Pretzels and the Paramis

Editor’s Note: The following is the second in a series of posts by Nora Murphy about the “10 paramis,” or qualities of heart-mind. With these posts, she’ll take an informal, personal approach to each of the paramis, in an effort to reveal the simple, everyday lesson in each.

Nibbling on stale pretzels and surfing the Internet for teaching jobs in Asia are not typically associated with cultivating the ten paramis. But that’s where today’s investigation has led me, my laptop, and Marvin Gaye who is crooning in the background. Instead of feeling inspired, the three of us are parched. Well, the laptop is overheating, Marvin Gaye doesn’t have any healing left to give, and I’m dry.

The paramis, or perfections, are ten critical characteristics of heart/mind required to become a buddha. The good news is that lay people can develop these qualities, too. In fact, Kamala Masters had encouraged those of us who attended the TCVC retreat last June to practice the paramis at home. I hope to visit each of the ten paramis in this blog before Kamala gets back to Minnesota in June 2012. But here at home today, generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, resolution, loving kindness, and equanimity, feel desperately far away.

Still, if we take seriously the idea that everything we need is always right here in the present moment, is there something to learn from my pretzel-like twists and turns?

I began the afternoon with a simple idea. What if I looked at the paramis in pairs? Five, I reasoned, would be easier to remember than ten. So I wrote each parami on a green sticky note and pressed them onto my kitchen wall. Then I scanned the wobbly vertical list until I reached the middle—the part you can never remember because it doesn’t rate high enough for the kick-off or finale. Can you guess what pair of paramis hide there?

Turns out that the middle pair, or fifth and sixth paramis, is composed of energy (viriya) and patience (khanti). Humans need energy to move—in any direction. If we don’t have energy we can’t sit or walk or sleep. We need energy to meditate and offer compassion. Without energy, we can’t even stare at lists on kitchen walls and we certainly can’t become a buddha. We also need energy to be patient. Patience is not like the kinetic energy needed to run a marathon or sit a ten-day retreat. Patience is stored up energy. It’s the quiet inner energy that holes up, watches, and waits. Its inherent wisdom knows when not to act.

When practiced in tandem, energy and patience balance and help each other. Without energy, patience can freeze into listlessness or inaction. Without patience, energy can become wild and unruly. The latter is what happened to me today.

I started a mental story imagining energy as fuel, like food for the heart/mind. If energy and patience fuel us, might they represent a metaphorical digestive system? Perhaps the other parami pairs reflect body systems, too. Virtue and metta might be like our muscles. Through them we flex our inner ideals and bring them into the world, like a person with toned biceps chops firewood. Renunciation and resolution are like the immune system, protecting us from inner and outer harm.

Rather than sit with this analogy quietly, or with patience, my mind spun out of control. It convinced me to turn on the Internet to do some research on human body systems. Yet, the more I clicked, the more I desperate I felt. None of the definitions I found quite fit my pairs. I mean, are truthfulness and wisdom really like the circulatory system, representing blood and the heart pump? No. But I wanted my analogy to fit.

In this grasping, I lost contact with mindfulness. I craved more fuel, so I grabbed an old bag of pretzels and started nibbling to cover up my dissatisfaction. Next thing I knew, my energetic mind was careening through web sites and searching for teaching jobs in Asia, Burma preferably, where, I told myself, I would finally settle down and perfect the paramis. By the time I remembered to check in with my breath and my body, I was woozy from all the undigested information at my fingertips. Without mindfulness, my mouth was dry from too many pretzels and I had lost both energy and patience.

A Sri Lankan monk once said that we need aspiration as a precursor for the paramis. I began this investigation with plenty of aspiration, but discovered what happens when the mind takes over. Aspiration has to be grounded in the heart and body, not lost in the mind. The parami of energy has to be balanced with its near-neighbors, wisdom and patience. Those near-neighbors, need their near-neighbors—renunciation and truthfulness. Otherwise, you might end up parched, tired, and deceiving yourself. Next time, I’ll skip the big ideas and start like the Buddha did, at the beginning.

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