In any other context, aside from when referring to the band Nirvana (which I love), I don’t care for the word nirvana. Years of false societal conditioning have led me to paint this highly ridiculous concept of what nirvana means. When I come across the word nirvana, I imagine this pie-in-the-sky, ephemeral land where nothing bad ever happens, that one either enters after they die or when they become enlightened (which is another word I don’t care for). I imagine nirvana to be some kind of other-worldly place, where unicorns trot around and there’s never a cloud in the sky.
In actuality, nirvana means: the extinction of notions.
I’ve been working on this topic of nirvana for a teaching based talk that I am giving tonight at my local sangha, Be Here Now, which will be a joint talk with my husband Mike. He and I have been offering these joint talks now, once a year, since 2014. They afford us the opportunity to collaborate on Buddhist based teachings, which is something we’re invested in together as a couple. I find it especially enjoyable to work together with him given that he and I have different strong suits in how we think about, approach, and incorporate the practice into our lives. From a Buddhist psychology perspective, Mike is more skilled at approaching things from the ultimate dimension, whereas I am more skilled at approaching from the historical dimension. As both are equally important, our ability to join forces then has the potential to speak on a variety of levels to a wider variety of people. In short, the ultimate dimension is often referred to as being like the ocean (or the undercurrent which guides and propels life), with the historical dimension being like the waves (which is us, on an individual level) – while we are each a wave, we are also the ocean, comprised of the same water (or life force/energy) which connects us all.
(UPDATED POST: Here’s a link to the audio file from this talk that Mike & I gave on Monday evening, October 17th. http://www.openway.org/content/joint-talk-nirvana-mike-nicole)
When I think of what nirvana actually means, the extinction of notions, it helps me to connect more with this word when I come across it, instead of shirking away from it as some fictitious concept. However, we want to be careful not to get caught in the form of this teaching. Meaning, it would not be a wise goal to set for ourselves to become completely free of all notions, stories, judgments, and thoughts at some undisclosed time in the far off future. This isn’t realistic. Instead, we must use our own intelligence and discernment process to find ways of enfolding the teaching of nirvana into our everyday life, moment by moment.
How do we do this? How do we incorporate nirvana as a practice? What came up for me around this was to explain nirvana as follows:
Nirvana is an action based on the culmination of mindfulness, concentration, and insight.
When we develop our capacity of mindfulness, which over time leads to our ability to develop concentration, which leads to the development of insights, the actions that result as a culmination of this transformational process can be called nirvana. Nirvana is not some other place or time that is separate from what is possible in the here and now. Nirvana is about coming into relationship with ourselves in a full, clear, uncluttered, and unbiased way.
The metaphor that arose for me around trying to further explain this process was that of a mental suitcase. Now, as a disclaimer, I want to offer that, as with most metaphors, we would do well not to adhere too tightly to the metaphor I’m about to suggest. It’s meant to simply try and help provide some additional understanding – if we start asking too much of the metaphor, it’s probably time to set it aside and forget about it altogether.
Imagine that you are preparing to fly to Hawaii. With checked baggage fees what they are, we will most likely want to pack lightly, bringing only what we really need to enjoy our tropical vacation. We will want to spend time making sure that what we’re packing with us in our suitcase will be useful and beneficial to us in our travels, and suit the climate in which we’re headed. For instance, we would easily decide that our winter coat, snow boots, winter hat, and wool socks would not suit us on the beaches of Hawaii, thus choosing not to pack those. We would, however, want to be sure we brought along our swimsuit, sunscreen, and sandals. The process of enveloping nirvana into our everyday lives is the same. We can ask ourselves: What have I packed along with me, in my mental suitcase, into this situation/experience? We become inquisitive, asking ourselves questions regarding what we discover. We investigate what’s going on inside of ourselves. If we see that we’ve brought along frustration with us into a certain situation we can ask ourselves questions like: Where is this frustration coming from? Why am I feeling frustrated? What story/thought/judgment/idea is fueling this frustration? Is this feeling enjoyable? Is it benefiting me right now? Is it helpful? Am I sure?
Once we use our abilities of mindfulness and concentration to become aware of what we’re feeling, and investigate the causes of that feeling, we can then develop the insights that will eventually lead us to taking action, in order to transform our suffering. The more we connect with mindfulness, concentration, and insight, the stronger our foundation becomes in learning how to skillfully practice letting go.
Nirvana can also be described as the art of letting go.
It’s worth mentioning a couple of things:
One: Insights tend to happen over and over. Just because an insight becomes clear one time, doesn’t mean we’ve now successfully learned from that insight and will be good to go from then on. Chances are, we’ll need to come upon an insight over and over again, before we’re able to really use it to transform our situation. This doesn’t mean each insight we have isn’t important! Every single time we have the same insight about some part of ourselves, or a certain situation, is crucial. The more we become inquisitive about what’s going on in our mental suitcase, the stronger our foundation becomes in being able to let go of the ties that bind us.
Two: Letting go can sometimes sound really easy, as in, “Oh, just let it go, it’s no big deal.” But letting go is not easy, it will take time. Our habit energies are very strong, like rip tides in the ocean. We will need to practice diligently in order to develop this art. And every time we practice mindfulness, every time we practice concentration, and every time we develop an insight is an important step to take in the direction of cultivating nirvana – cultivating the art of letting go.
Mike plans on using his portion of the talk to introduce the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which to us are yet another way of explaining what nirvana is all about and how to practice with it.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says, in the Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: “Experience always goes beyond ideas.” We need to develop and learn concrete ways to practice with Buddhist based and mindfulness based teachings, otherwise they have a high risk of becoming mere concepts that we intellectualize. It is Mike and I’s hope that we can aid others in doing just that.