Listen up! A recorded dharma talk

George-Stef-Phila-1965

My dad and I, circa 1965

Many who read my weekly blog posts have not heard me give a dharma talk, but here’s an opportunity to do so, thanks to Marin Sangha, where I recently gave this talk.

I’ve been invited to be a regular guest teacher for this group. Marin Sangha and San Rafael Meditation Group (where I’ve been guest teaching for several years now), are the largest insight meditation groups in Marin outside of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I am honored to be included on both their rosters of guest teachers.

This talk was given on Father’s Day and starts by thanking all fathers present, and then looks at our relationships or lack of relationships with our fathers. But it extends well beyond that into relationships in general. I can’t imagine anyone who will not relate to this talk in some way.

Listen to my June 17th dharma talk at Marin Sangha

(You can listen here, or go to Marin Sangha and download it. Don’t be alarmed by the length, as the last part is Q&A.)

I offer this recorded talk in lieu of a written dharma post this week, and I hope you will listen and hopefully comment. I appreciate your feedback. It was very well received by Marin Sangha (thus the invitation to be a regular!) and I hope you find it valuable too.

Tranquility? What is that?

lake-clouds-500In our investigation of the Seven Factors of Awakening, we arrive at Tranquility. Ahhhh. The word has such a sense of relief/release/relaxation, doesn’t it? It’s as if you’re sitting by the edge of a peaceful lake, enjoying sun gently warming your skin and being lulled by the sound of softly lapping water.

Taking this imaginary experience a little further, perhaps you swim in a leisurely way to the middle of the lake and lie on your back. Feel the buoyant support of the water as it ripples. Gaze up at the sky and rest in the beauty of the clouds drifting by.

Ahhhh. This is a lovely imagination meditation to remind ourselves of what’s possible in our experience. But if we think the only way to experience tranquility is to go on a vacation, either physically or in our imagination, then we are chasing after peace and calm, and making an enemy of all else that arises in our experience. Chasing after such tranquility is actually a hindrance to awakening and a cause of suffering. Bummer, because I really liked just relaxing on the lake. Didn’t you? 

Fortunately, we can still relax on the lake any time we want and consider it a valuable experience. It trains us to notice the qualities of tranquility that we can cultivate in our lives.

When we were on that lake, remember that sense of buoyancy? At any moment in our lives, regardless of what is going on, there is that same buoyant quality of support. We’re often just too entangled in thought to notice it. We can experience it if we have cultivated awareness, compassion, energy and joy. We don’t need to tense up to hold everything in our lives together. Whether this sense of buoyancy comes naturally or not, we can let go of any habit of scolding ourselves for not seeing it, or blaming the world for not providing it.

Science supports our exploration
The regular practice of meditation cultivates a spaciousness that allows for a deepening understanding of the permeability of all matter. Our habit of mind is to experience objects as solid. But are they? In fact they are not. Tell that to my toe that just stubbed itself on a stone, right? But we know that all existence is made up of molecules and that every molecule is mostly space. Why does this matter?

Even though in practical ways, we experience matter as solid — very important so that we take responsibility when, for example, we are driving a heavy vehicle around fragile pedestrians — at a more intuitive level, we can also recognize the impermanent, fleeting and ultimately permeable nature of being.

Making room for both of these ways of seeing is important. Life is not either/or. It is both/and. Yes, objects are solid. And yet they are not. This is a challenging mental leap if we were raised in an either/or world, which most of us were. When we were born, that solid seeming world was the knowledge we lacked, and we needed to learn it to get around. It would be careless to raise a child without that understanding. But can we leave room also for the more permeable perceptions? Can we release into the all-one-ness of being?

Thus begins our exploration of tranquility which we will continue in the next dharma post. For now, see if you can pay attention especially to tranquil moments during the week. Then, instead of grasping and clinging to them, notice the qualities of those moments. What do they feel like? Is it just the absence of aggravation? Or is there something there? What is that quality? What is this tranquility? How does it feel?

In your meditation, when thoughts arise, you might recognize them as permeable, transparent, mist. I find those three words help me to understand the nature of thoughts and emotions that arise in my experience, and this noting allows them to dissipate and disappear.

Leaving the gently lapping shores of tranquility in their wake.

Grudges, pet peeves and other tangled mental knots

 

San Anselmo Creek detail

Detail of San Anselmo Creek, watercolor by Will Noble

One of the greatest benefits of meditation for me has been to be able to see thoughts and emotions as threads passing through my spacious field of experience rather than as aspects of myself that define and confine me. The thoughts may be shaped by a series of life events, just as the flow of water is determined by the shape of the landscape. But the landscape is also shaped by the water, constantly being carved. Neither is completely solid, and neither are my thoughts nor the patterns of behavior they may shape within my experience of being alive at this moment in time.

Imagine in this ever-changing stream there are little eddies, whirlpools where twigs and leaves get tangled and stuck. This is a good metaphor for the tightly-knotted mental formations that in the past I either didn’t notice or just accepted as unavoidable parts of my inner landscape. I now see them too as transient. Just because they’ve been hanging out there for decades doesn’t mean they are solid and impenetrable.

But those knots of thought and emotion do entangle us, don’t they? We might not even realize it as we go about our busy lives, maybe a bit mindless because who has the time to be mindful? Out of seemingly nowhere and for no reason we can explain, maybe we find ourselves caught up in painful thinking. Was it something someone said? That will likely send us off into a whirlpool of anger or hurt feelings. It could have been something someone said a long time ago that we replay again and again. It could even be something we imagine someone saying to us that they would never do! We have the capacity to hurt our own feelings! Amazing.

If we don’t bring ourselves into the present moment and develop a practice that helps us notice these recurring thoughts and emotions, then we can get stuck in a painful pattern.

It’s a bit like if your home was full of poorly arranged furniture. Maybe there’s a couch that sticks out into the hallway that keeps banging your shin or stubbing your toe as you walk by. Maybe you rail against the pain but don’t notice what caused it. You’re so used to that unpleasant sensation that you think this is just how it is. And then maybe you start paying a bit more attention, and you learn how to navigate the space mindfully, rerouting yourself around that sticking out couch. And then one day you recognize that the couch is not locked down in place. So it is with these mental formations. Avoiding them is a stopgap measure. Investigating them is at the heart of our practice. Investigation is one of the Buddha’s Seven Factors of Awakening.

Investigating with compassion and clarity, we may be able to see what’s causing us pain, and then with time and continued practice to see the permeable and impermanent nature of all things, including mental knots.

You know that first line of the AA serenity prayer? “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” We’re cultivating that kind of wisdom with our practice and our willingness to investigate in a way that brings insight. (Not all that surprisingly, mindfulness meditation is becoming part of the AA experience in many meetings as a useful tool to do the important work of freeing oneself from addiction.)

My little grudge fest
A grudge is definitely a mental knot, whirling clump in the stream of my mind activity. Lately I’ve been noticing when a grudge arises. It keeps surprising me how many grudges I have and how long I can hold them. Decades! A lifetime! Oh my. That’s not very compassionate, I tell myself. Shouldn’t I have forgiven that person long ago and forgotten whatever they did to offend me so?

Maybe yes, maybe no. Forgiveness, it is often said, is not about the other person, but about our own tight holding onto bad feelings. Forgiving is letting go of those feelings and embracing the here and now. All good. But it’s possible that forgetting may not be as wise. Let’s investigate.

Recently I was reading a regular column about relationships in our local Pacific Sun weekly. A man was asking how he could get over the girl friend who had dumped him when he loved her so much. Amy Alkon, the ‘Advice Goddess’, cited some research that said it is useful to purposely remember all the negative things about the past love that you can conjure up, as a counterbalance to the idealized version you have been conjuring up.

Interesting. In the past I had a friend who I enjoyed so much, but who, time and time again, ended up verbally attacking me. Clearly, in the parlance of Buddhism, that friend was not a part of my sangha — the community of people that support me in my meditation practice and wish me well. Looking back, I can see that maybe in order to get over that friendship and not be sucked back into it, always with the same painful result, somehow I knew to develop a strong mental formation of all the harmful things that person had done to me. So there it is: That tight knot of strong opinions that have protected me well all the years since. A grudge that serves a purpose.

Sounds good. But let me not be too quick to tie that knot in a bow. An important part of my process has always been, even as I seem to have developed this grudge for my own well being, to send that person metta, loving-kindness, whenever she comes to mind. And I believe that makes all the difference in any relationship and in any mental formation. Otherwise, it can be a knot of anger straining to explode.

So it looks like my grudge served a purpose, but I can investigate further and ask myself if it still serves a purpose. Is it still necessary to remember her ill-will and vicious words in order to keep clear of her? It’s been decades and I have no idea where lives or even if she is still alive. But here’s the thing: If she were to show up at my door, I might very well still need that grudge, that purposeful reminder, to stave off the desire to engage in the fun we had together, and maybe I would convince myself that she has changed so much that we could be friends again. So even now, that grudge needs to be there, sorry to say. May she be well. May she be happy.

Perhaps this brings to mind for you a past relationship that you know you are well out of. Maybe it was more than just a casual friendship, but a life-partner relationship. Perhaps you have a mix of memories, some wonderful, some painful. What is of value for you here and now to remember? Are your negative memories serving a purpose to protect you? If so, is it possible to see them in that way rather than a torrent of torment that throws you into a dark place even now? Is it possible, even though you never want to see them again (or at least the wisest part of you doesn’t!) to wish them well. May you be well. May you be at ease. May you be peaceful. May you be happy. We wish this for all beings, without exception. And when we cultivate loving-kindness as an ongoing practice, feeling it wholeheartedly for ourselves first and then extending out into the greater community of beings, we also create a path of return from getting lost in the past or the future. We send loving-kindness to whomever we were thinking about, and we return to this moment, just as it is.

I will keep noticing my grudges as they arise, and I’ll check them out to see if they are serving me in some way or if they are just causing me unnecessary pain. Such investigation is useful and powerful!

What about you? Are you having a little grudge-fest too?


Pet Peeves
I notice my pet peeves popping up from time to time, those irrational irritations that I have a hard time overcoming. The other night I was at a poetry reading and there was a poet sitting a few seats away from me, waiting for her turn to step up to the mike. Instead of being attentive to the beautiful reading by the poet at the microphone, she kept rustling through her papers in preparation for her time up. That really bugged me. It was so disrespectful. It was so self-centered. It was so not in the moment. Oh, I could go on. But here I am, a meditator and meditation teacher who says in my guided intro, ‘Let all sounds arising in this moment be part of the symphony of now’, (I kid you not! I do say that, and it makes sense in context.) So why do I find so much irritation around this particular sound. Why was this woman’s rustling of papers not part of my ‘symphony of now’?

Every sound we hear can affect us, registering as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. The rustling sound was not unpleasant in and of itself, but it was a distraction, making it even harder to hear the reading over an aging muddled sound system.

Noting the sound isn’t all that goes on when we register an unpleasant sound or other sensation, is it? We could stop there, and that’s part of the practice of meditation, to notice that pleasant-unpleasant-neutral experience, and then return to the breath. We do that practice because that feeling tone, especially an unpleasant one, acts like a diving board into the vast sea of thoughts that drown us in waves from other times and other places, adding buoyancy to our harsh judgments and anchored opinions.

In the case of the rustling papers, to me it seemed disrespectful to the current speaker and to the rest of us, so my mind felt the pull of the sea of remembering other occasions where I may have felt disrespected, and that lent an out-of-proportion reaction to the situation.

Sound familiar? Out of proportion reactions, either within ourselves or in others, operate in just this way. They take a current irritation, bolster it up with past examples, and boom! Scary stuff in some cases, right? Not all people curb their impulses arising from such irritation, do they? Lucky for that poet, and for me, I didn’t act out my pet peeve. 😉

Instead, when someone annoys me, I try to muster some understanding of what their experience is and how it might adversely affect their current behavior. As a poet myself, I can relate to a poet who is next up on the reading roster wanting to be ready. But why had she waited until now to organize her writing? I always know what I’ll be reading in advance. Well, goodie for me. Maybe she has a lot going on in her life, and this was her first chance to prepare. Maybe she’s holding down two jobs, taking care of a dying parent and… Okay, okay. Bless her heart. May she be well. May she be at ease. May she be happy. May I let my annoyances go.

Noticing pet peeves, it’s useful to see what other experiences may be compounding our irritation. We’ve looked at the supporting cast of memories that act like a little cheer-leading team, egging us on. But our irritation is also exacerbated by our mood, having had a rough day, experiencing physical pain and other factors. For me in that moment, I had pain in my hip and sitting in a hard chair was difficult. Without that would I have even noticed the rustling? Hard to say.

Another important contributor to our annoyance is if we think the perpetrator is doing it on purpose to annoy us or for any other reason. A student in class this week noted that we get in the habit of taking bad behavior by others quite personally. Someone cuts us off in traffic. Can we remember it’s not about us? Yes they put us in harm’s way, but that wasn’t their intention. Yes, they should have been more skillful, but are we going to let the fear they brought up spark a rant that will no doubt make us less mindful of our own driving?

Here’s a Buddhist story that fits in well here.
A man is sitting in a rowboat fishing on a foggy morning, when he notices another boat coming toward him. In the mist he can’t see the person steering the boat, but it’s clear the boat is going to hit his, so he calls out. But the boat keeps coming at him. So he calls out louder, this time more aggressively, fueled by his fear that the boat might hit him and the dread of the harm and hassle that might entail. But the boat keeps coming! Now he’s really angry. This other boater is clearly ignoring him and is purposely attacking him. So he yells curses and uses his oar, not just to fend off the approaching boat to keep himself safe, but to clobber the stupid expletive deleted at the helm.

Only then is he able to see that the other boat is empty. Suddenly all his feelings change. He has no hard feelings about a boat floating aimlessly. It had just come loose from its mooring. He doesn’t think it is out to attack him. He just pushes it away and checks his fishing line.

You are not your knots
We all have pet peeves and grudges to one degree or another. These preferences are worth noticing and exploring. What isn’t useful is taking them on as identity, seeing them as who we are: ‘I’m the kind of person who…’ This need to identify with the free-floating patterns of mind and to use them to shore up a sense of separate self, comes from fear of not being seen, loved or respected. The fear can activate unskillful and even dangerous behavior. So it’s definitely something to notice.

Next time you find yourself caught up in a mental knot, see if you can recognize it as permeable, impermanent. Maybe it’s there to serve a purpose, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth exploring. And if you explore, practice kindness. Your grudges and pet peeves are not enemies nor badges of shame. Greet them as holders of useful information they are oh so ready to share. Are you ready to pay attention?

On what does your happiness depend?

cropped-smiling-buddha.jpgWe’re all familiar with the happiness of getting what we want when we want it. There is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of happiness. Enjoy that hot fudge sundae, job promotion or perfect sunset!

But also notice its fleeting nature. The sundae is an empty dish. The job promotion has introduced another set of problems. And the sunset has raised the ante on every other sunset we might see. So, while the fleeting nature of this kind of happiness can make us more appreciative of it in the moment, it can kick in other kinds of feelings that we don’t enjoy at all.

It is a Buddhist tradition to send loving-kindness to ourselves and others. When we do so, do we say, “May you have fleeting moments of happiness.”?

No, we say “May you be happy.” And even if we can’t explain it, there’s a deeper sense of happiness that we mean by that, isn’t there?

Fleeting happiness is the fulfillment of a desire. It’s like an itch that gets scratched to our satisfaction. If we keep scratching, it causes pain instead of pleasure. If we keep mindlessly eating something we enjoy, we eventually suffer. If the sunset stayed like that forever, we would eventually complain that we want more light or more darkness. The very things we credit with causing our happiness, if sustained, seem to cause us to suffer.

But wait, what about more lasting things, like a home? That’s not fleeting, right? Well, even if you live in that home for the rest of your life (which by the way is fleeting too, in the larger scheme of things), your ability to find constant happiness just because you live there is doubtful. You may justifiably feel grateful to have a home to live in when so many people do not, but are you happy in every moment because you live there? Has your home the capacity to protect you from all pain and sorrow? The nicest home in the world cannot do that. We are humans having a human experience, and that assuredly includes loss, illness, aging and death. Nothing can protect us from these facts of life.

Okay, so if the perfect home is not the answer to perfect happiness, how about the perfect relationship? Harmonious relationships make us happy, right? If we rely on them for our sense of happiness, we may put stress on the relationships, making the other person feel weighted down. We may be afraid all the time because inevitably relationships end, either through death or other factors that make the relationship no longer satisfactory to one or both people involved. So while it is deeply satisfying to build strong loving relationships, it is not skillful to believe them to be the source of our deepest happiness, even though they delight us.

Being able to pursue our interests, enjoy our work and our pastimes, makes us happy, right? Certainly anyone would be grateful to be able to live a full meaningful life when so many in the world are struggling just to stay alive. But if our happiness is dependent on being able to do certain things, and then, through changed circumstances in our abilities, resources or situation, we no longer can, we suffer greatly, recognize that this was the unreliable fleeting kind of happiness.

Most of us spend our lives chasing after this kind of happiness. Our culture assures us from an early age that our happiness is just a purchase away, so it’s not surprising that this is the case. So naturally if and when we find it, we cling to it. There is so much fear involved in this chase. First we fear not finding it, and if we find it we fear losing it. In that constant state of craving and clinging, and the aversion to anything that is not part of the dream, we are never really happy.

Fortunately, this fleeting happiness is not the kind the Buddha taught as one of the Seven Factors of Awakening. That’s great news!  It means all that chasing after things to make ourselves happy is unnecessary.

Think of desire as a cruel driver with a whip on your back. What awakening to the true nature of happiness does is free you from that whip. It lets you see that you aren’t hitched to that heavy wagon full of wants, dreams, cravings and fears of failure. You’ve left the cruel driver in the dust!

You can find happiness exactly where you are right now, in this moment just as it is. And you can cultivate that inner joy so that it is here for you unconditionally.

Well, there is one condition. (I know, I know, there’s always a catch!) The condition is that you pay attention and befriend each moment as it is, letting go of the one before and not anticipating the one that follows. Since you (just like the rest of us) have spent your life believing yourself to be hitched to that wagon and at the mercy of that whip, it’s a big ask to transition into a different way of thinking.

For our whole lives we’ve been caught up in mental activity that takes us completely away from this moment. That is why we practice meditation regularly, hopefully daily. Is our practice chasing happiness? If we get caught up in desire, comparing mind and expectation, it can be. But if we simply sit, we make room for a joy that bubbles up as if long suppressed. It’s just been waiting to be freed.

Meditation is a very simple practice, but it isn’t necessarily easy. It is tempting to get caught up in unskillful effort, judging ourselves harshly, scolding ourselves for not being more fully present, not doing it right, not doing it often enough, etc. That’s why we focus on cultivating spacious compassion for ourselves and all beings. It makes room for all the patterns to wend their way through our awareness without entangling us in a bitter battle.

Cultivating awareness and compassion, using wise effort, doesn’t get in the way of doing other things. It actual brings about all the beneficial things that we once chased after. This steady cultivation is the perfect companion, making us truly present and appreciative of all that arises.

Consider this:
Truly happy people naturally create the very bounty that unhappy people chase, thinking those things will make them happy.

Is this true? See for yourself. Notice in your own life how when you are truly happy, life rises up to greet you, offering you joyful experiences, relationships, opportunities, etc. While there are those who are naturally happy, most of us need to retrain our minds to open to the possibility that what we think will make us happy won’t, and something as simple as sitting in silence on a regular basis very well might.

I have seen what happens when I forego regular meditation practice. Within a few weeks I notice that I begin to lose my creativity, my civility, my compassion, my gratitude, my sense of aliveness and my joy in living. No matter where I am, no matter what wonderful things I have, if I drop my practice, my sense of joy eventually follows. Knowing this makes it easy to keep my healthy habit in place.

If only…
Discerning between fulfillment of desire and true happiness takes noticing all the clues available. We can notice the words we use. For example, ‘If only…’ is a loud crack of the whip of desire. What other words do you notice yourself using that get you caught up in that painful pattern of wanting, believing fulfillment will bring lasting happiness?

Pause and consider this moment, just as it is.
You are reading, but so much more is going on. Notice all the sensations arising in this moment: the sounds, the feeling of pressure under your seat perhaps. Look around you. Notice the colors, patterns, light and shadow; notice temperature, texture, odor, and any sensations in the body. Just notice in a very open way, letting go of inner commentary: identification, association, judgment, etc. Let go of your knowledge base for a moment! Just rest in your senses.

Now notice any changes in sensations. A sound stops or alters, a feeling of discomfort doesn’t hurt, or a one arises. Notice your breath, your natural breath, just going on doing its job, breathing you into being alive in this body in this moment.

Notice any tension. See how the tension entangles the mind with fear and craving. Relax and release the tension, and see if the mind relaxes and releases as well.

Simply being present. What a gift is the moment when the whip of desire stops cracking, when our judgments take a break, when everything around us ceases to activate complex threads of mental activity and is simply there for us to notice in a way we may never have done before.

Because this is not our habit, this may be a difficult challenge. If we find ourselves craving something, daydreaming about something, wishing for something, can we have compassion for ourselves, understanding that it is challenging to see the true nature of things when we have always believed otherwise?

Through the regular practice of meditation, we begin to recognize that happiness is not the fleeting pleasure we chase after, cling to and cry over when it inevitably passes. Instead it is the joy that arises from being fully present in this life just as it is. True happiness is seeing clearly the impermanent nature of all things and finding the joy of being fully alive in this very moment.

Joy in the doing

to-do-list.jpgIn our culture, we may grow up believing that working hard with our eyes on the prize is praise-worthy effort. Some go for it with zeal, some rebel against it, some give up along the way and feel bad about it, but most folks acknowledge that ‘getting ahead’ and ‘making it’ equals success.

Now it’s shown that striving — for perfection, accolades, achievement, a house full of fancy things or a lifestyle that others will envy — is a pattern that is detrimental to health, relationships and the ability to be happy. The stress is causing disease and early death. Loved ones feel neglected, and friends and coworkers suggest lightening up and learning how to have fun.

That advice may lead to a tropical vacation, only to get ambitious and competitive about being fit or adventurous. Relaxing can’t be done without a drink or a drug, and the vacation goes by in a blur.

Someone suggests meditation. It sounds like too much sitting around doing nothing, but if attempted, it’s done with a rigor that should put other meditators to shame. The aim becomes to be the best meditator ever and achieve nirvana in no time.

I’m exhausted just writing about this kind of mentality. But it’s important to recognize that it is the model of effort that our culture puts out there. Without it, how would capitalism survive? Many products would never get sold if they didn’t represent success.

Whether this mode of effort describes you or not, it’s worth noticing that it has an impact on us all. We are all surrounded by efforts to lure us into wanting, craving and fearing we won’t be enough if we don’t have it all. 

We can apply this kind of effort to other things, too: Taking on more commitments to help than we can handle, for example. Not being able to say no to requests, or thinking we’re the only one who can take care of things.

Believing we should strive may set us up for doing the opposite, out of frustration, exhaustion or just needing a break. We may put off necessary tasks endlessly, succumb to lethargy, and feel bad about our ever-growing to do list.

Not surprisingly, neither extreme is wise effort. Wise effort is healthy effort. It’s natural effort akin to the effort made by all species of animals and plants, each true to their own abilities and needs. It’s effort that is able, agile, ready, playful at times and purposeful as needed. Wise effort is tuned in to the body’s own wisdom and natural rhythms. That means noticing sensation and staying in the present moment to recognize what’s needed right now, instead of going on autopilot and mindlessly doing or ignoring the body’s readiness to rise, to move, to nourish itself, and to engage in the wholesome pursuit of interests, needs and natural inclinations to find joy in the doing.

Joy in the doing. Doesn’t that sound lovely? I’m sure you can think of many things that give you joy in the doing. But no doubt you can make an equal list of chores you avoid or when you’re doing them give you anything but joy. Me too! But I learned something about myself in relationship to effort on one of the weeklong retreats I attended at Spirit Rock many years ago.

On a meditation retreat, most times you are given a yogi job, an assigned daily task that is your small part in helping to take care of the retreat center and the retreatants by cleaning specific areas or preparing food. At your first retreat you might have some resistance to the idea of having a job to do. After all, you probably paid good money to be there. Hey, what are they trying to pull? Why should you have to do any work at all?

But after a few days you may have an aha moment and realize that the little yogi job is yet another opportunity to awaken. Noticing how we are in relationship to our yogi job reveals how we are in relationship to the rest of our lives. And that’s valuable insight!

I’ve had a wide variety of yogi jobs on retreats, but since the retreat was in silence, this time I wanted to stay in that deep relaxing wordless space and not be jolted out of it to ask the cook how small to chop the vegetables or where does this bowl go? So they gave me the job of scrubbing shower stalls in one of the dormitories. Oh boy, what had I gotten myself into? At home that was one of my least favorite chores.

The next morning I approached my shower-scrubbing yogi job filled with dread and aversion. As I took the provided box of non-toxic cleaner, sponge, rags, gloves and scrub brush into that white tiled enclosure, I felt claustrophobic. My task seemed insurmountably difficult and uncomfortable, all that repetitive arm movement and bending. In that distressed state, I was doing the job only because I would feel terrible if I didn’t fulfill my commitment, even though no one would check up on me to see if I did it. I had an interior drill sergeant who said ‘hup two’, and my miserable platoon of one scrubbed away. I’ve heard tales from past actual army privates admitting they did their assigned tasks in a slapdash way, just good enough to fulfill the order. And that’s probably how I cleaned the shower that first day, just wanting to be done and out of there.

Is there any job you do in your life that is filled with aversion but you do because you would feel terrible, or be fired or shunned, if you didn’t do it? Notice how your self talk in this state is full of words like ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘have to’, etc. See if you notice a harsh internal drill sergeant that gets angry if not obeyed. That voice, instilled in us early on in life, drains us of any possibility of joy in the doing. In fact, we may be filled with anger at the injustice that we have to do this task when it should be someone else’s turn, etc. How does this kind of effort affect relationships at home or work?

We may ignore the inner drill sergeant altogether as a show of resistance against the injustice of it all, and the task doesn’t get done as we stew in in toxic emotions, as that inner voice gets more abusive, and we feel worse and worse. And how does that work out? The chore, already unpleasant, just gets larger and larger, doesn’t it? The dishes in the sink pile up, the carpet gets grungier and harder to clean, and the clutter becomes impenetrable. Beyond housework, planned projects don’t get done, dreams of the great American novel don’t get written, family gatherings don’t happen, friends don’t get called, and we lose touch with people we love and enjoy. What a mess!

Back at the retreat: On the second day, as I took up my scrub brush, I was more accepting of the task at hand. If I was going to do this thing, I was going to make the best of it and do it well. My own sense of self-respect demanded this, but there may also have been a little bit of ambition to be the best shower scrubber ever.

Does that sound familiar? Are there efforts you make that bring up a sense of competitiveness or a focus on a potential reward? Perhaps there actually are rewards for some of the efforts you make: Awards, trophies, bonuses, raises, advancement, praise or fame. Spirit Rock offers none of that. At the end of the retreat there was no hope that the teachers would pass out ribbons, including one to little Steffie Noble for her excellent efforts at shower scrubbing. So it was easy not to get caught up in chasing such goals as key to my efforts. But many of us spend a lifetime in such a state. And if the rewards and praise are not forthcoming and are doled out instead to others, we may become bitter, forlorn and full of self-doubt.

On the third day I realized that these showers I was scrubbing were used by the retreat teachers, so I shifted from proving my worth to expressing my gratitude for their teachings. May you be well. May you have a nice shower.

Are there any efforts you make in your life that are done for the benefit of others because you feel grateful? Often explorations of effort come back to asking ourselves ‘Who am I doing this for? What is my intention here?’ 

On the fourth day of the retreat I experienced a shift into a deeper, more connected state. When it came to my yogi job, I was able to let go of all the mental reasoning, trying so hard to make my experience okay. Instead I sensed into the movement of my arms and body wielding the scrub brush, sponge and spray bottle. The pleasure of being alive whatever I was doing filled me.

Have you ever had that sensation? You are using the same muscles but now there is pleasure in it. It’s interesting to notice that the body is not averse to movement at all. It is our mindset that creates any aversion. We might object to strenuous movement in some situations, but then dance all night if the music moves us. Explain that! Yoga often provides that profound sense of pleasure in awareness of the body being alive, moving through space, stretching and resting. A yogi job is another form of yoga, once the mind lets go of all that confusion of purpose.

On the fifth day of scrubbing I had the same sensory awareness, but I also became aware of being part of a continuum of shower scrubbing yogis — all who had been here in this sweet little white-tiled stall before me, and all those who would be here day after day, retreat after retreat, scrubbing earnestly, dealing with their own vast range of thoughts and emotions. I sent them all metta — lovingkindness — and opened to the possibility that past yogis had sent metta forward to me. In that isolated space there was a joyful sense of community, camaraderie and a relief that it wasn’t all up to me to keep this tile shining. If I missed a spot, it wasn’t the end of the world. There were others who would follow up, just as I had done for ones before me. Although we each did the best we could, it wasn’t about perfection! It wasn’t really even about the tile! I woke up to what it is to be alive and to participate fully in life, whatever I am doing.

As you go about your day, doing or not doing whatever is on your plate, can you be fully present with the effort itself? Can we all awaken to the joy in the doing? Can we feel loved and loving as we fully participate in the ongoing cycles of life?

Can we notice the thoughts that arise in relationship to tasks we do, plan to do or avoid doing? See if you can pause, relax, ground yourself in being alive in the moment, and do the task as a meditation.

There’s a Zen expression ‘chop wood, carry water’ that came up several times in teaching Wise Effort to three different classes this past week. Can we let go of all sense of accomplishment, reward, praise, aversion and avoidance, and just do what needs to be done with as much awareness and compassion as possible? Several students talked about how good it felt to accomplish a task they had been putting off. Yes, it does. But can it feel good to be doing the task itself? One student said she planned to vacuum the house tomorrow to get that wonderful sense of having accomplished something. I encouraged her to really come into her body and the movement of pushing the vacuum cleaner around, not to accomplish something but as the experience itself. She got it. ‘Oh yes, I’ll pretend I’m chopping wood and carrying water!’  I laughed and encouraged her just to vacuum and see if that could be enough.

There are so many reasons why we don’t make effort. Perhaps the task just looks too daunting. My six year old granddaughter took one look at all the jigsaw puzzle pieces laid out on the table and said, ‘This is too much, we can’t do it, its 500 pieces.’ But as the adults went about assembling the puzzle over the coming days, she began to see it differently. She noticed where a piece might fit. She got excited when she was able to put pieces together, and she discovered joy in doing it.

If you have a big project to tackle, think of that puzzle. It looks daunting at first, but just setting about to do it, in incremental work periods over a series of days or weeks or however long it takes, really makes a difference in how you relate to the project at hand.

The retreat yogi job is a good model for getting things done. Choosing 30-45 minutes a day to work on a particular task does get it done, and done in a wise effort way. Then you don’t have to think about it for the rest of the day!

Out of fear there are tasks that we need to do that we avoid. For example, estate planning and emergency preparedness both bring up things we may not want to think about: The inevitability of our own demise, and the possibility of natural disaster. Facing our fears frees us to prepare without despair.

In our meditation practice we learn how to cultivate wise effort by actively bringing our attention to the breath and other sensations, noting how they arise and fall away. We notice any thoughts or emotions, including those self-condemning voices that tell us we can’t do this, we’re no good at it, we’re hopeless. We practice compassion, and return to the breath. As we go about living our lives, we can keep that sense of being fully present, anchored in physical sensation, aware of thoughts and emotions that pass through, but not sabotaged by them. We can attune to our natural rhythm and discover the joy in the doing.

Imagine

t-b-med(1).jpgImagine those twelve Thai boys meditating in a cave not knowing when or if they would be rescued. Now imagine what greater anguish that hungry darkness might have churned up in them without the anchor of the meditation practice taught by their coach, once a Buddhist monk. Om mani padme hum. Over and over. The distress of waiting and wondering at times no doubt gave way to simply being alive together in the dark here and now, radiating light, cradled in the warm welcoming sense of oneness with all being.

Now imagine the immigrant children in the US, ripped out of their parents arms at the border and later vanished into vans bound for distant undisclosed locations. Then imagine if in this horrendous and totally unacceptable situation, these children had at least a gentle meditative practice to hold onto: A way perhaps of feeling held by their understanding of God, by Jesus, by the Virgin, a way of entering the oneness of being, where distance does not exist and separation is not possible. Perhaps some have found a way to provide that for themselves, but most are likely in heightened states of fear, anguish, worry and distress that will impact them for the rest of their lives, and ripple out in all manner of ways to all life.

What of those whose job it is to guard them? I imagine many must feel the inherent cruelty of this dreadful task that was never what they signed up for.

And what of he who assigned them to do it? Can anyone touch his heart and awaken compassion? Can anyone find his heart? It seems buried so deep in a dark cave where likely no one held him and assured him he was okay, where no one led him in the delight of discovering the intrinsic oneness of all being. And so he is caught up in his craving for everyone to see him as the wondrous one, the miracle maker, not knowing that no amount of praise or adoration will fill his achingly empty heart.

Now imagine that Thai monk-turned-coach being invited to the White House — or, hey, why not the Dalai Lama? Someone please! — to share the open secret of joy with the man who has so little, so these children can be quickly — already too late for ‘quickly’ but still — reunited with their families, and all people can be reminded of their intrinsic place in the oneness of being.

I know, I know, I have quite an imagination.

But I’m not the only one.

 

Overview :: Seven Factors of Awakening

7-factors-sunrise.jpgLike many Western insight meditation teachers, I share the Buddha’s teachings as I understand them, but don’t always refer by name to specific ‘chapter and verse’.  My students have no interest in becoming Buddhist scholars. This is an important role for someone to fill, assuring safe passage of the Buddha’s words through generations. But my role as a teacher is to help my students to develop a practice that cultivates the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, together known as the Three Refuges. They are: the inner wisdom we each have access to if we quiet down and listen in, the Buddha’s teachings to offer guidance in skillfully using our insights, and the community of practitioners to support each other in this shared endeavor.

In my dharma talks, I always know where I am in the panoply of the Buddha’s teachings, but few of my students and readers know or care. They are focused on developing a practice and understanding to understand and relieve suffering in their lives and the lives of all beings. But just in case you care, we have been spending time in ‘Investigation’, the second of the Seven Factors of Awakening. We have also been cultivating ‘Mindfulness’, the first of the seven factors. In the coming weeks, I plan to share the other five. For now, here’s an overview of all seven:

Mindfulness
In our practice of meditation we cultivate mindfulness, the ability to be present in this moment, whatever is going on in our lives.

Investigation
When we practice mindfulness, investigation naturally arises. We see when something we are doing, saying or thinking is unskillful, causing harm to ourselves and others. We can use the questions we’ve been discussing over the past months, like ‘What is my intention here?’ and ‘What am I afraid of?’ to explore what’s really going on in the complex patterns of our thoughts and emotions.

Our investigation relies on mindfulness to keep us clear and able to question. As we explore the other factors, we will see how each one relies on and adds to the others.

Energy – Effort
Balanced wholesome effort — enlivened but not restless, calm but not slothful — allows us to live our lives engaged but not overwrought.

We use mindfulness and investigation to help us develop stable skillful energy. 

Happiness
This kind of happiness does not depend on getting what we want. This is the joy that arises from being fully present in this life just as it is, with Mindfulness and wise Effort, able through skillful investigation to see how the causes of unhappiness are not in the conditions of our lives, but in how we relate to them.

Tranquility
Through the clarity that arises from Mindfulness, Investigation, wise Effort, and authentic Happiness, we find a sense of inner calm that enables us to weather life’s vicissitudes. This is not to become unfeeling automatons, but to give context to the news in the world and our own lives.

Concentration
This kind of concentration is not gritted-teeth determination, but stems from the wise intention to notice what is arising in this moment in the field of physical sensation. We will do some practices and look at the five hindrances to Concentration. 

Equanimity
There is a clarity and compassion in Equanimity that enables us to hold all that arises in our experience in a spacious and compassionate way. We are not thrown out of balance by the causes and conditions of life. Though mindfulness and investigation we have insight into the ongoing impermanent nature of all things, and we are able to feel intrinsically a part of this flow of life, but don’t drown in it.

 

As we explore these Seven Factors of Awakening we will see how in our practice and in our dharma discussions, we are skillfully cultivating the qualities needed to awaken from the divisive delusions in which we all get entangled. I will also supply examples and resources for deeper understanding and guidance.

I know sometimes the Buddha’s many lists seem overwhelming, but each one has great value. Try not to think of all those lists. You don’t have to memorize them, and there is no test! Instead let yourself focus on just one aspect of the list at a time, and see how it arises in your own life. Each aspect of every one of the Buddha’s lists is a door through which all the wisdom of the dharma is revealed.