Editor’s Note: The following is the sixth 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.
Snow whipped across the highway, dancing in blinding swirls like flames. Cars slowed from 70 miles per hour down to 45. The concrete surface was slick from freezing ice the day before. It wasn’t the most hospitable road out of town, but it was the only way to get where I was headed.
Highway 35 flows like a vertical vein up the state and empties into the north woods and our great lake, Lake Superior. I was on my way up 35 to meet a friend in the lakeside town of Two Harbors. Given the road conditions on this mid-January day, I figured our lunch date might turn into an early dinner.
As the snow on the road got denser, I became aware of holding my breath and of fear arising. I felt hands gripping the steering wheel, heart thumping with rising heat in the chest, moisture on the forehead, worry in the mind. Then a question arose.
Should I keep going? Or turn around?
To answer, I called on wisdom, or panna, the fourth parami in the Buddha’s cannon of ten qualities that the teachers in our lineage encourage us to practice in our daily lives.
In Pali, the word ‘panna’ is made up of ‘na’ which means to know and ‘pa’ which means correctly. So panna means to know correctly. Knowing correctly means knowing what really is.
I used to believe that wisdom could only be found outside of me and my direct experience—from teachers at universities, from encyclopedias and Wikipedias, from men or people with money and power. While we can all benefit from listening to trusted friends, I no longer think that external sources are the only place to find wisdom.
The deepest kind of wisdom isn’t something we have to go outside looking for at all. It isn’t something we need to poll experts on.
Wisdom is something that we already know.
The only trouble is, we often lose contact with wisdom. All too often our heart-mind, the citta, is not trained to listen to or see wisdom clearly. Training ourselves in being fully present in the moment clears the way for wisdom to emerge—even in times when there’s little visibility on the road, literally.
So how do we train the citta to see clearly?
Early Buddhist texts explain that the proximate cause of wisdom is concentration. In the first three paramis, we set the stage for concentration to emerge. When lay practitioners practice generosity, morality, and renunciation, we support concentration.
Once this concentration is in place, we gain access to an internal flashlight that funnels a bright light into confusion and chaos. When we start looking at things with this flashlight, panna emerges and helps us see what really is. At the most profound level, panna helps us see deep truths—like impermanence, dukkha, and anatta.
Panna can also help us see what’s right in front of us in daily life, even on a snowy highway in Minnesota.
The more I concentrated on the direct experience of driving in the storm that January morning, the more I could feel each moment. This moment-by-moment diary helped me answer the big question, “Should I turn around?”
I felt my tires slip and slide on the intermittent ice and then saw contractions in the heart. I felt fear pass away on patches of dry road. I saw cars ahead of me disappear under clouds of billowing snow and renewed contractions in the heart. I experienced feelings of disappointment and sadness. I watched a storyline about how my friend would hate me if I missed our lunch. Then I felt compassion for myself. This deep respect and caring grew stronger than my desire for lunch in Two Harbors.
Time to turn around.
A month later, I tried again. The conditions were very different. The February sky was clear, the roads smooth and ice-free. This time, I sailed up 35 and had a delightful visit with my friend. Neither set of conditions or outcome was better or worse; they were just different. Each required unique responses that came from listening and looking closely inside our direct experience. Grounded in panna, we feel protected and safe no matter the conditions or outcome.