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Unloading the garbage mind

Unloading the garbage mind

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Heather took part in the Vajrasattva retreat at Sravasti Abbey in 2014. She continued doing purification practices after the retreat, and here she shares some thoughts on what she is learning from doing this.

One of the things that drew me to attend the Vajrasattva retreat at the Abbey this winter was that it was all about purification. For me, purification practice is about unloading all the garbage I’m carrying around that prevents me from doing what I know is beneficial. It’s looking at my actions and habits head on, seeing the suffering they have caused both others and myself, and changing course, going towards greater wisdom and compassion. It’s about clearing my distracted mind of clutter so that the teachings can penetrate and transform.

Heather with fellow retreatant, Cindy, in front of the Chenrezig Hall altar.

For me, purification practice is about unloading all the garbage I’m carrying around that prevents me from doing what I know is beneficial.

Spending month after month looking at your own garbage mind is humbling. Now, more than two years after I first started my ngöndro (preliminary) practices, the imprints it is making on my mind are ripening in an unmistakable way.

With the hope it might encourage others along the path, I’d like to share a few of the things I’ve learned from doing a daily purification practice.

I create my own happiness or suffering

We take with us on the path whatever we are experiencing. For more than two decades, my health has been a struggle, pain a steady companion. For the last two years, however, I had my health mostly “under control” or so I thought. Then earlier this year, what I’ve been doing for two years to keep the pain at bay stopped working. At first, I responded with anger, fighting bitterly to regain control. When I realized the futility in the fight, I progressed to mourning the loss.

Venerable Thubten Chodron says that grief is nothing more than adjusting to a change you didn’t want and I definitely didn’t want this. My mind quickly gravitated to all the things that I can no longer do, my physical limitations, all the expectations for the future that won’t happen, memories of a life of illness and depression before I met the Dharma.

But now I have met the Dharma. And remembering the many beautiful teachings I’ve received over the years, I am holding onto the one thing that I now know without a doubt: I create my own happiness and suffering. It is my choice how I proceeded from this moment forward, regardless of sickness or health.

There is only one thing in life worth doing

Inspired by the teachings and despite the pain, I have poured myself even more fervently into purification practice. It was time to drop the garbage and get serious about living a meaningful life.

You see, one of the most powerful (and frankly uncomfortable) things I’ve understood through doing purification is just how much I’ve contributed to the suffering of sentient beings—all the harm I’ve done directly, all the ways I’ve set others up to create their own suffering. All the harm I see in the world I’ve contributed to in some way, in some lifetime. In facing all the pain I’ve caused and continue to cause, it becomes clear to me that the only thing worth doing is bringing about its end. And as it turns out, that power resides in me just as it resides in each of us.

Making a connection

There are days when I can function quite normally and then there are days when I can barely move, but what I have to offer the world has nothing to do with the state of my physical body. I have the power to lessen the suffering of the world simply by having a happy mind, by being kind, by doing the taking and giving meditation, by being present to my experience, by transforming my own mind one prostration or one Vajrasattva mantra at a time.

Maybe that’s not enough to bring all beings to awakening today. Maybe right here, right now, I don’t have the wisdom to know how to be of greatest benefit to each sentient being that crosses my path, but what I can give them is an open and loving heart, creating a positive connection with them so that when the time comes (in this life, the next, or 100 lives from now) I can truly be of benefit, perhaps even an instrument of their awakening.

Right here, right now

I’ve heard the teachings. When I act unskillfully, it’s not because I don’t know better, but rather because my mind is distracted from my goals and values. By constantly bringing my mind back to the teachings, back to the right here and now, I’m free to approach life with a calm curiosity and an eagerness to be of benefit. What a different experience from my normal mode of being, when I embrace my experience exactly as it is.

I don’t know what the future holds. I don’t know if I’ll live another 40 years or only another 40 minutes. What I do know is that without a doubt, purification practice is transforming my life. All the things I thought mattered pale in the light of the glimpses of wisdom I have realized from the Buddha’s teachings through the kindness of my precious teachers.

Heather Mack Duchscher

Heather Mack Duchscher has been studying Buddhism since 2007. She first started following Venerable Chodron's teachings in January 2012 and began attending retreats at Sravasti Abbey in 2013.