One of the stories from the life of Buddha that is depicted in numerous sculptures from many cultures is that of Muchalinda, the serpent. The story goes that during the sixth week after Buddha attained full enlightenment, a weeklong torrential rainstorm threatened his meditation. Muchalinda, king of the serpents, emerged and protected Buddha with his body. Because the serpent king felt compassion for the monk, he spread out his many multiple hoods to protect him.
The commonality between these images across cultures is the hands placed in meditation mudra (dhyana) gesture with the palms facing upward and the right hand over the left.
Learning to Trust the Safety of Your Meditation
The calm tranquility that is conveyed in these sculptures belies the raging storm outside the snake’s shelter. During meditation, the mind’s turbulence, the fuming of emotion, and the body’s discomfort frequently threatens to disrupt the practice.
In the discourse of the Eightfold Path, Buddha describes right mindfulness to his monks:
“Here, monks, a monk dwells contemplating the body in the body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating feelings in feelings, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating mind in mind, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. He dwells contemplating phenomena in phenomena, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed longing and dejection in regard to the world. This is called right mindfulness.” (In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi, 2005, pp. 239-240)
Finding Shelter Within
It is by noticing our emotions (such as longing or dejection) as they arise in our physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings that we bring insightful awareness to our meditation practice. Even the most practiced meditators get pulled away from their focus sometimes. There will always be storms. Finding a shelter within yourself, where you can rest while you continue your meditation, will help you to stay steady during a storm.
Stories and myth help us by giving symbolism and metaphor to common experiences. Just as Muchalinda sheltered Buddha, sense your own shelter coming from within. By thinking of the snake as a compassionate protector, you can bring kindness and strength to yourself as you sit, despite the inevitable disturbances in your emotional environment.