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-Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel
Absolute bodhicitta refers to the sixth paramita of wisdom, which specifically means seeing the nature of reality without mistake. This isn’t something philosophical or highfalutin; it has to do with being realistic about the ways of the world and who you are in it.
At the dawn of the Buddha’s awakening he said something curious and potent. He said: “This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that becomes not; from the cessation of this, that ceases.” A simpler way to frame this is to say that everything arises, presents itself, and falls away due to infinite causes and conditions. In the sutras the Buddha used the analogy of two bundles of reeds leaning up against each other to illustrate that if one were to knock over one bundle, the other would, as a result, fall to the ground. Everything “stands” by virtue of something else. In essence, everything leans. This being, that becomes—and because this falls, that falls.
The Buddha referred to phenomena’s mutual dependency as pratityasamutpada: “dependent arising,” “the nature of contingency,” or “dependent origination,” among other translations.
At first glance, dependent arising sounds simple and obvious, but it has deep implications. The Buddha is saying that what you call “experience” or “life” is generated by the activity of causes and conditions—infinite elements bumping up against, interrupting, and influencing each other. If you were to explore dependent arising in a nuanced way, as is done in the Mahayana tradition of analytical meditation, you would find that there is no singular thing that is whole and not made of parts. You would also find that because everything shares a relationship of mutual dependency, inertia is not possible. It is because everything leans that movement, perception, and creative expression can even happen.
For a moment, try to imagine the world: perhaps you envision the earth as seen from space or recall images from the morning news. But you would be hard pressed to find “the” world, because “it” is not a singular, permanent, or independent “thing.” We all perceive life differently depending on our mood, physical constitution, cultural background, and beliefs. There are as many worldviews as living beings, but who could possibly verify if any one of them is “true”? Yes, you have views—everyone does—but life will always continue to burst from the seams of your ideas.
To the degree that you assume things exist as you think they do, you will also walk through life with less and less sense of wonder. In contemporary culture, capturing truth is paramount; we don’t put a lot of value in wonder and awe. You might appreciate those moments when you look up at the stars and feel amazed by the mystery of what might lie in such a vast expanse. But you might also think that the mind of humility and openness have little practical purpose amid the gritty realities of daily life where you have to make serious decisions to work and survive.
The teachings on absolute bodhicitta, however, suggest otherwise. Awe and humility actually provide a critical function when it comes to our own and others’ wellbeing. When you deprive your mind of curiosity and openness, even your noblest endeavors become militaristic and righteous.
Because we misunderstand the open-dimensional nature of contingent relationships, we at times try to fix the world. You might sweep into a situation in order to put things in order with a strong conviction that you know what’s going on and how you will change it. Perhaps you think you’ve got all the players pegged and already know what motivates them. But when all of your ideas congregate around the truth of your own hypothesis, it won’t even occur to you that someone may have something else to offer or that there is something you yourself can learn.
The flip side of thinking you can fix things reveals something altogether different. In your failed attempt to change a situation, you might fall into despair. Suddenly, the world and all its problems overwhelm you. You only see things in a singular way and feel doomed. In forgetting that life is far from singular, you will miss the beauty of an autumn leaf falling from a tree, or fail to notice someone courageously risking her life to help another. You will forget about the laughter that comes from seeing the irony of things and of the resilience of others despite their challenges of being alive. Absolute bodhicitta reminds us that the world is many things—as many things as you can possibly imagine it to be. The practice of absolute bodhicitta is to bear witness to this infinite complexity, and to allow the beauty, poignancy, and pain of it all to touch you.
The practical nature of awe allows the mind to bear witness to the fathomless nature of contingency without shutting down around definitive conclusions. Such a mind is humble and curious, poised to recognize the nature of reality and protected from fundamentalism and doubt. You will recognize the practical nature of awe when despair becomes compassion; righteous indignation transforms into openness and humility; and the tendency to want to fix things turns into a natural, unhindered longing to respond.
Bodhicitta is the path of understanding who you are in the fathomless nature of infinite contingency, and then developing the skills to navigate this reality—your life—in a way that is awakening for both yourself and for others. If you understand that everything leans, you will also understand that everything you do matters. This is why the bodhisattva engages in a fierce commitment to serve others, by doing so emerging from the confusion of a separate, confined self.
So you might ask yourself, as a citizen of the great nature of infinite contingency, what might you do with your life? How can you utilize it in a meaningful way? How will you burn with love in this unfixable world?
The Four Noble Truths
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– Mark Knickelbine
According to the Pali Canon, the very first teaching Gotama gave after his awakening was what we have come to know as the Four Noble Truths. This concept is foundational to all traditions that we call Buddhism, Secular Buddhism included. Although the Four Noble Truths are a basic common to most all practitioners understanding, unfortunately, they are also the most widely misunderstood.
Here is the Buddhism 101 version.
The Four Noble Truths
1. Life means suffering.
2. The origin of suffering is attachment.
3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.
4. The path to the cessation of suffering.
We notice that these are truth statements about the world, a set of propositions to be believed, not unlike the Apostle’s Creed in Christianity. On the basis of such a creed, it’s no wonder Buddhism has the reputation of being a rather dour and pessimistic belief system. Life means suffering? Most people will readily recall moments of beauty and happiness in their lives, and they feel justified in seeking more such moments. The Buddhism expressed here offers only the cessation of suffering, which sounds like typical religious pie in the sky. That pie lies on the other side of a path – the Eightfold Path – that also has a familiar ring to it: Right View, Right Thought, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. Two fewer commandments than Judeo-Christian religion, but the message seems the same: Do everything right and all your troubles will be over.
A look at how Gotama is recorded as delivering these understanding in his First Teaching reveals something much different than the stock presentation we may be used to.
This is dukkha: birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, encountering what is not dear is dukkha, separation from what is dear is dukkha, not getting what one wants is dukkha. This psychophysical condition is dukkha.
This is the arising: it is craving which is repetitive, wallowing in attachment and greed, obsessively indulging in this and that: craving for stimulation, craving for existence, craving for non-existence.
This is the ceasing: the traceless fading away and cessation of that craving, the letting go and abandoning of it, freedom and independence from it.
And this is the path: the path with eight branches: right vision, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, concentration.
The first thing we notice is that Gotama doesn’t say, “Life is suffering.” The word usually translated as “suffering” is dukkha, and as Gotama uses the word above, we can see that it is much more complex than just suffering. It is a characteristic of our lived experience which we encounter when we confront the realities of the human condition: sickness, ageing, death, the inability to get what we want and the necessity of putting up with what we don’t want. Dukkha is what it’s like to be a human being.
As a result of our vulnerability and dissatisfaction, craving arises. Again, this is more than just “attachment”. Gotama calls it an obsession: we crave for mental and physical stimulation; we crave to be better, smarter, more attractive, wealthier, more powerful, more loveable, more spiritual; and we crave non-existence, invisibility, that our faults and weaknesses could disappear, that our brokenness will not be seen by others. In other words, we crave that human life not be what it is, and so that craving can never be satisfied, but will continue to drive us on the ultimate wild goose chase. That set of futile compulsions defines how we see ourselves and the world; it becomes who we are.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Gotama’s teaching and the stock Buddhism 101 version is the third truth. It is not suffering that ceases, it is cravingthat ceases. In other words, it’s possible to come into a different relationship to the reality of our life that enables us to drop craving and be free of its wallowing, obsessive compulsions.
Notice that in this presentation, Gotama doesn’t call the eight-branched path “the path to the cessation of suffering.” In fact, its placement at the end of the four truths can be seen as the culmination of what has gone before, the kind of life that becomes available to us when we can experience freedom from our habitual craving reaction to dukkha.
So how do we get to this freedom? Gotama next restates the four truths in a surprising way:
Such is dukkha. It can be fully known. It has been fully known.
Such is the arising. It can be let go of. It has been let go of.
Such is the ceasing. It can be experienced. It has been experienced.
Such is the path. It can be cultivated. It has been cultivated.
Here we see that the four truths are prescriptions for action. When we fully know dukkha – when we see how it pervades our lives, and how it arises inevitably from our existential predicament – we can realize the futility of our craving for life to be other than it is, and let go of that craving. And as we let go, craving ceases, and we are free to cultivate a new way of life.
Notice that the Eightfold Path isn’t linear, but circular and self-reinforcing. It appears to end with Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration, but until we can view the world with minds that are at least a little stable and calm (and so discover that equanimity is possible), we can’t have the Right View that puts our feet on the path to begin with.
We are to bring mindful awareness to every aspect of our lives – how we think, speak and act, how we work, what we strive for. Our mindfulness and concentration will grow, and we become increasingly free of our craving reactivity. In turn our awareness deepens and we continue to embrace of the path.
At the end of this First Teaching, Gotama’s first convert expresses his understanding this way: “Whatever arises, ceases.” This is the simplest expression of another foundational element of Gotama’s teaching, dependent arising. This is the understanding that nothing has an independent, fixed existence but arises and ceases within an ever changing matrix of conditions. The Four Noble Truths, then, are the ramifications of dependent arising for the human condition. When we fully internalize the shifting, unreliable, ungraspable nature of our experience, we will see that there is nothing to grasp for and so no reason for grasping. It will be clear that our craving is based on a mistaken understanding of life, and we can begin to let go and see our way more clearly, free to respond to the world as it actually is.
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Being Completely Human
-Stephen Batchelor on the Four Noble Tasks
1. general dissatisfaction is experienced
2. caused by ignorance & clinging
3. release can be realized
4. by following a harmonious 8 fold path
Now when you actually read the text itself, the first sermon, you find that it concludes, not with an affirmation of the Four Noble Truths, but the Buddha states, and I’m quoting from memory: “It was not until my knowledge and vision was entirely clear about the twelve aspects of these Four, that I could consider myself to have achieved a peerless awakening in this world.” And when he explains what the twelve aspects of these Four are, it turns out that each of these points—dukkha, samudaya, nirodha; magga— are tasks to be recognized, to be performed, and to be accomplished. So, rather than Four Noble Truths, we have Four Noble Tasks. And that makes all the difference.
As soon as you make that paradigmatic shift from Truth to Task everything changes. You’re no longer in the business of persuading people that life is suffering. It’s curious that Christians and Buddhists share a similar problem here, in a totally different way. Buddhists believe that everything is suffering, Christians believe that God is Good, and both then have to or have spilled gallons of ink trying to show how that’s true. Buddhists have to explain why people are sometimes terribly happy—they experience great joy without meditating or anything. And, of course, the answer will be well, they’re not really happy. No, no, no—real happiness is really something quite different and we happen to have the way to attain it. And then Christians have to somehow explain how an all-good and loving God can create a world in which there is so much misery. It’s called the theological discipline of theodicy, justifying God’s creating a world that is obviously imperfect. In both cases, Buddhists and Christians then get stuck in trying to prove themselves to be right. And, I think, in doing so, they both totally miss the point. I can’t comment on Christianity—let’s stick with Buddhism.
Whereas if you think of dukkha, suffering, not as an element within a proposition, “Life is suffering,” but as a task to be performed and the task in this case, as the Buddha says quite clearly… dukkha is to be fully understood, dukkha is to be embraced, dukkha is to be accepted in a deep, calm, insightful way. Craving is not something that has to be proven to be the origin of dukkha, which again is theologically, a very difficult one to understand what that means. But rather, craving is to be let go of. It becomes a task: when craving arises, grasping, fear, attachment, when these things arise, the task is somehow to let that go. When you experience moments in which that movement of attachment and grasping and so forth has come to a stop—and again, this is not some remote experience that we’ll only achieve after years or lifetimes of meditation. When you experience the stopping of grasping within your own heart and mind, that is to be experienced fully. And when the path, when a way of life, begins to open up that’s not premised on craving or attachment or fear or wanting, then that path is to be cultivated. That’s the task that is suggested by the Buddha.
So you have, in other words, Four Tasks, and we don’t have time this evening, but each of these taks, I feel, leads to the next one. They’re all interlinked. And, although this is slightly tongue-in-cheek, I think they can be reduced to the acronym ELSA, E.-L.-S.-A., ELSA: Embrace dukkha, Let Go of grasping, Stop grasping, and Act. Do something, in other words: think, speak, physically act; get on with your work. If we think of the Four [Noble Truths, in brackets] in this way, we have a framework for living in this world, here and now.
ELSA can operate in any moment of our life. Every situation gives us the opportunity to embrace it with clarity, with understanding, to let go of our habitual reactivity, our dogmatic beliefs, our desires, our fears, to open up to a still, quiet, transparent space in which we somehow come to rest, even for a moment, and from that space, which is not conditioned by grasping, we can respond. We can say something, do something that comes from the depths of ourselves rather than from our habitual beliefs and opinions and our ego, basically. And that, I feel, captures the essential movement of the Dhamma. Again, we see here the contrast between a truth and believing in it as something essentially static, as opposed to a task, which is a constant embrace and response—an embrace of and a response to the condition of life as it presents itself to us right now. Whether that’s going on within us, whether it’s in a social environment, whether it’s in a political environment, this offers us a framework or a template for living.
A Bright Mind
-Ajaan Suwat Suvaco
As for the mind, we cleanse it by meditating. We use mindfulness to look after the heart, to make sure it doesn’t get involved in grasping or aversion. We keep it uplifted, blooming and bright in its meditation, in investigating the Dhamma, knowing the Dhamma, seeing the Dhamma, until it settles down in the stillness that we’ve developed and kept composed. We keep it blooming and bright. Wherever you go, this is how you should practice. Make your composure continuous. The mind will then gain strength, so that it can let go of its obsessive thoughts and stay focused: at peace and at ease, bright and clear, staying right here.
Luminous Mind Compilation | From the Buddha & the Dalai Lama
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AN 1.31-40 PTS: A i 5
Adanta Suttas: Untamed (excerpt) | The Buddha
31. I know not of any other single thing so intractable as the untamed mind. The untamed mind is indeed a thing untractable.
32. I know not of any other thing so tractable as the tamed mind. The tamed mind is indeed a thing tractable.
33. I know not of any other single thing so conducive to great loss as the untamed mind. The untamed mind indeed conduces to great loss.
34. I know not of any other single thing so conducive to great profit as the tamed mind. The tamed mind indeed conduces to great profit.
39. I know not of any other single thing that brings such woe as the mind that is untamed, uncontrolled, unguarded and unrestrained. Such a mind indeed brings great woe.
40. I know not of any other single thing that brings such bliss as the mind that is tamed, controlled, guarded and restrained. Such a mind indeed brings great bliss.”
AN 1.49-52 PTS: A i 10
Pabhassara Sutta: Luminous | The Buddha
Translation: Thanissaro Bhikkhu
“Luminous is the mind!
When it is clouded by incoming defilements,
the ordinary person doesn’t discern this
as it actually is— present.
That is why I tell you
— for the ordinary person,
there is no development of the luminouis mind.”
“Luminous is the mind!
When it is cleared from incoming defilements,
the well-instructed contemplative person discerns this as it actually is present.
That is why I tell you
— for the well-instructed comtemplative person.
there is development of the luminous mind.”
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox. (Verse 1)
-Translator: Acharya Buddharakkhita
Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart. If you speak or act with a corrupted heart, then suffering follows you — as the wheel of the cart, the track of the ox that pulls it.
-Translator: Thanissaro Bhikkhu
AN 3.100 (xi-xv) PTS: A i 255
Nimitta Sutta: Themes | The Buddha
One intent on luminous mind should attend periodically to three themes:
1. One should attend periodically to the theme of concentration;
2. One should attend periodically to the theme of uplifted energy;
3. One should attend periodically to the theme of equanimity.
If one intent on heightened mind were to attend solely to the theme of concentration, it is possible that his mind would tend to laziness.
If he were to attend solely to the theme of uplifted energy, it is possible that his mind would tend to restlessness.
If he were to attend solely to the theme of equanimity, it is possible that his mind would not be rightly concentrated for the ending of the mental agitations.
But when he attends periodically to the theme of concentration, attends periodically to the theme of uplifted energy, attends periodically to the theme of equanimity, his mind is pliant, malleable, luminous, & not brittle. It is rightly centered for the stopping of the fermentations.
Luminosity of the Mind
– HH Dalai Lama
In relation to the nature of mind, what is luminosity? In this respect it might be interesting to reflect on a passage which one finds in certain texts which says that ‘between the arisal of different instances of conceptual thought, the clear light nature of mind arises uninterruptedly’.
Say you look at an object which doesn’t have bright colours but is rather subdued in colour and not very attractive. And you look at it for a while. Then, while looking at this object, you make the determination: ‘I shall retain my concentration in order to focus my attention upon my own perception, upon my own experience. And I shall not allow myself to be distracted by other objects, external or internal.’ With such mindfulness you will be able to recognize the very moment your mind is distracted. For example, you hear a beautiful tune and you are distracted by it, but you immediately realise you are distracted, reinforce your mindfulness, and withdraw from it. Similarly, if you recollect past events, you will immediately realise that you have become distracted. Or if you have preconceptions of the future, you will also be able to identify that your mind has become distracted.
So, normally, it is these types of thoughts which come into being at any given moment and which obscure the essential nature of our minds. When this technique of mindfulness is utilised, therefore, of maintaining attention on the perception of the object in front of us, as and when a distraction arises, we are able to identify it and to withdraw from such distractions. Thus, eventually all these conceptual events, the cognitive processes that obscure the natural state of the mind, will be cleared away. And the result will be a very stable and lucid state of mind.
The mind is an affirmative phenomenon, but on the ordinary level it is obscured by concepts, different states of thinking and preconceptions, and so on. In order to recognize the essential nature of the mind, therefore, we have to peel off these different layers and clear away these obscurations. Then we shall see the true face of our own minds.
If you undertake such practices, such experiments, when you say ‘consciousness’, it will not be a mere word. You will be able to understand what it is. Consciousness is a phenomenon that is nonobstructive; it is nonphysical and has the quality of luminosity. It is analogous to a crystal. If a crystal is placed on a coloured surface, the real clarity of that crystal will not be seen. If it is removed from anything coloured, however, then its real form will be seen.
The luminosity of the mind, the nature of clarity of the mind, is something that I cannot simply explain in words to you. But if you undertake this kind of experiment on your own, you will begin to understand,’ Ah, that’s the luminosity of the mind!’
Meditation practice doesn’t save all its pleasure for the end. You can enjoy it now.
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Commentary on the Pali Canon by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
The primary technique the Buddha taught his son was breath meditation. The Buddha recommended sixteen steps in dealing with the breath [see bottom of page]. The first two involve straightforward instructions; the rest raise questions to be explored. In this way, the breath becomes a vehicle for exercising your ingenuity in solving the problems of the mind, and exercising your sensitivity in gauging the results.
To begin, simply notice when the breath is long and when it’s short. In the remaining steps, though, you train yourself. In other words, you have to figure out for yourself how to do what the Buddha recommends. The first two trainings are to breathe in and out sensitive to the entire body, then to calm the effect that the breath has on the body. How do you do that? You experiment. What rhythm of breathing, what way of conceiving the breath calms its effect on the body? Try thinking of the breath not as the air coming in and out of the lungs but as the energy flow throughout the body that draws the air in and out. Where do you feel that energy flow? Think of it as flowing in and out the back of your neck, in your feet and hands, along the nerves and blood vessels, in your bones. Think of it coming in and out every pore of your skin. Where is it blocked? How do you dissolve the blockages? By breathing through them? Around them? Straight into them? See what works.
As you play around with the breath in this way, you’ll make some mistakes—I’ve sometimes given myself a headache by forcing the breath too much—but with the right attitude the mistakes become a way to learn how your perceptions shape the way you breathe. You’ll also catch yourself getting impatient or frustrated, but then you’ll see that when you breathe through these emotions, they go away. You’re beginning to see the impact of the breath on the mind.
The next step is to breathe in and out with a sense of refreshing fullness and a sense of ease. Here, too, you’ll need to experiment both with the way you breathe and with the way you conceive of the breath. Notice how these feelings and conceptions have an impact on the mind and how you can calm that impact so the mind feels most at ease.
Then, when the breath is calm and you’ve been refreshed by feelings of ease and stillness, you’re ready to look at the mind itself. You don’t leave the breath, though. You adjust your attention slightly so that you’re watching the mind as it stays with the breath. Here the Buddha recommends three areas for experimentation: Notice how to gladden the mind when it needs gladdening, how to steady it when it needs steadying, and how to release it from its attachments and burdens when it’s ready for release.
Sometimes the gladdening and steadying will require bringing in other topics for contemplation. For instance, to gladden the mind, you can develop an attitude of infinite goodwill or recollect the times in the past when you’ve been virtuous or generous. To steady the mind when it’s been knocked over by lust or to reestablish your focus when you’re drowsy or complacent, you can contemplate death, realizing that death could come at any time and you need to prepare your mind if you’re going to face it with any finesse. At other times, you can gladden or steady the mind simply by the way you focus on the breath itself. For instance, breathing down into your hands and feet can really anchor the mind when its concentration has become shaky. When one spot in the body isn’t enough to hold your interest, try focusing on the breath in two spots at once.
The important point is that you’ve now put yourself in a position where you can experiment with the mind and read the results of your experiments with greater and greater accuracy. You can try exploring these skills off the cushion as well: How do you gladden the mind when you’re sick? How do you steady the mind when dealing with a difficult person?
As for releasing the mind from its burdens, you prepare for the ultimate freedom of nirvana first by releasing the mind from any awkwardness in its concentration. Once the mind has settled down, check to see if there are any ways you can refine the stillness. For instance, in the beginning stages of concentration you need to keep directing your thoughts to the breath, evaluating and adjusting it to make it more agreeable. But eventually the mind grows so still that evaluating the breath is no longer necessary. So you figure out how to make the mind one with the breath, and in that way you release the mind into a more intense and refreshing state of ease.
As you expand your skills in this way, the intentions that you’ve been using to shape your experience of body and mind become more and more transparent. At this point, the Buddha suggests revisiting the theme of inconstancy, learning to look for it in the effects of every intention. You see that even the best states produced by skillful intentions—the most solid and refined states of concentration—waver and change. Realizing this induces a sense of disenchantment with and dispassion for all intentions. You see that the only way to get beyond this changeability is to allow all intentions to cease. You watch as everything is relinquished, including the path. What’s left is unconditioned: the deathless. Your desire to explore the breath has taken you beyond desiring, beyond the breath, all the way to nirvana.
But the path doesn’t save all its pleasures for the end. It takes the daunting prospect of reaching full awakening and breaks it down into manageable interim goals—a series of intriguing challenges that, as you meet them, allow you to see progress in your practice. This in and of itself makes the practice interesting and a source of joy.
At the same time, you’re not engaged in busywork. You’re developing a sensitivity to cause and effect that helps make body and mind transparent. Only when they’re fully transparent can you let them go. In experiencing the full body of the breath in meditation, you’re sensitizing yourself to the area of your awareness in which the deathless—when you’re acute enough to see it—will appear.
So even though the path requires effort, it’s an effort that keeps opening up new possibilities for happiness and well-being in the present moment. And even though the steps of breath meditation eventually lead to a sense of disenchantment and dispassion, they don’t do so in a joyless way. The Buddha never asks anyone to adopt a world-negating—or world-affirming, for that matter—frame of mind. Instead, he asks for a “world-exploring” attitude, in which you use the inner world of full-body breathing as a laboratory for exploring the harmless pleasures the world as a whole can provide when the mind is steady and clear. You learn skills to calm the body, to develop feelings of refreshment, fullness, and ease. You learn how to calm the mind, to steady it, gladden it, and release it from its burdens.
Only when you run up against the limits of these skills are you ready to drop them, to explore what greater potential for happiness there may be. In this way, disenchantment develops not from a narrow or pessimistic attitude but from an attitude of hope that there must be something better. This is like the disenchantment a child senses when he or she has mastered a simple game and feels ready for something more challenging. It’s the attitude of a person who has matured. And as we all know, you don’t mature by shrinking from the world, watching it passively or demanding that it entertain you. You mature by exploring it, by expanding your range of usable skills through play.