A grain of salt, a kernel of truth

elephantThe expression ‘take what you hear with a grain of salt’ reminds me to allow for the very likely possibility that what I’m hearing is not entirely true. This is usually no fault of the person sharing. It’s just the nature of living in a complex world full of ever evolving knowledge.

Conversely, in every statement I hear, I try to notice that it has at least a kernel of truth in it. This is challenging because of the visceral reaction I feel to any idea or world view with which I strongly disagree.  But it is worth the effort, because if I can activate a sense of compassion for the person, listen carefully to what they are saying, I may be able to see the fear that is driving their statement and my reaction. In this way I can find our shared humanity. (Read more about Faulty Filters of Fear)

If truth is valued, then it’s important to take with a grain of salt even an idea we cherish and to recognize the kernel of truth even in an idea we abhor.

We would probably all prefer a solid truth to rely on, but accepting any old thing as true is obviously not the answer. In our rush to feel we know what’s what, we tend to accept things at face value if they feel true to us. But why do they feel true? Because they are familiar? We heard them repeated from parents, other family members, teachers, schoolmates, admired community leaders and news sources. Are any of those completely reliable sources? Or were they just repeating what they heard and accepted or hoped was true?

We get attached to our version of truth. We welcome anything that confirms it and feel threatened by anything that challenges it.  We incorporate these ‘truths’ into who we believe ourselves to be. We want to be right at any cost, because being wrong would dismantle our tightly held sense of self.  We likely label those who disagree with us as wrong, misguided, bullheaded or maybe even evil. We are less and less likely to reach out and engage with others outside a defined ‘safe’ circle, because from inside that circle it seems as if the world, or ‘wrong-thinking’ pockets in it, are dangerous and threatening.

Stuck in our entrenched positions, it is quite challenging to cultivate qualities of compassion and loving kindness. We may like to think we are kind, but we only extend compassion to people within circumscribed areas of agreement. Outside of that is a dangerous land of enemy thinkers we deem undeserving of our compassion.

Then we come to meditation practice and we are asked to send infinite loving-kindness to all beings. We are asked not to make an enemy of anything or anyone. This feels like an insurmountable challenge, maybe even one we don’t want to take on. What would we have to give up of ourselves to let down our guard in that way? The very idea threatens who we believe ourselves to be, and yet we believe ourselves to be good and kind. Uh oh! What a pickle!

At this point the most fearful among us make an enemy of the practice itself, saying ‘It’s not for me’ or ‘I don’t believe in that malarkey’. They go back to the bitter battle of defining their territory and needing to be right in order to feel okay.

That’s one choice. What’s the other? Do we have to hang out with people we disagree with and bite our tongues while they rant nonsense?

No. As a kindness to ourselves we can choose to respectfully steer clear of people caught up in tornadoes of fear and anger, unless we feel centered enough and called upon to help. Then we do so as conduits of infinite loving-kindness. If we’re not feeling kind even toward ourselves, it is best not to engage. Instead we focus on taking care of ourselves first because we have nothing to offer anyone else but our own fear-based opinions and depletable resources which will be of use to no one, and could make matters worse.

To not make an enemy of anyone doesn’t mean we have to agree with them. But they don’t have to agree with us for us to recognize our shared existence in this complex web of being. They are caught up in this tricky business of living just as we are. We may not wish that their goals come to fruition, but we do wish them well. (Even if in wishing them well we sneakily think, that if they were well they would not be so caught up in their wrong thinking!)

Our willingness to extend compassion to all beings, regardless of what they believe, helps us to be kinder to ourselves as well. We all have aspects of ourselves that we don’t feel particularly good about. We may have tried keeping them hidden but they pop out in all sorts of inconvenient ways. We create a fortress of Self, constructed of our preferences and our firm ideas that we defend to the end. We expend so much energy in this defensive stance that we become exhausted and none the happier for all our efforts. We just get prickly and prone to provoking fear-based emotions in others, causing misery all around.

The kinder we are to ourselves the less dependent we are on having to be right in order to be okay. But why would we want to let go of being right? Isn’t that losing something? In my experience, and in the experience of many others, giving up the need to be right is a great relief. We are not at war here. We are in a complex community of life that thrives on collaboration and communication and coexistence. The less vested we are in being right all the time, the happier we tend to be. Is that true? And if so, how do we get there?

First, let’s look at the expansive history and ongoing evolution of thought and knowledge. Consider how the facts that were accepted as true one hundred years ago don’t all hold up to the light of what further research has shown to be true. In many cases, it’s simply that we didn’t have a lens to see what was right before our eyes. Whether looking at things on a cellular level or into the cosmos, in both cases what our forebears could see with their limited tools don’t all hold up today, do they? That alone can give us pause to hold our current acceptance of what we ‘know’ to be true a little more lightly.

But still, for most of us, budging at all from our long-held opinions would be threatening. We have a need to be right, to know it all, to have things locked in.

Could we adopt a more scientific mindset? Could we inquire, observe, hypothesize, experiment and be open to being proven wrong in our hypothesis? The scientific community is trained to question everything. Non-scientists can adopt at least a degree of that same liberated mind instead of accepting any particular fact as the absolute truth.

But wait, we might say, things happened in history and some things we saw before our very eyes. Surely that is true, right? History is presented as facts, but history is written by the victors, by the dominant culture and throughout recorded history primarily by men. The filters that naturally arise from these varied perspectives present some facts and not others, either by complete omission or by highlighting certain aspects, projecting attributes upon them, and giving them whatever motivation, perspective and emphasis the person who lived to tell the tale chooses.

There seems to be a wave of research into previously untold stories to broaden and deepen our understanding of what life might have been like before our time. As important as this is, we can never recreate it exactly. We bring the zeitgeist of our current culture, our own slant laced with nostalgia or horror at past injustice. No re-creation of the past can help but be flawed. But for most of us it is far better than letting the past disappear completely and all the lessons learned lost.

Because of this interest, we now have a number of dedicated museums that are willing to look without blinders at things like the Holocaust, the African-American historical experience, etc. We even have the technology to capture in a most profoundly moving way a Holocaust survivor in a  hologram. In his own words he answers whatever question a visitor might pose in real time about his life and experiences. Along with written and oral accounts, a vital history lesson is being preserved in the hopes of never allowing such a thing to happen again.

Being open to listen and learn from people’s personal experiences is much easier if we don’t have preconceived notions that filter out what we are uncomfortable hearing. None of us want to believe that such horrors could occur, but denying that they do would seem a sure way to perpetuate them.

No one individual’s perspective will capture the whole of an experience, but by cobbling together a multiplicity of personal perspectives, we can come much closer to understanding the past. We might think that one factual account of an eyewitness would be completely reliable, but life is multifaceted. When the San Francisco Bay Area had a powerful earthquake in October 1989, those who lived through it asked each other the classic post-trauma question ‘Where were you?’ resulting in a wide variety of recountings of personal experience. So already, even in the moment, you have hundreds of thousands of versions of the facts, all of them true, but none of them telling the whole story. It’s like the blind men feeling the elephant and each coming out with a completely different description of what ‘elephant’ is, as shown in this video.

The earthquake was more than a collection of personal experiences. There are lots of facts: the date, the time, the 6.9 magnitude as recorded on the Richter scale. These facts are true, but possibly not the whole truth. Clock time itself is a cultural agreement among humans, not observed by the rest of nature, after all. And the measuring equipment will probably be considered unreliable and obsolete in fifty years. There were undeniable facts of fatalities, injuries and structural failures. But each fact is one facet of a much larger story that we don’t know. We didn’t know the victims personally and even if we did, no one knows anyone completely. Seismic engineers may be able to figure out probable cause for structural failures, but fifty years hence chances are there will be more in-depth understanding. This doesn’t make the facts untrue. It just makes them incomplete. That’s useful for us to remember when we think we know something. Can we at least acknowledge that our facts are incomplete?

On retreat at Spirit Rock a few years ago I suddenly had the knock-on-the-head recognition that ‘I don’t know!’ Looking around I could see how my mental shorthand, our communal convenient labeling of the world we live in as objects with names, left me still lacking in any real knowledge. My mental notation of ‘tree’ is just a skim the surface shorthand that’s necessary in order not to be overwhelmed by all the information being presented at every turn in this life. I don’t know and am unable to observe the goings on inside that tree or where it’s root go underground. I’ve been taught some things about the processes in general, but honestly I don’t know in this particular tree’s case what’s going on. I don’t know its history, what tree it fell from as a seedling, how it came to grow in this spot, etc. etc. And understanding how limited my knowledge was did not make me ambitious to find out more. It liberated me from feeling I had to know everything in order to feel okay. I hadn’t realized how tightly wrapped I had been in the fear-based need to believe that my shorthand version of the world is complete.

We have shorthand ways of defining people as well. We assign them categories based on gender, age, weight, height, ethnicity, profession, personality traits, clothing, possessions, etc. But what does it all add up to? Assumptions! And those assumptions cause us to judge them based on our experiences, in person or through the media, with others who we have pigeonholed in some of the same categories. Is this the way we want to be known? Of course not. Each of us wants to be seen clearly with fresh eyes, not through preconditioned filters that are blindingly inaccurate.

All the conclusions we draw are based on ephemera. And our assumptions come back to bite us in so many ways. For example, in our desire to be seen, respected, loved and admired we often compare ourselves with others. But we compare their perceived polished outsides with our more in-depth view of our own messy insides. Neither of our judgments are accurate.

We can see how clinging to our need to be right at all costs doesn’t serve us. But we may still feel we know facts when we see them. Let’s look at more examples from the 1989 earthquake.

People across the country watching film footage on television news were led to believe that the whole of San Francisco and much of the East Bay were in ruins. Why would a news report show the untouched areas? That’s not news because nothing changed. What had changed, and was therefore newsworthy, was the collapsed freeway and Bay Bridge, and the Marina district in flames. With so much going on, it’s not surprising that reporters failed to mention that the majority of the Bay Area was perfectly fine.

That’s the news biz for you! ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the policy of the newsroom. Feeding the negativity bias of the survival mode part of our brain, is a safe bet for news shows to keep ratings up. In the newsroom, choices are constantly being made as to what to present. When my husband Will was a TV news film editor, the Black Panthers were much in the news. The reporters would tell Will what clips to include and in what order to suit their stories. It horrified him to see how they chose to include shots that showed them as militaristic and threatening, then routinely exclude footage of the community help programs run by the Panthers. So disturbed was he by this daily misrepresentation, that he saved the discarded footage on a reel in his work drawer. He should have taken it home. Eventually it was discovered and destroyed.

History is often destroyed because it doesn’t represent the skewed viewpoint of the person who is presenting the news. Today almost all of us carry around a phone that can record history in the making. This is changing our understanding of our world in wondrous and horrifying ways. We are seeing many more videos of cute and funny animals, of humans helping others of every species, of people standing way to close to tornadoes and lava flow, and we see firsthand the brutality and misuse of lethal force by those who are meant to protect us. In this way we are expanding the input possible, cobbling together a more accurate sense of things. But at the same time we are filtering out what doesn’t confirm our worldview, thus becoming more entrenched, and more likely to consider other views as ‘enemy’.

Can we recognize our own intentions and the intentions of those who are sharing their stories, each with their own hopes, dreams and agenda? In the long run, I can imagine that this explosion of sharing will offer future historians a more accurate reflection of the times we live in.         But they will have a whole lot of cat videos to wade through.

In next week’s post we will look at how to live with not knowing — and love it!

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The problem with preferences

 

 

One of the core insights we come to through the regular practice of meditation is recognizing the nature of impermanence. This insight is valuable because it helps to free us from the suffering caused by grasping and clinging and wanting things to stay the same.

One of the easiest ways to have such an insight is to observe how a tree loses its leaves. But for many of us, seeing a tree lose its leaves sets off an inner complaint: Oh, winter is coming and I don’t like winter. Why can’t it stay warm and light always?

Whatever our personal preferences are, they get in the way of simple observation, and the gift of insight into the nature of being.

We don’t need to make an enemy of preferences — in fact, doing so would be just another barrier to awakening — but it is helpful to recognize preferences when they show up and see their nature. We can see how they can take any moment or situation and find fault with it. It would have been a perfect vacation but it was too…(fill in the blank). One small preference unmet can sabotage the whole experience. It gnaws at us so we become blind to all the beauty and wonder that is there for us in every moment.

We all have lots of preferences; so many, in fact, that we don’t take the time to see if they are true. Sometimes our preferences go so long unrecognized that when we do take the time to notice, we might discover we no longer ‘love’ or ‘hate’ the food or condition or whatever we have been claiming to feel so strongly about.

Let’s take the example of some treat we claim to love. Perhaps we describe ourselves as a chocoholic or addicted to ice cream. Because our thoughts are so full of attachment to this idea of ourselves, with all judgments we may have about this long-accepted preference, we are often so mentally embroiled in anticipation, anxiety, guilt, etc. as we approach the food itself, that we can’t taste it. We devour it to be done with it and past this complicated set of thoughts and emotions.

Can we slow down really taste the treat we claim to love. Is it really delicious? Great! Or when mindfully attended, without the urgency and all the entangled thoughts and emotions, is it not quite so delicious as we assumed? Perhaps there are even some aspects of the flavor or texture that are actually unpleasant. If the food is not the best choice for a meal, then this may feel like a wonderful discovery to recognize that we are addicted to the mental and emotional patterns of anticipation and the nostalgia of foods and experiences often more than the food or experience itself.

When we pay attention, we see how preferences, like everything else, change. That may feel discomforting if we believe that our accumulated combination of preferences define us. And we feel unloved if someone forgets our preferences. Is that true? Well, let’s check. Are your feelings hurt if someone who professes to love you forgets that you don’t like, let’s say, mushrooms? If so, then you are entrenched in the idea that your preferences are intrinsically you.
They are not! The Buddha put together a whole list called the Five Aggregates that gently but firmly walks us through all the things that we are not, and our preferences are second on the list. [READ MORE]

We don’t have to get rid of our preferences, but it really helps to notice and question them. Preferences are often rooted in fear. If we have a preference for a certain temperature or kind of weather, we may have positive associations, sweet memories, nostalgia super-charges our preferences. We can be closed off from many experiences because they are unfamiliar, so there may be something to fear, something to make us uncomfortable, something to make us feel insecure.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do anything new to have insights. We just come to our senses: to see, hear, taste, smell, touch as if every moment is new. Because it is! It may seem the same, but because of the nature of impermanence, the world presents itself fresh to us in each moment, never to be replicated! The Symphony of Now.

Since this is the way of things, and nothing we do can make it stay exactly the same, why not acknowledge and even celebrate impermanence.

Certainly when we have a great loss, impermanence seems cruel. But that same impermanence helps us to survive the loss, and over time to ease our grief and heal from the wound of what may feel like an amputation.

Impermanence delights us when it brings on something we enjoy: blossoms in the garden, a beautiful sunrise, etc. But if we are not open to all of impermanence, even those moments are tinged with sadness because we can’t keep it like this forever.

Our extreme preference for certain aspects of impermanence and our loathing of others is something to notice. Can we be compassionate with ourselves when we feel the dread of changes we don’t like? Can we be tender without being indulgent? Can we practice being present with whatever arises just as it is, and greet it as the wonder it is?

Think about your own preferences. See if you can notice them when they arise. See whether they are as true as you thought. See if you cling to them as an intrinsic part of what makes you you. See if your preferences cause you to suffer in any way. And then see if you can hold your preferences more lightly.

In the vortex of the Eight Worldly Winds

Whatever is going on in your life right now, if you really pay attention, you will see that it is impermanent. For added help in seeing clearly what is arising and falling away, and how to be in skillful relationship with them, the Buddha divided the experiences, these ever-changing winds, into eight categories, presented in pairs. They are pleasure & pain, gain & loss, praise & censure, status & disgrace.
Think of something going on in your life right now and see if it fits in any of these categories.8WW.jpg

These Eight Worldly Winds are naturally occurring. There’s no way to avoid their arising and falling away in our experience. But we can be more skillful in how we are in relationship to them. First we notice how we react to them. Are we caught up in the winds, welcoming some and rebelling against others? In both cases we might feel at their mercy, tossed about hither and yon, feeling broken and bruised. Is this any way to live?
When I first learned about the Eight Worldly Winds, I was reminded of a meditation technique I used to do when my mind was abuzz with planning, worrying, reliving past moments, etc. In meditation I would imagine my thoughts like a whirlwind circling around me. I would sit cultivating such stillness that the thoughts, in contrast, seemed to be whirling faster and faster until they blurred together and my mind could not latch onto any particular worry or plan or regret or desire. I sometimes actively stirred the winds, creating a vortex where I could sit in the lightness of the center. Amidst it all, I was able to be at peace. (You might think of poaching an egg, how you stir up a vortex in a pot of hot water, slip the egg in and it holds its shape. No vinegar needed in this meditation recipe, however. 😉 )
If we sit this way, either creating a vortex or simply allowing the winds to pass through our spacious field of compassionate awareness, we cultivate a space for the calm quiet voice of our own inner wisdom to be heard. If our meditation practice is regular, and especially if we give ourselves the gift of going on retreat occasionally, we empower our ability to listen in to that wisdom, and let it gently guide us to be skillful, ethical, kind and balanced. (Note: If the inner voice is strident or demanding, it’s not the wise inner voice, but a fear-based aspect trying to run the show. No need to make an enemy of it. Treat it with respect, negotiate reasonably, but don’t follow it’s instructions!)
We see the impermanence of all that arises: the pleasure and the pain, the loss and the gain, the praise and the censure, the status and disgrace. We can dance with the wind as a willow tree’s branches sway, while being deeply rooted in wisdom, instead of shallowly rooted and ultimately uprooted by the passing winds of life.
As we go about our day, if we are present and compassionate, we can see the Eight Worldly Winds more easily. When one of them blows through our field of experience, we can acknowledge it but we don’t have to chase after it or run from it.
Can we appreciate gain without fearing loss? For example, can we allow ourselves to love without holding back because we fear losing the person we love?
Can we understand loss as a natural part of the experience of being alive in this impermanent world? Can we be compassionate with ourselves in our grief, but also see it all as part of the dance of life?
Can we enjoy a pleasure as it arises in our experience without getting caught up in craving it and clinging to it?
Can we recognize pain as a bodily messenger to heed and attend? And if the pain is beyond remedy, can we be present with the many sensations within what we label ‘pain’, and recognize how they arise and fall away like parts of a symphony? Can we find other sensations that are happening in other parts of the body at the same time that are neutral or pleasant, and see that the pain is just one aspect of all that is arising in our experience?
Can we accept praise without seeking it? Can we accept praise without reacting against it? Can we accept praise without doubting the praise giver’s truthfulness or intentions?
Can we accept censure when we have done something unskillful and do what we can to make amends? Can we look within and see how this unskillfulness happened, and set the intention to be more skillful in the future? If we are blamed for something we did not do, can we handle our response with clarity and compassion, seeking solutions instead of getting caught up in the blame game.
In relationship to elevated status, can we let it be simply a byproduct of something authentic and skillful that we have done? Can we not see it as a goal or a solution to the emptiness within?
If our reputation is tarnished and we experience disgrace, can we handle it with grace? Can we make reparations? Can we take the opportunity to look within and see how we may have erred. If the accusations are false, can we be skillful in how we respond instead of making it worse or confirming opinions?
At the very core can we remember that none of these Eight Worldly Winds are who we are? When we set the intention to be present in this moment, compassionate with ourselves and others, the Eight Worldly Winds do not define our lives. We all experience gains and losses. We all experience pleasure and pain. We all experience praise and censure. We all experience status or disgrace, to varying degrees. We may experience a variety of emotions and thoughts around them. But as we rest in awareness and compassion, we are supported by a deeper understanding of the nature of our experience that comes from our wise intention and the skillful efforts that follow from it.
Coming into skillful relationship with the Eight Worldly Winds, we can use the questions we have been exploring in the previous posts.
When we ask What is my intention here? we might see that we are chasing praise, pleasure, gain or status, or fighting or fleeing from censure, pain, loss and disgrace. We can look at what we are afraid of. We can pay attention to the stories that arise out of that fear, and we can ask if it is really true.
The person seeking fame may discover the fear of disappearing, not being seen at all. Let’s say they do become famous. Now they are still afraid because they are not being seen for who they really are. Being seen can be pleasurable, but if fear of not being seen is a prime motivator, then all kinds of misery ensues.
The person seeking pleasure may be running away from the pain in their lives. But the pleasure they seek, if overindulged, may ultimately exacerbate the pain.
The person seeking praise feels lost and needs constant acknowledgement in the form of praise to help them feel like they exist at all. They prefer praise, but if it’s not available, then censure gets attention too. At least they are visible!
The person who seeks gain may need it to build their sense of self, to impress others, to prove their worth, or they have a gripping fear of scarcity from some earlier life experience. There is no amount of worldly goods that will satisfy this need. Loss then reflects poorly on them. They may have more than they need to lead a comfortable life many times over, but loss is still threatening, defining them as a ‘loser’.
But if we recognize the existence of the Eight Worldly Winds and see their impermanent nature, we can be in a more skillful in relationship with them. If we practice meditation regularly and openly explore what arises in our field of awareness, we can dance gracefully like willow branches swaying in the wind.
As you go through your day, see if you can recognize which of the Eight Worldly Winds present themselves to you. Then notice how you are in relationship to them. See if you can allow each of them to flow through without making an enemy of it, chasing it or clinging to it. It’s a challenge and a lifelong practice well worth doing.
Report back!

Last Question in Our Series

Indra’s Net of Infinite Interconnection

Safety, Satisfaction and Connection
The other day I heard an interview with Dr. Rick Hanson, in which he said that there are three central needs humans have: safety, satisfaction and connection, in that order. It struck me that the series of six questions we have been working with here address these three issues in that same order.

The first three questions address issues of safety. What is my intention here? is a question we can ask when we are about to do or say something that might make things worse. If I see that my intention is to get back at someone for something, I can recognize the unskillfulness there, and reset my intention to be present and compassionate.

What am I afraid of? allows us to see our fears and explore them in a safe way. Our minds are programmed to operate from fear, but our health suffers if we are in constant state of high alert, so some self-awareness and discernment is valuable.

Are the stories I am telling myself true? is a question that can play an essential role of keeping us safe, not escalating a potentially dangerous situation.

While a certain degree of safety planning is wise, living constantly on high alert actually puts us in more jeopardy. So these first three questions are valuable. Instead of believing everything we tell ourselves, thus defining all that arises in our experience as ‘enemy’, we learn to see with more clarity and compassion for ourselves and others. This enables us to respond skillfully rather than react in ways that activate fear in others, putting all in danger.

Once we feel safe, finding meaning and happiness in life becomes central. This can be a tricky transition when coming off the adrenaline high of fear. We may need to make sense of the trauma of a scary and perhaps scarring experience. Or we may be bored because that intense focus on survival was exhilarating. It’s easy to get stuck in this post-survival mode and not know how to proceed. Instead of succumbing to listlessness or restlessness, and all the unskillful activities and diversions that might seem like a good idea at the time, we can continue to work with those first three questions: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Are the stories I am telling myself true? to help create space in the tangle of thoughts and emotions that keep us feeling trapped.

We can also step into an active exploration of satisfaction in our lives. Instead of looking at our external situation and thinking that others are to blame for any lack of happiness or meaning, we ask our question What am I cultivating here? This question allows us to see how our thoughts, words, actions or lack of action are creating the life we are living. We can look at the various beneficial qualities that we could cultivate within us to bring about a positive difference in our lives. Beyond those universally shared qualities, we each have inherent gifts and interests that, when cultivated and engaged in make us feel more fully alive, authentic and joyful. We find satisfaction.

Finding Friends
Once we feel safe and satisfied, we are able to make wholesome connections. This might mean finding others who share our interests and enthusiasms. The internet and apps like Meetup have made this much easier to do. But there are also local colleges, adult education programs and community centers. There is no reason for anyone to be isolated. Once we find a group, it’s skillful to develop friends within that group with whom the sense of connection goes beyond just a single shared interest. In later life sometimes we have to give up certain activities. Having friends whose connection is deeper than just a shared enjoyment of a particular activity then becomes more valuable.

Connecting with Family
Deepening existing connections or reconnecting with family members who have been estranged, can become a rich source of joy. Once we are not operating out of fear, it can be surprising how deep friendships can develop between family members. If not, too bad, but it’s definitely worth questioning outdated assumptions and giving connection a try.

Howdy Neighbors
Connecting with neighbors is not just convenient and enjoyable, but creates greater safety. Don’t wait for a crisis to get to know your neighbors. You may not share ideologies or interests, but you do have shared concerns about your immediate surroundings. Back in the day neighbors knew each other because there was no television, no air conditioning and people typically sat out on the front stoop or porch, or hung out at the local park or pub, creating true community. Now most of us retreat indoors, and while there are certainly pleasures there, a lot of sense of connection has been lost. The app Nextdoor has become a big boon to developing neighborly connection, but nothing beats getting together occasionally for a block party or other community gathering.

How can I help?
Connection is also finding how the qualities and talents that we have been cultivating can benefit not just us, but family, friends, community, the earth and ultimately all beings. So our final question of the series is How can I help?

Mr. Rogers is famous for saying in a crisis ‘look for the helpers.’ The helpers are not necessarily specially qualified people like police, firefighters, teachers or nurses. Helpers are simply people who understand that we are all in this together, that we are all connected.

Inseparable
Skin is not a boundary but a porous surface. Where is the true edge of ‘me’? The air we breathe in and out is shared by all beings alive today and throughout history. We are intrinsic fleeting expressions of ever-changing electrical impulses and chemicals combining and recombining; complex systems, networks and processes generating and regenerating — birth, growth, death, decay, and new life, arising and falling away.

Our differences are relatively recent man-made distinctions for purposes of learning and examining, grouping shared characteristics into categories and divisions like phylum, class, family, genus, and species. This is a convenience for study but an inconvenience for in-depth perception of being.  The more we are able to sense that simple but powerful truth, the more we can rest in the gift of being alive in this moment, just as it is.

A sense of connection is central to our deepest feeling of safety and understanding the nature of existence. If we cling to the idea of a separate self, we feel unsafe. We defend this separate-seeming fortress of self. If we do try to help someone else, it is from a finite depletable source, and our intention is to be seen as a good person, a nice person to gain approval, love, power and safety. But that’s not the way it works, and we are left feeling more isolated and afraid.  Trying to be a ‘nice person’ we give ourselves away in the process of helping. That’s not helpful! Nobody is asking for sacrifice. Instead, if everyone shared from that undepletable source, how joyously we all would live.

Metta
If you have been reading this blog or doing Buddhist practice for long, you recognize that this kind of help is based in metta, infinite loving kindness. Just as when we do metta practice, we always begin with ourselves. We say ‘May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be at peace. May I be happy.’ or other general blessings of that nature. Once we feel the infinite quality of metta rising within us, we naturally share it. We think of someone in particular need of loving kindness, or with whom we have a challenging relationship, and we say ‘May you be well.’ Because metta is infinite in nature, it grows and glows to encircle the whole planet and beyond, and we say ‘May all beings be well.’

Only when we are able to hold ourselves in loving kindness are we able to radiate it. In giving, it grows stronger with use, like a muscle. As we do this (and regular meditation practice), we grow in our ability to be present and compassionate. We don’t feel separate, so ‘we have nothing to defend, nothing to fear, nothing to prove. But we have something to give.’

If that last phrase sounds familiar, it is because I have shared it before in my teaching and in this blog. It is an insight I had on a retreat, and it became my mantra for the past many years whenever I find myself caught up in fear-based patterns. Feel free to use it if it helps you.

When we sense our intrinsic connection to all life, fear dissolves. Whether we come to our understanding through studying science — the microbial nature of being and how we are all stardust — or we feel it intuitively, it’s an understanding that makes a huge difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us. It’s not just a piece of knowledge but a way of life.

See for yourself! Notice how someone’s authentic smile or words of kindness affect your whole day. Notice how critical, angry fear-based words or harsh looks affect you. Can you recognize that your looks, words and actions are equally powerful? Without realizing it, you are impacting all lives around you because you are intrinsically connected. Just by living we make a difference. The question is what kind of difference are we making?

Coming full circle
In moments of danger, often our deep understanding of inherent oneness brings out our instinct to help. Probably you have seen at least some of the many Youtube videos of humans helping to save animals. Whenever there is a crisis, people surprise themselves with the physical strength to lift a vehicle off a trapped passenger or the stamina to stay up all night to help rescue fleeing fire victims.

These moments have a powerful sense of purpose. All of which can make us adrenaline junkies. Because we like the person we become in a moment of crisis. But we don’t need crisis to be a helper. There is always someone in need. We may not believe that is true because we compare our messy insides with others’ polished outsides and can’t imagine that they need help or that we have something of value to offer them. But we are all the same stardust after all. If we can reveal a little of our own feelings of vulnerability, then we find deeper connection and understanding.

We also can expand our idea of what helping is. In a crisis it is so clear, but once the crisis has passed, what do we have to offer? What about entertainment, inspiration, education, beauty, humor? If you have eased someone’s mind for a time by sharing an enjoyable, funny or uplifting experience in any way, that’s helping! If others have benefited from your skillful sharing of knowledge and experience, that’s helping! If you are part of a support team for the care of family members or friends, that’s helping! If you clean up litter, if you make wise environmental choices, if you turn the lights off when you leave a room, that’s helping! If you donate to caring causes, that’s helping! If you vote, that’s helping! If you take good care of your body so that you will stay healthy, that’s helping!

Chances are you are probably already helping; you just might not be seeing it that way. So much depends on your intention, which brings us back to the first question in this series: What is my intention here? Whatever way you make a living, spend your time and engage with the world, when you question your intention, you may discover that you are indeed a helper.

Where are you in exploring these six valuable life questions? Spend time with one that is meaningful for you right now. And use them all whenever you feel unsafe, unsatisfied or disconnected.

Your feedback please!
Please let me know if this series of questions has been meaningful for you. I am considering putting it into at least a PDF downloadable form, if not a book. Let me know if that would be of interest to you.

Meditation: Chore or Pleasure?

sweeping.jpgDeveloping a meditation practice may feel like another chore to do, like taking out the garbage or cleaning the kitchen. Both require wise intention and skillful effort to do, and afterward there’s a noticeable positive difference in our lives.

But they are also very different, probably in many ways, but here’s at least one: Chores are things that someone else could do for us if we didn’t want to do them and money was no object. But no one can meditate for us. Just as no one can attend a concert for us or eat a meal for us. No one can enjoy a good book for us or go on a life-transforming trip for us. These kinds of things no one could do for us because they are not chores, but experiences that directly provide us with pleasure, nourishment, insight and edification.

Meditation is a pleasure! This might not be immediately apparent because like many pleasures, we develop our deep appreciation of it through practice and exposure. Though some people find meditating easy from the start, for most it is an acquired delight.

It is similar to acquiring a taste for walking in the woods if we’ve never done it and have only watched scary movies and the woods is where the bodies get buried. We may be afraid of what’s behind a tree or around the next curve on the trail. Just so, someone who has never meditated may fear what might be lurking within their minds. But, as with the new hiker in the woods, practice grows awareness and understanding. The new meditator discovers that simply being present with the senses in silence is a safe place to be. They increasingly find comfort in their growing ability to stay present with all the physical sensations, emotions and thoughts that naturally arise in their field of awareness. They develop the skills to greet all that arises with friendliness, to trust their own inner wisdom to help them see more clearly and experience more expansively being fully alive in each moment.

When it comes to chores, a regular meditation practice helps us to discover that even these tasks can be pleasurable. The pleasure isn’t just the satisfaction of a job well done, but in the doing itself, living life just as it is in this moment with appreciation.

In class, students shared some of their experiences with last week’s exercise working with the question: What are your inherent gifts, interests and skills? It made for an interesting discussion. If you did the exercise, what came up for you? Looking over your list, is there anything you noticed during the week? Did any moments from the past jump out as reminders of something that you could add to that list? Did any of the things you wrote down surprise you? Do any two or more of the skills or interest potentially combine in a satisfying way?

These are ongoing questions. If you didn’t do the exercise, you might want to go back to the previous post and give it a try. If you did it but it feels a little scary or troubling, then go back to the first few questions in this series and work with them around what comes up: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? and whatever answers come up, look at them with fresh eyes and ask Is this true?

You might notice a harsh inner voice that devalues the gifts you name. There are often more than just one of these expressions of our fears, whose intentions are to keep us ‘safe’. They can be thanked for their intentions, treated with respect and kindness, but not given the run of the place, because operating from fear is unskillful and potentially dangerous.

In meditation we are tuning in to the still quiet voice of infinite loving kindness and wisdom. It has no sense of urgency. It never dictates. It simply offers guidance in the form of options. When a harried inner voice is sending us with a sense of urgency to the refrigerator for a treat, the wise inner voice might be quietly saying ‘Or, you could notice that you’re not hungry but bored and head out to the garden instead.’  But it takes practice to hear that quiet wisdom speaking amidst the cacophony of all those fear-based thought patterns going on in our brain. The more we listen, the more we recognize that wisdom, the more we operate from it, and though the other voices are present, we don’t feel compelled to act on what they say. (Or at least not all the time!) As we anchor into awareness and compassion, we can even ‘interview’ them, discover their needs, and wisely negotiate some skillful solution that would satisfy them without sabotaging our well being.

I remember my discovery of that wise inner voice in my meditation. It felt like dancing on the head of a pin. I fell off so many times, and the moments when I was there were so fleeting. But over time, with consistent practice, that pinhead grew larger and larger until I was able to be there most of the time, and I was very aware if I was no longer there, and knew how to get back in balance.

It may seem impossible at first. All those inner voices screaming and carrying on and laughing their heads off at the very idea that you could find wisdom within yourself. But the Buddha said ‘Be a lamp unto yourself’. He knew that each of us has the capacity to deepen in our experience, to cultivate presence, and to find that core of wisdom within. One of my students shared an insight she had, but she called it a ‘Stephanie moment’. I called her on that. It was not my moment, it was her moment. Her attendance in class has helped her find her own inner wisdom, but it is absolutely hers. She is learning how to be a lamp unto herself.

But it is challenging! It reminds me a bit of my aunt’s experience with macular degeneration. She had adapted to seeing through just one eye, but suddenly that eye also went blind. She freaked out. But she attended a class, and she was encouraged to really look and to notice that there was a pinprick-size window of sight in the lower right side of her vision. She was trained to see through that tiny window. Over time it felt to her as if the tiny window must have grown larger, but it was her capacity to focus there that had strengthened. That’s the same with the practice of meditation: We grow in our capacity to pay attention, to be aware and to be compassionate with ourselves and others. And to recognize the access to infinite wisdom we each have within us.

In the next post we will look at the final question in this series, and I am very excited about sharing it. Stay tuned!

Inquiry Series: Question #5

tool-collection.jpgIn this inquiry series, we’ve practiced using questions that help us deal skillfully with what arises in our experience: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? Is this true? We then looked at our inner landscape and asked: What am I cultivating here?  To the degree we incorporate these questions into our lives, they continue to be useful tools to find greater peace of mind, strength and equanimity.

Beyond the shared beneficial qualities we cultivate, we each have other gifts as well: The particular skills and interests that activate wholesome energy, aliveness, meaning and purpose.

What are these gifts? There is something inherent in each of us that draws us to different things. We can observe this in very small children. Beyond the fun things most children enjoy, any individual child will be more excited about spending time in one or more activities and less interested in others: Drawing, writing, cooking, doing math, solving puzzles, singing, playing instruments, listening to music, attending performances, taking things apart to see how they work, playacting, taking photos, doing science experiments, inventing things or walking in nature, for example.

But even though the adults around them may notice children’s natural bents, gifts and interests, often the children themselves do not see them or do not understand that all kids aren’t equally as interested in these things. Especially in decades past, the adults around them were likely a little blind to these gifts as well. And so the child grew up feeling a little lost, wondering where they fit in.

I was a shy little girl who had a spiritual bent that manifested in little chants I would make up to feel my connection with the divine. (“I am in God and God is in me” over and over again until I would fall down on the lawn laughing, because what made no sense at all suddenly made all the sense in the world to me.) I also loved to write poems and short stories. And I enjoyed making dollhouses and drawing floor plans. Bringing that little girl to mind now, if I were her parent, I would encourage all of those things, and maybe make sure she had access to materials, classes and kind mentors.

But instead of wishing I’d had different kinds of parents (my parents were wonderful, thank you very much!) I only need to remind myself that as an adult, I can parent myself in whatever way I need. I can provide whatever encouragement and guidance I may have craved growing up. Perhaps you have some dormant, underappreciated or hidden interests or skills that might be brought into the light of your increasing compassionate awareness. No matter what our age or situation, we can actualize all of the gifts we’ve been given in this fleeting experience of being alive in this oh-so impermanent body-mind.

EXERCISE

After meditation or after a few minutes of quieting the mind, ask yourself these questions and write down the answers that arise — as many as come up. Take your time. The first answer may be the best answer, or it may be a toss off answer and there’s a deeper, shyer, truer answer waiting to be heard. All are fine. Bring them on.

Notice any resistance that comes up, either in the exercise or in anticipation of an exercise. You can use our core questions then: What is my intention here? What am I afraid of? And, when stories arise about why you can’t pursue a certain interest, look more closely at those stories and question them: Is this true? It may seem true, and it may seem important to hold onto the story, but look at every aspect with a kind but inquiring mind.

Okay, ready? Here we go:

  1. Think of moments during your day, week and life when you were filled with delight, contentment, purpose, enthusiasm — a sense of being in the right place, doing something satisfying. These will probably be very small seeming things but try not to judge them, just note them. List as many as come naturally to you.
  2. Look over your list of moments of delight and think of them as belonging to someone else. Bring your most compassionate, least judgy self to this task. By observing the list as someone else’s we are generally clearer and kinder, more willing to see latent gifts we might deny in ourselves.) Then ask, what interests this person? What does this person love to do? If a clear picture comes to mind, write it down as a little summary.
  3. Acknowledging that this is your list, not someone else’s, notice any emotions arising around this list as you read it. Notice any resistance to anything you have discovered. Notice any stories that come up to explain why, even if true, these interests and skills are for whatever reason not sufficient or not useful. Several people in class felt they probably weren’t doing this exercise ‘right’. A couple thought their moments weren’t sufficiently ‘lofty’. This is not about being lofty! And it is not about defining yourself and presenting yourself to the world. It’s more like the way a cat or dog might circle around to that just right spot of perfect contentment. Trust that whatever comes up is right for you in this moment.
  4. If you are judging yourself, finding fault or feeling resistance, ask ‘What am I afraid of?’ This is not a challenge, not a dare, but a heartfelt compassionate investigation. 
  5. Send metta, infinite loving-kindness to any fearful aspect that speaks up or hides out within you. The inner critic may be powerful and cruel, but it is not your enemy. It is only afraid and unskillful in the ways it tries to protect you.
  6. Looking at the summary you’ve made, do you feel that you are living your deepest most heartfelt interests?
  7. If not, set the intention to give more time to them, incorporate them more fully into your life and whenever you are in such a moment, to not feel rushed but really allow yourself to experience it fully with deep appreciation.
  8. Underline, circle, star or rewrite any core interests that you would like to explore more fully. This is not about ‘becoming’ something new. This is not a makeover. It’s recognizing what is already central to your way of being in this life, yet for whatever reason not actualized fully.
  9. Set the intention to be compassionate with those aspects of self that are fearful, but don’t let them run the show!
  10. Save and revisit this list, try the exercise again another time, and consider rewriting it as a note to yourself to keep close as a reminder.

If you do this exploration multiple times, you may find different answers each time, but a pattern will arise that will hopefully inspire you to honor your natural gifts, interests and skills.

If you discover powerful resistance, that is definitely worth exploring and challenging. I am reminded of the Marianne Williamson quote:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine as children do. It’s not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own lights shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” — Marianne Williamson

Like many, I suffered from great doubts about my abilities. I kept my writing very private and never thought to share it with anyone. If I did share them, any compliments were like water off a duck’s back. I have no memory of them. But even the slightest suggestion or critique cut me to the core and the scars were a constant reminder of my lack of talent. It’s amazing I kept writing, but my writing was for me, and it was safe as long as I kept it private. And that’s fine. Writing and all the arts — music, visual arts, drama, crafts — all have the capacity to be cathartic. We each have our way of processing the traumas of our lives. I imagine that working out mathematical equations might be cathartic, too. Can we find our way of skillfully processing and coping with all that arises in our lives? Hint: It will never be a distraction from what we are going through. It will not make an enemy of it that we push away. There’s that old hymn: ‘It’s so high you can’t get over it, so low you can’t get under it, so wide you can’t get around it, you’ve gotta go in through the door.’ The door is being fully present and compassionate with ourselves and others, finding that inner wisdom that is within each of us, by whatever name we might call it. But each of us also has one or more very personal ways of savoring life and processing what arises. And that’s what we’re exploring through this exercise.

Allowing ourselves our fullest expression is not a big ask. It is our birthright. It is our place at the table of life. That is such a hard lesson to learn, especially for women raised to always put others’ needs first and to be ‘demure’.

I will leave you with a personal experience: I had been teaching for a number of years and then writing blog posts from my dharma talks. After a year of teaching the Buddha’s Four Foundations of Mindfulness, my students asked me to compile those posts and publish them in book form. I mentioned this to my teaching mentor and she said there are more than enough books in the world. (There were no comparable books on that subject at the time, and even still none that addresses women’s specific challenges, but that’s beside the point.) After I left our meeting, I felt like a daisy bush being told not to bloom, to stifle myself, because there are already too many daisies in the world.

Please, please, please, whatever kind of plant you are, feel free to bloom fully and radiantly! And don’t waste your time envying the rose or the lilac. You do YOU!