Learning to Yearn Skillfully

Learning to Yearn Skillfully

A reflection on practice by Brian Lesage

So the Story goes… the Buddha’s journey on the spiritual path begins with him leaving home – exiting the palace gates and setting off into the simple and austere life of a renunciate. When I take a moment to slow down and imagine this kind of radical life change, I think, “Wow, to begin such a journey requires a deep and profound passion.” In this way, I have noticed when I am skillfully passionate about my own spiritual journey, deeper dimensions of the Dharma are revealed. I experience a yearning that carries me out the gates of my own “palace” and leads me onto the path of awakening.

In the Pali canon, the Buddha alludes to this skillful passion or yearning as a key ingredient. As an example, one of the four bases of power (Iddhipada) needed for the spiritual path is chanda, which, in this context, is the wholesome desire we need to move forward on a spiritual journey. This chanda has been an essential factor in my life. When I left the life of being a Zen monk, I was thrown out into the world where I needed to make all kinds of life decisions. I was bewildered. Although by entering the monastery I had stepped onto the path and gained the skill of simply being with the unfolding of experience, I hadn’t developed the skills to keep me from returning to the “palace.” I hadn’t fully developed the skill of yearning that would carry my spiritual practice forward once I’d left the monastery.

I have found that learning to yearn skillfully is a refined art. Passion can easily be confused with craving and clinging, which just leads to more stress rather than more freedom. Learning to yearn skillfully not only provides the wholesome energy to move forward on the path; it also leads to a deepening relationship with the Dharma. Wholesome passion deepens mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom when harnessed skillfully.

How can you distinguish between skillful and unskillful yearning?

First, look at how they are similar. Both wholesome passion and unwholesome craving pull the heart/mind to something that is not here but is over there, to something not present in this moment.

Now, consider how they are different. For wholesome passion, you feel a pull to there in a way that actually opens up what’s here. With unwholesome craving, the pull to there happens in a way that what is here disappears.

Here is an example to help make sense of these similarities and differences: Let’s say I want to get to the top of a mountain….

When the heart is filled with a wholesome passion for reaching the top of the mountain, it infuses each step with a quality of presence and patience. The wholesome passion brings the energy needed to fully be with each step. This opens up depth and dimensionality to the entire journey to the top. The journey is not different from the destination and each mountain top we come to is simply a new vantage point to view the whole path, to steer our course away from the “palace” towards the ripening of our spiritual path.

When the heart is filled with unwholesome craving for reaching the top of the mountain, the mind is consumed with thoughts about the top of the mountain itself. It obsesses over how I am not there yet. Each step is overridden by fantasies about the top of the mountain. Exhaustion, distraction, and discouragement can easily arise and the mountain top recedes. Even if we were to reach the top, it can lead to craving for the next mountain or for a return to the “palace.”

A quote attributed to Antoine de Saint Exupery captures this journey. “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the people to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” Can you learn to yearn skillfully? Can you learn to yearn for this vast and endless sea, this journey out of the ignorance of the palace life and into the heart of the Dharma?

May you learn to yearn skillfully in a way that brings freedom to our world.

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