Causes & Conditions

Photo by Vladislav Babienko

At times, I have found it very useful to carry a particular phrase with me in meeting the experiences of day to day life. These helpful sayings serve as reminders of important things learned from teachers or through formal practice. They help me make space for wiser responding and for deepening insight. I am sharing some of these sayings with you in hopes that you too might find them useful. Better yet, may they inspire you to create helpful sayings your own!

“Causes and conditions” is a personal mantra I return to when I am feeling some distress about a difficulty I am encountering. In times of distress or confusion, I remind myself that there is an unending interplay of complex circumstances behind any given situation.This allows me to meet things with greater equanimity. I am more likely to suspend judgment and let go of expectations long enough to be more open and curious. Increased openness leads to greater awareness of what is actually here, creating space for better understanding and decision making.

A driver cuts me off in traffic… causes and conditions. A friend is curt and sharp in an interaction with me… causes and conditions. Rather than ruminating and telling myself unhelpful stories about why this happened and what it means about me, or others involved, or the state of the world in general, I see that it isn’t as clear-cut or personal as I think it is. I can entertain the possibility that I may never be able to work out completely the confluence of factors that allowed these events to germinate. I am more flexible. Things seem more workable. I can focus on what is within my greatest sphere of influence, accepting life’s inherent ambiguity and responding to uncertainty in a way that aligns with my highest values.

This mantra is useful with experiences that are pleasant and wanted as well. A colleague praises my work… causes and conditions. A class I am offering fills to capacity… causes and conditions. But, why not just respond reflexively to these seemingly beneficial events? What harm could there be in it? Wanted and unwanted, pleasant and unpleasant, are just two sides of the same coin. Or maybe we can imagine it as a seesaw (teeter-totter) – the very same mechanism that lifts us into great heights also sends us way down low. How can we imagine that we can let our minds indiscriminately react to its pleasant narratives and then expect to have the skill to be more discerning with painful narratives?

Causes and conditions doesn’t give license to abdicate responsibility or become totally indifferent. Rather, it allows us to be more discerning. We can check to see if our perceptions are congruent with this moment or if they are part of a story we are telling ourselves. We are able to notice urges and habits of mind as they arise so that there is an opportunity for deciding. This makes it more likely that the actions we take will be skillful, coming from our best heartfelt intentions.

Through repetition and experimentation, we may come to understand the deep interconnection and interdependence of all things. We begin to see that it is mind itself that is both cause and condition. Instead of being caught up in the afflictive emotions that arise from habitual or superficial interpretations of events, we can remain open to experience, seeing things more clearly and making time for consideration of a skillful response. Eventually, the need for the mantra falls away as the wisdom behind it is embodied.

It’s very freeing to see that events in my life are arising because of circumstances in which I’m involved, but that I’m not at the center of them in any particular way. They’re impersonal. They’re arising because of causes and conditions. They are not “me.” There is a profound freedom in this. It makes life much more peaceful and harmonious because I’m not in reaction to events all the time. – Phillip Moffitt

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