with old hurts and projections. If we can begin to incorporate an understanding that our perceptions may not be the full or indeed, the only story, then we can begin to let go of wanting to be ‘right’, to be ‘heard’ or to ‘justify’ ourselves. If our experience is negative, we can begin to develop the skill to let it flow on by. If our experience is positive, we can more fully enjoy it in a relaxed manner without trying to hang on to it. For it is the truth that, positive or negative, all things are moving into being and dying away. When we learn to dwell in the midst of this mystery, we are at peace.
In this way the true feast of being present for whatever comes about in our lives can fruit immediately, day by day and we will dwell in the festival of life with joy and equanimity.
Catherine Rathbun received her traditional teaching name, Lama Jetsun Yeshe, from Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, a lineage master of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, in 2002. She taught meditation at York University (1989 to 1997) and is the founding teacher at Friends of the Heart, a meditation centre in Toronto. With a background in dance — she was a member of the National Ballet Company of Canada from 1962 to 1963 — and a modern dance career in England (1967-69). She is the author of Developing the World Mind and Clear Heart, Open Mind, and is currently working on a new book called Waiting for Truffles: Meditations for Daily Living.