The final paramita, or practice leading to happiness, is Prajna, or Wisdom. This is not the wisdom that comes with age or long study. This is the wisdom of seeing what is actually happening in any given moment. This is discriminating awareness, which can tell the difference between our imagined storylines about what is going on, and what is true. It is the wisdom of clarity, and acceptance, and it requires more than a little awareness and courage. It is the wisdom of accurate reporting.
Awareness helps us to see what it is that we may not be seeing. Courage helps us to accept that things are not always as we think they are or wish them to be, and to remember that we are not in charge of the world or anyone in it.
One of the best ways to develop this clarity, courage and awareness is through meditation practice. Most kinds of meditation place some emphasis on these qualities and methods for deepening the skill of wisdom. However, if we don’t meditate, we can still practice open-mindedness, and pay attention to our lives in such a way that we become more connected to our wisdom.
We are constantly evaluating our circumstances and experiences to see if they meet our needs and desires or if they seem to be working against us. The first rule of wisdom is: Don’t take life so personally. When we take the events of our life too personally, we tend to react as if our safety is at stake with every unpleasant encounter. We forget to take other people’s feelings into consideration, becoming selfish. I want that last doughnut, therefore I will take it. Someone else might want it with equal strength of desire, which, by this standard, makes them equally worthy of it. We only see our own craving and we cannot rest until it is satisfied. Or, we don’t get what we want (someone else takes the doughnut) and then feel resentful, as if we were personally injured in some manner. This is the suffering of attachment, that a doughnut has the power to ruin our day. We also might make a big deal out of it if we get it – how fattening it is, how little will power we have, etc. The power we can bestow on a doughnut is endless. However, a doughnut is simply a doughnut. No more, no less.
When we are unhappy, we seek a reason for the unhappiness. If we can find no apparent reason, we make one up, as convincingly as possible. This is called the storyline. We barely notice we are making stuff up about our lives virtually every moment of the day. We want to have a reason for our feelings about our experience, so we allow ourselves to be easily convinced by our own stories. Usually it boils down to finding someone to blame. Someone did something wrong, so I feel bad. I don’t want to feel bad, so someone did something wrong. This must be rectified.
It doesn’t really matter at this point whether we believe it was us or someone else who erred, because we are already racing down that track of blame and recrimination for our unhappiness, running as fast as we can to get away from our discomfort. This will never solve the problem of how to deal with uncomfortable feelings, because the first – actually, the only – step is simply to stay with the feeling itself.
The nature of thoughts and feelings is that they arise, stick around a bit, and dissolve again. No matter what the content is – anger, grief, sorrow, self-hatred, lust, love, compassion, friendliness, joy, or equanimity – it will show up and then, after a bit, it will disappear. That is the nature of all phenomena. Mountains generally take longer to come and go than thoughts, but everything is subject to the same process. This is the fundamental impermanence we live with and struggle against as humans on planet Earth. Doughnuts continually arise and disappear throughout life, along with everything else. There have been other doughnuts and there will be more in the future. One doughnut is not really that important in the larger scheme of things. We could remind ourselves of this on those days when our story about a doughnut takes over and we lose our kindness.
The wisdom of prajna means using what is right here, right now, to experience the truth of impermanence without objecting to it or clinging to what we’d like to be different. Prajna, means allowing ourselves to understand that this present moment is the only reality, and that how we show up here and now, not what someone else is doing, is the only basis for our peace of mind. Prajna is seen as the natural culmination of the other paramitas – generosity, exertion, patience, meditation and discipline – and also as inextricably interwoven with each of them. How can any paramita exist without wisdom? All of the paramitas in fact do influence and complement each other. That means we can start anywhere and we will develop greater happiness and wisdom. This is the path out of suffering, for ourselves and thus for all beings with whom we come in contact.
© Copyright 2011 by Ker Cleary, LPC, therapist in Eugene, Oregon. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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