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“Everything arises in dependence on conditions”. Even if you are relatively new to Buddhism you might be familiar with this concept (often summarised as ‘conditionality’) and even if you are not, it makes sense, in the way that the law of gravity makes sense. But do we live as if we believed that everything arises in dependence on conditions? Or do we secretly believe that if we can sort out the world around us, fix it somehow, nothing bad will happen to us?
In today’s reflection (our final for this home retreat exploring the “worldly winds”) Vajragupta introduces a helpful distinction between ‘control’ and ‘influence’ which is useful in unpacking one of the fundamental Buddhist teachings of conditionality. We can spend a lot of time and energy attempting to control the uncontrollable. And then, when that doesn’t work, or work well enough, giving up in despair.
A couple of weeks ago I remember reading an article in a newspaper about things we can do to help prevent the spread of covid 19. I’m sure you might have come across some of these too. The article was outlining the importance of washing your hands and social distancing and so on - the usual advice. But then there was this reminder to not blame yourself if, despite all these measures, you do happen to catch it because no-one fully knows how it’s being transmitted. To me this was a reminder that while we can influence a situation - flatten the curve - by our individual behaviour, but we can’t ultimately control it all. Life is far more complex and interconnected - probably even far more than we are currently seeing being played out across the globe. But if we can see that not everything is in control, but we do play an important part (seeing both of these things at once!) then the worldly winds can no longer blow us about.
Often we can slip into all-or-nothing kind of thinking, or what I like to think of as “my inner extremist” - either “it’s all down to me now”, a brave pioneer alone on the final frontier, or “what’s the point of even trying”, may as well fiddle while Rome burns. But with everything arising in dependence on conditions, this means we are also part of those conditions - not all the conditions, but we certainly play our part.
Of course, it can be hard to sit in the in-between space between these two extremes, particularly if we are experiencing fear - fear for ourselves, for our loved ones, for the future of the planet. What can really help us here is cultivating love or Metta. This is not just an antidote to negative states of mind but is a force of its own - and has an ‘influence’ of its own.
One of my favourite poems by the Polish poet, Czesław Miłosz, is called “Love” and it starts with this verse:
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills—
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Seeing that “you are only one thing among many” is a recognition of conditionality, of our place in the greater scheme of things but, rather than this meaning we have no role to play, this actually leads to greater connection with others. By cultivating states of mind informed by love, generosity, openness and well-wishing (which we actively do in the practice of the Metta Bhavana meditation - the development of loving-kindness) we can influence the world around us for the better, and also help flatten the curve of fear, disconnection and blame.
We invite you to share your reflections on how the home retreat has been going for you in the comments below.
Read Vajragupta’s reflection focusing on distinguishing control from influence and watch a video of Yashosagar talking about the worldly winds
Read all the posts from the Sailing the Worldly Winds home retreat
Listen or download full guided instructions to the Metta Bhavana practice on Free Buddhist Audio